Chapter 8: The Morning After
Getting her inside the building was nothing short of a miracle.
He was sure that her fatigue from rescuing a bunch of tenants and escaping a burning building made it easier to shove her past the revolving doors. But some benevolent spirit made sure that the receptionist was absent from her post, otherwise the woman would have heard the string of colorful expletives that the girl was spouting while being dragged toward the elevators. He pulled her inside, calmly folding his arms across his chest and allowing himself to be the sounding board for every dirty insult the girl had already known in the South Pole and had learned during her stay in the city.
When the doors of the elevator slid shut, he decided that her tirade is over.
"Keep screaming like a banshee, and I don't think the gangs will have to look hard to find you."
"YOU DUMBASS!" She yelled, his insult flying over her head, his chest being stabbed by her accusatory finger.
"Do you want to wake up the entire damn building?" He shot at her, his patience already cracked.
"You can't just pull me around everywhere like I'm some...some...DOLL!" The girl screamed, nostrils flared, teeth gritted, eyes narrowed dangerously. "I kept trying to tell you back there that this is a huge mistake."
"And I did all I could to ignore you until now, obviously." He replied, brushing away a stray lock of jet black hair from his cheek.
She grabbed her front ponytails out of frustration, and he couldn't help but think she was attempting to keep her hands from wrapping around his throat. "I told you specifically to take me to a hotel! I TOLD you, and you didn't listen!"
"I didn't because your plan would've likely gotten you caught by the Triad or even by the police."
Unsurprisingly, she didn't agree. "I been through a lot of crap tonight. The last thing I want is for you to get involved!"
He thought of her huddled in his black jacket, looking exhausted, almost broken, and for once he is unable to hold back his temper. "Stays in the city for less than a couple of months, and the almighty Uh-vatar thinks my help is beneath her?"
"Don't put words in my mouth. Don't."
She looked even more tired than she appeared during the drive over here, which he thought wasn't possible. Against his expectations, she drew back from him, and rested her body against the back of the wall. "I inadvertently set a building on fire. People lost their home because of me." At the last statement, her hands hugged her sides, re-enacting an old habit of hers when she was nervous as a child, and she looked smaller now underneath his jacket. "That can't happen again."
She faced the wall ahead of her, but he knew she wasn't really looking at anything in particular. And even though the high collar of his jacket hid them from view, he could still visualize the red marks that ran jaggedly across her right cheek. There was an audible ding, and the elevator halted in its ascent, its doors sliding smoothly to reveal the hallways of the 30th floor. He crossed the threshold, but not completely. With one foot in the hallway and another on the elevator, he looked back at the girl, whose eyes didn't lift to meet his.
"Are you done?" He asked, a hint of irritation edging his otherwise even voice.
"How can you be so calm about this?" She questioned him accusingly as she remained where she was. "You saw what they did."
"It was a pretty fireworks show, I admit. But I've seen better-"
"Don't you get it?!" The morose little girl was now alive again, the all-too familiar eyes burning bright with anger. "I don't want them to do anything to you!"
The walls of the elevator did little to muffle the fury or the desperation in her words. Tahno didn't dare answer with another joke. Even if he were in a better mood, he doubted teasing the girl would accomplish anything. "If you would think for a second, you'd realize that they can't do anything to me because they won't find me. They know you worked at the docks for some time, right?"
Her eyes were wary and her fists were still balled at her sides, but she answered with a curt nod.
"This is one of the last places in the city that the Triad is going to find some Water Tribe girl living off minimum wage. They won't find me or you here, but it can only stay that way if you don't draw attention to yourself."
Stubborn as ever, she remained rooted to the floor of the elevator, but her hands relaxed and her glare was losing its edge. Sighing exasperatedly, Tahno extended his hand to her. "Come on. Nothing's going to happen to me."
Her standoff lasted for another minute before she relented. Her hand was small reaching for his, just as it always was when they were children. He knew better then to jest, and she must have been grateful for it. When both her feet left the elevator, the doors glided behind her and began its descent. Neither of them spoke as he guided her down the hallway and to the correct door. He let her hand go to turn the key and with a flick of the nearby light switch, his apartment appeared before them.
