His government memo arrives in the mail a day after the Avatar comes back from the South Pole.
CONCERNING ALL BENDERS PRESENT IN REPUBLIC CITY DURING THE FOLLOWING DATES:
He skims down two columns of dates notable for equalist activity and attacks over the past six months. Yes, yes, yes, yes – he lives here, yes, he’s been present for all of them. Yes.
Please report to Republic City Hall on the date below for an information session concerning the victims of Equalist Leader Amon's terrorist attack against the benders of Republic City. Upon arrival present this notice to allow admittance. This will be a two-hour commitment. Please use the return envelope to reply with a confirmation of your availability; if otherwise, please use it to request a rescheduling at once.
On the bottom line is a series of numbers stamped in smudged ink, as if the sender had been in a hurry, dated a week later.
Tahno flips the letter over. Nothing else on the back other than Republic City's faint watermarked seal, guaranteeing its legitimacy.
Probably another futile attempt at an ex-bender support group. He turns up his nose, almost of its own accord. The healers and his parents, and now the damn government is insisting he try therapy. He shreds the letter and dumps the pieces in the wastebin.
The rumors begin circling that evening.
“Avatar Korra just arrived back in the city and then they release that memo – does she have news about Amon?”
“Why invite just the benders, though? Nonbenders should hear what…”
“There was already a public apology and open session by the Council, I'm not sure what else they could say that hasn't been.”
“She was visiting the South Pole, and Sifu Katara lives down there, she's the best healer around. Maybe she figured out a way to help former benders rebalance their chi? Korra could be holding an information session about that?”
“I hear she lost her bending too, how's she going to help?”
“That's just rumor, I think it's crap. The woman upstairs from me says she saw Korra waterbending her boat in the harbor the day she came back.”
“It's just what I heard…”
“My brother didn't even get one of those things. All the crap he's been put through, and he was one of the first to lose his bending to Amon, he deserves to hear what this is about. Whatever this is, the whole thing is really unorganized.”
“Maybe… mail's just slow…”
“Should at least be getting some thousand yuans after all this trouble…”
“ – or pest control to finally come see the elephant-rats in my pipes, free of charge, that’d be nice…”
After listening to the neighborhood's rumor mill, Tahno revises his initial presumption and concludes, no, it's probably not an information session, but just another apology, this time behind closed doors to make it feel more personal. Probably with some cash involved. They've already broadcasted several official statements that had amounted to the same apologetic drivil from each of the councilmembers, but he hadn't paid much attention. Public outcry must have demanded more recompense. Why they would make multiple sessions, though, from the sounds of it – his earthbending neighbor's requested date is scheduled a month from now, and Ming's sister has been told to mark her calendar for a day six weeks in the future.
Well. Of course it’s unorganized, it’s the establishment.
He’s starting to regret tossing the letter after gathering the sense that his scheduled date was easily the earliest of any bender’s on his block. Then his neighborhood. He suspects if he asked around, nobody in his district would have been attending this super-secret hand-holding session the same time he was.
Except Ming, who is slotted for the same day as he. Ming, who thinks it's bullshit.
“Might as well go,” he had said between slurps of Narook’s. Some broth flicked onto Tahno’s jacket sleeve. “If they give me money, I'll play the hurt victim long enough to grab the money and run. Think they’ll let you in without that paper?”
“I’ll sneak in, I don’t care.” Tahno wasn’t eating. Shaozu would have forced something down his throat, but then, Shaozu had skipped town a few weeks back to go into hiding with his family and hadn’t been heard from since.
“Luck with that. Avatar’ll kick your ass into next year.” And just barely comprehensible around a mouth of noodles: “‘Ou know she’ll be there.”
He shows up anyway, and early too, because fuck it, if they don’t let him in, they don’t let him in, and he goes home and gets drunk like he's planning to regardless.
And of course –
“No memo, no admittance,” a big burly guard at the door says, and checks his notes. They’re in the lobby of City Hall and he’s blocking a door to the side of the Council’s room, immediately to the left of the room he’d been interrogated in after the pro-bending finals. “Tahno, right? Recognize you from the papers. I don’t think you sent back an RSVP.”
“I thought that was optional.”
“This is a government procedural, son, not a university shindig. If you want to come back after all the people waiting are done – ” He jabs his finger at a line of tired-looking policemen trailing out the door front door and onto the steps outside. Ming is about halfway down, surrounded by metal uniforms and boots on either side. “ – we can see if there’s time for you.”
“Anyone going to tell me what this is all about?”
“Take a seat, please, if you plan on waiting. There are others I have to attend to.”
