Oldest Growth, Part II
The Swamp can be cruel to some, and merciful to others.
Considering the circumstances, Asami is pretty sure she got off easy.
Part 3 - This M.A.D. World of Ours
Section 7: "Oldest Growth, Part II"
“I HATE THE SWAMP!”
Asami viciously struggled with the parachute that had decided to use her as a coat rack, pulling at it in every direction. She couldn’t find the seam, and it kept getting more tangled around her. She was about to start ripping a hole in it before Opal intervened. Thankfully, she’d been thoughtful enough to save Asami several long minutes of screaming by gently lifting it off of her with airbending.
“Thought you could use a little help,” said Opal.
“Thank you, Opal,” sighed Asami. She took a series of calming breaths. Possibly stranded with no radio. At least she wasn’t alone. Not alone. “Is everyone okay? You all look okay---”
Korra rested a hand on her shoulder. “We’re fine. I just checked everybody for injuries, and there’s nothing I need to heal. Some scrapes and bruises, but nothing we can’t handle.”
Asami frowned and looked up at her Satohawk. The once magnificent triumph of aviation engineering was taken down by vines. On its first true test flight. Asami didn’t appreciate the irony. “I should have predicted this. The vines were hostile in Republic City, for a time. It only makes sense that these would behave the same way.”
Bolin bobbed his head from side to side. “Okay, well, that’s true, but they’re also giant vines, Asami. I mean, it’s asking a little much for you to invent some sort of...anti spirit vine thing. Not the explosive kind, but the garden variety kind. This kind,” he said, pointing at the vines that were everywhere. “‘Cause you’re already doing the other one.”
Asami snorted. “Bolin, I appreciate the gesture, but now is really not the time.” She put a hand on her hip and scratched her head. “All of our survival gear is up on the Satohawk, so we need to focus on getting that down first, before we even think about doing anything else.”
Kuvira looked up at the tangle of vines. “Korra and I can lower it safely if we can free it from those vines. I must admit, I’m surprised it isn’t platinum-lined.”
“The final product will be,” She smiled sadly. “A week later and we’d have been in real trouble.”
“Aw, don’t worry about that. We’re all good.” Bolin flung his arms about and summoned his lavadisk from a nearby pool of mud. “Okay ladies, get ready to catch that big hunk of metal!”
Korra and Kuvira walked to opposite sides of the Satohawk and dropped into a grounded horse stance. With a nod from Korra, Bolin swiped his lavadisk through the vines in one swift motion, slicing them clean. The Satohawk creaked as its weight snapped what was left of the vines holding on to it. The two metalbenders grasped on to the aircraft just as it began to fall, their boots lowering into the mud as they slowly lowered it with gritted teeth. It settled on to the ground peacefully, and both metalbenders gave a heavy sigh of relief.
“Wow,” said Korra, sitting down. “And I thought an armored truck was heavy…”
Kuvira rested her hands on her knees and took several deep breaths. She wiped sweat away from her eyes. “That was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever had to metalbend, through sheer weight and bulk alone.”
Korra shrugged. “So. Does anyone have any idea how we’re supposed to research the swamp?”
Mako pinched his brow. “You’re the Avatar.”
“And since when has that meant that I have all the answers?”
“You should still have some idea, though. Why can’t you just ask Raava?”
“Uhh, because she’s just as lost as we are. Apparently Vaatu might know, but I’m not about to wait ten thousand years to ask him.”
“Who’s Vaatu?” asked Kuvira.
Korra groaned. “The opposite of Raava! The great spirit of chaos, imbalance and darkness! The giant red kite that fused with my uncle!”
“I only saw the mover reels after the fact. I had no idea what was happening. I still don’t, if I’m being honest.”
“You really don’t need to,” said Opal. “Vaatu lost. That’s what’s important. Also that I got airbending.”
“Yup.” Korra nodded. “What about the books? Please tell me you brought your books, Asami. Those would probably help.”
“I did, don’t worry.” Asami quickly grabbed her pack from the cockpit, side stepping the series of crushed and mangled metal panels littered on the cabin floor. She pulled out the book and flipped through the pages. “There wasn’t anything about the swamp’s growth, though. Only it’s spiritual presence, and a bunch of stuff that…”
They were gone. In the few seconds she’d taken her eyes off them, they’d had vanished without so much as a sound. Asami was all alone in the swamp. A swamp that caused ‘helpful’ hallucinations. Perception of her reality was no longer objective, and she was at the whim of the spirits.
Asami shivered and sat just inside the Satohawk’s side door. She hugged herself, because it all felt so familiar. Everyone she loved had simply disappeared, and she was powerless to correct it.
It was her own personalized living nightmare.
“I hate the swamp,” she whispered.
“Asami? Did you find the books?” asked Korra, sitting across from the Satohawk. “It’s okay if you lost them, all right? It was just an accident.”
“Surely the library would understand,” said Kuvira.
“You’d think so, but the giant owl spirit who runs it is a bit of a jerk. Very wise, but still a jerk.”
“There’s a library...maintained by a giant owl spirit?” she asked incredulously.
“It’s also upside down and sort of...floating in the sky. Spirit sky. Or something. That place really doesn’t make sense half the time.”
“More like all of the time.” Bolin sighed. “And people wonder why Team Avatar is so exclusive. We’d have to re-explain everything! All the time! To every new person! It’d just get exhausting and then the stories wouldn’t be fun or cool anymore and...yeah, glad we’re not holding try-outs.”
Mako raised a brow. “Why would we even do that?”
“We wouldn’t. I’m just saying I’m glad we’re not.”
