Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. Bryke are the gods, not me.
A/N: Well, over here in the little cozy province of Ontario, it is Friday. That means that there is only one day left before The Legend of Korra airs and I proceed to lose my mind, or what's left of it. So, in anticipation of this great and glorious and long awaited day, I give you this fic.
Tenzin entered the hut, sweeping snow from his shoulders as he surveyed the round room. It was plainly decorated, warm, quiet, but most importantly, it was cloaked with calm spiritual energy. It was the perfect spot in all of the South Pole to conduct his test. Setting his staff aside and removing the satchel from his back, Tenzin got to work. He lit lanterns, burned some fragrant herbs, and then he spread a blanket out on the floor. One by one, he took various items out of his satchel, laying them precisely and perfectly on the saffron cloth. His expression was solemn.
"Oh my, you've set it up already. If you'd waited I would have helped."
Tenzin looked up from his work, having just placed the final item, a little wooden rattle with blue beads and the Air Nation emblem carved into the handle, onto the blanket. He smiled as his mother ambled into the hut.
"I didn't want to wake you from your nap," he excused, standing to greet the spry old woman. "I know that the trip from Republic City can be taxing."
"Oh Tenzin," Katara sighed, patting his cheek, "you're just like your father. You worry about me too much."
The mention of Aang was a bit like a stab at the airbender's heart. He tried to mask his pain, not wanting to distress his mother, but Katara knew her son even better than he knew himself. Winding her hand around his neck, she urged him to lean down so that she could kiss his brow, her lips lingering on the tip of the blue arrow tattooed to his head.
"He would be so proud of you," she said sincerely, hoping to ease his mind. Since Aang's death four years ago, Tenzin, the youngest of the Avatar's children, was exalted as the last airbender, a moniker that once hung around his father's neck. The pressure of being the only airbending master in the entire world was staggering, and Tenzin's own high standards for himself, had aged the man much more than his mere thirty-eight years. The stress of not only living up to his father's reputation, but also seeing that Aang's good works continued, were not simple tasks for one man. "This is a good spot for the test," Katara complimented. "There is a great deal of spiritual energy here."
"Yes. I will have to thank the shaman for allowing us the use of her hut," Tenzin agreed.
"Son," Katara sighed, her blue eyes glossing over the objects he had arranged on the blanket, "do you really feel that this is necessary? The White Lotus elders say that she can bend water, earth and fire,"
'But not air,' Tenzin finished silently, and that fact alone was enough for him to have some doubt about the girl. A single person's ability to bend more than one element was unheard of unless they were the Avatar, but the only way that Tenzin would be convinced of this girl's identity would be for her to pass this test, one of the most revered and ancient in all Air Nomad tradition.
The original four toys were gone, lost in the genocide of the Air Nation over a hundred and sixty years prior. Because of this, Tenzin decided that four items that had once belonged to his father would be an agreeable substitution.
The bison whistle Aang used to call for Appa.
A rattle Aang had made as a present for Bumi's first birthday.
Aang's glider, the one Tenzin now used as his own.
Meditation beads, the same ones Aang used every time he contacted the Spirit World.
If the child picked out the four items that had once belonged to Avatar Aang then Tenzin would be convinced of her status and he would commit to teaching her airbending when the time came.
Agreeing to take on the training of an Avatar was no simple decision, at least not for Tenzin. He was a member on the Council of the United Republic, representing the Air Nation. He was also the caretaker of Air Temple Island and leader of a commune of acolytes who sought peace and enlightenment by following the teachings and lifestyle of the Air Nomads. His responsibilities were vast and consuming, his time precious. If the White Lotus expected him to teach this girl then she would have to prove herself worthy of his concern.
"What will you do if this child is the one?" he asked.
"I will stay here," Katara answered simply. "I will teach her, just like I taught Aang."
"You…you won't come back to Republic City with me?" Tenzin asked, a pang of abandonment seizing his heart. Katara had made her home on Air Temple Island, first helping her husband in the founding of the United Republic and its capital, Republic City, and then supporting her son in establishing a commune on the island and keeping up with the rapid advancements that were changing the world. Before being summoned to the South Pole, they had just finished outfitting the temple with a wonderful new technology, electricity. Tenzin wasn't so confident that he could continue leading their community without his mother's comforting presence.
