The final chapter for yet another story.
Thank you, every single one of you who has read this from the beginning. Whether you reviewed or not, seeing that "read" count for All Their Light go higher and higher every day means so much to me. Another thanks to everyone who has reviewed: Free-Spirited Dreamer, avatarfanlin, PowerMonger, guests who either have no account here or were not logged in, and anyone who may review this chapter – I appreciate your reviews very, very much.
And, of course, a very generous thank you to Amira Elizabeth, especially since this story would not actually exist without her help.
I would also like to say here how much I appreciate those of you who have been reading with me for so long. I recognize so many of your names, and that kind of thing means the world to me whether you review or simply continue to read and enjoy.
More writing is coming in the future. Plenty of one-shots, as always, and another longer story once I get the details planned enough to start working on it.
In the meantime, enjoy the final chapter of All Their Light!
All Their Light
Shun's funeral was held only several days later, once his family was able to be gathered from across the four nations to come to Republic City, where his parents wanted him laid to rest. Much of the city came to pay their respects to their fallen officer, hundreds of people crammed into the spacious courtyard in front of City Hall. His father spoke at length about his childhood and watching him grow up, and about the impact losing their child would have on their family. Lin, dressed in her uniform and decorated with every medal and accommodation she had ever received, spoke as well at their request. She told everyone as much as she could, about his bravery and heart, about his sacrifice for his fellow officer, and about how that made him worthy of this respect and more.
She didn't know what else she could say. She had known Shun, about as well as she knew any of her officers. Lin felt, though, as if some outside force was guiding her through all of this. She had been numb since the afternoon he died - her seventh officer lost under her command. Too many.
The sun came out long enough for the burial, snow sweeping in again within the hour. She watched it blowing by out the window, unmoving from the couch in her office.
A timid knock on her door made her head turn, and she saw Jaluu come inside, his eyes red from shed tears. "May I come in?" he asked, and she beckoned him toward her without hesitation. He closed the door behind him.
"Are you all right?" Lin asked, concerned as she watched him standing so uncomfortably by the door. "Come sit."
He did, perching tensely on the cushions on the other end of the sofa. "Do you remember, you offered to let me take some time off? I said no then, but I think I actually need it."
"Of course, Jaluu." Lin moved closer to him, putting her hand on his shoulder and bringing his attention to hers. She could see now just how drawn and exhausted his face was, and her eyebrows came together. "You can take all the time you need, all right? Just finish up what you can today and head out of here. I'll take care of everyone in your squad until you return."
Jaluu nodded and suddenly the tears were falling down over his cheeks again. Lin withdrew her hand, waiting for him to speak. "I don't understand why he did it, Chief," he muttered, shaking his head and looking at his hands again. "Shun and I...we didn't get along - you knew that, I talked to you about him a while ago. I thought he wanted to transfer out of my command."
"People surprise us all the time," she told him with a gentle grin.
"I should have known," he muttered, lowering his head down into his hands. "I should have known the call was false. That it was a trap."
"Hey," Lin murmured. He didn't look at her and she rubbed her hand over his shoulders as they shook with sobs. "That call came through dispatch, I checked the log myself. It was given to you by our own call center. There is no way you could have known, no way at all. What happened was not your fault, I promise you."
Jaluu just nodded again, hearing what she said but unable to respond to it.
"Go finish whatever paperwork you're right in the middle of and go home. Be with the people you love." She waited for him to look at her and gave him a small, encouraging smile. "I am here, as well, if you need support or anyone to talk to. I understand as well as anyone how difficult this is."
She stood with him as he rose and they walked to her door, which she opened for him. Lin took his hand as he walked past her, squeezing it tightly. "I will see you soon," she told him.
He left with a word of sincere thanks and she closed the door gently behind him, slumping against it the moment it latched. Tears burned at her eyes and it took every modicum of willpower she had in her at that moment to squeeze them closed and swallow as the urge to sob until she had nothing left passed. It took several minutes, and she didn't move until she felt solid on her feet again.
