Man, this is boring. Shyu slumped in his chair, grateful for once to be seated off to the side and away from the ever-watchful camera lenses. At least here he didn’t have to pretend to be interested in the old Fire Sage’s every word, unlike his parents, grandmother, and brother in the row ahead. Beside him, Kiki entertained herself by plucking flowers from one of the decorations and weaving them intricately in her hair. She could get away with it. Everything the Fire Princess did was adorable. If Shyu tried to fiddle with the decorations, he’d be scolded.
He looked at his feet. The platform was made of a shimmery marble with hints of different colors. Shyu traced the patterns, slowly drowning out his stiff legs, the shifting of the crowd, and the old man spitting every time he said the world “past.” He had just finished following a ribbon of silver around the legs of his Dad’s chair when a pebble skittered across the marble and bumped him in the foot.
He stared at the rock then jumped a bit when it exploded with a tiny pop.
No one noticed, nor even turned to acknowledge that he had moved.
Another pebble, another pop. This time Shyu actually saw where it came from. Off stage, half-concealed behind a decorative statue, Mica waved at him. No. Not a wave. A summons. She can’t actually want me to leave.
When Shyu didn’t move she gestured again, harder. Her mouth opened forming silent words. Come on!
Sweat beaded on Shyu’s forehead. If only it were that easy. The truth was, he’d gladly go if not for, well, his father becoming Firelord.
He gestured back at her, indicating his father in the row ahead. I can’t–my dad is getting the crown! He made a mock crowning motion over his head. Mica rolled her eyes, pointed to him, then mimicked the motion, mouthing are you getting the crown?
Shyu blushed. This had to be one of the stupidest arguments he’d ever had. And yet, why did he feel like he was losing?
Because he was.
Mica was right. He wasn’t getting the crown. Flames, he’d be lucky if anyone mentioned him today. He wondered… would anyone even notice if he just got up and left?
Mica was still waiting, tapping her foot impatiently. It was now or never.
Shyu took one last nervous look around, steeled himself, then bent over as if to pick something off the floor. Shielded by his family in the front row, he crept silently out of his chair. It felt thrilling, he wouldn’t deny. Not that he was going to tell Mica that. She looked pleased and, in fact, a little surprised when he finally slunk his way over.
“Nice moves dodging those cameras,” she whispered.
“Cameras?” Shyu’s stomach sank. Don’t tell me some reporter actually recorded me sneaking off!
He swallowed. Whatever Mica wanted, he hoped it was worth the trouble. Best find out. “So, what is it you wa–”
Some unseen movement startled Mica, and before he could protest, she yanked him quickly behind the statue. “Shh!” She held a finger to her mouth, then after a few seconds, she beckoned for him to follow again. She led on, carefully skirting around the royal guards and police like someone who had very obviously done so before.
Only after they had edged their way around the crowds and into a narrow alley between two buildings did Mica finally relax and stop whispering. “Okay, sorry. What were you saying?”
He looked around the dingy ally, feeling his skin crawl. “Is there a reason you pulled me out of my father’s coronation?”
“Oh, that.” She shrugged. “I was gonna go out and get coffee. Figured you had to be bored up there and thought you might want to tag along.”
He was bored. Absurdly so. But that wasn’t really the point now, was it. “I have to get back up there. Dad will flip if he turns around and sees an empty chair.”
“Oh, relax. We’ll be back before the old geezer can say ‘and next we come to Firelord Sozin.'” She hunched and croaked out the last part, mimicking the old Fire Sage to a T. Shyu snickered. He couldn’t help it.
“So, you coming or what?” Mica asked.
Shyu weighted the options in his head. Sneak off for a coffee with no guards or reporters breathing down his neck for the first time in… well…ever. Or sneak back onto that stage and listen to an old goat-monkey drone for the next two hours. He’d be in trouble either way if he got caught. But assuming he didn’t… sipping coffee and having real conversation with Mica would be infinitely more entertaining.
“You’re sure we’ll be back in time?” he finally asked.
Mica was already moving. “Oh, yeah. My bike’s super fast. Plus, no traffic. It’ll be a breeze.”
Bike? Shyu blinked. “You have a motorcycle?”
“Yep,” Mica beamed over her shoulder. “My boyfriend Dino and I built it from scrap.”
