Tenzin always had to ruin everything and she could not figure out why. He never was content with the way things were. Something in him pushed him to change what was into something else. Lin supposed that it was the wind within him that caused him into a constant state of motion. Similarly, it was the earth within her that made her wish things to stay the way they were.
The first time he had destroyed everything was twenty years ago. Soft lips had caressed hers like the wind blows over the grass and he had told her with all of Tenzin's seriousness that he was in love with her. She had raged at him that they were friends and he had no business, none, kissing her without her permission. The last thing she needed was to have him be in love with her on top of things. He had looked at her with those solemn gray eyes and told her that she did not need to return his feelings; he just needed her to know. Tenzin had promised no matter what he would always be her friend.
Then like an idiot, she'd leaned over and kissed him again, a kiss as solid as the stone bench beneath them. She loved him too.
Fat lot of good it did either of them now that she was trapped in this forsaken wooden room her mother used to torture the force when any of the metalbenders went off. Chief Beifong had raged at her only child of the dishonor and disrespect. "Thankfully, Twinkletoes is not alive to see what you did to his home. No matter what is going on between you and Tenzin, you will have respect for the land that your uncle built."
Lin had met her mother with silence. She was a grown woman of thirty-four, not a child. No one needed to be put in their place. Hearing what Tenzin had to say was punishment enough for ever believing that Lin could have what she wanted.
Tenzin changed the rules on her again. Everything had been working out just as she had pictured.
She had a job that gave her all the adventure she had craved her whole life. Her work satisfied all parts of her. She and Tenzin would work together to solve the problems of Republic City and enjoy their separate togetherness. They did not have to be in each others pockets all the time for them to feel each others love. She could live in the heart of Republic City and he could ferry between Republic City and Air Temple Island. They would visit each other and stay overnight and it didn't have to be any more than that.
Which, Lin knew, was a bit of a lie. Tenzin had wanted more for years.
The first time he had proposed, he had been 21 and she 20. He had taken her out to the edge of Air Temple Island on Oogi. She could still feel the way the breeze had ruffled her hair and Tenzin's hand taking hers to dismount. He had dismissed Oogi and taken his pack with him out to the edge of the island and sat them underneath a tree. He'd poured her favorite plum wine and laid out a variety of buns and vegetable dishes and talked about his dreams for the future.
He had painted an idyllic picture of their life: living on the island with his parents as they raised children, hopefully a few airbenders and maybe an earthbender or two, her still able to work for the metalbending task force but also training any children they had that were earthbenders.
Lin had snorted at his words. "How many rugrats would you expect us to have?"
"Three or four," young Tenzin had told her, looking quite like the old pictures of his father, "Maybe five if we haven't had an airbender at that point."
The idea of being stuck on this island, pregnant with lots of small children running around was terrifying. Lin had barely liked children when she had been one. Her mother had always referred to her and Tenzin as the least childlike children to ever exist.
Rather than running right away, Lin had managed to wave him off. She had reminded him that she was a cadet, and if she was going to accomplish all of her goals, she was going to need to remain focused. There were at least three more years of solid training to be part of her mother's special forces before she would be allowed to be a full member and then, there was still so much to do. Lin had told him that she would only want one child, maybe two, if any at all. That, she had insisted, was a decision she wouldn't be ready to make for years yet.
An arm had come around her and he had rested his new beard on top of her head. Lin had felt his exhalation, and worried then that he was going to walk away from her because she didn't want to live his ideal life. Instead he had dipped his lips to kiss her head and whispered that they had all the time in the world to figure out what the future held.
They had carried on happily for the next few years. If Tenzin longed for something more, he rarely said anything, save maybe a casual comment about the distant future. Lin didn't understand how he had an urge to have a family when neither of his siblings did. He may have had a pang of jealousy when Rika had gotten married and began having babies. Lin had thought of what a waste of time it was for Rika to be pregnant when there were so many more pressing issues for a princess of the Fire Nation. Although, Rika was still going to be Fire Lord whenever Uncle Zuko had had enough of the throne. Having the children wouldn't ruin her life the way having them would mess up Lin's plans.
