He could never get that lock of hair to stay off his forehead.
Bolin stood in front of the mirror, running his hand from the front to the back of his head again and again. He dipped his fingers in the bowl of water that was set next to him, stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth ever so slightly, and tried again. The annoying bit of hair was swept up with the rest for a brief moment, but within seconds, it fell back onto his forehead.
"Fine!" Bolin growled, pointing a finger at his reflection with squinted eyes. "Be that way!" He shook his head, and the tendril aired out a bit and bounced happily in its rightful place. Bolin spun around and held his arms out, showing off his appearance. "So, what do you think, buddy?"
Pabu looked up, squeaked, and continued munching on a leechi nut.
"Awesome! Lookin' good," he said, turning back to the mirror and admiring his reflection as he stroked his hairless chin. It was strange to see himself like this, in an outfit like this. He'd only worn it once before: the fitted brown jacket, the green waistcoat, the tailored trousers. He barely recognized himself. Usually he just wore whatever old pants he could find and the shirt with the least amount of holes.
That was just what he and Mako had.
After Korra's gala, however, Asami had actually given him the suit he had worn, the one she'd had tailored just for him. She'd already given Mako a suit, simply because she could. They'd tried to return them; really, they had. But Asami refused and insisted that they keep them. She told Mako that she'd be treating him to more dinners and would love to see him wearing it. She'd even teased Bolin and said that there was always the possibility of another party or maybe even a date in his future. Bolin couldn't help but agree. There was that possibility. He smoothed his front down, feeling the tiny wrinkles in the fabric underneath his palms.
It was nice having clothes that weren't falling apart, even if he didn't do the best job of keeping the wrinkles out.
"Where are you headed off to?" Mako said. Bolin turned. His brother was entering their apartment but had paused on the ladder when he noticed Bolin.
"Nowhere," he said, stepping across the room. He opened up an old, wooden box. Crumpled up yuans were stashed inside. He started counting them out, feeling the crunch of the thin, pink paper beneath his fingers. Twenty, Thirty, Thirty-five.
Mako climbed the rest of the way up the ladder. He crossed his arms over his chest while he looked Bolin up and down. Mako was always good at sniffing out one of Bolin's lies. Or maybe Bolin was just bad at lying… Either way, Mako could tell that he wasn't being entirely truthful.
"C'mon, Bo. You got a date?" he asked. Bolin tried to keep his cool and not say a word. "Who's it with?" Mako continued with a smirk on his face, one of his eyebrows arched high with suspicion. "Some fangirl, perhaps? …Korra?"
There was a certain hesitation, a lingering fear in his voice when he spoke her name aloud. Please say no. Bolin could hear it (feel it) behind the question. Because even though Mako was dating Asami and even though he and Korra had agreed to be friends and even though it had been weeks since their first and only kiss, there was still a whisper of something more between them.
Bolin had good hearing.
And besides, he couldn't bear to tell Mako the truth.
"I'm just going out, okay?" he said defensively, stuffing the yuans in his pocket.
"Wait!" Mako said, reaching forward and grabbing Bolin's wrist. "What are you doing with all this?" Bolin rolled his eyes because he knew what was coming. Mako snuck his fingers inside Bolin's pocket and pulled out the money, holding it front of his face, sliding the bills back and forth across each other. His eyes counted quickly. "This is fifty yuans, Bo!"
"You can't spend all that."
"It's my money."
"Which you're just going to waste like always."
Bolin snatched the yuans out of Mako's hand and stepped away. "I can spend it however I want to! It's mine!"
"Why don't you just listen to me and save your money for once? What's gonna happen if we ever get kicked out of this place? Would you prefer to live on the streets again?" Bolin's mouth had opened up to respond but it slowly closed as Mako berated him yet again. "And what if I lost my job? Huh? What if I died and you were left… alone…" The air stilled and there was sadness in Mako's hard eyes. Bolin didn't know what to say. He looked at the floor and looked at Pabu and looked anywhere but at Mako. He swallowed.
Mako groaned and rubbed his arm. "Whatever, Bo. Have fun on your date. Just try not to spend all of it, okay?" He walked back to their couch and plopped down, staring out at the island.
Bolin unfolded and refolded the money in his fist and slipped it smoothly into his pocket. He took once last glance at himself in the mirror before leaning over to pet Pabu and quietly instructing him to be good. Pabu cleaned his face with his paws and brushed his tail across Bolin's arm. Bolin approached the ladder and started lowering himself, but he paused when his hands were on the top rung and looked at Mako not looking back at him. Bolin's mouth opened again, but he really had nothing to say.
