Bolin found Tenna hunched at their desk staring intently at an unfolded letter. Her brows were furrowed. Not a good sign.
Bolin came up behind her and reached down to rub her shoulders. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he thought. Maybe the news was actually good and Tenna was just to tired to be excited about it. They had been working a lot lately.
“Whatcha reading, hon?” he dared to ask, trying to keep his tone as optimistic as possible. Tenna looked up at him with weary amber eyes.
“A letter from Mica’s principal.” She massaged her temples and handed him the paper she had been reading.
“Oh.” Bolin felt his stomach sink. So much for his grand delusions of things going right for a change.
He skimmed the letter, skipping the polite sugar-coating the school staff felt obligated to throw in. Sadly, he and Tenna had gotten enough of them over the years that he knew exactly where to look to find out what Mica had done.
“Disrespecting authority… refusing to do assignments… skipping classes… reckless driving on school grounds…”
“Keep reading,” Tenna said.
“Property damage in the amount of… wah, holy crap!” He gripped the letter in both hands and peered closer, just to make sure he was absolutely, positively seeing the number correctly. “They can’t seriously expect us to pay for–” he began but was cut off when Tenna held up a bill.
“Apparently they seriously can.”
He stepped away and leaned his back heavily against the wall.
How are we going to afford this? He couldn’t bring himself to ask. Heck, just thinking about it hurt his head. It wasn’t fair. Tenna and he were mover stars. With their salaries combined they made more money in a year than most people made in a lifetime. They shouldn’t have to worry about money. And yet here they were doing just that. And it wasn’t just because Mica occasionally felt the need to blow up school property (though that certainly didn’t help). Oh, no. The real credit for their present struggles went to dear old Uncle Chow who stupidly decided to invest all of his inheritance to try and start his own fruit shipping business–never mind that he was competing with both Varrick Industries and Cabbage Corp.
Tenna spoke, her ever calm, sensible voice pulling him back from his private seething.
“I spoke with Varrick. He’s already got us a contract for another Nuktuk tour. If we do that and each renew for another season at the studio… we should be able to manage.”
Bolin’s face fell. Though he liked his role in the hit series “I Love Bolin,” trying to juggle filming that with traveling and performing live-shows…
“Tenna, it’s too much. We’re working like crazy as it is. If we try to do a tour on top of that… we’re talking fourteen-hour days. We’ll hardly see each other.”
“For a little while. Just until your Uncle gets back on his feet.”
Bolin crossed his arms, as if frumping over the situation might somehow fix it sooner. “I still don’t see why my cousins can’t help.” Flames knew he had enough of them.
“Tu and the others are trying their best, but they just don’t make the kind of money we do.” She lowered her voice a bit. “They’re your family, Bolin. We can’t just abandon them.”
“And what about Mica? We can’t abandon her, either. Not now.” Not when she clearly needed their guidance.
He watched Tenna’s face tighten with pain. “I know.”
She looked away, trying and failing to hide tears. Bolin felt like crying, too. He had thought Mica was doing better this year. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. He thought like that a lot during those long days in the studio. Every time he and Tenna didn’t get home in time for dinner. Every filming trip they had to take for weeks or months. He had always let himself imagine that Mica was home safe and happy and doing everything she was supposed to while they were away. He needed that small glimmer of hope…if only to convince himself that he wasn’t a total failure as a father.
But now… hearing this on top of everything else? He didn’t know what to do. All he and Tenna wanted was to give Mica the life they never had. A safe home. An education. The chance to grow up and do normal girl things. Even after Mica’s power emerged, they had pressed on. They built a safe place for her to practice, helped her gain enough control so she could go back to school. When Mica had trouble fitting in, he and Tenna had tried to expand their family earlier than planned, to give Mica a sibling–a friend to grow up with who wouldn’t be afraid of her power.
Bolin felt his throat catch. For years they had tried with no success. He and Tenna had even taken a trip down do the south pole to consult with Katara and see if her healing could help. But to no avail. Tenna’s chi had been twisted to badly, Katara had said. And the fact that they had conceived Mica was nothing short of a miracle.
She was their miracle child… in so many ways. All the more reason this situation hurt so badly. He and Tenna had wanted so much to be good parents. And yet their little girl was alone and angry, and she was lashing out at the world and everyone in it all because of the power she had inherited…from them.
