“I mean,” Korra says, “I totally get it if you don't want to.” She looks flustered, and no wonder; they haven't spoken properly in a couple of months. Asami had assumed that their friendship was done, or maybe that it had only been her wishful thinking which made her believe it had existed in the first place.
“I don't know, Korra,” she says. “You haven't been in touch, and now you want me to drop everything and travel all around the world with you? I have my father's business to get in order, and...” she smiles awkwardly. She's trailed off in part because the list of things she has to do really is so long that she doesn’t know where to start, but mostly because she doesn't dare comment on the possibility that Korra might actually be emotionally clueless enough to invite Mako along for the ride as well.
How would one say that? Yes, fine, but your boyfriend can't come. And anyway, Korra sounded like she meant a serious trip; a long one. Asami can't blame her for not realising, but running a business isn't nearly forgiving enough an occupation to allow for spontaneous month-long disappearances – even if it's a business which is in good order, which hers certainly isn't. Channelling profit into secret equalist factories for years on end plays hell with the bookkeeping, and then there’s the loss of reputation the Sato brand has suffered.
“I know,” Korra says, “I mean... about that...” and she sounds so desperately confused and upset that Asami finds herself coming to attention. This isn't about a road trip. It's something else. Something is wrong.
She studies Korra carefully. “Come in properly,” she says at last, with a smile she hopes is steady and friendly, reassuring. “I'll call for tea.”
Korra almost creeps in, and follows Asami silently to the small reception room to the left of the hallway. A comfortable space, designed for small, intimate social gatherings. Not her father's style, so probably a remnant of her mother.
Their footsteps echo across the hallway, and it's a relief to close the door on the wide open, cold space.
“I'm sorry,” Korra bursts out. Asami, half way through gesturing for her to sit, is caught off guard.
“What--” she begins, stops herself, tries to hold her expression neutral and questioning, suspects that she does a worse job of it than she ought.
“Damn,” Korra says, taking in her expression – which is showing what, exactly? “Damn, I'm such a jerk. I just mess everything up.”
Asami can't really deny that she's messed up plenty of things, but all the same – it's hard to feel as angry as she thought she would when faced with Korra's obvious distress. “Sit, and tell me what's going on,” she says levelly.
“We had an argument,” Korra mutters, and there's really no need to ask who we is. Korra seems to realise belatedly that that's probably a bad opening, looks up awkwardly, “um, about you.”
Asami raises an eyebrow. “Korra, I really don't think that's something you should bring me into.”
“No, I mean,” Korra begins, and seems to fumble after words, “it all just, everything went so fast, you know, and it's been such a mess, I've been such a mess. And I've been really unfair to you and...” she waves a hand helplessly. “I just wanted to say sorry. And that I don't know if I really do want to be with anyone at all right now. But that I wish we could all be friends again.”
She looks away, bites her lip. Asami stays silent, watches her expression shift; it doesn't seem like she's quite done yet, as though she's still looking for words.
Eventually Korra looks up again. “I mean, I want us to still be friends.”
Asami stares, feeling something begin lighten in her chest like a physical weight being taken away, though it's a poor excuse for an apology, though she'd really love to hear what Mako would say about all this, though she's still feeling hurt and abandoned and uncertain. “So you thought maybe we should start by running away together for a month or three,” she says, and she can feel the laughter forcing its way up towards the surface, a kind of hysterical relief that's going to burst out of her any moment.
“Yeah,” Korra says, and looks sheepish, “Uh, when you put it like that...”
And then they're both laughing, Korra is laughing so hard she's crying and Asami isn't far behind.
“I'm such an idiot,” Korra chokes out, and starts laughing harder again.
"--sooner or later," Korra is saying. "I don't know, Tenzin, I don't think it's a good idea for me to keep pretending that this city and the South Pole are the world, you know? People keep telling me how clueless I am and the thing is they're right, so-- oh. Sure, uh, later."
She puts down the phone and looks up, catches sight of Asami, breaks into a grin. "Hi!"
"Did I come at a bad time?" Asami asks with a smile.
"No, no!" Korra hops up, waves her into the room. "Just talking with Tenzin about avatar stuff. It's cool."
Korra seems more and more like her old self for every week that takes her further away from the revolution. More energetic, less worried about every single thing that she has to deal with. But it's changed her, Asami thinks. It's changed all of them.
They wander out onto the terrace, make their way down towards the shore of Airbender Island. On the far side of the water the lights of the city are stretched out, and ships' lanterns move back and forth across the harbour like fireflies. "I'm probably going to go away before the end of the year, though," Korra says. "I can't... I've got to know about the world if I'm going to protect it. But I've got to find someone to travel with. Tenzin's decided it'd be stupid to go alone. And I don't want to travel with just his stuffy initiate guys. I mean, ugh." She pulls a face.
Asami covers her mouth to hide a smile.
"It would be stupid to go alone, he's right," she says.
"Yeah..." Korra glances sidelong at her, glances away again, stretches, something she often does when she's thinking about something or feeling awkward, Asami's noticed. It's not very subtle, and neither is the hint in Korra's words. "OK, where are we heading tonight?"
"Good evening," Asami says, and realises she's using her best grown-up speaking-on-the-phone voice as though she was twelve years old. Something about Tenzin does inspire that kind of reaction, somehow, even though she's lived with him for a short period and knows exactly how ruffled and bleary-eyed he is first thing in the morning.
"Miss Sato," he says, and he sounds so honestly delighted to hear from her that she's a little taken aback. "A very good evening to you too. I hope you're well... oh, but I'm sure you wanted Korra, isn't that right?"
She laughs a little, "I'm afraid so. But I'm very well. I'm sorry I haven't had more time to keep in touch."
"Not at all," he says kindly. "We all have our rebuilding to do. I'll get Korra."
"Asami!" Korra says happily a minute later. "What's up?"
"I just wanted to ask you something," Asami says. And I'm doing it by phone so I can look mortified in peace if I've interpreted wrong, she doesn't add. "Ah, you asked once if I'd like to travel with you. I know it was in strange circumstances, but did you mean it?"
"Hello?" Asami says carefully.
"Yes!" Korra says. Almost yells, actually; she's got a lot better, but she's still not a perfect telephone user. "But the business...?"
