Disclaimer: I do not own LOK. It belongs to Bryke. Me just borrow.
A/N: This is my first LOK fic. I'm not sure at this point if it will be my only one. It's dealing with Tenzin and Lin's breakup and it's a companion piece to my story Tales of Republic City. It's been written for a while now. I just finally decided to post it.
The Avatar was dead.
Lin Bei Fong received that devastating news only a few minutes after donning her metalbending armor in preparation for her first day as interim police chief of Republic City. Long after she'd dismissed the messenger, she sat perched on the edge of her bed trying to absorb the enormity of what she'd been told. Once her shock wore away, Lin was left shaking with an unending sense of loss and grief. Avatar Aang had practically been her family. Second only to her Uncle Sokka, in many respects, the man had been like a father to Lin. He had certainly loved her as a father would and Lin had loved him like a daughter.
Tears burned in her throat, but she refused to give into her sorrow. There were more pressing matters that required her attention first, namely her aging mother. The night before during Aang and Katara's 47th wedding anniversary party, her mother had been curiously withdrawn and quiet, even opting to leave the festivities early despite Katara's warm insistence that she stay. On the ride home, Toph hadn't said a word either. Lin had tried more than once to goad the irascible old woman into conversation but had received little more than monosyllabic grunts for her efforts. Afterwards, Toph had taken to her bed with express instructions to her staff that she was not to be disturbed.
Now the sudden mood shift in her mother's mood made sense to Lin. Now she understood the motivation behind Toph's cryptic piece of advice the night before…the unspoken implication that something bad was coming and that Tenzin would need her. Somehow her mother had known when no one else had suspected a thing…somehow she had sensed that the Avatar, her friend, was dying.
Inevitably then, Lin's second concern, and inarguably the more complicated of the two, was Tenzin. He had been extraordinarily close to his father and had admired Aang greatly. She didn't have to imagine that his loss had left him feeling devastated and alone. All of her instincts screamed at Lin to go to him immediately…because that was what she had always done when Tenzin was hurting, from the time that they'd been small children.
But they were no longer children. Matters between them were more complicated than they had ever been. Lin wasn't entirely certain that Tenzin wouldn't welcome her comfort…not after the hurtful words she had said the last time they'd spoken. There were some words a person couldn't take back…
Given her doubts about Tenzin's receptiveness then, Lin decided to focus her sole attention on her mother. Earlier attempts to coax her mother out of hiding had been met with failure. However, now that Lin knew the reason behind her mother's strange behavior, there was no way that she was going to leave Toph alone to wallow in her grief. While most of the house-staff was intimidated enough by the blind earthbender not to bother her when she made it clear she wanted to be alone, Lin possessed no such fear or qualms. It was little wonder then that she ignored her mother's instructions and barged into her room without preface, demanding in the tersest tone possible that Toph "get out of bed and get it together."
Obstinately, Toph yanked the covers up over her head with a weary grunt. "You and I make quite a pair, kid," she grumbled, "I'm blind and you're obviously deaf otherwise you wouldn't have come in here after I've told you nine hundred times already that I wanted to be left alone! What part of that did you fail to comprehend?"
"I heard about Aang," Lin uttered softly.
It was impossible to miss how still her mother became beneath the bunched blankets. Finally, Toph released a shuddering sigh. "When?"
"A few minutes ago. Did you know, Mother? Is that why you wanted to leave last night?"
"I knew," Toph confessed gruffly after a few beats of silence, "He asked me not to say anything and so I didn't." She emitted a small, choked sound before she added in a broken whisper, "It was his last request, Lin. I couldn't tell him 'no.'"
"I'm sorry, Mom."
Toph burrowed deeper beneath the blankets. "It is what it is."
"Well, you can't stay locked away in your room this way," Lin told her, "Aang wouldn't want that."
"Aang's not in a position to do anything about it," Toph muttered.
"I'm not going to let you do it," her daughter countered stubbornly.
"I'd like to see you try and make me do otherwise!"
Undaunted by Toph's surly tone, Lin strode forward and ripped the sheets back from her mother's pajama clad form. She ignored Toph's indignant yelp over her actions. "Mother, get up this instant!" Lin ordered brusquely, "I'm going to Air Temple Island to pay my respects to Tenzin and his family and you're coming with me!"