“Okay, I get that, but if there’s no reason to do it, why even bring it up?”
“Because I’m making conversation, okay? Filling the silence? Speaking my mind? Trying not to think about how scary it is that we’re surrounded by spirit vines. That can kill us. By exploding.”
Mako looked around and winced. “I think I’ll let you do the panicking for the both of us on this one, Bo.”
Bolin’s postured deflated. “I’m not panicking. I’m concerned. Also, Asami! I know losing things is embarrassing, but come on! We’re not going to laugh! You should really know that. Wait, she does know that. This is weird.”
Opal poked her head into the Satohawk’s cabin and paled. “Uhm, Korra? She’s not here.”
“What?!” Korra’s eyes bugged out of her head and she sprinted over to Opal. “Asami?” She pulled her out of the way and ducked inside the aircraft. “Stop hiding, this isn’t funny!” She checked under the seats, the cockpit, behind the craft itself. “Asami…?”
“No. No! Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap, shit! No, no, damnit, no!” Korra hopped out of the Satohawk and began violently slicing her hands through her hair. “She’s gone! Where the hell could she have---she was just here! People don’t just vanish like that!” She paced in circles, her heart pounding in her chest while her head jumped to every possible worst case scenario. Dead, dead, dead, dead, and more varieties of dead. “No, she’s...she’s not dead. She’s not dead. Not dead, not dead, not dead, not dead."
Asami couldn’t be dead. No, nope that was entirely impossible. Nope.
Mako, Bolin and Kuvira all took a good look inside the Satohawk. Mako, to his credit, didn’t panic. Bolin looked like he was going to melt down the entire swamp just to find her, which Korra appreciated, and Kuvira was simply...surprised.
Opal grabbed Korra by the shoulders and held her in place. “She’s not dead. We’ll find her, but first you have to calm down.”
“How am I supposed to calm down?! I can’t---”
“Calm. Down,” she said firmly. “She's fine. We’ll find her.”
Korra took a few moments to slow her panicked breathing and pushed all of the frighteningly vivid mental images of the thousands of ways they were---no, weren’t going to find Asami’s body. “Okay. Okay, you’re right. We’ll find her. It’s probably some crazy spirit thing. The swamp is known for doing things like that.”
Bolin’s eyebrows vanished into his hairline. “It is? What kind of spirit things?”
“I’d say a spirit vine took her, but we’d have heard that,” said Mako. “She’s either still here and invisible, or...something spirit related. Can’t you just track her spirit, Korra?”
Kuvira wrinkled her nose. “I had no idea you could do that.”
“Well, I can. Good idea, Mako,’ said Korra, smacking her palm against the oddly fresh bark of the nearest tree trunk. “Her...presence isn’t going to be easy to find in an area with spiritual energy this strong, but it’s not impossible.”
Korra took a small breath and closed her eyes. She reached out to the spiritual energy within the vines and focused on her memory of Asami’s minimal presence. Her energy surged through the swamp, branching out through the vines themselves and into the ground. It was all connected, and she saw it all at once. Her sight circled outward from the Banyan Grove tree, reaching every piece of the swamp until it ended up...right inside of the Satohawk.
Bolin stared at the yellow glow radiating from everything. “Is that...supposed to happen?”
Korra flexed her hand. “Sort of. Apparently, Asami is still right there. But also, she isn’t. And...also she’s everywhere, I guess.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It might not need to,” said Mako. He crouched down and stared at the dirt. “There are some footprints leading away from here and further into the swamp. And they look fresh. If we follow them, we should find Asami.”
“Okay, then that’s what we’re going to do,” said Korra, inspecting the prints a little closer. “Are you sure these are hers?”
“I’m a cop. This is literally my job.”
“All right.” Korra took a deep breath and looked down the path, deeper into the swamp. “Let’s get moving, then.”
Asami was conflicted.
While it was definitely a good thing that most of damage to the Satohawk was relatively minor and superficial, it also meant that she’d have less things to distract her from the terrifying prospect that everyone was gone. Possibly forever, because who knew how spirit things worked.
No, no. Not forever. That would be insane. And she wasn’t going crazy. There weren’t any psychotropics in the swamp air. She would know that. The United Forces would know that. People would know that!
Asami bolted the last segment of the Satohawk’s new canopy in place and felt none of her typical post-project-success giddiness. Not that she expected to, but it would have been a nice surprise. As opposed to all of those other terrible surprises that life kept throwing in her face.
Everyone was alive and okay and there was nothing to worry about. She wasn’t in the spirit world. The swamp showed people things. That’s what it did. So, it was showing her...the lack of things? Well, that was stupid.
“Asami? We’re ready for your demonstration.”
Asami turned around and she wasn’t in the swamp. She was in the desert. Korra, along with a few dozen men and women she didn’t know, were facing her, all dressed in what seemed like an odd perversion of the White Lotus uniform. “I’m sorry? What...demonstration?”
Korra smirked and held up her gloved palms. Gloves? What? “Right, right, sorry. It was supposed to be a surprise, but I still have that nasty habit of kicking down doors without knocking first. Not that you were complaining, but still.”
Asami found that she was holding a...well, it looked like a detonator. “Uhm, right.” And her jumpsuit wasn’t black and red. It was black and blue. The Future Industries logo was gone. And she was showing a very surprising amount of cleavage, which she immediately corrected.
Korra laughed and flicked her wrist, undoing the snaps Asami had just fastened to cover herself. A chill ran up Asami’s spine. “As much as I appreciate the teasing, this really isn’t the time or place for it. Now, come on. The mover cameras are rolling, and I want the world to see what the wife of the Avatar is capable of.”