“Boyfriend?” Shyu was starting to feel like a parrot-duck. He wasn’t sure why he was surprised. Why shouldn’t Mica be dating someone like a normal teenager? Never mind that. She was a cool teenager.
Shyu, on the other hand, had never considered dating. He wasn’t smart or athletic. Nor was he a suave charmer or a class clown. He wasn’t even a decent bender. To the girls, like everyone else, he was merely “the other prince” or “Kaja’s brother.” And if he got up the nerve to ask a girl out and if by some miracle she said yes, his dad would plan out every detail down to the minute and send a compliment of guards along “just to be safe.”
They exited the alley, rounded the corner and continued on for another block, backtracking the way they had come. They weren’t close to the coronation exactly, not from this angle. But Mica did seem unusually intent on going into the more “spirity” portion of the district.
Probably just another shortcut, Shyu decided. “So, your boyfriend…he’s a mechanic, then?” he asked as Mica gauged the stability of a hip-high root.
“Mechanic, vehicle-enthusiast, soon-to-be actor…” She backed up a few paces, slipped off her shoes, then sprinted and jumped. She landed atop the root like a cat.
Flames, did she really just do that? “Sounds like a great guy.” Shyu grunted as he hefted himself up. He nearly tripped on the way over. Thankfully Mica caught his arm.
“He is,” she agreed with odd appreciation in her voice. Like this wasn’t something she was used to hearing. “Maybe the three of us should hang out sometime. I know a great little diner. It would be fun.”
“Yeah, it would be,” Shyu admitted. “But…I’m not really allowed.”
Mica cocked her head. “Not allowed to drive or not allowed to go out?”
“No. I mean I can go out, just not without guards.” How had his mother phrased it? “I’m not supposed to go gallivanting about the city willy-nilly.”
Flames, that sounded just as lame now as it did when he was eight. Mica thought so too, because she gawked with laughter. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re what, sixteen?”
“Seventeen! And you’re not allowed to run out and grab a bite to eat without some suits holding your hand?”
“It’s…kind of a royalty thing, I guess.” His ears burned–getting hot–mostly from embarrassment but also a bit of rage. He had spent his entire life listening to people tell him he wasn’t being ‘princely’ enough. Now suddenly he was being too princely?
Mica leapt to the ground and slipped her shoes back on before offering him a hand down. She must have seen how upset he was, because something in her face softened. It wasn’t pity exactly. That look Shyu recognized. This was something deeper. Like she honesty and truly understood what it was like to be outcast.
“Tell you what,” she said at last. “Once all this coronation business is over, I’ll teach you to drive.”
Shyu’s heartbeat spiked. Was that even possible? “How–I mean when?”
“I’ll swing by after school. I’m assuming the guards don’t follow you there, right?”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll meet you in the back parking lot after last period. If your folks ask, just tell them you’re doing an extra-curricular activity or something. That usually works.”
Shyu looked at his feet, torn. He wasn’t the type to go and lie to his folks. But then again…this wouldn’t be a total lie. And Mica did have a valid point. He was seventeen, almost an adult. Surely his folks didn’t expect for him to live with them forever, did they? Especially since he wasn’t the one being groomed to be the next Firelord. “I’ll think about it,” he finally said.
“That’s the spirit!” She smacked him on the back. Not hard, per say, but harder than he was used to. He flinched a bit, but at least he didn’t yelp.
Mica took no notice. “Speaking of spirits…” She peered through the vines, shielding her eyes. “I see the portal. We’re close.”
Why the heck Mica had decided to park her bike near the spirit portal he didn’t know. But then, nothing this girl did seemed to make sense. One second she was laughing at him, and the next she was offering him driving lessons.
“Hey, wait a minute…how do you know about the back parking lot? You don’t even go to RC prep.”
“Oh. I…um…I used to go there when I was a kid,” she stubbed her toe on an unseen root and cussed.
“Oh,” Shyu said, even though something wasn’t adding up. Mica’s folks were mover stars–it only made sense she’d be sent to private school. So why did they pull her out when she was a kid? He was tempted to ask but found Mica preoccupied. She was studying some very un-spirity-looking imprints on the mossy ground.
