My next long adventure! I've spent a while getting the plot for this worked out and the first few chapters written, and it's finally ready to start posting. As always, Lin/Tenzin - both implied and quite obvious - abounds here, but I hope you all enjoy the quest along with them as much as I'm enjoying writing it.
This is set about a year after Season 4/the end of the series, though there are no spoilers for anything at all. A quick note, too, that this does not follow any "timeline" my one-shots may have been setting and stands alone from them, even if it does use some themes already mentioned in a few. You definitely do not have to read any of those to read this, though.
"No, no, wait – look, see, look." The old man shook his head, wobbling slightly in the chair and putting his wrinkled hands out on the table to keep himself right. "Look, look. No, ma'am. What is your name again? Are you really a detective?"
"Della," the young woman said with a large frown, resisting taking a step back from the stench of alcohol oozing from him. "Detective Della, sir, I assure you. I also assure you that you were, in fact, there. You were in the bar where the murders happened sleeping behind the counter!"
Lin watched from behind the mirror looking into the interrogation room as Della pushed, crossing her arms in annoyance. He'd been in there for over two hours, somewhere between consciousness and an intense drunken hangover – their only witness to a double murder from that morning, assuming he had been sober enough to remember anything. The murderer was in the wind, this man the only witness and the only one who could help point them in any kind of direction. Whoever had done this hadn't even known he was there, crouched where the good whiskey was.
"No, ma'am, I was not."
He smiled widely up at her and Della threw her hands in the air, looking through the glass to where she knew Lin was as she turned to grab a chair.
"Now you look," Della said softly, imploringly, sitting beside him at the stark metal table. "My officers and I found you there. Do you remember that? Do you remember being there?"
Lin saw her hesitate before looking back at the mirror and her chief again. Della was not a new officer by any means, but she had recently been given her title as detective. This was her first big case, and it was certainly proving a difficult one from the start. No evidence at the scene and a witness who was too drunk to be coherent. All reasons why Lin was watching this to begin with, both to oversee the case and to oversee Della, or to guide her if needed.
"My name," the man continued before Della could do more than shift her head, "my name is Lang. Please call me Lang."
"Right. All right, then. Lang – may we return to your morning at the Fishtail Bar?"
"Mm, no. I don't think so, no. See, I don't want to talk about that." Lang looked over Della's shoulder around the metal walls, eyes skimming past that mirror. Lin could see fear and agitation on his face through the haze of drink, and she wondered if Della could see it as well. She would give her new detective more time, though, before going in herself. "See, no. No, I didn't see anything. No. Not a thing. So you're going to let me go now, right, you are."
"No, Mister Lang, we're not. You've been charged with drunken conduct in public, you're not leaving." She gazed at him as he lowered his head, thinking this over.
Suddenly he slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a bronze coin latched to a golden chain and plopped it on the table. Della watched in surprise as he slid it across to her, his hand shaking. "This, right here," he told her, "bring me the lady who made this for me fifty years ago. She'll protect me from those ruffians, not like you hooligans, running around headless."
She touched the coin, taking it into her hand and turning it over. A few lines were scratched into one side, but otherwise it was quite nondescript as she studied it. "What ruffians?" she asked, trying to keep him on track, away from lost loves and whatever else he may be playing.
"The Dragon Clan," he whispered, the fear coming through clearly now.
Lin stiffened, her arms dropping to her sides.
"I'm not saying another word. Not until you bring her back." He pointed at the coin and then turned away, the conversation at an end.
Della scooted her chair back from the table and, coin in hand, left the room. Lin was waiting when she came into observation, a scowl pulling her face into an expression of apprehension. She was silent for a moment as the detective came to her side, concerned, and took the proffered coin without looking at it yet.
"You're off the case," Lin said firmly before Della could speak.
"What? Why?" She didn't mean to sound so whining, and she immediately attempted to cover herself. "The Dragon Clan doesn't scare me," she added heartily, punctuating the words with a strong nod. "I'll be fine, Chief, really."
"You'll end up as dead as those bodies we found this morning," Lin snapped. "It's amazing this Lang here is even alive right now."
