More rampant speculative fic about the upcoming series. Eager for this to become non-canonical, which will of course happen when the new series airs!
For weeks, she tracked him.
He was a ghost. A half-glimpsed phantom, a flick of a robe around a corner just as she came into view. A brush of air lifting the hair from her forehead as someone passed by just on the edge of her vision. An abandoned cup of tea, still steaming on the table, patrons looking around in confusion. I could have sworn I just saw a man sitting there. No, really. He was just here.
She was growing tired. She thought he must be, too, but another part of her suspected he could keep this up forever. An even more pessimistic part of her wondered if he was toying with her. Perhaps he could have been hours or days distant by now, but he was staying just a hair's breadth out of reach to mock her.
Or...to test her?
That was the most charitable interpretation, so naturally she distrusted it. She couldn't bring herself to hope that when she finally cornered him, he'd say "Very good, young Avatar, you have passed my test. Now I shall teach you everything I know."
Huh. Only if her luck changed.
Sometimes she was sure she could smell him, the must of old books and the misty essence of clouds floating past her on the street. She'd whip around and see nothing but the crowds passing by, casting dubious glances at her, a young girl in Water Tribe garb. You're awfully far from home, little girl. Yes, I am. Put your hands on me again and you're going to be even further from yours.
So when she woke up at her campsite and found him sitting at her campfire, drinking her tea, it should have been a surprise, but it wasn't. She crawled out of her bag and sat across from him. For long minutes, no one spoke.
She knew he had to be in his fifties, but he carried himself like a teenager; his face was unlined and his blue eyes sharp. Long, dark hair tied back in a thick plait, a headband obscuring the blue arrow she knew he wore on his forehead.
The silence eventually got the best of her. "I'm Korra," she said. "I'm the..."
"I know who you are." He looked up at her for the first time. "You don't give up, do you?"
"I need to learn airbending."
"You don't need to learn it from me."
"Yes, I do."
"I have two brothers, a sister, four nieces and five nephews who are master airbenders. Pick one of them."
"It has to be you."
"Why?" A beseeching note had entered his voice. "My brother Tenpai is the one who teaches the kids. He's the natural choice."
Korra shook her head. "Everyone says you were always the most gifted of the Avatar's children."
He snorted. "Then everyone is an idiot." He shook his head. "I'm surprised anybody remembers."
"Not many do." This was certainly true. The last time she'd asked someone about the Avatar's children, they'd rattled off the list of seven names. Korra hadn't bothered to correct them. Eight. The Avatar had eight children.
"Good. I've worked hard to be forgotten and I won't have all that effort undone by you, even if you are the Avatar."
"If? I am the Avatar. I've mastered all the other elements."
"So go finish the job. You don't need me."
"I do need you. I was told that you had to be the one to teach me."
"Who told you that?"
Korra took a deep breath. She'd hoped not to get into this. "Your father did."
She watched as several subtle expressions crossed the man's face. Surprise, anger, sadness, resignation - and a little jealousy. "Of course. You can talk to him, can't you?"
She nodded. "Yes."
He stared into her campfire, which he'd been prodding back into life. "How I envy you," he murmured. "What I wouldn't give to..." He cut himself off and came back to the present. "I wouldn't listen to him, if I were you," he said. "My father had a persistent blind spot when it came to my shortcomings. I suppose it's human nature to want to believe that your children are extraordinary. It's a good thing that my brothers and sisters actually are."
"You are, too. More than the others."
"I'm not special."
"Yes, you are!" she exclaimed, frustrated by his stubbornness. "And I need you to believe that too if you're going to help me become the kind of Avatar that he was."
Tenzin's head snapped up, his eyes blazing. "You will never be the Avatar that he was," he said. "If you train harder than you've ever trained for a hundred years you might manage to be one tenth the Avatar my father was!" Korra just looked at him. He sagged a little, as if embarrassed by the vehemence of his words. "My father was one of the best men I've ever known, but he wasn't perfect. He was a good father and a good husband. Better than some, not as good as others. But as an Avatar? No one could touch him there. No one has ever been able to do what he could do."
Korra watched him poking at the fire. "Now who has a blind spot?"