“Huh…that’s weird. It should have been parked right around–”
A crack sounded, startling the two of them. Something moving in the vines? No? The vines themselves! As they emerged into the portal clearing, Shyu saw a large tangle of vines being drawn to the portal. Oddly, they seemed to be twisting around something…Shyu could see glimpse of red and black metallic paint.
The instant Mica saw the writhing mass, she let out a strangled cry. “Those things have my bike!” She ran over and grabbed a vine wrapped around her handlebars, pulling hard until it tore. The vines shuddered and twisted up faster, like a disturbed nest of fire-snakes.
“Mica, get away!” Shyu didn’t hide his panic. All he could think about was the bedtime story his mother used to tell of naughty children being snatched by spirit vines and entrapped forever in cocoons.
Mica must not have heard that one. She glared over her shoulder at him. “Not without my bike!”
One of the vines grabbed for her ankle, forcing Mica to pause and rip it away. The rest yanked her bike along the ground, dragging it ever closer to the glowing portal.
If she keeps this up, she’ll be dragged in too!
Shyu stepped as close as he dared and yelled, “Stop, please! It’s too dangerous!” But Mica either didn’t hear him, or just didn’t listen.
“Let go, you stupid plant!” She snarled at the vines, ripping and tearing, but for every one she damaged, two more took their place.
One of the vines caught her wrist, yanking her off her feet as the rest plowed onward pulling her bike halfway into the glowing portal. Mica writhed and twisted and finally managed to claw her hand free. She broke into a sprint as soon as she touched the ground and flung herself at her bike just as the vines gave a final hard tug.
“Don’t!” Shyu yelled, horror-struck as both Mica and her motorcycle disappeared into the glowing pillar. “Mica!”
“Mica, can you hear me?”
Oh, flames! What do I do?
He needed to go for help. If he found Avatar Korra…But how could he? She was at the coronation with his family and all the cameras! If he barged in in the middle of the ceremony, his dad’s big day would be ruined, and it would be all his fault. But he couldn’t just stand here and do nothing. Mica needed help.
She can’t have gone far, he told himself as he forced his trembling legs forward. She’s probably right inside the entrance. We’ll free her bike and get out of there, and no one will ever know.
He swallowed hard. The longer he waited, the harder this was going to be. Shyu drew a deep breath, braced himself, then ran into the portal before he could change his mind.
Kiki had run out of flowers to play with. This was extremely inconvenient. She’d been able to survive the old boring man’s lecture up until this point, but they were still a few generations off from her dad’s big moment. What was she supposed to do now?
“…and thus ended the sixty-seventh year of the great Firelord Zuko’s reign, which was exactly sixty-two years longer than the reign of his father, the also-great-but-admittedly-malevolent Firelord Ozai…”
Kiki began swinging her feet widely, accidentally bumping the chair in front of her. Her grandmother happened to be sitting in that chair, and turned around to see what had happened. Kiki lowered her head and blushed. “Sorry, Grandma,” she whispered as quietly as she could.
Grandma Izumi smiled. “It’s all right,” she whispered back. “This lecture is a bit long for you, isn’t it?”
Kiki nodded adamantly. Her grandmother leaned over like she had some amazing secret to share. “Yes, well, feel free to nap during the next part. I hear the tale of the first nonbending Firelord is especially boring.”
Kiki covered her mouth so that her suppressed giggle wouldn’t make any actual noise. Grandma Izumi looked curiously over the back row and her gaze fell to the empty seat next to Kiki. Her eyes widened when she noticed it, and Kiki got a not-so-good feeling in her stomach.
“Young lady,” Grandma Izumi said sternly. “Why is your brother’s chair empty?”
Kiki shrugged. “He left with a girl.”
“He did what?”
The Fire Sage coughed loudly, drawing both their attention and continued with his lecture.
“…and thus, Firelord Zuko’s daughter Firelord Izumi inherited the crown, which she would wear for the following twenty-four years–”
His voice cut off. Grandma Izumi sat up her seat. “Well, I know my reign wasn’t exciting,” she whispered. “But I didn’t think the summary would be that short.” Kiki leaned forward to get a better view and realized that the old Fire Sage was actually still talking, but his microphone had ceased to function. A split second later, all the lights on the stage went out.