"You want to drive?"
Korra glanced up at the passenger side door. Seeing Korra in that position, framed in the setting sun, filled Asami with the distinct sensation of déjà vu.
Korra tapped the door with a finger. "This thing looks way too nice to almost crash."
Asami laughed. She jiggled her keys in her hand as she walked over to the driver's side. It wasn't worth making Korra uncomfortable today.
"You did a good job with that truck earlier."
"Yay," Korra murmured unenthusiastically. "I remembered which pedal was the brake."
Instead of opening the door to get in, Korra vaulted over the door. They both laughed at her decision. Korra caught Asami's pointed look, rolled her eyes, and pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder.
The engine turned over smoothly, and Asami took half a second to appreciate the warm purr of her machine before she put it in gear and eased away from the discomfort of her old home. Custom-built, custom-painted, still with the exterior she'd designed as a fourteen year old. She'd been offered an exorbitant sum of money for this car, but she wasn't selling. Asami glanced at Korra running her hands over the komodo-rhino leather interior, her hair fluttering back in the strong wind from the open top. Never selling.
They'd had no real time to talk, not with the Wu fiasco nor while scarfing down dinner in the company of Mako's curious extended family. Asami wasn't ignorant of the fact that Korra hadn't answered her question about the Avatar state. They needed to talk, but she felt awkward about her earlier blow-up. It wasn't like her to feel so defensive.
Apparently the same subject was on Korra's mind. She turned in her seat and said, "Look, I'm sorry about what I said about your father. I didn't mean to sound like I was questioning your judgment. I just remembered how hard it was on you when he betrayed you the first time."
Asami bristled at 'the first time', which implied a second would follow. She forced herself to calm down and consider the meaning, not the implication. An unexpected red light gave her time to turn over a few inadequate responses in her mind. Then she made up her mind. Instead of the left to go to ferry docks, Asami turned right.
"I need a drink if we're going to have this conversation," Asami explained.
"I'm not exactly a big fan of bars. Last time I was in one, I got beat up."
That sounded like an interesting story. "My apartment has better alcohol than any bar on this side of town, and I'm a happy drunk. Where were you when you got in a bar fight?"
Korra laughed, leaned back, and stretched out her legs. "A few different bars, actually. People are quick to fight when they've had a few drinks." Despite her posture, she seemed nervous. Asami couldn't let that stand. She reached out and took Korra's hand in hers, drawing a surprised glance. Asami squeezed her hand before she could stop herself, and Korra relaxed, applying an answering squeeze.
And now Asami knew her palm would start sweating like a juvenile preteen, holding the hand of her— No, she told herself. You're not going there.
Switching gears proved a legitimate excuse to let go.
"Wow," Korra said lightly as they walked into the lobby of Asami's apartment building. She drew curious glances from the few people therein. Tomorrow morning would be a lot more hectic because Korra's return would headline every newspaper. Korra was oblivious to the looks as she gawked at the interior design: chandeliers, tapestries, and a burbling fountain to center it all. Her surprise continued when the bellhop greeted Asami by name, opened the elevator cage, and ushered them inside.
"This is weird."
"It's no different than Zaofu's elevator systems."
Korra's smile twisted into a grimace, and her shoulders visibly drooped. Her effort to make a joke hurt: "A lot smaller though. What I really meant was this much richness. The Earth Kingdom is so devastated right now…"
It sounded like a criticism, and Asami wanted to bristle again. She worked hard for the money she earned, and she gave back to those in need. It was lavish, but she didn't have to live like a pauper to prove she wasn't greedy and entitled.
Korra's downcast expression put an abrupt stop to Asami's angry thoughts. Korra looked too miserable to take offense to her words. The elevator stopped smoothly and the bell attached to the system gave a gentle ring. The bellhop unfastened the doors and nodded respectfully as they stepped into the small hallway that led to Asami's apartment.
As Asami unlocked her apartment door, she remembered the maid service had last been by over a week ago. There were papers scattered all over the living room, and her kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes. Her coffee table was reduced to a storage place for an assortment of disassembled electrical equipment.
"Woah. Nice view."
Korra walked past the mess and stood at the glass window that stretched floor to ceiling. That window made up the majority of the eastern wall of the apartment. The view from the fifteenth floor was the main reason Asami had purchased the apartment instead of a larger, cheaper townhouse a few streets down.
Republic City was slowly lighting up in the gray dusk. The once symmetrical lights now were curves and bends, shaped by the organic vines that were now as much a part of the city as the oldest buildings. Asami felt a flush of fear as she realized Korra's statue in the park would be visible in the full darkness of night. She knew because she looked to it often. Then again Korra probably wouldn't notice, and there was no reason to think she would connect Asami with its presence.
Given her paranoid thoughts, Asami definitely needed a drink or two. She turned on several soft lamps in the apartment that dampened the view, removed her shoes, and asked, "Gin?"
Korra turned away from the window. The sight of her blue eyes was a shock to Asami's core, as was her crooked grin. "Sure. Do you have the bubbly water stuff?"
Asami laughed. "Yes. I'll make you a gin and tonic."
Ice, tonic, gin, and a slice of fresh lime; it was a familiar process. Asami turned her over-active brain off as her hands worked by muscle memory. She'd composed herself by the time she handed the drink to Korra, interrupting what looked like a dark train of thought. Maybe the drink would help.
"I'm going to change, if you don't mind."
"Sure. I may get out of these boots. My feet've been hot all day."
"I have clothes you can change into."
Korra's eyes swooped up and down Asami's body. "I'd look ridiculous in your clothes." She seemed startled by her own words. "Not that you do! Look ridiculous, I mean."
Asami gripped Korra's arm, unconsciously appreciating the flex of Korra's powerful bicep. Korra blushed, and Asami couldn't quite suppress her smirk. "Relax. I know what you mean. I have something you'll be comfortable in."
Korra's awkwardness was cute. Asami had lace, yes, but her usual nightwear these days was comfortable silk. For a moment, Asami wrestled with the implication of going for cute over comfort. She gave herself a mental shake. The juvenile preteen comparison was coming back. Plain silk nightdress and robe it was. A few minutes of searching yielded a tank and pants for Korra.
In the few minutes she'd been changing, Korra had reduced her drink to ice. She was still standing by the window, gazing into the darkness with her tumbler in hand. Asami once again interrupted unhappy thoughts as she exchanged the clothes for Korra's empty drink. "I'll get you a refill."
Korra's smile was faint. Instead of walking to Asami's bedroom to change, she shucked her clothes right there in front of the window. Now it was Asami who blushed. She turned her back and busied herself with making Korra's drink. Muscle memory to distract her… And then downing most of her own drink when she turned back to find Korra bent over in her underwear. That was a sight that would be ingrained in her brain forever. Korra had absolutely beautiful calves…among other things.
Asami refilled her own drink and settled onto her couch. If she wasn't at work or in her bed, she was usually here. This place held a sad, lonely familiarity. Korra flopped down on the couch next to her and stretched out with a big sigh. "This is so comfortable. I've been sleeping on the ground for weeks."
"Where have you been for six months? Why didn't you write to anyone?" There was the real sting, and it was there in Asami's voice. She hadn't meant to start their conversation on this note.
Korra stared into her drink. The muscles along her forearm flickered as she traced her finger over the edge of the tumbler. She shook her head, and Asami fought against her own frustration. It hurt that Korra didn't trust her.
Then Korra looked up and met her eyes. In the last three years, Asami had forgotten just how arresting they were. "I'm sorry. I never meant to worry anyone. It wasn't because I didn't want to see you and Mako and Bolin. I was in a bad place."
Given what Asami had seen in quiet flashes tonight, she was still in a bad place. "We're here for you. I'm here for you."
"I know. Today was the best day I've had since… Well, in a long time."
Three years, Asami could guess. It was the same for her though she couldn't make herself voice those words. Her years had been empty but filled with work, lonely but filled with people, busy but empty of emotional fulfillment. She was proud of her achievements, but she'd found that professional success wasn't the same as happiness.
Korra's letter had breathed some life back into her routine. It was a shock of relief to hear Korra had healed physically. But the content of the letter had caused a touch of pain. At the time, Asami honestly hadn't expected that Korra would be dissatisfied with life as she was.
It was almost impossible to believe that Korra had been in a wheelchair three years ago. Asami hadn't known what to expect when Korra called earlier that day to ask if they could get lunch, but her expectation certainly wasn't for Korra to look so vital and strong and yet exhibit such rare moments of vulnerability.
Today had been one of happiness, Asami realized. She'd had fun and hadn't felt alone in any moment since Korra walked up and asked how long she'd been waiting. Asami summed it up with: "Like old times."
Korra's face lit with a grin that warmed Asami. "Yeah, it was. Except Bolin was missing, and…" Her lips pursed in a pout. "…Wu."
"Wu." Asami repeated his name like a curse. "I'm so sorry about that. Mako said it would just be the three of us. He hit on you all day."
"I would be flattered, but I get the feeling he does that with anyone with breasts."
They shared a laugh at the thought. "True. I think he finally gave up on me. Thanks for distracting him."
Korra's look of incredulity was almost comical. "You mean he chose to hit on me instead of you? That guy's crazy."
Asami struggled between flattery and irritation that Korra didn't see herself as attractive. Just looking at her now… Her brown hair was ruffled, her dark skin a beautiful contrast to her white tank. The muscles playing under her skin, the strong lines of her body, her breasts, her slender waist but feminine hips… Her bright blue eyes… "Korra, don't you know how attractive you are?"
Korra blushed dramatically. Her tone was awkward. "Uh, thanks. Tell me about your dad. If you want to talk about him."
Asami accepted the change in subject and gathered her thoughts. "I never read his letters. I actually went to tell him to stop writing me, but he… The visit wasn't what I expected." She sighed. "I miss him so much. He was all I ever had, and with you gone…I've been so lonely."
"You didn't keep up with Mako and Bolin?"
"Bolin hasn't been in Republic City very often. Mako and I meet for drinks every few months, but it's not the same without you. You're our glue."
Korra's smile was sad. "Do you see your dad often?"
"We play Pai Sho once a week."
"Do you win?"
"We're tied 1-1." She sipped her tonic and managed to share a smile with Korra. "I don't trust him. We haven't really even talked other than about Pai Sho. I know Dad wants to, but I'm so afraid to let him in."
"You have to trust your own instincts."
"He's aged so much," she murmured. "He looks so old now. I knew prison would be hard on him, but— It didn't really sink in until I finally saw him again."
"That's not your fault, Asami."
"I left him alone in prison for three years, Korra." Her tone was harsher than she intended, but her words were directed to herself, not Korra.
"As opposed to breaking him out and becoming a fugitive?"
"How would you feel if your own father was in that situation?!"
Korra's mouth opened, and then she grinned wide enough to show most of her teeth. "I broke him out and became a fugitive."
The tension in their conversation broke immediately. Asami covered her mouth as she giggled. Korra had no such reservation and threw back her head to laugh. They both calmed down after a minute.
There had been no judgment from Korra during that entire exchange. Asami hadn't realized how much she needed to talk about her father. "Korra, I'm sorry about snapping at the restaurant. I was defensive. I've been fighting with myself about it too. I overreacted."
"I'm sure I didn't say what I meant well. I know you can protect yourself, but I just…I don't want you to get hurt. I know it's stupid to think I have to protect you, but I can't just ignore that feeling."
