17: I Swear I will
Liao packed his and Xin's bags into the trunk of their Satomobile. Xin, still leaning heavily on his crutch with a bag slung over his shoulder, was being helped down the steps outside Mako and Korra's place by Midori. "Hurry up, will you?" he called good-naturedly to his partner, who waved him off and continued down the steps. "Gainika's expecting us in a few hours!"
"I'm crippled, not deaf, Liao," retorted Xin. Midori snickered. Xin shrugged off the bag and gave it to Liao, who took the bag and shoved it in the backseat.
"What's in there, rocks?" he asked with a grunt.
Xin rolled his eyes. "Korra's cooking," he whispered, and Liao laughed. "Figured we could bring some to Bolin—and if that doesn't kill him, nothing will," Xin said in a louder voice.
Korra threw a rock at him, which Xin dodged, and the rock hit the window of the Satomobile. Mako started to laugh, but cut off when his wife growled at him. "Sorry, babe," he muttered as a sign of apology, running a hand through his hair.
"That's okay, honey," she responded, slinging an arm around him, but still glaring at Xin. Just from the way that she had called Mako 'honey', Liao knew that she wore the pants in their relationship. Liao wanted to snicker, but didn't want Korra to throw another rock at him and Xin.
"Come on, already," Liao grumbled good-naturedly. "We need to get going. Gainika's expecting us soon, partner. She's not going to go easy on your crippled soul."
"I know she's not, kid," Xin said, rolling his eyes and ruffling Liao's hair with the arm that wasn't in a sling. "She'd have to be human first."
Liao snorted, leaning against the car like he didn't have a care in the world. "Right, right, of course," he drawled. "Doc took pity on your poor crippled soul."
"Doc is Doc," retorted Xin. "He's being commissioned by Section Leader and gets out of TS's for taking pity on my 'crippled soul', as you so put it." Midori giggled, rocking backwards on the balls of her feet. "See?" Xin pointed at the curly-haired teenager, who was blushing. "Midori takes pity on my soul."
"She's entitled to, she kicked your butt in poker," responded Asami, scrutinizing her fingernails and fighting the urge to smile when Liao cracked up. "Scammed your ass off of two hundred yuans."
"There goes my pension," muttered Xin, half-smiling. "So, before anyone else can take pity on the invalid, are we clear on the plan?"
Korra, Mako, Asami and Midori nodded. Suddenly, the teenager bounced up and down impatiently. "Ooh! Ooh! I forgot! Xin, Liao, can I do the accent thing we talked about?"
Asami looked at Liao, who looked about as clueless as she did. "Accent?" they asked at almost the same exact time. "What accent?"
Xin looked sheepish. "Erm…I may have told Midori that since she beat me, she had to make the call in a funny accent. As my consolation prize, you know?"
Liao wanted so, so badly to bury his face in his hands in exasperation. That was so typical of his partner, making promises to young children. He was always good with kids…Liao barely knew how to treat children without the help of an instruction manual. It was a miracle Midori hadn't burst into flames around him. "Consolation prize," he said slowly.
Xin and Midori nodded.
"I know I'm going to regret asking this," said Liao, "but what exactly does this accent sound like?"
Midori's face brightened. "Does that mean I can do it?"
"No," explained Liao. "It just means I want to hear if you're any good at this accent thing, and whether or not I'll punch Xin later today."
Midori nodded again, still smiling. She placed her hand over her chest, coughed several times, clucked her tongue, and tilted her head to the side. "'Lo, I'm lookin' for Liao," she drawled, sounding suddenly several years older. "Huh…yeah, he promised me a date and nevah came…gave me the numbah, though. Can I talk ta him?"
Liao's mouth dropped. "What…what the hell are you, a hooker?"
Instead of being offended, like he'd expected, Midori brightened even more and started to bounce around Asami, talking a mile a minute. "Yeah! Great idea! Xin told me you're a ladies man: it'll work, won't it? You can pretend I'm some chick you picked up on shore leave!"
Mako and Korra fell over themselves laughing. Asami's cheeks were red, as were Liao's and Xin's. "Did he?" asked Liao through gritted teeth, glaring at his older partner, who was looking at the concrete like it was the most interesting specimen of asphalt he'd ever seen. Yes, Liao was a dace of the first degree, as Chan and Jiktun usually pointed out, but not to that extent. More often than not, he called the girls that he met on shore leave; he just couldn't keep in touch with them that often. "How nice. Midori, you can do it."
