Author's Notes: They say to write what you want to read. After not being able to find any satisfactory Bolin romance fics, especially in the BolinxOC department, I started working on one myself. I have been picking at this short fic for years. It's really just a guilty pleasure story. Something I work on when I've got the LOK feels or I'm just having a bad day and want to write something fluffy. Since it's Valentine's Day, I thought I finally had enough of this written to post. Enjoy.
Chapter One: The Stag
"You know what you need, Bolin?" Varrick said, standing way too close to the earthbender's face. "You need to go swim naked in a spirit pool. That will do the trick!"
Bolin stared at his employer. "...What?"
The animated businessman stood back, looking very proud of his suggestion. "Sure, all the kids are doing it these days. Go on a spirit quest, er... soul journey? Well, whatever it is you call it, you go to the spirit world and skinny-dip in their pool to make a whole new you."
Bolin just blinked at him, having no idea what Varrick was talking about.
Seeing he wasn't quite presenting his case, Varrick snapped his fingers. "Zhu Li, show him the thing."
Like magic, the lovely Zhu Li, Varrick's wife of now nine years, appeared next to Bolin and handed him a small book.
"The Adventurer's Guide to the Spirit World," Bolin read aloud. Upon further examination, he found the author of said book was very familiar. "Tenzen's brother Bumi wrote this! You can't believe everything that dude says."
"All the spirit world fanatics swear by it," Varrick insisted. "He lived on the other side for three years, mapping out the terrain and noting all the must-visit places. Including this: Zhu Li, the page."
Without even looking, the indefatigable Zhu Li opened the book in Bolin's hands to the correct page.
"The cleansing pool," Bolin read again.
"Right! People will visit this pool when they want a brand new start at life! When you bathe in this pool, it cleanses you, body and spirit. You come out feeling like a new person. They say it's the closest thing you can get to a second birth. Zhu Li and I have been talking, you need a vacation Bolin. You should go do this."
The earthbender raised a brow at them. "Why?"
"Look at you man!" Varrick said, gesturing wildly at him. "You need to do something! We're sick of seeing you mope around! It's been almost three years! Time to move on!"
That conversation had happened almost a week ago, and Bolin could not argue the point. He really did need to do something or he would be stuck in a rut of depression forever. As such, he now found himself in Republic City, the straight yellow spire of the spirit portal still going strong in the distance. It had been years since he had stepped foot in this town, the city where he grew up and spent his life as a young man.
After he and Opal married seven years ago, they moved to Zaofu to be close to her family. After the Kuvira incident, family was very important to his wife and Bolin couldn't blame her. He enjoyed their life in Zaofu; having large family dinners, the house filled with people. It was everything he had wished for as a child, despite the fact that it meant he didn't get to see his own extended family very often. Not even Makko, who now worked in Ba Sing Se for Wu, formerly prince of the earth kingdom, now part diplomat, part politician in the newly reformed government.
It was only after Bolin separated and then divorced from Opal that he, too, moved to Ba Sing Se where not only his brother lived, but all his extended family. And he loved it there. The Earth Kingdom capitol was a different city now. There were no more tiers separating the upper and lower classes, no more rank, darkened slums where the lowest citizens rotted away. While most big cities, including the new and improved Ba Sing Se, still knew some measure of poverty, it wasn't such a rampant problem as it used to be.
Now, at age 29, Bolin had been divorced for nearly three years, and Varrick was right that he had been moping about it ever since. Though they had both agreed the marriage wasn't working and it was time to part ways, his heart never recovered from it. He couldn't stop wondering if he should have tried harder, held on a little longer, even though he knew it would have just extended the misery they both put upon each other. However, after the divorce was finalized, Bolin just went from one misery to the other. And this one, the one of heartbreak and loneliness, he did not allow himself to recover from.
Varrick was right. He did need this vacation. He needed to do something to cut away from this funk. He needed to accept that the chapter of his life with Opal was over. She had already moved on and let herself be happy again. It was time he did the same. If that meant swimming in this spirit world pool, then so be it.
With Pabu riding his shoulder, Bolin neared the brilliant portal to the spirit world, Bumi's guide tucked in his jacket pocket. With the spirit portal now a staple part of Republic City for almost a decade, the city had changed to make it a part of their world.
These days, the spirit world was treated much like a national park. People were allowed to come in and out as they pleased for day trips. Anyone who wanted to stay the night had to obtain a permit and camp in certain areas. The officers tasked with paroling the "park" were very persnickety about visitors leaving any clutter or trash in the spirit world. Anyone caught littering would receive a hefty fine. Just like any park, there were several areas designated for tourists: special trails and places where one could eat if they wanted to bring a lunch. Also like any park, if one strayed from the familiar areas, there was always a chance of getting hurt or lost. Both have happened to visiting adventurers over the years who thought they were brave enough to explore the greater wilds of the spirit world.
