When Avatar Korra invited her old friend Corwin Ravenhair and his family to spend some time with her in Dìqiú after his wedding to Utena Tenjou, she had no specific plan in mind, other than to make up some of the time stolen by the scheming of certain White Lotus Masters, repair their damaged friendship, and get to know his loved ones.
But where Utena goes, revolution follows - just not necessarily the kind the Masters were afraid of.
Korra woke slowly, and for a few moments she wasn't sure not just where but who she was. The problem with falling asleep in the Spirit World was that you woke up back in the physical one, and it was very disorienting, particularly if you had a lot of past lives you were in regular touch with. She lay for a few moments half-dreaming in an antiquated dialect of Kokugo, until she finished waking the rest of the way up and remembered that she was not, in fact, the Fire Nation Avatar before Roku.
She turned over, opening her eyes, and found to her momentary surprise that she was on the futon in the solarium. It was still dark outside (not a big surprise; at this time of year, the South Pole lost half an hour or so of daylight a day, so they were down to no more than about four hours now), but enough light was seeping through the room's tinted windows from Nanisivik's nightglow to make it clear where she was. She could make out the blinkenlights on the DesignDesk core across the room, glowing a dull red in sleep mode, and the shadowy shapes of the desks and chairs over in the "design office".
Yawning, she sat up, the covers pooling around her waist, and composed herself for her morning meditation. It felt a little weird to be doing that in the dark; though born and raised in the South Pole, she'd spent a lot of her life at lower latitudes. A little smile came to her lips as she remembered the night before - the epic conversation she'd had with Katara, until the lateness of the hour and the warm sunlight of the Spirit World beach had at last lulled her to sleep in her lounge chair. Back in the physical world, her body must have crawled under the covers on autopilot, because she didn't remember returning at all before nodding off.
Fifteen minutes of meditation later, she rose from the futon and went below to wash up, put on fresh clothes, and get ready for the day. It was 8:34 in the morning when she sloped into the dining room and found Utena, Anthy, Maki, and Minami in the middle of breakfast (and Annabelle present but not dining).
"Good morning, Korra," said Anthy with a smile, gesturing to the seat next to her. "We saved you some toast."
"Morning," said Korra, taking the place (and the toast). "Where is everybody?"
"Ryo and the girls had to head out dark and early if they were going to get to Jinbao on time," Minami said, signaling the steward to bring Korra's breakfast.
"And Garnet refuses to get out of bed while it's still dark out," Utena remarked. "I tried to explain to her that it's going to be dark until noon, but she just said, 'More for me, then.'"
Korra laughed. "Nice."
A moment later, the door from the main companionway opened and Corwin came in, dressed in his good suit and carrying a small duffel bag. "I'm about ready to head out," he reported. "Any last-minute - oh 'ello!"
The last was occasioned as Korra, bolting up from the table, all but lunged across the room and seized him in the kind of hug that turned him almost completely around, his duffel bag swinging outward on its strap like a counterweight.
"I was hoping I'd see you before you left," she said. "Thank you so much for last night."
He grinned. "So you liked your birthday present, then," he said. "I'm so pleased."
"Liked it, it was incredible!" She squeezed him again, then let him go and resumed her seat at the table, blushing furiously in response to the knowing little smiles Utena and Anthy were giving her. "Uh... I just... realized what that sounded like," she said lamely.
Minami snickered; then, with an arched eyebrow, she glanced at Utena and asked, "When do I get my turn?"
"Behave yourself, Miss Sato," said Utena mock-primly; then she grinned at Korra and gave her near shoulder a friendly thump. "I know what you mean, he told us about arranging it last night. I'm glad it went well."
"Well, ladies," said Corwin cheerfully, "I'd better get going. Maki, I probably won't get back until after Kyoshi Island, so I think this is goodbye for now."
"Don't assume you'll be rid of me that easily," said Maki with a grin, rising to give him a hug of her own. "I intend to come up and see this palace of yours once it starts going up."
"You'll be welcome anytime," Corwin assured her. "I'll keep you posted."
He said his goodbyes to the others, with hugs for all and kisses for his Particular Ladies; then he energized the window looking out onto the flight deck, stepped toward it, and vanished.
"Such a cool trick," Minami said, and then, wistfully, "I hope our kids can do that."
Utena snorted and went back to work on her breakfast without further comment.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra / The Order of the Rose
Suite for Avatar and Trinity (The Dìqiú Suite)
Among Honest Hearts
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
with Anne Cross
and Jaymie Wagner
© 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
At this time of year, the Southern Air Temple was bustling. For some parts of the year it was practically deserted apart from its dedicated staff of Air Acolyte caretakers and a few elderly airbenders, no longer nomadic, who chose to retire there; but in the southern autumn, most of the nomadic Air Commonwealth population stopped in for a time. While they were there, the temple became the de facto place for airbenders who were not Commonwealth citizens, and either couldn't afford or didn't want to make the trip to the Central Air Temple in Republic City, to make contact with the nation.
Non-citizen airbenders had never been a problem for the old Air Nation, of course, the one from before the Hundred-Year War. Apart from three out of every four Avatars, there were virtually no airbenders who weren't born Air Nomads. That was... just the way it had worked. All the old nations were like that. Then they were exterminated in the opening stages of the War, and afterward there was just Avatar Aang and his small family, and airbenders teetered on the verge of extinction. By the year 171 after the war began, there were only four, if you didn't count Aang's successor, Avatar Korra.
In that year, though, something strange and wondrous even by the liberal standards of Dìqiú happened, and airbenders began appearing in the world who had no connection at all, genetic or cultural, to the old Air Nomads or to Aang.
Now, 120 years later, the new Air Commonwealth welcomed any and all of those individuals who cared to come to it. Some merely wished to learn how to control their gifts, and had no interest whatever in adopting the ancient and - to be fair - alien culture of the Air Nomads themselves. Others, for various reasons of their own, were eager to cast off whatever cultures they'd been born into and take up that heritage, comporting themselves in the modern version of the old ways.
Sitting on one of the upper balconies of the Air Temple's central tower with her legs dangling over the edge, Lhakpa replayed that history lecture in her head as she watched the people milling around in the courtyard. Air Acolytes and Air Nomads, distinguishable by their opposite-colored robes, moved here and there, speaking with ordinarily-clothed civilians as they arrived on the backs of sky bison from the docks down at the foot of the mountain. Another two dozen had arrived today. Most of the civilians were from the Southern Water Tribe, from the look of them, although she spotted the distinctive garb of a couple of Kyoshi Islanders and some people from the far south of the Earth Kingdom mainland as well.
Look at them all, she thought to herself. In any given year, she had once been told, the Commonwealth would get between two and three hundred of the first type - people who just wanted to be able to go back to their lives without flattening their houses and endangering their families - and twenty or so of the second, the full-on recruits. Not all of the latter would stay, and a handful of the former would decide to, so the final figures worked out roughly the same. Slow but steady growth, and the Commmonwealth thrived, no longer dependent on the single, increasingly diffuse pre-War bloodline that traced back to Avatar Aang.
For those who belonged to that bloodline, thought Lhakpa, the experience was different than a lot of those eager recruits from outside probably thought.
She sighed, got to her feet, and went back inside the temple. Sitting out here watching the traffic wasn't getting her any closer to the answers she needed... or even any closer to knowing whether there were any.
When he'd planned this trip back to what he jokingly called "the real world", Corwin had optimistically estimated that he'd be gone for three days - one for each of the linked but separate Turing evaluation hearings he had been summoned as a witness for, plus one for incidentals. He might, with a little luck, even make it back before the Mirai reached Kyoshi Island.
In the event, his estimate turned out to be very optimistic, because the evaluations bogged down almost immediately into exactly the sort of grinding technical death march he had, on some level, been afraid they would turn into. With the first of a brand new class of highly advanced robots AND the first example of an old and NOT very advanced class ever to seek certification before them, the Turing Board were taking absolutely nothing on faith. They were going back to first principles on everything, and Corwin, to his colossal frustration, could only play their game.
He kept in regular contact with his family all the while, at first by making Lens contact with either Utena or Korra, now that the trans-Veil relay was on the network. That allowed only second-level contact with anyone else, though, and by the third night he decided it simply wouldn't do.
The Mirai was a few hours out of Port Suki, having delivered Maki back to the island in good time. The sun had just set, and the western sky was still a blaze of orange and pink, filling the solarium with soft colors. Korra sat at the DesignDesk, tinkering in a desultory sort of way with one of the diagrams.
Minami, sitting in her armchair by the door, recognized the look of a person trying to make work for herself and chuckled. Ryo's latest report indicated that everything was proceeding very well at the job site. Between that and Corwin being gone, she expected that Korra had more or less run out of things to do by this point. Any moment now, she might even admit it to herself.
At the sound of her soft chuckle, Utena glanced over from the futon with a questioning look. Minami was about to explain when Korra's gearPhone rang, startling everyone in the room slightly (well, Annabelle didn't seem to care).
Korra pushed herself away from the DesignDesk and got the phone out, regarding it with something slightly like dread. Most of the reasons she could think of for a phone call out of the blue at this hour were not good ones. She'd been lucky so far on this trip - indeed, in this spring so far, generally - and no major crisis had arisen that needed her urgent attention, but perhaps her luck had just run out. Sighing, she opened the phone and raised it to her ear.
"Hey, Korra, it's me," Corwin's voice replied, sounding tired but pleased to hear her.
She blinked. "Corwin? Are you back in Dìqiú? Why didn't you just come to the Mirai?"
"No, I'm still on Turing III," said Corwin wearily.
Korra took the phone away from her head to regard it with a look of puzzlement, then put it back and asked, "Then how are you calling this phone? I don't have a cross-Veil calling plan on my mobile."
"Hi, Norse god, good with tools," Corwin said conversationally.
Korra laughed. "OK, fair point," she said. "I bet you want to talk to Anthy. Or Minami, but I have a harder time picturing that," she added with a playfully pointed look at the latter. Minami stuck her tongue out.
"I will be happy to talk to anyone and everyone," Corwin said, "so long as they aren't members of the Turing Board. Perhaps I should start with the mother of my present as opposed to future child, however. Seniority."
"Oh, for - don't you start too," said Korra.
"Sorry, was that my outside voice?" Corwin asked. "Tired, filters down for maintenance. Anthy, please."
"Right, hang on." She lowered the phone, got down from her stool, and crossed to offer it to Anthy. "Corwin, for you," she said, and then added with a wink, "He's in a very you mood. Don't encourage him."
"Whyever would you think I would do such a thing?" Anthy inquired innocently, taking the phone. "Hello, dear, we're just talking about you..."
"Do you guys not have phones of your own?" Minami asked Utena, looking surprised.
"Nope," Utena replied, shaking her head. "Corwin's got his omni-tool, and we've mostly been on Air Temple Island since we came to Dìqiú, with landlines right handy... guess we didn't think of it."
"Hmm. Well, that won't do," said Minami with a grin. "Remind me in the morning and I'll hook you up. Or at least Anthy. Otherwise Corwin won't be able to reach her if Korra's wandered off someplace. She does that sometimes," she added with a sly wink. "Short attention span."
"I can hear you, you know," Korra remarked without looking away from the DesignDesk's screen.
Later that night, Korra found herself changing up her game a little bit, just for variety's sake. Instead of heading down to the flight deck to do her usual evening workout before bed, she went up to the front of the ship, as far forward as it was possible to go before the small foredeck came to a point. In the militarized production version of the Mirai class, there was a gun turret here (the catalog offered a range of different types based on how the ships' operators planned to crew them). Minami had dispensed with such an item on her yacht and extended the railing around the foredeck out to where it would be, replacing the turret itself with a further expanse of flat, rubberized deck plating.
In doing so, she had (perhaps without meaning to) created a perfect spot for a person to sit and do a little meditating, at least if that person didn't mind meditating in a 45-knot headwind. Korra didn't; in fact, she rather preferred it to complete calm, which she tended to find a little oppressive, and so the forepeak had become one of her favorite places aboard the ship.
If the truth were told, she wasn't really meditating in any sense that her teachers of old would have accepted as such. To old conventionalists like Tenzin the Elder, meditation meant clearing the mind, reducing it to an empty stillness, or as close as one could get; but empty stillness wasn't in Korra's nature. She was a water spirit, and still water is dead water. When she sat someplace with her eyes closed, unmoving, and wasn't just asleep, what she was nearly always really doing was having a quiet think about something - exactly the opposite of meditation as customarily understood.
Utena and Anthy found her there half an hour or so later, when they emerged from the hatch leading out onto the foredeck from the compartment below the bridge. Spotting the familiar figure sitting out at the point of the deck in the dark, Utena nearly called out to her - something along the lines of "There you are!" - unti she realized they had barged into Quiet Time and tried to make a discreet withdrawal instead.
Before they could do that, Korra turned without rising and looked back over her shoulder; they could see her eyes glint in the moonlight, followed a moment later by her teeth as she smiled at the sight of them.
"Hey, guys," she said, raising a hand. "C'mon out, it's a nice night."
"We didn't mean to interrupt your meditation," said Anthy as she and Utena made their way forward to join her.
"Eh, spiritual tranquility is overrated," said Korra casually, hitching herself around to face aft. Utena and Anthy seated themselves side by side, facing her and each other, to make a little triangular grouping. Despite the fact that they were nearing the equator again, it was a slightly chilly night, at least when the Mirai's speed was taken into account. Utena (as ever) didn't seem to care about that, but Anthy had prudently broken out her Water Tribe amautik - although, as the Rose Priestess settled herself into seiza, Korra noticed that its pocket was empty.
"Where's Annabelle?" she wondered.
"Minami is looking after her for a while," said Anthy with a smile.
"Or helping Garnet look after her, as I'm sure Garnet would prefer we put it," Utena added.
"You guys want to be careful with that," Korra warned; at the puzzled look this drew from them both, she went on with a wry smile, "The more time Minami spends with Annabelle, the more it's going to make her think about her own plans."
"Ah, so she's not joking about wanting to have Corwin's babies?" said Utena. Her tone was light, even mischievous; she seemed neither surprised nor particularly concerned by the idea.
"Oh, she is," Korra assured her. "But someday she may well not be anymore. You have to understand, that's how the women in that family have always operated. Minami and Ryo's parents have been the exception so far; their father didn't have a father of record, and neither did his mother, or her mother." She smiled wryly. "The Sato women are an independent bunch, but they care about their posterity. It's not anything you have to worry about right now - she's not ready for motherhood yet and she wouldn't go there without your permission - but one of these days, I'm pretty sure you are going to get that call."
"Well," said Anthy, so mildly that it wasn't immediately obvious whether she was joking, "I'm certainly in no position to be scandalized by the idea."
Utena chuckled. "Yeah, seriously," she said. "As for me, well... I mean, it'd be OK with me if they did it the science-y way, unlike Nature Priestess over here," she added wryly, "but I can't fault her for being interested in picking up some quality genes."
"You actually mean that, don't you," said Korra, giving the two women a faintly amazed look. "You guys are really something."
"Thank you," said Anthy modestly, "we try."
"And speaking of sharing Corwin," Utena began, and Anthy, her serene composure almost audibly fracturing, turned and gave her a look best described as a silent cry of, Seriously?!
" - What?" Utena asked, shrugging. Then, turning back to the startled-looking Avatar, she went on in what Korra felt was a weirdly conversational tone, "It's just that Anthy and I've noticed recently that things seem to be changing between you and Corwin, and we're a little worried about where it looks like it's headed."
(Anthy actually dropped her forehead into her hand at that, which would've struck Korra as very funny if she hadn't been so mortified.)
Utena could see Korra's face going red even in the dim moonlight and sighed, exasperated at herself now. "That didn't come out right," she grumbled before Anthy could point it out. Reaching out, she forestalled any reply by seizing the Avatar's hands and pulling them toward her. "We're worried about you, Korra," she said earnestly.
"... Uh?" said Korra, surprised enough to abandon the half-formed I-would-never that she'd been working on.
"C'mon, it's me," Utena added wryly. "You ought to know by now that if I was ticked about something, I'd have just come up here and started a fight. What I'm trying to do is put your mind at ease."
"Your mind and your heart," Anthy put in, moving nearer to add her own hands to the clasp. "We've seen how self-conscious you're becoming about your affection for him, and we don't want that. It can lead to nothing but confusion and pain. Corwin will notice you pulling away from him sooner or later, and he might not know how to read it - and it's perfectly unnecessary, I promise you. The bond you two share is beautiful to us, and we don't care what anyone else thinks it looks like." With a mildly reproachful smile, she added, "I would've thought you'd have realized that about us by now."
Korra hesitated, looking as if she were caught in a corner between pleased and dismayed. "I... don't know what to say."
"Remember what you told me when I had my little meltdown?" Utena asked. "Say what you want to say, however you want to say it. You can say anything to us."
Korra raised an eyebrow slightly. "Anything?" she said, and something in her tone was almost a warning.
"Anything," Anthy agreed, gently squeezing her hands.
Korra looked from one of them to the other for a few seconds, then let out a long, slow breath. "OK, look. A big part of it is appearances. I'm a very physical person. You've probably noticed," she added wryly, drawing smiling nods from both Tenjous. "Some of my predecessors as Avatar were so spiritual as to almost transcend material reality, but I'm... not one of them." Half-smiling in spite of herself at a memory, she added, "Someone I met early in my career once told Master Tenzin that I'd had a hard time getting a handle on the spiritual part of my job because I was, and I quote, 'too busy having, and enjoying the various uses of, a body.'"
"Ha haa, right on," said Utena, grinning.
"I did eventually get the spirit thing working," Korra went on, "but I'm still pretty fond of having a body. And, well, that makes me... very tactile. I'm not an arm's-length kind of girl, especially about things and people I like. Normally that isn't a problem, but sometimes it can be misunderstood. You saw that first-hand with that business with the Tribune, which... well, we sorted it out, but it got me thinking, and once I start thinking, sometimes it's hard to stop. You remember what Kate said at lunch when the Trib thing finally broke open? 'If you had been on a date, it would have looked exactly the same.' I keep thinking about that, because she was totally right."
"That's OK, though," said Utena earnestly. "That's what we're trying to tell you."
Korra nodded. "I know. And I really appreciate it! Honestly, I do. But... it's... not entirely..." She trailed off, her face closing down, and looked away.
Utena waited for her to go on with her thought. It didn't happen. After a few silent seconds, she let go of Korra's hands with one of hers, reached up, and gently touched her cheek instead, asking in a low, caring voice,
"I..." Korra hesitated again, looking into her eyes, then lowered her own and confessed in a tone that was starkly unlike her usual one, "I'm... afraid."
"Of what?" said Anthy.
"Of this," Korra replied. "Of even having this conversation." Raising her eyes to theirs again, she went on in a slight rush, "I'm afraid if I even acknowledge that I know what you're talking about, it's all going to go horribly wrong."
Anthy made a soft sound of concern and squeezed their linked hands. "That's what we're trying to tell you, angijuvuk. You need never fear speaking plainly with us."
Korra blinked, surprised - she hadn't realized Anthy knew any Tukisi, so to be addressed by her as "our sister" in it was startling - and then shook her head, looking down at the deck. "About something like this, I'm not even sure I dare speak plainly with myself."
"Ahh, I get it," said Utena with a nod. "You're kinda freaked out, 'cause you've known the boy his whole life, and now sometimes you catch yourself thinking, 'Oh 'ello.'"
Korra looked up, too startled to guard her reaction, and blurted, "How did you -" before she could catch herself.
Utena's expression wasn't the malicious grin of a jealous woman who has just caught out a rival; instead, it was a comradely smile, almost a sisterly one, as of one discovering that a new friend shares one of her most passionate interests.
"You know the old saying," she said cheerfully. "Takes one to know one. I've been bumping into that door for years. Doesn't bother me that I'm not the only one." She grinned. "It's another thing we have in common."
"It's so weird, though," Korra protested.
"Is it?" Anthy wondered.
Korra gave her an are-you-kidding-me look, booted out of her moment of unaccustomed fear by their feigned obtuseness. "Uh, yeah," she said. "You know full well it is. Because Utena's right, I've known Corwin his whole life. Literally his whole life. I mean..." She removed her hands gently from theirs and held them up, regarding them in the moonlight. "I mean these hands... were the first ones that ever touched him."
She looked up from her hands to Utena's eyes. "You don't ever get over that," she said seriously. "It leaves a mark that never goes away. And you don't want it to go away, I wouldn't trade it for anything - but it colors everything that comes after it. I would never take advantage, but... but it's just... I catch myself noticing him and it makes me feel... strange." She sighed again, puffing her cheeks. "So what you've been seeing, that wasn't only me not wanting to hurt your feelings. It was also me not knowing what to do with my own."
