Summary: Post episode 8, AU as of Episode 9. Held captive by the Equalists, and locked up together, Korra and Tarrlok are forced to put aside their enmity and coexist.
The second the cell door shuts - before Tarrlok can even blink - Korra's fist slams into his face.
The unexpectedly vicious strike and the raw strength behind it, even without bending, takes him by surprise and sends him flying back against the opposite wall. His world goes black for a few moments, stars exploding behind his eyes - his left eye feels like it's going to burst open. Tarrlok is too stunned to fight back, as the Avatar storms toward him, roughly grabs the collar of his shirt with both of her hands, and pushes him to the ground. She climbs on top of him, pinning him down with her weight, and then slaps the other side of his face hard, a few of her fingernails cutting into his skin.
His head snaps to the side, but otherwise, he stays still and remains quiet, not wanting to risk doing anything to further incur her wrath, but despite his best efforts, a tiny groan of pain escapes his throat.
It only serves to make Avatar Korra angrier, as she braces her hands on his shoulders with bruising force. She glares down at him, breathing hard, and the blood from the cuts on her arms, shoulders, and face drips down onto his skin and clothes. "Guess what?" she says flatly, her voice simmering with barely controlled rage. "It turns out that I don't need airbending to kick the living tar out of you."
The councilman stays silent, refusing to give her the satisfaction of a response, while struggling to keep control of his own temper. Predictably enough, Korra gives him a twisted smirk, pressing down harder on his shoulders. "What? You're not tough enough to take me on without your dirty tricks?"
"I'm not going to fight you," Tarrlok snaps, his anger at her aggravated further by the burning pain on his cheekbone and the fact that he can feel his eye starting to bruise. His kindness is more than she deserves, after two unprovoked attacks, but losing his temper with her back in his office was what got them into this situation in the first place. Besides, he's never attacked a woman with his bare hands, and he's not going to start now - no matter howinfuriating this one is.
Korra seems to read his mind, and she scowls, looking at him with disgust. "You didn't seem to have any reservations about that at City Hall, when you used bloodbending on me!"
He stares at her incredulously. "You were about to kill me! I acted in self-defense. It was the only thing I could do."
"Oh, please," she says dismissively. "Like you expect me to believe-"
"I had no water to bend, and after you made me fall twenty feet, to the lower level of the building, you didn't even give me the option to surrender! I did the only thing I could to protect myself."
Korra narrows her eyes at him, her grip on his shoulders relaxing slightly. "I wasn't going to kill you," she insists, but there's a lack of conviction in her voice; the slightest hint of self-doubt creeping into her eyes.
"Really," Tarrlok sneers. "Just burn my face worse than Fire Lord Zuko's, is that it? Over such a trivial matter as your little friends spending a few days in jail?"
"Hey!" Korra protests, glowering. "You started it, remember? I was just going to finish it."
But she slides off him, evidently deciding that she's done enough damage for one night, and he struggles into a sitting position, pushing his loose hair away from his face in irritation. They glare at each other, at an impasse, for several long moments. Finally, Tarrlok is the one to speak, shelving his pride, with difficulty. "Both of us miscalculated," he says stiffly. "We turned against one another and forgot our common enemy."
Korra scoffs bitterly, drawing her knees close to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. "Yeah, and look where that got us."
"As a result," Tarrlok begins carefully, the politician in him drifting to the surface once again, "the only sensible course of action now is to agree on a truce, of sorts, for the duration of our captivity. We need to focus our energy not on harming one another, but maintaining a unified front against our enemy and planning an escape."
The Avatar regards him warily. "Those are pretty words, Tarrlok. It's too bad that you betrayed me once already."
"…Do you think you understand me, Avatar?"
Korra blinks at the apparent non sequitur. "Yeah, sure - you're manipulative, corrupt, dishonest, arrogant-"
"A simple yes or no answer would have sufficed," Tarrlok replies cuttingly.
"Fine. Then, yes. Although there are a lot of things I don't know about you, apparently."
Tarrlok breathes in deeply, aware of a headache coming on that has nothing to do with his physical injuries. "Then you should understand that I always act in terms of my own self-preservation."
"Yeah, the whole discussion at the council meeting about whether or not to shut down the pro-bending arena confirmed that."
"A truce between us is in my best interests. I have no desire to have you strangle me to death in the middle of the night, or continue assaulting me whenever you feel like taking out your frustration at this situation."
"How do I know that you're not just going to get me to agree to a truce and then do something while my guard is down?" Korra shoots back suspiciously.
"You and your Avatar state are my best hopes of escape, so I have no reason to harm you. Furthermore, it's a crime against the universe and the spirits to kill the Avatar, and I have no intention of putting a curse on myself." Tarrlok pauses, taking in the look on her face. "…Do you understand?"
