As it turned out, meditation was not Lin Beifong's strong suit. The middle way was severely lacking in decisiveness and focus- two important components for any part of Lin's life. She also found it was lacking in companionship.
No matter how often, or forcefully she meditated on the things she desired – they seemed to get further and further away.
When she asked Aang for pointers in her kitchen one day he told her, "Meditation is the point."
"No, I mean- it feels pointless sometimes. No matter how much I force myself to concentrate on things I want I don't get them…" Lin grumbled.
"That," Aang smiled as he tapped the end of her nose, "is exactly your problem."
Lin's shoulders dropped as she sighed deeply, "is this some kind of riddle? Or learning experience or-"
Aang laughed, cutting her off with a smile, "If you are meditating with an outcome in mind you aren't meditating. The idea is to let your spirit be free to show you what you need…"
Lin's eyebrow raised skeptically and Aang cocked his head to the side to study her face, " …you know, maybe meditation isn't for you."
Her lip pouted in disappointment, but Aang smiled at the sight of it, "Don't be so hard on yourself, Lin. We all find peace in different ways. Focus on what puts you at ease, what clears your mind?"
She turned her head away then because of the first three things that came instantly to mind, earthbending was the only one she could admit to Aang without embarrassing herself.
"I believe this is what he is looking for," Sokka announced, turning the corner into the kitchen, holding a sealskin pelt in one hand. Toph followed just behind. Sokka held it out to Aang, who took it under his own arm with nearly imperceptible disapproval.
The Avatar had stopped by to pick up this sealskin coat on behalf of his son, Bumi, who had accidently misappropriated it to Sokka's bag at the end of their most recent 'Uncle and Bumi Ice Fishing Excursion.'
"Thanks, Sokka," Aang said, lifting the pelt lightly, "and thank you for taking Bumi fishing. He really enjoyed spending time with you."
"Hey, no problem. We had fun- it was a good 'guys' trip."
Aang nodded, "I'm sorry I had to miss out."
Sokka shrugged, "You're busy," he excused.
"And you only narrowly qualify for the guy part," Toph quipped from behind her husband.
Aang laughed, "Thank you, Toph! And on that note, I'd better get going. Lin- if you're really interested in sticking with meditation I know a very good instructor, just about your age."
Lin managed an obligatory smile, "I'll keep that in mind."
Aang returned her smile before turning to leave. She didn't bother ruining the kindly Avatar's suggestion by explaining that she and Tenzin had barely spoken in the past month. The kiss they shared had still not been discussed in any meaningful way and the subsequent note Tenzin had written her about it remained unread, under her bed in a wooden box. Their relationship, like most in Lin's life at this time, was strained.
It seemed as if all the uneasiness in Lin's relationships could be traced back to the evening of the house party. If Lin thought her relationship with her mother couldn't get any worse prior to that night, she was proven wrong.
Angry Toph was something Lin could handle. She understood her mother's sarcasm and biting remarks, but indifferent Toph was not something she was not prepared to deal with. In the past month, Toph's tough-love commentary had become silence. Toph didn't hassle Lin anymore- she ignored her instead.
"Later, Twinkletoes!" Toph called out as Aang closed the front door. Swiveling around on her foot she clapped her hands once, "Okay, so what's for dinner?"
"I don't know, wife, what are you making?" Sokka teased.
"Well, you are barefoot and in the kitchen already…."
Toph reached out, "But you're still the one cookin', good lookin'" she laughed jabbing his shoulder.
Lin rolled her eyes and considered reminding her mother that she had no idea whether or not Sokka was good looking, before deciding against it and making her way to the icebox. She lifted the lid, "We have onion, leeks, eggs…"
After listing everything inside she turned to find that her mother and Sokka hadn't been paying a lick of attention and were flirting away instead.
"…Or don't listen to me," she growled.
Sokka paused, "I heard you. Will you pull out the carrots and onions and start chopping them for me? We can get a stock going for soup."
Without a word, Lin reached in and retrieved the vegetables he had requested. Sokka had moved to pull some chicken bones from the deep freezer and began filing a pot with water. Toph, who kept the smile on his face with her light teasing, followed him around the kitchen as he worked, pinching and patting him playfully.
Lin began chopping, rolling her eyes so often she began to lose count, when her mother casually moved to grab a slice of carrot and pop it into her mouth.
"Mother!" Lin snapped, "Don't put your hands in my space! I could have cut you!"
Toph shrugged casually, chewing the carrot, "Sheesh. Relax."
Lin drew a breath and met Sokka's eyes briefly to find he wasn't going to back her up on this one. She went back to chopping with a scowl on her face.
"So, what kind of soup are you making for me, sweet cheeks?" Toph asked, craning her neck around Sokka while lightly squeezing his backside.
Sokka paused, looking offended, "Excuse me, but this is harassment. You can't treat me like a piece of meat!"
Toph ferreted her way around his body to get between him and the counter, "Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it? Call the police?"
Lin sighed audibly, intoning her exhaustion at their playfulness as she reached over to grab a bunch of green onions. She diced them quickly as Toph's hand darted out again, blindly finding another bit of carrot.
"Mom!" Lin huffed, "Seriously. I just said not to do that."
Toph didn't bother replying, instead she continued talking to her husband, coyly snapping the bit of the carrot between her teeth, "You've got nowhere to run," she teased, "I am the police."
"I'm in too deep," Sokka lamented with a laugh that was echoed by his wife.
"Don't worry your pretty little head, darlin'" Toph continued, "we won't have any trouble as long as you keep cooking that soup all nice-like," she laughed, reaching out for another slice of carrot.
Finally Lin cracked, screeching, "Mother!"
"Lin!" Toph mimicked in the same tone.
"You know what," Lin seethed, slamming down her knife, "chop your own fucking vegetables."
Toph pursed her lips and Sokka's mouth dropped open. He turned to Lin, stopping her as she stalked from the kitchen by shouting, "Hey! Watch your mouth!"
Lin huffed at the edge of the room, "Oh great! Now you're against me too!"
Sokka shook his head, "Nobody is against you, Lin. I don't let anyone speak that way to your mother. That was completely uncalled for! "
Lin's eyes brimmed with unshed tears as she listened, watching Toph casually continue to chew her carrot, "Oh please. Neither of you have barely said a word to me in the past month!"
"What is there to say?" Toph argued vacantly, "you do whatever you want either way."
"I screwed up one time! Once! And I'm immediately deemed 'out of control'?"
"It's not just your actions, Lin. It is you entire attitude," Sokka reasoned, "screaming, slamming doors, cursing at your Mom- that is what is out of control. It has to stop."
Lin crossed her arms, indignant. If she were going to give any respect she expected some in return. Toph didn't make a move. Sokka's demand hung quietly in the air between them. Though Lin wanted nothing more than to reach an agreement, something inside her wouldn't let her back down, "I'm going to my room."
"Saves me the trouble of sending you there," Sokka noted, turning back to his stockpot and his wife. Lin stomped off to her room and Toph casually held her fist out.
Sokka bumped it solemnly with his own fist "I got you, baby."
Back in her room, Lin was reminded of her lack of door to slam. She settled for bending one, as she had been doing lately, with a loud crack to prove her point.
Lin made her way to her gramophone, setting a record on the turntable and dropping the needle. She turned the volume knob well past the point of comfort and threw herself down on the bed.
Her stomach growled.
Soup was out of the question at this point; Lin's obstinacy wouldn't allow her to resurface tonight looking for a meal. She considered sneaking out as she usually did on nights like this and strong-arming Tenzin into going somewhere with her, before realizing that was also no longer and option. Kya had gone back North.
Maybe Bumi was hungry…?
Her eyes widened with the realization of how desperate she was to find someone she hadn't yet alienated. And then she remembered she would have to cross Bumi off her list of prospects anyway.
Rolling over onto her stomach, Lin fished around under her bed for a wooden box. The tips of her fingers brushed it, swinging back to attempt a grip. She leaned slightly further, grasping the corner finally and withdrawing it with a grunt.
