Iroh’s palms were sweating as he approached the United Republic prison. He’d worn gloves frequently in his days as a general, and they had always managed to hide things like this. They hid shaking fingers well, too. He could have used that now. Maybe one of his actions as Firelord should have been to change the attire to something that made his emotions much more difficult to read.
Mom went willingly, he kept reminding himself. I can’t make a fuss or get worked up over his. Grandfather worked too hard to make peace between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world. Even so, he could almost imagine what his other ancestors would have done in this situation. Firelord Sozin or Azulon…even his Great Aunt Azula…if any of them had a family member in this situation, they would have burned the place down.
The warden who met him at the door was painfully polite. She bowed again and again, almost smacking her head on the wall at one point. The worst of it was, Iroh made no attempt to appease her, even felt like she should be apologizing more. She led him down a series of bare, clean corridors as Iroh tried to picture his mother in a cell. The confined space, the stiff bed (what if her back acted up?), the bad lighting–
“Right here,” the warden said, stepping back and showing Iroh to the next set of cells on his right. He turned the corner and his eyes widened. For one moment, he thought that he had somehow been led into a cell himself. There were prison bars in front of him, but it looked much nicer behind them then it did outside of them.
The block of cells was actually a single unit, with at least five times the space of any of its neighbors. The walls were clean and freshly painted a rather nice shade of olive green. The space was fully lit by an elaborate light fixture built into the ceiling. The bed was huge and fitted with luxurious purple blankets, with a canopy to boot. There was even a small heating plate where his mother appeared to be lifting a pot of tea and pouring it into a cup. She turned when she presumably sensed two people stopping at her cell and gave her son a wave.
“I…uh…” Iroh stuttered. “Mom, what the–?”
She sat in a cushioned chair, resting her feet on the accompanying ottoman. “Yes, I was surprised myself,” she said. “But it seems our friend Varrick was in charge of building this prison. And he predicted, correctly so, that he might end up in it someday.”
“So…he built this?” Iroh said, motioning to the décor.
Izumi took a sip of the tea. “Apparently so. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still prefer to be home. But it’s not nearly as bad as I expected. Raiko is quite determined to keep any further friction between you two minimized.”
Iroh gritted his teeth. “You’re still a prisoner. And I’m still going to get you out.”
“I’m sure you will. In due time without causing a fuss.” She took another sip of tea and set the cup firmly on a nearby table. It was enough to drive Iroh insane. His chest seized. No matter how much he mentally screamed at himself that he should be relieved to see his mother living here in relative comfort, the bars separating them were still the same. He closed his eyes and leaned up against one of them now, feeling the hard steel press into his forehead. He’d failed her. More than that, he’d failed his nation.
“Iroh?” His mother’s voice spoke. Then he felt her warm hands, a sharp contrast to the cold of the metal bars. Iroh pressed his lips together until he thought they would bleed. He couldn’t open his eyes or he knew that tears would fall. A Firelord did not cry. Certainly not in front of his mother.
“Iroh.” It wasn’t a question anymore It was the voice that always reassured him when he was a child, that waited up at night for him when he was Shyu’s age, that kept a candle lit at the window for him when he became a general marching his troops into battle. “Talk to me, son.”
Iroh swallowed. “Our people hate me,” he said in as steady a voice he could manage, which was a scratchy whisper, at best. “And so do the citizens of the United Republic. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of everyone expecting me to have answers for everything and getting angry at me when I don’t.”
She stroked the side of his face. “That’s the burden of being the Firelord,” she said. “But I know you will find a way to reconnect with our people. With the people around the world. You’ve brought your soldiers through much more difficult times than this.”
Reconnect with the people. Her words cemented what he’d already been thinking, and there was no longer any doubt in his mind. He would take Nanami up on her suggestions, down to the last detail. The people needed to see him on their side. No matter how much it tore him up inside.
“I have an idea,” he said. “I need to go.” He straightened and pulled away from her, wiping away tears under the guide of rubbing the bridge of his nose. He had no idea why; his mother knew him well enough to know what he was feeling. But if he was going to go through with this, he needed to practice being unemotional.
“I love you, Mother,” he said. “I want you to know that.”
She smiled and went back to her tea. “I know that. I always have.”
Varrick slumped at his desk, staring into a swamp of papers, still in his clothes from yesterday. Or was it the day before? He never was good at keeping track of time. One item in particular kept drawing back his eye. That day’s newspaper had a giant picture of him on the front which normally would have been great, except the headline read:
“Fire Nation Still Reeling After Docu-disaster!”
To make matters worse, the one ninny reporter he hadn’t managed to pay off in time went sniffing around for quotes from Silvia Dunwitch of all people.
Varrick groaned inside as he skimmed the words yet again, imagining the smug smile on her face.
“I just want to make it clear that we here at Cabbage Corp Studios in no way intend to let this political scandal disrupt our scheduled tour of the Fire Nation which will conclude in the Capitol just in time for Avatar Day.”
