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Reframing the Question

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Korra was excited to start her freshman year of college. She’d spent the summer living with her parents’ friend’s son’s family (it was complicated to explain, but she’d known them since she was born) because she wanted to get acclimated to living in the continental US after spending her whole life in Alaska. Moving to a small town in upstate New York was a bit of a culture shock—there was literally no one that looked like her—but spending time with familiar people helped. Still, she was an only child and moving in with four rowdy children had started to grate on her nerves.

Tenzin was a professor at the small private school of less than 2,000 students that she had decided to attend. They had given her a full academic scholarship, which she knew was a result of four years of hard work in high school and maybe a little because she would be a star on their track team. They couldn’t technically give out athletic scholarships, but they could finagle to get her more of an academic scholarship. They had a pretty decent track program for a division three school. One weird thing was that the school was almost completely white. “Alaskan Native” wasn’t even an option on the application she had completed. She’d had to check “Other” and fill in her ethnicity. Still, she had gotten a good vibe when she’d visited back in November. In short, she had no regrets about her decision apart from being so far away from her parents.

Korra was also excited about her roommate. She’d been assigned to live with an Asami Sato. The two of them had been texting ever since they’d gotten each other’s contact info from the school. Like Korra, Asami wanted to major in business, though she was also going to major in computer engineering, which was pretty impressive. Even more impressive was the fact that she seemed to be good at everything. She’d been a star athlete on her cross-country, basketball, and track teams, though she was deciding not to participate in college. She was also obviously a top notch student because she’d been given a full ride as well; though it had taken some googling because Asami wasn’t particularly forthcoming about herself, she also found out that her new roommate had won some sort of national science fair competition the year before by designing something to do with computers (Korra didn’t understand what the article was talking about). Plus she had been in band, was involved in her community teaching the homeless how to use computers, and worked on electronics in her spare time (Korra wasn’t sure how Asami ever had spare time). Overall, she seemed pretty nice.

Korra was basing that opinion mainly on the fact that she’d put her foot in her mouth and asked about what Asami’s parents did only to have the girl kindly inform her that it was just her dad; her mom had died in a car accident when Asami was little. It turned out her dad used to be an inventor. He had invented some sort of affordable electric car that got good mileage, but after her mom died, it was too painful to be around cars. He had decided to become a high school science teacher instead. Still, considering Korra had heard of the car in question, she was guessing Asami was rich as well as nice.

Together they coordinated to make sure they would have a functioning dorm room. Asami lived close too, so they split the list in half since neither would have to worry about transporting anything very far. Asami had a TV and a microwave. Korra consulted with Tenzin who dug up an old mini fridge that was barely functioning, and she liberated her old PS3 from his fiendish children who had stolen it from her when she’d arrived. In the spirit of honesty, Korra told Asami she wasn’t sure the fridge was going to work out, but her new roommate promised to bring her tools; she was confident she could fix whatever was wrong with it (she was guessing a loose wire).

Korra moved in a day before orientation because she had track practice early that morning followed by orientation activities. As such, she wasn’t there when Asami arrived. That wasn’t too big of a deal; she figured she would see a lot of her throughout the next year. However, she was excited to meet her, so after her orientation stuff was done for the day, she rushed back to her dorm to see if Asami wanted to get dinner together.

When she arrived, she burst in, expecting to tackle Asami in a “Hi, I know we don’t know each other, but I really want you to like me and I promise to be a good roommate” hug, but alas, she wasn’t there. Presumably she wasn’t done with orientation for the day because her stuff definitely was there. Korra took the time to subtly snoop to see what she could find out. For starters, Asami’s TV was nice! Korra supposed that wasn’t all that surprising, but it was still pretty great to walk into her room and see it there. For another, her laptop looked odd, but Korra was betting it was custom built and probably the best running machine on campus. More aesthetically, Korra noted that Asami had lofted her bed and all of her stuff was some shade of red. Between that, her own preference for blue, and the white tile floor in between, she thought it was very patriotic…or, you know, very French.

