"I'm here for my lesson," Korra shouted, leading a grumpy Naga off the boat they used to reach Air Temple island. She fed her some jerky from a pouch on her saddle and scratched her neck, then the shaggy polar bear dog curled up by the front stairs.
Sifu Tenzin appeared in the doorway, three small faces peering around his legs. "Ah, Korra. Good to see you. Please let the Avatar inside, children." The little ones parted like a flock of turtleducks, finding places against the wall, the littlest with his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth.
"So, what is it today?" she asked, following him into his tidy parlor. Tenzin's wife sat primly on a cushion, her hair done up more fancy than normal and wearing a pretty high collared dress that didn't hide the swell of her belly. "Oh, hi, Pema, ma'am. You look nice."
"About that," said Tenzin with his usual placid smile. "The lesson today is for you to stay with the children while my wife and I go out. It's our anniversary."
Korra's jaw dropped. After a minute of stunned silence, she finally managed to get out, "What?"
"We should only be gone a few hours."
She threw her hands up. "But...but...what about learning airbending?"
Tenzin took on his teacher tone. "Airbending requires patience, calm, and a quick and free-thinking mind. Looking after children also requires patience, calm and a free-thinking mind. You will find this a very educational experience."
"But...I was going to train with Mako and Bolin later."
"I promise you will still be able to make it."
"But what if something bad happens?"
"I imagine the children will be able to keep you safe," said Tenzin with a completely straight face.
Korra's mouth opened and closed a couple of times, waiting for her brain to catch up. Just as she was about to speak, Pema rose and placed a hand on her arm. "Despite my husband's...unorthodox approach, we do appreciate you doing this and swear we will make it up to you."
Korra looked into her kindly face and gave up with a sigh. "Okay, fine. Have a great time."
She waved goodbye to them from the door as the children stood at the window, noses pressed to the glass, watching their parents sail off to the mainland. A couple of sky bison soared overhead, and beyond them Korra could see the massive statue of Avatar Aang silhouetted against the western sun. "I bet you think this is hilarious," she muttered to it.
"Who are you talking to?" asked the younger girl. Ikki, that was her name, right?
"Myself," Korra replied. "You have one of those new communication thingys...those telephones, right?"
"Oh, yeah, it's over there," and she gestured to a funny looking wooden box on the wall. "Daddy helps me with it cause I'm too short to reach it by myself. I use it to call my uncle and my cousins and..."
"Okay, okay. Breathe, kid. Can you show me how to use it?"
Ikki blinked, but the older girl, Jinora, set the book she was holding down on a table and came over. "Who are you trying to call?" She sounded as serious as her father.
"Do you know their number?"
After a minute of racking her brain, Korra told her. Jinora stretched up on her tiptoes, fished the strange cone-shaped thing off the hook on the side of the telephone, held it to her ear, turned the crank, and spoke into the horn protruding out from the front of the box. "Operator? Would you please connect me to..." and she recited the number. Then she handed the receiver to Korra, who cautiously held it to her ear. She briefly wondered how they managed to lay a line from the city all the way out here.
"Hello?" came Mako's voice over the line, scratchy but audible.
"Hey, it's me."
"I'm sorry," he said, "I can't hear you."
"Miss Korra," said Ikki, tugging on the fur trim of her waist wrap, "you gotta talk into the thing," and she pointed at the transmitter.
"Right," said Korra, and leaned forward. "Mako?"
"Oh, Korra." He sounded pleased, but a little confused. "You own a phone?"
"Uh, no. I'm at Sifu Tenzin's. He's got me watching his kids."
"Master Tenzin is making the Avatar babysit his children?" Mako sounded scandalized. Someone in the background erupted into laughter; she bet it was Bolin.
"Yeah, yeah. He says it's supposed to help me with training."
A moment of silence, then he said, "Your teacher has some unusual methods."
"Tell me about it. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you I might be a little late to our practice, okay?"
"All right." He paused. "Good luck to you."
"Uh...thanks." I'm probably going to need it, she thought, as they said their goodbyes and she spent a few fumbling moments trying to figure out how to hang the receiver up. When she turned around, she was alone. "Kiddos?" Korra ran upstairs and poked her head into the bedrooms, but they were empty. The children were gone.
