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Song for Our Daughter

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Part 1: A Song for Losing

It would have been madness to venture out into the snow that night. The wind whipped against the sides of the houses, and Kya had no doubt that when the storm broke, there would be drifts as tall as buildings, leaving more than one family in need of a waterbender to clear the snow from their doorways.

She almost didn’t hear the knock; the gale was so deafening, and the very idea of it so absurd, that it was only when the sound came again, faster and more insistent, that Kya tore herself away from the fireside. As she pulled the door open, flinching at the whip of the cold air, Kya still half expected to see nothing but swirling white against the darkness. Instead, the figure standing on her threshold pulled down the dark scarf covering her face to reveal twin scars and a familiar frown.

“Don’t just stare at me, Kya, it’s fucking freezing out here.”

Kya ushered Lin inside, slamming the door closed behind her. Lin said nothing more, but hurried down the corridor and into Kya’s living space, crouching in front of the fire.

“You need to take those wet things off,” Kya said, because despite the hundred questions crowding her mind, Lin wouldn’t be able to answer any of them if she had hypothermia. Lin answered with a curt nod, fumbling to remove her mittens. Kya sighed as she crossed the space between them and loosened the fastenings so Lin could tug them off.

“Thanks,” Lin muttered as Kya hung out the mittens to dry.

“You’ll need to take that coat off as well, and the trousers,” Kya said. “I’ll go and get you some of my things to put on.” She didn’t wait for Lin’s response before fleeing to the wooden trunk at the foot of her bed. As she rifled through her clothes to find her warmest pair of leggings, Kya wondered absently if this was a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream, though, and her heart gave a nervous thump. Kya tried desperately to push away thoughts of death and disaster—why else would Lin be here, unannounced, in the middle of a snowstorm—as she gathered the thick woollen leggings and a fur-lined shawl into her arms. She almost dropped them when she turned around. Lin had stripped off her wet coat, leaving her in nothing but her shirt and still-wet trousers; without the thick coat to disguise her figure, Kya’s eyes were drawn to the small but obvious bump that rounded Lin’s abdomen.

“Surprise,” Lin said. Her smile was wry, but her voice wobbled in a way that Kya had rarely heard before, and she looked as though she might crumble at any moment.

“Dry things first,” Kya said, shoving the pile of clothes at Lin, who only nodded before her hands went to her belt and she began wriggling out of her trousers. For a moment, Kya was taken aback—Lin had never been easy to boss around—but Lin’s hands were shaking from more than cold as she pulled on Kya’s clothes, her eyes oddly blank. Kya didn’t know how long the journey from Republic City had taken, but in this weather it must have been weeks. Weeks of seasickness and morning sickness and uncertainty. Kya wondered if anyone in the city knew, or if Lin had been carrying this weight alone for what looked like at least four months.

Lin wrapped the shawl around herself, crossing her arms protectively over her chest. Kya guided her to sit down in front of the fire, crouching tentatively beside her.

“You don’t have to talk about it tonight,” Kya said, and Lin shook her head.

“I’ve been not talking about it for months. I’ve been trying not to even think about it but I—” she cut herself off and took a deep, shuddering breath. Then another. Another. Sharper and harder with every gasp. Kya put a gentle hand on Lin’s sternum.

“You’ve got to breathe out too, sweetheart. Come on.” She rubbed Lin’s chest gently, exaggerating her own breaths. Lin copied her, irregular and harsh at first, until the rise and fall of her chest was in sync with Kya’s. “That’s good, that’s good,” Kya said softly, expecting at any moment to be shoved off, but the shove never came. It unnerved her. This fragile, pliable Lin was near a stranger—Kya could count on one hand the number of times Lin had let someone other than Tenzin touch her so intimately.

It occurred to her then that Kya had been assuming the child was her brother’s, but Lin and Tenzin had broken up months ago. It hadn’t exactly been a surprise when Kya’s mom had handed her the letter—Tenzin’s usually sweeping handwriting turned jerky and unsure—telling them that he and Lin had split. It had been coming for years, perhaps even since the beginning, but Kya certainly hadn’t expected him to leave her for a teenaged acolyte.

“Can you tell me who the father is?” Kya asked, before she could think better of it. Lin didn’t look at her as she said,

“Tenzin. Who else would it be?”

“I don’t know.” Kya shrugged. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d gone out and fucked half of Republic City after that break up.”

Lin’s answering laugh was hollow, but Kya was still glad to hear it.

“I thought about it,” Lin admitted. “But—what good would it have done? It would just have been to, I don’t know, make him jealous. Make him feel the way I felt when...” she trailed off, but the distant, almost haunted look on her face told Kya exactly what she was remembering.

“I don’t—Lin, he’d never have done that to you.” Though Tenzin had certainly handled his break up badly—she could tell it from the way he’d danced around the subject—he would never have been unfaithful to Lin.

“But he did, Kya,” Lin said, her voice thick and choked. “Sure, maybe he didn’t fuck her, but he wanted to. He was kissing me and thinking about her. He was telling me he loved me and thinking about her. He spent his days whispering and plotting with her, imagining their happy little life together if only they could get rid of me, and then he came home and he—” Lin covered her face with her hands. She took a few deep, controlled breaths, Kya stroking gently up and down her back, before she spoke again. “I didn’t even notice. That girl—I couldn’t have picked her out of a line up. He was dreaming up a life with someone else right under my nose and I had no idea, Kya. The night before he ended it, the night this—” she gestured to her belly with a look of distaste “—happened, I really thought… it was so fucking stupid, but I thought things were looking up.” Lin pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. They were wet when she drew them away again, and Lin’s eyes were red, the lashes damply stuck together.

“Shit, sorry,” Lin said, before Kya could speak. “You didn’t want to hear that.”

In truth, Kya didn’t. She didn’t want to be so angry with her brother, didn’t need to see first hand the damage his decision had done to her oldest friend. She hadn’t seen Lin so vulnerable since they were children; even when they’d lost Kya’s father the previous year, Lin hadn’t fallen to pieces like this. Kya felt a pang of grief as she thought back on those days; no-one who saw the way that Lin took care of Tenzin—took care of their whole family—in the weeks following Aang’s death would have guessed they were already hurtling towards the end. She remembered the quiet, deliberate way that Lin had held them all together, gently taking the teapot from Katara’s hands when she’d stopped, blank faced, in the middle of the chores she’d insisted on still doing herself; always ready with a tissue up her sleeve or in her her pockets, discreetly passed to whoever needed it; holding back her own grief so that none of them felt guilty about leaning on her. This grief, though, this was only Lin’s, and it ripped through her as if powered by the hundred unfelt wounds that came before it.

“It’s late, you’re tired,” Kya said, because nothing she could say would comfort Lin now. “Let’s get some sleep, and we can talk more in the morning.”

Lin looked for a moment as though she might argue, but then her shoulders slumped, and she nodded.

“If you have a spare blanket I can just—” she began, but Kya cut her off with a smile.

“Oh no, you’re coming with me. You really wanna waste good body heat on a night like this?” She held out a hand, and Lin only hesitated for a moment before she took it, allowing Kya to lead her through to her room.

In the dim light of Kya’s bedroom, cast only in the warm glow of the fire, the almost dreamlike quality of the evening felt heightened. Kya had expected to go to bed alone tonight, to curl up against the cold, nose buried beneath the covers. Instead, she found herself lifting the pile of furs and blankets to let Lin slip in beside her. To Kya’s surprise, Lin allowed her to pull her close, Lin’s cold nose pressing against Kya’s neck. The rest of her was warm, though, and Kya tangled their legs together as Lin draped an arm over her waist.

It felt strange, but there was something sacred about seeing Lin this way. Kya wondered how many other people had been allowed to see her like this: docile and vulnerable and trusting. It wouldn’t last long, Kya thought. In the morning there would be questions to ask and knots to untie, so she allowed herself to relax into Lin’s embrace, warmer and softer than she would have imagined, and let the storm rage around them.


The first thing Kya noticed was the quiet. Clearly the storm must have blown itself out during the night, because it was almost silent as Kya blinked awake. The second thing she noticed was the gentle sound of Lin’s breathing, and her warm breath against Kya’s cheek. It hadn’t been a dream, then. Kya resisted the urge to reach under their covers and lay her hand where she knew Lin’s baby bump was new-formed, just to check. Despite the warmth of their cocoon, despite the way that Lin’s presence made her feel less lonely than she had in months, Kya could feel dread twisting in the pit of her stomach. No matter how this played out, even if they managed to drag out a happy ending, it wouldn’t be without grief.

Lin stirred, her arms tightening around Kya’s waist as she pressed her face closer into Kya’s shoulder. Surprised, Kya smiled.

“Good morning,” she said softly, and Lin tensed. “It’s just me, Lin. You’re alright. Go back to sleep.”

“What time is it?” Lin asked, her voice sleep-hoarse.

“That’s not how things work down here,” Kya told her. “We eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired. It’s not as though you have to be anywhere today.”

“But you do, I expect.”

“I’ll have to go check in on Mom at some point, and people are going to need some help moving the snowdrifts after the storm, but that can wait a little while. You need to rest.”

“No,” Lin said, sitting up sharply. The cold air hit Kya’s now-exposed front, and she shivered. “I didn’t come here to rest. I came here to figure out what I’m gonna do about this.” Lin’s hands bunched in the material of her shirt where it covered her belly before she shuddered, releasing her hold to let her head fall into her hands. For a moment, Kya thought she was crying again, but Lin’s deep, measured breaths didn’t sound panicked.

“Honey, are you going to throw up?” Kya asked, resting a gentle hand against Lin’s back.

“No. I haven’t for a week. It’s just nausea now.”

“That’s normal. You know the best thing is to sleep it off. Lie back down, come on.”

No, Kya,” Lin snapped, shrugging Kya’s hand off. “I didn’t come here to be babied. I came here to deal with a problem, and if you’re not going to help—”

“Can it, Lin,” Kya said firmly. Clearly, Lin had gotten over whatever mixture of exhaustion and anxiety had softened her the previous night, and if she didn’t want Kya’s gentleness, then Kya wouldn’t force it on her. “You’re in no state to be dealing with anything. You need rest, and you need to eat, and we can talk about this when I get back later.” She got up from the bed, pulling on her qarliik over her leggings—it would be a long day out in the snow, and Kya had learned early that no amount of exertion was enough to counter the icy chill of the Pole. “We don’t need to come up with a plan this morning, we’ve got time.”

“I already have a plan,” Lin said. “I didn’t come here to ask for your advice, I came here to ask for your help.”

“Oh really? Enlighten me.”

“I’m giving it away. I thought you must know someone. Someone far away, who could give it a good home.”

The bluntness of it took Kya aback, stopping her in her tracks as she fastened the ties of her parka. Lin couldn’t be asking what Kya thought she was asking. There had to be more to it.

“What about Tenzin?” she said. Lin didn’t even meet her gaze when she replied,

“What about him?”

“Does he know about this plan? Does he even know you’re pregnant?”

Lin scoffed.

“No.”

“Lin…”

“What else can I do, Kya? I can’t get rid of it, everytime the thought even crosses my mind, all I can hear is your dad talking about how he wished he could have seen the Air Temples as they used to be. I can’t keep it, because I don’t want to, and I’d be a shitty mother anyway. I can’t just give it to Tenzin because—” she stopped abruptly, her mouth becoming a hard line. “I won’t hand over my kid over to Tenzin and his fucking child bride, so it can grow up calling her Mommy.” Her voice wobbled as she said it, the confession drawn unwillingly from her, but her eyes were hard and determined.

Kya wanted to argue with her, she wanted there to be an option that didn’t involve lying to her brother, to her mom. She wanted there to be an option where she didn’t have to steal this child’s gummy smiles and first steps and bright laughter from its own family. But as bleak as Lin’s assessment of the situation was, Kya couldn’t find it to be untrue. If she were a different person, if she were harder, if she loved Lin just a little bit less, Kya might tell her to suck it up and face the music. This less-feeling version of herself might tell Lin that she couldn’t just pretend something never happened, and ask others to play pretend along with her, purely because she didn’t want to swallow her pride. But she wasn’t that person, she was herself, and so the silence stretched out between them, Lin’s hard stare softening into something uncertain, almost frightened, until Kya finally said,

“Look, give me some time to think it over. Just, sit tight for today. There’s plenty of food and water.” She rifled through her tea box until she found the cherry bark caddy she was looking for. She set it on the table next to Lin. “Steep a teaspoon of this in boiling water for a few minutes, it’ll help with the nausea. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Lin nodded, but she looked tense. Kya supposed there wasn’t much she could do about that, besides stay, and that was out of the question. If she stayed, Katara would only show up at the door wondering where she was, why she wasn’t lending a hand to people who had been injured, or whose houses had been damaged during the storm. It was better for both of them that she go. If this were last night, Kya would have dropped a kiss onto Lin’s head and promised that everything would work out, but it was morning now, and Lin’s edges were sharpened back into points.

“Don’t panic, okay?” Kya lingered by the door. “I’m not going to do anything you don’t want me to. I just… need some time to consider this.”

Lin still sat upright in Kya’s bed, her arms around her knees. She didn’t reply, and Kya considered that her cue to leave. There was work to be done, and Lin was a grown woman—she would be fine on her own for a little while.

“Don’t tell your Mom I’m here,” Lin blurted suddenly. “She’ll just—she’ll want to see me and then… even under a hundred layers I feel like she’d know, y’know?” Kya couldn’t really argue with that. Despite the fact that Lin wasn’t nearly far along enough to show beneath the bulk of the heavy Water Tribe clothing, Katara possessed a knack for sniffing out secrets that Kya had hated at sixteen, and secretly admired at thirty eight. “I don’t want—she doesn’t need to get mixed up in all this. I don’t want to put that kind of responsibility on her.”

Then why did you put it on me? Kya almost asked. Despite Lin’s morning bravado, there was still something so fragile about her, and Kya couldn’t quite bring herself to be angry, though deep down she knew she ought to be.

“Sure, Lin,” she said. “I won’t tell her.”


Her mother’s house was warm, as it always was, and Katara insisted on feeding Kya before they went out to help with the storm damage. The stew she offered was spiced and filling, and Kya realised as she ate that she’d forgotten to bring any food with her when she’d all but fled her own house. Kya couldn’t repress the twinge of guilt she felt as she thought of Lin, curled up small beneath the mountain of furs. Perhaps it hadn’t been fair of Lin to drop this on Kya, but nor was it fair that Lin had to go through it in the first place. Kya’s father had taught her ‘balance in all things’ and she had tried her best to live by that mantra. Now, though, Kya feared that she was left to balance suffering against relief.

“Kya? Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?”

“Uh—sorry, Mom. I’ve just… been distracted. Didn’t sleep too well.” That was a lie. Kya hadn’t slept so well or so deeply in a while, and she already felt an uncomfortable wrenching in her gut as Katara frowned.

“Storms don’t usually keep you up, do they?”

“No, no they don’t. I guess there was just… something about this one.”

“Do you want me to come over to yours this evening? I think I’ve still got some of that nighttime tea from the last time we went to the Jasmine Dragon. That always sends you right off.”

“No!” Kya said, too quickly. “You don’t have to, Mom. You should stay here in the warm. No need to come traipsing through the snow. I’ll tire myself out this afternoon anyway. I’m sure I’ll sleep like a log.”

Katara gave her a long, hard look before her face cracked into a smile.

“Kya, if you’ve got a girl at home, you can just tell me.”

“What?”

“There’s no need to be shy about it. I hope you don’t think it’ll upset me? Just because I spend my nights alone, now, doesn’t mean I want you to.” She cupped Kya’s chin, tilting her face up to meet her gaze. Kya’s mother smiled down at her, squeezing her face gently before she said, “Now then, I think we’ve got some snow to clear.”

The work was hard; though the South had seen both a baby boom and fairly sizable migration from the North over the past few decades, the bending population was still small, and not all of them as skilled as Kya and her mother. Kya was lucky to be paired with a young man who’d recently emigrated from the North, and together they made quick work of several snowdrifts, clearing paths from peoples’ doorways. They settled into a good rhythm, and Kya found herself feeling much calmer after a few hours of the push and pull of the snow, listening to Tonraq talk about his wife and baby daughter who were waiting for him at home.

With her mind clear and her muscles aching, Kya made her way back through the town. With every step, a new thought fell into place, and by the time she found herself in front of her own door once again, Kya had made a decision. Lin, after all, was already making a not-insignificant sacrifice by having the baby in the first place, for the sake of continuing the air nation. Was it really such an unreasonable thing to ask, that she be spared having a constant reminder of what she had lost in Tenzin? It would be better for the child, too, she reasoned; clearly living with Lin wasn’t an option, and while she was sure Tenzin would welcome the child with open arms, she wasn’t so sure about his new girlfriend. Not that she had any reason to think the woman—the girl, really—would be malicious, but it was an unknown quantity, a risk. Tenzin and Pema were sure to have their own children in a few years time. What if—and Kya wished she hadn’t thought it, she wished the idea had never occurred to her—what if the child wasn’t an airbender? Would it be shunted to the side, the way she and Bumi had been? Would Tenzin even realise he was doing it? Kya loved her parents, and she was grateful for the wisdom they’d imparted over the years, but if she could spare this child the burden of growing up forever in the shadow of its parents, then she’d do it without regret.

Kya opened the door. Lin was sitting next to the fire, one of Kya’s woollen shawls wrapped around her, a pot bubbling above it. The scent of seaweed noodles hit Kya next, and she sighed as she stripped off her wet parka to hang it near the fire.

“I thought you’d be hungry,” Lin said, gesturing to the pot. “This was the only thing you had that I knew how to cook.”

“Smells good,” Kya said. She brought two bowls down from the cupboard, and a pair of bone spoons. Lin poured out the noodles, and they ate without speaking, spoons knocking against bowls and the soft splashes of the broth the only sounds in the quiet. The noodles weren’t bad, Kya thought—Lin wouldn’t have known to use some of the more traditional ingredients Kya had knocking around in her pantry—but they were warming and satisfying after a hard day of work.

Kya put her bowl down and looked across at Lin. The careful, deliberate way she concentrated on her noodles was oddly endearing, and Kya struggled not to reach out to her. If she was going to go along with Lin’s plan, Lin had to know that it would be on Kya’s terms.

“Okay, this is how it’s going to go,” Kya said finally. “You can’t stay here, or Mom’s bound to find us out eventually. I have a friend in the Earth Kingdom who owes me a favour. Last I heard from her, she was settled out in the forest on Kyoshi. I’ll write to Nuwa this evening, and we should hear back within a couple of weeks. Then we can ship you off to Kyoshi and you can lie low there for a few months until you’re due.” Lin looked as though she was about to say something, but Kya carried on before she could. “Don’t argue with me, Lin. I came down here because Mom needed me around. It’s only been a year since Dad died, and I’m not gonna just fuck off for six months and leave her by herself.”

“No, of course you’re not,” Lin said, her gaze firmly fixed on her almost-empty bowl.

“While you’re gone, I’ll find someone to take the baby in,” Kya continued. “I’ll tell Mom that a friend of mine is pregnant and needs me to go and help with the delivery—the closer we are to the truth, the better the lie will be. With any luck I’ll only have to be away for a couple of months. Once you’ve given birth, I’ll take the baby where it needs to go, and you can sit the month on Kyoshi before you go back to the city. How does that sound?”

“I—”

“You know what, Lin? I actually don’t care how it sounds. That’s the plan, and you can like it, or you can—”

“Kya.” Lin interrupted, reaching across the space between them to take Kya’s hand. “I was going to say thank you.”

Kya looked down at their clasped hands. Last night, the touch had been a comfort, but now it was a covenant—everything she had agreed to settled, heavy, in the pit of Kya’s stomach, and she pushed the remainder of her noodles away.

In the morning, she would write a letter.

Chapter Text

Lin leaned heavily against the sink, her body still shaking. It was the third morning that week that she’d woken with a creeping nausea, barely making it to the bathroom in time to empty her stomach against the porcelain. Cupping her hands beneath the tap, she gulped down a mouthful of water, then another, though it barely washed the taste from her mouth. Lin let her head fall forward against the blissful cool of the mirror. She closed her eyes, trying to steady her breathing, but all she could see was that night—the last night—playing out again and again against the backs of her eyelids.

That night, Tenzin hadn’t even needled her about getting home late, only crowded her back against the door and buried his face in the curve of her neck, teeth and lips working on the delicate skin there. She ought to have asked him what was wrong, but she had been wrung out and tense from work—in the mood to fuck first and ask questions later—so she’d said nothing as he hooked his hands under her thighs and carried her to bed.

His hands shook when they tugged at her shirt, and he’d whimpered as she pulled back to tug it over her head. His kisses had been desperate and almost reverential, leaving spots of warmth where his lips met her collarbones, her wrists, her breasts, her belly, the insides of her thighs. His fingers trailed behind, mapping her body as though he was trying to commit every inch of her to memory. She had been trembling by the time he finally slid into her, pinning her hips so she couldn’t set the hard, frantic pace she craved. It wasn’t often (and increasingly rare in the last months) that Lin allowed him to lay her back and spread her out, but that night she relished the closeness and the weight of his body above her, the heat of his breath on her skin, and she had known even as he gripped her hips that she would have bruises in the shape of his fingers the next morning. The distance that had grown between them for weeks, months, years seemed to melt away with every sigh, and he’d kissed her neck so gently as he fucked her with deep, slow strokes. Lin’s short nails left red crescent-moons on the muscles of his shoulders as she clung to him, shuddering, urging him on until finally, finally, he’d slipped a hand between their sweat-slick bodies and brought her over the edge, letting her pull him with her.

He’d held her to him in the afterglow, arms wrapped around her as though she might disappear if he loosened his grip even a little. It was the kind of sex that was usually reserved for evenings they’d spent screaming at each other—about Lin’s working hours, about Tenzin’s judgement, about children—for arguments they knew had no resolution, and apologies that could only be made in whispers against skin. She should have known—should at least have asked—but she’d been too exhausted, too fucked out and too happy to question it. Instead, Lin had pressed a kiss to his lips, and let the sound of his breathing lull her to sleep.

As it turned out, that had been her undoing. By the end of the next day, Air Temple Island and Lin’s heart were in ruins.

Of course she’d forgotten to drink her tea after a day like that. Of course she had, because anyone would, and because the spirits apparently hated her personally. She hadn’t even considered the possibility that she might be—she’d been too busy pouring her energy into work, spending hour after hour sparring with the new recruits until she could no longer tell which bruises were the ones he’d left (she might not be able to forget the imprints of loving fingers, but she could cover them with uglier marks). If she missed her period, then that wasn’t alarming. She missed it fairly often from stress or exhaustion, and this month had certainly been no exception. It hadn’t been until a few days ago, when the sickness started, that dread began to worm its way into Lin’s mind.

She would have to go to a healer to be certain, but that was out of the question. There was no-one in Republic City who didn’t know her, who hadn’t heard about the wreck of hers and Tenzin’s relationship. Patient confidentiality or not, the risk was too high. She splashed her face with a final handful of water, and walked on shaking legs to the kitchen. Her limbs felt heavy and numb as she reached into the cabinet and poured a tumbler of whiskey, raising it almost to her lips before she realised what she was doing.

Lin paused. There was a small part of her—an angry, bitter, hateful part—that told her to drink it. One glass, and then another, and then another, as she ran a bath as hot as she could stand it. If it was anyone else’s, that’s what she’d do—if it was anyone else’s, she could simply go to the pharmacy, ask for the right herbs—if it was anyone else’s, she’d just get rid of the thing, and not think twice about it.

She could have laughed, remembering the number of times he’d called her selfish, the endless fights they’d had about the future of the Air Nation. Perhaps he was right, perhaps she had spent their relationship putting her own fear above the needs of his people—of Aang’s people—but she wasn’t selfish enough to destroy what might be a new generation of airbenders growing stubbornly inside her. Sure, his shiny new girlfriend seemed more than willing to repopulate the entire Air Nation all by herself, but willingness, wanting something didn’t always make it so. Their children might be non-benders, like Bumi, or the girl might not be able to have them at all; Tenzin was far too noble to leave someone because they couldn’t give him what he wanted. He’d left Lin because she wouldn’t, but apparently they’d both been wrong about that.

The chance was slim, it was so slim, but it was enough for her to tip the contents of the glass into the sink. Instead, she set a kettle on the hob and gathered the ingredients for ginger tea. It wouldn’t calm her mind the way the whiskey might, but it would calm her stomach, at least. She went through the motions, familiar, soothing, as she considered and discarded a dozen different plans.

Her first thought was potentially her stupidest, but she trusted no-one more than she trusted Katara. In any other situation—and she was already so tired of the hundred ways in which this one was uniquely torturous—she would run to the South Pole, and let herself be weak for just a little bit. But Katara couldn’t know. No matter how much she wanted to help Lin, she would never be willing to hide Tenzin’s child from him, and it would be cruel of Lin to ask her. Her own mother was out of the question, of course. Lin didn’t know where she was, in the first place, and even if she did, she hardly wanted to know Toph’s opinion on the shitshow that her life had become.

She supposed she could just take herself off into the Earth Kingdom, find a village where no-one would recognise her. She could make up some story about why she couldn’t keep the child, and leave it there with them. The idea made something shift uncomfortably in Lin’s belly.

It dawned on her then how pathetically small her life was. She had her job, and Republic City, and until recently she’d had Tenzin and his family. Beyond that, Lin couldn’t think of anyone who might care enough about her to help. Perhaps she could go to the Fire Nation, though she’d not seen Izumi in years, and she certainly didn’t trust Zuko not to give her away to Katara.

Lin took a sip of her tea and tried not to cry. Hormones or not, she didn’t have time for despair, because if she was right, if she really was pregnant, then she would start showing soon, and she needed to be out of the city by then. She could arrange a meeting that afternoon and get the time off, she was certain. Her paperwork was all up to date, and she didn’t have too many open cases. Assistant Chief Changying had been dropping heavier and heavier hints over the last few weeks that Lin might benefit from a vacation, or even a few months’ extended leave. None of that mattered, though, if she had nowhere to run to.

Again, she felt the instinctive tug south. She tried to ignore it, telling herself that no matter how soothing Katara’s presence was, no matter how soft and cool her hands had been against a six year old Lin’s fevered brow, she was Tenzin’s mother first. Just like Air Temple Island was Tenzin’s home, like Aang had been Tenzin’s father, like Bumi and Kya were Tenzin’s siblings. All the things Lin had reached for and coveted, stained with her dirty, oil-streaked hands, were lost to her along with him.

Something in her still insisted, though, sharper than before. What she needed was someone familiar, someone she trusted, someone with gentle hands and a knowledge beyond Lin’s own.

The memory dropped so easily into her head. She couldn’t remember why they’d been sharing a room that night, or how they’d gotten onto the subject of brothers and sisters—the moment was hazy at the edges, in the way that childhood memories often were—but Lin remembered the smile in Kya’s voice as she’d whispered,

“Hina says she’d swap all four of her brothers for sisters if she could.”

“What about you?” Lin had asked, her voice half-muffled by the pillow. “Don’t you want any sisters?”

Kya had giggled and said,

“What do I need real sisters for, when I have you?”

Lin had been glad it was dark, so Kya couldn’t see her blush.

“Real sisters are overrated anyway,” Lin had muttered. “Su is so annoying.” Kya had laughed at that, but smothered the sound with her blankets as they heard the soft pat of Katara’s feet in the corridor outside.

It was nothing, really—a flippant remark more than two decades ago—but Lin cradled it close to her now. It was hardly anything, really, the smallest thread of hope, but Lin’s grip on it was white-knuckled as she picked up the phone to call the station. She could be out of the city in a few days, and then she could only hope that maybe, maybe there was still a person out there in the world that Lin could call hers.

Chapter Text

Dear Su,

The years pass so quickly now, I can’t believe it was half a decade ago that I last visited Zaofu. Of course I’ve seen pictures of it in the papers, growing larger and more beautiful by the day. Your family has grown larger too, I think? When I last visited you only had little Bataar Jr, but Mom told me you’ve had another son since then. I remember you talking about how much you wanted a big family when I saw you last, and I’m so happy it seems like you’re well on your way to having one.

I have to confess, Su, that I’m not writing just to catch up. I have a favour to ask of you, and it’s not a small one. A friend of mine recently arrived in the South Pole: she’s four months pregnant, and she cannot raise the baby herself. Su, if you have room in your family for another child, I can think of no better place for this one to be. There may come a time when this child needs the protection of a place like Zaofu, and they will certainly need the support and guidance of a strong family. I’m sorry to be vague, but I’m sure you understand that I wouldn’t want to give away the details of her situation before you’ve agreed to help. Please know I am aware of the enormity of what I’m asking, and I won’t hold any refusal against you, but if you are willing to help, the ruse will have to begin soon. As many people as possible will have to believe this child is yours.

I’m sure you have a hundred questions, and I will do my best to answer what I can. Please write back as soon as you are able.

Your friend,

Kya


It was dusk when Kya arrived at Zaofu. The wind outside the city was bracing, and Kya shivered. It felt ridiculous, after so long spent in the freezing South Pole, to be shivering at a chilly Earth Kingdom breeze, but she hadn’t brought any of her furs, and the warm little bundle strapped to her chest could only do so much. Still, it was with a pang of sadness as well as cold that she lifted the little girl out of the sling around her torso, and lowered her into the basket at her feet.

“You’re going to have to be quiet now, baby. Can you do that for me?”

Wide blue eyes stared up at her, and Kya hoped—not for the first time—that they would settle into her mother’s green rather than her father’s grey-blue. Her tiny hands were balled into fists, and she stuck one determinedly into her mouth. Kya smiled.

“That’s right, no noise at all.”

Kya’s heart was in her throat as she approached the imposing platinum gates of Zaofu. They only had to make it through the city, she reminded herself; once they reached the Beifong complex, she could relax. If Kya was honest, she was more concerned about herself than the baby in the basket. She had proved to be a uniquely placid child—surprising, considering her parentage—and Kya thanked whatever spirits were listening for that blessing.

Lin had been anything but placid in the days leading up to the birth. According to Nuwa—who had been nearly at her wits’ end by the time Kya arrived two weeks before Lin was due—she had spent the months of her confinement on Kyoshi wearing a trench into Nuwa’s floor. She had paced like a caged animal, snapping at offers of food and any suggestion that she ought to sit down. On the days when even Lin’s strong body had been too drained to hold her up for long, Nuwa had watched her tear old scraps of coloured fabric into strips and triangles, collecting them in a box that she kept tucked under her bed.

It had been strange to see Lin so altered; the swell of her belly seemed oddly tacked-on, and even in the few days that Kya watched her, Lin never seemed to move easily with it. She certainly never rested her hands on her bump, as most pregnant women were wont to do; if anything, she seemed to avoid touching it—or even acknowledging it—at all costs.

When the contractions started—just under a week before Lin was due—she’d sworn like a sailor, but otherwise stayed surprisingly quiet. There was a tight lipped, tense quality to her in the early hours, but as the contractions came faster and more intensely, she’d been unable to hold back as the pain ripped through her. Luckily for all of them, Lin didn’t labour long, and the baby girl was born at sundown, small but healthy.

It had been three days before Kya was able to leave for Zaofu, and her heart must have broken in a hundred small ways over the course of her wait. A crack every time Lin flinched when the child started crying, every time she tried to curl up small in the bed, blocked by the still-hard swell of her abdomen.

Kya jumped when the gate began to bend open. Everything in the city seemed designed to unfurl—floral despite the hard metallic sheen—and it might look beautiful, but not even Toph could silence the wrenching sound of metal being bent out of shape. An austere looking man in long green robes stood at the now open gate. He didn’t speak. Only took in her slightly dishevelled appearance, and pursed his lips.

“I’m here to see Suyin,” Kya said, but the man only continued to stare at her.

“Is she expecting you?”

“Yes, I imagine so. I’m her midwife.”

Either the man could see the tension in her body, could sense the way her ears were straining for any kind of noise from the basket in her hand, or he was even more of a snob than Kya had initially imagined. He said nothing, only looked her up and down again in distaste, and Kya sighed.

“We’re old friends, you see. Grew up together. Her mother and my parents were very close. I’m sure you’ve heard of my parents. Avatar Aang and Master Katara.” She cocked an imperious eyebrow, and watched the man squirm. Kya didn’t exactly like playing this particular card, but she couldn’t deny there was a certain satisfaction in seeing horrified realisation spread across haughty faces. This man was no exception, though she was mildly irritated that he didn’t even stutter as he said,

“Master Kya, why did you not say so before? Welcome to Zaofu.”


Dear Kya,

Well, that wasn’t a letter I ever expected to get! It certainly gave me a few sleepless nights, I can tell you. Bataar and I created Zaofu to be a place where anyone can have a second chance to be their best self, and it sounds as though this little one is hardly being allowed a first chance, the poor thing. After talking it over, Bataar and I have agreed that we couldn’t in good conscience refuse you.

I know you’ve got to keep everything incredibly mysterious, so I’ll wait to hear the story when you come. I assume you’ll be bringing the child yourself? It would certainly help with the show of it all—we could say I’d asked you to come and help with the birth. Who would ever question that?

Write to me again when your friend is near her time, and I’ll make sure everything is ready for the little one’s arrival. In the meantime, I’ll make the announcement about my “pregnancy”.

Best,

Su


Su and Bataar met her in their bedroom—or at least, Kya assumed it was their bedroom because there was a large bed in it, but proportionally it was more akin to a banqueting hall—and Kya had no sooner closed the door than Su was rushing over, asking questions at a mile a minute. Kya only blinked at her; she was almost caught out by how real Su’s false belly looked, and it took a moment for her brain to catch up with the image. Her confusion must have shown on her face, because Bataar put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and said,

“Let her breathe a moment, dear. She’s come a long way.”

“Of course, of course,” Su said. “Welcome to Zaofu, Kya. We’re so happy to see you.”

“Your gatekeeper wasn’t such a fan,” Kya said, placing the basket gently on the floor. Su’s eyes followed the motion, lingering on the basket for a moment before she waved a hand, dismissive.

“Oh, that’s just Qiang. His brother’s a truth seer, you know; he’s never been able to master the skill himself, so he makes up for it by distrusting everyone he meets. He’s harmless.”

Kya privately thought that having men like Qiang guarding the entrance said far more about Su’s “city of second chances” than any of her high-minded rhetoric, but she wasn’t here to debate Su’s politics.

“Well, we made it, and that’s what counts,” Kya replied. “I’m sure you’re excited to meet the newest member of your family.”

Kya’s heart pounded as she bent down, opening the basket at her feet to reveal the infant, curled up asleep atop her mound of clothing. Su gasped, clutching Bataar’s shirt with one hand, and covering her mouth with the other.

“Oh, what a beautiful little thing,” she said.

“She’s a girl.”

“A girl?” A wide smile split Su’s face. “I was hoping she’d be a girl. I would have taken a boy too, of course, but I’ve already got two of those and I love them to death but… oh she’s a girl, Bataar.”

“Yes, honey. So I heard,” Bataar said with an indulgent smile.

Su crouched down beside the basket, reaching in to lift the baby gently out; she stirred a little in Su’s arms, but carried on sleeping.

“Does she have a name?” Bataar asked, leaning over his wife’s shoulder to get a better look at their new daughter. Kya shook her head.

“No, we thought we ought to leave that to the pair of you.”

“We?” Su asked, one perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised in question.

“Her mother and I,” Kya explained.

“Oh yes, the mystery mother.” Su’s tone had an edge of judgement on it, and Kya tried not to let her hackles rise as Su turned to the sleeping baby to whisper, “I don’t know how she could give you up, little girl.”

“I think it was a very hard decision for her,” Kya said evenly. “Look, Su. There’s… there’s something I ought to prepare you for. It might not even happen, but you should know it’s a possibility.”

“The plot thickens,” Su said, looking back up at Kya again. “Bataar and I have been wondering what this big secret might be. Is she royalty? I’d love to see the look on old Hou-Ting’s face if she found out we were harbouring a little princess right here in Zaofu.”

The lightness of Su’s tone irked her. Kya tried to remind herself that Su hadn’t seen Lin when she turned up at the South Pole; she hadn’t heard the desperation in her voice or felt the way she’d trembled. Su hadn’t been in that tiny house on Kyoshi; she hadn’t watched Lin’s eyes fill with tears every time her child fussed or cried, only to furiously wipe them away before they could fall.

“Nothing so romantic, I’m afraid,” Kya said, her smile strained. “It might all come to nothing—she could be an earthbender, or she might not bend at all—but there’s a significant chance that the child you’re holding is an airbender.”

“An airbender?” Bataar repeated, his eyes wide behind their spectacles. He looked down at the baby and then up at his wife, who stared back, apparently speechless.

“Like I said, she may well not be.” Kya said, to fill the silence. “We never know how these things are going to play out but… you should know it’s a possibility.”

“What, has Bumi been sowing some wild oats in a few ports?” Su asked. Her tone was teasing, but there was a tension in it that belied her playful curiosity. Kya had considered letting Su believe something like that, or at least just being cagey about the identity of the child’s parents, but there seemed to be no point. By the time the little girl was a few years old, it would be clear that she was a Beifong—it was part of why Kya had written to Su in the first place—and there would be no denying that she was Lin and Tenzin’s child, whether she was airbender or not.

“No, she’s not Bumi’s,” Kya said plainly. “She’s your niece, Su. Lin didn’t realise she was pregnant until after Tenzin ended things.”

“Oh,” Su said softly. She looked down at the baby again, raising a finger to stroke one fuzzy little cheek. The gesture was so tender, and Kya felt a rush of relief. “I heard they’d broken up. Is she—I mean, she’s not alright. Obviously she’s not. Does she know you’ve brought the baby here?”

Kya considered lying, but that came with risks of its own.

“No, she doesn’t,” Kya admitted, and Su shook her head.

“Of course. It was silly of me to think she’d want—but I’m so glad you brought her here, Kya. Thank you.” Kya could only nod, feeling a lump rise up in the back of her throat as she watched the three of them together. Bataar’s hand was firm on Su’s waist, and he rested his head on her shoulder, apparently unable to look away from the sleeping infant. Su seemed to share his fascination, and she ran her hand gently down the baby’s front, letting her fingers follow the many seams of the soft, patchwork dress. “Did Lin—did Lin make this?” Su asked, and Kya nodded.

“I think so.”

“She was always good at sewing,” Su said, with a wry little smile, “though I’m sure no-one would ever believe it.”

“I certainly didn’t,” Kya agreed.

She had just finished packing the last of her things, finally ready to catch the next ship off Kyoshi, when she’d found Lin pulling the little garment over the baby’s head. Kya had frozen; Lin never touched her child unless she really had to, and the gentleness with which she pulled the girl’s tiny arms through the sleeves had made something swell in Kya’s chest.

“It’s a little big,” Lin had muttered. “You got impatient, kid. Wanted to see the world, I guess. Sorry if it’s disappointing.”

The baby, of course, had only gurgled up at her mother in response.

The memory made Kya’s eyes prick with tears, and she blinked them frantically back as Su gave a soft gasp. She was gazing down at the baby, transfixed, as she opened her big eyes and stretched her tiny hands up towards Su’s face. Kya half expected her to cry, to fuss and to squirm in the arms of a stranger, but she only frowned slightly as she curled her little fist around Bataar’s proffered finger.

“Mommy, who’s that?”

All three of them jumped, turning to see a small boy standing in the doorway. One hand grasped a worn looking green blanket, while the other rubbed his eye as he frowned up at Kya.

“What are you doing up, Mister?” Bataar said, sweeping the child up into his arms. The little boy buried his face into his father’s neck and mumbled,

“I couldn’t sleep. Daddy who’s that?” he repeated, pointing at Kya with a chubby finger.

“I’m Kya, I’m a really old friend of your Mom’s. You must be Bataar.” He nodded. “I haven’t seen you since you were a baby, but look how big you’ve gotten.”

“I’m six.” Bataar announced proudly, and Kya smiled.

“Six? Wow.”

“He’s a great big brother, aren’t you Bataar?” said his father, and little Bataar nodded.

“I’m teaching Huan how to do sums, but he’s not very good.”

Bataar Sr chuckled.

“Give him some time, he’s only four.”

The baby chose that moment to start fussing, and little Bataar’s eyes widened as he pulled away from his father’s shoulder to stare, open mouthed, at the bundle in Su’s arms.

“Do you want to meet your new sister, Bataar?” Su asked softly, and Bataar nodded. He leaned towards his mother, reaching out to place a small, chubby hand on the baby’s stomach. She quieted slightly as she stared up at her brother.

Kya felt the clenching knot in her gut begin, finally, to loosen. It had been there for nearly six months, tightening with every new lie and every doubt, but she could feel the tension releasing with every soft touch and excited look exchanged between Su and Bataar. There were some knots now that Kya had to accept were simply part of her; the guilty knot that was lodged right above her stomach—the one that twisted every time she thought of Tenzin, or her mother—was going nowhere, but at least she could tell herself that this child, her niece, would be loved. Relief washed over her, and brought exhaustion along with it. The last days, the last weeks and months had all been draining in their own ways, and now that the weight of it had lessened, Kya was tired.

“I’ll leave the new family to get acquainted,” she said, trying and failing to stifle a yawn. “She’ll need feeding in about an hour, do you have—”

“Oh yes, we have everything we need, thank you.” Su said, barely looking up at her. Kya couldn’t say she blamed her—that little girl’s eyes were too easy to get lost in. “The room next door on the right is yours for as long as you're here. We can set a proper scene and announce her birth in the morning.”

“Thanks, Su. Goodnight everyone.” Both Bataars gave her the same, slightly distracted, wave, and Kya smiled as she picked up her too-light basket and turned to go.

“She’s so little,” Kya heard Bataar Jr whisper as she walked away. Su gave a low laugh.

“You were this little once, too.”

“Nuh uh!”

“Yes you were. Huan too.”

“Huan’s still little.” Bataar insisted. Then, “What’s her name?”

Kya lingered in the doorway just for a moment, waiting for Su’s answer:

“Her name is Opal.”

Chapter Text

Her whole body ached. It had been three weeks since the birth, and she still hurt from it. Without the constant reminders from her thighs and her breasts and her abdomen, Lin might have been able to convince herself that none of it was real. But then, Lin’s body had been betraying her for months, and she ought to be used to it by now.

For almost the entire duration of her stay on Kyoshi, Lin had half-expected to snap out of it, to find herself still in her kitchen on the morning of her first bout of sickness. This couldn’t be reality, she’d tell herself, curled up as tight as possible as she tried to sleep; in reality, she was still standing over the bathroom sink in Republic City, catastrophizing. But then the baby would hiccup or kick—the sensation too alien for her imagination to be responsible—and Lin’s heart would sink.

The birth itself had been a nightmare of blood and fluid and wrenching, ripping pain. She’d known it would be, but she hadn’t imagined how long that agony would last after the thing was finally out of her. She hadn’t considered the pain of her womb contracting back to the size it had been before a child had taken root in it. She hadn’t imagined she would carry on bleeding for weeks. She certainly hadn’t expected her hair to begin falling out in worryingly large clumps every time she took a shower. Toph had always boasted that after Lin was born she’d been back on the beat a week later—a boast that Lin now knew was categorically untrue.

Struggling to hide the slight limp still in her step was one thing, but the pressure in her chest was far, far worse. Kya had assured her that her milk would dry up within a month, but Lin couldn’t take another day of feeling the ache and the sticky wetness beneath her armour. Every time she peeled away the metal to reveal damp white fabric beneath, she felt tears sting the backs of her eyes as she remembered the awful, painful relief of hard little gums clamped around her nipple. She had never thought she’d have to do that, either, but Kya had insisted. There had been a long speech about how important it was in the first few days, and then the child had been thrust into her arms. Lin had thought, had hoped, that she would never really have to see the thing, that Kya would pull it out and whisk it away within a few moments, like in the stories of lost princesses and separated twins that Katara had told them all as children. She had never expected to hold it—to hold her daughter—against her breast and feel the small, warm weight of her. Lin had tried her hardest not to look at her; she didn’t need to know whether the child had her eyes or Tenzin’s, or admire how perfect her hands were in miniature. There was no sleep to be had when the girl needed feeding every couple of hours, and Lin had stared resolutely at the opposite wall for what felt like an eternity, trying her hardest not to acknowledge the softness of the baby’s hair against her fingers. Those days had been a haze of pain and exhaustion and tears; Lin had felt as though her face was constantly wet with them, unsure if it was the throb between her legs or the cramping in her belly or the sharp tug of the child drawing milk.

There was no time for tears now, as she methodically stripped away her uniform. The day had been a long one, and she could have sighed in relief as the pressure on her chest fell away. It was bliss for just a moment before the cool air hit her damp shirt, and Lin winced. She only had a second to examine the transparent spots on the white garment and conclude that at least there was less of it today, before someone knocked on the door of her office. Panicked, Lin grabbed her coat from the stand in the corner, wrapping it around herself before barking out a curt,

“What?”

She was prepared to snap at a rookie with a question about paperwork, or even to tell her superior officer officer where he could stick his extra shift. She was not prepared for Tenzin to slip into her office, closing the door quietly behind him. Lin didn’t know why she expected him to look different—perhaps because she herself had grown and shrunk and lost so much since she’d last seen him—but the sameness of him shocked her. There was nothing in his face, or his dress, or his manner to tell Lin that he was no longer hers.

“You’re back,” he said, as if that wasn’t obvious. It clearly hadn’t been what he meant to say, because his eyebrows twitched into a momentary frown before he straightened himself up.

“Have been for a week.” Lin crossed her arms, suddenly awfully aware of how different she must look. Could he see, even beneath her coat, that her stomach wasn’t flat like it used to be? “What do you want, Tenzin?”

“The council would like to uh—to put in a request for some guards for an upcoming event.”

“It’s a little late to still be working, isn’t it?” Lin said. It was well past the time he would have gotten snippy with her for missing dinner, when they were together. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your girlfriend? Or is it past her bedtime?”

“Lin, please don’t.” His voice was low, strained, and Lin felt a little thrill of victory.

It lasted for all of a second before he took a step towards her, and Lin had to fight not to flinch, not to turn her body away from him, to flee. Without even her desk between them, there was nothing to stop him coming close enough to see all the ways she’d changed; there was nothing to stop him seeing the hurt and the longing behind the anger in her eyes. There seemed to be no space in the room that he didn’t inhabit. He’d always been taller than her, always been bigger, but she’d never really felt it. They’d been equals since the beginning. He’d never made her feel weak like this. Panicked and paranoid, Lin fought not to look down at her chest, to check whether the wetness of her undershirt was bleeding through the coat, giving her away.

You always said you loved my body, she thought, bitterly. You said you loved my strength. But was this how you really wanted me? Leaking tears and milk?

She hated the pitying look on his face, that air he had of being so patient with her. He seemed to be studying her, and Lin was stupidly, nonsensically glad that he wasn’t an earthbender, that he couldn’t feel the hammering of her heart through the stone floor.

“You look tired,” he said eventually.

“Thanks.”

“I thought… your time away…” he trailed off, and Lin let the silence sit between them for a while, hard and uncomfortable, before she snapped,

“What? You thought I spent six months sitting on some beach sipping a cocktail out of a coconut, and I’d come back feeling like the last fifteen years never mattered? Sorry to disappoint you.”

“You look like you spent six months doing hard labour,” he said, and Lin almost laughed. “At least that might’ve helped you work through your anger.”

“Oh, am I supposed to have a finite amount of anger over this?” Lin spat back, suddenly furious like she hadn’t been in months. “I’m afraid that’s not how it works, Tenzin. You dump me for a schoolgirl and then I hate you forever. This is exactly what you signed up for when you made that call.”

She had expected—wanted—him to snap back at her. She expected him to defend himself, to bring up the tension and the distance, to tell her in that blustering, offended, familiar way that she wasn’t a schoolgirl, but he said nothing for a long moment. When he spoke, there was a tremble in his voice.

“Forever?”

Lin’s whole body shook as she held his gaze, but her voice stayed strong and clear as she said,

“Forever.”

Tenzin’s face crumpled, and fuck him for looking like that. Fuck him for daring to look at her as though she was the one doing the hurting here. It was Lin who had been torn apart by this, it was Lin who’d had to take herself off to the end of the world, to hide out in a hut for months with no company but an irritatingly houseproud hippy. It was Lin whose body had been stretched and torn and pulverised because he’d wanted one last fuck. It was Lin who had to feel the clamp of a little mouth pulling sustenance from her body, and Lin who had averted her gaze so she wouldn’t have to see that little girl be taken away to a life that was better than Lin could give her. Tenzin had tossed her aside like a used rag; he didn’t get to look at her now with emotion swimming in his eyes, just because he had to deal with the consequences of his actions.

(She didn’t wonder what he’d do if she went to him now, if she crossed the small space between them and flung her arms around his shoulders, pressed her nose into the crook of his neck to smell the familiar scent of him. She didn’t wonder what he would say if she told him everything.)

Suddenly, Lin wanted nothing more than for the conversation to be over. She wanted him gone.

“How many metalbenders do you need?” she said, and Tenzin frowned.

“What?”

“For this event. How many metalbenders do you need?”

Tenzin blinked at her, taken aback for a moment, and Lin willed him not to challenge her.

“We thought eight would be—”

“When?”

“Two weeks today.”

Lin considered it.

“I should be able to manage that.”

Tenzin let out a long breath.

“Thank you, Lin,” he said softly, and Lin shrugged.

“This isn’t a favour, Tenzin. I’m just doing my job.”

He looked at though he wanted to say something, but to Lin’s relief, he only nodded. The sound of the door closing behind him rippled through Lin’s body as her legs began to tremble, and she gripped the edge of her desk, white knuckled. At least it was over, she told herself. The hardest part was done.

The hardest part. If there hadn’t been tears stinging her eyes, Lin would have laughed at herself. The hardest part had been realising she was pregnant in the first place. The hardest part had been the nine hours of labour. The hardest part had been holding her child to her breast, knowing that in two days she would be gone. She’d barely thought about Tenzin. She’d pushed him to the back of her mind and told herself he didn’t matter, ignoring Kya’s obvious discomfort with the secrecy. She’d told herself he had no right to know any of it, that he’d forfeited that right when he stood in the courtyard of Air Temple Island, the marks of her love still on his body, and told her she wasn’t enough anymore.

She had forgotten, in her long months of solitude, that he was a person, too. She had forgotten, in her pain and her anger, that she loved him. Hadn’t she put herself through all of this for him in the first place? No, she reminded herself: she’d done it so that she could prove she wasn’t as selfish as he’d always claimed, that she was willing to make sacrifices for a decimated people. It felt hollow even as she thought it.

Lin stared at the closed door, tears dripping from her chin to trickle down her chest and create their own wet patches on her undershirt. She wondered when exactly this had happened. When had the earth and steel of her body crumbled, to be replaced with saltwater and milk?

Chapter Text

The metal city was weird. Everything was too clean and too quiet, and everyone was wearing the same stupid robes with dumb metal necklaces. Kuvira kicked a rock across the courtyard, watching the way it bounced unevenly over the ground. If she concentrated hard enough, she could feel the vibrations it made every time it hit the earth and feel the little shocks of power dart through her small body. Suyin said that her power was a good thing. She wasn’t afraid of Kuvira like her parents had been. Suyin was pretty, and she never yelled at Kuvira—even when Kuvira broke things or got angry—and she wanted to teach Kuvira to bend metal as well as earth.

Kuvira didn’t know if she wanted to learn metalbending. It looked cool when Suyin did it, but she said it took a lot of concentration and control, and Kuvira wasn’t sure she had that. Her earthbending had always been brute force and emotion, not precision and delicacy. She didn’t want Suyin to be disappointed in her. As weird as the metal city was, it was still better than where she’d come from, and she didn’t want to give Suyin any more excuses to send her back there.

Kuvira kicked another rock, smiling as it bounced right into Huan’s ankle, making him yelp. He was such a baby. Only a year younger than Kuvira, he was so small and skinny and soft. Kuvira had tried to teach him rock dodger once, but he’d flinched and cried when she’d hurled the boulders in his direction, not even trying to send any back. They weren’t even big boulders, she’d explained to Suyin later, after Huan had fled into the house only to come back out in his mother’s arms, blubbering like a baby. He was seven, and Kuvira was embarrassed for him.

Bataar would have played rock dodger with her, only he wasn’t an earthbender. And, he’d explained, it might break his glasses, and he needed those to see. Bataar was okay, Kuvira had decided, even if he wasn’t an earthbender. He was smart—almost as smart as Kuvira herself—and he wasn’t scared of her like Huan, or boring like Opal, or loud like the babies. Suyin had promised that once the babies were big enough, she would spend more time with Kuvira, but if you asked Kuvira, it wasn’t the babies who took up all of Suyin’s attention. Opal was already three, but Suyin treated her as though the little girl was made of glass, like the fancy vases Kuvira knew she’d get in trouble for breaking.

They were all out in the courtyard this morning. Suyin’s husband was holding one of the babies in one arm, and pointing something out to Bataar in the fat book he was reading. Opal toddled around the yard, looking for pretty pebbles to bring back to her mother, who cooed and sighed at every one, even when they were dull and boring. Kuvira’s mother had never cooed and sighed at anything Kuvira had done—not that Kuvira wanted her to. Kuvira shoved her hands into her pockets and watched Huan carefully pulling up the earth to create tiny models of houses. Suyin always praised his stupid little statues, said he was nearly ready to learn metalbending.

“See, Kuvira?” she had said. “This is the kind of control you need to be a great metalbender. You and Huan could learn a lot from each other.”

Kuvira felt hot all over. She wanted to kick the models to the ground. She wanted to close her fist and feel the little earthen houses crumble and break without even touching them. Then she thought of how sad Suyin would look, how Huan would cry—he was so annoying when he cried—and how Bataar would look seriously at her, and tell her she oughtn’t have done it. Her robes were stifling, and they billowed out as she kicked at a nearby rock. It shattered under the force of her blow, sending clouds of dust out into the air.

“Kuvira! Watch out for—” Kuvira looked up just in time to Opal enveloped by dust and rock fragments. For a wonderful, vindictive moment, Kuvira expected to hear Opal sputter and cough, but instead the cloud of dust seemed to stop in mid air, suspended, whirling for just a moment, before it came right back at Kuvira in a great gust of wind, knocking her to the ground. She lay on her back for a second, confused, until she realised that she should have been quicker, should have bent the dust and fragments, shouldn’t have been knocked over. Kuvira never cried. She wasn’t going to cry now—frustrated and ashamed as she was—she would pick herself up and dust herself off and glare at anyone who tried to pity her, or tell her she deserved it.

Only, when she had picked herself up and dusted herself off, no-one was looking at her. Everyone was looking at Opal. Her brothers stared at her in shock and awe, while Suyin and Bataar exchanged nervous glances. Kuvira barely had time to take in the scene before Suyin was saying,

“Everyone back in the house. Quickly please.” Her tone made Kuvira feel funny. Suyin didn’t talk like that, not with the hard edges that her parents’ voices always had when they’d spoken to her. Kuvira had known that Suyin would eventually lose patience with her and she had gone too far by almost hurting Opal, even if it was only by accident. Opal was Suyin’s favourite. (Suyin said she didn’t have favourites, but Kuvira knew it was a lie).

Kuvira hadn’t noticed she was frozen, standing with her limbs all tense like rope about to snap, until Bataar grabbed her hand and said,

“Come on, Kuvira. We gotta go inside!”

Kuvira didn’t want to go. If she went in then she’d have to face Suyin, she’d have to listen to those strained voices talk about all the ways she was wrong. Bataar tugged on her hand again, but Kuvira wouldn’t budge. The next moment, Bataar was gone, replaced by his father, who crouched in front of Kuvira. She hated when grown-ups did that, like they had to lower themselves to talk to her, and she reached into the ground, feeling the earth under her feet vibrate along with her anger. If he was going to force her inside, she wouldn’t go quietly. He didn’t reach out for her, though, so they simply looked at one another for a long moment before Bataar said gently,

“You must have had a pretty big shock there, huh?” Kuvira nodded slowly. “Are you hurt?” Kuvira shook her head. “That’s good. You want to come with me and we can head inside together?” Kuvira only stared at him, so Bataar scooped her up into his arms, carrying her back towards the house. Kuvira shouldn’t have let him, she should have stood her ground and pushed him away with the earth—he wasn’t a bender, she could overpower him easily—but his voice had been so nice, and Kuvira had to admit it was kind of relaxing to be carried, feeling the rock of Bataar’s steps like a boat on the river. She wound her arms around his neck, letting her head rest on his shoulder.

“I’m not in trouble?” she whispered, and she felt Bataar shake his head.

“Of course you’re not in trouble, Kuvira. Whyever did you think that?”

Now it seemed stupid, and Kuvira hid her face against Bataar’s shoulder as she said,

“Su sounded mad before.”

“Oh no, she’s not mad,” Bataar said, raising a hand to smooth calming lines up and down Kuvira’s back. “She just had a bit of a shock, that’s all, and she and I need to talk to you all about it as soon as possible. It’s quite a serious thing, but it’s not bad, okay? Just something that everyone in the family needs to know.”

Kuvira paused.

“Everyone in the family?” she asked, and Bataar nodded.

“Uh huh.”

“That means me?”

“That means you, Kuvira.”

They walked in silence through the corridors of the Beifong complex. Kuvira didn’t know why one family needed so many rooms, but since she got a whole one to herself, she wasn’t going to complain. (And if she sometimes got lost on the way back from the bathroom, she was hardly going to tell anyone). The door to Suyin and Bataar’s room was easy to recognise, though; it was taller than the other doors, so tall that Kuvira had to stand on her tiptoes to reach the handle. Part of her wanted to use her newfound height to her advantage, but Kuvira would rather eat a whole bowl of cabbage than suffer the indignity of being carried into the room. She didn’t want the boys getting ideas.

“You can put me down now,” Kuvira said in her most dignified voice, before Bataar could open the door.

“Yes ma’am,” Bataar said with a smile, and if he hadn’t just been so nice to her, Kuvira would have bent the nearest rock into his face for making fun.

The family were gathered at Suyin’s feet, both boys still staring at their sister as though she’d sprouted a new head. Kuvira didn’t see what was so special about what Opal had done. It was a weird kind of earthbending, sure, but it wasn’t like Opal was a prodigy or something. Prodigy was a word reserved for people like Suyin’s mother. It meant you were special. Opal wasn’t special, she was boring.

“I’m sure you’ve all got questions about what happened outside just now,” Suyin began, and Kuvira huffed.

“No,” she said aloud. “So Opal can earthbend. Big deal.”

“You didn’t see it, Kuvira!” Bataar insisted, at the same time as Huan said,

“That wasn’t earthbending.”

Huan usually avoided speaking to her at all if possible, so to hear him push back with such certainty made Kuvira pause, shocked. Suyin held up a hand, and the boys went quiet.

“You’re right, Huan, it wasn’t earthbending,” she said. “Opal is not an earthbender, she’s an airbender.”

An airbender? That didn’t make sense. Opal couldn’t be an airbender: they were practically myths, like nine tailed foxcats. Bataar and Huan looked confused as well, but Suyin just carried on talking as if she hadn’t just announced that Opal was one of two airbenders in the whole entire world.

“We wanted to talk to you straight away because it’s very important that we keep Opal’s abilities a secret. Your sister is a very special little girl, and we don’t want too many people knowing about what she can do.”

“Why?” Bataar asked. It was a good question.

“Because, sugar plum, airbenders are very rare,” Suyin explained. “People knowing about Opal might attract a whole lot of attention. We don’t want hundreds of people turning up in our lovely quiet home just trying to get a look at Opal, do we?”

Bataar shook his head, and that seemed to be the end of the matter. But it still didn’t make sense, not properly. Kuvira stuck her hand in the air.

