“We’ll figure this out,” Korra said, holding Asami securely within her arms as she spoke. “And we’re not going to let it ruin our vacation. I’m showing you a good time here, whether you can thank me for it or not.”
Asami slowly seemed to relax as Korra held her. Korra wasn’t sure exactly what had caused her friend to suddenly get upset like this. It could have been many things, really - Asami had more than enough to be depressed about in her life. Though really, that didn’t matter right now. All that Korra cared about was that Asami was hurting right now, whatever the reason. She was going to be here for her friend, as long as she was needed.
After a few minutes, Asami pulled back from the embrace. She smiled at Korra, giving a small nod of thanks. She then glanced over at her backpack and made a few motions with her hands, miming eating some food.
“Ah, good idea,” Korra said with a nod. It usually wasn’t a problem finding food in the spirit world, but this region of it did seem more barren than normal, so it was a good thing Asami had reminded her to bring along some rations. Korra pushed herself over toward her own backpack and searched through it to find some of them. “Okay, here we are,” Korra said as she found some. She sat back and faced Asami as she unpacked them. “And don’t worry, just leave it to me and I’ll get us some real food before the day is out. Just let it try and hide from me!”
Asami narrowed her eyes in response to this as she began to eat her own breakfast, though the corner of her lips did curl up a bit.
“What? Some food can hide! Especially if you have to hunt it… which you wouldn’t here, because there are no animals, only spirits, so…” Korra glanced to the side as she tried to think of a way to cover for her previous comment, but nothing was coming. When she looked back at Asami, she caught the other woman just about to break out into laughter. “Shut up! It’s the spirit world, I’m sure vegetables can hide here. Probably.”
Asami managed to stop herself from laughing, but she did smile at Korra and give her a wink.
“Alright,” Korra said as she finished her breakfast. She folded up her ration’s wrapping and placed it back in her backpack. No need to ruin this pristine environment through littering. Plus, for all she knew, there was some anti-littering spirit she might offend by just dumping her trash here. Or maybe a litter-eating spirit who’d prefer she left it… Well, she couldn’t satisfy everyone. “So. Anything in particular you’d like to do today, Asami?” she said, looking over at her friend.
Asami tilted her head to the side. After a moment, she held a finger up as she seemed to come to a decision. She leaned her head back and tapped on her throat. She then brought her hand to her mouth and mimed something coming out of it, then tilted her head, opened her eyes wide, and gave Korra a sad look.
“Hmm… you want to listen to spirits throat-singing a tragic love song?” Korra said. “Well, I haven’t heard of any that can do that, but we can ask around.” She tried to keep a straight face as long as she could, but Asami’s gaze made it difficult to keep it up. She held up her hands and smiled. “Okay okay! Just kidding. We can try to figure out how to get you your voice back. But it could take some time to figure out, so we might as well enjoy our time here, right?”
Korra paid close attention to Asami’s expression. She sensed that trying to keep the mood light was for the best right now, so that Asami didn’t get too worried. And so it didn’t ruin their vacation. She just needed to make sure that Asami didn’t think she was taking this too lightly. Thankfully, Asami let out a sigh and nodded. She did give Korra a serious look, though. Perhaps for now they should decide what to do about this.
“Okay,” Korra said. “Let’s take this one step at a time. First thing, let’s brainstorm. Anything we can think of that might be able to fix this, or at least tell us more about it.” She pushed herself up to her feet as she began to think about this; she’d been sitting or lying down for more than long enough, and there was no reason she couldn’t give her muscles a good stretch while she did this. As she began to stretch herself out, she said, “Okay, first… healing. I could try to use my waterbending to fix it, though I don’t think this is the type of thing it can work on. We could also take you to Katara to see if she could help, but again, it may just be impossible to heal that way.”
Asami nodded. She followed Korra’s lead and pushed herself up to her feet. She did a few stretches of her own, then seemed to think about something for a moment. She knelt back down and grabbed her pad and pencil again, then stood up and began to draw something. After a minute, she passed the pad over to Korra.
Korra eyed what Asami had drawn - or perhaps written - for a moment. It looked kind of like Asami had written the character for ‘Sound,’ but with a few mistakes with the bottom half and with a mouth drawn in the middle of it. “Um, were you trying to write ‘sound’?” Korra said, looking up at Asami.
