The Solution to All Our Problems - Chapter 1
A/N June 30, 2014: With the broadcast of Book III's episodes, this story is now canon through Book II and AU after that. That is what I get for starting a long multi-chapter fic between seasons, I guess. It begins about a month after harmonic convergence. Republic City is experiencing changes from the meshing with the Spirit World, but there aren't any giant vines growing through buildings. The worlds seem to be coexisting more or less peacefully. Tahno is back to scheming, and Korra is going about the business of helping everyone make the post-convergence transition calmly and successfully. M for language, eventual violence, and eventual non-explicit adult situations. Which leads us to . . .
Narook collapsed the top of the outspread newspaper with one stiff hand, chopping down the pulpy screen that obscured Tahno’s face. “More tea?” he inquired gruffly.
Tahno jerked back, affronted at first, then relaxed as he saw it was only his friend and patron. Nevertheless, he shook out his paper in a show of faux irritation. “I suppose. Then bring me the check.” Tahno wasn’t much of one for intrusion into his personal space -- well, not unless the intruder was a pretty fan of his -- but for Narook he made an exception. The exception was easier to make since Narook had been letting him slide with the bill for the last couple meals.
“Would that be for the last two months of your tab, or just this one?” Narook questioned. Tahno glared in annoyance. Perhaps “a couple meals” undersold the generosity of his host. Nevertheless, Tahno didn’t enjoy such brusqueness in the establishment where he’d spent plenty of money over the years.
“Just today’s tally,” Tahno replied with asperity. “My suspension ends next week. I’ll be rolling in prize money and sponsorships before you know it.” Tahno took a sip from his teacup and hoped he was right about that.
Narook whistled as he poured a fresh cup for Tahno, then set down the small refilled teapot. He stroked his beard with his broad hand. “A whole season out of the arena is a long time for a pro-bender. You sure anybody’s gonna root for the Wolfbats anymore?”
“We won the championship titles three years in a row. Nobody’s forgotten about us.”
“Heh. They’ll remember you all right. They’ll remember that you cheated to take down the Avatar, who saved the whole world last month.” Narook slapped the check on the table and slumped back toward the bar.
Tahno rolled his eyes. It wasn't as if he had tried to kill the girl, like Amon or Unalaq had. Besides, the 'bats probably could have beaten her team even without bribing the ref. They'd just needed to take out an insurance policy on the game, so to speak. “The fans loved us before; they’ll love us again,” Tahno replied with more confidence than he felt. “And even if they hate us, which they won't, they'll still be watching. That's all the sponsors care about.”
Narook raised one scraggly eyebrow and leaned a meaty, tattooed forearm on the bar. "And just how many of those have you lined up?"
Tahno yelped in surprise as he burned his tongue on the hot liquid. He spat it out indelicately and quickly glanced around to see if any other patrons had witnessed his embarrassing moment. Satisfied that none had noticed, he grabbed a napkin to wipe his chin and shirt collar with as much dignity as he could muster. "Still working on that part," he mumbled. "You're welcome to sign up, you know."
Narook made a sort of barking guffaw. "Between shutting down the card games in my back room and holding your tab open here, you've cost me enough money. Think I'll just be a spectator this season."
Tahno scoffed. "If it wasn’t me, somebody else would have told the cops about the gambling rings. I just used my knowledge to my advantage. And yours. You’re welcome for my help in keeping you out of jail, by the way."
Tahno didn't like being reminded about that. His mood soured quickly, thinking back to the weeks after Amon had stolen his bending. He’d holed up in his flat feeling sorry for himself for a while, until his rent was due and he had to face the world or be kicked to the curb. Ultimately, he’d made ends meet by snitching to the police about the illegal gambling rings throughout the city, and he had continued doing so even after the Avatar had returned his bending. Since the city advisory council had barred him and his teammates from the arena for the season -- as if temporarily losing his lifeblood and passion wasn't punishment enough for his cheating -- he had needed to feed himself somehow while he waited out the sentence.