Asami decided not to dwell on the fact that, apparently, she was now married to Korra, and pressed the detonator several dozen times. A flash of purple light exploded off in the distance and began swirling around itself, pulling soil, rocks, entire sand dunes and houses and people oh no there was a village there. All shoved into...nowhere. They vanished.
Wait, she knew that technology. They weren’t dead. They were pulled into the spirit world. But why would she build that? The portals were open. There wasn’t a point. And more importantly, of course:
What the hell was happening?!
There was applause, and Asami felt like screaming.
Korra whistled. “And, that’s that! Prison overflow? Not an issue for Asami Sato! The spirit world is infinite, and utterly inescapable.” She smiled at her.
“But couldn’t somebody just leave using the portals?”
Korra moved very close to her, looking worried. “We closed them a few years ago, remember?” she whispered. She frowned and put her palm on Asami’s forehead. “Are you all right? You look like you’re running a fever.”
“You closed them?!” she sputtered.
“No, you did. Well, I closed the original ones, but the one in Republic City, couldn’t do that one---why are we talking about this? Asami, you just fixed basically everything! Be excited!”
Asami wrinkled her nose and looked at the crater where the town had been. “How could that have possibly fixed everything?”
“This was your idea in the first place. Just throw all our problems in the spirit world, and let them deal with it. I thought it was brilliant. Out of sight, out of mind. The less terrorists and rebels I have to deal with the more time I get to spend with you, after all. It’s a win for everybody.”
Asami’s head was reeling and she was torn between smacking Korra upside the head or screaming. Thankfully she did neither. “...why would you close them? You brought back the spirits! The entire Air Nation!”
“What is wrong with you? We’ve talked about this. The ends justified the means, and damnit Asami, we wouldn’t have to do these things if the Red Lotus wasn’t on an active genocidal campaign against the Air Nation! You know this!” Korra pinched her brow. “Why are you making me remember this. You know this is painful for me. Everytime I think about it I just keep seeing Tenzin getting cut down, over and over and over again…”
Asami blanched and stepped away from Korra. Everything was wrong. Objectively, subjectively, metaphysically. Everything in every way. Blinding light exploded out in the distance, from every direction. Dozens of Spirit Portals grew out of the ground and shot into the sky, their beams of energy twisting and bending unnaturally.
She screamed and took off into a sprint, away from...anything. Everything. And she immediately ran straight into a tree. That hadn’t been there two seconds ago. She fell backward into the mud and, lo and behold, she was in the swamp.
She checked her clothes. Practical and sensible, despite her shaking hands. Asami scampered over to the Satohawk, trying her best not to hyperventilate. Her best was not good enough. She got inside, closed all the doors, sat up against the back of the pilot’s seat, and hugged her knees to her chest.
Tenzin could not be allowed to die in any way other than natural causes.
The swamp was evil.
Evil, evil, evil.
Bolin raised a brow at his brother. “Anything in your detective training teach you about this kind of thing?” he said, pointing to the multiple pairs of identical footprints circling a rock and heading off into three separate directions. “Because if it did, I will be seriously impressed. Pretty sure Asami isn’t three people. And that these footprints aren’t ours.”
Mako frowned. “I’m at a loss, okay? I have no idea how this is even possible.”
Korra growled. “Look, we’ll just split up and head in each direction. And we’ll keep yelling ASAMI until she answers!”
“That would be unwise. One of us will most likely get lost,” said Kuvira.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t recall asking for your opinion, oh Great Uniter.”
Opal wrinkled her nose and spun in a circle. “Anyone else feel that? And hear that?”
“I don’t know, so probably not?” said Bolin.
Kuvira’s eyes popped out of her head. “I think she may mean the tidal wave. That is somehow in a swamp.”
“A tidal wave? Well, that’s just ridiculous.”
Korra grabbed Bolin’s shoulders and turned him to face the...oh. The tidal wave. Well, that’s going to make things difficult. “Yeah! It is! But it’s also there! Everyone get behind---”
The water surged forward, faster than Bolin could believe, and washed over everyone. He was sent tumbling to the ground, and when he got up he was---wait why was he on the outer wall of Ba Sing Se and everything was---
“COVERED IN LAVA!” he yelped, grasping at his own head and pushing his eyes out of their sockets.
All of Ba Sing Se was submerged in lava. The inner walls were down, and every building, every street, every tower, every satomobile, every piece of Kuvira propaganda, every cabbage car, every man, woman and child were drifting. Burning. Melting.
Steaming. Writhing. Bubbling.
He could feel the earth itself boiling.
Bolin backed away but couldn’t escape the heat. He turned around and found Omashu in exactly the same state. Lava flowed from the highest point and poured down the mail chutes, the streets themselves, burning it all away. The city built by the first earthbenders, gone.
And it was all his fault.
Everytime he turned away, it was the same. Gaoling. Yi. Zaofu. Republic City. All because he couldn’t see clearly. Couldn’t see how far Kuvira had fallen, that what he’d been ordered to do had lead to more death and destruction than he could have possibly imagined. And he thought he was helping, like an idiot.
That’s what he is. An idiot. An idealistic idiot. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…
Why did Ghazan have to make it look so simple!? Why did he have to understand it?! Why didn’t he just keep it a secret and not use it as that great thing he can do to prove to Kuvira that he could help!? It was just like Mako and lightning. It only lead to death and pain and destruction and suffering.
Bolin could only destroy. Only living lavabender. He should never have taken pride in that.
“BOLIN! YOU HAVE TO STOP!”
