Shyu arrived at the principal’s office within a few minutes. The nice thing about the place was that unlike all the other rooms in the school, it was easy to find: right smack in front of the school entrance. He gave the door a polite knock before opening it for himself and stepping in. The old Shyu never would have done that. He liked this confident, new version of himself.
The secretary straightened in surprise at his entrance, but he simply leaned forward on the desk and started talking first. “Excuse me, but I’d like to speak with Principal Tetsuya. It concerns the Fire Nation Royal family.” From the secretary’s glowering expression, he guessed she was not a big supporter of the royal family, but she buzzed the principal all the same. Seriously, did that “royal family business” line work everywhere? How had he made it though his seventeen years without using it before?
Because I never felt like a prince before, he realized. He’d always felt proud of his father as a general but downplayed his royal heritage. Embracing it now felt like discovering chocolate for the first time. Or picture boxes.
The principal peeked her head out of a separate door, and the secretary walked over and whispered something to her. Shyu had no clue why they bothered with the secrecy. They kept staring back at him; who else would they be talking about? Finally, Principal Tetsuya nodded and motioned Shyu into her office. He gave the secretary a smile and a polite nod before talking wide proud steps past her desk and into the room.
For the office of the woman who ran the school, the space Shyu stepped into was a bit small. Still, it was serviceable. It had the obligatory large desk for the adult to sit at and two plastic chairs, presumably for up to two student offenders to sit for a simultaneous verbal assault.
“Now then,” the principal said, folding her hands on the desk. “You need to speak with me about something?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The pitch of Shyu’s voice had a slight uptick at the end. He sounded nervous. He could not, under any circumstances, sound nervous. That was worse than never coming in here at all. He cleared his throat. “As I’m sure you’re aware, my father has declared a holiday in memory of the late Lord Zuko.”
“Yes, I’ve heard.” The principal’s tone was completely neutral. Shyu tried to read her body language for signs of aggression or passivity, then realized he had no clue how to check for such things. The best he could manage was assume aggression and go with it.
“Then I’m sure you’ve also heard,” he went on, “that Varrick Studios is producing a new type of film called a docu-movery, specifically focused on giving the facts about my family’s background.”
The principal merely nodded her agreement this time. Why was this so hard? It took everything in Shyu to swallow his nerves and keep going. “Well, I thought it would be a great idea for school spirit if we showed the movery right here at the school.”
At this, the principal’s eyebrows rose with interest. Shyu wanted to cheer for his first real hint of emotion. “An interesting concept,” she said. “We did show a mover once, but it was one of those old Nuktuk films that took place in the South Pole. Kids these days don’t even remember what that war was about. Weren’t even born.”
I wasn’t born, either, Shyu was tempted to point out but held himself back. If this woman wanted to talk to him like he was an actual adult, all the better.
“It is a tragedy,” he said. “But I promise I can get a copy of the movery for you days before its release. We can sync up a showing with the nationwide premiere, exclusively for the students.”
The principal stroked her chin again. “Interesting idea. Very interesting. I think we could work something out.” She rotated in her chair, then looked over a photo of a teenager with bulging muscles and a smug expression. Probably she was the guy’s mother. She had that how-do-children-grow-up-so-fast look in her eyes.
“You know, you seem like a good kid who got mixed up with the wrong girl,” she said. Shyu felt relieved (that’d been exactly the impression he’d been going for, after all) and sick to his stomach (Mica would be so mad at him right now) at the same time. “First day and here you are trying to help out to the school while that hooligan goes and gets herself detention.”
“She…got detention?” Shyu asked. He’d heard there was a scuffle at the lunch before his, but never found out who was involved. For a moment, his guard dropped. He wanted to stop being the Firelord’s son for a second and be Mica’s friend, who worried for her. But while some people thought he might have been dragged into the coronation disaster against his will, no one thought that for a second about Mica. He had to distance himself, at least in front of important people. He cleared his throat and stood up in the chair. “I’m so sorry to hear that. If you would be so kind as to let me use your office phone, I’ll call my aunt and inform her that she will need to pick Mica up later tonight.”