If Lin had visited the herbalist a time or two to make sure that her plans were never ruined, well that was another story. Stories she knew would have ended her relationship with Tenzin years ago. There was no room for any distractions. The competition amongst the metalbenders on the police force was fierce. To give an inch was to lose your edge in the process. Lin was never going to give anyone a reason to surpass her.
He had proposed again when she was 26 and he was 27. He had reminded her that they weren't getting any younger. Things were settling and she was on track in her career. He was also making progress as an airbender and amongst the Air Acolytes. He was still doing significant traveling with his father, but he could cut back if she wanted him to.
"Why would you want to stop?" Lin had asked incredulously, looking up from her paperwork.
"I don't—" He had shaken his head at her, picking up her hand "That wasn't what I was saying. I wasn't saying I want to stop. I was saying I could slow down a little." She remembered the way his hand felt, rubbing circles on the back of hers with his thumb, "If we wanted to begin a life together."
She had taken her hand back, and given him a stern look. "Tenzin, I have no intention of slowing down." The print on her case notes was blurred, but she wouldn't let him know that. "I don't think you should either."
They had sat quietly at the table, Lin reviewing her case notes; Tenzin looking at the laws as he was primed to take over for the aging Gotai who had been on the council for a number of years. As they worked next to each other, one would quietly mutter something out loud and then they would discuss it for a bit before going back to their own work. It was much how her mother and Sokka's relationship had worked since she was six and Lin found a comfort in it.
Then, Tenzin had broken their rapport with, "You know, my mom had already had Bumi by the time she was our age. I'm almost as old as my father was when I was born."
"What is with you tonight, Tenzin?"
He had hung his head and said, "Nothing. Never mind."
Lin had taken him at his word and put it out of her mind. Instead she'd talked of her latest issue with a fire bending gang and how she'd been working on undermining them. They were beginning to fail based on infighting and the suggestion that maybe there was some double crossing. He had listened with a distracted air. It hadn't been a big deal. Just a bump in the road but they had come past it.
Ever since Uncle Aang's death, however, Tenzin had been particularly restless. Whatever lightness the air seemed to infuse him with had been blown out of him. There was a lead like heaviness that came with all of his motions. It got worse when Katara had announced her departure from Air Temple Island. Kya had promised to move with her, but Tenzin had wanted his mother to stay. Her departure had widened the gap in Tenzin's heart. Lin didn't have all the tools to fill it.
He'd asked her to move with him to Air Temple Island and she'd laughed. Thinking on it now, the sound of it was harsh and cruel to her own ears.
"Why," she'd laughed, "when you have all of your Air groupies?"
He'd sighed and steepled his fingers in that serious thinking pose he had. "They're not groupies, Lin," he had reproved her. "They are people who have been keeping my father's culture alive for the better part of a century and they are continuing to sustain it. What if—" A sadness had entered his eyes. "I could be the last one, Lin. There might never be another."
"Tenzin—" She couldn't have brought herself to lie and say that she would ensure that he wouldn't be. Lin wouldn't even suggest that Bumi could miraculously have an illegitimate child that was an airbender out somewhere. "Then come here. Live in the city. You already work here and we could find a good space for Oogi."
"I want to marry you Lin," he had said, quietly.
Lin had looked up from her paperwork and given him a pointed glance. "Does that marriage include children?"
"I am the last living airbender, Lin," Tenzin reminded her. "I do want children one day."
She had been 33. One day was likely to be sooner rather than later. Children were not something she was any more interested in than she had been at nineteen. They were not something that appealed to her. Tenzin, however, seemed to long for them in a way that seemed just foolish.
"Does it include pulling back?"
"Did our parents ever pull back?" he questioned, and she had no good answer. Their parents had continued with their mission of rebuilding a world out of balance as if they had never had children. He was looking into the fire in her apartment with a far off look. "I just want to have a life."
He had a life, she thought, a full one. Tenzin didn't seem to see it that way. "You're still grieving, Tenzin," she had told him. "Give it some time and we will talk about it again."
