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Arcadian Summer

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Kuvira staggers off in the direction of the East Wing. There's something playing over at one of the rooms, something slow with a thumping, pulsing bass. Kuvira wonders what type of music it is, but gives up after her mind runs through her limited musical vocabulary. She opens the door, not caring that she's strayed far from the rest of the party. She has to focus on the doorjamb, on swinging the door the right way, because eight cups of whatever are still coursing through her bloodstream, and whether she's drunk or not, she won't let herself trip.

She looks up into the room. It's huge. It's a hall, she realizes, after a moment. The floor's polished marble. And across her is a giant windowsill, a giant, full moon, and a girl sitting on the windowsill tossing a can of beer into a nearby trash can. It plops in perfectly, the sound of it colliding with other cans a perfect thunk.

It's the lull between two songs.

"Bit far from the party, aren't ya?" the girl's mostly in silhouette, because of the moon, because there are no other lights. She turns to face Kuvira, and Kuvira stares into the blues of her eyes. Water Tribe, Kuvira realizes, and it makes sense, with the moon and the blue darkness.

Kuvira's decided the girl is beautiful. Maybe it's the drinks, maybe it's the way she sits, one leg extended over the length of the windowsill, one propped up to her chest. Her arms are covered in arm warmers, stopping maybe eight inches away from her shoulder.

Nice arms, Kuvira thinks. Maybe almost as nice as her own.

The soft shadows of the room convince her to come closer.

A little late, Kuvira realizes that she's been asked a question. "I heard something," she says, hoping that her reply answers a question she's forgotten.

"Have a thing for trashy music, huh?" the girl grins at her, as the next song plays. There's nothing trashy about it, Kuvira thinks, but what she does know? It's definitely electronic, but outside of that, she has no idea.

There are plenty of questions in Kuvira's mind, but all of them slip away before she can speak them.

The girl points to the floor, where another six pack of beer sits, so cold it's sweating on the outside. Next to it is a smartphone plugged into two speakers, the sound reverberating in the dark hall.

Stay or forever go, the speakers say.

"C'mon, drink with me."

Kuvira drinks with her, snapping the can open for the girl. She wants to touch the stranger's short hair, maybe tangle her fingers in them. This summer will be her last chance. What for is she here, but to enjoy being a civilian before she leaves?

She has to say something. So she says, "Congratulations."

Her new acquaintance takes a long draught of the beer before replying. "What for?"

"For finishing the semester in one piece?"

"Oh. That. Well, that's why 'Sami's got this whole party, I guess. Smart girl."

"She is," Kuvira says.

They don't talk for while. Just outside, the waves pound on the coastline of the lake, water stretching onwards until it melds into the sky. It's so black, Kuvira thinks, wondering how dark the place must get when there's no moon.

Another song ends. Another song starts. They finish two beers in silence. Kuvira's can feel the floor moving, so she looks ahead, leaning against the windowsill, her hands trying to keep away from her new friend's feet. She's drunk, she knows. She likes it. It's what she came to the party for, this feeling of living in the now, not remembering what she's left, not having to think of what she has to do.

"Wanna make out?" Kuvira's eyes fly to the girl, who isn't even looking at her. The stranger's eyes are closed as a breeze blows by, but a smirk lightens her face.

"I don't kiss girls whose names I don't know," Kuvira says with a grin.

"Sitaka," the girl says, opening her eyes. Sitaka's whole body arches just slightly, as though challenging her. In the darkness, Kuvira notes that the the girl's eyes glow with blue fire.

"Kuvira. Nice to meet you." She takes the first move upwards to meet the girl's lips.

Kuvira doesn't think she's kissed a girl warmer than Sitaka. Maybe it's a Water Tribe thing, she thinks, her last coherent thought as she nibbles on the girl's lower lip, as she touches Sitaka's neck and jawline.

This is what getting drunk is for. They kiss, kiss, kiss some more, starting soft and shallow before Kuvira applies more pressure. Her lips ask for entry and are allowed inside.

Yes, she can hear Sitaka whispering. Her hands come to rest on the tip of Kuvira's braid after travelling all around Kuvira's shoulders and back. "Can I?"

"Mmm," Kuvira's lips vibrate their assent against Sitaka's mouth. She has no idea how long they spend half-hugging, mostly making out, her hair loosened and Sitaka's hands threading through the strands. "Fuck," Kuvira mutters as she draws back.