He rubbed a hand across his eyes, brushing away the tears before Tenna could see. This was getting them nowhere. Things were the way they were. Nothing could change that, least of all crying over it. Plus, seeing him cry would just make Tenna more upset. And he hated seeing her upset. Bolin searched the room for a distraction. Something to lighten both their moods even just for a little while. His gaze eventually settled on an array of framed photos neatly arranged on a shelf they had dedicated to the memories of their travels. They were in chronological order, some going back as far as snapshots from their very first Nuktuk film tour in the Fire Nation when he and Tenna had only just started dating. There was a picture of their first trip back to the Fire Palace when Mica was still in diapers. Mica had yanked out Firelord Izumi’s crown, much to her and her entire family’s amusement… until Mica had a hissy-fit and refused to give it back. And then there was the year they had gone to visit Kyoshi island. The Kyoshi warriors had been wary of Tenna and her combustionbending at first. But then Tenna bested their leader in a friendly non-bending spar. She earned the warriors’ respect and the three of them got VIP treatment for the rest of the visit. One of the warriors even made Mica an adorable little Kyoshi warrior uniform. Mica loved that outfit. So much so, that she insisted on wearing it all day every day for the next three months.
Bolin smiled, then chuckled.
Tenna looked over. “What is it?”
“Oh, I was just thinking about the good old days,” said Bolin wistfully as another photo caught his eye. “You remember the Misty Palms Oasis?”
His wife gave a weak smile. “Mica had just turned seven. She tried to blow up the ice-spring and to see if it would snow. I thought the owner was going to wet himself.”
“Yeah,” Bolin laughed. He had forgotten that little detail. “They had good drinks, too.” Probably the reason he didn’t remember details, actually.
“Mmm-hmm.” Tenna nodded in appreciative agreement.
“Hey, when this mess is all over, let’s plan another vacation. Just you, me, and Mica. It would give us a chance to reconnect.”
A spark of warmth returned to Tenna’s tired eyes. “I think that’s a great idea.”
He took her hand and entwined their fingers. Her grip was warm and strong. It always amazed him just how much strength there was in her. How much they had come through. They would get through this too. Together.
He drew her up into his arms and kissed her.
“You know… what else I remember about that trip…” He mumbled lovingly in her ear. Tenna’s cheeks reddened just a bit. Even now, almost twenty years later, she still blushed just as prettily as she did on their wedding night.
Tenna wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a coy smile. The one she knew always drove him wild.
“It was a long time ago, love. I’m afraid my memory is a bit hazy…perhaps you could remind me.”
Firelord Izumi stood back and watched her students practice with pride. They never practiced on each other, of course. She insisted on that. Nor did she ever use her powers against them. All of their training involved learning the stances, human anatomy, and the theory of how to resist a bloodbending attack if one came against them. Occasionally, she would let them attempt to bloodbend her to demonstrate, but no one ever came close to success. In fact, most of them didn’t want to try. They were good kids, all of them. They didn’t need to spend their lives living in fear of this power. They were better than that.
Today, they had finished formal training a bit earlier than expected, and Izumi had instructed the group of them to practice their stances for a few more minutes before leaving for the day.
“It’s a lot of work, huh?” Kaja asked, stepping up next to her. It was so hard to believe her little grandson had already graduated high school and was looking at Fire Nation universities now. Izumi was going to miss his youthful enthusiasm. Kiki now helped with finding young bloodbenders when she visited, but Kaja had been the first of Iroh’s children to learn about her abilities. She couldn’t help but feel a loss that he’d outgrown these visits. She often wondered why Iroh’s middle child Shyu had never participated in any exchange programs.
“He’s just not interested in helping with that sort of thing,” Iroh had always told her. She’d never pushed the topic. Certainly she never spoke about her bloodbending to Shyu. In fact, when Iroh was around, she avoided the topic with his family altogether.
“Yes, it is a lot of work,” she finally answered Kaja. “But it’s worth it. They’re confident now. They’re no longer afraid of themselves.”
“Is that why you’re still doing this?” Kaja asked. “So they won’t be afraid?”
Izumi sighed. It was so hard to explain to Kaja, a royal firebender through and through, what it was like to have to hide her abilities. “That’s probably the best way of putting it. When Harmonic Convergence happened, we had many people who suddenly found themselves with bloodbending powers. Powers that could hurt others without them even meaning to. Powers that would get them arrested in other countries, as if they’d caused the hurt out of evil intent.”