“Excellent,” Principal Tetsuya said. “It was a pleasure talking to you, Shyu. You tell your older brother that we loved having him as a student, and we enjoy having you as well.”
Of course. Kaja again, Shyu thought. But he smiled and said, “I will, ma’am, and thank you,” just as the bell began to ring.
Rina followed behind the new girl who had rescued her and held herself to stop from shaking. It wasn’t the fall that had scared her. She could have stopped herself with bloodbending. And that was what scared her.
Had the new girl–Mica–not stepped in, Rina would have used her power in front of Kaiden. And Kaiden, being Kaiden, wouldn’t just tell his mother the principal. He’d announce it to the entire school.
And then? Rina shuddered to think about it, and yet she couldn’t stop herself. She’d be forced out of school. Her friends would probably freak out and stop talking to her. Her parents would get harassing letters. Might even lose their jobs and their friends. And that was if they were lucky–if an angry mob didn’t bang on their door demanding that they leave the city for good regardless of whether they had any other place to go.
Rina hugged her arms to her chest, trying so very hard not to cry. What would Lady Izumi think if she were here and saw her freaking out like this?
She’d probably be annoyed. Annoyed that I wasn’t careful enough to dodge Kaiden’s attack. And really annoyed that I got stuck in detention and had to miss the meeting. Flames, if there was one thing she did not want to see it was Lady Izumi when she was really annoyed.
The detention room was tucked away in a neglected corner of the main office between the janitors’ closet and the copy room. And though Rina wasn’t sure what to expect (she had never been in detention before). she was surprised by her own disappointment. By a classroom’s standards, the detention room fell pitifully short. There was no chalkboard to write correctional sentences on over and over. No motivational posters with lists of rules to read and reflect on. There was only a narrow, rectangular space surrounded by brick walls with dim light fixtures and five desks, arranged in a straight line front to back. Really, a detention ‘cell’ seemed more accurate.
Rina averted her eyes when snub-nosed vice-principal Koji arrived with a clipboard.
“I’m going to need your signature here,” he commanded with no shortage of tsks and disappointed head-shakes. Rina cringed a little imagining the look on her parents’ faces later tonight.
Mica didn’t flinch or drop her eyes like Rina did. Didn’t even seem ashamed at all. She held her chin high and gave a charmingly defiant smile as she took the pen. “An autograph? My pleasure.” She signed her name with dramatic flare. Vice-principal Koji’s mouth twitched as he took back the clipboard and handed it to Rina.
She signed and gave a small bow before following Mica inside.
No one will forget this. Rina thought with despair as she looked around the dimly lit cell/room. Now I won’t just be “that freak” I’ll be “that freak who got sent to detention with the new girl.” And still, as much as that bothered her, Rina knew it could have been worse. Much, much worse.
Mica flopped down in the desk furthest to the back, which stirred up a layer of dust. She coughed irritably. “Geeze!” She made an abrupt motion with her hands, propelling the dust off the furniture and out the door earthbender style. “Do kids just not get detention in the Fire Nation or what?”
“Not usually.” Rina took a seat in the desk in front of her, hunching up as small as she could. “Normally the teachers give warnings. Detention is sort of a last resort.”
“And…what? The shame of being sent to detention once is enough to convert all the troublemakers into model citizens forever?”
“Kinda. I guess.”
“Man,” Mica leaned back in her chair and propped her feet on her desk. “You Fire Nation kids wouldn’t last ten seconds in Republic City High. Where I come from detention practically has its own hierarchy.”
“Oh.” Rina wasn’t quite sure how to take that. Mica wasn’t behaving like she was supposed to. She didn’t sound ashamed by this sad fact. She sounded almost proud.
“So, back home…you’re like the Firelord of detention?” Rina took a nervous guess, hoping that her hunch was correct and not an insult.
Mica grinned wildly. “More like the dragon even the Firelord knows not to screw with.”
Just outside the open door, the familiar clicking of Principal Tetsuya’s heeled shoes echoed as she strolled over and poked her head in.
One look at Mica’s less-then-humiliated seating posture sent an angry flood of crimson into the woman’s cheeks. Mica noticed and smirked. Then she waved casually, stretched, and yawned deliberately loud. Rina sank down a little as she watched the woman storm off in a huff.
