“Hey, Bo,” Mako said, leaning against the door of Bolin’s room in the Air Temple. “Got you some food on the way back.” He waggled a greasy paper bag at him.
“I ate with Iroh,” Bolin said, not entirely regretfully. He picked up Pabu. “Guess those delicious dumplings are yours now, buddy,” he told him. “Do me proud. Do me proud.” He widened his eyes solemnly. “I believe in you.”
Pabu wrinkled his nose and blinked at him.
Mako tossed the bag over casually, and Bolin snagged it out of the air. “How was the party?” he said, opening the bag and mournfully breathing in the delicious yet heartbreaking smell of food he couldn’t eat.
“Boring,” Mako said. Bolin glanced at his face. There was that little curve of smile in the corner of his mouth that Mako always got when he was thinking about pleasant things. Basically the complete total opposite of boring, was what he meant.
“Were there pretty girls,” Bolin said eagerly. Pabu flowed over his shoulder and buried his snout in the bag of dumplings, making small chewing sounds. Bolin beamed at him. Wow Pabu was great.
Mako raised an eyebrow. “How would I know?” he said. “I’ve learnt the error of my ways. I’ve eyes for no one but Korra.”
Bolin made a deeply unimpressed face at him.
“… Yeah, lots,” Mako said, grinning. “Some friendly giggly ones too, which is totally your type, right? Bummer. But someone had to be stuck looking after our dear drug-addled Iroh.” He shrugged. “Think of it as it being a positive responsibility or something, whatever.”
That was how Bolin thought of it, actually. It had been nice, like General Iroh trusted him enough to let Bolin see him when he wasn’t at his best. Like they were really friends. And nice to take care of someone else, for a change, everyone always seemed to think that he was the one that needed protecting. Take care of Bolin, Naga! Mako, keep your brother safe! Asami, why did you let him wear paisley! It had been really nice.
But, “Yeah, well,” Bolin said, grinning. “Next time there’s boring babysitting duty it’s your turn, bro, gonna hold you to that.”
Mako grimaced. “So long as it’s not Meelo,” he said, and left.
Bolin sat back and snuggled Pabu into his arms. Pabu wriggled a bit, found a comfortable position and went on eating. “You want me to introduce you two next time?” he asked. “I think you’d like him. He’s basically a storybook prince, you could be his loveable animal sidekick.”
Pabu blinked up at him and chirruped.
“Yeah,” Bolin sighed, scratching behind the ferret’s ears so he squeaked happily, “you’re probably right. Too good for the likes of us, buddy.” He sneaked one of the dumplings and crunched on it, chuckling as Pabu delivered a tailslap to his face as retribution. “But hey. A guy can dream.”
Weeks went by, during which Iroh spent entirely too much time loitering in the mess just so he could listen to the radio there. It was better-made than the one in his room. He was pretty sure he escaped detection, though, he always acted like he had legitimate business there, taking paperwork so he could deal with it while having a refreshing cup of ginseng tea. Most of the time, he did the paperwork like the good figurehead general he was, but sometimes – when there was a pro-bending match, say – the paperwork lay deserted, the tea went cold. He honestly did love the game, but more and more often these days that was secondary, an afterthought, means to an end; he just listened to the game to remind him of … things. Totally important and impressive things, like say the tension between benders and non-benders. Yes. That. Certainly it wasn’t all just to remind him of some peasant boy bender; that would be idiotic. Even if he was brave and clever and had the most amazing eyes Iroh had ever seen and was a constant positive influence on everyone around him and - even so. It was a silly, unimportant little crush, and he decided to ignore it. That was the sensible course of action.
He wished he could think of a decent excuse to visit Republic City.
“Here you go, sir,” his aide said, bringing him a fresh cup of tea. He took it gratefully. She was the firebender who had answered his questions that very first night; he’d found her to be competent and clever and in all respects exactly what you’d want in an aide. “Good game tonight?”
