A knock on the door startles Korra out of drifting off to sleep. It wasn't loud, probably the soft touch of her mother, but it's an unusual time. "Mom?" A groggy Korra gets up to open the door.
On the other side stands Katara, completely put together, hair loops and all, a stark contrast to Korra in her pajamas. She stands almost perfectly still, with her hands behind her back. She speaks quietly, yet firmly. "If I do this, no one can find out you learned it from me. Not your parents, not the boyfriend. You tell no one."
Korra nods. "Of course." Katara continues. "And when we're done, I never want to see or hear from you again."
Korra feels a twinge of pain in her heart, and Katara accepts her silence as an answer. She turns away from Korra and presents her with the handwritten note she had behind her back. "That polar bear dog of yours. Prepare her with these items. We leave before dawn." Korra takes the note. "Where are we going?" Katara walks away without answering.
“Hey girl, wake up.” Korra rubs Naga’s head, who cracks open one eye at her. She drops a large fish on the ground and begins strapping the supplies onto Naga’s back.
“Did you get everything on the list?” Katara is still using her stern, commanding voice, and it’s more chilling than the early morning air. “Yes.” Korra turns around to give her reassurance. “Don’t think for a second I’m taking this for granted.” Her hair is down and she’s wearing a green dress, presumably from the earth kingdom. To Korra’s surprise, her waterskin is absent. “I didn’t ask you that.” She moves to the other side of Naga to help strap everything down.
Katara speaks to Korra over Naga’s back, detailing the plan. “First, we’re going to ride your pet to Anskut dock and take a fishing boat. With you blowing air into the sail, we should make it to Kyoshi Island by noon.” Korra hooks a bundle of rope onto the outside of a rucksack. “Kyoshi Island? I was just there. Who are we meeting?” Katara pulls ice out of the ground beneath her feet to lift herself up onto Naga. “No one. Once we hit land, we’ll head straight up to the taiga.”
Naga finishes her light breakfast, and stands up. Korra hops on her back. “Alright, let’s go girl.” She starts running, with Korra holding onto her body and Katara holding onto leather straps.
Korra, Naga, and Katara walk up a dirt path. Katara has been terse throughout the journey, and at this point Korra has learned to make conversation in her head. This is quite a hike. Good thing we have Naga for the supplies, but Katara must be exhausted, although she doesn’t show it. A minute later, she proves Korra wrong by sitting down to lean back into a tree. She closes her eyes, and speaks between heavy breaths. “This is far enough. Go set up the traps.”
Korra darts her eyes around a small clearing, looking for a clue to this spot's importance. She then crosses her arms and stares down Katara. “Do I finally get to know why we came all this way for some grass and trees?” Katara doesn’t open her eyes. “And flowers. Traps.” Korra groans, grabs a bag off of Naga, and sets off into the woods.
Korra returns to the clearing with a deflated bag. She notices Naga staring at something in fascination. Approaching closer, she follows her companion's gaze, and a tree blocking her view gives way to Katara dancing. On closer inspection, she's surrounded by a cloud of razor-thin ice needles. As the two women's eyes meet, Katara pulls another dozen-or-so ice needles from the same number of grass blades, killing them in the process. She then turns all the airborne ice on Korra.
"Katara, what are you–" Her hands flex in short jabs, launching a torrent of ice needles. Korra jumps back and assumes a fighting stance. The ice harmlessly skewers the ground in front of Korra's feet, and immediately starts melting. "Are you trying to kill me!?" Katara pulls more water from the grass while Naga growls at her. "I just gave you water. Where’s your counterattack?"
Korra drops her arms. "I don't want to attack you!" Katara combines her floating droplets and freezes them into one fist-sized spike. "My teaching was gentle when you were Avatar Aang, but you're much more of a warrior now. Fight me!" She spins to pick up speed, and tosses the ice spike directly at Korra's midsection. Korra's eyes glow white as she reflexively picks up the melted needles from the ground and forms a ball of water to catch the oncoming spike. She twirls her arms to stream the water, inadvertently flinging the ice backward, where it shatters on a tree. She hurls the stream at Katara, who catches it in mid-air and throws it aside, freezing restraints onto Naga's paws. Naga barks at Katara. "Call off your animal." She turns around to go sit by a tree again.
As Korra's eyes return to normal, she runs to Naga and hugs her. "It's okay, Naga, she wasn't really trying to hurt me." With some difficulty, she melts the paw-cuffs. Calm returns to Katara's voice. "I had to see where your waterbending is now." Korra nods silently. She's no stranger to a combat test. Katara continues. "Do you see that pink bellflower? I want you to pull all the water out of it. And don't rely on the Avatar State this time."
Korra kneels down in front of the flower. "You want me to kill it." Katara stares intensely at Korra. "You asked me to teach you bloodbending. It's going to get a lot uglier than this." Korra meets Katara's anger with a silent relent, and Katara's intensity fades in turn. "A waterbender's strength is limited by guilt, and freed by pleasure." She looks around at the tarnished clearing. "You like fighting. Think of this as a fight, and use that for all the good you can take from it."
Korra holds her hand out over the flower, to no avail. "It's not a fight, I'm just weak." She closes her eyes to try to get a more intuitive feel for the water inside. She then stands up, straining the muscles in her arms. At the height of her frustration, she feels a tiny bead of water crawl up the stem, before sinking back in. She collapses, falling onto her back. "I can't do it."
Katara rips the pink bellflower out of the ground by hand and holds it over Korra. She pulls the water from it and it shrivels and blackens. She drops the water on the ground and the dead flower onto Korra's chest. "We'll wait until night then."