Asami blinked. She snatched the pad of paper back from Korra and looked at it for a moment. A smile slowly crossed her face, and she let out a laugh. She shook her head, handing the pad back to Korra. She pointed to the drawing, then down toward the ground. She held her hand up at about waist height, using her other hand to point between the drawing on the pad and the space below her hand.
It took Korra a minute, but she suddenly caught on to what Asami was getting at. “That creature!” she said, her mind flashing back to the creature that had made an appearance before them the previous day. Asami’s drawing actually matched it quite well. “The one who invited us to visit Master Sheng.”
Asami gave Korra a relieved smile and nodded at this. There was perhaps a hint of frustration in her expression, but Korra ignored it. It might have taken her a bit, but she did figure it out.
“Yeah, that was weird,” Korra said. She furrowed her brow for a moment as she thought. “It’s the only thing we’ve encountered here so far, so I guess it’s a good bet that it might be connected to what happened to you. It didn’t feel like a spirit to me though, so I can’t track it easily. I suppose we could go to Zhi-Wen valley, like it said… though I really don’t know where that is.
“Hmm…” Korra pursed her lips for a minute as she thought. “I’m sure some spirits will know. Some might even have an idea about what happened to you. So we should put ‘gather information from spirits’ on our list as well.”
Asami nodded at this. She seemed to be thinking about something herself, though she wasn’t coming up with any other ideas. Or at least, she wasn’t coming up with any ideas that she could communicate with Korra. It was possible she knew something complicated that she couldn’t express, though.
“Asami?” Korra said. Her friend turned to face her again. “I just thought of something. Is there anything you know, or any ideas you have that might help, that you just don’t know how to tell me about?”
Asami’s eyes widened at this, and she nodded. She shrugged slightly, giving Korra an apologetic expression.
“No no!” Korra said. “I’m not blaming you! I just… Well, I just wanted to check. In case something comes to me later, and we can figure out how to communicate. Some weird spirit world way for me to get into your head or… something…” Korra trailed off as she said this, looking away from Asami.
After a moment, Korra felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked over to find Asami giving her a quizzical gaze.
“Ah, um… sorry,” Korra said, smiling weakly. It wasn’t exactly an idea she wanted to try, but it was a possibility. And it really didn’t seem fair to hold anything back from Asami right now. “Alright. Spirit-bending. If this is a spiritual issue, there’s a chance that could fix it. It’s not exactly the safest thing in the world, though. I could end up hurting your soul in some way, or getting hurt myself. But… it is a possibility.”
Asami gave Korra a soft smile and nodded slowly. She seemed to think about something for a minute, and then she reached down to take Korra’s hand in hers. Asami brought Korra’s hand up to her chest, pressing Korra’s palm against her heart. She held it there with both of her hands, then looked into Korra’s eyes. She slowly, deliberately tried to speak a sentence. Nothing came out from her lips, but Korra could feel her friend’s chest moving with every word Asami tried to speak.
Korra looked into Asami’s eyes. When they were fighting alongside each other, she and Asami always seemed to instinctively know what the other was planning to do. It was some mix of practice, a natural bond, and simply knowing each other well. And right now, those same instincts told Korra exactly what Asami was trying to say. “You’d never want to risk hurting me like that, would you?” Korra said.
Korra could feel Asami’s heartbeat speed up just a bit. Her friend smiled and nodded at Korra. Korra smiled back, feeling a warmth growing in her chest at this reminder of how much Asami cared about her well-being.
“Hey, don’t worry,” Korra said. She smiled at Asami. “We’re gonna figure this out, and no one’s going to get hurt. Just leave it to me. Far from my first time doing something like this. We just need to keep moving forward. Even if it seems dark now, we’ll come to a brighter place eventually.”
Those weren’t quite the right words. Korra was pretty sure she’d heard something like that in a past life, but there was no way for her to remember it exactly, after Raava’s destruction and rebirth three years ago. But… there was something there. Korra smiled to herself, then looked back at Asami and smiled at her friend.
“Alright, let’s start with some waterbending healing,” Korra said, grabbing her canteen from her hip. “Just in case it helps.”
Asami paused in her step. Something was off. After confirming that her lost voice wasn’t anything Korra’s waterbending could heal, they’d decided to set off to find a way to the rest of the spirit world. She and Korra had been making their way through the mountains for a few hours now, with no sign of life from anything but the two of them. And yet, Asami found her combat instincts kicking in and was preparing to defend herself at a moment’s notice. She still had no idea of the reason for it, though.