She was everyone's support, their guidance through this. If she broke, the way she so dreadfully wanted to, her officers, everyone in this building of her stronghold, would have no one – and that was simply not an option.
And so she went to her desk, picking up something to work on while those around her turned to her for strength she felt she no longer had, waning away with every passing moment.
Lin worked until she no longer could that night, finally leaving the precinct and making her way home well after eleven. Tenzin had called her numerous times, but she had asked Hutou to hold all of her calls – even his – and she had not spoken to him at all that day in the unhappy chaos of the funeral. He had been there, of course, and had spent as much time as he could at her side, but they had been parted constantly until she had eventually been pulled away and he had returned home. Her home, their home, where he was likely waiting for her.
She was as quiet as she could be as she unlocked the door, not wanting to disturb him should he have fallen asleep, and let herself inside out of the cold. Most of the lights had been turned off, but she could still see him dozing on the couch, where he had attempted to wait for her to return.
Guilt stabbed at her, pooling in her stomach until she felt ill from the weight of the day. She bit her lip and released it again as she knelt by the sofa at Tenzin's side, reaching out to brush her fingers over his cheek to stir him.
"Lin?" he mumbled, voice heavy with sleep. "You're home. What time is it?"
"Late," she replied softly without further clarification. She dropped her hand, letting it rest instead on her thigh as he sat up slowly.
When her touch left him, he put his hand out to cup her face, bringing her weary gaze to meet his and not letting her look away. "I was worried about you," he told her simply. "I wasn't sure if you were going to come home. I thought – I thought you were going to sleep in your office. And when you wouldn't take my calls…well, I was worried."
She gave him a small, sad smile. "I'm home."
"You look exhausted." He slid his hand over her cheek, moving his thumb under her eye. She was startled when he found moisture there, a tear she hadn't even known she'd shed. "Let's go prepare for bed. Would you like me to draw you a bath? Or perhaps a cup of tea to help you sleep?"
Lin just shook her head, letting him help her to her feet as he stood. "Come on," he said gently, his arm finding loose purchase around her waist over her coat. "Let's get you to bed, then."
She started to follow him, allowing him to lead her down the hall toward the bedroom, but the crushing burden of the day – of the last several – was taking its toll. She stumbled once over her own boots, and then twice, and suddenly she pushed Tenzin's arm away as her heart began to pound so hard in her chest she felt as though she were unable to breathe. He turned to look at her, surprised, but she just fell sideways into the wall, tears falling down her face as she began to sob with abandon.
Tenzin grabbed for her shoulders, but she was already sliding down the wall, unable to keep herself standing as her knees completely gave way. Down she went, Tenzin following nearby, until she was slumped forward in a huddled mess of limbs on the floor.
His concerned touch on her arm made her cry out harder, and he recoiled from her in alarm. All she could see around her in that moment were faces – faces of the men and women she had lost, all staring back at her, never to be touched by their own loved ones again. It was too much, too much.
"I can't," she wailed, falling back to press into the wall behind her. "I can't do this, I can't."
Tenzin quickly sat on the floor beside her, and she both desperately wanted him to touch her and couldn't bear the thought of it, knowing she was here, alive, and Shun was not when it had been her job to keep him safe. "Tenzin," she cried uselessly, swaying her head to and fro and feeling the wall steady against her when it felt as though the earth were about to swallow her whole. "Tenzin – I don't – I can't - "
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she moaned brokenly, no longer aware of the tears covering her face. Tenzin shook his head, confused and trying to convey to her that she had nothing to apologize for, and she did not have the words then to tell him how the guilt for all of this was consuming her from the inside out. She was the one who pursued the robberies so hard, who looked into Tsung's background, who pushed his son into taking hostages. She had hurt Tenzin so badly in the process, destroying something he had been working toward for years – and she had destroyed the life of her officer.
Her job, what she had built up in this city…none of it seemed worth a thing in that moment, and she could not bring herself to find a reason to care any longer, not when it was costing too much in return.
