Summary: Korra sees a lot of herself in Kuvira, even in prison, and is determined to offer her guidance. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy about that.
A/N: I've already posted this on Tumblr, but I figured I'd post it here, both in case anyone who hasn't seen it would like to read it and to have a backup copy. Once it's finished being posted here, it will be seven chapters and an epilogue. Rated T primarily for some pretty strong violence later on.
* * *
“Have you come to mock me, too?”
Sitting on the floor of her cell, her arms wrapped awkwardly around her legs, Kuvira seemed diminished. Her torn and tattered military uniform had been replaced with nondescript grey prison attire, but her hair hung in her face in greasy strands and the bruises and abrasions on her face had barely started to heal.
Korra frowned. “What did they do to you?”
Kuvira raised her arms slightly to display her bound hands. “Isn’t it obvious, Avatar?”
“This isn’t right,” Korra said. Her eyes shifted from the shackles on Kuvira’s wrists to the metal walls and bars of the cell. “It’s completely unnecessary. All of this platinum…”
“From my Colossus, as the guards so helpfully informed me. No one cares what’s necessary.”
“I guess they’re still angry about downtown." Korra frowned. It wasn’t easy to be angry with Kuvira under the circumstances, but she needed to hear the truth. "It’s hard to blame them. A lot of them are still homeless.”
A look of pain flashed across Kuvira’s face, but her expression quickly hardened. “Thanks for the reminder. Is that why you’re here? To make sure I won’t forget how awful I was?”
“No,” Korra said. She lowered herself to the ground in front of Kuvira’s bars and matched her posture, hoping to set her more at ease. “I’m sure you’ve been beating yourself up plenty on your own. I came to talk. I heard you haven’t gotten any visitors.”
“Does that surprise you? Who would want to visit me?”
“I would,” Korra said, “as long as you want me here.”
“And why should I want that, Avatar? So you can point out my mistakes before insisting that we’ve got so much in common?”
“You keep saying that, but you can’t actually believe it. There’s a reason I’m in here and you’re not.”
The corner of Korra’s mouth quirked upwards. “Yeah. I nearly got drowned by a spirit and woke up with amnesia.”
Kuvira blinked. “Wait — what?”
“After my uncle invaded my tribe and threw my father in prison, I was out of control. I threatened to feed a judge to Naga, tried to steal Raiko’s army, and airbent my boyfriend’s desk across the room when he got in my way. Oh, and let’s not forget that other time I almost set a councilman on fire for calling me a ‘half-baked Avatar.’
"I guess what I’m trying to say is, when I told you we’re a lot alike, I wasn’t just trying to make you feel better. I really do know what it’s like to be desperate and out of control, and I think I can help.”
Kuvira blinked again. “I don’t believe it. You don’t seem like the type.”
“I held your fiance hostage,“ Korra said with a wry smile.
"Yeah, but I didn’t think you’d actually — ” Kuvira stopped with a jolt. “Please, tell me he’s still alive. I never should have fired that weapon, but I — ”
“Don’t worry. We got him out in one piece. Knowing Raiko, he’s chained in a cell somewhere, but he’s alive.”
Kuvira let out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad. If he died because of me — “
“He wouldn’t be the only one." Korra tried to be as gentle as possible, but she couldn’t ignore the truth.
Kuvira’s demeanor changed in an instant. “You think I don’t know that? I know you lost one of your allies. I felt him die, and I didn’t care. What does that say about me?”
"That we’re a lot alike.” Korra sighed. “Look, I haven’t told anyone this, but I think you need to hear it. Hiroshi was the father of one of my closest friends. It’s easy to feel guilty for not feeling something when everyone else did. But when it happened, all I cared about was making sure his plan worked.”
Kuvira’s expression softened. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that beating yourself up over the way you feel won’t help.”
“But you weren’t the one who killed him. I did,” Kuvira insisted.
“Believe me, the same thing applies.” Korra’s face twisted into a grimace. “I took my uncle’s life when we fought during Harmonic Convergence. The guilt takes a while to sink in.”
“Do you regret it?" There was something desperate in Kuvira’s voice.
Unfortunately, Korra knew she couldn't give Kuvira the answer she was looking for. "I don’t know.”
Kuvira looked up at Korra. “And yet you saved my life.”
Korra smiled. “That was different. I’ve gotten enough second chances to know all you needed was a wake-up call.”
The door to the room swung open, and Kuvira’s eyes shifted up from Korra’s position on the floor to somewhere above her head. Korra turned to see what she was looking at.
A guard looked down at her with disdain as if she were another one of his prisoners. “Your time’s up, Avatar." His voice was gruff, he had his arms crossed over his chest, and he towered over Korra.
Korra wasn’t having any of it. In a flash, she was on her feet, staring him straight in the eyes. "No one told me there was a time limit.”
“There isn’t. But you’ve been apologizing for 'the Great Uniter’ for far too long, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I wasn’t – ” Korra started.
“Take it up with Beifong,” the guard said. “Until then, you need to leave.”
Korra shot Kuvira an apologetic look. “I’ll be back, don’t worry.”
Kuvira smiled. “I’ll look forward to it, Avatar.”
“Call me Korra,” she said, then allowed the guard to lead her out of the room.
* * *
“I can’t believe the nerve of that guard. 'Apologizing for the Great Uniter…’ Well, excuse me if I don’t think treating her like some kind of monster will help anyone." Korra sighed, then turned to Mako. "Will you talk to Beifong?”
“Of course,” Mako said. “You know you’ve always got my support. But what’s going on between you two? Kuvira tried to kill you.”
Korra shot him a grin. “Who hasn’t?” she asked playfully, then her face grew suddenly serious. “Look, I know she did terrible things, but I think she just needs some guidance.”
“Korra, she isn’t Kai. She nearly destroyed the city. She killed Hiroshi. What’s Asami going to think?”
“She doesn’t have to know,” Korra said quietly. “I don’t want Asami to get hurt, believe me, but Kuvira needs me. I’m all she has.”
“I’m still not sure about this, but I’ll trust your judgment. I just hope Beifong will listen to me. The guards seem to think you’re as messed up as Kuvira – the whole prison’s filled with rumors that you two bonded over killing people.”
Korra put on her best innocent expression. “I can’t imagine what gave them that idea.”
Mako just shook his head and sighed as they walked off.
« Last Edit: Nov 29, 2015 12:44 am by Icy_Ashford »
The few possessions that Hiroshi had kept in his cell – a cheap cardboard Pai Sho set, some hastily-scribbled notes on the positions of pieces in a game that would never be finished, a faded family photograph – seemed even paltrier on Asami’s table than they had when the guards released them to Korra.
“I’m sorry,” Korra said. “This was all they had.”
That was not strictly true. What remained of the hummingbird mech was still in police custody, but the sight of the wreckage up close was almost too much for Korra. She could hardly imagine how much pain seeing it would cause Asami.
Asami picked up the photograph and let out a long sigh. “I should have known there wouldn’t be much. But when you were gone for so long, I started to hope – ”
Korra hadn’t considered how Asami might interpret the delay. “I – kind of got held up,” she explained. “It took a while to convince the guards that you sent me."
(It probably wouldn’t have taken as long if she’d gone before talking to Kuvira, but that wasn’t something she could admit to Asami.)
"What is wrong with them? It’s bad enough that they made me sign all of those awful papers. Making you jump through hoops is ridiculous."
Korra fought back the urge to cringe. She couldn’t stand deceiving people she cared about. "Don’t worry about me – I can handle a bit of aggravation. Besides, I knew what I was getting myself into when I offered to go.”
“You don’t know how much that means to me,” Asami said. She put the picture back down on the table; when she turned to look at Korra, her eyes were brimming with tears. “I’m not sure I could have held myself together if I went. It still doesn’t feel real…”
Korra’s chest tightened as Asami’s arms wrapped around her, and she hoped Asami didn’t notice her slight hesitation in returning the embrace.
She’s happier not knowing, the more pragmatic part of Korra insisted. She’d just have to hope that was true.
* * *
“I’ll be back, don’t worry.”
Kuvira would give anything to believe Korra, but after three days alone with her memories, it wasn’t easy.
Convincing a Beifong takes time, she reminded herself. You know that better than anyone.
Unfortunately, she’d been abandoned a few too many times for that to satisfy her.
“They’re coming back for me! They promised!”
“Look, kid, I hate to say this, but your parents can’t afford you,” the sergeant said. “I’ve seen this a thousand times." He paused. "It took years for me to accept I wasn’t going home. But your parents wouldn’t have sold you to the Queen if they cared about anything other than saving their own skins. The 221st is your family now. You’re just going to have to accept that.”
The sergeant had been right about her parents, of course. A year spent suffering under his brutal training regime had convinced her of that. But the 221st had never been family.
Kuvira woke to find herself in complete darkness and immediately panicked. Her head pounded. An unseen weight pressed down on her, and she found it difficult to breathe. She lashed out at whatever was on top of her and immediately drew back as her hands hit hard stone.
I have to get out of here.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then put everything she could muster into earthbending the stone away.
Kuvira blinked as the bright light of the sun shone down on her.
That’s not right, she thought. The attack was at night…
She looked around at the rubble from which she’d emerged, and immediately recoiled. There was an arm sticking out, its owner still buried under a pile of stone. She knew whose it was immediately – Lee. He was only a few years older than her, but he’d been assigned to make sure she followed orders on her first real mission. Something about the color of his skin seemed off; she ran the other way as fast as she could.
As she dashed past burned out houses and empty buildings, she realized the entire town was devoid of life.
Kuvira never thought she’d miss that awful sergeant, but she did. Anything was better than being abandoned again.
Kuvira couldn’t quite remember how she’d managed to make it to Zaofu, but she had been sure at the time that the spirits had finally decided to take pity on her.
It’s a shame Su never really cared for you, said the more cynical part of her.
She shook her head to force those thoughts out. But Korra does. She wasn’t sure she believed Korra would come back, but that was her only hope.
* * *
“I know I told you I’d talk to Beifong a few days ago,” Mako said when Korra met him outside of the police station, “but she, uh, kind of wanted to talk to you herself.”
Korra shrugged. “That’s fine by me. If Lin wants to try to talk me down, let her. She’s not going to change my mind.”
Mako led her inside. “You probably shouldn’t go in there with that attitude. I don’t think she’d appreciate it.”
“Yeah, I know,” Korra said, deflating a bit. “I’m just saying.”
“This means a lot to you, doesn’t it?” Mako asked.
“More than you know.”
Mako came to a halt in front of an open door. “The Chief’s waiting for you in there,” he said. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Korra said, then walked inside.
“Can you close that door?” Lin asked immediately. “We need to talk privately.”
“Uh, sure,” Korra said. She pulled the door closed, then took a seat. “What’s with the privacy? Is there something you’re trying to hide?”
Lin shot her the sort of glare that implied that she was sure Korra already knew the answer. “Just whatever’s going on between you and Kuvira,” she said.
“It might be a little late for that,” Korra admitted. “Mako said there were rumors at the prison.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s nothing we can do about the past. What we can do is make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Korra frowned. “This is the part where you tell me to stay away from her, isn’t it?”
“Actually, no,” Lin said. “She’s been a model citizen since you showed up. Whatever you did, it worked.”
“So then, what’s the problem?”
“The problem is this." Lin grabbed a newspaper off of a shelf behind her, slapped it down on the table, and pointed to a headline that read, Unrest In The Earth League. "Have you heard about this?”
“No, I haven’t,” Korra said. “Tenzin didn’t tell me – ”
“Tch. I should have figured he wouldn’t have said anything." Lin pushed the newspaper towards her. "You need to read this.”
Korra scanned the article until she found what she was looking for. “‘Kuvira supporters lead in the polls in a dozen of the Earth League’s states,’” she read aloud. “'Election officials fear that if former Earth Empire supporters win, they will abolish the democratic system implemented by Prince Wu and seek to restore their former leader to power.' But Kuvira surrendered,” Korra insisted. “Why would she want her people to keep fighting?”
Lin took the paper back. “It doesn’t matter what she wants. If her supporters get wind that the Avatar is palling around with the Great Uniter, they’ll use it to their advantage.”
“Basically, you’re saying no one can know that I’m visiting her?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Fine by me,” Korra said. “The last thing I want is for this to go public. But I think there might be a way to avoid having to visit the prison in person. I just need to talk to her one more time.”
I read all of this on tumblr, glad to see you posting it here!
I keep Zuko's dagger & EK coat, Iroh's wisdom, Lu Ten's grave offerings | Mako's scarf, Naga, General Iroh's army outfit, Korra's new formal outfit
Same - maybe seeing it in a different format will help me finish it. On my phone on tumblr towards the end I got confused during the villain section.
I read all of this on tumblr, glad to see you posting it here!
I'm not sure what took me so long to think to do this, actually... XD; But I ended up with this largely-ridiculous paranoia about accidentally deleting a chapter off of Tumblr and not having a backup, and I figured that posting it here would do wonders for my peace of mind (as well as potentially widening my audience), so here it is.
Same - maybe seeing it in a different format will help me finish it. On my phone on tumblr towards the end I got confused during the villain section.
