Eight years later…
In real life, Mica was in class. In her mind, she was speeding well over 100 miles per hour on her motorcycle, cutting off a pair of crooks, complete with black and white striped jailbird getups. Oh, sure, they’d try to get away. But one taste of her expert driving paired with the sting of her explosive bending, and they’d be–
“Mica!” The sound of Mrs. Bat’s harping old-lady voice sent the theoretical motorcycle in her head careening off the highway and into an oil tanker causing the entire thing to explode into fiery rubble.
Mica jerked to attention, blinking away the last of the dancing flames. Outside the window the rumbling engine of a motorcycle faded into the distance. “What now?”
Mrs. Bat was not amused. As usual. Not that the woman actually had a sense of humor that Mica knew of. That would be the day.
“Pay attention!” She cleared her throat and went back to her lecture, chalk-screeching notes across the blackboard in her terrible handwriting. Her header read: “On the Origins of Firebending.”
“Firebending is one of the oldest forms of bending in existence. The Sun Warriors were a tribal people believed to have learned and honed their great skill by communing with the dragons themselves.”
Sun Warriors. Mica rolled her duel-colored eyes. Just another of the many fun Fire Nation related lessons Mrs. Bat had thrown together. All in celebration of the great title of Firelord passing from Izumi to her silver-spoon-fed son. Like anything the royal family did was really Mica’s concern. They’d be ruling half a world away for crying out loud. And even if that wasn’t the case she was an actress, not a politician.
An actress who has a casting announcement to get to.
She suppressed a nervous flutter and glanced at the clock. Five minutes till three. Seriously, why was she still talking? Just her luck. The first day back at school, and her last period teacher was the only one trying to do more then just take role and go over goals for the year.
Mica yawned, a bit too obviously.
“Am I boring you, Mica?”
Yep. Good old Mrs. Batty and her public humiliation tactic. Well, two could play at that game. Mica leaned back in her chair and dug at an annoying itch in her ear with her finger. “Yeah, actually you kinda are.”
The classroom erupted with giggles making Mrs. Bat’s face flush.
Stubborn old lady never did learn. Her humiliation tactics didn’t work on Mica. To be humiliated in front of friends, one had to A) have friends and B) actually give a crap what they thought.
Mrs. Bat huffed. “Well then, perhaps you’d could do a better job.”
I thought you’d never ask.
Mica stood and went to the front of the classroom while Mrs. Bat took her seat in the back row. She cracked her knuckles, picked up an eraser, and surveyed the room with a very mocking Mrs. Bat sort of way.
“Now settle down class. I know you’ve all got better things to do but I’ve still got another fifteen hours of lecture to cover.” she croaked, mimicking the old lady to a tea. Her classmates snickered and Mrs. Bat scowled.
Mica continued her act, shuffling to the board. “Now where were we? Ah yes, the ancient Sun Warrior culture.” She erased all of Mrs. Bat’s notes in a few quick swipes, which clearly pissed off Mrs. Bat and the goodie-goodies actually trying to write things down. “By definition, ancient culture existed thousands of years ago. Hence we really have no way of knowing for sure what they were like. Hence this lesson is completely pointless.” She thumped the eraser down just as the musical sound of the final bell rang. “Class dismissed.”
Ugh! Why did I have to go and open my big mouth? Today of all days.
Mica raced from the detention hall and hit the parking lot running. Hers was the only student car still there. Go figure. She half sprinted, half leapt into her battered bucket of a satomobile with its bent fenders and front door that didn’t open. “Clunker” she nicknamed it, on account of the random rattling noises it made when she floored it down the highway.
Ironically enough the car wasn’t actually that old. It merely had the misfortune of once belonging to the living road-hazard that was her Aunt Korra. But whatever. A ride was a ride. And in her family she was lucky to have gotten that much.
If it were up to her parents Clunker would still be collecting dust in the back of Aunt Asami’s garage and she’d be riding one of the family eel-hounds to school. Not that she didn’t like riding or eel-hounds. It was just harder to look after animals that size in the city. Her mom didn’t understand. She was so old school it was sad. Her Dad didn’t drive either. Not because he didn’t like driving. More like he was too easily distracted to do it safely or so her uncle claimed. And since Uncle Mako was the chief of police, and self-proclaimed boss of everything fun in these parts, her dad listened. Ironic really, since Uncle Mako wouldn’t know fun if it came over and bit him on the butt.