Asami’s side of the room was sophisticated, while Korra’s was more of a hodgepodge of belongings she’d either been given by Tenzin and his wife Pema or picked up at a thriftstore. Asami had coordinated everything, but not in the college sections of department stores way. It was more adult. So was her closet. All of her clothes (also mostly red and black) were at the height of fashion: skinny jeans, leather jackets, tall boots, heels, cardigans, and blouses. And scarves. SO MANY SCARVES. Korra was jealous of how well Asami was probably to layer, but wouldn’t be fond of wearing any of those clothes. When she wasn’t dressed for track, she preferred a 90s grunge look: beat up jeans and plain t-shirts with a flannel shirt thrown over top. If it was cold out, and that meant cold enough to snow, she’d sometimes top her layered bob cut with a beanie. Korra did, however, spring for decent kicks so she could get around on her skateboard.

Before Korra could look through the large stack of what looked to be fantasy novels mixed with computer programming books, Asami appeared in the doorway, looking exhausted. Korra could empathize. Orientation was tiring, especially for an introvert (which Asami had informed her she was).

Since she’d had time to settle down after spending the day with her orientation group, Korra didn’t quite tackle Asami with the force she had been intending, but she did engulf her in a big hug. “Hey!” she said.

It took a few seconds for Asami to respond, presumably because she was surprised, but she kind of managed to pat Korra awkwardly on the back before slipping out of her arms. Korra noted that hugs were probably off limits to them in the future. “Hi. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“You’re taller than I expected,” Korra responded like an idiot. The thing was, Asami was kind of really beautiful, even when she was obviously tired, and Korra was confident enough in her sexuality to know she was bisexual but not enough to be comfortable around pretty girls. Asami had long, thick black hair that was kind of wavy, but not in a frizzy way and gorgeous green eyes.

“Thanks?” Asami laughed uncomfortably like she wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. Korra understood. She didn’t know what to make of it either.

Korra laughed too. “Sorry. I promise I’m not always this weird. Actually, I probably am, but you’ll get used to it. Listen, I’m starving. Do you want to go get dinner?”

Asami started putting her stuff away. Korra noted that she hung her backpack in her closet and placed her orientation materials in a file folder and tucked it neatly in her desk. “This is really lame, but I actually have to go back home to get an award.”

“Really? For what?” Korra didn’t know anyone who had ever gotten an award that wasn’t a sports trophy.

“Uh…community service.” Asami said vaguely as she reached into her closet and exchanged her leather jacket for a tweed one. It looked great over her skinny jeans.

Korra wasn’t going to let it go at that. That would be being a bad roommate (or at least a bad Korra). “Come on, can’t you be a little more specific,” she wheedled.

Asami raised a brow at her like she couldn’t believe Korra’s audacity in asking her something she obviously didn’t want to discuss. But she relented and smiled. “Fine. I rebuilt all of my school’s computers this summer.”

“Wow!” Korra said. “That’s so awesome! You’re such a great person!”

Asami’s smile faded and she zipped up her purse, ignoring the compliment. “Anyway, I have to go, but I’ll be back later tonight. We can talk more then?”

“Sure!”

That night they established a few rules, talked about their routines, and snacked on cookies Korra had liberated from the caf. Korra had hooked up her PS3 to Asami’s TV and she turned it on.

“You have Netflix?” Asami gasped.

Korra was busy setting up the Netflix account and didn’t register Asami’s surprise. “Yes.”

“Can we watch ‘The Office’?” Asami begged. At this, Korra looked at her. She’d never seen somebody look so hopeful about something so small. “I used to watch reruns after school before my dad got home, but I’ve never seen the series the whole way through.”

“Didn’t you watch it when it was still on NBC?” Korra asked.

“No, I wasn’t allowed,” Asami told her, which Korra found odd, but whatever. Some parents were really fussy about what their kids watched.

Korra had already watched “The Office” in its entirety a few times, but she didn’t have the heart to tell that to Asami who was trying not to show how much she wanted to watch it. Plus, it was a great show, so she didn’t mind. “Sure. We can watch it together and you can watch it whenever I’m not here.”

“Thanks.” Asami and Korra settled onto their respective beds and watched a few episodes together. It was a pretty great evening.

Even better, after Korra was lying on her bed, starting to doze, Asami went on a fixing spree. She found a wire that had been partially chewed through by some sort of rodent during the fridge’s unfortunate stay in Tenzin’s garage, and replaced it with her soldering iron. When Korra complained about the showers spraying water from the piping, limiting the amount coming through the showerhead, Asami was on it. She admitted that she didn’t know anything about plumbing, but that she did know how to tighten things. A few cranks of her wrench and the problem was solved.

It was an auspicious beginning to their tenure as roommates and a good start toward a friendship. But then things started to get kind of weird.