Four wooden slats fit together to encapsulate some of Lin's most prized possessions. This box was reserved for her most valued correspondence. She removed the folded note from Tenzin first, placing it beside her on the bed, still unwilling to read it.
Next she retrieved a letter written in Ursa's exquisite hand, detailing the harrowing struggle she endured being courted by several suitors at a time, when all she wanted to do was, "take a riding lesson from the stable boy if you catch my drift!" The corner of Lin's mouth hitched, finding it hard not to smile at Ursa's devilish humor.
She set this letter aside as well to retrieve several papers inside which originated in Ba Sing Se. A few birthday cards and a handful of genuine letters from her father filled her fist; many of these notes were short on words but covered in little sketches depicting different places and people in the city.
She began unfolding them one at a time, and as she stared at the illustrations in the margins she began to wonder what it would be like if she lived in Ba Sing Se. This was a recurring daydream for Lin- to come home from school to her father, who listened with rapt attention as she spoke about her day- offering words of encouragement and support. She imagined the two of them sharing tea and art techniques, practicing bending, and enjoying the occasional philosophical conversation. There wouldn't be any arguing, there wouldn't be any pressure, and there wouldn't be this kind of alienation she felt in her own home.
She rolled onto her stomach with a sniffle and flattened out one crumpled piece of paper to read her father's words,
"I think you would like it here in Ba Sing Se's lower ring! The people here are artistic and down to earth- a lot like you, little one!"
"If only," she sighed aloud.
She read them all over and over until she fell asleep, music blaring.
She woke to the sound of her makeshift door being bent back into the ground. Eyes bleary, her head snapped up to see an empty doorway. She wiped her eyes and sat up, unsticking a letter from the underside of her arm before lumbering over to her gramophone to end the whirring sound of the needle against the outermost groove of her record.
All the lights in the hallway were out when Sokka appeared.
"Hey," he greeted, clearly on his way to bed, "how was your angry nap?"
"I see," he sighed, "well, I saved you some dinner."
Lin shifted her weight, remorseful, "Thank you."
She made her way forward to the doorway, but Sokka didn't budge. He lifted his eyebrows expectantly as if he were waiting for her to apologize, blocking her progress.
"You don't have anything you want to say? Maybe something that rhymes with quarry?... safari?...calamari?"
Lin rolled her eyes with a small laugh, "Sorry."
"Ding! Ding! Ding!," Sokka agreed with a smile, leaning in to kiss her forehead, "Don't stay up late. It's Yuanxiao tomorrow- don't want to be too exhausted to eat all of Katara's food and light up your lantern."
"I won't," she agreed.
Yuanxiao, the Lantern Festival, was a very special day on the Beifong calendar. As a child, it was Lin's favorite holiday. The family would gather on Air Temple Island to gorge themselves on Katara's tangyuan rice balls and celebrate with one another. The island, like the larger city, was bedecked with thousands of hanging lanterns on this day.
The evening was typically spent in good company, celebrating togetherness and ushering in the New Year by gathering on the beach at night to the accompaniment of drums with lanterns in hand. With nothing but a hopeful spark, the lanterns would be lit and ones worries would be carried away on a breeze. It was a moment of renewal, of letting go of the previous year and its trials. It was also the final weekend before the Council resumed session, so Sokka was keen on celebrating his last hours of recess since winning the election against Atka only a month ago.
Lin was not quite as enthusiastic. For the younger set, Yuanxiao was a time for matchmaking. At school, everywhere she turned she found another couple pairing off in hopes of spending a romantic evening with someone special under a lantern filled sky.
During her break between fourth and fifth period Lin spotted Bumi furiously clipping a stack of papers, "what are you making?"
Bumi looked up from his project, eyeing her with distaste, "a patch for my eye," he returned sarcastically. In truth, his black eye had healed over a week ago, but he was intent on reminding her of it for as long as it suited him.
Lin sighed, taking a seat across from him. Bumi pulled the papers apart to proudly reveal a chain of paper hearts, "It's for Ayumi."
"Are you six?" Lin wondered in disbelief.
"Just because you're a lonely spinster on the most romantic day of the year doesn't mean the rest of us need to be," Bumi quipped, folding his hearts together again.
"Looks like your creepy boyfriend has found someone new to prey on," Bumi commented, nodding his head at the space just over her shoulder.
Lin turned to find Ryuu at the edge of the room, leaning in dangerously close to a blushing ninth year student.
Lin sighed, "We should warn her."
"You should warn her," Bumi corrected, "I've only got one good eye left and I don't want to jeopardize it."
"Are you ever going to let that go?"
"Nope," he confirmed, gathering his crafts, "I better get going. I've got to get this totally rad and not all childish gift to Ayumi."
"A sure fire way to end up dateless," Lin commented sardonically.
"You would know," Bumi returned throwing his bag over one shoulder, "seeing as you are the only person that's going to be dateless this year."
Lin looked up quizzically to find Bumi grinning with conspiracy, "That's right," he continued, leaning in for emphasis, "Even Tenzin has a date."
Lin spun around in her seat, "Bumi!" she called after him, receiving a smirk and a farewell wave in return.
Inexplicably, Lin could feel her insides buzzing, filling her with enough energy to run a marathon. She stood, swiftly making strides toward her final class of the day. Outside the room, milling about in casual conversation with another boy, Lin spotted him. A head taller than the rest, Tenzin was easy to pick out. Without warning she moved past him, hooking her fingers in his robes and yanking him along behind, "Come here."
Tenzin followed his clothing against his will, looking frightfully alarmed by her insistence, "Lin? What are you doing?" he snapped, removing her hand from the folds of his robes.
"What am I doing?" Lin huffed incredulously before pausing to consider, under her breath, "what am I doing?"
Tenzin straightened out his collar, looking around at the other students who averted their eyes from the scene politely.
"Are you okay?"
Lin, looking a touch flustered, let out an unconvincing laugh, "Of course I am. Are you?"
Tenzin's eyes darted from side to side, "I was until you almost strangled me with my own clothing."
Lin shook her head quickly, crossing her arms, "I was just talking to Bumi and he said you were bringing someone to Yuanxiao and I was just wondering if- I mean I know that's silly- but I - are you? … Are you bringing a date?"
Tenzin looked at the floor a moment as the students began filing into their respective classrooms. He looked up, meeting her eyes with a hint of guilt, "I'm…well I was talking to Yi and-"
Lin's mouth dropped open, "Yi!?" she exclaimed.
Tenzin shrugged, "She asked me what I was doing, so I…well, I invited her and-"
Lin cut him off with a derisive laugh, "Are you kidding me? Karuna's Yi? Spirits, Tenzin! Was Sozin unavailable?"
"What does it matter to you?" he wondered hotly.
"Nothing!" Lin shot back, "I just figured you'd have a little better taste than Karuna's forgettable henchman, but I guess I was wrong."
Tenzin drew a breath, face reddening, "You can't just have me around whenever its convenient for you. It doesn't work that way."
"Excuse me?" Lin guffawed, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Tenzin shook his head, pointing one finger, "That," he stated evenly, "that is exactly what I'm talking about, Lin."
Lin shook her head, shrugging her shoulders with poorly manufactured innocence, "I'm only trying to save your from spending yuanxiao with the human equivalent of a bowl of white rice, but you do what you want."
"Just try to stay awake," Lin advised quickly, "it's easy to slip into a stupor when she speaks."
Tenzin furrowed his brow at her, "you are being ridiculous. I'm going to class."
"So am I," Lin volleyed dumbly, realizing they were heading to the same room.
"Okay, fine," Tenzin spat.
"Fine," Lin agreed.
They both stared at one another for a moment before awkwardly proceeding into their shared history classroom together.
Professor Krung began to speak, but Lin didn't register a word of his lesson. Though she pretended to be listening, her attention was stolen again and again by Yi, who sat in her chair unaware of the distasteful looks Lin was casting her way. Being angry and offended was easier to acknowledge than the underlying feeling of rejection that cropped up from time to time, dampening Lin's eyes for a moment before she pushed it from her mind.
