"You want to drive?"
Korra glanced up at the passenger side door. Seeing Korra in that position, framed in the setting sun, filled Asami with the distinct sensation of déjà vu.
Korra tapped the door with a finger. "This thing looks way too nice to almost crash."
Asami laughed. She jiggled her keys in her hand as she walked over to the driver's side. It wasn't worth making Korra uncomfortable today.
"You did a good job with that truck earlier."
"Yay," Korra murmured unenthusiastically. "I remembered which pedal was the brake."
Instead of opening the door to get in, Korra vaulted over the door. They both laughed at her decision. Korra caught Asami's pointed look, rolled her eyes, and pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder.
The engine turned over smoothly, and Asami took half a second to appreciate the warm purr of her machine before she put it in gear and eased away from the discomfort of her old home. Custom-built, custom-painted, still with the exterior she'd designed as a fourteen year old. She'd been offered an exorbitant sum of money for this car, but she wasn't selling. Asami glanced at Korra running her hands over the komodo-rhino leather interior, her hair fluttering back in the strong wind from the open top. Never selling.
They'd had no real time to talk, not with the Wu fiasco nor while scarfing down dinner in the company of Mako's curious extended family. Asami wasn't ignorant of the fact that Korra hadn't answered her question about the Avatar state. They needed to talk, but she felt awkward about her earlier blow-up. It wasn't like her to feel so defensive.
Apparently the same subject was on Korra's mind. She turned in her seat and said, "Look, I'm sorry about what I said about your father. I didn't mean to sound like I was questioning your judgment. I just remembered how hard it was on you when he betrayed you the first time."
Asami bristled at 'the first time', which implied a second would follow. She forced herself to calm down and consider the meaning, not the implication. An unexpected red light gave her time to turn over a few inadequate responses in her mind. Then she made up her mind. Instead of the left to go to ferry docks, Asami turned right.
"I need a drink if we're going to have this conversation," Asami explained.
"I'm not exactly a big fan of bars. Last time I was in one, I got beat up."
That sounded like an interesting story. "My apartment has better alcohol than any bar on this side of town, and I'm a happy drunk. Where were you when you got in a bar fight?"
Korra laughed, leaned back, and stretched out her legs. "A few different bars, actually. People are quick to fight when they've had a few drinks." Despite her posture, she seemed nervous. Asami couldn't let that stand. She reached out and took Korra's hand in hers, drawing a surprised glance. Asami squeezed her hand before she could stop herself, and Korra relaxed, applying an answering squeeze.
And now Asami knew her palm would start sweating like a juvenile preteen, holding the hand of her— No, she told herself. You're not going there.
Switching gears proved a legitimate excuse to let go.
"Wow," Korra said lightly as they walked into the lobby of Asami's apartment building. She drew curious glances from the few people therein. Tomorrow morning would be a lot more hectic because Korra's return would headline every newspaper. Korra was oblivious to the looks as she gawked at the interior design: chandeliers, tapestries, and a burbling fountain to center it all. Her surprise continued when the bellhop greeted Asami by name, opened the elevator cage, and ushered them inside.
"This is weird."
"It's no different than Zaofu's elevator systems."
Korra's smile twisted into a grimace, and her shoulders visibly drooped. Her effort to make a joke hurt: "A lot smaller though. What I really meant was this much richness. The Earth Kingdom is so devastated right now…"
It sounded like a criticism, and Asami wanted to bristle again. She worked hard for the money she earned, and she gave back to those in need. It was lavish, but she didn't have to live like a pauper to prove she wasn't greedy and entitled.
Korra's downcast expression put an abrupt stop to Asami's angry thoughts. Korra looked too miserable to take offense to her words. The elevator stopped smoothly and the bell attached to the system gave a gentle ring. The bellhop unfastened the doors and nodded respectfully as they stepped into the small hallway that led to Asami's apartment.
As Asami unlocked her apartment door, she remembered the maid service had last been by over a week ago. There were papers scattered all over the living room, and her kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes. Her coffee table was reduced to a storage place for an assortment of disassembled electrical equipment.
"Woah. Nice view."
Korra walked past the mess and stood at the glass window that stretched floor to ceiling. That window made up the majority of the eastern wall of the apartment. The view from the fifteenth floor was the main reason Asami had purchased the apartment instead of a larger, cheaper townhouse a few streets down.