"If Korra is the Avatar, she'll need a waterbending teacher," Katara explained. "It will be good for me to come back home. Things in Republic City are moving too fast for me to keep up. It will be nice to be somewhere familiar, somewhere I was happy. This is where I first met your father."
"Yes mother, I know," Tenzin sighed, having heard the story countless times.
"Besides, it will do you some good to have your old mother out of the way. Without me to worry about, you might finally pluck up the courage and ask Pema on a date."
"Mother!" Tenzin cried, his bald head blushing as he thought of the pretty young woman that had joined the air acolytes almost six months ago.
"While we're here you should ask her to go penguin sledding," she joked, amused by how her son chose to ignore her suggestion, always the serious little airbender. Tenzin took up a sitting position in front of the blanket, taking deep, controlled breaths as he attempted to settle his mind in preparation for the test.
"Where is Pema?" he asked, trying to act nonchalant. Katara rolled her eyes at her son's pathetic attempts to ignore his preoccupation with the sweet and sincere girl they had brought with them to the South Pole.
"I sent her to collect the child," she answered, moving to sit at Tenzin's left side. "I thought it would be better if I didn't meet her before the test."
Tenzin nodded, approving his mother's wise choice before seeking the calm and tranquility that meditation provided, needing his senses to be clear and controlled for the task ahead.
"So, this is where you're hiding," a new, gravely voice said, jolting Tenzin out of his serenity.
"Zuko!" Katara exclaimed, rushing to the entrance of the hut to hug her dear friend. The Fire Lord wrapped Katara in a tender embrace. The pair had not seen each other since Aang's funeral four years ago.
"Agni's breath it's cold out there!"
Giving up on his attempts at mediation, Tenzin watched as a man a few years older than he barreled into the hut, breathing small puffs of fire into his cupped palms.
"Well, it is the South Pole," Tenzin teased good naturedly as the crown prince of the Fire Nation, Lu Ten, continued to curse and shiver.
"Still the staunch observer I see," Lu Ten snorted as he and Tenzin drew close to one another and embraced.
"This is new," Tenzin noted, giving his friend's beard an impressed assessment.
"What's a master bender without a master beard, am I right?" Lu Ten said importantly, stroking the bushy dark whiskers along his chin and jaw line while giving Tenzin's pointed goatee a sharp tug.
"Must you do that?" Tenzin groaned.
"I must," the crown prince answered glibly before turning his attention to the small dark figure huddled behind him. "Iroh, come and say hello."
A bit hesitantly, a young boy emerged from the protective shadow of his father's girth. He was dressed in heavy robes dyed in the vibrant reds of the Fire Nation, and a crimson headband emblazoned with a golden crest held back the boy's long black hair. It was young prince Iroh, the heir apparent to the Fire Nation.
Never one to forget propriety, the airbender bowed formally to the royal family.
"I am honored that the Fire Lord and his heirs have come to oversee this judgment."
"You haven't changed at all, Ten," Lu Ten joked.
"Neither have you," Tenzin shot back kindly before regarding Lu Ten's son. "But you have. Look at you, Iroh. You're so tall from the last time I saw you. How old are you now?"
"Nine this summer," the boy stated proudly.
"Nine already," Tenzin sighed, remembering when he and his father had flown on Appa to the Fire Nation palace to celebrate the birth of the child. It had been a wonderful, blistering hot day, filled with laughter and music and dancing and a little newborn baby boy breaking the revelry with his shrill crying.
"I know, where does the time go, right?" Lu Ten asked, ruffling Iroh's hair affectionately.
"Dad! Stop," Iroh groaned in embarrassment, readjusting the headband his father had mussed.
"So, when are you gonna settle down and have a few airbenders of your own?" the prince asked, ignoring his son's complaints in favor of winking teasingly at his friend. Tenzin flushed, an image of Pema, beautiful and smiling, flashing through his mind. "What's with the blush?" Lu Ten noted jovially. "Is there a special lady? Come on, you can tell your best friend." Before Tenzin had to be subjected to his friend's further goading, two White Lotus elders entered the hut, their somber and staid presence dousing the carefree reunion.