A moment later, Korra stopped as well. She didn’t turn back toward Asami, though. “A spirit’s coming. Underground,” Korra said. “I’ll try and get a pin on exactly where it is, but watch your feet.”
So, her instincts had been on to something. Asami still couldn’t sense anything in particular from this spirit, though. Her instincts must have been taking their cue from Korra’s body language. That was probably her best bet, then, until she got some other sign of where the spirit was. Asami watched Korra as she shifted her stance, ready to leap away at a moment’s notice if the ground began to fall out from under her.
Korra’s gaze suddenly shot over toward Asami’s feet, and Asami leaped aside. She spun in mid-air, facing the spot she’d just left, and her hand moved to her hip, ready to put on her electrified glove if needed. As she landed, she saw the ground in front of her glow yellow. It seemed to liquify, being sucked downward in chunks, and then a creature popped up in the middle of the new hole.
The creature reminded Asami of a badger mole, though it was colored a pale orange and was hardly larger than a boar-q-pine. It had no eyes that she could see, and it seemed to be sensing mostly with its nose, which shifted color from gold to black and back again. It turned to face Asami - at least, she thought it was facing her; it could also have been the back of its head for all she knew - and said, “Ah, there you are. Why do you humans insist on hiding in the air? Don’t you know how hard it is to smell you there?”
Asami blinked. Although the creature was definitely speaking, it didn’t have a mouth of any sort that she could see. Instead, its nose seemed to shift color in time with its voice. For a moment, her mind tried to make some sense of this all, but then she gave up and simply let a grin cross her face. Now, this was the type of thing she’d been hoping to encounter when she’d come to the spirit world. Perhaps with a bit less threat of falling in a newly-formed hole, but no harm was intended or done.
Asami began to speak - or at least, she tried to. She covered up her momentary forgetfulness as she looked over at Korra, though it unfortunately turned out that she hadn’t been quite discreet enough with her slip-up. Korra didn’t say anything, but she did give Asami a quick smile and wink before she stepped toward the creature.
“We really weren’t intending to hide from you,” Korra said. “So I’m sorry if it seemed that way. In any case, I’m the Avatar Korra, and this is my… friend, Asami Sato. We’re here to visit the spirit world.”
The creature turned toward Korra and sniffed in her direction a couple times. It skittered out of its hole and over toward her, then circled around Korra’s feet as it continued to sniff at her. “Korra, Korra… Nope, not familiar. You sure you didn’t mean to say Kuruk? You’ve got a very ‘Kuruk’ smell.”
“Nope, I’m Korra. I’m from the Water Tribe as well, though, which is why I might remind you of him,” Korra said. She looked down at the creature as it sat in front of her, a grin on her face now. Asami found herself smiling as well, though in her case it was at the thought of someone actually managing to get Korra and Kuruk mixed up. “Would you mind telling us who you are?”
The creature tilted its head to one side, then the other. “What do you mean? I am who I am. If someone told you I was someone else, they were wrong.”
“No no, I mean, what’s your name?” Korra asked.
“Name? Do I look like a human to you? What do I need with a name? I swear, you humans just make no sense sometimes…” The creature turned, heading over toward Asami. It looked up at her, sniffing the air a bit, then circled around her feet, sniffing some more. “Now you… you’re being sensible. Not asking weird questions, not trying to confuse me about your identity. I think we could get along well. I’ve been looking for a pet.”
Asami looked over at Korra with a grin as this creature spoke, then let out a laugh at its last sentence. She knelt down, getting on a level with the creature, and held out her hand to it, palm down. It leaned over toward her hand and sniffed it for a moment.
“Actually, Asami’s been having trouble speaking today,” Korra said, taking a few steps toward Asami and the creature. “When she woke up this morning, she’d lost her voice. By any chance, do you know what might have caused that?”
The creature turned its head to look over at Korra. “Morning? What do you mean by that?” Asami gave Korra a glance at this, and a sympathetic smile. She’d forgotten herself that this place didn’t have a normal day and night cycle.
“Um, I just meant, when she woke up,” Korra said. “So, is there anything around here that could take her voice away? Any spirits to watch out for, perhaps?”
“Around here? I’m the only spirit here now. More might come later, once I get a tunnel dug,” the creature said. “I’ll have to check this place out myself, too. These mountains smell quite beautiful. But I’ve got work to do. Gotta get back to digging.” The creature hopped and turned around, heading back to its hole.
