Last time, on Part 13 of Strings: Tarrlok struggles with re-adjusting to life in Republic City and worries about what is going to become of him after the war. Korra decides to try the diplomatic approach in resolving the conflict between Equalists and benders, and opts to address Amon directly in an upcoming press conference. Korra's parents come to Republic City to see her, and in the aftermath of their visit, she is left with doubts about her relationship with Tarrlok.
Korra straightens with a groan, stretching her stiff muscles, before rubbing the tiredness from her eyes. She stares down at the sheets of paper spread across the kitchen table, hardly able to believe it. Finally. It's finally done. The pages are filled with crossed-out words and sentences, revisions taking up every inch of space on the margins, and her handwriting is crooked and cramped with exhaustion, but it's done.
She gathers up the pages of her speech, sorting them until they're in order, and the thoughts chase themselves in circles around her brain, wearing her out even further. What will Amon think of it? The press? The Equalists, Tenzin, Beifong? Does it concede too much? Too little? She had advocated finding a middle ground in the conflict between benders and non-benders, without turning to radical solutions like ridding the world of bending. She had offered some peaceful solutions of her own, like the election of a non-bender representative to the Council, and the opening of more jobs in the power, water, and construction industries to non-benders, but...
The voice jolts her out of her reverie, and Korra lifts her head out of her hands, trying to smile. "Morning, Tenzin."
He comes to join her, looking worried. "Have you been up all night?"
"Yeah, but look, I finished it!" She fixes her hopeful gaze on him. "I know you have to go to work, but do you mind reading this over for me real quick? If I need to change stuff around, I can do that today-"
Tenzin takes the papers, giving her a gentle smile. "Of course I will."
"Thanks! It's, uh, kind of messy, but I figured I could rewrite it later."
Korra stares at him while he reads for a few minutes, trying to decipher his facial expression, before she realizes that she's being weird and creepy. She gets up, attempting to distract herself by making tea for both of them, heating up some fruit porridge, and washing the bowls that she had left in the sink after demolishing eggplant rice and tofu at three in the morning. Tenzin is still reading after all that is done, his brow creased in concentration. Korra bites her lip, shifting from foot to foot in apprehension. What if it sucked? What if it needs a total rewrite?
At long last, Tenzin straightens the papers and puts them down, clearing his throat. Korra sits back down immediately, wiping her palms on her pants. "What do you think? Was it okay?"
"It was wonderful," Tenzin replies softly, and Korra blinks, taken aback at the pride in his eyes. "The hard work that you put into your writing shows, and I like the approach you've taken and the alternatives you proposed. This was very intelligently and carefully thought out, and I certainly think it will give Amon and the Equalists something to consider."
Korra blushes at the praise. She's used to hearing what a great bender she is, but only a couple of people besides her parents have ever called her smart before. "Thanks."
Tenzin smiles again, and there's a little sadness in it this time. "Avatar Aang would have been proud of the way you've chosen to handle this conflict, Korra."
She smooths a wrinkle from one of the papers, her heart hurting a little at the memory of the happy twelve-year-old she had met in the Spirit World. It's the nature of life, but it seems cruel that an Avatar's death is the only thing that can trigger the next Avatar's birth. If only multiple Avatars could coexist and learn from one another on the mortal plane. "...I just wish that Amon could be on board with it, too."
Tenzin sighs, taking a sip of his tea. "We can only hope."
After Tenzin leaves for work, Korra rewrites her speech and takes it to Tarrlok. To her surprise, though he looks mildly disapproving of some of her proposals, he has no other criticisms to make. "As much as I usually hate saying this, I agree with Tenzin," he says, handing it back to her. "This is an excellent address."
It's definitely a compliment, coming from someone as experienced with speechwriting and all the political stuff as he is, and Korra feels unexpectedly lighthearted for the rest of the day. "I am smart," she tells Naga happily, after finishing running through her airbending forms. "It's not just something that Master Katara and Tarrlok, and Mom and Dad, told me to make me feel better."
There's another small council meeting that evening. Lin and Saikhan read her speech over, and after discussing it for a while, Lin nods, writing a brief note to herself in her notebook. "How does two days from now sound?"
Korra stares. "For - oh. The press conference." Two days. It seems so sudden. "Sure."
"It would take place at City Hall, of course..."
Everyone else keeps talking, going over the measures they will take to ensure her safe arrival at City Hall, and when Saikhan will contact the press. Korra sits numbly, listening, and as hard as she tries to stop herself, all she can think of is Amon, and the eerie, disembodied red-and-white of his mask, looming over her in the dark. I'm saving you for last.
Korra spends most of the evening and the next day trying to find a way to calm her anxiety and quiet the panic welling up inside her. She hangs out with Mako, Asami, and Bolin on the beach, and calls the South Pole and talks to her parents and Master Katara. She meditates for some time, and then brushes Naga and Sitka until their coats shine, taking comfort in their soft fur and the way they nuzzle against her, pushing their cool noses against her hands and covering her palm in warm licks. She waterbends on the coast, losing herself in the gentle, repetitive rhythm of the waves lapping against the sand and rocks, and the sound of the water. Late that evening, Tarrlok finds her in one of the caves behind the island, sitting on a rock and staring out at the sea. He doesn't say much; just sits with her and massages her shoulders until the tension dissipates, and she leans against him. His presence and silent understanding is reassurance enough.
She still can't eat much, when dinner comes around. Mako and Bolin hug her, before they leave for their night patrol shift, and so does Tenzin, before he goes to bed. Try and get some sleep, they all say. Lin frowns and tells her that the press conference starts at eight tomorrow morning, and they will have to leave Air Temple Island at seven, so she had better be ready by then.
Korra tries her hardest to sleep. But midnight comes and goes, and she's still lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open. She hears movement in the dark, and she turns her head, seeing Asami make her way from the bathroom back to her futon. Instead of lying down, the other girl just sits and stares out the window, an inscrutable expression on her face.
"Hey," Korra says softly, and Asami jumps, startled.
"Did I wake you up? I'm sorry-"
"No, it's fine." Korra sighs, sitting up and pushing her hair out of her face. "I wasn't asleep anyway."
"Oh." Asami hesitates, looking uncertain. "Are you worried about tomorrow?"
Korra shrugs one shoulder, plucking at a stray thread in her quilt. "Yeah," she admits. "A little." A lot.
"You'll do great, though," Asami tells her reassuringly. "Your last speech was really good - everybody in the press was impressed by your confidence and poise."
"Confidence and poise, huh?" She grins, pleased, before she feels her smile falter. A lot of that had been shaken in the aftermath of her encounter with Amon, and what remained had been shattered after Tarrlok had defeated her during their fight in City Hall. "t's not really the public speaking part that bothers me, it's just…you know. Wondering what everyone is going to think about what I have to say. It's kind of a bigger deal than the last speech I made, when I came to Republic City."
"I understand." Asami hesitates, glancing down at the floor. "I'm not sure how Amon will react to it, but I've been wondering about my dad."
Korra fights the urge to wince. Asami doesn't talk about it much, but all of them know that it's difficult for her - seeing her dad every day during work at the Equalist weapons factories, having him think that she's on his side, and listening to him plan their family's future in the aftermath of the Equalist victory. If he doesn't back down, he'll spend the rest of his life in jail for funding and working for a terrorist movement, Asami had said blankly, a few days ago.
