They left the tribe two days later. Had circumstances been different, Mica would have rather enjoyed the mini vacation to its fullest. But as it was, her stomach was still in knots over everything and all she wanted was to get back to civilization where she belonged.
She bowed thanks to Chief Lilly, as Shyu and Zarah did. But when the old woman presented her with a familiar keepsake box, Mica dropped her pride and embraced her.
“Come and visit me again soon, won’t you, dear? And bring your mother,” Chief Lilly instructed. “I’m not getting any younger, and I would so love to see her again now that she’s not in diapers.”
Mica promised to try her best.
Back at Zarah’s, aside from an overflowing mailbox, not much had changed. The house was still standing right where they left it, no angry mobs in sight.
Mica sifted through the mail, tossing aside the bundle of missed schoolwork for Shyu to look over while Zarah made them all a pot of tea. “Let’s see. Junk. Bill. Ad for Cabbage Corp’s new play–Yik. Yesterday’s paper…” Mica flinched when she saw the front page article that read “Lady Izumi taken into custody….” And she shrank even lower when she glimpsed the officer who had made the arrest. She quickly set the paper face down, but her haste only drew Shyu’s attention. He put aside the book he was reading and lifted the clumsily-hidden front page.
“I see,” he said, his tone hollow. He put the paper back as Mica had left it and slumped back down on the couch, pulling a blanket over his shoulders.
“I see”? That’s it? Mica thought. The guy sounded like he already knew about his grandmother’s arrest. Or at least, like he expected it to happen.
He did expect it to happen, she remembered. He’d said as much at the premiere. They’d just devolved into a fist fight so quickly, she’d mostly blanked out any conversation right before that.
Mica shook her head. If Shyu wanted to clam up about his feelings, she wasn’t going to try yanking them out again. She continued looking through the mail, narrating her finds a touch louder than she needed to. “More junk. Coupons, takeout menus…” She glanced his way again. Shyu didn’t move or look at her–just kept his eyes on the pile of make-up work. Flames, he was irritating sometimes. “Hey, any noteworthy exams I should be cramming for?”
“No.” She thought at first he was going to end there, but thankfully the conversation hadn’t been reduced to single syllable words quite yet. “Just a speech for Mrs. Shiro’s political science class…due tomorrow.”
Mica groaned. “Seriously? Ugh!” So much for her plans on calling Dino. Stupid Mrs. Shiro and her stupid homework! Mica grabbed the paper from Shyu and skimmed over the assignment, wrinkling her nose. Provide a discussion on the ethics of bloodbending? In other words, give that uptight woman the perfect excuse to impress her personal opinions in the classroom then alienate you if you don’t agree. Fantastic.
“Of course the speech would be about bloodbending.” Shyu furrowed his brow, looking like he had failed the assignment before even writing it. What was up with him? Where was the Shyu who had marched up to an elder dragon? Didn’t he, more than anyone, have a stake in this whole bloodbending issue?
“What are you going to do?” she asked, hoping a bit of prodding would rouse a reaction from him. To her disappointment, Shyu just shrugged and Mica could already see the resignation in his eyes.
“I suppose the same thing my father did.”
Talk about taking the coward’s way out. “Really, Shyu? Your dad let his own mother get hauled off to jail and you’re going to agree with him?”
Shyu scowled at her. “I don’t have much choice.”
“Sure you do!” Mica thumped the table with a fist, jingling the teacups. “Take a stand and show a little backbone for flames’ sake!”
“The last time I did that I ruined my dad’s coronation,” Shyu pointed out.
Which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t dragged you off that stage, echoed a small voice in the back of Mica’s mind. She let her hand drop.
“It’s not that I agree with Dad. I don’t,” Shyu clarified, sternly. “But my family’s a mess right now, and I’ve already complicated things enough.” He bit his lip. “I just…think it’s best if I stay quiet on this one. Even if I don’t want to.”
Mica sighed. “Fine. You do what you have to, Shyu.” She pushed herself out from the table.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if your aunt will stop being mad at me long enough to give me a lift to the library. Mrs. Shiro wants personal opinions on bloodbending? I’ll give her some real personal opinions.”
Shyu smiled a little at this, even as he questioned cautiously. “You sure that’s a good idea?”