Yes, the business. Asami knows she's taking a gamble with this, and it could easily go horribly wrong. She doesn't let herself hesitate, though; she's got that out of the way already. "If you can wait until spring I'll have a deputy in place to keep things under control and send me regular reports," she says. "I can make trips with you then. I don't think it'd be a bad idea to look into introducing some of our products to new markets."
"Yes!" Korra shouts again, and this time Asami is fairly sure she's punching the air at the other end of the phone line.
There's the sound of indistinct conversation taking place, Korra talking away from the receiver and an answering hum that's probably Tenzin, trying to keep the conversation on some kind of reasonable level.
"It's perfect," Korra says, talking to her again. "I mean you're so much better at social stuff than me, I bet you can stop me making all kinds of stupid mistakes, it's going to be awesome, have you travelled much before? Do you want to drive or take the train or I don't know maybe we could--"
"We have plenty of time to plan," Asami says gently, though she's feeling a little giddy herself, full of a warm feeling that hasn't been around much the last half year: she's wanted and liked and cared about. Someone is glad that she's around.
"I hope you haven't felt pushed to sell this house," Tenzin says, looking around at the empty entrance hall, stripped of furnishings. He sounds concerned, in his own mild kind of way.
Asami smiles carefully. "What would I do with all of this space? It seems obscene to keep it, in the circumstances."
"Well of course that's... that's a very sensible attitude." Tenzin gives her another hard look, and she wonders what it is he's thinking. "Miss Sato, I just want you to know that no-one expects you to be perfectly knowledgeable about everything. Korra is a very enthusiastic girl, but don't let her drag you out of your depth. You should also know that we are providing the pair of you with an escort. If that could be information the board of directors might consider comforting."
"I'm sure they'll be glad to hear it," she says politely. "And thank you, Tenzin. You've been very kind."
He flushes slightly, coughs in embarrassment. "It's nothing, I assure you. Ah, Pema wanted me to give you this, as well." He holds out a package that he's been cradling under one arm.
That coaxes a genuine smile out of her. "Please thank her." Pema has started doing this since Korra took up contact with Asami again, sending small packages of food, things that Asami has mentioned liking when she's eaten with Tenzin's family. Sometimes Korra brings them, and sometimes Pema hands them over discreetly as Asami is leaving to go home. She wonders if this is some kind of spontaneous gesture of appreciation, or if Korra said something, or if Pema just has a deeply-rooted need to take care of people. It's hard to tell; Asami doesn't know her that well, although she likes her.
"Of course," Tenzin says, and makes his incredibly polite but vaguely hurried escape.
The year goes fast. Her father's house sells, and all she feels is relief; she could never think of it as her own after the discovery of his activities, and moving back into it after the revolution was a strange, uncomfortable experience. She takes an apartment instead, a large penthouse overlooking the harbour that still costs a tiny fraction of the mansion's value. It's newly built, completed shortly before the bombing of the city and repaired in the months since, and it's as free from associations as she could hope for.
Despite her insistence that she can just pay for people to sort everything out for her, Korra helps her move.
So, to her surprise, does Bolin.
In the end she's glad of it, as they sit around on the balcony in the cool evening air, backs against half-emptied boxes, laughing and eating fried noodles from cartons. This could have been her sitting here by herself when the moving team had gone home for the night, watching the city and feeling just as apart from it as she had in the mansion. Bolin and Korra ground her and make her feel as though she may almost be a part of it after all.
"Seriously though," Bolin says, "this is one sweet apartment. You just need to get them to put a pool on the roof and it'll be as good as the old place. Or even better, 'cuz you know, no secret equalist factories."
Korra chokes on her food. "Bolin!"
"Well, he does have a point," Asami says, and actually manages to laugh.
Towards the end of the winter worry begins to set in. Is she doing the right thing? Is everything going to collapse as soon as she's gone?
In reality it probably won't make any difference. She's smart enough to know that she isn't really very smart about business; she wasn't meant to inherit this company for decades yet. She may have ideas, sign contracts and give orders, but other people put together all the drafts and make sure her decisions won't doom the company. The point of fact is that she may yet prove to be a better mechanic and designer than businesswoman. It's such early days that she has no idea how anything is going to turn out.
"Nah, you're doing great," Korra tells her, and Asami wants to feel reassured, but Korra has hardly ever solved a life problem without punching it, and has enough trouble managing pocket-money. She also does seem to believe Asami can do anything, which is baffling coming from someone who can bend all four elements - and which doesn't really help Asami take her confidence seriously in specific cases.
"I hope I am," she says.
They're going to drive, which mostly means Asami is going to drive. This is Korra's fault.
"I know," she says, "we can take trains and ferries and airships all of that. But think about it! We'd get to see so much more of the land in a car!"
"You just don't want to keep track of timetables," Bolin teases. He's not coming along, but he seems to be really enjoying telling them what they should do. He's never left Republic City and its immediate surroundings in his life, so it isn't so much the voice of experience as a kind of attempt at travel by proxy.
"I just really like cars," Korra corrects without any apparent shame, a huge grin plastered across her face. "But OK, that too."
Asami happens to know that Tenzin has vetoed polar bear dog as a method of cross-country transport, which may also have something to do with it. It's probably a good point - polar bear dogs are presumably not that great with running all day in warm climates.
It's not as though she minds driving.
They're leaving in the morning. Korra, who's been hyperactive all day, running around and bothering the airbender kids and being bothered back, has gone quiet and thoughtful without warning.
She sits out on the balcony of Asami's apartment, watches the lights of cars and trains passing below. She seems to like it out there, especially in the evening, when the city lights are switched on. The sight of her there is an echo of the day Asami moved in, but the scene has a more subdued mood.
"Something on your mind?" she asks, and Korra starts, as though she'd forgotten where she was. Possibly she had; who knew, the Avatar's mind could end up in all sorts of places.
"No, nothing," Korra says, so hesitantly that it definitely means yes.
"Hmm," Asami says. She sits down carefully beside Korra, smoothing her skirt under her, curling herself against the railings. "What sort of nothing?"
Korra looks at her, wide-eyed. "Uh, I... what if I'm no good? I mean, if we just keep meeting people with problems I can't solve?"
"No-one can solve all the problems," Asami says, lays her hand on Korra's head, strokes her hair lightly as though she was the polar bear dog puppy she kind of resembles right now. "Haven't you read the stories about you?"
"Oh," Korra says, gives her a sheepish look, "um, I guess."
