Iroh woke with the nightmare still pounding in his heart and his bedding in flames around him.
He was confused for a second, thinking he was still there, still sinking helpless into the deep dark water with his fleet burning to cinders around him and the aircraft raining down death from above. But – no, he was safe, all was well, he was in the same quarters he was always berthed in when he travelled with the Navy, every sharp line and empty corner was familiar to him.
Except for how the bed was on fire.
Iroh cursed and leapt for the wash basin across the room, emptying it hurriedly onto the flames. It wasn’t the first time he’d firebent unintentionally in moments of stress, but this was – a little embarrassing, to tell the truth. He was a grown man. He shouldn’t have been having trouble with night terrors at all, let alone ones that left him shuddering and scared, his hands clenched in useless fists, grasping for allies he was far too late to save.
His bed was a soggy charred mess. Iroh sighed. Even without the threat of nightmares he doubted he’d manage any more sleep tonight.
He dressed himself, fresh-pressed trousers and white shirt and uniform jacket and shiny boots, and went to wander the deck. It calmed him, the solid feel of metal beneath his feet, the shine of stars too high above to reach. The night air, too, which smelled refreshingly of salt even if it was a little too warm to be dressed as he was. That, he couldn’t help. It was important to be dressed well at all times, to be polite and proper, to set a good example to the men.
Maybe that’s all he was. Some pretty court-born figurehead, not any real sort of commander after all. So young to be a general, people said, and their smirks said what their words didn’t.
Iroh shook his head to clear it and went on with his rounds, head held high, back straight, shame pulsing through his blood like poison.
Until he heard the radio.
“… one heck of an opening volley from the Eel Hounds, folks, looks like they’re trying to start the season on the right foot.” The noise of the radio came from the mess hall on the floor below him, from the sound of it. It was distant and crackly, disrupted by bursts of static. He ventured closer to the rails, listening. “—almost an illegal headshot, but a bit unclear, is the ref going to – no, looks like the ref’s not going to call them out on that, fair enough, tricky call – ohhh, nice bit of firebending from the Eel Hounds! but it won’t help them if they can’t capture some territory, fast. Aaand the Fire Ferrets are still just playing defensively, folks, none of that trademark flare we came to expect from—”
The Fire Ferrets!
Iroh grinned and jumped off the ship, gripping the rail as he fell and swinging so he dropped neatly through the open window into the mess. He rolled and stood.
The crew gathered around the radio were all staring at him. One man’s cigarette fell from his gaping mouth, and he didn’t seem to notice. “G - general Iroh, sir!” he said, and snapped a hasty salute. The other crewmen and women sat bolt upright and followed his lead, looking panicky.
It was a little unpleasant to be the cause of that, the thing that made all the casual camaraderie vanish like smoke. They probably thought this was some kind of test, all of them still staring at him like him being here was something unusual. Which – he supposed it was. He’d been perhaps a little too proper, these past few weeks. Stern, distant.
That at least was easy to fix.
“Who’s winning?” he asked.
“Uh – the Eel Hounds right now, sir,” one of his firebenders said. She had relaxed a little at the question, they all had; still all looking at him like he was bizarre, but the edge of tension had gone.
He scowled. “Ridiculous, the Fire Ferrets can beat them with their hands tied behind their back.” He was greeted with some fervent nods, a few smiles, a few affable boos of disagreement. Better. He sat down with them, as an afterthought rolling up his sleeves so he looked at least a little more at ease. “What round are we—”
The firebender gestured to the radio. “--and that’s round one gone, folks,” the commentator was saying, “and gone firmly to the Eel Hounds. Hopefully the Ferrets can pick up their game this round, or they’ll be out of the tournament before it’s even begun, a pity after all the campaigning they’ve been doing just to get pro-bending back - Round two! Nice opening shot from Ferret earthbender Bolin, good to see they’re playing – oh!” Dimly the sound of the crowd gasping could be heard. “And Asha’s knocked back two zones! Great teamwork, Ferrets! But the Hounds waterbender’s not about to take that lying down—”
Iroh glanced around. His crewmembers were all leaning in raptly to listen, wincing and grinning as the game unfolded. It felt warm, somehow, friendly; the commentator spinning this golden bubble of a place far from here with just his words, and the lot of them leaning in close like they could live in it. Camaraderie.
This would be a very awkward time to admit that he had only a vague idea what the rules of pro-bending were.
