All of the Bei Fongs were good at keeping grudges. It was perhaps the one way in which Toph was most like her father. For a long time, it was the thing that Lin and Suyin had most in common.
Suyin had a lot of time to think about her relationship with her family while she was stuck in Gaoling. As soon as she arrived, she understood why her mother had sent her here. There was absolutely no trouble to be found in the sleepy city. She could have sneaked out and won at Earth Rumble, but that held no appeal since her mother had done it before. Her grandparents were kind but smothering. And they never talked about Toph at all. They never talked about why Suyin had come to live with them, or about her sister, or... most things, really. It wasn't polite, her grandmother said sharply, the one time she dared to whine about her mother's treatment of her.
Poppy wanted her to be a painted doll, someone she could show off to the other grandmothers she knew -- a success story. Su was anger and elbows. She had always been more interested in fashion than her sister, but that wasn't saying much. She let her grandma dress her up a few times and visited with the other young ladies, but they'd all known each other since childhood, and she was little more than a curiosity.
She had a lot of time to stew over her mother's overreaction and her sister's betrayal. Sometimes she thought her frustration would overwhelm her. Her grandparents just kept making tea and pretending that the past thirty years hadn't happened, and that their perfect daughter had returned to them, this time with working eyes.
Su looked down the road and planned her escape.
When Su left for Gaoling, it was like an enormous hole opened up between Lin and Toph. Lin hadn't always agreed with her mother's decisions, or enjoyed her mother's foibles, but she had trusted her completely. But no matter how much Lin considered the way that Su's arrest had been handled, she couldn't agree with it. Toph refused to talk about it. If Lin pushed the subject, Toph left the room, or even the house. And no matter how good Lin was, she could never catch up with her mother if she didn't want to be found.
Lin huffed in frustration, blowing her bangs out of her face. Tenzin patted her head in a way that managed to be awkward and endearing. They were still learning how to move around each other in this brand new relationship. Lin's head was in Tenzin's lap. They were on the roof of Lin's new apartment, trying to enjoy a summer breeze, but Lin just couldn't stop thinking.
The dating had been going on for two months. Lin had finished moving out that morning. When she'd announced her intention to do so, her mom had slapped her on the back and congratulated her on achieving independence.
"Don't get pregnant unless you want to," Toph had advised, "but have fun. Live a little. Take a couple days off work. If you need help with the stuff, borrow a couple of the guys, they won't mind."
"And that's it!" Lin said, raising her fist to the wind. "Nothing about Su, nothing about the fight we had last week. She congratulated me!"
Tenzin bit his lip. "Your mom isn't very good with feelings," he said. "You know that."
Lin drummed her feet on the ground in frustration. "I know," Lin said. "I know. I'm not -- well, you know. Not great at talking about them either. But she just pretends that nothing ever happened. My sister is halfway across the Earth Kingdom over nothing and I am never going to be able to hide this after that nothing."
She reached up and brushed the scars on her cheek, still angry red months later (and darker when she got upset). Tenzin put his hand over hers and folded their fingers together.
"Give it some time," Tenzin said. "My dad says that you have to forgive people or it blocks your chakras. You can't let something like that tie you to the ground."
"The ground loves me," Lin mumbled, throwing her arm over her eyes.
"So do I," Tenzin said, sounding pleased, and Lin smiled.
Suyin didn't write. Her mother wouldn't have been able to read it and she was sure Lin wouldn't have bothered. Anyway, she was too busy. She crossed the Earth Kingdom with a pack on her back, exploring everywhere. How was it in sixteen years she'd never seen half of it? She'd spent more time in the Fire Nation or the Southern Water Tribe than she had in her own country. And she had loved being there with her mother's friends, her aunts and uncles if not by blood, but she didn't want family right now. She wanted to find her own way.
On the edge of the Si Wong Desert, Su started drinking with a group of sandbenders and by the time the evening was over, she'd agreed to travel with them. She was still cleaning sand out of her pack months later when she met up with the circus and learned how to trust the air like she used to trust the ground. She spent a few weeks here, a few weeks there, but always eventually felt the urge to have new dirt beneath her feet again. Or rock, or water. Something new.
Sometimes she thought about pointing her feet back in the direction of Republic City. She slept outside some nights with a little hole in her earth tepee so she could see the stars, and she dreamed about walking into the police station again, uncuffed, all of the officers silent with awe around her. They would be able to sense the person she'd become and how amazing it was, and they would understand immediately that her mother had made an enormous mistake by sending her away. Lin would be so jealous that she'd slam a fist through her own desk.
She couldn't convince herself to go back, even with the elaborate fantasy to spur her on; she knew it wouldn't ever be real. If she went home, Mom would pretend she hadn't missed her, and Lin would still be mad about the botched arrest, and Su would drown in frustration even faster than she had in Gaoling.
