Korra sees him, briefly, in the hospital. They've chopped off most of his hair. Bound up in bandages, his clothes exchanged for a hospital gown, confined to a bed because even weeks later he still tires too easily…it feels like she's looking at a different man.
Still, Tarrlok manages to exasperate her forty seconds into their conversation. She decides this is probably a good thing.
When she offers his bending back the answer is no.
He resigns from office. There isn't any question that he would have been forcibly expelled otherwise. The other council members might have supported him in his efforts against the Equalists but between mass arrests, bloodbending, and abduction no number of dead brothers can clear his name. General consensus is he's lucky not to be in jail.
Tenzin appoints him as his aide. Public outcry is immediate. People start demanding that the airbender step down. They say that his family receives disproportionate representation. They say he has no business influencing Republic City. They call him deranged.
Tarrlok makes no comment.
They meet again at a celebration for Firelord Ursa. He laughs, jokes, weasels his pet projects into conversations, swallows drink after drink until Tenzin takes his glass and murmurs something to him. Tarrlok rolls his eye.
The other half of his face is covered by a mask. It's neat, dark leather—completely unlike Amon's. Noatak's. There are no decorations or hidden meanings to be found. His arm, he keeps concealed under his sleeve.
Tarrlok compliments Korra on her dress and tells her that the work she's doing for the restoration is very impressive. It comes out just slightly slurred, less than she would have expected. Before long he's escorted home.
Tenzin thinks something is wrong.
"He seems just fine to me," says Korra, careful not to break form, dragging air into a circular motion before forcing out a blast.
"You weren't there when he woke up."
Somebody scrawls the Equalist píng on his door one night. Hours later it's been painted over. With a quiet hum, he declines Bei Fong's offer to investigate.
It's not worth the trouble.
Pema tries to invite him for dinner after that. She waits on the phone for a long time. Eventually she sighs.
She tells him to take care of himself, and that's the end of it.
In a moment of contemplation, Korra remembers finding Tarrlok slumped on the floor behind bars. She remembers the listlessness as he recounted his history, haltingly, for her benefit. She remembers him drawing into himself, unable to meet her gaze, head clasped between his hands. She remembers the moment when, desperate, he told her to end this.
With a sense like lead dropping into her stomach, it occurs to her that to some degree he did too.
Standing on the stairs, she knocks once. Twice. Three times.
"Hey Tarrlok," she calls, "you in there?"
She hears movement. The door opens.
Up close and in this lighting, she finds she agrees with Tenzin. Tarrlok's eye has that hollow, bruised look that comes from lack of sleep. Without his jacket it's plain to see he's losing weight, and his lost hand stands out stark against him. His hair, however, is as neat as he's been able to make it. Tarrlok remains otherwise polished, stylish, presentable. The pieces don't match up right.
"Avatar Korra," he says, "This is…unexpected."
She smiles. "It's been a while, so I figured I'd stop by. You mind?"
He looks at her blankly for a moment, as if she's suddenly spoken to him in another language. Then he blinks and hastens to move aside. "Oh no, of course. Come in."
Tarrlok's home is only slightly less extravagant than his office was. Korra finds herself faced with marble floors, fine furniture, ornate rugs and gray walls and intricately patterned ceilings. It's too much for one person.
He turns to face her, moves his arms toward one another briefly then, glancing down, tucks the right one behind his back. He clears his throat lightly. "Can I get you anything?"
"Oh," says Korra, "Sure, I guess. You have any good tea?"
"The best." Grinning, he motions to a nearby archway and starts walking.
She follows. "So, uh… what have you been up to lately?"
"The usual," says Tarrlok absently. "Tenzin has me covering intercultural tensions. Earthbender attacks on firebenders, prejudice caused by differences between Northern and Southern Water Tribe traditions… but he could have told you that."
"He could have," she agrees, "but it's your conversation."
The answer appears to satisfy him.
The kitchen seems more manageable to her, all muted tones and wide windows. The floors are dark, the walls that dusty blue he seems to favor.
He sits across from her at the table, passes a steaming cup before sipping from his own. His gaze flits down as he does this, then back again.