Asami's chest tightened. She wasn't sure how to respond. Thanks, I feel so safe with you. Or: I don't need you to protect me! Or: I'm so happy you feel that way. She settled for, "That's okay. I feel that way towards you too, believe it or not."
"Would you really have come with me to the South Pole?"
Asami was startled by the change in subject. "Yes. Didn't you know that?"
The way Korra's gaze skittered away told her she hadn't. Asami wasn't sure how to approach that. Instead, she broached another difficult subject. "You never answered the question…about whether you can go into the Avatar state again."
She should never have asked about it in the restaurant. Her motivations had not just been curiosity and worry; she'd wanted Mako to know that Korra had written to her. No matter how close she'd been to Korra, she'd never trusted that Korra really considered her 'one of the guys'. Reading that letter had sparked hope, even as she told herself harshly that it wasn't a competition. She didn't want to make it one and didn't like her vulnerability in hoping she would win.
Korra still didn't look up. "Yes. I can."
When her silence stretched, Asami prompted, "But…?"
"It's… There's some…" Korra sighed heavily and dropped her drink onto the table with a sharp clack. "There are other problems. I have other problems." She dropped her head into her hands. "Su left poison inside me."
Asami felt a cold flush of fear. "Korra—"
"I got it out. Just a few days ago, but… The poison was in my brain, Asami. It was in my brain for three years." She lifted her head from her hands to fix Asami with a fearful stare. "I've been having hallucinations. Shit." Korra slumped back on the couch in defeat. She spoke with the heels of her hands over her eyes. "I think I'm crazy. I really do."
"Korra, what have you been seeing?"
"Myself in the Avatar state. Like I was during the fight with Zaheer."
"Have you talked to anyone about this?"
Korra shook her head. "I thought it had to be related to the flashbacks, but… This thing has been following me since I left the South Pole."
"Of Zaheer, Unalaq, even Amon."
Asami grasped Korra's forearm and pulled, coaxing her hands from her eyes. Korra's weary gaze fixed on the ceiling. She looked so defeated. "It was this dark shadow that was there every time I turned my head. I thought it wasn't real, but I had a physical fight with it. Then I thought after I got the poison out that I wouldn't see it anymore. But when I fought with Kuvira, I had her on the ground, and she looked up at me. Only it wasn't her, it was my shadow. I just lost it. I couldn't fight anymore."
This was scaring Asami. "Korra, you need to tell Tenzin about this."
Korra scoffed, her nose wrinkled in disgust. "And make him think I'm even more useless than he already does? Yeah, right."
"What do you mean? He's been so worried about you; he sent his kids to find you, for spirits' sake."
"Every time he opens his mouth, it's to tell me to be patient or that the airbenders have taken care of everything or that he doesn't expect me to be able to do anything on my own. He makes me feel so useless!" Korra gesticulated sharply in a touch of familiar frustration. She looked more like her old self in that moment than she had all day.
Asami settled her face on the back of the couch next to Korra's shoulder, taking Korra's gesturing hand in hers to still it. "Tenzin isn't the best with words. He's probably trying not to pressure you. He loves you, though; don't you know that?"
"Yeah." Korra's eyes went watery, and her chest caught.
Asami wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I love you too, Korra. I wasn't pretending when I said you can talk to me about anything. Or that I would have gone with you. That holds true now."
Korra shifted under her arm, turned, and wrapped her arms around Asami's waist. They gradually stretched out on the couch, and Asami accepted most of Korra's weight. Holding her like this… Asami breathed in time with Korra; they were in synch. For a few minutes, they held each other in silence.
Finally, Korra said, "I feel so worthless."
Asami stroked her fingers through Korra's hair. "Because of the visions?"
"I'm not at my best. I can barely handle a couple of chumps."
"You handled them today. And what you did to find Wu… That was amazing. You must be so in-synch with the spirits right now."
Korra shifted as if to get up, but Asami tightened her grip. Korra relaxed back against her again. Her feet brushed along Asami's bare calves. "I was awful against Kuvira. A step behind, so slow. I just kept getting these flashes of fear that my hits would actually land and I'd kill her. I've never had that problem before, but I was afraid of hurting her. The only thing I could do was keep standing up again after she knocked me down."
"Three years ago you couldn't move your legs, Korra. Today you used airbending to get four adults off of a train one hundred feet off the ground. Being afraid to hurt someone in combat doesn't make you weak. You're as strong as you were three years ago. And I wasn't just saying that about the spirit vines. How many people do you think can do that?"
Korra sighed. "I wish I could believe that. How am I supposed to be the Avatar if I can't fight?"
"The Avatar doesn't have to fight, Korra. Aang was a pacifist. He couldn't have been the first."
"He was a pacifist, and he was still a better fighter than I am. Su flat out ordered me to go into the Avatar state and destroy Kuvira's army. I didn't. I couldn't. Su was right though; Kuvira took Zaofu by force because of me."
"Tell me about that situation, start to finish."
Korra turned her head so that it was tucked against Asami's shoulder. In quiet words, she explained meeting Suyin, meeting Kuvira, and turning around to find that Suyin had snuck into Kuvira's camp. Then the fight. Asami's anger grew with every word.
"She put you in an impossible situation. Korra, you earned them time to consider surrender, retreat, or attack, and they screwed everything up by not listening to you. You aren't responsible for their bad decision."
"I should have been able to defeat Kuvira. If I hadn't freaked out, I would have."
Asami tried again: "You need to talk to Tenzin about these visions."
Korra scoffed and didn't reply.
"You have to trust yourself, Korra."
"Easier said than done," Korra muttered bitterly.
Asami kept rubbing Korra's back; she knew there were no words that could provide comfort right now. She couldn't push about this either. Just as her father was a sensitive topic, Korra's mental struggles had to be one too. The more Asami pushed, the less likely Korra was to get help. "Tell me what I can do to help you."
"Please keep being my friend."
The vulnerability in those words triggered Asami to gather Korra closer. It wasn't gratefulness that she felt, knowing that Korra was as afraid of losing her as she was afraid of losing Korra, but the emotion was similar. This was veering into dangerous territory as she said, "I love you, Korra. I won't ever stop being your friend."
"I don't want to lose you."
They remained intertwined in silence. Eventually, Korra's breathing evened and deepened, and Asami faded into a deep sense of peace and comfort. She felt so safe with Korra, combined with the emotional draw of being a source of comfort for Korra too. In-synch. They were in-synch, more than she remembered. They'd taken every step today together, anticipating the next move fluently. Though Asami had thrown the three years apart back in Korra's face, they'd fallen into step like they'd been walking side-by-side all along. No wonder Mako had been so grumpy. Asami sighed and tightened her grip around Korra's back. She was warm and relaxed, and eventually she joined Korra in sleep.
She took a sharp breath and lifted her head as something woke her. The heavy weight pinning her to the couch stirred, and Asami found herself face to face with Korra. They both started but relaxed as they recognized each other. Asami nearly pulled Korra back down against her, but the phone rang again. She shook off the last vestiges of sleep. She untangled herself from Korra to cross the room and grab the phone. Habit dictated her usual phone greeting: "Asami Sato speaking."
"Asami!" Mako sounded panicked. "Tenzin called me. Korra hasn't gotten back to Air Temple Island."
"She's with me," she said, rubbing her aching neck. Her couch was comfortable, but two tall people squashed on it pushed the limits of that comfort. A look at the clock trumped the feeling that she'd been asleep a long time. It had only been a few hours since they left Mako's family.
Mako's silence was punctuated with his quiet breathing. "Oh."
"Sorry. She's staying here tonight. We had a few things to talk about." She wondered vaguely why she'd felt the need to attach an apology to her statement.
Mako was silent a touch longer than conversation dictated. "Okay. I'll give Tenzin a call and let him know. Have a good night."
"It was good to see you today."
He took an audible breath, and his words reflected a smile. "You too. Tell Korra I said so."
Asami hung up and sighed. She heard Korra walk up behind her. "Tenzin was worried about you. So was Mako. He said he was happy to see you today."
Korra smiled faintly. "They were both pretty mad at me today, actually. Tenzin was just quieter about it. I guess I deserve it after my disappearing act. My dad left a note for me at Air Temple Island. I'm not looking forward to writing him back." Her voice suggested the 'note' hadn't been a happy one.
"Where were you for six months?"
"All over. The spirit portal of the South Pole, through the volcanic eastern islands of the Fire Nation, all through the Earth Kingdom. Finally landed in the swamp, and Toph kicked my ass around for a few weeks. I pretty much walked all over until my legs turned to iron." She smiled faintly. "Not being able to for so long made me appreciate how far I can get on my own two feet."
Korra had never been on her own, and she'd survived an experience that would haunt anyone. Despite that, she stepped into the world alone to walk her own path anyway. Somehow she didn't see how courageous that made her. Asami wasn't sure she would ever have to guts to walk away from her life to see the world equipped with only the clothes on her back.
"I admire you so much."
Korra's eyes widened. "Me? You're the one who's the success."
Asami pulled Korra into a hug; she refused to feel self-conscious. "How about we admit we admire each other and leave it at that?"
Korra gave a startled laugh against her shoulder. "Sure. Okay."
"Come on. My bed is big enough for the both of us."
Korra's face lit up with anticipation. "An actual bed. It's been so long." She followed Asami into her bedroom and laughed. "You're messier than I expected."
"I've been too busy to clean." And too lazy to put up her clothes. Asami gasped when Korra took two quick strides and leapt onto the bed. She collapsed into the covers and rolled through them; her long groan was reminiscent of Naga.
"You hog the covers, don't you?" she asked, allowing a touch of affectionate exasperation to color her tone.
"You bet I do!" Korra wiggled under said covers to form a lump on the mattress. Her pleasure was infectious; Asami giggled as she crawled under the covers. She rolled on her side and relaxed into a pillow. Korra didn't move under the blankets. She gave off heat that warmed Asami from her belly out. Asami draped an arm over her.
"Are you coming out from under there?"
A soft wheezing snore was her answer. Asami smiled, snuggled closer, and closed her eyes.
Everything was not okay. Korra was suffering from depression—and spirits knew what else. Asami was close to collapsing under the stresses of her company, loneliness, and the deep need for her father not to be lying. Bolin was still gone, and Mako seemed too quick to feel the sting of being left out. But they could get through anything as long as they were together.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Asami surfaced from a dream with a gasp. There was something off about her surroundings, and she had to lie in silence for a few moments to ferret it out: someone breathing deeply nearby. Asami's eyes snapped open, and she nearly gasped again at the sight of someone in her bed.
Korra, her sleep-addled mind informed her.
Korra shifted and sighed. She had both arms flung over her head, and under the sheets, she was frog-legged. She slept with her mouth closed, and her face was relaxed. At least she felt safe enough to sleep well here.
Asami put her head back down on her pillow and relaxed, but sleep was the last thing on her mind now. The bed-side clock informed her it was a little after eight. This was a late hour for Asami. She rarely got up after sunrise. On a usual day, she'd be elbow deep in her work by now. Asami tended to wake up and be up. She'd never been very good at lazing around in bed or falling back asleep. If she stayed in bed, she'd wake Korra up. It seemed a shame given how exhausted Korra had looked last night. As quietly as she could, she slipped out of bed and picked an outfit from her closet. A shower would do.