The air outside the arena was fresh and crisp. It was cool but pleasant, the sky was a brilliant blue, and his mood instantly started to improve. He had a lot to look forward to today. His stomach churned because he was still a little nervous, so he tried to distract himself by looking at his surroundings as he headed deeper into the city.
Crowds of people filled the busy streets, talking and laughing and yelling out the latest market prices of fish. Newspaper boys stood on the corners, waving their arms and trying to sell their last copies. A group of girls giggled by a food cart. A young boy leapt and fell in an attempt to touch a nation flag swinging above him. Satomobiles honked as they flew past, one almost nicking Bolin as he ran across the street. He saw a lizard crow high above, leaning precariously over the edge of a rooftop. The city was alive, today was perfect, and he was ready.
He turned the corner and looked up at the sign hanging above him. Namkung Floristry.
He took a breath and entered. Like the last time he was here, Bolin was overwhelmed by the colors and the smells. Rows of buckets filled with various flowers hung off all four walls of the shop. Other shelves stood in the middle, and different arrangements were scattered aesthetically across them.
"I'll be right with you!" a female voice said from the right side of the shop. Bolin looked up and over, and saw a girl standing behind a counter. She wasn't making eye contact though, and she was frowning. She was setting a basic arrangement of flowers in a shallow, purple vase, and he couldn't help but be impressed by the way she seemed to know exactly where each one needed to go. With nimble fingers she stuck the flowers in their perfect place, and he watched her. She'd put one of the flowers, a huge, white daisy, behind her ear. Loose black tendrils that had escaped from her long braid framed the outside of the petals. Bolin had to admit: she definitely had an eye for this.
The girl stepped back as she looked at her arrangement and pouted. She took one of the flowers and trimmed the stem slightly before placing it back in the vase. She finally looked up at Bolin with big brown eyes.
She was wiping her hands on her apron when her jaw dropped.
Wait, should he know this girl?
"Bolin of the Fire Ferrets?"
Oh, a fan! He smirked and flipped down in a sloppy bow. "The one and only!"
She held her hands on the sides of her face. Her mouth was still open in shock. "I can't believe it! You! Here! In my dad's shop!" Bolin shrugged, and she raised the counter door so she could approach him. Her eyes were bright. "Oh my goodness, I am your biggest fan! You're really one of the best earthbenders out there and you're here! In the shop! This is crazy!" She then dropped into a story about one of their matches, gushing about his skill, and Bolin listened intently, amused and flattered.
And most times whenever a girl would talk to him about pro-bending, the conversation always veered back to Mako. But this girl didn't do that. It was different and strange, and he enjoyed it immensely. It wasn't until she started throwing out punches in imitation of him and he let out another laugh that she realized what she'd been doing.
She grimaced and hid her face in her palms. "Sorry, I'm probably talking your head off. And you're not here to listen to me!"
"Well, what if I were?" he joked, sending another smile onto her pretty face.
"Anyway," she said as she scratched her head, embarrassed. "How can I help? Are you looking for anything in particular?"
He peered down one of the rows of flowers, the scattered rainbow on the wall. It was all very intimidating. "I'm not really sure," he said. "Last time I bought flowers it didn't really work out." Her eyebrows rose, but she didn't press him for the story. She looked awkward until he said, "What's your favorite?"
"Oh, I have too many!" She started walking down the far row and gestured for Bolin to follow her. She pointed them out as she listed off a few. "Buttercups, hibiscuses, peonies, moonflowers, hydrangeas, and—" She touched the flower in her hair. "Daisies."
Bolin pointed at one of the buckets, filled with tiny blue blossoms. He couldn't remember seeing blue flowers before, but this was only the second time he had ever entered a flower shop. These were a warm blue too, with streaks of purple dipping through the petals. "What are these called?"
"Oh, those are forget-me-nots! I really like those too."
He resisted the urge to reach out and touch one of the blossoms. She'd like blue, wouldn't she?
"I think I'll buy some of those," he said, grinning. She picked up the bucket, heavy with the water splashing on the bottom, and walked it over to the counter. He followed her and watched as her eyes sifted through the bunch, looking for the best and brightest flowers. She'd lift them gently out of the bucket so they wouldn't lose any of their petals, her fingers barely touching the stem, and she held them in one hand as she grabbed with the other. It was effortless and quick.
