She can barely remember those first few weeks. She knows she was in terrible pain, that she faded in and out of consciousness during the journey to Republic City. She knows she was helpless. She doesn't remember though - there's an empty patch in her memory where those weeks should be, a tender aching gap which hurts to go near.
Things are much easier now. She can rest her well manicured hands in her lap and be reasonably sure they won't start shaking, she can eat without the depressing certainty she'll be sick. She can manoeuvre herself out of bed on sleepless nights like this one and stare out at the quiet, dark water of the bay, counting Asami's breaths behind her. Having the other girl so near is an infinite wellspring of comfort, the simple knowledge that there's someone there who cares about her, who can do so without judgement.
Her fingers itch for something else, though. She wants to be doing something. She wants, more than anything, to be the avatar again.
She stares out at the city, leaning her elbows on the window sill. It glows with light; both the neon, sodium and tungsten of its human inhabitants and the ethereal floating lights of spirits exploring its streets. From a distance it's beautiful the way the vines creep throughout the skyscrapers, flourishing and flowering.
Further away than that, she imagines the refugee camps, a flood of humanity fleeing Ba Sing Se and washing up on the shores of the eastern and western lakes, desperate to make it across.
She can't imagine what she could do to help them. She couldn't walk amongst the people, couldn't really use her bending to make shelters or provide fresh water - she can barely nudge a pebble or spark a flame without collapsing into sweaty shaking.
Behind her, Asami rolls over in bed.
"Can't sleep?" she mumbles, sweeping a curtain of hair from her face.
"I'm just thinking," she replies.
"Come back to bed, you can think in the morning," Asami says, folding back the blankets to make a space for her.
It's an invitation she can't resist. She walks unsteadily back over to the bed and leans her cane against the headboard as she lowers herself in. Asami immediately wraps her arms around her and falls back asleep, her head pillowed on her chest. Korra buries her nose in the other girl's hair and inhales deeply, trying to let her mind relax into sleep. The thought plagues her though - do people need her? Does the world need the avatar?
When she opens her eyes and already knows it's going to be a bad day, she doubts anyone would want an avatar in her current state.
What good is an avatar who wakes up exhausted every other day? Who can barely hobble along with a cane? One who longingly wishes for her wheelchair?
She rolls over and reaches across Asami's still-snoring form to snag a glass of water to wash away the tacky feeling in her mouth. She prods at the water in the glass, making it quiver and tilt unnaturally, but she lets it go immediately, allowing it to slosh around however it wants. The exertion makes the ache in her muscles worse; the exercise regime she's on is brutal and unrelenting, her wasted muscles being restored whether or not they like it.
Asami opens her eyes and looks up at her blearily.
"Why are you staring at that glass like you want to kill it?" she asks.
Korra kisses her good morning and puts the glass down on the bedside table, freezing it solid with a flick of her wrist in a moment of vindictiveness. "I'm achey," she says, curling into Asami's side, relishing the way the other girl wraps her arms around her, cocooning her in warmth.
"We need to see Opal off today," Asami reminds her, stroking her hair.
Korra groans into her neck.
"Would a bath help?" she asks.
"Mmmmm, you have the best ideas."
"If we get up now," Asami says coyly, "we have time to take that bath together."
Korra props herself up on one elbow and grins down at her girlfriend. "Seriously," she says. "The best ideas."
They stand a little way off to let Bolin and Opal say goodbye. Whatever they say to each other is too quiet to hear but Korra watches the way they clasp each other's hands between them, the way their bodies bow in towards each other.
They part after a final lingering embrace and Opal propels herself up onto the bison's back. Sitting amongst the other airbenders heading east, she waves as they take off and Bolin stands there apart from their little group, his back carefully turned to hide his face.
Korra reaches over her shoulder. From where she's standing behind her wheelchair, Asami immediately clasps her hand in her own, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
As the bison shrinks into a speck against the morning sunlight, Bolin shuffles over to them, his eyes red.
"My life is over," he sighs.
"Don't be like that, bro," Mako says, patting him hard on the shoulder and pulling him in for a one armed hug. "You'll see each other again soon."
Bolin sniffs. "You think?"
"Yeah," Mako says, steering him up the path to the compound. "How long can this go on for?"
Korra watches them go. She's only heard whispered reports but it doesn't sound like the fallout from Zaheer's revolution will dissipate quickly.