There were one and a half baths in this apartment, but the "one" should have counted as three. It was as large as her bedroom, taking up most of one wall of the apartment. There was a deep built in tub, a separate shower, and a long, double-sink counter with more than enough room for her grooming paraphernalia. A great view and a massive bathroom was all that Asami wanted in a living space.
Asami hung her clothes on the hook on the door and made a face at herself in the mirror over the sink. She hadn't taken her makeup off last night, and it had smeared across her face, probably staining her pillow. Not the best decision she'd made, hygiene-wise.
Mundane thoughts for someone who had the Avatar in her bed right now.
"Get a grip," Asami told herself sharply.
She shucked her clothes and stepped into the shower, yelping because she hadn't waited for the water to warm up.
Breakfast, Asami thought as she showered. She wasn't sure if she even had anything in her cooler to make breakfast. Surely she had a few eggs. Coffee or tea? Probably tea for Korra. Asami could at least do those things. Then again, they could always go to the cafe across the street for breakfast.
She turned in the shower to grab her hair soap and saw a dark figure in the fogged glass. Asami gasped and jumped reflexively, though she knew it was Korra.
"Sorry!" Korra said, backing up. "I wondered where you were."
"It's okay. You're welcome to anything in my cooler…but no promises on anything being in it. I'll be out in a few minutes."
"Thanks, I'll check."
Asami hurried through her shower and her morning toilette, though she took what time she needed on her makeup. There were some lucky women like Korra who didn't need makeup to cover flaws. Asami knew she was not one of those women, and despite the headway she'd made in her male-dominated field, she needed every advantage she could get. And today...well, she wanted Korra to think she was pretty.
"Get a grip," she whispered sternly to herself again.
One last mirror check for approval; then Asami settled a dry towel over her shoulders to prevent her still-wet hair from soaking her shirt. She walked into her bedroom to find the bed made, a state it hadn't been in for over a week. Asami wandered down the hall and discovered Korra—still in pajamas—sitting on the hardwood floor by the living room window. The sun was bright this morning, and Korra tipped her face back into it. There was a cup of tea on the floor next to her.
"Did you sleep well?"
Korra wasn't surprised by her presence. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at Asami lazily. Heat flushed Asami's cheeks. She wished she had a camera just to capture Korra's expression, her wild hair, and the flex of her triceps.
"Like a log."
"You can use the shower if you'd like."
"I think I will." She made a face and turned it back to the view. "Pema went on and on about how I should never forget basic hygiene. I was living in a swamp; of course I'm not going to smell like lavender and roses!" Her faux angry arm movement shifted into a lazy point. "I made enough tea for you."
"Thanks." Asami poured herself a cup from the tea set on her riddled coffee table. The tea wasn't nearly as strong as she made it, but Korra probably didn't drink tea for caffeine. It tasted good even without the lemon and milk Asami usually diluted hers with.
She considered the couch for half a second before she settled on the floor next to Korra. The wood was warm beneath her, and sun was pleasant on her skin. It was peaceful to watch the movement of traffic across the city. Asami realized abruptly that she felt absolutely no stress; it was the first time in recent memory she could claim that.
"Do you have to work today?"
"No. It's the weekend. I have to take at least one day for myself or I'll burn out. I almost did last year."
"But you're doing well now?"
Asami met Korra's gaze; her thoughts stalled at the sight of Korra's bright blue eyes. She nodded mutely. She cast about for something to say, but Korra beat her to it: "What have you been up to?"
That was sadly easy to answer. "Work, work, and more work. We just finished the rail system, and we're bidding on another project within Republic City. I can't talk about it yet."
"I saw you had time to update your shock glove."
Asami laughed. She'd forgotten about the glove in her trunk. She had several now: one in her apartment, one in her trunk, one in a locked drawer in her office. "That's a hobby, not work. I've designed a few new Satomobiles, and I've been playing around with other modes of transportation."
"Like what, boats?"
"Snowmobiles, actually. Cabbage Corp has most of that market—"
"And they're all pieces of junk. Barely last a month out on the ice during whaling season. There's a snowmobile junkyard near every town where people dump the broken ones and scavenge for supplies to fix the replacements when they break down."
"Which is why I'd like to build something that will survive the ice and moisture longer." Though the image of snowmobile graveyards in her mind's eye was oddly beautiful. She wondered if she would ever see one just to capture the melancholy that must cling to those places full of hulled out machines.
"My dad uses snowmobiles a lot. I can probably rig one in my sleep because his breaks down so often. But my mom taught me to never trust a machine in the elements. There's nothing better than a pack of sled dogs or a tame polar bear dog."
"Reserve judgment until I put out the finished product."
Korra grinned and gave a thumbs' up in an exaggerated motion. "The Avatar approves of this product!"
Asami refused to be offended by that flippant remark. It would only make Korra's future approval that much stronger.
"So, um… No one special in your life?"
The awkwardness of the question caught Asami more off-guard than the question itself. Korra's eyes were fixed well away from Asami's face, and her posture was too stiff—as if she were holding her breath.
"No," Asami said. "I haven't had the time, energy, or motivation."
Korra finally turned to look at her. They shared an odd, strained gaze before Korra jerked her eyes away and turned to look out at the city again.
It had to be Asami's imagination. There was no way that she could read anything significant in Korra's question or her reaction. They hadn't seen each other in three years. In that time, Korra had written one letter to Asami's dozen. Asami had spent those three years in an odd, pining place, but surely Korra had been too deep in her own battles to do the same. Reuniting less than twenty-four hours ago, there was no way they were both feeling this awkward tension.
She wondered just for a moment what Korra would do if she leaned close and tilted Korra's chin up… A silly, juvenile fantasy. Korra needed a friend, not a lover. Maybe one day she would reach that point though. She was worth waiting for.
Asami's thoughts quieted as she watched Korra's fingertips trail through her tea's steam trail. It took her a few moments to comprehend what she was watching. Korra was waterbending her tea. The mundane nature of that astonishing ability diverted all her thoughts. Korra glanced at Asami and followed her gaze. She drew her hand back. "Sorry. Katara always made me work with tea when we had waterbending lessons together."
"Don't be sorry," Asami said. She'd adopted the phrase for her newly hired young, uncertain women who apologized on every breath. The only difference between her men and women hires was the women had no self-confidence. It was a sad reflection on their society. "I just never considered that tea could be used for waterbending."
"What is tea, but water?" Korra's voice was sober, but she snorted with laughter as soon as she said it. Asami smiled at her amusement, though she'd didn't understand the reference.
"What was it like to work with Toph?"
Korra stopped playing with her tea long enough to take a sip. "Mostly she just napped all day. She sent me out to find food on those days. She liked when I went up in the canopy and brought down eggs." Korra paused to laugh. "I trapped a couple birds too; she broke out her nasty swamp moonshine to celebrate that. We got really drunk, threw up everywhere, and were sick for two days. I'll never forget the taste of that poison."
As much as Asami wanted to explore the topic of getting hammered with a hero from the Hundred Year War, she was focused on a more serious topic. Asami prompted: "That's it?"
"Well, we also ate a lot of frog-squirrels and mushrooms."
Asami was horrified. "Korra!"
"What?" Korra asked.
"They're just so…cute. How can you eat them?"
"I guess the white ones with little caps are cute." Korra grinned when Asami rolled her eyes. "I'm from the Southern Water Tribe. We eat everything down there. Including otter penguins."
Asami shook her head in mock sadness, playing into Korra's delight. After a moment, she steered the conversation back. "Didn't Toph train you?"
"When she didn't nap she beat me up. That was her version of training."
Asami frowned. "That's…"
Korra's smile faded, and she looked out to the city, away from Asami's gaze. "I think Toph's point was I didn't need her to teach me things. I already knew how to metalbend. I just never applied it to myself. I already had a connection with the spiritual energy in the swamp, but I never applied it either. She led me into doing all that myself."
"It just seems the best earthbender in the world would have a few tips or tricks."
Korra closed her shoulders and sat hunched around her teacup. "She was grumpy and negative a lot, but she did show me a few things. She told me I'm still so worried about all my past battles that I'll never be able to fight well in present ones. She was actually pretty nice when she wasn't grumpy."
"I'm glad you were able to find the positive out of the experience." Asami hesitated. "Korra, about that shadow…"
Korra shut down completely. Her jaw hardened, and her eyes fixed on the horizon. "I don't want to talk about that now."
She could push. But pushing on this would push Korra right back out of her life. Asami allowed their conversation to settle into silence, but she put her hand over Korra's bare shoulder. Her skin was warm and soft, and the muscle beneath was firm. Korra's shoulders opened slightly under her touch, and her face relaxed.
When Korra finished her tea, Asami held out her hand for her cup. "Go shower, okay? Use as much hot water as you want."
"Yes, ma'am." Korra finally looked Asami in the eye again. She stood straight out of half-lotus and walked away with an easy stride. What kind of determination and mental strength did it take fight back from paralysis to this unconscious grace? Asami swallowed down her rising tears as she finished off her tea. Asami watched traffic for a few minutes before deciding she should call her chief officer for an update since she'd missed the majority of the day before.
Asami walked into the kitchen to drop the tea set and cups in the sink and paused in surprise. The sink was empty and clean. Her dishes had been washed and stacked neatly on the counter top. The thoughtfulness of the gesture struck her hard. She blinked back tears once again.
Freshly showered and dressed, they made their way across the street to the quiet café many of the residents in the area frequented. This neighborhood housed many of the affluent names of the city so there were usually no issues with the press loitering. Today was no exception, thankfully. Maybe Asami had been wrong about what would headline today's paper.
There were about a dozen tables, and all but one of them were filled as usual. Another luxury of the rich: a reserved table at this cafe every morning. Asami knew the other patrons by sight if not name, but no one approached. There were a few surreptitious stares, but they respected Asami's privacy in the same way she respected theirs.
The waiter presented them both with ice water. Korra stared at the glass in surprise.
"Asami, what a pleasure. Your usual this morning?"
"Yes, thank you, Chat."
"Tea or espresso?"
Chat, Asami's favorite server, turned to Korra. "Avatar Korra, what an honor to have you patronize our restaurant. What can I get you this morning?"
Korra shot Asami a puzzled look. "Is there a menu?"
"Our chef can make whatever you wish."
She hesitated, her eyes flickering over the tablecloth. "Do you have any Southern Water Tribe dishes? I'm a little homesick."
He smiled and said, "Yes, Avatar Korra. Anything in particular?"
"I'll be happy with anything, truly."
"Would you like sea prune tea with your meal?"
"Actually, I'll go with whatever your house brew is."
"We have a cinnamon black tea blend brewing this morning."
In less than two minutes, Chat set down their cups, each with a covered pot, and laid out milk, sugar, and lemon. He didn't dally and slipped into the kitchen, leaving Korra and Asami at their quiet table.
Asami doctored her bitter brew. The first sip was fortifying. As always, she considered cutting out (or just back) her caffeine consumption. She loved it too much, and caffeine headaches were horrid so the thought was always a trifle one.
When their silence stretched, Asami cleared her throat and said, "Thank you."
Korra raised an eyebrow in question.
"For cleaning up my kitchen."
Her thankfulness coaxed a laugh. "It was just a few dishes."
"It was very thoughtful."