“Keys,” she mumbled, checking her pockets, then her backpack, then the floor. Why was it she could never find those blasted things when she needed them?
“Churr?” asked a ferrety voice.
Mica yelped, bashing her head beneath her dashboard. “Bandit!” She scolded when a little orange fire-ferret head popped out from underneath her passenger seat. “I thought I told you not to sneak up on me like… hey my keys!”
Her companion “churred” again tilting his head so the keys in his mouth jingled.
“Thanks, pal.” She ruffled the fur on his head. He was a bright orange, like his volcat mother Shouga, but he had his father Pabu’s dark mask and feet which made him look every much the bandit that he was. He played the part perfectly too, compliments of his hybrid parentage. Bandit might not face down a dragon like his wild mother, but he would follow one back to their den and make off with their most prized treasure.
Lucky for her today’s treasure of choice happened to be her missing keys. She crammed them in the ignition, and turned them hard. Clunker vrr-vrr-vrred in protest three times before finally turning over with a sputter and a pop.
After today I won’t need this bucket of bolts anymore. Because I’ll have my own career. My own money. I’ll be able to do whatever I want. I’ll even be able to get a motorcycle.
She tossed her head back, letting the wind whip back her hair.
And no one, not even mom and dad, will be able to stop me.
She backed out quickly, accidentally dinging one of the mirrors off of Mrs. Batt’s rover before speeding out and into traffic. Uncle Mako would have a hippo-cow if he saw. But he wasn’t here and she was in a hurry.
Cabbage Corp Studios was halfway across town, and she was already late.
Mica had met her fair share of jerkwads in her life. Most of them were paparazzi, naturally. Came with the territory of being a mover star’s kid. But there were others too. Today’s reigning champion was Mrs. Dunwitch, Cabbage Crops, producer. She leered at Mica from across her fancy oak desk, like Mica was some scurrying vermin and not a person at all.
“I don’t know how I can put it any plainer,” she said, steepling her fingers. “You just aren’t what we’re looking for at this time.”
“That’s a load of crap,” Mica spat. “Your audition registration specifically said you were looking for a young actress to play the role of Korra in your musical My Fair Avatar. You needed someone young and athletic, proficient in singing, bending, and dancing.”
“Yes, I recall,” Dunwitch sniffed. “We felt Honey met the qualifications for the role.”
Honey Galore. The tall, curvaceous, and hyper-competitive daughter of superstar Ginger Galore. Dunwitch’s words were like rubbing salt in a open wound. Mica clenched her fists.
“Except the acting part! And have you heard her sing? Actually heard her?”
Dunwitch’s mouth twitched, a sure sign that she had and (most likely) shared Mica’s opinion of it. So why then was Honey still chosen over her?
Why indeed. Why was anyone always chosen before her. No matter where she went it always boiled down to the same stupid reason. Fear. People were afraid of her explosive bending. And they’d do everything in their power to avoid her. Including casting a tone-deaf, uncoordinated, fake-blonde as the lead in a musical about Avatar Korra.
“Did you even watch the reel I sent?” Mica asked harshly. The answer would hurt either way, she knew, but still she needed to know.
Dunwitch cleared her throat. “It’s like I said before. We had a lot of entries–”
Mica was on her feet now. Torn. Part of her wanted to lunge across the desk and pound that snooty look off Dunwitch’s face. The other part of her, a more fragile part, wanted to break down and start sobbing. This was supposed to be her big break. The kickstart to her own career. The proof to her parents, and to herself, that she could handle herself on stage without their help or connections. But since Dunwitch’s finger was already on a security call button, and Mica absolutely refused to cry in front of her, she could only stand there wordless, her fists shaking.
Soon a security guard was in the doorway behind her. He wasn’t from her uncle’s precinct. Just her luck. One of them might have defended her.
“Show this young lady out, please.” Dunwitch said, gesturing with her hand.