Varrick sank lower in his chair and pushed the paper aside, too disgusted to look at it anymore. All he had wanted was to make something special. Something the world would remember. And now, thanks to some stupid footage he didn’t even remember taking, the royal family hated his guts, his reputation was in the toilet, and that uptight xenophobe Dunwitch was going to make a profit from it!
Well, that’s it. My life is officially ruined. When people talk about me in history books they’ll say, “Hey, remember that guy–what’s his name? The one who Varricked the Fire Nation and his good name with a single film?”
Elsewhere in his house, a cuckoo clock chimed four times. Zhu Li entered his study with a tray of tea just before the last cuckoo faded. Stars, she really was the perfect woman. A shame her husband was a complete and utter idiot.
“Any progress, dear?” Zhu Li asked setting the tray on the corner of his desk and pouring him a steaming mug.
“I had to grease a few palms, but I think I managed to smooth things over with the press. And my investors. And the import-export guys.”
“But…?” Zhu Li prompted.
“But–the Fire Nation is still a mess. I tell you, I would not want to be Firelord Iroh right now.” He tried to laugh, but the sound came out more pained then amused.
The doorbell rang just as Zhu Li finished pouring his tea.
“I’ll get that,” she offered and whisked from the room before he could argue.
Odd. They were’t expecting company today…were they? He didn’t remember. Didn’t even know what day it was, actually. No matter. He knew Zhu Li would “do the thing.” Whatever that happened to be.
A few minutes later footsteps sounded outside his study and a familiar face peeked around the door. “Varrick?”
Varrick looked up. “Oh. Hiya, Bolin. What brings you here?”
Bolin’s eyes swept the room noting the mess and Varrick’s (okay, maybe slightly disheveled appearance).
“Zhu Li called me. She’s worried about you. And I can see why. You’re a mess.”
Varrick harrumphed. “Mess? What mess? So I didn’t feel like showering or sleeping. That’s not a crime. Now if you don’t mind, I’m very busy–”
Bolin took a seat in front of his desk and didn’t move, except to cross his arms and raise one of his bushy eyebrows. Varrick sighed. He knew Bolin’s I’m not moving and you can’t make me look all too well. Honestly, sometimes the man was as stubborn as he was. Varrick massaged his temples, then looked across his considerable desk at his friend.
“Look Bolin, I don’t know how to say this but…I screwed up.”
“Yeah, you did,” Bolin affirmed. With no hesitation, in fact. Sheesh, some people. Here he was pouring out his soul to the man, and Bolin didn’t even have the decency to comfort him in his time of need. Varrick made an annoyed face at Bolin, but his friend just stared right back, shameless.”So…fix it.”
If I knew how to do that we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “And how do you propose I do that?” Varrick asked, tossing up his arms. “Just waltz over to the Fire Nation and explain that I was trying to help, not hurt, the royal family with my movery to everyone I meet?”
Bolin scratched his head. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea. A public statement. Not to random strangers on the street,” he clarified. “You could do it on stage…” Bolin’s eyes lit up with sudden inspiration. “You could do a tour. Hit all the major cities across the nation and show your support for the Royal family, you know, to try and help take some of the heat off Izumi and Iroh.”
Varrick raised an eyebrow. One of these years he really had to teach Bolin how sarcasm worked.
Bolin shrugged. “It’s either that or sit here and feel guilty for the rest of your life.”
He had a point. Much as Varrick hated the thought of admitting his idiocy to thousands of gawking people, he hated the alternative even more. This wasn’t who he was. The real Varrick wasn’t some pathetic, uninspired lump that didn’t shower. He was an artist. A creative genius. A man who had used his drive and his whits to become the wealthiest man in the world! So he’d have to take a few pot-shots and lick a few boots to try and make things right again. So what? At least then he’d actually be doing something.
Varrick stood, so abruptly it startled Bolin out of his own chair. “Bolin…” He reached out and gripped him by the shoulders. “You’re a genius!”
Varrick rifled through a few papers until he found a map of the Fire Nation. He made several marks with a pen, starting to trace a route beginning at Sunport then looping back around the long way towards the Capitol. “Of course it’s going to take a lot more then me strolling up on stage to draw a crowd,” Varrick plotted to himself. “People are funny that way. Piss off the crowds and they’d turn on you like a pack of rat-vipers. But make them happy enough and they’d applaud you reading the phone book for crying out loud.” He looked over at Bolin who was still staring at him. Almost like he was waiting for something. Varrick had a hunch he knew what that was.
“I don’t suppose you and Tenna…would be interested in tagging along? After all, no one draws a crowd quite like you two.”
Bolin smiled. “Are we up for doing our job and helping our friends at the same time? I guess we could dust off the old Nuktuk costumes for that.” Bolin helped himself to one of the little snack cakes Zhu Li had brought with the tea. “Plus our daughter is in the Fire Nation, remember? And we’d both really like to see her, so make sure you schedule a stop at the Capital, okay?”
“Righty-o.” Varrick felt his throat quake with…was it gratitude? Man, he really needed to see a doctor about that.
Later. Right now he had some phone calls to make.