Imprisoned, Day Eleven.
High in the valleys above the Republic City, the City still recovering from the recent tragic events, among the high altitudes one mountain ridge was hollow. Within the monolithic rock formation was an old structure, old by the count of the people who lived here now, old by the count of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom that preceded it. It was old even by the Avatar standards for it was one of the oldest secret hideouts of the White Lotus. The structure well hidden under the surface was converted into one of most highly guarded prisons. It only ever housed a few prisoners, no more than one every hundred years. This time around it had two.
One of the huge halls was outfitted with fairly specific accommodations. In the very middle of it stood a little wooden cabin. Her new home – one room, only enough space to pace five steps in any direction – was all build out of dark red wood planks. Below – a plate of pure platinum, around the little box – a huge cage made of the same metal. One way in and no way out.
The cell she was put it was decent enough, she was used to austere conditions. One bed, a table, two chairs, some simple shelves for bare necessities, a few books and one light crystal encased in platinum. There were no extra windows or holes for the guards to watch her. She could not have escaped even if she wanted to. At least a prison like this afforded some privacy.
The raven haired woman was doing push ups. Her legs were firmly placed at the edge of the bed and her fists lay resolutely against the polished wood of the floor. Exercise gave her release. One, two, three-four. Her arms were covered with beads of sweat, muscles ached, but she did not stop. Her sleeveless white top was getting more damp. The gray jacket of the prison uniform was draped on the back of the chair. One-two, three-four. The strain in her biceps and wrists was starting to get too much. The former soldier groaned and smoothly flipped to her feet.
Her hands grabbed a cloth from the bed running it up and down her open arms. She then draped it over her neck massaging it for a while. Finally the woman grabbed the ends of the cloth with her aching hands. She groaned again. This was her penance. Whether it was intended or not, her rash, unreasonable quest had brought enough suffering to the world. To the people she only wanted to protect. To be dropped at the bottom of a well, in the darkest, most deserted corner of the world was the proper punishment. Perhaps, even too kind. Maybe, the Avatar had had a hand in that decision. Hopefully, in a long, long time they will all forget about her. In a long time no one will remember. She will live the rest of her days here, away from everything. Some day, perhaps, some day, the mistakes and failure won’t haunt the woman who used to be a soldier anymore.
She slumped against a wall feeling the wood more acutely than ever. A hollow smile crept onto her face. She very much doubted it will ever hurt any less. It was her responsibility, her duty to save her people, not to oppress them! She became exactly what she had feared and hated the most, what she wanted to protect them from. That realization hurt more than she could have imagined. And it was supposed to. She will have to live however long she had left with the pain of what she had done. Alone, in this hypocritically cozy cage.
Kuvira shuddered and slid down the wall. Her face averted to the small barred window in the wall. Unseeing eyes traveled over it pained with the memories she did not want to, but needed to have. Her face once full of determination was empty and gaunt. She rested her arms on her knees and sighed heavily.
This was her penance.
. . .
Imprisoned, Day Nineteen.
The very first time she visited Kuvira could not fathom it. She had so many questions. Why did she come? Why would she? Did she want to interrogate her? Was the punishment changed? What happened to the City? Her army? What did Su think of her now? Just how many people did she hurt? She did not utter a word watching the woman standing the in the doorway to her cabin in bewilderment. What could she possibly say to the most powerful being in the world, the woman who saved her even though she had all the reasons not to?
The Avatar took a look around the room. Her blue eyes lingered on the books, the small barred window opposite the wall. Then she looked the prisoner up and down. Kuvira knew she seemed different. Her ostentatious attire and metal armor were gone. Her hair was once again tied in a long braid that lay freely on the side of her chest. Baggy gray pants and white sleeveless top of the prison uniform actually reminded her of the happier times back in Zaofu. With the bindings on her wrists and ankles it was so much alike her rehearsal outfit. Come to think of it, that was the first time they have met.
Korra bobbed on her toes not stepping over the threshold. Somehow for the all-powerful being she knew this woman to be, the Avatar seemed down to earth, calm, but full of energy. Korra cleared her throat and spoke first.
“Hello. How have they been treating you?”
What? Why? Was that concern in her voice? How could she still be like that? The dark haired woman shifted closer to the the wall opposite the door. She averted her eyes not wiling to look at the Avatar anymore.
“It's... fine. I'm used to this. The food is decent and the guards don’t bother me. No one bothers me.”
The silence that followed should have been tense, deafening, but it was not. It was just... there. Kuvira chanced a glance at the visiting woman. Korra was slightly leaning against the door frame. She was deep in thought for some reason. Strange place to be thoughtful. Then as if shaking off some good, but unwanted memory she turned to face the former soldier again. The clear blue eyes caught the sight of her worn out knuckles, the callouses and bruises from doing push ups and punching the wooden walls on and on. Kuvira felt the gaze and hid her hands behind her back. The corner of Korra's mouth twitched up.
“I have brought tea. We can have some and talk. If you'd like.”
Kuvira did not know what made her do what she did. It was an involuntary reaction. Something she was never known for. Always steady, calm and collected. But this time she nodded out of the blue and slid down on one of the chairs. Her shoulders slumped and she reflectively just decided to let it go. The fight had already been done, the force and determination beaten out of her. Whatever the Avatar wanted, it was her right. Kuvira sighed while the water tribe woman busied herself with the small kettle and the wooden teacups. She heated up the kettle with her firebending. Why did the guards allow her to bring this thing in here? Kuvira chuckled lightly to her own thoughts. She was having tea with the Avatar, who would be crazy enough to think she could use it to escape?