IIRC, Tumblr mobile ignores the lines I use to mark off sections, so it's entirely possible that the POV changes could make significantly more sense when posted here. ^^;
And now, for the chapter itself:Chapter 3
Kuvira turned her head towards the door to her cell at the sound of someone knocking.
“You have a visitor,” an unfamiliar voice said from behind the slab of metal separating them.
It took a few seconds before Kuvira realized that the guard wasn’t going to let himself in. “As much as I’d love to open that door for you, I can’t bend platinum,” she said.
“Uh, I knew that,” the guard said. “I just wanted to make sure you knew we were coming in so things wouldn’t, uh, get awkward.”You never cared about that before,
she wanted to say, but once the door opened, she was glad she didn’t say it aloud. He might have looked familiar, but it couldn’t have been more obvious that he wasn’t a normal prison guard. The colors of his uniform were different, he didn’t wear a helmet, and his left arm was wrapped tightly in a bandage. He held the door with his back rather than his arm as he let Kuvira’s visitor into the room.
The visitor wore a heavy green parka, with a hood covering most of her face and her chin tucked behind a scarf. Before Kuvira could be sure of who it was, the visitor lifted the hood up, pulled the scarf down, and smiled.
“Ava-?" Kuvira caught herself before she finished the title. "Korra?”
Korra lifted a finger to her lips. “Shh.” She gave the guard a look, and he stepped out of the room, letting the door close behind him. “Beifong doesn’t want anyone to know I’m here, even the guards.”
Kuvira raised an eyebrow. She’d spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what Chief Beifong might decide in the five days since Korra’s first abortive visit, but she’d never considered that.
It didn’t bode well. “What about him?” she asked, motioning towards the cell door with her head; she figured the answer to that question would give her a good idea as to whether to expect a return visit.
“That’s Mako,” Korra said. “He’s a friend of mine. Beifong trusts him to keep quiet – he knows how bad it would be if the wrong people heard about this.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? We’re not plotting anything." Kuvira paused. "Well, I know I’m
“No one’s plotting anything,” Korra said. “Except maybe your supporters. And the last thing any
of us need is for them to think I’d be okay with them breaking you out. Or that I’m trying to brainwash you.”
wouldn’t be happy if they tried to break me out.”
Korra shot Kuvira a wry grin. “That’s why they’d say I brainwashed you. We’re much better off if they think I have more important places to be.”
The gravity of the situation didn’t escape Kuvira. “Let me guess – Chief Beifong doesn’t want you coming back.”
“Kind of,” Korra admitted. “But I’m not abandoning you. We just need to meet elsewhere.”
Kuvira’s heart dropped. “Where else can I go
? I’m not sure if you noticed, but they’re keeping me on a very short leash.”
“They’ve got Zaheer on a short leash, too, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. How would you like to go back to the Spirit World?”
* * *
When Korra had first come up with the idea, it had seemed simple. She’d made it into the Spirit World almost as soon as she’d found the right person to guide her.
Now that it was time to teach Kuvira, though, it was hard to ignore the fact that she’d never taught anyone,
let alone someone who reminded her of her former self. And, to make matters worse, she only had a few hours. If Kuvira didn’t learn what she needed to know by the end of the visit, Korra wasn’t sure either of them would get another chance.
She took a deep breath and cleared her mind. Distractions would do neither of them any good.
“First things first,” Korra said. “How familiar are you with meditation?”
Kuvira’s face visibly fell. “I tried it once. Aiwei suggested it – he said I seemed stressed. I figured it couldn’t hurt, but I just ended up more
stressed when I couldn’t figure out what to do.”
“I know how that feels,” Korra admitted. “It took a while for not
doing anything to make sense to me, too.”
“I suppose I should count myself lucky – I’ve had plenty of practice with that
over the last couple of weeks.”
“You know, that could do the trick. I know my spirit-induced timeout did me
a lot of good, anyway.”
Kuvira didn’t seem convinced. “If you say so,” she said. “So what do I need to do?”
“For now, just follow me,” Korra said. She sat down in her usual meditative posture and waited for Kuvira to do the same. Once Kuvira was settled, she continued. “Close your eyes, and try to imagine that there’s a rope connecting us. I’m going to lead the way into the Spirit World, and all you have to do is let yourself come along for the ride.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard. But what am I supposed to do when you’re not
here?” Kuvira asked.
“It’s not easy to explain,” Korra admitted. “But meditating into the Spirit World makes a lot more sense once you know what it feels like.”
“I suppose I have to take your word for that.” Kuvira sounded skeptical, but she closed her eyes anyway.
“Are you ready?” Korra asked.
“I think so.”
“Follow me,” Korra said, then reached out for the spiritual energy swirling around under the prison and allowed it to lead her to the Spirit World.
* * *
When Kuvira opened her eyes, everything had changed. A fiery sunset filled the sky overhead; the cold metal floor of her prison cell had been replaced with orange-tinged grass.
She stood up and let her hands fall to her side without thinking, then realized that the shackles that ought to have held her wrists together were no longer there.
“You freed me,” Kuvira said.
“Not exactly,” Korra explained. "Your body’s still chained up in that prison cell, and even Zaheer
couldn’t do much without one.“
"Even being able to walk more than ten feet in a straight line is a big improvement,” Kuvira said. “If you’re going to meet me here anyway, why should I go back?" It was a hypothetical question; as easy as doing so might have been, she had no intention of running away from her punishment.
"You have to. If you stay here for too long, your body will die.”
Kuvira had to admit that
option sounded tempting. “I’m sure a lot of people would be happy about that. Would the rest of me stay here?”
Korra frowned. "I think so – Tenzin said there were some really old spirits in the Fog of Lost Souls. But you can’t just let your body die
. You’re going to need it eventually.“
Kuvira couldn’t imagine why. "What use is a body if it’s locked in a prison cell?”
“You can’t bend without one.”
Kuvira must have spent so long in her platinum cell that she’d grown used to feeling nothing; she hadn’t even realized that she couldn’t sense the earth around her until Korra brought it up. When she thought about it, though, it was clear that Korra was right. Kuvira knew she’d have no luck bending without even making an attempt.
Of course, under the circumstances, she found it hard to care. “So?” she asked. "I can’t bend in my prison cell, either.“
"You’re not going to be there forever,” Korra said.
“I’m not? After what I did to Republic City, I can’t imagine they’ll be satisfied with less.”
“They will if I have anything to say about it. You’re one of the most powerful metalbenders around. You can do a lot of good if they give you the chance.” Korra smiled. "Besides, I know I’d
rather be out there working for the Earth Kingdom than stuck in a cage.“
"Maybe you’re right,” Kuvira admitted. She couldn’t imagine any better way to atone for her crimes. “So, how long do I have left?”
“Not long now,” Korra said. “We really need to get back.”
Kuvira’s blood ran cold. “It’s dangerous to stay for more than a few minutes at a time?”
“No, that’s not it,” Korra said, her expression softening. “Normally, I think even a day or two would be fine. For now, though, you need to show me you can get here on your own before the guards kick me out. Are you ready?”
“I suppose,” Kuvira said skeptically. “How do I go back?”
“Do you remember how it felt when you came here?” Korra asked.
Kuvira nodded. The feeling of her spirit lifting up out of her body and melting into the air would be hard to forget.
“Good,” Korra said. “Just imagine the opposite happening.”
Kuvira closed her eyes and imagined being pulled down out of the sky by platinum chains. She felt the weight of her shackles return almost immediately; when she opened her eyes, she was back in her prison cell.
“You picked that up quickly,” Korra noted as she opened her own eyes. “Getting back in should be easy. Why don’t you try that now?”
“You’re going to follow me, right?” Kuvira asked.
“Of course,” Korra said. “There’s still more I need to teach you about the Spirit World before you’re ready to go off on your own.”
That was all Kuvira needed to hear. She closed her eyes, imagined her spirit leaving her body, and felt the weight of her shackles disappear once more.
When Korra opened her eyes, Xai Bau’s Grove was empty. “Kuvira?” Korra called out. “Kuvira, where are you?”
What went wrong? Was there something I forgot to teach her? Can she even get here without me? Korra stopped and took a deep breath. She couldn’t let her mind run away with her. Spirit World travel wasn’t easy; that Kuvira hadn’t succeeded immediately wasn’t necessarily a cause for alarm.
Then again, there was no guarantee that it wasn’t a sign of a greater problem. Korra was reminded of her own failed attempts – of the illusory Zaheer ripping the air from her lungs, of the real one encouraging her to endure it – and hoped she hadn’t accidentally brought unpleasantness of that sort on Kuvira.
She closed her eyes and willed herself back to the Physical World. If Kuvira’s mind was playing those sorts of tricks on her, the last thing Korra wanted was to leave her alone.
When the cell came back into view, though, Kuvira appeared unperturbed. Korra reached through the bars, put a hand on Kuvira’s shoulder, and gave her a gentle nudge. “Kuvira? Are you still here?”
There was no reply. Korra’s heart sank. Korra was sure that Kuvira had actually made it into the Spirit World… but if she had, where was she?
* * *
I have to get out of here, Kuvira thought as she tore her eyes off of the portal and broke into a run. If some tourist decides to visit the Spirit World, I’ll be the first thing they see!
She couldn’t think about that. All that mattered now was putting as much distance between herself and the portal as possible.
The world around her blurred and shifted as she ran, but she was too distracted to realize that it wasn’t just a figment of her imagination until she tripped over a root and landed in the mud.
She blinked in confusion as she pushed herself up off the ground and wiped the mud off of her clothes. There was no way she should have managed to wind up in a swamp; the field around the portal alone was enormous, and she definitely didn’t remember climbing the steep crystalline mountains surrounding it.
A brief detour to the edge of the swamp only raised further questions. Retracing her footsteps should have at least put her in a position to see the light from the portal in the distance, but even that had vanished.
She had no idea how it had happened, but she was completely lost.
* * *
Korra knocked on the outer door of the cell, quietly at first, but growing in intensity until Mako noticed and opened the door.
“Are you done already?” Mako asked. He’d slipped mostly inside, only leaving the door open a crack behind him.
“No." Korra looked down at the ground. "How much time do I have?”
“About ten minutes. Why? Is something wrong?”
Korra frowned. “Kuvira’s gone missing.”
Mako’s eyes widened. “Did she – ”
“No. She wouldn’t run away, I’m sure of it. I just don’t know where she is." Korra paused. "If I’m not back in ten minutes, I need you to get me out of here.”
“While you’re still in the Spirit World?”
Korra nodded. “I know getting my body out of here won’t be easy, but you’re good with plans. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
“There is one way,” Mako said after a few seconds of hesitation. “I’m just not sure you’re going to like it.”
“Believe me – if it works, I’ll be thrilled.”
She sat back down in her meditation pose as Mako let himself out of the cell. Within a few seconds, she was back at Xai Bau’s Grove.
Now all I have to do is find her before it’s too late.
* * *
“Go away,” the monkey said, not bothering to open his eyes.
Kuvira raised an eyebrow. “How did you even know I was here? I didn’t say anything.”
“Well I did,” he said. “Now go away.”
A deep breath was all it took to tamp down her rising temper. “I won’t be long. I’m looking for somewhere surrounded by mountains where the sun is setting, the grass is orange, and the water is dark red – I’ll leave immediately if you tell me how to get there.”
The monkey’s eyes snapped open. “Xai Bau’s Grove!”
“Xai Bau’s Grove? Is that what it’s called?”
“Don’t say that name!”
Kuvira’s expression soured. “You just said it.”
“I’m not a human. Now go away.”
“I’d love to,” she said dryly. “Just tell me where Xai Bau’s Grove is, and – ”
The only reply the monkey gave was an insistent, “Om." Kuvira shrugged and walked off. As supremely unhelpful as the monkey had been, she was sure she could find at least one spirit who would be willing to point her in the right direction.
"Excuse my interruption, but are you the young woman looking for Xai Bau’s Grove?”
She turned around to face the source of the voice and nearly panicked. An old man with a long, drawn face stood behind her; his hands were clasped behind his back and his face was unreadable.
“Who are you?” she asked, measuring her words carefully. As bad as it was for her to be seen at all, he didn’t seem to recognize her.
“I’m not a human, if that’s what you think,” he said. Her confusion must have been obvious, because he added, “I used to be, don’t get me wrong. But I haven’t spoken to anyone outside of the Spirit World in decades. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Who said anything about a secret?”
The old man shrugged. “No one. But I have my ways of knowing when people are trying to hide things from me.“
Kuvira immediately changed the subject. “So you can show me how to get to Xai Bau’s Grove?”
"I’m no one’s guide. Don’t worry, though – we’re not far from the home of one of the most ancient spirits in the Spirit World. If there’s anyone who can tell you what you need to know, it’s him.”
“So where do I find this spirit?”
The old man smiled. ”Follow me.”
* * *
Korra was no stranger to the Spirit World, but she’d never really considered how big it could be. Her own knowledge of its extents might have been limited, but the prospect of searching for Kuvira was still daunting. Without some sort of lead, finding Kuvira in ten minutes would be impossible. If she searched randomly, she wasn’t sure she could find Kuvira in ten years.
Fortunately, being the Avatar had some advantages.
She closed her eyes until she felt a warm glow in her chest. "Raava.” Korra put a hand over her heart and smiled. "I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I have never left.”
