Asami is still barefoot and in her sleep clothes when she answers the door in an irritable mood. "Spirits Bolin, it's seven in the morning on a Sunday, what could you possibly –"
A stunned silence settles over the two.
"Huh?" Asami finally manages eloquently, squinting against the early morning light as if waiting for the punch-line. When it never comes, she can only run a hand through her bedhead defeatedly and give the man in front of her a critical once-over.
Bolin looks like he hasn't slept in days, with hair a little more mussed than its usual state of neat smoothness and green eyes wild. There's a stack of papers clutched to his chest, and she thinks she knows where this is going.
Asami sighs. "Come on in. Breakfast?"
"Forty-three? How in the Four Nations does one manage to score a forty-three on a two page essay?"
Bolin makes a panicky gesture, somewhere between a shrug and slamming his head against the kitchen table. "I don't know Asami, but there's no way I'm letting Mako see this."
Asami shuffles through the papers Bolin had scattered with one hand, sipping tea with the other. "But you've done really well on everything else," she points out reasonably. "Let's see…true or false: eighty-five, multiple-choice: seventy-seven, and –" she winces, "– short answer: thirty-six."
Bolin is slumped over the kitchen table at this point, clearly wallowing in his woes. "I'm done for."
"Well, maybe your other marks can pull up this one…?" Asami tries weakly.
"The final exam is fifty-percent essay marks," answers Bolin's muffled, dwindling voice. "I'm never gonna become a member of the Metalbender Police Force at this rate."
Asami chews her bottom lip for a moment, remembers she's not wearing any makeup, and kicks the thought to the curb. It's just Bolin, she thinks exasperatedly.
Just Bolin, who Asami knows has been working tirelessly for the last five years perfecting his Metalbending form and studying Republic City Law for a moment of glory at the recruit graduation ceremony in a few weeks. Just Bolin, for whom Mako had been putting in extra hours at the plant ever since Bolin's acceptance into the Academy – the scholarship was barely enough for the brothers to pull through with.
Asami feels a twisting in the pit of her stomach. It would be a pity to say the least if Bolin were to fail simply due to a lack of penmanship.
She tosses the mediocre test back onto the table, mind made up. "Well, you definitely won't pass if you keep sitting around feeling sorry for yourself," Asami says dryly, though without much heat. "Eat some breakfast first, and meet me in the drawing room in thirty minutes. We'll get you that badge yet."
Bolin's head shoots up, hair sticking up in odd angles at some places. "Are - are you serious?"
Asami raises an eyebrow as an answer.
Bolin collapses back into his chair, beaming like the sun itself. "Oh Spirits, you're a lifesaver, Asami. I owe you big time." He digs into his congee with newfound fervour.
She can't help but to smile slightly at that. "I try."
The pen dips and curves, and Asami finishes off with a delicate flick of her wrist.
Bolin takes a moment to stare at the parchment, quiet awe radiating from his expression. "Wow. That's…wow."
She holds out the writing tool towards the Earthbender, lips twitching upward at his excitement. "Your turn."
It takes him a few tries to load the pen, smearing ink over solid fingers and callouses. At last, he places the nib against the creamy white of paper, and then proceeds to abuse the surface with ragged, flyaway lines, tearing the paper slightly at one spot.
Asami slides the paper over, eyes the grammatically incorrect phrase littered with misplaced strokes, and resigns herself to cruel fate.
On the third day, Bolin drops the pen and then stomps on it in a failed retrieval attempt.
They're rinsing out washcloths soaked with murky ink and Asami's chasing her lost her rag in the cloudy water when Bolin finally breaks the quiet.
"Look, Asami, I don't know how I can ever repay you for what you're doing –"
She waves a dismissive hand, accidentally flicking drops of greyish water onto the wall.
"No, really. I'm serious." And he is; all solemn-faced and sincere eyes. "I know you're busy with the company and everything, but with Korra out of the City every other week and Mako working overtime every day, I didn't know who else to go to." A smile softens the wide, strong angles of his face. "You're really amazing, you know."
"Hey, no singing praise until we see some results."
But she's smiling back anyway, ink-stained fingers grazing his underwater.
By the end of the first week, the wastepaper bin is overflowing with scrapped paper, but Bolin has at last managed to write coherent, albeit simple, sentences.
Asami finally thinks she might see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
It's a balmy Friday afternoon when she answers the door for their daily meetings and finds a piece of paper shoved up in her face instead.
"Check it out! A letter from Korra! She's coming back tonight!"
Asami takes a moment to process the sudden change of events, then snatches up the letter and devours the note with her eyes, tracing Korra's familiar rough and crooked strokes and feeling a bubble of excitement and warmth rising in her chest.
Bolin's grinning ear-to-ear when Asami finally looks up. "We should all go to Narook's to celebrate! It's been ages since the last time we all got together, and Mako gets off work early today anyway. What do you say, Asami?"
His good mood is contagious, and Asami can't help but to return his enthusiasm.
"Sounds like a plan!"
They find Korra's bags sitting by the door of the brothers' apartment, with their owner sprawled on the couch, deep asleep atop an equally dead-to-the-world Mako.
There's a stunned silence. Then:
"Oh –" Bolin starts, but claps a hand over his mouth instead to stifle a snort of laughter. "This is great; she's drooling on his scarf."
Asami looks, and feels the beginnings of a laughing fit creeping up. She snatches Bolin by the hand and tugs him back out the door.
