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If she runs fast enough

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The first light of dawn fled across the horizon and flung itself upon the ice floes, scattering like smashed glass over the ocean—and over a single ship, which cut its way south through the waves.

A new day had begun. Now came the time for the crew to change shifts. They swapped out silence for the murmur of morning conversations, the occasional squawk from neglected door hinges, aborted bouts of laughter—and one greeting, tossed off with careful respect, as a passenger made her way up to the deck. Outside the metal cocoon of the cabins, the wind bit mercilessly into every exposed surface: a calm face that wore red lipstick like a battle flag, ungloved hands that promptly found their way to warm pockets, eyes that stung with tears from the assault of the crisp cold. Far off, in the distance, the howl of tiger seals rose up like a dirge.

It was the first time Asami had come to the South Pole alone.

*

After Korra had left, Asami wrote: I miss you. It’s not the same in Republic City without you.

And, later: I guess I lied in my earlier letters. Sometimes I want to throw this infrastructure contract out the window… but Future Industries was lucky to get it. Our reputation isn’t what it used to be, and Mayor Raiko keeps trying to use that as leverage to sneak more stuff in between the lines. I should be used to it, because it’s just business as usual—but I always feel like it’s a personal insult. You know? “I’m a Sato, so don’t pull one over me.”

And, later: We used to meet up more often. But then Bolin left to work for Kuvira, and Mako and I are both busy—well, you know that the board meetings are never going to stop. Mako’s trying to stay afloat with all the responsibilities that Chief Beifong shoves onto him. I think she enjoys watching him scramble about like a grouchy armadillo lion. He hasn’t caught on yet, so don’t tell him I said that.

And, much later: It’s hard to believe Team Avatar met each other and went through so much in only a year. We’ve been apart longer than we were ever together. I miss you, and I’m sure Mako and Bolin feel the same way. Do you know when you’ll be back in Republic City?

Korra never sent any replies. As months passed, and the first flush of wounded affront had burst and drained away, Asami had learned not to expect one. She continued writing all the same, as if she could wrap words like silk and steel around each memory to preserve them. Korra, she wanted to ask, remember that one time when we got drunk and Mako and Bolin roped us into an eating contest at Narook’s? And Pabu threw up on the posters you won? Or remember when Mako singed his eyebrows and you drew over them in blue marker? Or remember when I tried to teach you how to ride my moped and you almost crashed into a food stand? Or remember when—

But she never sent those letters; her courage failed her. After all, the problem was not that Korra failed to remember. The problem was that Korra remembered too much, and the bad too often bled over into the good.

Asami had no trouble imagining that: after all, in her lowest moments she resented Future Industries almost as much as she loved it. Started by a Sato, run by a Sato—but two different Satos, one behind and one outside bars.

So she would write, instead, How are you?

In retrospect, she realized, it was a foolish question.

*

It was not the welcome she’d expected after two years—but in all honesty, Asami hadn’t been sure what to expect.

“So… why’d you come now, anyway? I know you’re all really busy in Republic City. And it’s not like there’s much to do here.” Korra stood in the doorway. She was grinning with good cheer, but the sentiment didn’t reach her eyes.

You’re here, Asami almost said, swallowing the words in her throat. Doesn’t that count? She set her luggage in the corner and swept her gaze over the room Tonraq and Senna had kindly allotted to her for her stay. “Just business on short notice,” she replied, though any urgent business that Future Industries had at the South Pole was, in truth, about as real as the childhood visions of her mother’s ghost—conjured up into existence, because she had wanted it so. “I would’ve written to let you know, but then my letter and I would’ve been on the same ship.”

“Right,” Korra said. Her feet tapped out a nervous rhythm against the floor. “It’s probably good that you have work. I mean, not that I don’t want to spend time with you—“

Korra was usually a terrible liar. Asami found it perplexing that she had trouble deciding if Korra was telling the truth—or if Korra believed she was telling the truth.

“—But I’m at the White Lotus compound for training most of the day, Dad’s out of the house with his duties, and Mom just started overseeing some building redesign plans, so…”

Asami allowed herself a giggle. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said, and suppressed the urge to ask: How are you? “I know you’re busy; I don’t want to take time away from your training. But I’m just glad to see you again—it’s been too long, really!”

