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Taken Aback

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Iroh sat at the desk-like table in his hotel room, pouring over a scroll he’d been meaning to finish reading. It was a retelling of a very old legend, and he found the prose to be tantalizingly well-written. Most people assumed his business-like exterior belied naught but a stern, commanding individual. That wasn’t entirely accurate, however; he didn’t live at his desk, only writing and reading reports on combat and fleet conditions. He was actually pretty fond of fiction.

Behind him, a brawny young earthbender rustled around, trampling haphazardly. By the sound of his footsteps, he kept gravitating to the tiled bathroom between frantic, noise-producing trips around the rest of the spacious room. Iroh had a fairly good idea of what exactly he was up to, but he happened to be at a major plot point in the scroll, and so chose to finish reading first.

Whump!

Iroh jumped, momentarily agitated by the unexpected noise and the tremors tracking through the floor and directly into his ass. The cushion he’d been sitting on was violently kicked aside as he unfolded into a defensive crouch, now facing the rest of the room. Fortunately, fire only curled above his curved fingers rather than through the air and over the walls and furniture. Fear that Bolin might be hurt or the building might go up kept him from blindly lashing out. The tall, lean firebender eyed the room, as he prepared to char someone black-anything to protect his beloved.

Aside from the half-dressed muscular ball of eye-candy by the bathroom door, no one was in the room. Experience took over as Iroh checked the closet and the rest of the room more thoroughly.

“Dammit!”

Having just finished his rounds, the general was taken aback by the vehemence by which his boyfriend swore. He’d heard the younger man before, of course, but it always seemed to make him shiver with how unexpectedly uncharacteristic it was. Come to think of it, Bolin had his knuckles pressed against the wall next to the bathroom’s door jamb and seemed to be leaning against the wall, tensed.

“Bo?” Iroh stepped closer, worry making him cautious and his voice rise a few octaves. “What’s wrong?”

Instead of answering, Bolin seemed to shift, this time away from Iroh. Concerned, Iroh closed the gap, grabbing the fisted hand at Bolin’s side. To his dismay, the younger man seemed to be trembling, but only just visibly. Iroh squeezed the fist, and managed to coax his boyfriend into unclenching it long enough for him to slip his own hand inside and entwine their fingers. With a tug, the younger stepped away from the wall and faced the elder.

“What happened? What was that thump I heard?” he petitioned again.

Bolin had been resolutely staring at the floor, a glare plastered across his face, and continued to do so even as he opened his mouth to respond.

“Punched the wall,” he muttered.

“You what now?” Iroh’s eyes widened. Bolin very rarely hit things. It seemed like the rule of thumb with him was to be boisterous and happy. That wasn’t always the case, but most of the time it rang true. Iroh couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d seen his boyfriend this angry.

“I punched the wall,” he said, this time louder. The faint trembling Iroh could feel through his shoes began to lessen gradually at this point.

“Right, I heard you the first time but why did you punch it?”

“Can’t find my hair gel.”

Iroh gaped at Bolin for a moment, at a loss for exactly what to say.

“Okay, you’ve lost me. I don’t understand why this is a problem,” he finally managed to blurt out, feeling a bit weary over his boyfriend’s eccentricity. Clearly he hadn’t lashed out too hard, or his hand would have gone right through even stone.

Bolin heaved a sigh. “I have that press thing in an hour and I can’t find my hair gel so I punched the wall.”

Iroh pulled Bolin over to the bed, certain at this point that he needed to sit down. Bolin stared pointedly at the floor before them, refusing to meet Iroh’s eyes. The general might have felt his heart seize up from that alone if he couldn’t feel how tightly his hand was being squeezed. Bolin was troubled by something else, something he had yet to let on about. Of course, Iroh had noticed this before, often being confused by how devoted the younger man seemed to his hairstyle of choice. It was almost religious how he focused on maintaining it.

“I don’t know why you can’t leave it down just this once,” Iroh said, studying the other’s face for any changes. “I think you look incredibly sexy like this. You have the best bedhead I’ve ever seen.”

“Thanks, but I have to look my best for my fans-“

Iroh nudged his boyfriend with his forearm, putting on a smile and letting his voice lift optimistically. “Bo, I’m your biggest fan and I just said I think you look sexy. If you didn’t have that interview in an hour, I’d be naked right now, giving you an encore of last night.”

While Iroh failed to keep himself from flushing, Bolin seemed to hunch over their hands, and Iroh could just barely see him wrinkling his forehead. Moisture seemed to gather along the lower lid of his eye, and he was entirely too pale. Iroh’s heart did a diving motion, sunk lower and lower into himself, tugging painfully. He knew that face: Bolin’s I’m-really-hurting-and-can’t-help-but-cry face. It was easily distinguished from the ridiculous expressions he made when sobbing dramatically, and Iroh had been the cause of both more than he cared for.