"Let them sleep," she says, dark red lips twitching upward at the improbably peaceful sight on the couch. "We can all catch up tomorrow."
"But the reservation –"
"Just the two of us, big boy. My treat."
Bolin's lips form a silent "O" and there's a slightly dazed look in his eyes as he allows himself to be led out of the apartment, and Asami finds she doesn't mind it one bit.
Behind them, Korra lets out a particularly loud snore.
"So how did you manage to do so well on everything else other than compositions at the academy?"
Bolin swallows his mouthful of noodles before answering, "I knew how to read some things before, well, you know." Asami nods tersely. She knows the haunted eyes of street orphans all too well at this point.
"After that, Mako tried to keep me in school, but with our situation…" Bolin trails off here, no doubt lost in some faded memory of hunger pangs and cold nights in dark alleyways. Asami suddenly doesn't feel like eating anymore.
But Bolin presses on, a familiar determined look on his face. "Mako taught me as much as he could; basic reading and writing, and some math – Mako's always been good with numbers. But it got tough when he was trying to feed us and keep me safe at the same time – plus, he was only a kid himself."
Asami twists at her napkin. "He – Mako never mentioned any of this to me."
Bolin shrugs mildly. "There isn't much to say anyway. " He adopts an easy grin, the same that he always uses to diffuse tense moments. "We got through in the end, didn't we? I picked up reading again pretty quickly when I started studying for the Academy, but writing's–" he wrinkles his nose "– a whole other story."
They sit in silence for a while after that, each lost in their own thoughts.
"I just want this so badly, you know?" Bolin finally says. Seeing this sombre face is rare, and Asami finds she can't tear her eyes away. "I've finally found something I'm good at in my own way, and something I really want to do. I used to think that if I got a steady job like this, Mako'd never have to worry about paying rent or buying groceries, and maybe I can even take care of him for a change, but at this rate –"
Bolin's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. "Huh?"
"Stop it. Stop talking like – like you've already failed. Because you're not going to fail."
He only stares, probably just as surprised as Asami is by the fierce conviction in her own voice.
"What? It's true," she huffs, crossing her arms. "You're smart, you're hardworking, and with me as your tutor, you will ace that exam." She doesn't quite understand why she suddenly feels defensive; maybe it's the disarming clarity of Bolin's eyes, or the relieved smile that follows, and Asami wonders if what Bolin needed all along was someone to lend him that unconditional faith.
In the end, Bolin only chuckles. "You're really amazing, you know that, right?"
Asami sniffs, buffing her nails with an exaggerated flourish. "Of course I do."
Their booming laughter turns quite a few heads that night.
By the day before the exam, Bolin's fingers always seem to be permanently stained with ink, though to his credit, the pen spills and mishaps are now far and few in between.
Asami hums to herself lightly as she reads through Bolin's last piece of practice essay, making occasional ticks, circles, and scratches on the paper. The man in question sits across the table, jittering a nervous leg and tying knots into the tablecloth, looking very much like a man walking to his own hanging.
"Mhm?" She scribbles briefly in the margin.
"Thanks. Again. For everything."
Asami looks up, letting a gentle smile play across her lips and hoping it's enough to smooth over the worried wrinkles gathered on Bolin's brow. "Don't even mention it. We're friends, and friends help each other out all the time."
And then, on impulse (and also because Bolin looks in danger of tipping over at the drop of a hat without an anchor), she reaches across the table and grasps his larger hand with her own, steadfast and certain against his restless trembling. Bolin squeaks a little, but otherwise remains still, furiously blushing.
They stay that way until Asami reaches the last line of the essay, making a final scribble, and when she looks up again, Bolin's hand has fallen still beneath hers.
Asami thinks she should start following her impulses more often.
Bolin stutters. "Uh, h-how is it? The essay, I mean." His cheeks are still tinted pink.
"Well –" she takes a moment to cap her pen, reluctantly pulling her hand from his. "– I think you'll be just fine for tomorrow."
Asami smiles, sliding the paper across the table. "Seventy-three."
Bolin's letter of congratulation comes in the mail within the week.
At the graduation ceremony, Mako is the first to be scooped up into a rib-crushing hug. They don't exchange many words, and Asami begins to think that silent thank-yous and bear hugs are the perfect language for the brothers. Korra is next, and she ends up lifting Bolin into the air, laughing loud enough to match his.
Asami steps up last, opening her mouth, and finds that she can't quite find the right words to express her pride and joy for someone who could possibly be the happiest man in the Four Nations at the moment.
"Congratulations," is all Asami says in the end, and lets her eyes speak the rest.
"Thank you," Bolin breathes.
And when he kisses her full on the lips, it's warm and steady like the ground beneath her feet. She tastes cinnamon and feels a coil of butterfly wings unfurling inside her as she throws herself back into his embrace, fitting easily into his arms, lightweight with happiness.
When they finally break apart, both slightly breathless and pink in the cheeks, Korra has on a knowing smile and Mako looks genuinely dazed with surprise, though he wears a smile bright enough to match his brother's. Somewhere in the distance, Chief Beifong is yelling for them to clear the premises before she cleans them herself.
Bolin shoots her a flustered grin, suddenly a little shy. "Shall we?" He extends his arm.
Asami returns the smile and laces her fingers through his, spotted and stained with ink to match.
"We shall, Officer Bolin."