Bolin as well had no intention of staying on the normal paths. To find this so-called cleansing pool, according to the guide, one had to wish to find it and venture into the wilds alone. Thus, he picked a direction that looked good, casually put his hands in his pockets and stepped forward into the bushes.
He continued deep into the thick of the spirit forests, walking in a straight line with lack of any other direction. At one point, Pabu jumped to the ground to wander around and smell everything.
"Stick around, old man," Bolin warned. "I don't want to have to look for both this stupid pool and you."
The fire ferret seemed to pause to consider this. He wasn't as young as he used to be. These days Pabu ran out of energy sooner and slept more often. There was a little bit of gray to his muzzle. But his eyes and mind remained bright and he was still as curious as ever. He twitched his whiskers and promptly jumped into a thick fern—only to scramble out a second later as a swarm of small multicolored buzzing spirits came out after him.
Pabu scrambled up his master's pant leg where he then chittered angrily at the spirits from Bolin's shoulder. The earthbender laughed; something he hadn't done in a long time, and it felt good.
"Sorry guys." Bolin bowed in apology to the tiny buzzing spirits. "He's never had very good manners. We didn't meant to disturb you."
The spirits seemed to accept the apology and moved on their way. Pabu kept his place on Bolin's shoulder after that.
After several miles of hiking through thick foliage, they finally happened upon a clearing. Bolin hoped this would be the end of his search, but there was no pool. Just a wide area full of soft aquamarine grass swaying in the breeze. Still, it wasn't a bad find and he took a moment to close his eyes and feel the warm sun and smell the sweet, wild air.
When he opened them, something glittered in the light. His heart froze. It was huge. A great spirit beast stood across the meadow, watching him. Its form was similar to that of a large silver stag, fur glittering like metal in the light. Wide hooves attached to long, slender but powerful legs; a barrel-like body and thick neck. The snout was pushed in, eyes far apart with an uncanny quality that made Bolin shiver to look it in the face. Great, hulking horns sprouted from the creature's head, adorned in thick green moss and wild flowers.
Despite all attempts on Bolin's part to avoid it, their gazes locked and he swore he could hear the creature speak to him in his mind.
The pull was magnetic. Like trapped in a spell, Bolin lost all ability to decline. The stag took off into the trees and Bolin shot off after it, Pabu digging in his claws to hang on.
The chase was exhilarating. Flashes of shadow and light splashed his face as Bolin ran through the trees and the brush, the stag always ahead, silver fur winking in and out. The grand antlers never seemed to catch on a single branch. Bolin pushed harder, faster, chasing blindly and thrilling at his own speed. Though no longer a kid, he still kept himself in top physical condition. He was fast and strong as he bounded through the forest, like a wild animal himself.
The stag leaped through a thicket of trees and out of sight. Bolin plowed forward to catch it and burst into another clearing. Glancing wildly around, he found that the spirit creature had disappeared, leaving no trace or sound to where it had gone. What he did find, however, was a limpid pool whose water seemed to glow with a light all its own. At first glance, he had no doubt where he was.
"I found it," Bolin whispered, hardly making a sound. That spirit had shown him the way. It knew what he was looking for, what he needed, and it guided him safely through the forest. Now suddenly humbled, he bowed to the silent forest, his voice still quiet, reverent. "Thank you."
With careful approach, Bolin stood at the lip of the pool, cautiously looking in. The water was clear and he could see down to the bottom. The phosphorescent rocks within gave the water an unearthly glow.
At the same time, if he turned his head just so, he could see his reflection in the glass-like surface. He compared the man he saw to the one from his youth. The eyes weren't as bright. They seemed more tired these days. He no longer slicked back his hair like some street-alley hoodlum. A few dark strands fell over his forehead, the rest was swept back with a windblown look. In the face he saw, Bolin met the truth of himself.
You don't look happy, Bolin. You haven't looked happy in a long time.
For not the first time, perhaps not even the hundredth, Bolin thought back on his four-year marriage and all the reasons it went wrong. There were the small things: the constant argument over whether Pabu was allowed on their bed. Or, every time Bolin wanted to go to Ba Sing Se to visit his family, Opal never wanted to go. And when he offered to go alone for a few days, she would get irritated that he was leaving her behind.
Then, there were the bigger things: the constant give and take Opal insisted on every day of their marriage. Everything was a barter to her, a trade. Always giving one thing for another, and nothing ever came for free. A horrible, damaging system established early in their relationship that day she asked him to come with her to save her family from Kuvira.
She had told him that in exchange for helping her free her family, she would give him another chance. Warning bells had gone off in Bolin's head, but he was too excited at the prospect of getting back with her to pay them any mind. He should have taken a moment to think, to talk to her and explain that she never had to barter with him like that. Even afterward, when everyone was safe, he should have said something. But he stupidly never did. Not even as she was leaving him after four years of a rocky marriage.
Oh, Opal, didn't you see? I loved you. I would have helped you anyway, no strings attached. I would still do anything for you without expecting anything in return. All you have to do is ask.
But even that wasn't the main reason their marriage fell apart.
