The Blossom and The Root
Tenzin tells her that the air is always moving, never static; that bending it is as easy as breathing. She doesn’t believe him. Tenzin means well, but he is a terrible teacher. Also, he is seven and an airbender, and she is six and an earthbender, and she’s pretty sure they will always have fundamental differences. Technically, their parents are in charge of their training, but every once in a while, particularly when Uncle Iroh is in town, Aang gets it into his head that his children should train with other benders. Before Kya to the North Pole and Bumi went to train with Sokka, things were more interesting. Now it’s just her and Tenzin, and sometimes she just wants to bend him right off a cliff.
They’ve been sitting under the cherry blossoms for two hours because Tenzin is trying to open a chakra and Lin is supposed to be training with him. For the first hour, she took a nap, but now she’s just bored. The white-pink blossoms fall around them, like snow in summer but not so cold, and Lin is sad that her mother will never know this beauty for herself. She’s been trying to catch as many blossoms as she can when Tenzin cracks an eye open and glares at her.
“Lin,” he says. “I’m meditating.”
“Tenzin,” she says, because it infuriates him when she mimics him. “I’m bored.”
“Just try,” he says. “I know you can’t feel the air the way I can, but maybe you can feel the earth.”
“You don’t feel the earth by meditating,” she says. “You feel the earth by touching it.”
“How does the tree feel the earth?” Tenzin asks, his tone uncannily like his father’s. “They’re as connected to it as you are.”
She sighs and rolls her eyes, but obliges him. She takes a deep breath and sits up straight again. She can feel the earth through her hanbok, but when she puts her palms down on the grass, the feeling intensifies. She reaches down and down, and feels the voids where the tree roots must be. She traces the network to the trunks, and digs her fingers into the earth, shaking the dirt around the bases of the trees.
When she opens her eyes, there are cherry blossoms everywhere, and Tenzin is smiling.
When she is seven, her mother takes her to Kyoshi Island. There have been a growing number of chi blockers in Republic City, and so they are going to talk to the only chi blocker Toph Bei Fong trusts. Ty Lee has not changed much, her mother tells her, and Lin is immediately doubtful that such a flittery woman could possess such an awful power, but the first time Lin sees Ty Lee fight, all her doubts are erased.
She’s never seen anyone move like that. It’s hypnotizing and terrifying, and Lin finds she cannot look away when Ty Lee moves. They spend a week on Kyoshi Island, and Toph learns to design armour that chi blockers can work around. They have to test the armour on Toph herself, and Lin can’t watch when Ty Lee takes away her mother’s ability to bend the earth. Worse than losing her power, it also costs Toph her sight, and if Lin didn’t see the anguish in Ty Lee’s face every time the armour is unsuccessful, Lin would have screamed until they agreed to stop.
On the very last day before they’re due to leave, Lin gets up early and goes down to the practice ring. She only means to bend, but Ty Lee is there, and Lin finds herself watching instead as Ty Lee moves effortlessly through her exercises. It’s sad that something so beautiful can have such horrifying results.
“I never thought anyone would use chi blocking for evil,” Ty Lee says when she has finished her routine. “I know that might be naïve, and I know that Azula didn’t exactly have the best intentions, but...”
She trailed off and looked at her hands.
“Do it to me.” Lin says the words before she thinks them.
“What?” Ty Lee asks.
“Block my chi,” she says.
“I can’t do that!” Ty Lee protests. “You’re just a kid!”
“You’ve been blocking my mother all week!” Lin says. “I might be an officer someday. I need to know what it feels like.”
It’s clear on Ty Lee’s face that she isn’t happy. She looks back at the village, probably making sure that Toph isn’t watching. Then she sets herself, and motions Lin to take a fighting stance. It’s a series of quick punches, and then she’s done.
Lin reaches for the ground, and nothing happens. Her heart races and her breath is hard to catch, and then Ty Lee’s arms are around her, and Lin cries until she feels the earth again.
When Lin is eight years old, her mother ties a scarf across her eyes, and Lin learns to see the world in a whole new way. She had always known that her mother’s blindness didn’t impede her bending, but she didn’t realize that the earth could tell her so much about her surroundings. She learns to jump and reach without seeing where she’s going, and she learns to find metal and shape it. It’s not flying like Tenzin does, but he takes her up every now and then, and that’s how she learns not to be afraid of falling.
She knows that Republic City is not safe. Tenzin is convinced that it is the crowning achievement of his father’s life, and maybe it is, but Lin sees her mother dealing with the underside of the city every day and she is not as idealistic as Tenzin is. She’ll be the one on the ground, after all, and she’s used to seeing without her eyes. She’s not sure if her mother meant that to happen in her training, but it did, and Lin is not sorry.
She still goes to the cherry orchard, though, when the blossoms are out. She reaches down into the earth to shake the trees, and releases the petals into the air.