Utena nodded. "I understand. Believe it or not, I've had a taste or two of that myself from time to time. I'm only a year and a half older than he is, but when we first met, it was a really significant year and a half. I was a few days short of my 15th birthday, and for... reasons we don't need to get into right now... I was a very mature 15 in terms of my life experiences." At this, Anthy silently reached between them and placed a hand on Utena's folded left leg, just above the knee, bowing her head a little sadly.
Utena gave her a small, thankful smile, leaving Korra to marvel at their powers of silent communication, and went on, "The situation was a little different, I grant you, 'cause Corwin fell hard for me almost instantly, but it took me months to realize it. I said I was mature, I never said I was particularly perceptive," she added wryly, leavening the moment a little. "Anyway, my point is, he was still really just a boy when that happened, and I was... already almost a woman, in some ways. So I felt all kinds of weird about it when I found that I was starting to feel a more-than-friendly attraction to him myself. I can only imagine how much more intense and strange that must be for you, but I think I kind of know what it tastes like."
Korra nodded, but didn't interject, sensing that there was more to Utena's point - an impression that was confirmed a moment later, when the Rose Prince took a breath and continued,
"But I'll tell you what didn't help, and that was denying it. Holding it down and hoping it would go away. Letting it stop me from just being honest and acting natural. That didn't help - it didn't help for the rest of that year, and it didn't help for almost four years after he managed to bring Anthy and me back together again. I thought I was doing the right thing - we both did - but all we were really doing was hurting each other. And ourselves. And even Anthy, in a way."
"Korra," said Anthy kindly, "we realize that, simply because of your position in this world, you're not always completely free. We would relieve you of one small part of that burden, because we love and trust you. You're part of our family. Our beloved's oldest friend; our sister in word and bond; our only child's sauniq."
If Korra had been surprised that Anthy knew angijuvuk, she was genuinely shocked - mostly in a good way - that she knew the word sauniq.
Literally the Tukisi word for "bone", in the context of family it conveyed all the vast depth of meaning in Korra's relation to Annabelle Korra Tenjou and her parents that the pale, technical Anglo-Standard word "namesake" couldn't carry. That Anthy would invoke it now revealed something of not only the extent to which she'd studied the ways of Water Tribe family life, but also the strength of her belief in what she was saying; and Utena, by her side, was unwavering in her silent (for the moment) concurrence with all the Rose Priestess said.
"You must never feel constrained with any of us," Anthy went on, looking Korra straight in the eye.
"Especially not Corwin," Utena put in.
Anthy nodded agreement, leaned forward, and embraced the Avatar; after a moment, Utena joined in, murmuring, "We haven't brought him back into your life just to force you apart."
Korra blinked several times, both in an effort to bring everything she was being told on board, and to clear her eyes of the tears that threatened to well up in them at the intensity of this completely unexpected conversation. For a few seconds, through the group hug and out the other side as they all resumed their seats in their little triangular group, no one spoke.
At length, Korra chuckled wryly and said, "The funny thing is, it's kind of a moot point anyway. Like I told Emily - homewrecking's not my game."
"You couldn't wreck our home, you're part of it," Utena said positively. "Besides, we're not talking about outcomes here, just... being open to possibilities."
Anthy nodded agreement. "This is about love, and trust, and communication. You'll never be able to resolve your other concerns if you're not able to go forward with an open heart; they'll only fester and grow ever more confused. So... let go, Korra. Be free, be happy, be at ease. Embrace your feelings, whatever they are or may evolve into, and don't be afraid to show them."
"What do you care what other people think?" Utena added with a snarky grin, banking on either Corwin or Gryphon, sometime in the last 19 years, having given her the background for the reference.
Evidently one of them had, because at that, Korra laughed, feeling all the dismay and trepidation that had been surging inside her throughout the conversation flow out of her and into the cool night air.
Then, once it had gone and left her feeling clean and a little bit empty, she sat looking up at the riot of stars in the sky for a moment, her eyes automatically picking out the familiar equatorial constellations. The Dragon; the Great and Lesser Platypus Bears; Huei the Hunter.
With a sigh that was equal parts relief and resignation, she got to her feet, reached down to help both of the Tenjous up, and headed with them back into the ship. They said nothing until they reached the companionway leading up to the bridge tower and down to the guest quarters.
"I'm... gonna have to do a lot more thinking about all this," Korra said, "but... thanks, you guys. I..." She searched for the words. "I really appreciate that you care enough to haul everything into the open... however shocked I still am that you did it," she added.
Utena smiled. "Hey, it was my turn," she said easily. "Remember when I told you about 'whatever's bothering you, bring it to me'?" Korra nodded; Utena hugged her and went on, "Well, what I didn't mention at the time is that the level above that is, 'Whatever's bothering you, I'll bring it to you.'"
Korra chuckled, hugging her back, and was mildly surprised to be kissed on the cheek before they parted. Just before they all went their separate ways, it occurred to her to ask,
"By the way, uh... has anyone actually asked Corwin what he thinks at any point?"
"Not yet," Anthy replied. Then, with a slightly evil grin, she added, "I thought we might just wait and see how long it takes him to notice."
"Please note: not my plan," Utena put in.
"In the meantime," said Anthy, "relax and be yourself. When Corwin comes back, if the fancy takes you to touch him, just touch him. Hug him, kiss him, jump on his back, steal his clothes and wear them yourself - I've done that, it's quite good fun," she remarked with an emerald wink. "Whatever your heart calls on you to do." Giving the Avatar a hug and kiss of her own, she added quietly, "Among honest hearts and open minds, the rest will look after itself."
"Thank you," Korra murmured.
"You're welcome, angijuvuk," said Anthy, and she and Utena went below. Korra stood at the base of the bridge tower stairs for a moment, looking at where they had just been, and then went not down to her own quarters, but upstairs to the solarium. She wanted to be up high and close to the open tonight.
Niri, sprawled in the middle of the floor and snoring much more gently than a beast of her size could really be expected to snore, didn't wake when she arrived. Korra smiled at the sight, took off her boots and trousers, and climbed into the futon, then arranged herself not for sleep, but further contemplation.
The Mirai docked in Future City on Saturday night, late enough that the Air Temple was mostly asleep when Korra and the Tenjous finally made it to the island. After unloading their things from the Agni VI with Minami's help, packing her off back to the city and her own bed, and then carrying everything up the hill with Niri's uncomplaining assistance, they all went straight to bed. Korra didn't even have the energy to go back down to her own room in the ladies' quarters, or perhaps she simply didn't want to, and crashed on the futon in the project office instead.
By the time they rose the next day, they'd missed breakfast with the airbenders, but that was no great hardship. Utena simply dusted off her pancaking skills, which had lain idle for most of her Dìqiú vacation, and went to work. Within ten minutes, all three women, Garnet, and Makoto were enjoying some fine quickbread products and fruits, while the ones who had powers of speech exercised them cheerfully. It was exactly the kind of morning Korra preferred: late-rising, low-pressure, convivial, and pancake-equipped. It reminded her fondly of happy mornings on Crescent Island at the height of the preparations for Phoenix Flight.
Now that she was back on the island, and back in springtime in the northern hemisphere, Anthy had reluctantly closeted her amautik and gone back to her modified Air Nomad style of crimson tunic and robe. Which wasn't to say she minded that style, far from it, but she had to admit the Water Tribe garment was a lot simpler than lashing Annabelle to her back or chest with her airbender sash. For her part, Annabelle didn't seem to care one way or the other. Assuming she was clean and well-fed, she would repose happily in whatever enclosure she was put in, so long as at least one of her parents, one of the other adults on her Preferred Persons list, and/or Garnet was close by.
"... So Juri looks the guy right in the eye and says, 'Laugh? I nearly bought one!'" Utena said. They were all still laughing - Garnet wasn't even sure what at, since she didn't know Juri, but Utena's delivery had sold it anyway - when they heard a door open at the far end of the hall and a familiar voice call,
"Hello? Anybody home? Don't tell me you're all still at sea or something."
"Did you hear that, Annabelle?" Anthy asked the infant, smiling. "Your father's home at last."
Utena leaned toward the archway to the hall and shouted, "Kitchen!"
Corwin arrived in the doorway a moment later, still (or, well, more likely "again") wearing his good suit and looking a bit tired, but reasonably pleased with the outcome of his expedition. "Hey, here are all my favorite ladies together in one room," he remarked as he entered. "How lucky can one guy get?"
"Don't let your mother hear you say that," Utena quipped. "Hungry? Pancakes."
"No thanks," Corwin replied. "It's late afternoon for me - I hit the Johnny Rockets in the Turing Institute's food court before I left. Also, just for the record, if Mom had been here to hear me say that, problem solves itself."
Rising from her seat, Korra laughed and went to give him a hug. This was the first test of her new "stop filtering yourself" policy, and she had to apply all her clear-your-mind training (unevenly absorbed at the best of times, she had to admit) to stop herself from thinking (self-)consciously about it as she hugged him and said, "Welcome back," before impulsively kissing him on the cheek.
"Oh come on, you call that a welcome-back kiss?" said Utena, shouldering her out of the way. "Like this," she added, then embraced her husband and gave him a good, old-fashioned thanks-for-showing-me-the-World-Engine kiss. It wasn't an especially erotic kiss, certainly not one of those prelude-to-buttons-being-torn-off ones, but it was passionate and tender, and delivered a definite message that she was very pleased to see him.
When it was finished, she looked Corwin in the eye, gave him a mischievous little smile he couldn't figure out how to read, and then stepped aside, gestured to Korra, and said, "Now you try."
In the space of a few milliseconds, Korra's expression went from startled to faintly dismayed to peculiarly determined; with an instant's challenging glance at Utena - Don't think I'll do it, do you? - she stepped forward, seized the lapels of Corwin's suitjacket, and planted a proper smooch of her own on him as his eyes went wide with surprise. Hers was a little fiercer - on Utena's personal kiss reference scale, more of a thanks-for-rescuing-me-from-Worcester - but not rough by any means, and there was a distinct note of warmth in it. All in all, quite a respectable effort for the spur of the moment.
Utena and Anthy made impressed eye contact, then turned back to observe. "Gosh, she learns fast," Utena mused.
"Mm," said Anthy with a sage nod, photographing the scene with the phone Minami had given her. "The lapel grab is quite an advanced technique."
After a couple of seconds, Korra turned him loose and stepped back, grinning a little guiltily at his blankly astonished face.
"Was that weird?" she asked, slightly breathless.
Corwin blinked slowly at her, as if taking longer than normal to parse the question; then, in a matter-of-fact sort of voice, he replied, "Um, yes! Yes it was."
"Good weird or bad weird?" Korra wondered, looking wary.
He worked on that one for even longer, a full two or three seconds, and then replied, "... Reply hazy, try again," in a tone of near-complete bafflement.
"(No fair, that wasn't a yes-or-no question,)" Utena muttered to Anthy, who giggled.
"Don't mind if I," Korra began with a sly little grin, but then her gearPhone rang, forestalling the rest of her remark. Scowling, she muttered, "(Seriously?!)" as she hauled it out to check the caller ID. With a soft growl, she flipped it open, raised it to her ear, and snapped without preamble, "I'm right in the middle of something, Rei!"
The reply was inaudible to anyone else in the room except as a sort of tinny scratching noise, but even that was enough to give the impression that the caller was very agitated - an impression Korra reinforced a moment later by saying in a less annoyed tone, "Whoa, whoa, slow down, Rei, deep breaths. Daisuke did what? ... Well what did he figure he was going to accomplish with that? No, no, rhetorical question. OK, I'm on my way. Tell Eitaro to meet me there with my spare gear, I don't have time to suit up here. Yeah. Bye."
Closing the phone with a sigh, she looked around the kitchen, then said, "I gotta go. Task force trouble."
"Anything we can help with?" Utena asked, but Korra shook her head.
"Nah, I think we can handle it," she said. "Just the squad's token firebender having another of his Brilliant Plans." She rolled her eyes. "I don't like to seem like I'm profiling, but sometimes it really does feel like those guys all came from the same factory. Anyway, gotta run, Eitaro's waiting." With a hard-to-read little smile, she leaned and kissed Corwin again, the gesture much quicker but by no means perfunctory; then she told him, "We'll get back to this later," turned, and hustled off down the hall.
"...... looking forward to it?" he said, at around the same time that the front door banged shut behind her. He stood blinking bemusedly off down the hall for a second, then turned to Utena and Anthy. "What just happened?" he wondered.
"Dang," said Garnet as she uncoiled from Annabelle's wrap and sprang to Utena's shoulder. "That girl's easier to play than an autoharp."
"If you know the right buttons to press," Anthy agreed.
"You're a six-week-old dragon, how do you even know what an autoharp is?" Utena wondered.
Garnet drew herself up with miniature offended dignity. "I'll have you know I come from a very musical lineage. My uncle invented the erhu."
"Riiight," said Utena, in a deliberately unconvincing "so that's it" voice.
"Hi, deeply confused husband on line one," Corwin tried again.
"Why don't you two go for a walk?" Anthy suggested. "Annabelle and I have some business to attend to."
"Nap time!" Garnet declared, darting back to her station in Annabelle's wrap.
"It's always nap time with you," Utena said, rolling her eyes. "C'mon, Makoto, we'll take Mr. Boomerang."
They walked out to the cliffside perch where Utena had spent an evening some weeks before, sat down about where she and Korra had been at the time, and he threw the boomerang for the flying lemur to chase while Utena tried to explain certain developments.
She was about halfway through recounting the curious conversation she, Anthy, and Korra had had on Monday night, after his first phone call from Turing, when she was interrupted by what sounded like a roll of distant thunder. Pausing, she looked around and saw no evidence of anything other than a lovely sunny day in progress - blue sky and fluffy white clouds as far as the eye could see in all directions.
"Did you hear that?" Utena asked.
Corwin gazed off toward the Republic City skyline to the northeast, his face in a curious, thoughtful frown. "Yeah," he said.
"Thunder, you think? I don't see any signs, but... " She chuckled. "It doesn't seem likely that someone's shelling Republic City."
"I'm not sure. I thought I heard... " Corwin murmured, his voice trailing off. Then, shaking his head, he said, "You're probably right. Anyway, go on. I remain mightily confused."
He was still confused a few minutes later, when another unexpected sound interrupted Utena's narrative. This one was much closer to hand, and almost instantly recognizable: the sound of an infant crying, coming to them on the breeze from the direction of the house. Even if they hadn't recognized Annabelle's voice, she was the only baby on the island right now.
For a second, Utena and Corwin almost filed it as normal and went on with what they were doing. Annabelle was a very quiet baby, but even so, it wasn't in any way startling or unusual for her to cry, for the same reasons any six-week-old did. It was a generic master caution alarm, indicating anything from "I require immediate maintenance" to "I cannot reach the object I have just decided I must touch immediately" to virtually any other routine state of affairs in between. Anthy and Garnet were with her, and well able to handle any such routine fault.
A moment later, that assumption was dashed to bits as the sound of Annabelle's crying changed, ramping up in both frequency and amplitude to become an outright banshee wail. This was no ordinary alarm; it reached deep into the mammalian brains of its hearers and flicked an ancient switch, causing an instant and involuntary surge of adrenaline. Corwin and Utena bolted to their feet, two billion years of evolution priming them to fight or flee at the sound of their offspring in serious distress. They glanced at each other, confirmed that they both were hearing it, and then took off for the house at full pelt, shouting for Makoto to follow them.
By the time they emerged from the bamboo thicket next to the house and into the courtyard, the sound had attracted a few passers-by as well. Lhakpa and Nyima were both among them, the former pushing her way through the small crowd of Air Acolytes that was gathering, the latter slipping gracefully between and around them to arrive in the clear ahead of her sister.
"What is it?" Lhakpa inquired, real dismay on her face. "What's wrong?"
"How should I know, I'm still out here," Corwin snapped, dashing past her. The two airbender sisters shared a look - he's got a point, Nyima seemed to be saying - and then followed him and Utena into the house.
The four of them burst together into the front room to find Anthy holding Annabelle close, trying to soothe her, and the child not having any of it. Even the arrival of her two dads (as Utena sometimes half-jokingly classified herself and Corwin) and Nyima, one of her favorite people, couldn't entirely quell her cries, though they did at least ramp down from a continual shriek of anguish to fitful wails of intense misery.
"What's the matter?" Utena asked. "Is she hurt?"
Anthy shook her head. "No," she said, "she's fine, it's just - Garnet's disappeared."
Utena blinked at her. "What do you mean, disappeared?"
"Exactly what I said," Anthy replied, more than a little sharply; her daughter's distress hadn't exactly rattled her, but it had clearly placed her on edge. "She disappeared. One moment she was with us, curled up in the usual way; the next, she was gone. Annabelle was asleep, but when she woke up and found Garnet gone, well... you heard."
"Did you hear a sound like far-off thunder when it happened?" Corwin asked before anyone else could offer a follow-up.
Anthy looked slightly surprised. "Yes," she said. "Corwin, do you know -"
Corwin's face darkened to a scowl, his big fists involuntarily closing. "Nall," he growled. "What the hell are you playing at?"
"What's Nall got to do with it?" Lhakpa demanded.
Corwin shot her a do-not-you-start-with-me glare, then turned back to Utena and Anthy and said, "Dragons have this thing they do - an ancient form of magic that's tied up with their language. One of the tricks they can do with it is summoning another dragon whose Name they know."
"You're saying you think Nall kidnapped your daughter's dragon?!" Lhakpa burst out.
"I can't think of any other who would know her Name," he replied, his voice tightly controlled. "He was there when she told it to Annabelle."
"Why would he do that?" Nyima wondered.
Before Corwin or Utena could voice the reply that crossed their minds at the same moment, Lhakpa surprised them both by doing it for them:
"I don't know, but I'm damn well going to find out." Then, turning, she marched angrily toward the door, snapping back over her shoulder, "Come on, you three. Nyima, we're going to need Vayu."
"I'm on it," Nyima replied instantly, fishing her bison whistle out of her tunic as the sisters, suddenly and unconsciously welded back into a team, left the room together.
"... Unexpected," Corwin observed, startled out of his fury for a moment. Then he turned to Anthy. "Will you be OK if we -"
Anthy nodded. "Go," she said. "I'll tend to Annabelle. She's in no real danger... except possibly of a broken heart," she added with a tender, sad look, smoothing her still-inconsolable daughter's tousled violet hair.
"We'll be back as soon as we can," Corwin promised, kissing first the baby, then her mother, and turning to go.
"And we'll bring Garnet with us," Utena added, repeating both operations.
When Corwin and Utena reached the courtyard, they were surprised and a bit annoyed to find that Nyima and Lhakpa hadn't made it any farther than that. They both seemed to have gotten distracted by something; they were standing there staring off to the northeast, their faces slack with something that looked very like shock.
"What?" Utena asked. "What's the problem?"
Lhakpa raised a slightly trembling hand and pointed. "Look."
Corwin and Utena turned to look - then blinked in surprise and stood rooted themselves, unable to do anything but look for a moment.
Nall stood looking down at Republic City, miles away and 7,000 or so feet below him, and decided that the time had come to have a private word with his cousin. Gathering his will, he drew a deep breath, then spoke three syllables in the old tongue, his voice channeling ancient magic with a sound like thunder:
Summoned by an elder Shouting her Name, Garnet had little choice in the matter - none at all, really, since this was the first time it had happened to her, and she had no idea what was going on. Hadn't even really been awake when she heard the sound at some level deeper than her ears, felt reality subtly twisted by the demands of the Voice, and then she was... not where she'd been. If she'd recognized what was happening, she might've turned it into a battle of wills, and possibly even won, but as it was, she simply found herself whisked from the warm comfort of her station by Annabelle to a chilly mountaintop miles from the city.
"What the crap!" the little red dragon declared. Uncoiling her body from around empty air, she looked around in complete confusion for a second, until she spotted her cousin standing a few yards away. He was in his human-like form, dressed up in those clothes that made him look like one of Korra's relatives, and he was giving her a strange, grim look she had neither the context nor any real desire to parse.
"Drem yol lok, little red," said Nall. "We have to talk."
Garnet looked around a moment longer, taking a moment to get what he'd just done fully on board, then turned and fixed him with a venomous glare. "OK, A, how the hell did you do that, and B, never do it again," she snarled. "Do you have any idea how rude that was?!"
Nall folded his arms. "Be quiet and listen," he said. "There are things you have to know about being a dragon. Things the Dreaming didn't teach you."
"You dragged me up here to Angstberg so you could give me a lecture about being a dragon?!" Garnet demanded. "I kinda think I've got that one, thanks. Look, if I don't get back down there right now, there is going to be hell to pay in a minute. Just undo whatever you just did, come on down to the island, and we'll talk about what an idiot you are when I've got more time."
