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.
Okay fair warning, I'm going to be playing with the canon timeline quite a bit. I guess that makes this a canon AU?
Looking back on that first desperate week, Tahno couldn’t pin down the moment he had given up.
At first there were the mad rushes between each healer, his back stinging with tiny acupuncture indents and head constantly fuzzy from incense fumes. He swore up and down he could feel his own chakras, pounded into his brain and spinal column like physical plates of metal, though each professional swore up and down right back at him that this was impossible. Incompetent, he called them, and would have spit in their faces if he ever did something so classless as spit. He left each office and holy place caught up in the torrent of his own fury, genuinely surprised whenever it wasn’t raining. (Sometimes it did rain, and he let each drop soak through his hair and run down the chilly planes of his face without wiping it away. He had never had to before.)
After the first few days, his reactions grew less incensed, though no less bitter. It wasn’t worth the energy to rant and rave, so he held his nose high and regal from his place on the examiner’s table, wishing the bags under his eyes weren’t quite so pronounced. A curt nod would do, and a request for other options. He told himself that it was because he didn’t want to waste time. But at night, looking up at the empty ceiling of his too-large room, he could recognize that he was acting on impulse power alone, floating forward on the motion of his previous actions without any of the force that had driven them.
Find a healer. Win his bending back. It was so important, but he was slowly losing the energy necessary to give it any more than a thought. It escaped him out of unclosed eyelids, rising like steam in the night he could not block out with sleep.
Maybe it happened when Shaozu told him that Ming hadn’t paid his rent for the month, and it occurred to the both of them that maybe he wasn’t coming back. (At least, Tahno assumed it had occurred to Shaozu. They hadn’t managed a complete conversation since.) Maybe it was when he realized that he actually had no way of paying the rent himself anymore. Maybe it was when he ran out of the rose-scented bath soaps, and had to soak instead in clear water unhidden under protective foam.
Or maybe it did not happen all at once. His failure was a collage of moments, narrated by pitying whispers in the streets and inexplicably threatening leers thrown from doorways and storefronts. It culminated in blankets strewn around a previously immaculate room and the pounding behind his skull after each successive sleepless night.
When the police called him to the station for additional questioning, he knew it would not help anyone. He answered the summons, but it felt more like an autonomous bodily reaction than a conscious decision on his part.
As he sat on the bench outside their immaculate offices, looking down at his own wrecked face in the over-polished wooden floor, he could already envision how the scenario would play out. He would retell the story, or what little he remembered of it. The investigators would nod seriously and take notes. Someone would offer him a coffee, and he would refuse. Then he would leave again, go back to wandering from healer to healer with no real expectations of change until he finally gave in entirely and didn’t leave his house until they had forcefully evicted him. Maybe he would sleep the entire time. Drift.
He was so incredibly tired.
A pair of clunky brown boots slid into the corner of his vision, just to his right. They were ugly, he decided in a detached sort of way. He almost didn’t notice that it was the Avatar standing right next to him, staring down at her own reflection past that terrible footwear.
More telling: if he hadn’t spoken, she wouldn’t have noticed him at all.
“Hey, Korra.” Nothing but impulse power, and he barely raised his eyes. He was distantly aware that something strange had just come out of his mouth, but its nature eluded the snailworm’s pace of his brain.
The look of genuine shock on her face was something he had somehow not been expecting. It wasn’t pity, exactly, but it was unguarded and honest and made her eyes look two sizes too big for her face. She would be a terrible gambler, with no poker face to speak of. Even her voice was guileless; she said his name with a subdued horror that, if he felt better, might have made him flinch. As it was, it was nothing he wasn’t expecting. He looked like shit.
Then he couldn’t look at her anymore. Problem was, he didn’t want to go back to his reflection either, so he stared off into the distant left, watching the bustle of police and secretaries and worried families and friends and lovers pacing before closed doors.
The Avatar was silent for a moment, and he figured that would be the end of this awkward mess of a conversation. He was regretting speaking up, which was a new experience in itself. His hair hung limply in front of his face, his skin oily. He was still out of rose-scented soap.
Then he felt the small, blunt shift of the bench as she sat down beside him. She didn’t waste a moment after that, words tumbling out with an unthought recklessness that he envied.
“Listen. I know we’re not exactly best friends, but I’m sorry Amon took your bending.” The words were genuine, but so utterly inadequate that he absorbed them without paying them any particular attention.
“I’ve been to the best healers in the city.” He had always talked slowly, controlling the pace of each conversation to give himself the advantage, but now it didn’t feel much like a choice. “Whatever Amon did to me, it’s permanent.” He hadn’t verbalized this truth before, no matter how intimately he knew it. The words drew power from his sincerity, covering them both in a heavy silence that was, for a moment, impossible to break.
The Avatar did not try to force the conversation, as he had assumed she would. She was a solid presence that he did not have to see to understand. If she were a friend, or a lover, he would have considered that comforting.
He realized, still distantly, that what was strange about his greeting was the choice to use her name.
She let him be the one to break the silence, and when he found the energy to face her again, her expression was sad and serious and unbroken. Like unworked steel, the potential for sharpness lurking behind the surface.
“You gotta get ‘im for me,” he said, and she nodded as if she could understand.
On his way home, Tahno was threatened.
Or at least that’s what the situation suggested. Tahno could not accept, even now, that someone would successfully be able to mug him, but the two big men had certainly shoved past his shoulders very conspicuously as they smiled down at him in a way that could only be described as aggressive. He recognized the colors of the Agni Kai triad before they disappeared into the crowd.
It wasn’t that the gangs were too choosy about their victims, but they did tend to go for the defenseless. This was an insult to even his wounded pride, more so when he realized that there was now nothing he could do about it. He didn’t have anything that they wanted; his bending and social status had protected him before, but now they didn’t even have a real reason to be aggressive towards him other than out of spite. He had certainly been much more successful in life than some of the goons the Agni Kai employed, and now he was vulnerable to their hatred.
Well. That and he hadn’t been too exceptionally polite to them, back when he could afford to mock.
Matters sufficiently complicated, he went home and opened his eviction notice.
That night, Tahno gave up on trying for sleep, no matter how desperately he wanted to.
Instead he left the house, found a bar in a rundown part of town he had never frequented before, and worked hard on getting himself fried to the hat.
It wasn’t too difficult; his alcohol tolerance had never matched Shaozu’s, and money wasn’t an issue when he was probably about to become a bum anyway. Ming, by comparison the sensible one, might have taken him to task about that particular line of logic. Or maybe he would have been drinking too; the three of them were undoubtedly used to a certain lifestyle, and no amount of sensibility could dull that effect entirely. But Ming wasn’t here, and honestly, neither was Shaozu. He hadn’t been for awhile.
The bar was well-lit and no less crowded than normal; in a city ruled by fear, alcohol was a necessity. Or maybe it was because this place was filled mostly with non-benders, social nobodies who had nothing to fear. They seemed like a living insult to him, laughing and carrying on to the tune of loud jazz music, playing pool or cards, dancing, or hiding in some unseen corner with somebody that caught their eye. It was like they didn’t even understand the danger that surrounded them, completely unexposed to the wider reality of their city beyond this pathetic little neighborhood and the cheap liquor of its bar. Couldn’t they see that he was suffering?
He called for another round, and saw rather than felt a body slide onto the stool beside him.
“I’ve got this one.” The masculine voice was almost chipper, which Tahno resented. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“No,” he drawled. His lips were starting to feel fuzzy, and he bumped his nose against the glass with his next swig.
“You sure? You looked lonely.” This time the flirtation was more brazen, and Tahno condescended to glare over at him. The bastard was young, probably not quite into his twenties, with blue collar arms and a lopsided smile. He might have been attractive, if it weren’t for the unfortunate jutting jaw, and Tahno really wasn’t in the mood besides.
He didn’t bother to respond, turning back to his drink in a clear indication that the man had been dismissed. He caught the shrug out of the corner of his eye, and the movement of a broad hand as the stranger slapped down some coins on the bar. “Suit yourself. But have this one on me anyway, eh? You look like you could use it.” Tahno resented that most of all. He really ought to show this punk who he was dealing with, but at the moment he had much more productive things to do, such as determine, squinting, whether his glass had a chip in it or if that was actually a hair. Disgusting. He took another swig.
After awhile, the bartender came back to chat, slapping a paper down in front of Unfortunate Jawline. “Damn cops ain’t getting nowhere. Big surprise.” He had a thick voice to match his pudgy body, and was clearly continuing a conversation that had spanned more than one evening. “And you know who they’re gonna blame for all this.”
“Yeah,” the young man said, tilting his glass thoughtfully, rolling its base on the wooden bar. “Yeah, I think we all know that.”
Tahno spilled some of the cheap slop on his shirt during his next sip. Spirits, couldn’t anything go right for him anymore? He patted the fabric with an uncoordinated hand until he was distracted by a loud swear from beside him.
“You weren’t fucking kidding me, they’ve pinned it on all of us! Right here, ‘nonbenders conspire to incite anarchy.’ They write this bullshit like we’re a – a hivemind or something. Shit.” He sounded genuinely distressed and not a little bewildered. Tahno wondered how embarrassing it would be to ask for an extra napkin.
“And that’s not even the worst bit.” The bartender leaned in conspiratorially, but his words got louder instead. “Gan, there’s talk about a curfew.”
There was a pause. Several other patrons were listening in now, which didn’t seem to bother the speaker one bit.
“Do you mean, like, for nonbenders?” Gan asked cautiously. The bartender must have nodded in the affirmative, because the man inhaled sharply through his teeth. “They can’t do that! That’s – I don’t–”
“Better get used to it, kid. They don’t like us. Never have, never will. Only difference is they’re not hiding it anymore.”
The bar was stunned into silence. Tahno thought they were being stupidly dramatic, and set his glass down with a force that clearly indicated the need for another.
Gan was looking down at his lap, expression unreadable. His fingers laced and unlaced, calloused fingers rubbing each knuckle. “Do you ever wanna just…fight someone?” he said. To Tahno’s surprise, he looked up at him. “Just knock somebody out cold so you feel better about the people you can’t really hit?”
The words seemed familiar, though Tahno couldn’t place them. “That’s my entire shitfucking life,” he said solemnly, tossing his bangs. He thought the effect was pretty attractive and dramatic, but for some reason it just cracked another lopsided smile out of Gan. He looked like he had some Water Tribe ancestry down the line, but was clearly a mutt produced by the city, amber eyes peering out from skin darker than Tahno’s own. Not that this said much. Everybody’s skin was darker than Tahno’s.
Gan cocked his head to the side, sort of like a pandadog. “Hey, you know, you look kinda familiar. Have I seen–”
The newspaper on the bar fluttered with the opening and closing of a door. In a palpable shift, the room tensed. Tahno nearly fell off the stool turning around one hundred eighty degrees to see why.
Two men stepped into the room, apparently oblivious to the closed attitude they had induced. One was tall, with fluttery hands and a receding hairline. The other was shorter, with ugly lips. That was all Tahno really managed to conclude before losing interest and turning back to his drink.
The bartender’s mouth had reduced itself to a tight line, but he began pouring two cups of sake with practiced grace.
The tall man took the last available seat at the bar, to Tahno’s left. The other hovered, shooting Tahno ungracious looks that didn’t do much to make him want to give up his seat.
The men began to chitchat with the bartender, mentioning business and weather and betting odds at the race track, but coming back so insistently to “business” that it was clear they wanted something out of him. Gan had gone completely still. Others tried to subtly maneuver towards the door. The band kept playing, but with the volume way down, as if they were trying to make sure everyone had the chance to overhear.
Finally the tall man lead in with, “So we were thinkin’ we wanted to get our cut a little bit early this month, to cover some expenses,” and Tahno remembered the gangs.
The muscles of the bartender’s pale face all turned downwards at once. “That’s not due for another week, boys. I don’t have the money yet.”
And that was all it fucking took for the man to ignite a palmful of fire, just holding it there like a drink to be nursed. Not even a warning. Nearly took off Tahno’s arm hair and he didn’t even apologize. Tahno made an affronted sound to communicate his displeasure.
The flames illuminated the bead of sweat running down the bartender’s temple. His thick fingers gripped the edge of the bar. “Now listen, I don’t want any trouble–”
“And we won’t have any,” said the shorter man, “if your license means jack to you.”
Tahno blinked, sluggish mind churning the evidence into some semblance of sense. “You’re cops,” he said, the words half a question. Everyone looked at him with some surprise, which was kind of insulting if you asked him. “What? ‘m right in the middle of your goddamn conversation, I’m allowed to talk. ‘Fact you should listen to what I have t’ say, I’m real important to people.”
The tall man looked at him like he was some kind of creature from outer space, then turned back to the bartender. He had the most obnoxious sideburns. “Of course you can understand the pressures that come with my job. I’m expected to provide some semblance of–”
“Hey! Don’t ignore me! I’m a, I fucking exist, you know?” Tahno slapped the cop’s back, just between the shoulder blades. That’d show him.
Before he could think any further than that, he was being hoisted from under the armpits and dragged off his stool by the other man. He was abruptly left teetering on his own two feet, stumbling backwards into a nearby table as the bastard took his place seated next to his partner.
Well. Tahno definitely wasn’t going to take any of that, so he did the most logical thing, which was to spin the stolen stool around and sock the cop in the face.
It wasn’t a good punch by any means, but it slammed the bastard’s back into the bar real hard and probably left a shiner on his cheek. The cop sat there for a moment, face tilted down and away with the force of the blow, as his partner’s mouth dropped open hilariously.
The room drew a collective breath. Tahno swayed and raised his fists.
It didn’t do much good. In one fluid motion the cop jumped to his feet and easily knocked Tahno’s defense to the side, slamming him in the side of the head with something that sent him reeling back into the table again. It upended beneath him in a clatter, a lone abandoned glass exploding into glittering shards on the floor.
Honestly he had that one coming. He should have noticed the draw.
Chaos was instantaneous and complete. The other cop stood up at the same time as the patrons, and to Tahno’s blurred brain it looked like they were all moving towards each other in slow motion, drawn in towards a gravity well located somewhere between the stools and the raised bandstand.
Then a man somehow went flying over the bar and crashed into a row of bottles, and a woman smashed a chair over the tall cop’s head.
“Holy shit,” Tahno said, and sat down on the floor.
The ruckus went on around him, shouts and screams and the sickening thud of bodies making contact with metal. He was aware that this was a very bad place for him to be, but his legs seemed to have frozen beneath him.
“That’s fair,” he said to himself, reasonably. Then he laughed. “That’s fair.”
An arm suddenly hooked under his own and began dragging him towards the door. He was really getting sick of that. Whoever it was wasn’t very careful, either; he kept bumping into chair legs and other people making a break for it. At one point Tahno was nearly hit with a flying flower pitcher.
Finally cool nighttime air hit his face, and his savior dropped him ungraciously to the ground. “Get outta here, ya drunk bastard,” Gan said, his face alight with a savage sort of grace. He turned and ran back into the bar, rolling up his thick sleeves.
The building was low and unobtrusive, paint peeling on the walls. Light from the windows poured out onto the dirt, and the sounds of the fight reached him as if he were listening in from underwater. A panicked pigrooster was squealing behind a nearby fence.
