It all started the night of Pema and Tenzin’s engagement party.
It was a big event. Tenzin finally marrying hopefully meant the birth of more airbenders. It seemed like all of Republic City had shown up at Air Temple Island for a night of dancing and revelry.
Lin hadn’t been invited. Of course she hadn’t. It would be too uncomfortable for the happy couple.
And yet she was still the Chief of Police. So many important people all gathered in one location made an enticing target for the Triads, and that meant a security detail for Air Temple Island. A security detail that Lin was leading herself.
It hurt, to watch from a distance.
It hurt, to see Tenzin so happy.
It hurt to realize that she hadn’t seen him that way in a very long time. Since before Avatar Aang died.
Ever since he had become the last airbender, Tenzin had felt the weight of that legacy, and all the duties it entailed. But for Tenzin, it wasn’t merely a duty. It was a joy. A long held dream.
And for Lin, a nightmare that made her wake from time to time in a cold sweat.
Swallowing thickly, Lin put all that from her mind, determined not to let her personal feelings interfere with her job. She would fade into the background, just another body in a uniform, moving from post to post to talk with her officers, silent as a spirit.
And at the end of the night, she would go home without Tenzin and his family ever knowing she was there.
“Chief Bei Fong,” came a rich, deep voice.
Lin turned to see a young man. He was tall and dark, and just to complete the cliché, really very handsome. His features marked him as having Water Tribe blood, if he wasn’t actually from one of the tribes. It was difficult to tell in Republic City. But his clothes were traditional – rich blue fabrics, trimmed in white, much like the clothes Lin was used to seeing Katara wear at events like this, though the designs were a little different. He wore his long dark hair in three ponytails that dangled down his back.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, wishing he wouldn’t talk so loud. He might as well be announcing her presence. “Have we met?”
“I haven’t yet had the pleasure,” the man took Lin’s hand, bowing to press a kiss to it. She raised a brow, bemused.
“You’re trying very hard to be charming, Mr…?”
“Tarrlok. Councilman Tarrlok, actually. I’m the new representative for the Northern Water Tribe. I was awarded the seat a few weeks ago. It seems I got to Republic City just in time for the party.”
So, he wasn’t as young as Lin had initially thought. Still one of the youngest to ever hold a council seat, but he was at least older than Pema.
At least older than Pema.
Funny, how her thoughts kept straying back to that.
Lin turned her hand in Tarrlok’s to grasp his forearm firmly. He treated her as a refined lady, but she responded as a seasoned soldier. “It’s good to meet you, Councilman Tarrlok.”
To his credit, Tarrlok took it in stride, adjusting his hand to return her warrior’s clasp.
He smiled at her, one dimple appearing in his cheek, his teeth very white against his skin.
“If you’ll excuse me, councilman, I have to get back to my duties.”
“Must you?” Tarrlok asked, putting a wounded look on his face. “Your officers seem to have everything well in hand. I was hoping to spend the evening with you. Being fresh off the boat as I am, I could certainly use a guide to navigate the choppy waters of the Republic City political sea.”
The silence became awkward.
“Did I lay it on too thick?” Tarrlok asked once it was obvious Lin wasn’t going to speak.
That startled her into a snorting laugh. “Just a little. Talk like that might work on the other council members, but I’m the Chief of Police. Honesty is better.”
Tarrlok smiled again, and this time it was a smaller, snakeshark-like grin. “Honesty? An interesting idea. I guess I could give it a try…” He moved closer to her, presumably so that they wouldn’t be overheard. “The truth is that I’m young, and new, and I’ll need strong political allies to make a difference in the republic. You are Chief Bei Fong. You’re the daughter of a legend. And more than that, people respect you. I want to be seen with you. I want you be my friend.”
“Or at least look as if I am?” Lin finished, taken aback at Tarrlok’s confession.
And impressed. It took some backbone to face her head-on this way.
Lin very purposefully did not look at Tenzin.
“I’d prefer you actually like me, but if an appearance of friendship is all I can manage, I’ll take it. For now, anyway,” Tarrlok said jovially.
From a distance, they could be discussing anything. People might even think they were flirting.
Lin snorted. As if she would be interested in a boy like Tarrlok, no matter how ambitious and intelligent.
Pema and Tenzin went to the center of the room and started dancing together, and Lin was reminded that the age difference between herself and Tarrlok was several years less than the one between the newly engaged couple.
