A/N: Yeah. It's been like five months. I don't have a better excuse than I've just been insanely busy with real life…but in any case, I'm sorry. If you haven't given up on this fic, I owe you a huge debt of gratitude…one which can only be repaid with a moderately long chapter and the promise of Tahnorra, eventually.
She was up before dawn. Despite everything that had taken place upon their arrival, and having spent the better part of the previous evening in City Hall discussing rebuilding strategy with Tenzin and the representatives from the United Forces, as well as restoring bending to a few dozen of Amon's victims who had been registered with the police, Korra had still had trouble sleeping. It wasn't for lack of sheer exhaustion, she was certain. By the time the first rays of sunlight began to stream through her window the young Avatar gave up trying to salvage any rest. She stifled a yawn and went about her morning routine; quickly showering and dressing herself before shuffling halfheartedly down the hallway of the women's dormitory toward the common dining area. Her mind was reeling as it tried to process everything that had happened over the course of the past week. From her life's highest point straight down to what she had begun to consider her lowest, everything about her personal and professional existence was a jumble of hurt and regret. Never in her life had her heart, mind, and body been pulled in so many different directions—if this was what being the Avatar meant, Korra was beginning to wonder if it was a job she really wanted anymore. She shook her head, banishing that line of thoughts for the moment as her booted toe pushed open the door that led to the kitchen. She was surprised to find that she wasn't the first to arrive.
"Good morning, Korra." Asami smiled, pushing a lock of neatly styled hair behind her ear; perfection as usual. A bowl of sweet rice, or what was left of it, sat on the table before her, and she prodded the remnants around with the tip of one of her chopsticks. "I wasn't sure when you would be heading into the city today, so I wanted to catch you before you left."
"Yeah, no problem." The Avatar replied evenly as she ladled a helping of rice into her own bowl and took a seat across from the other girl. "I hate eating alone, anyway." She stuffed a bite into her mouth, pausing mid-chew to ask, "Everything okay?"
"Actually," Asami began, sitting up a little straighter and leveling her gaze meaningfully as she let the word hang in the air a moment longer than necessary, "I was going to ask you the same question."
"Me?" Korra managed through her mouthful of rice and fruit. One of her eyebrows cocked above the other and she couldn't help but appear taken aback.
"I'm not blind, Korra. And I know I've been a little bit mired in my own issues lately, but I'm not completely clueless either." A delicate hand shot out to grasp one of the other girls' as it rested atop the table. "Everybody's noticed….The way you've been acting since we left the South Pole. You don't talk to anyone, when you do your temper is short, you barely sleep, and…"
"That's not true…" She tried to cut in; hoping the white lie wasn't so transparent as it sounded to her own ears, but Asami only shook her head.
"…And what about Mako?"
Korra felt the lump in her throat protest as she tried to swallow it. "What about him?"
"You tell me." Bright green eyes so full of intelligence and concern narrowed ever so slightly. "You two went into the city yesterday, and when he showed up again—without you—all he said was that the two of you had a disagreement. What happened?"
"Look, Asami, I'm not sure now is the best time to discuss this." It was best left unsaid that there probably wouldn't ever be a great time to have the conversation about how the Avatar and her firebending companion had pursued a relationship behind his girlfriend's back. She set her chopsticks over her bowl, her appetite shriveling with each passing word. The other woman's eyes still bore into her, though she would not raise blue ones to meet them. "My head needs to clear a bit, and besides, I need to get going now."
"You're avoiding the question, Korra." The Sato heiress pointed out, not unkindly.
"We…Haven't seen eye to eye on some things lately, and with all the craziness at the police station stuff got out of hand, and I told him to leave before he made things worse, and he did, and that's what happened. So can we drop it?"
"But you two are okay now?"
"I…I don't know." She admitted, and felt Asami squeeze her hand a little tighter.
"It's alright. I'll talk to him. You're under a lot of pressure right now, and he shouldn't take it personally that you lashed out at him."
"Thanks, Asami. I apprec-What?! Did you seriously just say that? Like he's the victim here? You have got to be kidding me…" She could feel the blood pulsing hot through her veins, and it took every ounce of her self-control to keep from snorting a plume of smoke from her nostrils. "I need to go." Before I say something I might regret, she added angrily to herself and got to her feet.
"Schedule's booked today. Tell Pema I probably won't be back in time for dinner."
"Would you please wait a minute?" her dulcet voice pled.