Republic City was slowly lighting up in the gray dusk. The once symmetrical lights now were curves and bends, shaped by the organic vines that were now as much a part of the city as the oldest buildings. Asami felt a flush of fear as she realized Korra's statue in the park would be visible in the full darkness of night. She knew because she looked to it often. Then again Korra probably wouldn't notice, and there was no reason to think she would connect Asami with its presence.
Given her paranoid thoughts, Asami definitely needed a drink or two. She turned on several soft lamps in the apartment that dampened the view, removed her shoes, and asked, "Gin?"
Korra turned away from the window. The sight of her blue eyes was a shock to Asami's core, as was her crooked grin. "Sure. Do you have the bubbly water stuff?"
Asami laughed. "Yes. I'll make you a gin and tonic."
Ice, tonic, gin, and a slice of fresh lime; it was a familiar process. Asami turned her over-active brain off as her hands worked by muscle memory. She'd composed herself by the time she handed the drink to Korra, interrupting what looked like a dark train of thought. Maybe the drink would help.
"I'm going to change, if you don't mind."
"Sure. I may get out of these boots. My feet've been hot all day."
"I have clothes you can change into."
Korra's eyes swooped up and down Asami's body. "I'd look ridiculous in your clothes." She seemed startled by her own words. "Not that you do! Look ridiculous, I mean."
Asami gripped Korra's arm, unconsciously appreciating the flex of Korra's powerful bicep. Korra blushed, and Asami couldn't quite suppress her smirk. "Relax. I know what you mean. I have something you'll be comfortable in."
Korra's awkwardness was cute. Asami had lace, yes, but her usual nightwear these days was comfortable silk. For a moment, Asami wrestled with the implication of going for cute over comfort. She gave herself a mental shake. The juvenile preteen comparison was coming back. Plain silk nightdress and robe it was. A few minutes of searching yielded a tank and pants for Korra.
In the few minutes she'd been changing, Korra had reduced her drink to ice. She was still standing by the window, gazing into the darkness with her tumbler in hand. Asami once again interrupted unhappy thoughts as she exchanged the clothes for Korra's empty drink. "I'll get you a refill."
Korra's smile was faint. Instead of walking to Asami's bedroom to change, she shucked her clothes right there in front of the window. Now it was Asami who blushed. She turned her back and busied herself with making Korra's drink. Muscle memory to distract her… And then downing most of her own drink when she turned back to find Korra bent over in her underwear. That was a sight that would be ingrained in her brain forever. Korra had absolutely beautiful calves…among other things.
Asami refilled her own drink and settled onto her couch. If she wasn't at work or in her bed, she was usually here. This place held a sad, lonely familiarity. Korra flopped down on the couch next to her and stretched out with a big sigh. "This is so comfortable. I've been sleeping on the ground for weeks."
"Where have you been for six months? Why didn't you write to anyone?" There was the real sting, and it was there in Asami's voice. She hadn't meant to start their conversation on this note.
Korra stared into her drink. The muscles along her forearm flickered as she traced her finger over the edge of the tumbler. She shook her head, and Asami fought against her own frustration. It hurt that Korra didn't trust her.
Then Korra looked up and met her eyes. In the last three years, Asami had forgotten just how arresting they were. "I'm sorry. I never meant to worry anyone. It wasn't because I didn't want to see you and Mako and Bolin. I was in a bad place."
Given what Asami had seen in quiet flashes tonight, she was still in a bad place. "We're here for you. I'm here for you."
"I know. Today was the best day I've had since… Well, in a long time."
Three years, Asami could guess. It was the same for her though she couldn't make herself voice those words. Her years had been empty but filled with work, lonely but filled with people, busy but empty of emotional fulfillment. She was proud of her achievements, but she'd found that professional success wasn't the same as happiness.
Korra's letter had breathed some life back into her routine. It was a shock of relief to hear Korra had healed physically. But the content of the letter had caused a touch of pain. At the time, Asami honestly hadn't expected that Korra would be dissatisfied with life as she was.
It was almost impossible to believe that Korra had been in a wheelchair three years ago. Asami hadn't known what to expect when Korra called earlier that day to ask if they could get lunch, but her expectation certainly wasn't for Korra to look so vital and strong and yet exhibit such rare moments of vulnerability.
Today had been one of happiness, Asami realized. She'd had fun and hadn't felt alone in any moment since Korra walked up and asked how long she'd been waiting. Asami summed it up with: "Like old times."
