Title: the woman chained (she who thinks of bravery)
Rating: K+ because of genre
Characters/Pairings: Lin, Sokka, Aang. Hints towards Toph/Sokka.
Summary: Lin is Earth, and Earth has no limit. (Even a warrior chained and starved and beaten can kill a man if she has brain enough to think and courage enough to try.)
A/N: Come on, you all knew this was coming. Also, I'm not really sure how I feel about Toph/Sokka — I've never really had an emotion one way or another about the pairing — but I really like the idea of Sokka being a surrogate father for Lin.
—the woman chained
Lin was three years old when she first felt the earth move like she wanted it to, showering that annoying jerk Bumi with such a rain of tiny rocks that he ran off crying to his mother. Katara had scolded her, fiercely protective of her little boy, and Aang had given her a stern talking-to, but Mother had simply clapped her on the shoulder and said, "Finally."
She had started her earthbending lessons that day.
Although people looked at her and Mother oddly (judgmentally) and whispered unkind things about Mother and Mother's Way Of Life (though that was hardly new), Lin loved every moment of training.
"Aren't you worried about tiring her out?" Katara would ask nervously, fretting like Katara always fretted. "Everyone says that children should gradually work up to serious training..." But Mother had always brushed her off and Lin had never really understood why Katara was so fussy over her lessons; it was the seven hours of formal schooling that stressed and exhausted her, and made her feel stupid and incompetent. Earthbending was an escape, it was the only thing she really, absolutely, definitely knew and wanted to do.
In that, she would slowly learn, she was altogether too much like her mother.
She became a master earthbender and a novice metalbender in the same day, a crystal-sharp winter afternoon at the ripe old age of ten — to Mother's pride and joy and ever-so-slight jealousy. Mostly, though, Mother used it as another reason that she was the Best Earthbender In The World.
"Only the legendary Toph Bei Fong could train up a fully-fledged master earthbender in seven years!" she would crow to anyone who could hear her. At the time, Lin was angry that her mother was turning Lin's achievement into a reason that Toph was amazing: how unfair, how selfish, how — how — how mean of her mother!
Uncle Sokka was the one who had really set her straight: "Lin, you're looking at it wrong. Everyone's been against Toph from the start, all the way up until she met me and Aang and Katara, and she never had anyone on her side. There's a lot of people who still don't like her, or think she's wrong, or... other nasty things, and she doesn't want you to have to take that kind of talk. She wants people to look at you through her because that means they'll attack her, not you."
"Or," she had pouted, "she wants to brag about herself more."
Uncle Sokka had ruffled her hair and smiled and said, "Well, that too. But she's proud of you, Lin. Really, really proud of you."
It didn't mean much to her then, but it would later, that Sokka had been exactly right — and so had Lin.
By that point in her life, Lin had — like her mother before her — become stone: she couldn't understand what life must be like for other people, with different talents or other parents, who didn't spend one day out of every week blindfolded to "better connect with the earth," who couldn't follow faultlines as they became mountains and ragged shorelines, who simply walked on the earth rather than within it.
The ground was so ingrained into her consciousness that she no longer thought of it in terms of bending arts or katas; it was the motion in her bones, the breath on her lips. It was who she was, not what she did.
Metalbending, she learned over the first half of her teenage years, was more difficult and less intuitive than earthbending — metal didn't flow like stone or have the same cadence to its song — but she learned it as fast as Mother would teach her, because Lin was Earth and Earth had no limit.
"You're something, aren't you?" Aang had said fondly, on one of those delirious summer days that she'll always remember in the color yellow, as he supervised one of her now-routine practice sessions. "You should expand, though," he had added, slightly warning, slightly concerned (slightly prescient). "A warrior who can only use a sword will be in trouble if all he has is a bow."
"Bending isn't a weapon," she had replied, fully into her Wise Beyond Her Years stage, the one that Mother would literally host a party for its passing. "It's what I am. There's earth and metal everywhere. I'll be fine."
"Not in a wooden cage suspended in the sky," Aang had answered back, in that I Am Not Messing Around tone. Only Aang had ever been able to make that tone work on her (or Kya or Bumi, for that matter), and it had startled her with its seriousness.
"But — " she had started, and he'd shaken his head.
