In retrospect, staying with Aunt Marah wasn’t the worst punishment that Shyu could think of. In some ways, it had plenty of bonus points with it–no photographers, no annoying servants, and no Kaja. But for some reason, it didn’t feel like a victory for Shyu. It felt like a rejection. He needed to be out of the way where he couldn’t cause any damage.
That was exactly how Kaja would phrase it, too. Which was why Shyu made a point of packing quietly and deciding that he would leave Mom and Dad to explain where he’d gone off to when Kiki and Kaja started asking. He opened a suitcase and looked around the hotel room. He hadn’t brought much, since pretty much everything he could use was provided. Some notebooks, some graphic novels. He shoved them in along with a few legitimately comfortable outfits he hoped he’d be able to wear now that the cameras wouldn’t be on his 24/7.
How the heck did Dad get Mica’s parents to agree to send her off too? It wasn’t a deep question. Mica’s dad and his dad went way back. Even if Shyu didn’t know that beforehand, it had been pretty obvious from the way they’d all stood around in the same room, plotting their children’s punishment as a collective unit.
Shyu ran his fingers along the notebook’s spine as it sat on the pile of stuff that wasn’t even taking up half the suitcase. Maybe a few weeks of quiet would be good. His goal was to run for student council president when he went back to his regular school, and there was a lot of planning needed for that sort of thing.
“Yeah,” he said, shutting and latching the suitcase. “I’ve just got to think positively about this thing.”
“That’s a good attitude,” said a voice from the doorway. Shyu yelped with surprise. Then he dropped the suitcase on his toe and yelped again. He looked up to see his grandmother Izumi stepping into his room. She had some sympathy in her eyes for his pain, but unlike his mother, she didn’t come over and coddle him, either.
“Sorry for interrupting you,” she said simply. “May I sit?”
“Sure,” Shyu said. Like he was going to tell the retired Firelord, grandmother or no, that she couldn’t sit somewhere. She smiled and picked a plush red seat beside the bed.
“Your father told me your…plans to visit your aunt,” she said carefully.
“Yeah,” Shyu replied. “It’s not so bad.” His first instinct was to avoid eye contact, but that felt weird. Grandma Izumi wasn’t the one who was kicking him out, after all. “Besides, it’ll give me the chance to work on stuff for school,” he added.
“Student council?” she asked with a hint a smile. Geez, that’s creepy. How does she do that?
“Kiki told you?” he guessed. He’d told Mom his goals, too, but Kiki was more of a chatterbox.
Izumi nodded. “I think you’ll do a fine job at it.”
Shyu smiled at her comment. Maybe some of the guys at school would call it lame, but there was a lot he admired about his grandmother. Of course, she had been Firelord for the past twenty-four years, so that had to count for something.
“Thanks, that means a lot,” he said earnestly. Then he forced a bit of a laugh as he tried to nudge the suitcase somewhere less obvious. Like under the bed. “Who knows? Maybe you can give me some leadership tips.” He said it as a joke, and not a very good one at that, but she seemed to take it seriously.
“I’ll do what I can. What would you like to know?”
Shyu smiled. This was yet another thing he liked about his grandmother. She always seemed to have the time to talk to him.
“Well, for one thing, how do you get people to listen to you when you’re not a bender?”
She cocked her head like this was an odd question to ask her but shrugged it off. “Well, let’s see. I guess I just learned to speak as if it didn’t matter. Like I was just as strong as anyone else was. Though I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times I was tempted to show my bending just to prove everyone wrong.”
“Show your…bending?” Now it was Shyu’s turn to be confused. What would his grandmother talking about? She was a nonbender. It was all over the Fire Nation history books. Probably would be for centuries, even if no one remembered anything else about her reign. As Shyu’s face remained stuck in I-am-completely-confused mode, the look on his grandmother’s face completely changed. Her eyes widened, her skin went a bit pale, and she had the distinct expression of someone who knew she had (no pun intended) royally messed up.
“Y-your father never told you,” she said quietly.
“Never told me what?” Shyu asked. It was a dumb question. The implications were obvious. But why would his grandmother pretend she couldn’t bend when she really could? Was she trying to make some sort of statement? Or maybe she was born a nonbender and gained bending later, at Harmonic Convergence? He’d heard something about a bunch of nonbenders getting their abilities then. It was the reason bending abilities were as diverse as they were now. And the reason why there were fewer and fewer true nonbenders in the world.
