Morning found Korra long before she would have liked it to. It was barely dawn, the moon perched above the horizon, a few of the brightest stars still stuck in the slowly lightening sky, just above where the gentle fire of dawn fizzled into the cool darkness of night. She felt exhausted, head light and unfocused, but the shadowy images she saw in her dreams popped back out each time she closed her eyes, burned into her vision and completely unshakable. Sleep wasn't going to come again today.
She sat up, yawning and stretching. The chilled morning air felt good against her skin, waking her the rest of the way up as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She knelt to greet her best friend, sprawled on her back with all four legs sticking up in the air.
"Come on, girl," she muttered to Naga, running her fingers through her thick fur and making the massive dog wag her tail happily. "Let's go grab some breakfast."
Once Korra had picked at some food, she went to sit outside with Naga and wait for Airbending lessons to start. It was a foggy morning, flecks of golden sunlight only just starting to shoot through the purple haze. It was there that Asami found her, plopped down on the stone steps and rubbing Naga's belly.
"Good morning, Miss Avatar!"
Surprised, Korra glanced over and allowed herself a small smile, turning as the other girl approached, blue coat slung over one arm. "Hey, Asami. What are you doing here at this hour?"
"I brought your coat," she said, holding it out pointedly. "You forgot to take it back."
"Oh - right." She reached up and took the proffered garment. "Thank you."
Asami grinned, dropping down on the steps next to Korra and giving Naga a curious look.
Korra glanced back and forth between Asami and Naga, noting the curiosity on the other girl's face - as well as the minor but understandable apprehension. "Do you want to pet her?" she offered, scooting back a bit so Asami could reach over her. "She seems to like you."
Naga, who was still sprawled pathetically out on her back, craned her neck to look at them, head cocked lightly, ears flopping in a most undignified way. Asami laughed at the sight, hesitantly leaning over to run her hand along Naga's soft white fur. "She's a...polar bear dog, right?"
"Yeah," Korra confirmed, raking her fingers across her best friend's furry stomach again.
"I didn't know they could be tame like this," Asami murmured thoughtfully, scratching Naga behind her ear and making her kick her leg happily, prompting another soft laugh from her.
"They're usually not tame at all," Korra admitted, leaning heavily on Naga's side and nuzzling her face into her fur, smiling at the familiar scent. "Naga? She's special, though. I trained her myself."
"That's really impressive," Asami said, shooting Korra a glance. "How did you do that?"
"I wouldn't have been able to if she hadn't been a pup when I started." She turned her head so that her cheek was resting against Naga's side, looking at Asami. "I had snuck out of the compound one night when I was eight and wound up getting chased by a polar leopard. I stumbled into the cave where Naga and her mother were sleeping and was chased out, but then Naga's mother wound up attacking the leopard instead."
She shut her eyes, the scene so clear in her mind it felt like it had just happened last night. She felt the bite of the cold wind creeping through her parka and searing her bare skin, heard the snarls of the animals as they fought and the sickening tearing of flesh, smelled the fallen snow and the fresh blood, saw bright moonlight glinting off of blue ice and gore-matted fur. It had been almost ten years ago, but the wild storm of fear she had felt swirling in her chest was hard to forget.
"The leopard was hurt badly, so it ran off," she continued, still running her hand along Naga's side, relishing the feeling of the fur slipping through her fingers. "But Naga's mother was hurt really badly, too. I didn't know how to heal back then, but even if I did, she wasn't letting me near her. She died from her wounds.
"I heard something in the cave, and when I looked over, Naga came out, nudging her mother and whining. It was so sad. She was so tiny back then - I mean, tiny compared to what she is now. I guess she was still pretty big."
Asami gave a short laugh, and Korra allowed herself another smile.
"It was only a few minutes later that the White Lotus guards found me. I was a mess, crying and bloody and just awful-looking. I probably almost gave them a heart attack. But when I heard them talking about Naga and saying they were going to have to-" she crunched up her face, pitching her voice lower to imitate the guard in her memory, "-'put her out of her misery' - because there was no way a pup that young could fend for herself, I begged them not to. I just...couldn't bear the thought of it. I convinced them to bring her back to the compound with us. I had to be the one to take care of her, though. And train her. It wasn't easy, but it was definitely worth it." She shut her eyes, smile turning dreamy. "She's been my best friend ever since."
"That's so sweet," Asami said softly.
"Hello-o-o, fellow teammate!"
Korra started, pushing herself upright to see Bolin walking jauntily across the courtyard, ever-present smile in place, Pabu draped over his shoulder like an exceptionally furry scarf. "Hey, Bolin."
The grinning Earthbender drew closer to them, hands hidden behind his back. "Missed you at practice this week!"