When the bell rang, Lin rose from her seat, breezing past Tenzin silently, with her head held high in spite of how low she felt.
Bundled tightly against the crisp winter air, Lin entered her home shedding her scarf and coat to find she was just as warm from fury now as she was moments ago. She kicked her shoes off, finding she was alone in the house.
Promptly she moved to her bedroom, throwing herself of the bed and letting out a murderous scream into the pillow. As irrational as it was, it felt good to get it outside her body. There was so much going on in her mind that if infiltrated her stomach, churning it every which way until she was forced to kick it out from her legs. Divested of this burst of energy, Lin rolled over and stared at her ceiling considering just how fed up she was with her life. The lanterns she released tonight would be filled with her desperate wishes of escape into a different life. One in which she was appreciated.
A few tears rolled out, lazily skating down her temples and into her hair. She wondered if she didn't go to Yuanxaio, would anybody notice? Would they be happier without her in attendance? She figured her mother and Tenzin would feel relief when they noted her absence.
If they noticed.
Wiping at her eyes quickly she moved to collect her letterbox.
She retrieved Tenzin's note first, crumpling it in her fist and throwing it furiously against the wall. Next she displaced Ursa's letters to unveil her father's words, therapeutic and soothing.
She read them again, "I think you would like it here in Ba Sing Se's lower ring! The people here are artistic and down to earth- a lot like you, little one!"
It hit her all at once.
Lin sat up, suddenly electrified with possibility. She went to her closet and pulled out her overnight bag, frantically stuffing it with clothing. She went to the bathroom, snatching her toothbrush from the sink. She went to her mother and Sokka's room, making a beeline for her mother's top drawer and opening it to find the not-so-secret stash of yuan notes Toph always kept for emergencies.
Her eyes lingered on the stack for a moment, weighing the morality of the situation. Without further thought she plucked it from where it lay on top of her mother's delicates and slammed the drawer shut. Her final act was to scrawl out a note and drop it on the kitchen table.
Went to visit Dad.
It only took her twenty minutes on foot to get to the train station. The sun was setting and the chill in the air rivaled the bitterness within. Slamming a yuan note on the counter before her, she purchased a one-way ticket for Ba Sing Se with a transfer at Makapu.
"Good timing. You'll just make the last train of the day," the elderly cashier told her with a smile, "service ends early for Yuanxiao."
She boarded the steaming engine, which geared up with a loud rumble and a friendly whistle. Clutching her bag tightly, Lin stared wistfully out the window as the train pulled away from the station. As the engine departed, she could just make out the first of the glowing lanterns beginning to rise in the distance.
Toph entered her house just after sunset. With a yawn and a stretch, she removed her metal boots to find herself alone. She wasn't quite sure where Sokka had run off to, but she figured Lin was surely already on the Island, probably launching firecrackers at Bumi and Tenzin in high-spirited fun.
Toph wasn't exactly looking forward to yuanxiao this year. She was exhausted from work- and the family atmosphere was a bitter reminder of how she felt her own was drifting apart. Even the rumored beauty of lanterns floating against a dark sky left her cold. All Toph wanted to do was take a bath or a nap or any combination of those two with Sokka in attendance.
As if on cue, the door creaked open behind her and she turned to face her husband as he entered.
"Tangyuan rice balls," he announced, throwing his fists in the air, "with my name on them. Air Temple Island. Let's do this."
Toph sighed and waffled at his enthusiasm, though she had to let out a small laugh for his indefatigable stomach.
"Really?" she asked, leaning into him, letting her body language do the talking.
"Yes, really," he returned, incredulous, "Katara only cooks Yuanxiao food for Yuanxiao. Which is only once a year." He gripped her limp arms and pushed her away from him slightly for emphasis, "Today is that day."
She laughed again and went slack against him, curling herself inward and resting her cheek to his chest, "Baby, I'm tired."
"I'm starving," he returned.
Toph groaned, unlatching her armor and letting it slide to the floor, leaving her in nothing but her bindings and tattered pants.
"Let's stay in," Toph pled, angling her head up to kiss his neck seductively. Sokka sighed, and Toph smiled against his neck, feeling his body begin to surrender in defeat. His hands slid downward, resting along her hips just as his stomach growled. They both chuckled at the not-so-sexy interruption.
"I told you I was hungry," he disclaimed, meeting her lips for a lingering kiss. Toph slid her hands up his chest beneath his open coat, urging it off with her wrists as her fingers slid along his shoulders. His coat fell to the floor and Toph wasted no time in working on the buttons of his tunic- at which point she felt his hands gently close around her wrists, putting her plan on hold.
"Uh, where is Lin?" he asked, worried that she may walk down the hall at any moment.
"Already at the Island I think," Toph replied as his grip relaxed and her hands moved up his neck, linking her fingers together at the nape, "she's definitely not here."
"Ok," he relented, leaning in to kiss her again a little more passionately, "but I seriously need to eat something."
"You are such a caveman."
Sokka frowned and pounded his chest once, "Me want food, but me make sex with wife first!"
"How refreshing! I like a caveman with priorities," Toph commended just as he dipped to grab her around the waist and sling her over his shoulder. She folded over him with a laugh and he reached up to smack her ass once.
"Alright! Take me to your cave you freakin' weirdo," Toph laughed returning the gesture by rapidly paddling his own behind as he carried her away to their bedroom.
A few stray lanterns were already floating in and around the bay by the time Toph and Sokka made it to the docks. With a lethargic yawn, Toph boarded the ferry- her anxious husband bouncing on the balls of his feet just behind her.
"I'm about to show this meal whose boss," he affirmed, energized by their early evening tryst.
"What are you going to wish for when you release your lantern?" Toph wondered.
Sokka's neck craned around her, watching the island grow slowly in his sights, "for this boat to move faster," he replied absently.
Toph laughed, "I'm serious."
Sokka paused, giving her a long look, "You are," he realized, "you ok?"
She shrugged and Sokka moved his hand to her shoulder, "A shrug? Oh, this is worse than I thought."
Toph brushed him off with another half-hearted laugh, "Shut up….I just- I don't know…"
He nudged her, "Yes, you do. What's bugging you?"
Toph drew a breath, "I'm starting to wonder if Lin and I are going to be like my parents and me. You know- when's she's older? Hardly talk, have all these forced interactions….just be strangers?"
Sokka nodded, "I see. You're feeling insecure as a parent—"
"No," Toph corrected, "No, I'm not- I'm an awesome parent."
"I'm not disagreeing with you," Sokka added quickly.
"I'm just thinking- she'll be 18 in a couple years. If things are still like this between us then- it will really suck," Toph grumbled.
Sokka nodded, drawing her into a comforting hug, "so you're going to be wishing for you and Lin to get back on good terms…"
Toph pulled a face, "I was going to wish for the Gaoling Gillacorns to sweep the finals this season, but your idea is probably better."
Sokka's stomach let out a roar and Toph laughed patting his stomach fondly, "And I can guess what you'll be wishing for."
Mercifully, the ferry was already pulling in alongside the long dock of Air Temple Island. The festive scent of yuanxiao goodies wafted toward them from the main house, rich and easy to identify as it traveled through the crisp winter air.
Sokka took Toph's hand, assisting her from the ferry before bolting up the hill to the house. Toph could hear the bright and celebratory voices of the kids down at the small beach on the southward side of the island- the party was already in full swing by the sound of things.
The party would have to wait for them; Sokka was single-minded in his pursuit of Katara's cooking and they burst through the front doors of her home in short order.
"Aang!" Katara assumed in a shout from the kitchen, "Will you take some of these down to the beach?" she asked, coming around the corner with a tray of food in hand to find her older brother and Toph.
"Oh," she smiled, "not Aang."
"I will take these for you, though," Sokka reported merrily, snatching three rice balls from her tray and shoving them into his watering mouth. His shoulders sloped in bliss, "I love you, sis," he effused, mouth full.
Katara raised an eyebrow, "Yeah, you too."
Wordlessly, Sokka gathered the tray from her, holding it to himself as if it were going to attempt an escape, "I've got these- don't worry. I'll take care of these…meet you down at the beach."