Her jaw set tightly in obstinate revolt, Toph yanked the covers back and then burrowed beneath them once more. "You may be into masochism, cookie, but I'm not," she muttered, "Aang is dead! It sucks and I hate it, but there's nothing I can do to change that so leave me alone!"
"You can't stay here in this bed!"
"I can and I will."
Lin narrowed her eyes with the resolute response, but rather than launching into a lengthy rant over her mother's willful and childish behavior, she decided to take a different, more pointed route to reason with her mother. "This is a difficult time for everyone, Mother, but especially Katara and her family. You're the strongest of them all and they need that today."
"I'm not that strong, Lin."
"That's the pain talking," Lin told her, "Don't you want to mourn with your friends?"
"Why?" Toph scoffed, though the tears in her tone caused the words to become slightly garbled, "So we can reminisce about the good ol' days that we'll never have again because all of us are headed for the grave sooner or later? No thanks!"
"So that's your problem? You don't want to go with me because Aang's death has forced you to face your own mortality? Mother, grow up! Don't you think you're being selfish?"
Toph bolted upright, her face streaked with tears. "I'm not being selfish!" she hissed, "It has nothing to do with facing my mortality! It has to do with the fact that my friend is dead! I don't want to deal with that right now and nothing you say will change my mind about it! So, if you can't accept that, then get out!"
Anyone else might have flinched over Toph's harsh tone and scurried away with tail tucked, but Lin, having grown used to her mother's curt manner years ago, was able to discern the vulnerability and hurt beneath Toph's angry words. Consequently, she softened her approach and her tone. "Mom, you can't hide from this," she said softly, "I know you're hurting, but shutting yourself away in this room won't change anything."
With her hands braced against the mattress, Toph slumped forward heavily, her breath shuddering from her lungs in a defeated sigh. In that moment, she seemed suddenly very old and very diminutive in her daughter's eyes. "I know that, Lin. I know," Toph mumbled, "I've never been a coward in my life, but… I can't go there today. I just…I need time to be okay with it. I'll go to Katara when I know I can be strong for her."
"You don't understand, Lin," Toph mumbled thickly, "I can feel their grief. Even across the water I can sense it and it's…" She shook her head as her words trailed off in an anguished whisper. "I can't face that. I can't face them. Not now. I'm not ready."
Lin sank down beside her to awkwardly grasped Toph's hand in her own in a rare moment of vulnerable entreaty. "I can't go without you, Mom," she whispered, "I can't. I don't know the words… I can't go to Tenzin on my own…"
She couldn't finish the explanation. Although Toph knew that she and Tenzin had broken up and Lin had given her some vague clarification as to the reason why, Lin had refrained from giving her mother the finer details of that last fight. She hadn't revealed to Toph that, after accusing Tenzin of two-timing her with some sweet, young acolyte who served at the island's temple, Tenzin had dared to defend the girl to Lin. He had been angrier than Lin had ever seen him, which was a feat considering the fact that no one could get under his skin quite the way she could.
Tenzin had denounced her wild allegations of cheating as little more than "unfounded jealous ramblings." But when he went so far as to say that she was projecting her own frustrations and shortcomings onto Pema, Lin's tenuous hold on her temper had snapped completely. At that point, the words had flowed from her mouth like a rancid river and, before she realized it, she had said several things too horrible to ever take back. She had known it the second she looked in Tenzin's eyes. Even if she had verbalized the apology which was virtually pushing at her lips right then, Lin suspected that Tenzin wouldn't have forgiven her anyway.
They had not spoken to one another at all since that horrible day. During his parents' anniversary party the night before, Tenzin had stayed on his side of the party and she had stayed on hers. He had mingled with his family and their friends and the acolytes for most of the evening while Lin had mostly sulked off in a corner alone. Not even Sokka had been able to coax her out of her funk and, if anyone had been able to lift her spirits no matter what, it had always been him.
Unfortunately, the wounds festering between her and Tenzin were too severe. Lin felt as if nothing would soothe them or the ache that had settled in her heart since they had ended. At one point during the night, she had spied Tenzin off on the sidelines talking with his father and it had taken every ounce of self control she possessed not to go to him then. At the time it had seemed like the best idea too. Based on the furtive glances both Aang and Tenzin had been throwing in her direction during their conversation, Lin hadn't had to guess at what they were discussing. Now, in hindsight, she wished she had forsaken her pride and gone to Tenzin anyway.
