“Well, Asami, welcome to the spirit world,” Korra said. She stepped back and turned away from Asami, holding her arm out and motioning to the area around them. Korra had previously described this part of the spirit world to her, and Asami had done as much research as she could on what was known about the spirit world, but nothing could truly prepare her for seeing it in person.
Asami and Korra stood on a stretch of what seemed like black sand, with a field of magenta flowers extending in front of them. Just behind them was the other side of the spirit portal, which from this side appeared as a golden-green rotating orb, with a golden helix extending from it into the sky. “It’s… so beautiful…” Asami said softly.
That part, at least, wasn’t too different from the human world. But the rest of this world was where it truly became alien. There were trees nearby, but without a single leaf among them. They appeared twisted, and a few grew at odd angles to the ground. They all seemed to reach roughly the same height, after which point their branches stretched out horizontally rather than dare climb any higher vertically. Far off were mountains, which at least appeared to be the right shape. At a quick glance, they were the right color for snow-covered peaks, but only on a quick glance. They were all a solid pale blue, making them look more like shards of ice growing in the distance.
But none of that was what struck Asami as the strangest aspect of this place. It took her a while to put her finger on just what was so off-putting here, but at last she was able to do so. “But, um… where are the spirits?” she said, turning to Korra. On the other side of the portal, the region had been filled with spirits, as if they’d gather to watch Korra and Asami depart. If anything, there should have been more of them here.
“Hmm…” Korra said. She closed her eyes and took a few slow breaths. After a minute, she opened her eyes and said, “They’re far away, but I do sense them. I don’t think this is a place spirits usually come. And to be honest, I’m not sure if it’ll be that easy to get to the rest of the spirit world from here. Perhaps this portal isn’t as convenient as it seemed...”
Asami reached out and placed her hand on Korra’s shoulder. “We’re on vacation,” she said. “Perhaps you can worry later about the implications for the world of where this portal leads. For now, I think it’s perfect. It means we have some time to ourselves. Just the two of us.”
“Um, right…” Korra said. Her eyes shot briefly to the hand on her shoulder, and then back to meet Asami’s gaze. Her cheeks seemed to slowly fill with a light blush. “Well, um, maybe I can explain what I think I know about this place then,” she said.
Asami nodded slowly. She couldn’t help but notice the effect she was having on Korra right now, but she held herself back from grinning too much in response. She did, however, wait just a second longer than strictly necessary before she removed her hand from Korra’s shoulder.
Korra coughed and turned away. “Okay,” she said. She took a step toward one of the nearby trees as she began to speak. “Here in the spirit world, between the portals that connect to the north and south poles, there’s this tree, called the ‘Tree of Time.’ It looks a lot like one of these trees, except it’s a fair bit bigger, and there’s a big hole in the side. It’s where Vaatu was imprisoned since the previous Harmonic Convergence.
“That’s not why the tree is important, though,” Korra said. She turned back to Asami, though she kept walking toward the tree. Picking up on the hint, Asami began to follow her toward it. “The tree’s roots run through the spirit world, and connect it with our world as well. It’s also connected to the energy of the universe, and it’s been around at least since the time of the first Avatar, if not far longer.”
Asami nodded. “We’ll certainly have to pay a visit to that tree at some point then,” she said. “But are you saying you think these trees are related to it somehow?”
Korra began to shake her head, but then she stopped herself. “Well, not ‘related.’ I think they are it. Parts of it, that is. My best guess is, these are its roots, coming out the other side of the spirit world. And if I’m right, we should be able to sense something from them.”
“The other side? As in, we’re upside-down right now?” Asami said, taking a glance upward. There wasn’t any easy way to orient herself here, so Korra could certainly have been right. It wasn’t as if Asami knew what the spirit world looked like the right way up, after all.
“Well, maybe,” Korra said. “This might also be a completely new part of the spirit world, created from the energy of the Kuvira’s weapon’s blast. The spirit world doesn’t really have the same shape as our world, and I don’t think its shape even has to make sense to us. Ah, but here.” Korra paused in her step as she reached the tree. “If I’m right, we should sense something from this tree.”
Korra held out her hand, palm upward. Asami glanced between Korra and the tree, wondering just what Korra might expect her to sense. In the end though, she trusted Korra, and so she placed her hand in her friend’s. Korra brought their hands forward, slowly bringing Asami’s hand to touch the trunk of the tree.