"I did that for a few weeks, you know. Washing dishes." Korra sipped her tea. "I sprained my ankle just outside the Kolau Mountains and managed to limp to a little city in the district. I bummed my way into a job washing dishes at one of the two restaurants in the town to pay for a room and a hot meal every day." Korra laughed, almost at herself. "I filled in one day for the chef. After that, the owners wanted me to stay and cook for them."
A good cook? Asami hadn't realized Korra knew how. "You couldn't use waterbending?"
Korra's mouth twisted. "Okay, I broke my ankle. It takes a few weeks to heal bone injuries."
"And then you left?"
"What do you think they'd say if they knew the Avatar was their dish washer?" Asami leaned forward and smiled through her teasing question. Korra's tight, unhappy smile hadn't been her aim with that flirtation.
Korra said, "They lost their daughter to malaria a few years ago. I think they wanted to take me on for that reason. Maybe I should write to thank them."
"It sounds like they would appreciate that."
Korra jerked her head towards Asami's cup. "I worked for a few weeks at a coffee plantation too. That was rough going. It's hard to believe the end result is here in Republic City."
Asami set her cup back down; the taste of coffee in her mouth soured. Korra interpreted her expression quickly. "I didn't mean you shouldn't enjoy it. Those people worked that hard because there was nothing else in the area to do. They didn't get paid much because the plantation owners had no money. They scraped out a living, but it was a hot, dry season this year."
"You've seen so much." It only increased Asami's awe, but Korra was oblivious to it.
"I didn't do much. They only let seasoned pickers near the harvest, and they were never going to let me touch the processing and roasting part." Korra's grin twisted. "Their heavy lifter joined Kuvira's army so I carted sacks of coffee cherries and beans around for them. That got old after about a day."
"How did they process coffee?"
"Handpicked, spread out in the sun to dry, hand peeled, sorted, and bagged per hundred pounds."
"Let me guess, you were the one loading those one-hundred pound bags."
"Correct." Korra broke into a grin. "One day the plantation owners gathered us all up to taste-test the final product. Everyone said it was delicious, but I think that was because they spiked the coffee. It was a going-away party because half of the workers were seasonal hires."
"They wanted to keep me on to train me how to do some other jobs around the farm, but it was time to move on."
In that part of the Earth Kingdom, Korra was probably the most educated of their workers. Kudos to them for noticing it, despite Korra's menial labor job. It would have been so easy for Korra to give everything up and make an anonymous life for herself. The thought gave Asami chills.
"That's odd…" she said almost to herself. Asami addressed Korra with her continued thoughts. "I suppose I imagined you were alone your whole trip." As alone as Asami had felt during those years apart.
Korra frowned down at her tea. "I was…but that was my own doing."
Trapped in her own depression. It was a physical ache in Asami now, knowing how off Korra felt. She wanted to help and heal, to show Korra how she saw her: strong, brave, with limitless kindness and passion. Every new discovery reiterated it. This, however, was something only Korra could work through.
"Here you go, ladies." Their waiter set their plates in front of them. Asami's usual was a soft-boiled egg and toasted fruity bread with butter. Today there was a scoop of sour yogurt and sliced fruit as well. Korra's plate, on the other hand, had a wide assortment of animal products, all of which Chat described.
"Char: sliced thin, spiced, and dried in the oven. Raw whale skin, shipped chilled fresh from the Southern Water Tribe. Bloodcake made from fresh seal blood and fat, topped with fresh blueberries. Frybread made from powdered seaweed and seaprune."
The sight of that food nearly took away Asami's appetite, but Korra grinned in delight. "This looks great! Thanks!"
Chat smiled back at Korra. "Please let us know if you would like anything else. I hope you both enjoy."
Asami ate slowly. She was more interested watching Korra devour her meal. Korra rotated between the different meats, sampling each one until there was only one bite left. She used her fingers and licked her fingertips after every bite. She chewed happily on the frybread and char, swallowed the whale skin whole, and finally scooped up the last bite of bloodcake with a heap of blueberries and ate that with a big sigh of pleasure.
"Good?" Asami asked, finally breaking into her boiled egg. She had never seen anyone eat with such delight.
"Do you want more?"
"I'm stuffed," Korra said, patting her very flat, very muscular abdomen. "That bloodcake was delicious. It reminds me when we dip fruit in fresh seal carcasses to wipe up the blood. Best dessert in the world."
Asami couldn't hide her disgust as much as she tried to, but it only coaxed a quiet laugh from Korra. "You sissy Northerners. The best way to experience a meal is to meet your dinner first."
It didn't take Asami much longer to finish her food, and Korra managed to drink her entire pot of tea in that time. They left their dirty dishes at the table, and Asami nodded her thanks to Chat as they passed. Korra hesitated as they walked out of the café. "Shouldn't we pay?"
"I have a tab."
"Thank you for breakfast, then."
Korra punctuated her thanks with a belch that reminded Asami of Bolin. Asami had been raised to consider bodily functions like that impolite and downright juvenile. This time, though, she had to laugh. Korra grinned back at her devilishly. "Just paying my respects!"
By the time they crossed the street, Asami's blue Satomobile was parked at the curb. This kind of service was a luxury, but again, she refused to feel guilty over it. The valet handed her the keys, and Asami put them firmly in Korra's palm. Korra sighed with resignation as she crossed to the driver's side. "I should have known you'd make me drive."
"Did you do any odd jobs that required driving?"
"Not one." The engine turned over easily. Korra adjusted the mirrors and pulled into the street when there was a break in traffic.
"Take a left at the light."
Korra turned on the turn signal, stopped at the red light, and promptly stalled out the car. The situation was punctuated by Korra's sharp profanity: "Fucking hogmonkeys!"
She'd picked that one up sometime in the last six months because that was definitely the first time Asami had heard it. Asami choked in her laughter as she instructed Korra, "Foot on the brake and clutch. Restart the car. Put the car in first and gradually ease off the clutch as you push the gas pedal... Fucking hogmonkeys?"
Korra's face twisted in concentration as she followed the directions. She didn't act like she heard the honks behind them. The rest of the trip went well, though she grinded the gears a few times. A bead of nervous sweat rolled down Korra's brow as they parked at the ferry docks. Funny, Asami hadn't been worried at all. Korra drove slower than Mako's grandmother.
"You did well, fucking hogmonkeys aside."
"Ha. ha," she said mockingly. Korra wiped her forehead with the back of her hand as she handed back Asami's keys with the other. She turned her face into the bay breeze as they approached the dock. "You're determined to make me a competent driver, aren't you?"
"It's one of life's simple pleasures."
"I'll take a ride on Naga any day over driving that expensive piece of machinery." Korra shook her head. "I had no idea where I was going most of the time. I didn't realize the vines had grown so much since I left."
"They've gone quiet recently, but there are a few pockets that continue to grow. We've done well to restructure the city around them."
Korra's mouth turned down vaguely. She flopped down onto the wet dock and swung her feet like a child. Korra glanced up at Asami and down to the damp wood next to her. She flicked her wrist and bent the water out of the planks with little effort. Asami resigned herself to the indignity and sat down next to Korra.
"It caused a big headache, huh?"
"It also caused the city's economy to boom. Our tourism business has tripled. We're bringing more money in from other nations, and everyone is feeling the effects. Some people had to move their homes, yes, but other than having to adapt to a new living area, those families felt no ill effects."
"It just feels like I did this. I caused all of this mess."
"Your uncle and Vaatu caused this," Asami said firmly. "You saved Republic City from him, and you helped us adapt to these changes. You turned negative into positive."
The set of Korra's mouth was enough to inform Asami that Korra didn't agree with her points. Asami reached out to take her hand and shake some sense into her when the whistle on the arriving ferry blew. Korra got up and held out a hand for Asami.
She felt strange to be on the receiving end of Korra's chivalrous gestures. When coming from a man, these gestures signaled to Asami that he was either trying to be polite or truly believed she needed the help. There was no doubt in Asami's mind that Korra knew she could take care of herself, and the term 'polite' rarely applied to Korra.
The truth, she told herself as she took Korra's hand, was that she was reading too much into these gestures because she wanted them to mean more.
Air Temple Island was quieter than usual this morning. There were a few airbenders running drills, but the bustle that usually characterized the island wasn't there. Asami wondered if it had something to do with Korra's return. They peeled away from the tour group that had come with them on the ferry and wandered in the direction of the shared dining area.
The quiet was broken by loud barking. Naga rounded the corner and stopped in front of Korra with her back-end thrashing in place by the power of her tail wagging.
"Oh, you peed a little bit, girl," Korra said with a laugh.
Naga collapsed on the ground and rolled, continuing to thrash, and Korra threw herself on her polar bear dog, rubbing her chest and belly. Naga whined and groaned and yipped. Poor girl. Asami came to visit her at least once a week, but she'd never seen her this animated. She'd missed Korra more than Asami realized.
Korra stood up as Naga righted herself. Asami held out a hand in greeting, but Naga bounded forward and laid a long, wet lick up her face. "Thanks, Naga." Asami used her shawl to pat her face dry, but she scratched Naga under her chin. Naga's mouth stretched in a grin, and her tongue lapped at the air as Asami dodged this attack. With that, Naga turned back to Korra.
Obediently, Naga fell into step at Korra's side. All three of them walked towards the family dining hall. Korra glanced over her shoulder at Asami, her expression curious but oddly guarded. "Did you visit her here?"
She'd been caught. She'd seen Korra's training sessions with Naga many times during their trip around the Earth Kingdom. Korra had always been passionate about positive reinforcement training, about keeping good habits when it came to her polar bear dog, and about being consistent. That passion had led to several surprisingly informative conversations between them. Asami, in turn, had tried to recreate Naga's training sessions whenever she paid the island a visit.
"I… I tried to run through Naga's commands, but I know I missed a lot."
Korra's eyes filled with tears, and she wrenched her gaze away. Her voice was thick with emotion and her jaw was tight as she looped an arm under Naga's neck. "Thanks. I know she was really lonely without me."
Asami couldn't help it. She stepped forward and pulled Korra in a tight hug. "I knew you would want me to."
Korra took a few sharp breaths against her shoulder. Her fingers dug into Asami's sleeves before she regained her composure and pulled away. She used a fist to wipe the moisture from her eyes and cleared her throat in embarrassment. Korra's eyelashes were especially dark after tears, which made her eyes seem all the bluer. "Anyway, thanks. It really means a lot to me."
I would do anything for you. She very nearly blurted those foolish words aloud, but they were interrupted by yet another commotion, ushered in with a massive blast of air.
The airbender kids were always excited to see Korra, and today was no exception. Korra laughed and accepted hugs from Ikki and Meelo. Rohan, who probably didn't remember Korra, wandered first to Asami—who he did know—for a hug. She gave him a kiss, leaving a lip-print on his cheek, and he grinned at her happily.
Rohan then walked over to Korra, who bent down and picked him up. He grinned and seemed content to sit in her arms. "Hi," he said.
Maybe Korra was just that good with children. She kissed his neck, and he giggled, shifting happily. Korra's lips were stretched in a wide grin when she pulled back, and she darted in to kiss his nose. He laughed and wrapped his arms around her neck.
Korra turned back to Meelo and Ikki. "What are you two up to?"
"Lessons." Meelo's bottom lip pouted out. "Jinora's already there because she's such a smarty pants." That wasn't a compliment.
