Korra is with Toph in the swamp when Jinora shows up alone, looking grim and tired and older than fourteen.
“Korra,” she says, and falls forward into Korra’s outstretched arms. She’s trembling.
“Jinora,” Korra says, breathless. She looks up to meet Toph’s gaze before remembering that she doesn’t have to with Toph. “How did you find me?”
Jinora shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve been looking for ages. I....” She trails off.
“What’s wrong?” Korra feels cold. Something has to be wrong for Jinora to show up like this, so serious, so overcome that she won't stop shaking. But if it were that horrible, how could Toph not have seen it through the swamp? How could she not have said anything?
“The normalists,” Jinora says. It takes Korra a moment to remember who they are. A fringe movement of benders and the remnants of the equalists who joined together to oppose her after she opened the spirit portals. She hasn’t heard a single word about them in her exile—she’d thought they had gone. She’d forgotten them completely. “They’ve only been getting worse since you left,” Jinora says. “We thought things would play themselves out and that the normalists would lose influence, but they haven’t, and—”
She grinds down, her jaw tensing. “Asami. We think—Dad thinks—” But she can’t continue.
“What?” Korra asks. She’s still holding Jinora’s hands, and she wonders if Jinora can feel the way that Korra’s pulse is racing beneath her skin. Toph must. Korra feels lightheaded, off-center, worse than she’s felt in weeks. Jinora shakes her head silently, pressing her lips together.
“She's dead,” Jinora says at last, and Korra feels like an avalanche, a storm.
Korra remembers when Asami stopped writing to her while Korra was still in the South Pole doing physical therapy with Katara. Korra had just figured that Asami had finally gotten bored of not getting any response from Korra and moved on like everyone else had. Tenzin was the only one who sent Korra letters for the full three years, and Korra is pretty sure that’s only because he felt obligated to. Mako stopped writing first, awkwardly, then Bolin, apologetically, and Asami had stopped without any indication that she was going to do so.
That was the only time Korra wrote anyone a letter: a single one, far too short for all the things she wanted to say and all the things she should say. Now she doesn’t know if Asami ever read it, because Asami’s been missing for seven months, and dead for five.
Dear Korra, Asami’s last letter had read. I still think about you every day. I know that sounds silly to say but it’s true, and I’ve put it in a letter so I don’t have to see your face when you read this however many days from now. I can’t wait to show you around the city when you come home. So much has changed. I think you’ll like the progress we’ve made and all the ways we’re still thinking about you. And I can’t wait to see you. But I don’t say that to rush you.
Do what you have to do. I’ll be here when you come back.
That had been eight months ago.
Jinora won’t give Korra any of the details on the flight back to Republic City. Korra shakes the whole way and can’t stop herself. She keeps flashing back to things she doesn’t want to remember but doesn’t want to forget. Zaheer airbending the breath from her lungs; waking up on the ground and reaching up to her father’s face. The reassuring touch of Asami’s hands on her shoulders, how Asami was the only one Korra wanted near her because Asami didn’t look at Korra like she was a broken plaything, didn’t tell Korra everything was going to be all right when she didn’t know that for sure. The flash of Asami’s eyes, the red of her lipstick, the dark of her hair: riding in the car with her that first time, so long ago, they were both so young. And now she’s gone.
Korra staggers into Tenzin’s arms when they finally land in Republic City. “Tenzin,” she says, and her voice is steady, though she doesn’t know how she manages it.
He hugs her tightly. “Korra.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Korra asks even though she knows that’s not fair, that she’s been in self-inflicted exile for more than six months and that’s her own damn fault. “No one told me, it’s been so long, Tenzin, I could have been here. I could have done something—”
“There was nothing that could be done that we didn’t do,” Tenzin says, but Korra can hear it in his voice. She’s not as good as Toph—who is?—but Korra can still hear the lie there, the catch, the look in his eyes that says what he won’t.
“Tell me what happened,” Korra says, and this time she won’t take anything but the truth for an answer.
It went like this.
Asami went missing seven months ago without a trace until a normalist bulletin went up a few weeks later. The normalists wanted Asami’s father to make weaponry for them because Asami refused to, and so they used her as leverage.
Korra watches the video that the normalists showed on every screen in the entire city. A scratchy, out of focus image sharpens suddenly on the single bowed figure on her knees in a tiny cell. Her hair is in her eyes, hiding her face until a masked normalist pulls her head back, and there’s the flash of Asami’s unmistakable green eyes, the anger and hatred in her face.
“President Raiko,” the normalist holding Asami says; “Avatar Korra. Give us Hiroshi Sato or his daughter dies.” He lets her go. Asami doesn’t let her head drop, tries to stay upright, but her shoulders are visibly trembling. The video ends.
“Raiko gave them Hiroshi,” Korra says, “right?”
Tenzin looks down at his hands, then at Korra. “Hiroshi is a war criminal. Even if Raiko wanted to, he couldn’t hand him over to a terrorist organization.”
“They’re not terrorists, they're the washed up leftovers of Amon’s equalists and a few crazy benders,” Korra spits. “They can’t do anything—they can’t—” She buries her face in her hands until she can catch her breath. “Then what happened?”
Tenzin puts his hand on her shoulder. “We put together a tactical team to try and rescue her. Mako and Bolin were a part of it.”
I should have been here. “Did you send for me?”
“Several times.” Tenzin sounds as if he doesn’t want to make her hear that. “We didn’t know where to reach you.”
Korra presses the heels of her palms into her eyes. “And then?”
“I’m sorry, Korra. The normalists aired another bulletin the day after our strike team was pushed out of their territory. It showed—well, it showed enough. I’m so sorry.”
Korra lets her hands fall from her face, slowly. I’ll be here when you come back, Asami had written—but she isn’t. But she would have been had Korra not run around the world trying to find herself instead of telling her friends where she was.
“Play me the video.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” Tenzin says gently.
“Do it,” Korra says. “I’ll find it even if you don’t play it for me. Please, Tenzin.”
Tenzin does without another word. The screen shows Asami with her hands bound behind her back, her hair hanging lank around her face once more.
“This was five months ago,” Tenzin says quietly.
A single person moves into the frame. “President Raiko and Avatar Korra. You’ve failed to deliver Hiroshi Sato. For that, his daughter dies. Let this be a message to all of Republic City that the normalists are not defeated, nor have we forgotten what crimes have been done to the natural order.”
Someone slips a noose around Asami’s neck. Tenzin bows his head. Korra doesn’t. The video doesn’t end until Asami’s feet stop kicking and finally fall still, motionless, swinging in a small uneven circle above the ground.
Afterwards, Tenzin shuts off the video and leaves. He puts his hand on Korra’s shoulder as he goes. When he’s gone, Korra turns the video back on and watches it over and over. She doesn’t cry; she doesn’t feel anything, really. Asami is dead, and here’s the proof of it, in this message that is barely five months old, in this message that Korra saw five months too late. Asami probably thought—she probably thought—
That I’d come get her, Korra thinks. That I’d save her. But she didn’t.
Three years ago, the normalists were nobody. It takes a lot of pulling for Korra to find out anything about them now, but she pulls and pulls until she gets the truth. After she opened the spirit portals, there were plenty of people who disagreed with her decision, President Raiko and most of the people of Republic City included. And for a long time Korra had wondered if she’d done the right thing. Whether she should have left the portals closed and made Wan's choice again for another ten thousand years. But the new airbenders made it worth it. Aang would be proud, Tenzin had said, and that more than anything had felt good, had burned like a talisman behind her ribs. Aang was good. Aang did everything right. Aang would be proud of her.
After Korra left for the South Pole, the anti-spirit sentiment in Republic City declined dramatically. People grew accustomed to the spirit vines, to the spirits themselves. They connected to their world in a way that hadn’t happened for millennia, since before Wan even. Progress. Forward motion. Eyes ahead.
But there were some people—a handful of equalist extremists who hadn’t given up after Amon died, and some benders, a fringe movement—who weren’t happy at all. And they did something no one could have expected: they joined forces.
The normalists hate the spirits and the new airbenders alike. The new airbenders, the former equalists say, are a symbol of bending oppression, of conformity forced onto nonbenders. The bender extremists are angry but for different reasons; they don't think nonbenders deserve to have bending bestowed upon them whenever the Avatar feels like giving it to them. How the two groups managed to work together in the beginning without infighting long enough to get anything done was a mystery, but they managed it; and now the normalists barely resemble the group they started as. Now they’re benders and nonbenders working together: against the new spirits, against the airbenders, against Korra and anyone supporting her.
“They don’t actually care about any of these things,” Tenzin tries to explain, but Korra won’t hear any of it. “They just want the excuse to try and grab at power. They’re taking advantage of this period of transition to cause as much chaos and panic as possible for their own advantage.”
“Maybe,” Korra says. “But they wouldn’t have been able to do any of this if it wasn’t for me.”
“They’d have found another cause soon enough,” Tenzin says, but Korra thinks: no, maybe they wouldn’t. She wanted to change the world. She got what she wanted: and she’s got the backlash from it now, too. She wonders if Aang would still be proud of what she’s done.
She sees Mako and Bolin the next day after sleeping not at all. She had rewatched in her mind all night the way that Asami’s feet had kicked as she died. Bolin looks as if he wants to hug Korra desperately, but he doesn’t; Mako looks as if he doesn’t want to be touched ever again. Korra sort of knows the feeling.
“I know everything,” she says, or she knows enough. She doesn’t know what the normalists have been up to since they murdered Asami, but that doesn’t matter. Not to her. Not really.
“We tried,” Bolin says. He passes a hand over his eyes, then lets it fall. “We were so close. If we’d had a little more time….”
If we’d had the Avatar, Korra hears him saying, and thinks; yes, if you had.
“I know you did.” But when Korra meets Mako’s eyes, she sees the guilt there, the grief.
Something’s changed between the three of them. Maybe it would have been different anyway after three years, but now it hurts. Being around them is hard. Mostly Mako is busy with his police work; Lin is buckling down on the uprisings of various normalist sects across the city and Mako is on the front lines of that effort. He was always dedicated, but now he is consumed by his work: like if he stops, he won’t know what to do. Like he won’t be able to breathe.
Bolin has joined a humanitarian organization that brings relief to the parts of the city most severely hit by normalist attacks. He spends his days in the worst of the chaos, broken houses, uneven streets disappearing into the spirit wilds. At least the spirit wilds remain one safe haven in the city, because the normalists refuse to set foot anywhere near them. Most people in the city live in the places between the spirit wilds and normalist territory—which is a small foothold, but growing stronger every day.
“Do you know about the mask?” Mako asks.
“Vaguely,” Korra says.
“Someone wearing it started appearing at rallies and after attacks a month ago,” Mako says. “We thought it was Amon’s mask at first, but it’s different. Faceless. We don’t know who is wearing it or how they’re related to the movement, but we’re sure they’re not a leader—they act more like a soldier, or a pawn.”
“Then who’s leading them?” Korra asks.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Mako says. “We don’t know.”
The three of them fall silent after that. They carefully manage the space between themselves, as if none of them wants to get too close to either of the others. As if they do, it’ll be too much like it was before—and it will just be more obvious that someone is missing.
Not that it could be any more apparent. Not that any of them aren’t thinking about her. Not that Korra isn’t pulling at all the details she can remember, the smell of Asami’s perfume, the way she turned her head, how she did her hair, how she laughed—but she’s pulling at memories from more than three years ago. Asami’s been dead for five months, but to Korra it may as well be years. She left Asami behind a long time ago, and now it doesn’t matter that she finally wrote Asami and was going to come back to the city and see her again. Doesn’t matter. Cross out the bullet point, go back to the top of the list. Start over.
Korra realizes after a long moment that Bolin is looking at her quite openly in that way he has; concern does not hide itself on Bolin’s face. She wishes he’d look somewhere else. She wishes people would stop telling her, sorry.
“Who told her father?” she asks instead. Mako and Bolin are really the only people Korra wants to talk with about Asami. If she talks at all.
Mako clears his throat. “I did. He asked for permission to attend her funeral.”
Right—Asami's funeral. That’s what you do when someone has died. “Did Raiko grant it?”
“No,” Mako says; “he didn’t.”
Korra doesn’t know whether she’s relieved or upset; whether Asami would have wanted her father there or not. She probably would have. She did not forgive easily, but nor did she stop caring about someone easily, either.
“How—” Korra falters, has to start again. “How was it? The funeral?”
“Private,” Mako says. “There was a separate ceremony for the public. Almost—almost everyone in the city saw the video.”
“We tried to find you,” Bolin says. “We held off for as long as we could.”
“I know,” Korra says.
(“What was it like, really?” she asks Bolin later, because he’s the only one who will tell her truthfully.
He looks at her for a long moment, then away, to the floor. “I can’t describe it,” he says quietly. “I didn’t think anything could hurt that much. And then I wake up the next day, and the next day, and it just doesn’t stop.”)
Asami was right when she’d said the city had changed. Korra doesn’t recognize it anymore. There are the vines, of course, and the new streets and buildings constructed to accommodate the new features of the city, but it’s the presence of the city more than anything else. It feels different; it feels like putting on an old jacket only to realize you picked up the wrong one from the coat room.
Asami has left her mark on the city: that much is clear. The innovation of the new streets, the transportation systems, even the architecture of some of the buildings—Korra recognizes so many of them from sketches Asami drew in the margins of her letters. She painted over this city in broad brushstrokes, left her fingerprints on every new structure. She would have had so much to show Korra. There’s so much here that Korra could never have even dreamed about.
But tensions are high. The normalists are on the move, plotting something new. Tenzin thinks they’re going to finally try to capture Hiroshi.
“Why do they need him?” Korra asks.
Tenzin spreads his hands. “Weaponry? Technology? For the display of strength if they manage to capture a war criminal in a high security prison in the heart of the city? All three, perhaps.”
“If they capture him, will Hiroshi help them?” Korra asks. They killed his daughter.
“They won’t capture him,” Tenzin says, which isn’t an answer at all.
“I want to talk to him,” she tells Tenzin, and then tells Raiko, and finally she gets her way and she shows up at the prison a week later. She feels small, useless, empty-handed. She doesn’t even know what she wants to say, but she knows that she must say something.
The guards bring her to his cell. Hiroshi is thinner, greying. His hands folded neatly on his lap. He doesn’t look up when Korra approaches.
“May we speak alone?” Korra asks the guards.
“We’re not supposed to let him out of our sight,” a guard says.
“I’m the Avatar,” Korra says. “I can handle this if anything happens.”
They go, which surprises her. She hadn’t thought they would. She doesn’t feel much like the Avatar—hasn’t in a long time.
She sits cross-legged on the floor facing Hiroshi. He says nothing, doesn’t meet her gaze.
Finally Korra speaks. “Asami’s dead.”