So, as a result of the rather complicated circumstances between them, Lin wasn't entirely sure how to approach Tenzin in the wake of his father's death. Part of her didn't feel she had the right any longer and part of her feared his rejection. The latter was especially scary because she needed Tenzin's comfort just as much as she needed to give him hers. She seriously doubted that he even wanted to see her. What she did know, however, was that he needed her…whether he wanted to acknowledge that or not. Tenzin needed her support and she needed her mother's. Lin told Toph as much.
"Well, that's pretty low of you…brilliant, but low," Toph admonished her, "You're going to pull the 'I need my mommy' card on me today of all days?"
"I can't face him alone."
"Yes, you can," Toph told her, "You're a strong girl, Lin, and you always have been. And you have to be today…because I can't go with you. The last thing I want to do is abandon you when you need me so much, but I cannot do what you're asking me to do. Please don't push this."
Lin set her jaw tightly, disappointed and despondent, but nodding in acceptance nonetheless. "They're going to ask about you. They're going to wonder why you're not there. What do you want me to tell them?"
"Tell them that I love them and that I loved him too," Toph murmured as she turned to bury herself back in the covers, "Tell them that I'm sorry."
The ferry over to Air Temple Island seemed to take an eternity. As the boat passed beneath the looming statue of Aang's twelve year old image, Lin felt tears of grief burn the backs of her eyes. She hadn't yet wept, as devastating as the news had been, because it still didn't seem real to her. Aang couldn't be dead. No one who took such an unquenchable joy in life and who brought such joy to others could possibly be dead. He had been too full of optimism and smiles and wisdom. He still had so much more to give to the world. And yet, when Lin stepped off the ferry onto the island boat dock a few minutes later, there was no denying the truth anymore.
The Avatar was dead.
Dark colors of mourning were already streaming the temple. The atmosphere on the island was somber and quiet, very unlike the noisy commotion that had been the norm when she was a child. Even the acolytes who greeted her barely spoke above a whisper. "Where is Master Tenzin?" she asked them, "Please take me to him immediately."
Two male acolytes led her through the winding, open corridors of the temple and out into the courtyard. Just beyond the small pond, Tenzin sat on a bench situated in the middle of the small garden, his face buried in his hands. But he wasn't alone. Pema sat alongside him, her arms braced around him in a comforting gesture while he wept quietly. She was murmuring something to Tenzin, but the words were so low that Lin couldn't discern them. What she did discern, however, was the intimate nature of the scene before her and she was filled with a plethora of conflicting emotions over having witnessed it. Her first instinct was to turn on her heel and leave just as quietly as she had arrived, but she squelched it. Instead, she stepped out of the shadows and whispered his name.
At the sound of her voice, Tenzin jerked upright and the instant he met her eyes Lin could see that there was no animosity lurking in the gray depths of his own. There was only need. Still, she was shocked when he closed the distance between them and pulled her close in a desperate embrace. Lin hugged him back just as tightly, cradling him against her as he sobbed quietly into the crook of her neck.
"I came as soon as I heard," she choked, "I'm sorry, Tenzin. I'm so, so sorry." Lin was only vaguely aware of Pema discreetly scooting past them, murmuring her intent to leave them alone. For the moment, she and Tenzin were the only two people who existed in the world and that was all that mattered.
After a few minutes, Tenzin finally managed to collect himself and he drew away from her in gradual stages. "Thank you for coming today, Lin," he uttered in a gravelly tone when he had regained some of his composure.
"Did you think I wouldn't?" she wondered, "I loved him too, Tenzin."
He nodded and drifted back over towards the bench, seemingly in a daze as he resumed his seat and murmured, "I know you did. I know."
Lin went to join him, assuming the spot that Pema had vacated earlier. "This has to be an awful time for your family…for you."
"It's a shock," he admitted, "I don't think it's truly sunk in for me yet. One minute I was talking to him and everything was fine and the next…" He managed a spasmodic swallow. "I can't fathom how the world could change so drastically overnight."
Swallowing past the lump of unshed tears in her throat, Lin reached out to take hold of his hand and squeezed it between her own, relieved that he didn't snatch it back. "How's your mother holding up?"
"She's still with him. She told us to leave because she wanted to be alone with him and… She's still with him."