"Do you think anything I said might change his mind?" Korra asks slowly, hardly daring to believe it. Hiroshi is one of Amon and his Lieutenant's most trusted allies - a personal friend, even. If anyone has any influence over them, it would be him.
Asami shrugs, her lips twisting in a frown. "I don't know. Most of my father's hatred of benders came from the presence of the bending triads, since they killed my mom and so many other innocent people. Now the triads have been eradicated. Regardless of Amon's methods, the city and everyone in it is much safer, and I know my dad is happy about that." She hesitates, thinking it over. "I don't think that alone is enough, though. He believes that benders have an unfair advantage in finding jobs, and that too many employers in most major industries prefer to hire benders over non-benders, because they're able to do more work faster. You did mention that, and the necessity of lessening job discrimination and opening up more jobs to non-benders, in your speech."
"I did." Korra sighs. "You know, the town that Tarrlok and I lived in when we were in the Earth Kingdom was almost entirely non-benders. A lot of the men worked in the mines nearby, and they said that they got paid way less than the earthbenders who worked at the mines. My friend Roumei…" - she can't help but look at the row of Fire Nation idols sitting on her bedside table - "She's a veterinarian, and her husband is a doctor. She told me once that waterbending healers have the market pretty much cornered on human and animal medicine. Both of them get paid less than a waterbending healer would too."
"That's exactly what my dad and a lot of others have problems with." Asami closes her eyes briefly. "I want what you say in your speech to be enough," she says, her voice barely audible. "I want him to hear it and tell Amon to work with you on this. And if Amon doesn't, I want him to leave. I know that you never got to see that side of him, Korra, but my dad is a smart man, and a kind person. That part of him has to be there, still, underneath every bit of propaganda that Amon fed him."
Korra pushes her covers aside, before padding over to Asami's futon and sitting beside her, patting her on the shoulder gingerly. "It's going to be okay," she says gently, her chest tightening. Nobody should have to be in a situation like this.
Asami nods, wiping the corners of her eyes. "I hope so," she replies, her voice shaking. "I know that Amon's vision for equality won't come to pass. I just hope that my dad won't go down with it."
The two of them talk for a little while longer. After Asami falls asleep, Korra makes her way back to her own futon, her steps slow and heavy, as if the weight of the whole world rests on her shoulders.
Korra gets a few hours of fitful sleep, but that is enough. Asami wakes her at sunrise, and she takes a little bit more care than usual in getting ready, conscious of the hundreds of photographs that will probably be snapped in the instant that she walks onstage. Before leaving the bathroom, she pauses in front of the mirror, removing her betrothal necklace and sliding it into her pocket once again.
On her way to the kitchen, Korra runs into the one person she had wanted most - and expected least - to see. Tarrlok is fully dressed, but his long hair is in a state of tangled disarray, and he appears as though he hadn't slept any better than she had.
"I just wanted to wish you good luck," he tells her. He glances around the deserted hallway once, and then steps forward, wrapping his arms around her. Korra hugs him back just as tightly, closing her eyes and focusing on the steady, reassuring beat of his heart.
"Thanks," she murmurs, her voice muffled by his anorak. "It means a lot to me."
When they pull apart, Tarrlok brushes her bangs away from her forehead, his expression softening a little, and Korra feels something inside her relax at the gentle touch. "You are the bravest person I know," he says, after a moment, and the look on his face is genuine and unguarded, like she hasn't seen it since they came back to Republic City. "And I can't think of anybody more worthy of being the Avatar than you are."
Korra stares, utterly taken aback. He's never said anything like this to her before. She's never seen him look at her like this before. Tarrlok loves her, sure - this isn't the first time that he's told her that she is smart and brave and important, but…he had been talking about Korra the person. Not Korra the Avatar. As much as he cares about her, until now, she could never really say that he respected her. As a person, yes, but not as the Avatar. Definitely not. He had said as much a hundred times. The thing is, often, the two bleed into one.
"Really?" she asks, hating how her voice cracks on the first syllable.
Korra doesn't even stop to look around before she reaches up, grabbing the back of Tarrlok's neck and pulling him down to her for a kiss. They only draw away from one another after hearing a door slam shut in another hall, and Korra gives him the best smile that she can. "See you later, tigerbear."
Tarrlok's lips quirk upward, but she can see the worry and strain in his features. "Take care, Avatar Korra."
It is the first time in more than a year that he has said her title without bitterness or anger behind it, only warmth and respect, and Korra stands by and watches him go.
Today is one of the few days that Mako, Bolin, and Asami are all able to eat breakfast with her. Korra shovels it down without tasting anything, while Lin paces around the kitchen, taking small sips of her cup of tea. Finally, she sets it down, glancing at the clock in the corner of the kitchen. "Ready?" she asks tersely. "It's time. Tenzin and Saikhan should be at City Hall already."
Lin escorts them to the beach, where Korra is faced with a full contingent of grim-faced police officers, standing in front of one of those weird submarine things. It's only too clear that they want her to get inside, and she blanches, turning to Lin and pointing to the water. "Can I just swim-"
The quelling look she receives makes the next word die with a pathetic squeak. "Absolutely not."
"Don't worry, Korra," Bolin whispers, patting her on the arm reassuringly, as he leads her in. "It's totally safe, I promise."
Her parents would have found the inside of the contraption highly fascinating, but it makes Korra claustrophobic, and she grits her teeth for the duration of the ride. The thing surfaces after twenty minutes that feel twice that long, and the second that Bolin helps her climb out and onto the dock at the mainland, Korra takes a deep breath, grateful for the fresh air.
She just manages to catch a glimpse of the small fleet of armored cars waiting at the end of the dock, before one of the police officers throws an oversized coat with a massive hood at her. "Put that on," one of them says briskly.
Korra shrugs it on, biting back her irritation at being led around and ordered like a dog, and someone grabs the hood and pulls it over her head, hiding her distinctive hairstyle. The whole thing seems kind of pointless to her - four police officers surround her, shielding her from view, until she gets to the car.
The windows are blacked out, not that she could sit beside them, anyway; she's squished in the middle of her bodyguard squad. "Specially reinforced glass," one of the police officers mumbles, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. "It can withstand most attacks, but it's better to be careful."
Korra nods, staring at the glass blankly. She can't help but remember something that Tarrlok had told her once, while they had still been in the Earth Kingdom. If you go back, he snapped, gesturing angrily at the front door. You'll be a target! You'll be in danger for the rest of your life.
The ride to City Hall passes quickly, and within minutes, Korra is safely inside and escorted to the antechamber, of sorts - the place where she will wait until Lin and Tenzin introduce her to the press. Tenzin is waiting there now, holding her speech in a folder, and Korra feels herself relax as she sees him. She hadn't even realized how tense she was until now, and once the police officers leave, she rushes forward and gives him a hug.
Tenzin pats her head, sighing quietly. "The circumstances are so different from the last time you gave a speech here, aren't they?"
Korra laughs a little sadly, remembering that bright, sunny day, and her carefree ride to the mainland with Tenzin, Pema, and the kids, on Oogi's back. "That's just what I was thinking."