"Yes!" The Avatar snaps, bristling. "I'm not stupid, you know."
So you say. Tarrlok keeps the thoughts to himself. "Do you agree to the truce, then?"
Korra hesitates for several moments, but then a resolute expression comes over her face as she lifts her hand and smears it over the cuts on her cheekbone. She offers him her hand, her palm coated in her own blood. "Regardless of what you say, I'm not just going to trust you that easily. Swear it in blood. That's one thing that you should take seriously, as someone from the Water Tribe and a bloodbender."
Tarrlok stares at her outstretched hand, repulsed. It's a binding, unbreakable promise, an old tradition amongst their people. He's done it once before, and it had disgusted him then, too. He had no choice then either, though, and he wipes his own hand over the cuts on his face, until his palm comes away wet with blood.
He clasps Korra's smaller hand in his own. "I swear it," he says quietly.
She echoes his words in a soft tone, and they withdraw, looking down at their palms. Her blood mingles with his own and vice versa, and so the oath is sealed; the bond is made; and there is no turning back now.
It doesn't take long for them to figure out the routine. Each of them gets to leave the cell four times a day to use the bathroom down the hall. They get exactly twenty minutes to bathe, and humiliatingly enough, they have to do it under supervision. They also have to wash their clothes in the sink and wear them wet until they dry, which leaves both of them shivering and miserable. They have their chi blocked every twelve hours.
The first few days are the worst. Korra cycles through rage and despair; wild optimism and utter, bleak hopelessness, with such frequency that it leaves her in a state of abject exhaustion. She spends hours pacing the length and breadth of the cell like a caged wolf; futilely trying to overcome her blocked chi; formulating impossible escape plans; agonizing over what could be happening in Republic City to Tenzin's family and her friends. She also spends hours curled up on the floor, overwhelmed by black misery unlike she's ever felt before. She prays to the spirits to help her and guide her through this, and then, in the next hour, curses them for forsaking her and the city and allowing all of this to happen. She's overtaken by brief fits of resolution and self-confidence and reassurance that she will be able to get out of this and make everything right, and then, devastating periods of self-hatred and certainty that she will fail.
Korra tries her best to hold it back for the sake of her pride as much as her own sanity, but ultimately, she can't help but cry. She huddles up into a tiny ball into the corner of the cell she's claimed for her own, and as quietly as she can, gives in to the sobs that wrack her body, making her tremble and shake like a leaf in the wind. The happy memories upset her just as much as her fears for the future and what will become of everybody she holds dear. When there are no more tears, she just sits, numb, her head buried in her arms, knowing that she's hit rock bottom.
She can't say how long it goes on before she hears the sound of sealskin boots on her side of the cell. This is new. Tarrlok never comes to her side of the cell and she never goes to his. But his footsteps remind her of the way her dad's boots would sound, as they crunched through the snow and ice beside her own, when they would go on their hunting trips. The memory just makes her feel even more sick; just makes the tears drip down her face and onto her arms faster. Would Tenzin have written and told her mom and dad about her disappearance? They would have been so worried once her weekly letter hadn't shown up-
For his part, Tarrlok just stares, nonplussed, down at the distressed Avatar, who has yet to acknowledge his presence. He can't figure out whether it's an intentional display of passive-aggressiveness, or if her mental state has slipped to a point where she's no longer even conscious of her surroundings. He sighs in distaste at the task ahead of him, but then sinks to his knees in front of her, before taking a firm grip on her arms and pulling them outward, until Korra is forced to straighten and look up at him, confused, through reddened and swollen eyes and a face that is wet with tears.
"What are you doing?" she asks, angry at the invasion of her personal space, and trying to struggle free of his almost-painful grip. "Let me go!"
Tarrlok's face is a mask, revealing no emotion. He grabs her wrists, before taking her hands in his and none-too-gently curling her fingers into awkward fists. Korra aims a punch at his face, which he counters easily. "I thought you said we had a truce!"
"I am not using bloodbending on you, I am trying to get you to pull yourself together and stop acting in this pathetic manner," he replies grimly, but when he forces her hands back to wipe her tear-stained cheeks and rub the moisture from her eyes, he's a little less rough than he was before.
"Stop it!" Korra protests, aiming a kick at his leg, but he ignores her, until she adds, "…I can do it myself."
Tarrlok lets her go reluctantly, staring down at her and looking obviously unconvinced, and Korra dries her eyes and face with the fur pelt she wears wrapped around her hips, hating the blow to her dignity he had just delivered. "What's your problem, anyway?" she spits, incensed. "I'm sorry if I bothered you, but surely you know that not everybody is a cold, heartless, weasel-snake like you are."
He ignores the provocation, seeing through her easily. "You're the Avatar," is his only reply. "Act like it. If you are interested in escaping, your time would be better spent in meditation and trying to get into the Avatar state or the Spirit World to receive guidance from your past lives, rather than drowning in self-pity and falling apart, like you have been."