But even without knowledge of the game, it was good just to hear how things were going. He received regular military updates from Republic City, of course, he’d be told if anything had happened to Avatar Korra or any of her team – but. But. There was a whole world of difference between knowing that they were probably alive and nothing more than that, and hearing what they were doing right now, right this instant, hale and healthy -
“Ouch! Mako takes a disc straight to the stomach, folks, that’s gotta hurt—”
Well, more or less healthy.
It was … oddly engrossing, actually. Iroh found himself leaning forward with his breath caught in his throat, body humming with adrenaline even though there was no battle to be had. And when the match ended – the Ferrets rallying together for a spectacular third-round knockout, ha! – he cheered and whooped with the rest of his crew, punching the air, all of them laughing together. He even lingered in the mess afterward, to listen to the crackly music on the radio and drink a cup of tea and grin at his crew’s friendly banter.
That was how it started. Looking back Iroh was a little at a loss to explain how it escalated, but there was no doubt it did. Almost overnight he became as eager a pro-bending fan as the people who stopped you on the street to tell you urgently why their team was the very best there was. Worse, possibly. Sometimes he ended meetings early just so he could listen to a match. Once he stopped in the middle of a fight to listen.
… Only a minor fight, to be fair, stopping a small squabble about land rights in one of the outer parts of the Republic, where there had been less intermarriage and some tension remained between the Fire Nation settlers and the original Earth Nation inhabitants. Routine stuff, really. And the old Earth Nation man who’d been being belligerent agreed to be more reasonable, apparently under the grounds that if haughty generals could pause being impressive and intimidating in order to flail delightedly about the Komodo Rhinos’ incredible fourth-round comeback then maybe Fire Nation folks weren’t as bad as all that. Almost like they were real people, in fact.
Iroh’s crew seemed to find the whole thing pretty hilarious, so Iroh was inclined to count it as a victory, overall. He followed orders and gave orders and went about his business, just with the addition of having the warm promise of pro-bending at the end of his day, sitting listening to his friends being excellent. Connected to the world. The crew got used to it, seemed pleased, even, though they still always looked nervous when he shouted angrily at the ref. Which. Was almost every game.
And late at night he turned on his own little radio, and let the constant hum and crackle of noise lull him to sleep. And when he jerked awake in the middle of the night it was the first thing he heard, it was a lifeline, tethering him to the world. He still had nightmares, of course he did, far too often – but it was easier to deal with them when he could escape, sink into the jazzy swing of music or the jittery excitement of matches. So. That was … also a plus.
Things came to a head the week of the finals, though, which also happened to be when they were attacked by pirates.
“… So I’m going to take us into port at Republic City,” was what he finished his report of the matter with.
There was a crackly pause. The special United Forces frequency was clearer than most, but getting a good signal way out here was tricky even so. “Uh,” came Bumi’s voice at last, distorted but still familiar. “Why?”
“Well, we need to lick our wounds,” Iroh said, innocently. It was perfectly true. He himself hadn’t escaped unscathed, a particularly nasty blow connecting with his side – quite bad, but he was one of the worse wounded of his crew, and that soothed the sting considerably. He loved it when battles ended with no casualties, he really did.
Bumi laughed. “What aren’t you telling me, lad?”
Difficult to lie to someone who’d known you since you were a child. Iroh didn’t bother. “It’s the pro-bending final the day after tomorrow,” he said eagerly, “if we hurry we can make it in time to catch it—”He cleared his throat. “Coincidentally, of course. By accident. Unintentionally. Certainly not the point at all.”
A crackling pause which somehow seemed imbued with scepticism. Then, “That ain’t real proper, princey boy.”
Bumi sounded entirely too pleased by this. He always had been amused about how Iroh stuck to the rules, and buoyantly gleeful whenever he didn’t. It gave Iroh pause, though. Propriety was … important. This was a matter of honour. He should think carefully about his priorities, his duty, the right course of action.
“It’s a grudge match,” he said, almost pleadingly. Bumi laughed loud and long.
And that was how General Iroh, second-of-that-name, Prince of the Fire Nation and pride of the United Forces, set his mighty flagship on its slow and magnificent course to Republic City just to catch a pro-bending match.
The crew was every one of them delighted.
Pro-bending was even better live.