Tenzin blinks, looking far away for a few moments, and for the first time, Korra realizes just how much he must miss Pema and the kids. He hadn't even got the chance to bond with baby Rohan, since they had left just a month or so after Rohan's birth. "I have confidence that you will do just as well today as you did upon your arrival in Republic City," he says softly.
Korra smiles, remembering how Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo had squeezed the breath out of her lungs in their good-luck hugs, and how Pema had taken a photograph of all of them together. Your first official speech as the Avatar! she had said, beaming. I'll send this to your parents. They're going to be so proud. "Thanks, Tenzin."
To her disappointment, he leaves to check on the press and the situation outside a little later. Korra paces around in circles for a while, before dropping into one of the armchairs and burying her face in her hands. Be calm, she tells herself fiercely. Calm as still water.
It's no use. She's shaking, and her stomach is threatening to rebel and throw up everything she had eaten this morning, and she feels hot and cold at the same time. When she hears Lin's voice over the microphones, addressing the assembled journalists and reporters - without saying why exactly she had called them here today - Korra stands, taking a deep breath, and fights to regain her composure.
She listens for her cue. And when it comes, she takes another deep, steadying breath, lifts her chin, stands up straight, and walks out onto the stage.
The sea of people in front of her is even larger than it had been during her first speech. For a second, there is a hush, and then the whole crowd seems to gasp at once, as she makes her way to the podium. Voices rise in exclamations of shock, and Korra is blinded by the hundreds of flashbulbs that go off as she faces them. The lights explode behind her eyes even when she blinks. There are no faces in the crowd now - only cameras, obscuring individual features.
Then the yelling starts, each news representative vying with the other on who can make themselves more audible, until Korra can barely make sense of the tangle of voices.
"Where were you?"
"How did you escape?"
"How did you get back? When?"
"Is Councilman Tarrlok alive or dead? Did you kill him? Did the police retrieve you?"
"Who attacked who first, you or Tarrlok?"
Korra has to control the impulse to knock her fist into the microphone and tell them all to shut up and let her talk. She settles with clearing her throat, and to her surprise, when she does, the silence that falls over the crowd is so thick that she could hear a pin drop. She hadn't planned to begin her speech like this, but it's obvious that they need some basic answers.
"The former councilman Tarrlok brought me back to Republic City, in the interests of protecting the well-being of the city and everybody inside it," Korra says formally, ignoring the explosive reaction her words have, and the twenty new questions this one sentence sparks. "But I didn't come here today to talk about that. I came here to speak directly to the leader of the Equalist movement. Amon…"
She begins her address, and…it's a surreal feeling, listening to herself speak. She almost doesn't recognize her own voice. It's calm, steady, adult, mature. Fearless. Kind of like the recordings of Avatar Aang she had listened to and studied.
When she finishes, she pauses after the last word, savoring the feeling of pride. She had done it. As scared as she was, she had still done well. Korra nods, trying to hold back a smile. "Thank you."
The reporters explode with questions for the third time that morning, but before she can say anything, her squad of police officers appears again, ushering her offstage and directing paranoid glances at the crowd. Mako and Bolin are the first people she sees, and they hug her tight.
"That was awesome!" Bolin exclaims, punching the air triumphantly, while Mako grins.
"Amon's not the only talented orator in Republic City."
Korra blushes, as Lin gives her a rare smile. "He's right."
There's no more time to speak. One of the police officers throws the stupid jacket at her and pulls up the hood again, and she's whisked back into the armored car. Korra slumps back against the seat, watching the empty streets fly by. Instead of the expected worry and anxiety over Amon and the Equalists' response - Asami had gone to the base, and she will report back on their reactions this evening - she's so tired that she doesn't feel much at all.
She had tried her best. She had done what Aang had suggested, and now, all that's left is to wait.
Korra doesn't even try asking if she can swim across the bay this time. She makes a face at being confronted with the hated submarine, but hops down into the hatch nevertheless. "This sucks," she mumbles to Bolin, as it starts. "I don't know how you ride around in this thing every day."
"Yeah, patrolling on an eel-shark would be way cooler," he replies, straight-faced. "Next time you go back to the South Pole, maybe you can teach me how to tame one."
Korra laughs at the mental image, and that's the last thing she remembers before falling asleep, leaning against his shoulder.
The morning dawns bright and clear in the small coastal down of Shanying, in the southeast corner of the Earth Kingdom. Roumei Chou stifles a yawn as she walks into her small kitchen, pulling the curtains away from the window and tying them back. Light streams into the room, and she stares right at it, in the hope that it will do something to wake her up. She had been up late last night, assisting Farmer Xing with the birth of one of his mares. It had been a difficult delivery, but in the end, thankfully, the mother and foal had made it through.
There's a note from Zhen on the kitchen table, saying that Anapan had stopped by the house earlier, requesting a house call for his elderly father. The man had developed pneumonia a few weeks ago, and he hasn't been responding to any of the medications that Zhen has been giving him. Worryingly, he seems to be developing further complications with every week that passes.
The cup of plum tea he had left for her is still hot, and Roumei takes a sip, sitting down at the table. She shakes her head firmly, looking around for the morning paper in an attempt to distract herself from thoughts of the case. Zhen had left the the rolled-up paper on the table near the door, and she makes her way over there, picking it up and carrying it back to the table with her.
She unrolls it, wondering if there will be more news about the recent riots in Ba Sing Se, and takes another sip of her tea-
And chokes on it, slamming her cup down on the table so hard that the aged wood trembles.
Senna is on the front page of the Earth Kingdom Times. But - Roumei squints, pushing her spectacles up on her nose, and wondering if her mind is playing tricks on her. Is that Senna? Why on earth would Senna be on the front page of the newspaper? It can't be.
But it looks just like her, despite some superficial differences. The girl in the photograph that dominates the entire front page has her hair tied up in three ponytails, and she wears a sleeveless blue top and dark pants. But her face - her face is the same.
Roumei stares at the headline blaring from the top of the page without quite seeing it. This just in from Republic City - the Avatar returns!
They share an uncanny resemblance, Avatar Korra and her friend Senna. For a few moments, Roumei tells herself that that's all it is. A resemblance. That's all it can be. Even though the two of them look like identical twins.
She sets the paper down numbly, without reading a single word of the article. Her mind is racing, her palms dampening with sweat. It's unbelievable. It's the height of ludicrousness, to think that her friend, of all people, was the kidnapped Avatar. She can't even believe she's even considering it, but-
But now that she thinks about it - she remembers her shock at reading the morning paper with Zhen, when the news of Avatar Korra's kidnapping first broke. It had been all everybody in the town could talk about for days. And…it had just been a week or so after that, that Emi had offhandedly mentioned that her aunt and uncle had hired a new hunter to supply fresh game to the butcher's shop, as well as the town restaurants. Her name is Senna, and she's about our age. She and her husband just moved here from the Northern Water Tribe, and her husband's going to be the new teacher for the primary school.
Roumei hadn't thought anything of it at the time, of course. Nobody had. It was just coincidence. Their town had a small population of Water Tribe immigrants. Senna's husband is way older, though, Emi had confided. Older than Zhen and Lanh. It must have been an arranged marriage. They still do those up in the Water Tribes. After the two of them had gotten to know Senna, she had mentioned in passing that Taruq was thirty-four - and hadn't Councilman Tarrlok been about the same age, give or take a few years?