“Yes,” Hiroshi says. He sounds old. “She has been dead for some months now.”
“I didn’t know until last week,” Korra says.
Hiroshi is silent. Still looking down at his hands, still motionless. Korra doesn’t know what to say to him. He doesn’t look like the man who sold Future Industries tech to Amon and the equalists. He doesn’t look like a war criminal. He doesn’t look like Asami’s dad, either.
At last, he speaks. “Are you here to tell me it is my fault?”
“No,” says Korra; “I’m here to tell you it’s mine.”
He looks up at her now. His eyes are clear, though red, straining. Flickering unsteadily, as if he can’t focus on one thing for too long. “I see.”
“I don’t know why I wanted to tell you,” Korra says.
“Because you feel guilty.”
Korra is about to respond angrily—fire burning hot in her chest—how dare you judge me, even though that’s exactly what she came her for: someone else’s anger, someone else’s rage and pain for what she did wrong to be turned against her so she could be punished, so she could punish herself. But Hiroshi speaks before she can.
“You shouldn’t,” Hiroshi says. “You are not the reason she’s dead.”
He’s lying. But why would he lie to her? “You’re supposed to be angry,” Korra says. “You’re supposed to punish me for failing her.”
Hiroshi’s mouth twists like he might smile. “In my experience, we can punish only ourselves.” But he doesn’t smile. There’s a film over his eyes now, as if all he can see is far away.
Korra can’t bring herself to leave even though there’s nothing left for her to say. She doesn’t know why she came. To punish herself, to punish Hiroshi. To lay the blame at someone else’s feet, but she can’t put it down anywhere. Can’t stop carrying it on her shoulders. She supposes, then, that she’s just going to have to get used to the weight.
There’s a distant scream of bending metal. Then the whole prison shakes so hard that Korra topples forward onto her hands and knees. Hiroshi falls to the floor.
“Don’t go anywhere!” Korra yells at him. Hiroshi lies motionless behind the bars of his cell, and Korra runs outside as the guards run in.
“Normalists,” one of them confirms, and Korra’s heart plummets in her chest.
Mako appears at the end of the hallway. “Korra, are you all right?”
She had come to the prison alone. “Are you following me?”
“Sorry.” Mako holds out his hands for a brief moment, then lets them fall. “If it makes you feel better, Bolin came too.”
“Not really,” Korra says angrily, but there’s no time for this. Another explosion shakes the building, and Korra and Mako stagger against the wall. “Where are they?” Korra asks. “How many of them?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone outside, and no one landed on the roof.”
Another explosion, smaller. Bolin meets the two of them as they run down the hall. He looks grim. “They’re digging their way through the foundations of the prison.”
“More like blowing a damn hole in it,” Korra says. “Well, let's go, Bolin. Send some of the building down on them.”
“I’ll guard your backs,” Mako says, and the three of them go down, together.
Bolin has improved his magmabending abilities since Korra has been gone. The heat is intense. Korra is a firebender and knows what it’s like to have pure heat in the palm of your hand, to breathe it out from the depths of your lungs, the small of your back. This is a different kind of heat: an older kind, a ponderous, deliberate, slow-moving kind that burns strong and doesn’t go out even when Bolin has moved away.
Mako diverts a firebender crawling up out of the ground who tries to get the drop on Korra, pull her into the earth with him. He kicks the guy’s hand away and then stomps on his other hand, hard, so the firebender’s grip on the lip of the floor slips and he falls back.
Korra moves because she’s been standing still too long. She’s been spending the past few weeks doing nothing but standing still and now she has the chance to move. She’s gotten the shit kicked out of her more than once lately; gets the shit kicked out of her more often than not these days. As much as it hurts—as much as she can’t stand to know anyone’s got the better of her—she likes the sting of it, in its way. The blistering, the split lips, the blackened eyes. The give of her bones under her skin. Like they’re saying: yes, look here, you’re still alive. You’re going to get back up and they’re going to knock you down one more damn time. And then what are you going to do, Korra?
She gets back up.
A nonbender grabs her by the ankle and a shock of electricity shoots up her spine, her legs, turns them to jelly. But Korra is hurting real bad to bruise her knuckles against the people who killed Asami. She’s gonna find the one who did it—who put the noose around her neck—and then—and then—
(She thinks she can hear Aang saying, don’t be hasty. But what does Aang know about anything, anyway.)
The nonbender with the equalist glove comes at Korra again. Mako is grappling with the firebender and now a waterbender, and Bolin is trying to help while also preventing the earthbender who broke through the foundations of the prison from getting any farther. The next time the nonbender comes at Korra again she fights back with teeth, with her fists, encased in stone.
The impact of the nonbender’s back on the ground. The way the light changes in her eyes, how everything goes sideways. Korra watches her fall and watches her fall and then shoves her down, holds her fast.
The woman snarls, bares her teeth at her. There’s blood on her canines. “You’re back, then,” she says, and the slit of her mouth goes lopsided, an almost-smile. “Thought you were never gonna show up. Thought maybe we killed that woman for nothing.”
“Who,” Korra says—“Who did it, who killed her.”
“We all did,” the woman says; “all of us, and it was so easy. She fought and it never even mattered. She cried out for you and you never came.”
Korra doesn’t realize she’s pulled her fist back until Bolin catches her by the elbow and holds her fast. “There’s trouble upstairs.” He is soaked in sweat and dirt from head to toe. He looks scared. The normalist benders have all been incapacitated; Mako is standing a few feet away, expressionless.
“You better go,” Mako says. “We’ll take care of them.”
The woman laughs when Korra lets her go, and Korra doesn’t say anything, doesn’t look at her, not in the eye, not in the face, just turns, heel toe, gotta do her duty. She’s not here for herself. She’s here because she’s the Avatar, because she’s been gone three years and the city needed her and she wasn’t there.
The building is silent as she pounds up the staircases, but she can remember, distantly, the noise that had alerted Bolin and Mako to the presence of more normalists even if she hadn’t noticed it at the time. A low, grinding whirr; the shifting of metal. Like part of the prison cells being opened, or sawn through.
Korra runs so fast she doesn’t know if she could stop if she had to. No one’s getting Sato—she doesn’t give a damn about the man himself, but it’s the principle of the thing. She doesn’t know if he’ll cooperate if the normalists capture him.
And he’s Asami’s father.
She rounds the corner and, against all reason, does stop. There’s a single figure standing in the entryway before Hiroshi’s cell. Tall, slender. The hand of her left arm shining like wet metal coated slick with blood.
“Stop,” Korra says; “get on your knees.”
The figure does not do this. But turns, slowly; as if in mild interest. Their face is featureless when Korra can see it: a mask, simple, black with dark glass holes for eyes and nothing else. The figure’s mouth covered, her nose, the line of her jaw, and a hood pulled up over her hair. She tilts her head.
“Stand down,” Korra insists. “I’m the Avatar, and you’re going to answer for what you’ve done.”
Silence. Stillness. Neither of them moves, until the figure does, like water: leaping aside, dodging as Korra lashes out with a flare of flame. Korra realizes her arm isn’t just shining like wet metal, it is metal, platinum that can’t be bended: the fingers spread, bullet point fingertips. Korra tries to twist aside but they close over her shoulder and lightning arcs through her whole body, over her teeth, her eyes, through the ends of her hair and the soles of her feet and her whole body shudders like a tree in a storm.
It’s not like the gloves the equalists used; this is stronger, darker, tastes like copper and coal smoke and makes the dull ache in Korra’s head, that low-lying throb that’s always there, slumbering, come roaring to the front again, a freight train.
Korra falls to her knees but not to the ground. The figure backhands her across the face and Korra crashes against a desk, nearly falls then but doesn’t, staggers to her feet.
(And then what are you going to do, Korra?)
She can’t lightningbend, but she’s got fire and air and water and earth and that’s always been enough, always will be enough; she throws the figure backwards, airbending like it never could have been anything but second nature to her, like she’s known this all her life even though in truth she fought and scrabbled the whole way towards it, never gave an inch. The figure pulls out a knife as she advances (a knife? No one’s ever come at Korra with a knife, and maybe it takes her by surprise), sinks it deep into Korra’s shoulder, twists. But Korra has a fistful of fire and nowhere else to put it but the hollow of this person’s throat, which she does, hard, wondering if this is who put the noose around Asami’s neck, if she watched as Asami’s feet kicked and kicked and kicked and then didn’t kick anymore, hung still—
The figure is strong: metal fingers close over Korra’s hand, still burning with fire, and twist her away, so hard that Korra flies head over heels and lands on the other side of the room, just barely on her feet, skidding backwards. She can still taste lightning in the back of her throat, thunder after the storm.
The figure has turned away, like Korra doesn’t matter to her anymore. She’s advancing towards the room where Hiroshi is held prisoner. She steps over two bodies as she goes, and Korra realizes, with a sickening plummet of her stomach, that they are the two guards she left behind when she went downstairs with Mako and Bolin.
“I don’t think so,” Korra says, and jumps, pushes off the wall with both feet and launches herself at this figure, the masked person, the woman with the metal arm, and knocks her into the opposite wall with so much force that they both crash through it and fall the several stories to the ground below among splintered glass, broken bricks.
They fall, they keep falling; somewhere in the confusion of it, Korra loses the figure, can’t tell up from down until she lands hard, absorbing some of the impact as best she can with her earthbending but still numbed from it all the way through. When she gets up, her ears are ringing, and the masked figure isn’t anywhere that she can see—gone as silently and quickly as she had appeared without leaving a single trace.
Korra makes her way shakily back to the prison. It looks like a bomb has gone off. Mako and Bolin meet her on the first floor, their eyes widening when they see the state she’s in, the blood coming from the stab wound on her shoulder.
“Are you all right?” Bolin asks, and she shakes him off.
“Is Sato still here?”
Lin appears, looking grim. Korra wonders what the hell took her so long. “You better come with me, kid,” she says, and Korra follows her, one hand pressed against her shoulder.
Hiroshi Sato is lying dead on the floor of his cell. The door hasn’t even been unlocked.
“I don’t understand,” Korra says. “I was right here, I made sure she didn’t get in. How did she kill him?”
“The woman in the mask?” Lin asks. “I don’t know what she was here for, but she didn’t kill Sato. Look at this.” She unlocks the cell and crouches by Sato’s corpse, points at the white foam at the corner of his mouth. “He must have had a fake tooth. There’s one missing. It had poison inside and he killed himself when he thought the normalists were getting into the building.”
Korra stands there, hollowed out, her hands empty. “Why?”
Lin straightens up again. There’s not much that can be read on her face: grudging respect, perhaps. “Guess he wasn’t lying when he said he’d never work for the people who murdered his daughter.”
“I just spoke to him,” Korra says. The sound is roaring in her ears, and she can’t make it stop. She doesn’t know what else to say.
Neither does anyone else apparently. “Go get cleaned up,” Lin says. “We can talk about what happened back at the precinct.”
“Why now, though?” Bolin asks. “Sato’s been in custody for years. And it’s been five months since—well, it’s been five months.”
“A message to us?” Mako asks.
Korra shakes her head. “No.” She spreads her hands flat on Lin’s desk, leans heavily against it. Her shoulders bearing down under the weight, the pressure. She remembers the feel of the masked woman’s metal fingers against the blade of her shoulder, the lightning afterwards, thunderclaps. Her head still feels fuzzy, stuffed with wool. She wavers.
“Not a message for us,” she says. “A message to them. The normalists. That even if they got past our guards and got to him, Sato would never let them take him alive.”
There’s silence at that.
“That leaves the matter of the masked fighter, then,” Lin says. “You fought her, Korra; what do you know?”
It throws Korra off to be asked that so plainly. As if what she thinks matters. She’s been doubting herself for so long that she sometimes forgets that not everyone else does as their first instinct.
“Her arm was metal,” Korra says. “Platinum. She electrified me.”
“Her arm?” Mako interrupts. “Are you sure? It was probably an equalist glove. Maybe a new one that you haven’t seen before.”
Korra is stern. “It wasn’t a glove.” She wraps her fingers around her forearm. “Her arm was cut off at the elbow. And it didn’t shock like the gloves do. This was completely debilitating. I’m still….” She touches her temple, then lets her hand fall.
“If you need a hospital, Korra, you have to go,” Lin says.
“I don’t need a hospital.” Korra pushes away from the desk, starts to pace. “I couldn’t see anything behind her mask, and she was hooded. I don’t know who she is or what her name is or even what her voice sounds like. She didn’t speak. She didn’t seem to want to fight me. She was just there for Hiroshi. She was just there for her mission.”
There’s silence. Bolin looks as if he wants to say something, but he doesn’t. Mako and Lin are looking at each other like they can communicate telepathically, and suddenly Korra can’t stand any of it, can’t stand to be around any of them.
“That’s all I know,” she says. “Except that she’s gonna be back. We haven’t seen the last of her.”
Korra is proven right only a few days later when the newspapers hit the stands with the headline: ECCENTRIC ENTREPENEUR IKNICK VARRICK MISSING, ASSAILANT UNKNOWN.
“It was her,” Korra tells Lin. “It had to be her. The normalists couldn’t get Hiroshi Sato so they sent that woman after Varrick instead, and Varrick didn’t have a fake cyanide tooth.”
“The electric soldier strikes again,” Bolin says quietly, and after that, the name sticks.
“Hey,” Asami says. She’s smiling, her whole face lit up with it. Her head tilted just so slightly to the left. “What you looking at there, Avatar girl?”
(This never happened, Korra thinks. Stop making things up, stop making this worse, stop thinking about everything you should have said, but she can’t even tell anymore if it was real or not, if this ever happened or not, if she’s making it up or if she’s remembering it correctly. That’s what post-traumatic stress will do to you. Or so Katara had said, anyway. Korra hadn’t wanted to hear it. Real or not, memories sink their teeth into you deep. They shake you in their jaws, the teeth of it, and they just don’t let go.)
“Nothing,” Korra says, because what is there to say? “Thanks for teaching me how to drive.”
“No problem,” Asami says. “Thanks for teaching me how to swim.”
(When did you do that?)
“Yeah, well,” Korra says. “Just because your dad was scared of benders doesn’t mean you have to be scared of water.”
It makes sense in her head, kind of. But she knows she shouldn’t say it. She can see Asami’s face shift. “I’m not scared of benders.”
She should be. Korra might be sometimes. “And you aren’t scared of water,” Korra says. “You have a pool. You had a pool.”
Everything is falling apart at the edges. Dissolving as if into water. If Korra puts out her hand, she’ll disturb the surface of it. Send ripples. But Asami’s already falling farther away.
“What?” Korra asks when she sees Asami’s mouth move.
Asami shakes her head. Frustrated. Biting hard on her tongue, so hard she bleeds, so blood comes from the corner of her mouth and her lips go blue, her feet kicking in a weary circle—no, that’s not—that’s—
Korra wakes up trembling. Damn it, she thinks, and drags her hands over her eyes, lies still.