The tea stood on the table brewing. Both women settled into the calm, nonthreatening, maybe even slightly sad silence. Kuvira was looking down into her empty cup. No doubt the eyes of the Avatar were on her. The words came out on their own. She suspected that the answer would only hurt, but she needed to know at least that.
“Why have you come here, Avatar?”
“To see how you are doing. To offer some tea. A friend of my assured me that tea helps to sooth the soul. I don’t know much about that, but this is Ginseng tea, I'm told it's one of the best, I hope you like it.”
And yet again Kuvira was at a loss. The same way she was during their long talk in the Spirit World. Korra was a mystery. On one side the Avatar seemingly did not want anything from her. No revenge, no admittance of her mistakes, her guilt, nothing of the sorts. On the other – she clearly wanted to have a connection. There was an understanding in her eyes, just like before. Understanding and... relation? None of it made any sense. Kuvira frowned watching the hot puffs of smoke come up from the kettle.
“I have accepted my punishment. There is no need to check up on me, Avatar. I will not make any attempts to escape. I have sealed my own fate and I will live with the consequences.”
The kettle whistled. Korra stopped the small flame that was dancing below it. She carefully took the pot and poured steaming tea into two cups. She settled back in her chair cradling the cup in her palms. Korra blew on the tea. Once, twice. Then she sipped a bit. The corners of her mouth twitched.
“You should try it before it gets cold. He was right, it is delicious.”
Kuvira sighed and picked up her cup. The aroma was very nice. It reminded her of the bushy gardens outside Zaofu. She used to visit the gardens with her brothers, the twins and they would... Well, no, those two were not her brothers. Not then, not now. Just like Su was never really... She squinted and took a sip. Hot liquid rolled on her tongue then slipped down her throat. It was like a clearing, exhilarating force cleansing her mind and untangling the knots in her muscles. She chuckled. What would you know... The tea was good for soothing the broken and damned. Perhaps, the Avatar should have given her the beverage earlier. About two years ago would do.
The former soldier glanced at the woman opposite again. She sat in complete silence for a while only sipping her tea occasionally. Korra was the same as in the Spirit World, but so different from the shell she defeated at the gates of her hometown. She got lucky. The Avatar was not herself back then. Now she exuded confidence. It's like she had found inner piece Aiwei loved to go on and on about. Suddenly Korra spoke. Her voice was leveled, reminiscent and the words were ringing in Kuvira's ears.
“When I was younger I thought that being the Avatar was all about fighting the bad guys. I was more like you. Rash, headstrong, open to only one way I could see to do good. I was blinded by my own good intentions. Punishing evils, saving the world, that was the only way. But I was wrong. It is not at all like that. The Avatar is the beacon of balance, the force that can bring peace. I know the difference now. I can see all the paths instead of just one. And you do, too.”
She did not know how to respond. Instead she simply sipped her tea. The silence was becoming more comfortable, filled with something: not just the absence of speech, rather something more, the change eluded her still. They drank tea for some time. If her cup got empty Korra was ready to fill it up without fail. She did not know how much time has passed until the Avatar spoke again.
“I would like to keep coming to talk to you, if you don't mind. Would that be okay, Kuvira?”
The sound of her own name made her flinch. The Avatar should not have to address her like that. Like she cares, really cares. And what if she does? The metalbender was perched on her chair with one leg on the seat and one arm hugging it. She could not bring herself to look at the southern native, she was squinting and inspecting the scratches she left on the wooden wall this morning. Hesitating for a moment she nodded. There was a sigh for the other end of the table and the woman seated there stood up.
“I will visit next week. Promise.”
“Whatever you say.”
It came out more hollow and doubting than Kuvira wanted, or did it only sounded that way to her? Finally taking a cautious look at the tanned woman she did not see any hostility. There was a strange expression in those clear blue eyes. It could not be... relief? The Avatar nodded to her and walked out taking the kettle, but not the smell of hot tea with her. Just as she was about to venture out of the earshot, Kuvira uttered not looking at the woman. This time her voice was stained, unsure, but the words were genuine.
“Thank you for the tea.”
The Avatar glanced back. She did not smile, only her bright blue eyes twinkled a bit. She picked up her pace and left the prisoner in her solitude. The guards locked the door leaving Kuvira in the twilight. She did not want to light the crystal, it was better to sit in the dark right now. The far light outside her barred window painted the floor with bleary lines and straight shadows.
She did not believe her. Not the first time, not the second. But at one point she had to. Weeks changed. The Avatar was returning to her every time, as promised. Korra, she... That girl somehow understood. Saw her better than she did herself. Was the concern of the Avatar, the most powerful entity in the world, her freely offered friendship where in her place Kuvira would’ve only seen hatred and resentment, was she even deserving of such a thing? No. Kuvira was sure Su and the Beifongs hated her and rightfully so. All the people she hurt... And yet Korra wanted to keep coming, keep talking to her. The dark haired woman caught herself conflicted at the thought. Korra being nice and understanding to her did not make any sense.
Maybe, that was the point. Waiting for her to arrive, seeing the understanding in the Avatar, at some point possibly even forgiveness... and fully realizing that she did not deserve it. Not in any way, not one bit of it.
Perhaps, that was her penance.