And now…now…Senna had left Shanying, so suddenly. And so soon after she had, Avatar Korra turned up in Republic City? It's another remarkable coincidence. It's too much of a coincidence.
Roumei pushes her cup of tea away, feeling vaguely ill, as she remembers. Has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like Avatar Korra? she had asked Senna once, curiously.
Senna had paused for a second, her fork stilling on the way to her lips, before she laughed. I get that all the time. I figure it's some Water Tribe thing, you know. A lot of people from the North Pole went to the South after the Hundred Year War, to help them rebuild. Who knows, we might even be distantly related.
There had been other things, too. A couple of months ago, Emi had knocked on her door, worried, telling her that there was something wrong with Senna, and that she hadn't come to work. When they had visited her, Senna had seemed…so unlike her usual tough, vibrant self. The sorrow and hopelessness had almost radiated from her, and she looked small and scared. When they had asked her what was wrong, she had just mumbled something about how she missed her parents. Both she and Emi had heard about how Senna's dad had refused to accept her marriage to Taruq, because of the age difference, so it had made sense at the time…
Roumei sits still, letting it sink in, and the mildly queasy feeling transforms into honest revulsion as the rest of it clicks. If - the whole time - if Senna had been Avatar Korra, than Taruq - gentle, intelligent Taruq, who had been over for dinner with Senna at her place and Emi's, and who had cooked all of them Water Tribe food on numerous occasions - was actually… Councilman Tarrlok. The bloodbender who had attacked Avatar Korra and kidnapped her.
Roumei takes a deep breath in an attempt to quell the scream building inside her. That would explain why Senna - Korra - had never said anything to them, never asked for help. If, the whole time, she was scared - but Senna loved Taruq, and he had loved her, that much was obvious, and-
She can't. She can't wrap her mind around it.
Roumei grabs the paper and her keys, before rushing out of the house, stopping only to put a pair of slippers on. She ignores the shocked stares she gets from passerby, at her disheveled braid and the fact that she's just wearing a robe over her thin nightgown. It doesn't take long for her to get to Emi's house, and she knocks on the door hard, rapping on the splintering wood until she hears movement behind the door.
Emi pulls it open, one hand resting on her stomach. She looks pale, dark circles under her eyes. If the past couple of weeks have been anything to go by, her friend has already been up for an hour or so, struggling with her morning sickness. "Hey," she says, frowning. "Is everything okay?"
"Yes. No. Not really. Read this."
Roumei shakes the paper open, and Emi blanches as her gaze focuses on the photo. "Is that…?" She shakes her head, dazed. "They found Avatar Korra! You know, you wouldn't believe what I just thought. She looks a lot like Senna, doesn't she?"
Roumei stares at her, and Emi blinks, reading her expression perfectly. "…You've got to be kidding me," she says, after a moment. "Mei, I know that you believe in a lot of weird conspiracy theories, but you can't be serious, this is our friend Senna you're talking about-"
"Emi, Senna and Taruq came to Shanying a few days after Avatar Korra and Councilman Tarrlok disappeared from Republic City. Within a couple of weeks after they left here - really suddenly - Avatar Korra and Councilman Tarrlok show up in Republic City! That's a bit too coincidental, don't you think? And Senna never wrote to us to say that the two of them arrived in the North Pole!"
Emi opens her mouth and closes it uncertainly. "Yeah, but that doesn't really mean anything."
Roumei points at the photograph of Avatar Korra, at a small detail that she hadn't even noticed at first glance, with a shaking finger. "Look at that, Emi. On her right arm."
Emi's eyes narrow as she takes it in - the tribal tattoo, snaking in a thin strip from shoulder to elbow, on Senna - Korra - the girl's right arm. She looks up blankly, and Roumei knows that she's remembering the same afternoon that she is. Senna had bounded into the cafe, declaring that she had news for them, and rolled the sleeve of her dress up, proudly revealing the tattoo. The two of them had gasped and marveled over the beautiful, intricate pattern, as Senna had told them all about the Water Tribe coming-of-age tradition.
"It doesn't mean anything," Emi repeats shakily. "It's - the Water Tribes are a big place. I'm sure arm tattoos are common."
Roumei recognizes the look on her best friend's face - the dawning horror of the realization, despite the denial; the way several small things are adding up inside her head - and takes her hand. Emi takes a few deep breaths, her eyes welling up with tears.
"The whole time…" she starts, her voice barely audible. "Why didn't she say anything? But…Taruq, oh, spirits-"
Roumei swallows over her dry throat, understanding the feeling. Had Senna - Korra - been scared, underneath it all? Had she just been pretending to be happy? Agni, had Taruq - Tarrlok - been hurting her? Bloodbending her? They could have helped, they could have done something-
"I think I'm going to be sick," Emi says suddenly.
And she bends over and throws up right on the doorstep.
Korra wakes up with a shudder, rolling over and staring blearily at her collection of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom idols. Interestingly, she had dreamed that one of the Earth Kingdom gods, a man with the head of a lion-python, had been chasing Amon through the Spirit World. Instead of being his usual calm, composed self, Amon had been running, stumbling over tree roots, glancing over his shoulder every couple of minutes, his fear palpable even with his mask on.
When she had met Aang in the Spirit World, he had briefly touched on the fact that what Amon had told his supporters at the Revelation - that he was chosen by the spirits to usher in a new era of balance - was untrue. Korra reaches out, brushing her fingers over the lion-python man. They're to guide you, Roumei had said. To watch over you and keep you safe from harm, always.
The spirits are on her side, and that's all the consolation and reassurance she needs to get out of bed, stretching her stiff muscles. Korra takes deep breaths as she gets ready, in an attempt to ease some of the worry inside of her. It's been two days since her speech, and this might be the day that Amon and the Equalists respond to her. Over dinner on the night she had delivered the address, Asami had reported on the Equalist reaction to her words.
Apparently, among the general population of Equalists, the opinion was largely positive - something that Korra almost hadn't been able to believe. Some people didn't believe you were telling the truth, and said they were just meaningless platitudes from the bending establishment, Asami said, frowning. However, the debate that started at that point was that you wouldn't have made a public speech, addressed to the whole city, if you meant to go back on your word. Making a statement like that guaranteed accountability, and people liked what you had to say about opening up the job market more to non-benders, and electing a non-bender representative to the Council.
Just when Korra had started to feel pretty good about things, Lin asked Asami if she was able to get any information on the Equalist higher-ups' response. I visited my dad and asked him what Amon and the Lieutenant had to say, Asami replied after a moment, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. He didn't give away much…
That's a good thing, isn't it? Bolin had asked earnestly. If they hated it, they would have told your dad.
But, Mako added quietly, seeing the look on Asami's face, and Korra had felt her heart sink.
But my instincts tell me that Amon won't back down. He's power-hungry, Asami said in disgust, looking around at them. He doesn't want to work with you, Korra, or with the Council. He doesn't want to share power and influence; he wants to control as much of it as he can.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lin murmured, under her breath. He's had a taste of it, as the sole leader of the Equalist movement. They practically worship him, and defer to everything he says, no matter how extreme and unreasonable. He's not going to go back, after this.
Throughout the latter part of the conversation, Tarrlok had sat as still as a stone, his eyes blank and unreadable. Korra pushed her rice around on her plate, and she had recognized the familiarity in it. You're just as bad as Amon!
