Bolin awakens on the morning of the semi-finals not by choice, but because his bed, without warning, vaults him up and out into a torrent of freezing water.
“UP AND AT ‘EM, TEAMMATE,” Korra booms from the doorway, hands dancing as she controls the water, which is half-ice anyway. “IT’S SEMIFINALS DAY!”
Bolin grumbles. He’s aware that it’s Semifinals Day. He’s been aware that Semifinals were today for a very long time. Even if Korra and Mako didn’t remind him, at least once every few hours, he’d know because pre-game nerves had been setting in nightly for the past month.
Turns out, you become very aware of things when they prevent you from sleeping for a few weeks. Bolin’s eyes feel like they’re filled with gritty mud; chilly water drips from his sopping hair onto his nose.
“I’m up,” he groans, before Korra can prepare another volley of water. Now that his vision of clearing from braindead sleep fog, he can see his brother leaning in the doorway behind Korra, trying not to smirk, and another figure in the hallway that has to be his Sifu. No one else was capable of bending the ground beneath his bed with that level of control from thirty paces, not even the current Avatar.
“Breakfast is ready,” aforementioned Avatar says, now that she’s done assaulting him with frigid water. With an offhanded flick of her wrists, she directs the water in a lazy stream out the crack in Bolin’s window and into the courtyard outside, where it lands with a distant splashing sound. Now that it’s safely out of the room, Bolin rubs the sleep from his eyes with the heel of one damp hand, and attempts to glare at them bleary-eyed and foggy-brained. “Fine, fine, lemme put some dry clothes on, give me a few minutes.” Satisfied, his teammates retreat, leaving him to fumble about for a dry undershirt and pants.
His Sifu is still in the hallway when he emerges, stifling a yawn five minutes later. Pabu’s perched on Lin’s shoulder, the older woman scratching his chin absently with a finger. “Traitor,” Bolin mumbles at the ferret, “You were in on this conspiracy all along, weren’t you?”
Sifu Beifong arches her eyebrows imperiously, and stops scratching the ferret. Her only concession to the early hour is that she’s out of uniform and in her casual clothing, other than that she looks like she always does: Alert, aware, and completely capable of turning your pants to metal without so much as lifting her little finger.
“I’d make a comment that Pabu’s instincts are better than yours, and he knows when his footing is unstable,” she says dryly, “But you’re my student now, and that would be a poor testament to my teaching skills. Don’t you dare,” she barks, when Bolin attempts to skirt past her, occupied with the thought of hot food. “Training first. Then food.”
“But I’m so hungryyyy-”
“Out into the courtyard.”
A hellish hour and a half pass before Lin lets him take a break. Legs wobbly and muscles straining, he collapses where he stands, amid the wreckage of an unused, rocky corner of Air Temple Island overlooking the Bay specially set aside for their earthbending. There is hardly a drop of sweat on his Sifu’s brow, when she pulls up a round, flat rock to sit on next to him. Bolin’s long suspected that the Beifong clan isn’t quite human; this is only one more pebble of evidence on his mountain of theory.
“So,” she says at last, instead of good work or you’re improving or I think you’re ready to attempt metalbending now, because I know you’re very excited to try it. “Semifinals are tonight.”
Bolin’s stomach abruptly plummets to his feet. “I know,” he groans, collapsing backwards into a heap of crumbled dirt that used to be a boulder, a casualty of one of Lin’s more ferocious attacks. Bolin thought he’d blocked it rather well, but Lin’s expressions always make it so hard to tell when he’s succeeding or otherwise. “It’s hard to forget when people remind you about twenty times a day.”
“You’ll do well,” his Sifu says flatly. Bolin has never met anyone so unimpressed with his theatrics, save for his brother, but then again Mako has the advantage of years of building up tolerance. “I know you will.”
He opens an eye, looking up at his Sifu. Above him she looks out at the water, at the sun climbing steadily above the horizon. Yue Bay is calm this morning, and underneath the rising sun the waters deepen from pre-dawn silver to a rich, imperial blue, the occasional gentle wave crested with white foam. For a second, against the backdrop, she looks nearly serene.
“You really think so, Sifu Beifong? Thank you, it means a lot to me, and I’m sure it means a lot to Korra and Mako too -”
“I know you will,” she restates, voice cool, “because I have a rather large wager riding on you three winning the championship.” She glances down at him, where he’s sprawled, barefoot, on the ground with a smudge of dirt on his nose and one eye cracked open. “Why do you think I’ve been taking this much time to train you specially for the past two months?”