Just to add to the cacophony, police sirens began to echo in the distance. It occurred to him that as an instigator he should really be trying to get somewhere not here, but his head was pounding, bleeding probably, and it was getting hard to tell up from down. This was evidenced by his first attempt to stand resulting in him lying prone on the ground, banged-up head screaming in protest.
Resting a bit wouldn’t hurt much, in the long run. He was thoroughly fucked anyway.
In a motion as fluid as the cop’s first swing had been, he turned himself over enough to vomit on someone’s ugly fucking boots.
In a universe that hated him as much as this one did, it was really the only plausible moment for Korra to appear.
A couple months back, Tahno had been entertaining the daughter of a prestigious businessman. She looked like she belonged in a painting, all flawless, liquid hair and star-studded eyes, so he had taken her to a gallery exhibit. He considered that for his opening line, too, before ultimately discarding it as too maudlin and soppy. The gallery itself was safe territory, however; all the young socialites went gallery-hopping and Tahno was loathe to be an exception when it could be turned to his advantage. He didn’t know much about art, but she was a tougher catch than he usually went for and it seemed like the sort of thing she would appreciate. He had been looking for a chance to try out a new outfit anyway, and there had been free champagne in those tall, narrow glasses that shaded their bubbling contents in amber.
The date hadn’t gone as far as he wanted, but he learned that he liked the colors inherent in impressionism, mostly because they didn’t make any sense and he had always been fond of pretty, senseless things. Hues melted and twined like cloud eddies after a storm over the arctic sea, with an over-the-top spray of warm colors that didn’t fit at all in that sort of scene – Tahno knew this firsthand. One particular painting depicted the Republic City skyline at night, so far as he could make out. The buildings were melting in some kind of anti-heat haze, and the half-hidden details of human faces were worked into every surface. The longer you looked, the more of them you saw.
He figured that was a metaphor, so he lost interest.
“Leave it to some pretentious painter to try and dig up a meaning where no meaning belongs,” he said to his date. She had the most exquisite pearl drop earrings, suspended with spinning spangled diamonds that casted light on the smooth skin of her cheek.
“What? I can’t understand you, try – try talking again,” she replied.
Tahno blinked, then devoted his energy to figuring out how he had wound up on the floor.
The waxing moon was bright and huge in the sky, but blurred over like an impressionist’s dream. The stars were hidden, on and off, by quick eddying clouds.
“Hey, over here,” a voice said, and a hand waved in front of his face. The fingers all blended together, making his head pound. He suddenly became very aware of the raised lump at his temple. When he raised an uncertain hand to take stock of the damage, it was met with coarse fabric.
“Don’t mess with the bandage,” the voice said. Impatient now. He turned away from the window (thus becoming aware of its existence) and found the speaker’s face.
“Try talking again, I said,” Korra commanded. Her expression was stern, her skin dimly lit by a small selection of lamps placed around the room. Her eyelashes were aflame from beneath, and her eyes were blue and hard and blue. “We need to make sure you don’t have brain damage, or something.”
Tahno shifted under his blankets, trying to crane his neck backwards to determine who the other part of “we” was, but even dulled by the soft pillow beneath his head this caused a flash of pain to envelop his senses. His breath caught and a low moan escaped him. She grasped at his wrist so quickly it could have been instinctive, and he jerked back from her just as quickly, suffering his body’s pained response.
“Don’t,” he bit out through gritted teeth. “Don’t.”
Perhaps he had looked more antagonistic than he thought. She drew back, her expression souring further. He recognized the defensive snarl of her lip. He had seen it nearly constantly on her too-open face, always directed at him. “I’m trying to help.”
Tahno breathed deeply, collecting himself. He still felt like he was spinning, even while lying completely still, but it was becoming easier to see the lines that divided substances from one another. He understood depth again.
He was being held in a bare sort of room, with a vaulted wooden ceiling carved in ornate patterns that screamed either pretentiousness or antiquity, quite possibly both. He could make out men and women and huge six-legged beasts, bordered by ritualistic swirls. Even the lanterns looked dignified, sitting tall next to his mat on the floor. He could see an open door leading to a darkened hallway. In fact, he could see nearly all of the room, save what was directly behind his head; unless someone was standing in that corner, the two of them were alone. Korra sat on her haunches by his side, hair coming out of its tight ponytail in exasperated frizzled locks no doubt born of recent sweat and exertion. She had bags under her eyes, just barely visible in the half-light, though they by no means matched his own – yet.
“It’s okay,” she said, expression sliding back into unreadability. The tone of her voice told him that perhaps he hadn’t managed to collect himself as well as he thought. “You’re – we’re at Air Temple Island. You’ll be okay.”
Tahno finally let out his deep breath. He forced his fingers to relax, one by one; they had been digging into his palms without him realizing. “I don’t think I’m drunk anymore,” he grumbled, and squeezed his eyes shut.
“You smell like it,” was the clipped response. Then she paused. When Tahno looked back at her, she was appearing to reconsider. “I mean. If you need a bath, or something – not that you smell really terrible or…” She looked anxious, eyes flickering up and down Tahno’s body as though she wasn’t able to rest them on his face for long. He felt that there was a quip to be made there, but talking seemed to take an absolutely monumental effort.
The uncertainty didn’t sit well on her features, but it did certainly make her look softer. More accessible. Ever since the match, she had seemed as distant to him as she was to the rest of the city. An icon, or a weapon, meant to stop Amon. A “hero,” if some newscaster wanted to be sentimental about it – and optimistic. As she was now (and, he realized, as she had been sitting on the bench of the police station), she seemed like an actual human being.
It was infuriating.
“What am I even doing here?” he managed to hiss with a bit of force. The wave of pain came, but this time he was expecting it. He weathered it like a storm. “You think I’m some good deed you can get spirit points for babysitting?”
“No!” she said, but the response was too quick. Her chin tucked down towards her neck, shielding her weak points – a fighting posture he knew well. The light caught her skin in new places, bouncing fiercely off her cheekbones and lending an aggressive spark to her eyes. “That’s not it at all.”
Tahno welcomed the confrontation. “It’s guilt then,” he said, voice rasping. His throat was very dry. “You can’t figure out how to fix people like me, so you thought you’d adopt one of us. Throw me a bone now and then from your place at the top of the fucking world.” The volume of the words rose against his will, and the last word ended in a choked sound and a pointed jerk of his head that aggravated his wound and brought tears of pain to his eyes.
Luckily, Korra was too riled up by now to notice. “Shut up! You don’t know anything about me! You have no idea what I’m going through right now!” She leaned forward with the force of her righteous indignation, and Tahno was pleased to see the way her muscles tightened, rage spread visibly from her neck to her amazing bare shoulders to her ever-clenched fists. It really was too easy.
“I hit a nerve there,” he replied, and relished in the return of control. Recent memories were pressing up against the backdoor of his consciousness, reasons to be embarrassed or even grateful. He didn’t let them in, because that would certainly constitute a loss on his part.
“No, you just–” Korra began, and for a moment Tahno thought she would hit him. She had raised herself from her haunches to a kneeling position, looming directly over him. The loose parts of her hair stretched towards him in uncertain waves. She smelled like sweat, with something much more unpleasant lurking underneath that didn’t fit her at all. Vomit, his brain said, though he didn’t bother to figure out why that opened a pit in the bottom of his stomach.
She was sharp angles and strong painted lines, and her eyes were blue and hard and blue. It sent a genuine shiver of fear down his spine, as few things could anymore.
She ignored it. “You’re just injured,” she spat. “You’re injured, and a – a mess, and it seemed so simple for once. For once in my life, I was sure I was doing the right thing! Like I’m going to do the right thing now,” she said, rolling to her feet with practice grace, “and not give you a second head wound.” Her expression was fixed in a state of rage, as though she couldn’t figure out how to move past it.
“So you’re projecting something else onto me,” he said, not really caring if he hit the mark or not. The damage was already done. “Some shit that’s happened to you.”
She was at the door in two strong paces, and she didn’t look back at him when she spoke. “You can get out by morning, if that makes you feel better,” she said, suddenly just a sullen teenager again.
“Goodnight,” he called out sarcastically. She slammed the door.
He didn’t feel any better, really, but the knot in his stomach had hardened so much that it had circled back around to manageable again. When he remembered about the boots, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. He had been humiliated either way. The best he could do was to be a smartass about it.
He should have tried the “utter detachment” thing a long time ago. It was almost like having a shield.
He woke up to the sensation of a small, graceless finger prying his eyelid open. He was then greeted by the sight of what was, in absolute honesty, the ugliest child he had ever seen.
“He’s awa-a-a-ake!” the changeling yelled, sending him back into agony.
In what felt like an instant, two other children tore into the room, one of them running along the wall before summersaulting gracefully onto her feet next to her slightly taller counterpart. Tahno was definitely hallucinating.
“O-o-o-oh!” said the summersaulter. In an instant, she was shoving with the boy for position hovering above his poor tormented head.
“Hi!” she said, in the tones of the demon bells of the furthest reaches of the spirit world. Then: “What’s your name? When did you get here? Did Korra bring you? How did you hurt yourself and why do you smell like a bar?”
Acting on survival instinct alone, Tahno reached behind him and threw his pillow at the girl’s head.
She dodged fluidly with a shrieking giggle that sent him into the fucking fetal position.
“Jinora! Ikki! Meelo!” The deep voice came from the doorway, each syllable carrying the force of a projectile missile. “Leave the man alone.”
As quickly as they had come, they vanished, leaving a gust of wind in their wake that stirred the cloak of his latest visitor. It was a horrible, garish thing in unrepentant yellow and orange. Tahno hated everything.
“Councilman Tenzin,” he said, softer than he had meant. Then, because he was struggling for a way to sound flippant and above it all and detached, he added, “Forgive me for not getting up.”
“Of course,” Tenzin said dryly, freeing his arms from the wide folds of his sleeves. He held a white roll in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. “But I will insist that you sit up so I can change your bandage.”
Tahno blinked at him stupidly. Somehow it seemed impossible that this official city representative and last surviving airbending master had been changing his bandages. But honestly, the last twenty-four hours couldn’t get much more irregular, so he had to laugh. He tried, in fact: a tiny and pathetic thing that he regretted instantly. How long was the pain going to last?
Tenzin took the opportunity to hoist him into a sitting position. Though the motion wasn’t overtly rough, it was clear that the man was no sick nurse. “Watch your bedside manner,” Tahno bit out.
Tenzin snorted indignantly. Tahno had never known a person to actually snort before, but the old man managed it. It sounded like an effort to repress something he would rather be saying, and the brisk manner in which he snipped away at his old bandages told him that Tenzin was only suffering his presence here. This raised the interesting possibility that Korra had somehow bullied him into caring for Tahno, which was as hilarious as it was confusing.
At least one part of all this made more sense now: the idea of Korra tenderly cleaning a wound and putting together an immaculate bandage job was laughable. Though it was disappointing to learn that she hadn’t been lovingly puttering over him all by herself.
Tenzin’s fingers wore the callouses of a lifetime, and they tickled against the skin over Tahno’s ears. “You look like you’ll heal up fine,” he said, reaching for a nearby bowl of water.
“You could have taken me in to the hospital or something, if you were that worried,” he responded indifferently. “That’d count as a good deed too, without all this mucking around.” He felt indifferent. He was absolutely, totally indifferent. His head was hit with water and an odd-smelling paste, and he didn’t even flinch, that was how indifferent he was.
“That would have been my decision, yes.” The disapproving tone told Tahno that his assumption about motives had been absolutely correct. He could just picture Korra and Tenzin living here together, trying to boss each other around. It was an oddly endearing thought. The balm felt strange as it was massaged into the wound, spreading a cool numbness along his skin. “But,” the councilman added, more quietly this time, as though he were about to deposit a nugget of wisdom into receptive and studious ears, “I believe that Avatar Korra feels she holds some responsibility for your current state. She is learning empathy, which is very important in the role she was born to play.” Two for two. Tahno was on a roll.
He was about to make a clever and biting quip about being the Avatar’s “pet project,” because rehashing good material was never a crime, but the old man apparently wasn’t done lecturing.
“Of course, empathy is a two-way street. One would be a fool to take advantage of such generosity. She has had a particularly rough night, even without you to deal with.” His voice mimicked the didactic tone it had carried before, but the attempt to hide the accusatory edge failed miserably. Maybe the Avatar and her mentor had some other traits in common.
Then the scratchy fingers hit an exceptionally sore spot and Tahno hissed.
“Yeah, well. Your kids are demon spawn.”
The bandage, upon completion, felt much tighter than before.
They looked like large wooden fans, sticking straight out of the ground in a nonsensical cluster. Every now and then the wind would pick up slightly, and a few on the outer edge would wobble back and forth as though they were built to spin but lacked the impetus. He had been watching them for awhile now, just trying to plan out his next move. It was nearly past morning and yet he hadn’t left the island.
“They’re for training,” Korra said, coming down from the building behind him. She moved with assuredness down the unpaved incline, as though she understood the pathways of the island without anything manmade getting in the way. “You have to weave through them while they’re spinning really fast.”
Tahno watched her for awhile, then turned back to the gates when she had reached his shoulder. “Sounds like a blast.”
“Ha ha,” she said. She was wearing that hideous airbender uniform, with the sleeves rolled up to display her shoulders proudly. For the first time he noticed a small, glowing bruise on the place where shoulder met collarbone. It looked fresh, and the shape of it matched his own: a metal bar.
Just the Avatar’s duty, jumping into every fight that wasn’t her business. What unlimited power, what agency!
What a hero.
“Look…Tahno,” she breathed, and Tahno waited.
Every now and then leaves would skitter down from the branches, spinning through the gates and running along the paved ground. The wind kicked through his hair, sending his bangs into disarray. Korra moved to fix her own, but she missed the tiny leaf pressed, fluttering and trapped, against the collar of her uniform. He almost reached up to flick it away.
“Am I gonna need money for the ferry?” he asked. “To get back.”
“No, don’t worry about it,” she said. She looked frustrated. The expression suited her much better than insecurity had, dancing across her features in a way that lit up her eyes and added an edge to each motion. Blue and hard and blue.
“Okay. Well.” He mimed pressing two fingers to his temple, hovering above the bandage, then flicked them outwards in salute. He smirked with as much force as he could muster, but he had the suspicion that it wasn’t much.
He hadn’t even managed to turn around before Korra grabbed at his wrist. This time she didn’t let him pull away.
“Just – are you gonna be okay?” The words came out in an angry rush, like she was going to regret the answer no matter what it was.
“Dunno,” Tahno said, glancing up at the sky instead of looking at her face. “Doesn’t really matter, in the long run.”
“Yes, it does,” she said, and the force of it startled him. The bruise stood out starkly against her skin. She shook his wrist, fingers pressing closely, as if she was afraid he would try to escape. Her grip would leave red marks. “Don’t say that.”
“Okay,” he said. She stared him down, practically baring her teeth. “What? I said okay.”
“You can leave Amon to me,” she said, slowly. “But I – I’ve got all this stuff I need to reconsider, just since what – since some stuff that happened last night, and I can’t do the rest for you.”
More talk about this mysterious life-changing event that had happened without him last night. He wasn’t sure what “the rest” meant, but he was aware of the sickly shade of his face, the haphazard uncut nature of his fingernails, and (always) the bags under his eyes.
“Okay,” he said. He didn’t have the energy to give her anything else. Perhaps sensing this, her anger seemed to break, the down-draw of her brows reversing and the snarl retreating from her lips. She let go of his wrist almost reluctantly, and he pulled away as quickly as possible.