“Aren’t you gonna send her to Air Temple Island?” she asked. She’d learned about Air Temple Island in school, before she’d moved to Zaofu, and she’d often wished that she could have a whole island to herself. It wasn’t fair that Opal might get to go, but at least it would get her out of Kuvira’s way.

“No, Kuvira,” Suyin said. “We think it would be best if Opal stays here with us.”

“Why?” If Opal really was an airbender, she ought to learn how to control it. If Kuvira wasn’t allowed to stamp holes through walls because she was mad, Opal shouldn’t be allowed to blow people off stuff because she sneezed.

“Because Opal is part of our family, and we keep our family close by.” Suyin said slowly, as if it was Kuvira who was being stupid.

“But—”

“That’s enough, thank you Kuvira.” Suyin said sharply. “Opal will be staying here with us, and that’s the end of it.”

Kuvira wanted to argue. If Opal was really an airbender, then she belonged on Air Temple Island. It just made sense. But before she could point this out to Suyin, Bataar said,

“How did you know Opal might be an airbender? Did the lady tell you?”

“What lady, sweetie?” Suyin asked, frowning.

“The lady who was here when Opal was born. The Water Tribe lady.”

Suyin pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath in the way that grown-ups did when they’d Had Enough.

“What a great memory, Junior.” Bataar said, smiling. “Kya was your Mom’s midwife. Do you know what that is?” The boys shook their heads. “That’s a person who helps bring babies into the world. Kya’s very knowledgeable about all kinds of bending, and she told us that Opal might be an airbender.”

“How did she know?” Kuvira asked, and Bataar echoed her.

“Yeah Dad, how did she know?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not a midwife, so I haven’t studied as much as she has,” Bataar said. Kuvira supposed it was an okay answer, but still annoying. Grown-ups acted like they knew everything, but in Kuvira’s experience, they actually knew very little. Now, they just expected Kuvira, Bataar, and Huan (who wasn’t completely stupid, even if he was a crybaby) to believe Opal was an airbender, just because some Water Tribe lady had told them she might be. Kuvira wasn’t stupid, though. She could tell when grown ups smiled because they really wanted to smile, and when they smiled because they were lying. These were lying smiles.

Opal herself had just sat in the corner playing with her stuffed badgermole for the whole talk, as if to prove to everyone that she was just a stupid little girl. She probably didn’t even know what an airbender was. Maybe Suyin and Bataar were wrong, and Kuvira had been right the whole time. That made much more sense. Opal couldn’t be an airbender. What she’d done that afternoon was just some weird earthbending, that was all.

As if just to spite her, Opal chose that moment to sneeze, and sent herself skittering across the room. Kuvira’s jaw dropped open.

Alright, so Opal was an airbender. Still didn’t make her interesting.

Chapter Text

Tenzin’s third daughter was born with the sunrise, and set to screaming almost immediately. It had been a hard night, as Kya attempted to juggle the birth itself with a curious toddler and an overbearing Tenzin at her elbow. Her mother had been a help—she always was—but Katara was no longer young enough to spend entire nights up to her elbows in blood and bodily fluids. Instead, she had taken to distracting Jinora, who couldn’t quite tell whether she was excited or nervous about becoming a big sister, and who had been clinging to her father’s skirts for most of the evening. By the time the sky was beginning to lighten, and the final push began, only Kya, Pema, and Tenzin had remained in the birthing room.

After hours of Pema’s screaming and Tenzin’s anxious questions, when the baby was born and the cord was cut, a strange peace filled the little room. Kya could hear the quiet hum of Tenzin and Pema’s conversation as she washed and wrapped the little girl in a yellow shawl, gently pinning the baby’s hectic little fists against her sides. As hard as she tried, her red face scrunched and determined, the girl’s lungs were not yet big enough to produce much more than a trembling wail (though Kya was sure that would change soon enough). She tucked up the end of the baby’s wrappings, and turned to face the new parents.

“Ready to meet your daughter?”

Tenzin’s face lit up, and he grabbed another pillow from the side of the bed, placing it behind Pema’s back as she pulled herself into a sitting position. Pema reached out for the baby, looking tired but happy, strands of hair sticking to the sweat on her skin. The picture they made was perfect; Tenzin cradling Pema gently against him as they both stared in awe and adoration at the bundle in Pema’s arms. Kya couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips any more than she could stop the tears that sprang to her eyes at the sight. She turned sharply away, tidying her supplies and tipping the bowl of bloodied water out of the window, suddenly unable to stand the sight of the happy little family.

It had been almost a decade, and yet the image of a different room, a different bed, a very different mother and child still encroached on Kya’s mind. She’d stayed away from Jinora’s birth for this very reason, claiming a sudden sickness at the last minute. It had been cowardly, but she hadn’t trusted herself with Tenzin’s excitement about the birth of his first (second, second, second) child; she hadn’t wanted to bring her secrets into that joyful house, to dampen the celebration with her tears. She had thought—mistakenly, apparently—that she would be able to stand it, this time.

“I’ll leave the three of you to get acquainted,” Kya said, all but throwing things into her healing bag in her haste to be gone from the little room and all its ignorant happiness. “Unless there’s anything else you need, Pema?”

“Oh no, Kya. Thank you. Everything’s wonderful.” Pema said, barely even glancing up at her.

“Okay, well, let me know if you need anything, and make sure to get some rest. She’ll be screaming to be fed before you know it.” Her smile was wide, but it couldn’t have been convincing; Kya felt Tenzin’s eyes on her until she closed the door behind her.

Kya’s mother was asleep in her old chair, Jinora curled up against her chest. Loathe as Kya was to disturb her, someone needed to be awake in case Pema or the baby took a turn, and she reached out to lay a hand on Katara’s shoulder.

“Mom, she’s arrived,” Kya said softly as Katara blinked awake.

“Another girl?”

“Yeah, another girl.”

Katara chuckled.

“Jinora will be pleased. All she’s talked about this evening is how much she wants a sister.” Kya’s stomach turned over, and she smiled widely, trying to cover her wince.

“I’ll take her to bed then, shall I? She’ll need all her energy to be excited in the morning.” Kya reached out to lift Jinora gently off Katara’s chest. Jinora squirmed slightly but didn’t wake, settling happily against Kya’s shoulder, one little fist curling into Kya’s hair. Her mother was frowning up at her, but Kya kept talking, falsely bright. “Would you mind keeping an eye on Pema and the baby for a couple of hours? I’m wiped out.”

“Of course. Kya—”

“Goodnight, Mom. Or good morning, I guess.”

Her niece's warm huffs of breath dampened the skin of Kya’s neck as she hurried down the corridor towards Jinora’s room, and she envied the little girl her sleep. Kya could no longer remember the last time she had truly slept deeply. It must have been before her father died. At first it had been grief and worry and the newness of it all, then the inertia of life at the Pole had begun to sink beneath her skin, making her both restless and despondent. No matter how much Kya tried to wear herself out during the day, healing and teaching and helping in any way she could, her soft bed, with its piles of blankets and furs, wasn’t nearly as comfortable as a roll mat beneath the stars, or a pull out cot in the house of someone she’d met hours before.

The nights when she’d found someone to share her bed had been better, and Kya knew it was the warmth of their presence more than the exertion of their nighttime activities that had her slipping into blissfully dreamless sleep. Her friends had visited often in the first few years, lured down to the bottom of the world by promises of fantastical landscapes and lights in the sky, and many had been happy to fall into Kya’s bed for the duration of their stays. For those precious few hours, Kya could lose herself in hard kisses and gentle touch; she would close her eyes and imagine they were beneath the stars on the coast of the Fire Nation, or camped out at an inn on the outskirts of Omashu. After a while, though, she stopped writing, stopped asking them to visit. It was too painful to watch them go, and know she couldn’t follow. It wasn’t long before they stopped writing, too.

It wasn’t as though she had no friends in the South, Kya had told herself; she liked to think she was easy to get along with, and there were many interesting people in Harbour City. Though people were less open about it than they were in Republic City, Kya found there were even a few women like her, though none of them kept Kya’s attention for long; the women had enjoyed her tales of adventure and exploration, but none seemed interested in living those tales themselves. Often, Kya wondered why she didn’t just accept it and settle down—she’d have a warm body in her bed every night, and her mother might stop worrying about her—but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that to someone. Whoever this dream wife was, she deserved better than to be settled for, to be yet another person that Kya lied to.

Some nights, there was no company and no exhaustion that could have pulled Kya into restful sleep. Those nights, Kya was haunted by the sound of Lin’s screams in that little hut on Kyoshi, by the too-knowing looks her mother sometimes gave her, by big eyes staring up at her and a little fist curled around her finger. If she slept on those nights, she dreamt only in worst-case-scenarios; one night, Tenzin discovered the truth, rushing to Zaofu only to find the little girl had died; another, Kya had lived a whole life without her family, never allowed to return to Air Temple Island. No matter the specifics, the broad strokes of the dreams were always the same: Kya was exposed, and hated, and alone.

Kya bumped the door to Jinora’s room open with her hip. The room was clean and spare like most of the rooms on the island, but there were a few picture books strewn across the floor, and a stuffed flying bison adorning the small bed beneath the window. She shifted Jinora’s sleeping weight onto one hip as she pulled back the blankets on the bed, careful not to jostle her too much; if Jinora woke, she would want to see the baby at once, and Pema deserved a little time to rest. Kya laid her niece down gently, pulling the covers up and nestling the bison against Jinora’s chest. She reached out to brush Jinora’s hair back from her face, and tried not to cry.

“Sleep well, baby,” Kya whispered. “You’ve got a big day today. It’s a lot of responsibility to be a big sister, you know, but I think you’re gonna do great. You seem pretty patient for a kid, and you’re gonna need that. Little siblings can be pretty annoying, especially when they get a bit older, but that’s when they need their big sisters the most.”

Her lip trembled, then her legs, and Kya sat as gently as she could on the edge of the bed. Despite her tiredness, Kya knew she wouldn’t sleep if she went back to her own room, so she curled up next to Jinora, breathing in the clean baby smell of her. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much, but I’m not a very good big sister anyway. You’re probably better off.”

She let the tears slip from her eyes, falling sideways to wet the sheet beneath her. As much as Kya didn’t want Jinora to wake up in the morning to find Kya still crying in her bed, what little energy that Kya was still clinging to had left the instant she had laid her head down. Taking a deep, measured breath in, Kya let her eyes flutter closed. If sleep would not come, she should at least rest her eyes and try to scrape what little rest she could out of the morning. Light was already filtering in through the blinds, but it was oddly comforting; in the dark, it was too easy to imagine that the world was ending. The pale yellow light of dawn left Kya feeling calmer, and when she closed her eyes she was almost able to tell herself that this feeling would pass, that things would work themselves out.

With Jinora’s soft, sleeping breaths to guide her, Kya walked herself through the dawn meditations that she had so often practised with her father and Tenzin. Focusing on her breathing, clearing her mind, and concentrating on the physical world around her often helped Kya drift into sleep, but when it simply would not come, meditation was almost as good.

Kya wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the door of Jinora’s room slid open, and she stirred at the sound of her father setting a cup of water down on the little bedside table.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” she heard Tenzin whisper as Jinora stretched out beside her.

“G’morning, Daddy. Why’s Auntie Kya here?”

“She must have fallen asleep when she put you to bed—she was up all night helping your Mom bring your little sister into the world.” Kya could hear the smile in Tenzin’s voice, and she wished she trusted herself enough to open her eyes and see it for herself.

“My sister?” Jinora asked, seeming to tremble with the effort of keeping her voice low and quiet.

“Yes. Do you want to meet her?”

Jinora didn’t say anything, but from the sound of Tenzin’s muffled laughter, her answer must have been clear.

“Alright then,” Tenzin said. “Go and get in bed with Mommy, I’ll be along in just a moment. Remember to be gentle with both of them, Jinora. They’ve had a long night.”

“I will, Daddy,” Jinora promised as Tenzin lifted her out of bed. It was cold without her, and Kya couldn’t help the slight shiver that ran through her.

The patter of Jinora’s little feet on the mats receded, and she heard the whoosh of the door sliding shut again. Tenzin was looking for something in one of Jinora’s cupboards, rifling as quietly as possible through what sounded like clothes until Kya felt a soft blanket draped over her body; she tried to keep her face still and her breathing even as Tenzin tucked the edges in around her. He perched on the edge of the bed, leaning in just far enough to place a gentle kiss on her temple.

“Thank you.” His voice was low but full of emotion, and Kya felt tears bloom behind her eyelids. She lay as still as possible until Tenzin’s weight lifted off the side of the bed, and she heard the door slide shut behind him.

It came rushing out, then. Kya felt her whole body shake as the tears spilled from behind her closed eyes; not bothering to hold anything back, she allowed the exhaustion and the weight of her guilt to press down, wringing her dry.

She must have slept in earnest, afterwards, because the sound of a bowl being set on the table beside her startled Kya awake.

“It’s just me,” Tenzin said softly. “I brought you some congee. I figured you’d be hungry when you woke up.”

She should be, Kya supposed. The bowl smelled good, but she had no desire to eat.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have fallen asleep here,” Kya said, propping herself up on her elbow. “I hope I didn’t scare Jinora.”

Tenzin frowned.

“Why would you scare her? You’re her aunt, Kya.”

“We’ve barely met,” Kya pointed out, feeling a too-familiar tug of shame in her gut. Kya knew there were plenty of people out there in the world for whom aunts and uncles were distant figures who sent the odd birthday card, but that had never been the way her family worked.

“Well, she’s heard a lot about you from me,” Tenzin said. “She was excited to meet you.”

Kya couldn’t think what to say to that, besides apologies and self deprecation.

“How’s the baby doing? Pema?” she asked instead, watching the smile spread across her brother’s face.

“Both are doing wonderfully. Pema’s sleeping now, and Mom is enjoying some time with her granddaughters.”

“Does she have a name yet?”

“We like Ikki.”

Ikki. Kya was pretty sure that was the name of one of the hundreds of gurus she could never remember the teachings of. It had been decades since their father had last sat them all down for a lesson in airbending culture, and teenaged Kya hadn’t had quite the appreciation for her father’s history that she had now.

“Ikki. That’s cute,” she said with a smile, stretching as she rose from the little bed. Kya wasn’t as young as she once was, and she didn’t know how Tenzin still slept on the rock-hard dormitory mattresses. She picked up the bowl of congee, and headed for the door, desperate to be alone again. “Thanks for bringing breakfast; I’ll take it through to the kitchen, though. Jinora doesn’t need me hanging around her space any longer.”

Her hand was reaching for the door when Tenzin spoke, almost too low for her to hear.

“Will you tell me what I did, Kya?”

“What?” She turned to see Tenzin sitting on the edge of Jinora’s little bed, looking smaller than she’d seen him in years.

“I don’t—I know I’ve not been perfect,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “I know my choices have hurt a lot of people but I… if I did something to make you avoid me like this, please tell me what it was. I miss you, Kya, and whatever it was, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He looked up at her, blue eyes—her eyes, their mother’s eyes—huge and hurting.

Kya froze. She wanted to go to him, but she had a bowl of congee in her hand. She wanted to speak, but the truth weighed down her tongue. She hadn’t thought her absence had affected him so much. After all, she’d been travelling since he was sixteen, never settling, rarely coming back to her family.

“I don’t know if it’s something I can change, but if it is then I’ll try.” He was still talking, Kya realised, paralysed as she was, unable to reach out to him, to stop the words that seemed to pour out of him uncontrollably. “If it’s because of”—he winced—“if it’s because of Pema, because of how our relationship started, I understand. I think I would—if I saw it from the outside, if it was someone else, I don’t know what I’d think of it. Certainly nothing good.”

The more he spoke the harder it became for Kya to breathe. None of what he was saying was technically untrue; she had been shocked and a little appalled by his relationship with Pema, because of Pema’s age as much as the way Tenzin had ended things with Lin. Kya couldn’t honestly say that she’d been entirely happy for him in the beginning, but her distaste certainly hadn’t been strong enough to keep her away for almost a decade. How long had he been thinking this? Since Jinora was born and she didn’t show up? Since his wedding, when she’d stuck to the sidelines and fled back to the South Pole as soon as she could? Since before then?

“Tenzin, stop, please,” Kya blurted. She surprised herself as much as him, and she stumbled over her words as she attempted to find something, anything, to say that might soothe him. “It wasn’t—you didn’t—well, you did, I suppose. I just…” She could see herself hemorrhaging the truth, letting it rush out of her until there was nothing left but the nine years of silence between them. But Tenzin deserved to enjoy this day; he ought to be spending it curled up with his wife, watching baby Ikki wave her tiny fists in the air, and marvelling at every blink of her eyes. Today was not the day for confession.

“I should be the one apologising,” Kya said firmly. She took a deep breath and crossed the space between them, placing the bowl back on the bedside table so she could kneel in front of Tenzin, placing her hands on his knees. “You might have made some decisions that I haven’t completely approved of,” she continued, “but you’re my brother, Tenzin. Shit, it’s not like you murdered someone. If I stayed away, it wasn’t because of anything you did, okay? You know if I was just pissed about the way you handled your romantic life I’d have come straight here to chew you out in person.” That got a wry laugh out of him, and Kya smiled back.

“I know that—I know there are some decisions you’d rather you never had to make. And that sometimes doing what you feel is right ends up hurting other people. I know how hard that is and I hope…” as hard as she tried, her voice still shook as she said, “I hope that if I ever had to make a decision like that, you’d forgive me.”

“Of course, Kya,” Tenzin said. There were frown lines between his brows, and she reached up to smooth them away with her thumb.

“You’re getting old, bubble brain,” she said with a smile, and Tenzin huffed in mock offense.

“I’m forty three, Kya. Haven’t we grown out of nicknames?”

Kya pretended to think about it for a minute.

“Nah. Come on, you’ve got a wife and two little girls waiting for you down the hall. Go and be with them.” She rose, joints creaking ever so slightly, and held out a hand to pull him up. They stood for a moment, just looking at each other—mapping the ways their faces had changed over the years, cataloguing all the ways they were the same—until Tenzin squeezed her hand gently and made for the door. He paused in the entrance.

“So… you’ll stay, this time? Just for a little while.”

“Yeah,” Kya said. “For a little while.”

Chapter Text

Opal breathed in, centered herself, exhaled. She eyed the rocks before her like a warrior preparing for battle—or at least, the way she imagined warriors might prepare for battle—rolling her shoulders and shuffling her feet, kicking up little clouds of dust.

She’d been trying to perfect this technique for almost six months, and Opal was nothing if not determined. If she couldn’t use her airbending in public, she could at least adapt it so that it looked like earthbending. Air was invisible, Opal reasoned, and could therefore be used to move rocks, making it appear as though she was earthbending. It was a genius plan if you asked Opal. The only problem was that she didn’t yet know enough about her airbending to adapt it into something that might pass as earthbending. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try.

She anchored herself, and began moving her arms in a now-familiar pattern. The air at the base of the boulder in front of her began to stir, but though Opal could feel the currents whirling around the rock, it remained firmly in place. She moved her arms a little faster, drawing the air into a small cyclone, and the rock wobbled, lifting up off the ground for a second before Opal let it fall, her arms dropping back against her sides.

Three months of practice, and she still couldn’t get the rock off the ground for longer than a few seconds. She was certain she was doing something wrong, and Opal longed—as she had done every day since she was small—for a master who could teach her how to harness the power she knew flowed through her. At her age, Opal’s grandmother had already been the best earthbender in the world, but Opal didn’t even want to be the best. She just wanted to be better. She wanted to learn. Bataar had managed to smuggle her a few old Air Nation texts, but half of them were in the Old Language, and though Opal thought she was finally beginning to grasp some of the vocabulary of the ancient dialect, none of the scrolls so far mentioned bending methods.

It wasn’t that Opal didn’t understand her parents’ reluctance to send her away. She wasn’t sure herself if she was ready to leave home, to travel halfway across the world and out herself as an airbender for everyone to see. There would be questions—questions Opal had asked herself over and over again, lying awake in the dark—and so much attention. On her, of course, and on the other airbenders, and on Zaofu. Opal didn’t want to cause that kind of trouble. So, for now, she would stay in Zaofu, stay safe, and keep trying to move boulders with air.

She breathed in, centered herself, exhaled.

“You shouldn’t do that where anyone could see, you know.”

Opal froze. She’d been too deep in concentration to hear Kuvira approach behind her, and the sound of her voice sent a shiver down Opal’s spine. She’d been relieved when Kuvira had moved out of the main complex and into the guard barracks, as it meant that Opal saw her rarely—or at least, from a distance—but it also meant that when Opal did have to see Kuvira, she was taken off guard by it.

“There’s nothing to see,” Opal said, hoping that Kuvira would decide she wasn’t worth antagonising today.

“Evidently,” Kuvira said, raising an eyebrow. Despite herself, Opal felt a blush rise to her cheeks, embarrassed that Kuvira—Kuvira, who could bend metal like it was nothing—would see her pathetic attempts to move stone. “Still, you shouldn’t try it out in the open like this. If someone else was on patrol and they found you trying to blow over a rock, or whatever’s going on here, we’d have a problem.”

“What do you care?” Opal spat back, and Kuvira shrugged.

“It’s my job to protect you, isn’t it? The includes protecting you from doing something stupid and getting yourself caught.”

“I’m allowed to do what I want in my own home, Kuvira. No-one’s around.” Opal knew that Kuvira was probably right—there were other patrolmen who might have seen her, though she doubted they would have recognised what it was. After all, who would believe that some girl in the Earth Kingdom was one of four airbenders in the whole world? It was worth the risk.

“No-one but me, you mean?” Kuvira’s posture was still relaxed, but there was a tightness to her voice that Opal recognised all too well. “Who do you think’s gonna get the blame if you out yourself and land us all in it?”

“No-one could blame you if you weren’t here,” Opal said, sweetly. ‘If you’re that concerned, you should probably go.”

Kuvira only rolled her eyes.

“You are so naive.”

Anger rose, hot, in Opal’s chest. She didn’t know why she ever even bothered talking to Kuvira. It wasn’t as though Kuvira had ever been nice to her.

“You know what, Kuvira?” Opal said, drawing herself up to her full height, trying out the imperious look that her mother often employed with particularly disrespectful visitors. “I know you never liked me, but now we’ve all stopped pretending you’re part of the family, you don’t ever have to talk to me. Congratulations. Go away.”

Kuvira’s eyes narrowed, and despite her anger, Opal felt a thrill of fear go through her. She’d often wondered what Kuvira might have done to her, were Opal’s mother not there. If Opal was glad of anything, it was that Kuvira’s desperation to please Su outweighed her hatred of Opal—most of the time. Now, though, Opal wasn’t sure. Kuvira made no move towards her, no shift into a bending stance, but the angry glint in her eye made Opal tense, uneasy.

“And when are we going to stop pretending you’re part of the family?” Kuvira’s voice was laced with venom, and suddenly Opal wanted to back away, to put as much space between herself and Kuvira as possible. But she was a Beifong, and they didn’t back down.

“What are you talking about?” she said, though she knew what was coming. It wasn’t as though she’d never thought it herself, never wondered.

“Oh, come on, Opal. Aren’t you tired?”

“Tired of what?” Kuvira gave her pitying look, and Opal felt suddenly so stupid. She hated how Kuvira could do that, could make her feel small with nothing more than a few well chosen words and a half-smirk. “Just say what you want to say or leave me alone, Kuvira.”

“You know what I’m saying, Opal. Dynasties that have been earthbenders for generations don’t just pop out an airbender one day. I’m sick of this family pretending you’re just the same as the boys and Huan.”

“But I am the same as them,” Opal insisted. “Just because I’m an airbender—”

“It’s not just because you’re an airbender, idiot,” Kuvira snapped. Her patience with Opal’s ignorance clearly wearing thin. “You never asked Bataar about the Water Tribe woman?”

The Water Tribe woman. She’d never wanted to ask about the Water Tribe woman, about Kya. It shouldn’t have been significant; there were many waterbenders in the world who used their skills for healing, and why wouldn’t Opal’s mother want one to help her through labour? But the midwives for Opal’s siblings had all been Zaofu residents.

“You know she just turned up in the middle of the night?” Kuvira continued without waiting for an answer. “Su and Senior put Bataar to bed that evening perfectly normally, no baby, no contractions, no nothing. A few hours later he wakes up from a nightmare, goes to their room, and there’s the Water Tribe woman. There you suddenly are.”

Her smirk was victorious and infuriating, and Opal wanted to punch her.

“Oh yeah? When did Bataar tell you that?” she said instead, sweetness dripping from her voice. She wanted Kuvira to be the one to squirm, to remember a week ago, when Opal had stumbled in on Kuvira and her brother tangled together behind the guard barracks, Bataar’s hand under Kuvira’s shirt. Her mother would be furious if she found out; Opal didn’t know why—it wasn’t like Kuvira had ever really been their sister—but she wasn’t above dangling the threat in front of Kuvira if it might make her stop talking.

“He also remembers that Su was standing up,” Kuvira continued, as if Opal hadn’t spoken. Her jaw had tightened, though, and there was an edge to her voice that hadn’t been there before. “Just hanging out, baby in her arms, happy as can be. Do you remember when the twins were born, Opal?”

Opal shook her head mutely, out of ammunition, just standing there letting Kuvira pour poison into her ears.

“It took hours, the actual birth. People were in and out of Su’s room all day and half the night—she screamed so loud Bataar was afraid she was dying. But the night you arrived? Nothing.”

Maybe she was making it all up, maybe Bataar remembered it all wrong, but Kuvira didn’t even know about the little patchwork dress in the back of Opal’s wardrobe. The stitching was neat, but the garment was clearly handmade, and none of Opal’s siblings had one.

“Why are you doing this?” Opal whispered, ashamed of the tremble in her voice and the tears misting in her eyes.

“What?” Kuvira asked, cold laughter in her voice. “You can’t tell me you’d honestly managed to convince yourself that Su and Bataar were your parents? Come on, Opal, I know you’re simple but you’re not that stupid.”

Opal felt a lump rise up in her throat. Apparently, she was that stupid. She’d listened to her mother’s stories—handed down from her grandmother—of daring adventures with Avatar Aang, the last airbender. It had made so much sense to her at the time; Opal’s mother had never known her own father, after all. Why wouldn’t it be Aang? He and her grandmother both lived in Republic City all their lives, working side by side from childhood until Aang’s death. It wasn’t so difficult to imagine that something might have happened between them. That explained the insistence on secrecy, too—of course Opal couldn’t go to Air Temple Island, parading her existence in front of Aang’s son, in front of his widow.

She could almost hear Kuvira’s taunts: you thought you were so special, granddaughter of the Avatar.

“Maybe I am stupid,” Opal said. She could feel her voice tightening as she held back her tears, but she wasn’t going to give Kuvira the satisfaction of seeing her cry. “But at least I’m not cruel.”

Something that might have been pain flickered through Kuvira’s eyes, before they turned to flint.

“You’re not better than I am,” she said, her voice dangerously even. “You’re just the same. Just another stray dog that nobody wanted, not even your real parents.”

It felt like a punch to the gut, knocking all the air out of her. Kuvira was lying, she had to be. She was just trying to hurt Opal, as usual. Opal had always been her favourite punching bag—as long as no-one was looking, of course—and today was no different. Only instead of destroying Opal’s toys, today she wanted to destroy Opal herself.

Opal’s mom always said that cruel people were to be pitied, that people were cruel because they’d had no-one in their life to show them kindness. But Opal’s family had always been kind to Kuvira; they had taken her in when her parents hadn’t wanted her (just like you, said a sneering voice in the back of her head), they had given her a home, and Kuvira had grown up cruel anyway.

Kuvira turned on her heel and stalked from the courtyard, leaving Opal to stare after her, numb and shaking. She tried to take a calming breath, but she was shaking too hard to regulate it properly. A hundred thoughts chased each other through her head, each new one contradicting the one that came before.

Kuvira had to be lying. She had to be lying because she hated Opal and she wanted to hurt her. So what if Bataar thought he remembered her birth a certain way? Six year olds were practically babies, they were hardly reliable witnesses. She had simply fallen prey to yet another of Kuvira’s tricks, she told herself, breaths coming steadier by the second. This was just like when she was little, and Kuvira had convinced her that there was a monster living under her bed. She’d believed it for so long, despite her father spending hours in her bedroom with her, crawling under the bed to prove to Opal that there was nothing down there.

“Monsters don’t eat grown ups,” Kuvira had told her, as if everyone knew this. “It’ll hide away when he comes, and only come out when you’re all alone.”

But this wasn’t an invisible monster, and Opal wasn’t a baby anymore. She was thirteen, and Kuvira had to know that Opal was more than capable of just asking her mother about it. If it was all lies, Kuvira had to know that Suyin would hate her for even hinting that Opal wasn’t her daughter. So if it wasn’t true, it was surely too big a risk for Kuvira to take.

And yet—Opal didn’t want to ask her mother about it. Perhaps Kuvira knew that, perhaps she banked on Opal not wanting to look her mother in the eye and ask, am I really yours? Is this family really mine? Because if it was true, if her mother—Opal squeezed her eyes shut against the thought—if her mother really wasn’t her mother, then Opal couldn’t bear to see her bright eyes darken, her lip tremble. The image was too vivid, too lifelike in Opal’s mind and she couldn’t stand it. Her mother’s face hung before her eyes like—like—

Like salvation.

Opal knew she’d never looked much like her father—not the way her brothers did—but she’d studied her mother’s face enough to see similarities there. The shape of their faces was the same: heart shaped and sharp-chinned, despite the baby fat Opal still had clinging to her cheeks. She had the same tan skin as her mother as well (skin that spoke to the Water Tribe, not the Air Nation, but Opal wasn’t going to think on that too hard), and the same button nose.

Opal let out a relieved huff of laughter. She’d almost been as much of a fool as Kuvira thought she was, accepting her word as the truth despite the obvious evidence written—quite literally—all over her face. Bringing her hands up to touch her nose, her lips, her chin, Opal smiled; she traced the familiar lines of her face as if she could read her fortune in them, and she supposed she just had.

It was done. The question was answered, and Opal didn’t need to think about it ever again. Despite the questions still unanswered, the ones that sat, twitching, in the back of Opal’s mind, they couldn’t contend with the solid proof beneath Opal’s fingertips. Kuvira could say what she wanted: Opal wasn’t going to think about it—wasn’t even going to consider it.

She wasn’t.

Not even a little.

Chapter Text

Lin hadn’t set foot on Air Temple Island in over ten years. Once, she might have called it her home; she had taken her first unsteady steps on the veranda, and broken her first bone falling out of the big yuzu tree on the clifftop. She knew the secret trails and hidden corners of the rocky island like the back of her hand, even now, and yet she only seemed to feel its familiar stone beneath her when the world was ending.

The last time she’d come, it had been under duress. Tenzin had turned up at her apartment door, tear tracks still evident on his face, and told her he was leaving for the South Pole on Oogi in two days time, to help his mother and sister with funeral arrangements. He was happy to take her too, he’d said—insisted, despite Lin’s protests—Sokka had been as much an uncle to her as he had been to Katara’s children. She had only agreed because the journey by sea would have taken weeks.

She had met him on the island two days later, as she’d promised, and let him help her up into the saddle, where Pema had been waiting. It hadn’t taken long before Lin noticed the small but obvious bump beneath Pema’s acolyte robes. The long, almost silent journey to Harbour City had been excruciating in so many different ways that Lin barely remembered it.

The reason she had returned to the island now wasn’t nearly so awful—not yet, at least. The young Avatar was back in Republic City, safe and sound, but Amon’s threat still hung heavy around their necks, and every moment they heard nothing was just another moment he was planning and waiting to strike. Admittedly, Lin would prefer to be fighting Amon than sat around the painfully awkward dinner table. Pema kept shooting her suspicious looks out of the corner of her eye, as if she was expecting Lin to wreak untold havoc on the house at any moment. Lin couldn’t exactly blame her—the immediate aftermath of hers and Tenzin’s breakup had hardly been her finest hour—but it had been seventeen years, and if she was over it then Pema should be too.

Over it. Lin had worn the words like a badge for so long. She’d been so stupidly proud of herself when seeing Tenzin in passing at official events no longer made her insides twist sharply, when she could go entire days without thinking about downy black hair and hands in miniature. She might not have been happy, but she went to work every day, she did her job well, and when she got the itch under her skin she would go out to a bar and let someone take her home. It was a routine, and it worked. Until the new Avatar decided to steamroll her way into the city and into Lin’s life.

It was pathetic, really, how easily she’d caved when Tenzin had asked to work alongside her. It was for the good of the city, she’d told herself, unconvincingly. It was easier for both of them to put everything aside for a few weeks to deal with Amon, and then she could go back to hating him like she’d promised. It was difficult, though, when he insisted on being so himself. How could she go back to being angry with him when she’d seen him shouting half-coherent protestations at a crooked pro-bending referee, or after he’d insisted in that slightly awkward, stammering way of his that she ought to be at home resting, not out on the streets looking for Korra. It was disarming, to hear that someone cared about her like that—to hear that Tenzin cared about her like that.

Now she was trapped in the house, with Pema looking sideways at her and Asami looking sideways at Korra and Mako looking as though he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him whole. With Tenzin gearing up to leave for an emergency council meeting and the atmosphere in the dining room becoming close to unbearable, Lin excused herself and fled out to the courtyard, taking deep, grateful breaths of crisp evening air.

Distracted as she was, it took her a few moments to notice Oogi, saddled up and flight ready, with a nervous looking Tenzin hovering at his side.

“Oh Lin, good. I um, I, I—I need to ask you a favor,” he began, tension plain in the lines of his body and the almost imperceptible tremble in his voice. “It would mean the world to me... but I—I know it could be a—a potentially awkward uh—situation—”

She cut him off before he could talk himself in any more circles, a reflex from so long ago that it surprised her.

“Just spit it out, Tenzin.”

He looked shocked for a moment, as if he was remembering the hundred times she’d done this in the past, grounding him with her low voice and firm touch. Her fingers twitched, wanting to reach out and wrap around his wrist, but that wasn’t her job anymore; it hadn’t been for a long time.

Tenzin took a long, steadying breath before he tried again, deliberately measured.

“Will you stay here and watch over Pema and the children while I meet with the council?” he said, twisting his hands into his robes like a nervous schoolboy. “I wouldn’t ask but—with things the way they are I—I want to be sure my family is in safe hands.”

He shouldn’t trust her with this. After everything she’d done, all the ways she’d tried to destroy him, he shouldn’t want her anywhere near his wife and his children and his home (not her home, not anymore). Yet here he was, wide eyed and nervous, placing everything he treasured in her hands as if they were gentle, as if Lin didn’t break everything she touched.

She registered vaguely that she ought to have been angry, ought to have been fuming at his presumption, at his boldness in asking this of her, but the feeling never took root. Instead, she reached out, realising only as she did so that she wanted to cup his face in her hand, diverting at the last moment to place it on his shoulder.

“Of course,” she said softly, and he raised his hand to cover her own. His palm was dry and warm and rough, just the way she remembered. He smiled.

“I didn’t realise you two were out here.”

Tenzin dropped Lin’s hand as if it burned him, and they sprang back from each other.

“Pema! Ye—yes—yes,” Tenzin stammered. Guilt was colouring his voice, though they’d done nothing wrong. “I’ve asked Lin to keep an eye on things while I'm away. To uh—to help us out while all this is—”

“Oh, wonderful. I could use the extra pair of hands.” Lin strongly suspected that Pema did not consider this turn of events to be wonderful, but there was a wide smile on Pema’s face as she shoved a wriggling Meelo into Lin’s arms. “Would you mind giving him a bath? He's filthy.”

Before Lin could say anything, Meelo was deposited in her arms, and Lin stared at him in horror.

“This is not what I signed on for!” she yelled after Tenzin and Oogi’s retreating figures.

“Thank you, Lin,” was all the reply she got, and by the time she turned back around, Pema was gone. Lin was alone in the courtyard with her arms full of squirming, sticky child. Meelo put a dirt-encrusted hand on her face, and Lin tried not to wince.

She knew her way to the washrooms, because of course she did. Nothing much about Air Temple Island had changed in her absence, besides its occupants. She passed a couple of the older acolytes as she strode through the house’s winding corridors, and was surprised to receive more than one warm smile. It was the grubby little gremlin on her hip, she supposed. Whether he was hers or not, the sight of Lin Beifong with an airbending brat in her arms was what the old acolytes had spent half their lives waiting for. For a moment, her thoughts strayed to pink little fists clenching in her hair, to warbling cries and a scrunched red face—

“How do you know where the washrooms are?” Meelo asked, and Lin landed heavily back in the present.

“I grew up here,” she answered shortly.

“With Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“And Gran Gran?”

“Yes.”

“And Auntie Kya?”

“Yes.”

“And Uncle Bumi?”

“Yes.”

“And Grampa Aang?”

“Yes.”

“Then how come you never came here before?”

Lin wondered if it was worth looking into a kid’s division of the RCPD, specialising in interrogation.

“None of your business,” she said. Lin doubted either of Meelo’s parents would thank her for appraising him of their shared history. She bumped the door of the washroom open with her hip and set Meelo down on the warm stone. “Alright kid, clothes off.”

“You’re boring.” Meelo pouted as he tugged his tunic off over his head, his voice muffled as he said, “I thought you’d be cool ‘cause you got fancy armour and swooshy metal ropes, but you’re just a boring grown-up.”

Lin turned on the tap, letting hot water rush into the bronze tub.

“Sorry to disappoint,” she said, dryly. As steam began to fill the room, Lin ran her hand beneath the water, feeling the warmth run over her skin. It was a little cooler than she’d have it, but Lin was sure she’d heard somewhere that baths for children shouldn’t be too hot. Or maybe that was just babies. How old was Meelo anyway? Young enough to still be carried around like a sack of potatoes, clearly. Lin shook her head. It didn’t matter.

“Alright, get in,” she barked, in a tone just shy of the one she used with her rookies. Meelo, however, clearly had more mettle than any new recruit to the RCPD, because he only looked up at Lin and crossed his arms.

“Don’t wanna.”

“Well, you haven’t got a choice,” Lin told him, but Meelo apparently took after his father in his ability to make Lin want to throw things.

“You have to sing the bathtime song,” he insisted.

“The what?”

“Mommy always sings me the bathtime song.”

“I’m not your fu—” Lin cut herself off. It wasn’t Meelo’s fault that Lin had been roped into this, though it would serve Pema right if her little stunt ended with him learning a new word. “I’m not your mommy, okay? Just get in the tub.”

“No!” Meelo cried, his small, naked foot slapping against the damp stone of the washroom floor. Lin had a split second to see the idea occur to him before Meelo was racing for the door. Panicking, Lin slammed her foot down, and a pillar of earth rose up beneath Meelo, catapulting him across the room until he landed with a splash in the bathtub.

Lin and Meelo stared at each other. Meelo’s eyes were huge and Lin was convinced for a horrible, drawn out moment, that he was about to start bawling. Then, a broad grin spread across his face.

“That was awesome. I wanna go again!” He was halfway out of the bath again by the time Lin had collected herself enough to say,

“You don’t get to go again until you’ve cleaned yourself.” She grabbed the soap from its little dish and shoved it into Meelo’s hands. He looked at it, confused.

“Mommy always—”

“Meelo.”

“I know,” Meelo sighed. He stared at the bar of soap in his hands as if deep in concentration; he tried to work the bar between his hands, but quickly dropped it into the water. Determined, he picked up and tried again, with even less success. With a pang of guilt, Lin realised that his hands were too small to properly work the soap between them, and she held out her own.

“Give it here.”

Meelo handed the bar mutely over, and Lin began to work it into a lather. When she had a smooth coating of creamy soap over her palms, she held them out to Meelo, who grinned as he slapped his own palms down to gather up the suds from Lin’s hands. He held them up to show her, and Lin smiled.

“Go on, then. Time to get clean.”

“Are you sure you won’t sing the bathtime song?” he asked, and Lin tried very hard not to roll her eyes.

“I don’t know the bathtime song, kid.”

“Oh.” Meelo looked confused for a moment, as if the bathtime song was something universal (though, for all Lin knew, it was—Toph had never been the singing kind of mother). “I’ll have to teach you, then!”

Before Lin could stop him, Meelo was off.

“First you wash your little toesies ‘Til they smell all fresh and rosey, Then you scrub up to your knees

‘Til they’re clean as they can be—”

Lin wasn’t sure what the tune was supposed to be—or if the song was supposed to have a particular tune at all—but Meelo sang it with aplomb. Despite herself, Lin found she was smiling as she watched him work his way up his body, enthusiastically rubbing soapy circles over his skin.

“—Then you gotta rub your tummy

‘Cause you want it to be yummy—”

Lin held her palms out again for Meelo to collect more soap; in his excitement, Meelo brought his hands down hard enough to splash a little soapy water into Lin’s face. He froze as she reached up to wipe the water off her mouth with the inside of her wrist, unsure how she would react. Lin held his gaze as she reached a finger into the tub and flicked a little water up against the underside of his chin. He grinned.

Suddenly, Lin realised her mistake: she might not be an expert, but even she knew that starting a splash fight with a small child was a recipe for disaster. Quickly, Lin pointed at Meelo’s soapy hands and said,

“So how does the next part go?”

And he was off again. Lin wasn’t completely convinced that listening to Meelo’s singing was preferable to being doused in soapy water, but it was certainly less messy, and she counted it as a win. He washed his arms and his torso happily, babbling his tuneless song, until he reached his head, and he stopped, hands perched on its shaven sides.

“Uh, Miss Chief?”

“Yes, Meelo?”

“Doing my head is not easy peasy.”

Lin sighed.

“Tip your head back, then.”

Meelo obeyed, and Lin scanned the room, eventually eyeing a wooden cup sitting on the window sill. She dipped the cup into the water, gently tipping the suds over Meelo’s scalp, one hand against his forehead to prevent any soap running into his eyes. This, at least, Lin knew how to do—she had sometimes done it for Suyin when they were small, not that Su had ever appreciated it. She had always fussed as a twelve-year-old Lin tried to comb out her tangles, and complained that there was soap in her eyes, whether there was or not. Meelo by comparison was easy, even if he was the grubbiest child she’d ever laid eyes on.

“How’d you get this much dirt on your head?” Lin wondered aloud as she scrubbed at a particularly stubborn spot.

“Climbed the big yuzu tree,” Meelo replied, wincing slightly as the dried mud pulled at his short hair.

“Not sure how you end up with a dirty head after that.”

“I did a air scooter back down but I blew myself inna the vegetable patch,” Meelo explained, and Lin let out a snort of laughter.

“That’ll do it.”

She washed the last of the muck from Meelo’s scalp, setting the cup down on the floor beside her.

“Done?” Meelo asked eagerly, already attempting to stand up and lever himself over the rim of the tub.

“Not yet,” Lin said, pushing him gently back into the water and picking up a fresh washcloth from the stand beside her. “Come here, your face is filthy.”

Meelo heaved a long suffering sigh, but he was surprisingly placid as Lin scrubbed his face briskly with the cloth. When his face was flushed pink and clean of dirt, Lin nodded, satisfied.

“Alright, you’re done.”

She picked a warm towel from the pile in the corner, holding it out for him, and Meelo propelled himself out of the water, allowing Lin to catch him in the towel before he landed heavily against her chest.

“Ouch,” he said, confused. “Your armour’s hard.”

“Yeah, sorry kid.”

Lin’s armour wasn’t made for moments like this. Lin wasn’t made for moments like this. With Meelo’s warm, damp weight in her arms, Lin felt suddenly traitorous. She was supposed to have refused this; she’d decided sixteen years ago that she never wanted to dab at a small face with a flannel, to stop soapy water running into wide eyes. Yet here she was, giving to Tenzin’s fourth child everything she’d refused to give his first.

“Hey Chief?” Meelo muttered, his face turned into his shoulder.

“Yeah?”

“Why doesn’t Mommy like you?” Lin might have laughed, at any other moment, but now it was all she could do the keep the keep the emotion from her voice when she replied,

“I’m not very likeable, kid.”

“Oh,” Meelo said. Then: “I like you.”

Lin was spared having to respond to that by the sound of distant explosions. She set Meelo down and rushed to the window. There was smoke rising from somewhere in Republic City (from City Hall, and the thought made her stomach turn) but far more worrying was the Equalist airship making its slow but certain way towards the island.

“Meelo, I need you to get dressed and come with me,” she said, trying not to let panic seep into her voice.

“Do you gotta fight the bad guys now?” Meelo asked as he pulled his trousers on, struggling against the wet of his skin. Lin grabbed his tunic from where he’d discarded it on the floor and pulled it over his head.

“Looks like it. We’ve got to get you back to your mom.”

She scooped Meelo up into her arms, realising only as she did so how senseless that idea was; the kid could probably air-scooter his way back to the centre of the house far faster than she could carry him, but his little body seemed too fragile to send him off on his own now. He didn’t protest as she strode back down the corridors, eventually coming out onto the veranda, where Pema, Ikki, and Jinora were already gathered. She dropped Meelo at Pema’s feet without a word, only half-registering the look of shock on Pema’s face.

The airship was close now—she could see the doors of the carrier opening—it would be minutes at most before the first of the Equalists landed on the island.

“Alright everyone. Inside. Now,” Lin barked. “I need you all to stay calm and quiet.”

For half a second, Lin thought that the agonised cry Pema let out was just to spite her, but then she turned and saw the sheen of sweat across her face, the way she bent over her swollen belly, and Lin knew what was wrong even before Pema said,

“The baby’s coming.”

Lin stared after her for a second, frozen in place as she watched Pema be led away by a pair of acolyte women. Despite everything, she felt a pang of sympathy, but she shook her head clear before the memories of blood and pain and ripping could cloud her mind. She needed to stay level headed, focused. Lin squared up into a bending stance, watching the Equalists drop from the sky, coming closer with every moment; this was what she was made for.

It was a hard won fight, in the end; Lin could still feel the burn of electricity on her skin when Tenzin landed back in the courtyard and was immediately swamped by his children.

“We caught the bad guys!” Meelo announced proudly, tugging on his father’s ear, and Lin couldn’t help smiling. Tenzin, however, did not.

“You let them fight?” She could see him ramping up to a lecture, but with her body aching and adrenaline still shaking through her bloodstream, Lin cut him off.

“You’re the one who raised them, I think you know it’s not a matter of letting them do anything.”

As much as she wanted to bristle at his lack of faith in her, she remembered the sick feeling that had taken root in her belly when she saw Jinora square up against an Equalist—she could only imagine how terrified the thought must make Tenzin. In the end, though, the kids had turned the tide of the brief battle, and Tenzin ought to be proud of them for it. “They saved my life tonight,” Lin told him, and the fight went out of Tenzin as he hugged his children closer to him.

A muffled wail sounded from within the house, and all five of them turned, panicked. It took Lin a second to remember that while they’d been fighting Equalists, Pema had been fighting an entirely different battle. For a moment, Lin couldn’t tell if her body ached from the exertion or from sympathy—the memory suddenly too clear—but she fought to keep the barest hint of a smile on her face as she looked to Tenzin.

“Go,” she said softly. “Your wife needs you.”

His eyes widened as he rushed past her, closely followed by his children. Alone in the courtyard, Lin squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, tamping down the emotion that bubbled under her skin. She didn’t have time for this—Republic City was under attack, and people needed her.

As if on cue, the Avatar and her friends came careening into the courtyard.

“Where’s Tenzin? The kids?” Korra asked, breathless, as she slid down from Naga’s back.

“Inside,” Lin replied. “Pema’s in labour.”

“Shit,” Korra hissed, and Lin raised an eyebrow. “I think there are more airships on our tail.”

Lin’s heart sank as she looked across the bay to see that Korra was right. The two airships were only dots on the horizon now, but they’d be on the island within a quarter of an hour. She hurried back towards the house, the teenagers hot on her heels. She was barely thinking as she pushed the door of the bedroom open, and when she did, she froze. Pema sat propped up against the headboard, leaning against Tenzin’s side as he cradled their newest child. The room still smelled of blood, the too-familiar tang hovering in the air, but no-one else seemed to notice. Tenzin’s smile was soft but his eyes were full of joy as he stared down at the baby, and Lin felt her limbs start to shake. For a moment, her vision swam, and Lin could have sworn she saw herself—younger, still black-haired—in Pema’s place, smiling up at Tenzin as she lifted her baby girl to her breast. She squeezed her eyes shut. That wasn’t how it had been—she’d been alone, it had been dark, she hadn’t been smiling. There was something she came in here to say—something important—the baby was curling its little fist around its father’s finger and Lin needed to tell him something—the kids were talking, asking their parents questions, but Lin couldn’t decipher the words—they all had to leave, they had to get out.

“I’m sorry—” Korra’s voice next to her pierced through the fog “—but there are more airships headed this way. We have to leave.”

It was a blur of activity, then. Lin tried not to wince as Tenzin helped Pema to her feet and Korra herded the airbender children out into the courtyard. There was a buzzing in her ears and the ground beneath her feet felt unstable, though she knew the island was sound. Lin was used to crises, she dealt with them almost every day, but this one had her stomach flipping and her heart pounding and nausea rising up in her throat. She watched Tenzin hand Pema over to Mako and Bolin, who helped her onto Oogi’s back—Lin thought absently that Pema must be made of stronger stuff than she’d assumed—and caught his arm as he passed her.

“What’s the plan?”

“I need to get Pema and the children off the island. I can’t risk—I need to get them as far from here as possible,” his voice trembled, and Lin squeezed his arm gently.

“Of course you do, and I’m coming with you,” she said. She hadn’t known until she said it, but now it was uttered it seemed obvious. Tenzin was more than capable—he was a master—but he’d never been a fighter.

“Lin, I can’t—” Tenzin started, but Lin wasn’t going to back down.

“Don’t argue with me now, Tenzin. We both know what’s gonna happen if Amon gets his hands on your family,” he winced as she said it, but she’d made her point. “You need someone to protect you.”

For a moment, Lin thought Tenzin was going to try to argue with her, but he only nodded.

“Thank you, Lin.”

She left him talking to Korra, checking Oogi’s straps, and propelling herself into the saddle where Pema and the children were waiting. Pema was clutching the baby tightly to her chest, her other children gathered around her skirts. She looked pale—she was certainly still bleeding—but she managed a smile for Ikki, clinging to her side. A smile that slipped from her face as she met Lin’s eye, leaving only the exhaustion and the fear in her eyes.

“It’s going to be alright,” Lin said quietly.

Pema looked up at her for a long moment before the thin smile was back on her face.

“I know.”

In the distance, Lin could hear the propellers of the airships whiring, and she leaned out of the saddle to yell,

“Tenzin! If we’re leaving, we have to do it now.”

In a matter of moments they were airbourne, with Air Temple Island disappearing beneath them. Lin watched Naga grow smaller and smaller as they rose up, not missing the Equalists in hot pursuit. Korra would have to look after herself, now.

Lin kept her eye trained on the airships on their tail. As fast as Oogi was, the airships were faster. It would only be a matter of time before they caught up. Already, they were in range of the airships’ attacks. She lashed a net out of the sky behind them—allowing the end of her cable to wrap around the end of the frayed rope—and with that, her mind cleared. She turned to look back at Tenzin’s family, at the three little airbenders gathered around their mother, at the newborn in Pema’s arms. She had never been made to give him that, but at least she could let him keep it.

“Whatever happens to me, don’t turn back,” she said, her voice ringing strong and clear through the air.

“Lin, what are you doing?” Tenzin’s voice was panicked, but Lin was utterly calm.

I’m doing right by you, for the first time.

She reeled in the cable, letting it pull her through the air, and for a moment she relished the feeling of flying. Lin let the end of the cable go and fell, untethered, onto the roof of the airship. It was easy, so easy, to feel the weaknesses, the fault lines in the hull of the thing. All she had to do was reach out and tug.

I’m sorry, Tenzin—she peeled back the skin of the ship, the rending of metal ringing in her ears—if this is the last thing I do for you, will you forgive me everything else?

I’m sorry, Kya—she felt the guts of it crash and crumple, and she propelled herself away from the wreckage, through the air to land with a crunch on the roof of the second airship—you’re free now, you can tell him. Please tell him.

I’m sorry, baby girl—she reached for the fault lines again, began to tug—I’m sorry I wasn’t enough for you. I hope you’re happy.

The electricity hit her square between the shoulder blades, and Lin screamed as she fell.

Chapter Text

She’d known they were coming, but Kya’s heart still leapt into her throat when Oogi landed on the snow outside the healing huts. She squeezed her mother’s hand as Tenzin dismounted; they both wanted to run to him, to hug him tightly and feel the solidness of him, alive and well and whole—but now was not the time. Korra and Lin had come to the South Pole for healing, not to see them weep from relief that the same fate had not befallen the world’s last airbenders. Despite being told what had happened—the image of Lin throwing herself from Oogi’s back, of her chained and beaten and broken had haunted Kya’s dreams in the last nights—it still caught Kya off guard to see the uncertainty with which Lin peered off the side of Oogi’s saddle, allowing Tenzin to lift her down the same way he had Pema. She shrugged him off as soon as her feet found the earth, but there was no malice in it, and as soon as she was steady, Meelo gave a little whimper, stretching his arms up so Lin could hoist him onto her hip.

There was no time for Kya to process that particular display before Korra slid down from Oogi’s back, caught by a Fire Nation boy who seemed to be struggling not to touch her too much. He hovered in her periphery, eyebrows knitted tightly with worry.

Katara took Korra’s hand without a word, and together they retreated into the healing hut. Kya hung back.

“There are a few spare rooms on the east end of the complex,” she said. “You may as well get comfortable.”

“Will Mom—” Tenzin began, but Kya only shook her head.

“We won’t know until we try.”

Kya tried not to look back at Lin as she walked away, not wanting to see the desperation in her eyes.

The day was a long one, and the longer it went on the faster hope began to drain away. Kya knew her own skill as a healer; there were few people in the world who could match her, but she often sat in awe as she watched her mother work. This time, though, Kya could only look on in mounting frustration as Katara worked glowing water over Korra’s body. They both knew it would never work—Amon was a bloodbender, and whatever he’d done to Korra, it could only be undone with bloodbending. But they’d had that argument years ago, and Kya’s mother wasn’t going to change her mind, no matter how much Kya had begged to be taught, had insisted that bloodbending could be used for healing, could be used for good, Katara had refused to even discuss it.

“You’ve never seen what a bloodbender can do to a body,” was all she’d said, her eyes dark and determined. “You never need to.”

But now, Kya had seen what bloodbending could do. She saw the hollowness in Korra’s eyes, and the heaviness of Lin’s step, and could do nothing. For hours she watched her mother work, knowing that no matter what she did, no matter how much of her prodigious skill she called upon, Katara would never be able to undo the damage that Amon had done.

Kya was old and knowledgeable enough now to know a trauma response when she saw one, but this was not the time to start diagnosing her mother (and in any case, Kya was afraid that once she started, she might never stop). It wasn’t just stubbornness that kept Katara from really trying everything she could to save Korra’s bending, but resentment simmered inside Kya just the same. Katara looked exhausted when she finally let the water drop from her hands, forced to admit defeat—she’d never been a woman to take such a thing lightly.

“I’m sorry, Korra,” Kya heard her say softly, but the Avatar didn’t reply. Korra simply stared up the ceiling, surrounded by her element, cut off from it.

It was cowardly, but Kya hung back when her mother ventured out to break the news. She couldn’t stand to see the hope go out of Tenzin’s eyes, out of Lin’s. Korra didn’t move as the voices drifted in, continuing to stare blankly at the ceiling. There was nothing Kya could say to comfort her, so she simply sat there as the voices outside lowered to whispers, and retreating steps told her they were alone. Only then did Korra allow Kya to lift her from the bath; Kya felt almost ashamed as she bent the water from Korra’s body—she could feel the apology in her movements, hoping Korra wouldn’t notice.

By the time Kya had settled Korra—still blank and worryingly quiet—in for the night, making sure to set a White Lotus sentry outside the door, her head was pounding, and her legs felt like lead. She probably ought to check in with Tenzin before she went to bed, but her legs carried her doggedly past his family’s rooms, and she reminded herself they were probably asleep. Hopefully, they were asleep.

The door of her home creaked as she pushed it open, and she slammed it quickly shut again as the cold wind whistled in after her. She stripped her parka and set it to dry above the fire, pausing for a moment to drink in the warmth.

“Hey,” came a soft voice from behind her, and Kya whirled around, heart pounding, to see Lin perched on her bed, her arms wrapped around her knees. She looked so fragile, and Kya was reminded suddenly of another night almost seventeen years ago— only this time there was no slight swell to Lin’s belly, just a vacancy in her eyes.

“I’m sorry I—I should have asked,” she said, shifting uncomfortably under Kya’s shocked gaze. “I just—I didn’t want to be by myself.”

“Of course,” Kya said, with a twinge of guilt. Everyone had been so focused on Korra, on the horror of an Avatar with stolen bending, that no-one had thought much about Lin. “Go on, get in. You must be cold. I’ll be there in a minute.”

She listened to the shuffle of furs and blankets as Lin slid beneath the covers. There was water in the kettle, and Kya set it to boil over the fire. Reaching into the cupboard, she pulled down an old wooden box; it was almost empty, but there were enough leaves there for two, so she tipped them into her porcelain strainer.

Soon, the room was filled with the smell of lavender and chamomile. Steam hit Kya’s face, warming her still chilled skin as she poured the tea into two earthen cups. She brought them with her as she crossed back to her bedroom, handing one to Lin, who cupped her hands around it.

“The Jasmine Dragon’s best sleep blend,” she said, with a small smile. “I figured you’d need it.”

“Thanks,” Lin said, but she didn’t drink.

Kya felt Lin’s eyes on her as she pottered about the room, stripping down to her warmest under-layers for sleep. She flushed, suddenly awkward. It had been a long time since she’d last shared her bed with someone, even innocently.

“What are you looking at, Lin?”

“Nothing, sorry,” Lin muttered, dropping her gaze to stare into her tea. Her hands were shaking where they gripped the cup, and Kya plucked it from them, setting it down on the ground next to her. She perched on the edge of the bed, and waited.

“We haven’t—we’ve barely spoken in sixteen years, Kya,” Lin said eventually. “Only when I was here for—for Sokka.”

It was true, and Kya didn’t know if she was more angry with Lin or ashamed of herself for the decade and a half of silence between them. She’d lost count of how many letters she’d started and abandoned—what did you say to someone in a situation like theirs? The secret they shared loomed so large over everything that talking of anything else seemed impossible, yet broaching the subject itself felt like a breach of trust, a betrayal of the promise they’d made.

Sokka’s death had been the only thing large enough to eclipse it, and Kya remembered the way that Lin had dropped from Oogi’s back, straight into her arms. Now, with the loss of Lin’s bending, there had come another moment that weighed more heavily than their shared guilty conscience.

“I didn’t think you’d want to see me,” Kya admitted.

“I didn’t think you’d want to see me either,” Lin said, her fingers twisted in the blankets, her gaze fixed on her lap.

“We don’t have to talk about this now,” Kya said, because Lin was right.

“I’m not an invalid,” Lin snapped, but Kya didn’t have time to be angry with her before her lip began to tremble. “I’m not anything, not any more.”

Kya caught her as she fell forward; Lin was limp and shaking in her arms, and Kya could hear the soft patter of tears falling against her thick underclothes. When she finally spoke, the words rushed out of her, stilted and stuttering through tears.