“This isn’t over!” Mica snarled. It was a boldface lie. She couldn’t fight Cabbage Corp politics. Not without her parents finding out and asking all sorts of questions. Still, there was enough rage in Mica’s voice to make the threat sound convincing. She shoved passed the guard flinging Dunwitch’s door closed behind her so hard she cracked the window.
She stomped her way all the way down to the street, drawing glances and whispers from every employee and pedestrian she passed on her way to her parking space.
When Clunker gave its usual protests as Mica turned the keys, she slammed her fist on the dashboard. Then the horn.
She wanted to scream. Just this once. Mica wanted to let loose and shriek her rage for the whole city to hear. But she couldn’t. Screaming would just ruin her voice. And she wound not do that. Not for the sake of Mrs. Dumbwitch or Honey Gagmore. So she had to make due with the only other outlet she had.
Blowing stuff up.
Fortunately for Mica, the owner of the place didn’t mind her collateral damage. He was a lazy son-of-a-gun and was more then happy to let her do all the demolition work he’d otherwise have to do himself. In return for her ‘labor,’ he let Mica have free run of the scrapyard. She could come and go as she pleased and take whatever spare parts she didn’t feel inclined to blow to smithereens.
Once she got to the scrapyard, Mica pulled out her special “reverse hearing aids”–or so Uncle Varrick (Dad’s talent agent/eccentric inventor friend) called them. She shoved them into her ear and drew up a chunk of earth… then charged it and sent it flying. The rock smashed through the windshield of a tireless, engineless satomobile and blew out the interior. Shards of metal and glass fell like shimmering rain. By the time she finally ran out of energy, half the scrapyard would be converted to shrapnel.
It had been this way for almost a year now, ever since Mica aced her driver’s license exam and convinced Aunt Asami to part with Clunker. Aside from her botched audition attempt, the scrapyard remained one of her most closely guarded secrets. Not because her parents would mind her practicing her bending. They had built an assault course in their backyard for that very purpose. Mica preferred this place over home because she could unleash all her emotions without her parents hovering nearby trying to pry into things she’d rather they not pry into.
She stomped her foot, commanding a chunk of earth the size of a watermelon. Then she shifted stances, using one of the modified earthbending techniques she had invented to pull the rock just to her outstretched fingers as she executed the rest of the motion. It took a full circle to pool enough energy to charge the rock.
That jerk Dunwitch thinks I’m dangerous? I’ll show her dangerous!
Sweating and panting, Mica used the last of her strength to send the glowing explosive into a mound of scrap two stories high. The impact of the explosion that followed knocked her off her feet and into the grimy ground. Mica rolled for cover as engine parts and flaming tires fell all around her. She lay there for several minutes, her body aching like she had just run a marathon.
She sat up extra slowly, fighting dizziness. Her stomach churched as she removed the sound-blockers from her ears. She had pushed herself too hard. If she didn’t replenish some calories soon, she was going to faint. One more reason she loved the scrapyard. Her favorite dive was just across the street.
The door to the diner announced her arrival with a cheerful bell prompting the owner, Sal, to look up from his grill.
“Evening, Mica,” he greeted as she came in. “The usual?”
Mica took her customary seat at the bar at the far end, so that she was within easy reach of the jukebox. Bandit hopped up onto the stool beside her.
“Make it a double. And some chicken fingers for Bandit.”
Sal gave his customary spatula salute, slinging grease bits as he did so. “You got it sweetie.”
Mica, in the meantime, leaned over and popped a coin into the jukebox. Most of the music was peppy, dance-y stuff and the newer releases her classmates were into. But there were a few classics from some of the older movers. Mica keyed in the combination for the last record. The trademark song from her favorite play “VolCats” resonated through the little diner.
Mica hummed along softly letting the familiar melody ease her pain.
There will be other shows, she told herself as she stroked Bandit’s head. This is only a setback.
So then why did she feel so lost inside? Because it wasn’t my performance they didn’t like. It was me.
Mica couldn’t give a spider-rat’s patootee what Dumbwitch and her staff thought of her personality. She could play polite or innocent or whatever role they wanted if that’s what it boiled down to. But she had been turned down because of her bending, something she had been born with and couldn’t change.