"No, detective." Della closed her mouth quickly under Lin's angry glance. "It's all right," she said after a moment, the ire gone from her voice. "I'm taking the case myself, not giving it to someone else. And I may need a bit of assistance." She gave her a tiny, fleeting grin the younger woman quickly returned. "But it will be my name on all the forms, in all the papers, and attached to everything to do with this – not yours. You may not think so now, but after the first death threat you'll be glad I did this."
"I understand, Chief. Thank you."
She did understand, and Lin gave her a true smile then, small and tired though it may have been. "Bring Lang to the barracks to sleep this off. Maybe he'll be more talkative when he wakes up sober. And detective, do not allow him to leave this building. I don't want another soul added to the count."
Della gave her a deep bow and left to gather Lang, who had dozed off at the table in the interrogation room.
It wasn't until they had ambled off loudly down the hall together that Lin remembered the coin held loosely in her hand. She ran her thumb over the warming metal, feeling the bronze without looking at it, the imperfect gold of the chain with all its kinks and bends. The scratches stood out against her skin and she was able to tell just before bringing her hand up that they had been placed there by a Metalbender.
"Shit," she muttered under her breath.
She didn't have to study the mark for more than a second to recognize it.
Lin heard Tenzin come in without looking up from the table in her dining room. Her uneaten dinner was pushed off to the side. The smell of food was entreating, but every time she tried to take a bite her stomach decided against her will it was no longer hungry. She'd eventually just pushed the whole meal away, that coin in front of her instead as her eyes unfocused on it.
"I'm sorry I'm late," Tenzin said, walking into the room and removing his traveling cloak to drape over a chair before sitting beside her. "Rohan got into the bison stalls just as I was leaving, I had to give him a bath. What a mess he was, really, it was dis – Lin, are you all right?"
He noticed she hadn't looked at him, likely not having heard a word out of his mouth until he said her name. After another moment, she slowly turned her gaze to his concerned one.
"You didn't call me here for dinner, did you?" he asked, his eyebrows coming together.
"The Dragon Clan killed two more people this morning," she told him softly. "Or commissioned the killing, I'm not sure yet."
Tenzin swore under his breath, sinking back in the chair and staring over at the far wall. This clan – a gang, truly – had come to power almost ten months previous, making their climb bloody and brutal through the Triads and the Agni Kai. Where those two and their various branches, however, at least had a modicum of respect for the police and the people they shared their city with, the Dragon Clan was proving to not care about a single person standing in their way to the top of the chain to rule the underbelly of Republic City.
In the fourteen hours since this one case had been opened, of the still-nameless man and woman killed in the bar, Lin herself had received an 'official' notice on her life. Even if she wasn't taking it very seriously in regard for her own safety, she had put the station on high alert for the safety of those in her protection. No one allowed in past the desk without clearance, no one allowed to leave without a supervisor's knowledge, and so forth.
These people would be brought down eventually, it was simply a matter of when. And, unfortunately, a matter of how much more blood would have to be spilled to get there.
"We had a witness," she said into the deafening silence that had fallen between them.
Tenzin's face visibly brightened at this news, and he sat straighter to look at her again. "That's great! You'll be able to break through their ranks by putting the killer in jail this time, won't you? Why – why are you still so upset?"
Lin had simply raised an eyebrow at him, her gaze baleful and distant. "Because of this." She picked up the coin, turning it over once in her hand to catch a glare from the electric light dangling from the ceiling. The chain wrapped around her fingers. "The miserable old man won't say a single word to us until we bring the woman who made this here to "protect him", as if we wouldn't be able to do that." She scoffed, growing very agitated, and Tenzin reached out – not to take the coin but to put his hand over hers and lower it to the table again.
"Will it be a problem," he asked, hesitating only at the irritation written across her body, "to find this lady?"
The laugh that erupted from her chest was brittle and barking, and she stood suddenly to leave him looking after her at a loss. "You tell me," she snapped. "That lady, Tenzin, is my mother."
"Are you serious? How – how could you possibly know?" He stood as well, facing her back as she continued to glare into the sightless distance.
"This coin, the marks here – it's what she used as her signature."
