"He is not coming into this meeting."
"Why?" Korra retorts, putting her hands on her hips and leaning forward. "Look, you may not like Tarrlok, but he's definitely not a traitor. He's just as concerned with the anti-bending revolution as we are."
Lin snorts, crossing her arms over her chest. "Right. He was very concerned, when he took you - Republic City's best chance against Amon - and ran away for the better part of a year, leaving the city to burn."
Korra feels herself turn red, and she opens her mouth angrily - but then Tenzin steps forward and places a calming hand on her shoulder, shaking his head at Lin. "Korra's right. We have no reason to believe that Tarrlok's presence at the meeting will compromise security in any way. Besides, there's no way he could contact Amon or any other Equalist operatives, even if he wanted to."
Lin shrugs irritably. "Very well, then. We're starting in five minutes. Don't be late."
Lin and Tenzin head toward the sitting room, and Korra fights the urge to stick her tongue out at Lin's back. She loses. She stretches, feeling the tingle of her sore muscles after her earlier spar with Asami, and then makes her way over to the hallway. That was where Lin had caught her, Tarrlok, and Bolin heading to the meeting, and then flatly told Tarrlok that he wasn't welcome there.
She's momentarily disappointed to find that Tarrlok isn't alone. Bolin's still with him, proudly showing off the tiny coat of armor that he had created for Pabu. Tarrlok holds his hand out, and Pabu scurries up his arm and to his shoulder, where he sniffs the fur lining of his anorak curiously. Korra can't help but laugh at the sight - it gives her the tiniest bit of hope that Tarrlok can fit in with her life here. Her real life, not the artificial environment he had imposed on her in the Earth Kingdom.
Bolin and Tarrlok turn to look at her then, and she goes to join them. "You're good," she says, rolling her eyes. "I don't know why Beifong thought that you of all people might want to sell information to Amon."
"Maybe because he's bitter about being under house arrest and having his chi blocked like a common criminal? And he doesn't like the fact that everyone hates him here, while Amon would probably love him for creating a Korra-free city for almost a year?" Bolin suggests helpfully, before wincing and visibly deflating at the looks on Korra and Tarrlok's faces.
"You haven't gotten any better at that whole not putting your foot in your mouth thing, have you, champ?" Korra asks dryly.
"Sorry, sorry. And hey, everyone doesn't hate you!" Bolin adds, throwing an arm around the mortified-looking Tarrlok's shoulder, obviously trying to be reassuring. "I don't hate you, and neither does Pabu. I don't think Asami does either..."
Korra lets her hand brush against Tarrlok's discreetly, and when he looks down at her, she smiles at him, reminding him that she doesn't hate him either. His expression softens a little, and Pabu leaps down from his shoulder to hers, curling his bushy tail around her neck. Korra pets him absentmindedly, trying to distract herself from how much Bolin's unthinking words had disturbed her. The thing was...when he put it that way, it was actually plausible. If Tarrlok didn't love her so much, and hate Amon for terrorizing her (as well as making his own life hell, politically speaking)-
Well, she knows that Tarrlok loves power. Even though he's definitely changed, and he's told her that being away from positions of power makes him feel farther away from Yakone... It still must be hard, to have lost his position of authority, and have everybody distrust him and treat him like dirt. He's used to being respected, as a councilman in Republic City; as the town's teacher in the Earth Kingdom. Amon would certainly give him the respect and gratitude he's not getting here, as a way of thanking him for getting her out of his way for so long.
Korra shakes the thoughts away, disconcerted. Tarrlok would never do that. The old Tarrlok, maybe, but she can't imagine him ever betraying her now.
Bolin pushes the door open, and the three of them enter the sitting room. Tenzin, Lin, Saikhan, Mako, and Asami are already sitting, and they join them at the end of the table. Lin starts the council meeting without preamble, clearing her throat and tapping her pen on the table. "The first and most important decision we need to make is if - or when - we should reveal to the public, and the Equalists, that Korra is back in Republic City."
"I think we should hold a press conference as soon as possible," Saikhan says, glancing at her. "The news that the Avatar has returned will raise morale among the people of the city. It may also cause significant apprehension among Amon and his followers, especially the new recruits to the Equalist cause who only joined after Avatar Korra's - disappearance."
"I don't think so," Mako argues, at once. "What if Amon comes after Korra once he hears she's back? We should just keep this quiet for as long as we can, until we're about to begin our final strike against the Equalist headquarters. Then Korra can come along and take down Amon, with our help."
Tenzin opens his mouth, nodding in agreement, and Korra shakes her head, cutting in. "Wait."
Everybody's eyes turn to her, and she takes a deep breath. "I don't want to hide in the shadows at Air Temple Island," she forces out, unable to believe what she is about to do. "I want everybody, benders and non-benders, Equalists and not-Equalists, to know I'm back. I'll do a press conference - but no speechwriters this time," she adds hastily, looking at Tenzin. "I want to speak to Amon directly."
Korra literally sees the color drain from everybody's faces. It would have been funny, under any other circumstances. Tarrlok recovers first, as she had guessed he would. "Absolutely not," he snaps, undoubtedly remembering the time she had shoved him out of the way at that task force press conference and grabbed the microphone, more than a year ago. It's been more than a year since then, she realizes, with a jolt. It's about time that she puts her fear of Amon to rest. "Do you remember what happened last time you spoke to Amon directly?"
Korra glares at him, thinking back to the many times he's comforted her after nightmares; listened to her fears and reassured her. "You know I do."
The others glance between them curiously, and she rushes on, ignoring the telltale blush spreading across her cheeks. "I want to talk to Amon directly and give him a chance to back down. Look - Asami says that the Equalists are building mecha-tanks, airplanes, and bombs, and they're going to drop those on the city. They'll definitely come after Air Temple Island too. If the city goes to war, lots of people will be hurt or killed, and the whole city will be destroyed! I don't want any of that to happen. I - I want to try and resolve this with as little violence possible."
What Aang had said to her, the first time they had met in the Spirit World, echoes in her mind.
"I've been watching over you since you were born, Korra. I've seen you grow up, and I know you. You're great, you really are!" Aang grins at her proudly, and the sight fills her heart with warmth. "You're an an amazing and talented bender, too. But I really think it's time for you to understand that fighting, combat, and confrontation, are not always the way to find answers to the problems that you face. Using force shouldn't be your first resort for every difficult situation that you're in. As the Avatar, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you're going to have to resolve issues and maintain balance not through fighting - but by using patience, diplomacy, a thorough understanding of the opposite viewpoint, and good communication."
Korra blinks, taken aback. Her first, reflexive instinct is to feel defensive…but she can't. This is Aang talking to her, one of the wisest Avatars to have ever lived, and she has to trust him. He would never give her poor guidance. "All right," she says uncertainly, still unsure of how to apply his advice to her problem.
Aang rests his hand over hers. "Trust me," he tells her earnestly. "This is an important lesson for you to learn. It'll help you a lot when it's time for you to deal with the Equalists back in Republic City.
Tenzin looks at her as if he's seeing someone else entirely, while Bolin stares. "Who are you, and what have you done with Korra?"
"Are you out of your mind?" Tarrlok asks, narrowing his eyes, and Korra realizes what Tenzin had disliked so much about working with him. "You want to negotiate with the most dangerous, radical terrorist in recent history?"