"There you go," Asami says. "You'll work it out. I mean, you've worked it out before, haven't you?"
"Yeah," Korra says, and sighs.
It wasn't the right answer, Asami thinks, but she doesn't actually know what the right answer would have been.
She thinks, though, that Korra is going to be fine.
Morning, bright and clear but not warm, sees them on the road.
Republic City falls away behind them as the car climbs, winding its way up and down through the eastern mountain pass. Beside her, Korra can't decide whether to stare up into the mountains or back down at the city as it slides in and out of view behind the first of the peaks.
A van follows them at a discreet distance, with their escort and Naga, who actually broke three doors trying to get to the cars the day before and completely freaked Korra out. Asami wonders how many of the Order are actually comfortable behind the wheel, and resists the urge to test their limits. It wouldn't be very kind to Naga, and it definitely wouldn't be a very appropriate way to start their journey.
But she entertains the idea of racing over the pass for a while anyway, just as a thought. Korra would enjoy it, anyway.
She can hardly believe they're really on their way.
"Just over there is where I used to go skiing when I was little," she says, and nods to their right, over toward the road which winds up to the resort. She can just make out part of the roof of the lodge.
"There?" Korra says incredulously. "Why would you skii up there? It's all..." She makes a gesture with her hand to indicate a slope.
"Downhill skiing?" Asami tries.
Korra gives her a strange look. "Skiing's just how you get to the next village. I mean, if you don't have a polar bear dog."
Asami can only laugh. "I guess it's a different kind. I think you'd like it though." She glances at Korra with a smile, shifts her eyes back to the road. "Fast, pointless, full of danger and excitement..."
"We-ell," Korra concedes, "when you put it like that..."
And then they're over the highest point of the pass, and Korra falls silent, staring out at the expanse of land in front of them. They'll still be in the United Republic for a while, but up here in the clear cold air without a cloud in the sky they can see right out across the north-western Earth Kingdom. Other mountain ranges rise in the hazy distance, and from their north a single set of railroad tracks swings around in a wide arc to snake away into the north-east in a long unbroken line. Asami thinks that she can just faintly make out the tall pillars of the twin union bridges - but they must be days away still, even if they don't stop. She might be imagining it.
"Wow," Korra says breathlessly, and Asami wonders how it looks to her -- wonders whether Korra really is as sheltered as she sometimes seems, or if it's just the difference between knowing about parts of the world in theory and really seeing them.
That she’s the one who gets to take Korra out into the world is a warm feeling that twists through her whole body.
They stop mid-afternoon on the lower slopes to let Naga out; she rolls around on the bare ground as though it's the very best thing she's ever seen, and sniffs everything three times and then sneezes at her driver, but mostly she wants Korra's attention. A polar bear dog that wants attention isn't, it turns out, an easy thing to ignore.
"I think I'd better take her for a quick run," Korra says with a grin, pushing the gigantic nose out from under her arm for the tenth time in a minute. "You want to come?"
"Why don't you two run beside the car for a while?" Asami offers. "If we can keep going we can get to a good hotel by evening. There's nothing much to see here."
Korra shrugs. "Works for me, I guess. Aren't you tired though?"
"We should stop for a while," one of the White Lotus representatives points out. Asami thinks he may be the one who's called Toru, but she isn't sure, which is vaguely embarrassing. "You've spent hours driving already."
In the end they stop, and Asami stretches her legs and watches Korra and Naga bounding between outcrops of rock. She can hear Korra yelling in excitement.
There is no rush, she reminds herself. This is, more than a tightly-organised business trip, a chance for Korra to meet her world. The things that she needs could be anywhere. They're taking the long road that leads to Ba Sing Se, but that doesn't mean the aim is to get there as fast as possible.
It's not a kind of travel she's ever done before. She wonders how long it will take her to relax into it. If she will be able to.
"Hey, look," Korra says, "that must be..." she studies the map carefully, "that must be New Port Town?"
"Yes," Asami agrees. "I think so."
Here, two rivers meet. There's been a port here for a long time, but a modest one; it's the arrival of the railroad and the improvement of the roads across the continent that have really helped this town grow.
For the last fifty miles they've been approaching it through thick forests, driving parallel to the railroad tracks. Every now and then they can hear the rhythmic thundering of a steam engine through the trees; otherwise they'd never know the tracks were there at all. Now, at last, the landscape has opened up, the ground sloping down towards the river criss-crossed with fencing denoting field boundaries, and the road running clean through the middle of it down to the bridges that will take them into the first real town they've come to.
"Hey," Korra shouts out the window of the car, leaning out to wave at a man pushing a cart along by the side of the road, "do you know somewhere good to stay in town?"
Asami slows the car to let the man see who's shouting at him; he's looking a little baffled. But the realisation dawns.
"The avatar," he says, wide-eyed, "I, ah, uhm, I am honoured..."
This is already a familiar sight to Asami at this point. She wonders why Korra keeps trying the same tactics, as though someone will eventually think she's just any girl asking for directions. Of course people know what you look like, she's explained patiently to Korra. There are photographs and portraits. You're the avatar.
Maybe it isn't so much that Korra doesn't realise that people will know she's the avatar as that she constantly underestimates how awkward it makes people feel. They aren't in Republic City any more; people don't go for putting up a bored and unimpressed front so much out here.
She leans over to come to the man's rescue.
"I'm sorry, you don't need to. But if you could tell us where the council house is?" She smiles, and hopes that a more neutral request will go better. It seems to help.
"Oh! The big building on the main square, just turn right at the statue."
"Thank you," she says, and makes her smile even sweeter.
They drive on.
"Really, Korra," she adds, once they're out of earshot. "You're going to give some poor old man a heart attack one day. They probably think that if you give them directions to somewhere you don't like then you'll come back and burn down their house."
"Huh," Korra says.
Asami can imagine that there would have been a lot more protest at that idea before the revolution. She wonders suddenly if she ought to have said anything at all, or if she's just kicking a bruise.
They don't have any problems finding the statue. It's slightly taller than all the surrounding houses and is not so much a representation of a person as an entire scene. In the square in front of them, in slightly larger than life size and distinctly dubious artistic quality, Avatar Aang is taking away Fire Lord Ozai's bending.
There's an uncomfortable silence in the car.
"We had to go right, I think?" Asami says, at length.
