Note: As always, thank you so much to everyone who took the time to review the previous chapter. Your words of encouragement really helped me push through a bad case of writer's block, and I appreciate that so much.
It takes Korra the better part of half an hour to explain everything to them, everything she had seen when, against all odds, she had found her way back to the Spirit World, and back to Aang.
Her mother dissolves into tears, burying her face in her hands. Katara bows her head in gratitude or prayer, or a little bit of both. Tenzin just stares at her, gaping openmouthed, like a fish. "This is completely unprecedented," he stammers. "Korra, this is groundbreaking, historical-"
Bolin punches the air, jumps so high he almost hits the ceiling, and lets out a gleeful whoop, as Mako and Asami rush over and hug her. "This is awesome! Fantastic!"
"Magical!" Meelo squeals right into her ear, almost deafening her.
Her dad holds her close, and then the airbending family converges on her at once. Pema pats her face with a slightly shaking hand, and gives her a tearful smile, while the kids squish the breath out of her body with hugs. Sitka had managed to squirm into the house, and she weaves in and out of the crowd, wagging her tail excitedly, while Naga sticks her head through the open window, licking Korra's hair whenever she gets close enough.
In all the chaos, even Tarrlok manages to give her a gentle pat on the shoulder, without getting noticed by her parents or Pema. When she meets his eyes over Tenzin's shoulder, he looks so happy and so relieved for her, that for a second, Korra just wants to pull him into her arms and hug him properly, regardless of being surrounded by her family and friends.
It's kind of amazing. An hour ago, when she had come out of the healing room, the front room of Katara's healing hut had… Well, it had looked and felt like a funeral. It had felt as if someone - if she - had died. Everyone had been so tense and silent. Now, just looking around is enough to make her heart expand. Everyone is smiling, even baby Rohan, and her mom, still wiping away her tears - and talking at once, Tenzin and Katara about how amazing it is that the Avatar Spirit is apparently a girl. Korra just sits and watches it all, leaning into her mom's side, and as happy as she is, she can't believe it, she still can't believe it. Her head is spinning, and it's a little overwhelming. She doesn't even want to blink, because what if this is a dream? What if she's still sleeping on the ship, and it's all a dream? Every single night since Amon - Noatak - had taken her bending, she's dreamed about getting it back.
Korra glances down at her hand. Except she doesn't have it back. She's still a non-bender. What Aang had given her was a sense of purpose, and the affirmation that she's still the Avatar. That Amon hadn't erased her identity and worth to the world, when he had taken her bending. She bends and pets Sitka, smoothing her hand against the dog's soft fur, focusing on the feel of it beneath her skin.
It's not a dream, she realizes, and it stuns her a little. It's real. This is really happening. It makes her want to laugh and jump and scream. And at the same time, it makes her want to find a soft, quiet spot and go fall asleep. Maybe now she'll finally be able to sleep through the night, and the nightmares will be gone.
Bolin's arm around her shoulder jolts her out of her reverie. "Do you know what we need?" he asks, grinning around at everyone in the room - even Tarrlok, Korra notices, who is standing awkwardly next to Katara. Who, it should be noted, doesn't seem to mind his presence, unlike Pema and her dad.
"We need," Bolin continues, without waiting for a response, and gesturing dramatically - almost hitting Mako in the face as he does so. "We need a party."
Ikki jumps up and down, clapping her hands. "Yeah! We need to celebrate Korra!"
Her dad smiles. "That sounds like a wonderful idea," he says, looking at her. "Everyone in the village has been worried, and they'll be thrilled that you're well."
"Can we organize a festival for tonight with such short notice?" Pema asks, looking at Katara, and her old waterbending teacher inclines her head resolutely.
"Of course we can. This is a very special occasion, after all. If everyone here helps with cooking and decorations, by evening, we will be ready. But more importantly…" Katara touches her on the arm, visibly concerned. "Korra, are you up for it? We know that the past few weeks have been an ordeal for you. If you want to rest, or have some time on your own, that is perfectly understandable."
She's never been one to turn down a party - except for Tarrlok's stupid gala way back when, of course, and Korra has to stifle the urge to scoff at the memory. Today, though, right now, it's the last thing she wants. All she really wants is to go somewhere quiet, with Naga and Sitka at her side, and curl up with them, and sit, and process and think. You better write that in the history books under "unprecedented" too, Tenzin.
But everyone is looking at her, hopeful and expectant and so very happy. She can't let them down. They have a reason to celebrate, after all. Korra nods, cracking her knuckles, and putting her brave face on. "Trust me," she says, and to her surprise, her voice already sounds like her old voice, pre-Amon, pre-her bending being taken away, tough and confident. "After everything that's happened over the last few months, I am so ready to party."
The second Korra had confirmed that the celebration would take place, everybody in the hut had sprung to action. Tonraq, Tenzin, Korra, and her friends had left to inform the chief of the Southern Water Tribe of the news, spread the word of Korra's current status, and check on non-vegetarian food available at the market. Pema and her children had eagerly taken on the role of decorators for the event, and departed the hut immediately afterward, earnestly discussing potential venues, ice sculptures, lights, and flowers.
Tarrlok had lingered awkwardly in the hut, and decided to make himself useful by clearing away the platters of snacks lying on the tables. Senna and Master Katara are the only ones left, now, standing near the window in quiet conversation. He takes his time rinsing the platters in the attached kitchen, running the water loudly, in an attempt to give them some privacy. It's been weeks, but the feeling of the water running over his hands still fills him with a dull ache. Water had always been soothing and life-affirming, a source of joy and power, peace and beauty. Now, the sight of it, the feel of it, reminds him of loss and Noatak, all at once. He'll be damned if it isn't pathetic, but just thinking of Noatak, even now, makes his throat tighten.
You tried to break her, to destroy the Avatar cycle, but you couldn't. The victory, as meaningful as it is, feels hollow. He wishes he could say it to Noatak's face, as he sat behind bars, just as Noatak used to talk to him when he had been imprisoned. But he'll never be able to say another word to Noatak again.
Tarrlok turns away from the sink sharply, and leans back against the counter, pinching the bridge of his nose. In the living room, Master Katara and Korra's mother have fallen silent.
He should go. He's intruding on Korra's family and friends, the people who had suffered when he had stolen her from them. He has money in his pocket; he could easily leave and see if there's a merchant ship at the docks heading in the direction of Republic City. It's not that he doesn't want to celebrate with Korra - spirits, that's the only thing he wants, and he wants it so much that it's embarrassing. To celebrate with her, truly, and to honor everything she's done to help Republic City. To not be ostracized among her friends and family, to make it clear that she is important to him. He wants to be one of them, not the outsider on the fringes.
Tarrlok sighs, turning back to the counter and wiping his hands on the towel, arranging it back on the rack with an air of finality. He can't. Maybe he'll never be able to. Maybe, to Korra's family and her friends, he will always just be the man who stole her away, and put them through absolute hell.
The creak of the door jolts him out of his reverie, and Tarrlok looks over, startled. Automatically, he walks over and pulls the heavy wooden door open. "Thank you," Master Katara tells him, with surprising gentleness, as she shuffles inside. "Senna has gone to the market. I have quite a bit of food here, but no tiger-crab, and Korra loves tiger-crab."
Tarrlok nods, a bit taken aback, and more than a little tongue-tied. Unfazed, Katara makes her way to the cabinet and begins to pull out pots and pans. "Do you know how to cook?" she asks, her back to him.