Keeping with his personal tastes of dark colors, the deep red cushions of the matching furniture set barely showed in the glow of the overhead lamps. The occasional piece of artwork decorated the otherwise accented walls, but each painting added a cultured air to the living room's aesthetic. A breadth of black curtains swept over the set of window blinds, hiding the city lights from view.
"Shoes off." He looked over his shoulder to find her taking in the place with her eyes wide with awe. When she heard him, she snapped herself out of the daze and slipped off her boots. "I'll be back. Hang around here."
He didn't wait for an answer and left her at the door. Tahno walked through the living room and down a short hallway to where his bedroom was. After turning on the desk lamp on his wardrobe, he began pulling open the drawers. His search stopped at the second drawer when he found a pair of black silk pajama bottoms and a matching button down. Given their differences in height, she would be swimming in the material, but it was the only outfit he knew that would remotely fit her. He left the room with the pajamas and took out a towel from a closet in the hallway.
He found her with her back to him; she had drawn back the curtain and propped open the blinds partially to steal a glimpse of the city skyline. Her eyes left the scenery when she heard him approach, casting a confused look at the clothes he had in his arms.
"Shower's at the end of the hallway, on the right," he simply explained, shoving the clothes and towel into her hands.
She made no effort to mask her irritation at the prompt request, but she draped the towel in her arm and the pajamas in the other and headed toward the direction of the bathroom. He heard the faint sound of running water as he prepared tea in the kitchen area. As he let the loose leaves steep in the water of the kettle, he collected a few pieces of fruit from the ice box. He sliced a green apple in quarters, remembering that his search for the girl had derailed any plans he had to go grocery shopping early in the week. Placing the apple slices next to a couple of tangerines on a plate, he carried the food over to the coffee table in the living room. He had just set down the kettle and two tea cups when he heard her footsteps. Her damp hair was loose, the long strands sticking to the back of her neck and her bangs clinging to her cheeks. Like he predicted, his pajamas weren't flattering to her figure-all but her fingertips were covered by the long sleeves, and she had rolled up the ends of the pants so they material wouldn't drag whenever she walked. He couldn't help chuckling at how she was practically drowning in the oversized clothes, which earned him a scornful glare.
"It's not my fault that you're abnormally tall." She said defensively, rolling up a sleeve to her elbow.
"How are those pants any more different than the baggy eyesores you wear?" Tahno shot back with a smirk. "Here." He gestured toward the platter of fruit and the tea on the coffee table.
Korra looked from him and to the food with a strange expression. She sat on the plush couch, tentatively picking up a green apple slice from the plate.
"It's not poisoned, Uh-vatar. It's also all I had around here."
"Tahno, why are you doing this?"
The question was abrupt, but he casually shrugged his shoulders. "Not like I had anything else going on." He snatched the apple from her hand and popped it into her mouth before she could ask him anything else. "Eat up, or would you rather I feed you?"
He barely dodged the pillow that she swung at his head, and he looked amusedly at the blue-eyed glower she directed at him. He turned and left her in the living room, briefly going back to his bedroom to get another pair of pajama pants. When he went into the humid bathroom, he found her clothes, singed at the edges with some parts covered in ash, in one corner. Assuming she didn't know where to put them, he placed them in the laundry hamper next to the sink. He thought better against just throwing the clothes out because he remembered her as the sentimental type. The clothes on her back were now her only reminders of her home in the South Pole. Any other personal belongings may have been abandoned in smoking rubble if they hadn't already been destroyed by the fire earlier tonight.
She can't go around in those clothes, though, he thought while the running water from the shower head washed over him as he stood in the bathtub. She may as well wear a target on her back.
After a while, he finished his shower and changed. When he went back to the living room, he found the girl curled up into a ball on the couch. The apple slices were gone, but the peel of tangerines were left in pieces on the plate next to a half-drunk cup of now cold jasmine tea. Her bangs had dried, revealing the marks she had received during her earlier fight with the Triad. His eyes also caught the long scar trailing on her left arm and the blue-and-white tribal band she wore on her right. He mused ironically how the girl actually had two more things she now carried two reminders on her arms: one to remind her of her home, and one to remind her of how dangerous it could be to play the role of savior.