The carefully calculated words have the impact he desired. Korra gives him a look of deepest loathing, her sorrow forgotten. "I'm not drowning in self-pity! And I've been trying to meditate!"
Tarrlok rises, making his way back to his side of the cell and out of attack range, just in case. "Try harder," he replies dispassionately.
"I will!" she yells back, fired up, her hands curling into fists. "I'll get into the Spirit World and I'll find an answer to this, and I promise you that when it happens and I beat the Equalists and break out of this cell, I'll leave you here to rot!"
"Of course you will."
Still seething with fury at his patronizing tone, Korra turns so that her back is to him, and settles into a meditation position, taking several deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself.
The next few days pass in that manner. The first day is an utter failure. Korra's shoulders remain tense with anger, her brow marred by a frown and a grimace of frustration twisting at her lips. The second day is a slight improvement. It's toward the end of the third day that it happens, quite unexpectedly. One second she's sitting there, calm and relaxed, her eyes closed, and in the next second, they snap open, glowing with an ethereal blue light that illuminates their cell.
It is an unsettling experience to witness, to say the least. Tarrlok backs into his corner hastily, remembering reading accounts of how former Avatars have materialized in the body of the current one in order to wreak havoc on their enemies. To his relief, nothing like that happens; Avatar Korra remains silent and still. The minutes drag by, and he watches her warily.
You are not the Avatar, you are merely a half-baked Avatar in training. As he had gotten to know Avatar Korra better over the course of her stay in Republic City, it had grown more and more difficult for him to respect her as the Avatar. She was irresponsible, inexperienced, hotheaded, and immature, to name just a few of her negative qualities. If it hadn't been for the fact that he'd witnessed her abilities firsthand, he would have doubted that Korra was even the Avatar in the first place.
Until now, of course.
The spell lasts a long time, and then Korra's eyes abruptly close, the light in them dimming, as she collapses to the floor out of apparent exhaustion. Tarrlok approaches her tentatively, ignoring his trepidation, as he touches her neck, trying to feel whether she is conscious or not.
Korra's eyes flutter open slowly in response to the touch, and she looks up at him in brief confusion. She takes the hand he offers, and he pulls her up with more care than she expected. "Thanks," she mumbles, dazed, before gripping her head.
She starts talking before he can say anything, the words spilling out in a rush, about everything that Avatar Aang had communicated to her in the Spirit World. It takes a long time, and afterward they sit in stunned silence, waiting for it to sink in.
"…Did he mention anything about how to escape?" Tarrlok asks at last, staring at the platinum cell door.
"He said that the opportunity would arise, and that we'll know when it does," Korra replies flatly, closing her eyes in exasperation.
They remain quiet for a while, before Korra breaks the silence with a quiet laugh. "So, about that half-baked Avatar thing…?"
"Use the Avatar state to overcome your blocked chi and help us escape, learn how to airbend, defeat Amon, and find a way to restore bending to the people it was taken from," Tarrlok replies, softening his words ever so slightly, with a smirk. "Then I'll be impressed."
Korra punches him on the upper arm, scowling, but there's a notable lack of real vitriol to it.
Nights are the hardest for a thousand different reasons. Even stripping the emotional component from the equation (the dark thoughts that always come out at night; the sleepless hours that she spends twisted up with anxiety, trying to figure out if there's any way to reverse what Amon is doing to benders; the sickening worry that he will take her bending away and she'll be powerless to stop it), nighttime is always a struggle.
In the shallowest, most superficial sense, Korra misses having a bed to stretch out on. Her body has been a mass of bruises, from her skin to muscles to bones, ever since the night that she was first taken captive. The floor is hard, unyielding, and uncomfortable. She can't lie down on her back or sides easily, and sleeping sitting up just makes her even more achy and sore. The lack of Naga's presence at her side hurts more than the worst of her injuries. To make matters worse, it's the dead of winter, and their cell is freezing…even by the standards of somebody who's grown up in the South Pole. Back home, she always had her parka and several thick fur pelts to keep her warm at night.
She's not dressed for the cold, here, in her loose pants and tank top. Every night, Korra unwraps the sealskin pelt she wears tied around her hips and tries to cover her upper body with it, but it's small and worn thin by time, and it's not good for much besides putting it near her nose and breathing it in, and trying to pretend she can still smell home (her dad's warm smile, her mom's hugs, the fresh scent of snow) in it.
It's uncharitable, but sometimes, from under lowered eyelashes, Korra glares enviously (but discreetly) at Tarrlok's pale blue suit coat - the long sleeves, the excess of material that would be more than enough to cover her comfortably, the thick, expensive fabric. He looks like he's dealing with the cold better than she is, and she wishes she had thought to grab her parka before heading out of Air Temple Island on that fateful night.