"Yep," Korra agrees. Both of them look awkwardly away from the statue.
The roads in the town are narrow and cobbled, and Asami lets the car creep forwards slowly to give people time to get out of the way. This isn't a place where there are a lot of vehicles; presumably most people just go to the pump by the railroad station and move on. And while she doesn't necessarily know that much about how people live outside of the major cities, she has figures on automobile sales, including those of her rivals. Any cars here definitely don't belong to average locals.
"Here we are," she says, and pulls in as well out of the way as she can beside the building which must be the seat of local government, such as it is. "You should probably let them know you're in town."
"I don't know, can't I just introduce myself to a bathroom?" Korra says, but she seems pretty energetic when she hops out of the passenger seat. "Yeah, I know. Come on."
Asami gets out a little more slowly, feeling the knots in her shoulders from hours at the wheel. The part of her that didn't want to stop at first has seen the error of its ways. They can take as many rests as Naga could possibly want.
By the time she feels like her spine has straightened itself out, Korra has already started up the steps into the building. She hurries to catch up. She's a little too slow.
"Avatar Korra!" someone is already exclaiming. "Please make yourself welcome. And your, uh, your,"
"Friend," Korra finishes, "Asami Sato."
Is that a slight flush Asami sees on the face of the clerk? Did he think she was staff? It's a new experience, this: that people don't have that look of instant recognition when they see her. Here she can be no-one, if she likes; now it's only Korra who is Someone.
"Man," Korra says, sprawling fully-clothed on her back across her bed, "I thought they'd never stop talking."
"It was kind of them to welcome us so thoroughly," Asami says diplomatically, but can't stop her lips from quirking as Korra stares dubiously. "Oh, fine, me neither."
"Let's look around the town tomorrow," Korra says, grins up at her. "I want to see what it's like. Did you see they didn't have a telephone at the reception?"
"Of course we can look around," Asami says. "You decide, remember?"
"I don't know if Tenzin would agree with you," Korra tells her. "But too bad, he isn't here."
It's still dark when Asami wakes up. Someone is moving around in the room, trying not to make any noise so pointedly that they might as well be stomping.
"Korra?" she mumbles.
"Sorry!" Korra says guiltily. "Go back to sleep."
"What're you doing?"
"Just going to go for a walk," Korra says.
Or whispers. They're both whispering, which is ridiculous; they're the only people in the room; no-one is sleeping. But something about the stillness of the night and the darkness of the room seems to demand it.
Asami reaches out for the lamp beside the bed, fumbles after the switch for a while before remembering it runs on gas. She sighs, considers hunting the matches and settles for staring at the shadowy outline of Korra. "Is everything alright?"
She thinks that Korra shrugs. "It's nothing."
The tone is unfortunately familiar. "It doesn't sound like nothing."
Asami gives up on sleep. "Well, then, I suppose I'm taking a walk with you."
She gets up, feels her way to the door where her coat is hanging, pulls it on over her pyjamas. Behind her, Korra finally produces a little ball of fire, moves around to let them both see what they're doing.
“Thank goodness,” Asami mutters, and Korra, still tense and fidgety, flashes her a quick grin all the same.
They stop by the statue. Asami wishes she could be surprised.
"I did this," Korra says, staring up at the scene. "I started it. Ozai and Yakone. I've read all the stories and it sounded great but I kinda..." she shrugs, "I wonder if I was right, I guess? Maybe it would've been kinder to just... you know."
Asami can't imagine. She doesn't know what it feels like to be a bender, or to be a bender who can't bend any more. She knows something about loss, but she isn't sure if it's the same thing.
She wants to say, Avatar Aang followed his principles, but you get to decide what your principles are, right? But she can't even pretend to know what she's talking about, to know how being the Avatar works.
She can already hear in her head how tentative the words would sound, a confused teenager trying to be smart and deep.
She feels a sudden wave of sympathy for Sokka, remembers her mother reading aloud to her, doing the voices; that's Avatar stuff.
"You saved the world," she says, lays her hand on Korra's arm. "That wasn't wrong."
Korra starts to reach for her, stops, smiles awkwardly. "Thanks, Asami."
Asami wonders for the rest of the night what that aborted motion was going to be.
They're just deciding that it's time to move on when the telegrams start arriving. Word has spread.
"Look at this," Korra says. "Everyone wants help. Here's a farming village with a bad harvest that they think is because a spirit is angry. And another one about a family argument. A landslide. And here, someone wants me to help them with marketing. And an invitation to dinner from a guy who says he met me once." She looks overwhelmed.
"Here," Asami says, back on firm ground for the first time in ages. "We can sort through them. Reasonable requests in this pile, rubbish over there. Then we go through the reasonable ones and work out which ones you can help with and which ones someone else should take care of. If there are ones you can't decide about, put them in their own pile here. We can always pay places a visit without promising any help, right?"
"Oh!" Korra says, as though it really hadn't occurred to her. "That's... really smart."
"I've done this before," Asami says with a smile. She still hasn't accepted the repeated offers - orders, really - to have someone else sort her post for her, although the hate-letters are becoming rather dull. Sooner or later principles will have to give way to personal wellbeing, but she's a bit afraid of what else might get sorted away and hidden from her.
There are, to start with, fifteen separate requests for Korra's attendance at parties.
"I don't have to, right?" Korra says, staring at them. "I mean..."
"It's going to be like this everywhere, I think," Asami says. "You couldn't go to all of them even if you wanted to, right?"
"I guess not," Korra says, and gives her a brighter smile than she's shown at any point in the rest of this process. "I'm glad you're here."
Asami has to duck her head to hide her blush. All she did was say what she thought.
By the time any of their escort check up on them they've made their plans. A few more nights in the town, maps marked with paths through the forest.
"Come on, girl," Korra calls. Naga doesn't need to be told twice, leaps out in a wild sprawl and is in such a hurry to help Korra put her saddle on that it takes twice as long as usual. Korra can't stop laughing at her.
"Yeah, I'm sorry," she says. "But we're going on a trip now. No cars or anything. You'll like it."
They head north-west, following the banks of one of the rivers, before veering up into the forest again. The woodland here is thick and dark and coniferous, crowding in around the road and setting shadows between them and the morning sun; the air smells of resin and moss, and it's clean in a way that Republic City has already forgotten air can be. The road itself is unpaved, earth and grass still damp with dew, ruts left by wagons rather than automobiles. Naga’s paws sink deep into the muddy ground, wiping out the tracks of the animals that must pull the carts, human footprints, traces of wild animals Asami can’t begin to identify.