“I know,” Korra said, “but being able to talk is still nice.”
“That’s not why you’re here, though.”
Korra’s face fell. "No. I’m looking for someone who’s lost. Could you help me find her?“
"Of course,” Raava said. Korra braced herself; the last time she’d asked Raava to help her find someone, she’d been whisked across the Spirit World immediately.
A few seconds passed; nothing happened. "Is something wrong?” Korra asked.
"Appearing in front of Kuvira now would be unwise.”
“Why?” Korra asked.
“Kuvira is in the realm of Koh, the Face Stealer. It would be best not to surprise her.”
* * *
“This is where I must leave you,” the old man said.
“But – ” Kuvira started.
“Koh’s lair is across that bridge, in the hollow under the tree.”
The “bridge” was a series of rocky outcroppings barely within jumping range of each other, the tops of which were so high up that the ground underneath was obscured by mist. The tree was even more foreboding, an ugly, knobby thing with no leaves. But if this “Koh” could show her how to get back to Xai Bau’s Grove, none of that mattered.
She turned to face the old man, but he had vanished. She couldn’t blame him for not wanting to follow her – without her bending, the path was treacherous even for her – but she couldn’t help but be suspicious.
On the other hand, she thought as she made the first jump, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice.
“You can’t go in there!” a high-pitched voice called from behind her. "It’s too dangerous!“
Kuvira turned to find a tiny green spirit with leaves for ears standing on the cliffside. "Why not?”
“You’re the Avatar’s friend, right?” the spirit asked.
Kuvira’s eyes widened. The idea that Korra thought she was a friend was unbelievable. “You must have the wrong person.”
“She brought you into the Spirit World,” the spirit insisted. "She wouldn’t want you to have your face stolen.“
"What are you talking about?” Kuvira asked. The image of an evil spirit ripping her face off with its claws rose in her mind, unbidden; she tried to force it out of her mind.
“Koh! If you show any emotion around him, he’ll steal your face!”
Kuvira relaxed somewhat. As bizarre as it was to think that a spirit could do that, she was far more confident in her ability to keep a blank expression than she was in her ability to fight off a monster without her bending. "Thank you for the warning,“ she said, "but I think I can handle him. Besides, if he can tell me how to get to Xai – ”
“Don’t say that name! He’ll hear!”
As much as the spirits’ insistence of not saying that name sounded like pointless superstition, Kuvira had no desire to argue the point further. "If he can tell me how to get back to Korra,“ she said instead, "it will be worth it.”
The spirit still looked concerned, but it abandoned its attempts to try to stop her, and she turned to face the tree at the end of the path. Two hair-raising leaps of faith later, she stood on the threshold of Koh’s lair. She donned her best emotionless mask and walked right in.
* * *
“Ugh, I can’t just sit here and do nothing!” Korra said.
“If you act now, you might make things worse,” Raava reminded her.
“I know… but if I wait too long, I might lose my chance. If I could see what she was doing, maybe – ” Korra paused. "Maybe I can!” She took a knee, put one hand to the ground, and closed her eyes. If the Spirit World worked like Republic City’s spirit wilds…
Moments later, the inside of Koh’s lair came into view. Kuvira was already there. All Korra could do now was wait and hope.
* * *
Kuvira struggled not to shiver as Koh circled around her, far too close for comfort.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve been paid a visit by such a unique face,” he said. “Mere weeks ago, you terrorized the Earth Kingdom, yet here you are as the Avatar’s personal guest. Perhaps she needs another reminder of what I can do." His face shifted to that of a woman Kuvira didn’t recognize, perhaps a previous Avatar’s friend or lover.
"I didn’t come here to have my face stolen,” Kuvira said.
Koh continued circling. “I know. You came for information… as did most of the faces in my collection." He blinked through a number of those faces in rapid succession. "Taking them was just part of THE GAME." He came to a stop inches in front of Kuvira’s face, his face that of a shrieking baboon; she kept her expression resolutely blank.
"Enough,” she said. “You’re going to tell me what I want to know, or I’m going to leave.”
Koh almost seemed impressed. "The last person who came to me with such confidence was Avatar Kuruk, and he wore a mask. What do you want to know?“
"I’m looking for a place,” she said. As much as it would be easier to tell him the name, she had no desire to receive another lecture on why she shouldn’t say it.
“Right. Xai Bau’s Grove,” Koh replied, and her eyes nearly widened in surprise before she caught herself. He obviously picked up on it; his lips twisted into a smirk. "It’s rather ironic that the Avatar and a former dictator would choose to meet in a place named after an anarchist.“
"How do you know all of this?” Kuvira asked, feeling true fear for the first time since she entered Koh’s lair.
“I make it my business to know. I trade in information. I wouldn’t be very good at what I do if I didn’t pay attention.”
Kuvira made a mental note to tell Korra; the last thing she needed was for someone to find out from Koh that she’d been in the Spirit World.
“If you’re worried that someone will find out you came here, don’t,” Koh said. "I only answer the questions I’m asked… and very few of my guests walk out of here whole.“
"You seem to have been talking about everything but the question I asked,” she said.
“Fair enough. I thought I’d make conversation before getting down to business, since the answer which you are seeking is rather simple.”
“Get on with it, then.”
“In the Spirit World, your experience is your reality. Wherever you believe you are, that’s where you will be.”
As simple as it was, it made a great deal of sense. It reminded her so much of what it took to get into the Spirit World in the first place that she was unsure why she hadn’t tried it unprompted. "Thank you,“ she said, then turned and walked towards the exit. She closed her eyes as she stepped through and imagined that she was walking straight into Xai Bau’s Grove.
When she opened them again, Korra rose to her feet right in front of her with a giant grin. "Wow, I can’t believe you beat Koh!” she said. "How did you know not to show any emotion?“
"A little spirit told me,” Kuvira said.
Korra grinned. "In that case, I guess I’m not surprised at all. Now let’s get you back before anyone starts to worry about us.”
“You should go first,” Kuvira said. “I want to be sure I can get back on my own.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me. See you on the other side.”
* * *
Korra opened her eyes to total darkness and nearly panicked. Her arms and legs were bound, she could hardly breathe, and she was sure someone had stuck a burlap sack over her head.
This can’t be happening. Her heart raced; she hadn’t felt this way since she’d visited Zaheer. I have to get out of here!
She maintained just enough control to tap into her Avatar powers quickly instead of launching into an Avatar State rage. Violent winds whipped up around her anyway, drawing on the chi she’d channeled.
“Please, you have to listen to me,” a voice said just as she was about to condense all of that power into a sphere around her to slash through her bonds.
“Mako?” She let her winds subside. If Mako thought it would be better not to resist, she had to trust him.
“Yeah, it’s just me,” Mako said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just let me get this off of you.”
Korra shut her eyes against the brightness of the light as he took the sack off of her head. Once they finally adjusted, she looked up to see him standing there, looking worried.
“I’m really sorry,” Mako said, loosening the straps tying her down to a contraption that reminded her of nothing more than the device the Earth Queen’s forces had used to imprison her. “This was a terrible idea.”
Korra took a deep breath, still trying to calm herself. She knew Mako well enough to know that he wouldn’t have gone with such a plan lightly. “Were there really any alternatives?”
Mako sighed. “No. It’s not that easy to think of a way to get an unconscious body out of a prison without raising suspicions.”
“And this thing wouldn’t?” Korra asked.
“We, uh… use it to transport dangerously uncooperative prisoners.”
That was a disconcerting thought – it would be far too easy for someone like Kuvira to be thrown into that category unnecessarily by a vengeful guard.
A few seconds passed in silence. And then, Kuvira woke up.
“What are you doing to her?” she asked, rising to her feet and grasping at the bars of her cell.
“He’s just letting me go, don’t worry,” Korra said.
“Letting you go? But why – ?”
Korra smiled sheepishly as Mako unbuckled the last of the straps. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to find you before I had to leave.”
“She told me to get her body out of here if she didn’t make it back in time,” Mako explained. “This was the only thing I could come up with.”
Kuvira looked at Korra, who had just let out an enormous sigh of relief at her restored freedom. “You must really trust him,” she said.
“I do,” Korra said. “Have you ever had someone you trust like that?”
Kuvira looked down at the ground. “No. Never.”
“Well, you can trust me,” Korra said. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw Kuvira smile.
“I hate to say this,” Mako said, “but we really need to get going. A new shift of guards will be coming in soon, and we can’t be there when they get here.”
“Sorry,” Korra said. “We’ll have to talk later. Meet me in the Spirit World tomorrow, same place, same time. We’ll figure something more permanent out then.”
Kuvira nodded. “Thank you,” she said.
In spite of everything that had happened, Korra couldn’t have been more glad that she had come.
In the three weeks since Korra taught her how to visit the Spirit World, Kuvira dreamed about it often – the places she’d been, the spirits she’d seen (and a few she was pretty sure she’d made up), and the things she hoped to discuss in her next visit with the Avatar.
Somehow, that did nothing to make being confronted with her own mirror image any less disconcerting.
“Is this really what you’ve become?” the other Kuvira asked, her voice dripping with disdain. “Your nation’s on the verge of collapse, and you’ve done nothing to fix it. Stop denying yourself and do something.”
Kuvira’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not denying anything.”
“Do you expect me to believe that? You abandoned the Earth Empire.”
“How dare you?” Kuvira nearly shook with rage. “I did not abandon my people. I did what I thought was best for them. Continuing to fight would have served no one.”
“And yet that idiot prince threatens to undo everything you accomplished. Stop him. There are spirits who can help.”
Kuvira squeezed her eyes shut. The only help I’ll accept is the Avatar’s, she thought, but the words wouldn’t come out.
“The Avatar failed you once,” the other Kuvira said, stretching out her hand. “Why wait for her to fail you again?”
Kuvira wanted to argue, wanted to resist, but her mind was sluggish and unresponsive and her hand reached out for her doppelganger’s unbidden. Her heart beat faster and her breathing shallowed. She tried to pull away; her body refused to listen.
Wake up! part of her insisted, and she was sure that was her only hope. She tried willing herself awake, but she couldn’t escape. Her fingers were only inches away from the doppelganger’s, intent on sealing a deal that she would have done anything not to make…
…and then, her eyes flew open, and all she saw was the silvery metal ceiling of her cell. She was still breathing heavily, but it felt like she’d dodged a lightning bolt. Whatever had just happened, she knew she had to tell Korra about it.
* * *
“I’m happy to report that Korra was right about the metalbenders,” Asami said, walking over to the Reconstruction Committee’s table and handing her report to Raiko. “A number of former Earth Empire soldiers feel guilty about their part in the invasion and are willing to help us rebuild inexpensively. If my numbers are right, we could cut ten percent off of the initial projections.”
“That’s great news,” Tenzin said. “Given the tensions in the Earth Kingdom, an olive branch might be just what we need." He turned to Korra and smiled. "I’m impressed.”
“Well, it wasn’t all my idea,” Korra admitted. “Asami was the one who figured out how to make it work." Kuvira had made vital suggestions, too, but Korra felt it unwise to mention that in present company.
Raiko frowned. "Don’t get ahead of yourself. Even if some of Kuvira’s soldiers are willing to cooperate, there’s still a contingent of Kuvira supporters who refuse to obey Prince Wu. They’re just looking for an opportunity to throw off the United Republic’s oversight. The last thing we need is to look weak by coddling former war criminals.”
“They’re not ‘former war criminals,’” Asami insisted. “I’ve talked to a lot of these guys, and none of them had any idea what was going on. Kuvira’s the one responsible for this. Blame her.”
Korra caught herself before her old defensive instincts kicked in. She couldn’t afford to say something that she would regret.
Unfortunately, Raiko didn’t have those same compunctions. “I’m all for making an example out of Kuvira. Even in prison, she’s too dangerous to ignore. A supporter of hers nearly assassinated Prince Wu, and he claimed it was on her orders. Republic City might not have a death penalty, but an execution – ”
Korra took a step forward, her eyes flashing. “No. She surrendered to me. Her life isn’t yours to take.”
“Are you defending her?” Asami seemed nearly as shocked and outraged as Korra herself. “Korra, she killed my father!”
“I understand that this is hard for you,” Tenzin said gently, “but I have to agree with Korra. Avatar Aang never would have wanted the city he built to take part in such a thing.”
Raiko seemed unmoved. “Your father is no longer in a position to assess the reality of the situation.”
“Maybe Aang isn’t, but I am,” Korra said, “and I’m not going to let you kill someone just to send a message.“
Raiko rose to his feet. “Weren’t you listening? Her supporters are carrying out assassination attempts on her orders!”
Korra scoffed. “From inside a prison cell? That ‘supporter’ is either lying or delusional.”
Raiko looked her straight in the eyes. “I hope you’re right, for all our sakes.”
* * *
Even with the entire Spirit World at her fingertips, Kuvira could think of few things more relaxing than running through her favorite dance routines. Many of them required bending, of course, but even the ones that didn’t required a level of focus and technical proficiency that made intrusive thoughts impossible.
And so, not long before she planned to return to her cell for dinner, Kuvira found an open field and launched herself into the opening forms of her solo from The Turtle-duck Suite. It felt good to move like that again, leaping and diving, losing herself in the character of the turtle-duck searching desperately for her lover –
What didn’t feel so good was ending up with her leg stuck in the ground after what she thought was a perfect landing. She’d hardly recognized what had happened before she felt tiny hands pushing her up and out of the hole.