“I couldn’t b—be a mother because I had to be Chief. I couldn’t be with Tenzin because I had to be Chief. I lost—I—I lost everything that ever mattered to me because I had to be Chief—I had to be Chief because who am I if I’m not my mother’s daughter and now I can’t even be that. I can’t be Chief because I threw myself to Amon for—for Tenzin and the children he had with another woman.” She laughed, hollow and wet against Kya’s shoulder. “So now I’m just nothing.”

“You’re not nothing, Lin. You are brave and you’re strong and you’re loved.” Lin only snorted as she pulled herself away from Kya’s shoulder wiping the wetness from her face with the back of her hand.

“Oh yeah?” her eyes were red-rimmed and still streaming, and the deprecating half-smile was one that Kya recognised all too well.

“Yes, Lin,” she insisted. Kya reached for Lin’s hand, squeezing it between her own. “I know things seem—I know it seems like nothing will ever be alright again but I promise that’s not true. There are so many things you can still do, Lin, and we’ll support you in whatever you—”

Kya was cut off by Lin’s lips landing hard on hers. She froze for a moment, shocked. This was a bad idea; Lin’s kiss was harsh and demanding, flavoured with the same bone-deep loneliness that was stopping Kya from pulling away. It had been so long since she’d been kissed, and Lin’s lips might be chapped, her face wet from tears, but for just a moment, Kya let herself melt into it. Lin was so warm, her unpinned hair thick and soft when Kya sunk her fingers into it, and Kya was surprised—though she shouldn’t have been—by the strength in Lin’s arms when she pulled Kya closer. She hadn’t been touched like this in years, hadn’t felt the soft give of another woman’s body against her own; granted, Lin was made harder than any of the women Kya had taken to bed before, but Kya still found she was shaking in Lin’s embrace. Lin groaned as Kya tightened her fist reflexively in Lin’s hair, and Kya used the opportunity to lick into the heat of Lin’s mouth. The arm around Kya’s waist tightened, driving the air from her lungs, and it was so good, and they shouldn’t be doing it, and Lin was biting down on Kya’s lip, sending a shock of arousal to her core. Kya pulled back.

“Lin, stop,” she murmured, her heart pounding as she rested her forehead against Lin’s. “We have to stop. You’re—you don’t really want this, Lin. We both deserve better.”

“Do we?” Lin asked, her voice low and bitter, and her fingers dug into the flesh of Kya’s hips. Kya detached them, gently.

“Yes, Lin, we do.”

She felt oddly hollow as she rose from the bed, and Lin reached out, grasping her wrist.

“Don’t. I’ll go, it’s fine.” There was colour sitting high on Lin’s cheeks, and Kya was oddly pleased to see it there—the Lin who arrived had been pale and drawn.

“I’m just going for some water,” Kya said softly. “Drink your tea, Lin.”

Lin dropped her wrist, embarrassed, and reached for her tea again, drawing her knees back up to her chest as she took her first sip.

Kya leaned against the water barrel, letting her arms take as much of her weight as she could manage, to spare her shaking legs. She closed her eyes and focused on taking deep, measured breaths, letting air drop in and out of her lungs the way her father had taught her. After five long exhales, she opened her eyes again, only to be faced with her own reflection staring back at her. Kya had always been pleased with the way she’d aged—her warm brown skin hadn’t yielded to many creases, the silver of her hair often the only clue as to her real age—but tonight she looked every one of her fifty four years. She felt it, too.

Water in hand, she returned to bed, and slipped in beside Lin. It was hideously novel, to have the space already warmed by another person’s body, and Kya sank gratefully into it. She pulled the furs up to her neck and stared at the back of Lin’s head; Lin’s shoulders rose and fell regularly, but her breathing was shallow, and Kya couldn’t help but reach out to touch her waist beneath the covers.

“Come here,” she whispered. “I’m cold.”

There was a second where Lin hesitated, Kya could feel her tense beneath the furs, but eventually she turned, shuffling across to hide her face against Kya’s shoulder. Her arm wrapped around Kya’s waist, and their legs tangled together. It was oddly freeing to be alone with Lin, despite everything; she was, after all, the only person in the world that Kya didn’t have to lie to.

“Will you tell me about it?” Lin asked, her voice muffled against Kya’s skin. “Will you tell me about the place you left her?”

Kya hesitated.

“You want to know?”

“No. I don’t want to know where she is, I just—will you tell me what it’s like?” There was a pleading note to Lin’s voice that felt entirely alien. Perhaps Kya had heard it before, but not for decades, not since she was a child on Air Temple Island, wondering why Lin never wanted to go back to her own home. There was a sad kind of irony in how their lives had turned out, considering.

Kya thought for a moment—Zaofu was too distinctive to describe in any detail without revealing too much, but Lin’s fingers were curled in the fabric of her sleep shirt, and Kya couldn’t refuse her.

“Well, it’s a pretty small community, out of the way of the rest of the world,” she said eventually. “The place itself is beautiful, the architecture alone is breathtaking, if you’re into that kind of thing.”

Lin gave a grunt that Kya assumed meant that she wasn’t.

“There’s mountains surrounding it, so it can get pretty cold there, but it’s never too hot in the summer. There are rivers running through the valley, so clear and blue you almost wouldn’t believe it.”

“And—and the people?” Lin asked, barely a whisper.

“They fell completely in love the moment they saw her,” Kya said, truthfully. She’d doubted the soundness of her decision a hundred times on her way from Kyoshi to Zaofu, but those doubts had melted away as soon as Su had looked at Opal. “She’s well loved, I’m certain, and it’s a big family; she’s got a small army of brothers.”

Lin smiled.

“No sisters?”

“No.”

“Good for her.”

Kya desperately hoped that Lin didn’t feel the hitch in her breath, or the way her heart began to beat insistently against her sternum. She’d pictured telling Lin the truth about Opal a hundred times, and though she knew that Lin responding positively was hardly the likeliest of scenarios, there had still been a small, stupidly optimistic part of her that thought Lin might be glad.

“Go to sleep, Lin.” Kya said against the crown of Lin’s head. “We can—we can talk more in the morning, if you want.”

Lin didn’t answer, but her hold tightened around Kya’s middle for a moment before she settled, her breathing beginning to even out. Kya listened to the soft rise and fall of it, like waves on the beach, and despite the gnawing worries piled on her chest, she let sleep claim her.

(They didn’t talk more in the morning. In the morning, Korra went off to the cliffside and came back with the ability to bend energy; in the morning, Lin got her bending back; in the morning, Lin returned to Republic City, and Kya couldn’t help but feel like an opportunity was lost.)

Chapter Text

Part 2: A Song for Finding

Prologue

Opal knew all her siblings like the backs of her hands. Bataar would forget his meals when he was absorbed in a project, but if you put a red bean bun in his hand he’d eat it absently, hardly noticing; Wing and Wei were equally matched as benders, but Wing fought with their mother’s grace, while Wei favoured their grandmother’s brute force; and Huan hated running more than any other activity in the world.

It was this final piece of knowledge that had Opal staring out across the gardens on the day the news broke; her sibling was running flat out towards the upper terrace, a newspaper clutched in their hand. Opal and her mother didn’t have time to ask what was wrong before Huan slammed the paper down on the table.

“Airbenders,” they wheezed, almost doubled over from the exertion. “New airbenders in Republic City. They think—they think it’s from—Harmonic Convergence.” Huan collapsed onto the ground, and Opal passed them her glass of water as her mother picked up the paper, her hands shaking.

“Unbelievable scenes unfolded in Republic City yesterday, as a local shop clerk revealed himself to be an airbender,” she read aloud. Opal’s heart was pounding, and she pinched herself discreetly under the table. “Daw, 36, was reportedly in a disagreement with his brother over business concerns, when his heightened emotion began manifesting as wind. Police were called to the residence, but were unable to restrain Daw, who blew down a door in his escape. The situation came to a head when the clerk airbent his way to the top of Kyoshi Bridge, refusing to come down despite the efforts of police. He was eventually rescued by Avatar Korra (who has faced public backlash after multiple failed attempts to rid the city of its spirit vine infestation) and taken to Air Temple Island. Rumours are circulating that Master Tenzin’s elder brother Bumi, 61, a non-bender who has avoided the spotlight since his youth, has also shown signs of the rare ability, but as yet there has been no confirmation from Air Temple Island.”

Opal’s mother laid the paper back down on the table, folding it closed slowly and deliberately. A hundred emotions seemed to flick through her eyes as she looked over at Opal, but a smile eventually curled at the edges of her lips as she reached forward to tuck Opal’s hair behind her ear.

“I suppose it’s time, then,” she said softly, her fingers tenderly stroking the skin of Opal’s cheek, “if that’s what you want?”

Opal had waited so long to hear her mother say those words, she almost didn’t know how to respond. She could only stare down at the paper on the table before her, because surely none of this was real. Opal had imagined a hundred scenarios in which she finally revealed her airbending to the world, but she’d feared them as much as she’d longed for them; this seemed too good to be true. Still, the reality of the situation didn’t have any bearing on her reaction to it—Opal had been dreaming of this for longer than she could remember.

“It is, Mom,” she said, and Suyin nodded.

“Then I guess I’ve got some calls to make.”

Neither of them moved. The sunshine was too mellow and the breeze too warm to think about moving. Opal took her mother’s hand as they looked out across the valley; she’d often thought there must be no place in the world more beautiful than her home, with light reflecting off metal and glittering on the river. She’d spent so long dreaming of leaving, but now the chance was here, she only wanted to sit a little longer with her mother, listening to the hum of familiar voices as the sky went from blue, to pink, to red, until the sun disappeared behind the mountains.

Chapter Text

The sight of the metal domes put Lin’s teeth on edge. She’d had enough to deal with in the last few weeks without having Suyin’s picture book life paraded in front of her, yet of course Su had insisted on the Grand Tour. It felt less like an introduction and more like an exhibition, an excuse for Su to show off how perfect her life was now that she’d replaced her old, broken family with a shiny new one.

Lin had seen pictures of Su in newspapers over the last thirty years, but it was still jarring to see her now, with her once black hair faded to grey just as Lin’s own; Lin had always assumed she’d greyed early from the stress of her job, but perhaps it was genetic—after all, Su certainly didn’t seem as though she had enough stress in her life to produce premature grey hairs. In so many other ways, though, Su was just the same as she’d always been; she still walked as though she owned the ground beneath her—which Lin supposed she did now—and gestured as though she was being photographed at any given moment. Lin had once or twice wondered whether Su would grow out of her teenage affectations, but it seemed they had only aged with her, becoming so refined that anyone but Lin might think they were natural.

Su had always acted like she was queen of all she surveyed, and it made Lin itch to see that she’d somehow made that a reality. As the group walked through the seemingly endless grounds of the Beifong estate, she pointed out her talented sons playing their made up game in their purpose-built arena, her artist with their extensive gallery of sculptures (which she had to admit, begrudgingly, were good), and a thousand other small innovations and luxuries along the way. It was all leading up, of course, to the most impressive jewel in Su’s pretentious crown: her airbending daughter. Lin could have laughed, if it didn’t seem designed to torture her specifically.

The girl sat on a bench overlooking the city, head bowed over a book. It was strange, but Lin thought she looked like an airbender; though her face was turned away from them, her form was clearly small and slight beneath her tunic, and she sat the way Aang and Tenzin did: straight-backed, her feet barely skimming the floor. Then she turned, and Lin’s heart dropped into her stomach. She looked astonishingly like Su had as a teenager—the last time Lin had seen her—though her face was a little softer, eyes wider and smile sweeter. She looked like a photograph Lin could half remember seeing once, familiar in a way that wasn’t only her resemblance to her mother.

“This is my daughter, Opal,” Su was saying, and Lin thought for a second there was something nervous in her body language, beneath the carefully confident veneer. It surprised Lin—she would have expected Su’s delight at her child being the centre of attention to outweigh any understandable worry at the thought of sending her daughter away with a bunch of relative strangers.

The girl—Opal—seemed to have no such reservations, because she rose eagerly to her feet and bounded towards Korra.

“Avatar Korra! Oh I can’t believe—it’s such an honour to have you here. I’ve been so excited to meet you.” There was something youthful in her delight at meeting her idol, but she couldn’t have been much younger than Korra herself, perhaps a year or two. She was the same age—but Lin didn’t want to go down that road. Not here. Not now.

“It’s great to meet you too, Opal,” Korra said amiably, reaching out to shake Opal’s hand. The two girls had barely dropped each others’ hands when Bolin appeared at Korra’s shoulder. Apparently, he’d not yet figured out how to act like a normal human being when in the presence of a pretty girl, and Lin scowled as he grasped Opal’s hand, watching the blush spread across her cheeks. There wasn’t time for any of this—if they were going to be teenagers, they could do so on the airship on the way to the Northern Air Temple.

“Great, we found the airbender,” she snapped. “Airship’s waiting, let’s go.”

“And the woman apparently trying to abduct you is your Aunt Lin.”

“Really?” Opal’s face lit up, as if Lin was someone who should matter to her. “I’ve always wanted to meet you. Mom’s told me so many stories—”

“I’m sure she has,” Lin said shortly, cutting the girl off. She had no desire to hear Su’s version of what their childhoods were like, let alone from the mouth of this girl. Despite the surface resemblance, Opal’s manner was so different from Su’s—open and unaffected—and somehow, Lin couldn’t bear to imagine what her niece must think of her. Clearly, she was going soft in her old age, because something ached in her chest as Opal’s face fell.

Before she could act on the insane urge to apologise, Su clapped her hands together, as if they were a group of unruly school children on an expedition.

“Alright everyone, I’ve set you up with rooms in the guesthouses, so you can have some time to get settled before dinner. You’re all welcome to stay as long as it takes for Korra to train Opal.”

Even Korra baulked at that, frowning in confusion.

“I’m sorry if there’s been a misunderstanding, Su. We were hoping Opal could train with the other airbenders at the Northern Air Temple,” she said carefully, and Opal gave a little gasp.

“Really? That sounds incredible, I—”

“Nonsense,” Su said, more sharply than Lin had anticipated. “Opal can be trained here, close to her family.”

“I—I guess we could stay a few days, just to get her started.” Korra agreed. Apparently she could argue with Lin, or Tenzin, or Mako until the pigcows came home, but one word from Su and she was folding like paper.

“Absolutely not,” Lin insisted. “We need to get you back to Republic City.”

“Come on, Lin,” Korra said, wincing as she attempted to give Lin a playful elbow in the ribs. “What are the chances the Red Lotus would find me here?”

“Too high.” It would only be the cherry on top of a particularly shitty cake if Korra managed to get herself killed before Lin could get her back to Republic City. She’d had enough reminders of all the ways she’d failed as a woman over the last few weeks, she didn’t need to fail as Korra’s protector too.

“If it’s security you’re worried about, don’t be. This is the safest city in the world,” Su said, and Lin couldn’t help rolling her eyes. If Su really thought her pampered security guards were a match for a group like the Red Lotus, she was more full of herself than Lin had ever imagined. “Now come on, you’ve got all the best rooms, and my chef is preparing a real feast for you this evening.”

She turned to lead the way up towards the house, teenagers in tow. Only Opal glanced back at where Lin still stood, arms crossed and feet rooted to the floor, as if she could draw them back with sheer determination.

“What is your problem?” Korra hissed, tugging futilely at Lin’s arm.

“I don’t ask you for a lot,” Lin growled out between gritted teeth, shaking her arm out of the Avatar’s grip. “But I am asking you now, to let me leave. I don’t want to be here.”

“You didn’t want to work with Tenzin either,” Korra said, an infuriating smile playing across her lips. “But look where you are now. I’d say this is a perfect opportunity for you to reconnect.”

“Korra—” Lin started, but her protests clearly went unheard as Korra raced back to her friends, propelling herself onto Bolin’s back as she caught up to them.

Lin felt vaguely sick as she begrudgingly set off after the group. She could already feel a tension headache blooming across her skull, and her limbs felt heavy with dread. Lin knew that her primary concern ought to be the Red Lotus, ought to be getting Korra back to safety, but if she was being honest with herself, Lin knew that all she really wanted was to get out of this ridiculous, pretentious excuse for a city as fast as an airship could carry her. She’d spent enough time in past few days thinking about all the ways her life might have been different if she’d only known Harmonic Convergence was going to spit a few hundred airbenders into the world as if it was nothing, and she was successfully keeping a lid on it, despite the anxious looks Kya had been throwing her since she and Mako had shown up on Air Temple Island that first day. She didn’t have time to be dealing with that now, not with the Red Lotus stalking Korra’s every step, and she certainly didn’t have time to be dealing with whatever ancient bullshit her sister might dredge up.

There was a particularly suspicious—paranoid?—voice in the back of her head, too, telling her that Su was acting oddly. Thirty years of separation or not, Suyin was still Lin’s sister, and Lin was still a detective: she could tell when a person was hiding something. Her insistence on Korra remaining in Zaofu to train Opal was not only irritating—it put Lin on edge, and as much as the thought of it twisted something deep in her gut, she couldn’t rule out a more sinister motivation. Su had always considered herself above petty things like the law, and Lin knew that she’d been involved in further criminal enterprises since leaving Gaoling.

She didn’t dismiss the thought—she couldn’t—but she tried to file it away in the back of her mind as she caught up to the rest of the group. The rooms they were shown to were far bigger than necessary, and she fought not to roll her eyes as she stalked into the room, throwing a cursory thanks to Opal before closing the door abruptly on the hopeful expression on her niece’s face, and whatever excitable question she had been about to ask. She couldn’t imagine what Su had told Opal that would make Opal actually want to talk to Lin, but disappointment was inevitable. So, instead of answering whatever wide-eyed questions Su’s daughter had about… whatever the hell she had questions about, Lin collapsed onto the too-soft bed, rubbing the back of her neck where she could feel the tension pulling her muscles into knots. It was a disappointingly short time before the bells rang for dinner, and Lin pulled her aching body towards the dining hall (because of course Su had a dining hall now, of course she did).

Dinner was, naturally, unnecessarily ostentatious. Living with their grandparents, even for just a couple of years, had clearly rubbed off on Su. Lin liked to think she was reasonably cultured, but she’d never in her life eaten an “infused pea tendril” and her stomach was in too many knots to change that tonight.

Someone was shouting from the doorway, and Lin looked up to see two tall men—similar enough that if they’d been the same age, she might have taken them for twins—arms overflowing with paperwork.

“That’s my brilliant architect of a husband, Bataar, and our eldest son. He engineers all his father’s projects.” Su was telling Korra, as if her family were a particularly engrossing museum exhibit. The more she showed them off, the more Lin’s irritation grew, and she couldn’t hold back a snort of derision.

“There’s five of them? What a nightmare.”

“Lin, please,” Su said; her tone was measured, but there was a tremor of irritation beneath it that Lin shouldn’t have found so satisfying. “My children are a blessing.”

“Yeah, that’s what Mom always said, but she never meant it,” Lin pointed out, but Su only laughed, her annoyance seeming to dissipate in seconds.

“I’m not sure dinner is the right time for you to share your Mommy issues with the group, Lin,” she said, as if it was nothing, as if their fractured family was something to be joked about and giggled over.

It certainly got a laugh out of Korra, who had taken to Su just as fast as everyone always did. They had a lot in common, Lin thought bitterly, trying to look anywhere but at the way Korra was looking at Su, hanging on her every word. Mako looked almost as miserable as she did, sitting next to her sister’s pet truth-seer, but Bolin had somehow managed to get himself seated next to Opal, who was listening wide eyed to something that Lin couldn’t hear, but she’d happily bet was complete nonsense. She almost felt sorry for the girl; cooped up in this metal complex, she’d probably never seen a boy her age who wasn’t staff or family before.

“How’s the search going, Korra? Have you found many other airbenders?” Su was asking when Lin zoned back in, and Korra shrugged.

“We’ve found a bunch, but not many of them wanted to join up,” she explained. That sounded like an understatement to Lin—from what Tenzin had said, the only airbender they’d successfully recruited had been a young pickpocket on the run from the law. “Plus, we had to rescue about twenty from the Earth Queen.”

“Oh, she’s horrible,” Su said, bringing an affected hand to her chest. “She thinks she can just do whatever she wants.”

Lin couldn’t help a huff of mirthless laughter at that.

“Sounds familiar,” she mumbled, and Su raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Anyway, what I was going to say was that even the idea of having a Queen is so outdated. Don’t you agree, Korra?” Su continued, and Lin thought it was very reserved of her not to point out that Su was essentially Queen of this entire, ridiculous city.

“I uh… I never really thought about it,” Korra said, which—if you asked Lin—was the phrase that had defined her tenure as Avatar thus far.

“Well, you should start. The world is evolving and the Earth Queen can evolve with it, or step aside,” Su said, with an imperious wave of her hand, and Lin knew she shouldn’t say anything, but there was nothing about Su that wasn’t grating.

“Wow, didn’t know you were an expert in world affairs now,” she said, and Su flinched.

“Do you want to talk about what’s really bugging you, Lin?” she snapped.

Before Lin could respond, the door to the dining hall burst open. There were a hundred things about this entire hellish visit that Lin had at least somewhat anticipated, but seeing Varrick standing in the doorway, Zhu Li in his shadow, was not one of them. He didn’t seem to have changed at all in the few months since she’d last seen him—the months since he’d escaped from prison. Her instinct as he babbled on about whatever the hell it was he was working on now was to arrest him on the spot, but she didn’t have jurisdiction here. She didn’t have jurisdiction and Su knew it, so why wouldn’t she flaunt her live-in criminal at dinner? Why wouldn’t she dangle him under Lin’s nose, just to prove she could?

“Varrick is heading up my new technology division,” Su was saying, and Lin saw red.

“Seriously, Su? I’m trying to keep the Avatar safe, and you’re harbouring a criminal?” she barked. Varrick was still trying to talk out of his ass about magnets, and Lin would give anything to wrap one of her cables around his skinny throat and drag him back to Republic City that way.

“Ease up, Lin,” Su said, as if she’d come home late from school again without telling Lin where she’d been. “Varrick might have made some mistakes, but that doesn’t mean he should be punished the rest of his life. You know, my chef used to be a pirate, and now he’s a culinary master. People change.”

“You haven’t,” was all Lin could muster before she stormed from the room. The shudder of the door slamming behind her rippled through her bones, satisfying, and Lin stalked away back towards her own quarters. She only made it as far as the courtyard before she stopped, legs shaking with rage and frustration and exhaustion. She leaned against one of the many plinths, taking deep gulps of crisp night air. We’ll only be here a few days, she told herself, firmly.

Only a few days. You can handle this.

Chapter Text

Every instinct screamed at Opal that this was wrong, that she shouldn’t be showing her airbending to anyone; it was a secret, and if she was discovered, if people found out about her, the consequences could be dire. But Korra was standing opposite her, looking expectant, as if this was—not nothing, but at least something expected. Opal took a deep breath, grounded herself, and began to bend; the whirls of air began to stream upwards, and Korra smiled—not shocked, not confused—as she said,

“Great work, Opal! That’s a pretty complex form for a beginner.” Opal blushed at the praise, though a voice in the back of her mind said she should have done something easier, something that wouldn’t give her away. Korra didn’t seem suspicious, though, as she got up from where she sat. “The only thing that’s really holding you back is your stance;” she continued, settling into a low stance that mirrored Opal’s. “It’s obvious you’ve spent a lot of time watching your mom and your brothers bend, because this is actually a really strong earthbending stance, you’re solid and rooted into the ground, but air is the opposite of earth, so standing like that isn’t gonna help you with airbending.”

As soon as she said it, Opal couldn’t believe she’d never thought of that before. All those years of practising in her room, or secretly on the terraces, and it had never occurred to Opal that trying to adopt the wide stance she’d seen her family use might not be the best thing for her bending.

“What you want to be doing is keeping light on your toes,” Korra said, shifting her weight easily and bringing her legs in to rest in line with her shoulders. Opal copied her. “I really struggled with it when I was first learning airbending, no matter how many times Tenzin told me to be like a leaf on the wind, I just kept stomping through the exercises.” Korra chuckled at the memory, and Opal had to admit she didn’t find it hard to believe; Korra was boisterous and confident, far from the wise airbending monks Opal had so often imagined.

“What’s Master Tenzin like?” Opal asked before she could stop herself. She’d never known who, if anyone, Master Tenzin was to her, but she’d spent countless hours of her childhood wondering what sort of a man he might be. There had been a hundred different daydreams where she’d made it to Air Temple Island in secret and convinced him to teach her everything he knew, but for years, she hadn’t even known what he looked like. The first time she’d seen an article about him in the newspaper, she’d torn it out so she could study his face for as long as she pleased—he looked kind, she’d decided, and it hadn’t taken long before there was a stack of pilfered articles about Air Temple Island and its inhabitants secreted in a box beneath her bed. She’d burned them after Kuvira found her practising on the terrace, though she tried not to think too hard about why.

“Tenzin?” Korra’s expression turned fond. “He’s a good guy, a good leader. He’s an incredible bender, and no-one knows more about air nomad culture than he does—he’s so excited to share it with you all—but he’s not as zen as he likes to pretend he is,” Korra told her with a conspiratorial smile. “He used to get so mad at me when I first moved to Air Temple Island, because I just didn’t understand airbending at all.”

“Really? You seem so confident with it,” Opal said, and Korra gave a half-embarrassed shrug.

“It took a lot of work to get to where I am now, and Tenzin says I’m still not a true master,” she explained. “Nowadays he just gets irritated rather than mad, though. If he’s only being huffy then you can tell he’s not really angry—when he’s really angry he gets super red from trying not to yell, but then he yells anyway.” Korra gave another little chuckle, and leaned in towards Opal, as if about to share a secret. “Honestly, sometimes I wish I could have seen what he and Lin were like together, because I bet it was… explosive.”

“He and Lin?” Opal repeated, stupidly. “My aunt Lin?”

“Yeah, they used to date,” Korra said, unaware of the hundred cogs that had whirred to life in the back of Opal’s mind. “They’re both ridiculously cagey about it, so I don’t know any of the details beyond that he left her for Pema and she was really mad about it.”

“Wow, sounds dramatic.” Opal said, trying desperately to seem casual. “When, uh—when did they break up?”

“I think—” Korra paused, brow furrowed. “Tenzin and Pema had their thirteenth wedding anniversary last spring, but they were together for a while before that. So it’s probably been seventeen years, maybe eighteen? After the way Lin’s been acting around your mom, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that she only started talking to him again a year ago.”

“Sounds about right,” Opal agreed, vacant. She dragged a smile across her face, and Korra gave her a ridiculously exaggerated wink that Opal would have found endearing at any other time. Now, though, all she could hear were Korra’s words echoing through her skull. Seventeen years, maybe eighteen.

“But Master Tenzin says that airbenders don’t pass judgement on each others’ personal lives, so this conversation never happened,” Korra said, and Opal nodded.

“Of course.” She tried to smile back, but the attempt was weak. A too-familiar falling feeling had her legs turning to jelly beneath her, and her stomach was in her throat. Opal wished she could shake it off, push it down just for another hour, but Korra was already frowning at her.

“Are you all right, Opal?”

“Yeah, yeah I’m fine just—I think today’s been quite a lot. I’m going to lie down for a while before dinner.”

“Sure, good idea.” Korra said, placing a hand on Opal’s shoulder. Her palm was warm, her grip firm and comforting, but the worry hadn’t quite left her expression. Opal gave another lacklustre smile before she all but fled back towards the house.

Korra’s anxious gaze followed her from the pavilion, and Opal walked almost blindly, winding her way through the manicured topiaries and the familiar statues of the gardens until she was certain she was out of sight. Only then did she give in to the shaking of her legs, letting herself slump against a pillar, the marble cool against her skin. Opal shook her head firmly, trying to stop the frantic buzzing of her thoughts. She had moved past this, she reminded herself sternly: she knew who she was.


Opal thought she did well over dinner—she hardly looked over at her aunt at all, letting Bolin distract her with stories about his and Korra’s adventures. It was nice to talk to a boy—a handsome boy, though Opal tried not to let that sway her too much—who wasn’t one of her brothers, or someone she’d grown up with. Bolin was funny and easy to talk to, and even if he was kind of silly sometimes, Opal had to admit it was endearing. When she had someone like Bolin to talk to, she didn’t need to steal glances at Lin, sitting slumped in her chair, hardly touching the food in front of her. It was difficult, when everything about Bolin was so animated, to let her gaze be drawn to her aunt’s face, scanning the lines of it for any similarity to her own.

It was harder to ignore when Lin pushed her chair back, metal scraping against metal, and pointed an accusatory finger at Varrick, who had interrupted dinner with another of his “innovations”. Every eye in the room was on her as Lin stalked from the room, slamming the door behind her. The silence that followed stretched into eternity, until Varrick cracked a joke that Opal didn’t hear, and tentative laughter began to warm the room. Opal didn't join in, though, and neither did her mother; Opal watched her mom stare at the closed door as if hoping it would open again, the longing in her eyes so at odds with the woman Opal knew. It was only there for a second before Suyin joined in with the laughter, but for that second, Opal had seen her mother as someone entirely different: someone small and uncertain. It unsettled her.

She left the rest of her food, hunger having suddenly deserted her, and waited until she could slip out unnoticed—or at least unchallenged. The night air filled her lungs, slipping beneath the hem of her robe and up the cones of her sleeves, calming and caressing. She took another deep breath and headed out across the terrace. Despite the confused mixture of hope and dread that had been curdling in her stomach since her conversation with Korra, the call of her element drew her back towards the pavilion. She itched to feel the same easy flow of air at her command, now she was free to exercise her power whenever she wanted.

The sun was nearly down, and the air was almost too chilled against her skin, but Opal didn’t mind. She shifted her weight, letting her feet skim the ground just as Korra had shown her, and suddenly it was as if the air itself was carrying her. She circled the pavilion, just listening to the subtle whistles of wind, until she caught a current—it was only a little thing, but so easy to catch up and weave into a great rush of air—and sent herself whirling across the pavilion with a shout of joy. It wasn’t hard to push those insistent, anxious thoughts to the back of her mind beneath the exhilaration of discovering—really discovering—her bending. It was so freeing to lose herself in the push and pull of the atmosphere; it was like dancing, only this time she didn’t have to put herself at the mercy of the rest of the troupe if she wanted to keep up—Opal could lift herself now, and air was so much more elegant than metal.

Opal didn’t know how much time had passed when a voice interrupted her—she had to remind herself again that it was all right, that it didn’t matter if anyone saw her now—and she turned to see Bolin leaning nonchalantly on one of the pillars. Despite the niggle of irritation at being interrupted, Opal smiled at him, only for the expression to drop from her face as soon as he began talking. The sweet, enthusiastic boy from dinner was gone, and now she felt uncomfortable as he looked her up and down.

“What are you doing?” Opal asked bluntly; she didn’t have the energy for this.

“Talking to you,” he replied, in a faux-smooth voice that made her want to punch him. “You seemed pretty into it at dinner.”

Opal blinked incredulously at him. She was first to admit she didn’t have much experience when it came to romance, but she was pretty certain that nice boys weren’t supposed to turn into assholes within a couple of hours.

“I don’t know who told you that,” she said, “but I’m certainly not into whatever this is.” She cocked an eyebrow in what she hoped was a passible facsimile of her mother at her most imperious. It seemed to work, because Bolin flinched under her gaze, straightening up as the smug expression fell from his face.

“I’m sorry, I—I’m not really, uh, good with girls and I thought—” he stammered. “Mako said you liked me and I guess I just—I wanted to impress you or—something.”

His shoulders slumped, and Opal felt an absurd pang of sympathy.

“Look, Bolin. You seem nice, and I really liked talking to you today. Just—I’m going through a lot right now, and I don’t need this kind of stuff… complicating things.”

“Right, right, totally,” Bolin said, taking a few tentative steps back. “Yeah I’ll just leave you to it—the airbending. You’re really good, y’know. Better than Korra was for ages, and she’s the Avatar! Anyway, I’ll just…” he gestured vaguely behind him, and was gone before Opal could say anything further. Part of her wanted to call after him, but it was better this way.

She’d barely centred herself when she was interrupted again, flinching as Korra’s voice shattered the silence of the pavilion.

“Hey Opal. Was Bolin just here? I passed him on my way down and he looked kinda—” Korra said, gesturing behind her. Opal cut her off.

“It’s nothing,” she said, plastering on a smile. “What’s up?”

Korra didn’t press her—whether due to Avatar Wisdom or because she was just a good friend, Opal didn’t yet know—only shrugged and said,

“Oh. I just came down to ask if you’d help me with something.”


Opal shouldn’t have agreed to this. She should have met Korra’s earnest blue gaze and said “no”. But Opal couldn’t forget that lost, longing look on her mother’s face when the door of the dining hall had slammed shut (she wanted to forget the way her whole body shook when Korra had told her about Lin and Master Tenzin) and so she hovered outside her Aunt’s door, watching Korra knock too confidently on the metal. The barked answer from within was muffled, but Korra pushed the door open without hesitation, pulling Opal in after her.

“It’s just me,” she said, giving Opal’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ve brought someone who wants to talk to you.”

Lin glanced momentarily up from her newspaper to take Opal in. She seemed to share none of Opal’s fascination, letting her eyes flit swiftly over Opal’s face before returning to her paper again.

“If you want to talk, talk,” she said bluntly, and Korra gave Opal an encouraging smile. Still, the palms of Opal’s hands were wet, and her heart was pounding as she stepped forward. Despite the many ways she knew this was a bad idea—they shouldn’t be forcing themselves on Lin before she was ready to talk, shouldn’t be bringing this into her private space—Opal couldn’t ignore the gentle fluttering of hope in her chest.

“I'm sorry being here has been so hard for you,” she began, thinking it was best to start with honesty. She didn’t know what made Lin so uncomfortable with Opal’s home, but it wouldn’t be right to dismiss it the way so many others had. “I don’t know what went on between you and Mom, but she’s told me so many amazing stories about you, and I was so excited when you arrived here. I guess I—I hoped you’d be excited to meet us, too.” Opal could feel her legs shaking as she took a breath, trying to steady herself to continue. “There’s a lot that I—there are a lot of questions I wanted to ask you, and I still would like to ask them. I know that this must all be a lot for you to deal with but I’d love it if we could talk sometime.”

Silence stretched out for a long moment, and Opal’s mouth was dry as she watched Lin’s knuckles turn white where she still gripped the newspaper. That silly little flutter of hope was still there, though, the beat of its wings growing weaker with every second.

“Get out,” Lin said, and Opal felt something heavy and sickening drop into her stomach.

“I—I’m sorry,” she stammered, “did I say something wrong?”

“Get. Out.” Lin turned sharply to face Opal; her voice was edged with steel, and Opal was surprised by how deep it cut. Still, she met her aunt’s blazing eyes as her own filled with tears. (Far away, in the back of her mind, she noted that Lin’s eyes were the same colour as her own, the green just a few shades darker than her siblings, or her mother.) Despite the beginnings of anger bubbling up within her, Opal could do nothing but obey, backing out of the room as the first stubborn tear burned a track down her cheek.

Outside, the air was no longer refreshing, only cold. She could hear shouting from Lin’s room, but it was only noise, the words lost in the sound of the wind and the fog of Opal’s thoughts. She felt weak, and sick, and she hated it.

The slam of a door echoed briefly through the night, rattling through her ribcage. There was no reason for Opal to feel so hollowed out, so gutted—no matter how many stories she’d heard, Opal still didn’t know Lin. After the way she’d just spoken to her, Opal shouldn’t want to. Yet she couldn’t ignore the tugging, like a string tied around her rib, urging her back.

She ignored it, drowned out the sound of Korra asking if she was alright, whipping the air up around her until the force of it carried her across the complex, disturbing the quiet of the night until her anger burned itself out and she let herself drop. Her feet hit the earth, then her knees, then her hands, and Opal let the tears come.

Chapter Text

The slam of the door echoed through Lin’s ribcage, reverberating through the hollow places there. She screwed her eyes shut—barely registering the hot spill of tears that washed her cheeks—and tried to banish the stricken look on Opal’s face from her mind. The girl was nothing to her, Lin reminded herself, just one of Su’s brood of little strangers.

Another traitorous, nonsensical tear slipped down her face, and she brushed it angrily away. It shouldn't matter how big and shining Opal’s eyes had been; no matter the hurt that swam in them; no matter how horribly, achingingly familiar the expression was, she owed Opal nothing. Whatever blood they might share, Lin had been reminded too many times that family meant little when you were a Beifong; Su might have been able to convince her little cult that things were different now, that she was different, but Lin knew better. There was no point in getting Opal’s hopes up that they might have a relationship; despite Su’s overtures of friendship, of sisterly bonding, it was only a matter of time before she remembered why she hated Lin in the first place. Korra could say what she liked—she wasn’t wrong after all, Lin was bitter, and she was lonely—but she wasn’t going to shame Lin into letting her guard down, not now when there was so much at stake. Trusting people—trusting family, just because they could say some pretty wordswas what got Korra into half the messes she’d caused in the last year.

But if that was true—and it was—why did Lin feel like something had been ripped out of her chest when Opal’s eyes had filled with tears (eyes the same colour as hers, just a shade darker than Suyin’s). The answer came too easily to her, and Lin didn’t want it: Opal was seventeen, she was sweet, and she was an airbender. It was too cruel of fate to wave a girl like Opal in Lin’s face now, too cruel to make her Suyin’s daughter, just another way that Su had gotten everything that Lin had ever wanted but was too afraid to keep.


Lin was still reeling the following morning; her head throbbed, and the tension in her neck sent pain shooting down her spine whenever she moved it wrong. Predictably, it didn’t take long before she snapped, lashing out at a pair of guards who seemed to think that protecting the Avatar was an excuse for a pissing contest and not the most important thing they’d ever be asked to do in their sheltered little lives.

The yelling only made her head hurt more, though, and she winced as a fresh burst of pain danced from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. She might have been able to ignore it, to drink some water and hope that the warmth of the sun eased the tightness in her muscles, had Suyin’s pet truth seer not decided that her health concerns were his business. The man gave her the creeps, but everything in Su’s shiny metal city was unnerving—its residents too cheery by far—so she didn’t protest when he handed her a card for an acupuncturist. It might do her good, Lin thought, to ease the knots in her muscles and clear the pathways of her qi.

It was still early when Lin arrived at the clinic, and the acupuncturist—who introduced himself as Guo—assured her he could fit her in without a problem. As she stripped off her armour and lay back on the stone table, she wondered idly how the man made any money, with Zaofu’s residents so apparently contented every hour of the fucking day. Still, he must be gifted for Su to have accepted him into her oh-so-prestigious city, so she closed her eyes and allowed him to begin placing the needles on her pressure points. Lin wasn’t sure what she expected to happen, and she felt nothing for a few long seconds, until the final needle came to rest at her light chakra—Lin drew a deep, gasping breath as she hurtled from the quiet, incense-scented clinic and opened her eyes in Republic City, in her childhood home.

Lin was eleven, and Su was crying. The sound bled through their shared wall as Lin tossed and turned in her own bed, trying to ignore it. Perhaps her mother would come home soon—she knew it was unlikely, the clock on her wall told her it was only midnight, and the night shift didn’t end until the small hours of the morning—or maybe Su would simply stop on her own. It was no good, though. The stone floor was cold against Lin’s feet as she shuffled out of bed and into Su’s room. The lamp was burning low, and Su was sitting up, her head bent over her knees.

“What’s wrong, Su?” Lin asked, but Su only shook her head, wincing as she drew her knees up closer to her body.

“Nothing.”

It wasn’t nothing. Su’s knees were bloody, with bits of fluff and rubble sticking out starkly against the red-brown grazes.

“How’d you get these?”

“Training,” Su said, her voice thick with tears. Training had been hours ago, before Toph had left for the station.

“Mom didn’t notice?”

Su didn’t reply, only tried to pick another piece of gravel out of her cuts, whimpering as she did so.

“Stop that,” Lin snapped, pushing Su’s hand away. “Just keep still, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Lin knew where they kept the iodine; she knew she needed to bend herself a little platform to reach the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet; she knew where the cloths were for cleaning and dressing, and she carried all of it through the dark corridors back to her sister’s room.

It was simple enough to bend the rock fragments from Suyin’s flesh—as hard as she tried to minimise the pain, Suyin still yelped when the gravel extracted itself, then again when Lin pressed the iodine-soaked cloth against the freshly bleeding wound—and wrapped bandages around her sister’s knees.

“Better?” she asked, and Suyin nodded, sniffling as she burrowed back down beneath her blankets.

“Yeah.”

Lin felt her stomach roll as the scene changed. She wanted to reach out, reach back to wipe the tears from Su’s face, but the walls were already dissolving and reforming.

The room had grown dark around her, but Lin still sat in the kitchen, watching the door. Her heart leapt at every rustle of the wind, every creak of the old house, every slam of a door from the street. Worry warred with anger—anger at her sister for doing this in the first place, anger with her mother for not caring, anger with herself for not being able to just let them both do whatever the hell they wanted and deal with the consequences themselves.

Lin was trembling by the time she heard the key turn in the lock, and her chair scraped violently against the floor as she rose from it.

“Where the fuck have you been?”

“Language,” was all Su said as she shrugged her satchel off her shoulders.

“I can use whatever language I like when you were supposed to be home from school five hours ago. You could have been dead in a ditch for all I knew.”

“I can look after myself, Lin,” Su said as she opened the closest cupboard, rising onto her tiptoes to see what was there. Had she even eaten since lunch? Lin grabbed an orange from the bowl on the table and shoved it into Suyin’s hand.

“You’re twelve, Su.”

“So?” Su replied, putting the orange back down on the counter and picking up a pear instead. “Mom helped save the world when she was twelve.”

“I hate to break it to you, but you’re not Mom.” Lin snapped, and Su’s eyes hardened.

“Neither are you.”

Another shift. Lin could feel sweat beading on her forehead. Her body ached.

The night shift had been long, and it was almost midday when Lin finally dragged herself through the door, hoping to sleep for at least six hours before she had to get up for another night of rounding up drunkards and taking tearful statements from girls dressed up for a night on the town.

Instead, the sound of chatter was coming from the living room, and Lin stuck her head around the door to see Su, perched on the back of their sofa, with two boys—older than her, Lin noted with distaste—lounging on the chairs beside her.

“Su, what are you doing home? You’re supposed to be at school,” Lin said. She was so tired, and the shrillness of Su’s answering laugh sharpened the pounding pain in her head.

“Wow, with observation skills like that, you’ll make detective in no time,” Su said, and the boys laughed. Their hair was slicked back with way too much pomade, and Lin wanted to smash their heads together.

“Did Mom say you could stay home?” Lin asked through gritted teeth. She might not agree with Toph’s approach to Su’s education, but it was more trouble than it was worth to argue with her about it.

“No, but it’s not like she’ll care.” Su shrugged, reaching for the satchel lying on the table. As she pulled it towards her, the flap fell open, revealing an assortment of things Lin recognised from market stalls and shop-fronts in the Fire Nation district.

“Where did you get those?” she asked pointedly. Neither she nor Su had ever lacked pocket money, but she couldn’t imagine Su spending hers on half the items in the bag.

“Fell off the back of a truck,” one of the boys snickered, and Lin’s hands curled into fists at her sides.

“You didn’t tell me you started hanging out with wasters.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything.” Su snapped back, hopping down from her perch. “Come on, guys, let’s go.”

“Su, stop—” Lin reached out to grasp her sister’s wrist, only for Su to slap her hand away.

“Get your hands off me.”

Lin tried not to flinch, pushing down the sting of Su’s words and the prickle of tears behind her eyes.

“I can’t let you ruin your life like this, Su,” she said, her voice low and strained.

“No, you just don’t want me to have a life.”

Lin could feel the cold of the metal in her skin as her eyebrows drew together. She knew what came next, she knew and she didn’t want to remember.

The memory came anyway.

“Calling all units. Robbery reported on the corner of Fifth and Harbor. Suspect's vehicle headed south on Hao Boulevard. Units responding, identify.”

“Unit Three responding.”

Lin was almost used to the piercing wail of the siren now, and it was second nature to pull her satomobile around, shifting into high gear as she raced towards the boulevard. Her tyres screamed as she rounded the corner, and another vehicle flew past her. Acting on instinct, she threw out a cable, ripping one of the rear tyres off the speeding satomobile. It left dark tracks in the road as the driver desperately slammed on the brakes, coming to a crashing halt at the side of the road.

Lin had barely managed to bring her own satomobile to a stop when two men—boys, really—came tumbling onto the street, tripping over their own feet in their haste to get away. It was easy work to wrap her cables around their wrists, tying them together as she pulled them back towards her. Lin’s heart was thumping with victory, and she couldn’t help the small smile that curled the edges of her lips as she looked down at the two boys at her feet. Mom would have to be proud of her for this one.

“Leave them alone!”

A voice came from the wreckage of the satomobile, and Lin’s blood froze in her veins.

“Enough!”

The needles went flying, embedding themselves in the desk and the walls and the acupuncturist's self-important certificates.

“I’m done here,” she panted as she pulled herself from the table. Her body felt heavy and unsteady, as though there were strings threaded through every spot where a needle had pierced her, pulling her down into the earth. She was tempted to let it, to let the stone swallow her until there was nothing but the quiet and cool and the dark. But she had duties to fulfil.

The acupuncturist was shouting something after her, but whatever it was sounded muffled and far away as she dragged herself back towards the Beifong complex and the relative sanctuary of her room. It felt as though she’d barely collapsed onto the bed when her door opened.

“Are you going to stay in here feeling sorry for yourself all day?”

Lin shook her head, trying to shift the image before her, because it couldn’t be Su standing in her doorway, still fourteen and shrill. She blinked hard, and Su became Opal, her eyes large and sad.

“You owe Opal an apology for the way you treated her last night.” Lin blinked again, and the image before her shifted into something that had to be reality: Korra had a hand on her hip, looking down on Lin with familiar irritation. Lin wanted to tell her to get out, to leave her alone, but her mouth was dry. “Are you alright, Lin?” Korra asked, her frown turning concerned.

Lin didn’t answer, because pushing herself back into a standing position took almost all the energy she had. The room swam as she made for the door, shrugging Korra’s hand from her shoulder as she leaned heavily on the doorframe for support.

She didn’t know how she made it back to the acupuncturist, with her legs shuddering beneath her and her vision swimming. Su’s voice rang through her head, fogging her thoughts. She was pale and sweating by the time she all but fell through Guo’s door, clutching at the partition screen to keep herself standing.

Then there was a shoulder beneath her arm, and Guo was saying something—his tone reproving—as he guided her back to the table. Lin didn’t want to, she couldn’t bear to remember any more, but she was so tired, her limbs too heavy to protest as the needles descended once again, and she slipped back into the past.

Su was just as Lin remembered her: such a small figure in the chaos of the street, yet Lin could focus on nothing else. Her hair barely seemed out of place, despite the intensity of the crash—fuck, the crash, she could have been killed, Lin could have killed her—and her posture was insouciant as ever.

“So you’re robbing stores with the Terras now?”

“I didn’t steal anything, I was only their driver,” Su shrugged, as if she didn’t know full well that it made her an accessory. “I owed my friends a favour. Whatever.”

“No, Su. Not ‘whatever’. You aided and abetted a robbery.”

“What are you going to do, Officer? Arrest me?” She turned her back on Lin, strolling nonchalantly away from the carnage she’d caused, and Lin felt anger seize her every muscle.

“Don’t even think about taking one more step,” she called out. She should have known Su wouldn’t listen—because she never did—but watching her walk away was more than Lin could bear this time. Heart pounding, stomach turning, desperate, she threw out a cable to wrap around her sister’s wrist, as if she could reel her back in, as if with one tug Lin could strip away the costume Su was wearing, and beneath would be the little girl who would come running to Lin when she was hurt or frightened, who would giggle when Lin played tricks with her earthbending, who only slept through the night when she knew Lin was close.

But Lin didn’t get the chance to try. The cable had barely finished snaking its way round Suyin’s wrist when there was a flash of silver, the scream of rending metal, and a white hot burst of pain.

That had to be it. Surely that had to be it; it had to be over now. But the memory was shifting again, the walls of her mother’s office springing up around them.

“What were you thinking?” Toph slammed a hand down on her desk, and Lin tried not to flinch. “You two have put me in an impossible position.”

Her cheek was throbbing, and she tried not to flinch every time a shock of pain lanced through her. The on-site healers had done the best they could, but they said she would need a Master healer if she didn’t want the thing to scar, and Lin was not in the mood for Katara’s soft hands and gentle prying.

“I’m sorry, how is this my fault? I was doing my job,” she snapped, bristling as she felt Su roll her eyes in the chair beside her.

“Right, because your job matters more than anything else.” The bitterness in Su’s voice took Lin aback, but before she could respond, Toph was holding up a hand for silence.

“Enough. We need to get Su out of the city as soon as possible,” she said, and Lin’s stomach dropped.

“What? Where am I supposed to go?” Su was protesting, and Lin gripped the arms of her chair, her knuckles turning white.

“You’ll go stay with your grandparents,” Toph said, as if Gaoling wasn’t hundreds of miles away, as if their grandparents would have any idea how to look after Su. “Lin, give me the arrest report.”

Lin handed it over, her obedience so deep-rooted that she didn’t think to question the order, didn’t imagine what her mother would do with the papers until the sound of ripping filled her ears. She stared at the torn report.

“You can’t—” she began, unable to process the sight before her, unwilling to believe this conversation was really happening. “Mom, you can’t cover this up! There were witnesses.”

“I’m the Chief of Police, Lin. I can’t have a daughter in jail.”

Lin wanted to protest, she wanted to say that aiding and abetting as a minor was only a small charge, that if Su pleaded ignorance—said she didn’t know what the favour had been, claimed she had no idea who her friends were associating with—she’d probably get away with community service. As much as Lin hated it, she knew that a girl like Su would find it all too easy to side-step any real consequences. She wanted to beg her mother to find another solution—any solution—but the words stuck in her throat, and the ones that came out instead were:

“So, once again, Suyin gets to do whatever she wants and there are no consequences.”

If Lin didn’t know better, she’d think her mother’s voice shook as she said,

“This is our only option.”

Lin felt sick. Her grip on the arms of her chair tightened, her heart was pounding, her jaw was tight and her cheek screamed. There had to be another way. If Su would just own up, if she would just admit—

Lin’s breath caught as she opened her eyes, disoriented by the sudden reappearance of reality.

“You’re going to feel a bit fragile,” Guo was saying as he bent the needles from her body, “so I’d recommend taking it easy for a little while.”

Lin snorted as she pulled herself into a sitting position; she hadn’t taken it easy for over thirty years, and she wasn’t about to start now. This whole thing had been a mistake. Lin had never wanted to come here, she hadn't wanted to see her sister, or the family Suyin had created; she certainly hadn’t wanted to revisit the reasons why she’d stayed away so long, why she’d burned—unopened—every letter Su had ever sent.

Lin’s head spun as she got to her feet, swaying for a moment before she steadied herself. She felt better than she had when she arrived—her vision was clear, and her thoughts less jumbled—but she could still feel the weakness in her limbs. It didn’t matter, though; she’d faced worse odds in worse shape, and a dark, old anger was spreading through her body with every beat of her heart. If the spirits or the universe or just horrible fucking luck had decided to place her here, now, then they had to know there was only going to be one outcome.

Her steps were certain, even if they trembled, as she made her way to the terrace where Suyin was holding court. Korra and Bolin looked alarmed as she approached, garbling a half-baked excuse before they all but fled from the terrace, but Su only regarded her as if she were a particularly challenging child. Lin’s hand clenched into fists.

“Su, we need to talk.”

“So talk, Lin. It’s been thirty years, I’m sure you’ve got plenty to say.” Su’s tone was even, her gaze imperious, and Lin felt a fresh thrill of anger go through her. How could Su stand there so calmly, after everything she’d done, and make it seem as though Lin was the one to blame for it all.

“You still haven’t changed,” Lin spat. Her legs were shaking, and she could feel beads of sweat rolling down her forehead and her back, but her voice would betray none of that weakness. “You wouldn’t take responsibility for your actions then, and you won’t take it now. You’re still going to stand here like you’ve got the moral high ground, as if Mom didn’t throw her whole career away for you.”

“Mom didn’t throw her career away, she retired the next year. She was a hero,” Su shrugged, as if she didn’t know exactly how her actions had impacted Toph’s decision. “I’ll admit that I wasn’t a perfect kid, and I know I’ve made some mistakes, but—”

“You’ve made some mistakes?” Lin let out a harsh, mirthless laugh.

“Lin, Mom and I talked about this years ago, and we worked things out. If you’d just—”

“Oh, well if Mom’s forgiven you then everything’s just dandy.”

Su frowned, as if confused. It was so horribly like her, to pretend she didn’t know exactly what was going on, to force Lin to spell everything out for her so she could act like it was brand new information.

“Is this not a conversation about the ways you think I wronged Mom?” she asked, and the ground beneath Lin cracked—a great crevice splitting the ground between her feet.

“She wasn’t the one who raised you!” The words ripped themselves from her without Lin’s permission, coming out harsh and growling. “She wasn’t the one who made your lunchboxes and reminded you to brush your teeth; she wasn’t the one who spent hours waiting up for you to get home, worrying if you were dead in some alleyway somewhere; she wasn’t the one who had to see you step out of that wreckage; she wasn’t the one whose face you tore up because you didn’t want to take responsibility, to face consequences for your actions.”

She wasn’t the one, Lin didn’t say, who ended up so fucking scared that she would rather have her own kid raised by strangers than go through that again.

Su’s eyes were wide, her expression unreadable, and briefly—stupidly—Lin thought that she might have gotten through to her sister. Then Su’s mouth twitched up, her eyes darkening as she said,

“You want to talk about responsibility, Lin? I might not have faced the kind of consequences you wanted, but at least I faced them myself.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Lin snapped. “Don’t pretend you know anything about what my life has been like for the last thirty years.”

“It means I know far too much about what your life’s been like, Lin.” Su said, her mask of superiority slipping as her voice began to shake. “You chose to carry on being bitter and alone, even when you had the chance to care about someone other than yourself. What it means, Lin, is that at least I didn’t go running to Kya when I fucked up. When I got knocked up.”

The ground disappeared beneath Lin’s feet—Suyin didn’t know this, she couldn’t know it, Kya wouldn’t betray her like that, not unless—

The gasp was soft and quiet, and Lin shouldn’t have heard it, but her head snapped around to see Opal standing on the veranda above them, hands over her mouth. Her green eyes—the same shade as Lin’s, the same shape as Katara’s—were wide and shocked, and she was seventeen, and an airbender, and this couldn’t be happening. Lin’s heart was pounding and her stomach was turning and she tore her gaze away from Opal to find Suyin, who looked—for the first time in her life—as if she wanted the ground to swallow her.

And if that was what she wanted, then Lin was more than happy to oblige her.

Chapter Text

“What it means, Lin, is that at least I didn’t go running to Kya when I fucked up. When I got knocked up.”

The words pulled the air from Opal’s lungs, and suddenly she was staring into eyes the same shade as her own. Her aunt looked stricken, surprised, as if she was seeing Opal for the first time. Opal felt as though she was falling; it couldn’t be true, but why else would her mom have said that? Why else would Lin be staring at Opal now as though Opal was a ghost. There were no words, nothing she could do; Opal simply stood, mute and frozen on the veranda staring down at her mother and her aunt. Her aunt and her mother.

Then Lin tore a great hunk of rock from the ground, hurled it towards Suyin, and Opal screamed.

The rock turned to rubble and dust before it even got close to Suyin, who retaliated immediately, ripping a metal sheet from the floor to send hurtling in Lin’s direction. Lin deflected the metal at the last minute, but Opal flinched as the edge of it hit Lin’s shoulder. Lin didn’t let it stop her flinging another boulder at her sister, and Opal should be doing something—she ought to get between them, to do something to stop this, but her feet felt as though they’d sunk right into the stone beneath her. She didn’t know if she was breathing as her family came running down from the house; Korra, Asami, Mako and Bolin were crashing into the courtyard, but no-one was doing anything as dust filled the air. Metal screamed and rock thundered as the sisters fought, and everyone was just standing there letting it happen.

There was a crash and a pained exhalation from Lin as a boulder hit her directly in the stomach, and Opal flinched. Lin’s face was pale and drawn, her skin shining with sweat, and no-one else seemed to notice. Opal’s mom certainly didn’t seem to notice as she picked up a new projectile, and Lin grunted as she did the same. This had to stop. Opal had to stop it.

She was in the air before she’d even thought about what to do, letting huge jets of air burst from her palms, blasting both rocks back as she landed between Lin and Suyin.

“What are you doing?” she cried, looking from one sister to the other and back again. “Whatever—whatever all this is about, it can’t be worth it. You’re sisters.

Her mom almost looked cowed, though there was still anger in the lines of her body. The fight seemed to go completely out of Lin, though, who barely managed to raise an arm—almost as if she would reach forward towards Opal—before her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell to her knees. Opal felt her stomach turn over again as Lin kept falling, and Korra swept in to catch her in strong arms. Lin’s face was paler even than Opal had realised, and she could see the weak fluttering of her pulse at Lin’s neck.

Opal jumped when her mother spoke, voice breathless and trembling.

“I’ll send for a doctor.”


It had been almost sixteen hours (sixteen long, sleepless hours) since, and Opal paced in front of Lin’s room, curling and uncurling her fingers in the scrap of fabric in her hands. The healers said Lin had been stable when they moved her back to her room, needing only rest and sleep, but an anxious feeling gnawed at Opal’s insides thinking about how pale she had been when she fell, how drawn and worried her face looked even in sleep.

“She’s a very complicated woman,” Opal’s mother had said to her in the aftermath, when Opal had strode into her parents’ bedroom and demanded to know the truth she already felt in her bones. Part of her had still wanted to hear their denial, even if she wouldn’t have believed it.

“I can only guess at her motivations for doing… what she did,” she’d continued; guilt was an unfamiliar expression on her mother’s face, but Opal thought perhaps there was a flicker of it now. “Whatever they were, I think—I think that she really believed you’d be better off with another family. You have a right to be angry with her—I’m still angry with her, even though her actions gave me something so precious.” She’d cupped Opal’s face, then, and Opal had nuzzled her cheek into her mother’s touch, inhaling the familiar, comforting smell of her.

Opal tried to swallow down her nerves as she hovered outside Lin’s door. Part of her wondered what the point even was in all of this: she already had a mother, a wonderful one. She didn’t need the approval of a woman who attacked her own sister, who hadn’t wanted Opal when she was a child, and clearly wanted nothing to do with her now.

She’d almost made up her mind to leave, to shove the little dress back into the box beneath her bed and pretend she was still ignorant, when the door opened.

Lin looked better than the last time Opal had seen her, though that wasn’t exactly hard. There was some colour back in her cheeks, and the deep bags beneath her eyes were no longer as pronounced. Her shoulders were still tight, though, and she seemed to bend beneath them. She started when she saw Opal, and for the first time, Opal saw something like fear flicker through her green eyes.

“Opal,” she said, “did you—uh—did you want to...?” Lin opened the door a little wider, gesturing into the room. Opal nodded; it felt strange to pass so close to her as Lin held the door open, to feel the heat from her body and smell the slightly stale morning scent of her; she was real, this woman. Opal had rarely allowed herself to wonder about her biological parents—she’d barely allowed herself to admit they probably weren’t Suyin and Bataar—and when she had, her wonderings had been nebulous things about how she’d come to be an airbender and why they’d felt the need to hide her in Zaofu. She’d never wondered about the colour of the woman’s eyes or the shape of the man’s nose; when she thought of her parents, their faces were solid and familiar in her mind.

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding—” she started, as Lin closed the door behind her.

“Opal, please—” Lin tried to interrupt, but Opal had come here with a purpose, and she wasn’t going to be thrown off course.