“Yeah… about that. Sorry,” said Korra. She glanced down at her armband, then back at Asami. “That I didn’t write. I just couldn’t find the right words for, um, things,” she finished. Her grin had fallen away; the corners of her mouth crept downward with hidden shame. “But I was planning to write, you know, I had a draft and everything—“

“I’m not going to bother you about letters, Korra,” Asami said. She could forgive that, she told herself. Completely understandable on Korra’s part, no doubt about it. “Look, I’m here and you’re here. Can I give you another hug now?”

For once, the smile Korra wore was unrestrained, untainted by the strange air of ambivalence which had surrounded her like a cloud all throughout Asami’s arrival. She resembled in that moment the bright-eyed girl, her face fresh with wonder, who had befriended Asami in Republic City. Years ago—another lifetime.

“Why are you asking me? You never asked me before,” Korra said, and laughed; and to Asami, her voice rang like a bell.

*

“Do you still write to Korra?” Mako had asked her one day as they sat in a booth at Narook’s—the old common meet-up place for Team Avatar, though Korra and Bolin were now both gone and neither Asami nor Mako were that passionately devoted to Water Tribe cuisine. Yet they remained faithful to the tradition.

He chewed on the straw that he’d stuck in his glass of lychee juice, and added, “She’s never replied to me. I just wondered—if—“

Asami shook her head. “Why are you asking me?”

Mako shrugged and drew his eyebrows down. “I dunno. I mean, you still got along really well even after the whole… situation.” He flapped his hand in the air limply, a poor attempt at indicating tangled love lives that had all suffered inglorious fates. “And things were kind of weird for a while, so…”

“You stayed friends after you broke up,” she pointed out.

“Well—I mean—look at us,” he said sheepishly. 

A moment of silence. Then: “Sometimes I think it wouldn’t be half so awkward if it weren’t you,” Asami said, but the corners of her mouth quirked up. “You’re such a great people person.”

“You know me—you expect me to be one? At least I don’t talk in circles about business. Even I know you get sick of it every once in a while. And come on, I work with Beifong! Like I’d get any tips from her.” Mako prodded at his seaweed noodle dish with his chopsticks.

“The Chief still knows better than you,” replied Asami wryly. “She just doesn’t care. But in answer to your question—yes, I do. She’s always stayed quiet, but I’m used to one-sided conversation.”

“It’s not like her,” he muttered. “Korra being quiet.”

“You mean it wasn’t like her,” she said. “But it’s been a long time. You’ve seen Tenzin recently?”

“Yeah, he came by the station about two weeks ago. Said she was improving.”

“I heard when I stopped by Air Temple Island.” Asami polished off a spoonful of her soup. “More patience, Tenzin said. More time. Though judging by the way he has to deal with Meelo’s antics, he doesn’t always practice what he preaches.”

“I am so glad they stopped asking me to babysit,” Mako said. “It’s a lot more satisfying to track down a criminal instead of a kid gone air sledding.”

“At least you’re released from the responsibility, thanks to improved judgment,” Asami said serenely, and let Mako stew for several confused seconds over exactly whose judgment she meant. “And at least Tenzin’s talked to her. It’s easy for him to speak of patience.”

Mako stopped chewing his noodles and gave her a steady look. For all that Asami joked that he was slow to pick up on relationship cues, he was hardly blind to the disgruntlement in her voice. “Why shouldn’t we go?” he said. “Just because we’re supposed to give her distance and time to recover… it’s already been so long. I can’t get off work that easily, but you could wrangle a reason, right?”

“Trust me, I’ve thought a lot about it,” replied Asami. “I know I could—I don’t know if Korra—if she never replies—“ Could, should, would, chanted the anxiety of indecision as it chased itself around her mind.

“Yeah—I know. She’s practically dropped off the face of the earth.” Mako stared moodily into his lychee juice. “But,” he muttered, “would you want to go anyway?”

“… Yes,” said Asami.