"What?!" The Avatar spun around mid-stride, throwing her hands into the air in frustration.
Asami did not flinch; the slightest purse of her lips the only indication that she found her friend's behavior daunting. "I just want you to know that I'm here for you, Korra. I'm worried about you."
Korra deflated a little, exhaling a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding as her arms fell back to her sides. "I know….I'm sorry. It's just-everything. The city's in disarray with no council, the gangs are running wild, there are so many people who still need their bending restored…I just feel like I'm being pulled in a hundred different directions. And then there's you…and Mako…and you know, a baby." Numbness spread through her limbs as the last admission lay on the tip of her tongue. "I just feel like I need some time to come to terms with that. With all of it."
Long dark locks shifted like a curtain of black silk over her shoulders as Asami nodded. "That makes sense. Believe me...I know better than anyone how adjustments to the unexpected can take time. But why are you adding to your problems with this Wolfbats situation?"
"I don't know. I guess because it's something to take my mind off things." A short laugh escaped her throat, though it was mirthless. "Who would have thought pulling dead bodies out of the harbor and tracking down murderers would be the easy stuff?"
The Sato heiress's brows knit together, and she took a step closer to the Avatar. "You should be careful. I know it's not what you want to hear, but those guys played a dangerous game." From the tone of her voice it was apparent she was not speaking of pro-bending.
"So everyone tells me." Korra muttered. "Hopefully I'll get some answers this morning. I think Tahno knows a lot more than what he said in the police report, but for some reason he was too spooked to tell me down at the station."
"You're meeting him?"
"Uh…yeah? Why does everyone always react that way when it comes to him?" She ventured, folding her arms across her chest as she fixed her friend with a curious look. "I get that he's kind of a jerk, but what's everybody's hippo-cow beef with the guy?"
"I take it you haven't seen the headlines?"
The Avatar blinked, shrugging. "I didn't have a chance to read the paper this morning."
Asami turned and padded quietly over to the table, grabbing the neatly folded newspaper and holding it up for Korra to see the front page. There was a picture of the White Falls Wolfbats, right under the bold printed words of the headline: Former Champs a Trio No More; 1 Dead, 2 Hospitalized...Suicide Pact?
She swiped the paper from the other woman's hands and ran out the door before her friend could utter another word.
"Bei Fong!" The Avatar yelled, pushing hurriedly past the handful of officers who had dared step in front of her as she had stormed into Police Headquarters. She sidestepped an older clerk, ignoring his raised hands, and pounded on the door to the Chief's office.
With a soft groan of the hinges the door swung open as the room's inhabitant bid it, and Lin looked up from her desk with a barely concealed grimace. "You shouldn't be here right now, Korra."
Tiger-Seal skin boots pounded furiously against the marble floor as she crossed the room and slammed the newspaper down face up in front of the older woman. "Have you seen this? What in the name of Koh's faces happened last night?" Her voice shook with rage and indignation.
"We haven't released a statement officially on the Earthbender, but it's fair to assume that the press has speculated his death was suicide."
The Avatar's fingers curled into her palms and shoved the paper directly into Chief Bei Fong's line of vision. "It says Shaozu and Tahno have been hospitalized. When I left here yesterday neither one of them was injured…"
Lin heaved a sigh and rubbed at her temples, lowering her eyes to skim over the photograph in the paper. "We got the call a little after midnight. The Firebender—"
"Shaozu." Korra supplied.
"Yes. He climbed out onto the roof of his apartment building with a bottle of fire-whiskey in hand and tried to jump. There were about a dozen witnesses below. The other one—Tahno—he went over the edge after him…used some strange waterbending trick to rip a couple trees from the ground beneath them. Witnesses think he was trying to cushion the fall with the branches." The Chief of police cleared her throat. "For all the good it did. I suppose it worked, though probably not as well as he'd hoped. Shaozu is in critical condition in the ICU at Yugoda Memorial Hospital."
She took a deep breath, slowly sinking into one of the chairs adjacent to the desk. "Wow. He was so upset yesterday…I just can't believe…" Her brow furrowed and she glanced back over at Lin. "What about Tahno?"
The older woman leaned back in her chair, clasping her hands behind her head as she regarded Aang's reincarnation with some measure of pity. "He's probably wishing he were dead about now. Better condition than his friend, but the doctors probably won't release him for a few days yet, either. It's a lucky thing he was there, at the fireben—Shaozu's apartment when it happened. We had to question him, but he was a bit of a mess and we didn't get much before the pain meds kicked in. I plan to have one of my officers give it another go this afternoon."