Varrick works fast under the threat of death. There’s a small explosion in the city center that official sources say was caused by an unknown reaction with the spirit vines, but what they don’t mention to the public is that it wasn’t an accident, and that it can happen again, and that if the normalists know how to destroy the spirit vines, they’re going to do so—and take the whole damn city with them.
“We have to stop them,” Korra says.
“How?” asks Lin. “We don’t even know how they’re doing this. We barely know who they are. We don’t know where their base of operations is, if they even have one. They’re a damn ghost story.”
“Lin,” Tenzin says appealingly, but she shrugs him away.
“It’s true we don’t have much to work with.” Suyin, who came to the city several months ago to help with managing the situation, looks ill at ease. “But we can’t let that stop us.”
“I’m not,” Korra says. “I just need something. I need a direction to go.”
“Not alone,” Bolin says.
Korra doesn’t bother arguing the point.
Tenzin puts his hand to his chin, thinking hard. Lin looks as if she wants to pace and has forced herself to stay still, ramrod tall. Mako has his arms crossed.
“We need a trap,” Korra says. “All we’ve got is the electric soldier, but we don’t know anything about her. If we can guess her next target and set up a situation where she will go after that target, but we’ll be going after her….” She trails off.
“Risky,” Mako says.
“But true,” Suyin says. “We have no other leads but this one thread. We’ve got to pull on it.”
“But who will the electric soldier target now?” Bolin asks. “The normalists got their mad scientist.”
“Any one of us could be a target by this point,” Lin says. Bolin gulps visibly. “It’s a matter of who we think the electric soldier will go after first.”
“Korra?” Mako asks, because, well.
“I don’t know.” Lin sounds troubled. “Korra is a hard hit. They would have to be confident they could get her. I think Tenzin is the more likely target. He’s the leader of the new airbenders that the normalists hate so much.”
“And you’re the chief of police,” Suyin counters sharply. “They don’t exactly love you either.”
“And then there’s political leaders, outspoken bender and nonbender activists opposing the normalists’ views. The normalists might pick someone we aren’t expecting to blindside us,” Tenzin says.
“Well, they have to be going after somebody,” Korra explodes. She slams her hands on the table. Mako and Bolin jump. “They went after someone no one was expecting when they went after Asami. We knew they were going after Hiroshi and we still almost couldn’t stop them, and then we didn’t protect Varrick in time. We have to get everyone who might be in danger somewhere safe.”
“That I can do,” Lin says. “And if I get any intel on who they're targeting next, Korra, you’ll be the first to know.”
But when the normalists do act, it’s in a way no one expects. They blow up a city block.
It’s near the heart of the city and the spirit vines. Korra’s not far when it happens. She’s been sleeping in the precinct, hounding Lin and her officers for any information, any scrap of news. Turns out she needn’t have bothered.
The explosion rocks the city for several blocks in every direction. Korra and a handful of officers stagger out of the precinct and turn, just a little, to see what’s happened. There’s smoke, and screaming, and the writhing, shriveling receding motion of the spirit vines, which withdraw with shrill hissing sounds deeper into the center of the city. Buildings that were built upon them or supported by them collapse as the vines retreat.
Overhead, the distant figures of five airbenders in their flight suits, sweeping towards the bombsite to bring assistance. Seeing them, Korra finally moves, finds the strength in her legs again, stops hearing Zaheer and Unalaq and Amon’s voices in her ears, whispering that the world doesn’t need its Avatar anymore.
Need her or not, she’s here. And she’s going to help for as long as she can.
Later, when the smoke has cleared and the debris settled and the survivors all lead away to safety, there’s nothing left but the ruins and the corpses. Nine in all, nine people killed. And Korra stands there as they get taken away in body bags, her hands empty, her head stuffed with cotton, with twine and barbed wire.
One of the survivors, a woman whose dark face is streaked with blood and ash, grabs Korra’s hand as she is led away. “Please,” she says; “I saw the woman who did this, I saw her, you have to find her.” She coughs, wracked with it.
“Who?” Korra asks, even though she knows.
“The woman with no face,” the survivor says, and shudders; “the woman with the silver arm.”
She clings to Korra’s hand, only letting go when the medics gently pry her off Korra. Korra lets her hand fall, watches the woman limp away. Lin’s police have shut down the entire surrounding area and imposed a curfew on the city, not that Korra can see how that will do any good. There’s no logic to the normalist’s plans: no logic except chaos, how much harm can be done next.
Jinora, dirty, exhausted, her flight suit torn in places, comes to Korra’s side.
“Does Tenzin know you’re here?” Korra asks her.
“He told me not to come. But I thought I could help.”
“You’re a good kid, Jinora,” Korra says; “you know that?”
Jinora doesn’t smile, doesn’t change expression. She’s young, but not that young. She’s seen a lot that she needn’t have but that she chose to see because she thought she could help.
“Are you going to catch her?” Jinora asks.
I’m gonna try, Korra thinks, and says, “I’ll get her.”
“I’ll use myself as bait,” Korra says. “The normalists have addressed several of their messages to me personally. Whatever they want me for—”
“Most likely to kill you,” Tenzin interjects.
“Yes, well, they can try,” Korra says. Her hands closing on empty air. It takes her a moment to find her place again, to get the image of a pair of bare feet twitching in a small circle above the floor out of her mind. “If I lure them to me, the electric soldier will come and I can capture her.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Lin says. “She’s evaded almost all detection except for when she wants to be detected, never mind capture.”
“Yeah,” Mako says, “and we all know how well every other time you’ve tried to use yourself as bait has gone, Korra.”
Korra resists the urge to shove the table at him and knock him backwards into the wall. The fierceness of her anger shocks her, the way it overpowers her. Mako just wants to help. And he’s not wrong, not really—but she still can’t stand it, can’t stand any of this, the waiting around, the uselessness and the decay.
Bolin steps towards her, not making eye contact but clearly using his presence as a way to ground her. Damn him. He always was too observant and kind for his own good. “You don’t have to be alone,” he says; “I doubt having me and Mako there with you will keep the electric soldier away.”
“No,” Suyin says; “kids, I’m glad for how dedicated you are, but this isn’t the way.”
“Mako’s right, anyway,” Lin says. “Using the Avatar as bait hasn’t exactly proven useful in the past. Sorry, Korra.”
Korra shakes her head, exhaling through her nose. Her ears are ringing, but she can’t remember when that started. After the explosion? Just now? Perhaps when she first watched those videos with Tenzin, when she saw the bright green flash of Asami’s eyes and knew even before the video ended that she was never going to see that ever again.
She doesn’t need anyone else’s approval to make her decisions. She’s the Avatar. She’s the one who is supposed to keep the world in balance. She’s the one who is supposed to make sure that innocent people don’t die when city blocks get blown up by a group of terrorists calling themselves normalists, like they know anything about the natural order, like they know anything about how the world should be. If they really knew, they wouldn’t have killed Asami Sato. Asami did more for this city, for these people, than anyone else Korra knows. Asami cared about the people here. She cared about others. She cared about justice, and doing good, and doing what was right. She wouldn’t have waited for someone else’s approval to do something that she knew she had to do.
So Korra doesn’t wait. The discussion ends with as little gained as last time, no ground covered. Korra hides her impatience. She’s gotten good at hiding herself, compartmentalizing, shoving down the parts of her that need to be drowned. Three years trying to fix yourself will do that to you. Six months trying to find yourself. Three weeks wishing that you were dead, that you had died instead. Korra can’t do that, can’t make that right. But what had Asami said in one of her letters, so long ago? All we have is the time that’s given to us, she’d written; all we can do is the best that we can.
So Korra will. It’s taken a long time, taken years. But maybe she’s learning. Maybe she’s grown as a person.
She waits by the bombsite, which has been blocked off from foot traffic since the explosion. The vines are all gone, retreated. The street is empty and quiet and deserted, a crumbling mess. Korra paces back and forth, wondering whether the normalists will even show up. Whether she’s done the right thing after all. But she won’t turn back now.
Twenty minutes pass. The night deepens around her, strengthening. Korra remembers the grip of the electric soldier’s metal hand, how the imprints of her fingers left bruises on Korra’s shoulder that still hurt to the touch. How quickly she had disappeared each time—at the prison, at the bombsite—before Korra could stop her. She’s fast. Strong. Skilled and focused in a way that Korra struggles to understand—and silent. Completely voiceless. Korra shudders and turns on her heel to change the direction of her pacing, and suddenly there she is: the electric soldier, standing tall and motionless at the end of the city street. Completely silent, appearing from nowhere like a specter, like a spirit.
Korra stops dead. Neither of them moves for a long moment.
“You came,” Korra says.
The electric soldier says nothing.
“You people have sent me messages, sent me threats,” Korra says. “Well, I’m right here. I’m right where you want me.”
“I’m going to stop you,” Korra says. “All of you. Starting with you.”
The electric soldier tilts her head, left. Considering. The smooth expressionlessness of the mask, the black where her eyes should be.
And then she moves, faster than Korra could have expected. Lunging right, then left, dodging the fistfuls of fire that Korra throws at her. She kicks off the wall of one of the buildings that is left standing and launches herself at Korra, the fingertips of her metal hand already sparking white with lightning.
But Korra’s quick, too, and strong; she steps aside, catches the electric soldier by the other wrist, her skin and bones wrist, and throws her to the ground. The broken pavement cracks further under the force of the blow. The electric soldier doesn’t make a sound. Doesn’t gasp, doesn’t bite back a groan. Just rolls when Korra makes a fist and slams it into the pavement where the electric soldier’s faceless mask had been a second ago. The earth gives under Korra’s hands, doesn’t break her knuckles—thanks to those earthbender instincts that Bolin and Toph worked so hard to teach her—and when the electric soldier slides to her feet again, her left arm outstretched as she crouches, Korra is ready, too, facing her once more.
The electric soldier doesn’t give Korra time to breathe, to think; she’s already moving, her platinum hand reaching towards Korra’s face—but that’s the diversion, and Korra doesn’t realize until it’s too late and the electric soldier strikes her in the diaphragm with her other hand. The sweep of the electric soldier’s feet as she kicks Korra’s legs out from under her, and Korra falls, hard, rolls, getting dirt and glass into her hair and teeth and eyes and struggling to breathe, her sternum aching.
“What the hell do you want?” Korra grits out, doesn’t know why; “what do you want from us, do you want me dead? Try it. You’re not the first and you’re not gonna be the last.”
The electric soldier still doesn’t speak. Still doesn’t say a word. Fury rises like fire behind Korra’s ribs, takes hold of her, spills out of her fists and she lunges at the electric soldier, kicks off hard from the ground, airbending to give herself momentum and speed.
The electric soldier doesn’t even move aside; catches one of Korra’s fists, fire and all, with her metal hand, and twists; Korra spins, the whole world spinning, and lands on the ground so hard she can taste blood in the back of her throat. Her ears are ringing again, but she can’t remember when they started. She doesn’t know if they ever stopped.
The electric soldier crouches above her. Tilts her head again, just slightly. Says nothing, gives away nothing. The blank black glass where her eyes should be, the whites of her eyes. Korra isn’t breathing, and then she is.
She realizes, belatedly, that she is paralyzed. The terror that lances through her turns the whole world red. Not again please not again not fucking again I can’t go through this again I can’t I can’t I can’t I CAN’T—
It takes her another long moment to realize that the paralysis is wearing off, very slowly, and that she can feel her toes and fingers, just can’t move them. The hand, she realizes, the metal hand—there must be a way for it to paralyze and render immobile, but not permanently. Korra’s chest aches, her lungs scream for air, but slowly, slowly, oxygen whistles back down her throat and the terror lets her go, gives way.
The electric soldier puts her metal fingers around Korra’s neck. Doesn’t squeeze, doesn’t shock. Just holds there for a moment, looking intently at Korra who lies motionless on the ground. With her other hand, the electric soldier pulls out a knife.
(Damn it Korra get on your feet get moving don’t lie here while she guts you or slices your throat come on move it MOVE IT)
Korra can wriggle her toes, the very tips of her fingers. Can breathe. Can’t move otherwise. Can only watch as the electric soldier tilts her head and puts the knife to Korra’s throat. The cold slice of the edge of the blade.
But she doesn’t draw it across Korra’s neck. Doesn’t move, for a long moment. Then she puts the knife away. Draws her metal hand back, makes a fist. The last thing Korra remembers is the electric soldier punching her in the face so hard that Korra blacks out. She doesn’t wake up until a long time later in the hospital with Mako and Bolin at her side and Lin and Tenzin having a shouting match in the hallway while Suyin presses her fingertips to the bridge of her nose.
She turns, blearily. Her father and mother are there. Her mother is holding her hand.
“Korra, what were you thinking?” her father asks.
Korra turns away. Closes her eyes, but it doesn’t matter because she’s already started to cry. Her head aches, throbs like tides going in and out of the sea. “I wasn’t,” she says; “I wasn’t,” but she was—she was thinking of those people killed in the bomb blast, of however many others will die before this is over. She was thinking of Asami, of how she failed her, again.
It takes a week before Korra can stand on her feet for more than a few minutes. The healers tell her that the shock aggravated her old injuries and that’s why the damage was so severe. The paralysis wasn’t meant to be permanent—it’s clearly a temporary measure used to debilitate an enemy. Before killing them, perhaps.
But the electric soldier didn’t kill Korra. And Korra doesn’t know why. She served herself up to the normalists on a damn silver platter with all the trimmings. She thought she could fight the electric soldier and take her alive, but she couldn’t. She was right where the normalists wanted her, and the electric soldier had her knife to Korra’s throat. But she didn’t kill her. Struck her so hard that she didn’t wake up for two hours and spent most of the next day slipping in and out of consciousness, but she didn’t kill her.
Korra wakes up in the middle of the night in the hospital, drenched in sweat. Her mother is asleep in the chair across from her bed, looking small and exhausted. Korra’s heart is racing. She can’t remember the full dream, only small flashes of it. Zaheer draining the breath from her lungs as the poison destroyed the muscles in her arms and legs and she couldn’t move, couldn’t walk, couldn’t feel her feet, went numb. A flash of silver, of sunlight glinting off of a platinum hand. Lightning setting her hair and teeth on edge, the way it does when you can feel a storm coming in the air, taste the static on your breath. The black holes of the electric soldier’s eyes. Waking up and thinking she was back in the South Pole, constrained to her bed, immobile, with a pile of letters at her side, none of which said please come home but she could hear it in every word scrawled on the pages.
I’ll be here when you come back.
