Izumi ran her tongue over her dry lips. She could still taste a bit of iron where her lower lip had been bleeding. She wasn’t quite sure if her wardens had forgotten to bring her water this morning or if they were purposefully withholding it again. They’d done both in the twenty-four hours since Iroh had left. She wondered exactly what they did do with that lovely little room that they’d escorted her into when she first arrived. Perhaps they showed it to other families to convince them that their loved ones were safe here? Izumi’s chains rattled lightly as a chill ran across her body. She had no idea how many others were in this building, but the thought of anyone else being led in here terrified her. Mostly because she could do nothing to stop it.
She’d gotten to stay in her room for an entire thirty minutes before the voidbenders came for her. She hadn’t put up a fight, but her compliance hadn’t seemed to matter much to them. They’d raged against her like every one of them had a personal vendetta against the royal family. Her side still ached and her lip was still swollen from the “lesson” they’d taught her about “staying in her place.”
Now Izumi sat in what she could only describe as a makeshift cell; it more resembled a storage room, a feature she suspected came from the fact that Iroh still had to approve the final design of this place. Izumi’s wrists were shackled to the wall, her fingers numb from improper circulation. She’d tried several times to relieve the sensation through her bloodbending, but every time she tried it, nothing had happened. The voidbenders stayed vigilant, never nodding off on their shifts, never getting far enough away to let her ability work for a second. Izumi felt like she had been blindfolded–she jerked whenever the door opened from the pure disorientation of someone being able to walk in unexpectedly on her.
Please let Iroh find out what this place really is, she begged in her mind. They can’t send those children…or anyone else here. Please let him figure it out.
She lowered her head as her exhausted muscles pulled her mind into sleep.
Shyu pushed through the crowds of people. The amphitheater where My Fair Avatar was being performed was like a buoy in the sea of faces–sometimes visible, sometimes not, never within actual reach.
“Hey, there young man!” called a guy in a straw hat. “Wanna try your luck at ring toss? Win your choice of an Avatar plushie! We’ve got Kyoshi, Roku, Aang, Korra–”
“No thanks,” Shyu muttered. How had he managed to foul this up, something so simple as driving to a certain place at a certain time? Granted, he’d just learned how to drive, but that was all the less excuse for not leaving earlier. He should have planned ahead of time that he would completely miss a turn.
“Deep-fried fire peppers!” someone else called out. “Get ’em while they’re hot! Well, I mean, of course, they’re hot, but get ’em while they’re hot and hot!” Shyu gritted his teeth and pushed past the stand. He could already feel the irrational anger boiling up in him again. Zuko hadn’t appeared to him in a while. Shyu could only think of one good reason for that, but it was a thought he’d been trying to ignore.
“All right, enough of this!” Aunt Zarah said from behind him. She reached out and grabbed the fire pepper guy by the shirt collar. “The royal family’s tent. Where is it?”
“Ah, looking for Firelord Iroh’s autograph?” the vendor asked with a sneer.
Mica snorted and Shyu thought he heard her mutter something like “Yeah, he wishes,” under her breath.
Zarah’s face broke into a sly smile. “Trust me, if I wanted my big brother’s autograph, I wouldn’t need your help getting it.”
The vendor went instantly pale. Then, five minutes later, the entire group was standing in a luxurious maroon tent that had the Fire Nation emblem embroidered into every edge of its fabric. The tent opened up to a picture-perfect view of the amphitheater, where Shyu could see that My Fair Avatar was well into its first act.
“Ow!” the on-stage version of Mica’s Uncle Mako called out. “You have hit me with your moped! And now I am very angry!” The actor threw a handful of red and orange ribbons in the air, in what Shyu could only assume was supposed to be a firebending display.
Aunt Zarah coughed loudly, catching Shyu’s attention. While it wouldn’t be fair to say he was avoiding eye contact with his dad, he wasn’t anxious for it, either. Iroh gave Zarah only the faintest nod to acknowledge her existence, while Mica got one of his death glares.
“I am so sorry that I have hit you with my moped!” the actress playing Asami yelled out, throwing off her helmet and whipping her dark locks around. Shyu squinted. There was glitter in her hair. Actual glitter. The actress held her hands to her face and let out a loud gasp. “Oh my! You are a pro-bender! I love pro-bending!”
