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Place in the World

Chapter Text

Asami awoke with a jerk and gasp. She lifted her head and stared at Korra asleep next to her: her arms flung back, her legs bent at the knee. Déjà vu. Only weeks ago, she awoke with Korra in her bed in that position.

She sat up, stretched her aching back and neck and smacked her lips, disliking the furriness of her teeth. She'd been in a variety of camping situations with Korra; their desert trip had been the worst as far as comfort and lack of cleanliness. Despite how much she enjoyed spending this time with Korra, she would never like camping. The ground in the spirit world was just as hard and lumpy as in the real world, no matter how breathtaking the scenery.

Their decision to come here had been so spontaneous that neither of them were particularly prepared. Korra had a better mind for necessities; she'd brought water and food (and of course tea), whereas Asami had brought clothing and toiletries. Between them, they had all they needed, aside from sleeping bags. Korra had laughed when Asami complained about that, and she realized Korra probably survived with nothing but the clothes on her back in her journeys in recent months.

By and large, she'd been comfortable here. Temperatures didn't vary greatly, the weather had been pleasant, and the darkness of the night wasn't as deep as on the physical plane. Though Asami had woken up cold during their first night, Korra had snuggled against her back and exhaled a breath of warm air to chase the cold away.

Asami felt warm at the memory even now; at the time she'd been too sleepy to realize the intimacy of that moment. Now her mind played out a few scenarios that could have resulted from their embrace. She blushed at her own imagination.

She shook her head at herself and devoted her mind to the mundane. She removed her toothbrush, hair brush, and a clean cup from her bag and walked the short distance to the small creek that ran beside their camp.

Though Korra brought water with her, she claimed water within the spirit world was safe to drink, and it had proven to be so far. It tasted so clean that Asami was spoiled forever; Republic City's water would never measure up. She took a long drink from it now.

Asami washed her face first. She felt greasy and dirty from lack of a decent bath in two days, but she wouldn't change her time here for anything. She scrubbed her teeth with her toothbrush, wishing minty toothwash was appropriate to use here. Korra refused to leave any waste in the spirit world, and that toothwash wasn't exactly environmentally friendly. After seeing the untouched beauty of this place, Asami understood her reasons and put up with her furry teeth.

She felt free here, and it manifested itself in odd ways. She wore no makeup, hadn't worn a bra in several days, and only gave her hair a cursory brush after she pulled on her jacket and shoes. Those things were her armor out in the real world, but she'd been oddly confident without them here with Korra.

"Good morning."

Asami glanced over her shoulder at Korra and smiled. Korra crouched down beside her and went on all fours to lower her mouth to the creek and drink. She hadn't put back on her sleeves in a day, and Asami appreciated the flex of the muscles in her arms as they supported her in this position.

Her attention was fixed when Korra dunked her head entirely into the creek. Korra lifted her head and shook it—Asami laughed and raised her hands to protect herself from the slinging water—and gasped out a laugh herself. The world seemed to brighten around them, as it was wont to do when Korra smiled.

"That felt fantastic!" Korra rubbed her face with her hands and pushed her hair back, squeezing excess water from it. It was hard for Asami to think with Korra's hair slicked back like that.

"This was exactly what I needed." Or as close as Asami could get. She wanted so much from Korra, but she also didn't want to disturb their gentle, unassuming closeness with overt romantic gestures. Slow, easy progression was what she wanted right now. It was just so comfortable. They would find each other at their own pace, and right now, Asami could gather no fear in herself that their desires wouldn't meet in the end.

"It's been great," Korra replied. She swept her hand over her hair again, bending the water from it perhaps unconsciously. She took Asami's hand, and they shared a gentle squeeze. "But…"

Asami nodded; she would have brought it up now if Korra hadn't. "We need to head back."

"Yeah. There's a lot that still needs to be done." Korra's smile was lopsided, and then it slipped away as her gaze held Asami's.

For a moment, Asami though Korra was going to lean in for a kiss. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears, and she tightened her grip on Korra's hand. Slow and comfortable be damned. If Korra kissed her here, she had no idea how far she would take them.

"Leaving so soon?"

Asami gasped, but Korra only jumped. They both turned to face the man who had spoken. Korra pulled her hand out from under Asami's as she stood up in haste.

"Iroh!" Korra was grinning as she reached out to hug the old, bearded man.

Asami was more cautious. She stood and offered her hand, and he took it with a slow smile. "My, what a beautiful young woman you are."

"This is Asami Sato. Asami, this is Iroh, Zuko's uncle."

Even though she'd guessed his identity, Asami was stunned to be able to meet such a famous man. She'd had the pleasure of speaking with Fire Lord Zuko during their brief stay in Misty Palms Oasis, and he'd described his uncle's guidance and love.

"I'm honored to meet you, General Iroh."

Iroh chuckled and winked. "It's not every day you hear a beautiful woman say that. Can I interest you ladies in some tea before you go home?"

Korra's hopeful grin answered for Asami.

"That would be great," Asami acquiesced.

Right before her eyes, the air shivered as a table and a group of spirits appeared. A tiny yellow spirit fluttered in the air and flew to Korra, reaching out stubby arms to wrap around her neck. Korra cuddled the spirit close, her smile wide. "Hey there, friend."

"Are you feeling better now?" it asked.

"I am. This is my friend Asami. Asami, this spirit led me to Toph in the swamp."

It reached out to touch Asami's finger. Against all odds, it was formed but almost unrealistically soft. Asami said, "Anyone who helps Korra is a friend of mine."

The spirit gave a smile reminiscent of Korra and fluttered back to the table. Iroh poured them both tea, and Asami settled across the table from Korra. Asami's attention abruptly fixated on the two-headed frog that sat next to her.

Apparently Korra was familiar with the creature. She asked, "How is your marriage?"

"Oh, the honeymoon period has worn off," the female head said.

"But we love each other all the same," the male head replied.

That was odd, but she'd come to realize there was nothing that wasn't odd about the spirits. They'd mostly left them alone, but the occasional conversation tended to be bizarre. Asami was surprised to see Korra direct a smile to her. Asami smiled back, pushing past her sudden shyness.

They chatted quietly with Iroh and the spirits for a little while, but Asami could sense by Korra's preoccupied shifts and fidgets that she was feeling antsy to return to the physical world. Iroh finally reached out to take Korra and Asami's hands in his own. He squeezed and smiled to them both. "Please come back. I always enjoy the company."

And just like that, he and his group faded away, with Asami's hand still outstretched. Korra reached out to take it in her own, and they turned to walk back to their make-shift campsite. They paused to pick up their backpacks, and then Korra's hand slipped back into Asami's as they walked slowly back towards the portal.

"Traveling here in body is a lot different. When I come here in spirit, I can bend the world around me, like Iroh just did. I didn't really think about being limited when we first got here. I wanted to take you to the Tree of Time, but it's connected to the spirit portals at the North and South. Too far to walk."

"It was more about being here with you than going to specific places," Asami admitted.

Korra glanced over at her. "Then you had a good time?"

"Yes, I did. I hope we can do this again."

Korra nodded firmly. "We will."

"So, how do you know where we are and where we're going?" It was a practice Asami sensed she would be getting more of: blind faith in Korra's sense of direction.

"I just sense it," Korra said. "I'm not as good as Jinora, but I can feel the pull of all the energies here, and a lot of them lead back to the spirit portal. Does that make sense?"

"Not really, but I trust you."

Korra flashed her straight white teeth in a crooked grin. It was out of context, somehow, when she replied, "I trust you too."

It meant more than it seemed, Asami knew. They were about to face reality again, with all its demands. Asami would be neck-deep in work, and she could guess Korra would be more out of Republic City than in it in the coming months. It would be okay as long as Korra knew she had a place to return to with Asami. Surely she knew it after all they'd shared together.

Chapter Text

Korra experienced a weird emotional ping when she smelled the musky scent of a sky bison—her sky bison, sadly neglected, fat and lazy from her position in the Air Temple Island herd. Korra still hadn't named the cow, but she was thinking Bimi—or an Earth Kingdom slur that was a rude variant of 'lazy ass'. Despite the fact Korra wasn't a natural airbender, Bimi was the sky bison that shuffled herself out of the herd when Korra called among them; Bimi was hers, plain and simple.

She wasn't the bull with the broken horn that Korra had flown from the Fire Nation islands before Harmonic Convergence. She wasn't sure what had happened to him and assumed he flew himself right back to his old herd.

Bimi, unfortunately, was Korra's. And right now, Bimi didn't care to fly much faster than she had to, even with Korra urging her on.

It wasn't Bimi's fault that Korra had come back to Republic City to visit with her friends. A large part of her wished she could still be back there with no cares and no worries. Even when reveling in her friends—Asami's quiet presence in particular—the dark weight of responsibility had tugged at her thoughts and weighed on her shoulders. Despite traveling through the Earth Confederation for the last few months, giving aid and relief where she could, she felt that weight of responsibility.

It would have been easier if Wu took the throne, though not better. They still would have to mop up the rest of Kuvira's headless military, expand the infrastructure between each Earth Confederation state, find and free all of the 're-educated' civilians, and who knew what else, but at least there would be some sort of solid government at the head of it all. Now each state would have to scrape together its own government document while tearing its citizens back from Kuvira's military.

Korra chewed on her lip. Tenzin had given her a brief explanation of what was going on as she'd scrambled on Bimi, but Su would have a definite explanation for the conflict outside of her the city gates. Communication was hard, especially in the more remote areas of the Earth Kingdom, but they'd all heard whispers about a militia wandering around and wiping out secluded villages deep in the mountains. The last radio broadcast from Zaofu was less whisper and more shout.

On one hand, Korra wanted to divorce herself from all of it. Her job was to serve as a medium between spirits and physical. She had no part of the Earth Confederation—and yet she'd gotten to know it so intimately the last six months. She knew it by the little coffee farm and all those seasonal workers who had needed her strong back for harvesting; the little restaurant outside the Kolau Mountains that employed her for wish of their own daughter, dead to malaria; and the poor farmer who shared his crop with her in exchange for a quiet conversation. So she helped those people, not the governors, officials, and militias.

Somehow it made her the bad guy for only offering waterbending healing and rerouting water supplies and infrastructure to reach destitute villages instead of stepping in to set up a government for them. Just like when the world had needed her when Kuvira threw the spirit wilds out of balance or when Unalaq had released Vaatu, the world didn't want her except when it was on the brink of collapse, and it had made that very clear. The push-pull was exhausting, but she was learning to expect it.

Korra urged Bimi on, feeling guilt for her brief break in Republic City and trying very hard not to. Asami, with bags under her eyes and drooping eyelids when they went out to dinner, had needed that time. Mako and Bolin seemed more stable, but they hadn't wanted her to go either. Korra had needed that time with all of them. When they hugged before Korra left, there was visible strain on Asam's face and worry on Mako's, and Korra felt guilt for that too.

"My team leaders know what they're doing," Asami had told her before Korra boosted herself on Bimi. "I've gotten better a delegating; and honestly, the company runs itself. Maybe I'll be able to work on my own projects while my civil engineers figure out Republic City."

"Just be careful," Mako had said, flexing the fingers of his left hand.

Korra wished she had the luxury of either option. Su would help, but… Korra had lost blind faith in anyone, even herself.

"Don't work too hard," she'd told Asami. She hadn't made any promises to Mako about her safety.

Asami laughed dryly at that, and they both knew Korra's words were silly. Their hug was full bodied and intimate enough to make Korra simultaneously sweat and shiver in memory. Mako's hug had just been comfortable. She couldn't think about that now, not on top of this situation.

And, flying over Zaofu, it was déjà vu: an army of mechs waited outside Zaofu's now domeless city.

"Where have you been?" Su asked before Korra could even dismount Bimi.

Korra knew the accusation in Su's tone was caused by her worry. "What's going on?"

Su took her arm and pulled her inside, through the hallways, and towards her sitting room. Her grip was almost painful, and her voice was sharp and quick. "Kuvira's surrender has been broadcasted multiple times since the army approached. They haven't responded. Baatar Jr. thinks one of Kuvira's highest ranking officers is heading the force. According to my scouts, it's made up of forty mechs and at least eighty foot soldiers, most of them likely earthbenders."

"Why are they here?"

"Probably to free Kuvira."

"Kuvira's in Republic City." There would be no reason to think Kuvira was here unless the army assumed Su had the power to dole out her punishment.

Su nodded. "But they don't know that, and I'm not about to tell them. We don't have our domes, but we have the high ground and enough defenses to keep them at bay, especially with the United Republic Armed Forces backing us."

Korra had seen the battalion camped in front of Zaofu's rounded depos. She wondered vaguely if the farmlands were going to be salvageable after so much turmoil turned up the soil. Surrounding a place that harbored the best earthbenders in the world, it had a better chance than most lands.

Su flicked her arm, and the door to her sitting room slammed open.

Baatar Jr. sat on one of the plush couches with his neck cradled between his hands. He wore a mixture of silk and cotton and looked well-fed. His hair was growing out, and he was clean-shaven. His eyes flickered to Korra, and his face shifted subtly. "Avatar Korra," he said, tipping his chin just enough to hint at a bow.

Iroh stood by the adjacent couch with his chin cradled in his hand. His face shifted from a frown to a smile as he lifted his eyes from the small-scale battle board on the table in front of him. "Korra," he said, raising a hand. Korra stepped forward, and they had an awkward moment when they decided between a handshake a hug. The hug won.

They laughed at each other over that awkwardness. It eased some of the tension in the room, at least until Korra asked, "So what kind of plan do we have?"

"That's where I come in!"

Korra jumped when a strong hand clapped down on her shoulder. Varrick leaned close enough for her to smell his breath as he grinned. "I know, you're probably wondering why I'm not still on my honeymoon, but that's where you're wrong! Zhu Li and I decided the best place for some lovin' was right smack-dab in the middle of the turmoil in the Earth Kingdom. So here I am, ready to dish out of love and EMP!"

"Let go of me," Korra told him, holding on to her irritation admirably. She didn't have much issue with personal space, but Varrick was deep past her comfort zone.

He raised an eyebrow and slowly released her shoulder, taking a step back. "No need to get all upset about personal space. I'm a one-woman kind of man, Avatar."

Korra wondered how Asami had worked with this man for any period of time. He was so at odds with Asami's quiet efficiency.

Baatar Jr. heaved a frustrated sigh. "What Varrick will be doing is disabling the mechs with an EMP surge, Avatar Korra. The main problem becomes the troops."

A full-on foot battle sounded like misery. While the mess in Republic City hadn't had high numbers of casualties—hardly any, on a battle scale, though most were civilians that hadn't left their homes—she didn't want anyone to die that didn't have to, and she said so.

"That may not be in your control, Korra," Su said gently.

"I'll parlay again."

"Not alone," Su asserted. "We still don't know who's leading this army, and I don't trust anyone who would seize a headless army."

"I'll be okay, Su."

Su's expression shifted subtly in emotion that was hard to pin down. Whatever Su felt, she had enough respect for Korra to not argue anymore. She motioned for Korra to sit in front of a map with metal pieces on it. Small scale army it was.

An hour past daybreak, Korra flew out with her airbender staff halfway between Zaofu and the small army camped outside its walls. The time and place had been set up by radio (by proxy, Baatar Jr. stated grimly) the night before. The sun shone hot and bright on Korra's right side as she waited idly for the man or woman she would be bartering with.

She didn't expect but wasn't surprised by the motorcycle that approached. The man who sat on it didn't wear a helmet. He was shockingly handsome under his rugged black beard, and his eyes were velvety brown.

"Avatar Korra," he said, holding his hand out. His voice was neither deep nor high, and it had a smooth, silken quality. He sounded oily.

Korra kept her hand by her side. "What do I call you?"

His lips pinched; then he grinned wide. "The Great Uniter."

That look raised the hair on her neck. Deep inside her, she felt a flinch that told her there was something wrong with this man. "Disperse this army, and leave Zaofu, and we won't pursue you. Continue into this battle today, and we'll defeat you and press all charges."

"I think you have me confused with a woman," he said with his cockeyed grin still in place. "Kuvira was about honor, but I'm more about winning."

In hindsight, Korra should have realized it was a lead-in for an attack, but the only thing that saved her was her unease. She took a half step back and lifted her arm in defense as the man snapped out a braided metal chain and slung it like a whip.

It struck Korra across her back and shoulder, and pain flared like fire across her body. The second blow caught her front across her right breast, and that similarly burned. As she turned her head down and away instinctively, reaching for earth and metal to defend herself, but he sent a burst of rock up to her face. The crushing blow sent her into darkness.

Korra groaned and yanked her head up, surfacing from long, deep blackness to find herself in the arms of one of the Beifong twins. Life burst back in around her, and she felt like she'd been sleeping for hours. Wing looked at her in relief. "You had me scared, Avatar!"

She shoved him away and turned, trying to place herself. There was a battle going on. Earth and metal were flying everywhere, and the sound of mechs grinded closer. She tapped into the Avatar state and gave a burst of firebending from her feet to propel her into the mass of green Earth Empire uniforms.

Korra landed in the midst, spun in a circle, and pushed out a blast of airbending that sent all men within ten yards flying off their feet. She sensed the metalbenders' uniforms and flexed that muscle, scattering the men farther as she gave a heavy push on all the metal plates around her.

She took a running stride, leapt, and landed deeper into enemy territory. As she landed, she used the force of her strike to roll the earth beneath her, sending more men flying to the ground. That was all it took to send the army in retreat.

It was only later that she realized that retreat occurred as much because of Varrick's EMP blast disabling the mechs as her presence.

There were Republic Army troops following the retreating soldiers, and Korra moved to go with them, but two arms wrapped around her own.

"Woah, there!" Opal's warm voice sounded in her ear.

"I am in so much trouble!" It was Wing again. He had a firm grip around Korra's waist, and that touch was enough to bring out the sharp pain of her earlier wounds. The horizon skittered away from her sight suddenly, and Korra rocked sideways, bringing up liquid as she vomited.

"Gross!" the twin said.

"I told you she probably has a concussion, Wing! That's why I said not to let her go if she woke up!"

"She's the freaking Avatar! She's stronger than I am!"

At that moment, Korra didn't feel particularly strong. Wing picked her up and carried her in his arms, walking as steadily as he could. "What happened?" she asked, keeping her eyes closed against the circling horizon.

Her voice was painfully nasal, and she tasted blood running down the back of her throat for the first time.

"What happened was the guy you were parlaying with fucked you up."

"Wing!" Opal's hand touched Korra's arm gently. "He attacked you and knocked you out. You'd hardly started talking. His army attacked, we attacked, and Wing was supposed to get you back to Zaofu for medical care when he let you go."

"Opal, seriously, she shoved me over and went off on her own!"

Korra wiggled her toes, then her fingers. A headwound, a concussion, and fire along her chest and back. She felt like an idiot for letting the man sucker-strike her, especially after Su's warnings. Su must have positioned Wing close for her protection. Who was that man?

She passed out again when Wing shifted her higher in his arms. When she awoke, she heard her own groan as she surfaced from unconsciousness. There was blood all over Wing's shoulder, probably from her face.

"Avatar Korra."

She tried to focus on the man sitting beside her. He had the quiet tone of a waterbender healer. She was lying on her back on a soft couch within Suyin's office. How long had she been unconscious?

"Yes?" she asked the man hovering over her.

"My name is Gon. I'll be healing your wounds. Can you tell me what day it is?"

"Day of the Moon," Korra responded. "I'm in Zaofu. We are. There was just a battle. We won, right?"

"Yes. Very good." His warm hands cradled her cheeks. "Can you focus on my face?"

"The room is spinning."

He sighed neutrally. "I can see that. You must be quite dizzy."

"That's one word for it."

"May I heal your face?"

"Go ahead."

The cool touch of healing waters eased part of the crushing headache that resulted from the aching pressure of her swollen face. She must have been hammered in the face with rock to feel like this. The feverish heat of her skin cooled, and the stretch of swollen tissues subsided.

"Is my nose broken?"

"Nothing I can't heal. This may ache. Squeeze my wrist if it gets to be bad."

It did ache, but nothing worse than she already felt. Korra felt significantly better once that was done, and the waterbender swept her face with water purely to wipe the blood away. The dizziness started to ease.

"I'm going to remove your tunic."

"Okay," Korra said.

"I sent Wing out," Opal said quietly, carefully easing Korra to a seated position. Korra sat as still as possible as they pulled her tunic off. Any movement sent burning pain across her torso. She managed to focus enough after they stripped her torso to see the vivid red bruise that striped her sternum and crossed one breast. It ended with a patch of torn skin.

"A barbed whip?" Gon murmured.

"Oh," Opal whispered.

"Is my back worse?" Korra wanted to know. She hurt all over.

"It's… Yes, it's worse."

Gon's healing waters were gentle, soothing and sealing the torn flesh and gently softening the vivid bruises to green where the whip hadn't broken her skin. Korra realized there were at least three strikes across her back which she didn't remember taking. Opal and Gon pulled off Korra's pants, revealing that she must have been struck there also while unconscious.

"I'm surprised you moved with all this," Opal said with an uneasy laugh.

Korra only sighed as Gon saw to her aches. She'd been caught off guard after all that. What an idiot. She was better than this, but she was rusty from lack of fighting in recent months. She always assumed she'd be facing someone with honor. The White Lotus had instilled that in her: never strike someone who was off guard or on the ground. The instinct still remained.

The healer worked on her for at least a quarter hour. Each pass soothed her bruises further. Su, Iroh, and Bataar Jr. came into the room soon after, and Korra sent the healer out.

She described the man with the whip to them and learned in turn that they'd captured over thirty soldiers, killed less than a dozen, and sending the rest into retreat. Another twenty had surrendered willingly. Su's original numbers seemed to be a bit exaggerated. They guessed perhaps twenty men retreated, among their numbers the man who had parlayed with Korra. The biggest victory was the capture of every single mech and tank from the attacking forces. Their main concern was bringing those remaining at large into custody for justice.

"Who is it?" Su asked Baatar Jr.

His hair had fallen in his eyes, and he pushed it back in frustration. "I don't know, Mother. I would remember a whip-wielding madman!"

"Surely you have some idea!"

Baatar Jr. glanced away. "Clearly Kuvira didn't share everything with me."

"Come on, Baatar Jr.!"

"I don't know, Mother! I promised you I would give you all the information I knew, and I have! If you so distrust me, you should throw me in prison with Kuvira!"

"Is that what you want?"

"I don't know!" Baatar snapped. He stood up and paced to the window, folding his arms as he looked beyond the glass. "It doesn't seem fair that I'm here, and she isn't. She's as much your daughter as I am your son."

"You don't know what you're saying," Su said with equal heat. She glanced at Korra. "Go back to Republic City. You're the only person who got a good look at him, and Kuvira may talk to you."

Korra sensed this was more to get her out of the way, though to be fair, she had a faster sky transport than anyone else in Zaofu, excepting Opal's Juicy. That was, if Bimi would fly for her. She'd fly away on a kite if it meant getting away from this family drama.

She pondered at Baatar Jr.'s words as she scrambled on Bimi. She saw his perspective: in everything he'd enabled and enacted under Kuvira's banner, it was hardly fair he'd been forgiven enough for house arrest in Zaofu and Kuvira sat in jail. Korra wondered if rehabilitation was in Kuvira's future. She knew if Suyin had anything to say about it, Kuvira would be put on trial and executed—though thankfully capital punishment had been outlawed by the United Republic. Why was Suyin so set against her? It was a question for another day.

Korra arrived in Republic City in the late afternoon. Her equilibrium thankfully was back to normal, though flying a sky bison while dizzy hadn't been her smartest choice. She dropped Bimi off with the herd and flew out to a bay south of the city. She was allowed to see Kuvira with no more than her name. The wooden barge floated in water deep enough to prevent Kuvira reaching for earth with her bending. Kuvira's cage was all wood, with two wooden chairs and a wooden table.

"Avatar Korra," Kuvira said quietly, sitting at that table. Her hands were bound together by a thick sinew. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

She didn't seem noticeably different than the last time Korra had seen her—being led away by Suyin and Lin Beifong—except that her haughtiness had returned. She held herself stiff and upright and met and held Korra's eyes. Even without her metal uniform and her hair cut short to her shoulders, she had a certain charismatic confidence. And a naked disdain for Korra.

"Why Zaofu?"

"Why Zaofu?" Kuvira repeated.

"Why was it so important to conquer?"

"You've waited months to come see me, and now you're going to make this about Su?" Kuvira asked her with a soft bitter laugh. Despite Kuvira's confidence in her answer, Korra was confused by the tangent she took.

Kuvira continued with a sneer. "Do you still think she's the perfect example of a leader? She isn't. She could have been, if she gave a damn about anyone but herself. And there she sat so pretty on her domed city, defiant in the face of my work." Her tone shifted from patronizing to more focused as she leaned back in her seat. "Logistically, it had the largest store of precious metals in the world. I needed that store. Why are you here? It's certainly not to ask me that."

"Zaofu was attacked again by what's left of your army. I want to know who's in charge and why he would attack Zaofu."

Kuvira looked at her bound hands. "What's his name?"

"I don't know. He carried a barbed whip, had a black beard and brown eyes."

"A whip?" Kuvira asked. Her eyes were heavily shadowed, and she turned them down. Her jaw jerked in a flex of muscle that was much like the rest of her. "He calls himself Flesher."

"Flesher," Korra repeated dubiously.

Kuvira spoke matter-of-factly. "I picked him up in the Kolai Mountains. He and his group liked to pick up villagers; they would rape the women and eat the men. Flesher's particular appetites were for torture."

Korra had to swallow twice before she could speak. There was such an abrupt mental shift for her to process rape and cannibalism and torture, but Kuvira's tone hadn't changed as she spoke about it. "So why is he now heading your army?"

"He's a good metalbender; a very good one. I put him to work…persuading the provinces that refused to submit to my rule that they needed my help. And for his loyalty, I turned a blind eye to some of his…appetites. I presume he has filled the void that I left."

Persuading…? "You mean you used him to attack the provinces to create problems."

Kuvira smirked in the face of Korra's shock. "You can call it what you want, Avatar. I call it results."

"What did he do?"

Finally Kuvira's mouth tightened. "I never heard specifically. I only asked that his supervisor kept him happy. I suspect he was given subjects from our reeducation camp to…play with. His only weakness, Avatar, is his insanity. But it's also his defense. He doesn't believe he'll ever be hurt. I can't guess why he would attack the most fortified city in the Earth—is it a Confederation now?"

There were no words that Korra could get out. She was disappointed, horrified, disgusted maybe, but she couldn't express any of that to the woman who sat so still and upright across from her, looking as if she didn't see anything wrong in what she'd described. Korra got up and left, an act that seemed to surprise Kuvira.

It was only after Korra flew out of the prison that she felt the anger inside her break. She landed hard on a sandy of a strip of beach south of Republic City with tears blurring her vision. She stood then crouched again, opened her mouth, and shouted her anger out.

If she had known all of this before she saved Kuvira's life, she might never have stepped in front of that beam to save her. Korra took several heavy breaths, releasing her breath in a low exhale to slow her heart and calm down. She looked past her anger to the fear that sat in her gut. Those similarities she saw between herself and Kuvira might be the ones that led to Kuvira's easy decline into blind corruption.

When she'd returned to Air Temple Island, she put a call in to Su. "We have to find them now."

They were just starting to piece together why Flesher had chosen to attack Zaofu. Conversation with soldiers that had surrendered suggested Flesher had been losing his grip on the majority of forces that were loyal to Kuvira. Flesher had led the attack on Zaofu after claiming it was to free Kuvira in a desperate bid to keep his soldiers. His forces had been starved for information and supplies, kept in a remote location—a hastily constructed Reeducation Camp—in the Kolau Mountains, and they knew no better that what he told them.

The soldiers told stories of the horrors of Flesher's appetites for violence; at least a few of the soldiers that had attacked Zaofu denounced him altogether. They wanted Kuvira back—a woman whose violence had a purpose. Korra wondered if any of them realized she'd enabled the man they'd just denounced.

Logistically, it made no sense that Flesher would lead an attack to one of the most defended (and connected) cities in the Earth Confederation, but Kuvira had said the man was insane with over-confidence. Kuvira had risked attacking it back during her bid for an empire; she'd probably attacked as much for making a statement to Suyin as for its metal supply. Unlike Kuvira, Flesher—disorganized with few forces—had lost the battle, shedding his disloyal soldiers and likely keeping the men that had been a part of his previous band of torturers. Iroh and Suyin presumed he retreated to the Reeducation Camp.

A few airbenders ended up finding the camp, but they only reported the location. What was left of the forces—no more than twenty men—were within a walled camp, tucked behind a secure building within the facility. The camp was deep in the Kolau Mountains, tucked into a valley between two of the more difficult ranges to climb. It was a barren place: no wildlife and very little foliage.

As it stood, only Iroh brought some of his United Republic forces on air bison. Opal led several airbenders with them. Su divorced herself from helping because this camp was within another district of the Earth Confederation. Korra was a little surprised by how angry Opal was at her mother's announcement, but she pushed past it and thought about what needed to be done. In a way, Su was right; the Confederation was a loose connection with little in the way of alliances. There was no legal requirement for Su to put her own forces at risk for another state.

"We should have enough forces to lead a head-on attack. I worry that there are civilians inside though. They must have some hostages." Iroh looked at Korra from the sketch of the camp from their tiny camp tucked out of sight from the Reeducation Camp. She studied the outer ring with a few huts and the metal walled-interior. By the foul odor that hit them with any easterly wind, there were already dead inside.

Korra wanted it done. She wanted to face the horrors now instead of delaying to allow that dread to grow. "I'll lead the attack. We should go in after dark. If we strike quickly, they may not have time to kill anyone."

"Korra, be careful," Opal said softly.

As Korra strode out of the tent, she heard Opal say, "I wonder what Kuvira said to make her so angry."

Was she angry? She only felt sick with worry at what she'd find behind those walls. Torture, rape, and cannibalism… She hoped it hadn't come to that. The other Reeducation Camps were bad—starvation, infection, abuse, and murder rampant—but not to that degree.

They couldn't wait for a deep darkness because the moon was bright, but they did wait for nightfall. Three groups of seven soldiers slipped quietly within the enclosed camp. Korra led the first group, dread dropping her heart rate and softening her movements. She bent a hole in the metal wall, leading a few benders into the enemy camp behind her. She nearly retched at the smell of death and decay that burst into the back of her throat. They'd come into a wooden shack, right into the thick of the stench. A man behind her gagged.

A firebender behind her opened up a flick of flame in his palm—stupid mistake. There were naked bodies lying on tables around them. The bodies were wrong, cut into pieces and dressed like prey. Strips of flesh had been hung in the air to dry. A pile of guts lay under a table, the source of the stench. Korra's mind struggled to consolidate human remains with flesh prepared for eating.

Another man vomited, and the firebender snuffed his light. Better not to see any more.

They moved quietly out into the open, into a different foul smell, creeping behind another hut at the edge of the wall. There were soft moans from within a hut. Fearing the worst, Korra used her hands to tear the gate off of the building. The tiny hut reeked of infection and waste. Several naked women huddled in the dust. Even with just soft moonlight, she could see they were round in pregnancy. They flinched away, huddled together and making little noise.

Louder moans hit them as they continued quietly through the camp. In the moonlight, she could see a line of humans, naked and defenseless, tied to crosses. Korra stopped in front of one man. Even in the darkness, he was covered in flies. She gave a gentle airbending push, and the flies scattered, showing naked muscle and blood. He'd been flayed to his waist.

Korra lost track of herself and lost all thought of secrecy. The plan had been to meet together and open the fortifications at the center of the camp in unison. She strode by, her senses sharpening to a single goal: find and end. Her focus led her to the rough fortifications at the back of the facility. Like the outer perimeter, this wall was made of iron and steel. It was hastily molded together by a bender, and it was easily bent. Korra bared her teeth and grunted as she parted the metal wall with several hard rips.

Behind her, she heard noise of more soldiers rushing to meet her as she faced Flesher's marauders alone.

Metal projectiles rushed at her, but she batted that element away as easily as air. The hole she'd punched into the wall was still too small. She tugged sideways with both hands, opening the hasty fortifications enough to allow several men to pass inside abreast.

A spotlight startled her, but she still saw the dark shapes of men in front of her. Airbending flattened most of them back into their own walls and shattered the spotlight with a harsh crash. She caught metal thrown at her and swung it back, striking a few more as she pared the metal into a whip-like strip. Another earthbending attack came from one side, but before Korra could defend herself, a Republic Army soldier countered the attack, pushing that man back.

The black outline of the spotlight had left in her vision began to fade when she saw Flesher waiting for her. She would never forget his face after seeing it in such sharp relief before getting her face smashed in. A soldier stepped towards him, but she heard herself shout, "He's mine!"

She had one goal, and it was getting to that man. She advanced.

Flesher saw her coming and grinned under his black beard. He flung his whip at her as she stepped into range. She wasn't unknowing or unguarded, and she caught that whip with her bending like the novice attack that it was. Flesher might be a good bender, but he was no match for her. She was a good metalbender; she was better and stronger than he was. Korra tugged hard enough to rip the whip from his grip. She threw it away and pushed off the earth to catch him around the waist and slam him into the metal wall behind him.

The impact was satisfying, hard enough to wrench her shoulder and make him lose his breath.

He had no time to counter as she punched him with only her flesh and blood. It was another satisfyingly solid strike. Her knuckles broke his nose in an audible slap, and he collapsed onto the ground, shaking his head. He raised one hand towards her—in supplication or to attack she didn't know.

He lurched up on one knee, and she thought of the crucified flayed man and hit him again with another powerful satisfying snap of flesh. He got to one knee again, showing red teeth with a laugh, pulling at his whip with his metalbending. He flailed it at her, and she raised earth with a hard push—a push that had no pause or quarter. The blow crushed half of Flesher's body against the metal wall behind him. He was pulped and died after several squealing screams.

The rest of Flesher's band of outlaws was done at that point. Korra jolted from looking down at Flesher's body—she'd made him meat, just like he'd made those prisoners outside—when a soldier said, "Avatar?" Behind him, a metalbender—with a patch of burned skin oozing on his shoulder—was being yanked into rope restraints.

She turned to meet the man's eyes and realized she would be needed back in the camp to heal wounds and ration food and water. She looked down at her fist clenched tight and released it slowly. Flesher's body slumped sideways into the dirt. Korra walked by the soldier and stepped out of the inner metal fortifications of the camp, reaching out to help a soldier pull down a cross and heal the woman that had been suspended from it.

The woman lay on her back, stared up at the moon, and cried. Korra used waterbending to soothe the infection in the woman's wrists from the rope that opened sores in her skin. She gently sat the woman up and propped her on her knee to offer sips of water. The woman urinated on herself and took short, gasping breaths, sucking water desperately. It was hard to judge how old she was; her eyes were sunken deep from dehydration, and her skin was peeling from sunburn.

"Clothing," Korra said. A soldier that heard her stripped out of his jacket and they wrapped it around the injured woman. Korra picked the woman up, ignoring the wastes on her and walked back through the camp. The weight of her was solid, if little, and each heavy step Korra took brought her slowly back into herself.

"What's your name?" she asked quietly.

"Sun," the woman said against her shoulder. "They ate my children."

Korra didn't rest until the following night. She spent the rest of the night and day healing wounds and sunburn, and dispersing clothing, water, and food. They had to limit the food, which was hard in the face of the pleading, visible ribs, and swollen bellies. Nearly forty people were here, defying the end of the war and starving to death in one of Kuvira's abolished Reeducation Camps.

There had been twice as many prior to Flesher's attack on Zaofu. They were pruning the camp in preparation for escape. If they'd just been a few weeks earlier, they could have saved one hundred instead of forty.

Women begged her to end their pregnancies, but Korra didn't know how, especially with the women so weak. She wished she had been more motivated to learn waterbending healing. Maybe it was moot; these women were too weak for it. Maybe in a few weeks they could take the labor to force a dead fetus from them, but not today.

She listened to the stories of the fights put on—prisoners made to fight each other for food, only for their captors to tell them afterwards that they'd eaten their own kin. She healed flesh torn open from rape, sexual diseases passed to men and women raped by their captors, and helped the few little girls and boys who had been taught too much about life already.

Infection was everywhere—abscesses, gangrene, enteritis, pneumonia. Death. There was so much death, Korra wasn't sure she ever could clear the smell from her nostrils or unsee the misery etched in these people's faces. They all needed to torch this place of suffering.

When asked who they were before, these people answered: cobblers, masons, cooks, and merchants. They hadn't deserved this.

Korra had only intentionally killed Flesher, but she'd killed two other men inadvertently with her attacks that night. All of the others—wounded or not—were put on hasty trial and hanged by Iroh with permission from the United Republic military. Iroh suggested the fact this place existed was an embarrassment to the United Republic. They wanted the mess done away with sooner, and stretching out trials would be an embarrassment—somehow.

Maybe it was wrong to feel like it was the right thing when she watched the men jerk and twitch in their nooses. What would Aang have done in her place? Strip them of their bending and try to rehabilitate them? She wondered if Aang had ever been in this situation.

Opal, who had remained shaky but strong through the horrors they'd seen, had told one woman she would never see her tormentors again. Opal told Korra with tears in her eyes that the woman responded, "Can you pull them out of my head for me? I see them every time I close my eyes."

When Korra finally sank into a cot in Iroh's tent, she was exhausted physically and emotionally. She closed her eyes and felt the darkness of sleep, but it was held in check by the horror that she'd witnessed. They would all leave the next morning, taking everyone away and burning what was left.

There were already airbenders dispersed to check the deep mountains for more of these hidden camps. The heads of Kuvira's army were being interrogated again for all the locations of the Reeducation Camps, but hopefully this was the last. Kuvira herself had claimed to not know where they were. She'd wanted people put away so she could never think of them again. Korra had already ordered a reel of pictures sent to Kuvira, pictures of each prisoner here, a human being stripped of their identity to become one word: prisoner. She'd sent pictures of the grave behind the camp, the naked decaying corpses, and the people butchered like livestock. She hoped Kuvira would never forget again.

All along Korra had been ignorant of the suffering and pain that had taken place under her nose. She'd thought the war was over, but it had been ongoing for these people. She'd left them here to rot in misery. She'd forgotten about these people too. Everyone had, except Flesher and his compatriots.

Korra shook her head and rolled onto her back. She put her hands over her eyes to block the light within the tent, finally settling into a half-sleep.

She awoke gradually when someone settled on her hips, pinning her down to her cot. She lay paralyzed as she stared up at her dark shadow, eyes shining white, hair wild over strong shoulders. A deep, hard pulse shook the air with each of the shadow's heavy breaths. Veins were visible over bulging biceps and corded forearms. Those muscles strained with effort as a flesher—used to strip fat from the underside of pelts back home—was slowly burred into Korra's chest over her heart. Each twist caused horrifying pain and terror, punctuated by a deep, thrumming pulse of noise.

Korra tried to scream, tried to move, tried anything to get away, but she was powerless.

Her own scream awakened her. Unfrozen, she tumbled out of her cot and lay gasping, staring at the unfamiliar tent lit by soft electric light. A hand fell on her shoulder, and Korra scrambled away.


It was Iroh, his face lined with worry and exhaustion, probably a mirror to her own. He put his hand on her forearm, which was slick with sweat. "You're feverish," he said, helping her sit up.

"Bad dream."

"Hard to sleep after what we've seen." He helped her stand up, and they sat down together near the light as if to chase away dark thoughts. He brewed tea because her hands were too shaky. "Why don't you go home? We can take care of everyone and get them back home."

"Not yet." But he was right. All Korra wanted was the cold tundra, blowing snow against her cheeks, the moon shining so bright on the white and blue austerity of her home. She needed to go back to her family and find her home and herself—maybe for the first time in her life.

Chapter Text

Asami glanced at herself in the mirror, pursed her lips, and decided another lipstick application was, in fact, not warranted. She had primped far more than necessary, which was silly but also filled her with a sense of anticipation.

Korra was back on Air Temple Island, and they were meeting for dinner tonight. Asami wanted to look good. More importantly, she wanted Korra to think she looked good. There wasn't much she could do about the shadows under her eyes since she'd been working most of her waking hours. If Korra hadn't gotten back today, she'd still be elbow-deep in work with her civil engineering team or with their construction company partner.

It felt petty to be worried about her looks when Korra was coming back from a harrowing time in the Earth Confederation. She'd been hurt—and badly if the newspaper photos were to be believed—and was probably emotionally hurting too given the mess that had been found over there.

Her mood mollified by her thoughts, Asami straightened her jacket and skirt, slipped into her boots, and picked up her keys and wallet from the table.

"Have a good night," the doorman told her as she stepped outside.

Her car was waiting at the curb. She had to drive an unfamiliar route to Kwong's because of construction along Sixth, the main road destroyed by Kuvira's giant mech. In the weeks—months, now—since the battle ended, the city had made great headway with temporary housing for displaced families and rebuilding the infrastructure that had been destroyed. It would take several years to finish reconstructing, but the time was significantly less because downtown wasn't recoverable.

Kwong's had maintained their pristine affluence even after the battle that left Republic City shabby and broken. Their valet service immediately opened her door and whisked her car to the private lot a few blocks away.

Asami had reserved a private dining room, and there she found everyone but Korra. Mako stood up to give her a stiff hug, and Bolin threw his arms around her. Asami grunted at his force, but it brought out a laugh in her. They'd last met a few weeks ago, but trust Bolin to remain enthusiastic.

"Weren't you going to bring Opal?"

"Nah, she's still in Zaofu. I may head up later this week."

Behind her, a familiar voice said, "Sorry I'm late!"

Asami turned, and she and Korra looked at each other for a frozen moment before Korra stepped forward into Asami's arms.

It had been two weeks. Two weeks since she'd spoken to Korra. And now Korra was back, settled in her arms in a full hug, and they breathed each other in for a few quiet moments. There was nothing better—or more tempting—than Korra's full body pressed against hers. Their first hug months ago had set the tone for all their embraces. She closed her eyes at the feeling of Korra's fingers sliding into her hair.

"I missed you," Asami said. "I know it's only been a few weeks…"

"It's so good to see you," Korra murmured. She tucked her face against Asami's shoulder, and they held each other for just a little while longer. Asami smiled when she realized Korra had dropped her staff on the floor just outside their reserved dining room. Korra had felt some urgency for this embrace too.

"How is Zaofu?"

That was Korra's major stop for the last few weeks, in part to help clean up the aftermath of Kuvira's army and in part because it was serving as the major site of former Earth Confederation meetings. Asami had listened to the radio every evening—often sitting in her office at Future Industries tower—praying there would be no more reports of remnants of Kuvira's army inciting battles.

"Su actually decided to leave the domes off." Korra squeezed her hand as they let each other go, but her smile wavered. She looked as exhausted as Asami felt now that Asami could study her. Korra glanced behind her and bent over to grab her staff. "The Republic Army is helping get the last of the prisoners from the reeducations camps back to their homes."

Asami had seen the pictures that emerged since the Earth Empire was dissolved. While most camps hadn't had long enough to dissolve into truly horrifying situations, there was a smattering of reports of prisoners being raped, tortured, and murdered. It must have been hard for Korra to see that; there was no doubt in Asami's mind that Korra would blame herself.

Bolin took the moment to throw his arms around Korra's shoulders. "Oh, man, I missed you, buddy!"

Korra's grim expression shifted into a grin, and she grunted and rocked forward—dropping her staff inside the room this time—trying to lift Bolin off the ground. It devolved into a play wrestling match until Mako snapped, "Give it a rest, you idiots!"

At that, Korra and Bolin threw themselves on him, and they collapsed onto the floor beside the table in a pile. Asami laughed along with her friends, happy to see them happy.

They were seated at the table when their waiter appeared. Asami guessed it was by design that the man had given them some time to sort themselves out. He presented a bottle of Asami's favorite wine to start them off, and the evening progressed from there.

Several hours later, it was turning out to be a perfect night, sharing dinner with their friends, sitting side-by-side. Asami's mind flickered about with possibilities of what she and Korra might do together in the following week. She planned to be on Air Temple Island quite often in the evenings. Maybe Korra would want to see a play or a mover, maybe a quiet night at Kwong's—or Narook's, more like. Dancing… Surely Korra danced. Though the difficulty would be that Asami didn't know anything but more formal styles. She would learn for Korra though.

Dates, she admitted to herself. They would be dates, at least on her side.

Then Bolin leaned forward and asked, "How long are you going to be in Republic City, Korra?"

"A couple more days."

Asami turned her eyes to Korra, shocked at the answer. "But… Where are you going?"

Korra's eyes flickered away from hers almost in guilt. "I'm going home for a few months. It's been a long time coming, actually."

"A few months," she parroted in a tone of voice she didn't recognize. It had been less than six months since she set foot on Republic City soil in the first place.

Korra's face shifted through a variety of emotions. "Just a few months. After everything that's happened… I'm tired. I need to take a little while for myself now."

This is your home! Asami wanted to exclaim. She opened her mouth to ask how long 'a few months' really meant when Mako reached across the table to put a staying hand on her wrist. He said, "We support your decision, Korra. We'll miss you, but if you need to go home, then don't worry about us."

"Thanks, Mako," she said.

Asami felt withdrawn from the rest of their shared dinner. She managed a smile whenever Korra turned to her, but the reality of Korra leaving again so soon made her chest heavy. When they dispersed for the night, Korra lingered close to Asami as the valet retrieved her car. She hesitantly held out her hand, but Asami took it without hesitation.

"Will you stay with me tonight?" Asami asked.

Korra's face shifted in a smile. She was so beautiful, even looking as apologetic as she did then. "Yeah. You don't have a lot of work or anything, right?"

"I always have a lot of work. I could use the day off." Asami put her keys in Korra's palm, which immediately made Korra deflate.

"Driving at night, goodie."

She stalled out the car twice, but it wasn't a bad trip. The staff manning Asami's apartment building that night had nothing but respectful bows for Korra, who smiled in reply.

It wasn't until Korra was on Asami's couch with a glass of wine in her hand that she seemed to relax. She sprawled gracelessly across the back of the couch, contrasting the delicate sniff she applied to her wine. "What's this grape?"

"From western Earth Kingdom. It's a cute little vineyard. They named this wine The Pirate." It was a bottle Asami had been saving, but she decided tonight was a wine night, especially after the excellent bottle Kwong's hadn't even charged for. She sat down on the couch next to Korra, who looked at her with a slow smile. Asami asked, "Did you work at a vineyard as you traipsed around the Earth Kingdom?"

"Passed through one in the Fire Nation, actually." Korra took a sip of wine. "They had this really gross sweet wine—"

"Port?" There were very few islands in the Fire Nation that produced wine, though the best port grapes were grown in a different climate that was no more common to the Fire Nation. Rainy Isle was so named for its climate, and it was a cool oasis in a country of heat. Asami had another location to add to the map of places Korra had visited during her six-month journey. She would have to put another blue pin in her world map.

"Yes! And a late harvest. They wanted me to give them an honest opinion."

"Which was?"

"It ruined the chocolate they gave me that night." Korra's smile mellowed. "They were good people. I met a lot of good people." She lifted her eyes to Asami after a moment. "It's good to see you."

"Do you really have to go?" She regretted those words the moment they tumbled from her mouth. Asami shook her head. "Ignore that. It's just… I miss you. I was hoping we'd have time together."

"I'm sorry," Korra said. She opened her hand, and Asami upped her gesture, pulling Korra into a hug.

"Are you okay?"

"Tired," Korra responded against her shoulder. "I know I've said this a million times, but it's so good to see you. But…you look like you've been working too hard."

"I have been." Asami was shocked the moment those words crossed her mouth. She hadn't admitted even to herself that she was pushing herself too hard. Ninety hours a week was simply too much. "This won't last forever, though. Truly, how was it at Zaofu?"

"Could have gone better." Korra glanced away. "There was a lot of blame being thrown around in the Beifong family. And that camp…" She tightened her jaw. "I can't change the past, but I wish I could have done something sooner."

"It could have been much worse."

"No. Not really." Korra looked away. "I saw the changes that Kuvira made traveling around the Earth Kingdom, but I never realized the Reeducation Camps existed. That whole situation…"

"I don't think she started to form them until those last few months. They didn't have much time to deteriorate."

"It didn't take any time, Asami." She fell silent, and tears came up in her eyes.

"Tell me what's bothering you."

Korra put the wine glass on the table in front of her, apparently to free both hands to rub her face vigorously. It took a moment before she spoke. "There was a man named Flesher. He led a group of outlaws that raided and took what they wanted from the local villages. Kuvira captured him…then she turned him loose to work for her because he was a metalbender. She told her lieutenant to keep Flesher happy and make him useful."

There was a long pause as Korra collected her thoughts. Asami put her hand on Korra's shoulder. She wondered if Korra had scars left behind from the battle at Zaofu. The newspaper had printed a large picture of her back, covered in bright bruises.

"Flesher… The name fit him. I thought I'd seen the worst evil imaginable in Vaatu, Unalaq, Amon…" She snorted. "Can you guess why the man was called Flesher?"

Asami remained silent though she could imagine any number of reasons, all bad.

"His men were just as bad. He liked to torture; they liked to rape. They had their fun in the Reeducation Camps. They would make a choice, and Kuvira's army would turn a blind eye to injuries and deaths. Kuvira turned a blind eye. She just…chose not to think about it. I asked her about him, and she knew what he was. She knew that they used to steal people from villages for their fun. She knew, and she used him anyway."

Perhaps Asami was too jaded to be horrified at the information. Asami waited a moment before she asked, "Was he one of the rebels? Was he the one that hurt you?"

Korra's brows were drawn, and her eyes remained fixed on her wine glass. "Yeah, he did. He was the leader. He and what was left of his forces retreated to the last Reeducation Camp after they lost the battle at Zaofu. He had a whip; got me good. We followed them. I saw…" Korra swallowed again. Abruptly, she downed the rest of her wine in three gusty swallows. "Anyway, I killed him."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Korra stared at her empty wine glass for a few moments. Her eyes filled with tears, and she swallowed thickly. Her voice was heavy with dread as she spoke. "There was a man on a cross, and he'd been skinned to his waist. Alive. He was dead by the time we got there."

That did shock Asami. Why had there been no reports of that kind of horror? "Korra…"

"I didn't hold back with Flesher. I always do a little, but this time... It was quick, but it was painful. I knew I was going to do it, and I did it just like I meant to."

Asami wasn't sure what she could say other than: "That sounds like the right thing to do."

"Thanks for saying it." Korra's expressed suggested she didn't believe Asami. "Tenzin's going to be upset."

"He wasn't there."

"Maybe so." Korra finally met her eyes. "Kuvira knew. How could she justify that kind of evil? Shouldn't the automatic reaction be to put someone that likes to hurt other people in jail instead of having him guard it?"

"People justify a lot of things with willful ignorance."

Korra gave an abrupt unhappy laugh. "Clever way to put it."

Asami pressed her palm against the back of Korra's hand. She spoke firmly. "None of that is your fault."

"I can think that, but it's hard to feel it here." Korra patted her chest and met Asami's eyes again. Her expression of unhappiness struck Asami in a soft place.

Korra was so tenderhearted. Despite all odds, yet it fit. So quick to cry, so quick to offer a helping hand and support. Even after they first met, Korra had been sympathetic, offering her a home in the middle of the chaos of her life. And now Korra took another blow inadvertently struck by Kuvira.

Asami asked, "Is that why you need to leave?"

Korra's eyes flickered away. "Maybe part of it. Things are settling now. A lot of the states have elected their leaders—most of them old governors—and no one really wants any outside help, at least from me. If I don't go home now, I probably won't get the chance."

Asami was tempting fate, overreaching, pushing for too much and teasing her poor heart to death. That didn't stop her from gently pulling Korra to lie down with her head in Asami's lap. Korra came without much coaxing. She sighed heavily and slowly relaxed. Asami brushed hair from Korra's forehead, allowing the thick, soft strands to slip between her fingertips. Korra's eyes were hooded, and she breathed slowly and evenly. She sounded like she was asleep, but her face held tension that didn't ease.

Korra finally said, "It just feels so never-ending. After Kuvira was defeated, remnants of her army popping up, that Reeducation Camp, and the spirits are still a dark ostrich horse. I'm afraid I won't get a moment to rest."

"That's why we have to take these moments for what they are." Asami cupped Korra's cheek, brushing her fingertips along her temple. The skin against her palm was soft. "Are you upset because you killed him?"

"I don't know. I'm just so tired. I felt like I had traction after the Republic City Battle. Now I feel like I'm spinning my wheels again."

"Then go home. Find your place, and come back when you're ready. I'll miss you so much, Korra. But if you need this, then do it." She finished her wine with a heavy swallow and brushed Korra's hair back again. "Why don't we go to bed?"

Korra looked so soft in her lap. Her eyes were soft with coming sleep. "Sounds good to me. Should I sleep on the couch—"

"No." Asami took her hand and pulled her to her feet, and Korra didn't resist.

Korra awoke hot, with a beam of sunlight shining across her eyes. She rolled over, expecting to see the other half of the enormous bed empty. Her back ached from the softness of the mattress, but once again she slept like a log here, surrounded by Asami's scent.

As she expected, Asami wasn't here. She looked absolutely exhausted, with shadows becoming bags beneath her eyes, but she woke up in the morning earlier than any human being ought to.

Korra wiggled forward to Asami's pillow and pressed her face into it, taking a deep breath. That smell was tantalizing, but she had trouble placing it. Some sort of flower, but she wasn't sure what. She'd smelled it a few times in the Earth Kingdom wilds and had a weird emotional burst without being able to place why. It wasn't until she'd hugged Asami again after all those years apart that she'd realized where that emotion had come from.

Korra rolled away from the pillow and considered Asami's room. She must have cleaned up in the last few days because only one outfit was strewn across the floor. The bookshelf had several books stacked in front of the rows of books, probably from the library, and the bedside table had an old glass of water next to the lamp. The bedroom could use a bit of straightening up, but it was nice to see evidence of it being lived in.

Korra got out of bed and stretched. Her pajama pants were at the end of the bed; she must have shucked them through the night. She was too hot to put them back on.

She was busy making the bed when Asami cleared her throat at the bedroom door. Korra straightened and turned around. "Good morning!"

"You don't have to make my bed, you know." For whatever reason, there was a hint of a blush on Asami's cheeks. She hadn't changed into her clothes for the day, and her face was free of makeup. Korra grinned in reply, her thoughts chased away by how relaxed and young Asami looked.

"What?" she asked.

"My bed. You don't have to make it."

"Oh. Old habit." Korra leaned back over to tug at the coverlet. "The White Lotus always said a clean home signifies a clean mind or something like that. They wouldn't let me play until I cleaned up my room. Now it bothers me if I don't."

"I never would have pegged you as a neat freak."

How insulting! Korra fluffed the pillows. "Hey! I'll have you know I wasn't born like this!"

"Well, when you're done cleaning up, I have tea ready in the living room." Asami stepped backward into the hallway, and Korra listened as her footsteps retreated to the living room.

It gave Korra a moment to calm her suddenly bounding heart. There was something about sharing mornings like this with Asami that turned their comfortable friendship into awkward excitement—not romantic, but… Well, maybe a little romantic. Thankfully she'd been muddled and sleepy after her wine last night; it hadn't let her mind turn to the fact she was sharing a bed with Asami.

And then she remembered that she'd also been bitter and upset over her memories of the Reeducation Camp. Korra shied away from the thought, but the crystallized vision of a half-flayed man strung up by his wrists sprang to mind and brought her happiness to an abrupt stop with a twist of horror. Then the nightmare the night after: her own dark shadow bent over her, pressing a flesher into her breast, ready to burr out her heart.

Korra took a heavy breath and pushed the thought away with the reality that this, right here, was what she wanted. If she was honest with herself, she would like this on a permanent basis. Though as nice as it was to wonder if she could share Asami's bed as her friendly roommate for the rest of their lives, there might be a stretch there between friend and lover she had to cross. That or take the backseat to Asami's future husband.

More and more, the thought of that change was becoming less of an idle thought. If only Korra knew how girls who were friends acted towards each other. As a little girl, she'd always assumed it was like the relationships she held with Katara and her mother, just more reciprocal: brushing each other's hair, kissing each other on the cheek, that sort of thing. That was definitely not right, but she still didn't have a good idea of what was. Her relationship with all the women in her life were varied based upon that woman. With Opal she felt a sense of protectiveness and platonic love. Jinora's know-it-all attitude could be exasperating, but Korra loved her all the same and wanted to protect her too.

Asami… Complex didn't even cover that. Love, attraction, protectiveness, blind trust, admiration, shared sorrow…

She probably would just have to keep discovering every nuance of their relationship to figure out where the boundaries were. New sled dogs did it; toddlers did it: push to find that boundary and then test until it was a concrete wall. Korra just needed to puzzle this out. Unlike toddlers who could push past a 'no', Korra couldn't fathom how to test that boundary other than taking her clothes off and asking if Asami wanted to have sex.

It was just so crass. She'd basically assaulted Mako with a kiss because she hadn't known what else to do, and it just seemed expected to her. That was what you did with boys you liked, right? It seemed like Asami deserved more than that, both in the lack of elegance and potentially risking a friendship for an experiment.

She had no idea of Asami even considered women viable romantic partners, much less if she thought of Korra that way. Korra hadn't even considered that Asami might want to rekindle her relationship with Mako, but she'd never gotten that impression. She had said there was no one in her life romantically back before the battle, and Korra had wanted that. Korra had been and was still so selfish with her desire to be the most important person in Asami's life.

Asami was a good friend, and she was definitely more prone to physical touch than other people in Korra's life, but that could just be a woman thing, right? Was there a big difference to Asami between platonic and sexual touch?

Korra shook her head sharply. She'd have to figure out other ways, obviously. Or just keep doing what she was doing. Spending time with Asami was rarely a chore.

Which definitely brought up the question: why the hell was she leaving for the South Pole? Then the flayed man came back out, and the answer was there.

Damn Kuvira.

Memories of the Reeducation Camp chased her to the kitchen with the hope that Asami's company would push them away.

When Korra poured herself a cup of tea, she expected it to be dark and bitter, but Asami had done pretty well. She sipped and sighed. It was a spicy black tea blend, one that she'd grown to enjoy recently.

"Did you sleep well?" Asami asked from the couch.

"Yep. Didn't you hear me snoring?" Her voice was thick, but she felt closer to normal in Asami's presence.

"You don't really snore, Korra."

Korra flopped on the couch next to Asami and glanced at the task that was occupying her. Asami held a pencil in her hand, and she dragged it across the paper gently. It looked like a motorcycle sketched on the paper. "New design?"

"Purely ascetic design," Asami murmured. She twirled a pencil across her fingers and leaned down to add depth to the illustration. Korra was fascinated by the process of a few pencil shadings causing the illustration to pop out from the paper.

"You're good at that."

Asami glanced over her shoulder with a faint smile. She looked young and soft without her makeup, something that hit Korra in a place she was afraid of going. Asami's gaze flickered to her legs then raised again to meet her gaze. Asami asked her, "You don't draw?"

"Stick figures, sure. Maybe a little better than Bolin, but that's not saying much."

"Well, you have neater handwriting."

"The White Lotus…" Korra shrugged, letting Asami fill that thought in for her.

"Was everything about order and control under them?" Asami's eyebrows bunched together with her question. Sometimes it was hard to judge her mood, but Korra understood the anger behind the question.

"Pretty much."

"No wonder you're so thirsty for life."

For some reason that made her blush. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out her biggest insecurity: "I wanted friends so badly growing up. I used to imagine what it was like to have a friend, and then meeting Bolin, Mako, and when I got over myself, you, prissy girl…"

Asami gave a soft laugh through her nose.

Korra sobered. "It's been incredible. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"You know, I never had a close girl friend before I met you."

Korra was surprised by that statement. "Really? But there are so many people here."

"I was too smart," Asami said. She tucked hair behind her ear and sank back against the couch. Her smile wrinkled the corner of her eyes. "Too rich. Too much into engineering. Too entitled. All the girls I knew from school called themselves my friends, but they never accepted me for who I am:  a true engineering nerd. I knew a lot of people, but I wasn't close to any of them. A lot of that was my fault too."

Korra chuckled at that description.

"It's still a little true. I've had to age myself after I took over Future Industries." Asami rubbed beneath one eye, leaving a smudge of lead there.


"The engineering field is full of people like my father:  old men who think that young women like me are only qualified to be a wife or a secretary. Women fight that in different ways. Some do everything they can not to be pretty:  wear dowdy clothes and no make-up."

"That wouldn't work with you," Korra said before she realized how awkward her statement was.

Asami blushed and cleared her throat. A small smile curved the side of her mouth, and she turned her eyes away shyly. "I've just tried to age myself with my clothes and the way I wear my hair. Eventually, I hope that being a young, pretty woman won't be a strike against women in the engineering field. But then again, by the time that happens, I won't have to worry about it anymore."

Maybe the 'young' would change, but the 'pretty' would not. "Do they think because you're pretty you aren't smart?"

"Isn't that what you thought when we first met? 'Shopping, makeovers'," Asami asked lightly. She finished her question with a wink, and Korra felt a twitch of embarrassment.

"Well, you definitely corrected me with that race. I was jealous, I guess. You were able to help us out when I wasn't. I was afraid you would just shoe me out. Also, I'd never really interacted with a girl my age before. I didn't know what girls did together." Still didn't, really.

"Never?" Asami asked.

"Or a boy," Korra admitted. "All the White Lotus guards and all of my bending masters were adults. Sometimes they'd bring their family, but the kids were either a lot older or younger than I was." She felt a stab of bitterness. "And they would never play with me."

"That's really sad."

Korra shrugged. "That's why I was so protective of Mako and Bolin. I ended up liking you a lot, even with the Mako situation."

Asami hesitated, on the brink of saying something. Then she smiled and stood up. "I'm going to shower if that's alright."


In Asami's absence, Korra's hunger made itself known, and she wandered into the kitchen. Asami didn't have much in the way of food. Her kitchen seemed as if someone else stocked it for her, just in case she wanted a snack.

There was soy milk and eggs in the cooler, flour in the depths of the cabinet, and oil of some sort as well. Korra shuffled around, discovering red bean paste and a spice rack of unopened spice jars. Ah, rice vinegar, rice wine, and some sort of starch.

She could fix a decent breakfast with a few of these ingredients. Asami seemed to favor a sweeter breakfast, a United Republic trend. Korra estimated the amount of ingredients she needed, and she beat batter while oil heated on the stove. She was careful to fry a thin layer of batter, and the result was more or less successful.

A quick smear of red bean paste, a few folds later, and a bit more frying, and she had successful sweet pancakes. They weren't particularly pretty, unfortunately, and there wasn't much in Asami's kitchen to use as a garnish to distract from that.

Apparently it smelled good enough to draw Asami into the kitchen before she dressed. Her hair was pulled up wet, and her calves were still beaded with water. Korra tried hard not to be conscious of the fact Asami was probably only wearing a robe. In the last three years, Asami had switched from pink lace to pink silk. The material suggested the body beneath it, and Korra turned her eyes away before she was tempted to stare. Asami was nothing if not attractive.

"That smells fantastic."

"Try it," she said, pushing the plate towards Asami.

Asami sniffed, blew, and took a delicate bite from her pancake. Her eyebrows went up as she chewed. "That's really good."

"Great!" Korra slid her own pancake onto a plate and began to clean up her mess as she waited for it to cool. She turned back to see Asami staring at her plate with her brow furrowed. Asami looked up at Korra in apparent bemusement. "My mother used to make me this for a treat."


"Really." Asami gave a private laugh and ate another bite. "Thank you. I'd forgotten."

They ate in silence for a moment until Asami said, "Do you ever think back to everything that's happened to you and wonder if it happened for a reason?"

"With some things," Korra admitted. Not her childhood with the White Lotus. She was still too bitter about that. "I feel like what happened with Zaheer, going through that, made me realize what it means to truly suffer. It's made me a better person."

Asami's brow furrowed, and she searched Korra's eyes for heavy a moment. "You let it make you a better person. You didn't have to go through it. Bad people did terrible things to you, but you had the fortitude to see the positive in that situation despite everything." Asami pushed around the last bite of her pancake on her plate. "Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if my mother were still alive. How I'd be now. It was because she died that Dad put me in self-defense classes. And I chose to study engineering to be closer to my dad. If she were alive today, I'm not sure I would even know you. I'm not sure you'd want to know me."

"I think we were always meant to be friends," Korra said quietly. She couldn't think of a way that she would live life without knowing Asami, Mako, and Bolin. "I'm just glad we're where we are right now. I just wish you hadn't lost so much in the process."

Asami smiled somberly. She tucked the fingers of her left hand into Korra's. They hooked index fingers and studied each other. "Promise me you'll come back," Asami said softly.

"I promise."

It was a heavy moment, which left them in an awkward place when they released each other. The fact Asami brought up her mother made Korra curious. "What was your mother like?"

"Loving," Asami said immediately. "I always remember her telling me she loved me, that I was beautiful and smart and good." She took her last bite and smiled. "She was from the Fire Nation."

"Really? I guess I assumed she was from the Earth Kingdom."

"She was mixed blood. My maternal grandmother was an Earth Kingdom citizen that married a Fire Nation soldier after the war ended. My mother met my father going to school at Republic University. But Mom always kept Fire Nation customs. She would make up these festivals just for us and teach me all about the customs of the Fire Nation. I guess she always wanted to go back, but Dad was so rooted in Republic City."

"So you have family in the Fire Nation?"

Asami shrugged. "We visited my grandparents once when I was a child, but my father never stayed in contact with them. They haven't exactly reached out either." Then she smiled as if trying to evaporate the melancholy mood. "Take a shower. I'll drive you to Air Temple Island."

They parted ways at the docks of Republic City with a long hug. It wouldn't be the last time they saw each other, but their upcoming parting made Korra hold that hug a little too long and watch Asami pull away in her Satomobile a little too longingly. There was no doubt in her mind that Asami's next destination was work.

Korra's next task was informing Tenzin she was going home indefinitely, and she wasn't looking forward to it. She snapped open her air glider and took an easy leap from the dock. A few gasps of shock from the onlookers made her laugh quietly to herself, but she was too preoccupied to linger on that small happiness.

This was her favorite part of airbending: the freedom of flight. She tried to imagine what Zaheer experienced. She wasn't sure she'd give up being tied to her life and connected to the people around her. At least that was what Korra assumed letting go of one's earthly tether meant. She wondered if someday she would be brave enough to sit down and ask him what the hell all of that meant. It wasn't like she didn't see Zaheer in the Spirit World. He always winked away at the sight of her—a relief and terrifying disappointment in one.

This time of morning, Tenzin would be leading his airbenders in practice. If he was particularly busy, he would be in his office, dealing with the mounds of paperwork that included donations, requests for help, and whatever else the new Air Nation needed. (Korra had a vague thought about if they were taxed as a business and by whom.) These two places didn't reveal Tenzin, and she realized she'd misjudged the time. She'd thought it was still too early to find Tenzin leading a fasting meditation through the midday mealtime.

Korra landed just outside the cluster of adults who sat in silence, breathing deeply. She didn't have to look to know who the fidgeters would be; she tended to have sympathy for men and women like Ryu who would rather be eating a good meal right now.

Maybe it was cheating to sit down and fall into meditation with the fasters. Her breakfast had been light, but she'd eaten it later in the morning. Her belly was content with it, even if her tongue suggested a salty or sour meal would be welcome. With a twitch of a smile, Korra focused on her next meal for her meditations. It was more a daydream, but she liked the irony (or rebellion perhaps) of thinking about food during a fasting meditation.

Korra would never have the slender, graceful frame of an airbender, in part because she avoided their usual fasting practices. Their diet was light in meat and fats—if deficient altogether—which made them lean. Not all of the new airbenders spurned meat though. Liquid fasts or total fasts were common, which made meditation that much harder for her. Airbending meditations tended to trend towards the ease of divorcing the mind and spirit from the body that is at odds with oneself. Korra meditated more easily without distractions of a grumbling stomach or headache or painful backside.

As she sat, her twitches of preoccupation faded away. Her life would continue on even if she didn't talk with Tenzin right then. She had time to prepare for her trip home. Now, her mind and body could relax together.

That state of ease snapped away with a clap of Tenzin's hands sometime later. He said, "Everyone, please be back here in time for our evening meditations."

His eyes focused on her—blue in the sea of red—and he walked through his dispersing students with a smile. She'd missed him when she dropped off her few belongings the night before, so a hug was called for. She sighed into his shoulder. Korra wasn't sure if he'd heard about her actions in the Reeducation Camp, but at least he held her as close as usual.

"Let's talk," he said without a smile, and she realized he did know. Tenzin didn't speak again until they were seated on floor cushions in his office. He placed his hands on his thighs and contemplated the floor.

She asked, "Are you angry?"

"Disappointed," he said at last. Then he shook his head and put his hand on her shoulder. "The important thing is that you're okay."

If he had been there, he wouldn't have the luxury of a black and white lens. "They were evil, Tenzin."

Tenzin tugged on his beard, for all the world looking like he didn't want to have this discussion. "I was told you had that man on his knees in surrender when you killed him." He hesitated and did not go on, but his silence rang with his unvoiced words: That is murder.

That was a sharp twist of the knife. She looked away from his gentle expression. "They flayed a man alive, Tenzin. Crucified others. Raped women. Made prisoners fight each other for food. They butchered them, literally."

"They would have been hanged the next day under the legal jurisdiction of the United Republic Army." Tenzin caught her hands uncharacteristically and held her in a firm grip. "I know you want me to say you were right, but I can't, Korra. But I wasn't there, and I didn't see what you saw. I don't know what choice I would have made in your place because it was a hard one—"

"I've killed before," she said, angry at his audacity. He'd forced her into a defensiveness that was difficult to ignore. The thought of that woman, Sun, saying that they'd eaten her children—Korra smelled the stench of death and fear, and she pulled hard against Tenzin's grip on her hands.

"Korra," Tenzin said in a quiet tone. His touch was soft now. "Korra, you're safe now."

Her voice was thick with tears. "They never will be. They'll never feel safe, not after what they went through. Kind of a shitty situation when the ones that died probably were better off."

Tenzin sank back. "Do you want to talk about what happened from the start? Tell me everything to reflect on it and let it go."

That was the last thing she wanted. "I'm going home."

His eyes flickered up in shock. "Korra, the Earth Kingdom is still so unstable—"

"I'm not the master of fixing the world, Tenzin!" She wanted to throw it in his face how he'd left her out of the discussion on how to react to Kuvira, having less respect for her than for Wu. And now Tenzin apparently wanted her to oversee every aspect of the new appointments for the Earth Kingdom. Once again, she felt the push-pull of "worldly needs" and wanted to be a little selfish for her own sake.

She was taking that frustration and anger out on him, and she knew it. Korra softened her tone. "I've been the Avatar so long that I feel like I have no idea who I am. I have to find out. I'm a stranger to myself, Tenzin."

Something about what she'd said made him start and lean back. Tenzin didn't even reach for his beard. He nodded. "Then do what you have to, Korra. I support you. I want you to be happy." He held open his arms, and she had to fight tears as she leaned forward into his hug.

Korra wasn't sure why she was surprised to see Asami at the communal table for breakfast the following morning. She was speaking to an acolyte on her left, which gave Korra a moment to take her in. Asami was wearing slacks and a vest over a crisp white shirt; it only highlighted how tall and slender she was. This time, her hair was drawn back, displaying the pale length of her throat, a place that Korra's eyes lingered.

She smiled when Asami turned to her. "Is that seat taken?"

Asami patted the cushion to her right. "It's for you."

Their talk was light, and for much of breakfast, they simply listened to the quiet conversation that surrounded them. Korra was achingly happy, though some of that ache was in preparation for her departure. Leaving her friends—especially Asami, especially with this shaky newness between them—was going to be hard, but she anticipated returning home too much to regret it.

She took a cup of tea with her as they wandered around the island's grounds. Asami's boots produced a crisp noise against the wooden walkways while Korra's boots were a soft shuffle. Their feet struck at separate times, though they kept pace with each other without trying.

"Promise me you'll write regularly."

Korra started as if she'd been deep in meditation. That hadn't been a light request. It was as close to a demand as Korra had ever heard from Asami. She stopped walking, set her tea cup on the railing, and held out her hand. Asami seemed surprised as she took Korra's hand.

Korra met her eyes and said, "I promise."

Asami looked into her eyes, and her smile was only part happiness.

Standing at the ship's railing while watching Republic City shrink in the distance, Korra decided that was the parting she wanted to remember. She didn't want to remember the desperate embrace they shared on the docks, Asami's whispered 'goodbye', or the tears that rose to Asami's eyes. Instead, she'd remember their quiet intimacy of clasped hands and that sober stare and smile.

Chapter Text

It was disconcerting to leave the warmth of Republic City and arrive to the wintery cold of the South Pole. Heatbending was an easy barrier against the cold, but Korra reveled in the ice and chill. She definitely made the ship workers—who did everything they could to make her stay 'luxurious'—question her sanity by spending more time on the cold, wet deck than in the warm, rich dining hall of the large steamer.

If she had had the choice, she would have chosen a small sailboat, but Naga required something bigger. She hadn't thought about needing a ticket until Asami had handed her one with a teasing smile. Bolin and Mako had laughed at her lack of foresight. Of course Asami would have booked the luxury suite, which was more room than even Naga needed and came with more choices than were feasible. They'd asked her to fill out a menu the first night for the following day's meals, and there was more alcohol in the room than ten sailors could drink in a month.

Thankfully the trip didn't take more than two days, and Korra spent most of the last one waiting at the railing, watching the ship slowly navigate the docks of Harbor City.

She wanted to leap into the ocean as soon as she caught sight of the shores of Harbor City, but Naga was content to lie on deck. It was in these moments of jittery impatience that she attempted meditation. Waterbending to the shore would save her maybe five minutes of travel time; it was just something to do, a way to get rid of her nervous energies by action. Korra took deep breaths and pushed her impatience away, taking these few extra minutes to study Harbor City and take in her surroundings: the smell of salt on the freezing air, the shouts of the sailors, the faint haze of smoke that seemed to mark the edges of the city in front of them.

She was almost disappointed when they docked, though the sight of her parents spurred her into a quicker pace. She flung her arms around her father, who engulfed her in a warm, hard hug. She always felt like a little girl in his arms and the opposite in her mother's. She was taller and broader than her mother now, and that made her feel like she ought to be the one protecting her mother, not the other way around.

"It's so good to have you home, sweetie."

"I'm so glad to be back." Glad…or relieved. Korra hadn't realized she was carrying so much stress until it melted away in the presence of her parents. There were no demands here, no one to save, no solutions that she had to provide. Hopefully no reminders of that last battle.

"Have you eaten?"

"Not yet."

Tonraq smiled at her gently and put a cool mitten around the back of her neck. "Then let's get a move on. A warm belly and a warm bed are waiting."

Korra expected her old bedroom to carry memories of immobility and helplessness, but it was simply her room: familiar and comfortable. She set her bag down in the corner, and Naga circled the braided rug before settling down with a sigh.

The desk was familiar with memories of reading the letters that dwindled as her sojourn to the south turned into self-exile. She'd written rarely, and the hardest letter to send had been to Asami.

Now she needed to write another, the first of many frequent letters. Korra pulled out her pen from her bag and withdrew it from its velvet case. There was fresh paper on her desk, and she rolled her pen between her fingertips as she considered what to say. The letter might be more important than the words she wrote.

Dear Asami,

I promised I would write, and I meant it.

Korra tapped her pen against the corner of the paper. "Defensive, much?" she asked herself.

It's cool here; a blizzard blew through a week ago to warm things up, but the ice and snow have settled again into the cold of winter. It will be spring soon, but the weather doesn't act like it.

After rereading what she'd written, Korra shook her head at herself and blew a raspberry into the silence of the room. Naga's ears perked at the noise, but she didn't lift her head.

And I'm writing like Mako. Sorry. I don't have much to say, but I'll update you when there's more news.

"Coward," Korra said to herself with a faint laugh. She put her forehead in her palm and thought about what had truly driven her here.

That's not true. I do want to say that I'm so glad we all made it out of that battle alive. I would never have made it without all of my friends, but your support especially has meant more than you know, Asami.

I know it seems like I just got back to Republic City only to turn around and leave again. I thought after Kuvira was taken care of and the city was starting to be rebuilt that things inside me would settle out, that I'd feel whole again, but I'm still battling this dark feeling inside me. I feel like there's a hole in my spirit. The things I saw at that reeducation camp bother me a lot, but there's something else eating at me.

I grew up in the South Pole, but I never lived in it. All I remember from my childhood is being locked up and watched by the White Lotus. They were always there, always following me. I was allowed one day out of the compound per month, and I spent that day with my parents, in their home. They visited me once a week. I never hunted seal, sat on a whaling kayak, fished up squid on the bay, or carved a whale-bone comb. I never went through a ceremony of adulthood. I have no friends, no ties to the South aside from my parents. I think that's part of the reason I'm still struggling. I don't know who I am other than the avatar, but there has to be more to being me, right? I need to find myself—my place in the world—here, even if I know that Republic City is my future.

I hope you can understand why I had to come back.

Your friend,

She stared at her salutation with her pen hovering over it. 'Friend' was too casual to characterize her feelings, but she couldn't just say... Well, she wasn't really sure. And the letter itself…

It was too much, she thought. It was just too heavy. She had wanted to reassure Asami that everything would be okay, that she was coming back, but instead she spilled her guts. She didn't want to worry Asami, but Asami also deserved the entire truth. Korra took a deep breath, firmed in her decision, and melted blue wax onto the folded letter to seal it. The letter was in the hands of a courier by the time Korra sat down for dinner.

At the table, Tonraq reached out to take her hand and give it a squeeze. His smile was small but proud. "It's good to have you home, Korra."

"I'm glad to be back. I don't know how long I can stay, but I was wondering if I can come with you when you go out and visit the tribes. I know I'm not exactly popular here—"

"Why do you think that?" Senna asked with quiet concern.

"After I sided with Unalaq…"

Tonraq lifted his chin. "You were just trying to protect the peace. No one blames you for that, Korra."

Korra wasn't so sure. "Either way, I'd like to be more involved."

Tonraq and Senna exchanged glances. They both smiled. Senna said, "I'm going to visit our old tribe in two days. Would you like to come with me?"

"Yeah, I'd like that." Korra paused and set down her utensils. "I'm sorry…for lying about where I went. When I left, I really was going to Republic City. But then everything just caught up with me. I couldn't go back."

The shadow chased her across the globe, and she still had twitches of fear that it was lingering over her shoulder. Those fears had resurfaced after her nightmare at the reeducation camp. Korra still wasn't sure how to explain its presence in the past, but she desperately hoped it wouldn't return in the future.

"We're just happy you're safe, honey."

They had already talked about where Korra had been and what she'd seen and done. Some of the truth of her journey around the world she hadn't shared with anyone and probably never would. Her parents knew the important parts—the happier, lighter memories and experiences.

After dinner, Korra wandered through the palace, curious about the never-ending corridors and polished wood—warmed beneath by hot water pipes—that was a complete luxury in the south. This place was so different than the little hut her parents had lived in when she was a child and the stark neutral austerity of the compound she'd lived in for most of her life.

After dinner, she found herself outside of her father's office. Warm lamplight shone through the cracked door, and she could sense his presence—by bending and by knowledge of his spiritual energies—inside the room. Korra gently pressed the door open.

"Can I talk to you, Dad?"

Tonraq lifted his eyes from the document in his hand and sent it down on the desk. "Sure, sweetheart."

She sat down across from his desk and faced him. It took a few tries to ask her question. She wasn't sure of her own phrasing: what do you do to prevent corruption? How do you trust yourself? Can you help me trust myself? She ended up asking, "How do you do it?"

He raised his eyebrows.

"How do you keep yourself from going too far?"

"Far how?"

Korra was frustrated that he didn't understand her meaning and gestured around the room. "With this Chieftain thing."

Tonraq sighed through his nose, his brows creasing as he frowned. "What—" He shook his head and said, "I'm guided by the Council of Elders for one. But, Korra, my station is less running things than implementing them."

He motioned for her to cross the desk and look at some paperwork in his hand. "Say, a tribe overhunts or hunts outside of the international trade season. There's a whole group of people in charge of deciding the consequences. I meet with the Council of Elders about the issue—in person or by letters—and we come to an agreement on how to proceed. Do we pay the fine for the tribe? Do we add our own fine on top of the international one? Do we restrict the tribe's hunting even more?

"Once we come to a decision, it's up to me to decide if I want to go to the tribe for a personal communication, to hear their side and see if they understand their wrong-doings. Minor things I'll send others." He smiled. "Your mother goes out for me sometimes, and every tribe on this continent knows she speaks with my authority."

"But if it were to come to war, you would make all the decisions."

His mouth tightened. "Officially, but I never make decisions without speaking to the council first. I don't take for granted that I wasn't born here, Korra. And I saw my father make rash decisions without anyone to check his power. Some people don't think I belong here and that I'm the last person who should be chief, and I consider what they have to say. I try to prove them wrong every day."

"If you did end up going too far, how would you know?"

"Sweetheart, I don't know how to answer that." He sensed her disappointment and sighed again. "I've surrounded myself with people I trust to tell me if I go too far. And I trust myself to listen to them. Are you worried about yourself, Korra?"

"Kuvira…" Korra glanced away. "She did a lot of horrible things for what she thought was good. We're a lot alike. And I…" She opened her hands, studying her wide palms and strong fingers. Her father had called her hands those of a swimmer when she was little. "I hold a lot of power."

"You're afraid of it, which is the difference."

"I wasn't before."

"You weren't this strong before." Tonraq tapped his fingertips on the table. "You've grown into it here." He tapped his head. "And here." His fingers drummed on his chest over his heart. "I trust you, Korra. And not because of the White Lotus or Tenzin. I trust you for all that you've learned for yourself. You're not like her, and you never will be."

"Just promise me you'll be one of those people to tell me if I go too far."

Tonraq's smile was gentle. "I promise."

Then she blurted, "I killed men."

Tonraq leaned back in his chair slowly, his face shifting in worry. "I had heard. Are you alright? I wasn't sure if you wanted to talk about it."

"I don't regret killing them." That scared Korra. "I don't feel bad that I did. Shouldn't I regret it?"

"You don't have to be a pacifist to be a good person, Korra."

She shook her head. "When I killed Unalaq, it was because I had to. He was fused with Vaatu. These men… I didn't have to. I could have taken them prisoner. I chose to kill them. Flesher was on his knees in front of me, and I killed him."

"It was a battle, Korra. He could have been a half second away from hurting you again. A man on his knees is just a dangerous as one standing. You said you don't regret it. If you feel you did the right thing, then you did."

"Kuvira thought she was doing the right thing!"

"No, she thought she was allowing one evil for the greater good," Tonraq said, mirroring Korra's frustration.

"Isn't that what I did?"

He slumped in his seat and heaved a long sigh through his nose. "Killing isn't inherently evil, Korra. I know you were raised to believe that Avatar Aang was the shining example of an Avatar, but that isn't always the way the world works. You were put in a situation—a battle—that required you to make a decision quickly about the fates of evil men. You made that decision. You don't regret it. So trust yourself."

"But how do I know?"

Tonraq's smile was tight. "Trust me, Korra. Trust your friends in Republic City."

"And Tenzin?"

"What did he say?"

"He was disappointed."

"Tenzin is a pacifist, raised by Air Nation principles. You'll always hear dissenting opinions. Does he still support you as the Avatar?"

"Of course."

"Then there's your answer."

Korra's chest lightened slightly. She looked at her father as she considered his words. Tonraq studied her too. "You have to forgive yourself. For whatever it is that you feel you've done wrong."

"How do I stop focusing on my screw ups?"

"Time. Time and learning from your mistakes."

"I wish I had someone who could tell me what the fuck I'm supposed to be doing."

Though he started at her curse, understanding swept Tonraq's face. "You regret losing your past lives."

"Yeah. Among other things." With that admittance, Korra's eyes burned with tears.

Tonraq stood up abruptly. Gone was the chieftain; he was just her father as he opened his arms. "Come here."

She stepped into his arms for the second time that day and let her frustrated tears come. When she stopped crying, she felt only marginally better.

"Let's have a drink," Tonraq said. He had a heavy arm draped around her shoulder, and he steered them down the hall. Korra went with him, hoping a touch of alcohol would help her sleep well that night.

She and her mother left the following morning. Their destination was only twenty miles away from Harbor City, so Korra and Senna both rode Naga at a leisurely pace. Naga was too eager to quicken her pace, and Korra had to keep her settled and steady. She hadn't been exercised much in the last few years; too much now could put her out of commission for a few days, especially when she was carrying two adults.

Korra rode with her hood up; the breeze was gentle but incredibly cold. Each breath against the ruff around her hood reflected warmth back at her. She'd missed this cold during her months wandering the warmer climates. As little as she connected with her own people, this was the climate she'd grown up in. Snow and ice and blue sky were as familiar to her as her own body. She was as relaxed as she'd been in a long time, excepting Asami's apartment perhaps. It was funny how that place had turned into a safe haven in the last half year.

"How are you, honey?" Senna asked over the quiet wind.

"Good. I feel good." And she did that day, better than she'd felt in quite a while. Out here on the snow and ice, she felt free. "But I feel like I'm ready to finally learn about my home."

Senna made no response other than a soft hum of agreement.

Eventually, Korra admitted, "Mom, part of the reason I came back is because I feel like this may be my last chance to finally connect with my people."

Senna tightened her arms around Korra's waist. "You're a part of the Southern Tribe, Korra. But anything your father and I can do to make you feel more at home, we will. And I'm here to tell you, it will never be too late to learn. Your father wasn't much older than you are when he came here, and he's more south than north now."

Naga's head turned as she plodded across the frozen snow. She turned her nose up and her chest expanded in gentle breaths. Korra wondered what she smelled on the cold wind. Tiny flecks of frozen snow caught in Naga's fur and shone like glitter in the bright sun. They had maybe two or three more hours of sunlight.

"So, is this just a visit?"

"We'll be doing some waterbending and healing lessons. They have a few young waterbenders, but I was their most skilled one before your father was elected Chief."

She could do waterbending and healing. Teaching, well, Korra wasn't so sure about that part. She'd never had to before. It seemed like a lesson in frustration.

They arrived just as the sun was beginning to shine bright. The short days were starting to lengthen as this part of the world shifted into spring. Republic City mornings would be marked with frost now as winter crept in.

A variety of men and women from the small tribe greeted them. Korra recognized a few familiar faces, though not enough to give those faces names. Senna introduced her to several of her peers—men and women who seemed far older and in far more mature familial situations than Korra. Everywhere she looked, there were youngsters attached to women she shared a birth year with.

"Korra, do you remember Tani? She's about your age."

Korra didn't. She'd given up quickly on making a friend with one of the kids in her old village. She'd been both desperately thirsty for friendship and defensively shy, which had been a bad combination. Korra held out her mitten-covered hand and took Tani's arm in a familiar shake. They clashed forearms and smiled at each other.

Tani had a wide, pretty face. With her gap-toothed good-natured grin, she was a striking woman. "Welcome, Avatar Korra."

"I'm only Korra here."

A child—perhaps four or five—ran over and took hold of Tani's parka belt. "Can I go with Papa today?"

Tani glanced down at the child as if she were giving the question a lot of thought. "You have lessons."


"Did you ask your papa?"

"He said, 'Ask your mother'."

"I suppose you could miss a day. You need to do exactly what your papa tells you."

"Yes!" The boy gave a shuffle and a whoop, turning back to leave.

Korra watched the exchange; she felt thirsty for it. She was envious of this woman with her child though she couldn't imagine being able to take care of another human being. Except, she… She definitely wanted to.

Tani sighed, watching her son disappear behind a line of homes. "He's not a waterbender; takes after his papa in that." Her smile indicated she didn't mind at all. "He's just like his papa in almost everything actually." She patted her stomach. "Maybe the next will be a little waterbender girl."

"Are you…?"

Tani took Korra's hand and slipped it between the warm folds of her parka. Korra had just removed her mitten, but there were still several layers between her skin and Tani's. Yet, she felt the blood flow, the body move… Too young to tell at this point. Too young to be sure it would grow into itself.


Tani smiled softly and gave Korra's hand a squeeze. "Thank you, Korra."

The tribe ate lunch in the squat communal tent. Their meal consisted of two fresh seals. The organs and meat were divvied up; Korra ate a bite of liver and kidney and chewed on a tender portion of the back flesh—blubber and meat in one strip. After the bodies were stripped, berries were produced and passed around. Only a few months before, Korra would have joined the elder members of the tribe in using the berries to swipe blood from the body cavity for a burst of brassy flavor on sweetness, but a crystallized memory of the butchered ribcage of a man shied her away.

Despite that sour thought, it was a good meal, one of the best she'd had in a long time.

When they were done, the bones and remaining flesh were collected to boil down for a seal stock. Some choice bones would be cured and hardened for tools—mostly handles when steel was so easily to purchase from Harbor City.

Then it was out to the ice for a waterbending lesson. Several tribe members drove dog sleds, though most walked. At least one man owned a snow mobile, but he grinned and winked at Korra when she saw it. "I'll be getting disapproving looks all afternoon and complaints from the grannies about the stink and the loud. Best leave it for trips to the port."

"What company makes those?"

"Cabbage Corp. Still waiting for Satomobile to make a better one."

Korra smiled, thinking she should ask Asami and start that creative process along. She wasn't sure if she felt pride or longing knowing that these people so far away from Republic City knew about Future Industries.

The man continued, "The grannies would still complain though. It does scare some wildlife off, but most hunting is about being patient so…" He shrugged.

"Is there always a fight between modern and tradition?"

"Out here, yeah. In Harbor City, probably not so much. They like their silly parkas and their frozen meat bought from shops instead of hunting. How do you feel about it, Avatar Korra?"

"I'm still figuring that out, I think."

His side-long glance was part shy, part daring. "Did you really compete in probending?"

"A few years ago." She smiled to remember. "It was a lot of fun."

"Any tips?"

"What, you thinking about joining a league?"

"Out here?" He laughed. "Last I heard, Republic City's cancelled its probending until a new arena is built."

Korra hadn't realized. She'd been so caught up in world events that something like the status of probending escaped her notice. "Huh, too bad. They'll probably build that up pretty quickly given how popular it was."

"You should tell them to get on that."

"No exactly on my Avatar-duty list, but sure."

They continued to chat about the teams, play styles, and training methods until the tribe gathered in the designated waterbending area on the bay. Korra wandered next to her mother as groups assembled for the joint lesson. "Why out here and not back at the village? There's water everywhere."

"Shorefast," Senna said quietly. "There's flowing water beneath the ice, giving us two layers to practice on. This is the most important place to be sharp as a waterbender."

She'd overlooked that. The ice was several yards deep, but she could feel the sharp flow of water beneath it. If they weren't careful, they could weaken the ice enough to crack it, not that her mother would allow that to happen.

Korra realized she was a little nervous about serving as an instructor, but her mother mainly used her to demonstrate different waterbending techniques. Korra was tempted to add flare, but this was a practical lesson. She did add a little extra burst of waterbending to the end of one form to comic effect, sparking laughter among those paying attention.

These forms were all elementary, all practical, and all for purposes that had nothing to do with fighting. It was difficult in one sense; Korra had so much power that she nearly lost control with the finer movements. It was hard to not turn a gentle, small flicker into a massive wave.

Apparently a kid from the tribe felt the same way. His movements became increasingly aggressive, and Korra was one moment away from telling him to cool it. Just as she opened her mouth, he accidentally tore open a crack in the ice beneath him. He disappeared beneath the ice without more than a crackle and a gasp. Korra had been watching for that very mistake and took three strides and leapt in after him.

Water rushed into the gaps in her parka, and the cold nearly made her take a breath. She was stunned by the power of the riptide beneath the ice but let it take her away. The boy was barely discernible in the faint blue light that came through the ice and snow above them. Another time, she might see where the water took her in this strange, harsh environment, but the boy needed out now. The water stung her eyes—from the cold and the salt, but she saw him easily enough. In his panic, he wasn't doing more than grabbing at the ice as the riptide sucked him away. Korra gave a quick waterbending push and jetted herself to him.

His hands seized her, and she wrapped an arm around his waist. A strong push downward gave her room. She hoped no one was immediately above them as she spun them in a circle and melted the ice above. A harsh burst, and they were carried out of the water and into the cold air.

The boy was thrashing in the attempt to get air into his water-filled lungs. Korra put a hand on his chest and gently pulled. He gagged as she helped ease water from his lungs, but his next breath was full before he broke into a harsh coughing fit.

Korra worked on her breathing to expand the heat from her center around them. She swept the water from the boy's clothes as she enveloped them in warmth. Instinctively, she tugged the boy against her breast and breathed deep even breaths against his chest until he was breathing in time with her. His lungs wouldn't like the salt water he'd breathed. She soothed them with simplistic waterbending healing and reminded herself to tell someone he'd need a few more sessions. Even with her healing, he'd probably get pneumonia.

The boy sagged against her and looked up into her eyes. He wasn't shivering, but in this case, Korra knew it wasn't because of hypothermia. His waterproof parka had protected him well from the freezing water.

"Pretty scary, huh?" Korra said to him.

He gave her a weak nod, his gaze still direct.

"I did that a few times when I was first learning. Nearly drowned. Don't break the ice, okay? Just work with the stuff on top of the drift."

He nodded again, aware enough to look embarrassed.

With her help, he stood and shakily walked to his parents; he cast a few looks over his shoulder at her. For their part, his parents seemed to just realize what was going on. His mother touched his hair and turned a shocked look from her son to Korra.

Korra glanced over her shoulder at the group of waterbenders and watched her mother freeze the hole in the ice she had made. She had probably been on Korra's heels, but the fewer people under the ice, the better. Senna jogged over. She put a hand on Korra's shoulder, looking shocked herself. "Are you okay?"

Korra nodded. She stood and stretched, easing any tension that set in her back and shoulders from the quickness of that situation. Now she understood why most deaths on the ice were disappearances. The riptide had pulled them nearly fifty yards away in a matter of seconds. As a kid, that danger hadn't seemed real, even as she'd been puking up sea water with Katara's arms around her shoulders. Come to think of it, Katara had jumped in after her once.

"Thank you, Avatar Korra." The boy's mother took her hand between her own and squeezed, bowing to touch her forehead to the back of Korra's hand. Korra returned her squeeze awkwardly and nodded to the boy's father. "I'm glad I saw him go under. He'll need a few more healing sessions for his lungs. Sucked up some salt water."

She flicked her arms to strip the water from her hair—which had frozen—and then from her own parka. It was good she'd chosen her thicker one for this trip.

"That's enough excitement for today," Senna said dryly.

"Yes," said the old chieftain. "A hot meal sounds like a good end to a hard-working day."

They started their walk back. Korra glanced around for the man she'd spoken to earlier, but she was surprised to find herself surrounded by women her age. They wanted to know about Republic City, her friends there, what she'd seen in her travels around the world, and all the places she'd been.

"All over," Korra responded to that last question. "I saw deserts, swamps, forests, volcanoes, rice steppes, wheat fields, frozen tundra."


"It is," she responded. "I'm lucky to have seen and done so much."

Funny that she'd never considered all the stories she had to tell. Those six months traveling as a stranger even to herself were not happy times, but she had experienced more in that time than in the rest of her life combined. It was enough to carry on conversation through the rest of the day with these near strangers.

Through a lazy supper in the warm hut, Korra soaked up her social interactions. She'd been supplied with a carving knife and bone, and she worked with the faint grain in the bone. A fat walrus began to emerge. It was a rough copy, and her knife was dulling, but the process was fun. Maybe she could polish it up, paint it, and send it to Asami as a cute little gift.

"Avatar Korra."

She glanced up at the woman beside her. It took a moment to remember her: she was the mother of the boy that had gone under the ice that afternoon. She carried a pretty crafted water bladder in her hands, and she held the bladder out to Korra. As if sensing Korra's decline already forming, she quickly said, "Please. You saved his life. No waterbender should be without water. Use this to keep yourself safe in all places, wet or dry."

This, Korra abruptly realized, wasn't something she could brush off or refuse. She took the gift from the woman and bowed from her seat. "Thank you. It's beautiful."

She fastened it across her chest like her father wore his. The empty bladder sat comfortably beneath her left arm. Earlier that evening, a young girl had happily tied Korra's hair in beaded braids for practice. She realized that she must look like one of them in this moment: beaded braids in her hair, half of a heavy leather parka on, seated on the floor with a water bladder beneath her shoulder, and carving bone in front of her. It was an uncomfortably coveted feeling.

Korra met her mother's eyes across the igloo; Senna gave her a soft, proud smile. It felt odd—unfamiliar but not unpleasant. Maybe a little awkward. The question rang through her: Is this who I am?

It was probably not a great idea to meditate into the spirit world feeling as at odds with herself as she did, but Korra went anyway. Her surroundings dimmed faintly with her entrance, though they were not as dark as they had been in the past, especially after her first trip after the reeducation camp battle.

She wandered slowly through the fields and forests, participating in the random conversations spirits would strike with her. It was either a quiet day or a quiet place that she'd fallen into. Many spirits seemed on the verge of slumber, and a few didn't stir as she wandered through their lands.

It came as little surprise to see Zaheer during her journey. The sight of him jolted her with fear and anticipation; he shifted, saw her, and winked away. There was relief and disappointment in one inside her.

She knew this man had so much to teach her, but she also knew he had many ways to hurt her. He was charismatic to a fault, and she wasn't immune to that tug. Korra also hadn't forgotten how he'd helped her before the battle with Kuvira. Maybe she felt like she owed him something.

Korra reached for her human body. The ache in her backside and the tingles running along her feet and hands drew her firmly into her physical self. She opened her eyes and sighed. She realized for the first time how nervous she'd been in the spirit world. She needed to figure out how to be more positive there. It had been a little ominous the last few times she'd been.

"Korra?" Senna sat up from the bedroll next to the coal pit.

"How long was I gone?" She stretched and began to strip off her pants.

"For a few hours. Come sleep."

Korra pushed into the bedroll beside her mother, taking comfort in her familiar smell. She closed her eyes and slept, dreaming of dark, ominous places.

