Korra rubbed the back of her neck, her cheeks turning pink. "I don't exactly have any money," she explained hesitantly.
The woman in the food stall practically had smoke coming out of her ears. "Then how were you planning on paying for all this?" She waved a hand dramatically at the girl's polar bear dog, who had already snarfed down at least five skewers worth of meat.
"I…um…" She started backing away, but the woman grabbed her wrist in a surprisingly strong grasp given how wrinkled and hunchbacked she was.
"I don't wan to get the police involved, missy, but I will! I have bills to pay, you know! I can't just go giving food away!"
Korra gulped. She didn't want to pull the Avatar card on her first day in the city, but she also didn't want to get arrested. Tenzin would send her back to the South Pole for sure.
"I'll pay for the pretty lady," a voice piped up behind her, and Korra turned to see a boy about her age smiling at her. He had a round, open face and bright green eyes, and a mouth that seemed to curl up naturally.
"Oh, I couldn't," Korra started to protest, but the boy stopped her with a wave of his hand, digging a couple of yuans out of his pocket.
"It's my pleasure."
"Hmph," the stall-keeper grunted, counting her money. Satisfied she shooed the two of them away, glaring at them until they were out of sight.
"Name's Bolin, by the way," the boy introduced himself with a grin.
"I'm Korra." She couldn't help but return his easy smile. "I just got into town today, and haven't really gotten used to how things work around here. If that wasn't already painfully obvious."
Bolin chuckled. "I figured as much. I know the streets pretty well, and I've never seen you around before."
"You know every single person here?" She raised her eyebrow skeptically.
"Well, the exceptionally pretty ones, at least," he said smoothly, putting some color in the girl's cheeks. He continued, "You want to swing by my place for something to eat? You look like you could still use something, and your ride there swiped all your grub from the stand. Plus then you could meet my brother, if he's around. Hopefully he is, because he's better in the kitchen than I am. So, what will it be?"
A little overwhelmed by his exuberant generosity, Korra quickly accepted. With a cheer, Bolin led the way to the pro-bending arena at the mouth of the bay. When Korra realized where they were going, she stopped dead in her tracks.
"Wait, you live here?"
"Sure do! Me and my brother rent a place in the attic. We used to compete, too, but our teammate bailed on us, and we didn't have the time to find a replacement before we were disqualified from the tournament."
"Yeah, but we found out there's this ridiculous entry fee that we wouldn't have able to afford anyway. So now we're both just working odd jobs to save up for next year." His voice was light, passing it off as no big deal, but Korra noticed a stiffness in his shoulders.
"I'm sorry," was all she could think to say, but Bolin shrugged it off and changed the topic.
"You ever see a match before?" He asked, amused by the way her eyes drank in the golden splendor of the arena.
"No, but I would listen to them on the radio and read about them in the papers whenever a got the chance. They seem so exciting!"
"Oh they are. I'll have to take you to one of them sometime."
"That would be amazing!"
"It's a date then," his eyes twinkled.
"Oh," Korra faltered. "I mean, uh"
Bolin backtracked immediately. "I mean, as friends."
"R-right. Just friends."
"Of course. I didn't mean to presume…"
"Don't worry about it," she coughed. "So, uh, tell me more about your brother."
He relaxed again. "Mako's great. The best big brother anyone could ask for."
Korra smiled. "I'm an only child. I always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling. I wanted a little brother, myself."
"I don't know what I'd do without him," Bolin said cheerfully as he opened the door for her and Korra ordered Naga to wait outside. "Our parents passed away when we were young, so he's all the family I've got."
Struck by how easily Bolin shared all this with her, Korra paused as she followed him through the dim corridors. "I..I'm sorry for your loss," she mumbled, unsure of what else to say.
"Don't worry about it, we get by." Korra noticed for the first time just how muscular the boy was. His arms were thick and powerful looking, and Korra wondered for the first time if maybe she had been a little brash to follow this stranger home. Too late the warnings from her old masters came to mind about the dangers of the city. She could defend herself against one or two attackers, but what if this was some kind of ambush? She was the Avatar after all, and the Avatar had a history of making enemies.
Her muscles grew tense as Bolin continued to lead the way through so many winding corridors and staircases that she lost track of where she was.
He still talked amicably, about his brother mostly, unaware of her discomfort. "Mako works a lot, so I don't know if he's even home now. I think he works too hard, personally, but he doesn't listen to me, you know? Oh, and we have a pet fire ferret, too! His name is Pabu and he's the smartest little guy in the whole city." He rambled on, filling the silence as Korra's eyes continuously swept her surroundings, daring someone to jump out at her.