"I'm sorry," Lin whispered because she didn't know what else to say. "My mother isn't taking it much better. She wouldn't even come with me today. She said she wasn't ready."
"No one's ready," Tenzin mumbled numbly, "I'm not ready. I still need him, Lin."
"I don't understand what happened. He seemed fine last night, as silly as he's always been…happy and healthy…"
"I've been sitting here trying to figure that out for myself," he choked, "He was tired last night but I didn't think… I didn't know. If…if I had known I would have said different things to him…things that mattered. I would have told him that I was glad to have him for a father…that I loved him."
"Tenzin, he knew that…"
He pulled his hand from her grasp then and Lin's heart contracted because she could literally see him closing himself off from her emotionally. "We were talking about you last night," he informed her gruffly, "I told him that we broke up and that it was permanent this time."
"What did he say?"
"He said that nothing worthwhile in life came without sacrifice and I had to decide whether or not my visions for the future were worth losing the only woman I've ever loved."
She had to swallow several times before she was finally able to ask, "And what did you decide?"
"Last night my answer might have been different if I had let myself stop being angry with you," he whispered in a husky tone, "But this morning, I'm the last airbender and that's a fact that I can't ignore anymore." He surveyed her with a mournful, sideways stare. "I won't ignore it, Lin."
Lin nodded and stared down at her hands. "Did you tell him what I said to you?"
"Oh, you mean that you weren't interested in marrying me and being a family and never were or do you mean the part about me being a 'controlling jerk' who was 'suffocating' you and making you 'miserable'?" he replied in bitter recollection. Lin flinched at the reminder, her own hateful words ringing in her ears just then. "No, Lin," he told her, "I kept those precious gems to myself."
"I was angry when I said that," she mumbled, "You know how thoughtless I can be when my temper gets the better of me, Tenzin! You know me better than anyone!"
"You're right. And that's why I know you meant it. There's no point in trying to take it back now."
"Tenzin, don't do this," Lin pleaded gruffly, "Not now. Not when you're hurting this way."
He whipped around to pin her with an intensely penetrating glare. "Do what, Lin? Face reality? My father being dead doesn't change what's true between you and me!"
"It changes everything, Tenzin!" she whispered fiercely, "If anything, we've been reminded in the most painful way possible that life is too short! I regret what happened between us before and I don't want to leave it like that. I love you. I don't want to fight with you anymore. I want to help you."
As abruptly as the fight welled up inside of him, it deflated from him as well. "I don't want to fight either." Tenzin slumped forward with a mournful sigh. "I don't know what to do. I feel so lost."
"Then lean on me. Let me help you," she insisted again, taking hold of his hand to tug him against her. But, only a moment before he was about to let himself be drawn into her arms, Tenzin jerked back from her with a resigned scowl. "Stop it, Tenzin," Lin hissed at him, "Stop fighting me!"
"You stop it," he hissed back, surging to his feet, "This isn't helping!"
"Because I want to hold you…to grieve with you?" she cried in confusion, "That's not helping? You're trying to make me into the enemy and I won't let you do that!"
"That's not why I pulled away!"
"Because it's a lie, Lin!" he flared angrily, "You're here and what? We'll fall back into the same pattern again? I take your comfort, we get back together, we fall into bed and everything's good for a few weeks until we're locked right back in the same old argument again! Aren't you sick of it? I'm sick of it!"
She winced at his vehemence. "What do you want from me, Tenzin?"
"Nothing you can give me," he muttered gruffly. He turned away from her completely then, his back stiff with tension. "Just go. Please, Lin. If you stay it will just make things worse."
Though his rejection stung, Lin blew out a soft breath of acceptance and stood. However, before she turned to go, Lin stepped behind him and encircled his waist in a loose embrace, resting her cheek against his back. He tensed even more but then, when it became clear that she wasn't going to release him, relaxed in her arms with a shuddering breath of gratitude mixed with anguish. For that moment, Tenzin let her hold him because he needed to have her arms around him and she needed him to need her.
"I'm going to pay my respects to your family now," she whispered, "and I'm going to give you some space because I know you need it and I don't want to make things harder for you. But…we are going to finish this conversation, Tenzin, and we are going to fix things between us…because I can't imagine any other alternative for us." She pressed a kiss to the center of his back. "Can you?"