Chapter Text

A week after Korra's hasty exit from Republic City, Asami's doorman handed her a letter stamped with the Southern Water Tribe symbol. Her heart skipped a beat, and it took all her willpower to wait to open it until she was in the privacy of her apartment. She'd eaten a quick dinner at work, and her stomach churned with her nervousness as she sat down on her couch and cracked the letter open.

I know it seems like I just got back to Republic City only to turn around and leave again. I thought after Kuvira was taken care of and the city was starting to be rebuilt that things inside me would settle out, that I'd feel whole again, but I'm still battling this dark feeling inside me. I feel like there's a hole in my spirit. The things I saw at that reeducation camp bother me a lot, but there's something else eating at me.

"Damn it, Korra," she whispered. She took a heavy swallow of her gin and tonic and winced at the burn of alcohol. The ice hurt her teeth. She mixed herself a second drink.

She returned to her couch and picked up Korra's letter again. The characters on that page blurred in front of her burning eyes.

Abruptly, she stood up and slammed her glass down. "Why didn't you ask me for help?!"

Still depressed, still unhappy, and Korra had hidden most of it until this letter. She opened up in a letter, when Asami couldn't reach out to hug her, couldn't tell her in the immediate moment how incredible she was and why she should never feel badly about herself.

"Damn it." Asami put her hand over her eyes, and a choked sob escaped her clenched teeth. She wanted Korra to be better. She wanted to be better herself. They could be better together, and she had been so looking forward to that opportunity to finally explore what they could be to and with each other. Then Korra left.

Now Asami felt like she had a hole in her spirit too.

"I'm pathetic," she said, laughing and crying at once at herself. She felt strained to cracking from overworking and missing Korra and quiet anxiety about her company. Even after winning the bid on building the new district for Republic City, old fears about the legacy of Future Industries sat in a ball in her throat. After a long day, too much gin, and this letter, she was ready to sit down and cry.

It was becoming increasingly clear to her that she'd never been this in love with anyone. She hoped she never felt like this again, for all the pain it was bringing her. Then she laughed at her own hyperbole. She could never regret Korra.

She set the letter down and walked into her bathroom to wash her face and change out of her clothes. It was calming, and by the time she walked back out to the living room, she felt composed enough to finish the letter. The last few sentences lit a spark of hope within her: I need to find myself—my place in the world—here, even if I know that Republic City is my future.

That sentence alone raised the tone of her penned response. Asami had finished two drinks by the time she signed her response. She blamed the alcohol on her ending salutation being 'With love'.

Asami hiked her bag higher on her shoulders. She hesitated, on the brink of entering the portal, but continued in. She was nervous more than fearful; she was the least spiritual person she knew, and yet she was walking into the spirit portal without a guide. She hoped there was some credence to Korra's statement that her desires could manifest certain events in this plane. She needed a sympathetic ear.

What had been a bright, beautiful flower field with Korra had an oddly ominous cast now. Asami glanced back and forth, one moment from walking back through the spirit portal to the familiar. Then the air beside her rippled, and Iroh slipped into step with her. She relaxed immediately. The sun seemed to creep out, and the flowers brightened perceptively. How odd.

"Hello, Asami. What brings you to this side of the spirit portal?"

"Would you care to play a game of Pai Sho, General Iroh?"

Iroh's smile was soft, and his gesture materialized a table complete with a tea set. "I have not been called 'General' in quite a while, Miss Sato."

Staring at the table, Asami asked, "How do you do that?" Korra had said she could do the same thing, and Asami pondered how it was to simply will something into existence.

He raised his bushy eyebrows. "I've been here a long, long time. This world can be manipulated, if care is taken. Come, sit and drink tea with me."

It was perhaps not the most prudent way to spend her first day off in a week and a half, but Asami needed this. Pai Sho required thought and strategy, but there was no stress in this game. It was very different than the politics and economics that her life was currently embroiled in.

Iroh's style of play for Pai Sho was much different than her father's, something that sent a shiver of sadness through Asami. Games with Hiroshi were short, at least in terms of traditional Pai Sho. He was aggressive and said the best defense was a strong offense. Iroh's moves were more about setup than execution, and their game took over an hour. The level of attention required for that long was mentally exhausting. For his part, Iroh seemed interested in every move Asami made on the board. Finally, he laughed as their first game came to a close. "You play this like my niece."

It took her a moment to realize who he meant. When she did, she wasn't sure if she was being insulted. "Azula?"

"Many years after the war, we gained an odd sort of relationship. She was always decisive on the table, even if those steps led to her defeat."

As he spoke, he shifted his piece, and Asami knew she was beaten. What a clever setup; she hadn't seen it at all. Iroh smiled and rubbed his beard, and they cleared the board without making another move, both aware of the inevitable ending to the game.

"So, Asami, what is troubling you? As much as I would like to believe a beautiful young woman would seek me out for companionship alone, I am not so foolish as that."

Asami brushed her fingertip over the tile in front of her, ignoring the vague irritation his complement coaxed. "Korra's in the South Pole right now. She needs to be there, but I feel… I miss her so much. My father died just a few months ago, and now I feel so alone with her gone."

"I'm sure she would be happy for you to go to her."

"I can't," Asami said with some frustration. "I have a career here. We have several important projects running right now, not to mention we're designing infrastructure to Republic City's new districts. And…she didn't ask me to come with her."

Iroh's smile was gentle; his apparent understanding made her uncomfortable. "I see. Sometimes we must be separated from the ones we love in circumstances much like yours. Be patient, trust in your feelings and Korra's feelings. She probably feels much like you right now. If your love is true, it will survive the separation."

Asami was shocked that he saw through her so quickly. "How did you know that I love her?"

His smile was slow. "This place reflects the emotions and energies of those within it. With you and Avatar Korra together, it was not difficult to discern."

"Do you think she cares about me too?"

Iroh's smile widened almost sadly. "It's funny how blind someone in love can be. Whatever Korra's feelings for you, they are very strong."

Asami didn't expect to feel the surge of hope she felt at his words. The sun broke sharply from behind clouds, and the flowers around them opened in high bloom. Iroh laughed gaily. "My," he only said. "Carry that feeling with you, Asami."

She certainly would try.

Despite her words to Iroh, with the partnership Future Industries held with a prominent construction company, there wasn't much left for Asami to do in terms of their large civil engineering project. Raiko had put the beltline on hold; it was a project they had received approval for prior to the Battle for Republic City. This project was out of her hands now; it was all down to delegation and overseeing construction of the new commercial district to replace downtown.

They were finishing up the housing project to give at least temporary living space to those families whose apartment complexes had been destroyed in the battle. Donations had come in from the Fire Nation and Water Tribes to facilitate supplementing families that had lost homes and businesses in Kuvira's path of destruction. Future Industries itself had taken a large hit—especially with the loss of the dock-side warehouse—but the new infrastructure contract was more profitable than she would have hoped so they would probably break even for the year. Asami had ended up taking a significant pay cut to prevents losing her employees, but she could afford it.

Asami still had high hopes for revitalizing their automobile production, but she was beginning to realize that if she personally didn't put her nose to the grindstone, those hopes would never become fruition. Future Industries only produced a few automobile units per year, catered entirely for the rich individuals of Republic City. It had been a compromise with her board: still produce Satomobiles but only produce them at high cost. She'd wanted to offer service for those Satomobiles on the road, but that had also been voted down.

She still kept a portfolio of her designs and ideas. It was where her true passion lay, but as of now, it was a personal project only. It was something that had been pushed to the wayside over and over again, and she'd made a pact to herself this time last year that she would design something for the company. A personal professional pact, as it were.

Maybe she was spurred by Korra's departure, but Asami latched onto that idea once more. What use was a goal if she didn't pursue it? The excuse was enough.

She felt energized with the thought of designing something she loved, something she could put a claim on all herself. Their two current Satomobile lines were tweaked from her father's original designs with an entirely Hiroshi-designed engine. She'd never put out a machine that was wholly hers—other than her personal car—and she wanted that egotistically. She wanted to see the people of Republic City driving a car she made inside and out.

So Asami sat at her office desk, a place that had been covered in civil engineering paperwork (budgets, schematics, communications with the Minister of Infrastructure, etc.), and slipped clean paper back on its surface. Her creative spirit shivered in anticipation of falling back to her true passion: automobiles.

As she sketched, her mind went back to her exchange with Korra on the night of her return. She'd been half in jest when she admitted to wanting to design a Future Industries snowmobile, but now her mind latched onto that idea. It was impractical, but she went where her spirit pushed her.


"Yes, Ms. Sato?" Her personal assistant appeared in the door that separated their offices.

"See if you can find old schematics of any snowmobile designs in our archives."

His eyebrow twitched, but he nodded in confirmation. "Of course."

After Asami concluded a series of meetings with her chief officers in the company, Lee stepped back into her office with lunch and a portfolio in hand. Thought it was late afternoon, Asami was surprised when the scent of food ignited her forgotten hunger. She reached out for the portfolio, but Lee set it on her desk for her and flipped halfway through the book. He nudged her lunch closer.

"The design was a four-stroke engine," he summarized. "It was too heavy because of that; each time the driver changed gears in the snow with the prototype, he stalled because of the momentum lost during the gear change."

Asami considered that, not surprised by the issue. She'd hoped using a four-stroke engine would be a way to create a superior design to Cabbage Corp's two-stroke snowmobile. She should have known someone else already tried the design.

She recognized the handwriting on the sheet. "My father worked on this?"

Lee nodded solemnly. "It was an early project, just after he established the motorcycle market. He cited the weight of a four-stroke engine being the biggest problem."

Asami doubted their engines were light enough now, twenty years later, to resolve that problem. Perhaps the real issue was the transmission system. Manual transmissions had been the mainstay of ground transportation since her father designed the Satomobile. There had to be another way; it was something she'd pondered on and off for years without any result.

"Thank you, Lee."

He nodded and turned to leave.

"Thank you for lunch too."

His smile softened as he closed her office door.

Asami considered how she wanted to move forward with this project. She spun her pencil over her knuckles habitually as she pondered the situation. She'd studied Cabbage Corp's snowmobile design briefly a few years ago and considered the improvements she would want to make with her design: low exhaust, quieter engine, cheaper to maintain, and a simple design. Cabbage Corp's snowmobile didn't deliver on any but the latter, and that was rooted entirely in the two-stroke engine. The special lubricant required for the engine alone cost a small fortune and had to be changed monthly.

Asami turned back to her father's portfolio, tracing his handwriting with her finger. She hadn't expected to miss him this much.

"I love you, Dad."

It derailed her creative process. She pushed the book and her papers out of the way and ate her lunch with her chair turned towards her office window. The edge of downtown was marked by both destruction and construction, and neither of those things made the car-heavy population happy right now, but beyond the city, the mountains were unchanged.

For the first time in weeks, Asami left work early. Her apartment was a mess, but she didn't care. She toed off her boots, walked back into her bedroom in her stockings, and pulled a box out of the recesses of her walk-in closet.

The prison had sent the bundle of her father's letters back to her after his death. She'd forgotten about them and probably wouldn't have given them another thought if they hadn't been sent back to her. In the months since the battle, she hadn't had the courage to open those letters. Asami considered the wax-sealed letters now and walked back into her living room with them in hand.

She set the letters on her kitchen counter, hesitated, and then dropped them onto her living room coffee table.

Asami tackled her dirty dishes by washing, drying, and putting them away. Then she started on the clothes and papers scattered across her living room floor. She ordered dinner to be delivered and ran herself a hot bath.

The bath wasn't a success, even with a tumbler of whiskey and ice in hand. She fidgeted, her thoughts going to those letters, then to all the work she'd left back at the office, and at last to her snowmobile issue. If she wanted a strong four-stroke engine, she needed a new transmission to prevent drag when the gears changed. It seemed simple, but it wouldn't be. Her father had said…

The letters were a center of gravity in the other room.

She only managed to soak in the bath for ten minutes before she got out and pulled on a robe. She made her bed, thinking of Korra, and tossed her dirty clothes from the floor into the empty dirty laundry basket. She picked up the scattered books on her nightstand and floor and organized them alphabetically.

She'd probably racked up an impressive library fine at this point.

When Asami walked back into the living room, the letters sat where she'd left them. Asami took a step to them when someone knocked on her apartment door.

Dinner, likely.

Asami managed three bites of her dinner before she threw her chopsticks down and got to her feet with a sigh. She sat down on the couch and picked up the bundle of her father's letters. What was one small hesitation after a day of procrastination? Finally she opened the oldest.

She spent most of that night reading his words. Some of the earlier letters were tinged with bitterness and anger, but the more she read, the more he only wrote of his regrets and his love for her. One of the most recent letters gave her pause.

Are you happy? I hope you've found someone special to share your life with. I regret not setting a better example for you. Work is important, but it isn't fulfilling. You should be thinking of settling down with someone at this time in your life and making a family. I knew no greater happiness than with you and your mother.

I deeply regret now how I ignored and discouraged your courageous decision to tell me about your sexual identity as a teenager. I overlooked how difficult it must have been to tell me the truth, that you believed you were gay. Whether you still identify the same way now or not, know that I support you now. I'm so sorry that I didn't then.

Amon tainted my thoughts on many subjects. It makes sense now, knowing he was from the Northern Water Tribe, that he would disapprove so much of homosexual couples. It was his influence that drove me to push you away from that identity and those relationships. Believe me when I say I only want you to be happy now. I don't care if that happiness is caused by a man or woman.

Asami's eyes filled with tears, and she set the letter down. Once again, she found herself swallowing a mouthful of liquor and standing in her kitchen, buried in both rage and relief.

Her father had called her fearful admission a 'girlish fantasy'. While she hadn't been in love with anyone in particular as a fourteen year old, she'd felt in herself that resonance, that knowledge, that she deviated from the norm. She respected and admired women in her life; she'd looked at girls her age not as rivals or just friends, but potential romantic partners.

Hiroshi had squashed those feelings, belittled her, and made her feel like a source of disgust. At that time, he had been everything to her. She took his words to heart and did her best to fulfill his wishes. The fact he'd been aligned with Amon for so long without her knowing…

She'd struggled for years to hide and then to reconcile to herself her attraction to women. And to think it was all because of Amon whispering in her father's ear.

Four years after Hiroshi nipped Asami's sexuality in the bud, Mako had been the closest she could get to caring for a boy romantically, but much of her attraction for him had only been at how she could rub her father's face in the fact he didn't approve of the particular boy she'd chosen. She had nearly dropped the relationship with Mako's eagerness to meet her father, but she'd grown to care for him. And then she'd needed someone to latch onto when her life crumbled, and Mako had been the closest, easiest crutch. He'd been safe.

And now…

Her father accepted her, along with her sexual identity. She put her hand flat on her kitchen counter. "I'm gay," she said aloud, shocked by words she hadn't spoken in nearly a decade.

Then: "I'm in love with Korra."

Asami cupped her mouth and laughed, aware the alcohol she'd just consumed had gone to her head quickly. She laughed again as her disjointed thoughts connected to a single thread: "I'm going to design that damn snowmobile."

Transmissions were a requirement of any vehicle: something must translate a driveshaft rotation of the engine to that of a wheel or propeller. Of course, an object that needed to accelerate needed to vary the ratio. Start a car off with the wheels at a high RPM, and the car would skid out; it could also never carry any kind of load. But wheels going at a low RPM would burn out an engine before reaching a speed fast enough to travel along the city's roads.

The manual transmission allowed the operator of the vehicle to change that ratio: lower revolutions per minute for the lower gears to accelerate, higher for faster speeds. At least, that was the very simple explanation.

What Asami was trying to figure out was how there could be a passive transmission system to automatically shift the ratio between the engine and wheels. She drank and sketched and pondered without getting anywhere.

Her father had considered it a pipe dream; she'd argued passionately for development in that area as a teenager with grand ideas. He'd been pragmatic: develop and improve what they already had. Why build from the ground-up? Now she wished she'd pushed a little harder.

It wasn't that people hadn't tried before. Cabbage Corp had come close to an automatic transmission system, but it never made it past the prototype stage. They still guarded the design, but nothing had come of it. If Cabbage Corp could get that close, surely Future Industries could find a way to create a working system.

She wanted a four-stroke engine for her snowmobile, but that heavy of a machine couldn't take a manual transmission. The two-stroke still had issues with drag, but it worked well enough with a good driver. So she needed figure out how to make a transmission that would allow the heavier, more powerful four-stroke engine.

Asami felt almost guilty for devoting all of her energies to this manual transmission problem. After falling asleep on her couch with her disjointed sketches spread out on the coffee table and waking up just before dawn with a hangover and a headache, she arrived at work on time and pondered at it some more instead of tending to tasks that she should have seen too. She was behind on her business communications and needed to go through the budget with her financial officers. Instead, she sketched designs.

Asami had no way to explain why this had become so important to her; she could barely make sense of it herself. Korra didn't even use snowmobiles. Maybe it was because this was a riddle in her mind; find the answer and finally get some sleep. With the freeing revelation that her father approved of her, Asami's creative mind seemed ready to stretch its wings with or without sleep the night before.

That evening, Asami strode back and forth across her living room as she pondered the problem. Her delivered dinner went cold on the table, but she couldn't tear herself away from this long enough to eat more than a few bites.

The four-stroke engine was the only way to go. She had to use it or she'd be stuck in the same rut as Cabbage Corp. She wanted to use it. The transmission became the problem then. She simply had to design a new transmission, something that had stumped the automotive industry for years. She'd been thinking circles around that issue all day.

Asami tapped her fingertips on her hips. She simplified her needs to one thought: an engine that could run at the best engine to driveshaft ratio all the times, without input from the driver.

It wasn't just for snowmobiles. There was a sharp learning curve for driving a car; it would be fantastic to offer the public a vehicle that had no requirement for changing gears. (This was why her father had thrown a massive party when he'd learned Cabbage Corp's automatic transmission was a failure; it might have ruined Future Industries.) Korra was a good example of someone who had little experience with operating machinery, and if her difficulties matched those of most drivers, it was a wonder anyone paid money for a vehicle they would have to learn how to operate.

But again, without manual gear shifting, there was the large problem of how to properly translate the RPM of the engine to the required torque of the driveshaft.

She closed her eyes and leaned back on the couch, taking a deep breath and releasing it. Once more to blow off her frustration. Her eyes caught on the small glass cabinet in the corner and the alcohol glasses within.

She stared at the cocktail glasses on the top shelf. Cones…

Asami sorted through the random junk on her coffee table and placed two mounted shafts next to each other, then put a different sized gear on each, interlocking their teeth. A large fixed gear on the engine block and a small gear on the driveshaft translated to faster wheel speed of the vehicle; this design was that of most aircraft and watercraft engines. She spun the engine gear, watching the simulated driveshaft spin much faster than the shaft in her hand.

She switched the gears; the opposite would result in lower speeds and more power. She spun the simulated engine shaft and watched the driveshaft gear barely move. This gear was necessary to begin acceleration or to tow heavy burdens.

The liquor glasses caught her eye again. Cones. Cones had varying diameter.

Asami stepped back, considered, hesitantly pushed her fingers between the gears and parted them. Her face flushed as her mind presented what in that singular moment she realized was the answer.

She'd been looking at it almost two-dimensionally. If she could create a gear with varying dimensions…

Asami stared and let her mind continue that thought. She was at the cusp of the solution, but she needed that titch over. She walked over to her liquor cabinet and pulled out two cone-like glasses and returned to the table with them.

Two cones. Two cones that rotated against each other, moved back and forth…

Or…a belt between them? A belt between two gears. Two gears that could change their size dynamically together. Small to large, large to small. A balanced system, but in a situation where there would always be changes to one side or the other.

Asami laughed against her hand as she considered it.

Cones on pistons that the belt could slide over. The cones would provide a changing gear diameter…and therefore changing the ratio of the engine and driveshaft gears—without a momentum-losing gear change. It was so shockingly simple.

"This is going to change everything," she told herself, shocked by the realization. It was a self-regulated dynamic balanced transmission. She may have just made millions of yuans for her company—in automobile sales. Because of snowmobiles. Because of Korra.

She was feverish with her discovery. She was usually an understanding boss who allowed her employees their rest. Today—she glanced out the window and corrected herself—tonight, she was not going to be understanding. She put a call in to her business attorney.

"I need a patent application started right now."

The next call when to her personal assistant. "Lee, meet me at the workshop."

Lee rubbed his mustache and shook his head as he looked at her drawn design. "I have to admit, Asami, it's genius."

Not for the first time, she was glad she'd hired him. He was a sharp man, with a mind for engineering but none of the motivations for it. I like helping other people do their jobs, he'd said during his interview three years ago. He kept her organized and sane, even if he couldn't keep her on task.

"It will work."

"Is this what's been preoccupying you recently?" He shook his head. "You engineers are interesting people. And you pulled your A team off of the S Contract to start on this?"

"Yes. I need this perfected as soon as possible. We could reinvent the entire automotive industry with this."

Lee shook his head again and made no move to get up. "Did this come to you in a dream, Boss?"

"Close enough."

"Well, I'll make the calls and start the coffee and tea. I get the feeling we're in for a long night."

Asami nodded. She stripped out of her vest for the first time that day and rolled up her once starched sleeves. At least she'd chosen slacks that day. It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Korra was surprised to find herself attending council sessions with and without her father. She'd had so much opportunity during her three years here to learn about her people and her nation, but she'd been focused on physical recovery to the point of obsession. Now Korra was thirsty for knowledge she'd taken for granted.

Most of the sessions seemed insignificant superficially. There was a lot of talk about international hunting restrictions, trade between tribes, and different licenses for the upcoming whale and seal hunting seasons. Every resource was guarded carefully, even the easy to cultivate sea prune. In just a few sessions, Korra had learned more about the Southern Water Tribe than she'd realized she'd been ignorant of.

Why had the White Lotus never taught her about this? She'd learned what seemed like every insignificant detail about the structure of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom governments—though that knowledge was always connected to the past…past wars, past avatars, past rulers. The White Lotus was entrenched in the past. They never taught her about the past of her own people though.

Korra pondered that dilemma on and off as she wandered through the palace after the last joint session. She'd meant to catch Katara for a chat, but Katara only gave her a smile and wave before leaving the palace to travel back to her village a dozen miles down the coast.

Her disappointment faded when she saw that a letter was sitting on her desk in her bedroom. The postage-stamp was from Republic City, and Asami's neat handwriting was easy to identify. Korra liked the flair of Asami's characters; it was artistic but not flamboyant. The letter was sealed with a strip of glue, not wax.

Distracted by the discovery of the letter, Korra sat down against Naga, who gave her a tail-wag in response.


Thank you for writing so soon. I was worried, yes, but only because I don't want to drift apart from you again. I wish you had told me you were still struggling, but I know how hard it can be to admit those things. I hope you find what you're looking for in the South. Maybe it's selfish, but I wish you were here. You're right: it feels like you just got back only to leave again, but I understand your decision. And I appreciate so much that you explained why you felt it was necessary to return home. Just remember who's waiting for you back in Republic City.

We've just finished up designing the new district of the city, and we're working closely with a construction company to lay the foundation for our new district. Construction is still ongoing to put back together the streets and buildings that Kuvira destroyed. Republic City has seen a lot of upheaval, but hopefully we're reached a point of peace. As a home-grown Republic City woman, I can safely say we're a set of the most resilient people in the world.

Have you visited any of the snowmobile graveyards recently? If you do, will you let me know if there's a common component that malfunctions in the machines? I've been thinking about working on one, but I wonder how to keep these engines running in the cold and salt. Hopefully I can put together a cheaper, cleaner machine than the ones on market, but it will take a lot of tinkering.

I have a random question. Who taught you how to cook?

Again, thank you for writing. Please write again soon, even if all you have to talk about is the weather. Seeing letters from you always makes me smile.

With love,

Korra paused and reread that closing salutation. She wasn't sure what to make of it. Part of her wanted to just ask, "Are you teasing me? Is this really how girls talk to each other? What do you mean, love?"

She reread the letter from the beginning and found nothing to suggest Asami wasn't being platonic. Korra paused at the 'snowmobile graveyard' phrase and shook her head. Graveyard? She had to mean snowmobile junkyards that were a common, sad sight in the South. There was one—a huge one—just outside Harbor City. Maybe Asami would like a picture or something. She could probably rent a camera and take it out to give that a shot.

Korra felt strange writing her letter, but she wasn't going to give herself time procrastinate with her reply. She had more to talk about this time, though.

At the end of her letter, Korra hesitated at the salutation, then she shrugged and signed it with her usual 'Your friend'.

The shopkeeper did a blatant double-take when Korra walked into his business late the next morning. He pulled his pinky finger out of his ear and rubbed his mustache with his eyebrows raised high. "Avatar Korra!"

She smiled. "Hi. I was hoping to rent a camera for the day."

"I see. We can certainly do that for you. What sort of image where you hoping to capture?"

"I wanted to take a picture of a snowmobile junkyard."

He raised a dark eyebrow at her answer.

"It's for a friend," she explained, hoping to avoid seeming too odd.

That eyebrow was still up, but a smile accompanied it. "A landscape. Okay. How much experience do you have with photography?"

"Um, none, other than other people taking terrible pictures of me."

That earned another smile, with a flash of straight white teeth. He disappeared from view for a moment as he shuffled under his counter. When he popped up, he had several small bundles in hand—a hand that had one finger blackened by old frostbite. "This is a dry plate camera. Easy to operate and small enough to make the trip."

Korra picked up the box and turned it over. "Uh, where's the camera?"

He pointed to a tiny latch on one edge. When it opened, she was surprised to see an assortment of machinery within. It looked almost like an engine, just a lot more delicate. The shopkeeper walked her though each component, then fiddled with a few knobs. "Leave these as they are for a landscape image. Only use the focus adjustment and shutter and shutter loader." He pointed at each component again.

"Okay." Korra nodded more for herself than for him. "I think I get it."

He showed her the viewfinder and how to load the exposure films. Korra realized the chances of her taking a good image were decreasing with every step.

The shopkeeper must have sensed her growing dismay. He pulled out a sheet of paper and penned out a sort set of instructions. "If it doesn't work out, you can have a second day with it on the house. No sweat."

"Thanks." That couldn't be standard operating procedure. Korra glanced over the instructions. "Hopefully this will keep me straight. Will you be open for a few hours?"

He shrugged then winked. "Just bring it by when you're finished. I'll have those films developed by the evening."

"Thanks a lot." She collected the camera, the stand, and the exposure plates into a provided case and paid the shopkeeper. Naga wagged her tail when Korra stepped outside. The feathery fur on Naga's tail was stringy with ice from the slushy road. It was a little wet on the roadway from the odd balmy day combined with the rising sun. Not the best weather conditions, but hopefully some snow would be melted from the junkyard machines.

Korra secured her burden to Naga's saddle and boosted herself up. They kept a leisurely pace through the town, walking close to the sidewalks to avoid traffic from cars and snowmobiles. Traffic was thick, even in this smaller district of the city. The exhaust from the snowmobiles was acrid but familiar, and the buzz of their engines along with the dull roar of cars wiped out other noises. She was just realizing how different this city was from all the surrounding tribes. Progress versus tradition. There was a balance to be found there as well.

If Unalaq had cared to look any further than his nose, he would have seen that tradition remained strong in the South. Then again, it had been an excuse to release Vaatu in the first place.

The closest junkyard was a few miles out of town, hidden in a pocket in the hilly coast. Korra had been here a few times in the last three years after accidentally breaking her father's snowmobile. She'd gutted more than one machine in the hopes of finding a replacement part.

In sharp contrast to the city, there was deep quiet, the kind of quiet one didn't hear anywhere else in the world. Even the secluded swamp had been loud with animal noises. The desert wind had taken a voice all of its own, and the hot, volcanic islands of the Fire Nation crackled and hissed in an eerie rhythm. Yet here… Silence. On a still day like today, the south was the quietest place in the world.

Her boots sank about a foot in the slushy snow as she dismounted Naga. It took her a few minutes to set the camera tripod up. In the process, she surprised a boy of maybe twelve walking out of the junkyard with a few parts in hand. He jumped at the sight of her and took a half-step back.

"How are you?" Korra asked him, hoping her smile would ease his discomfort.

"I broke my dad's sled," he said. "Just trying to fix it."

"I won't tell. I've done the same thing before."

He skirted by her, giving the camera an owl-eyed look.

So maybe this was a weirder thing than she'd realized. Korra shook her head, went over the instructions one more time, and began the labor-intensive process of trying to get everything in focus. She grew more confident after her first presumably successful loading and shot. After a few repeats, she walked further into the junkyard to find a different angle.

"Stay back, Naga," she commanded—though her hand signal would have sufficed—well aware there were plenty of parts scattered in the ice that could slice open even a polar bear dog's tough paw pads. Naga's pads were more sensitive now anyway because of the abrupt temperature difference between Republic City and the South. Korra spread thick oil on them every night to ease the transition.

She liked one view in particular where the sunlight reflected off of the mixed water and ice on the broken snowmobiles. She'd taken that shot at the top of a hill that showed the true expanse of this junkyard: these machines stretched out at least a mile in one direction. It was kind of sad how the seats had all been torn off of the machines. Most of the engines were closed, and even in the wet of this day, a few tracks were visible in the snow in conjunction with disturbed snow on the machines harvested.

It was very still, despite the gentle wind.

Maybe the graveyard comparison was a fitting one.

A few minutes later, she had everything packed up and was on her way back home. She hoped at least one shot came out. It had been the perfect time of day to get the most light, thankfully.

And, to her surprise, a few pictures did come out well, including the view she'd liked in particular. The shopkeeper complimented her, asked her out on a date, and secured them in a firm parcel. Korra would send the pictures along with her letter the next morning. The date was declined gently.

On her way back to the palace from that task, a familiar voice said, "Hey, Korra."

She turned and greeted Katara's daughter with surprise. Kya lived in the same village as Katara. Both frequently visited Harbor City but for different reasons. Katara came and went for council sessions, but Kya used the city as a hub to get to somewhere else in the world. "Kya! What brings you around?"

"Visiting a few friends and picking up some supplies." She indicated the bag slung over her shoulder.

Korra's eyes flickered to Kya's neck. She'd never seen Kya without her necklace on, and it was so much a part of her person that Korra had never thought to ask its origin. She'd never felt the need to spare curiosity with Kya. "Kya, where did you get your necklace?"

"I made it for myself when I came of age. Why?"

Korra admitted, "I always wondered if it was a betrothal necklace."

Kya laughed at the thought. "No. My wife likes the fact it keeps men from hitting on me. She's from the Fire Nation, so we don't have any adornment for our marriage." Kya paused. "Have you met her? She finally moved here last week, though I don't expect her to last more than a few months."

"No, I haven't. I've heard Katara talk about her a couple times."

Kya grinned, but there was a bitter twist to it. "She forgave the woman aspect faster than the firebender one."

Korra's question was on the tip of her tongue for an awkwardly long time before she ventured to ask, "Were you friends with her before you got together?"

Kya considered the question, and her look made Korra wonder if it was a strange thing to ask. "We've never had the most traditional relationship, at least until we got married. We actually got married in response to a huge fight. Why do you ask anyway?"

Why had she asked? Korra's shrug was as much to herself as to Kya. "Just curious."

Kya's eyebrow remained high and communicated her dubiousness. "Come by the village to meet my wife soon. I think Mom said you seemed like you wanted to talk to her a few days ago."

"Just wanted to catch up. I have a thing with my dad later, but I'll come by soon. Do you want to get some lunch?"

"Not today. I need to get back to make sure I haven't been divorced, widowed, or orphaned since I left."

Korra shook her head. "I don't envy that situation."

Kya gave a surprisingly genuine shrug. "They're both worth the drama, I guess. See you later, kid. Don't let the moon see you wet or cold."

"Let the sun dry you out first," Korra responded to the colloquialism easily.

She sat up in bed, startled awake in the darkness. For a long moment, she listened and heard nothing but the soft rhythm of wind in the eaves and the chorus of cicadas. She turned her head as a warm hand brushed against her bare hip. "What's wrong?" a sleepy voice murmured.

"Nothing, my sweet." She turned her head and gazed off into the darkness, dark thoughts crowding in again, and with it, the dull ache of her joints. A lifetime of earthbending hadn't been kind to her body, but the ache was familiar and grounding, like the turmoil in her head. All sides wished her to act or to not act. One part of her identity warred with the other. Her duties clashed, and her soul was in turmoil. What could she do?

"Don't bring the Avatar into our bed. Sleep, Kyoshi."

Kyoshi turned her head and regarded the girl next to her.

No, no longer a girl. A woman now, her woman. She hadn't been particularly beautiful when Kyoshi had met her, but now she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Strange what love would do. There was a softness about her, a sweetness that remained even after Kyoshi had stripped her of all innocence. That first time, showing the wide-eyed girl what love could be between two women…

Kyoshi felt her body stir and turned back to her lover—her wife—who reached out to her and pulled her down. She was right: the Avatar didn't belong in this bed.

Korra jerked awake, sweating, aroused, and disturbed. She got to her feet and stoked the fire with a twist of her wrist. She put her hand on Naga's head, feeling her fur. Then she opened the window and let in a sharp blast of freezing air. Her breath steamed as she exhaled to establish herself again.

The dream was already fading, but the memories of her emotional reaction wouldn't fade for a long time. How had that potent, vivid memory burned so deep inside her? The Avatar memories were gone; it was only her in her head. Only Korra.

But that name was so close to the tip of her tongue. "Jhao," she said, and it was like a release. A name Kyoshi knew but Korra didn't.

The spirit world was a little brighter that day. Korra went from place to place, finding the spirits a little more active and a little odder as a result. Conversation usually went above and beyond strange, especially as the spirits became more familiar with her.

"What do those appendages do?" one overly familiar spirit asked, reaching out to squeeze one of her breasts. Korra dropped her arms in a defensive position quickly.

"Hey! They're purely ornamental and not for touching."

"Hm." The spirit's leaf-like face shifted into what was probably a frown. "Too bad. They seem soft and comfortable. Do you play with them often?"

She was blushing, and that made her mad. "No!"

"What's to be angry about? I play with these myself." The spirit lifted its leaf skirt to show off several horrifying appendages. It was probably equivalent to a stamen or pistil… They started waving at her.

Korra took a deep breath and decided it was stupid to take it personally. "Okay, well, great. I'm just heading over there… I'll leave you to, uh, play."

"Good-bye Avatar Korra!" The spirit waved with its appendages before turning away to hopefully give itself some privacy.

While she wandered through a quiet forest—it was always so familiar but she never knew how to navigate it—a familiar small yellow spirit fluttered down from the upper branches of a tree to greet her happily. He was as sweet as usual, and Korra appreciated his softness as he settled on her shoulder. "Hi, Avatar Korra!"

"Could have used you a few minutes ago." She smiled, hoping he understood that expression. "How are things in the spirit world?" It was certainly brighter here than it had been the last few times she'd come.

"Peaceful for the most part. Zaheer is nearby."

Korra paused before letting the spirit guide her. It was a fluid knowledge exchange; she allowed the yellow spirit to pull her motivations, and she walked in the direction he tugged her. As she stepped out of the forest, she found Zaheer lying in the grass of the clearing. There were few evident spirits around, though he exuded nothing but tranquility.

His head lifted when he sensed her, and he twitched as if he meant to leave.


Zaheer slowly sank back to the ground. They studied each other for a moment before he gestured for her to sit. Slowly, Korra obeyed. The spirit remained rooted to her shoulder, adding another level of safety. Perhaps he was why she was willing to take this risk. She'd seen Zaheer flitter away when she happened upon him before, but she'd never called out to him. It didn't seem wise, but…

"You don't have to run when you see me here."

His eyes flickered to hers before he glanced away. "What are your questions, Avatar Korra?"

Cut to the chase, huh? Not surprising he would, she supposed. Why not ask the hardest first? "You told me you planned to kidnap me to teach me. That was a lie, wasn't it? You were going to poison me and kill me even as a child."

He frowned at the grass. "Ultimately, yes, if we could coax you into the Avatar state. An evil act for the greater good. If not, we would have molded you to reflect our ideals."

"A child," Korra reiterated, the truth so ugly she could hardly believe it. The darkness of the thought dimmed the sky slightly, and the spirit on her shoulder shifted until Korra blocked her emotions.

Zaheer's face slipped into a smile. "You believe there is no greater evil than that. But you're from the Southern Water Tribe."

"I've never been a part of the Southern Water Tribe."

"But it's rooted in your blood. You love your parents. You would lay your life down for them, as they would for you. When you carry and bear a child, you will give everything for that child's safety and happiness."

That characterization startled Korra, and Zaheer smiled at her shock. "No other culture of this world believes in family as strongly as your own. You may not have been raised by it, but that culture is deeply rooted in your soul."

There wasn't much to say to that. "Zaheer, your plan with the Earth Queen… The only thing removing a world leader would ever do is create a vacuum for another, stronger leader to fill."

"You misjudge." Some of his old sharpness came through with those two words. "Our ultimate goal was to cut the head from every state, but we wanted you most of all. We ran out of time so we reached for the ultimate position: the Avatar. I killed the Earth Queen to entice you closer. That was a miscalculation on our part. I underestimated your strength and determination, your will to live. I accounted for the Avatar, but not for you, Korra."

"That doesn't make any sense."

Zaheer leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He was strangely passionate as he spoke. "I've had a long time to think about my loss, that final day and the decisions made therein. I planned for every possibility, and they all ended in your death."

"I'm only alive because of the airbenders and Suyin."

"You should have died as soon as we poisoned you, and yet you lived and fought and continued fighting. I firmly believe that if any other Avatar had been there that day, they would have perished. But not you. Your strength pushed you through. You fill the role of the Avatar, but you, Korra, exist entirely apart from being the Avatar. Korra of the Southern Water Tribe is not just the Avatar." His eyes flickered over her hair. "It seems you're just learning this fact. It may be the last act required for you to truly find balance and peace with yourself."

She looked at her hands and blinked tears back from her eyes. How could something spoken by a man who had tried to kill her mean so much? In all the negative emotions she felt towards this man, she realized she also respected him for his knowledge and determination.

"And you, Zaheer? Are you at peace?"

He gave a small smile. "I have what freedom I will ever have. I made my choices long ago, and now I live with those consequences. I am not unhappy."

"You don't regret what you did to me."

"I regret certain consequences. I regret that the act against the Avatar was perpetrated against Korra of the Southern Water Tribe, but I do not regret my actions. It's a waste of emotional energy." He turned the question on her. "Do you have regrets, Avatar Korra?"

"The loss of my past lives." It was a deep, painful sting that even the palpable presence of Raava inside her could not cover.

"Perhaps it is best to start anew."

If only she could accept his words. The regret was still so real, but as her father had said, she had enough friends and allies in this world now to turn to in times of need and question. That was something the White Lotus had led her so astray on. They kept her isolated, singular, when she should have been traveling the world, meeting new people, and expanding her knowledge of cultures and people. And this person might become a counsel despite all odds.

The impulse to tell him about the dream of being Kyoshi was strong, but her lingering fear of him stopped her. Maybe later she would probe him about what it could mean. Instead, Korra watched him as he watched her. "Do you ever see sunlight in the physical world?"

Zaheer nodded. "They open the grate every few days so that I can feel it on my skin." After a moment, he asked, "Shall we continue our conversation?"

It was Korra who motioned to him this time. They walked together cautiously. Zaheer spoke of government, of the nature of man, of the drawbacks of protection of the law and the freedom from it. She listened, cautioning herself to consider but not believe. All along, the yellow spirit was a calm presence on her shoulder—a guardian, almost. The surroundings smoothed away with Korra's concentration of Zaheer. They parted at the tree of time, slipping away from each other without words, though she thanked the yellow spirit during her final moment in the spirit world.

Katara's village was fairly small. Only a few families lived there so Korra could only guess at the buzz that a firebender moving in with Kya had created in the tiny community. There were several small huts and a couple outhouses and skinning huts, but the largest building was Katara's healing hut. It doubled as a town meeting hall in times in which the few residents needed to discuss an issue. Korra had accidentally attended one meeting back when Katara was still healing her; she'd sat self-conscious and bitter in a wheelchair while she waited for her mother to come get her.

"Avatar Korra!" An elderly man—Dono, she thought she remembered—greeted her with a smile. "Visiting Master Katara?"

"Yes. And I planned to see Kya too while I'm here."

"Ah. Her wife is a looker." He grinned, winked, and waved as he plodded away. An old, arthritic arctic dog skirted around Naga fearfully before following along in its master's path.

Korra wandered up to the healing hut; it was the most likely place for Katara to be. She knocked, then let herself in. Naga followed, and Korra paused to sweep the ice, snow, and water from Naga's coat and paws.


Rather than echo Korra's raised voice, Katara walked slowly into the outer room of her healing hut. "Korra." She smiled and opened her arms, and Korra settled into them for a hug. Korra was always careful; Katara was more bone than muscle these days. Korra held her master delicately.

"Come in," Katara said. "We're eating dinner here. Kya and I were attending to a birth that took much of last night and today. We'll all be going to sleep soon."

"Bad timing on my part."

"Perhaps you can keep Kalin company."

Korra followed Katara to a small table set with an odd assortment of food. There was fish—cooked—and rice and several pickled vegetables. It was more Fire Nation than Water Tribe. But that was likely because the very Fire Nation woman sitting at the table had prepared the meal.

"I've eaten."

Kya smiled tiredly at her. She looked exhausted, but she was still saucy enough to point chopsticks rudely at Korra and say, "I've seen you put away more than Bumi after saying those very words."

"I'll clean up the scraps," she responded with a smile.

"Korra, this is my wife, Kalin. Kalin, Avatar Korra."

Kalin stood up to give a universal bow. Korra returned it. Kalin was slender and average height with very black hair except the gray around her temples. She was definitely a looker despite how uncomfortable she seemed to meet Korra. "It's nice to finally meet you," Korra said.

Kalin's face shifted into a shy smile, and Korra realized where this woman's beauty lay the most. "I'm honored, Avatar Korra."

"Call me Korra, please."

Kalin sat back down with another shy smile. Korra was surprised by the soft look that Kya turned to her wife. Funny, is that what love did to people?

Katara cleared her throat severely with a matching severe stare. "Korra, have you been by to see Master Suntoq yet?"

She didn't want to pay the old man a visit. As the leader of the White Lotus, Suntoq had always been her harshest critic growing up. Just the thought of seeing him put a hot ball of dread high in her throat. "I'm not here as the Avatar."

Katara's gaze was understanding but firm. "You are the Avatar. Perhaps it would be good to introduce yourself to the White Lotus trainees at the compound and let Master Suntoq know you haven't forgotten about him."

"I hate going back there. I always feel so trapped."

"You know, I got into quite a bit of trouble with Suntoq when you escaped the compound to go to Republic City. He asked me to look after you; he thought you were likely to try to escape. You may not like Master Suntoq, but he knows you very well. Perhaps it would be better to meet with him on your terms."

Korra shook her head. Katara was right. The longer she waited, the more irritated her old master would become. "I'll think about it. Katara, did Aang ever talk to you about having dreams of his past lives?"

The old woman raised an eyebrow in question. "No, though sometimes it seemed he would wake thinking he was another person. He communed with his past lives often so that could have caused his confusion. Did you dream of a past Avatar?"

"Just an old memory of Kyoshi's."

"I'm afraid I can't give you much counsel on this, Korra."

She shrugged. "I'm just confused about how I could have that dream if the Avatar memories are all gone. It was vivid and real. Kyoshi was worried about the Earth Kingdom conflict. I remember names and battles, and I knew her wife."

"Kyoshi was a lesbian?" Kya asked.

"Is that surprising, professor?" Kalin asked Kya with a teasing note. "Rumors were that Yangchen had a few female apprentices in several capacities."

"What about you, Korra? Hiding a secret lesbian tendency?"

"Ha, ha," she responded without amusement. It struck an uncomfortable note. Surely there were gay male Avatars too. If reincarnation wasn't founded in gender, then love could transcend sex. "There's something else, Katara."

Katara met Korra's gaze seriously. She grunted as she stood. Korra followed her into the healing room. She glanced at the pool within the center of the room and felt a tight ball of tension in her throat again. Katara's hand on her arm centered her again. "What is it, Korra?"

"I killed a man—men. I just… I guess I want to know if you think Aang would be disappointed. If you're disappointed."

Katara took a deep breath. "Aang had a particular morality, and he held to it firmly. He did what was best for himself and what he felt was best for the situation. Don't think he wasn't without critics for taking bending. You aren't Aang, Korra. He would want you to find that rightness for yourself."

"Do you blame me?"

"I'm very good at not judging, Korra. You must do what you can live with. Being the Avatar isn't easy so you need to do what lets you rest at night." Then she smiled. "I love you, Korra, and that's not going to change."

She took a deep breath and stepped into Katara's open arms for a hug. "Thank you, Katara."

"Are you keeping up with your waterbending lessons?" Katara wanted to know as they returned to dinner.

"As best as I can."

The glare Katara leveled at her had Korra shrinking into her seat. "I'll try to be by for some sessions."

"Good girl," Katara said lightly.

"So, how have you both been?"

Katara and Kya carried most of the conversation after that, but they retired to sleep after dinner. Korra knew she'd probably have to coax any conversation with Kalin, who seemed shy with her, but she didn't mind. "How did you and Kya meet?"

"She taught a seminar at a university I was attending; she'd come back at least once a year. We would meet every time she visited until we both realized we wanted more. If you'd asked me back then, I would never have guessed we'd marry. Kya was such a free spirit."

"How did you know you were sexually attracted to her?"

Kalin blushed abruptly. "That was what we started with, actually."

"Oh," Korra responded for lack of something better to say. "How did you first know you liked women like that?"

Kalin's eyes widened and she abruptly smiled, opening her face up to fit the word 'beautiful' again. "I was fifteen, and a noblewoman kissed me at a masked festival. That kiss opened my eyes to the half of the population I'd overlooked before. That woman cleared up a lot of confusion for me. Are you asking for a particular reason?"

"Just... I have a... She's a close friend, and I love her, but I don't know if I want more."

"What do you want?"

That was easy: "To be with her for the rest of my life."

"You sound very serious."

Korra was surprised by her own response, but she firmed as she realized how true it was. "I am. I want to live with her, and I want to support her and be that person for her. I guess I don't want to share her either. The part I don't know about is the sex part."

"That's an important part."

"I know," Korra said with chagrin.

"Are you attracted to her?"

"Sure. She's beautiful and strong."

"That wasn't what I asked."

"I don't know. Yes? I was attracted to my boyfriend, but we never really clicked the way they say you're supposed to. I'd hate to hurt her if we did go that far and it just didn't work."

"Relationships can be a gamble. You have to work at them to make it right. Is gaining her as a life partner, a lover, worth the risk of whatever it is you're afraid of?"

"I just don't want to hurt her."

"Let her be the judge of that. Just be open about your expectations. Tell her if you're uncertain about the sexual part of the relationship. Though bear in mind you're young; you have a lot to learn about that too. Sometimes it takes a bit of practice."

She'd never thought there was anything to learn about sex. Sex was sex, right? Thinking otherwise gave her a queer feeling of ignorance. Korra tapped her temple and smiled. "That makes it seem a lot simpler than I was thinking."

"Nothing about relationships is simple." Kalin smiled and patted Korra's hand. "For what it's worth, I think you have a lot to offer as a lover."

A woman cleared her throat in the darkened door frame of the kitchen. Kalin glanced over and rolled her eyes at Kya.

"I hope you were giving love advice for Korra to be with someone else," Kya said dryly. She still looked exhausted; she hadn't been asleep more than an hour. Korra sensed by the long look they gave each other that she should give her goodbyes for now.

She stood up, pulled her heavy parka jacket on, and waved to both of them. Naga got up to follow her, giving a groan of displeasure. "Thanks for my second dinner of the day."

"Stop by again," Kya told her.

With that, Korra stepped out into the cold, dark air of the night. It was time to head home.

Chapter Text

Asami's idea had been revolutionary, but her team turned it into reality. Their design replaced the cones she'd been envisioning with gears that could snap to smaller and larger diameter with a belt held between them. The gears changed size with simple physics.

Another transmission design—simpler—was still in a basic design stage. Asami had been more involved with it after she'd sat down with her engineers. This design involved balls pivoting in a circular transmission. So far, it wouldn't be automatic but perhaps would allow for easier gear changing than the traditional method. She was considering a finger trigger on the steering wheel.

As much as she wanted to credit her own intellect and creativity, Asami was once again stunned by the strength of her best automotive engineering team.

The patent application for her dynamic transmission—expedited, highest fees imaginable for such a thing—was submitted all of two days after her stroke of genius while her design team was assigned to build a working prototype of the new transmission.

Midmorning a few days into the project, Lee interrupted her conversation with her engineering team. Asami changed, washed her face, and gulped down coffee supplied by her assistant in the car on the way to the President's new office. She felt poised, confident, and ready to take the dragon by the horns.

As always, Raiko didn't make her wait. As much as they didn't like each other personally, they understood they had to work together to get what they wanted. And right then, Asami wanted her patent application process expedited to pass in a few short months instead of the usual twelve to eighteen. It was unprecedented, but she'd demanded greater before. Raiko was nearing the end of his first term, and he was greedy for any funds for his next run for office. She wasn't above using that greed for her own purposes or pointing out the endorsements and funds that had been pushed into his office before.

They schmoozed for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries and sipping weak coffee together. Finally, Raiko set his cup down and folded his hands in front of him. "To what do I owe this visit today, Miss Sato?"

"I put an expedited patent application in today," she said, deciding not to beat around the bush. "Future Industries will do everything we can to speed the application process through, but I would prefer it take less than six months to finalize. We plan to use this particular invention in quite a few models before the end of the year."

"I could put a few bugs in a few ears," he replied evenly. This information apparently came as no surprise to him. "I would hope you will oblige me in return."

"Funds for your campaign?" she asked.

His raised his eyebrows, surprised by her bluntness. "Frankly, yes, Ms. Sato. Most businessmen don't have the gall to state it so candidly."

Asami thought bitterly than most businessmen liked to dress up even their ugliest deeds as something nice. As much as she needed Raiko's word to speed up her patent application's acceptance, he needed her money more. She wasn't above pushing for more, something worth the stink of this meeting. "President Raiko, Avatar Korra has saved this city from destruction…three times, was it?"

His mouth turned down. "Part of that destruction was her fault! These spirit vines are still out of control, especially with that spirit portal. Don't think I've forgotten that you slipped that statue and park under my nose without consulting me when you got the contract for rerouting our roads."

"I was within the rights of the contract. Avatar Korra Park is one of the most lauded parts of our city now." And it probably pissed Raiko off every time she mentioned it…which is why she did. "But whatever your personal feelings, I think it would be a popular and appropriate gesture to honor Korra with a ceremony thanking her for her service and sacrifice for this city. I've suggested this several times, and the public will appreciate it too."

He licked his lips, looked up at the ceiling, and heaved a heavy sigh. "This is what it will take, then? You seem to care more about boosting the Avatar's ego than your own company."

"You know it's overdue. If you have to disguise your original intent by telling yourself I'll donate to make it happen, then do so."

His glare sharp. "I'll see that it's done."

"Thank you, President Raiko."

"I expect quite a bit in return, Ms. Sato. As much as you think I should honor the Avatar out of the goodness of my heart."

"The debt will be paid."

She felt dirty walking out of that meeting, especially with her parting words, but Asami had already been approached by other potential nominees and liked them even less. Go with the dark spirit that you know, she supposed. If she found a better candidate, she would dig up the money to meet her donation to Raiko.

Dear spirits of all they knew and breathed, she was sounding like Varrick.

At this point there wasn't much chance of another candidate winning, given the growing public support. One politician had gained a bit of momentum, but he would likely need more to defeat Raiko. Some of Raiko's success probably stemmed from the fact Future Industries was well on its way to rebuilding the city, therein raising the public's support of Raiko as well. He'd taken flack for surrendering, but most people remembered the end result, which was the destruction of Kuvira's mech, weapon, and army. Raiko could thank Korra for saving his political career, and Asami planned to see him do it.

As a teenager, she'd grown to understand how embroiled her father was in politics by virtue of the fact he had money, but she'd had lofty ideals of staying well out of that mess. Yet here she was, using her company's money just like he had.

The debt would be paid. Raiko would honor Korra because it was the right thing to do, but he would help their patent application process because she asked for it with her money. The thought put a bitter twist to a triumphant day.

Despite her assistant's urging that she had a gala to prepare for, Asami didn't return to her apartment after her meeting with Raiko—or the night after. She hadn't been home in over three days. She showered at the workshop, dressed in a black dress that her assistant, Lee, awkwardly fastened for her, and pulled her hair up into a tight bun to avoid the need to style it.

Though it was nearly nine o'clock at night, she gulped down the heavily caffeinated beverage that Lee handed her on their way to the gala. She would be returning to her workshop after this silly party.

"Order them a nice spread from Kwong's tonight."

"Alcohol?" Lee asked.

"Probably not if we plan to get them home after." Or keep them working for a few more days. They weren't required to stay, but she thought they all would anyway. They'd all get overtime and a healthy bonus too.

Lee laughed. "Speaking of exhaustion… You look like hell."

She hadn't had more than four hours' sleep in the last few days and was probably a walking idiot.

"I feel fantastic."

Fantastic and confident as she stepped out of the car and entered the building with a steady stream of overdressed people. This dinner was another fundraiser to raise money for the businesses that had lost everything in the Battle for Republic City. Raiko caught her in the entrance, where there would be a few photographers sure to catch their exchange. He smiled, shook her hand, and put his best side to the camera.

Once inside, she received a glass of champagne that she sipped slowly. Asami felt more wired now that her pace had slowed, and the alcohol only worsened it. She could hardly focus on the paintings that she perused. She planned to choose a painting she liked best, place a generous bid on it, and leave.

"Hello, Asami."

She jumped, surprised to see Tenzin and Pema dressed in their nicest robes. Tenzin visibly started as he looked at her. "Are you alright?"

Pema frowned. "Honey, that's rude. What he means to say is you look exhausted."

"I've been a little caught up with work recently. But I'm doing well." She exchanged hugs with them both. "I see you took the opportunity to have a night alone."

"As alone as this is," Pema responded, waving her hand. Her head turned. "Oh, look, there's Lin." She walked away, and Tenzin watched her go with his expression pulled into vague discomfort. He sighed and turned back to Asami.

He asked, "Have you heard from Korra?"

"She wrote me a letter."

"I'm worried about her." He tugged on his beard. "She wasn't herself the last time I spoke to her. So upset with herself. After the battle with Kuvira, she was so uplifted with hope for the future. And now…"

"From what she told me about the reeducation camp, there was a lot to be upset about."

He nodded and tugged on his beard once again. "That was all unfortunate."

"I'm not sure I'd use that word to describe it."

He nodded in acknowledgement. "It was horrible."

"She said they were evil. The worst Korra has seen since Vaatu. I don't know if she was upset for killing them or because she wasn't upset in the first place."

Tenzin looked away. "She wanted my support in that. I think I disappointed her. I hope at least that she's getting the rest and contemplation she needs at home."

"I hope so too. Tenzin, why has there been no press about that place?"

"I don't know for sure." He lowered his voice. "Some of the prisoners were taken after the war ended; it speaks of the inadequacy of the United Republic's handling of the Earth Confederation, especially in the poorer, more remote states."

"The people should know—about what Kuvira enabled and what we allowed to go on too long."

He sighed. "Opal has considered contacting the press. I need to speak with her at length about what she saw. She's been unwilling to say much, and Korra wouldn't say anything either. Each of the prisoners gave a statement, but the United Republic has shut that information up tight."

Tenzin cut his eyes to hers and seemed to draw himself up. He released his beard and smiled, casting aside their last topic. "I'm so glad Korra has you as a friend, Asami. Your support withstanding, it's wonderful she's found a young woman—a peer—to form a friendship with…despite some of your history even."

Friendship. It was both good and bad in one. Asami smiled, thinking of that relationship forged when Asami decided to stand on her own. She didn't need Mako or her father's approval to live, and she'd selfishly dropped everything (delegated it, at least) in Republic City at one of the worst times to do so to go adventuring with Korra in the Earth Kingdom. It was the best decision she'd ever made. She'd been surprised every day by how much she liked Korra and her sheer delight with life. No one in her life was as fun as Korra. Then like had turned to love sometime when she hadn't been looking.

"I'm glad too," she responded, feeling a little maudlin. "She's taught me so much."

"She wouldn't like that you look so tired," Tenzin chastised gently.

"She's not here to know," Asami retorted with more bitterness than she meant. She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "I'm in the middle of a project right now. I couldn't sleep if I wanted to."

Tenzin offered his arm, and Asami took it as they walked slowly along the paintings hanging up on one wall. Perhaps he was using her as an escape from his ex-girlfriend and wife who were slowly making their way around the room.

Asami's eyes focused on each piece of art. She picked out a feature of each that she liked: the blue-green of one piece, or the bright yellow line that must represent the spirit portal, or the swirling mix of blue, red, yellow, and green.

Her steps slowed to a stop as she focused on the next portrait. It was Amon's mask, blended into the Sato logo. It was a rough approximation, as if the artist was trying to be coy about his meaning. The background was faded newspaper title with the headline 'Sato funds Amon' legible.

It was a pointed piece; the artist was anonymous and surely knew she'd be here tonight. Asami stared at it for a long moment with Tenzin taking short breath beside her. Maybe it was aimed at her; she'd rather that because it wouldn't be true. But if it was aimed at her father… "He gave his life to save this city. Why doesn't anyone think of that?"

"I'll buy it," Tenzin said quickly. He meant to save her the embarrassment of the piece being auctioned publicly, probably. She wondered at the coordinator of this event who allowed it up in the first place, but Republic City prided itself in freedom of even its criticisms.

"No. There's no point. People will think what they think."

She had been approached to do a guest piece for Republic Press about recent events. She'd said 'maybe' meaning no, but now Asami saw it as an opportunity to write about her father, a good man who regretted his mistakes. She might as well exercise her own freedom of speech.

She couldn't concentrate on words by the time she was back at Future Industries' workshops, but she could concentrate of numbers. Standing in her dress and heels, she leaned over her engineers and considered their formulas and schematics. It was nice to see her A team in action—brilliant men and women that were as awkward as they were intelligent. They worked well together, and they'd been happy enough to share the work with their boss on the dynamic transmission, especially with the Kwong's cuisine they could pick over.

Asami copied some of their notes and took it home with her—along with a very late dinner that Lee had supplied her in a paper bag. Her eyes burned as she ate and figured the physics to consider the exact forces required to make this transmission work.

When she finally went to bed, her mind spun around those troubles, her irritations with herself and her father's legacy, her recent meeting with Raiko, and her excitement to see Korra again. It was easier to think of meeting versus wondering how long they would be parted.

All her thoughts didn't lend themselves to sleeping well. That, along with the few hours over the last few nights, showed the next morning. Lee rubbed his mustache and raised a gallant eyebrow when she walked into the office carrying her large portfolio. "Please tell me you didn't sleep because you were doing something fun."

Lee was in a mood that was rare: less assistant and more mothering. Just the thought of his concern exhausted her. Asami's eyes burned, and she felt like she had grit under her eyelids. "No fun. I was thinking about work all night."

"Tonight when you leave work, go out and have dinner with friends. Or you could go out and have dinner with me. Just do something other than work or thinking about work." It was too much of a gentle tone to be taken seriously. Lee was so professional on one hand that these quiet unprofessional statements hardly were unprofessional.

"I promise you, I'm not interested."

He laughed softly and handed her a cup of coffee. "You break my heart every day, Ms. Sato."

Asami sensed he didn't mind in the least, which was why she hadn't fired him for these pointless flirtations. He was a handsome man, and he knew it, but none of the giggling flighty girls in her company who followed him around ever went home with him. At least the few women in her elite engineering design teams didn't deign to offer. Either they were married or homosexual—or both. Not, she chided herself, that a single heterosexual woman couldn't control herself around an attractive man.

After a few minutes looking over her schedule, they both traveled to the next district to visit the workshop once more.

Lee held open the door for Asami to enter the automotive floor of the workshop. Her team was clustered around a set of tables, and several prototypes for the balanced dynamic transmission were assembled there, looking closer to complete than they had the night before. One man was asleep against the wall, and another was snoring on two chairs set front-to-front. The spread from Kwong's was demolished. Each person awake held a cup of coffee in hand and looked like they'd slept even less than Asami.

"We're still calibrating the most efficient model, but we have a working prototype."

So proficient. That was why she paid her workers so well. She handed them her portfolio, and they opened it and spread the sheets out. Her work might not help at all, but at least they could decide that.

Hours later, Asami watched their standard four-stroke engine start with a low, steady rumble. As the RPM increased, the angled gears shifted dynamically, changing the engine to driveshaft ratio for efficiency, just as she'd pictured. As that occurred, the attached wheel accelerated after a slight delay.

It was going to work. They would find many mistakes after getting some sleep, but this was their future.


There was already a long list of problems which Asami catalogued in her own mind. A few of them stuck as major problems, at least with the snowmobile design. A rubber belt, which was what they were using, would warp quickly between the heat of the gears and the cold of the environment. Even in a place like Republic City, it would need to be replaced often.

There wasn't much that could be done about it. Rubber would have to be it for now. But if they expected it to break, then it would have to be easily accessed and replaced by the owners…and a somewhat cheap component alone.

She would keep that in mind for her snowmobile designs: an easily accessed transmission. She was keeping that project close at hand, unwilling to have a single piece of the final design that she hadn't had her hand in.

The outer panels of her snowmobile would be sleek, with long lines and smooth bends. She wanted something attractive, something that mimicked the wildlife of the arctic: whales and otter penguins and seals. Asami hadn't sketched it yet because it would be her favorite part; she would save that for last after creating a good, clean design for the engine and transmission. Or perhaps not… The frame would shape how the engine components sat together.

She was too tired to string that thought into something concrete.

She broke from her team and pondered the internal workings of the snowmobile until Lee jolted her from her concentration with a hand on her arm. He spoke firmly. "It's time to go home, Asami. Go home, eat dinner. Hell, get dinner with some friends tonight. Stop thinking about work. Then go to sleep and don't come to work tomorrow."

She realized he had to be as exhausted as she was. "Take tomorrow off. Even if I come, I don't expect you here."

Asami then realized her team was well on its way to burning out too. She raised her voice and caught everyone's attention. "Everyone here, thank you for the efforts. We're not finished, but we're close. It will happen. But it won't happen well if we don't catch up on sleep. Take tomorrow off, rest up, and I'll see you all at eight o'clock on Moon Day morning. I'm going to be the last person out of here tonight. Pack up."

She made good on her wish, stepping out of the large room last. Lee locked the doors behind them, and her exhausted employees split to make their way home. For many of them, it would be the first time home in nearly a week. Bonuses indeed. They deserved a paid vacation to Ember Island.

As it so happened, Bolin called just as Asami walked into her apartment that night. Her eyes stung and her back ached. All she'd wanted to do was drink a few cups of sake and slide in bed, but the thought of meeting up with the crew gave her new energy.

"Mako has the night off, and Opal agreed to be seen in public with me again, so I was wondering if you wanted to grab a table at Narook's?"

"The noodle place? Sure. I'll be right over."

Half an hour later—happily driving over the newly restored bridge to the Water District—she was ushered to a padded booth. Opal smiled in greeting, and Asami exchanged an enthusiastic hug with Bolin. She ruffled his hair, coaxing a grin. Mako gave her a stiff one-armed hug for his part, but his smile was sincere. The burn scars on his left hand seemed fully healed, but he flexed his fingers occasionally.

"No offense, Asami, but you look exhausted."

"Because I am. But some great things are happening. Real innovations!"

"And I bet no one at this table would understand a word of it if you talked about it."

At one point in time, Asami might have taken offense to Mako's statement, but his deprecation was as much for himself as for her. She was sure if she started talking about the wonderful things that could be done with her new transmission system, no one would understand what she meant.

"I'll just say that it'll make driving cars a lot easier."

"That's great," Bolin said with more enthusiasm than was warranted. Asami appreciated his effort.

Her eyes flickered across the interior of the restaurant. She'd only eaten here a few times, both of those times on Bolin's invitation. The interior had changed in the last few months, including an iconic poster of Korra on one wall. It was a candid picture with Korra's face scraped, hair in disarray, her arm flexed and bicep in sharp relief as she shook Raiko's hand only hours after the battle for Republic City ended. The picture was angled to show the spirit portal shining bright behind them.

Raiko's harsh criticisms of Korra had softened somewhat given the outcome of the battle, but evident by their last meeting, he was back to his usual negative self with the spirit vines now covered what had been the most profitable part of the city. He had to know he owed his political success to Korra and Korra alone right now, which wouldn't help his attitude.

"Probably the only picture of her that isn't ruined by a cheesy smile," Mako said. His tone and expression suggested only affection, but there was something almost accusatory in the look he sent her after his statement.

"Wait, remember her mugshot in the Earth Kingdom?" Bolin asked.

Asami had secured a copy of that particular gem.

"I miss her," Bolin continued with a sigh.

Asami sighed as well. Korra had been so supportive the night after the battle. She felt a cold-to-hot flush in her chest at the memory of waking up wrapped around her in Korra's tiny bed on Air Temple Island. "She seemed happy to go home, at least."

They all paused to give their orders to their server before Mako said, "Really? All she does is write about the weather with me."

Bolin rolled his eyes. "Because that's probably all you write about. I know; I read your letters when I was off with Kuvira."

"As opposed to what, waxing lyrically about your lot in life?" Mako sneered back. He tilted his head back and adopted a lofty tone. "I know I wrote but a fortnight ago, but so much as transpired—"

"I was being poetic!"

Opal rolled her eyes as they continued to argue. "Boys," she said. "How are you, Asami?"

"Okay," she hedged. "I miss Korra a lot, but work has kept me busy."

"Too busy from the looks of it," Mako interjected.

Opal asked, "Have you radioed her at all?"

Asami was surprised. The thought was… It seemed awkward and intimate. Opal shrugged when she didn't respond. "Tenzin has been talking to her every few days. She'd probably like to hear from you. Verbally, I mean."

"That's a good idea. I'll do that."

"We should just go down there." Bolin leaned across the table, abandoning his argument with his brother. "I bet Korra would love for us to surprise her!"

"Not all of us can walk away from our jobs," Mako griped. "Asami's in the middle of something big so I'm sure she can't leave."

No, but she probably would if Korra asked. "I do plan to go when I get this prototype worked out, but it will probably be several months."

Mako rubbed is chin. "I guess I can let Chief Beifong know I'm thinking about taking a week off in a few months, and we can iron things out later as your plans even out."

"That sounds great."

"Yeah!" Bolin slammed his fist on the table, startling their neighbors. "Trip to the Southern Water Tribe, here we come! Have you been, Opal?"

"I haven't. I'd love to go."

Dinner continued on a happy note. Asami relaxed more and more through it and realized she felt revitalized from their conversations and lightheartedness. Bolin oozed happiness, and even Mako seemed at ease. She needed her friends. She needed to see them more often than she did.

As they stepped into the cold evening, she said as much. "We should do this again next week."

"Yeah, we should set up a night once a week. We could totally do that."

Mako shrugged. "Sure. Just let me know when."

As they dispersed for the night, Mako grabbed Asami's sleeve, then dropped it immediately. "Ah, sorry. I just, uh, I wondered…" He cleared his throat. "So, ah… That is…" Mako rubbed the back of his neck and wouldn't meet Asami's eyes. She raised a slow eyebrow.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, not really." Mako sighed heavily. "I mean no. I'm just trying to tell you…" He trailed off again.

Asami nodded slowly, waiting for him to speak. This sort of situation made her wish that Korra was next to her. Korra had the perfect blend of friendly charm and dry humor to say something mortifying to Mako and make him smile about it anyway.

He deflated with a final sigh. "I met someone. A girl—well, woman. I mean, she's a little younger than we are, but she's really mature…"

Asami laughed, shocked he was so nervous to tell her this. (Shocked at herself for the immediate burst of relief she felt.) "I'm glad for you, Mako. You should bring her when we get together again. What does she do?"

His expression softened into an affectionate smile. "She's a student at the university. I, uh, met her in the library, actually. She works there on the weekends, and I was researching something for one of my cases. I really like this girl."

"That's great, Mako."

He shot her a look out of the corner of his eye. "Have you still been keeping in touch with Korra?"

"Yes. I said we've been exchanging letters."

"I got a letter from her after we talked last. I just wanted to let you know that she asked me to keep up with you. Said you were probably working too hard. I think that's right. Are you really doing okay?"

"This isn't all the time for me, Mako. We really are hitting on something that will change the entire automotive industry."

"Just keep a little perspective, okay? And if you ever need to talk, I'm here for you."

"You know, you're a pretty great friend, Mako."

He smiled and pulled her in for a far more comfortable hug than their previous one. "You want me to drive you home?"

"I think I'm safer driving myself, hotshot."

"Ha, ha," he griped. "I got a ticket that one time, and you never let me live it down!"

Asami squeezed his right arm. "Goodnight, Mako."

"'Night, Asami."

Korra's letter was waiting for her at her apartment. Asami's anticipation flushed her with a last bout of adrenaline to allow her to stay awake to read it.

Dear Asami,

Believe it or not, I do have more than the weather to talk about. I went out with Mom to visit our old village that's on the coast. I only lived there for a few years before the White Lotus locked me up at the compound. I hardly recognize anyone; some of the girls that are my age already have kids! I want kids, definitely, but it just feels so far off.

We stayed one night with one of the families. They tossed a whole duck in a pot for dinner. It was really homey, especially when I got a feather in a mouthful. I'm bet you think I'm kidding. I feel like I'm so far behind with what it means to be a part of the south, but I'm learning a little at a time. Everyone has been accommodating, which surprises me. After the mess with Unalaq…I guess I assumed people would hold it against me.

For the snowmobiles, it seems like every part that can break does. I'll ask my dad about common problems. I can fix the problems, but I don't know what all the parts are called. My dad complains most about gear shifting in powder, and my mom complains about the exhaust and noise.

Cooking… I taught myself to cook. When master benders came to train me, I was stuck eating whatever they wanted. People complain about the South's love of pickling things, but I had to eat some horrible stuff in my childhood. Katara told me one day I should just learn how to cook so I could choose what I wanted. So I hung out in the kitchen and helped the cook until he let me make my own meals.

Tell me honestly, how many hours are you working per week right now?

This letter should be coming with a package. I hope that comes out okay. Since you called them 'graveyards', I thought you should see there aren't any tombstones.

Your friend,

Asami smiled, even has her heart dropped at the closing salutation. She opened the parcel and laughed at the pictures of snow-blanketed snowmobiles. What a somber place. She peeked at the bottom of the parcel and pulled out a little figurine. It looked like it was made of bone; when Asami turned it over, she laughed to see a fat, smiling walrus carved into it. Had Korra done this?

She considered the pen on the table across the room and decided she could take the time to sleep before responding. Korra would want that.

Asami was startled to see Korra in her office. Korra, for her part, offered a slow grin. Her brown hair tumbled over her shoulders in heavy waves that had a soft golden tint in the sunlight, and her muscles flexed beneath that dark skin as she pushed off Asami's desk. "Hey," she said in a low, rough tone.

"Hi," Asami replied dumbly.

Korra crooked a finger, and Asami walked into her arms as if leashed. They met in a hard kiss. Korra picked her up and deposited her on the desk, and they were naked and straining together. Asami's orgasm was just out of reach even with Korra's muscular body pressed against hers. She needed just a little more friction—but oh, Korra groaned into her hair and pulled on it, and she was so close—

"Boss," Lee said. And then her entire board was in the room, watching them with wide eyes.

Asami sat up in bed with a gasp of horror. She rocked forward, staring around at her bedroom as she realized she was at home, alone. She was wet between her legs, and her stomach churned tight in anxiety. Her hands shook as she lifted them to cup her face.

What the hell?

What the hell. She was no stranger to sexual dreams, but she'd never had one so explicit with Korra. And had certainly never had one that featured her board of directors. It didn't take a genius to figure out why she'd dreamed what she had.

This was why she found herself making a list in bed at the second hour of the day.

Reveal herself: No more hiding, possible relationship with Korra. She crossed Korra's name off quickly and continued to write: a woman, becoming a rolemodel for other homosexuals, making her own minority workers more comfortable.

Hide her sexuality: No concern about boycotting or her board members selling their shares and leaving, no press attention, no one would judge her based upon their own preconceived notions.

Asami stared at the list, shredded it, and put her head back to her pillow. Her exhaustion was just too much to allow her to worry about it anymore. Tomorrow… She'd think about it tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Senna glanced at Tonraq's snowmobile, which idled loudly on the ice and produced enough exhaust to make Korra's eyes water. "You do know where you're going, right Chief?"

Tonraq pursed his lips and heaved a sigh, turning off the snowmobile. "Traditionalists. The only thing worse than a snow yak is a dog. You excluded, Naga." He reached out to rub her nose, and Naga wagged her tail in response.

It took about fifteen minutes to hitch together a dog team to a traditional sled. The supplies that Tonraq had strapped to his snowmobile were also transferred to the sled. Tonraq's displeased expression evaporated when Senna gave him a kiss. She turned to pull Korra into a hug. "Enjoy yourself."

"Thanks, Mom."

"I'll keep an eye out for any letters from Asami."

Korra started. She sent a quick glance to her mother, trying to sense ulterior motives for that statement, but Senna had already turned back to Tonraq.

The dog team set a pace that had Naga moving at an easy lope. She grinned into the wind, enjoying her work. Every once in a while, she'd look over her shoulder to grin back at Korra, which made Korra slip her fingers into her nape and rub. She loved her polar bear dog, and she was damn glad they'd found each other in this life.

Their journey was easy but long, taking most of the daylight hours. They stopped for the night at a mostly-deserted village. It was a little eerie, even when a few older women greeted them and welcomed them into a larger igloo to use for the night.

"Where is everyone?"

Tonraq glanced at her in question after he pulled off his parka jacket. They'd both already stripped from their snow-covered boots, leaving them in the lower entrance to the bone-and-wood igloo. "They're on the ice hunting seal. That's where we'll be going tomorrow."

They both glanced up as an older woman stepped into the hut carrying a hot pot of something that smelled meaty and delicious. She set it on the coal pit and bowed. "What a pleasure to have you both."

"Stay and eat with us, auntie," Tonraq said politely.

She smiled but declined. "I have an old husband to feed, Chief Tonraq. Please let me know by radio if you need anything else tonight. Avatar Korra, it's an honor to host you."

The stew consisted of whale steak. It was chewier cut of meat that had been cooked long enough to make the meat tender and flavorful. She and her father ate most of it. Tonraq belched, and Korra did her best to match his volume. With that, he roared in laughter. "There is no better daughter in this world," Tonraq said with a grin.

"Love you too, Dad." She settled into half-lotus. "Would it be okay if I go in the spirit world for a bit?"

"No problem, sweetheart."

Her passage into the spirit world was easy. She found herself at the Tree of Time and focused on traveling swiftly through her surroundings. It was more force of will or desire than traveling: if she wanted to be at a place badly enough, she slipped into that place. The fluidity of the exchanges would have stumped her as a child, but it was becoming second nature now. The forests, deserts, and places that even she would not risk were becoming familiar, as well as a few of the friendly residents. She didn't know the name of any spirits yet; that was a more intimate information exchange that the human one.

Instead of allowing the spirit to lead her to Zaheer, Korra focused on Zaheer's spiritual energy and tugged herself through the spiritual plane to reach him. He was sitting up, watching as she approached. She chose to walk the last few meters to him.

Today he was in a grassy clearing surrounded by red trees that sprouted blue butterflies as she walked by. At his gesture, she sat down across from him, mirroring his half-lotus posture. The blue-green grass was soft like fur on her fingertips.

"Hello, Korra."

"Hi. How are you?"

He cocked his head as if to say, Why are you even asking? Ignoring her question, he asked, "Shall we talk about economics today? Capitalism, socialism, and such?"

"Uh. Why not?"

They spoke at length about the distinctions in these economic policies. It made Korra's head spin, especially because Zaheer didn't seem to favor any of them. At her inquiry, he explained that the Red Lotus had been about the de-establishment of government, meaning they did not care for any economics. "I suppose you would say that what we stood by was what your tribe did once quite well: trading a product for a product, one family to another in times of need."

Korra was drawn bitterly into the thought of how little the White Lotus had taught her—even as she cautioned herself not to believe everything he said without verification. It was just that he hadn't lied or embellished anything from their last conversation. She wished she could argue more about capitalism, but he shot down her weak assertions. "Why was I never taught any of this stuff when I was a kid?"

Zaheer gave a hard scoff. "Why would the White Lotus teach you anything about the politics and economics of your own people? Suntoq is no segregationalist. He believes that the South is only worth as much as it's an extension of the North. He and Unalaq were licking their chops over the thought of a highborn Northern Water Tribe Avatar. They got one, alright, one from the South, fathered by a disgraced Northern prince—a situation by Unalaq's own making."

"Master Suntoq knew Unalaq?" Suntoq was the long-established leader of the White Lotus. The thought of him working with Unalaq made her blanch, especially with the memory that Unalaq was once a part of the Red Lotus.

Zaheer nodded, losing his smile. "If not close friends, they at least shared quite a few future goals for the world."

There was nothing that she could say about that. She dropped her face into her hand and shook her head. She felt trapped, a concept she considered learned helplessness. Hit a dog long enough, he won't realize there's an escape. She'd been the dog in her childhood. The escape for Republic City had been her ultimate bid, and she may not have gone through with it without Katara's permission. At Tenzin's word, she would have slunk back to the South to live behind closed walls again.

Finally, Korra managed to ask, "Why?"

"Conjecture: an unbiased Avatar, most likely. Unbiased and not part of the South. You may argue Avatar Aang's biggest weakness was his connection with the Air Nation. He refused to kill even those that would have been better dead. He stripped bending from people, something even his apologists have trouble justifying."

"Ozai and Yakone."

"To name a few." Zaheer's implication was, of course, that there had been many more. He continued, "The White Lotus gained a great deal of reputation and financial success by donations for perhaps that reason."

"I don't understand."

"More conjecture and rumors… But if the White Lotus kept you separate, they could rent out your time and experiences. Perhaps if Fire Lord Zuko wished to have you visit him, he would be asked to donate to the White Lotus in your name. With an impending attack, such a visit could be cancelled for your safety."

Korra sank into herself and cradled her head as that thought rang through her. There was no way her past was shaped this way. No way. She didn't want to waste time thinking about it anymore. She wanted to push it away and pretend she'd never heard it. Once again, a soft whisper to not trust Zaheer came through. She wiped her face roughly and lifted her head to look around.

A spirit slinked slowly along the clearing, its edges blurred with darkness. It seemed off. Was it an extension of the darkness that last conversation pulled out of her? "Things have seemed darker recently."

"Yes," Zaheer agreed. He frowned at her for a pregnant moment before saying, "There seems to be a pervasive darkness."

"Any sources?"

"I have yet to find one. Surely there must be one. Our presences should uplift this place, not darken it."

"I've been feeling tired when I come back into my physical body."

"Yes," he agreed, to Korra's surprise and against her hope.

Zaheer shifted, raising his eyebrows. "I must go. I smell tea."


He paused in his exit.

"Can we try for the same time in three days?"

"No doubt I'll be here, Korra."

When Korra settled back into her own body, she felt the ache in her back, the numbness of her backside, and the tingles in her hands. The discomfort rooted her firmly in her own body again. She shifted and opened her eyes to find her father watching her with his jaw clenched in clear anger.

"Was I gone too long?"

"Zaheer?" he asked.

Korra was shocked.

"You said his name. How is he able to go in the spirit world?"

"It's not a problem, Dad."

"Not a problem? Did you forget what he did to you?!"

Korra shook her head. She was confident in her answer. "No, and I won't ever forget. But he can't hurt me anymore. He has no power in the human world, and he can't match mine in the spirit world."

Tonraq slowly relaxed. His eyes flickered across her face as if he were seeing her for the first time. "You've changed so much in the last year. Whatever it was that you did or saw or discovered… Korra, I'm proud of how you've grown. But I'll always see you as my baby, and I'll always want to protect you. It worries me that Zaheer can reach you at all."

"He helped me recover, Dad. He has a lot to teach, even if I don't agree with some of his lessons."

Tonraq sighed. "You have to trust your instincts, sweetheart. If you feel unsafe, don't risk anything."

"I have guardians. The spirits are a bigger presence than you realize."

He took another deep breath and released it; as he did, his lips turned up into an unhappy smile. "Very well."

She had trouble sleeping that night as she remembered Zaheer's quiet words about the White Lotus. Conjecture, he'd said, but his conjecture made more sense than anyone else ever had. It gave a reason to the prison that was her childhood. The reason was almost too ugly to bear.

They set off several hours before the sun rose the next day. Naga, whose belly was full of whale flesh, moved a little stiffly at first, probably because she'd slept out in the cold the night before. Her hips tended to bother her in the cold even though Korra used heatbending to ease pain in those joints. There wasn't a hut in this village that was large enough for her so she'd burrowed into the snow like wild polar bear dogs.

She warmed out of her stiffness, and by the time the sun was up, she was panting happily next to Tonraq's dog team.

They came upon the camp in the late morning. It was well populated, unlike the quiet village they'd left to the elders and children.

"Welcome, Chief Tonraq." The man who greeted them was grizzled and white. Or maybe it was just ice frozen in his beard and eyebrows. He had deep wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and heavy laugh lines. His eyes were almost clear, and he judged Korra with them for a moment, but only after he'd taken a long, long look at Naga. He bowed to Korra finally. "Avatar Korra, what an honor."

"Korra, this is Chief Tukkuk. Chief Tukkuk, my daughter."

Korra dismounted Naga to bow properly. She took Tukkuk's forearm in her hand, and he squeezed hers in reply. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I hope your hunt is going well."

He snorted faintly through his nose. He used a colloquialism to give an affirmative answer: "The spears are sharp and seal hide soft. I suspect that's why you're here, Chief Tonraq."

"Part of the reason, Tukkuk. We'll speak of it tonight, but we're happy to hunt alongside you today. You're welcome to all of the supplies I brought with me."

"We welcome the help and the supplies."

Korra followed them as they walked through the camp that consisted of igloos and tents. She'd never seen a seal hunt; from what she knew about it, there wasn't much to see. Men sat at breathing holes waiting for a seal to surface or they sat in their kayaks with a harpoon ready. Probably a combination of both if the majority of the adult village was out here now.

"Avatar Korra, this is my eldest son, Nukkuk."

The man was younger than Korra expected, maybe only a few years older than she was. He looked like his father, though his eyes were darker blue. He gasped and jerked when he saw Naga but quickly regained his composure to lower his head and shoulders in a bow. Korra knew what kind of gut-reaction a massive polar bear dog could strike in people; Naga was one of the biggest around. She smiled softly at his reaction and responded in turn with her own bow. "I'm happy to meet you, Nukkuk."

"It's an honor to meet you, Avatar Korra."

The chief said, "Nukkuk will be happy for help on his hunt."

Nukkuk seemed more surprised than happy. He looked up at his father with wide eyes and dropped the sled rope in his hands. "O-of course. I welcome any help."

"Can Naga come?"

He turned wide eyes to Naga, who nuzzled against Korra's ear. "Yes, sure."

"Keep your eyes sharp, son," Tukkuk said. He turned away, and Tonraq followed though Tonraq gave Korra a wink as he departed. That was a little odd.

"Naga can pull your sled."

"Ah, great." Nukkuk was unwilling to step closer, so Korra took the sled rope from him and secured it to Naga's saddle. She'd been trained to drag burdens, and one as light as this wouldn't cause her any problems.

"Would you like to meet her? I promise she won't attack you."

Nukkuk's larynx bobbed with his nervous swallow. He laughed just as nervously. "I guess I should. It's just, we see polar bear dogs and run. And she's really big."

"Thanks. I kept her lean when she was a puppy, but she just kept growing anyway. Naga, sit. Down."

Naga went down on her belly obediently, watching Korra for another cue. "Be gentle."

Naga replied with a grin, making Nukkuk's step forward stutter. Probably the size of her white teeth. "Let her smell your hand."

His hand shook as he held it out, and Naga's nose twitched as she scented him. She grinned again and gave his fingers a lap with her tongue, making him flinch.

"See, she's a sweetie. Good girl, Naga!" Naga lapped at Korra's face and gave a puppy-like yip. "Up, girl."

Nukkuk wasn't completely relaxed, but he was comfortable enough to walk beside Korra as they turned east. "I've always wanted to meet you, Avatar," he said after a time. "Your name is pretty infamous around here."

"That sounds bad."

"Not really. People just can't decide if you're a traditionalist or a progressionalist."

"I don't know what I am yet, honestly."

"What's it like in the spirit world?"

Korra was a little surprised by the question. She glanced towards the sun as she considered her answer. "Different but the same. There are places that are a lot like places on earth. And other places that no spirit will go. Things are more fluid."

"And the spirits?"

"You don't see any out here?"

"No. Not really. I guess we're a little isolated."

"Maybe you will sometime. The spirits have turned out to be true allies."

"There's talk of dark spirits," he said after a minute of silence.

"Talk or sightings?"

"Talk of sightings," he clarified with a tight grin. "Whale spirits, maybe. Some elders think it's from overhunting, some blame technology."

"Where are they?"

Nukkuk shrugged. "I don't know. It's all rumors from one tribe or another. It's always a cousin's friend or a neighbor's family member."

It was disturbing, even when he said, "I don't know if any of it's true."

"If you hear anything concrete, write me about it. I need to know." Whale spirits… Korra needed to spend more time in the spirit world and with more spirits. But you didn't ask a spirit if they'd seen any dark spirits. It broke some sort of etiquette, some sort of odd hierarchy. Korra still felt so new to them.

Beside her, Nukkuk nodded to her request. They walked along in silence for a few more minutes as Korra worried at her thoughts like a loose tooth. Finally, Nukkuk glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "You're taller than I expected."

"My dad's pretty tall." Sometimes she forgot when she was with her friends; they were all so dang tall they made her seem short.

"Good point."

Korra laughed, surprised at his bashfulness. "I'm just a normal person, you know. Call me Korra."

"Well, um, Korra, this is our stop. You want to hold the spear?"

"Sure." Korra took the spear from him and turned it over in her hand. It was a harpoon, actually, with the tip threaded with strong sinew. She fiddled with it, studying the sharp barb that slid out of the shaft. She followed Nukkuk to sit at the seal hole. At least her parents had told her about this. Sit in silence and wait for a chance seal surfacing. They sat away from the sun to avoid casting a shadow in the hole. Nukkuk didn't speak, and Korra didn't either. The sun slowly crept across the sky. Naga slept on the ice well away from their spot.

If Korra had learned how to hunt seal as a child, she would have had plenty of patience for Tenzin's meditation training. An ache set in her back and arm from holding the spear, but she remained still, falling into an odd sort of meditation in that moment. When the seal surfaced, it was as though she'd known it would happen, and the harpoon landed true, slicing through its eye socket hard enough to pin its head against the ice as it thrashed its final moments away.

"Good strike," Nukkuk said, almost in shock. He snatched up his hook and managed to grasp the seal by the flipper to help Korra heave it out. The seal was huge, nearly ten feet in length, and it required their greatest effort to get onto the ice. It had a beautiful striped coat.

"Wow, not bad for my first seal."

"Your first?" Once again, Nukkuk was shocked by Korra. "This is your seal, then. We'll have to celebrate!"

Korra laughed, suddenly giddy from her hunt. "It's not a big deal."

"Sure it is!" He handed her a knife. "Make the cut so we can collect the blood."

Korra removed her parka jacket, knowing this was going to be hot work. Her first cut was sure, and the sharp blade sliced deep into the neck. Nukkuk had a water skin ready to catch the fresh blood that flowed in swishing bursts from the neck. "If you can bend it, it helps," he prompted, with bright red blood already covering his hands.

Korra obliged, taking the hot fluid in her hands to direct it into the wide snout of the water skin. It was shockingly grotesque practice to drag the blood from the carcass through the laceration; this was a different kind of bloodbending, at least. This activity drove home the uncomfortable knowledge that Korra was more than capable of bloodbending. Nukkuk inserted a thin metal rod into the water bladder and stirred to grab any clots, nodding Korra towards the carcass again. "Do you know how to skin it?"

"That I know how to do." Korra bent to her task, making a clean cut from chin to groin and around each lower leg, which she broke at the joint, ignoring the jerks and twitches of the carcass. She peeled the skin away, trying to leave the precious blubber on the skin and preserve the edge of her knife by cutting from the underside of the pelt.

Nukkuk bent to help her, and between them, they made short work of the pelt. They took a moment to marvel at the pelt, flippers attached, spread out on the ice. It was beautiful.

"You want the belly or the pluck?"

"Belly," Nukkuk replied.

She cut through the soft tissue and freed the scapula from the body on either side, dropping the upper arms out of their way.

Then Korra bent to the jaw and sliced along the inner mandible, freeing the tongue through the bottom of the mouth with a bit of grunting and swearing. From this angle, she couldn't see the face twitch as she cut through nerves.

She placed her knife in the cartilage of the larynx and popped through on either side. After that, the trachea, esophagus, and muscles peeled away easily from the neck. She paused to cut through the sternum. It was hard work, and she was sweating freely by the time she split the chest and broke the ribs. The pluck—trachea, lungs, and heart—came out easily after that, and Korra walked the heavy bundle—dripping a copious amount of steaming blood—to ice out of the way.

"Don't forget the eye," Nukkuk reminded her. He shook his head, apparently in appreciation. "Always less messy with a waterbender."

In contrast to his words, their hands were covered in blood. Korra tilted the head up and sliced at the tissue around the intact eye before sliding her knife around the edges. The final few cuts were the hardest; she scraped her knife against the skull as the eye was half out. When she'd freed it, she pinched the tissues around the eye under her knife and wiggled it, peeling the eye free. By the time she'd finished that, Nukkuk had freed the bulk of the abdominal cavity and diaphragm from the carcass. He bent to work on the kidneys, which were trapped in a bunch of fat in the abdomen.

The hardest part was now Korra's task: remove the ribs. She sharpened her knife again, then bent to cut along the spine, making harder cuts until she wiggled the ribcage and broke the chest cavity away. The other side was harder because there was nothing to pull against. By the time she'd managed, Nukkuk had finished his tasks completely, including removal of the back flippers.

"Head or gut?" she asked.

"Head," he said.

Korra nodded, thankful to have the easier task now. She rubbed her hands clean in the snow and separated the organs from each other. She removed the gallbladder from the liver out of personal preference and set the big, brown liver beside the knobby kidneys. She opened the stomach and separated it from the small intestines, and then the small intestines at their junction with the colon. A gentle sweep of waterbending simplified the intestinal and stomach cleaning process. She took the opportunity to sit and braid the intestines for future cooking.

The pluck was the messiest part by far. She sliced the tongue, esophagus, and heart away from the trachea and lungs and searched for the sweetbread. The animal didn't have one, which was too bad. She loved that part of a seal. The heart, tongue, diaphragm, and esophagus would certainly be eaten.

"Does your tribe eat the lungs?"

Nukkuk nodded. "Yep. Just cut each one off at the root."

The 'roots' of the lungs were fibrous and difficult to cut, but she managed. That done, Korra glanced up. Nukkuk broke the lower jaw away from the skull. He handed Korra both. "Yours, hunter."

She grinned at his evident delight. The skull wasn't much to look at: no eyes, no skin, no jaw. But she did see her kill in it. With a sigh, Korra stood and released the skull back into the ocean. It sank slowly into the darkness of the ocean. "Thank you, seal."

The jaw she would keep, maybe to make a necklace from the triple-pointed teeth.

Nukkuk sliced a strip of muscle from the spine and handed it to Korra. She sampled it. Chewy, brassy, the taste of a wild animal that most of Republic City's meats didn't have. She nodded to him. "You too."

He sampled a piece for himself with an approving smile. She cut a large piece from the liver and divided it in half. "Blessings to you, cousin," Nukkuk replied. He was right, this was the choicest part of a seal. Korra sighed as she tasted it. This was perfection: sitting on the cold ice, under the warm sun, with blood and flesh of a newly killed seal in her mouth.

She looked at her palms, sticky with dried blood, blood traced deep into the creases of her hands, and had an odd moment of realization that she hadn't thought of the reeducation camp at all. This was different: no suffering, no waste, no pleasure in the killing other than it had been a quick, easy death. She pushed her hands into the snow and rubbed the blood from them. The darkness of that thought was there, but it didn't choke her. The memory was there, but her panic wasn't.

She still wanted the blood off her hands and out of her mouth. The fear was there—that this would become panic and horror. She tried not to let it. Someone had done this to humans; they'd probably butchered them just like this...

Nukkuk's voice startled her. "This is a good day."

She looked from him to her hands and quickly finished scrubbing them. She ate a few mouthfuls of snow to rinse some of the taste of iron from her tongue and tried to focus on the fact this was a seal. She kept thinking: seal, seal, seal as they went through the arduous task of dividing the strips of meat and bone. Finally, they loaded the butchered seal onto Nukkuk's sled.

Naga had watched the entire butchering quietly, though her wide, dark eyes had been fixed on Korra. It was a clear begging expression. Korra, whose stomach was still settled even if her mind wasn't, picked up the long, thin strip of muscle taken from the neck and held it out. Naga was motionless, her eyes fixed on the treat.


Naga sat.


Naga went down on her belly and rolled onto her side, watching Korra for affirmation she'd supplied to correct response for the command. Korra set the meat on the snow, gave her release signal, and said, "Good girl."

Naga demolished it in less than ten seconds, and she licked her chops happily as Korra hitched the sled to her saddle.

She and Nukkuk dropped their parka jackets on the sled and walked in their wool shirts. The air was cold, but the sun was comfortably warm. "Hard work."

"Good work, though," he said. "We worked well together."

"No arguing over jobs."

Nukkuk grinned for the first time, showing a flash of straight white teeth. "Yes, indeed."

They walked in silence for a few minutes before he spoke again. "If you're looking for a partner… I am too. I have a good home in this village, and I'll probably be chief when my father steps down."

It took Korra a moment to understand his implication. "Nukkuk, you seem like a nice guy, but I'm not looking for a husband. I'm kind of set on someone else."

"Ah." He shrugged and smiled. "I thought I should at least ask. You're a nice woman, and we did work well together."

"Are you open to friendship?"

"Aren't we friends already?"

He had such a gentle unassuming way that Korra choked down her disbelieving laugh. If only asking Asami were that easy. "Yes, I guess we are."

Nukkuk smiled at that and started another thread of conversation about the constellations they used for navigation on clear nights. When they caught sight of the make-shift seal camp, he jogged ahead to announce, "Avatar Korra got a seal!"

His delight was a little embarrassing, but the crowd of people butchering their own seals took notice as they approached. Tonraq stepped up with Chief Tukkuk beside him, and they both looked at the seal carcass approvingly.

"Her first seal," Nukkuk clarified.

Tukkuk was clearly surprised, but Tonraq's smile only widened. "Good kill?" Tonraq asked Nukkuk.

"Very good. It was a clean blow."

Tonraq's smile only grew. Korra felt a weird touch of pride at her father's approval.

"The seal is yours, Avatar," Tukkuk pronounced.

"I'd just like to keep the pelt and the jaw. You're welcome to everything else." She knew exactly what she'd do with this sealskin.

"Thank you for your generosity."

A few of them, including one young woman, helped Korra strip the blubber from the pelt to be stored for future use. After a few minutes of Korra shaking the hair from her eyes, the woman stopped in her task, wiped her hands clean in the snow, and yanked Korra's hair back into a half wolf-tail hard enough to raise tears in Korra's eyes. "You need beads in this hair," she chastised.

As it turned out, they considered her first seal an opportunity for a party. They cooked up most of the carcass that night and ate until they were stuffed. It was a party alright, even without any booze to go along with it.

Despite the happy atmosphere, there was some serious discussion. Tonraq and Tukkuk both seemed to know what it would be about before it happened; maybe the tribe did too because they quieted when the conversation went more serious.

"You know why I'm here, Chief Tukkuk."

"Yes, Chief Tonraq."

"Your tribe has violated the laws protecting the breeding grounds of the seals this spring."

"Two young, inexperienced hunters. They have been punished." Tukkuk's eyebrows drew over his eyes.

"No more pups are to be killed, on or off the breeding grounds."

Tukkuk's only protest was: "International law has no place in our lands."

"International law protects us and our resources from other countries overhunting: our whales, our seals, our walruses. If other countries must comply, so must we. That's why the Southern Water Tribe has paid your fine for this offense. If it happens again, you will have to find the funds. But if you wish to make a statement about international laws, please either attend a council session or write us a letter. I'll read it to our elders, and we'll discuss whatever you have to say."

Tukkuk nodded. "I will send you a letter. It won't happen again, Chief Tonraq."

And so that was over. Korra marveled at how well her father could bring about these agreements. Tukkuk had known why Tonraq came and hadn't been happy about it, but her father had spoken through that disagreement with sympathy and firmness. One day Korra hoped she could have the same manner.

Korra leaned against Naga's warmth within the largest tent the village could provide. Half a dozen men and women were murmuring quietly or already asleep. Korra shifted the old-fashioned oil lantern closer to use its light and opened up the letter she'd received the day before they left.

Dear Korra,

I'm so glad you're learning about your culture there in the South. I envy you in one way. My mother was from the Fire Nation, but I never felt a part of that culture. Born and raised in Republic City to a man that seemed to have no cultural identity makes me feel like I don't have roots.

That was maudlin, wasn't it?

As for children, I can't imagine ever being prepared to shoulder the responsibility of one. Tenzin's children are enough to scare me into never wanting one. Maybe if I'd met Jinora as a baby I wouldn't be so scared.

I've made great progress on my snowmobile design, and in a way that could impact the entire automotive industry. You were the inspiration for the design, believe it or not. We'll see if the patent comes through and if we can get a working prototype out. Because of that, I've admittedly been working too many hours, but I found time to visit with Bolin, Mako, and Opal. It was a good night, and we all miss you.

By the way, what is your favorite type of tea? I'll send a parcel if you tell me what you like.

