A/n: Hi there! Thanks for taking the time to check out this story. I think I should state that as of the release of "When Extremes Meet", this is more than likely now an AU. This also turned out a lot longer than I thought it would, heh. But I definitely enjoyed every second of writing it!
As for the Tahorra/ Tahnorra pairing itself: it was only a matter of time until I broke down and wrote something for them. As with all pairings I adore, there is a lot of potential here, and it's always fun to explore that kind of potential.
Now, I hope you enjoy, and please leave your thoughts!
Envision two koi in a pond as you bend, each circling the other. One is white, a black spot across its scales. The other black, a white spot on its body. These are Tui and La. Positive and negative. Knowledge and intuition. Masculine energy and feminine energy. Though they are two, they are always together and they are always entwined.
Korra knocked back the glass of litchi juice, swiped her forearm across her lips and stared out the window of Pema's kitchen at the temple.
Beneath the steepled roof, Tenzin sat in perfect form in front of Jinora, Ikki and Meelo - each with their own unique, meditative posture - the very picture of a family united in their airbending abilities. (She'd left in the middle of meditation, was due back any moment now.) Majestic sky bison flew gracefully against the backdrop of a cloudless, blue sky. The tail of a lemur hung just past the window along with spiraling ivy.
Korra heaved a sigh into the cool, still air of the kitchen. This place was perfect, it really was. The air off the bay was soothing, as was the steady crash of waves against the shores of the island. The elements were all around her in their purest forms, and a part of her did recognize this, the knowledge, the feeling, humming away beneath her skull. Inner peace and all of that airbending spirituality stuff was completely attainable in an oasis like this. Tenzin's family was picture perfect, too; they had all welcomed her in the warmest of ways, folding her into their days all so naturally. Now that Mako, Bolin and Asami were all staying on the island too, the chaos and laughter had doubled.
Thankful as she was for this, lately, she had become uneasy here. Even though the city was a mess of fear and anger over the opening rounds fired in the war, the island was perfectly isolated. Nothing touched them here, excepting the few radio broadcasts about raids. She was beginning to think that the Order of the White Lotus sentries didn't even need to be around, so peaceful it was on the island. The few times she'd gone into the city were brief and extremely covert - visits to the freshly resigned Chief of Police's new base could not be discovered by anyone outside of their small party. The plans they made to strike Amon's forces were unfussy and steeped deeply in strategy. At first she had protested, wanted to fight openly, to reassure the city that she was doing her part, but Tenzin, Lin, Bolin, Mako and Asami convinced her otherwise - her best chances were with them, and theirs with her. So she clammed up and resigned herself to fighting in the shadows. Her downtime was spent learning airbending.
And yet, through it all, she felt a distinct sense of unease. She couldn't bring herself to meet the eyes of anyone for more than a few moments before ducking away. She couldn't even sit across from Tenzin for an hour for the mere thought that he would analyze her (he was excellent at that) and expose her feelings for the shallow, selfish things they were. She couldn't talk to anyone for fear that they would accuse her of the right thing, get down to the nitty gritty of it all. She could only count on herself not to bring it up. She just wanted to be alone.
Korra set her glass in the shiny sink, ducked into her room to change clothes, then dove silently into the bay to swim to the mainland.
She wandered for hours, getting hungry in the process. She sneezed the second she stepped onto tenth street. Her gaze swung over the tall buildings rising up around her. Then she took another breath in of the smoky air and pushed open the door of the noodle shop.
Her eyes scanned the tables quickly and thoroughly. Finding nothing and no one, she took a somewhat heavy seat at a small table - the very table she'd sat at two weeks ago. She ordered a bowl of whatever she'd had with Bolin that night and handed the menu off to a pretty waitress.
Her stare found the opposite wall where the pictures of the Wolfbats were still plastered. At this distance all she could make out was the snarky shape of Tahno's mouth and the way his hair fell in a glossy wave over the right side of his face. She allowed herself a small scoff - he probably had that table permanently reserved. She felt her mouth relax into a lopsided grin at the memory of him reeling back from Naga not three feet from where she sat. Then she properly sobered up as the image of him in the police station flashed over her senses.
