“I told you, I don’t have the money!”
Iroh’s in the back in the restaurant, going over the world news section in the daily and sipping tea when the voices up front go straight from ‘neutral’ and bypass ‘raised’ in favor of going straight to ‘heated.’
There’s one lower, a jagged edge to it like the drag of a knife; he recognizes the one above it as the proprietor of the restaurant, the young man with the big green eyes who likes to slip him extra sweet buns when he orders his breakfast.
Then he notices how the customers around him, all silent, regard one another and then make a mass exodus to the back door of the cramped little cafe, like they know something he doesn’t. The door shuts quietly behind them, and then it’s just him and the voices up front.
“We bin ova this a coupla weeks ago, you really gonna make me do the same song and dance again -” The lower voice, the dangerous one, is so thick with cigarette smoke and the accent of back alleys that it takes Iroh to decipher what he’s saying, but instinctively he knows that it isn’t good.
“Three weeks isn’t long enough for me to collect that much, I’m barely making rent as it is -”
“You gets plenty a’ time to collect. You know what happens if ya don’t.”
Iroh didn’t wake up that morning with the hankering to get involved with gang dealings or racketeering - far from it, being on shore leave makes him want to avoid getting involved in other peoples’ messes - but he’s a General (damn it) and he will do the right thing (damn it), shore leave or not.
So he rises, making sure to leave a few coins as tip on top of his folded newspaper, and makes sure they hear him as he approaches the front of the restaurant.
Painted folding screens partition the entryway from the rest of the narrow room, so he couldn’t see the speakers from the back - but they’re exactly as he imagined them, Big Green Eyes wearing an apron, looking frustrated and worried, the other man a walking talking mafia cliche with tobacco-stained boulders for teeth.
“’Oo’s this?” Tobacco Teeth says, jabbing a thumb at Iroh like it’s a knife. He is, it’s interesting to note, missing the tip of his thumb down to the first knuckle, and his skin looks like poorly-aged leather.
“No one,” the proprietor says, trying to avoid looking at Iroh, like ignoring him means he’ll get out of this in one piece. “He was just leaving.”
“Actually,” Iroh says mildly, “I was just coming up to tell this low-life to stop bothering the owner of this upright establishment and leave, before he regrets it.”
“Were you now?” says the gangster, amused. “And, uh, how exactly is ya gonna make me regret it?”
Iroh shows him.
But not before respectfully exiting the restaurant, leaving the young man in the apron standing in the doorway, forehead creased with worry.
The next morning’s pork noodles are scalding-hot and deliciously saturated in rich, greasy broth; as far from the standard mess hall fare of rice porridge as you can get. The newspaper he reads while eating isn’t quite as good, definitely not as savory, but he suspects that’s because the date on it means that it’s one day closer to shore leave ending.
From up front he hears the little bell above the door tinkle merrily as another customer enters, but very soon it becomes apparent that it isn’t another customer at all.
“You lookin’ to make enemies of us, kid?”
Iroh frowns into the dregs of his bowl. Again? One would think that the gang would think twice about sending more representatives to extort money from this restaurant, especially considering the working-over he gave the lone mafioso yesterday. That should have been warning enough.
He notices when he gets up that he’s the only person walking towards the front of the restaurant, rather than the back. Even the cooks don’t come up from the kitchens to back up their boss, it’s just him in the apron, looking more and more upset.
“I’m not looking to get on anyone’s bad side,” he’s saying, drumming his fingers nervously against the front counter. “I just want to run my pop’s restaurant in peace, and keep cooking my mom’s old recipes -”
“That was before the Triads started running this block,” says the gangster du jour. This one, at least, has a better grasp of grammar. Nicer teeth too, it seems. “We can be real friendly, but only if you cooperate with us, and you’re not cooperating.”
Iroh clears his throat, standing between the two folding partitions. “From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like you’re trying too hard at being neighborly.”
The gangster turns around from where he’s crowding in on the restaurateur’s space. His neck, from what Iroh can see of it behind the truly offensive lapels of his jacket, is covered in bright swathes of tattoos.
Much to Iroh’s surprise, he begins laughing. “This guy? This is your big hero, kid, the one who took Jin to the cleaners yesterday? What, is he sweet on you or somethin’?”
Even more surprising is the shade of red that the young man behind the counter turns. “No, he’s just - he just eats here, is all, I didn’t ask him to do -”
“Nor do you have to,” Iroh says. “I just don’t happen to like people like you taking advantage of people like him, trying to make an honest living. Now, do the right thing and leave before I have to step outside with you.”
Apparently it’s very hard for gangsters to do the right thing.
This one puts up more of a fight, but Iroh has fire at his fingers and the image of green eyes and a bright blush fresh in his mind. That makes it easier.
The smile that he gets when he’s finished makes it worth it, after returning inside to beg the favor of a napkin to clean the blood from his knuckles with (but not his, of course).
“You don’t have to keep doing this,” says the young man, really closer to a boy than anything else - his cheeks dimple charmingly when he hands Iroh the napkin, and oh boy, Iroh feels a jolt in his stomach that has nothing to do with the adrenaline surge of a fight.
“I don’t have to, I just don’t like seeing people like that bully people like you into giving them money.”
The young man considers this. “What, are you a cop or something?”
The General coughs. “Not exactly. I’m with the United Forces Navy, we’re docked in Republic City for the next four days and I remembered how much I liked this restaurant last time we were in port. And, ah, it appears you’re running it now.”
“Yeah, my brother didn’t want anything to do with it after - after we came into it, so it’s just me and the old crew keeping it afloat. ” He coughs, looking - he looks sad, for a moment. It’s not an expression Iroh likes seeing on him. “Anyway, I thought I saw a lot more uniforms around than usual. Guess it’s pretty lucky that I started getting shaken down for money while you’re on shore leave, isn’t it, sir?”