“Father!” Asami called out as she ran into her father’s office, barely able to contain her excitement. She placed the newspaper she was holding on his desk, and then a moment later remembered to turn it around so that he could read it. “The Pro-bending arena is finishing its renovations and hosting a new match next month! Can we please go?”
Hiroshi Sato smiled at his daughter as she ran up to him. He leaned forward and looked over the newspaper briefly, then let out a slight sigh. In her excitement at the time, Asami hadn’t noticed the sigh, but as she relived the memory now, it was clear as day. He looked up at Asami and his expression immediately softened. “Asami,” he said. “Why don’t you have a seat? I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Pro-bending for a while now, and this seems like a good time.”
“What? Oh, of course, Dad,” Asami said. She pulled out the chair across from her father and had a seat in it.
Hiroshi nodded. He folded his hands on his desk as he spoke. “First of all, Asami, I’m curious: What is it about Pro-bending that excites you so much?”
Asami’s eyes widened. Her father was actually taking an interest in pro-bending! When she’d run in, she’d just been hoping that he’d send one of the guards to take her to the match, but perhaps if she could get him interested, he’d go himself. “Oh, well there’s so much action and excitement moment to moment,” she began, “but that’s just at the low levels. With the best teams, there’s so much more involved. There’s so much strategy - it’s like a battle in miniature. It’s so much fun to think about what the captains are going to try to do to outplay each other, or what I could do better in their place.”
“‘In their place...’” Hiroshi said. His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “You mean, as in guiding the team?”
“Right,” Asami said with a nod and a grin.
Hiroshi nodded. He seemed almost relieved, though again, Asami hadn’t noticed it at the time. “I imagine you would be quite good at that indeed, Asami. You have a sharp mind, and you never fail to make me proud.” Hiroshi was silent for a moment, as if considering just what to say next. “That’s not just the key to success in Pro-bending, but in the rest of life as well. Being able to bend elements may help one in a fight, but the smart can avoid a fight entirely, or fight it on their terms, with their weapons. Always remember that. And never feel that you should be jealous of a bender. They should be jealous of you. For you, Asami, are the one who truly has the power to change the world.”
Asami blinked in confusion, wondering just how the conversion had gotten so heavy. “Um, thanks, Dad. I’ll do my best,” she said. “But, um, about the Pro-bending match? Would you maybe like to come with me?”
Something flashed in Hiroshi’s eyes momentarily. Asami saw it at the time, but she had no idea what to make of it, and so she’d ignored it then. Now, though, she had a pretty good idea. Ever since firebenders had killed his wife, Hiroshi had held a deep grudge against all benders. He hadn’t mentioned anything about it to Asami for a long while, but the signs were all there. She’d just never pieced the clues together, and he’d never come clean with her.
“I’m sorry, Asami,” Hiroshi said. “I have an important meeting that day. You can go, though. And I do hope you enjoy it.”
Asami nodded. “Thank you so much, Dad,” she said, a grin spreading across her face. Her father was interested in Pro-bending, and she was going to one of the biggest matches of the year. This was certainly a good day, even if her father wasn’t free to watch the match with her. There would be another chance.
Asami wasn’t quite sure how much time had passed - whether she’d remembered that all in an instant, experienced it in real time, or somewhere in between. Whatever the case, she was back in the spirit world now, with her palm touching the tree and Korra’s hand on her wrist. Her memories of that encounter with her father were as fresh as if they’d happened moments ago. Asami withdrew her hand from the tree, trying to figure out which part of this to process first.
“Um…” Korra said, just as Asami had begun to pull back. She appeared a bit uncomfortable for a moment, but she did eventually continue, “I should probably tell you… I saw that too. With your father and his anti-bender lecture…”
Asami’s eyes widened. That certainly settled the question of which part of this to handle first. “Korra, I don’t…” Asami trailed off. After the way she’d turned against her father four years ago, it really went without words that she didn’t agree with his beliefs. There was no need to defend herself here. Asami let out a brief chuckle. “I suppose I don’t need to finish that sentence, do I? You were just letting me know you saw it as well.”
Korra nodded. “Yeah. And well… Seeing your father, I thought it might be… you know. I’m here for you, if you need me,” she said. She’d turned her head downward as she began to speak, but she looked up at Asami as she finished.
Smiling at Korra, Asami reached out to take her friend’s hand in hers. “Let’s talk,” she said.