She likes that Sitaka's moved, lifting herself using her hands, from leaning on the windowsill to leaning against her, both feet hanging loosely around Kuvira and hands on Kuvira's face. She looks just as aroused as Kuvira feels, their breathing the only sounds in the hall. Kuvira wants, very badly, for them to be in a room, or a couch, or anywhere flat really, so that she can lay Sitaka down and fuck her properly. She can already see herself playing with this Water Tribe girl, spreading her open.

The music's stopped, Kuvira realizes. The silence makes her want to speak.

"Wanna take this elsewhere?" she asks, as she tugs Sitaka to her feet.

Though the gesture is gentle, as gentle as a drunk Kuvira can make it, Sitaka falls. The whole thing feels like slow-mo to an intoxicated, horny Kuvira. "Ugh, shit," Sitaka growls, swatting Kuvira's helping hand away with surprising force. "No, no, I can do this," she mumbles, pushing herself up with her hands.

Sitaka crawls a bit, her legs shaking in the attempt to listen to the rest of her body, telling her to fucking fold at the knees and propel the girl up.

Oh crap, Kuvira thinks, in her alcoholic haze. Sitaka's feet aren't working.

Did I do something?

She's disabled, stupid!

Just outside, she can hear someone coming in. Oh fuck, fuck fuck.

"Hey, Korra?" The door swings open.

It's Asami Sato. She runs to Sitaka (Korra?) while Kuvira stands uselessly.

"I thought we talked about this," Asami Sato growls out while the Water Tribe girl glares at her.

"I can stand, dammit," Sitaka grounds out, pushing Asami away. The hostess isn't having any of it though. She shouts in the dark of the hall, and the whole place rings with her voice.

"You're not going to get any better like this!"

Kuvira flees for the door, a drunken, graceless exit from a suddenly-too-personal situation.

 


 

Fuck, Kuvira thinks as she walks down the cold hill leading to the bus station. I was making out with some disabled girl.

Another voice in her head chides her for the sudden disgust. What is wrong with you?

She knows herself and her aversion to weakness. You're a jerk, the voice says.

She ran away, Kuvira knows. And she's running away now, having called Baatar to pick up her sorry, drunken, horny ass.

Never before has a turn on died so fast.

She trips at the thought but a nearby lamppost saves her from falling. Her hands are dusty from touching it. She touches her palm with her fingers, realizing that her hand is gross and clammy.

She sits at the bus station in the cold, mind still full of music, the girl's warm body, and her own disgust at the situation. She has no idea how it is that she's still wet while her brain battles with her conscience. Baatar, she thinks in her head, hurry up.

"What happened?" Baatar asks as he coasts by. Of course he knows something is wrong. Kuvira struggles to open the door before realizing that it's locked.

"I'm an asshole," Kuvira murmurs as Baatar unlocks the door. Without her usual grace, she crawls into the car and weakly closes the door.

"You're drunk. Please don't throw up in my new car."

Kuvira doesn't answer. She can still feel the ache down there, making her feel unsatisfied, pissy, disgusted -- at the girl, for some reason (no, you know why), and at herself.

"I made out with some girl," Kuvira says. She can't identify a single landmark in the dark as Baatar accelerates them to within the city.

"I can barely understand you. How much did you have to drink?"

"I was just trying to let her down from the damn windowsill," Kuvira continues, not answering Baatar. "Turns out her legs are busted, or something."

"So?"

"I don't know, I left."

"Spirits, didn't you at least help her up?"

"Her friend came in."

She hates seeing people weak.She always looks away. It's her way of telling herself: that's not her.

So what if that's how I feel?

The cold from the air conditioning lulls her to sleep.

 


 

Kuvira feels like absolute, disjointed shit in the morning. Baatar had helped her into the apartment. Baatar had helped her into bed. Baatar had made her breakfast.

Her limbs feel disconnected from her and her aching head. Outside, it's too bright. She wants to draw all the curtains closed, but it's too much of a pain to get up from her seat at the breakfast table. There are birds twittering outside. All it does is piss her off.

"I have to apologize," is the first thing that comes out of her smelly, unwashed mouth. Across her, a safe distance away, Baatar agrees.

"Do you even remember what you told me last night?"

"I made out with a girl. I don't even know her name," Kuvira scowls.

"That's responsible."

"I was going to fuck her," she says.

"Except when you accidentally let her fall and found out her legs were busted, or something." He copies how she said it last night.

