"Old friends, like old swords, are still trusted best." - John Webster
They're the six words no parent wants to hear.
"There's something wrong with your child."
He knew, when he allowed Korra to come to Republic City, that there would come a day when he would take a long flight to the South Pole and bring some terrible news to Tonraq and Senna. They've given up so much to share Korra with the world - much, much more than he himself can ever imagine, if the Avatar were Jinora or Ikki or Meelo or Rohan - and he swore to them he would deliver the news himself, if the day ever came.
And so, when he can put it off no longer, when his family is safe once more, when the fighting is over, when they've exhausted all other resources, he sends a wire to the White Lotus and readies Oogi. He doesn't expect there to be a familiar figure waiting to leave with him, leaning on Oogi's side.
"Lin, I -"
"I was going to say thank you."
"Don't thank me. You know why I have to go with you."
No, Lin doesn't need to tell him why she's going; if he were hearing his child had lost their bending, he'd want to hear it from someone who survived it. Who better than the former chief of police of Republic City, still refusing to stop wearing her armor?
He unhooks Oogi's reins and hands her a blanket. "It's a long flight. Wrap up."
He is a child of two nations, and it is here in his mother's home that he feels it most keenly.
Republic City is his father's vision; a place of freedom where one could still put down roots, full of people of all nations. He loves Republic City, but it is a love bourne of duty, for it is his to protect. If he asked Lin, she would feel the same way. The city is their child, to be controlled and punished as any parent must.
But the Southern Water Tribe is ease and kindness. A connection with others free from responsibilities and duty; simply because he is part of them. It mattered not that he takes after his father, wears crimson and saffron and calls the winds to his back; he was Katara's son, and he was family.
(He was proud to hear the next Avatar was from the Southern Water Tribe; his mother was nearly insufferable. He thinks Uncle Sokka would have been even worse.)
He and Lin land near the small hut that Tonraq and Senna still inhabit. The White Lotus had offered them bigger lodgings, even Mother had tried to insist upon it, but they refused. In the past, he came here a few times a year to oversee Korra's progress, before she ran away to live on Air Temple Island. He's hoping Tonraq and Senna have let go of their anger over that fact.
The wind is fierce as ever, whistling through the plates of Lin's armor, and he can see her trying not to shiver. While he has donned a wolfskin pelt in concession, Lin clenches her hands into fists and stares across the snow. Two small figures stand in the distance, and Lin sighs.
"I hate this part," she says suddenly. "Never gets any easier."
She's talking about loss, about six of her men that she swore to rescue and the knocks on doors of unsuspecting families. Your son, your father, your brother, your husband, has been killed. He won't be coming home to you, and Tenzin thanks every spirit he can think of that he isn't coming to tell Korra's parents she's dead.
Some things a parent cannot forgive.
He expects Tonraq's silent, sorrowful glare and Senna's nervous questioning, but he doesn't expect to be doing most of the listening.
Instead of casting blame on him and packing for Air Temple Island to bring their daughter home, they've turned to Lin. She sits cross-legged on the floor of the hut opposite them, armor peeled off piece by piece in defiant demonstration: look, I am still strong, I am still unbeaten, and your daughter will be the same way.
"Did it hurt?"
Tonraq has finally spoken, and Lin looks down at the floor before answering.
"At first. You struggle, because you want to get up and fight and you can't. And then you feel him touch your forehead and neck - you know it'll be soon, and when it happens, it's like an electric shock. It feels like everything dims, all of your senses, and when you reach out for your element . . ."
Lin stretches out a hand, places it on the wooden boards.
"Once, I could have mapped half this settlement with the touch of my hand. Could've built you a strong new hut around this one from the stone underneath our feet. That kind of power - Korra's kind of power - is hard to let go of. I - we - feel incomplete. Weak."
He wishes he had something to tell her. His father would have; could have heard the despair and rage under her even tones and told her one of his sayings that always, no matter the situation, seemed to apply. But he has nothing, only empty words and his deepest and most unspoken gratitude for what she did for him.
Senna turns to him. "And she's all right? I mean, otherwise?"
"Yes," he answers. "Korra is healthy and well and unharmed, except for the loss of her bending."