"Hey," Asami speaks up, resting her hand on Korra's arm. "Korra is right. This isn't just about Amon; it's about the safety of all the people on his side and ours."
"Of course this serves your interests," Tarrlok says dismissively. "You work so closely with the enemy that sympathizing with them is unavoidable."
Asami bristles, and Mako leans over the table, glaring at Tarrlok. "You have no right to accuse her, you-"
"Enough!" Lin snaps, looking at all of them disapprovingly. "We have enough problems without fighting amongst ourselves and squabbling like children. And I won't have anybody casting aspersions on anybody else's loyalty without proof. Is that clear?"
Tarrlok looks as if he would like to point out that that was exactly what she had done to him earlier, but to Korra's relief, he exhales and holds his tongue. Teaching a classroom of a few dozen young children really had done wonders for helping him keep that temper in check.
"Now, back to the issue at hand," Tenzin says slowly, folding his hands in his robes. "Korra, diplomacy is a good thing, and I'm pleased that was the first approach that came to your mind. Avatar Aang resolved the majority of the conflicts he faced,on a large and small scale through peaceful means, and that drastically reduced the amounts of human suffering that would have taken place if violent conflicts and war broke out."
"With all due respect," Tarrlok says, succeeding in actually sounding respectful, and Korra blinks, taken aback. Normally when he says that, it precedes a statement dripping in pure condescension. "Avatar Aang never faced a situation like this. Extreme problems call for extreme solutions, and force is the only way to deal with this threat. Amon and the Equalists have kidnapped and taken the bending from thirty of the police force's best officers, among many other innocent benders." He glances at Lin and Saikhan, and then at Mako and Bolin. "They are clearly dangerous and beyond reason. We would be foolish to show any of Amon's supporters mercy. They have certainly shown us none."
Lin and Saikhan look down at the table, clearly pained by the memory of the police kidnappings. Her friends look pensive as well, and Korra is reminded powerfully of the reason that she and Tarrlok clashed so violently in the first place, on that night in City Hall. She had been driven to confront him because of his forceful, aggressive - unreasonable - approach in dealing with the Equalist threat. Which he defined as "all non-benders."
It's a strange realization - that no matter how much her relationship with Tarrlok has evolved since then, and the fact that he's come to care about her so much...underneath all of that, his basic nature hasn't changed. He's still ruthless and cold, when it comes to dealing with people. Extreme, as he had said.
She shakes her head at him slowly. "I think you're wrong."
"Trust me," Tarrlok sighs, glancing at Tenzin. "Not even an Avatar can convince a dangerous, irrational enemy like this to back down."
But that's what I did to you, didn't I? Korra thinks to herself. She stays quiet, though, and only gives him a noncommittal shrug.
In the end, after almost an hour of argument, Korra gets her way. It is Lin's vote that is the deciding factor. As much as I don't think negotiation can work, we have to try, she had said wearily. The weapons that the Equalists are manufacturing are a serious threat, and the human cost of a war will be too high.
Saikhan offers to put a team of speechwriters together, but Korra shakes her head. "I can handle this myself. Tenzin and Tarrlok can read it over when I'm done, since they've written tons of speeches before."
Just as Lin declares the meeting adjourned and they're all getting ready to leave, she feels something brush her leg under the table. Tarrlok rises, the expression on his face carefully blank, and leaves the room. Korra watches him go, before mumbling something about a pebble in her boot, and ducking down.
There's a neatly folded note near her foot, and her heart beats a little faster as she pulls it open. It's written in Tarrlok's neat, familiar handwriting, in the dark blue ink of the expensive pen the town's mayor had given him as a parting gift. I'll be in the caves behind the island in half an hour.
She reads it twice and then stands, casually slipping it into her pocket.
The beaches on Air Temple Island are beautiful, and it is grossly unfair that Tenzin should own this entire stretch of prime real estate solely by virtue of his father being one of the city's founders. From here, Tarrlok can almost see his home, on the other side of Yue Bay. He had chosen it specifically for its magnificent views of the bay on one side and the Mo Ce Sea on the other. He had spent most nights over the past couple of years working late at his office, but he had enjoyed the rare evenings he had spent at home, sitting in his library and watching the sun set over the ocean.
Tarrlok rests his hand against the wall of the cave and closes his eyes briefly, struggling to come to terms with the wave of homesickness that sweeps over him. He isn't sure which home he's missing - the expansive, richly furnished and decorated mansion across the bay, or the small blue house in the Earth Kingdom that he had shared with Korra.
When Chief Beifong had cleared him of all criminal charges, he had been informed that his house was his own again, and all positions inside had been mostly undamaged in the search for evidence. The first things he had thought of were his books, his collection of art, and his collection of antique Earth Kingdom china. Oddly enough, of all the luxuries and beautiful things in his home, the china had been one of the things he'd missed the most. He had told Korra that once, and she had laughed at him. Plates? she asked dubiously. Plates and teacups and bowls? You are such a priss.
Tarrlok had wanted to tell her that she would understand if she saw them - but he had stayed quiet. Because there was no way he could ever go back; no way either of them would see anything in his house in Republic City ever again. He had never gotten the chance to invite Korra over for dinner, like he had hopelessly, irrationally dreamed of doing. He hadn't cooked her a traditional Water Tribe meal, one that she was undoubtedly homesick for, and talked to her as they shared it together. Instead, he had attacked and bloodbended her in City Hall, and then kidnapped her, dragging her away from everything that she knew. The girl who had reminded him so much of his lost brother; the girl he had wanted so much to befriend.
The thought that he might get that second chance is surreal. That he will be able to invite Korra over for dinner properly, like he had never really done. He can show her around his house - she'll enjoy the art collection; she had told him once that she felt it was one of the only ways she could connect with her past lives. He has a room full of books on martial arts throughout history and across the world that she would love to read, and-
Don't get ahead of yourself, Tarrlok tells himself sharply, glancing up at the position of the rising moon in the sky. It's been almost half an hour, and he still doesn't know whether Korra is even going to meet him here or not. She might have gone off to spend time with her friends instead. The thought stings a little, but it's not an unexpected prospect. Regardless of her promises, on some level, he had known that things would change. Now that she's back amongst people her own age...
What would she want with you? The dark, scornful voice speaks up again. They care about her, and all you did was put her through an experience no seventeen-year-old should have to go through.
Tarrlok hears movement - footsteps on the rocks outside - and he looks up, jolted out of his reverie. The last thing he needs is for a team of patrolling officers to find him out here and question what he's doing outside alone. His shoulders relax when Korra peers into the cave, her eyes widening. "There you are! I've been looking for you for ages," she says grumpily, making her way inside.
She hugs him as soon as she gets close enough, and Tarrlok wraps his arms around her and kisses the top of her head, trying to hide his relief. Korra sighs, and he realizes that this is the first time the two of them have been alone together since arriving in Republic City.
He pulls back slightly and touches her cheek, and Korra wordlessly tilts her face up to his for a kiss. Hardly a few moments pass before her fist collides with his shoulder, though, and Tarrlok pulls back, wincing. "What was that for?"
Korra glowers at him. "For being a jerk during the meeting, to me and Asami. Didn't living a town full of non-benders prove to you that not all non-benders are dangerous Equalist sympathizers? But you don't trust her, just because she's our only non-bender."
