Varrick was all too thrilled (if not a little unsurprised) by Tenna’s change of heart. Though he was a bit less thrilled with her terms: that the interview be filmed in her house and that only Varrick and Zhu Li were allowed to be present during the process. So, naturally, when Varrick paraded into her living room with the entire film crew plus Dino of all people, Tenna very nearly put in a new skylight–combustion style.
“Not to worry–” Varrick assured her with no shortage of frantic hand waves and nervous smiles. “They’re only here to help setup and will be kicked out as soon as filming starts.”
“Fine,” Tenna relented, though she ended up pacing the room for a solid ten minutes before Bolin rested a comforting hand on her shoulder and she finally submitted herself to the primping and preening of Varrick’s hyper-caffeinated makeup girl.
In the meantime, as spotlights were erected and furniture re-arranged to create a proper stage, Tenna found a small satisfaction in watching Dino scurrying about to “do the thing” at Varrick’s every beck and call. He actually managed to keep a cheery face for an entire hour before finally losing his patience.
“So what’s my part going to be in all this?”
“Your part?” Varrick thought a second then reached around, yanked the boy to his side and made a slow, sweeping motion with the other hand. “Okay, you ready for this? You’re an up-and-coming young gofer for one of the most brilliant directors in all of Republic City. It’s your first day on the job, and everything’s going smooth until—gasp!—your boss puts you in charge of picking up refreshments for two of the most famous mover-stars in the entire city!”
Dino’s brow furrowed. “Wait a minute…is this just a fancy way of telling me to go pick up dinner?”
“You got it! I’ll have a cheeseburger cooked medium on one side, well on the other with everything on it except pickles, onions, tomato and lettuce. And a coffee—black with two sugars stirred in separately exactly five minutes apart with a straw, not a spoon.”
Dino puffed with anger. “What do I look like? Your butler?”
“Listen, kid, part of being an actor is learning to do what the director tells you, no matter how terrible or crazy the idea is.”
“But I’m not acting!” Dino complained.
“Sure you are! Life is acting, just not in the mover sense.”
Dino opened his mouth, no doubt to protest that this was the dumbest logic he had ever heard, but Varrick cut him off.
“And before you go getting all angsty, I’d like to remind you the only reason you’re here is because, for reasons I still don’t comprehend, Mica is crazy for you. And I happen to love that girl like my own kid. So….” He made a dismissive gesture. “Less talky and more fetchy. And smile, for crying out loud! You’re getting dinner, not going to a funeral.”
Dino stalked off, cursing under his breath the whole while. A minute later, he reappeared, a pad of paper and pen in his hands and a forced smile on his face.
“Can I get you anything Mrs. T?”
Tenna cringed a little inside. “It’s Mrs. Tenacious to you, young man.”
Dino blinked. “Your full name’s Tenacious?”
“That’s right.” Dino didn’t say anything, but Tenna caught the tail-end of a rather snarky smirk. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” He tried to hold back a lewd smile as he muttered under his breath. “Now I know where Mica gets it.”
That did it. Tenna rose and sucked in a sharp breath. Fortunately Bolin stepped in and caught her two seconds before she could form a Dino-sized crater in the living room floor.
“Now, now, honey, be reasonable,” Bolin soothed, though Tenna could see he too was glaring daggers at Dino. “That’s our future son-in-law you’re about to blow up. Isn’t that right, Dino?”
“Uh…” muttered Dino, rubbing a hand through his hair. Tenna could already see him inching towards the exit. “I should see about getting that food…” He hurried off, nearly smacking shoulders with Zhu Li as she approached.
“Seriously!” Bolin complained way louder than necessary. “What does Mica see in him?”
Zhu Li cleared her throat, hesitant to be the cause of more tension. Tenna had always admired that about her. Where Varrick was tactless to a fault, his wife was almost as nuanced in reading emotions as Tenna was.
“We’re ready, Tenna,” she said, keeping her voice politely soft, even though the last of the setup crew were already on their way out the door.
Finally, I can get this over with.
For the interview stage, Varrick and the others moved two padded leather armchairs and a coffee-table against the backdrop of their fireplace. They even started a small fire and shifted some larger framed photos onto the mantle. To make the setting homey? Or to make her more comfortable? Tenna wasn’t sure. Maybe a little of both.
Bolin caught her hand just as she started to head over and pulled her into his arms.
“I’ll be right here the whole time. So if you feel yourself getting…you know…just look at me, okay?”
Tenna nodded stiffly. She took a seat in the left chair, unfazed by the spotlights or the various sounds of mover equipment. Zhu Li sat across from her, a set of small cue cards in her hands. Tenna wouldn’t lie; she was grateful Zhu Li, not Varrick, was conducting the interview. Zhu Li she could trust to be tactful and not ask ignorant questions or blurt out inappropriate things.
