Tomu was sitting in music class, eyes still bleary from sleep, when the door opened and in walked the most beautiful girl he would ever see. Accompanied by a woman who could only be her mother, the girl smiled shyly at their music teacher, who beamed back. A hush fell over the students as they all caught a glimpse of the intruder. Their teacher reached a hand out to the other woman, then turned to address the class.
"Students, please welcome our newest addition, Jinora."
Twenty-three pairs of eyes stared at the small girl standing in the front of the room, some straining forward while trying to remain on their pallets. She smiled nervously under the piercing gazes of her classmates, and Tomu felt his cheeks grow hot.
Everyone knew who this young girl was, even if no one had actually met her before. It was common knowledge that the only Air Nomads left in the world lived in Republic City, and the children of the metropolis took great pride in bragging to their friends when they had been able to spot one of the acolytes out in the city, or especially when Councilman Tenzin had been spotted going about his business. Tomu had himself even spotted their flying bison once. But even though everyone knew about the Councilman's family, few had actually seen them in public. After the events of last winter, the Councilman seemed particularly protective of his family...
But here she was, standing in front of the class while her mother slipped out of the door. Jinora was tall for her age, her short hair framing her thin face. She was wearing what Tomu could only assume was typical Air Nomad clothing, awash in yellow and orange. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he watched her through his eyelashes, trying hard not to be caught staring (though the rest of the class was doing nothing to hide their own curiosity). What was wrong with him? Was he getting sick?
Jinora took her seat two rows away from Tomu; he could see her gently rest upon the pallet, looking like a bird about to take flight at the nearest sign of danger. For the rest of the class, he carefully observed her out of the corner of his eyes. She was not particularly good at any of the instruments, but she did happily demonstrate for the class that she could play the loudest: no one could take a deeper breath than she could. The Sunki horn exhibited this trait of hers phenomenally.
In their history lessons, she sat attentively and took thorough notes. Tomu had never been all that interested in history to begin with, and he missed almost the entire lesson. He couldn't stop looking over furtively at her. What was wrong with him?
But it was at lunch when his friend Ru-Mei grabbed his hand, flanked by their other classmates Li and Arokk. "We're saying hello," she said, marching over to where Jinora was settling in to eat, looking abashed while breaking apart her chopsticks. Before anyone else could sit next to her, Ru-Mei had shouldered her way through and plopped herself down across the table from the new girl.
"Hi," she said bluntly. Tomu felt like his face was about to melt off as Jinora grinned gratefully up at them. "I'm Ru-Mei. My parents own a restaurant in town. The Puffingull Pearl? This is my brother Li. This is Arokk and Tomu" – Tomu averted his gaze while Jinora smiled at each of them in turn – "and they live in the same apartment building we do." She slammed her elbows on the table and put her face in her hands. "What's it like to fly on a sky bison?" she asked eagerly.
Thankfully, Ru-Mei kept most of Jinora's attention on her while the boys set their lunches on the table and settled in next to the seated girls. Li slid a small open box in front of his old sister and shoved her own eating utensils into her hands while she listened wide-eyed to Jinora's answers, asking a new question as soon as the airbender paused for a breath. Tomu concentrated on bringing the food to his mouth properly for each bite. Chewing was a struggle, each morsel of food taking on the consistency of ash.
"That is so cool that you're a bender!" Ru-Mei exclaimed. "I always wanted to be one. My mom is a firebender, but she doesn't get to practice much when I'm around because the apartment's so small. She mostly gets to do it in the restaurant when she's cooking. My dad and Li can't bend either. But Tomu is an earthbender!" she said gleefully, and Tomu felt himself redden even further as Jinora turned to him with interest.
"That's really cool! Can you metalbend?" she asked. He managed to shake his head. "Oh, that's okay. But if you learned, you could become a police officer!"
"You two should totally practice together," said Ru-Mei, taking the opportunity to shovel some of her rice into her mouth. Tomu laughed a little too loudly along, though luckily Jinora laughed too.
"I don't know, they're two very different styles of bending. And I've only ever practiced with my family before."
"I'm not very good," said Tomu quickly.
"I'm sure you're fine!" she said with a smile. Then she turned to Arokk. "Are you a bender?"