Bolin shuddered and he was back in the swamp and everything was lava why was everything lava?! Korra and Opal were doing their best to cool it down with airbending, but it just kept coming and coming and oh crap he was doing it unconsciously. He could do that?! It didn’t matter. Bolin focused and stopped the flow of energy within the earth, halting the molten shift and cooling the lava around them in into harmless black rock.
Everyone almost died. Because of him.
He collapsed on the ground. “Everything was lava.”
Korra stared down at him, searching. “...what happened, Bolin? What did you see?”
“Everything. Omashu, Ba Sing Se, Zaofu...everywhere. Lava.”
Opal knelt down beside him and cupped his cheeks. “Bolin, here, look at me. None of that happened,” she said softly. "It's all right. Nothing is lava."
“I know that! But it could have been! Do you have any idea how close I was to actually teaching lavabending to Kuvira’s military?! It wasn’t for lack of trying! I just couldn’t figure out how to explain it!” He searched around them in a panic. “Where’s Mako?! Where’s...don’t tell me---”
Korra shook her head. “No, he’s fine. Or, well, he should be. He and Kuvira ran back to the Satohawk once you started turning everything into lava. There wasn’t much they could do.”
“At least he’s okay. Sorry.”
“Just be more careful, okay? The swamp can do crazy things to your head.”
Opal glared at her. “It can? And when did you plan on filling us in on that very important piece of information?”
“It wasn’t supposed to do anything to you guys! I thought it was just going to affect Kuvira, since the swamp apparently only helps people who deserve it.”
Bolin frowned. “So, it just hates me, then? Because none of what I saw looked like help to me! It was basically my worst nightmare!”
Korra scratched the back of her head. “Uhhh, the swamp works in mysterious ways?”
“Korra. This isn’t the time for jokes. Let’s just find Asami and get out of here.” He blinked and grabbed his hair. “This swamp is messing with my head. Did you hear what I just said? I sounded like Mako!”
“Well, no, but I didn’t sound like me, so that’s not great.”
“Okay, let me just make sure I have this right,” said Opal, rising to her feet and glaring even harder at Korra. “We’re going to be subjected to forced hallucinations because of the swamp.”
“And you thought it was going to pick and choose.”
“And these visions are so vivid that they can actually cause involuntary bending.”
“They, uh, yes. They can do that, I guess. Didn’t know they could. It’s just trying to help, though!”
“This isn’t helping! This is the opposite of helping!” yelled Bolin. “There are three of us and three directions! Let’s just split up and get this over with!”
“But what if one of us---”
“Then I’ll melt the swamp, okay? It’s all I’m good for, right? Lava lava lava lava!” he said, stomping off.
“Bolin, the footprints are gone. You destroyed them when you were lavabending.” sighed Opal.
“Great! Now what do we do---Korra, where are you going, aaaand she’s gone.” Bolin sighed.
Opal smacked her forehead.
Mako wasn’t really surprised that he’d gotten stuck with Kuvira. He’d expected it to happen eventually, because everybody else would just have other things to do. That was just how things worked as of late.
They walked in silence through the swamp, retracing their steps back to the landing zone. Well, technically it was a crash site, but arguing semantics during moments of high tension was never a wise decision.
It occurred to him, however, that he was alone with the woman who had tried to murder his little brother. And he hadn’t been there to protect him, or help at all. It wouldn’t be so difficult to make it look like an accident, if he...were to abandon all of his morals.
Would that even be abandoning them, though? Kuvira had tried to murder everyone he knew and loved. She was a danger to herself, and everyone around her. Even if the United Republic had privately pardoned her, which he was not okay with, as an officer of the law it was his duty to ensure the safety of the citizens of that very same country.
She had also to throw Bolin into a prison camp. Just the thought of it made his blood begin to boil, and every second longer he stared at the back of her head, it became more difficult for him to cool off.
Cool under fire. Cool under fire. Cool under fire.
Besides Raiko, would anyone actually care? If he just killed her, right then. Just hit her with a bolt of lightning. Baatar Jr, maybe. And that was a big maybe. Korra might get pissed at him for a while, but he can’t imagine it would affect their friendship that much. Bolin wouldn’t say a word. Opal would be fine with it. Asami would...if anything, that would only strengthen their relationship. Mako remembered what it felt like to see a parent cut down in front of you. It was impossible not to empathize. It wasn’t even out of the question that Tenzin would look the other way, since Kuvira had threatened the very existence of the Air Nation.
It would be so easy to just take her down. End her story, close the book, so everyone could move on and be done with her once and for all. It would only take a second. Even less than that, if he hit her in the chest.
If he had a coin, he might’ve just flipped for it.
“Bolin?” Mako blinked and saw a massive bolt of lightning surging straight toward him. Not enough time to move. Couldn’t redirect it. He was thrown backward and skidded to a stop on the concrete, right below Bolin. He looked up to see a solid rock wall where he’d been moments ago.
Bolin helped him up to his feet. “Well, that was weird. Where do you think that came from?”
Mako narrowed his eyes at Bolin. “I don’t know. Weren’t we just in the swamp?” He turned back around toward the rock wall which was actually Kuvira. Staring at him with a very confused look.
“What is it?” she asked.
Now or never. Make a choice.
“Nothing. It was nothing. We’re almost there, so let’s just keep moving.”
Korra sprinted through the brush as fast as she could. Asami was running from her, which was weird, but the swamp did crazy things to people. Calling out to her had done nothing. She didn’t even look over her shoulder.
Something had her terrified.
Korra charged through a curtain of ivy and small, loose vines and emerged in a pond surrounding a large, tall tree. Her boots splashed against the muddy water and Korra had the distinct feeling she’d been in that exact same spot before. Especially when she finally got a good look at Asami.