Korra draws her knees to her chest and hugs them tight, and reverts to an old, long-forgotten childhood habit - pretending that each knee is a little polar bear-dog puppy, there to snuggle with her, keep her warm, and cover her face with affectionate licks. The coping mechanism of a lonely five-year-old girl who had just been taken away from her childhood home to live in the Order of the White Lotus compound, away from her mom and dad and all she knew. It's not quite as effective at seventeen as it was at five, but it helps her fall asleep and keep the nightmares away…at least for the first couple of hours or so.
Eventually, Korra wakes as she always does, curled into a fetal position on the floor, a strangled, silent scream halfway out of her throat, her cheek pressed against the icy platinum. But something feels off, this time, and it takes her a few moments to register the blue in her field of vision; the soft, warm weight that covers her body. She breathes in and it smells faintly of vanilla, reminiscent of the cookies her mom used to make, and it also brings back memories of a happier, less complicated time: dinner on Air Temple Island with Tenzin's family in the familiar, well-lit room full of love and companionship, and the adorably suspicious look on Ikki's little face as she regarded their unexpected visitor. Why do you have three ponytails? And why do you smell like a lady?
Korra curls her hand around Tarrlok's discarded coat, which rests over her like a blanket, as she slowly straightens her stiff body, pushing herself up a couple of inches. Tarrlok's back on his side of the cell, huddled into a corner. She blinks at him blearily, questioningly, unsure of what to say or do, and he avoids her gaze for most of the rest of the day.
She awkwardly thanks him and tries to return it to him that night. "Keep it," is all he says, and he glares at her when she asks him if he's sure.
Korra is startled out of meditation by a commotion outside the cell door. The platinum blocks so much sound that what's going on outside must be something really serious if she can hear it even through here, and she scrambles to her feet, settling into a fighting stance out of reflex.
The door flies open, and the full contingent of Equalist guards throws Tarrlok into the cell with her. His hair is dripping wet, his clothes frayed from what was obviously another electrocution. Korra catches him easily, supporting him despite his larger frame, until he can stand on his own, breathing a word of thanks into her ear.
"What the hell?" Korra snaps at the guards, pushing him behind her and out of easy attack range. Tarrlok is really the last person she would stand up for, normally, but these circumstances are hardly normal. Over the past weeks, she's found that unsurprisingly, the Equalists hate him even more than they hate her, and are more willing to break out the lightning sticks and gloves at the slightest provocation when dealing with him. It can't be healthy, and regardless of the fact that she kind of hates him, she still doesn't want his heart to give out in the middle of the night while they're locked up together. With her chi blocked, she can't even heal him if anything happens, and the thought of anyone - even him - dying in front of her makes her shudder.
"He snapped a guard's wrist to interrupt his chi blocking, and he tried to break you out of your cell," one of the Equalist replies coldly. "Actions have consequences, Avatar Korra." Over his shoulder, he adds a few words to the other guards as he backs out, lightning sticks still brandished. "Suspend his food and drink rations for the next twenty-four hours."
The door slams shut, cutting off the rest of his words. Tarrlok collapses into a sitting position in his corner of the cell, his breathing labored, and Korra hesitates for a few moments before joining him. "Hey," she says quietly, resting a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
His tone still has the usual bite to it, but he doesn't shrug her off. "What do you think, Avatar?"
She lets that pass, for now. Tarrlok's muscles tremble beneath her hands, still reacting to the electricity. Wordlessly, Korra strokes his shoulders and back until the tremors finally cease, the tension between them as thick as the air of injured pride that practically radiates outward from him. After some time, she retreats back to her own corner, leaving him to his own morose thoughts.
Their nightly rations come two hours later, and as threatened, only one piece of stale bread and a tiny cup of tea slides through the delivery slot. Tarrlok turns away as Korra takes it, ignoring the hunger pangs that wrack his body. For the hundredth time, he curses himself for being a fraction too slow; if he had been able to move just a little faster, the Avatar would have been freed, and both of them together would have stood a decent chance against the Equalists.
He's jolted out of his thoughts by a soft sliding sound, and Tarrlok looks up, startled, to see half of the piece of bread and half of the cup of tea in front of him. Korra is huddled on her side of the cell, determinedly chewing on her small portion of the hard bread. Noting his scrutiny, she raises her eyebrows at him, and he gestures at the food stiffly. "I don't need-"
"Don't be stupid," she replies impatiently. "Just eat it."
Tarrlok does, eventually, but it brings no comfort. Perversely enough, the kindness that she's shown him sets his nerves on edge. It makes him flash back to City Hall, settling into the bloodbending stance and moving his fingers, and watching her body contort before his eyes, her face screwed up with agony. The way she had looked at him, semi-unconscious, as he had approached after slamming her against that wall the last time. He had reveled in her helplessness and confusion, knowing that he had gotten the upper hand on her, and that he would win, by finally getting her out of his way.