He quietly went to the spare room where he kept a daybed and a full bookshelf. As he fetched a spare blanket from the closet, he thought to himself how he had seen very few people wear his clothes. All of them had been women, and he remembered the irritation he felt by their attempts to seduce him by slipping on a shirt or a jacket he had owned. When he saw Korra though, he didn't feel any of that past irritation. Looking at her after draping the blanket over her body, he realized how small she looked sleeping in his pajamas. Seeing her face so relaxed, her hair down and spread underneath her, smelling of tangerines and jasmine...she was vulnerable.
He realized his fingers were reaching to tuck away a stray lock of hair from her lips, and he quickly snatched his hand away. He turned from her again, heading towards the comforts of his liquor cabinet. With a glass of wine in his hand, he looked out over the light-strewn city from his balcony. Tried as he might, his head was filled with thoughts of the girl sleeping on his couch.
It was dark, but she could hear it-the snow fell softly, gently, like little fragile things made of crystal. She could feel them in her hair, brushing against her skin, chilling her with their light, frigid touches. Even before she learned how to bend it, she was born for the snow. She's played in it, lived in it, tasted it...and yet she had never felt cold like she did now. The air was frost in her lungs and in her nose as she tried to steady her breathing, and her cheeks stung from the tears that had dried long ago.
She wanted to stay in the darkness like this, possibly forever if she could. She was beginning to think that maybe she had hidden so well that everyone had given up looking for her. The possibility filled her with comfort as much as apprehension, but it did little to improve her mood. She knew what and who she was. She had responsibilities that she had to, wanted to fulfill. But even now, her heart ached. Responsibility meant giving up a lot of things she wanted to keep: a normal life with her parents, more time just talking and training with Katara...and spending her time with a grey-eyed boy whose sarcasm and snobby attitude infuriated her to no end...but the thought of him made her heart ache the most.
She shut him out, as much as she didn't want to. Right now, she wanted to stay here surrounded by shadows, sitting under the falling snow.
A gloved hand had pressed itself on top of hers, its touch warming her from the cold. Her eyes followed the arm, but they didn't find the owner. Darkness stared back at her, but she wasn't afraid. The voice was a familiar voice, one she had often heard when she was awake and when she was sleeping.
Bang, bang, bang.
She heard the series of knocks somewhere further in the darkness. She whipped her head right and left and even looked behind, but she couldn't find it. When she looked in front of her, she still couldn't even make out the outline of the person who spoke, but his hand was still on hers. The feeling of it was solid, tangible, and she didn't want to let go of it.
Bang, bang, bang. The knocking grew louder, and with it the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. His fingers began to slip from her grasp, as if the shadows were pulling him back. She desperately hung onto him, both of her small hands grasping him with all the strength she had.
"No!" She yelled over the increasing crescendo of the knocking and the snow that shuffled underneath her feet.
Bang, bang, BANG.
"Don't leave!" She struggled to keep her grip on his hand, her mind wiped of any previous desire for solitude.
BANG, BANG, BANG.
At the last thunderous knock, his hand slipped from her own entirely, and with it any hope she had of hearing his voice ever again.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
She found herself underneath a dark ceiling when she was pulled back from that world of darkness and snow. Hurriedly wiping the sweat across her forehead, she sat up from the couch that she was laying on. Her vision, still bleary from sleep and the few tears she had brought back from her nightmare, was unable to clearly make out her surroundings, but that didn't bother her. The pounding headache was a more pressing matter, and she found that kneading her temples was little relief when the cause was still pounding loudly against the door. Unlike in her dream, the sound of the incessant rapping was intensified twofold in the waking world.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
She didn't know what time it was or why her living room was so dark. What she did know was that whoever was on the other side of the door was giving her a headache that threatened to split her skull in two. As she stood up and fumbled over a coffee table she didn't remember buying, she tried remembering if she had paid her landlady last week. The woman's wrath was something she didn't want to face, especially when she was feeling more tired than usual, but her resolve didn't waver as she wrapped her fingers around the door knob and pulled.
"Will you STOP knocking so loudly?! I already paid-"
She was unable to finish her sentence when she found that the short, grey-haired woman wasn't on the other side. Instead, a young man with chestnut brown hair, stood in front of her, his hand hanging in mid-air above her face where the door had been. Unlike his neatly styled hair, his face was a portrait of disarray; his blue eyes reflected bewilderment when they fell on Korra and his mouth hung open, unable to utter any coherent words.