Sokka made his exit, huddled around the tray, nodding furiously as he disappeared back through the doorway.
"Are you not feeding him?" Katara laughed.
Instantly, an inappropriate response about Sokka having just finished eating something sprang to mind, but she saved it, "You know I don't cook."
With a smile, Katara turned on her heel, leading Toph back into the kitchen, "Well, I hope you eat, because I made a lot of food. Do you want to help me take this tea down?"
She transferred a warm kettle into Toph's waiting hands, hanging the handle along her fingers before scooping up a second tray of fruit pies in her own arms.
"I hope Aang has got all the lanterns ready to go. We picked out some really beautiful ones this year," Katara commented, walking toward the door.
Toph held it open for her as she passed, "Yeah, I'm sure this collection will be even more visually stunning than the last," Toph remarked dryly.
Katara sighed, "Sorry."
Toph shrugged, "I'll always have Sokka's descriptions."
Each year, Sokka took time to explain the lanterns to her; he would place them in her hands, letting her feel their small weight. Lightly, he would drag one fingernail across the rice paper to emphasize the texture, thumping his finger dully against the wood inside as he explained their structure. Occasionally, he would guide her fingers across the embroidered patterns if there were any to uncover, helping her to visualize the object in her hands through her other senses. Sight, she decided, couldn't possibly be as wonderful as he was at times like this.
Katara nodded, "He does get pretty detailed."
The two women turned the corner, opting for the path that led to the beach. The sound of exuberant voices grew in volume.
"Where is Lin? Did she get a date or something?" Katara wondered as they walked.
Toph stopped in her tracks, "What? I thought she was here."
"I haven't seen her," Katara informed.
Toph wracked her brain, trying to recall anything Lin might have said to indicate she had made other plans. She came up with nothing- unsurprising, considering the two hadn't exchanged more than a sentence or two in the past month.
"I don't know where else she would go…" Toph mused as the slightest feeling of fear crept into the back of her skull.
"Let's ask the boys," Katara suggested, "they must have seen her at school. She probably just went off with another group."
"Yeah, maybe," Toph conceded, though she was doubtful.
Toph felt the terrain begin to change beneath her feet as they advanced; solid rock gave way to grainy sand that began seeping between her toes. Simultaneously, the smell of burning bonfires began to overtake the food and tea they carried- her 'vision' blurred.
She could vaguely make out a person she was pretty sure was Tenzin, seated near one of the fires on a bit of driftwood beside someone else.
"Hey! String bean!" Toph called out in his direction. Tenzin- well acquainted with this nickname since his growth spurt the previous year- swiveled his head in her direction.
"You seen my kid?"
"Lin?" he asked, as Toph approached.
"No, the little gimpy one I keep in the cellar," Toph quipped, "yes, Lin."
"Uh," Tenzin stuttered, looking at Yi, who sat beside him, "Not since school today. Why?"
"Do you know where she went?"
"No," he replied.
"Shit," Toph muttered before turning away, "Sokka?"
"Hmm?" his mouth was still sufficiently stuffed- eating merrily as he helped Aang assemble the lanterns a few feet away.
"Lin isn't here."
"Not really surprising, is it?" Bumi interjected coming their way from the shore, a pretty girl holding onto his hand, "she was steamed up earlier."
"She was what?" Toph asked.
"Steamed up," Bumi repeated, "You know- angry? Heated?"
Toph shifted her weight nervously; the small bit of fear in the back of her mind was growing by leaps and bounds. Though they hadn't been on speaking terms lately Toph knew that volatile and isolated was never a good combination for her daughter. The last time she could recall Lin in such a situation she'd nearly impaled a classmate with playground equipment.
"Do you have any idea where else she might have gone? To a different friends' house, maybe?" Aang suggested helpfully.
Toph shook her head, "No. No, I don't think so."
"Well, we don't know that," Sokka offered in a soft voice.
"Yeah, I do. I've got Mom senses telling me something isn't right."
Sokka sighed, "Do you want to go back home and see if she's there?"
Toph nodded, "Yeah. I think we should. I can just go. You don't need to come."
Sokka sighed, passing his half assembled lantern to Aang, "No, I'll come. Let's go."
Katara gave them both a regretful look, taking the kettle from Toph's hands.
"We can take Oogi," Tenzin piped up valiantly, from just behind them. Everyone, including Yi, side-eyed him.
"We?" Toph asked, "Don't worry about it, Junior. She's probably at home by now. No need to file a missing person's report. I'm just being paranoid."
Aang came up beside her, "let me know if you need me to do anything, okay?"
"Yeah," she nodded, "We'll give you a call. Sorry to cut the evening short."
The couple departed, catching a ferry that had only just delivered them. In the process of crossing the bay Sokka observed Toph's worry evolve into annoyance. By the time they arrived back at their house, her annoyance had mutated again into outright anger.
"Un-fucking-believable," she grunted, pushing their front gate open, "she's just something else, huh?"
Her left foot slammed down on the familiar grounds of her own yard and her heart hiccupped, "She's not in the house."
"Maybe she left a note we missed?" Sokka hypothesized, following his wife's angry footsteps back into their home.
Sokka made his way directly to the place they normally left messages for one another- on top of the kitchen table. He flipped on a light switch, illuminating the small note just as he expected.
"She left a note," he explained, walking around to gather it. Toph let out a sigh of relief just as Sokka lifted the paper from where it lay.
"'Oh' what?" Toph asked nervously, "that is not a good 'oh'."
"She's….she went to Ba Sing Se."
"WHAT?" Toph shrieked.
"It says here, 'went to visit Dad'," he recited.
"And what else?"
Sokka wasn't sure he'd ever seen Toph this shade of red before, "I'll kill her. If she's not dead already- I'll kill her."
Sokka dipped his head, rubbing the back of his neck- this was shaping up to be quite a long evening. Toph turned on her heel and made her way to Lin's bedroom, "Come here!" Sokka followed her in.
"I need his address. Something with his address," Toph instructed as she began opening Lin's drawers and pulling out every last sheet of paper inside and tossing them over her shoulder in Sokka's direction.
"Can we call him?"
"He doesn't have a telephone," Toph growled.
"Of course not," Sokka groaned, bending down to pick up the pages that fluttered to the ground around him. Most of the pages were blank- awaiting a sketch from their owner. He spotted one out of the corner of his eye- a crumpled page that looked to contain some kind of ink on the other side.
"Hmm, here's something," he announced as Toph continued to shower him with blank papers from inside Lin's desk. "Toph! Toph? Stop throwing those, please."
He took a seat at the edge of Lin's bed as Toph turned around quickly, "What is it? Read it to me."
He unfolded the page carefully, recognizing the handwriting and reading the first few lines before tearing his eyes away and slamming his hands against her knees, "Nope. Never mind."
"Not from her Dad- that's for sure," he answered.
Toph huffed impatiently, "Sokka, what is on the fucking paper?"
"It's a love note from Tenzin," he told her finally.
Something in Toph's demeanor shifted and a look of mischief flashed across her face, "What does it say?"
"I can't read this," Sokka protested.
"Come on, Sokka. My child is missing- I could use a laugh," she prodded, coming to sit beside him.
He drew a breath, bringing the paper back into his line of sight, "Well, apparently they've been sneaking out of the house at night….and making out…. so that's good to know."
"So that's where she goes," Toph surmised quietly.
"You've known she disappearing late at night?"
"No worrisome motherly vibes on that one?" he wondered incredulously.
"No," she confirmed plainly. Sokka watched her blank expression a moment before blinking twice and returning his attention to the note in his hand.
"Well, that makes no sense, but back to the letter," his eyes fell on it again, "He's just saying that he hopes things don't become awkward…and, hmm… okay now it's just a formal description of his feelings for her- this is embarrassing- I can't read this. I don't want to know this stuff," Sokka sighed in frustration, shaking his head and putting the paper down, "let's just find Mo's address."