Behind the camera, Varrick counted down. “Three, two, one…and we’re rolling, people!”
Tenna listened patiently as Zhu Li introduced herself and Tenna for the sake of all those future generations Varrick claimed would be watching this movery someday. Then she cleared her throat and looked Tenna in the eye. “So, Tenna, tell me a little about your experience at this ‘facility.'”
That was her cue. She swallowed, caught Bolin gesturing encouragement out of the corner of her eye, and finally spoke. Calm. Clear. Like she was reading off a script in her mind.
“My name wasn’t Tenna back then. It was Fuse. Though really that title was just for the clients’ convenience. Inside we were just called by our numbers. Master liked it better that way. He didn’t want us getting the wrong idea about ourselves.”
“Wrong idea?” Zhu Li prompted and though she hid it well enough Tenna could see an unsettled curiosity in her eyes.
Tenna looked straight into the camera. “That we were human beings.”
Bolin watched the interview progress with a lump in his throat and a knot in his stomach. Nothing Tenna said was a surprise to him. Though it had taken years, bit by painful bit Tenna opened up to him and Bolin had learned all the details of her life before. But that didn’t make hearing them now any less sickening.
Tenna was putting on a good act, trying not to show her pain. When she discussed the origin of combustionbenders–how so-called ‘bandit raids’ on secluded villages were arbitrated by her former master as a cover for the kidnapping of firebending children–Tenna spoke at a distance, relaying the events as if reading from a textbook. She did not disclose how her own mother and grandmother were killed trying to defend her. Or how she was ripped from her father’s arms and had to watch as he was burned alive.
Her “forging” and the early years as a weapon were treated much the same way. Tenna talked calmly like was simply re-telling a story she had heard from some stranger on the bus. Bolin was grateful Zhu Li didn’t press the matter. Surely the content of the story was horrific enough. But Varrick, it seemed, had grown tired of unenthusiastic performances after dealing with Iroh. He made a gesture off-screen, and Zhu Li nervously flipped to her next cue card.
“Tell me about the tattoo,” she said.
Tenna twitched in her seat, her hand coming up reflexively to brush the third-eye mark on her forehead. “It’s a brand, actually. The ink was just symbolic…Master’s family signature. All weapons started out with a mark like this, but you could earn extra marks if you managed to pass one of the trials…” She hesitated. “If you survived long enough.”
Zhu Li fingered her cards restlessly. “Trials?”
Tenna nodded. “There were three. If you could pass one, Master would shift your rank to the next tier. Higher tier weapons were more valuable to him. They were given more food. Allowed more rest–” Tenna swallowed. Bolin saw her eyes shift, searching for him. He held her gaze.
“You’re doing great, sweetheart,” he mouthed. He puffed out his chest, trying to look confident and strong for her sake. She would need that strength, need him to anchor onto if something triggered her bad enough.
Zhu Li must have seen this communication, or more likely Tenna’s discomfort, because she quickly tried to change topics. “So, what were these trials you mentioned, Tenna?”
Tenna blinked at the mention of her own name, seeming to regain some of herself. “The Fear trial, the Pain trial, and the Mercy trial. No fear. No pain. No mercy. That was our mantra. I guess…you could say it was our purpose. To conquer fear, you had to face it…over and over until you were no longer afraid. To conquer pain, you had to endure it. Dull pain. Sharp pain. For however long it took until you felt nothing. To conquer mercy…you had to kill.”
Zhu Li’s eyes widened and even Varrick startled back. He made a “cut” motion and Zhu Li spoke immediately.
“But you were rescued before that–” she emphasized.
Tenna nodded, seemingly unaware of the barely avoided disaster. She was sweating too, Bolin noticed. Not a good sign.
“Yes I–I was still being conditioned for my Fear trial.” Tenna confirmed, her voice shaking a little.
Zhu Li shifted in her seat. “By ‘conditioned’ you mean…tortured?”
Tenna nodded, wiping sweat from her brow. Zhu Li’s face went a little paler and behind the camera Varrick dabbed sweat from his own brow with a handkerchief. Though the two of them had gathered fleeting details of Tenna’s past over the years, it seemed now the reality was finally sinking in. This wasn’t just a fact in a book or a hiccup in their evening plans. This was real abuse that happened to a real, live, person. And that person was their friend.