By now, Mica had taken note of Iroh’s death glare and was glaring right back at him. Shyu stepped in before one of them tried to turn the other to ashes.
“Calm down, Dad. She’s not here to ruin our family or anything, okay?” he said. That’s already being done by whoever gave that footage to Varrick. The anger flared up again, and he had to breathe deeply to control it.
His father gave one of his condescending grunts of disapproval. Shyu’s mother was seated on one side of him, while Nanami was seated on the other, and both of them looked more than a little uncomfortable with being this close to the Firelord’s wrath. “Well,” Iroh said, “the least the group of you could do is arrive on time.”
Another loud gasp erupted from the stage, this time from the actor playing Mako. “You are very pretty! I am no longer angry!”
Shyu groaned. “Look, the late arrival was my fault, okay, Dad? I panicked and missed a turn, and then it was this straight skinny road that probably stretches all the way to the Earth Kingdom, so I had to turn around in a–”
“Mica, why don’t I help you find your folks?” Aunt Zarah said, before Iroh got a chance to ask why Shyu was driving in the first place. “I’m sure they’re looking for you.”
“Oh, yes,” Mica said, almost too eagerly. “I better get going on that. Before the Nuktuk fanboys eat my dad alive.” She waved apologetically to Shyu and let Zarah lead her out of the tent. He couldn’t hold her quick exit against her. If he could think of a way out of this place himself, he would gladly take it.
On stage, Actor-Mako and Actress-Asami clasped hands and held them high for the audience to see. “We are good friends now!” they announced together. “We will go out to dinner!”
“Sit down already!” Kiki whined from the seat next to her mother. Shyu quickly slipped into the only open seat, the one next to Nanami. He didn’t mind the spot, though. He was hardly anxious to speak to either of his parents right now, and he certainly had no interest in speaking to Kaja. With any luck, the play would distract his parents enough that he could get away with no more conversation for the rest of the night.
“Thanks for the save, Zarah,” Mica said once the Royal family tent and the disgruntled Firelord were well out of earshot.
“Not a problem. Iroh’s in one of his moods, it seems.”
Yeah, Thought Mica, I imagine imprisoning your own mother would have that effect.
Zarah gave an irritated sigh and massaged between her temples, like she just knew this was going to be a long and tedious day. Mica could sympathize all too well. She touched Zarah’s shoulder to offer what little support she could.
“Sorry you’re going through this, Zarah.” She dropped her voice a bit. “And I’m sorry about your mom not being able to come back to the palace.” She swallowed down a tremor of pain and forced herself to keep an optimistic tone as she went on. “But your brother helped approve construction of the facility, so I’m sure she’ll be kept comfortable. I mean, she is still royalty.” The words coming out of her mouth were beyond sugar-coated. After what her own mom had been through, Mica hated the thought of Izumi being locked up anywhere with a violent passion. But she had to say something to try and comfort Zarah. After what Zarah had helped her through, she deserved that at least.
“And once Shyu tells Iroh everything we’ve learned from Rina, I know he’ll find the one responsible and make them pay.” She tightened her grip and made a fist with her other hand.
Zarah kept her eyes ahead and her lips tight, but she did reach up to squeeze Mica’s hand.
They pressed on towards the front row, where Mica’s family always got seats. Unlike some of the newer theaters, this amphitheater was built ages ago, during a time when Fire Nation plays were performed by actual firebenders using actual fire. The solid, fireproof stone stage might not have all the conveniences of a modern theater but that certainly hadn’t stopped Firelords and acting companies from trying their darnest to make it just as good. Decorative scaffolding in Fire Nation colors held spotlights, electric pulley controls, and enormous speakers. Cabbage Corp had even gone a step further, rigging up a huge projector screen to display the performance, and their advertisements, drive-in mover style to those folks not lucky enough to get a decent seat.
When they finally came to the front row, only Uncle Mako was visible. Hunched in his seat, he glowered at the stage in annoyance (and embarrassment?) as Actor-Mako and Actor-Asami reenacted their first date.
“My, you are very handsome!” declared Actress-Asami, snoozing and batting her fake eyelashes. “But why do you wear that red scarf?”
Actor-Mako stood at the table, making a show of gripping his heart and turning away in emotional torment. “It was my father’s. And it just fills me with so much angst!”