The money the cops had paid him hadn’t been half of what he made actually fixing the games for the triads, but it had been enough to last through most of his suspension. As a result of Tahno's betrayal of his former associates, most of the referees in the arena had been replaced with a bunch of straightlaced tightwads, and quite a few of the street level thugs had been thrown in jail. Some of the triad shot-callers had even gotten caught up as a result of the information Tahno had provided. Even so, the illegal card games and pro-bending bookies hadn’t been eliminated, but their meeting locations had changed and the chain of command had been shaken up a bit. Narook was one of the few people who knew of Tahno’s arrangement with law enforcement, having been tipped off by an certain eyeliner-wearing customer that he might wish to divest himself of his investment in a certain less-than-savory enterprise before the cops got wind of it.
Tahno watched the steam swirling up from the surface of his cup, remembering the fable of Fire Nation spies revealing their secret identities in the Earth Kingdom by heating up their cold tea. A shiver ran down his spine and he gave thanks to whatever swamp spirit kept the triads in the dark about his snitching. He had taken great pains to cover his tracks, but he still found himself looking over his shoulder in dark alleys.
Narook’s iceberg-blue eyes softened a touch, apparently acknowledging his appreciation for Tahno's efforts. He ran a hand across the top of his head, the only place on his entire body where his hair was thinning. "Welp, s'pose you're right. I shouldn't have been mixed up with those goons anyway. I already got a good thing going here."
"Booze and noodles are a winning combination," Tahno agreed.
Narook sighed almost wistfully. If Tahno hadn’t known him so well or been so observant he wouldn’t have even have noticed. "I miss the good old days when your team stopped by after the matches. Gave the place a festive air.”
“Never would have pegged you for the sentimental sort."
“Isn't anything like that. Whenever the Wolfbats showed up, the bar got three times the business with no extra effort from me,” he harrumped. He held a glass to the light, ostensibly checking for water spots.
“Ah yes. Whatever pays the bills,” Tahno sighed.
“That’s right. Speaking of which, when you’re back in the money I hope you’ll be paying that bill off first,” Narook jerked his chin toward the paper and began wiping down the counter with more concentration and vigor than the job warranted.
Tahno had a snappy comeback on the tip of his tongue, but held back. No need to bite the hand that was literally feeding him, he thought. And he hated to admit it, but he feared that Narook was right about his prospects in the arena. His team would be allowed back in the tournament, but at every match they won, the audience would wonder if it was because they were skilled or because they were bribing the refs again. So far, his team had failed to attract any of the top sponsors that had once clamored to pay their way. In fact, they had barely managed to cobble together the funds to qualify this season. And if the Wolfbats lost after all that work just to get back in the game, well, what was the point? Tahno had to find a way to get the sponsors back on board, and do to that, he needed to rebuild the trust of the fan base again. Without major support, and soon, he’d be back on a ferry to Foggy Swamp before he could say “catgator.”
Tahno furrowed his brows in consternation. He glanced at a story in the paper that had caught his eye earlier. It included a picture of the Avatar standing at the spirit portal, a goofy grin on her face as a flamingokeet spirit perched on her shoulder. “Avatar Leads Dual World Summit at South Pole, Envisions Spiritual Reconciliation,” the headline read. The rest of the page was awash in anecdotes about the Avatar’s activities and schedule. It was a wonder there was anybody left in town to print and distribute the papers, so many reporters had been dispatched to follow her around the globe. The ink manufacturers should be thanking for all the money they were making from the countless gallons the papers were using to print stories about her, Tahno thought grumpily. Sure, he was glad that she had saved the world from being destroyed in an apocalyptic typhoon of darkness and all, but he could have done without her constantly hogging all the papers' front page real estate.
And if the legitimate news outlets were bad, the tabloids were even worse. All week they’d been running teaser headlines like “Avatar Korra and Officer Mako: Still on Fire or All Burnt Out?” and “Our Avatar -- Singlebending Again”. Tahno wished he could say that he didn't care about what the gossipmongers were saying, but he was jealous of the way the Avatar got the spotlight all to herself. Back in the good days, those same papers breathlessly reported every last snippet of information they could glean about Tahno and his crew. Republic City Weekly once even annointed Tahno as “Republic City’s Most Eligible Waterbender.” Tahno had heard that the title had sent Councilman Tarrlok into a snit for weeks because he didn’t get the designation himself. But those days were long gone -- now Tahno’s face was nowhere to be seen amongst the pages. The rags were all too busy fueling rumors about the Avatar’s love life. Between the periodicals and the scandal sheets, there hadn’t been more than a couple inches of column space devoted to the upcoming pro-bending season all week. How inconvenient.