"Suck up, actually," Ikki said lightly. She took Korra's free hand without hesitation, and they walked together through the Air Temple grounds. The only way to make the picture of Korra walking with those kids any cuter would be for Meelo to sit on her shoulders. However, Meelo was too busy making eyes at Asami to consider the possibility. Asami asked him, "What are your lessons about?"
"History or reading," Ikki said, shrugging.
"Same thing really," Meelo replied. "Boooring."
Korra shifted Rohan higher on her hip. "What was your favorite subject, Asami?"
"Math," Asami replied immediately. "Yours?"
"Do bending lessons count?"
"No," Asami said at the same time as the two airbender kids said, "Yes!"
"History," Korra said.
"Boo!" Meelo cried. "Worst subject ever!"
"I don't know. Kyoshi was pretty cool to learn about. So was your granddad."
They walked indoors, leaving behind a whining Naga, and followed the kids to the dining room where their tutor waited. As expected, Jinora was already there, waiting for the lessons to start. She looked up and offered Korra a quiet smile. Korra nudged Meelo into the room, and Ikki paused to give Rohan a kiss. "Will you play with us after we finish, Korra?" Meelo wanted to know.
Meelo and Ikki visibly brightened, and even Jinora offered a soft smile in response. Korra waved and slid the door shut.
The tightness of her shoulders betrayed her unease.
Korra shook her head in reply. Her voice was light when she said, "I don't envy their tutor."
Asami had tried a grand total of once to teach Ikki and Meelo about engineering. It had been a simple lesson, one that even Meelo could understand, but she'd failed to factor in it wouldn't keep their attention for more than two minutes. The lesson had devolved into Asami sketching spirits that the kids described to her.
"They're good kids."
"Yeah, they are."
Korra had a smile on her face when they found Pema in a small day room. Rohan reached for his mother, and Pema sighed and took him into her lap. She kissed him and held him for a moment, but he clambered out of her lap to run around the room with the peculiar high-step of young children. "Hello, Asami. It's always nice to see you. There's breakfast left in the kitchen and warm tea on the stove if you two are hungry."
"We ate, but more tea sounds great," Korra replied. How she could drink any more tea than she had that morning, Asami had no idea. She must have developed an appreciation during her time wandering the world. "We can watch Rohan if you want some time to yourself."
The three of them made their way into an old study that was a cross between a library and a play room. Toys were scattered around the room, making walking barefoot dangerous, but Asami liked the library for its eclectic assortment of reading material. She chose a text about the impact of the Dai Li through the ages and turned it to the bookmark she'd placed during her last visit.
Korra sat on the floor by the couch and played with Rohan. She had more patience with the task than Asami had ever had. Asami had never known how exhausting it was to entertain a toddler, even one as quiet and sweet at Rohan generally was.
There was something relaxing about listening to Korra laugh and play with a child. In fact, it was relaxing enough that Asami nodded off over her reading. She awoke alone in the study, stretched out on the couch with a blanket over her. The sleep she'd had suggested she'd been in it for hours. Based upon the long shadows, her impression was right: it was late afternoon. She'd slept the afternoon away.
After a visit to the washroom, Asami followed the smells of dinner to the boisterous dining room. Korra glanced up from the corner of the table and smiled. "Good nap?"
"I was more tired than I thought." Even more tired now that she was groggy. Asami took the open seat next to Korra, bending close to speak more quietly to her. "I'm sorry for falling asleep on you."
"One for one. I did the same last night. Literally."
Tenzin swept by in a swirl of red robes and interrupted the doubtlessly foolish statement that sprang to Asami's lips. He looked up from the paper in his hands to fix Asami with a surprised stare. "Hello, Asami. Are you joining us for dinner?"
"Yes, thank you, Tenzin."
Conversation flowed in fits and starts, but it was easily dominated by the airbender kids. The children mainly wanted to know what Korra had seen and done in her absence. Korra gave a few anecdotes about traipsing across a Fire Nation volcanic islands, standing atop a massive sand dune in the desert of the Earth Kingdom, and finally of earthbender brawls in Gaoling.
"Did you fight?!" Meelo was especially excited about that last point.
"Yes," Korra reluctantly admitted.
"Did you win?!" he continued. Asami noticed Tenzin's brows draw across the bridge of his nose in clear disapproval. He made no comment, however.
"That was before you got the poison out, though, right?" Ikki asked.
"It was." Korra set her chopsticks down. Apparently just that reminder was enough to put off her appetite. She excused herself and left the room. Dinner came to an abrupt halt as most of the attending airbenders dispersed. Only Tenzin and Jinora remained at the table, serving as perfect examples of brooding airbenders.
"I don't understand what's wrong with her," Jinora said quietly. "The poison is out now."
Asami tightened her mouth to hold in her words. Spirits forbid Jinora ever go through a traumatic experience like Korra. Jinora's tattoo ceremony still left a bitter taste in her mouth. It wasn't Jinora's fault that her victory came about during Korra's utter defeat, but it almost felt like the new air nation had rubbed salt into Korra's wounds. How could Korra happily cerebrate their victory when she'd given so much up for it?
She was being unfair, but it was very hard to remain objective about this subject.
"I called her back too soon," Tenzin murmured.
Correction: it was impossible to remain objective about this subject.
Asami set down her cup sharply enough to draw startled looks from both of them and strode into the kitchen. Pema glanced up in surprise to see her and quickly capitalized on her presence. She handed Asami a dish towel and a wet plate.
"What's wrong, Asami?"
She couldn't exactly say she was considering strangling Pema's eldest child and husband. "I'm worried about Korra."
"You should have seen her when she got back, Asami." Pema's exasperation was almost comical. This woman came by mothering naturally. It was also clear she'd wanted to vent about this subject. "She smelled like she hadn't bathed in weeks. She was covered in bruises. And her hair! She looked like she hacked it off with a knife."
"She probably did."
Pema's face slipped into a smile. "Probably. It's a good thing her mother never had to see her in that state. The filth that washed off of her… The water in soaktub in the men's side had to be replaced. It took three of us an hour to make her presentable again. And the entire time, all she did was whine."
Asami felt her face heat. "You washed her?"
"Someone had to get the mud off of her back. And we had to do something to trim that hair into shape. It's a nice cut for her, but before it was a mess."
"I'm sure she appreciated the attention."
Asami's statement took away all of Pema's indignation. She deflated with a long sigh and stared at the plate in her hand. Her fingertip traced over the chip on one edge. "I'm worried about her. There's something else going on, isn't there? My girls talked about Korra bending out more metal poison, but that can't be it."
Asami was chilled by the memory of Korra talking about a shadow following her around. She nodded mutely.
"And you won't say anything because it would betray Korra's trust."
She nodded again. Pema sighed. "Well, we had already guessed. Jinora and Opal both talked to me separately about what happened at Zaofu. They both said that Korra gave up...and that she was going to let Kuvira kill her."
"What?!" Cold flushed down Asami's back, and she clutched the plate between her fingers. She felt oddly faint.
Pema put a steadying hand on her elbow. "Asami, do you need to sit down?"
Korra's alive; she's here; she's safe. Asami repeated those thoughts as she took a few deep breaths to regain her composure.
"Are they sure, Pema?"
"The fact they both confirmed it separately…" Pema let her statement trail off. She snatched up another plate and washed it vigorously. "As I said, we're all worried about her. She needs a good friend to make her feel better about herself."
"It isn't fair what she's been through."
"No. It isn't."
After a few minutes of shared dishwashing duty, Pema cleared her throat and broached another topic. "Tenzin was very worried when Korra didn't come back last night."
Asami wasn't sure what to say to that.
"I wasn't. I knew she was either with Mako or you."
Asami went cold then hot, and she could feel a powerful blush redden her cheeks. Pema laughed when she saw Asami's expression. "I wasn't born yesterday. You're both adults—"
"Pema, it isn't like that. Korra doesn't…"
"But you do?"
"Pema," Asami tried again.
Pema reached out and touched the back of her hand. "I remember when you and Mako were fighting because of his feelings for Korra. Isn't it funny how these things work out? Korra needs a good, loving friend right now, don't you think?"
Asami nodded, uncertain if she'd just been scolded, praised, warned off, or encouraged.
"She's probably off brooding on one of the meditation patios. Why don't you pour a cup of tea for her?"
A moment later, Asami stood in the cool evening with a cup of hot tea in her hands. She wasn't even sure how she'd been pushed into doing this. She took a breath, shook her head, and wandered towards the meditation patios. A good, loving friend…? She could do that. She had that routine down pat.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Asami glanced up from the design table, tearing herself away from her thoughts and back into an existence that was filled with Varrick's ramblings. They were on the final stages of the hummingbird suit prototype, but she kept pouring over the designs to pick and ponder the flaws and weaknesses. She thought she'd been onto something when her assistant broke her thought process, which added another layer of irritation to her day.
Asami arched her neck to look up at her assistant from her current pose. "Yes, Lee?"
Lee ignored her obvious irritation. He was always the picture of professionalism around Varrick, and his tone was uncommonly stiff. "Would you like to break for lunch?"
The suggestion brought out the irritation she'd been hiding, especially when Varrick chimed in. "I've been telling her that for hours!"
"I don't have time—"
"Avatar Korra suggested you might eat lunch together. I've sent her up to your office, but I can send her away if you wish."
Korra was here? Asami straightened, flushed with sudden anticipation. She hadn't seen Korra since the joint meeting with Raiko, and that had only consisted of shared smiles and greetings. She'd been so busy, and she knew Korra was busy too. For her to come here…
"No!" she blurted. "No, I'll see her."
She washed her arms and snatched up her jacket. As Asami stepped out of the workshop door, she glanced at Lee. They'd cleared all Future Industries' designs and prototypes from this floor, but she didn't trust Varrick any further than she could throw him. "Keep an eye on him."
Lee nodded and stepped into the workshop. Asami pretended she didn't see him smirk as he closed the door behind him. That was far closer to his usual self.
Asami considered the elevator, but her back and shoulders ached from a combination of bending over the drawing room table and the physical work of putting together the mech. She went to the stairwell, taking the opportunity to get her blood pumping and her legs stretched out as she climbed five flights to her office.
She stepped through Lee's office. He was one of her few employees that remained in the city given how quiet the entire building was. She hoped she'd convinced most of her employees to leave the city while they had time. Asami paused when she saw Korra through the open office door. Korra's hands were on the glass of the window that made up one wall. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned when she caught sight of Asami. That wide, white smile seemed to light her bright blue eyes up even more, especially on the backdrop of the clear sky. "Another fantastic view. If I were you, I'd just stare out the window all day long."
"Sometimes I do," she admitted.
It was so good to see Korra again. Though it had only been a few days since they'd last been face to face, Asami clenched down on her desire to pull Korra in for a hug. No doubt she looked ridiculous, smudged with engine lubricant and her hair in a messy bun.
"How have you been?" Korra asked. She stepped away from the window, and Asami realized she was still standing in the doorway of her office like a fool.
The stress that weighed on her wasn't quite so heavy with Korra nearby, and that release of tension caused Asami to laugh. "I was going to ask you that." She motioned to the stuffed sofa she kept in the corner of her office. Korra stepped around Asami's cluttered desk and sat down, releasing her breath in a sigh.
"Busy," Asami hedged. "Working with Varrick is…a trial, but he has a brilliant mind." She couldn't help herself. She reached out and took Korra's hand. "Mako told me that you went to see Zaheer."