"Didn't think Tahno had guests over...especially you." A deep voice commented, and she noticed that a taller, dark-haired man with jade green eyes stood behind the younger man. It took her less than a minute to recognize each of their faces from the Water Tribe restaurant that she used to frequent with Bolin.
It was then that the realization that she wasn't in her own apartment hit her with the force of a tsunami. In her head, she was screaming while trying to keep above the wave of mortification that threatened to drown her. "What do you want?"
"We needed to see Tahno. Is he around?" The dark-haired man asked with a shadow of a grin at his lips.
"I don't know."
"What do you mean? Didn't you see him when you woke up?"
She glared at the younger one, detesting what his tone implied. "It's not what you think-"
"You're wearing his pajamas." The blue-eyed man cut her off, giving her an incredulous look. She was suddenly aware that the oversized pajamas may have hung a little too low to her liking, and her hand immediately went to the top button to hike it up.
The taller man chuckled. "Don't be so tough on her, Shaozu." This man's tone was kinder, but Korra disliked what he followed up with. "There's no shame in it, you know. Tahno can be quite the charmer-"
"Look, chumps," she briskly interrupted the well-meaning, but misguided effort of reassurance. "I didn't stay over this place for the reasons you're thinking!"
The one named Shaozu scoffed at her. "You don't have to lie about it."
"I'm not lying! I'm not one of his floozies, got it?!"
"I wouldn't call them that," Ming calmly replied, "But if you aren't, what are you?"
"She's my cousin." The men's eyes followed the voice to find the tall, black-haired man in question standing behind them. "Will you stop harassing her now, boys?" After hearing his voice, her brain halted frantically scrambling for a believable excuse as to why she stayed the night in an apartment belonging to the well-groomed Wolfbat. She could think of nothing, aside from the truth, that could even come close to explaining why she was wearing another man's clothes without unwanted implications, which she was certain was already going through the two visitors' heads.
"Your...cousin?" The one with the green coat asked skeptically, his eyes going to Korra and back to the tall man.
"I don't recall stuttering." Tahno's tone wasn't at all defensive-it was like he was making an excruciatingly obvious statement. "Korra, bags." She didn't like being ordered around, but she didn't argue. Korra hurried from the archway of the front door and took the bulging paper bags from his arms. She moved so quickly that she didn't have time to catch the expression on his face before turning away with the groceries in hands. After returning to the apartment and retreating toward the kitchen area where the ice box and pantry were, her heartbeat quickened when she heard their footsteps. As she struggled to keep herself from raising suspicion, Korra envied Tahno for being able to be so collected whereas she had a storm raging through her head.
"You're kidding." Their youngest teammate said in disbelief over the rustling of the bags as she reached for the food inside. "She looks nothing like you."
Korra didn't look up from the groceries, her hands randomly grabbing whatever was in the bags and stocking them into the shelves of the icebox.
"It was my understanding that cousins didn't have to look like each other, Shaozu," Tahno smoothly replied, "Besides, the little girl takes after her father's side more than her mother's, who married into the family."
She was more accustomed to hearing that her looks were an even blend between both her parents, but Korra didn't protest. Tahno obviously spent more time than she did fabricating their family tree.
"Didn't think you had relatives in the Water Tribe," She heard the green-eyed man's husky voice. "I thought your cousin was already living on her own though. What's she doing here?"
"Yeah, and why is she wearing your pajamas?" Her cheeks grew hot at the youngest Wolfbat's question, and the tomato that she was holding suffered from the ironclad clasp of her fingers.
"Little Korra here lost all her things to a bunch of thugs who broke into her apartment. So I took it upon myself to lend her a hand-"
"You're so full of yourself!" She shouted over the counter, ignoring the half-empty grocery bags. "And will you three stop talking about me like I'm not even here? I'm in the SAME room!"
Her outburst earned baffled expressions from the two guests, but it was Tahno's that burned into her mind. He appeared startled, as if he really had just become aware of her presence in the room. She followed the strange look on his face just as it came close to hers. She instinctively inched backwards to put some distance between them, too distracted to see the white hand shoot out towards her...
...and her view of the room and the other two Wolfbats slanted abruptly to an angle. In a gesture more humiliating than any other attack he was capable of, Tahno had grabbed a bunch of her hair and yanked.