He took the few paces to her side, finally extracting the metal from her hand. She gave it to him without resistance, falling in on herself slightly to cross her arms over her abdomen. Tenzin's eyes flicked up to her, uncomfortable and waiting for him to deny her fear, and then down to the coin. Toph had never really bothered to learn the proper characters for her name, instead going about halfway to scribble something that may or may not have been correct if someone attempted to interpret what she wrote. Lines were usually off, spacing wrong, and so on. But anyone who mattered to her recognized it and that was that.
This…yes, this was what she eventually came to use as shorthand for her name when the need arose, imprinted right there on the otherwise smooth metallic face.
"How old is this?" He didn't know what else to say and the question sounded silly, but Lin looked at him again anyway.
"Fifty years. At least, according to the man who had it."
Lin extended her hand to receive the coin back, and she curled her fingers around it the moment the cool brass touched her skin. Tenzin watched her, aware of the rigid way she held her shoulders and back that indicated her stress was far beyond what she wanted to deal with. He sat at the table once more, taking in her untouched food and the darkness in the rest of her home. Without prompting, her took her plate and dragged it closer to see the plain rice she'd made was hardening, the vegetables long cold.
"Can I make you something fresh to eat?" The query was caring, and she forced some of the agitation from her posture. If anyone else had asked her in this situation, one of her officers or even her personal secretary, she would have given them a scathing reply, but Tenzin…
She sighed unhappily, coming to rejoin him at the table and sinking into her chair. "What am I supposed to do?" she questioned needlessly.
Tenzin laid his hand on the table's smooth wooden surface, palm upward, and Lin covered it with her own, twining their fingers together and lowering her gaze to see them both. It was a comfort, having him there as her mind was reeling through the case and the prospect of seeking her mother, and she held to that tightly to keep herself grounded.
"Are you thinking of going to search for her?" he asked gently, squeezing her fingers.
She shrugged helplessly. "I don't necessarily want to," she muttered, leaning forward to rest her other elbow on the table so she could put her chin on the back of her hand. "But this man – Ling, Lang, whatever his name is – he won't cooperate without her, he doesn't trust me the way he does Ma. Or did, I don't have the faintest idea what their relationship was."
"Perhaps," he hedged with a very faint smile, "perhaps you could go look for her, and make a small getaway out of it. You could use the time to yourself, get your thoughts back together."
That idea hadn't occurred to her and she frowned slightly. As nice as it sounded, to leave the city and her responsibilities to go on some kind of adventure the way she would have in her youth, she couldn't. "Now isn't exactly the time to be abandoning the case, Tenzin," she said in way of explanation. "My officers need me to stay here – to work on this and to look after them."
"Look after them," he repeated her last words, his eyes narrowing as he caught on to what she had so far left unsaid. "Look after them because the Clan has already put out a – a – what are they called, a contract for you, or what is it? Just for working on this case?"
Her frown deepened and she didn't respond, though that was enough of an answer. "I wish I could tell you to drop this," he muttered, his fingers tightening around hers.
"As if I ever would, not when two people need justice and others need my help." She gave him a small grin and he returned it.
"I wouldn't expect any less of you."
There was silence for a moment, and she could feel his eyes on her, taking in her exhaustion and anxiety. It was only a few seconds later that he spoke again, his voice calm enough to alleviate so many of the uncertainties that had been weighing on her shoulders since that morning without him even having to try.
"I can't stay tonight," he said softly, "but would you like to go lie down? I won't leave until you're asleep, however long it takes."
Lin sighed tiredly, letting the breath out through her nose in a long, quiet huff before turning to look at Tenzin as he stood, their hands still clasped. She couldn't deny the offer was sorely tempting, even if she would miss him the several times she was surely to wake during the night as she always did, tossing and turning with stress heavy in her mind. Their full nights together were rare and, though they had not once allowed him to be physically unfaithful to his marriage, the feeling of his arms around her as she slept was one she cherished and no longer had to hold as a mere memory. They never really spoke of it, though; it just happened, as things do, and continued without pause. Neither put much of a stop to it after a while.
She let him pull her gently to her feet, grasp firm around her fingers. "All right."