“You really shouldn’t have done that,” she whispered.
“Why? What’s she gonna do? I’m already in detention. Besides, I like watching her face turn colors.”
Rina covered her mouth. Not in shame this time but to stifle the giggle that came out of nowhere. “That’s terrible.”
“Yep. And hilarious.”
Rina let herself giggle aloud this time. She wasn’t even sure why. Maybe the stress had finally gotten to her. Or was it because, deep down, she was just as angry at Principal Tetsuya as Mica was? She had thrown Rina in detention for no reason, why shouldn’t Rina get to laugh a little at her expense? “She did blush awful red earlier. Where exactly did you learn–you know?”
“My language skills?” Mica joked. “Picked up that little gem from my Aunt Korra.”
Rina felt her jaw slacken. “The Avatar taught you that?”
Mica grinned mischievously. “Sure did. Aunt Korra may be the bridge between worlds, but she’s got the mouth of a sailor. And you know if she were here she would have kicked that guy Kaiden’s butt six ways to sunrise for messing with you. Well, you know, assuming I didn’t flatten him first.”
Rina gave a halfhearted smile. “Yeah, about that… Thank you for helping me.”
“Sure,” said Mica. They sat in silence for a while. Rina tracing crack-patterns in the floor, Mica doing the same to the ceiling until the quiet became too much for her.
“So does that knuckle-dragger always give you such a hard time about your power?”
Rina flinched. Mica was still mapping the ceiling and hadn’t noticed, thank goodnesss. Still, Rina had to take several calming breaths before replying in her most casual of voices. “It’s like I said before. I don’t have a power.”
Mica dropped her chin and stared at her. It was a little unnerving actually. She had those strange different colored eyes. “Really?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Well, let’s see. If you’re telling the truth about not having a power, then Kaiden went through all the trouble to spread a rumor that you do just so he could have an excuse to bother you. On the other hand, if you’re lying and do have a power that means Kaiden was just being a typical ignorant jerkwad.”
Mica scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Now, from what I saw the dude isn’t bright enough to pick his own nose without mommy’s permission, let alone spread a believable rumor. So, no, I don’t believe you.”
Rina shifted in her chair. Were all girls from Republic City this nosy? Rina practiced her breathing again. This wasn’t all Mica’s fault. If Rina had simply sat away from Mica and acted properly silent and ashamed like she was supposed to, this conversation wouldn’t be happening. She swallowed, hoping Mica would get the hint, then looked away and spoke briskly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Why? Did she really just ask why? “Because,” Rina hissed through clenched teeth. “It’s dangerous.”
Rina jerked her head up to stare Mica in the eye. “Why do you want to know?” she snapped, probably a bit louder then she should have. One of the office staff hissed a reprimand, and Rina’s face flooded with heat. Great way not to draw attention to yourself, Rina. She crossed her arms.
Mica raised a brow, then shrugged. “I dunno. Because I’m bored and talking with you is more interesting than staring at the ceiling for three hours.” Mica glanced up again but paused and met Rina’s gaze again. “And I guess…because I know how much it burns being judged because of a power you had no choice inheriting.”
Something in Mica’s eyes had changed. They were still strange and unsettling, but for a second, Rina thought she saw something deep there. A kind of bond. Not the same one she and her fellow bloodbenders shared, but something…
“Maybe you do understand,” Rina allowed, “but I still don’t want to talk about it.”
She turned her back to Mica and hunched as tight as she could. Cutting off a conversation under the guise of trying to do schoolwork would have been easier. But stupid Kaiden had tossed her backpack down the stairs so Rina had no polite diversions. At least Mica took the hint this time. Neither of them spoke another word until Rina’s parents arrived.
“Mom!” She stood, trying to hold back burning tears as she ran to embrace her. “Mom, I’m sorry. I–”
“We’ll talk about this later.” Rina shrank a little. She’d be getting a lecture, she knew. The kind that lasted for hours and served no purpose except telling her the same things she’d heard since childhood. How she had to be more careful. How she couldn’t, under any circumstances, draw attention to herself like this again. Because bad things would happen to their family if anyone, anyone, found out she was a bloodbender.