“No.” Opal said, with more force than she anticipated. Lin looked taken aback, but gestured for her to continue. “I’ve spoken to my parents and they told me the truth. They told me that I—that you’re—”

“Yes,” Lin said, as if it was as hard for her as it was for Opal to actually say the word.

“I know you don’t want to talk to me,” Opal continued, determined to say what she wanted to say before Lin eventually threw her out again, “or have anything to do with me, but—”

“That’s not true, Opal,” Lin interrupted, and Opal had to bite back a harsh laugh.

“Isn’t it?”

“No, I—I’m so sorry for how I spoke to you before.” If Opal didn’t know better, she would say Lin looked almost bashful. “You hadn’t done anything wrong and I just—I took my frustration with being here out on you.”

Opal didn’t want to feel sorry for her; she wanted to stand tall and unwavering and be as detached as Lin herself was. Only Lin suddenly didn’t seem detached at all. The nervous darting of her eyes around the room, always coming back to rest on Opal as if she couldn’t quite believe she was there, and the way she fidgeted with the loose fabric of her pants (the same way Opal fidgeted with the little dress in her hands) was painting a far different portrait than the one Opal had expected. She wavered.

“It’s all right, I understand. It must be hard, especially with me, and—”

“Please don’t think that, Opal. It wasn’t that you were—” Lin paused, as if the words escaped her, then he huffed out a wry laugh. “Did Su tell you that I uh—I asked Kya not to tell me where she’d taken you?” Opal shook her head mutely, and felt vaguely sick. She’d known that Lin hadn’t wanted her—that much was clear—but this extra detail felt like a punch to the gut. “Well, yeah, I did. So when I showed up here and you were the age you were, and you were an airbender, fuck, it was—it was hard to be around you, because I didn’t even let myself—”

“You didn’t want to be around me because I reminded you too much of… me?” Opal ventured. She didn’t know why she’d asked, when she didn’t want to know the answer.

“Yeah, I guess,” Lin said, and Opal felt the breath catch in her chest.

“I’m sorry, this was a bad idea,” she choked out, turning to go. “You don’t want to see me—”

She stopped in her tracks when a cool hand closed tightly around her wrist.

“Opal, no!” Lin said, desperation colouring her voice. “Shit—I’m not—I’m not doing this right.” Her gaze dropped to where she grasped Opal’s wrist, and she frowned. Her hand shook, and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair of her to talk about all the ways she’d hated even looking at Opal, only to look like this when Opal threatened to leave.

“What do you want, Lin?”

Lin looked up at her, eyes clouded as though she’d been in an entirely different world. She dropped Opal’s arm suddenly, retreating a few paces and shoving her hands into her pockets.

“I—uh—I was—do you have any questions? For me?” Lin asked, and Opal could have laughed. She had so many questions she barely knew where to start, and she was certain that half of them had answers she wasn’t yet ready to hear. It hadn’t escaped her knowledge that Lin hadn’t answered her question, either, but Opal was too tired to push it.

“Did you make this?” she thrust the little dress forward, creased and crumpled from her anxious wringing of it, and Lin’s face softened, her bottom lip trembling ever so slightly. She nodded, reaching out to take the garment from Opal’s hands, running her fingers lightly along the stitching, as if the garment were a relic from a long-forgotten culture.

“It was too big for you when I made it,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I didn’t have much experience with babies and I—I never imagined how small you’d be.” She held the dress up, as if imagining Opal wearing it, and she smiled tentatively. “I never really imagined how big you’d get, either.”

“I had another question,” Opal blurted. Lin only looked at her, slightly shocked, before nodding. “Will I be able to go to the Northern Air Temple? I’m not—I’m not asking your permission, or anything, I just want to know what will happen if I do.”

Lin sighed.

“You don’t need my permission for anything, Opal; you’re clearly a smart kid, you can do whatever you think is best,” she said, though her voice was heavy. “If it helps, nothing will happen if you go to the Northern Air Temple. Tenz—your fa—Tenzin doesn’t know about you. So as far as he’s concerned, you’re just Su’s kid. Kya will be there, though. She knows who you are, if you need to—to talk to someone. About all this.” She made a vague gesture that was apparently meant to encompass the world-shattering revelations that had been unceremoniously dumped on Opal in the last twenty four hours.

“And if I wanted to talk to Tenzin?” she asked, just to watch Lin squirm. “About all this?” She did want to, there was no denying it, but Opal also couldn’t pretend the thought didn’t terrify her.

“I would—request that you don’t,” Lin said, with a pained look. “I’m not trying to keep you a secret forever—you both deserve better than that—but I’d like to tell him on my own terms, when the time is right. I would be grateful if you allowed me to do that.”

There was a terrible, petty, ugly part of Opal that wanted to deny her—what did she owe this woman, besides years of confusion and fear—but Opal was not the sort of person, she reminded herself, who would hurt herself just to hurt others. She had no idea what she would even say to Tenzin, how she would go about telling him that he had another daughter.

“It’ll be soon, though?” she pressed.

“Yes, it’ll be soon. As soon as all this Red Lotus stuff blows over.”

Opal nodded.

“All right.”

“Thank you.” Lin let out a long breath, and some of the tension went out of her shoulders. Opal could see several bruises forming on the pale skin exposed by her tank top. Now would be the perfect moment for Opal to excuse herself, to flee from the room and back into the comforting familiarity of the Beifong inner sanctum, but she didn’t move. The silence stretched long between them.

“So will you?” Lin asked eventually. “Go to the Northern Air Temple?”

“I’m not sure yet. Probably,” Opal admitted. “I’ve been dreaming about training with Master Tenzin since I was little. I never imagined he was—who he is to me, but I wanted so badly to learn from him, to find out what it meant to be an airbender.”

Lin frowned.

“Then what’s making you hesitate?” She leaned back against the table, crossing her arms over her chest in a gesture that—for the first time since Opal had entered the room—looked easy and confident. She had an air of authority like this, but a calming one—as though, if you only told her your problems, she’d find a way to fix them. This must be the Lin of whom Mako spoke so highly.

“I don’t want Mom to think that I’m—that I’m choosing you and Tenzin over her and Dad.” Opal said, surprising herself. “I know she struggled with the idea of admitting I was an airbender, even before you arrived. I don’t want to hurt her.”

Lin didn’t reply for a moment, considering Opal’s words. Then she said: “Opal, would you mind if I—can we speak now just as aunt and niece?” Opal thought she should have felt rejected, but instead it was as though the tension bled out of her body, and she nodded. “Well then,” Lin continued, “whatever the history between Su and I, it’s obvious that she loves you very much. She wants what’s best for you, Opal, and if you think that going to the Northern Air Temple to train with Tenzin and to connect with your air nomad roots is what’s best for you, I’m sure she’ll support you.” Opal hadn’t expected to hear any truth in Lin’s words—she’d hardly proven herself to be the most emotionally adept person in the days Opal had known her—but perhaps her aunt was more insightful than she’d first appeared.

“You said just now that you’d dreamed of training with Tenzin for years,” Lin continued, “not because of any relationship you might personally have to him, but because he represents the part of yourself you’ve not been able or allowed to explore. Everything that came out yesterday about—“ she winced “—about your heritage, that isn’t what’s made you want to go. If anything, it’s only making you reticent. Tell Su all that, because you might think it’s obvious, but she isn’t a mind reader, and she’s going through a lot right now as well.”

Opal couldn’t argue with that. Despite the anxiety that seemed to vibrate in the marrow of her bones at the thought of meeting Tenzin, of keeping herself a secret, Opal had been dreaming of an opportunity like this for longer than she could remember. Lin was right: her mother would understand, she just had to be honest.

“Thanks,” she said, offering Lin a small smile.

“No problem, kid,” Lin replied with a shrug.

Before tension could thicken in the air again, Opal blurted,

“I guess I should—” she gestured towards the door, taking a few steps towards it “—go talk to her, then.”

“Oh, uh—yes, of course,” Lin said, and Opal felt an unexpected pang as something that might have been disappointment flickered through Lin’s eyes. There wasn’t time for Opal to examine that before Lin was standing up and striding towards the door, opening it wide. “Thank you for, uh—for visiting me. Maybe I’ll see you again before you go?”

“Maybe,” Opal agreed, slipping past Lin to step back out into the sunshine. Lin offered her a tentative smile before she closed the door, and Opal let out a long breath.

It was only as she walked the well-worn paths back towards the main house that Opal realised she had left her baby dress behind. For half a second, she hesitated, not knowing whether to turn back and retrieve it, but then she remembered the tender—almost reverent—way that Lin had held the little garment, and she shook her head. Lin could keep it.

Chapter Text

The statue of her mother cast a long shadow across the terrace. It was the fifth such statue Lin had seen in the city so far, and she was forced to conclude that Toph had put up a new one herself every time she visited the city, and Su had simply decided it was best to let her. Su may be on better terms with their mother than Lin was, but she didn’t think their relationship was five statues good. Then again, Lin hadn’t been in either of their lives for almost two decades, what did she know about Su and Toph’s relationship?

Lin’s mother had many baffling qualities, but the strangest to Lin had always been her ability to affect detachment. There had been times—long years of her childhood, in fact—where Lin had truly believed in Toph’s indifference, but the older she became, the more she had become convinced that much of it was a mask. What she had never managed to fathom, though, was where the mask ended and her mother began; Toph’s disregard for most forms of authority, for example, was unquestionably genuine, but Lin had never been able to discern the truth when it came to the question of hers and Su’s fathers, or what her mother’s real feelings had been about Lin’s career in the RCPD. She’d tried—of course she had—over the years; she’d spent long evenings in her twenties with Tenzin rubbing soothing balm into her muscles, scolding her all the time about overworking herself. He’d understood so much about her, about the pressure she was under as the child of a war hero, but he’d never quite understood the particular relationship between Lin and Toph. He’d been the apple of his father’s eye, the favoured child, while Lin had worked herself to the bone, pushing herself past the limits of endurance just on the off chance that she might crack that mask of indifference, that her mother might look at her with pride.

Gravel crunched behind her, though Lin had felt her sister’s approach before she heard it.

“So, Opal’s going to the Northern Air Temple,” Su said conversationally, as though the last time she and Lin had seen each other, they hadn’t been throwing boulders at each others’ heads.

“And how do you feel about that?” Lin asked, carefully neutral. As gut-wrenching as it had been to tell Opal she ought to leave just when Lin wanted to spend hours cataloguing every expression on her face and all the ways she laughed, Lin knew that the Northern Air Temple was where Opal belonged. It would be good to give them all some space, Lin told herself, and Opal could spend some time getting in touch with the part of her culture that she’d never—thanks to Lin—been allowed to acknowledge.

“We had a good talk about it,” Su said, coming to stand next to Lin in their mother’s shadow. “I hear you’ve been giving advice.” Her tone was still light and conversational, but Lin could hear the edge in it—it wasn’t quite anger, or irritation, but something defensive and just a little barbed. Lin couldn’t exactly say she blamed her.

“Perhaps,” Lin acknowledged, “but the decision was entirely hers. She’s growing into a wonderful young woman.”

“She was a wonderful child, too,” Su said, a slight smile blooming at the edges of her mouth. “I don’t know how you ever gave her up.”

Lin’s fist clenched at her side, and she fought not to snap something hurtful back. Su wasn’t trying to needle her, Lin reminded herself, she was just being Su. Even if she had changed, there were still some things that had remained very much the same in Lin’s sister. For one thing, she’d always been much better at mimicking their mother’s carelessness; she breezed through life as though nothing touched her; she could talk about Lin giving up her child as though Opal had been a particularly affectionate polar bear puppy.

“I don’t know if you remember,” Lin said, choosing her words carefully, “but I’d already raised a child, and that didn’t turn out so well.” Su turned to her then, eyes wide and brow furrowed, but Lin could not return her gaze as she said, “I couldn’t stand the thought of her hating me the way you did.”

There was silence for a long moment, and if she weren’t so in tune with the earth beneath her feet, if she couldn’t physically feel her sister’s presence still at her side, Lin would have thought she’d snuck away. When she finally looked up, Su’s eyes were full of tears.

“I never hated you, Lin,” she said, her voice low and wavering. “I think I gave Opal all the love I didn’t know how to give to you.”

Su’s fingers landed tentatively in the crease of Lin’s thumb, slipping across her palm to gently squeeze Lin’s hand. Lin looked down at their joined hands, and squeezed back.

“You gave her all the love I didn’t know how to give to her, too,” she said. “I haven’t thanked you for that.”

“And I haven’t apologised for being the reason you were too afraid to keep her.”

Lin had thought the same for so many years. She’d thought it while she was pregnant, pacing a trench in Nuwa’s floor; she’d thought it when her abdomen cramped and her breasts ached with milk; she’d thought it every time she saw Pema cradling Rohan against her chest; she’d thought it with every rock she hurled at Suyin, her anger sharp and white and burning. If she was honest, she’d thought it until seconds previously, but as soon as the words left Su’s lips, they sounded ugly and misplaced.

“Su—don’t, please,” she choked, gripping Su’s fingers ever tighter in her own. “I think that I—it was just easier to blame you than it was to blame Mom. Or myself.”

Su smiled wryly as she looked up at the statue.

“It’s funny, I think I blamed you for a lot of her failings, too. Will you at least let me apologise for these?” Su reached up to trace the lines of Lin’s scars with her thumb. The feeling almost made Lin flinch, but she didn’t dare move, not wanting Su to think her touch was unwelcome. “I never meant to hurt you. I know I was just a kid, but so were you. I’m sorry I never appreciated how much you cared.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry for turning up here and...” Lin floundered to find the words, but Su only smiled.

“Don’t be. We couldn’t go on lying to Opal forever. Besides, it’s not like you knew.”

Lin frowned.

“No, I suppose not.” There was part of her that wondered whether she had known, on some level—whether the devastation she’d felt from the moment she set eyes on Opal had been her body trying to tell her exactly who Opal really was. It sounded like something Katara would say, and something that Lin would scoff at—she still wasn’t convinced she believed it.

“Dare I ask how you’re holding up?” Su said, and Lin tensed.

“I don’t know,” she answered. It was the truth, but Su rolled her eyes,

“Really, Lin?”

“Really. I—I don’t have time for this.”

It was the wrong thing to say, and Su’s expression darkened.

“Lin—” Su began, but Lin cut her off.

“Fuck, no that’s not what I meant. If Opal—if she wants me around then I’ll be around. I’m not Mom.” Lin cast around for the right words; she’d never been good at talking about her feelings, and despite their apparent truce, Su was still not Lin’s first choice of confidante. “I just mean that I’ve had a lot to deal with the last couple of years and I—I can’t pretend that she hasn’t been on my mind. But reconnecting with Tenzin, and losing my bending, and then the whole Unalaq fiasco and Harmonic Convergence and now the Red Lotus, it’s—if I start to think about how I really feel about this, about Opal, I don’t know how I’m going to carry on.” Even voicing the thought made nerves fizz beneath her skin. “I need to carry on, Su.”

Su only looked hard at her for a long moment, before her posture relaxed again.

“You can’t keep putting other people before her, Lin,” she said, as if Lin wasn’t painfully aware.

“I know that,” she snapped. It irritated her immensely that when she owed someone something immeasurable, they did not simply stop being infuriating; Korra hadn’t stopped being reckless and impertinent after she gave Lin back her bending, and Su clearly hadn’t stopped being short-sighted and superior. For once, though, Lin understood her impulse, and she took a breath before she replied, “Opal deserves better from me, and she’ll get it, I promise. As soon as this whole Red Lotus fiasco is done with, I’ll give her whatever she wants.”

“And if she wants to know why you gave her up?” Su asked, and Lin shrugged.

“Then she gets the truth. Whether she wants to know me after that is up to her.” She hoped she was at least fooling Su with her attempt at nonchalance, because she certainly wasn’t fooling herself. She had to stop herself reaching into her trouser pocket, where Opal’s little dress was still rolled up, worn and soft.

“And what if she doesn’t?” Su asked. She was trying to get a rise out of Lin, but she wasn’t going to get one.

“Then I’ll respect that,” Lin said; she’d lived for seventeen years without Opal, after all. If she had to spend the rest of her life at a distance, at least she would know Opal was safe.

“I just don’t want her getting hurt,” Su said carefully, picking her way around saying that she didn’t really trust Lin with Opal’s feelings. Tact was a skill Su must have worked on in the years since she’d left Republic City, and Lin appreciated the effort, but she couldn’t help wishing Su would just come out and say it.

“She’ll be fine, Su,” Lin told her bluntly. “I’m nothing to her.”

“You’re her—“

“Don’t say I’m her mother, Su,” Lin snapped before Su could finish. “I squeezed her out but you raised her, you’re the one she cares about. I think we both know that it takes more than blood to make a family.”

“Lin, I—“

“It’s fine. I knew what I was signing up for when I made that decision, and now I have to live with it. What matters is that she’s happy.”

“You’re right,” Su sighed. “As long as she’s happy, we should be too.”

Lin raised an eyebrow.

“Would you mind putting that in writing so I can keep it for posterity?”

“Shut up,” Su said, elbowing Lin playfully in the ribs. Lin shoved her back lightly, and found that her heart swelled as she watched a smile break over Su’s face. She looked back up at the statue of their mother, blindly presiding over the scene in the same way she always had. Lin wondered how much—if anything—Toph knew. She turned to ask Su, but when she did, her sister’s eyes were clouded.

“I think all this—I think I’d told myself she’d be happier never knowing about you and Tenzin,” Su said; she wrung her hands as she did so, picking at the skin around her fingernails the way she used to as a child. “It was silly—I was just—I know that she has so many more questions than I ever had about my father, and she’ll get much more satisfying answers.”

There was something loaded in Su’s voice, and Lin turned to her sister.

“Su do you—do you know who your father is?” Lin asked, and Su gave a half hearted huff of laughter.

“I’m surprised you haven’t worked it out yourself yet,” she said. “Don’t you think it’s odd how much Opal and I look alike?”

“You’re still her blood family, Su,” Lin began, before realisation began to prick uncomfortably in the back of her mind. Lin and Su shared very little as far as looks were concerned—Lin herself took a little after their mother, but there was almost nothing of Toph in Su’s face, whose darker skin and sharp chin must have come from the Water Tribes. From her father.

Apparently, Lin’s detective skills still needed work. It was so obvious, now that she thought about it, but the possibility had completely passed her by. She knew that Sokka had been around more after Su was born, but Lin had always just assumed he was lonely. Aunt Suki had died so young, and Sokka didn’t have kids of his own. Or so she’d thought.

“Did you ever get the chance to talk to him?” Lin asked tentatively, fearing she already knew the answer. Su only shrugged, and for a second she looked seven and sad again, making do with Lin putting her to bed instead of their mom.

“It was only once he’d gone that I found out. Mom still won’t—she doesn’t like to talk about him.” Su said, matter of fact, and Lin felt her eyes prick with tears. There was something in the deliberate quality of Su’s words, the tightness of her voice that reminded Lin suddenly and disconcertingly of herself. “He left me a letter, though. Katara found it in his things after… apparently Mom had told him I wasn’t his, and he had no way to prove it but he—he just knew, I guess.”

Mom had told him I wasn’t his. The thought made her vaguely sick. Even when she actively tried not to make the same mistakes as her mother, Lin found herself falling into them anyway.

“Have you written back to her? Katara?” Lin asked, “I’m sure she’d—“

“No, no.” Su waved her off. “You were always Katara’s favourite.”

Lin winced.

“Not for much longer.”

“Hey, you never know,” Su joked. “Mom’s always crowing about how she’s got the most grandkids. Opal evens the field.”

Lin laughed, if only because she didn’t want to keep thinking about the reality of telling Katara, or Tenzin, or any of the people she’d lied to. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t thought about it before—when she’d begun to rebuild a tentative friendship with Tenzin, when she’d lost her bending—but those had been nebulous, transitive ideas. When she imagined confessing, it was to the idea of there being a child out there, somewhere, who may or may not be an airbender. This was different: she had a name now, Lin’s daughter, and a family of her own, an entirely separate identity. There was a ticking clock where there never had been before, and too many people were now a liability. Lin didn’t know what Su’s other children had been told, but they all knew about Opal’s airbending, and it wasn’t unlikely that one or two of them had pieced things together. Her own kids were at least a safer bet: neither Korra nor Bolin would think on any of it hard enough to come to any conclusions (or indeed, know there were any conclusions to come to). Mako and Asami admittedly had a few more brain cells between them, but Asami knew what wasn’t her business, and Mako—Lin liked to think she had Mako’s loyalty. Still, there remained a hundred unknown quantities, and Lin had begun to feel like a criminal—about to be caught out at any moment, before she could confess and lessen her sentence.

Su reached down to squeeze Lin’s hand again, pulling her from the spiral of her thoughts.

“It’s almost time for dinner,” Su said. “Come in whenever you’re ready.”

Lin nodded, missing the warmth of Su’s hand as she slipped away back towards the main house. The chill of the evening had begun to sink beneath Lin’s skin, the last of the sun’s warm rays hidden behind that looming statue. Lin looked up at her mother’s face, etched in stone, and thought how fitting it was.

Chapter Text

Kya recognised her the second she stepped off the airship. Opal looked disarmingly like her grandmother had at that age, but her eyes were the same colour as Lin’s, and the way they widened as Tenzin approached told Kya that Opal knew exactly who he was to her. Had she always known, or had Lin’s recent visit to Zaofu brought the truth uncomfortably into the light? Either way, the almost frantic movement of Opal’s fingers as she fidgeted with her robe—the same way Lin did when she was nervous—belied the excited smile on her face.

Kya’s own hand twisted in her skirts as she fought to stay put; it would be a mistake, she reminded herself, to sprint across the courtyard and wrap her arms around her niece—Opal should be nothing more to her than the child of an old friend.

(When Tenzin had mentioned—so off hand—that Suyin’s only daughter had been gifted with airbending, that she would be joining them in a matter of days, Kya had spilled a full glass of lychee juice over the breakfast table. She’d almost picked up a cloth to begin clearing it up before she remembered she was a waterbender, and gathered it back into the glass with a distracted flick of her wrist. Tenzin hadn’t noticed her clumsiness, too absorbed with planning the day’s training exercises to imagine anything might be wrong, but she hadn’t missed Bumi’s concerned frown as she gathered up her plate—still half full—and all but fled to the kitchen.)

It wouldn’t be suspicious for Kya to introduce herself to Opal, surely. But before she could unstick herself from where she’d firmly planted her feet, Jinora had picked up Opal’s bag, and was pointing towards the women’s dormitory. Opal looked vaguely shell shocked as she followed; though she was nodding along to what Jinora was saying, Kya would have bet her map collection that she wasn’t taking a word of it in. Instinctively, her mind had always focused on how Opal might feel about having another set of parents, and Kya hadn’t even considered how strange it must be for Opal to meet an entirely new set of siblings she’d never known she had.

“Kya?” Pema’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and Kya turned reluctantly. “Meelo’s come out in that rash again, and he’s already scratched it to bleeding. Would you come and take a look for me?”

“Of course,” Kya said, following Pema into the cool of the temple corridors. She glanced over her shoulder once more, but Opal and Jinora had gone.

In the end, it had taken a matter of moments to heal Meelo’s red and bleeding skin, but another hour to figure out exactly what had brought it on. Meelo had been adamant that he’d done nothing out of the ordinary, so it took all Kya’s patience and some gently applied interrogation before Meelo admitted that “eating some of those yellow berries that grow on the side of the mountain” might just be the culprit.

By the time Kya had given Meelo a stern talking to about not eating strange berries (she doubted it would stick) it was time for lunch, and Pema swept her up in preparing the increasingly huge plates of rice, vegetables, and tofu for the hungry airbenders. Usually, Kya had no complaints about helping Pema out; the increase in people to feed and care for seemed to fill Pema with purpose, and the busy atmosphere of the kitchen—with occasional airbenders popping in to share recipes from their hometowns—was oddly calming most days. Today, however, Kya was on edge, anxious to get away, and she almost sliced off the end of her thumb when Pema appeared beside her. She was asking Kya something, but her voice sounded fuzzy, like a radio with a bad signal.

“I’m sorry, Pema, what was that?” Kya said, blinking hard as she put down the knife. “I was miles away.”

“I was just saying I must remember to ask Opal when her birthday is,” Pema said, and Kya smiled. It had been a personal mission of Pema’s since the outset to remember the birthdays of all the new airbenders, just in case one fell while they were training, and Kya didn’t think before she answered:

“It’s in the autumn. About a week after the Moon Festival.”

“Oh,” said Pema, clearly surprised. “Thank you, Kya.”

Kya breath caught. Her heart stopped. Her head swam.

“I remember because it’s close to the birthday of an ex of mine,” she said quickly. It was the first thing that had come into her head, and as soon as she said it, she wished she hadn’t. Yet apparently, she was still talking. “I had such a hangover from the celebrations the night before, and when I opened the paper there was Opal’s birth announcement.” She was over-explaining, and she knew it. Opal was the daughter of a family friend; it was hardly out of the question for Kya to remember her birthday. It was stupid and thoughtless and Kya ought never to have spoken in the first place.

But Pema seemed not to notice any of it, not Kya’s half-hearted lies or the way her hands twitched on the chopping board. She only smiled and said,

“That puts her just after Hyun-ok, perhaps they can have a joint party.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Kya agreed, and Pema nodded, apparently satisfied, before she slid the sliced radishes off the chopping board in front of Kya and into the salad bowl.

It was time to go into the dining hall, but Kya could only stare at the empty counter before her. She’d never outright lied like that before, not about Opal. She’d danced around the truth plenty of times, felt the uncomfortable itch of it beneath her skin, but she’d always made sure to keep things vague, to lie only by omission. Then suddenly that had all deserted her, and she’d fabricated an ex-girlfriend with an autumn birthday, and a newspaper announcement she was pretty certain had never existed. Her stomach churned.

“Are you alright, Master Kya?” An airbender whose name was currently escaping Kya had appeared at her elbow, and Kya waved her away.

“Yes, yes, thank you. Would you tell Pema I won’t be in for lunch today? I’ve eaten far too many moon peaches this morning.” The lies just kept coming. “I’m going to start setting up for afternoon meditation.”

The airbender frowned at her, but nodded, and soon Kya was alone in the kitchen, listening to the muffled chaos drift in from the dining hall.

She strode purposefully out to the terrace, determined to tell at least part of a truth, and set up for the afternoon’s meditation. There wasn’t much to set up, truth be told, and when she was done setting out pillows on the ground—because no matter what Tenzin said, sitting on hard rock for hours on end was not conducive to feeling at peace with the universe—and lit some incense, she found that only a few minutes had passed. Kya often found solace in meditation—had spent many hours of her teenage years taunting Tenzin that she was better at it than he—but today she suspected that any attempt to clear her mind would end in more than tears.

Instead, if she could bribe Oogi with the sugar lumps in her pocket, he might take her down to the foot of the mountain; then she could spend a few sweat soaked hours attempting to pull herself back up the jagged rocks using only her bending and the determination to think of nothing but her destination. She turned idly in the direction of the stables. Admittedly, she wasn’t as fit as she’d once been (and not as young either) but it would do her good to get some training in. Zaheer had gotten the better of her on Air Temple Island, and if she crossed paths with the Red Lotus again, she was going to be prepared.

“Shouldn’t you be at lunch?” Her brother’s voice made her jump, and Kya whirled around to see Tenzin leaning over the balustrade, his elbows resting on the stone.

“Shouldn’t you?” Kya replied. If years of handling her siblings had taught her anything, it was never to acknowledge when something had made her jump.

“I was just watching the training,” Tenzin said, nodding down towards the open courtyard where the airbenders would often practice their forms. “Jinora seems to surpass herself with every passing day.”

Kya joined him at the balustrade and followed his gaze to the two figures still down in the training area. One was clearly Jinora, air whipping around her in a way none of the new benders had yet to replicate, and the other—because Kya had clearly offended some spirit or other—was Opal.

“You must be very proud,” Kya said, mouth dry.

Tenzin only gave a soft hum of agreement as Opal moved to copy Jinora’s movements. Her motions weren’t as fluid, and even from far off Kya could see the concentration in her every movement, but she was still miles better than any of the other recruits (with the exception, perhaps, of Kai). The truth seemed so obvious, so glaring to Kya, and yet Tenzin simply looked on, placid and pleased.

“Do you remember that old photograph of Mom?” he asked. “The one from before she and Dad were married?”

The question took her aback slightly, but Kya nodded. She did remember the photograph—yellowed and curling at the edges after fifty years in a cedar box. They’d found it among their parents’ things when they were packing Kya and Katara up for the move South, and her mother had gasped so softly when she picked it up, unable to look away from the girl she’d once been. The camera had been a new invention back when it was taken, she’d said, and the Fire Nation man who’d invented it had sent one to the Fire Lord as a gift. They’d all taken turns sitting as still as they could, posing while Zuko had ducked his head under the heavy sheet the way the inventor had shown him. (They also had several pictures of their father in the same style, but not a single one was in focus, and Katara had laughed with tears in her eyes as she described Zuko’s mounting frustration).

“Yeah, I remember it,” Kya said, leaning on the balustrade next to her brother. “Why?”

“Opal,” Tenzin said, and Kya’s stomach dropped. “Don’t you think there’s a resemblance?”

Of course there was a resemblance: Kya had noticed it almost as soon as she’d seen Opal’s face as she stepped off the airship. It was the same gentle heart shape as their mother’s, and her eyes were rounded in the same way; the colour of those eyes was all Lin’s, though, and Kya could only hope that Tenzin hadn’t noticed that, too.

“I—I uh—I guess—” Kya floundered. She didn’t want to lie, not again, and even tiptoeing around the truth made her feel sick with herself. If he’d already worked it out, if he already knew—

Tenzin laughed, pulling Kya from her spiral, confused.

“I suppose that proves our theory about Toph and Uncle Sokka,” he said, and Kya felt her breath punch out of her. Her heart was still pounding against her ribcage as she smiled weakly back.

“Yeah, yeah I guess it does,” she said. The thing was, he was probably right; Opal looked much more like Su than she really ought to, considering Lin and Su were only half siblings.

“What does that make her to us, then?” Tenzin asked, blissfully unaware of the way Kya’s stomach roiled. “Second cousins? First cousins once removed? I can never remember how all that works.”

“Me neither,” Kya said, in lieu of actually answering. “I’m sorry, I think I’m going to go inside and lie down, I’m incredibly tired all of a sudden.” It wasn’t exactly a lie: Kya was tired. She’d spent her day trying to dance the same old dance of careful half truths and non-answers that she thought was behind her. How long did Lin expect her to keep this up? Did Lin even know? The idea made Kya’s stomach do a fresh somersault: even if Opal knew the truth (and Kya really had nothing but a hunch to say she did), that didn’t mean Lin necessarily knew. Kya had no idea what Su might have chosen to tell Opal about her past, or about what had gone on in Zaofu, and she shuddered to think that Lin and Opal might still be ignorant, leaving Kya to keep dancing this cursed dance alone.

She almost flinched when Tenzin laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“You do look a little pale,” he said, brow furrowed in concern. “Go and get some rest.”

Kya didn’t deserve his sympathy. Though a headache was beginning to bloom at her temples, it was of her own making, and Kya attempted a reassuring smile as she took her leave of him. She felt his eyes on her back as she made her way back towards the dormitories, fresh frustration simmering under her skin.

The dormitories of the Temple were high ceilinged and spacious, with a breeze drifting in through the wide windows. Kya knew that some of the new airbenders found it difficult to sleep in such an open space, especially surrounded by so many other women. Kya didn’t mind the noise of it—the quiet shuffling and breathing of her fellows was far more soothing to Kya than silence—but she had to admit it was difficult to take care of more private matters. Despite that, Kya found that she hadn’t slept so well since the last time she unrolled her mat beneath the open sky.

Now, though, she wanted the real thing; she wanted space and a purpose and a burn in her muscles. Instead, she sat on the hard pallet and massaged her temples lightly. She could waterbend the headache away, or go back to the kitchens and grind the correct herbs, Kya couldn’t help feeling as though this was a headache she thoroughly deserved. She let her head fall forwards into her hands. Digging the heels into her eyes, she watched colours burst and dance against the blackness. Perhaps if she stayed here just long enough, just until afternoon meditation, she could sneak away unnoticed while everyone else was in the western courtyard.

“Kya?” The voice was barely more than a whisper, but it echoed through the cavernous dormitory. Kya looked up, white bursts still blurring her vision, and blinked hard. Opal stood a few beds away, lit by the sun pouring in through the tall windows, like an apparition. She pushed a strand of her short hair behind her ear, apparently nervous. “I—you’re Kya, right?”

“And you’re Opal,” Kya said with a smile she hoped wasn’t obviously forced. “You should be at lunch; I saw you training hard out there.”

Opal shrugged.

“I just wanted to be alone for a little while. Everyone here is lovely but… it’s been a long morning.” There was something apologetic in her smile, a sweetness in her manner that neither her adoptive nor her birth mother possessed, and Kya found herself wondering where Opal had gotten it as she continued, “Jinora said she’d save me something.”

“Jinora’s a sweet girl,” Kya said, and Opal nodded.

“She is,” Opal agreed. She worried the sleeves of her robe, twisting it between her fingers. She looked behind her nervously before she continued, “I always wanted a sister, you know. A real one.”

For half a moment, Kya managed to convince herself that she’d misheard, but then she raised her gaze to meet Opal’s wide green eyes; they shone with nervous expectation, and Kya felt her own eyes prick with tears. She stood slowly.

“Opal…” she started, still afraid that somehow she’d got this all wrong. No matter how many signs there were, no matter that it seemed impossible for Opal not to know, the secret had bound Kya for so long that she struggled to free herself—even a little—from its embrace.

“It’s alright. I know,” Opal said; she seemed to straighten as she spoke, her voice carefully measured, as if she was trying to be braver than she felt. It felt like decades, like half of Kya’s life had been spent in secrecy and lies, but the Opal who stood before her was so young. Despite her attempted bravado—and the Beifongness of it—Kya could see the nervousness in Opal’s posture, in the way her fingers still worried that sleeve of her robe. Just like Lin, Kya thought.

“I know you were the one who brought me to Zaofu,” Opal continued. “You’re my—my aunt.”

“That’s right,” Kya said. Her voice was hoarse, but it echoed through the space between them.

“I’m glad I found you,” Opal said. Her steps echoed as she crossed the room to take Kya’s hands in her own. Up close, it was easy to see the resemblance to their mother that Tenzin had noticed, and the deep green of her eyes was even more pronounced. “I wanted to say thank you.”

“What for?” Kya asked, still searching Opal’s face. Every detail, every expression was familiar somehow, and Kya could have watched her all day, cataloguing the features of people she loved.

“For choosing Zaofu. I couldn’t have asked for a better family.”

“Then you’ve been happy?” Opal nodded, and Kya’s heart felt light, just for a moment. “I’m so glad.”

“I’m going to miss everyone so much while I’m here,” Opal said, “but I’m excited. I’ve been waiting—wow, I don’t know how long—to finally train at the Air Temples.”

Her enthusiasm was clear, and she bounced a little on the balls of her feet as she spoke, as if she was ready to rush headfirst into it all at any moment. She’ll be Tenzin’s star pupil, Kya realised; none of the new airbenders had waited and wanted the way Opal had.

“You must have been lonely,” Kya said, and Opal frowned, thoughtful.

“I suppose I was. I just wanted to know where I’d come from, I guess.” Opal shrugged, but if she was trying to affect nonchalance, they both knew she was failing.

“Well, now you know,” Kya said with a soft smile. Opal’s replying one was fleeting, and she took her hands out of Kya’s to draw something out of her pocket.

“Lin asked me to give this to you,” she said, holding out a neatly folded letter. Kya took it tentatively; it felt dangerous somehow, as if Lin could upend her world all over again with its contents.

“Thank you,” Kya said, forcing a smile to her lips. “How’s she holding up?”

It was clearly the wrong thing to say, because Opal dropped her gaze to the stone flags of the floor.

“Fine, I guess.” She gripped her sleeves again, biting the inside of her cheek. “Well, not fine—I don’t know.”

Kya did. She could imagine it all so clearly, and she ached for both of them; for Lin’s inability to express herself, and Opal’s inability to understand her. She wanted to reach out, to reassure Opal that Lin loved her, that everything she’d done had been because she wanted what was best for Opal, to explain all the ways Lin was afraid. She wanted to help Opal, to comfort her, but she knew that her platitudes would do no good; Opal needed to hear it from Lin. And she would, even if Kya had to beat it out of Lin herself.

“Lin feels a good deal more than she lets on,” Kya said. “I’m sure that when she’s ready—”

“It’s fine,” Opal insisted, an edge to her voice that took Kya by surprise. “She made the right choice, like I said. You both did. I’ve been happy.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Kya said gently, and Opal gave her a long look before the fight went out of her.

“I’d better go,” she said. “Don’t want to be late to afternoon meditation on my first day.”

Kya watched her leave, biting her tongue to keep from calling after her. Perhaps a little space was all Opal needed. Perhaps once she’d settled in, once she’d had a few days away from Zaofu and the immediacy of it all, she would find Kya again, and the two of them could talk. No matter how she felt about the situation at large, no matter the knots still tight and uncomfortable in Kya’s stomach, Opal was still her niece, and Kya had loved her since the moment she was born.

Lin had, too, even if she struggled to show it.

The letter was heavy in Kya’s hand, and Kya brushed her thumb over Lin’s familiar, neat characters before she broke the seal, determined. Distantly, she knew she was angry with Lin: angry with her for asking this of Kya in the first place, for dragging Opal herself into the secret, for a hundred unsent letters and unmade calls over the years, but she still cradled the paper gently as she read. It was a shorter missive than she’d expected, but then she oughtn’t to have expected much more from Lin, anyway. It was short and to the point, and it made Kya’s heart ache.

Dear Kya,

I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you of Opal’s coming—a letter wouldn’t have reached you faster than she did. Trust Su to have her own fleet of airships.

I’m sure it’s clear to you by now that Opal and I are aware of who we are to each other. I’m not sure whether I’m livid with you or if I’m relieved that you went to Su with her, but that hardly matters now. All this happened so fast, I’ve hardly had time to consider how I feel about it. For the time being, I’ve asked Opal not to speak with Tenzin about their relationship. It’s not forever, I promise, but we’ve all got enough going on at the moment without muddying the waters with personal matters.

Opal might need someone to talk to, though. She’s not like me in that regard. She’s hardly like me at all, as far as I can see, which is for the best. She’s never even been outside of Zaofu, let alone journeying so far and with such heavy knowledge to carry; would you look after her for me, one more time? Just until the Red Lotus is under control, and I can sort this mess out.

Regards,

Lin

Chapter Text

It was easier than Opal had expected to fall into the rhythm of life at the Northern Air Temple. If she packed away her secrets into a neat little box at the beginning of every day, Opal found that she could adjust to her new life quite happily. It suited her, Opal found, much better than a lot of the new airbenders, and as long as she didn’t think about why that might be, Opal could be proud of the swift progress she was making and the pleased smiles she received from Master Tenzin.

It was peaceful, Opal thought. She loved Zaofu and her family, but there had always been so much going on there—even without the recent revelations—and at times the metal city had felt claustrophobic. Here, atop a mountain with the breeze blowing through the temple, Opal felt more free than she ever had. She shouldn’t have, she supposed. There was still so much weighing her down, but for a little while, Opal allowed herself to simply enjoy being able to learn everything she’d ever dreamed of. She listened intently to every history lesson, asking as many questions as she could think of (much to Tenzin’s surprise) and threw herself into training. Opal had dreamed so often of being taught how to master her element, but she’d never imagined she would get to do so alongside dozens of others, and despite their varying levels of commitment, Opal couldn’t help the smile that crept onto her face every time she looked out across the training yard.

The day the peace broke had dawned clear and sunny, with a slight chill in the air. Morning training had passed without incident, and lunch was the same pleasant carnage as it always was. As usual, Opal had elected to skip the early morning meditation with Tenzin in favour of the afternoon session with Kya; despite the wealth of knowledge he possessed, Tenzin never quite managed to set his students at ease the way Kya did, and it seemed as though the process of mediation was a means to an end for him. In contrast, Kya’s sessions might have lacked a little of the more traditional airbending practice, but she seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching, and she didn’t mind how her students chose to learn, as long as they enjoyed it too.

So it was with her legs folded into the lotus position beneath her, listening to the soft waves of her own breath, that Opal learned the Red Lotus were at their door.

“It’s Zaheer. We have to leave.”

Opal had never seen Bumi anything but good humoured and jovial, and the fear in his voice made the hairs on the back of Opal’s neck stand on end. The touch of Kya’s hand on her shoulder made Opal jump.

“All right everyone, clear out. Quick as you can.”

She knew she had to move, yet Opal found herself simply staring forward, frozen. Thirty seconds ago, everything had been fine. It was so hideously easy, Opal thought, for the world to turn upside down; staring at the murals on the walls before her, Opal was suddenly back on the terrace at Zaofu, hearing her mother say, “What it means, Lin, is that at least I didn’t go running to Kya when I fucked up. When I got knocked up.” The world turned upside down in a few words.

“Opal, sweetheart, we have to go,” Kya said softly, taking Opal’s hand to pull her up. Opal let her, following Kya as she hurried towards the bison stables. The other airbenders were ahead of her—Opal’s legs felt like jelly, or like she was running through jelly, she couldn’t get it straight—and their figures looked hazy in the distance.

The bite of sharp cold against her throat cleared Opal’s mind in an instant. There was something wider and colder than an arm tight around her middle, pulling her back into a body that—even through layers of clothing—felt like little more than skin stretched across bones.

“Nobody takes another step.” The voice in her ear wasn’t loud, but it stopped Opal’s friends in their tracks. “You’ll all be following me downstairs, or this sweet little thing dies.”

Opal gasped as the blade pressed harder against her neck. For a strange, detached moment, Opal thought that the blade ought to melt against the heat of her skin, the blood beating hot just beneath it.

“Let her go.”

Only a few feet away, Kya had assumed a bending stance, and the ice pressed harder against Opal’s throat.

“You can have her back as soon as you’re all in the temple atrium.” Even the woman’s voice sounded thin and deadly, and Opal shivered. Kya looked at Opal, and for an awful second, she wondered if Kya would consider her collateral damage, that getting the other airbenders away was more important, but then Kya dropped her stance, defeated.

“Fine. Lead the way.”

“I don’t think so. Age before beauty.” Out of the corner of her eye, Opal saw another tendril of water gesture back towards the main tower of the temple. Kya and Bumi exchanged a brief glance, and Opal half hoped they’d fight—perhaps she could wrench herself free, perhaps she would die, but at least the sick feeling of dread would be replaced with the burn of adrenaline in action, or with nothingness.

The journey back to the atrium felt like it lasted hours; Opal’s toes barely brushed the cold stone floor and her breath came shallow and her mind raced with every step. She couldn’t die now; there were still too many secrets left undisclosed, too many questions still unasked. It ought to have all seemed silly, inconsequential in the face of what was happening, but it only pulled the little things into sharper and more devastating focus. She didn’t want to die angry with her mother for never telling her the truth, or with Lin for never even giving her a chance. She didn’t want to die when she’d just begun to know her element, to see the future she might have when the veil of lies was drawn back.

When they finally emerged into the cavernous room, they found the rest of the airbenders huddled in the centre, and Opal’s heart sank. She’d hoped that at least the others had reached safety, but there was Pema cradling a wailing Rohan against her chest, attempting to stifle his cries. Opal let out a surprised cry of her own when she was released, and she crumpled to the floor, her limbs shaking as they greeted cold stone. She needed to look up, needed to reassure herself that everyone was safe, at least for the moment, but she was frozen where she had fallen, and it was only when she felt a warm arm stroke down her back that Opal raised her eyes from the floor beneath her.

“You’re okay, sweetheart, I’ve got you.” Kya’s voice was low and soothing, and Opal leaned back into her embrace. Tears sprang to her eyes as Kya held her tight against her chest, but Opal blinked them back; she didn’t want the others to see her cry—they were all so brave, and she wanted to be brave too. Kya stroked her hair as the man who must be Zaheer stepped up to address them.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet a true airbending master.” His voice was smooth and even, almost casual, and it made the hairs on the back of Opal’s neck stand on end.

“What do you want, Zaheer?” Opal’s gaze snapped to Tenzin, still kneeling on the ground, his arms wrapped tightly around his family.

“I want the Avatar,” said Zaheer, as though he was explaining something very basic to a small child. “As long as she turns herself over to me, none of you need be harmed.”

“So you’re using us as leverage.”

“Yes.”

Tenzin’s eyes hardened as he rose, staring Zaheer down as he moved to stand between the Red Lotus and his family. She felt Kya tremble a little.

“I will never let you get to Korra,” he said, and for a moment, the low certainty of his voice made Opal believe that he was right.

“Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice.” Zaheer smirked, and Opal’s rage rose up so hot in her for a moment, that she almost missed Tenzin’s answer:

“Yes, I do.”

Then everything was chaos.

The three members of the Red Lotus were slammed back into the walls of the temple, and Tenzin called over his shoulder,

“Jinora, get everyone out of here! Bumi, Kya, help me hold them off.”

Opal’s arms tightened instinctively around Kya, and she heard herself bleat out a feeble,

“No.”

An explosion ripped through the air, and Opal looked up just in time to see Tenzin spring back, away from the blast that had seemingly come from nowhere.

“You have to go, Opal.” Kya’s voice was urgent, with none of it’s usual softness, and she wrenched Opal’s arms from around her waist, holding her hands tightly just long enough to say, “I’ll be fine, alright? I’ll keep him safe. You have to go.”

With that, she was gone, and someone else was pulling Opal towards the back exit. The world became a blur of orange and yellow as she was carried along with the other airbenders, every one of them running flat out through the tunnels and towards the bison pens. Above them, they could hear the sounds of rock crumbling, and water crashing against stone. They kept running.

It seemed like hours (or maybe it had only been seconds) until they reached the mouth of the tunnel, and Opal crashed into someone’s back with a muffled cry. Why had they stopped? The bison were only across the courtyard. If they could only—

Another explosion lit up the terrified faces of her friends, and Opal put her hands to her mouth to stifle her scream.

“It’s too dangerous,” Pema was saying, her voice shaking as she clutched her baby tighter to her chest. “We’ll never make it to the stables with her up there.”

Of course. Opal had heard that the Red Lotus had a combustion bender—she’d only hoped it wasn’t true. The second explosion was closer than the first, and it made everyone leap back into the comforting darkness of the tunnel. They had to do something; they had to keep going, because if Opal stopped moving, she was going to start thinking about what would happen if she died in this tunnel, what would happen if Jinora and Ikki and Meelo and baby Rohan all died curled up together in this dark little corridor, just yards away from salvation, and she couldn’t think about that. They had to keep going.

Luckily, Kai seemed to share her opinion, and he moved to grab his glider, heading towards the mouth of the tunnel.

“Kai, what are you doing?” Jinora’s voice was shrill and terrified, but Kai sounded steely and determined—too much so for such a young child—when he replied,

“Whatever I can. Get to the bison, and get out of here.”

He moved so fast that no-one thought to stop him as he grabbed Daw’s glider and sprinted out into the courtyard. An explosion just above the opening to the cave sent debris clattering around them, another hit the stone of the courtyard, and then another. The fourth explosion sounded distant, as if it was further up the mountain, and worry curdled with relief in Opal’s stomach. It was now or never.

The sound of the airbenders’ footsteps—light as they were—on the stone of the courtyard sounded like a cacophony in Opal’s ears. Surely they were too loud, surely their panting, terrified breath could be heard even from the war balloon above them.

Opal felt the heat of the next explosion. The combustion bender’s gaze was trained back on them, and Opal risked a single terrified glance at the war balloon hovering above them. The stables were so close now, they had to make it. She carried on running, concentrating on nothing but reaching the bison, and she barely registered the sound of another explosion, more distant than the last. What she couldn’t miss was Jinora’s anguished scream.

“Kai!”

Opal whirled around to see Jinora frozen where she stood, her brown eyes large with horror, tears already spilling down her face. With Kai out of action—and Opal couldn't think about the reality of that right now, there wasn’t time—the combustion bender would turn her deadly gaze back on them, and Jinora was a sitting target.

Despite the terror that threatened to choke her, Opal pivoted sharply and ran back towards Jinora, towards her sister—the thought came more naturally than she would ever have expected—grasping her hands and trying to pull her back towards the bison.

“Come on, Jinora,” Opal pleaded, “we need to get to the bison. We can’t save him just standing here. When we get to the bison we can get away, we can look for him.”

Jinora blinked up at her, the momentary fog clearing, and the familiar look of determination settling over her features. Opal squeezed her hand, but before they could turn, before they could run to catch up with the others, there was a sudden pressure at her back, and Opal saw Jinora’s eye widen in fear as everything went dark.


“Caw! Caw! And that’s when you all strike!”

“Bird calls, really?”

“Well I haven’t seen you offering any suggestions.”

There was a headache blooming at Lin’s temple, and her gut was twisted up into knots. They were getting nowhere, and every second that passed was a second closer Zaheer came to obliterating the new Air Nation.

“It doesn’t matter.” Korra’s voice cut through the noise. “None of these ideas will work. The second Zaheer realises we’re up to something, he’ll wipe out the airbenders.”

“And Opal is one of those airbenders,” Su said, hand on her heart as though Lin needed reminding, as though Opal was the only one who mattered. “Believe me, I understand what’s at stake.”

Lin could have laughed. The idea that Su, of all people, understood what was at stake because one person she loved was among the dozens up for slaughter.

“Then I think you’ll agree: the only plan that will work is for me to give myself up.”

“Korra, no.” The words came out on instinct, but Lin couldn’t deny that Korra was likely right. The Red Lotus had gained too much ground—Lin hadn’t been quick enough. There was a cacophony of protest from everyone but Su, for whom the choice between her own daughter and Tonraq’s was so enviably simple.

Lin wished this decision was simple. She wished she could say that Opal was the most important thing, the only thing that mattered, as if Meelo wasn’t six; as if Korra wasn’t the Avatar; as if an entire nation that had just clawed its way back from the brink of extinction wasn't at stake as well.

It had felt like a flimsy excuse at the time—among all the the others she’d given—for not wanting to have a child, but Lin was now living the reality of her job and her personal life crashing together, and she would have felt vindicated if she wasn’t sick to her stomach.


When Opal blinked awake, her whole body hurt. She was lying on damp stone, and it took her eyes a long moment to adjust to the low light, her vision slowly clearing to see the rest of the airbenders around her. Many were still slumped on the ground, but a few were gingerly beginning to sit up, and it was then that Opal realised they were all in shackles. She looked down, panicked, at her own hands, which were bound in a thick pair of manacles.

They weren’t dead, which was something, Opal supposed. She could hear low voices from behind her, and Opal craned her neck around to see two men almost lounging against the walls of the cave, looking bored. She didn’t recognise them from the band who had overtaken the temple: the reach of the Red Lotus must have been further than they thought.

“Are you awake?” came a whispered voice next to her ear, and Opal started as she rolled around to see who had spoken.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Jinora said, reaching out a hand to take Opal’s gently.

“It’s fine,” Opal whispered. “Is everyone alright?”

Jinora shook her head, worrying her lip with her teeth. She gestured to the back of the cave, chains clanking faintly, where Kya and Bumi were splayed across the stone, motionless. One of Bumi’s arms was bent at a sickening angle, and even from across the dimly lit cave, Opal could see the bruises and the weeping cuts that littered both their bodies.

“Are they—” Opal’s words stuck in her throat “—are they alive?”

“I think so,” Jinora replied. “If you look closely you can see they’re both breathing but...”

But not for much longer. Opal’s chains clanked as she reached out to take Jinora’s hand. It hadn’t escaped Opal’s notice—and she was certain it hadn’t escaped Jinora’s—that Tenzin was absent from the group of prisoners, and she didn’t have time to think about what that likely meant.

“Korra knows we’re here. She’ll come for us.”

Jinora only shook her head.

“The guards were talking earlier: she’s here. They have her. ”

Opal felt her heart drop into her stomach. Korra wouldn’t have gone down without a fight, and her friends wouldn’t have just allowed her to be taken—Lin would never have let anything happen to Korra (Opal wished she could scrub every little resentful thought she’d ever had about that from her mind) and if Korra was here then… Opal didn’t want to think about what that meant either.

“Do you know if there’s a way out?” Opal asked instead, and Jinora shook her head again.

“I can try to find one, though.”

“I don’t think any of us are going anywhere.” Opal reminded her, rattling her chains for emphasis, but Jinora only leaned in closer and whispered,

“I can project my spirit outside of my body. Just keep an eye on my body while I’m gone, okay?”

“Okay,” Opal replied, slightly dumbfounded. She’d known that Jinora was something of a prodigy, but this was an ability she’d only heard mention of in Tenzin’s lectures on the old masters. Now was not the time for the plethora of questions Opal suddenly had, though, and Jinora was already folding her legs neatly into the lotus position. She closed her eyes, and Opal was alone again.


Lin’s bones ached, and she felt her back give a sickening crack as she stretched in her seat; Tenzin winced beside her. He’d been all but dead when Asami and the boys had found him, and the plan had swiftly gone to shit after that.

They were all still alive, at least, though Lin wasn’t confident they would stay that way. Even the momentary victory of taking out P’li was soured by the revelation that Zaheer could apparently fly now. They held no cards—no element of surprise, no numbers advantage, and while Zaheer had no reason to hurt the airbenders, the same could not be said of his intentions towards Korra.

“The cave is around here somewhere,” Kai said, breaking the tired, heavy silence that had settled like fog over the party as Oogi flew through the mountains.

“That’s likely where they took Korra, too,” Mako added. “I doubt they’d want to spread themselves out too much.”

It was a good point. If they could free the airbenders first, then they’d at least have more bodies on their side when they tried to take Korra back. Still, every passing moment was another moment that Zaheer was trying to kill Korra—she wouldn’t go down without a fight, Lin knew that, but the Red Lotus were unlike anything they’d ever gone up against before.

“That’s it!” Kai called out suddenly, pointing to a cave where Lin could—just about, she was getting old—make out carvings of airbenders around the entrance.

Lin slid from the saddle as soon as the pair of bison touched the ground outside the caves; she needed to feel solid ground beneath her feet, to remind herself that this was her job, no matter how many people she cared about were at stake. She was here to ensure there were as few casualties as possible, and that the Red Lotus were apprehended before they could do any further damage.

“Find them, please,” Tenzin was saying, his breath rattling in a way that Lin didn’t like at all. “Find my family.”

She wanted so badly to take his hands in hers, to promise that she wouldn’t come out without his children—all of his children—but she couldn’t afford to be sentimental, not now. Su, by contrast, had no such qualms.

“Don’t worry, Tenzin,” she said. “I’m not coming out without our children and the rest of your people.”

Our children. The words echoed in the back of Lin’s head as she followed Kai into the darkness of the cave, determinedly not looking back at where Tenzin waited, barely holding himself up against Lefty’s side.

Mercifully, it didn’t take long until Kai stopped, tugging on Su’s robe to slow her.

“Do you hear that?” he whispered.

How he’d picked up the sound beneath the patter of their feet Lin would never know, but the kid was right: there were muffled sounds—footsteps, perhaps a voice—coming through the wall to their right. When a shout came—louder than the others—Lin acted without thinking. Widening her stance, she threw her energy against the wall of the cave, blasting a hole through the rock. Before the dust had even cleared, they were under attack: Su wrapped a wall around them as a sentry hurled boulders in their direction, but before Lin could return fire, Asami had leapt over Su’s makeshift barrier, taking out the sentry with a few well placed kicks and a taste of the Equalist glove she favoured.

Lin was still tensed for another attack, but it seemed none was forthcoming, and as the dust cleared relief flooded through her veins as she made out the huddled forms of the airbenders. Ikki and Meelo clung to Pema’s side, while Opal’s arms were tight around Jinora. Opal’s eyes widened as she took them in, and her smile was radiant as she called out,

“Mom!”

For a stupid, fanciful moment, Lin’s heart leapt—until she felt Su brush past her as she rushed to fling her arms around her daughter.

“Oh honey, I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Lin was glad too, of course she was, but there wasn’t time for tearful reunions. Korra was still being held somewhere, and they needed to get the airbenders out of the cave before anyone noticed the commotion. Asami was already getting to work unlocking the manacles around the airbenders’ wrists—because she’d always been the most sensible of Team Avatar—and Lin scanned the new faces to check for any injuries.

“You have to help them,” a woman said, gesturing towards the back of the cave, where Lin had almost missed two prone bodies in horribly familiar clothing. Cursing herself for her distraction, Lin knelt beside Kya and Bumi, checking each of their pulses carefully. They were alive, but only just.

Lin was purposefully not thinking about the last time she’d seen Kya, or about the letter she’d sent or how she’d been avoiding her since the South Pole as she hefted Bumi up onto her shoulder. He blinked blearily up at her, which was a good sign, but his weight was almost entirely dead against her side. A couple of the stronger looking airbenders were helping Kya to her feet, and Lin winced as Kya cried out at any attempt to put weight on her leg. She almost snapped at the airbenders to be more careful—she would have carried them both out one at a time, as carefully as if they were made of glass if she could, but there wasn’t time.

They needed to get out. They needed to get to the bison. They needed to get to Korra.

“You don’t have to search for her,” said Jinora, as though she could read Lin’s mind. “I know exactly where she’s being held.”


“Daddy!” The relief in Ikki’s voice echoed down the tunnel, and Opal felt something in her chest release. Her mother’s hand was still tight on her shoulder, and she reached up to grasp it even as her eyes flickered over to Lin—still supporting Bumi—who seemed not to have noticed Opal was even there. She squeezed her mother’s hand tighter as they finally stepped out of the darkness and into bright sunlight.

They’d barely had a chance to relish the feeling of fresh air on their skin when the sound of crashing, shattering rock echoed across the ravine. Opal didn’t have to see the figures in the air—Zaheer flying as though it was nothing, Korra still trailing chains, the white light of the Avatar State flickering like faulty electricity—to know that they had been too late. Whatever was happening to Korra—poison, Jinora had said something about poison—it made her movements heavy and laboured, while Zaheer seemed only to be teasing her, taunting her, just waiting for his moment to finish it.

“We have to do something!” Kai was insisting, and Opal felt suddenly sick and helpless. What was there to do against an enemy who had power beyond any of their imaginings?

“There haven’t been this many airbenders in one place for almost two hundred years.” Jinora’s voice cut through the hopeless fog of Opal’s thoughts, and every eye was suddenly fixed on the little girl, no longer clinging to her father’s robes. “We have power together. Everyone form a circle around me. Hurry!”

They could hear Korra’s roars of pain in the distance as Opal gave her mother’s hand a final squeeze, racing to obey. Her heart was hammering in her chest as Jinora began to gather the air into a small cyclone above them. Opal could only watch as the thing whirled faster —and then she realised what Jinora wanted them to do. Centering herself, Opal closed her eyes and allowed the world to become quiet—the shouting and the crashing seemed suddenly far away as Opal concentrated only on the sound of the wind, and the gentle rush of air in and out of her lungs. She reached out, pulling and pushing a slim stream of air until it joined with Jinora’s ever growing whirlwind. It didn’t take long for the other airbenders to catch on, and soon the sound of wind was roaring in their ears as the cyclone stretched up and up towards the sky.

This was it—Opal thought—this was the moment she’d been dreaming of since she was a child. Except she couldn’t have imagined she’d be surrounded by this many people like her, couldn’t have foreseen the hundred small ways that this group of strangers had become a nation, a family. Opal felt tears well in her eyes as she watched the intense concentration on Jinora’s face as she turned their raw power into something purposeful.

“That’s my sister,” she whispered, because she could. No-one could hear her above the sound of the wind, her confession caught up in the whirlwind they’d created together, and just for a moment, Opal felt absolutely free.