Mica smiled over her shoulder. “Trust me, Shyu. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s debate.”
Later that evening, after Yuki had gone to bed, Iroh settled himself in at Bolin’s now-empty dining room table. There was a light knock at the door. Strange; Bolin had said this place didn’t get a lot of visitors. He stood up from all the newspapers he’d been trying to read instead of burn and breathed deeply. If it was the press, he had to be calm and focused. If it was Varrick, he had to break the man’s nose before he got the chance to run away.
Thankfully, it was neither. Iroh sighed with relief as the front door swung open and Nanami walked in with several plastic bags. “Just grabbed some basics from the convenience store down the road,” she said, placing the bags on the table. “Apparently, we’ve been going through a carton of eggs every other day here.” She pulled out a stack of three cartons and gently packed them into Bolin and Tenna’s already-tight icebox. “You’re still awake,” she noted, sitting down at the table when she was done.
“Don’t see how I can sleep,” Iroh replied.
Nanami folded her hands and nodded. “I hope I’m not being too forward, but…I’ve been thinking. I might have a way out of this situation.”
Iroh leaned forward. He was skeptical her idea would be of use, but right now having an idea period was more progress than he’d made. “Fire away,” he said.
She nodded. “Well, first of all, your mother told me you have plans to dissolve the monarchy.”
“Not immediately,” Iroh retorted. Mom told her that much?
“Yes, but you did plan to establish an elected official,” Nanami went on. “Someone to provide some balance to the Firelord’s authority.”
Iroh nodded. “It wasn’t in my plans to implement right away. I was worried it would cause too much instability.”
“It could. If the wrong person were elected.” She placed her hand on her chest. “Help me get the position.”
“You?” Iroh questioned. Yes, this was definitely where his skepticism hit full force.
“Oh, don’t look shocked,” she said. “I’m a capable leader, and I’ve got a unique position. Benders generally consider me one of their own, and yet nonbenders still respect me. They think I bring a sort of…” she tilted her hand from side to side, “balance to the mix, if you will.”
“What would do if you got the position?” Iroh said.
“That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to give the position any actual authority. Treat me as a high-level advisor. But let your citizens hear my advice for you. Pick and choose what you want to follow up on so they feel like I have an influence on your decision. So they know they have a voice.”
“And what would your suggestions entail?” Iroh asked. No more being caught by surprise for him. Anything he said in public from now on was going to be scripted down to the last stroke of a pen.
“Well, my first piece of advice is off the record,” Nanami said. “Denounce your mother.”
“What!” Iroh exclaimed. Then he realized that he and Nanami were probably the only ones not sleeping right now and took a much lower tone. “Why would I do that?”
“Because everyone’s afraid of her, and they’re afraid of you. They expect you to go charging in there, demanding her release and basically inciting a war with the United Republic.” She leaned back in the kitchen chair. “Defy their expectations. Agree with President Raiko’s decision.”
“Except that still leaves my mother in a jail cell for the rest of her life.”
“No, it doesn’t. Let me explain.” She reached into the plastic bag and after rummaging around a bit, pulled out a candy bar. “Is this healthy?” she asked.
“Um, no?” Iroh asked.
“Very good.” She put the candy back in and rummaged around some more. This time, her target came easier–a box of chocolate-flavored rice cereal. “Is this healthy?”
She didn’t have to make her point any further, but Iroh played along just the same. “I suppose, in perspective, it’s not so bad.”
“Exactly.” She set the box on the table. “When people are faced with something really bad, they’re receptive to anything better, even if the alternate is only a small improvement.”
“We ride the theory that your mother became a bloodbender at Harmonic Convergence. That protects Lord Zuko’s reputation. We paint your mother as someone who was a good leader but didn’t know how to deal with her newfound power.” She held up her index finger. “And this bring us to my first ‘official’ piece of advice for you. Establish institutions to deal with bloodbending Fire Nation citizens who use their power on others. Bring in voidbenders to neutralize their bending abilities. Hire psychiatrists to treat any personality disorders that might be present. In other words, help them integrate into society by teaching them that their powers, however exceptional, are not appropriate for public use.”
“Maybe…” said Iroh, rubbing his chin. It was a lot to consider all at once. “But bloodbending can be beneficial. My mother saved Tenna’s life with it. And my grandfather obviously used it.”