*

She went to survey the city’s main harbor on the third day. Korra had left for the White Lotus compound early in the morning, as she had the mornings before; she usually came back in the late evening right before dinner, after which they would talk of casual topics: the new restaurants Asami had tried in Republic City, the bending forms Korra was practicing, the explorations Naga made in unsettled regions… On a whim, Korra had asked Asami for a makeup lesson, and very soon after moaned, “I’m such a lost cause.”

“Don’t lie. You’re no such thing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Korra said, and kept her eyes on Asami’s reflection as it applied lipstick in the mirror. She hadn’t looked like she believed herself.

Neither of them had brought up the Red Lotus.

Now Asami sat at a cafe near the harbor, watching the ships maneuver around each other and entertaining herself by the thought of imaginary improvements she could make. Was this boat listing too much to one side? Was the prow of that one insufficiently streamlined? Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have done so silently: one of Hiroshi Sato’s favorite pastimes with young Asami had been to pull her into conversations about developments and fixes that could be made to whatever passing vehicle they encountered. She’d loved it—but then again, she’d loved it whenever her busy father had taken time from work to be with her. They’d come together to the South Pole before, and he’d spent most of the trip talking about how Future Industries was going to expand from Satomobiles to more energy-efficient sea transportation.

That initiative had been stalled for a while.

Asami finished her kale cookie sampler and got to her feet. She hadn’t wanted to make Korra feel stifled by an admission that she’d only come to see Korra and expected her company; hadn’t wanted to deny Korra the opportunity to claim her own space. Who, to Asami’s sinking disappointment, had then taken full advantage. This is stupid, she thought, twisting her fingers together. It makes sense that she would. I was the one who pretended to have business here.

What was there to do? She thought of her previous visit; arranged the options in her mind; finally nodded to herself, and set off at a brisk pace.

Katara lived at the outskirts of the city, on the side closest to the White Lotus compound. The appearance of her house seemed as sedate as Katara herself, who greeted Asami with a smile. “Miss Sato! Come in,” she said. “I always appreciate having guests.” She certainly knew how to entertain them; various comfy chairs and a much-used, clearly loved tea set were carefully arranged in her sitting room.

“Ah, no Miss Sato for me,” Asami said, and clasped the older woman’s hands with her own. “Please, call me Asami.” They’d only met briefly at the healing huts after Harmonic Convergence, but she was used to seeking out distant acquaintances. In some ways, she thought wistfully, it was easier than figuring out the inner workings of close friends. There were fewer expectations to navigate.

Katara made excellent tea. She also told excellent stories. Asami spent an hour listening to a series of increasingly amusing anecdotes about Katara’s brother Sokka and his travels, with particular sympathy for his plight in the case where he’d narrowly avoided becoming food for a sand fishworm. She could say from personal experience that it was not the most appealing fate.

“And how are you liking your visit?” Katara asked at last. “I hope it’s been better than the other time you were here. A little less unwanted excitement, don’t you think?” The corners of her eyes wrinkled with crow’s feet as she sat back.

Asami laughed. “Can’t argue with that,” she said, and looked into her teacup. “Well. I wouldn’t mind a bit more excitement. Korra’s not around as much as I’d hoped. It’s silly, since I told her I had business here and I… don’t. I just came to see her, but…” Her usual eloquence deserted her. It had been happening more often than not over the past few days.

“Ah,” was the reply, followed by a telling silence. Then Katara continued, “She keeps herself very busy nowadays. Very dedicated to training. She’s supposed to stop by every week for check-ups—today, for instance, and should be coming here soon—but I doubt I’m the first to tell you that sometimes she doesn’t show. I haven’t lost my tracking skills yet, though.” She glanced up at the clock and raised an eyebrow.

“That sounds like Korra,” Asami said. Coming here soon? She couldn’t help but smile fondly. “She’s not the most patient person. And I don’t—it’d be weird if she changed that much. But I suppose that’s presumptuous of me.”

“Now why would you say that?”

She ducked her head to sip at her tea. “It’s been a while since I saw her,” she said. “We knew each other for a year or so, I couldn’t—“

“You know, you surprise me,” said Katara. “Running Future Industries requires some level of aggressiveness, doesn’t it?”