"Six weeks out of the shell, you have as much time as I say you have!" Nall snapped. "Now listen. I'm trying to help you, though seeing you take this attitude I'm no longer sure why."
"Help me? Help me?!" said Garnet. "Of all the high-handed - if you wanted to talk to me so bad, you knew where I was. Why not just, I don't know, come see me? Or pick up a phone like a normal person!"
"That's exactly my point," said Nall. "We're not normal people."
"Oh, and that gives us the right to teleport each other away from our loved ones with no warning, I don't think," Garnet shot back. "Get over yourself, furball. You may be older than me - pff, about three eyeblinks older, in dragon years - but that does not make you the boss of me. Now send me back to the island before Annabelle notices I've gone. I've never left her while she was asleep before. I don't think she'd take it very well."
Nall scowled at her. "Then maybe you'd better stop spitting and hissing and just listen to what I have to tell you."
Garnet facepalmed (which involves a slightly epic bodily contortion in short-legged serpentine dragons). "Fine, I'll walk," she said, unfurling her wings and taking to the air. "You can just stay up here and be all groovy with yourself for all I care."
Slightly to her surprise, her elder's response to this was to assume his fully draconic form, looming over her with his own feathery wings outspread. "Sit, down," he boomed.
Garnet wheeled, darted up, and hovered mere inches from his muzzle so she could glare into his eyes. The disparity in their sizes was such that he wouldn't even have had to chew her, but she showed absolutely no fear as she shouted into his face, "Is that supposed to intimidate me? Is this what you're reduced to now, O mighty paragon of white dragons? Bullying six-week-old hatchlings who have better things to do than listen to your teenage angst poetry? Well let me tell YOU something, Freiherr von Arschgesicht, I've had about - ... enough... of... holy flying crap."
Nall's furious scowl became a puzzled one as she trailed off, her tiny face going slack, fire-opal eyes fixed on a point somewhere behind him. Bending his long neck, he turned his head to look up and back... and then his own fanged mouth dropped open in astonishment.
Downtown, Korra emerged from a dockside warehouse, sweaty and begrimed. Behind her, the Fire Department had the problem contained and wouldn't require her assistance any further; so, with a grateful heart, she went to one of the open barrels of water set out for the refreshment of the firefighters and directed about half of its contents over her head, sluicing soot and dirt from herself and her modified police armor.
"Do I even really want a briefing on this one?" asked Inspector Eitaro Imanishi dryly from a few yards away.
"Believe it or not, it's actually not as bad as it looks," Korra replied, waterbending her hair dry again. "One of us is going to have to give Daisuke the why-do-we-not-go-undercover-without-telling-anyone talk again, though - not it!"
Imanishi, who had opened his mouth to say the last two words himself, closed it again with a chuckle. The two colleagues grinned at each other for a second; then Imanishi sighed and said,
"Well, at least we don't have to raid this particular building now." Behind him, part of the warehouse collapsed; he didn't even blink, much less turn around to look. "Thanks for your help, all the same. This could've gone a few different ways. Rei told me you were in the middle of something when she called?"
Korra surprised the inspector by blushing slightly, her grin becoming a little bit wry. "Nothing I can't get back to," she said, then frowned and added, "What's with them?"
Imanishi turned to look where she was looking. There was a small crowd of people at the end of the block, being kept clear of the police line by a couple of uniformed officers, and suddenly everyone over there - civilians, cops, the lot - was pointing off to the northeast and exclaiming in surprise. Puzzled, the inspector and Korra turned to look in that direction.
Two forms were circling one of the mountain peaks a few miles outside the city. At first, Korra thought they might be airplanes, until their long, sinuous shapes and the fluidity of their movements registered on her, and she realized with a profound shock what - WHO - they were.
Dragons. A pair of them, long and sleek, their scales flashing in the sunlight as they banked and wheeled in an intricate, interlocking aerial dance above and around the peak. One red, the other blue, but otherwise virtually identical. As far as she was aware, Korra knew all the dragons left in Dìqiú who had seen fit to make themselves known to anyone, and these two were especially unforgettable - all the more so because, based on everything she thought she knew about them, they shouldn't be there.
"Two dragons!" one of the tinheads on crowd control cried. "What does it mean?"
Without pausing to speculate, Korra snatched her glider-staff from where she'd left it leaning on a patrol car and dashed up the street. In one smooth sequence of movements, she shed parts of her armor as she ran; at the end of her takeoff run, having cast off all the heavy metal plates, she sprang into the air and unfurled the glider's wings, conjuring a gust as she did so to carry her aloft and direct her toward the mountains. Standing on the sidewalk where she'd just been, Imanishi watched her go, then silently set about collecting the pieces of her armor.
Back at Snow Dragon Mountain, the red and blue dragons continued their mesmerizing show for only a few minutes, swooping and circling, always in motion. Neither spoke, nor even looked at either of the figures on the mountaintop, but neither Nall nor Garnet was under any illusions that they didn't know they were there. Garnet knew they were because of the ineffable sensation of intense scrutiny she was feeling - and Nall knew because, although neither flying dragon spoke to him, they were both telling him plenty.
And then, just as abruptly as they had appeared, they departed, breaking off their orbits and speeding away to the west with great, sweeping beats of their enormous wings. In mere seconds, they had disappeared.
Nall returned to his human form with a whump of inrushing air, then stumbled and sat down in the snow, staring off toward the western horizon. Garnet, her wrath forgotten, settled on his shoulder and wound a coil of her long tail around his neck, as if to reassure him that she still existed.
He was still there a minute later, when a pair of sky bison arrived. The spectacle of the blue and red dragons had, if Corwin was honest, rather short-circuited the confrontation he'd come up here expecting to have. As he and Utena disembarked from Mogi, they were still furious, of course, but at the sight of Nall sitting blank-faced in the snow, most of the fight went out of them.
Lhakpa, on the other hand, jumped down from Vayu's back (where, there not having been time to saddle him, she'd been clinging by fistfuls of his shaggy fur) and stormed across to him, her face scarlet with indignation.
"I cannot believe you," she declared. "I've been helping you with this business for weeks and what do you do? You turn around and do this the instant I have to go back to the island! And you knew I was going back to do something really hard, which you have now made much, much harder by causing such an almighty damn commotion, you imbecile!"
With that she ran out of steam for the moment, and simply stood before him, fists clenched, panting. When he didn't react, she snapped, "Well? What have you got to say for yourself?"
Nall blinked, as if coming back from far away, and looked up at his furious paramour with a look of such childlike contrition that she found herself almost (but not quite) disarmed by it.
"Yeah," he said, a trifle absently. "You're right. This was a major fail." He climbed slowly to his feet, head hanging. "I'm sorry."
"Garnet, are you OK?" Utena asked in lieu of whatever she'd been planning to say.
"I'm fine," Garnet replied, not leaving her spot on Nall's shoulder. "They didn't mean any harm... and they weren't here to see me, anyway." She hesitated, then added with a sort of pre-emptive wince, "I, uh, don't suppose Annabelle's still asleep."
"No," said Corwin flatly. "No, she certainly is not."
"Aw, crap," Garnet said, slumping.
A moment later Korra arrived, collapsing her glider and alighting a few yards away. "What in the hell is going on?" she demanded without preamble.
Back on Air Temple Island, the two sky bison landed in front of Tenzin's house mere minutes later. While Nyima and a still-simmering Lhakpa sprang down from Vayu, Nall descended rather more sedately down Mogi's side, then walked like a prisoner under escort into the house, head down, arms slack at his sides. Corwin, Utena, and the sisters followed him. He didn't have a hard time figuring out where to go - all he had to do was follow the sound of the furiously crying infant. Annabelle was no longer at full air-raid intensity, no longer producing frequencies that autonomically stimulated her parents' fight-or-flight reflex, but she still sounded mightily displeased.
The group went to the front room to find Anthy, Jinora, and Ikki doing what they could to soothe the red-faced infant. As they entered the room, Ikki looked up and smiled.
"Now this is more like what I remember," she remarked. (To one side, her elder sister looked at her and nodded sagely, which, even under the circumstances, brought a little smile to Anthy's frazzled face.)
Nall trudged past Ikki and Jinora to Anthy, but didn't meet her eyes; instead, he bent down and murmured to Annabelle, "Hey, kiddo. I'm sorry about all this. Your Uncle Nall really screwed up. But here's Garnet, safe and sound."
With that, he reached down and placed his hand gently against Annabelle's swaddled chest, making a bridge of his arm for Garnet to hurry down and coil herself protectively around the infant once more. The instant this was done, Annabelle quieted - but no one there could miss the fact that she still looked deeply unhappy, turning her face away from any attempt to soothe her further and making fractious, petulant noises.
"You'll still be out of sorts for a while, poor thing," Ikki said kindly, smoothing the baby's ruffled hair, "but you've got your friend back now, and that's a start."
"Ikki, would you be so kind?" said Anthy, offering her the bundle of baby and dragon. Looking puzzled, Ikki accepted it, cradling the child in a practiced way and freeing Anthy's hands.
"Anthy, I'm -" Nall began, and then - to the stunned amazement of everyone in the room - she stepped slightly past him, put one foot behind his ankles, applied a flattened hand to his chest, and flung him flat on his back to the floor. Utterly unprepared for this - if anything, he had been expecting her to slap him - he hit the hardwood with a crash, the wind rushing out of him, and lay there for a second trying to remember how that trick where you pull air into your body from outside worked again.
"Nall, you ass," she hissed, her face a mask of outrage. "How dare you do that to my Annabelle? I came within a murmur of laying the darkest curse I know on you today."
Nall stared up at her for a moment, his mouth working; then he coughed, pulled in a fresh lungful of air, and sagged back against the floor with a miserable sigh.
"I know," he said. "I'm sorry. You're right, I messed up big-time. I had no right to do that, I just didn't think of the consequences." He sat slowly up, elbows on knees, and hung his head. "You'd have been well within your rights. I probably deserve to be cursed after that."
The Priestess glared at him for a moment longer, and Corwin and Utena both started edging toward her in hopes of being able to intervene before she took her wrath any further...
... and suddenly, the fury was erased by a gentle, slightly sad smile, and she reached down and took his wrist to help him up, then embraced him.
"Thank you, Nall," she said quietly. "I accept your apology. You're forgiven... at least by me." She leaned back and gave him a wry, weary smile. "Annabelle may take a little longer."
"And so will I," Lhakpa growled, and without another word she turned and stalked out of the house. Nyima hesitated, almost going after her, but then turned back and gave the rest of the room a helpless little shrug.
Nall watched her go, then sighed. "Well, if I tried again now I'd only piss her off more," he said glumly. Then, turning to Corwin and Utena, he added sheepishly, "But if everybody else doesn't mind, I think... I'd really sort of like to come back inside now."
As Ikki had predicted, Annabelle wasn't herself again for the rest of the day; she was restless and irritable, sleeping only fitfully, and much more clingy than usual. Normally, she was pretty laid-back about being left to her own devices for periods of time, but now she demanded that someone be holding her more or less constantly.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of people willing to do that, including Corwin once he'd had a chance to change out of his suit and into a T-shirt and jeans.
"Here," said Corwin, picking up Anthy's wrap from where it lay discarded by the couch. "I'll take the first shift. Why don't you go and lie down for a while? You look done in."
"You are my hero forevermore," said Anthy sincerely, helping him with the arrangements (which, it had to be said, he'd gotten much better at since his catastrophic original attempt). Looking him in the eye, she added with a slight twinkle, "I don't care what the newspapers say about you."
Corwin laughed and leaned to kiss her, then tilted his head thoughtfully, plucked at the sleeve of her golden Air Nomad tunic, and asked, "Did you take time out in the middle of all that to change your shirt?"
"Never mind," Anthy replied, reddening slightly. "Come and wake me if she needs anything."
Corwin promised he would, saw her off to bed, and then retired to the sun porch, where he found Utena stretched out on the futon reading a book. Everyone else appeared to have dispersed. He looked at his watch and saw that it was only a little past noon. By rights, he should have been exhausted - he was still on Turing III time, and the morning had been rather more eventful than he was expecting - but he didn't feel so bad, considering. He got a can of iced chai out of the mini-fridge, cracked it open, and sat down at the DesignDesk, figuring he might as well reacquaint himself with what had gone on with the project in his absence.
"Hmm," he observed after a few minutes of fiddling. "Y'know what, jarta mín, your dad can't really work the computer with you there."
Utena looked up from her book. "I can take her if you want to get some -" she began, but he shook his head, moved to the lower chair in front of the desk, and leaned back in it with his feet up, smiling. On his chest, Annabelle had at last gone quiet - still awake, and still looking a bit fretful, but his arm over her and the sound of his heart, along with Garnet's restored presence, seemed to be settling her nerves.
"No... we're good right now," he said, then repeated in a low and soothing tone, "We're good."
Utena smilingly watched as, despite having missed days of work, her husband - a man who had been known to forgo both sleep and food in the pursuit of completion on a project - willingly abandoned two hours of planned diligence in favor of just... chillin' with his daughter, who needed some chillin' with.
After a little while, he got up from the desk and joined her on the futon, and Annabelle seemed to enjoy that even more, with the warm and pleasantly scented presence of her "other dad" close at hand. They lay cuddled together, watching the afternoon go by outside the sun porch windows, and Utena marveled inwardly at how right it all felt now - her worries and fears of the day after Annabelle's birth like dim and shadowy dream fragments, lost in time.
"So... " said Corwin quietly at length. "This might be a good time for you to finish telling me what in the world was going on at breakfast."
Utena glanced at him, then at the baby and Garnet. Annabelle was dozing fitfully, fidgeting a lot and seeming to need constant reassurance that they were still there, but comfortable enough. Garnet, evidently worn out by the excitement of her day so far, had no such troubles and was sleeping like a rock.
"OK," she agreed, nodding. "I can't remember where I got to, so why don't I just start over..."
It took her perhaps an hour to explain the intricate conversation she and Anthy had had with Korra on the foredeck of the Mirai, the night he'd first called from Turing III. Corwin kept quiet throughout, asking no questions and just absorbing what she was telling him with a neutral expression.
Toward the end of the telling, Annabelle woke and began to cry again, but for perfectly mundane reasons this time. Without comment, Utena unwrapped her from Corwin and took her away for some maintenance. She was gone for perhaps half an hour, and when she returned and resumed her station, she had the baby affixed to her own chest.
"There," she said, settling in. "All squared away. I think she's starting to realize that everything's OK now," she added, stroking Annabelle's head with a smile. "Got her appetite back, at least. I think Anthy could use a couple more hours, though. She was so out of it, she barely even woke up."
Corwin nodded. "Rough day all around. This must be what people with normal babies feel like all the time," he observed wryly. "Makes you wonder how the species survives. Oh, hey, I never got a chance to tell you before all the excitement - you may be pleased to learn that, although it was like pulling teeth every frickin' step of the way, the Turing Board did eventually see fit to recognize what's been painfully obvious to everyone else all along. Wall-E and Eve are citizens of the galaxy now. Or, well, of Zeta Cygni."
"That's great news," said Utena. "What's next for them?"
Corwin chuckled. "Like a lot of emancipated robots, Eve's gone right back to her old job, except now she gets paid. A lot, because she gets mileage," he added with a grinning wink. "As for Wall-E, well, nobody knows how to keep a tidy home for a more adventurous spouse like a former sanitation worker."
Utena kept her laugh light for Annabelle's sake, then snuggled closer and took his hand. "Good to hear," she said. "I'm glad you were able to help them... but gladder that you're back," she added with a kiss.
"If I had known what you had waiting for me," he said wryly, "I'd have skipped the closing remarks."
She gave him a mischievous smile. "Oh, you liked that, did you?" she inquired.
"I should probably feel as if I'm stumbling into a trap at this point," Corwin remarked.
"But you know me better than that," Utena rejoined.
"Yup," Corwin agreed, "I knew you were trouble from the moment I saw you," and he leaned to kiss her.
"Get a room, you guys," Garnet mumbled, looking sleepily out from the wrap at Utena's chest. Then, peering around, she added, "Oh... you have one. Very well, carry on," and ducked back into cover.
Corwin and Utena gave each other bemused looks, then giggled. "Most kids have security blankets that don't talk," Utena quipped wryly.
"Where's the fun in that?" Corwin wondered with a smile. Then, sobering a little, he went on, "Anyway... hmm. I never lie to you, right?"
"You better not," Utena replied, smiling, but serious.
"Well, then, yeah," he said. "I did like that. Not sure what to make of it," he qualified, "but..."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, that makes two of you at the moment," said Utena. She kissed him again, gently, and went on, "But at least now you've got a clear road to work it out."
Corwin chuckled. "You guys are one in a trillion. Er, two in a trillion. One in two trillion?" He shook his head. "Gate-lagged. Too tired to math. Very, very rare, anyway."
"I'm just a soul whose intentions are good," Utena replied with a smile, quoting back an old song Corwin and his father both liked to quote, then added wryly, "Anthy, I'm not so sure about sometimes." He came up with only an abstract chuckle for that. Seeing that he was fading fast, she kissed him on the forehead and held him close, murmuring, "Sleep well, lover. Welcome home."
Corwin woke to find the sun parlor dimly lit and the world outside it dark but for the golden nightglow of Republic City. He was still sleepy, but comfortably so, not that zombie adrenaline-crash fatigue that had rolled over him earlier. Utena had gone (and Annabelle and Garnet with her), and someone had taken his boots off him and pulled a blanket up to his shoulders, for which he was abstractly grateful. He lay there for a few moments, trying to decide whether he should get up and go properly to bed, get up and get something to eat, or just go back to sleep, when his ear caught the faint, distinctive sound of the DesignDesk's mouse being clicked.
He sat up, yawning, and said in a low voice, "What'd I miss?"
Korra, sitting at the computer's console, turned in her seat and smiled. "Not much," she replied quietly. "Pretty low-key evening. Annabelle's still a little rattled, but I haven't heard anything in a couple hours now, so I think it's working out. Nall wandered off again around dark, though he said he wasn't going far this time."
Corwin chuckled darkly. "Well, if Lhakpa turns up at breakfast with a stylish new hat, we'll know where he went," he said.
Korra nodded. "She was pretty ticked at him," she agreed. "You can't really blame her, though. I mean, there's making a scene and then there's... that. Even if Annabelle hadn't noticed..." She shook her head. "I spent all afternoon cleaning up after the dragon sightings in town. Ten car accidents, four religious conversions, two spontaneous firebending manifestations and a premature birth. They named him Long, naturally," she added with a wry little grin.
Corwin swung his legs off the futon and sat on the edge, regarding her thoughtfully. "What was the deal with that? I mean, they were impressive, don't get me wrong, but I thought Nyima and Lhakpa were having heart attacks for a second there."
"Dragons are rare in this world, remember," Korra told him. "A lot rarer than you're used to back in Asgard, from what I hear. And those two, in particular... those two dragons were Ran and Shaw, the Ancient Masters. The oldest, most powerful dragons in Dìqiú, as far as anyone knows, and the only ones in the northern hemisphere to survive the Hundred-Year War. They've lived in seclusion for centuries. Apart from a few trusted retainers, they never see anyone. Even I've only met them once. So for them to appear like that, in broad daylight, within sight of the city... they must've thought it was pretty damned important."
"Well, whatever they had to say to Nall, he seems to have taken it to heart," Corwin mused. "There was no fight in him at all by the time we got there. Even when we got back here... Anthy was furious, and trust me, however mild and retiring she seems, you don't want Anthy furious with you."
"I can believe that," said Korra, nodding.
"But Nall just... took what she gave him and said he deserved it," Corwin went on. "I've never seen him like that before." He sighed heavily, shoulders slumping. "Life used to be simpler."
"Heh, tell me about it," Korra replied.
Corwin yawned again, then raised his watch and pressed the stud that illuminated the face. "Ten-thirty," he mused, then ran his hands back through his hair and hunted up his boots. "My hunger curve just crossed my fatigue curve. I want baozi. You want baozi? Let's go get some baozi."
Korra gave him a thoughtful look, then smiled and clicked the DesignDesk over to sleep mode. "Sure, why not," she said. "Let's."
Lhakpa lay on her narrow bed in her room in the ladies' quarters, her bedside lamp turned down low, staring at the ceiling and thinking about her path. By this point her thoughts were largely circular, and so not getting her anywhere useful, but she wasn't sure she could turn them off and go to sleep. Even meditating - something she was normally pretty good at - hadn't worked tonight, and since lying in bed in her nightshirt and not sleeping was marginally more comfortable than sitting fully clothed on the floor and not sleeping, she'd opted for it an hour or so ago.
