The first night, Tahno slept.
He didn’t try to turn on any lights upon stepping through his front door; his teammates were most likely asleep already and he didn’t want to antagonize the thing throbbing viciously behind his eyes. Feet barely breaking contact from the floor, he dragged himself to the wide double bed and collapsed there, the weight of his body pressing down against the plush mattress like he was fighting to fall through it. The covers were turned down, the sheets silky and cold against his cheek. A few untamed locks of hair got caught in between, pulling uncomfortably when he shifted his weight, but his arms wouldn’t move to fix them.
They had wanted to take his statement, maybe draw up some kind of report past the obvious headline for tomorrow morning’s paper. Shaozu had managed alright, talking through each individual second of the encounter until the timescale felt stretched to breaking. Ming said a few words, already breathing too quickly, and then broke into tears.
As for Tahno, he tried to hit an officer in the face. It wasn’t his fault. She had tried to help him up when he wasn’t looking, one arm hooked under his own and the other hand pressing into the small of his back. It had been too much contact, and he could barely see straight, let alone think.
Eventually the voices of frightened spectators and frantic teammates and yelling cops had grown to be unbearable, mixing and spinning until everything rose to white noise buzzing harmlessly against his skin. People were asking him questions, but he couldn’t make out the faces. Someone with a low, closed voice lead him out of the arena by the elbow; he never did manage to get to the station, though he couldn’t understand why they didn’t insist.
He knew the streets of the city well enough that it didn’t hurt to wander, and eventually he made it home without incident.
It didn’t occur to him until he was nearly unconscious that he was still wearing most of his uniform.
The sheets of his bed were not so cold by morning, sticking to his skin with the sweat of his unremembered dreams. The light through his windows was aggressive, burning past his tightly-closed eyelids and simmering there until he turned away from the over-large windows. He had slept far past his normal wakeup, but he did not feel rested; he purposefully cleared his head of all thought until he slid back into unconsciousness.
On the second wakeup attempt he realized that there was no reason for him to get out of bed anymore.
He wouldn’t be going to training. The plans for post-tournament celebrations fell through. He didn’t even have a date for that night, or any motivation to find one. He didn’t want to sleep, exactly, but there really wasn’t much else that he could be doing. So he kicked off the suffocating covers and slept, and the undefined dreams that had plagued him during the night were so wrung dry that they did not make another appearance. This did not make him any less tired.
This cycle repeated as the sun moved slowly away from the window. He sometimes opened blurry eyes to track its pattern on the thick carpet and the bunched mess of his comforter. Then he would stare, watching the shadows move like notches on his bedpost to pass the time.
At some point he heard someone in the hallway, probably Ming based on the solid rhythm of his footfalls. He moved like an earthbender, all careful lasting contact with each step. Ming’s personality had never gelled with the masters he had begun his training under, but some lessons had stuck. He was slow to move in the ring at times (bastard nearly cost them a match or two that way), but he was more grounded than your usual pro-bender. Deceptively powerful.
Picturing his stupid wibbling face after the finals made Tahno angry enough to throw a downy pillow across the room.
Its timid, unsatisfying “thud” against the wall made the footsteps pause; for a second Tahno expected a knock on his door. Instead, Ming kept walking, heavy steps down the elegant staircase. He heard the front doors open and close, and the telltale sound of a luxurious Satomobile starting up and purring down the street.
Tahno threw another pillow.
With a little more time, he could think and process, see the shape of this monstrosity pressing in planet-sized against his brain.
This had already been happening to benders all over the city. The Equalist threat had coated every speculator and owner and heiress he talked to in a clear sheen of anxiety, quickly hidden away in the call for another round. No bender was safe. He knew that.
Thing was, he should have been immune.
He was a fucking champion, not some two-bit criminal out doing work for the triads. He was loved by men and women, in masses of adoring crowds and one by gorgeous one. He had worked very hard to get into this position, and then used every trick in the book to make sure he couldn’t be taken out of it, because that was something he could not afford. He took what he wanted. He was Tahno, for fuck’s sake.
Now what did this make him?
In the end, it wasn’t the need for food or water or human companionship that drove him out of bed, his senses still too cotton-muffled to determine if he was hungry or thirsty or lonely. Instead it was the grease, uncomfortable against his moist skin.
He might be a complete wreck, but he’d be damned if he couldn’t be one with decent hair.
He poured expensive soaps and perfumes into the bathwater, sliding his body through steam scented like roses, and scrubbed hard. When the water got cold he emptied it out and started again.