Thank you for the pictures. They were beautiful. Did you take them or purchase them? Did you carve that little walrus yourself? He's sitting on my bed-side table, grinning at me right now.


Another 'love'. Korra folded the letter back and slipped it into the waterproof leather case in her bag. She would write a reply when she got back to Harbor City.

She felt nostalgic or maudlin or wistful, but whatever the feeling, it pushed her to step outside the warm tent and into the cold of the night air. The moon was a sliver, casting little light on the ice. Korra used her waterbending more than her sight to navigate to the edges of the shorefast ice. It was an easy walk despite the natural waves and shifts of the ice carved by wind and snow.

She stood at the lip of ice and stared into the inky darkness of the sea. The night was cloaked in oily darkness that seemed to shift and slip above and below the water.

Then, there was a flicker of purple light.

Korra stared; the hair rose on the back of her neck. Was that a humanoid figure, dragging a tentacle from the arm? She heard the click of chains. Was it…? She cast a harsh burst of firebending, and the shadow melted away into just ocean and ice.

Her fire cast its shadow into the darkness that came behind it. Korra retreated from her spot, repelled by her unease and the fear of what lay beyond her sight. She didn't want to see what might be hidden there.

When she slept tucked close in the warmth and light of the tent, she dreamt of dark shadows and eerie clicks.

"There's a fishing line we need to check today," Tukkuk said. He and Tonraq exchanged an odd glance, but Korra didn't think much of it. She was ready to go back out on the ice again that day; the darkness of the previous night seemed so far away now. Her hands had cracked from rubbing tannin into the dried seal hides all day; she wanted out from that task.

Nukkuk volunteered to go along with them as well. Dragging up fishing line was a difficult task, apparently. The line in question was about a mile away from their base camp on the ice, making it an easy walk.

"There." Tukkuk pointed at a bright splash of orange on the ice. A small flag marked the fishing line.

"Do you put these out a lot?" Korra asked.

"We keep them in during the winter. We don't make the trip inland for spawning char so these are our fishing grounds."

They assembled in a line, each wearing thick gloves to protect their hands from the hard line and sharp hooks. They heaved the heavy line in coordinated pulls with Tonraq at the front, closest to the ice hole. Despite the several hundred feet of line they pulled up, there weren't many fish on the line and only a few of those were keepers. They had to be getting close to the end when Tonraq turned to Korra, who had been coiling the line behind them.

"Korra, come up in front of me and give me a hand."

Korra obliged. She'd mainly been removing fish from the line, not pulling it, so she settled in front of her father. On their cue, she pulled. Whatever was on this last bit of line was heavy. Korra leaned forward when there was enough slack in the line and pulled again while poised over the hole. When she looked up as they yanked, she was horrified to see a giant gray shark head burst out of the hole.

She yelped and immediately let go of the line. Nothing but instinct fueled her to swing a burst of fire at the shark. She staggered back into her father, who fell to the ground. Unlike Korra, Tonraq was roaring with laughter.

The shark didn't seem to be bothered by her fire, though its skin began to steam. Its teeth were tiny but numerous and serrated. Its eyes were tiny and terrifyingly dark.

"Shit, you jerk! Dad!" She swung a hand and smacked him in the arm, but he only laughed harder. Tukkuk and Nukkuk were snickering more quietly, and they were composed enough to cut the line and free the shark. "You planned this!"

"You fire punched it! I wish I had seen your face!" He dissolved into more laughter, holding onto his stomach.

"I should firepunch you." She smacked him on the stomach this time, and Tonraq dissolved into the closest thing a man of his size and timber of voice could get to a giggle.

"I'm telling Mom."

"She'll laugh too! Hahaha!"

Later, she supposed it was good they left on a laugh. There didn't seem to be any tension what for Tonraq coming out as basically a verbal warning to the tribe. Even if that laughter came at her expense, she wasn't upset.

Tonraq cleared his throat as they approached the deserted village the next evening. "You aren't mad at me, are you?"

"Nah." Korra laughed now as she thought of that shark popping out of the ice. "That was a good prank. Did you find it on the line earlier?"

"Yes. I asked Tukkuk if we could leave it on for another day. Those sharks don't move too much so it's not a big deal he was hooked that long."

She shook her head. "Well played. I'll have to remember that one."

"I'm proud of you sweetheart. First day hunting and you get a beautiful catch."

"Do you think Mom will show me how to make gloves and boots and a hat out of the pelt?"

"I think so." Tonraq nodded to the bag on his sled. "I found a few polar bear dog bones too, if you want a gander at them." He cleared his throat and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "I'm sure Asami will think sealskin is soft."

Korra jerked upright and turned a shocked look to her father. He raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Your mother and I guessed from the letters, but your reaction confirms it. You told Nukkuk you're not looking for a husband, but are you looking for a wife?"

Korra snorted. "We aren't even close to being there. I have no idea if she's willing to think about me that way."

"Don't worry. Keep pursuing her, and she'll break down. I courted your mother for two years before she caved."

"Two years, huh?" Korra laughed. "Surprised you stuck it out, Dad."

"I was so in love with her, I would still be trying to this day."


He threw back his head and laughed.

"Anyway, I'd like the bone if I can have it. Maybe I can make stuff for my friends." Mako had mentioned breaking his last pocket knife. Bolin would probably like a legitimate Nuktuk necklace. Asami… Asami would get the sealskin. That is, if she could get Asami to send her shoes and gloves for sizing purposes.

Korra glanced back at her father. "So you're really okay with it?"

"I like her. I like Mako too, but Asami has a good head on her shoulders."

"And the fact she's a woman?"

Tonraq shrugged. "Living this long in the South has changed me. When I was your age, I would have been upset, but what does it matter if you love each other and take care of each other? I want you to be happy, Korra." He glanced at her. "Does that bother you?"

"No. I'm just a little afraid that reaching for more will hurt our friendship."

"It will strengthen it," Tonraq replied firmly.

Korra wished she had his confidence. "Two years, really?"


Chapter Text

Air Temple Island was busy that day. Asami walked through the crowd of tourists flocked at the docks. She caught sight of Pema in the crush and approached to greet her. Pema took her hand with a gentle smile. “You actually look like you’ve slept in the last few days. Finally coming to give Korra a call?” It took you long enough, was implied.

“Um… Yes, Pema. Thank you. We’ve been writing letters, but…”

“You want to hear her voice, huh? You’re in luck. The kids are busy training with their father, so you should be able to have a private conversation.”

Asami wished her face hadn’t chosen to flush at that statement. Pema smiled gently but made no comment.

The communications tower was one of the tallest buildings on the island. Its modern interior was hidden by traditional architecture. The top floor was empty, but she’d known how to work a radio since she was a child. She settled on the frequency used by Tenzin to reach the Southern Water Tribe and hailed them. She spoke to a representative that let her know Korra was at the palace that day.

Asami’s knee jiggled as she waited.

When the radio crackled, her knee struck the table sharply. “Ow!”


“Korra,” she gasped. She had to take a moment to gather herself. She hoped her tears weren’t evident on the other end of the line. “Hey. How are you? I hope I didn’t call at a bad time.”

“I’m doing great! And it’s not a bad time. I just finished meditating in the spirit world.”

“I actually have gone in myself.”

“Yeah? Just wandering?”

“Iroh and I played Pai Sho. He’s really good.”

“Just… Be careful. The spirit world has been a little darker than usual recently. Sounds like things have been going well for you though, I mean in general.”

“They have, but… I miss you so much, Korra.”

Korra’s voice softened audibly. “I miss you too. It’s so good to hear your voice. I’m glad you called. I thought about it, but I was never sure when a good time would be.”

“Any time is a good time. I promise.”

“So, how has that snowmobile thing been going?”

“Fantastic. We’re working on a new patent for a prototype that’s going to revolutionize the entire automotive industry. We may be able to finally start mass-producing Satomobiles again. It will be a happy day when I drive down the street and can pick out my car at a traffic stop.”

“Revolutionize the whole industry, huh?”

“The whole damn industry.”

“You’re really something. You know that, right?”

“Korra…” Asami laughed into her hand and shook her head. She’d already said how much she missed Korra. “Do you have any plans on the horizon?”

“My parents have a few outings. I may go with them.”

“Hunting things?”

“Always hunting and gathering around here. It’s all so earthy and necessary for life. Simple, you know? I’ve had a lot of fun and learned so much.”

“I’m glad for you. Do you feel better about everything?”

“Yeah, I do, actually. More grounded, I guess. I…” Korra paused long enough that Asami wondered if they’d lost their connection. “I butchered a seal last week, and I didn’t think about those people at the reeducation camp until after. I think I’m starting to let that horror go a little. It’s still there; I’m kind of weird about eating raw meat, but… It’s hard to explain.”

“You should talk about it, Korra. All of it. The public needs to know, but it seems like that might help you too. Tell me if I can do anything to help you.”

“You do help, Asami. And I will, when I get back. I mean it; I’m not brushing it off. How is everyone?”

Asami cleared her throat, surprised by Korra’s passionate statement that she helped. “Well, Mako got a girlfriend. Bolin is still a goofball that Opal puts up with.”

“Yeah, Mako mentioned her in his last letter. Have you met her?”

“Not yet. No chances so far. I—”

There was a thump, and abruptly Meelo was in Asami’s lap, shouting in the receiver. “Hey, Korra!”

“Meelo? Hey, you little jerk. Don’t you dare fart in the radio this time.”

“I just wanted to know if you could smell it.”

“Asami would be the one subjected to that, buddy.”

Well… That private conversation was derailed, especially when Jinora, Ikki, and Rohan came in a moment later. Asami was only able to say goodbye to Korra when their disjointed conversation ended a few minutes later. She was irritated and disappointed by the interruption. A small part of her whispered that it was better not to betray herself though.

No matter how conflicted she was about Korra, she regretted that she hadn’t been able to ask when she could call again. Nor had she been able to broach the 'when will you be back?' question.

 It would figure that Korra’s letter would have arrived in the mail the same day she made a call to Korra.

Dear Asami,

I probably shouldn’t open the letter like this, but Mako said you went to dinner looking half-dead. You’re working too much. I’ll write it again:  You. Are. Working. Too. Much. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, take a day off and do something fun.

About Republic City culture: you’re discounting the culture of Republic City too much. You guys have the best of everything, little bits and pieces of all cultures. I love it there, and it can be home to so many people. You talked about how Republic City folks don’t give up. That’s a pretty big piece of cultural identity there, and you embody it.

The airbender kids aren’t that bad! They’re awesome and a lot of fun. You don’t have to worry about scaring them, and forget having to work to get them to open up. They’re easy. It’s the shy ones that are hard. But give me a polar bear dog any day over a human kid. They’re a lot easier to understand.

Speaking of, I saw a big old polar bear dog the other day. Not nearly as big as Naga, but they never get as big as Naga in the wild. She was an old one: skinny and unkempt. Behind her tottered 2 fat polar bear dog pups. Reminded me of how I met Naga. They were cute, but she would have mauled me if I got any closer to her pups. So I just watched, and they wandered out of sight. Too bad there aren’t smaller cameras around here; it would have been a great picture.

Mako did write to me. Half of the letter was about the weather. Half was about how happy he is about having his old job back. He included the above statement about you. And there was one sentence as a post-script about the girl he’s seeing. It must be serious if he said something about her. When you meet her, you’d better let her know what she’s in for.

Just kidding. (Maybe not!)

My favorite tea changes. I really like a spicy black tea blend right now. Found it in a specialty tea shop in Harbor City. It’s called Salty Otter’s Tit. As the name implies, the tea will wake you up in the morning.

Sending another little parcel. I did take those pictures; scared a little boy half to death in the process. I carved a few bits of bone. They’re silly so you can toss them out, but I thought you might like them.

Your friend,

There were a few other little figurines to match the fat, smiling walrus. Asami’s favorite was the grinning seal. All of the animals seemed so jovial, though she didn’t doubt they could be dangerous. Trust Korra to make them happy though.

“I love you,” Asami said with a forlorn sigh, looking at the two words ‘Your friend’.

The next day at work, Lee reminded her that she had a lunch meeting with an old associate of her father’s. Ikken was a well-respected man who served in a managerial position for Future Industries and sat on the executive officer table. He was her father’s kind of man—wealthy self-made nonbender born and raised in Republic City, the sort of man that oozed entitlement only because he’d earned it. He’d been with the company for twenty years. He definitely knew what he was doing, and his good word meant a lot. The fact he’d supported her from the start probably had earned her respect from his peers.

Ikken waited for her in Lee’s office, and he motioned for her to take her coat. It was unseasonably cold and raining that day. “I was hoping to treat you to Kwong’s.”

Lee stepped beside her, pointedly not giving Ikken the opportunity to slip her coat onto her shoulders. His voice was low as he asked, “Do you want me to go with you?”

“I'll be back soon,” she declined, surprised at his offer.

Ikken drove one of Hiroshi’s older designs, and the engine purred like a newer unit. He’d asked her once for a car like her own, but she’d declined. Asami was content to watch the traffic around them and listen to the soft whir of the windshield wipers, but he tried to start conversation. “Construction’s coming along.”

“Slowly but surely.”

“A bit of a headache because downtown isn’t a viable option. Water District to the other harbor takes nearly an hour in traffic.”

“Not many people braved the bridges and downtown before we lost it. I’m hoping the council will approve a beltline that rings the spirit portal again.”

“Amazing.” His eyes cut to the portal that glowed especially bright in this gray day. It cast a rainbow-like glow against the water that fell around it. “What’s on the other side?”

“A field of flowers and trees in the distance.”

“So you have been. There was a rumor you and the Avatar disappeared into the portal for a few days.”

“We did. We both needed time away.”

Ikken didn’t seem to know what to say about that. He hesitated. “What do you think of the way the Beifong boy was able to harness that spirit energy into a machine?”

“It was evil,” Asami responded, echoing what Korra told her so adamantly before. “Not right at all.”

His eyes cut to hers again. They were soft brown, and they reminded her of her father. “I know you have to say that with your…associates, but surely the engineer in you is awed. Think of the possibilities. All that sitting over there may be an endless energy supply.”

She remained silent about that rather than admitting the truth of it. “There’s more to the spirits and spirit energy than powering weapons. Kuvira’s weapon did that and nearly destroyed the entire city. Avatar Korra managed to change it all into that—and tore a hole in our world doing it. Experimenting with it is dangerous and unethical.”

He took a deep breath and shook his head, making one more comment almost ruefully. “You’re so like your father in some things.”

Asami finished his thought. “But not that.”

Ikken didn’t reply.

Kwong’s received them happily, and they were escorted to a corner table. It was private enough to allow them to talk freely but still out in the main dining room. Asami ordered her usual—sans alcohol. She was surprised when Ikken ordered a fire whiskey over ice.

“Have some wine,” he admonished her.

She looked at him again in a new light. He wore a new, well-cut suit, and his hair and mustache were oiled. He must color his mustache to make it black, but his hair only had a smattering of gray. He was a handsome man, and he was dressed and groomed to his best to bring her out to lunch. Asami felt a chill at how wrong this suddenly felt.

She watched him closely as she said, “I don’t drink on the job.”

He froze with his drink at his lips and offered her a sheepish smile as he set his tumbler down. “Well, Asami, you must be wondering why I asked for this meeting.”

Is it a meeting? she wondered.

“I stopped by the workshop, and… Your father was proud of you and your accomplishments, but your most recent project… Well, he’d cry to see that. He always told me you would change the engineering world.”

That made her relax somewhat, but whatever warm emotions he meant to evoke were outweighed by her paranoia he was approaching her romantically. “Thank you, Ikken. I hope so. I’ve always wanted to return to our automotive roots.”

“You brought this company back from the ground up. There were a few bumps, but we’re back and more profitable than ever. We all know what you gave up to keep us afloat this last year. So, cheers to you.”

Asami raised her glass of water and smiled. This whole dinner felt tainted by her own assumptions, but she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling of oily sleaziness. She’d looked up to him as her father’s peer, and now…

“So, how is your personal life?”

“Excuse me?” she asked lightly. The cold fear was back, bringing with it a slow flush of heat up her neck. His audacity…

Ikken raised his brows. “You’re a beautiful young woman. Surely you’re interested in finding a nice man to take care of you.”

“I haven’t needed someone to take care of me since my mother was murdered,” Asami retorted coldly. Surely the flush up her neck was visible now. Her face felt frozen with her anger. Everything about his statement burned hot inside her chest.

Ikken froze at the mention of Yasuko. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… But isn’t everyone’s goal in life to find a companion? Admittedly, I’ve neglected myself in that aspect of my life.” He hesitated and put his hands on the table. Asami held her breath in her horrified anger that he was about to proposition to her.

He looked at her for a quiet moment before he smiled. “So, is the patent coming through? I haven’t heard anything on that front.”

She slowly relaxed, and with each added exchange rooted in work, she felt better. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Afterward she went over their exchange and wondered if she’d taken something out of context. She hoped so.

“Chief Beifong.”

Lin glanced up from her desk and motioned for Asami to sit. She’d been kind enough not to make Asami wait too long even though she’d dropped by with little forewarning on a light afternoon. Asami had filled her waiting time by preventing Mako from getting any work done.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Sato?”

“Please, call me ‘Asami’.”

Lin’s brow and mouth quirked at the suggestion, but she nodded.

Asami continued, “I was wondering if I could run an idea by you.”

Lin’s eyebrow crept up a bit more. “Idea?” she asked with a hint of impatience.

“I’ll ask for your discretion with this information. Future Industries usually contracts out for welding and metalworking jobs, but our usual company isn’t equipped to handle this particular order. I have a rubber design that works well, but I need something stronger for this belt to be used in larger machines. Something metal.”

“Larger like what?”

Was Lin concerned about mechs? Asami put it down to simple curiosity because she didn’t like the implication that Lin was worried about her developing weapons. “A car.” And then she mentally added, “For Korra.”

Lin relaxed back into her seat.

“I was hoping you could put me in contact with the company that works your metal cables.”

Lin raised an eyebrow. “Why me?”

Future Industries had reputation alone to gain a meeting, but this would look better. Always have an in, as Hiroshi had told her time and time again. “Mutual contacts are a better way to reach out to someone with a proposition than announcing myself on their doorstep. You’re a big name in this city. Our current welding company cannot supply what we need for the project so I'd like to contact Moto Metalworking.”

“Fair enough. Just get the hell out of my office. My detectives are here to work, not shoot the breeze with you.”


Lin showed Asami to the door of her office and shook her hand. “I’ll send them a note tonight.”

“Have a good day, Chief.”

Moto Metalworking was not a company that Asami had dealt with previously. She had just learned her father had chosen their current welding company over Moto in the past, though as far as her older employees could tell her, Moto hadn’t taken the snub personally.

They had a small office in one of the pockets of the outskirts of downtown that had been left pristine after the battle with Kuvira. Her appointment today was with the owner, Benji, at his convenience.

Benji was in thirty-six years old, a firebender, recently married to a younger woman—a graduate student at the University of the Republic—and he was an economic conservative. He had a younger sister, Naomi, also a firebender, who also worked high within the company. His father, whom he had inherited the company from, was not retired officially, but he worked across town in the factory. (Asami wondered if her father would have chosen to do the same if things had worked out differently.)

Being armed with this knowledge was the best way to be. She had no doubt they’d dug into her life as well. Asami hoped to gauge how friendly, interested, and trustworthy they would be. At least she could be confident they would want to gain a long-standing professional relationship with a business giant.

Asami was politely escorted to the waiting area in front of Benji Moto’s office. Benji’s assistant brought her excellent tea and chatted with her amicably about the topic they all shared:  Kuvira’s attack and the resulting reconstruction of their city.

“She was insane,” the woman said conviction. “I thank the stars every night that Avatar Korra is on our side.”

Asami’s heart jerked like always when she heard that Korra was loved and appreciated. “She was never going to let Kuvira take the city. She would have given her life to protect everyone evacuating.”

“She needs more than that little park for appreciation. How many times has she saved this city? She chased Amon out of the city, killed that giant dark spirit, and then defeated Kuvira’s giant robot and her army.”

It wasn’t a robot, but that didn’t matter. “I completely agree.”

“Where is she, anyway? Usually the papers have a picture of her every few days.”

“Avatar Korra is visiting her family in the South right now.”

“Ah… Well, I hope she comes back soon.”

Asami kept her agreement to herself.

The door to Benji’s office opened, and he walked out of it to greet Asami. He was well-dressed, polished, and wore his black hair short and well-groomed. He was altogether blandly handsome, though the angle of his short graying beard gave his face character. His eyes were surprisingly blue-green, given he was a firebender. He smiled and said, “Ms. Sato, I’m so glad to make your acquaintance.”

This was all very cleverly done. She felt at ease, was pleased by the pro-Avatar environment (surely they knew Asami was personal friends with Korra), and Benji had chosen to come out to greet her, not sit behind his desk in a position of power as she came to him.

It was clever, and it was working.

Asami stood, appreciating the moment of surprise that crossed Benji’s face when he had to raise his head to look her in the eye. He was probably her height, but she usually wore slight heels for business meetings. Benji took her hand in a firm handshake.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me on such short notice, Mr. Moto.”

“Call me Benji, please.” He laughed and motioned for her to step into his office. Asami turned to his secretary. “It was nice to meet you.”

Benji’s office was brightly lit by the afternoon sun and quite cheerfully decorated. His walls were decorated with landscape paintings. Benji noticed her appraisal and volunteered, “My wife painted those.”

“Really? I’d love to have a piece or two for my apartment.” She was making nice, but she meant it.

His smile grew. “I’ll let her know. Did your properties survive the attack?”

“I lost my waterside warehouses, but my offices and apartment survived. All of my workers had evacuated by that point.”

“Good. We were lucky to remain untouched.” Benji shook his head. “I never thought we’d see an attack like that this day and age. I still don’t understand what Kuvira thought she could gain.”

“She was probably too far gone to understand it herself.” If the woman had employed a cannibal sadist just because he was a good metalbender, attacking an independent city was nothing. Asami felt a pang of regret as she thought of Korra's confession she had trouble eating raw meat. She couldn't imagine what Korra had seen at that place.

“How did that giant mech work? I know you had a hand in dismantling it after the battle.”

“Most of it was destroyed during the battle, but my friends saw the interior. Kuvira used spirit vines to power it. It was…atrocious in every sense.” Atrocious and ingenious. There had been no truly new technology, other than the spirit weapon and energy source, but the mech had been an efficient combination of the all the newest technologies of the world. The thought of using spirit vines as an energy source was intriguing…but Korra would more than disapprove. Asami made herself think once more about the danger of trying to harness that energy supply.

Benji shook his head. “I’ve wondered if that could be done, but if that weapon was the main result…” His voice trailed off, and he sighed. “Well, thanks to the Avatar, we’re safe again. And you, of course, Ms. Sato.”

“My father gave his life to protect this city.”

Benji’s hand curled closed on his desk, and his expression communicated both sympathy and discomfort. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Ms. Sato. I can’t comprehend how you’re feeling right now.”

She appreciated his gesture for what it was and cleared the heaviness from her throat. “Call me Asami, please.”

“All right, Asami. Now, what brings you by? Chief Beifong said you were interested in a joint project.”

“I have a question of a metalworking nature. I’m in need of a metal belt of sorts.”

Benji raised his eyebrows. “You’ll need to be more specific. But you’ll also have to be more specific with my sister. I’m a delegator and administrator. She’s the metal-mind of the family, as my father puts it. She’s apparently running late at the factory today, but I’ll be happy to take you there.” He glanced at her curiously. “May I ask why your current welders can’t supply this?”

“It’s not part of their standard production. But before we discuss anything more specific, I’ll need you to sign privacy statements.”

Benji raised his eyebrows, but he nodded. “My lawyers have already received the documents.”

“And if you come up with an appropriate product, I’ll be more than happy to set up a working relationship for this product. I think we can both benefit from this relationship.”

“I was hoping you would say that.” He smiled. “Which is why my sister and I have already signed those documents. I sent them back by courier this morning. I don’t mind if you want to receive confirmation about that before proceeding.”


On their way out, Asami stopped to phone Future Industries’ lawyers and was informed that the legal document was signed and sealed. There was no way Benji hadn’t read the document and therefore no way for him not to know the grave consequences of revealing the new product’s design.

Benji drove one of the high-end Satomobiles, a line that Hiroshi had designed and one that Asami didn’t care for. It was designed for comfort without any thought to ascetics, something her father had never realized could be combined.

Moto Metalworking’s factory was in an inland district of Republic City. This area was the least affected by spirit vines and had been virtually untouched by the battle with Kuvira. The streets were in need of paving, something Raiko’s administration needed to be prodded about continually.

Benji tapped his polished shoe on the floor as they stepped into the factory; his eyes flickered about the busy place in search of his younger sister. It was a loud place, full of activity on several separate production lines. Instead of speaking, Benji motioned for Asami to follow him and they approached a separate room attached to the main warehouse.

Inside was an assortment of tables, cluttered with a variety of metal scraps. The room was centered around modern blacksmithing machinery, including a power hammer. What drew Asami’s eyes was the old fashioned blacksmith forge; the clang of the blacksmith hammer against the anvil echoed in her ears. The blacksmith wore a sweat-stained white shirt, rough canvas pants, and a heavy leather apron. Her black hair pulled back into a tight bun, and the rest of her head was covered in a welder’s mask.

“Naomi!” Benji shouted.

Her hammer was raised for the next strike, and she didn’t hesitate to bring it down again. Asami’s eyes followed the flexing muscles of her arm and shoulder through her thin shirt. The muscles of her back were corded too. This woman was built like Korra:  solid muscle. She continued striking the glowing portion of the zig-zagging bar on the anvil until it was a smooth and square rod and the metal had cooled back to gray. After she finished, she finally lowered her hammer.

As she turned, it was clear that she, unlike Korra, knew how attractive her strength made her.

“Benji?” she asked. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed by her current dirty, sweaty state. She pushed the welding mask up; her eyes were blue-green, like her brother’s. “Ms. Sato? I thought we were meeting later today.”

“I told you the meeting was this morning.” Benji’s voice was tinged with irritation.

“It’s alright,” Asami hastened to say. She had moved the meeting up the day before, but it wasn’t much forewarning for someone with plans already. She needed this meeting to go smoothly, and she knew from Mako and Bolin that a sibling fight could ruin anyone’s day. “Sometimes I lose all track of time in my workshop. What are you crafting?”

Naomi turned and grasped the cool part of the rod in her heavy gloves. “Traditional eastern Earth Kingdom sword. A lesson in patience.” She set the rod—billet, perhaps—on her workbench and stripped off her gloves.

“If you’ll give me a moment to clean up?”

“Quickly. Then perhaps we can interest you in lunch, Asami?”


When Naomi left the room, Benji turned to Asami. “I’m so sorry. She shouldn’t be working on personal project during company time.”

She tried to reassure him. “I tend to do that myself. I really don’t mind.”

Benji sighed. He remained oddly agitated, and Asami had trouble presuming why he would be. “I suppose I can give you a tour while we wait.”

And so he did. Asami liked what she saw. The warehouse was clean and organized, the workers seemed content to be there, and everyone was on task. It had all the marks of being well managed. She knew from personal experience that it was hard to find and train good managers.

When Naomi emerged, Asami almost didn’t recognize her. She wore a fashionable skirt suit, a few touches of makeup, and her hair was down, straight and smooth. This time, she held out her hand and took Asami’s in a firm shake. Her smile was muted. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Asami Sato.”

They chatted inconsequentially on their way to Kwong’s. Their entrance to the restaurant garnered an immediate walk back to a small, private dining room. The Moto siblings had enough etiquette not to discuss business over their food, so their inconsequential talk continued through the main course:  probending, the coming winter, reconstruction of the city.

Then, abruptly, Naomi sat back, straightened her shoulders, and announced, “I’m gay.”

Asami stilled, shocked by what she had heard. Naomi looked at her belligerently. “I’m sorry?” Asami said in question. She had no idea what the implication might be. That wasn’t true; she was afraid of what the implication might be.

Benji heaved an angry sigh and put his face in his hand. “Damn it, Naomi. Ms. Sato, she doesn't mean anything by it.”

Naomi went on as if her brother hadn't spoken. “Your father had a certain reputation, including clear disdain of homosexuals.”

“My father and I disagreed on many things, including that.” Asami’s voice trembled with the anger she couldn’t hide. “My company is founded on the principle that all kinds—benders, women, homosexuals—are welcome. I have never felt any other way.”

Naomi relaxed back into her seat and finally looked away. Benji heaved another heavy sigh. “Forgive my sister. She tends to be…confrontational about her sexuality. We are dedicated to a professional relationship with Future Industries.”

“Not many people know how difficult it can be to be a lesbian in this society. I’m blessed to be a position where I can be transparent about my relationships, and I refuse to be any other way.”

“The only thing I care about is if we can have a good working relationship.” Asami’s temper started to rise, and her voice reflected that. She felt as attacked by Benji’s dismissal as Naomi’s defensiveness. I’m a lesbian too! she wanted to shout.

“Is that settled, Naomi?” Benji asked sharply, more a command than a question.

“Yes. It’s settled. I thought it was best to get that out of the way so that we weren’t slapped with a lawsuit later or have to take one out.”

“Your sexuality was not part of the privacy statement, and it won’t be part of a working contract,” Asami said more sharply than she was wont.

Lunch ended at about that moment. Benji was angry at his sister, Asami was angry at herself, and Naomi was defiantly casual now that her objections were out in the open. Benji dropped Asami off in front of Moto’s office buildings so that she could drive her car back to Future Industries. Naomi settled into the passenger seat, probably sent by her brother to make nice. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

“You offend me by assuming I would be so narrow-minded,” Asami said with more heat than she intended.

“You’ve worked hard to distance yourself from your father’s ideals. My wife has followed the few pieces you’ve written and nearly every interview you’ve given.” It was an agreement, one that didn’t do much to soften the sting of the accusation.

She had worked almost too hard. Restarting the company, especially in light of Varrick nearly ruining her all over again, she’d focused as much on financials as on revitalizing Future Industries’ image to the public. She’d learned a lot from her naivety with Varrick, yet still made some mistakes in the beginning. She finally had a handle on her professional life, now that her personal one felt like it was in shambles.

Suddenly it crashed down on her how much she missed Korra. It was a physical ache in her chest, a need so deep she could almost smell Korra’s clean scent. She wanted to burrow into her, hold her close, and spill out every secret.

“I’m in love with Korra,” she said before she’d even thought the words.

“I’m sorry?” It was Naomi’s turned to be stumped. As Asami abruptly realized her mortification, Naomi was still floundering with the information. “I… That’s… I’m sorry. I have no idea what to say.”

“No, I’m sorry. That was inappropriate.” If she were alone, she might have driven off a bridge to escape her embarrassment.

“It’s okay. I had no idea you...” Naomi looked at her hands for a minute before she blurted out, “Would you like to have dinner with my wife and me sometime?”

Two women in a stable marriage. What she wouldn’t give to see what that might look like. “I would like that.” Then she felt a rush of fear that swept away all of her embarrassment. She'd just betrayed herself to a stranger. The fact she was a lesbian didn't mean she was trustworthy, even as much as that factored into Asami's confession. “Naomi, I trust your discretion with this information. No one else knows.”

“About Korra or about your sexuality?”

“My sexual orientation,” Asami admitted.

“I won’t speak of it to anyone.”

“Your wife—”

“Wouldn’t say a word to anyone either, even if I told her. But I won’t. You’ll feel much better about yourself and much safer if you come out. I just want you to think about that.”

“I can’t. Not right now.”

“I know what it feels like to think you have to hide. Please come to dinner with us.”

Asami nodded.

After a moment, Naomi quietly said, “It’s not as bad as you think. The trick is to act like it’s not important—because it isn’t. Who you love has nothing to do with how well you run your company.”

“It’s hard enough as a woman engineer, but adding on—”

Naomi had been hesitant prior to this moment, but her tone firmed abruptly. “Becoming their stereotype? The fault is on them for having it in the first place. You have to live your life to make yourself happy. In twenty years, will you regret being honest about who you love or the fact you were never able to marry her in public?”

That struck Asami. She had no response.

Thankfully, fifteen minutes later, they were back into purely business-mode. Both Benji and Naomi stared at the dynamic transmission system that Asami’s best engineers had been tweaking for weeks. Naomi shook her head. The room quieted as the engine turned off, and her voice was muted as she said, “By the Avatar.”

Asami smirked. “Korra actually inspired this design. I want to use this in larger, more powerful automobiles, and right now the belt is the limiting factor.”

Benji gave a faint laugh. He looked at his sister. “Can you do it?”

Naomi slowly nodded, her gaze directed inward. Asami could only imagine she was paging through her knowledge to throw together ideas of how she could meet this task. “I can do it. It’ll need an excellent lubrication system for the shift between gears, but, yes, I can make you a belt up to the task. I’ll need to work directly with you or your workers to know the tension that will be put on this thing.”

Asami nodded. “My team will work with you on that.”

“Do you have a ceiling cost?”

“I want a working belt for the prototype. We can worry about affordability after the entire thing is put together.”

Again, Naomi nodded. “Give me a week, and then we’ll see where we are.”

Given her current ambivalence, Asami wasn’t surprised to find herself stepping into the spirit portal once again. This time, the sky was dark and oily, and that darkness seemed to seep into her clothing and stick to her skin like heavy moisture. An oily form slipped through the husks of what had once been flowers, and she stepped backward into the portal to find herself back in the safety of Republic City.

Korra had been right to warn her; she wouldn’t step into the spirit world without a guide again.

It certainly made her current fears about coming out pale in comparison.

Chapter Text

There had been no letter since their talk on the radio, which was a mild disappointment. Korra penned out a quick note asking for gloves, a pair of shoes, and a hat and then indulged herself and wrote about her father’s shark prank. No doubt Asami would raise an eyebrow in question, but hopefully she wouldn’t think much of it. Korra wrote ‘Your friend’ out of habit and signed the bottom.

Apparently her request reached Asami before Asami sent her letter because the letter arrived a week later with a package containing Korra’s requested items. Korra amused herself by trying to put on one glove and not being able to squeeze her palm into it. Asami had slender…well, everything.

The thought made her flush.

By that time, the pelt had been processed by a leather worker in the capital and returned to Korra, along with a congratulatory note about her first hunted seal.

Senna worked with Korra every night on her project, and they made gradual progress.

By the time they left to go on their trip to the coast for the annual equinox mussel gathering, Korra had finished the hat and started on the boots. The gloves would be last because they would be the hardest to sew.

“Spring in two days,” Senna said, settled comfortably behind Korra.

“Yep. I’m ready for longer days. I have so much less energy in the winter.”

“Everyone does. There’s nothing like the first touch of sun of the year.” Senna nudged her and pointed across the snow drifts. Korra pulled Naga to a stop, and they watched a preoccupied white fox weasel as it leapt and twisted midair to dive into a soft snowdrift. He burrowed back up a moment later, empty-handed.

He listened again, perched, and leapt once more. This time, he emerged with a wiggling arctic mouse in his jaws. Korra laughed. “I don’t think Pabu could do that.”

The rest of the trip was comfortably quiet. They reached their destination with the moon high in the sky, casting a halo bridge along the snow. Someone in a heavy parka was waiting on them with a bright lamp in hand. That person stood and pushed back their hood.

“Spirits save me!” she gasped. “I thought it was just a wild polar bear dog. I was about to scream bloody murder. Bless you, Senna and Avatar Korra. Welcome to our little village!”

“Thank you, Winny. Korra, this is Winny, the matriarch of the Tribe of the Sea.”

“I’m honored to meet you, Winny.”

“Well, now,” Winny said with a sniff. They dismounted and followed her to a surprisingly large meeting hall. “Come, bring your beast inside too.”

The steps were sturdy enough to bear Naga’s weight, and the building settled only mildly when she lay down in the entrance. Korra and Senna removed their boots and parka jackets in the entrance. Winny removed hers as well, revealing herself to be an incredibly small woman. She was even smaller than Toph, and rail-thin.

“You’re tall,” Winny said to Korra as Korra thought, You’re short!


“She takes after her father,” Senna said.

“But she looks just like you, Senna! What lovely eyes. Come and sit. I don’t think anyone’s awake to greet you, but we’re pleased to have you with us for the mussel gathering tomorrow.”

After she left, Korra took some time to brush Naga’s teeth and fur and massage her hips and shoulders. Naga fell asleep during the attention, and Korra was careful not to wake her when she snuggled down against Naga’s warm side.

“How does the mussel thing work?” she asked her mother

“The tide is the lowest of the year at the equinox, leaving the ice dry. We go down under the dry ice and gather as many mussels as we can in about half an hour. Then the tide comes back in.”

“Must be good shellfish.”

“Very good.” Senna smiled. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pearl.”

Senna settled into their shared furs for the night, but Korra remained awake for a little while longer. She pulled out the strips of bleached polar bear bone she was preparing to be the handle of Mako’s pocketknife and used the small carving knife her father had lent her to continue to shape the design of flames down the length. She was nearing the point that all it needed was a good sanding, staining, and polishing.

Bolin’s seal tooth necklace had been a good learning experience to figure out how to work with bone on a project like this. The last project she would finish would be an antler comb for Opal.

After finding a stopping point, Korra withdrew Asami’s last letter from her parka for another read before sleep. She set it beside her as she sharpened her knife.

Dear Korra,

Two letters so quickly! I’ve been spoiled. I’m sorry I didn’t write you before the second one arrived. Congratulations on your first seal! The prank sounded terrifying. I probably would have electrocuted the shark and myself if it had been me.

I did take a day off, but I ended up sleeping all day. I’ve been pushing myself too hard recently, but I can’t seem to stop. There’s always something else to do at work, another meeting, another design, another ‘fire’.

' Salty Otter’s Tit’. I don’t think I plan to try that one. I doubt I’ll be able to find it. I’ve sent an interesting blend a man at the tea shop on my block recommended. It’s a black tea blend with a hint of saffron. I’ve always thought saffron was a flat, paint-like taste, but he recommends it highly. Let me know what you think.

Still making steady progress on the snowmobile design. For that, my letter is short; there’s just not much going on other than work. I did go into the spirit portal again, but it was different. It was dark, thick. I thought I should tell you, but I’m sure you’re aware. Maybe it was just a weird day, but I think I’ll wait for you before I step through the portal again.

I haven’t met Mako’s girlfriend yet, but I’ll describe her as soon as I have.

The last period was a heavy blot of ink, as if Asami had rested her pen there for too long. Her next words seemed hurried—the handwriting was slightly sloppier than the rest of the letter.

Sometimes I think about all the time we wasted before becoming friends. I find myself wishing that I’d met you first, even if it meant hitting you with my scooter.

I’m sorry if I seem pushy, but do you have any idea when you might be coming back? I miss you. I love getting your letters, but it’s not the same. I’ll try to call on the radio again soon.


Korra folded the letter and slid it into her satchel. With a sigh, she burrowed into the furs next to her mother, taking comfort in her mother’s scent. She slept deeply only to awaken when her mother rubbed her arm.

“Honey, it’s time to wake up.”

Korra sat up and stretched, popping several joints in her back. She did the same with her neck, despite her mother’s disapproval. They dressed and ate a quick breakfast of lard and berries. Korra considered her annoying shaggy hair and tugged half of it back into a short wolftail. Senna, for her part, rebraided her hair. Korra’s own braids that contained her forelocks had remained in place overnight so she didn’t bother with them.

They emerged into the village to find it quite awake. The sun was up, which was fantastic to see in the morning.

Introductions went around, and then the entire village packed up and set on their way to the coastal ice. Only a few chosen adults, including waterbenders, went to the mussel gathering grounds. The rest of the village remained at safe distance, preparing their pots for a boil.

There was something mesmerizing about watching the ocean’s water level sink before her eyes. She’d never seen anything like it. According to her mother, the ocean dropped a good forty feet to allow this venture.

“The tide is out,” Senna pronounced, and she opened a hole in the glacier with a pull of waterbending. The villagers moved efficiently by dropping the ladder into the dark hole. Korra dropped in last, her eyes wide to take in the eerie green hue of the under ice, which was tilted up in a tent-like bow. Below her feet were rocks worn smooth by the water and ice, and the ice that surrounded them seemed to eat up their noise. It groaned occasionally, raising the hair on Korra’s neck.

Beautiful but deadly, this place. It was alien, even more alien than the spirit world. This was her home.

She stooped and crawled into a particularly tight area of the ice to find a mass of mussels. She gathered handfuls of closed black-shelled mussels, her hands aching from the cold. Her breath steamed in front of her face and she dropped as many mussels into her bucket as she could manage.

It seemed only a few minutes later when Winny’s sharp voice signaled. “Up, up. Back out now!”

Korra backed out of her wedge with bucket in hand. She motioned for everyone else to leave first, even as she felt the slow rise of water in the distance. The ice was groaning and shifting noticeably now, but she had the best chances to make it out anyway. She climbed the ladder and stood on ice with minutes to spare.

They all laughed out their nervous tension and walked back to the waiting celebration. Behind them, the sun set in beautiful reds and purples. Korra took the bucket her mother carried, and Senna put a hand on her elbow as they walked back. She judged Korra’s bucket. “Good haul.”

“Thanks. I’m just that awesome.”

Senna laughed at her deprecation. “It’ll taste wonderful.”

She was right. Their catch was delicious: chewy, briny, and rich. Usually shellfish were cooked in some kind of vinegar base, but these were perfect without any seasoning. The entire tribe laughed and joked their dinner away. Each new pot was watched for the telltale opening of the mussels, and then they were scooped out and shared as they cooled. Korra was well on her way to filling up, with most of her fingertips burned from handling the hot shells. She bit down a shockingly hard mouthful. She spat into her palm and stared in shock.

A pearl, a small golden one. And alongside it was a piece of tooth. “You’re got to be kidding.” She reached a finger in her mouth and felt along her upper left arcade. Yep, she’d broken off the inner point on one of her premolars.

“Ouch! Let me see!”

Korra tilted her head back and opened her mouth. Senna frowned. “I don’t see the pulp. Does it hurt?”

Korra clenched her teeth and released them. She shook her head.

“Probably doesn’t need to be fixed then. You should see a dentist when we get back. Maybe they can reattach it.” Senna touched the pearl in her palm. “Lovely. Surprisingly round.”

Korra nodded, pursing her lips as she considered the pearl in her palm. Oh well, she broke a tooth off in sacrifice. It would look good on a strip of maroon ribbon.

“That’s good luck,” Winny proclaimed. “Rarely get a pearl big enough to break a tooth off on. Usually just swallow ‘em down and shit ‘em out none the wiser.”

“Do you ever sell them anyway?” Korra grinned at the thought.

Winny cackled. “Imagine some rich woman in Republic City wearing a ring with a pearl that was shit out by a Southerner. Oh, my lord, that would be a sight!”

By the time they got back, it was dusk. There was still time in the day, and the members of the quiet village seemed curious about their visitors. They laughed and joked and had more serious talks about the ice and the seasons.

Eventually, the chief, Winny, caught Korra’s eye before she spoke. “Some rabid animals tearing up our traps. Maybe we can go look tomorrow, Avatar.”

Korra cocked her head. “Why do you think they’re rabid?”

“They don’t eat a damn thing caught in those traps. Kill them dead, rightly, but won’t consume the flesh."

“And no damn tracks,” one man said.

A chill passed down Korra’s neck. More spirits? This was all too consistent to be coincidental. “I’ll go with you tomorrow to look.”

With that dark thought, Korra stepped out into the night air. She loved talking with them, but at the same time, she relished some quiet time alone. The evening was quiet, and the waxing moon was bright enough to illuminate the shore.

The bay was surprisingly close to the village, and at this time of year, the bay ice was firm and thick. She walked out onto it, wandering closer to where the ocean water lay beneath the ice. Out in the bay, dark dorsal fins emerged from the water. Korra counted six wolf whales, and she watched them circle lazily around the bay. After her brush with what could have been a dark spirit, those physical whales seemed benevolent.

“Don’t go any closer.” Senna’s hand around her arm surprised Korra. She felt like a little kid in that moment, daring to take one step closer to the edge of the ice.


Senna pointed across the ocean water at the pod of wolf whales.

“Those are the first wolf whales I’ve seen,” Korra admitted.

“Man eaters,” her mother replied ominously.

“I thought they were harmless.” Korra glanced from her mother back to the pod that circled closer to their position on the ice. They ate local fish and seals, and their only danger was that they hunted the same food as many of the coastal tribes.

“The native pods are. Those are nomads, and nomads hunt and eat men. Look at their dorsal flukes: tall and thin. Friendly ones are short and curved.”

“But they’re the same type of whale?”

“Like different breeds of cat or dog.” Senna shook her head. “When I was a girl, I saw a man killed by a pod of the nomadic wolf whales. They broke ice from the shore with the man on it and slid on one side to tip him into the water. They flung him around for several minutes, then tore his arm off.” She shuddered.

“Wow. That still bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“Tall and thin are not friends. Curved and short can stay in your port.”

Korra shook her head. “I don’t remember that rhyme.”

They watched those whales for a few more minutes. Then Senna said, “It does still bother me. I remember the memory, and I remember the feelings I had when I saw it. I sometimes have nightmares about it, though Aang knows I’ve seen far worse injuries before. Some things just stick with you.”

Korra closed her eyes, and that flayed man was there, covered in flies, his stench in her nostrils. “At the reeducation camp, they butchered people. There was a table with strips of ribs and a leg cut up into steak. There were people strung up by their arms to suffocate. The one I remember most is a man on a cross that had been skinned to his waist. It was so much of that, healing that, seeing that, talking to those people. I…”

She swallowed against the thickness of her saliva. “It’s getting better. But sometimes when I see a seal butchered, I think that people can look the same way, and I’m back there again.”

“We butcher seals because we need them to survive. There’s no cruelty or enjoyment in the killing itself. We don’t cause pain unless it’s to directly end a life.” Senna took her hand and squeezed. “You did nothing wrong.”

“I wish I could have saved them. The dead and the living.”

Her mother stepped closer to frame her face in her hands. Her thumbs smoothed over Korra’s cheeks soothingly. “You would take on the burdens of the world if you could. That’s the person that you are, Korra. But you have to let go of some of it, sweetie, especially the parts that you have no control over.”

Korra sank forward into her mother’s arms and blinked out a few tears, taking deep breaths and settling into herself. “They thought people were meat.”

“But they aren’t. And you don’t think that way. Those men who did that and thought that are gone—dead. Don’t let them linger inside you.”

All she could do was nod into her mother’s shoulder.

“Every time you think of the ugliness that you saw there, find something good to think about instead. Something good that happened to you or that you saw someone do for someone else. Focus on the good, not the bad. Tell me something good that happened when you were traveling the world.”

Korra considered for a few moments, realizing that she had as many good memories as bad ones. “There was an old woman at a coffee plantation I worked at for a few weeks. She said I looked like I needed a grandmother. She shared her lunch—some crazy spicy bean paste bun—and would just talk to me every day. She outlived four husbands, six children, and three sisters, but she said she still loved life and giving back for all that she’d received. I left her most of my earnings when I went. Her name was Rin.”

She realized she was smiling into her mother’s shoulder, and she stayed in that place, thinking of Rin and those two weeks at the plantation. All the while, Senna’s hands rubbed her back gently. After a few minutes, Senna spoke. “I used to put you on my shoulders. You wanted to see and do everything. You loved everyone, never met a stranger… After the White Lotus took you away, you became sullen, quiet. You were disrespectful to your teachers, and all you seemed to enjoy was fighting. You were always so desperate to stay with us. We should have taken you away to somewhere they couldn’t find us.”

Sullen, distrustful? Korra couldn’t remember when she stopped trusting her bending teachers. She’d simply learned they’d leave after a while, usually just as she was getting attached to them. Her only masters that remained were Katara and Tenzin. She had had at least a dozen firebending and earthbending teachers, and the only ones she really remembered well were the first ones.

“It’s…” Korra swallowed down her bitter tears. “It’s too late now. I love you, Mom.” She hesitated. “I’ve started to wonder why they did what they did.”

“I have for a long time,” Senna said. “Your father…and I as well…we were worried about your safety. Every time we demanded more time with you, there would be a new threat they could cite. But there was never an attack."

“Unalaq was friends with Suntoq.” The implication that the leader of the White Lotus was embroiled with Unalaq would be enough for Senna to understand.

Senna took a sharp breath. “How do you know this?”

“Zaheer,” Korra admitted.

“How can you bring yourself to even speak to that man?! After what he did to you?!”

“He was the person who broke me out of this funk,” Korra defended. “I can’t forgive him, but in some things, I trust him. He cares about the world, and he cares about the spirits. I was in the way of what he thought was best for the world. It was never personal.”

“Which is why he can’t be trusted! He tried to kidnap you when you were a child, Korra! That’s evil. That man is evil.”

Korra sighed. “I don’t think people are evil. They do evil things, but they aren’t evil. Anyway, if he’s right about Suntoq, I’m not sure what to do.”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“I’m thinking about disbanding the White Lotus.”

Senna’s eyes widened. “Can you do that? They’re a powerful organization right now.”

“Aang created their current iteration. I think I can disband it. Or at least turn them to doing something else. What they did to me wasn’t right, not for me or for the Avatar. And I won’t let them do that to the next Avatar.”

“Don’t talk about that, honey.”

Korra had to swallow before she spoke; her voice was thick. “I came close, Mom. I can’t ignore the future the way I ignored the past.”

Senna framed Korra’s face between her hands and tugged her gaze down. Her expression was fierce. “You will live a long, happy life. You’ll have many children, put your parents to the sea, and watch your children’s children grow up. Do you hear me? You’ve lived through enough pain and heartache for your lifetime. The rest should be filled with happiness.”

Korra’s eyes stung with tears. She wrapped her mother into a hug. “I just want to be happy,” she admitted.

“Tell me how I can help you.”

“You are, Mom.”

The trap that Winny led her to was a place of gore. The blood that had been spilled was untouched; it had frozen into the snow in a gory red mess. The spray was wide, as if the animal—a fox weasel—had been flung to and fro while it bled to death.

Korra reached for the snow and concentrated on the spiritual energies. The banyan-grove tree didn’t reach this far, and whatever had been here hadn’t left a trace of energy behind. Korra shook her head as she stood up.

There were no animal tracks, only the tracks of villagers who had approached close enough to see what had happened at the trap. There was nothing but the stripped remains of a fox weasel and its blood. The trap was destroyed.

Tenzin had once told Korra that the usual explanation was the easiest one. Oddly, the easiest explanation was that a spirit had done this.

She sent Winny back and kept Naga nearby as she slipped into the spirit world. She wandered for a little while but received no clues as to what was going on in the South Pole. There were dark patches in the landscape, like bruises on fruit. She experimented with purifying one, but the darkness returned as soon as she stepped away. When she came back to herself, the sun had tracked to the west and sent its needles of light across the sandy snow.

Her extremities hurt, despite Naga’s certain heat. The wind had shifted to blow at her face, and now she had to massage herself and heatbend to bring warmth back into her face and limbs.

“That was stupid,” she told Naga.

Naga whined and got up, exuding nervous energy. Korra heard the whisper of metal chains and turned sharply. Instead of the vision of herself that she feared, she saw an oily spirit circle her. It was fluidly fast, and it lashed at her with clear violent intent.

Korra’s stiff muscles hindered her retreat, but the spirit also moved in an unexpected direction:  it burrowed into her chest.

It should have hurt, but instead of pain, there was a deep pulsing wrongness of its oily spirit energy. That essence spread through her as she opened her mouth to scream.

And then she was somewhere else, swimming through the water, screaming a low, echoing scream as she watched her children pierced by dozens of spears. One was already being dragged onto a human vessel, and then her vision was gone with a stab of pain as a spear went through her eye—

She floated along in darkness for a while, confused about who and where she was, only knowing things were wrong—with her and with the world. This place wasn’t made for her, and she needed the strength of light, and there it was, a beacon of purifying energy—

“Korra,” came a soft, urgent whisper.

“Korra,” that feminine voice said, with an undertone of a deeper male voice rumbling through it.

Korra. She was Korra, the Avatar. Korra sat up with a gasp of shock, her hands clawing at her chest. She rolled over, her mind finding the snow and ice and air unfamiliar, as unfamiliar as Naga who paced away from her and whined. She pushed herself onto her knees and touched her face before rolling over to stare up at the starry sky.

Here without lights to blot out the sky’s brilliancy, there were millions of stars smeared across the canvas of the night. She found the sky bison and the airbender with his sharp tattoo and wondered how she knew those constellation patterns.

“Korra,” she said with her own voice and thought to touch her face. The memory of Wan’s time and the effect of spirit possession sent a cold trace of fear through her. Her body didn’t want to move now. The cold had worsened within her extremities, and she felt like she had run for hours.

“Naga,” she said quietly. “Come.”

Naga paced towards her, and Korra crawled onto her saddle. She wondered where the spirit had gone. It didn’t seem to still be inside her. She faded into sleep only to be jolted awake by her mother as Naga walked back into the coastal village.


“Dark spirit,” she said. She fell out of the saddle, and Senna caught her around the shoulders, her face lined with worry.

“Korra, what happened?”

They took her inside, warmed her hands and face, and fed her gradually warming broth. She leaned against the hut wall and soaked up the warmth of the fire. Water and food were needed, but what she wanted most was to curl up and sleep.

“What happened, Avatar?” Winny asked.

“A dark spirit was messing up your traps. It possessed me; never happened before. Had a vision of whales being killed. A whole pod. I don’t know what happened to the spirit.”

Winny shook her head. “There was just that mess out west with the seal pups being slaughtered. We had no part of that. Heard tell there were sightings around them. We’ve had issues with traps for the last few days only.”

Maybe it was all related. Her knowledge of the link between the physical and spiritual world was tenuous as best. In Republic City—and likely Toph’s swamp—the vines of the bayou tree had married the two. But here in the south, there was always a thought that the spirits were linked to the animals and seasons.

Maybe this all related to why the airbenders had been taken by the spirit vines in the city. Korra still hadn’t have a handle on why that had happened.

Was overhunting upsetting the balance? Korra couldn’t process much more. Senna woke her as she tugged her into their sleeping furs, and she didn’t wake with any sort of energy until the next morning.

They stayed two more days at the village. Senna spent her time divided between waterbending lessons and a few healing sessions—one session that was an eight hour labor. The village was too remote for mothers to travel to Harbor City for birthing. Senna was a practiced midwife.

Korra was not. She’d never been present during labor; she was surprised by her own awe. The dilation and contractions were pretty horrifying, but she understood how worth it all that pain was when the new mother placed her crying baby against her breast. She felt a sharp maternal tug; she wanted that.

Senna must have sensed it. “Do you want children?” she asked as she bathed back in the igloo they shared.


“You’ve always been good with children.”

“Kids are awesome. Adults, on the other hand…”

Senna seemed about to say something, but she stopped herself. Korra could imagine the question would be along the lines of:  is there someone you want to have a child with?

Korra pondered that question. She cared for Asami, enough to want more, enough to miss her terribly as a friend alone right now. But could she picture herself having a family with Asami in the future? It would certainly require a closer relationship than the one they shared now. The thought of raising a family together made her blush harder than wondering about sex. It made her think about all the things she didn’t know about the customs here in the South.

On their way back the next day, she found herself asking:  “Mom?”

“Yes, honey?”

Korra felt awkward asking the question, but she forged ahead. “Can you show me how to build an igloo?”

Senna gave her a squeeze. “Sure. Let’s find a good place to do it.”

 About half an hour later, Korra crouched on the snow with her mother. Senna used a long, flat blade to check the consistency of the firm snow they stood on. “It has to be firm, but soft enough to cut. Feel this.”

Korra withdrew her hand from her glove and put it flat on the snow, sensing the consistency with her waterbending. Then she took the knife from her mother and pushed it into the snow, trying to memorize the feel. “This is going to take practice, isn’t it?”

Senna smiled gently. “Practice will help.”

Most people Korra’s age had probably made over a dozen igloos in their lives, at least those that didn’t live in the coastal capital. Many of them had probably practiced for symbolic purposes. It was a mark of adulthood anymore, a sign that you could take care of yourself and your loved ones. It was also a traditional way to ask someone if they would marry you.

“This seems like a good area.” Senna began to cut into the ice, making a line several feet across. She started making perpendicular cuts at both sides of the line. “It’s important that the blocks are the same size in all dimensions, at least for the first few rows.”

With practiced movements, she cut the first block and left her knife in the gap as she wiggled it enough to break it from its connection below. “Help me, Korra. My back has been bothering me recently.”

“Do you want me to do some healing?”

“Mm, no thank you, honey. I just have to avoid straining it.”

Korra took her mother’s place and withdrew the block from the hole with a grunt. Four by two feet and several inches across, the block was more cumbersome than heavy. It definitely wasn't beyond Korra’s strength. Behind her, Senna traced a circle across the snow, surrounding the area where they’d selected their first snow block. “It has to be as close to a perfect circle as you can manage. You’ll want a big enough igloo to lie down flat in too. Unfortunately, you took after your father in height. Bring the block here.”

Korra set the block in place where her mother directed. Senna used her knife to trim each side so that the block stood on its own. It was shockingly geometric for the simple chipping job. “You’ve made a lot of these, haven’t you?”

Senna smiled. “Before you were born, your father and I didn’t have a tribe for a while. We lived out of igloos like these until you were over a year old.”

“You didn’t have a tribe?” It was the first Korra had heard of this. Her parents didn’t talk about the past often.

Senna took a long breath. “My father was…is a traditional man. He never approved of your father. We both knew if we married that I wouldn’t be welcome in my family any longer.”

“So you were disinherited?” Korra was shocked.

Senna nodded. “I loved your father; I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t make a life with him.”

Korra put her gloved hands flat on the ice. Her voice sounded odd to her own ears. “Is my grandfather still alive?”

“Yes,” Senna said quietly.

That hurt; it hurt a lot. Just as Korra thought she might have a chance of learning her people, she realized her parents kept another secret from her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Korra, he’s not a part of our life anymore. Why tell you about a family you can never have? Your father and I knew that we would have to be your only family. I’m sorry if that upsets you, but it was a decision we made long before you were born. I knew I would tell you eventually, but as a child, it seemed unfair. Children tend to blame themselves, and you had so little family already.”

She could either be angry about this or push the thought aside for now. Korra considered the situation as she chipped another block from the snow. Ultimately, she was just too tired to hold a grudge.

“Too thin,” Senna said gently.

Korra measured the upright snow block against the hilt of her mother’s knife before working to cut another piece free. This one was met with approval. Senna used the smaller knife on her belt to trim it and set it into place. And so they worked until they were surrounded by a complete ring of snow blocks.

“This part is one of the most important. You have to slant the row for the next set of blocks.” Senna sliced along the edge of the snow blocks to angle it downwards to the ground. She left the adjacent snow block whole and pointed at the abrupt edge left behind. “The next row starts here.”

Korra continued to slice at the snow, working up a sweat in the process. She did her best to keep her blocks regular in shape. She dropped one block, watching it burst into a puff of snow and giving a sharp curse, “Fucking hogmonkeys!”

Senna burst into laughter. “Where in the world did you hear that?”

“Toph,” Korra replied, pursing her lips as she worked on the replacement block. “So are we cutting out the whole floor?”


Each new row required greater slanting, and Korra paused in her task to watch her mother gently shape the ends of the blocks to greater angles. It didn’t seem possible that the blocks would sit at the angle required for the highest part of the igloo, but everything held together firmly. The snow squealed as Senna grinded the blocks together, a sound that Korra had used to find obnoxious. She’d apparently grown out of that.

“Push the last block out.” Senna pointed to the small hole in the ceiling.

Korra glanced down at the full-sized block in her hands. “It seems big.”

“We’ll trim it into place.”

Korra stretched to angle the block and push it out of the small hole in the top of the igloo. She used Senna’s smaller knife to keep a grip on it as she tilted it in the right orientation. Senna reached around her and trimmed at the edges until it settled firmly into the hole.

“So,” Korra said into the semi-darkness. “Are we trapped in here forever?”

Senna smiled at her joke. She tapped the knife against her leg in a familiar gesture. “We cut our way out.” She didn’t proceed to do so. “Korra, is everything alright with the spirits?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know why that spirit went dark. It may be related to overhunting. I just don’t… It’s not something you can just ask over there. Zaheer and I have been trying to sort it out. There’s darkness all over—some days worse than others. I’ll figure it out.”

“Are you okay? You were so exhausted that night.”

“Better now. Not sure about that either, but I’ve been playing all this by ear. Don’t worry, Mom.”

“It’s my job to worry about you, honey.”

After that matter of fact statement, Senna cut a hole into the igloo wall just large enough for them to crawl out of. Senna got out first, and laughed when Korra’s shoulders wouldn’t fit through the hole.

As she expanded the width, she said, “You are so like your father.”

Korra crawled out and helped her mother plug all the cracks in the igloo with powdered snow. After that, Korra cut one more block, she handed it to her mother inside the igloo and followed behind. Senna trimmed it to fit the hole and settled it in as their door.

“Air flow comes from the small hole under the door and the small one we left in the ceiling.” Senna sighed and sat on the lumpy snow that was the floor. “You should spread several layers of fur on the floor. After that, the warmth of someone inside will melt the inner layers, and the cold wind will freeze the outside. A good igloo will stand strong against a blizzard.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“And nothing warms an igloo better than two newly betrothed lovers.”

“And I did not need to hear you say that.” Korra’s face burned at the thought.

Senna laughed. “Honey, you didn’t think you could ask me how to build an igloo without me asking who you want to build one for, did you?”

Damn. She had hoped her mother would save her that embarrassment. Korra cleared her throat and glanced away.

Senna drew her gaze and raised an eyebrow. Her expression was serious. “Asami?”

Korra took a sharp breath and tilted her head away. She was terrified of admitting it. “I… Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.”

This was so much different than the childish crush she’d felt for Mako. This meant so much more. Though maybe she was reducing her feelings for Mako. The thing that scared her so much was the thought of losing Asami’s friendship by asking for more. Or if Asami did want more and Korra messed it up because she didn’t end up wanting that kind of relationship. She’d never considered that consequence when she’d thrown herself at Mako. Then again, she’d hardly had a friendship with Mako at that point.

Her relationship with Asami was just so much now.

Senna’s gloved hand pushed into her own. “Does she feel the same way?”

“I…” She hoped so. She really did. But Korra really didn’t know. She didn’t know how girls were with each other, if Asami was just being a good girlfriend. If Mako touched her like Asami did, spoke to her like Asami did—which he never would because he was Mako—she would have assumed otherwise, but… “I really don’t know. I’ve never had a friend, a girlfriend, so I’m not sure.”

Senna squeezed her hand. “It will work out how it’s supposed to, honey.”

At the palace, they were greeted by the news that an unsanctioned vessel—likely from the Fire Nation—had been at the edge of the Southern Water Tribe’s seas and had killed two pods of whales in their entirety a week before. Korra felt a shiver of fear as she remembered what it was like to be the victim in that scenario.

“Poor news prior to our Environmental Summit in a few months,” Tonraq said bitterly.

Senna looked to Korra, who didn’t feel like starting the conversation about the possible link with dark spirits. She would talk to her father later. It was a weight of responsibility:  she would have to participate in the summit to persuade people to believe the link between abusing resources and dark spirits. Go figure:  Unalaq might not have lied about everything.

Korra considered that with a bitter smile as she walked to her room.

A letter from Fire Lord Zuko had arrived while Korra was away; it was sitting on her desk unobtrusively. Korra flipped it over to judge the wax seal, smiling at how old-fashioned it was. The wax was red, printed with a stamp of a dragon. Her heartbeat began to thump loudly in her ears as she snapped the wax in half.

Zuko’s script had become a little shaky, but it was still legible and had a royal sort of flair. He’d written:

Dear Avatar Korra,

I understand this information may be difficult to stomach. I myself was uncertain whether you knew about the financial situation of the White Lotus, which admittedly has changed since you’ve come out into the world. As such, I was uncertain if I should even broach the subject with you. Now you’ve beaten me to it.

Before you were found, Master Suntoq wrote to me to ask for financial help in the search for you. I gave a generous amount, in part for the nostalgia of my friendship with Avatar Aang.

When you were found, I let the White Lotus know you were welcome in my court to learn the ways of the Fire Nation and her people. Their reply was to ask for a donation. I was surprised, but I complied. I heard nothing else for several years. Admittedly, I was wrapped up in transitioning my rule to that of my daughter.

When Fire Lord Izumi wrote to the White Lotus, you were older, old enough to begin traveling the world to see the different cultures there. She stated again you would be welcome. We were declined. The White Lotus asked for another donation. At that point, Fire Lord Izumi stopped communicating with them. I sent funds from my own private coffers for fear that you would never see the Fire Nation. I was told that I could visit you in the South, which I did. And then I was sent away.

I recommended several excellent firebending instructors, but my recommendations were spurned in that too.

It was a difficult situation. My regret now is that I never realized how trapped you felt. A child should never grow up without freedom. My deepest apologies, Korra—for that and for how you’re learning of the ugly situation now. Know, at least, that you are welcome to visit us still.

Ever at your service,
Fire Lord Zuko

Korra set the letter down. Zaheer had been telling the truth about this, and if he was right about this, was everything else right too? Her sight blurred with tears, and she set her head on the desk and cried in part because of the anger that burned deep. For the first time in a long time, she felt trapped with learned helplessness again.

Chapter Text

Meetings were Asami’s least favorite part of her job, but since becoming the president of her company, meetings were her primary job description. She did it because she had to, but there were days when she dreaded going to work.

Things in her life that made her unhappy tended to slowly percolate, like her uneasiness with Ikken after their odd lunch meeting. She vacillated between giving him the benefit of the doubt and deep uneasiness in that odd string of questions about their personal lives. Then her anger sparked because she was uneasy in the first place. How dare he put her in such an uncomfortable position?

The general difficulty she’d been having sleeping, the realization Korra had been gone thirteen weeks, and the thought that she couldn’t call Korra now even if she wanted to because of her completely booked schedule all piled onto the reality of her constant meetings and Ikken’s almost-proposition. Asami realized she’d fallen back into that dark place she’d lived in for years after the Red Lotus event one evening as she sat on her couch and halfheartedly picked at the food she’d had delivered. Lonely, unhappy, exhausted but not able to sleep… Even the thought of the social outings she had planned didn’t make it easier to face her empty bed and the echoing, black silence of her apartment at night.

All of this culminated a very poor mood in the morning. She woke up queasy, skipped breakfast, forgot her coffee, and cursed her entire drive to the office because of terrible traffic. By the time she parked, she knew she would have to cancel her meetings for the morning. Asami needed caffeine, a creative desk, and solitude to settle herself into a person that could deal with other people.

The sight of Suyin Beifong waiting in Lee’s office made her want to scream and cry in one. Asami couldn’t deal with this woman, not today, not when missing Korra sat in a black ball inside her and she could barely remember the creative fever that had so energized her weeks before.

“Asami, it’s so good to see you.” Suyin stood and offered her hand.

The polite response wouldn't form in her mouth. She shook Suyin’s hand, trying for a polite reaction at least, but she couldn’t summon a smile. Her emotions zeroed in on Suyin, and she remembered that picture of Korra’s bruised back, the haunted look on her face when she talked about seeing her shadow on Kuvira, and the crack in her voice when she talked about the reeducation camp. Asami had enough self-awareness to know her poor mood begged to be taken out on Suyin.

“What can I do for you, Suyin?”

Suyin seemed oblivious. “I’d hoped to chat with you while I was in the city. I’m looking for a partner for a few projects in Zaofu.”

Of course she couldn’t have scheduled an appointment for such a thing. Though the Beifongs were generally a people who could announce themselves, Asami was irritated by the lack of professional courtesy.

“By all means.” Asami gestured for Suyin to come with her into her office.

Suyin was no fool. When Asami closed the door behind her, Suyin asked, “Have I done something to offend you, Asami?” Her face settled into a flat expression. Flat on Suyin had a distinctive patronizing tone, and Asami caught herself clenching her jaw in response.

Asami had prided herself for keeping a level head and thinking about her words before she said them. She’d caught many nasty words on their way out and found something else to say in their stead. Even Raiko had never shaken her resolve. But this…

“I take offense to how you completely undermined Korra’s negotiations with Kuvira at Zaofu. What did you think would happen?”

Surprise splashed across Suyin’s face, but she had an answer ready quickly. “That was months ago. I did what I thought was necessary to protect my people—”

“And not only did you compromise your people, you forced Korra to fight a battle she wasn’t ready to fight!”

“She could have destroyed Kuvira and her army if she stayed in the Avatar st—”

“She was going through things you didn’t bother to consider, and you undercut her and put her in danger! She talked Kuvira into giving you time to evacuate or surrender, and you knowingly squandered that to launch a sneak attack, which made Korra look the fool. And Korra was in no condition to fight that battle. She nearly died because of your short-sighted, selfish actions! You forced her into violence, and you claim to be her mentor?! And then you let her parlay later without any support—”

“Korra demanded to go out alone herself. There wasn’t much I could say to that—”

“Tenzin would have sent someone with her! Lin would have done it! Now Korra has scars all over her back and nightmares from cleaning up your mess. You didn’t even have the decency of sending troops to help at the reeducation camp!”

Suyin’s eyebrows crept towards her hairline. Her shoulders, which had straightened defensively, now relaxed as she rolled them back and put her thumbs into her belt. Her lips twitched with amusement, shooting Asami’s temper even higher. Asami had been prepared for defensiveness, but she wasn't prepared for the sly response. “I had no idea you felt so strongly for Korra.”

The words struck Asami like a physical blow. The rest of her sharp speech—which she suddenly realized she'd ruminating on for weeks—evaporated from her thoughts. Instead, her shock culminated in a painful blush.

Suyin’s lips twisted into a sly smile. “You’re in love with her? Why, I would never have guessed.”

“That has nothing to do with—”

Suyin took Asami’s arm in her hand and leaned closer conspiratorially. “You’re right, of course. I was terrified of what Kuvira would do. I was—am—still so angry at her betrayal. My intention wasn’t to undercut Korra or put her in danger, but I wasn’t going to let the city I’d spent my life building fall without fighting back.”

It wasn’t good enough, but Suyin could bullshit her away out of proverbial hell. This woman simply didn’t believe she was wrong, and she never would. Asami wanted to shout that Suyin should have told Korra and trusted her and to accuse the woman of pridefully believing she could stop the war by herself with simple subterfuge. Instead, she said, “Don’t ever betray her like that again.”

Suyin gave a soft snort through her nose with her lips curled into a smile. It was also a teasing look, a condescending one. “Does she know?”

“That’s none of your business—”

“She doesn’t then? Will you tell her?”

 “We aren’t talking about this.”

“I had a torrid affair with a woman back in my circus days. She was a contortionist.” Suyin sighed heavily. “I can’t say I’ve ever had such satisfying sex, but unfortunately there was never much more than sex with that relationship.”

That Suyin would dare compare a sexual fling with the depth of feeling that Asami and Korra shared for each other… “That isn’t—”

Suyin continued as if Asami hadn’t spoken, “You should probably tell her one of these days. I’m not so sure Mako has gotten over Korra, and it would be bad to lose because you sat on your hands a little too long.” Suyin gave a sharp laugh. “Your hands!”

“That isn’t—”

“I could always let it slip—”


Suyin grinned and winked, patting Asami’s shoulder as she passed. Asami was struck with the thought that she detested Suyin more now than before their previous conversation.  Maybe because of that, her words ran away with her. “You left poison inside her.”

Suyin stopped short, her shoulders flinched, and she slowly turned back to look at Asami. Her expression trounced any of Asami’s vindictive paranoid thoughts that she might have left the poison on purpose. “She told you this?” Suyin asked seriously.

“She got it out herself. No thanks to you.” Asami pinched her lips together, fighting back the urge to throw all the blame on Suyin:  Korra’s long, painful recovery, her visions, her shaken resolve and confidence. But her sense won out, and she held those words inside.

“I seem to be failing in many ways I never realized,” Suyin said with a small, bitter smile. “It was...pleasant talking to you, Asami. I’ll have an assistant send over the proposal. I hope to have your professional collaboration even if you disagree with me personally.” She opened the office door and walked out.

Asami sank into her desk chair. She tended to think about what she should have said after an insult was given, the response that wouldn't come to mind or pass her lips. This time she'd said everything she wanted, perhaps rightfully. It felt like shit. The statement about the poison… That had been the anger talking. The guilt came immediately.

Work, she decided. She needed to bury herself in work for the day and try to forget about the exchange. It was her modus operandi and mainly so because it worked. As her usual, she worked late, and Lee supplied her with another takeaway dinner that made Asami’s stomach rumble as she drove home. She carried it in her hand and nearly forgot about it when she saw there was a letter and parcel waiting for her in her mailslot.

Her mood lifted even as she felt a stab of guilt. It took her a moment to remember her angry conversation with Suyin. For a moment, she considered sending a letter of apology. But no, Suyin would take that as justification she’d been right all along.

She set the food bag on the table, hesitated, and opened it. She chose tea instead of alcohol that night—with a headache and exhaustion weighing on her, it would be too much. She’d made a concerted effort to drink less over the last few weeks.

After a bite of dinner, Asami turned all of her attention to Korra's letter and to her anticipation for reading it. The parcel enticed her first, and the seal opened easily. She flushed when she saw it was a crimson ribbon but relaxed when she realized it wasn’t her idiotic first assumption: a betrothal necklace.

“Get a grip.”

She pulled the maroon strip of ribbon completely out of the parchment and took a breath. There was a single golden pearl attached to the thin ribbon by a tiny circle of wire. The pearl wasn’t perfectly round, but it was close. There were many flaws on its surface, but the swirling line of white in that golden pearl was beautiful, and not in the least bit manufactured.

She didn’t think there was a society in the world that didn’t consider pearls a romantic gift.

Another small parcel was within the first. A few little ivory figurines dropped onto the table. There were three figurines:  a crab, a fox-weasel, and a whale. There was a ring too; its face was a distinct polar bear dog.

Asami turned to the letter. Her heart pounded despite herself; what did it mean?

Dear Asami,

I went out to the mussel gathering equinox. It was a lot of fun but really dangerous. The low tide on the equinox drops the sea level so low that the ice settles down dry. Below the ice are mussels. It’s the only time of year we can access them, so down we go. Half an hour to grab as many as we can.

I have some awesome luck because I managed to eat one of the few mussels that had a pearl inside. I also broke my tooth off on it. I thought you might like to see what a raw pearl looks like. You’re welcome to throw it out though. It won’t hurt my feelings; remember, that pearl broke my tooth so I’m not attached to it.

There was a dark spirit issue. The spirit was tearing up traps and killing any animals inside. It gave me a vision of whales being slaughtered. The spirits seemed to be tied with the environment, but it’s going to be hard to convince people of that. When they ask me how I know, I’ll say:  because a spirit possessed me. It’s frustrating. Anyway, tell me if any dark spirits have been sighted in Republic City.

On to happier news. I learned how to build an igloo. It’s about time. Most kids learn when they’re preteens. One more item on my list of things I should have learned in my childhood. Is there a custom like that in Republic City? One that all the kids learn as they’re reaching adulthood?

My mother decided now is a good time to tell me my grandfather is alive. He cast Mom and Dad out when they got married. I don’t understand why they keep these things from me. It’s not like it’s radically changed my life, but it would have been nice to know before now that I have a crotchety old grandpa out there. Oh well… Holding a grudge isn’t worth the effort. It’s not like I’ll meet the man.

I’ve finally finished a silly little carving. It carved itself right into a ring, with a bear along the outside of it. You don’t have an obligation to keep it or wear it, but I thought you might think it’s cute.

I’m glad your snowmobile design is going well. You should have my mother try it out since she’ll be your harshest critic on that. I’m not sure what crazy festival my parents are headed to next. I keep thinking I’ll stay home to rest and end up going with them anyway.

The tea is great! I’d love another tin. Drank about half of it in a week. It’s a new favorite so tell your tea guy he’s got great taste.

And as for Mako… You hitting him with your scooter was the best thing that’s happened to me. I really mean that. As to when I’ll be back:  I can’t say for sure. It won’t be three years. That I can promise.

Your friend,

PS: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?

She laughed both at herself, the ring, and the pearl when she finished the letter. “Korra, only you would break your tooth on a pearl.”

She picked up the ring, wondering what sort of clue it could give her. It was made from polished ivory, decorated by a tiny polar bear dog carved along one half. Asami’s hand shook betrayingly as she slipped the ring onto her ring finger. She burst into shocked laughter at her own idiocy; it was too big. The ring settled onto her thumb comfortably. No implications whatsoever, despite her breath-holding hopes.

“You’re acting like a lovesick fool,” she told herself. “Because you are,” she murmured more softly.

She rolled her eyes at herself but picked up the ribbon and tied it around her neck anyway. As if she would ever not wear it. Hell. She felt like a silly girl with a crush wearing both tokens alone in her apartment, but Korra had made them for her. How could she not?

She read each word again carefully and realized she was scared. She was just realizing how much there was to keep Korra at the South Pole. If Asami were given the choice of uprooting herself from her company to live in the South—

Talk about head in the clouds. She had no evidence that Korra cared more for her than being a friend, and here she was considering the consequences of a marriage between them.

Later, Asami was well on her way to falling asleep when the thought of an igloo shot through her like lightning. She sat up, threw off her covers, and went at her bookshelf before she considered she'd need light to read any of the titles.

There it was:  The Many Cultures of the Southern Water Tribe.

She flipped to the index frantically, and slid her finger along the characters. Igloo, there was something significant about that custom, and if it was what she was thinking…

Asami ripped a page as she frantically flipped to find the section on igloos. She skimmed the construction section and went to cultural significance.

The igloo is a symbol of a hunter’s ability to protect himself and his family. Many young Tribal members learn how to construct one before they reach adulthood. Igloos are a mark of adulthood, maturity, and responsibility. Many suitors will…

“…‘take their chosen betrothed onto the frozen tundra and construct an igloo to ask for a future marriage.’”

Asami sat down slowly on the bed, staring at the book in her hands. It was a pedantic, condescending text, and it tended to romanticize customs in a light that gave everything a ‘savage’ interpretation. It was an ugly bias; the man who wrote it was a scholar that grew up in Republic City and only took a few trips to the South to confirm what he’d gleaned in his reading. On that same point, this could just be an archaic custom.

But, Kyoshi’s tits, it ignited a powerful spark of hope in her.

If that’s what igloos really did symbolize, why had Korra thought to tell her?

In times of crisis like these, Asami always turned to one source: the public library of Republic City’s university. During her next day off—which meant she worked for a half-day only—she made a trip to the library for more reading material. She flipped through the card catalogue until she found the section on the customs of the South Pole and wrote down the starting number on the list in her hand.

She browsed a few sections, pulling out several books of interest, before making her way to the section on Southern culture. She’d read at least a quarter of the books on this shelf and weeded her way through to pick out five interesting titles.

Then, her heavy stack in hand, she walked back to the library check-out counter to have her card filled out and punched.

She paused with her books stack on the counter, startled to see a familiar face next to her.


He turned in evident surprise. “Asami! Nice stack there.”

“Same to you.” Mako carried at least six books in hand.

He shrugged. “Research for a case.” His eyes zeroed in on her books, and he gently nudged aside one to show the title Love in the South. His eyebrow crept upward. Then his eyes zeroed in on her finger. He took her hand in his own. It should have been an intimate gesture, but his attention was fixed on her ring.

“Did Korra send you that?”

“Yes,” Asami admitted, disliking the fact she felt defensive.

His jaw slowly tightened. “She sent you a ring.”

“Yes, Mako.” She pulled her hand away only to find his accusatory gaze fixed to hers. She didn’t know what she could say to make him feel better, and frankly, she was annoyed at feeling attacked.

Thankfully, the librarian came forward to check Asami out. She pocketed her reserve card, picked up her book stack, and gave Mako a tepid smile. “Have a good day.”

Her phone rang, jolting her from a doze. Asami sat up, and the book in her lap spilled onto the floor. She fumbled for the telephone and answered.

“Ms. Sato, Mako is here asking to see you.”

She was abruptly awake. It was after nine o’clock so there was only one reason for him to call on her. “Send him up.”

She sat with her hands in her lap, waiting for his knock. When it came, she jumped despite being prepared for it. When Asami opened the door, Mako pushed past her into her living room.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him.

He turned and lifted a finger, his eyebrow cocked in a mix of anger and shock. “You and Korra—”

“Korra and I…” she prompted.

“You’re… You… Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“Come on, Asami! You two disappeared together for three days into the spirit world without telling anyone you were leaving—”

“We left a note—”

“—and she sent you a ring? When did this start?”

“When did what start?”

“You dating her!”

“We aren’t dating, Mako. Even if we were, it’s none of your business!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You’re still in love with her!” Asami accused.

That stopped him cold. Mako released a long breath and sank onto her couch. Asami remained standing, her arms crossed, and her eyes fixed on him. “No. I mean, yes, but not the way you think.”

Asami cocked an eyebrow, and he gave her a weak smile in reply. “I’ve thought about this before. I think I have this ideal Korra in my head. A Korra that wants my support and needs me to care for her. One that doesn’t irritate the hell out of me half the time. But that’s not her at all. And you love her for who she is, don’t you?”

Asami clasped her hands, turning her eyes towards the wide window. Her apartment lights were too bright to make out much past the glass. Instead, she pulled up the memory of Korra standing at her window, looking out into the night. She wanted Korra here every night.

Mako's answer was a relief, as much as when he'd told her he'd met someone. She owed him the truth, and she wanted to tell him, to make it real between them.

“I’m in love with her,” she admitted quietly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked after a moment of silence. “All that time… Back when we were meeting for drinks while Korra was in the South Pole…”

“I didn’t tell you because I haven’t even told her. I knew I cared for her—and after the Red Lotus... All the time she was away, I knew she could have changed so much while she was gone. Then with her disappearing for half a year… I didn’t know what to think anymore.”

Mako sighed, dropping his head against the back of the couch. His grin was tight and unhappy. “And back together again, you two basically finished each other’s sentences.”

“We’re good together,” Asami said quietly as she sank down on the couch next to him. Then her insecurity made her ask, “Don’t you think?”

“You are.” They sat together for a long moment before he continued. “I can’t pretend this isn’t a shock, or really weird. But give me time to process it.”

“There’s nothing to process, Mako.”

“There is for me, okay?”

“There’s no indication she feels the same way towards me.”

Mako arched one eyebrow up and gave her a look that made her laugh despite herself. “No indication? What about a certain spirit world vacation?”

“There’s no clue. She signs her letters ‘your friend’, and—”

“You’re right, I guess. Korra was kinda obvious with me, but we’re all different now. She loves you—”

“Until she finds another moody bender man to get obsessed over.” Even as she said it, Asami couldn’t see Korra in that scenario. Mako was right; they were all older. If Korra fell in love with someone, it would be a strong thing. A very painful thing for Asami to see. With her unfailing loyalties, it wouldn’t surprise her if it was a love for life.

Mako pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed. “Asami, one day you’ll be trying to tell her she drives you crazy, and the next minute she’ll kiss you so hard you see stars.”

“So that was how it happened.”

“I kissed her back, to be fair.”

“I would too.”

“Okay, we’re definitely in the ‘something for me to process’ area.”

Asami tugged him into a hug, and he patted her shoulder awkwardly as they parted.

“Friends?” she asked.

He smiled. “Friends. That won’t change, Asami.”

“Alright, friend.” She patted his chest. “Stay for a drink and tell me how you’re doing.”

“No alcohol. I’m on duty tomorrow.”

“I’m trying to drink less. I can make some tea.”

He hesitated. “Why don’t you sit and let me make it?”

“Is there something wrong with my tea?”

Bluntly, he said, “You overbrew it. You look exhausted. Sit down. Tell me how you’re doing.”

His last statement diverted her from defending her tea making practices. “Missing the hell out of Korra. Our transmission patent is officially being processed so I can start testing prototypes in vehicles without being afraid another company will take the design. I need to start planning a trip to the South.”

“Just let me know when.”

Asami nodded, watching Mako move around in her kitchen. How much different her emotional response had been to seeing Korra in the same position. Mako was comfortable, as he always had been. He was attractive and safe. Korra was awkward desire and pining.

Rarely did she talk work with Mako, but she admitted, “I’m tired of working. After designing my transmission… I’m right back to meetings and more meetings. The politics involved with the company are tiring me out. I've had a few personnel issues that are weighing me down too.”

“So delegate.”

“Easier said than done.” Asami considered the other reason she felt off that day. “Suyin Beifong came by my office the week. Everything came together badly. I blew up at her.”

“Why?” he asked calmly.

“Because she betrayed Korra. She just…rubs me the wrong way, on top of how she attacked Kuvira when Korra tried so hard to negotiate peace. Then she let Korra parlay without any backup.”

“Honestly, I’m trying to stay clear of the Beifongs. They all rub me the wrong way. Er, Chief Beifong and Opal excluded, I guess. She’s sweet. Opal, not my boss." He heaved a sigh, probably at himself. "Anyway, no one except the Beifongs are pleased that Baatar Junior is living it up in Zaofu despite how instrumental he was to Kuvira’s attacks.”

“I don’t care about him or where he should be. I care about how careless Suyin was with Korra.”

“I get it. Sometimes it’s better not to say anything.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?”

He smiled at her affectionately. “Point taken."

“How are you?”

He shrugged as he checked the tea pot. “Busy with work.”

“And your girlfriend?”

He blushed. “Hit a shaky patch, but we worked through it. I really like her.”

“Bring her to dinner next time.”

“Yeah.” He smiled. “I finally feel settled, like an adult. It’s kind of scary.”

“You being an adult isn’t scary. Bolin, however…”

Mako poured two cups of tea and took a seat next to Asami. “He’s been thinking about asking Opal to marry him.”


“Yeah. Crazy. He needs to get a job though.” Mako cut his eyes to her. “When is Korra coming back?”

“I wish I knew.”

They talked a little longer before Mako excused himself. Asami hugged him close at the door, taking in his familiar scent and enjoying the contact and his company. She went immediately to bed and slept well for the first time in a few weeks.

Just that conversation seemed to lighten her unhappiness with her current job situation. Lee also blocked off several hours for her to use for her own designs, which made her leave work happy. It was a good set up for her dinner date that evening. Naomi, the Moto Metalworking “metalmind”, had invited Asami to join her and her wife for an evening at their home, and Asami finally felt prepared to enjoy it.

The directions provided led Asami to one of the high end residential districts of Republic City that was well along the perimeter. It was quite a way from the Moto factory but only a few minutes from Republic University, where Ming, Naomi’s wife, taught Earth Kingdom history. The home was a townhouse, probably three stories tall but only two rooms wide.

Naomi greeted Asami at the door and motioned to the small, pretty woman beside her. “Good evening, Asami. I'm glad you could come. This is my wife, Ming.”

Asami took Ming’s hand and shook it. She was glad for the flats she’d chosen given how much taller she was than these two women. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“Truly an honor,” Ming replied. She had a respectably strong handshake. Her hair had a bit of gray around the temples, and her dark eyes seemed small behind her glasses. She placed a wine glass in Asami’s hand as soon as she released it from her polite shake. Naomi led them to a comfortable sitting room upstairs with equally comfortable furniture. Asami chose the loveseat adjacent to the couch the other women sat on.

“I love the new Future Industries’ ads. Have you recruited many women yet?”

Asami took a breath of pleasure as she tasted her wine. Excellent peppery grape, one of her favorites. “Quite a few. I hope that someday we’ll have an even ratio of men to women on the production floor. But right now, I’m happy to have at least one woman on all of my design teams.”

“Her personal assistant is a man,” Naomi said.

For some reason, Ming found that amusing.

She wanted to ask any number of professional questions, but Asami had enough social grace to try to skirt that topic. “Naomi, does Moto employ any metalbenders?”

“Why? Do you know of any that need a job?”

“No, I was just curious about if metalbending could ever replace the traditional metal processing system.”

“Not that I know of. It’s such difficult, tedious process in the first place. Metalbenders also tend to wear the hell out of metal. To your first question: we have a metalbender that tests all of our products that are going to Republic City’s Police force. A big chunk of our profits come from the task force sending back cables and uniforms that need to be tempered again from all the wear and tear.”

“I didn’t realize they could harm the metal.”

Naomi shrugged. “Metal is much more brittle than cloth, and even cloth needs to be mended occasionally. The better ones, like Lin Beifong, rarely send anything back, so there’s something related to talent to keep the metal flexible and strong.”

“Bending is beyond my understanding,” Asami had to admit. “I saw Korra learn how to metalbend in an afternoon. She didn’t before, and then suddenly she could after. In one day, she was good enough to beat one of the Beifong twins in a sparring match.”

“To be fair, she is the Avatar,” Ming pointed out. She laughed. “I was at her first probending match, you know. That reveal was outrageous.”

Asami had been too, and she still remembered spilling her drink when she saw the waterbending girl earthbend up a disc to fend off an attack. Right then and there she’d thought:  I want to know her. “You’re a probending fan?”

Ming nodded. “Guilty pleasure. This one—” She tilted her head towards Naomi.—“says it’s a silly waste of time, but it’s so much fun to watch.”

“I miss it. I used to go to all the games. It’s too bad the league hasn’t restarted.”

“Oh, here we go,” Naomi muttered.

Ming leaned forward, her attention focused on Asami. “We really should do a probending tournament to revitalize the sport. I know of several people who would help sponsor building a new arena, but they want to have confirmation that teams will actually participate. Do you think the Fire Ferrets—the originals, Mako, Bolin, and Korra—would be interested in doing a tournament for charity type event? The ticket proceeds could go to rebuilding a civic center for Republic City.”

Asami leaned back, liking the thought but wary of unfulfilled promises. “That’s an interesting proposition. I’m not sure when Korra will be coming back to Republic City, but I can write her to see if she’s interested and if she has a date in mind.” It was an excellent excuse to ask for a more definite return date than ‘not three years’.

“So, Asami, how long have you known her?” This Naomi asked.

“Four years? Five now?”

“How did you two meet?” Ming asked. Asami abruptly wondered if Naomi had told her wife about Asami’s awkward confession.

“We…” She laughed despite herself. “I was dating the boy she liked. I resented her for taking his attentions away after my family fell apart. And then he broke up with me to be with her.”

Ming didn’t seem surprised, but Naomi said, “That’s…admittedly not what I expected.”

Asami shrugged. “They broke up eventually. And then I decided it would be a lot more fun to be her friend. I wanted to be her friend from the start, really.” She decided it would require far too much explanation to mention she’d briefly gotten back together with said boy. There wasn’t a good way to describe how desperate for companionship and support she’d been at the time. Thank all the spiritual energy in the universe that nothing had come of it. Thankfully she hadn’t been stupid enough to sleep with Mako then too.

Then gradual superficial friendship had strengthened and deepened with every conversation, every sparring practice. Asami hadn’t realized how much she valued the passion that Korra showed every part of her life until she witnessed it firsthand. Korra was fun. Fun and naïve and so positive, giving her all in everything she did. It didn’t hurt that Asami found her immensely attractive. That was something she’d felt since the start, but being physically attracted morphed into being attracted to Korra as a person.

While their interactions in the few months that they rebuilt Republic City had been less often than she’d wanted, there had always been some level of emotional…intimacy. The few days they’d spent together in the spirit world had been paradise. She’d been so sure of Korra’s feelings then, but after they returned to the real world, so to speak, she’d lost some of that confidence. She waffled on whether to push for more or not, to test the waters, but then Korra had announced she was traveling back to the South for an indefinite period of time.

Oh well to that thought.

“Has she been writing you?” Naomi asked.

“Regularly,” Asami admitted. She hesitated before she touched the pearl on her necklace. “She sent this to me. She’d been sending me gifts with every letter.”

“A pearl necklace?” Ming asked, her gaze sharpening. She looked at her wife. “I didn’t realize she was queer. A necklace from a Water Triber is a rather romantic gift.”

Asami blushed. “Korra didn’t grow up with those traditions, and it’s more a Northern tradition than a Southern one. She was kept segregated in a compound.”

“It’s a necklace with a pearl on it. Two romantic things,” Ming said.

This was awkward. She smiled weakly, remembered Naomi's advice, and was truthful. “You have it backward. I’m in love with Korra.”

Ming’s eyes rounded behind her glasses. Naomi smiled gently and patted her wife’s shoulder. She continued Ming’s line of questions. “What other gifts?"

“She took pictures of a snowmobile junkyard.”

“Is there a connotation to that we don’t understand?”

“No, it’s just that when I asked her about them, I called them graveyards. Korra took the time to take a camera to one and take pictures for me. It meant a lot.” She flushed. “She sent me a ring.”

Both women straightened in interest. Asami clarified, “Ivory that she carved. It’s cute. In fact, she sends along little carvings with every letter. I think those are fun exercises for her.” She reached into her shirt to remove the ring that was on a long chain there.

“She’s very good at carving, I’ll give her that. Good craftsmanship. I wonder if she'd carve a pommel or two for me,” Naomi mused.

“She’s obviously in love with you,” Ming continued in the same calm tone.

Asami’s heart lurched. She didn't ask the childish question that came to mind:  'Do you really mean that?'

Ming continued her thought. She held up her hand and ticked off her fingers with each item: “A ring, a necklace, pictures, and little carved figurines. And you, wearing most of them. You’ll be married in no time.”

The thought alone made Asami break into a nervous sweat. “I hope so,” she admitted in a small voice.

“You, my dear, need more wine.” Naomi poured Asami another glass.

Chapter Text

“The horned whales are traveling back out to sea. We’re going to participate in the hunt. Would you like to come?”

Korra looked up from dinner and glanced back and forth between her parents. “Would I? Yeah!”

She’d never seen a whale hunt. The horned whale hunt was different than the baleen whale hunt; they were smaller and hunted from the shore along narrow strips of water instead of in a whaling kayak. It would still be great to see in person, and an outing with both her mother and father held a huge appeal.

They left early one cold and humid morning. Senna and Tonraq shared the burden of driving a dog team. With their encouragement, Korra slowed their transit time by working with the dog team too. It wasn’t as difficult as she thought. Her mother had trained these dogs, and it was her influence that had guided Korra’s careful interactions with Naga. A well-trained animal could be handled and guided by anyone with half a brain.

As evening fell, Senna and Tonraq sat on the ice and teased Korra when she started a large igloo for their first night on the road. “Thinking of bringing someone out to make one of these?” Tonraq asked with a deep laugh.

Korra rolled her eyes as she stacked another ice block.

“A young woman from Republic City, maybe,” Senna added.

Korra cracked another ice block out of the floor of the igloo and stacked it. She would not blush, not that it mattered with the cold chilling her cheeks. She missed Asami. She missed Mako, Bolin, Tenzin, Ikki, Pema, Meelo, Jinora, Opal, and all the other Beifongs too. But Asami… “Neither of you are allowed to sleep in this thing if you keep that up!”

Her parents laughed, got up from the snow, and started helping.

When they finished, Senna heated their frozen bundle of stew. It was like old times, sharing a meal and then a heavy fur bed with her parents. Korra slept soundly and had to be shaken awake by her father in the morning so she could eat a quick hot breakfast before they departed again.

They arrived at the coastal village of the Tribe of Shorefast Ice as the sun approached the horizon. They were greeted cheerfully and spent the evening with a family friend that Korra had met before in her early childhood. She remembered the hard candies he used to give her. The man, Noho, was jovial and in high spirits, even if part of that was because of the alcohol he passed around. It was certainly a strange experience to drink with her parents, but she enjoyed loosening up from the alcohol.

Back when she was wandering anonymously, drinking made her morose and darkly depressed. Now that she was in the company of friends and family, she laughed more and felt free. Funny how that worked.

“Now, Korra,” Noho said. He patted her shoulder, then squeezed her arm. “You sure take after your father, huh? You need to use this strong arm to toss a powerful harpoon. But you have to strike right as the whale takes a big breath.”

He took a deep breath himself and held it for emphasis. Then he released it with a hiccup. “If you wait too long or throw too soon, down to the bottom of the sea goes the whale and his meat, blubber, skin, and ivory. Very sad. A poor, meaningless death.”

“The harpoon has rope, though, right?”

“If the throw is good, it may stay in the whale. If not…” He shook his head. “If not, the whale goes down to the bottom of the sea.”

“But why not waterbend it up?”

“Hah! Maybe the Avatar can do that, but these whales… They may not be baleen big, but they’re damn big. Twenty feet long, four thousand pounds. You ever seen a whale up close?”

Korra shook her head before she wondered if a whale spirit counted.

“You’re in for a treat tomorrow! By ‘a treat’, I mean it’s hard damn work but worth it in the end.”

That night, Tonraq and Noho’s thunderous snores drove her outside. She wrapped an arm around Naga, who gave her a lick in response. Korra walked away from the village towards the moon and through the silent, still snowdrifts.

She wondered why she was so sad in this moment. And then an aching need to see Asami crashed through her. Korra stopped and put a hand to her face, drawing breath into her aching chest. She missed Asami desperately. She wanted to see her, talk to her, and tell her how much she cared.

She wasn’t ready to go back to Republic City yet, but she needed Asami so much. This separation was killing her, and it hadn’t sunk in until that moment how much it hurt.

Crunching footsteps sounded behind her, and she reached out for Naga, who slipped under her arm and sat down. Korra leaned against her polar bear dog, allowing the cold to slowly settle in her bones.

“It’s not fair to ask her to come,” she told Naga. “I need to just be me here. Just a little while longer.”

Naga turned to lick her face gently. Korra pulled out the last letter that Asami had sent her and read it once more in the bright moonlight.

Dear Korra,

The snowmobile design is finished. I’m still working with the Satomobile design, but the snowmobile prototype is assembled. I’ll have to bring it to the South for a good test run when we have all the details ironed out. I’ll happily let your mother critique it. She’ll find it’s quieter, with less exhaust, and much easier to handle. That is, if you’re not back yet.

As to a custom that we do here prior to coming of age:  learn how to drive.

I’ve been thinking that I’ll have time to go back to defense classes. When you get back, you should come with me to the dojo. I don’t know how much non-bending defense you’ve learned, but it could be valuable to learn non-bender techniques. We only touched on a little bit during our trip around the Earth Kingdom.