She was about to turn off the lamp altogether and try her best to get to sleep when she heard a gentle tapping at the window to the right of the head of her bed. For a few seconds she tried to ignore it, but it kept coming, and there was such a piteous quality about it that she couldn't tune it out without feeling heartless. Finally, with a sigh, she turned on her side and unlatched the window.
Nall nudged the pane up with his catlike nose and looked in, his crimson eyes glinting in the lamplight.
"Are you still mad?" he said in a small voice.
"A little," Lhakpa replied, rolling onto her back again, but she didn't close the window.
Flattening himself to the sill, Nall crawled through the narrow gap, easing the window up a little bit more with his shoulders so he could be sure he wouldn't catch his furled wings.
"I'm really sorry," he said. "I just... I thought I needed to do that in order to... sort of put a cap on everything I've been working through. There are... things... I still want to talk to her about, things I want to warn her about, and I thought if I could just get her alone for a couple of minutes, she'd hear me out and everything would be fine." He hung his head. "I should've known it wouldn't work."
"Yes," said Lhakpa, doing her best to sound cold. "You should've."
Nall nodded. "I mean, would I have listened if some other dragon, barely older than I am, did that to me? No. Of course I wouldn't. So why would I assume that Garnet would? I'm such a dope."
"Yes," said Lhakpa. "You are."
Nall considered for a second, then said, "You don't have to agree with me every time I say that."
"You ruined everything," Lhakpa snapped, turning her head to glare at him. "You know what today was going to be."
"I know," said Nall, drooping. "And I'm sorry. I can't seem to do anything right lately." He sighed. "Sorry. I'll go. I won't bother you again. I... I hope everything works out." He turned and slunk back toward the window. "G'bye, Lhakpa. I..." He hesitated, then said in a still smaller voice, "... love you."
Without a word, she rolled onto her side again, reached past him, and shut the window in his face, so abruptly that he nearly ran into it. He recoiled in surprise, then looked back over his shoulder at her, blinking. "Lhakpa?"
Lhakpa regarded him inscrutably for a moment, then raised the corner of her bedspread. "Come here," she said, in a voice not far short of command.
Nall gave her a wary look, then did as he was told, crawling under the covers and arranging himself with his head below her chin. She drew the bedspread over them, then reached and shut off the light.
"You are an idiot, Nalliuniqsiutsiarit," Lhakpa murmured.
"I know," Nall replied.
She leaned down and kissed his snout. "And so am I, because I love you too."
If anyone driving or walking across the Kyoshi Bridge at around 11 o'clock that night had chanced to look up, he or she might have been startled to see a couple of figures sitting on the massive crossbeam at the top of one of the suspension towers - and doubly so to realize that they weren't up there for any of the usual reasons people had for climbing the city's bridges. They weren't planning a parachuting stunt, preparing to unfurl a protest banner or unauthorized art installation, or thinking about ending it all... they were just having a picnic.
Korra and Corwin sat on the tower with a paper sack from The Baozi Experts between them, looking off toward the lights of Future City and munching cha siu bao. For the duration of three buns apiece, the only other sound, apart from the whispering of the light breeze and the distant night sounds of the city, was the soft pinging of Corwin's J-5 jetpack cooling.
Corwin finished off his third bun, licked the traces of barbecue sauce from his fingers, and sighed. "This is nice," he said.
"Mm," Korra agreed, nodding. She couldn't say more than that for the moment, because she was still working on the last bite of her own third helping. A moment later, they both reached into the bag for one of the two dou sha bao waiting at the bottom; this occasioned a brief mock turf war, elbowing and shoulder-bumping, before they each got their dessert.
They ate those in silence too; then Corwin wadded up the empty bag and stuffed it into a side pocket of his jacket, mumbling, "Pack out your trash..." Korra nodded, chuckling, and they sat for a bit longer, just enjoying the evening.
"So while you were out cleaning up after Nall today," Corwin said at length, "Utena brought me up to date on a few things that happened while I was stuck on Turing III."
Korra glanced at him, her expression curious, but no more. "Yeah?" she said.
"Yeah. Remember you asked me once if it's a timeshare sort of thing, and I said it's a very improvisational sort of thing?" Corwin asked.
Korra nodded. "Mm-hmm."
"Well," said Corwin, "this is me..." He moved about halfway toward her and offered his hand. "... improvising."
After a moment's hesitation, Korra slid across the space between them and took it, the two of them leaning warmly together. He was so much taller than she was now that her head ended up on his shoulder rather than the other way around, but apart from that, it felt very much like the old days. At this realization, she gave a sigh of mixed relief and contentment, relaxing fully into the moment.
And Corwin will always be Corwin, she thought, even on Judgment Day.
"Good weird?" she asked.
"Good weird," Corwin agreed, kissing her cheek.
They sat there in a warm and pleasant silence for some time, watching the lights of the city and reflecting on the strange paths which life sometimes takes. Presently, though, it occurred to Korra that falling asleep in her current position would be a Bad Call, and since she had just very nearly done so, perhaps it was - with the greatest reluctance - time to call it a day.
Just as she thought it, Corwin stirred, then said, "Welp... I hate to say it, but" (and here his words blurred into a titanic yawn) "if I don't get back to bed soon, I'm-a fall off this bridge."
Korra chuckled. "Yeah, me too," she admitted, and they got slowly to their feet. Turning to face Air Temple Island, Corwin slipped on his jetpack's hand controls while Korra picked up her glider-staff.
Just before he'd have triggered his jetpack's main thrust, Korra put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Hey... Corwin?"
He paused, half-turning back to face her. "Mm?" he replied.
Korra gathered him up in a long hug and kissed him, rather more gently than she had at breakfast; when she stepped back, she left her hand on the side of his face for a moment, her smile just visible in the cityglow.
"I'm glad we're still us," she said quietly.
Corwin nodded. "Yeah," he said, reaching up to cover her hand with his own. "So am I." Then, with a grin, he added, "Race you back!" before pivoting and rocketing away.
"Oh no you don't!" Korra laughed, leaping off the bridge tower after him.
Anthy finished feeding Annabelle, tidied up, and observed with pleasure that her daughter's nerves seemed to have settled considerably. She was still a bit restless, but went promptly back to sleep. Smiling, Anthy left her and Garnet tucked in Utena's arms (and what a sight that was), then went quietly down the hall to the sun parlor.
She found it empty, dark, and silent but for the quiet hum of the sleeping DesignDesk. With a soft sigh, she settled on the futon, stretched out her legs, and reclined there for a while, collecting her thoughts and watching the lights of the ships moving in and out of Republic City Harbor. It had been a hectic day, in more senses than one.
She wasn't sure how long she'd been sitting there, lost in thought, when she heard a soft sound, looked up from her reverie, and saw Korra very gently opening the sliding door from the veranda - partly leading but mostly carrying Corwin, who was virtually asleep on his feet. Anthy was reminded powerfully of the first night she'd known him, in Asgard, after his Trial and before her wedding. With an indulgent smile, she rose from the futon and went to help Korra manage her charge.
They said nothing, only made smiling, nodding eye contact in the dark, as they got his jetpack, jacket, and boots off him, then maneuvered him to the futon and put him the rest of the way to bed. Corwin submitted robotically to their ministrations, never actually waking. In the morning he would have no memory of how he had gotten from the clearing in the bamboo grove, where he and Korra had landed, to the parlor.
Their work done, the two women stood silently regarding him for a few moments. Still without a word, Korra turned and hugged Anthy warmly, then let herself quietly out of the house, bound for her own quarters.
Humming a cheerful little tune, Anthy bent and kissed Corwin's forehead, made a final adjustment to the covers, and then went back to bed herself.
Monday saw something like a return to routine for the Tenjous and Corwin. Sitting down to breakfast at Korra's regular table in the Air Temple dining hall, Utena remarked to herself that it felt a bit like coming home - at least as much as, for instance, having a meal in the dining commons at Tenjou Academy did.
At the head of the table, Korra slipped easily back into the old groove as well, pulling Section 4 out of the morning's Republic City Tribune and giving it a quick once-over.
"Hah," she said with a satisfied smile. "Nothing to report except the dragon sightings." She folded the paper down and grinned over it at Corwin. "Guess we know what it takes to keep us off page 4-1 now."
"That may be a difficult standard to maintain," Corwin observed with a wry smile.
Korra might've replied, but before she had the chance, her gearPhone pinged with an incoming message. Raising an eyebrow, she put down the paper, got out the phone, and checked it, her face breaking into a delighted smile.
"It's from Ryo," she said. "They're starting on the structural steel today." She looked up from the phone. "Let's go up and check it out."
"Would you like to go and see how our new house is coming along, Annabelle?" Anthy inquired. Annabelle didn't seem entirely sold on the idea - she wasn't as upset today, but she still seemed a bit wary, as if not quite convinced that nothing else was going to happen - but she raised no specific objections, so her parents concluded that they might as well give it a try and see how far they could get.
After breakfast, the Air Acolytes saddled Mogi for Corwin while he and the ladies packed a picnic lunch and their day-tripping things, and off they went. If anything, their daughter seemed happier in the air than she had on the ground, possibly because Utena, taking a turn as carrier, had cinched her wrap extra-snug as a precautionary measure.
While the three, Annabelle, and Garnet cruised along on Mogi, Korra paced them with her glider-staff, occasionally performing little aerobatic stunts as they encountered gusts and updrafts. She was in a fine, expansive mood, all good cheer and bonhomie, which set Utena's mind at ease. She had hoped that the Avatar and Corwin might get a little time alone that evening, if she left Corwin asleep in the project office and Korra came by after she finished her business downtown; they had, after all, plenty to talk about privately.
She didn't know if they had, and though burning with curiosity about it, she'd had sense enough not to bring it up at breakfast; but Anthy had that satisfied I Know Something look about her, and if Korra's mood and Corwin's this morning were any indication, then even if they hadn't reached some kind of conclusion, they had at least decided not to let it bother them. For that, Utena was grateful. After retiring to bed with Anthy and Annabelle, she'd felt a momentary wave of doubt that she'd done the right thing by provoking Korra as she had at breakfast - not out of some late-rising pang of jealousy, but because she had belatedly realized that, while entertaining, it hadn't been the most tactful way she could've raised the subject.
However, all appeared to be well, and though unable to investigate further for the moment, she was content - with that, and with the fact that Annabelle finally seemed to have recovered the bulk of her sangfroid. She was now snuggled into her wrap against Utena's chest with Garnet, the picture of infant contentment; since they'd reached cruising altitude, something in the soothing rhythm of the sky bison's subtle movements, or the cool rush of the passing wind (or maybe, Utena thought wryly, just the lower air pressure), had swept away the last of her lingering anxieties, which had made her unusually restless and needy throughout the night.
Looking up from her contemplation of child and dragon, she smiled at Anthy and said, "Make a note, Himemiya: Next time anything like that happens, we should take her flying and see if that helps sooner."
Anthy nodded sagely. "Already noted," she said. She looked up as, with a cheery whoop, Korra pulled an airbender glider trick only she could manage - giving herself a burst of extra thrust by firebending from her feet, as if wearing rocket boots - and turned an inside loop around Mogi (who glanced back over his shoulder as if thinking, "Showoff.") before settling back into formation with him again.
"Korra seems in high spirits this morning," Anthy observed with a slightly mischievous smile.
Utena nodded. "Mm-hmm."
They arrived in the cwm between the triple peaks of Mount Weitang to find the site very different from when they'd last seen it. The waterfall, the lake, and the meadow were still there, but there was also a road leading up the valley from the south, between lake and meadow lay a cleared and leveled area that bustled with activity. The house's foundations were complete, from the basement that would be under the part of the edifice standing on land to the piers to support the part that would overhang the lakeshore. Much of the first floor had been laid atop them, and a small crew of workers was busy erecting the main structural members for what would stand above it.
As Corwin guided Mogi to a gentle landing fifty yards or so from the job site, the door of the temporary building by the end of the road opened and Ryo Sato emerged smiling broadly at the sight of them.
"Welcome home, son!" he declared cheerfully, approaching with arms wide. "Ladies," he added, helping first Anthy, then Utena down from Mogi's back.
"Starting to look like somebody's actually working out here!" said Corwin with a grin as he shook Ryo's hand. "Any trouble so far?"
"Not a bit," Ryo replied. "C'mon, I'll show you what we've done so far."
Korra completed a circuit of the site, checking it out from every angle, and landed by Mogi, collapsing her glider-staff with a flourish. "Good morning, Korra," said Ryo with a bow. "I understand you had some excitement yesterday morning."
"You could say that," Korra said with a rueful smile. "Unannounced visit from the Ancient Masters. Had the town in a bit of an uproar for a while there."
Ryo shook his head in wonder. "I wish I could've seen that," he said. "I was working downstairs at the time. Still, no regrets," he added, grinning. "I think you'll agree when you see what I was up to down there that it was worth it. Let's start up top, though."
"I'm glad you left the rocks," Utena noted, pointing to the jumble of boulders along the lakeshore to the right of the spot where the house was going up.
"Hey, who doesn't like a nice lakeshore rock garden?" Corwin said with a grin. "Besides, I saw the way you and Anthy seemed to take to them when we were here before. Figured they'd make a good vantage point to sit and check out the whole scene once it's done."
He paused by one of those rocks now, placing a hand on it, and stood regarding the waterfall tumbling down Mount Weitang's center peak's south face and into the lake. After a moment's reflection, he recited,
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
"At least I assume that's where this goes," he added, indicating the lake. "I don't see an outlet anyplace, and this water's got to be going somewhere, so I figure there must be an underground river. Which is pretty cool."
"We are not calling the house 'the pleasure dome'," Utena remarked wryly. "Or Xanadu. I've seen Citizen Kane."
"Aw, but," said Corwin, and Anthy giggled. Watching the scene, Korra and Ryo just shared a smile.
As they approached the house, Utena was struck by a little flash of glee as she noticed the distinctive shape of a Future Industries Mecha-Builder standing off to one side - its styling slightly more modern than that of the century-old one she'd seen in pictures, but unmistakable. It was shut down, its cockpit hatch open.
"Checkin' out my ride?" Ryo quipped as he noticed her eyeing the machine. "Isn't she sweet? The very latest Mark 44. Gas turbine powerplant, shaft drives for four separate attachments, all-terrain traction. With four of those and pilots who know what they're doing, you could build a whole town in a week, if the people who lived there weren't picky about finish work or landscaping," he added with a grin. Then he angled a thumb at Corwin and Korra and added, "However, the Great Artiste and his engineer here are picky about both, so I'm just using her for heavy lifting on this job."
"Oh, right, Ryo, as if you're not just as bad," said Corwin. "Finished restoring that motorcycle yet?"
"Just needs a few more tweaks," Ryo replied mock-defensively, then laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're right, though, I do love to do a thing right. That's why I'm enjoying this job so much. No deadlines, no screaming clients, no bean-counting bureaucrats. I can use the best materials, hire the right people, and tell them to take their time and do it right. In the end, it saves time and money." He brightened as a thought occurred to him. "Oh! And speaking of the right people, I owe you one, son. 'Cause of you, I've managed to hire myself a real wizard."
Corwin arched an eyebrow. "Because of me?" he said, confused.
"Yep. Let me show you." Ryo led the way to one of the steel columns that would eventually hold up the corners of the main house. Up above them, suspended in a sling rig from the top of the column itself, an ironworker was welding on a crossbrace that would eventually support one of the roof trusses.
Corwin, with his perennial eye for the technical detail, found himself initially interested in the welder rather than the person wielding it. It was a backpack rig consisting of a metal frame supporting a pair of compressed gas cylinders and a wire reel, connected by hoses not to a torch or gun as in the normal sort of MIG welder, but an articulated metal gauntlet, almost like something one might expect to find on a suit of powered armor back home. The operator, anonymous in welding hood and heavy protective apron, was directing the arc from the tip of his index finger and drawing the weld accordingly.
For a second, Corwin wondered where the power to drive the obvious electric arc was coming from - there was no sign of a generator or transformer, or even a power feed cable to the gauntlet - until it suddenly dawned on him that it must be coming from the operator.
"Is that -?" he wondered, gesturing.
Ryo nodded. "Yep. My newest invention. I call it the Lightningwelder. Ink's hardly even dry on the patents yet."
The operator finished the weld he was working on, shut off the arc, and then seemed to notice that he was being watched. With unhurried movements, he unlatched from the sling rig and slid down the column like a fireman descending a pole, landing lightly despite the bulky weight of the welder on his back. Then he turned, reached up with his left hand (on which he wore only a heavy leather work glove), and pulled off his hood -
- revealing that he was a she, and in fact a she Corwin knew.
"Zanya!" he said, his eyes going wide.
Zanya - formerly the notoriously foul-prone firebender for the Frostbite Point Ice Wraiths Major League Bending team, until an exhibition match against the Fire Ferrets (with Corwin subbing for their absent earthbender) had broken up the team - gave him a sardonic little smile. She was far from looking her best, her face bathed in sweat and short hair frazzled, and yet there was something about her that was entirely different, and more pleasant to behold, from when Corwin had last seen her, more than a month before.
Then she had been angry, frustrated, and had given the impression that she'd been so for a long time - maybe most of her life. Now she looked... calmer somehow. Settled. Maybe even content. She was still wearing that false eyepatch over her left eye, but that reservoir of constantly simmering rage that he'd sensed bubbling within her before seemed to have diminished, if not gone altogether.
She unclipped a water bottle from a quick-release holster on her hip, took a swig, then snapped it back into place and said, "Well, if it isn't Watari Karasu. I heard you left town."
Corwin smiled. "Don't believe everything you read. What brings you out here?"
"Eh, you know how it is," Zanya replied. "When you've got my skill set, you have four career choices. Pro bending, construction, the Triads, or... well, the Triads, but a different department, if you get my meaning. The pro game and I are on a break right now, burning down people's houses didn't appeal, and I'm too ugly for the other thing, so..." She shrugged with affected nonchalance. "Figured I'd find out what honest work was like." She glanced back up at the top of the column, then went on, "Speaking of which, I'd better get back to it. See you around, Karasu," she said with that same wry smile, and then she put her hood back on and started clambering back into position.
"She showed up here while we were at the South Pole, looking for work," Ryo explained as he guided the others across the open decking that would one day be the first-story subfloor. "Li Wen, my site foreman while I was away, put her to work as a general laborer-welder's assistant, but she's a natural with the Lightningwelder. Not all lightningbenders can handle it. She makes it look easy." He shook his head with a smile. "You sure can pick 'em, Corwin."
"I didn't pick her, she just happened to be on the team we were playing against when Korra shanghaied me into subbing for Xiang Wan," Corwin replied.
"Kismet, son, kismet," said Ryo expansively. "Now, ladies and Corwin, prepare yourselves. You are about to see what I, personally, think is the best part of the house. Even those of you who designed the place are going to be amazed at what you see. I know what you're thinking. 'But Ryo, the house isn't even here yet.' And that is indeed true! But once you see what's in the basement," he added with a wink, "I think you'll agree that the rest of the place is just going to be for decoration... "
Back on Air Temple Island, some of the Air Acolytes began to notice about mid-morning that Lhakpa had been on the meditation pavilion since breakfast. This was unusual - the elder of the two sisters usually did her meditating in the afternoon, or around sunset, and rarely stayed at it for more than an hour or so at a time. Today, though, she stayed there for most of the morning, still and silent, eyes closed, her face turned expressionlessly toward the restless expanse of the sea to the west.
Finally, a half-hour or so before lunchtime, her eyes opened. Clear and grey, and unusually determined, they gazed out to sea for nearly a minute before their owner rose smoothly to her feet, turned, and left the pavilion.
Jinora was in her chambers, mulling over a curious text message she had received from Anthy Tenjou's new gearPhone, when there came a knock at her door.
"Come in," she said, gesturing, and a gentle wind slid the door open while her other hand slipped her own phone into her tunic. Slightly to her surprise, the person standing outside the door was Lhakpa.
"Good morning, Lhakpa," she said. "Are you well?"
"Well enough, Great-Grandmother," said Lhakpa, making the airbender salute and bowing to her elder. "May I speak with you privately?"
Jinora raised an eyebrow - in all her nineteen years, though she had been invited to these rooms often, Lhakpa had never been the one to request a private audience before - and then gestured her inside, saying, "Of course. Take a seat."
Lhakpa entered the room, closing the door behind her, and then lowered herself to the floor, sitting cross-legged before the Grand Master. Jinora mirrored the posture a few feet away and sat regarding Lhakpa with a mild, curious expression, saying nothing.
Just before Lhakpa was about to speak, her great-grandmother's familiars, a small drove of dragonfly bunny spirits, appeared in the room. One of them, its (his?) primary color a vivid green, crawled into Lhakpa's lap and settled himself contentedly down to sleep. She petted him absently, wondering - as she always did when she came here - why they seemed to like her so much, particularly the green one.
