A/N: Wherein Lin Beifong proves she’s her mother’s daughter. Happy Mother’s Day!
“I could help you in Republic City! With the uprising! I could—”
“You could,” says her mother, but leaves her on the ice anyway.
“So give these a try,” says Bumi, snapping the belt with its pulleys and coils about her waist. “They’re stronger this time.”
Experimentally she rubs her thumb over the belt’s buckle, the stern line of its seam where it bites into her belly and rises up over the narrow ridges of her hips. She looks at Bumi again next, frowning. “You’re sure?”
“Sure I’m sure!”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Well”—he grins unabashedly, his teeth white as the snow around them—“I’m really sure now, okay? Teo helped me with the components. Spirits,” he adds at the ascension of her dubious eyebrow, “have a little faith, Lin.”
Lin fingers the belt a second time. “Faith is only good for starting wars.”
“And ending them, don’t forget!” With complete cheer he sweeps his arms out, firing his thumbs high in a salute to a victory he hasn’t yet won. His voice takes on a wheedling tone. “C’moooon, give it a go. Please?”
Scratching her nails over the largest coil—there are three, one flush to the small of her back and the other two perched atop her kidneys—Lin considers. Under her touch the thick, braided wire reverberates: but it doesn’t sing. She winces. “This isn’t iron.”
“No.” From the corner of her eye she sees Bumi shake his head, the corkscrew scraggles of his hair bouncing up, down, diagonal. He never oils it like he should. “Steel. It’s stronger than iron—won’t crack. It’s more flexible too.” In the furl of his mouth, then, there is something: mischief, raw and shameless and too hot for this infernally cold place. She shivers anyway, gooseflesh walking up her arms under her sleeves. “But maybe you can’t bend it. I dunno. It’s pretty refined.”
And he has her, just like that. Now she can’t not try his invention because she never backs away from any challenge, nope: years of training with her mother have made her incapable of the mere thought. She grabs the end of one of the wires and jerks it from its coil. It unwinds easily for her efforts, coming away from the pulley with no hitches, bumps, or snags. She is impressed. She does not say so.
She tries to make it curl in her hand, though, and it won’t. It stretches across her palm like a dead silver snake.
“Huh,” Bumi says at length, watching her. He sounds surprised. Not in the good way, either: this is a cake without candles or frosting. “I guess you really can’t.”
“Shut up.” Feeling like a horrible failure, she straightens and stomps a foot. “Get this wreckage off me, boarcupine butt. Pronto.” For the first time in her life she is glad for the Pole’s persistent cover of snow, its layers of ice, and Toph Beifong’s aversion to the whole place in general. At least her mother isn’t here to see her now.
“It’s not wreckage,” says Bumi unhappily, but he unhooks the belt. Cradling it like he might a sick pet, he turns and carries it back to the village.
Lin stands for a while on the tundra alone, opening and closing her hands.
“Tenzin.” She shakes him. “Tenzin, geez, wake up.”
Her friend blinks open his eyes, like pleasant stones in the light from his lamp, and stares at her. There is a fine thread of saliva spooling down his chin. His lips are dry otherwise. He rasps them together, licks them, and asks, “Nnguh? Lin? What—”
“Ssh!” She claps a hand over his mouth and drags him partway off his bedroll. His temple knocks into her chest: he flinches, the gangly scoop of his shoulders suddenly stiff under her. “Be quiet,” she tells him, and tacks on, “I need you.”
He goes painfully still. “What?” The word cracks in his throat.
“I said quiet.” Tightening her fingers in his shirt, she gives him another shake for good measure. “I need you and your fancy feet to sneak into your brother’s hut and steal something for me.”
“…oh.” For some reason he looks disappointed. “Oh, okay.” His face contorts; the bright arrow bolting down between his brows wrinkles at the tip. Bracing himself on his elbows, he tries to sit up. “Wait, huh?”
She tells him what it is she wants. Then: “Meet me outside the village wall in ten minutes.” Glancing down, she grimaces. “Wow. Ugh.”