He glanced up at her. "I know how it sounds. I'm a little long in the tooth for father hero-worship. That happens when your father is an actual hero." He laced his fingers together. "No matter what else he was or what else he did, no matter how much he loved our mother and us kids, he was always the Avatar first and that wasn't easy. I won't help someone else become something that'll tear them apart."
"If that's my destiny, then I accept it."
He shook his head. "You sound like him. Then again...you are him, aren't you?" he murmured, his eyes roving her face, as if looking for traces there of his father.
"If it helps for you to think of me that way, then yes."
"It does not."
"Why won't you do this?" she exclaimed, her patience gone. "Do you have any idea how long it's taken me to find you? I was sent here, sent to find you, and you're just going to send me away? Why? Why are you so afraid of it?"
"Afraid?" he said, frowning. "I'm trying to help you. You don't want me as a mentor. I failed him and I will fail you!"
Korra sat back, stunned. "You...you failed him? How?" This was a subject shrouded in much mystery. How the Avatar, the mighty Aang, a veteran of many battles and a powerful warrior, had fallen to such an undeserving foe had never been clear.
Tenzin poked more aggressively at the fire, more for something to occupy his hands, she suspected. "He asked me to come with him and Mom to that stronghold. For backup. Because I was the superstar, you see. I was the golden child. And I was feeling it. I was cocky. But I didn't really understand that he'd always shielded me from the worst of it. Mom, too. Hell, Zuko had practically held my hand through my first few battles with them. This time it was different. We were going in alone. It was supposed to be quick and clean. But I was sloppy. I got caught and he and Mom had to break off their mission to come get me. He was distracted because I was injured. Nothing major. But Mom was healing me and...well. Someone got very, very lucky." He shook his head. "He wasn't even a bender. He had a sword. It was sixteen years ago and every day, I see it happen again. I see the lunge, and then the tip of the sword coming through my father's chest. My mother moved so fast I didn't see her, just the guy flying across the room and then she had him in her lap. She tried to heal him, but...it was a mortal wound. At first we were calm. It just wasn't possible. We couldn't get it through our heads. Then he started to go." Tears were trickling down Tenzin's cheeks by now. Korra felt her own eyes welling up in sympathy. "She begged him to stay with her. All I could do was sit there in disbelief, because my whole life he'd been there and surely he couldn't be going now. He grabbed my hand and spoke to me, then he told my mother that he loved her. And then he died. I have not bent so much as a breeze since. Every time I've tried, all I hear is my mother, screaming his name as he died in her arms and it was my fault."
Korra let that lie for a moment. "I know I ought to tell you it isn't your fault, that you didn't fail him," she said. "But yeah, you totally did."
He looked at her with a flat gaze for a moment, then snorted. "You sure you're not related to my uncle?"
"You don't have to keep failing him."
He finally put down the poking stick and met her eyes. "I've been sitting here saying I wouldn't teach you, but the whole time we both knew that I would, because my father's last words to me were, 'Help the one who comes.' And here you are. You've come."
Korra got up, spurred by an impulse that came not only from her, and moved to sit on the log at his side. "He told me it had to be you, because you needed it more than I did."
Tenzin stared at her, seeing not her but the echoes of her past. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and Korra knew he wasn't talking to her.
She put her hand on his face, seeing it with memories not her own of when it had been young and fresh, a baby crying after drawing his first breath, a boy blowing his first gust, a teenager showing off his new arrows, a young man rebelling, a grown man facing the worst failure of his life. "All things in time," she said.
He nodded, then he drew away and the moment was over. Korra felt herself close up again, only her own memories and feelings in her head. She got up and took her place opposite Tenzin. "When do we start?"
"Right now. But before we do, will you answer two questions? And then I swear, I will never ask you anything like this again."
He lifted his eyes to her and all at once he looked so young, the expression in his eyes raw. "Is my father at peace?"
At least she knew the answer. "Yes."
"Is my mother with him?"
Korra thought back to the last time she'd ventured to the spirit world. She'd never seen Master Katara there, but she realized that she knew the answer to this one, too. "Yes."
Tenzin bowed his head for a moment. A long breath shuddered out of his chest and his whole form seemed to shrink slightly. Then he inhaled, his back straightened, and when he lifted his head his eyes were clear. "Get up," he said, doing so himself. "We have a lot of work to do."