Bolin felt he was supposed to comfort Iroh. Of course he should. Bolin had simply been so surprised by his confession and the reaction that had followed it that he hadn't known exactly how to do that. Of course he could have simply hugged Iroh, which was his first instinct, but Iroh didn't look like he could stand to be touched at the moment. For the first time in the time they had known each other, Bolin was genuinely scared for him. Iroh was still in the same position he had been in when he had first started weeping. Bolin couldn't see his face as Iroh had covered it with his hands.
"What happened next?" Bolin asked before he could stop himself. He feared speaking had been a mistake, but Iroh quickly gathered himself, stood up and looked at Bolin as if nothing had happened.
"We continued our...arrangement for quite a while. I got used to the pain, and I...even kind of started to like it", Iroh said, his tone neutral, as if he was describing a military operation. "I felt that, in a way, and even though he never said anything of the sort, that he did care for me. Why else would he have taken so much time...handling me? I guess anyone else would call it torment, but I thought this was simply his way of showing endearment."
Bolin listened. He didn't want to, but Iroh needed to speak, and he figured that after all this time, maybe he needed to hear what he had to say.
"One night, though, he went too far. I passed out, just like the first time. I woke up with a cracked collarbone. He always took such care with my neck, you see." Iroh grew quiet for a moment, then continued his story. "Well, anyway. I was supposed to be on duty that morning, but with the condition I was in I of course couldn't perform, and I got in trouble with my superior. I couldn't explain to him how I had gotten hurt, so he punished me for neglecting my duties. That is why I ended it. Not because I thought I was worth more than his abuse, not because I deserved better, but because his treatment of me interfered with my career."
Bolin closed his eyes. There is no me without the army, Iroh had said. He was starting to understand the full extent of his words. "And then?"
"I told him it was over. He nodded. I tried to explain to him why I was ending things, but he wasn't interested. So I left. Soon after he started sleeping with another. He got caught mishandling him, and he was transferred elsewhere. They didn't want to make a big deal out of the situation. Guess I can't blame them." Iroh had a fixed gaze, as if he was watching the events take place right in front of his eyes. "I never dated again. I figured it wasn't for me. I focused on my career in the army, and I tried my best to be, well, the best."
"Who are you?" Bolin asked.
"What do you mean?"
"What makes you you?"
"I don't really know. What is there to know? I am a Firebender, my parents are this and that, I command the men you saw me with and I wear these clothes because that is the uniform a person in my position is expected to wear."
Bolin threw his hands in the air in frustration. "Well, I don't know. Do you like that uniform? What is your favorite color? Do you like flowers? What do you do when you are off-duty? How do you pass time? Do you read? Do you like movies? Tell me anything."
Iroh shrugged. "I've never really had a favorite color. As for the uniform, I don't know if I like it or if I've simply gotten so used to it. Off-duty I guess I think about the next mission and prepare myself mentally for it. If there is no next mission, I guess I go through previous missions and see what I could improve for next missions."
Bolin wasn't sure what to say. Iroh had answered exactly as he had expected him to, which worried him. "Do you like flowers?"
"Bolin, why are you asking me all these questions?
Because I want to know whether I've been in love all these years with an image I created myself, or if it's actually you I love, Bolin thought. He didn't say it out loud though. "No reason. Just wondering." He looked to the ground. "But don't you think it's not the best thing for you to build your life around only one thing?"
"What's wrong with that? I love the army. I'm good at being in the army. What's wrong with that?"
Bolin knew his next question could either make or break their relationship. "What do you love about the army?"
Iroh smiled and opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out.
"Exactly." Bolin got up. He headed for the door. He felt like crying, but he didn't want Iroh to see him and think he was the same cry-baby he had been when Iroh had left Republic City.
"Where are you going?" Iroh didn't understand why but Bolin seemed to be upset.
"I'm going for a walk. There is still plenty of time before the party, so I'm going to get some air."
