Letting go

Chapter 3

Bolin entered the room soon after Korra had left. He was carrying a large tray with many different bowls and plates on it. "Scooch over, will you?" Bolin said as he gently pushed Iroh. Iroh carefully moved to make room for Bolin and the tray. Bolin seemed calm and flashed him a wide grin as he offered Iroh a plate with a foamy cake on it. He didn't seem mad at Iroh at all, despite how their earlier discussion had went before Iroh had passed out. Iroh was finally starting to see similarities between old Bolin and this new one. The grin was still the same, and the eyes...they still had a certain warmth to them, assuring the person looking into them that everything would be alright. Unfortunately not many people had really looked into Bolin's eyes and seen that.

"You should eat to recover your strength", Bolin said and handed him a spoon. Iroh was going to point out to Bolin that he was not used to eating desserts and didn't much care for them, but as he saw the look on Bolin's face when he suggested different cakes and chocolate treats for Iroh to eat, he realized that being raised an orphan, Bolin had probably never even had the opportunity to taste anything like that before, let alone grow sick of them. He cut a piece of his cake with his spoon and put it in his mouth. The foam was apparently made of white chocolate. Iroh quite enjoyed the taste, and at Bolin's urging, he obediently finished the cake. He watched as Bolin ate small chocolatey looking things and then moved onto cakes and pastries. It was as if he was afraid the food would be taken away and he needed to swallow as much as possible before that. Iroh noticed that there was also some healthy food on the tray and grabbed the first fruit he saw. They ate in silence. Iroh knew they would have to talk eventually, but at least they could have this moment before Iroh would have to leave. For good.

When he was sure Iroh wasn't looking, Bolin glanced at the man next to him. Iroh hadn't changed much in appearance, but he looked even more serious than before, if possible. Bolin smiled. He had tried to move on, and considering all the things Iroh had said to him, he definitely should have. Still, Bolin couldn't let go of the hope he had of things somehow working out in the end. There was something about the general that made him melt. Even after the awful things Iroh had said to him...It wasn't just that he was charming or good looking, but he had taken an interest in Bolin. He had really made Bolin believe that there could be someone who would love him. Just him. And yet...every time Bolin got his hopes up, Iroh seemed to remember that Bolin was too young and because of that, they couldn't be together. Bolin had disagreed with him back then. After Bolin had started working with street kids, though, he had come to realize that Iroh had been right. Bolin had fallen like a kid, and he hadn't been mature enough to actually get into a relationship with a man who had a sense of direction in his life. The past few years had taught him many things, though, and despite not actually getting around to dating himself, the kids he had helped had taught him a thing or two about how things could go wrong when dating someone. Bolin was now more comfortable with his strengths and weaknesses, and he was confident he was now mature enough for Iroh. What he wasn't sure about was whether the man still cared for him. After all, they had spent a few months together many years ago. Iroh was unforgettable for him because he had been his first, but perhaps Iroh had moved on. Bolin hadn't even bothered to ask whether Iroh was dating someone new now. Maybe he had a family. Iroh was definitely old enough to have one, and being the grandson of the former Fire Lord and the son of the current one, marriage was probably expected of him.

"Are you married?" The words escaped Bolin's lips before he could stop himself. What was it I was saying about being mature now?

Iroh stopped eating the fruit he was holding. His eyes were wide. "No. Can't say I do."

"I mean more like a family. Do you have kids?" Once he had started, Bolin wanted to cover every possible situation just so there wouldn't be any surprises.

Iroh smiled. "No. Just my men." He started eating the fruit again.

"Are you intimate with any of them?" Bolin asked, leading Iroh to nearly choke.

"No! Why are you asking me these things?" Iroh looked incredulous. He didn't seem to suspect that Bolin would have an ulterior motive. Bolin would have to be more blunt with him. He sighed. The general could be so dense sometimes.

"Just wondering if you're single, 's all." Bolin pretended to look casual, but inside he was excited to hear the answer.

"Yes, I am. But Bolin, it doesn't mean-", Iroh started but Bolin stopped him by raising his hand.

"Do you still love me?" The conversation wasn't going as Bolin as had planned. In his head, he was going to dazzle Iroh with his maturity and Iroh would apologize for his earlier behavior. Then they would go to reception and everybody would congratulate them. However, as Bolin had cracked and acted like his usual self when it came to love, it was too late to act cool, so Bolin decided to go with his natural asset: honesty. "I still love you."

Iroh gave him a sympathetic smile. "I think it's time we have a talk, you and I."

"I hate that condescending smile. You always look at me like that when you think I'm too much of a child for you." Bolin was frustrated again. Whenever Iroh flashed him that smile, he knew he would get nowhere with him.