She leans in close to Korra, presses herself to her back and wraps her arms around her, feels how muscular she is. It's a different feeling of speed to sitting in a car, and she loves it too, loves how sure Korra is when she's riding Naga. But she also knows she isn't any kind of expert at how you stay on a polar bear dog, and Korra doesn't make any allowances, just assumes that her passenger will cope with her usual wild pace. Asami can't say what it is about it that makes excitement flutter through her, but she takes the feeling and holds onto it, thinks maybe this is one of those perfect moments you'll remember years later and never be able to explain.
You can hardly see a village before you come to it through the trees, and the smell of wood-smoke is the first thing that tells them there's someone living or working nearby, only moments before they find themselves right on the edge of a little settlement.
Naga more or less skids to a halt in front of the first house they come to, sniffing hopefully.
"I don't think it's for you, girl," Korra says, pats her on the neck. "We'll get you something else."
She vaults down over Naga's head, reaches up to help Asami get down by the more conventional route. Naga, considerate today, lowers herself down to help out.
"Hey," Korra calls, as Asami returns to solid ground, "anyone home?"
She only seems to realise that she still has Asami's hand when a woman appears in the doorway of the house, drops it hurriedly with a quick little grin of apology and bounds forward to introduce herself.
Asami has no idea why Korra should be apologetic. She also has no idea what Korra means when she says she isn't good at being social. This is a situation Asami wouldn't have a clue what to do with - in fact, without Korra, it'd never have occurred to her to stop and just say hello to people like this. But Korra and this stranger are already chatting away; they seem to have got past the bowing and exclaiming stage fast.
Asami comes forward and lets herself be introduced, polite smiles and kind words by rote.
"Jia was just telling me about the river," Korra says. "They cut trees and send them down the river to the coast in big rafts! Jia and her sisters used to travel on the rafts. Isn't that cool?"
The woman nods amiably. "We all did, in turns. Of course, when I was very young it was quite dangerous." she smiles. "At least I have a lot of stories!"
"Ohh, before the war ended?" Korra says.
"Yes, I worked for a few years before the end. I suppose I must have been about the same age as the... as Avatar Aang's friends."
They stay for tea before moving on. Jia and Korra swap stories; they could probably do it for hours. Jia even laughs at Korra's bad jokes, possibly not even just because she's the Avatar.
Korra, Asami thinks again, is going to be fine.
She wonders if she will be too.
Eventually they meet the river again, and a more substantial village - or at least parts of what must have been a more substantial village. The land here is low, and the fields that lie on the strip of open land between the forest and the river have at one time been protected by high earth embankments, now collapsed; the water has flooded in.
It's made it as far as about half of the houses. A few have fallen; the water must have made the ground unstable, Asami supposes. There's no sign of any substantial attempt at repairs.
Korra whistles. "That's not good."
They make their way around the edge of the flood, Naga sniffing suspiciously at debris along the way.
There are fewer people than the number of houses would suggest. Asami is, at first, afraid of what that might mean. But the reason the people are gone turns out not to have anything to do with this most recent catastrophe.
"What is there for young people here?" one woman says. "They know they can get better jobs in the big towns. My daughter works at a hotel in New Port, by the railroad. And my son has gone all the way to Republic City. He wanted to become a metalbender." She shakes her head. "He sends money, but I have no idea how he's doing. It's the same story for most people here. We don't have anything modern, so of course our children want to go."
The town has one earthbender. He must be at least ninety years old.
"I threw my back out trying to make the embankment hold in the first place," he says, tired and vaguely apologetic. "I don't know what I can do. We've called for help, but the weather was so bad this winter, I just don't think there's the resources for them to get around to everyone."
"It's OK," Korra says, lays a hand on his shoulder. "You did your best, right? And I can fix this."
She looks calm. It's a problem that's well within her powers. At least, the most immediate part of it.
The water rolls back in front of her. She pulls it up out of the ground itself, draws it and pushes it, one step after another. Her stance is perfectly controlled; when Korra is focused on bending like this Asami feels like she hardly knows her. It's a glimpse of something that usually lives deep under the surface. This is what Korra—not what Korra is, she refuses to think that, but what Korra believes herself to be. The foundation of her identity.
Beyond the remains of the embankment the water becomes a wall of ice, giving Korra space to work unhindered by the flow of the still-high river.
And bit by bit the embankment rises, solidifies, becomes whole and stable.
Beside Asami, people start to cheer.
"Wow," Korra says, "that was a great workout. I'm starving."
Asami knows she doesn't mean it as a hint; Korra is already rooting through their own bags. But she can also see the ripples of reaction as people draw their conclusions.
"Uh..." she says.
Korra looks up. "Huh? Oh! No, I didn't mean..."
The woman with the aspiring metalbender son laughs. "I didn't think you did, but I'm going to have to insist anyway. We're not starving. And it looks as though it may stay that way a while longer thanks to you. Just don't expect too much!"
It's late before they return to town. Asami expects a repeat of Korra's usual rapid evening collapse, but instead of just throwing herself full length on the bed and sleeping before she's even under the covers, Korra sits there, watching Asami doing her paperwork and going through her correspondence.
"So," Korra says.
Asami looks up. "Hmm?"
But Korra doesn't say anything more. She shakes her head, awkward.
"Go on," Asami says. "You can talk."
"I don't know," Korra says. "Um. I mean. I'm just wondering about stuff, it's kind of vague."
"That's fine," Asami says, "you don't have to find the perfect words, Korra."
Korra shrugs. "Well. Do you think it's like that everywhere? Like that village, with everyone our age leaving."
"I really don't know," Asami says. "I don't know everything about the world either. Maybe that's something you can find out?"
"Yeah. I just hadn't thought about it like that before I guess. I know people come to Republic City from all over, but..."
"Mm," Asami agrees. "But it isn't that surprising, is it?"
"I guess not," Korra says.
And then she throws herself down on the bed and sleeps, just as if they weren't talking about anything out of the ordinary at all.
She can sleep like a tiger sloth. It's ridiculous.
The trees swallow them again, close their world down to a road and a wall of green and one narrow strip of blue sky.
