The first time Lin uses her bending to beat someone up she’s nine years old. The stupid councilman’s kids are making fun of Tenzin’s airbending tattoos again, and after three days of watching him sit back and take it she’s mad enough to tear up the whole park. So she finally yells back at them, and then they threaten to beat her up because they think she’s just some scrawny girl. She throws boulder after boulder at them, but it’s three against one and they’re earthbenders too. She tries out the metalbending move her mother taught her just the other day, and suddenly the three of them are wrapped together with bits of the wrought-iron gate at the front of the park. She sees the fear in their eyes and she pulls the iron loose, ears tinged pink with fury. Let them see what happens when they think they can mess with a scrawny girl.
“What’s the matter?” she calls out as they run away, her fists balled, “thought you’d win if you picked on someone smaller than you?”
She turns to Tenzin in triumph, but he merely glares at her.
“Why’d you have to do that?” he shouts, “now you’ve made even more trouble, and you probably hurt them, too!”
Lin stands, stunned. “Tenzin, I—”
But he turns and runs away before she has a chance to finish.
“I was trying to help you, stupidhead!” she shouts, hurling another hunk of rock after him that he airbends away as he runs.
She doesn’t cry, because crying’s for babies, but she has to swallow against the sudden lump in her throat. All she’d wanted was for them to leave him alone. Why did he have to get mad at her for that?
That night she gets into trouble with Mama, too, and it’s almost too much to bear.
“Lin Beifong, you are far too old for this kind of nonsense. I started teaching you metalbending because I thought you were old enough, but the lessons stop cold if you pull stunts like this—”
“But they started it!” Lin exclaims, knowing even as she says it how childish she sounds. “They were making fun of Tenzin, I had to do something to stop them—”
“Tenzin can take care of himself, Lin,” Mama sighs, “he’s a big boy, he could stand up to those kids if he wanted to.”
“But he won’t, Mama!” Lin cries, “he’s too much like Uncle Aang, going on about how two wrongs don’t make a right, blah, blah, blah…”
“Is he wrong?” Mama asks sternly, looking Lin square in the eye.
“I explained this to you when we started lessons, Lin. You can’t use bending to pick fights with other people —and you certainly can’t use metalbending to destroy public property just for some schoolyard bullies! I thought that you were responsible enough to start metalbending training, but…”
“I’m responsible,” Lin mutters sullenly.
“Then prove it, kid,” Mama says, “I want you to apologize to those boys. And no more metalbending lessons for at least two weeks—until you’ve proven to me that you can handle them again.”
Lin gets sent to bed early that night, and she slams her bedroom door hard in frustration. She flops down on her bed and stews for what feels like hours, which means she’s still awake when Uncle Aang comes over to talk about grown-up work with Mama. She creeps out of bed even though she knows it won’t do much; Mama can always feel when she’s eavesdropping before she ever gets a chance to hear anything good.
“I heard Lin got into some trouble today,” she hears Aang say, “Kya told me she sent all three of Councilman Lian’s boys home crying.”
“Standing up for Tenzin, she claims,” Mama replies, “Apparently they wouldn’t stop calling him names.”
“Hmph,” Aang grumbles. “Not surprising, given their father. Tenzin was upset, though—he hadn’t wanted her to pick a fight with them at all.”
“Don’t worry, I gave her the proper what-for,” Mama says with a sigh, “No more metalbending lessons until she proves she’s responsible enough to handle them.”
“Must be hard for you, Toph,” Uncle Aang says, and Lin can imagine the twinkle in his eye, “having to dole out the discipline when we all know you’re as proud of her as anything for it.”
“Come on, Toph, you know you would have done exactly the same thing when you were her age,” Uncle Aang says, “You’re telling me the Blind Bandit wouldn’t have acted any differently?”
This time, she laughs.
“Those little brats did get just what they deserved,” she says. “She did good—and even I can’t believe how quickly she’s picking up the metalbending. Better than any of the lily-livers I’m used to teaching.”
“Well, she is your daughter,” Uncle Aang replies, “I wouldn’t expect any less.”
“So, what about this new Councilman?” Mama asks, “The name sounds familiar, but I haven’t heard much about him.”
“Neither had I, before he came here, but he’s not very pleasant,” Aang says, “He’s certainly competent, but—”
“Hold on a sec, Twinkle Toes,” Mama interrupts. A pause, and then—
“Go to sleep, Badgerlin!” Mama calls out. Lin groans and trudges back up the stairs. She wants to hear all the bad things about the Lian boys’ father, but she knows that trying to sneak up on Mama twice in one night is a bad idea, especially given everything else that’s happened today.
She reflects, as she falls asleep, that it took Mama a lot longer than usual to catch her. She wonders if she’s getting sneakier, or if Mama had meant for her to hear that conversation on purpose.
Tenzin refuses to speak to her the next time she visits Air Temple Island, so Lin wanders the grounds looking for Bumi instead. The last time she saw Bumi he was concocting a wild plan to steal Appa and go visit Uncle Zuko in the Fire Nation, but she doesn’t know if that’s actually happened yet. The last time Bumi tried to make Appa take him somewhere the flying bison just brought him straight back home.