Korra followed Asami to a nearby slope, then sat down beside her her friend. Asami was silent for a minute, and she never quite turned to face Korra, but Korra didn’t push her. She’d never gone through anything quite like this herself, so she really didn’t know exactly what stage of recovery Asami would be at now, or how that memory would have affected her. All she could think of to do was listen and try to be supportive for her friend.
It took a bit, but eventually Asami began, “My father… As much as I want to, I can’t call him a good man. Maybe in the end, his sacrifice helped atone for his support of the Equalists, but I can’t say it outweighed it. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t say he was a bad man. Behind all the unforgivable actions of the Equalists were some real complaints. Firebenders did kill his wife - my mother. Republic City was indeed controlled by benders from foreign nations, with locals - especially local non-benders - having little say in its government. And my father had met a number of people in his life who looked down on him for being a non-bender, treating him as lesser than them, or even pitying him for it.”
Korra found herself shifting position uncomfortably as she’d heard this. She’d said some pretty stupid things to non-benders when she’d first arrived in Republic City, but she’d since gotten a much better sense of what it was like to be on the other side of power. In his own twisted way, Amon had managed to do that to her by taking away her bending abilities, and then Unalaq again by breaking her connection with past Avatars, and Zaheer through crippling her with the Red Lotus’ poison. She didn’t need Tenzin to tell her that the universe was trying to pound a message into her head with this. Anymore, at least.
“...Korra?” Asami said, breaking Korra out of her thoughts.
Korra blinked, looking up and over at Asami. “Yeah? Oh, sorry. I was listening, I just… kinda realized I… may not have been the best at that kind of thing in the past.” Korra reached a hand around to scratch the back of her neck nervously. “I really… never thought about what it would be like to be without bending. Until well… you know.”
“It’s alright,” Asami said. She gave Korra a soft smile, and reached out to place a hand on Korra’s knee. “I know how much you’ve changed. It’s one of the things that impresses me most about you.”
Korra gave a weak smile in response to this. “Um, thanks,” she said. “So, um, do you think that was what the tree was trying to tell us by showing us that memory?”
Asami leaned back, returning her hand to the ground and looking upward for a moment. “Maybe. It might be more to do with me and my father. What I was going to say was, although I don’t think my father was a good man, he was definitely a good father. What you saw there, that’s about as much as my father ever tried to sway me against benders, until I discovered his Equalist ties. If you take away some of his bias, and change his words just slightly, his advice is pretty much perfect.”
“Really?” Korra said, going back over what she remembered of his words. She’d been a bit thrown off by the anti-bender sentiment at the end, but perhaps Asami was right.
Asami nodded. She shifted her position, turning to face Korra as a grin spread across her face. “What my father never knew was, when I was around that age and obsessing over Pro-bending, I’d occasionally wonder what if I’d turned out to be a bender, and could play myself. And while it was a fun fantasy, back in the real world, I realized that I’d never be able to put in the practice to be halfway decent at bending while also keeping up with my studies, my training, and everything else I wanted to do. What good was bending ability if I’d never be able to use it? I already agreed with my father - I’d much rather make use of my mind than bending, even if it bending were an option for me. But since I was already thinking of that, when my father said that to me, all I heard was him reinforcing that I was on the right track, and his anti-bender sentiments missed me entirely.”
Korra couldn’t help it. Asami’s smile was infectious right now, and she had to return it. “So, I guess it would be a waste of my time to offer to make you a bender?” she said, not really thinking of the words as they passed through her lips.
Asami blinked. “You can do that?” she said, her eyes widening.
A moment of panic hit Korra. The world had known that she could restore bending that had been taken away through the energybending techniques Avatar Aang had taught her, but she hadn’t revealed this part of the equation since she’d realized it herself. It had taken some time for her to piece it together after her vision of lion turtles using energybending to grant bending to Avatar Wan and his comrades before she realized it was basically the same as the restoration she already knew how to do, and she hadn’t ever tried to put it into practice. She was worried about how this revelation might affect the world if people learned about it, and so she hadn’t even mentioned the possibility to anyone. Until now, that was.
“Well, um, maybe,” Korra said. Her heart pounded in her chest as she looked into Asami’s eyes. What was it about this woman that made her so loose-lipped? It was too late now, though. At least she knew she could trust Asami. “I’ve never actually done it,” she said, “but it’s in principle the same as how I restored Beifong’s bending after Amon took it away. Just… maybe a bit more difficult, since it would involve bending someone’s spirit in a new direction, not just bending it back to where it used to be.”