I can’t give you advice on the dark spirits. Just please, be careful. Tell me if there’s anything I can do. Just… Be careful. If you ever want to talk about that—or anything else—relay a message through Tenzin, and I’ll find a way to get on the radio with you.

The worst thing I’ve eaten was during a fancy dinner meeting. I was fifteen, and Dad let me come along with him as he talked to potential business partners. We were in a private room at a restaurant that closed down a few years ago—very fancy place—and I felt so grown up to be there. One of the dinner plates was roasted turtle duck with what I thought were cooked shallots. I scooped a shallot up, put it in my mouth, and bit down on it. Only it was raw, not cooked. I couldn’t spit it out in front of those businessmen. So I chewed it up and swallowed it. My sinuses burned, and I burped that shallot for two days straight.

I can’t say I care for the taste of turtle ducks anymore, which is odd, don’t you think?

I refuse to throw away anything you’ve sent me! The pearl necklace is lovely, and the ring is just as lovely. You’ve gotten very good at carving, and I welcome whatever you want to send me.

I met with a few new friends—a firebender blacksmith and her wife—and they wanted me to ask if you would consider playing at a Probending fundraiser to revitalize the sport. If you do, do you have a more definite time you’ll be back so they can start planning.


PS: What is your favorite food?

Korra leaned back against Naga and exhaled a burst of condensed breath in the cold night air. She closed her eyes, breathing another soft breath of warmth: heatbending. The warmth made her eyelids heavy. She’d initially been curious about the ‘her wife’ in the letter, but that melted away into thoughts of Asami.

She imagined putting pen to paper…

Dear Asami,

I miss you. I want to see you. I just need a little more time here, though. I almost feel that unidentified part of myself settling down, feeling better. I’m learning my home and my people. But at the same time, there’s this hole where you are, where I miss you every day. I worry that you’re working too hard, but I don’t have a right to.

Do I? I want to. I want you. I’m scared of wanting something different because of how much I love what we have now, but does more have to be different? Will we really change that much if we say ‘love’ and ‘forever’? Because I love you, and I want to be with you forever. Whether that means lovers or best friends…

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be your lover. Sex? I bet that would work. It could be fun, but it could be scary too. I worry that I’ll fuck it up though. I’m afraid I’m fucking up this friend thing. I don’t want to share you with anyone for any reason, but if I have to, I can. As long as we’re together forever.

I want that though. I want to try to be everything for you…


Korra stirred. She wasn’t sure if she’d dozed off or simply fallen into meditation, but her murmur pulled her out of it. The words she had brought to mind slipped away, leaving behind a vague bittersweet feeling. Even that faded away.

What remained now was longing. Desire. If Asami wanted more, then Korra would give her more. It was that simple.

Korra stood up, giving Naga a rub, and they walked slowly back to Noho’s igloo. Naga wiggled under the snow, giving a forlorn sign as Korra ducked into the entrance of the igloo. The snoring had softened, probably because of a well-placed elbow. Korra stripped off her boots and parka and found a warm spot in the furs next to her father. Two deep breaths later, and she was asleep.

“You both snored last night,” Korra said, glancing between Noho and her father.

“I don’t snore,” Tonraq said with a straight face.

“Sure, dear. I only elbowed you four times last night,” Senna responded dryly as she braided her hair.

“Dry air, huh?” Noho said. He smiled faintly. “I’ve had an elbow shoved between my ribs a few times for that.”

“Huh,” Tonraq grunted. He slurped his coffee and chewed on the grounds at the bottom of his cup as Senna tied his hair back away from his face. Korra had declined coffee. She would have brought a tin of tea if she'd realized Noho didn’t have any.

“There’ll be breakfast on the ice,” Noho promised. He swallowed another gulp of coffee before he pulled on his heavy waterproof parka and pants. Korra did the same before she went outside and thawed Naga’s breakfast. Naga wagged her tail and ate with her usual enthusiasm. Korra traced her hands along her polar bear dog’s sides and was pleased that Naga had lost weight since her return to the south. She’d gotten almost fat during her few months in Republic City. The Air Acolytes were too liberal with the treats they dispensed. They’d been lax about brushing Naga’s teeth too.

“Fuck me, that’s a big bear,” Noho grumbled as he stepped outside. He stretched with his harpoons pulled over his head. “Good walk to the ice now.” He nodded to the east.

Korra fell into step beside him, and they walked along tracks that had been made earlier that day. Naga followed behind them. Their breaths all puffed out in thick white clouds; it was a dry, clear day.

“How are the spirits, Avatar?” Noho asked.

For all that Noho pretended to be a goofball, that was not a casual question. Korra considered the truthful answer. “I’m not sure. There were some issues from using spirit vines during the war, but with the portal opening in Republic City, the spirits are calmer now. There was a dark spirit I confronted a few weeks ago, but I haven’t heard of any more.”

“Hear there are some whispers about dark spirits being sighted. Just like when the North was occupying us.” Noho glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “All the old tales are about dark spirits so maybe it’s just scared fools.”

Not surprising but still so troubling. These stories about dark spirits in the physical world were worrying paired with the gradual darkness that had been encroaching in the spirit world. The fact Asami had mentioned it herself… “Thank you for telling me.”

He nodded. “Seems the Avatar should be told about these things.”

“Do people blame me for the war with the North?”

Noho snorted. “You don’t ask easy questions, girl. The answer isn’t yes or no. There are people afraid you’ll never be one of us. The White Lotus kept you apart, and well, more were surprised when you turned against your uncle than when you sided with him. You’re a good woman; it’s not hard to see that. But to some, you’ve always been an outsider.”

“Do you think I’m an outsider?”

He stopped and waited for her to stop too. His gray eyes met hers for a long moment, and then Noho dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I think you have a lot to learn, Korra. But you’re one of us, born on the tundra and raised in the snow and ice. The White Lotus couldn’t burn that out of you.”

A surprising statement. “You say that like they tried.”

He squeezed and released her shoulder. “Didn’t they?”

“They were protecting me,” Korra said, by now not believing her own lie. They resumed their walk.

“How many attacks were there on Southern soil? One? But you stayed trapped behind those big walls and away from your people all those years.” Noho tapped his temple. “Something to think about.”

Someone else who saw that for what it was. Korra, even armed with the knowledge she’d been essentially sold out by Suntoq, wanted his perspective. “Why would they do that?”

Noho shrugged. “You'd have a better idea than me. But maybe they wanted a dainty little Northern Avatar princess.” His eyes lit on hers, this time seeming to judge her face more than exchange a look. “Didn’t seem to work now, did it?”

“Guess not,” she said quietly.

“I used to think you got that from your mother, but your father is one of us now, through and through. That bear of yours… You’re a Southerner all right.” As if sensing her discomfort, Noho patted her shoulder again. They walked along in silence for much of the rest of the trip.

Noho pointed towards the slender gap in the ice of the shore a while later. There were already clusters of people in parkas waiting there. "Our hunting grounds."

“Is there a quota for these whales?”

“One per tribe. A few tribes don’t participate:  Tundra and Bear. They share an extra baleen between them instead of one of these whales.”

“Why not this hunt?”

“Less food. The ivory is big revenue to make up for it, but those two tribes would rather cut off an ear than consider selling to the outside world. The pod will be here soon, and that’s the only gap in fifteen miles that takes them back out to sea.”

“Why were they inland again?”

“Spring breeding,” he replied. He crooked his finger, and Korra settled closer. “Have you checked over a harpoon yet, Korra?”

“No, not yet.”

“Toggling harpoon. Give it a feel, but be careful.”

Korra ran her fingers along the thick double barb. The head was made of strong metal and was mildly rusted from years of use. The entire head was spade-like, ending in parallel barbs that weren’t as sharp as she expected. Noho pulled the head off, and she traced the heavy rope that looped into the harpoon tip.

“Too sharp, and the barbs will slice through the blubber and pop out. This is a good harpoon; served me well for years. You want to throw?”

She shook her head. “I would hesitate.”

Noho didn’t belittle her answer. He nodded calmly. “Good of you to recognize that. It’s too bad more of our youth don’t hesitate. We have some machos throw too quick and too often. A whale at the bottom of the sea is one more death than needed.”

There was something warming about the sense of community among the hunters. They shared several impractical hotpots out on the ice, standing in clusters, eating from bowls with flat spoons. Korra met more people that morning than she could keep track of, and she enjoyed listening to all the familiar talk. She stayed close to Noho, who seemed to know everyone, and watched her parents similarly draw a line of people who wished to exchange greetings.

Asami was probably like this in Republic City; Korra wondered how many of those people Asami actually considered friends. She had a long thought about Asami had revealed: that she had no true friends before Mako, Bolin, and Korra. What a lonely childhood, a loneliness that Korra could relate to. Korra hoped the same wasn’t still true.

A white-bearded man approached Noho and pulled him in for a hug. His hood slid off, revealing black hair, a surprise to see given his beard. Noho smiled and held on to the man’s arm. “Ru, you’re here!”

“My dog team is worn out, but I made it.”

“I’m hosting Tonraq and his family, but there’s always room for you.” Noho winked.

Ru raised his dark eyebrows in a look that Korra interpreted as saucy; she wondered if she was mistaken. Then Noho motioned for Korra to step closer. “My scallywag husband,” he said. “Watch out, he has a thing for strong women. And Avatar Korra, you are one strong woman.”

Ru pinched his lips, holding out his hand to take Korra’s arm in a traditional shake. “Ignore this idiot. It’s an honor to meet you, Avatar Korra.”

“Likewise.” She glanced back and forth between the men. “Married, huh?”

“Ten years ago,” Ru replied.

“Eleven and a half,” Noho clarified. For once, his smile was serious. “Want to practice throwing the harpoon?”

“Uh, sure,” Korra replied. She took the harpoon in hand and tested its weight and grip. Korra spun it in a circle, pointing the barb up. She strode forward with her left foot, pushed off with her right, and let the harpoon go with a grunt. It sailed thirty feet and struck the ice tip-first with a definitive crunch.

A few wolf whistles arose from the crowd nearby.

“You’re a natural,” Noho said. Then he gasped when Naga raced to the harpoon, snatched it up in her jaws, and ran back to Korra. She dropped the harpoon, wagged her tail, and gave a bark in anticipation.

“Not that, Naga.” Korra gave her the ‘stop’ command. Naga lay down obediently. Then Korra reached out and scratched behind Naga’s ears. She was surprised to see Naga flop over on her back in a clear invitation to rub her belly. Korra obliged, finally lifting her head to see Noho and Ru watching her in shock.


It was Ru who spoke. “Sorry. The reality of you having a tame polar bear dog is a little too much to take in. Take it from someone who saw a man mauled to death by one as a child. Fitting, though, I suppose, for you to have one.”

“Aw, Naga’s a sweet girl. Aren’t you, Naga?”

Naga’s tail thumped, and she lifted her head to give Korra a lick. She was apparently quite happy to be here.

Naga’s excitement wore off after a game of fetch—that attracted quite a few onlookers either because of Korra’s use of airbending or Naga herself—and she fell asleep in the sun as the day progressed. Korra watched as the harpoon carriers, one per tribe, were designated. Tonraq named each man or woman, studied their harpoon, and went over the hunting laws:  one whale per tribe, no exceptions. No more than one killed whale per whale landed. Unlike breakfast, they ate lunch in fits and starts. Everyone kept an eye on the water, waiting for the pod to pass through.

The later it got, the quieter everyone became. Even jovial Noho went quiet and sober as time passed.

It was late afternoon when the first whale was sighted along the icy channel and announced by a watcher over the radio. A shout rang out when they came in view of the hunters, and the harpoon bearers took their places on the narrowest pieces of ice. The lead hunter, Noho, held off his throw as the pod swam through the narrow strait until, abruptly, he lifted his harpoon and let it sail.

His strike was clean, and only a few minutes later did the waterbenders of his tribe help him get the whale out onto the ice. Once there, people ran over to flense it.

She watched another hunter throw a harpoon that skimmed off the dorsal hide of the whale, leaving a bloody scar behind. The man dragged his harpoon back as quickly as possible and reset his stance. Already, a second whale was on the ice.

One hunter threw his harpoon, and it buried deep in a horned whale. “Help!” he shouted, bracing against the ice with the harpoon rope in hand. The rope slipped through his grip as the whale began to sink into the water. The hunter has mistimed his throw.

The whale was dead or would be soon. A part of Korra understood the need to hunt and the satisfaction of getting a good kill, but this was… There was something sacred about whales, and the one he struck was already dead. If this whale sank past the length of that rope, the hunter would have to take another for his tribe. It was a waste, as Noho had said several times. They needed to protect their environment, even if they had to take from it.

Korra stripped out of her parka jacket and kicked off her boots. Tonraq said, “Korra, what are you—”

She pushed off the ground and dove straight into the icy water. She dodged the whales, stunned to hear their chatter and calls, and swam downward past the red streams of blood. She remembered the spirit’s vision with painful clarity but pushed past:  she was here to help reduce deaths. She was not the victim either.

The salt of the water stung her eyes and the cold could rush in any minute to kill her—the pressure began to hurt her ears—but this was her element. She wasn’t afraid of it. She swam beneath the whale, put her hands on its massive flank, and was startled despite herself at its sheer mass.

With a grunt, she pushed the water beneath her and the whale above. It was one thing to sweep a floating animal upward. It was another to move a mass like this. She braved herself mentally and pushed once again, driving the whale and herself upward to and above the hole in the ice on a wide wave, sweeping the whale onto the shore.

Korra took a deep breath and released it. She was abruptly cold, though the water in her clothing and on her skin was warm. She placed her hand on the whale’s face, realizing she was gazing into its glazed eye. Dead, but not wasted.

She shook herself, slinging water from her clothes and skin, and walked away from the landed whale to grab her parka and slip her feet back into her boots.

“Thank you.” It was the hunter who had mistimed his throw. Korra took his offered hand and accepted his pat on her shoulder. He stared at her wide-eyed when she let him go. Then she noticed that most of the men and women set up to flense whales had paused in their task to stare at her.

She waved self-consciously, and then became abruptly exhausted. Hopefully no other whales would be missed that day.

“Good one,” Tonraq told her a few minutes later. “I don’t think I could have pulled one up alone.”

“It would have been a waste.”

“Next time, coordinate with a few other waterbenders. No reason to take that risk.”

“I would have just let it go if I couldn’t do it.”

The look he shot her made her wince. Korra nodded. “Yes, sir.”

After all the waiting they’d done, the hunt was over in half an hour. The flensing took much more time. The ice and snow were awash with bright red blood, and whales became bone. Almost every piece of the whales was kept and used.

Korra was given a flensing knife; the blade was attached to a long pole. Her mother left her in the company of a few people from the Tribe of the Sea. Korra exchanged greetings with them and then got to work. She used her flensing knife to score the skin from dorsal fin to the belly as another person made horizontal cuts.

The skin was one of the most important parts of the whale, and they worked at removing it. The gray skin and pink blubber eventually peeled away from the dark red muscle, and then they were divided between working on the viscera and continuing to strip the meat.

At the end of the day, Korra forgot she’d even helped beach a whale. She was surprised to receive half a foot of ivory from the whale she’d retrieved. The hunter and his chieftain both offered deep bows along with the ivory. Korra nodded her thanks back and turned the corkscrew horn over in her hands, contemplating how alien it looked.

It was a busy, exhausting day, doubly so because of the heavy burden they carried and dragged back to the village. Whatever communal party there might be had been fulfilled that morning. Korra’s family settled in with their hosts for food and drink, but there was no talk among the other families about sharing dinner. From the looks of all the drooping eyes and yawns, most families would be making an early night of it.

Trust Noho to have stamina to break out drinks with dinner. He, Ru, Tonraq, and Senna conversed about the old times, the shifting hunting laws, and the changes in migration of the aquatic life of the South. Somehow the conversation shifted to the rest of the world, and Noho’s acceptance turned to disapproval.

“Those capitalists in Republic City have it wrong.” Noho was a bit into his cups. He slurred his words slightly but spoke with great passion. He gesticulated, possibly to represent the entire village. “This works. It works now, and it’s worked for thousands of years.”

Ru leaned forward, cocking his head to give Korra a long look. “Some people think you’ve taken their ways. You have friends that live by the capitalist system.”

Korra had been following the conversation, but she hadn’t been addressed or participated before that point. They had to mean Asami, and it raised her hackles to hear the criticism. “It works there. The trade system doesn’t work when you’re dealing with global trade. Money is easier.”

Ru shook his head. “Then why the need for strikes and worker’s unions? The man with the money controls what he pays his workers, and good men and women that work their wholes lives have trouble putting food in their bellies. They say we’re poor, but we all have homes and enough food to eat every day.”

“If you’re trying to criticize my friend, you’re wrong. She’s fair; she cares about her employees. Capitalism has its faults, but it works because of people like her. Its regulations are within itself."

“There is no regulation. I thought that was the appeal.”

“Republic City is a different world. It works there.”

Ru’s face shifted into disappointment—at her, Korra realized with a jolt. “And what keeps it from becoming the old Ba Sing Se?”

Korra shook her head in frustration “I don’t know enough about economy or the regulations in Republic City. But people like Asami Sato keep that from happening. She could explain it better than I can. I trust her; she’d never support a system that would hurt people.”

“What protects Sato’s workers when she has a bad day and decides to fire a worker for a mistake?”

“She wouldn’t do that. I know her. She’s a good, fair person. She protects her workers.”

“And who rules her? Do you?”

That made Korra blush—in anger or embarrassment, she didn’t know.

“That’s enough,” Tonraq said firmly, and it was enough. Noho and Ru must have finally noted her anger; they both gave her a long look and changed the subject.

Carrying quiet anger, Korra turned away from her hosts to consider the piece of horn gifted to her. She turned it over in her hands and examined the flow of ivory. The curve of one side would work as a decorative comb, perhaps. She could do that. Perhaps a whale along the side. Or two, intertwined, with the teeth emerging below them.

She smoothed her fingers over the rough grain of the ivory, tilting it, and considering the first cuts. It would be slow progress; this carving wouldn’t happen in just one night. When her eyes were tired from the effort of her few cuts, she set the ivory down.

“I think I’m going to meditate for a little while.”

Ru laughed softly. “Good luck with this rowdy human being nearby.”

Korra had no reply for him. She pulled her cushion a little farther from the warm stove and settled in half lotus, dropping her hands to her lap. She closed her eyes and took a long breath, releasing it as she released her body.

The spiritual plane was bright that day, and she’d settled into an unknown area.

“Good evening, Avatar Korra.”

She glanced at Zaheer. Either she’d unconsciously gone to him, or he’d sensed her and had come himself. “Tea?”

Some materialized in front of them. It was an empty experience to sip tea here, but Korra imagined Zaheer took some enjoyment out of it. The tea was an approximation of the delicious stuff Asami had sent her. Who would have thought saffron would work so well in black tea?

She asked him, “Why did you leave the White Lotus?”

“You imply I was a part of the White Lotus to begin with.”

“The Red Lotus was once a part of the White Lotus, wasn’t it?”

He leaned on one knee and scratched his beard. He’s slipped from his iron-like rigidity the more they interacted. Perhaps it was all a façade. Zaheer had to itch and fart like other people. “Yes, though I joined after the creation of the order.”

“I know you told me before, but why did the Red Lotus leave?”

“Because the old vision of the organization was not what it is today. The original White Lotus wished for peace through the disruption of powerful world forces—like the Fire Nation during the Hundred Year War. After the war, the White Lotus made it their mission to find and create the perfect Avatar.”


“Men have different visions of utopia.” Zaheer took a long breath of his tea. “As I’ve told you, your uncle was friends with your White Lotus Master, Suntoq, before he joined the Red Lotus. I suppose our ends would have been the same had we succeeded in taking you from them:  to expose you to our philosophies.”

“You know I wasn’t exposed to anything under the White Lotus.”

“Indeed. Perhaps that was their hope.”

“Keeping me segregated to keep me from being from the South? Maybe they wanted someone who was unbiased, but... I found out Fire Lord Zuko was asked for money to be near me and influence me.”

Zaheer raised both eyebrows in surprise. “How did you learn this?”

“I asked Lord Zuko. Do you think the White Lotus wanted to brainwash me?”

“Perhaps. Clearly the mind is not so easily swayed, even that of a child. Or perhaps they went at it incorrectly. I would have allowed you freedom had I groomed you as a part of the Red Lotus. You're stifled by authority.”

Korra ignored the last part of his statement. “What about the Dai Li? They managed to make people take on whole separate identities.”

“They failed more often than they succeeded. Culling failures in secret presents a foolproof method, yes?”

“They…” Korra was shocked, even after all she’d seen and done. “They killed everyone who wouldn’t bend to them?”

“Kill those they thought were lying too, I’m sure. You can push a man very very far, but sometimes going as far as they had to go, they invited insanity, not an empty shell.” Zaheer paused to meet Korra’s eyes. “If this question about the White Lotus is troubling you, perhaps you should ask the man himself that made the decision.”

“It’s probably time to do that. I’ve been turning it over in my head a lot, but I won’t know until I talk to Suntoq. I just don’t know what I should let him know I know.”

“Guard your knowledge. And good luck. He’s a harsh man.”

Korra snorted; she remembered Suntoq’s harsh criticisms and unreachable expectations. “I think I know that more than you do.”

“You’re worthy, Korra.”

“Of what?”

He seemed exasperated. “Of yourself.”

What could she say to that? It was uncomfortable and uncomfortably coveted. Zaheer’s respect meant far more than it should have. She ignored his words and turned her head to study their surroundings. She closed her eyes to sense the shifts and eddies of the spiritual energy. “Still dark around the edges.”

“I’ve yet to find a source. There are a few dark spirits here and there, but they seem a symptom, not a cause.”

“Dark spirits.” Korra was alarmed by the plural. “Some Southerners were talking about possessions, dark spirits in the physical world. I thought they were being superstitious until I found one. It possessed me, and I saw a vision of whales being slaughtered.”

His gaze sharpened. “Their killing darkened the spirit?”

“That’s what I think. It was an entire pod. I don’t know if I purified the spirit or not, but it pretty much wiped me out for a few days. That’s never happened before. In Wan’s time, spirits could possess people, but they left a physical imprint.”

“We should speak of what you know of Avatar Wan. Later, when we have more time. I should let you go, though… First, do you sense dark energies here?”

Korra frowned and shook her head. “Like I said, it’s just at the peripheries… Kind of like a shadow at the corner of your eye. I tried to purify a portion of darkness, but it didn’t work.”

“I would presume that means the source must be elsewhere:  as you said, the corruption of wildlife and resources. I wish I could help you with that search.”

“Yeah. You’re telling me. A friend in Republic City is talking about the portal there seeming dark.”

“So they feel kinship with our wildlife, enough that destruction of animals will darken their spirits, corrupting their energies. But what spirits and why?”

“I don’t know.”

Zaheer seemed to sense her frustration. His tone was quiet, calm, and firm. “It’s something. Something to prevent to rule out in the future.”

He did little to mollify her sense of inadequacy. “I just wish I knew what the hell was going on.”

Once more he studied her. “You’re tired tonight. Go back to the physical plane and sleep. I’ll be here when you return. We can’t fix anything in one night. You’ve done what you can so far.”

“Thanks,” she told him, meaning it.

For once, Zaheer’s smile was genuine. It crinkled the corner of his eyes and deepened his laugh-lines beneath that thick gray beard.

Korra slipped back into her physical body pondering the fact that she was starting to like the man. Dangerous.

Conversation was still loud, but she settled into her furs and tuned it out, fading into restful sleep quickly. Zaheer was right:  she had to take care of herself to be any help to the world.

Chapter Text

The invitation for what was turning out to be their biweekly dinner date was given by Opal that afternoon. Lee moved a few appointments and pointedly pulled Asami’s phone off the hook by early evening so she would leave on time.

Opal was in the commercial district to run errands so Asami picked her after she left work. She pulled up to the curb, and Opal dropped her bags into the back seat and settled into the passenger seat. She was wearing street clothes today.

Opal paused with the passenger door open. She ran her hand along the top of the door and raised an eyebrow as she closed it, but she made no comment. She only asked, “Have you heard from Korra recently?”

“No. Her last letter came a few weeks ago. I’ve spoken to her on the radio once, but I haven’t had time to go by Air Temple Island since then.”

“Did she send you that necklace?”

Asami touched the pearl on it and glanced over at Opal, who had one eyebrow raised high. Opal’s expression communicated that she was as much a Beifong woman has her mother and aunt. Asami couldn’t form a reply, and Opal continued, “I have a lot of questions, but the main one is:  why aren’t you down there with her right now?”

“She hasn’t asked me to go.”

“She sent you a pearl on a necklace, and you think she won’t welcome you with open arms?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You’re driving a car in Water Tribe colors, wearing a necklace she sent you—”

“That’s a Northern tradition.”

Opal waited a long moment for emphasis. “I get it. I really do. I’m in love with an idiot that supported the woman who imprisoned my family. Growing up, I always felt like the stupid one in my family, but Bolin thinks I’m smart. He loves me. But sometimes I think the only reason he went against Kuvira was because he liked the people who told him to more than he liked Kuvira. But damn it if I don’t love the moron.” Opal abruptly sighed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to unload that on you. I just meant, I get how it feels.”

Asami hadn’t realized all that conflict was hidden below Opal’s quiet exterior. “That’s okay. I wish I had advice for you. Just... There isn't a bad bone in Bolin's body.”

“Well, I have some advice for you:  go see Korra, you moron.”

Asami laughed abruptly. Not many people in her life talked to her like that. “Sometimes I feel like Korra is the only person who doesn’t know I’m in love with her.” She swallowed thickly. “I’m afraid of getting my hopes up.”

“Is that all you’re afraid of?”

It was a pointed comment, one that gave Asami pause. Thankfully, Opal didn’t press further.

Asami lucked out with a parking place on the street down from Narook’s. She executed a parallel park in a few quick moves that had Opal grabbing the door in shock. As if Asami would hit anything with her precious baby. She earned only one honk from an impatient driver behind her.

“I’ll never get used to your driving.”

Their dinner group had increased by two members:  Wu and a cute young woman that Asami guessed was Mako’s new girlfriend. Opal embraced Bolin and settled beside him at the table. Wu waggled his eyebrows at her. “Cute necklace.”

“Thanks,” she replied. Before she sat down at the table, Mako got to his feet. His girlfriend quickly stood as well. Her nervousness was a little endearing.

“Asami, this is June. June, can I introduce Asami Sato?”

“It’s such an honor to meet you, Ms. Sato!”

Asami smiled and took June’s hand. “Call me Asami, please. We’re all friends here.”

June had green eyes and light brown hair. Though her shoulders were broad for her height, she was otherwise daintily built. An earthbender? She was a little shorter than Opal. “I read your articles. The one on the importance of bringing women into the industry is my favorite. It’s brilliant. Your writing style is fantastic.”

She was surprised. She’d written a few articles during the sojourn around the Earth Kingdom finding airbenders on gentle suggestion by her PR officer. The articles were published in a few local magazines and didn't get much response. It had been an insignificant part of their campaign to distance Future Industries from the past Equalist movement. The subjects of her other articles had been the significance of bender and nonbender representation and cooperation and a more technical one about engineering design. She’d begun writing about her father and his legacy, but it required more work before she’d ever offer it to a publishing firm.

“I didn’t know you wrote, Asami,” Mako said mildly.

Asami smiled now at the compliment and took a seat across from Wu. “I’d forgotten I wrote those at all, honestly.”

Wu nudged her as he reached for his drink. His smile was wide and white. He did have great teeth. “Hey, Asami. You’re looking fine this evening.”

“Thank you, Wu. How are you?”

He grinned. “Enjoying life, of course. So, when is Korra getting back to Republic City? I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted, if you know what I mean.” He wagged his eyebrows.

Opal scoffed into her drink, rolling her eyes. Mako winked at Asami over Wu’s head. She lowered her brows in a glare at them both.

“Actually, that reminds me. An associate through work said there was some interest in revitalizing probending. Mako and Bolin, would you both be willing to participate in a charity tournament? Nothing’s set, but if you commit, we may be able to have the arena rebuilt.”

“Hell, yeah!” Bolin said.

Mako glanced at his girlfriend. “What do you think, June? Want a chance to see me in the ring again?”

June smiled up at him, apparently smitten. “That sounds really neat.”

“Great,” Asami replied. “I’ll let them know.”

One drink into the evening, Asami stood at her window in the darkness and gazed out at the city. She was in a contemplative mood, churning Opal’s quiet words over in her mind:   Is that all you’re afraid of?

Maybe Opal had a point, even disregarding her current fear of coming out. She had enough self-awareness to read fear inside her. She was afraid to take the leap, to expose her feelings to Korra. She was afraid, but not of losing Korra’s friendship. She knew Korra would treat her no differently after finding out Asami was in love with her. That was just the kind of person Korra was.

Everyone feared rejection, but she had nothing to lose other than confirmation that Korra didn’t return her romantic inclinations, which would keep them at status quo. One could argue the chance of gaining a deeper relationship could spring from that alone.

But if Korra felt the same way…

There was so much she could gain from being truthful. But the stakes were higher; she could lose so much in the end.

She thought of her father’s devastation after her mother had been killed. Her mother had been Hiroshi’s life, even more than Asami had been. She’d nearly lost him too and had done everything she could to make him look at her and think of her:  engineering, self-defense, helping him with his projects, and gaining an education in those fields he cared about. Asami had emulated her father out of fear he would ignore her. Now she was emulating him because she didn’t know any different.

Hiroshi had said in his letter that she should be thinking about finding someone to share her life with, and she wanted that. But the thought of having that and then losing it… Korra’s job wasn’t safe. It would never be safe. She’d have to live with knowing the inherent danger of the Avatar’s duties.

Asami was afraid of falling too deep, of forming an even stronger attachment even as she wanted it more than anything else. Her parents’ attachments to each other had turned into codependence, and she realized she was afraid to lose herself in someone else so strongly.

By comparison, Mako had been safe even when she was reaching for him out of desperation. He was pleasant, normal, and comfortable, and she could count on his attachment to her without falling too deep. Korra was so much different. Korra was a deeper friend that Mako had been, and reaching for more would sink Asami deep.

She was already thinking about impossibilities like marriage. She didn’t want a crutch for her lonely life, someone to ease her loneliness by going out to dinner a few times a week. She wanted a pillar, a partner to share her bed every night, her space every day, and her life always. She wanted Korra to be that partner.

If Korra was hurt or killed, how painful would the fact she’d never communicated the depths of her feelings be on top of that loss? Asami swallowed down tears even at that abstract thought.

“I’m already too deep,” she said aloud.

It wasn’t like her to be so afraid of losing something she refused to go for that thing in the first place.

She needed to make a decision. She needed to trust Korra and trust herself.

“Miss Sato.”

Asami glanced up in surprise to see Lee enter her office and close the door behind him. He wasn’t smiling, and there wasn’t food in his hand. In fact, it was midmorning, not a usual time for him to come into her office. He said, “Tomi Richi is the project coordinator of your civil engineering groups. He’s come to speak to you about a recent dismissal of a member of Team C by the personnel leader.”

She closed her portfolio and moved her notes to neaten the appearance of her desk. Asami pulled out a pen and a blank sheet of paper. “Do you know the details?”

“Best for him to tell you,” Lee said uncharacteristically. “Will you see him?”

Asami judged Lee and his serious demeanor and realized she probably wouldn’t like what she was about to hear. This meeting had been set up without her permission unexpectedly, but Lee seemed to think she should listen to this man. Lee had let him bypass the usual ladder of command in the company, but Lee had always been good at deciding who was worth her time. “Send him in.”

Tomi Richi was vaguely familiar. He was a short man with a severe demeanor today, though he was usually rather jovial. Everyone who worked with him enjoyed him personally, though there had occasionally been complaints that he wasn’t as task oriented as they would prefer a project supervisor. Belying that was that he led some of the most productive of her creative teams.

“Hello, Mr. Richi.”

He bowed and settled in the chair opposite her, fidgeting nervously for a moment. Then the man took a deep breath and sat up straight in his chair. His voice trembled with emotion. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Ms. Sato. I’m here because… A woman was fired last week from Team C by her personnel supervisor, and she was fired because she’s a homosexual.”

Asami picked up her pen and set it down. Why did her life seem to revolve around sexualities right now? “This is a serious accusation.”

“I understand. Her supervisor, Ichi Huan, has apparently been close to harassment in his derogatory comments about this woman’s sexuality and her gender.”

Asami templed her fingers, regarding Richi over them. She felt cold with her anger. “Do you have proof?”

“I have written statements from every member of Team C detailing these events.” Richi’s shaking hand placed the papers on Asami’s desk. She didn’t reach for them.

“Why did no one report this sooner?”

He winced. “The woman asked me not to; she was afraid she would be fired. But I did report it to Ichi Huan’s supervisor after she was fired. He told me the claims were unfounded, and when I gathered written statements, he said it was fabricated. He destroyed the documents. I…made two copies to start. Ms. Sato, I like this woman a great deal; she has an excellent mind, works well with her team, and she is a good person. She doesn’t deserve this.”

Asami studied him. Two copies to start. “You expected Ichi Huan’s supervisor to destroy the documents.”

Richi flushed red, nodded, but he said no more.

“Thank you, Richi. I may ask to speak to you again.”

The papers were damning, as was the fact that all those members who signed their statements confirmed them to her in person. There was also the disclosure that Ichi Huan was supervised by a close family friend—nepotism, corruption, bias. A large, cold ball of sickness sat in her belly. This was her company, founded to include all, and she realized now that her rules on their contracts weren’t being followed. How many instances of harassment or discrimination had already occurred? How many good-ole-boys factions existed within her ranks?

After stewing on that sickening thought overnight, she called Ichi Huan into her office early the next morning. She’d cleared her schedule to deal with this issue firmly.

“I hear you fired one of your team members recently.”

He nodded calmly. He was a plain man who knew how to dress himself and cut his hair to maximize his attractiveness. Given his quick promotions, he was ambitious. “She, unfortunately, was insubordinate. That was the last straw. We’re already interviewing candidates to replace her.”

Candidates that had gone to secondary school with Huan. “Was her insubordination at all related to her sexuality?”

He paused and studied her. His expression shifted into a conspiratorial look; that expression made her squeamish. He was judging her to be like him:  a bigot. “She certainly felt like she could rub our noses in her deviancy. But, no, she talked back constantly.”

The woman’s coworkers supplied a different picture:  her creative criticisms and suggests were written up as insubordination. There were some times that she was less than professional, but apparently when provoked repeatedly.

“Deviancy? How so?”

Once again, he gave her a long look. “She spoke of her sexual partner in the office, even kept a picture of her on her desk, wore a ring. To think she called her sexual partner her ‘wife’. It’s bad enough that it’s legal now, but to have that in the workplace… I politely requested over and over again that she present a professional workspace, but her responses were increasingly aggressive.”

Asami regarded Huan for a moment longer before she withdrew his contract from her desk drawer. “Do you know what this is?”

He glanced over it, a faint frown on his face. His frown deepened as he flipped to the last page. “My contract.”

“Yes. Please read the highlighted passage.”

His eyes flickered over it, and his expression pulled as he realized his mistake. A small part of her enjoyed his dawning realization. That he would think he could be called into her office and questioned about this and still had the gall to pretend it was all okay... Asami waited for his response, which was a weak, “Ms. Sato—”

“Do you realize you signed a statement that you will not commit or allow bigotry in this office that pertains to gender, race, bending or nonbending, age, and/or sexuality?”

“It’s a fluff statement. My boss worked with your father. You and I both know—”

“Your contract says—” Asami spoke over him, and Huan stopped. “—‘I, the undersigned, Ichi Huan, as an employee of Future Industries, do pledge to the policy and commitment of Future Industries to never discriminate on the basis of gender, race, nationality, physical or mental disability, sexuality, and/or bending ability. Harassment or intimidation of a client, staff person, guest, or employee because of a person’s gender, race, nationality, physical or mental disability, sexuality, and/or bending ability is prohibited and grounds for immediate termination.’”

For a moment, Ichi Huan’s veneer cracked. He stared at her in shock.

“You’re fired effective immediately.” Asami handed him an envelope with pay enough to cover two weeks of work, generous only because of policy. “Someone will meet you downstairs with the items from your office. If you return to the building, you will be escorted out by security.”

His face went white, and then it turned red. “You—”

“I am not my father. I do not tolerate any bigotry or harassment in this company, and I am your boss. I’m ashamed that you’ve been employed as long as you have.” She wanted to say something painful and mortifying to this man, that he was an embarrassment to the company, but Asami knew she had to be the professional one.

His next words were all spite. “It’s a wonder you don’t run this company to the ground.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Huan.”

Asami called an emergency meeting with her board and her team of directors as well as all her senior supervisors late that afternoon. There was a hubbub of confused conversation when Asami stepped into the crowded room. Everyone went quiet and those that were lucky enough to have a seat stood up. She motioned for them to sit down. The men standing around the outer part of the room leaned back on the walls as others took a seat.

As Asami looked around the room, she counted two women. Among all of these men and women, none were openly homosexual. She did not sit down.

“An employee was fired two weeks ago because she had a picture of her wife on her desk. The matter was brought forward to a senior supervisor, along with proof of the bigoted nature of the team leader who fired that woman, and it was ignored. Kim Tang, please stand up.”

Tang slowly stood up. His face was drawn in fear. He knew he was done. Asami had considered firing him in private, but she needed to set an example, one in front of the most powerful members of her company.

Asami met his eyes. “I hope I don’t have to tell you how disappointed and angry this information has made me. As supervisors, we are here to protect our workers, culture a positive workplace, encourage longevity, and reduce turnover. As part of these practices—and out of human decency—we employ a non-discrimination environment. Mr. Tang, you violated that policy, and you are fired effective immediately. Goodbye.”

He took a long, shuddering breath. Without a word, he turned on one heel and walked out of the deathly quiet meeting.

“I cannot believe that I have to remind everyone what non-discrimination means. It means we do not see bending, gender, sexuality, or race. Frankly, they don’t have a damn thing to do with working at this company.”

“Asami.” Ikken stood up. He was nearly as well-groomed as during their lunch meeting weeks prior.

Lee cleared his throat at the doorway. “Do I need to remind you that Ms. Sato is your superior, Ikken?”

Ikken’s jaw tightened, but he lowered his head. “Forgive me the informality, Ms. Sato. But firing these men is extreme. In the very least, we should ask the two men to complete training courses about accepting all types of people. Certainly we can rehire the employee terminated wrongfully, but do we really need to hire people who are so…public about their sexual tastes?”

“Sexual tastes?” Asami said softly.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think they should be advertising that they prefer to have sex with someone of their own gender.”

The murmur of agreement that rose sent a column of heat up Asami’s throat and into her face. Her voice was soft when she spoke. “Would you say you’d have trouble working with a homosexual?”

“Frankly, yes,” he confirmed, looking genuinely concerned. Men like these were perhaps the worst; they thought they were good people and dressed their hatred up as ‘concerns’.

Asami gathered her thoughts. “Ikken, you’ve dated women, haven’t you? Didn’t you introduce my father to your girlfriend once during a dinner meeting?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“By your definition, aren’t you rubbing your nose in the fact that you like to—” She nearly cursed and instead paused for emphasis. “—have sex with women?”

He jumped as if physically struck. “That isn’t—”

“But as a decent human being, I think of you as a man who was a friend of my father. A good engineer with a head for business, not as an extension of what gender you take to bed. We should never look at another person and make those assumptions.”

“Ms. Sato, I was only pointing out—”

She slammed her folder down on the table, startling everyone in the room. Asami took a deep breath and said deliberately, “If you have issue with working with a homosexual, I recommend that you retire effective immediately.”


“Because I am a homosexual.”

A murmur rippled through the room. She watched Ikken’s face slacken in shock, and she turned before she saw that expression melt into distaste. She knew what it looked like; she’d seen her father look at her that way once.

“Discrimination will not be tolerated and will be dealt with immediately and by contract. Anyone in violation will be fired. Good day, gentlemen.”

The next thing she was aware of, she was standing just outside her office.

She wondered why she wasn’t closer to having a panic attack. She’d just outed herself to her entire board. If the general consensus about homosexuals was what she feared, she could lose the majority of her share-holders and many of her best managers.

Instead of dwelling on that fear, she walked downstairs, got in her car, and drove to the Fire District across the river. Her directions took her to a smaller residential area. It was one of the older areas of apartments in the city, originally funded by Fire Lord Zuko and his family. The apartments were smaller than some of the buildings in newer districts but still quite functional.

Asami found a spot on the road a block away from her destination, and she walked along the quiet sidewalk to reach the building in question.

The apartment was on the fifth floor, and there wasn’t a working elevator. She wondered if the antique floorplan was worth lugging groceries up four flights of stairs.

When Asami knocked on the door, a woman in spectacles opened it. “Kimi?” Asami asked.

The woman shook her head and backed up. “Just a moment.”

A quiet conversation took place inside the apartment, and then a brown-haired woman with amber eyes opened the door again. She took in Asami’s face and clothing with wide eyes. “Ms. Sato,” she said as if surprised to find herself saying it.

“Hello, Kimi. May I come inside?”

The woman nodded and opened her door further.

“Would you like some tea or coffee?” the woman with glasses asked.

“Coffee if you have some.”

Kimi motioned for Asami to sit on the couch in the main room. Asami settled there and was startled when a cat leapt into her lap.

“Sorry!” Kimi picked up the cat and carried it to one of the back rooms of the apartment. The other woman set down coffee in front of Asami. It was weaker than she usually drank it, but it helped fortify her.

Kimi returned and sat down once more. The woman with glasses slipped into the back of the apartment.

“I’m sorry to call on you unannounced.” Asami had noted the matching rings on the women’s fingers, and she felt a touch of envy. What was stronger was a sense of gratefulness for their existence and courage. Another example that gay women could have this life.

“Why are you here?”

“I’m here to offer you your old position. Your salary remained stagnant for several years; it has been raised appropriately. There is also a signing bonus whether or not you remain with the company through the next year.”

Kimi’s eyes widened.

“You’re a respected worker and well liked among your associates.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t go back to work under Huan.”

“You won’t. Ichi Huan has been replaced.”

Kimi frowned.

“I’m also here to offer a formal apology. When I took over this company, I wanted to found it on the principle that everyone who was a hard worker would find a long-term home at Future Industries, no matter their race, bending, sexuality, or gender. Apparently that hasn’t been the case, out of my own ignorance. It will be. I will not tolerate any form of bigotry. Not any longer.”

“You want me back?”

“Yes. Your team wants you back, and their desires are in my best interest. They claim you’re their creative genius.”

Kimi smiled weakly. Her eyes became watery. “They said that?”

“Yes.” Asami opened her satchel and passed over a sheaf of papers. “Your contract, if you choose to sign it. You can return to work tomorrow if you want. And the notes that I received from your team regarding you and the treatment you’ve received.”

“Thank you,” Kimi said.  She put her contract on the coffee table and flipped slowly through the notes from her coworkers. “This means… It means more than you know.”

Asami stood up when Kimi did. They shared a handshake. “I hope you choose to forgive this, Kimi. I want you on board.”

“Let me look over the contract,” Kimi replied.

It was a good enough answer.

When Asami got back to the office, it was the end of the workday. Lee stood waiting, barring the doorway to her office.

“Come on, boss.” Lee held out Asami’s coat, and she stepped into it without much thought. “You need a drink.”

“Yes, I do.” She gave a panicked laugh at that.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to introduce you to someone when we get drinks.”

She tried to separate business and personal, but she needed a friend at work that day. Lee had always been there for her at work so she thought she could let him be there for her after work today. “I don’t want to be set up.”

He raised his eyebrows and laughed. “I should hope I don’t plan to set you up with him. He’s my husband.”

All these revelations. She laughed and pulled him into a hug. He hugged her back; it was the most genuine embrace they’d ever shared. “I’m proud of you, boss,” he said.

“Hopefully we all have jobs come Moon Day.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. But I’ll work for you anywhere.”

“Have you heard anything?”

“Just a lot of surprised men.”

They walked out together and had a gentle bickering match about whose car they would take. It made more sense for Lee to drive so Asami acquiesced. Lee’s car was a standard Satomobile design that was at least five years old. Someone in his life worked on it regularly; the engine and brakes were pristine based upon their pitch. Lee drove them to a little row of apartment complexes right on the water in the Water District. He parked in a designated parallel spot and led Asami up the stairs to the third floor.

He let himself in with an old key. “Lukka,” he said.

“Hey, babe,” came a deep voice. Lukka walked out of the back of the apartment shirtless. He was a very muscular Water Tribe man, about the same stature as Korra’s father. He took one look at Asami and stepped backward. “Excuse me.”

“I’ve started to teach him that Republic City citizens don’t walk around naked,” Lee said without any embarrassment.

Lukka came out a minute later with a starched button down shirt on. Unlike Tonraq, he wore his hair short in the style of Republic City. He held out his hand to Asami, smiling awkwardly. “Ms. Sato.”

“Lukka,” she said in response. They shook; his hand nearly engulfed hers. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you as well, ma’am.”

Lee cleared his throat. “She’s not a seventy year old matriarch, honey.”

“I’m being polite,” Lukka hissed.

“I thought we could go down to the Tit Bar for dinner.”

“It’s Titake’s Bar,” Lukka corrected quickly.

“A gay bar—men and women. Are you okay with that, Asami?”

“Yes, it sounds interesting.” To say the least.

When they sat down and Asami had a moment to look around her, she realized it was really no different than any other bar she’d been to. The only difference was that the majority of couples were same sex. There were no displays of sexual behavior, no inappropriately dressed individuals, and no one was flat out drunk. It was a normal establishment with normal people.

Korra might like it for the large amount of Water Tribe paraphernalia on the walls.

“Do they have authentic Water Tribe food?”

Lukka explained, “Some stuff from the North. No one is brave enough to introduce sea prunes into a Republic City establishment so no authentic Southern stuff in that regard. Narook’s will have a special a few months out of the year.”

“Too bad,” Asami said, thinking of Korra’s relish when they went to breakfast at the place by her apartment.

“Do you like sea prunes?”

“Oh, not for me,” she responded quickly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Korra does.”

“Ah, Avatar Korra,” Lee responded. He smoothed his mustache and ordered a spicy Fire Nation noodle dish. Asami chose a spicy potato and bird dish that was best eaten on Earth Kingdom flatbread or rice. It was one of the fusion dishes that popped up after the city’s Earth and Fire citizens intermingled their tastes.

Lukka chose a bland fatty stew with a side of sour bread. Before the waiter left, Lee ordered a bottle of wine—a bubbly sweet rose. “To celebrate casting off secrecy,” he explained.

The bar was respectable enough that the waiter returned, presented the label, and poured a test sip, and at Lee’s approval, a glass for each of them. The bubbles were tiny and numerous; it was a good choice of wine.

“To the freedom of honesty,” Lee said.

“To meeting new friends,” Lukka responded.

“To loving who the hell you want,” Asami finished.

They tapped glasses and sipped, then began to laugh as a few other diners turned away from watching their display. Dinner was wonderful. Lee and Lukka were engaging and down to earth, and Asami enjoyed seeing other gay couples out and about like straight ones. She wanted this with Korra, and that fear of having to be secret about it was starting to fade.

She might lose her company though. At odd intervals through that nice dinner, she felt a chill of fear of the future.

Lukka drove her back to her apartment when they finished. Lee had had too much, and so had Asami. “It was very nice to meet you, Asami. I hope we can do that again.”

“So do I.” She hesitated as she looked out the window at the brightness of the spirit portal. “Are igloos still a thing in the south?”


Asami felt Lukka’s curious gaze, but she didn’t acknowledge it. He continued after a moment. “Strong tradition. Yes, it’s still a thing, especially with the tribes. At Harbor City, it’s probably more of a lark.”

“And betrothal necklaces?”

“Not so much. I think some girls and boys make necklaces for themselves as a personal standard. Some of the older tribes have one that gets handed down to chiefs or descendants. The south is still practical though:  to marry someone, you have to show you can take care of them. Why do you ask?”

“I checked a few books out at the library, but they’re…more a study in stereotypes than anything.”

“If you’re after a Southerner, you should just use your own symbol. It’s rings here in the city, right?”

“That’s becoming more popular, yes.”

“Well, she’d be lucky to have you, Asami.”

She smiled but didn’t respond. When they stopped in front of her apartment building, Asami took his hand and shook it for the second time that night. “Have a good night.”

He smiled and squeezed her hand gently. “You too. Good luck. I’m sure you’ll get your girl.”

Asami tried to make it a point not to bring personal things to work, but she hesitated at the sight of a new beaten parcel marked with postage from the South Pole in her mailbox. She juggled her workbag and her jacket to snatch up the package and put it in her bag.

It wasn’t like she didn’t let her work enter into her personal life.

As it was, she was inundated with meetings about profits and management—all quite normal despite the bombshell she’d dropped a few days before. Kimi had accepted her new contract, and Richi had sent up a bundle of flowers to her office in thanks. Asami was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She was sure it had when Lee entered her office just before lunch and said that Ikken had requested a short meeting. Losing her father’s former right hand man would be a blow professionally and personally. She felt sick but resigned to it.

“Door open?” Lee asked when she approved the meeting.


Asami almost wanted to take the safety of her desk, but it wouldn’t be right. She sat down in a chair in the corner of her office. Ikken entered, looked from her desk to that area, and smiled tightly. He was still as well polished as always. He sat down in the chair adjacent to Asami’s. They were knee and eye level.

“Thank you for agreeing to the meeting.”

Asami wasn’t sure she could find words. She almost wished he’d sent a resignation letter instead of a face to face. He waited a beat for her to speak, and when she didn’t, he drew himself up. “I came to—”

Resign. Surely. But the words she heard didn’t match her expectation.

“—apologize. For my manner in the meeting and that unprofessional lunch meeting.” His eyes were soft, and his face was lined with regret. “I led myself to believe that… Frankly, Ms. Sato—”

“Asami,” she corrected, struggling with her understanding even as she felt a flood of relief.

He smiled. “Thank you. Asami, I know what loneliness is. The hours that you work… I know what that feels like. I’ve done that my entire life; your father did that after your mother died. No one who has someone waiting at home works the way you do. I assumed because you were lonely and I was lonely that we could… It was foolish and unprofessional and discourteous, and I’m sorry for how uncomfortable I made you.”

“Apology accepted.” And it was. She felt no anger at this man. For the first time, she did see his loneliness, and it made her sad.

He sighed again and folded his hands. “I’ve reflected on what you said in the meeting:  that reducing someone to what gender they have sexual relations—”

“Love romantically, Ikken. I’m not a lesbian because I want to bed every woman I see.”

He flushed again. “You’re right. I tried to understand why I felt such distaste for homosexuals, and I think I’m just afraid of different, and that makes me angry at myself. I always looked down on my mother for hating firebenders, and I’m doing just what she did. You are you, no matter who you love. So I’m also here to apologize for what I said in that board meeting.”

“Apology accepted—only if you never speak like that again.”

He nodded. Uncharacteristically, he smoothed a hand through his hair. Asami watched him for a few more moments. “Are you going to resign?”

“Only if you request it.” There was a veiled question in there that she didn’t note until after she asked, “Is anyone else going to resign?”

“No. A few will retire at the end of the year, but they’ve been talking about that for months. Half of the men on the board who were going to retire decided not to after they learned about your transmission.” Ikken smiled. “We’re a bunch of men who decided to back and work at an automobile company. We’ve stayed on for you and for getting back our investment. We can plod along at civil engineering projects, but to go back to our roots of automobile production… You’ve put the fire back into this company, Asami.”

“Thank you, Ikken.”

“They also know that you took home less than five percent of your annual income last year to hold on to our projects and our people. I don’t think anyone else in this company would have done that, and they respect that. I respect it. Your father may not have been that generous either. I’m proud of you—every part of you—and your father would be too.”

His jaw tightened. “Please, give me another chance.”

Asami swallowed down the tears that his compliments had raised. “I was never going to fire you, Ikken.”

“I’d also like to still take you to lunch occasionally. No implications.”

She smiled and patted his hand where it rested on his knee. “I’d like that.”


Asami glanced at her desk, taking in the package from Korra. She had meetings piled up that afternoon, and she ached to open the package while she had the chance. Ikken followed her gaze. From his angle, he probably could see the Southern Water Tribe stamp emblazoned on one side.

He said, “Or perhaps next week.”

“Schedule with Lee. He knows my schedule better than I do.” Asami walked him to her office door. She shook his hand when he offered it, then leaned into a gentle hug. “Thank you, Ikken.”

“Thank you, Asami. If you need anything, please let me know.”

A few minutes later, Lee walked into her office with lunch in hand. He pulled her phone off the hook. “I scheduled him for Friday at two. I’ll bring you a late morning snack that day.”

“I would be dead without you.”

“Yes, you would. Now eat and open your package.”

She wasted no time. Korra’s handwriting was its normal neat script, probably ironed to rigid form the way the White Lotus had ironed her cleaning habits.

Dear Asami,

I miss you. I’m not sure I’ve told you that yet, but I miss you. I’m glad that your work is going well. Whether or not your prototype is finished:  you’re welcome to come. Please come if you can. If you can’t, I’ll be back soon. I want to say I’ll be back in a month, but still no definite time or date.

I’d love to take some defense classes with you. I enjoyed sparring with you back when we were traveling the Earth Kingdom. That feels like a million years ago, doesn’t it? I think I have this marker in my mind:  before Zaheer and after Zaheer.

You are… You’re so important to me, Asami. I missed you the last time I was here in the South, but I was selfish because I was so eaten up with wanting to be back where I was before—physically, mentally—that I didn’t have room to actively think of anyone but myself.

Now is different. It makes me realize how important you are to me, which is scary in itself. I guess I just want you to know that I want to come back too, if only to see you.

My favorite food… I love food so much I can’t say a favorite. There is something I haven’t had but once though:  salted boiled legumes. Legumes aren’t my favorite food, but I hadn’t eaten all day—had been walking from Gaoling northward in a heatwave. It’s humid down there, and I sweated until I didn’t sweat anymore. It was evening, and there was an old farmer by the road packing up his stand. He invited me to sit by him while he packed, and he gave me fruit juice and water, then scooped out a bag of legumes boiled in brine so long they fell apart in our hands. We shared them, and he talked about the weather and a girl he used to love and how his sister moved away years ago.

I think he was lonely; maybe he realized I was too.

He put me up that night. Basically lived in a shack. All he had was that food stand and his little house. When I made some money a few weeks later, I sent it to him. Hope he was able to use it.

I had a dream that I was Kyoshi that night, waiting for her lover to slide into bed with her. I woke myself up when I said your name.

I miss you.


Asami stared at the closing salutation. Then she reread the letter again. It was melancholy, and the ‘I miss you’s… She went cold then hot when she reread the reference to Kyoshi and saying her name. She touched the word 'lover'. What was in this parcel?

She split the paper wrapping on the box and opened the box to find it was layered in parchment paper. Whatever was below it was unbelievably soft on her fingertips. She pushed the paper away and stared for a moment.

Silver fur with black stripes. She lifted each piece out carefully:  a cap, gloves, and boots, all polished leather lined with beautiful spotted fur. They were beautiful. Of course they were, Korra had made them for Asami. Was this made from the seal she’d hunted?

This had to mean something. It had too. This was completely separate from any cultural implications. This was Korra saying that Asami mean something to her. If she'd been waiting for a sign, this was it.

Lee stepped into her office right then and whistled at the sight of the sealskin. Then he straightened in shock when he saw Asami’s eyes were filled with tears. “Ms. Sato, what’s wrong?”

“Korra sent it to me.” She’d asked Asami to come see her. She’d signed her letter with ‘yours’. Not 'your friend'. 'Yours'. Asami stared at the sealskin in her hands.

Lee cleared his throat, attracting her attention. His eyebrow twitched in the slightest tell. “I suppose you want me to coordinate the trip.”

"Yes." That conclusion was never in question.

The trip was booked for the next week. Asami had no return date as of yet. She felt like she slept-walked through the week. Her worries about work were drowned out by her blind hope that Korra wanted her too.

She didn’t think to tell anyone in her personal life about the trip until their dinner a few nights after she’d first read Korra’s letter.

“Next week?” Mako looked to her in shock. “I was thinking I had a few more weeks. Let me see if I can swing this by Beifong. She still owes me for the Wu shit I put up with.” He blushed. “I may, ah, see if my girlfriend can come. Do you think that’s weird?”

“What?” Asami asked. Her mind was a thousand miles away.

Opal answered for her. “If she wants to come, then bring her, Mako.”

Bolin slapped Mako’s back. “I can do it. Opal, you’re good right?”

Opal sighed. “Yes, I’m sure I can go. Tenzin will bend over backward if I tell him Korra asked. I’ve always wanted to visit the South.”

Bolin managed to squeeze them all into a hug. “South Pole, here we come!”

Clearly Tenzin and Pema were shocked to see a troop of them march into their sitting room after nine o’clock. “I’m sorry we didn’t call first,” Asami hastened to say. “We were hoping to use the radio and catch up with Korra.”

Tenzin raised his eyebrows and nodded. “You don’t need permission. I spoke with her yesterday, but it sounded like she was staying in the city for a few more days. It is a bit late.”

“Korra isn’t a seven-year-old with a bedtime, honey,” Pema said dryly.

Tenzin tugged at his beard and sighed, returning to his paper.

Asami pulled her jacket closer as they walked outside once more to trudge to the radio tower. She wished it were cold enough to wear her sealskin clothing, but the temperature was on the upswing in an autumn rebound.

“Last one there’s a rotten turtle egg!” Bolin charged up the stairs to the radio tower.

“Damn it, Bo. You’re shaking the whole building!”

By the time they got upstairs, Bolin had hailed the Southern palace. The radio crackled, and Korra’s worried voice echoed through the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Korra,” Bolin said a bit too loudly. “We just wanted to catch up!”

Funny coincidence, Bolin:  I was just thinking about you.”

“I hope they were good thoughts.”

“Only the best, bud, but I’m sorry to say my dad officially matches your belching volume.”

“No way! You tell him I, Best Belcher Bolin, am challenging him to a belching contest next time we see each other!”

Korra didn’t transmit her laugh, but it was evident in her voice when she spoke again. “How is everyone doing?”

“Why don’t you ask them? Team Avatar is here to chat!”

Mako glanced at Asami but stepped forward quickly. “Hey, Korra.”

“Hey there, detective. Congrats on your promotion.”

“Thanks. Chief Beifong owes me big time.”

“Aw, come on. Wu turned out to be pretty cool.”

“Korra, you don’t understand. You didn’t have to sit through his spa days. Ugh.”

“How’s June?”

“Good,” he said awkwardly. “She’s good. She wants to meet you.”

Cool. Ditto.” There was a long pause, then Korra’s end of the line crackled. “Is Asami there?”

Mako cocked an eyebrow with a half-smile and handed Asami the microphone. “Yes, I’m here. Hi, Korra.”

“Hey, Asami,” she said.

There was an awkward silence, and Asami struggled to find her voice. “I, uh, got your last letter.”

“Yeah? Did you…like what I sent you?”

“Korra, they’re beautiful. I love them. Thank you.”

“So they fit?”

“Yes. Perfectly.” Asami hesitated, so aware of everyone standing around her. “When I see you, can we talk about what you wrote? About Kyoshi?”

“Yes,” Korra said. After a moment, she continued, “So, uh, how is that secret project going?”

“We have the patent, and the snowmobile prototype is finished and ready for testing. Actually, that’s part of the reason we’re calling. We were hoping we could visit next week.”

“Wha—yeah, of course! You’re all welcome. I can’t wait to see you!”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“Yeah.” Korra’s tone softened. “ Same here. Just tell me what day, and I’ll meet you at the docks.”

“Moon Day. Next week. We’ll arrive around midday.”

“I’ll be there.”

It was a promise.

Chapter Text

The scope of the issues that Korra had dealt with in the last few years put her private concerns at an appropriate perspective, but that perspective didn’t stop her from fluctuating between worry and mortification over the letter she’d sent to Asami.

She wished she could say she was drunk when she wrote the letter. She sort of had been...but on longing and melancholy and the old comfort of her memory. She'd also been thinking about unfair criticisms from people who didn’t know Asami. The need to tell Asami how important she was put those words on paper, and out came that intimate truth about Korra's Kyoshi dreams. Asami had definitely picked up on that by her question when they were on the radio.

Korra began to sweat just thinking about how she could explain those words to Asami.

She didn’t want to rush into anything. She wanted to make it right:  heartfelt and honest and romantic. The only problem was she had no idea what ‘romantic’ meant. She was worried about Asami's physical expectations too.

She planned to take Asami to see the snowmobile junkyard, maybe grab some drinks in the city, just them. Korra went hot then cold as she thought about taking Asami out onto the tundra and building her an igloo. It was mortifyingly titillating and almost as embarrassing as remembering her confession to Mako.

Despite herself, she pictured rushing up to Asami and blurting out, 'Look, I really like you, and I think we were meant for each other!'

Korra grunted at herself. “It doesn’t seem as embarrassing as writing about saying her name after having a wet dream about Kyoshi and her wife.”

She turned that over and over in her mind, lying awake later than usual one evening because she was too jittery to sleep. When she was just fading into sleep, someone knocked on her door. Her parents were offshore; one of the palace staff members had to be at her door.

Korra paused to rub Naga’s ear after she got up from bed. When she opened the door, the look on her visitor’s face betrayed that this wasn’t Bolin putting in a call later than etiquette dictated. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s an emergency broadcast from a tribe in the far south.”

The man offered a slip of paper in his hand. She took it from him and stared for a long moment at the words there.

Child of the Tundra Tribe taken by spirits. Request aid.

“Is there any more information?”

He shook his head. “No. Just this. Their radio is only turned on twice a day at most. This message came as a transmission out.”

“When they get back on, tell them not to attack. Wait for me to arrive!”

Korra yanked her clothes on and pulled her water bladder across her chest to secure it beneath her left arm. She made up her mind as she dressed:  she couldn’t venture into the spirit world from here. She needed to go to the tribe physically and figure out what was going on and rescue that child. There was no time to waste if these people planned to launch an attack. She knew that the further out the tribe, the more superstitious, and superstition didn’t bode well for working with spirits. They probably wouldn’t take kindly to her in spirit form in or out of the spirit world.

Naga was saddled and ready by the time she yanked on her boots and strode outside. Korra launched herself up, accepting the bundle of supplies one of the palace staff handed her. There would be no roads where she was going, but she had a map and planned to ask someone from the Tribe of Bear at the last reaches of their roadways to direct her.

“Go, Naga,” she urged. “Go, go!”

Their harsh pace had Korra and Naga both exhausted by the early morning, but they arrived at the village of Bear Tribe before the sun broke the horizon. The villagers all backed away from Naga as she strode into the town.

“Please help me,” Korra called to them. “I need someone to direct me to the Tundra Tribe. This is an emergency!”

“I am Karraq, the chief of this village,” came a gruff voice behind her. Naga turned so that Korra faced the man. She realized that certain customs were important no matter how hurried she was. She dismounted—a painful thing after riding for so long—and bowed.

“Chief Karraq. I’m sorry for disturbing your village. I’m on my way to stop a confrontation between the Tundra Tribe and the spirits. I need to get there as soon as I can. Can someone direct me?"

Karraq’s beard was gray and well-trimmed, and it fluffed around his mouth as he studied her. He looked her in the eye, then moved his gaze from the crown of her head down to the toes of her boots. “Very well. I'll go with you. Husuk, get together a dog team and supplies. Bring Avatar Korra a cup of hot tea and whale flesh. Water for the bear.”

Korra swallowed cubes of frozen whale blubber whole and finished it off with a swig of tea. She massaged Naga’s hips and shoulders, using waterbending healing to soften the ache in those joints. Naga didn’t seem particularly painful, but a subtle amount of tension in her body loosened after the gentle touch.

By then, the grizzled chief was ready to restart their journey. Korra mounted Naga and followed him into the gray of pre-dawn.

They made good pace, though Naga and Korra had been at a trot to run for nearly half a day. The morning sunrise in the east set the ice to shining painfully. Korra dug shaded goggles from her pack and pulled them on in immediate relief. Staring at such bright snow long enough could cause blindness. The chief had old-fashioned shaders:  strips of wood with a tiny slit cut through them to allow vision.

It was incredibly dry and cold this close to the pole. Korra’s nose and throat ached from the air. Naga’s breaths were heavy streams of steam. The snow and ice beneath them was too cold to melt with the ice that made up the ground; it was like a field of gravel.

The village appeared as a faint dot on the horizon with smoke rising from the igloos and tents clustered there. It was a nondescript place. The village was oddly quiet for the franticness of the situation, but it wasn't exactly a bustling metropolis. The entire village was marked by only a few old-fashioned igloos and tents clustered haphazardly on the tundra.

Karraq commanded his dogs to stop and stomped a brake pick into the snow. He motioned for Korra to follow him. They ducked into the largest igloo in the village, which wasn’t much larger than Korra’s childhood home. Inside about a dozen people in brown parkas were clustered in a ring around smoking coals. Weapons were raised threateningly, and voices had been raised in shouts. Korra saw an old radio unit in one corner; it was a mess of twisted metal and torn wires. All activity stilled as the villagers turned to look at Korra and Karraq.

“Chief Karraq,” an old woman said, rising with a wince. She bowed, and Karraq returned the gesture. The woman turned her eyes to Korra and studied her neutrally. Her face was lined with wrinkle upon wrinkle, and from those wrinkles, Korra saw bright, clever blue eyes.

“Chief Una,” Karraq responded. His tone was firm, and he turned his gaze from the old woman to several armed men within the igloo.

Korra wondered at that pregnant moment. She didn’t have time to deal with tribal leadership battles. She bowed to the old woman. “I’m Avatar Korra. I’m here to help you with this situation. Please, can someone explain what happened?”

One of the armed men lurched to his feet and spoke loudly. “The spirits stole my son!”

“Where is Chief Tonraq?” Chief Una asked much more evenly.

“My father couldn’t come. He didn’t receive the message, but I came as soon as I heard. I have a lot of experience with spirits so I can help you. How long has the child been missing?”

“One day,” said a haggard young woman. “He’s just a baby, not even old enough for a name.”

That didn’t give her much time. A baby, an infant… Why would the spirits take a child so young?

The father of the child gesticulated with his club. “I know where the spirit slip is. We should march into the spirit world right now and take my son back!”

“I’ll go,” Korra said firmly. “I’ll get your son back for you.”

You! It’s because of you that this happened! Spirits have no place in this world, and yet you let them here anyway!” He turned on Chief Una. “You shouldn't have called them! Tundra Tribe protects Tundra Tribe!”

“Sit down!” Korra spoke sharply enough to make the man flinch. Though she understood his desperation, he'd angered her. “I’m here to help you, but you have to tell me exactly what happened first. Then I will go to the spirit world, find your son, and bring him back to you. But you have to trust me. You're not going to fix anything by throwing spears at spirits.”

“We've already sent them away with spears once, Avatar,” another man sneered.

“Then they left because they wanted to. Now shut up and tell me what I need to know.”

Both men looked like they would protest, maybe even violently, but Karraq spoke firmly: “I will go with Avatar Korra. We will see that your son comes back to you and the spirit is punished.”

It was apparently enough to gain their agreement. In the next few minutes, the young parents explained that they had been out on the ice checking on a set of char traps when the situation began. The mother stepped away from her igloo to relieve herself—the guilt on her face broke Korra’s heart as she admitted she should have strapped him to her chest—and when she returned, the igloo had been broken down and the baby was gone. They’d tracked the traces of non-human tracks to a shimmering slip above the ice. The husband had stepped inside to find himself in the spirit world. They’d returned to the tribe for help, and at that time, their matriarch had commanded them to wait and sent word for help.

When a group of spirits had approached hours later, the tribe managed to scare them back with a few well-aimed spears. Why they'd come out and why they'd retreated Korra couldn't guess.

Here they were, a day later.

Korra needed no directing. She placed her hand on the surface of the snow and felt the spiritual energies nearby open up to her senses. There was a rent between the spirit and human worlds about ten miles south.

She ignored the murmur of shock from the villagers that had followed her outside and motioned for Karraq to mount Naga. She followed him up and urged Naga into a run.

Another half hour of hard riding added to the eighteen hours prior. Korra was running on adrenaline, and poor Naga started to show weariness. They came upon the shimmering entrance to the spirit world at the top of a rise. The snow blew hard, but the frozen tracks remained visible. The spirit had made snake-like impressions in the ice. The human tracks paced around the portal in disorganized chaos. For the first time, Korra could read something deeper in tracks alone:  she saw fear and desperation.

At first thought, Korra was startled by this tiny entrance to the spirit world. On second thought, it wasn't that surprising. Opening the Southern Portal might allow small rents like these to gradually form, especially so close to the main portal.

The little crack shimmered, oddly green in this land of white and blue. When they stepped inside, the air was warmer and heavy with moisture. Foliage cloaked them, creating a claustrophobic canopy of fluorescent trees and vines. Compared to the austerity of the south, it was a tropical jungle.

Karraq looked around with wide eyes. “What spirit could have done this?”

“I don’t know,” Korra admitted. “I’ve never met a spirit that was inherently evil. There are dark spirits, but I can’t imagine why a spirit would steal a human baby. Maybe it was just because he was there and alone.”

Karraq's take was significantly darker. “Evil is in everything.”

“So is good,” Korra said for the sake of argument. A testament to her words, the familiar yellow spirit appeared and fluttered down to her shoulder. He seemed agitated.

“You’ve come to help!” he said, vibrating with nervousness.

“Yes, I have. The baby needs to be returned to his mother immediately.”

“We tried, but they threw spears at us! Do they not want their baby because it’s been in the spirit world?”

Korra was starting to piece together the sequence of events that had led them here. “You have the baby? They were afraid you were attacking them.”

“Why would they think that?” he asked with what sounded like confusion.

“I’ll explain later. Where is the baby?” Even as she asked the question, she felt a tickle of his human energies. Maybe the little yellow spirit had given her the knowledge with his touch.

She couldn’t slide fluidly through the spirit world in her physical form so she set off at a jog, allowing the spirit to tug her in the right direction. Karraq kept up with puffs and pants. Not bad for an old man.

Korra heard the baby before she saw him. She followed those cries to find a cluster of gentle looking spirits circling the crying child. He was cradled in a soft leaf, still bundled in his parka. The leaf crooned and rocked. The baby's voice was strong, thankfully, though no doubt he was hungry and dehydrated. The baby looked and sounded shockingly alien in this place.

“Avatar Korra!” Several spirits looked to her in relief. “It won’t stop crying. We gave it water, but there’s nothing to feed it here.”

Korra stepped forward to touch the child. He was a fat baby, all rolls and wrinkles under the leather and fur of his parka wrap. There were no bruises, breaks, or cuts. He was clean and dry. The spirits had taken care of him despite not knowing what he needed.

She stripped out of her parka, removed her belt, and opened her shirt. She used her pelted belt to tie him against the skin of her chest, and he screamed all the louder to feel human skin against his own. He was chilled, but he would warm beneath her parka.

“That you for caring for him.”

“You’ve cared for us, Avatar Korra,” the yellow spirit said quietly.

If only it were as true as this spirit seemed to think. “What happened? Do you know?”

“A spirit stole him. She thought his mother left him all alone in the cold, but she knew it wasn’t true. We took the child from her and tried to return him.”

“And the villagers attacked you.”

The ferret spirit nodded.

“Why did she take him?”

There was an uncomfortable shift among those spirits, and Korra felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. It was like when she got mad and shifted the balance to darkness. They were uneasy about her question or about the answer. Korra moved on. “Where is the spirit who stole him?”

They relaxed. “We chased her away from the baby, but she may be lurking. Avatar, she may attack you. She’s been sliding closer to darkness every day.”

Korra shook her head. “Why? What’s corrupting her?”

“Why do humans go dark?” the ferret spirit rebutted. The entire group went tense again. Another question wouldn’t be welcome, not about this.

She needed to sit with Zaheer and get to the bottom of this darkness, commune with the spirits more readily than she did. Her relationship with them felt tenuous at best, and she was afraid of upsetting that balance. The fact Zaheer hadn’t pushed her harder must mean he felt the same way. “I’ll come back later to talk about this with you all, but I need to get the baby back to his mother now.”

“Thank you, Avatar Korra. And good luck.”

Distances in the spirit world were fluid. The walk back seemed to have lengthened, but Korra was going at a slower pace to avoid jostling the child. She could sense the entrance to the physical world as easily as she’d felt the other side in the physical world.

“They look to you with respect,” Chief Karraq said quietly.

He only said that because he’d never met the eel spirit. “Some do, I guess.”

The baby’s mouth found Korra’s nipple through her binding and sucked. He let go and screamed in outrage after a moment. Korra shifted him higher on her chest so that his cheek was against her skin again. “Soon, little one.”

Karraq’s gasp of shock was what turned Korra’s head. She felt the cold harshness of a dark spirit a moment later. The baby stilled against her chest. Fear closed in, but Korra refused to obey it. She’d felt this for half a year, and every time she’d turned her head to look over her shoulder that vision of herself had been watching. To this day, she wasn’t sure what created those visions.

Today when she turned her head, it was Karraq that had summoned the darkness. Korra nearly mistook it for herself for how similar it looked to her. The vision was shorter, thinner, with straighter hair, and there was a desperation to the way that slender hand reached out as tears shimmered in the girl’s eyes. She was caught in a tangle of vines.

Perhaps this was their dark spirit.

“Daddy, please,” she said, her fingers reaching out to Karraq. That smoky voice struck an emotional chord in Korra’s heart.

He stepped forward as if drawn to it, and Korra put her arm across his chest. The vision shimmered, and Korra’s entire body went cold. It was her dark shadow. The metallic clang of those chains made her shudder. Its white eyes were wide, and its muscles bulged with veins pulsing at a fast beat in sync with Korra's own thundering heart. Korra's dark shadow offered no words. It stalked and stared. Korra was frozen with dumb animal terror. Her breath emerged in gasps, and her body was wracked with shudders.

Karraq's voice broke through the thunder of Korra's heart. He spoke firmly. "Your tricks are useless, spirit."

The dark shadow rippled after a slow sneer; a fluxing spirit emerged. There was little form to the spirit. Korra felt her fear release her like a fish cut from a hook. She gulped a steadying breath and cleared her emotions. The clearing had darkened, but the sun came out and the greenery opened again. She focused on the spirit; it mimicked a whale or seal perhaps.  Its edges were dark, and the mouth that opened had taken a bright red cast. This spirit was close to complete corruption.

Human words emerged from the oily depths of its mouth:  “You’re stealing my baby!”

It didn’t take much deduction to know who this spirit was. It rippled with the vines, edging close and away, before sinking back into them. Its energy softened. There was an odd meeting of light and dark there, as if the spirit couldn’t come any closer. Korra would have to come back later.

“Let’s go,” she told Karraq. He followed behind her quietly.

The cold and sunlight and openness that met them in the physical world was shocking. Korra embraced the difference. She glanced back at Karraq, who shivered as if in relief. She’d felt it the first few times she’d been at the Southern Portal:  an itching feeling of not being in the right plane. She’d been in the spirit world so much since then it no longer brought the feeling out in her.

“Naga can carry us both again.”

Karraq boosted himself up into the saddle in a surprisingly graceful move. He reached out to help Korra take a seat in front of him. She pressed a hand to the baby, making sure he wasn't smothered in the warmth of her parka. Naga was stiff, but she went as quickly as Korra asked. Korra was dismayed when she saw blood from Naga’s previous tracks and vowed to take care of her paws as soon as she could. She couldn't stop now. She was afraid they'd collapse if they stopped.

It was approaching midday. They traced their tracks back to the haze of smoke that broke the sky. Several villagers waited in the cold.

The baby against Korra’s skin began to wail, and his mother rushed to Korra and held out her arms, weeping.

“Let’s get out of the cold.”

The woman was beyond understanding. She thrust her bare hand beneath Korra’s parka to touch the baby’s body. It was a jumbled mess of limbs to get inside the meeting igloo, but when they did, Korra removed her parka and handed the baby to his mother. Her breasts were leaking by the time she settled the baby to them, and he screamed once before he realized there was milk for him.

The father wrapped an arm around his wife, touched his son's head, and looked up at Korra in shock. His aggression had faded. “Thank you. Thank you, Avatar.”

She smiled. The words, ‘You're welcome’ weren’t appropriate.

After the baby nursed, they removed his clothes to check him for injuries.

“He’s clean and dry,” Chief Una said quietly. Apparently she was a waterbender healer by the way her hands had ghosted over the baby. “Did you tend to him, Avatar?”

“I didn’t need to. The group of spirits that came to the village was trying to return the baby. They’ve cared for him but were afraid to come back again because they were attacked.”

Korra only saw shock, not disbelief, when she looked around the igloo.

“And the spirit that did this? Has it been punished?” Una asked that question.

“She was trapped in the spirit world, but I don’t know if they do things like we do. I’ll take care of her if she comes to the village. I’m going to go into the spirit world from here to make sure everything’s settled.”

Korra settled into half lotus and let her spirit slide away. It was almost too easy, probably because of how exhausted she was. She came into the spirit world where the group of benevolent spirits were gathered. They looked up as she took form.

“Avatar Korra. Is the baby returned to his people?”

“Yes. Thank you for caring for him. I’ve told the villagers your side of the story, and they’re embarrassed and grateful.” Nothing wrong with a bit of embellishment. “Would one of you be willing to speak with them face to face?”

The spirits glanced at each other. “I will go.”

“As will I.”

The ferret spirit sighed and stood. “I will too. No doubt we will be interacting more in the future, especially with the portal so close by.”

“How did that form?”

He shrugged. “We know very little about the places where our two worlds meet, Avatar.”

“And the spirit that caused all of this? Will she be punished?”

Another shift of darkness, but the little yellow spirit answered. “We trapped her to protect her from your angry humans, but we don't know what to do with her. If she corrupts more… She'll be on her own.”

A trap of spiritual energies? How clever and odd. “I’ll have to purify her if she does attack again.”

They all nodded serenely as if no longer bothered by her fate.

“Will you come tomorrow morning to speak with the villagers?”

“Come find us at that time. We will be nearby.”

Korra checked on the tangle of vines where she’d last seen the dark spirit before she left the spirit world. Closer inspection revealed that pure spiritual energies had been infused into the vines—they pulsed with power. Korra didn’t feel the same deflection the dark spirit did. The energies parted as she reached out; they were an uncomfortable tingle on her skin.

The spirit twisted and hissed at the sight of her. Korra pushed her hand past the spirit vines and allowed a dark tendril to wrap around her in a bruising grip. She could handle a tentacle as long as it didn't become a chain. She softened her mind to invite it to imprint into her thoughts.

The bleating of pups echoed as tall two-legged men strode through her clumsy babies and struck them with clubs. Their dying screams echoed as deep twists of pain inside her, and she could do nothing but retreat to the sea as she listened to her future being slaughtered.

She broke away, gasping for breaths that she didn’t need. Korra shook her head and focused. The spirit had broken from the trap—maybe it had leached some of her energy. She was devastated by the loss she’d felt as a seal. She was one of those things on two legs that had done the killing, and it took a moment to orient herself.

Korra took two deep unneeded breaths and settled back into her own body mid-conversation between Karraq and the villagers. Apparently they had been discussing what he saw in the spirit world.

“The spirit is coming. Don’t interfere.”

The temperature had dropped despite the midday sun shining over the village, and Korra lifted her hood for further warmth. She felt heavy from her exhaustion but stronger for it. Her mind was free, open and aware of her surroundings. She sensed the dark energies of the spirit before she saw it.

It was amorphous and oily black, very much like the dark spirits she had encountered during Unalaq’s time in the South. This creature bore little resemblance to whatever it had been in the past. Was it what she’d seen on the water so many weeks ago, or had that spirit been the one that had possessed her and shown her the whales?

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “You aren’t a part of the physical world. You aren’t a seal.”

The spirit opened its mouth, showing pulsing purple within its jaws. A high, keening wail escaped it, much like a mournful whale cry. Then it attacked.

Korra kept herself firm and short; her exhaustion weighted her movements. She moved just enough to dodge. With a sweep of her arms, she raised spirals of water around the spirit. The energies she transmitted on the first turn were enough to trap the spirit though it thrashed its upper limbs and gave short shrieks in rage now. With each turn upward, the water paralyzed the spirit. Korra’s hands shook from her effort; this spirit was nearly black in its center, completely corrupted. Her effort resulted in golden energy flowing upward over its body. She released the water as soon as all darkness slipped away. The spirit turned as if to approach the spirit world and faded softly in bright bits of golden light.

Peace by death. What happened to purified spirits, Korra wasn’t certain.

She took several long breaths and let her hands fall. When she turned around, the entire village stood behind her. Several men and women carried spears and clubs, but none of them had violent intent on their faces anymore.

“Can I rest?” Korra asked. She was hungry, but her need for sleep outweighed her need for food.

Naga, she remembered suddenly. Poor Naga, whose paws were worn raw from the rough ice this far south. Korra whistled, and Naga approached, limping. At Korra’s command, she lay down on her side in relaxation pose. Korra healed her raw paw pads, murmuring quiet apologies for allowing it to happen in the first place. She gently stroked Naga's cheeks and pressed her face into the soft fur of her neck. Naga turned to lick her hand. She was so selfless. Naga needed food and rest too. Korra look a breath of Naga's wild scent and relaxed in the safety she provided.

Chief Una took her shoulder in a strong grip, and Korra jolted back into herself from her exhaustion. She'd fallen asleep against Naga. The old woman led Korra into her hut, supporting more of her weight than seemed possible.

“There’s food for Naga in the supplies. Please warm some and give her some water. Please. She's worked hard for me. I'd be dead without her.”

Una's voice was soft, like a grandmother that Korra had never known. She pushed Korra onto a bedroll. “Yes, Korra. We'll take care of your bear. Now sleep.”

The furs smelled odd, but Korra didn’t care. She stripped out of her clothes and burrowed into the bed to fall into a long, dark sleep.

She awoke to find Karraq sitting across the small hut from her. There was only soft yellow light given off by the glowing coals at the center of the hut. The smooth skiff-skiff sound of him whetting his knife nearly lulled her back to sleep even with the wide, jumping shadows his silhouette formed on the walls.

Then she remembered his vision coaxed by the dark spirit.

“That was my mother.”

Karraq’s bright blue eyes lifted to settle on hers. “You favor Senna in your face. Though you have your father’s build. I never liked him.” His jaw jerked.

“You’re my grandfather.”

“Yes.” He resumed sharpening his blade and didn’t speak again.

She’d never thought much about where she came from. Master Suntoq had taught her that her life began when she knew she was the Avatar. That her mother was from one of the most secular and secluded tribes, the Tribe of Bear, gave Korra an odd pang. Senna wasn’t some girl dishwasher in Harbor City, seduced by the banished Prince of the North. She’d grown up and thrived in the harshest land on the planet, and she’d been courted by the banished Prince of the North for two years. Korra imagined her father riding to the outskirts of civilization to trade with villagers and flirt with Senna a few days every season.

Two years until Senna had left with him to make her own way. If Korra hadn’t been the Avatar, they might have gone back to the Tribe of Bear to live after a time. Korra would only know this place. She would have sat on a whaling kayak, maybe thrown the spear, would never have met Naga or Bolin or Mako or Asami. Never have traveled where she did or seen all she had. Never would have suffered the way she did.

A part of her hated what she could have been. She would have had several children by now, a strong husband to share her igloo. She would be teaching her children the ways of the tribe, maybe passing on the art of waterbending, maybe dreaming of a future where her children could travel to Republic City and meet the Avatar and her wife, the great engineer Asami Sato.

Korra awoke from that strange melancholy dream. She sat up, pulled on her clothes, and visited the village outhouse to relieve herself. The sun was just beginning to set so she hadn’t slept too long. She ducked into the igloo of the parents and knocked. Chief Una was there with parents and baby.

They all smiled at the sight of Korra, a much different reaction than when she’d first arrived. The man stood to bow low and offered her a sip of spirits, which Korra declined. She admitted, “I’ll pass out in your coal pit if I drink now. Would you be willing to meet with the spirits that took care of your baby in the spirit world?”

The husband frowned, but the wife nodded earnestly. “I want to thank them.”

“It will be good to speak with them and know who to trust if we interact again,” Una said quietly.

The villagers walked outside, surrounding Korra as she slipped into the spirit world. The three spirit volunteers materialized around her. She asked them, “Can you come now?”

“Will we be safe?”


When Korra settled back into her body her physical eyes saw the spirits approaching, fluttering on the soft cold wind. Did it take that long to settle back into her body or had they used spiritual energy to hasten their trip? Korra moved to stand before realizing she was already standing. She’d entered the spirit world without settling into half-lotus.


The yellow spirit fluttered to her shoulder and touched his cheek to hers. “Avatar Korra,” he said in greeting. That greeting felt intimate, but she didn’t know if it was.

“Were you the ones that helped my baby?” the mother asked, stepping forward.

The ferret spirit said, “As best as we could. The baby is yours, and we couldn’t sustain him in our world. It would be wrong for him to die without being able to fend for himself. He’s stronger now.”

“Why do you cross to our side?” the father asked.

“We came to talk to you,” the ferret spirit responded.

“He meant all of you,” Korra responded. “Hypothetically.”

The spirits all shifted in unison. "We all came to speak with you.”

The yellow spirit said, “I came out once to help you, Avatar Korra.”

A chill passed down her spine. Even if her shadow had been a dark spirit, she wanted to hear that truth confirmed for her peace of mind. A logical explanation for its presence didn't reduce the animal fear it brought out in her. “From what? What was that?”

“It was you,” the spirit responded guilessly.

Was she really crazy? Korra wanted to ask, but a larger part of her didn’t—not in front of her grandfather and these people. Presuming it had been a dark spirit didn't explain her hallucination at Zaofu. She remembered the feeling of tugging metal poison out of her skull. Focus, she commanded herself. This meeting was about finding a peaceful arrangement, not about delving into her darkest fear. “Why did that spirit come from the spirit world?”

There was another simultaneous shift, but this time she got an answer. “Darkness. Dark wants to be light, and light wants to be dark. Balance must be found.”

“But why here?” Korra asked, filing the last statement away. It would be a good conversation for Zaheer.

The yellow spirit said, “There are energies everywhere.”

“Can you sense spiritual energies here?”

“Yes. Not quite like our world. I can sense you, Avatar Korra. Some airbenders carry energy, but not like you. You are darkness and light—bright with your power. Any of us can find you.”

Did that mean dark spirits came to her? Would she wreak havoc just by being the only thing these spirits could sense in the physical world? Darkness and light… This meeting was causing more confusion, and she was still too exhausted to puzzle it out. “Will you help this tribe if they need help?”

“Perhaps,” the ferret spirit said. “But we won’t harm. Good day.” They fluttered away, and the matriarch sighed as she watched them go.

They were asked to stay one more night, and Korra did. She gave Naga a full massage, checked her paws, and made sure none of her joints or muscles were swollen. Naga enjoyed the attention, and it attracted most of the villagers to watch out of curiosity. After that exercise, Korra ate her fill of salted char and slept hard for over twelve hours. When morning came, Korra ate breakfast of whale skin, seaweed cubes, and char with Karraq and Una.

Over their meal, the matriarch held out an object cupped in her palms. It was a knife with an ivory handle and sheath. “You helped our village in more ways than one, Avatar Korra. Please, this is for you. We are in your debt.”

Korra hesitantly took the knife from her. She felt a tickle of recognition for this old custom. It was a physical token of loyalty. It was also too much, but if she declined she’d insult the old woman and her entire tribe. This is my job, wouldn’t work. Korra was here as the Avatar, but she was also Karraq’s granddaughter, a child of this place. She bowed and strapped the knife to her belt. “Thank you, Chief Una. May I take this to my father?”

She paused but didn’t seem to take offense. “It’s yours to do as you wish.”

Loyalty for her father and the council, then. Korra hoped she’d interpreted it correctly. Why didn’t people just say what they meant?

Karraq and Korra left just after the sun rose, and their journey was quiet for the most part. They stopped after a few hours so the dogs and Naga could drink. Karraq broke their silence and said, “You did well. Accepting the knife in your father’s name… It was right.”

Korra felt awkward and forced past it, finding herself smiling. “So… Can I call you 'Grandpa'?”

Karraq sighed heavily. He tried to hide his smile but failed. “I suppose you’ve earned that right.”

She took them back to their previous topic. “So, Grandpa. Is there going to be a problem with Una leading the tribe?”

“Maybe. But whatever problem there may have been was delayed because you supported her and resolved the problem in the way she hoped. It helps being right sometimes." He studied her. "Tell me, why did that spirit take your form?"

"Long story. I was stalked by that vision for months. It scares the shit out of me now."

"Why do you fear yourself?"

Korra was startled by the thought. She'd been so focused on the fear that built up from the stalking that she'd never thought about the form her fears had taken from the start. "That's gonna take a lot more introspection than I can commit to right now. Why did it show my mother to you?"

"A nightmare I had for years after Senna left us."

They were quiet as they got back on the road. After a few minutes, Karraq caught her attention. "Do you see that lip in the snow?”

For the rest of their trip, he spoke to her about the movement of the ice and snow, their dangers and bounties. He quizzed her about the hunting seasons and season quotas, what part of the bear, seal, fish, whale, and mouse that could be eaten, and so on. Korra felt as though her skull had been physically packed with all the information he shared with her.

She wished she had known him in her childhood.

When they arrived at his village, he motioned her to follow him into a large igloo in the center of the village. There were women and children within the smoky interior. He pointed, “Your aunts and cousins. The hunters should be back tonight.”

More family than she ever realized she’d have. Two aunts—removed because they were Karraq’s nieces—and six cousins, her cousins ranging in age from two to ten years old. Korra catalogued their names as she shed her parka and got on the floor with the kids, playing with ivory figurines and serving as a riding bear for the younger kids. It was more fun than she’d had in years.

“You’ll be a good mother one day,” her eldest aunt told her during dinner. “How many children do you want?”

“Three or four,” Korra replied. Despite herself, she wondered if Asami wanted children. It was hard to guess. Asami didn’t seem to dislike the airbender kids, but she didn’t seem all that comfortable with them. And she was so career driven, Korra would be more surprised if she wanted kids than not. The thought of having a family with Asami put heat in her cheeks.

“Any men in your life to give you those children?”

Korra laughed. “No.”

“A woman then,” one of them asked with a wide grin.

“Maybe. We aren’t together, but…”

“She’s blushing,” another elder woman said.

Later, after the hunters returned and the kids went to bed, they traded stories about their families. Karraq told an obviously much-loved tale about how their village was founded by a hermit who killed an adult polar bear dog with his bare hands. All eyes turned to Naga, who lay beside Korra in apparent comfort. Korra had massaged her again, hoping to avoid swollen muscles and joints, and that had put her right to sleep.

Karraq asked, “How did you come to have a polar bear dog companion?”

Korra reached behind her to rub Naga’s ear, earning a tail thump in response. “Gosh, that was a long time ago. I ran away from the White Lotus compound as a little kid.”

“How old were you?” Karraq asked.

“Maybe eight?”

“Why did you run away?”

“It doesn’t really matter.”

His expression shifted subtly. “Your motivations matter.”

Korra thought back to that time and remembered the cold panic and determination that had filled her as a child. She’d known how wrong her situation was then. “I forgot what my mother’s face looked like. I was afraid she’d disappear if I couldn’t remember her.”

His eyes dropped, and he clenched his jaw. Then Karraq nodded. “Continue with your story, Korra.”

“I was stupid. No food, no map, no idea how to navigate the ice, and a blizzard blew through too. I got lost and was starving for food after about a day. I had to be out on the ice flow because I found Naga there as a puppy after being lost for two days. She was healthy so I figured her mother must be around. Of course Mom and Dad taught me to be afraid of polar bear dogs, but I was so hungry I had to try. I rolled around in Naga’s urine to take her scent and tried to learn her vocalizations as we played together. Then when Naga’s mother came back, I mimicked her.

“She accepted me. I was so hungry that I nursed on her with Naga. Then Naga nosed her mother’s mouth, and she threw up fresh meat. I did the same thing. To this day, I don’t think I’ve had anything that tasted so good. I curled up in the snow with Naga against her mother and slept well that night with my belly full. She took care of me for a couple days just like that.

“Then my dad found me. He killed Naga’s mother, but I threw myself on Naga to protect her. She’d saved my life. I couldn’t let him kill her. We’ve been together ever since.”

“She’s your sister,” Karraq murmured.

Korra nodded. “Yes.”

“You nursed from a polar bear dog’s teat,” he said just as quietly.

Korra nodded again. She wished she hadn’t mentioned it; it was something she’d never told anyone before. She was ashamed by it now even though it had been such a natural instinct at the time. “I was pretty desperate for food.”

He rubbed his beard and sighed, shaking his head; his lips turned up in a grin.

Naga’s ears had perked at the repeated use of her name, and she shifted to drop her head in Korra’s lap. Her tongue flicked over Korra’s palm before she sighed. Korra wiped debris from the corner of Naga’s eyes and rubbed the silky fur of her ear tip between two fingers.

“We’ll have to change our founding story,” said the woman sitting next to Korra. They had a quiet laugh at that. The villagers dispersed to their homes for the rest for the night. Korra slept on the floor next to Naga like old times.

Korra hated to call her trip short, but she needed to return to the palace. She’d wired them to let them know the issue was taken care of, but her parents would be worried if she delayed her return any longer. Her friends were going to be in the port in two mornings, a thought that flushed her with anticipation and nervousness in one.

Asami would want an answer. Korra still wasn’t sure what the best one would be, but Asami would be there. That was really all that Korra wanted.

Karraq accompanied her into the cold as she prepared Naga for the slower ride home. He watched her preparations quietly, and it almost surprised Korra when he broke the silence. “I had a great many doubts about you.”

Korra glanced over at her grandfather from where she strapped her saddle to Naga’s chest.

Karraq smiled. He looked more like the soft, happy grandfather Korra used to imagine as a child than the gruff, serious man she had recently met. “I have no more doubts, Granddaughter. I want you to have this.”

He held out a necklace made of bone and ribbon. The centerpiece was a rounded polar bear dog, turned back on itself. It was old, worn smooth, and the ribbon was frayed. It was a traditionally masculine necklace with bits of bone circling the ribbon, but Korra liked it at first look. She glanced at her grandfather’s serious expression and bowed, sensing this gesture meant more than it seemed.

“Thank you. Can I wear it?”

Karraq smiled. “That’s why I’ve given it to you. But it’s yours now, so you may do with it as you wish. I had always planned to give it to your mother when she took over my position for the tribe, but she chose your father instead. You’re as much my family as she is.”

“This doesn’t mean I’ll be chief, right?”

He laughed softly. “My niece has already started the transition. No, this is about family.”

Korra pushed her hood off to tie the necklace against her skin. She glanced up at her grandfather and smiled, ignoring the tears that shimmered in his eyes. Then, with a slow grin, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “I’m glad I met you, Grandpa.”

His arms clasped around her waist. “As am I, Korra. Have a safe trip home.”

“What do you want me to tell my parents?”

“Whatever you want. I may be visiting the council soon. You’re always welcome here.”

“I’ll take you up on that.” She paused and realized she’d forgotten something. Korra bowed, using the archaic fist-below-the-fist. “Thank you for your help, Chief Karraq.”

Karraq returned the bow. “I’m at your service, Avatar Korra.”

Korra couldn’t leave it at that. After she mounted Naga, she turned and waved wide. “Bye-bye!”

Karraq laughed and waved her away.

Chapter Text

Asami's week and a half leading up to leaving for the South was lived in a fog of partial-productivity marked by rising anticipation. Lee kept up the facade that her trip was work-oriented, but she could imagine he knew the greater truth.

Future Industries sent ahead a few employees with snowmobile models to test in the harsh conditions only found in the South Pole. In the meantime there was a debate in PR about whether to solely focus on Harbor City’s inhabitants for advertising. That department was flummoxed by Asami’s short timeline for the entire project, but they did well enough. They took out an ad in Harbor City’s paper and more importantly, visited several independent auto and snowmobile salesmen and mechanics to spread word about the new product that needed volunteer testers.

Asami pushed to include the traditionalists in their scope. She wanted men and women like Senna to acknowledge her snowmobile was better than Cabbage Corp’s and that it had a use in their specialized lives. Cabbage Corp had ignored the lesser tribes when they'd put out their snowmobile, and Varrick’s model had been financially out of reach of ninety-six percent of the population. Asami wanted to be better. They sent a messenger with a dog team out to seven of the eight tribes that lived outside Harbor City. Their populations ranged from one hundred to as low as twenty individuals, but their endorsements would be invaluable.

Asami’s distraction about Korra and her work diverted her attention from fears about her reputation within the company. On the surface, everything seemed business as usual. Perhaps it was a testament to Republic City’s quiet homophobia that no one had breathed a word about her sexuality to the public. Ikken tried to reassure her during their late lunch on her last day at work.

“Your sexuality has nothing to do with your ability to lead this company.”

“Are you afraid for me or the company?”

“I won’t say that there aren’t concerns about how public perception could impact the bottom line, but frankly, we survived your father.” Ikken cupped his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Anyone else, Asami, and maybe your fears would be true. I told you the truth though:  you dragged us out of the gutter, sacrificed your time, reputation, and your livelihood to keep us running. We wouldn’t be here without you. You earned our loyalty.” He guessed her irritation and cut her off before she could say it. “It isn’t fair because you shouldn’t need our loyalty for this, but that’s the world we live in. Now go on your vacation and don’t worry about where you stand. We’re with you.”

She stewed on that for the few hours she had left at work. Finally, Lee took her phone off the hook, closed her blinds, and hung her bag on her doorknob.

“Quitting time, boss.”

She went without protest. Lee held up Asami’s coat, and she pushed her arms into the sleeves. She pulled her hair from under the collar as she said, “Check in every morning at nine. Leave a message if it's urgent. If it isn’t, I'll radio back that afternoon at three.”

“Everything will be fine, Asami.”

She turned around to face her assistant. “Thank you for your hard work and for your support, Lee.”

“Does this call for a hug?”