Lin didn't think that her words had made any impact. She had gone in with him to see his family and offer her condolences and, for Tenzin, it was like she wasn't even in the room. He didn't even acknowledge her after that. Later she returned home, feeling heavy and defeated, to find her mother awaiting her return. Although Toph had been insistent about staying behind, she had still been concerned with how her friends were holding up emotionally. It was only after learning that they were struggling much the same way she was that Toph finally found the courage to go to Air Temple island and see them in person.
Ultimately, her mother's decision provoked mixed feelings within Lin. While she was proud of Toph and glad that she was dealing with her grief rather than running from it, she also lamented the fact that, with Toph gone, she would be left alone with brooding thoughts and endless regrets. With the house empty of everyone except a few servants, Lin stretched out onto her bed to blindly contemplate her ceiling…and her future.
When Tenzin came gracefully ducking through her open window an hour later, Lin barely had a moment to process her shock over his sudden appearance before he was crossing the distance on a current of air and sweeping her into his arms to kiss her hard. She didn't question it, but instead kissed him back, as eager to remove his clothing and be skin to skin with him as he was to remove hers. Tenzin's lovemaking that afternoon was forceful and intense, almost desperate in quality as if he was hoping to purge the demons that plagued him as he drove inside Lin. They twisted in the sheets together, straining, aching, arching, grasping…finding sexual satisfaction in each other's arms yet somehow never finding actual fulfillment.
Afterwards, Tenzin rolled away and flung his forearm over his eyes, as numb emotionally as he had been when he first arrived. In that vulnerable, hopeless state, he found himself blurting the first words that came to his mind. "I hope we made a baby."
Lin tensed beside him, her heart contracting with anger, sorrow and some other inexplicable emotion that was almost akin to regret. "Tenzin…" she whispered slowly, tentatively, "You know we didn't. You know I'm always careful."
"I know," he mumbled, rolling upright and scooting to the edge of the bed to retrieve his robes, "I shouldn't have come here, Lin. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm sorry."
She rose up onto her elbows to regard his naked back and the elegant blue line at its center. "I'm not. I'm glad you came. We should be together, Tenzin."
He surveyed her with a mournful look over his shoulder before shaking his head and then rising from the bed. He held his robes bunched against him, making his intention to leave rather obvious. "But being together doesn't ever change anything, does it?" he asked her in a sad tone, "It never will."
When Lin offered to give Tenzin his space, she never imagined that he would end up needing more than a month of it, especially after what happened between them. But he hadn't mentioned it since. Furthermore, other than that brief afternoon they had spent in her bed, Lin and Tenzin had spoken to one another only sporadically since his father's sky burial at the Southern Air Temple. The silence between them wasn't due to lack of proximity either.
Since Lin had assumed a permanent position as the Republic City police chief, she and Tenzin had crossed one another's paths in the Council quite frequently. However, their conversation never seemed to extend beyond polite exchanges and inquiries after each other's families. Not a word was spoken about the state of their relationship or lack thereof. It was almost as if they were little more than acquaintances rather than two people who had been lovers for the better part of 20 years.
There were times, however, when she caught him staring at her when he thought she wasn't looking. She could feel his eyes following her around the room. In those fleeting moments, his longing for her, his need, was a palpable thing. But the instant she met his gaze, his features would become remote and he would turn away from her, leaving Lin to wonder if the feeling had been a figment of her imagination.
Once though, in the corridor, as they passed one another while going in opposite directions, his shoulder had brushed against hers and she had felt him stiffen, heard his sharp intake of breath. Just that one, fleeting touch had stirred up a tumult of emotions for her. She remembered nights with him, tangled in his arms, her body so intertwined with his that there was no discerning where she began and he ended. She remembered the last time between them in particular and…she missed him. And Lin had known, looking at him right then, that Tenzin remembered too and he missed her. He didn't want to remember, didn't want to yearn for her…but he did.
They had stared at one another for a long time in profound silence, saying with their eyes what they couldn't speak with their lips. In the end, however, the moment didn't amount to much. Tenzin had blinked and recovered and, with some stammered excuse, had taken a step back to continue down the hall as if the encounter had never occurred. It had taken Lin a bit longer to shake it off, but eventually she did, resuming her trek down the corridor in the opposite direction.