“Anyway,” he said, stepping back to get a fuller look at her, the unsure defensiveness of her stance. “See you around.”
For a second he thought she would protest.
Then: “Bye,” she said, almost angry all over again. Korra was the first to turn around, marching back up the incline. The leaf broke free on its own accord, batted off by a gust of wind that carried it towards the bay.
It took another day to get splashed all over the paper: “Riot Breaks Out in Nonbending Neighborhood. Avatar Korra Restores Order.”
On the front page: Korra, standing straight-backed and grim next to a manacled group of bar patrons. Gan and the barkeeper weren’t among them, but he recognized the man who was flung over the bar, deep gashes lacing his arms, and the woman with the chair, bleeding from the forehead. Their expressions went beyond desperation, and the two cops were nowhere to be found.
Korra was tall and proud and mind-blowingly beautiful.
What a fucking hero.
On the second to last day he would be legally allowed to live in his house, Tahno went for a walk.
He should have been spending his time looking for other lodging instead of visiting healers and bars in a steeply shifting ratio. He should also have been carefully hoarding his money instead of throwing it haphazardly at both types of establishment. But, as with a variety of other very pressing concerns, he was finding it more and more difficult to care.
He still had enough left to rent a place for at least a little while, as long as the property value took a sharp decrease from what he was used to. It would require a search through some undesirable neighborhoods, and he wasn’t happy about that. But he wasn’t about to get any help from his parents, not from this distance, and he wouldn’t accept their money even if they had any to send. He had cut himself off from his roots quite purposefully, and he wasn’t about to go back.
He should have started his search immediately, but he preferred the walk.
He avoided his most frequent haunts, the wide avenues filled with proud storefronts and crowded restaurants. The sultry bars with famous live entertainment and the best liquor in the city. The fountain, where he had managed to score more times (and more creatively) than he could clearly remember.
He also couldn’t remember the last time he had gone so long without getting any, but he could barely manage the energy for a good jack-off, and wasn’t absolutely positive anyone attractive enough for his tastes would have him right now anyway. What an abysmal life.
He stuck to back roads, with establishments that would have been considered “shady” any time after dusk. Some of these were familiar to him as well, but there were more of them and that made him more difficult to distinguish to any patrons. He considered stopping in for a drink at an old place he had graced with his presence once or twice, before the Wolfbats were quite so famous and the money had flowed so freely. Maybe it would be a challenge to hide his identity even with his lack of eyeliner and general disarray. Maybe someone would see a glimmer of his old swagger in his walk. Maybe someone would recognize his eyes; he had been told over and over again how captivating they were to the swooning fans. Maybe someone would approach him with a friendly greeting and buy him a round on the house.
He felt a burning, shameful need to avoid recognition, but at the same time he wanted the world to remember his existence.
He wasn’t sure which was more likely, so he didn’t go in.
(Korra hadn’t recognized him, at the station. He found this surprisingly hard to forget.)
His walk took him past these streets and into districts with which he was unfamiliar. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost there, on the narrow twisting roads that began to lean towards the residential. The glances became more suspicious, probably taking in his upscale outfit. Children chased each other across the street as their mothers hung drab clothes from the line. The scent of smoked meat made him wonder how long it had been since he last bothered to eat.
He wasn’t sure when he had adopted a destination, but it was clear he had made some sort of decision when he found himself outside the door of the riot bar.
The place looked different, and he wasn’t sure how much of that to attribute to daylight and how much to violence. He was pretty sure that small window hadn’t been broken before, and the locked door was definitely a change. The building looked abandoned, set apart from the other walls pressing tight around it. He hadn’t noticed its name, where it hung swinging above the doorway: Bao Yu’s.
In a twinge of déjà vu, he pictured himself lying prone three feet ahead of where he stood. The loose dirt was lousy with pebbles and bits of what looked like cabbage leaves, and a pigrooster rolled on its back in a yard nearby. The scent of brew rose from the earth, as though it had served as a dumping ground for more than just his own bile. He was aware, in an absent sort of way, that he should have been disgusted with himself. Should be disgusted with himself now.
He realized, also absently, that he had no real reason to be here.
He was turning to leave when the sound of skin thudding against skin caught his ears, accompanied by the gasping grunt of someone being hit very hard in the gut.
The sound was emanating from the same yard where the pigrooster was mud bathing, apparently unperturbed. Haphazardly-placed wooden stakes marked off the territory, and the square corner of the adjoining building blocked any view of the disturbance, where the yard wrapped around to the back. He could hear the murmuring of several people accompanying the sounds of exertion. The fight – or the beating, or whatever it was – had not ended yet.
This wasn’t exactly a good neighborhood. Muggings were probably common. Tahno kept walking.
A male figure staggered into view, pushed backwards by the force of a strong blow. He lumbered around, finding his balance, then swung back – the aggressor had stepped forward to meet him, just behind the corner from the street. The blow landed, judging by the sound and the man’s follow-through; a cheer went up from the unseen spectators.
Suddenly, Tahno felt like someone had dunked his head underwater and refused to let him surface for air. Sound dulled for a moment as the unseen opponent struck again, landing a quick succession of jabs and crosses below the man’s sternum.
The familiar motions made his fingers twitch and his chin dip into defensive posture, instantly more protected than the man’s clumsy bearing. The idiot wasn’t guarding his weak points at all; he stumbled until his back had run up against one of the wooden poles and Tahno could see his face. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to make out Gan’s stupid grin.
Tahno shook his head, like an animal dispelling water from its ears. If the residents were small-minded enough to entertain themselves by beating the hell out of each other he wasn’t about to get in their way.
He was spotted before he could make his escape.
“Hey! Drunk bastard!” Gan yelled, as irredeemably chipper as he had been the night at the bar. He broke off the fight immediately (to a small chorus of “boos”), jogging up to meet Tahno in the road. The sweat poured from his bare back, and Tahno wrinkled his nose at the smell. He wasn’t unused to it – in fact it was too familiar for comfort – but when it wasn’t his own he avoided it like the plague, and bathed himself thoroughly after every workout to boot.
“Come on and go a few rounds,” Gan said. “You’ve got some anger to burn, if that stunt you pulled means anything.” He grabbed for Tahno’s arm; Tahno evaded.
“No, thanks,” he said, working as much condescension into his tone as possible. “Rutting around in the mud doesn’t sound too appealing.”
Gan laughed; Tahno would have either worked up the energy for another comeback or walked away right there if he hadn’t caught a glimpse of Gan’s opponent.
He knew those jabs had seemed eerily familiar.
“Hang on,” he snapped, pushing Gan’s wide body out of the way. “What the hell are you doing with him?” He craned his neck, trying to see the retreating figure as it stole around the corner.
“You fucking asshole!” he screamed. The pigrooster startled, squawking and fluttering its wings in a fluster. Faces began to peek out from around the corner. Dirty, for the most part, and instantly on guard. “Ming, you cowardly son of a bitch!”
“Uh, you might not want to–”
“Let – dammit leggo of me, everybody needs to stop touching me already!”
He broke away from Gan’s restraining grip, marching towards the yard. The motley crowd started whispering to one another; most of the faces were young and lean. A few came forward into a sort of guard, as though their small untrained bodies could stop Tahno from getting around the corner once he had navigated the ineffective wooden poles.
“Who’re you?” one belligerent girl fired off. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen.
He didn’t bother to give an answer, shoving her to the side without pause. He could see her fists flying up out of the corner of his eye, but she couldn’t hit hard enough to be worth any more attention. The whispers grew louder as he turned the corner.
The yard was just as barren from this side, apart from a small and wilting vegetable patch at the far end where two toddlers played. The rest of the dirt was stomped flat by a large volume of foot traffic, particularly in the open central area. The spectators pressed tight to the walls of the surrounding buildings. A few of them held street food, or bottles.
Ming stood just left of center, with his back to Tahno. His fists and back muscles were clenched tight.
When Tahno jerked him around by the shoulder, just as tense, he remembered the policeman’s hazy face.
“What the hell?” he hissed, inexplicable rage burning behind his temples.
Ming’s hair was not held in the immaculate style he used to insist on. In fact it was in complete disarray, falling over his eyes in a reminder of how long it actually was. He sported a few bruises on his face, including one in a vivid purple just above his cheekbone. Other than that he looked almost healthy, sweat glowing on his tanned forehead in a way that Tahno hadn’t seen in the mirror in a long time.
“All this time – Shaozu and me – we looked for you.”
There was a moment of indecision, then Ming’s lip twisted into an aggressive smile.
“Bullshit.” The crowd hushed, a strange display of respect that they hadn’t afforded Tahno, which dug under his skin like little else had.
“You wanna bet?” He squeezed Ming’s shoulder viciously. The clothes were cheap quality, made from an itchy fabric neither of them would have wanted any part of a few weeks ago. Worst of all, Ming was looking at Tahno like he was the one in the wrong place.
“You’ve gone native,” Tahno said, voice tracing an unmanageable intersection between confusion and anger.
“If you looked for me, you would’ve found me,” Ming said, removing Tahno’s hand. His own palm was much bigger, and dirty enough to make Tahno flinch. “I didn’t make it hard. You didn’t want to find me, is all.”
“That’s a damn lie.”
He knew as he said it that Ming was right. He hadn’t even seen Shaozu in a couple of days; when he did come home the two of them stayed in their own rooms for as long as possible. Shaozu preferred to be out on the town, and Tahno liked having the house to himself. They were both relieved when they didn’t have to interact.
The onlookers were still quiet. Tahno could feel their eyes on his back. So much for anonymity.
“It’s just,” he said.
It’s just that looking at either of you is really fucking painful.
“It’s just that your stupid mug isn’t worth seeing anyway.”
It never did take much to crack Ming’s veneer. The Wolfbats as a group were good at projecting smug superiority, an impression they prided themselves on in a self-fulfilling cycle of condescending attitudes. But Ming was the easiest to rattle, when you got him on his own.
His expression flew from self-righteousness to pure anger in seconds, and then he shoved Tahno in the chest.
Tahno stumbled backwards, head suddenly reeling. His breath had gone shallow without his notice or permission, and it took him more than a moment to find his feet. He wasn’t consciously hungry, but he felt drained and empty; he hadn’t been in fighting shape for some time. Ming’s expression was unbalanced, something welling deep and emotional beneath his damp skin. There were bandages wrapped over his clenching hands.
It was reflex that dragged Tahno’s fists into guard position, and reflex that positioned his feet.
When he lunged, it felt simultaneously familiar and new. He didn’t know his own arm’s reach, but he recognized the sensation of physical objects responding to his motions. Instead of the water, he fixated on Ming’s skin.
He couldn’t penetrate his guard easily; Ming had been keeping in shape, and had rage left in him to burn. Real rage, not whatever Tahno had clung to when he first saw his face. More often Ming landed a hit, a devastating blow that took the wind out of him or knocked him tripping backwards as his untouched head protested under its bandage.
But when he could throw his fists up in time, fighting exhaustion and the slow-motion inertia that surrounded him like the arena pool, he could guard. He could stop the blow, and it was the movement of his own hands that did it. He moved, and the world responded to his motion.
Every now and then he felt the sweet thrill of contact, his fist slamming against flesh. He moved, and his opponent moved because of him. Took damage; went on guard. He caused that. Even without the water surging through imaginary veins like a system all its own, he made contact.
Before long he was on the ground, pain throbbing from strategic points all down his torso, with Ming standing over him and taking heaving breaths. The sound of the crowd trickled back into his ears. They were cheering.
“I’ve never in my life been able to beat you in a square match,” Ming said.
“Call it a present,” Tahno answered once he had caught his breath, much less venomously than he had meant it. He just hoped he hadn’t reopened his head wound. Ming’s gaze danced guiltily between the bandage and his face.
The chatter of the spectators surrounded them. It was almost like being back in the arena, except that the arena had never smelled like barn animals. The booze scent wasn’t new, though.
Finally, Ming extended his hand.
Tahno didn’t take it, choosing instead to haul himself into a sitting position and wait for the spinning to stop. He rubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand, noting the tremor of exhaustion in his fingers.
“Hey,” he said, mustering up a smirk he thought Ming would find familiar. “Got anything to drink in this pit?”
Ming’s answering smile was disproportionally brilliant, and Tahno almost regretted giving him reason to assume that things were just dandy between the two of them. He stood up on his own, and Ming pretended not to notice the unnecessary stumble.
Most of the spectators had some degree of wariness to their expression. They were really a mixed and ragged crew, more like a neighborhood cookout than a crowd. Gan, however, came up to pat him on the back. His smile was nervous, but he did an okay job of holding together a front of hospitality.
“I think we can spare something for the guy who supposedly started the best bar fight in recent history,” he said. Loudly, as though he were reminding everyone else. That too drew mixed reactions, but at this point Tahno didn’t really care. “As long as you don’t go around screaming anymore. As fun as brawling with the fuzz might be, we could stand to avoid more of their attention around here.” He elbowed Tahno like he was joking around. “You know. Not that any of us were…guilty parties, or actually there, or anything.” This drew enough amused titters that Tahno considered his audience placated, and went on the hunt for a bottle.
He didn’t end up drinking much, but he ate more weight in kebabs than he had managed in the last three days put together.
“Gan says you hit a policeman,” the girl said. She had straight brown bangs that nearly covered the squinting brown eyes that didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. He found himself appreciating that caution. He tilted his head back to look at the sky; it was the pale sickly blue that came just before sunset.
“They weren’t treating me with the proper respect,” he said. It wasn’t an attempt at justification so much as a boast.
“You used to be really famous,” she added, and he glared down at her. “Gan said that too.” She took a bite of her kebob, chewing with her mouth open. Terrible manners from an awful part of town.
“What of it?”
“My mom runs this building,” she said, which really didn’t answer the question at all. “Sometimes they shut the lights off on us.”
“Listen kid, are you stupid or–”
“’S where I’m living,” Ming said, coming up behind him with booze in hand. “I think they’ve got another place open, if you wanna check it out.”
He hadn’t offered to split his room, which either implied that it was too puny to share comfortably or that he understood the need for space between them. Either way, Tahno wasn’t eager to disagree.
The whole neighborhood was a trashy dump. He hadn’t been in a place like it for a long time, and hadn’t planned on going back. He didn’t even trust the nonbenders not to drive him out with pitchforks, since they hadn’t been too stupid to figure out who he was.
His knuckles felt raw and overused, and he found his fingers experimentally stretching and curling when he wasn’t paying attention.
“I guess I can take a look,” he said with a put-upon sigh. “Don’t expect much, though.” He addressed this more to the girl, who bared her teeth at him in a feral sort of defense. He almost laughed.
Eventually the group began to dwindle, the spectators either going home or off to work the night shift. Stars began peeking into existence. The moon shone as brightly as the torches the remaining guests set up in the yard. The girl, standing at a wary but interested distance from the former Wolfbats, was steered off to bed by a formidable-looking woman who complained about her being exposed to too much violence.
“I hear the Avatar broke up that fight you were in,” Ming said awkwardly.
“Yeah, and?” he snapped back, more hostile than was probably necessary.
“Nothing, no reason, I just mean it’s gotta be weird. Have been weird.” Ming drained the last of his drink, then added, “Didn’t you say she was kinda hot?”