Except they hadn't talked about it again; at least not until today. He had invited her out to Air Temple Island to tell her, in no uncertain terms, that it wasn't working. That things between them hadn't been working or a very long time and he couldn't, couldn't in good conscious continue their relationship and make them both miserable.
Shocked, she had stared at him blankly. "Who in this relationship is miserable? Everything is fine!"
He ran a hand over his face, and looked older and more tired than he had in their entire lives. "I'm miserable, Lin. We don't want the same things and I can't keep hoping you'll change your mind."
In the heat of the moment, she couldn't see all the signs that she should have. Looking back now, she could see how they had gotten to this place of distance and regrets. "We both want what is best for Republic City," she had reminded him. Continuing what their parents had begun was the most important thing. "What do you mean we don't want the same things?"
"You don't want children."
It had been said so simply. She'd leveled a firm gaze at him with her grey eyes. "No, I don't."
He hung his head with a sadness that had been lingering since his father's death. "I've been waiting for almost fifteen years for you to be ready for a real life with me—"
"We have a real life, Tenzin," she had growled at him. how could he call what they had anything less than real. "Just because I'm not your little housewife—"
"I never said I wanted a housewife," Tenzin had interrupted her. He kept saying words but none of them made any sense. "I just want a true partnership. One where we live together and raise children together and just depend on each other."
Thinking on how they lived, his argument hadn't held any weight with her. Still didn't when she thought on it now. "You don't have to live together and have children together to depend on each other. I depend on you, Tenzin." Who else would either of them go to with problems? Who else could they trust with their secrets and feelings? "I don't know why you would think otherwise. I don't know what I would do without you in my life."
"I don't want you out of my life," Tenzin had insisted. "I want us to remain friends."
They were standing on the ground where he had first proposed. How she had missed that fact, Lin couldn't have been sure. "Friends! Friends!" she had crowed at him. "While you, what, find some other woman?"
He hadn't corrected her. His cheeks, visible above his beard, colored a bright pink. Her vision which had already narrowed to just Tenzin squeezed even tighter to just his face. He forgot that she knew him better than perhaps anyone else. "Who is she?"
The blush deepened and Tenzin took a telling step back from her. His hands had raised as if in surrender and told her that her instincts were as strong as ever. "Lin," Tenzin had pleaded.
"Who is she? Which one of your Air Groupies finally got her salivating claws in you?"
"Pema isn't like that," Tenzin argues. "None of them are like that, Lin."
"Pema? Pema?" She tried to wrack her brain and finally came up with a slip of a girl who had come to the island a few years before Uncle Aang had died. She had mousy hair and a pleasant but average face. "Isn't she a child?"
"She's nineteen," he had said, as if that made a difference. As if nineteen had anything on thirty or older.
Lin's face had turned into a sneer, confident that the age difference was possibly a sore spot for Tenzin, the ever proper. "You kissed me before she figured out how to string sentences together. She's a child," Lin repeated. "I thought you were better than this."
"Better than what?"
"Being seduced by a child who has been hanging off your every word. What is it? That she's young? That she's willing to live on this island in the middle of the bay and be your broodmare? That she'll fall for whatever you tell her?" The idea that a weak, pliable woman was what Tenzin really wanted made her feel sick to her stomach. "I am a woman who has done something with my life. I am sorry you cannot handle that."
His brows had drawn together, hurt and confused. "She is more than just some token, Lin," he'd insisted, clearly bothered with her assessment of the new woman in his life. "I love her."
"You…you love her," she had stammered, unable to understand what he had just said. "You love her?"
After that, all hell had broken loose. She could not quite remember what she had done to the island. Just that she had torn bits of it and then gone for Pema. She couldn't remember what she had said exactly. All Lin had wanted to do was to shame Pema as she had been shamed moments before. This small slip of a girl needed to understand what it was like to be embarrassed. To understand what it was to have your life ripped to shreds in just a moment.
Lin couldn't even remember how exactly she had gotten back to the mainland. Someone must have knocked her out. She woke up in this box with her mother staring down at her.