Keeping her distance was difficult, especially when she absolutely knew that he wanted her. But, he was fighting it. He was fighting her. Yet, in keeping with her word, Lin stayed away and didn't confront him. She stamped down her frustration and impatience by constantly reminding herself that Tenzin was dealing with the death of his father. He needed time to adjust to that life-changing circumstance before attempting to uncoil the complicated nuances of their romantic relationship. But the reasoning didn't lessen the sting of his avoidance in the least.
So when Tenzin made the abrupt decision to visit his mother in the South Pole for an "indefinite" period of time without any further explanation or commentary about their future together, Lin got the message loud and clear that he was through. By the time he finally returned more than a month later, Lin had reached the limits of her patience. Despite the subtle softening in his attitude towards her, she began treating him with the same cordial aloofness that he had given to her before leaving, going out of her way to avoid him at all turns.
Yet, despite her actions, Lin was angry and nursing a broken heart. She didn't like pretending she was unaffected by Tenzin, but she was also unwilling to let him wipe his feet on her heart anymore. She had done her share of groveling and humbled herself enough. Now it was his turn. On some level she knew she was being irrational, given the fact she knew Tenzin was still in the throes of grief, but it was hard to be diplomatic when she was hurting too. And, as if her life weren't complicated enough, it was while Lin was in that volatile state of mind that Pema decided to drop by her office unannounced.
Lin glanced up from the mountain of paperwork on her desk and barely suppressed her grunt of disgust at seeing the pretty acolyte haunting the threshold of her door. "I only see people by appointment," she informed Pema curtly in obvious dismissal, "Come back when you have one."
However, Lin was surprised when, instead of leaving as quietly as she came, Pema stepped inside, shut the door behind her and faced her down with a fierce scowl. "We need to talk."
That statement provoked little more than Lin's raised eyebrow. "About?"
"You're twisting Tenzin in knots and I want you to stop it," Pema announced tersely.
For a second, Lin didn't know whether to guffaw or snort in disbelief. "Excuse me?"
Far from intimidated, Pema lifted her chin to a haughty angle. "I think you heard me the first time."
"And I think you've mistakenly convinced yourself that what goes on between Tenzin and me is any of your business," Lin retorted shortly, "Let me clarify for you, Pema. It's not."
"Tenzin is my friend. I care about him and I don't like what you're doing to him."
Caught somewhere between amusement over the accusation that she was the one hurting Tenzin and annoyance that it should be coming from Pema at all, Lin rose from behind her desk and moved around to the front of it, bracing herself against it in a deceptively casual stance. "Did Tenzin ask you to come here and talk to me on his behalf?" she wondered in a mild tone.
Guilt and uncertainty flashed across Pema's features, but she resolutely held her ground. "He doesn't know I'm here. I came on my own."
"Well then, you should know that Tenzin is a big boy, Pema, and he doesn't need a cute little girl like you fighting his battles for him. It's sweet, but unnecessary. He's a big boy. He can put on his own pants and everything."
"I'm not a little girl," Pema intoned darkly, "and I'm not here because I don't think Tenzin can fight his own battles. I'm here because he's not in the frame of mind to do it. He's still reeling over his father, Lin!"
"We're all reeling," Lin whispered with decidedly less hostility, "Contrary to what you might believe, I don't want to make things harder for Tenzin."
"You have a peculiar way of showing it."
"Is there a reason you came here to see me?" Lin snapped impatiently.
"I was hoping that you and I could resolve the situation between us like adults."
"And what situation would that be?"
"I'm in love with Tenzin." When Lin failed to react to that with anything more than bored expectation and an eye roll, Pema continued, "I have loved him since I was sixteen years old and since then I have watched him pine for a woman who will never love him the way he deserves to be loved…and I'm sick of it."
"I take it to mean that you're referring to me." Pema jerked a nod. "Well, first let me thank you for your candor, but also make it abundantly clear to you that I could care less," Lin began as calmly as she could, "First of all, you don't know a thing about what I feel or don't feel for Tenzin so shut up about it! Second of all, it's none of your business what I feel for him. Third of all, if you're so very sure that I'm so bad for Tenzin, why are you here confessing to me instead of to him?"
"I'm not a fool. I know that he still has feelings for you."
"So let me guess," Lin drawled, "You've come all this way to beg me to let him go so that you can have a fair chance to win his love? Ugh. That's so naively sweet it's making me nauseous."
