On her journey through the Earth Kingdom, Korra finds herself lost in the desert without any water. At some point, Katara had told her something about water being found in the cacti of the Si Wong. The specifics elude her, so she just decides to boil away anything that might be poisonous before drinking it. Everything was going pretty well until Asami appeared out of thin air.
Part 1 - Far Apart, Close Behind
Section 2: "The Cactus"
Korra glared at a cactus.
Her stern blue eyes burned a hole into the plant as she studied it. Appraised it. Interrogated it. It was a very, very dangerous game to play in the middle of the Si Wong Desert. She was around fifty miles from the last batch of cacti, and she had absolutely no idea where, in regards to any civilization whatsoever, she was.
So Korra continued to glare at the cactus. She weighed her options as the blazing hot sun beat down on her, baking her skin and mind in tandem. Master Katara had said something about the cacti water in the Si Wong Desert, years and years ago, but she couldn't remember the specifics. Most of her survival skills were suited for the tundra, or at the very least climates that weren't as oppressively arid.
On one hand, the water within could simply be that. Water. On the other, it could be deadly poison.
Life giving water or deadly poison.
Korra wiped sweat off of her face and sighed. If she didn't at least try, she'd die for sure. She went to grab the cactus but stopped herself before her dry, cracked fingers grabbed onto the sharp pricks. Instead, she sliced it open with a thin arc of airbending. The cap toppled off into the sand, and Korra peered inside to find some sort of green murky liquid.
Korra tested it, confirming that she could waterbend it by swirling it around. It was indeed some form of water, though it could still be poisonous. She poured some rocks out of her pouch and made a small ring around the exposed cactus. Then, she slowly, carefully, began to heat the rocks with firebending, which also had the secondary effect of slowly boiling the water. If there were toxins in it, she could just burn them away.
After a few minutes, the cactus...milk...became perfectly clear. Korra cooled the rocks with a gentle burst of air and bent the purified water into her waterskin. She smiled as she took a long, deep drink from it, feeling rejuvenated the moment it flowed past her tongue.
"I think out of all of the places that we've been stuck in, the desert was my least favorite. I really chose the wrong day to wear black."
Korra's eyes bugged out of her skull as her head snapped to the source of the voice. She choked on the water and forced it down her throat as gibberish fell out of her mouth. Asami, somehow, was standing right next to her, the spitting image of her nineteen year old self. Tall, pretty, and always with a natural elegance Korra was a little envious of.
"Oh, that's just great. Not only am I seeing myself everywhere, but now you're here too. What part of 'I want to be alone' does the universe just not understand?" asked Korra, scrunching her eyes and looking up at the sky.
"Probably all of it. I mean, do you really want to be alone, Korra?"
"Are you sure-"
Korra frowned and stared at her friend. "Yes, Asami, I'm sure that I need time to myself." She furrowed her brow and leaned toward her, curious. "Hey...we're the same height now. I mean, I know I've gotten taller, but shouldn't you have, too?"
Asami shrugged and folded her hands in front of her. "I wouldn't know, but that does make sense. Do you think I'd look more like my mom since we last saw each other?"
"I really hope you do, Asami." Korra sat down in the sand, hanging her head. She couldn't get too deep into her visions. They were all in her mind. They weren't real. Even though Asami wasn't as terrifying as that...that thing, she...well, maybe it was her brain trying to get her to vent her feelings. And then Korra decided she didn't care, and just wanted to talk to her friend. Even if she wasn't there. "I think it would make you really happy to look in the mirror one day and see your mother staring back."
"You're right. It would," she said, almost wistfully. In the blink of an eye, she aged nearly three years. Taller, more elegant, and looking far more like her mother. Her hair was still long, but she'd tied it back. She looked more professional. Mature. Asami smiled. "This is better, don't you think?"
Korra chuckled dryly. "Yeah. I do." She ran her calloused fingers through her cropped, sticky hair. "So, what brings you to the middle of the desert? It can't be the scenery." She gestured around her and pouted. "Because there isn't any."
"You did, actually." Asami sat down beside her, hands between her lap. "Sometimes we just see what we want to see, and other times we see what we need to. Right now, I think this is something you needed."
Korra sighed and cradled her head in her hands. "I'm going crazy. You're not real, but I feel like, if I reached out to touch you, you'd be there." She felt a hand on her back and she flinched, pushing herself away from Asami in a panic. "Just like that. That's not possible. You're not there."
Asami covered her mouth with her hand. "Korra, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you like that. I just thought...I don't know, maybe if could show you that I'm here for you, it might…" Her shoulders slouched. "Lift your spirits. I wasn't thinking. I just don't like seeing you like this."