The color now of soggy tomatoes, he hunkers back into his sheets—like his father, he refuses furs—and sets about fussing with them prissily. “What?” he clucks. “Don’t like what you see? That’ll teach you to knock, won’t it—”
“Good grief, Tenzin, just shut up and put some pants on.”
“Is this it?”
He holds it up in the moonlight, all spangles and silver. She nods and stands looking at him expectantly, and after a short pause he rolls his eyes and slips forward to fasten it around her, attending her without more protest than a grumble. It is cold, but then again it’s always cold here. Out in the distance the ocean is a great black smear with stars stuck in it, and Lin straightens, cracking her knuckles.
“Steel,” she says.
Tenzin takes a step back, but that’s all. His eyes flick between the belt and her face, the belt and her face. As she pulls the wire from the largest coil, he asks, “Can you bend it?”
She wants to say yes, but she also doesn’t want to lie. So she settles for, “If I try hard enough, maybe,” and closes her eyes. Rolling the wire in her fingers, she considers the weight of it, the chill of it on her flesh and the rasp of its smoothness over her rougher skin. It is lighter than iron—but stronger, Bumi said.
“Stronger.” She whispers this, mostly to herself but maybe a little to Tenzin too. He’s a lily: he needs all the encouragement he can get. “Be stronger.”
In her hand the wire twitches.
Smiling, Lin clutches it and looks at Tenzin, hovering on his moccasin tiptoes in the frost. “Okay. Come at me. Give it all you’ve got.”
They practice together every night for half a week. After that Lin finds it in herself to apologize to Bumi. “Fine. It’s not wreckage,” she admits. Shoving it into his hands, she huffs, “But it slides around a lot and the coils dig into my hips.” She has bruises to prove it.
He swizzles his jerky to his mouth’s edge, blinking: but then he smirks, a slow, spreading sort of expression, and nods. “Okay. So we’ll fix it.” Sidelong his hand snatches out, groping for a bit of paper, a pen. “Maybe if we, what? Had them going up your stomach? Your back?”
They lean together over the paper. “My back.” Lin gestures. “And higher up—like between my shoulders? Here”—she takes the pen from him—“I think this way…”
The ferry with its thick plume of smoke wallows into the harbor a fortnight later. When it puts its plank down at the docks, Lin doesn’t bother waiting: she rushes up through the milling throng of people to the ship’s broad deck, biting her lips against the wind’s brisk chill.
She has scarcely passed the railing when they encircle her: two arms like swathes of brick, squeezing tight. Toph Beifong laughs and swings her about the way she did when Lin was four years old, shoving her face into the younger earthbender’s collar. The snub of her nose is frigid, her cheeks red, and Lin hugs her mother’s head to her scant breast until the woman snorts and drops her. Tunk lament her boots on the deck.
They embrace again at once, traditionally this time. Perfection is the way Lin’s head fits under Toph’s chin. The scent in the scoop of the strong collar is the same as it always is: dirt, dry and hot and hard. Lin breathes it in and thinks home, I’m home.
“I’m glad to see you, Mom,” she says.
Toph’s laugh returns, a rumble in her chest—hoarse on her tongue, almost thin. When Lin checks, her smile is weary. “I’m glad to see you too, kiddo. Well—you know.” And Lin does. She tightens her grip until Toph wonders, running her hand’s heel high, “Hey now. What’s this?” Her thumb taps over the twin pulleys nestled between Lin’s shoulders.
“I made it.” That’s Bumi. He and his father are sharing a similar moment nearby. “But only Lin can work it. Go on,” he tells the girl. “Show them.”
He really means show her. The crew of the ferry are watching: Avatar Aang, his head cocked. Sure. Lin’s mother’s feet curl down against the deck, though, and that’s the most important thing.
Lin sucks in a breath. She shifts her arms: flips her hands forward, flexes her fingers. She thinks stronger, stronger and home, I’m home and the wires, sinuous, flood from their pulleys to Toph’s shoulders, where they hook. Pull. Plead.
I could help you. In Republic City—with the uprising. I could. I really, really could.
Toph follows the tug. Her smile is like nothing Lin has ever seen before, small and stern and quivery-soft—but she brushes it to her daughter’s temple and agrees, “I get it. Okay, okay. Pack up.”