Korra's face lit with a grin that warmed Asami. "Yeah, it was. Except Bolin was missing, and…" Her lips pursed in a pout. "…Wu."
"Wu." Asami repeated his name like a curse. "I'm so sorry about that. Mako said it would just be the three of us. He hit on you all day."
"I would be flattered, but I get the feeling he does that with anyone with breasts."
They shared a laugh at the thought. "True. I think he finally gave up on me. Thanks for distracting him."
Korra's look of incredulity was almost comical. "You mean he chose to hit on me instead of you? That guy's crazy."
Asami struggled between flattery and irritation that Korra didn't see herself as attractive. Just looking at her now… Her brown hair was ruffled, her dark skin a beautiful contrast to her white tank. The muscles playing under her skin, the strong lines of her body, her breasts, her slender waist but feminine hips… Her bright blue eyes… "Korra, don't you know how attractive you are?"
Korra blushed dramatically. Her tone was awkward. "Uh, thanks. Tell me about your dad. If you want to talk about him."
Asami accepted the change in subject and gathered her thoughts. "I never read his letters. I actually went to tell him to stop writing me, but he… The visit wasn't what I expected." She sighed. "I miss him so much. He was all I ever had, and with you gone…I've been so lonely."
"You didn't keep up with Mako and Bolin?"
"Bolin hasn't been in Republic City very often. Mako and I meet for drinks every few months, but it's not the same without you. You're our glue."
Korra's smile was sad. "Do you see your dad often?"
"We play Pai Sho once a week."
"Do you win?"
"We're tied 1-1." She sipped her tonic and managed to share a smile with Korra. "I don't trust him. We haven't really even talked other than about Pai Sho. I know Dad wants to, but I'm so afraid to let him in."
"You have to trust your own instincts."
"He's aged so much," she murmured. "He looks so old now. I knew prison would be hard on him, but— It didn't really sink in until I finally saw him again."
"That's not your fault, Asami."
"I left him alone in prison for three years, Korra." Her tone was harsher than she intended, but her words were directed to herself, not Korra.
"As opposed to breaking him out and becoming a fugitive?"
"How would you feel if your own father was in that situation?!"
Korra's mouth opened, and then she grinned wide enough to show most of her teeth. "I broke him out and became a fugitive."
The tension in their conversation broke immediately. Asami covered her mouth as she giggled. Korra had no such reservation and threw back her head to laugh. They both calmed down after a minute.
There had been no judgment from Korra during that entire exchange. Asami hadn't realized how much she needed to talk about her father. "Korra, I'm sorry about snapping at the restaurant. I was defensive. I've been fighting with myself about it too. I overreacted."
"I'm sure I didn't say what I meant well. I know you can protect yourself, but I just…I don't want you to get hurt. I know it's stupid to think I have to protect you, but I can't just ignore that feeling."
Asami's chest tightened. She wasn't sure how to respond. Thanks, I feel so safe with you. Or: I don't need you to protect me! Or: I'm so happy you feel that way. She settled for, "That's okay. I feel that way towards you too, believe it or not."
"Would you really have come with me to the South Pole?"
Asami was startled by the change in subject. "Yes. Didn't you know that?"
The way Korra's gaze skittered away told her she hadn't. Asami wasn't sure how to approach that. Instead, she broached another difficult subject. "You never answered the question…about whether you can go into the Avatar state again."
She should never have asked about it in the restaurant. Her motivations had not just been curiosity and worry; she'd wanted Mako to know that Korra had written to her. No matter how close she'd been to Korra, she'd never trusted that Korra really considered her 'one of the guys'. Reading that letter had sparked hope, even as she told herself harshly that it wasn't a competition. She didn't want to make it one and didn't like her vulnerability in hoping she would win.
Korra still didn't look up. "Yes. I can."
When her silence stretched, Asami prompted, "But…?"
"It's… There's some…" Korra sighed heavily and dropped her drink onto the table with a sharp clack. "There are other problems. I have other problems." She dropped her head into her hands. "Su left poison inside me."
Asami felt a cold flush of fear. "Korra—"
"I got it out. Just a few days ago, but… The poison was in my brain, Asami. It was in my brain for three years." She lifted her head from her hands to fix Asami with a fearful stare. "I've been having hallucinations. Shit." Korra slumped back on the couch in defeat. She spoke with the heels of her hands over her eyes. "I think I'm crazy. I really do."
"Korra, what have you been seeing?"
"Myself in the Avatar state. Like I was during the fight with Zaheer."
