Mica had narrowed her choice of outfits down to two. A cute little red and orange sleeveless dress that was just short enough to annoy her dad. Or a classy blouse, jacket and and pencil skirt all in very deliberate un-Fire-Nation blue.
“How about it, Bandit? Red or blue?” She looked both to her companion and her mirror, holding up each outfit in front of her. Bandit churred sleepily at her from his little basket bed, which as far as she could tell meant “I dunno,” in ferret speak.
“Thanks,” she said rolling her eyes, “That’s real helpful.”
Bandit flicked a dismissive ear, ready to turn over and go back to sleep, when an unseen sound made him jerk up. Mica strained to hear, hairs rising on the back of her neck. Then she heard it–the click of a door-handle being turned. In the mirror, Mica saw one of her balcony doors start to open. That meant only one of two things: either a ballsy paparazzi had managed to slip past her mom’s eel hounds and was now about to experience a close encounter of the explosive kind… or her boyfriend was trying to be stealthier than he actually was. Mica rested her hand on her dresser, fingers grazing one of her smoothed stones she always kept in easy reach ready to fling… or make explode. But when the door swung open, Mica caught a whiff of summer air tinged with Varrick No. 9.
“Dino! Are you crazy?” She whirled to face him, nearly tripping on Bandit as he war-danced around her and Dino’s legs excitedly. “My folks are right downstairs! If they catch you–”
Dino stopped her with a kiss that made her blush from cheeks to collarbones.
“Relax, babe. No one saw me.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked when she had caught her breath.
“I know I was a bit of a jerk yesterday, so I wanted to make it up to you.” He held out a picnic basket covered with a red and white checkered blanket. “Thought we could have a little picnic in the sunrise.”
Mica smiled despite herself. Dino risking the wrath of her folks and a dozen trained eel-hounds just to sneak up and bring her breakfast was pretty romantic. She set aside her clothes, laying out her two choice outfits neatly on her bed and shoving the rest underneath it to clear a space on the floor. Dino, meanwhile opened her balcony doors wide letting in fresh air, bird-sounds, and soft orange sunlight. Outside, Mica could also hear the familiar snuffles and grunts of old Shadow, the kennel’s founding sire, and two of his grown pups Phantom and Ghost as they circled the property on their morning patrol.
A thought struck her.
“Hey, Dino? How did you get past the hounds, anyway?”
Dino grinned as he spread the small checkered blanket on her floor. “Easy. I had Sal cook them up some breakfast, too. Hope you’re in the mood for steak and eggs.”
He opened the basket. The irresistible aroma of fried meat tickled Mica’s nose and her stomach growled right on cue. Apparently even a few hours of furiously tossing clothes around was enough to work up her appetite. Or maybe that was just the anger munchies doing their thing. Mica was still pretty mad at her mom for making her go to this stupid coronation at all.
Dino saw it, too. Not that her angry face was exactly hard to miss. The difference was Dino had been with her long enough to know the difference between “mildly peeved” and “I need to blow something up now!”
“What’s the matter, hon?” Dino asked as he set out the food. “You get in another fight with your mom?”
Dang, but that was unnerving.
Mica sawed ineffectively at the steak with a plastic fork and knife as she recounted yesterday’s events with renewing frustration. Midway through her story, she snapped the knife in half and had to resort to picking the steak up with her fingers and tearing off hunks with her teeth like one of her mom’s hounds.
“So now I’m gonna be stuck there the whole day! All because my stupid parents have to be all patriotic,” she half-spoke, half-growled as she chewed her final bite and wiped the grease from her face and fingers. Then she let her arms fall limply to her sides and leaned her head on Dino’s shoulder. “This stinks.”
Dino didn’t move to comfort her as she expected. He merely continued eating, his eyes far away in thought.
“Maybe,” he said at last. “Maybe not.”
Mica pulled away. In what universe did getting stuck at a boring lecture not bite the big one? “Come again?”
Dino shrugged. “Some of the biggest hotshots in the city are gonna be there.” He raised a knowing eyebrow. “You show up all cute and sassy like you are, maybe hum a few notes or show off a bending stance or two… someone important could notice. The kind of somebody who might give you a shot on stage.”
Mica scratched behind her head, suddenly feeling a little silly she hadn’t thought of that herself. “You think?”
“It could happen.” He kissed her on the forehead. “And if it doesn’t, you can always use this family together time to put in a good word for me.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, actually. If she was going to spend the next six hours bored out of her skull, the least she could do was try to get something good for herself and Dino out of it. Of course, that was much easier said then done. Especially with someone as stubborn as her mom.
“I can try. Though they’re probably going to be too busy rubbing elbows with the royal family to listen to me. Dad’s got a seat right up front and Mom and Firelord Izumi are old friends, so I don’t know if she’ll feel like talking about work or… you know… you.” She lowered her eyes a little. “Actually, I can almost guarantee she isn’t gonna want to talk about you.” She felt a little stab of pain at her own words. As much as she loved Dino, there was still some part of her that wished her folks liked him, too.
“You’re smart, Mica. I know you’ll find a way to convince them. You have to.” He leaned in a little closer, snuggling close to her ear. “I’m trusting you with my future, ya know. Our future.”
Why should it be up to me? The thought crossed her mind then flitted away just as quickly. This wasn’t some shutterbug paparazzi itching for a handout. This was the man she loved. How would they ever build a life together if she started to doubt him now?
