Bolin has accomplished a lot in the past year. He’s helped rebuild Republic City, assisted in the reconstruction of the pro-bending arena, and seen the city come alive again after the defeat of Amon. He’s living in his first real apartment, working his first real job, and for the first time in his life is truly independent. He’s even begun metal-bending training with the reinstated Chief Bei Fong.
He has also – though he has yet to admit it to anyone – fallen in love.
It happened without dates or flowers or romantic gestures.
It happened with stolen glances and accidental touches and a lot of blushing on his part.
It happened slowly, so slowly that Bolin didn’t realize what was happening until it had already happened.
He had been helping reinforce the foundation of City Hall with the earth benders from the United Forces. There was a crunch followed by a thud and Bolin could feel the vibrations of the broken pillar sliding towards the ground. He instinctually looked to his left where the general was standing, overseeing the reconstruction. Without a second thought he sprang into action, rushing at the other man and shielding him with his body. The two went toppling to the ground, rolling out of the way just as the pillar smashed to pieces next to them.
They stayed frozen for a moment, breaths heaving, and as Bolin looked up into the amber eyes of the man who had rolled on top of him in the scuffle, he realized – sometime during the months of working together, he had fallen in love with General Iroh.
General Iroh had witnessed a lot since the victory over Amon. Equalists have been apprehended, the city has been rebuilt, and Avatar Korra has successfully been easing the tension between benders and non-benders. The council has been reinstated, new buildings are cropping up left and right, and the city is bustling once more. Iroh has put his forces to work with rebuilding and healing, and he has tried to lend a hand wherever he can.
And somewhere along the line he has fallen in love, although he has yet to tell anyone. It would hardly be proper.
There were hints of it, sure. The way his stomach flutters every time the earth bender laughs, the feeling of satisfaction when the boy had seen the arena returned to its former glory. He has tried and failed to pinpoint exactly how or when it happened, but he can recall with utmost clarity the moment when he first realized it.
It was supposed to be a fairly routine repair; the earth benders had been reinforcing the foundations of buildings all over the city since reconstruction had started. Iroh was simply overseeing their work when out of nowhere something heavy collided with him, sending him sprawling to the ground. The force of the solid mass on top of him sent them rolling and suddenly he was looking down into a pair of sparking green eyes. A crashing sound to his left caused him to turn his head only to see one of the building’s pillars crumble to pieces before his eyes.
His sudden urge to thank Bolin for saving his life by kissing him is what finally made Iroh realize that he had fallen in love with the young earth bender.
The incident outside City Hall has been replaying in Bolin’s mind for weeks now, and while he’s not sure if he wants anyone else to know about his feelings for a certain fire-bending general, he also has no idea what to do at this point, or even if he should do anything at all.
He figures that if anyone can help him it’ll be his brother, so one night after his shift at Narook’s is over he decides to head over to the arena and seek out Mako’s advice. Korra is there when he arrives, reminding Bolin once again that his decision to move into his own apartment was a good one. He’ll admit that his initial reasons for moving out were based on jealousy and resentment, but that was a year ago. By now he’s come to see that Mako and Korra really do love each other. Besides, there’s no way he would’ve lasted long in the attic above the arena if he had to see them be couple-y all the time. He shudders at the memory of walking in on them once while they were in a…compromising situation. No, he never wants to see that again.
“Hey, little bro,” Mako greets him.
“Bolin! You’re just in time for dinner!”
“Hey, Mako. Hi, Korra. I’d love some food!”
They settle down onto the couch as Mako passes bowls of noodles around the table. Bolin digs in, and tries to think of the best way to ask for advice.
“Does it taste okay, Bolin?” Korra asks a few minutes later. “Your face is all scrunched up like you can’t decide whether you should swallow.”
“What? No, the noodles are great!”
“What’s up, Bo?” Mako asks. “Korra’s right, there’s something off about you tonight.”
“Well, actually, I did have a reason for coming over. It’s just that…well, I was wondering. Um…”
“Spit it out already!” Korra cuts in, ever the impatient one.
“How do you tell someone you like them?” Bolin blurts out.
There is a silent pause and then Korra starts laughing. Before Bolin has any time to be offended, Mako jumps in.
“Are you sure we’re the best people to come to for relationship advice? I mean look at us! Korra went on a date with you even though she was interested in me, and I dated Asami for months because I was too hotheaded to admit I had feelings for Korra.”
“You’re right,” Korra chimes in, pecking him on the cheek. “You were very hotheaded. But it all worked out in the end.”
“That’s the best you can give me?” Bolin asks. “’It’ll all work out it in end’?
“Well, it’s true,” Korra says with a shrug.
“She’s right,” Mako says, leaning over to kiss Korra. Bolin throws a hand over his eyes.