Iroh moved the tray to their side and then assumed a comfortable position in front of Bolin. They were now facing each other. Iroh looked him in the eyes with an undecipherable expression on his face. This made Bolin nervous and he averted his gaze. He wasn't sure what to feel. He had been so hopeful before, but now all he could do was remember their fight from the night before. Suddenly, Iroh grabbed his hands and Bolin looked up. Iroh leaned forward. "I'm sorry."

"You said that before. We kiss, you're sorry. You leave, you're sorry. You tell me I'm only a hindrance to your career, you're sorry. That word doesn't seem to mean much to you." Bolin didn't want to sound so bitter, but he was just so tired of hearing Iroh's apologies.

"I know that. I'm sorry for that too. During our whole relationship, it seems, I've been pushing you away and pulling you back at the same time. It hasn't been fair to you, and I am deeply sorry."

Bolin smiled. "I appreciate that."

Iroh grew serious. He also let go of Bolin's hands. "I'm going to tell you a story. After you've heard the story, I hope you understand why I can't be with you. Not ever." Bolin tried to touch his face, but Iroh gently pushed the hand he had offered away. "No. There will be no mixed messages. I am not leaving you and then telling you I love you like last time. This time I'm only telling you that we can't be, and why that is."

Bolin realized he was still holding out the hand he had tried to place on Iroh's cheek, so he placed it in his lap. "Go on then. Tell me."

Iroh took a deep breath. "When I was young, just a small child, my favorite game was to pretend me and my friends were the team Avatar. After a while, though, I realized that the closest thing real life had to that was the army. None of the adventure and fun, sure, but there would definitely be people I could call my friends. So I decided to join the army. Only later I realized that exact thing was something my family had expected of me. So it all worked out, right?"

Bolin suspected the story would get worse before it would get better, so he waited patiently for Iroh to continue.

"I trained for my bright future every day. I wasn't even sure what was driving me, I just wanted to be good." Iroh's voice grew smaller with each sentence. Bolin felt a knot in his stomach. He wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the story anymore, but at the same time he felt this was something Iroh needed to tell him.

Iroh continued, his voice merely a whisper now: "When I was...17? Maybe. A bit older than you were when we first met. I...I fell in love. He, uh, he was a general back then. Older than me, I was just starting out. He was always so sure of himself and knew what to do. I suppose he was good looking as well, but most important, I think, was the air about him. He knew what he wanted and he took it. I...I guess that was one of the problems."

Bolin felt a twinge of jealousy. It was to be expected, Iroh having had others before him, considering his age and social status, but he still didn't like the idea one bit. Especially since Iroh didn't look or sound like his usual self at all. He was shaking, and his gaze was fixed, as if in a trance. Bolin's first instinct was to hold the man, but he was afraid to.

"I confessed to him that I loved him. He, uh, didn't say it back, but he invited me to his room. It was like 'our little secret'." Bolin realized that the emphasized words were something the man had told Iroh back then. He also noticed that he had grabbed one of the large pillows and was now holding onto it for safety. It was as if Iroh was telling him a ghost story, even though it was morning and the story was actually Iroh's own.

"I told him everything I liked about him, but he didn't really care to listen, so he stopped me. He came close to me and put his hands on me. It was like a dream come true. I loved him, and he was holding me in his arms." Iroh's gaze was still fixed on something Bolin couldn't see. He wanted to shake the man, but he knew the story wasn't over. Not yet.

"He took off my coat...then he bit me. It surprised me. Even though I felt blood on my neck, it didn't so much hurt as it did shock me. And then...it started."

Bolin raised his hand to his neck. To his horror, he realized that what the man had done to Iroh, Iroh had done to him.

"It was...painful. Not only because I had never done it before and he didn't bother to prepare me properly. It was because he, uh, um", he mumbled. Bolin finally dared to place a hand on his knee. It seemed to help, as Iroh gathered himself and continued. "...he liked it rough, you see. Not just rough like what is usually means, b-but he liked to torture me. It lasted for what felt like forever, and when he was done, I was bruised and bleeding all over. I passed out from the pain. The next morning he was already gone when I came to, and I discreetly made my way back to the place I was staying at. I never told a soul. And I guess neither did he, as nobody ever mentioned it to me." Iroh's eyes met Bolin's, and Bolin realized he had been listening with his mouth open from the horror he felt. Iroh gave him a faint smile. "So, you see, I know all about the power. The sheer power your first love can have on you. Even after years have passed. I was simply too weak to resist it."

Bolin moved his hand from Iroh's knee to his cheek. He placed his other hand on Iroh's other cheek as well, so he could force Iroh to look at him. "Hey...You said it yourself, it's not weakness to fall in love. And there was no way you could have known he would treat you that way."

Even with mere inches between them, Iroh couldn't bare to look at him. He had tears in his eyes, when he whispered: "Maybe not the first time."

Bolin let his hands drop as the terrible realization hit him. Iroh buried his face in his hands and started weeping.