The Spirit World is more beautiful than Asami could have ever imagined. Impossible flowers, valleys bending and folding into one another, mountains stretching on for eons, and thousands upon thousands of spirits. Everything and anything surrounds her. All of it is stunning. Yet, for some reason, she can't stop staring at her cup of noodles. It's all she can think about.
Part 2 - Noodles
Section 1: "Flameo Instant"
Asami stared at her cup of noodles.
Her bright green eyes looked through the rising steam as she studied it. Examined it. Investigated it. Took in every detail with intense critical analysis. Cylinder, removable cap, disposable, heat conductive materials, branding the result of heavy marketing campaigns. One serving. Just add hot water.
How could something so small mean so much?
"If you're trying to think of a way to make Flameo Instant Noodles even better, you should compare notes with Mako when we get back," said Korra, pouring hot water out of their teapot into her own cup. She stirred her noodles. "He once told me that, when they were younger, he and Bolin basically lived off of this stuff. Aaand, then he cooked it in..." She poked the tip of her chopsticks to her lips, along with a long string of noodles. "I want to say fourteen different ways? I can't remember exactly, but I do remember that no single cup tasted the same. It was pretty impressive, actually."
Asami snorted and stirred her noodles. "Wow. I never would have pegged Mako for someone with such...culinary creativity."
"Honestly, I'm betting half of those were Bolin's recipes. The best cooks are the ones who love to eat the most."
"Yeah, you're probably right." Asami looked up from her cup and was immediately filled with the sight of Korra sucking a comically long stream of noodles into her mouth. She caught her eyes mid slurp, and Korra somehow responded with that exceedingly adorable crooked grin of hers despite the fact that her mouth was otherwise occupied with noodles. The last of them flew past her lips with a small pop, and Asami broke.
She laughed. How could she not?
"Even when you're eating like a toddler, you're adorable. I don't understand how that's possible."
Korra shrugged. "It's the only way I know how to eat." She made a face that Asami could only describe as 'Tenzin-esque' and poked at the air with her chopsticks. "In fact, a very wise woman once said that if there is food, there is a way to get it in your mouth."
"Me." She smirked and rolled another ring of noodles onto her chopsticks. "I said that," she said, shoving noodles in her mouth. "You should take my advice and eat. There's no telling what we're going to find today," Korra said with a mouthful of food.
"Okay, you're right." Asami smiled. It was hard to say no. "I was just thinking about...what these noodles mean. In a larger sense."
Korra frowned and stared at her own cup. "I don't think they come in larger sizes. If they did, I'd have bought them."
Asami chuckled and waved her off. "No, not literally bigger. I meant in terms of society. You know, how far humans have come in such a short time."
Korra raised a brow. "I don't follow."
"This little cup I'm holding is the product of less than a hundred years of hard work and innovation." She looked at her noodles with a small sense of awe and wonder. "It's a meal. In a cup. Instant food. This single idea has probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Families can be fed. Stomachs can be full whenever they need to be. It's just..." She chuckled awkwardly and looked to Korra. "It's amazing."
"Huh." Korra slowly chewed her noodles as she gave her a rather blank stare. She blinked twice. "Uh, I've never really thought about it like that before. I've never really thought about noodles that much before. I mean, they're just...it's instant noodles. They're everywhere."
"Exactly! They're everywhere, and completely transcend cultural, class, and ethnic barriers. Everyone eats Flameo Instant Noodles." She quickly ate some of her noodles to emphasize her point. "I do, you do, everyone we know does. It's food for travel. Food for lunch. Food for thought. Food for dinner, breakfast, sharing. For anything!"
"Asami, they're just noodles."
"Well, yes, in a purely physical sense, but when placed on-"
"They're just noodles. Take a deep breath, alright? My first trip here was pretty scary too, so if you're rattled I completely understand. But, as we both know, avoiding it isn't going to help." She gestured around her. "Especially since we're sort of...surrounded by it."