"What’s the big idea?” the owner of those hands said in a squeaky voice. "Watch where you’re going! The last thing we need is humans stepping in our holes!“
Kuvira frowned. Korra had made it clear that being rude to spirits was a bad idea, but if there was ever a time that called for it… "Look, I’m sorry,” she said, “but that hole wasn’t there five seconds ago.”
The prairie-meerkat spirit didn’t seem impressed by that logic. "You still should have been more careful. What were you doing making all that ruckus up there, anyway?“
"I was dancing.”
“Pfft, right,” the spirit said. "I’m sure you clumsy humans make great dancers.“
"I could give you a demonstration, if you want,” Kuvira said. Letting the spirit get under her skin was a bad idea, but there was no reason she couldn’t take its disbelief as a challenge.
“Sure, why not? I could use a good laugh.”
The spirit wasn’t laughing when Kuvira finished her dance. In fact it and several dozen of its colleagues were watching with rapt attention. Once her impromptu recital came to an end, it turned to one of those colleagues and handed over a couple pieces of fruit, presumably the cost of a silent bet.
“Not bad,” the first spirit said. "There weren’t enough of you, but – “ Its eyes widened; its colleagues dove down into their holes. "You should get out of here!” it said before following after them.
Kuvira looked behind her and saw the old man from before. Her eyes narrowed as she remembered the advice he’d given the last time they’d met. "I remember you. You sent me to get my face stolen!“
"Of course I did,” he replied. “You and the Avatar were misusing my grove. I am Xai Bau." Before Kuvira could respond, an arm wrapped around her neck from behind. “And I’m here to pass judgment on a dictator.”
* * *
“It’s nice to be back on Air Temple Island,” Asami said as she stepped off the boat.
“You do have a standing invitation,” Tenzin said. “I was sure Korra would have mentioned that…”
Asami smiled. “She did. I’ve just been busy. You wouldn’t believe how much work it is to build a city in the mountains. It’d be so much easier if we could just level downtown and rebuild there.”
“I don’t think the spirits would be happy about that,” Korra said. “Have you seen what they’ve done to the place?”
“It’s incredible, don’t get me wrong. All those buildings reinforced by vines… it’s really something else. I guess I’m just frustrated by all the extra work it’s going to cause me.”
“Frustration is natural,” Tenzin said, “but I believe this may be for the best. A dedicated space for the spirits might be just what this city needs.”
“As long as it doesn’t blow up again,” Asami said.
Korra put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I won’t let that happen.”
Before Asami could respond, a White Lotus guard came to a halt in front of Tenzin. “May I speak to you for a moment?” he asked.
Korra shot him a look. The White Lotus was involved in very few things that weren’t the Avatar’s business. “You can speak to all of us.”
The guard looked at Tenzin, who shrugged. “We believe Zaheer might be up to something,” the guard said. “None of us know much about airbenders, but he hasn’t been eating consistently and he doesn’t respond to our presence anymore.”
Korra’s throat felt dry. “That can’t be good. I don’t think he’d spend that much time in the Spirit World without a reason for it.”
Tenzin’s eyes widened. “Zaheer can still access the Spirit World?”
“Yeah,” Korra said. “He helped guide me there when the vines started kidnapping people.”
“You went into the Spirit World with Zaheer?” Asami asked. “Korra, he tried to kill you!”
“It was a huge risk, I know.” Korra looked away. “But I needed his help to save Jinora, and he needed my help to stop Kuvira. But now…”
“You’re afraid of what Zaheer will do when he finds out Kuvira is no longer a threat,” Tenzin finished.
“Exactly.” It was more than that, of course. If Zaheer found out Kuvira was in the Spirit World… Korra didn’t even want to consider what might happen.
“What should we do?” the White Lotus guard asked.
“As long as he’s in the Spirit World, there’s not much you can do,” Korra said. “I’ll go after him and see if I can figure out what he’s planning. In the meantime, keeping him out of the Spirit World from now on should be top priority.”
The White Lotus guard looked to Tenzin for confirmation. He shook his head. “I think I’ve made enough decisions for Korra.”
Korra smiled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. It really means a lot.”
“You really proved yourself defending Republic City,” Tenzin said. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
“I do,” Korra said. “That’s why I’m going to have to ask you to let Pema know I might be late for dinner.”
Asami’s face fell. “Do you have to go right now? I was really looking forward to this.”
“I don’t know. I’d rather not, but I’ve got to figure out what Zaheer’s doing.”
“Are you sure it can’t wait?” Asami asked. “Zaheer’s been gone for at least a day, right? What’s a few extra minutes?”
Korra still wasn’t convinced, but she had no idea how to express her concerns. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I guess it couldn’t hurt to eat first.”
* * *
Somehow, the lack of a physical body did nothing to make getting choked hurt any less. Kuvira felt faint; she had no idea what would happen if she passed out in the Spirit World, but she had no intention of waiting around to find out.
She grabbed hold of the arm around her neck, elbowed her assailant hard in the ribs with her other arm, and swung her chin down to protect her neck before his grip tightened. It did little to facilitate an escape, but at least she could breathe again.
"I said I’d accept any punishment, and I meant it,” she said. “I placed myself at the mercy of the city I attacked. Why should you be the one to pass judgment?”
Xai Bau said nothing. Instead, a familiar voice came from behind Kuvira. “Republic City might be content with a meaningless prison sentence, but the Red Lotus is not.” Kuvira froze. “The Red Lotus is dedicated to restoring freedom in the world. Denying others that freedom is unforgivable.”
“You’re working with Zaheer?” Kuvira asked.
Xai Bau smirked. “I founded the Order of the Red Lotus. I taught him everything he knows.”
Kuvira felt the figurative noose tighten around her. The Red Lotus was pragmatic. If she tried to escape and failed, Zaheer would probably break her neck. (She didn’t know what that would do to a spirit, but she didn’t want to take that risk.) Words would only get her so far, but they were her best hope.
“Your followers insisted that you were dead,” she said, then twisted her mouth into the nastiest grin she could muster. “Even after I broke them.” Angering her captors was risky, but she was well aware that unrestrained emotion often led to mistakes.
“What they said is true, in a manner of speaking,” Xai Bau said. “I am no longer weighed down by a physical body. But you are a fool to think my followers have told you anything of use.”
“How else do you think I found them all? I could tell you where I imprisoned every one of them… or which hole I dumped them in.” Kuvira felt Zaheer tense up behind her. Good. “I’m sure Zaheer would love to know what we did with his girlfriend’s mangled corpse.”
The world whipped around Kuvira; she had only a moment to register that she was on the edge of a cliff before Zaheer shifted his grip from her neck to her arms to give himself more leverage.
That was exactly the sort of mistake she was looking for. In the split-second before he sealed her fate, she grabbed hold of him and reversed his attack, throwing him over in her place.
Unfortunately, he managed to catch hold of her leg on the way down. She reached out for the edge of the cliff as she fell in hopes of saving herself, but her fingers found no purchase and both she and Zaheer tumbled into the foggy abyss together.
* * *
Nearly as soon as Korra had been lulled into believing there was nothing to worry about, a ringing phone provided a nasty wake-up call.
Meelo had been the one to run over and pick it up, of course. “Korra, that Beifong lady wants to talk to you! There’s something wrong at the prison!”
Korra’s mouth went dry. There was only one thing that could mean. “Tell her I’m on my way.” She turned to look at Asami. “Sorry,” she said. “I really have to go. We can have dinner together tomorrow, okay?”
Asami frowned and stared at the table. “Of course. You’re the Avatar. I know you have more important things to do.”
“Asami, I – ”
“Korra, she says it’s urgent!” Meelo interrupted. “You’ve got to get over there right away!”
“I’m sorry,” Korra said. “I’ve got to go.”
* * *
“Whatever you were trying to do to me, it didn’t work,” Kuvira said as she picked herself up off the ground. “I guess you got lucky.”
Zaheer rose to his feet. “I wasn’t trying to kill you. This is the Fog of Lost Souls. Thanks to you, we’ll be trapped in our own worst memories forever.”
“Maybe you will,” Kuvira said. “Korra wouldn’t leave me here.”
“Why would the Avatar save you? She came to me looking for help so she could take you down.”
“I don’t know,” Kuvira admitted, “but she already has.”
Zaheer didn’t respond; he seemed to be looking off into the distance, as if he’d heard something through the fog. “P’li?” He paused, as if waiting for a response. A moment later, he shouted “P’li!” and ran off.
Kuvira resisted the urge to follow him. The last thing she needed was to run further into the trap. Maybe if she found the edge of the fog –
“Please, take Kuvira instead!” a woman’s voice cried out. “That’s the last of our money. If you take it, none of us will eat. Kuvira’s strong, she’s an earthbender – she’s got to be worth at least five gold pieces to the Queen!”
In a flash, Kuvira was seven again, hiding under a table and sobbing as her parents traded her freedom for pocket change. And, moments later, she couldn’t remember being anything else.
* * *
“One of the guards found her like this, completely unresponsive,” Lin said after leading Korra into the prison infirmary. “The doctor who looked at her could barely feel her pulse. Do you know what’s wrong with her?”
Korra drew some water from a basin and used it to scan Kuvira’s chi. Her life-force was dangerously weak; Korra immediately set to supplementing it with water healing. “Without a proper flow of chi, the body can’t survive,” Korra said, cold fear flooding the pit of her stomach. “Her chi isn’t moving at all. It’s like her spirit got cut off. I can keep her alive for now, but if her spirit doesn’t return, it’s only a matter of time before her body shuts down completely.”
“How could this have happened? I never would have allowed this if I knew the risks.”
Korra’s grip on Kuvira’s chi tightened involuntarily; she forced herself to relax and maintain a more natural flow before she made things worse. “I think she might have had a run-in with Zaheer.”
“Zaheer is in the Spirit World too? Korra, why would you – ?”
Korra shot her a look. “I didn’t help him get there, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just didn’t see the harm in letting him visit. I should have known he’d take advantage of it.”
“Stop blaming yourself and do something,” Lin said. “The last thing Republic City needs is for her to die here. You know as well as I do that her supporters would love any excuse to turn on the United Forces.”
“I’m doing everything I can, okay?” Korra snapped. She turned her attention back to Kuvira, sweeping the water over her again and again until her chi returned to some semblance of a healthy flow. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, of course, but it was all she could do.
Lin fixed her in a glare as soon as she stopped. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going after her,” Korra said, then sat down on the cold concrete floor of the infirmary and willed herself into the Spirit World.
Jumping into the Fog of Lost Souls was crazy, and Korra knew it.
There were a number of dangers in the Spirit World about which Korra knew very little, but thanks to a certain airbending master, the Fog was not one of them. Korra’s attempt to cheer Asami up with a Spirit World vacation might have failed for more innocuous reasons, but her “recklessness” in even considering such a thing earned her a lecture from Tenzin regardless. Reminding him that he’d managed to beat the Fog just made things worse – he clearly had very little faith in her ability to do the same.
If she were honest with herself, she’d have to admit that even she wasn’t entirely confident that she could beat the Fog. She knew what her worst fears were – she’d lived them for three years – but that didn’t make the prospect of confronting them any less daunting.
Korra took a deep breath and backed away from the cliff’s edge. As enormous as the risk of saving Kuvira was, abandoning her to the Fog was unthinkable. She couldn’t afford second thoughts. She took a second to steel herself, broke into a run, and leapt down into the Fog.
* * *
The soldier who’d come to collect the taxes prodded Kuvira experimentally and frowned before turning to look at her father. “She’s awfully scrawny for five gold. I might consider the other one, though. He’s a few years older, he seems better fed… even if he isn’t a bender, he’d probably last longer. What if I take him instead and we call it even?”
Kuvira caught her brother’s eyes across the room. He looked as sick as she felt.
“Absolutely not,” Kuvira’s father said. “The harvest is coming. We can’t afford to lose our only son.”
Kuvira’s throat felt dry. They need Chaunta more than you, the voice in the back of her head taunted. Did you really think they loved you? She tried to shake that thought out of her mind. The whole situation felt like a terrible dream – her parents couldn’t actually intend to give her away, right?
“Ah, I get it. You’re one of those peasants who’d rather have a boy than a bender. Maybe I will take the girl off your hands – you won’t be missing her, and that always makes my job easier.”
That’s not true! Kuvira wanted to scream. She tore a boulder out of the floor and flung it at the soldier’s back for even suggesting it. That was a mistake. He wheeled around, eyes flashing, and she panicked. She tried to run for the door, but only made it a few steps before sinking into the ground.
“Well, look at that,” the soldier said as he grabbed her head in one hand and pulled her out of the ground. Kuvira glared up at him. “It looks like she’s got some fire in her after all. Maybe she’ll last longer than the last crop of brats we got foisted on us. What do you say, kid? Are you ready to fight for your Queen?”
Kuvira silently pled for mercy from her parents, but they turned away. Chaunta seemed to have been stunned into silence. “I don’t want to go with him,” she begged, running towards her brother – the only one who cares – and grabbing hold of his pant leg. “I’m scared.”
