Rina’s school was pretty diverse. Especially if you considered the location. The Grand Council of Firebenders sat right in the center of Sunport. And the city itself sat only a few miles from the massive–albeit dormant–volcano said to be the home of an ancient dragon.
No one was saying other benders couldn’t live here. It was more a question of why would they when the place could easily change its name to Flamey Hot Fire Town. Even the local cuisine turned up the heat.
Still, Rina’s school had a decent amount of waterbenders, and almost equal amounts of earthbenders, firebenders, and students with no powers at all.
Then there was Rina. The bloodbender. Not that anyone in school knew that. If they did… well, Rina wasn’t sure what would happen, exactly, but she knew it wouldn’t be good. She’d done her research thoroughly when she’d discovered her powers. Bloodbending was not illegal in Sunport as it was in other places. For some strange reason, Firelord Izumi had been adamantly against such a law, even when all others pressured her to fall into line. The legal lenience didn’t lessen anyone’s fear of bloodbenders, though. If anything, it made the whole thing worse. People found to be bloodbending were isolated from society — kicked out of schools, unable to find jobs, sent to juvenile detention for no clear reason, if they were young enough. Rina heard that many of them had committed petty crimes just so they could get themselves hauled off to jail instead of living on the streets. She believed it, too. Which was why she had to be so careful not to let her own bloodbending show.
It was lunchtime, and after a particularly difficult math class, Rina had decided to carry her tray of fire wings and grilled zucchini out in the isolated hallway behind the cafeteria. She stabbed at a piece of the vegetable and tried dipping it in the hot sauce, hoping that would help the flavor.
Some days, the stress of hiding drove her mad. She’d get angry at everyone around her — her friends, her teachers. She got especially irritated at her parents on the bad days, figuring one of them had to be responsible for her inheriting this power. She wished she knew which one to direct the anger at. Once upon a time, everyone said it was an absolute fact that bloodbending had its origins in waterbending. But in the past decade or so, things had changed. So many new bloodbenders had appeared in Sunport. And fire was generally associated with energy and life. So maybe, some people theorized, it was a sign that bloodbending’s true origins lay in the flames. The one or two airbenders that attended school said they didn’t really care where it was from, only that it definitely was not from their lineage.
“Hey, loser!” a voice called from down the hall. Rina froze. No, she did not have the mental stamina for this right now. This hallway was supposed to be her sanctuary.
The guy at the end of the hallway didn’t seem to agree with her. “Lunch is inside,” he said, jerking his head towards the cafeteria. His bangs were long and dyed a bold pumpkin orange. What are you doing eating out here like some weird…” He seemed to struggle for the right word. “…badger? Or… mole?” He sounded proud of himself for figuring it out.
“I just felt like being alone, okay?” she snapped. She tried some deep breathing. She’d been reading a very popular meditation book by some old monk whose name she forgot. Unfortunately, the techniques never seemed to work when Rina needed them. She stood up, grasping her tray. Easiest thing to do was just walk back to the cafeteria. Diffuse the situation. Not let herself get worked up. She started down the hallway, hands gripping the tray like a lifeline, taking careful steps as she stared at her food. Bad idea. A second too late, she noticed Pumpkin-head had stuck his foot out in front of her. Her leg got caught. Her power reacted just as she expected it would. As she put out her arm to steady herself, the guy’s leg pulled back out of her way. When she looked up, she saw he had gone pale.
“Wh-what? How did you do that?” he demanded. She felt a buzz of fear and panic washing over her. Calm. She had to stay calm.
“Do what?” she said, like it was the stupidest question she’d heard in her life. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, you did!” Pumpkin-head cried out. “You made my leg move, didn’t you?” He pointed accusingly at her. “You’re a bloodbender, aren’t you?”
“Oh, please,” said another voice down the hallway. Rina felt a strong urge to just throw the tray down and run. Her supposed sanctuary was getting way too crowded. She glanced around Pumpkin-head to see who had invaded her space now, and let out an audible gasp.
“Kaja!” she exclaimed. It felt weird to say. Like she was being rude if she didn’t add “sir” onto the end of his name. Normally, the wealthy aristocrat had private tutors schooling him at home. But ever since Firelord Izumi had announced her intention to step down within the next few years, her grandchildren had been spending more and more time among the commonfolk. Kaja more than anyone else.
He flashed her a superhero-esque smile and turned on Pumpkin-head. “You’re the one who moved your leg. Why don’t you quit babbling about stuff you don’t understand and leave this young lady be?”
“This young lady”? Rina lowered her head, trying not to laugh. She sure wasn’t one to complain about being defended, even if Kaja sounded a little ridiculous while he was doing it.
“You think you can boss me around?” Pumpkin-head demanded.
Kaja crossed his arms. “Hmm, let’s see. I’m two grades above you, you’re clearly in the wrong here, and my father is next in line to lead pretty much every Fire Nationer in the world. Yeah, I think I can you boss you around.”
The guy he was talking to growled like an angry bear. “You would take her side, wouldn’t you? Your whole stupid family just loves bloodbenders, don’t you?”
Rina’s eyes widened in surprise at the guy’s gall. So did Kaja’s, for that matter, but he kept himself calm. “I don’t talk politics at school,” he said.
Pumpkin-head was gaining more confidence now. “Yeah, I bet you don’t. You know, everyone thinks your dad is going to be the worst Firelord ever. Even worse than your stupid powerless grandma.”
Rather than getting worked up over this comments, Kaja straightened and smiled over it. “Thank you for the feedback. What did you say your name was, again? I’d be happy to pass your comments onto my grandmother personally.”