At the time, he'd easily been able to justify his actions, and the extreme measures he was taking. The Avatar had defied him on numerous occasions, and she was foolish, short-sighted, misguided, and a threat to Republic City. He was doing the city and the fight against the Equalists a favor by getting rid of her. His beliefs on that front haven't changed, but...
It had been easy to rationalize his decision to neutralize her when he had just thought of her as the Avatar - a failure of a half-baked Avatar in training, to be precise. It is less easy to come to terms with it now that he's caught a glimpse of the girl behind the title.
Remorse and regret aren't emotions that come easily to Tarrlok. They are simply not in his nature and never have been. He plans thoroughly before making any move, acts decisively, and never second-guesses himself once it is done.
The councilman glances down at his useless hands bitterly. Then again, until that night, he had never been defeated in combat before, either. There is a first time for everything.
"Thank you," Tarrlok says quietly. The apology he had been half-contemplating sticks in his throat.
Korra meets his gaze evenly, her deep blue eyes unsettlingly perceptive, and when she speaks, her tone is softer than it was before. "There's no need to thank me. We're in this together, remember."
The things they do to pass the time:
Korra practices her forms, hundreds of them in all - earth, fire, water, air - as best as she can in the small space. Regardless of her blocked chi, the familiar movements are still soothing, and the only thing keeping her from going insane with frustration and anger and sorrow at their predicament. Tarrlok goes through the movements of countless waterbending forms as well, whirling through the motions with effortless grace that she can't help but notice - and, unwillingly, admire, even though she tries to stop herself, every time she does. They quickly work out a routine, that he meditates while she practices, and vice versa.
They also figure out a way to play Pai Sho, using bloodstains on the metal floor to create an approximation of the board, as morbid as that sounds, and using her own hair ties, and both of their leftover bread crusts and teacups to replace the tiles. Overall, it is rather pathetic, and it makes her think longingly of the beautiful old board that Jinora and Ikki would always play with, the one that had been passed down from General Iroh himself, the legendary Dragon of the West, and a friend of Aang's. Their meager, improvised version gets the job done, though, and although Korra has always been hopeless at the game, Tarrlok teaches her how to play properly, and she slowly improves from hopeless to mediocre. Despite the fact that he is as insufferable as usual, she finds herself enjoying the hours they spend doing this, nevertheless.
Quite often, though, simply because there is nothing else to do, they talk. Korra wants to hear about the North Pole, the Fire Nation, and the Earth Kingdom; all the places that he's been to that she hasn't, and he humors her, describing them in detail. She gets to imagine herself traveling the world…something which will never happen, after Amon gets his hands on them, and she gets the feeling that it helps him reminisce on happier times and get his mind off their predicament, at least temporarily, as well.
But those conversations, entertaining while they last, always leave them melancholy and angry all at once, afterward. So they avoid the lighter topics today, as she sprawls out on the floor, her feet propped against the wall, exhausted after running through her airbending forms, and Tarrlok paces up and down their cell, filled with nervous energy.
"Our best options are airbending…and bloodbending," she says reluctantly. "The problem is how to get around the chi blocking."
Tarrlok shakes his head impatiently. "Just access the Avatar state and try bending the platinum."
"Access the Avatar state and try bending the platinum," Korra mimics acidly. Spirits, sometimes he drives her crazy, almost like Mako would…but worse, somehow, and she has to abandon that train of thought, because linking Tarrlok to Mako in any way can only lead to trouble. "Like it's that easy. And how exactly am I supposed to get into the Avatar state with my chi blocked?"
"You did it that one time."
"That was meditation that helped me get into the Spirit World, not the Avatar state! Ugh."
She throws an arm over her eyes in frustration, and Tarrlok sighs, obviously trying to be patient. "Avatar Aang implied that an opportunity for escape would present itself. Between the two of us, we should be able to spot it when it comes."
"So you want us to make plans with the assumption that I will eventually be able to get into the Avatar state and bust us out of this stupid base."
"Ah, so you finally acknowledge that you don't intend to leave me to rot here."
Korra laughs bitterly, surprised by her own words. "I guess not. You'd better watch your step, though - I can easily change my mind."
"You'll need my help, when you return," Tarrlok says, as self-assured as ever, as he pauses in his pacing to sit beside her. "I doubt that the council has fallen yet, and none of them are as capable of leading Republic City in a time of war as I am."
She scowls, poking a finger at him accusingly. "Have you forgotten that I disagree with your methods? I still stand by what I said that night, and I bet the whole thing with the curfew and that fiasco in the Dragon Flats district attracted hundreds of non-benders to the Equalist cause within a matter of days."