"Northern-style," Tarrlok manages, crossing over to her side, and pulling down a wok from the top shelf. "I'm familiar with a few southern recipes as well."
Katara nods, and despite the fact that she radiates an unshakable calmness, the tension is too much, suddenly overwhelming. Tarrlok almost touches her frail, thin shoulder, but she turns and looks at him with those penetrating blue eyes, and jerks away, remembering - remembering her hatred for bloodbenders, for Yakone, and-
"I'm sorry," he says, bowing his head. It's a struggle to keep the words from falling out of his mouth in a rush. "For what my father did for Avatar Aang, and for what my brother did to Korra. For what I did to you and everyone close to her. I know…I know how much she means to you. I know that losing her must have been…"
"The worst thing I've been through since my husband and my brother Sokka's passing," Katara says, her voice barely audible. "Yes." She touches his upper arm lightly, and Tarrlok almost jumps in surprise. "I am eighty-five years old," she says, after a few moments, and the expression on her face is somehow far away. "I have experienced a great deal in my life. One lesson I learned early on is that there are no people in this world who don't make mistakes. Some mistakes, of course, are worse than others."
Katara lapses into silence, and Tarrlok braces himself. My husband made the biggest mistake of his life by letting your father live. Yakone should have been executed, and you and your brother never should have been born.
"There are two types of people in the world," Katara says, instead. "Those who learn from their mistakes, and those who don't. Those who seek to right the wrongs they have done, and those who are remorseless, and remain uncaring to the plight of others. You, Tarrlok of the Northern Water Tribe, are the former."
Tarrlok stares, and to his shock, she actually pats him on the hand once. "Nothing will ever undo the suffering and pain that Tonraq and Senna went through when you took their daughter," Katara says softly. "And my son and his family, and myself. But you didn't harm Korra, and you allowed her to come back to us. You made a conscious choice to do what was right, and that does mean something. It always will."
Tarrlok bows, humbled. This is more than he could ever have hoped for. "Thank you," he murmurs.
Katara just nods, before slowly making her way to the ice box. "Now, I assume you know how to clean a fish?"
"I do, but-"
When he tells her about leaving, and how it may be the better idea, Katara fixes him with a stern look, and deposits an enormous frozen salmon-snake into his hands. "Korra clearly wants you here, which is why she brought you along in the first place. If you leave like this, without even having the courtesy of saying a word to her, she'll be upset."
Tarrlok eyes the salmon-snake with apprehension. "I don't want…"
"Exactly." Katara slides a cutting board and a knife over to him. "The purpose of this festival is to honor what Korra did in Republic City. She saved Lin and the Council and prevented the city from falling to the Equalists. She would readily admit that what she and her friends did was only possible because the two of you returned to Republic City when you did. If you had waited another couple of weeks, even a month, it would have been too late."
"Therefore, you do have a place at the celebration tonight, alongside with Mako, Bolin, and Asami," Katara says firmly. "Others may disagree, but I assure you that there won't be any fuss, if that's what you're concerned about."
Tarrlok opens his mouth, but Katara's tone brooks no argument, and he shuts it again, somewhat meekly. Chief Arkut may be the official leader of the Southern Water Tribe, but he has no doubt that Katara's word carries just as much - if not more - weight, among the people of the South Pole. Korra had told him once that the chief and Master Katara were close personal friends. She had been his waterbending instructor, when he was a child.
Katara turns on the radio, and after some fiddling with the dial, manages to pick up an Earth Kingdom pro-bending station. Tarrlok can't help but smile, remembering the way Korra used to listen to the matches and cheer out loud. They work in silence much more comfortable than he expected, as Katara puts together a massive pot of five-flavor soup, and he cleans the fish.
"So," Katara says, after some time. "What will you do now?"
"I was going to remove the head, unless you want it to be fried as well."
Tarrlok realizes his mistake too late, after Katara actually rolls her eyes at him. For a second, he catches a glimpse of the fourteen-year-old of legend, who had saved the world alongside Avatar Aang. "After this, I meant to say. Do you think you will stay in Republic City, or will you reside elsewhere?"
Tarrlok hesitates, returning to scaling the fish. "I love Republic City," he says, at last. "But I did think about leaving. The police unfroze my assets and returned my house to me, but I didn't think I would exactly be welcome in the city. And I understand why that is."
Katara nods in silent understanding, and Tarrlok glances at her out of the corner of his eye. "I don't want to leave, though. I…I think I have to give something back. I owe the city that."
"You served the city for years, as a member of the council." Katara raises an eyebrow. "I still remember the very first time Tenzin complained about you, when you were first running for election."
Tarrlok can't help but scoff at the memory of when he had first met Tenzin, a little more than ten years ago. "Yes, well. It's a little more complicated than that." He trails off, unable to meet her eyes. "I took Korra away for almost a year, and that was the reason why the situation in Republic City fell apart so quickly. I'm sure you heard about all the members of the police force who were kidnapped and had their bending stolen from them. And I can't even tell you how many businesses shut down, because their owners - benders - fled the city or went into hiding. It was a disaster."
"I see," Katara says softly. "But you aren't going to return to the city council, I assume."
Tarrlok spares a brief thought for his large, elegant former office, and laughs, a little bitterly. "Even if I live to be eighty, I think I'll never be allowed within a mile of the council building ever again. I worked as a schoolteacher in the Earth Kingdom, and I enjoyed that, but I highly doubt that would be possible in Republic City. No, I have to find another way."
"Do you have any ideas in mind?"
He takes a deep breath, and then inclines his head. Speaking the words aloud is a bit daunting, but this idea has been lingering in his mind ever since he had heard the news about Noatak's death. "I do, actually."
"Well?" Katara asks, after a few moments, sliding a handful of chopped mint into her pot, and looking over at him. "Go on."
"These are amazing," Bolin says with feeling, as he shovels sea prunes into his mouth at a speed that puts even Meelo's to shame. "These are so good. I don't know why you guys don't like them."
"No way," Asami replies, around a mouth full of extra-large lobster-shrimp. "This stuff is the best. You don't know what you're missing out on."
"This Southern Water Tribe food is a million times better than Narook's," Mako says, in between eager gulps of steaming hot five-flavor soup. "Your parents should come to Republic City, Korra. Your mom can open up her own restaurant."
Korra laughs, entertained by the idea of her mom in a chef's hat, and her dad ushering people around an igloo-themed restaurant. "I'm so glad you guys like it." Chief Arkut and his wife had gifted her friends with traditional Water Tribe warrior's clothing for the celebration, and dressed in blue and brown, wrapped in fur, they fit right in with the rest of the Southern Water Tribe.
On impulse, she stretches her arms out and hugs all of them close, even though they're all sitting and eating with food in their mouths. At that precise moment, a camera flash goes off, right in their faces. "You guys look awesome!" Ikki shouts, while Jinora, holding the camera, beams at them.
"I love your warrior paint, Korra," she says with feeling.
Korra touches her cheek self-consciously. "Thanks, Jinora."
"It's true," Bolin nods. "You look great."
Korra catches a glimpse of her reflection in Mako's bowl of soup, and the fierce, thick black marks that her father had inked onto her forehead and cheeks. It was the first time she had ever worn the traditional battle paint of the Water Tribes, and her eyes had filled with tears while her dad had been applying the paint. Before she had begun getting ready for the celebration, her mother and Master Katara had given her a new and much more elaborate anorak, embroidered with the Water Tribe lunar motif. After that, Chief Arkut had presented her with a wolf's-head helmet finer than any she had ever seen before, bowing deeply and holding it out to her. "Avatar Korra," he said.