Pumpkin-head’s aggressive stance fell; his face went instantly pale. “N-no, that’s all right. I mean, I wasn’t talking about my opinion personally, you know. I was just saying… y’know, that I’ve heard other people say stuff like that.”
“Ah, okay. My mistake then.” Kaja waved him away like… well, like a prince dismissing a commoner. Pumpkin-head couldn’t sprint away from the hallway fast enough. It felt good to see him finally leave, but Rina couldn’t sake the ill feeling in her stomach. If he started a rumor that she could use bloodbending…
“Don’t worry,” Kaja said. “I think he’ll keep his mouth shut. And if he doesn’t, a couple fireballs in his locker might change is attitude.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Rina said. She slumped back down onto the floor, placing her tray next to her. She expected Kaja to strut away with some cheesy one-liner like, “All in a day’s work.” Instead, he said down next her, pulling one knee up to his chest and leaning his elbow on it.
“So?” he asked, looking her over. “Are you?”
“Huh?” Rina shoved a forkful of zucchini in her mouth. By now, it was both bland and cold. “Am I what?”
“Oh, come on,” Kaja said. “Are you a bloodbender?”
She swallowed hard. “You just said–”
“I just said stuff to make that jerk go away. But you and I both know he had every intention of keeping his leg there. Probably wanted to yank it backwards to make you fall even harder.”
Rina hugged herself. She couldn’t think of any good explanation to get herself out of this. Panic was threatening to overtake her. And when stuff like that happened… that was when her powers acted even less out of her control. She felt dizzy, desperate for escape.
“Look, I know you’re scared,” came Kaja’s voice, calm but stern. “But I know someone who can help you get it under control. I promise, you’re not in trouble.”
Rina’s hands shook, but she forced herself to answer. “If I’m not in trouble, why do bloodbenders get kicked out of school?”
“They don’t,” Kaja said.
She rolled her eyes.
“Well, they’re not supposed to, at any rate. That’s discrimination.”
“No kidding.” She’d decided she’d had enough of lunch and snatched up her tray, dumping the remainder of its contents into a large trashcan just outside the cafeteria. She needed to get out of here.
“Come on, will you just hear me out?” Kaja asked. She cringed. There was no one else around them now, but if anyone wandered out here and heard him begging her to listen, she’d have way more explaining to do than she could handle.
“Fine.” She plopped the now-empty tray onto the top of the trash can. “What is it?”
“I… just… I know someone who can help you control your powers. Do you want help or not?”
Control my powers? Now there was the last question Rina expected to be asked. She didn’t actually know the right answer to it, either. If she said “yes”, that would be admitting what she could do. But if she said “no”, would that be turning her nose up at one of the only chances she’d ever had to get help?
“What can you do for me?” she asked simply.
Kaja smiled. “I’m going to take you to meet someone who, trust me on this, is way better at this power than you.”
Rina was pretty sure she didn’t believe a word of what Kaja was saying. Then again, no one really said no to him, either. That afternoon, as soon as school let out, she went along with Kaja to see where he would lead her. His directions took her straight to the Fire Nation palace. She’d seen the place before, on field trips and the like, but Kaja didn’t exactly go in the tourist route. Instead, he led her around through the gardens and behind a terrace covered in vines. There he revealed a door that led into some kind of basement. Rina had to admit, for once in her life, she was a bit glad to have her bloodbending. If this guy tried anything weird, she would throw him on the ground and make a run for it.
Just as Kaja closed the door behind him, lights flooded into the basement floor. It wasn’t dank or moldy as she suspected, but every bit as high-end and elaborate as she imagined the rooms upstairs. The floor was made out like a gym — wooden and smooth. But there didn’t seem to be any equipment in the room. Then a woman approached them. Rina didn’t recognize her at first, dressed as she was in commoner clothing. The only time she’d ever seen her was when she was wearing the Firelord robes.
Firelord Izumi? Rina felt her heart sink into her stomach. So Kaja had just brought her here to get her in trouble. How could she have been so stupid? She whirled around to face him. “You took me to your grandmother? You just said you wouldn’t–”
“Calm down!” Kaja held up his hands. “I just said I’d take you to someone who’s way better at this than you are.” He could see the confusion etched in Rina’s face, and he seemed to relish it. He extended his hands dramatically towards his grandmother. “Ta-da! Here she is!”
Izumi narrowed her eyes. “Kaja,” she said, as stern as Rina had ever heard her in the media. “I’ve asked you before not to do that.”
It was a tone that probably would have terrified a normal citizen. But apparently Kaja had heard it enough times that he no longer took it as an actual threat.
“Aw, come on,” he said. “It’s so cool when they figure it out.” He imitated someone’s eyes going wide, then pretended to be tipping backwards from the shock.
“That’s enough, young man!” Izumi snapped. This, it seemed, was an order to take seriously. Kaja straightened up and didn’t say anything else. Rina stared between the two, unsure who to approach first. She decided Firelord Izumi looked more trustworthy.
“So, he’s not making it up?” she asked, looking up at the tall, elderly woman. “You… really are a bloodbender?”
Izumi knelt down so that she and Rina were on eye level. “I really am,” she said. “But if you don’t believe me, feel free to try your bloodbending against me.”
Kaja looked excited at this suggestion, but Rina shook her head wildly. Kaja’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“Aw, show her some fly–” Izumi narrowed her eyes at him, and he closed his mouth mid-sentence.
“Show me… what?” Rina asked, pretty sure of what she’d heard, but not able to make any sense of it. “Did he say ‘fly’? You can fly with bloodbending?”
“With enough focus, yes. But it’s not safe to try until you’ve had sufficient practice. Kaja knows this.” She glared at her grandson once more, and he shuffled off to a corner of the gym. And for some reason, at that moment, Rina felt safer here than she’d ever felt in a long time.