Asami was silent for just a second. “You’re right,” she said. She shifted back to how she’d been sitting before, looking back up at the sky. “It would be a waste of time to offer.”
Korra let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She looked over at Asami, taking the time to try to gauge her friend’s mood. Something still felt off. Asami didn’t look like she was put off, but there was something bothering Korra. Was it something in the conversation earlier?
Korra turned away, running through Asami’s memory and her later words, trying to figure out just what it was that was bugging her.
“...And never feel that you should be jealous of a bender. They should be jealous of you. For you, Asami, are the one who truly has the power to change the world.”
“...And my father had met a number of people in his life who looked down on him for being a non-bender, treating him as lesser than them, or even pitying him for it.”
“A waste of time…” Korra repeated. “And possibly… even offensive?” she said cautiously, trying to get into Asami’s mind. Asami wasn’t her father, but it was possible she’d felt some of the same treatment from benders. She’d certainly noticed it, to be able to lay it out like that. And her pride was centered on her mind, and her achievements in technology and her business. Suggesting she might be better off with bending… Maybe it wouldn’t be so offensive to Asami, but for someone like her father, it certainly would have been.
Asami looked over at Korra, and her lips spread into a small grin. “Not in my case. But it very well could be offensive to some people. Though not so many these days, I suspect. Things are a lot less tense between benders and non-benders than they used to be, but there are still some people who bear open wounds.”
“Right,” Korra said. “That’s kinda what I figured.” After a moment of silence, she shifted her position, moving up so she was sitting closer to Asami, and she placed her hand on her friend’s.
She should probably say something more. It was maybe a good time to change the subject, or perhaps get back to talking about Asami’s father… but it wasn’t Korra’s place to bring that subject up. She’d have to leave it to Asami. Korra peered up at her friend’s face, trying to get some insight into what Asami might be thinking about right now.
Korra was certainly something. Asami couldn’t help but be impressed by her friend’s insight. It was really no wonder Asami felt herself drawn to Korra like this. It was a bit more of a wonder that Korra seemed to feel the same way, but there didn’t seem to be much doubting that. As Korra placed her hand on Asami’s, Asami found her gaze slowly climbing up Korra’s arm, daring a few moments to linger on Korra’s delightful muscle tone, and then up toward Korra’s face.
As if she felt Asami’s gaze on her, Korra looked upward. She blinked a couple times, almost shyly. “Um… Asami?” she said. “...What are you thinking about?”
Asami let out a brief chuckle and turned away, hoping she hadn’t been too blatant just then. Perhaps it was a good time to confess her feelings to Korra, though she hadn’t yet had a chance to think about what the right words would be. No, it could wait until she’d figured that part out. She wasn’t going to lie to Korra, though. Just leave a couple fine details unspoken.
“Well,” Asami said, turning back to Korra. “Let’s just say I was thinking about how amazing you are. I think I understand now how you were able to get Kuvira to stand down.”
Korra smiled a bit at this, her face showing embarrassment at the compliment. “Well, it kind of goes with being…” Korra trailed off, her eyes focusing on something behind Asami.
Asami looked over her shoulder just in time to see what looked like a creature made of thick black wires assemble itself from the ground behind her. It was about half her height, with a roughly human-like shape, with a long torso, short legs, a short left arm, and a long right arm which came down to touch the ground. Over its “head,” four wires stretched out to either side in a facsimile of hair. As Asami watched, a large mouth grew out from its “head.” The mouth grew to about a foot across, and began speaking.
“Greetings, Avatar and Companion-whose-relationship-to-the-Avatar-is-not-clear,” the creature said. Its voice was crisp and somewhat high-pitched. It reminded Asami of an old man who was inordinately proud of how well he could speak. “You are cordially invited to visit Master Sheng. He awaits your presence at his abode in Zhi-Wen Valley. Should you be unable to attend, you are politely requested to become able to attend, and then to attend. Thank you.”
The creature tapped its right arm on the ground twice, and then seemed to be pulled into the spot on the ground its arm had touched. The wires that made up its body twisted as they spun about the arm, winding into the ground until they had all vanished from sight. At last, the mouth, now floating in mid-air, shrunk to a point and vanished.
Asami blinked. “That was… weird,” she said, still staring at the spot where the creature had been.
“Even for this place,” Korra said. “Though not by much.”