Asami bit her lip. "I'm not anxious, Korra. I'm trying to share something with you that I think you'd find very interesting." She wasn't being totally honest. She was a little scared to be in the Spirit World, since nothing appeared to obey any form of internal consistent logic.
"Oh. I'm sorry, but it's-they're noodles. All of that other stuff..." She made a 'woosh' noise and swiped her palm above her head. "Goes right over my head. The same thing happens when you talk about the work you do most of the time. I always pay attention, but I rarely understand any of it." Korra frowned and anxiously prodded at her noodles "That...didn't come out right. Sorry."
Asami looked at Korra for a moment. She wasn't going to get through to her, she could tell. It wasn't a matter of intelligence, but rather one of perspective. As much as she loathed to admit it at times, her outlook on things was radically different than Korra's own personal view. Asami had always prided herself as someone who looked beyond the present, while Korra was very much attuned to the 'here and now' as much as 'what once was'. As the Avatar, the second part was a given, but the first could have gone either way.
Heh. Either way.
"It's okay. Maybe you're right. Maybe they're just noodles," she said, shrugging.
"Noodles you should be eating."
Asami gave her a small smile and got back to eating. "For someone who doesn't think that these noodles are important, you're really insistent that I eat them. "
"For survival!" Korra jumped to her feet and pouted. "We're in the-" She coughed, slammed her fist against her chest, and swallowed. After a moment of breathing, she continued. "We're in the Spirit World! You think noodles are amazing, well what about all of this?" She waved her chopsticks around frantically, gesturing towards the oddly colored sky, impossible foliage, and the flocks of spirits above as well as around them. "This isn't like that time we got stuck in the desert, okay? We can't just make an airship, or a sand-sailer, or drink cactus juice and start hallucinating our way out in case we get lost. We have to be ready for anything."
"Okay, I get the idea, and yes, of course the Spirit World is amazing-," Asami wrinkled her nose and pushed aside her philosophical meanderings for a later date. "Wait, cactus juice? Korra, that stuff is littered with psychotropics! Why-when did you even..." She chuckled and covered her forehead with her hand. "There's a story here, isn't there?"
Korra crooked her lips to the side. "...no."
"Okay, fine!" She flipped her hands in the air. "I ran out of water in the desert, boiled some cactus juice, drank it, you appeared out of thin air and guided me to safety. Not really one of my proudest moments." She smiled sadly and sat down beside her. "There's more to it than that, but I hit all the important parts."
Asami raised her brows and very quickly processed the information. A helpful hallucination. It certainly wasn't out of the question. "Well, I'm glad I could help." She took Korra's hand and intertwined their fingers. "Even if I technically didn't."
Korra smiled and gave her a gentle squeeze. "You know, the weirdest part, is that you looked like you do now."
"Wow. That's...are you sure you just didn't read a newspaper and saw my picture in it? I was in it a lot. I essentially rebuilt Republic City from the ground up." She blinked, stared off into the vast, unknowable and irrational distance, and pinched her brow. "...which I will have to do all over again."
Korra rested her head on her shoulder. "You did it once. You can do it again."
Asami bowed her head and closed her eyes. She could. She would. Life had taken everything from her time and time again, but she always picked herself up and came back stronger than ever. It was a fight she'd learned to win alone by sheer force of will. Life had taken her city and her father. Again. So she would take back what she could and more, just like she always did.
More. That was the most important part.
Asami opened her eyes and brushed her thumb along Korra's hand. "Hey."
"What is this?"
"I don't know." Korra turned to her with a kind smile. "But won't it be interesting to find out?"
Asami looked around her. Fields of stunning colors, flowers she'd never dreamed of, landscapes that bent and folded into one another that stretched on for eons, entire forests of full of pure life. Everything and anything surrounded them, and all of it was beautiful. It was certainly more than she'd lost.
Maybe just going with the flow, just this once, wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Asami resettled on Korra and smiled back. "Yeah. It will." She cupped her cheek, leaned in, and closed her eyes. She wasn't surprised when Korra met her halfway. That was sort of her thing. Asami sighed and rested their foreheads together. "Why are you being so protective of me here? Is it really that dangerous?"