"Nah," he said casually. "My dad is from the Northern Water Tribe, but he isn't a bender and neither is my mom. Her family is from all over, so she used to joke that I might come out anything, but it didn't happen."
Everyone giggled again, and Jinora took the time to look around at her new friends. She had never had the chance to spend time with people her own age, and she was feeling a little overwhelmed. Ru-Mei was skinny, with ferrety features and sharp eyes. Jinora admired her forwardness, grateful for the conversation. Her brother had a sleepy look to him and his dark hair seemed to be perpetually messy. He seemed quiet and reflective, at odds with his outgoing sister. Arokk was tall and lanky, a slow grin adorning his face most of the time. And Tomu. He seemed like a really nice person. His face reminded her of her baby brother's, round and innocent. All of him seemed to be round, but his eyes were kind. Jinora felt a thrill run through her heart at the thought of having her first real friends.
"I can't believe you haven't gone to this before!" cried Ru-Mei as Jinora and her family arrived at the banquet hall. "This is like the best holiday ever!" It was only then did she realize she was standing in front of Councilman Tenzin. She looked momentarily stymied, but Jinora cut in quickly.
"Can I go hang out with my friends?" she asked.
"It's a big crowd, Jinora-"
"Go ahead," Pema cut across her husband. "Have fun." Jinora ran off, with Ikki's whines of "No fair!" fading from her ears.
It was a few weeks into the summer holidays. The first few months of school had seemed to pass by in a blur for the new girl, who had never had as much fun in her life. Her father had been a bit concerned when she started school that she would neglect her training, but Jinora had managed to make satisfactory progress with both her grades and airbending, so Tenzin had given up the fight. Jinora had been a little afraid that she might not see her friends during her school break, but luckily they frequently invited her to the mainland to play. The first time she had arrived on the docks, landing softly among her peers and twirling her glider shut, she had stunned them all into silence. She could recall vividly Ru-Mei's gaping mouth and Tomu's wide-eyed admiration. Suddenly, they had all burst into excited chatter, begging for rides.
It was not long into that first visit that the other children had begun to talk about the Flame Forsythia Festival. "You're coming, right?" Ru-Mei had asked. Jinora had said she wasn't sure, and her friends had all started up again, saying that she had to convince her father to let her come, it was one of the most fun holidays of Republic City, it only happened once every five years, and it was a matter of life and death if she did not come (perhaps only Ru-Mei had said that part). But Jinora had spent the next few weeks working on her father, talking about the historical significance of the event, how it had been celebrated in Republic City long before the place had borne that name, how the blossoms only sent out their pollen every half-decade and if she missed this one, the next one wouldn't come until she was 16, and by then she might as well just go with whatever young man asked her to accompany him...
Tenzin had agreed that the entire family would go and that perhaps this would satisfy her enough so that she might not ever need to go again.
So here she was, running through the crowds of people with her friends on one the biggest holidays of Republic City. It was true what she had told her father; it was a festival as old as people had been living on the shores of the bay. The Flame Forsythia was a large, low-lying bush that flanked the hills surrounding the city. Even as the city had expanded, these hills were left untouched, so integral were they to the culture of the town. The bush bloomed only once every five years, opening its hundreds of delicate red and orange petals for just the summer. But what was truly miraculous was the pollen that the tiny flowers sent forth on a single night. It glowed in the night, lighting up across the water as the plants traded their life-bringing substance with one another, causing the sky to light up as if with fireworks. There was always an enormous festival held in honor of the natural event, but Jinora had been too young to go last time; she was only six. But now here she was at eleven, eager to enjoy the evening.
"Here, try some Fire Flakes!" cried Li, speaking up for once and shoving a small carton into Jinora's hands.
"Are they any good?" Jinora asked Tomu.
"They're not bad, but I prefer the rice balls... they dye them red for the Festival," he answered, his cheeks flushed. For some reason, Jinora liked talking with Tomu greatly, despite the fact that he was rather quiet. Ru-Mei tended to dominate every conversation she took part in, and Arokk and Li seemed happy to let her. But Jinora suspected that Tomu had more to say than he let on, which was why she often made an extra effort to speak with him.
