Headcanon created with and a few sentences lifted from wordswithout.
Tonraq recognized the barbarians.
Their uniform was like old Fire Nation armor, all rusted and pieced together. There had been bands of die-hard soldiers after the war who hadn't surrendered, and over time they forgot why the war had been fought in the first place. In all the raiding and warring and attacking, in all the cold nights when they ate and burned blubber, they remembered that they were supposed to hate but not why.
When Unulaq told him that there were barbarian boots inside the walls of his city, the city consecrated for the animal spirits and for the moon, Tonraq gathered his troops like had had been trained to do. They rode out in packs and streams, their mounts' breath misting. The moon was low that night, and cold.
The barbarians did not know the city, so they were routed out quickly from the alleys and the waterfronts. They rallied on the plains outside, but Tonraq and Unulaq called more forces, the men listening to Tonraq and respecting Unulaq even as his voice wavered. The moon cast parched white light onto the plains. The spirit within the moon's face looked blind and white. Tonraq felt like she had closed her eyes.
He did his duty as the general and drove the barbarians out.
He pursued them even after they'd left the city, intent on capturing some so that they could tell the men of the Water Tribe whether they were really left over from the war.
Unalaq tried to stop Tonraq from going into the holy valley cupped inside the mountains, but all Tonraq could see was that Unalaq couldn't keep up. The trees were black against the snow, the stars stabbing the black sky, and the mountains were no more jagged than any other mountains around the city. Then, Tonraq did not know that this was an edge of the world.
For a while it was a siege. The wind blew cold around Tonraq's fur coat. Branches clacked together like bones. Then, when he thought that the barbarians might be lurking, waiting for the Water Tribe men to turn around and go back to the city, he broke the siege.
He waterbent the first few men that he caught, spans and whips of rapidly re-freezing snowmelt that snapped around their necks and ankles. Some of them were benders too, though, and eventually it came down to the racks and bolts of bone and stone weapons the city men had cinched to their backs and their mounts. The first man he killed fell in a pool of slush that froze to the end of the spear that had pierced him. Flecks of ice crystals reddened by blood shook free when Tonraq pulled the spear out.
They killed some and captured some and dragged them back to the city in the slush and the ice. The clacking of the branches, more now stripped of leaves, had grown louder until a whole skeletal theatre applauded the backs of the victors. Some of the troopers muttered and whined about the spirits, suggested some kind of recompense, the planting of trees. But Tonraq was spooked and tired, and the thought of digging through sharp ice to plant seeds in dark dirt was repugnant. He would get these prisoners back to the city before he thought any more about that. Sacred ground was just ground with words attached to it.
When Korra was young, she waterbent like babies did sometimes: milky bubbles of spit that floated across the room in spirals and swoops long past the time they should have burst, waves and tides in the broth of the soup she ate when she advanced to soft foods. Tonraq and Senna taught her to control water, quietly and patiently, as their parents had taught them.
(With less mention of the spirits than Tonraq's father had, and less talk of the throne. With less slang than Senna's, less emphasis on hunting and bringing enough food to the table. Less thankfulness for the blood that had once flowed in meat.)
Korra firebent for the first time shortly after the slightly less life-changing discovery of soft foods.
Tonraq had not grown up around firebenders, or many people outside his own nationality: he saw the first puff of smoke as an emergency, and one that he had no cause to believe could come from a person.
He had heaved a wooden water bucket from in front of the door, chopping at the top layer of ice with his fists until he broke through. He brought it into the house, sloshing, before he knew what it was he was going to have to douse. Korra was sitting on the rug, breathing in and out, fascinated by the puffs of smoke out of her tiny lips. The rug was smoldering. Tonraq dipped his hand in the bucket, freezing water prickling at the tiny cuts left by the edges of the ice, and told her to scoot so he could douse it.
There was a certain festivity about the arrival of the Avatar. That's what it was, after the quiet announcement the family made to the chief: an arrival, a second birth, a washing up on shore. They informed the White Lotus quickly. By the time a delegation arrived, Korra could earthbend. The house filled up with dirt and strangers.
Their house had become, for the space of a day, a public place: the chief and the White Lotus and Katara, who Tonraq knew as a Republic City politician and a master waterbender, all taking off their boots in his living room after the initial flurry of Korra's miraculous, potbellied reveal. He considered himself lucky that Korra had known herself as soon as she could firebend.
She knew what the Avatar was, and that she had become it was no more extraordinary to her than the fact that food got closer to her when she picked it up. It was her parents who had been stunned. Tradition said that the next Avatar would be born into the Water Tribe, but to pick one family out of many -
Tonraq had thought that his efforts to keep the spirit world as far from himself as it apparently wanted him to stay from it had backfired like a Satomobile.
The White Lotus - Tonraq did not know where they normally lived or how far they had come - began discussing her training immediately. The Avatar must, they said, know how to be the Avatar, and while Korra seemed to be understanding it well enough already, Tonraq agreed.
Senna did too, but the version of Korra's future that had immediately come to her mind was different from Tonraq's. She was afraid that her child would travel the world at the age of twelve in strange company. By the time the White Lotus and other important, unexpected guests had left she had steeled herself against this inevitable fear, though, replacing it with pride and a slight protective bafflement, just as Tonraq's own fears were surfacing through his layers of assurance.
Why had the spirits chosen him as the Avatar's father?
He had managed to nearly forget about the corner of the spirit world he had charged into at the North Pole - but the spirits had clearly remembered him.
Senna's concern was different: she believed that their daughter would be taken away. When they discussed it, for a time they were having two different conversations. Tonraq tried not to ask the questions that were, at this rush of a moment, about him. Being the father of the Avatar was a great honor.
But Tonraq did not have honor left in him - none that the spirits would recognize.
Tonraq asked Senna, over spicy, bitter tea in their hall after everyone left, whether he deserved this.
Korra was sleeping on her fur pallet.
Senna took swigs of her tea and glanced to the side of the room as if White Lotus men would be lurking there, ready to take Korra away. She tried to build up support for an argument in which she did not entirely believe. "All the other Avatars traveled. At least, Aang did."
"I don't think she should," Tonraq said.
"I just...we don't know what will happen."
"The other Avatars did."
"The other Avatars were not my daughter," he said, and realized that it was bluster. "It feels like there's an eye watching her. There's never been a..." He looked down, wrinkled his nose against the steam from the tea as if it was foul. "A cursed Avatar."
"She's not cursed! You're not cursed. And it doesn't carry that way."
She could have been a chieftain's daughter, Tonraq thought, but that didn't matter enough for him to speak it.
"What if the spirits have some grudge against her?" Tonraq said.
"They certainly don't."
Because that was the source of all his initial confusion he did not know what to say. Instead he shook his head, in and out of the thinning column of steam.
Senna found neither his banishment nor the Avatar overly exotic, and he loved her for that.
The spirits, he thought, saw bloodstained ground and withered trees and chose my daughter.
This confused him, both when he saw Korra wake up the next morning and when he thought about the first time she had firebent, or the faces of the White Lotus. Korra toddled across the floor like any child, not bending anything, and he gave her food to eat. What spirits watched over the meat, resided in the soup? What skeletal hands were still applauding him in the dark?
Tonraq recognized something, in the archetypal image of the Avatar blasting air and water from her fists and earth from her feet and water from her mouth, which he had never expected to see in his home. He just wasn't sure what it was.