Korra nodded slowly. To Asami's surprise, she smiled. "I feel so much freer now. It was terrifying, but…he helped me."
Asami tightened her grip on Korra's hand. She remembered how angry she'd been when Korra pointed out her father could betray her and avoided speaking her thoughts along those lines: Can you really trust a man who nearly killed you? Instead, she said, "Do you feel better? I mean as far as the visions go?"
Korra's shoulders twitched, but she didn't withdraw. Her palm sat firmly against Asami's. "Yes. I'm not afraid anymore. I don't think I'll see it again."
There was no way to communicate to Korra how fantastic it was to see her exude quiet confidence. It wasn't the no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners type of attitude Korra had had three years ago, but this steady, calm firmness was… It was a relief. It was also surprisingly attractive. Asami settled on saying: "I'm so glad for you, Korra."
Korra smiled and nodded to the food boxes on the table in front of the couch. "I got us lunch."
"Thank you for thinking of me."
"I got the feeling you were probably forgetting important things like food." Korra opened boxes of food, settling on a seaweed noodle and squid box after Asami declined it. She snapped her wooden chopsticks in half and rubbed them together.
Asami chose the bland 'arctic' hen, vegetable, and rice box. As much as she appreciated Korra and her home, she didn't care for the food. Too many sours and bitters. Asami preferred the savory tastes that came from the Earth Kingdom, and occasionally, she liked spicy from the Fire Nation.
"Any word from the spirits?" Asami asked after a few minutes of shared silence. She was surprised by how hungry she was.
Korra leaned back on the couch with a sigh. She spoke around her current mouthful. "They won't help. Said I was no better than Unalaq for asking."
"How can they possibly make that comparison?"
Korra shrugged, her expression back to her too familiar unhappy cast. "They're staying out of it completely. Looks like we're on our own. All the spirits have cleared out of the city. That convinced the homeless people who live in the spirit wilds to get out too, at least." Korra's gaze fixed on the ceiling, but her eyes were clear, and her face settled in determination. "We can do this."
"I'm with you, Korra. Anything you need. I—" Asami cut off her own words and reached out to take Korra's hand again. It was an awkward transition; she'd forgotten Korra was holding chopsticks. Korra didn't miss a beat; she stuck her chopsticks rudely in her box of noodles and took Asami's hand in her own. Korra tilted her head slightly on the back of the couch, and Asami nearly lost herself in the abruptly desire to leaned closer and steal a kiss.
Instead, she said, "Just promise me you won't do anything stupid."
Korra laughed and squeezed her hand. "I do stupid things all the time. But I'm not going to throw my life away. I won't surrender to Kuvira." She hesitated and then continued her thought. "I haven't forgotten what happened the last time I surrendered to someone. We'll find a way to win."
They finished eating in comfortable silence until Korra said, "You've been sleeping here, haven't you?"
Right on the couch they were sitting on, actually, but Asami refused to feel embarrassed for it. She was an adult, making reasonable decisions in this scenario. "Yes."
Korra made no comment. To Asam's surprise, Korra followed her down to the workshop. Korra sat on the drawing room table and watched as Varrick and Asami argued their way through the rest of the afternoon—productively, as they finished the suit. At some point through the afternoon, Asami glanced over and realized Korra was either deep in meditation or had slipped into the spirit world. It gave her a betraying thrill to be able to look over and see Korra in her workspace.
She didn't let herself become distracted, however. "Let's start her up."
Varrick cracked a yawn and rubbed the back of his head. "I'm going to find a bed first. I need sleep, and so do you, Asami."
"We don't have time—"
Korra shifted on the table and spoke firmly, "We have time. Come on, Asami."
Asami did not like being ordered. And yet… She hesitated and finally stripped out of her work gloves. Varrick grunted to see her acquiesce so easily, but for once in his long, loud life, he made no comment.
"My apartment or Air Temple Island?"
They didn't speak through much of the drive home. Asami was usually fine with comfortable silence, but she wasn't used to sharing it with Korra. When they stopped at a red light, she glanced over. "Are you okay?"
Korra nodded with her eyes closed and her head tipped back. "Okay. Worried. Do you mind if we talk about it when we get to your place?"
"No, that's fine."
What could that mean though? Did Korra have a worry that pertained to Asami? That paranoid thought brought out irritation inside Asami at herself. She sounded like a middle-school child with a crush. Korra was the Avatar, facing an impending battle on Republic City. She had far more important things to worry about than whether Asami had been acting oddly.
Her logic didn't crush her fears, so she busied herself with making tea when they stepped into her apartment. Asami's logical thoughts were proven correct when Korra said, "I'm worried about Kuvira harvesting the spirit vines."
"Do you want something to drink?"
"Not tonight. I wouldn't mind some tea though."
Asami poured Korra a cup. She added a nip of whiskey into her own tea, prompting a raised eyebrow from Korra.
"I need something to take the edge off," she defended.
"But why would you put fire whiskey in chamomile?"
"What's wrong with that?" Asami's humor was evident in her voice, and Korra responded with a big grin. She said, "Fire whiskey goes in black tea or ciders. I can't even imagine what that tastes like."
"Then it's good you don't have to drink it." Asami sat down on the couch with a flouncing flair and dissolved her façade with a wink. Korra's grin widened in response before her expression slipped back into neutrality. Asami didn't miss the flicker of her lips as she tasted her tea. Had she brewed it incorrectly? As soon as she thought that, Korra took another sip and sighed.
Asami understood that their joking wasn't a full diversion. She said, "We know what Kuvira is harvesting them for a weapon."
"They've taken so much of the tree, Asami. It just doesn't feel right. Unless they have hundreds of weapons, there's no way they would need that many spirit vines."
"You think she's using it for something else?"
Korra shrugged. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"Is there going to be another problem with the spirits because of this?"
For some reason, that made Korra close down. It wasn't as sharp as her defensiveness of her mental battles, but it was obvious. Her tone shifted, her eyes turned away, and she said, "Probably. You look tired, Asami. Get some sleep, okay?" Korra sighed deeply, drained her cup, and stood up. "Can I use your balcony?"
"You don't want to stay?" Asami asked it despite herself. She hoped her question was casual; she felt an aching desperation she refused to betray.
Korra's response surprised her. She gave a big, crooked grin. "Are you going back to work if I don't?"
Asami wasn't that low. "No. I'll stay here and get some sleep."
"Then I'm going to head out. I'll see you later." Korra put her hand on Asami's forearm. Her palm was dry and warm, her grip gentle but firm. She gave a soft squeeze, then snapped open her glider and took a daring leap from Asami's balcony. Asami would have watched her fly away, but Korra blended with the shadows of the night as she glided on the winds.
The unseasonably cool night air chased her into her apartment, and Asami chased it right back with another nip of fire whiskey. She stood in front of the window for a few minutes of silence as her exhaustion slowly weighed down on her.
She would survive this. Korra would survive this. And then they would have the future together…as friends or more. And Asami was rapidly realizing 'more' was something she would be reaching for.
Being surrounded by Varrick's unfailing optimism, Asami had allowed herself to believe that the suits might make the difference, but the news that Bolin had brought—along with the Beifongs—crushed her confidence. That Kuvira's powerful spirit weapon was fully functioning wasn't welcome. Her hummingbird suits were on the production line, meaning too many of her workers had stayed behind in harm's way, and she felt as though the war was accelerating faster than she could keep up.
Standing with her friends together again eased some of the fear that tightened her throat. She felt in control with Korra, Mako, and Bolin beside her, especially when they all exchanged wordless hugs.
"We can do this," Korra said firmly to start off their inevitable conversation. She was probably the only person in the room who felt that way.
"I have a lot of confidence in Team Avatar," Bolin replied quickly, "But I don't know if we can do anything to protect the city from Kuvira's weapon."
"There has to be something," Asami said, more to herself than to him.
"You guys don't understand. That weapon blew a hole in a mountain! If it gets in range of the city, we're toast."
"What if we can sabotage it before it gets to the city?" Mako asked.
It might be their best chance, but there was a large danger to it. Asami pointed that out. "It has to be surrounded by Kuvira's army. It'll be hard to sneak in undetected."
Korra's expression firmed with her decision. "It's a risk I'm willing to take." She met each one of their eyes. "Are you willing to help me?"
"Of course!" Bolin grabbed her hand, and Asami reached out too. Mako laughed and shook his head, placing his hand on top of the pile.
"We're all crazy," he said with a smile.
Korra gave him a crooked grin, and Bolin reached his free arm around Mako's neck. "Team Avatar is back in business!"
They broke their grip but remained clustered close to each other.
"Do you think you can dismantle it, Asami?" Mako asked.
"Believe it or not, I'm just as good at destroying machines as building them."
She recalled the night after Tonraq's announcement that Korra had been missing for six months. After hours of lying in bed staring up at her ceiling numbly, she'd gone to her workshop and attempted to work on a transmission prototype she'd been unable to finish. She'd managed only five minutes of work before picking up a crowbar from the corner, lifting it, and bringing it down on the machine. By the time she'd finished, there was nothing left but twisted metal and several dents in the walls, and her hands had ached from the vibrations up the crowbar.
Four weeks, had been the thought crystalized in her mind. Four weeks ago, Korra had written a letter, but Tonraq hadn't heard from her since. Four weeks of silence and not knowing. And not once had Korra reached out to Asami.
Even with Korra only writing her once, she'd clung to the fact Korra had reached out to her, only her. Asami thought that had signified closeness between them—and a tiny, betraying part of her had whispered about it meaning Korra must return some of her feelings—but that night the reality had crashed down on her.
Later, she'd been able to reason that Korra was fighting something big, dark, and painful inside herself. She hadn't done this to spite Asami or make her worry, but that night, Asami felt nothing but bitter anger.
Asami shook herself from the unhappy memory and spoke more firmly. "I can do it."
"We should take a sky bison. Bolin, where was Kuvira's army stationed?"
"Still in Zaofu. The weapon may still be in the camp just outside Zaofu. I know how to get there."
"We should leave this evening to get there under nightfall," Asami said.
And so they did, and they found something they didn't expect. The journey to Kuvira's army had been nervous anticipation; the journey back was pure defeat. They were quiet as Korra pushed the sky bison back to Republic City. Asami no longer felt in control, and whatever comfort she could take that they'd made it back alive was shaken by the realization they'd had such a close call in the first place.
And a deep, uncomfortable part of her was envious of the genius to build such a mech. The physics of it trumped her comprehension; the mech simply should not work. She'd never had the scope or motivation to create something so huge, but now a part of her itched to match and exceed.
And that was stupid.
"So," Bolin finally said. "Things are worse than we thought."
"We can still do this," Korra said calmly.
"How did they build that?" Mako asked. It took Asami a moment to realize he'd directed the question to her.
"I wish I knew. I can't even imagine how they power it."
Korra's shoulders shifted. "I can."
Spirit vines, Asami realized. "Korra, I don't know how they could possibly do that. It's one thing to create a destructive force, but to use that to produce power seems impossible."
Korra glanced over her shoulder with a tight half-smile. "I've seen a lot of impossible things. I don't want it to be true, but I get the feeling it is."
"So, uh… What are you two talking about?" Bolin asked.
"They've been doing this a lot, bro," Mako grumbled.