Asami stood before her, just in front of the tree, with a vaguely threatening expression. Her hair was wild, her makeup was smeared and most unsettling of all...her eyes were glowing a very dark red. Red light radiated out of from her, making her appear more spirit than human.
Korra frowned and cracked her neck. “I could have sworn I was done with you, but if you want a rematch, I guess it’s unavoidable. Dressing yourself up as Asami isn’t going to work, you know. The eyes and the light show make it pretty clear that you’re not her.” She paled. “Unless she was possessed by a spirit! Oh, crap that would explain this whole day---”
Asami’s brow twitched, unamused, and kicked off of the ground, leaping toward her at incredible speed. Korra rolled out of the way and reached out to the pond water, sending it streaming into Asami and freezing her from the neck down.
“So, what are you? A spirit? Am I hallucinating? Because the last time this happened, I was definitely not entirely hallucinating---”
Asami interrupted her again by...breathing fire onto her ice prison and freeing herself. Definitely not Asami. Not the real one. Because that was impossible. Right? It had to be an illusion. Just like the several hundred icicles that Korra was only dodging by a hair.
Korra erected a stone barrier to block the rest only for Asami to punch straight through it and yank her through the rest of the earth. She quickly grabbed Asami’s arm and threw her straight into the tree. Asami rebounded in midair with a burst of airbending and kicked arcs of fire and air straight at her, followed by two powerful streams of sand.
Wait, sand? Where did she find sand? They were in a swamp.
Korra bobbed, weaved and deflected the sand with her own wind. Okay, maybe it was difficult to actually attack Asami, even if it was clearly a fake. Asami couldn’t bend! Much less all four elements. Korra, remembering her cables, launched both lines at her, only for them to be redirected back on to her, binding her arms behind her back.
Asami wrung out her hands and mimed pulling a longsword out of its sheath, only there was actually a sword molding itself from the metal she’d somehow found. The blade reflected off of the pond. It looked absurdly sharp. Korra spun, pushing herself out of harms way with a gust of wind, and flexed her feet on the ground, desperate for some form of metalbending.
Korra managed to reform her cables into gauntlets just in time to catch Asami’s blade between them. Her boots sunk into the ground and the trees around them shuddered from the force of the impact. Korra grit her teeth and held them there for a few seconds, searching Asami for some sign of...anything. Anything that was behind her red eyes.
Nothing. Just red.
Which probably meant that the fake wasn’t nearly as competent at hand-to-hand as the real one.
Korra twisted her arms and snapped the blade in half. The tiny hint of shock on the doppelganger's face was nothing like Asami, which made it all the better. She swept Asami’s legs out from under her, slammed her into the ground and used her cables to bind her limbs behind her back.
“You’re a pushover compared to the real Asami,” she scoffed, pressing her knee down onto the center of her back. “She’d have figured something out that I couldn’t counter. Y’know. If she was evil, which she isn’t.”
Then, the cables were gone and Korra found herself thrown across the Sato estate’s gym, landing less than softly on the mat. Her clothes felt weird, and...everything smelled like fruit. Sweet, tender. Fruit. Why did she smell fruit in a gym?
“You really need to work on your hand-to-hand, Blue,” said Asami, her lips curving into the smallest of smirks. “After all, I can’t be expected to give you lessons in everything hands can do.”
Asami crouched into a ready fighting stance, but her right hand was gesturing somehow, miming an action that Korra didn’t recognize. It certainly didn’t have any obvious combat applications, so far as she could tell.
Korra shook it off, climbed back to her feet, and adopted a stance of her own. Pet names, again? Well, okay then. “Blue? Oh, my eyes. And clothes, I guess. That’s a new one. I know you’re not fond of ‘hot water’, but c’mon. You can do better than that, Noodles.”
Asami fell out of her stance, standing upright. She dropped the smirk, and replaced it with a quizzical stare, one eyebrow raised. “A new one?” Then, Asami’s eyes narrowed, examining Korra’s stance. She laughed, sudden awareness washing the previous question away. She regained her own stance, looking even more ready than before. “Oh, I get it now. Almost Blue, let’s call you. And if you call me Noodles even one more time, you’re getting a bullet between the eyes.”
Korra returned the quizzical stare. “I don’t know what that is, and I’m pretty sure I was just in the swamp which means you’re not actually real. Probably. That’s never been entirely clear…”
Asami gave her a dead stare. “You’re missing the point. You’re not you. You’re not Blue.”
Korra wrinkled her nose. “Am I supposed to be? I’m very confused right now. Who’s Blue?”
Asami just shrugged. The look in her eyes was different. There was a deep pool of violence, just below the green. Her anger, the rage that had been boiling inside her a week ago, was back. Definitely not Asami. Well, not the one she knew. “She’s a girl who wouldn’t stand like that, for one. It’s not a stance she knows. Not a stance I know, even, and that’s saying something, because I know every style worth knowing. Now, do you know why that is?”
“Uhm.” Korra glanced at herself. And her stance. She used it all the time. Asami had seen it plenty, because she’d taught it to her. It just kept getting weirder. “I’m guessing it’s because you’re Asami, or at least you look like her. She’s the most amazing and brilliant person I know. And she’s trained in self-defense classes since she was six, but there’s no way that those were just self-defense classes because I’ve seen self-defense. What she does is on a whole different level.”
“Why thanks, Almost Blue. I am amazing, and I am brilliant, and I am on an entirely different level, you’re right about that. I’d blush, but I know someone who might get awfully jealous, you being another Water Tribe girl and all. Unfortunately, you’re wrong about knowing me. I’m not your prissy little Asami. I’m Asami Fucking Sato. And I have to warn you, new style or not, you’re going to lose. Because here, I always win.”