"Mind your temper." He lightly chided her. She seethed as his hand hovered over her right shoulder with the thick, dark strands as his prize. Slipping on a bemused grin and ignoring the irate glare she threw at him, he turned back to his teammates. "She's cute when she's angry, isn't she?" He asked as if he was a proud master doting on something humorous his pet had done.
She quickly pushed him away, and he released her, waving both hands in a mock gesture of surrender. "Don't touch me!" She exclaimed, trying to ignore the temptation to chuck the rest of the groceries at his well-groomed head.
"If it makes you feel better, I don't disagree with Tahno." The green-eyed man, "Ming" if she remembered correctly, commented. She didn't know how to respond to his amiable tone, but she noticed that Tahno, for once in this conversation, looked annoyed. The irritation was gone as soon as it appeared though after he leaned back against the kitchen counter and faced his teammates.
"What did you two want anyway?" He asked without a hint of urgency in his tone.
The brown-haired boy named "Shaozu" answered promptly. "We had that interview with the paper today. Couldn't get in touch with you last night so we wanted to stop by this morning."
"Guess we shouldn't let the cameras wait too long for us, then." Tahno breezily answered, and as if he wanted to deliberately anger her further, his hand mussed up the top of her hair. "The grown-ups have business now. Think you can take care of yourself for a few hours?"
She frowned at him, and he retracted his hand before she could smack him away again. "I'm not a kid."
"Could've fooled me," he teased with that stupid grin of his. "Just keep out of trouble and out of my stuff." With that, he walked towards the door and his teammates wordlessly followed their leader. Neither of them looked back at her before the door closed shut. After she heard the latch click back into place, she let her shoulders sag as she released a sigh of relief. But the feeling of begrudging gratitude she felt last night for her "cousin" returned, and she knew that the debt she already owed Tahno had just increased. What was worse was the remnants of a nightmare she was having earlier were coming back to plague her: the banging sound that echoed through the darkness, the cold touch of snow, the loss and fear she felt when she couldn't reach the boy's hand...
Her nose caught a familiar scent of sugar and fresh bread. The sweet scent beckoned from the bag that she had started unpacking before the Wolfbats' conversation distracted her. Kneeling down to where the bag stood, she only had to remove a few more pieces of fruit to find a rectangular box. She picked it up in her hands and untied the knot that kept it in place. After opening the lid, a neat arrangement of pastry rolls welcomed her. Her mouth watering from the sweet scent, she took one roll and marveled at how soft and warm it felt to the touch. Thinking that they had just been baked this morning, Korra took a hearty bite. In between the flavors of tart berries and baked sugary dough, the pastry tasted of her thirteenth birthday, the one she had brought her first house guest ever to her home.
She remembered how tall he was even back then as they walked through the snow underneath the stars, his long arm over her shoulders.
"You're really not covering up for that girl or anything, right?"
It didn't surprise him that his teammates were still questioning over their unexpected encounter with Korra this morning. Aside from Shaozu's bellyaching over the family business and Ming's occasional brief anecdote about his parents, the subject of family was never a prevalent one. He had never mentioned being related to Korra before after what happened at Narook's, and it hadn't helped that the girl was wearing his pajamas when she met his teammates at the door.
He was actually contemplating how he was going to introduce Korra to Ming and Shaozu while he was out shopping, but the events of this morning had forced his hand.
"When have I ever covered up for a girl who stayed over my house?" He asked almost disinterestedly. He knew Ming was aware of the answer-all of the girls Tahno had spent the night with never went out of their way to hide the fact that they were in his company.
Ming, taking a sip of the tea the newspaper staff provided him. "I just find it odd, is all. Korra had been in the city for a while, right? Why is she all of a sudden at your place?"
He appeared pensive before taking a deep breath and taking on an appearance that he rarely used: for once, Tahno looked concerned for someone that wasn't himself. "It's been four years since I've seen her, so I didn't immediately recognize Korra when we saw her arguing with old Toza at the Arena. After that, I received a letter from my aunt saying that her daughter ran away from home."
"All the way from the South Pole?" Ming asked in disbelief.