"It's a pretty big exception," Lin says. "She feels like her entire world is ending. She's going to scream and cry and feel like a failure. You need to tell her she isn't."
Lin speaks in paraphrase, she always has, and Tenzin hears her - tell me it wasn't for nothing. tell me I'll be strong again.
He goes to see his mother, and she agrees to be their last-ditch effort in reversing what Amon has done. He makes the call from White Lotus headquarters, telling the Air Acolytes to bring his family, Korra, and her friends to the Southern Water Tribe. Oogi takes off with a grumble at leaving him, and if he takes his time returning to Tonraq and Senna, well - it has been a hard couple of days for everyone.
No one is in the hut, but he follows the footprints to the training grounds. Lin is back in her armor, showing a few sword stances to Tonraq and Senna, and the small smile on her face is like seeing his Uncle again.
Tonraq bows to him shortly. "Master Tenzin, would you and Chief Beifong grant a request?"
"What is it?"
Senna speaks, but it's to Lin. "We think - it would help if - if you could-" She takes a breath, looking up at Lin with a mother's worry. "I need to know she'll be able to defend herself. That's always been important to us, and to her. I think if she could still fight and use the training she's learned, she - she'd be our Korra again."
"What does that have to do with Tenzin and I?" Lin asks.
"You were chief of police, weren't you?" Senna says. "You trained in a number of nonbending combat forms. If anyone could teach Korra how to adapt, it would be you."
"Well, of course I-"
Tonraq clasps a hand on Lin's arm. "Then please, show us it's possible for nonbenders to fight. Tenzin's one of the most powerful benders alive - if you could last against him, then you could teach Korra the same techniques."
Lin looks over at him, and he can see the indecision. She isn't at full strength, and it's been a long time since she's had to rely solely on her own body for defense. She'll be a challenge, no doubt about it, but will her skills be enough?
He makes the decision easier on her.
"No, it wouldn't be a fair fight at all. Chief Beifong is entirely -"
The point of her sword rests on the hollow of his throat.
"Entirely too willing to kick your delicate behind all the way to Omashu, Tenzin. Let's go."
She fights him, and it's like old times.
At first, he holds back, only using short bursts of air to knock her back, a few sonic slices to knock her feet out from under her. She keeps getting up, ducking and weaving and pushing him back onto the defensive. It's her style all over, a rush of power to misdirect from the sneak attack, and if he knows her well, she knows him just as thoroughly.
After all, there was once a time when Aunt Toph blindfolded him and taught him to rely on senses other than his eyes. Other times when his father took Lin flying high above the rooftops of what eventually became Republic City. They anticipate each other, echo each other, know all the little tricks to knock each other off balance. He hits her square on with an attack, but she grabs for the nearest tree and swings herself around. Her sword slices perilously close to his beard, and he catches her in a vacuum hold in mid-air.
"Lin, let's just call it a draw. It's only been a few days, you're still weakened from-"
"No! You just going to keep me here all day, Zippy? Your old man could've had me down for the count at least five minutes ago."
He tightens the bands around her in warning, but releases them. "I'm not trying to hurt you, and neither would my father."
She manages to pull a throwing knife from her gauntlet and lodge it in the gravel next to his boot, which is enough to break his concentration and release her. She lands on her feet, ducking his next blast and sliding around him to retrieve her sword.
"Air Nomad pacifists," she taunts, sidestepping an air burst and slicing a nice hole through his cape. "Aang was the real deal, but you've got some rage in you. I know you do, I've seen it. Let it out. Your family's been threatened, your kids were almost attacked by Amon, you let Korra down-"
"Don't you dare, Lin," he growls, and spins into a cyclone form.
Which is what she wants.
She flattens herself against the ground, waits for him to slide his feet into third form, then pushes up and into his space. She has him backed against a tree stump in the span of a few breaths, cold steel against his throat and Lin's green eyes glowing with pride.
"See?" Lin says, tossing the sword back to an astonished Tonraq and Senna. "She's got to fight smart, not just hard. Whaddaya say, Tenzin, still got it?"
He smiles, stepping back from her sword point and bowing.
"Still got it."
Things happen in such rapid succession that he feels as if he cannot catch his breath.The rest of the group arrives, his mother tries and fails to heal Korra, and something snaps in Korra enough to trigger the Avatar State. Korra gets her bending back, and she grants Lin the return of hers as well. Iroh and Bumi journey down to help celebrate, and the party looks to continue well into the night.