Korra narrowed her eyes and calmed herself down. Asami wasn't there. She couldn't be...but she was behaving exactly as she would. She couldn't tell the difference. It felt like her. "I don't like being like this, and I don't like people seeing me like this either. But I really don't have a choice right now."
"Would it make you feel better if I told you that I love your new hair?"
Korra snorted. "No, but thanks."
"I mean, the old style was cute, though a bit too traditional, but this is just perfect for you. It's powerful, gorgeous, and modern and it really sends a strong message."
Korra raised a brow, slightly amused. "Which would be…?"
"It would be a very bad idea to mess with you."
She snickered and lied back in the sand, her back falling against it with a soft thump. "I wasn't really considering that when I cut it. I just felt like... I needed a change. People don't even recognize me anymore." She furrowed her brow, staring at the sky. "I don't even recognize me anymore."
"I wouldn't worry too much about that." Asami lied down beside her and smiled. "Guess it's a good thing there aren't any mirrors in the desert."
"Oh, I could make some if I wanted to."
Asami sat up and tilted her head. She smirked and crossed her arms. "I don't believe you, Korra. I don't think you could do it."
Korra scoffed in shock. "Really? Do you remember who you're talking to? I can use firebending to fly. Making a mirror is just a matter of heat and time."
"Glass is made when you heat sand to a high enough temperature. It'd just be transparent."
Korra sat up and stared at Asami, baffled. "How did you even know that? I didn't know that, and you can't know what I don't...know...because…" She gripped her head with her hands and groaned. "This is so confusing. I hate it."
Asami winced. "Yeah...I wouldn't think about it too much." She shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe I've just become super spiritual since you last saw me and Jinora taught me how to project my spirit."
"...but you're not an airbender. That doesn't make any sense."
"What if I became one while you were gone?"
Korra rubbed her face. "Then you would have told me in your letters, Asami." She huffed and hopped up to her feet. "I can't believe I'm arguing with my own head! This is ridiculous." She kicked a blast of air into the sand, scattering a large clump of it.
Asami got to her feet as well and gently grabbed her forearm, only holding her tighter as she flinched and tried to shrug her off. "Hey. It's okay. I'm just kidding around."
Korra felt her heart racing. It wasn't possible. She shouldn't have been able to actually feel Asami grabbing her, and yet it kept happening. Had she finally cracked? Was any of it real? Was the desert even real or did she never wake up from the poison?
Asami rolled her eyes and jabbed her in the arm. "Okay, that's insane. You woke up. You're in the desert, and now you're talking to me. Does it really matter if I'm actually here or not?"
Korra rubbed her arm and crooked her lips to the side. "No. I guess not. If I'm gonna have my mind play tricks on me…" She sighed. "I'd rather it be with you. Honestly, I can't think of anyone else who I'd rather talk to while, uhm, going completely insane. Heh." She smiled awkwardly.
Asami smiled. "That's very sweet of you to say. I think," she said, looking away and raising a brow. "Now that we're on the topic of 'insanity guides'..."
"I don't want that to become a thing. Can it not become a thing?"
"Bolin might be fun. I mean, how could he not be?"
Korra shook her head. "Yeah, he's funny, and sweet, and everytime I see him I just want to hug him, but he wouldn't really get how not okay this is. I love Bolin, but...not everything can be fixed with optimism and energy. I know he knows that, but he'd still try. I don't think he knows how not to try."
"That would be a nightmare. We would have literally nothing to talk about. Half of his letters to me were about the weather." Korra dropped her voice to a low whisper. "The weather, Asami. Nothing else. Just the weather."
Asami smiled sadly and scratched the back of her head. "Wow, that's...not exactly surprising, but I'd have hoped he could muster up some form of emotional maturity."
Korra huffed and packed the rocks back into her pack. "Yeah, well, we both dated him, and it's not like I was the most emotionally mature person at the time anyway." She furrowed her brow and looked at Asami. "Actually, now that we're on that subject, how-"
"Just as bad." Asami sighed and shook her head. "Treated me like I would break if he so much as breathed on me. Talk about insulting."
Korra made a big, open mouthed smile. "I know! What was up with that? I kept telling him that he had nothing to worry about, but he just…" She laughed. "He was always so 'in control' that I figured he'd...you know…"
Asami smirked. "Yeah, me too. I guess it didn't translate."
Korra snickered and tightened the straps on her bag. "Why did we wait this long to talk about this? It's so much fun!" She had stopped caring that she was speaking to herself. She figured that, if it was something she needed, she was at least going to enjoy it.
Asami shrugged and double checked the pouch on her bag. "I think it might have just been too recent to really have fun with. I'm over it, you're over it, all we needed was time." She patted her pack. "I'm glad we're talking now, though. It's long overdue. We should get moving, though. I'm not about to let you die in the desert."