Rina would worry about that later. For now she was just glad to be going home. She didn’t even notice the other pretty Fire Nation woman walk by. Not until her mom halted so fast Rina collided right into her.
“Oh, Princess Zarah! I didn’t realize…” Her mom bowed hastily, yanking Rina aside to do the same.
“That we were breathing the same air? It’s quite all right. Happens all the time.”
Rina stayed bowed and serious, even as Princess Zarah stepped around the two of them and leaned against the detention room doorway.
“Why did I have a feeling I’d be getting a phone call today?”
Mica shrugged, sarcastic as ever. “Oh, gimme a break, Zarah. It’s been a long day.” Flames, she was so bold. Rina was almost envious of her for that. If she had been born with a different power maybe. Maybe…
“So, how was your day?” Mica asked as she flopped down into the seat beside him, Bandit in her arms. Shyu tightened his hands on his knees, unsure of a way to phrase, “Not bad; I just saw a vision of my dead great-grandfather” without sounding like a lunatic. He swallowed and answered, “Okay. How was yours?”
Mica gave him a death glare. At the same time, Aunt Zarah hit the gas (way stronger than necessary), and the car bolted forward. “Erm…I mean, besides detention, of course,” Shyu finished. The confident guy he’d been in the principal’s office seemed to have taken an extended vacation. “How was your day…besides detention?”
Mica hunched up, wrapping her arms a little tighter around Bandit. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
On the way back, it started to thunderstorm, which only made Mica madder for some reason. She stomped up to her room and slammed the door behind her. Shyu kept a respectable distance. He lingered downstairs, flipping aimlessly through the channels of the PB while Aunt Zarah dug out several takeout menus for him and Mica to browse. He went with the wing place, though Aunt Zarah’s raised a curious eyebrow when he insisted they get an extra large order of volcanic hot wings and agni-fries for Mica.
Then, with nothing else better to do until the food arrived, he headed upstairs to get a start on his schoolwork. Halfway to his room, Shyu heard a musical score blare. A woman started to sing,
Day-light, come and gaze at the sun-light
As it warms the hori-zon
Rise up, take it in
Can we stay here for-ev-er where our hearts can be one
Safe from an old life still with-in…
Shyu pulled out his political science book and tried to immerse himself in the chapter his teacher had assigned. But he struggled to focus past the music flowing in his head. Even Aunt Zarah paused as she came upstairs. Shyu could see her from his half-open bedroom door. She listened with appreciation for longer than necessary before knocking softly on Mica’s door.
The singing stopped, but the music didn’t, and Shyu’s jaw slackened a tad. That wasn’t a recording. That was Mica singing that whole time.
Mica’s door opened. “What now?”
“Your parents are on the phone.”
Mica stiffened. “I don’t want to talk to them. And you can tell them I said that, too.”
Aunt Zarah appeased her with a nod and didn’t even argue when Mica closed the door roughly in her face. But when she turned back, she paused, and her saddened eyes locked with his.
“Um…Mica sounds pretty angry,” he cleverly observed. That’s me. Firelord Obvious.
Aunt Zarah nodded. “Yes, she does.”
“Why? What happened?”
“You’re her friend. Maybe you should ask her.”
The last time he had tried to chat hadn’t gone over so well. But maybe that was just because Aunt Zarah was there. Shyu set his textbook aside and went to Mica’s door.
“What?” Mica snapped after his third knock.
“It’s just me.”
“Oh.” Shyu heard movement and a second later, the door opened. Mica had already changed out of her uniform and into sweats and a tanktop.
“Can I come in?” Shyu asked, remembering his manners at the last minute.
“Sure, I guess.”
She stepped aside. Except for a small corner where Bandit’s bed lay, it looked like a department store had exploded in Aunt Zarah’s study. Shyu took a seat in the padded desk chair, careful to nudge Mica’s strewn clothing aside before doing so. His elbow knocked a framed picture, which he hastily repositioned. The photo was of a handsome brute of a guy with slicked hair and a leather jacket posing on a motorcycle.
“My boyfriend, Dino,” Mica answered his unspoken question. She went over to her right-most end table at the foot of her couch/bed to adjust the volume of her record player so they could talk without shouting.