"It can be. Most things don't work the same way here like they do in the material world, so if you don't stick close to me, and I lose track of you..." Korra shivers. "Asami, you're not a spiritual person. If you get lost in here, I'm not confident I could find you. It's one thing to track someone's spiritual energy in the material world, since they're distinct. It sort of stands out, I guess." Korra tilts her head. "In the Spirit World, everything is made of spiritual energy, so trying to find someone cut off from all that is infinitely more difficult."
Asami raised a brow. She had a point. She knew all of that spiritual stuff was real, but she'd never put much stock in it ever effecting or being moderately relevant to her. Obviously, that was no longer the case. "We've been out here for days. Why are you just telling me this now?"
Korra chuckled awkwardly and rubbed her neck. "I, uh, only just realized it."
"I liked not worrying about things for once! But then you started talking about us, and it got me thinking really fast about all of this." Korra took her other hand and squeezed it. "I know you can take care of yourself back home, but this isn't home. It's not the same here. I need you to stick close to me and be careful, okay? That'll really put my mind at ease, and trust me..." She gave her a crooked grin. "...you really don't want to see what the Spirit World looks like with a terrified Avatar. All of this light around us turns dark. I'm being literal. This place actually reflects emotion, and that goes double for me."
Asami nodded without hesitation. Spirituality was one of the few things she knew almost nothing concrete about, and if the Avatar was telling her that she needed to watch her step, she was going to listen. "Okay. I won't leave your sight."
"...really? Wow, I thought that'd be more difficult to explain," she laughed. "Alright, great!" Korra gently parted with her and went about repacking their things. She cleansed the boiling water and refilled the skin on her bag. "I actually had an idea about where we could go today, but I kind of want it to be a surprise."
Asami smiled and carefully picked up the tiny pieces of litter at their camp site. After three years of minimizing pollution and trash in Republic City in order to respect the Spirit Wilds, despite not knowing anything besides that she should 'honor nature', it was almost instinctive. Korra hadn't even insisted that they leave as little trace as possible of their presence, but somehow Asami knew that's what she'd want. That it was what's right. "Sounds good to me. How long do you think it'll take us to get there?"
Korra stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. "Well, that's the thing about the Spirit World." She held out her hand to Asami and smiled. "With a good enough guide, you can just sort of...get there."
Asami took her hand and pulled herself up, securing her own pack in the process. "Assuming you know what you're looking for, right?"
"Pretty much. Ready?"
"Okay, hold on tight."
Asami did as she was told, but was wholly unprepared for what happened next.
Time and space seemed to bend and slither around Asami as her vision blurred. She lost all sense of place and grounding for as Korra moved them through the interwoven tapestry of the realm toward their destination. As her vision returned, Asami saw it all.
Two open spirit portals, their light brilliant and eternal, bursting into the sky. Between them, a massive tree ravaged by time. Gnarled and even more ancient than the landscape surrounding it. It looked older than all things, which for some reason didn't surprise her.
"That was amazing, Korra," she stammered, quickly finding her balance again. The trip was rather disorienting. "Where are we?"
"Where the Spirit World and the material world are linked together." Korra lead Asami toward the huge tree and rubbed her hand over the smooth bark. "I'm not sure this place has a proper name, but it's the center of...everything."
Asami slowly looked between the portals and then up at the tree. The area seemed to project a feeling of majesty and purity that she couldn't quite define. It was as if every patch of soil and puddle were connected. Centered. Spirits began congregating around them, or at least appeared to be. For the moment, they seemed to be content in their silence. "It's..." She squeezed Korra's hand. "I don't know what to say."
"You don't need to. It means you're feeling something different here, just like you should. Something more than you are." Korra smiled. "Come on, this is what I wanted to show you." She hoisted herself up toward the heart of the tree and stopped just at the entrance. "Go on ahead. I'll catch up."
Asami paled. "What? Why? I thought I was supposed to stay close to you."