Korra pulled at the reins, and the sky bison dropped onto Air Temple Island with a groan. It was time to face the music. Asami needed to get to her factory now. Her workers should have evacuated, but the suits hadn't been delivered to the United Republic Army yet. Damn herself for wanting one more day to debug and perform quality control checks.
There was too much that had to be done.
Asami sprinted through the streets, trying to gauge where the giant mech was traveling. If only her parachute hadn't deployed in the opposite direction that the mech traveled in. If only she hadn't been completely entangled in the chute cords for precious minutes. She took the risk and sprinted through an alley to the adjoining avenue. Judging by the quiet of the city, the mech had been motionless for at least a few minutes, but she was still trying to find the main avenue it stood on.
They must have gotten inside. The plan was working if the mech was so still.
Then there was a shudder, and she staggered and fell to one knee from a powerful shockwave as beams of purple light flared into the sky. The buildings around her rocked, and her ears popped as something large exploded. Dust and smoke swirled above the buildings at least twenty blocks away.
She was running on full instinct, her mind struggling with the thought that someone could have survived that blast. Bolin, Mako, Korra…
She was a fool for not telling Korra her feelings. She knew Korra didn't return them, but she should have said something, not for herself, but so that Korra knew how wonderful she was, knew that she was worth loving.
She might very well lose her chance forever.
Her legs carried her down the street as fast as her body could manage. She stumbled a few times, and her lungs burned, but she couldn't stop now.
She'd covered perhaps half the distance to the remnants of the mech when a new cascade of explosions echoed through the streets; she couldn't see these, but smoke rose from the other side of the spirit wilds.
And then the ground shuddered again. Asami turned the corner but stopped short at the sight of a billowing cloud of purple sweeping towards her. She dashed into a subway entrance and wrapped her hands behind her head, shaking. She was almost too shocked to react, but again, that horrified thought of: Korra burst through her. When she closed her eyes, she saw the massive cloud of the explosion against her eyelids. It didn't seem survivable.
And then, a rush of wind swirled in the opposite direction. Asami's ears popped as the pressure changed around her, and she turned her head to see nothing but stillness and vines in the street. She lurched to her feet and looked around the corner, watching as the swirling smoke rolled back away from her, accelerating as it returned to the center of the spirit wilds.
After a moment, it disappeared from Asami's view altogether. Then a burst of golden light shot upwards to the sky.
Somehow she knew exactly what it was: a spirit portal. And if it was that, Korra had won.
Her fears folded away, still there but in the background, muted by new hope.
Even when she found Tenzin and his children combing through the wreckage and vines in search of Korra, she had hope; she clung to that hope desperately, even as Mako and Bolin's faces tightened in worry. Against all odds, they'd made it through the battle. Lin and Suyin emerged as well, but there was still no sign of Korra.
She didn't realize she'd ever been afraid until she turned and saw Korra's form materialize through the spirit portal. She was walking strong, supporting Kuvira, her expression steady and calm. Her eyes fixed on Asami's and held until they were shaken from that strong mutual look by enemy mechs striding closer.
Asami put her hand on Korra's shoulder, feeling the strength and solidness of her, and Korra looked back at her with a smile. Asami was fragile with her joy and thought nothing of wrapping her arm around Korra's waist and pressing her face to her shoulder. She was alive; they had made it out of this alive and well.
The trip back through ruined downtown back to Air Temple Island was surreal. Asami sat beside Korra and brushed her fingertips against her arm. She exchanged wordless looks with Mako and Bolin. They were alive. They'd made it.
But not everyone had. That fact hadn't quite hit her yet.
She'd been so focused on getting through the battle, she had a hard time remembering what she had to do now. Contact her officers, speak to Raiko, go to Future Industries' properties to check on their damages.
Asami glanced over after Korra bumped shoulders with her. Korra's hair was singed, her face bruised, but she was smiling gently, which was a beautiful sight.
"Hey," Asami responded softly.
"So, we made it."
"Yeah, we did. Are you okay?"
"Pretty banged up." Korra said it like it was a good thing. She glanced across the boat to Mako. "How about you? I can heal that arm a little bit, Mako."
He gave a one-shouldered shrug and a smile.
"He's awesome," Bolin said with a slow smile. Mako smiled and threw his good arm around his brother's shoulders.
Korra looked back at Asami. "Are you okay?" she repeated.
"I'm okay," Asami said, believing it right then.
It was nearly midnight when the Southern Water Tribe vessel pulled up to Air Temple Island's dock. It was no surprise to see Tonraq and Senna step out of the ship, and it was also no surprise to see Korra run into their arms. They held each other close, and while Asami was happy for Korra, her grief struck her abruptly.
She stepped back into the shadows and quietly left. It would be horrible to overshadow Korra's happy reunion with her own grief…and right now Asami wanted solitude to nurse her wounds.
She stood under Korra's meditation patio a few minutes later. She wiped her eyes and leaned over the railing to feel the warm late summer breeze on her face. Her breathing was harsh to her own ears as she choked down tears.
The only word she could think was: Daddy.
There was something about deep, painful emotion that made time fold over itself. She had no idea how long she stood there, alternating between silent stillness and silent tears.
She jumped when arms wrapped around her shoulders from behind. Asami tried to pull away, but Korra's quiet voice stilled her. "I've got you."
Asami collapsed to her knees as her sobs were suddenly wrenched from her mouth in painful, ugly sounds. Her chest hitched and jerked, and she rocked forward as her grief overwhelmed her. She seized Korra's arms and clutched at them desperately. In her grief was thankfulness too: What if I had lost you too? There was also anger at herself for those warring emotions.
Korra pressed her forehead against Asami's hair, and they remained molded together, front to back, until Asami's wracking sobs softened to sniffles and a few embarrassing hiccups.
"I'm sorry," she tried to say.
"No," Korra responded gently. She shifted from beneath Asami and sat down beside her with their legs still intertwined. Her face was soft with gentle emotion, and it choked Asami to see it. "Don't be sorry for grief," she said.
Asami didn't care about hiding her emotions anymore. She leaned forward and pressed her face into the crook of Korra's neck. They sat like that for a few minutes before Korra shifted. "Come on. Let's get you in bed."
Asami walked back with her hand firmly clasped in Korra's. She was numb, blinded by her tears, and sat down when Korra directed her. Sluggishly, she realized she was in Korra's room, sitting on her bed. Korra wiped her face with a warm washcloth and patted a set of pajamas she set next to her. "Do you need help changing?"
Asami glanced at the clothes numbly. "No."
"I'll be back in a few minutes, then." Korra did something exceedingly gentle: she leaned down and kissed Asami's forehead.
"You should be with your family," Asami said weakly.
"Don't worry about that." Korra closed the door behind her, and Asami picked up the washcloth to wipe her face again. She unsnapped and unzipped her jacket, stripped out of her shirt and bra, and kicked off her boots and pants. As Asami pulled the tank over her head, she paused at the smell: clean but spicy. She relaxed; these were Korra's clothes. The pajama pants came halfway up Asami's calves, something that made her smile despite herself.
Korra knocked gently on the doorframe.
"Come in," Asami said.
Korra smiled tentatively as she opened the sliding door with her foot. She carried a tea set in her hands, and that fact gave Asami a twitch of happiness though she couldn't bring herself to smile.
"Why aren't you in bed, young lady?" Korra asked in a joking tone.
Obediently, Asami settled beneath the covers, easing her aching back down onto the pillows. She hadn't realized how sore she was until now.
Korra poured warm tea into a teacup, then pulled a flask from her pocket and tipped a bit of clear liquid into the tea. "To help you sleep."
"Where did you get liquor on Air Temple Island?" Asami's voice was nasal, but she was too tired to be embarrassed. She accepted the teacup and sipped it; the heat soothed her throat, and a slow warmth followed, probably from the alcohol.
"Varrick. He swears it's good southern moonshine." Korra poured herself a cup of tea, complete with a nip of clear liquor. Her sip resulted in a sigh, and her shoulders drooped.
Then she picked up Asami's dirty clothes and folded them, placing them neatly in a basket that must hold laundry. (Why she folded dirty laundry, Asami couldn't fathom.) Korra stood up and pulled off her clothes, adding them to the basket. Asami was too tired to turn away. Her eyes traced the bruises that crossed Korra's back. Each shift resulted in a group of muscles across Korra's body coiling and relaxing; her backside and legs were fantastically shaped. When she shook out her pajamas, the curves of her breasts swayed into view.
She was absolutely beautiful.
Korra was oblivious to Asami's eyes on her body. After she pulled her pajamas on, she scrubbed her hair and yawned widely. She sat down on the bed and bumped hips gently with Asami until Asami shifted against the wall, making as much room as she could in the small bed. She finished her tea, handed it to Korra, and settled farther down the bed, pillowing her head on Korra's side. Korra's fingers slipped into her hair and rubbed her scalp soothingly.
Asami was surprised to wake up early the next morning to the sound of birdcalls. She lifted her head with a sigh through her nose, wincing as her head ached dully. Someone stirred under her arm, and Asami dropped her head back into the mess of Korra's hair, taking a deep breath.
Then next time she woke up, the curtains were open, and a bright strip of sunlight shone over her face. Asami was alone in bed, and her headache had magnified. She brushed her fingertips across the coarse sheets. She waited for her grief to come crashing back down, but there wasn't much more than a dull ache.
Her father was gone. He had given his life for her, for her friends, for the city. But at least he had known that she loved him.
"I love you, Dad. Thank you."
Asami got up, put a hand to her head in reaction to the pulse behind her skull. A headache, probably from crying and grogginess and lack of caffeine. The touch of moonshine the night before certainly hadn't helped. She got to her feet and waited for the world to settle.
A bundle of toiletries and a set of her clothing—probably left behind when she moved back off the island years ago—sat on the table in the corner. Asami smiled at the thoughtfulness of the gesture and picked them up to make her way to the women's shared bath. She had the place to herself and took her time, enjoying the quiet.
She hadn't expected to sleep at all last night. She remembered the long, sleepless night after the biggest calamities in her life: her father's betrayal, the certain loss of Future Industries, seeing Korra broken by the Red Lotus. Those had all been sleepless, thoughtless nights spent listening to the radio or staring at the wall of her bedroom. Last night had been nothing but deep, restful slumber.
Asami wondered if it was fair to feel so rested after losing her father the day before.
She stepped out of the bath and dried herself. Her dress fit well enough, though the old jacket was a little tight in the chest. She wondered if she'd lost weight over the last few stressful weeks. She brushed her wet hair back into a bun to keep it off her back and shoulders and walked barefoot out of the bathroom.
Asami was actually a little surprised to see Korra sitting at the dinner table in the small family dining room. There was remnants of breakfast, including tea, in front of her. Korra lifted her eyes from the paper in her hands to view Asami with wide eyes. Her gaze was innocent, and her smile was slow and soft. "Good morning," she said.
"Good morning." Asami settled next to Korra, startled when Ikki abruptly ran through the room and returned a moment later with a tray of bowls. Ikki clanked it down in front of Asami. "Would you like some tea?!" she asked a little too loudly.
"Yes, thank you, Ikki. Caffeinated, please."
"You got it!"
Ikki burst out of the room again. Asami glanced over and touched Korra's wrist. "Thank you. For last night, I mean."
Korra smiled gently. "Are you feeling a little better?"