"Do you want me to get him back so he can bend you up the slope?" Asami asks, irritation colouring her voice. Evidently Bolin forgot he was the only earth bender amongst them.
"No," she sighs. "I'll walk. Good for the glutes."
Her healers would kill her if they saw her using her wheelchair, and with her cane and a few breathers on the way, she'll manage it.
She has far less affection for her cane than she did for the chair. It's a fairly plain stick of wood with a polished knob on one end and a spikey bit on the bottom. Really she thinks she should have one with a sword hidden inside, something a little cooler.
People also treat her differently now she's walking around. Their eyes glitter with plans, their 'you look better's weighted with expectation. 'Better' is relative. Just because her complexion is less ashy and she can manage to brush her own hair doesn't mean she's up for saving the world.
The insidious thought plagues her that maybe the world doesn't need her to save it any more.
Zaheer may have been a terrifying anarchist with a fixation on Guru Laghima, but maybe he had a point in amongst the madness. In a world where humans and spirits co-exist and people of all nations live side-by-side, what's the point of the avatar? Balance, supposedly, but she has to laugh at the bitter irony of her being expected to maintain balance when she needs a stick to keep herself upright.
She stops at the top of the slope, breathing heavily and collapsing onto a nearby rock. Asami stands behind her and lays her hands on her shoulders, looking out over her head across the bay.
"Sometimes I take this view for granted. It's really amazing," she says, and Korra has to nod in agreement, still too winded to say anything.
Aang's statue stands on the next island over, his gaze stonily fixed towards the horizon, to the future. She wishes she could talk to him about this, borrow a little of his wisdom. But this efigy is all she has of her past life.
"Let's go see if Bolin is ok," she says once her breathing has evened out.
Bolin nurses the letter throughout breakfast, tenderly smoothing the creases out of its corners and reading it over and over again.
"What's the news from Opal?" Asami finally asks.
He sighs dramatically. "I'm worried about her - it sounds like things are much worse than we thought."
"What's happening?" Korra asks, leaning forward.
"It's so many people, and most of them left everything they have behind. She says she met one family who were only visiting from Republic City but they lost their passports and no one will let them come back. Most of the time the airbenders are dealing with bandits trying to take whatever they can."
She pokes at her food with her chopsticks, feeling vaguely guilty she's sitting here eating Pema's cooking.
"Tenzin, is the Republic accepting refugees?" she asks.
His moustache twitches. "From what I've heard, President Reiko is making a lot of noise about sending assistance, but no, no refugees. Not unless they can prove they have family here, or someone willing to sponsor them."
"Some kind of guarantee - a job, a house, a sum of money. Something like that."
"That's barbaric! I didn't have to go through all that!" she exclaims.
Tenzin frowns at her. "If you'll remember, you didn't exactly immigrate under the most official auspices."
"It's just the way things are done," Mako says placatingly. "Reiko has to take care of the Republic, he can't endanger the people who vote for him."
"Screw 'how things are done'", she spits, pushing herself up from her cushion and turning her steps to Tenzin's office and the radio she know he keeps there.
The line is thick with static and Jinora's voice drops in and out as Korra clutches the receiver to her ear.
"... really bad... can't get an... where... Republic bureaucr-..."
"I can't hear you," she says as loudly and clearly as possible. "I can't understand."
The line cuts out completely. She's considering whether to try and connect again when Jinora's spirit flickers into being in front of her.
"I thought this would be more reliable," she says, hovering in the air in front of her.
"I'm still seriously not used to this," Korra says wearily.
"We don't have much time," Jinora says. "I can't really concentrate here."
"I'll cut to the chase then: is it really as bad as people are saying?" she asks.
Jinora sighs and her spirit flickers. "It's bad. These people have nowhere to go: Ba Sing Se is a warzone, gangs are trying to take control and it comes down to who stole the best weapons sacking the palace. And the Republic is completely blocking any attempts to seek asylum there. Korra, I need to ask you a favour."
She straightens her spine and curls her hands into fists.
"What do you need?"
President Reiko is still on the phone when his assistant shows her into his office. He gestures for her to sit down with his free hand and Korra takes a seat in the uncomfortable chair facing his desk.
Her view is dominated by the vast world map hanging on the wall behind the president, every detail plotted in minute detail. Little coloured dots pick out each nation's major defence positions and lines mark the major shipping and air transit routes.
"No, Mr Yamamoto, thank you for your generous contribution! Let me know when you're free for a round, let's see if I can beat you next time." He barks with laughter at whatever the man on the other end of the line says and finally wraps up the conversation with a jovial goodbye.