Asami wrapped him up. Lee spoke quietly in her arms. “Go get your girl, boss.”

Her blush betrayed her. Lee’s smile was kind under his mustache.

Her rising anticipation worried her. Asami was afraid she'd pace the entire trip South, unable to sleep or interact with her friends. Then she got on the ship, lay down in the bed, and couldn’t find energy to get back out of it. Something about the gentle rocking of large ships put her out like a light.

After fourteen hours of sleep, she showered and dressed and was finally ready to meet the day. When the captain announced they were docked and would be allowed to disembark in half an hour, Asami’s shaky anticipation was back with a vengeance.

Mako, Bolin, Opal, and June were on the cold deck when Asami emerged with her suitcases. Bolin grabbed two of the bags from the porter who had helped Asami, and he teased her about being a shut-in. "I was afraid you'd been eaten by the mattress. We gave up knocking after the porter chewed us out for disturbing you."

"I needed the sleep, apparently."

They took their place at the starboard railing and studied Harbor City as they waited to disembark. It was sharply cold, sharply bright, and sharply beautiful with so many shades of white and blue. The air cut as Asami breathed it, and the cold was so ambient that it almost had a smell. Harbor City was defined by clusters of crowded squat snow-topped buildings, walls of icy cliffs, and the jut of the palace in the distance; it would be beautiful if not for the haze of yellow that hung over the city.

The passengers formed a shivering queue that shuffled gradually down the switchback of a gangplank. A dock worker checked their papers on the way down, stamping their passports with the place and date. Asami divided her attention between trying not to slip on the subtle patches of ice and trying to find Korra within the moving crowd on the docks.

When Korra finally emerged from the quiet bustle around them, Asami mistook her for an average Southern Water Tribe member. Even after Asami’s eyes flickered back in recognition, she was taken aback by the changes that had occurred in just a few months.

She looked like she stepped out of a mover documentary about the Southern Water Tribe of old. Korra’s brown hair was shaggy and starting to naturally curl just past her shoulders, caught up in a half wolftail with her forelocks in beaded braids. Her eyes were bright blue and her smile startlingly white. She wore no sleeves despite the fact it was well below freezing. She had a beaded water bladder under her armpit. She’d bulked up too; her muscles were more pronounced though her cheekbones seemed more defined. Korra had matured just in the few months they’d been separated. She was beautiful and wild and so very welcome.

Just in that walk towards them, Asami could tell that Korra exuded quiet confidence that she'd lost after Zaheer’s attack. Korra’s easy grin and slow lope made Asami blush and put tears in her eyes. When Korra saw Asami, her face opened in some unnamed strong emotion. She moved as Asami did:  with intent. Asami didn’t think for a moment about anyone around them as she dropped her bag and strode forward to throw her arms around Korra’s shoulders.

They collided with force and held each other chest to chest and hip to hip, breathing each other’s essence. Korra’s hair smelled smoky and clean, like wilderness and strength. Asami wanted to hold on and never let go. She was home again.

Tears threatened, and they thickened Asami’s voice as she pulled away enough to cup Korra’s cheeks. She wanted to see her again. “It’s so good to see you.”

“I’ve missed you so much.” Korra’s arresting blue eyes never moved from Asami’s. She was grinning, and Asami knew she mirrored that expression. Korra looked so good, so happy and… Asami tugged her back for another cheek-to-cheek hug, and she breathed Korra in for a few more moments.

It was Korra who pushed her back again. “Hi,” Korra said with a laugh.

“Hi.” Asami squeezed her arm. She caught sight of something rounding Korra’s neck. It took her a moment to conceptualize what she was seeing:  a necklace. It surprised her; Korra had never worn one before. She raised a hand to touch Korra’s necklace, and a cold shot of worry swept over her.

“What’s this?” she asked. Southerners didn’t often use this tradition, but it was still around after the Hundred Year War. Surely Korra hadn’t…? It looked so like a betrothal necklace with its little polar bear dog emblem.

Korra’s smile widened. “Pretty cool, right?”

Asami managed to smile. She felt sick and wasn’t sure she could pretend she wasn’t. Logic told her it couldn’t be a betrothal necklace, but her emotions screamed out the panicked question, ‘What if it is?!’

She and Korra both jumped when Mako cleared his throat next to them. “Hey, Korra. Don’t mind the rest of us. We just came to visit you too, taking time out of our lives and all that.”

“Oh, shut up, Mako.” Korra hugged him. Opal pushed in beside Asami. She must have seen the necklace too. She whispered, “It has to be a misunderstanding.”

It had the be. She’d been so certain that her feelings were requited. There was something between them, something more than friendship, but Opal’s uncertain tone was a blow to her suddenly shaky confidence.

Mako said, “Korra, this is my girlfriend—”

“June, it’s great to meet you.”

June had opened her mouth to say something, and her hand was held out for a shake. Predictably, Korra gathered her into a strong hug. When she let June go, June had a wild blush on her cheeks. Her hand was still outstretched. “It’s such an honor to meet you, Avatar Korra.”

“Just Korra is fine. Mako hasn’t told me much about you, but because he mentioned you at all means he’s pretty serious.” She punctuated her statement with a wink.

Korra and Bolin took turns trying to lift each other off the ground. In contrast, Korra enveloped Opal in a gentle embrace. Opal sighed into Korra’s shoulder and leaned up to kiss her cheek. “You look good.”

“So do you,” Korra responded, giving Opal one last squeeze. “Anyone else need another hug?”

Asami wanted another one. Korra looked at her, and her smile fell away before it was replaced by a softer one. Asami was powerless to do anything but smile back. Korra looked like she wanted to hug Asami again too, but she only asked, “You guys want some authentic grub before we head to the palace?”

“I can always eat,” Bolin replied predictably.

“Our luggage—”

Korra lightly bumped Mako's hip with hers. “Someone will get those trunks where they’re supposed to go. Hopefully someone didn’t pack eight suitcases.”

“Only three,” Asami managed to say. “Someone likes to have more than one set of clothing.”

Korra gave her a crooked grin, but her brows lowered in concern. As they went on foot to the restaurant, she fell into step beside Asami. “You okay?”

“I… Yes. I just have a few things on my mind.”

“Is this a bad time for you to make this trip?”

Why was she so sweet? “No, Korra. Don’t worry about me. I’m just so happy to see you again.”

Korra’s worried expression didn’t change, but she let the matter drop. She reached out to grab Asami’s gloved hand and kept it as they made their way to a smaller, less busy street.

It wasn’t a betrothal necklace. It couldn’t be. Asami didn’t know what she’d do if it was. She squeezed Korra’s hand, and Korra returned the squeeze. Asami swallowed sudden tears at the gentle gesture.

It couldn’t be a betrothal necklace.

Either the restaurant wasn’t popular or it was an off hour because there were no other diners as they stepped into the small, wooden dining room. It was a lot like Narook’s with a few booths and tables on a backdrop of a long bar at the head of the room. They settled into a booth, and Korra pushed into it next to Opal, tugging Asami in after her. Korra squeezed her hand one last time before she let go.

The bartender didn’t walk over to them to take their order. Instead, he leaned over the bar and yelled, “Barley tea again, Korra?”


“Seaweed and prune stew?”

“Got any fresh squid?”

“You betcha! Fresh as in caught this morning. You want that with some mussels?”

“Are those fresh?”

“Nah, shipped in frozen.”

“Just squid. Throw some oodoo noodles in while you're at it.”

“And the rest of you lot?”

They all ordered, shouting to the bartender, who then shouted over his shoulder into the kitchen behind the bar. June was the only person brave enough to get sea prune soup like Korra. It was all a little chaotic, and when they’d finished he disappeared from the dining room altogether.


Asami realized Opal and Mako were staring at Korra in evident question. Korra glanced around the table before she finally looked at Asami. She was alarmed at whatever she saw on Asami’s face. “What? What’s wrong?”

Oddly, it was Bolin who broached the topic. He finally noticed Korra’s necklace and gasped, leaning forward to point across the table. “Wow, is that a betrothal necklace?”

Korra’s fingers went to her necklace, and her expression shifted as she traced the emblem on it. Against all odds, she burst into laughter. “Betrothal necklace?! This doesn’t even look like one! My grandfather gave it to me as a family heirloom.

Relief or joy or maybe just the realization that she was a fool crashed hard into Asami. Everyone else at the table laughed as the tension broke into humor, but Asami was feeling far too much. If she laughed, she would cry. Instead, Asami swallowed a few times and realized she was probably going to cry even without laughter. She excused herself and walked to the back hallway, thankful to find a bathroom. The water from the tap was shockingly cold against her cheeks; she needed it.

She felt like an idiot for even having the worry. Logic had been right, even as her emotions wept for joy for being wrong. It was all just so overwhelming: seeing Korra, seeing that necklace, and not knowing exactly where they stood. She clutched the sink with both hands and took a deep breath to center herself.

The door opened.


She straightened, wiping her face and trying to put on a smile that didn’t look like it would shatter. Korra was all concern; her gaze didn’t leave Asami’s. She reached out and took Asami’s hand, holding it gently.

“Did you really think I would marry someone?”

“I didn’t know what to think,” Asami said. She swallowed thickly, trying to erase the vulnerability in her voice. “I didn’t think it could be, but seeing you again... I don’t know what I’d do—”

Korra pulled her close for another full-bodied hug. Asami sank into the embrace, pulling her closer and wrapping her tight in her arms. Korra said, “Well, I’m not marrying anyone. Okay?”

Asami nodded into Korra’s shoulder. “I feel so stupid.”

“You’re definitely not stupid. I wouldn't have worn it if I thought you'd think that.” Korra rubbed her back, and Asami shivered when she felt Korra’s fingers curl into her hair. They stood for a few minutes just holding each other as Asami’s world centered again. Asami curled her fingers against Korra’s shoulders before smoothing her hands up and down Korra’s back. Korra released a shaky sigh against her neck. She pulled back just slightly, and their quiet went heavy.

Then someone tromped down the adjacent hallway. They pulled apart abruptly, and Korra wouldn’t meet Asami’s eyes. “Come on. Let’s eat.”

That quiet exchange and long hug made Asami feel as shy as Korra acted. It wasn't a confession of undying love, but the assurance there was no one else was good enough for now. Asami reached out and slipped her finger against Korra’s. Korra looked back in solemn study as she tugged Asami along with their hooked fingers.

They’d stayed in the palace for a few days after Harmonic Convergence, but the place was so large they all needed a guided tour again. Korra provided a cursory tour, pointing out the kitchens, a private dining room and the public one, the radio tower, and the guest wing.

The whole palace alternated between warm wood and frigid ice. It was like two separate people designed the place as a marriage between the warm coziness of the South and the inhospitable hostility of the North. A comparison could be drawn to Korra’s parentage, but she gave off none of the cold hostile pretension of her uncle or cousins.

Then again, Asami had always viewed Korra as a Southerner with all the stereotypes therein. There was a saying in Republic City that the only thing thicker than a Southerner’s skin for cold was his skull. In media, they were portrayed as strong—physically at least—slow-witted, and loyal with a temper as hot as their winters were cold. They were definitely wrong about Korra’s wits, but her loyalties and temper and strength were all true to stereotype.

When Korra opened the door to the communal bathroom, Asami’s mind jerked to the present. It looked warm and inviting and steamy. She didn't allow her thoughts to take the obvious tangent.

“Towels and bathing robes are recommended in case you run into another visitor.”

“Have you ‘run into someone’ in there?” Bolin asked, waggling his eyebrows.

“An old Fire Nation diplomat and I saw more of each other than we cared to,” Korra responded with an unabashed grin. “Bath water can be heated in your rooms if you’d rather that.”

They all dispersed on the resident hall. (According to Korra, the visitors' rooms were more ice than wood and way too uncomfortable for anything but otter penguins.) Asami found her suitcases in a cozy room midway down the hall. The bed was large and looked soft, and the braided rug on the floor seemed warm and inviting. There was a white pelt on her bed, and a flattened skull was the centerpiece of one wall. Asami was bemused to see an old, perhaps antique Cabbage Corp snowmobile owner’s manual on the desk along a wall. Cold leaked in from the window, but the bed was placed close to the hearth. She looked forward to lighting a fire that night.

A knock on the doorframe turned her around. Korra leaned against it, smiling at her softly. “I’m down the hall.” Asami followed her like she was on a leash attached to Korra’s spirit. It hadn’t been an express invitation, but she didn’t care.

Korra’s room was no larger than her own, but it was not nearly as stark as Asami expected. She’d assumed Korra would keep simple furniture like at Air Temple Island, but the room had a fireplace, an armoire, several vanities, and a writing desk. The window was double-paned. The bed was twice as large as the cots at Air Temple Island, and looking at it made Asami want to blush like a teenager.

Naga got up from the rug in the center of the room. Her mouth opened wide in a grin when she recognized Asami, and she thumped Asami against the doorframe with her enthusiastic greeting. Asami dodged her tongue, and Naga replied by thrusting her hip against Asami’s chest, begging for scratches on her rump.

“Hey, doofus, you’re going to kill her. Down, Naga!”

Naga heeded with a groan and lay down once more on the floor, but her butt wiggled with the exaggerated movements of her tail.

“Pet her now,” Korra instructed, and Asami complied. Naga’s body threw off warmth as Asami settled against the polar bear dog’s shoulders and rubbed her ears. She was soft, well-groomed, and she smelled clean. Her teeth seemed whiter too. Korra had been taking good care of her polar bear dog. Asami went so far as to press a kiss to Naga's head.

“Well,” Korra finally said awkwardly. “This is me. Um, do you want to go out and see that snowmobile graveyard?”

Asami would go swimming in the bay if it was with Korra. “Sure. In a little bit. Sit down and talk to me.”

Korra’s swallow was audible as she sat down knee-to-knee with Asami. Asami couldn’t believe how sharply her emotions had spiked, dived, and bounced back in the last hour. Despite the turmoil, the comfort that she felt with Korra was still so strong. They studied each other for a few moments before Korra grinned and tucked hair behind her ear. “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” Asami responded not for the first time. “How are you? Really?”

“Good. I really mean it. You look tired.” Korra's blue eyes were bright and the set of her mouth was happiness. She laughed when Naga shoved her head between them on the floor and scratched behind her polar bear dog's ears.

“Less now. I actually got a lot of sleep on the trip here. Nothing puts me out faster than a ship.”

“It’s so good to see you.”

Asami nodded shakily. She had to swallow back tears for a second time that day. “Promise me we won’t be apart like this again.”

“Not if I can help it,” Korra said. Asami was touched to hear Korra was also fighting tears.

“When are you coming back?”

“If you can stay until after the summit, with you." Korra said it so firmly Asami couldn’t take it for anything but the truth.

Korra’s necklace drew her attention. She reached out to touch the polar bear dog emblem. She wanted to laugh now at her illogical fear of a betrothal necklace. “Your grandfather gave this to you? So you met him then?”

“Yeah. He’s a grumpy old guy, let me tell you. Looks just like a grandpa with his gray beard and scowls. I like him a lot. I have a lot more family than I realized. It's amazing.”

“I’m so glad.” Asami thought of how she’d acted about that necklace, and Korra’s statement after. She thought of that last letter, those words about Kyoshi, and that tense hug. “Korra—”

Bolin thumped into the room. “Hey ladies! Who wants to play some cards?”

They pulled their hands apart and held each other’s gaze for a moment longer before attending to their friends.

It was nearly an hour later when Korra and Asami peeled themselves away from their friends to go see the junkyard. Korra provided Asami with a Southern parka, and Asami wore her sealskin boots and gloves. After Naga was saddled up, they were on their way through the city, dodging whining snowmobiles and the odd automobile. Korra sat in front of her, which allowed Asami to wrap her arms around Korra’s strong waist.

She smelled so good.

“You look good,” she said, amending her intimate thought.

“So do you,” Korra responded, turning her head. “If a little tired.”

Had they already had this exchange? Asami felt like she was living in a fog of happiness, feverish with love and expectation. “I am.”

“Did you bring your snowmobile with you?”

“I did. I’m planning to have a forum to promote it.”

“Let me know if I can help.”

Asami realized Korra had a hand over hers and wondered if it was a signal to let go, but Korra only patted her hand and left it there. She wondered if Korra could feel her heart pounding, especially as she edged their fingers together.

She barely noticed their surroundings or the loud, smoky snowmobiles that drove by. Eventually they left the city and made for a tall lip of land in the distance. When Naga crested the incline several miles out of the city, Asami gasped at the sight of so many snowmobiles turning to rust in a wide scattering. The machines were little more than lumps beneath the blanket of ice and snow, especially those machines in the center of the cluster. So sad, and yet such a treasure trove. The noise of the city had fallen away, and it was eerily cold and silent. Asami could imagine the ghosts of these old machines whispering through this place.

With a strong grip on her waist, Korra helped her down from Naga. Korra didn’t immediately release her hold. Her gaze was unfocused for a moment before she stepped back. “Careful. There are some sharp bits in the snow. I should have brought some foot protectors.”

Despite the warning, Asami wandered through the machines. The ones on the outer edge of the collection seemed newer, with more parts to scavenge and less rust bordering each piece. She fiddled with one engine cover, broke the ice that sealed it, and exposed its innards. Classic Cabbage Corp two-stroke engine. She studied it for a long moment, noting the severe degradation of the components. How industrious to scavenge parts from these units instead of buying new ones. It was an ugly place, but Southerners squeezed what use they could out of this heap of broken machines.

“My engineers think they can put my new dynamic transmission into effect for larger automobiles too. The transmission has opened so many doors. Fuel economy will go up. We can teach more people to drive, and more easily at that. But it’s truly been a marvel for snowmobiles.” She felt giddy about it—not about the money but about the name she was going to make for herself and Future Industries. They hadn’t had a major automotive breakthrough since her father put his genius into Amon’s project. Her hummingbird suits so far had no practical use. She stood up, unable to hide her smile of triumph, and looked around the junkyard. “If all goes as planned, people will be spending a lot less time in places like—”

Korra kissed her.

Asami was so stunned that she didn’t have a chance to react before Korra pulled back. In that moment, there was just the impression of pressure on her lips and wide-eyed shock on Korra’s face. Korra looked as surprised as Asami felt. Their breaths condensed in the air for several beats as they stared at each other. Then there was only one thing to do. Asami took hold of Korra’s shoulder with one hand and cupped her jaw with the other, and she tugged Korra back to her. Korra came willingly.

This kiss was softer than the last one; their lips moved together and parted in a series of light kisses as they learned each other's rhythm. Asami’s face was hot even in this cold, and she had trouble catching her breath—trouble remembering she needed to breathe. There were so many details to put to memory, but her brain was beyond doing more than living in the moment. Then Korra slotted their mouths and bodies together more firmly and pressed her tongue into Asami’s mouth, and standing was too difficult too.

Asami nearly fell as she sank back onto the old snowmobile seat behind her. Her gloved fingers dug into the loose leather of Korra’s parka sleeves. Korra stood firmly between her legs. Her fingers were tight in Asami’s hair, tilting her head back in certain command. The pressure on her scalp was wicked stimulation; Asami heard herself moan. Korra directed their kiss with more passion than Asami’s limited experience had known.

It was suddenly overwhelmingly emotional, enough to send a jolt of fear through her. She needed to think, to get her bearings back. Asami pulled back as far as Korra would allow and mumbled around Korra's kisses. “Korra.”

Korra was breathing hard as she abruptly drew back. Her nose brushed Asami's before she retreated a little farther. Their breaths were clouds in the air around each other, but Asami was so hot she didn't notice the cold. Korra's heavy gaze was on Asami’s lips. Then, before Asami's eyes, Korra's expression shifted into uncertainty. She released Asami’s hair, swallowed audibly, and took a half step back. “Uh, hi?”

“Hello,” Asami murmured back automatically. The kisses had overwhelmed every part of her. Her lips reminded her of the pressure Korra put on them. She looked at Korra, who was rumpled and flushed and had lipstick smeared across her mouth. Asami's heart engaged as her brain did. That letter Korra had sent, those kisses just now, that all meant there was something there between them, something Asami had yearned for for so many years. It had been years; she could admit the truth to herself now. And Korra answered her question before Asami could even ask it.

Asami pulled off her glove to touch Korra’s cheek. She nearly blurted the truth:  I love you, but even as Korra covered her hand gently, her smile didn't reflect the joy that Asami felt. She looked uneasy, and that was scary. “Sorry, I… I meant to be romantic. I had this plan, but you were just so pretty and cool—”

Asami stood up to kiss Korra again. She wanted to wipe away that uncertainty—from herself more than Korra. Korra's responding kiss held no questions. They parted after a few moments, still close enough to be warmed by each other’s breaths. Asami nuzzled Korra’s nose with her own.

Her better sense overruled, and that was frustrating. She couldn't forget Korra's unease. “We should probably talk, shouldn’t we?”

“Yeah, we should.” Korra kissed her again before she stepped away. “There’s a quiet bar in the city. We can get a drink and talk where it’s warmer.”

At least Asami managed to coax a smile when she rubbed the lipstick from Korra's mouth. Korra used a gently sweep of waterbending to return the favor.

Asami took hold of Korra’s waist on the short trip back, alternating between a stupid grin and blinking back tears. What a mix of joy and worry. She needed Korra to want her; anything less would be crushing after their embrace. Everything she told herself about being able to accept it if Korra didn't want her... It was all a lie.

Korra led them to a quiet bar tucked away in an alley, her fingertips gentle against Asami’s fingers, and Naga followed them in after Korra had a brief discussion with the bartender. They took a corner table. It was warm enough that Asami shucked her parka jacket. Korra returned to the table with two glass mugs full of dark draft beer.

“You like stout, right?” Korra asked.

Asami was surprised she’d remember. She took a sip and nodded her approval. Korra sat down across from her, opened her mouth to speak, but the bartender approached with a large bowl of water. He set it on the floor and looked to Korra for permission to pet Naga. His hands were shaking as he walked away, but his grin was triumphant.

It gave Asami time to calm down and center her thoughts. When Korra turned back to her, Asami took her hands and squeezed her fingers. She thought of the heavy silences of the day and the interrupted moments that would have been kisses if they’d just had more time and asked, “Why did you apologize for kissing me?”

“I… You were okay with me doing that, right?”

Asami raised her eyebrows, surprised Korra had to ask. Korra gave her a cheesy wincing grin; she seemed to realize it was a stupid question. Nevertheless Asami said, “Yes, I was okay with that.”

Korra’s grin became shy, and her gaze landed on Asami’s mouth. Asami tightened her grip; Korra seemed to shake herself back into her last train of thought. “I want to get things right with you. I mean… I want to be in your life. A big part of it. And if you want me romantically, I want you. If you just want to be friends, I can do that too.”

Wait. Just be friends? Korra could settle for friendship? It was so at odds with how Korra had kissed Asami, and it was abrupt cold water on her amorous hopes. Asami was as hurt as she was confused. “I don’t want to just be friends. I want you to be my girlfriend.”

Korra blushed. Instead of proclaiming to want the same, she continued with her quiet uncertainty. “That’s the part that’s… I talked to someone about all of this, and she said to be honest, and I… Things with Mako never clicked that way, and I’m a little afraid they won’t with you either.”

Asami wasn’t sure how to take that either. The conversation wasn’t going where she wanted it to go, but it also wasn't going where she thought it might. She’d never asked—would never have imagined asking—Korra’s sexual habits and pleasures from Mako. Asami had assumed they’d had an active, healthy sex life. Korra was passionate, physical, and she’d been at the age that most kids started experimenting with sex. Or was Korra talking about emotional intimacy?

“Are you attracted to me?” Asami asked, watching Korra closely. She wasn’t sure she could survive a ‘no’. Her day had been vacillations between emotional extremes, and this could be the lowest point yet.

To Asami’s extreme relief, Korra nodded shyly.

“Are you concerned because I’m a woman?”

Korra’s response was a firm ‘no’, which was another sharp, immediate relief. “It’s just… I never interacted with other kids growing up. I’d never kissed anyone before Mako. I had these ideas about how it was supposed to feel and be, and I don’t think most of those ideas are true.”

The explanation was painting a clearer picture. Asami tried again. “Do you not think you’ll want to be with me romantically?”

“I do want that. I just don’t want to disappoint you, especially physically.”

But Korra was all physical:  muscle and strength and feminine form combined into a whole that was ridiculously sexy. That had been the first thing she noticed about Korra. Physical wouldn't be a problem, at least for Asami.

Maybe it was wrong to assume that Korra had basing her expectations off of her single, short-lived, and unfortunately rife romantic relationship with Mako. She’d been sheltered from other people her entire childhood and young adult life so she probably did have unrealistic expectations for their future—even more so if she thought anything about her relationship with Asami was like her relationship with Mako, whether those expectations were physical or emotional.

Korra might have read some of Asami’s thoughts. She rubbed her thumbs together in an uncharacteristic display of uncertainty. “It seems better to talk about this than to pretend I’m not afraid I’ll mess this up.”

Asami took Korra’s fidgeting hands again and squeezed, drawing Korra’s gaze. Soothing away that uncertainty was going to take time, but Asami would say nearly anything to make this work. Her disappointment had bloomed into affection—for Korra and for her earnest concerns.

“We’ll figure it out together. Communication is important. It’s not a bad thing to tell another person if what they’re doing doesn’t feel good or you think something else would feel better. We’re friends, Korra. We’ve talked about a lot stranger things than our bodies or even our emotions.” Asami applied another squeeze to Korra’s suddenly sweaty hand. “That doesn’t mean we have to fall into bed tonight or tomorrow or even in a month or year—” She hoped it wouldn’t be a year. Asami thought she might die in that time. “Anything we do together will be fun. I just want the chance to try.”

Korra blushed and gave another rare shy smile. She blew out a relieved breath, which made Asami smile in turn. “That sounds good. I should have known you’d know what to say. I’m just trying to be up front about everything.”

“I appreciate your honesty.”

“It just seems like I may have already disappointed you.”

Even if Korra wasn’t sexually or romantically confident, she seemed emotionally invested. Asami didn’t think there would be a physical disconnect for long, not the way they’d fallen on each other in the snowmobile graveyard. The rest… Well, they’d have to figure out their dynamic as they bumbled along.

“I’m just so happy you want to be with me. I can’t wait to try.”

“So we’ll date?” Korra clarified.


“And we’d only date each other, right?”

That was the most reassuring thing Korra had said since they sat down. Exclusivity. Some of Asami’s nervous energy escaped in a laugh. “Korra, I was the spoiled only child of a rich man. I don’t share.”

Korra grinned and released her hand to take a long drink of her beer. “What does it say about me that I didn’t have anything to share as a kid?”

“No wonder you hold onto your friends so tightly.”

“Oh.” Korra suddenly brightened. “Who is that blacksmith you wrote me about?”

Why had Korra had the thought? Asami’s mind jerked at the unexpected change in conversation. “Naomi Moto. She’s involved in helping Future Industries design a component for the new transmission going into Satomobiles. She invited me to have dinner with her wife. They plied me with wine and asked me about you.”

“What? Why me?”

“Because I was wearing the pearl necklace. Apparently a romantic gift.”

Korra blushed. “Oh.”

Asami hastened to correct her own assumptions, wrestling down her silly disappointment over that one small fact. Though if she’d been wrong about it, the signs she’d taken to mean Korra loved her might not be true. “It’s okay if you didn’t mean it that way. I’m just teasing.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I did. I didn’t realize it was that obvious. You talked about me?”

“Just about how we met and how much you mean to me. It was nice to tell someone.”

Korra looked away shyly again. She rubbed her thumb over Asami’s knuckles and took a swallow of her beer, not meeting Asami’s eyes.

“Should we go back?”

“Want another beer?” Korra asked quietly.

“I’ll take another if you want to stay a little while longer.”

Korra got up, ordered two more beers, paid the bartender, and returned with them. “I don’t think I said it yet, but thank you for coming. I mean it. I know how busy you are.”

Asami would do anything for Korra, but she was suddenly afraid to say it. Too much, too soon, with Korra too uncertain. Asami realized she would have to lead for now. By contrast, Asami had sat back and let Mako do most of that when they’d dated. Korra was usually so self-assured that it was strange to be in this position. She carefully asked, “Will you tell me about Kyoshi?”

Korra groaned, but she grinned. “I was kind of hoping you'd forget about that.”

“Combining a dream about Kyoshi’s lover and my name isn't something I'd forget about. But… Have you regained your Avatar memories?”

Korra shook her head as she took another gulp of beer. “It's not like that. Not even like the flashbacks I got during Amon’s rebellion. It's kind of like dreaming about books you read a long time ago.”

“Tell me.”

Korra sighed. “It was Kyoshi’s wife. It was vivid. I knew I was Kyoshi, but when I woke up, I said your name. It wasn't the sex; it was just you were in my thoughts.” Korra blushed. “And the way Kyoshi felt about her wife, that affection, I guess… That reminded me of how I feel about you. It was kind of that feeling you get when you smell someone after not seeing them for a long time. What's wrong?”

Asami wiped away her tears. She shook her head, unable to put into words how much that meant to her.

Korra was suddenly earnest. “I did think of you, Asami. A lot. I didn't realize how much I'd missed you until we were hugging in that restaurant.”

“I knew how much I missed you. Maybe I could have given you up, but your letter…”

“I kept every one you sent me.”

For someone who admitted she was uncertain about their relationship, Korra was saying all the right things. Asami wanted to kiss her again, but she settled for kissing Korra’s palm. “Oh, Korra.”

“I don't want to just be friends either,” Korra blurted. She rubbed her temple and winced. “This is all just so overwhelming and I'm afraid I'll screw it all up. What we have is so good; is it asking for too much to be more? What if we’re completely incompatible as lovers?”

“We’ll always be friends, no matter what. My father always said he and my mother kept a happy marriage because they were best friends. And we are not incompatible. Korra, we won't know until we've tried. And it’s definitely worth trying. Don’t you think so?”

Korra finally raised her eyes from her beer. Her gaze flickered from Asami’s mouth to her eyes. She studied her for a long moment before she raised her beer in a toast. “To trying really damn hard.”

Asami tapped her mug to Korra’s. She set her beer back down. “Does that ease your concerns a little?”

“I guess I’ve been stewing on that since I got here. I can’t stand the thought of hurting you or disappointing you.”

A new description occurred to Asami. “So think of it like this:  you agree we're best friends, right?”


“So we’ll be best friends that kiss and have sex—when you’re ready.”

Exclusive best friends that kiss and have sex.”


Korra grinned abruptly; her expression opened and her shoulders relaxed. “Oh. I can do that. We should have toasted to that.” She looked around the bar. “So what do best friends that kiss and have sex talk about in bars?”

“The weather?”

“How’s the weather in Republic City?”

“Mako wrote you, didn't he?”

Korra flashed her white teeth in a fierce laugh. “You set me up for that!”

They finished their beers, talking quietly about nothing, and climbed on Naga for the short trip back. Korra seemed back to her exuberant self after their conversation, and oddly, Asami was relieved too. They’d laid out their expectations for each other and their relationship. It didn't fulfill Asami's breath-holding hopes, but a 'yes but' was so much better than a 'no'.

When they arrived back at the palace, Tonraq and Senna were sitting with the visiting party. Senna got to her feet to greet Asami, but Tonraq beat her to it and wrapped Asami up in a strong hug.

It was a good, fatherly hug. She felt safe and protected in this massive man’s arms.

“Welcome,” he told her quietly. “You’re always welcome here. Any girl who saves my daughter’s life deserves prime treatment.”

“Dad,” Korra said flatly.

Senna stepped in front of her husband and also offered a hug. This hug reminded Asami sharply of her mother. Senna was gentle. She smelled like a mother somehow. Senna squeezed her hand. “You’re certainly welcome. I know Korra is so happy to have you here.”

“I’ve missed her too.” Asami met Korra’s eyes. She tried not to blush, but Korra did even as she grinned.

“Sit down,” Tonraq commanded. “Someone bring beer for the girls.”

Asami almost declined. She was mellow from her previous two drinks, but she wasn’t in danger of becoming drunk. This beer was warming, heavy on the tongue, and the right ratio of hops and malt pleased the beer-snob in her. “I wish they made beer like this in Republic City.”

“We have it shipped from the North. Southern alcohol tends to be from sea prunes. Not bad if you have the taste for it.”

Senna moved the conversation along. “Asami, I heard you’re planning a Probending tournament.”

“I’m not planning it. I just heard about plans from some friends. They asked me to ask the Fire Ferrets.”

“Yes.” Mako, Bolin, and Korra spoke at once, and then they all laughed at each other. It was clear that their chemistry wasn’t impacted by their absences from each other.

Senna and Tonraq excused themselves a few minutes later. Tonraq told Korra, "We need to talk about your trip to the Tundra Tribe. Tomorrow."

"Yes, sir."

Senna touched Korra's necklace before she folded Korra into a hug. "Tell me when you're ready, sweetheart."

They took their drinks to Bolin and Opal’s room and took advantage of the warm fire in their hearth. They sat on the floor in a circle and talked like idiots, happy and relaxed. There were no war, no politics, and no fear in this room. The only confrontation was Bolin and Korra's impromptu belching contest.

“Grow up!” Mako finally snapped even as June giggled beside him.

Asami, who leaned against Naga’s shoulder, couldn’t help her indulgent smile. It was obviously not the most romantic display, but the silliness of it made her happy for Korra. Korra would never be a woman who wore heels, sipped champagne, and lifted her pinky when she drank her tea, but she was happy and goofy and so welcome even as she managed to belch out a word.

Where she sat against Naga’s hips, Korra said, “I have a legacy to uphold. My dad is the best belcher this side of the equator. Oh, I forgot! I have gifts for everyone.” She got up, exited the room, and was back a few minutes later with a bag.

“Who’s first?”

“Ooh! Me, me!” Bolin waved his hand from where he sat against the bed.

Korra reached across the rug with a bag marked with green beads. Bolin’s face was boyish with his excitement as he opened the bag. He gasped as a broad blue necklace fell into his hand. There were odd triple-pointed objects—teeth?—sewn on a leather thong.

“A legitimate Nuktuk necklace.”

Bolin pointed at Korra with both hands. “You are awesome!” He tied it on his neck, flexed for Opal, and crawled across the floor to pull Korra into a heavy hug.

Korra grinned, apparently pleased that Bolin was pleased. She passed Opal a bag with gray beads sewn into it. Opal opened the drawstring, and a smooth brown pronged object fell into her hand. It looked like a decorative piece.

“It’s an antler comb. I wouldn’t use it for your fine hair, but I thought you might like it.”

“It’s a bird,” Opal said, touching the broad base of the comb. She stood up, and Korra stood to match her. They embraced in a full hug, and Opal settled within the circle of Korra’s arms. She looked so delicate next to Korra’s strength. Opal loved Korra; it was something that Asami had missed before. “Thank you, Korra,” she said gently.

In contrast to the way she gave Opal and Bolin their presents, Korra tossed Mako a bag. He snatched it out of the air and withdrew the object from within. He studied the white handle and snapped out the blade. “A pocket knife. This is great. Did you make it?”

“I just carved the handle. Had a guy in Harbor City fit the blade.”

“Thanks, Korra.” His smile was almost shy. Korra leaned across their circle to punch him in the shoulder. Then, with a grin, she hugged him too.

“For you, June. I didn’t have much time, but…” Korra handed another beaded bag to June, who seemed shocked to receive anything.

“You didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to.”

June opened her bag, and two carved fish fell out into her palm. June grinned, mirroring the happy expressions on the fish’s faces. “These are so cute. Thank you.”

That left Asami. She accepted the small drawstring leather bag with a smile. Korra looked shy again, which made Asami want to cuddle her close. My feelings are no different than a year ago, she wanted to say. There was no reason for shyness or caution. Instead, she opened the bag and withdrew a delicate piece of ivory.

By the long prongs, this was a decorative hair comb. At the base, she studied two whales intertwined. The design would have been sensual even if the tails weren’t curled together and the bodies undulating.

Asami ran the length of the whales' union with one finger. This piece belied Korra's uncertainty about sex. “It’s beautiful. What is it made of?”

Korra was blushing; her eyes lifted from Asami’s hands. “A whale horn.”

“Whales don’t have horns. Do they?” Bolin asked.

“Horned whales have horns,” Korra responded with a laugh. “I helped a hunter beach his kill, and he gave me a bit of the horn in thanks. It’s kind of curly shaped.”

“Thank you, Korra.” Asami pulled Korra into a hug, and Korra slumped into her arms. They held the embrace long enough to make Mako clear his throat.

When Korra followed her to her room several hours later, sleep was the last thing on Asami’s mind. Everyone had begun to yawn, either from the drinks or the late hour, but Asami had been too busy wondering if she could snatch a few more intimate moments with Korra.

Korra swallowed audibly as Asami shut the door. Then she stepped into Asami’s space and pressed her against the back of the door. Her mouth was hesitant but became firm after a few kisses. Their tongues met, and Asami combed her fingers through the loose hair on the back of Korra’s head. She’d always wanted to do that, and she added the gentle scratch of her nails. It made Korra moan against her mouth.

Asami pulled away in a great exercise of self-control, reminding herself of Korra’s hesitancy even if her body and mouth said other things to Asami right now. “Good night,” Asami said quietly.

Korra nodded, kissed her again, and said, “Good night.”

Asami leaned back on the door again after it had shut. She was elated. Those doubts that had crept in at the bar were gone. Korra wanted her; she just needed time. Kisses wouldn’t hurt either. The rest would follow.

‘Your friend’ indeed.

Chapter Text

She dreamed she was Kyoshi again, but when she reached for her wife, Asami turned over in bed. She was naked, sensual, and her kisses were electrifying. She grinded against Asami, reaching for pleasure that lurked so close.

Korra opened her eyes and focused on the glowing coals in the hearth. Her arms were chilled. She felt for the fire in the warm coals and exhaled to increase their heat. Orange flame sprang up, and a coal popped in response.

It was still early enough that dawn hadn’t broken. Korra got out of bed, hushed Naga, and walked down the hall to the communal bath. It was empty and warm. She scrubbed herself down, splashed warm water over her to rinse, and settled in the tub.

Arousal had faded to strangeness. Her body unsettled her more than that dream had. She was too conscious of it and the responses Asami had drawn out in her, but the quiet drip of warm water and the steamy heat of the room softened her response with sleepiness. Her eyelids became heavy.

She pulled on a bathing robe and walked back to her room. Her bed was warm and comfortable, and she faded into sleep.

That morning, Korra descended from her room to grab breakfast and was greeted by the sight of all her friends already at the table. Apparently they were as late getting up as she was. “Hey,” she said, serving herself from their shared dishes.

“How’d you sleep?” Opal asked her.

“Good.” She had slept well after going back to bed, even as awkwardly aware of her body as she had been. She glanced over at Asami, who gave her a warm smile, and felt like a fool when she blushed and grinned. Maybe she’d been stupid to be so honest with Asami. She wondered if they’d have slept in separate rooms last night if she hadn’t mentioned her worries about sex.

A big part of her regretted it. Another part was relieved by her own caution.

It didn’t seem possible that a person as beautiful as Asami could become more beautiful, but she had. Her eyes were bright, her smile sweet, and her expressions so open. Mako had teased Korra about ignoring the rest of them, but in truth, she’d only seen Asami on the docks—Asami’s face opening in surprise, the tears that came up in her eyes, and the smile that was only for Korra. That hug… Their many hugs that had led to Korra making out with Asami against her door last night.

After all, they were exclusive best friends that kissed and would have sex in the near future. The new development in their relationship didn’t seem quite as scary after Asami phrased it like that. And yet, there was still the question of what it meant to Asami. Korra was afraid to lose any part of what they had, and she wanted to know what she was betting for. Sex wasn't worth losing her best friend.

Korra watched Asami tuck a curl of hair behind her ear as she smiled at Bolin, and she wondered how one person could be so much. Her magnetism wasn’t from the kissing, the embraces, or the confession; it was Korra’s feelings. Korra wondered if she’d feel the difference so keenly if she hadn’t left for the South months ago.

The uncertain part of her wondered how she could hold onto this feeling when it had faded so quickly with Mako.


Korra glanced over at Opal. She realized she had a slice of boiled egg on her fork and set it back on her plate. “Yeah?”

“I’d like to take you out for lunch.”

“Sure. There’s a great spot by the bay. I’ll probably meditate this morning so I should be in the palace. Just grab me when you’re ready.”

Korra ate a quick bite but left her plate mostly full when Asami got up. She caught up to Asami in the hall and eloquently said, “Hey.”

“Good morning,” Asami responded. She was so beautiful and soft. Her hair was down in elegant glossy black waves. Her eyes were bright and happy, accented by her makeup. Even the way she moved was beautiful. Korra took Asami’s hand and linked their fingers together.

They just stood and looked at each other. Asami raised her eyebrows in teasing question. Her smile slowly blossomed. She tugged Korra by her finger until they’d both stumbled into Asami’s room.

It was like the night before. They kissed against the closed door, and Korra forgot herself a little bit. Asami’s lips generally remained soft against hers which made Korra try to reciprocate, but she naturally wanted to kiss harder and deeper than Asami’s delicate touches. Korra couldn't get over how soft she was:  her scent, her skin, her lips, her hair, her breasts...

Asami’s nails scratched the nape of her neck gently and her fingers combed through the hair there, and Korra felt that in her breasts and between her legs. It felt so good just to touch her, just to kiss her.

Asami suddenly pushed her to arm’s length and took a gasping breath. Korra wanted to pull her back, even as she enjoyed studying Asami in this new light. She looked rumpled and flushed, and her eyes were dark. This was new. Asami said, “You’re going to drive me crazy.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

Asami only laughed. She approached the desk and studied a note set there. “I have a meeting this afternoon to plan for my snowmobile forum.” She gave another sigh as she stepped close and cupped Korra’s cheek to kiss her. “I don’t want to, but I need to prepare.”

“I have a few things I should do myself.” Despite their words, they must have spent a quarter hour kissing before Korra found herself on the other side of the door. Asami shook her head at her. “I’m not going to get anything done if you stay.”

She dropped by her father’s office. The door was open, but he was on the phone. He paused mid-sentence when he saw her; he motioned her to take a seat after a moment. Tonraq wrapped up his conversation a few minutes later, set down the ear piece, and glanced at her with a crooked grin.

“You wearing lipstick now? You should probably learn how to put it on.”


Tonraq rubbed the side of his mouth to indicate where she should look. “Consider asking Asami to wear a different shade for when you two neck.”

“Crap.” There was a mirror in the corner of the room, and it revealed smears of dark red stain on her mouth, jaw, and neck. Korra fumbled for water in her water bladder and wiped it away. She burned with embarrassment.

“Good thing my meeting was over the phone, huh? Sit down. I read your report about the Tundra Tribe. You did well. I'll talk with Una as soon as we can send a new radio out there. They’ve been resistant to stay in the fold of the Southern Tribe alliance. And now they’re with us.” Tonraq glanced at her neck. “I hope that necklace means the Tribe of Bear will be more involved too.”

Korra smiled tightly and touched her necklace. “He asked me how I got Naga. I ran away because I couldn’t remember Mom’s face.” Tonraq looked away. “I’ve never forgiven you for killing that polar bear dog dam.”

“You were lying so still underneath her. I thought she’d killed you. I couldn’t understand how it could be any other way. Then there you were, screaming at me, lying on top of the polar bear dog pup, alive despite a blizzard, starvation, and a polar bear dog bitch.” Tonraq shook his head. “I knew then you were your mother’s daughter. Suntoq’s face when he learned what had happened…”

She could hear the term he liked to throw at her. “I’m a savage little girl and all that.”

“Suntoq is a harsh man, but he knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, extorting money from countries around the world to sell my time. Suntoq was friends with Unalaq, Dad. And Unalaq was part of the Red Lotus.”

Tonraq hesitated as he took that accusation in. “If Suntoq was part of the Red Lotus, he’s had plenty of opportunities to betray you.”

“You didn’t live with him, Dad. He belittled me. They taught me science and math, but my history lessons never had anything to do with the Southern Water Tribe. He kept me segregated on purpose. And now what do the White Lotus do? As Zaheer put it, they serve as bodyguards for world leaders.”

“Korra!” Tonraq said sharply. “Zaheer has more ulterior motive than Suntoq ever could. Think of how it behooves him to make you turn against the White Lotus! The White Lotus has kept him prisoner for your safety for years, and now he’s guarded under them again. What better way to continue his goals to befriend you, turn you against the White Lotus, and strike when you’re least expecting it?”

She refused his tangent. “But is that all the White Lotus is now? Prison guards?”

“Then make them do good! There are good men and women who made a career out of that organization, and I bet they’re all loyal to you.”

Korra sat on her hands, considering. “I may have to get rid of Suntoq. Everything seems to lead back to him.”

“Korra, you can't just condemn the man—”

“I wish I’d had the chance to grow up in the Bear Tribe, but I never even knew it existed. I never sat on a whale kayak or hunted a seal or gathered char roe or build a damn igloo. And he belittled me for wanting it! He made my entire life about being the Avatar, and I'm just starting to realize how much that messed me up.”

“And I'm sorry for the part I played in that!” His defensive tone belied the words. “I didn't know how to protect you. If I had been alone when the Red Lotus attacked, we would have lost you forever. And how you're interacting with the man that wanted to steal you from us—”

“So you let Suntoq do it instead!”

“That's not fair!”

Korra touched her necklace, fighting tears in her anger. “All I ever wanted was a family. I thought it was just you and Mom, and I was okay with it. And all along I had a grandfather and aunts and cousins. Do you know how much I wanted that?”

Tonraq nodded tightly, his eyes going to her necklace. “I remember that piece, and I remember the racist man who wore it. You think because he’s from the South he can’t be a bigot? Yes, they're family. But that place is backwards, Korra. It’s traditional, but they aren’t open to learning and growing. It’s the biggest weakness of the Southern Water Tribe.”

“But that’s my culture, something I never got to experience. It’s a part of me I was missing for so long. The White Lotus—”

“Korra, you can change perceptions in the White Lotus. Recruits join because they want to protect and serve the Avatar, not for a man like Suntoq. So let them protect and serve you !”

“Originally, they were like the Red Lotus. They wanted to prevent world—”

Tonraq stood up and towered over her. If Korra wasn't already angry, she would have been cowed. Her father’s voice was deep; he used a tone she rarely disobeyed. “Stop talking with Zaheer. I don’t care if he can’t hurt you in the spirit world; he can still influence you and bias you. He’s not a good man. There is no reason for him to help you. You're being stupid!”

“I guess that's the South in me!”

“Korra, I held you in my arms. You almost died. He was laughing!”

“I’d rather trust him than Suntoq.”

He gesticulated sharply. “You don’t have to trust either of them!”

“I have to trust someone, and he’s the only one that’s been honest to me from the start.”

Tonraq turned away from her, and she watched his shoulders sag. Korra deflated too.  “Dad, I love you. I’ll always love you, but what they did to me—what you let them do to me—wasn’t right.”

He didn’t turn. “I know. But Zaheer was going to kill you. Don’t you see the difference?”

“He never lied about it though.”

He motioned gently. “You should talk to your mother. We’ll discuss the spirits later.”

When Korra let herself into her parent’s apartment, she found her mother by the fire. Senna was sharpening her knife with single-minded focus. She sat cross-legged on the floor. Korra wondered if the sight would be familiar if she’d grown up in her parents’ igloo.

The carpet was soft under her. Korra sat down in seiza and put her hands on her knees.

“I read your report. You did well.”

“Only because Karraq helped me.”

“He’s sparing about who he helps. What's happening with the spirits?”

“I'm not sure. They're being corrupted by abuse of natural resources, but I don't know why they're lashing out the way they are. It sounds like the dark spirits might be attracted to my spiritual energy. They said…darkness wants to be light, and light wants to be dark.”

“So we must protect our resources.”


“Is it regional? Will cutting down a rainforest in the Earth Kingdom bring dark spirits here?”

“It seems regional, but I’ve only dealt with two here. I think it’s something we'll have to figure out as we go along.”

Senna seemed to take that in stride. She turned her knife over in her hands. “What did you think of Karraq?”

“He’s crotchety, but he was really nice once everything was sorted out. He said he’d come to the summit.”

Senna took a long breath. “My father hasn’t been to Harbor City in twenty years.”

“Do you want the necklace, Mom?” she asked quietly.

Senna smiled at her softly. “No, honey. My father—your grandfather—gave it to you for a reason. I’m happy you were able to meet him.”

Unsettled by her father’s characterization of Karraq, she asked, “Why would he cast you out for marrying Dad?”

“We both said things we shouldn’t have the last time we were together.” Senna sheathed her knife definitively. “But maybe they won’t be the last things we say to each other. I think I have you to thank for that, honey.”

Despite those unsettling conversations, when Korra settled down to enter the spirit world in her room, she found herself thinking of Asami. It was a shot of adrenaline and pleasure, and she found it difficult to concentrate and pull away from her body. Asami had made it a nice place to stay in. Korra didn't want to gamble their relationship for sex, but she had a hard time thinking that when she and Asami kissed. She was starting to understand why people chose to snatch moments together despite the complications it would bring.

Could spirits have sex? Did they procreate? From the little plant spirit, she assumed there was some pleasure in their bodies, but…

She felt for Zaheer as she entered the spirit world. He'd chosen a particularly strange place that day. The edge of the cliff was smooth, and there was a hot, bubbling set of springs next to them. Each pool was perfectly round. The water was deep blue, and every bubble that rose to the surface continued upward straight into the air as a pink sphere that popped. It took her a moment to connect the odd tinny music with those bubbles; each one released a note not unlike the concave steel drums of the Fire Nation. The pitch was related to the size of the bubble.

“Sorry I’m late. Neat place.”

He flicked his fingers. “I would be here anyway. We’ll need to leave before the spirit moves.” His gaze fell to hers and he raised one eyebrow in a surprising tell of emotion. “You’re...happy.”

Korra fought her blush. “Yeah. I am.”

His brow furrowed as he stared at her in quiet reproach. “Don’t neglect the important things because of youthful fancies.”

“It’s not a fancy,” Korra responded, irritated.

“Regardless. We need to outline what’s been happening with the spirits.”

She hadn’t had the chance to meet with him since she'd been called out by the Tundra Tribe. “I dealt with a corrupted spirit near the Southern Portal, out on the tundra. It stole a human baby from his parents.”

“I heard. The spirits chattered about the way you handled that.”

“I didn’t do anything but get the baby back to his mother and purify the dark spirit. Other spirits had already rescued him.”

“Those are two important things.”

“Anyway, the spirits told me that she went dark, and she was trying to balance herself.”

They both jumped in surprise when their seat shifted. The landscape reoriented. Their rock was still level. However, the hot springs turned to a fifty degree angle, and the water and path of the bubbles kept their perpendicular trajectory. The sight was unpleasant enough; it made Korra sick to her stomach with vertigo. When a bubble popped by Korra’s ear, the rich vibrating tone reverberated in her chest.

Zaheer faded away without warning. She sensed him and followed. They settled in a familiar clearing with green furry grass. “The music is helpful for meditation—at least until the bubbles start popping in your face.”

“I'll have to remember that spot.”

Predictably, Zaheer jumped back to their former conversation without segue. “How does stealing a baby balance a spirit?”

Korra shook her head. “The vines kidnapped people during Kuvira’s uprising, but they were people who were trespassing in the Spirit Wilds. The baby was close to an opening between the spirit and human worlds, and the spirit was reacting to seal pups being slaughtered.”

“A matter of circumstance,” he dismissed. “I want to know why.”

“Then I guess I don’t know.”

“Did they give any clues?”

“No. They just said I was spiritual energy they could sense. And airbenders. Maybe because Raava is light and purity, dark spirits converge on her to be purified. Maybe they still sense her in me. They’ve mentioned before that they can or can’t sense her in me. The spirit said I was darkness too.”

“A topic for later,” Zaheer dismissed her tangent. “Why was the spirit dark? No one would answer that question.”

“I noticed that too. Why won't they talk about it?”

“I would have to guess and badly at that.”

Korra sensed his impatience. “Like I said, I touched her, and she showed me seal pups being clubbed. My dad took me out to the tribe that did it a few months ago, and they were disciplined.”

“Another confirmation that abusing the environment taints our spiritual allies. Are they lashing out in response?”

She frowned down at the cup of tea that had materialized in her hand. “I don't know. The thing is, no one was ever hurt. They were just put in those pods. The baby was rescued before anything could happen to him.”

“And the dark spirit?”

“She was angry he was taken from her, but she didn’t hurt him. She wasn’t hard to purify either.”

“And where does that purification energy come from? Yourself? The spirit world?”

“Unalaq was able to do it—”

“With the aid of Vaatu. How did you create a spirit portal, Korra?”

Korra was jarred into laughter. “I don't know. There was too much energy to start with. I tried to purify it, but it was just too much compressed in one place. It sort of exploded, and I was knocked into the spirit world with Kuvira.”

He met her gaze in concentrated study. “Perhaps without Vaatu’s existence, you are now both the dark and light after Harmonic Convergence. You’re the balance, as you should have been all along. I doubt you know even half of your own power.”

“Does that mean I can go dark too?”

“You would never.” Zaheer scoffed.

“Thanks, I guess.” She glanced away. “I may have already gone too far.”

“How so?”

She knew he’d scoff again. She'd let it go finally, but she wanted his perspective. “I killed some men. They took over what was left of Kuvira’s army. Had a Reeducation Camp in the mountains and were torturing citizens.”

For the moment, Zaheer seemed surprised. “Killing is a necessary step in life. Some people are lucky and never have to make that choice. You, unfortunately, will have to make that choice often. We’ve already spoken about the sacrifice Aang made in its stead.”

“I don’t regret it, and that’s what scares me. I didn’t kill them because it was right. I did it because I was angry and horrified at what they’d done.”

“Now you question your morality?”

“Tenzin is disappointed in me for it.”

“Tenzin is a fool. His father was a fool for spurning killing. Just as lives are created, lives must be extinguished. Removing a man’s bending doesn’t remove his evil, his motivations, his allies, or his need for vengeance.” Zaheer regarded her quietly. “You don’t need me to tell you that you were right to do it. Trust in yourself.”

“My father said he knows he keeps from crossing the line because he has people around him who will stop him.”

“I’m not that person for you, Korra. You will never cross the line I deem too far without crossing your own long before that.”

It helped, oddly. “Thanks.”

He watched her for a long moment. “Consider this:  you were angry and horrified by their actions, by the injustice of their violence, and that anger and horror comes from the good inside you. Those emotions clarified what would have otherwise been confusing—allowing those men to continue to live and breathe while their victims suffered.”

Which meant:  “You’re basically telling me to trust myself.”

“Call it what you will. Now stop worrying about that and worry about the darkness here instead.”

Yep, shape up. As she expected. She had one more comment. “Your chaos, the chaos you wanted to throw the world into… It left a vacuum. Men like the ones I killed rose in power and do what they did to those innocent people.”

“No one is innocent.”

Korra could close her eyes and picture so many terrified, starving faces of men and women who had only been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her anger rose sharply, and the grass around her bloomed to red and sharpened to razor points. Korra wrestled her emotions back. “I carried an old woman through that camp. Her name was Sun. She’d been tied to a post and left in the sun to die from dehydration. She told me the men in that camp had eaten her children in front of her. No one will ever deserve that. The airbenders didn’t deserve what you threatened to do—”

“I never planned to kill them.”

“Then you admit it was wrong.”

Zaheer’s mouth firmed into a straight line. “It wasn’t the morality. For balance and freedom, there must be diversity. Killing the airbenders would have weakened the world’s future. Sometimes one must look at the greater picture to understand the small sacrifices.”

“I can’t accept that. I can’t justify that kind of suffering for anyone.”

“Even the men you killed?”

“The one who did most of it, Flesher, died in less than a minute. Those people in that camp, his prisoners, were dying for weeks. I should send you their pictures so you can think about them the next time you want to bring chaos to the world.”

“What do you think the Earth Queen or the Fire Lord did to people?” Zaheer asked with equal heat.

“Then why destroy one regime for another that does exactly the same thing? What makes what you would have done better—if that was going to be the result—than what I did for the world when I opened the portals and left governments alone? Even if Kuvira hadn’t stepped into power in the Earth Kingdom, someone else would have, and they probably would have done worse than she did—and she allowed those reeducation camps to exist where innocent people were tortured just because they weren’t earthbenders. So tell me why that’s better than what we have now.”

For once, Zaheer had no answer. He studied her for a long moment. “At least you acknowledge it, Korra. We should have been having these conversations ten years ago.”

“I’d rather have them now that I know enough to understand what it feels to suffer. You hurt me more than I’ve ever been hurt before. I still have days where I feel like I’ll never be safe. I understand what it is to be a victim.”

“Do you think I don’t know suffering? I was raised by a man who beat me regularly for no other reason that he couldn't feed his family. We had no money, no food, and no way of getting any. Our crop was taken every year after my parents put their soul into harvest. A lien, they said; a tax that lined the governor's pocket. He lived fat on other people's work, and because of his militia, we had no way to fight and take back our freedom from his oppression.”

It was so mundane, so human, almost impossible to mesh with this extraordinary man. “Then how can you justify what you want?”

Zaheer clamped his jaw. “There must be something better than what we have.”

“Chaos isn’t better.”

“Then find me an answer,” he commanded, showing more emotion than she’d heard him give at once. “Show me your glorious future where all men are free. Make your precious Republic a shining example of the good and just.”

It was an impossible goal. Korra wondered if he felt it now too, this knowledge there was no golden future. He’d had a goal before, a lofty one, and maybe the result of that small slice of success now made him understand it would never be so easy. They left their talk there, both unhappy with each other. Korra knew she’d be back; surely Zaheer would be too.

Opal found her a few minutes later where she loitered in the hallway. Korra had knocked on Asami's door, but she wasn't there. Korra needed a hug.

“Hey. You okay?”

Korra turned to smile at Opal, responding to the soft touch to her arm. “I’ve had better days, but I’m okay. Want to go eat?”


They walked together in companionable silence. Opal shivered even in her heavy coat, and Korra put an arm over her shoulder to draw her into her warmth.

“Avatars are so useful,” Opal said as she stopped shivering.

“Personal warmer is the first duty of any Avatar.”

They got a table within the interior of the restaurant. Korra doubted Opal would find the balcony comfortable, even with the heavy warm lanterns that were placed around the tables. Opal ordered a safe dish of noodles without sea prunes. Korra dug into her mussel and rice soup with relish. Opal took one slice of whale skin in their appetizer, but she left the rest of the buttery gristly bites for Korra.

“So, a pearl on a necklace,” Opal said.

Korra glanced up with her mouth full. She swallowed thickly, surprised by the direction of the conversation. At the time, she’d been more embarrassed about sending the ring than the necklace. “Uh, yeah.”

“You know she’s in love with you, right?”

In love? Korra was right back at square one, staring at Asami’s letter and wondering, What do you mean, ‘love’? Korra managed to say, “She asked if we could be girlfriends.”

“I thought she must have. You were really obvious at breakfast. So you’re not stringing her along then?”

“No,” Korra responded. Definitely not. She wanted everything Asami would give her. But love? Asami had been so steady yesterday when they’d talked about what they both wanted. She’d seemed calm and sure of what she wanted, but it wasn’t the look Korra assumed would be labeled ‘in love’. Even Asami’s uncharacteristic fragility about her necklace didn’t quite fit with Korra’s assumptions.

Opal took an odd tangent. Korra would have thought it a reprieve except for the subject she took. “Do you ever think about that reeducation camp?”

Korra set her spoon down. “Every day.”

“I love Bolin. But sometimes I think about that place, and I realize he let that happen.”

It took Korra a moment to readjust her thoughts on their current conversation. It had never occurred to her to blame anyone but Kuvira and herself. “We all did, Opal. But Kuvira was the one who put those men in power. She knew what they were.”

“And my brother helped her. Bolin stood aside and just ignored it. How can I love him so much when he trusted Kuvira over me?”

“Opal, people make mistakes. Bolin is…”

“Painfully naïve, trusting, and stupid?”

Korra rose to his defense. “That’s unfair. I trusted my uncle over anyone else and helped start a war that almost destroyed the world. I released Vaatu in part because I trusted him over my family. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to trust.” She’d started to trust Zaheer of all people. For the first time, Korra felt the caution everyone had been urging her to take. Was this another one of those stupid situations? She could be setting herself up for a terrible betrayal again.

“You had a reason not to trust people.” Opal sighed unhappily. “Sometimes I hate Mako for how he sheltered Bolin. You would think a kid growing up on the streets would have some idea of how to judge someone.”

“He loves you, Opal. He’s a good person. You don’t find that very often.”

“Does it make me a bad person to forgive him?” she asked quietly. “I used him to get my family back, I told him I forgave him, and I was starting to really mean it when we found that reeducation camp. Then we were right back in the middle of that war.”

“There’s no right answer except that you and Bolin deserve to be happy. If he had known that was going on, he would have been the first to defect. Just because he didn’t know doesn’t mean he’s at fault. I want you both happy, Opal.”

“If I break up with him, will you still be my friend?” Opal asked softly.

Sadness swept over Korra—for the question and the fact Opal felt she had to ask it. She got up so quickly her chair fell over, and she pulled Opal into a tight hug. Opal’s body shook against hers as she sniffed back tears. “Sometimes I see those people when I’m falling asleep.”

Korra ignored the stares they were getting. “I will always be your friend, Opal. And I see them too sometimes. We eat a lot of raw meat here, and it hits me then. My mom told me to think about something good that happened if I start fading into that dark place. You’re here, those men are dead, and those people aren’t in that situation anymore.”

“One woman wrote me before we left. She thanked me, asked me to thank you. I guess it just brought everything back up.” Opal sniffed and wiped her eyes as she sat back down. “Thanks, Korra. I always regretted that we didn’t get a chance to really become friends before you went back South.”

“Of course we’re friends.” Korra was a little surprised Opal would think otherwise.

“We should go out, just us, sometimes. I like talking with you. You make me feel safe, and sometimes that’s hard for me to feel outside of Zaofu.”

“Definitely, Opal.” Korra caught her hand and squeezed. “Why don’t you talk to Bolin about this?”

“It’s stupid. I don’t want him to blame himself. But I do. So I guess I should tell him what I’m feeling.” She sighed. “He’s just a doofball. He tries so hard, but it’s when he doesn’t try that I love him most.”

“Seems like something you should tell him.”

“And you. Have you and Asami talked about what you both want?”

“Yeah. But I get the feeling we should keep talking for a while. Asami’s kind of dense. Not stupid, but there’s a lot going on in her head.”

“She’s too damn smart for her own good. If you want my opinion, you should just fuck her until she can’t think anymore. Then ask her all the questions you have.”

“Opal!” Korra gasped.

Opal shrugged.

“I’m, um, I’m kind of nervous about that.”

“What, sex? That’s the easy part. Are you worried because she’s a woman?”

“No. I get the mechanics. It’s just more that I’m not sure what to expect—for myself. You get these expectations from stuff you read that it’s going to be…” Korra raised her hands. “’Boom!’”

Opal laughed. “Sometimes it’s just a ‘pop’, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes there’s more than one of those. If you’re really lucky, you get two ‘boom’s in a row.”

Korra understood her implication and grinned. “No, I don’t mean orgasms, but just, like a crazy crescendo of emotion and romance and perfection. Mako and I… We kind of fizzled. I like kissing Asami. A lot. But I’m afraid if we go further I might…fizzle.”

Opal raised an eyebrow. “Did you really ever trust Mako? With every part of you.”

“Sure. Even if we fought more than anything. I’ve always trusted him with the important things.”

“But the way you trust Asami?”

It was hard to draw the comparison. Korra considered how she felt about both of them. “They’re different. So the way I feel about them is different. I trust Mako. I trust Asami.”

Opal frowned. “Well, I think you’re crazy. Trust with an attractive partner should be all you need for really great sex, especially if you have patience for more than one try at it. You’re blushing now, but you should have heard when my mother started talking to me about sex. Ugh. I think Dad talked to the boys about sex, but I had to get my mother.”

“I don’t want to know.”

“I wish I didn’t either. She scared me half to death. You don't want to know half the stuff she talked to me about. But her advice has been helpful. Sounds like you’re overthinking it. Just listen to your body.”

“My body doesn’t seem to be the problem,” Korra admitted.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You know what? You’re right. This is stupid. But I don’t want to rush into sex just because I want to make sure it isn’t terrible.”

For the moment, Opal stared at her. “You… That makes it sound like you never had sex with Mako.”

“I didn’t. We never made it that far. That fizzle I was talking about…” Korra shrugged. “And the few times we might have, Tenzin or the airbender kids were in the way. There’s no privacy on Air Temple Island.”

“There is if you make some,” Opal retorted.

“Maybe for you, but Tenzin’s kids would always sneak into my room, and Tenzin was finding ways to open my door when it was shut. Ugh! I thought I was going to kill them a few times.”

“Why didn’t you just go to Mako’s apartment?”

There were a lot of reasons:  Tenzin’s iron-clad curfew, his mortifying grilling about the dangers of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, Bolin’s almost constant presence in the apartment he shared with Mako those first few months, Mako’s near constant studying for police academy for the first four months they dated, then the long hours he worked after graduation… Then the fights escalated. In all that, Mako had never pushed. Even with their fights, he'd always been kind of gentle with her. There'd never been pressure for sex. Korra had never wondered before if that was normal.

“It just never worked out. I loved him. I trusted him. But there was never the right time and place.”

Opal studied Korra for another long moment. “Trust Asami. I’ll try to trust Bolin again. I think we’ll both be happier for it.” She tucked into her food at that. “Good talk.”

Korra grinned back. “Good talk.”

She slipped into Asami’s room when they got back. Asami was back from her meeting; she smiled when Korra pulled up a chair. Korra was distracted for a moment by just how beautiful Asami was. She was soft, made up as usual, and her hair was down in a curtain of wavy shiny hair. Her eyes seemed so bright in this light. She had a smudge of ink on her neck, and Korra found the source when Asami winced and rubbed at that spot with an ink-stained finger.

Korra guessed the reason for her preoccupation. “You ready for your meeting?”

Asami nodded. “I went out with an assistant to test a few models. Test runs were good. I know what I’m going to talk about, and I think I can answer most questions. It’s the logistics of what to feed everyone and how to set up that have me a little uncertain. We have a recreational center reserved, but I'm not sure it's appropriate.”

“What would you do in Republic City?”

“Probably offer test runs at the mansion’s track, then have a banquet with prosecco and hors d'oeuvres.”

Korra could imagine the reaction Asami would get if she offered bubbly pink wine and little shrimps on sticks. It made her want to laugh. Poor Asami was probably more ruggedly pragmatic than anyone would think looking at her. Korra remembered the abrupt change in her own perceptions when Asami drove them to victory at her racetrack. And again, when Asami put the shock glove on and dropped her own father to help them escape the Equalists.

“People are pretty simple here. If I were you, I’d have it in a tent set up by the road. People are probably coming this way from tribes for errands, and you can catch them on their way out of the city. And have something warm to drink like coffee or tea. Food could be a hotpot. Even oatmeal with fruit wouldn’t be bad.”

“That simple?” Asami asked curiously.

“The snowmobile isn’t to look pretty; it’s the serve a purpose. If you show the people coming you know what they’re about:  a hot meal before getting on the road, then it may impress them.”

Asami wrote a few notes on her paper. “Thank you. That's a good idea.”

“No biggie. Your neck hurt?” Korra got up as Asami winced again, and she touched Asami’s shoulders in question.

“You should probably close the door if you do that.”

Korra wasn’t sure she’d ever heard Asami speak quite like that:  rough and wanting. She shut the door and locked it before returning to smooth her hands over Asami’s shoulders. Asami shivered as Korra strengthened her grip and gently smoothed her fingertips up her neck. Asami’s skin was soft and pale against the darkness of Korra’s hands. It made her want to sink her fingertips into her flesh. Korra kept her touches gentle but firm as she found a few knots of muscle. She gently increased her pressure until Asami’s tense muscles went limp.

Korra leaned close to kiss the back of Asami’s neck. The floral scent of Asami’s hair enveloped her; Korra pressed her nose harder against the nape of Asami’s neck. Asami turned her head, and they were kissing from that strange angle, and it was like kissing her for the first time again. Asami’s fingertips dug into her neck, and they pulled back to breathe each other’s air.

“Should we talk some more?” Korra asked her muzzily. She wondered why she’d even asked the question a moment after the words left her lips.

Asami smiled gently, and her heavy gaze softened. She nodded to the bed. “I want to hold you. Is that okay?”

As they settled over the bedspread, Korra tucked her face against Asami’s shoulder. Within the comforting circle of Asami’s arms, she could be brave enough to face anything. “Is this normal?”

“What?” Asami’s fingertips stroked the back of her neck. Korra shivered, feeling that touch all over her body.

“The way you touch me. Is that the way girls touch each other? I just don’t know. I wasn’t lying when I said I’d never had a girlfriend before.”

“How about this:  I don’t touch anyone but you this way.”

Korra lifted her head, and Asami looked away as if in discomfort. A string of questions exploded through Korra:  What does ‘girlfriend’ mean to you? Are we really just going to be friends who do this together? Does that mean we could go back to friends that don’t kiss and have sex, just like that? The question that came out was:  “What am I to you?"

Asami hesitated. “I… I don’t want to scare you away.”

“I’m already scared, Asami.”

“Oh, Korra… I’m scared too. You mean so much to me.” Asami cupped her cheek. “I had this idea, back before you left to come here a few months ago. I wanted to take you places in Republic City:  a mover, a play, dinner, dancing… That we’d date, even if I never told you they were dates. Korra, I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you since we were floating around the Earth Kingdom to find airbenders.”

In love. Korra touched Asami’s face, shocked by the truth—even if Opal had hinted at it before. She’d thought… She’d thought Asami cared for her, even was attracted to her, but this… For four years?

Asami continued, “I’ve realized… I needed the time too. I spent a lot of that time trying to figure out how I could move forward.

“When I was with Mako, it was the idea of the relationship than I liked. I needed someone to latch onto, especially after my life just fell apart, and he was the closest thing I could latch onto. I cared about him because I needed him. But you… Korra, I need you, but I need you because I love you. Does that make sense?”

Korra sat up. She faced Asami. Their hips pressed together. Asami’s hair was spread out where she’d propped her pillows, and she was...vulnerable. In all their interactions, this was her rarest expression. Korra touched her cheek. “That makes perfect sense to me.”

Asami took her hand, and Korra tugged it to her mouth, pressing a kiss to her palm. For the first time, she felt the need for caution. It had been easy to assume that with her success, power, money, and keen intellect, Asami wouldn’t be so invested, even as Korra used that very excuse for not wanting to deepen their relationship. Korra wasn’t the one with everything on the line. This also meant that Asami was as in as Korra would let her be, and that was a relief and a jolt of anticipation in one.

“Give me time,” Korra told her quietly. “You mean so much to me, and I want to be everything for you.”

“I just want you to know that this is going to work. We’ll have to make it work, but it’ll work. I’m not Mako, and our relationship is our own. Trust me.”

Korra took Asami’s hands and nodded. “I do. I’m yours, Asami.”

She leaned close to kiss Asami. This time was different, softer and deeper, a communication of the emotions they just exchanged. Korra felt no questions now. This was going to work because they would make it work. It was time to stop worrying about the easy part:  the physical part.

As Opal had said:  trust and attraction would be plenty.

A firm knocked sounded on the door, and they jerked apart when Bolin’s boisterous voice said, “Asami, we’re gonna go check out the market. Want to come? Also:  is Korra in there with you?”

“Yes. We’ll be right out,” Asami said. Her flush slowly eased away, but it came back when Bolin said loudly, “You think I was interrupting them? Whoops!”

“Do they know?” Korra asked softly.

“I don’t think we’ve been subtle.”

It only took a few minutes to put themselves to right. Asami rubbed lipstick from Korra’s mouth and neck with a slow smile, and Korra watched in fascination as Asami applied more to her lips.

With her concerns over the White Lotus, Master Suntoq had been on Korra’s mind on and off for months. The arrival of her friends finally distracted her from her overall worries. That made it especially jarring to see him waiting in the hallway downstairs. “Wait for me,” she told her friends and obeyed Suntoq’s unspoken command to follow him to an office.

As always, he wore his spotless blue robes and white cape. He radiated disapproval; it seemed to stiffen his beard hairs and tighten his mouth.

“What can I do for you?” Korra asked him when the door closed behind them.

“I will be addressed by my title as is appropriate.”

She wanted to tell him he had to call her ‘Avatar’ but held her tongue. “What can I do for you, Master Suntoq?”

“You’ve been here for over three months and you have yet to return to the compound.”

“I’ve been busy,” she responded, hating that her voice took a defensive tone. She felt cowed by Suntoq’s slow rise of eyebrow.

He took a deep breath and settled a more pleasant expression on his face. “I’m here about a matter other than your whereabouts recently.”

“Yes, sir?”

He smiled at her polite response. “I’m here to propose a marriage union.”

Korra felt herself still in shock. He continued on, oblivious to her emotions. “You are good friends with Iroh, are you not? His family is prestigious, and the taint of the Hundred Year War has fallen away in recent times. A marriage with Iroh would produce both talented bending heirs and a powerful political union.”

For a moment, she struggled to understand what he was saying and then to find a response. “Iroh is nearly twice my age.”

Suntoq cocked his head. “Immaterial. He’s young enough to produce heirs.”

Korra shook her head. “What is this? You’re arranging a marriage for me? You have no say in my life, Suntoq!”

“I am the leader of the White Lotus!” His beard bristled. “We were tasked to keep you—”

“I’m not some prehistoric woman you can marry off! I’m going to marry the person I love when the time is right.”

“Some firebending hoodrat? Or the earthbender?”

Korra released a shuddering breath before she completely lost her temper. She hated to fulfill any one of his stereotypes about her. She wasn’t a four-year-old that screamed when she didn’t get her way. “Don’t talk about my friends like that. And I’m not marrying Iroh.”

Suntoq followed her out of the room, hot on her heels. “You’re squandering what little political influence you have—”

“Iroh is my friend ,” she snapped. “I don’t have to marry him to ask him for a favor. And I’m not some baby-machine either. Why does it matter if I have kids that are benders?”

“You need powerful allies—”

“I’m the Avatar! I’m supposed to be impartial.”

“I think we both know that you can’t even pretend for that anymore.”

“My answer is ‘no’, Master Suntoq.”

“You ignorant savage—”

Suddenly Tonraq loomed over Suntoq. He pressed his chest close and looked down his nose at the smaller man. “It’s time for you to leave, Suntoq.”

The old man flinched and backed away like a chastised dog. He swept his cloak around his shoulders and turned on his heel.

Korra wanted to cry from her frustration and anger. She pushed her father away when he tried to hug her and grabbed her parka, storming out of the palace into the cold. She waited on the steps for her friends to follow her out, letting the cold winds wash over her.

“Are you alright?” Asami gently asked her as they walked down to the harbor.

“Fine,” Korra responded. “Nothing I’m not used to.”

No one broached the topic again.

By the time they finished with their little outing, Korra had settled on what she needed to do. It was time to go to the White Lotus Compound. As much as the thought unsettled her, she had to go talk to Suntoq more calmly than their last conversation. Maybe he would say something that would disprove all the doubts she had about him and the White Lotus as an organization. It was time to take the figurative bull elephant walrus by the tusks.

She’d considered bringing Asami but decided not to. She wouldn’t be good company in that restrictive place. Just walking through the gates put a figurative one hundred pounds on her shoulders. She felt closed in—more so here even than in Katara’s healing hut.

Korra was received in the main building of the compound by a pleasant woman, Master Shiza. She reached out to pull Korra in a light hug. “I’m glad to see you, Avatar Korra. You look so good.”

She could summon a smile for this pleasant woman. Shiza had taught her science, physics, and mathematics, and from what Korra could remember, she had the responsibility of overseeing the compound’s staff. “Thanks, Master Shiza. Is Master Suntoq in?”

“Not today. Can I help you with anything?”

After all the procrastination and worry… Korra considered leaving a note and making her way back to the city. Then she doubled back. In her worries about corruption, she’d never considered how rooted it may be. Master Shiza had always been gentle with her, and as far as Korra knew, she’d always lived here at the compound. “Do you get paid to do this, Master Shiza?”

Her old teacher looked uncomfortable. “I receive room and board and a small stipend. I suppose I could retire and go back to the Fire Nation, but I’ve come to love this place. I still want to serve you in what ways I can, even if it’s just to keep this place up.”

Korra wondered who decided on Shiza’s wages. “Who controls the money in the White Lotus?”

“Master Lang has an office in Harbor City.” Shiza shifted back and forth for a long awkward moment. “Do you want to speak with him? I can let him know to expect you.”

“Yes. I’d like to talk to him. Thank you, Master Shiza.” Korra hugged the woman once more, thinking of smuggled food when she’d been punished for a bad attitude by not having dinner. “Let me know if I can do anything for you.”

The woman looked surprised. She smiled and patted Korra’s arm. “You never ask for anything, but the same goes for you, Korra.”

When she got back to the palace, Korra stayed in the barn to groom Naga. Naga’s quiet acceptance was help, and brushing her coat and teeth centered Korra's emotions.


She peeked over Naga’s shoulder and offered Asami a tight smile. Asami crossed the stall and opened one arm in an offered hug. Korra took her up on it.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not right now.” Korra sighed heavily. “I may need you and Mako to go with me tomorrow. I’m going to talk to someone from the White Lotus about their finances.”

“Whatever you need.”

Booking an appointment to see Lang was easier than she thought it would be. The next morning, Korra was ushered into a small office in Harbor City by a pompous looking man in a parka lined with ermine pelts. When he moved, he swished. Unlike her fears, he was deferential to a fault. He even gave long bows to Mako and Asami, who’d come along at Korra’s request.

She knew very little about money, but Mako’s past with the Triads and Asami’s day to day work with Future Industries meant they would at least have some clue if the White Lotus financials looked legitimate.

Korra just couldn’t get past the fact that Suntoq asked Fire Lord Zuko for money to see her. Was money so important to the high masters? What in the world could they do with it?

“Avatar Korra. I’m Master Lang, Master Suntoq’s chief accountant. I’ve been informed you wanted more information about our finances.” Another swishing bow. Korra wondered how many ermines had been slaughtered to make that coat.

“I realized I have no idea how it all works. I’d like to know more about who sends us money and what we do with it.”

He grinned. “The beauty is that you don’t need to know. We exist to take care of the minutia so you don’t have to waste a thought.”

“All the same…”

He lost his conciliatory smile abruptly and motioned her to the depths of the office. There a stack of paperwork waited. He spent fifteen minutes talking over her head about overhead costs, profit, gross revenue, so on. Mako tried to interrupt to ask a question, but Lang brushed the question off and continued his long winded monologue.

Asami paged through the notes, her face cast in a neutral expression. Maybe she used that look at work, but she almost was a stranger with how stiff she seemed. Mako had one brow tightened and his lips pursued. His attention divided between Lang and the papers in Asami’s hands.

“May I keep this?” Asami interrupted Lang.

Lang stared at her, for the first time looking nonplussed. “Of course. We aim to be transparent here. Our money goes entirely to benefit the public.”

Korra felt like she knew less after leaving than when she went, but it sounded like everything was well managed. Lang was nothing if not competent by how he spoke, even if his manner was so flamboyant. Asami and Mako didn’t offer any information one way or another on the walk back to the palace. In the end, Korra was too afraid to ask.

Chapter Text

“Want to get a drink?” Mako asked Asami. He was alone, and she knew what this would be about.

She pulled on her sealskin boots and grabbed the parka jacket thrown over her chair. It wasn’t until they were seated at a pub near the palace that she realized it was Korra’s worn parka, not the spare Korra gave her. Asami took a breath of Korra’s earthy scent before she bundled the parka into the seat next to her.

It was quiet this time of day, and they secured a back table. Mako looked between their beers and frowned. He had significantly more head than Asami, but it wasn’t enough to send him back to the bartender.

“That White Lotus guy was lying through his teeth,” Mako said after they’d settled in.

“He had that way about him, didn’t he? Did you notice he said he was Master Suntoq’s accountant, not the chief financial officer of the White Lotus?”

He’d been a pompous, obsequious asshole, and that made her want to believe he was lying. The numbers supported her interpretation. She had the sneaking suspicion that there were not three hundred White Lotus employees. An account that was titled ‘Technology’ that had nearly a million yuans dedicated to it also raised her suspicion. Even if every White Lotus employee was outfitted with a portable radio and they established two private radio towers, there would be no way to reach that number. She’s thought to bring the copied finances with her and removed them now. Mako crossed the table to sit next to her, and they poured over the paperwork together, pointing out inconsistencies and questionable accounts. Given this summary, the White Lotus was overspending itself even if the bottom line read even. It was poorly done.

“Why did Korra think to ask?” Mako asked.

Asami shook her head. Korra had been quiet about her motives in going. Did Korra think there was corruption in the organization? She hadn’t asked a question the entire trip—of Lang, Mako, or Asami.

“So what do we tell her?”

Asami sighed. “I’d prefer to send this to someone who's qualified to check it before we imply a renowned company is embezzling.”

“Well, I doubt the White Lotus trainees earn this,” Mako stated, pointing to the representative number. “Maybe that we can check if we ask—”

“I'd also rather not alert them to the fact we think there's a problem. That meeting was unsettling. The issue isn't convincing Korra. I'm sure she'll trust us. It’s how to approach this without alarming her or tipping the White Lotus off.”

“Maybe she’ll trust you.” Mako grinned before he settled back into a frown. “It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t try a little harder to make their figures vary. The Triads were always on me about making the numbers seem real:  add a few yuans here or there.”

Asami fixed him with a sharp glance. “You did accounting for the Triads?”

“I helped keep track of their books back before we started Probending. It kept Bolin and me off the streets. We ran two sets of books:  the real numbers and the fake ones. That feels like a fake set of numbers.” He indicated the sheets held in Asami’s hands. “Lots of generalized accounts, everything in lump sum. A company that has twelve million yuans going through it should have more detail with inconsistencies highlighted. It's almost like they crunched this together when they found out Korra was coming.”

She had no idea about Mako’s past. “It's poorly done, whether on purpose or from incompetence. Mako, you never said anything about the Triads. I knew you had contacts with them, but…”

“Not something you drop in random conversation.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of. Are you two, you and Korra…um?”

“We’re together, yes.” Asami couldn’t hold in her smile, especially when she remembered how abrupt their first kiss had been. “It was actually a lot like you predicted, just without the fight prior.”

“Everything you imagined?”

He’d asked with a bit of deprecation, but she blushed. “We’re muddling through. She’s more nervous than I am, but I don’t think I’m alone in this.”

“Are you scared about the future?”

She considered his question as she took a long draw of beer, wiping the head from her lips. She a little afraid of Korra’s continued uncertainty, but with each kiss, her fears settled again. She'd given her truth up, and Korra had looked at her so much differently in that moment. Asami hadn't scared her off with her love confession; she'd brought Korra closer.

“A little, but more about how everyone in Republic City will see us. And about her safety. The Avatar isn’t the safest job out there. She’s scared about the only part I’m not scared of:  managing to stay together in the first place.”

Mako smiled. He uncharacteristically took her forearm in his grip and gave a reassuring squeeze. “She’s more careful now.”

“And still came home wounded after that last battle at Zaofu.”


“I know. She’s worth that risk. I just have to get over myself. Is my relationship with Korra still something you have to get used to?”

“No, I think I’m okay. As long as I don’t see any public displays of affection. That would definitely be weird.”

“I’ll be sure to make out with her in front of your window at home.”

Mako abruptly winced. “It may have been implied you two were in love with each other. Bolin blurted out I dated both of you. Not exactly how I wanted June to find out.”

Asami blushed at the thought of Korra loving her and of being so blatantly obvious. “We’re all adults; this isn’t a scary thing.”

“I mean… I love her.” He immediately blushed. “That is, I like June a lot.”

“Mako," she admonished.

“Okay, I love her. She’s great, and we fit together. But what does it say about me that both of you dumped me?”

“It wasn’t personal.”

“How could you say that? I screwed up with both you and Korra—more so with you, I think.”

“You and I were doomed from the start. The circumstances that surrounded our breakup weren’t ideal, but we would have eventually.”

“What? Why? Because of Korra?”

Asami felt a flush as she realized what she was about to admit. “Because I’m a lesbian.”

His eyes went wide. He set his beer back on the table. “But, why did you—”

“My father pressured me not to be. I liked you, but I could never love you like I love Korra.”

“Well, damn.” He frowned. “And I didn’t make you, you know…”

“No, I’ve known I was a lesbian long before I met you. I just tried to pretend otherwise.”

“I guess that makes me feel better.” He glanced at her. “Was there anyone else other than me?”

That was a little more information than she cared to give. “Are you okay with it?”

“What? That you’re a lesbian? Come on, Asami. You’re my friend.”

“Even if I’m dating your ex-girlfriend?” she managed to tease.

Mako pursed his lips in mock irritation. Then, with a grin, he saluted her. Asami burst into laughter, immediately at ease.

A knock broke Asami from her work. She’d been having issues focusing on editing a proposal all afternoon; doubts about admitting she was in love with Korra and then the oddity of the White Lotus distracted her. Her inability to focus was starting to irritate her. The knock didn’t sound like Korra’s strong double-tap, but she still welcomed the interruption. She turned and was surprised to see Senna at her door.

“Do you have a few minutes, Asami?”

“Certainly.” She stood up and knocked her pen off the desk in her haste. Asami quickly picked it up and set it to rights; she tried to ignore her shaking hands.

“Korra mentioned that you may want to show me your new snowmobile. From what I hear, you have one locked up in the stables.”

“The palace staff thought that would be okay.”

“Asami.” Senna approached. Her hands touched Asami’s gently. “There’s no reason to be nervous.”

“I’m sorry. I don't know why I am.”

“I can imagine why, but those aren’t reasons to be afraid.”

Asami followed Senna down the hallway as she processed that Senna must know. How though? She heard her friends in the sunroom and glanced in the wide doorway as she passed. Naga was asleep in the sunlight, and Korra sat in half-lotus on the floor, facing the window. Mako, Bolin, Opal, and June all sat together in the room sharing conversation, probably waiting for Korra to come out from her meditation.

Senna had paused a few paces down the hallway, and Asami waved to her friends as she followed.

“I’m lucky she has such loyal friends.”

“We’re lucky to have her.”

Senna led Asami through a maze of corridors into the much cooler barn attached to the palace. Asami heard the lo of camels (or was it yaks?) and the distant bark of dogs. Senna draped a warm parka over Asami’s shoulders before she donned her own. “Korra may be able to walk around in the cold half-naked, but the rest of us have to take precautions to avoid losing our noses.”

They proceeded outside, and Asami unlocked her snowmobile from an old storage supply room.

“You prefer dog teams, right?”

“I do. I was raised in a place that hates even to trade for steel. I wasn’t allowed to carry a steel knife until I made a bone one that wouldn’t break on me. By the time I designed just the right knife, I didn’t want steel.”

“Well…” Asami turned on her snowmobile, and it rumbled quietly. Senna touched it.


“Not silent.”

“Well, dog teams aren’t silent either,” Senna admitted. She breathed deep in the air. “The smoke seems less.”

“It is. This is a four-stroke engine.”

“Dog teams shit too,” Senna said with a wink.

“Want to go for a ride?”

“I’d prefer you to drive.”

Senna helped Asami pull on a facemask and goggles to protect her nose and cheeks from the cold. Asami waited until Senna was settled comfortably behind her. She accelerated, listening to the whine of the engine just a moment before their speed picked up. The delay had been disconcerting at first, but she understood it now and anticipated the change in their speed and the work of the engine.

She took a quiet road onto the tundra and zipped them over the packed snow of the roadways before she eased off of the road. There was no stalling, even as they slogged in thicker drifts, and the engine kept up with her requests as the transmission smoothly transitioned them from higher to lower gear.

Asami eventually parked them back by the road.

“It’s smooth even with two people. No gear changing?”

“The transmission does that for you.”

“How efficient is it?”

“Enough. It depends on conditions, but a tank can get you halfway across the Southern Water Tribe’s reaches at best.”

Senna shifted so she sat on the snowmobile’s seat with her feet on the ground. Asami hesitated but mirrored her.

“Korra told me that you lost your mother.”

The conversation topic disconcerted her. Asami sensed she wouldn’t make it through this without crying. “A long time ago. I was just a little girl.”

“She was murdered?”

Asami nodded mutely.

Senna sighed. “I lost my mother too when I was a child, but it was sickness, not violence. What a burden for you to carry. And to lose your father…”

She thought of that sharp pain and swallowed down her tears. “I lost him several years ago, but we reestablished something just before he died. He gave his life for mine, but I think sometimes about what kind of relationship we could have had if he’d lived.”

“I lost my father too even if he’s still alive. He told me I would never be welcome to my tribe again if I married Tonraq. He didn’t want a banished Northerner married to the future chief of the Bear Tribe. My whole life was lived to lead my tribe, but he took that away from me. He said I would never be anything but an igloo wife.” Senna laughed quietly. “They say the tribe wouldn’t have elected Tonraq if I wasn’t his wife. All I could think when they said that was my father calling me a whore of the North, and… Well, I guess I am, and I’m happy for it. I know he said it in anger, but…”

“It doesn’t make it hurt less.” Asami remembered the disgusted look on Hiroshi’s face when she told him she was gay. “He told me I wasn’t his daughter if I was a lesbian. It was an ultimatum. We both pretended it had never happened after that. Later, he wrote me to tell me it was okay and he was sorry, but I’ll never forget the look on his face that day. I forgave him for throwing our lives away, leading a revolution that destroyed our company and nearly destroyed Republic City, dragging our name through the mud, and trying to kill me. But I can’t forgive him for that.”

Senna took Asami’s hand. “There’s a difference between forgiving the man and forgiving the words. Asami, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

She released a shuddering breath. “That’s what people keep telling me. I repressed my sexuality so long that maybe I’m just stuck with this feeling that I’ll be ridiculed and ostracized if people know. I’m terrified of becoming a stereotype.”

“Do you love Korra?”

Asami nodded.

“How will you love her completely if you hide it?”

Asami was beginning to truly understand what that question meant and what the right answer was. “I won’t.”

Senna didn’t press her further. She squeezed her hand and smiled gently. “Can I write to you, Asami?”

She nodded. Senna smiled at her response.

To say Asami was nervous wasn’t a fair statement. She had given presentations, speeches, and wined and dined many potential benefactors during her course as Future Industries’ President. This meeting would be different though. Senna’s approval meant so much, but it hadn’t been about her snowmobile. This was purely business.

Here, a dress and heels, champagne, and wealth weren’t selling factors. That irregularity raised her doubts about her own performance at the planned meeting. Korra had helped her with ideas for refreshments and location, but Asami would be the one selling her product.

She'd had trouble sleeping the night before, especially when Korra turned in early. No kisses before bed, which was a disappointment. Her room had seemed cold and lonely even with the fire going, but Asami knew herself well enough to blame her nerves for her melancholy mood.

She took a deep breath as she stood in front of Korra’s open door. Korra was awake despite the early hour. She glanced up from the desk and motioned Asami in, as welcoming as she'd always been. “Who ended up getting back to you?”

She had a list for this. She named off a few people along with their tribes. There were less people from the outer tribes than Asami had hoped, but changing the location at short notice hadn't affected attendance numbers. Korra nodded at a few names. They would be by at varying times that morning to study her snowmobile.

“I can go with you and introduce you to a few of them. Would that help?”

'Always have an in,' her father told her many times. “It may. I’d appreciate it.”

Asami caught a worn parka that Korra threw at her. She explained, “It’s too cold out for your wool jacket.”

“It’s a coat,” Asami pointed out, but she slipped into the heavy parka. She secured the bulky, wide waist with the woolen belt from her coat. Asami dodged the pair of pants that landed next to her.

“Is this to make me look more traditional?” Asami wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or appreciative.

“This is because your meeting is outside the city, and it’s thirty below today with a hard north wind. I don’t want any parts of you to freeze and fall off. You’re too cute for that.”

Asami blushed. She removed her boots to jump into a pair of Korra’s pants. The fit was loose until Korra cinched them at her waist. She started to sweat. “I may die of heatstroke before we get outside. How do you wear this in Republic City?”

“I have cooler pants for Republic City, but I have to use heatbending with my fur boots. Otherwise I’d clear out Air Temple Island every time I took my boots off.”

“You can bend heat too?”

“Sure. Pretty standard firebending technique. I still need to figure out lightningbending though. My old masters thought I’d kill myself doing it.”

Mind boggling. Korra grinned and kissed her lightly on the mouth. Despite the growing familiarity of their intimacy, Korra's gentle kiss left Asami breathless.

“Let’s go.”

Asami was glad for Korra’s spares when they got out on the tundra. The meeting was outside the smoke and choke of the city, and there was no protection from what Korra described as a ‘hard north wind’. One of Asami’s assistants, who’d brought out all their snowmobile units and Cabbage Corp’s latest, huddled next to a gas heater and shuddered with each gust.

Korra immediately walked over and wrapped the man up in a hug. Downwind, Asami felt the heat that she threw off. Korra stripped off her parka jacket and wrapped the man up in it. She yanked the hood over his head, and he relaxed.

“Will you be okay, Kishi?”

He nodded jerkily. “I’m sorry, Ms. Sato. I sent Gaun back to get more help getting this tent up. The wind made it impossible. I didn’t realize how damn cold it could be in the spring here.”

“Maybe I should have kept it at the rec center.”

Korra laughed. “The sun’s out. Tribers probably don’t think this is cold. I can help with that tent.”

They managed to pitch it after more help arrived. The tent was sturdy and warmed quickly from the gas stove. The men on her team set up refreshments:  coffee, tea, bubbling warm chocolate in milk, seaweed crackers, roe, fruit, and oatmeal. Korra directed Naga to lie down in the corner, where she watched everything with her ears perked and her tail wagging every time someone walked by. Asami couldn’t help but crouch down to rub her ears. She’d missed this big, doofy, gentle bear.

Tribers began to arrive just as they finished the preparations. Most of them came from Harbor City, but a few came from the other direction. Korra waved at a few men and women, clasping forearms and making introductions. Everyone mingled with each other happily.

Korra waved Asami over as she spoke to a man that had just arrived. “Ru, how’s Noho?”

“Out at the whaling camp for the first baleen watch, probably.” The man that spoke had a white beard and a small smile. His parka was as worn as Korra's, with patches on patches.

“Asami, this is Ru, from the Tribe of Shorefast Ice. His husband, Noho, is the lead hunter of the village.”

There had been no response from that tribe. She was pleased they'd come.

Ru turned and studied Asami after Korra walked away to greet another arrival. “I prefer dog teams, but our chief asked me to take a look at these new snowmobiles. Your fliers make them seem like they’re the best thing since vinegar rice.”

A critic. Asami nodded, hoping to show she understood his stance. “I’m only asking that you give one of the units a try. They aren’t perfect, but they’re better. I don’t expect to convert you from your dog team, but in the case that you ever need a snowmobile, you should think of mine instead of units currently on the market. I’ll talk more about those improvements when the others arrive.”

His eyes flickered over her parka and boots. He touched her sealskin gloves. “Good craftsmanship. Bought?”

“Korra made them for me.” She wasn’t sure if she should be insulted.

“That hairpiece too?” he asked, studying the ivory comb tucked in her hair. He didn't wait for her to respond. “Have you seen an igloo yet?”

“I think I should consider that an inappropriate question,” Asami retorted, blushing despite herself. He was making fun of her, either by citing a stereotype or trying to exemplify her ignorance.

Finally he offered approval with a slow smile. “At least you know it. She talked you up when she came out to visit us, you know.”

She didn't know what to say in response, but Korra saved her the need. “Asami!”

“Excuse me, Ru.” Asami followed Korra’s call and stepped outside the tent into sharp cold. “This is Winny. She’s the matriarch of the Tribe of the Sea. Winny, this is Asami Sato.”

Asami bowed to the tiny woman all bundled up in a heavy parka. Another person who hadn’t responded to their messenger. Winny squinted up at her. “I didn’t think I’d see Korra here, but that giant polar bear dog is easy to pick out. Scares the shit out of me every time. Made me stop by in the first place.”

“Naga wouldn’t hurt you.”

“You don’t wanna know what I’ve seen a bear do to a man, Avatar.” She stepped closer. “My sakes, you’re like a furnace of hot coals. Is that an Avatar thing?”

Korra, who stood in the cold in only her wool long-sleeved shirt, nodded. “Heatbending. Kinda like firebending, but no fire.”

Naga, who’d escaped the warmth of the tent a quarter hour before, walked over and sat beside Asami, her warm hip thrust up against Asami’s thighs. Naga turned her grin from Asami to Winny. Asami rubbed a hand up against her shoulder, and Naga wagged her tail. Korra excused herself, leaving Asami in the company of a stranger for the second time.

“How do you find this place, Asami Sato of Republic City?” Winny’s gaze flickered from Naga to Asami and back again.

“Cold,” Asami admitted, liking the cheerfulness of this old woman. “Beautiful and clean.”

“You should have Korra take you out to see a whale hunt. Our season started today. Have you ever seen a whale up close? Hear tell, Korra bent one up from the sea all by herself.”

“I haven’t seen a whale, but I believe Korra could do it.”

“You’re welcome to visit us to see one and share our pot, Asami Sato of Republic City.”

“Thank you. I’m honored.”

“Looks like your Avatar wants you again, Asami Sato.”

Asami turned but hesitated when she realized Winny’s use of a possessive. Korra was waving her over again, this time to meet a pleasant looking young man. The man had dark blue eyes and a wide white smile. “This is Nukkuk. His father is the chief of the Seal Tribe. Nukkuk, this is Asami Sato.”

The man’s eyes went to Asami’s gloves and boots. “Is that from your seal, Korra?”


He drew himself up abruptly and offered his hand in a firm formal shake. “It’s an honor to meet you, Asami Sato.”

His sudden attention was disconcerting. She smiled back at him, not sure what to make of the firmness of his words or his strong handshake. She remembered that letter. “Did you prank her with the shark?”

Nukkuk laughed. “She threw fire at it. Poor shark.”

“I’ll poor shark you,” Korra muttered in mock irritation.