Iroh glanced at the radio. This was one of the times when he’d honestly been paying attention to his work, and he had no idea what was going on in the match he was listening to. It wasn’t a Ferret match, anyway, so it didn’t really matter. “Probably?” he said. “Honestly, I need to get through this backlog of paperwork, it’s – hey, I was listening to that.”
He’d said it fairly amicably, he thought, so he was more than a little surprised when the crewman he’d been speaking to jerked back like he’d been slapped and then muttered an ashamed, “Yessir,” and twisted the dial back to the pro-bending station.
Iroh frowned at him. “It’s Lee, isn’t it? You’re allowed to argue, you know, when it’s little things like that. Here at least,” a gesture at the mess hall, full of tired soldiers, “we’re all equals.”
“Yessir,” Lee said, bobbing his head, but he scurried away like he’d been scolded.
Iroh blinked after him. “… What was that about?” he asked his aide.
“He’s an earthbender,” she said, raising her eyebrows meaningfully.
“I know that. What does that have to do with him being scared to death of me?”
She sighed. “He’s not scared,” she said. “He’s ashamed, embarrassed. A lot of the earthbenders and waterbenders are, because they couldn’t stop the mines.”
He stared at her. “What? That was months ago! They’ve felt like that this whole time?” Other people being burdened by a failure that was quite entirely his. It was a strange idea.
She just shrugged.
Iroh could feel the anger building, feel himself stretched tight with it like a string waiting to be plucked. He took a sip of tea. Breathed in. Breathed out. He could be terrifying when he lost his temper, he knew that. It ran in the family.
“Lee,” he ordered, his voice a harsh whip-crack of command, and the poor earthbender looked up, eyes huge. “Come here, please.”
Lee walked over and stood at attention. “Sir?” he asked.
He was stiff as a board, biting his lip – good lord, he was actually sweating. This was abominable. “Lee,” Iroh said, trying to gentle his tone. It wasn’t Lee he was angry at. “Tell me. What do you think of how my earthbenders and waterbenders handled the Attack of Republic City?”
Lee flinched. “I—” he said, low, “I have no right to speak of it, sir.”
Iroh made a curt gesture, beckoning him to speak. “Please.”
Lee bit his lip, and then blurted, “We let you down, sir. Sir, I am so so sorry, I swear we tried our hardest, just, there were so many and we’d never dealt with them before and they used strange metals and—” He snapped his mouth shut. “We let you down, sir. There’s no excuse for it.”
Just a figurehead for the crew to look up to, and he couldn’t even do that right – no, no, that line of thinking helped no one. “Lee,” Iroh said, and paused. “Would you like some tea?”
Lee shook his head. The question made him look more terrified, if anything.
“I order—” No, that was the wrong way. “I would take it as a personal favour,” he said, gently, “if you stopped thinking of the battle in those terms. All of you. You all behaved admirably, did your job under pressure. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Lee blinked at him, clearly disbelieving.
“Can you do that for me, Lee?”
“I – yes, of course, sir, I’d do anything to make it up to you!”
Ugh. “Thank you,” he said, giving up, and he nodded to show dismissal. Lee walked off, not even scurrying this time, just walking slow and sad like his failure weighed down on him and it was abominable, this, it was monstrously unfair, that anyone else should have to shoulder the weight that by all rights was his alone. The mess hall was far more hushed than it normally was; people had been listening. He scanned the faces of some of the earthbenders under his command, some of the waterbenders, even the normal soldiers; almost all of them looked uncomfortable, like they’d been listening and it had driven their own perceived failure home. Dozens of them. This was just – argh, what could he even do about this? But he had to do something.
“Help,” he said to his aide, in an undertone.
She shrugged. “What can be done? You should take it as a compliment, their devotion to you.”
“Yes, I’m very flattered that people are tearing themselves apart on my account,” Iroh said, too loudly, and she winced. He winced too. Temper issues, ran in the family.