They all knew the second they caught Zaheer. The earth shook with the force of Korra’s landing, and a moment later she slammed her chained hand into the ground, bringing Zaheer down with her. Earthen walls sprang up around him the moment he touched the ground, and suddenly Zaheer was only a man again. It was over.

Except it wasn’t.

Korra was dying. The poison Zaheer had administered was slowing her heart, and as she went limp in her father’s arms, Opal bit her lip to stop from crying out.

“It’s too late,” Zaheer was saying. “The poison has done its work.”

But that couldn’t be true. After all they’d done, with the wreckage of the Northern Air Temple crumbling down the side of the mountain, they had to have won.

“No.” For a split second, Opal thought she had spoken, but no-one was looking at her: everyone was looking at Jinora. “No, we can still save her,” she said, her wide dark eyes hard and determined as they stared up at Lin and Suyin. “The poison—it’s metallic. You can still save her.”

The sisters exchanged a look—seeming to read each other’s thoughts despite the years of distance—before Lin gave a short nod, and Su rushed forward to kneel beside Korra’s body. For a few long moments, no-one dared to breathe as Su’s hands worked over Korra, halting the poison’s path to drag it towards her. Then, Korra’s back arched and her head flew back as the poison was drawn, deadly and shimmering from her mouth; everyone seemed to exhale in unison as she opened her eyes, and Su tossed the silvery liquid away.

That’s my mother, Opal wanted to say, but it stuck in her throat. It was the truth, it had always been the truth, but truth seemed so tragically, flimsily relative as Opal looked around at the people who made her and raised her and lied to her. Suyin was her mother but Jinora was her sister, though Lin barely wanted to acknowledge her existence and Tenzin didn’t even know what he was to her. So many fragments of a family stood in the ravine but Opal couldn’t make them fit together. She wanted to be able to embrace them all, to celebrate the wash of relief and the strange lightness that the adrenaline had left, to feel simple and uncomplicated joy, but if she tried Opal knew they would only fracture further.

She hadn’t noticed she was crying until a hand came up to gently touch her shoulder. Bolin said nothing, but let Opal curl herself against the solidness of his chest. He was warm, and he stroked her back without speaking as Opal let a few tears seep into his shirt. A few was all she would allow, though; they’d lived, they’d all lived, and that was the only thing that mattered.

Chapter Text

“Can we add another pair to the Air Temple Island rotation?”

Lin’s head was already pounding, and it was barely two in the afternoon. The bruises on her body still ached, and her hip was tight and sore from sitting down all day. Almost a week had passed since the destruction of the Northern Air Temple, and there’d been no time to rest; there was the protection of the new Air Nation to organise, the trial and imprisonment of Zaheer, not to mention that she’d left a city still in disarray from the spirit vines’ destruction. Since their return, Lin had spent countless hours hunched uselessly over paperwork while almost everyone she cared about nursed their wounds on Air Temple Island. She flexed her fingers before drawing her hand back into a fist.

“I doubt it, Chief,” said Captain Ahmya. “The spirit vines in the city already have us spread pretty thin. You don’t think the Avatar could—”

“No, the Avatar couldn’t,” Lin snapped.

It wasn’t Ahmya’s fault that Korra was in such a state—one that everyone on Air Temple Island had been doing their best to keep behind closed doors—but Lin’s patience was spread even thinner than her officers.

“Find me another pair of officers, Captain,” Lin continued. “I don’t care what division you have to pull them from, just get it done.” Ahmya looked as though she wanted to argue, but only gave a stiff nod and strode from Lin’s office. Lin knew there was a reason she’d promoted her.

Almost as soon as the door closed, the piercing ring of her office telephone made Lin flinch. For a moment, she considered not answering it, but after a few ear-splitting seconds, she decided that whoever was on the other end couldn’t give her more of a headache than she already had.

“Beifong,” she barked as she picked up the phone.

“Ah, Lin, I’m glad I caught you.”

A little of the tension leaked out of her shoulders, and Lin leaned back in her chair.

“Tenzin, if you got out of bed to make this call—”

“No, no, I promise I’ve moved nothing but my arm, and Pema was hesitant to allow even that.” Lin couldn’t help but smile at the slight petulance in his tone.

 

“She still got you wrapped in cotton wool?”

“From head to toe,” Tenzin confirmed.

“Well, that’s where your injuries are,” Lin pointed out, and Tenzin hummed in agreement. “What can I do for you, Tenzin? Before your wife decides it’s naptime again.”

“I wanted to ask a favour. With all the new airbenders on the island now we’re—well we’re a little tightly packed.” Despite the ostensible issue, there was a barely-concealed joy in Tenzin’s voice. “Everyone’s having to share rooms, even beds, and it’s been—well it’s been hard on Pema in particular. She doesn’t want to sleep in our bed in case she jostles me in the night, so she’s been sharing with Meelo and Rohan, because Opal is in with the girls.” Lin’s heart lurched the same way it had all four times (she’d counted) that Tenzin had said Opal’s name in her hearing.

“Get to the point, Tenzin,” she snapped.

“Oh—right, yes. Would you mind if we sent Opal down to stay with you for a little while, just while we sort out the sleeping arrangements a little better? I wouldn’t ask, but I figured since she’s family—” Lin winced “—you might be persuaded?”

It would be suspicious to refuse, and Lin couldn’t say she wanted to; she’d certainly feel better if she knew Opal was close at hand, safe in her apartment. Though no more threats had been made against the new Air Nation once Zaheer had been arrested, the memory of how close they had all come to destruction would have kept Lin up at night if she hadn’t been working sixteen hour days since her return to the city.

“Sure,” Lin said, hoping she sounded casual, “as long as she wouldn’t mind staying with me.” With everything that had happened, Lin hadn’t managed to talk to Opal properly since Zaofu, and even then, their conversation had felt stilted and unfinished. Lin couldn’t help thinking that Opal was avoiding her, though Lin herself had barely set foot on Air Temple Island since their return to the city, no matter how many people she might want to check up on. Perhaps Opal might not agree to come; perhaps Lin would return home that evening to her usual empty apartment and a lonely dinner. That might even be a good thing, Lin told herself, it would be a clear sign from Opal that Lin wasn’t welcome in her life. Whatever picture had been forming against Lin’s will in the back of her mind—of Opal making herself at home in Lin’s too-large apartment, of two steaming cups of tea on her morning table—began to lose its colour, fading back to the familiar empty, echoing home that Lin had inhabited alone for almost two decades.

“I’ll ask Pema to check with her,” Tenzin said. “Though I’m almost certain she’ll be happy to take her leave of us for a while; Ikki talks in her sleep, you know.”

Lin forced out a laugh.

“Then you can tell Opal I’ll be done with work by eight.” It was a generous estimate, but she could use an early night. “Or she can swing by the station and pick up the keys earlier if she wants to. I’ll leave them with my secretary if I get called out.”

“Called out? Lin, you shouldn’t be going into the field so soon; I know those injuries of yours are worse than you’re making them out.”

“What was that? You’re breaking up, Tenzin, the line is bad,” Lin said, and she couldn’t help but smile at Tenzin’s indignant sputtering as she placed the receiver back in its cradle.

In the fresh quiet of her office, the reality of what she’d just agreed to began to sink in. Opal was a sweet girl—though how that had happened was beyond Lin—and she wouldn’t refuse to go if it would inconvenience someone else, no matter how she felt about staying with Lin. For a moment, Lin considered leaving work immediately, going home to—do what? Attempt to make her lonely apartment seem welcoming, the kind of home she wanted to bring her daughter back to? The place was clean and the sheets in the spare room were fresh, that was enough; Lin wasn’t about to put on an apron and make bolo bao.

Her pen tapped insistently on the hard wood of her desk. There was no point in thinking about any of it now; she had mountains of paperwork to get through before the evening, and she didn’t want to be late. She wasn’t Toph. Lin rubbed her eyes, wondering if she ought to grab a coffee before she attempted to focus on the forms in front of her—the black ink seemed to swim in front of her tired eyes, and she blinked hard. The sound of Tenzin’s laughter echoed in her head, and the easy warmth of his voice sent a shiver down her spine. She had to tell him, and soon, for Kya and Opal’s sake, and for his own. Yet Lin—coward that she was—felt her resolve weaken with every smile and every gentle word; soon, she was going to lose him again, and this time it would be no-one’s fault but her own.

Lin shook her head. Coffee. She was going to need coffee.

Despite commandeering the largest cup in the precinct, the afternoon seemed to last for days. As she leafed through pages of reports of robberies, satomobile accidents, and spirit/human altercations, Lin found herself half wishing for Mako to come bursting into her office with knews of the city’s imminent destruction—anything to take her mind off the slow ticking of the clock.

By quarter past seven, Lin had had enough. She slammed the door shut behind her as she strode from her office, ignoring the disbelieving looks that followed her out. She ignored the satomobile waiting for her in the lot, walking straight out into the warm evening—she doubted the short walk back to her apartment would soothe her growing nerves, but it was worth a shot. With the whole city packed into two thirds of its usual area thanks to the vine infestation, the streets were busier than usual, but for once Lin didn’t mind the noise; anything, at this point, was better than the sound of her own anxious thoughts. Her stomach growled as she passed the brightly lit window of a noodle bar, and she stopped. The smell made her mouth water, and she realised that between her meeting with Ahmya and her call from Tenzin, she’d forgotten to eat lunch. Slipping into the busy restaurant, she glanced over the menu, looking for something familiar and comforting.

If she was going to eat, she ought to get something for Opal—she ought to have thought about that earlier. She should have been more prepared, should have asked whether Opal would have eaten before she arrived. It was too late now, and it wouldn’t hurt to get her something. Lin scanned the menu again, looking for a dish that Opal might like; she ought to get something vegetarian, she supposed, since Opal was embracing the Air Nomad lifestyle. Or would she want to use the opportunity of being off the island to sneak a little meat back into her diet? Perhaps Lin should get a few things, just to be certain. It wasn’t as though they wouldn’t make their way through the leftovers. But if Opal had already eaten, Lin would look ridiculous hiking half a restaurant’s worth of takeout into the apartment—she didn’t want Opal to feel pressured to eat if she didn’t want to. She fiddled with the sleeve of her armour as she read the menu for the third time, bending the cuffs until the metal was pulled thin across the tops of her hands.

She ought to know this. Perhaps in another world, one where things were simpler and Lin fucked up a whole lot less, she would know off the top of her head what Opal wanted. They might have eaten thousands of meals together, gotten hundreds of takeouts. Lin shook her head. There was no point going down that road, especially not in a slightly greasy noodle bar where anyone could see her. This was Lin’s reality; a reality where she didn’t know what to buy for her seventeen year old daughter, who had grown up hundreds of miles away, eating food prepared by a chef instead of getting take out with Lin.

Raw veggie wraps. Su’s ex-con chef had placed them proudly in front of everyone on Opal’s final night in Zaofu, because they were her favourite. This place didn’t do raw anything, by the looks of things, but if Opal had inherited any genetic predispositions as far as food went, she clearly took after her father, and Lin knew without even thinking what she would order for him. She stepped up to the counter.

“Can I get a dan dan mian and a lo han jai, thanks.”

Ten minutes later, she walked out of the restaurant with a steaming paper bag in her arms. The warm weight of it was oddly comforting, and it wasn’t until she saw Opal, sitting on one of the benches in the foyer of her apartment building, that Lin’s steps began to falter. Opal sat up entirely straight on the bench—so unlike Su, who seemed to lounge on every surface she came into contact with—her hands folded primly in her lap. It reminded her so suddenly and so sharply of Tenzin at that age that it knocked the breath out of her. Opal raised her wide eyes to Lin, uncertain and nervous.

“I’m sorry, I know I’m a little early.”

“No, no it’s—I hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” Lin said, adjusting her grip on the paper bag. “I stopped to get some food—have you eaten?”

Opal shook her head.

“I wasn’t really uh—I skipped dinner on the island.”

“Oh. Well, if you’re hungry now there’s plenty. Come on.” Lin nodded in the direction of the elevator, and Opal rose to follow her. Lin wasn’t pretentious enough to have the penthouse suite, but her apartment was close to the top of the building, and the pair of them watched as the arrow counted the floors in silence. The ding of the bell announcing their arrival on Lin’s floor almost made her jump.

“This is us,” she said unnecessarily, shifting the bag of takeout onto her hip so she could push the heavy grate of the elevator door open. Opal said nothing as Lin removed her keys from the chain at her hip and unlocked her front door.

“The spare room is just down the hall on the left,” Lin said. “You can leave your bag in there. I’ll get us some bowls.”

“Sure, thanks.”

Lin cast a quick eye around her living space as Opal disappeared into the spare room. Suddenly her arrangement looked inescapably sad—her loneliness spread across every surface and crouched in every corner. Her small dining table, so clearly designed for one, sat next to her radio and her bookshelf, the couch barely touched in months. Lin sighed as she continued into the kitchen—there was nothing she could do about any of it now.

By the time Opal re-emerged from the spare room, Lin was setting steaming bowls on the table.

“I got you a lo han jai,” Lin said, gesturing for Opal to take a seat. “I didn’t know whether you liked it spicy or—”

“I do.”

“Oh. Me too. But Tenzin doesn’t so I didn’t—I think there’s some chilli oil in the cupboard, hold on.” Lin all but fled to the kitchen, letting her head fall against the cupboard for a moment as she took a deep breath in, and out again. It shouldn’t be this difficult to have one dinner with Opal; every misstep and every awkward pause taunted her—Lin might not be the most social of people, but she could hold a conversation without tripping over herself like an idiot.

Chilli oil in hand, she took another grounding breath before she walked back through to the living space. She placed the jar in front of Opal without a word, and Opal picked it up with a quiet,

“Thanks.”

They ate in silence, Lin trying desperately to focus on her food and not on cataloguing Opal’s every motion. It seemed impossible that she was really here, really sitting at Lin’s table, eating off Lin’s crockery. The baby Lin had held so reluctantly in her arms, who had been too small for the dress Lin made her, was a young woman now, picking at her dinner with delicate, long fingered hands.

“Is it alright?” Lin asked, and Opal looked up, startled. “The food?”

“Yeah, yeah it’s good, I just—” Opal laid down her chopsticks, frowning. “I guess I don’t have much of an appetite. Maybe I’m just—I don’t like to be where I’m not wanted.”

Lin froze, fear like a knife piercing her chest, and she found for a few long seconds that she’d forgotten how to breathe.

“Opal—” Lin choked, her knuckles white where they still gripped her chopsticks.

“It’s fine,” Opal insisted. That perfect posture was back, as though she was trying to seem taller than she was, but she refused to meet Lin’s eye, choosing instead to push a mushroom around her bowl. “I know you’re only doing this because Tenzin needed to make space on the island. I’ll radio Mom in the morning and get her to wire over some money for a hotel, it’s fine.”

“No, Opal—”

“I’ll just tell her the island is too crowded and I’m missing my own space. It’s fine. You won’t get in trouble.”

“That’s not why I—Opal, I want you to feel welcome here, always. If I’ve done something to—to make you feel...” Opal’s eyes narrowed.

“What?” she spat. “Like you want nothing to do with me? You made that pretty clear in Zaofu. It’s fine, Lin. I have a family, you don’t need to try to—whatever.”

Lin had to bite back her instinctual response. If this was anyone else, at any other time, it would be all too easy to snap back that Opal should just go if she didn’t want to be here. It was a response that had been carved into Lin’s bones, the same instinct that had convinced Lin to send Opal away in the first place.

“Opal, please,” she said, finally. “I know I wasn’t—I wasn’t at my best in Zaofu. I never wanted you to—fuck. I’m sorry I—” Lin could feel desperate tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, but she blinked them stubbornly away. “Please don’t go.”

She almost choked on the words: the same ones she’d spent decades refusing to say. Lin Beifong didn’t beg. She hadn’t begged her sister, or her mother, or the love of her miserable, lonely life, no matter how much she’d wanted them to stay. But she’d beg now, if she had to.

“You asked Kya not to tell you where she’d taken me.” Opal said, her voice hard edged but still trembling. “You sent me away as soon as I was born and you didn’t even want to know where I’d gone. Sorry that I find it hard to believe you want me around.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, eyes flashing with hurt, and Lin winced. She remembered telling Opal as much, the first time they’d spoken after the truth was out; it seemed so fantastically stupid, now, to have expected Opal to understand.

“It wasn’t—I asked Kya not to tell me where you were because I didn’t trust myself knowing,” Lin said. She’d never voiced the truth of it before, and she hated how weak she sounded, how weak she was. “If I knew where you’d gone I—I didn’t trust that I’d be able to just leave you there. I’d have had to go and check up on you, make sure you were safe, and then—I don’t know. I’d have driven myself mad, I think.”

Opal looked as though she was seconds away from rolling her eyes, and the takeout curdled in Lin’s stomach. Had she really fucked up so spectacularly already?

“If you cared about me so much, why send me away in the first place?” Opal asked, staring Lin down across the table.

There were a hundred answers Lin could have given, and the walls of the room seemed to shrink as she ran down the familiar list. She settled on the simplest answer: the one she hoped would hurt Opal the least.

“Because you deserved better than to have me as a mother,” she said eventually. It was the truth, if not all of it, and it burned Lin’s tongue. Opal, however, seemed unmoved.

“You really thought you’d be so terrible that you wouldn’t even try?”

You won’t even try? The words echoed in Lin’s memory. For all that she looked like Su, had been raised a Beifong in Zaofu, Opal was Tenzin’s child through and through. It was a fitting punishment, Lin thought, for all the ways she’d failed.

“I already tried, Opal,” Lin said. She was so tired, but adrenaline thrummed through her body—she couldn’t mess this up again, but the right words wouldn’t come to her. She’d buried them too deep. “I tried from when I was eleven and Toph decided I was old enough to watch Su while she worked late. I tried every fucking day for ten years, and she skipped town when she was sixteen, leaving me nothing but these to show what she thought of my efforts.”

Lin gestured to the jagged white scars that still marred her face, and Opal paled.

“Mom gave you those?”

“That’s not—I’m not trying to—I don’t think she meant to, and even if she did—” Lin’s hands clenched into fists on the table, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried desperately to order her thoughts. “The point is that I’m difficult to love, and I know that. I don’t want you to pity me, Opal. I’m not trying to—it’s just a fact. The point is that I wanted you to be happy and I don’t—I don’t have a good track record where that’s concerned.”

Every new confession felt like a layer of her skin being stripped away, leaving her raw and vulnerable. Yet Opal was still staring at her as if Lin was holding back.

“That can’t be it,” she said.

“What?”

“That isn’t—people aren’t like that. No-one’s that selfless. If you wanted me you would have kept me.” Opal’s arms were still crossed, her posture still defiant, but she sounded less certain that she had minutes before.

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Opal.”

“The truth,” Opal insisted. “I’m a big girl now, I can handle it.” The sweetness of her voice, and the wide innocence of her eyes almost made Lin laugh out loud.

“If you were ‘big girl’, Opal, you’d know that the truth isn’t simple. I can’t just—” Lin rose, ignoring the harsh scrape of her chair legs against the stone floor. She’d been trying so hard not to think about any of this for the last seventeen years; she’d made her choice, and she had to live with it—thinking about her reasons after the fact wasn’t going to do her any good. Her legs shook as she paced, and something itched under skin at the feeling of Opal’s eyes following her. “What?” she snapped. “What do you want me to say? That I managed to get myself knocked up right before Tenzin dumped me for a girl barely older than you are now?”

Opal flinched, and Lin felt a sick little thrill of victory.

“Should have seen that one coming,” Lin snorted. “Should have figured that if I hadn’t caved by thirty four and let him fill me full of little airbenders, he was gonna start worrying that I never would. I can’t tell you that I ever wanted to be a mom, Opal. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m just selfish, I wanted to focus on my career, not spend my time changing diapers and reading bedtime stories. Maybe I grew up watching Katara scrub dishes with hands I knew could freeze oceans and crack glaciers. Maybe I was fucking terrified of having a child who would grow up feeling the same way about me that I feel about my mother.” Opal had wanted the truth, and Lin was haemorrhaging it now, unable to stop herself as confession after confession rose up like bile. “Maybe everyone I’ve ever loved has left me, and I couldn’t stand the thought of my own kid one day deciding that I wasn’t enough anymore. Maybe I sent you away before you chose to leave on your own.”

She was cut off by a sob wrenching itself from her throat, and Lin noticed that she was crying. Her cheeks were wet with salt water, and she slammed her hand up across her mouth in an attempt to stop another sound escaping. Her legs were shaking, and she gripped the back of her chair with her free hand in an attempt to stay upright. She took a few deep, shuddering breaths, attempting to calm herself before she tried looking at Opal again. What must she think of Lin now?

When Lin spoke again, she could barely voice it, rung out and raw.

“I could blame a lot of people for why I did what I did, and I have blamed them, but if you want the truth? I was scared, Opal. I was just so fucking scared.”

When she raised her eyes to meet Opal’s it was as if her skin had been stripped away—surely Opal must be able to see her bloody, beating heart.

“Thank you,” was all Opal said, her voice low and quiet. Lin could only nod in acknowledgement, trying in vain to stop the steady flow of tears still leaking down her face. When she drew her hands away from her eyes, Opal was standing in front of her, holding up a clean napkin.

“Thanks,” Lin muttered, and Opal gave her a tentative smile.

“Do you—uh—I’m sorry, you must have been hungry. Mako told me how hard you’re working.” Opal gestured towards their unfinished dinners. “Maybe we should—before it gets too cold.”

As if on cue, Lin’s stomach growled. In the back of her mind, she remembered Kya once saying that crying always made her hungry, but Lin had never really been a crier—outside of when she was pregnant, and always hungry anyway—and she hadn’t understood it then. She attempted a smile as she sank gratefully back into her chair. Opal settled in opposite, and picked up her chopsticks delicately.

The noodles were lukewarm at best, but Lin didn’t care. They filled part of the chasm that had opened up inside her that evening, and when she was chewing she didn’t have to talk. They ate in silence until both bowls were empty, and Lin reached out to take Opal’s into the kitchen. She washed the bowls and set them to dry, and when she came back into the living space, Opal was still sitting at the table.

“Lin—”

“Opal, I—”

They both cut themselves off, and Lin gestured for Opal to continue, but she shook her head.

“No, you go first.”

“I only—” Lin began, suddenly acutely aware that she’d not thought about how she wanted to phrase any of this. “I just wanted to say that I—that you’re in control here, okay? If you’d rather I keep my distance I’ll respect that, but if you want me around then—then I’d really like to be. In whatever capacity you—whatever you want, Opal.”

Did that sound noncommittal? Lin didn’t want Opal to think she didn’t care whether they saw each other, but she didn’t want to pressure Opal either.

“I want to stay,” Opal said, and Lin blinked back at her.

“Oh,” Lin said, stupidly. “Okay. Great. You mean stay here?”

“Yes, here. If you don’t mind.” There was a smile—a real one—tugging at the corners of Opal’s mouth, and it was the most beautiful thing Lin had ever seen.

“Of course not,” she rushed to reply. “Anything you want is—is good.”

“Good.”

They each simply looked at each other for a moment, before Opal rose from the table and padded on soft feet back towards the room that was now hers. She turned as she slid the door open.

“Goodnight, Lin.”

“Goodnight, Opal.”

Chapter Text

Part 3: A Song for Healing

Prologue

Kuvira seethed. It had been one thing for Su to play coy when Raiko and Tenzin had shown up, pretending not to know exactly what they were here for, but Kuvira had never really expected her to refuse. Su had spent the last twenty years—Kuvira’s entire life, from the moment she arrived in Zaofu—talking about how much better Zaofu was than the rest of the Earth Kingdom, how the other provinces had so much to learn from them. What were all those years of training for, if not this? Kuvira still remembered the first time Su had put a hand on her cheek and said how proud she was of Kuvira, what a wonderful example she was of the modern progress of Zaofu. She’d said Kuvira was like a daughter to her, and while Kuvira had known even then that wasn’t true—if it was true, Su would treat her the way she treated Opal, who was no more her natural daughter than Kuvira herself—but she’d always thought that Su at least respected her.

The more Kuvira thought about that, the more childlike and idiotic it seemed. Su had always dismissed any thought Kuvira had that went against her own dogma, never willing to listen to any ideas that might make Zaofu anything other than an island of privilege where she could hide away from the rest of the world. She’d made sure Kuvira knew how lucky she was to have been allowed to grow up there, in the comfort of the Beifong complex, even if she’d never really been family.

Su had all but fled from her office as soon as the meeting was over, leaving Kuvira to see Raiko and Tenzin out. They each nodded brusquely, clearly as frustrated and disappointed as Kuvira was. As the door began to close behind them, Kuvira couldn’t help herself.

“Master Tenzin!” she called out. He stopped, frowning back at her, and Kuvira pulled herself back up, pulling her calm mask back down over the anger she’d been keeping a lid on since she was small. “I just wanted to… apologise, I suppose, on Su’s behalf. I’ll do whatever I can to bring her around. I think—”

Tenzin gave a humourless laugh.

“You can try, Kuvira,” he said, “but I think we’ve both got enough experience with Beifong women to know how far you’ll get.”

Kuvira wanted to argue, to say that Su listened to her, cared for her opinions, but after being proven so humiliatingly wrong only a few minutes earlier she didn’t imagine Tenzin would be convinced.

“I wish that weren’t true,” she admitted. “You know how long it took to convince her to let Opal come and train with you.”

Tenzin frowned, apparently confused.

“That was only a few weeks, surely?”

“Before that, I mean,” Kuvira explained. “I’ve been trying to get Su to send Opal over to you since she was little, but she didn’t listen to me about that, either.”

Tenzin’s frown only deepened.

“I don’t understand.”

It was Kuvira’s turn to be confused. Tenzin couldn’t really think that Opal’s bending had manifested with Harmonic Convergence. At one point, they’d been the only two airbenders in the world. She’d always assumed he must have known—his sister was the one who’d brought Opal to them, after all. Kuvira didn’t know exactly where Opal had come from, but she had to be the kid of one of the Avatar’s children. Tenzin was her uncle, at the very least. Perhaps he was feigning his ignorance, assuming Kuvira must not know. After all, why would she? She was just the captain of guard. She didn’t matter.

“You don’t have to pretend, Master Tenzin. I’ve been… close to the family since I was very young,” she explained, but nothing about Tenzin’s expression changed.

“I know that, Kuvira,” he said, “but what I don’t know is why it’s relevant to Opal’s bending.”

Kuvira could back out now, she could make up some excuse, some misunderstanding, and walk away, but here—suddenly—was an opportunity to show Su exactly who she had underestimated. Kuvira had learned a long time ago that she could destroy with her words as quickly and as cleanly as she could with her bending, and suddenly she wanted to do it. Perhaps Tenzin had never done anything to her to warrant her turning his life upside down, but sacrifices had to be made if Kuvira wanted to show Su exactly where being such a coward would get her. She didn’t entirely have to feign her surprise when she said,

“I thought—surely you must have known. Opal started airbending when she was three.”

“Opal what?

She tried not to smile as Tenzin blinked in disbelief. Instead she schooled her features into shocked concern as she stammered,

“But—but it was your sister who dropped her off. Kya, right?”

“What do you mean dropped her off?” Tenzin looked almost frantic, his face flushed, and Kuvira tried not to pity him. The knot that was forming in the pit of her stomach was only weakness.

“I don’t know if I should…” she began, looking around as though afraid of her own words. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”

His aspect softened, and his voice was low when he said,

“Kuvira, please.”

His eyes were large and pleading—this man had been the last of his kind until the birth of his children, after all. Why shouldn’t he know? Su could have spared him years of heartache and worry if she’d just told the truth. Kuvira might be the one to drop the bomb, but she was doing the right thing. He deserved to know.

“I wasn’t there at the time,” she began, “but Bataar said that Opal’s birth was strange. There were no midwives, no noise, no screaming, and Su was on her feet, absolutely fine, from the moment Opal was born. Kya was the only healer in attendance, but she wasn’t at any of the other births, and then Opal started airbending and… we all know she’s not really Su and Bataar’s. We just never talked about it.”

Tenzin didn’t say anything for a long moment, gazing over Kuvira’s shoulder at nothing.

“How—uh—how old is Opal?” he asked eventually, voice shaking.

“She’s seventeen,” Kuvira said, and Tenzin nodded, the previously high colour draining from his cheeks.

He turned to leave, his light steps unsteady, and it was only when he reached the door that he seemed to remember she was still there.

“Thank you, Kuvira,” he said, and then he was gone.

Kuvira stood in the silence of Su’s office, wondering what exactly she’d just done. Su would be furious when she found out, but the idea of her ire didn’t frighten Kuvira the way it once had. Finally, Su could stop pretending Kuvira mattered to her, and Kuvira could stop pretending she believed all Su’s lies. Kuvira smiled as she walked away; she felt suddenly light, free, like a puppet carefully cutting her own strings.

Chapter Text

Kya winced as she folded a leg beneath her. She’d been off her crutches for almost a month, but her bones still ached, she wasn’t as young as she used to be, and injuries lingered far longer than they had when she was in her twenties. Not for the first time since she’d seen Korra off at the dock, Kya wished she’d gone with her; she wanted to see her mother, to be taken care of, even if only for a little while. It was better that she stayed at Air Temple Island, though. She wasn’t sure which catastrophe would reach boiling point first, nor which would have the most devastating outcome: the Earth Kingdom quickly collapsing into chaos, or the ticking time bomb of Opal’s continued presence on Air Temple Island. ‘When all this Red Lotus business has blown over’ had seemed like such a sensible idea a few months ago, before any of them had realised exactly how dangerous Zaheer and his organisation were, and the shockwaves that their actions would send across the world.

Now, despite the number of airbenders still arriving on Air Temple Island, Tenzin was rarely to be found there, spending his time locked in conference rooms and his offices in the city. Despite his retirement from the city council, he was still a world leader, and a more prominent one now than he ever had been, or ever expected to be. So it had fallen to Pema and Kya to organise the now-bustling Air Temple Island, and to oversee the construction of a new dormitory building. Kya relished the work—it kept her mind focused and left her exhausted enough to sleep at the end of every day—but she couldn’t escape the pangs of sadness that struck whenever she thought of her little brother, locked away in some dreary meeting about the fate of the world while he ought to have been with them. Kya and Pema agonised over every little detail of the new dormitories—despite the mounting frustration from the construction team—wanting every inch of the place to be perfect, to be exactly as Tenzin imagined it.

On the nights when even the burn in her muscles and the ache in her bones wasn’t enough to let her sleep soundly, Kya stared up at the ceiling and tried not to let the guilt creep in. She wasn’t doing all this just because Lin’s secret grew heavier with every hour Kya carried it; she wasn’t throwing herself into island life (moreso than she ever had before) in an attempt to convince herself she didn’t resent what her brothers now shared. She hadn’t even asked Bumi how he was feeling, because despite his outward enthusiasm, Kya knew his feelings about his newfound abilities must be complicated. Instead, she filled up her days with blueprints and meal plans for a hundred and doing her very best to ignore the pressure building inside her like steam in a rice pot.

The rice in the bowl before her was lukewarm, as was the curry spooned over the top. Kya and Pema had long since resigned themselves to eating their meals almost cold, once the airbenders had all been fed. Despite the tepid sogginess of the food, it was nice to sit down with Pema in the calm and quiet of the kitchen, listening to the muffled sounds drifting in from outside. Each evening, Pema carefully prepared a plate to be kept in case Tenzin came home, but he was rarely ever back before dark, stopping only to kiss his sleeping children before collapsing into bed. He’d been on a diplomatic mission to Zaofu for the last week, making a formal request that Su take control of the Earth Kingdom, and Kya was surprised it was taking so long. She’d imagined Su would give token resistance to the idea in an attempt to appear modest, but the act shouldn’t have lasted for more than a couple of days before Su graciously accepted. She knew Pema was starting to grow anxious—who could blame her, after what she and her family had been through—and Kya couldn’t deny that more and more of her own thoughts were taken up with wondering how the summit was going. There was a small, irrational corner of her mind that worried there had been some kind of catastrophe—that their airship had run into trouble, that there had been an attack on Zaofu—but they would have heard if anything had gone awry. Tenzin, Raiko, and Su were important figures, and events like that would have made the news.

The slightly more rational (and certainly louder) part of her mind worried about Tenzin being in Zaofu. Su and Bataar had successfully kept Opal’s secret for almost two decades, but that was in isolation; Lin had discovered the truth about Opal after only a few days of being Zaofu. Opal herself had, surprisingly, turned down the opportunity to join Tenzin on his trip. Kya had tried to talk to Opal about it, to check that she didn’t feel she had to remain in Republic City, or that she felt uncomfortable spending too much time with Tenzin. Opal had been avoiding him since their return to Republic City, and Kya didn’t blame her. She wanted to blame Lin, but there truly had been no good opening to begin the conversation that hung like a sword over their heads, and Lin herself had been swamped with spirit vine incidents and paperwork about the Red Lotus arrests over the last months. It wasn’t fair on any of them, but then again it never had been.

“Do you want me to try to warm that a little more, Kya?” Pema asked softly, and Kya startled back to reality, nodding as she handed her bowl over to Pema mutely, the contents now thoroughly cold. “Where’s a firebender when you need one?” Pema smiled as she dropped the contents of the bowl back into the large pot on the stove. “Have you heard from Mako recently?”

“No,” Kya managed. As far as she knew, Mako had been pulling almost as many hours as Lin. Quite apart from the influx of refugees from the Earth Kingdom and the political unrest following the Red Lotus attacks, the city was still crawling with spirit vines, and all the city’s services were stretched to breaking point. Kya suddenly felt incredibly grateful for her lacklustre supper—Mako and Lin were certainly both eating takeout when they remembered, and little else when they didn’t.

Pema started to say something else, but nearly knocked the pot from the stove as a voice shattered the quiet of the evening.

“Daddy!”

There was no mistaking Ikki’s excited squeal; Kya sprang from her seat as Pema dashed for the door, opening it to find Tenzin—his children hanging from every limb—looking exhausted. To Kya’s surprise, he only gave his wife a cursory kiss on the forehead before he turned to her:

“Kya, may I speak with you?”

“Of course.”

“In private.”

Kya could see Pema’s furrowed brow out of the corner of her eye—what was so urgent that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?

“Uh—yeah, yeah sure.”

Tenzin shrugged his children gently off him—handing a squirming Rohan to Pema as he murmured apologies to Meelo and Ikki—and Kya could feel Jinora’s wide eyes on her back as Tenzin led her down the corridor to his office. He slid the door closed behind them, the sound of it almost violent in the quiet.

“What’s going on, Tenzin?” Kya asked, trying to keep her tone light, as if a knot of dread wasn’t settling into her stomach. “Did you and Raiko manage to convince Su?”

He sighed.

“No, she wouldn’t budge.”

“Shit,” was all Kya could muster in response. She really hadn’t expected Su to pass up the opportunity to “share Zaofu’s enlightened ways of thinking with the world” but the longer she thought about it, the more likely it seemed. Su enjoyed how established her power was in Zaofu, but the larger responsibility of bringing order back to the entire Earth Kingdom was another thing entirely.

“Kuvira apologised to me afterwards,” Tenzin continued, rubbing the bridge of his nose, the frown lines deep in his forehead. “You remember her, the captain of the Zaofu guard? She said she’d try again, but—”

“Beifongs,” Kya said, with a wry smile. Usually, that would have elicited at least a tired huff of laughter, but Tenzin’s look only darkened.

“Indeed,” he said. “Kuvira also mentioned that Su had been reluctant to send Opal to train with me.”

“Oh?” Kya said, trying desperately to calm the terrified leap of her heartbeat, certain it was loud enough to give her away. It needn’t mean anything; from what Korra had said, Su had been reluctant to send Opal away (even if she hadn’t made her real reasons public). Perhaps Tenzin was simply making conversation, perhaps he just wanted her advice on how to move forward, whether there was another way to persuade Su—

“She said Su had been reluctant to send Opal to me for fourteen years,” Tenzin continued, and Kya’s blood froze in her veins. “She said that Opal started airbending as a young child. She seemed to be under the impression that this meant Opal was not Su and Bataar’s natural daughter.”

So, here it was. They’d been hurtling toward it since Lin set foot in Zaofu six months ago—since Lin had turned up in the South Pole with a rounded belly and an impossible request—but Kya hadn’t imagined she’d be the first to crash land.

“Really?” she choked, and Tenzin sighed.

“Please don’t do that, Kya. You were in Zaofu when Opal was born.”

I wouldn’t have been a lie to say she wasn’t. After all, when Opal was born, Kya was on Kyoshi, listening to Lin scream.

“I—what do you want me to tell you, Tenzin?”

“The truth, Kya. Is it really so hard?”

Yes, she wanted to say, it’s seventeen years of secrecy and guilt and I cannot just spit it out into the world now. Instead, she only looked at him, unable to accept after almost two decades, that this was really happening. She would have imagined it was a nightmare, but she’d had so many nightmares about this precise moment that she could not argue with the reality of it now. Tenzin was too calm, too quietly terrified when he spoke again.

“She isn’t Su and Bataar’s, then?”

Kya shook her head.

“No.”

Tenzin nodded: this was the answer he had expected.

“I assume she’s not yours,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but Kya answered it anyway.

“No.”

“Is she Bumi’s?” Desperation strangled his voice, and Kya’s had deserted her completely as she whispered,

“No.”

“Is she—Kya, please don’t tell me she’s mine.”

Kya couldn’t answer him. It was answer enough. Tenzin slumped onto his desk, his hands shaking as he gripped the edges of it. He hung his head, taking deep, measured breaths as he stared down at the floor. Kya swallowed around the lump in her throat. She owed him an explanation, even if it felt like she was going to throw up if she opened her mouth.

“Lin turned up in the South Pole in the middle of a snowstorm,” Kya began, her voice cracking around the words. “She was four months gone already and—fuck, Tenzin I’d never seen her so broken. She asked me to find someone to raise the child, and to never tell her where I’d taken it. I agreed.”

She didn’t know what she expected from him; despite the thousands of times she’d imagined this scenario, the hundreds of different reactions she'd feared, she’d never known what to expect. Certainly not this silence, this gaping hole that should have been filled with his questions and accusations; she hadn’t expected so little from him. Kya could only stare at the top of Tenzin’s head, listen to his careful breaths, watch his knuckles grow whiter and whiter on the edge of his desk.

When he finally raised his head, Tenzin looked at her as if she were a stranger.

“Why?”

The answer was simple, really, it always had been, but it wasn’t one that Kya could give Tenzin now, not when she’d already turned his entire world on its head.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Kya said weakly, and Tenzin let out a single mirthless laugh.

“I don’t understand any of this, Kya.” He pressed his lips together until they were nothing but a thin white line against his brown skin. Kya’s legs were shaking, but she couldn’t bring herself to reach out for the support of the bookshelf; she only stood—sick and empty and slowly realising just how much worse this was than any of her nightmares—staring at Tenzin until he spoke again, voice soft and shaking. “She’s really… she’s really mine?”

“Yes.”

“Does she know?”

“Yes.”

Kya hadn’t thought it was possible for Tenzin to look more distraught, but now there was something like panic growing atop the horror and the disbelief already etched into his face.

“Why wouldn’t she—she hasn’t said anything. Does she not—did I do something to—” he stammered, and Kya’s heart broke all over again.

“Tenzin, no. She just—” Kya really didn’t want to say it, but if the truth was coming out now, there was no use in telling it halfway. “Lin asked her not to.”

It was as if the air had been sucked from the room. Tenzin’s expression darkened, and his voice was low and dangerous when he said,

“Lin did what?”

“It’s not—she didn’t—it sounds worse than it is, Tenzin,” Kya scrambled to explain. “She was going to tell you, but she just wanted—she wanted it to be on her terms, and when you had time to process it properly. There’s so much going on now, and—”

“Oh, well if she was being considerate,” Tenzin spat, and Kya had run out of excuses. She could only stand, tears pouring freely down her face, watching him pace the small room, his hands curled into fists at his sides. Time seemed to stretch on and on, and what must have been no more than a few minutes felt like hours as he opened his mouth as if to speak, only to close it again and continue his frantic pacing.

There was nothing she could say, no explanation she could offer for herself or for Lin, other than that they had both thought Opal would be better off away from Republic City, and it was hardly what Tenzin would want to hear now. Now, he could barely look at her, and he didn’t meet her eye as he finally spoke again:

“I can’t be here, Kya.”

He was gone before she could stop him, grabbing a discarded glider from where it lay against the doorframe, and Kya could hear Pema calling after him as he swept through the house and into the fast approaching night.

“Kya?” Pema’s voice was tight and worried, and Kya couldn’t meet her eyes. “Kya, what happened? Is everything alright?”

No-one’s dying, she wanted to say, but nothing is ever going to be alright again.

“Excuse me, Pema.”

She bolted out of the room and into the courtyard. The evening breeze—scented with the familiar tang of salt and yuzu—was cool against her still-wet face, the sun sinking low into the sea, and Kya could feel her whole body tremble as she watched the dot that must be Tenzin fly further and further into the distance. She felt wrung out and unsteady, her body light in that unpleasant way she associated with having just vomited.

A hand was on her shoulder, and she wanted to shrug it off, unable to bear being touched, but its grip was strong and Kya found herself being whirled around.

“Kya I’ve been calling to you from halfway down the hill,” Lin’s brow furrowed as she took in Kya’s tear streaked face. “What’s wrong? Has someone been hurt?”

Kya could only shake her head mutely, tears flowing thick and fast again as Lin’s hand came up—gentle now—to her face.

“Kya, please. You’re scaring me.” Her voice was soft and so concerned, her touch so soothing, and in a moment it would all be gone. In a moment, the version of Lin who cared for her would be gone, replaced with betrayal and anger and disgust.

When Kya finally spoke, she was choking on the words.

“I’m sorry—Lin, I’m so sorry.”

Chapter Text

Lin had never believed in destiny. Toph had always taught her that people didn’t succeed because of outside powers, they succeeded on their own merit, and they failed the same way. It was sign of weakness, Toph said, to blame your own mistakes on some intangible force, yet the thought chasing itself around Lin’s mind as she sat—leg bouncing, fingers tapping incessantly—on the steps outside the main house at Air Temple Island, was that it was always going to end like this.

She could see the little red strings stretching back and back and back, all the way to the genocide of the Air Nation, mapping out all the reasons why it had come to this. The result, no matter how she looked at it, seemed so inescapable that she wanted to laugh at herself for ever thinking she was in control. She felt calmer than she had imagined as she waited for Tenzin’s return; the decision had been taken out of her hands, after all, and there was a strange freedom in knowing there was nothing she could do to change it now.

She’d at least mitigated the situation as best she could. Once Kya had calmed down—and Lin didn’t have time to process the sick guilt and shame she’d felt at Kya’s stuttered, terrified apologies—Lin had sent her back to Lin’s apartment with Opal. The two of them could look after each other there, and they’d be out of the way for Tenzin’s return. Opal didn’t need to hear whatever accusations Tenzin would hurl—rightfully so—at Lin; she would want to help, to try to de-escalate the situation, and that would only make things worse.

There had been no way to reassure Pema that they weren’t in urgent peril—the woman had been through enough in the last six months—without telling her the truth. Lin didn’t know what she had expected—if she’d expected anything at all—from Pema’s reaction, but she certainly hadn’t thought it would be so businesslike. Pema took only a few moments to stare blankly at Lin before she nodded and said,

“I’ll make sure the children get to bed. We’ll talk to them about it when you’re both ready.”

Then she’d bustled from the room, leaving Lin to frown after her.

Rather than pacing a trench into Pema’s neatly swept floor, Lin took herself away to the courtyard to pace a trench into the stone flags there. It ought to have been comforting to feel the island’s familiar vibrations beneath her feet, but instead it was as though the very earth of the place chastised her. This island knew her, knew them better than any living person. Lin knew it was just her paranoid imagination, but she couldn’t help thinking about all the steps that had been taken across these very stones before—all the times she had limped to Katara with a grazed knee, or when Tenzin had taken a terrified run-up to his first glider flight. She remembered all the times she had staggered, bruised and bloody, into the house so Tenzin could rub balm on her wounds and scold her for not going to a healer in the city. Aang had built this island as a sanctuary for the few remaining airbenders, and Lin had deprived it of Opal’s first faltering little steps, her childish rushing about, the moment her feet left the ground and she took to the air for the first time.

She’d deprived herself of that, as well, and Tenzin, and Katara. She could see it so clearly, though there was no world in which it would ever have happened: Opal’s skinny little child’s feet slapping the ground as her brow furrowed in concentration, Tenzin watching her intently as Lin sat in this very spot, the pair of them smiling as she took off, slightly unsteady, into the air.

Her head whipped around when she heard the familiar flutter of Tenzin’s robes and the snap of his glider closing. In the almost-darkness his face was shadowed, and Lin wasn’t even sure if he’d noticed her sitting there. Her legs shook as she rose, staring determinedly forward despite how much she wanted to run, or to fall to her knees, or to disappear into the cool, welcoming earth.

“Tenzin.”

He didn’t even look up as he strode past her towards the house.

“Not now, Lin.”

She should have expected this; Tenzin had always run away from things that were hard, but he couldn’t run from this. It wasn’t fair on any of them, and it wouldn’t help him in the long run.

“You’re going to have to face me sometime, Tenzin,” Lin said, hoping that only she could hear the tremor in her voice. “You can’t just run away from this.”

It was the right (and the wrong) thing to say, because he stopped dead in his tracks, whirling around as he spat,

“Like you’ve been doing for the last two decades?”

It was a fair hit, and Lin flinched. She certainly hadn’t expected this conversation to be easy, but she’d never seen such steel in Tenzin’s eyes: he looked at her now with more scorn, more vitriol than she’d ever seen him look at Amon, or at Zaheer. Her heart was pounding and her stomach churning in a way it never seemed to when they were up against unbeatable odds with the fate of the world on the line—this mattered so much more than any of that.

“I never wanted to hurt you, Tenzin,” she said, once she found her voice again. “Despite how this looks, I didn’t do it to punish you, or to get some kind of vengeance. I did it because I genuinely thought it would be best for her.”

Lin had rehearsed that little speech a hundred times in the last few months; she’d thought there was no point in trying to explain every ounce of fear and anger that had led her to this decision. It would all just sound like excuses. Simplicity would be best. But with Tenzin standing before her in the flesh, it suddenly felt hideously insufficient. Tenzin clearly thought so too, because he only stared at her for a moment before he said, incredulous,

“You’re not even sorry.”

Would that have helped, Lin wondered; would it have helped if she was sorry? Perhaps. She was sorry that she’d hurt Tenzin, that much was certainly true, but she couldn’t honestly say that she was sorry for sending Opal away. Whatever Su’s other faults, she’d been a better mother to Opal than Lin could ever have been; Lin couldn’t apologise for letting Opal grow up away from Republic City, free from the pressure of her parents’ combined legacies and the tension of their ruined partnership.

“Isn’t she happy?” Lin asked instead. “Isn’t that what matters?”

“I don’t know, Lin!” Tenzin snapped. She could see the forced detachment and the blank disbelief falling from his face, his mouth setting into a hard line of anger. It had used to thrill her when they were younger—a promise of passion—but the fight Lin was squaring up for now wasn’t going to end with fevered embraces and cleared air. She didn’t know how it would end, if it ever ended. “I don’t know if she’s happy, because I barely know her at all. I can’t believe—after ten years of listening to me beg, of knowing how desperate I was, you really wanted to hide my own child from me.”

There was no denying it.

“I did.”

“You sent her to your sister rather than tell me she existed.”

Lin hadn’t considered how that particular detail might smart. Over their years together, Tenzin had spent so many hours listening to her rant and rage and cry over her sister; the belief that Lin had willingly sent their child to Zaofu must have been etching its own painful path through his mind. That, at least, she could fix.

“Zaofu was Kya’s choice, not mine,” she said. “I asked her not to tell me where she was sending the child.”

“Do you think that’s better, Lin? You would give what could have been the last hope of the Air Nation into the care of strangers.”

Tenzin had been spending too much time at city hall. He dropped accusations before her like the most experienced and cutthroat of Republic City’s prosecutors, just waiting for her to try to defend herself.

“I trusted Kya’s judgement,” she said. It was the truth, and that was all she could give him now.

“You asked my sister to help you with this. You convinced her I was so unworthy that I didn’t deserve to see my own child.”

That wasn’t how it had been, Lin had never tried—or even wanted—to turn Kya against Tenzin. It had never been about that, no matter how angry she’d been.

“Tenzin—” she started, but he carried on as if she hadn’t spoken.

“I barely saw Kya for ten years, Lin,” he said, as if Lin had been holding her captive, whispering poison into Kya’s ears. “She was a ghost at my wedding, and she didn’t even meet Jinora until she was nearly three. I thought my own sister hated me, and you’re not even sorry.”

Lin had told herself she wouldn’t get defensive, that she would only listen and tell him the truth when he wanted to hear it, but apparently he’d made up his own version of the truth where Lin was nothing but a vengeful harpy, bent on ruining his life in as many ways as possible. She shouldn’t have ever hoped he was still one of the few people who saw every part of her, who didn’t simply assume the worst.

“Fine!” Lin snapped. She could feel tears pricking behind her eyes but she wasn’t going to let them fall. She’d tell him what he wanted to hear and then she’d leave him in peace with his imagined version of her villainy. “I’m sorry I roped Kya into this. I’m sorry I didn’t trust myself with our child. I’m sorry I never wanted to have kids in the first place. I’m sorry I wasn’t selfless enough to smother my dreams and squander my abilities so I could be the womb of the Air Nation. I’m sorry I’m not your mother.”

She snapped her mouth shut, cursing her own temper. Tenzin looked shocked, as if he hadn’t expected her to bite back, but his expression darkened as he said,

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lin said, hoping he could read her regret in her body, but there was no taking the words back now that she’d spat them into the air.

“Something else I wouldn’t understand, no doubt,” Tenzin said. The words were heavy, carrying a weight that Lin couldn’t see.

“What?”

“You and Kya—you act as though I’m some… pampered boy who could never understand your suffering. It never occurred to either of you, did it, that there might be elements of my life that you didn’t understand.” His hands clenched into fists at his sides, and Lin shivered as a gust of chill wind brushed against the back of her neck.

“Tenzin—”

Her voice was small, and the cold breeze was picking up faster than was natural, and she didn’t even know if he’d heard her.

“I was barely ten when my father told me how important it was that I have children,” he continued, “how the fate of our entire nation rested on my shoulders. I was forty when Jinora was born, Lin.”

“I know that.”

The longer he spoke, the less Lin found she had any explanation for him. She’d known all this since she was a child herself—there had been no escaping it—but having it laid out before her made her stomach churn with guilt. Despite the rushing of the wind in her ears, every word was clear and she could hear the venom in his voice.

“That’s three quarters of my life spent worrying that it would be my fault that my people died out; half my life spent loving you and wondering why I was being punished for it.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Lin could see leaves whipping past them, circling them, but Tenzin himself seemed not to notice. His eyes were fixed on her, their usually placid blue turned cold and flinted. When she took a breath to speak—to shout over the roar of the wind—Lin thought the air felt thinner.

“Tenzin, I never—”

“Don’t,” he snapped, and Lin bit her tongue. Not in the entire half century of their relationship had she ever seen him lose control like this—not as a child, not as a teenager, not even during the most tempestuous moments of their romance. The speed of the wind picked up again, but his every word was still painfully clear. “You whine about legacy, about pressure, as if you have half an idea. As if the prestige of the Beifong name is the same—is more important than the survival of an entire race. You and Kya sat together and consoled about how your parents didn’t love you enough, and decided it was ample reason to subject me to another half decade of believing myself to be the last of my kind. You say it wasn’t a punishment, Lin, but either you were stupid enough to believe your own bullshit or you wanted to hurt me.”

This time, when Lin took a breath to try—she didn’t know what—to soothe him or to shout him down—she could barely fill her lungs. She reached for him instinctively, gasping his name, and his eyes widened as he took in the hurricane around them and the terror in her face.

Immediately, the storm ceased, and Tenzin’s hand was at her elbow, guiding her down to sit on the steps as she gulped in lungfuls of air. His fingers went beneath her chin to gently tip her head back a little, and then the air changed again—each breath felt fresher, clearer, until Lin reached out to pat Tenzin’s arm signalling that he could stop.

Her heart was still beating as if she’d chased a thief through half the city, and her hands shook where they grasped the step beneath her. It was almost completely dark now, and Tenzin’s face was shadowed beneath the yellow glow of the house’s lamps. The sound of his inhilation was soft beside her, and Lin knew what he was going to say before he began:

“Lin, I’m so—”

“Don’t.”

She couldn’t stand to hear him apologise. He’d inflicted other hurts—far worse—on her in the last half a century, and she on him. If they started apologising to each other now, they’d never stop. Tenzin sighed, but didn’t try to continue. The pair of them sat, watching the moonlight dance across the tops of the trees, for a long while in silence until Tenzin said,

“Where did we go wrong, Lin?”

“Shit, I don’t know,” Lin said. “Where do you want to start?”

Tenzin shook his head.

“I don’t mean that. I mean where did we go so wrong that you would rather do this than tell me you were pregnant? What did I do to make you hate me so much?”

Lin wanted to say she’d never hated him, and it might not necessarily have been a lie: love and hatred had been so tangled up in the months before Opal was born that she couldn’t have honestly said which was which.

“You really can’t think of anything?” she asked instead.

“Well I—” Tenzin stammered, suddenly sheepish. “I know I didn’t handle things as well as I could have.”

It was such a Tenzin way to put it that Lin almost smiled. All her anger, all that betrayal was so long ago now, but something inside her still twisted painfully as she remembered:

“You fucked me like I was the only thing that mattered in the world, and the next day you left me for a teenager.” Lin would have given her right arm to be able to say it without her voice trembling, but she was too exhausted to keep herself steady. “Shit, Tenzin, what did you want me to do?”

In any other situation, Lin might have felt vindicated to hear the emotion in Tenzin’s voice, but tonight the soft pain of it made tears spring to her eyes.

“Anything,” he said. “Anything but this.”

There was so much still unspoken, but Lin could find no reply for him. She tilted her head back, closing her eyes for a moment, breathing deeply. When she opened her eyes, she could see the stars twinkling against the dark; they weren't visible amid the bright lights of the city, but from the island Lin could sit for hours and watch the way they freckled the face of the sky. She and Tenzin had spent so many nights like this as teenagers, laid out languid on the grass of the cliffside, hands almost touching. She wondered if he remembered that, too.

“I think you should go, Lin.” Tenzin’s voice was low and quiet, but it shattered her memory of peace.

“Yeah, okay,” Lin said, heaving herself from the step. They weren’t done with this conversation, and the promise of continuing it sat like a stone in her stomach.

“Tenzin, I—”

“Don’t.”

He didn’t look at her, but Lin nodded her acknowledgement before she turned to make her way down the hill towards the ferry. When she glanced back he was still there, silhouetted by the light from the windows. Though it was too dark to see his face, the ragged rise and fall of his chest told Lin that he was crying.

Chapter Text

The waiting felt endless, though it couldn’t have been longer than a few hours, all told. Kya felt Opal’s wide eyes on her as she busied herself around Lin’s apartment, rooting through Lin’s cupboards to find something to cook—though neither of them had any appetite, and Kya doubted Lin would want to eat when she returned. Still, there were a couple of fillets of fish in the ice box, and some potatoes in the back of the pantry; if she could find some onions and the right spices from the rack above the sink, Kya could make a passable version of her mother’s salkuuyaq.

Opal’s steps were light, and Kya jumped when she heard her niece’s soft voice behind her.

“Can I help?” Her fingers were working furiously at the sleeves of her tunic, and Kya nodded.

“Sure, honey. Could you chop these for me?” She pushed the potatoes towards Opal, along with a knife from the block. “Then when you’re done, put some rice on.”

Opal nodded, and soon the kitchen was full of the rhythmic sound of chopping. For half an hour Kya lost herself in the preparation of flavoured oil and the soft glistening of fish as she brushed the mixture over the flesh, stopping only to murmur instructions to Opal at her side. Kya wondered if Zaofu’s chef ever deigned to prepare Water Tribe food; she wondered if Su—who was half Water Tribe herself, after all—ever encouraged Opal to explore that part of her heritage.

When the dish had disappeared into the oven, Kya was dismayed to see how little time had passed, and she busied herself once again with cleaning and tidying the kitchen. She could wash the dishes with her bending in half a moment, but found herself scrubbing them stubbornly by hand. Opal said nothing as she came to stand at Kya’s side, taking the wet dishes and running a tea towel over them, before setting them down to rest on the counter.

Another ten minutes. Was the clock running slow?

Lin’s apartment was fairly neat—she was barely home enough to make a mess—but there was a fine coating of dust on many of the surfaces. Another quick rummage through the cupboards beneath Lin’s sink yielded a dusting brush and several soft cloths. It would be nice for Lin, Kya decided, to come home to a clean apartment. That always made Kya feel better after a hard day.

By the time the surfaces were free of dirt—they gleamed in the warm light of the lamps—it was time to take the salkuuyaq out of the oven. The smell was familiar and comforting, but her stomach was still in too many knots to eat. Still, she could make sure that Opal had something.

She spooned two portions into bowls—she didn’t want Opal to feel awkward eating alone—and brought them over to the couch. This was not the kind of meal that needed to be eaten at the table, Kya decided (though Lin’s couch wasn’t much more comfortable than her kitchen chairs). She tucked her feet up beneath her as she passed the bowl to a fidgeting Opal.

“Not quite proper Southern Water Tribe fare,” she admitted, “but close enough. We’ll have to get you down to the South Pole sometime, my mom makes the best salkuuyaq. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to meet you.”

Opal smiled weakly back.

“I’d like that,” she said, but she didn’t move to eat any of the food in front of her. She pushed the fish around the bowl, tapping her spoon against the sides. Kya gathered up a spoonful herself, as if she needed to show Opal what to do, and shoved it into her mouth before she could feel sick at the thought. Kya couldn’t have said whether her attempt at her mother’s recipe was anywhere near the original, because she could barely taste it. Still, she chewed and swallowed and tried to smile.

Opal poked at one of her potatoes, looking up at Kya and then down at her bowl as if struggling to decide whether to speak. Then it hit Kya like a boulder:

“You’re vegetarian,” she said. “Of course you are. I’m so stupid. Let me make you something else.” Kya reached for Opal’s bowl, snatching it from her hands and hurrying back towards the kitchen. How could she have overlooked something so obvious?

“No, Kya it’s fine, really,” Opal was saying. “I’m not hungry anyway.”

She must have followed Kya into the kitchen, because she was there when Kya turned around, hovering in the doorway with her sleeves pulled down over her hands.

‘You need to eat something, Opal,” Kya said. “Here, it’ll take me two minutes to whip up something to go with this rice. I think Lin had some cabbage in the pantry—some tofu would be good, but I know Lin hates it.” Kya pulled a jar from the top of the cabinet, barely even registering what was inside. “I’m so stupid,” she muttered as she pulled down packets and tins and jars from the cupboard. They all had labels, but the labels were wrong.

“Kya,” Opal’s voice was tight and small, “Kya, stop.”

Her eyes were wide and worried, tears beginning to spring into their corners, and Kya had caused that. For a moment Kya couldn’t breathe, caught as she was staring at the quiver of Opal’s lip.

“I’m supposed to be looking after you,” she said weakly, aware even as she spoke of how badly she was failing.

“I just—I’d like to go to bed,” Opal said, and Kya nodded.

“Sure, honey. Of course.” Her attempt at a smile must have been disconcerting, but it was better than the alternative. “Do you need anything before you go? A glass of water? Some tea?”