Bolin's internal pity party was interrupted as Pabu jumped to the ground with a curious chirrup and scampered off around the large boulders nesting on the far side of the pool.
"Pabu," Bolin complained. "Leave those spirits alone."
He was answered with another ferrety chirp, the sound of claws scrambling on stone, and then a very non-spirit-like squeal of surprise. A woman ran out from behind the boulders, Pabu nipping playfully at her heels as if it were some sort of game. She fled blindly from the animal, running right into Bolin as he caught her. Only then, when his arms were around her, holding her to his chest, did he realize that all he saw, all he felt, was sun-tanned skin.
She was naked!
The woman instantly realized this, too. She let out another squawk and shoved away from him. In her haste to escape, she tripped and fell, skidding on the rocks and dirt before jumping back up again and scrambling back behind the boulders where she had been earlier.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" her plaintive voice demanded from behind the rocks.
"Uh, sorry!" Bolin floundered. "I didn't realize someone else was here. Um... are you okay? You didn't get... robbed or anything, did you?"
"No," came a quiet voice, so soft it gave him goosebumps. "I was going to get in the pool. It's cleansing, but you're supposed to take off all your clothes and-"
"Right, right," Bolin cut her off as he referred to his spirit world guide. "That's what it says in the book here. I was looking for the pool, too. I didn't know how to find it, but I followed this silver stag-"
"Silver stag?" the woman's head popped up, they locked eyes for a split second and then she dropped back behind the rocks.
"Uh yeah... at least, it's fur looked silver in the light."
"With antlers adorned with moss and flowers?"
"Oh, you saw it, too?"
"No," the woman's voice said. "But I know of this spirit. He must have led you to the pool for a reason."
"But I guess he didn't know it wasn't my turn yet," Bolin joked. "I'm sorry I showed up early."
A sun-kissed arm poked out from behind the boulder, pointing to a pile of clothes folded on a rock. Bolin hadn't noticed them there before. "Could you please hand me my clothes?"
"Right, sorry. Here." Carefully, he stretched out, looking away as she snatched the materials from his grasp.
A few moments later she stepped out, wrapped in dusty robes that were old and threadbare, her brown hair was pulled up in a bun on her head in preparation for getting wet. Understandably, she had a hard time looking him in the face. The pink tint on her cheeks made her look lovely.
"Are you okay?" Bolin spoke. "I saw you fall. I mean- I wasn't trying to look but I saw everything. No, not everything... yeah, I kinda saw everything. But I wasn't-" He cut himself off as the woman hid her face in her hands, mortified.
"Look," Bolin tried again. Being once married, it wasn't the first time in his life seeing a naked woman. It wasn't that big of a deal, he could weather this. "Clearly, you were here first. I'll let you have your turn and I'll come back later, okay?"
Her face shot up to stare at him. Bolin noticed her eyes were the color of melted chocolate. "No, the stag brought you here. He led you here for a reason. He wants you to do this. And maybe he was also telling me that it's not yet my time. I'll leave and come back later. I think that's what the spirit wants."
"You sure? I really don't mind."
"Yes." She looked down again. "I'm sorry, I'm sure you're a nice person, but I don't really feel comfortable getting in right now anyway. I can come back."
"Right, right. I can understand. Sorry again." He really didn't want her to go.
She bowed politely and all but fled the clearing.
"My name's Bolin, by the way," he called after her.
She was already gone.
Bolin sighed, feeling stupid and useless. Pabu sat at his feet and chirped at him. He crouched down so they were eye to eye. "Pabu, my wing man, as great as it sounds in theory to chase naked women into my arms, it's not really the best way to meet girls, you know what I mean?"
The furry creature cocked his head at him.
"Nevermind," Bolin sighed. "Let's get this over with."
Without ceremony, he disrobed and stepped into the water. He expected it to be cold, but it was luke warm. As he went in up to his shoulders, Bolin swore he could feel a kind of power radiating so very gently in the water. It was soothing, but cleansing? He wasn't sure about that. He didn't feel like a new man, he just felt wet.
Glancing over to his furry companion, Pabu watched silently, perched on a rock. Guess I gotta go in all the way, Bolin thought. With a deep breath, he submerged himself. Beneath the surface, he hung suspended in the water, eyes closed. It was so silent down here. The weak greenish-blue glow of the rocks seemed to permeate his eyelids and he opened them to find that the bottom of the pool had disappeared. All around him was that gentle glow; but no rocks, nothing of substance all around him.
Strangely, Bolin didn't care. He no longer felt the need to breathe. His thoughts drifted to Opal. His heart still hurt when he thought of her, but he was tired of the pain. He was ready for it to heal, ready to move on. He thought he had moved on until he heard news about her. How everything was different for her now, how she was so happy; and his heart had ripped open anew.
It was me. Everything was wrong with me after all. I was the reason it all fell apart.
Opal deserved better. She had found better, she was happy now. Bolin could live with that. At least, that's what he kept telling himself. As long as she was happy, he would be content. But his heart still ached.