Korra scoffed. “Seriously? You always win? It’s a sparring match. Get over yourself, Asami Fucking Sato.” She narrowed her eyes. “Wait, how do you even know this isn’t real---”
Asami charged forward, again, and Korra pivoted away, again and pulled her arm behind her back. And then she was immediately punched in the throat and swept off her feet. Korra choked and fell on all fours, realizing far too late that Asami wasn’t playing. Asami kicked her upside the head and pinned her to the ground, threatening to dislocated her shoulder.
“Hm. It looks like Almost Blue wasn’t nearly close enough.”
“That was not sparring!” Korra coughed. “What the hell was that?! You could have crushed my windpipe!”
“You should be thanking me that I didn’t. You’re not Blue, but you’re going to give her back to me.” She twisted her arm further. “Now.”
And then Asami turned out to be a pile of rocks. Korra frowned and tossed them off of her. She kicked one of them into the pond and made a very unsatisfying splash. She was getting the feeling that the new swamp didn’t work the same way as the old one.
Kuvira was in her Colossus again, standing strong on the center platform.
“We found the bodies, ma’am. Everyone in the warehouse, including Avatar Korra, are confirmed dead.”
Kuvira stumbled over a rock and steadied herself against a nearby tree. She stared down into the mud, eyes wide open and slowed her breath. What was...that wasn’t how it happened. No, she’d...some factory workers died, but her gambit was ultimately a failure.
Kuvira shook her head and continued forward, only to find her boot step onto the neck of a very murderous Lin Beifong, her body sprawled across the concrete. She was covered in dried blood and had more than a few new scars.
Lin spat up in her face. “You think you’ve won? No chance in hell. Somebody’s gonna take you down, no matter wha---”
Kuvira instinctively twisted her foot and snapped her neck. She gasped and backpedaled through the mud, straight into Mako. She forced her hands to stop shaking and hid her terrified, pale expression from him. “I apologize, I thought I saw...something. It wasn’t there.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Kuvira nodded and wiped the sweat off her brow. Was she...nothing she’d eaten contained any psychotropics, and she was still in the swamp. Were the vines the cause? Punishing her for abusing the spirits? Forcing her to live through...whatever that was?
She was piloting the Colossus again, walking past the Great Gates of Azulon. The Fire Nation had acted quickly, to their credit. Out of all of the defensive systems they could have built to stand against her Colossus, she’d never expected for them to build one of their own. The logo stamped on the breastplate was even more surprising.
Future Industries. And here she’d thought she’d wiped the Sato line out years before. Hiroshi had built his own, and as it ran at her, she realized that Baatar had never designed her suit to withstand attacks from other giant mecha.
The blows they traded were devastating, and flattened much of Harbor City. Hiroshi’s mecha didn’t have spirit weaponry, but it had plenty of other weapons. Rockets, a giant plasma saw, and even a huge grappling hook.
The plasma saw had been the worst of it, as he’d managed to sever her left arm clean off. He’d been aiming for the right, the one with the cannon, but she’d anticipated that. She got a clean, direct hit into the other mecha’s chest with her good arm and sent it flying into the capitol.
Kuvira closed her fist and fired, absolutely obliterating the Fire Nation’s last bastion, and hope, in one move.
Then, she walked straight into a tree, getting swamp muck on her face, and forced herself to stop hyperventilating. The Fire Nation. Why the Fire Nation? What was the point?! She’d never planned to expand her empire beyond the land that was rightfully hers to begin with! It was needless bloodshed! Megalomania!
Kuvira leaned against the tree and signaled for Mako to wait a moment. “I think I may be coming down with something. I need to catch my breath.”
“I’ll say. You’ve been muttering nonsense for the past five minutes.”
“Was I? What was I saying?”
Kuvira was pulled out of her bed by a pair of massive arms that quickly attempted to snap her neck. She retaliated, reaching out for her armor’s metal strips and stabbing the assassin’s arms. He roared in pain and released her for a moment, and that was all she needed. She jumped backward, donned her armor properly and met the man’s eyes.
Blue. Enraged beyond comprehension.
“Tonraq?” she whispered.
Tonraq scowled and pulled the metal blades out of his arms. He didn’t seem to hear her, or he didn’t care, as he summoned all of the water from his four skins and unleashed a nightmarish barrage of attacks. Water whips, icicles, blades, boiling water, everything and anything. She could barely keep up, and all she could do was block or dodge.
Tonraq knocked her off of her feet and lunged forward, encasing his fist in a frozen blade the size of her head. She tried to deflect him with a boulder but he’d been ready for that, blasting it out of the way with a wall of water he’d already bent before moving. She screamed as she was struck right in the chest, and in one last act of defiance bent her armor into a blade and impaled Tonraq. He slumped over, the metal puncturing his heart, and Kuvira was positive she was going to die---
“No, not Tonraq. Something about a giant mecha fight. It sounded like mover stuff to me,” said Mako, snapping her back from...what might’ve been. “You really don’t look so good.”
“I…” Kuvira looked down at her trembling hands, and saw Baatar fiddling with something metal just below her breast, but...she couldn’t feel it. Why couldn’t she feel it?
“All right, that should do it for your tune up. I tried to make it as seamless as possible, but for the moment this is as good as it’s going to get, Kuvira.” He turned her toward the mirror. “It’s not perfect, but I still think you’re just as beautiful as ever.”
Kuvira wanted to vomit. Half of her upper body was replaced by some horrific metal contraption, glowing and pulsing purple in perfect rhythm with her heartbeat. Which she couldn’t feel.