A rush of irrational anger shooting up from her toes, she fought to keep her face blank.
She shouldn’t be angry. Pema wasn’t the source of Lin’s problems with Tenzin. Lin knew that now. What was bad there had gone bad long before. She had just been too stubborn to see it.
But she was angry all the same.
“I heard that she’s already pregnant,” Tarrlok whispered, following the direction of Lin’s gaze. “That’s the reason behind the rushed engagement. Of course, it could just be a rumor.”
Scowling, and not caring who saw it, Lin cut her eyes at Tarrlok. Didn’t he know about Tenzin? Was he being purposefully cruel?
But Tarrlok’s face was smooth. Guileless.
He had said he was new in town.
Lin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to master her ire.
She didn’t see the triumphant look in Tarrlok’s eye as soon as she turned away.
“Dance with me?” Tarrlok said suddenly, holding out his hands.
“So you can be seen dancing with Chief Bei Fong?” Lin snorted, crossing her arms.
But Tarrlok was persistent. “I could just be a man who wants to dance with a beautiful lady.”
Lin grit her teeth, feeling that he was mocking her. “I thought we established flattery and fancy talk isn’t going to work with me, kid.”
“So we did.” Tarrlok laid his hands on Lin’s arms, gently prying at her fingers, trying to pull her onto the dance floor.
Lin was about to tell him to get his hands off her before she did it for him, when he said, “And I’m still being honest. You’re beautiful, and I want to dance with you.” Leaning forward, his breath tickling her ear, he rumbled, “And I’m not a kid.”
“I don’t dance,” Lin protested, blushing even as she did so.
How pathetic. She hadn’t blushed since –
She realized with a start she hadn’t felt this way in years. She’d been with Tenzin for so long, everyone knew she was taken, and now – now she was Chief Bei Fong. People found her too intimidating for idle flirtations.
Except for, apparently, ambitious young councilmen.
“It’s easy,” Tarrlok needled. “It’s just like bending. Pretend we’re sparring.”
“You’re a waterbender?” Lin let Tarrlok pull her to the edge of the dance floor.
In answer, Tarrlok assumed a waterbending stance that actually looked quite stylish, and moved in a slow circle, waterbending the punch out of people’s glasses and making it swirl in a ribbon of color around the room before sending it back again.
“Very pretty,” Lin told him as he put his left hand on her waist and took her right hand in his. “Maybe you missed your calling.”
“I did consider running away from home once,” Tarrlok answered flatly. “I should have joined the circus.”
Lin stepped on Tarrlok’s foot, then frowned, biting her lip. She was one of the best earthbenders in the world, but she always felt like an awkward little turtleduck on the dance floor.
“Just like bending forms, remember?” Tarrlok said gently, though Lin could tell he was amused. “Just follow my lead.”
Lin made another misstep, grunting in frustration. “This isn’t working. You follow my lead instead,” she commanded. Grabbing Tarrlok’s hand, she moved it up to her shoulder, then put hers on his waist. The tempo of the music increased as the band transitioned into a different song.
Lin paused for a moment, counting out the beats in her head. Then she started a metalbending form, doing her best to keep to the rhythm. She stepped forward, and Tarrlok stepped back, stumbling at first, but quickly adapting. His movements were more fluid than hers, his waterbending training showing through. Even his hair and cloak swayed with the music, sharply contrasted to Lin’s severely pinned black curls and the rigid metal plates of her uniform.
Lin had no idea if they looked good, ridiculous, or somewhere in between, but the point was that they weren’t stepping on each other anymore. It wasn’t until the song was over and people started clapping that she realized they had attracted something of an audience.
Heedless of the onlookers, or maybe because of them, Tarrlok pulled her close, giving the impression of an intimate moment. “You are a spirited dancer, Lin. May I call you Lin?” he murmured against her cheek.
Seeing Tenzin staring at them, his already red face rapidly turning purple, Lin felt immediately ashamed of herself. She wasn’t even supposed to be here. She was certainly not supposed to be drawing attention to herself by dancing, of all things. Tenzin probably thought she was trying to ruin the party. She would apologize –
She stopped mid-thought. Why should she have to apologize for her mere presence? If it made Tenzin uncomfortable, that was his problem. Lin refused to feel bad for dancing with Tarrlok.
It was just a dance, after all.
“Yes, you can call me Lin,” she answered the handsome younger man, turning her face so that her lips almost – but not quite – brushed his.
Tenzin be damned.