He sets down the receiver and turns his attention to Korra. She steels herself, sitting up as straight as possible, resisting the urge to fiddle with the cane in her hands.
"Good to see you on your feet, Avatar Korra," he says. "Does this mean you're back in fighting form?"
She fixes on a brittle smile. "I'm actually here to discuss asylum for Earth Kingdom refugees, Mr President, not my health. Although, speaking of which, did you know that one of the conditions of asylum here is that the applicant has no history of illness?"
"Well," he huffs, "that's so we don't get people coming here just to get medical treatment."
"But don't you see how that will tear families apart? People choosing betweeng their sick grandparents and a new life? And that's only the start, the financial obligations change every day, it's impossible to keep up!"
"I see we're dispensing with pleasantries," he says dryly.
"I assume you're a very busy man, I would hate to waste your time," she responds.
"Very well. These rules are in place for a reason," he frowns disapprovingly. "We're already sending aid - I just approved a substantial shipment of rice this morning."
"You have to see that's only a stopgap, these people have lost everything. What they need is a home."
"Avatar, it's not my fault their city went up in smoke!"
"No, but it's not theirs either," she argues
"If anything," he cuts in, "it's yours, for failing to apprehend those Red Lotus thugs earlier."
She takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. She wishes she could spring to her feet and grab him by the collar, throw him against his fancy map.
"And how do you know about this?" he asks, carrying on. "You've been confined to your room, pleasure cruises notwithstanding," he says coldly.
She can feel her hands beginning to tremor but she knots them around her cane, gripping it hard enough to whiten her knuckles. "I've been very sick, Mr President, as you well know," she grits out. "I would be the first out there doing something if I could - "
"Yes, yes, I know," he interrupts her, waving her argument aside. "You're a great martyr to the people. Well if you haven't noticed, we're still dealing with the last catastrophe you caused here. We simply don't have the capacity to welcome every dissatisfied Earth Kingdom citizen."
"You have to do something!" she shouts. She can't stand the way he can calmly sit here and discuss the fates of thousands of people, as if it were an accounting detail.
"For your information, the United Republic is taking very definite action. As we speak, the fleet is making its way up the Hei Bai Strait, to help restore some semblance of order."
"That's the gateway to the whole earth kingdom," she whispers, falling back in her chair. She looks up at the map looming above the President's head, and notices the tiny silver dots marking the basin of the east and west lakes, with even more clustering in Charmeleon Bay. If each dot is a United Forces ship, the Republic will control the entire continent. "You're annexing it."
"Simply a peacekeeping mission, Avatar Korra," he says smugly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have another call. Good day."
"You won't get away with this," she says as she rises to her feet with difficulty.
He smiles. "I think you'll find I already have."
She leaves as fast as she can manage, cursing the fact that she can't storm out. Dramatic exits are much harder with a cane.
Asami is flipping through a magazine in the reception and she looks up as Korra exits.
"What's wrong?" she asks. "What happened?"
She shakes her head, barely able to believe what just happened. "They're invading," she says. "He doesn't call it that of course, but the whole United Forces fleet is sailing into the heart of the Earth Kingdom. With everything in chaos, they won't have an army to resist."
"He wants to expand the Republic," Asami says, realisation dawning on her face. "What can we do?"
"Nothing," she says, the terrible reality of it settling in her bones. "I can't stop him."
She's utterly impotent, a cracked avatar who can't prevent a full scale invasion she's been warned about in advance.
She sits in her room, having quietly explained to Asami that she needed some time alone. Her eyes had been bright and concerned as Korra closed the door on her but she knows Asami, she'll respect her wishes.
Her reflection in front of her makes her stomach turn; seeing herself was just becoming easier but now she feels the heavy weight of her body, the strangeness of her own weakness.
She wants to throw something or hit someone. She wants to tear into something and make it hurt, she wants to not feel so powerless. Normally she would work out this kind of thing physically, spar with someone or raze something to the ground.
But moving hurts, and her bending is feeble at best.
An ugly impulse lurks deep in her consciousness to take something sharp to her skin, to take out her frustration on the body she hates so much right now.
Fuck the President, for being just another power hungry land grabbing bigwig. Fuck the Red Lotus, who apparently care so much about freedom but didn't consider how it would wreck people's lives. Fuck everything.