Tenzin complains a lot about his brother and sister, but Lin’s always envied his large family. It’s just her and Mama at home, and she loves it that way, but she still wishes sometimes that she had a brother or a sister to play with the way Tenzin does. She’s always looked up to his older siblings especially in awed admiration. Tenzin always sighs in exasperation when Bumi shows up late to dinner, covered in dirt, but he always makes Lin giggle, and Kya’s like the older sister she never had. Still, Lin has never quite been boisterous enough to join in on all the big-kid adventures and scrapes that they get into. Besides, if she went with them she’d be leaving Tenzin behind, even if an “adventure” with Tenzin usually involves sneaking into Uncle Aang’s library and looking for new things to read. Today, though, Tenzin’s gone off without her, and Kya’s doing boring teenage stuff with her Water Tribe friends, so there’s nothing to do but keep looking for the Great Flying Bison Theif.
She eventually gives up on trying to find Bumi and wanders into Uncle Aang’s office. When Mama’s working in her office at home or at the police station she knows never to interrupt, but Uncle Aang never seems to be too busy for a visit, even when he’s got huge piles of paper stacked all over his desk. He can keep her giggling for hours with his airbending tricks, or his stories about when he and Mama and the rest of them were kids.
“Hi, Uncle Aang,” she says. He looks up with a smile.
“Hey there, Badgerlin,” he says, “You want to hang out here instead of with the kids today?”
“Yeah,” she says, “Can I look at that old book of riddles you’ve got in here?”
She sits in the corner and tries to solve the riddles, but her heart isn’t really in it. She finds herself staring out the window glumly, until she feels Uncle Aang put down his pen and come to sit down beside her.
“Why the long face, Badgerlin?” he asks, ruffling her hair. She looks down.
“Tenzin’s still mad at me,” she grumbles, “and I don’t what to do to make him forgive me.”
“Hmm,” he says, “did you try to talk to him?”
“I tried, but he wouldn’t even let me finish!” she says, “he just walked away again.”
Uncle Aang sighs and puts his arm around her.
“Well, Tenzin knows how important it is to forgive people, especially his friends,” he says, “but it might take him some time. Just be patient for a bit longer, Lin—he’ll come around.”
Lin sighs. Grown-ups and patience. They never understand.
There’s a tree on the edge of the temple grounds that Lin knows Tenzin goes to when he wants to be alone, or escape from his siblings. The branches are all so high up that Kya and Bumi can’t reach them, but Tenzin airbends himself to the top of the tree and reads his books between the leaves. She goes there now and sees him, high up in the branches, reading a book.
“Tenzin!” she shouts up, “Tenzin, come down!”
He doesn’t say anything in reply.
“Tenzin, if you don’t talk to me I’m going to come up and make you talk!”
“You can’t come up!” he shouts down, “You can’t reach up the branches.”
“Oh, yes I can,” she snaps, and she earthbends the ground under her to give herself a boost to the lowest-hanging branch. From there it’s slow going, because the branches are still few and far between. But she is going to climb the tree, because it’s Tenzin, and she wants them to be friends again.
She finally gets to the top, where he’s leaning up against the tree trunk. She sits on a nearby branch, looks at him expectantly.
“You fought with those boys,” he says, not looking up from his book, “and you called me a stupidhead.”
“You were being a stupidhead,” Lin says petulantly, “why were you letting them say those things about you? I had to do something, otherwise they were going to—”
“I can help myself, Lin!” he exclaims, slamming his book shut, “I don’t need you to fight for me, especially about something that didn’t need to be a fight! I didn’t like that they were saying all those things, but I was trying to be calm and peaceful like airbenders are supposed to be. And I was fine, it wasn’t a big deal, but then you had to go and make it a big deal and beat them up like that...”
“I’m sorry, okay?” she says, “I wouldn’t have done it if I knew it would upset you so much. I just…it is a big deal. I hated that they were being so mean to you. You’re my friend, Tenzin. You’re my best friend. I don’t want anyone being mean to you, not ever. And I didn’t know another way to make them stop.”
He’s silent for awhile.
“I probably would have gotten that mad, too, if they were saying those things about you,” he says, looking at her a little guiltily. “Except, I don’t think airbending would have been as good as tying them up with metal.”
She scoffs. “Oh, please. You could have just blasted them into the sky and be fine.”
He smiles a little, at that.
“I really am sorry, Tenzin,” she says.
“I’m sorry, too,” he says, “I shouldn’t have been so mad.”
She reaches out and punches him on the arm affectionately.
“What was that for?” he squawks.
“That’s a good punch, goof,” she says. “Friends?”
“Friends forever,” he says solemnly. She looks at him, but they’re both distracted by the huge shadow that suddenly looms above them and a loud “WAAHOOOOOO!”
“Hey!” she cried, “Bumi did it! He got Appa away!”
“What?” Tenzin exclaims, scrambling to look up above them. “He promised he wouldn’t leave without me for this one!”
“Why else do you think I’m stopping here, Tenzin?” Bumi yells from up above, “I know even you wouldn’t miss out on the Bison Express!”
Lin grins. She knows they’re going to get in so much trouble for this, but if Tenzin’s along for the ride, it’s hard for her to care.