Kaja sighed. It was his classic I’ve-heard-this-spiel-a-million-times sigh. “I get all that. But I still say you’re pressing your luck. Eventually, someone’s going to snitch.”
Izumi shrugged off the suggestion. “I’ve been doing these lessons for over fifteen years now, and I haven’t had a problem yet. There’s a certain understanding when you have this power, I think. A sense of respect for others with the same.”
Kaja smirked. “Well, that and a sense of respect for the Firelord.”
“The crown helps, I don’t doubt.” They shared a short laugh before Izumi continued with her explanation. “The point is, as far as I can tell, everyone who suddenly acquired these powers was at least a teenager at the time. But then we started to see a second generation of Fire Nation citizens born with these same powers. Back then, I was the only one who knew it’s like to grow up with these abilities. And I fear I might still be the only one who isn’t afraid of them.” She stared out a window into a bright, cloudless sky. “If no one teaches these children how to live with their abilities, what happens to them? I have a duty to my people to protect them. That’s my role as the Firelord.”
“It’ll be Dad’s role soon,” Kaja mused. She could hear the nervousness in his voice, the uncertainty about how he should feel. The Fire Nation wasn’t home to him; Republic City was. It would strange, foreign even, living here when the time came.
Then, of course, there was the poison of media and public opinion.
“Y’know, I’ve been to a lot of schools,” Kaja said quietly. “Never once encountered someone who actually supports Dad. I mean, people usually don’t say anything too nasty about him, but I think it’s only because they’re scared of getting in trouble. And they’re really mad that you and Great-grandpa Zuko never banned bloodbending like everyone else did.”
His words stung Izumi far more than she let on. Even though Kaja was not a bloodbender himself, the trait ran through his blood. It could easily pass on to his children or grandchildren someday. This was his inheritance, right along with the crown. And she refused to let him hate it like she had.
“That’s not anger,” she said firmly. “That’s fear.”
Kaja scoffed, though quietly enough that he could have just been clearing his throat. “Yeah, well, fear looks a lot like anger sometimes.”
She nodded, wondering if his young mind realized the weight of his insight. “Indeed it does,” she sighed.
About an hour or so later, Izumi clapped her hands, catching all her students’ attention. “Okay, that’s enough, everyone!” she called. “Excellent form. We’ll pick up next week.”
The students stopped what they were doing and bowed politely to her before heading out. A bus was already scheduled to take them back to their homes. Yet another advantage of the Firelord running these classes. The “Fire Nation Junior Honor League” she’d concocted to cover what everyone’s after-school activities was still going strong in its sixteenth year.
After everyone had left, Kaja jogged around turning the lights off while Izumi headed upstairs to change back into her more formal attire. She reached the top and pulled open the door, only to find someone already standing behind it.
“Oh, Nanami!” she said with surprise. “I didn’t notice you there.”
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said with a polite bow. “I should have knocked first. I keep forgetting how my power disorients you.”
She bowed again, deeper this time, making Izumi feel foolish for being startled in the first place. Her bloodbending had always given her a certain heightened sense of both her own body’s movements and the movements of people nearby — she imagined it was the same sensation her father used in place of his sense of touch. But Nanami was a voidbender — Izumi’s powers were neutralized around her.
“It’s all right, really,” she said. “I can hardly complain that I can’t tell who’s standing behind the door all the time, now can I?”
The humor seemed to finally assure Nanami that she wasn’t in trouble. She even laughed a bit along with Izumi. “No, I suppose not. Well, I came to deliver a message. Your son is here to pick up Prince Kaja.”
“Ah,” Izumi said.
“Coming!” Kaja called, hurrying up the stairs two at a time. He seemed to be at an age where he still clung to his parents and yet wanted to give the image that he’d be completely fine without them. Not that unlike when he was nine, actually.
“Well, you’d better go finish packing,” Izumi said, stepping out of the doorway to make room for him. “I know you left your… magazines lying all over the guest room.” Kaja turned bright red at this and hurried down the hall.
Nanami laughed as she watched him go. “I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing for those children,” she said to Izumi.
Izumi smiled. “It’s good to hear that. I wish it was something we could do more… openly. Some of my students have parents who aren’t even aware of their abilities.”
“It’s a touchy subject,” Nanami agreed with a nod. “But people’s attitudes change all the time. Perhaps that’s all bloodbending needs… more time.”
“Perhaps,” Izumi said. She appreciated the optimism. With all the tension between herself and Iroh over the subject, optimism was sorely needed.