"Wow, you're really good at this," he said as she pulled out a violet ribbon and attached all the stems together. She tied a delicate bow around the bouquet, and a faint blush crept onto her cheeks. "Seriously. You could win contests for this." She shook her head. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the now-smoothed yuans.
"It'll be twenty-five," she said, glancing at the money. "Or twenty if you give me an autograph."
"An autograph, eh?"
"Mostly so I can prove to my friends that you were here."
He leaned on his elbow and flipped through his money, pulling out the proper amount. "How about we make it free and I give you five autographs? One for each of your friends?" He winked, and she giggled. She reached back behind her for a piece of paper and something to write with and slid them across the counter towards Bolin. He signed the paper with a flourish and then folded it over the yuans. "For the lovely lady."
Her voice was playful. "You know you shouldn't be flirting with the florist's daughter while you're buying flowers for your girlfriend."
Bolin took the bouquet from her and held a hand to his chest indignantly. "Hey! I never said these were for a girlfriend! Did I say that? I don't think I did."
The girl was very cute when she put her hand on her hip like that. "Who are they for then?"
"They're for…" He paused and thought hard about what he should say. "They're for someone special." He slid his autograph and money across the counter, all smiles. "And with that, I should be off." He threw out a mini salute as he started to back out of the shop.
She picked up the piece of paper and stared at his signature. He'd even put a little smile next to his name. She counted through the yuans. Twenty-five! He'd even paid the full price. He heard her calling and waving after him to come and take the five yuans back, but he had shoved his fingers in his ears and had started humming. She gestured at him again, waving the five yuans. "I'm not listening!"
Mako had always insisted that they not use their tiny slice of fame to get things from other people. He'd said that they were better than that. And while he'd told Bolin that it was okay to interact with the fans and be nice and charming and ridiculous, he should never take advantage of them. Bolin listened to Mako. He wasn't going to let this girl, no matter how cute she was, convince him otherwise.
He unplugged his ears just before he exited and waved at the shop girl. "Thank you!" He heard her yell after him. "And good luck in your next match!"
Bolin greeted the city again, breathing in the not-so-fresh air. Well, except for the air coming off the noodle cart. Mmm, that definitely smelled fresh.
He turned and continued down the busy streets with a bounce in his step. He caught a glimpse of himself as he passed a set of windows for a bakery, and he was taken aback again at how he looked in his suit. Part of him had already forgotten that he was wearing it. Part of him had forgotten what today meant to him. He clutched the bouquet close to his chest and inhaled the scent of the forget-me-nots.
He hoped that she would like them.
Bolin headed towards Central City Station. He needed to buy a trolley ticket, and while the Station mainly serviced trains, there were still ticket booths nearby for other modes of transportation. People rushed by him in the street, and he held the flowers close to his body, his fingers gripping the smooth, violet ribbon so they wouldn't be ruined.
As neared his familiar hangout, he noticed all the kids, all the orphans running around, tricking and scraping to survive. They'd learned all the secrets and sneaky ways to get what they needed. Skoochy stood by the huge statue in the middle and waved at him from across the way. He waved back.
Bolin could easily remember the days when he was just another one of those kids, running and playing and laughing through the streets because what else was there left in the world? All their parents were gone, so they needed to have fun and play or else nothing mattered. But while he danced and yelled and played, Mako would always be nearby, keeping a close and worried eye on him, that is, if he wasn't off working for the Triple Threats.
Mako didn't smile as much as Bolin.
Mako always made sure that he never got hurt. Mako always made sure that he was safe and happy and warm. Well, as warm as possible. Bolin recalled hiding in the shadows and hunting with Mako for their next meal. They would pull off some crazy stunts, these huge, complicated ruses with skits and lies, in order to scheme passing people into giving them money. Sometimes they'd scavenge through the trashcans behind restaurants, digging for leftovers. Mako always knew where to look and where to hide and what to do to keep them alive.
He was fierce.
Bolin stepped up to a ticket stand and requested a two-way trolley ticket. He handed over another seven yuans and received a ticket, which he tucked into his other pocket. He was going to just wait by the trolley stop, maybe relax on the bench a little, when he saw him. An orphan boy who didn't look like the rest.
While the others had finally re-learned how to smile, this one looked hollow and alone. He looked scared and worried. The others ran through the center, but this one stayed backed into the shadows. He was small and young, and he vaguely reminded Bolin of himself. But Bolin instantly knew exactly what his problem was, what he was missing, why he wasn't smiling.