Just make this pain go away, that's all I want, just the pain to get better.
Yet, he continued to torture himself, thinking of her eyes, her smile. The way her body felt when he held her close. So soft and warm. Like that body he held in front of the pool: warm, alive, trembling. Then, Bolin thought of eyes the color of melted chocolate.
He awoke with quick inhale, eyes snapping open. Bolin lay on the bank next to the pool, his naked body exposed to the elements. It was now becoming dark and he had no recollection of leaving the water or how long he had been laying there.
He sat up quickly, glancing around for witnesses. Thankfully, he was alone. Hopefully, that girl hadn't come back while he was spread eagle in the nude on the ground. Or anyone else, for that matter.
"Pabu! You're supposed to keep an eye out! Why didn't you wake me up?"
The fire ferret, currently napping on a warm flat stone, opened an eye to him and then went back to sleep.
Grumbling, Bolin retrieved his clothes and they returned to the portal and Republic City.
"Hey, Bolin! Over here!"
As soon as he stepped into the old restaurant, Bolin heard his name and saw a tan skinned arm waving him over.
"Korra!" he called as she stood to greet him. "It's been too long!" The old friends embraced, Bolin picking her off the ground.
"Yeah," she agreed. "It's so good to see you. You need to come to Republic City more often. I keep telling you."
"Ha! Sorry, you know I like to keep busy." He set her down and the two took their seats.
"Who would have thought? Bolin, a workaholic," Korra teased. "I hope you don't mind, I already ordered for you. You were late and I'm starving. I'm pretty sure I remember what you like." She winked at him and Bolin grinned.
"Thanks, doll." He was a bit touched she remembered. It was the water tribe themed restaurant they went to on their first and only date. Bolin was glad the place was still in business. Hopefully the food was just as good as he remembered. "Sorry I was late. I... lost track of the time."
"Yeah, the spirit world will do that to you. You found the pool, right?"
"I sure did."
"How was it?"
Bolin paused to think about it. "Weird, I guess. Not what I thought."
"Do you feel... better?"
He gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know. But... I think I need to move on, pool or no pool. Opal already has, I should, too."
Korra reached over the table and patted his hand. "Good for you. You're in Republic City now. Let's just relax and have some fun. And eat as much as you like, my sugar mama is paying," she added with a smile and a wink.
Bolin smirked. "Does Asami know you call her that?"
"That and more," Korra grinned and Bolin laughed.
"Is Asami going to be eating with us? I miss her, too."
Korra sighed. "I don't know. She said she would if she could, but she's probably not. Future Industries has a major deadline coming up and she's been working long hours. Plus she doesn't care for the food here."
Bolin gasped dramatically.
"I know!" Korra laughed. "No accounting for taste anymore. The only time I can go here with someone is with you. So you need to come out and visit more!"
Bolin saluted. "Yes ma'am!" Then, it just so happened he glanced near the doorway and gasped again. "Oh crap, it's her!"
"Huh?" Korra asked, glancing behind her. "Opal?"
"No, not Opal," Bolin hissed as he tried to shrink behind the table. "I met her in the spirit world."
"Oh yeah?" Korra perked up, intrigued. "You two hit it off?"
"Um... not exactly."
But the avatar was already getting up and walking over. Bolin's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "Korra! Come back!"
A woman who appeared their age stood by the menu sign located at the front, reading the prices. It was a relatively cheap joint to begin with, but she was counting her coins to see if she had enough.
"Hi!" Korra greeted, getting in her face.
She jumped back a little at the sudden reception. "Um, hello."
"My friend and I noticed you standing out here. He says he knows you." She pointed into the restaurant where Bolin was making desperate slashing motions across his neck to signal Korra to stop.
The stranger recognized him instantly and her face flushed. "Oh um... that is..."
"You should come sit with us, the food here is great."
"I would love to but I'm afraid I don't have enough money on me to eat here..."
"No worries, I'm paying." Korra put a strong arm around the woman's thin shoulders and practically carried her inside and over to the table. Bolin was still slouching in his chair. He looked up at the woman in what he hoped was a helpless and apologetic expression.
"Have a seat!" Korra practically forced the stranger in the chair next to Bolin and then sat down with a proud smile on her face. "So, do you live here in Republic City?"
She tried hard not to look at Bolin, he was doing the same. "Um... just visiting."
"Oh? Just came to see the spirit world? I'm assuming that's where you two met."
Both flushed brighter.
"Uh, yeah," Bolin cut in. "We were both hunting for the same pool. How funny is that! She was kind enough to let me go first."
"Oh yeah? And what did you think of it?" the avatar asked.
The woman looked down at her hands. "I wasn't able to go. I got lost, I guess. I couldn't find the pool again before it got dark. I guess I'll have to try again tomorrow."
Bolin instantly felt bad. That was all his fault. Why was he so good and screwing things up for people?
