A heart of iron and the willpower of mountains, her mother tells her.
The mark of a true Metalbender.
(When Lin first sends the metal coin careening into the garden wall, she doesn't feel very iron-hearted, and the willpower of mountains doesn't seem to flow through her veins.
But when Toph scoops her up in a hug with a whoop of joy, she smiles against her mother's shoulder anyway and tucks the memory away like secret.)
Sometimes, Lin wonders why her mother – who has broken rules and turned up her nose against laws all her life – ended up founding and heading the police force of an entire city.
Toph only throws her head back and laughs. "Listen kiddo, there's a huge difference between doing something out of choice and doing it out of duty. Trust me, go with the first; it'll make you a lot happier." With a flex of her wrist, the bodice of her metalbending uniform snaps into place. "Got it?"
Lin cradles her chin in her hands as she watches her mother adjust her arm bracers. "I guess."
Toph straightens up and flashes her daughter a mock salute. Lin can't help but to crack a smile. "Well, wish me luck; Mommy's gonna kick some ass and save some babies today."
Lin tries to keep her face straight. "You said a bad word."
"And you, sweet daughter o' mine, are spending way too much time with Uncle Twinkletoes."
Lin has to giggle at that, and holds out the badge. Her favourite part of sitting in on her mother's morning routine was the pinning of the Chief of Police badge, watching the smooth surfaces and sharp edges catch in the rays of early sunlight slanting through the window.
It always seemed to complete the ensemble – the final piece that marks the transformation from Mother to Chief Beifong.
But this time, Toph doesn't move right away to take it - only flashes a soft smile and tips her chin toward the small, outstretched palm. "You know, Lin, someday this might be yours, but only if you choose it to be. Remember that."
Lin doesn't quite understand, but nods anyway and accepts her mother's kiss on the crown of her head.
"That's my girl."
Sometimes, Lin wonders if her mother saw better than all of them.
(She attends the funeral in full metalbending regalia, but leaves almost at once. She knows her mother would've hated the affair, this mass of mourning souls seeking comfort in one another.
The old badge feels heavy on her chest, and Lin wonders if choosing is supposed to hurt like this.)
"Lin, I was thinking –"
"Not now Tenzin, I've had a long day."
"It's just about what you said earlier, about having kids and starting a family –"
"Tenzin, please. Not now."
"You always say that. Lin, we've been together for more than five years, but we've never talked through this once."
"There's nothing to talk about. Good night."
He was slipping.
Lin watches him leave.
"Lin, this is Pema. Pema, Lin."
The woman – girl, really – standing before her bows in greeting. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you. Tenzin's told me so much about you."
Lin cocks an eyebrow, and bends stiffly at the waist in return. "Oh, has he now?" she replies coolly.
An awkward silence ensues. Lin realizes her fists are curled.
Finally, Tenzin coughs. "Lin, a word?"
She follows him silently, with what she hoped was a surly expression.
They find an empty balcony and Lin leans against the railing, eyes seeking out the lights of the city and anything other than the man beside her.
Tenzin starts off, patient and collected as ever. "Lin, I know that things haven't exactly been stellar between us, and I apologize if this seems very sudden."
She notes his careful, formal tone and says nothing.
"Pema's expecting. Due in September, we think."
She's braced herself for the words, but they cut her deep anyway, and she sucks in a lungful of air. You're not playing fair, she thinks irrationally, but bites her tongue instead until she tastes blood.
"I know it was too much to expect you at the wedding," Tenzin continues, unaware of her agony. "But I thought that, since it's been so long, we could finally settle our differences – just like old times."
There's a cold gust of air breezing through them now, and when Lin finally finds her voice, she matches it with the temperature. "You and I both know that will be impossible. You've made it very clear what you wanted, and I've made it very clear that I could not give it to you."
"Lin, please –"
"I've made a choice, Tenzin." She struggles to keep her voice even. "You know this badge I've taken on represents my dedication to the City. To this duty." Her voice rises anyway, and Tenzin makes harried smoothing motions with his hands.