If only the Avatar would come back to the arena, he thought. Those damn journalists would be clambering all over one another to cover her triumphant return to the sport. But even if she did bring more coverage to the matches, it still wouldn’t do much for him personally.
He took another sip of his beverage and looked more carefully at the Avatar’s image. She seemed so uncomfortable there, playing the politician, although at least in this picture she looked more competent than she had at all those press conferences during the since-squashed Equalist revolution. Although Tahno saw pictures like this all the time, he hadn’t seen her in person since the day she’d returned his bending. Back then, she had still looked immature and uncertain of herself -- even as she unblocked the chi of each fallen bender, she seemed shocked that she had managed to do so.
Tahno unconsciously set the water to swirling within the ceramic vessel. That day had been humid and sunny, and he had lined up with his teammates and several of the police metalbenders amidst reporters chattering and flashbulbs popping. He hadn’t had much time to talk to the Avatar. When his turn came to be healed, he had kneeled down before her and whispered his thanks, a moment of sincerity that seemed to surprise her. She had smiled at him, then pressed her thumb to to his forehead and her hand to his heart. There was a quick glow between the two of them, and suddenly it felt as if all of his senses had whiplashed into alertness, as if he could breathe deeper, see more clearly, hear more distinctly. He sensed the water churning in a nearby fountain, and on a whim he bent it out to do loop-de-loops around some of his shrieking fangirls who had gathered for the occasion. That oughta make for some good sound effects for the radio clips, he thought. He replaced the water in the fountain and bowed to the Avatar, who returned the gesture. As they were both coming up from the bow, he caught her eye and winked at her. Dozens of flashbulbs went off, capturing the moment. A moment later, the Avatar's cheeks reddened and she gave him a look that clearly communicated her desire to hurl fireballs at him.
Then it was all over. It had been so quick, and he had felt so deliriously grateful, that he hadn’t even thought to tease her with a joke about how he’d enjoyed having her hands on him, even in this context. It might have been worth it to see if he could provoke a response out of her. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a good idea. The papers would have loved to print a picture of him getting slapped in the face by the Avatar on their front pages.
He tapped his finger against the Avatar’s picture thoughtfully. Maybe there was a way to get the Avatar back in the arena, his name back in the papers, and his fans back in the bleachers.
“Narook, you’ve inspired me.” Tahno folded his paper efficiently and shoved it under his arm. He slid out from the booth and dropped some coins on the table, leaving a decent tip.
“How’s that?” Narook called from behind the bar.
“I’ve seen the error of my ways.”
“I doubt that.”
“What I mean is, I haven’t been thinking creatively enough about the Wolfbats’ return to pro-bending. But I believe I have come up with the solution to all of our problems.”
As the sun sunk below the horizon on Yue Bay, a humid breeze wafted in through the open window of the communal dining room at Air Temple Island. Dinners there were a simple but satisfying affair, and after a day spent training, the island residents were usually ready to tuck in and start chowing down. Holding the baby in one hand and a ladle in the other, Pema spooned broth out into Tenzin’s bowl. The girls passed steamed rice while Meelo practiced stabbing his vegetables with his chopsticks.
Korra, however, was distracted from her plate of food. She stared off into space, listening to the radio blaring from its post by the door.
“Will you please shut that off while we’re eating?” Tenzin asked exasperatedly. “It’s bad enough that you’ve been glued to that thing for the last half hour.”
“Just a few more minutes!” Korra whined. “The press conference is almost over. I’ll turn it off as soon as they are done interviewing the Fire Ferrets.”
“But none of your friends even play for the team anymore.” Tenzin smoothed his beard testily.
“Once a Fire Ferret, always a -- hey, turn that up!” Korra exclaimed. Instead of waiting for somebody to comply with her demand, she lurched over the low table and cranked the volume knob of the radio. The announcer's exaggerated syllables rose above the din of the family dining.