"It's because they sense you have a caring heart," Jinora said, as if she'd spoken the musing aloud. Lhakpa blinked at her, then reddened slightly and looked away. "Is there something wrong with that?" the elder airbender wondered. "I would think it was a fairly high compliment."
"No, I..." Lhakpa hesitated, all her carefully rehearsed openings having been driven from her head by the spirits' arrival and her grandmother's unexpected answering of her internal question. She cast about frantically to find the thread of one of them again, failed, and briefly considered making an excuse and retreating, giving the whole thing up...
... and then, almost without volition, she blurted, "Great-Grandmother, I want to leave."
Once the words were out, she blanched, horrified that she'd said them aloud, wanting nothing more than to call them back and hide them away somehow. But she couldn't; they were said, and her elder had heard them. Grand Master Jinora, the Apsara Lama, might be old, but there was nothing wrong with her hearing.
"Leave?" she asked. "To another temple? You know you need to earn your arrow before you can join the regular migrations, and you've only just come back from a trip to the Southern Air Temple."
Lhakpa shook her head. "No, Great-Grandmother. Not leave the temple... leave..." Again the fear rose up and gripped her, tightening her throat and choking off the words. What are you doing? she asked herself, squeezing her eyes shut. Get out now, while you can still pretend this was all some kind of misunderstanding. Don't sit here and tell your revered ancestor to her face that -
"I want to leave the Air Nomads."
There. By all the spirits, now you've gone and said it. Her eyes flew open in terror; she was convinced that they would see her great-grandmother's usually stern-but-kindly face suffused with wrath at one of her own flesh and blood uttering such blasphemy.
Instead, what she saw was a look of surprise, maybe even shock, but not wrath. The only other emotion Lhakpa could detect in Jinora's face now was... concern.
"Why?" she asked simply.
Having thrown open the door so forcefully, Lhakpa felt something like her meditation-born calm of earlier returning. Her heart was still pounding, her stomach felt like someone had poured a jug of cold water into it, but her voice was steady and her face earnest as she said,
"My passport says I'm a 'freewoman', but I don't feel free. I never have. I love my family and I respect its traditions, but the arrow, the contemplation, the constant migration, never being able to settle anywhere..." She shook her head. "That's not who I am."
"Who are you, then?" Jinora wondered, and in her voice, her descendant could detect only curiosity and concern, not scorn or sarcasm.
"I... I don't know yet," Lhakpa admitted. With a vague gesture that basically indicated the Air Temple itself, she added, "I only know I can't find out like this."
Jinora gazed silently at her for several seconds, her eyes seeming to search her great-granddaughter's soul. Lhakpa gritted her mental teeth and forced herself to look back, not to quail under the most intense scrutiny she thought she'd ever experienced. This was truth she was speaking now, nothing more nor less, and she wouldn't be ashamed of it. She would not be ashamed.
Slowly, her expression calm and a little bit resigned, but no worse, Jinora nodded. "Very well, then."
Lhakpa blinked at her. In all her increasingly terrified imaginings of how this moment might unfold, simple acquiescence had never been anywhere in the scenario. "That's it?" she asked, too startled to stop herself.
A slightly wry smile touched Jinora's face. "What were you expecting?" she wondered in return. "You're an adult, Lhakpa, and this island isn't a prison. If you feel you must strike out on your own to define yourself, so may it be."
Lhakpa stared at her in disbelief for a moment, unable to believe that it had been so easy, and then a surge of shame filled her. Not for her desire to leave, that remained a simple bedrock truth, but for having momentarily thought of breaking from her family and everything she'd ever known as "easy" simply because Jinora wasn't fighting her about it.
Bowing her head, she murmured, "I'm sorry, Great-Grandmother. I know what a disappointment I must be to you."
Jinora startled her anew by reaching out and placing a hand, gentle but firm, on her shoulder. "Nonsense," she said. "Do you think I'm only making polite noises to hide a censorious heart?" She shook her head. "You should know me better than that, Lhakpa. I meant what I told you. I won't keep you here against your will. Whether you remain an Air Nomad or not, you're still an airbender. You should understand better than anyone that confining people isn't what we're about."
Then, rising, she added, "Now, come. We'll go and speak to the others. We'll have to come up with some sort of plan. We can't simply put you ashore on the ferryboat with the clothes on your back."
Lhakpa, who had been expecting essentially that exact thing to happen, got slowly to her feet. Not knowing quite what else to do with him, she carried the sleeping dragonfly bunny spirit with her as she followed her great-grandmother from the room, still slightly unable to believe what she had just done.
Unfortunately, it turned out she wasn't alone in that.
Masters Ikki and Rohan, Jinora's sister and brother and thus Lhakpa's great-greataunt and -uncle, took the news with settled equanimity when Jinora, having called them together in the room usually used for White Lotus Council meetings, explained to them Lhakpa's desire. In Lhakpa's experience, Rohan took everything with settled equanimity, and Ikki rarely lost her good cheer under any circumstances.
Lhakpa's other great-greatuncle, Master Meelo, took it... differently. A bit to Lhakpa's shock, since the old master - her principal airbending instructor as a child, as he had been to every airbending child who grew up at the Central Temple for nearly a century now - had always seemed rather fond of her, his reaction was to go stone-faced with cold disapproval and say, "I'm sorry, Jinora, I don't think I can have heard you right. She wants to do what now?"
"Leave the Air Nomads," Jinora repeated, "and try to find her way in the outside world."
Meelo scowled at his sister, then turned his attention to Lhakpa. "Is this true?" he demanded. "Or is my dear sister having some fun at poor old Meelo's expense again?"
Not fleeing from Meelo's disapproving glare proved still harder than standing up to Jinora's incisive gaze, but Lhakpa had come too far now to run; she made herself look back at him and reply, quietly and respectfully, "It is, Master Meelo."
"Hmm," said Meelo, nodding thoughtfully. "I see. Leave the Air Nomads, is it? Well, well." He stroked his bearded chin as if in deep consideration for a moment, then shrugged and went on, in an elaborately sarcastic parody of concession, "I suppose, if you really want to spit on everything I've ever tried to teach you and turn your back on ten thousand years of history and heritage, who am I to object?" With a dismissive wave of a hand, he added archly, "I'm just an old fool trying to honor his ancestors, after all."
On some level, Lhakpa felt strangely vindicated by this reaction, since it was more or less what she had been expecting all along from all of them. All the same, the cold censure in Meelo's voice, and on his usually jovial face, shocked her, and all the fear that had trickled out of her at her great-grandmother's placid response to her request came roaring back at the sight of it.
Seeing her go pale, eyes wide, Ikki said, "If you'll excuse us, Lhakpa, we need to have an exchange of views with your great-great-uncle Meelo." With a cheery, slightly cheesy smile, she added, "Won't be a minute! You can wait outside."
"... Right," said Lhakpa, and she edged out of the room into the hall, closing the door behind her. Like most of the doors in the Air Temple, it was mostly made of paper, so that didn't particularly help as the most vociferous argument she'd ever heard erupted in the council chamber.
She stood there, hugging the bunny spirit, tears trickling down her face, and listened as the elders fought. Rohan, the youngest, tried to stay out of it, and Jinora made an attempt at retaining her traditional role as voice of reason and moderator, but placed against Meelo's wrath and Ikki's monumental indignation, both were lost causes. The two middle siblings were going at it hammer and tongs, dredging up what sounded to Lhakpa like every slight and quibble the two of them had ever exchanged.
"... too soft on these youngsters, that's always been your problem," Meelo shouted.
"Oh, really, Meelo? You think I'm too soft? Because I have to confess I view the matter a little differently, you iron-fisted old tyrant."
"Old tyrant?! Why, you -"
"I'm sorry, you're right, that was unfair," Ikki conceded insincerely. "You've been a tyrant since you were five, there was no call for me to drag your age into it."
"I can't believe this! Jinora's great-granddaughter takes it into her head to abandon her obligations as a member of this family, you don't see anything wrong with that, and I'm the bad guy? That is so like you, Ikki."
"Obligations? What obligations?" Ikki shot back.
"Our family are the last surviving real Air Nomads," Meelo said. "Dad may have decided to let the newcomers come and go as they please - a policy I've told you more than once it's a mistake to continue, Jinora! - but Lhakpa is more than just some random airbender. She's one of us! A descendant of Grandpa Aang! She can't just walk away from that. It's her duty as a born Air Nomad to honor her culture, live by its traditions, and carry on the line."
"Listen to yourself! 'Real Air Nomads'? I suppose by that standard, Tianbao wasn't a 'real Air Nomad'. What does that make our children? Or their children? And what in the infernal depths is that last part supposed to mean - her duty to carry on the line? Are we a family or a breeding program?"
"Ikki, calm down -"
"Stay out of this, Rohan! I'm waiting for your answer, Meelo. Is that really what this is about?"
"You can't deny that it's important," Meelo insisted. "Before Harmonic Convergence..."
"Before Harmonic Convergence, we were facing impossible expectations," Ikki said, and there came the sound of a small fist banging down on the table. "I'm not sure you understand how that felt, Meelo. Tianbao and I had children anyway, eventually, because we loved each other and we wanted to, but I can't even describe how much I hated the feeling when I was little and I thought I would have no choice one day. Oh, don't look so surprised. I might've been just a little girl, but I knew the score. You probably can't understand, but I'll tell you this: When I was Lhakpa's age, there were times, many times, when I would have walked away too if I hadn't been so sure it would kill Dad."
"I - I -" To Lhakpa's still-greater horror, distinct sounds of a scuffle started filtering through the closed door, along with Meelo's voice, shrill with fury: "You take that back!"
"I will not!" Ikki replied, still louder. (Her advanced age notwithstanding, no other airbender, not even her siblings, could approach Ikki for volume.)
"Meelo! Ikki! Stop this at -"
Lhakpa heard no more. Unable to bear it any longer, she turned and fled.
Up on Mount Weitang, Corwin happened to be checking out the amazing view of Republic City from the site when he noticed something that set off a mental alarm bell. Frowning, he powered up his omni-tool and loaded the macrobinocular app, rezzing up a magnifying holovisor.
"Quite a view, huh?" said Korra, stepping up beside him. Then, frowning, she said, "Hang on... is that..."
Corwin nodded, zooming in. "I, uh... I think the Air Temple might be on fire."
"What?!" Korra blurted. "Lemme see that," she said, grabbing for the visor and getting only Corwin's face. "Oh, right. Sorry. Hologram."
He chuckled and changed a setting, beaming the visor onto her face instead. "Science!" he declared, and Korra leaned forward, peering into the distance.
Yup, sure enough, the Air Temple did appear to be smoking. Not only that, there was a window missing on the level that housed the White Lotus council chamber, and - was that...
"Great," she grumbled, palming her own face. "You guys go on without me," she said as Corwin derezzed the visor. "I've gotta go find out what the heck this is about." Shaking her head, she started her takeoff trot, muttering, "Never a dull moment," before springing into the air, unfurling her glider, and speeding away.
"Where's she going in such a hurry?" Utena wondered as she came up behind Corwin. "More task force problems?"
"No... trouble at home," Corwin said. "And I think I know what might have caused it..."
The battle was still raging in the White Lotus council chamber when the door suddenly slammed open, and there stood Korra, glider-staff in hand, her face like a thundercloud. Seeing Tenzin's four children engaged in furious familial combat - which had reduced the room to far more of a shambles than her own demonstration of her displeasure with the White Lotus Masters not so long ago - she found herself randomly remembering something Bolin had told her once:
"You don't have any siblings. Fighting is all part of the healing process."
Not this time, Bo, she thought, then drew breath and declared in her best airbender bellow, "All right, that's enough!"
It was as effective as a sudden gunshot; the four ancient masters froze where they were, whatever air constructs they'd been working on dissipating, and all turned to blink in surprise at her. Papers and miscellaneous debris settled around the room.
Korra ignored them for a moment in favor of standing her staff by the door, uncorking her waterskin, and dousing the small fire one of them had started by overturning the council chamber's tea brazier, which gave the four of them some time to compose themselves and gather together in a little group. Only when the job was done did she turn to them and remark,
"Someone want to explain to me what is going on here? Did I miss a memo? I didn't realize you were all going to be starting your second childhoods at once, I'd have made some plans."
"Ikki started it!" Meelo announced.
Korra raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. "Really, Meelo? You're opening with that?"
"Well, she did!" Meelo insisted.
Ikki folded her arms. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a rebuttal," she said.
Korra sighed and turned to Rohan. "What's going on?"
"One of the youngsters wishes to leave the order. Jinora is inclined to let her go; Meelo is fiercely opposed. I tried to stay out of it, and Ikki took exception to Meelo's tone." He opened a hand. "You can see the rest for yourself."
Despite herself, Korra smiled, just a little. "Thank you, Rohan, that was a very concise summary."
Rohan bowed slightly, reminding her intensely of Tenzin for a moment. "One does what one can," he said, a trifle wryly.
Turning back to the others, Korra regarded them flintily for a moment. Anyone witnessing the scene from outside, and unfamiliar with the players' history, would have found it bafflingly incongruous - the casually dressed, young-adult-looking Avatar, glowering like a displeased elder sibling at four centenarian master airbenders in their (somewhat disarrayed) formal robes, and the four of them looking cowed and dismayed.
She kept the glower on them for a moment later, then sighed and said, "OK, look, I think we're all a little overheated at this point. Why doesn't everybody retire to a neutral corner and try to cool off a little? We'll take it up again after dinner." With a significant gesture at her waterskin, she added, "I'll provide the ice if it's really needed."
"It's not -" Meelo began, but Korra cut him off flatly.
"Meelo. Serious now. Go to your chambers and do some thinking, or I will take you to Snow Dragon Mountain and leave you there 'til morning."
Grumbling, the ancient master subsided and stalked off down the hall. After a few seconds, his sisters and brother followed, glancing back at one point and receiving a silent "go on, now" gesture from Korra. She watched until they'd all gone through the door at the far end of the hall, then turned, picked up her glider, opened it, and departed through the hole where the window had been. Cleaning up the mess, she decided, could be somebody else's job for once.
Lhakpa sat at the very top of the tower, on the observation platform where she and Nall had discussed his plans to stay in Dìqiú for a while, and tried her best not to do either of the two things she most felt like she could do right now - namely, hyperventilate until she passed out, or cry herself to sleep.
The green dragonfly bunny spirit had abandoned her not long after she arrived up here; she couldn't say she blamed him. "They sense you have a caring heart," indeed.
She heard the hatch open behind her and cringed, wondering whether it was whoever had won the fight come to deal with her, or possibly Nall trying to find out why she hadn't returned to tell him how her meeting with Jinora had gone - though surely he could see how that had turned out, she'd heard the crash of the council chamber windows being destroyed.
Instead, the voice she heard was even less welcome, since it belonged to the one person in the world she felt least able to cope with right now.
"Lhakpa?" said Nyima. "What's wrong?"
"Go away," Lhakpa sobbed.
She heard the hatch close and for a moment thought her sister had obeyed, but a moment later, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked and saw Nyima settling to the floor beside her, a look of such pure concern on her face that Lhakpa felt even more like the worst person in the history of the world. (Some part of her noticed abstractly that she had that green spirit with her; he was sitting on her shoulder with an almost identical expression on his little bunny face.)
"What's going on?" Nyima wondered. "It sounded like Great-Grandmother and the others were having some kind of disagreement."
Lhakpa laughed bitterly. "Disagreement. Right." Haltingly, she explained what she had just done. How her ancestors had just turned against each other and torn open all manner of old wounds, from the sounds of it - and it was all her fault. She had destroyed her family, and very possibly the Air Commonwealth itself, and all with her selfish desire to go out and... she didn't even have a plan for what came after "go out and".
To her great credit, Nyima didn't receive this intelligence with some patronizing platitude like "Don't be silly." Instead, she put her arms around her sister and just held her - let her cry it out, unwind all the terrible tension she could sense within her, and get back to a place where she might stand a chance of being calm again. Only then did she say, without phrasing it as if to imply that Lhakpa's fears were frivolous, that she very much doubted the world was actually ending - that the ancients had been brothers and sisters for a very long time, and this was surely not their first battle.
"Look at us," she noted, drawing a grudging little sniffling giggle from her elder sister.
They stayed there in silence for a long time, until Lhakpa's sniffles and sobs had entirely abated, and quite a while after that. Only after a long silence did Nyima say quietly,
"I know you've been having doubts about your place here for a while now," Nyima said carefully. Lhakpa stiffened, drawing a sharp breath, but Nyima's voice was as soft and non-judgmental as ever as she went on, "But what happened to make you decide to leave?"
Lhakpa pulled herself free of her sister's embrace and sat back. The green spirit left Nyima's shoulder and scrambled back into Lhakpa's lap. She cuddled him, drawing some small comfort from his evident (if puzzling) affection, and sat silent for a few moments, her red-rimmed eyes searching Nyima's face. Then, after visibly steeling herself for possible reactions, she said,
"While I was at the Southern Air Temple, I talked it over... with Avatar Aang."
Nyima's grey eyes widened, not in disbelief, but rather amazement. She reached and took her sister's hands. "Tell me about it?" she asked.
"... All right," said Lhakpa.
Lhakpa would never really know how long she had spent walking aimlessly around the Avatar Sanctuary of the Southern Air Temple. Without really seeing any of them, her mind whirling over her situation, she weaved among the statues of all the various Avatars, unconsciously avoiding them with an effortless grace that would have deserted her if she'd been at all conscious of herself. She must have made three or four laps, slipping in and out between the stone depictions of Avatars past, until finally, she found herself standing in front of her own revered great-great-grandfather: Korra's predecessor, Avatar Aang.
Her fugue broken, Lhakpa tried to lose herself in thought again, but to no avail. She was too aware now that she'd been wandering around this big, silent room for... probably more than an hour, at least... and accomplishing nothing. With a sigh, she sat down on the floor in front of the statue of Aang, composed herself, and tried to meditate upon the lessons of his wisdom... and got nothing but a few more revolutions of the circular thoughts that were all her mind could seem to manage right now.
At last she gave up, slumping before the statue, and muttered half-heartedly, "I bet you wouldn't have had this problem, Aang."
Her eyes flew wide as a calm, gentle voice said behind her, "Well, no, probably not, Lhakpa... but I doubt I would have handled it any better either, if I had."
Mouth dry, heart fluttering, Lhakpa turned herself ungracefully around without rising and saw the spectral form of her ancestor, looking rather younger than his stone depiction that was now behind her - about her own age, like he was depicted in the giant statue in Yue Bay - standing there smiling at her.
"Hello, Lhakpa," said Aang. "Mind if I take a seat?"
Lhakpa nodded mutely, pulling herself back into a half-presentable lotus, and made an absent gesture. Aang seated himself gracefully opposite her, at the base of the statue of Korra (who stood there with a hand on her hip, looking vaguely bemused in this context, in a way that would have amused Lhakpa on any other day).
"So... you don't feel comfortable being in the Commonwealth any more?" said Aang, his tone mild. "Or, specifically, being an Air Nomad?"
Still unable to speak, Lhakpa gave another slow, slightly fearful nod. Aang didn't get upset; instead, he nodded too, not so much in response to her as to his own inner voice, and settled back slightly, looking off into the middle distance.
"You know," he said, "there was a time, when I was a little younger, when I thought I had to do everything to try and remake the Nomads - that it was my purpose in living after I'd beaten Fire Lord Ozai and stopped the war. But there weren't any other airbenders left in the world, and believe me, I looked far and wide. I started to fear the cause was lost - like my life had no further meaning - because I thought at the time that only airbenders could be Air Nomads. It took me a while to realize that there were quite a few people who loved and honored our ways willingly, even though they couldn't bend air, or even bend at all."
Lhakpa blinked, realizing where he was heading with that, and was slightly surprised to hear her own voice: "The Acolytes."
Aang nodded with a little smile. "Precisely. They were willing to honor the old ways, but also willing to adapt them to the new world we were building. More willing than I was, in some cases," he added wryly.
Then, with a sigh, he went on, "And the new world that came after I was gone... the world that my son Tenzin and Korra found themselves in... was one where not only the Acolytes, but Tenzin's children, would carry on the traditions I wanted so much to preserve."
Lhakpa couldn't help herself; at the sight of his boyish grin, she had to smile herself, if only faintly. Then, sobering, she asked, "But what about..."
"The other airbenders?" Aang wondered. "The ones Korra's choice at Harmonic Convergence made possible?" Lhakpa nodded; again, so did Aang, his face thoughtful. "Well... in some cases despite themselves, they now partook of Air as well, but... that didn't necessarily oblige them to be Air Nomads. It was a hard lesson for Tenzin to learn that not everybody would want to join up with the family business, as it were." He chuckled self-deprecatingly. "To be honest, Lhakpa, I probably would have handled it a lot worse than he did if I'd been there at the time. Too many connections to my old life, before the Comet, coloring my expectations.