“Bolin?” his voice hitched, almost squeaking from panic. “Bolin, what’s wrong? What aren’t you telling me? What is this really about?”

The earthbender sniffed, scrubbing his free hand across his face. It took him a minute to swallow the lump of emotion in his throat. When he spoke his voice had acquired a soft rasp, unlike his calloused fingers which roamed and fluttered across the flesh of Iroh’s hand.

“When we were kids, Mako started gelling his hair. I didn’t get why, since the only kind we could afford didn’t smell all that nice, but he did it all the time, especially for important things, like our birthdays. One day I asked him…,” here Bolin sniffed. “I asked him about it, and he said he did it because our Dad used to style his hair that way. I started doing it too, even though Mako said messy hair made me look cuter. Y’know, people pity kids who look ruffled up, not presentable.”

Stricken and aching for the heart-broken boy beside him, Iroh took his free hand and pulled Bolin’s face around. A few errant tears escaped down his cheeks to the strong, broad line of his jaw. The firebender cupped his face in both hands and smote the tracks of his lover’s pain with the pads of his thumbs. Setting his lips in a firm line, Iroh pulled Bolin in and embraced him. The younger man sank into him and let himself shake and cry quietly.

“Bo, I am so, so sorry,” Iroh babbled, wishing he could rescind his crimes. “I knew it meant something to you, but not that much! I never would have done it if I knew all this or that you’d cry-I’m so stupid!”

Bolin pulled back, his face ruddy and really very damp. Confusion intermingled with the pain in his large, expressive green eyes, and Iroh lit right up. He began to sweat from how flushed he’d become.

“What-?”

“I was serious about your bedhead, I really like your hair when it’s down-” the general spluttered, reddening. “I didn’t mean to hurt you-! I just wanted to see you like this more! A-and I figured it wouldn’t bother you all that much…”

Iroh looked away, releasing his hand and fiddling nervously. He dissolved into an incoherent stream of mumbled excuses and apologies, turning beet-red and not refusing to look at the younger. Luckily enough, or he’d have gotten a clear view of the hurt stamped across Bolin’s face.

“What did you do?” he asked, his voice hitching on his own uncertainty.

Iroh flinched, stiffening for what felt like a long time. With a resigned sigh, he let out the air he’d held pent up in his chest and, with it, an unbroken rush of vowels. “Ihidyourhairgel.”

While a dumbstruck and sodden Bolin tried to sort through how to react, Iroh went to retrieve the admittedly small bottle from its hiding place. He returned to his seat, gauging it to be acceptably safe to gamble with his boyfriend’s willingness to be around him. Bolin merely stared dumbly at the bottle in his numbly curled fingers, which Iroh took to be a good sign. At least the general hadn’t repulsed his lover into scooting away. He decided to bide his time, expecting much-deserved admonishment once the shock wore off.

“You really think my hair’s sexy down?”

Iroh cringed, not understanding the other man’s train of thought and wishing he could. He felt terribly stupid for being so selfish, but worse was seeing this quiet Bolin. Especially when he seemed to be throwing the general’s own reasoning back in his face. He grunted an affirmative and nodded once, twice.

Bolin seemed to think on that for a good minute before he brought the bottle closer to his face and spoke. “Well, one day without it couldn’t really hurt.”

Both men locked gazes, trying to determine what the other felt. Bolin seemed almost surprised by his own words and-worse-concerned for Iroh’s sake. Iroh, for his credit, was busy trying to not succumb to the love he felt for this giving earthbender. At least, until he was able to express the rest of his opinion.

“Don’t,” he said, eyes set in an almost forceful expression. He was determined to get his point across, despite how stubborn Bolin could be. “Your father deserves the gesture. I get to be with you as much as work allows, which is already the biggest gift you could give me. Don’t worry about going that extra step for my sake; wait until it’s for yours.”

The firebender was already smiling as he was yanked close for an unexpected but welcome kiss. It didn’t last as long as he would have hoped, but it brimmed with emotion strong enough to still and overwhelm him, even as Bolin broke away and pounded into the bathroom. Iroh came around slowly, blinking, and trying to remember that reality still existed even after such a passionate display of affection. He chuckled, stone-walled by his boyfriend’s return to his usual chipper self.

Iroh went back to the desk and his scroll, eager to reach a better stopping point before they had to leave. As he sat, however, his thoughts were still on what Bolin had told him. Something obscure was eating at the firebender’s curiosity.

“Bo, you said you and your brother gel your hair in the same style as your father. So why is your hairstyle different than Mako’s?” he projected behind him into the bathroom.

“Huh? Well, Mako’s hairstyle looked stupid on me-come to think of it, it looks stupid on anyone-so I experimented a little.”

Hearing this, Iroh broke down into more of the laughter he’d become accustomed to making since meeting Bolin.