Tenna continued to speak. And though she was looking in the camera her eyes were getting glassy. “There was a room called ‘the cells.’ It was dark. Soundproof. And there were these square pits in the floor, no bigger around than a chimney, but deep. Too deep to climb out. Normally Master would only put me in there when I defied him. But before my last mission– that changed. Suddenly there was no warning. He’d put me in there for no reason at all. Sometimes he’d even drag me out of bed–” Tenna swallowed, still staring but not seeming to see. She was breathing quicker too. Unnaturally fast. “I was down there for a month once. A month on my feet without light…or sound or…air…”
Bolin reached for Varrick’s shoulder. “Shut if off,” he demanded.
Varrick tried, but in his current state of shock his fingers didn’t seem to remember how the camera worked.
Meanwhile Zhu Li looked as panicked as her husband. She reached to steady Tenna as she tried to stagger out of the chair. “Tenna? Are you all right?”
Tenna gasped hard, her eyes huge and afraid. “I can’t breathe! I–” Tenna stumbled, disoriented. Bolin caught her before she could fall and they sank together to the floor. She clung to him, digging into the back of his shoulders with her nails. But Bolin ignored the pain. He cupped her face in his hands and tilted her chin up so they were practically nose to nose.
“Tenna. Tenna, look at me.” She didn’t see him, Bolin knew with familiar dread. He wasn’t sure what she was seeing. Only that it was terrifying. “I’m right here. You hear me? I’m right here with you. You’re safe.”
His voice was steady and stern. Tenna needed that now. She needed his strength. Needed his encouragement and his calm. “You need to breathe, Tenna. Focus and breathe.”
Tenna drew a sharp breath, the first real sign that she had heard him. The air brought some needed color back to her face. Bolin exaggerated his own breathing, keeping each breath steady as Tenna gradually synced up with him.
“That’s right, hon. Easy does it. Just follow the sound of my voice.”
Tenna blinked. Slow at first, her eyes gradually focusing on his face instead of whatever terrible place she had been moments ago. “Bolin…?” Her voice was small and shaky.
He ran his fingers through her hair and leaned his forehead into hers. “Yes, Tenna. I’m here. I’m here, honey.”
She relaxed her grip, not all the way, but enough that he could move freely without her nails jabbing him. He rose from his kneel, scooping up Tenna with him. He had actually forgotten about Varrick and Zhu Li until that moment. But when he stood and surveyed the room, there they were. Zhu Li had her hands pressed to her mouth and was fighting hard to hold back tears but failing miserably. Varrick looked like he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t seem to form words. When Tenna noticed them standing there, she pressed her face into Bolin’s chest and started to sob. In rage. In embarrassment. In sheer exhaustion. She wept so hard her entire body shook.
Inside Bolin was shaking almost as hard as she was. Ten years it had taken for the nightmares to stop. How long would it be now before his wife could finally have a peaceful night’s rest again? Or hear a sound at night without breaking into a nervous sweat?
Bolin made for the back door, heading for the kennel, the one place Tenna was sure to feel safe.
“We’re done,” he said over his shoulder with an edge to his voice that surprised him almost as much as it surprised Varrick. “Show yourselves out.”
“Sure,” said Varrick.
Bolin let the door slam behind him as he stepped with Tenna into the night air. He was so furious with Varrick for pushing Tenna so hard. But most of all, he was furious with himself for letting this happen.
Shyu had thought a lot about this upcoming confrontation during the night. He knew one thing for sure; it needed an audience. No witnesses meant Kaiden could twist the truth however he wanted.
An agni kai is useless if there’s no one there to watch, he could imagine (or hear; sometimes it was hard to tell) Zuko saying.
Of course, he couldn’t challenge Kaiden to a fire duel when neither of them could actually firebend. But he knew something they did both wield–authority. And in that battle, Shyu knew he could win. He actually licked his lips in anticipation as Aunt Zarah drove them down the busy Fire Nation streets and towards Hira’a High.
“So, why does your brilliant plan require getting to school early today?” Mica yawned. It was a tiny bit frustrating that she wasn’t showing more enthusiasm. Then again, Shyu hadn’t exactly proven he could do anything worth getting enthusiastic about. Not yet anyway.
“By the school district’s guidelines, Principal Tetsuya has to arrive by no later than 6:45,” he explained as she sleepily leaned her elbow against the vibrating car window. “I’m running on the assumption that Kaiden rides in the car with her. And you said Rina’s bus arrives…” He pointed to Mica for a prompt.
“7:15,” she said, resting her face on her open hand.
“Right. So we need to get there when we’re sure we’re there when Rina shows up, but without Tetsuya and his Mother Dearest noticing.”
The car pulled to a stop in front of the school building. It was better than Shyu could have asked for. The crowds of teens flowing into the building wasn’t suffocating yet, but it was enough that if someone, oh, say, started yelling at the top of their lungs, it would get attention.