The door of the box began to crack and she was expecting her mother's blank eyes. Instead, there is a gray wolf tail bobbing and a smiling, well lined face peering at her. "Hey kiddo. The island must be a mess if your mom put you in the wooden box."
She was not in the mood for another lecture, or any type of teasing that Sokka might give her. It was embarrassing enough that he was seeing her in this way, trapped in here. "Go away."
"Nope," he answered, flopping down on a chair with a lightness that was unusual for his seventy years, "not an option."
"Did Mom send you to be my babysitter?"
She got a childish rub on the top of her head for that comment. She was a grown woman of 34 and he made her feel like a child all over again. "Your mom is off rebuilding what you broke, kiddo," Sokka said in his good-natured way. "You know, when Aang built that damn island, Toph wouldn't let him do it alone, lest he screw it up. Or as Aang liked to joke, you can't escape the watchful feet of Sifu BeiFong." Sokka's voice trailed off into silence for a moment before he added, "I think she's just glad that he wasn't alive to see you attack it."
Lin paled at the actual idea of her uncle having seen any of the mess she made. Although, she hoped that he would understand why she did it; considering Tenzin's actions. "I'm sorry I messed up Uncle Aang's island." A memory of the look of terror on Pema's face as Lin had swung towards her on metal chords came to mind. "Beyond that, I'm not the least bit sorry."
Sokka wouldn't stop looking at her though. He peered at her where she was sitting on the floor, where she was really trying to feel the earth under these layers of wood. Damn her mother to the spirits. Lin hoped if she ignored him, he would decide to leave. "You want to tell Uncle Sokka what happened?" he asked after a prolonged silence.
It was the first time anyone had asked her what happened. Picking at one of the joints on the floor, her mother hadn't even used nails, she began. "He said it wasn't working. That he was miserable with me because I wouldn't have kids with him and he just…" Lin's voice broke and if she could have thrown more earth at Tenzin's bald, tattooed head, she would have. "He found someone who would be pregnant for him."
"Hmm," Sokka hummed in the tone of a measured city councilman. "Has he talked about kids before?"
"Don't defend him," Lin growled, finally looked at Sokka. His blue eyes had a sympathy in them she had wanted all ay but wasn't sure she wanted.
"I'm just getting the measure of the situation. A good warrior always understands what's going on before going in."
She waited a moment and thought of all of the memories that had been holding her hostage since Chief Toph Beifong had left her inside this hole. Other whispers of Tenzin casually talking about children also came to mind. "Yes," she finally answered the question, petulantly.
"I don't want kids. I don't want to live on Air Temple Island." She looked to him with pleading eyes, hoping he would understand what she was saying to him. Not wanting what women were 'supposed' to want shouldn't be a crime. Yet her relationship had still been executed for it. "I have a job and a life, Sokka. I don't need to be tied down."
Sokka tilted his head at her and sighed. "If I were Tenzin, I might have argued that the adults you knew didn't let children weigh them down. Even Rika hasn't let being a mother to three slow her at all."
Lin huffed out air and shoved against the floor, scooting her body backwards, unable to hit anything to her satisfaction. "It's different, Sokka. I have a goal to be chief of police. It won't happen if I take any breaks."
"Your mom became Chief Beifong with you."
Lin scowled at that one. "Mom made the Metalbending Police Force, of course she made chief without blinking." She closed her eyes, hearing the voices of the other members of the force, from her cadetship on. The whispers that she was just her mother's pet. Of course, Beifong would see better positions, better promotions and eventually make it to the top. Her mother was paving the way. Taking beats no one wanted, going places others wouldn't go and letting herself be placed under commanders who did not particularly agree with her mother had been Lin's solution.
As the voices in her head continued to say she didn't deserve an inch of it, Lin fisted her hands. "I can't let anyone think I made it because of my mother or my name. I have to deserve it. They won't accept me if I am not the hardest working, most dedicated officer in the history of the force."
"What do you see?"
