Alright, so Bolin was a guy who tried to make peace with everybody. Tried to make people happy. Tried to keep things spinning on an even keel.
Korra knew all of that, obviously. It was just who Bolin was.
Still, attempting to befriend a scarred, one-armed, abstractly pitiable former politician – former bloodbender, for that matter – who also happened to be pushing forty and looked at most people like they were insects he’d enjoy swatting…Well, that was going a bit beyond the call of warm-and-fuzzy duty.
“But don’t you think he ever gets, I dunno…Lonely or something?” Bolin asked her once. “Or at least bored. He’s been here for a year already, and it’s like all he does is sulk around the Air Temple.”
Bolin was taking ferry rides out to the island every week or so these days, which was how he knew in the first place. He’d recruited Jinora into helping him with his police academy homework; Jinora, meanwhile, had been horrified to learn that Bolin couldn’t read or write very much beyond his own name. How she fit tutoring in alongside her own training – she’d be getting her tattoos before another season was out, Tenzin had announced, a true talent like her grandfather – was a mystery.
“It’s Tarrlok,” Korra answered. She felt sorry for him, sure, but he wasn’t exactly the type of person who took well to being pitied (neither was she, to be honest) or offered help. “If I’d pleaded guilty before a grand jury and then had them tell me I could never get my bending back, I’d sulk too. Just leave him alone. You offered to beat him up that one time, remember?”
“I said I’d have a word with him. I didn’t, uh, actually want to beat him up, necessarily. You know, if I could avoid it.”
Korra shrugged. “Besides, I see him out doing practice forms and stuff occasionally. He fills the time. Trust me, he won’t appreciate being turned into a charity project.” She punched Bolin on the shoulder for good measure. “Okay?”
Bolin rubbed at his face with a muttering sigh. “Ah, I don’t know. It still doesn’t feel right.”
And, of course, Bolin was Bolin.
So when Korra spotted the two of them sitting out on a terrace, one day, with about five feet of space between them and matching stoic expressions, she wasn’t necessarily surprised.
Baffled, sure, but not surprised, and she took her own advice in cutting a wide swath around them; she did that the second time it happened, too, and the third, and the fourth. It wasn’t like they seemed to be doing anything, from what she observed, although she might’ve seen Bolin stroll by with a Pai Sho board under his arm at some point.
The fifth time it happened, though, curiosity got the better of her.
(As it usually did.)
“Hey, Korra!” Bolin twisted to look at her, grinning around a mouthful of food. He was still wearing his metalbender training gear and held a bowl of seaweed noodles. “C’mere, c’mere, I gotta tell you the weirdest thing. You know what I just realized?”
“No,” she said, approaching with some caution.
(Tarrlok’s back was turned to her, which was why she could see that the shirt he wore was too loose around the shoulders.)
Bolin jabbed a finger towards his lunch companion. “I gave this guy directions once when I was twelve. Small world, huh?”
Tarrlok paused in the midst of lifting a spoon. A tray was balanced on his knees: occasionally Korra wondered what it must be like, relearning how to feed yourself with a different hand.
(Or to write with a different hand, or to fasten the clasps of a shirt with only one hand at all, or to recognize yourself in a mirror. That too.)
“That is a generous exaggeration,” Tarrlok frowned. “Your ‘directions’ resulted in my getting lost in the Dragon Flats borough for two hours.”
Korra cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”
Bolin tucked into his lunch again. “Yeah! That was back when Mako and me – ”
“Mako and I,” Tarrlok admonished over another spoonful.
“– When Mako and I both had different jobs. He worked up in the Iron District loading crates for Cabbage Corp, and I worked downtown selling newspapers.” Bolin chewed, swallowed, slurped. A long noodle whipped up to flick him in the nose. “Whoops. So anyway! I’m walking along, minding my own business, and I spot this stranger wearing a lot of blues and whites with a rucksack on his shoulder. He was looking around all dazed and confused, like he was some badger-mole who’d been dragged out into broad daylight – ”
Tarrlok gestured pointedly with his spoon. “The council claimed they would have a cab waiting for me once my ship docked. They did not. I suppose I should have taken that auspicious beginning as an omen.”
“I asked if he was lost, and he told me he needed to find City Hall. Actually, he said something like…” Bolin’s voice sharpened circumspectly and dropped a few octaves, “‘Hello, I am your new representative from the Northern Water Tribe. I am expected to arrive for a meeting with Councilman Tenzin today at noon. Would you perhaps be able to orient me in the direction of City Hall?’ which I think meant the same –”
“You also seem to think I speak with an Eastern Earth Kingdom accent.”
“Hey. I didn’t interrupt your story about the letter bombs, did I?”
“Yes, you did. Eight different times.”
“I did? Sorry….So I honestly had no idea how to find City Hall, but I didn’t want him to think I was rude. I told him he had to go right, left, right again, three blocks down to the train station, left at the statue of Fire Lord Zuko, left, left, right onto Silk Street – ”
“You said left onto Silk Street. I went right because four lefts would have simply made a complete circuit around the block. ”
“ – Then straight past Blind Bandit Bridge and on to the Republic City Radio Tower. I figured he could climb that and get a look around. I mean, the dome of City Hall is pretty easy to spot from high up.”
“It is.” Tarrlok had spent the whole conversation ignoring her, but this last line was directed over his shoulder at Korra. “I suppose he took for granted the fact that I had never used a main thoroughfare that wasn’t navigable by boat.”
“…Well, you found it eventually. That’s what matters.” Korra bit the inside of her cheek. At some point or another, her other eyebrow had risen up too. She didn’t really want to think of what her expression looked like right now. “That also explains why Tenzin said you were in such a terrible mood when he first met you. And why you smelled like fish.”
“Perhaps it does.”
Bolin grinned. “When I told Mako about it later, he said I should’ve made you tip me for the information.”
Tarrlok gave something remarkably like a snort, which actually made Korra start in surprise.
“Your older brother would ask the earth beneath his feet to tip him for allowing it the privilege of bearing his weight.”
“Ah, well, he’s got a mind for profit.”
Korra stood silently by with a hand on her hip for a few minutes more, listening to the conversation before it lapsed into silence. Alright, now she was surprised. She made a parting gesture of sorts – a raised hand, an excuse about meditation, “Be nice to him or I’ll throw you in the bay” – before leaving.
It wasn’t until after she had walked up to the Air Temple’s gazebo, after she’d folded herself into a sitting position and closed her eyes and started combing through her thoughts, that the words finally came back to her.
Your older brother, Tarrlok had said.
She thought about the two of them, talking with their backs turned to her.
Your older brother.
(And the next week, she came to him with a newspaper under one arm – Bolin had graduated with marks that ranked him fourth-highest in his class and would be assigned a squad, which meant he’d be scarce for a while – and two bowls of noodles balanced on the other. To celebrate, she told him dryly. Then she handed him the second bowl, and sat down a reasonable distance away, and was somewhat baffled – but not really surprised – when he did not ask her to leave.)
Day Two: Noodles