"So you're staying at least for another day," Korra plotted. "You should come hang out with us tomorrow. We could show you the sights." Again, Bolin was motioning for her to shut up and she blatantly ignored it.
"By the way, what's your name?"
"It's Sanae. It's nice to meet you." She nodded politely.
"Hi Sanae. That's Bolin, of course. My name's Korra." A fire ferret's head suddenly popped out of Bolin's shirt. "And that's Pabu."
"Oh, how neat. You have the same name as our avatar."
Korra grinned wide.
"Um... she is the avatar," Bolin whispered.
Sanae paled, eyes wide as she started at the woman across the table. "Of course you are! How stupid of me!" She bowed low and quick in apology, only to hit her forehead on the table with a solid bang. "Oww..." As if she wasn't embarrassed enough already.
"Careful," Bolin said gently. "You can't keep beating yourself up." He touched her forehead lightly despite himself and Sanae blushed a little in return.
The avatar grinned as she watched them. "You two should have bathed together, that would have saved a lot of time."
The color drained from Sanae's face again.
"Korra!" Bolin admonished.
She laughed. "Sorry, sorry. Forgive me, Sanae. Bolin's been single for so long, I can't help but tease him."
"Yeah, sorry my friend's so heartless," Bolin glared with an irritated tone.
Sanae actually smiled at that. "I think you are lucky to have such a good friend."
Korra pointed at her as two bowls were delivered to their table. "Darn right he is. Waiter, one more order of noodles, please."
They talked more as they ate- mostly Korra and Bolin, catching up with each other and on the latest gossip on those they knew. Sanae seemed to grow comfortable in their presence, though she ate like she hadn't had a meal all day. Bolin couldn't help but watch her. He always liked to see a girl with a healthy appetite.
Korra watched them both. The girl was cute enough. A little too soft spoken, but maybe she was just shy around new people. Usually, Bolin seemed to always fall for the headstrong type of girl and none of those relationships worked out. Maybe it was time for someone different.
"So, Sanae," she said, turning the discussion over to the newcomer. "Where are you from?"
"A small village in the earth kingdom, very far from here."
"Pretty long way, huh?"
"Several day's journey, yes."
"So what brings you to Republic City? Certainly you didn't come all this way just for a bath."
Sanae looked down self-consciously. "Actually, I did. They say if you bathe in its water, it will cleanse your body and soul. It will give you a fresh start. That's what I wanted, a fresh start." She continued, talking quicker. "I know it sounds silly, but it's something I wanted to do. Hopefully I can get there first thing in the morning and find the pool."
"What about tonight? Where are you staying?"
"Oh, I haven't made any arrangements, I... don't really have a lot of money. My time line got a little derailed after today."
Korra slapped her palms on the table. "You're staying with us then, it's settled."
Sanae stared at her in horror. Bolin quietly asked the powers that be how he ended up with such a friend.
"Here we are," Korra announced as they walked through the front door of a grand mansion.
Asami was already half way across the room to greet them. "Hey babe," she said as she kissed Korra's cheek. She then moved to give Bolin a hug, making a noise of approval when he swept her up in his embrace. Asami stood back to appraise his appearance. "Look at you. It's so good to see you. Look how big you are." She felt his impressive biceps appreciatively.
"Heh, yeah. Had to do something with myself these past few years." Bolin hadn't been in the pro bending circuit since he was twenty. After he got married, his muscle mass began to decline in the wake of keeping a real job and other adult duties. After his divorce, he found lifting weights and keeping in shape was one of the few things he still enjoyed. As such, he was carrying quite an impressive bulk these days.
"And, is this your girlfriend, Bolin?" Asami asked when she noticed the shy woman behind them.
"Woah! No, no!" Bolin gestured frantically. "She's just a girl who's a friend. I mean- maybe we're not even friends. I just met her today."
Asami's brows knitted. She didn't like the idea of them dragging a stranger into her home.
"She didn't have anywhere else to stay," Korra insisted.
Sanae bowed low at Asami's disapproving expression. "I'm sorry for this, I tried to decline. The avatar is a difficult person to refuse."
Asami gave a huff and her expression lightened. "Don't I know it."
"Asami, why don't you show Sanae to a guest bedroom," Korra suggested. "I'm going to have a little talk with my good friend Bolin." She emphasized those last few words with solid slaps on the man's back. Bolin looked like he was not going to enjoy this conversation.
The woman identified as Sanae didn't seem too comfortable with it either. But Asami knew there was no arguing with the avatar when she set her mind to something.
"Sure, come on. Let me show you the bedroom and where you can take a bath." The stranger was eager to follow and leave the room as Asami led the way.
Bolin watched them go, already missing the soft presence that had been standing next to him.
Korra grinned slyly. "You are too funny, Bolin."
"What? What did I do?" he demanded.
"I swear, you will never stop falling for the first girl you see. First me, then Eska, then Opal. You're so hopeless when it comes to pretty girls."