"Fortunately, both Tenzin and Korra finally got it into their heads that they didn't have to be me to make it work," he went on. "They were able to look past the obsession with the past I inadvertently bequeathed to my son and create an even better, newer, fresher Air Commonwealth. One that would honor the old ways without being enslaved by them. And that's as it should be," he went on. "Air doesn't like being restrained and told what to do."
Aang said the last part with a grin, but a moment later the expression faltered, slipping to a sad, wistful look as he said, "Poor Tenzin, always trying so hard... and Korra, having my past experiences and expectations dumped on her like that. I know the White Lotus meant well, but..." He shook his head. "They got it wrong with her, just as I did with Tenzin. Really, they were both so much healthier once they learned to let it all go."
Lhakpa pursed her lips thoughtfully. "But, honored ancestor -"
Aang chuckled, putting up a hand. "Please. 'Aang' is fine."
Lhakpa blinked at him, still mildly stunned, then collected herself and replied hesitantly, "OK... Aang. But what about... what about me? I'm not just an airbender, I'm your... however many greats it is granddaughter." She looked down at her hands, which sat on her knees in loose fists. "And I'm a failure."
Her ancestor gave her a curious, concerned look and asked, "Who says you're a failure, Lhakpa?"
"Oh, everyone knows it," Lhakpa replied. "Nyima's the golden child, she's what everybody wants in an Air Nomad descended from you."
"But this isn't about Nyima," Aang insisted. "And something I've learned the hard way: 'everyone' doesn't actually exist." He reached and placed a hand on hers, startling her with its warmth and solidity, and told her gently, "I don't think you're a failure, Lhakpa. But as long as you keep thinking of yourself as a failure, it's going to cripple you."
Lhakpa couldn't suppress a bitter snort. "That's easy for you to say, O wise Avatar."
"Maybe so," Aang conceded. "But that's because it's a lesson every Avatar has to learn. I had to. Korra had to. Pretty much everyone before us. We each had to learn that one critical lesson for ourselves - each and every one of us - again and again and again. And it gets harder every time, because each of us starts out convinced that all those before us automatically knew what they were doing and we're the only one who doesn't. In spite of all we inherit from our predecessors, every Avatar in history has, at one point or another, said to him- or herself with complete conviction, 'You are the worst Avatar ever.'"
Lhakpa failed to stop herself from voicing the snarky thought that immediately sprang to her mind: "Statistically speaking, one of them had to be right."
Aang suppressed a laugh. "Maybe so," he said. "But my point is, if we feel that way in spite of all the advantages that link to our past lives is supposed to give us, how much worse must it be for someone who knows only one life at a time to cope with?"
Lhakpa eyed him skeptically. "But everybody else... I mean, everybody from Grandmaster Tenzin on down... they didn't have troubles like that."
Aang quirked an eyebrow. "Didn't they, now?" At Lhakpa's blink, he added, "You'd be surprised what some of the older ones have gone through, confronting things in the night when there's nobody else around but their thoughts. They made their choices, and made their peace with them, but that doesn't mean there wasn't doubt in their hearts at any point. Because I'll let you in on another little secret, Lhakpa: It happens to everybody. Not just Avatars." He gave her a wry, pained look. "I think it's just part of being human.".
When Lhakpa didn't reply, only stared at him in disbelief, he went on, "Spirits, Jinora briefly considered joining the circus at one point." He grinned at Lhakpa's expression. "Yes, seriously. 'The Amazing Jinora And Her Spirit Troupe!' Quite a few interesting performances there."
Lhakpa went on trying to process that mental image for a few moments more, then shook her head - it wasn't going to happen - and asked, "But... but... what about 'What Would Aang Do?'"
"Aside from one point I considered joining Ty Lee's circus myself and hiring out to earn extra cash for the temples?" He grinned again at her even more baffled look, then rolled his eyes good-naturedly and continued, "It's more of a guideline than a rule. And though I have no doubt it's well-intentioned, three-quarters of the time, you don't want to do what I would do. That route leads to disappointment, failed expectations, and trying to ride the unagi." With a shudder, he added in a small, dread-filled voice, "don't ride the unagi. not fun."
Lhakpa's expression became more confused. Aang shook his head and said, "Sorry. Inappropriate levity. Always been one of my problems." Reaching over to take her hand again, he went on, "Lhakpa, if your path takes you off that of the Nomad, or even out of the Commonwealth, I certainly don't have any objection to that. Being an airbender should never feel like a sentence. You need to open yourself up to the possibilites, as my old friend Bumi used to say - and as the son I named after him lived to experience."
Smiling, he opened his hands, lifting his palms before her, and continued, "And the possibilities... like air itself... like the air you embody, Nomad or not... are without limit. The only limits are the ones you place on yourself, Lhakpa. And I think you'll find, when you stop doing so, you and your family and friends will be much happier for it."
Lhakpa grappled with her lingering confusion for a moment longer. She recognized that there was wisdom in her ancestor's words, but he was so unlike the expectation of him she'd built up in her head over the years, hearing the tales, that she was finding it had to process. "Um... OK. I think," she said at last. Then, after a few more moments' thought, she seemed to reach an inner decision. Looking up at his face, she asked tentatively, "... They won't be angry?"
Aang's smile became sad and rueful. "I can't promise you that," he said regretfully. "But these things will pass, that I can promise you. And if nothing else, I'm not angry at you. Nor will Korra be - if she's told you anything of her history, you'll know that. Breaking the chains of others' expectations... that's what she does. She'll support you to the ends of the world." Then, with an exaggeratedly thoughtful frown, he mused, "I may need to pants Yangchen to get her to stop wittering, though..."
That mental image, the strangest one yet, left Lhakpa blinking in silence, completely nonplussed. Aang shook his head. "Never mind. Avatar business."
Lhakpa gave him a slow, slightly wary nod, then got to her feet as Aang did the same. As he rose, he glanced at his wrist, consulting what Lhakpa realized after a moment's puzzlement was a digital watch, so incongruous she could only stare.
Whatever it told him made Aang draw a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "Sadly, it looks like it's time for me to head back... anything else you want to talk about, granddaughter, before I go?"
Lhakpa shook her head, then drew herself together, fist to upraised hand, and bowed formally and respectfully in the Air Nomad style - and meant it in her heart for one of only a few times in her life.
"No," she said. "But thank you, Avatar Aang, for your insight and wisdom."
Aang returned the bow with a smile. "It was my honor and pleasure, Lhakpa of the World," he said - and then, in the greatest surprise she had experienced on this entire day of surprises, he enfolded her in a warm and loving hug.
Her eyes going wide, Lhakpa returned the hug as tight as she could... and then he was gone, vanishing in a play of blue-silver light, and she stood alone between his statue and Korra's, embracing empty air.
Finishing her tale, Lhakpa sat looking at her hands and cringing inwardly again, waiting for Nyima's reaction. When it didn't come, at least audibly, she looked up, expecting to see either scorn or skepticism in her sister's face -
- and saw only awe.
"That's... that's incredible," the younger airbender murmured.
"It is?" Lhakpa wondered.
"Yes!" said Nyima, nodding vigorously. "A visitation from Aang in meditation, without entering the Spirit World, without Korra being nearby - that's incredibly rare." She hesitated, glancing down, and then admitted quietly, "I've never seen him."
Lhakpa leaned back, regarding her sister with shock. "Whaaat?" she demanded. "But - you're - you're Master Nyima! You're the best of the best! Level 36 at sixteen, airball champ of the island, inventor of the vacuum hammer..."
"Maybe," Nyima replied, shaking her head. "But that's all I have. And if Aang felt your spirit calling him, even though Korra wasn't anywhere around..." She smiled slightly. "Then obviously you must have something special too."
Lhakpa stared at her for a moment, her lip trembling again, and then seized her in an embrace. The two wept on each other's shoulders for a while, overwhelmed by emotions too complicated to diagram.
"I'm sorry," Lhakpa murmured over and over again. "I'm so sorry. I love you, Nyima."
"Shh, it's OK, it's OK," Nyima replied. "Whatever happens... I've got your back. It doesn't matter if you leave the island. It wouldn't matter to me if you never airbent again, or if you weren't an airbender in the first place. You're my sister and I love you." She held Lhakpa tighter, careful not to squash the spirit between them. "No matter what."
Corwin and the others returned from Mount Weitang in mid-afternoon to find the Air Temple's routine all out of kilter. Of the four masters, three had retired to their chambers to reflect, leaving only Rohan to manage the day's activities. Meelo's students were all at a loss, uncertain how to proceed in his absence. And with no word from the top of the tower, as it were, the rumors were already starting to drift around the island.
Korra was closeted with Jinora, getting a more comprehensive report on what had gone on in her absence, when the Weitang group returned. She came down to the house from the Air Temple proper about half an hour later, shaking her head and muttering indecipherably about airbenders. For the remainder of the afternoon and into early evening, the atmosphere on the island remained precarious.
Karana and Azana, unaware that anything unusual was going on and enjoying a rare evening off during the MLB regular season, came out for dinner. They were slightly taken aback to find the main dining hall all but deserted. Puzzled, they made their way to the house and found Korra, Corwin, the Tenjous, Nyima and Lhakpa, and Nall just sitting down to dinner in silence, surrounded by the same strange air of tension the Fire Ferrets had felt since arriving on the island.
"Oh, hey, guys," said Korra, sounding slightly distracted, as Azana knocked hesitantly on the frame of the dining room doorway. "C'mon in. Hope you're in the mood for noodles."
"What's going on?" Karana wondered as she took a seat. "There's a weird vibe on the island tonight. It's like everyone's expecting a storm or something."
"You're... not far off, actually," said Utena.
"It's my fault," Lhakpa began.
"The hell it is," Nall put in.
"To hear Jinora tell it, it was mostly Meelo's fault," Korra agreed glumly. "Don't beat yourself up, Lhakpa, you did what you had to do." She looked up from her noodle bowl and gave the young airbender a little smile. "Which took a lot of guts, by the way."
She'd have gone on, probably, but before she got a chance, the door Azana and Karana had just arrived through banged open again and three smaller individuals all tried to crowd through at once. This led to a hopeless, struggling deadlock for a couple of seconds, until Sita thought to apply some of her training and slip out of it, leaving Tenzin and Gyatso to collapse in an undignified heap in the doorway.
"Lhakpa!" the young Air Acolyte blurted, running to Lhakpa's side. "Is it true?" As she fell to her knees next to Lhakpa's dining cushion, clutching her elder's tunic, Sita visibly fought back tears and repeated, "Is it true?"
Lhakpa gave her a puzzled but compassionate look and put a hand on her shoulder. "Is what true?" she asked, then added wryly, "There are probably a lot of different versions floating around out there by now. I have no idea which one you've heard."
"Did... is..." Sita struggled to put her thoughts into words for a few seconds. While she worked on that, the two airbender boys picked themselves up off the floor and sorted themselves out, then came around the table and sat down on the floor in a little row behind her.
"Easy, Sita," said Lhakpa soothingly, before anyone else in the room could intervene. "Control your breathing." Demonstrating, she took a deep breath through her nose, then let it slowly out with a faint hiss between her slightly parted lips. Sita blinked, nodded, and followed suit. They repeated the procedure a couple of times, not noticing that everyone except the wide-eyed airbender boys - particularly Nyima - was regarding them with thoughtful little smiles.
"Now," said Lhakpa when they were all calmed down. "What did you hear?"
"I heard..." Sita hesitated, her face flushing crimson to match her own tunic. She glanced awkwardly around the room, seeming to notice for the first time how many people were present, then looked back at Lhakpa with a determined expression and blurted, "I heard Master Meelo was kicking you off the island 'cause he -" (with a pointed glance at Nall) "- g-got you into trouble!"
Lhakpa blinked at her. "Well," she said wryly, "he is a lot of trouble, but the rest of it's totally wro -" She paused, startled, as Sita recoiled with a look of horror. Across the table, Nyima blushed even redder than Sita and shook her head vigorously. Lhakpa considered them both for a moment with a look of even greater puzzlement; then her eyes went wide and she burst out laughing, drawing Sita into a hug.
"No, silly, not like that," she said. "Honestly, who have you been listening to?" Then, her quizzical look returning, she pushed the youngster to arms' length so she could look her in the face and ask, "Also, you're 10, how do you even know that euphemism?"
Sita ignored the question and asked in return, "Well, if you're not... in trouble... then what's going on?"
"I'm not," Lhakpa said firmly. "Give me a little credit. And Meelo isn't throwing me off the island. Quite the opposite, in fact. He's angry because I'm leaving."
Sita blinked. "You're leaving?!" she cried. "Why?"
Lhakpa hesitated - this had been hard enough to articulate when she wasn't trying to explain it to a 10-year-old - and then gave it her best shot. When she'd finished, Sita looked gravely at her for several seconds...
... and then exclaimed, "You can DO that?!"
Lhakpa considered the answer for a moment, then said ruefully, "I guess we'll find out."
"Wow," said Karana, her eyebrows almost reaching her bangs. "And I thought I was pushing the envelope when I went to Piandao Academy. What're you going to do on the outside?"
"Don't make it sound like she's getting out of prison, 'Rana," Azana chided her.
"What? I'm just sayin'," Karana objected.
"I'm not sure," Lhakpa admitted after a moment's thought. "I was so afraid of the first step, I couldn't really think about any of the ones that came after it." She sat for a moment in thought, then said, "I could probably get into RCU - I'm not the airbender my little sister is, but I got decent grades in everything else," she added with a wry little grin across at Nyima. "Although I've missed the start of the spring term already, haven't I?"
Korra nodded. "I'm afraid so. It's a good plan for the fall, though -" She stopped, turning, as the hall door opened again and one of the adult Air Acolytes appeared.
"Lhakpa? They're ready for you now," she said.
The subsequent meeting - held in Jinora's study, not the still-trashed council room - was both shorter and considerably quieter than the previous one. Lhakpa was vaguely surprised when everyone from the house, not just Nall, came with her, the lot of them waiting in the hall while she entered the study alone (but for the bunny spirit she was still carrying) to face the elders.
Rohan, Meelo, and Ikki were all silent, the latter two looking sullen and chastened, respectively. Jinora did the talking, which didn't extend far beyond reiterating what she'd said when they were alone, before the blowout with her siblings had taken place: That the Air Nomad way was not intended to be a straitjacket, nor the island a prison, and if Lhakpa felt that her path led away from both, then that was her decision to make.
"But always remember," Jinora told her, "that though our way may not be for you, and our path may not be yours, we're still your family, and this island is still where you were born. It's still your home whenever you want it to be. Don't forget that."
"I... I won't," said Lhakpa haltingly. "Thank you. I..." She hesitated, aware that what she had to say next stood a better-than-even chance of provoking a sarcastic reaction from someone, then steeled herself and went on, "I'll need a day or two to make arrangements."
Meelo made a stifled sound that had probably started life as a derisive snort before Ikki elbowed him in the ribs, but offered no further comment after that happened, and the only other response was Jinora's.
"Of course," said the Grand Master with a nod. Rising, she showed her great-granddaughter out of the room. Her only visible reaction to the small crowd waiting out in the hall was a slightly arched eyebrow and a tiny smile as she led Lhakpa past them and out to the main staircase.
"I apologize that things didn't go more smoothly," said Jinora when they reached the stairs, "but we got there in the end."
"I'm sorry Great-Uncle Meelo is angry," Lhakpa told her.
Jinora gave her an ironic little smile. "He'll get over it," she said, rolling her eyes slightly. "I'm told Grandpa Aang could be a bit of a baby too, at times. Perhaps he gets it from him."
Lhakpa stared at her for a moment, scandalized, and then the two women laughed together.
When they finished, Lhakpa sobered and offered the bunny spirit, a little bit awkwardly, to her ancestor. "Um, maybe you should..."
Jinora smiled again and petted the spirit, who cooed and settled a little more snugly into Lhakpa's arms. "It appears Furryfoot would like to stay with you for a while."
"That's his name...?"
"That's the name I gave him, many years ago, and he's never objected to it. I don't think most spirits really put much stock in names, certainly not to the extent that we mortals do, but they make it easy to interact with us. At any rate, if you don't mind his company, why don't you take him with you? He can always find his way back to me later, if he likes."
Lhakpa regarded the dozing spirit for a few moments, smiling, and then turned teary eyes to Jinora and said, "Thank you, Great-Grandmother. I... I'll do my best to make you proud, even..." She cast about for a phrase, and finally came back to something Karana had said. "... on the outside."
Jinora's reaction was to kiss her on the forehead and tell her, "You already have, Lhakpa. Go and make what arrangements you must. When you're ready, come see me, and I'll see you off."
"Thank you," Lhakpa repeated quietly, and she took her leave.
The others caught up with her outside, crowding around and congratulating.
"This calls for a celebration," said Karana positively. "Let's get back to those noodles."
"So what's the plan?" Karana inquired over said noodles, a few minutes later. "Have you got a place to stay on the mainland?"
"Not yet," Lhakpa admitted.
"Well, you can come crash at my place, if you want, until you get on your feet," she said. "It's pretty small, but I'm not home much anyway, since it's the MLB season and all."
"Really? Wow, I... thank you. That's very generous."
"You might not think so once you've seen the place," Karana said with an honest grin. "It's kind of a dump. Clean enough, but the neighborhood's not the best, and everything's kinda... old and busted." She shrugged. "But it's cheap, and like I say, I'm not home much. Spend most of my time at 'Zana's when we're not at the arena or on the road."
Azana blinked. "Oh! That reminds me. We've been so busy lately I haven't remembered to tell you - the Chius are moving out at the end of the month."
Karana tilted her head. "Your downstairs neighbors?"
Azana nodded. "Mrs. Chiu is going to have a baby in the fall, and they want to move out of the city before then. I happened to run into her on the stairs the other day."
"Well, hey, that's nice to hear. They've been trying for a while, as I recall." Karana's grin widened as she forked up another wad of noodles from the big serving bowl in the center of the table. "In that case," she said, pouring fresh broth over them, "maybe I ought to move in. Not as far to walk to get home after midnight, and a lot less chance I'll have to smack some manners into some goon on way there," she added with a wink. "What do you say, kid, want to sublet my apartment down by the docks? My lease runs 'til the end of the year."
Lhakpa went a little red. "Uh... I'm not sure... what I'm going to be doing for money yet."
Several mouths opened, presumably to assure her that wouldn't be a problem, but Karana beat them all to it by saying, "Well, by 'sublet' I mostly meant 'keep squatters out of'. I can take care of the rent. Like I said, it's cheap, and I'm not exactly counting fen now that 'Zana and me have hit the big time. I moved in there when I didn't have two yuan to rub together. Landlord gave me a break on my first year's lease. The least I can do is pay that forward, right?" Her grin became a little rueful as she added, "Like I say, you might not think it's that great a deal when you see it."
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Lhakpa said hurriedly. "And thank you, I'd, I'm honored."
"No worries," Karana said easily. "If you want, we can go check it out after dinner, make sure it's really someplace you're interested in living for a while. This is the only free night I have this week."
With construction well under way up on Mount Weitang, the daily routine changed somewhat for the Tenjou-Ravenhair complex. Field trips to the job site became the rule rather than the exception as the house took shape. All six members of the household (now that Nall was back in from the cold, as it were) also started spending more time in the city, jointly and severally, as they developed a sense of attachment to and involvement in the community.
By early May, people had started filtering in from Outside to visit as well, singly at first, then in small groups. Corwin's parents and various maternal relatives had the easiest time of it, with their ability to cross the Veil without having to take the time to make their way to Zipang first, though not all. Those of the family's friends who had school to attend wouldn't have the time to make the trip until after the end of the "big universe" academic year, but there were those who had more open schedules and could come and go as they pleased.
Utena stood out in the meadow, chin thoughfully in hand, and regarded the rising structure by the lakeshore with a critical eye. The main body of the house was fully framed now. Part of the crew was at work on the two-story section's roof, while another, out at the end of the single-story section, was in the process of putting up the structure for the tower. It was still a long way from finished, but the final shape of it could just about be made out if you knew what to look for.
"It's really starting to look like a house," Utena mused aloud.
Next to her, Wakaba Shinohara nodded in sage agreement. "Sure is," she said.
"Won't be long now before we can..." Utena said, then trailed off, her face becoming still more thoughtful, as she mulled over present developments. She slowly turned her head to regard Wakaba, who was standing there still looking at the house.
After a few seconds, Wakaba seemed to feel Utena's gaze on her; turning, she met her old friend's azure eyes and replied artlessly, "What?"