All the inexplicable terms and rules made sense now, the sport itself made sense now on a visceral level it never had before. Because it was beautiful. The roar of the crowd, the flash of fire and shine of water and solid pound of earth, people moving fast and quick and clever - people at the peak of their ability using their amazing skills not to hurt others but to compete, to entertain, for the sheer joy of it. It was so very beautiful.
Also really exciting. Iroh was sitting straight as steel and calm-faced but he was twitching ever so slightly, because it took physical effort not to jump up and shout and wave his arms around like a maniac. The match just got more and more exciting with every second, the tension building. Not entirely unlike war, though with much prettier uniforms.
“—and we’re entering the final moments now, folks, the clock’s ticking and it’s still anyone’s match – wowee! Nice bit of waterbending from Avatar Korra, who, by the way, loves to eat Omashu Oatcakes, every bite a delightful dream, buy some today! Nice bit of waterbending from Avatar Korra, but it’s left her wide open to attack, yet to see if the Moose Lions will take advantage of – and yes, they do! Avatar Korra is iiiiiin the driiink in the final round of her team’s championship bout! Will the Fire Ferrets manage to hang on?”
Iroh chewed on a nail anxiously.
“Sao’s been training hard, by the looks of it, not seeing any of the slackness that he showed last match. A two-one combo from the Ferret brothers and he’s driven back into Zone Two, with Mako and Bolin still in Zone One – the lions have decided to target Bolin by the looks of things, a solid two, no, three element barrage on Bolin who they’ve clearly decided is the weak point here but he is standing his ground folks, he is standing – his – ground! And – Mako’s fighting, Mako takes the opportunity to strike back and there’s that fireboxing we know and love, almost invented that technique, Mako’s good but is he good enough? Wowzee, folks, this is one humdinger of a match, I haven’t felt this excited since I heard pro-bending was being brought back! I wish I had two sets of eyes so I could see it all WOW.” The crowd went hushed with excitement. “A waterbending sucker punch knocks Mako back, Mako is driven back to Zone Two, I repeat, Mako is in Zone Two! Things aren’t looking too good for the Fire Ferrets today!”
Iroh winced. Mako sprang back to his feet immediately, though, letting off another savage burst of firepunches, neatly dodging an earthbent disc. Bolin was bearing the brunt of the attacks, though, flinging discs in front of him that shattered to pieces under the force of the fire and water, snapping out sturdy attacks whenever he had a chance to. Iroh found his eyes being drawn to him more and more, the sheer solidity of him. He took hits and then just kept going. Kept fighting and fighting and fighting, so Iroh wasn’t really surprised when he started getting the edge back, inch by stubborn inch, even as Mako was driven back a zone into the uneasy territory of Zone Three, even as a dirty waterbending shot took Bolin clear in the face. He just … kept on going. Drove the Hounds back into their own territory, and then back another Zone, and then another –
“--good offensive playing by Bolin there, I’ll say yet again, that boy has grit!! The Hounds are driven back to Zone Three, it’s two-on-two, teaming up on Bolin yet again, but he can handle that – Mako takes advantage of their distraction and deals a punishing blow, and – that is the end of the round, and Shao is iiiin the driiiink! Fire Ferrets had most territory, Fire Ferrets win round four and the championshi—”
“FLAMEO, Fire Ferrets!” Iroh yelled delighted at the top of his voice, punching the air. Fire bloomed from his fist. “… Sorry,” he said to the people sitting near him, and then, “Ow.”
He couldn’t find it in himself to mind, though, even as his injured side gave a reproachful twinge from the unwise motion. Bolin was posing for the cameras, hand on hip, eyelids fluttering, and then Korra was vaulting back into the Arena, slinging an arm around each of the boys and physically lifting them up in a delighted team hug. The crowd was going wild, shouting their pleasure or displeasure about the win; the air was filled with laughter and applause, thousands of people united in this single moment.
Pro-bending was so much better live.
Iroh made his way down to the backstage training area. They were his friends – well, sort of. They were his friends, he had a right to see them. Anyway, no one really complained after he gave them his best I Am A Ferocious General glare, just told him the way and then got out quick. He burst into the locker room and clapped, beaming. The foul-tasting medicine his doctors had forced down his throat was finally taking effect, and he felt pleasantly woozy.