When she had put it all on, the anorak and the helmet, and the paint, and she had looked at herself, Korra could barely recognize the strong, fierce woman staring back at her. "I look like Avatar Kirima," she had whispered to Master Katara, hardly able to believe it. "And Avatar Kuruk."
"You look like Avatar Korra," Master Katara had replied, hugging her tightly. "The pictures they take of you tonight will be placed in the history books, and people will tell your story for generations to come."
When the celebration had begun earlier tonight, and she had stepped out to face the entire tribe, the roar of applause and cheers had been deafening. Korra had just stood there for a few moments, overwhelmed, unable to comprehend it, before she smiled and bowed to them.
In all the years she's been alive, she's never seen a celebration like this in the South Pole, not even for the solstices or festivals. The food is unbelievably good, and Pema and the ladies of the South Pole had surpassed themselves with the decorations. Flame-filled lanterns float on the dark water of the lake, and a huge circle of torches mounted on elaborately carved totem poles surrounds the festival grounds. Ice bowls on the floor are filled with arctic violet petals, and strings of light adorn beautiful ice sculptures depicting the Water Tribe spirits.
"This is so beautiful," Asami sighs now, gazing around at their surroundings. The view from the head table, the place of honor, is stunning. "I hope Jinora got pictures of everything."
Korra catches a glimpse of her mother in the crowd, adjusting one of the strings of light hanging around a sculpture of Tui. "I hope so too. Listen, guys, I'll be right back, okay? Keep eating, and keep an eye out for that candied seaweed I told you about."
She leaves the high table, waving to the chief and his wife, and Tenzin, Pema, and their kids. To her eternal surprise, Master Katara, a couple of her friends, and Tarrlok, of all people, are seated at a table off in the corner, sharing seaweed noodles and seal, and engaged in what appears to be civil conversation. Korra grins at them. Tarrlok catches her eye and smiles a genuine smile, and Master Katara raises a glass to her.
Korra manages to sneak up on her mom, sliding her arm through hers. "Hey, mom. Where's Dad? And why aren't you eating?"
Her mom leans against her, and Korra wonders when she had gotten taller than her. She looks down and notices, with a pang, the new strands of gray in her mother's beautiful, thick black hair - undoubtedly the result of the stress of the last few weeks.
When Senna smiles, though, it lights up her face as it has always done, and it is as mischievous as ever. "Your father and his friends are trying to set up the fireworks. He swore to me that he's going to make it even better than New Year's in Ba Sing Se."
"Fireworks? This is unbelievable." Korra shakes her head in amazement. "You're spoiling me. You know, while you're at it, you could open up a pro-bending arena here in the South Pole and name it after me."
Senna giggles. "I'm sure that Chief Arkut would be amenable to the idea."
Korra takes a minute to envision it dreamily - the arena would be complete with a statue of her and the Fire Ferrets out front, of course - and then snaps back to reality. "Seriously, Mom, why aren't you eating? The food is incredible."
Senna shrugs, looking up at her. "I feel too full already," she says simply. "I'm so happy I can't even sit still. Having you here, having you well, and having our family together again - this is all I've ever needed."
Korra's eyes burn, and she bends, hugging her close. "Mom," she says, her throat closing up. "I love you."
"I love you too," Senna says, touching her on the cheek tenderly. Then she sighs and pulls away, looking down at her feet. "But I'm a horrible mother," she whispers, her voice barely audible. "You deserve better."
"What?" Korra demands, horrified. "No! Why would you even say that?"
Her mom takes her hand, holding it like she used to when she had been a little girl. They start to walk around the lake, away from the crowds, and the sound of laughter and conversation. "Because when I heard that you were alive, and you had lost your bending, I was relieved," she says, after a while. "All I could think about was the fact that you were alive. The loss of your bending didn't even register to me, at first. All I could think about was that now, you could come home to us, to the South Pole, to stay - not to that compound, back to home, where you haven't lived since you were a little girl." Senna stops, her lips trembling. "All I could think about was the fact that you could finally only be our daughter."
"Mom," Korra stammers, stunned. "Mom…"
Senna bows her head. "I know. I'm so selfish. When you told us earlier, about what Avatar Aang said, I was so happy for you, but at the same time-"
Korra hugs her tight, cutting her off. Her mother shakes with sobs, burying her face in the sleeve of her anorak. When they finally, slowly pull apart, Senna wipes her face with the fur lining of her sleeve. "I wish you could stay," she says miserably. "We'd make it possible for your friends to stay too. All of them," she emphasizes, looking back over the lake, to where Asami, Mako, and Bolin sit. And Tarrlok.
Korra wipes her mom's face gently. "I know," she murmurs. "I wish I could too. I can't tell you how much I do."
Senna takes her arm, and they continue their slow walk around the lake. "Do you have to go back tomorrow morning?" she asks hopefully. "Maybe you could leave after a couple of weeks."
"I wish I could, Mom," Korra says quietly, again. She feels heavy inside all of a sudden, and not just from the food. "It's just that… Tenzin and I, we were talking about it earlier, and the situation in Republic City still isn't really stable. Amon is gone now, but the Equalist movement is still alive, and we need to deal with that. Amon also apparently said that movements like the Equalist movement in Republic City are gaining strength in the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation, and we don't want that to happen. I mean, some benders were killed in the Fire Nation not too long ago." She winces. "Tenzin said that we have a lot of work ahead of us. And after what Avatar Aang told me today, I'm still part of the us. Actually, Tenzin says that I'm the key part of it."
Her mom smiles through her tears, squeezing her hand. "I know you'll do great things, sweetheart. I'm proud of you. Your father and I are so proud of you. We always have been, and we always will be."
"Thanks, Mom." Korra stops, turning to face her mother, and puts her hands on both of her shoulders, looking at her firmly. "No matter how busy I am, no matter what, I'll always be-" Her voice cracks, and she clears her throat. "I'll always, always be your kid first. I'm going to come back to visit in a month, okay? I promise."
Her mom embraces her, and they stay like that for a long time. When they pull apart, it's Senna's turn to wipe the tears from her daughter's cheeks, careful not to smudge Korra's war paint. "Come on," she says, taking her hand. "Let's head back. I think the fireworks are going to start soon…"
Their ship back to Republic City had been scheduled to leave in the morning, but it takes longer than anticipated for everybody to wake up and get ready to depart after last night's celebration. The party had gone on until the early hours of the morning, and become more and more exuberant with every hour that passed.
It is early evening by the time they say their farewells on the dock. Tenzin's children cling to Katara, begging her to come visit Republic City - or, better yet, just get on the ship with them right now and come to live on Air Temple Island. Naga and Sitka reluctantly go into the ship's hold, after being bribed with several extremely large bones. Mako, Bolin, and Asami, still in their Water Tribe coats, hug her parents and ask them to come to Republic City soon, and Korra watches, amused. She has no idea why her parents didn't have any more kids after her, but they're so fond of her friends that they might as well be their honorary kids.
To her surprise, her mom and Tarrlok clasp hands for one brief second. Tarrlok nods at her dad, and after a few tense moments, Tonraq grudgingly inclines his head a fraction of an inch. It's not much, but it's way more than Korra had expected. Her parents hold her close and murmur Water Tribe blessings over her head, and too soon, she's standing on the deck of the ship as it moves out to sea, waving until her arm hurts, and watching her parents and Master Katara grow smaller and smaller with the distance.