"Fuck you," Kuvira groans. This is why she hasn't gone to that many parties. In the long run, it's all pointless pleasantry. She should have stuck to the rules.

"Really though, did you at least know how old she was? That party's not all MA kids, you know."

"They're not high school kids either," Kuvira snaps back. Fuck. Thinking of drinks reminds her of the Water Tribe girl downing one beer after another, the curve of moonlight defining her lips. She remembers the tan girl's hands on her neck. The pain in her head, thankfully, cuts off the memory before she feels uncomfortable.

She drinks all the milk and has two servings of cereal and toast. Then she downs a pitcher of water. Then she takes a long shower. By the time she's dressed, it's almost twelve and she still has a throbbing pressure against her head. Was it the wine? The fact that she'd mixed wine and some other shit? The fact that she'd tried every fucking bottle of liquor, regardless of whatever was in them?

You wanted to get smashed and have a good time, the voice in her head says.

Yeah, yeah, she knows. This is the price of that. She's seen enough parties at Zaofu to know.

Had she puked last night? Baatar would know.

"Did I throw up last night?"

"Yeah, but in the driveway. I've hosed it down."

"Thanks," Kuvira says, sounding more gentle than she likes.

"You really drank a lot," Baatar says, and she knows what he's saying underneath those words. Talk to me, he's saying. We're family, he's trying to say. He is, in fact, the only family she has left, at the price of leaving Zaofu, but her head hurts like hell and she wants to forget about it, just like she did last night.

She has other wrongs to right. "Can you drive me to the Sato estate?"

 


 

In the afternoon light, the Sato estate is massive. "Almost as massive as Zaofu," Baatar says, referring to the family compound in the heart of the same-named city.

Zaofu at Zaofu, or Zaofu Squared, the twins used to joke. The name of the family compound was kept even as it expanded into a city. Kuvira hates the pride she used to feel at being a part of it.

Focus, dammit.

The problem with focusing on the problem at hand is that she always thinks of the blue light of the girl's eyes. Kuvira couldn't shake off the way they glowed in the dark, but Kuvira tells herself to chalk that up to the alcohol. She saw what she wanted to see, and the minute it wasn't what she wanted she left.

Baatar drops her off and makes sure she wants to handle this alone before driving away.

"Kuvira Zhongli," Kuvira murmurs into the intercom.

Asami Sato answers the door herself. "Hey," Asami says. The sense of familiarity of those from the Republic always takes Kuvira by surprise.

"Hey," Kuvira replies back. "I came because of last night," she starts. "I disappeared so quickly instead of helping you out with..." she trails off, not remembering the girl's actual name.

"You were with Korra," Asami says.

"Yes," Kuvira says. "I'm sorry."

"I haven't decided if I'm angry at her, or you, or myself, or all of us." She turns her back then adds, "but since you're trying to fix it, I guess you should talk to her yourself."

Why would you be angry at yourself, Kuvira wonders. The only person with a head on in that hall last night was Asami.

They walk past a few corridors into another wing. "Korra?" Asami calls out. A voice from some room answers: "Gym!"

Asami walks into one door out of many, and it is revealed to be yet another hall, converted into a gym. Korra is doing pull ups on the highest rung of a set of horizontal bars, her eyes flickering to the newcomers. The shorter horizontal bars are spaced some distance away from each other, creating a diagonal set of rungs, the shortest of which can be reached without standing on tiptoes. That way, Korra doesn't have to jump up to the bar. Next to the end of the horizontal bars is a wheelchair.

Sweat drips down Korra's jawline, and Kuvira is momentarily distracted by the knowledge that just last night she was kissing the very same spot.

Dammit, she thinks.

The Water Tribe girl descends the bars as though going down a ladder, by maneuvering to a lower rung, and a lower rung, and a lower rung, relying solely on her arms, until her toes touch the ground.

"Oh no you don't," Asami mutters, lifting Korra as she's about to let go and stand on her own. Asami holds Korra from behind, round the torso, forcing Korra not to jump.

"Fuck, Asami, I can do it."

"Yes, you can, and you can also ruin your PT. Don't strain your tendons."

Kuvira awkwardly helps Asami put Korra on the wheelchair. At one point she is carrying the girl, because while Asami is strong, Korra's not so easily carried either. If Korra (or Asami) are surprised by Kuvira's strength, they say nothing. They also say nothing about the weirdness of it all.