Jinora popped some flakes into her mouth and squeaked with shock as the inside of her mouth burned. Her friends laughed.
Suddenly Ru-Mei stood ramrod straight. A gaggle of young boys was ambling past them, talking loudly as they parted passerby. Jinora thought she recognized some of the faces from the classroom.
Arokk was taking more notice of their normally talkative friend. "So Ru-Mei," he said, grinning toothily. "I just saw Konzu walk by. Weren't the two of you good friends last year?"
Ru-Mei whirled to look at him. "Yeah," she said warily.
"Well, maybe you should see if he'll hang out with us tonight." Ru-Mei's eyes narrowed. Without another word (which was very unlike her), she turned on her heel and walked away.
Their small group continued to wend their way through the various stalls. Jinora could barely contain her excitement. There were games to be played (her father had given her a very small allowance to spend), food to be tasted (she carefully avoided anything else with the word 'fire' in its name), and performances to be watched. A large space had been cleared in the middle of the festivities where many couples were dancing to live music. Jinora was itching to run onto the dance floor and join them, but none of her friends seemed particularly keen on the idea, and her courage failed her. The area was, however, located near a restaurant that seemed to be taking full advantage of its proximity to the festivities: there were dozens of outdoor tables with a number of harried waiters scurrying between them.
Without warning, laughter erupted off to the side. Jinora turned to see the same group of boys walk by again. The one she recognized as Konzu was determinedly not looking at them, but one of his friends yelled over, "Hey Ru-Mei! Are you going to be at the balcony later?"
Ru-Mei turned red, but she impressed Jinora by calling back, "Yeah, why?"
The boys all began to laugh harder as they walked away. One of them shoved Konzu and he stumbled. Ru-Mei waited until they were definitely out of sight when she clamped a hand onto Jinora's and Arokk's arms and dragged them forward. Jinora suddenly found herself shoved mercilessly to the ground as Ru-Mei scuttled under a table belonging to the restaurant. She lifted the draping tablecloth and crawled under it, Tomu and Li following closely behind. In an instant, they were all sitting cross-legged under the table, giddy at their mischief.
"Did you hear that?" squealed Ru-Mei breathily.
"Kinda hard not to," said Arokk.
"He just invited me to the balcony!" she said excitedly.
"Uh, I don't think that's what happened—" Li started to say, but his sister interrupted.
"Did you know that if you get your first kiss on the balcony on the night of the Flame Forsythia Festival that you are destined to be together forever and ever?" she asked Jinora.
"A kiss?" Jinora was a little stunned. Something seemed to have shifted. She had devoured so many love stories, thoroughly enjoying each one, but somehow they always felt like things for people who were... older? Were they really old enough to kiss someone else?
"C'mon," Ru-Mei said excitedly, squirming out from under the tablecloth. Jinora found herself crowded as the others squeezed out behind her. Suddenly she and Tomu were the only ones left. They shrugged at each other and giggled conspiratorially, then joined their friends.
For the rest of the evening, Ru-Mei and Konzu skirted around each other to the ribbing and laughter of their peers. Jinora felt a thrill run through her stomach as she and her friends dashed back and forth across the balcony, relaying messages between the two of them. Later on, as the evening came to a close, Jinora was finally able to persuade her friends to join in for one large dance. Everyone grabbed hands and began to spin in a large circle. It was silly and sloppy, but she was laughing all the same. She felt as if she were on the cusp of understanding something, something important lurking in the shadowy corners of the evening filled with light across the bay. She had felt it course through her veins as she watched Ru-Mei and Konzu stand next to each other, deliberately not making eye contact but pressing their arms against one another's as they watched the Flame Forsythias' pollen drift across the bay. Later that night, when Jinora turned the light off in her room, she tried to stay awake long enough to pin the thought into words, but she drifted off to sleep before she could.
The friends continued their schooling together. Jinora's younger siblings joined her on the mainland as they became old enough to enter school. The years slid by, but their small group of friends remained in tact. Ru-Mei and Li both took after their parents and grew fairly tall, but Arokk surpassed everyone and towered over them. Tomu's soft flesh had hardened into muscle, due in part to strenuous earthbending lessons. Jinora had encouraged him to find a teacher, and once he found one within his mother's budget, he was able to train properly. He was just getting taller than Jinora, who found herself inexplicably the shortest of the group. Whenever they teased her good-naturedly, she would only grin. Her strengths lay in other areas, one of which she would have the opportunity to showcase at the upcoming Flame Forsythia Festival.