"I..." Tarrlok relents, thinking back to all the townspeople that the two of them had lived alongside. "Yes, it did. But her father's a known Equalist-"
"Yeah," Korra retorts, staring at him coolly. "Because everybody turns out just like their parents, right?"
He can't meet her gaze. "Point taken," he concedes grudgingly. "And I didn't intend to offend you during our discussion about Amon."
"Well, guess what," Korra says, sulking. "You did offend me."
She's pouting now - genuinely, her feelings are hurt - and he reaches out to her, but she steps back. "Sometimes you treat me like I'm a stupid little kid, and I hate it! I know what I'm doing."
Tarrlok sighs. It won't do, to have her upset at him. Luckily, over the past several months, he's become quite adept at coaxing her out of bad moods and into more agreeable ones. "I know you do."
"Then trust me!" she insists, her voice rising. "I know you don't think of me like that, but I am the Avatar."
"Of course," he says hastily. "I do respect you, it's just that-"
Korra looks up at him with wounded, wary eyes, and the nothing more than a half-baked Avatar in training, and a few other misguided, needlessly cruel slights he had leveled at her early on, linger between them. Tarrlok bridges the distance between them, kissing her lightly on the forehead. "It's just that I want you to be safe. That's all."
That approach works like a charm, as it always does. Korra relaxes slightly, and gives him a small smile. "Thanks."
They sit at the mouth of the cave, looking out over the sea and nestling against the rock wall. It's painfully similar to their favorite place to spend time together in the Earth Kingdom, the coastline near their home. "So," Korra says, looking up at him a little uncertainly. "...How have you been?"
There are a hundred different things that Tarrlok wants to say at once - complaints, mostly. He's tired of having his chi points blocked twice daily, like a common criminal. The bruises at each point won't fade and they ache constantly. He hates being cut off from his natural element like this. Almost everybody on the island studiously avoids his gaze and any contact with him, though though they have no reservations about staring. Constantly. He's ostracized and feared and treated like a leper by the same people who used to respect him and treat him with such deference.
They're even wary of his dog - with the exception of Tenzin and Korra's friends, everybody avoids Sitka like the plague. The other day, he had overheard a few of the Order of the White Lotus guards and the Republic City police officers discussing bloodbenders' familiars. Councilman Tenzin and Chief Beifong shouldn't have allowed it on the island. Who knows what that bloodbender taught it to do? You've heard the old Northern Water Tribe stories.
We should drive it off the island. You think it can swim?
Don't even think of doing anything to it, one of the officers had said, sounding frightened. Tarrlok won't be happy if that dog drops dead or disappears all of a sudden, and bloodbenders can kill people from the inside and make it look like an accident.
Tarrlok glances away, feeling the bitterness rise in his chest like bile. "I'm as well as can be expected."
Korra takes his hand in hers. "Hey, tigerbear," she says softly. "It's going to be okay."
"No, it's not!" he explodes, despite his best efforts to stay calm, and Korra jerks back, startled. "Tell me, what use was being pardoned if I'm still going to be treated like a criminal? Even after Amon and the Equalist threat have been dealt with, there's no chance that I will ever get my seat on the council back - and no parent in the world would allow the man - the bloodbender - who kidnapped Avatar Korra to teach their children anything." Tarrlok buries his head in his hands, shame pricking at him like needles. As much as he has opened up to her over the past months, as much as he has confided in her, he still hates sharing his insecurities. He scoffs, unable to hold back a small, strangled laugh at the memory of his - Taruq's - past, before he had met and married Senna. "At this rate, the only thing left for me is to return to the northern tundra and study rocks."
Korra tugs on his arm, forcing him to look at her. "Don't say that," she tells him firmly. "You want to know something Master Katara once told me? She said that people's memories are short, and-"
"No, they're not. Look at Yakone; his reign of the city's underworld was forty years ago, and people still remember-"
"Listen to me," Korra says impatiently. "Within one year, Fire Lord Zuko - he was just a prince back then, I guess - went from being Aang and Katara and everyone else's worst enemy, to becoming one of their best friends and closest allies. Nobody was thrilled to have him around either. Master Katara told me how much she hated him and distrusted him, after everything he had done to Aang. And-"
"Yes," Tarrlok says wearily. "I know how that played out. I know they're still friends, after all this time."
"Fire Lord Zuko gained their trust by proving that he was trustworthy, and that he had really changed. Once you do something like that, people will start to really give you a chance."
Tarrlok sighs again. "That might be harder than it sounds."
"You'll figure something out," Korra assures him.
He flexes his fingers, staring down at his hands moodily. "If I could trap Amon for you, when the time comes - lure him somewhere isolated and ensure that he won't fight back when you attack him..."
Korra flinches a little. "Pro tip, tigerbear. Nothing that involves bloodbending, unless you want Beifong to lock you up and personally throw away the key."
"If it happens, it will just be you, me, and Amon. And I imagine that Amon won't be in any condition to speak, after you're done with him." He takes her hand; rubs his thumb against the inside of her palm until her fingers close around his. "You and I make a good team, remember? And I've told you before that no non-bending farm boy could hope to face bending like mine."
Tarrlok sees the indecision written clearly on her face. Korra is morally opposed to bloodbending, of course, but if it keeps her safe from her worst enemy...
"We'll see what happens," she says at last, leaning against his shoulder. "Who knows, he might even agree to back down."
Even she sounds doubtful, and Tarrlok rolls his eyes. "Perhaps." He likes it best when she isn't being a hopefully naive and idealistic little girl, but she'll wake up soon enough. He wraps an arm around her waist, trying to distract himself. "And how have you been?"
Korra immediately launches into an enthusiastic response, telling him how happy she is to see Tenzin and her friends again, how proud she is of Mako and Bolin, and how she's relieved that everything is "cool" between her and Asami. She stops and takes a deep breath then, her eyes lighting up with excitement. "And my parents and Naga are coming tomorrow!"
Tarrlok blinks, taken aback. He can't remember the last time he had seen Korra look this joyful, but his insides clench up with apprehension nevertheless. Korra's parents. Possibly the two people on earth who most strongly want to see him pay for his crimes. "What?"
"Yep," Korra says blithely. "Tenzin and I called them the night you and I got here, and they said they would take the first ship out. And that should be getting here tomorrow morning." She beams, hardly able to contain her glee. "I can't wait! I haven't seen my mom and dad since I left the South Pole, and I've really, really missed them. Naga too. She remembers me, she recognized my voice on the phone."
Tarrlok gives her a small smile, his chest aching at the memory of how Korra had begged him to take her polar bear-dog along with them when he had forced her to leave the city; how she had cried for missing her parents while he had been holding her captive. "Good," he says quietly. "I'm happy for you."
She smiles, and Tarrlok is mildly surprised to realize that he actually means it. She had never looked this truly, completely happy and content in the Earth Kingdom. And he's even more surprised to realize that it's worth it. The strain of coming back to the city and being branded a criminal; living with the stigma of everybody knowing what he truly is, a bloodbender and a kidnapper-
You had at least two chances to choose between what was right and what was easy, Yue had told him. And you chose the latter both times.
This choice certainly hadn't been the easy one. But when he had started a new life in the Earth Kingdom, he had resolved to be a better man. Perhaps this is some progress.