“Never told you…oh, dear, this is not how I would have planned this,” Izumi said. She was shifting in the chair, like she really wanted to get up and pace, but knew how much worse that would make things.
“Okay,” Shyu said with frustration. “So you’re a firebender after all, right? I can take a hint.”
She shook her head. “No, Shyu, I’m not a firebender.”
So it was Harmonic Conversation, or whatever that was called. “An airbender, then?”
“No,” she said firmly. “It’s…” She readjusted her glasses. “Well, it’s something your father clearly didn’t want you to know runs in our family. But I think you’ve got the right to know.”
“Runs in our family?” Shyu questioned. Burn it, he sounded like a broken record now. “What runs in our family?”
There was a long moment of silence before his grandmother looked him in the eyes more seriously than he had ever seen her and said, “Bloodbending.”
Shyu blinked. He must have heard that wrong. “Um, bloodbending runs in our family?” he said.
She nodded. “Yes. Your great-grandfather gained the ability from the Avatar and passed it onto me. Your father was…less than happy when I finally told him.”
Shyu decided he could only process so much at once and temporarily pushed away his question about how in flames it was possible for Great-grandfather Zuko to have two bending powers at the same time. “And when did you tell him, Grandmother?”
“When he was forty-one. As I said, he wasn’t pleased with me.” She lowered her head, one of the few times he’d seen her ashamed of her actions. “I…wasn’t pleased with myself. It was the wrong decision.” She regained herself and looked him in the eye. “Which is why I’m telling you.”
“But…that is…” Shyu felt like his world was falling apart. Every time he felt like his weak bending meant he was never going to make it in the world, he’d always looked to his grandmother as an example, as living proof that you didn’t need bending to succeed. If she had one of the most powerful forms of bending known to exist, what did that mean for him?
“Do you think maybe I’m a bloodbender?” he asked hopefully.
“Why wou–no, you’re not!” she snapped. The harshness hurt, and she looked like she immediately regretted her words. She stood up from the stool and put her hand on Shyu’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to sound harsh. But it’s not a pleasant power to have. It’s dangerous, and it frightens people. There’s been many times I wish I didn’t have it.”
“But plenty of times you’re glad you did, I’m guessing,” Shyu muttered.
She didn’t answer. Which was really all the answer he needed. “There were some…conflicts when I was on the throne,” she finally said. “I would certainly hope that it is nothing you would ever have to deal with.”
Shyu forced a laugh and reached under the bed for the suitcase he’d shoved under there. He wasn’t sure what the point of trying to hide it had been in the first place. As if his grandmother didn’t know exactly where he was going and why.
“Well, it probably is nothing I’ll have to deal with,” he said. “Not being the crown prince and all.”
“Shyu…” For a moment, he felt bad. She looked genuinely hurt over what had transpired between them. But Shyu was more hurt. He needed someone he could look up right now. And if it wasn’t her, then who?
“I gotta get going,” he said simply, and walked out the door before she could say anything else.
Izumi watched her grandson walk out with a heavy heart. But all that sadness quickly turned to anger. Why would Iroh have told Kaja at such a young age but left Shyu in the dark? It was beyond infuriating. And she planned to tell him so.
She found Iroh in the sitting room. He wasn’t alone. Varrick was also there, along with Zhu Li, Bolin, Tenna, and Nanami.
“I need to speak to my son alone,” she announced. Mostly, it was aimed at Varrick and Zhu Li, the only two in the group who didn’t know her secret. But dismissing just the two of them felt like it would make things all the more awkward.
Varrick straightened up. “Just the person I needed to speak to! You know, Lady Izumi, I was just telling your son here…” he patted Iroh on the back, clearly to Iroh’s irritation, “…that you guys have a major image problem.”
“Um, yeah,” Bolin agreed. “I think we all picked up on that when the angry mob outside threw stuff at us.”
Izumi winced at the reminder. She could still hear some of the shouting outside from this room, although it seemed to have calmed down a bit since it began. At least the local police had gotten people to stop banging on the doors.
Varrick seemed shaken by the whole idea that someone could have aimed anything at his oh-so-perfect-suit. He shuddered and mopped his brow. “Nasty stuff,” he said, shaking his head. “Nasty stuff indeed. But you, royal family, will be happy to know that I just so happen to specialize in dealing with nasty stuff!”
He extended his arms dramatically. No one looked pleased.