“Well I’ve just lost my appetite,” he says, pushing his bowl of noodles away. “I’m pretty sure there’s an unspoken rule about no displays of affection during dinner.”
Iroh finds himself at a loss as to what he should do following his (admittedly exaggerated) near-death experience at City Hall. He has never been in love before but even with his lack of experience he knows that love can be a tricky thing. He’s not too keen on anyone else knowing his feelings for Bolin, but seeing as he hasn’t got a clue what to do otherwise he figures he should ask someone for advice.
So when Commander Bumi invites him out for drinks to celebrate the completion of the repairs to their fleet, he figures that this is as good a time as any to ask for some input.
“Love?” Bumi scoffs when Iroh broaches the subject. “Hah! You don’t need love! You’re the general of the United Forces. You saved Republic City, hell, you punched a bomb.”
“But – ”
“No buts. You could have anyone you want in your bed in a matter of minutes. Love is for suckers.”
“Lin still spurning your advances, then?”
“Eh, what do you know?” Bumi grumbles.
Iroh’s mistake, he realizes later, was not in asking Bumi for advice, but for thinking he would be helpful in the first place.
Clearly his brother isn’t going to be of any help to him, and Bolin isn’t sure who else he can go to for love advice. Luckily work keeps his mind off the matter for a while. The next few days at Narook’s are increasingly busy as people start flocking into the city for the celebration planned for next week. On the anniversary of Amon’s defeat, City Hall will have its official grand re-opening followed by days of parades, performances, and of course, a gala. Benders and non-benders alike are streaming in from all over the United Republic to join in the festivities, which means an influx of customers for Narook.
But after Bolin turns down three dates in one night from patrons at the noodlery, Narook starts to get the feeling that something is off with the boy. He pulls him aside during a lull towards the end of the night, intent on finding out what seems to be troubling him.
“Bolin, my boy! Tell me, what has happened to the ladies’ man that frequented my shop for so many years?”
“He’s got his sights set on someone,” Bolin replies. He pulls a rag from his apron and starts wiping down a nearby table.
“It’s about time!” Narook says, clapping Bolin on the shoulder. “Who is the lucky lady?”
“It’s uh…it’s a guy, actually,” Bolin says, not making eye contact.
“Eh, guy, girl, either way you’re a charmer Bolin.”
“The thing is I haven’t actually done any charming yet,” Bolin says sadly. “He doesn’t know. I don’t know how to tell him how I feel.”
“Bolin,” Narook says. “Let me give you some advice. Love is like noodles.”
“It’s true, love and noodles are the same. You need to cook them just right. Raw, undercooked noodles are no good, just like raw passion is not enough to sustain a relationship. And overcooked noodles are too mushy, no substance. Good noodles are somewhere in the middle, just like good love is the right amount of passion, substance, and sappy romance.”
Bolin looks blankly at his boss, mouth gaping open.
“What? You think an old man knows nothing about love or noodles?”
“Narook,” Bolin says sincerely, “you are the wisest man I know. So how do I tell him how I feel?”
“What, you think I have answers for everything? Maybe your friend can help you,” he says, gesturing behind him with a nod of his head.
Bolin turns around and sees Asami standing behind him.
“Hey, Bolin,” she says. “What is it that I can help you with?”
“Loverboy over here needs romantic advice,” Narook says.
“You want advice?” Asami says. “Don’t date someone who doesn’t respect you.”
“Oh, come on, it was a joke,” she says, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “I’m over it, really. But you’d probably have more luck asking Pabu for advice than asking me.”
The final strategic planning meeting for next week’s festivities has just been adjourned and as the attendees being filing towards the exit, Iroh makes his way to the front of the room.
“Councilman Tenzin, might I have a word?”
“Of course, General Iroh. What can I help you with?”
“It’s quite a personal matter, and I would appreciate your, ah…discretion.”
“I understand,” Tenzin says.
“Right, then. How should I…that is, what should…” Iroh shakes his head, unable to put his question into words. He tries again. “Tenzin, how did you tell Pema that you were in love with her?”
“Ha!” a sharp laugh comes from the other side of the room.
Tenzin shoots Iroh a glare as if to say now look what you’ve done.
“Hello, Lin,” he says, sounding exasperated. “Didn’t see you there.”
“I was just about to leave when I heard our esteemed general’s plea for advice. You should know, General, that Councilman Tenzin is notoriously bad at letting women know about his affections.”
“I’m sorry, Chief,” the general says. “It was not my intention to stir up any bad feelings.”
“Nonsense!” Lin barks. “Let’s see what he has to stay for himself.”
Tenzin wearily rubs a palm over his face and sighs. “Actually,” he says stoically, “Pema was the one who told me that she had feelings for me.”