She sighs, now, as she straightens her clothes and makes her way to the kitchen. It's earlier than she normally gets up, so nobody has left for their respective jobs yet - Mako, Bolin, and Asami are all eating, and they look up and smile at her as she enters, Bolin waving a spoon in greeting. "Morning, Korra. There are blueberry muffins on the stove," he says, his mouth full.
Korra grabs a muffin, still warm from the oven, and a cup of water, before joining them at the table and settling down in front of the radio. It's turned to a news channel, and the broadcaster is talking about how the Republic City police force had foiled the most recent Equalist kidnapping attempt on Chunhua Tang and Lian Sha, the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom council representatives.
Mako and Bolin look exhausted, with dark, shadowy circles underneath their eyes. They must have had a late-night patrol in the city after dinner last night, and Korra frowns as she notices the rectangular, livid bruise on Mako's neck. "What's that?" she asks, pointing. "Are you okay?"
He winces. "I got slammed by an un-electrified kali stick while taking down one of the kidnappers. It's sore, but it'll be fine. I…"
Mako trails off, looking at the radio curiously, and the rest of them follow his gaze. The reception had been clear a second ago, to the point where Korra had felt like the newscaster could have been sitting at the table with them. Now, it's all staticky.
"I'll change the station," Bolin says, reaching toward it. "Maybe it's the wind."
Asami places a hand on his arm, stopping him. "Wait," she replies, narrowing her eyes. "I think-"
Korra realizes it in the next second. Her hands clench around her half-empty cup, and the water inside freezes to ice.
It's the first time she's heard his voice since the night of the attack on the pro-bending arena. She's vaguely conscious of Asami's comforting hand on her arm. All the color has drained out of Bolin's face, and Mako's golden eyes harden, going cold with fury.
"Good morning, citizens of Republic City. This is Amon…"
He keeps talking, and as he does, Korra feels like she can only hear one word in three. It doesn't matter. The fact is, he's rejecting her terms. He's pointing out every single reason why they're not good enough, and why she's a dishonest, privileged, and thoroughly uninformed puppet of the corrupt bending establishment and therefore cannot be trusted…and urging other Equalists and non-benders in Republic City to not be taken in by her false promises.
She can't even listen to all of it; she can't listen to any of it anymore. The cup grows white-hot underneath her fingers, and then shatters into a hundred pieces. Ignoring her friends' exclamations of shock, Korra shoves her chair away from the table, the legs screeching sharply against the floor, and stumbles out of the kitchen, pushing open the first door she sees.
The wind is blowing hard outside, rustling the leaves on the trees. It shakes branches like an angry child shakes a doll; stirring up the waves in Yue Bay, and the frustration and rage building inside of her is so terrible that she wants to scream loud enough to deafen the wind. Korra stands for a few moments, lost, before her feet take over, leading her past the air bison stables, where Naga sleeps, to one of the practice grounds off the side of the island.
There is a punching bag hanging from the solid branches of an old oak tree, and she heads right toward it, slamming her bare, unprotected fist into the heavy bag so hard that the branches shake. She settles into a fighting stance, something as familiar as breathing - not like the labor-intensive hours she had spent sitting with pen to paper, sorting through her thoughts, struggling to find the right way to word things, struggling to put herself in the shoes of different people, people not like her - and batters the bag with her fists over and over again, moving faster and punching harder with every moment that passes.
When the seams finally split and the bag falls apart, spilling stuffing onto the pristine floor, Korra buries her head in her hands, feeling herself shake with fury and desperation. There's no air. She's mediated, she's practiced, she's studied spiritual texts in the Earth Kingdom and since she came back to Republic City, but there's nothing. She still can't airbend, and she hadn't been able to make Amon soften his stance on benders, either. He won't back down, which means it's going to come to war, and in the end, she's no more effective an Avatar now than she had been when she first came to Republic City, more than a year ago.
She hears soft footsteps behind her, and she tenses up, unable to face her friends like this. But the voice that says her name isn't any of theirs, and Korra's shoulders slump. "I'm sorry about the cup," she mumbles, her head aching. "And the bag."
Tenzin rests a comforting hand on her shoulder. "That's fine," he says quietly. "Don't worry about it."
She says nothing, and he sighs. "I heard the broadcast on the radio while I was feeding Oogi. I'm sorry, Korra."
Korra takes a deep breath, and as hard as she tries to sound calm, her voice shakes with barely controlled anger. "I tried so hard, Tenzin. I followed Aang's advice about trying to deal with this situation nonviolently, even when all I wanted to do at first was destroy Amon and put him down like a rabid skunk-bear. I reached out a hand to him, but he didn't listen."
Tenzin remains silent for a little while, a troubled expression on his face. "As much as I hate to say it, maybe Tarrlok was right," he says heavily. "It goes against everything that my parents and I believed in, but some people are truly beyond reason. The most important thing is that you gave this your best effort. Regardless of what Amon said about you, you tried your hardest, and in the end, there's nothing more that you can do than that."
Korra bows her head, recognizing the truth in it. "I still can't airbend," she confesses bitterly. "I don't know what's wrong with me. In all of my studies of previous Avatars, they were only able to defeat their enemies once they had become fully-realized Avatars, and mastered all four elements."
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with you," Tenzin says firmly. "You might not be able to see it, but you have grown and matured a great deal, as a person and as the Avatar, over the past year. The airbending will come when it's ready."
Tenzin shakes his head. "Every case is different. Every Avatar is different, as are the circumstances and challenges they face in each new lifetime. I have confidence that you will be able to face Amon and hold your own even though you are not yet a fully realized Avatar. I know what Amon said to you at Avatar Aang Memorial Island," he says, forestalling her reply, and the expression on his face softens. "But you're not alone, Korra. You might not be able to airbend yet, but you're not facing this danger alone."
The words bring back the memory of something Avatar Rei had said to her, when they had met in the Spirit World. Now be brave, young Avatar. Remember that you are not alone, that you will never be alone, and that we are all looking out for you. I know that you have the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Korra gives him a small smile, feeling a little reassured, and he smiles back, holding his hand out to her. "I don't have to be at work for some time, and your friends said that you didn't finish your breakfast. Would you like to go back to the kitchen and have some frozen mango yogurt?"
It reminds Korra of how the two of them used to hang out when she had been little, and Tenzin had been visiting the South Pole. They would sit on the front steps of Master Katara's house, or at the coast, and eat snow cherry ices and talk. "Sure," she agrees, and after gathering up the fallen stuffing and pushing it into their pockets, they head back to the house together.
The first thing Tarrlok notices that evening, when all of them file into the sitting room for their routine unofficial council meeting, is the fact that everybody looks exceptionally grim. Korra appears more so than the others, for obvious reasons, and it's a struggle to keep his eyes off her and maintain a strictly professional facade.
Tenzin is the one to break the tense silence. "You heard Amon's address this morning?" he asks, looking at Lin and Saikhan.
"Of course. Everybody did," Lin replies tersely. "He managed to intercept all stations this time, including the police line. We don't know how."
Korra's shoulders hunch, her expression darkening. Beside her, Mako shifts restlessly. "Now that Amon flat out said that he's not interested in working with us, are we finally going to do something?"