There was more talking and mingling, Korra happily introducing Asami and shaking hands with men and women as they came. More than a few people stopped by on their way out of and to the city without an invitation, but Asami welcomed anyone who would stay and learn more about her product, even if they used this as a way to talk to other Tribers.

Winny invited Asami to stand with her again. The old woman cupped hot chocolate between her hands and sipped it. Naga stood beside them, serving as a shield against the cold wind. “Maybe your warm Avatar will wander back over here. Good of you to have water for our dogs.”

“Korra’s recommendation.”

“She's surprisingly practical. You know, they say a good catch like her reflects on the fisherwoman herself.”

Asami looked over at Winny. That was an implication she couldn't ignore. Winny peered up at her from under her hood with a slow smile. “Am I wrong?”


Winny patted her hand. "Oh, it's alright. We acknowledge without making a fuss out here. Don't need a stinking piece of paper to tell us two people belong to each other.”

Asami decided to leave their exchange at that. She couldn't have spoken even if she had something to say; her throat was too tight. Winny filled their silence with offtune humming.

They both turned to watch a dog team pull up. A heavily bundled man stood on a lever on his sled, then stomped a pick into the ground. He pulled off a wooden cover from his eyes and tugged the scarf from around his mouth as he approached.

“Well, color me blind. Karraq! I haven't seen you this far north in twenty years. Asami, this is Chief Karraq of the Bear Tribe.”

Karraq had piercing blue eyes. His cheeks were red from the cold. He studied Asami silently before offering a bow. Asami offered a neutral bow with her hands at her waist. “I'm Asami Sato of Future Industries.”

Karraq acknowledged her with a long look. Winny bowed and took Karraq’s hand in her own. He peeled off his gloves; he was missing two fingers and the tip of one that remained was black from frostbite.

“Hello, Chief Winny. Where is my granddaughter? I see her bear.”

“Claiming her now, are you?” Winny said dryly. “Reckon you set yourself here, and she'll be by to collect Asami here.”

That gave her a jolt. This was Korra’s grandfather, the man that cast Senna out because of her husband’s nationality. He was traditional, and it didn't take any stretch of the imagination to know he would disapprove of her. That said, she wasn't going to roll over because she was afraid of him.

“What is this?” he asked, looking around.

“It’s a forum for my company's new snowmobile model.”

Karraq, Korra’s grandfather, was a grumpy old man. His lip twitched in distaste, but he took a more neutral expression as Winny waved over Korra. He actually smiled when Korra reached out for him. Korra hugged him close, but he only patted her shoulder with one hand.

“You coming for a visit, Grandpa?”

Karraq gave what appeared to be a rusty smile. “The environmental summit. I have some business in the city too. One of your aunts is bringing your cousins for the Squid Squat.”

“Well, stay. Asami has some information on her new snowmobile. Mom said it seems like a great improvement.”

Karraq seemed overwhelmed for a moment. “Is she here?”


He relaxed and cleared his throat. He turned to study Asami with more attention. His eyes took in her gloves and boots. “Is it loud and does it stink?”

“As Senna told me, even dog teams shit and bark.”

Winny burst into laughter, but Karraq’s mouth only twitched. Perhaps it was best to start her first demonstration. “I'll be happy to answer more questions if you'll wait a few moments while we finish setting up.”

Three minutes later, everyone was gathered outside the tent. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I know not all of you are fans of snowmobiles, but I hope at least to offer you an alternative to units on the market. My design goals kept in mind what was needed:  a more efficient and more environmentally friendly vehicle. That includes sound, exhaust, and fuel economy, and recycling potential. I’ll be happy to take questions in a moment. First, a demonstration.”

Asami cranked the Cabbage Corp snowmobile, which gave a loud, high whine and put out smoke immediately. It sounded like a chainsaw to her. She nearly coughed but held it back; she didn’t want to turn this into a comedy. “This is Cabbage Corp’s newest unit.”

She turned it off and stepped up to her sleek, large snowmobile. She turned it on with a key. The engine rumbled deep like a car before settling into a quiet idle. Whatever exhaust was put out was barely noticeable. She should have started it first so they could tell there was no acrid smoky exhaust.

She stood beside it and said, “It’s still a gas engine. It will make noise when on and will produce some exhaust. But it’s a marked improvement. The exhaust and noise are less. The handling, too, is much better. No need for special lubricant for the engine, just standard oil changes, which should drive down upkeep costs.”

“Looks heavy,” one man said as he rounded it. It was rude Ru.

She nodded. “Good catch. It is heavier than the Cabbage Corp design, about one-hundred pounds more, but the engine and transmission can handle it. The engine is a four-stroke, giving it more than enough power to make up for the weight.”

Asami swung a leg over it after everyone gave her room. She squeezed one handle and rotated it, and the engine gave a brief sound of work before it accelerated. She drove in a slow loop. The initial rev of the engine would be off-putting for those with a lot of experience with snowmobiles.

“You’ll notice the sound of the engine revving prior to acceleration. That’s normal for this transmission.”

Winny frowned. “I want to see it in powder. This hard shit isn’t a fair show.”

“Fair request. I have models that I’ll be happy to loan each of you. In exchange, I want your honest opinions about engine design, handling, and your experiences. I hope to earn your recommendations in the near future, but I’ll take criticisms happily to make improvements.”

“What makes it different?” one woman wanted to know.

“My transmission does. No gear changing during acceleration. The transmission judges the engine-to-driveshaft ratio required automatically and changes for you—based upon load, drag, and acceleration. That means no lost momentum when going into a higher gear, and that means easier handling and better fuel economy. Our initial test runs top off at sixty miles per hour, not that we recommend that kind of speed.” She invited anyone to take a feel.

Sixty miles per hour was a low estimate, but it impressed the crowd, some of which didn’t seem to believe that number.

“How far will a tank get you?” another man asked.

“That depends on the conditions. Optimally, we get around one-hundred sixty miles from our ten-gallon tank. That will certainly be less in poor conditions with heavy loads.”

“Sixteen miles per gallon?” That impressed them too apparently.

“So it can tow?”

“Yes. We’re still determining our warranty for load-weight, but so far our tests suggest over five hundred pounds can be pulled at low speeds in good conditions. I’d recommend keeping several spare belts; that would be the part to fail first.”


“Yes. When we officially begin to sell units, if one should fail during recommended tasks:  towing under a certain weight or driving under a certain speed, we will reimburse all or part of the cost of a unit.”

A quiet murmur passed through that small crowd. Cabbage Corp had no warranty worth noting, hence the junkyard outside of Harbor City. Asami continued on. “What's more:  we will reimburse some of the cost of a new unit if you trade in your old one—working or not—at the time of purchase. And if one of our snowmobiles breaks, whether under warranty or not, we'll be happy to recycle the unit at no charge to you. I've seen your snowmobile graveyard, and I want to prevent trash on your beautiful landscape.”

“Noble,” Karraq said. “But you Republic City types are about money. What's in it for you?”

It was a fair question, as much as it stung. “This is a pet project of mine. I don't expect to earn money now or even in the next ten years. Truthfully, I'll make money only when this transmission goes in Satomobiles. But I'll take reputation alone from these snowmobiles. This is about posterity, leaving a clean planet for our children, and improving because we can.”

Karraq only nodded in reply.

One man asked, “What belt were you talking about before?”

Asami turned off the engine and opened the engine compartment, showing the transmission within. She pointed to the ridged rubber belt that sat between the two clutch sheaves. “That belt. We’ll show you how to change it.”

Ru bent over to study it. “Rubber?”

“We know it’s going to warp in the cold, so we’re making it cheap and easy to replace. I'm working on a deal with marketing to reimburse a percentage for each belt returned for recycling. I recommend having at least one spare with you at all times, especially if this snowmobile is your only means of transportation. Believe me:  you’ll want to learn how to as soon as you get a good feel for the unit.”

It was beyond Asami’s expectation that all units would be taken, but her stock was all claimed by the late afternoon. The Tribers were careful students as they watched and then demonstrated changing the belt on the transmission back in the tent. Several of them laughed as they threw belts over their shoulders like bandoliers.

Successful meeting, Asami thought. No money now, but putting out a new product without getting any endorsements with these secluded, old-fashioned people wouldn’t make any money in the future either. They would start their line at an affordable figure to hopefully get enough models out to make a name and reputation. They would build upon their first line with stronger engines and luxury additions—at least if everything went to plan.

She stepped into the tent as Tribers began to disperse. The trickle of people had slowed so they would be tearing down the tent soon and heading back to the city. Karraq and Korra’s voices could be heard on the other side of the tent. Asami hesitated but couldn't convince herself to move away.

“You support this?”

“I support her. She designed a totally new system because what we have is so bad.”

“You like snowmobiles?”

“I'd rather trust Naga; cars scare me. But I like the feel of this snowmobile a lot better. I don't think these will be dumped in a junkyard either.”

“Is she your woman?”

There was a long pause. Asami held her breath for that moment of silence. Then:  “Yeah.”

Karraq was similarly quiet for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and said clearly, “There's more to her that her looks, seems like. She's welcome to visit us if you care to bring her.”

“Thank you. We won't have time this time, but when we come back…”

“The offer will stand.”

Acceptance from a man that had cast his own daughter out. Acceptance from these people if only because they inferred she was ‘Korra’s woman’. Korra had finally forged a place in her own home, and she’d brought Asami into it right along with her. Asami wiped tears from her eyes as she walked away quietly.

Asami had used the word ‘love’, but maybe Korra had a different way of expressing her feelings.

Though Asami’s main professional task was done, she'd be staying at least a few days after the environmental summit. Another week away from work, but she refused to let that bother her. She was here for Korra, loving Korra, and happy loving Korra. There would be times later in life that she would have to put Korra first; this would be a good test run.

After she let Lee know an updated estimated time back home, she discussed a few more urgent work issues, then returned to her room to find Korra meditating in a sun patch on the floor and Naga asleep next to her. Asami smiled, pleased to find Korra waiting for her. She settled in to write a little bit—a small sketch about her father—and Korra shifted in wakefulness an hour later.

“Spirit world?”

“Yeah.” Korra stretched and rubbed her butt. “I always come back numb. No one tells you about that when you start. It’s all—” Korra drew herself up and mimed tugging at a beard. “—‘Meditation centers you and your soul. Peace and tranquility. Et cetera.’”

“Poor Tenzin. Does he know you make fun of him?”

“As if I’m nearly as bad as his kids.” Korra fidgeted for a moment before sitting down against Naga. “I’m nervous.”

Asami settled against Naga and bumped shoulders with her. She had been tempted to bring up the White Lotus finances but held off with Korra’s admission. “Why?”

“You know how I wrote about a spirit possessing me? It showed me whales being overhunted; that has to be why that spirit turned dark. I’ve got to stand up in front of a bunch of world leaders and say, ‘Believe me, dark spirits are caused by overhunting so stop overhunting.’ How can I convince them of that?”

“Convince me.”

Korra cocked her head. “Do you not believe me?”

“I do, but why don’t you try to convince me? Pretend I don’t.”

“Oh. Um.” Korra frowned. “I was attacked by a dark spirit earlier this month, and we connected—it shared a vision of whales being killed by men with gas harpoons.”

“How are you sure that vision is real? What proof do you have?”

“We found two ships in our waters poaching whales—they wiped out an entire pod of baleen whales. The timing is pretty conclusive.”

“Don’t say ‘pretty’. ‘There were poachers arrested in Water Tribe waters for butchering an entire pod of whales. The spirit was influenced by that act.’”

“That’s good.”

“Is there any evidence of Aang’s time that spirits could be corrupted by misuse of resources?”

Korra brightened. “I need to ask Katara. That’s a really good idea. When you say ‘because Avatar Aang’, that always helps your argument.”

Asami caught her hand and squeezed, pulling her in for a light kiss. “You’ll do great, Korra.”

“This stuff never used to make me nervous.”

“Not even your first press conference in Republic City?”

“I guess I was nervous for that. I was so stupid back then.”

“Naïve, not stupid.”

“I still feel that way.”

“Naïve or stupid?”

“Both.” Korra’s smile wasn’t happy. Now wasn’t the time to discuss the White Lotus. Asami would send ahead the finances to a discreet law firm and hope for a quick answer before she presented evidence to Korra. Or at least wait until the summit was finished in a few days.

“You’re neither.” Asami kissed her gently and brushed her hair back.

“You’re too sweet,” Korra responded dryly. She snuggled into Asami’s shoulder. “How do you think your snowmobile meeting went?”

“Better than I expected. Thank you so much for your help. You brought a lot of people in who would have ridden past us. In the end, though, my product will have to speak for itself.”

“So how does the transmission work?”

“It’s the part that translates the engine to driveshaft ratio. I realized that the ratio can change dynamically if you have two gears that change size. Like cones. My theory was implemented by my best engineering design team, and they turned it into something that actually works.”

Korra looked at her like she was crazy. “Anyone ever tell you you’re really smart?”

“Once or twice.”

Korra leaned her head on Asami’s shoulder. “Do you want to come with me to meet Katara? Kya’s wife lives with them too. I’d like to introduce you. If you want to come.”

“I’d like that.” She really liked that Korra wanted her to go. “Your grandfather was really crotchety.”

“I know. He said your snowmobile was better than the crap on the market though. He said you could visit.”

“That means a lot, doesn't it?”

Korra nodded. “He’s really traditional, but I think he’s trying to be open, at least for me. The fact your design is so good helped. You know, I've never known so many people in one place here. I home finally.”

“And Republic City?” Asami asked.

“It's home too. Don't worry.”

It was overcast but warmer when they saddled Naga up that evening. Asami settled her head on Korra’s shoulder and wrapped her waist up in her arms. She snuggled close to Korra’s warmth and enjoyed the steady ride to Katara’s village.

There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife on the trip, but the landscape was beautiful. Asami wondered how a group of people could come to live so fully off of such a harsh land. Did waterbenders gravitate to this place or did this place create them?

Korra caught Asami’s arm as she dismounted and carried most of her weight to the ground. The thought of Korra’s strength made Asami breathless for an inappropriate moment.

“Katara!” Korra knocked loudly on the doorframe as they stepped into the large healing hut. She motioned for Asami to stay still and swept snow and ice from her boots. It took her just a moment to do the same to herself, and then to Naga, who crowded in behind them.

“Katara?” They walked deeper into the hut, but the place was empty. Asami supposed it shouldn’t surprise her that no one would lock a door here.

The shallow blue-tiled pool in the back room caught her attention. She’d brought Tonraq here during Harmonic Convergence. Korra stared at the pool too. Her breaths were shallow; she seemed fixated.

“Korra.” She brushed a hand over Korra’s naked fingers. Korra started as if waking from a dream.

“Sorry, just… This place takes me back to when I was recovering.”

Asami angled Korra to face her. She leaned down to kiss Korra, and Korra’s arms wrapped around her waist. “You’re so strong.”

“Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t lost so much.”

“I don’t just mean your body, Korra. Do you know how many people would have given up? But you didn’t. You fought and brought yourself back, and you did it for more than yourself. You’re amazing. You’re my hero.”

Korra blinked back tears. “Yeah?”


Asami kissed her again.

A sharp wolf-whistle pulled them apart. Kya leaned around the corner and gave a saucy grin. “I see congratulations are in order.”

Korra squeezed Asami’s wrist and stepped back. “Hey, Kya. Is Katara with you?”

“Yeah. Hello, Asami. Someone brought a fresh seal for Mom. We’re going to fry some for Kalin. You want some grub?”

“Sure, thanks. If there’s enough.”


They crossed the tiny village to enter a moderately sized building. Naga curled up in the snow with a groan of protest when they entered the building. It was warm enough that they all stripped off their parka jackets. Katara smiled up at Korra and Asami from where she sat by a covered stove.

Introductions went around, and Asami was a little comforted that Kya’s wife was so obviously not from the South. She seemed more at home in this place than Asami felt though.

Asami was a little surprised to see an actual seal lying on the low table. She was further surprised when Kya handed Korra a knife, and the two of them began to skin and butcher the seal. Kya dropped a few strips of flesh onto a hot pan by the fire. Kalin turned the steaks, then removed them from the pan, sliced them, and layered them in a dish with several vegetables. Into the hot stove that dish went.

“I’m an anthropologist,” Kalin explained as Kya and Korra worked at the raw seal. “I can write from anywhere, and I can’t stand to be apart from Kya as much as we have been. I’ll probably make another long trip to Ba Sing Se at the end of the year, but I’ve enjoyed seeing society here.”

“You study the Earth Kingdom?”

“In particular the conflicts around Ba Sing Se. It’s such a rich history, even if rife with so much bloodshed and class warfare. That the rings were a physical representation of the socioeconomic classes is a particularly fascinating study on that society.”

Asami was diverted when she saw Katara reach into the open belly of the seal and strip out a slice of an organ to eat raw. Korra did the same. Her hands were bloody, and she handled her knife with efficiency. The scent of the frying seal flesh did little to cover the bitter tang of blood.

“It takes some getting used to,” Kalin said as she followed Asami’s gaze. “I’ve always enjoyed raw fish, but seeing a seal eaten like that for the first time was an experience.”

"Why was the steak black?"

"You'll have to ask a zoologist about that. It's an interesting flesh. Hard to keep fresh, which may be why it's eaten raw most of the time."

“You should try some liver,” Katara said mildly. It sounded like a pointed criticism.

“Mom,” Kya admonished.

“That’s alright.” Kalin smiled. “No liver for me, but I got this for you, Katara.”

She produced a small basket of berries. Katara smiled as she accepted a few with her bloody fingers and dipped them into the body cavity of the seal. It took Asami a moment to understand she was seeing the seal’s blood drip from those berries as Katara brought them to her mouth.

Korra, who had been laughing and eating happily until that point, paused and watched. Her expression shifted, and she set down her knife and washed her hands.

“All done?” Kya asked.

“Yeah, thanks. When you finish, I can help you dress it.”

Kya and her mother ate for a few more minutes. Korra went back to work, and they made quick work of the seal’s remains after that.

Asami and Kalin shared the seal steak after it came out of the oven. It was incredibly rich with oily fat, and Asami could taste the sea in it. Korra settled beside Asami with intestines in her hands.

"Do you want some of this?" Asami guessed.

"If there's enough," Korra said hopefully.

"There's enough." Kalin spooned meat, vegetable, and stock into a bowl for Korra. She set aside the intestines and ate with enthusiasm. Asami enjoyed watching Korra's enjoyment. She'd never met anyone who made eating seem so pleasurable.

“What brings you by, Korra?” Katara finally asked after they'd all finished their meals.

Korra looked up from braiding the seal’s intestines. “I’m going to talk at the environmental summit about how the spirits seem to be connected to our environment. I just wondered if Aang ever mentioned that link.”

“Oh yes. I saw one spirit like that during the Hundred Year War. Hei Bai was a bear spirit that protected a forest in the southern Earth Kingdom. The Fire Nation destroyed that forest during the war, and Hei Bai attacked nearby villages and abducted villagers. Aang was able to pacify him when he showed the spirit the trees would grow back.”

“What did it look like?”

“A bear in its docile form. A strange black and white creature in dark form.”

“And Aang just talked to it?”

“From what I remember.” Katara nodded. “It was around winter solstice, when the spirit and physical worlds were more closely aligned.”

Asami leaned forward. “This Hei Bai abducted villagers?”


Korra nodded to Asami, clearly following her thought. “I wonder if it was like when the airbenders were abducted by the spirit vines. Or that dark spirit that took the baby from the Tundra Tribe.”

“A baby?” Kalin asked.

Korra nodded. She glanced over at Asami. “She didn’t hurt the baby, but… I let that spirit possess me, and I saw seal pups being clubbed. I assume it was because of what the Seal Tribe did.”

“Wasteful,” Katara muttered in obvious disapproval.

“What do you mean, you let the spirit possess you?” Kya asked in obvious alarm.

“Just what I said. I purified it, her, later. One of the spirits told me that they, the spirits, can see my energy in the physical world. Maybe because of Raava. And that dark spirits want to balance themselves. So maybe the corrupted spirits kidnap people to try to purify themselves? It's a real stretch though. Could just be the time and place."

“Can’t you just ask a spirit?”

Korra shook her head at Kalin. “It’s like it’s taboo to talk about. I don’t know why, but they’re uncomfortable when I even mention it. Maybe they don’t know. It’s been ten thousand years since the spirit and human worlds were joined.”

Katara got up and shuffled over to the chest against the wall. She withdrew a box of letters. “I can sort through the letters Aang sent me to see if he mentioned any spirits. I know there were more, but I can’t remember details of any but Hei Bai.”

“Thanks, Katara. I really appreciate it.”

“Have confidence, Korra.” Katara took Korra’s hand and pressed it between her own. “You are the authority on spirits, and you must believe yourself for anyone else to believe you.”

“Yes, Master Katara,” Korra annunciated clearly.

On the way back to Harbor City, Asami squeezed Korra’s hand. “Are you okay?”

“Was it showing?”

“I just noticed you got quiet suddenly.”

“I sort of went back to the reeducation camp. It’s the blood, and when a carcass is stripped down, it looks like… So I lost my appetite. I used to love that, berries in seal blood. I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat that again.”

“What about bloodcake?”

Korra laughed softly. “That sounds good, actually.” She glanced back. “Was that gross? Seeing that?”

“It was different, not gross. I’m not used to… What did you call it? ‘Meeting my dinner first’.”

“Thanks for coming.”

“I’m glad you wanted me to.”

It was dark by the time they got back to the palace. Asami could hear Bolin and Mako laughing down the hall, but she wasn’t in the mood to mingle just then.

Korra stood in front of Asami’s door awkwardly, as if she didn’t want to invite herself. Asami cocked her head, took her hand, and walked them down the hall to Korra’s room. Naga followed them in, and Asami shut the door and locked it.

She answered Korra’s questioning gaze. “You didn’t seem willing to invite yourself into my room so I invited myself into yours. Come here.”

If she were pressed to express if there was a difference now in how they saw each other, Asami would say there wasn’t much of one. Not in how they spoke to each other in front of their friends, or talked over food, or even the way they touched each other.

Except for this. Their kisses were firm and slow. Korra explored Asami’s mouth until Asami pulled her over so they could sit on her bed. She kissed down Korra’s strong neck and palmed her heavy breasts. Korra whined a shuddering gasp beneath her, and it took every bit of self-control she had to prevent herself from tearing open Korra’s shirt. Instead, Asami pressed a wet kiss to her mouth.

It was just as well because a heavy knock sounded on the door. Bolin shouted, “Hey, girls! You wanna join us for a card game?”

Korra pulled away from the kiss and pressed her forehead to Asami’s. She sighed heavily. “In a few minutes.”

Asami found herself giggling. “The joys of a nosy friend.”

Korra didn’t smile. “Come out onto the tundra with me.”

They both stilled, and Asami studied Korra for a long moment. “Yes. When?”

“Shit.” Korra sat up, uncharacteristically frustrated. “Fire Lord Izumi and Lord Zuko are coming in early tomorrow morning. Then there’s the Squid Squat tomorrow night, and the summit the next two days.”

“Then we’ll plan for the night after the summit.” Asami cupped her cheek. “We have plenty of time.”

Korra relaxed. “No rush,” she said quietly. “I guess we’ve been working up to this for four years anyway, haven’t we?”

“That’s one way to put it. There really is no rush, Korra.”

“I know, but I want time for just us, no one else, no interruptions.”

"We'll make time. Even if we have to play cards right now."

Korra grinned and gave Asami one last kiss. "Let's win all of Bolin's money then."

Chapter Text

Despite the helpful preparation from Asami and Katara—who’d even produced old letters that referenced spirits upset by loss of balance with nature—Korra was still nervous as she waited on the docks for the Fire Nation leaders to disembark. Their arrival marked the start of the summit in her mind, and she just didn’t feel ready. Especially not with how distracted she was by Asami.

Had she really asked if Asami would come out on the tundra with her? Korra’s gut clenched in nervousness. She couldn’t believe she was thinking about making an igloo. It just felt so cliched, especially after all that teasing from her parents. Would Asami know what it meant? She could just pass it off as being better than a tent. Then there was the other part of that nervousness:  alone on the tundra in an igloo. Sex was a foregone conclusion.

The Fire Nation steamer was large and metal, and it settled against their dock as waterbenders guided it and raised ice to meet their gangplank. Both Fire Lord Izumi and Lord Zuko stepped from their ship onto the Southern Water Tribe docks, flanked by a dozen guards. They snapped Korra from her inappropriate daydream. She needed to do her job.

Katara patted Korra’s arm before she pushed past those guards to embrace Zuko. Zuko smiled down at her from under his beard. Then Katara hit him in the arm. “Ow!” he said.

“Toph asked me to do that. Given it's the first letter she’s sent me in twenty years, it seemed I should,” Katara responded mildly. “Hello, Izumi.”

The stern woman softened visibly as she folded Katara into a hug. “Hello, Aunt Katara.”

“How are your children?”

“My son is well enough to be gallivanting around with his navy. My daughter is pregnant again and pretending to be unhappy about it. She received an extension to her teaching contract at the university.” Izumi turned to greet Tonraq and Senna, then her gaze focused on Korra. She studied Korra for a long moment before offering her hand. Korra shook it, wondering if she should bow after.

“It’s nice to finally meet you officially, Avatar Korra. I would like to speak with you privately at your convenience while I’m here.”

“Okay. We can do that.”

“Fire Lord Izumi, if you would follow me. I’m sure you’re tired from the trip.”

“I’ve never been fond of traveling by water,” Izumi said as she and the rest of the envoy walked away. Something held Korra back. She felt the burning itch to look over her shoulder, the old whisper of chains. Even with the assurance of daylight to protect her, she turned a long, uneasy look towards the empty bay. There was nothing out there.

When she got back to the palace, she practiced debating with Asami a few times before Bolin dragged them out to watch the preparations for the Squid Squat. Booths were being set up on the west side of the bay along with heaters, fishing stations, games, and a long row of authentic and knockoff Southern wares. Bolin wanted to see and do everything, which made Korra affectionate for him; he reminded her of the first and only time she’d come to one of these festivals.

“Why is it a Squid Squat though?” he asked over lunch.

“It started a long time ago when Katara was our age. They’d take the little kids out to the bay for when the squid come up to spawn. The kids squat down by the edge of the ice and use a net to grab a few squid. It’s turned into this now, I guess because of how many people live here now. It’s actually really pretty. They put spotlights on the water, and the squid shine as they dart around.”

Korra glanced down at her half-finished bowl of sea prune ramen and didn’t have it in her to finish.

“Are you okay?” Asami asked, bending close enough for Korra to smell her hair.

“I…” She turned sharply when she heard the rattle of chains, but it was just a man carrying crampons over his shoulder. The feeling of unease was back, but Korra realized the sound had distracted her from the source:  that feeling of dark energy from her shadow was there, but now it came in a rush, a horrifying gut-dropping roll of dark spiritual energy.

A dark spirit, coming to her. She swore, spun, and sprinted down the street towards the bay. Murmurs swept the crowd by the docks as they saw what she did then:  two large dark spirits coming through the bay, destined for land. Coming for her, the brightest bit of pure spiritual energy in the human world.


“Stay here. Protect the people,” she ordered her friends as she dove off the dock. The festival had shut down the bay from fishermen; the only things in the bay she had to worry about were the squid. Korra used a wave of water to propel her away from the crowd gathered at the edge of the harbor. She needed more distance between them.

Korra continued several hundred more meters into the heart of the bay. At the last moment, she summoned up a cyclone of water and waited, cradled in cold sea water. The spirits were fast, darting and jerking, unnaturally swift but sharp in their movements. They were amorphous, black with shining slits of purple that resembled gills. They dwarfed her, nearly the size of a horned whale each.

The spirits were on her in half a heartbeat, half a gasping breath, but it wasn’t their speed that startled her. The rattle of chains was back, and she felt it in her teeth. The motion of one rolling spirit shifted unease to horror—she saw an arm and a chain and the flash of white eyes and unruly hair. Then the vision was gone.

Korra dodged one oily tentacle and raised a quick circle of water around one spirit’s base only to be hit hard in the foot by the other. She had been half a moment behind since the first. She was flicked into the air like a gnat, propelled by her own momentum.

The horizon and the spirits spun away in dizzying repeating angles. Korra tried to reach for the water to cushion her fall, aware with a drawn gasp that a tentacle was still lashing at her. She slammed into the bay and skipped off of it like a skimming rock. The strike wrenched her shoulder hard enough for something inside her to break. She nearly inhaled instinctively but her sense won. Korra knew the rules of a fight; she'd been here before. She skimmed a few more times before she grabbed water with her left arm and balanced herself on the next somersault with a cushion of water.

She got her feet beneath her with a rolling wave of water and spun it around her in another cyclone. There was no pause; she dodged and weaved as she oriented herself...back near the docks, near onlookers who didn't have the sense to run. Her cyclone was cut at the base with a flailing tentacle, and Korra used gravity to help her dodge a second blow. Korra submerged, corkscrewed water around her like a sheet, and pushed herself hard below the spirits. As she spun herself upward, she raised a hard spout of water to strike one spirit and direct it towards the other. When the other spiraled away, she tried to use her right arm but screamed in pain and had to abort her motion. Immediately, Korra backhanded with her left arm to turn the ripple she’d made with her injured shoulder into a massive wave. The spirits crashed together and intertwined, solid against each other.

The spirits were trying to merge. Or were they one in the first place? The twining movement of writhing tentacles was illicit, beautiful, and dangerous, but the spirits were focused on each other, not Korra.

With her right arm clenched uselessly against her ribs and her left raised, she lifted heavy coils of water from the ocean and opened all the purifying power she had within her. The merged spirit shrieked in rage and lashed out. Korra rolled her cyclone away, but with her right arm out of commission, her loops of water fell away.

They traded more blows, Korra saving herself by the skin of her teeth, her heart in her throat and exhilaration bursting through her. It had been so long since she’d had a real fight, a good fight, and this spirit was good, as fast and as powerful as any bender.

Cradled in the element of her birth, Korra used water more than any other element, but fire helped her mobility, boosting her up and sideways. Air had little effect, but she used the twining motions to dodge and attack in one.

A rolling cone of fire rent a hole in the dark spirit, but that didn’t weaken it. It lashed at her, and she dodged once more.

By that point, they'd established a rhythm to their battle. She should have known better than to depend on that. The spirit took a direct hit of ice through its form as it lunged its entire oily body, not just a flailing tentacle, right at her. Korra heard her own gasp as she used a combination of fire and water to dart away, but the bright purple mouth was too wide. Her legs were caught within the edge of its mass. Before she could escape, a black tendril erupted like a tongue and dragged her into the darkness of its mouth. She was swept up in the massive expanse of dark energy. Pressure pushed down into her core, popping her eardrums and smothering her lungs. She gasped, swallowed dark energy, and drowned in it as it swept her away like a riptide.

She was a whale again, a dying whale, seeing her pod die—

Korra! roared a strong female and deep male voice. Those shouts thundered through her and dragged her back into her body with a snap. Raava’s energy burst from her without her conscious effort. The dark energies around her melted, flickered to gold, and fluttered away as the light of Raava set the world to gold around her.

Korra found herself lying on her side on a deserted dock parallel to one set up for the festivities that night. She gasped frantically, unable to draw breath. The wind had been knocked out of her, and in combination with drowning in the hard pressure of dark energy and the shrieking pain of her shoulder, she felt like she was suffocating.

The spirit she’d partly purified lay in a bleating sad puddle a few feet from her, reduced in size, power, and essence. All around them, tiny squid twitched and moved, borne from the ocean by the force of Korra’s beaching, lying in their own ink. She mimed them, gasping and jerking before she finally gulped in a full breath of air and rolled onto her left shoulder. Her right was already swelling and pulsing in rolling pain. She dragged herself on her uninjured arm to reach the sad little spirit, gently sweeping aside the squid that were in her path. The spirit was in as much pain as she was. Korra cradled the black oily spirit in her left hand and gently pushed purifying energies into it.

I’m sorry, friend, she thought.

It didn’t take much. The spirit released a keening cry, wrapped a pale tentacle around her wrist, and flickered away in golden flecks on the wind hopefully to find peace again. Korra was left with ink in her hand.

Korra sat up, crying out at the pain it caused her, and raised her left hand to bring up just enough water to sweep the dock and take the squid back into the water. Then, finally, she lay back down exhausted and hurting. The sunlight on her skin and the air around her soothed her. Even the bone-deep cold that froze her lashes and hair was a comfort. She was Korra. This was her body. Each breath seemed to open her lungs further until she no longer felt the ghost of the pressure surrounding her. Each breath emphasized the pain in her shoulder more.

That had been worse than Kuvira’s spirit weapon.

“Korra!” Her friends, all of them, surrounded her. Asami cradled her face and demanded her attention. It made her focus on her pain.

“Dark spirit from...overhunting. I saw whales,” Korra responded with a groan of pain. “My shoulder—”

“Take my snowmobile,” a stranger said over their ring of concerned faces. “I’ll come to the palace to get it later. Get her there quick.”

Mako tried to pick Korra up, but she fought him. “I can walk. I broke the shoulder, not my legs.”

“Shut up, Korra.” Mako lifted her left shoulder to bear some of her weight, and it hurt despite his care.

“Screw you,” she said through her tears, grinning at him.

Mako tried to smile, but his expression was too tight to pull it off.

The whine of a snowmobile caught her attention. Asami was already on it. Korra patted Mako’s shoulder, and he released her. She climbed into the sidecar, wincing as she jostled her shoulder.  “It’s not an emergency. Just my shoulder.”

“Settle in,” Asami told her. They were zipping through the streets a moment later. Korra used heatbending to keep herself warm, but she didn’t have the will to force herself to waterbend the ice from her hair. She winced with each bump, but Asami was careful.

“Back entrance. I can walk, but I don’t know if I want to walk up the steps,” she said, but Asami was already pulling in that direction. Asami supported some of her weight as they took the service elevator to the resident’s hall. The heat felt good on her skin, but she was getting lightheaded from pain. The door to her parent’s apartment opened, and Senna and Katara took her away from Asami. Senna said, "Someone call Tonraq. She's here."

The pain was starting to shift from aching pulses to deeper agony. “My shoulder,” Korra told her mother. Katara raised her hands to ghost over Korra’s shoulder. She needed it fixed—

“You fractured your clavicle.”

But she wasn’t ready for Katara’s version of tough healing. “Wait!”

Katara set and fused her collarbone abruptly, and Korra vomited at the white-hot agony, which was further pain on her shoulder. She blinked out tears. She wanted to give a long-winded criticism of the way she’d just been healed but only managed to groan out, “Fucking hogmonkeys.”

“Better to do it now than wait for swelling to worsen,” Katara informed her. Senna wiped Korra’s face with a cold cloth even as she swept the ice from Korra’s hair, skin, and clothing.

“I think I’m going to faint.”

Senna kissed her forehead as Katara spread soothing waters over her entire shoulder. “Shh. You’ll be fine. What happened?”

“Dark spirit.”

“Two of them,” Asami corrected.

“It was too much for me. It showed me visions of the whales.” She looked to her mother, who nodded.

“Where is the spirit now?”

“Gone. Purified.”

Korra decided she’d earned this example of dark spirits. She hadn’t made out well from the fight, but she would damn well talk about it tomorrow at the summit. And she was damn well still taking her friends to the Squid Squat.

Tonraq burst into the room, his gaze zeroing in on her. Korra was so used to her father's clear logic that his fear frightened her. He approached and touched her cheek. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Shoulder's busted, but I'm okay."

Korra couldn't find it in her to protest when her daddy carried her down the hall to her room. Tonraq was gentler with her shoulder than Katara or even Senna had been. His face was still drawn in fear.

“It's okay, Dad.”

He responded with a tight smile. “You need opium and rest. We'll worry about the summit later today.”

“I love you, Dad.”

“Korra, sweetheart… I love you too. I'll always love you.”

Senna came a moment later with sour opiate, and Korra drank it down for almost immediate relief. They settled her on the bed with a pillow propping her arm up. Asami’s voice was a soothing murmur as she spoke with Korra’s parents, and then Korra faded into sleep. She didn’t dream.

Asami was wearing her new sealskin boots, gloves, and cap, and Korra felt herself brighten to see that. She doubted anyone here would know she’d made them, but it still felt good to see Asami in Southern clothing. It wouldn’t be nearly as cold on the bay water as it had been for the snowmobile meeting so Korra didn’t insist on Asami wearing a parka and heavy pants.

“What are we doing again?” Asami wanted to know.

“Fishing up squid. I’ve only been to one, but it was a lot of fun.” She’d been in her early teens and thirsty for the crowd. She’d been shy but had talked to anyone she could. Her parents had brought her—probably against White Lotus orders—and showed her how to kill and clean the squid.

“Are you okay to do this? Should you rest more?”

Given Asami had watched her sleep most of the afternoon away under the effects of an opiate, the question was silly. “I feel great. This is fun. And a low impact activity.”

Her shoulder was still stiff, and Senna had wrapped it up in icy bandages underneath her parka. Her arm was up in a sling, and Katara had been by every few hours to torture her by healing her clavicle and shoulder joint. Katara had had particular glee when she’d warned Korra she’d have to realign the whole set of bones if she overdid it that night.

“Not the most romantic sounding holiday.”

Korra grinned at Mako. “Come on; there’s nothing more romantic than feeding the one you love.”

“This is going to turn into a competition, isn’t it?” Asami asked indulgently.

“No, either three squid or one net each. Can’t take too many of these little guys. They’re trying to spawn so if we take too many, there won’t be any next year.”

“How do we eat them?” Jun wanted to know.

“Fry them fresh.”

“Alive?” Jun asked in horror.

On one hand, Korra liked her reaction. On the other, it invited all sorts of teasing. She wondered if June ate crabs. “No, I can show you how to kill them.”

June’s immediate fear seemed to lessen, but by her expression, she wanted no part in the killing.

“I guess you don’t want any,” Mako said.

“I’ll enjoy the festival itself.”

“That’s okay. Better not to take any if you’re not going to eat them. We can all probably share one or two nets.” Korra glanced over at Asami. “Do you want to use the net?”

Asami shook her head with a gentle smile. She was so beautiful, more beautiful than she'd ever been. Korra was lost in the moment, caught by Asami’s smile. Then Opal cleared her throat as she walked between them and interrupted the moment.

Like the solstice festival, there were booths set up, but they were mainly selling wares and food. Korra wondered what this festival looked like before the gaudiness of the city’s merchants. There were several areas were musicians sat with their instruments, and kids ran around happily. They took their place in a line and joked most of their wait away.

“All nets?” one of the worker asked.

“Just two.” Korra fished out the money required. She’d blown through her savings since her friends got in, but it was why she’d been saving the stipend her parents gave her over the last few months in the first place. The worker ignored the funds. “Oh us, Avatar.”

“Please let me pay.”

“Saw you sweep at least three hundred squid back into the bay this afternoon, and that with your shoulder busted. You didn’t have to do that. So you don’t have to pay.” He handed her two nets, and that was that.

They spent a few minutes standing at the edge of the docks, watching the darting silver squid that were attracted to the spotlights at catch stations. Laughter echoed as children put their nets into the bay, and the quiet murmur of conversation filled the air. The smell of food and people combined, and people moved together with the steadiness of sharing a purpose. Korra felt the sudden exquisite sensation of melancholy joy.

She and Bolin took a net each, and as everyone crowded around the railing, they descended to a platform flush with the water where the squid darted like lightning bugs in the water. Aware Bolin was watching her, Korra darted her net out and snagged three wriggling squid. He grinned at her, took a few breaths, and concentrated hard. To Korra’s surprise, he managed to snag three squid too.

They high-fived. “Nice one, Bolin.”

“You may call me Nuktuk, great Avatar,” Bolin intoned.

“Two threes,” one of the men working the station stated dryly. Another wrote their number and bagged the slippery squirming squid for Korra and Bolin. There was a butchering station not far away. Korra took her place at one and motioned Bolin over.

One or more of her squids had inked on them all. She rinsed one off, set it flat on the table, and dropped the flat of her left hand over the junction between its legs and body. The blow jolted her shoulder, but the squid had the worst of it. It blanched and stopped moving. Korra hoped it was a quick, easy death.

The knife at the station was sharp. She sliced the squid into three pieces and narrated that for Bolin. “Try to get the beak without the legs.” She stripped a hard portion from the body and repeated the process alongside Bolin, who giggling and did a lot of ‘ew’ing during his butchering.

After she’d finished, she watched the teenage boy that stepped into her station. The boy watched Bolin flounder and seemed uncertain himself. Korra edged Bolin over. “Stop screaming, you weanie. Try again. Chop the head.”

Bolin gave a hard chop to squid, and it blanched. The boy beside Korra did the same. With each step that Korra outlined for Bolin, the boy followed. When he’d finished his first squid, he smiled at her. “Thanks, Avatar.”

“I was helping this idiot.” Korra cuffed Bolin’s shoulder and winked, and the boy blushed but grinned.

Korra couldn’t remember if she liked boiled or fried better. She knew that both were good though. Half and half, she decided.

Unlike the butchering station, the cooking stations were manned by paid employees. Korra handed a bag of squid parts to the fry and boil station each, and her squid were returned in less than three minutes. They were hot enough to steam through the bag.

There were several large tents set up near the fishing stations. Korra led the way to one, and she watched her friends relax in the warmth under one tent. Heaters blew warm air underneath the tent, and a jazz band played in one corner. The music was hard to hear over all the talking. They paid for drinks and more food. Unlike the squid, the drinks and side dishes:  seaweed crackers, seaprunes, rice, and noodles were outrageously expensive.

They grabbed a corner of one table and worked through their squid quickly. “Good?” Korra asked Asami.

“Delicious. I’ve never had squid that was so tender.” Asami delicately picked up a fried ring between two fingertips with a napkin cupped below her mouthful. She was impeccable and feminine.

“You should try some southern crab before we go back to Republic City.”

Asami only smiled at her. Korra wanted to kiss her mouth and her fingers. It was a surprising compulsion to have in public.

When they finished, Korra looked up and caught sight of people she didn’t expect to see. She stood up and rounded the crowded tables to a cluster of children and several older women. They all recognized her, but it was the kids who seemed happiest. “Korra!”

She dropped to her knees as the littlest kids ran to her for hugs. Then she collapsed on the ground as the kids crawled all over her. She groaned and laughed both for emphasis and because a knee went against her painful shoulder.

An old man stood over her. “Get up, children. Don’t kill your cousin.”

She grinned up at Karraq. “Hey, Grandpa.”

“Hello, Korra. We’re making this a habit.” She clambered to her feet to hug the old man, and he relaxed into the embrace after a moment. His eyes studied her sling. “Are you hurt?”

“Another dark spirit, but this one got the best of me first.” Korra motioned towards the rest of her friends who had remained at their corner table. “I brought some friends. Can we share your table?”


The question 'want to meet my family' had her friends on their feet and approaching. Korra introduced them all, and Karraq nodded to each of them. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. His gaze lingered on Asami. “Nice to see you again, Asami.”

“Are you all here for the festival?” Asami asked politely.

“The children are. I’ve come to sit at the environmental summit tomorrow.”

That sent a flush of nervousness through Korra, but she refused to let that spoil her night. They must have sat and talked for another hour before Karraq gathered his family up and waved goodbye.

“You feed off of that sort of thing, don’t you?” Asami asked her later, cradling Korra’s head against her shoulder. Korra had taken a swallow of opiate to ward off the ache in her shoulder for the night, and now her mind was blurry from the effects of the drug. At least her shoulder didn’t hurt anymore.

“I like people.”

“I’m glad you were able to meet your grandfather.”

“Do you have any relatives that you keep up with?”

“No. My mother’s extended family has never been a part of my life. I’m not sure I regret it though.”

The answer made her sad. Korra wanted to say that her parents would welcome Asami with open arms, but she wasn’t sure if it was right to even say. She smoothed a thumb over the skin of Asami’s hip, gently pushing up her sleep shirt. Asami caught her hand and held it in her own. Korra felt the kiss Asami pressed to her head.

She’d known briefly what it felt like to lose her father. When she’d seen Tonraq go over the cliff, there had been no hope that he’d survived. The harsh agony of grief was something she could pull back out and examine. It was easy to put that emotion to Asami’s uncharacteristic grief the night after the battle for Republic City. Asami had lost her father, and she’d hardly known her mother.

Korra wished there was something she could do for her. It didn’t seem fair to rejoice in finding her own family or her people here after Asami had lost her own, but Korra knew it would never occur to Asami to resent her happiness.

“Can I stay here tonight?”

Asami stirred. “Yes. You’ll be fine tomorrow. Don’t worry; sleep.”

The morning started early. Korra sat in the middle of the right side of the council room with a pot of tea, a pen, and several papers to take notes. Despite Senna’s healing session that morning, Korra wouldn’t be able to take any notes; she was still in a sling for comfort. Her neighbor was from the Zaofu. Raiko’s aid—one of his cabinet members—who’d come in late the night before, sat nearly across from her, though he was on the front row.

They started sharp at eight o’clock. There were entire talks dedicated to limiting coal energy, gasoline consumption, and measuring the environmental impacts of those methods. There was talk about clean energy, even the suggestion of finding clean energy methods. Most of those things went over Korra’s head, except for the suggestion to use spirit vines. Korra interrupted that train of thought, making the Earth Confederation governor scowl in reply.

“Sorry, but that’s a terrible idea. Did you see what happened when Kuvira used it?”

“She powered a weapon. That’s a little different than using it for energy alone.”

“There isn’t a difference. They both release dark energy. I purified all that, and it ripped open the physical world in the process.”

He looked at her in surprise. “I didn’t realize the portal was the result of dark energy. Could there be a safe way to harness that energy for our use though?”

“I don’t think so, not from what I’ve seen. The Banyan tree in the swamps near Gaoling responded pretty violently when Kuvira even tried to harvest spirit vines. I don’t know about you, but I think whatever manages to piss off a tree probably isn’t a good idea.”

The man laughed in response. “I’ll let the matter rest for now. Thank you for your insight, Avatar Korra.”

She wasn’t sure if he was making fun of her. Korra wished she’d asked Asami to come. Asami would probably invent some crazy new way to power Republic City, and she had the savvy to interpret the tone of these politicians.

Nearing the midafternoon, talk went to hunting and farming. When it was Korra’s time to stand up and talk, she smoothed her papers down, blowing off her nervousness in a breath.

“I’m not a professional public speaker, so sorry if I stumble a little. But even so, I’ve learned some things that aren't  pertinent to this summit.

“We’re still learning about the relationship between the spirit world and the physical one. The spirits are still figuring it out too. It’s been ten thousand years since the spirit world and the human world were connected like they are now so we’re all learning together. I’ve had several alarming encounters in the last few months, not including the one in the bay yesterday.”

She went on to explain her past encounters and the overhunting linked with them. Then, as Asami had suggested, she drew a comparison to some of Aang’s encounters in his time, thankful for the letters Katara had copied for her. Aang had written of four separate encounters of spirits becoming angry over misuse of natural resources.

“This relationship between nature and the spirits has been documented a long enough time to realize that we can’t ignore it. We should treat our environment with respect because it’s all we have, but the spirits add another powerful layer to why we need to respect and preserve our environment.”

When the room was opened for questions, a governor from the Earth Confederation asked, “So what line to do we draw? Is overhunting hunting alone? Do the spirits protest the harvesting of resources alone? How do we determine what differentiates overhunting from hunting?”

For a moment, Korra marveled that Asami had predicted this question. She was ready.

“Aang’s examples showed there is a distinction. Maybe it’s in the ability of the resources we use to regenerate. Hei Bai was pacified when he was shown his forest would regrow. The two dark spirits I’ve seen were corrupted because of the killing of young animals and wiping out pods in their entirety. I haven’t seen any that were darkened because we killed five adult horned whales or met the quota for our seal hunt.”

“It’s a difficult thing to understand, Avatar. How do we draw the line?”

“Honestly, it may be trial and error for subtle things, but we shouldn’t slaughter babies or wipe out colonies or forests.”

“And what of feral populations?” an Earth Confederation governor asked. She tapped her pen against her paper in what looked like irritation. “We’re overrun from feral bearded cats in my territory. They’ve been decimating our bird, elephant rat, and frog squirrel population. Will the spirits react if we depopulate the cats or if our wildlife declines?”

“I don’t know,” Korra replied. “If I can figure out a way to open dialogue with the spirits about these issues, I’ll ask.”

Izumi spoke. “The Fire Nation employs a catch and release program. Surely the spirits wouldn’t become corrupted by sterilizing feral populations without killing them.”

“We don’t have the funds or anyone with the skill to do so,” the woman said. “And that does nothing for our natural populations being destroyed.”

“There are grants. Our animal medicine department may be willing to send students to gain experience with their sterilization surgery skills. I’ll be happy to discuss the application process with you,” another man volunteered. He was from a program at Republic University that tracked wildlife population numbers.

"Why did you open the portals if you had no idea what effects could occur?" Raiko's aid asked sharply.

Korra met his eyes directly. "Because it was my duty. If we ignored and shut away everything we don't understand, we would never grow."

"But your guesses have created a situation you cannot control—"

"That's enough," Fire Lord Izumi said firmly. "President Raiko will have to find another time to throw moot blame at the one person with the authority and knowledge to make the decision to marry the physical and spiritual worlds. This meeting is not an appropriate platform for that."

It was a criticism she hadn't heard in a while, one that put an uncomfortable clench in her gut. She was responsible. She'd thrown the world into a situation where the rules were unknown. All this time that she'd been South, no one had told her it was a mistake to leave the portals open; it was easy to take for granted.

“If I may.”

It took Korra a moment to recognize Karraq in the back corner. He glanced at Korra after Tonraq motioned for him to speak. “I am Chief Karraq of the Bear Tribe. I was with Avatar Korra when she confronted a dark spirit on the tundra. She says it showed her visions of seal pups being slaughtered. Not two months prior, the Tribe of Seal was disciplined because two hunters went into the breeding grounds and slaughtered a dozen seal pups.

“I went into the spirit world with Avatar Korra, and I saw a desperate thing, darkened by forces I don’t understand. I also saw Avatar Korra confront it, discuss matters with friendly spirits—who look to her with respect—and purify the dark spirit. Anyone who doesn't trust her knowledge or instincts on these matters is a damned fool.” He looked at Raiko's aid. "So you tell your president that. He's a damned fool."

Tonraq cleared his throat. "Thank you, Chief Karraq, but I must remind you about decorum. Profanity and defamation are not allowed on the floor."

Karraq retorted, "I'm not on the floor."

Several laughs echoed in the room, and Tonraq's lips twitched. "So I see. Thank you for your testimony, Avatar Korra." Tonraq directed his next words to the room. "Please bear in mind that Korra is the person here with the best insights into spirit motivations. Now, let's move on to hunting quotas and agriculture regulations."

It took Korra a few moments to swallow the lump in her throat. That Karraq would speak up for her… It meant a lot to have family on her side. Korra knew Tonraq supported her, but his role as Chieftain prevented the informal support Karraq had just given.

During the following discussion, someone presented numbers of animals remaining, especially those they felt were endangered. For the most part, there was agreement about hunting.

They finished for the day just before dinner, but it was enough to exhaust Korra. She still had an appointment to meet with Fire Lord Izumi. Korra made her way to the wing of the palace that housed their traveling politicians. They had the floor above the resident hall. She was ushered into Izumi’s rooms.

It was carpeted and warm, and a cozy fire was going in the hearth. In the center of the room, two chairs sat against a small tea table. Izumi stepped out of the back room and motioned for her to take a seat before she sat herself. Korra felt the fire shift as Izumi took control of it. The Fire Lord’s hairpiece was missing, but there was no question about her power.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Avatar Korra.”

“Thank you. You can call me Korra.”

“Korra.” Izumi’s stark features softened with a smile. “How is your shoulder?”

“Still stiff. I should be able to shrug again in a week.”

Izumi’s smile softened even more. “Shrugging is highly important.”

“My eye-rolling doesn’t have the same impact without a little shoulder action.”

Izumi offered another smile. She sipped her tea. “Well, I have several orders of business today. Shall we do the personal first?”

It took Korra a moment to realize she saw embarrassment on Izumi’s features. “Uh, sure.”

“I was approached by your Master Suntoq, who suggested you were interested in a marriage with my son.”

Now Korra was the one who felt keen embarrassment. “I can’t believe he would do that.”

“Then you aren’t interested?”

“No offense to Iroh, but I’ve never looked at him like that. He’s a friend. I didn't know anything about Suntoq’s stupid idea. He doesn't speak for me. About anything.”

“I see. I was dubious about the proposal. That makes things significantly easier.” Izumi motioned for Korra to take her tea, and she did. It was a jasmine blend. Not bad, but a bit light after her regular consumption of Asami’s black tea blend. Izumi continued, “He has his heart set on a woman in the Fire Nation—a commoner, a friend from the military where he was trained.”

“What’s stopping him from marrying her?”

“Her husband for one.” Izumi readjusted her glasses delicately. “Oh, she’s divorcing him. If not for that, it wouldn’t be a bad match. My father isn’t pleased, but if Iroh is to marry and to finally provide me with more grandchildren, it will have to be that woman.” She sighed again. “I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“That’s okay.”

“It almost makes me long for the old days. Three hundred years ago, Iroh could declare Agni Kai, kill the husband, and claim the wife. No one would question that match. Now it’s all embroiled in legal issues that taint the match.”

“Oh. That's a little…” Violent.

Izumi smiled. “Of course you may not know that. Which leads us to the professional reason I wished to meet:  to invite you to the Fire Nation for an extended trip. You’ve spent time in all the other nations and are intimately tied to Republic City, the Earth Kingdom, and the North and South—by your blood no less—but you have yet to visit the Fire Nation.”

“I wandered through the western islands. But yeah, I’ve never been to Capital City.”

“Consider yourself invited.”

“I have to figure out the spirit issues, and I need to go back to Republic City for a bit. After that, though…”

“I will hold you to that. I would consider it a favor too; my father has wanted to have time with you for many years. Now, do you have any questions for me, Avatar Korra?”

“Did the White Lotus really try to sell my time?”

Izumi raised her eyebrows. “I’m surprised you would call it that. That’s certainly how I’ve phrased it before. Yes, they thinly veiled bidding by suggesting I donate to increase your chances of visiting. Avatar Korra, I have no wish to bend you to my will or that of my country, but you must know my people to truly have the nation’s best interest at heart. What we don’t know, we unconsciously fear.”

Korra nodded. “Do you have questions for me, Fire Lord Izumi?”

“Are you well?”

At Korra’s questioning look, Izumi clarified her question. “Your history in the last few years makes me ask. All news after you returned to the South stopped. There were rumors you were dead or invalid or missing for several years. And then reemerging to vanquish the Earth Kingdom tyrant only to return to seclusion in the South after less than a year. This timeline worries me.”

The reality of it wasn’t far from Izumi’s fears. “I was invalid and depressed. I was depressed again and missing my home. You say I’m tied to the South because of my blood, but I never had the chance to know it. I was locked in a compound for my childhood, and I never experienced what life was like outside that place. I came home after a…” The flayed man was back, souring the taste in her mouth. She put the tea cup down and took a deep breath to keep her stomach settled. “A bad battle. Iroh was there, and he saw what I did. I had to come back to heal and learn.”

Izumi’s gentle gaze communicated pity. “So it was that bad. Iroh won’t speak of it. May I ask your future plans?”

“I’m going back to Republic City. I’m focusing on taking care of the spirits and figuring out how to keep that relationship stable.”

“We have less concerns with that in the Fire Nation. That said, I don’t envy you the task.” Izumi sipped her tea. “Who were your firebending masters?”

“I had a lot. I don’t remember most of them. Some of my masters were fun though.”

“How did you come to switch masters?”

Korra remembered the cold formality of so many of them. Some of her masters were a lot of fun; they tended to stay the longest though Suntoq usually sent them away as soon as he visited and saw she wasn’t miserable. Some of her masters had lived in Harbor City, and most wrote and read during their free time. They hadn’t been willing to interact with a child, especially not one as rambunctious as Korra.

She faded into negativity before she remembered her mother’s advice:  find something good in all the bad. “They would get tired of the South, maybe. One of my favorite firebending instructors brought his wife because I was too stiff. I’d been working too hard on earthbending so I was really rooted in form. His wife taught me how to dance. That was fun.”

“Master Olin, I presume.”

“I don’t remember his name. His wife’s name was Era.”

Izumi nodded in recognition. “Interesting woman. She left him for a much younger man, actually.”


The look of surprise on Izumi’s stern features was almost comical. “How did you know?”

“Chan was a great swinger. Era taught me to swing because she missed him.”

“To think Era spread her corruption as far as Avatar Korra. What a small world we live in.”

Mako was waiting for her in her room. “You wanna grab a drink?”

“Sure.” She'd been about to collapse in bed, but time with Mako was worth another hour or two up.

Their silence was comfortable even after Mako grabbed them drinks. "I’ve got it,” he told her when she tried to pay. Korra went for tea that night; given her headache and shoulderache, she’d need opiate to sleep well again.

“How are you, Mako?” she asked him.

“I’m good.”

“All healed up?”

“Yeah. I kept my range of motion. The arm tingles a little still, but hopefully that means I’ll get some sensation back on the skin. How's yours?”

“Aches. I'll be okay in a week.”

“You really scared us. That spirit was huge, and we saw that first hit. There wasn’t a way to help you, not with you out on the water.”

“I’m okay. Really. It just knocked the wind out of me.”

Mako nodded after a moment. He grabbed a ball of fried dough. After he chewed, he asked, “So, you and Asami?”

Korra couldn't suppress her smile. “She’s awesome.”

“You’re happy?”


“I know she is. I’m okay with it, you know. I just wanted to let you know.”

Korra had never considered he wouldn’t be. “I know. You’re our friend.”

His smile was gentle. “So why did you want us to go along with you to talk to that White Lotus accountant?”

“I don’t know anything about that stuff. Master Suntoq may have been selling me out to world leaders so I guess I was worried about where the money went. It’s such a weird concept for me, needing or wanting money. I never grew up with it.”

“I was obsessed with it when we didn’t have any. I still am, I guess, but it’s easier now that I have savings. Bolin is set, thankfully, and he has an accountant to keep him from doing stupid things with that money. He nearly gave it all to Kuvira, but his PA stopped him from being an idiot.”

“At least Master Lang seemed to know what he was talking about.”

Mako hesitated. “Asami didn’t want to say anything until we got more information, but I don’t think the numbers are real, Korra.”

A flush of cold went up her back. “What do you mean?”

“It just felt fake. The numbers were too perfect, and there wasn’t enough detail for that amount of money going through their offices. I wonder at the lack of auditing too, especially since things didn't add up.”

“You’re saying you think they’re cheating.”

“I do, Korra. But Asami is right. You can’t go off half-cocked and accuse a respected organization of embezzling because of a feeling.”

Korra’s defensiveness rose sharply. “Who said I was going to go off half-cocked?”

Mako scowled at her, mirroring her irritation. “It was a hypothetical ‘you’. I meant me and Asami too. She said she had a lawyer in Republic City who could probably look over what they gave us. Has she not asked you about it yet?”


“I’m sure her reasons are good.” He hesitated. “You’re serious about her, right? Because she's serious about you.”

“I'm serious. I wouldn’t string along my best friend.” She leaned forward. "Now, tell me what's been going on with you. Don't leave out any weather details."

"I'm never living that down, am I?" He settled back in the booth and started talking.

Asami peeked around her door with a smile after Korra knocked. She was wearing a silk nightdress and robe, and without makeup, she looked achingly young. As soon as Korra slipped into the room, she got back under the covers.


“Come warm me up.”

Korra’s shoulder ached and she had a headache from the long council session. She was a little irritated by the fact Asami hadn’t approached her about the White Lotus finances too. But Asami was too tempting.

Korra kicked off her boots and crawled under the heavy covers, careful to keep her left side down. She draped her right arm over Asami’s waist and buried her face in Asami’s hair. Then she turned her head and exhaled a breath of gentle heatbending.

Asami snuggled closer, pressing her butt against Korra’s crotch. They didn’t need heatbending to warm up the bed, apparently. “My head hurts,” Korra admitted, even as she smoothed the palm of her hand over Asami’s stomach.

“Have you taken anything?”

“I’ll probably need another dose of opiate to sleep tonight. The shoulder’s starting to ache again. But this is comfortable.”

“Stay awhile then.” Asami rolled over and nuzzled Korra’s nose.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the White Lotus money?”

Asami drew back after a moment. She laid her head on the pillow and fingered Korra’s hand. “I didn’t want to alarm you, especially not before the summit. I’d also like to get more information before I’m willing to say the White Lotus is embezzling.”

“What do we need to do?”

“I’d like to send that copy of their records to Republic City to have it analyzed.”

“Can we talk to someone in the organization?” Korra thought of Shiza and her kindness. “There’s a woman in the compound who sent me to Lang.”

“If she sent you to him, then what’s to say she isn’t covering up for everything too?”

“She’s a good person. I trust her. Over all the rest of them.”

Asami cupped her cheek. Her gaze was gentle but placating. “Some people are good at that:  pretending to be safe.”

“It might still be worth going to talk to her again. Would you come with me if I go?”

“Whatever you need, Korra.” Asami kissed her gently and then smoothed her fingertip across the bridge of Korra’s nose. “Go take your pain medication and rest. I’ll see you in the morning.”

The following morning was recap of the day before with a few new talks about the agreement outlined. Before lunch, Tonraq and most of the elders signed the new Environmental Agreement for the South, and Eska and Desna remained silent as they signed for the North. Raiko’s aid and Fire Lord Izumi stood to state that the United Republic and the Fire Nation would stand by all efforts to protect natural resources, and their signatures were added to the list.

The Earth Confederation had a smattering of agreements within their lands, but it lacked cohesion. Korra realized how difficult it would be to have full agreement on any matter if the Earth Confederation had no official unity. She agreed with Wu’s decision to abdicate, but it was more complicated than saying he was wholly right.

The afternoon session remained open, but it was focused more on local matters. Much of the Earth Confederation political clout departed after lunch. Fire Lord Izumi also excused herself from the meeting, but Raiko’s aid was apparently here for the entire event. Lord Zuko settled in the empty seat beside Korra after lunch.

“Hello, Korra.”

“Hi, Lord Zuko. How has your trip been?”

“Quite cold. I do like the South much better than the North. Comfortable and less pretentious. And it’s been nice to see Katara again.”

“You two have a thing going on?”

Zuko’s pale skin darkened in a blush. “I am still a happily married man, Korra.”

Korra shrugged. “I guess I should have asked if you had something going on with Toph. I get the feeling she only punches people she likes.”

“She must really like me then,” he said dryly. “I take it you’ve met her.”

“I met her all right. She beat me up for a few weeks. We got drunk together once. I’ve never had a hangover that awful. I got a hug out of all of that, though.”

His grin was wide. “You shall have to tell me the details of that story.”

“Over vodka.”


Tonraq called the session into order, and there was a lot of internal talk among the tribes, including open dialogue about when the next election for chieftain would occur. Tonraq had been in his position for nearly five years.

“Chieftain is a lifelong title,” one old man argued.

“What was isn’t always what should be,” Tonraq stated. “I saw the man my father was. I know that I have ties to many people that would give any man pause in seeing me in this position. I hope everyone knows I’m part of the south. As such, I stand for the democracy that we’re transitioning to, at least in part. My term will end, as previously decided, at six years.”

“Will you run again?”

“I haven’t decided,” Tonraq responded. “That isn’t something we should speak of now.”

Though Noho and Ru had preached up the goodness of southern tradition, Korra saw how it complicated things. Chiefs of villages and tribes were usually ushered into place as much by blood as their ability. Those chiefs sat on the council with elders—again, who were there because of blood and age, not from elections.

It was steeped in tradition, with the oddity of an elected Chieftain that loosely organized the whole. There would be a democratic vote at the next election, though the elders held influence over the final Chieftain. At least there was a wish to work together and to transition to democracy.

Some people spoke for family and friends, noted brave acts and generosities between tribes and peoples. There were some concerns about hunting quotas, gasoline in the water, and decline of crab numbers over the last two years. Only one man spoke of a dark spirit he’d seen two months before.

Korra listened, made note of who said what, and pondered at how it all worked despite how disorganized it was. She could see how easily the system could be manipulated and destroyed if someone less principled than her parents had taken power. Just as Kuvira had.

Near the end of the day, Karraq stood and spoke for the first time that day. He walked into the center of the room and turned in place, studying everyone there. Korra looked too; people were polished, dressed like Republic City councilmen and others wore worn leather like he did. It was such a great meeting of people.

Karraq cleared his throat and removed a letter from his parka. “I will start with words from the matriarch of the Tundra Tribe.

“'I stand with Chieftain Tonraq, Senna, and their daughter, Korra. Korra came when we called for help, and she helped. We owe the greater tribe. Call on us when needed.’”

He paced for a few moments before he spoke again. “I haven’t come to this council in many years. This place is too different from where I grew up:  on the tundra and shorefast ice, where bone and ice are our allies, where we fish and hunt what we need. Now there are loud machines that churn up the snow faster than our dog sleds, and youngsters want to travel the world to swim in hot oceans and see animals and plants that don’t survive in our lands. We sell our harvests for money for things we don’t need. Material is more important than spiritual.

“But I’m here today, and I hope those of you who remember me listen to what I have to say.”

Karraq’s eyes cut to Tonraq’s. “It’s no secret that I never approved of you, Tonraq. You stole my daughter away in the night and married her in the old way. I knew I would never have her back. But I had hope that I could show your daughter, my granddaughter, the old ways, the right ways, when she was born. I knew Senna would bring her back to her people.

“When Korra turned out to be the Avatar, you let the White Lotus secret her away. She grew up without knowing any of the ways of our people, and when she finally left their care, she chose to go to Republic City instead of her people.

“Even worse, she returned and supported your Northern brother despite our people needing her. Though Avatar Korra defeated him for our people—for the world—she left the South again, only to return and remain a recluse. She is over twenty years old, and she’s only now just learning our ways. And yet…”

He took a deep breath and looked at Korra for a pregnant moment. “And yet I saw this young woman walk into a volatile situation with one of our oldest, most secluded and traditional tribes and take control. She resolved the situation, dispelled anger and antagonism between the Tundra Tribe, our most superstitious of peoples, and the spirits they so fear. She saved a baby she’d never known, carried him beneath her parka against the skin of her breasts, and defeated a dark spirit with grace and ease.

“She was given the blade of the Tundra Tribe, and accepted on behalf of her father with humility and poise. The boy she saved now carries her name:  Korraq. Every step, every word was spoken correctly.”

He met Korra’s eyes and smiled before gesturing to her. “This young woman, my granddaughter of the Tribe of Bear, walked out onto the tundra as a child, survived a blizzard on the ice flow, and nursed from a polar bear dog dam, accepted as its cub. That polar bear dog’s pup now follows her loyally. Instead of killing the bear, she became its sister. We aren't Southerners because we kill our wilderness; we're Southerners because we partner with it.

“It was my own stubbornness that made me see only what I wished to see. Korra has always been a part of this tribe. One day her name will be cast to lead the South, and she will have my vote. Korra is my granddaughter, in every sense of the word, and I have never been more proud of my family. Welcome, Korra of the Bear Tribe. Welcome home.”

Korra turned her eyes down, burning with too many conflicting emotions to contain. She darted a look to her parents. Tonraq sat back in his chair, his face tight with something Korra couldn’t read. Senna was wiping her eyes. To Korra’s further shock, a few shouts of agreement went up within the auditorium. It was enough to raise tears to her eyes. She looked around in time to see most of the men and women in the auditorium slap the table in front of them in symbolic approval.

She was one of them.

The session was adjourned a few minutes after Karraq’s speech. Zuko smiled at Korra as he left. “I daresay you’re doing something right. Find me for drinks later.”

She barely managed a smile through her discomfort. She was stopped and her hand was shaken by most of the Southerners in that meeting. Her cousins even paused to look her over.

“She has more approval than we’ve ever received,” Eska intoned.

“Perhaps we should braid our hair and wear beads.”

“Perhaps we should make our people choose us in an election.”

Korra raised one eyebrow. Zaheer’s sharp words about government weren’t be wrong with her cousins ruling a country. “That defeats the purpose of the election.”

“I would say that is the purpose of the election,” said Desna. Eska continued, “To be elected.”

“Good day, cousin,” Eska said. Desna repeated those words.

A while later, Korra found her parents in their private sitting room. There was a fire in the fireplace, and Tonraq poured himself and his wife a finger of whiskey. Korra waved off his offer to pour her some. Tonraq left the room with his drink in hand.

“Why did he say that? About me being Chieftain?”

“It was symbolic,” Senna responded. She smiled and cupped Korra’s cheeks. “My father is a harsh man. His affect is…dry. He was just saying he loves you. There’s no expectation you would ever become Chieftain. We all know that your responsibilities are for more than your tribe.”

“It scared me.”

“That means you understand how important it is. I’m so glad you’ve come to do this, Korra. One day, you will be needed…not to lead, but to advise.”

“Will you see him if he asks?”

Senna sighed and sipped her whiskey. “I will. If he asks.”

Tonraq knocked on the frame. “Karraq is here. He’s asked to see you, Senna.”

Korra raised an eyebrow. “Told you.”

Tonraq put a strong hand on Korra’s left shoulder and led her out of the room. Korra waved at Karraq as he passed, and he smiled at her stiffly and squared his shoulders before entering the room.

“How long should we give them?”

“Dunno. Probably a few hours at least.” Tonraq glanced at her. “You love that old man, don’t you?”

“He’s pretty cool. I want to get to know him better. He knows so much about the tundra, you know?”

“I know. I wish my father had been half the man he is, Karraq’s prejudices included.” Tonraq raised an eyebrow. “Your mother and I want to take you and Asami to dinner.”

It was a segue, but one she understood for what it was. “Thanks, Dad.”

It was only half an hour for Karraq to emerge from the room. He glanced up at Tonraq and slowly offered a hand. Tonraq shook it firmly.

“You've done well by her.”

“She does well for herself,” Tonraq replied.

“You've also done well for our tribe. I didn't vote before, but you have my trust now.”

“Your daughter is my best advisor.”

Karraq turned to Korra, who dragged him into a hug. He relaxed and returned her embrace. He walked away quickly after that, wiping his eyes. Korra was surprised by Karraq’s abrupt departure.

“Korra, your mother wants to talk to you.” Tonraq shut her in the room. Senna stood by the fire, drink in hand.


“Honey… Thank you. I never thought I'd speak to my father again.”

Korra immediately pulled her mother into her arms when she heard tears thicken her mother’s voice. Senna hiccuped, but it was a laugh, not a sob. “When did you start comforting me, honey?”

“Are you going to forgive him?”

“I forgave him decades ago. It's the trust I'm not sure about. But this is better than it was. So, thank you.”

When Korra let her mother go, Senna cupped her cheek. “You’re leaving soon, aren't you?”

“In four days. It's time for me to more actively work to protect the spirits. But I’ll come back.” She swallowed. “I'm taking Asami out tonight. I'm going to make her an igloo.”

“Keep your blocks uniform. There's no shame in a little bit of waterbending to help you along.” Senna framed Korra’s face in her hands. “Be safe. Talk to her, and take care of yourself. And remember: nothing warms an igloo better than two newlyweds on their wedding night.”

“Mom. Gross.”

“It occurs to me that we never had the talk. Sit down and be prepared to be embarrassed.”


Senna pointed to the chair by the fire. “Seriously.”

This was probably going to be worse than red-faced Tenzin’s stuttering lectures on the dangers of sex. The White Lotus had taught her about sex only as how it affected Naga. Seeing her go into heat the first time had panicked Korra; she'd thought her bear was dying. Up until the age of thirteen, she'd thought the phrase “lie with” was literal, and that men and women only had to sleep in the same bed to become pregnant. It had been stunning to learn her monthly bleeding meant she was the same as Naga, and that humans really were no different than animals.

Korra poured a few drops of whiskey in her tea. She'd need it. Something told her that her mother would be a lot more thorough than Tenzin.

Lord Zuko was her last stop for the afternoon. He poured them both a finger of vodka. “Aang liked this liquor,” he said wistfully.

Korra took the shot for his nostalgia alone. The liquor burned as it went down. She cleared her throat but didn’t cough. Zuko smiled at her expectantly. She had to admit, “Sorry, it just tastes varnish to me.”

“That’s quite alright. Shall we switch to tea now?”

They shared a pot as Zuko regaled Korra with stories of the war, of his harsh childhood, and the contrast between his family growing up and the family he created for himself during and after the war. This was the conversation Korra had tried to have with Toph, but Zuko was a much better storyteller.

“You miss Aang, don’t you?”

“I miss many of my friends. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge you or your generation. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized the importance of embracing change. You’ve done much for our world, and I look forward to seeing what you’ll continue to do through your lifetime. Please, Korra, please come visit us in the Fire Nation. I so want to show you the treasures of my country, introduce you to my family, and take you out to meet our dragons.”

“I will.”

They embraced at his door. “Take care of yourself. If you ever need me, please just ask.”

“The same goes for you, Lord Zuko.”

Korra marveled at the gentleness of that old man before her mind latched onto her plans for the rest of the day. The solitude of the tundra called.

Chapter Text

It was a good thing Asami had finished her official business in the South because she was worthless after Korra asked to take her out on the tundra. She slept poorly, was distracted by the slightest thought of Korra, and her worries and anticipation only settled when Korra was near. Seeing Korra fight those enormous dark spirits had been a brief moment that snapped her priorities back into place. The memory of that battle still gave her chills, even with the palpable energy Korra gave off as she concluded the fight.

They had seen each other only briefly over breakfast. Korra hadn’t said anything more definite than ‘tonight’ regarding their outing. Asami wanted definite; she needed a time to plan her entire day around. Half-formed plans drove her crazy. Korra hadn’t even mentioned if they needed supplies or when they’d be returning. Asami's thoughts betrayed her with the whisper:  hopefully tomorrow morning.

Despite her distraction, Asami forced herself to eat dinner with the others. It was after five o’clock when she finally saw Korra in the hallway. Korra looked at her as if she’d been struck dumb; she didn’t acknowledge their friends, who continued to their rooms after tossing a few knowing looks at each other. Bolin lingered to ask, “Wanna play—ow!”

“Not funny, jerk,” Opal said, leading Bolin away by his ear.

Korra turned that befuddled, vulnerable gaze back to Asami. “Hey.”

“Long day?”

A nod was her answer. “Family things. Then Zuko wanted to talk. Are you ready to go?”

“What do I need to take?”

“Just yourself and my parka spares. Too cold for your wool coat and pants. I have supplies ready.”

They met in the hall a few minutes later. Asami felt as shy as Korra looked. Belatedly Korra told her, “Probably should hit the head before we leave.”

What a pain to peel off all her layers, but the advice was welcome. When they met once more to travel down to the stables, Korra carried a bag and a pelt. Asami asked, “How was the summit?”

“Good, I think. You helped a ton, especially with the questions you predicted. Thanks.”

“Anytime.” It was a marvel she’d been able to concentrate enough to be a help. She took Korra’s hand, intertwining their fingers. Korra turned to look up at her as the elevator slowly moved. Asami leaned close, and they kissed softly.

Naga greeted them with a grin in her stall in the barn. She was already saddled up with several thick pelts attached to her harness. After one of the palace attendants opened the stable doors, they were on their way, encased in their own fragile silence.

“Can we trot?” Korra abruptly asked after they’d escaped the noise of the city.

“Yes.” Asami wrapped her arms around Korra’s waist, and Korra leaned forward, urging Naga on.

Naga ran with her nose up, her tongue out, and a big grin on her sweet face. They ran until there seemed endless ice and snow surrounding them and the sun was close to the horizon. Korra settled Naga to a walk, and eventually, they stopped.

Korra tossed a pelt onto the ice and motioned for Asami to settle there. She withdrew a long, rounded knife from the pelts on Naga’s back.

Asami turned in a circle, gazing at the ice and snow that surrounded them on all sides. There was a faint haze of smoke from the city in the distance, but discounting that, she and Korra could be the only people in the world. She sat on the pelt as the sheer loneliness of this place enveloped her.

Korra’s knife crunched and squealed as she cut straight down into the snow. By the time Korra broke off one block of snow, trimmed it, and placed it on the frozen ground, Asami’s mind finally caught up. She was flushed, her heart thundered, and all she could think was:   Many suitors will take their chosen betrothed onto the frozen tundra and construct an igloo to ask for a future marriage.

Even as she assumed this would happen, she hadn’t dared hope for it.

It took Korra perhaps an hour to finish building the igloo. In that time, Asami got over herself enough to appreciate the process. She studied the angles of the ice blocks, the almost perfect circle Korra made with them, and the slope of the ice wall. It would make a nice physics problem—that is, if she ever found herself teaching.

Korra was devoted to her task but accepted Asami’s help when offered. After she cut the door out to pack the cracks with powdered snow, Korra returned with a pile of heavy furs and her backpack, lit a warm lamp, and bundled Asami up in a warm roll of fur. It was quiet, like the ice ate all sound. Though it was warmer than the tundra, Asami’s breath condensed.

Sitting motionless in her overwhelming emotions, she waited for Korra to finish tending to Naga.

Finally Korra crawled into the igloo, closed the entrance with another snow block, and flopped down next to Asami. Her smile was obviously nervous. “What do you think? Pretty cozy, huh? Not exactly the Tatu Hotel, but…” She wouldn't meet Asami’s eyes as she started brewing tea with her waterbending. “My parents want to take you to dinner tomorrow night. Will you go?”

Despite everything, Asami’s voice was normal. “Yes, I’ll go.”

“You can take off your parka.” Korra pushed off her own parka jacket; her body radiated heat.

Korra's unconscious bending skill was beautiful and alien. Asami shivered when she stripped herself of her parka jacket, but she wasn’t uncomfortable for long, especially when she leaned against Korra. Heat radiated from Korra's body in time with her slow, steady exhales, but her skin wasn't hot. “Are you bending?”

“Easiest way to make tea,” she said, indicating the leaves and water.

“No, heatbending.”

Korra looked down at herself as if to study her own bending. “I guess I am. It’ll warm the igloo up pretty fast.”

Silence filled the igloo for a moment more. Asami didn’t have the patience to wait any longer. Since Korra wasn’t going to point out the obvious, Asami said, “Ru asked me if I’d seen an igloo yet.”

Korra’s eyes went wide. She lowered her hands, and the water lost its rolling boil. “What did you say?”

“I told him that was a rude question.”

Korra’s swallow was heavy. She swirled her hand, and the water froze then return to liquid. Back it went into her water bladder. “So you know what it means?”

“I know what it can mean. What does it mean to you?”

Korra exhaled a slow breath. She finally met Asami’s gaze. “It’s not…not really me asking you to marry me. But I want you to know that this, between us, it’s something I want for life.”

“Friendship?” Asami asked, partly teasing.

Korra didn’t smile. “Yes. And more. However you want to define us. For me, I want to be everything for you. I want to be your best friend, the person you come home to at the end of the day, and I want to share your bed and make you feel good too. It's stupid to hold back because I'm afraid to move too fast. I'm all in, Asami.”

“I want all of that too, Korra,” Asami said softly. “I told you that I love you.”

Korra’s expression firmed. She met Asami’s eyes; there was no question. “I love you too.”

Asami felt a rush of pleasure, of hope, and of love. She leaned close to kiss Korra, hoping to communicate just a fraction of her emotions, but Korra pressed a hand to her mouth. “But I don’t want to mess this up.”

Asami kissed Korra’s palm and squeezed. Her voice cracked with her desperation. “Messing up is part of it. We both will. The point is we’ll talk through our mess ups. I trust how you feel. Don’t you trust me?”

“I do,” Korra said, finally responding to Asami’s emotion. Her earnestness was balm on Asami’s shaky nerves.

Despite her instincts screaming at her, Asami asked, “Are you still scared of having sex with me? We don’t have to do anything you aren’t ready for.”

“No, believe me. I’m just a little nervous. Okay, very nervous. But it’s been pretty clear I respond to you.”

Asami shivered as she imagined all the things that could mean. She wanted to find out. She wanted to strip Korra out of her pants and bury her face between her legs, kiss her breasts, and score her back with her nails. She leaned close again, but Korra said, “My mom said we should talk about being safe.”

What an annoying unromantically pragmatic statement. Asami didn't want to talk about past sexual partners, didn’t want to talk about mothers or fathers. All she wanted was them. Yet the statement warranted an answer, even if she gave it after she dropped her head onto Korra’s shoulder to heave a soft sigh. “I go to a gynecologist regularly for an exam and testing. I’m healthy.”

Korra winced and rubbed her scalp aggressively. “I'm really screwing up the romance thing, aren't I?”

“It's good to ask," she admitted, offering a small smile.

Korra’s swallow was audible. “I've never been to a doctor for that, but I've never… I couldn't have anything.”

All emotion fled as Asami took that in. That sounded a lot like:  “You've…never had sex? Oral either?”

Korra blushed and shook her head.

Asami moved without thought; she kissed Korra and finally was allowed to. Despite the tone of their earlier conversation, Korra’s kiss communicated certainty, as did her gradual recline into the furs and the firm hold she took of Asami’s hips to pull her into place. It was still cold enough for their breaths to condense in the air, but with Korra’s hands rubbing up and down her back under her shirt and her mouth moving against Asami’s, Asami was burning up. She wanted out of her clothes, but she wanted Korra out of hers first.

And yet…

With more self-control than she’d ever credit herself, Asami pulled away just enough to murmur, “Are you sure, Korra?”

Korra gave an unexpected firm squeeze to Asami’s crotch; the resulting sharp burn of pleasure coaxed an uncontrollable cry. Asami nearly came both from the touch and the intent.

Contrary to her firm response, Korra gasped and drew back. Her voice was fearful. “Did I hurt you?”

“No.” Asami pressed her forehead to Korra’s, tugging her back into an embrace. Such a sure response, such a Korra response. This is Korra.

She kissed Korra’s neck and tugged at her wool shirt. Korra sat up and didn’t require more coaxing to shimmy out of it. She hesitated with her hands on her breast support, but Asami pressed her back down into their cocoon of furs. She brushed her fingertips over Korra’s cheek, meeting her gaze in a long look. Korra studied her just as soberly. Her hand was warm and gentle against Asami’s neck.

A whispered breath later, Asami lowered her mouth to Korra’s neck. She worked the clasps of Korra’s support, gently pushing it aside to free her beautiful breasts. The warm hollow between Korra’s breasts was a wonderful place to press a kiss. She inhaled and sighed, breathing Korra’s strong scent. She wanted to touch and kiss everywhere, to leave her mark on Korra’s skin.

“I didn’t know,” Korra murmured as Asami lowered her mouth to press a kiss to Korra’s convex navel. She smoothed her hand up the firm muscle of her abdomen, scratching soft skin with a hint of fingernails. She rubbed her face against the soft skin of Korra’s breast again, breathing her in and using her teeth before pressing a kiss there.

Korra bucked underneath her and moaned, sending a shudder of heat through Asami. The thought of Korra’s inexperience, of her love, of sharing this with her sent a lightheaded fission of pleasure through her body and mind. The force of it seemed like it would break her apart straight down her middle cell by cell. Asami pushed up Korra’s body to take her mouth in a hard, deep kiss. Korra’s hands tangled in her hair, drawing her close.

Asami’s heart was pounding. She was gasping as hard as Korra, and she moaned just as Korra did when she pressed her hand under Korra’s belt and combed her fingers through the coarse hair there. Korra’s mouth—usually so assured and strong with her kisses—moved weakly and stopped as she gasped when Asami’s fingers slipped into the wetness between her legs.

“Yes,” Asami whispered.

Korra whined, “That’s—”

Asami pressed more firmly. She rested her forehead against Korra's shoulder, gasping shakily as she found Korra’s labia swollen, slick, and hot. So beautiful, so responsive… Korra shook beneath her. Her hands caught the furs as she jerked her hips into Asami’s hand with each touch. “That’s—I can’t—”

“Yes,” Asami heard herself say again. She slipped inside Korra almost accidentally. Korra’s nails scored Asami’s back under her shirt.


Asami pulled back to watch Korra and the hazy expression of her desire; she watched Korra toss her head and tighten her brow as her hips hitched firmly into Asami’s hand. Asami was breathing as hard as Korra, and they shared a gasping kiss. Their lamp fluttered out, but Asami could imagine the flex of Korra’s muscles as they strained against each other. She could imagine the strength of her face as her expression shifted in pleasure. Yet Korra was such a woman beneath her, her voice pitched high, moving with each gentle sweep of Asami’s fingers.

When Asami closed her eyes, she felt more:  the shape of Korra’s sex, the textures her body pressed so close, the warm scent of her gasping breath against Asami’s mouth. So much trust and beauty and power… Her rush of emotion brought tears. “I love you, Korra. I’ve got you.”

Korra shook against her with a soft half-cry. Everything went wet and tight around Asami, and she clutched Korra close, hushing her as she continued to gasp and whine. Korra’s fingers tightened and relaxed against Asami’s back in rhythm with her touch. She’d just… She’d…

“Are you okay?” Asami asked, her voice thick and unfamiliar. She wanted more. She wanted this again and again and again. What a beautiful gift Korra had just given her. She wanted to gather Korra close and cocoon her from the world.

“Um…” Korra murmured, slowly relaxing into the furs. Asami could only see the shadow of her eyes, but she was relieved to see the white of Korra’s teeth in a slight smile. Korra voice was rough when she proclaimed, “I’m an idiot.”

She was so taken aback that Asami could only ask, “Why?”

“I can’t believe that…I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that with you.”

Teasing was second-nature, though it felt odd with the weight of her emotions. Asami brushed the hair from Korra's forehead. “How foolish.”

“I know that now. I’m definitely going to want to do that a lot.”

“I have no issue with that,” Asami told her gently.

Korra cupped her cheek and pulled her into a slow kiss. Her hands smoothed down Asami’s body, dipping below her belt to cup her bare backside. Asami made a noise of appreciation. She was so aroused she couldn’t control her instinct; she shifted her body to bring the pressure of Korra’s thigh between her legs, and she rocked. It took three firm passes before she cried out into Korra’s mouth and shook with a hard orgasm.

“Did you just—?”

“Yes,” Asami said with a gasp, almost disappointed in herself. But it didn’t matter if she still had all her clothes still on; this was Korra. Korra who kissed her as she began to relax into her arms. Korra who—oh!—pushed her hand between Asami’s legs and cupped her sex. Asami gritted her teeth, and her body wasn’t obeying her again. She rocked hard onto Korra’s fingers, ready again.

Korra pulled her hand away, leaving Asami gasping. She fumbled with Asami’s jacket. “Please,” Korra said. "I want..."


Asami’s fingers were clumsy, but between them, they managed to get it off her shirt. Korra’s hands ghosted over her lacy bra, but Asami had no time for that. She shrugged her bra off and leaned forward to kick her pants and underwear off too. Korra didn’t need directing. She pressed her strong grip between Asami’s legs, and she—oh!—sat up to take one of Asami’s breasts into her mouth. Korra raised her eyes to study Asami in a look Asami was sure she’d remember for the rest of her life.

Korra was with her. Korra was touching her. This is Korra. And that was that. Asami clutched at Korra’s neck, shaking hard, surprised by her cry and the strength of her orgasm. She couldn’t do much more than jerk and hold on. Asami closed her eyes and was shocked how quickly that had all happened.

“Wow,” Korra said softly. Asami tugged at her hair to direct her into a wet, uncoordinated kiss. They sank back into the furs. Eventually, their bodies and kisses wound down. She got her breath back gradually as her heart’s race slowed. Korra kissed her neck. “That was awesome. You’re so… I can’t—my vocabulary is shot right now.”

“You’re amazing,” Asami mumbled. Her voice was rough.

“Amazing, yeah. Good word."

So much for the expectation of awkwardness, blushing, fumbling, laughter, and tears for their first time. Of course she’d fantasized about Korra slamming her up against a wall and fucking her with abandon—her favorite fantasy fodder, actually—but that hadn’t been her expectation. This though… She touched Korra’s arm where it wrapped around her waist and laid a soft kiss to her shoulder. She had no words, no loving whispers or teasing giggles. It was all so much, at least for this moment, especially as Korra’s fingers smoothed over her hip. She'd never felt closer to another person in her life and yet so desperately lonely.

“Do you want tea?” Korra asked abruptly.

She stirred, drew Korra’s gaze, and offered a nod. Asami lay on her side in the warm bundle of furs as Korra crouched unabashedly half-naked and used waterbending to brew a cup of tea. Her body radiated heat. When she finished, her gaze was direct and heavy. “Here.”

She offered Asami the first sip. The tea was warm and fragrant on her tongue. Korra drank from the place that Asami’s lips had touched.

There wasn't much light in the igloo, but Asami studied what she could see. Korra’s outline was a masterpiece. The muscles of her shoulders and curves of Korra’s breasts were a beautiful whole.

Korra pressed the cup to Asami’s lips again. Asami obliged with a long drink, watching her over the rim.

They shared another heavy look. Korra lay down on her side to mirror Asami. Their kiss was familiar now. Asami pushed Korra onto her back.

She reached out to explore Korra’s breasts with her hands. Korra took a long breath in reply, then groaned when Asami took that breast in her mouth again. She wished she’d had enough patience to spend the right amount of time on Korra’s beautiful breasts earlier. She kissed and touched until Korra was reduced to incoherent gasps.

That she could bring her this kind of pleasure…

Asami scented Korra on her fingers, and she had to… She pushed at Korra’s pants. Korra arched her back to held Asami strip her. There was no foreplay, not with their sudden urgency. Asami pushed down between Korra’s legs and lowered her mouth. Korra’s taste was a jolt to her senses. Asami rubbed herself as she explored Korra’s body, alternating techniques and rhythm, enjoying the textures and Korra’s shaking gasps and cries in response. Asami was so caught up in her own pleasure that she didn’t realize Korra came until Korra pushed her away firmly.

“Done. All done,” she said with an abrupt laugh that stripped Asami’s sudden fear she’d done something wrong.

Asami hadn’t come; she’d been close again when Korra pushed her away. She lowered herself on Korra’s muscular thigh, watching for any sign she should stop. There was none. She rocked on Korra’s leg, palming Korra’s breasts as she did. Korra had one hand tight on her hip and another on her breast; she smiled up at Asami and said, “You’re so beautiful like this.”

Asami came looking into Korra’s eyes.

Korra accepted Asami’s head to her shoulder again and brushed Asami’s hair from her neck to trace her fingertips from Asami’s ear to her shoulder in a soothing touch. “Was that okay?” she asked quietly.

Three orgasms, Korra’s taste on her lips, and the scent of sex between them, and Korra still had to ask. “Anything with you is perfect.”

“But, I mean, did feel good?”

It was Asami’s turn to laugh. She propped herself up on her elbow to study Korra in the darkness. “Yes, that felt good. I’m going to want to do this a lot too.”

They studied each other soberly before offering soft smiles. Asami leaned down to rub her nose against Korra’s. Korra laughed softly before she pressed a light kiss to the corner of Asami’s mouth. Her arms tightened, drawing Asami into a comfortable embrace. She seemed content and relaxed. Despite the fierce desire that guided her through their physical intimacy, Asami relaxed too. She nuzzled Korra’s shoulder and kissed her skin. They had all the time in the world to explore each other in every way possible.

Sleep came easier than she expected.

Asami awoke sometime later, for once feeling like she could lie there and go back to sleep. Korra breathed deeply next to her, her hand on Asami’s arm. They were both decadently naked. Asami reached out to tug more furs over them, and her movement woke Korra up.


“I’m a little cold.”

Korra snuggled up against her side, her arm wrapped around Asami’s chest this time, and she gave a warm breath of heatbending. The entire bed became a cocoon of heat, and Asami relaxed. She wrapped her free arm over Korra’s, and they sighed against each other.

Asami awoke a little while later, startled for having fallen back asleep. Korra was stretching in her arms, grunting and mumbling something nonsensical. She just watched for a few moments.

“Are you always this cute when you wake up?”

Korra mumbled something else.


“You tell me,” she slurred, squeaking as she stretched her legs. “You’re comfortable.”

Asami pushed her fingertips against Korra’s scalp and massaged her. Korra melted in her arms, giving a guttural groan. “Feels nice.”

Asami thought of all the things she could say, but she reached for the most casual. “Your parents want to take us out for dinner?”

“Yeah.” Korra nuzzled closer. “They like you so don’t worry.”

“When did you tell them about me?”

“A long time ago. Think you’re a good catch.”

“They don’t care about the fact I’m a woman?”

“Nope. Southerners don’t care about stupid stuff like that. Can we go back to sleep?”

Asami brushed Korra’s hair from her temple and pressed a soft kiss behind her ear. She marveled at the acceptance of Southern Tribe members. If only her father had agreed fearing homosexuality was ‘stupid stuff’. “Not yet. How is your shoulder? Did we hurt it last night?”

“Just sore. I guess you didn’t notice I used my left side for everything.” Korra cracked out a cheesy grin and waggled her eyebrows. Asami smiled in reply to the silly joke.

“I look forward to doing that again when you’re fully healed.”

“I’ll need a lot of practice in the meantime.” Korra abruptly sobered. Her kiss was gentle. “Thank you. That was...more than I thought it would be. Thank you for showing me how.”

Asami deepened their kiss, drawing Korra tight into her arms. There weren't adequate words to reply to that vulnerable statement. They held each other close, and Korra pressed soft kisses to her neck. Asami blinked back tears, too joyful to be happy. It was just so much.

After a few minutes, she asked, “What time is it?”

Korra grunted and sat up abruptly. Cold air swept into the furs again, but Asami was distracted by the sight of Korra’s naked back. She pressed her hand against Korra’s straight spine, tracing the smooth skin up to the soft area between her shoulderblades. The bruising on her shoulder was no longer vivid enough to see in the darkness.

Korra flicked her fingers, and the wick on the lamp caught. No wonder she hadn’t brought something electric. Sometimes Asami forgot how convenient bending could be. “Why didn’t you waterbend this igloo?”

“It’s seven,” Korra announced before sliding the pocketwatch back into Asami’s bundle of clothes. Asami’s eyes were torn between Korra’s shifting muscles and the way her movements shifted her full breasts too. “And because it’s important to be able to build one without bending. It’s a statement.”

“A statement, hm?” Asami encouraged Korra to lie back down and pressed a soft kiss to her mouth. She took one of Korra’s breasts into her hand and gently massaged it.

“It was important to me.”

“I’m never going to complain about a romantic gesture.” Asami lowered her mouth to explore where her fingers had been, deliberately making eye contact. Korra shifted restlessly.

“I’m not sure how romantic it really is. In the North, the tradition… Oh. The tradition started because a man would steal the woman...and take her out onto the tundra to…” Korra sighed and pressed a hand to the back of Asami’s head. “...impregnate her. Whether she wanted to or not.”

“Well, I wanted to. I want to.” Asami’s mouth drifted lower, and Korra opened her legs with a long, shaky intake of breath.


When Korra returned the favor, Asami nearly came before Korra placed her first kiss between Asami’s legs. Practice, she thought, cupping Korra’s cheek and guiding her down. Lots of practice.

When they got back midmorning, Korra shyly suggested they bathe. Her idea of the communal bath wasn’t nearly as exciting as Asami had hoped. Opal and June were reclined in the bath when they stepped into the heated room, precluding any illicit activities.

“Good morning,” Korra said cheerfully without missing a beat. She stripped out of her clothes without a shred of self-consciousness. Asami was more careful, trying not to show too much or cover too much. She was conscious of the stinging scratches on her back as she pulled on a bathing robe and sat with her back to the hot tub. She scrubbed herself and her hair quickly, tying it up in a bun prior to dropping into the bath.

Korra took more time. She’d been taking her braids out, apparently, and chatting the whole time with Opal, who was probably old hat with these types of baths after living on Air Temple Island. Asami was amused to see that June occasionally peeked at Korra only to turn away in embarrassment. Korra had a nice body to look at. As she scrubbed her hair, the muscles of her shoulders and back corded, and her breasts shifted in and out of view. Around the stool, her calves tensed too. Even the green bruising that marked most of her right shoulder didn’t detract from the art of her body.

Asami was diverted from her memory of the feel of Korra’s body against hers when she saw the scars on Korra’s back. She hadn’t been able to feel them on her fingertips, aside from the deepest one.

“He did a number on you,” she said.

Korra turned to look over her shoulder in question. “What, the spirit? I think it was female.”

“No, that man at Zaofu.”

Opal made a pained noise. “She was unconscious when Wing grabbed her. Next thing I know, she’d jumped into the whole mess to scatter Kuvira’s forces in all directions with blood all over her face. When Wing grabbed her again, her eyes were spinning.”

“Flesher definitely took me by surprise.”

“He was evil.” Opal turned away. “I’m glad he’s dead, and I'm glad it hurt.”

Korra glanced over her shoulder. “You saw his body?”

“What was left of it. Good riddance.”

Korra squeezed water from her hair, tied it off at her neck, and settled in the bath with a sigh. She made no comment. Korra’s silence suggested she wasn’t comfortable with the reminder that she’d killed Flesher, especially when she leaned her head back and draped a warm washcloth over her eyes. Asami asked, “Why did he attack Zaofu in the first place?”

“Apparently he was losing his grip on the forces. They were loyal to Kuvira, not him so he told them she was in Zaofu. After they lost the battle and ran back to their slaughter camp, only his lieutenants stayed with him. Korra took on all of them at once.” Opal’s smile was tight. “I guess I would have too with what you saw infiltrating the camp. I helped take the flayed man down.”

“What was that place?” June asked.

“Reeducation camp that was even worse than the others. People raped, crucified...torture, starvation, and cannibalism.”

Korra took a long breath. “Kuvira knew what he was. Don’t ever let me go that far. I’m asking you all.”

“You would never,” Opal said.

“Did you think Kuvira could?”

“Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me. She always worshiped the ground Mom walked on, but she was cold to the rest of us. After she seduced my brother, she pretended to care, but it was all an act. I could tell. She was just…so fake. She would have killed anyone or anything to get what she wanted.”

“Kuvira and I are a lot alike—”

“Yes,” Asami interrupted. “But the ways you differ are the reasons you’d never go that far. You’d never sacrifice anyone for your own victory or even to save yourself. You proved that so many times already.”