“-- now hearing from Tahno, team captain of the White Falls Wolfbats. As all you pro-bending fans know, his team was suspended last season after an investigation found them guilty of cheating during the championship match against the famous Fire Ferrets. But Tahno says he’s here to tell us that he’s a changed man. Tahno, how can the fans trust you now that you’re back?”
“Those dumb Wolfbutts, I can’t believe they still get to play after the way they cheated,” Korra grunted. She stuffed a scoopful of vegetables into her mouth. In spite of her professed feelings on the matter, she was curious to hear what Tahno had to say about his past time as a cheater. He certainly wasn't her friend, but she couldn't help but pity anyone for having gone through what Tahno did.
“Korra! Watch your language,” Pema chastised while she burped Rohan, sending a sharp glance toward her older boy. It was too late.
“Haha, you said ‘butt’,” Meelo snorted. He hopped up and grabbed the seat of his pants, wiggling his behind enthusiastically. “Butt, butt bu --”
“Quiet!” Pena commanded. Jinora and Ikki stifled giggles.
Tahno’s voice oozed from the speaker over the commotion at the dining table: “I take complete responsibility for paying off the refs and encouraging my teammates to use illegal moves during the championship. I was under so much pressure to live up to the Wolfbats reputation, that I thought I had to do whatever it took to make sure I didn’t let down my fans. Now I know that cheating hurt them more than losing ever could.” His voice slightly cracked over the speaker. "I am just grateful and humbled to have the opportunity to bend again."
“Come on! Could he sound more fake?” Korra grumbled. "That guy will do anything to make headlines." She thought of the ridiculous performance he made when she returned his bending. What a show-off. And then that stupid wink he had given her...She gulped down a glass of cold water, hoping that no one noticed the sudden pink flush of her cheeks.
Tahno's speech continued. “I know that just saying I’ve learned my lesson isn’t going to convince anyone, even though it’s true. My fans deserve better. They need an impartial judge to vouch for my team. That’s why I’m issuing a challenge to the team we last played against.”
"You're asking for a rematch?" The announcer clarified.
“Indeed I am. I want to participate in an exhibition game with the original Fire Ferrets -- that is, Avatar Korra and her teammates -- to show that the Wolfbats are just as good as ever, especially when we play by the rules. And who could provide more honest testimony about the result of the game than the Avatar herself?”
All Air Temple eyes riveted onto Korra. Korra simply listened, too shocked to speak.
The announcer jumped in again. “Tahno, once again you’ve proven why you’re the captain of your team. But your fans will want to know, what inspired your new attitude?”
“Actually, I have the Avatar to thank for that. Now that I’ve lived through the hell of losing my bending, and was fortunate enough to get it back, I truly understand what a gift I have. From her, learned that I had to change my ways and use my abilities for good. And providing good, clean bending fun for my fans to enjoy is what I do best.”
Korra could swear she could hear him smirking sarcastically into the microphone.
“But the Avatar changed more than my attitude. She changed my heart. That day she gave me my bending back, I realized something else. I fell for her, hard."
The radio announcer gasped audibly into his microphone. “You mean --”
"That's right. The Avatar has won my heart. But I don’t expect her to think any differently about me unless I can show her that I’ve changed too. So I want to say something to her directly now: Avatar Korra, if you accept my challenge for a rematch and the Wolfbats win, fair and square, I hope you’ll let me take you out on a date.”
The only sound in the Air Temple dining room was of six sets of chopsticks clattering onto the tabletop as they slipped from their disbelieving users’ fingers.
The Avatar was back in all the papers again the next day. But now, self-assured pictures of Tahno accompanied every article.
Tahno lounged across the worn cushions of his couch, enjoying an evening of relaxation in his small apartment after a day of grueling practice. He knew he was still the best pro-bender that Republic City had ever seen, but he couldn't say the same thing about his teammates. Long hours of preparation were clearly in order. He stretched languorously, knowing that he would have to do it all over again tomorrow.
Tahno’s gamble at the press conference had paid off a thousand fold, and he hadn’t even gotten an answer from the Avatar yet. Within an hour of the radio broadcast, a Cabbage Corp exec had called, requesting to be the Wolfbat’s primary sponsor, contingent upon the Avatar's acceptance of his challenge. He’d heard from half a dozen other companies as well, but none with as lucrative an offer as the manufacturing giant. None as cynical, either - the contract that the exec sent over had language requiring the Wolfbats to wear attire with the Corp logo during all photo shoots, interviews, and even practices, and Tahno was obligated to bring up his attraction to the Avatar at least once during every press availability.