The chief and her lieutenant exchange a glance. "I think so," Lin says slowly. "Based on everything that Asami has told us thus far, and on our own experience, the biggest danger we face from the Equalists is their weapons. Neutralizing them has to be our priority. They're in possession of mecha-tanks, submarines, and fighter airplanes armed with machine guns and missiles, correct?"
Asami nods. "Right."
"Personally, I don't think that Amon is going to bring out the heavy weaponry this soon - not until the council falls." Lin taps her pen against her paper. "Be that as it may, it would be smart for us to ensure that it won't ever happen. If they bring out those mecha-tanks in force, it'll be a disaster."
"Well, we know where the main Equalist weapons base is, thanks to Asami," Bolin replies, twiddling his thumbs nervously. "Which means we can go in and wreck all the stuff we need to, right?"
Saikhan shakes his head. "It won't look good if the attack just happens out of the blue. Remember, the Equalists think that Asami is working as a double agent for them - you'll have to tell them about the planned attack to maintain your credibility. I think it would be best for you to reveal the date of the attack, but say that you're not sure whether it will take place at the main weapons factory, the one specifically for airplanes, or the factory underneath the Sato mansion."
Asami nods, frowning. "Right. They'll spread themselves thin trying to defend all three places."
"Meanwhile, police forces will target the one main location. Our numbers should be enough to overwhelm the Equalist forces at the factory. The focus won't be on apprehending the Equalists, but destroying the unmanned mecha-tanks and all other weapons we can find." Lin looks around at all of them. "Is that clear? I'll hold a police-only briefing for this operation tomorrow morning."
Mako, Bolin, and Saikhan echo their agreement, and Korra waits for silence to fall, before clearing her throat. "I'm in too," she says flatly, glaring around the table, as if daring anyone to argue.
Tenzin pales, opening his mouth to disagree and looking to Lin and Saikhan for support, and Tarrlok's own protest is drowned by Mako's. "No! Korra, it's not safe. You heard Amon this morning, he's got some kind of personal vendetta against you-"
"I agree," Tenzin adds quickly. "It would be best for you to stay back. You're not a member of the police force."
Tarrlok tries to make eye contact with her, remembering how badly she had reacted the last time he had argued with her in a council meeting, but Korra just scowls, pounding her fist on the table for emphasis. "Look, I've been sitting around on Air Temple Island long enough! It's time for me to do something. You need benders," she adds, narrowing her eyes at Lin and Saikhan. "I can bend three elements on my own, and do as much damage as three people."
Lin hesitates. "I…"
"Amon said he wouldn't work with me," Korra says bitterly. "If he really had the best interests of the city at heart, he wouldn't have refused. It's time that I show him what a mistake rejecting the nonviolent approach was."
"Korra," Tenzin says softly, almost pleading, but she refuses to look at him.
"She's right," Lin replies, after a long pause. "Tenzin, don't look at me like that. We need major firepower, to get in, do our job, and get out as fast as possible. And when it comes to sheer force, Korra is…"
"Terrifying?" Bolin suggests.
Mako's lips twitch. "An army?"
"Something along those lines, yes." Lin looks at Korra, who makes no effort to hide her triumphant grin. "The briefing will be at sunrise tomorrow. Be there."
"I will." She doesn't even pull a face at the early meeting time, or complain about mornings being evil.
Lin opens her folder, shuffling through the papers there, before pulling one out and spreading it over the table, smoothing it out with her hands. Korra and Tarrlok both tilt their heads, peering at it curiously. "That's the schematic of the main weapons base that Asami dictated to one of our artists," she explains. "Do you want to take it from here?"
"Okay," Asami says briskly, and she points at each room in turn, elaborating as she goes. "Those are the assembly lines and manufacturing areas for the mecha-tanks and airplanes. You won't find anything in there but the parts and the equipment used to put the machines together. If you destroy the equipment, it'll prevent them from repairing whatever you damage in the attack, and from creating new weapons to replace what was lost. Fire and earth are the best ways to go there. These right here are the airplane storage areas - earthbenders and metalbenders can smash the completed units and take them apart. Mecha-tank storage is on this side of the factory. They're all unmanned in storage, and I think about twenty to thirty firebenders could melt everything down."
She stops to take a breath. "The last major area is the ammunition storeroom, in the basement of the factory. Water ruins ammunition, so that would be the best way to go."
Lin nods, taking it in, with a faraway expression on her face. "Thirty firebenders, thirty earthbenders and metalbenders. It's definitely manageable." She squints down at her roster of officers. "The waterbenders are a problem. We only have eight, and they're all on protection duty for the councilmembers."
"Why?" Korra asks curiously. "Water does less damage than fire and earth."
"There's a much smaller population of waterbenders in Republic City compared to firebenders and earthbenders. The Equalists seem to be less able to defend themselves against waterbending techniques, for some reason." Lin shrugs, looking at Saikhan doubtfully. "Should we have the squad replaced for the day?"
"That won't be necessary," Tarrlok cuts in smoothly, enjoying the startled expressions on everybody's faces, as they turn to stare at him. "Why compromise the safety of my former colleagues when you have a master waterbender right here?"
It takes a few moments for his words to register. Tenzin is the first to react, his face turning red. "You?" he splutters, looking at Lin and Saikhan, who appear equally nonplussed. Korra's friends just blink at him.
Tarrlok has to bite back the instinctive sarcastic response. "It's not a presumptuous statement, I assure you," he tells them, unable to conceal a note of irritation.
"But-" Saikhan cuts in, fidgeting.
"…It's true," Korra interrupts, staring at him thoughtfully. "He is the best waterbender I've ever seen, besides Master Katara and Kya."
"Thank you, Korra." Tarrlok decides against offering to perform a demonstration. Mako and Bolin already look terrified enough. "I assure you that I am capable of doing an entire squad's work on my own. Are there any water features in the vicinity of the factory's basement?"
Asami blinks, taken aback by the unexpected question. "Um…I think there's something underneath the factory," she replies slowly. "I remember my dad telling me that it made building the transport tunnels difficult. Some of them had to be shut down after they flooded." She raises a skeptical eyebrow. "But the floor was reinforced with cement afterward, and so are the walls. You can't-"
"I certainly can. If I remember correctly, most of the Equalist factories have been built over the past five or six years. All I need to do is find one small crack - a single weak spot - in the ground or walls that I can force the water through."
"I don't think that's possible," Mako says, each syllable laced with enough barely-constrained aggression to make his younger brother give him a worried look.
"Oh? Please inform me which waterbending master's classes you've observed recently."
Mako bristles, but before he can reply, Lin rolls her eyes. "Stop right there."
"My mother has done it," Tenzin says grudgingly. "It is possible."
As hard as he tries, Tarrlok can't read the look that passes between Lin and Saikhan - or the expression on Korra's face.
"Very well," Lin says at last, everything in her demeanor screaming about how unhappy this decision makes her. "We could use a person of your…expertise."
"It will be my pleasure." Tarrlok allows himself a small, satisfied smile, upon noticing that nobody else appears as happy with this as he does.
As soon as the meeting ends, Korra shoots him a significant look. He can't respond, because Bolin had noticed, but the second he looks away, distracted by Mako's question about dinner, Tarrlok inclines his head slightly.