Pema comes up behind her, and touches her on the shoulder. "It's all right," she says reassuringly, when Korra turns toward her. "You'll be back before you know it, and you know your parents are always welcome on Air Temple Island."
Korra sighs, and gives her a rueful smile. For some reason, Pema can always read her mind. "It's just so weird," she says. "Until yesterday afternoon, I thought… I mean, part of me thought that I'd never be the Avatar again, and that I would probably go back home for good, to live a normal life, and do…whatever non-benders in the South Pole do. Now, I'm on my way back to Republic City, and Tenzin says that I'll have even more Avatar duties than I had before."
"I know. I can't imagine what a tough adjustment that must be." Pema's eyes soften, as she looks up at her. "But you're strong. You'll get through it. And remember, you always have us."
Korra smiles at her, and reaches out to brush her fingers against the sleeping baby Rohan's soft hair. "Thank you."
She spends the rest of the evening playing card games and talking with her friends, the four of them lounging in the hold with Naga and Sitka. This is the first chance they've had to just relax and hang out since way back before Amon and the Equalists attacked the pro-bending arena, which was forever ago. It's nice. It feels good. Her spirits lift a little at the thought that even though Mako and Bolin will return to their police duties, and Asami will step into her dad's former position as CEO of Future Industries, they'll still have this to look forward to. Spending time with each other, training, maybe going for drives or to the beach.
The airbender kids join them after dinner, and despite the fact that Mako claims it would be impossible to play a good game of hide-and-seek on a ship, they do it anyway. Until Meelo climbs into a barrel of pickles, at least, and Tenzin looks as if he's about to cry, and sends them all to bed. Hide-and-seek on a ship? This is the most ludicrous idea I ever heard! Mako, I expected that you would have talked some sense into these people, really-
Korra tries to sleep, she really does, but she can't help but toss and turn restlessly. There are a million things on her mind, it's stuffy in here with the cabin window closed, and Jinora's talking in her sleep, mumbling something about volcanoes. She slides out of her bunk noiselessly, and pads to the door, slipping outside and closing it behind her without a sound.
The sea air is as sharp and refreshing as it always is, and Korra closes her eyes, breathing in. She can't be on a boat, now, without thinking back to when Tarrlok had dragged her to the Earth Kingdom. Or to their journey back to Republic City, equally nerve-wracking, but for entirely different reasons.
There are no clouds in the dark night sky. She spares a moment to admire the millions of stars glittering overhead, before making her way down the side of the ship, in the direction opposite Pema and Tenzin's cabin. Korra pauses, startled, as she rounds the corner. Tarrlok leans against the railing, his back to her. He's looking up at the sky, like she had just been - at the full moon, shining bright and silver.
Tarrlok is lost in thought enough that he doesn't notice her presence until she's right behind him, and Korra tugs lightly on his ponytail. His reaction is priceless - he spins around in total distress, hand flying to his hair defensively. "Oh, it's you," he sighs, relieved. "I thought it was Meelo."
Korra grins, making a mental note to ask Meelo if he had done anything - or tried to do anything - to Tarrlok's hair that would justify such a reaction. "Nope, your precious hair is safe."
She steps close and hugs him. Tarrlok tenses up in surprise, but then he hugs her back tightly, and she feels him exhale, long and slow. It's the first time they've been able to be this close to each other since the day that she had lost her bending, and it feels good. Like coming home to the South Pole and Republic City had felt.
"Congratulations," he says, letting go of her, although they stay close. "I'm happy for you."
He clearly means it; she can sense the sincerity in his words. Korra smiles, looking up at him. "Thanks. It's still hard," - she gestures over the water, nodding at its lack of response to her movement, and Tarrlok looks back at her with understanding that nobody else has been able to offer. "But I'll get through it. We both will. You know…" She hesitates. "I don't know if you heard, but Aang told me - well, he kind of implied - that the whole loss of bending thing may not be permanent."
"I did." Tarrlok frowns, looking thoughtful. "What he said might have just applied to you. You're the Avatar, after all. You carry the Avatar Spirit."
"Maybe. But I'm not so sure."
Korra isn't just saying it to make him feel better, but when Tarrlok looks out over the sea again, he stands a little taller, and seems a little more hopeful. It's good to see, and she rests her hands on the railing, feeling the breeze toss her hair. "So," she begins curiously. "What were you talking to Master Katara about while we were leaving? She told you to call her if you needed any help with your plans."
Tarrlok glances over at her, and for the first time in a long time, she catches a glimpse of a teasing look in his eye. "I'm remodeling my house."
Korra aims a playful kick at his shins. "Okay, fine, don't tell the truth, loser." Then a thought occurs to her, and she stops dead, crossing her arms. "Wait. Are you leaving?"
"Leaving Republic City, duh." The thought had never occurred to her that Tarrlok would leave - he loves Republic City as much as she does - but why else would Master Katara have been talking about plans? Was she helping him arrange to go to the Northern Water Tribe or something? Kya lives there, and she's an influential figure, maybe she's going to work it out with the chief-
"No," Tarrlok says hastily. "I'm not. I thought about it, but - I'm not."
Korra lets out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Good," she replies grumpily. "I don't want you to go somewhere and have people recognize you and then attack you, or something."
Tarrlok looks torn between being touched and amused. As always, though, he decides to be a pain about it. "Thank you for your concern about my well-being."
"But you're not going to tell me what your plans are?"
Tarrlok hesitates, and Korra sighs. "It's fine. You don't have to. You're still thinking about it. I get it."
He pats her on the shoulder. "What about you?"
Korra cracks her knuckles. "I'm moving to the Fire Nation to become a professional boxer."
For a second, Tarrlok actually believes it. She sees it in his eyes, and bursts into laughter. "Very funny," he replies, trying and failing to keep a disapproving expression on his face.
"Seriously, though," she says, prodding him in the ribs. "I'm going to join Tenzin and the rest of the council and try and find a way to stabilize the city. We're also going to work with representatives in the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation regarding the Equalist movements in their countries."
"I thought as much." Tarrlok frowns again. "If you can, please avoid making any public appearances in Republic City and abroad, at least for the next year. Who knows how many crazed Equalists want to finish what Noat-their leader started."
"Yeah." Korra rubs the back of her neck. From what she's heard, the Order of the White Lotus has already started conferring on how to ramp up her protection. Not just from Equalists, but from radical bending traditionalists who might want to kill her off, so that a new, "unbroken," Avatar can be born. It's something that she doesn't even want to think about. Just listening to her dad, Master Katara, and Tenzin discussing it had made her feel a little sick.
"Oh," she adds, trying to change the subject, because Tarrlok looks as worried as she feels. "Also, Asami and I are going to move into our own place!"
Tarrlok's eyes widen. "You're leaving Air Temple Island? Is that safe?"
Korra nods. "I'm sure I'll be fine. We were talking about it earlier today. Mako and Bolin want to get an apartment on the mainland, closer to the police station. There aren't any apartments in that area big enough for all four of us to share, so Asami suggested that her and I look for a place near the council building. Since I'll have to be there a lot," she finishes unhappily.
"Near the council building," Tarrlok muses. "That's prime real estate. I looked into it myself, a few years ago. I can give you some numbers."
"That would be awesome," Korra says emphatically. "Something with a backyard for Naga would be great. And from what Asami said, price isn't an issue."