“Who gives a fuck what I said?” He made motions to leave, setting his own half-empty bottle on the ground. The movement was haphazard enough that it spilled, liquid running dark on the dirt in the reflective moonlight. He had to get back to his old house anyway, start moving the things he still wanted with him. He could think of surprisingly few possessions he was yearning to keep.
“I’m just saying,” Ming said, expression glazed. “She was with the cops, too. Everybody here’s really pissed about that, or pissed about the news saying that, or something. Even the ones who look all cheerful are really fuckin’ mad. So that’s gotta be weird. Didn’t you hit one of those bastards? Hey–”
“See you around, Ming,” he said. He hadn’t noticed the unusual lack of tension in his own shoulders until it came rushing back.
“But I gotta tell you how I got the bruise!”
“See you around.”
The moon illuminated the streets very well on his way back, but this could not entirely wipe out the shadows settled on doorsteps and between each house.
Tahno had only drunk enough to feel minorly disorientated when he turned his head too quickly, coupled with a comfortable warmth. It was common for him now to feel either fever hot or chilled to the bone no matter where he was or what he was doing. “Warm” was an unusual experience. It twined upwards from the bottom of his stomach and cautiously wrapped itself around his ribs, reaching for the space behind them.
It wasn’t a bad feeling. In fact he welcomed it, like the edges of an idea reforming out of something burnt out and dead to the world.
It didn’t hurt, but the nostalgia killed.
He tried not to move his head enough to suffer for it, either from the drink or the injury. It had been pretty fucking stupid of him to fight like that, but Ming had been asking for it and he wasn’t about to deny an old teammate the joy of getting the shit beat out of him.
If he had been less wary of moving his neck, he might have noticed the forms emerging from the shadows. Huge hulking things in the shape of men, sparking carefully-controlled flames as weapons under their trench coats.
He didn’t even register he had been attacked until he was surrounded, slammed to the ground again and why did this keep happening?
Rough hands pinned his shoulders down; another set forced his legs flat. Someone grabbed his wrist and twisted until he had bent his elbow as far as he could go, further even, and a choked noise had escaped his throat into the unnatural silence bearing down on him. Then someone’s filthy hand was covering his mouth, wide enough to block his nose off too and then it was all he could do to breathe.
A smoke-battered voice said something into his ear, but he was too caught up in the panic to register the words. He tried to flinch away, but the hands held him steady.
The stars were spinning over his head.
“Fucking useless,” the voice was saying. “Just a sissy little fairy who thought he could mock the Triad.”
Terrible, uninspired trash talk, a part of him said. Whoever was holding his wrist pinned it down, scraping against the stones, and moved to his ring finger, pushing up and back until it flirted on the threshold of pain. Tahno couldn’t make a sound.
“Well look at you now,” the voice said. Someone tugged on his hair, and he felt the sharp, tiny sting of strands pulling out of his scalp. “Not so famous. Not so high on your ostrich horse.”
Someone else laughed. He couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, so he flinched inwards instead.
“Aw, don’t worry, we ain’t gonna break ya. Just rough you up a bit and get you on your way. Full schedule, and you’re not worth our time.” These last words were spoken so close to his skin that he shuddered. This was for fun, for revenge, and he could do nothing to stop them from caving his skull in if they wanted to.
The night sky was exceptionally bright. The full moon, waning now, must have come and gone without his notice. For the first time in his life, it did not fill his veins with the power he craved, embrace him and overcome him and devour him whole like it had since childhood.
Why hadn’t he noticed? Once a month the moon had been his friend, and he had hummed with her sacred energy. Now the date had passed by without even a sense of disappointment.
His finger was pushed slowly backwards, his arm held firmly down. Soon, all he could focus on was the pain, blinding white until the sudden, shuddering crack.
The moon was proud and beautiful and he couldn’t look away.
The house was very quiet.
No one had come to shoo him out yet, though he didn’t doubt that another day would do the trick. The parlor had tall arched windows extending from floor to ceiling, and trophies cluttered the fireplace mantel. His chair was luxurious and high-backed, like he was the villain out of a pulp magazine. He had chosen it specifically for that purpose. Right now it felt particularly stiff against his back.
Many of these items provided a sense of prestige that the Wolfbats alone may not have been able to afford even at their peak; Ming’s family was in politics and Shaozu was from old money. A gorgeous old grandfather clock used to rest against the opposite wall, its steady ticking a break to the silence, but that had been an heirloom of Shaozu’s. Tahno hadn’t noticed he had left.
The pain had fallen away to the point where it only registered if he confronted it directly, so he avoided that neatly. Instead he took stock of his earthly positions (dishware, decorative vases, trophies, clothes, books, toiletries, paintings, bed, trophies, furniture, trophies –) until he could no longer keep track of the countless subdivisions of each category and gave it up as a lost cause. There was so much tying him down here, in this one spot, legs sprawled over the plush carpet imported special from the Fire Nation.
As of yesterday evening, he had a place to go. Funny how little that seemed to matter.
He might have stayed rooted to that one spot, if his clear view of the wallpaper hadn’t suddenly been blocked out by the person he least expected to see.
“Are you deaf?” Korra sounded legitimately outraged, which seemed a bit unfair, since she was the one barging into other people’s houses without any notice. Normally he might have even jumped. “I’ve been ringing the bell for like a year. The door is right there.”
On second thought, he had no idea why he wouldn’t expect her at this point.
Korra stood with fists planted firmly on her hips, hair pulled back tightly except for the wandering, pushed-back wisps that probably indicated a ride through the city on her monstrous friend. There was a forced sort of single-mindedness in her expression, as though she were ignoring any weirdness in this situation in favor of getting whatever it was she wanted out of him.
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, so he managed a few words of greeting. “The hell are you doing in my house?”
“Your Satomobile was out front, and I can see through the damn window. I need a favor.” Brusque, to the point. Her eyes flickered from his mussed hair down to the shoes he hadn’t taken off, pausing briefly on his hands before he shifted them away from her view. He didn’t bother to ask why she recognized his Satomobile. Maybe, as much of a hick as she still was, she assumed that the Wolfbats had only been able to afford one between the three of them.
At this point that was probably true. He’d have to find a buyer.
“Eyes up here,” he replied. “And what could I possibly do for you?”
This comment seemed to make her concerned for his health, which wasn’t the reaction he had been looking for. He just came across as pathetic all over when she was around, didn’t he? It figured, too, that a single strand of her hair hooked absently around her ear, curving forward in a casual picture of allure. He was seriously starting to suspect that the universe was rigged.
“You were there the night at the bar.” She looked distracted now, but was focusing very carefully on his face as though to make up for it. “I need – I need people to back me up to the police. To tell them I wasn’t trying to fight the rioters.”
“It wasn’t a riot,” Tahno said without much feeling. She blinked but pushed forward.
“Right. I mean. The people at the bar. They were unarmed, mostly, and the police were beating on them with bending even when they tried to run away. It’s just that nobody’s listening when I tell them that, and I think somebody told the reporters not to talk to me, and I just thought that if I could find people to vouch for me–”
“Wasn’t even there to see you get your ass kicked,” he said, shifting his hands further away from her in his lap. His voice surprised him with its dryness. It wasn’t the carefully-calculated detached tone he had used on her on the island, but a completely involuntary levelness that sounded hollow to his ears. “You might remember a little something about me lying in the dirt and spewing my insides out.”
“I know that!” she snapped, then paused to collect herself. “I just, you would have to know that’s what I was doing. And maybe – maybe you could remember who else was there? So they could be witnesses? There’ll be a trial eventually; maybe this way I can force them to make it fair.”
There were so many things wrong with that simple presumption that he didn’t know where to begin. He shook his head and managed, “The world isn’t that simple, honey,” before she had slammed her hands onto each armrest of his chair, hovering dangerously over his head. She seemed fond of the position.
“At least I’m trying to do something! Don’t – don’t you care about what happens to–” She trailed off. Belatedly, he realized she was staring at his right hand. It twitched; he considered forcing it out of her view but at this point that just seemed like a waste of energy.
“What happened to you?” she asked too softly.
Tahno fought off the urge to laugh. “Where do you want me to begin?”
“Oh shut up,” she said, pushing back off the chair. Her stance was firm and grounded. “That’s a dodge, isn’t it? These – the fatalistic little quips you throw out, it’s how you misdirect. I actually want to know, Tahno. I’ve been – I’ve ignored most of…this, every time, because I understand how pride works. Trust me, I do.” She leveled him with a glare. “And I know why you want to keep up some kind of front about all this, but you’ve gotten so frustrating that I – I just want….” The sharp lines of her anger retreated, just for a moment. She looked young and distressed and truly, honestly invested.
“You don’t have to feel guilty about whatever,” he said, when he had managed to form his tongue around the words. He felt strangely exposed. Korra had walked into his house like she belonged there. In another day, he wouldn’t.
“Yes, I do!”
So that was it. Just her savior complex and the guilt that came along with it. That was all it was. He swallowed once and held that thought firmly at the front of his mind.
“Fine,” he said tonelessly. “But don’t take your issues out on me.”
“I don’t have issues.”
“Tell that to the barkeeper.”
He anticipated a flash of rage that didn’t come. “Misdirect again,” she proclaimed, almost smug. “You know whose side I was on in that fight. You’re trying to distract me.”
“Damn. Usually it works so well.”
For a moment she looked stuck between expressions, partly annoyed and partly amused, before confusion swelled and submerged the rest under its sudden intensity. She did nothing by halves. It was exhausting to watch.
“Why aren’t you angry?” she asked. “How could you go through all…this and not be angry?” She gestured towards him in his entirety. He would be insulted, but it seemed so characteristic of her that he didn’t have it in himself to care.
“Who says I’m not?” he said instead, and held his hand up to the light.
Two broken fingers. They looked worse than they were, all mottled up with bruises peeking out from beneath the splints.
Korra was looking at him like that didn’t explain anything. A very prominent part of him wanted to keep it that way. He didn’t need her pity, and he had already been disgraced enough.
Then she reached out.
She did it slowly, allowing him to flinch (he did) or pull away (he didn’t, quite). His palm met the brush of her index finger, then the firm press of the heel of her hand. She wrapped two fingers around his knuckles, careful to avoid touching his injuries, expression unreadable. His hand looked so pale compared to hers, where they rested too warmly together. His palm felt clammy. From standing, she seemed to tower over him. It was unfair.
He let her touch him, turning his hand back and forth to see the injury in its entirety, until he was overwhelmed with a cloying sort of claustrophobia. Then he pulled away. She let him, fingers skimming along his escaping skin. His mouth felt unusually dry.
The obvious concern spreading across her features was fighting something much less sympathetic; there was an anger burning there and for the life of him he didn’t know whether or not it was directed at him.
Very suddenly and very certainly, he wanted to find out.
“I got jumped by the Triad. They would’ve caused more damage except the night watch came by, yelling like a bitch but not doing much. The gang sauntered outta there without much more than a parting kick to the gut, which – never mind.” His voice felt raw, which was odd, because it wasn’t that far out of use.
He put the hand back down in his lap, careful not to antagonize it. The head wound didn’t require the wraparound bandage anymore, so it figured that something new would come up to replace it.
“The cops took me to the emergency room, which sucked, and then told me that as a nonbender it was more or less my fault for wandering around after dark, which sucked more.”
A hiss of anger came from Korra’s direction. That was gratifying enough for Tahno to want to expand.
“You know that moment in a match where you realize the move you just made is the kill shot? And you can just see the – the victory, I guess, shining around the edges of the water speeding off to knock some shmuck out of the ring.” He cocked his head thoughtfully. The pattern of the carpet ran like flower chains across the room, in charcoal gray and burnished red.
“My night was like that, except all of a sudden you’re blindsided by a strike you couldn’t see because you were so ready to win, and then you’re in the drink.” He smirked down at his mangled hand with pure muscle memory. “It’s a rookie mistake.” Logically he knew that it could have been so much worse. But he had been so powerless, and the full moon had come and gone without his notice, and the exhilarating sensation of slamming his fist into Ming’s skin seemed like a taunt held out of his reach by the time it would take him to heal.
Korra hovered on the edge of his vision. She took a cautious step towards him, then seemed to think better of it. Her feet retreated again. Maybe those were the same boots.
“And now I gotta get my sad hide outta here by tonight or who knows what they’ll set on me? Hell, all I need is for the cops from the bar to see me and we’ll find out how much of this damn city can be out to get me at once.”
He heard Korra moving towards the trophy display. If she wanted to remind herself how far he’d fallen he wasn’t about to stop her. But, to his surprise, his mouth was still talking, words tumbling out before he could think. Like the two of them had started something he wanted to finish before losing the nerve, or before she inevitably walked away for good.
“So yeah, I guess I am angry. ‘S not like I could punch out the cops. Ha. But this isn’t really what I remember anger feeling like. It’s been awhile. I don’t know. It’s just…it doesn’t feel the same.”
It didn’t feel like whatever he had seen on her face, or Ming’s, or Gan’s. Their anger seemed truer, somehow. Like it meant something less futile.
“You’re working your feminine wiles on me, Avatar,” he added, because it was less disconcerting when he said it out loud, and her silence was getting unnerving. “Got me spilling my life story.”
An exaggeration, maybe. But he did suddenly feel like saying things, out loud, with his vocal cords. That was new.
It almost helped.
He heard rummaging and clanking from the mantel. “What are you–”
“The trouble with you,” Korra said, gathering an armful of his trophies to her chest, “is that you think the world is out to get you. Just you, by yourself.” She took a medal off of its peg, looping it around her wrist and rubbing her thumb against its wide blue ribbon. “When the truth is, it’s only out to get you as much as it’s out to get everybody else.”
“That’s real poetical, Korra, but why are you stealing my shit.”
“And the world is out to get everyone else,” she continued, grabbing three more medals, “only as much as it’s out to help them. I should know. It’s a cosmic balance thing.”
“Yeah, it’s been real good to me. Sure.”
“And this has been awful for you, and I can’t pretend to know how you feel, but – Tahno, those cops who told you it was your fault you were attacked? They’re in a place of power. They can do that to anybody.”
“Gee, thanks a billion.”
She turned to face him, arms full of golden cups and figurines. The medals dangled off of her forearms, some of them swinging back and forth in open air for the first time in years. Not a speck of dust lay on their surfaces.
She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t look knocked out of the ring, either.
“That’s not what I meant. I need to stop them, do you understand me? Amon and the city – they’re both wrong. I have to be the balance and fix this mess. For you, but for everyone else too. These people have been hurting for years. You used to be invulnerable to the stuff they went through, and I guess – I guess in a lot of ways I still am. But you’re gonna help me. Any way you can.”
A shiver traveled down his spine. He knew for a fact that it didn’t feel like being electrocuted, but it fizzed and burned, a point of unsettling heat in a cold and aching body that had felt more like a cage with every passing day.
She was so impossibly idealistic, but he didn’t want to tell her no.
Korra shifted her grip on the trophies. “Come on. You’re moving, right? I’m helping you pack.”
He had thought that he didn’t care enough about his possessions to even take a proper catalog anymore.
Apparently, he had been wrong.
“No. No no no no, that’s from the pre-unification era, you do not just tie it up and hang it off that monster’s back.”
“Well excuse me,” Korra said, pulling the knot tight. She was perched sidesaddle; her beast was laying down obstructively enough that its bulk spilled into the street. The frequent passersby slowed down to stare. “It would help if you didn’t have so many clothes. And shoes. I swear half the stuff we shoved into your Satomobile was just shoes. Why do you need that many shoes?”