Aunt Zarah glanced in the rearview mirror. “Hey, Mica? What was that bus number of Rina’s again?”
Mica startled up from where she had started to doze off against the window. “Number forty-two,” she yawned.
“Ah. Because that’s the one that’s right behind us.”
“They’re early?” Shyu asked, jolting up. No, this was not all going wrong on him. Not today. He wasn’t backing down on his plans. He’d never felt this much fire in his gut before; he feared if he backed down even for a moment, it would never come back.
“Let us out here,” he said as the car started to pull up to the sidewalk. It was still moving when he opened the door and jumped out. “Thanks, Aunt Zarah.”
“Good luck!” she called out as Mica stumbled out of the car after him. She was carrying two backpacks, which he found weird until he realized he’d been clueless enough to leave his own in the car. He waved his thanks at her and sprinted up the cement stairs to the school entrance. There he waited with a yawning Mica until she pointed out which girl stepping off the bus was Rina. She kept her dark hair shoulder length and unadorned in an easy, old-fashioned top knot. She wore her uniform with no accessories, and her shoes were a simple pair of Michi-Janes. In short, she was the definition of someone trying to be forgotten. She noticed them staring at her right away, and her first reaction was to divert her eyes and try to walk past them unnoticed. She only spoke when she glanced up briefly and noticed that Shyu still hadn’t taken his eyes off her.
“Um, is there something I can help you with, Prince Shyu?” she asked.
He smiled and reached for her hand. “Actually, there is. Come with me, if you don’t mind.” And with that, he pushed open the school entrance door.
Kaiden was inside, all right. Shyu could see him through the office window. He hurried Rina through the school doors, took a sharp left turn, and then grabbed the doorknob to the office. It did not turn. He banged on the door as hard as he could.
“Shyu, what are you doing?” Rina hissed. “I’m trying not to draw attention to myself.”
“Yeah?” Shyu asked. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to draw attention to myself, and now I’m on national news leading a monster spirit through my dad’s coronation.” He gave the door three more bangs for good measure, and finally he heard a click. The door swung open with a rather unhappy Principal Tetsuya on the other side and her smug-looking son standing behind her. Shyu glanced behind him to see that a few students had slowed their walks and turned to see what was going on. He licked his lips again.
“Hey, Kaiden,” he said, louder than needed. “How about you stop hiding behind your mother for a second and come out and talk to me?”
Kaiden glanced at his mother, then at the crowd of students gathering beyond her, and finally chose to step out. He had about an inch on Shyu, which was frustrating, but it was nothing that couldn’t be compensated for.
“You owe my friends here an apology,” Shyu said, pointing to Mica first, then to Rina, who was doing her best to disappear behind him. “You also owe your mother an apology.”
Principal Tetsuya straightened at this. “What apology? What for?”
“For lying to you, ma’am. Rina and Mica didn’t have anything to do with that fight. Kaiden started the fight with Rina, and since Rina’s a nonbender, Mica stepped in to defend her.”
Kaiden shook his head. “That’s not what ha–”
“Excuse me.” Shyu held up a hand. “But I’m guessing that you’ve spent your whole life feeling pretty good about yourself. Your mother holds a high position in the school, and in the town. You probably feel like there’s no one above you here.”
Kaiden opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t get a chance.
“Let me enlighten you,” said Shyu, waving his hand for a bit of flare, “Your little sphere of influence is a drop in my ocean. You have your mother above you, the school board above her, the mayor above them, and thousands of others across the country. All answering to someone above them. Do you know who I answer to?” He leaned close. “I answer to my father and no one else. So when I tell your mother what really happened that day, are you going to have the gall, the complete disrespect to the crown, to try lying again?” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “The Royal family never has taken disrespect kindly. Look up the scarring and banishment of Prince Zuko, if you don’t believe me.”
“N-no, I believe you,” Kaiden said, looking at his mother. They were both a bit white in the face, though she seemed both terrified of Shyu and angry at her son for putting her in such a position. Kaiden was terrified and not much else. “I-I, I’m sorry, Mother,” he said, bowing deeply. “I did lie to you about what happened. Rina and Mica weren’t doing anything wrong. I just came up and started harassing them. For no reason whatsoever. Because I’m a terrible person. It will never happen again; I’m sorry.”
“In my office,” she said sharply. “We’ll discuss this in private.”
Relief poured over his face and he hurried past her. Principal Tetsuya looked up at the crowd of students, but none of them seemed at all interested in leaving. There was a mix of feelings there; some fear when they looked at Shyu, but also some relief. And, he discovered to his extreme pleasure, there was respect for the person who had finally put Kaiden in his place. Respect for the Firelord’s son. And with that, Shyu couldn’t resist smiling.