He didn't have a fierce, older brother to protect him.
He didn't have a Mako.
Bolin approached where the little boy stood, next to one of the huge columns holding up the train station's entrance. He looked terrified and tiny next to Bolin, swallowed up by his oversized clothes, and he looked up at him with wide, green eyes. Just like Bolin's.
"Hey there!" Bolin said as he crouched down to the boy's eye level, hands on his knees.
"You look new around here."
"Yeah." His voice nearly cracked. It was tight and scared and lonely, and Bolin knew how that felt. He knelt down next to the boy, laying the bouquet gently on the cobblestones, and dug in his pocket. He pulled out the rest of his yuans and handed them over to the boy.
His hand reached out tentatively, confused, but he didn't take the money.
"I just want to help," Bolin assured. "Take it."
Mako would be mad that Bolin had indeed spent all his yuans, but whatever. Bolin would just have to deal with him later. He probably wouldn't be able to get him to understand and he'd just be scolded, especially because he'd given it to a little kid that neither of them knew, that had no connections to their world within the world. Bolin had to help him though. He didn't have a Mako.
"Th-thank you," the boy answered, clutching the money with a dirty fist.
Bolin leaned in closer, his hand cupped around his mouth as he whispered. "You know, one of the best places to beg is around that corner there." He gestured behind the boy. "And over that way—" He pointed in the opposite direction. "—is a great spot to sift through the trash. Lots of uneaten food in their garbage." Behind him, Bolin heard the bells of the trolley, waiting for the last of its passengers to board. He had to go, he had to say goodbye. "Stay safe, okay?"
Bolin picked up the forget-me-nots from the ground and ruffled the boy's hair as he stood. And the dirty, lonely kid smiled.
Bolin turned and ran through the center, past the other orphans yelling and laughing and making him remember, and rushed onto the trolley just before it departed. He managed to find a seat near the door, and he plopped down, letting out a huge sigh.
He pressed his face against the glass and watched the city go by.
They went past buildings, Satomobiles, citizens, and an Equalist protestor. Bolin stared at the water gently moving below as they went over the bay bridge. They stopped and went, and people boarded and left as they got farther and farther from the city's center, further east.
At the next stop, an old woman stumbled on, clutching the cables for support. The trolley started moving, and she nearly fell. Her arm trembled and her legs shook and she sought a place to sit. She stood in front of a man, who refused to make eye contact with her. Bolin peered over at them.
"Please, may I have your seat?" she asked the man sweetly.
"Get lost, grandma," he sneered.
"Hey, dude! What's your problem?" Bolin said, standing.
"Get outta my face, kid. I don't have a problem."
"And you don't have any manners, either." Bolin remembered a time when he and Mako were riding the trolley, and even after an exhausting day, Mako still stood and offered his seat to an elderly man. "Ma'am, you can have my seat." Bolin stood back from where he'd been sitting, and the lady hobbled over. The man huffed and crossed his arms.
"Thank you, young man! You're too kind," she said as she sat. She finally looked, really looked up at Bolin. "And you're so handsome too!"
Bolin laughed and swatted his hand out in front of him, feigning embarrassment. "Oh, please."
"Your parents really taught you well. I bet they're proud of you."
He drew his hand down at his side, and he looked out the window again, at the city and the mountains and the sky.
"I sure hope so."
The woman smiled.
The trolley began to slow as it arrived the furthest stop east on this particular circuit. Bolin leaned against the pole and took a deep breath. The nerves were getting to him again. He usually didn't feel nervous or scared, but right now, he definitely felt both. His heart raced, and he didn't know why.
The trolley stopped, and he stepped off, waving goodbye to the old lady. She smiled back at him. The sun was warm on his face, and he breathed it in.
It had been a long time since he'd been so far out of the city. He stood at the base of a hill, staring upwards, at the sky, taking it all in. It had indeed been a very long time. It felt strange being in the outskirts of the city.
Instead of tall skyscrapers, there were still trees high above him, just like in the park. Their leaves shook in the breeze, the sound blending with the calls of the birds. Everything was alive and everything was beautiful. Bolin pressed a hand to his chest in an attempt to calm his trembling heart. He straightened his jacket and slicked his hair back once more before he started the trek up the hill.
Each step was hard, and his feet wanted to slip, but he kept going, kept pushing. The trees cast strange shadows on the grass below him, and he breathed in as he reached the apex, and looked across, seeking out his destination. The path, having been buried in his memory, came rushing back. He stepped slowly, gently as he walked forward through the sea of carved stones, and even though he was alone, he felt the need to be quiet.