"She's here," one said. The occupants of the room nodded and took their places, sitting behind Tenzin who knelt at the head of the blanket full of objects. Regaining his composure, the airbender nodded to the White Lotus members.
It was time to begin the test.
"You can bring her in now," one of the elders said as he pulled back the tarp. Tenzin watched as Pema entered the hut holding the hand of a little girl.
"She's cute," Lu Ten whispered, eyeing Pema, his hot breath buzzing around Tenzin's ear like an irritating spider-fly. With great composure, the airbending master ignored Lu Ten, even if he did agree with the prince's assessment. Tenzin focused his attention on the child.
"But why do I gotta take a test? I'm the Avatar!" a pudgy little girl insisted grumpily as she let Pema lead her into the room. She was very young, barely out of nappies. She was a stout, chubby child, her blue parka ridding up her belly, the rich brown skin around her navel chapped from the cold. Her hair was a haphazard tangle, pulled back into a wolftail that spiked in every direction. Her eyes were large and as clear as the waters of Yue Bay. She was also pouting, petulant and grumpy at having to participate in something she didn't want to.
Already, Tenzin could feel tension gathering around his temples.
"Thank you, Pema," he said, disregarding the way Lu Ten prodded him in the back encouragingly. The young woman smiled politely at the airbender, leaving the girl standing before the group so that she could join the White Lotus members kneeling near the doorway. Crossing her arms, Korra stared at the group, eyes narrowing as she noted the blanket with the several items scattered upon it. Instantly, the four year old locked eyes with Tenzin, her fearless glare demanding an answer. "Hello, Korra," Tenzin greeted calmly. "Thank you for coming. Do you know why you are here?"
"Cuz I'm the Avatar!" she crowed importantly, punching her fist over her head and bending a burst of fire into the air.
"Agni's breath," Zuko exhaled softly, clearly sold on the claim that this Water Tribe child was the Avatar. Tenzin wasn't so easily swayed. Living in Republic City all of his life, the airbender had witnessed the stunning results of mixed marriages. Even he and his siblings, the children of a waterbender and the Avatar, were prime examples of the results cultural blending could yield. Perhaps there was Fire Nation blood in Korra's background that the White Lotus scholars had yet to uncover.
"I've asked you to come here for a special reason," Tenzin stated in a very composed manner. "This is just a simple test. It won't hurt you, and no one is going to be cross with you. We'd just like you to do something for us."
"What do I gotta do?" she asked, inching closer to the blanket.
"Well," Tenzin spread one of his arms out, indicating the dozens of items, "I've laid out all of these just for you."
"All for me?" Korra said excitedly. "Can I keep them?"
"You can pick four things to keep," Tenzin conceded.
Not impressed with the limit, Korra pouted at the airbending master. Although he tried, Tenzin couldn't help himself. He examined Korra critically, analyzing her stance, her posture, her demeanor and attitude, looking for Aang, seeking a spark, a glimmer, a shadow of his father.
He couldn't see anything except a bratty little girl.
Huffing, Korra perused the objects Tenzin had so carefully laid out. She stepped over the glider, her boot kicking the long staff and scuffing the wood. She picked up a clay bowl, grimaced at it, then dropped it before moving on to a compact, sticking her tongue out at her reflection in the round mirror. But she lost interest in that as well and let the compact clank back onto the blanket, turning around as she searched for something better, stepping on the handle of the rattle. Tenzin grimaced at the apathetic behavior of the child, annoyed that she obviously lacked in manners and respect.
All in the room collectively held their breath when the next item Korra picked up was the bison whistle. She ran her chubby fingers over the smooth white surface, even held the whistle to her mouth and blew into it. Tenzin was intrigued by the way Korra looked around the room, as if seeking a sky bison to come flying obediently to her call, only to frown in confusion when none came. She at least put the whistle down gently before continuing her search.
She picked up the meditation beads next, holding them up against the lantern light. She intently examined the four circular pendants that decorated the necklace, taking note of the emblems of each of the four nations branded into the wood. Korra moved to put the beads on, but stopped. Huffing irritably, she lowered the beads and threw Tenzin a bored, imploring look.
"I don't like none of this stuff," she whined.