"So he's still at the hospital?"
Lin nodded. "I've got him under surveillance."
"Why?" the younger woman queried, her gaze drawn once more to the photo printed in the newspaper. "Is-Is he a suspect in any of this?" The voices in her head were a cacophony of Mako and Tenzin, Bolin and Asami all whispering the same words of warning; that the former Wolfbat captain was awash in scandal and dirty dealings. And yet, she couldn't help but wipe the image from her mind of the weary, uncertain young man she'd spoken with at the police station.
"No." Her chair creaked as she swiveled its solid metal base to better face Korra. "So that if anyone goes near him, I'll know about it."
The tip of her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth as she considered. "You think whoever killed Ming…Is going to go after him next?"
"I don't know what to think, Korra, but I know that those three were a package deal, and I know the Earthbender didn't end up in the harbor on his own, so Tahno is the best lead we have here."
Blue eyes fell across the Chief's desk once more, settling upon the newspaper that still lay there. "You said reports are calling Ming's death a suicide. Why would they put that in the papers?"
Lin shook her head. "Wild speculation on the part of the press. We haven't released details on the case yet. They probably interviewed the witnesses at the scene last night about Shaozu's attempt and drew their own conclusions."
"He was murdered. There isn't a doubt in my mind."
The metalbender allowed a quiet sigh of resignation to escape her lips. "I know. But there's no solid evidence, and the only lead we have is in the form of a comatose firebender and a particularly uncooperative waterbender."
The room filled with a heavy silence.
Korra stood, not bothering to reach for the paper as she turned and made for the door. "I'm going to talk to him."
Everything hurt. That realization had been at the forefront of his mind since the moment he had awoken in the crisp white room under harsh florescent lights. There was gauze wrapped around his head, half obscuring his vision out of his left eye, and from what he could tell there were more parts of his body hidden under casts and bandages than not. It hurt to raise his right arm, but he managed to get a good look at his hand. Scrapes and abrasions, likely courtesy of the tree branches that had saved him from slamming full force into the concrete, marred his pale skin. His other hand, he soon discovered, had not escaped more serious injury. The two smallest fingers were braced and bandaged; undoubtedly broken, as was his wrist. He dared not try and sit up far enough to throw the blankets aside and look upon his legs…though from the aching pain he felt emanating from them, Tahno was fairly certain he wouldn't be walking out of the room in which he found himself anytime soon.
His eyes searched the small space, seeking to gain purchase of his surroundings. There was another empty bed beside him, and a window past that; though the blinds were drawn so he could not wager a guess as to the hour. There was a curtain pulled around the entryway which obscured the door, but not the voices and the occasional sound of a cart wheeling by in the hallway beyond. Two bags of fluid hung suspended precariously from a hook above his head, and several thin clear tubes snaked out of it like swamp vines to prick into his arm and wrist; held fast by strips of white tape on his skin.
The waterbender groaned, squeezing his eyes shut, and tried to push away the medically induced grogginess as he struggled to let the reality of his situation sink in. "Fucking Shaozu…"
Keeping tabs on the impulsive firebender had always been Ming's thing. Tahno didn't have the patience for it, and more often than not the earthbender had done his best to keep the pair from bickering or trading insults-Fire and water didn't mix, he had always accused. But Ming was gone now, and for all his bluster to the contrary Tahno did feel some measure of responsibility toward the other remnant of their broken trio. It hurt to think about that, too.
Perhaps it had been that concept of duty which had spurred him to try and talk the drunken maniac down from the ledge. And maybe it was a pang of guilt for what had happened to Ming that moved him to reach for the other man's arm; to pull him back when his weight shifted forward and his balance faltered. But it hadn't been enough. It was a lot like the third zone of a pro-bending ring-Shaozu outweighed him by thirty pounds or more, and once his center of gravity arced over the ledge Tahno knew they were both going down. From there it had been instinct, pure and visceral. He'd had his bending back for less than a day, but being out of practice hadn't hindered him from calling forth every ounce of his strength to summon his element—in whatever form he could wildly grasp—to aid him. The lovely Moon-Peach Blossom trees that lined the streets in neat rows had offered the only source of water in reach; that deep within their trunks and branches. It had been many years since Tahno had found the need to bend the water contained by foliage and trees, and an ability he had long ago dismissed as useless in a city of stone and metal, but a boy born and raised in the swamp didn't simply forget how it was done. And thank the spirits for that. The two had crashed painfully through splintering branches; but the trees slowed their descent enough that their inevitable impact with the sidewalk had not killed them both.