“Water is fine.”

“Water, okay. I can do water.” A few hours ago—just a few hours ago, before everything had gone to shit—Kya would have made a joke of that, but now it was all she could do to keep her hand steady as she passed the glass to Opal.

“Thanks. I’ll see you in the morning,” Opal said.

“See you in the morning, sweetheart.”

She watched Opal retreat to her bedroom, letting her knees finally hit the edge of the couch as she heard Opal’s door slide shut. Kya only half noticed how unforgiving Lin’s couch was as she collapsed onto it, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. Any other time, she’d let the tears come, uncontrolled, until she was utterly wrung out, but the walls of Lin’s apartment were thin, and Opal would surely hear her sobbing. The poor girl didn’t need to watch Kya fall apart any more than she already had; Opal had been more adult about this entire situation than any of the actual adults who were supposed to be protecting her. Kya took a few deep breaths, seeing white flares burst against her closed eyelids, before she drew her hands away again. She was still standing on the precipice: unsteady but not yet falling. Her mind raced, trying not to linger on any thought for too long lest it send her spiralling again, and she knew she ought to get up and attempt to distract herself, but even moving felt like too much of a risk.

It was several long minutes before Kya felt stable enough to rise, gathering some books from the table and reshelving them among Lin’s others. There were two bowls of now cold salkuuyaq sitting on the kitchen counter, and Kya kept her mind carefully blank as she put the food back into the dish, transferring the whole thing to Lin’s coolbox. Lin, at least, would eat it, Kya was certain. She’d always loved Kya’s mom’s cooking. Perhaps that was why Kya had wanted to make some for Opal. Her vision misted, and she dropped the lid of the coolbox abruptly, bringing her hands back to eyes. This time, she only had to watch the flares flash for a few moments before she felt almost steady again. She looked around the kitchen, and decided to wash the dishes.

Kya was drying off the final dish—by hand, it was far more soothing than doing it with her bending—when she heard the soft click of the door opening, and the thud of Lin’s boots being kicked off. She set down the plate, took another deep breath, and emerged into the lounge, where Lin was pouring herself a large measure of whiskey.

“How—” was all Kya managed before Lin cut her off.

“Exactly as awful as you’d imagine,” she said, bringing the glass to her lips and taking a long sip. “I don’t want to talk about it. How’s Opal?”

The question brought fresh tears to Kya’s eyes, but she blinked them back and hoped the tightness of her voice didn’t betray her as she said,

“She’s gone to bed.”

Lin looked up from her drink, eyes sharp and worried. Kya should have known better than to think she could conceal her upset. Her legs felt like jelly, her lip trembled, and her eyes were hot and stinging.

“What’s wrong?” Lin asked, “Is she alright?”

“She’s fine,” was all Kya managed before the dam burst and she was gasping for air as the tears poured down her cheeks. “Sorry. I just—sorry,” she choked out as she dropped down onto the couch, trying to quiet her hitching sobs. It wasn’t working, though, and her breaths were only coming shorter and shorter.

“Hey, come on, Kya. Breathe.” A warm hand landed on her back, smoothing up and down as Kya struggled to get air.

“I’m sorry,” Kya gasped. “I just, I wanted to make her some dinner but I—I forgot she’s vegetarian and she hasn’t had any dinner and I was supposed to—I told you I’d look after her and I failed.”

“Kya…”

“And—and Tenzin hates me for lying and you probably hate me for telling the truth, and I don’t—I don’t—I don’t know how to make it better when I’ve done everything so wrong, Lin.”

Lin didn’t reply for a long moment, and Kya knew she ought to leave. Lin was probably furious with her—Kya had just said so herself—and she ought to just leave so Lin could grieve in peace. She didn’t know where she would go—she hadn’t taken any money with her when she’d left Air Temple Island, too keyed up to think about anything beyond the hideous conversation she’d had with Tenzin, and the awful fury in his eyes—but Kya was used to making the best of things. Perhaps if she went to a bar she could find someone who would buy her a drink, help her forget for a while, give her a place to sleep. It wouldn’t be too difficult to—

“You’ve done nothing but your best, Kya.” The sound of Lin’s voice took Kya by surprise, and she stared blankly up at Lin, barely understanding. “Sure, maybe everything’s gone to shit,” Lin was still talking, and apparently she wasn’t demanding that Kya leave, “but none of that is your fault, and no-one hates you. Everything you’ve done, Kya, was done out of love. Who else can say that? Certainly not me.”

Lin’s voice was low and certain, her eyes wide and glistening with unshed tears of her own. Her touch was gentle as she wiped saltwater from Kya’s face, and despite the callouses on her palm, Kya wanted to lean into the touch, to let Lin hold Kya together with those strong hands, just for a little while. She didn’t want to think anymore, and her mind was blissfully blank as she leaned forward to press her lips against Lin’s.

If Lin was shocked, she barely showed it, tensing for less than a second before the hand that had been cradling Kya’s face moved to sink into her hair. Lin’s other arm came around her waist, and Kya scrambled eagerly towards her, fists tight in the thin material of Lin’s shirt. She let out a desperate little sound as she sank onto Lin’s lap, her thighs bracketing Lin’s hips, and then Lin’s tongue was hot in her mouth, making Kya shiver. Last time they’d done this—it felt like a hundred years ago—Lin had been hard and dominating, as if she could prove herself with the force of her kisses; now, their desperation was gentle, apologies written with trembling fingers and soft tongues. Lin pulled away only to leave a trail of open-mouthed kisses down Kya’s neck and onto her chest. Her hands bracketed Kya’s ribcage, and her thumbs stroked the sensitive undersides of Kya’s breasts. Kya was almost embarrassed at the petulance of her whine as she tugged at Lin’s hair—forcing Lin to abandon the little bruise she was sucking into the tender skin of Kya’s neck—so she could have Lin’s mouth again. Her hips began to grind little circles against Lin’s thighs as she sucked Lin’s bottom lip into her mouth, and Lin’s grip tightened around her waist; the breath was almost driven from Kya’s body by the force of it, but it only spurred her on. They were so close, but she wanted to be closer, wanted to feel the soft warmth of Lin’s skin against her own, and she let go of Lin’s hair to pull at the straps of Lin’s white tank.

“Off, off,” she breathed against Lin’s lips, and Lin pulled back only far enough to comply. The tank came up and over Lin’s head easily, but she tensed as Kya’s hands found her bare waist.

“Is this okay?” Kya murmured into the smooth skin of Lin’s shoulder, and she felt Lin nod in response.

“Yeah, yeah it’s nothing,” Lin panted as she pressed a soft kiss to the side of Kya’s neck. “It’s just, with other people I’d always get nervous at this part—afraid they’d see these, and they’d know.”

Lin guided Kya’s hands from where her thumbs had been brushing against the bottom of Lin’s bindings, bringing them to rest on her hips, where white marks stretched across her already pale skin like bolts of lightning. To a healer’s eye the marks were clearly caused by pregnancy, but similar ones were fairly common among women in general, and indicated nothing more than a growth spurt or a sudden increase in weight. Kya traced the lines with her fingertips, remembering the way Lin’s skin had once stretched out over a protruding belly. There was no sign of such a belly now; Kya could see the faint outline of muscle beneath soft skin, but despite how much she wanted to lean in, to be comforted by the warmth and the shelter of Lin’s body, something gave her pause.

“This is such a bad idea,” she said, thumbs still stroking the white stripes on Lin’s belly.

“That’s only occurring to you now?” Lin smiled wryly as she spoke, her lips red and shining, and Kya was so tempted to kiss her again.

“Opal deserves better than this,” she said instead. It was to remind herself as much as Lin, though Lin didn’t seem to want reminding.

“I wasn’t aware that this had anything to do with Opal,” she said, and Kya sighed.

“Don’t be obtuse, Lin. She doesn’t need the adults in her life to be making things any more complicated than they already are.” Kya finally drew her hands away, missing the warmth of Lin’s skin immediately. Lin only frowned up at her.

“Would you call this complicated?” she asked. It was as though Kya had been doused in cold water, her desire ebbing away more quickly by the second. Without it, Kya was only sad and frightened and disappointed again.

“Yeah, Lin,” she said. “I would.”

To her credit, Lin didn’t attempt any further rebuttal, only nodded with a soft sigh.

“I’m going to—I’m gonna go get changed, then,” she said, but she made no move to shift Kya off her lap. “You’re still welcome to sleep in with me, if you want. If that’s not too complicated for you.”

“Well I’m hardly gonna sleep out here on this couch, Lin,” Kya said, because she was weak, and because she couldn’t stand the thought of sleeping alone. “It’s like a rock.”

“That’s how I like it.” The beginnings of a smile were tugging at the edges of Lin’s mouth, and Kya couldn’t help but laugh.

“Of course you do. Go on then.” She slipped out of Lin’s lap, straightening her clothes as Lin picked up her discarded shirt and made her way towards her bedroom.

Kya stayed put for a few long minutes, trying not to think too hard about what had almost happened. Her relationship with Lin over the last two decades had existed in chiaroscuro: loaded and empty, distant and intimate. As much as Kya craved Lin’s forgiveness (and the softness of her skin) she resented everything that Lin had demanded of her.

Still, none of it would stop her following Lin to bed, sleeping with their limbs entwined. It wouldn’t do for either of them to be alone tonight, and enough hard truths had been spilled in the last hours. Hers could wait a little longer.

Chapter Text

When she had returned to Air Temple Island the day before, Opal had thought that at least there was space here. At least on the island she could remove herself from the conflict that her presence caused, rather than lying in Lin’s spare room, staring at the ceiling and listening to Lin and Kya’s muffled voices; she hadn’t been certain who was crying, and she could only make out a few spare words. Her name chief among them.

Opal had been tense from the moment she stepped into the kitchen the morning after; both Kya and Lin were apparently refusing to acknowledge what had gone on the day before, while Opal herself pretended not to see the dark bruise at the nape of Kya’s neck. They were trying to protect her, but Opal wasn’t a child. She was plenty old enough to know that all this unrest, all this tension was caused by her presence, and being forced to sit at the side, just imagining what was being said, was as frustrating as it was anxiety inducing. Opal had wished that she could just know, for certain, what was being said, because then, at least, her imagination couldn’t come up with anything worse.

That had been a stupid thought, she decided, perched on the roof of the main house, wishing she could move but too terrified that if she made any noise she would be discovered. The conversation between Tenzin and Pema was hushed and tense, but the breeze carried their words up through the open window to where Opal sat, frozen. She’d barely seen the family since she arrived quietly on the island the previous evening—after so many months of hating the secrecy, Opal found she didn’t now know what to say to Tenzin, or to Pema. Should she apologise? Should she just continue on as normal? Nothing was different, and everything was different, and she simply had no idea how to proceed.

It didn’t help that she’d come up here to be alone, and had somehow found herself in the middle of a marital spat—one that seemed more and more likely to be about her by the minute.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, Pema.” Tenzin sounded tired, which hardly surprised her. Opal herself had barely slept the last two nights. “I’m merely—I’m confused, that’s all. I thought you’d be on my side with all this.”

“I am on your side,” Pema said curtly. “Lin should have told you the truth.”

“So why do I feel as though I’ve done something to upset you.”

“I don’t know, Tenzin. You tell me.” If she was less tense, Opal might have laughed at how much Pema sounded like her mom when she was chastising the twins. Her heart twinged as she thought of Zaofu.

“Pema, please.”

For a few long moments, Opal really thought Pema was going to leave him hanging, but then she said:

“Do you know when her birthday is?”

“Whose birthday?”

“Opal’s.”

Opal’s heart sank. She didn’t know what her birthday had to do with anything, but the mere fact of her birth had already been enough to cause countless fights over the last months. Kya kept telling her that none of this was her fault, that the adults were only angry with each other—not with her, never with her—but it was hard not to feel responsible anyway.

“I—no,” Tenzin admitted.

“Not even an inkling?” Pema asked, her voice sweetly barbed. “She’s your daughter, Tenzin.”

It still sounded strange to hear, and it must have sounded strange to Tenzin, too, because she heard him take a deep, but unsteady, breath before he replied.

“I don’t see what Opal’s birthday has to do with your being angry with me.”

“Humour me.”

“I suppose—I suppose if Lin managed to hide the pregnancy from everyone, it must be late summer, or early fall.”

“It’s fall. The week after the Moon Festival.”

Opal neither knew when Pema had taken the time to find out her birthday—she was oddly touched by it—nor why it was significant. Tenzin seemed to know, however, because he let out a nervous,

“Ah.”

“Almost nine months to the day after we got together,” Pema said, and Opal felt vaguely sick.

“Pema—”

“But the funny thing is, Tenzin,” Pema continued, “you’d been telling me for weeks that it was over between the two of you.”

There was a long pause, as if Tenzin was choosing his words carefully. Opal sat, taut as a bow string, waiting for his reply. When he finally spoke, Tenzin’s voice was measured and deliberate.

“You knew we were still together.”

“That’s not—I was under the impression that the pair of you were only still a couple because breaking up was too much effort. You didn’t love each other anymore.”

This time, Tenzin’s response was immediate.

“I never told you I didn’t love her, Pema.”

Opal could hardly call herself a relationship expert, but she knew that was not the right answer.

“Yes, you—” Pema tried to insist, but Tenzin cut across her:

“I told you that we didn’t work anymore. I told you we had grown apart, that we weren’t happy. I never told you I didn’t love her. I made that choice at the beginning, because I didn’t want to lie to you.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry then, darling.” Pema’s voice was thick with sarcasm and tears (Opal could feel her own eyes pricking with frustration and guilt). “Forgive my misunderstanding.”

She couldn’t stand it. She had to leave. Uncaring if they discovered her, Opal stood, snapped open her glider, and took off towards the beach.

Usually, flying made Opal feel free—the lightness of it, the way her bending was becoming more and more attuned to the currents around her by the day—but this time it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t catch enough wind, couldn’t get away fast enough: the day was balmy, but Opal wanted a hurricane. She wanted something so enormous that no-one could ignore it, that no-one could step around it and hide from it. She wanted it to blow through the world and leave what devastation it might, because at least then it was done.

As the edges of the island began to drop away beneath her, Opal knew she ought to turn back. The currents were unpredictable over the ocean, and Tenzin had told all the new airbenders to stay in the skies over the island for the time being. She didn’t want to stay on the island, though. She didn’t want to stay on the island or go into the city or even go home to Zaofu; Opal wanted to stay right here in the air above the ocean where no-one could claim her.

Taking a long, deep breath in, Opal shut the wings of her glider and let herself fall. It was bliss—her heart in her throat, her stomach doing flips, the roar of the air drowning out her thoughts—and Opal let herself plummet towards the beach, watching the ground come closer and closer and closer and closer until she finally snapped the wings of her glider open again. She hadn’t anticipated the force of the wind’s impact against the wings of her glider, and for a few heart stopping seconds she struggled for control as the glider veered towards the ocean, almost capsizing her. By the time she’d righted herself, she was only a few feet above the ground, and her feet made a soft splash as she landed in the wet sand of the eastern beach.

Her legs were shaking, but they held her as she made her way towards the rock face, slumping against it and relishing the smell of the saltwater and the sting of it on her face. No-one was watching her down here, worrying about her. No-one was telling her what she should or shouldn’t say, how she should or shouldn’t feel. She was finally, blissfully, alone.

“Shit. Shit shit shit. Stupid freaking sand.” A familiar voice drifted up from further along the beach, and Opal smiled to herself. So much for being alone, but at least it wasn’t anyone related to her.

She hadn’t seen much of Bolin since the destruction of the Northern Air Temple—mostly because she’d been avoiding everyone—and it was a surprise to see him on the island now. She’d almost forgotten that there were other people in the world, people who were rightfully concentrating on rather bigger issues than the ones that currently had Opal and her family in a stranglehold.

Opal couldn’t make out what Bolin was doing, but she heard him swear again, and smiled to herself. She made her way slowly down the beach towards him, trying to make as little sound as possible. It didn’t seem as though he would have noticed her either way: his face scrunched in concentration as he dug his feet further into the sand, his body tensing as though he was trying to bend the very bones of the world. His face reddened with the effort, his brow furrowing, jaw clenching, and Opal fought not to giggle. For a few long seconds, Opal thought nothing was happening, until she noticed a trickle of sand rising up from the wide expanse of the beach. She watched it for a few moments before she said,

“Good work. Even my grandmother can’t sandbend, y’know.”

Bolin shot upright, hand raking through his hair as he did so.

“Uh, hey—hey Opal.”

Hey, Bolin,” she said, hiding a grin. “Whatcha up to?”

“Oh I’m just—just trying out some sandbending,” he said, kicking the sand at his feet as if to demonstrate. “I always thought I was just a rocks guy but, y’know, turns out I’m also kind of a lava guy, so I was wondering if maybe…”

“Maybe you could be a sand guy, too,” Opal offered, and Bolin shrugged.

“Yeah, maybe. I thought perhaps—maybe it’s stupid—but if I could be a lava guy and a sand guy then maybe I could be a glass guy.” He looked embarrassed by the admission, but the idea made Opal smile.

“Looks like you’ve been making some progress,” she said.

“Not a lot,” Bolin said, now attempting to carve out a hole in the sand with the toes of his shoes. “Sandbending is pretty particular to the desert people and I just can’t—I don’t know if the stance is different, or what, but it’s not working.”

“Seems like you just need a real teacher,” Opal said. It sounded awful, so noncommittal to her ears when she knew exactly how frustrating it felt: to know you had power but be helpless to harness it. She doubted if anyone in the world had experienced exactly what she had, but here was Bolin struggling to learn without a master, and all Opal wanted was to sympathise with him.

And why shouldn’t she? The secrecy had always been about Tenzin, after all, and he knew now, so why shouldn’t Bolin? Opal had been lied to for so long, and when the revelations came she had always been on the receiving end, never allowed to make any confessions of her own. What difference would telling one boy make? It was her own past to share, so why shouldn’t she?

“I used to do that when I was little,” she said, heart pounding, wondering if he could tell her nonchalance was feigned. “I practised my airbending every day, but I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so…” she shrugged, and Bolin nodded sagely.

“I feel you. The sandbenders are pretty reclusive so I don’t know if—” his eyes widened as her words sunk in “—wait. Hold up. Wait. Did you just say you could airbend when you were little?

Opal nodded, heart in her throat.

“Yeah.”

Bolin frowned, and Opal could almost see the cogs turning in his brain.

“Like, how little?” he asked.

“Since I was three.”

Bolin clapped a hand to his forehead, still staring at her, disbelieving.

“But that means you didn’t—you mean you’ve always—we gotta—” he said, frantically looking from Opal up to the house and back again “—whoa. Does Tenzin know about this?”

Opal could have laughed. It was the overwhelming question, after all.

“He does now,” she told him. Then, because she might as well: “He’s my father. My birth father, anyway.”

“He’s your—”

“Father.” She’d never said it out loud before.

“Right. Okay.” Bolin said. “And that would make your mother...”

“Lin.”

“Obviously. Yep. That makes sense. Since they used to, y’know, date and what have you. Probably—they would have done—y’know—things—that would result in a—you.” Bolin’s expression soured, as if that fact had never occurred to him until now, before he said, “I’m just gonna sit down here for unrelated reasons.” He slumped down onto the rock beside Opal, staring into the sand.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have just—” Opal started, but Bolin waved her apologies away.

“No, no it’s fine it’s just. A lot to take in.”

“Tell me about it.”

“How long have you known?”

“Since you guys came to Zaofu.”

Bolin’s eyebrows shot up, and he stared at her for a moment—as if she was a difficult math problem he had to solve—before he said,

“Wow. So you really were going through a lot.”

“What?” Opal asked, confused.

“Nothing. Never mind,” Bolin said quickly. “How is it all—uh—going?”

“You’ve known Lin longer than I have,” Opal said. “How do you think it’s going?”

Bolin didn’t say anything to that, and he didn’t need to. Opal should stop talking now, change the subject back to Bolin’s sandbending or to something entirely new. Instead she continued:

“She keeps saying that it’s all up to me, that we can have whatever kind of relationship I want but I don’t know what I want. We’ve—we’ve spoken about why she did what she did—and I get it—but I’m still a little angry with her.”

Bolin nodded.

“That makes sense.”

“But I hate it. I hate being angry with people. That’s not who I am. But I’m just so angry all the time now. With everyone. I’m angry with Lin for giving me away, even though I’ve been happy in Zaofu; I’m angry with Kya for helping her; I’m angry with my parents for never telling me the truth; I’m angry with Tenzin even though he didn’t know about any of this until two days ago!”

“Okay, that one you’re gonna have to explain to me,” Bolin said. Then, after a pause, “actually, there’s a lot you’re going to have to explain to me, but we can start with why you’re mad at Tenzin.”

“How much do you know about Lin and Tenzin’s relationship?”

“Not a lot. Just that they were together until he left her for Pema.”

“Right. I mean, I don’t know much more than that either but I heard him and Pema fighting just now.” Opal definitely shouldn’t be telling Bolin about this, but she needed to talk about it. Her chest had felt so heavy for months, and it wasn’t fair, and she didn’t need this fresh secret, this fresh guilt to weigh her down even further. “Pema said that I must have been—uh—conceived—” Bolin winced “—like… right before the break up. It’s stupid, and his love life isn’t really any of my business, but when I was little I used to dream about coming here and training with him. I didn’t know who he was to me then, but he was the only other person who could do what I could do, who could teach me all these things I didn’t know about myself, and I was so excited to meet him. Now I guess I’m just… disappointed? People say never meet your idols, right?” Opal couldn’t help laughing a little. “I guess finding out that your idol is actually your dad isn’t a common enough experience for there to be a saying about it.”

Bolin nodded seriously. He’d been listening intently to her, and his normally bright and open expression had drawn into a frown as he considered her words. In the long seconds before he replied, Opal found herself wishing he wouldn’t say anything at all. She knew how ridiculous it was to be angry over this, especially considering that—in the grand scheme of things—Tenzin was far less culpable than Lin or Kya or even her own parents. She knew that he had been lied to just as much as she had, that he was likely even more confused and hurt and desperate than she was, but that didn’t mean she wanted Bolin to tell her so.

But what was the point, then, of telling him everything? Why even voice her stupidest, meanest feelings if she didn’t want to be told they were wrong?

“Hey, uh, Opal?” She was so lost in her thoughts that Bolin’s soft voice took her by surprise.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want a hug?”

Oh, this was what she’d wanted.

Opal nodded, a few stubborn tears leaking from her eyes, and she fell gratefully against Bolin’s chest as his arms came around her. He was warm and solid, and despite the strength of his arms as they held her, Opal felt free. She’d forgotten that things—people—could be simple, after months of conflict and complicated feelings, it was soothing to sit here with Bolin and simply be held.

(Perhaps the little flutter of her heart made things slightly more complicated than they could be, but for now this was enough. It was enough to sit quietly, watching the waves wash onto the shore, feeling calmer than she had in months.)

Chapter Text

Lin’s stomach clenched nervously as the ferry docked. Even during the long years of hers and Tenzin’s estrangement, Lin had never felt nervous coming to Air Temple Island. She was always prepared to see Tenzin, to be aloof and cold and withholding just as he deserved. Now, though, it was Tenzin who was giving the silent treatment, and Lin who was the subject of his scorn.

Fortunately, Lin had never been one to let fear get in the way of her duty (with one glaring exception) so she stepped confidently from the ferry, hoping against hope that Tenzin was elsewhere this afternoon. She only needed to check in on Opal, who had decided there was no point hiding out at Lin’s apartment. Lin admired her daughter’s bravery, but she didn’t like to have Opal out of her sight for too long, especially when she had no idea how Tenzin was approaching this new revelation. He tended to avoid difficult conversations at all costs, and Lin didn’t want Opal to take it as a rejection if Tenzin hadn’t gotten around to processing his feelings and talking to her yet.

She made it as far as the dormitories without running into anyone, and the building itself was suspiciously quiet. Her steps echoed in the corridors, but she knocked on Opal’s door regardless. No reply came, and Lin was forced to conclude that there was some kind of airbender team activity going on elsewhere.

The air was crisp and clear—it always was on the island, even though it wasn’t that far removed from the city—and Lin let herself take a few deep breaths of it. Perhaps it was worth checking a few other spots before she gave up entirely: there had to be someone around who could pass on a message to Opal, at least.

Lin was painfully aware as she wandered that there were limited places on the island where she might find Opal but probably wouldn’t find Tenzin, and she cursed herself for her own cowardice. The training grounds were off limits, as was the meditation pavilion, and Lin could already feel the fruitlessness of checking the western cliffs as she followed the familiar path. To her surprise, there was a figure sitting on the cliff’s edge, hair pulled up into a familiar knot.

“Pema?” Lin called. “You haven’t seen Opal, have you?”

“I think she’s gone down to the training courses for the afternoon, everyone has,” Pema said, without turning around. Lin wouldn’t have blamed Pema for being angry with her, for not wanting to turn and face her, but the tone of her voice wasn’t barbed or standoffish (and Lin had plenty of experience with both of those tones from Pema). She sounded sad, her voice a little unsteady, as if she’d been crying.

“Is, uh—are you alright, Pema?” Lin asked. Pema shifted her position slightly, her posture straightening before she said,

“Tenzin and I are at odds.”

“Join the club,” said Lin. It was enough to make Pema turn, fixing Lin with such an exasperated look that Lin—for the first time in several decades—felt like a misbehaving schoolgirl. “Do you—uh, want to talk about it?” she asked, wincing.

Pema said nothing, which—in Lin’s experience—meant yes, but I’m struggling to express it. Lin took a few tentative steps forward and sat down in the grass next to Pema, looking out over the familiar view.

“You know,” she said conversationally, because Pema didn’t seem as though she was going to fill the silence any time soon. “I used to come here when Tenzin and I were fighting, too.”

“So that’s why he had a conniption that first time he found me out here,” Pema replied, and Lin couldn’t help smiling at the mental picture. “I always wondered, but he never said. He never talked about you.”

There was something loaded in that final sentence, and the silence that followed.

“Oh?” Lin prompted.

“He never, not even when—” Pema’s cheeks coloured, and she looked down at her lap. There was another long stretch of silence. “I’m not sure how, but you’re both the last and the only person I want to talk to about this,” Pema said eventually.

That meant it was probably something that Lin categorically did not want to hear, but she’d gotten them all into this mess. Listening to Pema was the least she could do.

“You can tell me as much or as little as you like, Pema. Or we can just sit here.” As much as Lin was selfishly hoping that Pema would choose the third option, she was still a little glad when Pema took a deep breath in before saying,

“When the new airbenders were arriving at the Northern Air Temple, I wanted them all to feel welcome.” It didn’t sound like much of an explanation, but Lin had been in enough interrogations to know that she was ramping up to something. “So I made sure to find out when everyone’s birthday was; I didn’t want anyone missing out because they were away from their families. I wanted them to feel like their fellow airbenders were family, too.” She looked at Lin as if this was significant somehow, but the lack of sleep over the past few days must have made Lin slow, because she could only frown back at Pema.

“That includes Opal,” Pema said, and the implication dawned—sudden and unwelcome—on Lin, who could only reply,

“Ah.”

“I might only be a housewife, but I can do basic math.” The hint of bitterness sounded alien from Pema’s mouth. “It’s ridiculous, I know, but I think if he’d told me then that you two were still— that you were still—um—”

Lin didn’t know when she’d stopped finding Pema’s primness irritating and started finding it endearing, but she could feel the smile curling at the edges of her mouth when she said,

“You have four children, Pema. I don’t think you’re a stranger to fucking.”

Pema bristled, like a bird trying to smooth down its own ruffled feathers.

“Well—yes,” she said, her cheeks colouring. “But what I’m trying to say is that back then I don’t think it would have bothered me the same way it does now. Back then I—I never exactly made an effort to see your good qualities. To me you were only this… woman who was making him unhappy, I never felt threatened by you as his romantic partner.”

“Gee, thanks,” said Lin, and Pema swatted her gently with the back of her hand. It was like being slapped by a butterfly.

“But now I know you,” Pema continued deliberately, “I know that you’re strong and loyal and selfless and—well, you look the way you do—”

“You coming on to me, Pema? Because I’m in enough trouble with Tenzin as it is—”

This time, Pema stuck her elbow into Lin’s side, and the sheer surprise of it was enough to tip Lin off balance.

“I take it all back,” Pema said, her smile uncertain but present. “You’re terrible.”

“Mmm,” Lin agreed, absently.

“I’m not accusing you—or him—of anything, really I’m not, it’s just…” Pema said, suddenly serious again. “It’s just that I can’t imagine any version of reality where I didn’t love him, but I know there’s a version of reality where he never loved me.”

Pema wasn’t wrong, Lin supposed—and the truth of it must hurt—but she wasn’t right either.

“If you wanna think about it like that, sure,” she said. “Maybe there is a world where Tenzin and I were happy together, and you only ever pined after him from a distance, but to be honest, Pema—to be honest, there was so much about us that didn’t work. Sure, the kids thing was the tipping point, but we’d be brought up so differently, we valued such different things that in the end… I don’t think it ever mattered how much we loved each other.” Lin shrugged. “You two, though, you just make sense.”

To her surprise, saying the words out loud hurt less than Lin had anticipated. She’d accepted a long time ago that Tenzin’s happiness wasn’t antithetical to her own, but she’d never quite wanted to admit that Pema was a far better match for him than she had ever been; accepting that had felt too close to letting them off the hook for the way they’d treated her.

“I think maybe—perhaps I was naïve to think that it was so simple,” Pema said slowly. “I do feel… betrayed, I suppose, but the longer I sit here, the less I’m angry with him and the more I’m angry with myself. I should never have imagined that it was so easy for him to let you go.”

“You were very young,” Lin said. She’d resented Pema’s youth at the time, but looking back she could hardly imagine being tossed in something so tempestuous when she was nineteen.

“I was,” Pema said. “But I’m older now; I should know better.”

Lin couldn’t necessarily disagree with that. It wasn’t in Tenzin’s nature to be deceitful, and though she didn’t know what he’d told Pema when they were—doing whatever they were doing behind Lin’s back, she did remember the way Pema had looked when Lin turned up on Air Temple Island that fateful evening. She’d simply stood there at Tenzin’s side, unashamed, looking at Lin as if she was barely even a person, just the villain of some torrid romance scroll, and Pema herself the heroine. Lin had been angry with Tenzin for years, but even in her least charitable moments, she’d never have honestly thought that he would nurture such an outlook in Pema.

She wasn’t sure whether this was exactly what Pema wanted to hear right now—or that she wasn’t thinking the same herself—so instead Lin said,

“I know I’m in no place to give this advice, but it was so long ago, Pema. You can be angry about it now if you want—and you’d be completely entitled to—but haven’t you been happy together?”

Pema’s voice was barely more than a breath when she replied,

“Yes.”

“So either this is enough to make you think twice about your future together—which it shouldn’t be—or it’s all in the past. Take it from someone who’s let her anger define her: it’s not worth it.”

Pema nodded mutely, her big eyes only a little wet.

“He really—he really needs you right now, Pema.”

“I know. Guru Nyima said that we should let go of our anger, that we should let the wind carry it away. I’ve always tried to do that.” It was such an airbender answer, and suddenly Lin wondered how Pema must have felt after Harmonic Convergence, knowing how many people had rejected their new power while she had been left without. Before she could decide whether or not to ask, Pema continued,

“I’ll remind Tenzin of that, too, if you like.”

For a moment, Lin thought she must have misheard.

“Really?” she asked. “I would have thought you’d—I guess I never thought you’d understand.”

Pema shrugged.

“I don’t, really. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not want children, but then I can’t imagine a lot of things. It doesn’t mean I can’t have sympathy for them. I might not fully understand your motivations, Lin, but I know you. You care so deeply about people, even if you struggle to show it sometimes.”

And didn’t that just sum up the whole fucking ordeal. If Lin had never cared about Opal at all, it wouldn’t have mattered who raised her; if she hadn’t been such an emotionally constipated fuck-up, she would have felt able to be the mother Opal deserved. She wanted to reply, to thank Pema for her kindness, but the words didn’t come, only a trembling in her limbs.

“I’m sorry, Lin.” Pema’s hand was light on Lin’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Doesn’t it frighten you? Aren’t you terrified every time you look at them?” Lin knew she sounded and looked desperate, but she was, and too much so to be embarrassed by it. “I look at Opal, and I just—I don’t know how to hold everything I feel about her. I don’t know how to show her without scaring her. I don’t know how to do any of this.”

Lin wouldn’t have blamed Pema for politely retreating at this point; she was going through her own difficulties, and she hadn’t signed up for all of Lin’s bullshit. Pema didn’t retreat, though, only frowned gently, thinking.

“Firstly: yes. Less so with each one,” she said. “When Jinora was born, though, I was frantic. I would check in on her multiple times a night, even though she slept like an angel. I just had to know she was still alive. A little of that might have been because of whose child she was, and the burden I knew she was carrying” —Lin felt a fresh wave of guilt at the knowledge that it wasn’t only Tenzin who had suffered from her secrecy, from the increased pressure to produce an airbending child— “but at least half was just regular old fear. All mothers go through something like it, I think. I can’t imagine having seventeen years of it all bottled up inside me.”

“But what am I supposed to do with it?” Lin insisted.

“Well, what did your Mom do for you?”

The laugh Lin let out was harsh and empty and it hurt her chest.

“My mom told me I was a disappointment and I should be less of a stick in the mud. She taught me nothing but bending and then left me to raise my little sister. How am I supposed to be a mom when no-one ever showed me how? I tried with Su but—” Lin gave another harsh wheeze of laughter “—I think that proved exactly how badly I can fuck things up.”

This time, it was Pema’s turn to say,

“You were so young.”

That was a fucking understatement. It wasn’t as though Lin didn’t know she’d been far too young for any of the responsibilities that her mom had foisted on her by refusing to shoulder them herself. She’d known it at the time, too—Bumi was a great big brother, but he’d never had to do Kya’s laundry or give Tenzin a bath. Katara did all of that, because it was what moms were supposed to do. She might have been young when she’d fucked things up with Su, but she’d been plenty old enough by the time she realised she was pregnant.

“Sure, I was young then, but I’m ancient now,” Lin pointed out. “Nothing much has changed.”

Pema clicked her tongue, admonishing.

“You still think you’ll be a bad mother because you had a bad mother?” she asked. Having it put so directly, so simply made it sound faintly ridiculous, even to Lin.

“Everyone says how like her I am,” Lin mumbled. She’d told herself that was a compliment when she was young, and most people certainly meant it that way. The older she got, though, the comparison felt less like an accolade and more like a condemnation.

“Even if that’s true, you’re your own person, Lin. The fact that you’re here now, worrying about doing right by Opal is already a sign that you want to be better than she was.” Lin was about to respond—a knee jerk reaction—to say that she was sure Toph did worry about them, even if she was shitty at showing it, when Pema continued: “Do you think Suyin is a good mother?”

The question took Lin by surprise.

“What?”

“Suyin,” Pema repeated. “Putting aside all your differences, all your issues with her: do you think she was a good mother to Opal and her other children?”

“Yes.” That was a simple answer. Even Lin wasn’t bitter enough to pretend it wasn’t true.

“So, to carry on with your line of thinking, who did she learn that from?”

Lin frowned. It was a good question.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?” Pema’s gaze was unwavering, and Lin tried to think who else might have given Su the skills that Lin herself so lacked. With Lin to babysit, Su hadn’t been foisted on Katara as much as Lin had, and she could hardly have learned much from their grandmother during her time in Gaoling. Perhaps Pema was trying to point out that Su had simply figured it out on her own, that Lin should try harder. She was still grasping for an answer when Pema smiled gently and said,

“Didn’t she learn it from you, Lin?”

Then it was like she was back in the acupuncture clinic, memories rushing in faster than she could process them. Bandages on scraped knees. Cups of warm water tipped over a little head. Neatly packed boxes of rice and an orange that was always left behind.

Lin couldn’t have said why it was this moment that finally snapped the frayed string with which she was holding herself together, but it was. The tears were stinging her eyes before she could think to hold them back, and they ran hot down her face as she heaved in a shuddering breath, hands flying to her face. This absolutely couldn’t be happening, she couldn’t be crying in front of Pema, of all people. It was mortifying enough that she was still so hopelessly out of her depth, but did she have to let it all crash down on her while talking to the woman who embodied succeeding in all the ways Lin had failed?

Her tears didn’t seem to care, though, because they came thick and fast, too fast for her breathing to keep up. She vaguely registered that Pema’s hand was running up and down her back, and the other woman was shushing her gently, as if she were a small child. She felt like it, too; the feeling too strong for her small body to carry. There was no controlling the outburst, and she could only wait it out until the force of her sobs could no longer be sustained.

“I’m sorry,” Lin sniffed, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “You shouldn't have had to deal with that.”

“Well,” Pema said, matter of fact, “someone had to. You shouldn’t have to carry all this alone.”

A small, stubborn part of Lin wanted to snap back that she’d dealt with enough on her own—she could handle this—but she was too tired and too grateful to give in to her shittier urges.

“Thanks,” she said instead, her voice still embarrassingly thick.

Pema continued to rub a soothing hand up and down Lin’s back. She looked out across the bay again, pensive, before turning back to Lin:

“If I’m not overstepping,” she began, and Lin had to bite back a laugh, it would be difficult to overstep after the embarrassing display Lin had just put on. “I’d like to help as much as I can. If you have any questions about parenthood or—anything, I suppose, I’m just a phone call or a ferry ride away.”

Lin could see why Pema was hesitant to offer. She bristled at the implication that she didn’t know what she was doing, that she would need Pema’s advice on how not to fuck this all up; but the truth was that she did need Pema’s help, and she could swallow her pride if it would make things easier for Opal. One thing still nagged at her, though.

“You don’t have to do that, Pema. Not for me. I know Tenzin doesn’t want me around.”

Pema huffed.

“Tenzin can deal with it. He wants what’s best for Opal, and so do I. She is my children’s sister, after all.”

Lin had never thought of it that way. While she was pregnant, she could only envisage her child being ostracised by Pema for being someone else’s, never accepted for being her family’s family. Then again, it was becoming abundantly clear that she’d rather underestimated Pema in general.

“Don’t know what that makes us.” Lin said. The history between them was thorny to say the least, and despite all they now shared, Pema surely didn’t consider her—

“Family, Lin,” she said, sliding her hand into Lin’s own, squeezing gently. “It makes us family.”

“You’re the expert, I guess.” Lin shrugged, but she returned Pema’s grip.

There was nothing more to say after that, but Lin found that she didn’t want to move from her perch on the clifftop. The comfort of Pema’s hand in hers helped clear Lin’s mind, and it was easy to enjoy the view of the sun setting red and purple into the sea.

She felt him approach before he spoke. His footsteps were light and familiar on the soil beneath them, and his heartbeat spiked when he saw the pair of them sitting together.

“What are you doing here, Lin?” Tenzin didn’t even sound angry, just cold, and somehow that was worse.

Lin scrambled to her feet, the serenity of the moment gone. She was suddenly and horribly aware of how red her eyes must be, and how blotchy her face.

“I came to check up on Opal—” Lin didn’t miss the way Tenzin flinched at the mention of their daughter’s name “—but I couldn’t find her in the dormitories.”

“So you thought you’d come up here?”

“Yes.”

“To talk to my wife about how unfaithful I am?”

Lin bit the inside of her mouth instead of replying, hot anger rushing through her at the sheer injustice of the accusation.

“To tell me I should forgive you,” Pema said, without turning around.

The cold expression dropped from Tenzin’s face so fast it would have been funny if it didn’t break Lin’s heart. The shock and the guilt written across his face was enough to make Lin forget her anger as fast as Tenzin had forgotten his own.

“Opal has been training with Jinora this afternoon,” he said. It wasn’t an apology, but Lin hadn’t been expecting one. “They should be back in the dormitories now.”

“Thank you.”

Lin chanced a look over her shoulder as she walked back towards the main house. Tenzin’s hand hovered just above Pema’s shoulder, uncertain whether his touch would be welcome. Lin’s heart ached for him; for all the anger she’s once felt towards them, Lin hated to see them suffer now. Slowly, so slowly, Tenzin let his hand come to rest on his wife’s shoulder, and Lin smiled as Pema reached up to cover his hand with her own.

Chapter Text

Someone was hovering outside Opal’s bedroom door. She could hear footsteps pacing the corridor outside, and something told Opal it wasn’t Jinora waiting to walk to breakfast with her. When she slid the door open, Tenzin whirled around, his face flushed with colour, arms retracted almost completely into his robe.

“Opal! I was hoping you’d be—how did you sleep?”

It was strange, but she’d been expecting something more momentous. She’d not exactly been avoiding him since he found out the truth, but she hadn’t sought him out, either. What were they supposed to say to each other in a situation like this? Was this the first time they’d ever been alone together? It wasn’t the same as it had been with Lin, when there had been accusations to throw and answers to demand.

“I slept well, thanks.”

“Good. Good,” he replied. He must have been there for a reason, but he didn’t seem to have anything further to say; he only looked at her as if she was some kind of pleasant apparition. It was slightly unnerving.

“So, what did you want?” Opal prompted, and Tenzin blinked in surprise.

“Oh—yes—of course—yes. I just came by to let you know that we—Pema and I—had a talk with the children last night about—all this. I just thought I ought to tell you. Meelo has… a lot of questions.”

Opal smiled.

“Really? I thought Ikki was usually the one with the questions.”

“Ikki… just needs a little time to adjust,” Tenzin said, his gaze dropping to the floor, and Opal felt a flutter of nervousness in her belly. “I’m sure she’ll come around. But if you do get cornered by… any of them, really—I don’t want you to feel blindsided.”

“I appreciate that. I also, um, I told Bolin a couple of days ago. I hope that’s alright.”

“Of course it is, Opal. I—I’m happy for anyone to know. Even if—even if we don’t know each other very well yet, Jinora speaks so highly of you, she’s so excited to welcome you into the family.” His face fell suddenly, as if he’d said something wrong, and he scrambled to correct himself. “If that’s—of course—if that’s what you want. I know you already have a family, you have your own father and siblings back in Zaofu but—I would very much like to get to know you properly.”

He was right. She did have a family in Zaofu, she did already have a father—one she missed very much—but it felt wrong to think that way where Tenzin was concerned. He had never given Opal up, he hadn’t chosen not to be a father to her. No matter how hard he tried to hide it, Opal could tell that he was desperate to reach out to her. She wasn’t sure if she was ready for that, but she could give him a smile and say,

“I’d like that, too.”

It was as if the cloud across his face had broken, and his smile washed his expression with light.

“Wonderful,” he said. “Perhaps you could join us for dinner one evening? Tomorrow night?”

Opal flinched.

“I’m staying in the city tomorrow night,” she said.

“Ah, so Lin did find you, then?” He seemed to struggle to even say her name, and Opal found herself fiddling with the hem of her training tunic as she replied,

“Yes.”

She didn’t know what she expected. Would he be hurt that she was choosing to spend time with Lin? Did he already resent her for keeping the secret from him as Lin had asked? If any of it was true, though, he didn’t show it.

“Good,” he said. “Perhaps at the end of the week, then?”

Opal smiled, relieved.

“That would be perfect.”

“Perfect,” Tenzin repeated.


Lin knew this would happen eventually, but she hadn't been prepared for Opal to look up from her half finished dinner and say:

“I, uh, I told Bolin about this. Us.”

She wasn’t surprised, but she wasn’t exactly prepared either. Opal had always hated the secrecy, and now that Tenzin knew, she didn’t really have any reason to keep it to herself. Lin couldn’t deny that it made her nervous, though. Bolin was hardly the person she would have chosen, but if Opal felt comfortable with him, then Lin was going to have to deal with it.

“Alright,” she said, not trusting herself to say anything more.

“You don’t seem like you approve.” Opal’s voice was tight, and Lin knew they were hovering on the edge of something she really didn’t want to jump into.

“Do the kids know?” She asked, and Opal nodded.

“Yes.”

That was something, at least. If Bolin blabbed (and he doubtless would to Mako at least—she should really get ahead of that one) then at least Tenzin’s children wouldn’t find out they had a sister via radio announcement or in some sleazy tabloid.

“Fine. Then it’s your prerogative to tell whomever you’d like,” she said. Then, because she couldn’t help herself, “ I just—I just wish you’d chosen someone a little more… discreet.”

Opal’s expression darkened, and Lin knew she’d fucked up.

“Tenzin said it was fine,” she said, her normally sweet voice suddenly sharp. “He’s not ashamed of me.” It was a low blow, and Opal must have known it, because she fled the room before Lin could even begin to formulate an answer. It was a classic Su move, and Lin shouldn’t have been surprised that Opal, sweet as she was, had picked up a few of Su’s less than favourable traits.

Lin wasn’t going to make the same mistakes she had with Su, though. A younger Lin would have followed Opal, wanting to have the last word, but if Opal wanted space then Lin would grant it until she was ready to talk. Or at least until she’d cooled down a little; Lin wasn’t going to let her stew in her room for hours over a misunderstanding.

But how long should she leave it? Ten minutes? A half hour? Lin needed a distraction. She paced the living space like a caged animal, her fingers plucking nervously at the material of her pants. She balled her hands into fists; it was ridiculous to get so worked up about this, she ought to go in there and make Opal hear her out—she’d only meant that she wanted Opal to be safe, away from the prying eyes of the public, but as usual her words had come out wrong and harsh and hurtful.

Perhaps she should ring Air Temple Island. Pema had said—but Lin didn’t want to bother her so soon, it was a little embarrassing, in all honesty. And if Tenzin picked up… Lin really didn’t know what she’d say.

She was sick of the living space, sick of its oppressive furnishings and the path she had worn into the floor. Her feet carried her into the kitchen, but the space there was even smaller, and it was full of too many things. Her gaze flitted, frustrated, from the pans hanging on the wall, to the knife block, to the fruit bowl, to the—

Lin picked up an apple. Its skin was shiny, reds and greens blending across its surface, and something about it made Lin nervous. Still, it was something to do with her hands. She picked up a little knife, and set to work.

Lin frowned as she watched the curl of apple skin fall onto the counter. She’d scoffed at Pema when she’d seen her doing it for her own children, asking if Pema knew that all the nutrients in the fruit were stored just beneath the skin. Pema had only smiled and said,

“But the skin is bitter. A good mother finds the balance between doing what is best for her children, and simply doing that which makes them happy.”

When the apple was naked, its pale flesh a little sticky beneath Lin’s fingers, she cut it into crescent boats, carefully removed the core, and placed the pieces in a bowl. She inhaled, exhaled, and left the kitchen.

Lin knocked tentatively on Opal’s door. No response. She knocked again, a little harder.

“Opal, if you don’t want me to come in, say something or I’m coming in anyway.”

No response.

Lin slid the door open. Opal was sitting on her bed, knees to her chest, reading a book from the Air Temple library. Or at least, she was pretending to read the book; she didn’t look up from her page as Lin entered, but though her eyes scanned the paper before her, there was no recognition in her expression.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

No response. Lin perched on the side of the bed, the bowl cradled in her hands.

“I brought you something to eat,” she said, placing the bowl on the table beside Opal.

“Thanks,” said Opal, without looking up. Despite the tension in the room, it still made Lin smile: Opal was too polite not to thank her, even if she was mad. Bataar must have been behind that one, because it certainly wasn’t a Beifong trait.

“I wanted to apologise for earlier,” Lin said. That got Opal’s attention. “I should have made it more clear what my concerns were. Although it’s… a little daunting for me to let the people who matter to me know all of this, I don’t want to continue keeping it secret, nor am I ashamed of you.”

Opal looked for a moment as if she wanted to interrupt, but Lin had to get all this out before it blew up again.

“What worries me is the press. Part of the reason I sent you away was that I didn’t want you to have to suffer through that kind of indignity. Tenzin and I—we were the kids of ‘Team Avatar’ and it seemed like every day there was something in the papers about our families. They speculated about when we’d get together, and then when we’d get married, and then why we weren’t married, when we’d have kids, why we didn’t have kids—when he ended things and took up with Pema it was… humiliating, to say the least. I couldn’t stand the thought of raising a child who would be hounded from the day she was born. Now I—I realise that I’ve brought that on you anyway, and I want to protect you as best I can.”

Opal frowned, and her voice was small when she replied,

“I hadn’t thought about the press.”

“Why should you? It’s not something you ought to have to think about while you’re trying to navigate your private affairs.”

Opal said nothing in response, and it felt like an eternity that Lin remained perched on the edge of the bed, silence filling the small room. Lin was wondering whether she should excuse herself when a small, soft hand reached out to take hers.

“I’m sorry I said—what I said. I don’t think you’re ashamed of me.” Opal’s bottom lip trembled slightly, her big eyes downcast and guilty. Lin wondered if this was going to be the rest of her life, if seeing Opal cry would always feel like a knife to the heart.

“Thank you. I’m glad you don’t think that,” Lin said. She was ready to leave the conversation now, to move on and forget it ever happened, but if this had happened because Lin wasn’t clear enough, then she wouldn’t make that mistake again.

“I’m actually very proud of you,” she said. As small and as damp as it was, Opal’s answering smile was worth it.


“That could have gone better,” Opal said, letting herself drop unceremoniously onto her bed. Jinora lingered in the doorway, waiting to be invited in. The politeness felt strange, considering how easy it had been to start considering Jinora—and all the little airbenders, really—her family, yet perhaps it would have felt stranger still for them to fall instantly into the kind of comfortable irreverence that Opal had with her siblings in Zaofu. Opal sat up and beckoned for Jinora to join her, and she didn’t miss the little smile that Jinora gave as she slid the door closed behind her.

“Sorry Meelo spilled juice on you,” she said, eyeing the damp patch on Opal’s shirt.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Opal shrugged, shucking off the soiled shirt and pulling on her sleep robe instead. “He was just excited.”

“He’s always excited,” Jinora said, rolling her eyes in the way that twelve year olds did when they felt particularly superior.

“And is Ikki always so…” Opal struggled for the word, “abrasive?”

The atmosphere around the table that evening had been far from easy; between Meelo’s constant stream of (often awkward) questions and Ikki’s cold refusal to so much as acknowledge Opal’s presence, the single hour had felt more like five. Opal’s heart had ached for Tenzin, who looked more stressed and embarrassed by the second, and for Jinora who seemed to be managing damage control almost single handedly. Now that they were alone, Opal’s room was blessedly quiet.

“Don’t worry about Ikki,” Jinora said quietly. “She’ll come around.”

“Will she?”

It had been clear from the outset that Ikki was less easily accepting of Opal’s place in the family than her siblings. Meelo had absorbed the information with the easy nonchalance that Opal had come to associate with him, and Jinora had apparently been elated to learn that her new friend was actually her new sister. Opal had found herself with a little bald shadow in the days since Tenzin and Pema had broken the news to their children, though the joy she found it in was dampened a little by the reproachful grey eyes that followed them in turn.

“Yeah, she always does,” Jinora said, letting herself fall backwards so she was lying on Opal’s bed, looking up at the ceiling. “She kicks up a big fuss and gets a bunch of attention and then she cools off.”

Though she didn’t doubt the truth of Jinora’s words, Opal could help thinking that this was a considerably more complex situation than the children had grappled with before, and Ikki’s mind might not be so easily changed.

“Could I—I mean, is there anything I can do to help her feel better about everything?” Opal asked, but Jinora only shrugged.

“Just leave her. If you try to talk any sense into her she’ll only get madder, trust me.” The surety with which Jinora spoke ought to have been comforting, yet Opal still fidgeted with the sleeves of her robe.

“I wish there was something I could do to make it up to her.”

“You don’t have to do anything. It’s her who’s being stupid.” Jinora shot back up into a sitting position, her little hands balled into fists where they gripped the bedclothes. “She could have a super cool big sister, but she’s being a baby instead.”

“Well, she’s already got a super cool big sister,” Opal said, nudging Jinora’s shoulder playfully. “Maybe she doesn’t want another one.”

It seemed that Jinora couldn’t help the pleased smile that came to her lips, though she still insisted,

“I’m only two years older than her. You’re like, older-older.”

Opal might have been offended if she couldn’t still remember exactly what Opal meant. When she’d been twelve, Bataar and Kuvira had seemed so much older than her—basically grown ups—and if she was honest, they still felt so much older than she was. Twenty three was another lifetime away.

The gentle knock at her door made Opal jump.

“Come in,” she said, and Tenzin slid the door quietly open.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, ladies, but it’s someone’s bedtime.”

“Daaaaaaaaaad,” Jinora whined, and Opal caught Tenzin’s eye, biting back a smile at Jinora’s sudden shift into childishness. “I want to stay with Opal. She doesn’t have to go to bed.”

“Opal’s nearly eighteen, Jinora, she can go to bed when she likes,” Tenzin said. His wry little smile and the quiet patience of his manner reminded Opal suddenly and sharply of her father. The thought was absurd, but comforting, somehow.

“If it’s alright with you, Tenzin, Jinora’s welcome to sleep here tonight,” Opal said, and Jinora’s eyes went wide like saucers. “I’ll make sure we don’t stay up too late.”

“Well, that’s very generous of you, Opal. What do you think, Jinora?”

Jinora nodded so fast her head seemed to blur, and Tenzin chuckled as he said,

“Alright, then. Go and fetch your sleep things—” Jinora rushed from the room so fast that Tenzin had to lean out into the corridor to call after her, “and make sure you brush your teeth.”

Silence fell in the wake of Jinora’s exit, and Opal bit her lip before she said,

“I hope it’s—”

“I’m sorry that—”

Opal and Tenzin cut themselves off at the same moment, and Tenzin motioned for her to continue.

“I hope it’s alright that I invited Jinora to stay. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that.”

To her relief, Tenzin looked a little shocked, shaking his head as he replied,

“No, no. It’s—it’s very encouraging to see how well the two of you get on. I only wanted to apologise for dinner. I wanted you to feel welcome and—I’m not sure that all my children—my other, uh, children—got the memo.”

He winced slightly as he spoke, and Opal rushed to reassure him,

“It’s alright. They’re very young, and this must be a lot to process for them.”

“It’s a lot to process for you, too. I hope you don’t mind my saying, Opal, but the grace with which you’ve handled… everything, well, I’m awfully proud of you. Though I know I can’t take any of the credit.”

Opal certainly didn’t feel graceful. She felt as though all her joints were too loose, and she was lolloping about the place—seconds from falling completely to pieces—with no control over her own body. She hardly wanted to tell Tenzin that, though; he had enough to be dealing with already.

“I’m ready, Daddy.” Jinora appeared at Tenzin’s elbow, dressed for sleep, practically buzzing with excitement.

“Did you brush your teeth?”

“Yes!”

“Alright then, I’ll leave you girls to it.” Tenzin smiled as he slid the door slowly closed behind Jinora.

Opal wriggled under the covers, holding them up so that Jinora could join her.

“Come on, then. I promised your dad that I’d have you in bed on time.” Jinora’s face fell for half a second before Opal whispered, “which I guess means we can talk for as long as we like once we’re tucked in.”

Jinora scrambled into bed, allowing Opal to drape the blankets over them both until they were cocooned in warmth. There wasn’t much space on Opal’s bed—none of the beds on the Island were particularly luxurious in size or comfort—and Jinora’s little feet were cold where they pressed against Opal’s calves.

“Hey Opal?” Jinora asked, her voice hushed as if to avoid being overheard.

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask you a Big Sister question?”

The openness of the request caught Opal a little off guard, and she felt heat prickling the backs of her eyes. She didn’t want Jinora to think she was upset, because she wasn’t, not at all, so she blinked purposely before she answered,

“Sure. Remember I’m only a novice, though.”

“How can you tell if a boy likes you?”

Opal smiled; she had a feeling she knew where this was headed. Jinora and Kai had been orbiting around each other for as long as Opal had known them. It was pretty cute, if you asked Opal; Kai was a sweet kid, for all that he could be a nuisance when the mood took him. There was no question of his feelings for Jinora, as far as Opal was concerned, but Jinora hadn’t asked about Kai, she’d asked about boys.

“Wow, you’re really throwing me in at the deep end, huh?” Opal said, unable to keep the teasing note from her voice. “If this is a general question then I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer. I barely met any boys who weren’t my brothers until I came to the Northern Air Temple. Have you tried asking Asami?”

Jinora shook her head.

“I was there when she and Mako and Korra were all… y’know.” Opal couldn’t say she really did know. She’d only heard of the affair referenced in passing, and after seeing the closeness between Korra and Asami, she would never have guessed that they’d once been romantic rivals. “To be honest,” Jinora continued, “I don’t trust any of them to give me romantic advice.”

Opal couldn’t help a little snort of laughter.

“Alright,” she said. “What about your mom?”

“My mom who’s only ever been with my dad, and who told him about her feelings while he was still with your mom?”

Opal bristled. If it was anyone else, she would have snapped at them that Lin wasn’t her mom, or at least gently corrected them, but she didn’t want to spoil the moment, or make it about her parental baggage. Jinora might be wise beyond her years, but she was still only twelve, after all.

“Good point.” Opal said.

“Aunt Kya?” Jinora suggested.

It should have been a good suggestion: Kya certainly gave off the air of being the kind of aunt one would go to with questions like that, but something gave Opal pause. A couple of off-hand comments while they were at the Northern Temple, coupled with that dark little bruise that Opal had been trying to forget, made her say,

“I don’t think Aunt Kya is an authority on boys.”

“Oh,” said Jinora, her face falling. Opal decided to put her out of her misery.

“If we’re not talking generally,” she said, “if we’re talking about one boy in particular, I think it’s safe to say he likes you.”

“Really?” Jinora whispered, clutching the sheets beneath her chin.

“Really.”

Jinora beamed, and Opal couldn’t help smiling back.


Lin had been surprised, when she picked up her phone at the station, to hear Pema’s voice on the other end of the line. It had been more surprising still to hear Pema invite her to the island to help with the last of the lychee harvest.

“Tenzin mentioned that all the kids used to muck in when he was younger. I imagine that meant you too.”

It was a small thing, this acknowledgement, but Lin appreciated it nonetheless. Since Opal was away and Kya was avoiding her and the apartment like the plague, Lin found she had no reason to refuse the invitation.

This was a ritual Lin hadn’t partaken in for years. She remembered sitting crossed legged at Katara’s feet—with Kya to her left and Tenzin to her right and Bumi chattering away in the background—shelling the abundance of lychees and passing them up for Katara to pit. The sweet syrup bubbled happily away on the stove in the corner, ready to preserve the fruit that the island’s inhabitants could not consume before it grew rotten.

The smells were the same, and the sensations: the aromatic sweetness of the juice that ran down to her wrists, the give of the lychee’s flesh beneath her fingers. The atmosphere, however, couldn’t have been more different. Tenzin had taken the airbenders to the mountains just north of the city for a few days, and the island was strangely quiet in their absence.

“Couldn’t this have waited until everyone got back?” Lin asked as she tossed another shell into the growing heap. She placed the white fruit into the bowl at Pema’s elbow and watched as Pema popped the stone out with a little bamboo contraption. She gave a wry laugh as she did so.

“With so many people on the island, this is the only time there's enough space in the kitchen. The acolytes have been running themselves ragged for the last year.”

“So you gave them the day off,” Lin said.

“Exactly.”

“And how far into this process were you before you realised that was a bad idea, and called me?” Lin asked, and Pema glared up at her for a moment before the expression dropped and she said,

“About a half hour.”

“Thank you for your honesty.”

They continued the process in silence, both happy to simply listen to the sound of the bubbling pot and the birdsong drifting in through the window. If she really listened, Lin could hear the gentle crash of the waves on the island’s beaches, and if she closed her eyes she might have been a child again (were it not for the conspicuous absence of Bumi’s constant stream of nonsense).