"Do you have any better suggestions?" he asks pointedly. "When facing an extreme threat, you have to go to extremes to defeat them. Fight fire with fire. Based on your personality, I thought that you of all people would understand that."
"No," Korra replies flatly, turning away. "I don't think it works like that. Look, I think we just have to agree to disagree on our perspectives, and find a compromise. We can still be a good team, you know."
The offer hangs heavily in the air between them. Again, she's surprised herself with it - it is something Tenzin or Aang would suggest, not her. When she had first been locked up with Tarrlok, the last thing on her mind was compromise and teamwork and reconciliation, on the political sphere as well as the personal. She just wanted to throw him in some jail and drop the key in the ocean because of his corruption and amorality. But the weeks that they've spent together, getting to know each other better, reinforces that there's no denying one fact: it's better to have him on her side, rather than have him as an enemy.
"Very well," Tarrlok acknowledges at last, after a long pause. "Regardless of what transpired at City Hall that night, I would rather fight with you than against you."
The thought is so eerily similar to her own that it makes her wince, thinking back to one of the accusations she had flung at him during their fight. You and I are nothing alike!
"So, it's settled then," Korra presses, looking at him unblinkingly, searching for any sign of deception. "We get out of here and we work together, openly and cooperatively, to deal with our common enemy. You respect my feedback and I'll respect yours. We're probably going to disagree on a lot of things, but you're not going to manipulate me into falling into line with your plans…and I'm not going to intimidate you, or undermine your goals, or whatever."
"Right." He glances over at her apprehensively. "Are you going to insist on that disgusting blood ritual again?"
"That depends." She meets his gaze seriously, wondering if she's making a mistake or not. "Can I really trust you?"
Tarrlok pauses again, for a fraction of a second. "Yes," he acknowledges at last, and something - intuition or Avatar sense or something else equally intangible and undefinable - tells her that he does mean it.
Korra curls up against the wall, unable to sleep. It isn't the cold that gets to her this time, not with Tarrlok's coat wrapped around her like a blanket, but the increasingly morbid contemplations that have been running through her mind with greater and greater frequency, eating away at it and making her feel sick with anxiety. Aang had advised her to be patient and observant, and that she would see the opportunity for escape when it presented itself to her - but that was at least two or three weeks ago, and who knows what's happened in Republic City since then? Breaking out of here is going to be no use if she and Tarrlok get back to the city and most of the benders have already been attacked by the Equalists…
She sighs softly, opening her eyes and glancing around, wishing she at least had a window to look out of to distract herself. Even catching a glimpse of the faintest sliver of moonlight would be comforting. But there's no respite from the oppressive darkness and silence, and her own thoughts, and it feels like she's going crazy. As much as she needs sleep, she hates it. As soon as Korra closes her eyes every night, she's plagued by the worst nightmares, vague and disjointed, but no less terrifying for that.
A tiny sound from Tarrlok's side of the cell jolts her out of her contemplations, and she squints over in his direction, her eyes struggling to see through the gloom. He's leaned against the wall opposite hers, in a restless, fitful sleep, and the occasional shiver wracks his body. He's fairly undeserving of her pity - she still blames him for getting them into this situation in the first place - but Korra's hand tightens on the coat regardless. He's let her sleep with it for the past couple of weeks or so…but at the same time, she's reluctant to give it up.
There's a logical solution, but she struggles with it for several moments. If it was anybody else - Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, hell, even Tahno or his Wolfbat teammates, she wouldn't hesitate for a second. But it's Tarrlok, and their relationship is a lot more complicated...to say the least.
In the end, it's her own words that come back to her. We're in this together, you know.
Korra stands and walks toward him quietly, before settling down beside him and throwing one half of the coat around him as best as she can, while keeping the other half wrapped around herself. The new position brings them close in a way that's paradoxically comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, and she takes a few deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. It's awkward, though, trying to keep both of them covered while maintaining a few inches of distance between them, and now she doesn't know how she's going to fall asleep at all. This is what you get for being nice, she thinks, somewhat bitterly. Like he cared about your comfort when he was bloodbending you into submission and planning to imprison you who knows where until you 'came around' and 'fell into line' with his stupid plans.
When Tarrlok speaks, his voice hoarse from sleep, she's so startled that she almost falls over. "What are you doing, Avatar?"
"Sharing," Korra replies defensively, even though she really shouldn't feel this way, she's definitely not doing anything wrong. "Obviously."
To her surprise, by way of reply, Tarrlok just wraps both arms around her and pulls her close, so that she leans against him, before evidently falling asleep again, his muscles feeling more relaxed from the increased warmth already. Korra stays as still a statue, her eyes wide open, and it takes a long time for her to even begin to relax. But his heartbeat is steady and oddly reassuring as it beats in sync with hers, a much-needed reminder that she's not alone in this, and the warmth of his body and the feeling of it so close to her own, and his soft hair against her cheekbone, a distraction from the terrible ache that has been building inside her from the moment she was taken captive.