She doubled over and pressed her palms into her chest, confirming that her body was still in fact flesh and blood. Feeling and hearing her own heart pound in her breast was good. She was okay. She wasn’t...she wasn’t inhuman. She wasn’t a monster. Not a literal one, nor a metaphorical one.
She wasn’t a monster.
“Mako? Kuvira? Where have you two been?!” asked Asami, standing just outside of the Satohawk. When did they get there?
“Us? We were looking for you! You wandered off into the swamp without any warning!”
“No, I didn’t. I turned my back for half a second and every single one of you vanished! What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. She’s been acting weird.”
Kuvira shivered uncontrollably and carefully sat down next to the Satohawk. She rested her head against the hull, hugged herself and stared off into space.
She wasn’t a monster.
Asami raised a brow at the pale and shaking Kuvira. Sweating profusely. Maybe she’d get a fever and just...die. “Acting weird? Weirder than this?”
Mako nodded. “Yeah. Really weird. She’s been talking to herself and acting a little unhinged the entire walk back. Nothing violent, but, honestly Asami, it’s starting to freak me out.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Where’s everyone else?”
“Still out looking for you.”
Asami tapped her chin. “How big of a fireball can you make?”
“How big of one do you need?”
“Think you can make a signal flare?”
“Oh, easily.” He looked up at the small gap in the swamp’s canopy that the Satohawk had made and shot an incredibly bright stream of fire into the air. Once it had passed through the trees, it exploded and lit up the sky.
Asami smiled. “Okay, that was pretty cool.”
“Thanks. Hopefully they see it, but I can always make a new one.”
“Yeah.” Asami crossed her arms and stared down the path that the pair had come from. How were they supposed to find their way back----oh, Bolin and Opal. The couple came sprinting into the clearing and stopped in front of her.
“What’s wrong? Why is there fire? Asami we’ve been looking everywhere for you! I almost melted the swamp what is happening right now, and what’s wrong with Kuvira?” sputtered Bolin.
Opal studied Kuvira closely. “I don’t think we want to know.”
“What? Oh. Woah. I don’t even want to think about what the swamp showed her.”
Mako grimaced. “What do you mean ‘showed’ her? Was the swamp doing that?”
“The hallucinations? Yeah. That’s what Korra said.”
“Did you know about this?”
“Not before...I had mine. Which we’re not talking about ever. Or, right now, at least.”
Asami sighed. “We assumed that Kuvira would be the only one affected, if anyone would be at all. It’s supposed to be a helpful spiritual nudge, or something.”
Bolin frowned. “Yeah. It wasn’t. At all.”
“Mine was, actually. I know understand the importance of my oath of non-aggression,” said Opal, staring off into space. “It’s very, very, very important.”
“You’d end up like Zaheer if you didn’t follow it, is that what you’re getting at?” asked Asami.
“...yes. Basically. It was scary, okay?”
“Wha---” Asami turned and was instantly tackled to the ground by Korra. “I’m happy to see you, too, but I’m really sick of getting mud everywhere.”
Korra chuckled awkwardly, picked her up to her feet, dusted her off, and bent her clean. “Sorry. I was just really worried we’d lost you in the swamp!” She wrapped her in a tight hug. “What’s up with her?”
Mako sighed. “She started muttering nonsense on our walk back. If the swamp is the one causing these visions then…”
“Yeah. She doesn’t even look responsive.” Korra winced. “Well, uh, now we know that she’s...actually trying to redeem herself.”
Opal shrugged. “I mean, yes that’s clearly true, but I would have been okay without what looks like psychological torture to confirm it.”
Bolin raised his hand. “I second that motion.”
Asami crooked her lips to the side. “Nobody’s going to disagree with you.”
An old woman cackled. “Shows what you know! Frankly, I think it was the perfect thing for her. Really drives the lesson into her big metal moron brain,” said a very grumpy old woman emerging from the brush. “I’d rather she be dead, but what do I know? I’m just some old lady who ended a war.”
Opal gasped and giggled. “Grandma Toph!” She sprinted up to the old woman and wrapped her in a big hug.
“Hey Toph,” said Bolin and Korra.
“It’s Bolin, actually.” corrected Bolin.
“I know. I’m old, not senile.”
Opal laughed. “Where have you been? I was worried I wouldn't see you again!”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry for making you worry. I really should visit more often, or the next time I see you I might be a great-grandmother. Or, greater, I guess,” she laughed. “Go on, introduce me to your friends. Maybe they’ll be a little less terrible than the first two. And the moron over there.”
Korra rolled her eyes.
“Please don’t insult Bolin, Grandma.”
“Fine. But only if I can still make fun of Korra.”
Korra gasped, exasperated. “Seriously?! I’m right here!”
Asami shook her head. “Let it go. She won’t budge.”
“See, that girl gets it! Earthbenders don’t budge! Who’re you, anyway?” said Toph.
“Right! Sorry. Grandma, these are my friends Mako and Asami Sato.”
Asami smiled. “It’s quite an honor to meet you---”
“Honor?” Toph scoffed. “If you bow I’m going to dunk your head in mud. Cut it out.”
“Oh. Okay. It’s great to---”
“Wait, wait, wait, Sato?”
“That is my family name, yes.”
“You got a grandfather named Satoru?”
Asami’s eyes widened. “Uh, yeah. Wow, I’m surprised you remember that. Iroh said you met him a very long time ago.”
“I don’t forget good friends. What about the tall guy? Who’re you?”
Korra laughed. “...tall guy.”