“Which,” Chief Bei Fong cuts in, “she waited to inform him of until after he and I had been dating for quite some time. And tell him, Tenzin, who was it that began our relationship?”
“It was Lin,” Tenzin mutters under his breath. Iroh can tell that the older man is trying very hard to keep his cool despite the fact that he is most definitely turning a bright shade of red.
“So you see, General, Tenzin is perhaps not the best man to ask for relationship advice.”
“At least I didn’t try to throw an innocent woman in jail!” Tenzin bursts out. The chief just glowers at him.
“So what you two are saying is that I should ask Pema for advice?” Iroh says thoughtfully. “Thank you!”
“Wait!” Tenzin calls to Iroh’s retreating back. “That not what we meant at all!” But Iroh doesn’t hear him.
“This is all your fault, you know,” Lin says smugly.
“Aargh. Pabu, no one has given me any advice worth using. I still have no idea how to tell Iroh how I feel about him.”
He looks at Bolin quizzically, head tilted to the side.
“What am I supposed to do buddy?”
Pabu lets out a series of squeaks and leaps onto Bolin’s shoulder.
“What? No, this is nothing like that thing with Korra. I’m talking about real love…for real this time!”
Pabu gives him a skeptical look and lets out another series of chirps.
“No, Pabu. I don’t think rubbing noses is going to work. Iroh is a general, not a fire ferret.”
Iroh is surprised to find that his arrival on Air Temple Island a few days later is completely expected.
“Tenzin said you might stop by,” Pema tells him when he finds her in the garden. She brushes the dirt off her hands and offers Iroh a carrot from her basket. He accepts, and takes a seat on the ground next to her.
“I was hoping you could give me some advice,” he says, taking a bite of the carrot.
“Tenzin said as much. So you’ve heard the story of how we got together?”
“Not all of it. Chief Bei Fong and Councilman Tenzin got into a pretty heated discussion,” Iroh says with a laugh.
“So I heard,” Pema says with a smile. “Unfortunately the last time I gave someone relationship advice, it didn’t end well.”
“What happened?” Iroh asks.
“Mako turned Korra down and then she stomped on poor Bolin’s heart. I think it’s best I don’t go doling out any more tips. I’m sure you understand.”
“Bolin, will you tell us a bedtime story, please?” Jinora asks later that night. Bolin has agreed to babysit while Pema and Tenzin enjoy a well deserved romantic night out. Rohan had fallen asleep soon after dinner and Meelo had passed out from exhaustion after a rousing game of Rock Dodge, a game of his and Bolin’s own creation.
“Oh yes!” Ikki chimes in. “And can it be about magic and castles and love?”
Bolin runs a hand through his hair. “Uh, well I don’t know much about love,” he says sheepishly.
“Are you still sad that Korra wouldn’t go out with you?” Ikki asks bluntly.
“No,” Bolin says honestly. “I’m happy that she and Mako are together.”
“He doesn’t like Korra anymore, anyway,” Jinora says matter-of-factly. “He likes General Iroh now!”
“What?” Bolin exclaims. “How do you know that? Who told you? It was Pabu, wasn’t it?”
Jinora laughs. “No, I just saw the way you were looking at him last week when everyone came to the island for dinner.”
Bolin figures he has nothing to lose at this point, so he asks them, “You’re girls, and girls know a lot about love, right? What should I do about it?”
“You should brew a love potion of rainb – ”
“No, Ikki,” Jinora cuts in. “This is real life, not one of your fairy tales.”
“Well it’s better than jumping into a volcano!” Ikki exclaims. “He can’t be with Iroh if he turns into lava!”
“I’m not even going to ask,” Bolin says. “I just need help figuring out how to tell Iroh that I like him.”
“Oh! I have an idea!” Jinora says suddenly. “You should tell him at the gala! There’s going to be dancing and candlelight. It will be so romantic!”
“Yes!” says Ikki. “You should do that! And if it doesn’t work, then you can jump into a volcano!”
General Iroh returns to Air Temple Island on the afternoon before the gala to join Firelord Zuko for tea.
“Iroh my boy, it is so good to see you again,” Zuko says, embracing his grandson in a hug.
“It is wonderful to see you as well, Grandfather.”
“I hope you do not mind that Katara joins us for tea.”
“Not at all. It is lovely to see you again, Master Katara,” Iroh says with a bow.
“Oh, nonsense,” Katara says. “Drop the formalities and give me a hug.”
Iroh complies happily and then the three settle down around the table for tea.
“I have to say, I was surprised that you decided to stay on the island, Grandfather. Usually when you visit Republic City you stay, well, in the city. ”
Zuko shares a secret glance with Katara that goes unnoticed by Iroh, who is sipping his tea.
“That is true. Councilman Tenzin was kind enough to extend an invitation to stay here as most of the hotels in the city have no vacancies this week. Surely the influx of people has not gone unnoticed by you?”