It's a joyous day, he's proud of Korra and happy to be with his family, but he needs some time to himself. He doesn't think the temple will be occupied when he goes in to meditate, but Lin is standing in the middle of the room, snapping cables around at lightning speed and apparently having been at it for several hours.
"Go celebrate, Tenzin. We had a good day."
He seats himself on the platform in front of her, well out of the usual reach of her cables, and folds his hands. "We did. You deserve a celebration too."
"You know me," she shrugs, "all work and no play."
"There's nothing about today that you find satisfying? You have your bending back. Korra has grown into her powers. We can restore the bending of all the people savaged by Amon."
"I saw him," Lin says softly, and she's retracted her cables. She sits down opposite him, and he raises an eyebrow. "Not Amon, Avatar Aang. When Korra returned my bending, I saw him standing behind her. Didn't look a day older than forty."
He tries not to feel jealousy, but he can't help it - one more person who has a better connection to his father than he ever had.
"Did he say anything?"
"Each person perceives the spirit world differently; some can only see, others can hear, touch, experience emotions. My father once said that when he connected with his past lives, it made him feel complete."
She shakes her head softly. "Still at it, Tenzin? Your father loved you - and your mother and siblings - a hell of a lot more than most people love their families. A hell of a lot more than my father ever did. Aang didn't say anything, because he didn't have to say anything. He was so happy to see you and your family; his newest grandson, the other grandchildren he didn't get to meet."
"Speaking of Rohan," Pema says gently from the doorway, dark circled eyes and the baby on her shoulder. "It's your turn."
Rohan is awake, but not fussing yet. He's working up to it, though, and Tenzin quickly gets to his feet and takes the baby from Pema. It's a system that's worked through three children already - he takes as many of the late night duties as possible, and she doesn't strangle him every time he has to leave during the day. Each of his children were different during these late-night times; Jinora calmed when you walked her around, Ikki liked the sound of his voice, Meelo had to be entertained with flying objects or new sights.
Of course, it's fairly obvious what Rohan needs now.
"I'll just go change him," he says.
Lin snickers under her breath. "And here you thought you'd be done with that."
"Yes, well, good night."
He leaves them in the temple proper, shifting Rohan to his shoulder and stopping when he gets to the steps. Lin's and Pema's voices carry, though, and he smiles to hear them being friendly with each other.
"Did I ever thank you for that jailbreak?"
"Don't mention it. You didn't do too bad, once you got your hands on a decent set of knives."
"Would you consider making me a new pair - you know, now that you have your bending back?"
". . . I'll think about it. I'm no blade specialist. You could get a Myunbuk set-"
"I could. But a Beifong set is more my style."
"Why do you want them so badly?"
"Because Senna told me you promised to teach Korra combat techniques. I want to learn."
"Tenzin will explode."
"If he knows what's good for him, he won't say a word. I will not be a helpless wife and mother, Lin. You're going to make me a knife set, and you're going to teach me how to use them correctly. None of this peaceful Air Nomad defense-is-the-best-offense boarcupine dung."
"Fine, all right! Your Earth Kingdom is showing; no wonder Tenzin's such a pushover when it comes to you. Now stop pestering me or I'll tell him just who provided the distraction to the guards when we escaped."
"You absolutely will not."
"Well, I won't have to. He already knows. I can feel you standing out there, Tenzin, you're not fooling anyone."
He jumps, to the laughter of his wife and his friend.
Pema raises her voice. "It's your own fault if you don't get him changed soon. Should I remind you about that time with Meelo at Councilwoman Mizaki's election party?"
No. No, she should not. He had to burn those robes and try not to turn crimson every time Mizaki looked at him.
"You could feel free to remind me," Lin teases. "Saikhan told me the story over a couple bowls of noodles, but I'm sure your version is better."
He looks down at Rohan, who is gurgling and grabbing at his beard and sighs.
"Promise me you won't take after your mother or Aunt Lin?"
Years later, when he is a grandfather and his youngest son comes to him to ask permission to enter the Republic City police force, he will sigh again.
He won't be a bit surprised.