There was a small break in her trembling, and Tenzin took the opportunity to slip his arms around her, cautious of reawakening whatever his touch had burned a moment previously. But this time Lin fell into him, crying openly against his shoulder. Her hands clutched at his robes, wrinkled from sleeping on the couch, and she gave up trying to say another word as he silently ran his hand up and down her back, rocking with her on the floor.
Lin continued to lie in bed, awake as Tenzin slept fitfully, for hours into the approaching dawn. She had let him carry her from the hallway to the bedroom long after the clock over City Hall chimed midnight, where he gently helped her undress when her limbs refused to hold the weight of her body or of her uniform as it came loose from her. She felt weak, brittle, after her collapse into that miserable darkness and she did not know where her inner self was any longer.
An outsider – she felt like an outsider in her own life, not able to find her footing or see the light inside herself for strength. Everything was dull, when just days ago it had been bright and luminous around her.
Tenzin's arms were tight over her waist and back even as he fell again into the deeper end of his slumber, holding her close. He was propped up against the headboard, more than he usually found comfortable, so she could press herself up against him, nestled to his chest and under his chin, as she recovered from whatever had plagued her so horribly. He had tried to stay awake with her, but eventually he had dozed and left her to her thoughts.
She swallowed and attempted once again to find sleep, closing her eyes and relaxing the remaining tension from her body as best she could. But, as before, it was elusive as the fingers of exhaustion crept over her and slipped away. She stared at the shelves on the far wall, cast in shadow and giving the books and objects there a strange shape.
Only a small handful of times had she felt this kind of overwhelming grief and guilt. Once, when Suyin left home and Toph blamed her for her favorite daughter's forced departure. Again, when her mother left herself, leaving the full weight of the police force on her shoulders with no guidance to lead her through it. A third time when Tenzin left her for Pema and Lin was so certain her heart would never recover. And then now.
But this time…this time she was not sure how to recover herself. Her will was depleted, her strength gone. Tenzin murmured to her in the dark as he held her in bed hours earlier that she gave so much of her strength away, and she knew it was true.
It was only as she finally found slumber just after the sun broke over the city, fighting through the clouds, that she understood the path she needed to walk to find closure and contentment again.
She went into the precinct that afternoon for one reason, and the filing of all the necessary paperwork only took thirty minutes. Hutou helped her tremendously, gathering everything together so all she needed to do was fill in the missing information. She had him notarize it right there and then an aide rolled everything up, put her seal into fresh wax over the edges, and brought the pronouncement directly to the president's secretary. Raiko would call her with a displeased diatribe within the hour, but she wouldn't be in her office to answer.
She folded one of the forms still on her desk and slipped it into an inside pocket of her coat.
Tenzin had departed for Air Temple Island when she had left for work, and she left her office as soon as she was finished to head out into the brisk day. The sun had vanished behind the clouds again, though snow was still kept at bay as a heavy wind pushed the weather out for the next front to come in.
She greeted the acolytes on the ferry with a content smile.
"Early dinner with the family today?" one of them asked pleasantly as he untied the rope and set off into the bay.
"No," Lin replied, leaning against the railing so the sea breeze would blow her hair back from her face. Small bits of spray coming up off the side of the boat left her skin damp. "I have a gift for Tenzin this time."
The acolyte waved to her as she disembarked several minutes later and walked up the dock toward the temple and its housing. She was already searching for Tenzin through the earth, wanting to see him before she found anyone else, and her waves found him in his study inside the house. She went in though a side door, hoping to avoid the children for the moment, and went up a short flight of stairs at the end of the hall. His door was closed and she could hear him mumbling to himself, something about rewording a 'stupid law', and she rapped a knuckle against the wood.
"Yes, come in," he called out.
Lin pushed the door open, peering in at him before stepping all the way inside. It took a moment before he looked up from his desktop, pen in hand and a smudge of ink on his forehead. A little more than an hour and he had already lost himself in work. His entire face lit up when he saw her standing at the doorway, and he stood from the desk and came around to take her into his arms without hesitation.
"How are you feeling?" he asked softly, his embrace tight and warm around her.