“How is Opal doing?” Pema asked eventually. The question took Lin a little by surprise.

“Well, I think,” Lin said. “She’s here more than she’s with me.” She tried not to let that truth rankle her. It made perfect sense that Opal would want to spend the majority of her time on the island, but that didn’t mean that Lin wasn’t longing for more time than the one night a week Opal spent in the spare room of her apartment.

“I know, but I can’t help but feel as though she’s… holding something back,” Pema said. “She’s taking everything in her stride, but she’s only seventeen, and it must be affecting her more than she lets on.”

“I know what you mean. She’s trying to—I don’t know, to save everyone else’s feelings. I do ask her about what she’s been doing, if she’s spent any time with Tenzin or the kids, but she’s always so cagey about it, as if she’s afraid that talking about it will upset me.”

“She hasn’t mentioned Ikki?”

Lin frowned.

“No. What about Ikki?”

“She’s… jealous, I think,” Pema said. “Jinora’s been following Opal around like a little lost puppy, and Tenzin tries not to give Opal more attention than the others but… he can’t help it, really. Ikki’s always been sensitive—she’s a middle child, after all—and this has all been… more difficult for her to accept.”

“Is there anything that can be done to help her come to terms with it?”

Pema shook her head.

“I’m more worried about the effect on Opal than anything else. Ikki will get over it, and quite frankly she needs to get over it,” she said decidedly. “Meelo called Opal his sister the other day, and Ikki said, ‘half sister’ as if it was some kind of curse. Opal said she wasn’t bothered but—I don’t know, I think it hurt her.”

Lin winced. A flash of shame came as quickly as her anger, but it lingered far longer. How could she blame Ikki, who was just a child after all, for resenting a sister who had been thrust upon her with no warning? Especially when Lin had done the same to a sister she’d grown up with only a few months earlier.

“Perhaps it would be worth just… encouraging Opal to spend some more time with the kids her own age for the next couple of weeks?” Lin ventured, and Pema raised her eyebrows.

“I’m sure she wouldn’t be averse to spending some more time with Bolin.” There was a note of suggestion in Pema’s voice that Lin did not like one bit. She’d noticed the growing closeness between Opal and Bolin herself over the past weeks, but she’d been hoping it was just motherly paranoia that saw anything more than friendship there.

“Don’t remind me,” she said, throwing a lychee slightly too aggressively into the pot. “Maybe kids her own age are overrated.”

Pema laughed.

“Jinora’s too clever to fall for it, anyway. If we come between her and Opal for Ikki’s sake it’ll only cause more trouble.”

Lin was having enough trouble managing the emotions of one (fairly grounded) teenager, she couldn’t imagine the number of small conflicts Pema must constantly be negotiating with three kids under thirteen.

“You know best,” she said. “We really just have to wait it out?”

“That’s generally the way with Ikki,” Pema said. “You’re slacking.”

“What?”

Pema nodded to the empty bowl at her elbow and the heaping pile of lychees at Lin’s.

“Sorry, Chief,” she grumbled as she picked up a lychee and set to shelling it. Pema only smiled back at her and held out her hand for the sticky white fruit. They worked in silence for a while, the monotony of the work allowing Lin’s mind to wander peacefully until she realised how small the pile beside her had grown.

“Hey, Pema?”

“Mm?”

“Do you mind if I take a few of these home with me? Opal won’t shut up about them; I thought I could surprise her with the last of the fresh ones when she gets back.”

Pema beamed back at her.

“That’s a wonderful idea, Lin.”


The quiet of Lin’s apartment was blissful after a week in the mountains. Though they’d ostensibly gone for the purpose of meditation and quiet reflection, the evenings were far from relaxing, with too many cooks crowded around campfires, and too many new airbenders squeezed into not enough tents. Now, she had a whole couch to herself that she could stretch out on, book in hand, uninterrupted. Lin was curled in the chair opposite, her bare feet folded neatly under her legs, and her hair unpinned. Opal had been surprised, the first time, by the length of it and by how soft it looked. Lin looked so stern in the daytime, with her immaculately pinned hair like an extension of her armour, but she was an entirely different person in the evening.

“Opal?” she said, looking up from her book.

“Mhmm?”

“I was wondering if—perhaps you wanted to call home?”

It took a couple of moments for the words to sink in, and Opal blinked stupidly across at Lin.

“Zaofu? Won’t that be expensive?”

“What, you think the Beifong account can’t cover it?” Lin smiled, teasing. Opal smiled back.

“I’d really like that, thank you.”

“Tonight?”

Now that the thought had entered her head, Opal couldn’t stand the thought of waiting. She nodded, and Lin dog eared her page before unfolding her legs.

“I’ll put the call through for you now, then.” She disappeared into the adjoining study, and Opal could hear her voice, muffled, asking the operator to patch her through to Zaofu.

Opal’s feet twitched in time with the ticking of the clock as she waited for the call to go through; she wondered what she would say to her mother and father, how she could possibly articulate even half of the things she’d seen and experienced since they left her in Republic City. By the time Lin handed her the receiver, Opal was almost nervous.

The feeling melted away at the sound of her parents’ voices.

“Opal? Sweetheart, can you hear us?”

“Yeah, Mom, I can hear you,” she said as the door to Lin’s office closed quietly behind her.

“Oh it’s so wonderful to hear your voice. I know you’ve been sending us letters but it’s just not the same. Where are you calling from now? Do they have a phone at the Temple? If they’ve had one this whole time and not allowed you to call home—” her mother was saying, and she could hear her father chuckling in the background.

“The best way to hear her voice is to let her get a word in edgeways, dear.”

“Of course, of course. How have you been, Opal sweetheart? Tenzin’s not working you too hard, is he? They’re feeding you enough?”

“Pema would be incredibly offended to hear you ask that,” Opal said. “She’s keeping all of us well fed, Mom.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Su said, though there was something off about her tone. Opal put it down to the distortion of the phone line.

“Training’s not been as intense as it was at the Northern Temple,” Opal told them. It had been a relief after the long hours of training when she’d first joined the community. Things had calmed down a lot, as far as Opal could tell; the rest of the new recruits certainly seemed less tired at the evening meals. “I’ve actually been doing most of mine with Jinora, because I’m further ahead than a lot of the new airbenders.”

“Of course you are, Opal. You’re a Beifong.”

“Sure. The advanced class is just me and Kai, which can be a little awkward since he and Jinora obviously have crushes on each other. I’ve been a bit of a third wheel some days,” she said. “But most of the time it’s great,” she hastened to clarify before her mom could interrupt. “I’ve been really enjoying having a little sister, and Jinora’s so sweet. She seems to look up to me a lot, even though she’s very mature for age, and an absolute prodigy, obviously.”

“I’m so glad to hear that, Opal,” her father said. “If Jinora thinks you’re wonderful then she’s clearly a smart girl. Have you been learning anything interesting recently?”

“We’ve all been away on a retreat for the last few days, actually,” Opal explained. As trying as her fellow airbenders had been on occasion during the trip, she was glad to have gone, for the setting more than anything. “Tenzin took us up into the mountains north of the city. It’s so beautiful up there, did you ever go when you were younger, Mom?”

There was a pause before Su said,

“No, I can’t say I did.”

“I’ll have to take you when you next come visit,” Opal said, certain that her parents would love the spot. “You can see so far, and the air up there is just incredible. It’s so clear and crisp and it was so amazing to see how it affected our bending. We didn’t do much actual training while we were there, mostly guided meditations with Tenzin and Jinora, but even that felt different. It was really—it was like I finally understood what people mean when they say they’re ‘at one with their element’ you know? I guess that’s how you must feel about Zaofu, right mom? A place where you’re just… surrounded by your element in its purest form. There’s nothing like it, is there?”

Opal was expecting a gushing response from her mother about the wonders of their city, and the properties of the metal that had made it; she was expecting her to start making plans for their next visit immediately, to demand that Opal clear the space in her diary that very moment. None of that happened, though. Instead, Su just said,

“That sounds wonderful, sweetie.” Opal knew her mother well enough to know that she didn’t think this was wonderful at all, but she didn’t get the opportunity to find out why before Su continued, “I’m afraid I just can’t stay right now though—the dancers are waiting on me. Let me give you to your father.”

Before Opal could even say goodbye, her mother was gone and her father had taken over the conversation. His voice was familiar and dear but Opal couldn’t focus on it. She barely even registered when he stopped talking, and it took a few long seconds of silence before she realised he was waiting for the answer to a question.

“I’m sorry, Dad, what did you say?”

“I asked if you were back on the island now?” he said, and Opal shook her head stupidly, though she knew he couldn’t see her.

“No, I’m staying with Lin tonight,” Opal replied. “The trip was super fun and everything but it’s nice to come back somewhere quiet.”

“I’m sure it is.” She could hear her father smiling, but there was an uneasiness in his voice nonetheless.

“Did I say something wrong?” Opal asked, unable to stop herself. Her father sighed.

“No, sweetheart. I think your mom is just… questioning whether she did the right thing in keeping you here for as long as we did. You sound so happy with the other airbenders.”

Opal’s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t want her mother to suffer, but nor could she deny that—despite the tension, despite it all—she was happy here. For the first time in her life, Opal did not have to question whether she belonged.

“I am,” she said. She didn’t want to hurt her dad, but she didn’t want to lie to him either. “But there’s stuff that’s difficult, too. I miss you all a lot.”

“We miss you too. And Opal?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have someone to talk to about the hard stuff?” The question took her aback; Opal didn’t know what she had been expecting, but it surprised her enough that she simply said,

“Yeah. Bolin, mostly.”

She regretted the words almost as soon as they left her mouth; she could hear the way the corners of her dad’s mouth quirked up as he said,

“Bolin, huh? I remember him. He’s a very handsome young man.”

Dad!” Opal could feel herself blushing as her father chuckled at the other end of the line.

“I’m sure he’s a fine confidant,” he said. “But is there—is there an adult you can trust with these things as well?”

Opal considered for a moment. There had certainly been a time when she felt isolated from the adults around her, furious with all of them for the parts they’d played in the lies that had shrouded her upbringing. It had been difficult to stay so angry for long, though; she wasn’t made to hold on to resentment, especially not when Lin saved her the island's last lychees, and Tenzin slipped old Air Nation texts onto the breakfast table at her elbow. It was difficult, too, to remain angry with her father for keeping the secret from her when she hadn’t heard his voice in so long.

“I think—I think if I wanted to talk to Lin about anything then I could.” Opal surprised herself with the statement, and with the truth of it. She could hear the smile in her father’s voice when he replied,

“That’s good to hear, Opal.”

“So you’re not—you’re not upset that I like it here?” Opal ventured, and her father rushed to reassure her.

“Of course not, Opal. Your mom isn’t upset that you like it there either, I think she’s just afraid that you won’t think so fondly of Zaofu anymore.”

The idea that Opal could ever think less of Zaofu that she did took her aback so completely that she struggled to form a response.

“That’s not—” she began, but her father cut her off before she could continue.

“I know, sweetheart,” he said. His voice was gentle but firm as he continued, “You’ll always have a home here, but you have a home there as well, now. Your mom’s just going to have to learn to deal with it. Even if you’d been our natural daughter, you would have left Zaofu eventually. Our job as your parents was always just to love you and do our best by you, so that when you do go out into the world and make yourself another family and another home, you’d still want to come back to us every now and again.”

Opal didn’t know how her father managed to always make things better (whether it was with words or a comforting touch or simply a well timed stick of candy), but as watery as her smile was, it was still present as she replied,

“I do want that, Dad. I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Opal. Now, I’m going to hand you over to your siblings, because they’re chomping at the bit to talk to you. Well, the twins are. Huan’s pretending they’re not, but—”

“Dad!” The voices on the other end of the telephone were muffled and indistinct, but Opal beamed to hear them.


It was an ordinary evening when it happened. Opal was talking a mile a minute about what she’d learned that morning, and how close she’d come to making her first air scooter. Apparently, there was something of a race between her and Kai to be the first to perfect it, and Opal was determined not to be outdone by her little sister’s boyfriend.

“Kai’s great and all, but if I let him beat me now he’ll never respect me,” Opal was saying, and Lin raised a questioning eyebrow as she removed their empty plates from the table. “I mean, in case he ever hurts Jinora and I have to give him the shovel talk or something. He won’t be intimidated if he thinks he’s a better bender than I am,” she clarified, and Lin nodded, smiling.

“I had to chase a good few hooligans away from your mom when she was Jinora’s age, or perhaps a little older,” she said as she moved away towards the kitchen. “Not that she was ever grateful.”

Lin could hear Opal’s bright laughter as she put the plates in the sink, and she called out,

“Do you want anything sweet?”

“Just some fruit is fine,” Opal called back, and Lin plucked an orange from the bowl on her countertop.

She peeled it idly, watching the curls of rind drop onto the counter in front of her, leaving the fuzzy white and orange fruit beneath. Her fingers plucked at the white pith, piling the strings and little clumps on top of the discarded rind, and she jumped when she heard Opal’s voice.

“Everything okay?”

“Sure,” Lin said, looking up from her work to see Opal standing in the doorway. Opal’s eyes dropped from Lin’s face to the counter in front of her, staring at the little pile of orange peel.

“Do you not like oranges?” Lin asked. “I can get you something else if you—”

She was cut off by Opal crossing the room to throw her arms around Lin’s chest. Lin dropped the fruit, letting it land with a slightly wet thump on the granite worktop, so she could return the embrace. Opal’s face was buried against her shoulder, and Lin could feel the fabric of her shirt growing wet beneath it, but there was a smile in Opal’s voice when she said,

“Oranges are perfect, thank you.”

Chapter Text

Tenzin had been meditating more frequently in recent months. He’d never dealt well with conflict, avoiding it wherever possible, but now it seemed to dog his every move. Despite all that he had been taught, all the lessons his father had imparted, he could not shake his anger with Lin, or with Kya. Pema seemed to have forgiven him for Opal’s conception, but no sooner had tranquillity returned to his marriage than his children began snapping at one another.

His children. All five of them.

It still felt strange to even think it. Just a few weeks ago he’d been a father of four, and happy that way. Not that Opal herself made him unhappy. Far from it. He already loved her so much it was overwhelming, as if all the love he should have felt for seventeen years had been there the whole time, just waiting for him to catch on. When it hit, it was like a tidal wave. He didn’t know what to do with it all. He certainly couldn’t just let it out; it would frighten Opal, for one, and his younger children would feel slighted, and he shuddered to think what outsiders would presume if he spent as much time as he wanted to just staring at her as if she might disappear again at any moment. He wondered if Lin felt the same, and then remembered that he was trying not to think about Lin.

The material point was that Tenzin was dedicating as much time as possible to mediation. Simply being in the pavilion seemed to calm his racing thoughts, as if his father’s spirit still lingered in the whirling grain of the wooden floor. Of course, his father’s spirit was currently inhabiting a stubborn young waterbender, but that was all too easy to forget most of the time. Today, Tenzin missed his father’s presence more than he had in years. Aang would know how to counsel him, Tenzin was certain; he had a sneaking suspicion he knew what his father would say, too, but he would rather not reflect on it. Not yet. For now, it was almost enough to sit in the lotus position, just as he’d done every day since he was small, and let the familiar calm sounds of the island wash over him, he took a deep inhale—

“Tenzin!” The volume of his brother’s voice made Tenzin wince. “Thought I’d find you here. Thinking your thoughts—or—not thinking any thoughts.”

“Indeed. I’d like to get back to it if you don’t mind. Unless there’s something pressing?”

“There is, as it happens.” Bumi looked quickly over his shoulder, as if this were a covert mission and he was giving Tenzin classified information. “A little birdy told me that I have a new niece. Or—another niece. A previously secret niece.”

“Ah,” said Tenzin. He shouldn’t have been surprised, really. “And which little birdy was this?”

“Our sister.”

“Wow. Guess she’ll tell anyone but me.” He knew it was unfair as he said it, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

“Don’t be too hard on her,” Bumi said softly. “She’s pretty cut up.”

Tenzin rolled his eyes. He should have known that Bumi wasn’t here to support him. He loved his siblings, but that didn’t stop it smarting every time they chose each other over him. Kya, apparently, would choose anyone over him, family or not.

“I don’t want to talk about Kya,” he said stiffly.

“Fine,” said Bumi, settling in to lean against the pillar facing Tenzin. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I was happy sitting here by myself until you arrived.”

“No you weren’t. You were all tense.” Bumi stretched out a leg to shove Tenzin’s thigh with his bare foot.

“That’s why I’m meditating,” Tenzin said through gritted teeth. “It helps.”

“Doesn’t seem to be,” Bumi said, curving his foot like a dancer so he could poke at Tenzin’s leg with a single large toe. “You’ve been out here every spare hour for the last month, but you don’t seem any more at peace.”

“What are you getting at, Bumi?” Tenzin snapped, slapping the foot away. Bumi only shrugged.

“Perhaps it would be worthwhile to, you know, talk about it.”

Tenzin said nothing.

“Perhaps it would be worthwhile,” Bumi continued, “to talk to our sister.”

“No.”

“Come on, Tenzin. Are you gonna make me call Peace Talks like when we were kids?”

Tenzin wished this was the kind of thing that could be solved with Peace Talks, but they weren’t children anymore.

“This isn’t a joke, Bumi,” he said. “It’s not about who ate who’s last piece of Losar candy, and you can’t fix it by putting on a fake beard and doing a silly voice. We both know what she did.”

Not even Bumi could defend it, and to his credit he didn’t try.

“We do,” he said.

Perhaps it was this quiet admission of Kya’s guilt, or the silence Bumi allowed to grow in its wake. Perhaps it was simply because he’d been thinking about it for almost every moment since Kya looked at him in his office and told him that Opal was his. Whatever the reason, Tenzin found that he could not stop himself blurting,

“I understand why Lin did what she did, even if I don’t forgive her. I was there for every moment of grief that her mother and Suyin caused her; I knew why she was afraid to be a mother, and I—I did wrong by her. If she wanted to hurt me, I understand that.” Admitting even this much felt too close to letting her off the hook, and Tenzin could feel his voice tightening as he continued: “Kya, though—what did I ever do to Kya?”

Bumi sighed.

“You should really ask Kya that.”

What Bumi didn’t know was that Tenzin had asked her. He’d sat on Jinora’s little bed on the day Ikki was born and he’d begged to know why Kya had been avoiding him, begged to know what he’d done to make her shun him. She promised him that it was nothing, she’d stroked his face and lied to him. If she didn’t want to tell him then, she certainly wouldn’t want to tell him now, and Tenzin wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.

For a few long minutes, they sat in silence. Bumi seemed to be waiting for him to speak again, but Tenzin had nothing more to say: Kya was the only person who could answer his questions, and he didn’t want to ask her. The cage was of his own making, but Tenzin would sit in it a while longer. Eventually, Bumi inhaled.

“A couple of years after I joined the army I took up with a woman,” he said. “There’d been a quake up in the north west, near the Earth Kingdom border, and we were called in to help. She was a healer from the Northern Water Tribe, her name was Yuka.” Tenzin wasn’t sure what relevance this story had, but he knew Bumi would never just get to the point when he could tell a long, rambling tale instead. “The relief efforts were pretty extensive, and we were up there for months, though it didn’t take me that long to fall head over heels for her. I was thinking about asking her to marry me, leaving the army so I could just… follow her wherever she went. I thought we could have some pretty great adventures, just the two of us.”

There was a faraway look in Bumi’s eye that Tenzin had never seen before; he might call it wistful. Usually if there was a love interest in one of Bumi’s stories, she was in and out of the tale in the course of a night (Pema always covered the children’s ears and scowled during those parts). This woman, though, sounded significant, and if that was so, why had Tenzin never heard her name before?

“But then,” Bumi continued, his voice tightening, “then she told me it wouldn’t be just the two of us. She was pregnant. For a week I was—I didn’t recognise myself. I knew I ought to be happy, but all I could think about was whether I was even capable of being the kind of father I’d always wanted when I was a kid. I remembered how much I resented Dad for leaving all the time, even before you were born. He was never just there, because Avatar business was more important than me and Kya and Mom.”

Bumi’s expression darkened, and he looked down at his hands before he spoke again, his voice so low it was barely more than a whisper.

“I knew that there was a possibility—just a small one—that the kid might be an airbender. It probably wouldn’t be, that chance was so vanishing, but I knew it was there and I—I was so afraid of resenting my own kid. If he was an airbender, would I have taken off, run away back to the army and left her looking after me, kid in arms? I was afraid of so many things and when—” Bumi’s hands were balled into fists “—when she told me, she said she didn’t know if she’d lost it or if she’d just been wrong. I didn’t care, I was just so damn relieved. I requested a unit transfer the next day.”

Tenzin didn’t know what to say to that. Though he didn’t like to admit it, there was something about Bumi’s fearlessness that Tenzin had always admired: to know that he’d done something so base, so cowardly, shook Tenzin enough that for a moment he forgot why Bumi had even started telling this story. When he did remember, he felt vaguely sick.

“I’m afraid I can’t see how this relates,” he said, and Bumi sighed.

“I’m saying, Tenzin, that you can ask why Kya did this to you all you want, but I think it’s the wrong question. Her decision, even Lin’s decision, I don’t think it was ever about you. I never wanted to hurt Yuka, though I know she must have spent—I don’t know how long she spent wondering what she’d done wrong.” Bumi’s voice grew thick as he spoke, and he drew his knees up to his chest in a way Tenzin hadn’t seen him do since they were boys. “She hadn’t done anything wrong, she was perfect, but I was just so shit scared that hurting her became an… unfortunate side effect of doing what I thought was right.”

He looked so sad and so ashamed that Tenzin half wanted to reach out to him, but this wasn’t about Bumi’s mistakes.

“I don’t care,” Tenzin said, resolute. “I don’t care if it wasn’t about me. It affected me.”

“I know that—”

“No, you don’t,” Tenzin said sharply. “Blame Dad for you screwing up your own life if you want, but Kya can’t blame him for her screwing up mine.”

“Tenzin—”

“You remember how everyone thought it was odd that I took so long to propose to Pema?” he asked. He didn’t want to be talking about this but apparently Bumi wasn’t going to leave until he said something. “That it was another couple of years before Jinora was born?”

“Well, she was young,” Bumi said carefully.

“She was,” Tenzin agreed, “but she knew what she wanted. It was me who insisted we take things slow. I knew I ought to have simply been thankful that after so many years of—” tense conversations and barbed words and outright fights and desperate pleading “—struggling, I was with someone who really wanted to be a mother. But it just—it didn’t feel fair to throw her into it like that, I didn’t want her to look back on our relationship and feel as though I’d used her, as if I’d only ever wanted her for the children she could give me. So we took it slow, I wanted her to feel entirely certain that I loved her for her before we started talking about children.”

(That turned out to have backfired quite spectacularly. Tenzin’s stomach clenched to remember how the tears in Pema’s eyes had shone when she’d asked him, “Were you just waiting for her? Just holding me at arm’s length, hoping she’d come back and give you everything you wanted?”)

“I knew it was the right thing to do, but every day that passed I grew more terrified,” he continued. “What if something happened to me? What if, when we finally did start trying, something was wrong? It took Mom and Dad ten years to have an airbender—” Bumi shifted uncomfortably in Tenzin’s peripheral vision, but Tenzin didn’t have space for his brother’s insecurity right now “—what if it took Pema and I just as long, or even longer? If I’d known about Lin, about Opal… everything would have been different.”

When Tenzin finally looked over at Bumi, his brother was frowning.

“Because you would have moved faster with Pema,” Bumi asked slowly, “or because you would have gone back to Lin?”

Tenzin could have laughed. As if Lin would ever have had him back. It was one thing to have left her in the first place, and quite another to do it the way he had. At the time, it had made a twisted sort of sense. He’d waited for her to return to work, intending to sit down with her and talk, to tell her that they couldn’t possibly continue, that there was someone else; he wanted to tell her that loving her was still like breathing, necessary and lifelong. Then she’d walked in through the door and those words had escaped him, they’d felt so wrong and so insufficient, so instead he’d kissed them into her skin and hoped like a madman that she would understand.

She hadn’t, of course.

“I don’t want to talk about Lin,” he said, turning back to stare out over the island. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Bumi lower his head into his hands. He knew he was being obtuse, but he wasn’t yet ready to be graceful.

“You can’t just meditate this away, Tenzin,” Bumi said, though the insistence was gone from his voice. He sounded tired. “Feelings are meant to be expressed.”

Tenzin shook his head.

“There’s just—it’s too much, all of it. After Kya told me—when I spoke to Lin I—I could have really hurt her. I almost did.” As angry as he was with her, Tenzin couldn’t shake the shame that ate away at him like rot. He’d woken twice in the last week, heart still pounding from dreams that were nothing but the flash of terror in her eyes when she’d choked his name and he’d realised quite how thoroughly he’d lost control.

Bumi seemed to be considering his words carefully, and Tenzin suddenly felt the gulf of almost a decade between them. Bumi might never have been the most serious of men, but he was still Tenzin’s big brother, and Tenzin’s stomach roiled to think that Bumi might be as disappointed with him as he was with himself.

“Do you think if you spoke to her—to either of them—now, that it might happen again?” Bumi asked eventually, and Tenzin shook his head.

“No,” he said. He would never allow himself to lose control that way again, no matter how angry he was.

“Good. Then what’s really stopping you?”

“I—Dad always taught us to forgive. It’s not come as naturally to me as I would like, but I’ve always done my best to let things go, to let the wind carry my anger away. I try to be balanced, to always listen to the other side of the argument, to understand my opponent’s position. I know that Lin and Kya must both have their reasons for hiding Opal from me. The thing is, Bumi… I’m afraid that even if I hear them out, it won’t be enough.” This was why he hadn’t wanted to talk about his feelings: saying it out loud made it so much more real, and so much more insurmountable. There was a lump in his throat as he finished, “I don’t want to talk to either of them because I can’t stand the thought of listening to all their reasoning and still being unable to forgive.”

A warm hand landed on his shoulder, and when Tenzin looked up, his brother was next to him. In their half century of brotherhood, Tenzin had never noticed how much Bumi looked like their father—distracted, perhaps, by the wildness of his hair or the crookedness of his ever-present grin. His eyes, though, wrinkled in the same way as Aang’s had—from smiling, and from laughter—and their expression grew just as soft as he said,

“You can’t put this off forever though, bud. The longer you wait, the scarier it all becomes and… at some point forgiveness stops being something that happens to you, and starts being a choice you make.”

Bumi patted Tenzin’s shoulder once again, heaving himself into a standing position. He said nothing further—he didn’t need to—before he retreated back to the house, leaving Tenzin alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

It was late when Kya finally plucked up the nerve to go back to Lin’s apartment. It had been hours since she’d spoken with Bumi, since she’d decided that this needed to happen, but she’d not been able to force herself to climb the austere marble staircase of the Lin’s building, to turn her key in the platinum lock and actually look Lin in the face.

Now that she was doing it, she didn’t feel any braver. The sight of Lin curled up in her favourite chair, glasses balanced on the end of her nose, made Kya’s stomach clench.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Lin said, not looking up from her book.

“Yes,” Kya said, truthfully.

“Are you going to tell me why?”

“Yes.”

Lin removed the glasses from the end of her nose, folding them carefully and setting them on the table beside her.

“You’d better sit down, then.” Lin gestured towards the couch, and Kya moved dumbly to sit. Sitting felt wrong, though; she’d been waiting and worrying and talking herself into this all afternoon, and she was too keyed up to sit. She noticed Lin’s eyebrows raise slightly as she got up again, walking over to Lin’s bookshelf and letting her fingers run along the smooth spines for a few moments before she spoke.

“I’ve been staying with Hina. You remember my friend Hina?”

Lin frowned for a second, then said,

“The one with the annoying laugh and about eight hundred brothers?”

“Six brothers,” Kya corrected her. “She’s got boys of her own, now. Four.”

“Good for her.” Lin’s voice was heavy with sarcasm, but Kya chose to ignore it.

“The house is pretty hectic, and I’m too old to be sleeping on the couch,” she said, though in truth, she’d not slept every night on Hina’s couch. On more than a few nights, she’d found another woman’s bed to sleep in, but she didn’t want to admit to the frequency with which she failed to return to Hina’s house. It had been shameful enough to see Hina’s quietly raised eyebrows when she snuck in after breakfast for the third night in a week; she didn’t need to see the quiet disapproval in Lin’s expression too.

“You could have slept here,” Lin said. She had the gall to sound hurt by it, as if she hadn’t done her level best to ignore Kya’s existence since she’d gotten her bending back.

“I know,” Kya said, and Lin raised an eyebrow.

“So why didn’t you?”

There was no escaping the question, and she’d promised Lin that truth. Only now that the moment was here, Kya didn’t know how to even begin explaining why she hadn’t wanted to come back to Lin’s apartment any more than she’d wanted to go back to Air Temple Island. There was perhaps a surface level of embarrassment about how thoroughly she’d fallen apart, and the clumsy way she’d tried to put herself back together, but she’d known Lin would never judge her for it. Lin had been there herself, after all.

And that, if Kya was honest, was the point.

“I never know who you want me to be,” she said. It was an honest answer to Lin’s question, but Lin only frowned back at her.

“I don’t understand.”

Kya closed her eyes, trying to call up the words that would make Lin understand, that would force her to confront the truth. She wanted to hear Lin admit it, no matter how sharp and hurting the words were.

“This—this whole mess—” she said, “I know I wasn’t your first choice for any of it. Who did you wish I was, Lin? My mom? Or my little brother?” She met Lin’s eyes, hard and strong and unflinching. Lin didn’t need to coddle her, Kya knew the truth and she wasn’t afraid of it.

“That’s not—” Lin tried to argue, but Kya cut her off.

“Oh come on, Lin.” She could hear the bile in her own voice, and she knew this was unfair, but she didn’t care. If she didn’t spit the accusation out now then she never would, and she’d just have to live with it eating away at her organs until she died. “Tenzin knocks you up and then leaves you, and you come straight to me; you throw yourself to Amon to save Tenzin’s family, and you come straight to me; Tenzin finds out about Opal—”

“That was you,” Lin reminded her softly.

“I know. I know it was, but you didn’t stop it.” Lin hadn’t even hesitated before she took what Kya was offering, and in any other situation, with any other person, that might have been flattering. Thinking about it now made Kya vaguely sick.

“No, I didn’t,” Lin acknowledged. It was so close to a confession, but it wasn’t enough.

“Because you—” Kya said, almost choking on the words herself, “you were getting from me what you knew you couldn’t get from Tenzin. I wasn’t going to hang around to be a replacement for my brother.”

“Kya, no.” Lin’s voice, for the first time since Kya had returned, was strong and authoritative. “It was never about that.”

“Then what was it about?”

Lin looked at the ground, her fingers plucking at the seams of her pants, and she chewed her bottom lip before she finally said,

“When I—when I first went to you, it was because you were the only person I thought might understand, who might choose me over Tenzin.” Her voice was small, almost like a child confessing wrongdoing, but it wasn’t the confession Kya had been expecting. “I’m sorry for that. I ignored how you must be feeling because I wanted—so badly I wanted to think you were…” She trailed off, uncharacteristically nervous, and Kya had to prompt her:

“What?”

“Mine.”

And wasn’t that what it all boiled down to in the end? However genuine her motivations had been, would they really have been enough if Lin had never shown up, ragged and vulnerable at her door? Lin never had to tell Kya that she was the only person Lin felt she could go to, the person Lin needed, but the knowledge had been enough to make Kya turn her back on everyone she ought to have been loyal to.

It wasn’t Lin’s fault, really. She didn’t know how fiercely Kya had wanted a purpose when Lin had shown up at her door. She hadn’t known that in Kya’s desperate loneliness she might have agreed to anything. She didn’t even know what she was doing at that very moment, that the mere word mine from her lips made Kya want to cross the few feet of space between them and let Lin hold her, kiss her again, do whatever she pleased with her, anything that would make Kya feel wanted, even if it was just for a night.

None of that was really Lin’s fault, but it didn’t stop Kya from hissing out,

“Fuck you, Lin.”

Lin didn’t seem to have anything to say to that. She only nodded,

“And the other times?” Kya asked. “The times we…” kissed seemed too insignificant a word to encompass the desperate embraces they’d shared over the last year. She didn’t need to say it, though, for Lin to know exactly what she meant.

“I don’t know about you, but ever since Opal I—I couldn’t get close to anyone,” Lin said. “If I was going to be intimate, it was with someone I didn’t know, in the dark where they couldn’t see the signs on my body. I couldn’t tell anyone, and so I couldn’t even enter into a casual relationship. But you knew, and I didn’t have to pretend, and I suppose I just—I wanted to be touched by someone who knew me, and who cared, and who I didn’t have to push away.”

Lin’s words were so familiar it was as if they had come out of Kya’s own mouth, and Kya could only stare back at her, half disbelieving and half vaguely embarrassed.

“I suppose that’s—that’s how I felt, too,” she admitted.

“And that’s my fault, I know. I was so wrapped up in my own suffering that I didn’t think about—I didn’t like to think of how it must have affected you. I asked you to lie to your family, to everyone for so long.”

Kya couldn’t deny that.

“Yeah, you did.”

“Look, I don’t—” to Kya’s horror, tears welled in Lin’s eyes, “I don’t know what to do to make things right again. Tell me what to do, Kya. Anything.”

Kya might have laughed, if she didn’t think it would only upset Lin further. Somehow she’d managed to go about this just as terribly as she’d gone about everything else for that last two decades. She hadn’t come here to berate Lin, or to make her feel guilty, or to ask for an apology; she’d only wanted to clear the air, to be able to start again.

“That’s not how it works, Lin.” Kya had been tired for what felt like years, but suddenly the feeling was so acute that she struggled to remain standing. “We can’t spend the rest of our lives like this; you don’t owe me anything. I helped you of my own free will, and I have to live with that myself.”

Lin frowned.

“So, what now?” she asked. “How are we supposed to—to move past this if I can’t—I can’t make it right?”

It was such a Lin answer, and Kya felt a rush of affection for her.

“Sometimes you just have accept that a situation is fucked up, and that it’s not really anyone’s fault, or it’s everyone’s fault,” Kya shrugged. “Then you move on.”

Acceptance wasn’t exactly Lin’s bag, and Kya could almost see the cogs turning in her mind as she wrestled with the concept.

“I’m still sorry, though,” she said eventually. “I’m sorry that my actions hurt you, even if it was never my intention. I should have given more thought to your feelings.”

“I appreciate that. Thank you, Lin.”

Lin only nodded back at her, and for a long moment they stood in the fresh silence of Lin’s living room, uncertain how to proceed. Should Kya leave? She didn’t really want to go back to Hina’s couch, but she didn’t want to impose on Lin’s hospitality after she’d shown up just to throw accusations around.

“You know you’re still welcome here,” Lin said, as if she could read Kya’s anxious thoughts. “You can stay in Opal’s room, since she’s on the island tonight. I’m sure she won’t mind.”

Kya smiled. Lin wasn’t one to allow anyone in her space if she didn’t want them there, and she felt relief rush through her as she replied,

“It certainly beats Hina’s couch. Or this one.”

“I’ve been thinking about getting a bigger place,” Lin said, unexpectedly. To Kya’s knowledge, Lin had lived in the same apartment from the moment she left Toph’s home until she’d broken up with Tenzin, and she’d lived in this apartment since then. “So Opal can have a room all her own and there’s still one spare.”

The ease with which Lin spoke about Opal made a lump stick in Kya’s throat. She’d clearly missed a lot while she was avoiding her problems.

“I never understood why you had such a small apartment anyway,” she said, and Lin shrugged.

“Bigger apartment would have just been more space to be lonely in.”

Before Kya’s heart had the chance to break for her, the shrill ring of Lin’s telephone pierced the quiet of the apartment.

“Sorry, I have to—” Lin muttered, as she brushed past Kya.

Lin’s phone never rang unless it was an emergency; she’d probably be needed in the city this evening, and though Kya didn’t resent her for it (she didn’t have the right to, anyway) she couldn’t help the pang of disappointment at the thought of spending the rest of the night in an empty apartment.

“Tenzin?” Lin’s voice was sharp, and Kya could hear the faint but familiar tone of her brother’s voice on the other end of the line. Her heart dropped into her stomach, there was no reason for Tenzin to call here unless something dire had occurred. Was Opal sick? Kya felt vaguely nauseous at the thought that she might still have been hiding the city somewhere, unwilling to be found when Opal needed her help.

“Ah, shit.” Lin was clearly distressed, but it wasn’t the abject terror she had expected. Kya frowned at Lin, desperate to know what was happening. Lin caught her gaze and jerked her head towards the wireless on her desk. Kya turned it on, fiddling with the dial until she found a station that was playing the news.

“—a source who claims intimate knowledge of the Beifong family. As yet there has been no official word from Zaofu or from Air Temple Island regarding the claim; no doubt we’ll hear from them tomorrow.”

They’d missed the bulk of the report, but the subject matter was clear enough. Lin and Kya stared, speechless, at the wireless. The news reporter was still speaking—something about the upcoming pro-bending championships—but Kya heard none of it. She turned the wireless off.

“Yeah, I’m still here,” Lin said weakly. Tenzin’s voice was tinny and indistinct at the other end of the telephone, but it still made Kya’s heart ache.

“Tenzin, calm down,” Lin said. Her voice was measured and even, but she stalked as far as the telephone cord would let her before turning back again, fiddling with the wire as she spoke. “I will deal with the press tomorrow. This is my mess and I’ll sort it out, okay? Just keep Opal on the Island, and don’t let anyone who looks like a journalist within a hundred feet of the place. I’ll send you anyone I can spare for security.”

Tenzin’s reply was curt, and Lin didn’t say goodbye before she hung up the phone with decidedly more force than was necessary. The sound of the receiver clattering back into the cradle echoed through the apartment. Lin’s expression was blank, and she didn’t take her hand from the telephone.

“It’s just the press,” Kya ventured, quietly. “We’ve been dealing with this shit for forever. You’ve got this.”

Lin just shook her head, still looking lost and vacant. She had lived in Republic City all her life, after all; at least Kya had left, finding comfort in her own anonymity away from the city she grew up in. For Lin, though, every significant event in her life was recorded in cheap ink on cheaper paper, sensationalising her losses and her heartbreaks as though they were a trashy radio serial.

“But Opal, I—I wanted to protect her from this.” Lin said. “She doesn’t deserve to have to—to walk around knowing people are looking at her, thinking they know her fucking life. They’re vultures, the lot of them.”

“Hey, today’s front page is lining tomorrow’s sparrowkeet cages. You go out there, you tell them as much of the truth as will get them off your back, and you wait for it to die down,” Kya said, cradling Lin’s face carefully in her hands. “With things in the Earth Kingdom the way they are, I doubt focus will stay on Opal for long.”

Lin nodded, though her expression was still distant and distracted.

“You’re probably right,” she muttered. Kya tilted her face up gently, forcing her to meet Kya’s gaze.

“I’m definitely right,” she said softly. Lin gave her a weak smile in return, and Kya stroked her thumb across Lin’s cheek. As with every time she’d touched Lin’s skin, she was struck by how soft it was. She tried valiantly not to think about the last time, about the delicate flush that had covered Lin’s stomach as Kya trailed her fingers across it. Her heartbeat spiked with the memory, and she felt her cheeks flush hot with embarrassment: there was no way Lin couldn’t feel that through the hard stone of the floor.

“Secret’s out, now,” was all Lin said, her voice low. “You could have anyone you wanted.”

“I know,” Kya said. She leaned down regardless, kissing Lin softly, chastely; it was apology and absolution, a new beginning and a goodbye.

“I’m going to go back to the South Pole soon,” she whispered as she pulled away. She’d been considering it for the last fortnight, and all of a sudden it felt like the right choice.

Lin frowned.

“Before you’ve spoken to Tenzin?” she asked, and Kya shrugged.

“It’s been almost two months, Lin.” She didn’t try to sound unaffected by it, because there would have been no point. The days and weeks had stretched out interminably since Tenzin had found out the truth, and his silence had been even worse than his first pained outbursts. But Bumi had already tried talking to him about it all; he wasn’t going to forgive Kya any time soon, and she was needed elsewhere. “Korra’s not doing well and Mom really needs the support; I can’t just wait around here for him to decide he’s ready to talk to me.”

Lin knew them both better than to suggest any other approach. Attempting to strong arm Tenzin into anything before he had thought circles around it inevitably went poorly, and Kya couldn't risk pushing her brother yet further away with a bungled attempt.

“It’s your choice,” Lin said. “But tonight you’re staying?”

“Yeah.”

“Good, you can help me write a statement for tomorrow. Make sure I don’t call the press a bunch of bloodsucking snakeleeches more than once,” Lin said, businesslike. It would have been easy to miss the question in her voice, but Kya knew Lin well enough to recognise the choice she was being offered.

“If we’re staying up, you’re making the tea,” she said, and Lin smiled.

“Naturally.”

Chapter Text

"I'd like to open by stating that none of this is anyone's damn business."

Despite the anxious beating of her heart and the sickness in her stomach, Opal smiled at the sound of Lin's voice through the radio. "But since none of you are going to leave me or my family alone until you get what you want, here it is: yes, Opal is mine and Tenzin's natural daughter. I was not aware that I was pregnant when our relationship ended, and decided under the circumstances that it was best for her to be raised elsewhere. My sister Suyin and her husband Bataar were good enough to take her in, and Opal is as much a Zaofu Beifong as she is an airbender."

Nothing Lin said was a lie, Opal noted. It wasn't the whole truth—she'd left Kya out of it for one—but it was close enough that the press ought to be satisfied by it.

"Opal is also a teenager," Lin continued. Opal hadn't known her voice could get steelier or more determined, but apparently she'd been wrong. "As such, she is entitled to go through this period of upheaval with the same privacy that you yourselves are afforded. Any so-called journalists caught trespassing for the sake of a scoop will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Lin's prepared statement seemed to be over, and Opal could hear the clicking and puffing of cameras going off.

"Where is Master Tenzin?" came an unfamiliar voice, distant and more tinny than Lin's. "Why isn't he here this morning?"

"Master Tenzin is with his family. He is not here because the decisions in this case were all taken by me, and I will be the one to answer for them."

Opal didn't know when Tenzin had come to hover in the doorway, looking as if he might change his mind and flee at any second, but she heard his tremulous exhalation. His eyes widened as Opal registered his presence, and he turned his face away from her as if to hide the emotion written plainly on his face. Opal knew he still hadn't spoken to Lin or to Kya about everything that had happened, and Opal couldn't exactly blame him; her heart still ached, though, whenever Lin asked after him, nervous and uncharacteristically timid.

"She's doing her best, you know," Opal said softly. Tenzin's expression hardened.

"If she asked you to—"

"She didn't ask me to say anything. You know she didn't," Opal said. She hadn't known Lin very long, but it was certainly long enough to know that she would never ask anyone—let alone Opal—to intercede on her behalf. Tenzin surely knew that, too. He nodded.

"I know she didn't."

"She only wants to make things right."

"I know she does. But Opal—"

"I understand why you're angry. I get it. But I—" she cut herself off. It was a selfish thing to ask. Opal had no right to try to influence Tenzin's decision, and she blushed in shame as she looked down at her hands.

Lin had clearly left the interview, because the voices from the radio were clearer now. They were still talking about Opal, though, and it made her skin crawl to hear them discuss her as if she was a character in a lurid novel. She reached forward and turned the wireless off with more force than she'd intended.

"You what, Opal?" Tenzin asked in the silence.

"It's nothing. I shouldn't have said anything."

"It's clearly not nothing." Tenzin’s brow was furrowed, making deep lines across his forehead, but his eyes were soft and searching.

"I just—I hate feeling like my presence, my existence is hurting people,” Opal blurted. “Lin looks so sad whenever I mention you, and everyone here is walking on eggshells around you trying not to even say Lin's name. That's because of me."

Tenzin opened his mouth to try to argue, but Opal had started now; if he wanted to hear what she had to say, he would hear all of it.

"Don't try to say it isn't. I know that, I know it's not my fault but I still feel responsible." Opal could feel tears thickening her voice. "All the time I've been here I can't help thinking how much happier you all were without me."

"Opal, no." There it was: the look Opal had been dreading. Tenzin crossed the room in a few strides to kneel at Opal's feet. He'd always been very careful about touching her, Opal had noticed; he was free with his physical affection for his younger children, and Opal often caught him reaching out a hand as if to stroke the top of her head the same way he did with Ikki, only to close his hand into a fist and withdraw. Now, though, he did not hesitate as he reached out to envelop her hands in his own. A tear dropped from Opal's face onto the back of his hand, and Tenzin looked between her and it, aghast. His voice, when he spoke, was low and earnest.

"Please don't ever think that you're anything other than a blessing, Opal. I'm sure it sounds strange when it's been so little time since—since we met properly, but I love you so much. I hope you don't mind my saying so." Opal shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. “I know that things have been tense, and I’m sorry that I didn’t see how my own choices were affecting you. I can’t—I can’t promise that everything will be easy from now on, but I’ll speak to Lin.”

“You don’t have to—”

“No,” Tenzin said firmly, “I do.”

“Thank you.”

Tenzin squeezed her hands gently, and Opal squeezed back.

“Now then,” he said suddenly, pulling her to her feet, “how are we going to occupy ourselves today? I’ve cancelled training, so I’m at a loose end. You can hide out here if you’d like, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“I’ve been wondering about the library, actually. Do you think you could show me some of the old texts? Bataar smuggled me a few when I was younger,” Opal’s heart twinged to think of her brother, and she wished there was something any of them could have done to make him stay, “but a lot of them were in the Old Language and I couldn’t make heads or tails of them.”

To say that Tenzin beamed would be an understatement. His smile lit up his face in a way that Opal couldn’t say she’d ever seen before, and it made her feel warm in a way she hadn’t expected.

“Of course, Opal. I can’t say I’m an expert myself, but Kameko should be able to take us both through some things, if you’d like.”

“I would like that,” Opal said, returning his smile.


Kameko, it transpired, was the tiniest, oldest woman that Opal had ever seen. Opal didn’t recognise her from mealtimes or meditation the way she could recognise the acolytes, and Opal was certain she would have remembered Kameko; her clothes were not the traditional acolyte robes, though they were a faded Air Nation orange. Perhaps it was simply that the style had changed in the last half a century, and Kameko had elected not to change with it.

The library itself looked like it must have been the first building erected on the island; every surface was covered with curling sheafs of paper, the piles haphazard and looking as if they might fall at any moment. The shelves were overflowing, and any space that might once have been blank wall was covered with framed illustrations of the old temples, or with ancient looking paper protected behind glass. With her fine white hair barely contained in a knot at the back of her head, and her skin blotched and wrinkled by the sun, Kameko almost blended in with the building she had spent her life in. She looked up at Opal through little round spectacles—her eyes a bright, intelligent, Fire Nation amber—frowning.

“This is her, is it?” her voice sounded like a steel bar covered with layers of ancient paper.

“This is Opal, Kameko,” said Tenzin, placing a hand on Opal’s shoulder. “She’s my eldest daughter.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Opal said with a tentative smile.

“Hmm. You don’t look like her, at least.” Kameko said, which Opal thought was a mark in her favour.

“Who?” she asked, just as Tenzin started,

“Kameko, do you really—”

“Always out on the training yard, she was,” Kameko said, gesturing towards the window; a few airbenders were sparring haphazardly in the yard outside. “Wearing barely anything, most days. Turns out this one found moody earthbenders more captivating than the sacred texts of his people.”

If things between Tenzin and Lin weren’t so fraught, Opal would have laughed at the mortified expression on Tenzin’s face. As it was, they were both spared having to reply as a small voice from behind one of the towering stacks said,

“Gross.”

Ikki stood up, sending a couple of sheets of paper rustling to the ground.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, in a way that clearly implied that the library was her domain, and Opal’s presence there was simply another way the Opal was imposing herself, unwanted, on Ikki’s life.

Tenzin looked as though he wanted to reprimand Ikki, but Opal cut him off before he could make everything worse by taking Opal’s side.

“I just needed somewhere to lie low for a while,” she explained. “It’s a bit scary outside, with all the reporters trying to sneak onto the island.”

“Why don’t you just go back to Zaofu if it’s so scary here?” Ikki said, her tone barbed. It was a question Opal herself had asked; her mother had called in the middle of the night, insisting that Opal be sent back to Zaofu ‘where it was safe’. Tenzin hadn’t argued with her, only turned and asked Opal what she wanted. She couldn't deny that there was part of her that longed for the familiarity of Zaofu, even if her home was in as much uproar as Republic City following Kuvira’s departure. But what good would it do, really? Opal would have to return to Air Temple Island eventually, and the scrutiny would be all the more acute when she did.

“Because I’m not going to let mean-spirited people frighten me away,” Opal replied evenly. She was trying her hardest not to let Ikki’s behaviour rankle her—Ikki was only a kid after all—but she couldn't deny that the constant hostility was grating. Despite what Jinora and Pema had said, Ikki didn’t seem to be coming around in her own time and Opal felt powerless enough today without sitting and taking abuse from a ten year old.

She could feel Tenzin almost vibrating with tension beside her, but Kameko was only observing her over the top of her spectacles with something that might have been a pleased expression on her face. Opal was still figuring her out.

Ikki didn’t reply, only rolled her eyes and went back to the scroll she was poring over, and Opal counted that as a win. No-one broke the fresh silence, and Opal’s light footsteps were muffled by the rugs on the floor and the paper covering the walls. She stopped in front of a framed illustration—what looked like a young airbender woman with a nine tailed foxcat perched on her shoulder. The image was surrounded with writing in an intricately curled and knotted script that Opal couldn’t make out at all.

She looked over at Ikki, reading a yellowing paper in a way that somehow seemed pointed; Tenzin, who was leafing through scrolls and clearly trying not to interfere; Kameko, who seemed to either not care about the room’s thick tension, or who was revelling in it, Opal couldn’t quite tell. Opal took a deep breath.

“Hey, Ikki?” she said, taking the plunge.

“What?” Ikki asked, with the air of someone who had been interrupted doing something very important.

“You think you could help me out with this scroll here? I’ve got no idea what I’m looking at.”

Opal thought she heard Tenzin suck in a breath through his teeth, and there was a loaded pause before Ikki said,

“That’s Dawa, obviously.” The name meant nothing to Opal.

“Dawa?” she looked to Tenzin, suddenly paranoid that this was a name she ought to remember from his teachings, but he only smiled back at her.

“She’s a folk legend, if I recall,” he said. “A figure from bedtime stories rather than sacred texts.”

“Yeah,” said Ikki, hopping up to sit on the desk at Opal’s hip. “She’s way cooler than any of the people you give the new airbenders lectures about, Daddy. This is her name right here.” Ikki pointed to the large script at the top of the scroll. “It’s made up of two characters, zla and ba.”

Opal hummed in acknowledgement as she felt a blank piece of paper and a pencil get shoved into her hand. She turned to thank Kameko, but somehow the old woman had already returned to her examination of a loosely bound collection of old papers. Opal diligently copied down the characters and their names.

“Who’s this?” She asked, pointing to the foxcat on Dawa’s shoulder.

“That’s Rinchen,” Ikki said. “This is her name here, two characters again: rin and chen. Sometimes she was a foxcat and sometimes she was a woman. She and Dawa would trick wealthy people into giving away their money or freeing prisoners, stuff like that. There’s lots of different versions of how they met, though; this one says that Rinchen was being kept prisoner by a cruel king, who forced her to be a woman all the time because he wanted to marry her and keep her magic for himself. When Dawa comes to the king’s palace, she sees how unhappy Rinchen is, and she frees her, so Rinchen can go back to being a foxcat.”

“That sounds like a great story,” Opal said, and Ikki’s eyes flashed with excitement.

“That’s only the beginning,” she said, and then she was off. It was all Opal could do to keep up with the speed at which Ikki rattled off the story, pausing every so often to show Opal a particular name or turn of phrase on the illustrated scroll in front of them.

“And then they fall in love,” Ikki’s eyes misted with delight as she took a rare pause. “But Dawa doesn’t want Rinchen to give up being a foxcat, so she stays a foxcat during the day, and is only a lady at night. That bit doesn’t really make sense, though. Why would Dawa want her girlfriend to be a lady at night?

“Opal,” said Tenzin suddenly (and a little too loudly). “Come and take a look at this.”

Opal tried not to giggle as Ikki huffed in annoyance, sliding down from her seat on the desk as the two of them crossed to where Tenzin was standing in front of a huge book. Each page was covered in words, though they seemed not to be sentences, rather short phrases joined by fine ink lines like a spider’s web.

“Finally found something you can read?” Kameko asked, and Tenzin blushed.

“You know I was never gifted with languages,” he said. “Not like Ikki is.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Kameko said mildly (or at least, Opal imagined that was what passed for mild from Kameko).

“I preferred to devote my energy to absorbing the teachings of the old gurus, rather than banging my head against a wall attempting to learn their language.” Tenzin said, in the slightly prickly tone Opal was coming to associate with his feeling slighted. She raised her eyebrows at Ikki, who gave her a little giggle in return.

“By all means, then,” Kameko said. “Educate us in the ways of your people, Master Tenzin.”

There was nothing Tenzin could really say to that, so he straightened himself up and began,

“In ancient Air Nomad culture, child rearing was a communal practice. Each child had a biological mother and father, of course, but often those parents were not the child’s primary caregivers. If a pregnancy occurred and the mother felt unable to raise the child herself for whatever reason,” he cleared his throat, and Opal would bet everything she owned that he was already regretting this particular history lesson, “she would simply give the child over to the community. As far as I know this was a fairly common practice, and it worked well, but nevertheless there needed to be a record kept of who was the biological child of whom. Here you can see there was a child named Tashi, and his biological parents were Gaden and Nele.” He pointed to two pieces of intricate script. Opal recognised a few of the characters that Ikki had taught her, though the words were still largely incomprehensible. Then his finger ghosted over the words beneath the names, the same words repeated for all the pairs on the scroll. “Here underneath: Amma for mother, and Anna for father. Every Air Nation community kept records like this, in order to avoid any… confusions later on.”

“He’s trying not to say incest,” said Kameko, and Tenzin slammed his hands over Ikki’s ears several seconds too late.

A snort of laughter from the doorway made Opal and Tenzin jump. Kameko, however, didn’t even look up as she said,

“Here you are again, causing a disturbance.”

Lin seemed utterly unperturbed by this borderline hostile greeting. She only leaned against a bookcase and said,

“Hello, Kameko. You’re looking well.”

“Don’t sass me, young lady,” Kameko replied. “I’m older than time and I’ve got the joints to prove it.”

“Nonsense,” said Lin. “You don’t look a day over a hundred.”

Opal expected Kameko to snap back at her, but she only let out a dry, “Ha!” and went back to her scrolls.

“How was the press conference?” Tenzin asked quietly.

Lin seemed surprised to be addressed, blinking up at Tenzin for a few seconds before she muttered,

“Nothing I couldn’t handle. I just wanted to check up on the new security for the island, and make sure Opal’s doing okay.”

Opal gave her a reassuring smile, and Lin nodded back at her.

“Any clues about who the leak was?” Tenzin asked, and Lin shrugged.

“My guess is that Kuvira is trying to buy time now that she’s split from Zaofu,” she said. As much as the confirmation angered Opal, she couldn’t help feeling a little relieved that it was only Kuvira again, that there had been no fresh betrayal from someone she cared about. “If she distracts the media with this, she’s got more time to recruit and more time to organise before she starts coming under any serious scrutiny.”

Tenzin only nodded in response before he turned back to Opal and Ikki.

“Ikki, sweetheart, it’s nearly time for dinner. You want to go wash up?”

“Sure, Daddy,” Ikki said, making no move to go. She turned to Opal, businesslike. “For homework, learn ten Old Language characters.” She pointed to the notes Opal had been taking, the page scattered with odd words and turns of phrase that Opal had particularly liked.

“You got it, Guru Ikki,” Opal said with a smile, and Ikki hopped down from her chair to follow her father from the room, pointedly ignoring Kameko’s irritated muttering about a sorry excuse for homework.

“So, you finally won her over, huh?” Lin asked. Her smile was tired, and there were dark bags beneath her eyes that told Opal she’d barely slept.

“Hopefully,” Opal said, and Lin’s hand came to rest gently on the back of her head, stroking her hair absently.

“Good job, kid.”

Chapter Text

As she walked along the west beach, Lin wondered if Tenzin had picked this spot just to make her uneasy. She could make out the shape of him, sitting in the shade of the cliffs and close to the opening of the cave that they’d spent so many hours in as teenagers; from a distance, his form was not so very different from the way it had been then. So many of her early memories had grown soft and faded over time, but one in particular had remained crisp as an old photograph. The summer she turned eighteen, the two of them had picked their way over the rocks and down onto this beach, and when Lin had stripped off her outer layers to reveal the practical swimsuit beneath, she’d heard Tenzin’s breath catch. His face had flushed when she looked over her shoulder at him, and she’d felt a dizzying little rush of unfamiliar power.

The water had been blissfully cool, but Lin had still felt hot all over as she stepped into the ocean, aware of Tenzin’s eyes following her. Looking back as an adult, they’d both been painfully obvious about their feelings—it must have been embarrassing to watch—but at the time everything had seemed so uncertain. She’d been too caught up in her own rushing thoughts to notice the strength of the current until she heard Tenzin’s panicked shout. He’d been caught by the current, rushing towards the mouth of the cave, and disappearing too quickly from view. Lin’s heart had been in her mouth as she pushed her way through the water, muscles burning, only just keeping her head above the water as the current caught her too and sent her rushing after him into the darkness.

She’d caught hold of a rock just past the mouth of the cave, and as she caught her breath—eyes still adjusting to the darkness—she’d heard a wet cough close by. She’d called Tenzin’s name, and when she heard his weak reply she’d been at his side in an instant, hauling him up onto the bank of stone that rimmed the edges of the cave.

He’d said nothing as she scolded him for nearly getting himself killed, for being a terrible excuse for the son of the waterbender, only staring up at her looking vaguely dazed. It was then that Lin had realised how close she’d come to losing him, and how close they were sitting, and how much closer she wanted to be. She’d cut herself off mid-rant to close the gap and kiss him, tasting salt on his lips as his hands had flown to her bare waist.

They’d not left the cave for several hours.

In the present, Lin could feel Tenzin’s gaze on her again, but this time the heat that flushed through her was prickling and uncomfortable.

“I got your note,” Lin said, in lieu of greeting.

“Evidently.”

Lin should have known better than to hope this would be easy (or that, at least, it wouldn’t be torture). Tenzin’s lips were thin and pale, his expression stony, and Lin’s heart sank. She waited a few moments, expecting him to open the conversation, but he said nothing, only sat like a statue of an old guru.

“So… what did you want to talk about?” Lin ventured, and Tenzin sighed. It was a stupid question—the options were so incredibly limited, after all—but Tenzin often needed prompting in situations like this.

“It has come to my attention that the situation between us is upsetting Opal,” he said, and Lin fought not to scoff. Of course it was upsetting Opal; the tension in the air whenever she and Tenzin had to share the same space was thicker and more unpleasant even than that council room in the aftermath of their breakup. It couldn’t be comfortable for Opal to watch them, and Lin feared that Opal felt responsible for it, somehow.

“She wants me to forgive you,” he continued, and Lin felt a bolt of adrenaline go through her. She wanted his forgiveness so badly it was like physical pain, but not before he was ready.

“Do you want to forgive me?” she asked quietly, and Tenzin frowned.

“I want to. I don’t know if I can.”

“I understand. Is there anything I can say that would—I don’t know—help?”

He took a long moment before he replied, but when he spoke he spat the words out as if he’d been waiting to ask them for years.