“Uch!” Uncle Mako crossed his arms and pouted. “I do not sound like that…”
Mica laughed, despite herself. “I don’t know, Uncle Mako, you are pretty angsty sometimes.”
Mako all but jumped out of his seat, accidentally knocking over the bag of popcorn he had been rage-eating. Bandit dove from Mica’s shoulders after the scattered kernels, nearly tripping her uncle in the process as he moved forward to greet her. “Hey, kid. It’s been a while.” His warm features faded almost instantly as Mica expected they would. “Seriously, why didn’t you call sooner? Your parents have been worried sick, you know.”
Mica’smuscles stiffened, and her arms crossed. Not in anger exactly–she knew he had a fair point and was only expressing worry in his Uncle Mako way. Defiance was just her instinctual response to scolding. Like a borkupine bristling it’s quills.
“I rest my case.” Mica snorted, rolling her eyes Zarah’s way, then jerking her thumb at the stage. Mica was pleased when she provoked a chuckle from the woman. Even more pleasing was watching Uncle Mako’s face shade red in response.
A giggle sounded from actress-Asami.
“It will be so exciting to watch you in the pro-bending championships! Because I love pro-bending!” she giggled again.
Actor-Mako sat back down, still making exaggerated gestures with his arms as his face continued to contort with emotion.
“Yes it would…except…we have no money!”
“Oh!” wailed actress-Asami. “That is so sad!”
Mica heard someone heckle them to sit down from the row behind, or they started to until they saw who it was they were heckling. Still, Mako sat back down and Zarah took a seat one away from him. Bandit hopped onto the empty chair between them looking at Mica expectantly. For a moment she was tempted to stay. But she knew better. The longer she put this off, the more difficult it would be.
“Speaking of mom and dad, have you seen them?”
“Not for a while, actually,” said Mako, recomposing himself. “Varrick’s kept them pretty busy. You should ask him. Last I herd he was backstage somewhere.”
“Right.” She gave Bandit a farewell chin scratch. “I should go find him then. Bandit, you stay here with Uncle Mako.”
She caught Zarah’s eye just before she left and joked under her breath. “Don’t break my uncle’s heart into too many pieces, okay.”
Zarah smirked in response. “I’ll try and contain myself.” Then she patted Mica’s arm. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’m going to need it.”
Shyu folded over his half-eaten bag of Agni Fries and tucked the bag under his chair. The play’s scene had shifted to the Fire Ferrets’ big game getting interrupted by the Equalists. In an actually-impressive aerobatic display, Actress-Lin had saved Actress-Korra from falling to her death. The two watched as a reel played on the screen behind them–a Equalist airship disappearing into the distance.
“What kind of evil monster has the power to take people’s bending?” Actress-Korra was saying, much too loudly like everyone else in the cast.
“I do not know!” Actress-Lin replied. “But whatever that evil power is, we know one thing. Republic City…is…at war!” The curtain came down, and a pair of questionably-dressed women held up signs indicating that the intermission had begun. Shyu gritted his teeth. He’d meant to make some excuse to be out of the tent right about now.
“They were talking about bloodbending,” he heard Zuko’s voice whispering. “They’re trying to ruin our family all over again.”
Shyu stiffened. Stop calling it “our family”, he wanted to scream back. You’re not my grandfather. I don’t know what you are for sure, but you’re not him.
Whatever had been speaking seemed to hear his thoughts, and rage filled him once more. The strange thing was, it didn’t feel like his anger this time around. It felt like…like he was in some strange dream, caught inside the body of raging monster, feeling its feelings, but unable to control it. Shyu grasped the front of his shirt. Too fast. His heart was beating too fast. He was starting to sweat, too. He had to get out of here, and quickly.
“Shyu, honey? Are you all right?” his mother was asked. He could hear her voice, but couldn’t quite seem to focus on her.
“Fine…I’m fine,” he muttered, dropping his hand. Looking like he was having a heart attack was not going to put her concerns at ease. Willing himself to keep his breathing steady, he nodded and said, “I think I just need some fresh air.”
“Do you…need some company?”
Shyu shook his head. He hadn’t expected his father to be the one to ask that question. Didn’t the great Firelord have better things to do than chat with a prince who was always screwing up?
“I’m fine,” he repeated, and slipped out of the tent as quickly as he could.