Finally, they reached a ladder that must lead to the attic. "I'll go on ahead, so you don't scare Mako," he said. "But come on up right after me. "
He quickly climbed up the rungs and pushed aside the trap door. "Hey Mako!" Korra heard him call. "We've got company!"
"Bolin," another voice answered him, deep and sounding a little irritated. "I told you to stop bringing girls up here."
"Aw, come on, you know it's not like that. She was short a little dough so I covered for her and offered a hot meal if she came over."
"Dangit, Bolin, you can't keep giving our money away!" Korra flinched as she heard the sound of something – a pot? - banging on a table.
"It was for a good cause! Come on, you're being rude, I'm sure she can hear you."
A groan. "I'm taking whatever you gave away out of your allowance next week."
"Fine, fine, now be nice."
Korra took that as her cue to climb up, and poked her head through the door, her blue eyes wide as she surveyed the room.
It was one open space, with floor-to-ceiling windows on every side. They were open now, and a cool breeze drifted up from the bay. A small stove and sink sat in one corner, presumably making up the kitchen, while another corner held a scruffy couch and a low table. There was exercise equipment and newspapers scattered around the rest of the place, giving a very lived-in and masculine feel to the place. The little fire ferret Bolin had mentioned was even curled up on the couch, snoring softly.
Korra relaxed. This was no ambush.
She turned to greet the kind boy's brother and was met with glaring amber eyes. The brother was taller and more angular than Bolin, but still looked extremely strong. There was a certain resemblance between the two that she couldn't put her finger on until she noticed the way both boys' hair stuck up in the back. It made her smile. The turtleduck tail made them both look a bit boyish and a little less intimidating.
"I'm Korra," she held out her hand to the other boy. "And you must be Mako. Bolin told me a lot about you on the way over – "
He huffed, cutting her off and turning to Bolin. "I brought home some dumplings, we can split those while I make dinner. I have to head back out again after, though."
Bolin's face fell a little. "Why?"
"I'm working another shift at the plant. There's some new project going on and they need all the electricity they can get. The pay's pretty good, actually."
"You can provide electricity?" Korra cut, a slightly annoyed expression on her face from being cut off.
Mako snapped his fingers and a small flame appeared, his back still facing the girl. "Firebender." He shrugged. "Lightning, too." He snuffed the flame out.
Korra was instantly impressed. "Ooh, I could never get the hang of lightning myself."
Mako turned back to her, giving her a once over. "You're a firebender?"
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Yup."
"What's with the water tribe get-up?" He motioned to the blue armband on her wrist and the pelt around her waist.
"I'm from the South Pole."
"They have many firebenders down there?"
"No, but I'm a waterbender, too, so I get by."
"Wait," Bolin cut in. "What?"
"Oh, and earthbender, too, if that's important." Korra smirked, enjoying the look of astonishment on the boys' faces.
Mako's eyes widened before he slapped a hand over them. "You're the Avatar."
"And I'm an idiot."
"Also yep." Her smirk deepened.
Bolin looked at the pair of them, awestruck. "You're the Avatar? Like Aang? That guy has a statue of himself! It's huge!"
Korra giggled. "Yeah, but luckily there are no statues of me yet. I'm still in training. Can't airbend to save my life."
Mako dragged his hand down his face, looking properly ashamed of himself. "Uh, sorry about before," he mumbled, not meeting her gaze. "I can be a bit…um, stingy when it comes to expenses. If I'd known…"
Korra's look softened. "Don't worry about it."
"Yeah, that'll teach you to judge someone before you get to know them," Bolin teased, nudging his brother in the ribs. "Now let's eat! I'm starving."
Mako avoided her gaze through dinner, and left immediately after he'd inhaled his portion. Bolin's chatter made it easy to ignore, though Korra was still a little put out. The older boy looked extremely uncomfortable, and she knew it was because of her.
"Hey Bolin," she finally asked as she was getting ready to leave. "Mako doesn't have anything against the Avatar, does he?"
Bolin gave her a curious look, walking her down to a patiently waiting Naga. "No, what makes you ask that?"
"After he found out who I was, he wouldn't look at me."
"He was probably just embarrassed for acting like a jerk. It kind of happens a lot," Bolin shrugged.
"Oh. Well, thanks for dinner. Let me know if I can ever to anything to return the favor."
"Anytime. Give me a shout the next time you're in the neighborhood and I'll arrange that pro-bending match for you."
"You bet." She mounted her polar bear dog and gave Bolin a salute. "I'll see you around."
"I sure hope so," Bolin said to himself as he watched the girl ride away.
He knew she was going to be important. He didn't know how or why, but he had a feeling about her. She was special.