A few minutes later Sal slid a plate skillfully down to her piled high with one of the biggest, greasiest (and tastiest) burgers in all of Republic City. It was followed shortly by a basket of fried chicken and a large sundae glass filled to the brim and topped with a mountain of whipped cream.
“One double bacon cheese burger with double bacon. And a large double chocolate malt,” said Sal with a yellowed grin.
“Thanks, Sal. You’re the best.”
She ate in silence. Savoring the taste of her food and the music in her ears. Then the door to the diner jingled open and Mica caught a whiff of engine grease and Varrick No. 9 cologne.
Her heart fluttered. Dino.
“Yo, Sal! Gimme a special.” Dino said in his sexy city accent as he sauntered up behind Mica and draped an arm over her shoulder. “And another shake for my gal here.”
Across the counter, Sal eyeballed the young man with his usual contempt but complied all the same.
Mica drained the last of her shake as Dino shifted Bandit to the counter and cozied up beside her.
“No problem, babe.” He ran his fingers through his slicked hair, still shimmering with oil. “So, how’d the audition go? You get the Cabbage Corp execs eating out of your hand yet?”
Mica gritted her teeth. “Not quite.”
“Not quite? What the heck does that mean?” He furrowed his brows. “You didn’t tank it, did you?”
Mica scowled at him. Of all the stupid, insensitive– “No! I put everything I had into that reel!” The one they didn’t even watch.
Rage welled again. Dino was angry, too. She could see it in his eyes. This opportunity would have helped him as well. Had Mica gotten the part with Cabbage Corp, she would have had the chance to convince the higher ups there to bring Dino on board as an extra. He would finally be able to break away from his dad’s garage and pursue his dream of acting. Mica had expected he’d be angry at the rejection. She hadn’t expected that anger to be directed at her.
“Then you must have done something else. Pissed off someone important–”
“The only one getting pissed off right now is me, Dino,” she spat, then looked away. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Sal slid her second shake down the counter and she quickly plunked a straw in it and slurped. Anything for an excuse not to talk.
She polished off her second shake as Dino wolfed down a burger, a basket of onion rings and a slice of Sal’s famous apple pie. All the while the silence simmered between them. Dino could so be impossible sometimes. Especially when he had his heart set on something.
Admittedly, it was that fire that had drawn her to him. Well, that and his spiffy motorcycle. None of the boys from school even came near her. But Dino wasn’t like the others. He was made of tougher stuff. Tough enough to handle her short temper… and even the occasional explosion.
Of course, sometimes dealing with that never-say-die attitude of his was also a real pain in the neck. Like now, for instance.
Mica paid her tab and was just about ready to get up and leave him there sulking when she felt a touch on her shoulder.
“Sorry, babe. About what I said. I know you tried your best. It’s just a shock, ya know. All our plans–rising to the top together…”
“Yeah, I know.” Mica mumbled softly.
Bandit had fallen asleep on the counter belly up and feet waving. Mica tucked the little animal in her arms as Dino settled his own bill. Then they left arm in arm.
Outside a chill had picked up and she shivered against Dino’s side. He slid off his leather jacket and draped it around her shoulders, blanketing her and Bandit in his warmth.
“Clunker’s parked down the block. Mind walking with me, Dino?”
“Sure. But before we go I got somethin’ that will cheer ya up.”
He reached into his jeans pocket.
“Unless you’ve got a mover contract with Cabbage Corp in there, I doubt it,” she tried to joke. But the words still tasted bitter.
Dino smirked. Then he took her hand and placed a small ring box in it. “I was savin’ this as a congratulations present. But–I guess now’s as good a time as any.”
Mica rolled her eyes at him. “Jewelry? Really?”
“Just open it.”
Mica did. Inside the velvet lined box was a set of keys. Mica held them up, inspecting them as they twinkled in the neon light of the diner sign. They bore the logo of an eel-hound.
Her stomach clenched and a sudden thrill of excitement shot down her back. There was only one vehicle that had that insignia. It belonged to one of the fastest motorcycles ever built. “Does this mean…?” she prompted.
“I just finished the repairs last night,”
Mica felt dizzy. Finally, something went right for a change. “Show me!”