"You two wanted different things from life. Not every love affair can work out." He leaned back in his chair with a faraway expression that always lead to an old story. "You know, once there was this woman in my life-"
"Who you loved, but she was engaged to someone else. Still, the two of you fell in love and you wanted her to run away with you but then Commander Zhou killed the moon spirit and the Princess Yue gave her life to become the next moon spirit. Which is why you occasionally longingly stare into the moon's reflection in Yue Bay," Lin repeated the familiar story that her mother had told a few times when Lin had, asked as a child, what Sokka was doing. Wishing she had stones to toss, Lin shook her head. "That's different, Sokka, she's a spirit."
"Well, yes, that is one story, but that wasn't the one I was going to tell." Lin looked at his eyes, which had become serious and a little sad. "After Yue, there was another woman. We were both warriors, and she was impressive. I fell in love with her. Different from Yue…but still. We were together for many years despite the distance that often cropped up between us. When the world started to get settled, I wanted to move here on a more permanent basis. I thought she could come and create another division of the police force, with non-benders. She just wanted to go home."
Lin frowned, bits of the story sounding familiar. "Mom said the two of you had wanted Suki to make a Kyoshi Warrior branch."
"Mmm," Sokka assented and continued with the story, "Anyways, she wanted to be at home on Kyoshi, training her warriors, building her force there rather than moving to a new city to start over. She had been gone long enough. So, I let her go. We both made our own lives in our own spaces. I can't say I regret it."
She thought of how after her father had died, her mother and Sokka had developed their relationship. He was a better father than her real one had ever been, not that she remembered much. Her mom had only ever had her. "Did you ever want kids, Sokka?" she asked, quietly, wondering if he was at all bitter for the way things had gone in his life.
He looked at her like she was crazy. "I had kids. I got you," he reminded, pulling a lock of her disheveled hair, "didn't I? And Bumi, Kya and even Tenzin. Still don't know where he got the serious streak."
She thought of Suki who had been her family's friend for years and going to visit Kyoshi Island and learning from the fearsome warriors. Lin thought of Tenzin and herself and Sokka's appropriate use of this story he clearly doesn't like to tell. "Did it break your heart, that she wouldn't come?"
"It did. But Suki needed to be in charge of her own career. I respected that and I know it broke her heart to end it. We weren't going to work out. She wanted to live on Kyoshi and I wanted to build Republic City."
"She doesn't mind that you and mom…" She trailed off, thinking of more questions, "Do you mind that mom never married you? Or had more kids?"
"It's like you're six all over again, Lin, my fearsome interrogator," Sokka told her, giving her a soft smile to show he wasn't bothered by his questions any more than he had been then. "Suki and I remained friends, which may be more than you can offer Tenzin right now. Your mom and I are as married as I need to be. As I told you, I had you, and my niece and nephews and it's been enough."
"So what you're saying is," Lin summarized, picking at the wood boards of the floor again. "I'll live."
"Yeah, after your mom lets you out of the box. Which she might not, you know," he widened his eyes and wiggled his eyebrows at her, "All things considered."
Lin waved him off. Her mother would let her out, eventually, she hoped. You couldn't keep a person in prison without a trial. If Tenzin and Pema didn't press charges then there would be nothing to hold her on anyways. They might though, especially Pema, considering that she hadn't really done anything, except steal Tenzin. It was unlikely that Pema would see her own actions as a crime. Lin's own mother didn't.
The idea that without any commitment to Tenzin or having any children with him, he could still mess up her dreams of being the second in the Beifong dynasty of police chiefs caused another stab of pain. Last, but that was okay. Lin would rather be the last than the first. She might not even get that. If her destruction of Air Temple Island went on her permanent record and prevented her from what she considered her destiny, she really would never forgive him.
Lin would be happier sitting on this awful wood floor that muted the whole world than seeing his selfish face ever again. Even more things Tenzin ruined.
"Come on in for a hug, kiddo," Sokka said, opening his arms, "It's the best I can do."
Without words, Lin crawled her way across the floor to where Sokka was sitting, and as if she were a child again, she put her head in his lap. Sokka's strong, wrinkled hand stroked over her hair and Lin began to let go of the tears that she had not wanted to acknowledge. She clung to the man who had been her second father until the tears ran dry.