Her bowl of noodles landed in front of her. She looked up with her doofy face, ready to thank the waitress—
"T-tahno?" she spit out.
It was the sort of coincidence that was orchestrated in movies and radio plays— look who turned up out of nowhere in the middle of your thoughts! He looked marginally better. His hair was washed, though nowhere near as shiny as before, and there was a ghost of a smirk gracing his lips. Beyond that though, she could still see the lifelessness in his eyes.
"Korra," he droned back.
She stared at his knobby, pale wrists with stupefaction. Who could guess that she would find him like this? "You- you work here?" she questioned, and she was thankful that her brain chose to hold the now that could be tacked onto the end of that sentence.
Tahno's eyebrows came down low over his narrowed eyes. "No," he answered. She discerned the silent "are you kidding me?" in his tone and felt familiarly annoyed. "I want to talk to you."
She blinked, then gestured at the chair across from her. As he sat, she couldn't help but compare the man in front of her with his poster behind him. She bit her lip.
Tahno seemed to sense her probing. He piqued an eyebrow at her and purred, what are you staring at, Avatar?, but all she could hear was a try at his old attitude, and it only made guilt curl in tight loops at the base of her spine. This wasn't what she wanted to see. It would've actually been less disconcerting to see him as he was in the station that day - broken and haggard. She would've known what to do. She would have let him know the extent of her apologies. She was struck with the urge to tell him everything about the past few days, how they'd found out about Hiroshi Sato and about the police and their latest plans. He'd lost so much in the opening battle of this war. He deserved to know what was going on. But that wasn't what she was getting - this Tahno was a few days older, a bit more solid but just as haunted. And this Tahno needed something from her... it was the least she could do, wasn't it? After all, this wasn't training or sneaking around, and if anyone could use some understanding right now it was him.
Shaking her line of thoughts away, she dug her chopsticks into the mess of noodles in front of her. Making sure her voice wasn't especially tender, she asked him, "What do you want to talk about?"
This is what I told the police, she thought he'd say. This is what happened in the days in between, she expected.
But what he said was, "I hear you can't airbend."
She almost choked on her noodles. She hastily gulped them down - ow - and frowned at him. Then she corrected herself and frowned a little less. She edited her what's it to you? to a stammering, "That's- that's right. Um, at least not very well."
Tahno laced his fingers together. They were very pale and very dry. He fixed her with his white-grey irises. "You're not exactly Miss Spiritual," he stated, more than asked.
Though he'd nailed her, she still bristled. What else did she expect from him though? She stabbed her chopsticks into her noodles again, forgot to check her attitude and snapped out lowly, "What's your point?"
He laughed hollowly, glad to have gotten a rise out of her, however slight. He leaned against one arm of his chair and peered at her through his dead eyes again. "Need help?"
She almost choked again. A variety of responses flew through her brain, but she harnessed only one and blurted it, "Help? Why?"
He sighed tiredly as if disappointed in her deductive ability. Every action of his had the eerie quality of a shadow though, a poor echo of his former self, and she could only dart her eyes to the floor beneath their feet.
"Spiritual help, of course. I know I didn't look it, but I had a way with the moon princess," he said, voice thick with smarm.
She almost told him no. She didn't know what she was getting herself into when she came here, that much was clear now. It wasn't the talk of airbending - it was Tahno. Tahno was worse off than she'd thought, and he had his own agenda that, if given free reign, just might break her heart by association.
Then he leaned forward in his chair, brought his pale hands together beneath his chin, and pinned her with the force of his stare. In it, she caught the faintest hint of fire, and even with that, oddly felt herself burning up. She wanted to squirm. What could a full blaze do?
His next words locked her in place. "And what better way to take him down than to help you become a fully realized Avatar?"
At this distance, he could surely see her hard gulp. She knew he was issuing her a challenge, a dare, and from the self-satisfied look he was sporting, he knew she knew. It was this or another night avoiding everyone's eyes.
She reminded herself that this was the least she could do. She took the plunge. "When and where?"
He leaned back in his chair again. "Are you free now?"