“You know what, I changed my mind. I’ll move everything myself.”
“I’m the one who offered, moron. Accept somebody’s help once in awhile. Besides, Naga’s very gentle.”
“Like hell,” he snorted, prodding a thumb at the thing’s collarbone. It growled at him lazily. Korra didn’t seem to care.
“Did you get your makeup?” She slid down its furry side, landing with a slight hop.
“I’m getting there,” he said. He crossed his arms over his chest and didn’t go inside.
“You think I’m just gonna leave you out here with all my prized possessions?”
“Touchy. I’ll guard your undergarments with my life.”
“Who’s gonna guard yours?”
The two of them stopped, Korra’s mouth half-open in the shape of some forgotten comeback.
It probably didn’t mean anything that this was the first genuinely good quip he had managed in nearly a month, or that it had fallen out as easily as it did. That was just him, finally bouncing back. It was about time he got back in the game.
Neither of them could deny, though, how out of place it felt in the context of the state she had found him in. There had been a sort of energy skittering under the skin of his knuckles since yesterday evening. Now he felt it buzzing in the base of his neck, as well.
He flashed a quick smirk in her direction, then sauntered back into the house without a word.
Once he was out of her view he could breathe better. Stupid, since he wasn’t the type to get all flustered. He had just been surprised by the sudden resurfacing of his own brilliance.
He found his kohl under the bathroom sink, untouched for a long time.
He drove the Satomobile with only minimal difficulty, avoiding the use of his right hand. It was kind of hilarious to see Korra trying to trail him on her beast, following the stop-and-go traffic with difficulty. There was a reason he usually didn’t drive in the city; the vehicle had been more of a status symbol than anything. It was a newer model, so it wouldn’t be hard to sell. That would take care of rent for a little while.
It was easier to think right now, but he avoided the implications of that pretty strenuously.
Ming expressed concern about where he had been, since Tahno had been planning on getting there much sooner than early evening. But he hadn’t exactly come looking, so Tahno wasn’t ready to take that worry at face value just yet. Ming seemed a lot more fascinated and confused by the presence of the Avatar anyway, which was fair enough.
It didn’t take too long to move things into the building, once the landlady had been assured that Naga wasn’t going to go on a destructive rampage if left alone outside, but finding space for everything in his new cramped quarters was more of a challenge. He had left behind most of the furniture and more ornate decorations, but the drab grey walls needed some color, and the closet space was atrociously limited.
Korra had to do all of the heavy lifting, what with his injury. It was a good view, even though she snapped at him the entire time.
By the time they finished, it was dark. Ming, still a bit incredulous, asked them if they wanted to go a few rounds with the group out back. Korra had to run off and apologize to Tenzin for skipping out on training, and Tahno couldn’t throw a punch whether he wanted to or not.
But, long after the door had closed and the thunderous polar bear dog footsteps had faded away, he began to feel antsy lying alone on his thin, stiff bed. Still sleepless, after all this time. He went outside.
Tonight there were fireflies. They tended to avoid the center patch of the yard, where Ming went toe-to-toe with a woman with a mean left hook, but they flitted over the fence poles and settled in the vegetable patch, their flashes distinct against the wall of his new home.
He leaned back against the building, utterly exhausted. He didn’t have a lot left in him, and today had been a trek. If he weren’t wearing such a good pair of pants he might have even sat down in the dirt.
Instead he stood with closed eyes, letting the sounds of harsh breathing and uniquely companionable aggression wash over him.
It took some time to get used to doing things with one hand. Eating was a frustrating experience, which didn’t increase his motivation to ingest things. The already-distressing prospect of searching for a job was made definitively unappealing by the knowledge that he would probably be useless for months anyway. Even brushing his hair, which he had started to do with more feeling, seemed unfamiliar when attempted with his left.
It was a pity that waterbending couldn’t actually fix bone fractures. Korra sent him a salve from Air Temple Island, probably with some bullshit mystical properties of healing. The soreness did decrease, with a similar numbing sensation to whatever Tenzin had done to his head wound. Tahno decided that the salve was allowed to be as bullshit mystical as it wanted.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about his injury was the inability to hit people.
Tahno would be a liar if he said that everyone he had hit in his life had been expecting it. There had been times, hopped up on booze or adrenaline or pride, that the slightest provocation had been enough to send him flying into a show of force. It usually happened in cramped quarters where waterbending would have been less effective. Some seedy bar, or at a party after a successful match when he was feeling particularly good about himself. Sure it was always better to show off his actual waterbending skills, but when you were wasted and raring to go sometimes the most direct approach worked the best. Not that the memories of those times were clear; the sense of impact had always been muted, up until the punches he threw at Ming out back.
And damn, those had felt good.
Even if the people involved were distasteful, he found himself drawn to watch the matches. They occurred a few times a week, often accompanied by a small audience that brought whatever food they had to spare. Regulars, for the most part, who had turned the brawls into a sort of routine. He saw the same faces and even learned a few of their names. Fen was the sullen daughter of the landlady; Ahnah was the smug goddess of the left hook.
Of course, Ming usually beat anyone he went up against. Years in training under an earthbending master counted for more than a lifetime of throwing your weight around in a muddy backyard. Or at least, that was what Tahno assumed until Ming mentioned how long it had taken him to beat Gan, who was used to fighting without the benefit of a genetic gift for throwing rocks around.
As much as it pained him to admit it, Gan could have made a good pro-bender, if circumstances were different and he had any idea how to position his feet.
Once, half-drunk and bored to tears, Tahno shouted corrections at him from the sidelines. Gan looked almost startled; he had given up on making friends with Tahno soon after smoothing over the fallout from his tussle with Ming.
Tahno wasn’t exactly correcting the impression that trying to befriend him would be futile.
“No, you gotta keep one foot in front – the left, you idiot – not like that, she can – aw, you blew it.”
Gan hit the ground hard, sent reeling by a concentrated blow and a trip over Ahnah’s sneakily extended leg. Tahno made a tutting noise while Ahnah burst into a fit of laughter.
Gan stood with a wince, brushing down his pants. “Thanks for the help.”
“Not my fault. What kinda moron stands sideways in a fight?”
“You, apparently?” He placed his hands at the base of his spine and stretched, rolling his neck until it had evoked a small chorus of pops. When he looked back to Tahno he was smiling again. “Or maybe that’s just what you want me to think.”
“Yeah, good job distracting him,” Ahnah said with a satisfied flick of her dark braid. She winked at Gan before wandering off to force her two-year-old son to spit out whatever he had found in the vegetable patch.
“Wrong,” Tahno said airily, dismissing both of their theories, and moved to find another drink. Halfway to drunk still wasn’t drunk enough, and even if he was trying to be more careful with his money, he found the neighbors willing to share. That confused him because he didn’t have much to offer them in return anymore. His fans and acquaintances had been allowed to bathe in the reflective glow of Wolfbat brilliance, and he understood that desire intimately. This was new territory. When he was in a rare clear-minded mood it struck him that he was on particularly shaky ground, and he resolved to take advantage of their generosity before whatever hidden motives they had revealed themselves.
“Aw, come on,” Gan whined, following behind him. “You can’t just tell me I’m doing it wrong and then not explain the rest.”
“Watch me,” Tahno said. When Fen went by, he plucked a bottle from its shoddy hiding place behind her back. She squawked, but couldn’t do much else without drawing her mother’s attention. Tahno sloshed its contents in front of her face until she threw her hands up in dramatic resignation and marched away.
“That’s seriously no fair.”
Tahno took a gulp, then carefully wiped his mouth. It was going on evening, and Gan would have to leave for work soon. Wouldn’t hurt to humor him.
“The way you usually stand, full on like an ape bear tryin’ to get some nookie, lets your opponent penetrate your guard before you have time to make a dumb face about it. One foot,” he said, half-heartedly positioning himself to demonstrate, “needs to lead the other. Not sideways, though. Then you’re unbalanced enough to knock over, plus you look like a dumbass.”
Gan dubiously mirrored his stance, angling his body to face the imaginary opponent.
“You’re doing the full-frontal again, it’s – you’ve gotta let the shoulder lead too, a little. This isn’t hard.” He made his own position a bit less limp, bending his knees to the proper angle and raising his hands in an approximation of a guard. One couldn’t form a fist and the other held the neck of his bottle, but Gan seemed to get the picture.
If there was something Gan got right, it was the proper width of the stance. A bit lower than Tahno’s own, but firmly grounded, bare toes pressing against the dirt. It reminded him of Ming’s impressions of his earthbending master: “Know where your power comes from, young ones,” he would ramble, drink in hand and upper lip comically stiff, “You must know where your power comes from.”
Then something in his surroundings shifted; groans of frustration rose up around them in response. It took him a second to figure out that the lights in the windows had gone out.
“Again?” Gan muttered, casting a venomous look towards the sky. His eyes moved like they were searching for something.
Tahno abandoned his stance and stretched, raising his bottle to the heavens. “Who cares, you’ll be gone in a minute.”
“It’s not just this building.” The entire neighborhood was lit only by dusk and lantern-light. People moved around the yard, propping up the tall makeshift torches that were a staple of late-night gatherings. Gan’s forehead was covered in the wrinkles of a confused platypus bear. He looked young, as always, but the angry rush of air that preceded his words was born of experience. “They keep doing this – shutting off our lights after dark without any warning. Maybe to save power for the nicer neighborhoods.”
Tahno had noticed the lights go out more than once. He had assumed it was a symptom of the cheap electrical system. He usually went to bed early nowadays, when he wasn’t outside, so it hadn’t bothered him unless he was in the middle of some personal hygiene routine. He still took long, soaking baths, although the water was never as hot as he wanted it. On his good days he even found himself in the mood for a facial scrub.
“Doesn’t really matter; there isn’t much to do in this heap after dark. And you’re always at work, so…?”
Gan shot him a frustrated glance. For a second it looked like he was about to say something, then he shook his head and walked away.
“Were either of your teammates in that fight?” Korra asked, slapping the paper down on his tiny table. She reached around him to riffle through the pages, coming up at last on some society gossip section and smoothing down the edges.
She hadn’t bothered to close the door to the hallway during her whirlwind entrance. The hinges were rusty anyway. Morning light leaked in from the small window set high in the wall, but that wouldn’t be enough to see by until later in the afternoon. The city had restored electrical power just over an hour ago; the overhead light’s dubious flickering had slowed to the occasional fit of temper.
Tahno blinked very slowly, trying to will away the sleepy burning behind his eyelids. He hadn’t even had his coffee yet, and Korra had been far from invited. “No. I didn’t see Ming anywhere, and Shaozu – no.”
“Too bad.” She tapped her finger on a black and white picture of Shaozu’s face. “This guy’s kind of in the public eye right now.”
Tahno ignored the rising of his metaphorical hackles to take a close look. Shaozu appeared disoriented but self-satisfied, surrounded by a crowd dressed for a good time. Lihua stood to his right, arm around his waist. It was unfortunate that he had actually met the woman, because otherwise he wouldn’t have noticed the worried tint of her smile. She would have looked more attractive without it.
It took him a second to register the headline. Shaozu had been mugged and robbed, presumably by either the Agni Kai or the Triple Threat. He apparently made a big deal of his fame after the fact, trying to get special consideration from doctors and police. When that didn’t work, he talked to every reporter he could find. The tone of the article suggested that he was enjoying the attention, and the picture seemed to confirm it: his smile looked untainted and untouched. The dark patch under his eye was almost unnoticeable, expertly smothered in makeup. Tahno remembered teaching him to mix for skin tone.
The article closed by mentioning a series of scandals and public disputes Shaozu had been involved in recently. He had not been idle.
“They aren’t exactly painting a pretty picture here,” he said. He found himself tapping his fingers on the table, rolling them down one after the other in contemplation. His jaw was clenched.
“But it’s publicity,” Korra said, shifting forward in her chair. “He’s just taken a turn for the worse, and no offense, but the papers are under the impression that you and Ming have dropped off the face of the planet. We could have used him, if people thought he was facing down the system or something.”
“Since when did this become a media campaign?” He spared another glare for the photo. Shaozu’s pain really wasn’t so special.
“From the beginning,” Korra said resolutely. “Or at least, that can be a part of it. I know someone who can–”
“No offense, Avatar, but you don’t know what you’re doing. At all.” He massaged his temples, letting his eyes droop closed. “I’ll be the first to tell you that no publicity is bad publicity, but you’re trying to connect two things that just don’t go together. Shaozu’s making an idiot of himself. If you’re serious about this charity case, he’s not what you want.”
“Oh, like you are,” she growled, snatching the paper back up.
“Never said that. I don’t know why you’re bothering, honestly.”
“Well you’re not exactly my first choice.” She stood, folding the paper down on itself. The picture on the front page was an unflattering close-up of her own face, the headline questioning her ability to confront the Equalist threat. Same old story. She folded it again, putting the words out of his view. “I just…I figured that maybe, if you talked to him…”
“Fat chance. He’s not gonna come around and start parading for nonbending rights, Korra.” Tahno leaned far back in his chair, catching his ankles under the edge of the table for balance. “He’s a dick, and I’m not planning on seeking him out any time soon.”
Korra looked unimpressed. “So you just gave up on him when the Wolfbats broke up?”
“It’s not giving up,” Tahno smiled, starting to feel a little agitated. “Sometimes you’ve gotta accept that people have to go different directions in life, and that Shaozu is a useless, freeloading bastard.”
“Uh huh.” She stuffed the paper back into her sling bag. He thought she was going to try and intervene, maybe make a show of her peacekeeping duties and insist that his performance-based, mutually noncommittal friendship with Shaozu was worth saving. Instead she added a clipped “Just thought it might help,” and changed the subject. “Have you found anybody from the bar yet?”
Tahno carefully maintained his smile. “Didn’t I explain this shit already?”
Korra frowned at him, crossing her arms over her chest. She had such pleasantly well-defined forearms, tapering into strong hands and surprisingly elegant fingers. They were long, which was good for the fluidity inherent in waterbending. That had been one of his strengths, too.
“You explained that it might be hard to get them to testify.” She shifted her weight to one foot, sinking onto her hip.
“Impossible, more like. Even if, just for the sake of argument, I actually remembered anybody there? Coming forward to say ‘Hey, I was totally one of those uppity nonbenders that tried to mob a cop’ is a dumb fucking idea.”
“But they didn’t mob anyone!” Korra snapped, distressed again. “It was self-defense. They can tell the truth and clear their names.”
“Keep telling yourself that, hun.”
It wasn’t really like he was protecting Gan and the others. Korra really did have their best interests at heart, as obtuse as she was being. She just had no idea what she would be getting them into, and he reminded himself regularly that he didn’t want to be in the thick of it. Too much effort.
After a moment he added, “But don’t you think you’re fighting the wrong war?”
He thought that maybe Korra wouldn’t follow his train of thought, but the hardening of her glare proved otherwise. Apparently it wasn’t far from her own thoughts. “I can do both at the same time, thanks. Amon’s not going anywhere.”
“Yeah?” He let the front legs of his chair clatter back down to the floor, moving until he was perched on the very corner of the seat. His hands rested on his thighs, arms akimbo. “And until then, neither are your big plans.”
Now she did look confused, grip tightening on her forearms. She was shifting towards her defensive stance. He wondered how long ago he started watching her closely enough to notice.