"Force isn't always the answer, Lin. Sometimes, you'll need to think in terms other than bending and fighting." He'd watched her then, for a moment or so, nodding slowly. "I think it might be time for you to learn about other... problem-solving strategies. Politics, diplomacy, law, advocacy... You're old enough and smart enough, and you'll definitely need it. Come on," he'd said firmly, resolutely, standing up and motioning towards the Air Temple where Tenzin was studiously meditating. "We can start today."
"That sounds so boring," she had whined, but followed him anyway.
"It's not that she's bad at diplomacy," Aang had said, on the other side of the door, late at night when she was supposed to be asleep, "because she's excellent... when she thinks things through. She just doesn't stop to consider all of her options before acting. She reacts emotionally, too often. I think you can help her with that, can't you?"
"Aang, come on," Uncle Sokka had replied. "Who do you think you're talking to?"
Lin had tried not to be angry, had tried to think on the positive — Uncle Sokka would be teaching her! She loved Uncle Sokka! — but part of her couldn't stop thinking that Aang had given up on her. Passed her off to the next teacher because he was at wit's end. Just like all of her other mentors and tutors and professors had, because she was a frustrating student and "unwilling to learn" and stubborn. No one could stand to teach Lin Bei Fong, apparently not even Avatar Aang.
It seemed like Mother was the only person who had never given up on her.
(Well, she had thought later that night, Mother, and Uncle Sokka. Uncle Sokka had always been there for her, any time she'd needed him. That was worth something, at least.)
"It's not about shutting down emotion," Uncle Sokka had told her over a massive dinner at one of the nicer restaurants in the city. "It's about control. You're an earthbender, you know all about control. Just apply it to yourself, now. It's not easy, but I know you can do it."
"You can't always take the time to hesitate," she had snapped, because she was fifteen and self-assured and obnoxious as a herniated mule. "You have to feel what the right thing to do is, like you have to feel what the right earthbending move is."
"Yes, you do, you're totally right," he had replied evenly, without any reproach or warning. "But you have to think, too. What feels like the right thing to do might not actually be the right thing to do. There are a lot of things you have to consider, like how your decision will affect everyone around you, how other people will interpret it, if you might be opening a door for someone to do something worse later. Think of it like... like a mask, one of those porcelain Carnival masks, you know the ones I mean?"
"The ridiculous ones that Aunt Katara made us wear every year at Carnival until we were twelve?" she had deadpanned, with all the sarcasm she could muster. "How could I forget."
Uncle Sokka had laughed for a long time at that. "Oh, that still kills me. Did I ever congratulate you on sabotaging Tenzin's mask that one time? Because that was amazing, best thing I've ever seen."
Lin had grinned and laughed along, because no amount of teenage angst had ever been able to stand up against the storm of Uncle Sokka's good cheer.
"Anyway," he had said, after the laughter had died down. "The point is, what you see isn't what's really there. Your gut reaction might be pretty sound — 'hey, that guy's wearing a crazy mask!' — but it doesn't tell you anything about the person wearing the mask except exactly what you see in front of you. But if you take in everything you see and feel, and pick out everything you can learn about this guy, you might start to figure things out about him that aren't obvious.
"You'll notice the way he moves, if it looks like he's a fighter, the kinds of people he hangs around and the kinds of people they hang around, how old he is, where he might be from, what he might be up to, that sort of thing. What I'm saying is," he had explained, much more serious than Uncle Sokka usually was, "the trick is to stop and think, and pay attention to what's around you, take in everything, so you can figure out what your options are, what's reasonable, what your assets are, what you can and can't do, and what you feel is the right thing to do — and then you decide. Makes sense?"
"But you don't always have time for that," she had repeated, a little dejected because she had never liked to be wrong and she was still so stubborn and immovable like her element. "What if it's a life or death decision, and if you don't do something in the next ten seconds, you'll die? You can't stop and think it through!"
"In that case, no," Uncle Sokka had said, still in that maddeningly even and serious voice. "But that's not the situation I'm talking about. What works in combat doesn't work in the city hall. You mess up in a fight, you're the one who suffers. You screw up in a council meeting and make a bad call, the whole city suffers. The more people your decisions will affect, the more careful you have to be about those decisions."