"She is kinda pretty, isn't she?" Bolin said, then nearly slapped himself. "No! I can't do this again, Korra, I can't."
"Why not? It's time to find someone new, Bolin. It's time to be happy again. Opal moved on long ago. In fact, I even heard that she's-"
"I know what you heard," Bolin cut her off sharply and Korra was taken off guard by the emotion in his voice. "But did you ever consider the reason all my relationships fail is because of me?"
Korra huffed. "Bolin, that's ridiculous."
"Is it? Really, Korra? I'm the only constant in all those relationships. How could it not be my fault?"
She put a hand on his shoulder. "Why? Because you're a good person. You're funny and caring and loyal. And any girl should feel lucky to have you, that's why."
She was rewarded with a small smile. "Thanks, Korra. Though I would appreciate- I just met this girl today and I sort of terrified the life out of her when we ran into each other. So maybe could you not push so hard? If something happens, it happens. If not, that's fine, too. Yeah?"
The avatar nodded. "Okay, Bolin. Just remember, no matter what happens, you always have Asami and me."
Bolin hugged her and she happily accepted the embrace. "Thanks, Korra."
Sanae stared in awe at the lavish bedroom splayed before her eyes. It had a bed. A real bed. It had been days since she had slept in a real bed. She couldn't help but wander over to touch it, entranced with the idea of letting her body sink into the softness.
Asami opened the window to let the room air out. "Sorry the place is a little stale, we were expecting to use only one guest room."
"No, this is fine. Thank you so much for your hospitality. I promise I'll be out by dawn, I just needed a place to sleep."
Asami waved her off. "Don't worry about it. You're Bolin's friend and Korra seems to like you, too. You're welcome here." She turned to the closet and dug through the linens. "If those sheets smell dusty, I've got some fresh ones here. I think there's some towels as well. I can show you where the bathroom is if you'd like to take a bath-"
She turned around to find Sanae passed out on the bed, dead asleep. Asami took a moment to look the guest over, taking in her threadbare clothes and shoes whose soles were worn nearly all the way through. In the end, Asami was glad Korra had invited the poor girl home. She looked like she needed a little kindness.
Silently, Asami draped an extra blanket over the sleeping body and closed the door behind her. She returned to the living room where Bolin and Korra were talking and laughing on the couch. Korra was doing most of the laughing.
"Hey Asami! You gotta hear how Bolin met this girl! It's hilarious!"
"Korra!" Bolin whined. "You said you wouldn't tell!"
Asami grinned. It was good to have Bolin back.
Sanae breathed in deep, feeling like she was in heaven. Everything around her was soft and warm. It felt as though she hadn't been warm for weeks. Then her heart thudded unbidden in her chest. She didn't have time to be warm, there were things she needed to do.
She shot up in bed, glancing in horror at the sunlight already filtering through the window. What time was it? She promised she would be out by dawn! In a panic, she flung herself out of bed, only to be caught up in the blankets and falling flat on her face. She wrestled on the floor, trying to kick her way free. In the middle of her battle, the bedroom door opened.
Asami stood over her. "Good morning sleepy head. You really needed a good rest, didn't you?"
"I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to sleep in." She continued to try to worm her way out of the blankets. "I'll be leaving right now."
"No you're not," Asami announced. "You're going to take a bath and then we're throwing out these rags and getting you some clothes that don't have holes in them."
"Oh no, you don't have to do that. I'm fine, really."
Asami pointed a stern finger across the hall. "Get into the bathroom."
Sanae winced at the order and crawled where she was directed, dragging the blanket with her.
Sanae felt bad all over again when she got into the tub and realized how much she must have stunk from her several days' journey. How rude of her to sleep on her host's lovely bed while she was still so filthy. Once again determined to leave as soon as possible for the sake of those being so kind to her, she quickly scrubbed herself, washed her hair and climbed out.
A new set of clothes was waiting for her on a chair: a beautiful silky aquamarine shirt and tight white pants that ended just below her knee. The beautiful slip-on shoes that matched her shirt almost made her cry. These clothes were too nice for her. She couldn't travel with these. They would be ruined far too fast.
With intent to ask for her old clothes back, Sanae ventured into the hall. Asami seemed to have been waiting for her.
"Oh good, you're dressed. You hungry?"
"Um, no," she said softly, though she was, in truth, starving. "If I could just get my old clothes, I'll be out of your way."
"Can't," Asami said with a flip of her hair. "I burned them."
"Wh-why?" Sanae squeaked out. "I- I can't take these clothes, they're too nice."
She was ignored as Asami grabbed her wrist and dragged her off to the dinning room. Once placed in an empty chair before a large breakfast spread, Sanae tried to eat with dignity, but her hunger won out. She ate with a ravening appetite, slowing down only once or twice to avoid suffocating herself with food.
Asami watched the girl silently. She had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth and never knew hunger. Sometimes she forgot not everyone knew the same privileges. Being surrounded by nice things all day sometimes made her unable to appreciate them. Asami was suddenly very grateful for the life she had.