"Do you know how many men and women I have lost to the gang wars and rising Equalist movements this last year? Do you know the families they left behind? The children who will grow up without them? To condemn anyone to such a fate…Even my mother –" She chokes here, unable to continue.
The heavy silence settles in her pores and coats her tongue in numbness.
They both remember.
Tenzin seems to sag with the weight of a thousand unspoken words. "Your mother was an amazing woman," is all he says in the end, the same conclusion to the same conversation, worn thin with repetition.
Lin feels all the fight leave her body in one fell sweep. And she replies the same as she always does.
"Yes. Yes she is."
She avoids attending City banquets for the next few years.
Lin decides that she doesn't like this new Avatar.
Avatar Aang was all gentle hands and even-headed wisdom.
Avatar Korra totals a store and defaces an entire street within minutes of arrival at the City.
Lin seethes with indignation throughout the entire interrogation, and her mood only worsens upon Tenzin's arrival to escort the wild child out of the clutches of justice.
Despite it all, Lin cannot help but to suspect Toph and the fiery Water Tribe girl would have gotten along swimmingly.
"Like old times?"
"Like old times," Tenzin confirms, and Lin wants to laugh at the irony, eyes trained on the Probending arena.
But she accepts it anyway, this silent truce, because she made a vow to guard this City, and the City is in danger.
Because, in choosing this path, she had closed off all the others, and Lin Beifong was never one for much retrospection and regret.
Because, she thinks as she watches the new Avatar – only a girl, really – fold into the embrace of her teammates, the world feels a little less lonely without her mother now.
(A heart of iron and the willpower of mountains, her mother tells her.
So Lin is a little surprised when she sees the same in Avatar Korra.)
One destroyed Pro-Bending Arena, a raided Sato warehouse, and several arrested Equalists later, Lin comes to an alarming conclusion.
Firstly, is that Korra vaguely reminds Lin of her mother.
And secondly, the badge that sits abandoned on her dresser means little to nothing anymore.
Choice, not duty, Lin tells herself, and for the first time, she thinks she understands her mother a little better.
Sees a flash of the world through her mother's eyes.
For the first time, Lin knows she chose right.
The next time she sees the merry family on Air Temple Island, there are already three new additions in the form of rambunctious children with a fourth one well on its way, judging by the swell of Pema's belly.
Lin is a little surprised to see the greying streaks in Pema's hair, but remains stoic as Tenzin makes awkward introductions.
The children take to her immediately, which only confuses her more, because Spirits know that she's dreadful with children. They lack hard logic, the ability to recognize her hints that she would very much like to be left alone, and are overall quite unhygienic little human beings (she complies this list in her head as she dunks Meelo into the tub at arm's length).
But then there are little moments that wash over her as she walks the halls of the Temple, listening to the pitter-patter of tiny feet and bubbles of laughter spilling from the garden.
It's not quite regret or sorrow, but rather the contemplation and realization of what could have been that lulls her into stillness at last.
(Lin wonders if her mother ever had regrets, and then realizes she never had to ask.)
The wind whistles in her ears and Lin holds on for dear life.
Her cables strain and groan in resistance, and she knows her time is short.
Let go, she thinks. You'll break.
But she only looks over her shoulder, back again at the family huddled in fear and uncertainty. And for a moment, Lin tries to picture herself fitted in that scene somehow, never-to-be children clinging to her arms, with a face unmarred with scars. But the image comes out all wrong, blurred around the edges and warped in the middle.
The road she never chose.
Lin knows, because her mother knew too.
(The badge means nothing.
It's the City; it's the people she loves, the people that love her; it's everything that could have been, that will be, that she chose to stand for.
It's just Lin Beifong, with a heart of iron and the willpower of mountains – badge or none, Metalbender or not.)
Choose, she tells herself. It's not hard.
And it isn't.
(That's my girl.)
In the last moments, as she closes her eyes, Lin thinks she finally sees what her mother saw all along.