Toph moved off the bed, reaching underneath, "Poor Tenzin. She'll eat him alive," she commented as she fished around for the box she was able to feel through her feet.
She caught the edge of it and pulled it out, setting it in Sokka's lap, "What about this?"
He opened it to find it full of letters, one of the first being a note he'd written Lin the day he married her mother. He smiled then, pleased that she felt this note was worth saving away somewhere special. He moved past that one and thumbed through some others from Ursa and some from Kya- before settling on one from Mo that was still in its envelope.
"Got it," he announced triumphantly, flicking the paper.
"Great," Toph agreed, leaving Lin's room and heading to her own. She began opening drawers- feeling around for her casual clothing- withdrawing several outfits and setting them along the bed.
"I'm going to take the next train," she explained as she worked, reaching into her top drawer for the stack of money she quickly realized had disappeared along with her daughter.
"Mother fucker," she grunted, slamming the drawer, "you got any cash?"
"Just a little. I was planning on going by the bank tomorrow morning," Sokka sighed, "it's a holiday, remember?"
Toph nodded slowly recalling, "-and the trains stopped running early. Dammit."
She thought for a moment and went back to packing her bags, "if they stopped running early she could just be at the station? I don't know- it's worth a shot. If not- I'll just take the first one out tomorrow."
Sokka nodded, "Alright. I'll get a message to the other Council Members that I might not be in on Monday."
Toph paused, "What? No. It's your first session back- you can't miss that. I'll just go to Ba Sing Se by myself and get her."
"No, you won't," Sokka told her solidly.
Toph guffawed as she made her way to the closet, feeling around for a travel bag, "Yes, I will."
Sokka's hands flew up, rubbing his temples slowly- the building frustration and putting off eating too long was causing that familiar pounding in his skull, "Listen, I've already got a headache over this whole situation- can we please not argue? I'm going with you."
She let out a sound of disapproval, "Just because I'm blind—"
"I know!" he interjected, cutting her rant short, "I know 'you can do anything the rest of us can' but, Toph, that isn't entirely true, okay?"
Her jaw set and twitched slightly, "Like what? What can't I do?"
Frustrated, Sokka shrugged, "Navigate wooden train platforms. There- that's one. Case closed. Are we done here?" His voice was tight, anxious.
Toph understood his concern and did her best to keep the lid on her pride, though her instinct was to lash out against him. She reached into the closet again, producing a small telescoping baton, snapping it once with a flick of her wrist so that it would extend.
"I'll take my cane for that," she reasoned, "Honestly, Sokka. I get that you're worried about me and I am trying so hard not to hit you over the head with this thing because I know you are not trying to be offensive, but just drop it, okay? I'm going by myself. You can't miss the opening session and this conversation is over."
Sokka's head went back and he let out a frustrated groan, mumbling something about being stubborn, but left it at that.
He helped Toph pack, folding her clothes neatly inside her bag as she telephoned Ho-Tun to let him know he would be in charge for the next few days. Sokka and Toph made their way from their home, checking the train station to find it devoid of any humanity, save one disheveled drunkard dozing up against a column.
Toph wilted at the realization that she would be nearly a full day behind her daughter. The next train wasn't until dawn and even then she only had enough money to make it to Makapu, where she'd have to disembark to visit a bank and wait for yet another train with service to Ba Sing Se, which would be the longest leg of her journey.
She felt Sokka's hand lightly begin rubbing her back. He leaned in to plant a soft kiss on her temple, "Do you want to head home and try to get some sleep before the next train?"
"No. I want to wait."
Sokka nodded, "I'll stay with you."
They passed most of the night in silence. Toph cuddled in close to Sokka for warmth and comfort. She could tell he was beginning to drift to sleep beside her when his arm loosened and his breathing slowed. Toph couldn't sleep, however. Her imagination was too powerful- thoughts of Lin in trouble, lost, or in danger plagued her and the lack of sleep nearly let her believe these fearful daydreams.
Logically, Toph knew Lin could handle herself and that the real fear was for her baby girl's shattered image of her father, once she found him. As much as Toph resented her ex, particularly when Lin insisted on his absolute grace, she never really wanted Lin to understand the truth of his indifference.
Sokka jumped slightly at the sound of the trains gearing up for another day just before sunrise. It was the first time in hours Toph had cause to smile.
"Are you absolutely sure I can't convince you to let me join you? There is still time to change your mind!" he reminded her as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
"We only have enough cash for one ticket anyway, you dolt," Toph smiled affectionately punching his arm.
With a sleepy smile, Sokka leaned in to kiss her, hands softly grazing her upper arms, bumping her meteor bracelet, "In case of emergency this thing can double as a weapon."
"Baby, I've got all of planet earth at my disposal. Relax," she replied against his lips.
Sokka nodded with a smile, having to concede that truth. He took one last look at Toph's worried expression, brow furrowed in concern, and he kissed her again, "Don't worry. She will be fine. I'll see you both in a couple of days, alright? I love you."
"I love you too," she told him before making her way to the train.
Out of the vast expanse of land rose an enormous wall, the size of which Lin had never laid eyes on in her life. Her heart raced as the train she was on sped toward it, tearing through the outlying fields of the Agrarian Zone and making a straight line for the city of Ba Sing Se.
It was just nearing sunset when she arrived. She had hardly managed to sleep the previous night in her train car, and spent most of the day watching the world pass her window, deep in thought, imagining her father's expression when they finally saw each other again.
The train pulled into the station, exhaling steam as it stopped. A mix of excitement and reticence overtook her as she stepped from train and onto the platform with legs that wobbled slightly having become accustomed to the swaying motion of the railway. It didn't take long to acclimate herself to the solid ground again, it was greeted as an old friend that soothed with familiarity and consistency. Lin made her way to the ticket booth, finding a woman who appeared to be nearing her three hundredth year hunched over inside, scanning the moving crowd with beady eyes.
"Where you headed?" she asked in a gravelly voice.
"Nowhere," Lin replied, "I just need to get a map of the lower ring please."
"Don't sell maps," the woman grunted.
A light sigh escaped Lin as she slid an envelop across the counter for inspection, "Could you tell me how to get here?" she asked, pointing to her father's address which was scrawled in the corner.
The woman read the words carefully and looked back up at Lin warily, "You don't look like the Lower Ring type," she commented.
"Can you tell me how to get there or not?" Lin retorted, quickly annoyed. She pulled her coat tighter, covering the fine green silk of the tunic she wore beneath in a mix of aggravation and embarrassment. The woman watched her and scoffed slightly at her motions, curious as to why anyone would be insulted at being labeled upper class.
"That train there, Trust Fund," the woman told her snidely as she pointed toward a monorail platform, "then you're on your own."
"I'll manage thanks," Lin told her bitingly as she turned away.
The monorail ride was surprisingly quick to deliver Lin into the heart of the Lower Ring, which throbbed with humanity, all packed in shoulder to shoulder like sardines. It was terribly crowded in the main square and Lin became immediately aware she was no longer home.
The square was overflowing with shouting vendors, thrusting flapping chickens in her face or splashing her feet with their dirtied mop water as she passed. Each person she passed looked more beat down by life than the next. Men with missing teeth winked at her as she walked from the monorail, mumbling invitations with drunk tongues. She finally spotted a woman carrying a cumbersome amount of pamphlets beckoning tourists to "Experience the Catacombs!" that looked as overwhelmed as she felt. Lin made her way to the woman, figuring her face was kind enough to be trusted and her demeanor was cautious enough to know where she was.
"Excuse me?" Lin asked coming alongside her. The woman glanced at her, making a snap judgment to ignore or respond.
"I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to this address?" Lin replied, holding out the envelope.
The woman's face softened and her body unclenched with a sigh, "Not from around here," she remarked.
"Obviously," she smiled, without a hint of negativity, "You aren't far- just follow this main road until it forks. Take the left side and continue on until you see a tea shop called "Tsang", turn right there and go down until you come to this address. Its a big wooden apartment building- can't miss it."
"Thank you," Lin told her gratefully.
"No problem," the woman smiled with a nod, and moved on clutching her papers to her chest.