Reporters knocked on the door, one after another, and the phone rang so insistently that he was surprised it hadn’t managed to wake him up. Sometimes Shaozu answered, and Tahno was treated to a dramatic retelling of the event that made him grit his teeth. He stayed in the washroom for hours, his teammate’s voice rising waspishly through the floorboards and clinging to the goosebumps down his arms.
By the time he heard Shaozu leave for the evening, the moon bathed the room in a watery, fragile sort of light that shimmered bone-white on the surface of his chilly bath. His skin was wrinkled and pinched tight along his fingertips, soaked and bloated and sickly, contrasting vividly with the red-rubbed quality of his forearms, his biceps, his wrists.
He’d always had such delicate wrists.
The water was getting colder, and it broke over his skin without feeling.
The second night, Tahno didn’t sleep.
The healer held his wrist between her dark palms, turning it this way and that under the harsh electric light. The skin felt too hot there, as though her staring at that part of him was overexposing.
“If you’d like I can try an aromatic therapy technique that’s been getting a lot of attention in the medical papers of Ba Sing Se University, but I’d need to import very specific–”
“Do it.” The exam table was uncomfortably hard, and he gripped its metal edges firmly enough for the nails to jut into his skin. “How many times do I gotta tell you people that I’ll pay whatever it takes?”
The woman nodded curtly, dropping his hand to scribble on her clipboard. The office was some sort of modern-traditionalist fusion, with beaded Water Tribe relics adorning each wall and an array of sharply up-to-date instruments glittering on each surface. The healer herself was small and compact, each movement laced with a jutting sort of energy.
“How long is this gonna take, then?”
She didn’t look up from her writing. “Well, I can send out the telegram today. Shipping will probably take one to three weeks, depending on the level of flooding over the–”
“Forget the details, lady, I mean how long’s it gonna take to cure me.”
This time she didn’t answer until she had finished with her clipboard. When she looked up, the neutrality of her expression made Tahno’s lip curl. “May I be frank with you?”
“Well we’re gonna have a real problem if you’ve been lying,” he said with a smirk, trying to quell the sudden racing of his heart. “Come on, out with it already, I don’t have all day to be sitting in this shitty little room.”
The healer remained impassive as ever, tucking her clipboard under her arm and taking a pace forward until she was in range for a calming pat on Tahno’s shoulder. (She didn’t pat his shoulder.)
“I don’t know that this can be cured. It isn’t a physical problem, and it’s probably not mental either. Spiritual…yes, if you believe that terrorist, but in a manner so intense and so unheard of that I doubt you’ll find someone with the skill to reverse it. By all means keep trying, but that may not be in your best interests.”
Tahno smiled, baring his teeth. “Then what use are you,” he asked quietly, a tone he’d used on rivals for ages, “to me?”
The healer quirked a thick eyebrow. “You should really be asking yourself that question.”
She held the stare for longer than he could. He pushed the heels of his palms together in his lap, twisting them like the veins of his pale wrists.
He found Shaozu at Narook’s, lounging in their team’s private booth with a collection of well-dressed women. He recognized a few of the faces, but their names eluded him. The doll with the Omashu accent and fantastic ass was cuddled up to Shaozu’s side, laughing with the rest at some inane bullshit that came out of his mouth.
He waved Tahno over enthusiastically, and Tahno slid in to his usual spot at the center. Somehow the booth felt smaller, and he had a hard time trying to figure out where to put his arms.
“We were just talkin’ about our monumental success in the ring, before our little mishap up at the end.” As a regular drinker, Shaozu’s words weren’t slurred yet, but his eyes and hands slid around like they had been lubricated. “Weren’t we, Lihua?”
Lihua nodded and snuggled closer. Tahno was disgusted with her.
“It was a fantastic match. You know what they’re saying about this match?” Shaozu talked around a mouthful of noodles.
Tahno had no doubt that whatever he said would be accurate; Shaozu was nothing if not informed about what their rivals and acquaintances were saying and thinking at all times. He was a regular information sponge, and he drank with (and outdrank) the cream of Republic City society.
“I’m not really in the mood,” Tahno replied, fighting to keep a smile playing around his face to match the rest of the table’s.
Shaozu took another drink, inexplicable carefree happiness painted on his handsome face. God, Tahno had used to love that face. Now he thought it would look better with a smashed-in nose.
“’Course you are. Here, let’s get another round and we can tell them about–”
“I’m really not in the fucking mood, Shaozu,” he said, grin becoming a threat. Calm. Keep your calm.
Shaozu’s expression didn’t waver as he shook his head. “Listen, Tahno. What are we gonna do about it, eh? Let’s just get another round.”
“The fuck is the matter with you?” he asked. Calmly! Wasn’t that just peachy, he was entirely calm.