She was sixteen, lithe and light on her feet, eager to participate in the dances she only watched during the last festival. As they approached the entrance of the fairgrounds, Jinora beamed at her friends, all of them dressed in their finest outfits for the evening, and she twirled on the spot.
Tomu felt a very familiar swoop in his stomach as he watched Jinora spin with happiness. After years of being friends with her, he had grown accustomed to the feelings that surged up whenever he saw her. He had grown used to them, but they were no less strong than when he had first laid eyes on her. His initial crush had turned into real admiration. Jinora was intelligent, hard-working, and kind, all qualities he held in high esteem. He had never told her this, though.
"So who's going to dance with me?" she asked happily. "I've been practicing all the dances for the Flame Forsythia Festival and I can teach you guys!"
Li smiled blandly, but Arokk said, "Yeah, I'll dance with you."
"Excellent!" she said enthusiastically. "What about the rest of you? Ru-Mei? Tomu?"
"Jinora, I love you dearly, but if I am going to dance, it will only be in the arms of a wealthy Fire Nation noble's son."
Tomu reddened. "I don't think I'd be very good," he said roughly.
"C'mon, everyone can dance if they try!" said Jinora.
"Yeah, join us," Arokk said lazily. Tomu just shook his head.
"All right! We'll meet you for dinner then." Jinora grabbed Arokk's hand and pulled him through the crowd. Ru-Mei announced that she wanted to go shopping and after some wheedling, her brother surrendered some of his money and she trotted off to spend it. Li shrugged his shoulders as Tomu chuckled, and the two friends bought some fire flakes and headed to the pavilion where, like before, a dance floor had been erected next to the restaurant.
Tomu and Li sat at the table and chatted for a while, but when another acquaintance of Li's approached to say hello, Tomu lapsed into amiable silence. He found his gaze drawn to the dance floor, where Jinora and Arokk were dancing animatedly. They were some of the youngest people on the dance floor, but they were also some of the most enthusiastic. Jinora's face was flushed, a sloppy grin across her face. She kept licking her lips to try to keep them moist, and Tomu found himself unable to look away.
It was clear that she actually knew what she was doing, while Arokk was just along for the ride. He took to dancing with the same nonchalance he adopted with almost everything in his life. They seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and Tomu watched them with a small smile adorning his face.
The tempo of the music changed, and the sweaty dancers rejoined their friends at the table. Ru-Mei had arrived a few minutes prior, laden with souvenirs. Jinora drained her glass of water in two gulps, then downed half of Tomu's, surrendered as she made a grasping motion with her hand. She smacked her lips as she finished, finally coming up for air. "You guys should really dance with us!" she said hoarsely.
"Why? So we can exercise on purpose?" Li asked. Everyone tittered.
Suddenly Ru-Mei's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Arokk," she said quietly. "See that guy over there? By the stand with all the masks?"
"That's Ren's cousin. She told me that he told her that, well... he's your type."
Arokk did not look at her, but a faint flush spread over his cheeks. "Oh?" he inquired.
"Won't know for sure if you don't go talk to him."
Arokk nodded, then disappeared into the crowd surrounding their table. After a few moments, he reemerged close to the stalls, shadowed now that he was out of the bright lights on the dance floor. "Isn't he gonna miss dinner?" asked Tomu as the waiter placed their food in front of them, looking frazzled.
"I don't think he minds," Ru-Mei said, deftly using the thin sticks in her hand to remove a morsel of food from Arokk's unclaimed plate. Tomu rolled his eyes as Jinora sunk heavily into her chair, fanning her face.
They all ate with gusto, enjoying the sounds and sights around them. Everything seemed to be bathed in an orange glow, mirroring the pollen that was just beginning to drift across the sound. Once everyone felt as if they could eat no more, Jinora stood up again.
"All right, who's going to dance with me?" she asked. Her friends groaned simultaneously. "C'mon!" she wheedled, putting her hands on Tomu and Li's shoulders. "We can just dance in a group! It's easy."