"Korra, please, just pick –"
"But I don't wanna!"
Tenzin could feel his calm cracking. It didn't help that his mother and the others were chuckling. Didn't they understand how important this was? If Korra didn't pick out the four items that had once been his father's, if she wasn't able to prove to him, with her spirituality and not her bending, that she was really the Avatar, then Tenzin couldn't in good conscience teach her.
He needed to be certain.
"Korra, just pick any four things in the room," the airbender sighed tiredly. Pouting, the four year old stomped up to Tenzin, dropping the mediation beads as she went, and came face to face with him. Even sitting down, Tenzin was a good head taller than Korra and his stature alone should have intimidated the girl. But Korra stared him down, unafraid. Again, Tenzin tried to see if he could find his father's spirit lurking in the corners of Korra's eyes.
"I want that," the little girl stated matter-of-factly, prodding Tenzin in the middle of his arrow tattoo, breaking his concentration. The airbending master was stunned, frozen in place while Korra poked his brow. Lu Ten started to laugh and Iroh followed his father's example, but Katara and Zuko stared at the girl with a newfound wonder. They knew that Aang had done Tenzin's tattoos himself, painstakingly working away at the arrows for weeks, proudly inducting his son as a master airbender. The tattoo might not have been one of the selected objects, but it was most definitely something that was saturated with Aang's spirit.
Korra sniffed, turning away from Tenzin and moving towards Katara. The four year old curiously regarded the old waterbender before her aquamarine eyes settled on the long necklace Katara was wearing.
"Can I have that?" Korra asked, pointing to the jewelry. Katara's face softened as her hand rose to run along the smooth shell of the medallion, her fingertips finding the familiar groves that curved to create the symbol of the Air Nation. The necklace had been a gift from Aang on their wedding day. He'd presented it to her after they'd exchanged vows, welcoming her into his Air Nomad family.
"Is this one of your choices?" Katara asked gently.
"Yep, and the arrow, too," she stated. Katara removed her necklace, her neck feeling naked without its familiar weight.
"You have just two more choices," Katara told the little girl. "Choose well."
Korra listened respectfully to Katara, nodding as she took the medallion and cradled it with an unusual tenderness against her chest. Silence fell upon the group as they watched Korra cast a searching gaze over the room, ignoring the blanket and everything laid out on it. Tenzin began tapping a finger on his knee, agitated, rolling his eyes when Korra approached Iroh, her interest focused on the boy's hair.
"Gimme that!" she demanded, pulling on his headband.
"No! It's mine!" Iroh shouted, grappling with the girl.
"Iroh, be a gentleman," Lu Ten scolded, leaning over to undo the headband from his son's brow.
"But dad –"
"There," the crown prince sighed, ignoring his child's petty complaints as he loosened the knot and handed the crimson cloth to Korra.
"Well, the headband proves it!" Tenzin erupted, furious with the mockery that was being made of the ancient Air Nomad naming tradition. "That was never my father's."
"Actually," Lu Ten said smugly, "It was."
"When Lu Ten was born, Aang gave him the headband he wore to conceal his arrow when he was hiding out in the Fire Nation during the war," Zuko explained.
"And when Iroh was born, I passed it on to him," Lu Ten finished, his lips turning into a proud smile, the same one he wore whenever he beat Tenzin at pai sho. "So, she's picked out three things so far, all of them belonging to Aang."
"Tenzin," Katara sighed, "you must admit that this girl…she is the one."
The airbender begged to differ. As he watched Korra throw the headband over her neck like a scarf, Tenzin wanted to cease the test. He wanted to rage and rant. Couldn't the others see? Where they blind? Or were they simply desperate to find the reborn spirit of their dearly missed friend?
Tenzin missed his father, grieved for him every day, did his best to stand tall in Aang's place as the guiding example of what the Air Nomads had once been. He said the proper chants, meditated daily, followed the correct drills and airbending practices, adhered to the diet, studied the few surviving texts, and devoted all that he was to the Air Nation and his place as the leader of this nearly lost people. He had to maintain the traditions, the order…
He had to keep his father's legacy alive.
The sanctity of the test had been completely ruined, the old traditions insulted. Tenzin was angry, humiliated, hurt. He wouldn't consent to naming Korra the Avatar, he just wouldn't!