Utena considered playing it just as cool for a second, then lunged and embraced Wakaba with a girlish squeal that would have struck many of her more recent acquaintances as unlikely. (Wakaba's similar cry in return, not as much.) They even jumped up and down a little bit while they were at it, as if striving to hit as many of the checkboxes as possible.
"It's so good to see you!" Utena declared when they'd finished. "When did you get here?"
"Just now," Wakaba replied with a grin. "Came in on the 10:45 from Saikyo. This is quite a place you've got here."
"How did you get up here from town?" Utena wondered, looking around. There was just the usual assortment of construction crew vehicles and whatnot parked over by the portable project office; no sign of a rental car or any such.
Wakaba smirked and thwacked Utena gently on the back of the head, holding up her other hand to display the gently glowing green rose seal ring she wore. "Duh, I can fly," she said.
Utena snorted. "That wasn't ostentatious in any way," she observed dryly as the two started making their way toward the house.
"When in Rome," Wakaba replied offhandedly, and Utena wasn't even sure what she meant by that; before she could ask, Wakaba went on, "I see you weren't exaggerating about your spot here. Dang, girl, this is too good for the likes of you."
"What's that supposed to mean, huh?" Utena demanded, hooking an arm around Wakaba's neck and miming a noogie.
"Ow, somebody help, my prince is oppressing me," Wakaba complained.
"So how long are you staying for?" asked Utena.
"Dunno," Wakaba replied. "I'm makin' it up as I go along, like always."
Utena laughed and turned her loose as they reached the house. "Same old Wakaba." Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called up to the roof, "Hey! Corwin! Look who's here!"
Corwin, standing next to Ryo with a sheaf of drawings in one hand, turned and looked down, then grinned and raised his free hand.
"Look at you, all architectural!" Wakaba said, waving.
The two men climbed down, unhitching their safety harnesses, and crossed so that Corwin could get a hug and Ryo could be introduced.
"Welcome!" said Corwin as Wakaba embraced him. "Just get in?"
"Yeah, I thought I'd come up and surprise you," Wakaba said.
"Wakaba, this is Ryo Sato - old friend of mine, and kind of our general contractor on this job," said Corwin, gesturing.
"Hi!" said Wakaba, bowing slightly. "Wakaba Shinohara. I'm Utena's ex from middle school."
Utena snorted and rolled her eyes. "Wakaba..."
"What?" said Wakaba, hands on hips with mock indignation. "I said you could be my boyfriend in the seventh grade and you said 'Fine, whatever,' which I think you'll find is not a refusal. Anyway," she went on while Utena made a grumbly noise, "nice to meet you, Ryo!"
"And you," said Ryo with a courtly bow. "First visit to Dìqiú?"
"Yep," Wakaba confirmed, nodding. "I'm pretty impressed so far." She looked around. "Hey, where's Anthy? And the baby? Do I not get to meet the baby?"
"They stayed down at the Air Temple today," Utena told her. "Anthy and Nyima had something they were going to do. You can meet Annabelle when we get back, though. I assume you're going to want to crash with us and not in town someplace."
Wakaba grinned. "Yeah, if it's OK. I'd have called ahead, but it would've ruined the surprise," she added sheepishly.
"Oh, don't worry," said Corwin. "There's plenty of room."
"Great. ... Who's Nyima?"
"You'll find out," said Utena with a little smile.
Wakaba slotted neatly into the picture on Air Temple Island. Doing that kind of thing was a talent of hers, one of very long standing, and Utena had expected nothing less. She seemed to take no time at all to make friends with everybody on the island, then start branching out into town as well. With her around, everything seemed just that little bit livelier, and Utena was reminded - as she was every time they came back together after being separated by life for a while - how much she missed that when it was gone.
A few days after Wakaba arrived, with the weather warming fast and a summery feeling in the air, Nyima took Anthy, Annabelle, and Garnet on a whirlwind tour ("er... no pun intended") of the Air Temples. Apart from the one they were already at, there were four of these, scattered around the world, and Nyima predicted that it would take them two weeks to hit them all - not traveling by sky bison, which would've taken much longer, but "hitchhiking", after a fashion, on cargo flights operated by the Air Commonwealth's national airline (the imaginatively named Nomad Air).
They left early Saturday morning, and the day was full enough that the effect wasn't immediately noticeable; but 24 hours later, on Sunday morning, Corwin and Utena woke to find their world strangely quiet and empty-feeling. They lay in bed for several minutes, silently contemplating this phenomenon together; then Corwin sat up, yawned, and said,
"Boy, that's weird. I didn't think it would feel this weird."
"I know!" Utena agreed, sitting up herself. "One of us should've gone with them."
Corwin tilted his head inquisitively. "You figure a master airbender, the High Priestess of Cephiro, and a dragon aren't enough of an entourage?"
Utena gave him a look, then laughed. "I suppose you have a point." She leaned and picked up her watch from the nightstand. "Hmm. They must be at the Southern Air Temple by now..."
"Huh," said Garnet thoughtfully. Anthy turned her head to glance inquisitively at the little dragon on her shoulder, but Garnet didn't elaborate for a few seconds; instead, she stood gazing around at the ranked statues, one depicting each of the known Avatars.
"They really do look like they're all in line at the DMV," Garnet said at length, and Nyima stifled a laugh that would've been inappropriate for the setting.
Korra put her head into the sun parlor and found Corwin by himself, fiddling around with something on the DesignDesk station.
"Hey," she said.
Corwin looked up and smiled. "Hey."
"You appear to have been abandoned," Korra observed.
"Yep," Corwin agreed. "To be fair," he added, "I could've gone with, but I'm pretty demonstrably useless at ladies' fashion shopping, so..." He shrugged. "Better to stay behind and preserve the honor of the regiment, I think."
Korra chuckled. "You can't be any worse at it than Lhakpa," she said, crossing to sit down at the desk.
"Probably not, but she enjoys sucking at it a lot more than I do," Corwin replied. "Whatcha got there?"
Korra held up the object in her hand, turning it so it caught the afternoon light: an optical disc of what, to Corwin, was an unfamiliar size. It was little bit smaller in diameter than the ancient MultiDisc form factor he was used to, and the spindle hole in the middle was square with slightly radiused corners, putting him in mind of old Earth Kingdom coins.
"Something Karana gave me when I stopped by the arena earlier," she said. "It's a demo disc for a band some of the girls over at Sato Academy in Sakuragaoka have. Apparently it found its way to Karana by way of the pop club up at Piandao - you know how musicians like to network," she added with a grin. "She said they're big fans of Kate's, and were hoping they could get it to her via me."
Corwin grinned. "I like a band that's not afraid to dream big," he said. "Have you listened to it yet?"
"Nope, I just got back," said Korra. "Shall we?"
"Sure, I'm just killing time anyway," Corwin replied, putting the DesignDesk in sleep mode. Korra turned her chair around and scooted over to the long table, switched on the portable stereo standing at one end of it, and stuck the Lightdisc into the appropriate slot.
There was no sound for a second or two; then the clatter and thump of a mic being plugged in, and the unmistakable rustle and jangle of an idle but restless band. Footsteps receded from the mic, the fidgety noises stopped, and there was a moment of silence.
"Uh, hello out there!" said a high-pitched, slightly breathy voice. "We're Hōkago Tea Time. ... You probably knew that already. Oh! Unless you found this disc on the train or something and it isn't marked. That could happen!" Her voice became slightly muffled as the speaker turned away from the mic. Corwin didn't know what she looked like or how they were set up, but he could picture her anonymous form turning to address her equally nebulous bandmates anyway, and the thought made him smile a little. "You guys, we should do that! Make some copies and just leave them lying around for people to find -"
"Yui, we're recording," another voice said, with a note of long-suffering, fond exasperation in it that made both Corwin and Korra giggle.
"Oh! Right! Sorry! We're Hōkago Tea Time..."
"You said that already," a third voice interjected, unable to suppress a giggle.
" - um, and, we hope you like our songs. This one's called 'Rice Is a Side Dish'!"
The third voice counted them in - "One, two, three, four!" - to the tapping of a hi-hat (so Corwin guessed its owner was the drummer), and they were off.
Korra and Corwin listened to the first three tracks in silence, nodding their heads to the beat. The band was a little rough, as might be expected from what was evidently a high school music group, but they had a lot of energy and their talent was evident even to Corwin's relatively untrained ear. They sounded like a four-piece - guitar, bass, drums, and a keyboard - and it appeared they had two singers. The girl with the high voice ("Yui", evidently) did most of the leads, but one of the others - Corwin thought she was the one who had said "we're recording" - took over for the second track. Most of their lyrics were in Japanese (or Kokugo, Corwin supposed).
"They're pretty good," Korra observed partway into the fourth track, which Yui, who did most of the talking, had introduced as "My Love Is a Stapler". (This had confused Korra for a few moments, until she parsed enough of the lyrics to determine that it was a metaphor based on the idea of "my love" as in "for you", and not actually a declaration that the singer was in love with a stapler.)
Corwin nodded. "Their lead singer has a really cute voice," he said. "I can see where some people would find it kind of annoying, but I like her style. She's got a certain... je ne sais quoi."
"I know exactly what you mean," said Korra in a slightly affected deadpan, and they both broke up snickering at the old injoke. "The other one sounds more grown-up," she added as the band's second vocalist took over the lead for the next verse.
"Yeah," Corwin agreed. "She kind of changes their whole sound. That's pretty cool." He nodded through the second chorus, the fingers of his own right hand unconsciously miming bass fingerings. "Yeah," he repeated. "I think Kate will dig this." He turned a thoughtful look to Korra. "Was there a picture with the disc?"
Korra rolled her eyes. "Boys, that's all you ever think about."
"I'm just curious!" Corwin insisted, reddening. Giggling, Korra reached up and shoved his shoulder, causing his stool to swivel him through a full 360° turn.
The fifth track was unmistakably a rock arrangement of the girls' school song: all but obligatory for school bands, and nicely accomplished in this case. It sounded like all four of them had vocal parts in that one, and Corwin found himself wondering idly which of the unfamiliar singing voices was whose.
The demo's sixth and final track was a straight-up rock anthem with an insanely catchy hook, and got them both nodding along again.
"This is the peppiest song I've ever heard about the agony of unrequited love," Corwin observed midway through the second chorus.
"I know, right?" Korra agreed.
They listened silently through the rest of the song. When it finished, there were a few extemporaneous remarks from band members before the recording abruptly cut off with a click. Corwin and Korra sat looking at the LD player for a couple of seconds, then turned to each other.
"Not bad at all," Corwin pronounced. "Ship it! Shame there's only six tracks."
"Well, it is an off-the-cuff demo," Korra said. She reached to remove the disc from the player, considered for a second, and then hit PLAY again instead.
"Makes me want to start a band," Corwin said after the first track was underway again.
"Yeah, me too," Korra agreed. She put her feet up and leaned back, hands behind her head, to regard the ceiling thoughtfully. "I wonder where my old guitar ever ended up..."
"I'm home!" Utena's voice called from the front hallway, shortly after the demo finished playing for the second time. "Anybody here?"
"In here!" Corwin and Korra declared together, then snickered at each other for the involuntary stereo response.
Utena and Wakaba came in from the hallway, looking slightly tired but pleased from their day's exertions; each was carrying a half-dozen shopping bags from various emporia around Republic City and sporting stylish new accessories.
"Well, look at you two," said Korra, grinning. "Looks like the day's expedition was a success."
"Thanks to me!" Wakaba replied, striking a triumphant pose. "I love shopping with Utena. She makes me feel all expert-level girly."
"Hey!" Utena objected. "I've learned a few of your tricks over the years. I even know what colors not to wear together."
"Yeah, but you still have the style sense of a high schooler. A boy high schooler," Wakaba said.
"Did I, or did I not, pick out this scarf myself?" Utena demanded, indicating the item she wore tied jauntily around her neck.
"Did I, or did I not, have to tell you three times to pick a color other than black, and then you just went for red?" Wakaba replied, rolling her eyes. "You're such a boy."
"Um, on a point of order," said Corwin, and that was as far as he got before they all broke up laughing.
"Anyway," Wakaba went on, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, "shopping with Lhakpa is good times too. How anyone so naturally glamorous got to her age without knowing how to pick out clothes..." She shook her head. "Crime against nature."
"How's she settling in?" Korra asked. "I should go out and visit sometime soon."
"Oh, she's into the swing," Wakaba assured her, hopping up on the vacant stool in front of the drafting machine. "Got a job and everything!"
"Really, doing what?" Corwin wondered.
"Delivering," Wakaba said.
"Delivering what?" Corwin asked.
"Whatever she can carry," said Wakaba, shrugging. "She's like a bike messenger, except she can fly. It's a great racket in a big city like this one, I wish I'd thought of it back in my ramen-and-water days in Nekomikoka."
"Say, that is a good idea," Korra observed. "Why didn't I ever think of that?"
"Like you need a job," said Utena with a cheerful roll of her eyes.
"There have been times..." said Korra, but she let it trail off and said, "Hey, you guys want to hear something cool?"
On Friday, Utena and Wakaba left as well, heading out to the "big universe" via Corwin's good offices with a parlor window, bound first for New Avalon, then Jeraddo. Two of the current crop of DSM Duelists, Boba Fett and Mimi Shinguuji, were graduating; as emerita officers of the Duelists' Society, they felt honor-bound to attend, and besides, both of the younger Duelists were friends.
Left to their own devices, and with construction up on Mount Weitang having halted for the weekend, Korra and Corwin found themselves in the unaccustomed position of not having anything much to do on Saturday. Corwin was in the sun parlor, propped up on the futon reading a book, when Korra announced herself in the hall, then sloped into the room looking glum about something.
Corwin marked his place, set the book aside, and gave her a curious look. "Problem?"
"Eh, not really," Korra replied, sitting down next to him. "I looked around for my guitar this morning, but I can't find it anywhere. I thought sure it'd be in the storeroom behind my office over in the ladies' quarters, but... no sign of it." She sighed. "Must be in Senna. I guess I could call Kejna and ask her to go take a look."
Corwin gave her a fondly skeptical look. "You have, what, ten worldly possessions, and you've managed to lose one?"
"Oh, sure, laugh it up," Korra replied, bumping his shoulder with hers. "You wait until you're my age and then see how much of the stuff you had when you were 50 you can still find."
"Well... did you look in the attic?" Corwin suggested.
"The ladies' dorm doesn't have an attic," she said.
"What about here?"
"What would my guitar be doing in Tenzin's attic?"
Corwin shrugged. "Ladies' dorm doesn't have one."
Korra gave a snort of laughter, conceding the point, and got up. "Well, what the heck, let's go see."
Twenty minutes later, Corwin and a slightly dusty, slightly sweaty Korra stood side by side next to the long table in the sun parlor, regarding the object she had just wrestled down through the narrow hatchway from the house's attic.
"How did you know it would be there?" she asked.
"They do that," Corwin replied.
The object was a hard guitar case, one of the old-fashioned rectangular ones, its textured black vinyl covering cracked and peeling with age. After considering it for a few more moments, Corwin asked, "How long was it up there, do you suppose?"
"Well... I haven't played since..." Korra paused, her face clouding, then said in a lower voice, "Almost 50 years." She shook her head, sighing. "Doesn't seem possible."
Corwin nodded, putting a hand on her shoulder, but said nothing. They stood looking at the case for a few more moments in silence. Then Korra seemed to shake herself, smiling, and said, "Let's see what we're up against." So saying, she unfastened the case's latches and opened the lid.
The instrument inside was a Fender Stratocaster, like Kaitlyn's favorite guitar, but built for a right-handed player, and much more worn. At some point in its career, its body had been painted a light shade of blue very like one Korra often wore - was wearing now, as a matter of fact. On the corner where her right forearm would've rested against it when she played, a patch of the blue paint had worn away, revealing the original three-tone brown sunburst finish underneath. The maple fingerboard was scored and grooved in the most commonly-touched places, the frets worn; the once-white pickguard and knobs had yellowed distinctly with age.
The three thinnest strings had more or less disintegrated, and the others were badly corroded; there was rust, too, on the tremolo and the tuning machines. The wood looked to be in good shape, though, and in Corwin's eyes, the wooden parts of a Strat were like the frame of a spacecraft: Everything else could be replaced without changing the essential character of the thing.
Korra wiped a tear from her eye at the sight of it. "Man, what a mess," she said, trying to sound jocular, but mostly failing.
"I think it's fixable, though," Corwin mused. "Tell you what, why don't you go get The Hat and let's take it into town. There must be someplace that does repairs."
After a little hunting around, they ended up in the basement of a huge multi-level music store with the slightly unintuitive name of "10GIÄ", which sold records and sheet music at street level, and musical instruments downstairs. At the back of the showroom (which Corwin made a mental note to bring Kate to when she was back in town - it was the kind of place where she could easily spend both a whole afternoon and a small fortune), there was a square island of counter with a sign hanging over it that read simply, REPAIRS.
Corwin felt for the man on duty at that counter, who was bound by long-standing tradition not only not to recognize Korra, but to pretend this was just an ordinary job brought in by a regular member of the public. The luthier's name tag said he was called Dallas, and he was a foreigner in Dìqiú: a thirtyish white guy who reminded Corwin of Zach Stephens with some of his laid-back rocker-guy mannerisms. He had clearly been in town for some time and knew the drill, though, and he spoke perfect Tongyu. Corwin wondered what his story was, what had brought him to Republic City. He supposed it was probably a rock 'n roll thing.
At any rate, when he opened the case, Dallas was visibly both a bit shocked and a bit pained by the state of the guitar; but when Korra gave him a sheepish smile and said, "Pretty bad, huh," he couldn't bring himself to agree. Instead he shook his head and said unconvincingly,
"Naaah, not at all - just needs a few minor adjustments..."
Corwin felt for the guy, but he also couldn't resist teasing him after an evasion as obvious as that. Turning to face away from the counter, he put a hand on Korra's shoulder and stage-murmured to her, "Maybe we should go somewhere else - I'm not sure this guy knows what he's talking about..."
"Behave, you," Korra chided him, shoving his near shoulder. Then, smiling at Dallas, she asked him, "Do you think you can do anything for it?"
"Oh, sure," Dallas replied, his professional pride nettled by Corwin's teasing. "I mean... OK, look, I won't lie to you, your guitar's in pretty rough shape." His confidence evident as he addressed what was, after all, his area of expertise, he went on, "The strings are the most obvious thing, but that's an easy fix. Frets are pretty worn, but, again, no real problem there. Based on the overall condition and the age of the instrument, though, I'm betting your electronics are completely shot, and I don't know if I can salvage this trem either. But..."
He lifted the Strat gently out of the case, then turned and placed it carefully on his workbench, positioning a neck rest just so. For a few moments he just stood regarding it, running his fingertips thoughtfully along the grooves in the fingerboard.
Then he looked up from the guitar, turned back to the counter, met its owner's eyes, and smiled. "Yeah, man," he said. "I can save this axe."
Korra grinned. "Then go to it. Whatever you have to do..." She reached and touched the worn-down spot on the body where the original finish showed through the blue paint. "Just leave this."
"Not a problem," said Dallas with a knowing little nod. "It'll take me a couple hours. Feel free to look around the store, or just come back in a little while..."
They browsed the showroom for an hour or so, checking out the wide selection of equipment on offer; then, as it was getting on toward dinnertime anyway by then, they went down the way to the shopping arcade's food court and got a bite to eat. Korra was unusually quiet and pensive throughout the meal, and Corwin was reasonably sure he knew why. The length of time since she'd put away her guitar was a strong hint to someone who knew her history as well as he did. Rather than try to draw her out, he kept quiet and gave her space to work through it.
Toward the end of the ice cream, she finally broke her silence, saying, "Hey, Corwin..."
"Mm?" he replied.
"Say I... actually wanted to visit Valhalla. What would that take?"
Corwin nodded inwardly - called it - and smiled. They'd been creeping up on this through several incremental conversations over the last little while, and it didn't surprise him at all that they'd finally arrived at it today.
"Well," he said, "we'd have to make some arrangements. You'd need a visa, naturally, and to get that you'd have to be sponsored - invited by one of the Æsir. I think we've got that covered," he added with a wry grin. "Mechanics-wise, we'd have to do some research on the celestial side, since we'd have to account for your own soul and Raava, too. Mom and Aunt Bell should be able to look after that. Beyond that, it's just a matter of getting you there, which I can handle myself."
Korra mulled it over for a second or two, then asked, "How long do you figure that would take to set up?"
"Depends on how long the research takes," Corwin said. "Couple of weeks? Maybe a month, if they run into any snags with the paperwork."
"Hmm." Korra said nothing further for a few moments, then finished her ice cream and rose from the table. "Well, let's go see how Dallas is getting on."