"I knew you were going to say no, but listen, I'm good and I—wait. Did you say yes?" Midori asked, and then pressed on without waiting for an answer. "Really? Oh my Spirits, thank you! I promise I'll sound genuine! I swear I will!" Midori pounced on a surprised Liao, hugging him tightly.
"You better," griped Liao. "I don't want to get a talk from Chan or Jiktun about me hooking up with a fourteen-year-old."
"I'm sixteen," Midori complained, letting Liao go and turning to Asami. "'Sami, why does everyone always think I'm younger than I am?"
Asami shrugged. "Dunno," she said, grinning at her little sister. "I'd treasure those moments, though, Blue Eyes. Soon people will mistake you for forty when you're twenty-two."
Midori rolled her eyes, placing a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Asami, that guy was at least ninety, and blinder than a wolfbat."
"Did your good looks make him go blind?" asked Liao before he could stop himself. Asami flushed bright red. "Uh. Never mind?"
Xin palmed his forehead. "Smooth, partner," he muttered under his breath. "Very smooth." Xin took a quick look at his wristwatch. "Damn. We were supposed to get on the road a half hour ago! Come on, buddy." He tried to drag Liao towards the Satomobile, but Liao broke out of his grip and walked towards Asami.
"We'll get Bolin back," he whispered, standing close to the heiress whose beauty literally took his breath away. "We will get him back or die trying." He raised one hand up to her face, and he felt her arm snake around his neck as both of them leaned forward. She tilted her head to the side, and he did the same. Before he knew it, his world was spinning uncontrollably. His knees almost buckled and he felt an incredible warmth rush through his veins. The only real thing in the world was Asami, and he grew mute to Korra and Mako gasping, Midori's soft squeak of surprise, and Xin's splutters.
The kiss ended far too soon, and all Liao could think about as she pulled away was that if he ever retired from the Agni Kais, he'd spend the remainder of his life kissing Asami. I will if she wants to, he told himself firmly. Signs can be misleading.
Her smooth, pale hand caressed his face, and for a moment, he forgot how to breathe as he stared into her beautiful green eyes. "I know you will," she whispered.
His legs felt numb as Xin easily dragged him back to the Satomobile and plunked him in the passenger seat. He continued staring out the window at Asami as Xin sat down in the driver seat. Asami gave him a small wave, and he nearly drooled as he attempted to wave back to her, his wave looking like a hand spasm.
About an hour later, when they were in the middle of traffic on the freeway, Liao regained the ability to speak. "Wow," he muttered.
Xin glanced over at him. "Wow is right, partner," he said. "I thought you guys could've gone on all day." He took another look at his partner. "You know, Liao, I've never seen you this hung up over about a girl before."
"It's not the same this time," Liao finally said. "It's Asami."
Xin had to fight not to roll his eyes. Like that made it any clearer. Did his partner always have to be so fucking cryptic? "Okay," mumbled Xin under his breath.
Suddenly, Liao's head shot up and he stared at Xin in frightened disbelief. "I'm not driving!"
This time, Xin couldn't refrain from rolling his eyes. "Yes, and this is a seat, and this is a steering wheel."
"What're you on about?"
"I thought this was 'point out random facts' hour," retorted Xin dryly.
"Xin, Doc said you weren't supposed to drive!" said Liao, eyes wide. "Why the hell didn't you let me drive?"
"Because from the way you were mooning over Asami, you would've had us in an accident halfway down the road," explained Xin simply. "Look, we still have about an hour and a half left, alright? Just don't tell Doc or Gainika that I was driving, and it'll be fine."
Liao sighed, and even though his expression was stern, Xin knew that Liao had agreed. "Only if you let me pick the station," Liao finally said.
"All yours, lover boy," said Xin good-naturedly, entirely expecting the punch to the shoulder, but not expecting it to be so hard. Liao twisted the dial, switching from static, to jazzy numbers, back to static, to religious stations, back to static, to stock market reports, before finally landing on the tail end of a song that Xin had never heard before.