He walks Sitka after dinner, and then they return to his room. He distracts himself with petting the dog, smiling when she licks his hand, and shortly after the clock in the corner of the room chimes half past eight, he hears the door to his room slide open. Korra slips inside, shutting it behind her, and Tarrlok stands, raising an eyebrow in surprise - it's earlier than they had planned, and he had expected to meet her outside, as usual.
"Mako and Asami went out for a walk," she says, by way of explanation, kneeling to pet Sitka as she rushes toward her, wagging her tail. "And the hallway looked empty, so here I am."
The first, instinctive reaction that wells up inside Tarrlok is disappointment at the fact that they only have an hour, at most. It embarrasses him, how much he misses her - curling up beside her at night and talking until they drift off to sleep, in one another's arms, or just having her nearby. Many times, he had worked on lesson plans while she had read, and every so often, when he touched her hand, Korra would curl her fingers around his and give them an affectionate squeeze. It would have been nice if they had a couple of hours, enough time for him to draw her over to the bed and have her settle against him, before kissing her hair, forehead, nose, lips-
Korra's face holds none of that longing. She frowns, obviously preoccupied with other things, as she shifts from foot to foot restlessly. "Why did you volunteer?" she blurts. "When we were back in the Earth Kingdom, you made it sound like you had given up on fighting."
"I had, at the time." Korra's glower makes it clear that she isn't satisfied with the answer, and Tarrlok sighs, suddenly unable to meet her gaze. "I want to do something - anything - to regain my honor and former status," he snaps, and the vehemence in his voice takes him by surprise. "What better way to do that than by proving my loyalty to Republic City? I can't spend the rest of my years here living in shame, like I have been for the past few weeks! It's driving me insane."
"You should understand how I feel," he adds, after a moment. "Your desire to prove yourself motivated you to volunteer for this operation as well, even though - no, because - you're just as afraid that you'll face Amon there as Tenzin is."
For a second, Korra looks like she's going to explode. Then she sighs, deflating. "You're right," she mutters, staring down at the floor. She laughs, then, but it's not a happy sound. "You know me better than anyone else."
He can't help but reach out and brush his fingers against her cheek, and Korra glances up at him, the expression in her eyes unreadable. "I did it as much for you as I did for me," Tarrlok admits softly, willing himself not to stumble over the words. "I - I know that it's not truly possible, but when all of this is over, all I want is to…go back to the beginning. To when we first met, and start over."
Korra steps away from his touch, and he feels her breath hitch. "Tarrlok, we-"
"I know that I can't undo everything that I did. But - if you would allow me - I would like to start courting you, like I should have done." He takes her reluctant hand and presses it between both of his own, willing her to squeeze back and smile up at him. "We can walk around Yue Bay, and I can take you on a scenic drive by the coastline, and we can go out to dinner. You deserve the best." Not the pain, fear, sorrow, hurt, and anger that has marked our relationship so far, from the moment that I looked you right in the eye and insulted you in the most cutting way that I could think of - and then smiled, as your face fell and your voice wavered.
The words hang heavily in the air between them, and Korra's eyes fill up with tears. The sight makes Tarrlok's chest tighten, and he squeezes her hand reassuringly, his voice soft and persuasive. "We can have the normal relationship that we haven't had the chance to, yet. If I reestablish my reputation to an extent, before then, the others won't be as resistant to the idea. You won't have to be ashamed to be seen with me any longer, don't you see that?"
He hadn't meant for the last part to slip out. When Korra blinks, the tears spill over, and she wipes at them hastily. "I'm not ashamed," she starts, her voice breaking on the last syllable, and then she stops, because both of them can see the lie for what it is. She takes a few deep breaths, her shoulders trembling, and finally, she curls her fingers around his. "I'll always care about you," she says forcefully, looking up at him. "No matter what."
Tarrlok watches her, more worried than he cares to let on, and it takes an effort to make himself smile; make his voice come out as smooth as always. "Think about it."
"I will." Korra stands on the tips of her toes, kissing him on the cheek, and before he can do anything more, she leaves the room, as quickly as she had come.
The planned attack on the factory takes place two days after their initial small council meeting. Tarrlok rises with the sun with no difficulty, every muscle in his body drawn tight with anticipation and adrenaline. By this time tomorrow, everybody is going to think of him in a different light entirely. He will acquit himself well enough today to be considered a valuable part of the war effort, and not just a criminal who happens to be under house arrest at the effective headquarters of the anti-revolutionary forces.
He dresses quickly, in dark, loose Water Tribe-style pants and a dark blue Northern Water Tribe anorak, and combs his hair, tying it in a single ponytail. Sitka sniffs around his boots anxiously, making it difficult for him to pull them on. She remains tense even after he tries to soothe her, and she hovers close by, whining.
"You can't come," Tarrlok tells her gently, scratching her behind the ear. Ever since he and Korra had adopted her, aside from basic dog training, he's been working on teaching Sitka relevant defensive and attack skills. He had thought it would be useful, if somehow the Equalists tracked the two of them down and attacked. The dog is smart and competent, but this is beyond her capabilities. "It's too dangerous. Stay here with Naga."
Sitka walks him out to the waiting police submarine. Korra, Bolin, and Mako are all inside already, and Naga sits on the sand, peering into the submarine sadly. The last thing Tarrlok sees before the hatch closes is both dogs side-by-side, identical looks of worry in their dark eyes.
The hour that it takes to get to the factory, by submarine and by police truck, passes in a blur. It reminds him of his time heading the task force, and Tarrlok's lips quirk up in a smirk of anticipation.
Once they arrive at the factory, located on the outskirts of Republic City, everything happens very quickly, just as planned. Everybody receives a last-minute reminder of where exactly their assignments are. The guards are neutralized. The doors are smashed in. In the instant before all of the officers flood through, Tarrlok looks at Korra, and she looks at him.
Then Saikhan yells his command, and she's gone. Her ponytails stream behind her as she forces her way through a crowd of Equalists, pushing them aside with ease, and dashing in the direction of the mecha-tank storage hall.
Inside, it's chaos. Somebody had cut the power, most likely in an attempt to confuse intruders unfamiliar with the building's layout. An alarm screams, flashing red light. The air trembles with the sound, and the screaming, yelling, the roar of fire, the hiss of metalbending cables, and the sound of boulders slamming against metal. Through some stroke of luck, in the confusion; the desperate rush to protect the mecha-tank and airplane storage halls, nobody seems to see him as he makes his way toward the hidden staircase at the end of the third hallway to the left.
The staircase is narrow and it feels endless, and the gloom it leads Tarrlok into is even more profound than the one upstairs. He narrows his eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the darkness, and when they do, he smiles.
This is most definitely the ammunition storage area. It's as large as the lower level of the pro-bending stadium, and every inch of the walls are lined with towering shelves, overflowing with enough ammunition to power the Fire Nation's Royal Navy for a year.
To his right, there's a tunnel that looks to be empty. If he remembers correctly, it's the one leading to the transport area. This factory is linked to the others, as well as Equalist headquarters, through an elaborate tunnel system. It's unlikely that any more ammunition or weaponry would be there, but it's worth investigating after he deals with this.
Tarrlok steps into the middle of the room, his tread echoing in the vast, cavernous space. He closes his eyes, focusing harder than he has in a long time; enough to make a muscle underneath his eye twitch at the strain.