“That’s - that’s what this has been about?” The lull he was falling into during the break is snapped apart like a boulder under a volley of metal projectiles. He sits up, eyes totally open now, trying not to pout at her and failing horribly.
“That,” Lin concedes, “and because your stance was terrible when we first started. I don’t blame you for being self-taught at first, but whoever your first coach is, he ought to be locked up for his methods.”
Bolin’s torn between wanting to defend his first coach from his current one, and wanting to agree with her. It’s almost a stroke of luck that he has to do neither - Lin stands and, with a single strike of her foot and uncomplicated gesture, he’s vaulted from his resting position and into the air for the second time that day.
Lin Beifong watches, frowning slightly, as her student flails, trying desperately to correct himself before he falls off the cliff. In the end he avoids plummeting into the water through a dicey mixture of luck and a nicely-timed rock wall he pulls up from the side of the island.
“Your reflexes aren’t what they’ve been,” she scolds, “And you think you’re ready for semifinals tonight? Perhaps I’d have been better off placing my money on the Wolf Bats. Come on, double-time until I feel that my wager is safe and you’re ready for your game tonight. Ready?”
“Yes, Sifu,” Bolin wheezes. Releasing his grip, he flattens the rock wall back into the ground and shuffles away from the side of the cliff, digging his bare feet into the soil and regulating his breath. In, out, trying to find that razor-thin line between knowing whether to defend or launch an offensive - the slender space between reactions, full of unswayed potential. True enough, the stance was the first thing that Lin had taught him, after nearly weeping with dismay at how poor his stances were; it came naturally as breathing now, after weeks of struggling just to adapt to Lin’s standards.
His inhuman teacher pauses, forehead creasing momentarily after she’s adopted a neutral stance opposite him. “Oh, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t let anyone else know about that wager.”
To say that Republic City’s in the grip of a raging Pro-Bending Fever would be the understatement of the century. It’s theorized that benders and non-benders alike bonding in mutual appreciation of an exciting match, finding catharsis from the horrors of the Equalist Revolution and the past year in cheering on their favourite teams; others speculate that this fever-pitch is the natural conclusion of a league that keeps upping the ante with each passing season. Regardless, commentators on the radio speculate that a season hasn’t been met with this much fervor and anticipation in the entire history of the sport.
The mania manifests in truly ridiculous ways, however, and they grow invariably worse as the championships progressed. Rival factions of pro-bending team supporters have caused Lin and her police force no small amount of trouble in the forms of small-scale street scuffles (on more than one occasion she’s had to have very stern words with the Ferrets on not giving their supporters the wrong impression). Underground betting pools and schemes to fix the finals are routinely uncovered and broken apart. Restaurants and foodstalls have been hawking dressed-up versions of their old dishes with names such as “Korra’s Favourite Seaplum Stew” or “Fire Ferrets Pan-Fried Noodles,” but word on the street is that the restaurant selling a complicated lychee dessert bearing Tahno’s unofficial seal of approval outsells the competition.
(Bolin is absolutely not jealous that, apparently, he doesn’t have a dish named after him. Discovering that made Mako fall silent, then offer him the rest of the Mako’s Flaming Fire Flakes bag he was crunching through.)
The latest incarnation of Bending Fever ridiculousness is waved in front of the Fire Ferret’s faces when Asami joins them for lunch.
“What’s that? Your fingers? Why are you waving your fingers around?” Mako asks, summing up the question on the forefront of Bolin’s mind.
“It’s not my fingers,” she says sagely, “It’s what’s on them. My nails, to be precise. Did you know that nail salons across the city are offering manicure discounts if they’re in the team colors?” She grins. “They were doing nails in Fire Ferret Red, I had to!”
“Whaaaat?!” Korra’s mind seems to be blown by this latest wave of bipartisan championship-profiteering ingenuity; she seizes Asami’s hand, then grabs Pabu from Bolin’s side, presumably to compare the colors. “That’s so cool!”
Lin, conceding to Tenzin and Pema’s request stay for lunch, visibly resists rolling her eyes above her bowl of egg and dumpling soup. “They had the color beforehand, they just gave it a different name.”
Korra deflates, releasing Asami’s hand and giving the squirming ferret back to Bolin, who plops Pabu on his shoulder and lets him start to groom his bath-damp hair happily. “Oh. That’s...that’s not quite as awesome.”