"Living on your own for the first time," Tarrlok muses, looking as if he's reminiscing about something. "It's going to be quite an adventure. Enjoy it."
Korra snorts. "It's not the first time, remember?" she says dryly, fighting the urge to laugh at the look on his face. "Although it is the first time with someone who doesn't suck."
Tarrlok puts a hand to his chest and affects a pained expression. "You wound me, Avatar Korra."
They lapse into a comfortable silence, standing beside one another and staring out over the water. Finally, Tarrlok clears his throat. "I know you'll be busy with moving to your new residence and work, but I don't…" He hesitates, fumbling with his words in an uncharacteristic manner, and even in the dark, she can see how he turns red. "May I call you? After things settle down?"
Korra bites the inside of her cheek. She had known this was coming, but that doesn't make it any easier. "Actually," she says, trying not to stammer. "I - I - I think I need a break, Tarrlok. Not because of you," she says hastily, her shoulders slumping. She has to stare at the ocean, because the thought of looking into his face is too hard. "It's just that…so much has happened in the past few months, the past year, and it's been really hard on me. I just need some time."
The silence that follows only lasts a few seconds, but it feels unbearable. She hears, rather than sees, Tarrlok sigh. "You're right," he says slowly, and the words surprise her so much that she turns sharply toward him. Instead of hurt or anger, there's only understanding and compassion in his face. "That would be best. I think I would benefit from that too. Time to think about the future and plan for it, and to…to grieve, I suppose."
Korra blinks away the sudden, ridiculous tears, and looks up at him. "Thank you for understanding," she says. "I didn't want to hurt you. I don't."
She trails off, and Tarrlok nods. After a moment, he reaches out and places a tentative hand on hers. "All I want is for you to be well and happy," he admits, so quiet she can hardly hear him over the waves breaking on the side of the boat. "Whether that means you're with me, or alone, or with - with Tahno or some other obnoxious pro-bender-"
Korra laughs, though the movement almost makes the tears spill over. "Tahno? Really?"
"I would hope you'd have better taste than that," Tarrlok sniffs. "But - you understand what I'm saying."
"I do." On impulse, Korra moves close and hugs him, burying her head in the fur collar of his anorak. He wraps his arms around her, pressing his cheek to her hair. "I'll always love you," she says, willing her voice to remain steady, and for her eyes to hold onto her tears until she's alone. "No matter what happens. I want you to know that, even if I get killed by some bending fundamentalist or Equalist, or I go insane and marry Tahno. No matter what, you'll always be important to me."
She feels the hitched sob that Tarrlok holds back, and that almost breaks her. When he speaks, though, he manages to hold onto his composure. "And you will, to me. I'm hardly an influential person anymore, but if you ever, ever need anything, I will always be there for you."
They release one another, stepping apart, and though part of Korra just wants to take it back and jump into his arms again, she stays put, and manages a small smile. "See you around, Tarrlok," she says, slugging him on the shoulder. "Maybe we can have a playdate for Naga and Sitka at the park sometime."
Tarrlok smiles, though it takes an effort. His eyes are reddened, and he looks so exhausted. "I would like that."
He leaves, after one look back, and once Korra is sure that she's alone, she sits on the deck, and gives into her tears.
The battle with the Order of the White Lotus, Tenzin, and her dad rages on for weeks, but finally - after Master Katara makes a few phone calls - the plan to move out of Air Temple Island is officially finalized. Tarrlok delivers on his promise to give her and Asami some real estate information, and Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami spend hours assuring the distraught airbending kids that they will visit regularly. "Like, all the time," Bolin promises, blowing his nose loudly into one of Asami's handkerchiefs, and looking rather tearful. "You won't even know we're gone."
The first house-warming party takes place in Mako and Bolin's apartment next to the police station. "There are no spider-roaches here!" Bolin yells, as he and Meelo jump on his and Mako's new sofa with glee. "Not a single one!" Pabu chitters in approval, from Ikki's shoulder.
"Look at the kitchen! Look at this counter space!" Mako practically beams as he places their order from Quingdao's, the Fire Nation eatery across the street, on the table. "And it's real granite." Pema and Tenzin nod, impressed, while Korra and Asami giggle.
The second house-warming party is in Korra and Asami's small house. Ikki and Jinora ooh and ahh at the expensive furniture, taken from Asami's old place, Mako and Bolin present the crab puffs they had made themselves with a flourish, and ten Order of the White Lotus guards congregate in the living room and discuss the strong and weak points of security in the home. "I have a polar-bear dog," Korra points out, as she hands everyone drinks. "That's all the security we need. Anyone who tries to break in is getting eaten. Right, Naga?"
Naga barks in assent from the backyard, rolling over under the moon-peach tree. Later that evening, Tarrlok stops by for just a couple of minutes, staying on the front porch, and brings them a few mint plants as a gift.
Slowly, as the months pass, they settle into a new routine. Mako and Bolin work long hours, trying to contain the stray bands of Equalists that are still active in the city - spray-painting walls and buildings, threatening known benders, or chi-blocking or using lightning sticks on benders walking home late at night. Asami steps into the role of CEO of Future Industries, works late into the night trying to puzzle out the company's finances, and glares daggers at anyone who suggests that she visit her father in jail.
Korra is busier than she's ever been. Every night, she falls into bed dead tired, and is asleep a few minutes after her head hits the pillow. One of the things she likes about the new place is that there is a phone in her bedroom and Asami's, not just the kitchen, and once a week or so, she can stretch out on her bed at night and talk to her parents.
"I heard there was a huge power outage in Republic City earlier this week," her dad says now, voice made a little fuzzy by the distance. "Was your place affected?"
"No, thankfully." Korra twirls the cord around her finger. "Mako and Bolin's was, though, so they came over. It was great - we played this board game called Settlers of the Earth Kingdom. You and Mom should see if they have it at the market down there."
"We'll check it out. If I have to play Diplomacy one more time, my head might explode." Her dad laughs. "How has work been?"
Korra flops back on the bed and puts her foot on the wall, contemplating a new bruise that had formed there after a recent sparring match. "It's been okay. A while ago, we decided on re-forming the city council and adding a representative for non-benders, so the election process for that just started, but it'll take, like, weeks for the city to narrow it down to two candidates. And then there's going to be the actual election process between the two candidates. There are tons of candidates in the running, and some are more radical than others."
"Hmm," Tonraq replies dubiously. "Republic City should take more care in the quality of people it elects. I'm not sure I trust the people's judgment."
Korra rolls her eyes affectionately. Over dinner in the South Pole, her dad and Tenzin had complained for hours about politics in Republic City. "Well, hopefully everything works out all right, and we don't end up with someone who hates compromise on the council. Someone like Amon, basically. My meetings with the construction, electricity, water company people about equalizing hiring and retention rates for benders and non-benders went really well, though!"
"Congratulations, Korra." Her dad's voice is warm. "You sound like you're accomplishing a lot."
"Well, I hope so," she replies, pushing the curtain aside and looking out the window. Even at night, the streets are quiet nowadays, which is definitely a good sign. "I mean, from what Mako and Bolin say, there are less Equalists running around the city these days. So either they just got tired and gave up, or some of them are satisfied with what's been going on in Republic City."
"I hope they're satisfied. You're trying," her dad says firmly. "Change can't be affected in half a year. It'll take time. These people in the Fire Nation-"
Korra grimaces, turning and glancing at the discarded newspaper on her nightstand. Equalist splinter groups had maimed two firebenders just last week, and there had been another earthbender murdered in Ba Sing Se the previous month.