Korra and Mako were off somewhere, probably so they could kiss passionately, so Bolin was the only one there to greet him, sitting on the bench and examining his helmet for dents. “General Iroh!” he said, waving, and Iroh smiled and came over. “Thought I recognised that terrifyingly destructive firebending style,” he said, his grin taking away any sting in the words. “What can I do you for?”
“I’m here to see Korra, actually,” Iroh said, a little apologetically.
Bolin blinked at him, then burst out laughing. “Well I know that,” he said, sounding fond, “that’s obvious, I’d have to be an idiot not to know that. Er – no offence, General.”
“None taken,” Iroh said dryly.
“You want me to go fetch her?” Bolin said cheerily, but Korra and Mako were entering at last, looking giddy with victory. And also with kissing.
“That was an amazing match,” Iroh told them all, meaning it.
Korra beamed. “Thank you!” she said, and grabbed his shirt collar to drag him into a hug, too, which led to another big group hug. The Avatar seemed to like those. Iroh was inclined to approve.
“What brings you here?” Korra said, once she’d released them.
“I had business here,” Iroh lied cheerfully, “thought I’d drop by and see how you all were doing.” He smiled at her. “How are you doing, Miss Fully Realised Avatar?”
Korra made a face. “Really bored! I can’t believe that as soon as I finally master all the elements and ya-da-ya-da, I’m not actually allowed to use them.”
Iroh blinked. “Why ever not?”
“Oh, well – I’m allowed, just, I have to be careful and stuff, and seek other solutions first, all that.” She scowled. “We’re all being careful. Apparently benders need to, like, prove that we’re not evil evil oppressors, so we’re all just dialling back the huge impressive feats for a while.”
“Clever,” Iroh said approvingly. It was good they weren’t just ignoring the problem now that Amon had been dealt with. The bending/non-bending conflict in Republic City had caused him a few sleepless nights all on its own, and at its heart it had nothing to do with insane terrorists and everything to do with perfectly normal people trying to live their lives.
Korra looked surprised. “Nah, can’t be,” she said, “Bo thought of it first,” and Bolin pouted at her. She pouted back. The whole thing was entirely adorable. Somewhere along the way Iroh had forgotten how much he liked these people.
“Korra, we’d better be going,” Mako said, “we’ll be late.”
“But it’s Iroh!” Korra said, gesturing at him. “Oh, fine. There’s a party thing,” she explained, “to celebrate pro-brending, I guess we’ll kinda be the stars so we can’t really be late.” She brightened. “You should come!”
Mako made a face but didn’t say anything to contradict the invitation, which Iroh took as approval. Mako wasn’t a very emotional fellow. “I would love to!” Iroh said, “it would be my very great – I mean, it, I’d, a party … sounds …” He trailed off, squinting. “The room’s spinning,” he said, abruptly panicked. His head felt empty, echoing. “Maybe some kind of poison—” He swayed. Actually swayed where he stood, as though he couldn’t balance his way across a speeding aircraft’s wing without even raising a sweat.
Iroh sat down, rather abruptly.
There was a chorus of concerned “Iroh?”s, which he waved away, feeling like a fool. “I’m fine,” he said, annoyed with himself. “Just under some rather heavy medication.”
Korra grimaced. “Guess the party suggestion’s out, then,” she said.
“But it’d be hilarious,” Bolin said. He stood up and mimed a staggering walk. “Hello miss, I am the brave and dashing General Iroh, you’re so beautiful you’re making me swoon oh wait that’s drugs! Bluuuurgh—”
Iroh glared at him. “You are a horrible person,” he ground out, through clenched teeth.
Bolin stopped immediately. “… Hey, what are you on medication for?” he asked curiously.
Iroh cleared his throat. “I … may have perhaps broken a rib,” he said. “… Or two. There were a lot of pirates,” he added defensively.
Mako raised his eyebrows. “You should give pro-bending a try some time,” he said, cool and aloof, “if you can weather hits like that.”
“That’d be unfair to everyone else,” Korra said, grinning. Then she looked guilty. “Not that you’re any less a firebender than Iroh! You’re totally as good.” She tugged Mako closer by the scarf and kissed him apologetically. “You’re the best firebender there is!”
“If you stopped flirting for a minute you could, you know, heal him,” Bolin said, tapping his fingers together sheepishly. “Just a suggestion.”
Korra pulled away from Mako and shook her head regretfully. “Not when he’s got spirits-alone-know-what painkillers swimming in his blood, it’s not worth the risk.” She smiled at Iroh. “How about dropping by Air Temple Island tomorrow? I can heal you up a bit, and you can have lunch with me and the airbenders, get introduced to everyone properly.”