The search takes a little more than a minute. Tarrlok opens his eyes, exhaling slowly. Asami had been right. There is a water source available; a river, from one of the nearby cave systems. He knows what he has to do. It will be difficult, but for somebody who can bloodbend psychically at a range of over two miles - as he had done to Korra, the last time she had tried to escape - it is certainly possible.
Every muscle in Tarrlok's body tightens, as he closes his eyes and bows his head, his fingers quivering. He doesn't have much time. The last thing he needs is for some Equalist to realize that their ammunition stores are compromised and come charging in here after him. He sinks into a waterbending stance and pulls, feeling the water respond to his command. The strain becomes unbearable after only a short amount of time; his head pounds, his muscles ache, and he can feel a nosebleed coming on.
But the water comes, coursing through the earth and gathering speed as it goes, at his urging. It travels straight toward him. Or, more accurately, straight toward the weak spot in the foundation, at the far left corner of the room.
Tarrlok moves his hands upward, in one sharp, sweeping motion, praying to the spirits that it will be enough-
And it is. The torrent breaks through the foundation, gushing into the air and splashing onto the floor, and he laughs, short and sharp and vindicated. It's as strong as he had hoped. He guides it with his hands, sending massive waves of water sweeping over the shelves with effortless grace. And by the time his source of water trickles to a thin stream, exhausted, every single cache of ammunition in the room is dripping, destroyed, and absolutely useless.
The sight fills Tarrlok with vicious pleasure, and he laughs once more, stepping forward and hearing his boots splash against the flooded floor, as he admires his work. He can't even imagine how many yuans the Equalists must have wasted on this collection. Years of hoarding, gone within a matter of moments. This is almost more satisfying than rounding up Equalists and Equalist trainees. Almost.
Now that he's proved himself so thoroughly, Beifong should allow him to accompany the police on their next raid - a raid targeting Equalists instead of just their weapons, hopefully. Perhaps, in time, he'll even be allowed to re-form his waterbending task force.
Tarrlok turns, making his way back to the staircase. He's one step away from it when he freezes, his shoulders tensing up.
He hears the sound of footsteps, boots splashing through the water. And they're not his own.
His eyes sweep the shadows, and he feels his chest constrict with sudden realization as he stares at the tunnel to the right of the staircase. The tunnel that connects this weapons factory to the rest of the Equalist factories, and their headquarters. We do expect reinforcements to arrive, in time, Chief Beifong had told them, at the briefing yesterday. We should get out before they come in.
Fifteen figures emerge from the gloom, their eerie green goggles glowing in the dark, as they advance on him. But the only one Tarrlok can focus on, the only one he really sees, is the one in front.
The one wearing the red-and-white porcelain mask.
For one surreal moment, the world seems to slow to a crawl - the motion of the Equalists, and his thoughts with it. And then everything speeds up again. The Equalists are here, within feet of him, and Amon, and-
The rest of the police force is upstairs.
Korra is upstairs.
And he's the only thing standing between them and the staircase.
There is no fear. Tarrlok's eyes narrow in distaste as he looks them up and down. "Idiots," he says curtly. "You're surrounded by my natural element, and you dare challenge me?"
He moves before they can even react, turning the ground beneath them to slick ice with one rapid movement of his hands. They falter and slip, some clutching at each other for support, and Tarrlok moves one hand dismissively, forcing the ice upward, until each of them are locked in prisons that encase them from toes to chin. He ignores their pained gasps for breath, frowning as he stares at Amon.
He alone hadn't fallen; hadn't so much as slipped, though his boots look the same as the others. He stands still, utterly unaffected and looking right at him, and the strange, sinister blankness of the mask sends a shiver down Tarrlok's spine. Amon takes a step forward, deliberate and sure-footed on the ice, and Tarrlok is unprepared for the wave of pure loathing that washes over him.
He isn't a seventeen-year-old girl, to be terrorized and intimidated and threatened.
He said he would destroy me.
I promise you, I'll kill him before he ever lays a hand on you.
The images flash, brief and disjointed, in his mind. Korra's shudders of fear, the shadows in her eyes. The benders of Republic City, living in fear of being the next targets of Amon's terrorist movement. The look of relief and gratitude in Korra's eyes, when he flings Amon's unconscious body on the floor in front of her and unmasks him, as Chief Beifong puts the Equalist leader in chains. The cheering of appreciative citizens. The rewards for being the one to defeat the infamous Equalist leaders will be great - his former position on the council will be reinstated, at the very least. He can just imagine Korra hugging him tight, closing her eyes, before pulling him down to her for a passionate kiss. Thank you. Thank you so much.
The words whisper in his mind once more. I was to be the city's savior.
"Step aside," Amon says. His voice is low, and not quite as menacing in person as it is on the radio.
He's just a man. Just a non-bending farm boy, and Tarrlok feels a twisted smirk drag at the corner of his lips. "You fool," he replies. "Don't you remember who I am? You've never faced bending like mine."
It's been months since he last used bloodbending, but it comes easily. He attacks with enough force to drive any human to their knees, knocking them into relatively painless unconsciousness. Amon stops mid-stride, his body trembling. He's trying to fight it - how naive - and Tarrlok scowls, his fingers twitching sharply, as he applies more pressure.
He should fall. He should. He should be unconscious on the floor by now, but he's still standing, still shaking, and-
Then, abruptly, Amon stops trembling. He puts one foot in front of the other and continues walking toward him, implacably, relentlessly, as if exerting no effort whatsoever.
The horror at having his bloodbending overwhelmed is violent and visceral, and Tarrlok doesn't realize that he's staggered back in shock, his hands collapsing limply to his sides, until his back collides with the staircase railing. "What?" he asks hoarsely, unable to process it, unable to comprehend it. Even Korra had never been able to break free of his grip, and she is the Avatar, the most powerful bender on the face of the earth. A memory of one of Amon's speeches floats back to him. I was chosen by the spirits. Tarrlok had scoffed at it, but-
"What are you?"
His voice is unbecomingly frightened, and Amon is close, now, close enough to touch. "I am the solution."
His hand is a vice-like grip on Tarrlok's arm, solid and real, and before he can react, before he can do or think anything, Amon twists him around until he's standing behind him. His unprotected back is to the enemy, and his terror is absolute. Amon's finger jabs into the chi point at the base of his neck, and the pain is enough to make his knees give out underneath him. One of Amon's hands clamps around his shoulder, squeezing it, holding him still.
He hadn't been at the pro-bending arena on the night of the championships, but Korra had - Korra had told him how-
Tarrlok sees the mask, staring down at him blankly, and then Amon's thumb comes to rest on his forehead.
The no, the protest, the plea, freezes in his throat. It wasn't supposed to be like this, no! There's a pain in his head unlike anything he's ever felt before. A severing, and then an emptiness. Tarrlok knows, flatly, instinctively, without having to lift a finger, that his bending is gone, and…and…
He had wondered how Amon took bending. So had Korra. It seemed different from the way Avatar Aang had removed it.
He has his answer now.
The realization of that, and the automatic, instinctive denial of the other - no, no, no, it's not possible, his hold on sanity had slipped after the horror of losing his bending - makes Tarrlok's world close in on itself.
Everything goes black.
to be continued
As always, thank you so much for your patience in waiting for this chapter, and thank you for reading and leaving feedback. I read every comment, and I love hearing what you have to say. :)