He had another sip of tea so he could say, by way of apology, “This really is excellent.”
“Thank you, sir.” She grinned. “I do my best.”
“If only making things better was as easy as making a good cup of tea,” he said, wistfully, and shook his head. “What I need is some way to prove to them that they’re good, good people, good soldiers; some way to just – rid them of this stain that’s on them. If only it was that easy.” He sighed. “Failing for that I’d settle for boosting their morale somehow, that’d do well enough. Some way to cheer them up, to get people laughing again—” He stopped abruptly as something occurred to him, and his heart soared, entirely unbidden. No, it couldn’t possibly – he couldn’t possibly – that was far too simple a solution, there was no way it would work. He was just letting hope delude him.
He gave the idea due consideration, though, looked at it from all possible angles, and he wasn’t quite able to dismiss it. Hope’s claws clung to him far too sharply.
It wasn’t that bad an idea, really. Anything was better than nothing. At the end of the day, the fact remained that what his crew needed was to cheer up, for their loads to be lightened. They needed to learn to smile again. And at the end of the day, there was only one man he knew who could be trusted, always, with the good humour of others, with making them smile, lightening heavy hearts. A constant positive influence.
Iroh started to grin.
“Sir?” said his aide, looking alarmed.
“I,” he said, brightly, “know just the thing.”
The ferry docked at Air Temple Island, and Iroh climbed out and went in search of the young earthbender. Bolin wasn’t exactly hard to find; he’d rigged up what looked to be some kind of pro-bending practice court in one of the Temple’s stately courtyards, and was busy … well, practicing. Iroh followed the sound of solidly impacting stone discs, and found him that way.
It was a hot day. Bolin wasn’t wearing an overshirt or bulky jacket like normal, just a sleeveless white undershirt, stained with sweat from the exercise and tight enough that all his muscles were plainly visible. He had rather a lot of muscles.
So far Iroh was very pleased with his plan.
“Oh, hey Iroh!” Bolin said, seeing him. He grinned delightedly and waved. Iroh had to remind himself that Bolin smiled like that at everyone, that was the whole reason he was here. “I mean, uh, Captain – oh, shoot. General Iroh. General Iroh.”
Iroh nodded in greeting. He was starting to wish he hadn’t worn his full uniform, on a day like this; he probably looked a fool. Not that that mattered! Because that wasn’t why he was here. Nope. Not in the slightest. “Just Iroh is fine,” he said.
Bolin ran his hand through his hair, mussing it; strands fell and framed his face. “Korra’s not here, there’s this fancy luncheon or something, Tenzin said she should go.”
Iroh shook his head. He realised he was standing awkwardly, back ramrod-straight, hands rigid by his sides, like some damned wooden soldier or something, Bolin probably thought he looked – focus, Iroh, focus. He cleared his throat. “I’m not here for Korra.”
Bolin blinked. “Oh? Well, Tenzin’s there too, so – oh, unless you’re looking for Mako? Some shh-shh-secret firebending thing? He should be over—”
“Actually,” Iroh said, speaking over him. “I’m here looking for you.”
Bolin looked stunned. “Wha – really?” A grin started to spread across his face, disbelieving. “Why?”
“I was wondering if I could ask you a favour.”
“Shoot,” Bolin said eagerly, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet.
“Some of the earthbenders under my command are struggling with feeling motivated. I was hoping you could teach them a few tricks, freshen up the routine a little.” He smiled expectantly.
To his shock Bolin’s face fell, and the easy, welcoming grin vanished like it had never been there, leaving him looking closed-off, shuttered. It was a very strange expression to see on a face that was normally so open. “I told you,” he said moodily, and he stomped one foot hard on the ground, flinging out his fist to one side; a stone disc snapped into his makeshift net so hard the whole construction fell to the ground in a tangle of sticks and string. “I can’t metalbend! Okay?”
The net behind him, mind. He hadn’t even been looking.