Korra wakes before sunrise the next morning, a shudder running through her entire body. Her eyes snap open and she blinks a few times, all vestiges of tiredness quickly disappearing.
She sits up, blinking at the clock on the wall. Six in the morning. Asami's futon is already made; her bag gone from its usual hook on the wall. She must have left for work already. Korra brushes her teeth and gets ready, pulling her clothes on as fast as she can. She feels jittery from the inside out, and her hands shake a little as she drags the comb through her hair and reaches for her hair ties.
When she had been little, her mom had always wanted to comb and style her hair in elaborate braids and loopies, like all the other Water Tribe girls. Apparently, she would bat her mom's hands away, complain, and run away, because she was too impatient to sit still for long. She would run straight to her dad and tug on the short ponytail he always wore. "Wolf tail," she demanded, and her dad would haphazardly style her hair into the three simple ponytails. That had been the only style she could replicate when she moved into the compound. Her mom had loved to tell that story.
This is probably the second time in her entire life that she hasn't been in the mood to eat, but Korra wanders into the kitchen out of force of habit anyway. She finds Mako standing at the stove, already in his uniform, stirring a pot of fruit porridge. He smiles when he sees her, ladling some of the porridge into a bowl. "Today's the big day, right?"
...She thought she hadn't been hungry, but the porridge has blueberries and lychee fruits in it. Korra takes a big bite, nodding. "I can't wait," she replies, her mouth full. "I couldn't sleep. Besides knowing that you guys were in danger here, with Amon, the one thing that made it the hardest was thinking of my mom and dad."
Mako grimaces, and it clearly takes a visible amount of effort for him to suppress a cutting comment about Tarrlok. "I'm glad that you get to see them again," is all he says, sitting down at the table, across from her. "We got to meet them when they came to Republic City last year. They're really nice."
"They are pretty amazing, if I do say so myself," Korra says proudly, before a pang of sorrow hits her, turning her sweet porridge sour in her mouth. She had really looked forward to introducing her parents to Mako and Bolin, her first friends. It was supposed to be a happy occasion - they could come to a pro-bending match and eat at Narook's afterward, and then go sightseeing together. Instead, it must have been truly miserable for everybody. Her parents would have been sick with anxiety and despair, just like Mako, Bolin, and Asami.
The thought passes through her mind that Tarrlok has a lot to answer for. At least he brought me back, though, she thinks dully, squishing a blueberry with her spoon.
Mako rests his hand on hers momentarily, the expression on his face softening. "Hey, it's going to be fine. Their ship is docking at Air Temple Island, so Amon has no way of knowing that they'll be here. And I know things are crazy now, but next time, you'll be able to have the full Republic City experience with your mom and dad."
Korra forces herself to smile. "Yeah." And looking at him, hearing him talk about her parents - she can't help but remember what Emi had told her, months ago, about how Amon and the Equalists had kidnapped and taken the bending of all the triad members in the city. She hopes that the firebender who had murdered Mako and Bolin's parents had been one of them; that he hadn't fled the city years ago. But that's not enough, not really, for what he had done to her friends, and everything that he had taken away from them. She hopes that that former firebender had killed himself after, unable to cope with the loss. If that happened, maybe it's the one good thing that has come out of Amon's revolution...
"You'll have to join in," she says, in an attempt to distract herself. "Get back into the pro-bending arena, show them some of those cool under fire moves."
"I really miss those days," Mako says, after a minute. "Everything was so...nice and simple."
Korra snorts, torn between the urge to laugh and wince. "And we thought things were crazy back then."
She can't eat much more than a bowl of breakfast, thanks to her nerves, but she keeps Mako company until he finishes. They walk out to the beach together, and she waves when he gets into the police submarine that will take him to the mainland. "That looks so weird," she says suspiciously, standing at the beach and peering into the odd contraption. "It's like a fish bowl. Are you sure it's safe to go in? Why don't I just waterbend you across?"
Mako laughs. "I'll be fine, I've been in it a hundred times before. You should come with me, Bo, and Asami sometime. Bolin actually learned how to drive one of these things."
Korra pales, shaking her head furiously. Just looking at the thing makes her feel claustrophobic. "I'll pass. And hey...be safe out there, okay?"
He tells her that he will and waves, and then the top of the submarine closes and it sinks underwater, leaving no trace of its presence. Korra shakes her head disbelievingly, watching the faint trail of bubbles as it makes its way toward the mainland.
She goes to stand on the far side of the beach, where Tenzin had told her the ship would dock. And she waits. So far, the horizon is clear, and it's hard for her to stay still. It might be another hour.
Korra closes her eyes and begins mentally drafting her speech to Amon. When imagining his reaction to every sentence that comes out of her mouth becomes too stressful, she meditates, trying to clear her mind. Over her months in the Earth Kingdom, she had become much more adept at it - but she still hasn't been able to bend even the smallest puff of air.
She opens her eyes again when the sea breeze stirs her hair, and stares at the horizon blankly. At first, when the distant speck appears, she isn't sure whether she's just imagining it. But it doesn't fade when she blinks. It seems to get closer by the minute, instead.
Korra wipes her shaking, sweaty palms on her pants. She knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that her mom and dad and Naga are on that ship. Her parents are probably standing on deck, craning their necks to try and catch a glimpse of the island. Of her. She's been patient for months and months, so thirty more minutes shouldn't be this unbearable, but it is. Her patience can only stretch so far.
She remembers something just in time, and reaches up to her neck, startled. Her betrothal necklace. It had been a decision she had made with some trepidation, but she hadn't stopped wearing it upon her arrival in Republic City. Her friends don't recognize it for what it is - that's a pretty necklace, Bolin had told her over dinner a couple of days ago - and Tenzin is too preoccupied to notice that she's still wearing it. Her parents won't make the same mistake, of course, and they're familiar with the northern tradition. It will definitely bring up some uncomfortable questions, questions that she has no desire to answer.
After a moment of hesitation, Korra removes the necklace, her fingers working at the silken knot. Her neck feels bare without it; she had grown used to the feeling of the heavy stone nestled against the hollow of her throat. Aside from sleeping and showering, she hasn't been without it since Tarrlok had given it to her, on the night of her eighteenth birthday.
She slips the necklace into her pocket, zips it up so that it will be safe, and tries not to think about how Tarrlok would feel if he knew. It's not that she's ashamed, really. It's just that other people won't understand.
The ship is still a distant speck on the horizon, and Korra makes up her mind in a split second. The water is cool, when she wades in. She contemplates waterbending the ship to her, but it's still slightly out of reach, and she doesn't want to wait. Plus, the sudden motion will probably make Naga seasick, and it would be unfair to the ship's captain to have to clean out gallons of polar bear-dog vomit from the cargo hold. Korra is submerged to her shoulders after a few more steps, and then she takes a deep breath, diving right in.
This is the open sea, different from Yue Bay, but she can swim just as quickly and effortlessly with her waterbending. Within a few minutes, she's right up against the massive gray hull of the ship. Korra knocks on it with a grin, wondering if Naga can hear her from inside. Her lungs feel like they're going to burst from anticipation, and she twirls around underwater, summoning all of her strength.