Korra looks as though she wants to yell at them. Kuvira realizes Korra can't do this with a virtual stranger around, so she's forced to hold it in and glare at Asami. With a surprised blink, Kuvira also notices something she didn't notice last night: a dogtag round Korra's neck.

"You should have thought better of how you were going to descend from the bar," Asami counters. "And anyway, you have a guest. I'm going to the kitchens." Asami looks at Kuvira. "She's not allowed to walk for the rest of the day, don't strain her."

"I won't," Kuvira says.

"You do realize that I had to stand to start working out," Korra complains. "It was perfectly okay. An hour of walking isn't enough --" but Asami's left, and Korra sits fuming.

Kuvira takes the handlebars behind the wheelchair. With Asami gone, she's just  the creepy woman that hit on Korra yesterday.

"Hey," she starts. She notices that Korra smells nice, even after a workout.

"Kuvira from last night, right?"

"You lied to me about your name."

"Yeah well, I don't like being recognized."

Korra. Dogtag. There's only one Korra she knows with a dogtag.

"You're not an Avatar, are you?"

"Ding ding ding ding ding! Give the girl a fucking prize. I'm the Avatar." The subtle correction of her title to the singular is not lost on Kuvira.

The situation has gone from weird, to weirder, to being in an alternate dimension. Kuvira doesn't mix her politics with her pleasure. She has to take control of the situation, before a spirit walks inside the room and bids them good afternoon.

"I'm sorry about last night."

"I scared you off, huh? Drunk girl falling on the floor, can't stand... that's pathetic."

"I should have helped you up."

"Asami bursting in all worried probably freaked you out more. That woman fusses over me way too much. She has this uncanny ability to see me do stupid things."

Kuvira doesn't know how to reply to that. "Anyway, let's go to the garden outside. And don't push the damn chair, please."

Kuvira lets Korra lead the way. The girl's hair is wet with sweat; her arms are glistening too. Korra picks up a face towel from a nearby chair and they're off, going down more halls, until they reach a set of French doors. Kuvira opens it for Korra, grimacing slightly when the Water Tribe girl glares at her.

Even in the goddamn daylight, her eyes are glowing a deep blue. The glare is dropped though, as a gust of wind blows in. The smell of the lake is muted in Kuvira's sober mind, muted compared to the sting of it last night. She wants to go back to that moment, staring at a dark sky, wind whipping her hair, a blue-eyed stranger's hands on her face.

"Nice, huh?"

Kuvira's thankful Korra can't read her thoughts.

"Yeah." Korra leads her up to a pavillion.

"Let's start over," she says. "I'm Avatar Korra. Sorry I lied to you last night."

"Kuvira Zhongli. MA in Government."

"I never went to school," Korra replies with a grin.

Kuvira remembers the propaganda videos for Korra. Two wars, a string of failed missions, the Red Lotus betrayal, the fall of the Earth Kingdom. How can she not know, when she is leaving at the end of summer to rebuild the Earth Kingdom?

"Did you have fun last night?"

Korra laughs. "Up until the part where I was struggling to stand, you kiss very well for a drunkard."

"You too," Kuvira says, and means it. "Anyway... is there anything I can do to make it up to you?"

"Show up at the next summer parties, of course." Korra says with a grin.

Kuvira wants to ask this near-stranger (near-friend?) many questions: are you okay, shouldn't you be in the South Pole, what was it like? But Korra is deflecting with the practiced ease of a liar that's been in front of the cameras since she was seventeen, dealing with media faux pas in an impossible world. Am I really here, she thinks. Did I really kiss the Avatar, she wonders.

"Can I see your dogtag?"

"Haven't you seen it enough in the tourist traps?" Korra laughs, but takes it off.

Kuvira looks at it as though it will tell her how to continue the conversation. Strangely enough, Korra keeps talking, probably detecting the older woman's unease. "The White Lotus says I can return to active duty in six months. I was pretty pissed, actually. Six months. I've been sitting here, giving my best friend a headache while Ba Sing Se's a smoking ruin."

"The Air Nation is there," Kuvira says, hoping Korra will not take the words as hollowly as Kuvira means. Of all the people to want to fuck, it has to be someone she shouldn't get to know.

"It's not enough," Korra says. "But really, here I am depressing you. So. Do me a favor -- change the subject."

Kuvira's mind flits through the possible topics: the weather. Plans for the summer. Asking if Korra lives here. She ends up saying nothing, and they both stare out at the garden and down the road leading back to the city.