"We're back!" Korra's voice announced a moment before she stepped into the dinning room followed by Bolin. Both had various bags in their arms.
Sanae quickly wiped her face, pretending she hadn't been stuffing it like a pig mere seconds ago.
"Did you have fun at the market?" Asami asked.
"Oh yeah!" Korra said. "Check out what I got!" A large, dead fish was promptly thrown on the table. One of the biggest any of them had ever seen.
Asami jumped at its presence. "What are we supposed to do with this?"
"Eat it, of course," Korra said, rolling up her sleeves as if she planned to do the job right then and there. "It will be delicious!"
Asami sighed. "Get it off my table. Put it in the freezer I guess. Maybe the cook can do something with it."
Meanwhile, Bolin sat himself at the table across from Sanae. "Oh hey, you're still here." He had hoped she would be.
"Sorry," she said as she stood. "I didn't mean to stay so long. I'll be going now."
"Not with that hair you're not," Asami ordered. Sanae realized her hair was still damp and all over the place. She had not a comb to run through it. With hands on Sanae's back, Asami guided her back down the hall.
Sanae was set in a chair where Asami went to work blowing and brushing it out. It was a nice feeling to have someone brushing her hair, caring for her. Sanae secretly didn't want it to stop, but she knew she should go the first chance her hosts allowed it.
"Look at this volume," Asami praised as her chestnut hair dried and gained thickness. "You have so much hair, it's gorgeous."
Sanae hunched a little and muttered a quiet, "Thank you."
As Asami lifted the thick brown hair from the other woman's neck she notice a mark that had been otherwise covered. A sort of crest in the skin. "What's this? It looks like a burn."
Sanae instantly slapped a palm to her neck as if she were swatting a mosquito. "It is... a tradition in our village. When a woman is married she is marked with the crest of her husband's house, binding her to his family."
Asami wanted to say that seemed a bit primeval, but she knew there were still many ancient villages deep in the Earth Kingdom that held onto old ways. She certainly didn't feel it was her place to question the tradition of her guest's home village. Instead she said: "So, are you married then?"
"I was. Not any more. My husband died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
Turning toward her, Sanae said, "Please don't tell anyone. It is not something I would like people to know. I don't wish to talk about it."
"I understand." Asami went back to brushing her hair. So that was why their guest wanted to find this spirit pool. Getting over the loss of someone she loved was certainly a reason to try to find closure and move on. "There," she announced when she was finished."Beautiful." She turned the chair toward a mirror so Sanae could see herself.
She didn't like what she saw in her reflection. Not in the hollow of her malnourished cheeks, not in the depths of those haunted eyes. She stood, a little more confident this time.
"Asami, I thank you very much for your hospitality. You have been very kind. But I came to this city for a reason and I really must go."
Asami sighed. She tried. Sanae had a reason to come to Republic City and it would be selfish to further deny her a chance to experience the spirit world. "Alright. But, if you need anything, please come back. We really wouldn't mind having you for another day. Honest. Both my friends really like you. I like you, too. Okay?"
Sanae looked almost pained at those words. She bowed once and practically fled the room, hurrying down the main stairway toward the front door.
"Oh hey, Sanae."
She almost groaned with how close she came only to be intercepted with Bolin.
"I guess you're leaving, huh?"
She gave a quick nod. "Yes, I have to go."
"Are you going to be okay? Do you want anyone to go with you? I mean! It doesn't have to be me! I've already seen you- not that I was trying to! But maybe the girls could go with you. No one knows the spirit world better than the avatar, after all."
She wouldn't meet his gaze. "That is very kind of you, but I must do this alone. Thank you, Bolin."
And with that, she was gone. Out the door and out of his life forever.
For the entire day, Bolin told himself it was better that way. Korra was right. He had a horrible habit of falling for any girl that crossed his path. That was his downfall. He loved too foolishly. Next time, he promised himself, if there was a next time, he would give his heart more wisely. Still, as the day went on, he found himself hoping Sanae found what she was looking for and then decided to come back to him one more time. If she did; if he saw her again, he knew he planned not to let her go without at least giving it a try.
By evening, heavy clouds had set in and the rain poured heavily on Republic City. Thunder boomed and Pabu spent the storm under the couch, his tail fluffed up. It was no night to be out in the weather. Bolin thought of Sanae again, now hoping she managed to catch a train and was out of this storm.
The three had settled in the main room, playing cards and telling stories when there was a knock on the door.
"I got it," Bolin announced, pulling himself from his seat. He opened the door and his heart jumped to find Sanae, soaking wet, her fists clenching and unclenching at her sides. Her hair was plastered to her face, her eyes wide, lips pale from the cold. He had the urge to yank her to him, to let his heat warm her and make her feel safe. That terrible, lost look haunted him.
"Can... can I speak to the avatar?" she asked, her voice shaking as much as the rest of her.
"Sanae!" Asami called before Bolin could reply. "Come in before you catch cold! Let me get some towels."