The narrow, spinning cyclone pushes her to the water's surface and then ten feet above it in an instant. Korra holds it for a second, long enough to see her mom and dad on deck below, and releases it, jumping into their waiting arms as the cyclone spins back down to the sea.
They hug her so tightly her feet leave the ground and it drives the breath from her body, cutting off her cry of happiness. They don't seem to mind the fact that she's dripping wet and covered in seaweed. Korra laughs until she cries, burying her head against her dad's shoulder and feeling her mom rub her back. They're both talking at once, reassuring her, telling her that it's all right now, don't cry, and that they love her, and their voices blend into one. It's the best sound in the world, and she can't believe that she ever took it for granted.
When they finally draw apart, her dad wrapping an arm around her mom as she sniffles, Korra gets her first real look at her parents in more than a year. What she sees makes her break down all over again, wiping her eyes with her sleeves. Her parents are smiling through their tears, but they look so-
Old. Older than she remembers, older than their years. Her mom's face is lined, and her dad's hair and beard are streaked with gray. The stress and despair of the past months are written all over them, and it's almost enough to make her knees buckle. Korra chokes back a sob, suddenly overwhelmed by guilt, and hugs them again. "I'm so sorry," she manages, closing her eyes, as her mom wipes her tears away. Her throat and chest and eyes are hurting from all the tears, but it feels good to finally get the words that have plagued her for months out into the open. "I'm so sorry for everything. I'm sorry I snuck out of Tenzin's house - and that I went and confronted Tarrlok at night, by myself - I'm sorry for putting you through this-"
"No, sweetie," her mom says, her voice breaking. "It's not your fault."
Tonraq grips her by the shoulders, looking into her eyes firmly, and the anguish on his face makes her look away. "Korra, listen to me. You have nothing to apologize for. Nothing. The only person at fault here is the man who did this to you."
Senna touches her arm, her worry obvious. "What happened, Korra? All Tenzin told us on the phone was that Councilman Tarrlok brought you back."
Her dad's expression darkens, his hands clenching into fists. "Tell me that there wasn't some kind of plea deal involved," he says tersely. "That he didn't just do it to save his own skin. Master Katara and Chief Arkut said that happens in big cities like this one-"
"Leave that for now, Tonraq. Korra, are you all right?" Senna asks, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and Korra leans her head into the touch. "Yue came to us on the night of your birthday and told us you were well, healthy and unharmed, but..."
Korra blinks, stunned. Yue had heard her prayer. "I'm fine, mom," she says hastily. "Tarrlok never hurt me." She's told this white lie so many times now that it slips out of her mouth with ease, and her parents' shoulders slump with visible relief.
"Thank the spirits," Tonraq says fervently, pulling her into an embrace. "We were so worried-"
His voice cracks, and Korra blinks hard, looking up at him. She's been dreading delivering this news for months, but it's best just to get it over with. "But dad," she says. "About the plea deal thing you mentioned..."
She doesn't even have to finish her sentence. Tonraq's eyes widen in disbelief, and then he curses so loudly that Senna winces. "What? That bastard-"
"That bastard should be sent back to the North Pole to face Water Tribe justice! He was their representative, wasn't he? Chief Kontak will understand that life imprisonment in the wasteland or execution are the only fitting sentences for a crime like this."
Korra swallows over her dry throat. "Tarrlok's a citizen of the United Republic and Republic City. He's lived here since he was twenty-three." Her head spins. The North Pole doesn't know that she and Tarrlok are back yet, unless Chief Arkut has already sent a letter. Can they recall Tarrlok? She doesn't think so, but-
"Still," her dad's voice cuts into her thoughts. "Maybe if you speak to the police chief directly. They'll take your opinion seriously, because you were the victim."
Korra takes a deep breath, bracing herself. It's best to face this head-on. Might as well deal with this now than later, on the island. "Actually," she says levelly. "I supported the idea, because he did choose to bring me back."
Tonraq stares, aghast. "What? Korra...what?"
"Tonraq," Senna says calmly. "I'm sure she has her reasons-"
Her dad shakes his head, obviously bewildered. "How could you support him, after what he did to you?"
Korra can just tell that her "we became friends" speech is not going to cut it right now. "Mom," she says, looking to Senna for supplication. "I would still be stuck in the middle of nowhere if Tarrlok hadn't felt guilty about what he had done, and wanted to make things right for me. And Republic City," she adds belatedly.
Senna opens her mouth to speak - but then, thankfully, a distraction presents itself in the form of a muffled howl from beneath their feet, and Korra jumps. "Naga!" She looks at her parents hopefully, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Can I?"
They exchange glances, unable to hold back small smiles. "Of course," Senna tells her.
The two of them lead her down to the cargo hold, and Korra nearly falls down the steps in her haste. The dark hold smells of polar bear-dog. Naga is curled up against the far wall, and to her delight, her best friend looks happy and healthy, her coat shining and eyes bright. The sound that comes out of Korra's mouth is like nothing human, as she launches herself at Naga, hugging her tightly around the neck and burying her face in her fur. "I'm back," she says, over and over again. "I missed you."
Naga barks happily, her entire body trembling with the force of her tail wagging, and shakes Korra free. Tonraq and Senna laugh as Naga licks her from head to toe, knocking her over, and then sniffs her enthusiastically.
Korra lies on the floor and laughs until her ribs hurt, scratching Naga's ruff and underneath her chin, all fears of her companion forgetting her vanishing. Her parents come and help her up, and they hug her as Naga nuzzles close, eager to be included. "I can't tell you how long I've dreamed of this," her dad says, stroking her hair, and petting Naga. "Seeing you two together again, just like when you were little."
Korra smiles, looking around at her family. For the first time in a long time, she feels truly at peace. "I'm so happy," she says, with feeling. "Now that you guys are here."
Her mom kisses her on the cheek. "We are, too."
Tarrlok is just getting dressed for the morning, patiently combing out his long hair, when he hears the chatter of excited voices drifting in from his open window. Sitka stirs, lifting her head from the floor, her ears perking up. She whines, soft and inquisitive, and Tarrlok pets her as he rises, walking over to the window.
He takes one look out and steps back hastily. There's a large ship anchored close to the island, and on the sand, a contingent of Order of the White Lotus guards awaits. It's the truly massive polar bear-dog walking up to the beach that draws his attention, though. That, along with her three riders. When they get to solid land, the animal crouches with surprising grace, and Korra takes her parents' hands, helping them dismount.
It's his first glimpse of them, and it's at too much of a distance for him to form a real impression. But Tarrlok can see Korra's mother put an arm around her waist, holding her close, and Korra takes her father's arm, pointing at something on the other side of the island. Naga follows at their side as they walk.
They look like the happy, loving family he had envisioned, just as Korra had always told him; reunited after so long. Tarrlok has to force himself to look away, to retreat from the window. He goes back to his mirror and straightens his jacket and the fur trim on his shoulders.
It's pathetic, that he's jealous of her for this, of all things. Once, he had envied Korra for her power and influence, for the fact that she holds the most prestigious, respected title in the world. And she's not even worthy of it; she's so thoughtless and immature, he would think spitefully, back when he had still been the chairman of the council. Those thoughts had vanished, as he had grown closer to her, and eventually come to love her.