Tahno waits. He sits in the lobby and waits, watching police officers shuffle in and out. They go inside mostly individually and the occasional group never has more than five. They’re coming out with their heads a little taller, breathing a little slower, but cautious, like they’re getting used to walking again. None of them say a word as they head outside and, he suspects, back to the police station. None of them look shocked or all that much richer. They knew what was going to happen here; they had been told.
He’s had a lot of experience waiting over the past few weeks: waiting for the bath to fill, waiting for the plumber to come fix his toilet, waiting to dry out after the rain. Now, he watches the police boots clink as they move forward. He counts patterns in the tiled floor, counts how many times the aging secretary scratches her behind every ten minutes and keeps a tally on her highest records. He thinks he dozes a few times.
(He doesn’t see Korra.)
(…Well what the fuck is this for then, if he can’t mess with her a little?)
He doesn’t really have an answer for why he didn't just leave when he was turned away, but then, there’s nothing waiting for him at home except three bottles of liquor and a pai sho set with five missing pieces and an overweight cat that snores like his grandfather and steals his pillows for an opponent.
It’s late afternoon when Ming shuffles forward and shrugs at him before he steps into the room when it’s his turn in line. He’s inside for maybe ten minutes before slinking out, looking vaguely shell-shocked.
“Reeling from the ten-figure digit they’ve just dumped into your bank account?” Tahno asks as he comes over.
Ming shakes his head. Tahno thinks he’d look sick if he isn’t so flushed with color; instead he just looks a bit like he’s been knocked in the head several times with a pro-bending disk. “You should go.” His voice sounds cracked, but he clears it and tries again: “Now. You should get in line now. Make sure you go today.”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m in time-out because I threw away my party invitation.”
“Just. Do it today, man. Sneak in if that’s what you want. You’re not going to want to wait.”
“Is anyone going to tell me what, exactly, is happening behind that door?”
“Ruin the surprise,” Ming grins, and it’s a bit tired, but it’s also a bit victorious, like the Ming of old, flashing him back to the Wolfbats’ heyday after a rough match. “You wouldn’t want me to tell you. I’m sure the Avatar’s dying to be the first one to see the look on your face when you find out. See you 'round.”
He’s somehow too exhausted to come up with something clever to say in response – which is odd, isn’t it, he’s done nothing but sit on his ass and nap for half the day – but Ming heads toward the open doors with a two-fingered salute. Outside, the sun is edging down over the Republic skyline.
It’s not like he’s expecting her to wonder why the fuck he didn’t show up or anything.
An hour after Ming leaves, the guard from before cracks open the door enough to stick his lump of a head inside, confers with someone on the other side, and then closes the door again. He turns to the front of the line, arms crossed and feet spread shoulder-width apart. It's a very self-important kind of stance.
“The Avatar’s not seeing anyone else today,” he says to the crowd. “Your sessions will be postponed until tomorrow morning at 9AM. Please form a line here as you did today. You will be treated with priority over those who are scheduled to come in tomorrow. The Avatar apologies for the inconvenience.”
Tahno has been slowly mulling over the idea in his head ever since Ming had left, but his memo had said today, so he's going to get what he came for today.
Blending in the crowd of police officers – and a few average citizens here and there, looking just as confused as he feels, hmm – he hangs to the left, pressed up against the door, and waits for a crowd of tall officers to block his view of the guard at the front before quietly turning the knob and slipping inside.
The interrogation room. Where they’d sat him down and made him relive what had happened, first for Saikhan, then with additional questioning for Bei Fong, then for – he’d snapped that third time, and stormed out. They hadn’t sent him an invitation back.
He isn’t quite sure whose office this is, and he isn’t sure what he would have done if there had been somebody in it – luck of all fucking luck, there’s no one but a few dozen folders and sagging couches to greet him – but he had remembered noticing an inside door when he’d last been here, opening to a room on the left. Right into wherever Korra should be.
Tahno crosses the room and jiggles the handle. Locked.
He’s looking around for something to pick it with when he hears a scraping sound in the lock, and then freezes when he hears her voice from the other side, muffled by the wood.
“I’ve opened it. Come on in.”
What’s the use of any of it? Assigned a privileged session time, throw away the invitation; show up, get told to rot on a bench for a few hours; wait and wait and wait some more, get turned away; and now, she was expecting him all along, expecting him to break the rules and sneak in through the side door. A door she knew he would’ve known about – she’d seen him that day after the finals, she knew where he’d been interrogated.
(Unless it wasn’t him she was expecting.)
He slips inside.
Korra has her back to him, facing the broad floor-to-ceiling windows against the far wall, scribbling something on a spare piece of parchment. From across the room he can see sweat on the back of her neck caught in the sunset light. He frowns. Exercise? Physical therapy for former benders?
He examines the room. There's a circular meditation mat in the center of the floor and a few mismatched chairs scattered around it, as if people have been shuffling in and out to watch the activity on the mat. No gold in sight, he notes, slightly disappointed. Dread settles.