"Do you need someone to dance with?"
Jinora spun on her heel. A tall boy was standing behind her, smiling abashedly.
"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I was gonna ask if you wanted to dance..." He proffered his hand.
Jinora, red in the face, nodded and put her hand in his, and Tomu felt the smile slide off his face.
It was clear, once they reached the dance floor, that the boy wasn't particularly talented at dancing, unlike his partner. Jinora, however, seemed to be simply happy to dance, gliding effortlessly between the steps of each dance. The boy did, however, seem to open the floodgates, and four more boys approached her throughout the evening. Tomu felt like an acid was eating at him from the inside. Jinora rejoined them to watch the Flame Forsythia pollen drift across Yue Bay, her flushed face turned expectantly towards the water, but Tomu still felt slightly nauseous.
The friends left the festival together, Arokk having finally found them again by the end of the evening. While Ru-Mei and Li pestered him for details about an evening of which he was being very tight-lipped, Tomu turned to Jinora. "So did you have a good time tonight?"
"I did!" she said, her eyes shining. "I'll take any excuse to dance."
Tomu nodded. "You looked like you were having fun."
"It is fun," she said a little dreamily. "It's so romantic. But it's also a lot of fun! You should try it sometime! You know they offer lessons in the city, right?"
Something like fire seemed to course through his veins. He could learn to dance, he could learn how to master his large, unwieldy earthbender body and tame it into a graceful machine. Possibilities seemed to explode in his mind, and he went to sleep that night with a steely resolve that had nothing to do with dancing.
And so he learned: slowly, clumsily, haltingly, sacrificing the toes of the women who were his instructors as they guided him through the steps of each dance of the Flame Forsythia Festival.
The friends graduated from their lessons. Jinora visited the mainland less often now that she was not required to do so for school, but she still managed to see her friends frequently, despite everyone's disparate schedules. Ru-Mei had begun waitressing in her parents' restaurant, and it served as the frequent meet-up spot for the group. Tomu was hired by a construction company that took full advantage of his skills as an earthbender. He was told that he might be promoted if he could learn metalbending, but he would airily dismiss the recommendations, saving his money for lessons late at night in tiny dance studios.
Jinora too was being kept busy with lessons. Her father insisted that she train with him as much as possible. Her siblings were even noticing the extra attention that he was giving her. Ikki seemed to be taking full advantage by disappearing from the island as often as she could get away with, visiting friends on the mainland. Her brothers seemed to have far too much energy with the fewer lessons, and their mischief kept their mother busy. Jinora occasionally overheard her parents talking in hushed tones behind their bedroom door late at night as she walked by towards her own room. Their strange behavior continued until a warm morning dawned while she was eating breakfast. They both sat down in front of her, and Tenzin reached across the low table and took her hand.
The night of the Festival, Tomu wended his way through the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of his friends. He had had to work late that evening, but he managed to get to the celebration before the orange flowers had begun to release their glowing pollen. Finally, he spotted Li and Arokk, chatting animatedly. He joined them, receiving a hearty clap on his shoulder from Li.
"So what's the plan?" asked Arokk. "Should we watch the play? I heard they got some group from the Fire Nation to put it on this year... can't remember the name of the troupe."
"So long as I have a drink before, I'll sit through anything," chortled Li.
"Where are the girls?" Tomu asked.
"Ru-Mei was flirting with her coworker, last I checked," said her brother. "I haven't seen Jinora yet."
"Maybe I'll find her and we can join you at the play."
Arokk grinned. "Take your time," he said a little too knowingly. Tomu resisted the urge to smack him. He and Li walked away, disappearing into the mass of people while Tomu continued his trek towards the dance floor, his eyes roving the crowd. Finally, near one of the balconies, he spotted that particular shade of orange he had never seen anyone else wear. Jinora was standing with her back to him, talking to her father.
He strode forward, his every nerve tingling. He felt a swoop in his stomach, and for a moment he might have been eleven years old again, with a crush on the pretty new girl. But he was twenty-one now, and they had been best friends for more than ten years, and he was ready.
"Jinora," he called when he was almost upon her. She turned and his breath left his body.