 

For one thing, Asami liked quiet. She never listened to music, which Korra couldn’t understand. Without some sort of auditory stimulation, she couldn’t get anything done. Korra had asked if Asami minded if she played music through the speaker on her computer sometimes because wearing headphones for long periods of time gave her a headache and Asami promised it was okay. However, Korra could feel her flinch from across the room every time she did and could sense the way she relaxed when she turned it off. It wasn’t just music. Whenever people in their hall shouted or dropped something, she would jump and whirl around, searching for the source of danger. When Korra raised an eyebrow at her, Asami had just laughed and said she had an exaggerated startle reflex. Korra didn’t really know what to make of that, so she had just let it go.

At first Korra chalked up Asami’s oddness to her obviously superior intelligence. Though she had known Asami was obviously super-smart, she hadn’t quite bargained for the sheer brilliance of her roommate. Asami could easily have gone to MIT or some other equally exclusive school, but when Korra asked why she had chosen their tiny school, Asami had just shrugged and muttered something about her dad wanting her to stay nearby.

Most people didn’t know Asami was a genius. She almost never talked unless someone asked her a direct question. Even then, if she could get away with a gesture, she would. In the Intro to Business class they had together, she sat in the back corner, the closest seat to the door, and never spoke to anyone. She never raised her hand to answer questions unless no one else knew the answer. It was as if the second she saw Tenzin floundering when no one was participating, she felt the need to lessen his discomfort. In such instances she would cite a page number and quote the relevant passage of the book, despite the fact that Korra knew she’d left her book in their dorm. Then, when Tenzin pressed her to explain and not just regurgitate information, Asami would provide such an alarmingly succinct and simple explanation that Korra was certain her roommate could teach this class to kindergarteners and have them start businesses that would turn a profit within a year.

So, Korra thought maybe Asami was stuck up and thought she was better than everyone. She didn’t seem to have any friends of her own and she certainly didn’t give any of Korra’s friends the time of day when they were in their dorm. Korra asked and Asami swore she didn’t mind, but when Opal and Bolin were there, Asami sat silently on her bed and read. It was even worse when Korra’s boyfriend Mako came over. At first Asami gave him the same treatment as Opal and Bolin, but then she started leaving the second Mako showed up. She would grab a book and disappear, but Korra knew she must be nearby because she came back as soon as he left. Initially Korra figured Asami was giving them their privacy, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized Asami started leaving around the time Mako and Korra started fighting all the time. When Korra told Asami they’d broken up, she’d expressed her condolences, but Korra was almost certain she had heard her sigh in relief. Asami even refused to eat in the caf unless it was almost empty. That meant she ate an insanely early breakfast, a late lunch, and a late dinner. Unless Korra joined her, Asami would eat by herself.

After her breakup with Mako, Korra started spending more time in their room with Asami and found that she wasn’t stuck up. She seemed to become more comfortable around Korra and started to relax. It turned out that Asami had a dry sense of humor and a cutting wit. The first time Korra found herself on the receiving end of it, she thought Asami had meant it maliciously until she saw the beginnings of a real smile touch the corners of her mouth. Asami laughed a lot, but it was rare that she did it out of genuine mirth. Instead it seemed like she laughed because she knew she was supposed to. This was the first time that Korra was certain Asami was actually amused. From then on, Korra made it her mission to make her laugh and smile for real. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Either way, Korra was now positive that Asami wasn’t stuck up. If anything, she was self-effacing.

One time Korra had asked why Asami always did her make-up so impeccably every morning. It was a question that stemmed from pure curiosity because like all of her routines, she went through it religiously, never altering the order. Asami turned red and stammered something about not trying to make herself pretty because she knew she never would be. Korra gaped at her, not sure what had prompted that response, but she informed Asami that she was very pretty. Asami had looked at her sadly, like she knew Korra was just saying that to make her feel better. Korra, constantly off balance with this girl, had just let it go.

Asami also had habits that were…peculiar. She never turned on the lights. Sometimes Korra would get back from track practice after dark and flip the light switch only to have the crap scared out of her when she saw Asami sitting on her bed in the dark. It might have scared Asami too because she would flinch so hard that she would almost fall. Occasionally she would be doing something on her computer, but sometimes she was just sitting there. She certainly wasn’t sleeping because Asami also had an aversion to sleep.