"I'm going to have to make a trip to the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation eventually, Dad," she says. "To meet with the Earth Queen and her policymakers, and the Fire Lord. I know the Fire Lord is cool, but what I've heard of the Earth Queen, not so much."
She can imagine her dad frowning. "Just be careful, Korra."
"I'm always careful," she says cheerfully. "By the way, I was in a boxing match last weekend!"
That distracts him, as she knew it would, and they talk for the next half hour, until it's time for her parents to eat dinner in the South Pole. As soon as Korra hangs up the phone, she hears a soft knock on her door, and looks over to see Asami standing in her doorway. "Hey," she waves. "Come in."
Asami hands her one thick envelope, and sits down beside her. "That came in the mail for you. If it's more hate mail from that idiotic bending fundamentalist group, I'm going to design an exploding pen and send it back to them."
Korra takes one look at the return address on the envelope and grins. "Nah, the hate mail comes to my office or Tenzin's at the council building. Maybe next time. This is from Emi and Roumei, see? Mail from Shanying, in the Earth Kingdom, is always good mail."
"Oh, good. And speaking of good mail…" Asami holds up the letter in her hand and smiles, the corner of her eyes crinkling with happiness. "Guess what's going to wipe out Future Industries' debt?"
Korra gasps, sitting up straight. "Did the mansion finally sell?"
Asami claps her hands in delight. "It did! For the asking price! I didn't think it would happen."
"Who bought it? Ugh, I hope it's not that new guy in town, Varrick. Beifong hates him."
Asami frowns down at the letter. "Actually, this says that the buyer has chosen to remain anonymous. Anyway, I guess I'll see whoever it is when I go down there to sign the papers tomorrow."
"Be careful," Korra replies, eyeing the letter. "I don't trust Varrick either. He definitely seems shady to me."
"Actually, do you want to come? I thought maybe we could all go, and get some lunch afterward, since Mako and Bolin don't have to work until later that afternoon."
"Great!" Korra grabs her pillow and gives it an enthusiastic squeeze. "Hey, maybe we can try that new fusion place. I heard they have great bubble teas…"
Mako and Bolin get to their house on time the next morning, Mako exasperatedly dragging along a sleepy, yawning Bolin, even though it's half an hour until noon. "Polar bear-dog or satomobile?" Mako asks. "And hey, I told you that staying up until four AM was a bad idea."
"You're a bad idea," Bolin grumbles. "And you don't understand how thrilling the Flameo Hotman comics are, I keep telling you. Can Naga even hold all four of us? We don't want to sprain her back or anything."
Korra beams proudly out the window at her animal companion, who is munching stolidly on her morning meal of squid from Yue Bay. "Naga bulked up while she was in the South Pole, and trust me, it's all solid muscle. She can handle it."
All four of them clamber aboard the polar bear-dog, Mako and Asami clutching onto each other for dear life, while behind Korra, Bolin yelps with delight. With one pat on her neck, Naga sets off at a run, completely unfazed by their weight. The cool morning air feels good on her face, and Korra admires the city as it speeds by. Things are already a little bit better than they were six months ago, and she can't wait to see Republic City restored to its former glory, like how it was when Avatar Aang was still alive.
It doesn't take long for Naga to skid to a stop in front of what had been the Sato mansion. "Whoa," Mako says, jumping down from Naga, and holding out his hand to help the rest of them dismount. "It looks pretty busy here."
All the numerous doors and windows of the Sato mansion are thrown open, and what looks like a couple of teams of construction workers swarms around the building. Korra shakes her head in amazement. "Are they going to tear it down?" It seems like a waste to her, when she thinks of the grandeur inside, and the countless incredibly fancy rooms.
"I hope they do," Asami says, shading her eyes, and looking at her former home. "This place has seen a lot of pain. Excuse me," she calls, to a nearby construction worker, who had been surveying the front lawn. "Do you know if the buyer is here? Or their agent?"
"They're both inside. I'll send them right out to you, miss."
The construction worker has only been gone for a minute or two when what appears to be a whirlwind of white fluff comes tearing out of the front door and rushes across the front yard to them. Bolin screeches and almost leaps into Mako's arms, and Naga barks in excited recognition, standing up and wagging her tail.
"Sitka!" Korra yelps, confusion mingling with her happiness. The dog jumps on her, licking her hands, and she grins, sinking to her knees and giving her a hug. "Sitka! What are you doing here?"
"Sitka?" Asami looks around, seeming just as confused as she feels. "But that means-"
The four of them look up in unison, and to Korra's astonishment, Tarrlok is walking toward them, accompanied by the same real estate guy who had helped her and Asami find their house, and an older woman. "Tarrlok?" Korra asks incredulously. She hasn't seen him since her housewarming, months ago.
To her surprise and relief, he looks okay. Slightly thinner than he had been before, and tired, but all right overall. He smiles at her warmly. "Hello, Avatar Korra, and friends."
"Good morning. You're the one who's buying my house?" Asami stares at him, perplexed, while Mako mumbles a grudging greeting.
Bolin, on the other hand, immediately steps forward and takes Tarrlok's hand, shaking it enthusiastically. "Congratulations on the house! Let me tell you, that pool is fantastic. It's heated and everything."
"I thought you already had a house," Mako says suspiciously, but he bends and scratches Sitka behind the ear nevertheless.
"I do. If you still allow me to go through with the purchase, Miss Sato, this isn't for my personal residence."
"What is it for?" Korra asks curiously, staring at him. Suddenly, she remembers the mysterious plans Tarrlok had referred to while they had been on their way back to Republic City, from the South Pole.
Tarrlok takes a deep breath, evidently figuring that there's no dodging the question this time around. "Well," he begins, a little self-consciously. "I intend on converting it into a - a shelter, of sorts. For youth in difficult family situations, and for women experiencing struggles at home. It's quite spacious, you see." He brightens somewhat, gesturing at the mansion's east wing. "That one wing alone has twice as much space as the city's orphanage. There's space for schoolrooms in the other wing and on the ground floor, and the outdoor areas could be used for play."
Mako, Asami, and Bolin all look as shocked as if someone had just slapped them on the face with a wet fish. Korra bites the inside of her cheek, fighting the tears that threaten to fill her eyes. It's just the kind of place that he and Noatak needed, that their mother needed, thirty years ago. She looks at Tarrlok, and a silent understanding passes between them. "That sounds amazing," she says, with feeling. "I think…I think it's a great idea."
Tarrlok inclines his head. "It's a need that - not enough people discuss, I think. I have an office in the city where I will handle the administration, and Zhilan here will help manage the day-to-day running of the home."
The older woman, Zhilan, bows to her deeply. "It is an honor to meet you, Avatar Korra."
When Zhilan straightens, Korra can see the terrible scar on one side of her face; the puckered, jagged flesh running from her temple to her jawbone, straight down one of her cheeks. It looks like an old knife wound, and she has to stop herself from shuddering at the horror the woman must have experienced. She bows in return. "The honor is mine, Zhilan."
"Well," Bolin says abruptly, looking at Tarrlok. "I see that you have some guys here already, but if you need any construction work, any earthbending or metalbending work done, you can call me. Mako and I actually have a phone now. We're in the phone book and everything."
Mako clears his throat. "Electrical work, as well," he says gruffly. "I used to work at the power plant."
"Thank you," Tarrlok says sincerely. "I appreciate it."
