Future Industries very wisely chooses to unveil the latest prototype of their passenger balloon right before a predicted upswing in their stock and a convenient coincidental visit from the United Forces. It’s a massive contraption, bigger than the balloons used by both the Equalists and Lin’s police force, and by far more luxurious. It dwarfs the ships in the harbor where it’s docked, floating a scant few feet above the water as if weightless. It has the capacity to hold 300 passengers in near-ridiculous opulence, not counting the captain, crew, and technicians.
Panels of the balloon’s outer skin are painted in a clean, creamy linen colour and the Future Industries logo has been handpainted in coal, like a black and white watercolour, because Asami likes to shows in no uncertain terms that Future Industries is no longer the company it once was.
In a stroke of brilliance she asks Mako to light the main engine for her, during the tour of the massive engine room.
The press eats it up.
Once the gaggle of reporters and photographers are occupied with champagne and shooting questions at the First Mate, Asami grabs Bolin’s sleeve and tugs him off the bridge.
“Whoa, whoa, what’s -”
Asami shuts the door of a small control room behind them; it definitely lacks the sense of space and grandeur that the bridge has. She pulls a small bundle of papers out of her jacket pocket and shoves them at him.
“It’s - a gossip newspaper, Asami, you actually take the time to read these?” Bolin’s eyes travel down the front page - a daily rag by the looks of the cheap, thin paper, and over-saturated headlines blaring the names of several prominent celebrities. Bolin sees the names of a few popular singers he recognizes, the name of an actress playing Oma in a radio serial drama, hey, even a few pro-benders - to his disgust, Tahno appears to have his own column. Asami taps the bottom of her paper. Bolin skims until he sees what she’s pointing at and -
Sparks Fly at Sato Estate! screams the headline, and then in smaller, desperate print it continues, Future Industries Heiress Asami Sato confirms she does indeed favor fire, extends invitation to prominent United Forces General Iroh, second of his name, to stay at her luxurious mansion. No word yet on reaction from Pro-Bender Mako of the Fire Ferrets, with whom Miss Sato split over a year ago. Details as they develop.
It takes everything Bolin has to not crumple the paper. He hands it back to her.“What, so, you and the General are -”
“Don’t be stupid, Bo, you know it’s not like that,” Asami says. “This rag likes to make gross assumptions, you should’ve seen it when Mako and I started dating.”
“Then why did you make me read that?” Bolin frowns, leaning back on a metal panel and crossing his arms. Asami crumples the paper and tosses it underneath the panel. Offhandedly, Bolin hopes that there’s nothing under there that could be a fire hazard.
“Usually I just read them for a laugh, but this is different. I need your help,” Asami says. “The Board is courting the U.F for a contract and thought it’d be a nice gesture if I invited Iroh to stay at the mansion, but that’s the extent of it. Full stop.”
“And if the Board sees this, no matter how completely incorrect it is, they’ll think it’s a good idea,” she says. She sounds as desperate as the typesetting in the article. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board with buttering up the United Forces for the business but believe it or not, I’m not okay with using Iroh as a pawn. Not when you two are all starry-eyed and acting like two turtleducks in love all over the place. And I am definitely not okay with them thinking, ‘hey, Miss Sato is a woman, feminine wiles can land that contract!’”
Bolin raises an eyebrow. He’s never seen Asami’s feathers this ruffled. “They’d actually think that?”
She glowers. “Don’t underestimate that bunch of wily old bastards. Just. Help me out here, Bo. It was bad enough when I was dating Mako, and this isn’t fair because Iroh’s your sweetheart, not mine. Just. Talk to him about it, please? Because if tomorrow I have to read about how close we were sitting at dinner or how noble our babies would look, I am handing in my resignation and going to raise wooly-pigs in the country.”
She turns on her heel, straightens her clothing in case any photographers are outside lurking in the hallway, and is gone before Bolin can even process that last mental image.
The opportunity to talk to Iroh about it arises much faster than Bolin originally though. Dependent as clockwork, early that evening Iroh arrives in full dress uniform, all pressed and neat and wearing just the right amount of cologne, and soon enough it’s just the two of them in a booth towards the back of a restaurant. It’s not Kuang’s but it’s discreet, upscale enough that Iroh doesn’t look out of place, yet casual enough for Bolin to feel comfortable. It was surprisingly easy for the both of them to find a happy medium.
And maybe Asami was right about that turtleduck comparison. This is only the second or third week of what Iroh calls a courtship; Bolin’s ready to make it an official Thing already, because why not? Bolin’s the happiest that he’s felt in a long time and he’s pretty sure Iroh feels the same, if the way he’s completely unable to stop smiling over dinner is any indication. But discussing that the other night, Iroh had gotten sort of flustered and there was a lot of hemming and hawing over things like ‘propriety’ and ‘serious intent.’
It has something to do with Fire Nation traditions butting against their difference in ages, Bolin suspects. But he likes Iroh, and there’s something about the word ‘courtship’ that makes him feel warm and slightly tingly, so he goes along with it amiably.