She was surprised. "Did you know I'd say yes?"
He shrugged. "I've got a lot of free time on my hands, Korra."
She looked away. "Right," she whispered.
He said nothing else, just teetered on the back legs of his chair as she finished her noodles. Just as she laid down the yuan to cover her meal, Tahno looked over the counter at the waitress manning the register. She gave a loose wave of her hand - it's on the house. Tahno exited immediately and she left to follow him, money still in her hand. She told him thanks. She saw his shoulders rising, ready to shrug, but instead they fell back into place and he muttered back, "Yeah."
Somewhere along the way, she pulled up beside him. It was slightly awkward, but it was better than trailing him like a lost puppy. He led them to a short stretch of rocky beach, the air cold, the sky dark and clear.
She looked up - a full moon tonight. Korra watched the way Tahno's mouth bent involuntarily into a dark line. It was the ideal time to waterbend - midnight. Even the ocean seemed to know this, crashing loudly against the sand, leaving snaking trails of foam behind as it receded. Unsurprisingly, it was only the two of them here. Tahno's gaze was focused somewhere else other than the beach laid out in front of them. She wondered what he was seeing. His championship wins, no doubt clinched early on by his very own water whips? The last time he'd been to this beach, under better circumstances than these, and with better company? Or was it the first time he'd bent, a glorious new thing, discovering that he was, in fact, special?
She abruptly stopped spinning false memories for him once he began to speak. His voice was swallowed up quick in the moonlight. "Feel that?" he rasped quietly.
She did. Her veins were singing with the urge to waterbend. But she... didn't know what would hurt him. Maybe it wasn't so much a question of what would hurt him, but what would hurt him most. It was a toss up: a reminder of his former capability, or a blow to his pride?
He answered the question for her. "Bend," he commanded.
She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. His own had fluttered shut.
"Bend, Avatar," he said simply.
She pulled an orb from the ocean, twirled it atop her palm.
Tahno crossed the sand to her. The look on his face was indecipherable. A tired sort of vacancy had blanketed every expression of his thus far. When his gaze darted to the orb, his mouth drooped. "Don't insult the moon princess, Avatar. Bend like you mean it."
This felt more and more like a bad idea the longer she stayed. But she obeyed. With her eyes fixed on the moon, she pulled five glittering columns up from the incoming tide, spiraled them around each other in curls of ice, then shattered them into snow. She thought the princess might appreciate that.
Tahno watched a flake land on the back of his hand. Then he looked up at her. The edges of his lips lifted for a fraction of a second.
This was it. She opened her mouth. "Tahno, I wanted to let you know that we're closer to getting him."
Snowflakes caught on his lashes.
"We found out that one of his major suppliers is Future Industries, and that he was having mechanical weapons made. We stopped them, Tahno," she told him earnestly. "I just... thought you'd want to know."
She expected caustic cynicism or outright ignorance. But what he gave her was neither. He nodded once, then said in a ragged voice, "Nice job, Avatar. But you've still got the whole rest of this war to fight."
She bowed her head, snowflakes still falling slowly to her feet. "I know." And she did. Know, that is. She wanted to tell him about all the training she was doing, all the plans they had made. But it would sound too much like a desperate try at amends, and her pride - and his, perhaps - wouldn't allow the words to hold much water once they were uttered.
His drawl startled her. "Your bending was inspired by the princess."
Was there a compliment in that cryptic sentence? "Yeah, I guess it was," she said noncommittally. She turned to leave.
Then Tahno swung his gaze over to her. Looking back, it was in this instant that she had changed her mind.
"There's some hope for you yet."
"The lesson is," he told her quietly and almost flatly, "that not all problems may be solved through physical means."
She blinked into his pale grey eyes. The unease that had marked their first re-meeting (re-meeting because it had begun this, and this was different from the other times they had met) had faded gradually. There was still a layer of something between them, because she didn't know him outside of his loss and he didn't want her any closer, but the layer was thin. It strained against them both sometimes, threatening to simply disappear. These dangers were strongest in times like this - with his eyes wavering between fire and ice and her focus narrowing to only the words that slipped from his mouth.