She always got up early the next morning and started walking again.
Lin understood that the morning meeting was necessary. It was important to share all of the new cases that had come in overnight, and any developments on old ones. But mostly, it was really, really boring, and she had to pay attention and be a good example for the rookies, so she couldn't even yawn. Too much, anyway. But she really wished that Yan would get to the point.
Especially because she was pretty sure her mother was going to start snoring any minute. She leaned over and elbowed her. Toph started and snorted. Then she wiped her nose with her arm and said, "Yeah, that's it."
She stood up.
"What?" Yan said, uncertainly.
"Not you," she said, "but you should have shut up ten minutes ago. No, I mean, that's it. I'm done. I'm retired. Take over the meeting, Lin."
She left the room, which was now silent. As the door swung shut behind her, Lin got up from her chair so quickly that it clattered to the ground behind her.
"Meeting's over," she said, chasing after her mother.
Toph hadn't gotten far. She wasn't in any hurry, clearly. She'd gone into her office and had started picking up the things on her desk and running her fingers over them.
"What did you mean?" Lin asked, shutting the door behind her.
"Uh, exactly what I said. I'm tired of being the chief of police," Toph said. Her fingers massaged at the black rock in her palm -- the current incarnation of her space bracelet. She sighed. Lin wondered if Toph was thinking about Sokka right now. He had retired a couple of years ago and sent regular missives back to Republic City talking about the fun little things he was inventing in his free time, or traditional Southern Water Tribe poetry, which had become a hobby of his. Suki seemed happier too, now that they didn't spend half a year apart when she needed to be in Kyoshi.
"So what, you're just going to run away now?" Lin said, and she didn't realize how much her voice was rising until her mother tossed down the bracelet, slammed the door in her desk, and crossed her arms. She didn't bother to face Lin when she talked. Normally that didn't bother Lin, since she knew her mother wasn't trying to be rude or dismissive, but she didn't like staring at her mother's back, realizing that the streaks of gray had become more than streaks, and had begun to whiten a little around the edges.
"Is that what you think?" Toph snapped. "I gave forty years of my life to protecting this city, and because I don't intend to die in it, I'm running away?"
Lin was silent. That wasn't what she had meant, not really, but she didn't know how to take it back.
"I think I deserve a break," Toph said, after a moment. She sighed. "Maybe should have taken more of them when they mattered. I need to get my feet back in the dirt. Enough of the metal. Back to basics."
"The Earth King is supposed to be here in a week," Lin said. She had coordinated most of the plans for his visit, of course, but surely Toph didn't intend to leave before the arrival of an important dignitary.
"Good," Toph said, stretching until her shoulderblades made a cracking noise. "I get to miss all the pomp and speeches. Aah! I feel ten years younger already."
"So you're really doing this," Lin said.
"Have done it. Am done. You play chief for a while, see how much you like it."
With that, she left -- the last founder of Republic City gone without a second glance. Lin didn't chase her, even though she wanted to; there was just too much to do.
Su wasn't looking for a place to stop until she found it. She was traveling alone, having parted ways pleasantly with a group of friends a few days back, in order to explore the clean and beautiful territory ahead of her. It was sparsely settled and she mostly walked on animal paths through the forests until she came to the confluence of three rivers. They were clean and beautiful and perfect, and she'd never felt so at peace.
She moved on, but she came back again and again and eventually decided she had to stay. She dreamed of lotus blossoms on a still pool and hired an architect, picking him half because of the gentleness in his eyes. And by the time she was ready to give birth to their first child, the first compound of Zaofu had been built, the silver-white metal rising out of the forest like a promise to herself.
Bataar rubbed her feet in the evening. Su thought she had never been this happy to come home every day. She began to dance, and she'd never felt so graceful.
Two months after Bataar Jr. was born, Toph walked into the seed of Suyin's city.
Zaofu wouldn't have lasted if Su hadn't learned how to forgive-- how to not care so much about the small stuff, and more about the big picture. A city needed people. It had started with her, an architect, and a dream, but an architect needs builders and a dancer needs musicians, and people were finding her, a few each week who wanted to make their home here. She felt like a mother to them all.
She wasn't sure how to feel about Toph being here. She hadn't imagined her own mother in her little utopia. She was sure that Toph would find a way to find fault in it, or tease her, or scold her about running away.
"Not bad," Toph said, leaning against one of the gently curved arches around her garden. "A little gaudy, but there's still plenty of dirt. I could get used to it."
"You could stay a while," Su said. She'd heard that her mother had retired, because news that big did travel to Zaofu, eventually. Her sister was the chief of police now, already garnering attention for her relentless pursuit of local gangs.