"...Yeah...sorry about that," she said, glancing back down at Naga.
"Ah, that's all right," he said, frowning lightly. "We're probably out of the tournament anyway...unless some money miraculously drops out of the sky by tomorrow." He punctuated the statement with a teasing grin before his eyes fell on Asami, who was regarding him with a thoughtful expression on her face. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."
Asami jumped and blinked a few times as though startled from a trance, smiling up at him. "It's all right."
A moment of silence stretched between them, broken only by Naga as she groaned and shifted onto her stomach, turning away from them in response to no longer being the center of attention. Korra cleared her throat half-heartedly. "Ah, Asami, this is Bolin, the Fire Ferret's Earthbender. Bolin, this is Asami."
He shifted his hands for a second before he held out his right one to shake with Asami, the left still clasped behind his back. "It's good to meet you, Asami. Korra's told me about you."
Korra gasped, hiding her face in Naga's fur and wondering how badly she was blushing.
"Has she?" Asami responded, voice laced with amusement. "She's talked about you guys as well."
Pabu chittered loudly, jumping down from his perch to offer his own greeting to Asami. She laughed. "Hey there! He's so cute, what's his name?"
"That's Pabu," Bolin said proudly. "Don't worry, he doesn't bite. ...You know, often."
"Bolin," Korra said, voice muffled, "why are you here?"
"Oh! I came by to give you...this! - ta-da!"
She peered out to see that he was handing her a small red rose and a tiny, ornate cake wrapped up in plastic and tied off with a yellow ribbon.
"Wow...thanks," she said, stunned, accepting the gifts perplexedly. "What's this for?"
He frowned, puzzled, stroking his chin contemplatively. "Uh...I can't remember now...oh, yeah, now I remember!" He gave her another bright smile, gesticulating enthusiastically with his hands. "You saved me from Amon!"
"Oh, that...?" she shrugged lightly, glancing down. "It was no big deal."
He gave her a stunned look. "No big deal, are you serious?" He took a rough, hard stance, expression tough and mean. "I was totally freaking out when he was coming at me with his creepy mask all -" he waved his arms around, teetering back and forth in a comical exaggeration of Amon - "I will take away your bending forever!"
A strange, cold feeling rushed over her, leaving her feeling bereft and panicky, her mind once again playing back the image of the Firebender's lighting shrinking away to nothing. Asami's laughter at Bolin's antics and Bolin's complaint that he still couldn't sleep well both sounded painfully distant, as though they were shouted from across the wide bay separating her from the city instead of spoken not three feet from where she sat.
"...mm-hm," she muttered in acknowledgement when he stopped talking, glancing away and hoping they hadn't seen the look on her face.
"Delivery for Avatar Korra!"
The three of them looked up to see a scrawny, elderly person making their way towards them, teetering under the weight of an overloaded gift basket. It was laden with the most absurdly unnecessary assortment of items imaginable. Boxes of sweets, fine teas, and other foods Korra couldn't even identify were piled in a multicolored mountain in the basket, envelopes and fruits threatening to topple out, salmon-pink flowers spilling from the edges in sprays of obnoxious color, a silky bow fuchsia bow the size of Naga's head tied ornately at the top of the handle. They dropped it on the stone next to Korra, straightening with a bright smile and a polite bow.
"Tarrlok sends his compliments," they said, "and urges you to reconsider his offer-"
"Tell him I haven't changed my mind," Korra cut in with a scowl, resting her head on her clenched fist and turning away in an aloof dismissal.
"Mm-hm," the page said skeptically, bowing low and seeing themselves out.
Bolin scowled after them. "Who's this Tarrlok guy? Is he bothering you?" he spat, voice full of contempt, punching his right fist threateningly into his open right palm. "Huh? Because I can-"
"He's the representative for the Northern Water Tribe."
Korra and Bolin both turned to stare at Asami, startled.
"Oh," Bolin said, frowning slightly. "Uh..."
"It's not like that, Bolin," Korra said, allowing herself a small laugh at his reaction. "He works with Tenzin."
"Oh!" his face broke into a relieved smile and he held his hands up in understanding. "Good, good, that sounds better. I like that better."
Asami giggled, and even Korra couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"Anyway, I'd better head back," he said. "Mako wants to train. You coming?"
She hesitated, glancing down. "I...um, I don't think I can today."
"That's all right," he said with a shrug and a smile. "Airbending is more important. I'll see you around, okay? It was nice meeting you, Asami!"
"Nice to meet you, too!" Asami called after him. His footsteps had faded when Korra felt her hand land on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. "Are you okay?"
Korra shot her a grin that didn't reach her eyes. "Yeah, I'm...fine."