Korra is lulled to sleep by the rise and fall of his chest, and for the first time since they were taken captive, she sleeps without dreams.
They have been prisoners of the Equalists for roughly two months now.
The time has passed in cycles. The first days and weeks were unbearably dark and terrifying, followed by a period of evenness, perhaps even acceptance. Complacence. Waiting for the opportunity Aang mentioned to present itself. Hoping for the best, and coming to the realization that as long as they are imprisoned without further directives from Amon, it's actually good news, because it means the city hasn't fallen; the resistance is still alive. Amon himself had said that it was only in the last stages of the Equalist takeover that he planned to "cleanse" the members of the council, and finally, the Avatar.
But that period is coming to an end, and they're sinking into the familiar darkness and hopelessness, a mutual depression, again. Two months locked up in a tiny, windowless, platinum cell - unable to see the sky and inhale fresh air and feel the sun on their skin and the ground beneath their feet - is a long time. It's a long time to be without bending, without a part of you so integral to your being that getting your arm chopped off would be just as disturbing. It's a long time to eat three minimal meals of stale bread and tea every single day and be roughed up by guards who seem to have thought of everything, who are always two steps ahead and never, ever make the mistake of underestimating them.
It's messing with Korra's head. It's blurring the lines of her sanity. It makes her grateful that at least she has Tarrlok with her (well, there's a thought that she never imagined would cross her mind), because if she'd had to put up with two months of utter solitude, she would have been even more miserable than she is now. They haven't stopped arguing and sniping at each other, and they disagree vehemently and fight whenever it comes to talking politics and how to deal with the situation in Republic City once they get out, but to be completely honest, she takes solace in his company, and she knows he does with hers.
Korra doesn't examine the changed nature of their relationship too closely, regardless, because she isn't quite willing to acknowledge what she might find. That's something she can deal with after they get out of here and take down Amon.
If we get out of here and take down Amon. The thought has been eating away at her for days now. What if they've missed their opportunity for escape, somehow? What if they really are doomed to the fate Amon had prescribed to them?
The thought makes her stomach turn and she stares down at her hard bread, all vestiges of her appetite disappearing with it. "Here," she says abruptly, sliding it over to Tarrlok. "You can have this."
He frowns down at it, noting the mold creeping up the side, and he nudges the remnants of his rations toward her. "Try this. It has a few flakes of seaweed in it."
"I don't want it."
Tarrlok sighs impatiently. "Very well, then, I'll just inform the guards of your dissatisfaction and ask them to phone the nearest Quong's Cuisine to order takeout for you."
He had intended for the words to get a rise out of her and provoke her into eating, but instead, Korra looks away with a wistful sigh. "I wish. I want a bowl of roast duck with fried rice, and maybe-"
The words a tall glass of lychee juice catch in her throat. Lychee juice, for sure. And her family and friends sitting beside her. Naga's fur beneath her hands and her deep, soulful brown eyes looking into her own. To be back in the pro-bending arena, fighting against the Wolfbats, before everything had gone to hell. To stand on the beach on Air Temple Island, the sand shifting beneath her feet, the sun on her back, breathing in the sea air, and demonstrating amazing feats of waterbending for the thrilled airbender kids, just to hear their laughter. She wants to feel alive again. She wants-
Korra reaches out and grabs a handful of Tarrlok's hair, pulling him toward her roughly and kissing him with bruising force. He freezes for an instant, his muscles tensing with surprise, and she wraps her arms around his shoulders, sliding into his lap. But then he's holding her painfully close, kissing her back with a desperation and hunger that's even deeper and more intense than her own.
It's like a salve on a burn; like the first, sweet breath of air after a long period of suffocation. There's nothing tender about it, but it still alleviates the pain and hollowness inside her.
They pull apart after what feels like several minutes, breathless, and Korra sees her own stunned expression reflected in Tarrlok's eyes. She reaches up and touches his cheek lightly, fighting to come to terms with the emotions raging inside her, and it looks like he's doing the same.
"What was that?" she asks quietly - because even though she had been the one who had started it, there had been a depth of feeling in his reciprocation that seemed to go further back than this entire terrible ordeal.
Tarrlok sighs, averting his gaze from hers. "There's a reason I was so upset by your refusal to work with me," he admits, his voice barely audible.
It takes a few moments for his meaning to register, and when it does, Korra blinks, startled. She's caught between the urge to smirk and tease him, or to give in to the more troubling impulse to just smile genuinely. She kisses him again instead, and as Tarrlok reciprocates - smoothing one hand down her back and the curve of her waist and using the other to cup the back of her head, making her arch into his touch and press even more closely against his chest - all the stress and misery and constant worry of the past two months is quieted a little, fading to the background.