Soon she’s shivering, damp from sweat, too tired and angry with herself to move, never mind change her clothes and the bedsheets. She doesn’t want to wake her mother. She doesn’t want anyone to look at her with that disappointment in her eyes. She’s trying. She’s been trying. She’s still trying. And it’s not like any of them had a better idea. They’ve been running around in circles like a polar bear-dog chasing its tail trying to figure out what the normalists will do next, and they still don’t know.
The next morning, Lin asks Korra what happened.
Korra looks down. She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, putting on her boots so she can go home. “I used myself as bait.”
“Dangerous,” Lin says, and Korra bristles; “but you tried something. You didn’t wait around for the normalists to blow up another city block. That’s better than what I’ve done. Tell me what happened, Korra.”
And so she does as best that she can. Some of the details are fuzzy, slip away, and she doesn’t know if it’s from the blow to her head or if she just doesn’t want to remember everything. She explains how the electric soldier never spoke. How she held the knife to Korra’s throat and didn’t kill her.
“She let you live?”
“Yeah,” Korra says. “I don’t know why, either.”
She returns to Air Temple Island later that day. It’s been evacuated as it is a possible site for another normalist attack, but Korra refuses to go anywhere else. “I need somewhere to think,” she says. “And I’m not trying to hide. If the normalists want me, they can come and get me. That’s what I’ve always said.”
Mako and Bolin come with her. Tenzin too, though he makes Jinora and all his family stay away for their safety. Lin remains in the city to coordinate the police force with Suyin, who—seemingly without either her or Lin noticing—has taken the role of Lin’s second-in-command. Korra wonders what Toph would have to say about that.
Korra’s parents come to the island too, even though Korra asks them not to. And they bring Naga, who Korra hasn’t seen in almost seven months.
“Hey, girl.” Korra falls forward and puts her arms around Naga’s shoulders. Naga ruffs quietly into Korra’s hair, puts her wet nose at the back of Korra’s neck. “I didn’t mean to be away so long.”
Naga licks her ear. Apology accepted.
Korra feels like herself—as much as that means anything, anymore—after only a few hours on the island. She walks along the shoreline, puts her feet into the water. It’s cold, icy. Reminds her of home.
Bolin follows her, trying to be quiet, but she can hear him coming from a long way off. She doesn’t move, doesn’t turn, just waits for him to reach her and sit next to her.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” she says back, and gives him a small smile, which he returns in full.
“How you feeling?”
“Brand new,” Korra says.
“Good,” Bolin says. “That’s good.” He looks over the water towards the city, towards the old probending stadium where he and Mako used to live. Where he and Korra first met. It feels so long ago. Finally he says, in a small voice: “Why didn’t you tell me?”
This takes Korra by surprise. “Tell you what?”
“That you were going to lure the electric soldier by yourself. I told you I would go with you.”
Korra looks down at her hands. Her knuckles are still bruised, though the bruises are fading. “I didn’t even think about it.”
She means that to make him feel better, but Bolin grows visibly more distressed instead. “I can help,” he says. “I’m here for you. I’ve always been here for you. I know I stopped writing when you were in the South Pole, I know I didn’t keep in touch like I should have, but—”
“It’s not like that, Bolin,” Korra says, surprised, concerned. “Not at all.”
“I know I’m not—not Mako,” Bolin says, and maybe he was going to say someone else’s name, but Korra can’t tell for sure; “and I know we haven’t talked as much and it seems like I don’t care about you anymore, but—”
“I don’t think that,” Korra says, bewildered.
“But I do care,” Bolin says tenaciously, refusing to let her stop him. “I care, and I missed you, and I’m so glad you’re back, Korra. I’m so glad you’re here and I’m so angry that you went off on your own and didn’t even ask me to help you, because I would have.”
This silences Korra. She looks out at the water, black in the dark, reflecting the lights of the city. Bolin pulls his knees up to his chest and waits for her.
Finally: “It’s not like that,” she says again. “I didn’t mean for it to be like that. Maybe it was a little bit. I’ve been on my own for so long, Bolin. It feels like forever. I hardly remember what it was like before I left, when it was you and me and Mako and—” She struggles, fails. “All of us,” she says quietly. “I haven’t felt good enough. Like I don’t deserve any of you. Especially not you.”
“Yeah, well, that’s ridiculous,” Bolin says. “I could have told you that ages ago. You’ve been on your own but you’ve never been alone, Korra. Okay?”
She swallows. She doesn’t know if that’s true. She wants to believe it. “Okay,” she says at last. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I felt like I had to do it on my own. I felt like—I owed it to her.”
Bolin slides his hand over and grips Korra’s fingers tightly, then lets go. “She wouldn’t want you to think that way.”
“I know,” Korra says; “but I can’t help it that I do.”
Bolin looks down, then up at Korra. Pale green eyes. “Me too.” His smile is gentle, wounded.
In the aftermath of the bombing and Korra’s fight with the electric soldier, Korra gets an invitation from President Raiko to attend a press conference addressing the normalist threat and pacify the public. Korra, against Tenzin’s advice, accepts.
“We have to talk to the people,” Korra tells him. “We have to let them know what’s going on and what we’re trying to do.”
“Raiko needs to do that,” Tenzin says. “And yes, maybe you do, but you don’t have to go to this press conference to do it. You can do it by doing what you’ve always done and helping the city when it needs you.”
Korra swallows; she hadn’t expected that. “Maybe,” she says. “But I want the normalists to know that I’m not afraid of them. I want them to know that I haven’t backed down. And this is the best way that I can do that.”
Raiko shakes her hand when she arrives. “Avatar Korra,” he says. “Thank you for coming.”
His message to the city is short, to the point. “Where there is community, there is hope,” he says; “when we stand together, we will not fall to these terrorists. Our city is a symbol of new beginnings and of bender and nonbender solidarity. We have thrived for decades, will thrive for decades, and will not bow to the normalists. They will be rooted out and brought to justice. I ask only that we all try to do our part. But above all I ask you not to panic. The normalists wish to instill fear and cause chaos. They will not succeed. They think they hold this city in their grasp. They are wrong. In these hard times, the best that we can do is to stand together. I know that we will.”
Korra stands to his left as he talks. She feels far away—her head still aching, still moving like the tides. That’s not new, but it feels stronger now; has been stronger ever since Jinora found her in the swamp. Focus, she tells herself; pay attention. You’re here for a reason. Pay attention.
Raiko is still speaking, growing more and more passionate. Out of the corner of her eye, Korra sees one of the guards look to the side. She focuses on Raiko. His fist hits the podium, and Korra hears something—the sound of his hand on the wood? She almost turns, then doesn’t. It’s nothing. She has to focus. She can’t keep hearing things like this when she needs to be present and aware.
The quiet sound of metal on metal. Footsteps. By the time Korra realizes that she’s not just hearing things—that the guard is gone—it’s too late. It’s already too late.
The electric soldier grabs Raiko by the throat and puts her knife to his carotid artery, pulls him backwards so that he stands between her and Korra. The cameras are still rolling, the radios broadcasting. The crowd below screams. Korra crouches, ready, but the electric soldier doesn’t even say anything. Just draws her knife across Raiko’s throat and washes the ground in his blood.
The crowd scatters in terror. Korra feels numbed all the way through, watching as Raiko falls to his knees in front of her, then to his side. His eyes are flat and empty before he even falls to the ground; his body trembles, but he’s already dead. The electric soldier still holds the bloody knife in her right hand, keeps her left hand outstretched, metal fingertips.
Korra launches herself at her, but it’s too late. The electric soldier has done what she came here to do: kill Raiko in front of the entirety of Republic City, live on the radio as the crowd screamed and told everyone in the city what had occurred. Korra slips in Raiko’s blood as she lunges, nearly falls—she recovers quickly, but it’s not fast enough. The electric soldier is already running away, leaping from the stairs to the side of the building towards the alleyways where she can disappear.
Not this time. Not this damn time. Korra sprints after her. Her blood feels like boiling sea water in her veins. She hopes someone is covering Raiko’s body, giving him some dignity.
Korra reaches out—there’s a fountain nearby and she pulls the water out of it, whips it around the electric soldier’s ankles and sends her toppling to the ground. Something small and dark falls away as the electric soldier rolls, and Korra realizes, belatedly, that it’s the mask that covers her face, and that her hood has fallen from her eyes.
The electric soldier crouches, puts her metal hand up over her face, her fingers spread. And there’s a familiarity, at last, to her movements, the defensive posture, the arc of her spine that Korra knows she has seen before. The electric soldier’s hand hides her face, just for a moment while she crouches: but her hair, chopped shoulder length, ragged, falls free, dark and unkempt, and Korra recognizes that too, even though it’s changed.
“Stand up,” Korra says. Her voice rasps. She can barely speak. The electric soldier doesn’t move: waiting for an opening. Her chance to escape.
Korra gives it to her. Drops her fists. Steps backwards, just once. Her heart is pounding. You’re seeing things again, she tells herself, remembering the apparition that had followed her all over the world, that she still steals glances of in shop windows and at the end of long corridors. You’ve finally lost it. That blow to your head did worse damage than you thought.
The electric soldier stands and her hand falls from her face. The bright green flash of her eyes, and the familiar slant of her mouth. The shape of her chin.
Korra swallows. Remembers bare feet kicking above the floor as Asami Sato choked to death with a noose around her neck, broadcast to the whole populace of Republic City. I’ll be here when you come back, she’d written: and maybe this means Asami is the only one who has ever kept her promises.
“Asami?” Korra says, dumbstruck. She remembers how the lightning tastes, how it feels to become part of the storm.
Asami’s eyebrows draw together; the metal of her left forearm, platinum bones.
“Who the hell is Asami?” she asks.
And when Korra doesn’t answer—when Korra can’t answer—Asami turns and runs and then she’s gone. Korra stands there motionless, the crowd still screaming and yelling behind her, the soles of her shoes slick with Raiko’s blood, and her heart pounds in her ears, pounding and pounding: she’s alive.
Asami wakes up in the dark. It’s silent, and her hands are bound behind her back so tightly that she has lost feeling in her fingers. Her head is swimming. She doesn’t know how she got here or where she is, and her whole body aches from lying on the hard stone floor. She wants to go home. She wants her father.
He’s in prison though. She hasn’t spoken to him in three years. She bites down hard on her lip, brings herself back to this moment. She has escaped capture before; she can do it again. She just has to think. She just has to use her head.
The room is utterly dark, so silent that she can hear her own heartbeat. She wonders if that’s intentional: sensory deprivation is an effective method of torment. If she thinks through it this way, clinically, she can stay above it, even though her eyes keep flicking through the dark.
She sits up against the wall and feels the floor with her fingers. Solid stone. If she were an earthbender she’d be out of here already. She’s not, though. She’s always just been Asami. Daddy’s helpless little girl. CEO of Future Industries. A confused and terrified mess, sitting in a tiny cell trembling and trying her hardest to think through what’s happened to her.
She was at home. She had been working on some of her blueprints for the next phase of road construction in the city. She had some ideas she wanted to run by Raiko. She thought maybe she could alleviate the flow of traffic in certain areas. She’d thought it was very important at the time. She can’t remember all the details now.
So—she had been working. It was late, and she was tired and not taking care of herself like she should have been. She was thinking about Korra, thinking about Mako and Bolin and how she hadn’t seen them in a while because sometimes it was just easier not to. She leaned back to stretch and considered finally going to bed and that was when all the lights in her building had gone out.
She’d been on her feet in a flash. She didn’t have her glove, but she didn’t need that to defend herself. But she wasn’t fast enough, or awake enough, and they’d taken her. At first she hadn’t known who they were, but eventually the answer was obvious. Who else could they be? She had been speaking out against the normalists for weeks trying to rally other nonbenders against them. There’d already been a threat made to her life.
The cell door opens. White light slices the room in half, and Asami blinks, blinded. Someone grabs her by the upper arm and hauls her out of the cell, down a hollow hallway, throws her bodily into a chair and starts locking her into it. Her fingers are numb.
“Can you untie my wrists, please?” she asks, raspily. Her throat is parched. Someone slaps her across the face, and she shuts up.
The person binding her to the chair steps away, and someone else steps forward. She doesn’t know who they are, doesn’t recognize them. As far as Asami is aware, the normalists have no single leader, no face to their movement. It’s a part of why they’re so elusive.
This person is a man, tall. Hard-eyed, his mouth a hollow slash in his face. She learns later that his name is Ryou.
“You will make weapons for us,” he says.
Asami blinks again, trying to clear her head. Something buzzes in her ears. “No.”
The other man slaps her again, so hard her head rebounds off the back of the chair and her nose starts to bleed.
When she can think again, she says: “Slapping me around isn’t going to change my mind. You’ll kill me before you get me to make you a single piece of tech, so maybe you’d better just do that.”
Her boldness shocks her. But it’s the truth. She’ll never work for them. They can do whatever they want to her—threaten her however she want—but she won’t do it. She won’t betray Republic City. She won’t be like her father.
“We’ll see how some more time in the dark treats you, then,” the man says, and they throw her back into the cell, her hands still bound so that she can’t move her arms. She loses feeling in her fingers that night when she passes out from dizziness, from thirst and hunger.
She doesn’t know how often they feed her and bring her water; it’s impossible to tell time in the dark of her cell, and she spends much of her time drifting in and out of consciousness, out of dreams. She dreams of her mother, of sitting with her in the long green grass of the park and pointing up at the clouds. How her mother had smiled, the gentle touch of her hand to Asami’s hair. Those are good dreams, easy ones, dreams she doesn’t want to wake up from. The other dreams are louder, sharp-edged. She sees her father and Amon standing side by side. She sees Zaheer twisting Korra up and pulling her down, sucking the air out of her lungs. She sees Zaheer kill Korra and can’t remember if that’s what happened or not. Did Korra go to the South Pole to heal with Katara or did she die? Asami can’t remember. She can’t fucking remember.
It has to be at least two weeks before they pull her out again. She’s unsteady on her feet. Doesn’t know if she can walk. They untie her hands. She’s been eating without them, drinking from the bowl of water and spilling it all over the floor like an animal. When they untie her hands, agony like fire shoots through her, like needles being shoved through her forearms all the way up until she’s crying with the pain on it on her hands and knees. One of the normalists crushes her left hand under his boot, twists, and she nearly passes out.
The other normalist kneels by her side. He pulls her head back by her hair, exposing the line of her throat. Light floods the room, bright white, and blinds her.
“We don’t need your cooperation for you to be useful to us,” Ryou says; “but it would be better for you.”
She can’t speak. Even if she could, it wouldn’t matter. All Asami can manage is to shake her head, and the man lets her go. She falls back onto the floor. She can’t feel her left hand, her forearm. Her right hand feels like it’s on fire.
“You’ll help us send a message to President Raiko and your father, then.”
They drag her onto her knees. The scraping sound of a camera tripod, someone flicking the buttons, turning it on. She can barely focus. One of the normalists walks over to her and yanks her head up again by the hair. She looks into the camera because she knows she has to, and she hopes that she looks angry, determined, and not small and helpless like she feels.