The woman wasn't kidding when she said this apartment building was un-missable. It was a shabbily constructed fire hazard of a building, resting on crumbling stone and rotting wooden pillars. But none of that mattered to Lin. Her father was inside and if this place was going to become her new home, she'd learn to love it.
She made her way up the creaking steps to a door marked 412 and gathered all her courage in a calming breath before curling her fist to knock.
Lin heard movement on the other side of the door and suddenly her pulse pounded in her ears and her face flushed with heat. It had been years since she'd seen him and every hope she had in her teenage life hinged on this moment going as well as she imagined.
The door swung open and Lin was met with a young woman, her height but roughly ten years older scowling back.
"Can I help you?"
This was not part of the imagined reunion. Lin could feel a stinging in her eye as she considered that her father had probably moved away, maybe his letter of notification was headed to Republic City as she stood in this spot, stomach sinking.
"Um," Lin began nervously, "I'm looking for Mo, but I guess I have the wrong address-"
"Who the hell are you?" The girl asked, turning her head, "Mo! Who the fuck is this?" she called over her shoulder.
Lin's heart sped again, practically bursting from excitement as her father appeared behind the girl in the doorway.
"Lin?" He asked, confused but seemingly pleased.
"Dad!" Lin replied with more enthusiasm than she intended. Her body thrust itself forward without asking her head for permission, knocking the girl in the doorway aside to hug her father.
"Dad?" The girl repeated caustically, "Dad? Are you fucking kidding me?"
Lin barely heard her angry voice as she was too consumed with the feeling of her father's arms around her once again. She inhaled deeply, breathing in his scent, which aided in the return of many old memories from childhood, warm and comforting. He smelled of worn leather and tobacco and something uniquely his own, all mixed together to create feeling which steadied her nerves upon exhale.
She felt his body pull away slightly and he gave her a quick smile before extracting himself completely to reach out to the girl in the doorway.
"Aiko! Calm down. I can explain-" he began, stepping in front of Lin in a way that could have been read as protective, but felt dismissive. The girl, Aiko, retreated back into the apartment in a huff, snatching an apron from the counter. Mo, who left Lin standing lamely at the door, followed her anxiously.
"Look, Aiko- relax," he argued. Aiko seemed unimpressed by his efforts to calm her she and pushed by him, making her way back toward Lin and passing her into the hallway.
"Don't fucking follow me, Mo," she grumbled as she descended the stairway in a hurry. Mo came to the top of the stairs, leaning over to watch her.
"Aiko, come on. Let's talk this out," he whined.
"I have to work," she spat as Lin heard the front door of the building slam somewhere beneath them. There was a moment of silence as Lin watched her father, bent over the rickety stair railing from the entryway of his tiny apartment. Mo straightened himself out and turned back to her.
"Sorry about that," he apologized, lifting his eyebrows slightly to infer his own surprise at the scene. "What...what exactly are you doing here?"
Lin looked around awkwardly, "I just wanted to see you."
Mo smiled, walking toward her, "Ok. Come on in."
He led her into the apartment and she closed the door behind. It was a small space, fitting a tattered couch, a few metal sculptures, and a multitude of canvases, some blank and some colorful, leaning against every available inch of wall space. There was a bookshelf, covered in dust from lack of use and a tiny kitchenette with a fridge and paint that peeled from the walls in chunks.
"Want something to drink?" he asked as he made his way to the fridge.
"Sure," Lin replied, standing in the middle of the room with her coat on and her bag on her shoulder still.
"Water? Soju? Sake?" he called over his shoulder.
"You know I'm fifteen, right?" Lin returned sarcastically. He looked at her from the fridge, fixing her with a serious stare.
"Are you capable of making your own decisions?" He challenged with a lift of his eyebrow.
"Soju," Lin answered as a smile spread slowly across her face. He closed the fridge and reached into a cabinet, pulling a bottle out and filling two glasses.
"You can sit you know," he reminded her, gesturing at the tattered couch with a glass. She took his invitation and sat along the edge of the couch. He passed the glass to her and pulled a short stool from beside the couch out into the middle of the room, perching on top of it to take a long sip as he watched her.
"Does your Mom know you're here?" He asked finally. Lin gave him an ambiguous shrug as she downed her drink in one gulp. "Whoa, you aren't supposed to shoot it, little one."
Lin twisted the glass in her hands, unsure whether the heat creeping into her scalp was embarrassment or soju. She took in the various paintings; some in progress and some completed that sat against the wall. This place wasn't as she had pictured. In her mind she imagined his apartment to be modern and chic, all hard lines and eccentric design that might appeal to the eye of an artist. Instead, it was bordering on filthy. The place was cramped and used dishes dotted the room like forgotten papers.
"So...you have really grown since I last saw you." he began awkwardly.
"Yeah," Lin replied.
"Are you hungry?"
Lin nodded as her stomach cramped at the mere thought of food. She'd been on an overnight train and the grouchy woman at the counter in the dining car didn't seem interested in serving someone paying in large amounts.
Her father nodded in return, suddenly feeling his pockets for a wallet. With a final pat, he located bound leather in his back pocket and withdrew his billfold, opening it to expose an obvious lack of cash.
"Hmmm," he led awkwardly.
"I have money," Lin offered helpfully, digging through her bag to produce a fist full of notes adorned with Aang's likeness.
Mo's face lit up at the sight of it, "Great. I know the perfect place."
The perfect place was only two short blocks away from Mo's dilapidated apartment. A cozy little restaurant serving Earth Kingdom fare "like grandmother used to make" was situated in a building alongside a shoe store. Father and daughter entered the establishment, ringing the bell on the door.
The sound caught the attention of a friendly looking woman who appeared to recognize Mo, gesturing from the kitchen that he may take a seat anywhere.
"Come here often?" Lin wondered as they slid into a booth.
"Hmm? Yeah," he mumbled, his focus trained on the back of the restaurant. Their walk had been quick and it had been quiet. Lin was beginning to think her father was less than enthused to have her around. As if he could read her thoughts, Mo gave his daughter a friendly reassuring smile, easing her worried mind.
"So..." he began as he glanced over the menu, "what is new in your life? Getting some use out of your metalbending?"
"I'm practicing a lot, but I don't get to use it competitively," Lin explained.
Mo nodded, "Against the rules in bending competitions, huh?"
"Unfortunately," Lin sighed.
Mo laughed a little at that, "I've been using metal bending on some sculptures recently..." he told her before trailing off. His eyes flickered up the back of the room again, catching the movement of a cook ending his shift. He was clearly distracted by something here, but Lin couldn't quite discern what that might be. The cook passed them and disappeared out the door.
"...they've been selling pretty well. Are you keeping up with your art?"
"I paint a lot," Lin replied.
"Good. I always worried you weren't getting enough exposure to art with your Mom."
"She's not exactly the target audience," Lin returned, following her father's eyes as they drifted back toward to the door marked "Employees Only".
He was nodding, but clearly not listening. As if suddenly remembering he had company he turned back to her, "Got a boyfriend? Anyone you're interested in?"
Lin blushed a little, "No boyfriend. At least...not really..."
"Not really?" he followed, interest piqued.
Lin's face colored again, partially because she recalled her kiss with Tenzin and partially because her father's attention was actually on her, "well it doesn't matter now anyway."
"Who is this guy? What is he about?"
She gave a small shrug, suddenly feeling as if all the words inside her were rising in her throat and jumbling in her windpipe. Though her mind was humming his name, her mouth wouldn't cooperate- unable to admit such a truth out loud even after her rather telling bout of jealousy just yesterday. A concession of this nature was an enormous show of trust, but Lin decided to say it anyway. After all, her life in Republic City was a thing of the past, much like that irrepressible smile that commandeered face whenever she thought of his narrow nose and adorable nervous habits would be eventually as she settled into life in Ba Sing Se.
Lin shifted in her seat uncomfortably before managing to choke out Tenzin's name on a parched tongue.
"You mean, Tenzin-Tenzin?" her father clarified.
She nodded, reaching out for the water on the table and gulping it hungrily.