"Okay. I'll see you at the party." Iroh tried to sound cheerful, but failed.
Bolin nodded without turning back and disappeared through the door.
Iroh was left alone with his thoughts. Bolin had hit a nerve, even though Iroh hadn't wanted him to see it. "Why do I do anything?" He tried saying out loud to an empty room.
Why was he still in the army? Because that was the only thing he knew how to do? Did he really love the army? The last question was the worst one. Was it the order and discipline that appealed to him? That he always knew what to do, based on his orders or the mission protocol? Ever since he had been little, he had known he wanted to join the army when he got older. But why? Was he really nothing more than a walking uniform?
Korra checked up on Iroh later in the day, but he was so lost in his thoughts that she couldn't get anything out of him, concerning Bolin or otherwise. Bolin, on the other hand, was moping in the garden outside the palace. Korra was busy meeting every single famous person who was there to greet her before the coronation, so she didn't have the time to force them to talk it out. She also thought that the matter was really between them anyway, so if they wanted to, they would talk. If they wouldn't talk during the festivities, Korra hoped it wouldn't take them as many years as the last time to get in touch with each other.
The day was rainy but in the evening the sky cleared up and left the air damp and warm. Iroh was standing by the door, waiting for his men to arrive, as they needed to enter together. He was dressed in his best formal wear (which was really just another uniform with more decorations). He tugged his collar to make it fit better. His attitude towards parties like this was that they were just another mission, the mission here simply being more of a 'behave well, don't screw up' variety than his usual 'don't get killed' type. His behavior was always carefully scrutinized, considering his rank and who his parents were. It wasn't as if he hated these parties, but he was glad his presence wasn't required more often than once or twice a year. The parties always felt like they were tests, and there were thousands of ways to fail. Referring to someone with the wrong rank, not bowing in the right way, wearing the wrong shade of red...When he was little, his mother had taught him everything he needed to know about etiquette, but had also told him that none of that was important. However, whenever he had made a mistake in the public events his mother had taken him to, she had shaken her head and looked away. Iroh had learned from his mistakes, and he was now fairly adept at following social rules.
He happened to see Bolin wandering towards him. He was clearly lost. Iroh smiled. Bolin was wearing an Earthbender outfit. It wasn't as stylish as the outfits the other Earthbender guests were wearing, many of whom had passed Iroh on their way to the main hall, but it suited him, and he looked comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that Iroh got the urge to wrap his arms around Bolin. When Bolin turned to face him, however, his expression was weary and Iroh realized it would be best if he didn't try anything of the sort. He had promised himself not to start anything with him, and he needed to stick with his promise, for both their sakes.
"Is this the way to the main hall?" Bolin finally approached him after walking around for a bit.
"Yes, yes it is."
Bolin nodded and tried to move past him. Iroh stopped him with his arm. "You are supposed to wait for Korra. You are in her crew, so you'll be announced together with her and the other people with you."
"I suppose you're more familiar with these types of parties", Bolin muttered and agreed to wait for Korra.
"Yes. I am sometimes expected to attend", Iroh replied and moved his arm from Bolin's chest to behind his own back. He wasn't supposed to give Bolin any hope of reconciliation. Bolin leaned his back on the wall behind him and they waited in silence. People passed them, greeting Iroh on their way. Some of them also greeted Bolin, as they suspected he was someone important if he was in the company of him, but most people probably suspected he was a servant judging from his attire.
It took a while, but finally Iroh's men arrived and he could enter the party. He waved to Bolin in goodbye. Bolin shot him a strange expression, and turned around, leaning his side to the wall, facing away from Iroh.
Iroh's heart sank, but he knew what he had to do, so he stepped in front of his men and motioned them to start walking. A man by the door announced his and his men's names, and they walked through the door with all eyes on them.
An older man in Fire Nation dress walked in front of him, a sight he had not expected. "Grandfather?"