But this has remained. Korra would talk about her relationship with her parents; how much they loved her, how close they were, the fun things they would do together when she could sneak away from the compound. And from everything she said, it was painfully clear that her parents loved one another. I always wanted to have a love like theirs, Korra had told him once.
She would talk, and he would flash back. My dad and I loved listening to pro-bending on the radio. And Tarrlok would remember the stunning force behind Yakone's blows, and how each strike left him reeling - eyes blackened, blood in his mouth. Useless! Yakone would scream at him, eyes bloodshot. You should have been the one to run - if Noatak were still here- With Yakone, after Noatak, it was either drinking, depression, or rage.
Once my dad and I tried to make a three-layer birthday cake for my mom. It exploded and the mess was scary. But my dad had painted a landscape for her, of the place they kissed for the first time, and she loved that, so it was okay.
Yakone screaming at his mouther, grabbing her arm and wrenching her close with such brutal strength that she had cried out, shielding her face-
He would stroke Korra's hair and hold her close. I want what you have, he would think.
Tarrlok picks up his comb and finishes combing his hair, slowly and mechanically. You should probably stay in tomorrow, Korra had told him last night, before they had parted. She'd looked away guiltily. Just in case. I don't want...
She hesitated, and he kissed her softly. I understand.
He ties his hair back in one single ponytail. You haven't changed your hair, Korra had pointed out, surprised, as they sat on the beach.
No, was all he had said, gently tugging on one of her ponytails in an attempt to distract himself. I realized that I prefer it like this.
Korra smiled. Yeah, it suits you.
It does. Anything to distance himself from Yakone. Anything to distance himself from the man he had been, the one who had attacked and abducted her.
But it's still not enough.
It still won't make Korra any less ashamed to introduce him to her parents, or to tell her friends the truth.
Aside from walking Sitka down the most deserted stretch of beach on the island - the one Korra is least likely to include on her parents' tour - Tarrlok spends most of the day in his room. He practices forms, losing himself in the steady, repetitive routines, has a training session with Sitka, and then paces the length of the room. By the time he's finished planning, it's dark outside and a hush has fallen over the island.
Korra had told him that she wouldn't be able to get away tonight, but Tarrlok slips outside anyway, quietly sliding the door shut behind him. Nobody had come to block his chi points this evening, which means that he will be able to waterbend for the first time in days.
To his surprise, he finds Korra standing on the coastline, at the water's edge, looking at the moon. He is just about to call out to her when she turns to face him, hearing his footfalls on the sand.
It's not Korra.
Tarrlok freezes, taken aback. With the dress, and the two braids - it had been an easy mistake to make. He had grown so used to seeing Korra like that, before they had returned to Republic City. For a second, he had forgotten.
There's no question of who this is. Korra shares a striking resemblance to her mother, and from the stricken look on her face, it's clear that Senna recognizes him as well. Undoubtedly she and her husband would have seen photographs of him in the newspaper articles reporting their daughter's abduction, and a mother isn't likely to forget the face of the man who attacked and kidnapped her child.
Tarrlok almost flinches when she speaks; her voice is so like Korra's. "Councilman Tarrlok?" Senna asks warily, tentatively. Her shoulders are tense, but there's no fear in her face or body language, even though she's a healer with no combat training, alone, facing a known bloodbender.
"Yes," he replies, trying to maintain his composure. He can't read her - unlike Korra - and it sets him on edge. It wasn't supposed to be this way. He hadn't planned this. This encounter wasn't supposed to take place so soon. "...Just Tarrlok."
He doesn't see the slap coming. He doesn't even fully register what has happened until he staggers a few steps back and then lifts a hand to his cheek, as the numbness fades and the white-hot stinging starts to set in.
Senna stares at her own hand, visibly shaken. My mom couldn't even hurt a spider-fly, Korra had said once, rolling her eyes. I have no idea how she had me. She looks up at him - she's petite, even shorter than Korra - and blinks a few times. "I'm..." She stops, and her gaze pins him to the spot. "No. I'm not sorry."
It looks like she had summoned all her courage to say those few words, and Tarrlok stays very still, careful not to make any movements that could be construed as threatening. "That's fine," he says quietly. "I deserved that."
Senna studies him for a few moments, trying to determine whether the sentiment had been genuine. She turns away sharply, but not before he sees the tears welling up in her eyes. Tarrlok remains silent, struggling to decide whether he should say something or not. He has always been exceptionally good at knowing exactly what to say and when to say it, and that ability has enabled him to manipulate any situation, any interaction, any relationship, to his advantage. For once, he's lost for words. What can anyone say to somebody they had hurt so badly?
Senna clears her throat abruptly, still not facing him. "Do you have children?"
Tarrlok raises an eyebrow at the unexpected question. "No. I've never been married." Though I proposed betrothal to your daughter. He's struck by the wildly inappropriate desire to laugh at the realization that his possible future mother-in-law appears to be his age. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to cry.
She is quiet for a while, but when she speaks, the carefully restrained venom in her voice makes him tense up. "Then I don't expect you to understand even the slightest bit of the agony that my husband and I went through, because of you."
With that, the dam bursts, and she's talking so fast that the words trip over each other in their haste to escape. "When you have children - from the very first time you hold them in your arms, or even before - your greatest fear becomes the fear of something happening to them. Something hurting them. Something taking them away from you." She pauses to draw breath, and her voice trembles when she continues. "Your child being the most powerful being in the world doesn't do anything to lessen that fear. From the moment Tonraq and I realized what Korra was, we knew that she would face more dangers in her life than most people. The world has always been full of people who want to harm the Avatar, for whatever reasons. Every night, we prayed to the spirits that Korra would be safe, as her duties took her away from the South Pole."
Senna turns to face him. The bleak expression on her face is frightening, and he knows it will haunt him for months - years - to come, until he makes his amends. If he can make his amends. "When we got that phone call from Tenzin, telling us that she had been kidnapped..." He can't bring himself to look her in the eye. "Do you know what it's like, to have your worst nightmare come alive?"
When he doesn't say anything, she snaps, and her angry gesture sends a massive wave sweeping over their feet, soaking his pants underneath the knee and the hem of her skirt. "Do you?"
"No," Tarrlok says quietly, bitter self-loathing rising in his chest like bile. "I don't. Not like what you described. But..."
Senna stares at him incredulously, but he doesn't back down. "Do you know who Yakone was?"
"Yes," Senna says coldly. "Your father, the bloodbending crime lord. Tenzin told us."
"I know it's not the same as what you and your husband went through. I know it's not even comparable." When Tarrlok looks down at his hands, she does too. "I spent my entire life trying to be the opposite of Yakone, in every way. He was a filthy criminal, and a selfish, violent brute. When I was Korra's age, I swore that I would make a name for myself in a different way than he did." He starts waterbending, gently pulling the waves back and forth in an attempt to calm himself. Senna steps away from the water's edge. "After I took Korra and fled to the Earth Kingdom, I saw the newspapers. I saw the headlines. Avatar Abducted By Dangerous Bloodbender. I saw my photographs plastered all over the front pages, beside the articles that detailed my crimes. Just like Yakone's once were. I saw myself becoming the violent criminal that Yakone was. I had tried so hard, but in the end, I had become just like him."
Senna stays quiet. "I never wanted to hurt Korra," Tarrlok says, hating the way his voice catches on her name. "I kept her against her will, yes, and I prevented her from escaping, but I treated her as kindly as I could."