"Have you talked to anyone about this?"
Korra shook her head. "I thought it had to be related to the flashbacks, but… This thing has been following me since I left the South Pole."
"Of Zaheer, Unalaq, even Amon."
Asami grasped Korra's forearm and pulled, coaxing her hands from her eyes. Korra's weary gaze fixed on the ceiling. She looked so defeated. "It was this dark shadow that was there every time I turned my head. I thought it wasn't real, but I had a physical fight with it. Then I thought after I got the poison out that I wouldn't see it anymore. But when I fought with Kuvira, I had her on the ground, and she looked up at me. Only it wasn't her, it was my shadow. I just lost it. I couldn't fight anymore."
This was scaring Asami. "Korra, you need to tell Tenzin about this."
Korra scoffed, her nose wrinkled in disgust. "And make him think I'm even more useless than he already does? Yeah, right."
"What do you mean? He's been so worried about you; he sent his kids to find you, for spirits' sake."
"Every time he opens his mouth, it's to tell me to be patient or that the airbenders have taken care of everything or that he doesn't expect me to be able to do anything on my own. He makes me feel so useless!" Korra gesticulated sharply in a touch of familiar frustration. She looked more like her old self in that moment than she had all day.
Asami settled her face on the back of the couch next to Korra's shoulder, taking Korra's gesturing hand in hers to still it. "Tenzin isn't the best with words. He's probably trying not to pressure you. He loves you, though; don't you know that?"
"Yeah." Korra's eyes went watery, and her chest caught.
Asami wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I love you too, Korra. I wasn't pretending when I said you can talk to me about anything. Or that I would have gone with you. That holds true now."
Korra shifted under her arm, turned, and wrapped her arms around Asami's waist. They gradually stretched out on the couch, and Asami accepted most of Korra's weight. Holding her like this… Asami breathed in time with Korra; they were in synch. For a few minutes, they held each other in silence.
Finally, Korra said, "I feel so worthless."
Asami stroked her fingers through Korra's hair. "Because of the visions?"
"I'm not at my best. I can barely handle a couple of chumps."
"You handled them today. And what you did to find Wu… That was amazing. You must be so in-synch with the spirits right now."
Korra shifted as if to get up, but Asami tightened her grip. Korra relaxed back against her again. Her feet brushed along Asami's bare calves. "I was awful against Kuvira. A step behind, so slow. I just kept getting these flashes of fear that my hits would actually land and I'd kill her. I've never had that problem before, but I was afraid of hurting her. The only thing I could do was keep standing up again after she knocked me down."
"Three years ago you couldn't move your legs, Korra. Today you used airbending to get four adults off of a train one hundred feet off the ground. Being afraid to hurt someone in combat doesn't make you weak. You're as strong as you were three years ago. And I wasn't just saying that about the spirit vines. How many people do you think can do that?"
Korra sighed. "I wish I could believe that. How am I supposed to be the Avatar if I can't fight?"
"The Avatar doesn't have to fight, Korra. Aang was a pacifist. He couldn't have been the first."
"He was a pacifist, and he was still a better fighter than I am. Su flat out ordered me to go into the Avatar state and destroy Kuvira's army. I didn't. I couldn't. Su was right though; Kuvira took Zaofu by force because of me."
"Tell me about that situation, start to finish."
Korra turned her head so that it was tucked against Asami's shoulder. In quiet words, she explained meeting Suyin, meeting Kuvira, and turning around to find that Suyin had snuck into Kuvira's camp. Then the fight. Asami's anger grew with every word.
"She put you in an impossible situation. Korra, you earned them time to consider surrender, retreat, or attack, and they screwed everything up by not listening to you. You aren't responsible for their bad decision."
"I should have been able to defeat Kuvira. If I hadn't freaked out, I would have."
Asami tried again: "You need to talk to Tenzin about these visions."
Korra scoffed and didn't reply.
"You have to trust yourself, Korra."
"Easier said than done," Korra muttered bitterly.
Asami kept rubbing Korra's back; she knew there were no words that could provide comfort right now. She couldn't push about this either. Just as her father was a sensitive topic, Korra's mental struggles had to be one too. The more Asami pushed, the less likely Korra was to get help. "Tell me what I can do to help you."
"Please keep being my friend."
The vulnerability in those words triggered Asami to gather Korra closer. It wasn't gratefulness that she felt, knowing that Korra was as afraid of losing her as she was afraid of losing Korra, but the emotion was similar. This was veering into dangerous territory as she said, "I love you, Korra. I won't ever stop being your friend."