Talk over dinner drifts to the solid wall of meetings Iroh has scheduled for tomorrow, and when he offhandedly mentions Future Industries, Bolin figures it’s as good a time as any.
“Hey, uhh.” He sits up a little straighter and wipes a stray dribble of soy sauce from his mouth with his napkin, and does not focus on how engrossed Iroh is by that small action. “Has Asami spoken to you at all lately?”
“Newspapers, mostly,” Bolin replies. Iroh’s brow furrows in confusion, and he rushes to elaborate, “Uhm, the cheap ones. The ones that talk about babies that you and she will have, or something.”
Iroh’s mouthing “Babies...?” when the waiter reappears to top off their drinks and inquire, politely, if sirs would care for any dessert tonight. He recovers long enough to look inquiringly at Bolin (who shakes his head, sure he’ll turn to fat if Iroh keeps buying him dinners like this), and politely asks for the bill. The waiter departs and Iroh’s left frowning into his tea.
“Miss Sato and I are having babies? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“No no, like.” Bolin sets his drink down. “There are those gossip newspapers that speculate on the babies that you’ll have - except you definitely will not have them.” Not on my watch, he adds silently.
Comprehension dawns on the General’s face. “Oh, those sordid things. We’ve got those back home, they’re especially bad because there are too many Fire nobles and not enough things to do. What about them?”
Bolin’s not sure how to proceed from here. On his mental map of this conversation, he never quite moved past speculations of babies, and suddenly the complexities of negotiating through naval contracts come bearing down on him. “Er - Asami’s having a spot of trouble with one, because it was -”
“Making wild assumptions about my staying at her mansion?” Iroh finishes, eyebrows raising. “I’m almost afraid to ask.”
“It wasn’t too bad,” Bolin says. “Mostly just commenting on her apparent taste for firebenders, because she dated Mako for a while.”
“And here I was thinking they would speculate on the business side of it,” Iroh says dryly. The waiter drifts by, leaving the bill on the edge of the table.
Bolin turns red, while Iroh pulls out his wallet and counts out yuan notes. “Actually, that’s the problem. Asami was fretting that because the Board wants the contract with the Navy so badly, they’ll make the connection and start thinking...”
“I see.” Iroh pays the bill in full, leaving a generous tip. When he leans back in his seat, he looks so warm and relaxed and practically edible that Bolin can’t help but stare a little. But that, he chastises himself, doesn’t contribute to the newspaper problem or helping Asami. It was ridiculous but when your friends need help, you help them. Even when you have to bypass ogling your almost-but-not-quite boyfriend in order to concentrate on the issues at hand.
They finish their drinks and dawdle at the table for a little while longer, both reluctant to leave the restaurant and their own private bubble of space. Bolin’s brow is furrowed, and Iroh’s looking a little distant as well when he stands and pulls his coat back on.
“So the word is that Miss Sato and I are an item?” Iroh says at last, when they’re practically at the front of the restaurant. The lobby is so full of people waiting for tables, uniformed waiters rushing to and fro with trays of drinks and plates of food, that they have to stop frequently to let other parties by.
“Basically, yeah,” Bolin says. Iroh’s placed his hand on the small of his back, just the lightest touch possible, when a harried-looking waiter herds a crowd of people past them. It’s more distracting than he’s willing to admit. “I see. And what are the odds of the paper and the board letting everything alone if they saw that she and I are definitely not an item?”
Bolin considers. “Pretty good. Tahno will get a new fling for them to write about, and everything will be back to normal.”
Iroh smiles, sounding pleased. “Good. Then it’s just a matter of proving to them how false their assumptions are.”
They slip out of the restaurant, just behind an older couple who dawdle at the door, adjusting their scarves. A sizeable crowd is gathered outside of the doors, all waiting for tables - Bolin’s grateful that Iroh either has the sense to make reservations, or the pull to find a table when a restaurant is booked.
“Well?” Iroh’s hand returns to the small of his back. It rests as a warm and comfortable weight. “Ready to help Miss Sato?” “How?” Bolin’s lost. The crowd around them offers little in the way of hints. Then suddenly Iroh is right there, his smile very close indeed. “Like this,” he says, stooping.
For all he looks all unflappable uniformed confidence, his hand shakes faintly when he reaches to cup the side of Bolin’s face, but his lips are very warm so that’s all right.
It’s probably a breach of the protocols of courtship, the way Iroh’s tongue slides against his lips without any preamble. Bolin doesn’t care.
Readers will kindly disregard yesterday’s article in this spot, the newspaper reads. All speculation of General Iroh, U.F.N’s involvement with Asami Sato of Future Industries was proved moot last evening as the General, second of his name, was spotted smooching pro-bender Bolin of the Fire Ferrets outside of downtown eatery Yan Sing’s. Details as they develop.
Attached to the cheap paper is a note in Asami’s hand -
I owe you one. - x