“Stop being selfish, Kuvira,” her father said. “This is our only choice. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.”
Kuvira just held on tighter.
“Listen to me, Kuvira,” her mother said. Her voice wavered, but her face remained firm. “We’ll do everything we can to get you back. We promise. Until then, the Queen’s soldiers will take care of you. They’ll make sure you have enough food to eat. You have to go with them.”
Kuvira wiped the tears from her eyes, then nodded.
“She’s not coming back for you,” the soldier said once the door of her parent’s shack closed shut behind her. “They never do. You live for the Queen now, and you’re just going to have to get used to it.”
The soldier was right, Kuvira thought as the memory came to an end. That was the last time she ever saw her parents or her brother.
* * *
Korra rolled when she hit the ground. “Kuvira?” she called out as she peered through the Fog. “Kuvira, can you hear me?”
“Go away,” Kuvira’s voice replied. “Haven’t you done enough damage?”
Kuvira’s words stung, but Korra knew it was just the Fog talking. “Kuvira, you have to fight it!” There was no response. “Kuvira? Kuvira!”
Throwing caution to the wind, Korra ran into the Fog. Kuvira had no idea what she was in for – if she’d already fallen under the Fog’s spell, Korra was the only chance she had.
She searched frantically for a few moments before realizing that she’d made a mistake. Kuvira was nowhere to be seen. The fog made it impossible for Korra to see more than a few feet in front of her; she could hardly tell which direction she was walking.
You’ll never find her, the voice in the back of her head mocked. You’ll be stuck here forever. Maybe it’s for the best, though – all you’ve ever done is make things worse.
“No,” Korra said forcefully. If she ever wanted to escape, she knew, she needed to block those voices out. “I am Avatar Korra,” she reminded herself. “I saved the world from ten thousand years of darkness. I protected the new airbenders. I will bring Kuvira back.”
* * *
Bending had always come easily to Kuvira. The other conscripts alongside her – whether children or adults – struggled to keep up with the sergeant’s barrage, but she bent away every stone he threw at her.
“Back to your feet, soldier!” the sergeant barked at the girl next to her, a waif of a child whose name Kuvira didn’t know. She stood shakily, clutching at a growing bruise on her arm. “Watch that one closely,” the sergeant said, pointing at Kuvira. “She’s the only one of you brats who’s worth anything.” With that, he focused his attacks entirely on Kuvira.
Once the rocks stopped flying, she turned to the other girl and said, “I know you can do it.” As soon as her back was turned, the sergeant threw another stone; she felt it coming and blocked it anyway. He seemed far less pleased than he should have been at her success.
He launched the next one at the other girl, shouting, “Your turn, soldier!” Kuvira bent that one away, too; the girl hadn’t been ready and never would have reacted in time.
“What do you think you’re doing, soldier?”
“We’re all on the same side, right? I didn’t want her to get hurt, sir!”
“When you’re training, no one’s on your side, you got that? Don’t interfere again.”
Kuvira nodded miserably. She did nothing as the sergeant bent another rock at the other girl; in spite of the girl’s best attempts to block it, it struck her straight in the chest and knocked her off her feet.
“Good,” the sergeant said. “It seems like you learned your lesson, soldier. But just to make sure… it’s your turn to attack.”
“What?” Kuvira cried out. The other girl was still struggling to get back up. “She isn’t ready! I don’t want to hurt her!”
“You heard me, soldier. If you can’t attack a fallen enemy, you’re worth nothing to us.”
Kuvira felt numb. “But she’s not an enemy, sir. She’s – ”
“I don’t care what she is,” the sergeant said. “If you don’t do what I say, neither of you are going to eat for a week.”
The other girl looked at Kuvira; both of them had seen what happened to the last soldier who’d faced that punishment. It wasn’t worth it. “I’m sorry,” Kuvira said. She squeezed her eyes closed as she obeyed her orders.
“Soldiers don’t apologize,” the sergeant said once it was done. “Don’t expect to eat tonight.”
Once the sergeant’s back was turned, Kuvira helped the other girl to her feet. She didn’t care if she got in trouble for it later. She would never abandon someone who needed her.
Kuvira still felt the pangs of hunger as the memory came to an end. Her parents had lied about that, too. The Queen’s army never really took care of her. And, in the end, it abandoned her, too.
* * *
Korra walked for what felt like forever, fighting off her own doubts with every step. “I am Avatar Korra,” she repeated. “I saved the world from ten thousand years of darkness. I protected the new airbenders with my life. I will bring Kuvira back.”
Just as hopelessness threatened to consume her, she saw a dark shape through the fog. “Kuvira?” she called, hope flaring back to life as the figure came into view. It was her. But, as Korra drew closer, she realized that something was wrong – Kuvira’s eyes were closed and she knelt on the ground as if she were meditating.
“Kuvira, come on,” Korra said. “We need to get out of here.” Kuvira didn’t respond. Korra’s heart sank. Maybe it’s too late…
“You’ll never save me,” Kuvira’s voice said, and Korra spun around to find another Kuvira standing behind her. “We’re both going to be trapped here forever.”
Korra turned back to look at the first Kuvira, but she dissolved into smoke. The other one laughed.
“Why do you insist on trying to help? You’ve never done any good. Look at Republic City. Look at the Earth Kingdom. They’d both be better off without you… and I would too.”
“That’s not true,” Korra said shakily.
“It is,” the false Kuvira said. “Our souls will be trapped here forever.”
“No,” Korra tried to insist, but her legs felt weak; her attempts to steady herself only triggered an agonizing flashback that left her sprawled out on the ground.
The false Kuvira looked amused as Korra tried to push herself back up off the ground. “Would anyone even want an Avatar that can’t walk? Maybe the world is better off without an Avatar at all.”
Korra squeezed her eyes closed and repeated her mantra. “I am Avatar Korra. I saved the world from ten thousand years of darkness. I protected the new airbenders. I will bring Kuvira back.” She had to keep reminding herself of that, even if she wasn’t sure she still believed it. If she gave in to despair, it was all over.
* * *
Kuvira’s eyes widened as the Fog that swirled around her coalesced into the figure of Suyin Beifong.
At first, Kuvira was sure it was another memory. “Please, take me with you,” she begged, just as she had done when they had first met. “I promise I’ll be good!”
But instead of offering to take her in, Su looked down on Kuvira with disgust. “You tried to murder my son,” she said. “Why would I help you?”
Kuvira felt like she’d been punched in the gut. “I never wanted to hurt him! But I couldn’t abandon the Earth Empire – ”
Immediately, Su’s form melted into that of her son’s. “No, you just abandoned me instead,” Baatar Jr. said. “You would have let me die. I suppose that’s nothing new, though. Remember what happened in Chin?”
The world shifted around her, and she found herself at the entrance to what had been the Village of Chin. Bandit raids had destroyed almost everything; there were still corpses in the street from their most recent attack.
“We never should have agreed to leave this village,” Baatar had said. “The mayor was a fool. None of this would have happened if we took it from him by force.”
“I’m a uniter, not a conqueror,” Kuvira had replied. “But this will never happen again.”
A child’s body stirred; Kuvira nearly fell backwards when she realized that it looked exactly like her.
“You abandoned us,” the other Kuvira said. “Though I guess we were the lucky ones.”
The Village of Chin disappeared into the Fog, and the ruins of Republic City took its place.
“All you’ve ever brought is destruction,” the other Kuvira said. “Face it – you deserve to be here. Why bother trying to escape?”
“Maybe you’re right,” Kuvira said, “but that won’t stop Korra from looking for me.”
The other Kuvira laughed. “No, it won’t. But the Avatar is a fool. She’ll be trapped here forever, and it will be your fault.”
And then, all of it vanished. Nothing had changed. Kuvira was the same abandoned child she had always been.
* * *
“Admit it,” the false Kuvira said. “Admit you failed. It would have been better for everyone if you just stayed in that wheelchair.” The Fog coalesced into the infernal device itself, and the false Kuvira pushed it towards her. “This is where you belong.”
“No,” Korra said. “Never.” She shoved the wheelchair away from her as hard as she could, even though that meant losing her balance and collapsing to the ground. She immediately pushed herself up as hard as she could; the pain was excruciating, as if the metal poison had been forced into her limbs once again, but she ignored it. It’s not real, she reminded herself. None of this is real.
She was already gasping for breath by the time she got one leg under her. She wasn’t going to let that stop her, though. She fought her own body and mind with everything she had. Her limbs still felt like they were on fire, but she regained her feet and stood strong regardless.
“Why are you doing this?” The false Kuvira’s image wavered, shifting between Kuvira and an identical copy of Korra. “Why do you insist on fighting, when you know everything you’ve done has been meaningless?”
“Because it’s not meaningless,” Korra said, and the illusion stabilized as a second Korra. “If I can help even one person, that’s enough.”
“I am Korra,” she said in unison with her doppelganger. “And Kuvira needs me.”
Light appeared from Korra’s forehead; it grew until it pushed back the Fog. And once the Fog was gone, it took only a few seconds for Korra to locate Kuvira – or, at least, a child in tattered clothes who looked exactly like her.
* * *
Kuvira woke in Korra’s arms. “What happened?” she asked. Her head was foggy; she couldn’t remember anything. She was on a cliff surrounded by fog, but she had no idea how she got there or why Korra seemed so big.
Korra looked down at her sadly. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
Kuvira gasped as parts of her memory started to return. “Zaheer threw me off this cliff! I guess you must have saved me.”
“Do you know what happened to Zaheer?” Korra asked.
“I pulled him down with me. After that – ” She stopped. Everything after that was blank.
“So he’s in there too,” Korra said. “I wonder…” She lowered Kuvira to the ground, then walked over to the edge of the cliff.
“Don’t!” Kuvira cried out. She had a really bad feeling about that fog. “You can’t go down there!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be alright,” Korra said. She reached her hand down as far as she could before closing her eyes. When she opened them again, they were glowing. A gold light spread through the fog; seconds later, it all dissipated into the air.
Curious, Kuvira drew closer to the edge. Without the fog in the way, she could see hundreds of tiny figures down below, but they turned gold and disappeared, too.
“The Fog trapped a lot of people,” Korra said when she noticed the worried expression on Kuvira’s face. She sounded disappointed. “I thought I could save them.”
“Are they… gone?” Kuvira asked. The idea that people could just disappear like that scared her.
“Not all of them,” a voice said from behind her.
She spun around defensively. “Zaheer!” she said. Korra immediately placed herself between them.
“Don’t worry,” Zaheer said, “I’m not foolish enough to think I can win a fight with the Avatar in the Spirit World.”
“So why did you come back, then?”
“You and I disagree about a lot of things,” Zaheer said, “but I respect what you just did. Souls without bodies deserve a chance to move on. Offering them that freedom was the right thing to do.”
“And yet you’re still here,” Korra said dryly.
“I have a body waiting for me in the Physical World, and I have no intention of abandoning it.”
Korra’s eyes narrowed. “If you don’t return to it now, you won’t have a choice.”
“What are you going to do? Destroy my body?”
“No,” Korra said. “I don’t need to. We both know you’ve been here a lot longer than you should have been. I will promise you one thing, though – if you try something like this again, I will spiritbend you out of existence.”
“Perhaps you have more in common with your uncle than I gave you credit for,” Zaheer said.
The temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. “Go,” Korra demanded. “Now.”
Zaheer seemed to take the hint; a second later, he’d faded out of sight.
Kuvira waited for a second to make sure he wasn’t coming back before asking, “You can do that?”
Korra smiled. “I can, but I won’t have to. I told the White Lotus where he’s been. There’s no way they’re going to let him back into the Spirit World.” She paused for a second. “What’s more important is getting you back to the Physical World as soon as we can. You should go first.”
Kuvira nodded. She took up a meditative posture, closed her eyes, and tried to will herself back to the Physical World. “It’s not working,” she said a few seconds later.
“I was afraid of that,” Korra said. “Your spirit doesn’t match your body. Maybe it needs to grow up before you can go back.”
“But that will take forever!” Kuvira said.
“Not in the Spirit World, it won’t,” Korra said. “Come with me. There’s someone you need to meet.”
Kuvira raised an eyebrow in suspicion. “You don’t look like a spirit.”
The old man smiled kindly; Kuvira wondered whether he’d have taken her more seriously if she didn’t look like a child. “No, I suppose I don’t,” he said. “Of course, appearances can be deceiving – I’ve been told that I don’t look like a former Fire Nation general, either.”
Kuvira glanced at Korra in confusion. “The Fire Nation had spirits fighting for them?”
Korra shook her head. “Not exactly. This is General Iroh.”
At first, that confused Kuvira further. The Iroh she knew was a lot younger and a lot more clean-shaven. But then, she remembered that there was once another General Iroh (albeit one who had been dead for nearly half a century) and ducked behind Korra in alarm.
“You’re the Dragon of the West?” she asked, her eyes wide. Kuvira’s hands balled into fists instinctively. The “Dragon of the West” was infamous in her parents’ village, though the elders who’d fought for Ba Sing Se at the time had a less flattering name for him.
“Used to be,” Iroh corrected. He smiled sadly, and Kuvira couldn’t help but feel like he understood her reaction. “There are many things in my life that I regret. Your people suffered greatly because of me, and nothing I can do will change that.”