Asami looked skeptical. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah." Korra reached up and rested her hand on Asami's. "I'm sure."
She didn't look convinced, but she nodded anyway, pushing herself to her feet with a thoughtful look on her face. "In that case...I'm going to head home."
"What?" she asked, turning to crane her neck up at Asami. "Do you...want some breakfast before you go?" she offered half-heartedly. It was the strangest feeling - she wanted to be alone, but she didn't want Asami to go, either. She didn't know what to do or how, really, to feel.
Asami shook her head. "Thank you, but I'll eat with my dad when I get home." She hesitated for a moment. "Can...can you come to Future Industries later?"
Korra blinked at her, puzzled. "I...don't know where that is."
"I'll take you there," Asami said, smiling. "Can you meet me at the docks at three? Is that enough time to get your training in?"
Korra glanced away evasively. "That's...I mean, I don't know. I have a ton of stuff to do, I don't know if I should really-"
"Please?" Asami begged, kneeling in front of her and taking Korra's hands in hers. "It won't take long at all, I promise."
Her soft green eyes and pleading, sincere expression completely unravelled Korra's defiance, and she gave in with an expansive sigh. "All right," she said begrudgingly, dropping her gaze. "Docks at three, I'll be there."
Asami leaned in and kissed Korra on the cheek for the second time in so many days, making her gasp in surprise. "Thank you," Asami smiled. "You won't regret it!" She gave Korra's hands one last squeeze before dropping them, standing up and practically sprinting away. "I'll see you later! Don't forget, okay?"
She was gone before the stunned Avatar even had the chance to return the farewell.
She stepped off the ferry at five minutes past three, unsurprised to find Asami waiting for her. She was leaning against a sleek, highly-polished car, cracking a grin when she saw Korra.
"So what are we going to do at Future Industries?" Korra asked after Asami had helped her into the car and they were both strapped in. She knew from their conversation the other night that it was the name of the company her family owned, but she couldn't think of anything there that would concern the two of them.
Asami turned the key in the ignition, carefully avoiding Korra's gaze. "I'm taking you to meet my father."
Her eyes widened, jaw dropping. "What?"
"It's not a big deal," Asami said reassuringly, gripping the gear shift and shooting Korra a glance. "Just trust me?"
She wanted to protest, loudly and vehemently, but she sighed and sank back against the seat. "All right," she said begrudgingly, "I trust you."
The ride felt shorter than what it probably was, but that was probably because Korra spent the entire time frantically going over what she might say to Mr. Sato and wishing for the ride to be longer. She was sure that she could win him over with her position as Avatar alone, but that wasn't enough. She liked Asami a lot and she wanted to be on good terms with her family.
It didn't help that Korra had no desire to even be off the island. If she had been jumpy last night, today she was on the edge of a knife, exhaustion mixing with the paranoia about the Equalists being around every corner until she was practically at her wit's end. Being with Asami made her feel a bit better, but she still couldn't wait to get back.
They met Hiroshi Sato on the factory floor, standing in the middle of more Satomobiles than Korra cared to count, all shined up and queued neatly along lines in various stages of assembly. He was standing there waiting for them when they walked up, a serene smile on his face.
"Avatar Korra," he said without preamble when she drew level with him, bowing his head lightly. "It is truly an honor to meet you."
"Likewise, sir," she said, returning the bow.
"You can call me Hiroshi," he said jovially. "So, Avatar Korra! What do you think of my little operation here?"
"I've...never seen anything like it," she responded honestly, craning her neck to look around. "I can't believe how many Satomobiles you make each day."
"It's a highly efficient method," he agreed. "The assembly line allows us to make several vehicles simultaneously at a low cost, which makes the vehicles much more affordable for our consumers."
She nodded. "We didn't really have many Satomobiles at the South Pole," she admitted.
He smiled wryly. "I take it you can't drive, then?"
She laughed. "No. I can drive polar bear dogs, but not Satomobiles."
The joke got a chuckle from him, which put her nerves somewhat at ease. Somewhat.
"Perhaps you'll learn while you're in the city," he said. "You're having all sorts of new experiences while you're here. Why not add driving to the list, hm?"
"Maybe," she said. "I'm...pretty busy with Airbending and pro-bending, though. I don't know how much time I'd have to learn."
"Ah, yes, you're in pro-bending," he said, casting Asami a glance. "The Fire Ferrets, is it?"
"Yeah," she confirmed.
He stepped closer, dropping a heavy hand on her shoulder. "You know, Avatar Korra," he said, "I wasn't always a wealthy industrialist. No, when I was your age, I was a mere shoeshiner - and all I had to my name was an idea: the Satomobile."