She rips out her hair wraps and tugs her hair out of its wolftail so it falls messily around her shoulders. This she can do, this she can change.
She grabs a pair of scissors from her vanity table and hacks away at it. She wants it off, she wants to finally decide something about her own body. It falls away in chunks, littering the floor. It feels like a weight off her shoulders.
Shorn, she takes in the wreckage. Her hair barely skims her jaw, the length of it covering the ground beneath her feet. She feels calm, she breathes a little easier.
"It fits in with some things Opal wrote to me about," Bolin is saying patiently.
"We have to do something!" Asami says.
Mako shrugs. "If things are as bad as people say, maybe it'll be a good thing? Restore a little order?"
Asami rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I'm sure being caught up in the middle of an occupation is just what everyone needs."
"You don't know it's going to be an occupation!"
"I do," Korra says, announcing herself from her position in the doorway.
They're ranged around the dining table, a map spread out between them. All three heads turn to look at her and she sees their widening eyes, the way they take in her appearance. Even aside from the haircut, she's sure she looks a little wild with her tear-tracked face and jittering hands.
She takes a seat beside Asami. "This is just one big opportunity for him," she says. "If he cared about the refugees he would let some come here, not just send troops."
"That part of the Earth Kingdom is bursting with natural resources," Asami explains, gesturing to the map in front of them. "Coal, gemstones, oil, iron ore. It would make the Republic richer than any of the other nations."
"And if he controls the waterways he can dictate how the whole rest of the Earth Kingdom trades, if it even can. We might have beaten Zaheer and his allies but people are still living with the consequences and unless we do something they're going to be caught in the middle of another war," Korra says.
"Well how are we going to stop them?" Mako asks. "I think we're a bit outgunned here."
"We'd need serious back up," Bolin says speculatively. "People with experience, people with the same values. Preferably skilled at international diplomacy and politics but also master warriors."
Korra smiles. "I know just who we need."
"I like your hair," Asami whispers in the dusky intimacy of their room, kneeling across her hips. She's barely kept her hands off it: carding her fingers through it, playing with the blunt ends and twirling them around her fingers.
She tugs on it gently to pull Korra closer to her, kissing her soft and lush and open, their bodies pressed together warmly.
"You don't think it was a bit of an overreaction?" Korra asks, kissing the soft skin below Asami's jaw.
The other girl tucks a strand behind her ear for her. "It's your body, you can do whatever you want. But I also happen to think it's cute."
"Do you think we'll be able to do it? With me... you know?" she asks.
"You've always managed to save the world before."
She buries her face in the other girl's neck. "That was before."
Asami draws her out gently, tipping her chin to make her make eye contact. "Korra, you're the same you you've always been. Inside," she says, placing a hand over her heart, her little finger tickling her collarbone. "Inside you're strong and brave and that can never change. And it doesn't have anything to do with your bending ability or your physical power or even whether you can hold up your own head. It's inherent, it's you."
She covers Asami's hand with her own, lowering her eyes. She's too full, overflowing with emotion. She pulls her into a crushing hug, the kind you don't want to let go of.
"I love you," she whispers into her hair.
Asami squeezes her tighter. "I love you too."
Republic City shrinks beneath them as the airship rises into the vast emptiness of the sky. It looks manageable at this size, a charming tangle of vines and toy buildings, the stadium a glowing jewel at its heart.
Behind her, the great Toph Beifong is lounging on a couch and casually twirling silver ballbearings between her fingers while she makes Bolin stutteringly explain lava-bending. He looks like he might spontaneously combust, or possibly just melt into a puddle.
Katara and her father are making conversation with Mako. Judging by his perma-blush they're teasing him about the fact his two ex-girlfriends are dating each other, and judging by their expressions they're having a lot of fun with it.
Lin is making evil eyes at everyone and trying to ignore Bumi and Kya's good-natured bickering.
There's an energetic feeling onboard - a hopefulness - like no matter the odds they can take them on.
Asami comes up behind her and rests a hand on the nape of her neck, just tickling the ends of her hair.
"Are you ok?" she asks gently.
There are a lot of answers to that question.
No, I'm terrified.
No, I still have nightmares every night.
No, I'm about to take on a world power and I can't walk unassisted.
No, let's go back.
But she turns and pulls Asami into a tender kiss, pouring all the love she has into it, and lets the doubts falls away, scattered in the wind.
All that can be true and she can still face the world. She's the avatar, they're just going to have to deal with it.