Shaozu’s face dropped into stony neutrality. They stared at each other a few long seconds.
There was a flash of motion; Tahno tensed as though he was about to be hit, but Shaozu didn’t make contact. His hand was frozen extended, palm down, as though to place it on his shoulder. Lihua had grabbed his wrist, holding him back, a guarded expression on her face. Tahno noticed for the first time the way her lower lip was marred by fresh, bloody tooth indents. And not anyone’s but her own, either. The silence enveloped the entire table.
“I’m gonna go find a quieter joint,” Tahno said with a stretched smile. Calmly.
“Yeah. You can try that,” Shaozu said, gorgeous face back in position.
“Alright. G’night.” He didn’t bother addressing the rest of the table, sliding out of the booth and moving as quickly as dignity would allow towards the door.
He had managed to get two buildings away before he saw a gigantic white blur moving down the cross-street, the night crowd reeling out of its path with an inharmonious mix of disgruntled shouting and sickly-sweet cries of greeting.
The Avatar did not make much contact with her mount; her boots pressed close enough to its furred sides that she could separate the rest of her body from its surface, hunched over in the position of a professional jockey without any of the restraint. He couldn’t catch her expression, as quickly as she moved, but her long hair flooded behind her, whipping obnoxiously in the force of her speed like the beast’s monstrous tail.
She looked impenetrable, and then she was gone. She careened around the corner and out of sight, only the sound of heavy animal footsteps and the occasional startled pedestrian marking her trail, until even that faded away to be replaced with the normal night-time sounds of the district. Fountains, idle restaurant chatter, flirtatious young people walking too close together in the half-light. It was quieter now, with the city under threat, but life went on.
Tahno hadn’t realized he had stopped moving until he was nearly run over by an impatient courier with a cart of raw fish.
He didn’t know why he had been so surprised to see her again. It wasn’t as though she had stopped existing after the tournament, especially with everyone and their mother talking about whether or not she had what it took to stand up to Amon after the disaster at the match. If anything, she existed more than Tahno did now.
Still, without actively realizing it, he hadn’t expected to have any more contact with the woman who rode that fucking monster around like a barbarian and was so, so easily goaded into a fight.
Which was fair enough. He hadn’t had any contact with her, just now. She was here, and then she was gone.
Before he could start walking on, he heard a woman calling his name. He looked behind him in surprise, wondering what Korra could possibly want with him now.
Lihua stood in the middle of the road, careful to keep her impressively high heels on the high ground. She fixed her fantastic hair and, without a trace of the creepily identical smile that everyone in the restaurant had shared, she blurted, “Please forgive him.”
Tahno quirked his lips into a familiar smirk. “For what?”
“He’s trying to work through this in his own way.” Her words were hurried and clipped, more so than her accent usually entailed. Her eyes were big and honest and framed in perfect mascara, which Tahno appreciated, and shaded in a color that didn’t quite match her dress, which Tahno did not.
“I barely said a word to him about it, what are you attacking me for?”
“I’m not–” she stopped and shook her head, at a loss. “Just…I’m worried about him, and you’re his friend, right?”
“We were teammates,” Tahno replied, something dark opening up behind his chest. “And now we’re not.” The wind was getting chilly, and the cut of his sleeves did not prevent the air from swirling uncomfortably against his wrists.
“You can’t tell me that he doesn’t mean anything to you.”
“And why can’t I?” His voice, to his pleasant surprise, became airier the angrier he became.
Lihua’s pleading face froze for a second before closing into something harder. She had high, proud cheekbones and immaculate posture, and at this precise juncture what looked like lightning in her eyes. “Did you ever get this feeling,” she said, “that it would do someone good to get socked real hard in the face?”
“Only if I’m the one doing the socking.” The answer came too easily.
Lihua looked like she was going to say something else before she changed her mind, pivoting with unparalleled grace to stride back to the restaurant. She really had an unparalleled ass.
Tahno kept walking.
That night in the bath the moon didn’t shine so brightly through the window. Half-coated in shadow, he did not light the candles.
Eventually he heard Shaozu stumble in, apparently alone. He didn’t hear Ming, and hadn’t heard him since he left midafternoon yesterday.
He sunk himself into the water until he was up to his eyes. The surface was placid and by now almost clear. It would not move, no matter how hard he willed it.
He lifted one hand, breaking the surface carefully, and turned it thoughtfully in front of his face. The shadows were too strong and broad, covering his otherwise immaculate wrist in something thick and oozing.
Tahno didn’t sleep much the third night either (or the fourth, or the fifth), and when he did, he remembered his dreams.
His skin burned on contact and the mask kept its smile.