Asami blinked at the apparent non sequitur. “Of course,” she said.

“You’re very straightforward when you need to be.” Katara gave her a level look over the rim of her cup as she lifted it to her lips. “So don’t hold back. How can people guess what you want if you hide it?”

But after all this time, she wanted to ask, what if I don’t know?

*

The day before she was set to depart Republic City, Asami had received a thin envelope that was addressed to her in unfamiliar block print. She was busy with packing and business arrangements, delegating tasks to one person or another, and so left the letter on the mail tray in the foyer till at last in the late afternoon she came slouching back through the door of her apartment. Spotted the envelope, and only then remembered its existence. An idle look; a twist in her gut. It was from the Southern Water Tribe.

She tore it open. Dear Miss Sato, it began in a neat type font, and she let it fall on her desk.

Not from Korra, after all.

*

“You have to stargaze at least once here. It’s nothing like the sky in Republic City,” Korra said later that night, once Asami returned—and so they did, bundling themselves up in thick blankets before going out onto the balcony. Korra promptly flopped down on the floor and propped herself on her elbows, staring upward; after a moment’s hesitation, Asami did the same.

“I never did this that much,” she finally commented. “The city lights blot out a lot.”

“I spent more time looking at the city from Air Temple Island than looking at the sky when I arrived,” said Korra, letting her comforter droop around her shoulders. “You’ve seen how it is here—Republic City’s got so many more people packed together, it was like—a whole new world.” She sighed and tipped her head back; Asami could see the line of her throat flutter with each breath of chilly night air she took in.

“Well, I think I could like it here,” Asami said. Above them, the stars shimmered faintly, a messy sprawl of sequins stitched into unending black fabric. “A really good place to take a break.”

“Yeah, like you got that much work done?” Korra laughed.

Asami felt her face warm with mild embarrassment, but didn’t try to protest. “Was I that obvious?”

“I talked to the guards at the front door. I was just curious.”

“Oh,” said Asami. Then—a sudden wave of indignation, though she was irritated with herself for feeling that way: “I wish you were around more often. I thought it’d be nice to catch up, but—“ I shouldn’t be mad, Asami thought, I shouldn’t be mad. If only you’d written us, if only you’d let us know how you’re doing

“It’s not you, Asami.” Korra turned her face away so Asami could only see the curved shell of one ear and unbound hair falling loosely down Korra’s back. “I know, I know—I’m just not used to it anymore. Having friends around. I never knew that many people here because they always wanted to keep me at the compound. Naga was my best friend, and—“

“Aren’t we friends?”

Under the moonlight, Asami could see Korra turn and look back. Darkness pooled in the hollow of her collarbone. “You never asked me before,” Korra mumbled.

“You haven’t written for two years,” Asami said, “what was I supposed to assume? We had a lot of fun together, and you know that I’d be happy to help—with anything, if only you weren’t cutting us off.”

“It’s hard!” Korra burst out, her frustration so sudden that Asami could almost imagine it freezing in mid-air. “I’m sorry, but it’s hard! It’s just me, okay? I never feel like it even though I know I should. I know I should, but I can’t make myself do it. I can’t.”

Silence settled between them as a third wheel. Korra hunched up her shoulders and drew her knees in toward her chest. “Sorry,” she muttered under her breath.

Asami blinked and looked down, then got awkwardly to her feet and padded over to Korra’s side. She knelt and picked up the fallen blanket, drawing it around Korra before tucking in the corner at the junction of neck and shoulder. “Let’s go out tomorrow,” she said quietly. “Let’s do something fun. No training. You pick?”

Korra laughed; it sounded nearly like a sob. She rested her chin on her knees. “You pick,” she said. “I don’t really find that much fun around here.”

Asami couldn’t have said what made her do what she did next—but, impulsively, she leaned in and dropped a kiss on Korra’s nose. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “We’ll make it fun.”

“If you say so. Promise?”

“You’ll just have to see, won’t you?”

The stars were bright in the sky, but the look on Korra’s face was even brighter in Asami’s eyes. Luminous, like a pearl.

“Thanks,” Korra said. “I’m glad you came.”