"It just doesn't seem right," she'd muttered, and he'd reached over and flicked her on the top of the head, waving a gyoza around in his other hand.
"Yeah, I know. You'll pick it up, though. It's tough for everyone when they first start out."
At least, she remembers thinking as she left that restaurant, at least Uncle Sokka understood and had faith in her. It seemed like it was always just Uncle Sokka and Mother and Lin, against the world.
She had tried to learn the things Uncle Sokka was teaching her, but she was fundamentally emotional and empathetic and her stubborn heart just wouldn't give up its control over her. So, as a compromise, she had joined the police force, a place where her gut instincts would serve her better than Uncle Sokka's diplomacy, a place where her physical prowess would be all she'd need.
Uncle Sokka and Aang had both been hesitant, but finally agreed that it was a good choice, and that Lin would be "a real credit to the police force here in the city" (Aang) and "crime's absolute worst nightmare" (Uncle Sokka).
Mother had clapped her on the shoulder and said, "Finally."
And after all, Lin had always been most comfortable in a world that ran on Mother's rules anyway.
she who thinks of bravery; the leader of men —
For the first time in her entire life, the earth is silent and still. She isn't sure that her legs will support her if she tries to stand; so, for a length of time that might be seconds or might be hours, she just kneels face-down in the mud like a praying acolyte as the freezing rain seeps into her bones, and does not make a sound.
They've left her here at the abandoned temple, no longer a threat, a warrior crippled and disarmed. The shaking in her fingers and in her breath reach fever pitch as the the helpless shock overwhelms her, then slows incrementally as the shock condenses into an impotent and overwhelming feeling of self-righteous injustice, and finally crystallizes into clarity and conviction.
Even a warrior chained and starved and beaten can kill a man if she has brain enough to think and courage enough to try.
She tries to think of what Mother would do in this situation — but that's all wrong. If Lin is earth, then Toph was the world, whole shifting continents with layers of stone and magma and metal and diamond. Mother would have died without her bending — it was as necessary to her as breathing — but Lin will (must, is forced to, has no choice but to) live, no matter how much she thinks that she'd rather Amon killed her outright.
Instead, she turns to Uncle Sokka's memory — the thinker, the innovator, the tactician — what would he tell her right now?
So you can't bend anymore, that's bad, that's really bad. But I always managed and you can too. What else do you have? What are your assets?
Political contacts. Information. A hell of a right hook. The color of Amon's eyes behind his mask and the way he moves like a waterbender moves, all fluid and shifting, reaction rather than initiative. A gut feeling that there's less to Amon than he claims. An ally in the spirit world and another with the means to contact him. A loyal, if ragged, police force. A knot of close friends she would trust with her life and a city she would die to protect. A lifetime of regular periods of sensory deprivation to build up her other senses. The memory of mentors who taught her everything she was willing to learn, and shadows of the things she hadn't been.
So you've lost a sense and your best martial art. That's not good, but it doesn't make you helpless. Forget about it for the moment, all right? You're here and now and you have to deal with what's in front of you. So: what's in front of you?
A city ripped apart by rebellion, terrorists, and oppressors. A frighteningly bleak future. An Avatar who isn't ready to handle any of this, and needs as many allies as she can get.
So what can you do, with what you have right now, where you are?
She can stand. She can investigate, pry into Amon's past and see how much of him is the mask and how much is the man. She can pass information along to the United Forces. She can teach Korra everything she knows and everything Uncle Sokka and Aang tried to teach her. She can get a message to Aang and perhaps find out about the shady spirit that's supposedly helping Amon. If all else fails, she can still beat the snot out of a man twice her size with her bare hands.
She can help; she can still fight.
She can fight.
She can fight.
"I can fight," she croaks, voice hidden in the mud and weaker than it is. "I can fight," she repeats, relying on the power of the words to lever her out of the mud. She draws herself into an upright position, takes a deep breath of bitter-cold air and tries to perfectly preserve the melody of the earth before it fades out of her consciousness for good.
(It's still, and always will be, who she is. That's what Amon doesn't understand about benders.)
"This isn't over," she whispers, more of a movement of the lips than an expression of sound. "This was your last mistake, Amon."
She walks out of the temple, head held high and proud, unbeatable even when she's broken.
In that, she thinks, she is so very much like her mother.