Jinora's forehead was now adorned with a bright blue tattoo of an arrow. She had been holding her arms in front of her, and he could see the long, graceful arc of the tattoos as they curved with the contours of her body. She was smiling, but he could see that the edges of the tattoos were red and puffy, and she looked a little tired.
"Hi, Tomu," she said. "You remember my father."
Tomu firmly grasped Tenzin's hand and inclined his head respectfully. Tenzin smiled at the tall young man before him, his hand rough from hard labor but his manners impeccable. "How are you, Councilman?"
"Very well, thank you," he replied. "It's been a while; you're still doing construction work?"
Jinora watched the exchange between her father and her friend with growing interest. Tenzin had met her friends on many occasions, watched them grow up alongside her, but it seemed he was just now realizing that they too were adults. He had remarked just this morning on how much she had grown since she began her airbending training, and that she was now ready to bear the marks of her progress. Tenzin had teared up as the process began (though he did not stay for all of it for the sake of her modesty) and had hugged her gently once she was finished, gingerly having put on her outfit for the evening. Jinora now observed him talking with a young man who she herself had watched mature, as a person, as an earthbender, as a man. After the conversation continued for a few more minutes, Tenzin excused himself and his wife, leaving the two younger people alone.
"Wow," Tomu breathed as their eyes met. "Congratulations, Jinora. What an accomplishment."
"Thanks," she said, smiling warmly up at him.
"Does it hurt?"
"A little," she admitted. "It's more sore than anything, at this point. I don't think my father realized I would have plans this evening and perhaps want to wait, but he had been waiting for this for a long time and I was overwhelmed... I'm still overwhelmed."
"What did your sister say?"
"Oh, she was jealous, though I'm sure she's over it by now, since last I saw her she was practically eating her boyfriend's face," Jinora said, rolling her eyes slightly. "She always wants everything I have, even though I'm older. You know her." Tomu chuckled. "Have you seen the others?"
"Only Li and Arokk. I think they were going to watch one of the plays being put on this year. I haven't seen Ru-Mei yet." Tomu found himself staring into her face as they spoke. The pale blue arrow that now dipped between her eyebrows was hard to ignore. He was surprised at how beautiful it made her look; it seemed to highlight the warmth of her eyes.
"Well, I'm sure we'll run into her eventually. We'll hear her coming, I'm sure."
"In the meantime, do you wanna dance?" asked Tomu.
"Oh, Tomu, my tattoos are still so sore" and despite his best efforts to hide it, for a fraction of a second a look of crushing disappointment graced his handsome features, so she smoothly continued, "so as long as you don't mind leading..."
"Not at all," he said, reaching forward to take her hand. She took it with a smile. Gently, he lead her to the dance floor where the performers were playing a lively tune. Tomu turned to face her and felt a faint blush spread over his cheeks at the warm look in her eyes. She leaned forward to place her hand on his shoulder and he slid one of his own around her waist. Jinora winced, pushing air out between her teeth, and took a half-step closer to Tomu.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked anxiously.
"No," she said, and grinned up at him. "It's sensitive, but not too painful. I'm fine," she said, and meant it.
They began to dance, turning through the steps with ease. They were going slower than they might have otherwise, but Jinora managed to keep up a good pace. Tomu held her as gently as he would an egg, and she was grateful for the lack of pressure on her new markings.
She found herself instead focusing on her friend. He was the best dance partner she had ever had, and she hardly knew what to make of this hitherto unknown skill of his. Her hand on the sleeve of his shirt informed her of hardened muscles underneath, thickened through the years of bending and working. He was warm, and she couldn't tell if her face felt hot because of the heat from his skin or from something that made her insides squirm pleasurably. When they made eye contact, he grinned at her.
Tomu was concentrating on performing all the steps correctly. He wondered, with a slightly bemused look on his face, that if Jinora had a tattoo that low on her back, where did the rest of them go, and where did the ones he knew must be on her legs meet with the one that ran up her spine –
He shook himself mentally. Tomu smiled at his partner, who grinned back and placed her cheek on his chest as the song changed, along with their pattern of movement. He could smell her hair as they twirled, this song one of his favorites. Judging by the way she laughed at his exuberance, it was one of hers too.