She runs her hands from his neck downward, fruitlessly pulling at the collar of his shirt. Upon realizing that it won't give way and that she doesn't exactly want to advertise what they've been doing to the guards by ripping the fabric, she moves to the faded golden clasp of his dark blue shirt instead, tugging at it blindly, impatiently.
It's enough to get Tarrlok's attention, and he pulls back, looking at her in confusion. "What are you doing?"
"Shouldn't it be obvious?" Korra replies dryly, finally managing to undo the clasp. "Wow, Tarrlok. I didn't know you were that sheltered."
Ignoring all of her hard work, Tarrlok inexplicably fastens it again. "Korra-"
"What?" She's getting combative again; flushed, distracted, not in the mood for conversation, and with her sitting where she is, there's no way he can truthfully tell her that he's not tempted. "Don't you want to?" she asks pointedly.
Tarrlok sighs. "Of course I do," he replies tersely, the self-restraint obviously wearing on him. "But not here. Not now. Not on the floor of a cell with Equalist guards twenty feet away."
Korra closes her eyes tightly, a wave of frustration sweeping over her. "Then when?" Her voice cracks at the end, and it's not just about this, it's about everything, and the creeping fear that's been suffocating her, that at any day now, Amon could send for them, and she'll be able to start counting down her remaining lifespan in a matter of hours. She's seventeen, and above all, she doesn't want to die before she's even had the chance to really live.
Tarrlok brushes a lock of hair away from her face, the touch uncharacteristically gentle. "In my bedroom, on my bed, after we defeat Amon," he says quietly. "If you still want to."
Korra leans her cheek into his touch, the anguish and self-doubt surging back. "I don't know if we're ever going to get there," she admits, in a rare moment of raw honesty.
He assures her that they will, and as much as the confidence just makes her uneasy, she appreciates that he's trying to be brave for her. They fall asleep leaning against one another, their fingers tangled together.
It happens, unexpectedly enough, the next morning.
Something is going on in the Equalist base. Korra and Tarrlok's morning tea is interrupted by muffled yelling and orders barked, about a potential "security lapse." Apparently, there is a large party of travelers - benders, fleeing from Republic City - whose path is passing dangerously close to the forest near the base.
"We can't risk being discovered. Send out a couple teams of shock troops to neutralize the entire bunch and send them back to Republic City. It'll be a lesson to anyone back in the city who thinks they can just run away from us."
Upon hearing the voice of the first-in-command on the base, Tarrlok raises an eyebrow, putting it together. There are seven Equalist guards assigned to their little prison compound. Two teams of shock troops leaving the base will leave only three guards to watch over them…which slides the odds in their favor. He glances at Korra, but she's flexing her hands, staring at her palms intently.
Outside the room of their cell, there's the distant sound of the main door of the base opening and closing.
"Very well, then," the Equalist second-in-command says. "Let's deal with the prisoners now. It's getting close to the time limit."
Tarrlok is weighing the odds, trying to determine whether they have a decent chance of overpowering the three incoming guards, when Korra taps him on the shoulder. She's smiling, looking oddly content and happy. "I guess his watch must be slow," she whispers, opening her palm to reveal a small, whirling tornado of air, and he's struck speechless. Despite its size, it's ferocious, whipping both of their clothes and hair into disarray. "The chi blocking lasts for twelve hours. To the exact minute."
They have seconds to spare, but he pulls her close by the waist and kisses her briefly anyway, and it tastes of tea and triumph.
The guards never know what hit them.
The first thing they do when they break out of the cell:
Tarrlok grabs one of the unconscious guards, yanks the tie free of his hair, and ties his own hair back for the first time in two months, with a deep sigh of relief.
Korra jumps up and down, punching the air with an exuberant yell of joy. Then she grabs a set of satomobile keys off the belt of the Equalist second-in-command, examining them with glee. "Let's get out of here!"
They're outside - outside, on a mild but cloudy early spring morning - quickly approaching the sleek black satomobile, by the time it occurs to Tarrlok, and he looks at Korra, and the keys she obviously has no intention of relinquishing. "Do you even know how to drive?" he asks apprehensively.
She laughs, tilting her head up to the sky. "Nope, no idea. But while I was in there, I realized that I really don't want to die before ever driving one of these things. How hard can it be, right?" Korra opens the passenger door courteously, her eyes sparkling with excitement. "After you, Tarrlok."
Tarrlok catches the end of her ponytail in one hand, drawing her close, for another long, sweet kiss, and when they finally draw apart, he smirks at her, momentarily overwhelmed by satisfaction and anticipation for everything that is to come. "Let's go take back our city, Avatar Korra."
Korra beams, heading over to the driver's seat. "It'll be my pleasure."
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