"Hey, can I drive?" Korra says.
Asami raises an eyebrow. "You tried to wrap my poor car around a lamp post last time."
"Aw, come on, parking's hard," Korra says. "No lamp posts out here, anyway!"
"Plenty of trees, though," Asami points out.
But the road here is straight and broad and empty. There are worse places for Korra to learn to drive, she supposes, and realises that she's falling victim to Korra's powers of persuasion again. She doesn't even know what it is that Korra does. She just is, and then Asami wants to do nice things for her.
"I'll be careful," Korra says hopefully. "And I'll do what you say."
Asami has her doubts on both points, but brushes them off. "Fine," she says, pulling slowly over to the side of the road, bringing the car to a standstill and switching off the engine so they can switch places. "You remember where they keys go, right?"
Korra is a long way from becoming a good driver, but she takes an obvious delight in it that's actually kind of infectious. It's almost enough to make Asami stop worrying about the state of the car's gearbox.
"You have to listen to the engine," she says patiently. "Hear how it's struggling? You need to go up a gear. Lift your foot gently..."
The car chokes and stutters in protest at Korra's timing, but they somehow make it into fourth gear. Asami's hand covers Korra's on the gear stick, guides it right; after the first time she hit reverse instead of third it seems like a good idea.
She would like to take her gloves off and let her fingers brush against the back of Korra's hand. But that couldn't be excused as instruction. What am I doing, she wonders. But she knows.
There's a gas station in what looks like the middle of nowhere, and they stop gratefully, refuel, stretch their legs. They share water from Korra's canteen, and stand together, leaning against the warm metal of the car's bonnet in the early afternoon sun. The White Lotus group keep to their own huddle, talking together and passing around food and drink.
"I wonder what they think of me," Asami says, shielding her eyes as she looks over at their van. "I'm a strange choice for this, aren't I?"
"No," Korra says fiercely. "You're the perfect choice. Quit it." Her elbows are hard and bony, but the jab Asami gets to her side isn't hard, more like mime.
"From their point of view, though," Asami says, laughing. "I'm not even a bender."
"Like that matters," Korra says, and then falls silent, frowns. "Um... You don't think it matters, do you?"
"I don't think I'm useless, if that's what you mean," Asami says, with a mental apology to late-night doubts and insecurities. "I know I can do plenty without bending. But I wonder if everyone else knows, sometimes."
"Oh," Korra says.
She gives the keys back to Asami, and stays thoughtful for hours.
The pillars of the Union Bridges come into sight before the bridges themselves, towering spires of stone that dominate the landscape. Asami has never seen them like this; she's never travelled long-distance by road before. There's always been private airships. She crossed them once by train at three in the morning and didn't even know it, slept through the entire thing, cocooned in the comforting clatter of steel on steel.
The bridges are legendary, a cooperative project between benders from different nations to create a land route from Republic City all the way to Ba Sing Se; they span an improbable distance across the earth kingdom's greatest river, which all but splits east from west. A road and the transcontinental railroad run side by side above the wide sluggish water, suspended on miles of cabling from the spires; part necessity but mostly an enthusiastic show put on by some of the first metalbenders.
When they see the whole structure for the first time, Korra’s mouth actually falls open, and Asami would rather like to follow suit.
There's more traffic here than they've met anywhere on their journey, everyone bottlenecked in to the one way to take a car across the sea without paying extra for a ferry. By the side of the road they start to see hopeful travellers without cars, trying to beg an extra seat and make the crossing that way.
Korra focuses in on an extra colourful group. "Hey, they look like some of Kya's friends," she says. "Pull over."
They turn out to be nomads; a woman and a man who seem to be in their twenties, and an older man. They're not the people Korra thought, but she doesn't seem to mind.
"You're heading over the bridge, right?" she asks anyway. "Want a lift?"
"Thanks!" the woman says. "We wouldn't be in a hurry, it’s so bad for you. Only we have someone to meet on the other side..."
It must be cramped in the back of the car, which is already stuffed with all of their luggage, but no-one seems to mind. Asami also seems to be the only one who feels a bit apprehensive when musical instruments are produced.
Korra just leans back in her seat and grins up at them upside-down. "You know the secret tunnel song?"
"Everyone asks that," the older man says. Then he grins back. "It's my favourite!"
Asami isn't sure she'll ever understand Korra's trust, how easily she can just pick up strangers like this. Maybe it's because she knows she's powerful, doesn't have to be afraid. She doubts anyone has ever thought to tell Korra to avoid walking home by herself late at night. They're more worried about her challenging people to duels.
Asami's father would never have let her talk to strangers when she was this far from home.
She uses the thought as reinforcement.
"Everyone settled?" she asks, smiles, pulls her goggles back down over her eyes. "We're heading over."
The open air around them makes it feel completely different to the mountain passes she's driven over before, and the height makes it different from any other bridge; they've left the world far below, as though they flew. Asami has to hold the wheel hard against the tug of the wind, its constant attempts to sweep them with it against the railings and between the suspension cables and onward out over the water. She drives faster, pushes the engine as hard as it'll go up the final rise, holds on for her life, feels the rush of exhilaration take her as they reach the long flat stretch that will take them most of the way, straight as a desert road.
Their passengers sing encouraging songs all the way down, and cheer them when Asami brings the car to a gentle halt on solid ground. Encouraging songs really aren't Asami's thing, but she tries to take it with good grace; making a scene will probably just upset Korra anyway. It's lucky that her concentration is good. Of course, she's survived driving Korra, Mako and Bolin around while fighting equalists, so this isn't actually so bad in the greater scheme of things.
"I hope you find your friend," she says politely as Korra helps the nomads take their bags out of the car again.
"Yeah, well, whatever," the younger man says, grins toothily. "It's not such a big deal, we'll, like, find her if we're meant to."
"If you say so," Asami says, and hopes she doesn't sound too doubtful. The woman’s expression conveys a certain scepticism at the statement, and Asami smiles sympathetically at her.
No-one seems to notice, anyway.
Korra stands up in the car as they begin to drive away, waving back and shouting good luck wishes; Asami has to grab her belt and pull her down again. She could easily have resisted, but she lets herself fall beside Asami, laughing and breathless; for just a moment she has one arm slung around Asami's neck, her chest pressed against Asami's shoulder. Then she pulls herself away and slumps down into her seat, laughing.