"If I could be with you, I'd love you strong…If I could be with you, I'd love you long, I want you to know that I wouldn't go…Until I told you honey why I love you so…" Xin swore under his breath as he saw Liao nodding his head to the rhythm and muttering the song under his breath. Liao must seriously be in love with Asami, Xin thought, shaking his head in disbelief. "Un-freaking-believable," he mumbled.
"If I could be with you, one hour tonight…If I was free to do the things I might, things I might, I'm telling you true, I'd be anything but blue…If I could be with you, hmm babe, if I could be with you…"
"You love her, don't you," Xin remarked to Liao, taking the next exit that proclaimed they were entering Ba Sing Se, not expecting a response.
Much to his surprise, his partner responded. "Yeah, Xin," Liao said heavily as the last bars of the song faded out and an applause track played in the background. "I really do."
Bolin awoke to the now horrifyingly familiar feeling of throbbing pain all over his body. He winced, feeling the fresh cuts, scars and bruises from his previous torture session. Ever since Xin had been sent on a mandatory shore leave with Liao on his heels, Gainika had 'reluctantly' taken over his torture sessions again, both her and Zolt working together. He didn't even know what the purpose was of them torturing him anymore; he had long since forgotten any reasons or anything he had done to them in order for them to bring such hell onto him.
Only the thought that Liao and Xin were going to get him out of this hellhole kept him going every day, kept him from slitting his wrists with the rusty nail embedded on the floor of his cell. The thought of freedom kept him alive. The thought of seeing Asami, his best friend; Midori, his little sister; Mako, his estranged brother; even Korra—his friends' faces kept him going.
Where were Liao and Xin? They were supposed to have been back by now.
They probably abandoned you, a wisp of a voice in his head said patronizingly. Wouldn't blame them, either…I'd want to get away from little Bo baby too…
"Shut up," he growled, tears coming to his eyes so quickly he felt embarrassed. "Shut up, shut up, shut up…They wouldn't abandon me…" Would they? He immediately chided himself for thinking such morbid thoughts. They'll come for me. Theywilltheywilltheywill…
A beam of light suddenly cut through his thoughts from above making him flinch and grimace all at once as he carefully levered himself up into a kneeling position and lifted a hand to shield his eyes so that he could stare up at the ceiling. A hole was being sawed in it slowly, the sawdust raining down on him, making it hard to breathe, but Bolin wasn't about to focus on something as trivial as breathing. "Hello?" he whispered loudly, his voice hoarse. "Anyone there?"
Asami stuck her head through the ceiling, her dark hair blowing in a sudden gust of wind, green eyes bright. At that moment, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen in his entire life. "Bolin!" she screamed, jumped out of the hole and collapsed on the floor next to him, still yelling his name. "Oh, Spirits, Bo…"
"'Sami. Oh, Asami," he whispered her name like it was a religion, like it was the only thing keeping his soul anchored to the world. "You came."
"Of course I came," she said, brushing his hair to the side. "Bo…I am so sorry, I'm so sorry…"
"It's okay, Asami," he replied. He'd wait a million years for her. Hell, he'd wait a whole lifetime.
Help had finally come. He was going to make it.
He had made it.
So elated that his already spinning head felt even dizzier, Bolin looked excitedly back to Asami, and immediately felt the grin fall away, his heart lurching up to lodge in his throat, choking him.
Gainika had just finished pulling out a long, eight inch knife out of Asami's back, a pool of blood gushing out of the wound, unbidden. "Silly Bolin," she said, clucking her tongue. "Why do you want to leave the party so soon?" She cleaned the knife on her khakis and suddenly flickered and disappeared.
Heart pounding harder than ever, he looked back at his best friend and nearly fainted. Only a slit of her eyes remained visible, their pupils dilated enough to block all but a centimeter of green while they gazed unblinkingly off to the side. Her chalk-white lips were parted just enough to pull in the quietest of gasping breaths every few seconds, breaths which came slower still as he watched, horror-stricken and paralyzed, until they stopped completely. Words that Bolin couldn't bear to say rose to claw through his chest, to set his eyes burning, and his shoulders began to shake. "NO!" he screamed, shaking her body. Her head lolled from side to side.
She was dead.