A rustling of the doorway curtain roused him from his musing, and he shifted his line of vision enough to see a kind-faced nurse poke her head around; cheerfully asking, "Are you awake in there?"
"I am now." He fussed accusingly, unsettled by the shakiness in his own voice.
"Oh, good!" she replied, oblivious. "You've got a visitor!"
The bedridden waterbender was about to skewer the irritating woman on a spear of verbal barbs when a familiar pair of crystal blue eyes met his, and the words died on his tongue.
"Hey." Korra greeted with a tight lipped smile as she stepped into the room; one that she probably hoped would mask the obvious look of pity and shock on her face as she took in the sight before her. It didn't work, of course.
"Hey." He echoed back with a similar lack of enthusiasm.
She waited until they were alone before crossing to the unoccupied bed and pulling herself up to sit upon it. Her booted feet hung over the side, crossing at the ankle and swinging ever so slightly back and forth. "How are you feeling?"
"How do you think?"
"Yeah, that was kind of a stupid question…Just trying to break the ice."
The Avatar breathed a quiet sigh. She didn't look like the all-powerful Supreme Being that she was supposed to be…Rather, there was something almost vulnerable about her; a weight bearing down on her shoulders that made her entire form just a little less poised. "Heard what happened last night..."
"Did you, now? I bet they came up with a nice witty headline. 'Wolfbats Attempt Flight, Fall Flat on Their Faces"?"
"It's pretty amazing what you did."
"Yeah, well as I recall I offered to give you some lessons..." His voice trailed off; his defensive attempt at humor falling flat even to his own ears. The look on his face must have betrayed his facade, because it earned him a flash of concern from his visitor.
"I stopped by the ICU on my way in. He's gonna pull through, you know."
"Why are you here, sweetheart?" He asked after the silence had drawn on a moment too long.
Korra glanced down at her boots, studying the toes as they continued to swing gently beneath her. "Because you're here, pretty boy. And you said we could talk."
"This wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Look, Tahno." She glanced up at him, her gaze purposeful, "What in the name of Koh is going on?"
He lay back against the pillow, schooling his features with every ounce of willpower he possessed. "You mean besides that hotheaded imbecile drinking himself into a stupor and falling off a fucking rooftop? Not much."
"Are you saying it was an accident? Because I don't think it was."
"Whatever. It doesn't matter."
"…And I don't think Ming was an accident, either."
Gray eyes, glassy and burning, suddenly flicked over toward the young woman. "Are you a cop, now?"
Korra's eyebrows knit and she folded her hands in her lap. "Of course not; but you said you would be honest with me and if I'm going to help you I need to know."
"I'm not asking for your help, Avatar."
"You don't need to ask for it, Tahno. I'm giving it willingly." She hopped off of the bed, smoothing down the rear side of her pelt as she stepped over to the bed in which he lay and stood over him. Her hair brushed her shoulders as she turned her head to look him over. "Tui and La…You sure as spirits need it."
He took a deep breath, wincing as his expanding lungs pressed painfully against an injured rib, and breathed a resigned sigh. "What do you want to know?"
Korra pursed her lips as she inspected his injuries, absently pulling the water from a small cup on the bedside table to her hands and began to gently massage over the minor bruises and scrapes that made up the bulk of the more cosmetic wounds on his body. "How about everything?"
Tahno scoffed, though his gaze did not leave her hands as he watched her ministrations; mesmerized. He'd been to plenty of waterbending healers before, but the way she moved was something else altogether. "Long story, doll. Where do you want me to start?"
"Maybe at the beginning?" Her soft fingers ghosted over his chest, droplets of shimmering water gliding across his black and blue skin and leaving it pale in their wake. "That's usually a good place to start."
"Suit yourself." He murmured. "I guess...I guess it all started about a year after I came to Republic City."
"You're not from here?"
Tahno permitted a crooked grin to tug at his mouth. "Nah. Not exactly something I advertise, for obvious reasons, but I'm from the swamp."