That was quite an understatement, Kuvira thought bitterly. Six hundred days of siege warfare had been devastating for Ba Sing Se, and the famine he’d caused by ordering the fields within the Outer Walls burned had taken more lives than his soldiers. He might have helped free Ba Sing Se, but the Earth Kingdom had never forgotten what he’d been capable of.
Kuvira’s continued hostility didn’t seem to deter Iroh, though. “What I can do,” he said, “is strive to make a positive change – in the world, and in myself. After all, it is possible to do good in the present, even if it will never make up for the past.”
Even – or perhaps especially – from Iroh, that filled her with a desperate hope. If the Dragon of the West could make the world a better place –
“That’s why I brought you here,” Korra explained. “Iroh knows change better than anyone. He helped me grow up on my first time in the Spirit World.”
Iroh smiled. “I did,” he said. “And I can help you, too, Kuvira.”
Kuvira took a step back in alarm. “How do you know who I am?”
“You made a big impression in the Spirit World,” Iroh said.
He said it so gently that Kuvira was sure he hadn’t meant to frighten her, but that was the last thing she wanted to hear.
“Spirits rarely concern themselves with human conflicts,” he explained, putting a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. “I heard much about your army attacking Republic City, but little beyond that. Few of the spirits recognize you by sight, and fewer still would tell humans of your presence if they did. I sought details because of my great-nephew’s involvement, but I can assure you that is not common.”
The mention of the younger General Iroh hit like a punch to the gut; the last time Kuvira had seen Iroh’s great-nephew, she’d trained a spirit cannon on him and demanded his surrender. “I took him prisoner,” she said softly. “I’m sorry.”
Iroh seemed unperturbed. “War has driven all of us to do things that we regret.”
Kuvira looked between the man who had laid siege to the Earth Kingdom capital and the woman who had held her fiance hostage, then down at her own hands. Childish and tiny as they were at the moment, she’d used them to imprison or nearly kill everyone she’d ever cared about – and unlike the others, she had no one to blame but herself. “But I started the war.”
“You did,” Iroh said. “And you also ended it.”
Kuvira shook her head. “Korra ended it. If she hadn’t defeated me, I never would have stopped.”
Korra placed a hand on her shoulder before she could continue. “Maybe you wouldn’t have stopped on your own,” Korra said, “but you didn’t have to tell your army to stand down, either. You chose to surrender.”
“But – ”
Iroh cut Kuvira off. “True maturity means taking responsibility for the harm you have done, but it also means recognizing what you have done – and can do – to prevent further harm. Unnecessary blame, whether of yourself or others, serves only to distract you from what you need to do in the present.”
Kuvira wanted to slap herself. Iroh was more right than he knew; she’d been so busy casting blame that she’d forgotten to warn Korra about the biggest threat either of them faced. “Korra, Xai Bau’s still out there!”
“Xai Bau?” Korra asked. She frowned in concentration. “Oh, right, he’s that guy who started the Red Lotus! Shouldn’t he be dead by now?”
“One would think,” Kuvira said dryly. “Apparently, he’s a spirit now, and he’s working with Zaheer.” She swallowed; her memory of Zaheer’s arm wrapping around her neck as Xai Bau passed judgment hadn’t faded in the slightest. “I’m sure he still wants to kill me… or worse.”
Korra’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll have to deal with him, then,” she said. “But let’s get you back to the Physical World first. Xai Bau can wait until we’re sure your body won’t give out on you while you’re away.”
“Unfortunately, that might not be possible. Look,” Iroh said, pointing at something off in the distance. Kuvira turned and saw an ugly purple cloud on the horizon that threatened to engulf the sky.
“What’s that?” Korra asked Iroh in alarm.
“That is pure chaotic energy,” Iroh said. “If left unchecked, it will poison this entire section of the Spirit World. I suspect that it’s Xai Bau’s doing – I’m sure he realizes the Avatar cannot allow such a catastrophe.”
“He’s right.” Korra’s admission was laced with frustration. “But I can stop him.”
Kuvira expected nothing less from Korra. Of course, she expected nothing less from herself, either. “I’m coming with you,” she insisted.
“But you’re still – ”
Kuvira cut Korra off; she might have looked like a child, but she certainly didn’t feel like one at the moment. “I don’t care,” she said. “He’s doing this to get to me. I have to do something.”
Korra’s eyes widened. Kuvira wasn’t sure what Korra had to be surprised about; it wasn’t like she’d said anything out of the ordinary. But then, she looked down and realized that the ground was suddenly several feet farther away, and it all made sense.
She was herself again.
“Well, there goes that excuse,” Korra admitted. “If the Spirit World thinks you’ve made the right choice, who am I to argue?”
Iroh nodded. “She needs this.”
“Fine,” Korra said, even though she seemed none too happy about the situation. “Tell us where we need to go.”
* * *
Korra knew that the Spirit World followed its own rules, but she’d never stopped to consider just how unlike the Physical World it could be.
Spirit World geography, Iroh had explained, was unstable and existed in a state of constant flux. Unlike the Physical World, the Spirit World didn’t constitute a meaningful whole; it was fragmented into numerous sections, which floated freely on the surface of a sea of raw spiritual energy and formed connections based on a combination of the emotions of the people nearby and random chance.
As bizarre as that was, though, it wouldn’t have been an issue under normal conditions. The underlying sea had a mind of its own and actively diverted the attention of those close enough to notice it, bridging the gap between islands seamlessly and fabricating artificial “sea monsters” to carry those who sank into its depths back to shore.
Unfortunately, all of its tricks meant nothing when confronted with someone intent on visiting the sea itself. And when that someone was a formerly-human spirit who could mold spiritual energy to his will –
“You ready?” Korra asked Kuvira, who’d been looking at the frozen “sea” dubiously from behind the last outcropping of rock on the sandy shore. Korra couldn’t blame her; without waterbending, it was difficult to trust a field of broken and uneven ice to hold her weight. Even with waterbending, the angry purple energy that hissed out between the ice sheets without warning was disconcerting.
Kuvira nodded. “If it held his weight, it’ll hold ours,” she said, pointing at Xai Bau, who appeared to have made it several hundred feet past the divide between sand and sea without incident. He had crouched down at the very edge of the ice field, hands only inches from the open sea beyond, and appeared to be in deep concentration; chaotic energy spread from his fingertips, freezing the sea, darkening the sky, and poisoning the energy below.
“Let’s make this quick, then.” Korra cracked her neck and her knuckles, then abandoned her cover and darted towards the line of ice that had formed on the shore. She took a careful step onto the first sheet of ice, and then another, until the sand gave way to dull purple energy. And then, she slammed her hands down on the ice, mimicking Xai Bau’s pose, and swept the purple away with a massive wave of gold.
Xai Bau turned to face Korra and took a few steps forward before crouching down to counter her. Gold and purple clashed between them, shredding sheets of ice and shooting off sparks in every direction. Consistency of distance, always questionable in the Spirit World, vanished when confronted with such violence; the field of ice compressed in on itself until Korra and Xai Bau were no more than the length of a Probending ring apart and she could practically smell the waves of dark energy that rolled off of his skin.
That suited Korra just fine. Even if the dark power he’d been channeling could stalemate her, there was no way he could maintain that same focus once he had Kuvira to contend with. Within seconds, Kuvira had crossed the remainder of the distance and committed to a body-check that forced him to react.
Before Kuvira’s strike could connect, the ground itself shifted beneath her feet. Her momentum nearly flung her into the bubbling purple sea, but she regained her balance quickly and launched another attack at Xai Bau, offering Korra the perfect opportunity to overwhelm him.
Even with Xai Bau’s attention diverted, most of Korra’s energy took the path of least resistance, but veins of gold snaked in and crumbled his defenses. Korra was sure that victory was at hand when an agonized scream rang out, and bending energy was suddenly the last thing on her mind.
* * *
Kuvira stared down in confusion at the claws that had pierced her just below her ribs. She’d been positive that she’d backed out of range of Xai Bau’s punch when foot-long black claws had extended from the back of his hand and buried themselves an inch deep in her flesh.
Xai Bau smirked nastily as he thrust the claws in as far as they would go. Kuvira managed to bite back another scream until he jerked them up suddenly and tore them out; she was sure that she’d felt one snap off inside of her.
She fell to her knees, gasping for air. The massive hole the claws had left in her chest was starting to repair itself, but she felt fuzzy, as if her very existence were coming apart at the seams, and the ground beneath her glowed menacingly.
A jet of purple shot up at her in slow motion, but she found herself unable to move. Just when she was sure it was all over, she felt herself wrenched backwards and away from the deadly light. She stumbled back into Korra, who caught her in her arms and lowered her to the ground before raising a massive icy wall between the two of them and Xai Bau.
Kuvira took a second to compose herself before gasping out, “You should have… finished him off.”
“And left you to die?” Korra asked, running a hand above Kuvira’s chest as if she were waterbending. "Never. Besides, there’s part of a dark spirit inside of you, and I can’t just leave it there.“
Kuvira seized up suddenly, feeling fuzzy again, and she knew it was pointless to argue.
Korra’s hand kept moving until it came to a halt over a certain spot. "This might hurt a bit,” she warned, then slowly started to draw it out. That was an understatement; by the time Korra had managed to expose half of it, Kuvira was reduced to begging her to stop. Korra paused to sever the part of the claw she’d already removed before agreeing.
If Xai Bau hadn’t attacked yet, taking a second to rest couldn’t hurt, Kuvira thought. But before her breaths could calm from ragged gasps, a batlike spirit the size of a Satoplane rose above the wall and reared back, its entire body lighting up as it readied its attack. "Watch out!“ Kuvira cried out; the world exploded in purple.
When her eyes adjusted, Kuvira realized that Korra had stopped the attack with a single hand, redirecting a jet of energy the size of her own spirit cannon around them. The spirit was clever, though, and it drew its attack back, blasting the wall Korra had created into rubble and throwing both of them backwards. Korra used the remainder of the energy from the attack to keep them from being torn apart, but by the time it dissipated, the only sign of the spirit’s presence was a splash of searingly-bright purple energy in the part of the sea nearest to Xai Bau.
The ice shook and shivered; Korra helped Kuvira to her feet, insisting, “We need to get out of here now!” Kuvira saw the shadow a split second before the ice shattered, and she barely managed to pull Korra out of the path of the spirit’s jaws as it crashed through. It rose up and up and up, spreading cracks in the ice around it, and shot a short burst of energy at them before launching itself at Xai Bau.
Korra might have been busy redirecting the attack, but Kuvira saw everything. She saw a serpent the size of a train instantly absorb into Xai Bau as it crashed down on him from above, she saw the painfully bright flash of purple light as it disappeared, and she saw the massive waves of energy pour off of him in some dark mockery of the Avatar State.
Xai Bau paused to catch his breath, then slammed his hands down on the ice, and this time, the energy below boiled and frothed immediately, giving off an acrid smoke that seemed to consume the stars in the sky. Veins of dark energy shot towards Kuvira, cracking the ice and freeing up deadly purple jets; she jumped backwards and out of the way just as a stream of gold swept up to hold the darkness at bay.
* * *
A front of purple kept advancing in spite of Korra’s best efforts, and she growled in frustration. She hated to risk using the Avatar State, but she didn’t have much of a choice; the time it took to channel its power lost her a bit of ground, but a quick burst still managed to buy her several more feet of space before fizzling out.
“I can’t hold him off forever,” Korra warned as the darkness crept towards her again. "See if you can distract him!“
The idea that some old guy who’d become a spirit could compete with the Avatar at energybending was ludicrous; even if she hadn’t seen a massive dark spirit descend on him, she’d have been sure his strength was supernatural in origin.
Of course, knowing the source of his power wasn’t much good in and of itself. If she wanted to win without remaining in the Avatar State – a risk she wanted to avoid if at all possible – she’d have to count on Kuvira.
There were few things Korra hated more than watching as someone else put their life on the line for her. She might have been able to channel more power through her fingertips than any other human who ever lived, but when a jet of dark energy shot out from under Kuvira’s feet and nearly took her leg off, Korra felt utterly helpless.
Kuvira was quick on her feet, though, and worrying too much cost Korra her focus; after losing nearly a foot of ground, Korra turned her attention to her struggle with Xai Bau and tried not to think about the dangers Kuvira faced on her behalf.
Then again, if she didn’t pay attention to what Kuvira was doing, it would be easy to miss the only opening she might ever get. She took a deep breath to steady herself as Kuvira leapt over a bright jet of purple – another close call – and seized up on the landing, blurring around the edges the way she’d only seen in Wan’s memory.
She still has part of that spirit in her! Korra remembered with a jolt. Kuvira clearly had no intention of letting that stop her – she regained her composure just quickly enough to avoid Xai Bau’s followup attack – but it was only a matter of time before the spirit exposure took its toll.
On the other hand, Kuvira wasn’t the only one whose body had been compromised by the extended presence of a spirit. Korra’s eyes flared as she summoned enough strength to force Xai Bau to rely more heavily on his familiar, and she could feel his power short-circuit as the extra strain caused the desired effect.