Iroh had to swallow once or twice before he could speak without squeaking. “I remember,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. I have plenty of metalbenders, actually, it’s considered a minimum level—”
Bolin glared at him. Actually glared. It was thoroughly unnerving.
“—anyway,” Iroh hurried on, “I was thinking you’d offer a fresh new take on it. None of my crew have a pro-bending background. It’d be a good experience for them.”
Bolin’s face slowly unfrowned itself, listening to that. But he was shaking his head. “No, I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “I’d hate to get in the way.”
“Get in the – Bolin, would I invite you if I thought you’d get in the way?” Iroh snapped. “Use some common sense, man, you know me better than that.”
“Oh wow, you’re right, sorry,” Bolin said, looking immensely guilty.
General Iroh second-of-that-name, youngest general in the last five hundred years, prince of the Fire Nation, shining beacon of hope to all. And, apparently, remarkably skilled at making the man he was falling for feel completely horrible.
“I didn’t mean—” Iroh said, then gave up on that particular line of conversation. What was the point, he’d probably just snap at him again and make Bolin cry or something. “I can understand your reservations. But I’d be delighted if you could see your way to helping me out. Honoured, in fact.” He attempted a smile. “I’d consider it a personal favour, Bolin.”
Bolin clasped his hands over his chest, eyes going wide as saucers. “Really?” he squeaked, in an awed sort of whisper.
Now was as good a time as any to make his move, surely. “Absolutely,” Iroh promised. “And of course I wouldn’t dream of not returning the favour, it’s a matter of honour.” He spread out his arms in an ask-what-you-will sort of gesture, and smiled a smile sharp and charming. “Anything. Ask it and it’s yours.”
Bolin looked delighted, and then stumped. “Huh!” he said, scratching his chin. “Y’know, it’s weird, but I can’t actually think of anything?”
Iroh spread his arms wider, his smile becoming tinged with desperation. “Oh, come now. I’m a rather influential man. Surely you can think of something you want from me!”
He met Bolin’s eyes squarely, trying to convey all the weight of meaning in his gaze. A kiss, he was hoping Bolin would say, or something of that nature – anything at all, really. At this point he would settle for a bloody picnic.
Bolin met his gaze, looking confused. Then his eyes widened. A blush tinged his cheeks, and very good it looked on him, too. A wicked little grin started to play across his lips. Oh, praise the spirits, the boy knew a solicitation when he heard it.
“Can you teach me to dance?” Bolin asked, bright and eager, still grinning like a fiend.
Iroh blinked, then smiled, something soft and warm filling his chest. A little more romantic than he’d been expecting, but – they could take this slowly, that was fine, he was more than alright with that. And dancing with Bolin would be a joyous thing. “Gladly! Might I ask,” he said, then nearly lost courage, because what if he was reading the situation entirely wrong – far too late to stop now, forge bravely onwards. “Might I ask why you want to?”
Bolin grinned and punched his fist against his open hand, cackling. “Asami’s having this ball in a few months,” he explained, bouncing, “for some complicated businessy reason, blah blah, anyway it’ll be all pretty and sparkles and champagne, and if you teach me to dance all proper-like I can actually show up, for once!” He came right up to Iroh, their faces inches apart. “Wouldn’t that be great?” he said eagerly, smiling so broadly his eyes crinkled up in the corners. “Everyone’ll be like ‘what are you doing here, Bolin!’ and I’ll be like, ha, I have a right, look at these smooth moves I …” He trailed off. “Wow, you look like you just bit into a lemon,” he said, studying Iroh’s face guilelessly. “Is something wrong?” He took a step back. “… Can’t you teach me? That’s … I mean, that’s okay, I could just follow my original plan for that night.” He grinned cheerfully. “Me and a bottle of sake have a hot date with the gutter.” He waved a hand in front of Iroh’s face. “Iroh? You still there, buddy?”