"I should, since you're the reason I've gotten so wrinkly," Toph said, stretching out the skin of her face between her fingers and sticking her tongue out at her daughter.
"Hey now!" Su said, in mock protest.
It wasn't quite as easy as that -- they had a new relationship to fit into, and neither one of them were famed for their patience.
But it was a start.
"Chief, you've got a letter," the sergeant said.
"What?" Lin said, pausing. The other woman thumbed in the direction of Lin's office.
"A personal letter," she said. "It looked important so I thought I'd tell you."
It wasn't as if the letter would have gotten lost on Lin's otherwise bare desk, but the sergeant seemed uneasy, and that made Lin uneasy as well. She swept into the office and shut the door behind her, a bit annoyed. Why was someone sending her mail to the police station? Was this supposed to be funny? She had a life, she had an apartment, and who would be sending her mail, anyway?
She didn't recognize the handwriting on the envelope, which was small and neat. She opened it. She did recognize the handwriting on the letter inside.
Lin, the letter said, Please don't throw this letter away.
Lin tossed the letter into the wastebasket and then punched the metal mesh for good measure.
Fifteen years and now her sister wanted to be friends again? Fifteen years of silence? Lin had heard what she was doing, of course. The gossip was always fresh in Republic City, and Lin kept her ear to the ground. She was building her own city in the middle of the Earth Kingdom. Lin supposed that it would be easier to avoid being arrested if Su ran the city herself.
She sat down in her desk chair, her armor heavy on her like it was the end of her shift instead of the beginning. She'd had a late night yesterday, awake too late with a bottle of wine and a favorite book. This didn't improve her mood.
Someone banged on the office door hard.
"Chief!" they shouted through the wood. "Chief, we've got trouble!"
The long day grew longer. She met the new Avatar, who was nothing like her predecessor, but that was what the world was coming to, these days. She had to talk to Tenzin, which still made her feel like there was gravel scraping at her insides. She longed for the opportunity to go home and read the next chapter, to lose herself in someone else's life.
She didn't even remember the letter until the sweeper came in that next week and emptied the trashcan for her. She was glad she didn't have to think about it any longer. She had priorities.
They didn't include her family -- not anymore.
Lin had thought maybe her mother would visit, at least occasionally, but Toph Bei Fong didn't come back ever. She didn't come back when Lin lost her long-term relationship and thought she'd never fall in love again; she didn't come when Lin lost her earthbending, which felt like suffocating slowly. Lin understood the message. She was on her own now.
She pitched her sister's letters and fought revolutionaries and dictators and politicians (all the same thing).
"Why didn't you tell me you had a sister?" Korra asked.
"I don't," Lin said.
It wasn't just the acupuncture that made Lin change her mind about Suyin. It wasn't just Opal, or Korra, or anyone else.
It was realizing that she wanted to change. Not that she needed to, but that she wanted to reach out again. She could have turned her back once the crisis was over and gone back to her comfortable life, to her challenging job and her close friends and the warm silence in her apartment on Sunday afternoons. But she didn't want to. She had made Tenzin into a friend again -- a friend that she had dearly missed. She wanted to take another opportunity.
She'd thrown away so many letters. Her mother had shared with her the information that she'd wanted most as a child, and now, she didn't even care. Even if she were able to find the man, if he was still alive, he'd had no part in raising her.
Her mother had, and her sister too. They had helped make her into the person she was today, whether or not they wanted to take responsibility for that. And she had done the same for both of them.
"You should visit," Lin said. They were sitting on one end of Su's ridiculously large table; her sister did nothing by halves. Lin cleared her throat and continued. "Republic City. It's changed a lot since you left."
"Yeah," Toph said, her elbows on her knees, her back slouched. She ticked her points off on her fingers. "It's dirtier, more dangerous, and louder. Great vacation spot!"
"Mom, you live in a swamp," Lin pointed out, and Su laughed.
"I bet a lot of my old haunts aren't there anymore," Su said, with a nostalgic look.
"Not many," Lin agreed. "When Korra opened the spirit portals, a lot changed in the city. Some of it... probably for the better."
"I think I'd like to see that," Suyin said. Lin lifted a hand to her scarred cheek, and then let her fingers drop. She hardly felt the raised edges anymore.
"I bet Katara would be surprised to see you," Lin continued, looking at her mother.
"Don't push it," Toph said, and she picked something out of her teeth. Her daughters waited until she finished. "It might be nice to see my grandkids beat her grandkids, though. I bet that'd be a good fight."
"Mom!" Lin and Suyin said together, and Toph laughed, clutching at her stomach in amusement.
"I'd bet on Opal any day," Suyin said proudly, and Lin raised her glass in salute.
They had a lot of catching up to do.