"I'm happy to see that this place is going to be put to good use." Asami nods at the real estate agent, and pulls a pen from her pocket. "I'm ready to sign the papers if you are."
The entire business is finished quickly, and Tarrlok and Asami shake hands on the deal. "Good luck," she tells him. "I'll keep this organization in mind when Future Industries is in a better place, financially speaking."
"Thank you. And good luck to you on your business endeavors, Miss Sato."
After Mako, Bolin, and Asami head off to find Naga, who is eating grass on the far side of the lawn, Korra lingers for a moment. "I'm happy for you," she says quietly, looking around to make sure that the real estate guy and Zhilan are safely back inside the mansion. "What you're doing… Your mom would be so proud. I think Noatak would, too."
Tarrlok blinks a few times. "That means a great deal to me." He hesitates. "Congratulations on all the work you've been doing, by the way. I don't know if you read them, but the newspapers are very complimentary."
"That's good," Korra replies, relieved. "And hey, Tarrlok - are you okay? With, you know, everything?"
He smiles a little. "A little better every day," he says, and she can hear the genuineness in his voice. "And you?"
"I'm good. Better than good, actually. I'm pretty happy-"
"Korra!" Bolin bellows, from across the yard. Asami covers her face in mortification. "We're hungry! We're dying here!"
She and Tarrlok both laugh. "Well, I don't want your friends to die," he says, straight-faced. "I'll let you go."
For a second, Korra wants to move in for a hug, but then she remembers that there are people all around them and they're kind of broken up anyway. She slugs him on the shoulder instead. "See you around, Tarrlok," she says, turning away. She pretends she didn't notice the fond expression that had touched his face when she punched him, or the way her hand tingles, all the way until she and her friends finally get to the restaurant.
Korra's nineteenth birthday falls at the end of a month-long diplomatic trip to the Fire Nation to discuss the Equalist movement there; her first ever official solo trip as the Avatar. She celebrates in the company of the former Fire Lord Zuko, the current Fire Lord, his daughter Honora, and Prince Iroh. Instead of a formal dinner, they have a picnic in front of the turtleduck lake in the royal gardens, and Zuko tells stories that leave them all nearly choking on their food with laughter.
She sets off for Republic City the next morning, and thanks to Lily the air bison, on loan from Tenzin, Korra reaches the city by the following afternoon. She drops Lily off at Air Temple Island, gets mobbed by the airbending kids, and fed a tremendous belated birthday lunch by Pema.
"I am going into a food coma," Korra groans, staggering out the door, and rubbing her stomach. "I think I'm going to die. At least I'll die happy and full of cake, though."
"Oh, dear." Pema follows, concerned. "Why don't you stay and take a nap? It's your first day back, anyway, and you don't want to overexert yourself."
"I wish. I have to report to the council about how my trip went in an hour, though." Korra sighs. "After that, I'm definitely taking a nap at my desk. And Meelo," she yells, in the general direction of where the boy is turning rapid-fire cartwheels. "If I get back there and find that you put another one of those gross whoopee cushions in my office, I swear--"
Meelo giggles manically, and Pema laughs, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Take care, sweetie."
The trip back to the mainland doesn't take long, and Korra has enough time to rush into her office and unload her travel pack there. The second she throws the door open and crosses the threshold, she stops dead, stunned. "Whoa."
Nianzu, the elderly council page she shares with Tenzin, looks up and smiles at her. "Welcome back, Avatar Korra."
Korra drops her travel pack on the ground numbly. "Hey, Nianzu. What is all this?"
Her office is covered with flowers. Flower arrangements of every conceivable shape and size rest on the desk, on the floor, on her bookshelf, and there are even a couple on her chair. There's a statue, an actual statue, of a polar bear-dog in the middle of the room, and there's an assortment of miscellaneous pro-bending posters, sports equipment, and weapons scattered around it.
Korra points at the corner of the office with a finger that shakes slightly. "And that's a fountain. With fish in it."
Nianzu looks amused by her predicament. "Birthday gifts, Avatar Korra," he explains. "They've been arriving all week, from all around the world. The Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the South Pole, the Air Temples… The statue came with the compliments of Master Kya, Chief Kontak, and the people of the Northern Water Tribe. Isn't it lovely?"
"Oh, spirits." Korra moves a pot of daises off her chair, and then collapses into it. She's touched and overwhelmed all at the same time. "All of this is for me? I can't believe it."
"Well," Nianzu says gently. "You should believe it. It appears that you've made quite the impression on many, many people." He comes around and opens one of her desk drawers, and Korra finds herself confronted with one of the biggest boxes of chocolates she has ever seen. "That came from your friends in the Earth Kingdom, Mrs. Emi and Mrs. Roumei. It was half melted by the time it arrived, but some time in the ice box set it right."
"Thanks, Nianzu." Korra grins at the card on top of the box, the envelope addressed to Avatar Korra, in Emi's familiar handwriting. "You should try some. The hollow ones with cream in the middle are amazing."
Something on her desk catches her eye, and Korra tilts her head, carefully reaching into the forest of flowers on the desk. She pulls out a pair of boxing gloves, brand new and shiny black, and touches them, marveling at the padding and the high quality. They even smell good, nice and leathery.
"I would have put those with the other sports things, but that one came without a note or card," Nianzu says apologetically. "I assumed that one of your friends dropped it off."
Korra slips her hand into one of the gloves and flexes, admiring how perfect the fit is. It's nicer than any other boxing gloves she's ever worn. "Yeah," she says quietly, thinking back to her birthday a year ago, and a trip to an underground boxing arena in a small Earth Kingdom city. "You were right."
Tarrlok rises early on the morning of his birthday, as he always does, even though it falls on a weekend this year. He combs his hair and gets dressed and ready for the day, even as Sitka prances around him in anticipation of their daily morning walk along the coastline.
After a quick breakfast for both of them, he opens his door and finds a clumsily wrapped package, tied in string, resting on the porch. There is no note attached to it. Tarrlok pushes Sitka back, momentarily fearing some kind of homemade explosive, courtesy of an Equalist splinter group-
Then he notices the abnormally large paw prints on his lawn, damp from the night's rain. His fear evaporating, Tarrlok takes the package and brings it inside, the clumsy wrapping and lopsided bow on the string taking on an entirely different light. Korra's hands had touched this, and undoubtedly tried to make it look more presentable than it ultimately turned out.
There is no note, but there is a book inside, a brand-new thriller that has been on the top of the Earth Kingdom Times' best-seller list for weeks. And there is lily-scented shampoo and hair conditioner, imported from the Fire Nation.
He holds the book close to his chest and stands there for a long time.
"Tenzin, don't look at me like that. I am not going to blow up your office. And I am not going to plant any of Meelo's whoopee cushions here."
Tenzin sighs and holds his hands up in surrender. "Fine. Thank you, Korra, and I'll be back soon. I don't know why the finance director insisted on meeting with me today, of all days…"
He sweeps out of the office in a whirl of yellow-and-red robes, closing the door behind him, and Korra rolls her eyes at his back. Nianzu the page is out sick today, and Tenzin is expecting some super confidential correspondence regarding some funny business that the Republic City attorney's office may or may not be up to. So here she is, waiting for the confidential correspondence, which is going to be dropped off in the guise of a noodle takeout delivery.