He gestured to the nearest car for emphasis, and Korra followed the sweep of his arm, taking in the glint of the sun off the vehicle's metallic surface.
"And I was fortunate enough," he continued, "to meet someone who believed in me and my work ethic. He gave me the money I needed to get my idea off the ground."
Korra shot Asami a glance and saw that the girl was trying and failing to conceal a grin. What was going on here?
"...built the entire Future Industries Empire-" he threw his arm out dramatically towards the factory floor - "from that one...selfless...loan."
"Dad, stop bragging!" Asami said, her voice tight with barely-contained happiness. "Just tell Korra the good news!"
Hiroshi laughed lowly, turning back towards Korra with a smile.
"What good news is that?" Korra asked skeptically, looking back and forth between father and daughter.
"You see, Korra," Hiroshi said, "earlier today, my daughter told me all about you and your team's hard-earned success in the pro-bending arena. And about your team's current..." he stroked his chin and patted her shoulder for emphasis, "...financial stumbling block."
She blinked, unsure of where he was going with all of this.
"Now, I'd hate to see you all lose your chance at winning the championship just because you're short a few yuans. That's why I'm going to sponsor the Fire Ferrets in the tournament!"
Korra's mouth fell open, her gaze swinging from Hiroshi to Asami and back to Hiroshi. "Wh...are...are you serious?"
"He's serious!" Asami said, smile unreserved and bright. "My dad's going to cover your ante for the championship pot!"
Korra suddenly felt a bit light-headed, almost giddy with excitement. "That's...wonderful!" she exclaimed. "I...oh, wow, wait until Mako and Bolin find out!"
"There's just one catch," Hiroshi said firmly, hands on his hips. "You all have to wear the Future Industries logo on your uniforms."
"That's not a problem," she said, smiling, running a hand through her hair. "Considering what you're doing for the Fire Ferrets, I think we can manage that." She dropped her hand, clasping both of them together and bowing low. "Thank you so much. I'm grateful, and I know my teammates will be, too." She straightened. "They've been working for this for longer than I have. They really do deserve this chance."
"I'm glad to help," Hiroshi assured her.
"Do you want to come back to the house for dinner?" Asami asked eagerly, grabbing Korra's hand.
Korra froze, hesitating, thinking about how late it would be when she got home. "I...uh..."
"Korra's probably had a long day, Asami," Hiroshi cut in. "She's hard at work finishing her Avatar training."
"Y-yeah," Korra confirmed, relief flooding her. "Yeah, I really should head home and get some more training in before I have to go to bed tonight." When she saw how Asami wilted, she hastily said, "But, we can have lunch sometime? Er...tomorrow, maybe?"
She honestly didn't feel up for it, but she felt like she'd made the right choice when Asami's face lit up.
"I can pick you up again," she said, giving Korra's hand a squeeze. "Maybe at eleven, so we have plenty of time to get to the house? Will that cut into your training too much?"
"Not as long as I go home right after," she said.
"Perfect," Asami said cheerily. "Let's get going, then."
Korra faltered for a second. "Thank you again, Hiroshi, sir. This really means a lot."
"It's nothing," he said, waving farewell as the two girls stumbled off towards the garage. "I'll be in contact with the tournament's organizer's this evening to take care of the ante!"
Before she knew it, they were speeding towards the docks again, the city rushing by in a blur as the afternoon light started to fade.
"Do you want to stop and tell Mako and Bolin the good news?" Asami offered when they were about halfway there.
"What? Oh - no, not tonight," Korra said, glancing nervously out at the darkening streets. "I'd rather just get home."
When they finally stopped, Korra pulled herself out of the car, straightening her shirt and circling around to give Asami a strong hug goodbye. "Thank you so much for this," she said softly against Asami's hair. "Really. It will mean the world to Mako and Bolin."
She hesitated for a moment before brushing a kiss against Asami's cheek, pulling back quickly to mask her mild embarrassment. Asami was quicker, though, and she grabbed Korra by the back of her head and pulled her in to press a kiss against her lips. The gesture stunned Korra into silence, but after a second, she melted into the kiss, eyes drifting shut happily, smiling in spite of herself. She couldn't help but feel sad when Asami ended it seconds later, pulling back with a satisfied smile at Korra's distant expression.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she said softly, running her hand down Korra's cheek and dropping it to grip her steering wheel. "Eleven o'clock."
"Right," Korra said absently. "Right. Lunch. Tomorrow. Here at eleven."
The other girl sped off, leaving a dazed Korra to wander over to the ferry and sail back to the island. Even in her haze, she felt better than she had since before the rally. She'd probably have nightmares again tonight, shaking her from her sleep and making it almost impossible to drop off again, but right now, she was happy.