Korra pulled the cloth away to meet Asami’s gaze. She turned her gaze back to Opal. “Thanks. That helps.”

The rest of the day was normal. Or as normal as remembering what they’d shared every time she looked at Korra. Korra seemed less affected than Asami, at least until she met Asami’s eyes and blushed. Their friends kindly did not comment.

On Bolin’s request, they went out for lunch one last time. They browsed through the main shopping street of Harbor City until the cold forced them to retreat the palace, where they sat around with beers and talked and played cards.

In the late afternoon, a soft knock interrupted Mako and Korra’s heated argument about probending rules.


Asami glanced up from her book. Senna stood in the doorway of Korra’s room with her parka over one shoulder. Korra tossed her cards onto the floor, much to Bolin’s annoyance. “I was winning!” he said.

“Gotta go. You ready? We’ll finish that game when we get back, okay?”

Bolin huffed.

Mako winked at Asami as she collected her coat and slipped on her boots. “Good luck.”

“You’re not helping,” she told him as she swept out of the room. She was nervous despite all logic, potentially even more so because Mako saw this for what it was.

Tonraq waited downstairs, and the four of them stepped out into the cold and took a car to the bay edge of Harbor City. The restaurant was warm and comfortable compared to the cold bay wind. They sat at a table along the glass that gave a beautiful view of the bay as the sun set.

“Have we ever eaten here?” Tonraq asked Senna as he opened his menu.

“We never eat out.”

When the waiter came to their table, he bowed. “It’s our honor to host you.”

“What’s good here? Any good beer?”

The waiter rattled off a list of recommendations; this was yet another fusion restaurant that mixed and matched dishes from the world. She picked a cocktail and a noodle and mussel entrée with a spicy sauce. Korra ordered a crab for them to share, and Korra and her parents ordered more traditional dishes, though each had a twist.

“I’ve never had whale steak plain before,” Korra said as she watched the waiter walk away. “I did have a giant hunk of swordfish in the Fire Nation. Some fisherman needed help on the docks getting the thing out of the water. He’d had to lash it to the side of his boat. That took some doing, but he hacked me off a steak, and we made a fire and ate it right there on the beach.”

“What was his name?” Asami asked, sure Korra would remember the answer.

“Zaichi. He was on his way to see his parents and set up his line for fun. Ended up grabbing the biggest fish that island had ever recorded. You should have seen the sword on it.”

“Was that in the Fire Nation?” Senna asked curiously.

Korra nodded. “I sailed north a bit and wandered up along a volcano on the next island. Talk about an eerie place.”

Another blue pin for Asami to add to her map. It was hard to believe the scope of Korra’s travels. She’d put a blue pin on every continent so far.

After their drinks arrived, Senna turned to Asami. “So Asami, were you born in Republic City?”

“I was. My mother always considered herself from the Fire Nation, but my father was born and raised in Republic City.”

“Was your mother a bender?” Senna asked.

Asami was startled to realize she wasn’t sure of the answer. “I… I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever seeing her bend, but I guess it never came up. My father didn’t like to talk about her.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

Asami shook her head at Senna. "Don't be sorry. It was what it was."

“What do you do in your spare time?” Tonraq asked after a moment.

Asami swallowed a sip of her cocktail as she considered the question and the depressing answer. “I don’t have much spare time. I’ve been working around the clock recently. I guess… I mainly read. Sometimes I take a racer out for a lap, but I haven’t been by the mansion in a while.”

Tonraq studied her. “You race? In a car?”

She nodded. “I built my racer from spare parts when I was little, and I’ve added to it. Maybe I outgrew the hobby. The manor doesn’t hold the same appeal anymore, knowing what my father did underneath it.”

“Seems a waste to let the track go,” Korra told her.

“I guess I should hold onto it and make you start driving again.”

“Why drive when I have a perfectly good polar bear dog?”

Asami raised an eyebrow. “I’m currently making you a car, Korra. You will be driving it.”

“Oh boy.” Her face and neck flushed for some reason.

“You got told, girl,” Tonraq said with a deep laugh.

Trust Senna to bring them back on track. “What kind of books do you read?”

“Anything and everything.” She sheepishly admitted, “I’ve nearly wiped out the public library’s section of the Southern Water Tribe. I sometimes borrow literature from the engineering professors at Republic University.” She paused before exclaiming, “I’m so boring!”

“You’re not boring,” Korra said.

“Maybe I should take up fishing.”

“I like fishing,” Senna said. “If we had more time, I’d take you ice fishing. It’s a little different than what you’re used to, I’m sure.”

Hiroshi had never been much of an outdoorsman. He’d taken her fishing twice, but it had been more about drinking a beer in the sun and getting away from work than actually catching fish. When Asami actually caught a fish, he’d gently clipped the hook off and released the fish back into the water.

Asami imagined that Tonraq, Senna, and Korra would fillet the fish, eat it, and probably use the innards for bait for more fish. She smiled. “Next time we’ll plan for that, Senna.”

Senna brightened immediately.

“Winny actually invited Asami to see a whale hunt, but I don’t think we’ll have time to go.”

“It’s hard to predict when you’ll see whale sign anyway. I suppose you’re itching to get back home, Asami.”

“If you consider Future Industries home, yes. It’s a well-oiled machine though. For now, it will be fine without me.”

“Next year,” Korra said. “You think?”

Asami warmed at Korra’s presumption of longevity. She remembered their intimacy and the closeness that resulted and felt that affection more keenly than ever. Almost without thought, she touched Korra’s hand, and Korra returned her look with a small smile. “Let’s plan for it then.”

Dinner continued on light topics. Korra’s parents didn’t seem protective; their questions sprang from curiosity, not suspicion. Tonraq had a deep, easy laugh, and Senna was gentle in every way. When they returned to the palace, Senna drew Asami into a gentle hug. Tonraq’s embrace was a bear hug. It would be easy to fall for all of Korra’s family too.

True to her word, Korra went right back into a card game with Bolin. They divided up some wooden chips to use as currency and bet on their hands. Mako won three hands, and June won another two. Bolin banned them both. “You’re obviously cheating.”

“Maybe we’re both just good at cards,” Mako defended.

“What about Pai Sho?” Asami suggested.

Bolin grinned wide. “Alright! I’m going to beat you sooner than last time, Asami.”

He did, actually. It took only six games this time for Bolin to win, though by the last game Asami was thinking more about what she and Korra might do when they went to bed than the game. By that time, Opal was curled up in the chair by the fire, and Mako and June were yawning. They said their goodnights, and Asami felt a twitch of self-consciousness as she followed Korra into her room. Were they being blatant? She hadn’t thought much of it when they’d shared a bed prior to having sex.

What would Republic City think when they got back home?

After they settled in bed, Korra asked, “I’m going to go to the compound again before we leave. Do you… Will you come with me?”

“Yes, I’ll go.” She wanted to ask Korra if they would be broaching the subject of finances with the master there, but Korra kissed her with shy intent. Asami was readily distracted. Practice.

They ran into Fire Lord Izumi on the way out the following day. The woman was fierce looking, with a sharpness that Asami guessed came from her mother, not her father. Korra and the Fire Lord exchanged bows. Asami dusted off her traditional greetings and went for a neutral bow:  hands at the waist as she lowered her shoulders.

“Still here?” Korra asked with the easy informality she used with everyone.

“Weather delay,” Izumi said with a twist of her mouth, as if irritated a monsoon dare delay her travel plans. Her gaze moved to Asami with interest.

“Fire Lord Izumi, this is Asami Sato.”

Izumi studied Asami. “You own Future Industries, do you not? Some of my extended family has mentioned their interest in distributing your products.”

Asami made note of it. She hadn’t heard any official word of what Izumi suggested, but it wouldn’t be a bad reason to reach out. “I do own Future Industries. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, Fire Lord.”

“May I ask how you know each other?” Izumi asked.

“She’s my girlfriend,” Korra said blithely.

Asami felt herself flush. She was shocked Korra would say it so calmly. They were new, not entirely out to friends, and… Izumi smiled at Asami and glanced back at Korra. “Another reason why you aren’t interested in my son, hm?”

“The biggest reason,” Korra responded.

What exactly did that mean? Asami shot Korra a look that seemed to just bounce off of her. Izumi swept away after that. “Did I say something wrong?” Korra asked as they walked out of the palace.

“I just didn’t expect you to answer so honestly. Also, what did she mean about being interested in Iroh?”

“Suntoq was trying to marry me off, apparently. I told him to shove it. Should I hide that we’re girlfriends?”

An arranged marriage? Asami wasn’t sure what to think about that, much less what to say. “No, but if a stranger asks how we know each other, it would be better to say we’re friends.”

Korra threw Naga’s saddle on and frowned at it. “Izumi isn't a stranger."

"She's not our friend, Korra."

Korra's wrinkle brow indicated she didn't agree with Asami's point. "Sorry I made you uncomfortable.”

“I’m really happy you said it, but the fact you told the Fire Lord is a little off putting. Let’s stick to telling people we consider close friends.”

“Okay, sure.”

It was an uncomfortable place to leave their conversation, but Asami couldn't think of way to soften her objection. Korra boosted Asami into the saddle and climbed up after her. The trip to the compound took nearly an hour, even with Naga going at a good pace. Korra waved up at the guard, who opened the gates. Asami wasn’t sure why they’d be closed in the first place.

They wandered around the grounds on foot, Korra pointing out the sparring arena, the stables, and each small building within the gated place:  the outhouse, residential cabins, and the school building. It was confining, and Asami could tell by Korra’s tight smiles and sharp eyed looks that she felt it too.

“Did you really live in these tiny walls?”

“I’d take Naga out for runs around the place, but there would be guards making sure I didn’t go far. There’s a cliff to the south that I go to a lot when I need a quiet place to meditate.” Korra motioned her to enter the largest building.

“My home,” Korra stated. She walked down one hall and opened a room in the back. “Mine.”

“It’s bare,” Asami marveled. There was a bed and a chair, nothing else. She wondered how Korra could have survived this quiet place as a child. She touched the lock on the door; it was on the outside of the door, not the inside.

“I didn’t have much stuff growing up.” She shut the door and opened another on the other side of the hall. There was a chalkboard on one wall and a lone student's desk in the center of the room. Asami could picture a young Korra sitting there, scowling at the floor, only wanting a friend. It made her ache in sadness and anger.

A woman sat at the desk at the front of the room. She set her pen down and raised her head from her writing. She looked up and smiled. “Korra.” The woman studied Asami. “Have we met?”

“Maybe. I was here once after Korra’s fight with Amon.”

“Oh, of course. You’re the engineer.”

Korra grinned. “Master Shiza, this is Asami Sato. She also owns Future Industries. She’s my friend.” The last part was supplied with a brief wink; Asami wanted to put her face in her hand. If Korra thought that was subtle, she hated to see what ‘blatant’ looked like.

“It’s an honor to meet you again,” Shiza said gently.

“Is Master Suntoq here?” Korra asked. “I wanted to ask him about what programs the White Lotus is engaged in right now.”


“To help people. Like disaster relief or protecting the environment. There were some programs brought up at the summit, and I wondered if we can help out with them.”

Shiza looked dubious. “A request in written form may be the best way to get in touch with Suntoq. He travels frequently.”

Korra nodded. She shifted awkwardly before asking, “Master Shiza, what do you make?”

“Make?” she asked pleasantly.

“What is your salary?”

“A modest sum.”

It was time to double-down. Korra had broached it; now was not the time to take another vague lie. Asami said, “In number value, whatever currency you’re paid in.”

Shiza abruptly seemed wary. “Fifteen thousand yuans. My room and board are part of my wages.”

Korra opened her mouth, but Asami caught her arm to prevent an interjection. Shiza bit her lip as she sat in a long moment of silence. She seemed to firm in her decision. “I make more than most employees. Room and board are typically subtracted from trainees’ salaries. The net is negligible.”

“Why has no one protested this?” Asami asked. That was well under living wage and far less than Lang had cited. “I presume recruits sign up under the presumption they can begin saving for the future.”

“There’s a trust that retirees can draw from. And there is always the hope that one can climb the ranks to gain access to that trust…or to be appointed to guard a diplomat or foreign official. Protesting is seen as a sign of unworthiness, and unworthy recruits never advance. They sometimes are...punished, blacklisted.”

Korra’s fists clenched. “And the high Masters?"

"They pay themselves well," Shiza said quietly.

"Suntoq, Gaou, and Zhaoli? Master Lang too?”

“Yes,” Shiza said quietly. She looked shaken and uncomfortable.

“I’ll have to talk to Master Lang again. He said you all make a lot more than that.”

Before Asami could caution against going back to Lang, Shiza said, “Don’t go to Lang again. I’ll send ahead for Han, his assistant, to speak with you. He’ll write you a note about when to come.” She paused and took Korra’s hands. “Please don't tell them I told you. And...remember that at heart we’re here for you, Korra. We want to help the world, and we want to help you better serve the world too. Don’t forget that. There is so much good in this organization.”

Asami spoke into Korra’s ear on the way back. “Hopefully Lang’s assistant will show us the real numbers this time.”

“But what could be happening to the money if it isn’t being used for the White Lotus?”

Many terrible things that Asami was sure would wound Korra. “Money is power, Korra, and the men and women who run the White Lotus aren’t immune to that temptation.”

“How are you?”

“I have several safeguards in place to prevent me or any of the owners or board members from stealing. Checks and balances and regular audits.” At Korra's inquiry, she explained what an audit was.

“How much do you make?” Korra finally asked her, slowing Naga to a walk.

That was an uncomfortable topic. She hedged her answer and then wondered why she was doing that. “I made seventy thousand yuans last year.”

“Oh. I guess that's a lot. I don’t really know what money is worth.”

Asami sighed. “I expect to make more next year, but with the losses during Republic City’s battle, I docked my wages so I wouldn’t have to lay anyone off.” She's gone most of the year without a paycheck from Future Industries.

“So people get fired if there isn’t enough money?”

“That can happen, yes, but it’s known why. You can’t keep someone on and not pay them. People are usually ‘fired’ because they’ve done something wrong. ‘Laid off’ usually implies the company had to choose to let someone go, and not because that person was at fault.”

“It's the same result. So you paid yourself less to keep all your workers.” Korra suddenly smiled as she looked back. “Okay, well, how much do you expect to make this year?”

This could be an ugly answer to Korra. “Current projections from the company and from my investments are two million give or take. I usually get a bonus equal to my salary, but I donate that money and put it back into the company.”

“Four million yuans?” Korra clarified.

“Three and a half.”

“Wow. Do you need all that money?”

Asami told herself that it had been an honest question. She replied in kind, taking Korra’s question at face value.

“I have expenses, partly from my father’s old possessions. Taxes on the estate are a drain; I dipped deep into savings to pay for those last year. I paid off my condo the year I bought it, but again, there are taxes on that. And my cars. Electricity, gasoline, clothing, food, dry cleaning, my housekeepers, and personal accountant… That’s the majority of it, I suppose. So no, I don’t need that much, but I work hard for it. I invest much of it and donate what I can.”

Korra must have picked up on her defensiveness. “It wasn’t a criticism. I have no idea how much it costs to live in Republic City. So you gave up three million yuans last year?”

“I was slated to take in one and a half million at most. There would not have been a bonus even if I'd accepted a salary. I had investments from the years before to support me."

"Still seems pretty selfless. I never considered all that went into owning a business."

"I have a responsibility to my employees, and I take that seriously. My father taught me that."

She hadn't been without critics for her decisions. Even a self-proposed feminist organization had been scathing, saying she was advancing the gender pay gap by docking her wages. Asami hadn't bothered to retort that she'd done it to keep on her new hires, including over fifty women. That had surprised and hurt her, just as the continued unfair assessments of her father's legacy did. It just went to show that there would always be critics, and that loss of reputation wasn't an easy thing to fix. Her father's involvement with the Equalist movement had erased his good business practices and even his selfless death for Republic City. She would not make his mistake.

Han’s message arrived that afternoon. Asami, Mako, and Korra bundled up late that night and were escorted into Lang’s office well past midnight. Han was a harried looking man in spectacles, and he kept the lights of the outer office off. His manner was nervous as he ushered them into a small, windowless room filled with stacks of papers.

“Avatar Korra, what an honor. Shiza asked me to open the office for you. Please come.”

Korra shook his hand. She motioned to Asami and Mako. “This is Asami Sato and Mako, my friends.”

The man’s eyes rounded behind his glasses. “Of course, if you think they should be privy to this information.”

“I’d like to see the records, Master Han.”

He nodded rapidly and checked the door again. “I’m not master, Avatar. I have everything here.”

Han was less conciliatory than Lang, and his summary was more concise. Asami half listened to him as she paged through the long lists of accounts. Half the accounts had not been included in the original paperwork, and they were quietly given names...of governments, political parties, people, and White Lotus employees. The account that payroll was deducted from was a fraction of the original paperwork:  fewer employees paid significantly less than reported.

Asami presumed Lang’s original spiel had been bogged in useless technical jargon to confuse, but he'd given himself away by talking about profits. Han’s vocabulary was easier for a layman like Korra to understand and digest.

“You had larger donations from a smaller number of people as a child, but now you have quite a few smaller donations. A few larger continue. Fire Lord Zuko donates a large sum yearly. Many of our smaller donations are from Republic City. President Raiko also contributed a generous sum. Suyin and Toph Beifong contribute. Various other politicians do as well, though their funds generally are kept separate.”

Hush money or bribes, Asami assumed. Korra focused on another part of that statement. She asked, “Raiko?”

“Are you taxed?” Asami asked. She hadn’t bothered to ask Lang that question.

“No. We’re an international nonprofit organization so there is no entity that can tax us in theory.” He glanced back at the door. “Please, you should go. I have copies of everything that you can take with you. I’ll be fired and blacklisted for this—and Shiza too—if they find out, but I’ve been saving these copies in case you asked.”

They each took a heavy satchel of paperwork and left the office.

“This reeks.” Korra looked physically ill as she turned back to Han locking the office up and scurrying off into the streets.

They went to a quieter bar in the same district and sat down together to sort through the papers. Korra ordered a whiskey on the ice, but Asami settled for a beer. She shook her head. “He's been planning to expose them. These records go back fifteen years. Let me send this to an attorney in Republic City. I can’t sort through all of this alone.”

“An accountant would be better,” Mako pointed out.

“The man I recommend has an accountant on staff, a good one. His office specializes in racketeering.”

Mako was satisfied by that. “Way too much going on here. Way more complicated than the ostrich horse shit they gave us before.”

“But where did all that money go?”

“Probably somewhere it shouldn’t have,” Asami said quietly. “I doubt the White Lotus is ever audited.” Privately, she thought that some of this capital had probably lined the pockets of any officials that could make those demands. Bribery would be a large part of the spending surely, perhaps documented right here by name or office.

They sat in silence as they nursed their drinks. Mako finally asked, “So… Once you prove there’s actually corruption, what are you going to do?”

“I want to shut it all down, honestly.”

Surely not. Asami remembered the earnestness of Master Shiza and of Han, who would likely be in trouble if he was discovered. “There are a lot of men and women in your employ. What will they do if they’re left without a home or job?”

“So what do I do then?” Korra looked back and forth between them, apparently at a loss.

“If it’s as bad as you’re thinking, tell them what’s going on. Purge the corrupt masters, expose those that colluded with them, and make the White Lotus what you want it to be. What do you want to do with that money?”

“Donate it. People are so in need… Why aren’t we helping them? All that tax money should be going into the government too.” Korra looked between Mako and Asami. “So how the hell do I do that? Where do I start? Should I just barge in and confront Suntoq? I don’t even know if there’s a council within the White Lotus or if I can legally do anything. They aren’t under the jurisdiction of any country, apparently.”

Asami thought again of the law company in Republic City that had cut their teeth on cases like this. Her father had known the lawyer who started it all. He’d left the same startup company that Hiroshi had, and he’d brought the place down behind him with a successful corruption case. “Wait for someone to look at the finances. They can provide you with legal advice for how to proceed. I would stay quiet until you have that though. It may be simpler than you’re afraid of.”

Korra shook her head and tightened her expression as she blinked back tears. “Maybe I could get over what they did to me, but the fact they might have done it for money, that's..."

She didn't finish the thought. She didn't have to.

It wasn’t the best way to end their vacation. Asami found herself sleeping alone for the first time in two days. Korra hadn’t even kissed her when she left Asami at her bedroom door. Asami had tugged her back into a long hug, but Korra walked away from it after a moment. She’d tried not to take it personally. Asami wondered how Korra was sleeping and if this discovery was keeping her awake. The small, self-flagellating part of herself whispered the possibility Korra blamed her for this.

Eventually, a quiet knock roused her.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, ushering Korra in.

Korra nodded. She looked haunted. “I just want to sleep next to you. Is that okay?”

“More than okay.”

It was easier to fade into sleep with Korra’s warmth against her. When she awoke in the morning, Korra was still soundly asleep next to her. Asami brushed the hair from her forehead and snuggled closer. She rubbed a hand gently up and down Korra’s arm, and Korra shifted as she gradually awoke.

“Good morning,” Asami murmured.

“Mmhm.” Korra didn't smile. She rolled onto her back and pressed the base of her hands to her eyes.

“We’ll figure it out together.”

Korra’s voice was thick. “You shouldn’t have to deal with my problems. You have enough on your plate.”

“And you don't? Korra.” Asami coaxed her hands from her face and met Korra’s eyes. “We’re still friends, right? Because if that's changed, we need to reassess our priorities. I'm not losing our relationship just for sex.”

Korra’s brow furrowed. Asami continued, “Let me help you, even if it's just talking through your problems. I'll do the same with you. I want to help in any way I can. You don't have to carry these burdens alone.”

Korra offered a faint smile at that. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“Talk to me.”

Her eyes went glassy. “I have no idea what to do, but send the paperwork to your lawyer, and we'll see if they can help.”

Asami took a breath of relief. She’d have it in the arms of one of her employees to take with them back to Republic City that morning. “Why don't we get breakfast? Then you can sit down to write a short letter to go along with the paperwork.”

“We should get lunch with Mom and Dad again before we leave this afternoon.”

Asami kissed her. “Thank you. Thank you for all you've shared with me.”

Despite everything, it was a good day, sweetened when Korra’s parents embraced Asami close on the docks.

“Be good to her,” Tonraq said quietly.

“If you ever need anything, just ask,” Senna said.

The only answer was, “I will.”

Chapter Text

She’d decided on the trip north that she would go to Air Temple Island the first night back. Asami probably would put up with Korra if she went home with her, but Korra didn’t want to overstay her welcome. They’d been nearly constant companions for two weeks, capped off with sharing the room on the ship for their overnight travel to Republic City.

They hadn’t talked about what would happen when they got back. In fact, Asami slept nearly the whole way back. It made Korra a little hot under collar to think of how she’d woken her up for dinner. They’d missed dinner.

Asami had arranged for a bus to pick them up from the docks, and the first stop was Air Temple Island’s ferry. Korra grabbed her backpack and motioned for Naga to climb off the bus.

Asami took her hand and threaded their fingers together. Her smile was soft. She was made-up and dressed like she'd be going to work, but the way she looked at Korra held intimate weight. “When will I see you again?”

“Tomorrow night? I can come by and make you dinner. Would eight work?”

“Yes. Feel free to bring Naga.”

At that, Korra nearly changed her mind about not going home with Asami. She kissed Asami lightly on the mouth but was unprepared by her response. Asami gasped, blushed, and pulled back quickly. She turned a wide-eyed look towards the driver, but the man was outside under the bus.

It had been a peck, something she didn't realize would offend. Asami's response hurt a little. “Sorry.”

Asami shook her head; she was still blushing. “Don't be sorry. Please come tomorrow. Eight o’clock.” She kissed Korra’s knuckles in a discreet gesture, which soothed the insult of her first reaction.

Korra hugged Mako and June, and she cuffed Bolin as he kissed Opal—probably harder than she intended by his yelp. She and Opal approached the familiar ferry dock with most of their bags in Naga’s mouth. The White Lotus sentry on Air Temple Island’s small ferry looked from his small boat to Naga dubiously. Korra could guess his concern. She tried to reassure him. “I can help you balance the boat. She’ll get down low on the bottom.”

“We can call a larger ferry over.”

“I’d rather just go,” Opal said with a tired sigh.

Naga carefully stepped into the ferry and lay down flat on the bottom. They arranged their luggage around her and settled in too. Korra knew inexperience when she saw it. She guided the White Lotus waterbender through several techniques to keep the boat balanced. When they reached Air Temple Island, he nodded his head and touched his fingers to his forehead as if tipping his hat.

“That’s the most instruction I’ve gotten since I signed up last year.”

“You don’t get bending practice?”

He shrugged. “They say if I advance I’ll get some, but I can’t advance without passing bending proficiency tests.”

That made absolutely no sense. “Have you complained about this to anyone?”

“You don’t complain.” He flushed suddenly and lowered his voice. “I shouldn't have said anything. Just… If you ever have time, there are plenty of us here that would love the instruction.”

Korra asked his name and made it a point to remember his unit. She would have to seek him out later to work with him. She hadn’t thought about the White Lotus members who were stuck in menial positions. Paddling people back and forth to Air Temple Island probably wasn’t a coveted job.

Pema and Rohan were there at the docks to greet them. Korra made a few faces at Rohan before he’d duck from behind his mother’s legs and hug her. Pema’s hug was strong. She cupped Korra’s cheek, and her smile widened. “You look wonderful, Korra.”

“I feel better. Recharged, kind of.”


“I can—”

“—Always eat,” Opal and Pema said together. Pema continued, “Dinner is in thirty minutes. Tenzin was hoping you’d get in after his meditation session, but you can bet he and the kids are raring to see you.”

“How have things been?”

“Sweetie, Tenzin hasn’t lied when he’s said things were quiet. He didn’t want you to come back before you were ready, but the little issues that have come up haven’t been worth you coming back either.” She reached out to hug and greet Opal too.

The women’s dormitories were quiet. A few airbenders moved through them, but everyone was probably out at the end-day meditation session. Korra opened the sliding door to her room and took a moment to sink back into the feeling that this place was home.

Republic City winter was hot compared to Southern Water Tribe summer. Her room was stifling even with the windows cracked to allow a cross breeze. It was bare, and the straw mattress would hurt her back for the first week until she got used to it again. Naga was already panting.

Korra opened the window all the way, and the cool, misty breeze was soothing. She rubbed a hand over Naga’s cheek. “If we came back in summer, I’d have to shave you. And one thing’s for sure:  polar bear dogs aren’t supposed to be naked. You’d be so ugly.”

Naga licked her.

“Yeah, I know. I promised Mom and Dad I’d write.” She sat down at the desk and pulled out paper for the first of regular letters home. She’d miss her parents and the South, but a bigger part of her was looking forward to being back in Republic City.

Hey Mom and Dad,

As promised, I’m writing as soon as we docked at Republic City. Don’t worry about me running off. Asami would have tied me to the boat if I’d tried to slip away.

Korra stared at her last sentence and felt heat flush her face. She’d written the distinct character for ‘bed’ instead of ‘boat’. She marked over it heavily and wrote the character for ‘boat’ above her strikethrough.

We had a good trip back. Asami slept almost the entire way except to eat. Apparently she needed the rest. I don’t have much more to say. Call if you want to talk. I’ll probably be staying on Air Temple Island.

Korra stared at that last paragraph. She’d written ‘breast’ instead of ‘rest’ in the phonetic script. The character for ‘slept’ looked like ‘fuck’. Korra balled the letter up and disintegrated it in a controlled flame. She’d write her parents later.


The airbender kids were by and large quiet when they ran, but they could shout with the best of them. Ikki, Meelo, and Jinora collapsed on her in a huge, happy hug. Korra squeezed them close, enjoying their enthusiasm. “I missed you guys.”

“Are you really back? For real this time?” Ikki asked her.

“Yeah. I’m back.”

Tenzin cleared his throat at the entrance to her room. Korra turned and stepped into his arms, enjoying his hug. “Hello, Korra. You seem to have gotten the rest you needed.”

“More than that.”

“I’m glad.”

Dinner was loud, happy, and deliciously light. The food was a nice contrast to the heavier meals of the south. Korra returned to her room to take care of Naga but promised to have tea with Tenzin in his office. After she’d brushed Naga’s fur and teeth, Korra noticed a thick letter on her desk that must have been delivered during dinner. The addresser was a law office in Republic City. Dread filled her as she tore open the envelope.

Avatar Korra,

Enclosed is a summary of the financial situation of the White Lotus. We’ve used both copies of their finances to guide us and have begun research into the personal finances of each high master of the White Lotus. Given the incomplete, incorrect, and simplistic copy that you were first supplied, we question the validity of those numbers. The second set of records is significantly more plausible.

So far, we have gleaned enough information to shed light on your main question of embezzlement. The miscarriage of moneys is blatant. Of the sixteen million yuans (approximately) received by the White Lotus in donations last year, nearly half was diverted directly to four masters:  Suntoq, Gaou, Zhaoli, and Lang. We have extended a request to financial offices of several countries to access public tax records from these individuals to determine where the funds have gone. It is known already that Suntoq purchased a vacation home on Ember Island early last year. Properties there generally sell for seven digits.

There is, unfortunately, some issue with each master declaring bankruptcy in the last few years, muddying the waters. We will continue piecing together more information. This is far from a simple case, and we will keep you informed, preferably in person. Please let me know when and where you prefer to meet to discuss these findings.

At your service,

The following pages were filled with numbers:  accounts, summaries, and uncertainties.

The information was bitter certainty. A million yuan vacation home on Ember Island. Korra wasn’t surprised, and that alone hurt. That anger and sense of betrayal was deep rooted, and it threw her out of her happy place so easily.

She folded the letter neatly and slipped it into her pocket. It took a few minutes to settle in Tenzin’s office on his floor pillows with a cup of tea in each of their hands. His smile faded as he studied her. “What’s wrong?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Did you know the White Lotus was selling me out to world leaders?”

His brow gathered. “What do you mean?”

“Fire Lord Zuko wrote to me a while ago. He told me the White Lotus kept asking him for donations when he said I’d be welcome to visit him to learn about the Fire Nation.”

Tenzin looked like she’d physically struck him. “Surely that wasn't how it sounds. Of course the White Lotus would ask for help in supporting you financially.”

"It was exactly how it sounds."

He tugged his beard and seemed to accept it for the sake of argument. “Why then?”

“Suntoq and the other masters collected over sixteen million yuans last year, and only half of it was used in White Lotus matters. I went to talk to Master Lang in Harbor City, and he gave me fake numbers. I talked to another person in that office, and they gave me real ones. I sent both to a law office here, and they’re digging into it. The second person who gave me the real numbers, they acted like they’d be hurt if the White Lotus caught on that they were giving us that information.”

“That cannot be true.”

“We went close to midnight to the office. They gave us a copy that was saved for me. So I can fix it.”

Korra handed Tenzin the letter. Tenzin’s complexion paled as he read the letter and then paged through the summary. He murmured under his breath. “I can’t… But… Are you sure the information you received was true?”

“I’m sure. Tenzin, why did you let him keep me locked away?”

“Your safety—”

“Who else tried to attack me other than the Red Lotus?” She was tired of that weak excuse.

Tenzin looked away. “I admit Master Suntoq is not the most unbiased man, but to think he would be capable of extortion…”

“I was imprisoned for twelve years. I was imprisoned by a man who was friends with Unalaq back when he was a member of the Red Lotus. Suntoq tried to marry me off to Iroh. Who is he and why does he think he can control me to make a profit? What am I supposed to feel?”

His hand paused in stroking his beard. The stare of shock Tenzin level at her confirmed he hadn’t know any of that. “Marry you off? I don’t understand.” He looked back at the letter. “I don’t understand. They took oaths when they took their position.”

Tenzin paused to drink tea. He kept his gaze on his teacup for a moment before he took a long breath. “So what will we do?”

Korra couldn’t help but smile at his even response. “I’m not sure. Not yet. I’ll have to dismiss the masters—anyone who knew about this or participated in it. We should restructure. The White Lotus members should be paid better too and trained appropriately. The money we get from people who want to make the world a better place, that has to go back to the world.”

“And what of Zaheer and Kuvira?”

That stopped Korra cold. She would give Kuvira to the United Republic without a concern, but Zaheer… Though could it get any worse for him than that dark cave day in and day out? If Ba Sing Se wanted him… “I don’t know.”

“How can I help you?”

“For now, stand behind my decision. And don’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to lose their job, and I don’t want the masters to know.”

“I do stand behind you. Please keep me informed, Korra. I want to help you.”

“Okay. Is there anything I should know about Republic City?”

“There’s been more activity in the Spirit Wilds recently. To the point that President Raiko has issued a public warning against visiting them.”

Korra could imagine that the vines had thickened since she left. The time between Republic City’s battle and her escape to the South had put a jungle-thick cover back over the entirety of downtown. The portal still sprouted out of the center of that mass, but it would be easy to get lost in that mess.

“No one was kidnapped, right?”

“You can be sure we would have recalled you immediately in that case. The vines have been moving, stealing things from people, and there was one incident where a group of tourists was herded into a building, and they escaped by exiting the roof.”

It was another dark worry on top of the White Lotus. She wished Tenzin had told her even if she understood why he hadn't. What she didn't get was the motive for all of it. Stealing and herding seemed like it would inevitably lead to kidnapping. “I don’t understand why the vines kidnapped people.”

“With the disturbance of the bayou tree—”

“Well sure, but for what purpose? I don’t think revenge is a concept spirits even understand.”

Tenzin's frown was deep and directed at himself. “I wish I could help you in this, Korra.”

She shrugged and then yawned. Tenzin smiled at her. “You must be tired. Go, rest. We’ll start tomorrow.”

The ice and water were cold and familiar. She looked into the darkness of the deep ocean, watching the flutter of the linen cloth sink past her vision. She could reach out to feel it escape the sensation of her waterbending, but she didn’t. She watched until her own body’s water betrayed her and tears blurred her sight.

“Avatar,” came the quiet whisper.

“I should never have had her,” she admitted softly. Her child, bundled in the so tiny wrap, given up to the sea. Dead because of the selfishness of having her.

“Hana,” came the whisper of horror beside her. Her husband tried to pull her into an embrace, but she pushed him away and escaped his care. He was too gentle, too understanding. Blame the man who did this, he had told her. Don’t blame yourself. You're just a woman.

She’d told him she had no right bringing a child into this world when her obligation was to the world, not her family. At least she had never blamed him aloud for not being strong enough, not when he’d lost an arm to her enemy.

And where had she been? Gone, touring the Earth Kingdom while the Fire Nation sent an assassin to kill her family for nothing but vindictive revenge. She’d only interfered to avoid the imbalance of the nations, but now they tipped her into imbalance. She would sail upon Capital Island and wash it away. The Avatar could never be impartial, not when the Avatar was also human. Not just a woman, but a human with the power of four elements and the wisdom of a string of fools. She saw that now.

“Hana,” her husband said at her elbow. “Please. It’s alright to mourn.”

“No. I will not mourn. I’ll deliver a blow that will eviscerate the Fire Lord as much as this eviscerated me. He killed me!” She strode away, barking out for the chieftain to follow her. It was beyond time to act.

Korra awoke unsettled, her memory of that Avatar sharp in her mind. A child lost… The sensation was still a dull empty ache in her chest. She pushed the grief and wrath away to concentrate on her life, her plans. She was Avatar Korra of the Southern Water Tribe, and she was in Republic City. She didn't have a child to lose, not yet.

Her back ached from the hard wooden pallet. Her shoulder ached too, but that softened with self-healing and stretching. The temple was quiet even with the activity she sensed. Korra fed Naga, grabbed breakfast to go from the kitchen, and left Naga in the care of the bison handlers for a workout. She had a place to be that morning.

The path she found herself on wasn’t familiar, but it probably would become so soon. Korra walked because the mountain winds had battered her around on her kite. The brisk wind cut through Korra’s thin parka jacket, but it wasn’t close to being cold.

The White Lotus guards at the entrance to the massive cave were surprised to see her, but they offered bows. Korra glanced between them. “I’m here to see Zaheer.”

One guard glanced at his partner, but the other lowered his head in a nod. It felt strange to receive deference. It felt good, good enough to make her chastise herself. Kuvira had probably thought the same thing once.

A few minutes later, Korra approached the earthen elevator. She waited calmly as it descended into the darkened pit that housed Zaheer. Zaheer’s chains rattled—a noise that made the hair stand on her neck—as he became aware of her. He slowly dropped to the ground and walked the length of the chains to watch her approach.

Korra dropped her backpack and pulled the tea set and tea tin from it. She bent water from her water bladder and brewed the tea with a few sweeps of waterbending. When she’d finished, she poured two cups and walked to the edge of Zaheer’s reach. With a slight hesitation, she continued into his perimeter.

Zaheer’s expression opened in surprise, but he sat down in front of the tea set without speaking. He reached out and cradled the teacup in his hand, taking a breath of it before his first sip.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Korra sat down in front of him, mirroring his half-lotus stance. He set down his teacup with his eyes fixed on her hand. Slowly, he reached out to touch the skin on the back of her hand. She stilled and didn’t breathe as long as his fingertip was on her skin.

“I haven’t touched another human in three years,” he said quietly. He breathed deep, then withdrew his hand. “You’re a fool to trust me.”

Korra felt her body relax, but she was still wary. “Who says I do?”

Zaheer smiled. “Touché.” He picked up his tea once more. “Are you back to stay?”

“For now. I have a few things to take care of.”

“The dark energies.”

Korra nodded.

“And the White Lotus?” he guessed, though his voice had dropped to a soft murmur.

Korra nodded again.

“Is something else troubling you?” he asked her when she didn’t respond. Korra turned their last unhappy conversation over in her mind. They’d seen each other in passing in the spirit world since then, but they’d paused their in-depth discussions.

“What the spirit told me:  that I’m darkness and light. Can we talk about that now?”

“Are you afraid they said you have darkness? Why is darkness bad? Light cannot exist without darkness.”

She'd predicted that response word for word. “I’m always kind of hopeful that the darkness is outside of me.”

“Balance, Korra. Even you have darkness in you. Don’t fear it.”

“What about the next Avatar?”

“Teach them by your legacy then. You have great power, and you’re the start of the next dynasty of Avatars.” Zaheer opened his hands. “Why waste your time worrying about an impossibility? You should be routing out the darkness in the spirit world instead, expanding your knowledge of the spirits and their home.” He paused for emphasis and caught her gaze. “Don’t get distracted by worldly things.”

She blushed as she realized his implication. “Is love really worldly?”

“Lust is,” he retorted. “You reeked of it in the spirit world.”

Did he really sense that? It embarrassed her to imagine how lust presented in the spirit world. “What’s wrong with wanting to make the person you love feel good? That pleasure is a part of me, as much as I like to drink tea and swim.”

“You aren’t sustained on tea alone.”

“I get it, but you’re not going to warn me away from someone I’ve spent the majority of the last three years not seeing. I love her, and she makes me a better person.”

He rubbed his thumbs together. “Don't lose sight of your goals.”

“Sort out the spirits and fix the White Lotus. Got it.” She cocked her head. “If you knew Suntoq was involved with Unalaq, why didn’t you say anything?”

“Have care with what you say,” Zaheer said softly. “But I did. I spent over thirty days saying a great many things as the White Lotus tortured me. Very little of it was considered true.”

“You were tortured.” Fluid rushed in her ears, and the tea soured in her mouth.

“Yes. Gaou was once a Dai Li trainee. He learned a trick or two. He would visit once a year for the first few years, but that dropped off.” Zaheer snorted. “I suppose I should have told you when we spoke for the first time, but I didn’t think you would believe me. Had I realized how jaded you were towards the entire organization…”

Master Gaou had overseen some of her earthbending lessons. He'd always been the nicest of the High Masters. Korra pushed her anger down. “And now?”

His smile was slow. If Korra had to put a word to it, she’d say affectionate. “No. No torture, Korra.”

“You’d tell me if you were mistreated, right?”

That smile remained. “I would.” He sipped his tea. “I would like to know more about what you know of Avatar Wan.”

“I need to make more tea for that.”

She nearly talked herself hoarse, and Zaheer interjected at intervals for a conjecture or question. He was especially interested in the lion turtles and spirit possession. “Are there any lion turtles today?”

“The world is so small now. Seems like we’d know if there was one.”

“Another goal.” Another dot on Korra’s to-do list, he meant. Zaheer took an odd tangent. “You retrieved Raava back from Vaatu’s darkness.”

“Yes. She was inside him.”

“Even after her evident destruction?”

Korra nodded. “Her spirit, her power, even if the Avatar memories were erased.”

“Then if you retrieved Raava back from Vaatu’s darkness, surely a piece of him was within her too. There cannot be one without the other. And now you balance it. Your light keeps your darkness at bay and in so doing balances your spirit.”

It put a cold shiver in her spine. “Vaatu should be gone for ten thousand years, not living in my soul.”

“And why do you say that? You didn’t imprison him. You purified the thing that had fused with Unalaq. And now you carry a bit of him inside you. You are the ultimate balance, Korra. If that’s true, Harmonic Convergence won’t ever occur again. In that way you have fulfilled the Red Lotus’s goals better than we could have ourselves.”

Zaheer seemed to like this logic, but it frightened Korra. She took a deep breath and slapped her hands on her knees. Zaheer jumped, startled by the sound. “I should go. Do you want more tea before I do?”

He took his last sip and set his teacup beside Korra’s knee. He retreated back to the center of the ring and levitated. “Good day, Avatar Korra. Be safe.”

Tenzin was the last person Korra expected to see when she stepped out of the elevator, but as soon as she saw him she realized she shouldn’t be surprised. Even if no one had questioned her right to see Zaheer, they’d probably put a call in to Tenzin and Raiko. His expression had more disapproval than she could remember seeing him exude at once in all the years they’d known each other.

He fell into step beside her wordlessly as they strode out to the mountain path. Oogi waited for them there. Korra climbed up and waited for Tenzin’s outburst. It took over a minute of flight before Tenzin spoke. His voice was tightly controlled. “That was foolish.”

“Was it?” she threw back him, by now raring for a fight.

“Zaheer is dangerous ! Just because he’s in chains doesn’t mean he can’t hurt you. That you would willingly visit him—!”

“Tenzin, I know what I’m doing!”

“He tried to kill you!” Tenzin’s voice boomed with his anger. He turned around on Oogi. “How can you stand to be near him?!”

“I’ve learned more from Zaheer than anyone else in my life. He says I can do anything, that I have unlimited potential. He told me that when you were too busy asking Wu for advice on world matters!”

Tenzin’s face twisted in outrage. “How dare you insinuate he has anything of value to teach you!”

“It’s not an insinuation! He challenges me to think about more than one side of every argument. He trusts that I’m intelligent enough to do that, that I’m strong enough to defend my beliefs.”

“He could kill you, Korra! Every time you interact with him endangers you.” Tenzin put his hand over his mouth. “What… What would I do if you were hurt or lost?”

Her defensiveness bled away. They were both arguing into thin air, too muddled with emotion to hear each other. Korra made herself see Tenzin’s fear without presuming her own helplessness. “Tenzin, I'm not doing this to worry you. But you have to start trusting me at some point.”

“I trust you! I don’t trust him.”

There had to be some personal hurt in the exchange too. For her to go to Zaheer after she’d already replaced Tenzin with Unalaq once might open an old wound. She hadn’t confided in him about her worries about the spirits or her own balance. Korra studied the back of Tenzin’s head and wasn’t sure how to keep her connections to everyone in her life without stepping on people’s pride.

When they landed on Air Temple Island, Ikki waved frantically from a walkway. “Daddy! Mima’s missing. Jinora can’t find her. Help!”

Mima? She was an airbender. Korra pictured a small woman with dark hair pulled into a bun. She slipped off of Oogi with Tenzin beside her. A missing adult didn’t seem worth Ikki’s excitement, but she humored Ikki if only to distract herself from her fight with Tenzin. “How long has she been missing?”

A woman with brown hair answered from beside Ikki. “She left yesterday afternoon. She hasn’t been back since. She was visiting her father. In the Spirit Wilds.”

“The Spirit Wilds?” Tenzin’s dismay reflected Korra’s sudden worries.

“Jinora’s looking for her,” Ikki said. Korra hurried to the meditation room. She strode inside, jolting Jinora out of her meditation. There were tears in her eyes and panic on her face. “Help me, Korra. I can’t find her.”

Korra caught Jinora’s hands, startled by her panic. “Take a breath. Calm down. We’ll find her together.” When Jinora centered on her face, Korra entered the spirit world smoothly; her urgency didn’t slow her. Unexpectedly, Zaheer materialized in front of her. Jinora took a startled step backward.

“You’re concerned,” he said, his face cast in stern worry. “A problem?”

“Yeah. An airbender may have been taken. Jinora, what was her spirit like?” She could find the woman without Jinora’s help, but this would be faster and it would settle some of the panic that set their surroundings into a vague vibration. Korra took Jinora’s hand, and the information flowed between them. It was a clumsy exchange, so unlike when spirits guided Korra to knowledge. This was muddled with emotions like surprise and fear, and the spiritual imprint flowed with other pieces of knowledge Korra ignored—the taste of Kai during a kiss, Jinora’s fear of inadequacy…

Korra let go and took several deep breaths, concentrating on location. She was connected to the energies all around. The scope almost terrified her as she swept her awareness outward; instead of being large, the world shrank on her, rolling upward like a wave.

She found the pulse of unique energy, and her surroundings shifted at will. She pulled Zaheer and Jinora with her, and they came upon a dark clearing, not unlike the one that had housed Jinora and Ryu’s spirits before the Republic City battle. This pocket was smaller with a globoid shape of bright yellow centered on a ring of darkness. The energy emitted from the pod was soft and pure even surrounded by the bitter inky energies of the clearing.

The warm spiritual energy caressed Korra’s palm. She felt the vital human forms within and drew upon the energies around her to soften the energies therein; it was a more familiar transition than it had been before. It felt like that trap that had housed the dark spirit in the South. The cocoon melted away, and the spirits drifted away to find their way back to their bodies.

“Can you purify this place?” Jinora asked.

Korra glanced around, taking in the twisted roots and shadowed earth. The darkness rolled back into the center of the clearing; the husk of the cocoon became black and twisted into sharp points. She bent down to place her hand on the ground, trying to draw energy from the world around her to soothe the darkness. The energies were muted and didn’t submit to her. She focused and pushed, forcing light energy outward around her hands. The energy pulsed golden a few inches outward. As soon as Korra lifted her hand, the darkness returned.

“If you can't purify it here, something else must be corrupting this place,” Zaheer said.

“Why was the pod light energy though? Wouldn’t dark energy be responsible for kidnapping people?” Jinora murmured. “And why airbenders?”

Zaheer glanced around. “Dark spirits want to be balanced. We know spirits and physical are linked by the environment.”

“And the use of spirit vines,” Jinora said, her eyes going wide.

“I read about Kuvira's spirit vine weapon. It would be logical to assume the kidnapping prior was related.”

If Korra let them, Zaheer and Jinora would puzzle this out for hours. “We should go. Mima is still in the Spirit Wilds, and we need to make sure she gets out along with whoever was with her.”

“Later then, Korra. Thank you for the tea.” He faded away.

“He’s creepy. You took him tea?”

“He is creepy, but creepy people need to drink too. Let’s go.”

Despite Tenzin’s unwillingness to put Jinora in danger, Jinora won that fight and traveled with Korra, Bumi, and Tenzin to the Wilds. When they got to the outskirts of the jungle of vines, Korra touched a vine and traced spiritual energies to an abandoned building a few miles away. She snapped out her glider, and the three of them flew above the canopy before diving down into the thick of the vines. The vines writhed and snapped at them, but with their combined efforts, they managed to get into the building.

As expected, there were two people inside. The airbender, Mima, seemed stunned, wiping slime off of her face and arms. Beside her, an older man sat still and looked at the goop on his hands.

“Korra,” Mima said in recognition.

“Are you okay, Mima?”

She nodded and placed a hand on the man beside her. “I was visiting my father, and a vine caught us both. I don’t remember much after that.”

“You were trapped in the spirit world. Come on; let’s get you both out of here.”

Mima smiled at her. “This isn’t the first time you’ve saved me.”

“Just returning the favor.”

The vines had settled enough that their escape was relatively easy. The vines did twine and shift, but there were no more direct attacks. Despite the gentle flight, Mima’s father was screaming nonsensically when they landed on Air Temple Island.

Mima caught his hands. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Daddy.”

Later, when he was calmer and everyone was settled at a table in the communal dining room, Mima explained, “I can’t afford to keep him in a good group home. He always runs away from homes I put him in, but he stays around the same area of the spirit wilds. A few other people who live there check on him when I can’t.”

“Why didn’t you say anything, Mima?” Tenzin asked. “We can provide for him here.”

Mima shifted in evident surprise. She looked over at her father. “I didn’t think that could happen. It’s one thing for me to have him here, but when I’m away on a mission…”

“You’re a part of our nation now. We will provide for you.”

“Thank you, Tenzin,” she said with a tight smile.

“Are there homeless people who still live in the Spirit Wilds?”

Mima nodded. “A lot of them went right back after the battle.”

Korra had never considered Gommu and his peers as people who needed or wanted help, but it couldn’t be easy to live in a place as inhospitable as the Spirit Wilds. Looking at Mima’s bedraggled father, she felt a seed plant within her. What a good thing for the White Lotus to do to start in their new direction.

“But why the kidnapping?” Jinora asked again. Her focus was on Korra, who struggled to think of an answer.

“Jinora, I don’t know. If it had been a dark spirit, I could have let it possess me to learn the root of its issues. I did that with a few spirits in the south. The vines are like spirits, but I don’t know if they form memories.” She considered what the little yellow spirit had told her. “One of the spirits told me they can sense me and that airbenders carry similar spiritual energy.”

“Perhaps that was why keeping the portals open caused people to gain airbending,” Tenzin mused.

“So is bending just a form of spiritual energy?” Mima asked. She looked at her hands as if trying to sense the answer.

“The kidnappings happen just because they sense us?”

“Maybe.” Korra rubbed her forehead. “I can’t just ask. I’ve tried, but they won’t answer. I don’t know why. They refused to help during the battle for Republic City. I think we’ll have to figure this out for ourselves.”

“In the meantime, we should also heed President Raiko’s order to stay out of the Spirit Wilds.”

Mima said, “Tenzin, I wouldn’t have gone, but I was worried about my father.”

“He’ll be safe here with us now.” Tenzin glanced at Korra when she stood up. “Where are you going?”

“To meditate.”

“At the end of your rope?”

“I like it now. I’ve done a lot of it in the last four years.”

There were no spirits in the spirit world who were willing to talk to her. It was like trying to call for help before the Republic City battle. Spirits saw her and faded away to avoid conversation. Korra moved from place to place long enough to feel her body physically reacting to her frustration.

She gave up and came into her body to legitimately meditate. While the sun tracked from overhead to the edge of the gazebo roof, she sat within it and tried to feel something other than stress. Her shoulders were heavy with it, and it expanded in her chest and throat. Swallowing exacerbated that feeling:  like something dark was looking over her shoulder and she would never find a state of peace.

Already that feeling was pressing in on her, and she’d only been in the city for a day. These were problems she’d ignored or only considered abstractly in the South. As much as it was a temptation to retreat back home, that was only a ‘flight of fancy’ as Tenzin would say.

There was so much to do:  fix the spirits, fix the White Lotus, learn about the world around her. And she had no idea how to do any of those things. She needed to learn more, fill in the gaps that the White Lotus had left in her. Republic City had a university, and she wondered if she could take classes. Added on were smaller worries about probending, finding a place in Asami’s life, making sure Naga adjusted to life back in Republic City, and if the Earth Confederation would call her away again.

She thought of that angry exchange with Tenzin and realized her bitterness sprang from defensiveness, even now. She needed to be better about presuming someone thought she was helpless if they offered help or clueless if they offered advice. She was the Avatar in a new age; she couldn’t scream or bend her way through conflict. Just because her early life had trained her out of confidence in negotiation while raising it in combat was no excuse for the kind of argument she had with Tenzin.

But how could she be better? She was supposed to be an authority figure, but there was little respect to be had other than her own respect for the authority of standing government. She wasn't Kyoshi, and Raiko wasn't Chin the Conqueror. How could she be the Avatar if she couldn't use the Avatar state to demand her way? She didn't have the backup of a thousand lifetimes to proclaim her inherent rightness.

Korra meditated on peace and quiet and solitude, but she found her thoughts finally circling back to Asami and the happiness she found with her. She thought of their first kiss in a junkyard, their quiet conversation in the bar, the laughter they shared that morning within the igloo, and of their laziness in the steamer on the way back to Republic City.

She was in love with her best friend. This was comfort and belonging. She’d never felt anything like this.

As Asami had so gently pointed out, they were there to help each other. She would have to talk to Asami, to all her friends, to help her make decisions about her current problems. Their judgments would help and give her direction.

Asami would help her. Asami would bring her peace. She was happy with Asami.

And then her mind slipped into what Zaheer had accused her of:  sex. Korra’s body was different now, different in how she knew Asami could pleasure her, how she could pleasure Asami in turn. A physical reaction that felt and meant so much more. Emotion, love, even soul perhaps. Korra felt Asami’s pleasure, more than even her watersense told her, more than her own body’s responses.

In the tiny amount of sex education the White Lotus gave her, Korra drew her own conclusions that humans were just animals, that sex was rutting and dominance and procreation. Physical. Asami had dashed those presumptions. For an act so rooted in the physical, it was one of the most emotionally rich things she'd shared with another person.

She wanted Asami like the warm musky thickness of honey left in the sun. Familiar and beautiful and responsive. Korra pictured Asami looking into her eyes as they climbed high to find pleasure, and she opened her eyes to gaze out over the ocean.

It wasn’t a particularly good meditation session, but she felt a little better about her day, if only to be able to see Asami later. She needed to be on her way to buy food and cook for her girlfriend. Korra stopped by Tenzin’s office before she left.

She opened her arms, and he released his beard from his grip and stood to fold her close. It felt good; Tenzin was always safe. “Thanks, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, Korra. I just worry for your safety. You must do what you think is right, but please, tell me the next time you go see him.”

“I will. I’m going into the city now. I’ll take Naga with me.”

“Oh?” His beard was back in his grip as he studied her with an unvoiced question.

“I’m staying with Asami, but I should be back tomorrow. I know I have a lot of work to do.”

He immediately relaxed. “I was afraid you were perhaps staying with Mako.”

One part feminist and two parts mischief formed her next statement. “Just because we’re both women doesn’t mean we don’t have sex.”

Tenzin gaped at her, and red slowly crept up his neck. Korra left him sputtering in his office.

Korra stopped by the market, picked up a few ingredients with her last bit of money, and was stopped in Asami’s ostentatious lobby by someone who worked there. “Can I help you, Avatar Korra?”

“I was going to see Asami.”

“Ms. Sato isn’t presently in the building. If you’ll wait a moment…” The man made a phone call, murmured a few words, and waited. After a minute of silence, he spoke softly again and hung up. “Come with me, Avatar Korra.”

He led her around to a different elevator that had wider doors. “Your polar bear dog is a bit large for the other elevator.” He closed the elevator cage and punched the floor key for the top floor. The man cleared his throat. “This is highly unprofessional, but do you mind signing something for my girlfriend? She’s a big fan.”

“Sure. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jhee, and she’s Fala.” After the elevator stopped, he pulled a pen and paper from his pocket. Korra leaned on the wall to sign a note to both of them. She handed both back, and he grinned at her message. “Thank you, Avatar Korra.”

“No problem.”

Jhee unlocked the apartment door and unlatched the second door to allow Naga to walk inside without problem. Naga sniffed the air and the furniture. Then she found a massive furry bed by the window and pulled a rubber toy from within its furry confines. It was a dog toy. Naga collapsed in the dog bed with a huff and went to work on the toy.

Korra stared at that for a moment. Asami had bought Naga a bed and a toy.

“Your groceries, Avatar.”

She jolted from her thought. “Thanks, Jhee. Have a good day.”

He tipped his hat to her and exited the apartment. Korra went to work.

Asami’s cooking pots were dusty. Korra stared at the pots and pans, swiped a finger across them, and then set them in a sink for a good washing. She chopped and grated and prepared and then mixed and kneaded a no-starter dough.

By the time Asami’s keys clicked into her door, it was fifteen ‘til eight, and the food was just about ready. “Hey! I was hoping I timed this right.”

“Perfect,” Asami said, not quite smiling. Her mood matched Korra’s then. Even Naga’s enthusiastic greeting didn’t brighten her mood. Asami made Naga sit before she rubbed her neck. She looked at Korra’s boots in the doorway before she toed off her shoes. Korra approached; she wanted a kiss. It was a light kiss, but it made her feel so much better. Asami looked good in her stockings, skirt, and vest.

“Love the stockings. Do they have the stripe up the back?”

Asami raised both her eyebrows and turned her heel to show off the seam of her nylons. Korra whistled more for the look she’d been given than the confirmation...though admittedly she'd spent a lot of time looking through Shiza’s clothing magazines as a kid. Nylons had always fascinated her.

“How was your day?”

“Meetings and more meetings. It’s the most tedious part of my job. But nothing collapsed while I was gone.”

“Why would it collapse?” Korra was startled to think she could have caused a real problem by calling Asami away.

“I actually came out before I came to the South Pole.”

“Came out of what?”

“The proverbial pantry.” Asami sighed as she shook out her hair. It tumbled across her shoulders in glossy black waves. She looked rumpled and sensual, and that didn't help Korra understand what she was talking about. Asami focused on her expression and furrowed her brow. She clarified, “I told them I’m gay. How did you not know that phrase?”

That was an odd surprise. She’d assumed that Asami had sexual interest in men; she’d dated Mako. “You’re gay? Not bisexual?”

“I’m gay,” Asami said almost defensively. “I’ve always gravitated to women. I may have had sex with Mako, but I could never make a romantic relationship work with him—not the way I can with you.”

Korra shrugged, hoping to communicate she hadn’t been critical. “Sure. I’m not doubting you.”

Asami hesitated, but she slumped onto the couch and sighed. “How was your day?”

Korra returned to her previous question. “Wait. Did you expect something bad to happen if you told people at work that you’re gay?”

“Oh. Yes. At least I was afraid of it. People aren’t always that accepting here of homosexuality. My father wasn’t… He’s the reason I was dating Mako instead of you back when we met.”

That was an amusing thought. “You would have wanted to?”

Asami gave her a long up and down look. “I did want to. How did you notice that I was falling all over myself to make you like me?”

“No way.”

Asami rolled her eyes. “I guess I didn’t try hard enough. Homophobia—or at least a lack of acceptance—is common among the rich masculine class of the city, which is my board. I was afraid I’d lose financial backers if I came out.”

“But how does your sexuality matter for your business?”

“It doesn’t.”

This was all confusing. Korra moved on, sensing Asami's shortening patience with the exchange. “Why did you tell them if you were afraid of that?”

“One of my engineers was fired because she's a lesbian. That’s illegal and against our contract. I fired the bigot who fired my engineer, and then I fired his manager for turning a blind eye to his bigotry. Someone on my board told me I was being harsh, and I came out in a rage. I think I sleep-walked through the next two days. But everything has been smooth sailing so far.”

“Did the woman get her job back?”

“Of course,” Asami said like it was nothing. “I apologized and asked her to return to work. I hear everyone on her team is much happier with their current manager.”

Korra studied Asami, her beauty and grace. She wondered how such a morally strong person had been made in this fast-paced world of machines, businesses, and yuans. “You’re a good person, Asami.”

Asami looked nonplussed by the compliment. She tucked hair behind her ear and turned a vulnerable look toward Korra. “Thanks, I guess.”

“I mean it. That really makes me proud of you.”

Asami got to her feet and rounded the counter to pull Korra into a hug. Her voice was thick. “That means a lot, especially coming from you.”

Korra turned and kissed her lightly on the mouth.

“How was your day?” Asami asked still pressed up close.

All Korra could say was, “Okay.”

“What happened?”

She was afraid to say Zaheer’s name and take that criticism again. “I had a fight with Tenzin. A lot of things blew up at once.”

“What did you fight about?”

“Same old,” she hedged. “Then I found out another airbender was kidnapped by vines. And that lawyer wrote me back about the White Lotus. They are embezzling. It’s a mess to come back to on the first day back in Republic City.”

“Did you take care of the missing airbender?”

Korra nodded. She leaned back into Asami's arms. “You haven’t heard about anyone experimenting on spirit vines again, have you?”

“Certainly not within Future Industries. I doubt Varrick would restart his research. I’ll keep an ear out. Cabbage Corp has been trying and failing to make a jump into the renewable energy market so it's quite possible they would be behind it. Do you think that’s why people would be kidnapped?”

“In the South, it seemed to be more about the environment. I guess it could be the same, but it just seemed extreme. I think the vines were kidnapping people when Kuvira was harvesting the vines so… It’s a stretch. I still don’t know much about the spirits after all of this.”

“But you’ve done something there. If I hear anything about spirit vine research, I’ll tell you.”

Korra sighed. She thought of the White Lotus again. “It just burns me up how much I’ve been used by the White Lotus. I was a paycheck for them.”

“You should meet with Sung as soon as possible to discuss legalities in person. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can get things moving. It’ll be less stress on you. Do you want to talk about Tenzin?”

“Not today. Let’s eat.”

Halfway into the meal Asami asked, “Are you here for the night?”

“Yeah… If you want me to stay.”

“Of course I do. I was… I would have liked for you to stay last night.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were tired of spending time with me. Why didn’t you ask me to stay?”

Asami’s mouth had cracked open, and her fork hovered over her plate. She sighed. “The same reason you didn’t invite yourself. Korra, I want to spend time with you. My biggest time commitment is work, but I can plan around your visits.”

“Are you working tomorrow?”

“I’d planned to. If you’re going to be here, I could work from home part of the day.”

Even with all her worries, the thought of rolling around in bed with Asami all day held tantalizing appeal. “I’m not sure. I have stuff to do, but it would be nice to laze around with you tomorrow.”

Asami set her fork down; her mouth thinned in unexpected irritation. “And it would be nice to know so I can plan.”

That uncharacteristic irritation put Korra at attention. She went back over on their conversation and hoped she was reading between the lines. “Okay. That makes sense. Give me a minute to think about it.”

Then Asami looked contrite. “I’m sorry. I’m not used to scheduling around other people.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’ve been winging it as far as my schedule goes for months. I need to be more organized anyway. Go to work, okay?”

“Will I see you tomorrow?” she asked as if she was afraid of a denial. Korra wasn't about to give one. She said, “I can make you dinner again. Is it good by the way?”

“My plate is clean, and I’m getting more.”

Apparently Asami liked dinner enough to ask for a box of leftovers to take for lunch the next day. It was a tiny but significant boost to Korra’s ego for the day. As was when she abandoned Asami to her work and climbed into bed only to be pressed down into the mattress by Asami. Her intent was clear by her mouth and her wicked hands. Korra held her close and hoped she could pleasure Asami even a fraction of the way Asami swept her away.

Zaheer had been right:  Korra and Asami couldn't exist on sex alone. He was also wrong because they were so much more than their physical interactions. Sex was only a small piece of what they meant to each other, but it communicated the depth of their relationship. More than physical pleasure, more than the trust Korra required to take the leap each time, more than the emotional connection she felt with Asami... Just more... Korra faded into restful sleep as she stroked Asami's hand and reflected on that quiet truth.

Chapter Text

Lee left work early, which meant Asami left work late. She’d drawn the blinds in her office in late afternoon and didn't realize it was dark until she looked up to see the hour hand was well past eight o'clock. Her prior commitments finally occurred to her. It had been three days since she’d seen Korra, and tonight was their date night. Or it was supposed to be their date night. The first. And she was late.


Asami shuffled her papers into her bag, locked her office, and waved distractedly to the night guard downstairs.

Traffic wasn't kind on the first night of the weekend in Republic City. It took her half an hour to get home. Asami was angry with herself for not calling before she left the office. She strode purposefully to the elevator and tapped her foot on the floor while the bellman tried to make idle conversation.

Her own hypocrisy was what irritated her most. She asked Korra to give her a schedule for the week ahead, and yet she was over two hours late for their date night knowing that same schedule she’d demanded.

When she unlocked her apartment door, Naga greeted her with a happy yip and a lick. “Sit,” she commanded. After Naga obeyed, Asami rubbed her muzzle.

“Everything okay?”

Korra’s concern increased Asami’s ire at herself. “I'm so sorry, Korra. I lost track of time.”

“It's okay,” Korra said. She was level and easy, but Asami could tell she was disappointed. “I called your office but it sent me to the operator. I figured you would call if there was a problem. I made dinner.”

“Come here.”

Asami tugged Korra into a hug, and they rocked to the beat of the music coming in through the radio. Korra rocked them towards the table and gently pressed her into the seat. “Eat. Did you have lunch?”

“Yes. Lee feeds me in the middle of the day.” Asami picked up her bowl and sipped the broth with a sigh. It was savory but light with tangy tomato and salty soy and egg. She smiled up at Korra when Korra set a glass of wine by her plate. Korra took Asami’s empty bowl and refilled it.

“I didn’t realize I was this hungry. This is really good.”

“Let me warm up the main course.” Korra moved around Asami’s kitchen, her hips rocking in time to the beat on the radio. Asami’s hunger was quenched enough that she could turn her attention to watching Korra in her kitchen. The sound of a hot frying pan and the smell of cooking opened her apartment up. Korra had turned on a few lights, enough to open the darkness that Asami usually reveled in. Naga rolled around on the floor in front of the full-pane balcony window, and her toys were scattered around her dog bed. This apartment was a home right now, and only because Korra was here. She wanted this every night, but there could be no quiet pretending by omission if that happened. She wasn’t ready yet.

Asami finished her second bowl of soup when Korra set a generous helping of stir-fried oodoo noodles mixed with white-meat bird, mushrooms, leeks, and dark soy sauce. Asami nearly finished the plate.

“You’re going to make me fat.”

Korra leaned back in her seat with her half-empty wine glass in hand. Her smile was self-satisfied. “You were the one who said you wanted to put on weight.”

“That was delicious.”

“That was the hope. Maybe not as romantic as a night at Kwong’s, but—”

“But your girlfriend forgot about your date, and you salvaged it beautifully. Thank you for being flexible even when you don’t have to be.”

“I could have been mad, but that would have ruined the night for both of us. Go change into pajamas. I’ll do the dishes.”

Asami knew better than to try to get Korra to do anything when there was a dirty dish in the apartment, but it gave her privacy for at least a few minutes. She’d eaten well, but she wasn’t overfull. Her heart picked up when she imagined what she wanted to do next.

She shut her bedroom door and walked into her closet. In the bottom drawer of the chest on the wall, she opened a new paper parcel. Asami had never had the occasion to dress up for a lover before—not that she had ever really had one. It had been a new experience to discreetly order the lacy thing sitting in her hands. On a whole, she didn’t think that Korra would ever imagine her in this sort of clothing or expect it, but Korra appreciated her clothing. The intent alone would be enough.

Asami took a steadying breath and removed her clothing. She pulled the lacy underwear on and carefully hooked each clasp at the front of the bustier. It wasn’t particularly comfortable. She’d never cared for push-up bras because of how uncomfortable they were, but her breasts looked fantastic in this. Asami’s robe settled easily over it all, concealing everything but the subtle change in her bust. She’d ordered a garter belt and stockings, but Asami wanted to see the surprise on Korra’s face when she discovered what was under Asami’s robe.

Asami took her place on the couch and sipped her wine as she watched Korra finish cleaning up the kitchen. Korra wrung out the washrag and gave one last look around the counters before she poured herself more wine and sat down beside Asami. She kissed Asami lightly.

“How was your day?”

“Not bad. I went by the university to talk to them about taking a few classes.”

It was the first Asami heard of it. “Oh? What did they say?”

“I didn’t know I’d have to pay to go to school.”

The university was only free to Republic City residents. “I can—”

Korra cut her off. “But I can audit classes for free. I just have to ask the professor if it’s okay for me to sit in. That’s all I want. I’m not doing it for a degree.”

“What classes are you interested in?”

“Everything. But mainly history, political science, and economics. I didn't realize they had an animal medicine department; that would be cool.”

“Did you see Sung?”

Korra frowned. Asami couldn't believe it. “You need to meet with him, Korra!”

“I have a meeting next week. That will give them time to get more information. I really don't want to talk about that.”

There was no pushing past that tone of voice, as much as Asami wanted to point out how much this White Lotus issue was weighing on Korra. “Okay. What else did you do?”

“I led a bending class for some White Lotus recruits.”

“How did that go?” Asami kissed Korra lightly.

“Okay,” Korra said against her mouth. "Some of them are really good. Others... Well, better is the aim, right?"

Asami set down her wine glass and kissed Korra more firmly. “What else did you do today?”

“I made my awesome girlfriend dinner.” Korra grinned into their next hard kiss.

“And now?”

Korra finally caught on. “Am I supposed to say I’m going to do my awesome girlfriend?”

Asami laughed and drew her back in for another long kiss. She wanted to direct Korra to her robe, but if she waited… Korra pressed her down onto the couch, and their kisses escalated. She kissed down Asami’s neck, and the weight of her body was a fission of energy inside Asami. She wrapped her legs around Korra’s hips and increased the friction between her legs.

Finally, Korra drew back. She sat down with Asami’s hips in her lap and watched herself untie Asami’s robe. The moment of realization was delicious. Heat flushed Korra’s neck and cheeks, and her eyes went wide as her fingertips ghosted over Asami’s red bustier. “Wow.”

“Do you like it?” Asami asked. She rubbed her fingertips from her breasts to her crotch, scratching her fingernails over the lace. Korra swallowed audibly.

“What do you want?” Asami prompted her.


Asami cupped one breast and pushed it out of the bustier. “This?”

Korra’s mouth covered her breast immediately. Asami rocked her aching center against Korra’s stomach and didn’t mute herself in response to Korra’s mouth on her breast. When Korra cradled Asami’s other breast out and spent time on it too, Asami scratched at her neck. She wondered what she looked like to Korra, who sat back and watched her, her gaze hazy with desire.

“Take your clothes off.” Asami wanted Korra naked.

“I want to touch you first,” Korra said firmly. Asami shivered. In this position and with Korra’s tone, it would be the first time Korra was firmly in control over their sex.

Asami reached between her legs and rubbed herself over her panties. She moaned both at her own touch and the thought of Korra wanting this. She coaxed, “I’ll do it while you get your clothes off.”

Korra was off the couch in a flash. She stripped quickly but ran down the hall. The move startled Asami even as she heard Korra come back in the room. Korra threw a towel down on the couch and sat back down on it cross-legged, tugging Asami’s hips back into her lap.

Later, Asami would laugh to think of Korra’s practicality.

“Keep touching yourself, please.”

So polite...

Asami pushed her underwear aside and rubbed her fingertips against herself. Korra watched that avidly. She smoothed her strong hands over Asami’s bustier, which blunted the feel of her hands but not the pressure of her grip or the sight of Korra’s muscles moving under her skin or the shift of her breasts. Asami gasped when Korra palmed her breasts only to rub her hands back down again. This time, Korra gently pushed Asami’s fingers aside. She spread Asami and used her thumbs to massage her.

“Oh, Korra.” Asami’s hips jerked with the firm touch, and she jerked again when Korra pressed inside her. Korra didn’t thrust or rock. She massaged, all with the firm pressure of the pads of her fingers, and Asami wanted to escape as much as she wanted to push back. She didn’t think she could survive the pleasure of it, and she found herself gasping for air, watching Korra pleasure her, watching the twitch of her forearms as Korra hit that place inside her over and over again.

“Breathe,” Korra said firmly. The massage continued steady and firm, and Asami’s body felt it would break before she could come. “Breathe; relax.”

Asami couldn’t answer, not from the start to the end. She was gasping, trying to whisper something back, something like, “I can’t, I can’t, I—”

Eventually she did. Her body twisted up hard; then all that pressure that had built over the long minutes released in a wet mess and her harsh cry. She was crying and shaking and gasping all in one when Korra pushed between her legs and lowered her mouth. Asami jerked, trying to escape the soft warm assault of Korra's mouth, but this wasn't about an orgasm. This was about Korra feasting on her. Asami wasn't sure what happened to her in the minutes that Korra was between her legs, but she thought she came again at some point. Finally, Korra gathered her close and hushed her, gently rubbing her back.


Asami heard herself sob out a gasp. Her fingers were too weak to clutch at Korra's back, but she used her forearms to bring Korra's body against her.

“What did you just do to me?” she finally asked, her voice cracking. She’d never come that hard and never quite in that way. She was completely wiped out, shaky and weak, and her throat hurt like she'd been screaming the entire time.

Korra kissed her temple. “You seemed to like when I touched you like that before.”

'Seems to like it' didn't characterize what had just happened. Korra had just wrung her out, and they’d had sex maybe a dozen times total. How had she learned Asami’s body so quickly?

“Was it too hard?”

Asami surprised herself when she giggled, giddy at the thought. “I just came so hard I almost passed out, but no, it wasn’t too hard.”

Korra drew back and smiled tenderly. She kissed Asami gently. The smell and taste of her own musk of Korra's face was wonderful. “Here, rest. I’ll draw you a bath.”

What had just happened? The sound of the bath running made her smile. She felt like a sheet of rubber slumped on the couch.

When Korra came back, she made as if to pick Asami up. Asami raised an eyebrow dubiously as she got up from the couch without help. Her legs were shaky, but she could make it to the bathroom. “I can walk, Korra. I for one don’t find a concussion from hitting the doorframe romantic.”

Korra snorted as she followed Asami. She swatted Asami’s butt playfully. “What, bridal style? I only ever do the fireman’s carry.” She made good on her threat, hoisted Asami over her shoulder, and jogged to the bathroom as Asami shrieked, laughed, and pretended to protest. In contrast to their play, Korra set her down gently. She kissed Asami’s neck and reached around to ghost her hands over Asami’s clothing. “I feel metal clasps.”

“Please don’t metalbend my bustier. I plan to wear it again sometime.”

“You’re no fun,” Korra grumbled. She helped Asami unhook the many tiny metal wires by hand. Korra held it in her hands and studied it like she was trying to figure out how to fold it. Asami had suddenly thought of how Korra would look in it. She’d need a much bigger cup. Delicious.

Asami stepped out of her underwear. As Korra bent down to pick it up, she said, “Leave it. Come sit on the edge of the bath.”

Korra obeyed, a surprising thing for someone so obsessed with messes. When she sat at the edge of the wide bath, she opened her legs unabashedly. Asami settled into the warm bathwater and put her mouth to work; she didn't need any verbal cues. She might not have another orgasm in her, but she was sure she could give Korra at least two.

Asami’s fingers brushed softly along the nape of Korra’s neck. The sound of her sigh made Asami warm inside. It was late. Too late, but they didn’t have obligations in the morning, and it felt so good just to hold each other.

“You want to know something funny?”

“Hm?” Korra asked, blinking her eyes open before they slid shut again.

“Back when you accused my father of being an Equalist…”

Korra became more alert, but Asami kept her voice calm.

“Part of the reason I was so angry was because I thought I’d won you over finally. You have no idea how much I wanted to be your friend. I’d been thinking about breaking up with Mako before he needed a place to stay, but I was afraid he would be mad, and I assumed you all would stick with each other.”

“Wait.” Korra sat up, studying Asami in curiosity. “You kept dating Mako so that you could be my friend?”

“That was before I realized you liked him,” Asami said.

“You mean, before Ikki told you.”

Asami winced as she remembered the awkwardness of that moment. “It wasn’t like I sat down and mapped this all out, but you were my main motivation until I realized the truth about my father. Then I clung to Mako because I needed someone. And I was ashamed. How could I try to be your friend when my father was allied with a man who wanted to kill you?”

“Asami, why did you get back with him later if you didn’t love him? I’m not angry. I wasn’t then, honestly. I just don’t understand.”

“The same reason. I needed someone. I was isolated, lonely. Mako was there, and he was willing. He was also closest I ever got to having a boyfriend I was attracted to. I didn’t… We just kissed and went on a date. It didn’t even qualify as dating at the time.”

Korra frowned. “If you knew you were a lesbian, why did you date him in the first place?”

“I’ve always…struggled with my sexuality. My father never approved of me wanting more with girls, and I tried to fight that. Mako came along…but so did you. With all the pressures I was under, it was a relief to pretend I was straight. One less worry.”

Korra pressed her fingertips to the divot at the base of Asami’s neck, tracing her trachea with a gentle touch.

“Sex with Mako wasn’t bad, and back then, that was enough for me. It was stupid; I pretended I was martyring myself for my father and even for Mako. It wasn’t fair to me or Mako.”

“I guess I’m confused about that. If you enjoyed having sex with Mako, why are you a lesbian?”

“Romance is different than sex. I could use a dildo to achieve an enjoyable orgasm, but that doesn’t make me capable of having a romantic relationship with one.”

“Ouch. Poor Mako.” Korra’s expression tightened, and Asami realized how insulting that had been to Mako. Trust Korra to take offense on Mako’s behalf. “That was an over-simplification. Mako was my friend, but he was never going to be anything but that.”

“You said we would be friends that kiss and have sex.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Asami replied bluntly, which coaxed a laugh from Korra. “My point is I’m the only person who can define my own sexuality.”

“That’s fair,” Korra responded evenly.

Asami glanced down at Korra, her eager, natural lover, and she wondered how Mako hadn’t succumbed to her even if it was just a short grope in a dark corner.  She wanted to turn Korra’s question about sexuality back on Korra, but she was afraid of confirmation that Korra was bisexual. It was stupid, and Asami was self-aware enough to relate her fears back on the melange of emotions that surrounded her own sexuality and self-image. It was a conversation they needed to have, but she wasn’t ready to ask because she wasn’t prepared for her own response. Instead, she said, “This may be weird to say, but I can’t believe you and Mako never had sex.”

“Just never enough time. And Tenzin. Ugh. That man can be in twelve places at once.”

Asami recalled how he’d scared the lights out of her when she’d brought tea out to Korra before the Battle for Republic City. “He’s so quiet.”

“I know! There’s nothing worse than things getting hot and heavy and looking up to see Tenzin frowning at you.” She mimicked Tenzin’s intonation. “‘You must be responsible!’”

Asami giggled as she pictured it. She supposed she should have realized that Korra would turn the question back on her.

“So how many people have you done this with?”

“Made love to?” Asami tried to deflect. She kissed Korra’s neck. “Only you.”

“I meant sex, you romantic.”

Asami sighed. “Do you really want to know?”

“Now you’re making me worried,” Korra teased.

It was a shameful thought, memories she didn’t want to relive or rehash. Lying was out of the question. “Three other people. Two women and Mako.”

“Women? I thought you said…”

“When I came out to my father…as a lesbian, he made me feel so awful about myself. So I did what all angry, spoiled daddy’s girls do:  I spent his money to do what I could to spite him. I went to a club that, well it… I paid the entry fee, and I had sex with a woman that I chose.”

Korra’s expression didn’t change. She said the reality bluntly. “You paid to have sex.”

“Yes. I didn’t always view wealth the way I do now, Korra. It was an ugly thing to do, but it was also the only way I knew to get what I wanted. I didn’t have any friends, and I had no idea how to ask someone if they wanted to have sex. It was simpler and despite how it sounds, discreet. There were a lot more debased things going on than a lesbian interlude.”

“How did you know about that place?”

She swallowed, feeling shame burn through her. “My father kept a flier in the bottom right drawer of his home office desk. When I taught myself how to pick locks, I'd go into that drawer to sneak some of his alcohol, and I found the flier. It wasn't hard to figure out what it meant.”


Asami sighed. “Yeah. I guess it was.”

“It’s not… I mean, Tenzin probably thinks prostitution is some great evil, but I met a lot of people in the Earth Kingdom. When you have no money, no identity, and no belongings, you mix with the people who’ll mix with you.”

Asami cocked her head, more than relieved Korra wasn't upset. “Did people think you were one?”

“They asked. Men and women. I can’t say I never minded. But I met a prostitute, a very rich one, actually. She took me in for a few days after some thugs robbed me of everything I had.”

“Did she ask anything in return?”

“Just a sympathetic ear. She seemed really lonely. Who was the second woman?”

“I…” Asami sighed through her teeth. “I was lonely and desperate. You’d been gone for two years, and I hadn’t gotten your letter yet. I had this stupid thought that I might be able to erase you from inside me so I went to a club—a place where women go to find casual fu—flings with other women, and I picked up a woman and had sex with her in the alley behind the place. Not as discreet as the first encounter, but I doubt I was recognized.”

“How did you know about that place?”

“There was a district downtown near the docks that specialized in sex clubs, and it wasn't hard to take the bus down and pick out a club called Woman to Woman. My looks helped. I just had to wait for someone to hit on me, dance, and pull her outside.”

“How does that work though? How can you trust a stranger enough to let go? I don't think I could be with anyone but you. Sex… It’s just so much more.”

So much more… How darling, how achingly sweet that Korra could think of sex with Asami in such a way. She felt it too, the difference between this and what she's experienced before. It was hard to put into words. “That’s part of it. It’s purely physical. It feels good, but it only makes the loneliness worse. I didn’t realize it when I lost my virginity, but with that other woman… I hated myself for doing it. I was already depressed. Maybe I did it to fulfill all those negative thoughts. When I was with Mako, at least I trusted him, which made me have a little hope I could be normal.” She kissed Korra’s temple. “And then there’s you.”

“So, you like being with me?”

Asami stroked hair from her forehead, remembering their previous session on the couch. “Korra, you have no idea. Of course it feels fantastic physically, but you make me feel safe too, and loved, and all of those wonderful feelings that make what we do physically feel so good, those things I could never find with a man. And that makes me a lesbian.”

“Oh. I get it,” Korra said with her eyes wide in understanding. Asami kissed her gently. She asked, “Can we talk about sex?”

“I guess.” Korra looked a little wary. “If I’m doing something wrong—”

As if she could. “You aren’t doing anything wrong. I’d just like to know a little bit more about what you enjoy physically.” She continued stroking through Korra’s hair. “Like:  what’s your favorite fantasy?”

“What, like world peace?”

Asami laughed. She’d thought it was a joke until she saw Korra frown at her in confusion. Asami clarified, “No, sexual fantasy.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you like to think about when we’re together or when you touch yourself?”

“I think about you when we’re together. And when I masturbate, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I don’t do it that often. The walls are a little thin on Air Temple Island, and the windows are always opened. Ikki and Meelo had a habit of coming into my room to sleep too. I complained about Tenzin, but those two are even worse. I would hate to scare them.”

Asami wondered if the White Lotus had anything to do with Korra’s repression. She could just imagine them telling Korra her body was a worldly thing so it was anti-spiritual to touch it. Instead of delving into a topic that would make them both angry, she pressed, “But what do you think about?”

Korra cocked her head, apparently still confused.

Somehow this woman knew what a dildo was but was too innocent to take Asami's meaning. Asami tried again. “What turns you on?”

A frown was the first answer. Then:  “You do.”

“Yes, but how?”

Korra took a breath and seemed to put more thought into it. “Oh. I guess...I’d like to watch you touch yourself. Like tonight, but make it last a long time and don’t let me touch you. Teasing yourself, you know?”

“I can do that for you.” Asami kissed her lightly, belying their conversation. Korra perked up and asked:  “What about you? What turns you on?”

“I’ve always like the thought of you holding me down. Shoving me up against a wall and just taking me.”

Korra went still, her face open in surprise. Her mouth cracked opened for a moment; then she shut it, nodding firmly. “I can do that. Can you tell me more?”

“Taking notes?” Asami teased her gently. “It would be nice after a date as we come in the door if you would just pick me up and fuck me against the door.”

Determination was a good word for the expression on Korra’s face. “Okay. Can you tell me next time we go out if you want to do that?”

Asami laughed. “Yes, I can tell you.” She kissed Korra more deeply than she had been and leaned close to murmur in her ear. “When we have plenty of time, I’ll be happy to have you watch me tease myself.”

That got Korra’s interest. “Maybe in the bath?”

“Certainly. Here or Air Temple Island?”

“Someone could walk in there!” Korra exclaimed with a laugh.

“Okay, so no to exhibitionism. Good to know.”

“You mean some people get off on that?”

“Exactly what I mean. I don’t rather not risk Jinora or Pema overseeing, but if you wanted to, we certainly could.”

“No, I like your bath. And privacy.”

“I love you, Korra.”

“I love you too.” Korra hesitated. “Are we a secret? I know you’re shy about things in public, but—”

Asami sighed at that quiet question. Tonight was going to be the first time they went out for a date in public. “I didn’t overwork on purpose. We can go out. It’s like Fire Lord Izumi. I’d rather we aren’t blatant, but I want to go out with you in public.”

“That’s confusing, honestly. What’s the difference?”

“I get noticed in public, Korra. So do you. Maybe if I were someone like June, we could kiss in public without someone from the paper taking a picture, but I’m not. Those moments are private and personal.”

“Okay. That makes sense. But… You said your board already knows. Why are you afraid of people knowing then?”

“I’m not ashamed of you, Korra, but my board knowing is… It’s different. They knew and they didn’t tell the public.”

“What does that mean?”

“They’re afraid of what the public reaction will be too. My good reputation is an important part of the company remaining in good standing. The public buys Future Industries’ products, and public perception can sometimes influence if we receive funds for projects.”

Korra pulled away to sit up. “Why would the public not like you being with me though?”

It took Asami a moment to realize what she meant. “No. No, Korra.” She sat up to wrap an arm across Korra’s shoulders. She kissed the bare skin of her shoulder. “It isn't about you; it's about the conclusions people will draw about me if they know we're together. And I need time to weigh all the details. That’s who I am.” She gave a harsh laugh. “I made a list about whether or not to pursue a relationship with you in the first place. We’re not hiding away forever. We’ll never lie about being close friends, and we won't lie to our friends.”

“You’re afraid of people knowing you’re gay, not that we’re together.” Korra seemed to put two and two together. “Okay. I get it. You want to be discreet in public. We’re friends in public.”

“Just in public and just for now. You’re always welcome here, and I want to take you out for dinner next week to make up for tonight.”

Korra nodded again. “I understand. It’s late though. We should sleep.” Korra reached out with her metalbending to flick the lamp off. She snuggled closer, which eased Asami’s worries she’d hurt her in that last exchange.

Asami awoke late enough for Korra to be awake the next morning. She was still sinfully relaxed from the previous night. Aside from the meal and the sex, it had also been wonderful to sleep next to Korra again.

Asami took a deep breath and stretched. The day seemed bright and warm behind her heavy curtains. The forecasters had been calling for an end to the odd heatwave of the winter, but it still seemed strong. Asami’s robe was on the end of the bed, and she tugged it on as she walked out into the living room.

Korra was sitting mostly naked on the floor in front of the window in a sun patch. She only had her underwear on—shorts as tight as her usual shirt selection—and her breasts shifted subtly as she breathed. In the spirit world, no doubt. Not the most romantic situation:  waking up to find your girlfriend in the spirit world. But Korra wasn’t the most normal of girlfriends. As Wu had put it so long ago:   super-human.

She was just so beautifully symmetric. Her neck and shoulders were defined and strong, and the muscles that framed her spine stood out beautifully. She had the back of a swimmer:  broad shoulders and tapered waist. Even relaxed, her arms betrayed definition. Korra’s fingertips twitched, lifting a cord of muscle at a time on her forearms. Her breasts were so wonderfully soft and feminine in comparison to her defined abdominals.

She wasn’t one of those strange body-obsessed people that ate no fat and lived by the sharp creases between their muscles. Korra’s bulk made her real and powerful. She was strength, power, and sensuality.

They needed more light the next time they made love. Asami wanted to touch every shadow on her body.

When the sight of Korra’s body stopped diverting her, Asami made herself coffee and settled at the couch to read her morning paper, which Korra had set on the counter for her. (Asami had the off-handed thought of Korra opening the apartment door naked and surprising the porter.) By the time she’d made it through the sports section, a knock sounded on the door.

Asami glanced around as if she could see through the door. She retrieved a blanket off the couch and threw it over Korra’s shoulders. She cracked her door. Her visitors were usually punctuated by phone calls, but a few people were on a no-call list during daylight hours.

Mako stood there with June beside him. He raised a hand, seeming surprised to see her in her current clothing, perhaps even the lack of makeup. “What brings you by, Mako?”

“I have a message for Korra. Tenzin sent me over with it. I thought we could go out for an early lunch. Sorry for not calling first.”

“Korra’s meditating. Come on in. Maybe she’ll come out of it by the time I finish showering.”

After offering them both coffee, Asami secured the blanket tighter around Korra’s shoulders. A soft murmur escaped Korra’s lips. Her eyes flickered under her eyelids. Korra said very clearly, “Zaheer.”

She glanced at Mako, who looked back at her in confusion. Korra murmured again softly. Asami decided there wasn’t much to do in this case. She showered, pondering that name stated so clearly. By the time Asami was out of the shower, Korra was changing in the bedroom.

“Good morning.”

Korra glanced over her shoulder. “Raiko sent me a message about some sort of award ceremony in the park. Is there really a park named after me in the city?”

Asami nodded. “When’s the ceremony?”

“Next week. He wants me to give a speech.” She frowned down at her shirt. “Seems like everyone should get an award for saving the city. I was only part of the process.”

“The most important part. No one else could have converted that dark energy into a spirit portal.”

“I also couldn’t have gotten inside that mech without you and your father. The mech would never have stopped without Suyin, Lin, Mako, and Bolin.”

Asami squeezed Korra’s shoulder. “Then say that when you give your speech, but don’t turn it all down. You have no idea how many people look up to you for all that you’ve done for the city and its people, Korra.”

Korra nodded as she tugged her shirt on. “I guess you’re right.”

She was rumpled and soft, tugging her too-tight shirt down, and Asami wrapped her up from behind to kiss her neck. She swayed them back and forth gently for a few moments, breathing in Korra’s scent. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Korra said. She stroked Asami’s hand and sighed, relaxing back into her. A few quiet moments more and Asami patted her stomach and stepped away.

They decided on a little café within the district and hoofed it on foot. Naga followed along at Asami’s suggestion that there would be enough space on the patio for her. At her request, they were seated in the covered patio, and Naga took up the area usually used by musicians in the evening. She lay with her head at Korra’s feet before settling it in Asami’s lap.

“Hi, Naga.” She rubbed Naga’s snout, earning a tail thump and a sigh.

Mako asked, “What was that letter about, Korra?”

“Raiko wants to put on a ceremony of appreciation or something.” Korra shrugged. “I’ll do it, but I’m going to talk about everyone who made it possible to defeat Kuvira in the end.”

“Nice of the President to do that.”

“Rather convenient for him politically,” June pointed out. “Avatar Korra protected this city from destruction by Kuvira after he surrendered to her. He’s making her his ally in this, pointing out the city was protected, and attempting to erase his surrender with her win.”

“On second thought, maybe I should decline.”

“Korra,” Asami chided.

“It just sucks to be used for politics. Makes it almost make sense to want to get rid of it.”

“What, like anarchy?” Mako said sharply. Asami was startled by the magnitude of accusation. “You’ve been talking to Zaheer. I heard a rumor you were up there—”

Korra exploded. It was like seeing her from three years prior. June jumped, and Asami sat still as Korra raised both hands and nearly shouted, “Yeah, I’ve been talking to him! I’m tired of having to defend myself! I know he’s dangerous; I know what he did to me more than anyone else here. I was there when they pushed poison through my skin in case you forgot! I saw him throw my dad off a cliff! But damn it, he’s helping me! Get off my back!”

“Woah!” Mako threw up his hands, looking like he’d been slapped. “Far be it for me to want you to be safe!”

“Maybe friends shouldn’t criticize each other—”

“Okay!” Asami snapped. She refused to allow them to ruin her breakfast. “Mako voiced his concerns. Korra, you’ve made your irritation known. Everyone’s coming from a good place.”

Korra sank back into her seat and slowly relaxed. Mako folded his arms mulishly.

“Okay?” Asami repeated.

Korra nodded. “Sorry,” she muttered. “Tenzin, my parents… Everyone has exactly the same thing to say about Zaheer. I get it. No one knows more than me what he did to me.”

“I just don’t want you hurt. It’s one thing to go to him once, but…”

“Yeah,” Korra said, stiffening up again. Mako sighed and resettled. Then he relaxed. He and Korra abruptly smirked at each other. June looked back and forth between them. She turned her look to Asami as if to ask if it was okay to talk again.

“This is usual,” Asami told her.

“Old times,” Korra responded, wagging her eyebrows at Mako.

Mako winced. “Could you not make that face?”

Korra added a wink to the exchange, and Mako’s tight expression opened in laughter. “Stop. That’s gross!”

She saluted him, which made Asami break down into laughter. Korra explained to June, “So, given our history, Mako was very uncomfortable around his ex-girlfriends in the same room. He did this whole ‘I’m the police, and you’re the Avatar!’ thing for a few weeks.”

“Including a few poorly-timed salutes.”

“I think it’s time for me to leave the table.”

June watched him go. “I have to admit, I find it a little intimidating that he dated both of you.”

“He failed pretty miserably at it. And it was a few years ago. We’ve all grown up since then. Except Asami. I think she was born grown-up.”


“And anyway,” Korra announced. “I'm the least intimidating person I can think of.”

June and Asami laughed and shared an understanding look.

When they were back home, they sat together on the couch and listened to the radio. Asami pulled out her portfolio and set her pencil to paper before pausing.

“Don’t get angry, but… I want to know about Zaheer.”

“Sorry… Guess I blew up a little, huh?” Korra leaned back in her seat and put her hand on the couch arm. “I saw him in the spirit world, and I asked him why. Then we just kept talking. I see him most of the time when I go into the spirit world, and I went to see him in person the first day we were back. That was why Tenzin and I had a fight.”

“What do you talk about?”

“Everything. Me, Raava, Vaatu, Kuvira, government, economy, the role of the Avatar… He’s just a great sounding board. Asami, it’s crazy. What he did to me was… But he really believes in me.”

“Be careful,” Asami said softly. “I couldn’t stand it if you got hurt again.”

“I’m never careful. I’ve kind of given up on that. But I get it.”

“Tell me when you go see him. So I know where you are and that you’re okay.”

“You didn’t seem surprised when Mako brought it up.”

“I heard you say his name this morning when you were meditating.”

Korra sighed. “I guess it seems like I hid it. I guess I did, really. I didn’t want to open that can of worms.”

Korra seemed to put the conversation behind them, but Asami stewed on it for the next few days. It bothered her. She vowed to herself to keep up with Korra's summaries of her visits with Zaheer. There was no way that man didn't have an ulterior motive.

It was a rare day to get out for lunch with someone other than Korra. Back into her work week, Asami set out by herself to drive to Republic University, where she parked in a faculty lot and walked to a little café.

Ming, Naomi Moto’s wife, waved through the café’s glass window. She entered the quiet but busy little restaurant and set her bag in the corner and took a seat across from the other woman. Ming smiled. “How are you, Asami?”

“I’m doing well. How are you?”

“I’m good. Naomi said to say ‘hi’. We should get together for dinner sometime.”

“We should. I’d like to introduce you to Korra.”

Ming raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

There was no impropriety in Ming’s question, but Asami blushed anyway. “Turns out you were right.”

“A pearl on a necklace.” She smiled. “Are you happy?”

Asami nodded.

“Any details you wish to divulge? You don’t have to, though I’m interested from a cultural perspective too.” Ming asked.

Anyone else would have offended her with that question, but Ming seemed to be fishing for something other than sexual details. “She made me an igloo.”

“How lovely. Did you realize what it meant?”

“I’ve checked out every book about Southern Water Tribe culture from the public library. I knew. It was more a symbolic question versus a proposal. It still meant so much to me.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Anything interesting going on with your life?”

“No. Second trimester is starting, Naomi is working on a new traditional sword even though the last one isn’t finished, and she continues to ignore my requests to take dancing lessons together. Though I do have a proposition for you.”

“Fire away.”

“Would you consider volunteering to sit on the committee to put together the probending fundraiser? Given you’re both a fan and have close ties to the Fire Ferrets, your presence would be helpful.”

“How big is this commitment?”

“Two hours every two weeks for now. We’ll have a few functions in the future to rub elbows with all the rich affluents of Republic City.” Ming frowned, and her affect changed. She sounded like she had memorized her next statement. “I’m sure special consideration would be given to Future Industries to design the probending arena within the civic building if you sat on the board.”

“I’d prefer we win the bid by merit of our design and relative costs.”

Ming seemed surprised, then she blushed. “I wasn’t sure what your take on that would be. The other members of the committee wanted me to say that.”

Asami raised a shoulder in a faint shrug. She wasn’t offended or surprised, but it seemed an odd thing for Ming to say. She seemed to have too much principle. Ming’s embarrassment was more natural.

“To be completely honest, I’m short on the time I need to sit on the panel. I can delegate someone, but I can't go myself.”

“I can't see how that would be a problem.”

She put the next meeting in her planner along with a few names to go and exchanged a good-bye and the promise to meet for dinner in the near future.

Asami was prepared for another long day of meetings. She faded in late morning but reenergized after eating some of Korra’s leftovers. She felt a little bounce when she told Lee, “Korra made it.” After lunch spent thinking more about Korra naked than work, she was ready to get started again and looking forward to a project meeting.

This project had very little introductory information. She wasn’t sure what to make of it when she received no paperwork about it prior to the start of the meeting. When a pamphlet was finally put in front of her, she flipped through the pages. The head of the project was a small man in suspenders, Wan. He was vibrating with his excitement—always a good sign—and began to speak with enthusiasm at the head of the table.

“Renewable energy. We all have that dream. We’ve all read the futuristic stories that talk about an energy source not from our firebenders or gas or coal… Now, thanks to the abrupt change and opening of the portals, we have that ability.

“We all saw destruction Kuvira’s weapon wrought. But that energy doesn’t have to be released in a weapon at all. It can be used to power our cars and planes and even our cities.”

Asami flipped to the back of the project outline in her hands. There was a picture of a vine encased in glass, attached to wiring. Below it were two graphs that had mass on one axis and joules on the other. Her chest went cold then hot as her lunch soured in her belly.