Korra leans back in the chair and heaves a mighty sigh, putting her feet up on Tenzin's desk and grabbing today's Republic City Times. The cover story, taking up most of the front page, features the newly elected non-bender representative to the city council, Shao Shanyuan - also known as Amon's former lieutenant. He's still sporting the awful mustache, but he seems to have undergone a change of heart in other matters, vowing to be more focused on compromise and working with "the bending establishment" to affect positive, nonviolent change and true equality.
She flips through the pages of the paper, searching. During a rare moment of free time, Mako had called her from the police station earlier. "There's something that you're going to find interesting in today's paper," he said mysteriously. "Also, that thing with the invisible chalk was not cool. Bye." He had hung up before she could ask him any more questions, probably as revenge for the invisible chalk prank.
Korra finds it on page six, and she drops the paper on the desk, startled. A slow smile spreads across her face as she reads the headline, and then continues on to the story.
The article profiles the former Sato mansion, now the Atka Shelter for Women and Children, serving Republic City and the surrounding areas. There are two pictures attached, one that shows several young children playing in an on-site playground, and one that shows the children attending lessons in a schoolroom. All of them look rested and well-fed, Korra notices, and they're dressed in clean clothing that fits.
The journalist who had written the story interviewed Zhilan, who said that women and children were welcome to come to the spacious shelter at any time of the day or night - and that parents who had "difficulty caring for their children, for whatever reasons," were able to anonymously surrender the children at the shelter, without fear of consequences. We're working on a system in which people can telephone us, and we can send transportation out to meet them safely. This would enable us to help those people who live far away, or are otherwise unable to come to the shelter doors.
The mission of the Atka Shelter is to reduce domestic abuse and abuse of children, the journalist writes. The identity of the anonymous benefactor who purchased the million-yuan Sato mansion and converted the mansion into this shelter remains unknown. Nobody affiliated with the shelter is breathing a word - undoubtedly due to strict nondisclosure agreements. However, Zhilan Hsu hinted that the person responsible for this endeavor may be the eccentric Omashu billionaire and world-renowned philanthropist, Tuan Trinh…
Korra stops reading there, and lightly touches the photo of the children playing. For some reason, she remembers Noatak, and then, with difficulty, she puts the thought out of her mind. I hope you grow up healthy and happy, she thinks, looking at the kids on the playground. All of you.
For a while, she sits in silence, before closing the newspaper and putting her feet up on the desk again. The sound of the phone ringing shatters the silence, and Korra jumps. The perfect idea occurs to her, and she grabs the phone off the receiver, holding it to her ear. "City morgue," she says, in a deep voice. "You kill 'em, we chill 'em."
"What?" A very confused voice asks. "Korra? Is that you?"
Korra nearly drops the phone. "Tarrlok? Uh, yeah, it's me. How did you recognize my voice?"
"How am I not supposed to recognize your voice?" he asks wryly. "Does Tenzin know you've taken control of his office?"
"Yeah, actually." Korra gives the door a sheepish look. "I would give the phone to him, but he's not here. He's at some meeting."
"I see," Tarrlok replies. "I should have told him that I would be calling."
Korra spins around in the chair, intrigued by the idea of Tenzin and Tarrlok talking for any reason. "What's up?"
"I just wanted to inquire about whether there's any room in the city budget for the Atka Shelter. I have my own funds, of course, but we're hoping to start an initiative for transportation…"
"I know, I read it in the paper just now." Korra smiles. "It sounds great. But, uh, budget stuff, I think I had better leave that to Tenzin. He gave me the budget papers to look at a few weeks ago, and it did not go well."
"I can imagine," Tarrlok replies, sounding as if he's trying to stifle a laugh. She has the feeling that he's remembering the same thing she is - the time he once jokingly asked her if she knew what six times seven was, and she had replied, in all seriousness, Fifty. He hadn't let her hear the end of that one for days, and now, he coughs, apparently trying to recover his composure. "When should I call back?"
"This time tomorrow would be good, I guess. There's some important …stuff…Tenzin's going to be working on today."
"I sense intrigue." There's a hint of longing in Tarrlok's voice. "Is it the attorney's office or the finance director? No, never mind, don't say anything. It's not safe."
Korra hears a knock on the door - four sharp raps, like Tenzin had told her - and she sits up straight. "Oh, crap. I think the drop-off is happening." It's what Tenzin has been waiting for all day, and she's curious too, but at the same time, she feels irritated and sad, a little, that she has to cut the unexpected conversation short.
"Be careful," Tarrlok warns, and then he disconnects the line.
Korra receives the extra-large box of "noodles" from the delivery boy, who sweats profusely, and slips him an unsigned note from Tenzin. When the door is safely closed and locked behind her, she sits on the floor and peruses the correspondence, until she's satisfied that Tenzin's suspicions had been correct. Once that's over, she puts the papers back in the box and locks it in the wall safe, as Tenzin had instructed.
Korra stands in the middle of the office for a few moments, feeling off balance somehow. Maybe it's hunger. Maybe it's not.
The papers secure, she wanders out of the office for some fresh air, and leans against the railing, lost in thought. She looks down at the main council room beneath her. It's empty now, since everyone's out to lunch, but with sudden clarity, Korra sees it, as it had been decades ago. She remembers Yakone's trial, as Aang had shown her. Yakone had been sitting right there, just beneath her, in the third bench from the front and on the left side of the room, when he had attacked everyone in the room with his psychic bloodbending.
Korra's skin tingles. There's history here, in this room, in this building. She lifts her gaze to the office right across from Tenzin's, on the other side of the open courtroom. The office that she still thinks of as Tarrlok's, where their horrible fight had taken place, now belongs to Miksa, the new representative of the Northern Water Tribe. The wall that she had once smashed through is whole and perfectly repaired.
Absentmindedly, Korra touches her cheekbone, remembering the icicles that had cut her skin, and the scars that had lingered there. She had wondered if they would be permanent, like Lin's, but one morning, she had looked in the mirror and noticed they had faded away into nothing.
Korra looks down at the main council room, and she sees ghosts. A dark, cold night, her fists engulfed in flame, Tarrlok's arms and hands drawn up in a rigid bloodbending stance, like a puppetmaster pulling the strings. He had been breathing heavily, raggedly, hair loose and disheveled, voice choked with rage, and she had been angrier than she ever had before. She remembers the wreckage all around them. They had been desperate, attacking one another to kill.
I have seen the very worst of you, she thinks, staring at the room beneath her; at the place where they fought. And I have seen the very best. The light and the darkness, and every complicated shade of gray in between. I understand exactly what you are. She does, with perfect clarity.
Korra stands there for a long time. She turns around and walks back into Tenzin's office, shutting the door behind her. She sits down at the desk, picks up the phone, and hits the redial button.
Tarrlok picks up the phone on the third ring, sounding as brisk and businesslike as ever. "Hello?"
"Hi," she says. "It's me."
"Korra." His voice warms, and she can hear him setting something down, maybe a mug of tea. "Not doing impersonations this time, I see. I hope the drop-off went smoothly?"
"It did." Korra takes a deep breath, holding it in for a second. "And hey, Tarrlok," she says, before he can reply. "I was wondering if you wanted to get some tea sometime, after work. There's this place across the street that has great bubble teas…"
I can't say enough to apologize for the unexpected hiatus between chapters. I do want to thank all of you for being so patient and waiting, and for your continued interest in the story. I've been working on this fic since summer of 2012, and your support, your interest, and your feedback, have meant so, so much to me. Thank you. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings.
There will be a short epilogue to close out the story, coming soon. The epilogue is highly optional reading, though. :)