"Kinda predictable," he sighed, as if this news were rather anti-climactic and turned his head back to watch the door.
Lin's lip curled in annoyance. Predictable? It was monumental to her. She didn't dare tell anyone about her feelings for Tenzin and now she was finally entrusting her inner-most thoughts to the person she felt she could trust most and he was...bored? Irritation crept up her back and into her shoulders, tightening them in vexation.
"Why do you keep looking back there?" she demanded, reaching the limits of her patience.
As if on cue, the door swung open and the woman from his apartment emerged. Aiko was her name; a small, waif of a girl that made her way to their table with some measure of exasperation.
"What do you want?" she groaned, dropping one arm impatiently within Mo's grasp. He reached out to grip it and tugged her downward until she was sitting on his lap. Lin watched as her father nuzzled the face of a girl half his age and whispered things she could not and did not want to understand.
Aiko mewled weakly in protest, but the corners of her mouth twitched upward as he spoke.
"Come on..." he pled, nose pressed against her cheek, "come on..."
"Fine," she pouted, going so far as sticking her bottom lip out for dramatic effect. Lin rolled her eyes and sat back in her chair before clearing her throat.
They both looked at her and Mo let out a small chuckle, "Aiko, I'd like you to officially meet my daughter, Lin."
"Yes, the one that has been sitting here the entire time," Lin quipped, arms folded across her chest.
"Sorry, Lin," Aiko offered, "you just happened to catch us in the middle of an argument. Bad timing."
Lin could feel her own nails dig into the skin of her opposite arm as she kept her mouth closed. Her father, this woman, and the entire situation were under her skin so deeply that they could potentially be considered freckles.
"I'd better get back to work," Aiko sighed, standing, "what do you want to eat?"
"I'll take the roast duck," Mo replied, passing the menu back to her. Aiko's eyes landed on Lin who fought the urge to order a tall glass of 'get the hell out of my face' and instead put in for the pan-friend noodles.
Mo watched her go, smiling stupidly at her backside as she disappeared into the kitchen, "she's great, huh?"
Lin's eyes narrowed, "she didn't know who I was."
Mo's eyebrows jumped and then settled, fixing his daughter with a genuine look, "We haven't been together very long," he began as he reached across the table for a napkin, "just a month or so."
Lin was skeptical, but didn't challenge him. Her displeasure must have been plain to see because after a moment of watching her, Mo chuckled lightly, "You still make that same face- that scowl. I'd know it anywhere."
Her features relaxed slightly, laughing weakly at his observation. He managed to lighten the mood a bit further by plying her with a second glass of soju. She explained to him that she had nearly soured on the entire idea of alcohol after the party last month but was pleased to find him laughing and engaged when she recounted her story. It seemed even her 'bad' behavior could be accepted here with him. He was interested in her as a person, not as a sidekick or some kind of project. He asked her a myriad of questions about her life before delving into his own; which he then spoke of until the restaurant closed.
Their plates were bare and their stomachs were full as Aiko flipped the sign in the door and turned the lock. They continued talking as the staff bussed the tables around them, never pausing long, having found their rhythm.
He invited her to tag along with him tomorrow to scout some galleries and Lin readily agreed to join him. Her new life was sounding infinitely better than her old one already.
When Aiko was finally done cleaning she rejoined them, much to Lin's chagrin. The trio made their way back to Mo's apartment where even more glasses of soju were poured.
The night went late and eventually Lin found herself, settled back onto her father's dingy couch without much concern for what exactly had made these stains. Aiko was beside her and Mo had perched himself on the stool again, guitar his lap, taking requests.
"How about this one, Little One? This is one of your old favorites," he smiled, strumming the first few chords of a song Lin didn't quite recognize.
"I don't know that one," she explained.
"Sure you do. I used to sing this one to you when you wouldn't go to bed," he asserted before beginning to sing, "Little Jitterbug don't cry… You'll be swingin' by and by…you are just a tiny tot and until you've grown a lot—"
"-your rattle will have to do!" Lin sang, recalling the old song finally. A host of memories came rushing back to her in these lyrics, "little jitterbug go slow! You'll be rockin' before you know…"
They finished the song together, laughing out the last few words, "I can't believe I forgot that song," Lin mused.
"Your Mom never was much into singing lullabies, I guess," Mo replied, sliding his guitar to the floor.
"It's not a Beifong thing," Lin nodded. Something in her wording seemed to catch Aiko's attention then and she sat up from slouching with an astounded look.
"Beifong? As in Toph Beifong? Mo, your ex is Toph Beifong?"
Mo took another sip of his drink and lifted his eyebrows slightly in confirmation. Aiko watched the ceiling for a moment before glancing back at Lin, "You had a kid with Toph Beifong? Are you kidding me?"
"Nope," Mo confimed.
"You must be loaded," Aiko finally burst, staring at Lin as if she had suddenly transformed into a solid gold bar, "I can't believe you ran away from that!"
Lin's face screwed up and just as she was about to give Aiko a colorfully worded dressing down, Mo interrupted, "No. No. Money isn't everything, Aiko. I left money. It's better to be free than living someone else's idea of life, you know? I mean, Lin is like this artistic kid and her Mom is just shoving her into this box- like making her practice bending- and I mean she used to get her out of bed when she was four and make her practice. And- and- and then she goes and marries this super judgmental guy who, like, thinks he's better than everyone so I'm sure that's added pressure-"
Lin's nodding head stopped suddenly, "Sokka isn't like that."
Mo deflated slightly, head dipping in that drunken way and he sighed, "Well…whatever. You know, we should all probably just go to bed."
He stood, wobbling slightly, "Come on, Aiko."
She stood too, making her way back into the bedroom first. Mo retrieved a thin blanket from the closet and passed it to Lin, "Goodnight, little jitterbug," he slurred, leaning in to kiss her forehead, "see you in the morning."
Lin lay back on the couch, closing her eyes. The soju made certain she didn't have much time to consider just how she was going to rid her new life of Aiko. Sleep overtook her quickly.
She woke to the loud clattering sound of a pile of dishes finally collapsing from their tower inside the sink. In the kitchen, her father mumbled a few curse words before turning to find her awake.
He didn't look nearly as convivial this morning as he was yesterday. The alcohol had left him and it had done so with a slamming door by the looks of it; his eyes were damp and swollen, his cheeks sallow.
"I'm running late," he told her, "you still coming with me?"
"I'd like to," Lin replied.
"Okay… well you're going to have to get off the fucking couch then," he spat, turning back to the counter with a long sigh.
For a moment she wasn't sure if he was joking, but the energy in the room told her he wasn't, "I just woke up," Lin pointed out in defense.
"Yeah, I know," he replied, "look- just go get ready if you're coming, alright?"
"Fine," she grumbled, making her way to the bathroom to make herself presentable.
When she emerged Mo was there, looking remorseful, "Sorry, Little One. I'm just not feeling so good this morning. You ready?"
Lin nodded, "Yeah, I'm ready."
They were quiet as they walked the streets to Mo's first gallery. He instructed to Lin to wait outside while he walked in with a portfolio under one arm. Again, memories came rushing back. Though she remembered happy times and song singing in her childhood, the feeling of being made to wait outside was equally as strong.
Through the window she could see the man behind the counter and her father yelling at one another. He finally turned back toward the door exiting with a grunt, "fucking prick."
Lin's eyebrows shot up, "What was that about, Dad?"
Mo ran one aggravated hand through his hair, "Won't even look at my portfolio because I was late. Whatever. Let's move on."
Again they travelled in silence and again Lin waited outside. This pattern lasted well into the day, rejection after rejection- they continued on. They didn't stop for lunch and by the time the sun was getting low on the horizon Lin's stomach was growling.
"Dad?" she asked, breaking their tense silence, "can we stop for something to eat?"
Mo groaned, obviously put out by the suggestion, "yeah, alright. Let's just go back to my place and get something."
