Many, many apologies for the wait, real life kinda grabbed me by throat and threw me around for a bit. I forced myself to get this piece done and posted, however slowly (and with the VERY MUCH appreciated help of Ivy Zero who worked through some issues with me) so here is the next piece!
Shades of Gold
The morning wind easily pierces the thin fabric of her sleepwear, sinking pinprick daggers of cold into her weary flesh as she steps from the shadows of the temple. Her gaze sweeps out across that tranquil expanse of white stone, sleep-dazed mind still trying to comprehend why her feet have carried her here; when the kneeling figure catches her eye and something snags in her throat as vague dreams of red and gold sharpen to a bladed, pinpoint focus.
Korra sees once more the bright, glimmering laughter in the open gaze of a golden-eyed boy as they trade teasing barbs, a juvenile battle of words and harmless foolery that freed them both–however momentarily–from those burdens inherited.
She leaps from the shadows with a fierce cry, all tense shoulders and fisted hands but the beaming grin and the twinkling eyes set into her face strip away any and all intimidation.
"I challenge you to an Agni Kai!"
One cultured, raven eyebrow slowly hitches up as he stares at her for a long moment.
"You still aren't much of a firebender..."
In a flash, her face scrunches up in an annoyingly cute pout and angry blue eyes glare at him until guilt manages to slide it's sneaky fingers beneath his skin. He leans forward and sets a hand on her shoulder.
The tiny hand thrust, palm up, into his face cuts him off and when she speaks, her words ring clear of any shaking hurt, any trembling anger.
"You wanna bet?"
For one fateful instant he can only stare, sunburst eyes lit with bewilderment.
Korra draws a deep breath and all of Iroh's misgivings surge to the forefront of his thoughts just as the flame bursts from her palm.
For a time, the compound echoes with the outraged yells of a boy wearing singed eyebrows and the hysterical cackling of an unrepentant girl-child. Neither look, but both know that a smile dances on the other's lips–his faint and wry, hers laughingly brilliant.
For a moment in their long, long lives, he is not a prince of fire and she is not a guardian of the world.
They are simply two children, smiling in the sunsets of their childhood.
A sound yanks her from those memories of long ago days, a low voice–achingly familiar and at the same time, not–that drifts through the chill of the rising dawn, solemn and grave.
"Children of the world, of earth and fire, air and water..."
She is closer now, close enough to see the mottled scars stretched across pale skin, bared to the wind and the sun–to the world, to her. Her heart clenches painfully with his words, with the visions of torn ships and shattered bodies drawn beneath churning waves.
"I lay you to rest."
As he draws another deep breath, she searches for the reassuring warmth of a boy on the edge of adulthood and finds only the trembling tensions of a man in the breaking.
Staring down at the coiled shivering that has taken hold of his flesh–his soul–Korra can't help but think back to a time when he was ardent and inexorable, a constant well of comfort and strength.
Korra sits in a shadowed alcove with hot tears in her eyes and bitter doubts in her gut, a burning mixture that churns against the walls of her body–her mind.
She is in the second year of her earthbending training and her master has proclaimed her one of the best pupils he has ever taught. But her efforts to connect and commune with the spirits of past avatars–of past lives–have met only with failure after empty failure.
Korra has always excelled in anything she puts her mind to and so with every fruitless attempt to bridge that spiritual gap, her creeping insecurities only grow–and fester–until finally, they reach a tipping point.
That voice–deeper than she remembers yet filled with a rasping warmth that is oh-so-familiar–drags her from her slumped dejection.
Iroh carefully sets himself down beside her, slowly wrapping one arm around her small shoulders to gently pull her against his side. She doesn't fight the motion, instead leaning into his warmth in a rare display of submission as the tears keep falling. A worried frown glances it's way across his features, scrunching up his brows as he speaks.
She only curls deeper into the worn fur of his jacket at the question, voice muffled by emotion and fabric alike.
"I–I don't wanna tell you..."
Iroh's frown deepens but he schools it away, choosing instead to prod this newest issue out of the girl.
"Did Master Gensu yell at you again?"
At that, her pride rears it's stubborn head and she scowls at him through glistening blue eyes. Her indignant yell almost banishes the subtle waver from her voice.
"As if that old gramps could ever make me cry!"
The laughter slips past his lips and Korra spares a glance at him, feels the beginnings of a smile tug at her face when she spies the glittering mirth in his gaze. All too quickly, though, her thoughts turn back to the issue at hand and like a fire being snuffed, she falls again into the shadow of her fears. At the lowering of her gaze, the tightening of her grasp, Iroh's brows knit in consternation and he leans down.
"Hey...will you tell me what's going on?"
She only shakes her head, a sharp, rebuffing gesture, wishing that he'd go away–that he'd never seen this moment of weakness–but at the same time, unable to tear herself away from the security of his embrace.
"You know, if you don't tell me, I'll just have to start guessing."
Korra wonders whether he'll leave if she just stays silent?
"Did you get hurt?"
She says nothing.
"Did Master Katara find your secret books?"