“I would like that very much, Avatar Korra,” Iroh said, and gave a shallow seated bow to be polite. “… Urgh.” He grimaced. His head was swimming unpleasantly now.
“Sleep it off, big guy,” Bolin told him, grinning. He extended his hand in invitation. Iroh paused for a second, then accepted the help; he could probably make it back to the ship on his own, but it was better to be safe. Bolin hauled him up, then, when he swayed, wrapped an arm around him to keep him standing, unasked. The lad could be a little too confident at times. Right now it was helpful, though, so he didn’t protest.
Besides, it felt nice, Bolin was warm and solid and it had been far too long since anyone had -
… And that thought more than anything else meant that, yes, he should get back to the ship post haste before he started slurring incoherently or declaring his undying love for everyone present.
And somehow while he’d been thinking that, time had passed. They were outside now, Bolin chattering cheerfully as they made their way down the street. Iroh tried to concentrate and noticed one crucial fact.
“You’ll miss the party,” he said urgently. It suddenly seemed immensely important.
“The Council didn’t actually invite me, so,” Bolin said, shrugging, then saying, “Whoops!” and helping steady Iroh after the shrug threw him off balance.
“I guess it didn’t occur to them,” Bolin said, grinning. “It’s fine, I don’t have any fancy clothes anyway.”
Iroh frowned. He poked Bolin’s face, very seriously, trying to gather enough articulacy to refute that. “It is not fine,” he said firmly. “I don’t think it’s fine at all. I think – oh, look, seats,” and he collapsed onto one and leaned against the wall and sighed contentedly.
“Uh. Iroh? General Iroh sir?” Bolin tugged at his arm. “You can’t go to sleep here.”
Iroh blinked at him wearily. “Why not? It’s comfortable.” He gave a dozy smile. “And maybe nightmares can’t find me here.”
“You need to get back to your ship,” Bolin said gently, trying to pull him up. “What were they thinking letting you out into the city, didn’t your doctors warn you that this would happen?”
“Er. It might possibly have been mentioned. I just - I very much wanted to see the match,” Iroh said, eagerly. “It most certainly lived up to my expectations! I would’ve loved to see a first round knockout, though, you hear such great stories about those I think I’m going to be sick, oh, dear.” He hunched over, grimacing. “… I’m going to be so mortified by all this tomorrow.”
“I’d just like to inform you that seeing you like this is really weird,” Bolin said, bending over so they were face-to-face. He twisted his face into a considering frown, exaggerated like his expressions always were. Iroh laughed, and the frown turned into a sort of hesitant grin. “What’s so funny?”
“Your face,” Iroh said fondly.
“Uh. Okay?” Bolin said. “I was thinking we should probably get some food into you. You’ll never get to the Bay at this rate, something solid in your stomach would ground you a bit. When was the last time you ate?”
“Eating sounds ghastly,” Iroh said severely. “… Yesterday? No, there were the pirates … Day before yesterday. I am very nearly certain. No, it was – honestly, I can’t remember.”
“Wow, your crew take really bad care of you,” Bolin said cheerfully. “Trust me, I know food sounds horrible right now, but it’s a good idea, honest.” He patted his own stomach encouragingly. “Best thing to do when drugs have got you all woozy.”
“How would you know that?” Iroh asked.
“I was thinking this Water Tribe food place I know nearby,” Bolin said, and Iroh couldn’t manage to make himself mind that he’d avoided the question. Food did sound good; once he got past the coil of nausea he felt at the idea, he realised he was ravenous.
After that his memories of the night got a little hazy. He just remembered pieces, here and there; the unfamiliar taste of seaweed juice burning at the back of his throat - it was foul. He drank a whole bottle, and later could not for the life of him figure out why. The sounds and smell of a night market, riotous and joyful. The bulk of his ship rising ahead of them. The stars spinning uneasily as his head swam - but most of all, through it all, the feeling of Bolin’s arm around him, impossibly steady and safe, holding him firm.
That night for the first time in weeks he slept a sleep entirely without nightmares.
Instead he for some reason dreamed of a voice warm with laughter, of eyes green as new spring leaves. Of a strong young body pressed close to his.
Which was just as troubling, really, but. In an altogether more pleasant way. He’d take it.