Korra's sharp tone cut through Tenzin's lamenting. Looking down, the airbender was stunned speechless. Korra had sat herself on his lap, her pudgy hands at his knees, making herself comfortable. She sat on him like he was a throne, supporting her.
"This is mine, too!" Korra declared.
The others in the room laughed uproariously. Tenzin deflated against the laughter of his friends and family. Even Pema was giggling, but at least she had the manners to hide her chortles behind her hand. Korra rocked in Tenzin's lap, clapping her hands against his knees. The airbender sighed and looked at his mother imploringly.
"She is right," Katara giggled, completely unhelpful.
Tenzin rubbed his head, frustrated and exhausted. He looked down at the little girl in his lap, the lines around his eyes and mouth deepening. Korra shifted against him, drawing the airbender's attention.
She had turned her head up so that the crown of her skull was settled against his chest, looking at the tall airbender upside down. She was studying him, her large blue eyes searching and curious, her pout slowly turning into an amused grin. Tenzin looked back, unsmiling, dejected and defeated, not knowing what to make of this little girl that had turned his sacred Air Nomad tradition into a mockery.
And then he saw it.
It was barely discernable, it could have been a trick of the light, or his imagination, but as sure as he could feel the tiny weight of Korra sitting on his lap, Tenzin saw a sparkle of laughter light up in the girl's eyes. It was a twinkle he knew, one that he'd memorized and cherished…
"You know I won't be here forever."
"Father, it's just a cold," Tenzin insisted, sitting at Aang's bedside. Ever since Aang and Katara had returned to Air Temple Island after having been gone for over a year – an impromptu and indulgent second honeymoon to celebrate being married for fifty years – Tenzin noticed his father was a bit more solemn, less energetic. The chest cold he had caught a week ago wasn't improving the Avatar's strange mood, but Tenzin supposed that was to be expected. The infection affected Aang's breathing, allowing only the shallowest of breaths, something terribly unhealthy for most and deadly dangerous for an airbender. Despite his brave front, Tenzin was worried.
"Tenzin," Aang rasped, drawing his son's attention. "You don't have to be afraid. Death is a part of life, part of the human cycle…part of the Avatar cycle."
"You'll have to teach the new one airbending."
"I will," Tenzin promised earnestly, "but let's not talk about that now. You just worry about getting better. I'll let you rest."
"One more thing, Tenzin."
The airbender stopped at the door, turning to cast understanding and serious eyes on his bedridden father. He was caught off guard when Aang smiled mischievously, seeming like his old self.
"Promise that you'll teach the next Avatar this sweet move." Aang said, holding his hands out, one palm hovering over the other, a marble spinning in-between them.
The older man's grey eyes lit up with pure mirth, thoroughly entertained by the simple airbending trick. It had been one of the first moves Aang had ever taught Tenzin, and while the son had outgrown the novelty of the trick, his father always found humor in the feat. Tenzin smiled back at Aang, caught up in the happiness that shone out of the Avatar's eyes like twinkling stars of laughter.
"I promise father…
The airbender tilted his head towards his mother, eyes still locked with Korra's.
Without realizing it, Tenzin's arms had lifted to wrap snuggly around Korra's chubby frame, protecting her and cradling her, just as his own father's arms had once held him. He could feel everyone in the room looking at him, waiting for his judgment. The test had not been completed the way Tenzin had anticipated. Korra had been unorthodox in her choices, but in the end, she had chosen four things that had been his father's. Tenzin felt himself smiling at the girl in his lap, tears of relief spilling from his eyes.
"Korra is the Avatar."
"The virtues we acquire, which develop slowly within us, are the invisible links that bind each one of our existences to the others - existences which the spirit alone remembers, for Matter has no memory for spiritual things."
Just a personal note, but I love the idea of happy-go-lucky Aang fathering a serious little airbender like Tenzin, and brooding awkward Zuko fathering a total ham of a son.
Once again, I want to thank everyone who has been reading and favoriting and reviewing my stories. It means more than I can say, despite my best efforts to articulate my feelings.
Korra starts in just one day guys, and we gotta deal with it!
Please leave questions, comments and thoughts in general if you'd like.