“With the government’s new clean energy project opening up in several months, we have a chance to make our mark in the field with an industrious, novel approach to renewal energy. What better way to do it than marry our world with the spiritual one?”

“How long have you been working on this?” she interrupted.

The project manager blinked at her owlishly, as if he didn’t believe she’d spoken. “Just over two months. Already we’ve managed to harvest enough energy from one small vine to power an average residence for a day.”

Horror and rage moved from her chest to her fingertips. Her mouth felt frozen and her voice sounded odd to her own ears. “What workshop are you using?”

“We’re in the second workshop on floor sixteen, Ms. Sato.”

“You’ve been experimenting with spirit vines in this building for two months?!” Asami rose to her feet abruptly, feeling sick with anger and fear. “Take me to it now!” The other members of the meeting remained seated. Asami looked around fiercely. “All of you come with me too. Lee, call Korra—try my apartment and then Air Temple Island. Tell her to come here now.”

The little man who had headed the project straightened in shock. His delight turned to anger in a moment. “This research is harmless—”

“Did you not see what happened when the spirit vines were used before?! It tore a hole in our world!” Asami turned her eyes around the room wildly. “We are not experimenting on spiritual energy! That’s final!”

Wan’s volume had risen with hers. “Avatar Korra can’t stop our forward progress—”

“You’re fired!” Asami shouted.

His mouth twisted in anger. “Good riddance,” he snapped.

Asami took her entire committee with her to the spirit vine workshop. On their way down, she told Lee—who kept his head down—“Have all of our contracts rewritten to include a clause that prohibits use of spirit vines in research. Now.”

Her committee was silent as they waited within the workshop. Vines—all withered and brown—were scattered everywhere within. In one corner, they were allowed to grow up the wall—probably desperate to reach the outside air. Metal canisters were all around, presumably having been used to sap the vines of their energies. This was sickening, disappointing. She folded her arms and fell into the darkness of non-thought while she waited.

When Korra walked into the room, Asami wanted to hide the evidence. She could only say, “I didn’t know.”

Korra looked from the vines to Asami to the men and women clustered beside her. She smiled gently. “I figured. Thanks for calling me here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Korra threw back at her. “I can take care of this.”

From where she stood in the center of the room, Korra lifted her hands and twisted her fingers, opening up the sinks in the corner. Asami had never seen her do it before; she was metalbending to open the taps. As water flowed out of the tap, she gathered it with sweeps of her wrists. Korra’s brow wrinkled with her concentration as she twined her arms together, raising the water in gentle circular sweeps around the vines, which turned gold and faded away.

Korra walked to the corner and touched the long reach of vine that crawled up the wall there. Her eyes flickered white, and the vine turned gold and disintegrated beneath her touch. She frowned and opened a nondescript door in the wall, stepping into a side-room.

Asami followed and gasped in horror. The entire room was full of shriveled vines.

“Step back,” Korra said.

It took her over ten minutes to purify it all. At the end of it, Korra’s shoulders drooped with exhaustion. She touched Asami’s arm and smiled. “Thank you for telling me.”

“It won’t happen again.”

“I know; I trust you. I’ll see you tonight.”

After Korra stepped out, Asami turned to her employees. She was stricken with her rage and shame. “Who knew about this?”

Three men raised their hands. Ikken was not among them. “I should fire you,” she said quietly. “But I’m not sure if I made it as clear as I feel. We are not using spirits or spirit vines in our research. It upsets the balance of the spirit world. The energy used is what may be causing dark spirits in the first place. We can’t do this. Anyone who feels they can’t follow that rule needs to find employment elsewhere.”

“It won’t happen again, Ms. Sato,” the men told her. They at least appeared contrite.

“Please let Mr. Wan know he can retain employment here if he agrees to comply with those rules. I lost my temper.”

When Asami was back behind her desk, a new contract was on its surface. Highlighted in yellow was the new clause regarding the prohibition of the use of spiritual energy, spirits, and spirit vines in research. She expected all her employees to sign it by the morning. She needed to petition to have a bill introduced to the council for the same reason. Asami put her own signature on the contract, and then she rested her forehead in her palms as she fought down a panic attack.

The smell of good cooking greeted Asami only hours later. She hesitantly opened her door. The first thing she saw in her apartment was Naga eating out of a massive bowl by the window. The second thing she saw was Korra in the kitchen, reading the newspaper while leaning against the counter.

Korra looked up and smiled. “Hey.”

“I’m so sorry.” All the panic and fear that she'd been fighting since that afternoon came out in a burst of tears. She stood in the doorway and sobbed, overcome by the fact Korra was here, despite all odds.

Korra hastened to round the counter to draw Asami into a hug. She pulled the door shut behind Asami and held her close, hushing her quietly. “It’s okay. You told me, and it’s fixed.”

“It’s my company! How did I not know that was happening? He’s been researching for two months.”

Korra kissed her forehead, then her neck. “It’s okay. It happens. I didn’t know I was being sold to the highest bidder for most of my life. I’d say we’re even.”

“We’re a pair, aren’t we?” Asami asked after she'd calmed down. They held each other on the couch, and Korra's shirt was soaked by Asami's tears. Asami leaned her forehead against Korra’s and finally managed a smile.

“You could say that. We have each other though. Come on. Let’s eat and take a bath together.”

“Can we skip to the bath part?”

“Hell, no.” Korra pushed her down to sit at the table. “I worked hard on this.”

Asami found she did have a bit of an appetite. For the first time in a week, she poured herself a gin and tonic. She drank it more quickly than she should, but she poured herself another anyway.

“So I realized something today.”

“What?” Asami asked, alarmed it would be related to her work fiasco.

“I went back to officially sign up for some classes at the university, but I can’t. I’m not a legal resident of Republic City. I can’t even vote or work here! It’s illegal for me to drive. I have to individually ask professors if I can sit in their lectures.”

Asami smiled, amused more by Korra’s chagrin than her statement. “That can be a bit of a hassle for paperwork purposes, but I’m sure I can help you.”

“Ugh, one more thing on my plate.” But Korra grinned as she said it. She had her jaw leaned against her hand, and she looked up at Asami through her lashes. Asami kissed her gently.

“Thank you.”

“There’s nothing to thank me for. You’ve done the same for me. If you want to talk about it, I’m here, okay? But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Asami made sure she wouldn’t be called into work on the day of Korra’s ceremony a few days later. Korra had laughed at her suggestion to dress up, not that Asami could blame her later. She only wore her more traditional wool long-sleeved shirt and parka pants despite the light snow on the ground.

She’d wavered through work, guilty and fighting it. It almost would have been easier if Korra showed even the slightest bit of blame for the spirit vine research. Now Asami went back through all the contracts of the company and considered every loophole until the words blurred together and she was sure it was air-tight.

So she did what she did best when she was avoiding some part of her life:  work. Today, though, there was no respite. No amount of personal guilt could make her miss Korra’s ceremony.

At least fifty thousand people found a way to be there, crowding Fifth street and filling up most of Avatar Korra Park. Korra seemed composed on the stage, even as Raiko gave a ridiculously long speech about the future of the Republic City.

He gave an abbreviated speech that highlighted Korra’s own accomplishments and then invited her to stand with him. He dropped a medal around her neck, a mockery of the ceremony that had honored Kuvira many months before.

Raiko clapped for her, and the crowd swelled with its noise. Korra looked out at them all and waved with a smile. When there was quiet, she spoke calmly into the microphone.

“I don’t need a medal for what I did that day, or for what I do any day. It’s my job. I guess a lot of kids end up choosing what they do for a living, but my job was destined. But thank you.

“Since no one else is right now, I want to thank the people who were just as important in defending this city:  Asami Sato and her father, Hiroshi Sato. Hiroshi Sato even gave his life to save this city. The airbenders—Tenzin and his family and every other airbender who put their lives in danger to protect this city. Mako, Bolin, Suyin and Lin Beifong, and even Toph made it possible. Every time you think of me, think of them too. I would be dead without them.

“More than anything, we need to work together—to find and keep peace, not just during crisis. That takes work and cooperation and compromise, and we have to do that. We have to protect our peace to protect ourselves, our children, and our future.

“We need that cooperation with each other now more than ever. When I opened the spirit portals, I opened up a strange new world. I’m still learning about the spirits and the vines so be patient and work with me. Don’t abuse them and don’t antagonize them. Cooperate and learn. Be kind to each other and to the spirits. Be kind to our animals and plants, our environment.

“And, I guess… All the thanks I ever needed was seeing this city bounce back and continue on, better than ever. I’m from the South, and it will always be my home, but Republic City is my home too. So thank you, Republic City.”

It was disjointed, very much like Korra in style, and it was wildly popular with the locals. The United Republic Times had a nice write-up, complete with Korra posing with a cheesy smile. Classic Korra. Asami got a little jolt when she looked at that picture and realized that was her lover on the front page of the national paper. Korra, her lover. Super-human. The Avatar.

Chapter Text

Korra met with the lawyer Asami recommended on Air Temple Island three weeks after they returned. He wrote her several times, and Asami continued to remind Korra she needed to meet with him. (The less politic word Korra’s mind supplied was ‘nagged’, but she wasn’t dumb enough to say it out loud.) Korra was so afraid of what the lawyer would tell her that she became afraid of him.

When she finally saw him in person, she deflated. He was the least intimidating person she'd ever seen. He was short, slender, had short gray hair, and wore wire-framed spectacles. When he took her hand, she didn’t sense the flow of chi to indicate he was a bender.

“Mr. Sung, right? Or do lawyers get special titles?”

“No. You can take or leave the ‘mister’. If I may:  I have been in my field for nearly thirty years. I have an experienced team of lawyers and paralegals that are the best in the United Republic for this task.”

“I just want to make sure there will be discretion with the information.”

“You don’t get to be where I am without a good amount of discretion, Avatar Korra. That goes without saying.”

“You can take or leave the ‘Avatar’ by the way.”

He smiled, betraying a kind face. Then he sobered and pushed over a few sheets of paper. “You’ve read the letters? I can give you the summary again if you would like.”

Korra nodded. Her leg jumped with nervousness before she shifted her stance. “Do you want tea?”

“No, thank you. Are you ready? The White Lotus produced some sixteen million yuans last year, all in donations. The major individual contributors were President Raiko, Fire Lord Zuko, Suyin Beifong, and Toph Beifong. A variety of businesses and governments also donated. The rest were contributions mostly under five hundred yuans.”

“Raiko?” Korra clarified. “Why would he give the White Lotus money? He hates me.”

Sung seemed surprised by that information. “We can get into the why later. Let’s talk about where that money went first.

“Roughly three million yuans went to pay the White Lotus sentries. They earn significantly below market norm for the United Republic. There were a few exceptions to that. Of the one hundred sixty-four employees, twenty-two individuals earn seventy-five percent of what all the others make combined. This reflects more on how poorly recruits are compensated than how well paid the minority are.”

“Give me numbers.”

“Recruits earn on average less than five thousand yuans per year, before taxes. Many earn essentially nothing because their wages are docked for living expenses in the barracks.”

“That's indentured servitude. How is this allowed?”

“It’s almost like a cult, Avatar Korra. I sent one of my employees to covertly tour the barracks on Air Temple Island. None of the recruits were willing to speak to him about their wages, training, or other forms of compensation. Either they firmly believe in the goals of the current organization or they’re too afraid of the consequences to speak out.”

Korra drew her own conclusions about said consequences.

“Approximately two million yuans went into upkeep on Zaheer’s prison and the construction of Kuvira’s prison. Several hundred thousand went into the maintenance of the White Lotus compound in the Southern Water Tribe and on Air Temple Island. Other accounts, totaling nearly three million yuans, redirected finances from relief and education straight into the pockets of politicians and businessmen. The rest is unaccounted for.

“We were able to look into public tax records of each master and his family from various governments. They each made personal purchases that coincide with the missing funds. Suntoq, in particular, purchased a beachfront home on Ember Island. It’s not a new trend, and it isn’t well-hidden.”

Korra swallowed thickly. “So you’re telling me people donated to the White Lotus, and that money bought Suntoq a vacation home.”

“Yes. I’m telling you that. They did very little to hide it, though without your leaker, I doubt we would know now.”

Korra put her head in her hands. “Okay. Who were the White Lotus sentries that earned a lot of money?”

Sung passed over a sheet of paper with names listed on them. Korra shook her head; she didn’t know the men. “I should ask:  why.”

“Honestly, my presumption is it’s hush money. These men and women have access to people with power who could easily expose the White Lotus. On the other hand, those diplomats guarded by the White Lotus are probably colluding with them and susceptible to blackmail.”

“I don’t understand why more don’t protest. Just going to the press should be good enough to bring the White Lotus down.”

“The White Lotus is a secular organization, and it has influences in many places in the world, including the press. Who knows what the High Masters have said to defend these practices or if those that would have spoken out were given a coveted position instead, sent to guard people with political influences throughout the world. The sentries don’t just guard; they gather information for the High Masters, and they’re paid well for it. Jumping from three thousand to one hundred thousand yuans in salary is a huge temptation. Yet that money is nothing to the masters.”

“They gather information. What, like spying?”

“You could draw the comparison. The power of the High Masters isn’t just the money they bring in by donations. They receive gifts, political influence, and can likely sway elections if needed.”

The only thing that could sum up the situation was:  “Fucking hogmonkeys.”

Sung laughed abruptly. He cleared his throat and sobered quickly. “I haven’t heard that swear in decades.”

“I’m old fashioned.” Korra heaved a sigh. “What has the White Lotus become?”

“Even in the past, it was not unlike this. A secret shadow organization of old, elite, rich, and politically power men that arbitrarily thwarted or raised up certain world powers? No one can argue that doesn't sound covert.”

“I thought they were the good guys.”

“Only because Aang won the war, Avatar Korra. Ba Sing Se was bloodlessly conquered by the Fire Nation, but the White Lotus led a coup that killed thousands of citizens and soldiers alike; destroyed houses, businesses, and infrastructure; and allowed the previous authoritarian government to gain rigid control again. They are the reason the Earth Queen was in power. Not wrong, but certainly not entirely right.”

She saw the truth with frightening clarity. “Change their color, and they’re the Red Lotus.”

“At least the White Lotus has no reputation for violence in its current iteration.”

“Okay, so tell me now why Raiko would give money to the White Lotus.”

“It’s a common situation, Korra. A man with money gives a politician money, and when it comes time to collect on that contribution he will call the politician, remind him he’s been a friend in the past, and suggest a vote or legislation. In Raiko’s scenario, the situation was flipped.”

“That’s bribing. How is that legal?”

“The question many of us ask, Avatar Korra,” Sung told her gently. "Kuvira even gave a modest sum herself, which may be why the White Lotus was never a force against her in theory or reality.”

“Damn it.” It was too much to process. She pushed Zuko’s letter across the table, then stood up and folded her arms defensively. “There’s something else too. I think the White Lotus has been extorting money from at least the Fire Nation—maybe the Earth Kingdom too—since I was a child. They’d promise to send me to the Fire Nation if a donation was made, and after said money was given, there would be another threat, meaning it wasn’t safe to send me.”

Sung scanned the letter. “Crass. They've gotten more subtle since then, but this may have started the downward spiral.”

Korra rubbed her palms together. “I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased. I always felt like I was kept prisoner in the compound. I barely saw my parents, and it was a fight to ever go to the city. I can count on one hand how many times I saw a kid my own age. When I came here, I escaped. The fact I was sold out adds insult to injury. Then apparently the Masters just took the money they made from donations last year and didn’t put it back into the world, they have this good ole boys club, they aren’t training their recruits... Well, I’m pissed, and it makes me sick how wrong this is.

“I want the Masters out. I want to take over. I want that money used to pay the White Lotus employees a living wage, give them training and skills that are useful, and put that money back into the places and people who need help.”

Sung turned over Zuko’s letter in his hands. "I sympathize with your anger as well as your noble wishes for the company’s future. Lord Zuko’s testimony will be helpful, even if not legally admissible. But this leads us to the next topic:  how you can gain legal control over the White Lotus.

“There is an inheritance clause in the United Republic—where Sokka wrote the contract of the present iteration of the White Lotus—that states that a man or woman gaining a title by birth or by death of a predecessor has inherent ownership of the properties, moneys, and lands that belong to that title. The clause is for the inheritance of monarchs and the old council of Republic City, but reincarnation isn’t ruled out. There is no legal reason this clause wouldn’t apply to you. Sokka wrote the Avatar into ownership of the White Lotus as an organization before his death, and it was never changed. So you own the White Lotus according to the laws of the United Republic.”

It seemed too simple. “I don’t think a man that made million yuans off of it last year is going to hand it over easily.”

“If needed, we can pursue the angle that the White Lotus High Masters did not fulfill their fiduciary duty to you. We could try also to spin the fiduciary duty to the public that donated presuming the money will come back to them, but both threads are legally tenuous.”

They paused for Sung to explain the term to her. He continued, "Suntoq has managed to slip out of the jurisdiction for audits from Republic City, but that should not apply in this case, not if we file against them. Ultimately, it should be an easy matter even if only a technicality under an archaic law clause. There’s no denying that legality.”

“Why wouldn’t they change that clause?”

“It certainly behooves the current Masters to gain legal ownership...unless they hoped to have you serve as a scapegoat for their wrongdoings. That is something to consider too. If the White Lotus is exposed, you may be held legally responsible.”

“What does that mean, at worst?”

“Prison. We won’t allow that to happen, Avatar Korra.” He templed his fingers. “To be blunt, the best scenario is building a portfolio against each High Master and threatening to go public by taking them to court unless they resign. That incentive should be enough for a quiet deposition or four.”


“The truth, Avatar Korra. The truth to allow you to put an end to the unethical and illegal practices of your own organization.”

Against her moral instinct, Korra saw his point. “Thank you for your hard work. But…who’s paying you?”

“Someone who wishes not to be named.”

“It’s Asami, isn’t it?”

He gave her a sympathetic smile and shook her hand, not a yes, not a no. “I can’t imagine the pressure you grew up under. This must be upsetting to learn.”

“You’re telling me. I grew up thinking the White Lotus was a good organization. I want it to be good. The way it should be.”

He nodded in quiet concentration. “I’ll do my best to give you that power and assurance. We should set a time to meet at least weekly to discuss progress.”

“I guess I need to invest in one of those planner things, huh?”

Sung smiled. “I can recommend a personal assistant if you’re interested.”

“Woah. Not sure we need to go that far.”

They would meet again in three days. Now that she’d faced her fears, she was ready for the next step.

She was tired, tired of cleaning up the mess that wasn’t her making, spending time so far away from her wife, spending time with this woman she didn’t trust. “I cannot keep doing this, Ai. The king has to find a way to rule his own people. I wash my hands of this.”

The woman beside her was small with such a sweet face, but Ai’s sharp nails dug into her arm. “If you had taken care of Chin when he first presented as a threat, we wouldn’t be here.”

“I’m not an instrument for your husband to keep power.”

“No,” she murmured softly. “You’re much more than that. We could have so much together, Kyoshi. Let them kill him, and join me in rule. We can usher in the golden age together.”

She remembered how this woman, old enough now for wrinkles to mark her eyes, had slipped into her bed as a girl-child of fifteen and bewitched her—just as she’d bewitched the king nearly ten years later while she’d still been Kyoshi’s lover. It had been a blessing in disguise, that betrayal. Kyoshi felt none of the old urgency even if a part of her wanted to succumb to Ai’s seduction. This little woman knew how to make Kyoshi feel powerful.

She’d struggled about when or if to step in during Chin’s campaign, just as she’d struggled about whether to crush the rebellion in Ba Sing Se. For legacy she would claim the relics of the past moved her hand, but the reality was uglier. Foolish affection for an old lover had brought her here.

Ai whispered in her ear. “We need protection, Kyoshi. The peasants still whisper and scheme. We need sharp ears and a powerful guard.”

Her exhaustion escaped in a weary sigh. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Then make me an army, Kyoshi. Make them as strong and as clever as you.” Ai’s smile was oily. “Maybe I shall take one of them into my bed since you won’t have me.”

“A secret police? They’ll have even more reason to rebel.”

Ai’s fingernails tightened hard enough to draw blood through cloth, and her voice whispered with clarity that burned. “They say you adopted a daughter. A daughter old enough to be your lover. They say you showered her with gifts as if you were courting her. They say you have two beds in your house, but one is never used. They say she’s a nonbender who emulates your fighting style and is fiercely loyal to you. They say Jhao is her name, and that she’s the youngest daughter of a local magistrate who you put into position. They say she likes to walk alone by the riverbank midday every day, that an arrow could fly from a hunter’s bow accidentally to end her life so tragically early.”

A cold ball of dread expanded in her gut. She could tear earth from earth, destroy land and sea alike, but she was as helpless as a newborn. Ai smiled and pulled Kyoshi’s mouth to hers in a hard, cold kiss. “I was tempted to send a letter when I learned of her, but I haven’t. It will be sent if I die or if I command. Don’t give me reason to send it. Not even you could beat that letter, lover.”

Right then she believed it. Her voice was flat. “How many more demands will you make of me?”

“Do this for me, and you’ll be rid of me forever. I swear it.”

This woman was the worst mistake she had ever made as a woman and as the Avatar. She could only be selfish right now. Kyoshi the woman answered, tucking the Avatar away for another day. “I will raise you an army, My Queen.”

“I thought you’d see reason. Now lie down and let me have you one more time.”

“No!” She woke herself up with her own cry. Her unfamiliar hands shook as she stared at them, her brown palms wide with a scar through one of her lifelines. That wasn’t her memory:  a pale finger touching her palm to read her future, a touch that had captured Kyoshi’s heart until her death. Even that memory wasn’t enough to erase the horror of it, the agony of fear and regrets so rooted… She closed her eyes and pictured Jhao’s sweet smile. No, she thought. Asami. The woman she’d pictured was Asami, in her bed with the sun spilling across the sheets.

She was Korra, and the horrible memory wasn’t hers. She’d never been raped or coerced to do such a terrible thing. The clarity and detail of that dream must mean it was a memory, and what a horrible memory to have.

Kyoshi hadn’t started the Dai Li as a noble police; it had been corrupt all along. It didn’t take a genius to understand why this dream had come to her.

A larger part of Korra turned over the truth of Kyoshi’s sexual attraction to someone she loathed. It was like Asami had described:  finding a stranger from a gender she believed was required for her to find emotional and romantic fulfillment in order to have wholly physical sex, sex that made her hate herself. The only conclusion Korra could draw from that story was that Asami was incredibly complicated. Just the thought of Asami’s definition and her strange defensiveness of her sexuality made Korra’s head hurt.

She rolled to her side and exhaled. What was the point of Asami’s label, especially if she was afraid of it? It seemed so arbitrary to separate sex, romance, and love. Korra understood Asami’s thought process, but she didn’t empathize with it. Korra couldn’t argue that Mako or Asami weren’t attractive or that that attraction wasn’t aided in part by their looks, but their looks had nothing to do with their gender, not to her. If Asami were a man, or whatever else someone might be, she would still love her. Asami’s pleasure was Korra’s pleasure, and that would hold true no matter her physical form.

Korra moaned and dropped her arm over her eyes. ‘Complicated’ didn’t adequately cover any of this. But what did gender matter to her when she’d been and loved so many people in her past lives?

There was definitely a learning curve to this relationship thing, Asami’s sexuality and their sexual relationship aside. Though Korra had been aware she wanted more than friendship with Asami before leaving for the South, she hadn’t realized how much work it was to dedicate time to another person.

She’d learned quickly that Asami, who so rarely lost her temper, could turn into a very irritated version of herself if she didn’t know Korra’s plans for the week. Everything about Asami screamed ‘structure’. It was hard to conform to that, but Korra did her best. Korra had to communicate more clearly with everyone else in her life—mainly Tenzin—to plan, and planning was a headache. It was a worthwhile headache at least, and she was learning that Asami was flexible with forewarning. Korra could call if her plans changed.

She sympathized with Asami’s need for discretion even if she didn’t entirely understand it. The way that Asami touched her hand or smiled at her when they went out should be enough for anyone to know what they meant to each other. If propriety was required for them to stay together, Korra would be patient and pretend they were just friends in public.

A small uncertain part of her remembered Asami saying she’d created a list about whether to enter this relationship. Did that reflect on how easily Asami could cut away the romantic part of what they shared? She’d also told Korra that they shouldn’t sleep together if Korra held things back… No. They loved each other. Both of their lives were fuller for what they shared. Korra certainly wouldn’t lose Asami without a fight. She definitely wouldn’t lose her because she was unwilling to schedule.

At least she could go into the spirit world from anywhere. Not that it had been particularly fruitful recently. Spirits still skittered away from her when she was armed with a question or reached out to learn more about them. How did you ask a spirit if it was feeling a little darker than usual or if they knew that spirit vines were being drained of energy? Apparently she couldn’t.

Poor Asami, so ashamed by something she hadn’t asked to happen. Korra felt her guilt and hated that someone she loved was bogged down by a feeling she struggled with almost every day. Tenzin had summed it up with the conclusion it was done now; it was a good result from a bad situation. It just wasn’t that easy to push away fears of inadequacy or wrong-doing.

Abrupt anxiety brought her into full wakefulness. Her own bad situation rushed to the forefront of her thoughts:  the White Lotus… Corruption, collusion, embezzlement, and racketeering. There was no more sleep, not with the knot in her chest. She would not leave her own Dai Li to spread its corruption through the ages.

Korra knew she needed to talk to Tenzin in more detail about the White Lotus, but she wanted a different sympathetic ear. Korra bathed and went to the kitchens before the first stove had been lit. She rolled rice flour dough over red bean paste, dropped them into boiling water to cook briefly, and gathered a portable tea set. She left a note with Tenzin that she was visiting Zaheer.

The pass was incredibly windy that morning, but she braved those winds until she under the mountain. The White Lotus guards were surprised by her visit, but they didn’t complain as they took most of the rice buns. Per Sung, these men and women were well-trained but paid very little for their skill. Maybe she could make their day a little better.

Zaheer looked at her neutrally as she entered his cell. He dropped to the ground and stood still as she walked into the perimeter of his bonds. She didn’t hesitate today.

“Do you like rice buns?”

“As much as any red blooded man or woman.”

Korra assumed that was a ‘yes’. She set out tea and rice buns, and Zaheer ate and drank with the single-minded focus of a man who lived on gruel and water.

“What’s troubling you, Korra?”

“You were right. About the money.”

He studied her silently. “Let us go into the spirit world. Please, leave my ring or the guards will interfere.” She waited for him to finish his food and tea before she retreated twenty feet. They entered the spirit world together.

“You were saying?”

“You were right about the corruption. The masters have been stealing at least half of all donations to the White Lotus. They were paying off politicians too. Politicians were paying them too.”

Zaheer took a long breath and frowned. “I assure you, this brings me no pleasure.”

“How did Suntoq become head of the White Lotus?”

Zaheer’s gaze sharpened. He sat down and folded his fingers together. “That is an astute question. The original leader of the White Lotus during the Hundred Year War was General Iroh—the elder, not the grandson. Though he and his compatriots said there was no actual head, he organized the masters loosely. After Iroh’s death, Sokka assumed his position. Sokka did so at Aang’s request to find the next Avatar, and he also did so by his own right.”

“So Sokka was the leader.”

“As much as any man who could lead would want to lead such an organization.” Zaheer raised his eyebrows at her questioning look. “Men in the White Lotus—good men by their virtue even if not by act—understood that they were one of many talented men, all fighting for the same goal. Sokka was like that, as was Iroh.”

“Was it only men?”

“Until Sokka was appointed head, yes. He was a feminist and opened the ranks to women, though from what Xai Bau said, there were few takers.”

“How did Suntoq depose Sokka?”

“Depose? You’ve learned something from me yet. No, I killed Sokka.”

A flush of cold shock rose up her neck, but she blocked the emotion as the sky darkened. Zaheer smiled in a grimace that put a shiver of fear in her. She’d seen that expression before. Zaheer was a dangerous man, and she'd forgotten that briefly.

“I assure you Sokka was trying to kill me. I retaliated, and my blow struck. You see, he was ready when I came south to kidnap you.”

“Because Unalaq betrayed you. But how did Suntoq figure in this?”

“He was in the right place at the right time. He started with the White Lotus early, and by all accounts, he had ambition. Sokka’s death left a void to fill. I presume because the White Lotus was loosely organized, Suntoq stepped up and turned it into a rigid structure, one that he led firmly. Men followed because that is what men do.”

“Did no one know he was associated with Unalaq?”

“Why would that be considered a bad thing? Unalaq never betrayed his ties to the Red Lotus. He washed his hands of us many times over.”

“Oh.” This went even deeper than she’d first assumed. Suntoq and Unalaq could have teamed up to betray the Red Lotus and restructure the White Lotus in one move, and that was something she wasn't ready to consider. “Oh shit.”

“Oh shit indeed. What will you do?"

“Fix it,” she said with more certainty than she had at that moment.

Funny to think the White Lotus’s headquarters for Republic City were in the old fashioned offices on Air Temple Island. Korra knocked on the frame and stepped inside. High Master Gaou, an earthbender from Ba Sing Se—and a former Dai Li trainee—was within the office. He looked up from the desk inside. He smiled in a formal way; in comparison to her usual greeting from the other two masters, it seemed a kind expression.

“How rare to see you here, Korra. What can I do for you?”

Korra wondered at the fact she felt uncomfortable sitting in front of Gaou’s wide desk. He’d bought three Satomobiles and an apartment down the street from Asami’s apartment building with White Lotus money, and those were the innocent things he did with his money. Gaou templed his fingers as he studied her. His beard had finally gone from gray to white to match his hair.

“I want to use the White Lotus to distribute food and clothing to the homeless people who live in the Spirit Wilds.”

He raised a dubious eyebrow. “I admire your motivations, but…”

“But what?”

“But perhaps you should turn your pursuits to larger, more important matters, like donating to the new Earth Kingdom states to spread your influence.”

If he’d been raised in Ba Sing Se, maybe his mentality fit. Maybe he'd learned it after being in the White Lotus for nearly twenty years. “I want to help the people, not some governor in the Earth Confederation.”

“I’m only saying you should consider choosing a more deserving population.” He saw her expression tense and continued quickly. “It’s well known those vagrants are homeless for a reason. By choice or laziness, they do nothing to help themselves. Why should someone as powerful as you help someone who does nothing to advance their own lives?”

Korra let anger override politeness. “How dare you?! So what if some of them are happy living in the Spirit Wilds? So what if they can’t find a job that pays well enough for them to buy an apartment in the city? They need to eat and they need clothes just like the rest of us!”

“Korra—” he tried to interject.

“Have you ever been homeless? I have! One night someone stole my backpack, my money, and my shoes. I had nothing. A man stood over me and pissed on me when I was asleep. I chose to be anonymous, but I didn’t choose for people to treat me like dirt. Thanks to the generosity of a woman you’d probably call a second class citizen, I was fed, clothed, and had a bath to use and a bed to sleep in that night. I’m in a position to be that person now, and I will help.”

He rocked back in his seat during her story. His mouth cracked open, then it closed. His shoulders slumped. “I’ll set aside funds for clothing and food. I’ll also ask for volunteers among the White Lotus to distribute those supplies. Would a day in two weeks be appropriate?”

“Yes.” She clenched her fists and relaxed. “Thank you, Master Gaou.”

He studied her for a long moment, his face cast in a much different expression than when she’d first sat down. His smile was bitter. “You’re the leader of the White Lotus, Avatar Korra. We’re here to obey you. But you’re welcome.”

Ikki, Jinora, and Opal caught wind of Korra’s project to give aid to the inhabitants of the Spirit Wilds and volunteered to go against Tenzin’s worries. Korra was comfortable with them coming. The vines hadn’t been attacking airbenders since she purified the vine supply at Future Industries, and while the dark energies in the spirit world hadn’t abated, they hadn’t spread. Everything seemed to be at an impasse at the moment.

The food and clothing was ordered in good supply, probably because she bothered Gaou about it daily. What surprised Korra was the number of White Lotus volunteers. She thought she’d only need five, but Gaou handed her a sheet of seventy-six volunteers. That was almost every White Lotus trainee in Republic City, nearly half of all members.

"Seventy-six," she told Asami as they climbed into bed after a late date night. "How do I choose?"

"Lottery. Put names in a box and draw a few. It's good they want to help you." Asami kissed her neck and wrapped an arm over her waist as they settled in each other's arms. "How is it going with Sung?"

"It's going. I don't want to talk about it."

"I'm here if you ever do want to talk about it," Asami told her quietly.

Korra rubbed her hand along Asami's arm, enjoying the touch. "I know. I just... It's bad stuff. Do you think it's bad that I'm using Gaou to get this project done right before I try to get rid of them?"

"The White Lotus may not be capable of helping anyone while you go through the transition. Do this now and enjoy it. Plus, they used you for years. Fair's fair." Asami's voice had gone muzzy with sleep, but Korra lay awake a while longer, studying the now familiar bookcase and bedside table on the opposite wall. Asami's room was becoming as familiar as her own. It wasn't the heart-racing whirlwind of their night in the igloo, but it was soft and comfortable and... It was home.

As Asami suggested, Korra randomly picked ten White Lotus members but invited every volunteer to train with her the day before. Sixty excited men and women were eager pupils, despite the fact Korra wasn’t a great teacher. Sixty good people were paid next to nothing and put into dead-end positions.

By the time she and the airbenders arrived at the designated spot in the Spirit Wilds, the White Lotus volunteers had set up their distribution tables, and a line of occupants had formed. Korra was surprised by but ignored the reporters that tagged along.

Gommu was a welcome sight. She waved, and he grinned and waved back. Korra strode into the midst of people and pulled him into a hug. He slapped her shoulder with a laugh. “Look at how you’ve grown, Avatar!” He smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a while, but she didn’t mind an honest smell like that. He sat down behind the distribution table to talk to her while he wolfed down his stew and bread. The new coat he put around his shoulders made him grin. He even clicked his heels in his new boots.

He lost his smile and motioned her a bit away from the others. When they were out of earshot, he said, “Some bad things going on around these parts. These Wilds are wilder, you know. We lost a man to them, an airbender.”

Alarm filled her. “Who?”

“We called him Slick, but he was mute so no one knew his name. He would always loop between Second and B, and he’d stay with Yanna most nights. Then one day, poof, he was gone.”

“When was this?”

“A few months ago. Never could find him.”

Korra wondered at that on and off through the day. She shook a lot of hands, gave a lot of hugs, and sat down with a group of men and women around midday with her own bowl of stew. They talked shyly with her, and she learned more names than she’d remember.

It was late afternoon by the time the last occupant left with new clothes and a meal in hand. These people seemed to keep a curfew, maybe because of the spirit vines. Korra hadn’t forgotten Gommu’s information and walked into a dense cluster of vines. She pressed her hand to it. It was difficult to tease out the location of a man she’d never met, but she sensed dozens of tags of spiritual energy. The airbenders were the brightest tags of energy. She slipped back and forth among locations, finding humans alive and vital.

A dim echo finally drew her attention; the muted energy was surrounded by a cluster of much stronger spiritual energy. “Opal, Jinora, come with me.”

They snapped to attention. A White Lotus guard was also at hand. “Let us help, Avatar.”

“I need airbenders to get there quickly. Please pack up and take Ikki back. Let Tenzin know we’re finding someone in the Spirit Wilds. Thank you all so much for volunteering. Thank you all.”

Korra led them through the Spirit Wilds with her glider, and she landed close to where she’d sensed the strange energy. She pushed through the curtain of vines and stepped into the husk of a building that withstood the mass of vines that burrowed into it. The shadows in the room were long and deep.

Jinora gasped behind her. Korra glanced back, taking in Jinora’s face lit by eerie green tone. The pod that sat in front of them was outlined by twining vines, and the light it produced was muted. The form that curled inside the pod was skeletal, a black heart in the center of glowing green.

Korra sank down into half lotus and slipped into the spirit world, tracing this twining of energy to the corresponding place in the spirit world. The clearing was overgrown and gray; it seemed to exist in a place between darkness and light. The pod that housed this man’s spirit was pale yellow. As Korra touched it, she realized the man’s spirit had melded to the pod that housed it. It all flickered away at her touch.

When she came back into her human body, Jinora and Opal were tugging the man’s body from the ruptured pod. Korra didn’t have to look to know he was dead.

It was there all along, all the clues. She had fixed the problem too soon to realize the true consequence. The spirits were responding to their own corruption. They did want to find balance and purify themselves so they reached for the easiest source of power in the human world:  the human spirit.

This airbender, Slick, had his spirit drained for nearly a season. And for what? Humans wanted a renewable energy source to power their lights, cars, and their movers. Humans wanted to sell skins, eat until they were fat, and harvest bile and baleen from the wildlife of their world until there was nothing left.

Korra touched the man’s skeletal hand. “This is our fault.”

“How, Korra?”

She couldn’t tell Asami about this.

Lin and Mako arrived less than an hour later. Lin was decidedly grumpy, and that irritation grew at the sight of the dead man. Jinora and Opal went outside to watch the vines for any activity, protective of the officers setting up their equipment to survey the scene.

“Who the hell is this?” It was Lin’s first question, and it was delivered after she spend a few minutes studying the room in silence. Korra had studied it too:  the thick vines, the broken pod and its sludge, and the skeletal figure they’d arranged respectfully on the floor. Slick’s body was still slack in death, and he was thinner than even the Reeducation Camp prisoners had been. His sticky clothes swamped him like a Water Tribe funeral cloth.

“He’s a mute airbender who lived in the Spirit Wilds. He was called Slick, according to Gommu.”

That information only increased Lin’s ire. She rubbed a temple vigorously and asked quietly, “Who the fuck is Gommu?”

“A homeless friend of mine.”

Lin rolled her eyes as she stepped away and squared her shoulders. “Of course you’re friends with homeless people.”

Mako had been crouched in the corner to study the room. He stood up and moved along one wall, his eyes on the corpse. “When did he go missing?”

“Gommu said it was a couple months ago. You should find him and ask him. He said Slick stayed some nights with Yanna. She may know more.”

“Who the fuck is that?”

Korra had the bizarre temptation to laugh at Lin's profanities. “I don’t know. He never pointed her out to me.”

“How did the man die?” Mako asked.

“The spirit vines… They must have been drawing on his spiritual energies the entire time he was here. When we found him, I went into the spirit world to purify the pod holding him. His spirit had melded into it. When I came back, he was dead.”

“Of course,” Lin muttered, not at all surprised by the information. The sigh she heaved seemed to shake her body. “It’s hard enough to keep people calm about the spirits. This is going to be a minefield.”

“We have to protect the spirits and spirit vines.”

Lin caught her implication. “You think people abusing the spirits is causing this?”

Korra hesitated and nodded.

“What proof do you have?”

“I don’t have proof. That’s not how things work with the spirits.”

“I need to get back to the station to figure out a public statement.” Lin’s anger had faded into weariness. She turned to push aside the vines and step into the street.

Mako caught Korra’s arm before she could leave with Lin. His gaze was sharp and direct. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

Korra lowered her voice. “Asami called me a few weeks ago. Someone in her research department had been experimenting on vines for a couple months. She didn’t know. She shut it down and called me in to purify the vines. I told Tenzin, but I didn’t think I needed to tell anyone else.”

“A couple months,” Mako repeated.

“Yeah. It’s suspect. She’s going to blame herself for this, Mako. I don’t want her to know.”

“She’s going to find out. Would you rather her find out from you or the newspaper?”

Korra deflated. “Yeah, I get it.”

Mako put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Tell her the truth, and tell her you love her. We can’t and shouldn’t hide this from the press.”

“What are you two mumbling about?” Lin pushed aside the vines that covered the entrance, and she pointed to Korra. “You go to the station with Opal and Jinora. We need you to give an official statement.”

“I’ll drive you,” Mako offered, stepping aside for a man with a camera to enter.

“Now? Am I a suspect?”

He sighed. “No. But it’s better to get this done now when the memory is fresh. Should I let someone else take over, Chief?”

Lin shrugged, her equivalent of a ‘no’. “Have your partner lead, but I see no issue with you taking Korra's statement.”

It was evening by the time they got to the police station. Korra realized she had to tie up a loose end. “Can I call Asami? I was supposed to meet her for dinner.”

Mako volunteered, “I’ll call her for you. Future Industries Tower?”

It was too early for Asami to be off work even on her ‘short’ days. “Yeah. Tell her I’ll probably crash at Air Temple Island. I need to talk to Tenzin about this.”

Korra was split off from Opal and Jinora into a room that was a bit more comfortable than when she’d been arrested. There was a cushion on the seat, and the light was a little softer. She also wasn’t handcuffed. An unfamiliar detective eventually sat down across from her. “I’m Detective Xiao. Can I get you something to eat, Avatar?”

“That would be great.”

He left the room immediately. Korra leaned back and sighed, angry with herself for agreeing to food and slowing the process down. It was another half hour before the detective was back with Mako and a buttoned up young woman who carried a box of takeout and a typewriter.

“Okay, so now what?” Korra popped the paper top to her food and mixed the food inside.

“We need a retelling from start to finish about what happened today. Start with speaking to Gommu.”

Korra did. She was distracted momentarily; the woman used metalbending to type what Korra was saying. There was a certain skill to move those tiny delicate parts. This woman probably could have opened Asami’s lacy underwear without ripping the wire clasps. "Where did you learn how to do that?"

The woman glanced at her and blushed. "I practiced with my parents' typewriter."

"That takes a lot of talent."

"Focus," Mako said not unkindly.

Korra ate a bite of food to fortify her before she started her story. She only got as far as reaching for the spirit vines when Xiao stopped her. His questions indicated he didn't believe her ability to sense spiritual energy. When they finally moved on from that, he wanted to know why she'd only asked Opal and Jinora along. She explained they were good in a pinch, could travel as quickly as she did, and Jinora also had ties to the spirit world. Xiao asked his first understandable question, but it only added to her irritation with him. "Did you think the vines would attack you?"

“No. I didn’t, but there are plenty of times I was wrong when I was sure.”

“Moving on,” Mako said. “Where did you go and what did you find?”

Korra continued her story until Xiao predictably interrupted her when she described going into the spirit world to ask how that worked.

“Do you want me to tell this story or not?” she snapped at him. She looked to Mako in irritation and gestured towards the other detective. “Where did you find this guy?”

“He’s my partner,” Mako responded evenly, in full professional mode. “He’s a great detective, just a little more skeptical about the spiritual stuff than most.”

Korra gathered her patience and turned back to Xiao. “Sorry. I’m just a little tired of being here.”

Xiao nodded evenly. “Story of my life.”

“I can sense spiritual energies in the spirit world. I did it when I found the missing people before Kuvira’s attack on Republic City. It may be related to my avatar spirit. I don’t know, but I can do it. I found him, and his spirit had faded and become part of the energies in the spirit world. His spirit melted away when I purified the pod holding him. I wish I could have saved him, but there was nothing left to save. When I came back into my physical body, the pod had burst, and Opal and Jinora were pulling Slick’s body from it. He was dead.”

“Thanks, Korra. We’ll call you in to sign a written statement from what you said tonight within two days.”

“Wait a minute.” Xiao leaned forward. “Why? Why would the vines do this?”

“In the South, it was overhunting. Here, I think it’s spirit vine research. I’m pretty sure about that.”

Xiao’s tone wasn’t unkind. “But you’ve been sure and wrong before.”

She wanted to tell them about her fear that the spirits were trying to leech human energies, but she held back. She couldn't imagine the panic reincarnationists would spark. Was Slick’s soul gone, or would he be born into another person? Korra was sickened by that thought. She was caught between her duties for humans and her responsibilities for the spirits. How could she educate about the consequences of using spiritual energy without starting a war against the spirits?

As they stepped out of the interview room, Xiao shook Korra’s hand. “Believe it or not, I’m a fan. I hope to see you and my partner at that probending tournament in a few months.”


Mako caught her in the stairwell. “Opal and Jinora are already back at Air Temple Island. Do you need a ride?”

“No, just my glider. Why did it take that long?”

“Ironing out details. Things don’t always happen fast around here.”

“What are you telling the public?”

“I’m sure Chief Beifong will call you.”

She wasn't going to get any details out of him while he was in work mode. “If you need help finding Gommu, let me know. See you, hotshot.” She gave him a brief hug before striding out of the station. Her smile faded as she opened her kite. More stress, and it was physical pain around her neck and chest.

Air Temple Island was a breath of fresh air after being boxed in the police station for what had turned out to be a long few hours. When she landed, she walked to the communal dining area. Given how late it was, she was surprised to see Tenzin, Opal, Jinora, and Bumi all at the table. She was further surprised when Asami stood up and folded her into a hug.

“Are you alright? Why would the police keep you so long?”

“They were just taking a statement.”

“What happened?” Asami wanted to know.

Korra glanced at the other airbenders, surprised she didn’t know from them. “I just got here,” Asami admitted. “I got a little side-tracked at work.”

“I need to talk to you privately.”

When they stepped into Tenzin’s office, Asami cocked her head. “What’s going on?”

“I love you,” Korra told Asami.

“I love you too,” Asami responded. She looked suspicious. “What’s wrong?”

“Sit down.” Korra waited for Asami to sit down on the floor with her. She took her hand and studied her weary face. It must have been a long day at work; Asami’s clothes were wrinkled and her lipstick had faded. Korra loved her for that quiet vulnerability. “I know you’re going to blame yourself, and you shouldn’t. Okay?”

Asami's lips pinched, and her expression shifted in concealed alarm. “For what?”

“We found a homeless man in the Spirit Wilds. He’d been drained of his spiritual energy by the vines. He…” There was really no way around it, and Asami would figure it out on her own. “He was taken a couple months ago.”

“A couple… Oh no.” Asami pulled her hand away, her face going pale. She touched her fingertips to her temples. “You’re saying it was because of the research? I killed a man—”

“No. You didn’t do that.”

“That research went on in my building for two months, and I had no idea!”

“Yeah, you had no idea. And you called me and stopped that research as soon as you knew. Asami, everyone makes mistakes, and yours doesn’t even qualify. I’ve messed up so much, really messed up. You learn from those mistakes and move on. You didn’t kill that man.”

“How can I face the airbenders?”

“No one blames you.”

Asami’s alarm was uncharacteristic. She seemed to be on the verge of a panic attack. “You told them?!”

Korra grabbed her and pulled her into a hard hug, holding Asami close as her chest jerked with sobs. She held on and didn't let go, just like she had after Asami had come home from discovering spirit vine research. Korra hadn't known Asami could cry like this until after the Republic City Battle. She loved Asami so much in this moment that it felt like it would break from her chest in a physical form. She rocked Asami close and hushed her until the tears had dried and Asami's chest stopped shuddering with her gasps.

"Do you know what Tenzin told me? He said you made the best out of a bad situation."

"I let this happen."

Korra pushed Asami back enough to study her, the bright green of her teary eyes, the smudges of makeup on her cheeks. She rubbed Asami's cheek with her thumb. "No, I let this happen. If I had combed through the vines, I could have found him. Gommu could have contacted the police instead of waiting months to tell me. Asami, even if you're going to feel guilty about this, know that you stopped it from happening ever again. That's all you could do, and you did it immediately."

Asami took a long breath and nodded. She hadn't let it go, but at least she wasn't panicking about it now. Korra went with her while she washed her face, and then they walked back to the dining room. Tenzin glanced between them as they sat down at the table. Korra was happy to eat a cold noodle dish left out for her. Asami took a plate too, but she only pushed the noodles around.

“So if the spirit vine research is to blame, why are vines doing this?” Tenzin asked.

Korra glanced at Asami. “The spirits told me a while ago that they can sense me best and airbenders too. That dark spirits want to become purified. Maybe the vines do the same thing. A spirit told me a long time ago that spirits and vines are the same thing so they must all be connected.”

“But why kidnapping and draining spiritual energy?”

Asami shifted as her expression opened in realization. “There’s a finite amount of energy in the world. You can’t just create it. Energy has to come from something. There’s been this assumption that their energy is limitless, but maybe it’s the same for spirits:  energy can’t just be created. If we’re using their spiritual energy to power us in the physical world, maybe they’re trying to drain something from us to regain that energy.”

Korra glanced over, surprised by how succinct that explanation was. She should have known Asami would fit the pieces together. Asami shook her head at Korra. “You know that, don’t you?”

“I just realized today. We rescued people too soon to really understand what the spirits were doing with them. What I don’t know is how the balance of dark and light relate to this. The pods that held Mima and her father created light energy in the spirit world. Using spirit vines seems to produce dark energy.”

“Don’t forget that spirits can make an engine go haywire too,” Bumi pointed out.

“What happens when you purify a spirit, Korra?” Opal asked.

Korra considered the process. “I’m honestly not sure, but I turn dark to light.”

“Do you think that releases energy?”

“I don’t know. The purified spirit fades, but maybe it’s just going back into the spirit world to renew itself. I wish I understood the social structure of spirits. Apparently when they go dark, the other spirits divorce themselves from the process. I was told a dark spirit that kidnapped a baby in the south was on her own if she went too dark. I purified her.” Korra felt a little sick as a new thought came to her. “I wonder if I’m killing them when I do that.”

Jinora was quick with her rebuttal. “They’re already dead, Korra. A dark spirit that’s that far gone will never return to itself. Don’t you remember from Vaatu?”

“There were some that returned to their natural form though.” She shook her head and wondered at that. She glanced up as a White Lotus sentry walked into the room. “Avatar Korra, Chief Beifong is on the phone.”

It wasn’t a long conversation, but it was a hard one. They would meet in the morning before Lin’s press conference to go over their dialogue with the press. She went in search of Asami after she ended the call and walked her to the women’s dormitory. Her room was familiar, and Naga lifted her head from the small braided rug to greet them with a grin; she remained still when Korra gave her the signal to stay. Asami regarded Korra’s hard bed expressionlessly.

Korra opened her chest of drawers to tug out a heavy bundle. She grinned and tossed it onto the bed. She rearranged her bedding and motioned triumphantly to the soft mattress cover. Asami smiled somberly. Korra tugged her closer. Her levity wasn’t helping this time. “It’s not your fault.”

“It’s my company.”

“And you delegate because you have to. We already talked about this:  it was a mistake, but it wasn’t yours, and you’ve already made sure it won’t happen again.”

“A man died. Maybe forever if his spiritual energy was used up.”

“Asami, I feel like I’ve failed almost every day. I don’t want you to shoulder that burden; you don’t have to.”

Asami looked at her with shock, and she reached out to seize Korra close. They held each other tightly.

“You’re amazing,” Asami told her, framing Korra’s face in her hands.

“So are you,” Korra responded. Her eyes filled with tears. “I know how lucky I am to be with you—”

Asami’s mouth met hers with a hard kiss. “I’m the lucky one. Wu once asked me out by telling me he was super-human. I wanted to laugh in his face.” She pushed Korra’s hair back from her forehead. “I was already in love with you, and you’re as close as anyone gets to that. I just have to try to deserve you.”

"Then forgive yourself for whatever you think you've done wrong."

Asami pressed her forehead to Korra's, and they rocked together for a long moment of peace. She nodded. Korra was relieved when Asami fell asleep only a few minutes after lying down. Her thoughts churned, but the soft jazz on the radio soothed them to quiet, and she faded into surprisingly restful sleep. There was safety in Asami's arms.

Lin led the press conference the following morning. She started with the standard introduction of her officers and Korra. She described the events of the previous day but left out the uncertainties of ‘why’. She and Korra had prepared for the fact that anyone with half a brain would think to ask.

The mayor of Republic City, Duong, took the microphone after Lin introduced him. He made his own introductions and then went on to say, “We have been working closely with the United Republic and the untiring officers of Republic City’s police force. Avatar Korra will be guiding us through our relationship with the Spirit Wilds and the spirits through a task force dedicated to keep the public safe. I will ask that the community remains patient as we better determine how to safely and effectively live with the spirits, especially in light of the new spirit portal. Please avoid rumors and innuendo. Spreading disinformation will only increase the difficulty of getting to the root of these issues.”

Lin stepped back up the microphone. “Thank you, Mayor Duong. Now Avatar Korra has a few words to say.”

Korra cleared her throat and wished she had some water. She hadn’t been nervous about the award ceremony speech, but this was another animal. “Thanks. I agree with Chief Beifong’s restriction on travel in the Spirit Wilds. Though I know it’s unrealistic to remove and restrict travel to the Spirit Wilds by the current homeless population, we will be figuring out a method to house them safely. Many of them felt the Spirit Wilds were more welcoming than the city after current administration dismantled their homeless camps. For all citizens, please do not enter the Spirit Wilds, and don’t engage with any dark spirits, especially if you're an airbender. I’m trying to establish a dialogue with the spirits to understand their corruption, but they’re hesitant to speak of it. I will continue to try until we understand why this is happening.”

“Thank you, Avatar Korra,” Chief Beifong said. “I open the floor for questions.”

There were some expected standard questions, but soon questions were leveled at Korra alone. Lin said, “Avatar Korra won’t be answering—”

Korra stepped forward against her better judgment. This was why she was here. “I’ll answer some questions.”

Lin shot her a warning glance as she stepped away from the microphone. Immediately all hands were raised. She pointed to a reporter in the front row. He asked, “Why are the spirits unwilling to open dialogue with you about their own corruption? You're the link between our world and theirs.”

“I am. But I’m also human. Some of what has been happening defies my understanding, and the spirits communicate in a different way than we do. I learned why certain spirits in the South were being corrupted by allowing them to possess me.” She quickly took a tangent. “Don’t attempt that. When the spirits and humans last lived together thousands of years ago, spirit possession caused permanent disfigurement. When I allowed those spirits to possess me, I saw visions of why they were corrupted:  overhunting. I believe destruction of natural resources also ties into their spiritual energies.”

Another reported asked, “What is causing corruption in Republic City? There is only regulated hunting of overpopulated wildlife in the mountains surrounding the city.”

Korra hesitated, remembering Lin’s sharp warning about wading into a battle of what-ifs. “Before Kuvira attacked us, she harvested spirit vines from the banyan tree to power her mech and her weapon. At that time, civilians were kidnapped in the Spirit Wilds.”

“Then you think someone is harvesting spirit vines now?”

“I think we need to consider doing so could cause severe problems in the spirit world.”

“Can you confirm who may be harvesting vines?”

“I have no comment on that,” Korra said, which set of a roar of new questions.

She pointed to a reporter in the second row. “Is the White Lotus going to aid the efforts of the government and police to protect the citizens of Republic City?”

That hurt. Korra rubbed her hands over the podium. “I will be sending a request for the High Masters to meet to discuss how we can use the White Lotus to help in this situation.”

“The High Masters? Can’t you direct them?”

“No comment,” Korra responded, sparking another roar of questions. She pointed to another man, who asked, “How will you have time to protect us if you’re busy training for a pro-bending tournament?”

“I haven’t been training, and I doubt I’ll spend more than a few hours doing it anyway. I agreed to participate in the tournament to raise funds to revitalize the sport, but it is a volunteer position only. Interacting safely with the spirits and protecting the world are my priorities.”

“There are reports that you have declined to help establish stable governments in the Earth Confederation states.”

“That’s enough.” Lin stepped in front of Korra before she could respond. “This press briefing is about the kidnapping and death of a man in the Spirit Wilds, not about Avatar Korra’s professional situation. She will be taking no more questions.”

“What is the most helpful thing that the public can do right now?” a reporter asked Lin.

“Stay out of the Spirit Wilds and report any possible dark spirit activity. Please also write to your lawmakers to discourage the use of spirit vines for energy use and encourage restriction of use of our natural resources.”

And so it went. The press conference took nearly an hour, with Lin patiently answering questions and deflecting the media away from her. Korra realized as she stood on that stage that she would have to pay Raiko a visit to get his take on the matter. While the mayor had been here today, it was Raiko who would have to get involved to change policies. As Lin had described it:  federal trumped local. Even if it became illegal to use spirit vines for energy in Republic City, a company could conduct research in other districts of the United Republic, putting Republic City at risk in the process.

So as much as Korra wanted to avoid speaking with Raiko again, she knew she’d put the meeting off too long. He needed to be aware of what was going on with the spirits, even if he wasn’t open to helping her.

Despite how weird it felt, that night after the press briefing Asami coaxed her into a mock talk where she went over talking points. It had helped, and Asami gave her a few tips about what Raiko in particular would want to hear.

She was strangely nervous as she waited for Raiko to receive her the following morning. His secretary had made it seem like her request for a meeting was a huge imposition, and he was making her wait for it. She’d been here for nearly an hour. Korra tried not to read anything into the fact that no one had entered or left the entire time she’d been waiting. He could have been on the phone.

Korra wiped her sweaty palms on her pants hastily when his secretary finally told her to enter the President’s office. The door shut behind her.

“Avatar Korra.” Raiko shook her hand in an uncharacteristic move. Korra resisted the temptation look around to see if a photographer was hiding in the room.

“President Raiko,” she responded, holding his hand in a firm shake. “Thank you for meeting with me.”

He motioned for her to take a seat. Instead of sitting behind his desk, he sat adjacent to her in one of his visitor chairs. “Would you like coffee?”

“Water, please.”

He poured them both a glass of iced water before taking a seat again. Raiko adjusted his glasses and leaned back in his seat. “I know we haven’t had the best working relationship.”

“To say the least,” Korra responded dryly.

“I would like to put all of that aside. To put it frankly, you’re very popular right now. People have learned to live with the vines, yesterday aside, and they feel you single-handedly saved our city from destruction several times—in the face of my own powerlessness, unfortunately.”

This had to be a lead-in for something. “How can I help you, Raiko?”

He pursed his lips like he’d tasted something bitter. “I would like your endorsement for my next campaign.”

She remembered his money had already tainted the White Lotus. “President Raiko, with all due respect, I have no place in human politics. I’m not going to support any candidate. I’ve learned my lesson about that.”

He relaxed back into his seat. “Then you won’t be supporting anyone. I have your word?”

“Yes,” Korra responded. It wasn’t worth taking offense. “All I want right now is to learn more about the spirit world.”

“Perhaps to present a solution to our problems instead of causing more.”

She ignored him. “I think the dark spirits and the kidnappings are in response to the use of spirit vines to generate power. We need legal protection for the vines and the spirits, especially until we figure out more about the relationship between the spirit world and the physical world.”

“They aren’t a part of this world. I don’t see how I can put any sort of law around them based on your hunches.”

Korra leaned forward, thanking Asami for predicting that claim. “They’re a part of this world now. Do you want more citizens kidnapped or dark spirits trashing downtown? They can do that, and they will if we don’t protect them. My hunches are the best shot you have right now to prevent that destruction, and my hunches make sense.”

Raiko’s mouth twisted. He sighed and admitted, “There has been interest in pushing such a bill forward, and I can imagine after your press conference yesterday there will be more public interest. Given what Kuvira did, we can plan a session to discuss criminalization of spirit vine research. Shall I presume that you’ll speak at such a session?”

“Yes. Just tell me when and where.”

Raiko sipped his water. “And what about the White Lotus? Your note said this meeting would involve them.”

Korra realized with a cold flush that she’d assumed she could trust him with her information. Now her memory supplied her with the knowledge that he’d donated to the White Lotus last year, and she wished she hadn’t been so stupid to include the White Lotus in this meeting at all. She hedged her answer. “I want to divorce them from guarding Zaheer and Kuvira. The United Republic runs the prisons; I just want to pull the White Lotus guards out.”

“I see,” Raiko said. He studied her for a moment as he considered it. “My troops aren’t limitless.”

“Do you lose anything from guarding them?”

“Tax money would fund it. It is a drain on resources, especially guarding such talented benders. With the abolishment of the death penalty, there’s no other way.”

“The White Lotus built their prisons,” Korra reminded him. “You fund them now already except for most of the guards.”

Raiko seemed to dismiss that information. “And what will the White Lotus do instead?”

“I need to speak with the High Masters. I want to help people, and we should have sentries helping patrol the Spirit Wilds.” It was another hedged answer, but Raiko seemed to take her word as truth.

“Still, the bottom line is how the Republic will find the supplies and people to guard Kuvira and Zaheer. Upkeep on their prisons too. Kuvira’s barge isn’t going to last forever, and she has a long natural lifespan left.”

How depressing. She’d go insane without the feel of earth or metal for the rest of her life. Raiko paused. “Unless… You strip their bending. Then Kuvira and Zaheer can be moved to the general population federal prison.”

“Absolutely not.”

Raiko’s jaw clenched. “Then I’m afraid we have no deal.”

He wanted money, some way or another. “The White Lotus could become a company within the United Republic.”

“A big claim, one I doubt Master Suntoq will support.”

So Suntoq was in bed with Raiko. Or was it the other way around? Korra took a sip of water to calm her racing heart. “That would be a decision made with the High Masters.”

Raiko’s smile was a sneer. “So say they agree. The White Lotus becomes a nonprofit organization. You’ll owe no taxes.”

Korra thought of what she’d gleaned in her few economics lectures. “The White Lotus employees will have to pay income tax to the United Republic. That should be a bit of revenue. And we’ll owe property tax on any headquarters purchased in Republic City.”

Raiko’s gaze sharpened, and he smiled. She knew her argument had been a weak one. “You’ve become more business savvy in the last few years, Avatar Korra. That tiny bit of revenue doesn’t address the financial drain, but it is an interesting point. Do you ever wonder why the White Lotus didn’t just put the captured Red Lotus members to death?”

She hadn’t, but her mind whispered that information by torture was a motivation. Instead, she said, “The Southern Water Tribe has outlawed the death penalty since the end of the Hundred Year War. Since the attempted kidnapping and Sokka’s murder happened there, life in prison would be the sentence handed down.”

It had been a test. Raiko’s smile was oily. “My aid said that your name was put forward to run for Chieftain of the South.”

“No. Not like that. That’s not something I want or can do.”

“A pity. You would be a useful ally.” He stood and offered his hand to shake in a dismissive gesture. “My office will let you know when to attend the council session on spirit vine protection. We’ll see about Zaheer and Kuvira.”

“Thank you.”

He paused with her hand in his, drawing her arm closer with a firm grip. His stance and hold were clearly meant to be intimidating. “Your endorsement for my campaign would go a long way.”

Korra stared at him for a long moment. She slowly increased the pressure of her hand on his until the strength of his grip faded, his face tightened in pain, and he tried to pull away. “That’s called bribing, President Raiko, and that isn't how I work.”

She let go, and he turned red as he cupped his right hand in his left. “I don’t like being called a dishonest man. I have arrangements with many affluent people in this city, Asami Sato included. They donate to me, and in a time where I can benefit them in return, I do. It’s legal and an accepted practice.”

Korra felt ice drop in her gut. How could that be true? He'd wounded her, and she hoped he couldn't tell. “Good-bye, President Raiko.”

Raiko walked her to the door. She could feel his gaze on her back as she strode through his offices. Raiko was a necessary evil. She realized she’d be dealing with men and women like him for the rest of her life.

Chapter Text

There was responsibility in ownership. Her father had taught her that early in life. ‘It’s easy to make a subordinate your scapegoat, but all responsibilities should fall on you. Your rules; your fault.’

It was a burden, one that Asami didn’t truly understand until recently. She’d kept her employees safe, paid them well, and refused layoffs when possible, but this responsibility was about more than protecting her workers. Korra was right; she didn’t conduct the research, and there were a lot of missing pieces that allowed that airbender to die to the vines. It still made Asami reassess everything about her company.

Now the true consequences of spirit vine research came to light, and Asami struggled with her culpability even as she took comfort that Korra not only didn’t blame her but also appreciated how quickly Asami had acted to ban spirit vine research. Her board, on the other hand, was not as pleased. There was pressure to retract the statement every day, but she did not bend.

“There are other projects, other opportunities grounded in safe science to find sustainable energy,” she told them. “Just because Kuvira created a massive weapon powered by spirit vines doesn’t make us incapable of innovating in other safer energy markets.”

“You’re cutting off innovations before they can occur. Cabbage Corp has certainly already begun research.”

“Cabbage Corp practices many things we combat not by equaling them but by finding better solutions.” She studied the men who sat around the boardroom table, taking in the bespoke suits, the oiled hair and colored mustaches. “A man may have died because of that research.”

“Avatar Korra certainly didn’t say that during her press conference.”

She sighed. “What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room.”

That got their attention. The man taking minutes removed his fingers from his typewriter.

“That man who died had his spirit energy drained by the vines in response to us draining vines of their energies. I will not be responsible for people dying. We’ll find another way to innovate, using physical resources, not spiritual ones.”

The meeting ended with an impasse, but it was better than an outright mutiny.

Asami called Air Temple Island from her office when Lee quietly closed her blinds. She hadn’t had plans to visit Korra that night, but she’d brave Korra’s hard mattress and lumpy mattress cover—sweet of her to buy that—if only to hold Korra close. She was also curious about how Korra’s meeting with Raiko had gone. She wouldn't mind listening to Korra vent.

After she spoke to the woman manning the phone, it was Tenzin who came on the line. “She's already shut herself in for the night. I’ll let her know you called.”

She was disappointed, more than she wanted to admit to herself. Her apartment was quiet and lonely. Asami pulled one of Korra’s shirts from her drawer and put it on her pillow in a childish moment of self-pity. She snuggled into her pillow and did manage a little sleep.

The next day was busy, touring the new automobile factory warehouse and attending on-site meetings. It felt good to hear and smell the machinery; this was home, more than her father’s estate had ever been.

She'd overlooked how coveted their new automobile model was. Every model on the three lines they were currently producing was spoken for, something the warehouse manager was pleased to report. There was talk of marketing not only in the rest of the United Republic but internationally too.

She didn’t call Korra that day because she got home at ten o’clock, ate dinner, and went straight to bed. The following day, Lee pushed her out of the office at seven, and Asami finally felt like she was going home. Her entire life was focused on evenings with Korra.

She opened her apartment door to the smell of good cooking. She scented curry and komodo rhino, and her mouth watered. They were supposed to go out, but Asami wouldn’t protest Korra’s cooking. There was no Naga that night, which made her wonder if Korra planned to stay.

“Hey,” she said, rounding the kitchen counter to wrap Korra up in a hug, trying hard not to think of all the things that weighed her with guilt.

Korra’s kiss was distracted. “Hey. How are you?”

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks.” She leaned on Korra and relaxed for the first time in several days.

“Been busy at work?”

She nodded against Korra’s shoulder. Korra smelled like sweat and work; maybe they could shower together later. “Do you want to go out after we eat or can I change clothes?”

Korra patted her hand. “Go change.”

Over dinner, Korra was quiet and distracted. She nodded at all the right places, but she didn’t engage in Asami’s conversation. She didn’t offer any of her own tangents. Asami managed to connect Korra’s stiffness, her unwillingness to embrace, and this uncharacteristic terseness. She set down her utensils, unable to ignore Korra’s bad mood. “What’s wrong, Korra?”

“What?” Korra’s bright eyes finally focused on her, but they moved away after a moment.

“Don’t. I can tell. I know you don’t want to talk about the White Lotus, but if that’s eating at you like this, we should.”

“It’s not the White Lotus.”

“What is it?” Asami couldn't understand Korra’s sudden unwillingness to talk to her. She reached out to touch Korra’s hand, but Korra pulled away from her touch. That hurt.

Korra’s jaw clenched. She tapped her fingertips on the table. She took a long breath and released it harshly. “Have you ever given money to Raiko before?”

She’d expected a concern about the spirits or—accompanied by a stab of sickening guilt—spirit vine research. This question completely blindsided her. Korra’s dark mood dealt with her. It made her defensive that the obvious answer was so blatantly ugly; there was no room for the subtleties of politics in Korra’s question. She tried to keep calm, but a tremor set in her voice. “I wouldn’t call it that. Future Industries has contributed to his campaign to help him get his name out for reelection. It’s a common thing to do.”

Korra remained neutral. She wouldn’t meet Asami’s gaze. Her fist was clenched hard enough to turn her knuckles pale.  “Have you ever asked him for a favor in return?”

Those two questions together were a setup. The accusation was pointed, and it hit her in a place that brought both shame and disbelief. She couldn't understand where this attack was coming from. “Korra, what are you asking me?”

“I just asked:  Have you ever asked Raiko for a favor and expected him to do it because you gave him money?” Korra’s voice had taken a tone Asami had never heard turned toward her. She lifted her eyes and pinned Asami with a hard stare.

Asami’s jaw tightened as anger slowly rose up her throat, layering on top of fear. “Yes, but—”

Korra cut her off. She shook her head and shoved her chair back hard to take a few steps away from the table. “I can’t believe it. What kind of favors?”

“If you’d let me finish… I only asked for help in getting our recent patent application expedited. Korra, it’s not illegal.” Asami hated how her voice trembled.

“But it’s wrong. It’s bribery!”

“It’s lobbying. That’s different.”

Korra gesticulated, her movements as aggressive as her voice. “A different word that means the same thing. You give him money, and he uses his position to benefit you. That’s bribery, no matter what you call it!”

Asami put her hand over her face as a thousand useless words came to defend herself. What she stuck on was the shame she always felt after those meetings with Raiko, shame Korra was tearing out of her to lay bare. “It’s legal freedom of speech!”

“Speech isn’t money!”

“The movement was created to protect the minority!”

“How is giving Raiko money for your patent protecting anything but your company?!”

“That’s a lot of judgment from someone who doesn’t have experience in the field!” Asami tried to calm herself. “The money isn’t for—”

Korra cut her off. “Field?! Raiko gave to the White Lotus for the last few years for spirits know what! And he implied if I endorsed him with his campaign that he’d be more likely to help me with protecting the spirits and the White Lotus! He asked me to strip Kuvira and Zaheer’s bending. That’s wrong, and it should be illegal!”

They were standing across the table from each other, shouting now. Asami was focused solely on the moment, her anger, and rebutting Korra’s unfair accusations with her own.

“Every business in this country has a department dedicated to advocating for them to politicians! It's how things work here, and that has nothing to do with Raiko’s demands on you! The money goes towards campaigns, not into their pockets!”

Korra’s jaw went slack, her eyes filled with tears, and her voice cracked. “A department dedicated to paying off politicians?”

“No, not paying off! You’re not listening to me! It’s campaign money!”

“Then you don't offer campaign money or favors for them to vote your way with no regard to the public’s best interest?!”

“You don't know how the system works or how my business works!” Asami heard the desperation in her voice, a testament to the fear that was expanding in her throat.

“I know you’re so controlled by your company that you’re afraid to be in public with me!”

She reeled as if physically struck. “I only asked for a little discretion! No one with any sense would want to be seen necking in public!”

“Do you really think I’d do that? I’m not ashamed of you, but I’m starting to think you might be ashamed of me!”

“Maybe I am when you’re like this!”

Korra took a half step back as if she'd run out of steam. She whispered, “Oh.”

Asami’s defensive anger made her blind to Korra’s flinch. “You dare accuse me of being some sort of crooked business person, and then you throw this in my face. You said you were fine with staying quiet about our relationship!”

“I don’t get you,” Korra said more quietly, but her temper rose again as she spoke. “You just told me you gave him money so he’d do favors for you in office, and you pretend it’s okay? How is it?! Explain to me why that’s okay!”

“You don't seem capable of understanding what I've been trying to tell you!”

“Don't call me stupid!”

“Dammit, Korra! Listen to me!”

“Oh, I’m hearing you just fine,” Korra snapped.

Asami lashed out in pure terrified rage. “If you’re that disturbed by my supposed evil business practices, then you should—” She cut herself off, slammed her chair under the table, and strode to the window, turning her back on Korra. The silence in the next few moments was heavy.

“Are you breaking up with me?” Korra’s voice was shockingly weak compared to the anger that had raised it before. She had no right to sound that frightened.

Asami gave a disbelieving scoff. Tears were evident in her voice. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”

“I love you,” Korra said quietly.

Asami took another sharp breath. Those words didn’t help as much as they should have. “I can’t believe you would accuse me of bribery. I’ve been struggling with…” She shook her head, cutting off that tangent. “If you think I’m capable of that, then we don’t know each other as well as we thought.”

“It just seems so out of character. It’s… I’m disappointed in you. I didn’t think you would ever do that. I hoped it was a lie.”

That hurt most of all. Just as she’d swelled with pride when Korra told her she was a good person, this was a bitter pain. Korra slowly approached and touched Asami’s shoulder. Asami turned away from her touch. “Don’t,” she said sharply, angry that Korra would dare try to hold her after what she’d just said. “If you thought it was a lie, you wouldn’t have attacked me like that in the first place. I want to be alone.”

Korra stepped away. The tremble in her voice earned no sympathy from Asami. “Okay. Just… I love you. Call me when you want to talk. Or…can I call you tomorrow?”

“Go, Korra!”

"Okay. I'll call tomorrow."

The door shut behind her. The sound of the snitch of the latch echoed in the quiet of Asami’s apartment.

She continued to stare out her window at the lights of Republic City. She'd rebuilt it, lovingly crafted the curves and crosses, molded even the new cluster of lights to the east with careful aesthetic and engineering taste. She had done this with her hard work and dedication, ninety to one-hundred hours every week bent over workshop tables, on-site, or offering prosecco to government ministers and parliament alike. Her cars filled those roads, transporting people to and from work or play, moving like the city’s lifeblood. The railway and bus system owed itself to her company's electric innovations. She employed thousands of Republic City’s brightest and most dedicated workers, paid their wages, high tier health insurance, and their retirement. Asami owned Republic City. It was hers in the way that no one else could claim, not even Raiko. Not even Korra.

And Korra stripped all of that away in one moment.

I’m disappointed in you.

Her father had wounded her with those words, and she's just healed from them. Korra tore a new hole, and there was no healing that.

How dare she? How dare she say that? How dare she…state the naked truth so honestly? Korra was ignorant of the subtleties in the situation, the doublespeak that made it seem more innocent, ignorant of the fact money wasn’t enough. Yet there were no records of donations or gifts, nothing that traced the new well-paid job in lobbying for a retiring lawmakers who voted for a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. Future Industries had regulations for how its money was used, but it was still ultimately as Korra claimed:  money for favors.

Asami put her face in her hands. She wanted to cry, but without the comfort of a soft embrace, she couldn’t do more than wipe away a few silent tears. Korra made it okay to show her grief, but alone… She was just a pitiful girl sobbing to herself in her apartment. ‘Don’t cry,’ her father had told her once on the anniversary of her mother’s death. He’d slurred his words, and she’d smelled the whiskey on his breath. ‘Do something productive, something useful. You think I cried after your mother was murdered? No, I put every tear into Future Industries so I would have a legacy to give you.’

There wasn’t any way to respond to her daddy other than obeying him. She stopped crying and started doing something productive. Asami realized how unhealthy that mentality was. No wonder she struggled with depression, especially when she took to alcohol like Hiroshi did. Not dependency, only a substance that dropped her lower when she was at her lowest. Now Asami ignored the impulse to drink. The reality was dim and painful enough.

She'd thought taking care of her employees and paying her taxes made her a model citizen, but she hadn't taken into consideration Future Industries’ civic duty. Though every other major company in Republic City—nee, the United Republic blatantly skewed the system to fit their needs, consequences to the public be damned, all wrongs did not make a right.

The way Korra had confronted her over this was wrong. They would have to talk about how to be open even about accusations. Asami wished she was blind enough to disregard the message because of its delivery. It was clear Korra regretted the fight. Asami wondered if she had it in her to forgive Korra. She could so easily be vindictive and hold on to this anger. She could focus on how hurt she'd been, how much worse this made her struggle with guilt, and how Korra had so easily believed she could have so little ethics.

'I'll call you tomorrow,' Korra had said. Should she wait for that call and wallow in her selfishness? She could make Korra grovel. But Korra was also stressed, probably as stressed as Asami was. The confession that Korra shouldered the burden of her many mistakes, pressure of the world on her shoulders...

I'm disappointed in you.

Unlike when Hiroshi’s face twisted in disgust over her whispered confession of her sexuality, Korra’s statement was no spite and all quiet truth. They needed to talk, and they didn't need to wait until tomorrow. Asami turned from the window and walked to her phone. Now was not the time for pride. It wasn’t worth holding onto her temper either. She called Air Temple Island in search of Korra. Tenzin seemed to have no idea why she would be calling. No, Korra was staying with her that night, right? Before she hung up, Tenzin quietly asked her, “Are you alright?”

She swallowed her tears. “Just a fight,” she admitted. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, Tenzin.”

“Please let me know if I can do anything for you.”

Such a kind man. “Goodnight.”

She considered calling Bolin but rang Mako first. He picked up on the second ring. “Hello.”

“Mako. Is she with you?”

He sighed. “Drunk on my couch, product of my stupid brother. I’ve never seen her like this.”

“We were both stupid. I’m coming to get her.”

When Asami knocked on Mako’s door half an hour later, he was visibly surprised when he saw her. She realized she’d come out without makeup, and her eyes probably showed evidence of the few tears she’d shed. She’d reached a calmness inside though. She and Korra were not going to break up. They’d had a fight, but they loved each other. It wouldn't be their last fight so they needed to practice making up. They would learn how to communicate better to survive.

She saw Korra sitting on the rug in front of Mako’s couch. Her head was leaned back against the armrest, and her eyes were closed. June quickly disappeared into Mako’s bedroom, and Mako followed her.

Asami sat down on the couch next to Korra and brushed her fingertips through her hair. Korra shifted and took a sharp breath; she’d been asleep.


Korra’s eyes opened, and she smiled weakly. “Hey.”

They both teared up at the same time, and Asami’s knees thumped to the floor as she sank into Korra’s arms, dragging her into a hug that was probably too hard. She squeezed, taking comfort in the equally tight embrace of Korra’s arms around her. It was Korra who said, “I’m so sorry.”

“I am too.”

Korra nuzzled her neck. “I meant what I said on the tundra. I’m in this for life.”

Life. Love. This was forever. Asami kissed her ear and sighed. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Will you come home with me?”


So polite, even in this.

Asami waited for Korra to wake up the following morning. She’d coaxed her to drink as much water as possible the night before, but Korra was sure to have a hangover. Asami felt like she had one; she’d slept better with Korra in her bed than alone, but she still hadn’t slept well. She'd called Lee with news she'd be late to work.

Asami turned her head from her notes as she heard a groan and thump midmorning. Korra used the bathroom and staggered to the hallway to peek around the corner.

“Here,” Asami said.

Korra winced and pressed a hand to one side of her scalp. She accepted the glass of water handed to her, drinking it down with a displeased expression. “Sorry,” she said. She was rumpled, soft, and had definitely looked better. Korra was also very welcome.

“It’s okay. If you need to lie down again…”

“No. I just need to bathe and eat a little bit.”

“Go shower. I can scramble some eggs if you’d like.”

Korra spoke cautiously, her voice as soft as the small smile she gave Asami. “That would be great.”

“Do you like them hard?”

Korra’s smile wavered. “I’m from the Southern Water Tribe. I like things as raw as possible.”

“Runny, got it.” As few culinary skills as Asami had, she at least knew how to scramble eggs. Korra didn’t complain as she scarfed them down after her shower. For someone hungover, she put the eggs away in less than thirty seconds. She had a cast-iron stomach.


Of course Korra couldn’t sit and talk with a dirty dish in sight. She got up, washed her plate and the frying pan, dried them both, put them back in the cabinet, and finally sat back down with a fresh glass of water. With anyone else, Asami would assume it was an avoidance tactic, but Korra was unable to leave a room without it being cleaner than it was before she'd entered it.

Korra’s focus was on her drink. “So, I guess we should talk now.”

“Yes. We should.”

Korra rubbed her hands together vigorously. “I had that meeting with Raiko, and I stewed on it when I should have just talked to you. I’m sorry if it felt like I was attacking you all of the sudden. Because I did attack you. I should have given you the benefit of the doubt, and I shouldn’t have said what I did, especially not now. I know you’re still broken up about Slick, and I...” Korra’s face tightened as she met Asami’s gaze and swallowed down her tears. Her eyes were so blue, her face so lovely. The apology there was real. “I’m sorry I added to that. I love you, okay? I’ve just been so overwhelmed, and I didn’t meant to take that out on you.”

Asami pulled Korra to her in a hard hug, and they melted in each other's arms. She sighed as they sat back, their legs pressed together and their fingers entwined.

“It did feel like an attack, and I… I am still struggling about that man who died to the vines. A quiet conversation would have been better than our screaming match last night—for both of us. We’re both stressed. You’re struggling with the White Lotus, the spirits too, and I have things going on at work.”

Korra nodded. “I know you may not want to after last night, but if you want to talk about that, I'm here. No more judgement from me, okay?”

“Okay.” Asami studied her, surprised by how calm she felt. She tucked some hair behind Korra's ear. “Can we talk about lobbying without blowing up at each other?”

Korra nodded again.

“If lobbying were as you said, I could simply give money to any politician to get my way. The reality is different. The money my company spends on lobbying goes to the people I hire to do that for me. If it were a bribing scheme, I would bypass them altogether because it is wildly uneconomic. I pay people who have access to lawmakers to convince them. Contributions are a tiny portion of what happens during that exchange.”

Asami waited as Korra turned that over in her head. She nodded slowly. “What do you lobby for?”

That would be an uglier answer. “We have regulations, but I don’t micromanage that department. I hate politics, Korra. I love engineering so you can guess which department I frequent. The ugly truth is:  I don’t know. The only thing I know is what I’ve directly done, which are my exchanges with Raiko. In that, it’s also a little more gray than handing Raiko money with a request. If I sent someone other than myself, they wouldn’t get into Raiko’s office. I go, I petition, and I offer financial incentive. If I asked him to outlaw blue hats for ten million yuans, he’d laugh me out of his office.”

“Why you?” Korra asked, her tone calm.

“Maybe to service his inflated ego. It’s not pretty, Korra, but this has been going on since the foundation of the United Republic. I have no doubt Tenzin accepted money and persuasion from lobbyists. Do you think he would have accepted a bribe, though?”

Korra’s brow furrowed. She set her glass of water down. “You really think Tenzin did?”

“I’m sure my father talked about it happening. I know he’s on the other side now. He has access to the Capitol Building, and he uses it to advocate for the airbenders and probably for his allies. I can’t speak for Tenzin, but I know he has a presence in our government. In the end, lobbying depends on the politician in how far they’re willing to bend their ethics, if at all. Councilman Yun threw out a lobbyist from his office last year, and Future Industries has zero access to him, but he certainly accepts lobbying efforts from certain interested parties. Money is required to be a politician. If a few thousand yuans helps them spend more time on doing their job and less time raising funds for themselves, isn’t that more help than harm?”

“But who lobbies?” Korra asked. “All that access required, paying people to get in and persuade, and the money that goes along with it… It sounds like only certain people can afford to do it in the first place. How is that helping the public or even minorities that have no power or money? Are their needs less important and are poor people less important than the few people with a ton of money?”

“That’s the ugly part,” Asami responded. She gathered her courage to continue, “That’s the part that means you’re right.”

Korra looked at her in obvious surprise.

“The hypothetical is a lot grayer than reality. Nine to one, lobbying is for corporations, not unions or public interest groups. I looked down on my father allowing what I’m allowing now, but as soon as I was in his position, I believed my own doublespeak because it’s something that’s been done since the establishment of the United Republic.

“I’m in a position of power, with a lot of money, and I listened to my company heads about what to do with it. I went against my gut. Every meeting I’ve had with Raiko, including the one for the patent, has left me feeling guilty, like I was doing something wrong. My lobbying department… I plan to take a hard look at what we've funded in the past. I agree with you, and I didn’t realize how much it’s been tearing me up.

“So you’re right. It isn’t fair that money and power enable more money and power. And every large company in this city, especially those that were here at the start, do the same thing. We need to fix it, but I’m not sure how.”

Korra’s smile was tense; tears rose in her eyes. She squeezed Asami’s hand. “You don’t have to do that. Not for me. I can deal with it if I understand why. I should know things aren't black and white, and you’ve helped me understand.”

“I have to do it. It hurts to think that I’ve disappointed you in anything. But I’ve disappointed myself this time too.”

“You’re a good person, Asami. I overreacted because it seemed so out of character. And I don’t know enough about the system.”

“The system isn’t perfect. But maybe we can fix some of it. I love this country. I want it to work and continue to work.”

“Asami.” Asami looked up when Korra squeezed her hand. “I have a bad temper. I yell and shout and I get mad quick. I guess it’s unfair of me to say not to take it personally…”

“I can count on one hand how many times you’ve raised your voice at me.”

“Still… It’s bound to happen. I’m sorry.” Korra lifted her gaze again. “I'm sorry for what I said about you coming out. I know it's about more than how you feel about me.”

“You meant some of that though, didn't you?”

Korra’s eyes went watery. “I guess.”

“I'm proud of you. I love you. You're my hero. Even if we fight, don’t ever accuse me of being ashamed of you.” Asami swallowed down her own tears. Her voice went thick. “I'm so proud of you and all you've done, and I breaks my heart to think that you don't see that.”

Korra reached out, and Asami sank into her hug. They held each other tight. Against her neck, Korra asked, “How can we have this forever if we have to hide it?”

Asami pressed her forehead against Korra’s. “I promise that this time next year, everyone will know what we are to each other. I need time and a plan.”

Her reply was a nod against her forehead. Korra heaved a sigh that felt like relief. “I can do that. And you know what? You’re damn amazing to me, and it’s hard for me to understand how I can deserve you. You’re not alone, Asami.”

Then Korra kissed her gently. She tasted of her breakfast—salty and savory. Asami melted under Korra's kiss. They moved together slowly, exchanging soft, open kisses as they sank down onto the softness of the couch to rest against each other. Nothing so small would ever break them apart.

Asami wasn’t nervous about visiting Air Temple Island after their fight. They’d left it at a good place, and they’d even made love that afternoon before Korra jumped off Asam's balcony to meet with Sung’s law office.

They hadn’t reaffirmed their plans for Asami to swing by to watch their first probending practice that evening, but Asami presumed she’d be welcome.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great place for the probenders taking part in the new tournament to practice. The civic center was constructed, but the arena within it was still in progress. In the interim, Tenzin offered up a portion of Air Temple Island a few days a week for the teams volunteering for the tournament.

She wasn’t surprised to see Tenzin’s children sitting on the railing of the walkway nearby as Bolin, Korra, and Mako started their practice with stretching. Nostalgia and excitement boiled together. She could almost feel that old emotion from that time:  excitement at the opportunity to make new friends, the desperation she had to make it work with Mako, and the ease of life. She’d had everything spoon-fed to her then.

A trough of water, several earthen disks, and nets were set up nearby. The team was older, definitely, but they had that same dynamic that Asami envied. The three of them laughed at their own jokes and split up to stretch and warm up with calisthenics.

Korra caught sight of her and waved. She looked happy, which relieved Asami. She was at ease enough to wink and blow her a kiss. There was no reason to hide their relationship from their friends, especially not on this secluded island.

“Déjà vu!” Mako shouted with humor. He made sure Korra and Asami were both watching as pinched his nose shut and stuck out his tongue, only to get a small squirt of water to the face. He gasped as Korra gave a short laugh. “That went in my ear!”

“Okay, children!” Bolin clapped his hands. “I can’t believe I have to keep you two on task. Let’s get started.”

Within fifteen minutes, they were all sweating and panting. Korra seemed to shake herself with each waterbending attack, and Asami could imagine her thinking ‘one second’ over and over again. They paired off and worked on dodging multiple elements in one, and Korra substituted for missing elements with her attacks on each brother.

They got side-tracked as she tried to show Mako and Bolin the airbending steps to no avail. Mako was too mobile; he bounced back and forth too readily. Korra said he looked like a top about to blow. Bolin was too flat-footed and got dizzy after one attempt.

“Can I try?” Asami asked.

“Sure. Come on down.”

Asami liked the cyclical steps that Korra demonstrated, balancing primarily on her heel as she spun, spotting her head with each turn. Asami mimicked the movements, keeping her hands at her waist, using their spin to lead her around. Korra nodded slowly with each of Asami’s turns. It got fun when she stepped back to send gentle bending attacks at Asami.

Asami tried to hold down her instinct to dodge traditionally and instead let the attacks slip by her as she spun in easy circles out of the path of the projectiles. It was fun, though she doubted it would be a sustainable method for her in the future.

The airbender kids all clapped for her attempts. Korra’s response was a little more subdued, but she had a huge grin. “Cool! You’re a natural.”

“Am I?” Asami asked with a laugh. Korra kissed her lightly on the mouth before she turned away, and Asami slapped her on the butt. Korra jerked back around with a gasp. “How dare you!” she mocked.

“Are you two done?” Mako chimed in. “We still have to finish practice.”

Asami blew him a kiss too, and he sneered at her playfully.

“What about me?” Bolin asked.

Asami kissed him on the cheek and returned to her spot on the railings. She realized abruptly this had all been witnessed by Meelo, Ikki, and Jinora, but only Jinora was blushing. The younger children seemed oblivious.

A little while later, Tenzin cleared his throat behind her, taking her attention from Korra dumping water over her head.

“Asami, may I speak with you privately?”

“Ooh! You’re in trouble!” Meelo intoned. Despite herself, Asami wondered the same thing.

“She’s not in trouble.” Tenzin had the air of a man who was tired of correcting his children. He stroked his beard and ended his sentence with a heavy sigh. Then he drew himself up and smiled, motioning for Asami to walk with him.

She followed Tenzin down the walkway, having an idea about what he wanted to speak to her about. He cleared his throat and folded his arms behind him. “You and Korra seem to be serious. At least Korra seems quite serious about you.”

This was dialogue she’d expected from Tonraq, not from Tenzin. Korra had more parents than she realized. It made her vulnerable to be so truthful, but Tenzin wasn’t going to talk to Republic City News. “I want to spend the rest of my life with her. So I’m pretty serious too.”

He nodded slowly. “I thought you two were close after Korra returned, but I hadn’t realized how close. I want her to be happy, and I can say the same for you. If you ever need me in any capacity, please just ask.”

She hadn’t expected it, though she had never taken for granted that Air Temple Island was always open to her. “Thank you, Tenzin. You and your family have always been kind to me.”

“I hope you always feel that Air Temple Island is a haven for you.” He hesitated. “You’re welcome here no matter what your relationship to Korra is.”

She was startled by the implication and by his generosity. Maybe she had more parents than she realized too. “Thank you, Tenzin. That means a lot to me.”

He smiled as he studied her. "I assume you and Korra mended your bridge?"

"We did. We have a lot to learn from each other."

"The important thing is communication. But I suspect you both already know that. Forgive this old man his sage words of wisdom. Now go, enjoy your evening."

They elected to have dinner on Air Temple Island that night. Instead of sitting in the communal dining room, they lugged their food outside and sat on Korra’s meditation platform. Opal happily joined them, though she bemoaned the lack of alcohol.

“So, Mako, is this weird for you?” Bolin rudely pointed back and forth from Korra to Asami with his chopsticks. “Like, they’re so coupley now with kissing and cuddling and couple things.”

“Hey, there’s no kissing or cuddling right now,” Korra retorted. “We aren’t even sitting next to each other!”

“It’s only weird if we make it weird,” Mako responded. “And you’re making it weird, Bolin, so stop.”

“Are we weird?” Asami asked Korra, enjoying the grin Korra directed to her.

“No. I mean, yeah, because it’s me. But no.” She leaned back, apparently deciding to change the subject. “So, I’ve been trying to learn more about different economic policies. I’ve only been to a couple lectures at the university so do you guys mind if we talk about the economy of the United Republic?”

Asami felt a jolt. She could guess she was the only person here who was willing to defend capitalism.

“Mom always said it doesn’t work,” Opal said. “She’s more about socialism, equal taxation and government supplying standardized healthcare and education for the betterment of its people.”

“How Fire Nation of her,” Asami responded. “In essence, the market will regulate itself. A bag of rice doesn’t cost three hundred yuans because no one would buy it at that price. Competition between companies also regulates pricing and encourages unique innovations. That argument folds into every private sector. The market, the consumer, drives regulation.”

“What about all the strikes that lightningbenders had to hold?” Mako asked. “I had to join a union back when I was grinding it out generating power for the city. They’d drop our wages or make us get off five minutes before the hour to pay us an hour less. I knew a couple guys who worked fifteen hour days—and that’s grueling—and barely made enough to pay rent. They’d never get overtime though. Hell, that was part of the reason why I fell in with the Triads:  they paid better and I had a support network.”

“Which is why we have regulations in place now to encourage proper compensation to reward hard work,” Asami responded. “I get it. Capitalism allowed my father to make a fortune; it allows me to make more money than I know what to do with. But it also gives me the freedom to give back by creating jobs and fostering working relationships with smaller companies—spreading the wealth. You can’t take the bad without the good.”

“Why do you treat your employees so well?” Korra asked her neutrally. “You put your professional self at risk by demanding an employee be rehired, right?”

“If I pay my employees well, train them, give them good benefits, and help them set up a retirement fund, they’ll stay with me. If I don’t have high turnover, I’m working efficiently. What pennies I might save by cutting corners with employee salaries and benefits are made back in dividends because my motivated, trained workers stay with me and do not go to my competitors.”

“But that's not why you came out to your board.”

“I did that because it was right,” Asami responded, ignoring the flush of fear she felt to have it put so plainly. Neither Opal or Bolin seemed surprised.

“But you’re different than most people in the United Republic. I think you did both for the same reason,” Mako said, his brow gathered.

“Yeah, you’re a good person, and you have long-term goals,” Opal said. “If capitalism worked the way you say it works, why does the government regulate all the essential aspects of society:  police, fire department, trash, education? Why not let the market regulate them?”

“Profit doesn't follow the product in those sectors. There's little profit to be had at all so there's little motivation for the private sector to control those aspects of society."

“And healthcare,” Bolin said firmly. “Shady Shin once knew a guy who broke his arm, and he levied his apartment because he couldn’t pay the bill. Now that we have a single-payer plan, no one has to deal with that.”

“What does that mean?” Korra asked.

“They took his home,” Mako said.

“Because he got hurt?” That clearly shocked Korra.

“He couldn’t pay the bill after they fixed him.”

Asami steered them back quickly. “That’s a bit more complex than free market. Insurance is tied up in that debate. We do have more than a single-payer plan. We also have multiple tiers of insurance available. The market exists there, and those that can afford the higher plan tend to purchase it. Healthcare, at least emergencies, tend to follow the pattern of what hospital is closer; there’s no way to shop for care in such matters, but you can shop for what tier of insurance you purchase.”

“Not to mention financial incentive for doctors to choose more expensive treatments, especially if a company of a drug or diagnostic modality offers financial incentive. Most people are entirely dependent on the choices offered by their doctor. That limits the power of consumers. Asami, I grew up listening to these arguments for capitalism. My mother always won.”

“That's illegal,” Asami said. “The insurance market became decoupled from the consumer, especially in its partnerships with companies versus the individual.”

“And people who made their financial decision not to purchase insurance still received care when sick or hurt, were unable to pay their bills, and drove up costs for those that could afford insurance.”

“Exactly,” Asami responded. “Healthcare market failures do not have a bearing on capitalism. Just like education and law enforcement.”

“You’re sounding awfully socialist, Asami.” Opal suddenly gasped and moaned with her hands over her mouth. “I just sounded like my mother. Oh no!”

Asami ignored her tangent, as amusing as it was. “The government does not and should not regulate consumer-driven markets in this country. They should encourage innovations, as they do now, instead of regulating it. The market encourages creativity and fair pricing through competition, and it also gives incentive to work hard and be thusly rewarded.”

“Zaofu works though. Healthcare, education, and all. Republic City has so many problems where we don’t. Two weeks ago, Kai Industrial from the Fire Nation had a worker closed up in one of its machines all because they wouldn’t pay for safety equipment because that equipment was apparently too expensive. Meanwhile, that equipment is required in the Fire Nation, most Earth Confederation states, and both Water Tribes. It was cheaper for them to assemble that product here because of the poor safety oversights, and a Republic City citizen lost both arms because of someone else’s greed.”

“First:  Zaofu’s population is also five percent of Republic City’s. And how many innovations that you use actually came from Republic City’s free market? Electricity, the light bulb, automobiles, antibiotics—these things all spring from the United Republic, and the money here that follows not just the research but the market.”

“Maybe capitalism accelerated it, but human innovation existed long before the so called free market. Your genius would be genius with or without capitalism behind it.”

“I disagree about that. I do agree about Kai Industrial. The government should more strictly regulate safety equipment, failsafes, and training of employees. My safety department has far stricter regulations than are required by law. We haven’t had a major injury or death in years.” She rapped her knuckles on the walkway.

“By your philosophy, you think the market should regulate that.”

“No,” Asami replied. “It follows my philosophy of capitalism itself:  it is financially logically for me to pay my workers well and keep them safe. Paying for workplace injuries, unemployment, and Avatar forbid, wrongful death would be a terrible burden, and it would also lower morale. Future Industries spends more on safety on our factory line per worker than any other company in the world, but it’s financially worthwhile. But in this case, that standard should be law for safety of workers.”

“I think you do it because you care about your employees,” Opal responded. “If it were so financially great, every company would be doing it.”

“No, I do it because I’m smarter than most of my peers, and I was raised by a man who taught me the right way to run a business. You so want it to be about ethics or morality, but it rarely ever is, Opal. This is the market and profit.”

“You claim to want safety for workers but also say you don't want it for ethical purposes? You can't have one without the other.”

“The regulations should exist to avoid the financial strain of loss of workers.”

“You’re bending the truth. Don't pretend you wouldn't take the death or injury of one of your employees personally.”

That was true. She sighed. “They’re my responsibility at work. That's it. That also is aside from the point. The reality is that socialism and capitalism have their faults, but they can strengthen each other.”

Opal’s eyes widened. “You support the mixed economy?”

“To a point.”

“So why argue so strongly for capitalism?”

“Because you argue so strongly against it. Socialism isn't the end-all-be-all that your mother claims, and neither is capitalism perfect. The economic growth and influx of population within the United Republic allowed the government to step back and expand private market-driven aspects of our economy, which has created wealth and capital, a model that even the Fire Nation followed.”

“What are you making of this, Korra?” Mako asked, interrupting Asami and Opal’s argument.

Korra gave somber smile. “I wish I’d been able to have these conversations years ago. I had no idea what anything cost when I first got here. I’d never even touch