“President Raiko,” the normalist says, “Avatar Korra.” Asami’s stomach drops and she can taste blood in the back of her throat. “Give us Hiroshi Sato or his daughter dies.” He lets her go and she tries to stay upright but can’t, shaking too hard to manage it.
“Put her back,” the man behind the camera says, and the other man drags her back down the hallway and locks her into the dark.
Raiko won’t give up her father. It’s pointless for the normalists to even ask. Why do they want him? Because he’s a known traitor to the city who they think they can persuade to make weapons for them? Asami tries not to think too hard about whether her father would actually do what these people want. Four years ago she wouldn’t have even had to think about it. But now—now—
But that's all academic. Her father is in prison, and Korra hasn’t been in Republic City in three years. Asami hasn’t heard from her once, not once in that whole time, and even if Korra might have traded Asami’s father for Asami, there’s no way Raiko will ever even consider it. Asami isn’t sure she even wants him to. Let the normalists make their own damn weapons; let them be responsible for their own crimes.
If she could just escape, she could make sure that no one else gets hurt. But she can’t, and President Raiko isn’t going to hand over her father, and so Asami is pretty sure that this means she is going to die.
She can’t move the fingers on her left hand. She thinks her hand is broken, or worse. If she could see, if she could think, she would know for sure. It’s not her biggest problem, really.
However many days later—she doesn’t know—not too many, less than her first time in the dark—they bring her out, sit her down, and don’t say anything to her, just start bringing out the camera again, a chair, a pile of rope. She examines her left hand, trying to be clinical. It looks dead. That’s all she can come up with. It hangs limply at her side. The veins in her elbow are dark, sickened. Like a spreading plague. The flesh of her fingers is purple-white and makes bile rise in the back of her throat.
She speaks, her voice gravelly, unrecognizable even to herself. “Arm,” she says, and then again, stronger: “my arm.”
They ignore her.
“It can’t stay like this,” she says. Still they don’t speak to her. There are two men and a woman all ignoring her like she’s a piece of furniture, like she isn’t the woman they’ve kidnapped and tortured for a month.
She can’t take it anymore. They’re not going to let her go. She doesn’t have any way to escape, and no one knows where she is, so no one’s going to come get her.
“Listen,” she says, sharply. “You’re either gonna have to amputate my arm or kill me, and I really don’t want to wait forever for you to decide which you’re going to do.”
Turns out, she doesn’t have to wait long at all. Turns out, they do both.
They film the noose going around her neck, the tightening of the rope. Her hair falls into her eyes. She can’t see. She doesn’t know that she’s going to live through this yet. She thinks this is the last stop. End of the line.
No, she thinks; my father is going to see this, please, don’t. She doesn’t know why she thinks about him. She hasn’t thought about her father this much in years.
She wonders if Korra will see this. If Korra read her letters. Asami hopes so. She misses her so much. Asami never thought that saying goodbye to Korra three years would be the last time she saw her. There’s so much left that Asami never said. There’s so much left that she wanted to do.
And Mako—Bolin—the others—they’re all going to see this, they’re all going to have to see how she couldn’t keep herself alive. How she got them to kill her, but it doesn’t feel like a victory even though it’s all she’s got.
I’m sorry, she thinks, and a normalist kicks the chair out from under her feet. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—
She doesn’t die. The noose doesn’t break her neck. Her body goes stiff and limp and later she realizes they drugged the water she was drinking, because she wakes up later, only in bits and pieces, before they put her under again. She is strapped to an operating table, all her limbs bound to the counter. She sees light, and the silver flash of surgeon’s tools she doesn’t recognize. Then someone puts an oxygen mask over her face and injects something into first her left arm, then her right, and she slips under again, slips away.
She wakes up still strapped to the table. She wakes up and she can’t move and she can’t remember how she got there. She wakes up and her left hand is in pure, molten lava agony, and she cranes her head to look.
Metal fingers. Metal palm, metal forearm, all the way up to her elbow where metal slides underneath her skin. She starts to shake. Be rational, she thinks. Be logical. They had to amputate; she told them that herself. But she didn’t tell them to put this on her, to put this metal into her body. Her flesh hand isn’t there anymore but it burns like it is still on fire.
That fades, slowly. They don’t give her any painkillers, but she didn’t expect them to. They want something out of her. They obviously couldn’t get her father, and—what was it that they said? They didn’t need her to cooperate for her to be useful to them.
In a month she won’t remember them saying that. In a month and three weeks she won’t remember hanging by a noose to her supposed death, won’t remember being captured, won’t remember losing her arm and getting the new one, the metal hand that shocks like lightning when she twists her fingers just right. In two months she won’t remember that she ever fought against this, ever resisted.
In three months she doesn’t remember her own name. In four, she lifts someone off the ground by the neck, her metal hand around their throat, and squeezes, squeezes, slowly, and releases them when they die.
Get in, get out. She works on her own, because that’s how she works best. Anything else is a liability. She is physicality, brutality. Motion and speed. Sometimes something goes wrong—her thoughts get stuck on something, the way someone’s voice breaks, the way no one ever calls her by name, a certain pale shade of blue—and her whole head feels like it’s crashing in, like she’s being crushed. But then she gets back to headquarters and they make her right again. They silence everything in her head, smooth over the rough patches where she gets stuck so she doesn’t think about them anymore. So she stops thinking about names, about blue water, about lipstick, about early mornings. And that’s good. That’s quieter. That’s easier to deal with.
She’s not entirely sure how the normalists do what they do—not that it matters. She doesn’t need to know. Some combination of bending and nonbending psychological practices. Very effective. Sharp like pins being shoved under her fingernails, like someone setting fire to her clothes and letting her stand there in them. There was a word for that, once—in the beginning she had a word for this, for how this feels. Not anymore.
They cut her hair short with a knife because it gets in the way. A liability. Chop it off, just like her hand. Cut away the parts of her that are dead. Slice and dice.
There’s a man who works for the normalists, a man they kidnapped after they could not obtain Hiroshi Sato. (Since when did my dad have a cyanide tooth?—click. Bzz. She gets stuck and they smooth this away and she doesn’t think about it again.) A man who always looks at the electric soldier when she’s in the headquarters getting her orders, recuperating, being recalibrated. The first time he sees her he opens his mouth and says something she doesn’t understand and Ryou punches him in the stomach, then in the teeth, and then they bind the man’s mouth shut so he never says anything again and it doesn’t really matter. His name is Varrick, the electric soldier thinks; something like that. He’s an inventor. He makes weapons for them now. He too has been given a purpose, just like she has.
He examines her arm one day after she gets back from the fight with the Avatar. She’d explained, calmly, that the Avatar had escaped the bombsite before she could kill her—
(standing above her with her life in your hands you put your metal fingers on the side of her face she opens her mouth she’s staring at you she’s not even begging you could kill her like this you could kill her in a single second you’ve got her paralyzed and helpless and there are no tears in her eyes just anger just rage just hatred and you think
no, you don’t think—)
—that the Avatar got the better of her this time. That it won’t happen again.
They wipe her. Start over. Fire snaking up around her ankles, knives under her fingernails, and then it’s gone. The Avatar escaped. The electric soldier didn’t think.
(except for when the blue of her eyes was the blue of the water was the blue of the ice was the blue was BLUE so blue and you thought but you didn’t think but if you could think maybe you would have thought something, you don’t know what. doesn’t matter, they erased over this already and the past is worn smooth so you can’t see any of its features, can’t see the details, only the blue)
Varrick looks at her arm and doesn’t speak (he can’t), but his hands on her elbow are gentle, which she is not used to and doesn’t like. Stop, she wants to tell him. Just fix what’s broken and cut away the rest. Don’t look at me.
She doesn’t like to be looked at. It’s better when she has the mask. She wants to wear the mask all the time. Then it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t recognize herself, because no one recognizes her. She’s faceless.
She realizes, after a moment, that the man named Varrick is tapping something against her arm. Some sort of code. He’s trying to talk to her. She yanks her arm away, stares at him. The normalists take him away and take her away and put her in the dark and she sits there thinking about the repetition of Varrick’s fingers, spelling out a message in a code she’s sure she could understand if she could just remember something important, something true.
She realizes after a few weeks that the longer she goes without being recalibrated, the more unstable she feels. But she likes that instability, that unpredictability. Bits and pieces of stuff that feel familiar and strange come back to her; her thoughts get stuck more often, rocks caught at the bottom of a river; stuff makes more sense and yet is more inexplicable than ever. Then she’s recalibrated, and everything is clear and simple. Then a few days pass, and it starts again. The noise. Static and background chatter.
She tries to get them to give her longer missions, but they must know what she’s thinking, because they don’t let her. She gets in, does her job, gets out, and comes back to headquarters. At least until she’s sent to kill Raiko.
It’s a simple job. Raiko isn’t strong enough or smart enough to fight against her, but the Avatar is, and the Avatar is there. Because that’s not her mission, the electric soldier leaves with Raiko’s blood still on her knife—but her mask, the mask, the mask gets caught, stuck like her damn thoughts like everything building up in her brain and it falls and the Avatar looks at her like she’s seeing someone she knows (which is impossible because no one recognizes her, she doesn’t recognize herself) and says,
like that’s supposed to mean something to her.
And then the Avatar lets her go, lets her run, and the electric soldier wakes up some place she doesn’t recognize, a long way from headquarters. She limps back there with that word playing over and over again in her head, asami, asami, asami, her thoughts stuck on it, breaking on it like the surf, until she gets back and they put her in the dark and she doesn’t have to think about it anymore, doesn’t think at all.
Kill the Avatar.
That is her mission. She has been expecting it since Raiko’s assassination. The Avatar is a problem, an obstacle that must be removed.
She can do it. She almost did it before—was only a few seconds away, a few breaths from it. It won’t be hard. Not this time.
Click, she thinks. The mission.
Slice and dice, and then you start over.
“I can’t believe it,” Asami says. “I think you might be worse than Bolin.”
Korra doesn’t throw the pai sho tile across the room, but only because the effort it would take to lift her arm and throw is too much for her to even bear thinking about right now. Instead she sets it down and closes her hands, hard, around the armrests of her wheelchair.
“At least you don’t pretend to lose to make me feel better,” Korra says. “Mako always did that. It pissed me off.”
“He’s only beaten me a handful of times,” Asami says; “if that makes you feel better.”
It doesn’t, but nothing does. Korra wants to kick her chair away from the table and get to her feet and walk over to the window, but she can’t do any of those things. Her head feels like a funeral pyre that someone forgot to set ablaze, dripping oil like a dark and terrible thing.
“One more bout?” Asami asks gently. “Before dinner?”
It’s long since gotten dark, is long past dinner. Korra doesn’t know why Asami keeps insisting on this; why she’s even here.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Korra says. “You don’t have to pretend to be nice to me because you feel like it’s your—I don’t know. Your duty as my friend, or whatever. Consider this me officially letting you off the hook.” Permission granted to stop looking me in the eye, to hold your hands awkwardly at your sides the way everyone else does when they see me, like they can’t even stand to look at me.
“I mean it,” Korra says. And she pushes the pai sho board, vengefully. “I’m sick of pai sho anyway.”
“Oh,” Asami says. “You could have said. We don’t have to play pai sho.”
Korra rolls her wheelchair towards the window. It takes some maneuvering, some difficulty. She doesn’t have the hang of it yet and she never wants to get the hang of it. Never wants to be good at this.
“I’m not doing this because I feel like I have to,” Asami says at last from behind Korra. She speaks quietly, looking down and talking to the pai sho pieces. “I’m your friend, and I want to. I care about you. I don’t want you to be alone.”
“Maybe you should have considered that I might want to be alone,” Korra bites out.
“Do you?” Asami asks.
Korra just looks out the window and doesn’t answer. No, she thinks, but she never says it; somehow, despite this, Asami knows.
“I’m sure,” Korra says through her teeth. Her jaw aches from how hard she’s clenching it, but she can’t stop. The others glance at each other over her head like she can’t see them, like she’s making this up, like she’s crazy. “It was her.”
“You realize how impossible that sounds,” Lin says.
“Is it?” Korra counters. Her whole body feels like its on fire, like bending gone wrong, like when Amon took it all away from her and she thought she was never going to bend again. “All we have is that video, we never got—we never saw her body. We don’t know what the normalists could have done to her. We don’t even know if the video was real. It was her. I saw her face.”
“But how?” Bolin asks.
Korra shakes her head. “All I know is it was her, and she didn’t know it was me. She didn’t recognize me. She ran when I called after her, and I don’t know where she went.”
Korra was supposed to have been here. She was supposed to come back to Republic City and keep everybody safe. She saw the video and didn’t even think, didn’t even question it. Didn’t even wonder if what she was being spoon-fed was the truth or if Asami was still out there and still needed her help.
It’s Tenzin who comes over to her and puts his hand on her shoulder. “Korra,” he says; “are you all right?”
How the fuck is she supposed to answer that? Yeah, sure, I’m fine. I just watched my friend who I thought was dead kill the president in cold blood and then run away when I called out to her. I’m doing just fine. You might say I’ve never been better.
Korra shrugs his hand away. “No,” she says, and then she leaves.
The city falls into a complete panic after Raiko’s death. Tenzin and a couple of the other previous councilors step in to act as interim leaders during the crisis, but things escalate out of control more quickly than they can respond. Riots start in certain sectors of the city, especially those nearest to the spirit vines. Lin’s police force stretches itself thin trying keep the population safe.
The normalists are getting exactly what they want—panic, fear, chaos. And Korra can’t even bring herself to care. She wants the normalists gone, dead, or captured, but she wants Asami back more, and that’s all she can think about.
She expects Bolin and Mako to try and argue with her when they come to see her later. She doesn’t know why she thinks that. She doesn’t know how to talk to them anymore.
“It was her,” Korra says, ready to start arguing, ready to fight back as hard as she has to, but then she doesn’t need to.
“We believe you,” Mako says.
“Yeah,” Bolin says; “did you really think we wouldn’t?” And Korra doesn’t know what to say to that.
“What do we do?” Mako asks. “How do we get her back?”
Korra holds out her hands, helpless. “I don’t know.” Lowers them. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll keep my ear to the ground in the precinct,” Mako says. “See what I can find out.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Bolin says. He meets Korra’s gaze, and she tries to smile.
As it turns out, they don’t have to do anything. Asami comes to them.
They’re sitting up late on Avatar Island, not talking because neither of them knows how to fill the silence. Korra has her back to the wall and surveys the bay between the island and the city. Feeling stone and wind and hearing the distant sound of water. She’d call it meditation if she could actually distance herself from the sound her heart is making, the way her chest aches.