“It’s true,” Zhu Li chimed in. “He even came back from allegedly kidnapping the president. That’s not a simple reputation to improve.”
As much as Izumi hated to admit it, this point actually did make her think a bit. They couldn’t very well leave things as they were; the country would fall into chaos. Iroh was stroking his chin now, too.
“What…exactly did you have in mind to help re-build the royal family’s image?” he asked with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“There’s always some degree of anger when the next Firelord steps up,” Izumi said. “People hated Zuko for not being Ozai. They hated me for not being my father…” She found her voice trailing off.
“But…?” Varrick prompted her.
Izumi let out a long sigh. “But this seems…different, somehow. I think Iroh has a much larger percentage of the population against him. They don’t feel he has any loyalty to the Fire Nation.”
“Well, setting up this coronation in the United Republic sure didn’t help matters,” Varrick said, adjusting his jacket. “But, have no fear. I’ve got a plan to help get all of you out of this mess.” He threw his hands behind his back and started to pace around the drawing room as if he owned the place. “See, here’s what I’m thinking. I’m sure General…sorry, Firelord Iroh here has done a lot of good for his country. And so have you. And so has Lord Zuko. But people like to be negative. They don’t see the good stuff unless it’s shoved in their faces.” He had his back to them as he spoke, but turned 180 as he built to his point. “So, we do some face-shoving!”
Izumi raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid I’m confused.”
“It’s simple,” Varrick explained. “We do a mover. Only instead of basing it around a fictional character, we use it to document all the great stuff the royal family’s done over the years. We could call it.. um… erm…” He snapped his fingers, trying to make the idea come, but it was Bolin who spoke next.
“Oo! A docu-movery?”
“Yes!” Varrick shouted, pointing to Bolin. “That’s perfect! A docu-movery!”
Izumi stroked her chin. The movers were still a pretty new technology, as far as she was concerned. And there was something in her that felt nervous about relying on something she had so little experience with. Then again, it was the best idea that had been presented so far.
“What exactly would this… docu-movery cover?” she asked.
Varrick grinned like he couldn’t be happy that she asked. “Well, we start with Lord Zuko ending the hundred-year war, of course!” he said. “Then we move onto how he passed the throne to you, his obviously talented and beautiful daughter…”
“Remove the flattery.”
“It’s a mover! It’s built on exaggeration!” He threw his arms into the air, all the more dramatically to prove his point. “Next, we would highlight the good stuff of your reign. The battle of Sunport. Iroh was a big hero in that, wasn’t he?”
“Iroh and Nanami,” Zhu Li corrected, “Actually, dear, if you were to ask the citizens of the Fire Nation, the general consensus is that Iroh was losing the battle until the voidbender freed herself from her captors and rushed in to assist him by disabling the bloodbenders that had taken over the town.”
Varrick waved away her comments. “Well, whatever, we’ll work around that. What else have we got? Wasn’t there some secret underground torture chamber or something you uncovered?”
Tenna shifted uncomfortably. “The combustionbender facility,” she said quietly.
Varrick snapped his fingers. “Yeah, that was it!”
Izumi did not like the look on Tenna’s face. The poor woman had spent half her life trying to forget the trauma of her past. The last thing she needed was to have it dragged up again. Perhaps this whole docu-movery was a bad idea after all. “The facility was shut down during my reign,” she said carefully, “but I’m not sure I can claim full responsibility for that. If it wasn’t for the Avatar and her friends…”
“Look, I’m trying to help out here. Quit making my job more difficult.” He turned his attention towards Tenna. “Y’know, I think this whole thing will go really well if I can get interviews with some normal, everyday Fire Nation citizens into the mix. I bet you sharing your little story would be perfect.”
“Um, no offense, Varrick,” Bolin cut in. “But no one in our family is exactly normal.”
“Normal in this context meaning ‘not royalty’,” Varrick clarified. He elbowed Tenna, who flinched at his touch. Her gaze was on the floor, but her expression revealed that her mind was far away. Without much of a reaction from her, Varrick turned his attention to Bolin instead.
“Hey, I’m not saying I won’t make this worth your while. Tell you what–I’ll pay your family triple what I would pay for a normal interview. How’s that?”
“T-triple?” Bolin stuttered. Then he shook his head wildly. “Now, just hang on a second. We’re not talking a normal interview here. We’re talking the worst parts of Tenna’s life being yanked out onto the camera.”