"Giving away the lesson before the experience, teacher?" she asked him, mocking laced throughout her words.
He smiled humourlessly in return, and she wondered if this was who they were now: people who didn't know how to laugh, people who danced around the matter. But maybe not. Not with each other at least, because the next thing he said, he said with a cold glitter in his eyes. "Airbend then, Avatar."
She gave him a grimace.
"I didn't think so," he said. She almost saw the flicker in his eyes again. She almost wanted to knock his stupid hair off of his stupid head again.
He examined her and drew thin, elegant fingers through that hair. His next words hit their marks with unfeeling precision. "You gonna hit me?"
Her first major breakthrough was that afternoon. She'd sent a healthy blast of air straight at his smirk, ruining his hairstyle.
The day he'd shed his overcoat and taped up his hands in the gymnasium equidistant from their homes, she couldn't believe what she was seeing. "What now, pretty boy?" she asked him, hands on her hips. She felt that his nickname was once again accurate because the bags beneath his eyes had receded and his cheeks weren't as sunken.
"Today's for me, Avatar," he told her. He closed his fingers into fists. "I'm more than a little rusty."
She was afraid of what might happen (she already knew what wouldn't happen). But she hadn't given Tahno enough credit. He knew what he getting himself into by choosing to throw his fists again, albeit in a practise session. Sometimes his brow wrinkled a little extra, and she punched harder in response, drawing his attention - hey, snap to it. His movement was off at times, as expected from a lack of training, but it was still fluid in parts. Surprisingly, it was most fluid in the moments she could see water guided by his hands and feet. He had to adjust, to make up for where the water used to be. The distance between them closed until she was throwing up her own legs to block his kicks. Before long, he was culling moves from her repertoire, informed by her firebending and earthbending training. This fact impressed and intimidated her - he was better than she'd thought. There was a reason he'd held the probending championship title for three years.
At the end of the day, she was covered in patches of grime. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, the sheen of sweat at the dip in her collarbone catching his eye.
She pretended not to see his staring. She gulped down her glass of water. "So, why'd you do it?"
She was gratified to see that he was breathing just as hard. He caught right up with her train of thought. Or maybe he was already thinking in that direction. "Cheat?"
She sat on the mats and laid back, palms flat against the foam. "Yeah."
Tahno's hair stuck to his forehead. He batted at it, irritated, in a way that told her he hadn't gotten sweaty in a long time. He downed his own glass of water quickly. "You were good," he told her, matter-of-fact.
Her eyebrows rose into her hairline. She peered up at him. He had conveniently turned away, rotating his shoulders. He wore the same white tanks Mako and Bolin wore, and she gulped, wondering if this was the choice of all probenders. She thought of the time she'd lost a footrace when she was eight and had held up the sash she'd worn around her waist, incinerating it between her fingertips. She didn't want any memories connected to her loss.
Tahno mopped his brow with a towel, apparently having chosen to give up on the disheveled mess that was his hair. "Not used to receiving compliments, Korra?" he smirked down at her. This smirk felt fully contained within his mouth, and she could only give him a frowning smile. This smile reached her eyes, and so she clapped down her blues on his grey.
"You were good, Tahno," she said sincerely. "Without the cheating."
His catch of breath was quick and if she wasn't listening for it, she wouldn't have heard. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground across from her. His smile was five parts bitter, one part mirth. "I was," he said.
Life on the island was better now. She made and held eye contact, those awkward feelings clutching at her only every so often. Covert trips into the city were easier too, her spatial knowledge vastly improved from all the moving around her and Tahno did over their erratic schedule. And carrying out small attacks through the sewer systems was much easier to bear when she knew she was making real progress with her airbending.
Her airbending had actually improved immensely. The strange advice Tahno dispensed stuck to her in only the way weird things did. She thought back on a mere ten days ago when he told her about the necessity of balance. Picture two koi in a pond as you bend, he told her, sounding oddly removed and poetic, each circling the other. These are yin and yang. Black and white. Positive and negative. Though they are two, they are always together and they are always entwined.
She raised an eyebrow at his retreating back. She knew there was a story behind that, but she didn't dig any deeper.