“Were you ever going to tell me?”

“Yes,” Lin said honestly.

“When?”

“I thought about it first after I lost my bending,” she admitted. “Rekindling our friendship made me—it reminded me how guilty I felt for hiding it all from you. But I wasn’t—I wasn’t ready then. I knew that if I told you, then you would ask Kya where she was, you would want to find her. If you found her then I would know who she was, and I wasn’t ready to know, I wasn’t ready to try to have any kind of relationship with her.”

Saying the words out loud made Lin’s cowardice seem even more reprehensible, and she knew her shame was written all over her face as she continued,

“When I met Opal in Zaofu, that choice was taken away from me. I had been told the truth against my will, but I still owed you honesty, and Opal didn’t deserve to be roped into secrecy.”

“But you roped her into it anyway. She didn’t tell me who she was at the Northern Air Temple, or when we returned to the city.”

“I did. I asked her to keep the secret a little longer, because there was too much going on for you—or for any of us—to really deal with it properly. I know that I—I almost lost her as soon as I’d found her because there was so much happening that I just couldn’t allow myself to… connect with what I’d learned. I didn’t want to divide your attention while the Red Lotus were such an active threat, or to risk Opal feeling rejected again because you didn’t have the capacity to process everything. But even when it ought to have been over…”

“It wasn’t really over,” Tenzin finished for her, and Lin smiled in relief.

“We both had so many responsibilities, and there wasn’t the time or the space to come forward. I really did want—for you and for Opal—”

“Not for yourself?” Tenzin asked, and Lin frowned.

“For myself?”

“I doubt you enjoyed keeping the secret, either.”

The question surprised her, and Lin took a moment before she answered.

“No, but it was more complicated for me,” she explained. She’d told herself she would answer all his questions with complete honesty, but that didn’t make it any less mortifying as she admitted, “I’d only had you back for a year, only just allowed myself to acknowledge how much I’d missed you. I was terrified to lose you again, as I knew I would when I told you the truth, when you found out what I’d done.”

“Why did you do it in the first place, then?” he asked quietly. She’d known it was coming, but the question still hit Lin like a fist to the solar plexus.

“You know me, Tenzin,” she said. “You must know why I did it.”

Tenzin hummed in acknowledgement.

“I certainly know why children were an issue for you in our relationship. I understand the things that made you reticent about parenthood. What I can’t wrap my head around is why you thought this was your only option.”

That was always going to be the sticking point. How could Lin possibly explain that there had never been one thing that had tipped the balance for her? It had been that particular, awful mix of circumstances that had convinced Lin that sending Opal away had been her only choice. If any one thing had been different, then maybe—but it had been the way it had been, and Lin had chosen the way she’d chosen. How was she supposed to explain the way all her reasons had stacked up until she could only see one way forward?

“Because you were the only person in the world that I thought would never leave me,” she started. If Tenzin knew—and he did—why she’d been terrified of motherhood in the first place, then he didn’t need to hear it all again. “I know that was stupid—we’d both been ignoring how big our problems were for so long—but when you left it really—” she could tell this was coming out wrong. She hadn’t meant for it to sound so accusatory, as if she was blaming him for her own cowardice. Lin steadied herself, taking a few deep breaths before she continued, “Su, Mom, then you—I was so convinced that it was because something was wrong with me. Why else would you all have left? If I kept her… it just felt like an inevitability that she would leave, too. I wouldn’t be enough for her just like I hadn’t been enough for you.”

Tenzin shook his head, as if there had been a factual, correct answer she should have given.

“If that was really it, why didn’t you just give her over?” he said. “Pema and I could have raised her as our own.”

If the conversation were less serious, if her entire relationship with Tenzin wasn’t hanging in the balance, Lin might have snorted at the stupidity of the statement. As it was, she still fixed him with a hard look.

“I’m aware that I hold more of a grudge than a lot of people,” she said, her tone carefully measured, “but I think even the most forgiving of people would be reluctant to simply hand over her baby to her ex and the child he left her for.”

She could see Tenzin wanting to correct her—he always bristled when anyone brought up how young Pema had been when they got together—but there was no way he couldn’t appreciate what she was getting at. Instead he bit back,

“No, you just gave yours to your sister who scarred you for life.”

“I told you that was Kya’s call—” Lin started.

“So strangers, then—” Tenzin tried to insist, but penitent as Lin was, she wasn’t going to sit and let him throw the same mud at her that he had a few months ago.

“We’ve already been through this, Tenzin,” she said firmly. “What more do you want from me?”

She could see the tendons in Tenzin’s neck working as he clenched and unclenched his jaw.

“I don’t know,” he said, and Lin sighed.

“You’re waiting for me to pull out some kind of trump card, some reason that will suddenly be enough,” she said. “I can’t give you that, Tenzin; there was no one thing that made me decide to do what I did. It was everything, all at once, and I couldn’t take it. All I can say to try to justify it is that I did what I thought was right by Opal.”

Tenzin squeezed his eyes shut, his hands balling into fists at his sides. If Lin didn’t know him so well, she would think this was a bad sign, but after years of arguments, Lin recognised the signs of Tenzin in his final desperate stages of not wanting to accept something he knew to be true.

“Giving her over to me would have been right, Lin,” he insisted. “If you wanted to be a martyr you could have done it by keeping her here, where she belonged.”

“But she might not have been an airbender. She might have been an earthbender, or a non bender, and…” Lin trailed off. She didn’t want to bring up Kya again, didn’t want Tenzin to think that Kya had had any hand in her decision, beyond being pressed into helping. Though she’d never asked, Lin was pretty sure that Kya had helped her because she didn’t want Opal growing up with a distant father, especially when Lin herself was no Katara. To her surprise, Tenzin didn’t seem to need her to explain this to him.

“You were afraid I would treat her the way Dad treated Bumi and Kya,” he finished for her, and Lin nodded.

“Not on purpose, but yes. I think I also convinced myself that since you didn’t love me anymore, you wouldn’t love Opal as much as any children you had with Pema.”

Lin braced herself for his anger at the suggestion that he would love any of his children more than the others, but it didn’t come. Instead he only looked irritated, and he huffed,

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” he said, and Lin frowned, confused.

“Saying what?”

“That I ended things because I didn’t love you anymore.”

Lin didn’t know what to say to that. It had been so easy, in the days and the years following their split, to convince herself that any loving words or tender touches from him in those final months had been lies. She hadn’t wanted to consider that his decision had been based on something more complex and more necessary than whether or not he loved her.

“Oh,” she managed.

Tenzin looked at her for what felt like the first time in months; the anger and the hardness were gone from his expression, and he only looked tired and resigned.

“Do you remember what you said to me when I came to your office for the first time after you returned from your… sabbatical?” he asked.

Lin didn’t want to think about those excruciating months, and even if she tried the memories were vague and swimming as if she’d been drunk.

“No,” she told him. She remembered him coming to her office very shortly after she’d returned to work, but only as vague snatches of fear and rage and longing.

“You said that you were going to hate me forever.”

That certainly sounded like her, and Lin flushed.

“Tenzin—”

“It’s alright, I know you didn’t mean it,” he said. A familiar rough, warm palm covered her hands, and Lin stared down at it, dumbfounded. “I know that because while I was sitting on those steps watching you go a few months ago, I was just waiting to feel it: the same hatred you had for me. But it never came. I was angry and I was devastated, but I couldn’t hate you. I know you far too well, Lin, to ever hate you. I have come to the realisation that—for better or for worse—no matter what you do, I am going to love you forever.”

Lin’s eyes were misty when she looked back up at him, his face unclear until a tear coalesced and dropped onto her cheek.

“Forever?” she asked, and he nodded.

“Forever.”

“Yeah,” she replied, her voice tight. “Yeah, you too.” She was supposed to be getting better at expressing herself, but apparently this admission was beyond her. Luckily, it was Tenzin, and he understood that her inability to spit the words out spoke to the sincerity of the sentiment.

“I’m so tired of being angry, Lin,” he said. His eyes squeezed shut, and she wanted to reach out and smooth away the wrinkle of pain on his forehead.

“I don’t know what more I can tell you, Tenzin,” she said, helpless. “My reasons were what they were, and either you can accept that or you can’t.”

“But even if I can’t, how does that stack up against everything else?” he said. He looked over at her, desperate, the hand still covering hers clenching hard around her fingers. “Do I factor in how much I hurt you, and how much hurt I’m willing to allow from you in return? Lin, you threw yourself to Amon to protect me and my family—how dare I be angry with you for anything after that?”

Lin suddenly remembered Kya, looking lost and frustrated, telling her that life didn’t work that way; relationships couldn’t just be a back and forth of owing things to one another. Kya had been right, but now wasn’t the moment to try to teach Tenzin deep truths about the nature of humanity. Instead, she took a risk: slipping her hands from his grip, she brushed a thumb across his temple, cradling the back of his head in her palm.

“There’s an awful lot going on in there, huh?” she said gently, and to her surprise—and relief—he leaned into her touch, closing his eyes.

“I miss you, Lin.” His voice was low and quiet, but cracking with feeling, and if Lin thought he was ready for it, she would have held him to her the way she used to, so he could hear the steady beat of her heart the same way she could always feel his.

“Is that enough?” she asked softly. As much as she wanted him in her life, wanted to share the many joys of hers and Opal’s budding relationship with him, she didn’t want to push him too hard too soon, and lose him for a third time.

“Not on its own,” Tenzin said eventually. “But along with everything else? Despite everything I can—I can understand why you chose the way you chose. And after all we’ve been through?” He sighed, as if letting go of a great weight. “I just want peace. Staying angry with you isn’t going to change anything, it’s only making me, and Opal, and you miserable.”

Lin’s heart was fluttering hopefully, but she stayed quiet, waiting for him to continue if he wanted to.

“She really was happy, in Zaofu,” he said. It wasn’t a question, so Lin didn’t try to answer it. Silence stretched out between them, more comfortable than the others, before Lin said,

“I can’t take any of the credit for that. Su raised her, and it was Kya who thought to send her there.”

Tenzin’s body tensed, and Lin could tell she’d made a mistake.

“I don't want to talk about Kya,” he said, his voice suddenly tight and cold again. Lin didn’t want to push her luck when it seemed as though she was so close to finding a peace with him, but Kya deserved that peace as much as she did (if not more). Lin chose her words carefully, and said,

“Surely being angry with her hurts you just as much—more than being angry with me?”

Tenzin shook his head, though his lower lip trembled as he did so.

“Even if they made me angry, I always understood your reasons,” he said. “Kya had no reason, she just—” Tenzin cut himself off, his hands balling into fists, and Lin put her own hand gently on his arm.

“It’s alright, we don’t have to talk about it,” she said. “But… you’ll never understand her reasons unless you actually ask her for them. She’s going back to the South Pole soon, you know; sounds like your mom really needs her down there. No matter how angry you are, I know you’ll regret letting her leave without even trying to work this out.”

She felt Tenzin’s hand relax beneath her own, and she gave it a gentle squeeze before she began to pull away. To her surprise, Tenzin’s hand shot out to find hers before she could withdraw completely. He didn’t say anything, or even look at her, and Lin followed his example, staring out across the sand and over the water that held so many of their memories in its depths.

“So,” she said, conversationally, “you think we get any kind of say in this whole Bolin situation?”

She risked a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, and—to her relief—he was looking back at her with a familiar fond exasperation.

“He’s a nice boy, Lin,” Tenzin said. “I think they’re very sweet together.”

Lin snorted.

“You would say that; you’re letting Jinora date a teenage delinquent.”

Tenzin’s characteristic sputtering in response had laughter bubbling up in Lin’s chest, and she couldn’t help but grin as he tripped over his protestations. Lin still couldn’t say that everything was alright, or even that she was forgiven, but finally she felt as though it was possible. Perhaps it would take weeks, or months, or even years, but one day she and Tenzin would feel whole again. And that was enough for now.

Chapter Text

Kya had been more relieved than she let on when Lin asked—tentatively, as if she was afraid of crossing some boundary—if she and Opal might accompany Kya to the South Pole for a few weeks. They had both known that Lin would have to face Katara at some point, and Opal wanted to meet her grandmother. Kya had been surprised that Tenzin was allowing Lin to take Opal alone, but she hadn’t pressed the issue, and Lin seemed reluctant to discuss her fragile new peace with Tenzin in front of Kya.

Kya understood why, of course.

She didn’t begrudge Lin her forgiveness, and she knew that Lin had done her best to appeal to Tenzin on Kya’s behalf. Lin had attempted to explain—halting and guilty—why Tenzin was more reluctant to forgive Kya, but Kya hadn’t let her finish; she’d heard it all from Bumi weeks ago. Some days she felt like marching up to Air Temple Island and refusing to leave until Tenzin spoke to her, until he heard her out; other days, she knew she deserved every second of his silence, and she preferred to hide out in Lin’s apartment. Things, at least, were comfortable here. She thought Lin quite enjoyed having her around, even if she did complain about Kya’s habit of leaving books open and face down on whatever surface was nearby in order to keep her page.

It had been nice, too, to watch Opal and Lin grow more accustomed to each other. She’d clearly missed a lot while she’d been hiding out at Hina’s, because Opal came by frequently (though she insisted on sleeping at Air Temple Island so that Kya could keep the bed). There was an ease between the two of them that did pleasant things to Kya’s heart whenever she saw it. It was in the way that Lin let her fingers drag through Opal’s short hair after setting a bowl of fruit down beside her, or the shy way that Opal would ask Lin for her advice.

They’d been halfway through packing when Lin had realised that Opal didn’t own anything warm enough for the South Pole, and set about fussing like the mother hen she claimed not to be. For someone who continued to insist that the telephone in her apartment was strictly “for emergencies”, the speed with which Lin retreated to her office and called Inuksuk’s had Kya stifling a giggle behind her hand.

As the sound of Lin’s voice had floated through the apartment, ordering what sounded like an entire wardrobe of outfits, Kya remembered—not for the first time—exactly how vast the Beifong wealth was. As the daughter of the Avatar, Kya herself had never wanted for anything in childhood, but there was a world of difference between the comfort of Air Temple Island and the opulence that was available to Lin if she so chose.

For Opal, of course, it was nothing. She had caught Kya’s eye, clearly holding in laughter of her own, and Kya wondered if she knew how lucky she was to have four parents who loved her.

Kya jumped when she heard a rap on the apartment door, but it seemed as though there was a new delivery every other day in preparation for the trip south. Kya pushed her last pair of leggings into her already straining bag before she went to answer the door.

It wasn’t a delivery.

“Lin said you’d be here.” Tenzin didn’t meet her eyes, while Kya could only stare at him, disbelieving.

“Here I am,” she said. “Do you… want to come in?”

She half expected him to refuse, to tell her he was only there to drop something off for Lin, that he wanted nothing to do with her going forward. To her surprise, he nodded, and Kya stood back to allow him entry. It felt strange, alien, not to know what to say to her own brother. This awkwardness was the kind shared by strangers, not by family. Was she a stranger to him, now?

“You don’t have to stay here, you know.” Tenzin sounded nervous. It was a quality that Kya recognised in his voice, but never when he was speaking to her. “Air Temple Island is still your home.”

Kya, by contrast, felt none of the dread she had been expecting.

“I don’t know if it ever really was,” she said.

“You don’t mean that.”

She probably didn’t, but it was hard to tell.

“What are you doing here, Tenzin?” she asked.

“Lin said you’re going back to the South Pole.” It wasn’t a question, but Kya answered it anyway.

“I am.”

“I didn’t want you to leave without speaking to you,” he said.

“Alright.” Kya braced herself for the onslaught. Would it be anger, the same boiling rage that Lin had (eventually, so reluctantly, looking at any moment as though she might break) told her about one evening, fingers white around her glass of whiskey? Would it be quiet, hurt? That would surely be worse: to watch his chin tremble the same way it used to when he couldn’t grow a beard.

She was ready (she would never be ready), but he only frowned.

“I don’t know what to say.”

As much as she wanted this—in a strange way she craved the outpouring of his grief—she did not want to force him.

“Tenzin, if you’re not ready—”

“I’m not.”

Kya nodded, swallowing her frustration. She had no right to be angry with him, but he had to know how this little stunt was affecting her. Surely he was not so far gone into his resentment that he would think she didn’t care about him at all.

“Okay,” she said carefully. “Then what are you doing here?”

Tenzin just looked at her.

“You’re leaving,” he said, as if this was an explanation. He should have been used to Kya leaving; it was kind of her thing.

“I’m not doing it to try to—to force your hand or anything, Tenzin,” she said. Was that really what he was thinking? Could he believe her capable of that kind of manipulation? “Korra’s not doing well and Mom really needs me back there and—”

“I know,” he said. She waited again—for what, exactly, she wasn’t sure—but he had lapsed back into silence.

“Good,” Kya said, just to fill it. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I was never trying to hurt you.”

Tenzin only shook his head.

“Kya, I don’t want to—” he started, and she knew what he was going to say, and suddenly she was furious.

“What?” she snapped. “You don’t want to talk about it? You just want to sit and be angry with me because I’m the easiest person to be angry with?”

“Nothing about this is easy, Kya.” Since she’d let him into the apartment, Tenzin had been subdued and avoidant, not wanting to meet Kya’s gaze, never raising his voice. For a moment Kya thought this was it, that Tenzin was finally about to rip into her the same way he had Lin. She found herself disappointed when he pressed his lips together hard as soon as the words escaped him, returning his gaze to the floor. “Nothing about this is easy,” he repeated quietly, and Kya couldn’t help the little snort that escaped her.

“You can say that again.”

He did not. Tenzin didn’t say anything as the pair of them hovered awkwardly in Lin’s living space. They should have done this somewhere else, somewhere more neutral. Perhaps then they could fight like they used to when they were younger. It had been so easy to fight, when they were children; each was entirely convinced of their own righteousness, and didn’t care how long or loud they yelled. When they were children, there had always been Bumi, or their mom, or Sokka ready to dry their tears and remind them that they still loved each other.

“Why are you here, Tenzin?” Kya asked again, because there was nothing else to ask. He clearly hadn’t forgiven her, and he didn’t want to hear her side of things.

“Lin said that I would regret letting you leave without speaking with you,” Tenzin said. “I don’t know how long you’re going to be away. We all just—I didn’t know if we were all going to make it out of the Northern Air Temple alive.”

The memory of falling was sudden and sharp. If there was anything to be said in favour of the shitshow that constituted the last few months, it was that it had distracted Kya from remembering that fall over and over and over again. The nightmares were still there, of course, her mind running through and through and through those hours of hell; she saw Bumi’s terrified face, Tenzin’s broken body, the icy blade at Opal’s throat again and again and again, but those particular terrors were less frequent than they had been. They’d been replaced, of course, with the raw desperation in Tenzin’s voice when he’d asked, is she mine? and the deathly pallor of Lin’s face when Kya had told her he knew.

She pinched the underside of her arm discreetly, anchoring herself back in reality. Tenzin was looking at her as if he expected a light to go on behind her eyes, for sudden understanding to dawn.

“We did, though,” she said eventually, since he seemed to expect a response.

“We did, but—” Tenzin screwed his eyes shut, his whole face tensing and releasing as if trying to push a memory out of his head. “We nearly didn’t, Kya. It could have been any of us and I kept thinking what if—what if I let you, or Bumi, die without telling you I love you?”

That wasn’t what Kya had been expecting. She’d been certain this was leading to another reminder that Tenzin might have died never knowing about Opal, that if he had it would have been Kya’s fault. She stared at him, unable to reply. Luckily, Tenzin seemed to finally know what he wanted to say.

“Things in the Earth Kingdom are still—everything is very up in the air, and nothing is settled, and you’re going away and—” his voice was thickening with emotion, and Kya could only stand and stare as he blinked back the tears shining in his eyes. “I can’t say that I forgive you, Kya. I wish that I could but—even if I can’t forgive you, I didn’t want you to leave thinking that I hated you. You’re my sister, Kya. I love you.”

Kya’s eyes were wet, but her throat was dry, and it was a struggle to choke out,

“I love you, too.”

Tenzin didn’t meet her eye, though, casting his gaze back to the floor. He nodded, but only slightly, as if he wasn’t convinced.

“I love you,” Kya repeated, and this time his expression creased into a frown.

“I should go,” he said, his voice tight and small. He turned without looking at her, and his hand was on the door handle before Kya called, desperate, after him:

“Do you remember what I said to you the day Ikki was born?”

“When you lied to me about why you’d been avoiding me?” It wasn’t steel in his voice this time, only wood painted silver, masquerading as something harder.

“I didn’t lie, Tenzin, I just—didn’t tell the whole truth.” If Tenzin wasn’t above such things, she knew he’d be rolling his eyes, and she continued quickly, “I said that we all end up having to make decisions we wish we’d never had to make, and that sometimes those decisions hurt other people, even when we don’t want those people to be hurt.” He didn’t respond, and Kya might be pushing it, but she had to get these words out before he left and took her only chance at explaining herself with him “You hurt Lin, even though you loved her, because you believed it was the right thing for both of you. I hurt you, even though I loved you, because I really believed it was the right thing for Opal. I don’t need you to forgive me, but I need you to understand that this was never a reflection of how I feel about you. You’re my little brother, Tenzin. I love you.”

She’d said the words so many times in the last few minutes, but she wanted to choke them out again and again. If she could pour out enough of her love, perhaps it would fill up the cracks she had made in their relationship, perhaps it would stick his feet to the floor and prevent him from walking out of the door still unforgiving.

It didn’t, but Tenzin did finally look up to meet her desperate gaze. His eyes were as familiar as her own—lined and weary—but something around the edges was softer than it had been when he arrived.

“Have a safe journey, Kya,” he said. “Give my love to Mom.”

The door shut with an anticlimactic snick behind him. Kya didn’t move, she didn’t know how to. There had been no absolution, no dissolving of the awful guilty lump that had been sitting in Kya’s stomach for almost two decades. But nor had she been cut, there was no fresh wound for her grief to pour out of, so she simply stood, staring at the closed door and wondering what she was supposed to do now.

Something, she decided. She had to do something.


It felt like only a few minutes later (though it must have been hours, Kya had accomplished a lot since Tenzin left) that she heard the door open and the heavy tread of Lin’s metal clad feet on the stone floor. She paused as she entered the living space—she looked tired, her hair a little more dishevelled than it usually was—her sharp eyes scanning the room before dropping to Kya, perched on the edge of the couch.

“So Tenzin did come, then?” she asked.

“You knew?”

“You’ve rearranged half my living room, Kya,” Lin pointed out, and Kya didn’t know if it was comforting or infuriating that Lin knew her so well. “He also asked me if you’d be here today. I didn’t want to tell you in case he didn’t come.”

“He did,” Kya confirmed, only realising after she’d spoken that she hadn’t needed to.

“I see that,” Lin said. “Dare I ask how it went?”

She could ask, but Kya still didn’t really have an answer. No revelation had fallen into her lap while she’d been rearranging Lin’s apartment, no wave of emotion had overcome her.

“It—I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I’m not forgiven.”

“But?”

Was there really a “but” at all? There’d been no indication of future forgiveness, no offer of tentative peace. They hadn’t moved forward, not really, nothing had been resolved, yet Kya thought she felt just a little bit lighter than she had yesterday.

“He wanted to tell me he loved me before we left,” she said.

Lin frowned, and Kya could see the cogs of her mind turning. Was she thinking the same thing Kya had been thinking all afternoon, wondering what love even meant in a situation like theirs? They all loved each other—so much—and yet it hadn’t been enough to stop them hurting each other.

“Huh,” Lin said, after a long moment.

“Yeah.”

There was nothing else to be said, really. It was what it was, and neither Kya nor Lin could say exactly what it meant.

“How are you feeling?” Lin asked eventually.

“I don’t know,” Kya told her. “Is that weird?”

Lin raised an eyebrow.

“You’re asking me that?”

That coaxed a surprising little laugh from Kya; the hard exhale of it relaxing her ever so slightly.

“I think perhaps—I’ve been waiting for some kind of reckoning, or for nothing at all, but this wasn’t either. I’m—relieved, I suppose, but not as much as I wanted to be,” she said.

Lin opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. She frowned slightly, her lower lip jutting out in what Kya could only call a pout. Comfort wasn’t Lin’s strong suit, Kya knew that, but it was kind of cute how hard she was trying. If she didn’t feel so unmoored, so drained and confused and uncertain, Kya might have teased her. As it was, she stayed quiet as Lin opened and closed her mouth a couple more times before she eventually settled on,

“You want me to go pick up some take out? There’s a reading of Love Amongst the Dragons on the wireless tonight, I know you like that one.”

“You hate Love Amongst the Dragons,” Kya said, but Lin only shrugged.

“Maybe I never really gave it a chance. You get comfy and I’ll go grab us some food.” She had only half turned to leave when Kya called after her,

“No, no, don’t go. Could you just, um—” Kya knew she must be blushing, afraid to ask for this kind of comfort, afraid Lin would misinterpret it, but she reached her hand out anyway.

It turned out that she needn’t have worried, because Lin merely shucked off her armour with a flick of her wrist, and took Kya’s hand. She sat on the couch beside Kya and pulled her against her chest, wrapping strong arms around Kya’s waist. They lay there for a while in silence, Kya listening to the steady thump of Lin’s heartbeat.

“We are going to have to eat at some point, you know,” Lin said conversationally.

“I know. After Tenzin left I made a couple dozen buns,” Kya admitted, and Lin gave a little snort.

“Of course you did.”

“The fillings are assorted things you had in your cupboards. I have a feeling that some of them are genius and some of them are basically poison.”

“Looks like we’re in for an exciting evening,” Lin said, and Kya hummed in agreement.

“I also rearranged the books on your shelf.”

There was only laughter in Lin’s voice when she said,

“Get out.”

“Nah.” Kya reached over to turn on the wireless, fiddling with the dial for a few moments before she found the terrible acting she was looking for. She sighed as she snuggled back into Lin’s side. It was warm in the apartment, and she’d heard this story so many times, and Lin was softer than she looked, and it was only a few minutes before Kya was asleep.

Chapter Text

Opal, it transpired, was not a good sailor. They’d been only a few hours away from Republic City when she turned pale and unsteady, and after three days at sea she was weak and shaky, having brought up almost everything she’d eaten in that time. Despite knowing that it would pass eventually, that Opal was in no real danger, Lin’s own stomach was churning with worry as Kya ordered her to make tea and bland soups while she held a water-covered hand against Opal’s stomach.

“I’m ordering an airship to take us home,” Lin grumbled, for what must have been the fifth time that day (and the twentieth time since they’d set sail). “Katara can object all she wants.”

“I’m sorry,” Opal said, for what must have been the tenth time that day (and the fiftieth time since they’d set sail).

“It’s not your fault,” said Kya softly, pushing sweaty hair away from Opal’s face with her free hand.

“I was just as sick the last time I made this journey by sea,” Lin said as she placed a steaming cup next to Opal. “But that was your fault.”

That coaxed a weak smile out of Opal, who let her head fall onto Lin’s thigh. Kya drew her hand away from Opal’s stomach.

“She’s through the worst of it now,” Kya said quietly. Opal seemed to have fallen asleep the second she laid her head down, and Lin tried her best to keep as still as possible. “It’s rare for seasickness to last even this long, so unless we hit any bad weather she ought to be fine in a couple of days.”

Lin nodded her thanks, not wanting to wake Opal, and accepted the pillow that Kya handed her, propping it behind the small of her back.

“Looks like you might be stuck there for a while,” Kya said, and Lin shrugged.

“I’ll live.”

“You need a book, too?”

Lin looked down at where Opal’s breathing was now deep and even. She was loath to move her, not when she seemed to be sleeping peacefully for the first time in days.

“Sure,” she said.

What Kya returned with was a paperback that curled in the corners. The cover was an illustration of a woman who looked as though she had a vague idea of what a pirate ought to look like, and then discarded half of the necessary clothing. Lin raised an eyebrow.

“Really, Kya?” she said. “You want me to read a lurid romance novel while my sick kid sleeps in my lap?”

Kya only shrugged.

“At least one of you should be having fun.” She winked at Lin as she closed the cabin door behind her, and then Lin was alone with Opal and the pulp novel and the sound of the waves slapping against the sides of the ship.


True to Kya’s word, Opal was past the worst of it, and found her sea legs over the next few days. Once she’d managed to get some rest and keep some food down, she was keen to get up on deck, and would happily spend hours just staring out at the ocean. She had been ecstatic when a crewman pointed out a pod of squid-whales swimming alongside the ship, and Lin wished she’d brought along the camera that was gathering dust in one of her bedroom cupboards.

The second half of the trip passed much faster when the three of them weren’t cooped up below deck, and soon they were having to bundle up in increasing numbers of layers if they wanted to go up on deck (which Opal always wanted to do). With their end in sight, anxiety began to bloom in Lin’s chest; as much as it had pained her, she could weather Tenzin’s anger, and Kya’s grief, and even Opal’s resentment, but she knew she would crumble under Katara’s disappointment. She would have to face it at some point, she knew, and she desperately wanted to see Katara, but that did little to combat the creeping dread—colder than ice-laden air—that settled into Lin’s bones as they drew closer and closer to Harbour City. She didn’t know if it was a blessing that Tenzin had told his mother the truth almost as soon as he’d discovered it herself, or if it would be just another point against her. She might not have to deal with the initial fire of Katara’s anger, but she’d been cowardly in her refusal to speak to Katara herself until now.

The sun was setting deep pink when the call for land finally came, and Lin’s hands tightened around the railing. Opal was already running to the front of the ship to sweet talk one of the deck officers into letting her look through his telescope, but Kya hung back, putting a gloved hand on Lin’s shoulder.

“You ready?” she asked, and Lin shook her head.

“Not at all.”

“Me neither.”

Lin raised her hand to cover Kya’s, though they could barely feel each other’s touch through the thick fur of the gloves. She’d forgotten—again—that Kya must be just as nervous as she was, perhaps moreso.

They docked less than a day later without fanfare, as if nothing out of the ordinary was occuring. Opal was utterly enamoured with the fresh whiteness of the snow around them; though her nose and cheeks were pink with the cold, she savoured every step, smiling at the crunch of the snow beneath her feet. Lin’s own steps felt heavier with each passing moment, each yard of ground covered. But when they finally arrived at Katara’s door, their footprints trailing behind them in the snow, she answered it with a smile so wide that it took Lin aback. Katara seemed to get smaller every time Lin saw her, but the warmth of her presence had lost none of its reach.

“Come in, come in out of the cold all of you,” she said, ushering them inside. She was already brushing the snow from their shoulders as the door closed behind them.

“Hey, Mom,” Kya said, bending down to press a kiss to her mother’s cheek.

“Hello, darling,” Katara said, reaching out to squeeze her daughter’s hand before she turned back to Lin and Opal.

“Well,” she said, raising her eyebrows expectantly at Lin. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to this young lady?”

Lin still wasn’t quite sure what was going on: she’d never thought Katara would chew her out in front of Opal, but she hadn’t expected the same gentleness she was so accustomed to.

“Uh, sure,” Lin said, clearing her throat. “Katara, this is Opal, your granddaughter.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you,” Opal said, her smile wide but nervous. “Everyone’s told me so much about you.”

“Have they indeed? Well, I suppose that can’t be helped. It’s wonderful to meet you too, Opal. I can’t wait to hear all about—everything, I suppose.” She turned to Lin, then, but to Lin’s surprise the sparkle in her eye remained warm and playful. “I think you’ve got a lot to catch me up on, as well, Lin.”

Lin was fairly certain that if she’d tried to speak she would only have stammered incoherently, but luckily Katara did not seem to be waiting for an answer.

“Come and sit by the fire with me, Opal, where I can get a good look at you. These eyes aren’t what they were, you know.” She took Opal gently by the hand, and Opal allowed Katara to sit her down on one of the low driftwood benches next to the fire. Lin hung back, despite the cold, watching the way Katara’s bright eyes scanned Opal’s face (the same way she knew she must have done herself in those early days). Opal smiled under Katara’s attention, and Kya reached out to brush a soothing hand up and down Lin’s back.

“Everyone says I look very like you did at my age,” Opal was saying. ”Do you think they’re right?”

“Oh, no,” Katara said immediately, and Lin thought Opal’s face fell for the split second before Katara continued: “I was never so beautiful.”

Despite herself, Lin snorted.

“Sure, Mom,” said Kya with a roll of her eyes. “To hear Uncle Sokka tell it, he had to defend your honour from here to the North Pole and back.”

Katara waved a hand dismissively.

“He exaggerated.”

“How would you tell it, Katara?” Opal asked, shifting forward in her seat. There was an eager sparkle in her eye, and Lin remembered the excitement with which she’d awaited stories of Team Avatar’s adventures. Her mom had never been particularly forthcoming, only ever giving the bare bones of a story, and usually wrapping up with “and then I kicked their asses”. When Sokka was there, he’d been able to coax more detail from her, even if it was mostly just arguing with his many embellishments. Aang had been a wonderful storyteller; it was as if he was reliving every adventure alongside them, and it wasn’t difficult to coax him into retelling his favourites. Katara was good when you could get a tale out of her, but she was certainly the most reluctant to reminisce, and that seemed not to have changed in the decades since Lin had been a child.

“Oh, you don’t need to hear an old lady’s old stories,” she said.

“That’s most of why I came, actually,” Opal replied, and Lin could see Kya smiling out of the corner of her eye.

“Surely you must have other things you wanted to do,” Katara insisted, but Opal only shrugged.

“Perhaps,” she said. “I’d like to visit Korra if she’s up to it.”

“Why don’t you go over this afternoon, if you’re not too tired?” Katara said. “She’s doing a little better today, and I’m sure she’ll be cheered to see a friendly face. You can hear all the stories you like over dinner this evening.” She leaned in to whisper (as if Lin and Kya couldn’t hear her perfectly well), “Besides, if Lin and I don’t talk pretty soon I’m afraid she might explode.”

Katara spoke so lightly, almost playfully, that Lin might be forgiven for thinking she had nothing to worry about. But Katara had always been able to put everyone around her at ease, no matter what the future held.

“I’ll take you over there, Opal, if you don’t mind stopping at my place,” Kya said, clearly keen to be out of the line of fire. Lin didn’t blame her.

“Not at all,” Opal said with her typical sweet smile. Then, to Lin’s surprise: “Is it okay if I go, Lin?”

“Of course. Whatever you like, kid.” She hoped she didn’t look too terrified, she didn’t want Opal to worry, but Lin knew she’d failed to keep all the tension from her voice.

“You don’t need anything here, Mom?” Kya asked, but Katara shook her head.

“No, no, Lin and I will do perfectly well, Kya. I’ve left a few things at yours, and there’s a little fire in there so it should be warm.”

“Thank you,” Kya said, pressing a swift kiss to the top of Katara’s head, then another to Lin’s. “See you later, Lin.”

Lin could hear the unspoken, good luck, and she gave Kya a tight smile. Perhaps it was being in a new environment, or the anxiety already squeezing her insides, but Lin felt uneasy watching Opal and Kya step out into the whiteness and disappear from view.

“They’ll be fine,” Katara said, as if she could read Lin’s thoughts. “Do you want some tea, Lin?”

It was the last thing Lin had expected her to say, and for a moment she forgot the appropriate response.

“Uh, sure,” she managed eventually.

There was silence while Katara pottered about preparing the tea. Lin knew better than to attempt to assist: Katara got snippy with anyone interrupting her ritual on the best of days, let alone when Lin had been keeping a secret from her for almost twenty years.

For want of anything else to do, Lin concentrated on the cuff of her sleeve. It was slightly disconcerting not to have her armour; she couldn’t manipulate the fur and wool with her bending, so she had to settle for picking at stray threads with her fingers. It was like waiting outside the principal’s office as a child, knowing that punishment was coming, and being forced to wait for it.

“Katara, I know you must have a lot to say to me,” Lin blurted, unable to stop herself, “and you’re absolutely justified in whatever anger you have. I just wanted to say, before, that I—”

“Do you really think I’m going to be angry with you?” Katara asked, cutting Lin off. It took Lin a few long moments to process what she’d asked, because it simply didn’t make any sense. Katara took advantage of her complete bafflement to press a steaming mug into her hands before sitting down on the bench next to her.

“I’ve—I hid your grandchild from you,” Lin said, disbelieving. “I risked the future of the Air Nation, and I roped Kya into the whole thing.”

“You did,” Katara agreed mildly. “You did all of that because you were in a position you never ought to have been in. A position that I put you in, that Aang put you in.”

Every new statement was more confusing than the last, and Lin could only say,

“What?”

“Drink your tea, Lin.”

Lin obeyed. She’d forgotten quite how perfectly Katara made tea, and she felt comforted as the heat spread through her chest.

“We tell ourselves, don’t we,” Katara began, “that we keep things from people because we’re protecting them. Has it ever been true, do you think?”

From most people, Lin would assume she was being asked a rhetorical question, but Katara had always wanted to know their opinions, even when they were little. Lin thought about her mom keeping Su from Sokka, about Tenzin keeping his and Lin’s history from Pema, about Su and Bataar keeping the truth of her parentage from Opal.

“Not in my experience,” she said.

“Then you’ll understand that I’ve got no excuse for keeping this from you, other than that I was afraid. You deserved to know, perhaps more than anyone else. More than Tenzin, even, though I think he deserves the truth too.” She sighed. “He and Aang carried a burden that is… incomprehensible, to most people. But at the same time—no-one asked us about the pressure, did they? No-one asked Pema. No-one asked the Last Airbender’s partner how she felt about having to—quite literally—deliver salvation.”

Lin shook her head. Her palms were sweaty against the heat of her cup. She took another sip of tea.

“I thought, at the beginning, that it was all going to be so easy.” Katara smiled sadly, dropping her gaze to where she was wringing her hands in her lap. “After we were married, it didn’t take long before Bumi was on the way, and if the pregnancy was hard I told myself that this happens to so many women. I’d been through worse, and it was worth it when I had him in my arms. I’d always wanted a family, and in my mind I could see it so clearly: three little airbenders, so the pressure wouldn’t all be on one of them the way it was on Aang, and perhaps a waterbender for me. Everyone forgets that I was the last Southern waterbender, after all.”

Lin felt a shameful blush colour her cheeks. She had forgotten that.

“It became clear pretty early that it wasn’t going to be so easy,” Katara continued. “About six months after Bumi was born I fell pregnant again, but I miscarried. A few months later it happened again. And again. And again. By the fifth pregnancy I had stopped hoping, really, and Aang had become… paranoid. Until then I’d been trying to keep up as best I could with current affairs, to support the building of Republic City and the creation of the infrastructure. But Aang thought the stress of it all was—he was convinced that was the reason I was losing them. That was around the time we realised Bumi was probably a nonbender, too.”

The initial shock of Katara’s words wore off surprisingly quickly, to be replaced by a growing dread that Lin knew exactly what was coming.

“Aang insisted, and the acolytes agreed—though I had more medical training than any of them—on strict bed rest for my next pregnancy. It barely made a difference, though. I made it out of my first trimester but then—then your mom told me the baby didn’t have a heartbeat. I don’t know if Bumi remembers that or not. He was four.” Katara’s hand shook as she raised her cup to her lips, and Lin let the silence hang between them for a long moment before Katara took a deep breath and continued.

“We waited a little after that one. I still lost the next one before the end of the first trimester, but then—then there was Kya. The first time I felt her kick, I didn’t even tell anyone. I thought it couldn’t possibly be true, I didn’t want to get Aang’s hopes up. It wasn’t until I was so big I could barely move, and she was squirming inside me like she was impatient to see the world, that I really believed she was there.” Katara’s smile was watery, but genuine, and Lin couldn’t help smiling with her. Bumi always joked that Kya was trying to run away before she could even walk, that she was crawling around all over the place as soon as she figured out how to bear her own weight. It seemed entirely right.

“Aang was so certain she was going to be an airbender, but even if that had been true, she would still have been subject to the pressure we were cracking under. We knew we couldn’t just sit around hoping she’d airbend. My first pregnancy after she was born was lost toward the end of my first trimester. Aang was away in the Earth Kingdom, so it was Bumi who found me on the bathroom floor. He thought I was dying.”

She paused, then, taking a few long, deep breaths. In the silence, Lin was left to imagine Bumi’s child’s eyes widening at the sight of the blood on his mother’s skin, his lower lip quivering, his tiny body freezing in horror. Lin had always assumed that Bumi’s issues with his father, the way he hovered round Katara, had been about his own insecurity. She’d clearly been wrong.

“So, when Aang came home, I made a request. I asked him to try with someone else. I knew half the acolytes would agree without a second thought; they were all so eager to do what I couldn’t.” Katara raised a wry eyebrow at Lin, who would have laughed if she didn’t feel like her heart had dropped below her stomach. “I told him that I wouldn’t be jealous, that it was necessary, that I wanted him to do it. I was only just past thirty, and I was so tired. I thought that surely he would understand but—but he looked at me and I—I’d never seen him look at me like that before; it was as if I’d just told him I was someone else entirely. He said, ‘how could you ask that of me?’ He told me he loved me too much to even consider it.”

Katara made it sound so matter of fact that it took a second for Lin to completely absorb her words. When their full meaning landed—heavy—on her shoulders, Lin could only say,

“What?”

Despite his flaws—no-one who had spent any amount of time with Bumi and Kya could deny he had them—Lin had always known Aang as a person of endless empathy. He had been patient and kind and apparently devoted to Katara. Had he really been so blind to her suffering? Lin didn’t want to believe it, but what she wanted was of little consequence here.

“I wanted to tell him that if he really loved me—me, the real woman, not the perfect girl he saw me as—he would do it, but I never did learn how to tell him truths that hurt.” Katara explained, and Lin thought she looked ashamed. “I just let him storm off; I still don’t know where he went, but he was gone for days, and when he came back he acted as though it had never happened, that I had never asked. I didn’t try again. Of course, when Tenzin was born, when he turned out to be an airbender… Aang said that this had been the spirits’ plan all along.”

Katara seemed to have finished, but Lin could only sit, dumbstruck, and let the silence fill up between them.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry, Katara.” It was a pathetic offering in the face of Katara’s confession, but Lin knew Katara didn’t need or want to witness the landslide of messy, angry feelings that the story had invoked in her.

“It’s not your fault, Lin. I’m sorry I never told you any of this before. I know that I—I should have. I let you and Tenzin struggle with it all because I was too afraid to… I don’t know. Sully your memories of Aang. I didn’t want either of you to think less of him, or of me.”

“I could never think less of you,” Lin said, reaching over to grasp Katara’s hand instinctively. Her bones felt frail beneath papery skin, and Lin was discomfited by just how old Katara suddenly seemed. “I think—I think on some level I knew, anyway. Not the particulars of course but—the stories Sokka used to tell about what you did in the war—it was as if they were about a completely different person than the one I knew.”

Katara squeezed Lin’s hand.

“You remind me a lot of her.”

“Who?”

“The girl from those stories.”

And wasn’t that what Lin had always feared? She had been afraid of becoming her own mother—obviously—but there had also been part of her that recognised the difference between the way Katara was in the stories and the way Lin had always known her. She had looked at her mother, and she had looked at Katara, and she had believed those were her only options: to keep herself at the expense of her child, or to give herself up entirely and be the mother Opal deserved. She knew now that the choice was not so simple.

“Surely not,” she said. “You were far braver than I was.”

“I’ve done plenty that’s cowardly in my life, Lin. We’ve both kept things from Tenzin that we were too afraid to tell him.”

Lin couldn’t imagine how Tenzin would take any of this. While she couldn’t blame Katara for wanting to keep it from him—from both of them—she couldn’t help thinking that it might have been comforting to know that the pressure had gotten to Aang and Katara as much as it had Tenzin and Lin.

“Tenzin always liked to think that the two of us would be just the same as you and Aang: childhood sweethearts who had only ever loved each other,” Lin said. “I should have known he’d expect me to give everything up for a family the moment he asked. It’s—not ironic, to know all of this now. I don’t know what it is. It would be funny if it weren’t so fucking sad.”

Katara made the face she always made when she wanted to say, language, Lin! but had long since given up.

“I failed you both again, there,” she said. “I let Aang tell his version of the story, and rose tint the whole thing from beginning to end. I might have been the only person he’d ever loved, but I had my share of teenage feelings before him. A freedom fighter, a pirate, a—it doesn’t matter. I let him tell you the same story we told the world.” She looked down at her hands again, as though she was ashamed, as though Lin didn’t understand exactly how she felt. “All of us—me and Aang and Toph, even Sokka—we never knew how to stop being war heroes, how to let go of the people the rest of the world thought we were. You all deserved better from us.”

Lin couldn’t deny it. For all that they—she and Tenzin and Kya and Bumi and Su—had all been painfully aware of their parents’ humanity, of their flaws, it hadn’t been because of their parents’ willingness to share that with them. Katara had said a lot of words that Lin had always wanted to hear, but not from her.

“I—appreciate you saying that, but—”

“I don’t ever want you to feel alone in this, Lin,” Katara insisted. Her grip was hard around Lin’s hand, her blue eyes suddenly sharp and intense. “I know that everything—I know it’s too late to save a lot of the heartache, but I need you to know that the choices you made were the product of the situation that had been desperate for so much longer than you knew.”

It struck Lin then—suddenly, like the hard light of an electric bulb—that she had come to the South Pole seeking (if not expecting) Katara’s absolution, when all the while Katara waited at the edge of the world for Lin’s. She looked down at their joined hands; Katara’s skin was soft and brown and wrinkled where Lin’s was pale and calloused, but each was rubbing a thumb against the back of the other’s hand.

“That might be true,” Lin said carefully, “and I’m grateful to know all this, Katara, truly I am. But if you’re right, if our situation was really so desperate, then it wasn’t any worse than yours. You are no more to blame than I am, than any of us are. You aren’t alone either; maybe it’s just the two of us in this sad little club,” Katara gave a faint chuckle, “but at least there are two of us.” Lin paused, thinking. “Maybe two and a half. Pema gets a weekend pass.”

That coaxed a real laugh from Katara, and the light seemed to return to the room with it.

“That’s awfully generous of you, Lin,” she said. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“Yeah,” Lin said, ruefully rubbing the back of her neck. “We’re sort of… friends now.”

“Good grief. Now that’s a story I’ll be needing to hear,” Katara said with a smile. “But for now, Lin, I need you to listen to me for just a little longer. I told you all of this because I won’t have you beating yourself up for another twenty years; I know you, and when you’re hard on yourself you’re hard on everyone else around you as well. Please, Lin, for me: allow yourself to be loved. Once you allow yourself to be loved, it gets easier to show love to other people. Forgive yourself, and I think you’ll find it much easier to forgive everyone else; including me, I hope.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Lin said, almost cutting Katara off. “But you’re right: Opal deserves for me to focus on her, not on the past. She’s what matters now.”

Katara reached out and cupped Lin’s face gently in her hands.

“You matter, too, Lin,” she said softly. “Now come on, dinner isn’t going to make itself.”

Lin wanted to protest that it was hardly the time to be thinking about food, but Katara had already stood, businesslike, and it was clear that the conversation was over, at least for now. Lin could respect it—the apparent ease with which Katara left the heaviness of it all behind was as impressive as it was disconcerting—but it still took a moment for her to gather herself and get up to help with preparations.

They didn’t have to talk as Katara set Lin to chopping, and soon the house was filled with the familiar smell of Katara’s cooking. Lin had always thought there was nothing like it: while clearly rooted in Water Tribe cuisine, the influences from other cultures were evident, and blended in a way that the high end fusion restaurants of Republic City could only dream of.

Lin couldn’t say how much time had passed when the creaking of the door and the rush of the wind heralded Opal’s return—it was one of the things she liked about the South Pole, the absence of schedules and the ticking clock—but the pot was bubbling merrily over the fire, and the smell coming from it was spicy and rich. Opal took a deep breath in as she pushed down the hood of her parka; her nose and cheeks were flushed with cold, but she smiled as she said,

“That smells amazing. What is it?”

“I don’t know if I remember where this one came from,” Katara said thoughtfully. “It’s a little spicy, so we must have been in the Fire Nation, but beyond that I couldn’t say.”

“I like spicy,” Opal said, collapsing next to Lin and leaning over to rest her cold cheek on Lin’s shoulder.

“Is everything okay?” Opal whispered, and Lin smiled.

“Yes, Opal,” she whispered back. “She wasn’t mad.”

“Okay, good.”

Lin glanced across to where Katara stirred the pot over the fire. She’d clearly heard the exchange (she’d been lying for years about her hearing starting to go in her old age) and she met Lin’s eye with the ghost of a smile.

“How’s Korra doing?” Lin asked, returning to normal volume.

“Not much better than when we saw her last, honestly,” Opal said with a sigh. “I can see why you want Kya back here, Katara.”

“It’s been a struggle, to be sure,” said Katara. She dipped a finger into the spoon of stew to taste it, and the lines of her brow deepened in concentration. “It’s her mind more than her body, if you ask me. Understandable, of course, the poor girl’s been through more than most of us can imagine, but I can’t figure out how to bring her out of this… I don’t know what it is. Something like grief, I think.” Katara shuffled back to where her spices were arranged neatly in clay pots; she selected one—Lin didn’t know how she remembered which was which—and tossed a pinch of red flakes into the stew. “I’d hoped seeing a friendly face would help.”

“I think she was happy to see me, but embarrassed as well,” Opal said. “She wants to be doing better.”

“Haven’t the boys and Asami been writing to her?” Lin asked. She was sure she remembered Mako mentioning something about weekly letters not so long ago. He’d seemed upset about it.

“Yeah, but she’s not been replying,” Opal said. “I think she doesn’t know what to say.”

“Well, she needs to find something, if only to stop her friends worrying.” Lin knew first hand the damage that could be done by isolating oneself when one most needed help. “Mako’s been looking like a kicked puppy these last couple of months.”

“Mako’s the young firebender, if I recall?”

“Yes. He’s joined the RCPD now: he’s Lin’s favourite rookie,” Opal said with a teasing little smile.

“I don’t have favourites,” Lin said quickly.

“Apart from Mako,” Opal agreed, and Lin grumbled. She was going to have to pay some attention to the other rookies when she got back to Republic City. It was a pity, because the other rookies were idiots.

“What about the brother?” Katara asked. “He has a brother, doesn’t he? An earthbender?”

“Unfortunately,” Lin said, which earned her an elbow to the ribs from Opal.

“His name is Bolin.” Opal’s cheeks flushed as she said his name, and Lin rolled her eyes at Katara.

“Bolin, hmm?” Katara prompted, and Opal’s blush deepend.

“He’s been there for me a lot these past few months. He’s a really good listener.” That took Lin aback. She’d expected Opal to say something about how handsome Bolin was, or praise his bending ability.

“I didn’t know that,” she said, and Opal shrugged.

“Well, you didn’t seem to like to hear about Bolin.”

She almost panicked, then. She’d hurt Opal without realising it already and wasn’t that just typical—but before she could get any further, a soft, familiar voice reminded her: when you’re hard on yourself you’re hard on everyone else around you as well. She took a deep breath.

“Shit. I’m sorry, kid.”

It wasn’t enough to undo what she’d done, the way she’d dismissed Opal’s feelings in favour of her own—just like Toph would have done—but the smile was back on Opal’s face.

“That’s okay. You can invite him to dinner to make it up to me.” She batted her long eyelashes a couple of times in a way that felt oddly pointed. Lin sighed.

“Fine. If he ever hurts you, though—”

“I know.”

“Are we expecting Kya for dinner?” Katara asked abruptly (Lin had almost forgotten she was there). “This is about ready.”

“She said she was gonna stay at hers for tonight,” Opal said.

“Staying out of the line of fire. Smart,” Lin said, and Katara smacked her lightly with the wooden spoon.

“Get us some bowls, Lin.”

Lin grumbled as she got to her feet, her joints protesting even more than usual in the cold.

“So, you were saying about Bolin,” Katara prompted as Lin handed her the stack of bowls, but Opal shook her head.

“I was promised war stories over dinner, if you recall.”

“She’s too smart for her own good, this one,” Katara observed, and Lin snorted.

“She gets that from her other grandmother.” She passed the first bowl to Opal, and took another gratefully for herself. It always took a while to acclimate to the cold down here, but in the meantime she wanted to wrap herself around the bowl and soak up the heat until her body felt liquid.

“Kya said I should ask about the Painted Lady.” Opal said as Lin returned to her seat.

“Oh yeah, that’s a good one,” Lin agreed. She’d heard it more than once from Sokka, but never from Katara herself, and she couldn’t deny she was almost as eager as Opal.

They had both been expecting Katara to attempt a refusal, but she only smiled, a twinkle that might have been mischief in her eye.

“I know we had much larger victories, did things that the world says mattered so much more, but that village… there’s still something special about it, for me,” Katara began. “It was only supposed to be a quick pit stop for supplies, but it wasn’t long after we arrived that we realised something was very wrong in that little fishing village…”

Katara’s version of the story was softer, more reflective than Sokka’s had been (if Lin recalled, Sokka’s version of the story had been mostly complaints about running behind schedule), and her voice was soothing. It was easy to get lost in the tale as she let the food warm her from the inside out.

Opal listened to the whole thing with wide eyes, only remembering to eat when Katara herself took a pause to raise her spoon to her mouth. There was a childlike wonder in her expression as Katara recounted the tale, and Lin—for the first time—allowed herself to imagine what Opal must have been like as a child. It ached, as she’d expected it would, but it couldn’t dim the joy she felt in watching the way Opal’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open when Katara reached the end of the story.

“I looked up and… there she was,” Katara said. This had never been part of Sokka’s story, and Lin wondered if anyone but she and Opal had heard this particular ending before. “She smiled at me, and I knew we weren’t needed there anymore.”

“Wow,” Opal breathed, after a long moment of silence. “You really think it was her?”

“Either that or I was more tired than I thought I was,” Katara said. “Back then, seeing a spirit was rather a big deal, if you can believe it.”

Lin huffed.

“I wish seeing a spirit was a big deal. Might mean I get a good night’s sleep every now and again.” She’d done such a good job of forgetting about her job while she was away, but suddenly there it was, encroaching as it always did on the brief moments of peace she could find. Lin still wasn’t completely convinced that she would return to find Republic City in one piece, but she had other priorities now.

“Once we get past the adjustment period I think it’ll be good for us to have a little more contact with the spirits,” Katara said. Lin recognised the gentle admonishment in her voice from childhood, and felt appropriately chastised. “As wonderful as all this modern progress is, I think we could stand to stop rushing and remember our roots every once in a while.”

She was probably right, but Lin couldn’t help thinking that Katara might not be so emphatic about if she was the one who had to deal with a dozen human-spirit disputes every day.

“What do you think, Opal?” Katara asked. The question seemed to startle Opal, who blinked several times before she said,

“Sorry, what were you talking about?” She attempted to stifle a yawn, but neither Lin nor Katara was fooled.

“You’ve had a long day, young lady, and a long journey before that,” Katara said. “How about we get you to bed?”

Opal nodded, letting another yawn escape. Lin couldn’t help a yawn of her own in response.

“You, too,” Katara said. “You look like you’ve not had a good night’s sleep in weeks.”

It was true, but Lin still said,

“Gee, thanks.”

Katara only tutted as she fussed with blankets and Lin put the dishes by the door for washing in the morning.

“It’s warmest in here at night,” Katara was saying when she returned. “So the beds there are for the pair of you. Lin knows how to keep the fire going safely overnight. Do you need anything else?”

“I think we’re good, thank you,” Opal said.

“Alright. There’s a water butt in the corner there if you want to brush your teeth, and there’s boiled water in the kettle if you need something to drink.”

“We’ll be fine, Katara,” Lin said, who was more than used to Katara’s fussing. If you didn’t dismiss her, she wouldn’t leave until you were tucked up in bed with a drink and a snack and bedtime story.

“Let me fuss over my granddaughter, Lin,” Katara said, but she kissed Opal on the head, and gestured for Lin to lean down so she could do the same to her before shuffling from the room.

Opal and Lin prepared for bed in silence, both too tired to say much. It had been an overwhelming day, even if the outcome had been far better than Lin had anticipated. Opal was clambering gratefully into bed as Lin poured them each a glass of water from the kettle.

“Hey, Lin?” Opal said, her soft voice breaking the quiet.

“Mm?”

“You’re not difficult to love.”

That hadn’t been what Lin was expecting (if she could even say she’d been expecting anything in particular at all) and she wasn’t entirely certain she’d heard correctly.

“I’m sorry?”

“You said—that first evening I had dinner at your apartment—that you were difficult to love,” Opal said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past couple months because—well, because you were wrong. You’re not difficult to love at all.” Then, so quietly Lin almost missed it: “I love you.”

Lin was dimly aware that this should be simple: she should be happy to hear this. She wasn’t supposed to be afraid, to be so completely certain that Opal was wrong, so utterly convinced that—sooner or later—Lin would prove to Opal how fruitless a task loving her was. She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that for a long moment she failed to notice the way that Opal’s hands twisted in her bedclothes, and the nervous pant of her breath.

Katara’s voice was back, then: once you allow yourself to be loved, it gets easier to show love to other people. It was a leap of faith she’d been too afraid to take eighteen years ago, but she would take it now.

“I love you too, Opal.” Her voice was unsteady, but that was alright. “I always have.”

She crossed the room in a few quick strides to press a long kiss to Opal’s hair. When she finally broke away, Opal’s face was turned up towards her, her own hand covering Lin’s wrist as Lin’s thumb brushed gently across her cheek. Her eyes were wide and green—the same shade as Lin’s, the same shape as Katara’s—sparkling even in the dim light, and Lin wondered how it was possible that she had made something so beautiful. For the first time, she didn’t have to wonder whether Katara felt this way when she looked at Kya, or if Pema did when Jinora and Ikki laughed; she already knew they must.

“Get some sleep, okay?” she said, before she could do something embarrassing like cry. “I’m just over here if you need anything.”

Opal nodded, and Lin didn’t trust herself to say anything else. She retreated to her cot, pulling the many layers of blankets and furs up to her shoulders. The fire was burning low in the pit in the centre of the room, but there was still a chill in the air that couldn’t be chased away. Even with Katara’s revelations crowding her thoughts, Lin could feel the heavy pull of sleep descending almost as soon as she closed her eyes.

She was just about to slip into unconsciousness when a quiet sound from across the room made her bolt upright.

“Sorry,” Opal whispered, and Lin relaxed.

“It’s fine, you alright?”

“Yeah I just—I can’t get warm.” There was even a shiver in Opal’s voice, and Lin remembered her own first visit to the South Pole; nothing had prepared her for the extent of the cold, and despite the layers she was bundled up in, nothing had been enough to stop her shivering once the sun went in.

Lin shifted slightly, making space in her cot.

“Grab a couple of blankets and get over here, then.”

For a second, she thought Opal might refuse, but before she could be stung by the rejection, she heard the soft scrambling of Opal gathering up an armful of blankets. The pad of Opal’s socked feet was light on the floor, and Lin raised up her own blankets to let Opal slide under them. Lin dropped the blanket pile back on top of them, its weight comforting.

“Better?” she asked, as Opal got settled.

“Yeah,” Opal said, but Lin could still feel her shivering. She reached out to put her arm around Opal’s waist, pulling her closer. Opal curled up, foetal, against Lin’s chest, her face tucked against Lin’s neck. Lin could feel the hot, damp huffs of Opal’s breath against her skin, the same way she had eighteen years ago in those first few stolen days. Lin pulled her in just a little bit tighter.

“Goodnight, Opal,” she whispered, pressing a brief kiss on the crown of Opal’s head.

Opal hummed, sleepy, wriggling a little in Lin’s arms before she stilled again. Her voice was muffled where her face was pressed into the crook of Lin’s shoulder, but the words were clear:

“Goodnight, Amma.”