“I side with Bolin on this,” Izumi cut in. She hadn’t destroyed the combustionbender facility just so it could be some good promotion later. She had destroyed it because it was evil. She had failed as a Firelord every day she’d left it standing. There was no way she could ask a victim of her failures to dredge up those horrible memories, no matter what the reason.
“I’d appreciate if the three of you would stop talking about me as if I’m not here,” Tenna snapped. She turned an icy glare on her husband first. “Let’s have this discussion in private.”
Bolin cowered like a hurt puppy and nodded. Then he took his wife by the arm and bowed a quick “good-bye” to everyone in the room before walking out. Varrick shrugged as he watched them leave.
“They don’t have it easy, I’ll give ’em that,” he said. “But I’m sure they’ll come around. Now, if we could talk some business contracts–”
“Not. Now.” Iroh snapped.
For all his lack of etiquette earlier, even Varrick seemed to know when it was not a good time to test Iroh’s patience. He too bowed and left the room with Zhu Li in tow. Finally alone in the room with her son, Izumi attempted to meet his eyes. He did a stupendous job of avoiding her.
“Don’t give me that look, Mother,” he sighed once everyone else had left. “I haven’t forgotten you wanted to talk with me.”
You’re certainly right I do<,i>, she thought. She hated to admit, it took her a moment to recall what she had been so infuriated at him about. But with the room empty and her mind clear enough to think again, her fury at her son’s foolish decisions came back surprisingly quickly.
“I had a talk with Shyu,” she said. “He was telling me how impressed he was with all I’ve accomplished. I mean, considering I’m a nonbender.”
She saw Iroh wince at her words. And rightfully so. But instead of apologizing for his poor judgment, as he so obviously should have done, he gritted his teeth and went on the offensive.
“And since we’re having this conversation, I assume you corrected him on the matter.”
“Of course I did!” she exclaimed. Why on earth would he think that she would do otherwise? “Iroh, you told Kaja about me when the boy was six years old. How could you keep it a secret from your other two children for so long?”
Iroh hung his head at this. Izumi could only think of one reason why. “You…told Kiki as well?”
“Kiki’s always been nosier than Shyu, you know that,” Iroh said. “She started wondering what you and Kaja were always up to at those Honorable Fire meetings or whatever you called them.”
Izumi removed her glasses and massaged her forehead. “Iroh, that just makes everything worse. Poor Shyu already feels like the family outcast as it is. Why would you widen that distance between you?”
“Oh, you think that telling him that famous great-grandfather is arguably the strongest bloodbender of all time would make things better? Shyu needed a family history he could be proud of, Mother. He’s got a line of ancestors guilty of genocide.”
“As do I!” Izumi snapped. “And as do you! Flaming dragons, Iroh, you think that a day went by during my reign that I didn’t think about the weight of that crown? About all the blood that had been spilt by its previous wearers?”
She shook her head and let out a harsh laugh. “You know, your grandfather told me the day I became Firelord that it wouldn’t hit right away. That I would feel strong and confident, like I could take on anything. I can’t explain how frustrating it is to watch you do the same thing. You think protecting people means hiding things from them, but you couldn’t be more wrong.”
Iroh’s focus wandered away from her again, as if he needed some time to take in the room Then, for the first time since she’d walked into it this evening, Izumi looked around, too. And the first thing that struck her about it was that it wasn’t Fire Nation. The walls were an earthy green, the decorations on the shelves an array of silvers, blues, and browns. In fact, the only red in the room came from the paintings of the Royal Family. Izumi suddenly felt like she’d had her head yanked out of the sand. For all her struggles with bloodbending, she’d grown up a classic Fire Nation princess. Iroh had a different life, whether she acknowledged it or not.
“Shyu’s going to worry,” he said quietly. “He’s always been trying to prove he’s got some firebending in him, but it’s still only been a little bit of heat that he can produce. He’s going to wonder if… if that is to blame.”
You can say the word “bloodbending”, Izumi thought, though she kept it to herself. In truth, it hadn’t occurred to her that Shyu might question his own bending. She’d never been able to sense others’ bending like her father could. Never really wanted that power. At least, not before now.
“Then talk with him about his worries instead of acting like they’re not there,” she said.
Iroh didn’t answer her at first, choosing instead to stare blankly at the floor. Finally, he muttered, “I’ll think about it” and ended the conversation with that.