"That's what she told us," Senna says, closing her eyes momentarily. For the first time, he notices the fine lines near her eyes and mouth. The same thing had happened to his mother in the weeks and months following Noatak's disappearance. "Tonraq and I had no way of knowing that. Until Yue came to us on the night of Korra's birthday, we didn't even know if she was alive or not. And even if she was alive, we had no idea what state she was in."
"I'm sorry," he says, and it's one of the few times in his life that he has genuinely meant it.
Senna wipes the corner of her eyes with her sleeve. "It's...no. It's not okay," she repeats, more forcefully this time, but then she seems to relent, her shoulders slumping. "But you did bring her back to us...and I will always, always be grateful to you for that, no matter what your motivations were. I think it's the one reason that you deserve your freedom, though my husband doesn't agree with me."
Tarrlok hesitates, unsure of how much to disclose. "I - I care about Korra."
Senna smiles a little sadly. "I hoped that you would," she says, after a few moments, and that is perhaps the response he had expected the least.
Her parents' stay is too short.
They leave after just two days, and Korra cries a little when she says goodbye to them, alongside her friends. Mako, Bolin, and Asami are just as sad to see them go. All three of them get along great with her mom and dad - Mako and Bolin had spent hours listening to Senna's stories of working as a healer, and her dad had started teaching Asami how to use Water Tribe weapons, which delighted her.
Her parents hug her friends goodbye, telling them to be careful, and that they are all invited to come to the South Pole after the situation in Republic City is resolved. They embrace her last, holding her close, and Korra clings to them. "I wish you didn't have to go," she mumbles, biting back the words that almost followed. I wish I could come with you. Once, she had been so restless, longing to leave the seclusion of the small, rural South Pole and enter the larger world. After everything that has happened in the past year, though, all she wants is to go home and be her parents' daughter again.
"I wish we didn't either, princess," her dad says softly, kissing the top of her head. Korra hadn't thought it was possible, but he looks worse now than he had when he'd arrived here. One afternoon, she had ended up spilling the whole truth out to them, about everything that happened with Amon, and how he had threatened her on Avatar Aang Memorial Island. She hadn't meant to; she hadn't wanted to worry them, but it had just slipped out. She had regretted it the second she saw the ashen expressions on their faces.
Her mom cups her face in both of her hands, her palms warm against Korra's face, and murmurs a traditional Water Tribe blessing, before kissing her on the cheek. "We love you, Korra," she says, trying to smile, and blinking away her tears.
Korra remembers the last time her mom had said that when saying goodbye, and her insides twist in pain. She hears the words that her mom had left unsaid - come back to us - and hanging between all of them, the echo of Amon's words. I will destroy you. "I love you too," she whispers, squeezing both of their hands.
Letting go is one of the hardest things she has ever done.
She watches as the two of them board the ship, holding hands, head bowed, and Korra bites her lip so hard that it almost bleeds. Mako puts a gentle hand on her shoulder and Asami touches her arm, and Bolin and Naga stand close in silent, solid support. The tides are strong, and it doesn't take long for the ship to disappear into the horizon.
"Two months from now," Bolin says decisively, "Korra, Asami, and I are going to be penguin sledding down the biggest mountain in the whole South Pole. While Mako runs after us, freaking out about how it's not safe."
Asami places her hands on her hips, raising an eyebrow. "You might want the tame thrills, Bolin, but I'm going ice dodging. And it's going to be leopard-seal season two months from now, right, Korra?"
"I do not freak out about how things are not safe," Mako insists, injured. "I am always calm and composed. Always."
Korra can't help but laugh, wiping her eyes self-consciously, while Naga nuzzles against her. "You guys are the best."
Bolin bows in an overly theatrical fashion. "Always glad to be of service, Avatar Korra. Now, may we interest you in some lunch?"
"Not right now. I should probably work on my speech to Amon." Korra glances at the rolled-up paper sticking out of her pocket ruefully. "I haven't even looked at it since my mom and dad got here."
"Would you like any help?" Mako offers.
"Nah, I think I'm good. I'll find you guys if I need anyone to bounce ideas off of."
She waves to them, before heading in the direction of the air bison stables, Naga padding along at her side and panting contentedly. Oogi is at work with Tenzin, and two of the other flying bison had accompanied Pema and the kids to the Fire Nation, which means that one of the stables is free for them to hang out in.
"No tummy scratches now," she tells Naga in a mock-firm tone, as the polar bear-dog flops onto the floor and Korra nestles against her side. "I know I have months to make up for, but I've got to get at least half a page of this thing done first."
Naga whines, but then settles down obligingly, resting her head on the floor. After a moment of thought, Korra reaches into her pocket and pulls out the one other thing she had been hiding inside. She ties the betrothal necklace around her neck with a sigh, pressing her hand against the stone absentmindedly. She hasn't seen Tarrlok since the night before her parents' arrival. He's probably been locked up in his room, only coming out after nightfall. A wise choice. She and Asami had their work cut out for them, trying to keep her dad within their line of sight at all times, so that he couldn't sneak off to find Tarrlok and exact some kind of horribly painful vengeance.
Korra sighs again, leaning forward and burying her face in her hands, before raking her fingers through her hair and gripping it so tightly that her head starts to hurt. Her impending speech isn't the only cause of her frustration.
When she had last seen Tarrlok, she hadn't felt any differently than usual, except for some irritation at how he had acted during the meeting. But that was normal; sometimes they did get on each other's nerves, as most couples did. She had still been happy to see him, because he's her best friend and one of her favorite people. But now...well, ever since she had seen her parents again...just thinking about him is enough to make her chest tighten with anxiety.
They had wanted to keep their relationship secret for now, and to tell people later, maybe after a year or so. Tarrlok had suggested acting as if they had just starting things up then, to avoid the raised eyebrows and shock that would occur if anyone knew that they had been involved while he was holding her captive. The idea of lying had made Korra a little uneasy at first, but she had come to terms with it, because it seemed like the only choice. Now, though, the thought of openly having a relationship with him - and telling people - makes her stomach turn. She had seen what he had done to her mom and dad. Tarrlok hadn't actively hurt them, no, but they had been just as devastated by her disappearance as she had feared. She had overheard her parents talking to Tenzin last night, when bringing Naga in from a walk, and it had been enough to make her retreat to the bathroom, turn on the shower to mask the noise, and cry.
Both of them had fallen into a deep, toxic mix of depression and anxiety. They couldn't sleep for more than a few hours every night because of the nightmares - either of finding her body, or never finding it, and spending the rest of their lives in a state of uncertainty. Waiting, always waiting. The lack of sleep and the distraction had taken its toll on her dad - one day, on a routine hunt, he had slipped up and been attacked by a small pack of wolves. Senna had murmured something about sleeping in her bedroom, sometimes, and how she had wished that Korra wore perfume, like other girls her age, so that at least there would be something of her scent lingering in the small room. All I have is her pro-bending posters, her old stuffed polar bear-dog, and a few hairs clinging to her pillow. I can't even tell if they're hers or mine.
Korra had lost it then, and crept away before she could make a sound. It had taken half an hour to cry out all of her tears.