She took a deep inhale and let it out slowly, closing her eyes to stay connected and hear his heart beating against her ear. "I'm feeling better," she told him, the words honest. After a moment she pulled back slightly, only enough to rub her thumb against the smudge just beside his arrow. She smiled. "I thought you retired, and yet here you are working just as hard as I do."
"Raiko is trying to pass the most ridiculous -"
"A very stupid law," Lin interjected, her smile broadening. "I could hear you talking to yourself."
"Is that so." He brushed his knuckles over her cheek, eyes softening with his own smile as he cupped her face in his palm. "I see you are not at work," he murmured, gazing at her thoughtfully. "Did you not get enough sleep?"
Her lips quirked and she moved backward a bit more in order to reach into her coat pocket for the paper. He took it from her when she offered it to him, his arms falling away from her as he opened it to read quickly over the sparse contents. She watched, her heart starting to pound with excitement, as his eyebrows came together in confusion.
"What – Lin, what is this?"
"This," she told him, taking the form back and looking at it herself, "is my official notice of leave. Three months starting at the end of next week." He stared at her, too surprised to speak in response. "I want to help you rebuild your temples, Tenzin," she whispered, eyes falling to the floor. "I may not be able to lend you my entire fortune, but I can lend you my bending. You and I – we can rebuild them together, one at a time. We can finish a single temple's restoration in three months, don't you think?" Still he didn't speak, and she pressed gently, "Tenzin, say something. Please."
Tenzin swept her back into his arms, holding her to him tightly. "Lin," he murmured into her hair. "Oh, Lin."
"Is this your way of agreeing, then?" she asked softly, her face nestled against his robes. She moved slightly in his embrace to turn her head over his shoulder.
He laughed, a blissfully happy sound, and leaned back to see her. He opened his mouth to speak but no words emerged, instead overtaken by another gleeful laugh. When his second attempt also failed to bring about a coherent response, he simply took her face and kissed her soundly on the lips. "Yes," he finally said, kissing her again and then a third time. "Of course, of course!"
Lin took a step away to look at him, running the fingers of both hands over his cheeks. He had started to cry, joyful tears meeting her fingertips as she brushed them from his skin. "Your children can join us," she told him softly, and he smiled so widely at her she couldn't help but return it. "However, I would like some leisure for ourselves, first. Just you and me, wherever you want to go."
"Ember Island," Tenzin murmured, pulling her back into his embrace. "We were always so happy on our trips there, do you remember? Let's go back, get away from the cold and the clouds."
"I like the sound of that," she said with a laugh of her own. "Very much, in fact."
"Truly, Lin? Are you really ready to take such a large step?" He pressed his face to her neck and she felt him close his eyes there as his arms tightened, one around her waist and another sliding up around her back. His delight and apprehension mixed together though his heartbeat and she kissed the side of his head.
"Yes." The single word was firm and confident, and she was silent until his uncertainty faded. "Tsung and Tau Be both confessed," she said quietly, sinking against him without any restraint. His warmth was a comfort she cherished, and the strength of it helped her ground herself. "They are both being held in prison, along with Tau Be's friend. Everyone else in their organization is already being arrested. The case is closed."
His hand moved up and down her back in smooth strokes she felt through the metal of her armor. "I am relieved to be putting this behind us."
"As am I."
She took a deep breath and moved away again to meet his eyes. "We can leave the day my leave goes into effect. I'll have most of the belongings I wish to bring packed by then, I think. Anything larger I can send for once we arrive at the temple."
He touched the side of her face, and she leaned into his fingers easily. "Where should we start?"
"Where else but the Southern Air Temple?" she supplied with a lopsided grin. "Your father's childhood home deserves all the love and respect we can shower upon it."
Tenzin leaned in and kissed her sweetly, lingering there for a long moment. "I love you, Lin," he whispered, remaining close. "So much."
"I know," she replied as she covered his hands where they rested on her face with her own, fingers curling between his. "And I love you with all my heart. Which is why, Tenzin, I am so certain we will accomplish your goal. We do not need funding or money or anyone's help. All we need is each other. We'll survive anything as long as we have each other."