The soft warm feeling had quite entirely disappeared, by this point. Oh, well. Nice while it lasted.
“Ah – yes, sorry, I have a lot of business to attend to,” Iroh said, and Bolin’s smile started to shrink. He hastened to add, “Certainly I’ll teach you. Once you’ve helped my men, of course. Drop by any time tomorrow that suits you.” He bowed shortly. “I look forward to furthering our acquaintance.” And then he strode away, as quickly as he could without breaking into a run. He wasn’t sure he could handle a single moment more in the man’s company; him being out of reach was fine, fair enough, but that didn’t mean Iroh was capable of coping with the sight of him standing there glistening, all smiley and half-naked and close enough to touch -
Iroh walked faster.
For lack of anywhere else to go, he headed toward the nearest beach. This whole thing. … it stung, a little, but he should stop his awkward attempts at courtship now, most likely, before he just embarrassed himself. He couldn’t press his suit any more urgently, not really; the power imbalance was just too huge. If he was too insistent there was a risk of Bolin agreeing with whatever he asked for just in some misguided attempt to please him. It wouldn’t be the first time one of his relationships ended up that way. What was he going to do, order Bolin to like him? Glare at him menacingly until they held hands? No.
If this was to have any chance at all of working out, it would have to be plainly and obviously Bolin’s choice, his decision. His move. And it … wasn’t what he chose. Iroh had offered himself very plainly, he couldn’t think of any possible way to be more blatant about his interest short of stripping naked and covering himself with Bolin’s favourite noodle sauce. Bolin just didn’t think of him that way. That was that.
Right, then. He could handle that. Bolin was a fine man and true; in other circumstances, if his feelings had been different, he’d be proud and honoured to be considered his friend. That would have to do.
At least he had the dancing to look forward to.
He paused at the shore. The ferry wouldn’t be back for a good twenty minutes. He had time to farewell these stupid blasted emotions properly, and then he could bury them deep.
Iroh cleared his throat self-consciously and clasped his hands behind his back in the traditional oratory pose. The wind stirred his hair. “My blood runs cold as ice,” he said, to the sky, to the waves, “even as these flames burn hot; for the hero of my heart looks upon my face and knows it not.”
“You like Love Amongst the Dragons?” a high voice piped up curiously, and Iroh screamed.
He paused for a moment to pretend very firmly that he hadn’t just done that before finally turning around. One of the airbender children was staring up at him, a girl of ten or twelve with dark hair and serious eyes. “Hello, small child,” he said uncertainly. He waved. Children were hard.
“Jinora,” she corrected.
“Jinora.” He bowed. “I’m General Iroh of the United Forces, and it is an honour to make your acquaintance.”
“I know who you are,” she said, a little impatiently. If course she did. Tenzin probably lectured his children on important political figures over the evening rice. Jinora looked him up and down critically. “And that you like Bolin,” she added.
Iroh gave an awkward chuckle. “Aren’t you … precious! When you’re a grown-up you’ll understand that sometimes it’s not polite to make up—”
“I was watching the entire time,” Jinora said.
Iroh sat down and half-covered his face with his hands. “Oh, spirits,” he said, through his fingers. “You saw all of that?”
Iroh groaned. Jinora patted his shoulder with one small hand in a 'there, there' sort of way.
“… On a scale of one to ten,” he asked, grinning self-consciously. “How pathetic was I?”
She tilted her head, considering. “Pretty pathetic,” she said apologetically, sitting down beside him. “I mean, I didn’t hear everything, but I got the gist.” She grinned. “I liked it when you were all—” She spread her arms. “Take me nooow!” She dropped her arms again. “It reminded me of merchants selling produce, you know, when they try desperately to make you want to buy it.”
“Such things should not come out of a child’s mouth,” Iroh said, a little appalled.
“I wish I hadn’t.” Iroh sighed. “Please don’t tell Bolin? I wouldn’t disturb him with this for the world.”
