A/N: Spoilers for episode four!
She looks down and sideways at no one, her smile faint, her eyes distant. The strong slant of her shoulders nevertheless sags a little. “I think you’re the first authority figure in the city who’s happy I’m here,” Korra says.
Across the table, Pema frowns.
“You need to show her more affection.” The words come like a quiver in the room’s coolness. Her hands find his hips: her mouth the nape of his neck. She’s on her toes, arching into him—the floorboards creak and he sighs, tipping his head forward. Delicately her fingers work into the ribbon of his sash.
“Hmm?” he asks after a moment. “I’m sorry—what was that?”
She laughs into the fold of his spine, hard and grooved where the muscles weave tight against the tapestry of bone too. “You need”—she presses hot, sweet kisses down the small scoop of skin—“to show her more affection, Tenzin. Praise her a bit. Let her know”—her teeth are gentle, quick; the sash comes away and she winds it about her palm, then drops it down to pool between their feet—“she matters to you.”
She peels open his robes next. Squinting down into the dark to watch her hands descend, Tenzin attempts, “Who? Korra? She’s my student, Pema, not my child—”
The heel of one of those hands smacks sharp over his belly. “But she is a child. Yours, not yours: does that matter?” Yet her thumb presses: she kneads, softening the sting of the strike into something else, something that makes him shiver. “She should know she’s wanted and appreciated. And you should appreciate her.” She leans her cheek into him, her hair tickling, her temple warm. “She’s giving you a priceless, precious opportunity. Don’t waste it.”
Tenzin closes his eyes. “If you’re implying…” He trails off, casts about in search of a suitable reply, and finally settles on, “She’s not my father.”
“No. Not your child—not your father. Korra is Korra.” Reaching to pull the robes down his arms, Pema says, “She’s also the vessel of his spirit, and for that one of the only people in this world who possesses the potential to love you as much as Aang did. Don’t,” she insists again, “waste that.”
Considering, Tenzin feathers his fingers over Pema’s. She butts her brow into him wordlessly then, and he steps out of his shoes and nods. “Mm. You’re right.”
“Yes. Yes, I am. Always.”
“Show her she’s wanted and appreciated,” he echoes. “Ah. Yes. …right now?”
Pema’s grasp dips. Closes over him. “Well, it is late, isn’t it? Maybe you should want and appreciate me first.”
He follows her suggestion. She is, after all, always right.
The next day he finds his pupil on the dais, circling. Her steps are stilted, her stance too solid and stiff in the knees. He opens his mouth to correct her: stops, thoughtful. He has not forgotten his wife’s advice.
Show her more affection.
“Korra,” he asks the girl gingerly, “are you… doing all right?”
She looks at him and away again, off across the bay toward the city and its spires. A shrug and a set of splayed hands serve as half her reply. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
But she isn’t. The tight catch of her breath, the tension at her jaw’s crease—together they tell Tenzin so. Besides that, he knows fear when he sees it.
Praise her a bit.
“I’m glad you turned down Tarlok,” he informs her. Still her eyes flicker from him, and he feels in himself a quiet and unexpected anxiety to go with the frustration he has known since the moment he took her into his custody. Naught but a handspan separates her knee and his hip: he could tip an arm sideways and touch her.
The distance between them seems nonetheless insurmountable.
Their ensuing conversation is feeble. He can bend air better than anyone and apparently converse with it admirably too. At last he rises to retreat, his elbows tucked taut to his sides, his hands clenched where she can’t see them. When he turns and finds her head drooping low, concern and Pema’s counsel clamor within him.
Let her know she matters to you.
“I’m always here for you if you want to talk,” he reminds her.
He leaves her sitting in the silence of her pride, gaze downcast.
She goes to the island against his wishes. As the bay’s fog and the haze of distance swallow her whole, he paces the dock: glares openly at Tarlok and tries to ignore the gnawing heaviness in his breast. Not my child, he’d said. Not my child. Not my child.
“Sure, she isn’t an airbender yet,” says his fellow councilman some time later as the clocktower chimes the day’s surrender, “but she’s quite capable otherwise. And she is the Avatar—”
“She is a child,” snaps Tenzin. Sick guilt and horror bubble in his gut. He stares across the water, pewter sickles of the moon slow on the current, and thinks of what his wife would say, what his mother would say: thinks of his own daughters out there alone in the dark, capable or not.
He palms his glider and calls the wind to him.
In the mocking glow of a lantern left behind she sprawls, limp and still on the stone of his father’s legacy. Not my child, he’d said.
Yours, not yours: does that matter?
Too late, maybe, he realizes it doesn’t.
He runs for her, faster than he ever has in his life, and counts it as penance when his name is not the one she whispers in asking for help at last.
He takes her back to the temple. Ushers her to bed. She is gray-faced and hunched all the while—she shivers herself to sleep, even. He sits on the edge of her bed a long time after, his hand furled at her shoulder, his mind awhirl.
She should know she’s wanted and appreciated.
At dawn he shakes her awake again.
“Why are we up here?” she asks. Below them the temple’s campus sprawls, the lemurs sleeping and the bison with them. It is cold, and the panes in the sky’s eastern window glare a slippery, smoldery orange beneath the night’s retreating velvet.
“This is the temple’s highest point.” Tenzin gestures to the open balcony, the sharp drop-off below. “Here we find the best headwinds—the steps to the thermals, high above.” A second time he motions, cupping his hand to the clouds.
She blinks at him, not understanding. When he snaps open his glider, though, her eyes widen and she breathes, “No way.”
“I’m too heavy!” She takes an eager step toward him anyway, gaze burning blue, so blue, fingers twitching and mouth wanting a smile.
“This glider held my father.” And me too. Both of us, so many times. “It will hold you.”
She hesitates, nibbling her cheek: glances at him under her lashes, grinning now. He steps onto the glider’s pegs: opens an arm and says, “Trust me.”
She does, immediately—rushes to him and belts her arms about him sidelong, thrusting her face up into his shoulder. Her grip is so sure, so familiar Tenzin struggles to swallow.
Korra is Korra. One of the only people in this world who possesses the potential to love you as much as Aang did.
They lean into one another. Along the horizon the sunrise blazes.
“Ready?” he asks.
On the bar above their heads her hand finds his, clutching there. “Aw man, so ready.”
They sweep from the balcony to the shriek of her laughter.