"No!" he roared, bursting into tears. "Damnit…no, Asami! Asami! No! Don't you fucking dare die on me, Asami!" He collapsed on top of her, still screaming. "Don't go…"
"Bolin! Bolin, stop it! Calm down!" But how could he…his best friend was dead…and why did his mind sound like—
"BOLIN!" Spirits, why did that voice sound so frightened? "Wake up! Come on, wake up now!"
And in the blink of an eye, everything disappeared.
"AHH!" Bolin shot up quickly, flailing and then lurching backwards as he remembered that his hands were still handcuffed to the fucking wall. "Oh, Spirits…" he whispered.
"Bolin?" Suddenly, Bolin saw Liao kneeling over him, concerned and a bit frightened, and Xin, hanging back with a leather sack slung over his shoulder but looked every bit as concerned as his partner.
Oh, thank the Spirits, Bolin thought hysterically. Tears shot to his eyes so quickly that it was mildly embarrassing. "Thought…you left me," croaked Bolin in a voice that sounded like crumpled sandpaper. "I…was…afraid that…you guys…ditched—"
"Oh, Spirits," Liao rubbed his forehead. "Kid, we're here, we aren't leaving you. We're here, I promise." When Bolin continued to look skeptical, Liao swore. "Aw, hell. Look, kid." Liao gripped his hand in a tight grip that managed to feel gentle at the same time. Either that or he couldn't feel anything after Gainika had smashed his hand underneath her foot yesterday. "You feel that?" Liao probed.
Bolin nodded, confused.
"That means I'm here, okay?" Liao continued without waiting for an answer. "Xin and I aren't going anywhere. Damnit, I've gotten into way too much trouble too back out on you now, kid." He attempted to smile, but it came off as a grimace. "I've seen Asami and Midori," he offered.
That got Bolin's attention. Emotion poured back into his eyes and into his very soul. His skin started buzzing, and his ears turned red. Asami. Midori. "How…are they?"
Liao hesitated, exchanging a look with Xin. "Look, kid—Bolin," Xin corrected himself. "Let's get some food into you, and then we can talk."
If he'd been perked up before, he was shooting beyond the stars and the sky now. "Food?" he whimpered, ashamed that his stomach immediately began growling.
"Spirits, partner, give him something," muttered Liao, still gripping Bolin's hand tightly. Xin nodded and limped next to the two, knelt down, opened the sack and pulled out a small plastic container stuffed full of dumplings.
Bolin nearly fainted. How long had it been since he'd had dumplings? Not since he'd been kidnapped. Spirits. His hand shot out to take one, but he couldn't. Bolin's hands were still fucking chained to the wall. He swore out loud. "Damnit!"
Xin, looking embarrassed, exchanged another glance with his partner. "Oh. Right, erm…" He took the lukewarm dumpling and gestured for Bolin to open his mouth, which he did. Xin placed the dumpling in his mouth and immediately jerked his hand back as Bolin instantly began to moan and chew ferociously on Korra's cooking.
"Oh, Spirits," he groaned. The ostrich-horse dumplings weren't even his favorite, but at this point, what right did he have to complain? He'd have taken week-old food out of the dumpster if someone had offered it to him. "More…"
Twelve dumplings and two helpings of spinach-rice noodles later, Bolin was feeling happier than he had in a long time, and his stomach didn't feel like it would implode from hunger anymore. "Thank you," he stated, his voice sounding a lot stronger. "Who made this?"
"Korra," said Xin with a smirk. "We insulted her cooking and she threw a rock at our heads."
For the first time since Ash's death, Bolin laughed. He laughed until he hunched over, tears of mirth trickling down his cheeks. The sound of it was weak, but it grew louder and stronger until the walls of his cell echoed with hilarity. He didn't even really find Xin's statement altogether that funny—Bolin just really wanted an excuse to laugh. "That's Korra for you," he finally chuckled. "How're she and Mako?"
"Them? Oh, uh, they're married," Liao announced casually, and Bolin nearly choked on his spit.
"I'm sorry, I think I have cotton in my ears," he said slowly. "They're married? When did that happen?"
"Few days ago," Liao explained. "They got hitched in Ba Sing Se."
"Oh, Spirits," Bolin shook his head, rolling his eyes. "That's just…damn. And they aren't getting annulled?"
"That's a negative. They're staying together, but they plan on having a real big-shot wedding when you get the hell out of Dodge and recover so you can be your brother's best man."