“You can’t fight an entire city, Korra.” His left hand reflexively balled into a fist. He imagined gripping her wrist, shaking it in front of her face like she had done to his on the island. “This shit sucks, and I know it better than anybody, but there’s nothing you can do about that.”
She made a noise like something was stuck in her throat, but he ignored it.
“Just forget about this part. You should be focusing on–”
“How dare you?” she suddenly choked out. Her fists clenched in response to his, and her left foot led her right.
He felt a thrill down his spine, similar to what he had felt when she had invaded his house and held his trophies for ransom, but this one was edged in a darker sort of heat. Pretending he could boss her around was proving rewarding.
The rest of the outburst, however, was not what he was expecting.
“You think you know ‘better than anybody’ what’s going on around here? You’ve been without your bending for what, a month? A month of suffering doesn’t compete with everyone else’s lives! You said you’d help me,” she said, less loudly but evidently on a roll, “but all you’ve done is sit around and moan. I’ve tried to be patient, I’ve tried to understand. But sometime, you’re gonna have to realize that you’re not the most important person in the entire universe!”
It took an entire breath for him to think of a comeback. “Says who, sweetheart?”
He relished the moment he thought she might hit him.
Instead she turned, bag swinging behind her, and strode out of the apartment. This time she bothered to slam the door shut.
There was a second of silence, in which Tahno contemplated making his coffee. Then she shouted from the other side of the door, as though she couldn’t resist having the last word: “I thought you were getting better!”
There were so many potential answers to that, ranging from the snarky to the sincere. But the one that rose most readily to his mind was “Me, too,” so he didn’t say anything at all.
He stood up slowly, stretched, and walked over to the cabinets.
Maybe things would have gone better if he had offered her some coffee.
The conversation and its following argument would have been delayed while he rummaged around for the grounds and heated the water. They would have made awkward small-talk, then the relief of moving on to topics of consequence would have put them both in more responsive moods. They would sit and sip their coffee, and Korra would say, “Did you know that Shaozu was in the paper?” and lead into her proposal from there. He would have explained to her, rationally and in language fit for polite company, why that was out of the question. She would have understood this, as well as why fighting against the structure of society as a whole was so futile. He would have explained it all, and she would have thanked him and assured him that Amon would be brought to justice soon. Not that it would help him any. Thinking about the Equalists used up too much of his energy. Korra would understand that, too.
This version of Korra would have understood a lot, actually.
He entertained the fantasy of letting her hit him, hard. He would hit back, of course, because she wouldn’t have it any other way. In this universe he still had full use of his hand. They would brawl for a bit, throwing punches like the brutes in the yard, until the sweat poured from their backs and glistened on their foreheads, matting their hair to their skin and raising the temperature of the entire room. They would be on equal footing. Two healthy people working out their aggression. No hero, no victim.
Maybe things would progress from there. She would tackle him, and contact with the floor would jar his head but it wouldn’t matter as soon as her hands started roaming, exploring him while her tongue explored its own dark caves and crevices. She would be made up of tight, serpentine motions, pressing down in all the right places. He would pull her hair just enough to hurt, and she would bite down on his shoulder. Or maybe his ear.
Tahno decided to pass on the coffee and go back to bed for awhile. Maybe he was feeling better.
(The thought came, twisted up in his sheets and panting, the ceiling too low and too white, that he was not.)
He was despicable, really.
It took awhile for him to see Korra again. Some days were better, others were worse.
It was possible that, like with Shaozu, attempts to talk to her were attempts to force together two concepts that just didn’t match. They certainly had traced the same routine each time; he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her without making her raise her voice. He didn’t have much to be defensive of anymore, but she got him to try defending it every time, with all the cutthroat smiles and patronizing monikers he could dig up.
It would probably be better to give up. Impossible for them to meet on equal footing anyway.
The night after she stormed out, the lights got shut off again. That evening had been a staring-at-the-wall kind of evening anyway. He could now confidently label it a “bad day” in the growing vocabulary of his self-awareness.
A few hours later, he still hadn’t moved from his high-backed chair. Someone knocked at the door, in small but insistent raps, until he felt compelled to answer.
Fen looked like she was making a huge sacrifice in attempting to talk to him, resentful eyes staring up through her messy bangs. “We’re telling stories in Mom’s room,” she said simply. “They want you to come.”
He would have gladly gone back to his empty staring, but instead he found himself following her down the hallway.
He had never bothered to learn the landlady’s name. She had an old desk covered in paperwork and children’s drawings next to her wide window; a coppery lantern on its surface provided the only source of light. The two wooden chairs were already taken by an old man and a nursing mother. Everyone else either sat on her low bed or the floor, half-covered in shadow. Tahno leaned against the wall, close enough to the door to bolt.
The landlady was middle-aged, but the golden light flamed along each wrinkle and silvering hair until she looked like a village elder. She sat primly on the side of her bed, taking up three times the amount of space as the two children that sat beside her.
She told the story of the lovers of Omashu in slow, practiced tones.
“I hate this one,” Fen whispered minutes later. He hadn’t noticed that she had stayed glued to the wall less than a foot away from him. She looked particularly angry about the resolution, in which Oma used her unstoppable earthbending power to declare an end to the war that had killed her lover. Tahno certainly hadn’t tried talking to her, but she added, “I wouldn’t do that,” and he knew exactly what she meant.
The ability to show mercy to those who had hurt you was a privilege that not everyone could afford.
The old man sighed and declared it a beautiful tale; another wondered aloud if any more of the story existed. No one knew, but it had reminded the nursing mother of a similar one about a quest in the spirit world that two lovers shared.
They took turns telling stories until late into the night. No one asked Tahno if he knew any, and he wouldn’t have volunteered to tell them in the first place. Even in this Republic City hovel, the stories of his upbringing would seem uncultured.
Residents drifted in and out, requesting favorites. Sometimes two tellers would stand and reenact dramatic conflicts or love scenes, to hilarious effect. Almost everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, even in the dark.
Tahno was startled to find that he was no exception.
Finally, when things were winding down, he decided to go back up to bed. Before he left, the landlady confronted him with a grin, looking distinctively more affable than any other time she had spoken to him.
“Well,” she said, sounding smug, “That’s the first time I’ve seen Fen sit through an entire evening, so I’m glad she decided to invite you. You’re welcome to come back any time.”
It only took him a couple of hours to fall asleep, and he did not dream.
Convenient reminder that this is an AU and the canon timeline should not be trusted.
Also I'm terrible and made an FST.
“But that looks so…off.”
“Look, okay, you asked. That’s how I would do a follow-through. And hey, remind me: who’s got the professional experience here?”
“Yeah, yeah. But it’s different without bending; you gotta get your fists back in position faster when you can’t just whip something else up from the ground.”
Tahno and Ahnah circled one another in the center of the yard, fists raised. Ahnah threw another punch in slow-motion, and Tahno mimed rolling his shoulder with the hit. She jerked her arm back, elbow bouncing once with the recoil, then settled back into a standard guard.
“You’re wasting your motions, though. Giving me an opening when you reel back.”
“So I raise my left to compensate. It hasn’t been a problem.”
“Listen, if you’re gonna ask an expert to waste his valuable time on you, you’d damn well better listen to his advice.”
She laughed, mouth opening unattractively wide. For someone supposedly descended from North Pole nobility she wasn’t the most cultured girl on the block. “Expert. Sure. I’m just tryin’ to be friendly here. No loyalty contract in that, last time I checked.”
Normally a comment like that would send Tahno into casual flirtation mode. “Friendly,” most of the time, didn’t just mean “friendly.” Not with him. But Ahnah seemed flatly uninterested, and Tahno hadn’t put out any signals, either. The natural conclusion: she was honestly trying to be friendly. Bizarre.
“And what makes you think asking me to do favors would be the ‘friendly’ thing to do?”
She shrugged, dropping her stance to let her arms swing at her sides. “You were teaching Gan.”
“You can’t tell me that his style isn’t painful to look at. I was doing the world a favor. That was a genuine good deed.”
She laughed again, easily. Tahno knew he was incredibly witty, but it had been awhile since he had been in the presence of someone who realized that. He was going to crack another joke at Gan’s expense when he saw Ming waving him over. He was huddled with a grim group near the corner of the building; none of them looked ready for a brawl.
He walked to conversation distance with a bit more energy than he had expended to get out of bed that morning, then collapsed into a lean on the wall. “What do you want?”
The tension was an almost palpable force between each body, holding the group tightly together and away from the rest of the yard. “It went through, just now. The law thing.”
Tahno raised a freshly-sculpted eyebrow. He hadn’t exactly been keeping up with current events, and Ming wasn’t the most articulate source of information.
He looked frustrated with Tahno’s inability to read his mind. “The curfew law! For nonbenders. Shit, that’s all anybody’s been talking about, how’d you miss that?”
“Had better things to do,” Tahno said dryly. “Okay. So what does that all mean.”
Ming hesitated, looking instead to the others. A shorter, nervous-looking man spoke up first. “All nonbenders have to be off the streets after dark, starting tonight. No grace period, no nothing. It’s – that’s all we get. I don’t know how my daughter is going to get to work, she works–”
“I work a night shift out at the plants on the west side. How are we supposed to–”
“My sister’s boat arrives tomorrow night and she doesn’t know a soul, I can’t–”
“This isn’t fair, how can they treat us like–”
“Tahno, are you even listening, this is–”
Fen was standing close enough to hear the hubbub, but showed no signs of paying attention. Instead she was punching at the wall, slowly enough to avoid hurting herself. Her left foot led her right, and she was very careful to reset her guard as quickly as possible, without Ahnah’s little bounce. She was overcompensating; the movement was jerky and forced. Tahno wondered how long she had been eavesdropping.
Ming was saying something at him, but he brushed away the hand on his shoulder.
When Fen noticed him looking, she gave him a glare and began punching faster. She stood far enough away to only brush the wall, which eliminated the potential of pain but defeated the purpose of each hit.
“Practice on something that gives a shit, kid,” he said. “That wall isn’t gonna give an inch.”
After a pause of confusion, the knot of adults went back to their panicked talk. Fen gave him one of her animal snarls and ran into the building through the open back door.
Tahno went to his room for a bath.
The lights got shut off around the same time that darkness fell, shadows creeping uncontested out of the corners of his apartment. The nights were getting colder, but the rooms were equipped with old coal heating stoves. He wouldn’t mind turning in early again.
He lit a single candle at the center of his table. The flickering light illuminated the headlines of the paper, but only if he held it up at an awkward angle with the flame. Sure enough, he had missed most of the news of simmering unrest, though the reporters didn’t put much effort into investigative journalism when all they had to do was slap the word “Equalist” in there and let the public’s imagination do the rest.
In all honesty it didn’t matter that he hadn’t been reading the paper or listening to political gab. The tension was obvious to anyone with a brain.
Someone knocked on his door, then pushed it open. He had to get that lock fixed.
Ming stuck his head in but didn’t move his feet over the threshold. His expression was hard to make out in the dark, but his hand rested very cautiously on the doorframe.
“We’re going out,” he said, then trailed off like that explained everything.
“Thought there was a curfew,” Tahno said casually.
“There is.” Ming sounded nervous, like he was seeking Tahno’s approval. He recognized the tone from countless practices and parties and publicity schemes.
“So, what, you’re a protestor now? Gonna scream for anarchy in the streets?”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s, Gan and some of the others, they think that if we’re all out there like everything’s normal – I mean, how things usually are – then the cops can’t just arrest us all.”
Tahno sighed, running a hand through his bangs. “You got yourself suckered into a protest and you don’t even realize it. That’s pretty sad, Ming.”
“No, it’s not a–”
Someone down the hall called Ming’s name. From the sound of it a good-sized group was waiting for him. Maybe even the same one Tahno had blown off that afternoon.
Ming’s silhouette hovered awkwardly in the door. Tahno waited long enough to force him to vocalize his request.
“Wanna come? We can hit up a restaurant. Maybe Narook’s–”
“Just go,” Tahno said, suddenly tired. “It’d be a smart idea to stay out of the cops’ way, but you’re all caught up in the revolutionary spirit or whatever, so go paint on public property or something. Just remember I don’t have the cash to bail you out.”
He hesitated. “You sure? About coming, I mean, not the bail.” Someone repeated his name, while another laughed drunkenly. The group was getting louder.
“Staying out of jail sounds good to me, thanks. This is the kind of thing you can’t fight. It’s not gonna give.” The words tasted sour in his mouth.
Ming might have mumbled a response, but Tahno couldn’t hear it over the sounds of raucous voices tinged with anger and bravado. He left, catching up with the others with a shout, and Tahno got up to close the door behind him.
He tried going to bed, but somehow he wound up back at the table, poring over the paper. Something about a guy called Tarrlok and his public safety initiatives.
He either fell asleep or lost focus for a few minutes; on bad days it was hard to tell the difference.
This time the intruder didn’t knock.
“Of all the irresponsible scum in the world!” the landlady shrieked, door slamming against the wall. “What kind of people are you?”
Tahno nearly fell out of his chair. “Holy shit what the everloving–”
“She’s only a child, you son of a bitch! Your friend is leading a child into a life-or-death situation!”
“Whoa, okay, calm down lady, I have no idea what–”
She marched up to him and grabbed his collar, pulling him up off his chair in a thoroughly undignified fashion. “Ming took Fen with him and you are going to tell me where they are.”
She took a moment to breathe, and Tahno took a moment to extricate his shirt from her claws, collapsing back to his seat. “He wouldn’t’ve taken her. Ming doesn’t even like kids.”
“That’s not what her note said.”
“I can’t help you, woman!” he snapped. The candle had sputtered out in the gust of wind from the door. A headache was forming behind his eyes. “I’m not with them, am I?”
“She could be hurt, or killed or–”
“It’s not gonna be that bad. If they do anything at all it’ll just be…hold them overnight, or – come on, calm down.”
Tears were forming in her big green eyes, but anger still defined her expression. “I will not calm down. I – I don’t know what they’re capable of.” She pushed a hand through her graying bangs, taking a shuddering breath. “If you can’t help me I’ll go by myself. Everyone else is – it’s like the whole building went out tonight.”
That was unexpected. Tahno had figured the majority of the residents wouldn’t get so worked up. Apparently he had underestimated either their anger or Gan’s leadership skills.
“Wish I could help,” he said, because it felt like the proper response.
She made an offended scoffing noise, then stomped her way out of his apartment. She left the hallway door open; he could hear her heavy footsteps all the way out the front door, which banged decisively closed.
Tahno relit the candle and finished reading his paper.
The funny thing was that Ming genuinely disliked kids. He wouldn’t have brought Fen willingly. He had demonstrated some disturbing thickheadedness about the potential dangers of going out tonight, but even he wouldn’t be that stupid.
Fen, on the other hand. She knew her way around the city, and seemed to chafe under her mother’s watchful eye.
More importantly, she was angry enough to punch at a wall in the vain hope that it would give a little.
Tahno finished squinting at his paper. He washed his face, then slipped off his outer layers of clothing, carefully hanging most of them in his tiny closet. His jacket took its place on a peg near his headboard.
He blew out the candle, then crawled into bed, pulling the covers up close around his chin. His feet were cold under the blanket, anklebones bumping uncomfortably. He had forgotten to light the heating stove. The dim moonlight made the room look watery and insubstantial, and each object’s shadow played on the wall in predictable ways. He turned over and nestled closer to the sheets, closing his eyes.