Mica looked up into his face. Dino had pale gray eyes. The kind that could be deep and alluring one second and pierce like a knife the next. They were wild now, full of life and energy. She did not let him see her doubt. Instead she gave a quirky little smile and teased, “This trust coming from the guy who won’t even let me drive my own motorcycle?”
To her surprise, Dino didn’t tease her back. “You know what? You’re right.”
“Absolutely. Tell you what. I’ll swing by and park your bike downtown somewhere safe. Then when you’re done at the coronation, you can meet me back at my place.”
It took all of Mica’s inner resolve not to jump up, squeal, and do a happy dance around her room. She would do that later. For now, she raised a teasing eyebrow. “I thought you said I wasn’t ready.”
Dino crossed his arms. “Because it was late and I didn’t want you tearing off in the middle of the night at ninety miles an hour.”
Mica snorted, trying her best to look offended at the suggestion even though she totally would have done that. Dino went on, “This is different. My place isn’t far from downtown. And the streets will be so full of traffic you’ll have no choice but to go slow.” He gave a warning look. “Just make sure your uncle doesn’t spot you.”
“Just make sure his underlings don’t confiscate my bike before I can even get to it,” Mica retorted.
“Don’t worry, babe. I’ve already thought of the perfect hiding place.”
“Somewhere police, and people in general really, don’t tend to snoop around.”
The spirit portal. He’s talking about the spirit portal. She smiled at his stroke of genius. The vines around the portal would provide more than enough cover to hide her bike. And, best of all, they would deter unwanted visitors like Uncle Mako.
Warmth bloomed in her chest, chasing away the last threads of doubt and anger. Finally, something to look forward to.
Dino stood and stretched. “Well, then. I should probably go if I want to beat the traffic.”
He helped Mica to her feet and gave her one last kiss for the road. He was halfway onto the balcony when Mica called after him.
“Oh wait! One last thing–” She hastily held up her outfits again. “Red or blue?”
Dino smiled and winked. “Red. Definitely red.”
Shyu leaned against the railing of a fountain that featured a statue of his great-grandfather Zuko. Not that anyone could easily see that. The sun had barely risen, and it was cloudy besides. But since it was the only time of the day Shyu would get to be by himself, he had made a point of getting up early and coming out to enjoy it.
Dad had changed since Grandma Izumi announced she would be stepping down as Firelord. Shyu and his two siblings didn’t agree on much, but at least that, they all knew. As “General Iroh,” Dad was tough on his troops in battle, but kind and even with a fun side when it came to peace time. He personally planned a huge party whenever anyone retired. Shyu liked those parties. He liked how many of the troops were just normal, nonbenders, and yet, they seemed okay with that. Some part of him wanted to be like them someday while another part hoped he would never be like them. That somehow, someway, he’d develop his own powers.
Either way, the parties were a thing of the past now. When dad went from “General Iroh” to “Future Firelord Iroh,” there were no more fun, down times. Everything was always serious. Every time you took a step, every time you said a word… flames, probably every time you went to the bathroom, somehow the way you did it was going to reflect good or bad on the royal family’s reputation. Kaja thrived under the pressure, of course. If every second of his life was a chance to impress Dad, that was Kaja’s ideal world. Kiki got a bit nervous with all the extra attention, but no one put too much pressure on her. She was only nine, after all. The precious little Fire Nation princess. As long as she put on a shimmery kimono and twirled in front of the cameras now and again, she’d done her part, and the almighty Firelord Iroh was happy.
That was the part that hit Shyu the hardest. Half the time now, he felt weird saying “Dad.” Like if it wasn’t “Firelord,” he was being inappropriate or something. This coronation was taking that familiarity away from him. And it wasn’t even happening for another six hours.
“Prince Shyu! Prince Shyu!”
Shyu winced. He knew the voice that was calling for him — one of the pickiest, most critical members of the palace staff. The nagging old man had slapped Shyu’s wrists no less than four times during last night’s banquet. For using the wrong forks.
“Prince! Shyu!” the man’s voice came again. He hurried up to the fountain. Not really running; he was wearing a ridiculously frilly outfit that looked like it might just collapse all around him if he ran too fast. But he made a point to walk as dignified and quickly as he could up to Shyu’s side and look thoroughly infuriated at the same time. Not in a mood to get his wrist slapped again, Shyu stood and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“You found me,” he said. “Congratulations.”
This made the man look even more annoyed. He huffed like an irritated pig-rooster. “You, young man, are wanted back at the palace immediately. You’ve kept the photographers waiting half an hour.”
“Photographers?” Shyu tried to remember. As much as the ceremony of everything annoyed him, he did try to make it to all of Firelord Iroh… of Dad’s big events on time. But how was there a photo session this early in the morning?
“I thought the photographs were all yesterday,” he said. “We had a two-hour session.”
“And all those photos are all over today’s newspaper,” the servant said. “Which means the press will need photos for tomorrow’s newpaper.”
“Oh, burn me!” Shyu threw up his hands.
The servant seemed pleased to have gotten a reaction. “Language, young man, language. It doesn’t do to have the Fire Nation prince speak like that.”
Shyu rolled his eyes. “A Fire Nation prince. I’m not the only one, in case you forgot.”
“I didn’t,” the servant said, turning and motioning for Shyu to follow. “Your older brother is the crown prince. There’s a difference.”