Bolin knelt down in the grass, and after giving the forget-me-nots a clumsy kiss on their blue petals, he set it down in front of him, resting it against one of the innumerous cold, gray stones.
"Hi, Mom," he said. "Hi, Dad."
Bolin clasped his fingers together in his lap tightly, almost as if he were in prayer, as he read the markings of his parents' graves. The tombstones were close, nearly touching to make space for the countless other graves of those people who had no money for burials, who had been thrown to the outskirts by city officials. The characters of their names, hidden in the back of Bolin's mind, came to the forefront, and it calmed him. He hadn't read his parents' names in years.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it? Almost ten years…" He looked down at his hands, unsure of what to say. "I hope you like the flowers, Mom. I got them for you. I didn't really know what to get… I can't remember your favorite color… Sorry." He scratched his head. "Yeah. I guess I really can't remember a lot of things about you two."
A breeze blew through, and it sent a chill down his spine. Bolin had never been here alone before. The last and only time he had come was seven years ago. Mako had sworn it would be a good idea, but that was before he saw their names etched into rock, a written reminder that they were all alone in the world. He'd screamed and cried and bent fire at the stone, angry and hurt that their parents had left them. He yelled at Bolin and told him that they would never come back here, ever. Bolin had promised that he wouldn't.
"Sorry Mako didn't come along," Bolin apologized, "But I kept it a secret from him. I just… I didn't want him to feel sad again." He yanked up a few leaves of grass and tore them to pieces, letting them fly on the wind.
"I'm not even sure why I came…" Bolin spoke to the stones, wondering to himself as he ripped up more blades of grass. "I guess… well, I guess I just wanted to let you both know that I'm doing okay. Mako took really good care of me. He still does.
"It's really hard, sometimes. And kinda scary. But Mako always makes sure that I'm smiling." Bolin looked at the sky, at the air filled with spirits. "Sometimes we don't get along," he confessed, scooting closer to the graves, touching the carvings and feeling the indentations under his fingertips so he wouldn't forget. "A while ago, we got in a huge fight over a girl. Mom, you would have been so mad at us."
He had forgotten many things about his parents. He had forgotten almost everything, really, and all those memories had been replaced by ones of Mako. He didn't remember their faces or their life lessons or their love. One recollection, however, refused to go away and would linger in his memory until his death. He and Mako had been arguing and their mother found them hitting each other with their tiny fists. Mako had been winning the fight mostly because he'd realized his bending while Bolin's hadn't yet come to him. Their mother pulled Bolin away from the brawl by the collar of his shirt.
"Hey!" she had told both of them. "You two need to play nice."
"But Mommy!" Bolin had cried. "Mako took my toy!"
"You two!" their mother had said, silencing the boys. "You are brothers, and brothers shouldn't treat each other like this! Lots and lots of people will come and go from your life, but you two always have to be there for each other. Even Mommy and Daddy will go away eventually. A long, long, long, long time from now, we'll have to leave, and you'll need each other then."
Bolin remembered holding Mako after he'd told him what had happened. He remembered being confused, but he cried because Mako was crying.
"We're brothers. We'll get through this mess."
Bolin smiled. "I know Mako really likes her, Mom. I think he loves her, but he just doesn't know it yet. He has another girlfriend right now, and she's really nice too, but Korra is one of a kind. That's her name. Korra. She's the Avatar, and she's amazing and strong and oh, I wish you could meet her. Dad, she's gorgeous. You'd definitely approve."
The leaves from the trees rustled overhead.
"I really like her, too. And for a while I thought we belonged together. But after thinking about it… after everything, I decided that I kinda owe Mako this one, you know? He's given me so much, and I just want him to be happy. I want him to smile, too…
"And besides, I'll be okay. Even if I don't have her, I'll always have Mako. He's my brother. I'll always have him.
a/n: Written after being prompted by my lovely baby Ruii for a "Bolin's Day" reminiscent of Iroh's Day. I'm on the fence about whether I like this one or not. I like parts. Though it was an interesting practice to try to keep information hidden from the reader throughout a story/forcing a different idea and having a "big reveal" sort of thing at the end. Dunno if I succeeded, but OH WELL. MOVING ON. FABULOUS FRESH AND JUICY BENDING BROTHER LOVE MAKES ME HAPPY.