Korra drinks, and despite being careful manages to burn her tongue anyway. She winces. Tarrlok smirks. With a glare, she asks "Why—how are you even doing that?"
"Experience." He takes another sip, does not stop smirking. "It really isn't so bad."
Korra considers her tea for several moments. With a huff, she opts to wait and places it in front of her, slouching forward. "Show off."
Elbows propped on the table, she leans her chin on her knuckles and says, "Speaking of which, I've gotta ask—why did you make your house so big? I mean it's nice, but…"
Tarrlok raises an eyebrow, appears to wait for a short while then sighs. "Because I could. Partly. I wasn't rich growing up, Korra."
"I guess I can kind of understand that," she replies, and isn't entirely sure she does. "Did it take getting used to?"
"Of course." He drinks. "I remember you went to jail on your first day in Republic City. My transition was a little smoother than that."
It's her turn to roll her eyes. "Come on, how was I supposed to—you know what, forget it." Tarrlok laughs, and on some level it's a relief. "But anyway… you're doing alright here?"
"Is that what this is about?" His tone is mild, amusement lingering on his face.
"A little," says Korra. "You've been acting sort of weird lately. I'm…well, everyone's worried to be honest."
"Don't be." He puts his cup down. "I appreciate the gesture, but there's really nothing to worry about. I'm fine."
"You sure?" She gestures to him. "I mean really, I get it. When Amon attacked me for the first time, I—"
"Don't." He brings his hand to his face, exhales slowly. "I'm sorry. Ignore me."
"Oh no, I'm sorry." She stands, takes a step towards him. "Here, do you need me to—"
He waves her off, lifts his head, and smiles. "No, it's fine. You've done nothing wrong. Would you like me to give you a tour of the place?"
"Um. Yeah, okay. That'd be cool." After a moment's pause. "Show off some more."
When he laughs this time, it lasts longer than it should.
They throw the tea away.
He hesitates to show her the room he where he used to practice waterbending. His hand lingers above the screen, and he looks at it for several moments too long before taking a breath, softly, and proceeding.
Of course it's beautiful. Tui and La lie set in stone, forever circling on the floor at the center of the room. Twin streams split from a waterfall on one end, surrounding the spirits. The murmur it makes is soothing
There are two benches on either side. A black, wooden box rests on the right—disrupting the symmetry.
Korra advances toward it.
She looks back.
Tarrlok's palm is poised above her shoulder. He draws it back quickly, eye shifting to his shoes. He isn't smiling. "That's… it's locked."
Neither of them say anything at first.
Then, "Can I see?"
It takes a while, but Tarrlok nods.
There's a key looped around his belt. He withdraws it, inserts it, and retreats. The box remains shut.
Korra opens it.
Inside, she finds a glove and a mask.
Her fingers are on her lips
Eventually, she manages to ask "Where did you get these?"
"Gifts," says Tarrlok. He's watching the water. "Lin asked if I wanted his… well, you can imagine."
He remains silent for a long time.
Then, "I don't know." He folds his arms, holds his right elbow. His laugh wavers. "Clearly somebody likes me."
"Why did you keep them?"
A beat. Then, "As a reminder."
"Tarrlok, are you…" Korra stops. Starts over. "You're not planning to kill yourself, are you?"
His mouth jerks up at the corners, and he leans against the wall beside her. "Not today." His voice is light, as if they were discussing something insignificant like lunch or sudoku puzzles.
"That's not a real answer"
"Of course not." he says. "I'm a politician."
"Don't do that." Korra stands abruptly, faces him. He freezes. "Just… spirits, Tarrlok, stop doing that to yourself. Why are you even—"
"What do you want from me, Korra?" he asks quietly.
He looks very tired.
Her brow knits. "I already told you. I just want you to be okay."
"And supposing I'm not?" He straightens, but does not move from his place against the wall. "What difference would it make? What are either of us supposed to do about it, mm?"
"Tarrlok," she says, and suddenly her arms are around him—his shoulder blades, his spine pressed under her hands, "shut up."
For a moment he remains, motionless. Then he hugs her back.
His grip is tight. She can feel the way his breath shakes as it leaves him.
She invites him to stop by for dinner before she leaves.
He says yes.