Asami could hardly have driven like that, anyway. As it is she feels shaky, unsteady; tightens her hands on the wheel.
"That was dangerous," she says.
"Whatever," says Korra, laughing, "I'm the avatar. I won't fall and I won't let us crash."
Bravado is one way to cover uncertainty, isn't it?
“You say that,” Asami murmurs.
“Yeah,” says Korra, laughter threaded through her words. “I sure do.”
They drive south by the river to find the western lake, and skirt its shore for days. The Ba Sing Se road has swung further north, holding itself to the feet of the northern mountains before turning to face the city; the roads here are small and often only dirt, testing the satomobile’s suspension to the limit, dusty and muddy by turns. But Korra and Asami are in agreement: the Ba Sing Se road is driving them slowly insane. There's never anything but trees and gas stations; the villages hold themselves out of its way as though they're afraid of it. Although of course that's a confusion of cause and effect -- the road was simply built to run past people's lives instead of right through them.
All the same.
"We can't get lost," Korra argues with the White Lotus. "We're going to Ba Sing Se, how stupid do you think we'd have to be to actually miss it?"
All roads lead to Ba Sing Se, Asami thinks. Although only if you travel the right way along them which, with Korra holding the map, is not in fact a given. Somewhere along the line, though, she’s stopped caring. Pretending that there’s nothing but the two of them and the road is perhaps not healthy, but she can’t let it go.
Eventually their escort gives in. They're increasingly resigned. Korra's insistence on solitary field trips on Naga are probably in direct breach of the orders they've received, but Asami can hardly blame them for not putting up more of a fight; at this point they're probably glad that the Avatar is still heading roughly east.
Asami thinks she might be going mad. Korra is always so close. There is something intensely intimate about the way they’re living now, a feeling that should be claustrophobia but isn’t quite. They usually share rooms; it’s something that just happened, some kind of blithe assumption that Korra is making that Asami doesn’t quite understand but isn’t interested in questioning. They drive together, ride together.
Korra sweeps her along. Sometimes she feels as though she can hardly breathe. A sudden smile can bring her up short, twist something in her stomach.
She cannot give voice to what the feeling is, but she finds that she has to name it. It is want.
They stop for the night at a fishing village, a little cluster of houses on a cliff-top overlooking the lake. There isn't an inn, but the families have a bed here and a blanket there. They find space, Korra and Asami on mats and blankets in the back room of a family home at the centre of the settlement, White Lotus members in surrounding buildings. It has taken an extensive argument to not kick anyone out of their room for the night, but this particular piece of negotiation is something Korra has finally got the hang of.
After dinner Asami finds Korra siting on the cliff-edge and staring out into the night, across the darkness of the lake. The distant Serpent's Pass is a darker undulating ridge at the foot of the starry sky.
For a second Asami is horribly, irrationally afraid; she thinks of other cliff-edges on other days, things she saw and things she only heard about, and is shocked at the way her chest tightens at the thought.
But she's being unnecessary. The atmosphere is only thoughtful.
"Hey, Asami," Korra says, though Asami has only seen the back of her head so far.
"You've got good at seeing through the earth, haven't you?" Asami says, and sits down beside her.
"I don't know if I'll ever beat Lin though," Korra says, grins. "She's going to kick my arse when we get home, I've been slacking."
"You can train properly in Ba Sing Se," Asami says. "I'm sure they have great places to work out."
"Mm," Korra says.
She shifts closer, draws her legs up and leans back against Asami's shoulder. Asami tries not to freeze, not to give any signal of rejection, even as she wonders what Korra is actually doing. It is an impossibility, this kind of easy contact, deliberate, no rocking car to throw Korra against her, no flimsy excuse about gears. As though the gulf-like space between people hardly existed at all. How can Korra be so relaxed?
Korra takes Asami's hand, lifts it as though studying her fingers. But she doesn't do anything more, doesn't say anything.
Asami is the one who breaks the silence.
"I feel so small out here," she says, shivers a little; it's still early in the year, and the nights are not warm, although she knows that Korra finds them mild.
"Really?" Korra says. "It kind of makes me feel like a part of something big."
"That's because you are," Asami says, wonders if they’re thinking of the same things at all.
"You too, though," Korra insists, and worms her way closer. "You're changing the world. You have ideas. I don't even know what the world needs from me."
She makes it sound like a statement of fact.
"You'll find out."
A stifled sigh. "The world isn't really how I thought," Korra says.
"I'm learning too, you know." She takes her hand back and tugs gently at Korra's pony-tail. Tries not to let Korra feel how her hand shakes. Just easy affection.
There is nothing easy about it.
It has always been easier than this, to like someone, at least in the beginning; but of course, there's never been a person who is so intense as Korra. It is easier to begin, she realises, when you don't really know that you can be hurt.
"No fucking way," Korra says, laughing, worming her way closer. "You're perfect."
"If you say so," Asami says, murmurs the words against Korra's hair, tentatively breathes her in.
"I do," Korra says, and Asami is sure she's grinning, looking carefree.
She wonders again what Korra is doing. Not as the Avatar, but as this girl who's sitting here with her now.
She wonders if Korra wants her. Or if Korra is just such a physical person that she doesn't place the boundaries for friendly contact in the same places as Asami does. If she's just so impulsive that she does things like this without reflecting over them. She realises she doesn't know, can't even guess.
"Korra," she says, and her voice catches.
Korra turns and looks up at her with eyes that are suddenly as wide and nervous as Asami feels like her own are, pauses as if searching for something. In Asami, in herself?
“Oh,” Korra says. “I…”
She takes a deep breath, lets it go. She’s so close that Asami can feel it against her own lips.
“Korra,” Asami says again, lost.
“What would,” Korra says, falters. “I mean. If I…” She can’t seem to find words either. But Korra isn’t about words. Not really.
Her hands are cupping Asami’s face, and Asami has no idea how they got there.
Then Korra is kissing her, inelegant and hurried and headlong, as though she’ll lose her courage if she hesitates for a second.
Asami, dizzily aroused and desperately confused, can only lean into it and hold on.
“Oh,” Korra says again when they pull apart.
Panic begins somewhere deep in Asami's stomach and presses its way up under her ribcage, winds itself around her lungs. But Korra hasn't pulled back entirely, so she holds it down as well as she can.