"This is different. This is something you need to experience on your own the first time."
Asami felt a sense of dread and fear creep up her spine. "Are you sure? I feel like..." She looked around at the spirits rather frantically. Something was wrong. The tree was too important for her to enter. Her gut instinct was to run for the Southern Portal, whichever one that was, because all of it was just too much. "I feel like I don't belong here. They don't think I belong here, and I can feel it." A few of the spirits began to shimmer and mutate, their bright light of color becoming marred into a more focused purple. They looked aggressive and predatory. They growled. Loudly. Dark Spirits. Asami froze and held Korra tighter. "How is this happening? How."
They started moving. Toward her.
Korra stepped in front of her, blocking her view of the approaching spirits. "Asami, they know you're scared. They're reacting to your negative energy, and...okay, apparently Raava says touching me is amplifying it, so they're reacting the same way they would if I were feeling this way." Korra wrapped her strong arms around her and buried her head in her shoulder. "I'm not going to let go. We can beat this. Just focus on me. Think positive. Hold me as hard as you can, and they'll back off."
Asami latched onto Korra for dear life. She could handle giant mechasuits. She could handle terrorists. She could handle week long socio-political debates with the most infuriating dignitaries imaginable. She could handle quite literal home invasions. She could handle pretty much anything except for Dark Spirits. She couldn't hurt them. She couldn't beat them. She couldn't out think them. They made her feel helpless. Still, she focused on her breath, falling back on her old martial arts teachings. Breath. Wait. Listen. Then, her mind. Clearing it had always been a challenge for her, but...then she found herself thinking about their last few days together, and everything else just seemed to evaporate.
No vacation was perfect, as nothing was, but so far everything had just been wonderful and cathartic. She needed a break. They both needed a break. Time to catch their breath so they could come back stronger than ever. The best part, for her, was that it wasn't such a big deal. They walked. They talked. They just were, and it felt right. She hadn't felt that relaxed and content in...she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt like that.
"Asami," whispered Korra, stroking her hair. "Look."
Asami slowly disentangled herself and warily turned around. Everything was bright. The spirits seemed to dance and sing around the tree, and she swore she could hear some of them laughing. She stared at them in awe. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen before. It seemed impossible, but there it was. "I did that?" she asked cautiously.
"Yeah. That was you. Are you okay?"
Asami nodded silently as she gazed upon the spirits. They were mesmerizing. The way they moved with impossible grace and elegance. Entire spectrums of color she never knew existed. "You're right. I was scared. I still meant what I said about the noodles, but-"
"We can talk about the noodles later, okay? I promise." Korra firmly prodded her toward the heart of the tree. "For now, less feeling sorry for yourself, more getting in the tree," she said, chuckling. "You don't think I'd be just as terrified if you stuck me in a factory and told me to build a super satomobile?"
Asami smiled at the mental image. Oh, she'd try her hardest to get it right with metalbending, but every attempt she'd make would only end in disaster. And explosions. Lots and lots of oil, gasoline and engine explosions. "You'd blow yourself up inside an hour."
"I'm very confident that you're correct. Now go, your surprise is inside."
Asami stopped just at the edge of the hollow trunk and looked down inside of it. "Why are you so insistent that I do this first?"
Korra leaned against the opening of the tree and looked out toward one of the portals. "Because I've already been here twice before."
Asami sighed and decided that she'd come much too far to wuss out. She carefully stepped into the heart of the massive tree, sliding her gloved palm along the surprisingly comforting material of the interior wall. It seemed somehow familiar. She took off her right glove and pressed her palm against the tree again. It was soft, like skin.
Skin she knew.
It was her mother's.
A flash of lights flickered through the tree, and dozens of what looked like full color mover screens shimmered into existence around her. Her memories. Forgotten ones, prominent ones. Birthdays, bath times, playing with her mother's seldom used make up drawer, that time she set accidentally set the house on fire, her first tour of her father's factory, the first satomobile she made with him, the first one she made without him, the countless hours of self-defense classes, old pro-bending matches.