“Of course not, Grandfather. Though I admit, I have had other things on my mind.”
“Oh?” Zuko asks. “Care to share?”
Iroh takes another sip of tea and looks thoughtful. “Grandfather, how did you let Grandmother Mai know that you liked her?”
Zuko lets out a short laugh. “Mai was never one to show emotion well. But towards the end of the war she turned against her best friend, your great aunt Azula, in order to save me. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“Why do you ask?” Zuko wants to know. “Is there someone special you want to tell me about?”
“No,” Iroh says, defensively. “Well, not yet, at least. I haven’t exactly told him how I feel.”
“Well what are you waiting for?” Zuko asks.
“I’m just nervous, I guess. What if it’s too late and I’ve already missed my chance?”
“If there is one thing I have learned,” Zuko says, as he takes Katara’s hand into his own, “it is that it is never too late for love.”
Iroh gapes openly at them for a moment. “Are you two…?”
“Yes,” Katara says, smiling. “And if you want my advice, there is no stronger basis for love than friendship.”
“Friendship,” Iroh repeats. “I think I’ve got that part down.”
“Assuming this young man is going to the gala tomorrow night, I think it could be a perfect place to tell him,” Katara suggests.
Zuko nods his head in agreement. “You can impress him with your dancing skills,” he says with a wink.
There are speeches and toasts, and then some more speeches and toasts, but eventually the lights are dimmed, the music is turned up, and the gala is in full swing.
Bolin still isn’t sure how he is going to tell General Iroh how he feels, only that he is definitely going to do it tonight. In retrospect he realizes that it would be impossible for anyone to tell him exactly how to do it, and anyway, he would just wouldn’t feel right if he were to use someone else’s words.
He is standing off to the side of the room watching the many couples dance their way across the floor. The lights and the sounds are mesmerizing and Bolin finds himself caught completely off guard when Iroh approaches him a few moments later.
“You look exquisite,” Iroh says softly.
“Oh!” Bolin says. “Iroh, I didn’t see you there!”
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Iroh says. “But you really do look wonderful.”
"I heard you’ll be staying here in Republic City after the fleet leaves?”
“Yes,” Iroh confirms. “The council representative from the Fire Nation is retiring and it was decided that I should take her place.”
“You don’t know how happy I am to hear you say that,” Bolin gushes. “Um, what I mean is – ”
“Would you like to dance?” Iroh bursts out.
Bolin takes Iroh’s proffered hand and follows the older man onto the floor. His stomach starts to flutter when Iroh places one hand on his lower back. Their fingers interlace as the live orchestra starts playing a beautifully slow piece and soon Iroh has him whirling around on the room.
Zuko and Katara dance past them, wrapped around each other lovingly, and his grandfather gives Iroh a look that clearly conveys the message get on with it.
“I’ve really loved getting to know you over the past year,” Iroh says sincerely. “You know, you’re the first real friend I made here in the city.”
Bolin blushes. “You’re very easy to get along with,” he says. “I’m glad that you’ll be staying in Republic City.”
“Me, too,” Iroh says. “We can finally go to that dumpling place you were telling me about.”
“Mmmhmm,” Bolin agrees, leaning into Iroh’s embrace.
Now or never.
“Maybe…” Iroh starts, “Maybe it could be a…date.”
Bolin lifts his head, eyes wide. “A…a date? Like a date date?”
Iroh laughs. “Bolin, I have to be honest with you,” he says, and suddenly it seems as if they are the only two people on the dance floor. “I never thought I’d have feelings for the man I was roped to for eight hours who couldn’t stop talking about his amazing pet fire ferret, but here we are a year later and, well…”
“You have feelings for me?”
“Very much so.”
“Oh, wow. Iroh, I can’t believe this. I mean here I am for weeks trying to figure out to tell you that I liked you! I was so worried that you wouldn’t feel the same way and I was asking everyone for advice but no one was helpful and Ikki kept talking about volcanoes and mmph– ”
Iroh cuts him off by capturing Bolin’s lips is a kiss. His lips are soft and sweet, and Iroh cannot seem to remember why it took him so long to tell the earth bender how he feels about him.
Iron’s grip on Bolin’s waist tightens and he feels the younger boy smile into their kiss.
“That was a really nice way of getting me to stop rambling,” Bolin says shyly.
“I could do it again, if you want,” Iroh offers.
“Yes, please,” Bolin says breathlessly.
And then Iroh’s lips are on his again, gentle and pliant. Bolin brings his arms up to wrap around Iroh’s neck as he deepens their kiss, blissfully unaware of the other couples still on the dance floor.
He may not know anything about love yet, but he can’t wait to learn, and somehow he thinks Iroh will be the perfect person to learn with.