Bolin has kept up a semi-constant stream of chatter, but it’s comforting rather than annoying, a quiet background buzz that helps to keep Korra grounded when she starts to drift. He doesn’t mention anything serious: comments on the temperature, the wind, the fresh air, the light on the water. Bolin has always been like this, calming when everything is starting to fall apart and Korra and Mako are running in circles around each other pissing everyone the fuck off, especially themselves.
In the sky, three dark shadows, black wingspans. As they get closer, Korra recognizes the airbender uniforms. She glances at Bolin, one eyebrow raised, and he shrugs.
Jinora, Opal, and Kai land a few feet away, fold the wings of their uniforms and walk over. “All quiet on the homestead so far?” Kai asks, and Korra doesn’t know what to say.
“What are you guys doing here?” Bolin asks.
“Came to see you,” Jinora says. “Mako said he’d be over soon. We want to help you get Asami back.”
“You believe me?” Korra asks.
“Everyone believes you, I think,” Opal says. “The adults just don’t know what to do about it though.”
They all share a silent moment.
“I don’t know what to do either,” Korra says, ashamed of how shaky her voice gets. She shuts down on it, crushes it under her heel.
Opal and Bolin glance at each other, almost frowning. Kai is at Jinora’s side like a ship’s mast, stable support. Korra feels solitary, individual. She has a feeling Mako showing up won’t make that feeling go away.
“Did she really kill Raiko?” Kai asks.
Korra lets out a breath, looks out over the water. “Yeah.” Bolin takes her hand. Jinora takes her other and smiles at her, her eyes bright.
Opal peers out over the bay. She’s frowning. “What is that?”
Korra looks. “Mako’s boat, maybe?”
“It doesn’t look like a boat,” Jinora says doubtfully.
Kai spreads his arms, ready to take flight. “I’m gonna go see,” he says, but Korra catches him by the arm.
“No,” she says sharply. The figure is getting closer, speeding towards the deserted island. It looks like a small one-person transport—sort of like a Satomobile motorbike, but for the water. Korra’s heart is sinking in her chest. Then she sees the flash of silver on the handlebars, and she knows. “You guys have to get out of here.”
The others understand almost instantly. “I’m not going anywhere, Korra,” Bolin says. “I said I was gonna help you and I am. We all are.”
“She’s dangerous,” Korra says. “You don’t understand. You haven’t fought her—she can paralyze with her metal hand. The electricity isn’t like an equalist glove, it’s worse. You could get seriously hurt.”
She killed Raiko, Korra thinks, and doesn’t know how to say it. She could kill any of us. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.
“Which is why you need us,” Jinora says. “You need our help too, Korra. We’re not going anywhere.”
There’s absolutely no use arguing. Korra wishes that Tenzin were there, or Lin, but they aren’t. They’re gonna have to do this on their own.
“I want you three in the air,” Korra says to the airbenders. “Me and Bolin on the ground. She’ll likely come after me, but any one of us could be the target, so be careful. We don’t know what she’s going to do.”
The airbenders nod and spread their arms, taking flight. Korra looks over to Bolin, who nods at her.
“Let’s go.” He tilts his head towards the shoreline where Asami is headed and where the others now circle from above.
Together Korra and Bolin crouch, then slam their right feet hard onto the ground. They launch themselves forward on a single mound of dirt that churns beneath them and carries them, together, down to the shore. They aren’t quick enough though; when they get there, the tiny water speeder is already on the shore, and the electric soldier—Asami—is gone.
Korra glances up. Jinora, Opal, and Kai all spread their hands as if to say, no clue.
“Damn it,” Korra says. Then a bolt of lightning sparks from some of the bushes by the shoreline—not down from the clouds, but up from the ground in a single white-blue arc towards the airbenders above, who scatter, yelling.
Korra launches herself towards the origin of the lightning strike, but she’s not fast enough—Asami has already rolled out from cover and is crouched, her left hand held outwards, still smoking from the electric shot it just fired. Korra had no idea there was any tech that could do something like that—but then again, she hadn’t thought there was any way that arm could paralyze her, either.
“Asami,” Korra says; “Asami, please, it’s me. It’s Korra. You don’t have to do this.”
Asami springs forward, kicks Korra’s feet out from under her. She’s about to put her left hand over Korra’s mouth when Bolin knocks her over, shifting the ground so that Asami goes tumbling.
“Don’t hurt her—” Korra says helplessly as the airbenders above start swirling up a storm to try and keep Asami off balance and incapacitate her.
The wind blows Korra’s hair into her eyes, dirt and debris. Asami is maskless, this time: all the others can clearly see that it is her. The bright green of her eyes, the slant of her mouth. Korra can’t help but calculate all the ways that she looks different—older, yes. Three years older. Thinner, her eyes set deep in her face. The slant of her mouth, surprisingly pale without her lipstick. The ragged unkempt ends of her hair. Her arms are bare, and Korra can see the place where her metal forearm meets skin, the dark red twisted scars that line the edge of the metal. The black circles under Asami’s eyes: the complete lack of recognition within them, the cool, distant clinical focus.
Asami goes after Bolin next. He’s not quick enough to block her blows and she punches him hard in the sternum, so hard Korra’s afraid she’s broken something and oh no what will they do then oh please don’t hurt him please Asami—
Bolin falls backward, stirs on the ground, but pushes himself up. Asami kicks him in the face and he falls over, lies still.
Korra shouts something—she doesn’t know what—and launches herself at Asami. Asami is ready for her—grabs Korra by the wrist, turns, flings her down. She’s about to use her metal hand to paralyze her when Jinora swoops down and knocks Asami off her feet into the bushes. Kai swoops in after her, getting close to Asami to try and catch her in the tornado the airbenders have made, but Asami reaches out and grabs Kai out of midair, and there’s a bright white blinding flash as she shocks him with her left hand. He screams out loud.
He manages to wrench himself away—flies a few dozen feet up into the air, bobbing unsteadily, Jinora racing after him—before his whole body seizes up and he falls, motionless, into the bay.
“Kai!” Jinora shouts, and she swoops down to save him from drowning. Korra’s heart is beating so hard she can hardly breathe, her whole chest filled with it.
“Asami,” Korra says again, trying not to let her voice break as Opal lands on the ground next to her, letting the winds die down around them. “Asami, please don’t make me do this.”
Asami says nothing; straightens up, faces both Korra and Opal. Her hands spread at her sides, her empty open palms. The flat glassiness of her eyes. There’s a split in her lip, oozing blood.
I am so sorry, Korra thinks, and she signals to Opal, and they both move at once, taking off in different directions.
Asami follows Korra, mirroring her every movement. She’s fast. Faster than Korra ever remembered her being, but she’s always been fast, strong, quick to react. She dodges every burst of fire that Korra sends towards her, dodges when Korra twists water out of the bay and tries to trip Asami up in it, dodges and dodges until Korra stops and slams her feet into the ground—remembering Toph, remembering the swamp and bending the poison out of the holes in her own skin and casting it into the spitting fire—and she breaks the ground under Asami’s feet.
Asami stumbles. It’s enough for Opal to get close to her, and Opal does, fearlessly, and she tries to catch both of Asami’s arms behind her back and bind them together.
Asami is too fast. Too fast, always too quick. She whirls, her left hand reaching for Opal’s face—hesitating at just the last second, or maybe Korra’s only seeing what she wants to see. She grabs Opal by the shoulder and shocks her, paralyzing her entirely. Opal falls to the ground, her mouth an open, a silent ‘o’, and there she doesn’t move.
Asami turns once more to face Korra. Her face is streaked with sweat, with dirt. She cocks her head to the left, watching.
“It’s me,” Korra says. “That’s Opal—you just....Asami, please.”
Asami doesn’t hear her, can’t. There’s lightning in the spaces between her fingertips.
And then there’s more lightning, but not from her platinum hand. An arc of lightning from the shoreline, and it strikes Asami in the small of her back, sends her to her knees.
Out of the corner of her eye, Korra sees Jinora and Kai, both dripping wet on the very edge of the water. Mako is there, smoke coming from his fingertips. He looks pale and wan and scared.
“Bolin?” he shouts. “Bo?” He goes to his brother’s side and crouches next to him; Bolin is stirring, trying to sit up.
Asami struggles to her feet. Her left hand twitches, the metal plates rearranging themselves, trying to recalibrate. She staggers towards Korra, slowly gains strength.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Korra says. “Please don’t make me.”
“You haven’t hurt me,” Asami spits out, speaking for the first time. Her voice grates, rough on all its edges like a broken window. “Nothing hurts me anymore.”
Mako swears behind her, quietly. He and Bolin are looking at Korra, waiting for her to tell them what to do, and she doesn’t know.
“I know you know who I am,” Korra says. “Asami—”
“No I don’t,” Asami says, and jumps Korra, throws them both backwards onto the ground. She balls up her left hand, punches Korra hard in the mouth, and Korra’s head falls back. She sees stars.
Mako and Bolin are running towards them. Asami does something that Korra can barely see, a twist of her left hand, and a burst of electricity shoots out of her fingers, a low wave of it, and knocks both Mako and Bolin to the ground.
Korra tries to get free, but Asami pins her fast. “Don’t move,” she says; “it’ll be easier for you if you don’t.”
Korra laughs, broken-edged. “I’m so sorry,” she says; “I’m sorry, Asami, I’m sorry I wasn’t here when they took you and I’m sorry I didn’t come back in time and that I never answered any of your letters until it was too late—”
Asami’s fingers, unclenching slowly: the way her fist dissolves;
“—but I can’t let you hurt anyone else,” Korra says. “Look at the others, Asami—they care about you, we’re all here to try and help you and I’m sorry. It’s my fault,” and as Asami’s face shifts—the light in her eyes changing like the sun rising over the water even though night’s falling, the sun long since gone, Korra breaks free with all her might. She flips Asami onto the ground and presses her fingertips to Asami’s temples. She sees Wan’s face, sees Raava’s, sees Aang’s—and she knows, at last, what he would do, beyond a shadow of a doubt—and it’s easy to slip into the Avatar state for just a second, to energybend Asami into unconsciousness. Asami goes limp and lies motionless, her left hand empty and glittering in the dark night at her side.
Bolin limps over, supported by Mako. Kai is sitting up on the beach while Jinora tends to Opal, looking tiny and afraid but determined.
“What did you do?” Bolin asks, sounding as if he doesn’t want to know.
“She’s okay,” Korra says. A lie. An obvious one, too. “She’ll wake up soon. We can get her help. We can help her.”
Her mouth tastes bitter, like Zaheer’s poison. Right before Asami had fallen back, limp, her eyes had changed. She’d seen Korra—really looked at her, truly seen her. Her eyes widening in pain, in shock, in fear. She knew me, Korra thinks.
“You did what you had to do,” Mako says quietly.
“Yeah,” Korra says. It doesn’t feel like it.
When Tenzin shows up with Lin and Suyin and a pair of healers, he looks grave, his face flat. He doesn’t scold Jinora—just looks her up and down, makes sure she’s all right, while Lin and Suyin check on Opal and Kai and Bolin. Korra and Mako stand to the side. Korra feels very still, very strange. Everything that had been whirling around inside her, everything that had tried to scramble to the surface of her head, is silent. She feels empty.
Then Tenzin approaches her. “Where is she?”
Lin says they should tie Asami down in case she reacts violently when she wakes, and Tenzin agrees when Korra tries to protest. They bind Asami to the bed and the healers examine her.
“We should get Katara,” Korra says, her voice flat. “She’ll know what to do.”
“I don’t know if even my mother would know what to do about this,” Tenzin says, but they send for her anyway.
Korra sits by Asami’s side once the healers have gone. The healers held their hands over Asami's head for a long time, on either side of her temples, running white water over her eyes. When they tried the same thing with her left arm, the water evaporated into the air with a hissing sound, and the metal crackled. They don’t try again.
After a long time, Korra falls asleep. The others—Bolin and Jinora and Kai and Opal and Mako—have gone to sleep in a few other rooms. Korra refuses to leave, even when Mako’s face goes hard and Bolin looks like he wants to say something but doesn’t. Tenzin remains too, meditating silently in the corner while Lin and Suyin patrol the borders of the island to be sure none of the normalists try to retake Asami.
(“They won’t,” Korra says. “She’s just a weapon to them. She’s not a person. She doesn’t get a rescue mission.”
“Perhaps not,” Tenzin says.)
Korra doesn’t wake for a long time, not until the early morning. Tenzin is gone, off to make a pot of tea perhaps. Korra wakes slowly, and she doesn’t realize for several moments that Asami is also awake, staring up at the ceiling without moving, utterly still.
Korra stands. She wants to move to Asami’s side and decides against it. “Asami?”
Asami doesn’t turn to look at her, just keeps looking up.
“How are you feeling?” Korra asks.
Asami’s mouth twitches, smoothes over.
“Can I unbind you?” Korra asks more quietly. She can’t do anything but whisper.
Only now does Asami speak. “You’d better not.” Her voice a dry rasp. “I don’t know what I might do.”
Korra stands there, useless in her helplessness. “I’ll get you some water,” she says at last, and leaves the room.
Tenzin is in the kitchen, standing over a pot of tea just as Korra expected. He looks out the window towards the distant light gray horizon. He starts when Korra enters the room and fills a glass with water from the faucet. “Is she awake?”
“Korra.” Tenzin puts his cup down. “What you did was dangerous. Why didn’t you come to me?”
“I didn’t want you to stop me.”
“Do you really think I would have?”
“I don’t know,” Korra says. “I didn’t want anyone to help me. The others insisted on it.”
“I should have, as well,” Tenzin says. “I’m sorry, Korra.”
Korra shrugs him off. “Don’t worry about it, Tenzin. Just….”
She trails off. Just help me try to make her better. But she knows how ridiculous that is—how terrible to think. Three years ago when Zaheer poisoned her, she would have hated anyone to think that about her, for anyone to think that they could make her better. She doesn’t know how to help Asami. But now, standing on the other side of this—the person offering support, and not the one receiving it—she doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know what to say.
She helps Asami with the water. Asami’s lips are chapped, still split down the middle from the fight. There’s dried blood in the corner of her mouth. When Korra goes to wipe it away, Asami flinches, her entire body going tense.
“Don’t,” she says. Korra doesn’t.
Asami allows herself to be unbound later that day, and when the healers try to take her to a medical facility, she agrees to go until Tenzin asks whether she can stay on the island instead.
“Asami?” he asks her; she looks at him, for a long moment: and then nods, silently.
They set her up with a few rooms where she can’t get out, which is by her choice. She doesn’t want to run off again if she forgets herself, she says. She can’t trust her own head. She refuses to see anyone but the healers and Jinora, and every once in a while Suyin and Opal.
“Why?” Korra demands, frustrated when Jinora tells her that Asami still does not want to be seen by the others.