Kuvira wasted no time in launching herself at him and shoving him over; her hands were around his neck before he stopped blurring at the edges. There was no way that that would be enough to stop him, but Korra pressed her advantage anyway, and she managed to force the darkness all the way back within a few feet of him before a pained scream stopped her in her tracks.
Tendrils of darkness had shot out of Xai Bau’s chest, impaling Kuvira; he used them to lift her off of him and hold her dangling in midair as he rose to a crouch. With a single hand on the ground, he built sheet upon sheet of ice from the dark energy underneath him until, only seconds later, he stood on a cliff that towered above the battlefield.
Korra took a second to channel the Avatar State’s power, then used the energy beneath her to watch what was happening on top of the cliff; while Xai Bau seemed to think he had nothing to worry about, ending this quickly was vital if she wanted to save Kuvira.
But then, Kuvira gasped out, “Why are you doing this?” and Korra knew Kuvira wasn’t ready for her help.
“Funny,” Xai Bau said, rising to his feet. "You cared little for those answers when your hands were wrapped around my neck.”
"If you’re going to kill me,” Kuvira said, “don’t I at least deserve to know why?”
“Dictators don’t deserve anything but a painful death,” Xai Bau declared, punctuating his words with a sudden twist of the spirit tendrils inside of Kuvira. Korra gritted her teeth as Kuvira let out an agonized scream; Kuvira was obviously counting on Xai Bau’s viciousness to keep her alive, but even so, every fiber of Korra’s being demanded that she interfere.
“I could wait for the seed of chaos within you to tear you apart,” he continued. "But perhaps it would be more interesting to help it along.” He formed a dark claw at the end of one finger and pushed it slowly and deliberately into Kuvira’s side; she didn’t cry out until he hit something that lit up purple and her whole body seized up.
Korra swallowed nervously. Xai Bau was toying with Kuvira, that much was clear. Korra managed to keep her instinctive desire to help in check until Kuvira’s body turned into a mostly-purple blur from the extended contact and she was forced to wonder whether he actually intended Kuvira to survive. But before Korra could make a move, Xai Bau jerked his arm back and asked, "What do you think?”
Kuvira’s breaths were ragged and pained, but she managed to shake her head, and Korra knew she intended to see her plan out. "Let’s get this over with,” Kuvira said, and Xai Bau’s face twisted into a smirk.
"Don’t you want to know what’s going to happen to your beloved empire before you die?” he taunted, and with that, Korra knew Kuvira had won. “Like you, it’s being torn apart from within. All it takes is a tiny seed – a minor spirit of discord with the right disguise – and even the mightiest of nations will crumble to the ground.”
He slammed Kuvira down; there wasn’t much time left. Korra ran to the side of the cliff and put her hands directly on it, building up power underneath them.
"You may have denied others freedom in life, but in death, chaos will spread in your name. Let that be your final thought as you meet the fate that awaits all tyrants.”
Streams of gold shot up through the cliff before Xai Bau’s hands finished wrapping around Kuvira’s neck; a split second later, the entire structure started to crumble.
She grabbed Kuvira as quickly as she could and held her close, shielding her from the falling rubble with her own body and taking comfort in the rise and fall of Kuvira’s chest. Xai Bau, on the other hand, found himself crushed under an enormous sheet of ice.
“Give up,” Korra said.
“Never.” He called upon the spirit’s power again, cracking the ice with its tendrils, but the exertion cost him dearly, and he seized up, the edges of his form blurring until his shape twisted into something no longer even vaguely human.
Korra shook her head sadly as he came back to his senses. "If that spirit stays in you any longer, you’ll die.”
"You know better than to keep me alive,” Xai Bau said, pressing his hands to the ice below him and bending the energy underneath. Fractures spread around him as dark and light clashed, but he didn’t stop. “If I have to die, both of you are coming with me!”
He seized up the moment Korra’s energybending met his, but unlike before, the spell didn’t pass. By the time the gold glow reached his hands and the ice gave way below him, he was more serpent than human. What remained of him fell into the energy below with a golden splash, and the serpent spirit exploded out of the pool as if it had been burned.
Korra ignored the spirit and pulled Kuvira away from the growing cracks in the ice. Avoiding a plunge into the unstable energies threatening to burst below their feet was far more pressing than dealing with a spirit that had been so diminished that it stood no chance of defeating her.
Ignoring the spirit turned out to be a mistake. It reared up to its full height – closer to the size of a boanaconda than a train, now – and dove at Kuvira so quickly that its head was buried deep in her stomach before Korra could react.
Kuvira stiffened, her body blurring dangerously as the dark claw within her reacted to the spirit’s presence and its dark energy flowed into her. In desperation, Korra wrapped her hands around the spirit’s neck and tried to rip it out, holding Kuvira’s body down with a foot on her ribs when her back started to arch. The ice between them cracked and broke, angry energy hissing out as the fractures widened, but there was no time, no possibility of moving somewhere safer –
And then, in a few terrifying seconds, it was over. The spirit pulled free so easily that Korra was sure it must have let go, and she tumbled backwards in surprise. It was in the sky before she could react, transformed into something with wings and a glowing purple gem on its head, and let out a triumphant screech before turning away from her.
Korra glared at the spirit’s back for only a moment as it flew off. Kuvira’s survival took precedence, and the hole it had left in her side didn’t seem to be healing. Korra ignored the spreading cracks below her feet, laid her hands on either side of the hole – Kuvira’s pained gasps were impossible to ignore – and hoped that energybending would be enough.
"I knew… I could count on you,” Kuvira said, her face twisting into a pained grimace that Korra was sure was intended as a smile.
Korra breathed a sigh of relief as the gold glow that washed over Kuvira helped knit her damaged soul back together. The spirit had, thankfully, taken its severed claw with it when she’d pulled it free. “You didn’t need to put yourself through all that. There must have been some other way – ”
“What other way?” Kuvira asked. She took a long, ragged breath before speaking again. “Believe me, if I thought we had… any other option, I would have taken it.”
As painful as it had been to see her suffer like that, Kuvira was right. They had needed to know what Xai Bau had been planning; if he’d taken his secrets to the grave, there was no way it wouldn’t have come back to bite them later on.
Even so, there was no way she was going to let Kuvira die for it. The ice between them and the shore had already started crumbling back into the sea, and Korra knew it was a miracle that they still had a place to stand. “We need to get back. Do you think you can make it back on your own?”
Kuvira nodded, but her attempt to pull herself into a sitting position left her sprawled out on the ground, breathing heavily. Her obvious injuries had healed, but Korra realized with a jolt that she looked almost transparent in places.
“Here, let me help,” Korra offered, holding out a hand. Kuvira accepted immediately, and with Korra’s help, she managed to rise into some semblance of a lotus pose. “Close your eyes, and hold on.”
Kuvira’s hand tightened only slightly; Korra offered some of her own energy to strengthen her. And then, she closed her own eyes and sunk back into the Physical World, fighting to keep hold of Kuvira as they fell.
She hardly had time to appreciate the comfort of being in her own body when the world spun around her and everything went black.
* * *
When Kuvira opened her eyes, she found herself lying on an infirmary table with a shocked-looking healer standing over her.
“Thank the spirits you’re awake,” he said. “The chief would have had my head if I lost both of you.”
Kuvira certainly felt like her body was dying. Her limbs were nearly as weak as they’d seemed before she’d left the Spirit World, and she could only hope that was temporary.
“Kuvira, are you – ” a voice called from the table next to her. Korra.
“I’m alive, if a bit confused,” Kuvira said, turning over to look at her. “I can guess why I’m lying on a table, but what about you? I thought you’d be meditating.”
“I have no idea,” Korra said, sounding concerned. “Unless…” She sat up suddenly, looked right at the healer, and asked, “How long have I been out?”
“You don’t know?” He frowned. “You’ve been unconscious for nearly three days.”
Korra offered a close approximation of her usual smirk. “No wonder I feel like I’m starving.”
A/N: Here's the epilogue, which probably should have been uploaded last week. Moving forward, I think I'm going to use this thread to post one-shots and followups that I've written in this 'verse, since it's easier to keep them all together that way.
* * *
“This is a disaster,” Lin said, locking the door to the infirmary behind her. “When the Avatar’s gone for three days, people start to notice.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Korra said. “I tried to get back as quickly as I could, but – ”
“ – but whatever happened in there really did a number on you. Look, I get it. Your body decided it needed a three-day nap, and there wasn’t much you could do about it. But the newspapers had a field day with your disappearance. If we’re lucky, everyone believes you both got sick from being too close to that portal. If not…”
Korra raised an eyebrow. “If not?”
“Don’t ask,” Lin said. “More importantly, Kuvira’s spirit showed up while she was unconscious.”
“But that’s impossible!”
“Believe me, I know. Even if I thought you’d cover for her, the healer insisted that her spirit couldn’t have gone anywhere after the two of you got back. I doubt the neo-Imperials are going to believe that, though.”
Kuvira might not have appeared to her followers, but Korra thought she knew what had. “No,” she said darkly. “And I’m sure that’s exactly what the Red Lotus were hoping for.”
Lin’s eyes widened. “The Red Lotus? I thought they were taken care of three years ago.” She paused. “Well, besides Zaheer.”
“Apparently not,” Korra said. “Kuvira and I fought Xai Bau – Zaheer’s master – in the Spirit World, and she got him to admit he was using spirits to mess up the Earth Kingdom.”
“How’d she pull that off?” Lin asked. “We spent years trying to get Zaheer to talk.”
Korra squeezed her eyes tight against her still-fresh memories of Kuvira’s agony… and her own. “You’d be surprised how talkative those guys can be when they’ve got you at their mercy. It’s like they enjoy rubbing everything in your face before they kill you.”
“And you let that happen?”
“I didn’t like it either, but we needed to know what he was planning,” Korra said, her hands tightening into fists. “Kuvira knew he was toying with her. I took him out before he could – ” She cut off without finishing; her throat had gone dry.
“Well, that explains why she’s such a mess,” Lin said. “But why’d it take you so long to wake up?”
“I guess dragging her spirit back took more out of me than I thought.”
“Clearly. But you’re back now, and that means helping me clean up this mess. I’m guessing you know where the fake Kuvira came from.”
Korra nodded. “Xai Bau had a shapeshifting spirit helping him. If it can turn into her – ”
“– we’re in a whole mess of trouble,” Lin finished. “So what can we do about it?”
“The best way to take out a spirit is spiritbending,” Korra said. “But I can’t do that until I find it.”
“And if it’s a shape-shifter, it could be anywhere.”
“Exactly,” Korra said. “Of course, if we had the real Kuvira helping us – ”
Lin shot Korra a look. “She’s not leaving that prison cell.”
Korra frowned; it had been worth a shot. “I’ll go after the neo-Imperials myself, then. They used to work for Kuvira. If she tells me all their secrets, I’m sure they’ll realize she’s not on their side.”
“If you can convince her to do it, go right ahead.”
“She’ll do it,” Korra said. “But I’d kind of feel bad dragging her into something this big right now. I know I’m always starving after a healing session, and that prison grub you gave us is about as filling as cardboard.”
“Fine,” Lin said. “There’s a takeout place down the road where some of the officers eat. I’ll have someone call in your order, and you can go pick it up.”
“You’re the best.” Korra could have hugged Lin, but she paused, hands raised defensively, at the nasty look Lin shot at her for her efforts. She made for the door before Lin could demand an explanation.
* * *
"I’m going to need you to lie still and relax,” the healer said, and Kuvira squeezed her eyes shut. "Your chi flow is still very unstable, and it will be much easier for me to stabilize it if you stop fighting me.”
“I’m not… fighting you,” Kuvira said through gritted teeth. The foreign energy burned like fire in her veins; she almost wished he’d stop feeding it and let her rest.
If he did that, though, she’d probably die. And, while that would simplify things significantly, she had no intention of giving up like that.
“Relax,” the healer said again; Kuvira tried, but her mind twisted the gentle tug of his bending into the stab of a dark spirit’s claw and left her reeling.
“I can’t,” she said after catching her breath.
He stopped, frowning. "Perhaps if you tried meditating – “
"Are you mad? The Spirit World is the last place I want to be,” she blurted out. Her eyes widened; she hadn’t meant to say it, but it was true, and it scared her. If she couldn’t return to the Spirit World –
“Going into the Spirit World would be counterproductive, I agree,” the healer said. "But it will take some time to reestablish a stable energy flow, and even simple meditation could make the next week or so easier for both of us. Why don’t you give it a try?“
"Fine.” Kuvira closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind.
She didn’t expect it to work – unpleasant memories buzzed around her mind like angry buzzard wasps, and she was sure they’d only be more insistent if she removed her distractions – but she didn’t have much to lose, either. And, as the uncomfortable prickling of his healing energy receded into the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but admit that there was something to this meditation thing.
* * *
“Order 72, you’re up,” the cashier called, hefting bag after bag onto the counter. “Do you need help carrying all this?” he asked as Korra neared the register.
“I’ll figure something out,” Korra said with a grin. “A few bags are nothing for the Avatar.”
“Korra?” She hardly had time to register Mako’s face before he caught her in a hug as tight as the one he had given at their reunion at the Misty Palms Oasis.
As nice as it was, though, it was over almost as soon as it began; Mako immediately backed off to arm’s length before speaking. “Everyone was worried sick about you!”