The tension was running high as they made their way back to the old apartment building. Mo's entire body was rigid and angry, jaw clenching and unclenching furiously with each stiff step forward. Lin was beginning to rethink her new life as she watched him- wondering if this day would be one of many in her future or if his dour attitude was entirely circumstantial.
They entered his apartment at sunset.
"I've just got rice," Mo mumbled as he rifled through the cabinets. He rinsed out a pot from the sink and set it on the stove.
"Rice is fine," Lin agreed, though she was silently disappointed. In the back of her mind a small voice doubted her decision to come to Ba Sing Se. It was a guilty little voice that told her she ought to have at least explained her choice to her mother and Sokka instead of taking off without a word. Maybe they were worried about her…
"Do you have any letter paper I could use? I think I need to write my Mom and Sokka."
Mo turned around from where he stood at the stove and gave her a pitying look, "Listen, Lin…"
She could tell by the uncharacteristic softness of his voice that whatever he was about to say was not something she wanted to hear, " …How long- I mean, how long are you planning on crashing on my couch?"
"Crashing?" Lin wondered, eyes narrowing.
Mo sighed, "Yeah, I mean, it's great to see you and everything, but you know- Aiko lives here too and she's not really comfortable having three people in such a small space, you know?"
"I'm your daughter."
Mo leaned back against the counter, "I know," he said crossing his arms, "but Aiko is really important to me too and if you want to-"
Lin cut him off in a quiet epiphany, "They always come before me, don't they? They always have."
Mo looked about innocently, "Who?"
"Your girlfriends. You've always put them before me."
"That's not what I'm saying, Little One," Mo defended.
"Don't call me that," she insisted, standing. She made her way to the overnight bag she had brought along and started stuffing it with her things yet again. It wasn't much- she had hardly removed any of the contents in the small amount of time she had been here. Still, the act of packing so soon, the truth of why she was already preparing to leave, made her eyes sting.
Mo came toward her, "What are you doing? I'm not saying have to go now—"
"I don't know why I ever came here. I don't know what I was thinking," she mumbled as she knotted the string of her bag through blurring vision.
"There's nothing for me here," Lin said finally, looking up at him. "That's what you said. 'There's nothing for me here.' You told me that when I was eight years old. I was just a little kid and I've thought of that sentence every single night trying to convince myself that I heard you wrong or misinterpreted your meaning, but I didn't. I've spent years trying to convince myself that it wasn't because I wasn't good enough for you, but that's exactly what you meant."
The tears were streaming down her face now, entirely against her will, but it didn't matter. Her emotions couldn't be subdued; this was too much- her worst fear fully realized.
Mo sighed again, reaching for her bag. He managed to extricate it from her grip, "you need to relax. It's getting late and this is a bad neighborhood. You can't go walking off on your own."
"Give me my bag," Lin told him with a sniffle.
"Just sit down, we'll have some rice and-"
"Give me my fucking bag!" she shouted.
"Hey! I'm the parent here!" he shot back.
Lin scoffed, "Don't. Do not try to use that on me right now. You have never been my parent. Give me my bag."
"Lin, like it or not, I am your Dad and I said to sit down and relax," Mo replied taking another step back with her bag still in hand.
"My Dad? My Dad? Do you even know what that means? A Dad is someone who helps you with your homework. A Dad is someone that takes care of you when you are sick, someone that supports you and tells you that you're beautiful even when you aren't. A Dad is someone that tries to intimidate stupid boys from school and who holds you accountable for being a jerk at the risk of being unpopular because he knows it's the best thing for you. A Dad is someone who shows up to fucking father's day at school. Sokka is my Dad. You are not. You never have been."
Mo shook his head, looking at the ceiling in exasperation and disbelief, "Sokka…"
"Don't even say his name," Lin warned, "you aren't fit to say his name so keep it our of your fucking mouth. Now give me my bag."
Mo maintained his position, "Sorry. You're not getting anything until you calm down."
Lin's watery eyes narrowed and she made her way across the room toward him, ripping her bag from his grasp, "You don't tell me what to do. You are a shitty father," she seethed. She stepped back, slinging her bag over one shoulder and taking a look around the room, "and a shitty artist."
She made her way to the door, pulling it open. She took a deep breath and turned to him one last time, "and Tenzin is not predictable!" she shouted finally, knocking one of his metal sculptures to the floor for good measure before slamming the door as she departed.
By the time she exited the building she was shaking, body wracked with sobs she couldn't control. Even the gaze of curious strangers wasn't able to curtail the emotion, which poured from her eyes without mercy. Some watched her sadly, some judgmentally and still she couldn't find the will to care about their observant eyes.
After a block she chanced a look over her shoulder, not entirely rid of the hope that her father would be running just behind to stop her from leaving- to tell her he was sorry and that all the things she had accused him of were wrong. But there were nothing but strange faces and flickering lamps in her wake, so she continued on.
At the station she purchased her ticket and took a seat on one of the long wooden benches to await the train's arrival. She cried quietly, hands over her face as she waited. She had never left so low, so utterly unloved. She wasn't entirely sure she could rely on a warm welcome back in Republic City. Her actions had probably destroyed any last hope of a relationship with her mother and Sokka might not feel so forgiving when she came crawling back this time. She wondered how yuanxiao had gone in her absence- imagining that Tenzin and Yi might have really hit it off. She wasn't sure if she belonged anywhere.
The train rolled into the station, sighing loudly as it slowed. Lin collected herself just enough to stand as the incoming passengers disembarked. The crowds flowed past her, luggage in hand. As they let up, Lin stepped forward- handing her ticket to a porter who watched her puffy eyes suspiciously.
"Going through to Republic City?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Alright. Have a safe trip," he agreed finally, punching her ticket.
Lin moved passed him to board and just as she set her foot on the first step she heard a familiar nasally drawl.
"I dunno. What does she look like?" one voice asked.
"How the hell should I know," Toph replied, waving her hand in front of her face, "she's taller than me. Sharp cheekbones…people say she's pretty but maybe that's just because I'm her mother…"
Lin's heart skipped a beat as she scanned the crowd to find where that voice had come from. She found her mother standing at the ticket counter, looking miffed. Toph's scowl was sloping nearly as much as her shoulders, hands resting on her hips, as they tended to do when she was frustrated.
It was the most wonderful sight Lin had ever seen.
Her father didn't care enough to follow her, but her mother did.
Lin hopped off the first step and pushed her way through the milling crowd, eager to reach the comfort of her mother's arms.
Toph turned in her direction, gaze slightly off center.
"Mom!" Lin called again, as she moved ever closer.
"Lin?" Toph asked, sliding her foot over just a hair before remembering the wooden platform.
Lin reached her stopping only inches away, "Mom. It's me."
Toph's hands shot out, finding her shoulders. They slid up along her neck and her fingers brushed along Lin's face gently, identifying her features with care. She dropped her hands and sighed, relieved, before reaching back quickly and slamming one open palm against her daughter's cheek.
Lin's head turned with the force and her jaw dropped in surprise. The tears sprung freshly from her eyes and Toph reached up to grip the face she'd just slapped, "Don't you ever scare me like that again, Lin. Do you understand me?"
Lin nodded silently, tears rushing down her raw cheeks, "I'm sorry, Mom."
She leaned forward, letting out a sob into her mother's shoulder, "He's awful. I'm so sorry."
Toph's eyes stung and a few droplets escaped, skating their way down her face as she held her daughter, rubbing her back soothingly, "Shhhh. I'm sorry too, baby girl. It's gonna be okay."
Lin's bawling voice was muffled against Toph's shoulder, "I just want to go home."
"Alright. Let's get you home, then," Toph assured softly, taking Lin's face again to kiss her cheek a few times in quick succession. She threw her arm around Lin's waist and led her back to the train, "Come on, baby girl. We're going home."
The two women settled into their train car, and Lin laid her head in her mother's lap inhaling her sweet scent- reminiscent of an open field in summer. Toph ran her rough fingers through Lin's hair gently, hushing her sadness with every stroke. Acceptance and love even in the most trying times. That was her mother.
It wasn't Republic City and it certainly wasn't Ba Sing Se.
It was this.
This was her home.