A few seconds of panic later, she found them outside, standing at a safe distance from Naga, who was acting like they weren't there. "Guys, you scared me. Don't run off like that."
The children ignored this statement. "Does he bite?" asked Ikki.
"She," replied Korra, "and only if someone tries to hurt her. Or me."
"She's pretty," Jinora said, digging a toe into the ground.
"Can't fly though," said Ikki. "Our bison can fly. Mine and Jinora's, I mean. Meelo doesn't get one yet because he's just a baby." At that, Meelo took his thumb out of his mouth and stuck his tongue out at her. She stuck her tongue out at him in return.
"Okay, kids," said Korra, heading off the potential fight. "So, what are we doing?"
They all looked at her in surprise. Naturally it was Ikki that answered. "Don't you know? We're going to give you your airbending lesson!"
A few minutes later, Korra sat on the ground in the open yard while Ikki paced in front of her. She had found some kind of blue paint somewhere and had drawn a crooked arrow on her forehead. Between that and her attempt to imitate Tenzin's spiritual-master demeanor, Korra had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Jinora stood off to the side watching in silence, and Meelo was tugging up blades of grass and throwing them into the air, bending a breeze under them to make them go higher.
"Now," Ikki said, "we are about to teach you the most important technique of airbending. It's super secret, but very powerful. It's..." she halted, pausing for dramatic effect, "the Air Scooter!"
"Sounds very important," Korra said.
Clearly disappointed with the lack of excitement in her pupil's reaction, Ikki drew herself up. "It is. Okay, this is how you do it." She made a series of moves with her arms that was too quick for Korra to parse out, drawing a small spinning sphere of wind out of thin air. She bent it larger, then jumped on top and rode it around in circles, giggling. Meelo shouted in glee and followed suit, and soon both children were riding around whooping and hollering until the balls of wind dissipated and they collapsed to the ground. "Okay, Korra," Ikki shouted, scrambling back to her feet, "you try it!"
"I think I need to see that again."
Jinora walked over to her. "It's like this," she said, and repeated the motions more slowly. Then she mounted her air ball and rode it once around the training area before jumping off and letting it fade away.
Korra attempted to copy the move, but the air barely stirred. She frowned and tried again. That one might have made the air go in a small circle, but it disappeared so quickly she couldn't tell. She snorted steam in frustration.
"Huh," said Jinora. "I didn't think you'd have such trouble with this. It was you who invented it. I mean, when you were Grandpa."
"Hey, if I could remember everything from my past life, I wouldn't need you guys as my teachers, would I?" Korra grinned, and Jinora offered her a tiny smile in return. "Come on, show me that again."
Slowly they went through the movements a few more times. At the last one, a spinning ball of air formed between Korra's hands. "I did it! I did it! Ah, spoke too soon," she said as the ball lost cohesion and faded away. She bent another ball, and this time got it to grow fairly large.
"Now just get on it!" Jinora shouted as she rode hers away. The three children began to chase each other around. Korra tried to get her ball underneath her, but crashed with a hard thump and an "oof!" She bent another large sphere and managed to jump onto it, wobbling a little as she rode it over to them.
"Korra's it!" they yelled, scattering as she approached.
"Hey! No fair!" Korra managed to turn around and went after them, picking up speed as she grew more confident. They played tag, air ball, and a host of other games, some of which Korra suspected the children were inventing on the spot. The sun was well below the horizon when they finally dragged themselves back inside.
Later, Korra woke to a touch on her shoulder and blinked up at Tenzin's face. She found herself slouched against the wall, Jinora curled up on one side of her, Ikki on the other, and little Meelo in her lap. Pema lifted up her son, then woke the girls and helped them up. "Bye, Miss Korra," they said as they followed their mother to bed.
"I fed them," she said, rubbing her eyes. "before we fell asleep."
Tenzin nodded. "Thank you." As she stood, he asked, "Did you learn something?"
"Yeah," Korra said, smiling. "I did."
As Pema and Tenzin watched her guide her companion back onto their boat, Pema asked, "This wasn't just about getting free babysitting, was it?"
Tenzin gave her his most enigmatic smile. "I have no idea what you mean." He kissed her. "Let's go in."