What will her parents think, if she comes out and says she loves the man who had put them through eight long months of such suffering? It just - it seems almost monstrous, to do that to them. It will hurt them, and how can she do that? Her dad is already having a really hard time coping with the fact that she pretty much saved Tarrlok from facing the legal consequences of his crimes.
It's not just her parents, either. How are her friends going to feel about it? They'll undoubtedly question her sanity. As bad as it makes her feel to think it, it's also obvious that Tarrlok doesn't fit in with her friends. She can't imagine him sitting next to Asami and watching Fire Ferret matches at the pro-bending arena, or just hanging out with them at Narook's or wherever. Not only is he way older - old enough to be one of their parents, technically - but she doubts that Mako and Asami will ever be okay with him, after everything he's done. There's Tenzin and Pema, too. They didn't like Tarrlok even before any of this, and now they probably loathe him. If she chooses to be with him, they might think of her as a poor role model for their daughters. Which is understandable, but she still hates the thought of not being able to spend time with the airbender kids. She's known them since they were born - she still remembers the first time baby Jinora came to the South Pole with her parents.
The truth is that everyone will judge her for this, and when the media learns about it - well. She can't think of anybody who will be able to accept it and honestly be okay with it.
Korra exhales slowly, petting Naga and trying to relax. If she only had someone she could confide this to; someone who could listen to the mess of doubt and hesitation inside her and help her sort through it... Because the thing is, she had promised Tarrlok that things between them wouldn't change once they got back to Republic City. She had given him her word.
Both Tenzin and Asami had told her that everything she had promised him, she had just agreed to because that was what it took for Tarrlok to bring her back - but it's more than that, it means more than that, and they have no idea. She knows how much Tarrlok values his relationship with her, and how he had feared that returning to Republic City would compromise it. The truth is that she is one of the only people he trusts, and even contemplating breaking that trust makes Korra feel a little sick. Nobody else knows how much he's been through, and how difficult his life has been. He has told her that she makes him happy, she knows that she makes him happy, and to take that away after clearly promising she wouldn't...that seems cruel, too. It seems manipulating and cold and exploitative, and that's not her.
Besides, she can't forget that Tarrlok had brought her back. Which is possibly one of the only purely unselfish decisions he has ever made. He loved her enough to prioritize her well-being over his own interests, and this is a man who always, always acts in his own best interests. She can't shake the awful feeling that, no matter what, she owes him for that.
It's not even that she hates him, that she's disgusted by him, and feels that staying in this relationship is the only way to repay the debt she owes him. No. That would be simpler, actually. It's the fact that she genuinely cares for Tarrlok, despite everything, that makes it even more complicated. If they lived in a vacuum, if it was just the two of them in some place where nobody knew who they really were, she would have no problem with staying with him forever. But that isn't realistic, and even she knows that.
Korra closes her eyes, rubbing her aching head. So much for working on her speech. A bark jolts her out of her reverie a few moments later, and she sits up straight, some of the knot of tension inside her loosening. "Sitka!"
Sitka stands at the stable doors, wagging her tail at rapid speeds. Naga lifts her head from the floor, giving a soft, querulous whine, and Korra pats her once before getting up and running over to Sitka, sinking to her knees and petting the smaller dog's head and ruff, hugging her around the neck. Sitka licks her, and Korra laughs, kissing her on the cheek. "How are you, champ? I haven't seen you in a couple of days."
"She's been well. I think she misses you and your friends, though."
Tarrlok walks up to the stable, casting a wary glance at Naga, but then he smiles at her, and the affection in it makes her cheeks go warm. "How was the visit with your parents?"
"It was amazing! I just wish they could have stayed longer." Korra stands, and guilt for her earlier thoughts makes her slip her hand into his, after glancing around to make sure that their stretch of the island is deserted. She's uncomfortably sure that he had noticed, but he squeezes her hand anyway.
Naga sits all the way up, tilting her head in curiosity. Tarrlok shakes his head in amazement, looking between Naga and Sitka. "They do look similar."
"I told you," Korra replies smugly. When Naga stands up, taking a step toward them, Tarrlok tenses up, moving protectively toward Sitka. "It's okay," she assures him. "Naga just wants to say hi."
Tarrlok's eyes don't leave Naga - she had forgotten that most people, especially Water Tribe natives, found her companion extremely intimidating, if not outright terrifying. Polar bear-dogs are the apex predators and the largest, most dangerous land animals in the polar regions, after all. "Is it safe?" he asks cautiously. "She won't-"
"No, no! No way! We trained her to only eat seafood."
Sitka trots up to Naga, quite unafraid, and when Naga leans down, wagging her tail and touching her nose to her much smaller replica's in an enthusiastic greeting, Korra beams, her heart filling with happiness. Sitka had been her comfort and companion for the past eight months, and she had looked out for her, in her own way - just like Naga had, for the past ten years.
Naga crouches down on her front legs in an invitation to play, and Sitka runs around her legs in circles, obviously thrilled to have another dog to play with. Naga follows Sitka to the door to the stables, but when Sitka crosses the threshold, Naga stops dead, staring at Tarrlok, and Korra feels his pulse quicken. "I think she wants to say hi to you too," she murmurs, though the expression on Naga's face is closed-off and guarded, quite unlike her usual demeanor.
Tarrlok hesitates. "Very well."
He stays ramrod-straight and stiff, and Korra steps away from him, touching Naga lightly. "Hey," she says softly. "This is Tarrlok. He's my friend."
Naga looks right at her, and the expression - the question - in her eyes sends a shiver of unease down Korra's spine. For all the years that they've spent together, sometimes Naga still surprises her with how smart she can be...and how she remembers. Throughout recorded Water Tribe history, no human has ever had interaction with a member of this species like you have, Chief Arkut had told her, once. Maybe when you retire, you can write a book about everything you've learned. "Yeah," she replies, swallowing over her dry throat. "He's the one."
Naga takes one step forward, lowering her head to sniff Tarrlok. She goes for his neck first, and then his shoulders, arms, chest. He keeps his expression remarkably impassive, considering the fact that he's inches away from teeth half the length of his arm, though his hands shake a little.
Water Tribe legend says that polar bear-dogs can smell fear, and that they can smell predators. If a mother polar bear-dog detects a whiff of threatening intent on anybody who is any danger to her young - whether it is a wolf or a human...
Naga pulls back from Tarrlok, and then, without baring her teeth, she growls, the sound low and distinctly menacing. He tenses up - he doesn't know what he's preparing for; no human can defend itself against a creature like this - but she walks past him without a second glance, following Sitka into the sunshine.
Tarrlok lets out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. He looks at Korra, who seems shaken. "I'm not sure your dog approves of me."
Korra shakes her head, trying to recover. "I've never seen her do that to anyone before, but I think that she was just giving you some kind of warning."
"Don't worry." He reaches out and takes her hand. "I promise that I'll never spirit you away ever again."
He had meant for the words to be a joke, but Korra just looks at him sadly, and wraps her arms around him, resting her head against his chest. It's obvious that she's worried about her upcoming speech, and Tarrlok holds her close, telling her that everything is going to be all right.
to be continued
Thank you so much to all of you who are still following this story, for your patience, and thank you to everybody who left feedback on the previous chapter! I really appreciate it. :) As always, my ask box on tumblr (lantur dot tumblr dot com) is always open if you would like to leave any more comments, or have any questions or concerns.