Now, across the floor etched with the very symbol of her thoughts, Korra absentmindedly moved through an airbending form and thought back to this moment. Yin and yang. Two, but always entwined.
She entered a near-trance, her own movements swaying and hypnotic. Wind began to swirl at her feet, as if borne from her ankles. If she bothered to check, she would not have felt the earth beneath her toes.
Startled, she fell the short distance to the ground, jarred out of her state. The wind disappeared as quickly as it had come.
"Hey, Korra," called the voice again.
She blinked herself awake. Mako? "What's up?" She asked him from her place over the yin yang.
Mako folded his arms loosely over his torso. "Could I ask you something?"
"Aren't you already?" she laughed.
Seemingly surprised but pleased with her rediscovered easiness, he laughed back. He took a moment to collect his thoughts, tilting his head so that sunlight sliced through his hair and fell over his strong jawline. She watched his eyes dart over the training circle.
"Korra, we've all noticed the change in you lately, and we're glad you're happy again," he said. (She wondered: was she happy again? Had she been perpetually happy before? And then a slew of other questions came tumbling in: was her dissatisfaction so obvious to the others, outside of Tenzin? Why hadn't they approached her about it? Was it over their guilt, knowing that her uneasiness was because they had forced her into their strategies? Were her tries at being alone quite so effective?)
Mako called her back. "We're happy you're happy, but we're just wondering why. What happened?"
And here, she felt a bit of that uneasiness return. She hadn't told anyone about her visits to the city, to Tahno and to "spirituality training", or whatever you could call it. And she had the distinct feeling that Mako especially would not approve of the former two.
So she said selectively, "My airbending's really been coming along. I've had a few breakthroughs." She grinned convincingly - it was, after all, a big part of her sunnier days.
Mako smiled back, but the slight squinting of his eyes told her she was about to get caught in her white lie. His arms tightened over his chest. "Anything to do with your frequent visits to the mainland?"
Gotcha, she could've sworn she'd heard.
And suddenly, she was angry. Why was he asking now, when everything was falling into place? Why had he set this up so brilliantly, why had he tried to trap her? She deserved better than sneaky, shallow pitfalls, especially from a friend. Her eyes flashed. "If you want to know something, you can just ask, Mako," she said acerbically. These were fighting words, and she knew it. But he had started it.
His eyebrows pulled down lower over his eyes. "We're just worried about you, Korra! With the war in full tilt, who knows what could happen to you?"
"You only care because I'm not where I'm supposed to be," she spit.
"That's not fair," he said, lowering his voice. "You push us away, you don't tell us what you're doing, and suddenly everything's our fault?"
She screwed up her nose and burst out, "I'm not saying it is! But how would you feel if you had to step into a role and lose some of who you are in the process?" She didn't even know she thought these things until she was yelling them at his face.
But he just stood there, taking the brunt of her assault, and replied calmly, "Being the Avatar isn't a role, Korra. It's who you've been your whole life. It's the circumstances that have you thinking something's changed." The words sat on the surface of her skin, stubbornly trying to sink in.
He took steps toward her. Her defiance wouldn't let her back away.
"Korra, sometimes you're going to have to do things the way you don't want to," he said, voice softer than ever. "You're the Avatar. So... deal with it."
She refused to look at him. Goodbye, balance, she thought.
Korra guided the glowing mass of water over her right arm slowly, eyes closed in order to better get a sense for her chi paths. She had done it once already a few sessions ago, and Tahno wanted her to revisit it again today. So far he'd proven himself an effective, if not legitimate, teacher, and she sat down without complaint and took the cool water to her body as he watched the surf pound in and out by her side. But today, she couldn't stop thinking about the conversation she'd had with Mako.
"You're off today, Avatar," Tahno said, a noted lack of condescension in his tone. Something that sounded akin to concern was nestled there instead.
And even though he hadn't asked her the why, when, how or who, she was upturned enough to want to tell him. The healing water fell from her grip and soaked into her clothes. The narrative began in her mind— but then she realized she hadn't told Tahno about her underground fight against the Equalists, and she had to spool back— and then she remembered she hadn't told Tahno about her dissatisfaction...