Korra gives up on Kuvira's ability to bridge an awkward moment. "Here I am trying to think of something to say," the Water Tribe girl says, with a careless grin that Kuvira's no longer sold on, "and all I can think is -- come back in two weeks and I'll be running again. 'Sami's bound to have another party. We can stay in the East Wing like last night."

"I'd like that," Kuvira says, relying on the kernel of truth that she is attracted to Korra to help sell her own smile, while her thoughts all scream: too smooth, Avatar. She doesn't know why, but in less than twenty-four hours she wants to know Korra, wants to shatter the younger girl's brittle bravado with a truncheon and see what lays beneath. Korra's pretty determined to shrug it all off in favor of a casual encounter.

Kuvira shakes her head. Getting to know Korra is a bad idea, and mutually wanting to fuck each other is only slightly less bad. What she should want is nothing at all. Every day that she spends speeding down Republic City's well-paved roads is a reminder that there are no roads to speak of in the Earth Kingdom. Tangling with some White Lotus soldier will not make her work easier. She's already lost her family, no need to add another loss.

 


 

"How was it?" Baatar asks, disturbing Kuvira from her research.

"Terrible and awkward. She's the Avatar. I shit you not." Back at their apartment, Kuvira fires up the computer and prepares to spend the evening looking up on the Avatar.

"What? Isn't the Avatar at the South Pole, recovering in some top secret White Lotus compound?"

"She was. But since she can walk a little, she was transferred back to Republic City."

Baatar takes a seat. That small action doesn't even begin to sum up how surprised Kuvira is. Not that she would ever admit it.

"Does she know you're from the Zaofu contingent?"

"No," Kuvira says. At the crossroads of the political and the personal, there isn't anything to gain. She keeps telling herself this, or perhaps the lie that all she wants is to fuck the girl.

She puts on her headphones and does her online research. She watches the propaganda videos from the White Lotus, showing soldiers in the Avatar Corps in a variety of tasks. The best of the best, the video says. This is Avatar Korra, trained since she was four. A rare prodigy and talent... and then there's a whole video about their recruitment and selection process, about parents lining up to have their children checked. Children are usually checked for several years, tracking their progress. We are very meticulous in our methods, checking arm length, muscle-to-fat ratio, metabolism...

Of course. Any family of an Avatar would be glad for the stipend, the martial education their children are guaranteed to get.

I never went to school, Korra said, and Kuvira can't make head or tails of that.

Scrolling down the training videos are comment after comment of some armchair expert, saying this is staged because of this-or-that. Kuvira switches to the live demonstrations, and even when the proof is in front of them, the videos still have the same garbage commentary.

Korra's track record is unfortunate. She fought in the Siege of Republic City at seventeen, in the Water Tribe Civil War at nineteen, and was involved in the Red Lotus insurgency and the fall of the Earth Kingdom. Her high-profile kills included the former Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, for which she was given a medal. And she won yet another medal for being the only Avatar left alive after the end of the Civil War.

Seems like a shitty thing to do to her, Kuvira thinks. As she watches the video, she can't help but try to put the images side by side in her head: this Korra in the video, looking worse than death, sitting at attention anyway, nodding at all the right times and accepting a bunch of medals and pins -- and last night's girl, with a wry smile and careless fingers. And then there is the younger Korra, in her previous videos, who dances up and down like a five-year old after finishing a marksmanship test. Did you see that? I'm pretty good! She couldn't have been more than seventeen.

It's impossible to reconcile Sitaka, carelessly throwing beer cans, with this Korra. She cut her hair, Kuvira thinks idly, as she scrolls down photos of her. Having seen behind the political scenes, she knows how meticulous the White Lotus must be, to school their soldiers and track their performance through the media, the subtle touch of editing that makes an act treacherous or brave, precise or sloppy.

"It's fucked up," Kuvira murmurs.

"That you thought some poor disabled girl was weak and then she turns out to be the Avatar? Yeah, you're fucked up, sis."

I won't be like her, Kuvira thinks, but behind that thought is the creeping possibility that maybe she'd break that hard too, and pretend to be fine with the same act Korra's putting up.

That's not me. She has the Earth Kingdom to rebuild. The Avatar shouldn't fit anywhere in her plans. Korra shouldn't fit, but Kuvira can't stop wishing she could go back to last night and do everything right.