At least once per night Korra would wake briefly when Asami got up around 3 am and left the room, only to return a few minutes later. Korra guessed she was going to the bathroom, but it seemed odd that it was a nightly routine. Even stranger, and more concerning, was the fact that Asami never went to sleep before Korra. No matter how late Korra was awake, Asami stayed up with her. Even when her head began to droop, she would protest and say she wasn’t tired. Once Korra had to pull an all-nighter because she had procrastinated on a paper, and Asami never went to sleep. The next morning, she put on clean clothes and went about her day like she had gotten a full night’s rest. It was like she didn’t need sleep. Between that and her dislike of light, Korra was becoming more and more certain that her roommate was a vampire.

What really put her over the edge, though, was one day when she came back early from class and found Asami hiding under her own bed. Granted, it was lofted a few feet so there was enough room, but it was still frightening. The creepiest part was that when Asami crawled out ten minutes after Korra returned, she hadn’t been able to explain why she was under there in the first place.

All in all, it was a strange situation. Sometimes Asami was this great girl whom Korra wanted to be friends with, but other times she was standoffish and doing super bizarre things. It was after the bed incident that Korra brought it up with her friends.

 

“What is wrong with her?” Korra demanded as she slammed her dinner tray down.

Opal and Bolin looked at each other from their side of the table. They had started dating a few weeks into the school year after the three of them had become fast friends. Sometimes Bolin’s brother and Korra’s ex-boyfriend Mako would join them, but he was a couple of years older and liked to do his own thing. “Who?” Opal asked tentatively.

“Asami!” Korra glared at the green bean she had speared with her fork and bit into it angrily. It had been two months of weird behavior and she was getting really freaked out.

“I thought you guys got along,” Bolin said. He scratched the top of his buzzed hair with a giant hand. Bolin was a wrestler and was certainly built like it.

“We do,” Korra admitted. “I mean, sometimes we do, but sometimes it’s weird.” She took a bite of pot roast and sighed. “I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

Opal grabbed Korra’s fork from her to make her stop talking with her mouth full. “Okay, we need more information. What’s happening?”

So Korra told them about everything. She talked about how Asami didn’t have friends and never talked. She mentioned how Asami sometimes said really sad things without any emotion. And she told them about all of the weird things she did.

When Korra finished talking, she swiped her fork back from Opal and finished her dinner. Bolin and Opal had laughed throughout the telling, but now that they were supposed to contribute, they were silent. “So?” Korra prompted. “What do you think is wrong with her?”

“Does she ever talk about her family?” Opal asked.

Korra stuffed her brownie in her mouth before Opal could take it from her, which turned out to be a mistake because it made talking difficult. She nearly choked as she tried to swallow, but managed to get it down. “Sometimes,” Korra answered, trying to get brownie out of her teeth with her tongue. “Asami’s mom died when she was little and her dad raised her. It’s weird, though. She only ever talks about her mom. She talks to her dad once a week, but afterward she gets really quiet, so I don’t know what they talk about.”

Bolin, the psychology major, sighed. “I think you’re asking the wrong question,” he said softly, his words barely audible over the din in the caf.

“What do you mean?”

“You know how Mako and I grew up in foster care?” Korra nodded. “Okay, well, we stayed with this one family for about a year. The parents kind of just ignored me and Mako, but they paid a lot of attention to their own kids. Not the good kind. They did a lot of the same things you say Asami does. They had to hide a lot at home, hoping their parents would forget about them, so when we were in school they were really quiet because they were used to trying to be invisible. The older one also spent a lot of time trying to keep their parents from getting upset.”

Opal was staring at Bolin like she wanted to hug him, but Korra wasn’t feeling compassionate right now. “So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying I think you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not ‘What’s wrong with her?’ It’s ‘What happened to her?’”

“Fuck.” Korra felt like Bolin had just doused her with ice water. She thought back to all of the times she took spiteful pleasure in seeing Asami jump every time she turned the lights on unexpectedly. Korra had gotten it in her head that Asami was maybe not intentionally making her life harder, but that she certainly wasn’t trying to be a normal roommate. Bolin’s words had given her a new perspective. Maybe Asami wasn’t a weirdo who liked making Korra uncomfortable, but a person who, because of whatever happened to her, was trying desperately to be normal and couldn’t because she was terrified. Korra resolved to try to be better. The only thing was she didn’t know how. “So what do I do?”

Bolin shrugged. “Figure out how to make her feel comfortable and go from there? I don’t know. You know her better than I do.”

Korra stood up to turn in her dirty dishes. “I can totally do that!”