Warmth flushes across her face and she jerks away to send a furious–mortified–glare his way. For a moment she can only stare in abstract shock–horror–barely registering his words, but then reality snaps back in and she blurts the first thing that comes to mind.
"W-what secret books!"
Iroh only smirks, smug and knowing.
Wordlessly, she pulls her arm back–revels in the way his eyes begin to widen–and drives a fist into his gut with all the strength she can muster. He chokes on his laughter, struggling to clear his throat as she sits there, her features alternating between a severe glare and an embarrassed pout. When he finally settles, Iroh smiles down at her, massaging his stomach as he opens his mouth to speak. She beats him to it, voice once more a bare, despondent whisper.
"It's this whole spirit thing."
"I'm the Avatar, the bridge between spirits and humans! But I can't even connect with my own past lives..."
She lets the sentence hang, feels that heavy burden begin to settle around her shoulders again.
"You'll do it."
She almost misses his words, imbued as they are with an absolute sort of confidence. Her gaze snaps to his.
His eyes are filled with steady faith as he looks at–through–her.
"You'll do it."
A firm hand clasps her shoulders, gives her the faintest squeeze and through that unyielding, amber gaze, his confidence flows to her.
"Korra...when the time is right, you'll figure it out."
"How can you be so sure?"
Iroh grins at her, ruffles her hair as he stands.
"Because you're the Avatar...and the world just has to deal with it, right?"
He leaves her staring after him, her own self-confidence bolstered by his unwavering faith.
The rapid drumbeat of her heart–the warmth spreading beneath her skin–is a sensation she's unfamiliar with.
By the time Korra realises her own feelings, months later, Iroh is gone–to battle, to war.
She finds herself kneeling across from him, separated only by inches of space and yet, further away than ever before.
She can see the dark shadows of sleeplessness that paint the skin around his eyes, the flicker of his clenching jaw and the whitening of his knuckles as shaking fingers press into the flesh of his legs. Tears trail down his quivering cheeks as his voice rumbles over the words of his sombre farewell.
"Brothers and sisters...I give you back to the setting sun and the waning moon, the ephemeral wind and the eternal earth."
Reality bleeds into memory and another voice echoes in her mind, shot through with the frigid composure of the youngest general in military history.
Iroh stares out towards the sinking wrecks of his fleet, to the men and women succumbed to fire and water. For an instant she sees something dark writhe in the fiery gold of his eyes but then it's gone, hidden away beneath a layer of chilled detachment. He turns away.
"There's no time to waste, Avatar Korra."
She flinches at the distant tone, staring after him with disbelief bright in her eyes.
"What about your men, General?!"
The man before her–so different from the boy she remembers–doesn't even slow, steadily walking away.
"There's nothing I can do for them now, except make all this count for something."
Disgust and anger roil in her gut. The years have changed him, stolen from him–from her–the boy he once was–the boy she once loved. She wants to yell at him, scream until this distant, unfamiliar man is gone and her Iroh is back but when she speaks, her voice comes only as a broken whisper and Iroh freezes.
"What happened to you...?"
For an eternity, silence hangs between them, lingering and heavy. His voice remains steady–cold–but his hands clench into tight fists as he speaks.
He turns and the eyes that meet her gaze are a brittle, crackling gold, filled with turmoil and pain.
And she is stepping after him, hand reaching out–heart aching with desperate hope–for the boy beneath the ice because she has seen his facade of strength for what it is–a shield–
But he turns away again, heart locked once more behind frigid walls.
The words to call him back dance across her tongue but she forces them away, pushes through the empty ache of his dismissal and the pain of this unfamiliar distance to focus on the matter at hand. After all, Iroh is right.
The revolution threatens the stability of the entire world's balance. There is no time to waste with trivial personal problems.
Still, Korra's thoughts linger on him–the man on the surface as much as what lays beneath.
She wonders why she still cares–still hopes–so much after all this time.
Korra understands now.
Iroh has always given, as a prince, a general and even a friend, but beneath all those layers, he is only human–prone to the same fallings as everyone else.
It is silent when she reaches over, grasps his cold, trembling hands and whispers–soft as the breeze–to those who sacrificed everything for him–for her.
"May the spirits watch over you all."
Ever so slowly, the shaking tension seems to bleed from him and he folds calloused fingers around hers.
He meets her gaze and in those shifting pools of gold, she sees everything.
She realises that underneath the hardened skin, he is still the boy who made lightning to dry her tears, still the teenager who rescued her from the smothering shroud of her own doubts, just as much as he is the cold-hearted general who fought at her side to bring back a city on the edge of revolution or the world-weary man before her, grieving for lost brothers and sisters in the breaking dawn.
Each and all are parts of a whole–shades of gold in the mural of his soul.
Her heart skips a beat as his fingers tighten around her own, as he leans further into this pseudo-embrace to gently rest his forehead against hers.
Korra looks into eyes of flowing gold, sees her own blue gaze reflected in brilliant amber and realises that beneath all the years, the battle scars and bravado, she is still a girl in love with her best friend.
"It's been a while, Iroh."
Hope you guys enjoyed it and once more, sorry for long wait.
Feedback would be really appreciated and thanks for reading!