"Oh." For the second time in a few minutes, Bolin was stunned. Really? Mako wanted him to be his best man? After everything the two brothers had gone through, what with Bolin's four year scheme and this hell, his big brother wanted him to be his best man? That was…unexpected. "Okay," he said. "And what about 'Sami and Midori?"
"Erm…Midori's fine," Xin stated awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck with the hand that wasn't in a sling. "She's a prodigy at poker—scammed me off of two hundred yuans."
"Let it go, already, buddy," Liao informed his partner, who looked almost offended.
"I will not let it go! How weird is it that I, an Agni Kai, got my ass handed to me by a fifteen-year-old?"
"Sixteen," corrected Bolin and Liao at nearly the same time. The earthbender and the Agni Kai Recruit exchanged bewildered glances before shrugging it off. "Uh, yeah, okay. She's doing okay?"
"She's doin' just fine," assured Liao before looking sheepish. "Okay, Bo, look…I…I've something to tell you. About Asami. Uh. C-can you promise not to, erm, not to kill me, okay? Just hear me out, alright?"
Liao's stammered statement didn't do anything to help Bolin's nerves. Neither did the fact that this was the first time that Liao had ever called him 'Bo'. "Uh—um, yeah. Yes. I'll hear you out," stuttered Bolin before exhaling slowly and chuckling. "It's not like you slept with her or anything, right?"
Liao flinched as if he'd been slapped. Xin looked away and whistled an awkward tune between his teeth.
Bolin had been hit with a baseball bat in the chest before. It had hurt like hell then, and it hurt like hell now. "Y-you—oh, my Spirits—" he spluttered incomprehensible nonsense, his face turning a deep red. "You slept with Asami?!"
Liao winced. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly?! What the hell does that mean?" growled Bolin, all vestiges of his good mood vanishing as he spoke. "Did you or did you not sleep with her? Tell me right now, Liao, or I swear to every Spirit that I am going to kill you."
Liao looked apprehensive.
"Give me a reason," said Bolin, "and I swear I will."
Both Agni Kais let out heavy breaths at the same time. "We all went to Ba Sing Se to formulate a plan for you to get out," began Liao. "And then Korra and Mako wanted to go to a bar, so we all went—"
"You let Midori go to a bar?!" Bolin exclaimed in exasperation. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"What do you take us for—"
"A couple of idiots?" finished Xin, rolling his eyes. "I'm crippled, in case you hadn't noticed, Bolin. Ladies would've surely swarmed all over me, and that would've taken all the fun out of life. So I watched Midori."
"Yeah," snickered Liao. "That's the reason you didn't go. Because the ladies would swarm all over you."
Xin held up a finger of warning and glared at his partner. "Don't push it, kid."
"Oh." Bolin calmed down slightly. "Continue."
"I saved Asami from some asshole who was trying to hit on her," continued Liao. "And then…we had a few drinks…we were drunk," he admitted. "And—well, er—after we drank, we kissed, and we got past second base and then we made our way to the hotel room and almost had sex, but she backed off."
"Wait." Something about that sentence struck Bolin as odd. "Asami backed off? Like, really?"
Liao rolled his eyes. "Sometimes, you remind me way too much of your brother. Yes, she backed off." He didn't look particularly happy about it. "So we didn't sleep together and we didn't have sex. Happy?"
Speechless, Bolin nodded. "Did—" Bolin coughed. "Did you want to?" He wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to hear an answer to the question.
Liao looked uncomfortable. "No comment."
"No comment," Liao intoned, and Bolin, although he would've rather had every one of his teeth pulled out without the aid of anesthesia, backed off. He would just have to wait and get more information out of Liao and Xin later. "Just hang on for two more weeks, kid," said Liao, changing the subject. "Two weeks, and then you're out of here. I promise."
Even though he really wanted to ask more questions about his best friend, Bolin couldn't help but get wrapped up in the prospect of freedom. To be with Asami and Midori and Mako and Korra and his college friends and to eat good food and to not get the shit beaten out of him on a daily basis—to get back to everything that he had once taken for granted.
I'm never taking it for granted again, Bolin thought to himself and, with difficulty, popped the last dumpling in his mouth. I'll be home soon, and that's all that matters. Soon, he thought with barely suppressed glee, soon I'll be home again.