Asami nodded, unable to put into words that her sharp grief from last night had settled into something softer this morning. She knew she would fluctuate back and forth between those feelings, but right now she was almost at peace.
"How are you?" she asked. "I saw all your bruises last night."
"A little banged up. Not too bad, though."
"I'm surprised you aren't in Republic City right now."
"I'm not allowed to leave this island today. A lot like when I first got here, actually. I snuck out to watch probending for the first time. Anyway, Tenzin said—" Korra tilted her head back, mimed stroking a beard, and put on a Tenzin-like voice, "Raiko can handle his own city for a day!"
Asami laughed. "I bet Raiko has already put in a panicked call to my office."
"Which is why you aren't allowed to leave today either. By the way, Varrick's planning to have his wedding here in a week. Do you know anything about that?"
"He asked Zhu Li to marry him right before we flew the hummingbird suits out."
Korra laughed. "I kind of wish I had seen that."
"My dad thought it was hilarious." Asami blinked back her tears. She shook her head when Korra reached out to hug her. "I'll start crying again."
"Well, if you ever need a hug, just go for it."
Asami laughed. "I have permission to hug you anytime, anywhere, huh?"
"Completely. Avatar hugs are usually expensive, you know." Korra sipped her tea sagely. Then she winked at Asami with a grin, which made Asami blush despite herself.
Asami leaned forward to speak, but she stopped when the door slid open. She was surprised to see Senna step into the room. Senna gave her a gentle smile as she settled on her shins beside Asami and slid the tray in her hands onto the table. Her voice was as soothing as her smile. "Extra-caffeinated tea delivered."
"Thank you, Senna."
"I'm sorry about your father, honey." Senna put her hand on Asami's forearm. Asami swallowed her tears and smiled weakly. Senna folded her into a hug, and despite herself, Asami let a few tears escape. "I also want to thank you for being there for Korra. It means a lot to me that she has someone as level-headed as you to look after her."
"Mom," Korra said in a neutral voice.
Senna gave Asami one last squeeze before she released her. "If you ever need anything, please don't hesitate to ask."
Senna patted her arm again and got up.
"Can I get a refill, Mom?" Korra asked.
Senna's manner completely changed as she walked past her daughter. "Are you incapable of making your own tea, Korra?"
Korra leaned against her fist, giving a heavy sigh. "No respect."
"You can have some of mine," Asami offered.
"Don't encourage her laziness!" Senna called from down the hall.
Asami lowered her voice to a whisper, smiling as she spoke. "I mean it."
Korra shook her head. "Caffeine makes me shake. You want the paper?"
"Are you finished with it?"
Korra pushed over three sections, and Asami sorted through them. Usually she read the meatier sections first, but Sports seemed like a great place to start that day.
Then she caught sight of the front page and snatched it up from the pile. "Wha… Wait, when did someone take this picture?"
Korra shrugged, sliding closer to Asami to study the picture with her. Team Avatar was on it: Bolin, Mako, Asami, and Korra. They weren't posing, which was good because Korra was certain to have had a silly expression on her face. In this picture, she was serious and determined. The headline said: TEAM AVATAR SAVES REPUBLIC CITY FROM CERTAIN DESTRUCTION.
"Not the snappiest title ever," Korra pointed out. "Look, it's outside. Maybe it was when we got back from our failed sabotage mission."
Asami folded the paper to isolate the text. She scanned it, seeing they were all briefly biographied—all positively, including Bolin—before a vague summary of the battle was given. It wasn't wrong, per se, but it left off many of the key players, including her father. Unless it was in the next section.
Without Asami asking, Korra handed over the section of paper in question, and Asami flipped over to the appropriate page and folded the paper. She scanned again but the article went into describing the major areas of destruction of the city, then finished by talking about the new spirit portal with a vague conjecture on how it had come to be.
The weight of what would come next settled on her shoulders. "There's so much to do."
"Not today," Korra responded quietly.
Hiroshi had never had a particular religious inclination, and the disposal of his remains was not a conversation Asami had shared with him. She could only guess as to his desires, though it wasn't a difficult assumption to make that he would want to be laid to rest next his wife.
Asami arranged for a quiet ceremony at the crypt that held her mother's ashes. Hiroshi's remains had been cremated instead of a traditional Earth Kingdom burial. From what she could guess—but tried not to dwell on—there wasn't much else that could be done with him. She was thankful for the men that had retrieved what remained of her father after the battle. No doubt it was not a fun job.
She'd given the crematorium Hiroshi's finest suit and an old silk dress that her mother used to wear. After some hesitation, she'd included their Pai Sho board in with those two possessions. If there was something beyond this life, then he would know that she had sent a bit of herself with him. His remains were cremated with those belongings, and she picked him up in the late morning three days after the Battle of Republic City. She drove to the graveyard with his filled urn strapped into the passenger seat of her Satomobile, going too fast for his sake.
The open crypt was large enough for a full coffin, and it put her mother's urn in shadow. Her mother had been cremated, as was custom for the Fire Nation, the land where she hailed and the customs she had kept in life. Standing here, Asami remembered the sharp whisper voiced at her mother's funeral about her ashes: "The man that killed her did most of the work."
Asami had never told anyone about that. The comment had scared her as a child, and now it just sat in a twist of bitter pain behind her breast. To this day she regretted not matching those words with a face so that she could know who had spoken to irreverently at her mother's funeral. Today there would be no words to dismiss her father the same way, not in this place, not with the few trusted people she'd asked to come.
Bolin, Mako, and Korra arrived only a few minutes after she did. Asami embraced Bolin and Mako, taking comfort in their strength. And then she pulled Korra close and fought her tears when she felt the hitch in Korra's breath. That Korra would shed any tears for Hiroshi hit Asami in a painfully affectionate place. She drew back, and they shared watery smiles with each other. Korra squeezed her arm and released her, stepping away but still in touching distance.
They each lit incense sticks as Asami carried Hiroshi's ashes to the open crypt. She placed the urn inside, right next to her mother's ashes, stepped back, and bowed. The incense made her throat ache, adding to the pain of it sitting high with her grief. She had trouble thinking anything concrete in that moment before she realized that surely all Hiroshi wanted was her love.
"I love you, Dad," she murmured. And that was that.
Asami was touched when her friends stepped forward to bow to her parents' remains as well. Korra's back remained bowed for long enough to betray she was saying a prayer. She was almost meditatively still. Then her torso expanded in a long exhale as she straightened. Korra glanced back over her shoulder at Asami for permission before she lifted her arms and bent the crypt door closed.
It struck Asami sharply that her father's name, written on the plaque the moment it was made for Asami's mother, was no longer outlined in red. He was dead, as dead as her mother. She was at long last an orphan.
Bolin's arm settled over her shoulder, and he squeezed her gently. "Come have lunch with us. You should eat."
"Okay." She wasn't hungry, but it would be good to be with her friends—her family. "Okay."
The next morning she awoke with Korra's hand in her own and the sound of two arguing brothers in the living room. It would be a good day despite all odds.
She was early by several hours, but her apartment was lonely, and Air Temple Island proved to be full of laughter and happiness. And Korra was there.
Asami was surprised to see Mako waiting for the ferry at the docks, and she put her hand into the crook of his right arm as she stepped up next to him. She took in his tailored suit and velvet lapels; Wu must have chosen that for him. Either that or Mako's sense of fashion had improved over the years. "How are you?"
He smiled at her. "Feeling better every day. How are you doing, Asami?"
She took a long breath, exhaling it. She went a little teary but that was the extent to her grief. "It hits me sometimes that I wish I had more time with him. But then I'm glad for what we did have. Thank you for being there."
His smile had a soft note. "I wouldn't have missed it."
They stood in comfortable silence for a minute before he ventured to say, "You, uh, look nice."
The compliment had been delivered awkwardly, but there was only a friendly connotation behind it. Unlike Mako, Asami was comfortable delivering her compliment: "So do you, Detective. That suit is nice."
"I can't wait until I start working again," he said with another big smile. "What about you? Are you burning the midnight oil?"
"Constantly." Asami thought of the long hours she'd put in the last few days. "We actually have some scrapped plans from three years ago for building a new district outside the city, which has been invaluable. After we get started on rebuilding housing, we'll work on fixing the mess outside the spirit wilds downtown."
"Don't work too hard."
Asami rolled her eyes and gave his arm a squeeze. "Where's Bolin?"
Mako raised his eyebrows. "He stayed on Air Temple Island last night."
"Really?" Asami wondered how likely it was that Bolin had actually been taking up a room on the men's side of the island. She was surprised Tenzin hadn't protested, but Opal and Bolin were adults.
"I hope he's not being stupid," Mako muttered, betraying he was thinking the same thing as Asami.
"How soon do you think they'll get married?"
"Opal has some sense. She won't say 'yes' until they're ready."
As the ferry pulled up, Asami kept her hand tucked in Mako's elbow. He would have offered it anyway to steady her, and in these shoes, she needed a bit of steadying on the rocking ferry. She hadn't worn heels like these in a few months.
As they slowly crossed the bay, Asami's eyes were drawn to the spirit portal. Even in the day, it was bright. Mako followed her gaze. "Korra's pretty amazing, huh?"
"I can't believe she managed to turn something so destructive into that."
"Are you upset she saved Kuvira?"
"Do I seem upset?" Asami asked mildly. The implication of that question put her on guard.
Mako shrugged. "You haven't really talked about Kuvira, and she did kill your father. Just wondered if you wanted to talk about that."
Realizing it wasn't an attack, Asami considered opening up. Why not? Mako was turning out to be a friend she wished she'd stayed closer to those years that Korra was absent. "I'm upset Korra risked her life to save Kuvira. I'm not upset Kuvira is alive. Everything worked out, though. I'm…so glad Korra made it through that without getting hurt." She managed to say it without tears.
"Yeah." Mako cleared his throat as they stepped onto Air Temple Island's dock. "Mind if I get a dance later?"
"As long as you don't step on my feet."
They parted ways at the dock. Mako went in search of his brother, and Asami went in search for Korra. She wandered through the women's dormitory, smiling at those who greeted her. Korra's door was ajar, and she knocked gently on the frame.
"Come in." It was Senna's voice, and when Asami cracked open the door, she smiled to see Korra sitting on a chair with a clear pout as Senna worked on her hair.
"Save me," Korra whispered, and Senna smacked her shoulder gently before returning to carefully tugging the short strands up into a tiny bun.
Asami sat down on Korra's neatly made bed, taking in Korra's dress. She swallowed, surprised at the deep stab of attraction she felt. Korra's eyes flickered over her dress. "You look snazzier that usual."
How odd to feel shy at the compliment. She tucked some hair behind her ear self-consciously. "So do you."
"Alright, all done." Senna leaned over to kiss Korra's cheek. "Now I have to go get myself ready."
"Lovely to see you, Asami."
Asami nodded to Korra's mother. She stood when Korra did. Korra laughed when she tilted her head back to meet Asami's eyes. "Those heels must be tall."
"I'm just taller than you, Korra."
"Not that much!" Korra protested.
Without thinking, Asami held out her arm, and Korra took her elbow as they walked down the dormitory hallway. "Today will be a good day."
Asami smiled and realized she felt exactly the same way. "Tomorrow may be better."
Korra's teeth where white as she grinned fiercely. "Let's try for that then."