“Was wondering when you'd show up.”
Korra is wiping her forehead. She looks exhausted, but in a satisfied way, as if she's expected everything about this meeting, down to the way he's eying her warily.
“When,” he repeats. Not ‘if.’
“Once you discovered what I'm offering isn't a new kind of physical or meditation workout, yeah. Even if you didn't figure it out I suspect you'd come. Besides,” she pauses, “your teammate showed up to his session. We couldn’t reach your firebender. But you'd feel left out eventually. I feel inclined to mention he was on time, by the way.”
He tries for a smirk. “Yes, well, if you'd cut to the chase in the memo and told me what all this was about, maybe I would've hurried.”
“We needed a system, an order of hierarchy.” She’s not listening to him. “We couldn't go broadcasting it all at once, people would be pounding down my door. We had to be – ” She pauses, as if recalling earlier words. “‘Honest and considerate, but still the domineering force behind this operation.’ Or something.”
“You've allowed rumors to travel across this city before the truth had a chance to put its pants on. You know my neighbor is expecting the deed to the city in apology for the shit he’s gone through the past few months?”
She smiles wryly but doesn't take offense. He'd half-expected an eye-roll, but instead he observes the bags under her eyes and the weighty look her muscles seemed to hold.
“Tahno,” she says, and hearing her name should do something to him; he registers that this is the first time he's heard her say it without malice. Calmly. Perhaps like she would a friend. “I'm offering you your bending back. That's the big news. We're telling everyone officially, tomorrow. You and the others just have priority. The police officers are first, obviously, but you… consider it compensation. Or a peace offering.”
He can’t think, nothing is processing, and so he spits out what comes automatically to his tongue: “I'm touched.”
“Don't be,” she smirks, not unkindly. “You and the Wolfbats are just about timing. Figured you've gone the longest without it, you should be first to get it back.”
“Pull the other one, Uh-vatar. If you wanted to get me alone in a room to see you sweating, you didn't have to issue out a government memo. A phone call would do.”
“Out of my respect for the spirit of healthy competition, I requested you be one of the first on the list,” she continues as if he hadn't said anything. He's mildly surprised she hasn't risen to his bait. “Mostly I've been helping city workers, their skills are more necessary than cheating probenders. You come behind them, of course. They had to be first.”
He rolls his eyes. “And who comes after them?”
“A long list that I'm not involved with organizing.” She shrugs. “Should take a few months, and people will complain, but my goal is to restore everybody's bending by the new year, but I can only go so fast. Now - seriously, do you want yours back or not? It's been a long day and I want to go home.”
It starts to hit him when she says that. He can be forgiven, he thinks, for believing it to be a joke for so long – it's Korra, they fuck with each other for the hell of it – but this is a little too far for a prank or childish rival banter just… because.
A joke of this severity also, if he's being honest, doesn't seem like her.
(‘Like her,’ what the hell is that supposed to mean? Like her, since when does he know what she's like?)
Despite himself, he asks, “So how's this work?”
“You kneel on the floor on the mat and don't wiggle around too much. I recommend closing your eyes and shutting up, too. The rest you can leave up to me. It should be over in a few minutes, if not sooner. Any other questions?”
He immediately wants to ask if it hurts – it hadn't hurt, exactly, when it was taken, hadn't even hurt after (still doesn't, in fact, at least physically) – but he imagines he’s got to feel something, a power like that coming back to one’s body long after the body's adjusted to normalcy without it. But he screws his jaw tight and doesn't respond.
She takes his silence as a no and awkwardly glances to the mat and back. “All right.” She moves one of the chairs out of the way. “Step in the center, then. You shouldn't take too long as long as you don't make it unnecessarily difficult.”
(Granting benders back their abilities – hell, he's never been much of a spiritual guy but he knows a full day of that must be enough to tire anybody out.)
Tahno kneels down on the center of the mat, watches her hands draw closer and her blue eyes focus down on him, concentrating. One hand is already on his chest. This is what she'll do to every bender in the city, he thinks, what she's done for hundreds of people today already. This is… beyond just reversing what Amon did to you. This goes over it. This is some high-level Avatar power thing, the type of thing the old-timers down the block tell stories about from the bending they’d seen Aang do back when he was alive. She can do that. She is doing that.
“I’m not really giving it back to you, you know,” she says quietly. “It’s been there all this time, waiting, I think. I’m just… opening the door again.”
He almost catches a glimpse, then, of what she is; he almost sees it, a flash of the magnitude of her power. It's gone by the time her hand reaches down to his chest, just above the breastbone, and he has a moment of blazing clarity to think: This is actually happening, I'll be –
When her thumb meets his forehead, he closes his eyes.