Dallas, as it turned out, was getting on just fine. When they stepped off the escalator to the music shop's lower level, he was standing with his back to the room, playing a couple of riffs to test his work. When he'd finished, he turned around and saw them there - and they, in turn, saw the fruits of his labors.
Korra's old Strat was still unmistakably the same vintage instrument. The worn paintwork was unchanged, as were the grooves in the fingerboard. All the metal gleamed like new, though, from the tremolo to the tuning knobs, and both she and Corwin could tell from the sound that the electronics were working perfectly.
With a smiling nod for them, Dallas ducked out of the strap. "Good timing," he said. "I just finished." He held the instrument sideways and extended it across the counter to its owner. "Give it a try, see what you think."
Korra blinked at him, then took the guitar and slung it over her own shoulder. While she adjusted its position a little, she gave him a rueful grin and said, "This probably isn't going to sound like much - I'm as rusty as the guitar was..."
Dallas grinned. "Eh, don't worry about it," he said, sliding a pick across the counter to her. "We don't discriminate."
Korra laughed, took the pick, and stood for a moment in thought, then touched the strings and played a slightly choppy but instantly recognizable rendition of the riff from "Pipeline". As she got into it, her play got smoother; it wasn't perfect, but from the smile that spread across her face as she got reacquainted with her old friend, it didn't appear that she cared.
"That's amazing," she said when she'd finished. "You're a wizard. How much do I owe you?"
"Well... I have to charge you list for the parts, and there were a lot of them, I'm afraid," said Dallas. "But I'm happy to donate my labor. It's been a slow day," he added before she could object, "and bringing your guitar back to life... well, it was for days like this that I got into this line of work in the first place. So let's call it an even trade. OK?"
Korra grinned. "OK," she said. "But I'm gonna tell all my friends about you!" she added, handing the guitar back so he could disconnect it from the shop amp and put it back in its case.
"I never discourage word of mouth," Dallas said with a smile.
Nall was in the sun parlor when Corwin and Korra returned from the mainland, loaded down with an assortment of gear. Corwin had a gig bag slung on his back, while Korra was carrying a battered old hard guitar case; both of them were lugging small amps, while Corwin's free hand was occupied with a large plastic shopping bag marked with the 10GIÄ logo.
"... Starting a band?" Nall wondered.
"Just jamming, for the moment," Corwin told him, putting the shopping bag and his amp on the long table. Then he added wryly, "We can't start a band until we find a drummer."
"Ikki plays drums," Korra said, putting her own amp down on the floor by the table.
"Did I know that?" Corwin wondered, looking thoughtful, as he shrugged out of the straps of his gig bag. "I must've known that. If nothing else it's logical. No other instrument would've annoyed Jinora as much. Except maybe the vibraphone."
Nall snickered and stepped up to look over his shoulder as he put the bag on the table and unzipped it. "Did you buy another guitar?"
"Had to," Corwin replied, unconcerned.
"How do you figure?" Nall asked skeptically.
"Look." So saying, Corwin drew the instrument out of the bag and held it up for the dragon's inspection.
"... Oh," said Nall. It was a left-handed Gibson Thunderbird IV bass guitar, evidently brand new, in black with a white pickguard and very dark rosewood fingerboard.
"See?" Corwin said, grinning.
"OK, yeah," said Nall after a moment. "If you just randomly came across that out in the wild, without special-ordering it or anything, then I will agree that you really had no choice." He gave a sage nod. "Well played, music shop. Well played."
He hung around while they set up, unpacking the various supplies and secondary items they'd bought, and then listened to half an hour of more or less random noodling around. Neither Corwin nor Korra had played in a while (rather more of one in her case), so they weren't what could be called polished, but they were clearly having a blast, all the same. Nall headed back to the mainland at dusk, unconsciously humming the hook from "Layla".
Corwin and Korra jammed for another hour or so after Nall left, before deciding that the hour was late enough that they should probably knock off.
"Phew!" said Corwin, shaking his right hand as he placed his new T-bird on its stand with his left. He crossed the room and reclined on the futon-daybed, then regarded his hand. "My fingers are all tingly."
"Yeah, mine too," said Korra. "I'm so out of practice." She put her Strat in its case and closed it, then went to the minifridge and got out a couple bottles of lychee juice. "Tell you what, though." She sat down next to him, handed him one of the bottles, cracked her own, and drank most of it before adding, "That was fun."
"It sure was," Corwin agreed. "I was kidding Nall before, but maybe we should start a band. In our copious free time," he added wryly.
"Well, hey, now that most of the design work is done on the house..." said Korra, leaving the rest of it unsaid. She finished her juice, tossed the bottle into the returnables bin, and then stretched out with her hands behind her head and got comfortable.
"So... Valhalla," she said after a few minutes of thoughtful silence.
"Yes," Corwin replied.
She turned her head to regard him. "Let's do it," she said. "Start the process, anyway, and... see where it goes."
Corwin looked back at her for a few seconds, then nodded with a little smile. "OK," he said, and, settling back against the cushion behind him, he folded his hands on his chest and closed his eyes.
"Uh... what are you doing?" Korra wondered after a few moments of silence.
Corwin half-opened one eye. "Filing your application," he said.
"By taking a nap?"
"It's a lot easier to get a message to Asgard from the Spirit World," he pointed out.
"Oh! Yeah, I guess that would stand to reason, wouldn't it?" So saying, she lay back beside him and did likewise.
They arrived in the Spirit World to find it a crisp, clear evening, cooler than the weather in Yue Bay tonight. Korra recognized the white chalk cliffs they were standing at the top of: They were at the same little bay where he'd arranged for her to spend some time with Katara on the day after her birthday, with the beach far below them and the pine forest whispering in the spirit wind at their backs.
Corwin faced the Sea of Ghosts, straightened himself up as if about to bow, and clapped his hands together smartly in front of his chest, the way people from the Fire Nation did right after they rang the bell at a temple. That done, he tipped his head back and looked up at the brilliantly starlit sky. For a second, nothing happened. Then the Æsir brand on his forehead began to glow, faintly at first and then brighter and brighter, until Korra had to shield her eyes with a hand and avoid looking directly at it - and with a thunderclap, a pulse of pure white light shot from it into the sky, momentarily illuminating the area with a sharp-shadowed, photo-strobe glare.
Faint sounds of surprise and consternation drifted toward them from somewhere nearby as the echoes of the thunder rolled off into the night. Korra blinked the dazzle from her eyes to see Corwin smiling at her, his brand still flickering fitfully.
"There," he said. "Now we wait."
"For what?" Korra wondered.
Corwin put a hand behind his head with a rueful little grin. "The force against which even the gods themselves must contend in vain," he said. "The bureaucracy."
Utena's meeting with Queen Hippolyta of Themyscira was not, she had to admit, particularly well-timed. Besides the fact that she'd just been in the B'hava'el system, there was the little matter of Annabelle and company having returned to Air Temple Island the day before. Anthy and Nyima reported that the baby had appeared to enjoy their quick tour of the Air Temples, but she had a restless first night back, what with the travel fatigue and all.
Coupled with her own adjustment to having everyone back home again, it left Utena ill-prepared for a summons to an emergency meeting with a displaced head of state on Babylon 6. Still, it was what it was, and when duty called, the Prince of Cephiro answered. Judging from the capsule description of events the Chief had provided when he called, the situation was serious enough that only her personal attention would do.
The meeting itself lasted only a few minutes, and could probably have been conducted by video, except for the obvious diplomatic necessity of handling it face-to-face. Of course, if they had done it as a video conference, Utena probably would've been able to prevent Her Majesty from seeing the colossal yawn she was unable to suppress at one point. Fortunately, the Queen of the Amazons was a parent herself, and so understood with a ready, kindly smile when Utena sheepishly remarked,
"Sorry - two-month-old in the house..."
With their business concluded, Hippolyta took herself off to gather her sisters and prepare them for the journey to their new home in Cephiro. Anthy and Mitsuru would take care of the actual transport once the arrangements were all complete. Utena, sitting at Gryphon's desk in the Chief's little-used Babylon 6 office, finished drafting a note to that effect for the Seneschal's records, then sat back in her chair and considered her options.
She had - glance at watch - six hours before the Blink Dog would return to take her back to Zipang. She supposed she could go to the VOQ and get some sleep while she waited. She really was tired. Annabelle was (in her admittedly biased opinion) the best baby in the history of ever, but even the best babies have off days. On the other hand, it was only 1420 hours, and she'd have plenty of time to sleep on the train back to Republic City.
She had just about decided to go down to the Zocalo and see if the little coffee shop next to Garak's was still there when the intercom on Gryphon's desk beeped. Utena blinked at it - who knew or cared that she was here? - then pressed the button and said, "Yes?"
"Babylon Control here, Commodore," came the voice of the station's ops office, a Starfleet lieutenant by the name - amusingly enough, to Utena - of David Corwin. "The captain of the KDF battlecruiser noDwI' would like to meet you in Transporter Room Two if you have the time."
Utena's puzzlement deepened. She only knew one Klingon battlecruiser's captain, and that was Captain Krontep of the HoSghaj - but he and his ship were parsecs from here, serving as the IPSF's main link to the Klingon government-in-exile on Klinzhai Prime. She considered the name: noDwI', "who strikes back". A good name for a Klingon Union ship, particularly if his captain were of a mind to take the fight to the Klavaarite forces.
"Commodore?" Lt. Corwin's voice inquired.
"Uh - sure, I can spare a few minutes," she said. "I'll be right there."
She got up from the desk, tucking the note to Mitsuru into the inside pocket of her leather jacket, and made her way to the transporter room, her curiosity running high. When she arrived, the technician on duty was just energizing the beam.
A trio of people materialized on the frontmost three discs of the array. Utena initially thought the one on the left was human, until she looked more closely and realized he was a Klingon with humanoid genemods, like the actor who played Sub-Commander Dorn on Battlecruiser Vengeance. He was dressed like a Battlecruiser Vengeance character, too, in the simple, unarmored tunic and trousers of a 22nd-century KDF lieutenant's uniform, and sported a pointed beard-and-mustache combo somewhere between a Vandyke and a Fu Manchu.
There was no mistaking the massive figure on the right. He was a Gorn, tall and broad, dressed in the newfangled reinforced leather gear that the KDF had lately been adopting so that its people could be told apart from those of Klayvor's Imperial Navy at a glance. If Utena remembered the memo she'd received correctly, the color scheme, mostly black with some dark-red accents, indicated that he was a science officer, and the pattern of decorative metal bands on the leather baldric he wore slung across his barrel chest denoted the rank of Sub- Commander.
That left the person in the middle, and she was perhaps the most unexpected of all. She was a Klingon woman - her skin tone and the ridges on her forehead made that plain enough - but she was very young to be a warship's commander. She was also tiny for a Klingon, an inch or two less than Utena's own five-eleven, which was itself not a very impressive height by Klingon standards. Her head was shaved, her heavy eyebrows trimmed into neatly tapering wedges; the latter gave her expression a permanent touch of a scowl, even when, as now, she was smiling.
Like the Gorn, she was dressed in the new KDF uniform, but its accents were gold-toned instead of red, and she sported an armored collar and a single pauldron, on her left shoulder, decorated with the scarlet badge of General Zargh Thalekh's Seventh Fleet. Her baldric was a much more elaborate affair than the Gorn's as well, of intricately articulated metal mesh instead of leather, with the bands and badge of a full Commander. At her belt she wore a brace of heavy disruptor pistols with finely worked grips of lacquered greelwood.
Utena had taken all that on board before something about the young Klingon's face struck her; blinking in surprise, she took a closer look, her eyes going wide.
Still smiling mischievously, the Klingon captain stepped down from the transporter platform, still flanked by her officers, and gave Utena a fist-to-chest salute. The transporter room's lights glinted from the silver-and-rose ring she wore on the third finger of her left hand as she said,
<The one greets you, Thought Admiral Utena vestai-Tenjou, Master-at-Arms to Great House Hutchins. I am Commander B'Elanna sutai-O'Brien of the battlecruiser Retaliator.>
Utena stared at her for a second longer, then pulled herself together and returned the salute as creditably as she knew how. "Kai, ra'wI' sutai-O'Brien. NuqneH."
B'Elanna grinned, suddenly transforming from the finely-turned-out Klingon captain back into herself. "Right now?" she said in Standard. "I could go for some coffee that wasn't made from recycled urine. Before we go, though, let me introduce my riot squad." She indicated the humanized Klingon, who stood looking around with keen, dark eyes as if sizing the room up for a squad-level takedown. "My tactical officer, Lieutenant Karn vestai-Karrath."
"An honor, Commodore," said Karn with a salute. His eyes gave her the same assessment they'd given the room - gauging her height, build, stance, demeanor, all in the name of building up the most complete tactical picture of her, just in case he had to take her down. There was nothing aggressive or threatening about it, just pure, pragmatic professionalism. That was his job and he was, Utena was reasonably sure, always doing it, whether he knew it consciously or not. She could respect that, even if it was a little unsettling.
"And this is my first officer, the Science Gorn," B'Elanna went on.
Utena raised an eyebrow. "Science Gorn?"
"It is a sufficient descriptor," the Gorn remarked, saluting her with a slight bow.
"No other Gorn science officers in the KDF, you see," said B'Elanna with a wink. "He's a little weird. Now, about that coffee."
Over said coffee, at a little table on the Zocalo, B'Elanna - at Utena's insistence - told the dramatic story of how she had acquired her command. Utena, in turn, caught B'Elanna up on all that had been going on (as far as she herself was aware) in Duelist circles, commiserating with her that the demands of the service had kept her away from Bajor the previous weekend.
They were just getting into the subject of what Utena herself had been up to in the last few months when the harsh, grating noise of a Klingon communicator demanding attention interrupted them. Looking faintly surprised, B'Elanna took the device from her belt and triggered it.
<Speak,> B'Elanna said curtly into the communicator.
The voice that replied was unknown to Utena, other than that she could tell it was male, most probably Klingon, and sounded excited about something. <My lord - we have them.>
B'Elanna's face took on a smile that was not entirely nice. <Excellent,> she replied, her tone combining great satisfaction and eager anticipation. <Hands to quarters, prepare the ship for departure. Action.>
<Acting, my lord,> the voice from the ship replied.
Standing, B'Elanna said to her officers, "Gentlemen, we're up." Turning to Utena, she added apologetically, "I hate to eat and run, Commodore, but..."
Utena got to her feet with a smile. "Qapla', ra'wI' sutai-O'Brien," she said, offering the younger captain a bow and a Klingon-style salute.
B'Elanna grinned at her, winked, and then said into her communicator, "noDwI' - jol yIchu'!" And without so much as a word from Karn or the Science Gorn, the three were gone, whisked away in a wash of orange light that took a number of people in the surrounding area by surprise, to judge by the murmurs and double-takes it caused.
Still chuckling at B'Elanna's eagerness, Utena returned to her seat and her coffee. She wondered who "they" were and how, exactly, the Retaliator "had" them, but really, it was none of her business - she wasn't a KDF officer, and even in the IPSF Reserve, she wasn't currently on active duty. She had, as the saying went, no need to know.
She finished her coffee, then looked at her watch. Still more than four hours to go before the Blink Dog could fit her into its busy schedule. Then an hour or so to get out of the pattern at B6, jump to Zipang, get down to Saikyō International, and clear Customs. Taxicab to the railroad station, then 50 or so hours on the train. Walk down to the ferry port and wait for the next run to the island. She'd be home sometime early Monday evening.
Ahhh, the hell with that, she thought, and then, Corwin, I need an exit.
Corwin's psychic voice had a palpable smile in it as he replied, We were wondering how long it would take you to call. Anthy says you're cute when you're being stubborn.
Utena rolled her eyes with a slightly blushing grin. Yeah, yeah.
OK, not a problem, Corwin went on, sounding cheerfully brisk. Stand up and hold still.
As she got to her feet and put some money on the table, Utena looked at her Lens, one eyebrow crooking. I'm on the Zocalo, she said. There are no windows around.
Not a problem, Corwin repeated. Just hold still...
As they were passing by what, at that point, had long since come to be known among the island's youngsters as the Guest House, Sita, Tenzin, and Gyatso saw Anthy and Corwin standing out in the courtyard by the decorative pond. Gyatso started to call out to them, but before he could do so, Sita put out a hand and stopped him.
"Shhh," she said, shaking her head. "Look - Lady Anthy's busy."
Puzzled, Gyatso looked more closely, and after a moment he saw that Sita meant. Anthy wasn't just standing there regarding the pool, as she sometimes did; she had her eyes closed and her face set in a look of firm concentration, although concentration on what, Gyatso couldn't have said. There wasn't anything around, and she wouldn't have been looking at it if there was. She had her hands spread, palms downward, her fingers spread and slightly bent.
"What's she doing?" Tenzin wondered.
"I have no idea," Sita replied.
For several seconds, as the three watched from the far side of the pond, nothing happened. Then, slowly - almost subliminally - they became aware of a soft but growing sound, a low rumbling, as of a still-distant but approaching train. Beside Sita, Tenzin caught his breath audibly as he realized that Anthy's hands were starting to glow, a strange, silvery light gathering at her fingertips and spreading to encompass her whole hands. The glow grew brighter and denser as the rumbling sound grew louder, the tension visible in her arms and on her forehead now...
Suddenly, she moved, raising one arm and flexing it inward as she closed that hand into a fist, as if grabbing something out of the air and pulling it toward her -
- and with a thundery sound and a great burst of that silver light, Utena appeared out of nowhere next to her, dressed in her familiar black-and-red and looking startled.
"Whoa," said Gyatso.
"I concur," Tenzin murmured, nodding with eyes wide.
"OK, that was different," Utena observed, recovering her aplomb with only a moment's disorientation.
"Welcome home, darling," said Anthy, embracing her with a kiss.
"What she said," Corwin added cheerfully, taking his turn.
Before Utena could reply, if she planned to, the house's front door opened and a number of people spilled out.
"What was that noise - oh hey!" said Wakaba. "Look, Annabelle, your other dad's home early!"
Utena looked and saw that her old friend did, indeed, have Annabelle aboard, lashed to her chest in the approved manner with Anthy's airbender sash, and Garnet on her shoulder. She laughed and said, "You guys look comfy."
"All in a day's work for Aunt Wakaba!" declared Wakaba, fists on hips.
"You missed her first attempt with the wrap," Korra remarked with a grin.
"But Anthy got pictures," Nyima added.
"You guys are so mean to me," Wakaba complained.
Utena tilted her head inquisitively. "Were you getting ready to go someplace?"
Corwin nodded. "We were just about to head into town. Nall, Lhakpa, and the Fire Ferrets are going to meet us for dinner at Celestial P. I know you've had a pretty long day," he added, "but do you think you're up for coming with?"
"No big if not," Wakaba put in. "We'll bring you back something."
Utena considered that for a moment, taking in the mix of friends (old and new) and her growing family that surrounded her, where moments before she had been millions of miles away, among strangers. The shape of her entire life had changed so much, and in way she could never possibly have predicted. Coming back to it from even a brief time away was always a bit of a shock, and coupled with the transport lag and the fact that she'd been underslept to begin with, she figured that by rights she should be up for little more than lying down in a cool, dark place for a while.
But the more she thought about her whole life situation lately, the more excited she was to see whatever came next. Getting to know a whole new world; suddenly gaining not just a child, but an even bigger extended family; finding new ways of making it all work with her responsibilities, old and new. It was a big, and in many ways an unexpected, challenge, but...
"Yeah," she said, her smile a bit tired, but heartfelt. "I think I'm up for that."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
and Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra / The Order of the Rose
Suite for Avatar and Trinity (The Dìqiú Suite)
Fifth Movement: Among Honest Hearts
in order of appearance
Ran and Shaw
Air Acolyte No. 4
David "Bruce" Corwin
The Science Gorn
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
with Anne Cross
and Jaymie Wagner
With the gracious aid of
EPU's Usual Suspects
Korra created by
Michael Dante DiMartino
and Bryan Konietzko
Legacy devised by
Philip Jeremy Moyer
This concludes The Dìqiú Suite.
Headmaster Akio Ohtori was standing at the window of his office, thoughtfully considering the advanced students at their drills down on the Quad, when the Castellan entered.
"They've become quite skilled," Akio remarked conversationally, not turning to look at her, as the Castellan crossed his office and stopped before his desk. "I must remember to congratulate Mikage on his efforts when he returns."
The Castellan, her face impassive, offered no comment on that matter. Instead, she placed a small, buff-colored envelope on his desk blotter and said,
"My lord... we have them."
Akio stayed at the window for a moment longer. When at last he turned to face the Castellan, it was with a darkly satisfied smile playing at his lips.
"Excellent," he said. "Then it seems we're nearly ready to begin at last."
The Castellan of Sheol
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
will resume with the Fifth Movement:
Taken by Storm
E P U (colour) 2014