"I guess that explains the trees." She smiled reassuringly, moving her hands and the healing waters upon them to his ribcage. "Master Katara told me about her visit to the Foggy Swamp. She said it was...uh...kind of different...That was a long time ago, though, so I'm sure things aren't that bad anymore."
"Actually, they are. Maybe worse. There's nothing there but muck and squirrel-squitos and abject poverty that makes Dragon Flats look like the upper ring of Ba Sing Se. And most people there are too stupid to realize it. The recruiters from the factories over in White Falls send representatives out every Spring to sign on Swampbenders and bring them back to Republic City. Bending liquid chemicals through pipes and machinery is child's play when you've grown up bending swamp water and vines. Plus, we've got a reputation for working harder and for less pay than the Polar tribes. Cheap labor. But compared to home, a shoddy one room flat in White Falls and ramen for dinner every night sounded like a pretty sweet deal. So I took it...Ended up at paper factory. That's where I met Ming and Shaozu."
"They worked there, too?"
"That's right. Ming operated the stone sieves; Shao was over in the boiler room. We'd get together between shifts and listen to the pro-bending matches on the radio. A couple nights a week some of us would meet up out in the side lot of one of the warehouses and play matches of our own. Amateur stuff—no pads or helmets; just six guys and a few lines of chalk to mark the zones. When the three of us played together we won. We always won." He quieted, allowing his gaze to meet hers. "That's when I got to thinking that—maybe—it was time for something bigger."
Korra pressed her palms against the tight muscles of his abdomen, the cool water flowing across his flesh in slow swirls. "Like the pros?"
The waterbender nodded. "Exactly. But that kind of thing doesn't come cheap. I scoured the town; hit up every tea shop and laundromat in White Falls begging for sponsorship. Put my own savings into it; talked the guys into putting up theirs. We took on extra shifts at the factory, scrimped and saved every yuan we could. But it still wasn't enough...It was starting to look like a lost cause. Then, the night before the registration deadline for the season, this guy rolls up in a fancy Satomobile—Shin was his name—and offers to front us the money we needed to get on the brackets in exchange for interest on the loan and a cut of our winnings."
He bit back a snort. "Sweetheart, you have no idea. But we were young, and stupid, and we took the bait. By the time we realized we were doing business with the Triple Threat Triads, it was already too late."
Pausing from her work momentarily, the Avatar looked up. "So you were in debt to them."
"We still are."
"But you've won the championship pot four years in a row! That's enough to cover start up fees a dozen times over..."
"You don't get it, Avatar." Tahno retorted, shifting as he tried to sit up and sending the healing water splashing onto the sheets that pooled at his waist. "They own us now. The Wolfbats were a cash hippo-cow for them. All of their underground gambling rings, the tournament winnings, it brings in a fortune for their operation. We had no choice...You've seen what happens when people cross them."
Her voice got small, and she flicked her wrist, coaxing the spilled water back to her hand. "So what happened after you three lost your bending?"
"That's the thing. They let us lay low for a while. We were beginning to think that might have been the silver lining to the whole situation...that even though our bending was gone, at least we were finally free of the Triads." His voice caught in his throat, and he tried to clench his wounded hand—broken fingers and all—into a fist. "But when news hit that you could fix it; fix us, it all came back to haunt us. We were desperate to find a way out...so initially, we tried to refuse."
Small hands, wreathed in glowing liquid, rose to push the bandage away from his forehead and reveal the scabbed over abrasions beneath it. "Refuse what? Having your bending restored?"
He closed his eyes, unable to relax despite the calming sensation of the water healing or the gentle touch of the woman next to him. "It was my fault. I put the idea in Ming's head that...that if we couldn't bend, they wouldn't want us...When one of the bosses approached him about it he..." His words trailed off.
Korra pulled her hands away, and the water dripped down Tahno's face. "...They killed him to send a message to you and Shaozu." she whispered.
The former Wolfbat captain raised his good hand to wipe the moisture from his cheeks; silently thankful that the Avatar would think it only water.
A/N: Aaaaand, I hope it was kinda-sorta worth the wait? I swear I haven't given up on this story, but updates are going to be a bit sporadic for the next couple of months. I truly appreciate those readers (and especially reviewers!) who have stuck it out and been so very patient. Your feedback and suggestions are what keeps me pressing onward...That, and we Tahnorra shippers have got to stick together! Next installment we'll get a lot more Tahno and Korra, and the fun really begins. Thanks again; and hope to see you next chapter!