The somnolent drone of nighttime insects provided the only sound, drifting in through the cracked window.
The hallway door was open, air seeping in.
Tahno swore and threw off the covers, launching to his feet and grabbing his jacket in one fluid motion.
The streets were eerily empty, a chilly wind blowing his hair into disarray and encouraging him to pull his jacket closed tight over his undershirt. He heard a low rumble in the distance, coupled with the whining of what might be police sirens. Not encouraging.
At the time, he had been telling the truth. Neither Ming nor Fen had told him where they were going outright. But Ming had made a suggestion, and Ming could be laughably sentimental, so Tahno wouldn’t put it past him to go visit Narook’s even without any former teammates to reminisce with.
It would have been so much simpler if he had remembered that in time to tell the landlady. Instead he was breaking a curfew set by a city that hated him. His broken fingers were starting to ache.
Coming out of the neighborhood, the rumble began to resolve itself into distant murmurs. Figures darted between the backstreet bars and shop fronts, moving in both directions. People hurrying home, or headed warily towards whatever commotion lay ahead. There was no clear way to determine who was a bender and who was not, but Tahno hazarded a guess that the benders weren’t the ones who moved in flinches.
It wasn’t long before some were running. A woman nearly plowed him over darting around the corner, breath wheezing and eyes wild. She didn’t pause to speak; a teenager followed soon after. He was cradling his arm in front of his body.
A crackling noise began to overlay the murmurs. A ring of light glowed at the distant end of a long street, where Satomobiles moved too slowly for such a major crossroad.
Tahno walked a bit faster, but not enough to draw attention to himself.
None of the lights were coming from streetlamps; these were quite determinedly out. Instead, police vehicles threw blinding white spotlights against the closely-packed crowd that stood, defiantly, in the middle of the street.
Tahno slumped against a shadowed wall, trying to make himself as small as possible.
Others were emerging from the side streets. They moved in different ways: some with hesitation dogging each step, others straight-backed and deliberate. Some held hands, others came alone. They pooled into the central crowd until it overflowed back into the streets they had come from. The next thing Tahno knew he was surrounded. The crowd murmured to one another in worried or defiant or flippant tones, but overall their interactions had an eerie, muted quality, as though heard from underwater. A few cops were yelling instructions, but no one close enough to hear them was reacting.
It occurred to him that coming out tonight may have been a mistake.
The wind kicked up to unnatural degrees, and a heavy throb reverberated from the sky. A shadow moved over the gasping crowd, a frantic spike in volume overtaking the conversation. A police zeppelin hovered just above the rooftops, cops hanging off each surface.
“Stand your ground!” a young voice called out over the noise, somewhere in the heart of the throng. It sounded suspiciously like Gan’s.
A discordant blare of sirens came next; small children covered their ears. The sound was all around them now. Including, Tahno realized with a growing sense of dread, the direction he had come.
When he next caught a glimpse of the police front, he saw that they had erected a barricade.
“Do you see that? They’re afraid of us,” someone said. He sounded incredulous.
“Strength in numbers,” a woman answered, proud.
Something in the crowd changed; it rippled from the frontlines to sweep back through the very edges. Like he was surfacing from the water, people began shouting. Threats, chants, demands of equality – it melded into one inexorably human sound. A riot seemed well within the realm of possibility; the throng at the front pressed too close to the barrier.
The police were heavily armed.
“That’s not it,” Tahno said to himself. Then louder: “They’re not scared, just waiting.” No one heard him, but someone obviously got the same idea: the message came back, “Don’t break the line. Don’t knock down the barricade. Don’t use force.”
One cop stood on top of the center Satomobile, megaphone raised to his lips. “All nonbenders, return to your homes immediately!”
A voice cried, “Yeah, as soon as you turn our power back on!” and the crowd roared in response.
The cop went on, voice tracing contours of indignation and authority, but Tahno was distracted by the sight of a small brunette head weaving towards the front of the crowd.
“You gotta be kidding me,” he groaned, and began pushing people aside.
It was slow going; the sea of bodies was dense and everyone’s attention was focused on the cops. He lost sight of her quickly, but kept moving towards the destination he knew she shared.
“Cops aren’t a wall, you useless – fucking – brat,” he said, voice swallowed by the protests, and punctuated each word with a shove.
There was a sudden hush. Instead of looking up, he used the distraction to move more quickly. He thought he caught another glimpse of her, in the subtle parting of two tall men, then the stumbling of the woman in front of them. She was moving her obstacles out of the way with surprising force.
He saw her at the front line, then chaos erupted around him.
The legs of the barricade fell, leaving the striped line hovering in the power of the earthbending cops. It began to push towards the mass of people, who retreated in confusion, stumbling over each other. Another change swept through the crowd; some began to run.
The barricade snapped into smaller pieces, collapsing into rings and trapping swathes of people inside. Voices rose in panic. The benders stomped forward and raised each ring of prisoners onto a floating platform of earth. Tahno saw the barricade snap tight across Fen’s shoulders, as short as she was, then she was pushed back into a mass of frantic bodies and flailing limbs.
He almost left before he was trampled himself.
Then a word rang out, voice powerfully familiar, and he was frozen to the spot.
“Stop!” Korra commanded. She was lit from behind by the headlights, and she looked absolutely fucking ethereal.
She ran forward, eyes fixed firmly on the trapped nonbenders, and gave one earth-shaking stomp. The clumps lowered to the ground with a thud, and the people began crawling under the barricade, shoving one another out of the way in their rush to escape. It was a terrifying sight, this mass of bodies moving towards him, battering him this way and that.
He saw Fen try to crawl out of the trap, only to get knocked to the ground by those behind her. He swore and looked around for better options than getting trampled himself.
For one brief second, Korra’s eyes met his.
He was submerged again; sound did not penetrate.
Then he was slammed by a knot of people, and all he could sense were feet and hands and the cold ground against the skin of his face.
The moon wasn’t close to full anymore, but it was too bright all the same.
He was hit by an unexpected feeling of paralysis, as though the Triad were holding him down again. An icy panic clogged his veins. Back then, all he could do was stare up at the heavens that didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. Now the frantic pattern of his pulse told him that nothing had changed.
He felt the grip of a strong hand, then he was being hoisted to his feet.
Korra’s eyes were huge, but her mouth was set and grim.
“No,” he said. He steadied himself by gripping her arm. “No, you’ve gotta go.”
“I’m not gonna leave you.”
“Yes you are you idiot, you haven’t helped the rest yet.”
She looked startled, then glanced around her. He was right, and she would realize it in a second, but he didn’t have time for that.
He turned and stumbled back towards the spot where Fen had collapsed.
He found her huddled on the ground, hands covering her head and legs drawn up beneath her. Probably her best option, considering. “C’mon, we gotta go,” he said, and grabbed at her wrist.
She screamed and pulled away, falling onto her rear and scrambling backwards.
“No, shut up!” he shouted, and this time grabbed her hand more forcefully.
After a second her eyes focused on his face. There were no tears in her eyes, but her breathing was harsh and irregular and she was bleeding from a scrape on her forehead.
“Can you run?”
She swallowed, hard, and nodded. Something in her expression closed, and she pushed herself to her feet.
He was still gripping her hand. Her knuckles were covered in scrapes and old scabs, mementos from walls that didn’t give.
The ice was still flooding his veins, but at least ice could be sharp and strong.
“Do not resist arrest!” an enraged voice demanded.
Tahno ran, pulling her along with him.
That night, after the landlady’s tearful thanks and the building meeting to determine who had been lost, Tahno dreamed of Korra.
She stood, bathed in the sharp white crosshairs of the headlights, until she caught on fire. The flames did not burn her skin, though they rippled down her arms and fell in burning embers to the pavement. Her eyes were full of their own light, like temple paintings of the ancient Avatars.
“You’re so fucking beautiful,” he told her.
She slid one foot forward, very slowly, and raised her fists into a guard.
He smiled, hard, and walked towards her. The ground broke up beneath him, matter spiraling into distant empty space. Monsters yelled garbled nonsense through megaphones. He kept walking.
A tingling sensation flared along his knuckles.
Fen didn’t leave her room for two days. Once she came out, she stuck obnoxiously close to Tahno, following him around in the yard and listening to the fighting instructions he found himself giving. He didn’t know how to react to her presence any more than she knew how to react to his; half the time she pretended she couldn’t see him. Still, she was there, and she followed his advice.
A lot of people seemed to be following his advice nowadays. The brawlers kept asking for pointers on stance and distance and the power required to knock an opponent out cold. At first he was suspicious that they were humoring him. Ming would have been the better choice, if you really wanted a lesson in fist fighting from a former probender. But when he pointed this out, Ahnah shook her head and told him that Ming was a terrible teacher.
This had surprising implications about what she thought of Tahno’s teaching skills.
Everyone seemed more serious now, moving during daylight with their heads down. The gatherings in the yard felt less like neighborhood get-togethers and more like the meetings of a militia. Gan didn’t crack stupid jokes anymore, and Ahnah left her son at home. It was like something was spiraling rapidly out of his control.
Tahno himself felt different. Anything more specific than that was hard to pin down. He still felt detached from his surroundings much of the time, and emotions were watered-down and hard to recognize.
But there was something freshly genuine about the concept of “anger.”
He recovered as much of his workout regimen as he could do with an injured hand. When someone asked him the proper way a throw a punch, he did not turn them away.
Sorry this is short; I'm moving for school this week!
Tahno wasn’t sure when he had started to teach genuine fighting classes. Once he realized it, he didn’t know how to react.
Everything was accidental. Someone would ask him how to hone an uppercut, and suddenly a line of young people was there waiting to help him demonstrate. It was almost unnerving; he was used to holding the attention of a crowd, but back then it had been a symptom of all the impressive things he could do on his own. Now the only thing of value that he had was his knowledge and the ability to share it. There was no wheedling, no power play. If he chose to ignore them, they would disperse without much protest. They weren’t using these lessons as an excuse to share his limelight. They were actually interested in what he had to say.
He used Ming to demonstrate some of the time, but he quickly lost interest in the lessons. Ming didn’t do well with moving at a pace that didn’t suit him personally; he had left his earthbending master for a reason.
Sometimes he used Fen. She would scowl at him as though he were placing a great burden on her shoulders, but she treated her duties seriously and always did what he asked. Her mother had loosened her restrictions on fighting, partially out of gratefulness to Tahno, and Fen relished that. It took a couple of demonstrations before he realized that her jerky movements and unfocused blows were partially due to a basic misunderstanding: Fen was left-handed.
“Then you’re doing everything backwards,” he said, motioning to her feet. “You gotta lead with your right.”
“That’s not what you said last time,” she snapped. She didn’t move.
“You left out the part where you’re a southpaw. If you wanna stay on top of those itty-bitty feet in the heat of a match you’ve gotta adjust.”
She did, albeit reluctantly. “There’s no difference.”
“‘Course there is.” He moved to stand beside her, gripping her left wrist. When she jerked back too suddenly, wariness spiking her expression, he held up his palm placatingly and didn’t try again. Instead he demonstrated, throwing his own right-handed hit, broken fingers stiffly extended. “You’ve gotta make the ‘cross’ the most devastating blow. That’s the one you draw your power from. If your strong side is drawn back, you can put more energy into your punches.” He then threw a left-handed hit to match. “The ‘jab’ is the shallow blow. It’s good for distracting your opponent and taking out their guard, but it doesn’t have the built-up energy of your cross.”
Fen hesitantly threw a left-handed cross, then a right jab. She repeated the motions, more determinedly this time, until she got the hang of it. Her expression was almost comically serious.
He pushed down on the top of her head, twisting his hand back and forth to muss her hair. She batted him away.
“Tahno, you uh. You got visitors.” Gan approached with his hands shoved into his pockets. He moved with more deliberation now, less of the boyish bounce that had characterized his motions before the curfew.
Korra and Asami Sato followed him into the yard.
There was an awkward pause. Some residents still got overwhelmed by the Avatar’s presence, and Asami’s good looks and out of place wardrobe weren’t helping anybody return to sentience. Korra’s eyes were fixed firmly on Tahno, expression retaining some of the grimness of three nights ago, but she seemed genuinely relieved to see him. Tahno’s face was overtaken by a smug smile before he could even register the emotion. He scrambled Fen’s hair one more time then stepped out of the group to meet them.
Asami stood a pace behind, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a familiar gesture.
“Hey, Korra,” he said, and the words came out a shade lighter than he had expected. Then he nodded to Asami: “Long time no see.”
Korra blinked, looking back and forth between the two of them. “You know each other? Wait, why do you know each other?”
He would have had some fun watching Asami get embarrassed, but she was the picture of class. Other than an innocent raise of her eyebrows that could mean anything, she remained unaffected. “We went out once,” she said.
It was a bit insulting how disproportionately surprised Korra seemed. “You two – you both – like, on a date?”
He gave her a look in return. “Naw, on sewer repairs. What are you, thirteen?” Then, because it was interesting to see Korra so flummoxed for such a stupid reason, he cut the sarcasm and addressed Asami: “Museum, right? We saw that impressionist thing.”
Asami smiled politely. “Yeah. It was a good exhibit.”
“Uh, wow. No offense, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse match.” Korra frowned, crossing her arms over her chest.
“What’s the matter, Avatar? Jealous?”
“No, I’m just saying that your personalities are…well, no offense Tahno, but Asami is…more…”
“A good person, right.”
Korra stopped trying to word whatever it was she wanted to say. Now Asami was frowning at him as well. Normally his extrapolation would come off as a joke; obviously something in his tone had backfired.
“Uh,” Gan said. “Did anybody want some, uh. We’ve got food.”
“Sure,” Asami said brightly. She smoothly engaged Gan in conversation on the way to the back door. Other than a glance at Korra over her shoulder, she left the two of them to their own devices.
Korra still looked bewildered. “I was…going to say that you’re not really Asami’s type. And I can’t imagine her as yours.”
Tahno raised an eyebrow. “We were two attractive people having a night on the town. What more do you need?” He ran his hand through his bangs, brushing them back in a disaffected manner. He watched Korra’s reaction closely, but it was hard to tell if there was disappointment under all that unnecessary shock.
“Um. Right. That wasn’t what I came here to talk about, though.” She seemed distracted and a little disturbed by the area behind Tahno’s left shoulder. He turned to find Fen standing there, wearing an expression far too innocent to be taken seriously.
“Cute kid,” Korra said, with an inflection suggesting Tahno had missed a demonstration of the opposite.
“Go practice your cross,” he told her. Fen did not respond. Her smile grew increasingly forced as she returned Korra’s attention. When Tahno swiveled back to see what she was looking at, Korra’s expression was mid-morph, fingers moving away from her lower eyelids and tongue sliding back into her mouth.
“Are you four?” he asked.
“Is that better or worse than thirteen?” she responded almost coyly.
Tahno pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “Okay. You wanna just take a walk?”
Unsettling political events or no, the neighborhood still kept up with business as usual during daytime hours. The sights were very similar to what he had experienced on his first visit. The window of the bar next door was being repaired; the business hadn’t been reopened since the incident. Children chased animals around in the street while adults chopped wood for the fire or hung out clothes to dry. Others were gone for work, most likely downtown; now that no bender could be effectively employed after nightfall there was a lot of catching up to do in the eligible hours.
Four buildings down Korra actually broke the silence.