And then she thought that maybe it would be simpler not to tell him at all. Tahno was an uncomplicated character in her life (right?) and he could easily stay that way.
Then, with his gaze still steady on the waves, Tahno said, "Sit, Korra."
She took the few short steps to his side, her boots sinking in the sand. She took a seat next to him and stared patiently at his profile. Would he dispense some spiritual advice? Admonish her for losing her focus so quickly?
His pale grey eyes flickered over to her. For the first time, she noticed he sounded a fraction restored. His words drew more of her notice, though. "What's wrong, Korra?"
Had he... really just asked her? Had he really just taken the first step? She stared at him, trying to mask her bewilderment.
Tahno's face was suddenly graced with a hint of its former sass. He piqued an eyebrow - had he plucked recently? - "Fallen for me, have you?" he said, breathy.
Where she would have spit acid before, now she let out a full-throated laugh. "You'd like that, wouldn't you," she bantered back, feeling her grin.
Tahno shadowed her, some semblance of a smile playing across his lips, too. He shot a look at her that meant he was waiting for a real answer, and her grin only grew, spirits buoyed.
She cleared her throat ceremoniously. "It's actually to do with the anti-war efforts I've been involved with recently."
He nodded, eyes moving from her forehead to her chin.
She continued, feeling comfortable in spite of her expectations, "Since Chief Bei Fong resigned, we've been working with her privately. It's been going on for... about six weeks, now. We track key members of the Equalists and destroy their weaponry, try to keep their numbers small... that kind of thing." She looked to him, checking to see if he was following.
He watched her carefully, absorbing every word.
"Well, you know that's not really my style," - here, she inserted a helpless grin - "but once we voted, I was outgunned." Her gaze fell to the white, speckled sand beneath their bottoms.
"You've been unhappy," he said.
She made a face. "Yeah."
In silence, he watched her tuck her knees against her chest. Then he said slowly, "Being unhappy with yourself is the fastest way to throw off your balance."
Her shoulders slackened. "I never said-"
He gave a shake of his head. "You're no champion at lying, Korra."
One corner of her mouth turned up reflexively.
He propelled the conversation forward. "And this situation came to a head recently, digging your feelings up and undoing the progress we've made so far?"
She nearly missed the we, but as it was, she didn't, and she felt a little warmer as a result. She shook her head. "No," - she mashed the heels of her palms to her face - "I just realized that I'm not very good at being the Avatar."
Tahno smirked and went for the obvious dig, "Of course you're not. You can't airbend. Yet."
Her smile was less enthusiastic this time. She wasn't trying for pity, really, but it might have sounded that way. "I've been training my whole life for this in the South Pole, and now here. It's just... a lifetime's worth of work, and sometimes it still doesn't feel like enough. Especially not up against the Equalists."
His mouth turned down at the corners and something solemn flashed over his face. "If you're not right now, you will be, Korra. But I know what you mean." Then his eyes darted up to focus on the ocean, and she knew what he meant.
After a beat of silence, she offered sincerely, "I'm sorry. I should've asked you all those times how you were."
He shook his head, knowing that this wasn't how they were. This conversation was an anomaly, and the rest of the day would determine whether or not it was a turning point. "My answer has been the same," he said.
She had an idea, but she actually wanted to hear it in his words. "... And what's that?"
He reached forward and dunked each of his fingers into a tide pool. She watched his movements.
Voice gritty and barely audible, he told her, "It hurts like hell."
And then she knew. The hair and the eyebrows and the clothes and the half-swagger was all a cover: fake it until you make it. Her lashes fluttered— was this a doomed endeavour? Could he ever be the same again? Would she? Could she find balance again?
Maybe. And they might have the best chances together.
She hadn't realized she'd stopped breathing. Air came rushing into her lungs with much welcome. And then, so naturally she couldn't believe herself, she touched her knee to his and told him, "I'm here."
He turned to her and nodded slowly. Framed in the darkness of his lashes, his eyes were spellbinding. "I know. You've been here," he told her.
She looked to where his hand lay.
His fingers were spread over his heart.