"Was that bad?" she says carefully.
"No," Korra says. "Um. No! Really no. I'm just a bit, um."
Her hand tightens around Asami's, and Asami focuses on that.
"Can we maybe walk a bit?" Korra asks.
"Sure," Asami says, and is glad when Korra doesn't let go of her hand.
"I just... don't know what I'm doing," Korra says as they move further away from the houses, from anyone who might be listening, and take themselves deeper into the night. "I mean with anything, I guess... but, um. I really like you. I just, there's all this stuff I've already fucked up for you, I don't know..."
And there it is, the thing they've been avoiding. They haven't actually talked about Mako since they started talking again at all, though Asami sees him around sometimes and assumes that Korra does too, since she and Bolin are such good friends.
"You did some silly things," Asami tells her gently. "Mako should have told you off. Or broken up with me then, if that was what he wanted." She sighs. "I did like him. He was there at the right time, I suppose -- but Korra, you didn't destroy my life's great love for me or anything like that. I've liked plenty of people." I like you, she thinks; maybe I love you, but it would be too much to say right now. Or perhaps she's just too cautious.
"I really thought I loved him," Korra says, "and then it... it wasn't what I expected."
"Hey," Asami says, "it's fine."
It isn't really fine, she knows. Korra is looking so confused and so guilty, and trying so hard not to. Something has shaken her; maybe a lot of things. But it could be fine, couldn’t it. There's no reason why not.
"I used to think I knew how everything worked," Korra says, laughs, sounding kind of strained. "And then I came to Republic City."
"Hey," Asami says, with all the wry humour she can summon, "it could happen to anyone. I used to know how everything worked and then it turned out my father was an equalist."
This is the real wound, whatever Korra fears. Mako's behaviour rubbed salt in it. But she'd have brushed it off and told him to get lost in any other circumstances. It was hardly the first time she'd seen a boy be an idiot. Or a girl.
It was just the first time she'd known what it was like to feel trapped in a situation, trapped with someone who'd rather be somewhere else.
They keep walking. Asami glances back towards the now-distant village lights, back to Korra's shadow-covered face, her half-hidden expression.
"I don't ever want to hurt you again," Korra says.
"That's too much, you can't be perfect."
Korra hunches her shoulders. "I know. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
For some reason that makes the anxiety let go; it vanishes, leaves Asami feeling light, almost giddy. She doesn't even quite understand why, but she has to laugh -- at Korra's stubbornness, at herself, at the two of them still dancing around the biggest words in the dark.
"What's so funny?" Korra says.
"Us," Asami gasps, and leans down to kiss Korra, strokes a surprisingly steady hand over her hair. "Let's stop being idiots. Do you want a relationship with me, or do you kiss all your friends?"
She would like to believe that she's managed to make Korra blush, but really, in the dark, she has no way of knowing for sure. She suspects it, though.
It's quite nearly satisfying. An answer, though, would be better.
"The first one," Korra says eventually, so quietly that Asami could miss it if she wasn't so completely focused on Korra, if the night wasn't so still, "I think. But this wasn't what I planned, I wasn't going to just... I was going to do it properly. When I was sure."
"That wouldn't be like you," Asami says, smiling with affection and relief. "You don't have to be sure. It's enough if we just try, right?"
Korra laughs, reaches up for her again. And it’s almost easy.
They have to creep back into the house, crawl down under blankets, side by side but not touching. There is no kind of privacy here. Asami wants, wants, wants, but it’s not the moment.
She lies and watches the outline of Korra under her blankets before she manages to fall asleep, feeling cautiously after the shape of a whole new possible future that she might, after all, be able to reach.
Soon they'll be in Ba Sing Se. It's making Korra restless; they have a hard time making her stop to sleep on the last night. It's only Asami's protest over tiredness that gets through; Korra knows damn well that she isn't going to be allowed to drive the satomobile by herself.
"Fine," she says, "but we're getting up early."
This is a serious statement for Korra, Asami has to admit; there have been plenty of days so far when Korra would, if left to her own devices, probably not have been conscious before lunch time.
"It'll still be there tomorrow," she tells Korra, laughing.
"You don't know that," Korra tells her, eyes glinting with amusement.
"I think I'll take my chances," Asami says, and lets Korra mock-wrestle her down onto the bedcovers, kisses her fiercely, fingers digging hard into her hips. Korra's thigh presses between Asami's and Asami arches against it. Wants. Groans as Korra grinds against her, pulls at her clothes; doesn’t even think to be embarrassed at how her fingers slip and fumble.
The city is, as predicted, still there.
No longer the closed world of the stories, filled with everyone without a home, Ba Sing Se is still huge and proud. The outer walls block the city itself from view on their approach, block out everything; they might as well be a wall across the whole world. Pulling in through the great gates is an experience in itself, like driving through a canyon. And on the other side, the city.
The inner walls are no longer the edge of the inhabited city. Now in peace-time the city has spilled out beyond them, districts the size of Republic City pushing out into former farmland and parks.
As a small girl Asami spent a week in the city with both her parents, their last holiday together. She's only ever remembered it vaguely; it's overshadowed by what followed a month later. But the sight of the walls and the new buildings that seem almost to be trying to climb them brings up a wave of long-buried memories, more vivid than she could have believed; her mother pointing out of the train window, telling her stories about the people who lived in the houses - making up stories on the spot sometimes, maybe, but she believed them in their entirety. Sitting on her father's shoulders as they walked down the wide drive of a green and gold villa, the last house at the edge of the city. The smell of jasmine in the evening and the murmur of adult voices on the terrace behind her as she explored the garden. Damp earth under her fingers.
Korra, staring in open amazement, doesn't disturb her thoughts; but Asami tries to shake it off, to place her attention on the road. There's traffic here, but they stand out - the only satomobile in sight.
She can feel her world expanding again, spiralling out from the two of them to encompass cities and politics and business, demands and responsibilities. Ba Sing Se is the centre of its own world, and it pulls her out of herself, forces her back into a different reality.
But Korra is still beside her. She still stands close when they take a break, arm pressed warm to Asami’s side as they look up at the inner wall.
“Ready?” Korra says.
Asami smiles. “I don’t know about that.”
“Hey,” Korra says, laughs. Hidden from their escort by the body of the satomobile, her fingers curl on Asami’s thigh. “Relax. It’s just another adventure.”