Asami was dumbstruck, but she managed to realize one crucial thing. None of those memories were from her own eyes. They were from her father's point of view. From her mother's point of view. Her first steps, her first words (of course it was 'daddy'), her first tooth, the last thing her mother saw.
Herself. Six years old. Terrified. Everything froze there, but she wasn't scared this time.
"If it makes you feel any better," Asami felt a hand on her shoulder. "I set my house on fire, too. That's how my parents found out I was the Avatar." She chuckled lightly. "First the rug, then the furs on the walls...pretty sure I burned off my dad's beard that day, too. He likes to leave out that part of the story."
Asami stared up at herself. "How am I seeing this?"
"Oh, right. This is the Tree of Time." Korra slid her hand down to Asami's and gave her a small squeeze. "Tenzin once told me that it remembers everything. Every memory. Every event. Everything that has ever happened to everyone."
"But why this? Why through my mom's eyes? My dad's?"
"I actually don't know for sure, because I didn't expect this, but if I had to take a guess..." She looked around the inside of the tree, as if searching for something. "Before Kuvira destroyed the swamp, there was a tree very much like this one. The Banyan Grove tree. The entire swamp was made up of the vines that came out of it. The spiritual energy it created was...sympathetic." Korra turned to her and smiled. "Sometimes we just see what we want to see, and other times we see what we need to. I think this is something you needed."
Asami's gaze didn't waver and her memories didn't continue flowing. Why did she need to see this? Her mother died years ago, and her father-
Asami blinked. "I ran away. My father died less than a week ago, and the first chance I got I ran. With you. I lost him once before, and I just couldn't do that all over again." She felt like she should be crying, or something along those lines, but nothing came. "You must have known that."
Korra nodded. "I did."
She turned to her with a hard look. "Then why did you let me? Running from your problems doesn't solve anything."
"I know. I let you because you needed this, and because I wanted it. But also, and pay attention because this is the most important part..." She gestured around the heart of the tree. "...I wasn't going to let you get very far. I can always go home to my family. My parents. I wanted to give you that, or something like it, because I thought that maybe seeing it all over again might..."
Asami wrinkled her nose and looked back up at the image of younger self. Before that moment, she'd been so happy. And after it, things were hard, but she still found happiness with her father. After he tried to kill her, it became more difficult, but Asami had always been an optimist. Things would always work out in the end, so she'd never given up hope. Her breath got caught in her throat. "You wanted to help me remember all of the happiness in my life. You...you knew I'd just push it aside and use the pain of my suffering to drive me forward. To make me stronger. Like I always do."
Korra raised her brows. "Uhhh, yeah, absolutely. That was my plan from the beginning."
Asami looked back at Korra. "Wait..." She snickered at her slightly awkward expression and broke into a full hearty laugh. "You had no idea what would happen, did you?"
"Not a clue."
"You just took me to the tree, shoved me inside, and hoped for the best!"
"That is more or less what happened, but honestly I just thought it might be nice for you to see your parents again." Korra smiled. "Well, and I thought maybe I'd watch this with you. You always talked about your father in such a positive light before things changed, and I...feel like I need to see that. Through your eyes." She sighed. "People can change. Bad to good. Good to bad. Everything in between. The Hiroshi Sato who raised you is not the one I met, but I'd really like to, if that's okay."
Asami wiped budding tears from her eyes and released something that was equal parts sob and chuckle. "Yes. We can do that." She looked back up at her younger self and took a very deep breath. Her memories unfroze and flowed freely. "I think I'll start with my mom first, though."
"I'd like that."
They sat down against the back of the tree and settled in comfortably. Korra set their packs to one side and Asami placed a pillow behind their heads. She had a feeling they'd be there for a while. Asami wrapped her arms around Korra's waist and pulled her closer. She smiled. "Thank you."
"Think of it as me paying you back for the whole 'cactus juice' thing."
"You still need to tell me that story. All of it."
"Tell you what. We get through your memories, then we'll go through mine. Deal?"