Korra raised her brow. "Moving where? I won't know where I am until nightfall. The only way I can navigate is by using the stars."
Asami pointed her finger in a random direction. "If you still want to avoid Kuvira, and by that I mean Bolin, we should head that way. It's about half a day's walk from the mountain range separating the Si Wong from Gao Ling."
Korra pinched her forehead. "I..." She shrugged and threw up her hands in defeat. "You know what? I'm not even going to question it. Yes, let's go that way."
"Good plan. Also, when you run into Kuvira, and you know that you will so don't even try and argue, be sure to remember to thank her for saving your dad's life." She whistled. "She caught him, mid-air, on the side of a cliff, while supporting her own weight. I just had to lift him onto a flying bison and I nearly collapsed. Your father is not light."
Korra rolled her shoulders and began walking in the seemingly random direction. "He's got a traditional water tribe build."
Asami followed her and her jaw dropped. "That's traditional?"
"Well, he was born in the northern tribe, so he's a little more traditional than most, but yeah. If you hadn't noticed, warriors are respected a bit more back home then they are in the other nations."
Asami nodded. "I can see why. Waterbending is almost like...dancing. It's really quite beautiful."
Korra gave a small smile as she scrambled over a sand dune. "Fire is direct. Energy, life, and sometimes rage. Earth is...like rocks, and air is dodge, dodge, dodge, dodge, strike." She scoffed. "Water is absolutely the most elegant of the four."
Asami hummed and was silent for a moment. Somehow, she'd beaten her atop of the dune. "Wait, so your dad was the prince of the Northern Water Tribe, right?"
"Yeah. What about it?"
"Is the leadership of the north hereditary, or is the chief elected, like in the south?"
Korra slid down the other side of the hill and continued to march toward the arbitrary mountain range that may or may not actually be there. "It's a family line. Typically, the title of chief goes to the eldest male, or whoever wasn't banished. Why the sudden interest in water tribe politics?"
"And...Princess Yue was in that family line, right? Before she became the moon?"
"Yes, she was. Everyone knows that story. I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"Just, wait, look." Asami jogged up behind her and stuttered. "Uhm, Korra, doesn't that mean that you're related to the moon?"
Korra turned to her and then slowly gaped, her eyes bugging out of her head. "Woah." She covered her forehead with her palm. "You're right! I never even thought of that! Why didn't my dad tell me that?! That's his aunt!"
Asami laughed, clutching her stomach. "Avatar Korra, destroyer of Equalists, champion of harmonic convergence, terror of the Red Lotus, princess of the Southern Water Tribe, and grandniece of the moon." She only laughed louder. "It sounds like something out of a trashy romance novel!"
"You read those?"
"I get bored."
Korra readjusted her pack, continuing her trek. "You have time to be bored back in Republic City? I thought you said that you were repairing the infrastructure. That could be everything, by the way. It was pretty vague."
"I have a life outside of my career, Korra." Asami frowned. "Still, I didn't mean to be vague. It really was everything. Redesigning an entire city around the spirit wilds is no small task."
Korra bowed her head, sweat dripping down from her brow and off the top of her nose. "Sorry."
"Hey, don't be." Asami gave her a clap on the shoulder. "It was stressful, yes, but really rewarding. I've never been able to flex my creative muscles like that before. You should see the city, Korra. It's…" She frowned slightly and tucked a few stray strands of hair behind her ear. "Almost perfect."
"Because you're not there, Korra. Because you couldn't go another hundred feet and just dock your ship. Because you ran."
Korra scowled intensely. Now her visions were insulting her. Amazing. "I didn't run away. I don't run from anything."
Asami crossed her arms and shook her head. "No, Korra, you did. The sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get better."
"Asami. Stop." Korra clenched her jaw and balled her hands into fists. "I am sick and tired of people claiming that they know how to fix me. They don't. No one does. Everyone thinks they're an expert on me, but they aren't. I'm an expert on me, and I think that the only way I can possibly reach some sort of inner peace and balance is to walk." She stomped further toward the supposed mountain range. "If I just keep walking, everything will be okay."
Asami appeared in front of her and wrapped her in an intensely strong hug. "Okay, I get it. Tough love isn't what you need right now. I just needed to try it to be sure." She stroked her hair. "I don't know what you're going through, besides that it's...impossibly painful, but I'm here right now, okay? I'm here."
Korra was stunned for a moment as she felt her mind being pulled in nine different directions. Asami wasn't real, but she...she couldn't not be real. If she hugged her back, would she sealing her own fate? Doomed to succumb to her own madness? It could be her mind trying to heal her in a way that it knew would disarm her, and she'd done that, but...she was already so far gone. It might not have even mattered anymore.