Seating herself at the empty space between Korra and Bolin, Asami gratefully takes the tea that’s poured for her and tucks in and filling her bowl with soup (but not before handing it to Mako, who heats it through with a smile, and hands it back wordlessly before Meelo and Ikki make him reheat their soup as well). “Maybe not,” she agrees with Korra, “but you will be interested to know that the salons are also offering to style customer’s hair like yours.”
This makes Korra consider, face scrunching. “My hair? What’s so special about my hairstyle?”
“It’s marketable,” Lin says, as Tenzin and Pema make shooshing noises at her. “What?”
“It’s marketable,” Asami agrees, “but everything is marketable right now. You’d be surprised at the requests that Future Industries has getting from some of the teams. The Wolf Bats made it known that, in no uncertain terms, they wanted a bus, painted with their logo, to drive them to and from matches. Their offer was...considerable.”
Mako and Bolin sit up a little straighter. It had been Asami’s idea to reextend Future Industries’ offer of sponsorship to the Fire Ferrets after she had taken control of the company; other teams trying to edge in on their (admittedly pretty sweet the second time around) sponsorship was simply not allowed.
“You didn’t take it, though?” asks Bolin, noting the worried little crinkle around his brother's eyes.
Asami laughs. “Ha, of course not. The company is Fire Ferrets-only; I told Tahno where he could stick his bus. If he could afford it,” she adds, sipping her tea.
Tenzin, voice of reason that he is, clears his throat. “I, personally, am looking forward to the finals being over, if only so these team rivalries and marketing strategies can cool down and everyone can return to a semblance of sanity. That said.” He fixes Mako, Korra, and Bolin with a stern look. “If you three lose tonight, you can start looking for a new place to live.”
“Dear!” Pema protests good-naturedly, as Asami and the kids start giggling at what is very obviously an empty threat. Bolin’s spluttering on his soup but is suddenly very aware that Lin has fixed him with a steely gaze, their own conversation about the consequences of losing far too fresh in Bolin’s mind for him to be entirely comfortable with the joke.
After that, the meal falls into what passes for a reasonable mealtime silence on Air Temple Island. Korra and Tenzin break off into a conversation-bordering-on-argument about airbending forms, which is only broken when Tenzin and Pema have to physically prevent Meelo from falling into the soup tureen. Ikki and Jinora are feeding their baby brother, which turns into a good-natured squabble over who feeds him what. Mako’s thankfully managed to distract Lin, asking questions about remaining Equalist cells and the security presence at tonight’s match, long enough for Bolin to start finishing his meal without cracking underneath the weight of his Sifu’s gaze.
“So,” Asami turns to Bolin conversationally, setting her bowl down. “You might be interested to know that General Iroh’s going to be at the finals match next week.”
Bolin splutters again, nearly spitting out his soup with a form that waterbenders would be proud of. “What?! He’s - you - you guys have been talking?”
“He sent me a wire,” Asami says. “He knows you don’t have any of the standard Navy communications machines here on the island, so anything important, he sends to me to pass on to you.”
Underneath her careful scrutiny, Bolin can feel himself turning bright red. “Oh. Uhm. That, that makes sense, I guess. What else did he say?” he adds, feeling slightly desperate beneath his embarrassment.
“That he was looking forward to seeing everybody again, and hopefully cheering the Fire Ferrets onto victory,” Asami replies. She pulls a folded piece of official-looking paper from her jacket pocket, hands it over to him. Disappointingly, that is rather the gist of the message, save from the usual bluster about hoping Asami is hale and hearty and the fortunes of Future Industries are headed in positive directions. Bolin lets his gaze linger on the printed signature momentarily, before the telegram is snatched out of his hands by Korra, who reads it with unreasonable speed.
“Iroh’s gonna be here next week!” she announces to the table, and Bolin actually slaps his hand to his forehead. It’s a stroke of luck that everyone else is suddenly too busy exclaiming and asking Asami questions to notice why the earthbender is nearly the same red shade as Pabu’s fur and looking slightly exasperated.
Despite Tenzin’s mealtime ribbing and the very pointed look Lin gives her pupil before she departs on the ferry to the mainland, protesting that she’s put off actual work long enough, Bolin’s suddenly uncomfortably aware at just what is riding on winning the semifinal match tonight. Helping Pema and Jinora clear up the dishes, Bolin thinks, and tries to ignore how the telegram made his stomach twist into further labyrinthine knots. Constant nerves about the matches, the pressure outside of the ring....they pale in comparison to the contents of that telegram, really. He’s nervous beyond belief but he knows, deep-down, that they have to win tonight - that he has to win tonight - so Iroh’s visit to Republic City opens with the sweetness of success.