"No. I didn't come here to beg you for anything," Pema spat, "I am going to tell Tenzin that I love him when the time is right. I know that it might not go my way. I know I'll be putting my pride on the line, but he's worth my pride! He's worth everything! But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"You don't have a clue."
"I know that you can't make him happy," Pema whispered, "Right now, he won't let himself see that. He's lost his father and he can't bear the thought of losing anything else so he won't let you go. But he has to if he's going to heal. He needs to let you go, Lin."
"Again…why are you telling me this and not him?"
"He'll listen to you."
Lin barked a short, humorless laugh. "So you are here to have me do your dirty work," she concluded tersely, "I'm not a matchmaker. I can't make him fall in love with you, Pema!"
"I don't need you to help me! I need you to help Tenzin!" Lin snorted in disbelief at what sounded to her like a flimsy argument. Pema seethed, her temper flaring. "Do you think you're the only woman who is in his heart, Lin? You're wrong! Maybe Tenzin doesn't return my romantic feelings right now, but that's not because of you. That has nothing to do with you!
"He watched me grow up," Pema continued, "He taught me everything I know about our culture and I know when he looks at me he still sees that little girl who came to serve in the temple when she was ten years old. But he won't always that when he looks at me. And do you know why?"
Lin settled more comfortably onto her desk. "I always love a good story," she taunted, "Please. Amaze me, Pema."
"Tenzin and I want the same things. We believe in the same things. And we are friends in the truest sense. He can talk to me about things he can't share with anyone else…that includes you! I can make him happy and I can give him the future that he's wanted his entire life. Can you say the same?"
Her green eyes narrowed with menace, Lin punctuated Pema fervent declaration with a mock round of applause. "How very romantic…you sound almost like a teenage girl waxing poetic about her longtime crush. Oh wait, that's exactly what you are! Is there any reason why I'm supposed to be interested in your unrequited love for Tenzin? If there is one, please point it out to me soon! I'm a very busy woman!"
"Are you really going to let Tenzin sacrifice the future of his entire race for your love? Are you really that selfish?"
Lin's features became inscrutable with the quiet query though inwardly she cringed with guilt and anger. Guilt because she recognized on some level that Tenzin had already been doing that for years and anger because she had already come to the conclusion herself that she couldn't let him do it. She glared at Pema.
"What makes you think you even have the right to ask me that?"
"I told you already. Tenzin is my friend. I love him," Pema maintained, "Up until now I've been willing to hold my tongue about you. I haven't said one negative word to Tenzin against you. But if you stand by and let him sacrifice his entire future to be with you, and after he's lost his last tie to his people, so help me…" She faltered off into silence, her tiny fists balled at her sides as if spoiling for a fight. "I'll spend the rest of my life making you regret it!"
Lin slid from her desk with the feline grace of a predatory cat. "Now that sounds very much like a threat," she murmured thoughtfully.
Pema's eyes glittered with stubborn resolve. "It's a promise."
"Hmm…" Lin considered as she strode over casually to the hanging bell cord on the opposite side of her office, "I just wanted to have confirmation." She pulled the cord then and mere seconds later two of her metalbending cadets presented themselves at her door for instruction. "Please take this young woman into custody," she ordered them smoothly, "She made a threat against me."
"Wait! What are you doing?" Pema cried as the cops flanked her on either side and began dragging her from the office, "You can't arrest me! Lin, no! You can't arrest me! What are the charges?"
"I don't know yet," Lin replied with a careless shrug, "I'll think something up before tomorrow I'm sure."
However, it was only when Pema's indignant shrieks of protest died away completely that the satisfied smirk faded from Lin's lips and was replaced with quivering sadness instead.
Tenzin slipped inside Lin's office with a weary sigh. "Do I even want to know why you had Pema arrested today?"
Upon his entrance, Lin shoved aside her paperwork and leaned back in her chair to prop her feet atop her desk, crossing them at the ankles. "Wow. Good news travels fast."
"Lin, what are you doing?" he demanded in exasperation.
"You might want to ask your little guard dog that!" she retorted.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I didn't seek her out, Tenzin. She sought me out. She threatened me. As police chief, I had no choice but to take her into custody."
"You have no choice?" Tenzin snorted, "Good grief, Lin, a strong wind could blow her over! Pema's not a danger to you and you know that!"