“Ah,” said Shyu for lack of anything better. “He looks rugged.”
Not true. What Dino looked like was a street punk. But Shyu had come over to talk to Mica not criticize her taste. Flames only knew she probably got enough of that at home.
“He is,” agreed Mica, stretching out on the couch. Judging from the open collection of colored polishes and the chemical smell, she had been in the middle of re-painting her toenails when Shyu interrupted. She went back to work, apparently unfazed that she now had an audience other than Bandit.
“I uh…heard you singing before,” he began again.
Mica didn’t even look up. “Oh. Sorry,” she said, though she didn’t sound at all sincere. “Normally I go outside and blow stuff up for a while when I’m mad. But since I can’t do that in the rain…” She glared obstinately at the rumbling storm outside, as if a nasty look would make it stop. “…singing’s the best I’ve got.” She dabbed a clear chemical on her toes, scrubbing off red polish. “I’ll stop if it’s bothering you.”
“No,” blurted Shyu. “It was beautiful.”
Mica glanced at him and for a split second Shyu could have sworn he saw her blush. “Thanks.”
They sat in silence for a while listening to the rain and the last of the musical score on Mica’s record. When the last note died, Shyu finally worked up his nerve and asked, “So…what happened today anyway? I heard there was a fight during lunch. Was that you?”
Mica’s eyes narrowed with disgust. She smacked a copper-orange nail-polish bottle in her palm harder than necessary. “Yeah.”
Shyu tried his hardest to keep his face neutral, even though his first instinct was to roll his eyes. “Okay. Care to elaborate?”
He was pushing his luck, he knew. Frankly he was surprised Mica hadn’t tossed him out in the hall by now. He theorized there was probably a part of her that still wanted to. But for some reason, maybe the fact that he hadn’t said anything snarky and sounded genuinely interested, Mica opened up to him. Shyu listened while she ranted about her awful day, his stomach growing tighter and tighter with every detail.
“And then that woman actually had the nerve to punish Rina, too!” Mica concluded with a snarl.
“That’s harsh,” agreed Shyu.
“It’s dragon snot is what it is! But of course, no one would listen to my side.” She capped her nail-polish roughly. “No one ever does.”
“Well, I’m listening,” Shyu said, a spark of his confidence returning. “And you know, I had a talk with Principal Tetsuya today. I’m sure if I explain the situation…”
Mica shook her head as she wedged cotton balls between her now coppery colored toes. “Don’t bother, Shyu. There’s no point now. She’s already made up her mind about me just like everyone else.”
Mica flopped back onto her pillows with a sigh and fixed her eyes on the ceiling. “In fact, it’s probably better if we don’t associate at school. No sense in ruining your reputation.”
Guilt rose in him. Guilt that he’d done exactly that. He had taken the easy way out, blaming Mica for everything that happened with the spirits. Naming himself the victim. He did it to protect himself and his dignity as a Fire Nation prince.
But the truth was he wasn’t a victim like Rina. Mica hadn’t forced him to leave his father’s coronation. She hadn’t dragged him into that portal by force. He had chosen to go willingly both times. And here he was perfectly happy to shovel all the blame on Mica. Why? Because she was used to getting in trouble? Because her reputation wasn’t as important as his? No. Mica had been judged and shoved aside exactly like him. The only difference was she had the courage to fight back.
You have that courage too, Shyu, he thought he heard his great-grandfather Zuko whisper. You’re a prince of the Fire Nation. If someone disrespects your friend, they also disrespect you
He was right.
“No,” Shyu snapped, so sudden that Mica startled. “I won’t do that. You’re my friend.” He planted a fist firmly in his palm. “In fact, tomorrow I’m going to have a word with Kaiden and make him apologize to you and Rina in front of the whole school.”
Mica didn’t smile. Didn’t even thank him like he thought she might. Instead she laughed right in his face. “Are you crazy? The dude’s built like a platypus bear. He’ll knock the stuffing out of you.”
“He won’t when he remembers I’m the prince.”
“Riiight,” Mica mused, clearly not convinced. “Whatever you say, your majesty. Just don’t come crying to me when you end up face down on the pavement.”