"I knew who she was right away after I read that letter." Tahno agreed, crossing one leg over the other and resting his chin on the steeple that his hands had formed. "After we bumped into each other again at Narook's, I paid my dear cousin a visit. Turns out that she did run away from home."
The earthbender studied him with questioning eyes. "Why didn't you try convincing her to go back?"
In his mind, it was nighttime and he was underneath the roof of a gazebo slightly hidden away from the bright glow of the Arena and the clamor of the passerby. She was across from him, her shoulder supported by one of the pillars, her blue eyes staring at him against the backdrop of the dark sky and Yue Bay. He remembered her words, which were clear over the slight breeze and the lull of the water, as he answered plainly, "Because she feels she has something to prove."
Tahno knew he was safe when he saw Ming's grin. "Probably why she's had so many run-ins with the gangs since she came here. You know all about that, don't you, Shaozu?" He asked the youngest Wolfbat with a nudge of his arm.
"It's not funny."
Ming's eyes registered his surprise at their teammate's curt response. "Why so grumpy?"
Admittedly, Tahno was also curious as to what would warrant such a brusque answer from Shaozu, and the curiosity heightened when the firebender's eyes lifted to his own. "Why didn't you tell me she was your cousin? If I had known sooner, I could've gotten her job back."
He suddenly remembered that Korra was recently fired from her job at the warehouse that Shaozu owned at the docks. The victory he felt from convincing both his teammates now that the girl was his cousin bolstered his confidence. With an amiable grin, he waved it off. "It's not a big deal. Even if she is my relative, Korra has to learn that she can't just do as she pleases in a city like this."
The firebender contemplated his response, but even though he didn't disagree with his captain, he still appeared troubled. "There has to be something that I can do to set things straight with you, Tahno. I don't want to leave it like this."
Tahno reached for his tea cup and the black material of his sleeve reminded him of the pajamas he had lent the girl, and the image of her in the ill-fitted clothes brought up the memory of how the burnt remains of her original Water Tribe garb was still laying in his hamper.
He took a small gulp of the tea that was provided to him during the interview. "Since you're insistent, there may be something you can do for the girl."
When he found an empty spot on the couch where the blanket was thrown aside the cushions, the panic didn't necessarily hit him then. But after he searched the rest of the apartment, a chill ran down his neck.
Checking the lobby would have been useless because he would have noticed her earlier, unless she had left well before he was dropped off at the front. His chest tightened at the thought of Korra wandering aimlessly in a city filled with Triad members whom he was certain would be all too happy to find her. The initial chill he felt now deepened into another sensation-like he was being slowly lowered into a pool of frigid water.
An image of her looking out at the city last night emerged from his thoughts. He remembered how fixated her eyes were on the light-strewn scenery below, and he knew then, or at least he hoped, where she was.
He left his apartment and walked briskly to the elevator. After hitting the button to the uppermost level, his foot tapped impatiently while the elevator glided upwards, his eyes watching the buttons lighting up as they passed each floor. When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open again, an empty hallway greeted him. He walked until he reached the end, where a gray set of stairs led upwards to a metal door. With each step he took, he felt as if he was completely submerged in water, and what was n the other side would either drown him or hoist him up.
He pushed aside the heavy door, and he found her sprawled on the roof, her chin tilted upwards to the cloudless stretch of sky. She was still wearing his pajamas.
The afternoon sun warmed the chill from his skin as he walked toward her. "Couldn't just stay put, could you?" He asked, looking down at her.
He saw the blue of her eyes for a second before her right fist shot up, and her face disappeared behind a blur of heat and crimson.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hi, there. I've said it a thousand times before, but thanks for being patient. I'm sorry for the very, very, VERY, months-late update. Things have been hectic in my personal life and at work. The other story I planned was put on the side-burner, and every time I did try to sit down and write this one, I couldn't produce anything. For those of you who know what it's like to stare at a bright monitor only to come up with nothing, it's not the most pleasant of feelings. I have every intention of finishing this story, but I don't want to rush it. I think it's better that way.
Secondly, thanks for all the reviews and favorites. I haven't actually been to the site until now, but it made me smile knowing that this story wasn't completely forgotten. If you've sent me a message and I haven't responded, I'm sorry. Like I said, life's been hectic and I've got a lot of catching up to do. I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and as always, please feel free to read and review!