“I don’t know,” Jinora says. “Because we’re familiar to her, but not as painful to see, maybe. She’s in a lot of pain, Korra, though she hides it. I’m sorry. I’m sure she’ll want to see you soon.”
Mostly, though, Asami is alone or in the company of the healers, who say they have managed fairly well to heal her physical injuries but have made no progress with her mental ones or the faultiness of her memories. It comes and goes, they say. It’s unpredictable.
Finally, Asami agrees to let Korra see her.
Her room is small, the windows barred. She has access to a bathroom, a kitchen, a small living space, but mostly she stays in her room.
“Hate being cooped up in here,” she says when Korra enters. She has her back to Korra. “But it’s for the best. I don’t remember much, but I remember what I did.”
She turns before Korra can say anything—looks at her, hard. The fingers of her right hand are scratching, unconsciously, along the edges of her metal arm.
“You cut your hair,” Asami says at last.
“So did you,” Korra says thoughtlessly. It’s so strange to see Asami like this—preternaturally calm, like she’s forcing herself into stillness.
Asami almost smiles. “Yes,” she says, “I suppose I did.”
The ends of her hair are ragged, shorn carelessly. Korra wonders if she should offer to help fix it or keep her distance.
“You can sit,” Asami says. “I’m probably not going to attack you.” She is bitter, self-deprecating.
Asami shakes her head and it’s enough to silence Korra. “I know you probably want to talk about what I remember. But I haven’t remembered anything useful yet. I’m trying. I keep trying.”
“Useful?” Korra asks, baffled.
“Where the normalists are,” Asami says. “Where they were keeping me. So you can take them out and protect the city.”
Korra swallows. “I didn’t want to ask you that.”
Asami sits down. “Then why are you here?”
That hurts, a blow to the chest. Korra looks down at her hands.
“I know you recognized me before I used my energybending on you,” Korra says. “It wasn’t me who brought your memories back. You did that yourself.”
A flicker, a flash of some emotion that Korra can’t place on Asami’s face. “I don’t know,” Asami says. “That moment I actually don’t remember, right now.”
“Oh,” Korra says. She feels small.
After a long moment of stillness, Asami softens. She lets her hands lie loose in her lap. “I don’t know how to be myself anymore. I keep getting stuck. Like everything’s—” She trails off. Smiles, a small piece of warmth. “It’s good to see you. I missed you.”
“I missed you,” Korra says, and it’s true—feels more true than any truth she’s ever held in her life. Thinking Asami dead had been an open wound that wouldn’t heal, a hole in her chest cavity. “I got your letters when I was in the South Pole. I kept every one of them. I....”
She doesn’t know what she wants to say. I wrote to you, once. I know it wasn’t enough. Did you read it? Did you know what I wanted to tell you, what I had to tell you and couldn’t say out loud? I’m so sorry I didn’t come back in time. I’m sorry, Asami.
“I’m sorry,” she says, because somehow it’s the easiest.
“Don’t,” Asami bites out at once. “Korra—don’t. Please.”
“But I should have been here,” Korra says, and it starts to tumble out of her all at once: “I could have helped. I would have searched for you, I could have made sure they never took you in the first place. I was supposed to be here and I wasn’t and that’s why—that’s why—”
“No,” Asami says. Fiercely, but with anger, not intended to placate Korra or make her feel better. “This is not your fault, and that’s just the fact of it. Hearing you say it is doesn’t make me feel any better. You’re saying this to make yourself feel better, and—don’t. Please. Not to me.”
“Okay,” Korra says, ashamed.
Asami just looks at her for a long time. Her face is expressionless, but her cheeks are pink. “And you don’t have to keep asking to see me,” she says, speaking more quickly now, as if she’s nervous. She gets on her feet again, starts pacing. Her metal hand gesticulates jerkily at her side. “I’ll manage on my own. You don’t have to make yourself spend time with me because you feel responsible.”
“It’s not like that,” Korra says. She falls flat even to herself. “I care about you. You don’t have to do this alone.”
Asami smiles, with full bitter sincerity this time, her mouth twisting. “Have you ever thought that maybe I want to be alone?”
“Yeah,” Korra says; “yeah, I have. Do you?”
Asami looks at her, a long unbroken moment. Blinks, silently.
“No,” she says, at last; “that’s not what I want.”
Her memories come in pieces. She keeps getting stuck like she did before the normalists would recalibrate her again, but they can’t do that to her anymore and so she gets stuck, stuck again, and sometimes she’ll break through it and remember something else; sometimes she just stays stuck and it hurts like a bruise in her head.
She remembers saying goodbye to Korra on the docks of Republic City before Korra went to the South Pole, but she doesn’t remember why Korra went. She remembers turning on her father when she found out he was an equalist, but she can’t remember what an equalist is or what happened to her father afterwards. She remembers Mako and Bolin in mostly complete pieces; Jinora and Opal, Tenzin, the others. Sort of. She remembers names.
She remembers almost nothing about her captivity; she remembers almost everything. Flicking the switch on and off. Blue, blue light. When they cut her arm off she was awake—or was she? Hard to tell. She didn’t feel any pain then, which was perhaps the only time. She watches the videos that the normalists spread of her death but she doesn’t remember the noose around her neck. Watching her feet kick on the screen is surreal, so she only watches a few times, as much as she can stomach, until she feels sick and nauseated and tired.
She remembers killing Raiko. That she remembers clearly. How hot his blood was. How easily the knife cut his neck. How she’d felt nothing, no panic at all, no fear. She assassinated a world leader and they haven’t put her in prison for it. She wonders what is wrong with everyone, why they can’t see what she is, what she’s become; why they keep trying to help her instead.
She sleeps, but she doesn’t dream. Her head is too empty for dreams. She sleeps and there’s silence.
The healers do all they can for her, and then they give up. There’s nothing else that they can do. Tenzin insists they keep trying until Katara gets there, but Asami says, no. Enough.
Korra hovers. I tried to kill you, Asami wants to scream at her. I tried to kill you and I don’t know why I didn’t do it. I killed Raiko, I could have killed you. You need to get out of here in case I try again.
When Katara arrives, Asami almost refuses to see her. There’s nothing she can do. What’s the point?
“I’ll be the judge of that, I think,” Katara says mildly, and Asami gives in because it’s easier than fighting her.
She lowers herself into the healing bath: warm, calming. It makes her joints stop aching, lessens the pain of her phantom hand. At least it does that much. Katara meditates over her for a moment.
“You poor kids,” Katara murmurs at last. “You’ve seen so much. Dealt with so much. I wish we had left you a better world.”
Asami doesn’t know what to say to that. Katara’s smile is slightly slanted when Asami opens her eyes. “But you’re strong, too,” Katara says. “Resilient, the both of you. All of you. You keep getting back onto your feet.”
“I don’t know if I want to,” Asami says quietly.
“It’s your choice,” Katara says. “But I think you do want to.”
She runs her healing hands over Asami’s head, over the place where the flesh of her left arm meets platinum, and the water doesn’t evaporate from her hands. Some of the pain lessens. The tension in Asami’s head draining away. Slowly, she exhales.
And then Katara presses the pads of her fingers to Asami’s temples, and Asami’s eyes fly open, pain shooting up and down her entire body, like—
like knives under her fingernails like someone set her clothes on fire and is letting her burn, burn, burn up to ash—
She pulls away, cradling her head in her hands, breathing heavily. “What did they do to me?” Her voice breaks on it. There are tears streaming down her face for the first time, the first time in her whole life that she can remember.
“Oh, honey,” Katara says, and reaches out to her.
Asami lets Katara hug her close, even though she gets Katara’s clothes wet, even though she can’t stop crying, can’t stop shaking. She misses her mother. She misses, again, her father. But he’s gone too. Korra had explained, in pieces, how he had died. How close Asami had been to seeing him again. But she wouldn’t have recognized him. And maybe it’s better that he never saw her like this. But she wishes she could see him. Just one more time. One more chance.
Katara manages to lighten the intensity of the numbness in Asami’s head, and memories start to come back more easily. If you could call it that. She starts to piece herself back together. Here, and here, and here. Fitting herself into place, standing back to look at the places that are still missing and think, where are you, and hearing only silence in return.
Bolin brings her flowers. She laughs when he holds them out to her bashfully: laughs, truly laughs, and it shocks her, how that feels.
He blinks. “You don’t like them?”
“I love them.” She sets them in a vase by the small barred window.
“You know you don’t have to stay in here anymore,” Bolin says. “You can go wherever you want.”
You can have a room without bars on its windows and a lock on the door from the outside, he means.
“I know,” Asami says. That seems to satisfy him.
“I’m glad you’re back. I missed you a lot. Your, uh—your funeral was hard.”
She smiles again. Doesn’t know how Bolin manages that. “Did you cry?”
“Loads,” he says, smiling at her. “Like, disgustingly. Snot dripping down my face and everything.”
Her smile turns watery, and she turns away from him, wipes quickly at her eyes. “Good,” she says. “If you hadn’t, and I’d really been dead, my spirit would’ve haunted your ass.”
He laughs, just a little. “I kind of feel like hugging you right now. If that’s okay.”
She considers. It is. “All right.”
He wraps her in his arms and holds her close. She’s tall enough that his head rests right on her shoulder, and he clings to her tightly, because he’s Bolin, and he doesn’t mind letting the world know how he feels. She hugs him back, surprised at her own response.
“I brought pai sho,” Bolin says into her shoulder, muffled. “If you feel like kicking my ass some more.”
“Not today,” Asami says. “But maybe soon. Maybe another time.”
“Oh, good,” Bolin says in relief; “I know I’m a good loser and all, but there’s only so much I can take before it starts impacting my self-esteem, you know?”
Mako doesn’t actually come to see her; she runs into him in the kitchen one day when she ventures out of her room. He’s standing there doing the dishes, staring into the sink.
“Oh,” he says when he sees her. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She gets some tea leaves from the cupboard.
He watches her. “Sorry I haven’t come to see you.”
“It’s okay.” It is. “I understand.”
“I didn’t want to upset you,” he says.
She shrugs. “It’s fine, Mako.”
He stands there, staring into the soapy water, his arms wet up to the elbows. “It doesn’t feel fine.”
Asami starts to fiddle with the stove so she can boil her water. “Yeah, well, I just said that it is,” she says. “And I’d appreciate it if you’d believe me, because I meant it. Forget about it, Mako.”
He watches her silently. After a moment, he comes over and puts his hands on the teapot. The water starts to boil.
Asami smiles, tries to hide it. “Thank you.”
Mako shrugs, trying to seem casual and pretty much looking like the awkward cop Asami remembers him—remembers him!—to be. “Don’t mention it.”
The arm is a problem. She wants it gone—this platinum hand that electrocutes easier than it holds or reaches out. It’s clever, she’ll give it that: crafty. She doesn’t recognize the workmanship. Why did the normalists need Varrick if they’ve got someone who can make something like this? Who knows. Who knows. She thinks she could make a better one though; if she wants to. Maybe she doesn’t. She doesn’t know. She never had the chance to choose.
In any case it doesn’t matter, because no one can figure out how to get the damn thing off. It’s like it’s fused to her skin, her bones. “Just cut it off then,” she says, “amputate me above the elbow this time,” and the look the healer gives her is horrified, shocked before he can control himself. They don’t get it. No one gets it, what it’s like to wake up and your hand feels like it’s been dipped into molten glass and then shattered and you can’t do anything about it because it won’t come off, it won’t come off. It just keeps hurting and it’s not even there, not really.
She remembers sunlight and running with her parents in the park when she was a child. She remembers her mother’s funeral. She remembers, in pieces, the night she was kidnapped. She remembers the dark and smoothes over it as best she can so that she doesn’t get stuck. She remembers, finally, fighting Korra and the others that last time, how Korra begged her to remember, how hard it was, like breaking through ice, breaking chains. Remembers Korra saying she was sorry for not answering Asami’s letters (what letters?) until it was too late, Korra saying she was sorry, and the blue of her eyes, so bright—how much it hurt all at once to remember, because she did.
She’s sitting in the kitchen with the others when she remembers something else. She sits upright, holds out her hand. Korra looks at her, bright blue eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Get me a map,” Asami says; “a map of the city,” and someone does, she doesn’t see who.
She runs her finger over it, searching. “This is old, it doesn’t have my streets on it,” she says, doesn’t see how the others react when she mentions the streets she built in the last three years, their faces lighting up. “But here.” She points. “It was here.”
“What was?” Tenzin asks.
“The normalist headquarters,” Asami says, and Korra’s eyes widen. “Underground, I think, hidden away, but there. I remember.”
The normalists have not been quiet since the assassination of President Raiko. (Asami’s fingers twitch whenever she thinks about it, so she tries not to.) Several more city blocks blown up. Another twenty-three people dead. More injured. The city is in a panic, and everything Tenzin and the other interim councilors try to do doesn’t seem to help. The normalists need to be taken down.
And now that Asami has finally—finally, it took her two and a half damn weeks, while people died, while their families were destroyed—remembered where they are, something can be done about it.
“I want to go with you,” Asami says, but no one lets her say it.
“No,” Tenzin says; “I know you want to help, but we can manage this.”
“No,” Lin says; “my metalbending police are more than competent.”
“No,” Bolin and Mako say; “we’ll go, we can do this—you stay safe.”
“No,” Korra says, and doesn’t try to justify it. She’s standing by the window. Her hands hover over the sill, her back to Asami.
“Why not?” Asami asks. “Afraid I’ll remember my programming and run back to join them?”
It’s a low blow and Asami knows it, but she’s angry. She can make her own decisions. Isn’t that what all of this has been about? The normalists never gave her a choice about anything. She doesn’t know if that’s worse than making a choice and being told you can’t have it.
“That’s not why,” Korra says.
“Then why not?” Asami demands. “Let me do this, Korra. Let me make something right.”
“You are not responsible for anything the normalists have done,” Korra says. “You have nothing to make right.”
Which is easy for her to say. From where Asami stands, there’s a hell of a lot of blood on her hands. A hell of a lot that she’s responsible for. She doesn’t want to be like her father, who recanted too late.
“You don’t get to decide that for me,” Asami says angrily. “That’s something I have to decide for myself.”
“Yeah,” Korra says quietly. “I know it is. But I can’t let you get hurt again. I’m not going to let that happen, and that means you have to stay here where it’s safe.”
She looks like she wants to say something else—something about how sorry she is again, perhaps, and Asami thinks she will break something if she hears that word from Korra’s mouth one more damn time, but Korra doesn’t say anything. Just stands there by the window. Then she turns aside to face Asami.
There’s something in her face that Asami can’t read, can’t decipher at all. Which isn’t that unusual for her lately—she was so good at reading people before. She feels like she was good at a lot of things before that she can only think about now in vague uncertain terms, and it’s so frustrating. She needs to be with Korra and the others when they do this—why can’t anyone see that? Why can’t they see that and accept it?