Just as Tahno had hoped, the media was pivoting back to pro-bending, and to the Wolfbats’ prospects in particular. Today’s Times included a two-page spread in the sports section, profiling each teammate and publishing the odds for their taking the championship again. The Times, of course, was far too serious of a publication to do more than indirectly allude to Tahno’s unusual challenge for the Avatar.
The Republic City Enquirer, however, had no such professional standards. In the locker room after their work out, Ming had handed him a copy of that newspaper and told Tahno to be sure to read the account of his “aching heart” on the inside cover. Feeling more than a little trepidation, Tahno pulled the paper out of the duffel bag at his feet and turned to the article:
Love is in the Arena: Avatar Korra Considers Tahno’s Proposal
Once comely Avatar Korra got back on the dating scene, it was only a matter of time before eligible bachelors came calling. But this week’s revelation from fallen champion pro-bender (and total hunk!) Tahno changes the game completely! Tahno, recently unlucky in life and in love, has come off a season-long suspension with the announcement that he is looking to change his fortune in both. With an invitation to the Avatar to go out with him if her team can’t beat his, Tahno’s putting his career and his love on the line.
A pro-bending insider told Enquirer reporters that Republic City's most famous hairbender has got it bad for our spiritual savior. “He’s pined for her since the day she returned his bending. He can’t stop thinking about when she placed her hand over his heart,” spilled the tipster. Cue the awwww’s! Sorry ladies, this guy’s only got eyes for the Avatar!
Sources close to the Avatar say that after she was burned by her firebending ex, she vowed never to love again. But perhaps waterbending Tahno can unfreeze her icy heart. He says he’s a changed man and he made the challenge to prove it. Now the only question is, will she accept his offer?
“She’s got to take him up on it! Tahno bared his soul for a chance to be with his true love!” said an unnamed, starry-eyed female Wolfbat fan club member.
Others aren’t so sure about his sincerity. “This is another publicity stunt. I just hope Avatar Korra doesn’t get her heart broken by another jerk,” said a jealous-looking fan who asked for anonymity.
Will these two share a love to rival that of Oma and Shu? Or will this pair remind us more of Raava and Vaatu? For now, we’ll have to wait until the Avatar gives us her decision! Keep reading the Enquirer for exclusive updates!
Tahno tossed the paper away in embarrassment and rubbed his temples. He tried to console himself by reminding himself that this was all part of his greater plans. It also helped that he earned a small commission each time a paper printed a photo of him wearing the Cabbage Corp logo -- and the picture accompanying this piece was enormous.
So far, the press was making all the moves he had expected of them, but it had been two days since he had made his public challenge, and the Avatar hadn’t yet responded. He had thought that she would be so angry at his offer that she would insist on scheduling the match as soon as possible just to show that she could beat him, but he had miscalculated her response. The papers reported that her spiritual awakening had helped her mature; perhaps that included reining in her notorious temper. Unfortunately, if she didn't make a move soon, he would have to think of another way to keep the attention of the press.
The phone rang. The noise wrenched Tahno from his reverie. He reached over to grab the old fashioned unit from the end table and spoke into the mouthpiece. "Tahno speaking," he answered.
An angry feminine voice responded. "I don't know or care what your angle is, buddy, but I don't plan on being a pai sho piece in your games."
With an opener like that, Tahno couldn't feel very hopeful about his prospects. "It's a pleasure to hear from you, Avatar," he replied with a measured, practiced tone, already calculating mentally how to change the situation to his advantage.
"Whatever. You just want to know what I am going to do."
"I suppose that is accurate." He held his breath, waiting for her answer.
She didn't say anything. All he could hear was the static of the line and the blood rushing through his ears. He had miscalculated. This whole plan was for naught -- he would lose his sponsorship and the Wolfbats wouldn't even get to compete. He could almost smell the dank swamp where he would have to move back.
Then he heard her sigh. "OK, pretty boy. One match so I can kick your ass back to amateur hour for good."