Hours seemed to pass in minutes. Tomu was exceedingly careful with Jinora, not wanting to aggravate the fresh blue scars. As the night wore on, she leaned in closer, placing his hands more firmly on her waist, whispering into his ear to be heard over the music that the pressure made them feel a little better. He could feel the heat from them through the thin fabric of her ceremonial dress, and he wondered if she had a slight fever. He could feel his own hot breath against her neck and he wondered if he had one too.
The couple was so wrapped up in their dance that they didn't notice the halt in the music signifying the pollen had begun its trek across the lagoon. They broke apart with a breathy laugh, but instead of relinquishing her hold on him, Jinora turned in his arms and encouraged him to lead her to the balconies overlooking the bay, one arm still draped over her waist. A waiter from the restaurant walked by with a large tray of ice waters, and Jinora brazenly grabbed two, offering one to Tomu. He laughed as she shoved her hand unceremoniously into the cup, grabbed a handful of ice, and pressed it to the arrow on her forehead with a relieved sigh. They managed to find a spot on the railing to lean on as the bio-luminescent pollen took to the air.
"Oh, the cool air feels great," Jinora said happily. "I really needed that."
"Me too," said Tomu. "Sorry I'm all sweaty."
"I'm just as gross, it's no problem," she said, looking up at him and smiling reassuringly. They both turned their attention back towards the water, listening to the exclamations of their fellow party-goers as they admired the display of light. Jinora allowed her head to lean onto Tomu's chest (when had everyone gotten so tall?) and he let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding.
After their heartbeats had slowed again and the night air caused their fancy clothes to become a little stiff with sweat, Tomu looked down at the young woman making herself quite at home in his arms. He couldn't believe that he could believe what was happening. He wasn't nervous or anxious, though he was starting to feel a growing sense of excitement. Jinora felt his gaze on the top of her head and looked up. Something in his eyes caused her to turn around to look at him better. He cleared his throat.
"Jinora..." he said, but wasn't quite sure how to continue. She waited patiently. "Jinora."
"I'm glad that after ten years, you finally know my name," she said teasingly, and he laughed.
"Well, it is a pretty name." He reached out with his free hand to grasp hers, careful to avoid the arrow on the back of it. "Listen, Jinora, I've been meaning to tell you something for a while now..."
He knew that she was a romantic, knew that she would want a speech with proclamations and tender words, and she knew she was a romantic too, but at that moment, she felt almost impatient for him to get to the end, because she knew what was coming at the end, and it seemed then that that was the most important part and she wanted to get to it now.
"Ever since I first met you, you blew me away. I've never met someone so kind and thoughtful and intelligent and beautiful as you. I couldn't believe we were actually friends. You were like some sort of celebrity, and I was just some poor kid from the city, but... you were my friend. You're my best friend, and I never want that to change, but..." He looked her straight in the eye and found his thoughts faltering, the words hard to get out. "I really..." It was no use, he had never seen her eyes like that before. He closed the last little gap between them and their lips met for the first time. He felt light-headed, as if the earth under his feet that he knew so well had pitched him forward. Her lips were a little chapped from all the dancing, but they were warm and she had wrapped her other hand around the back of his neck. Jinora could hear a slight buzzing in her ears, the ache of her tattoos long forgotten. The most beautiful sight that Republic City had to offer was unfurling in front of them, and neither took any notice.
Tenzin, who had finally managed to extricate himself from an acquaintance, walked with his wife over to the balconies to observe the flame forsythias release their pollen. He caught a familiar flash of orange and let out a squawk. Jinora was wrapped so tightly around that boy from earlier, it looked as if they'd never come loose!
Pema noticed her husband's sudden change of demeanor, and quickly found the source of it. She smiled, then steered them firmly in another direction. "Did you see that?" he demanded of her, allowing himself to be guided by the elbow.
"I did. She's a grown woman, you said so yourself. And wasn't that the young man of whom you spoke so highly just a few hours ago?"
"Tenzin, it's all right."
His wife's soothing words comforted him slightly, and he squeezed her arm in gratitude. "I suppose a night like this is for the young," he said, walking off and leaving his grown daughter behind him.