“Just Iroh, please,” Iroh says before he can help it. “I get called ‘sir’ enough onboard, it’s enough to make a man forget the sound of his own name.”
A sly little smile curls the lips of the young restaurateur. It’s pretty obvious where he took that last comment.
“Is that so? Well, if you’re going to be around for a little while, I’ll make sure you don’t forget the sound of it. I’m Bolin, by the way.”
Iroh extends his hand for Bolin to shake. There’s flour ingrained in the creases of Bolin’s hand, and his skin is warm and calloused from work. “Bolin? Charmed.”
The weather looks sickly all next morning, clouds curdling, indecisive sunlight filtering through in fits and spurts. The restaurant door barely closes behind Iroh before the skies break and the city is drenched in a relentless downpour.
On the street outside, some drivers actually stop their cars and scramble to put the hoods up. Passersby on the sidewalks rush to duck under stall awnings or into nearby stores until the shower lets up.
Then a teapot flies straight at Iroh’s face and he forgets all about the rain outside.
The narrowly-dodged teapot breaks on the wall behind him, but the crash of china is lost in the sound of larger destruction at hand - furniture smashing, tables being dashed against the wall, silverware flying and hitting the floor with a bright metallic clatter. There are raised voices, again, and Iroh follows them.
It doesn’t even require thought, Iroh just kicks the broken folding screens aside and stumbles into the back portion of the restaurant, where the mayhem is happening. Fire erupts around his hands without him even being aware that it has, he is so angry and so tired of these mafia leeches taking advantage of Bolin.
Just one this time, tall and clean-cut for a mafioso. They’re recruiting young, Iroh thinks, fists clenching as he kicks aside furniture to clear a path to the bastard. Doesn’t matter, Iroh will break his pretty face if he’s so much as touched a hair on Bolin’s head in the process of tearing up the restaurant as a show of muscle -
The gangster turns, arches an eyebrow at the intruder. He looks like he’s descended from Fire Nation stock, if it was any other time, Iroh would be curious about which family he’d be related to - but no. This scumbag is just another pawn in his gang’s protection money scam, and Iroh’s not above sending him back with broken bones just because they haven’t learned their lesson yet.
....then the gangster turns to face him head-on, but his hands are up, as if placating. He’s frowning.
“Bo,” he hollers.
Iroh halts. There’s a clatter from the kitchen, then Bolin appears through the swinging double doors.
He stares between the two of them - one dark-haired man standing, arms folded across his chest, the other with hands wreathed in flame and wearing a very, very confused expression.
Faintly from outside comes the sound of traffic and the rain on the roof.
“You didn’t tell me,” the gangster says at last, “that you’re sweet on General Iroh of the United Forces.”
“How was I supposed to know he’s a General?!” Bolin says, turning bright red.
“That usually comes up in conversation.”
“He just told me not to call him ‘sir’!”
“Would anyone care to tell me what’s going on?” Iroh asks faintly.
“Ugh, forget it,” says the presumed-but-not-quite gangster. “I’m not cleaning this up, Bolin, you’re completely responsible for this mess, and don’t think it didn’t pain me to smash up Dad’s restaurant.”
It takes a second for things to click. “This guy’s your brother?”
“Yeah. But - I didn’t know you’re a General,” Bolin’s still saying, looking more and more shamefaced by the second. The now-almost-definitely-not-a-gangster goes to him, claps a hand on his shoulder.
“Have fun explaining this one, Bo,” says his brother. “I’m gonna leave you two to talk this out. Good luck, little bro.” Then he disappears through the same double doors to the kitchen that Bolin just came through.
A painting slides off the wall and crashes, glass smashing, into a pile of broken furniture. The sound’s too loud for the sudden quiet of the room.
“So,” Iroh says slowly, “You got your brother to smash up your restaurant so I would...beat him up?”
“Not exactly.” Bolin runs his hands through his hair. The mess it becomes should not be as adorable as it is. “The plan was to, uhh, have him firebend at you and then disappear into the rain before the cops could be called, because having Mako explain what he was doing to the other officers would be awkward.”
“And those...other mobsters that I beat up. Were they cops too?”
“No, of course not! The first one was a legit gangster. Dumb Jin? He lives up to his name. He forgot that the Triads decided not to bother with this neck of the woods since Mako joined the force.”
“Huh,” Iroh says. He looks around at the wreckage surrounding them. A few chairs have managed to avoid the brunt of Mako’s force after flying behind an overturned table; Iroh goes to set them upright and sits down. He wishes, rather sadly, that there was a miraculously-unsmashed teapot. The morning doesn’t feel right without tea. “How about that other one yesterday?”
“Oh, that was calling in a favor. Old friends in low places,” Bolin says. The blush he punctuates that with is very becoming indeed. Iroh feels like he should be angry, but for the life of him doesn’t know why.
“Right,” he says, drumming his fingers on his thigh. “Right. And...is there any reason in particular you wanted to keep up the illusion of being targeted by a protection money scheme, or was it just for kicks?”
Bolin turns even redder, sitting on the unbroken chair opposite of Iroh. “It’s not obvious?”
“Not to me,” Iroh admits.
“It was easier than asking you out on a date.”
“Much easier.” Bolin nods.
Iroh looks down at the toes of his boots, at the dust and china shards littering the clean white tiles. To the side of his left foot is an upended teacup that, when he picks it up, reveals itself to be unbroken.
It’s a start, he thinks.
“I know this restaurant that I really like,” he says slowly. “Care to clean it up with me, and we’ll go from there?”