“That’s exactly what I was afraid of,” Korra said, looking away. “But believe me, I had no intention of disappearing again.”
“So, uh… what are you doing here?” Mako asked. “And why do you have enough food to feed a small army?”
“Have you ever not eaten for three days?” Mako gave her a look. “Right,” she said. “That was stupid of me. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Mako said. “I still think that’s way too much food for one person, though.”
“Who said it was all for me?” Korra asked with a smirk. “Can you help me get this to the prison?” She piled as many of the bags into her arms as she could fit; her chin rested on a water-tight container in the top bag to help hold them all steady.
“Korra, you can’t really – does Beifong know about this?”
“Who do you think paid for it?”
“Now you really need to tell me what happened.”
“Of course,” Korra said. “But not in here. People might get the wrong idea.”
Mako frowned as he lifted the rest of the take-out bags into his arms and started walking towards the door. “I think they’ve already got the wrong idea. You don’t want to know the sort of stuff people are saying about the two of you.”
Korra’s heart sank. “Does Asami know?”
“It’d be kind of hard for her not to,” Mako said, opening the door and letting Korra through. “It’s all over the news.”
“This isn’t the way I wanted her to find out.”
“I was under the impression that you didn’t want her to find out.”
Korra couldn’t deny that. “So what should I do?” she asked as Mako let the door shut behind him. “I don’t want to hurt her. She’s already lost so much, and a lot of it is my fault.”
“I guess the only thing you can do is accept that you can’t make everyone happy,” Mako said. “It never works – I should know. You’ve just got to decide what’s more important and accept the consequences.”
“At least I can be sure she won’t flip my desk, right?” Korra asked with a wry smile. That earned a chuckle from Mako; three years’ distance had done a lot to put things in perspective.
“So, do you want to tell me what happened with Kuvira?” he asked after a few seconds.
“Of course,” Korra said. “But we really should get to the prison. I’ll tell you on the way there.”
* * *
Kuvira raised her head slightly from its resting place on her hard prison cot at the sound of keys jangling outside of her cell, then blinked in confusion at the sight that greeted her once the door opened.
“What’s with all those bags?” she asked, pushing herself up into a sitting position with great effort.
“I figured you’d be hungry,” Korra said, spreading her bags out on the floor, then grabbing even more from her friend the guard, who used the opportunity to take his preferred position outside the door. "Healing makes your body work harder.“
Kuvira’s stomach growled its agreement. She couldn’t help but wonder at the Avatar’s food choices, though. "Are those… live lobster-crabs?” she asked.
“Yeah. The guy wanted to cook them himself, but I figured they’d get cold by the time I got here. I could boil them now if you wanted, or you could start with something else.” Korra shrugged. "It’s up to you.“
That didn’t really answer Kuvira’s question, but she let it go. The out Korra had offered was enough, and she wasn’t sure why the idea of seeing her food die made her feel so uncomfortable anyway. She hadn’t been like this before.
Korra continued unpacking her bags of food, and Kuvira noticed something far more appealing. "Are those koi wraps?” she asked, pointing an unsteady finger at the kale-covered fish wraps Korra had just opened.
“Yup,” Korra said, wrapping one in wax paper and tossing it to Kuvira. Kuvira barely managed to catch it in her lap, but thankfully it stayed in one piece. "The guy said they came from Zaofu, so I figured you might be interested.“
Kuvira took a bite and almost reeled at the intensity of the flavor after the tasteless mush she’d been stuck with in prison. "Why did you do all this for me?” she asked, then took another, larger bite.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Korra asked. "After what happened with Xai Bau, I had to do something. Besides, if there’s one thing worse than getting laid up in a hospital bed, it’s eating the same boring food five times a day while you recover. I should know – I got stuck with jackalope food for weeks thanks to Tenzin.“
"I appreciate it.” Kuvira paused. "Do the memories ever go away?“
Korra’s expression darkened. "Not exactly. But I think that, for me, they kept coming back because they didn’t make sense. It really helped to know that something good came out of it. And something good did come out of what you did – we’re a step ahead of the Red Lotus thanks to you.”
“But I’m stuck in here, and I don’t even know if I can get into the Spirit World anymore. What if – ?”
“Lin’s going to let me visit, don’t worry,” Korra said. "And I’m sure we can come up with some way for you to help. The neo-Imperials are causing trouble again.“
"Neo-Imperials?” Kuvira asked.
“Earth Empire soldiers who refuse to stand down. I’ve heard they’re led by one of your generals. And apparently they’re claiming that they’ve been talking to you in the Spirit World.”
Kuvira’s heart sunk. "I am so sorry. What do you need me to do?“
"Make a statement,” Korra said. "Help me show them that you’re working for us now.“
A few seconds passed before Kuvira realized that she knew the perfect solution. "Tell me which general is in charge, and I’ll lead you to their weapons stockpile.”
“Now we’re talking,” Korra said with a grin. "I’ll figure out some way to get you back into the Spirit World eventually, but for now, that should give everyone the wake-up call they need. I’ll go talk to Raiko and make this as public as possible. But for now, you should try to just enjoy your meal. Let me know when you want more.“
Kuvira nodded. She polished off her koi wrap in seconds; once she’d stopped talking, it was easy to see why Korra had brought so much food.
* * *
"So you’re telling me that the Earth Empire had stockpiles of weapons that Kuvira never told us about?” Raiko asked sourly.
“No, I’m telling you that Kuvira told us about the weapons stockpiles and offered to help us find them." What little patience Korra had had for Raiko’s nonsense had long since evaporated.
"And you expect me to believe that?”
Korra’s eyes narrowed. “Yes.”
“Even if I were to accept that Kuvira wants nothing to do with the neo-Imperials, I’m not convinced that her assistance is worth the risk of allowing her to look like a hero. Support for a unified nation is growing in many states. Ba Sing Se would love to rule an empire – they would have all of the power in their proposed Earth Republic – and if Kuvira’s sympathizers in the smaller states have their way, the present Earth League may be a lost cause. I’m beginning to wonder whether the only way to maintain it is to ban pro-unification candidates from involvement in elections altogether.”
“What?" Korra clenched her fists. "That’s a terrible idea! Do you want people overthrowing their governments?”
“No, but we’ve lost too much freeing states from the Earth Empire to allow those people to recreate it.”
“I thought elections were supposed to be about what the people wanted,” Korra said icily. “It sounds to me like you’re more interested in what’s convenient to you." She paused. "I’m sure people will be upset no matter what the Earth Kingdom looks like. But the neo-Imperials need to be dealt with anyway, and it’ll be a lot easier if we can show them they don’t have Kuvira’s support.”
Raiko said nothing for so long that Korra began to wonder whether he would say anything at all. “Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll put together a team to investigate the locations she gives us. If this works out, we’ll inform every news agency in Republic City.”
“Let me know when you’re ready,” Korra said. “I’ve been looking to jump back into action.”
* * *
Kuvira barely managed to roll out of the way of the giant serpent spirit that dove at her the moment she arrived in the Spirit World. She turned quickly, preparing for a second strike, but the spirit was nowhere to be found.
Once the immediate threat of danger was gone, she glanced around at her surroundings, but what she saw only unsettled her further. She stood on a broken, icy sea lit purple from below, just as she had when she fought Xai Bau.
That’s impossible, she thought, gawking at the ice below her. She’d seen the sea glow gold and the ice break to pieces – it made no sense that it would still look like this.
But before she could figure out what was going on, the ice beneath her feet began to crack. She stumbled backwards, avoiding the serpent’s jaws by mere inches as it crashed through the ice. Unfortunately, the damage it had done was catastrophic, and the cracks it left spread faster than Kuvira could run. She stumbled and fell as the sheets shifted and warped and shattered, and the dark sea swallowed her whole.
Her eyes snapped open to find Lin Beifong staring at her in concern, and she almost collapsed in relief. Her heart felt like it was about to beat out of her chest and her breathing was shallow, but she was alive.
“Are you alright?” Lin asked.
Kuvira took a breath to steady herself before replying. “I’m fine." She didn’t feel fine; even if her Spirit World visit hadn’t ended catastrophically, the fact that it had taken three tries to even get there worried her. She wasn’t about to admit that out loud, though.
Lin raised an eyebrow, but didn’t question her further. "Korra told me what you did,” she said.
“Are you surprised?” Kuvira asked.
“Maybe a little,” Lin said. “I always figured you were out for yourself.”
The sides of Kuvira’s lips quirked up. “You’re not the only one. But I’ve always tried to do what’s best for my people. The last thing I want is for the Red Lotus to throw the Earth Kingdom into chaos again.”
Lin looked down on her appraisingly. “I’m starting to understand what Korra saw in you,” she admitted.
“Is that why you’ve agreed to let her visit?”
“I suppose that’s part of it. I’d rather not risk a repeat of what happened last time, either. Besides, everyone already knows something happened between you – at this point, it’s better that they know the truth. And if you help her take down the neo-Imperials, no one will have to wonder why she’d want to visit.” Lin paused. “You’re still interested in doing that, right?”
“Of course I am,” Kuvira said. “I told my men to stand down. If they’re causing problems, I have to do something.”
“Good to hear,” Lin replied. “As long as you understand that Korra’s the one who’s going to be out there fighting them.”
Kuvira looked down at her feet. She hadn’t expected otherwise, of course, but it still hurt to be reminded of it like that. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll do what I can from in here.”
“For now, you should probably focus on your recovery. The healer is waiting for you.”
* * *
“I heard you visited Kuvira again,” Asami said bitterly. She shut the front door to her manor behind her and leaned up against it, arms crossed.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Korra said, struggling to meet Asami’s eyes. "I should have told you sooner.“
"You lied to me."
"I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“So you made friends with the woman who killed my father?”
“Asami, I didn’t want – ”
“You didn’t want me to find out,” Asami said flatly. “That’s what you were going to say, right?” she asked as Korra’s eyes widened.
“Not exactly." Korra sighed. "But you’re right. I didn’t want to hurt you, but I couldn’t just leave her there, either. I’m all she has.”
“Well, maybe there’s a good reason for that. She hurt a lot of people, Korra.”
“And I know that. It’s just… locking her up didn’t fix the Earth Kingdom. It’s almost as bad as it was after Zaheer took out the Queen. Ba Sing Se still wants to rule everything, some states want the Earth Empire back to keep them safe, neo-Imperials are attacking elections, and the bandits are back in droves. There’s even a fake Kuvira out there stirring up chaos. At least if the real one’s on our side, we might be able to keep things from getting worse.”
“She’s not on your side, Korra. She’s using you. Don’t you get that?”
“She’s not,” Korra insisted. “She’s already given up everything to help me.”
“Right,” Asami said sarcastically. “I’m starting to wonder if the tabloids had it right. It’s like she seduced you.”
“Asami, it’s not – ” Korra started incredulously. “I mean, yeah, I care about her, but – ”
“You care more about some dictator than about me? About us?”
Korra sighed. “Look, Asami, I…" She paused. "After you lost Hiroshi, I thought I could be what you needed. But I can’t. I’m the Avatar – the needs of the world have to come first.”
“Korra, the world doesn’t need you to befriend Kuvira.”
“But it does need me to be me. I’ve been denying what I am for too long. If I just left her there… it’d be like rejecting the old me once and for all.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not Kuvira.”
“Maybe not. But we’ve got the same drive, even if she didn’t know when to stop. And sometimes I feel like I’ve got more in common with her than you guys.” Korra paused. “I mean, your father gave his life on my orders.”
“Korra, you know I don’t blame you for that. You couldn’t have known that – ”
“I knew what I was asking him. I knew people might die because I chose to fight in the city, but I did it anyway.”
“That’s different, Korra. You’re the Avatar. Protecting the world is your job.”
“And Kuvira thought reuniting the Earth Kingdom was hers. Why should I treat her like a monster when I haven’t always made the best decisions myself?”
The silence seemed to stretch out interminably. Finally, Asami asked flatly, “So, what are you trying to tell me?”
Korra took a deep breath. “I feel terrible about what happened to your father. And I wish things could have been different. But I have to do what I think is right.”
“Then I have to do what I think is right, too. Korra, you know I can’t support this.”
Korra nodded. “I do. And I’m sorry things couldn’t be different. I hope we can still be friends.”
“I can’t make any promises,” Asami admitted. “Right now, I just need some time.”
“I understand,” Korra said. She moved to give Asami a goodbye hug, but stopped when Asami shook her head. “I hope you can find someone who can really be there for you. And I’m sorry it couldn’t be me.” She turned, looking over her shoulder for a moment to see whether Asami had anything to say, before walking away.
* * *
“I almost made it into the Spirit World,” Kuvira said the next time Korra visited.
“Almost?” Korra asked.
Kuvira frowned. “I’m not sure what happened. I was sure I was in the Spirit World, but then that spirit we fought showed up and everything fell apart.”
“Don’t worry,” Korra said, “I’ve had the same thing happen to me.”
It was amazing how much better that made Kuvira feel; she’d been starting to wonder if she was going crazy. “Can you show me how to keep it from happening again?” she asked.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s possible.” Korra offered a sad smile before adding. “But I can help you work through it.”
Kuvira smiled right back. There was nothing more that she could ask for.