Katara and Korra sit in silence around a pot of sea prunes, each taking slowly from their respective bowl. Katara looks up to see a waxing gibbous, and sets down her bowl. "It's time." She stands up, and Korra follows her to another flower, to begin the struggle again.
A tree shrivels as Katara pulls the water out of it. She freezes a portion of it into a ball of ice and shatters it against Korra's shoulder. "Hey, what gives!?" Katara makes another ice ball. "Not me, the flower." Korra strains harder and harder as ice crashes against her body. Finally droplets start to appear all over the stem and the flower begins to lilt. Ice hits the back of her head. The droplets shrink, but she recommits immediately and ends up ripping the entire flower out of the ground. She spins the water around her as the shriveling flower trails behind, and uses the stream to deflect an ice ball before it hits her. Katara drops her water. "Next lesson: Controlling the plant." Korra sighs. Moving on already? I just had a breakthrough!
Katara creates a cascading circular pattern in the grass, with one ring of blades pointed outward, the next ring pointed toward the center, and so on. "Bloodbending is the manipulation of water in a living body without extracting it. The water in plants is more pure, making it easier to control." She releases the grass, and gestures at it. Korra assumes a traditional waterbending stance with a synchronized breath, closes her eyes, and reaches out to feel the water inside. Katara offers guiding words. "You just tasted success. Let it carry you into the next."
With teeth clenched and muscles tense, Korra tears a handful of grass from the ground with the water still inside. Katara admonishes her. “If you don’t want to injure yourself more, you’ll need to be more precise than that. Again.” Korra resets her stance, breathing into her tense spots. A single blade of grass stands up, spins in a circle, and then slowly moves back to how it was before. Korra falls on her knees. Katara walks silently to pick up a sleeping bag from the ground. She unrolls it, steps inside and then speaks her last word of the night. “Tomorrow, we check on the traps.”
Korra leads the way through the denser woods, with Katara close behind and Naga in back. Korra has a rucksack on her back while Naga carries the rest of the supplies. The first trap they find is exactly how Korra left it. Together, the two women dismantle it, and return the rope to the rucksack. The second looks like a larger animal tore away from it. They leave it. The third is the same as the first, and again they reclaim it. The fourth trap is the winner. A ball of rope hangs suspended in the air, with a lop-eared bunny held inside of it. Naga notices it first, and whines in its direction.
Katara unties and re-ties the rope to bring the bunny down to eye level. Korra reaches out to pet the scared animal, but recoils when it snaps its teeth at her. “Sorry, little guy. We just need you for a few more hours. I swear we’re not gonna eat you.” Katara passes by for a closer look. “It would be more humane if we did, but I guess that’s up to you.”
Hours pass the day into dusk. Katara spends most of her time meditating, while Korra restlessly shifts herself against Naga’s belly. At one point Katara takes a pair of bread rolls out of a bag and offers one to Korra. She holds a hand up in refusal. She’s already sick to her stomach over what she’s about to do, destroying her appetite. Hours pass the dusk into evening. The full moon rises.
Katara locks eyes with Korra while standing on the other side of the rope. “You know what you have to do. This part I cannot demonstrate.” Korra nods. She closes her eyes to take a deep breath, and assumes her stance with glowing eyes. She reaches her senses into the bunny’s insides. Its hair stands up and it starts thrashing about inside its fiber prison. “Sorry.” Korra manages to feel the creature’s blood, but not control it.
Katara puts her hand on the upper rope. “If you want to unlock your waterbending physically, it will have to be as strong as possible spiritually. Do not feel guilty for the animal. Take pleasure in your domination of it.” Korra drops her hands in frustration, and the glow fades from her eyes. She yells at Katara. “How am I supposed to take pleasure in terrorizing an innocent creature!?” Katara gives her a slow, unflinching blink. “That, you will have to decide for yourself.”
Korra pulls a handful of water from the grass and smashes it into Katara. Her unsuspecting teacher is knocked back and falls to the ground. Korra grabs another handful of water and shapes it into ice shards. Katara grabs hold of the water in a tree and bends it down to block the ice. She picks up the ice, drains the tree, and lobs a larger ball of water. Korra catches the ball, streams it, and throws it back as a blade of ice. It cuts the rope on the way to flying over Katara’s ducking head.
The bunny falls, wriggles its way out of the rope, and starts running. It gets only a few meters away before freezing in place. Its hair stands up and its ears fly backward. It slowly levitates off the ground, lifted by the hand of a white-eyed Korra. Katara shouts, “Do it now! Release your chi!”
Korra drops the bunny and directs her hands toward her own belly. She keels over, catching herself on her hands. With her knees on the ground, she brings her hands together, each pointing two fingers down, flips them up and separates them, groaning all the way through. A moment later, a typhoon converges on Korra from all directions as she pulls the water out of all the trees, flowers, grass, and air. Katara lurches as her own sweat and saliva is ripped out. Korra extends flat palms outward, creating a circular wave of frost across the ground. Katara melts the water beneath her to free her feet, while an immobilized Naga whimpers in fear.
Korra rises to her feet in a low stance, extends her arms toward the ground, and performs the same precise down, up, and apart motion again. She stomps the ground, creating a miniature earthquake with herself as the epicenter. The frost breaks up, a loose rucksack careens downhill, Katara stumbles back catching herself on a tree branch. Korra flies up on an air spout, performs the precise motion on her lower chest, then blasts fire blooms out from her fists and up from her mouth. She lowers herself back to the ground, and collapses as her eyes fade. “I… did it.”
Katara pulls herself up, and leans back standing against a shriveled tree. “Ugh, my poor back. How good are you at healing?” Korra lifts her head up, communicating with only an exasperated face. “What do you want me to say, ‘congratulations’? Let’s go.” Those are the last words out of Katara’s mouth for the rest of the night.