“She actually is kind of cute.” Her tone was strangely apologetic.
“Nah. She’s a nuisance that was probably raised by armadillo wolves.”
“That would explain the snarling, yeah,” she responded thoughtfully. “Or arctic wolves, maybe.” She glanced at Tahno out of the corner of her eye, but he was careful not to return the attention. They kept pace with each other easily. He had always been a quick walker, prone to being at the head of any group, but Korra too was impatient to the core. Her arms swung freely at her sides.
“So the small talk is nice,” he said, then shut his mouth. The rest of the sentence would have been “but what are you really here for,” and he wasn’t sure he wanted to move on to that part just yet.
Korra winced. “I was never really good at that.”
“Obviously. I read some of your early interviews. Before. You know.” He gestured vaguely at the empty air in front of him, and Korra looked like she wanted to bite her lip.
Tahno restrained a Fen-like growl. “Damn. Just did it again.”
“Never mind. Just – hi. Thanks for showing up, I guess.” It wasn’t too often, even now, that Tahno felt like he wasn’t in complete control of the things coming out of his mouth. But apparently today was not a good day for convincing sarcasm. There was a first time for everything.
Thankfully, Korra didn’t switch to the guilty face. Instead she stopped walking and faced him. He took two more steps on his own momentum before he had the energy to do the same.
“What you did that night,” she said, a great cosmic power masquerading behind unconvincing innocence, “was really heroic. And…great. I mean.” He was shaking his head before she finished, but she cut him off. “No, don’t. Just listen. You risked yourself to help her and you…reminded me about my own duty instead of just letting me save you. And it’s like, I hear people saying the word ‘heroic’ all the time. And it’s usually about, like, a police raid on the Equalists, or a new law that might hurt or help in the long run, but nobody can tell the difference, so they call it ‘heroic’ to make people stop doubting it so hard.”
Around them, people kept moving. A pair of brothers ran a footrace; a cart of fresh milk creaked down the bumpy road. Korra took another breath.
“And I mean pretty much the opposite of those things when I say you were heroic. I want you to know that, because I think the word’s getting tossed around so much that nobody around here knows what it means anymore.”
Tahno’s first instinct was to laugh.
She looked so sincere, so completely convinced of what she was saying, that it was clear something was very wrong. For Korra to be right, he would have to not only be a good person – a dubious claim at best – but a selfless one. And Tahno knew from firsthand experience that this was out of the question.
“Listen, I didn’t even think about what I was doing. I wasn’t gonna help the rest of those people, either. I was gonna grab the kid and run, and if I couldn’t get to her in time I was gonna leave her and make a break for it myself. That’s not heroic. It’s weird as hell hearing that from you of all people. You with the…grand sweeping rescue attempts and the ghost powers.”
“See, this is what I’m talking about. That word is…people keep twisting it to mean what they want it to without realizing that there are so many, like, pieces of heroic.” She shrugged sort of helplessly. “Do you get what I’m trying to say?”
“I get that your own ineloquence is thrashing you pretty soundly.”
He wondered, again, if she was going to hit him.
She did this time, whapping him on the shoulder as a smile crackled through her expression. “Whatever. So public speaking isn’t my thing.”
And that was all it took.
Just like that, there was something strangely buoyant flooding his chest. It was a contradictory sensation that spread roots in his gut even as its upper coils strained high into his closed throat, trying to fly away even as it made itself at home at the core of him.
“Shit,” he murmured.
Korra’s smile, her fucking radiant smile, became amiably confused. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s. Look, I know someone you should talk to. I think…well. I’m not saying I agree with you about heroics or whatever, but I’ve been doing some thinking of my own. And things are. It’s bad, Korra.” He looked at her, direct and open and in the face, and it felt good. “It’s bad and you can help. So I want you to talk to a guy who might know who was at that bar. If he wants to tell you, he will.”
Korra’s smile stretched almost to breaking. “Really? Tahno, that’s great!” His chest constricted vigorously. He pushed the feeling down, storing it.
“It’s just, he deserves the chance. It’s just if he wants to.”
“Right, of course! Oh, but if he knows, we can finally get some witnesses, and–”
Then she was hugging him, arms squeezing tightly around his shoulders and against his back. She was strong, and her grip was almost painful; he felt his toes break contact with the ground for a second before she set him down and held him at an arm’s length to beam at him again.
He was flooded and warm. Half of him wanted to collapse into her just to feel her body against his, while the other half wanted to take on fifty contenders in the yard at once.
A familiar, pessimistic voice told him that this, all of this, would end badly. The new thing rooted in his core told the voice to go fuck itself.
Because her eyes were blue.
Asami had kept herself busy while they were gone. One man was gingerly examining his elbow, while another rubbed the back of his neck with a grimace. As Tahno and Korra rounded the corner, she went toe-to-toe with Ahnah in the middle of the yard briefly, then ended the confrontation by flipping the woman over her back in a devastating sort of twist.
Most of the onlookers either groaned or cheered, while a few remained too shocked to do much but stare open-mouthed. Ahnah gave a bark of rueful laughter as she stood. “I almost wanna call that cheating,” she said, carefully rolling her shoulders.
“It is a much different style,” Asami said, putting her hands on her hips. Her hair was barely out of place; Tahno was impressed. “Maybe if there were set rules–”
“There are,” Tahno said without a thought. She turned to look at him; he also felt Korra’s eyes trailing his back. “You can’t pull a stunt like that in this kind of match.”
“Don’t see why not,” she said, shifting her weight to one hip. It would have been smug, if it weren’t so elegantly accomplished. Tahno appreciated this technique as well.
“It’d be like crossing the line in a probending match. Sure it’d help you hit somebody, but you get called out.” From the skeptical raise of Asami’s eyebrow Tahno could follow her train of thought pretty well. He decided not to address his own indiscretions in matches past, moving on as quickly as possible. “I mean it’s not so much that there are penalties back here, just with us, but everybody pretty much knows anyway.”
“Why not?” Korra asked. “Penalties, I mean.”
“Because,” Tahno frowned, then paused. It occurred to him, all of a sudden, that he had no idea why not.
None of the brawlers were particularly interested in rules and regulations, but they did all seem to follow a set style without much deviation or complaint. No one tried to imitate the movements of more esoteric disciplines, even though those martial arts tourneys were popular enough to garner interest in the group. Partially it had to do with skill; almost no one had any formal training. Partially it was a lack of interest. This format, this formula, worked. It kept the attention of both spectators and participants, so no one felt free to break the “rules.”
“Because it’s just for fun,” he finished lamely.
Korra snorted. “Probending is fun, and that’s got rules.”
“Yeah, well. That’s a real sport.”
“What makes it one?” Asami asked, crossing her arms over her chest. She had stepped closer, head tilted to the side enough to allow her hair to flood her shoulder.
Tahno shrugged. “Paying spectators? An arena? Sponsors? No yeah wait, I take back the first two. It’s the sponsors.”
“So if–” Korra started, and Tahno whipped his hand up in front of her mouth before she could continue.
“I know where you’re going with this, and it doesn’t matter either way because nobody would ever sponsor this heap. Yeah okay, fine, call it a sport if you wanna. And maybe it could work with some rules. And maybe…maybe people would be interested in paying to see two chumps duke it out, even without bending. And maybe…”
It took him so many “maybes” to realize that he had no technical counterpoint, in addition to having the distinct impression that he was talking himself into something. It was an uncomfortable realization, and he dismissed it as soon as he noticed the mischievous way Korra was eyeing him. She was smirking as though she were winning an argument, which made no sense and was not something Tahno was going to justify with a reaction.
He shrugged in a cool, considerate manner, as though he were condescending to offer the possibility. “Maybe we can try drawing up some rules, just as an experiment. Just the ones that everybody pretty much knows already, though. Anything else is getting too high on your ostrich horse.”
“Do it,” Ahnah called from her spot by the makeshift buffet table. “I wanna beat the woman in an even match.” Asami laughed, and the two of them grinned at each other a little insufferably. Tahno rolled his eyes.
Gan cut off the women’s eye contact on his way to the house. He looked done for the night, shoulders sloping downward. Tahno shook his head, then nudged Korra in the side.
“Ow, hey what –”
He nodded towards Gan, and comprehension painted itself over her face. Then he nodded towards Asami, then back at Gan, and Korra was lost again. Tahno sighed in a put-upon way. “Take her with you,” he muttered.
“Why?” she said at her normal volume, which was always just shy of “too fucking loud.”
He looked skyward, pleading with the spirits to send a less oblivious Avatar. “Just do it, alright? Trust me.”
She seemed dubious, but apparently she trusted him. The two went to pull Gan to the side.
Tahno meandered over to the buffet and grabbed a kebab. There was a big spread today (big enough to merit a table), a potluck made up of the leftovers of neighborhood meals or things whipped up to pass the time of the newly unemployed.
He tried not to look like he was watching the others, staring off at the next match while keeping Korra in the corner of his vision. An unconvincing sheen of tranquility struggled to cover her enthusiastic expression, and she punctuated the conversation with vigorous nods and an honest earnestness that did strange things to his insides. Whether it was due to Avatar duty or a genuine drive to be a good human being, she believed so strongly in her call to do right by the world that he almost didn’t know how to react.
Gan seemed wary, which to be expected. It would be his decision, now. Asami too looked reserved, lips pursed and eyes flickering steadily between each person. Korra alone threw herself into the interaction. Tahno swallowed hard.
“You’re not really hungry,” Fen scoffed. She looked even more disgruntled than usual, bangs plastered to the side and forehead streaked with dirt in the shape of clawing fingers. She sweated easily in the heat of physical exertion and always struggled to scrub it away. A small hand grabbed at his kebab.
He pulled it out of her reach. “Says who?”
“You’re not eating it. It’s the last one with tigerdillo on it.”
He took a big bite just to spite her, sliding off the chunks of meat with his teeth. He would have ignored her until she got bored with him if she hadn’t started earnestly eyeing his shin.
“Just practice your hook, alright?”
“I did already,” she said indignantly. “You’re not practicing.” He held up his injured hand with a lazy shrug. She rolled her eyes. “You still do push-ups and stuff. You showed us once.”
“So go do them. Take her with you.” She nodded almost viciously towards Korra, and Tahno raised an eyebrow.
Fen was very particular about who she liked; it wasn’t much of a surprise that Korra hadn’t made the cut. Her reaction did seem inversely linked to Tahno’s attitude, however. He didn’t think that Fen was crushing on him so much as envying the time and attention he gave to Korra, but he was no expert on kids. It probably wasn’t a situation that required any sort of handling; if it did, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to handle it.
“Yeah, okay. We’ll go do that.”
She gave him a sharp look, as though he had insulted her hair or something. He laughed.
She kicked him in the shin and ran.
“Shit!” He gripped his leg, leaning back against the rickety table and knocking over a plate of salt crackers. A few of the neighbors laughed; one thumped him on the shoulder.
“What did I miss?” Korra asked with a triumphant grin (unrelated to Tahno’s misfortune – probably). Gan and Asami walked a pace behind, and Tahno noticed the way Gan met his fellow nonbender’s glance for reassurance. Using Asami as a sort of calm, compassionate middle step between the bending elite and the poor underclass would be useful in the end. They needed someone to filter Korra’s enthusiasm and righteous hero complex into something smaller and easier to trust.
Tahno wondered when he had started to include himself in Korra’s plans.
“Brat,” he grit out, gingerly placing his foot back on the ground.
“Huh,” Korra answered, and plucked the kebab from his hand.
In the end it probably didn’t matter when he had “joined up,” officially speaking. He felt like he was going somewhere for the first time in a long while.
Korra bit off the last piece of fruit with undignified relish, swallowing it in one big gulp. “So what about the um,” she slurred around the juices, “the fighting rules?”
“Are you still on that?” he groaned, yanking the empty stick back out of her grip on principle. “That is like, on the bottom of my list. I mean below ‘getting a crew cut’ bottom.”
Gan shared another meaningful glance with Asami, who smiled gently. He stepped forward. “Hey, uh. Tahno. I was talking to the, um. These lovely young ladies” – he grimaced at his own triteness – “about that bar fight that happened next door. I figured I should mention.”
“Yeah, yeah. Doing your civic duty or whatever.” He smirked, taking in the cautiously optimistic look on Gan’s face. It hadn’t been that positive for some time now. “You have my blessing to talk about whatever. I trust her absolutely.” He looked to Korra in time to see a peculiar expression sweep her face, gone before he could identify it. She returned his gaze unswervingly. Then he glanced at Asami. “Well, I mean. No offense, I’m sure you’re great too. From the, what, four beautiful hours we spent together? Three?”
Asami shook her head, but she didn’t seem too upset by his foggy memory of their date. “I think you’ve got some rules to write.”
In the end it was a joint effort. Ming dubiously scribbled down the suggestions of various brawlers, while Tahno wondered what exactly was possessing them to consider such a blatantly pointless exercise. He doubted that the residents would actually adhere to any set rules once they were officially written down.
He was surprised, however, to find quite a bit of interest there. Everyone from his muscle-bound neighbor from two doors down to Ahnah’s toddler had a suggestion, some more relevant than others. (There was some heated debate on whether “be nice to evybody pwease” was relevant. Then they moved on to the kid’s idea.)
Ming’s penmanship was usually perfect, but he was having a hard time keeping up with the outpour. Many of the rules were blatantly ripped from probending, but Tahno had no complaints there; a set number of rounds and an out-of-bounds area sounded good.
Meanwhile Korra, Gan, and Asami pulled residents aside one by one, speaking in urgent tones by the vegetable patch. Some seemed more receptive than others, and sometimes all they could do was provide a relative’s address or place of work. The trio seemed to be making progress, though. Sometimes Asami would wander over and put in a clever suggestion for the rules that clearly demonstrated her familiarity with probending as a sport. The residents seemed eager to accept her; Tahno suspected the “rags-to-riches” nature of her family’s story was appealing to them.
(Some of them, he was sure, were drawn to rumors of her father’s association with the Equalists, but he wasn’t ready to contemplate that just yet. She was close with the Avatar, and that was good enough for him.)
By the end, the list covered both sides of the paper and was filled with scratch-outs, annotations, circles, and scribbled stars. No one was sparring anymore, attention fixed squarely on Ming’s work – and Tahno. It was as if he had been put in charge of this little enterprise. Suggestions were run by him before being put to Ming. Everyone wanted to pat him on the back, which was obnoxious because this was a nice jacket and their hands were dirty.
Still, it was always a thrill to be the center of attention again. The list, when they held it up to the light, was messy but comprehensive.
“We could do a tourney,” someone said excitedly. A chorus of voices agreed. They liked the rules.
Asami glanced at Tahno, her lips quirking into a smile. “You know–”
“I know,” he told her, feeling a bit bewildered.
He wondered seriously, for the first time, if they could charge an entrance fee.
Korra was smiling at him from across the yard as though he had done something particularly impressive. Maybe eventually he would talk to her about the strange alchemy she had ignited in him and toss around some ideas about where it could lead. He had a crowd enthusing about his every move again; didn’t that count as standing on more even ground than before? She was the city’s savior, but at least people respected his advice on wrist placement.
…On second thought, maybe now wasn’t the best time.
She was a gorgeous, contradictory picture of strength and naiveté, nodding seriously in response to the rambling comments of the old man across the hall. Asami poked his shoulder, drawing his attention back to the draft of rules.
Maybe someday soon.