Korra’s face, soft in the gold light from the window. Her eyes are downcast. Asami realizes, with an uncomfortable chill, that Korra is looking at Asami’s metal hand. More emotion on her face that Asami can’t begin to understand—something like gentleness. Korra reaches out to take Asami’s hands—uncertainly, with hesitation, but some sort of earnest sincerity that frightens Asami.
Asami backs away. Korra’s hands close on empty air. The silence between the two of them strengthens, strengthens. Korra meets Asami’s gaze once more: the bright, clear blue of her eyes. Blue like the only thing Asami could see in the dark of her cell.
“I’ll be back soon,” Korra says, and then she turns to leave. By the doorway, she hesitates, clears her throat. “I wrote you a letter from the South Pole eight months ago. You never got it. It was in your mailbox when the normalists took you. I put it by your bed if you want to read it. You don’t have to.”
And then she leaves. Asami stares at the empty doorway for a long moment, trying to understand. She doesn’t know how to understand, but she thinks—in a small way—that, maybe, she might anyway.
She remembers writing to Korra. Three years is a long time not to hear from a friend, but Asami had understood. Sometimes you just don’t know what to say. That was all right. Asami had known what to say but had never been sure how to say it, so she’d tried in as many ways as she could think of, dozens of letters all circling the same thing and never really getting close enough to taste it.
Asami sits on her bed; looks at the letter lying sealed on her bedside table. The bars on the window make shadows in the pool of light on the bedspread beside her. She reaches out and picks up the letter and slits the seal with one fingernail.
Asami, the letter reads.
Hey. It’s me. Obviously. Sorry about not writing ever. Three years is a long time. Too long, probably. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t know why I should bother. I’m starting to figure that out now, though.
It feels like everyone’s moving away from me, moving forward with their lives and I’m stuck here standing still. If you stand in the center of the spirit portal at the South Pole, you’re right over the axis of the earth. The whole planet is spinning around beneath you, above you—whatever. That’s what this feels like. I hate that feeling.
I’m gonna come back soon. There’s some stuff I need to deal with first, but it shouldn’t take long. I’ve taken so much time already, I just want to get back to you and Republic City and Tenzin and the kids and see how the airbenders are doing…see how the spirit vines have changed the city since I’ve been gone. See how you’ve changed it. Your work looks amazing, by the way. Thanks for the blueprints. They don’t mean much to me, but trying to figure them out is a way to take my mind off stuff.
This is so long. I’m sorry. I haven’t said anything I wanted to. None of this means anything, really, does it? This is why I haven’t written. I know what I have to say, but I can’t say it.
I miss you so much. Thank you for writing to me, for caring enough to even bother. I don’t know why you do—or I think I know why, but I can’t be sure. And I don’t want to be wrong.
But I want to say the rest in person. I can’t wait to see you again. Only a little longer. Thanks for being patient with me.
And there at the bottom, following a mess of hastily scribbled out words, reads: yours, Korra.
Asami reads the letter once, twice. And then she gets up, puts on her boots, and goes to find her water speeder to take her to the city.
Lin and Tenzin have mobilized a force consisting of the police, airbenders, and the military to take out the center of normalist operations. Their plan is a good one. Asami had helped design it—they’d let her do that much, at least. The metalbenders and military will assault the headquarters from two sides while the airbenders remain above ground to ensure no normalists escape arrest and that no backup attempts to aid them. Korra and Tenzin will enter through one of the supply tunnels to the headquarters, with Bolin, Mako, and Suyin as backup to take the heart of the base as quickly as possible and completely shut down any resistance. That’s where Asami needs to be—that’s where she’s going.
She knows the tunnels under the city well. Even before she was captured. She’s been working on the infrastructure of the city for three years—she probably knows these tunnels better than the normalists themselves, now that’s she’s starting to get what she used to knew back. Bits and pieces, not a complete picture, but enough.
She sneaks past the borders of normalist territory before the assault even begins, she moves so quickly. It’s easy; almost too easy. Mission, she thinks. In and out. Slice and dice. But she shoves that aside. That’s not what she’s here for. She’s here to help. She’s here to do something good.
She moves through the base silently, unseen. It’s quiet, anyway; it usually is. If she comes across someone, she takes them out silently—coming from behind and hugging them around the neck until they pass out, her hand over their mouths to keep them quiet, or she puts her left hand on their shoulders and paralyzes them, knocks them unconscious. She tries not to hurt anyone even though she thinks they probably deserve it after all that they’ve done. But that’s not for her to decide anymore—she’ll leave that to others, to Republic City.
An alarm blares through the base. Lin’s started the assault, then. Which means Korra and the others will be here soon to incapacitate the normalists at their heart before any of them can escape justice.
They better move fast, because normalists are gathering, convening, and they have escape plans they’ve been practicing, complicated dark tunnels to slip away into during the chaos. But Asami knows the tunnels—and she knows the normalists. She recognizes more faces than she thought she would; and she knows who the most important targets are. The ones who are the most responsible.
When she sees Ryou—recognizes him—something cold freezes over inside her. Like a glacier over her heart. He’s calm. The people around him are, too. They must have some sort of plan.
She ducks into a side tunnel for cover, trying to think, and that’s when someone behind her says, amazed, “Asami?”
She turns. It’s Korra—Korra, Bolin, Mako, Tenzin, and Suyin, all covered in dirt and looking a little worse for wear. Korra is staring. “What are you doing here? How did you get here?”
“Tunnels.” Asami gestures uselessly. She doesn’t remember what it feels like to be a person and yet somehow she remembers every damn tunnel under this city.
Korra swallows. Tenzin asks, “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” It’s the truth. Her heart is loud in her ears, and everything around her is sharp and clear and in focus. She knows what she has to do.
Bolin smiles at her lopsidedly. “Should’ve known.”
“We have to move fast,” Asami says. “There’s a group of them a few spaces over, they’re the ones I think are in charge. I remember them the most, at least. They’ve got some sort of plan, because they aren’t trying to escape, but I don’t know—”
An explosion. The tunnel behind them collapses. Mako jumps and crouches over Bolin to shield him from the falling debris, and Suyin pushes both Tenzin and Korra out of the way, knocking Korra into Asami as they go.
Asami falls backwards against the stone wall, the breath going out of her. “Oh,” she says, numbly, as Korra tries to steady herself and grabs Asami by both arms instead, her fingertips brushing over the place where platinum meets Asami’s skin.
“Sorry,” Korra says under her breath. She pulls back. “Guess that was their plan?”
“Must be,” Asami says. She can hear other tunnels collapsing in the distance, pieces of the city falling apart to ruin. Damn it, how many times is this city going to have to be rebuilt—
But she doesn’t have time to think about that, because then the tunnel fills with orange fire, and the group of normalists are upon them, choosing to attack rather than to flee. They must figure they have all the targets they want to take out right here, Asami thinks, but it doesn’t matter, because she’s moving, Korra’s moving, and the whole space around them is filled with light.
Fighting is the only thing that feels normal to her. She hates that—hates its hold over her, how this comes so easily. But she’s going to use it if she has the chance to use it well; she’s going to use it now, and then she’s going to put it away. Shelve it like an old book. And then maybe she’ll forget what this feels like if she can.
She’s quick—jumps, leaps, catches a normalist by the shoulders, twists her around, and has her on the ground in about a second. She shocks her into paralysis and leaves her there: up on her feet, the run and go. Bolin is knocking the ground out from under the normalists but they have earthbenders, too, and they’re trying to do the same—Lin takes them out with a quick light flash of her metalbending wire, and they fall.
A normalist grabs Asami by the hair when she’s looking back at the others and drags her to the wall, so hard her head bounces off and she sees stars. She twists, trying to get the advantage, to put her metal hand over this person’s neck and watch them fall but they’re quick and she recognizes the way they move, the grind of their voice when they speak—
(remembers the dark and the quiet and her arms bound behind her back as the fingers of her left hand slowly died and she thought about beating her head against the walls to see if that would make the silence stop screaming at her and then the slice of light as the door opened and—
waking up on the operating table without a hand, dizzy from blood loss and pain, the anesthesia wearing off)
“Welcome back, soldier,” the normalist named Ryou says; “don’t you think you’d better do as I say?”
She remembers this voice from when she was given her missions, kill the Avatar; she never finished her mission and he’s going to make her kill Korra and she won’t be able to stop herself even though she’s been working so hard she’s been getting better she’s been trying so hard please no don’t do this to me—
Tenzin and Mako are fighting a handful of normalists, trying to keep them from the others. Suyin and Bolin are farther away down the tunnel, tearing the rocks apart. And Korra—Korra—
Korra is looking at Asami. Korra is running, and her eyes flash white, and the wind picks up around her.
The normalist holding Asami smiles—she can see it in the corner of her eye. He shoves her aside: and in his hand is an instrument that Asami recognizes—an instrument like her metal hand, only the electrical current in this device, she knows, is stronger than her hand—strong enough to kill.
She moves. She doesn’t even have to think about it. It’s either this or the normalist kills Korra, and she’s not going to let that happen. So she does the only thing she can think of.
She reaches out and grabs the device with her left hand, her platinum hand, and rips it away from him.
The shock is stronger than anything she could have imagined. Anything she could ever have prepared herself for. She throws the device as far as she can from the others, but she’s already on her knees. The world is already sliding sideways. It’s already going dark.
She wakes in her bed on Avatar Island. Her head throbs. “Crap,” she says to the ceiling, and puts her arm over her eyes. Her whole left arm—what’s left of it—is numb.
Someone shifts beside her bed. “You’re awake.”
She jumps. “Korra?”
“Yeah,” Korra says. There’s a pause. “How are you feeling?”
Asami considers. “All right.” That’s not quite true, but she could feel worse. Her body aches, and her head is killing her—but her thoughts are clear. That’s something.
“Do you remember what happened?”
“Yeah,” Asami says. “I did something pretty stupid.”
“Pretty stupid,” Korra agrees. She hesitates again. “When we found Varrick—he’s safe, by the way. Wants to see you, too. When we found him, he explained what shocked you.”
Asami nods up at the ceiling. “It’s like this,” she says, lifting her left hand off the bed and letting it fall. “But worse.”
She turns her head to look at Korra. Korra has a scrape on her left temple, and her hair is ragged, mussed. She looks so tired.
“You saved my life,” Korra says.
Asami’s mouth twists into something like a smile. “So did you.”
Asami spends the next few days in bed asleep. The vast majority of the normalists have been brought into custody, and Korra, Lin, Tenzin, Suyin, and the interim councilors along with other city leaders have their hands full dealing with the upcoming legal proceedings. As far as Asami can tell, Bolin, Mako, Jinora, Opal, and Kai spend their time on Avatar Island. Sometimes they come to her room when she’s awake to play cards or sit quietly and read together. Having them there is nice. She drifts off while they’re in the middle of a game, and when she wakes up, Bolin and Opal are snoring in a chair next to her bed, and Jinora is sitting cross-legged on the floor reading.
“Good book?” Asami asks sleepily. She feels warm all over, like sunlight.
Jinora shrugs. “Riddled with plot holes,” she says with a sniff.
Asami smiles and drifts back into sleep.
Varrick comes to see her after a week. He’s quieter than usual but seems like he’s rebounding quickly, for which Asami is glad. They don’t talk about when he saw her and she didn’t recognize him—they don’t talk about the normalists at all. Instead, they examine her arm together, and by the end of the day they’ve figured out how to detach it safely.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” Varrick asks.
Asami doesn’t have to think about it. “Positive.”
She keeps her arm in a sling for a few days after that. Katara does what she can to reduce the scarring. It feels strange not to try and hide this somehow, as if Asami can somehow keep people from realizing she’s missing her left arm from the forearm down. And then she realizes that she doesn’t care, and she stops. This was her choice, her decision. She stops wearing the sling. The phantom pain that had haunted her since her arm was amputated is now completely gone.
Asami doesn’t see Korra for two weeks. That’s okay, because she still needs to figure out what to say when she sees her next. She knows what needs to be said—she just needs to figure out how, at last, to say it.
Asami is sitting outside looking over the bay when she sees a boat approaching the island. She watches as it slowly get closer and then docks, as Korra steps onto the shore. Korra walks quickly towards the main complex on the island and disappears inside. Asami thinks about getting up to go find her, and then decides against it. She sits cross-legged by a tree and watches the sky swiftly darken over the water, over the city. She’s tired, but calm.
It’s not long before Korra comes outside, approaches her. Korra sits beside Asami without saying a word, and they look towards the city together. The night is warm, the air sweet. Asami spent the whole winter underground in the normalist’s headquarters. She thinks, maybe, that spring is coming.
“How do you feel?” Korra asks after a little while.
“Better,” Asami says. This time it’s true.
Korra smiles at her. “I’m glad.”
“Me, too,” Asami says.
Quiet again. The sound of the water, of wind in the trees. Asami wonders where to begin and decides that anywhere will do. “I read your letter.”
Korra looks down, then back to the water. “I was worried maybe you hadn’t."
“I’m not angry that you didn’t write,” Asami says.
“I know.” Korra leans back against the tree. “After a while I had so much to say, but it didn’t feel right not to say it to you in person. And then—well.”
“What did you want to tell me?” Asami asks. “You said something about how you didn’t want to be wrong?”
Korra is blushing, and that’s enough to shock a smile onto Asami’s face. Oh, she thinks, warm.
“I care about you,” Korra says. She’s always been brave. “You’re important to me. You’re—special.”
“I care about you too,” Asami says, but Korra speaks over her out of nervousness.
“I don’t want to rush you,” Korra says; “and I don’t want to rush myself, either—so much has happened to both of us....I don’t want to put any pressure on you. I want you to feel safe with me, not—well, whatever. But I had to tell you this. I had to tell you how I feel.”
“You weren’t wrong,” Asami says, because she has to say it. Korra blinks. “I said that I thought about you every day, and I meant it. It wasn’t the same without you. I’m glad you’re back. I....” She trails off.
Then: “You aren’t rushing me.” I love you.
Korra turns to look at her. Clear blue eyes, the soft warmth of her smile. “Yeah?” she says. Leans in a little. “You let me know if I ever am.”
“I will,” Asami says.
Korra’s so close that Asami can see each of her individual eyelashes, feel the warmth of her skin. “I thought you were gone.” Her voice, quiet. She glances down for a moment. “I thought I would never see you again.”
So did I, Asami almost says, and then doesn’t. Three years is a long time. A lot can change. But this hasn’t.
“Please,” Asami says. “I told you that I would be here when you came back. And I meant it.”
Korra’s smile, the shine of her eyes. She takes Asami’s hand and intertwines their fingers, her thumb smoothing the rough skin of Asami’s knuckles. “I know,” she says. “I believed you.”