Mako rolled his eyes. “Mako. Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, sure. What are you kids doing in the swamp, anyway? If it was just to torture Kuvira, then Korra you’re clearly not as terrible as I thought you were. Feels like she’s running a fever. Otherwise, you still stink.”
Korra frowned. “Wow. Torture is now a deciding factor in a person’s opinion of me. That’s a new one.”
Asami sighed. “We’re here to figure out why, and, how the swamp grew back.”
Toph snorted into a loud laugh. “Seriously?! That’s all? What, did you honestly think that the metal idiot over there was the first one to cut down the swamp? Hundreds of people have done what she did! And it always grows back.”
“How do you even know this?”
“I take two minutes out of my day to read up on my history once in a while, that’s how. Lots of important stuff in there. You kids could learn a thing or two.”
Asami crossed her arms. There were no historical records of that happening. “No, you don’t. You can’t read.”
Korra chuckled. “She’s got you there.”
Toph scoffed. “Whatever. I know everything because the vines know everything.”
Bolin, Mako, Opal and Korra looked between one another. “...honestly, that makes a certain kind of sense,” said Korra. “You’ve been in this swamp for more than ten years. Totally isolated, but you still knew about things happening in the world.”
“No. That doesn't make sense.” Asami pinched her brow. “That is by far the stupidest thing I've ever heard.”
“Really? What if I told you that the reason the swamp grows back is because nobody ever bothered to cut down the Tree of Time?”
Asami’s eyes widened. “...how do you know about that?”
Toph stomped her feet. “Where do you think these vines came from? They've been here long before Unalaq started tossing them all over the place. The portals might be where you can enter the spirit world, but both worlds are bound together by these big important trees. Because they’re the same tree. Sort of.”
Korra hummed. “Makes sense to me.”
Opal nodded. “About as much as the other spirit stuff, yeah.”
“I’m okay with this,” said Bolin.
Mako shrugged. “It’s not...impossible.”
Asami grit her teeth. “If that’s true, then we can’t stop the vines from growing back. This whole trip was pointless!”
“Kuvira’s having a mental breakdown and all of you kids had visions. I wouldn't call that pointless. They’re important because they...well, because they are! Something about what you need to see, or haven’t seen, or have yet to see. Spirit crap like that.”
Korra and Asami exchanged a look.
“Anyway! Now you know why and how the swamp grows back. Mission accomplished. Now go away and take that metal idiot with you. Her constant shivering is giving me a headache.”
Asami methodically went through her pre-flight checks. She'd repaired everything to working order, but the swamp was a crazy place. It wouldn't hurt to be extra sure that they wouldn't just fall out of the sky on their trip home. "Everyone strapped in?"
"Almost." Korra locked Kuvira into her seat, and the former tyrant wasn't looking any better than she had a few minutes ago. Shivering, sweating, and pale. Her eyes were glazed over, but she was lucid enough to pull Korra into a very tight hug before she walked away.
Korra looked between everyone. "I don't know how to react to this."
Kuvira let her go, bit her lip and bowed her head. She rested her arms on her thighs and shook her head. "I..." She balled her hands into fists. "I want to leave the swamp."
Korra nodded and sat down in her labeled seat, strapping herself in. "Okay, we're good."
Asami gave the passenger cabin a thumbs up. She lifted the Satohawk off the ground and swung their heading to the northwest. She tilted forward and, in only a few seconds, they cleared the swamp's airspace. Completely unaccosted. A wave of relief washed over her as they streaked through the air toward Republic City. The nightmare, their own personal nightmares, was over.
No one spoke for a long time. Whether it was from the stress of the trip or simply the effect of their respective visions, she couldn't say. Out of all of them, Asami didn't expect Kuvira to be the one to break the silence.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, staring at her boots. "I know those words are meaningless coming from me, and I don't ever expect forgiveness, nor do I truly desire or think I'll ever deserve it. I just wanted to say it, because the alternative..." She trailed off and her entire body shook. "I cannot express to you how grateful I am for stopping me before it was too late. All of you. The path I had chosen lead only to madness and monstrosity."
Opal sighed. "I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that, while we don't forgive you, we don't think you're lying either."
Kuvira slowly sat up straight. "I don't understand."
"I don't know what you saw, but you're not going crazy. The swamp was doing that; To help you move forward. Apparently."
Kuvira narrowed her eyes at Opal. "You knew about this? That I would be psychologically tortured if I were to enter the swamp? This didn't happen the last time I was here."
Korra shrugged. "Why should it have? You weren't open to anything at the time. Now, you are. And I'd be thankful, if I were you. I helped negotiate your punishment from execution all the way down to forced government work with a little bit of psychological torture. The fact that you saw anything at all proves that you're not lying. You really are trying to do better, and fix the mess you've made."
Asami frowned. "In other words: I still hate you, but I don't think you're evil."
"Yes, exactly what she said. Yes." Bolin crossed his arms. "And apparently everyone had one of those crazy visions except for Mako. Lucky you."
Mako raised a brow. "I had one. You saved my life."
"How is that a vision? I've done that like a dozen times!"
Asami rolled her eyes and turned her full attention back to flying. The trip was still, mostly, a waste. For her, at least. She wasn't any closer to figuring out how to perfect her spirit vine defense system, and she basically just helped torture a war criminal. The vision with the portals that closed themselves. And the ones that didn't.
That was it. That was the key. If they could make a temporary, self-collapsing portal, she could solve the energy transfer problem entirely. And Vaatu had created the first portals, according to her books. And the vines were the same as his energy, if Korra’s gut was anything to go by.
Which it was.
Perhaps the trip wasn't a waste after all.