She hugged her back as tight as she could. "...but why are you here?" she whispered. "How?"
"Like I said, you needed me to be. It's as simple as that."
"I miss you. I've missed this."
"I know. We both have."
Korra pulled back and smiled sadly. "Come on, let's keep moving." She rubbed her reddening eyes. She wouldn't cry. Not until she had earned it. "Hopefully we can make it to Gao Ling before sundown."
Asami smiled and nodded. "Lead the way." She gestured outward with her arm.
Korra spotted the mountain range an hour or so later. They hadn't talked about much, and Korra was content in just enjoying her friend's company.
"Wow. You were right, Asami. I'm impressed," chuckled Korra as she approached the edge of the desert.
"Don't be. I practically memorized the maps of the Si Wong while we were repairing that airship," she said, waving her off.
Korra snorted. "You mean the airship that you repaired. Don't try and share the credit."
"My generosity is lost on you," she said, flipping her hair in a playfully snobby way.
Korra drank the rest of her water skin and felt the sand become earth beneath her feet. She felt the potential, the influence and power she could draw from the ground. She kicked up a rock and launched it at a tree. "You have no idea how much better I feel after doing that. I can't sandbend and it was driving me crazy."
Asami chuckled. "That would explain a lot." Her face paled and she took a few steps backward. "Korra. W-what is that?" She pointed to something behind and above her. "It...it looks like-"
"Me. I know." Korra snapped her head around to see it. Her. Stark white eyes. The thing that had been hounding her ever since she'd gotten to Republic City. Her, chained, three years younger. Impossibly powerful and full of rage. Silent and terrifying. "I was hoping that my head decided that it was done with that thing, since you're here, but I guess not."
"It's not moving. It's just staring at us."
Korra sighed and grabbed Asami by her arm. "That's all it ever does. It watches me. No matter where I go, no matter how fast I run, it's always there."
Asami took a deep breath. "Her eyes. I...thought you couldn't do that anymore."
"I can't, but it can."
The thing, the monster, simply stood there. It did nothing except glare at her with eyes that knew only hatred and rage.
Asami cleared her throat. "What do we do? Do we just walk by it? Is it going to attack?"
Korra narrowed her eyes at the thing. "I don't know. It's never attacked me before. I don't think it will start now. If it does, you need to run. Don't look back, just keep running until you get to Gao Ling. Contact Tenzin. Hopefully he'll have some idea of how to deal with this thing."
"Korra." Asami sighed. "I'm not really here, remember?"
Korra gently pushed her away. She'd forgotten. She'd gotten lost in it all because she really had needed it. "Yeah. Sure." She scowled and began walking past the thing, the abomination, following the mountain path. "Let's just go. Don't make eye contact."
It didn't move. It just glared.
Asami hesitated but then followed behind her. "Would you have rather I played along?"
Korra shrugged. "I don't know anymore, Asami. Maybe it would have been nice to feel like my old self again, protecting someone and actually helping but I guess I can't even have that, can I?"
"I guess not," she whispered.
Korra continued up the mountain, using earthbending to build platforms and handholds where climbing wasn't safe or possible. Asami kept up with her, sometimes physically, and sometimes by appearing ahead of her. She'd made it up to the peak by nightfall and decided to make camp there.
She wasn't tired. She just needed to sit.
Out in the distance, she could see the electric lights of Gao Ling. She wasn't far. She wasn't sure why she was going there, of all places, besides the fact that it was one of the few territories in the Earth Kingdom that Kuvira hadn't passed through. She couldn't handle seeing Bolin. She wasn't ready.
"You're running out of places to walk, you know."
Korra shrugged. "It doesn't matter. We both know that I'll come back sooner or later. My gut has been guiding my feet ever since I sailed away from the temple. It's brought me here, and there are only two other places I can go from Gao Ling."
"The Swamp and Kyoshi Island. It doesn't sound like you really have much of a choice."
Korra scoffed. "I hope not. Who would want to visit a swamp?"
"If you're out of places to walk then that means everything's going to be okay, right?"
"Heh. Yeah, I guess it does." Korra stood up and looked over to Asami. "You're too smart for your own good, you know that?"
Asami didn't face her. She smirked. "So I've been told. Do you have any more water in your skin?"
Korra checked the skin at her waist and found that it was empty. "No, I don't. You got me out of the desert, so I'll be okay-" She was gone. Her heart dropped into her stomach as she felt the wind blow through her hair, her eyes staring at the spot where Asami had been only moments ago.
Korra sighed deeply and sat in a lotus. She made herself an earth tent and curled up into a protective ball. Her eyes felt heavy as a sudden burst of exhaustion hit her. She needed to sleep.
"Thank you," she whispered.
She drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow would be better.
It had to be.