"I don't want to lose you."
They remained intertwined in silence. Eventually, Korra's breathing evened and deepened, and Asami faded into a deep sense of peace and comfort. She felt so safe with Korra, combined with the emotional draw of being a source of comfort for Korra too. In-synch. They were in-synch, more than she remembered. They'd taken every step today together, anticipating the next move fluently. Though Asami had thrown the three years apart back in Korra's face, they'd fallen into step like they'd been walking side-by-side all along. No wonder Mako had been so grumpy. Asami sighed and tightened her grip around Korra's back. She was warm and relaxed, and eventually she joined Korra in sleep.
She took a sharp breath and lifted her head as something woke her. The heavy weight pinning her to the couch stirred, and Asami found herself face to face with Korra. They both started but relaxed as they recognized each other. Asami nearly pulled Korra back down against her, but the phone rang again. She shook off the last vestiges of sleep. She untangled herself from Korra to cross the room and grab the phone. Habit dictated her usual phone greeting: "Asami Sato speaking."
"Asami!" Mako sounded panicked. "Tenzin called me. Korra hasn't gotten back to Air Temple Island."
"She's with me," she said, rubbing her aching neck. Her couch was comfortable, but two tall people squashed on it pushed the limits of that comfort. A look at the clock trumped the feeling that she'd been asleep a long time. It had only been a few hours since they left Mako's family.
Mako's silence was punctuated with his quiet breathing. "Oh."
"Sorry. She's staying here tonight. We had a few things to talk about." She wondered vaguely why she'd felt the need to attach an apology to her statement.
Mako was silent a touch longer than conversation dictated. "Okay. I'll give Tenzin a call and let him know. Have a good night."
"It was good to see you today."
He took an audible breath, and his words reflected a smile. "You too. Tell Korra I said so."
Asami hung up and sighed. She heard Korra walk up behind her. "Tenzin was worried about you. So was Mako. He said he was happy to see you today."
Korra smiled faintly. "They were both pretty mad at me today, actually. Tenzin was just quieter about it. I guess I deserve it after my disappearing act. My dad left a note for me at Air Temple Island. I'm not looking forward to writing him back." Her voice suggested the 'note' hadn't been a happy one.
"Where were you for six months?"
"All over. The spirit portal of the South Pole, through the volcanic eastern islands of the Fire Nation, all through the Earth Kingdom. Finally landed in the swamp, and Toph kicked my ass around for a few weeks. I pretty much walked all over until my legs turned to iron." She smiled faintly. "Not being able to for so long made me appreciate how far I can get on my own two feet."
Korra had never been on her own, and she'd survived an experience that would haunt anyone. Despite that, she stepped into the world alone to walk her own path anyway. Somehow she didn't see how courageous that made her. Asami wasn't sure she would ever have to guts to walk away from her life to see the world equipped with only the clothes on her back.
"I admire you so much."
Korra's eyes widened. "Me? You're the one who's the success."
Asami pulled Korra into a hug; she refused to feel self-conscious. "How about we admit we admire each other and leave it at that?"
Korra gave a startled laugh against her shoulder. "Sure. Okay."
"Come on. My bed is big enough for the both of us."
Korra's face lit up with anticipation. "An actual bed. It's been so long." She followed Asami into her bedroom and laughed. "You're messier than I expected."
"I've been too busy to clean." And too lazy to put up her clothes. Asami gasped when Korra took two quick strides and leapt onto the bed. She collapsed into the covers and rolled through them; her long groan was reminiscent of Naga.
"You hog the covers, don't you?" she asked, allowing a touch of affectionate exasperation to color her tone.
"You bet I do!" Korra wiggled under said covers to form a lump on the mattress. Her pleasure was infectious; Asami giggled as she crawled under the covers. She rolled on her side and relaxed into a pillow. Korra didn't move under the blankets. She gave off heat that warmed Asami from her belly out. Asami draped an arm over her.
"Are you coming out from under there?"
A soft wheezing snore was her answer. Asami smiled, snuggled closer, and closed her eyes.
Everything was not okay. Korra was suffering from depression—and spirits knew what else. Asami was close to collapsing under the stresses of her company, loneliness, and the deep need for her father not to be lying. Bolin was still gone, and Mako seemed too quick to feel the sting of being left out. But they could get through anything as long as they were together.