Work? That meant someone had asked it to dig this. Asami shot Korra a glance, then looked at the creature, hoping her friend got the hint to follow up on this point.
“Oh, sure,” Korra said. “But, um, who are you working for?” she asked. She glanced quickly at Asami, who nodded to confirm Korra had gotten the message.
“Master Sheng,” the creature said, pausing as it reached the edge of its hole. “He’s paying me quite well to dig a tunnel from here to Zhi-Wen Valley. Which I really have to do, or I won’t get paid. So, if you don’t mind…” The creature touched its nose to the ground near its hole, causing the earth to turn yellow and liquify. The creature soon began to suck the earth up into its nose, circling the hole as it worked.
“Oh, sure!” Korra said. Her face lit up at this revelation, and she looked over at Asami. Asami grinned and nodded, encouraging her friend to pursue this. “We actually need to meet Master Sheng. Could you tell us where Zhi-Wen Valley is, so we can head there?”
The creature paused in its digging for a moment. “Fastest way is through my tunnel. Why else would I be digging it? Long way to go, lots of work to do, but the pay is good.” The creature went back to its digging. It was making steady progress, turning its hole into a tunnel that Korra and Asami might be able to use, but there was really no telling how long it could take before it was finished.
Asami let out a sigh. She looked at Korra and shook her head, then shrugged. She looked around for a moment. Perhaps there was someplace else they could go in the meantime?
Korra nodded. “Okay. Well, thanks then,” she said to the creature, giving it a polite bow. “We’ll be back in a while, and we look forward to using your tunnel once you’re finished with it. I think we’ll go visit someplace else in the spirit world in the meantime.”
The creature let out a chittering noise as it resumed working on its tunnel. Asami stepped around the work site, joining Korra. Judging by her friend’s pace, Korra was thinking the same thing right now: Get far enough away so they could talk in some privacy, then discuss this.
Asami and Korra didn’t get too far away though before the creature called out to them, “Wait a minute! Why are you going that way?”
“Huh?” Korra said. She and Asami paused in their step and turned around. “We’re off to see the rest of the spirit world,” she said.
“You really are bad at making sense…” the creature said. It didn’t have eyes, but Asami nevertheless felt like it was rolling its eyes at them. “There’s no more of it that way, unless you want to go the long way around to get anywhere. Everything else is this way.” The creature motioned downward with its nose.
“Below us?” Korra said, her eyes widening a bit.
Asami’s mind flashed back to her conversation with Korra the previous night. One of Korra’s ideas was that this was the underside of the spirit world, and the trees they saw were the roots of the Tree of Time. Perhaps she was right after all, which would mean they were upside-down right now compared to the rest of the spirit world.
“Well it’s not above you. Nothing but air up there,” the creature said. “The ground is where you want to go through to get anywhere quickly. You’d think humans would have figured that out by now…” The creature seemed to shrug, and it hopped back into its work site.
Asami turned to Korra, and a moment later, her friend turned to face her as well, a proud grin crossing her lips. She cracked her knuckles, and got into an earthbending stance as she said, “Well, what do you say, Asami: Want to see how the Avatar digs a tunnel?”
Asami smiled at Korra. She met her friend’s gaze and took a step back. She casually flipped her hair back, making sure it didn’t look like she was doing it on purpose. She then waved her hand out, encouraging Korra to show off her best.
No matter how long she knew Korra, the Avatar continued to find new ways to impress Asami. It was quite obvious she was doing it on purpose, but Asami certainly wasn’t complaining. Well, she wouldn’t have been complaining even if she could right now. She’d been expecting Korra to earthbend a tunnel for them; that wasn’t the impressive part. It was the elevator Korra had managed to bend for them that was really a nice touch. Korra was even able to keep it to a smooth ride as she she bent the earth around them, propelling them downward.
At least, it was smooth up until the point when gravity suddenly shifted on them, resulting in both Korra and Asami falling into the side of the elevator, and then the ceiling. Asami’s instincts were woefully unprepared for falling in this manner, and so she ended up hitting her shoulder rather hard against the wall in the first fall and let out a sharp grunt. By the second fall, Korra’s instincts were able to kick in and use her airbending to cushion the impact a bit, though with the rather confined space, Asami’s elbow still ended up crashing into the wall.