"No, I don't. What I know is that you've been distant with me ever since your father died," Lin countered softly, rising from her chair to close the distance between them, "What I know is there is a wall between us now and I don't know how to break it down, Tenzin."
"Maybe we can't," he said, "Maybe we should leave it where it is."
"So it took you a month in the South Pole to figure out that you didn't want me anymore," she concluded in husky observation, "Why couldn't you be a man and simply tell me to my face then?"
He turned away from her, as if meeting her gaze directly would somehow weaken his resolve. "Because it's not about wanting you and it never has been."
"But it is over between us, isn't it?"
"Yes." The word sounded as if it had been torn from his chest, but there was no denying that he meant it utterly.
"I know that it has to be over," Lin acknowledged, "and I know why I'm willing to let go, but why are you? Is it because of your father's death…or is it because of her?"
Tenzin whipped back to face her with a bewildered frown. "Because of who? Because of Pema?"
"She came here on your behalf today, Tenzin. You tell me what's going on!"
He emitted a tired groan. "Please not this again," he muttered, "I have told you one hundred times over that there is nothing going on between Pema and me! We are friends! End of discussion."
"I've seen you together," Lin hissed, "I've seen how she touches you…how she looks at you and how you look at her! Are you really going to tell me that there's nothing there?"
"Does it matter? Pema is not the reason we aren't together, Lin!"
"And you're saying I am?" she flung back.
"No, I'm not saying that," he whispered, "It's me. It's always been me. I've had unrealistic expectations when it came to you…to us. The irony is that you've never expected me to change my mind about having children, Lin. You knew how I felt about it and you accepted it. You loved me as I was and you always have."
"But you wanted me to change my mind, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did. I always thought that someday you would, but I know that I haven't been fair to you. Because…you are who you are, Lin, and I admire that. I admire you. But it's not enough for me. Not anymore."
"You should have figured that out years ago," she told him in a gruff tone, presenting him with her back in order to conceal the anguished tears welling in her eyes, "then we wouldn't be having this conversation. You wouldn't have wasted your time, Tenzin."
"I'll never think of what we had together as a waste of time."
Lin braced her hands against the surface of her desk, feeling in that moment as if her knees would buckle if she didn't. "That's a very sweet sentiment, Tenzin, but you've always been good at saying sweet things."
Tenzin reached over to place a comforting hand on her shoulder but, as he expected she would, she shrugged off his touch. "I regret that it had to be this way between us. I never wanted this."
Though she had to swallow several times before she could speak again, Lin managed to regain her tenuous hold on her composure and, somehow, found the fortitude to face him again with little more than unshed tears shimmering in her green eyes. "Well, do you know what I regret, Tenzin?" she whispered in a thoughtful tone, "Right now I regret letting myself fall in love with you at all. I regret allowing myself to trust that childish promise you made to me all those years ago that you would never leave me. Do you remember that promise? We had to be ten…eleven…when you made it."
"Lin, don't do this…"
The corner of her mouth lifted in an embittered smirk. "But men always leave, don't they? You think I would have learned that lesson as a little girl."
He recognized the implicit comparison to her absentee father and Tenzin knew she had to be in agony to make such a parallel. "What can I do to make this better?" he asked mournfully.
She shrugged. "Nothing. This is your choice and I respect it."
"I don't want to lose your friendship, Lin. It means everything. You mean everything."
Her response to that was a soft snort of incredulous laughter. "We both know that's not true, Tenzin." He flinched at her harsh tone and, because she had no desire to worsen his pain, Lin made a concerted effort to soften her words and her demeanor. "I know you're hurting and your father's death is still fresh for you but I'm not sure I can be your friend…not now, not when it hurts so much."
Tenzin digested that painful response with a terse nod. "So what happens between us now?" he whispered.
"Now we say 'goodbye,'" she told him.
He lifted his hand to skim his slender fingers along her jaw, relieved and anguished all at the same time when she didn't jerk away from his touch. "What if I don't know how to do that?"
For a brief, yearning moment, Lin allowed herself to savor his touch before she hardened her heart and took a step backwards, her features becoming guarded and remote as she completely shut herself off from him mentally and emotionally. "I think it's time you learned how, Tenzin," she replied, turning away from him for the last time, "It's time we both did."