Once again, Bolin watched as the girl was hurried away from him and he wished the world would stop spinning so quickly out of control.
"So, you couldn't find it again?" Asami asked as she placed a steaming mug of tea in Sanae's hands.
"I don't know what's wrong with me. I found it so easily the first time. Why can't I find it again?" Sanae sighed. "Korra, would you mind terribly taking the time to show me where it is tomorrow?"
The avatar, who had been listening to her story of failure, leaned forward, her expression serious. "To be honest, I don't know if I could help. The cleansing pool is one of those things you only find if you're meant to find it. And maybe you're not meant to find it."
"But I found it the first time."
"Yes, and you were interrupted. And when you went back, it was gone. Maybe the spirits don't think you're ready yet."
"I see." Sanae tried hard to school the expression on her face, but there was a lump in her throat. "So, I'm never meant to find it." It was hard to keep her voice from cracking.
"I didn't say that," Korra insisted. "It may just mean you're not ready yet. You probably still have some personal baggage you need to work through first, then the pool will show itself to you."
Sanae looked down at her tea and gave a mirthless chuckle. "And here I thought that was the point of the cleansing pool."
"Life's messy. You can't just clean it all up with only a little bit of water. It takes a lot more than that."
"Is it really that important to visit this pool?" Asami asked. "Is it worth all of this?"
The look of pain on Sanae's face made her regret those questions. "I really need this," she said in almost a whisper. "I need to wipe it all clean."
Korra and Asami looked at each other. What happened to this girl that she was trying to wipe from her life?
At that point, Bolin came into the room with a tub of hot water and set it down at Sanae's feet. "Here, soak in this."
She hissed as she slid off the new, stiff shoes, revealing angry, bloody blisters on her heels and toes.
Asami winced and sympathy. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you would be on your feet hiking around all day. I should have picked some better shoes."
"Neither one of us knew." Sanae winced at the water, though the heat felt wonderful to her ice cold feet.
Bolin knelt before her, a towel on his propped up thigh and a first aid kit next to him. "Okay, show me those feet. Let's inspect the damage." When she hesitated, he added. "Trust me, I'm good at this. Been an athlete all my life. I know how to take care of scrapes and blisters."
Slowly, she raised her left foot, setting it on his thigh and into his large, capable hands. She watched with silent shyness as his thumbs ghosted down her calf, pressing and rotating the ankle to test it for a sprain, even though there was no reason to. His fingers, strong and rough, then touched her foot with the utmost gentleness as Bolin appraised the damage. Sanae sucked in a nearly silent breath at his touch as he pressed into her aching arches.
Korra was watching the cute scene with a romantic grin, only vaguely aware of Asami's attempts to catch her attention until she was practically dragged from the couch. The girls left the two alone for some privacy. Though they were still spying from the kitchen doorway.
Bolin was now wrapping the first foot, slow and careful. "I'm sorry," he said in the stillness. "I feel like this is all my fault. If I was never there in the spirit world you wouldn't have lost your opportunity. I ruined it for you."
She shook her head. "No, the stag led you there. You were where you needed to be. None of it was your fault. Clearly, the spirit was telling me it was not yet my time."
Bolin finally set her foot on the floor. "Can I ask, what do you know about this spirit? I take it you've seen it before?"
"I've never seen it in person. He's well known in my village. His likeness is passed down through the generations. My family believes he is a guardian of our bloodline and a guide of those who seek spiritual wisdom. But clearly ours is not the only family he watches out for. Even though it was not my time for the pool, it was clearly yours. I sincerely hope you found your peace in those waters, Bolin."
Bolin made a sound of indecision and shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, I still felt kind of the same." He heaved a big sigh. "Maybe I did it wrong. Maybe I'm too stupid to be properly cleansed. I thought this pain in my chest would go away, but it's still there."
He removed her right foot from the water, inspecting it as he had done the left. "You see, my marriage ended a few years ago. It hurt, but I thought I was over it. Then, I heard... well, something happened and it just felt like the pain started all over again. I was just looking for something to give me closure, you know? Something to let me heal so I can try again."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Sanae said softly. "I can tell you loved her."
"Yeah," Bolin sighed, not looking up from her foot as he tended the wounds. "I still do sometimes."
"I guess nothing is a quick fix," she admitted. "Maybe the pool is just the start of healing. Maybe it's the first step of moving forward to something new. I suppose when my time comes I can't expect anything different. It's something that marks the first step in a new direction."
Bolin wanted to ask her what she was trying to cleanse herself of. Her reasons were probably far different than his, but he could tell from looking at her there was a similar pain in her heart. He also knew that just because he told his story, that didn't mean she owed him information that was none of his business.
"I don't know how long you plan to stay here, Sanae, but if you'll think of me as a friend, I'll be happy to help you any way I can while we're both still in the city."
She smiled softly. "I would like that, if we were friends."
Bolin looked up into her face, basking in the warm glow of that smile. "I'd like that, too."