Jinora frowned at him. “Bolin’s nice,” she said.
“I know that, do you think I don’t know that? That’s why it’d be terrible if he knew. Most likely he’d – feel sorry for me, argh—”
Jinora waved a hand to silence him. “Bolin’s nice,” she said, stressing the word. “Almost always. To everyone. He thinks it’s his job to make people happy.”
Iroh almost snapped that, yes, obviously, but he restrained himself. “Your point?”
“I think,” Jinora said matter-of-factly, “Bolin deserves to have someone trying to make him happy, too.”
Iroh snorted out a laugh. “I wish you luck trying to find him someone then,” he said, almost honestly. She stared at him, slow and patient, a you-are-too-stupid-to-exist sort of stare. “What?” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully and pointed at him. “Wha – no. I couldn’t make him happy.” Iroh rested his arms on his knees, loosely. Stared out at the sea. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d be delighted to try, but – I don’t think he even notices me, not really.”
“Oh, he definitely notices you,” Jinora said, and Iroh cheered up a little. This girl lived in the same place as Bolin did, surely she would know.
“You think so?” he asked.
“Definitely!” she said reassuringly. “You’re difficult to miss.” She waved a hand at him. “Your uniform’s so colourful!”
Iroh twitched. “Romantically,” he clarified. “He doesn’t notice me romantically.”
“Maybe it just hasn’t occurred to him,” Jinora suggested. “Or maybe he thinks you’d turn him down.”
“Or maybe,” Iroh said, sourly, “he’d be disgusted by the very idea of it and never speak to me again. I tried, small airbending child. It didn’t work.” He shrugged. “That’s that.”
She gave him an extremely sceptical look. “Mmhm,” she said. “You told him exactly how you felt, did you?”
Iroh ducked his head. “Uh,” he said.
“Laid out your soul to him? Stated in plain terms exactly how you felt about him?”
“Not … in as many words,” Iroh said. “No. I suppose not.”
She smiled at him encouragingly. “Before I scared you—” she said.
“Startled,” Iroh said.
Jinora smirked. “Of course,” she said. “Before I startled you, you were reciting a line from Love Amongst the Dragons, yes?”
“It’s a perfectly good play,” Iroh said reflexively. “I’ve always felt that it doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the critical acclaim it deserves.”
“It’s a beautiful tale of tragic love,” Jinora agreed, her face going all dreamy. “The star-crossed—” She shook her head. “That’s beside the point. The thing is, you meant it. That’s what you need. Tap into that.” She met his eyes frankly. “Bolin’s a simple guy. Don’t play games and dance around him without saying what you mean. Just ask!” She clapped her hands together. “Just go right up to him and tell him he’s the hero of your heart, and see what happens.” She looked up at him expectantly. “And you guys’ll be adorable together and everyone’ll be happier and he’ll stop talking at me when I’m trying to read. Works out for everyone!”
“Hm,” Iroh said, thinking about it. “You … do have a point.”
“Of course I do.”
“That’s it!” Iroh snapped his fingers together and leapt up, practically bouncing with excitement. “That’s it! Jinora, you’re a genius!”
“I first fell for him because of the radio, in a way, from a distance; now I just need to make him do the same. I’ll try out for a role in one of those hack radio play versions of Love Amongst the Dragons! When he hears me speaking the most romantic lines in the history of theatre he’ll be sure to think of me in a different light!” He nodded, satisfied. “It’s perfect. It is the perfect plan.”
“Um,” Jinora said. “I think you’re kind of missing the—”
There was no time to waste. Iroh started jogging toward the ferry, his heart flying. The ferry would take him to the mainland, and the mainland would take him to radio, and radio? Radio would sweep Bolin right into his arms. “Thank you!” he called over his shoulder to Jinora, and then he started running in earnest.
The airbender girl stared after him.
“That,” she said eventually, in tones almost of wonder. “Is one exceptionally stupid man.”