Asami had lost her grip on her flashlight in the chaos, and the light had gone out on them, leaving the two of them in pitch blackness. That wasn’t a big issue, though; it wasn’t as if there was much of danger in here. Asami reached her hands out, feeling at the area around her to get an idea of where Korra was. Thankfully for her pride, she didn’t end up accidentally groping Korra as she did this, and her hand simply came into contact with her friend’s leg.
As she touched her friend’s leg, it began to strike Asami as odd that Korra hadn’t said anything yet. “Korra?” she tried to say, forgetting again that it wouldn’t work. Asami shifted her position, feeling carefully around herself to try to get a sense of the situation.
They were in an enclosed earthen box far underground, with limited air inside. If Korra wasn’t responding or moving, she was likely unconscious. She’d been able to cushion the last fall though, so it was very unlikely that she’d hit the ceiling - now the floor - with enough force to do any damage she couldn’t use her waterbending to heal. But healing it would require waking up, which would require surviving long enough, which would require a sufficient supply of air.
“Alright, Korra,” Asami said. No sound came out, but she ignored that fact. The important thing right now was to keep calm, and talking this through would help her with that, whether anyone heard her or not. Besides, she’d had enough of keeping quiet today. “I’m going to need to open this elevator up. I hope you didn’t make the walls too thick, and I hope you thought to leave a hole for air up above us. Now, if you know where my flashlight is, now would be a good time to speak up.”
No sound came from Korra, so Asami began to search around the floor for wherever it might be that her flashlight had gotten to. She kept her breathing as steady as possible; she couldn’t afford to waste air. She methodically went over every inch of the floor, tracing around Korra’s unconscious body. She was able to find her backpack, then Korra’s bag. No flashlight, though. Asami tucked her backpack into the corner, then turned back to Korra.
“I’m sorry about this, Korra. I promise I won’t tell anyone I had to do this with the Avatar,” Asami said. She began tracing her hands over Korra’s body, searching for the presence of the flashlight. “I better not find out later that this was just some ill-advised trick to get me to feel you up,” she said as she began tracing her hands over Korra’s chest. “Because honestly, you could have just asked.”
There! The flashlight had ended up between Korra’s left breast and her arm. Asami grabbed it and leaned back, trying to turn it on. The switch was no help, but Asami had been expecting that. They’d made this model to be durable and water-resistant, which meant that the power-supply disconnected automatically whenever something went wrong. Once she hit the button on the base to reseat the power supply, the light immediately turned on.
Asami let herself smile at this. “There we go. That’s one task complete. Now, let’s see how you’re doing, Korra,” she said. She leaned forward again, bringing her fingers to just below Korra’s nose. She was breathing. Good. Asami turned the flashlight up toward Korra’s head, searching for any sign of injury. She didn’t want to risk moving her friend, but at least from what she saw, there wasn’t any blood. That didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet. A concussion could still be quite serious. She might even need to take Korra to see another healer when they got out of here. “Okay. You’ll live,” Asami said. “I just need to make sure you live long enough now.”
Asami turned to her backpack. Thankfully, digging into rock was one of the tasks she’d been prepared for, in case she and Korra had ended up doing any rock climbing while they were here. Climbing wasn’t likely to be of much help right now, but a piton would still get the job done of opening up an air hole for them.
“Hold tight, Korra,” Asami said. “I’ve got this.” She took a deep breath, trying not to think of the fact that doing so was using up their air supply. As Asami got out a piton and hammer, Korra’s words from earlier came back to her. She just had to keep moving forward, and they’d come to a brighter place. One careful hole at a time, until she found the light.
“Mm… that’s nice…” Korra muttered softly. She was only half-conscious right now, but it was quite a pleasant way to wake up. “I know… c’mon, Naga…” Korra reached her hand up to give the polar bear dog a bit of affection she was sorely needing, judging by all the licks Naga was giving her right now. “Later, Naga… with Asami now. Asami first, then you…”
Naga’s kisses stopped as Korra said this. “Is Asami the name of your friend?” Naga said.
Korra’s eyes blinked open as her mind finally realized that this wasn’t quite making sense. For one thing, Naga’s licks came from far too small of a tongue. For another, Naga didn’t talk. ...That probably should have been the first thing.Korra focused on the figure of a white puppy, who was currently perched on her chest and looking down at her. A smile crossed her face as she recognized this spirit. “Hey there, little cutie,” Korra said. It was the closest she had to a name for this spirit. It certainly fit, but she might need to find out or come up with a better one sooner or later. Speaking of names, “And yeah, Asami’s her name. So um, mind telling me how we got here?”