Nanami shook her head. “You’re thinking too long term. You’re not going to change these people’s minds all at once. To them, it’s dangerous, and if you don’t react like it is, you’re going to have a mess on your hands.”
Iroh shook his head, hating to agree with that point, but unable to do anything else. “How does any of this help my mother?” he asked.
“Simple,” Nanami replied. “Once we’ve gotten at least a couple institutions working, we can put pressure on the United Nations to release the bloodbending ban. Think about it. The country that’s known for its dark and ruthless history will be the first country that actually sets up proper treatment for people with dangerous bending, rather than just throwing them in jail on the first offense.”
Iroh stroked his chin. He hated to admit it, but he pretty much agreed with everything Nanami was suggesting. Is that just because I’m so anxious for advice? he thought. He remembered his grandfather saying once that Ozai subscribed to the idea that anything the Firelord did was the right decision, simply because he as the Firelord had made it. Iroh certainly didn’t want to devolve into a crazed dictator, but he sure wouldn’t mind some confidence now, too.
He stood up from the table. “I’m going to the…” he tried to say the word “prison”, but it felt thick and unmovable on his tongue. “…to visit my mother tomorrow,” he finally finished. “Let me make my decision after that.”
Mica finished her project just before sunrise. A masterpiece, if she did say so herself. Zarah was even nice enough to bring her a change of clothes and a giant thermos of extra strong coffee which Mica sipped all the way to school. Not that she needed the caffeine. Anticipation kept Mica buzzed all through her morning classes.
When Mrs. Shiro’s class came around Mica sat bolt upright, taking in every word of her classmates’ dull, predictable, anti-bloodbending speeches. Flames, there wasn’t a handful of guts in this entire lot, was there? Oh, well. All the more reason for her to stand out.
She smiled casually when Mrs. Shiro called her up to the front of the classroom. The woman had been wary of Mica from the start, what with the whole spirit portal thing, but she seemed even more so now. Mrs. Shiro raised a skeptical eyebrow when Mica proceeded to load up the classroom projector with slides. Then when Mica strode to the front of the class without a written paper, Mrs. Shiro noisily clicked a distinctly red pen over her grading clipboard.
Not waiting for an invitation, Mica rolled down the projector screen and tethered it before clearing her throat. “How do I feel about bloodbending? Well, I’m so very glad you asked. Lights, if you please,” she beckoned for a volunteer in the last row.
When no one moved, Mrs. Shiro sighed and gestured. “Kuzon, can you flip the switch, please?”
A young man in the last row flinched like a startled deer-mouse then quickly stood and did as he was asked. As soon as the room was dark, Mica clicked the first slide into place. It was a family photo of her mom–no older than five–Mica’s grandparents, and great-grandmother, Ren. The family was posing in front of a huge male dragon. Great-grandma Ren had her hand on the animal’s cheek, her scarred face fixed in a bemused smile as her little granddaughter rested eager little hands on the tip of the dragon’s snout.
“Year 153 AG,” Mica narrated. “A Fire Nation family are asleep in their quiet village home. Then without warning, a gang of firebending bandits attack them in the dark of night. They slaughter the grandmother and mother in cold blood. The five- year-old girl they take for themselves. She watches as her home is burned to the ground with her father trapped inside.”
Mica clicked to the next slide, this one of her father and Uncle Mako, ages seven and eight, posing for a family portrait with red-scarfed Grandpa San and patient Grandma Naoki.
“Year 159 AG. A couple and their two young sons are heading home after a trip out for ice cream. But on the way a firebending street thug attacks them for their wallets. The boys are orphaned that day and are left alone in the city with no home, no food, no way to know if they could even survive.”
She clicked to a bright placeholder slide, flooding the room with red light and the dark flame insignia of the Fire Nation. “And those are just two families. The fact is, firebending has been the single most deadly weapon in the history of humankind.” Mica shifted slides again, revealing a portrait of the former Firelord Sozin, backed by a wall of fire, a cruel smirk on his face. “Your own Firelord Sozin and his firebending army slaughtered tens upon thousands of people. But were any of them arrested? Nope. Because Firebending wasn’t a crime. It was, and still is, a mark of honor.”
She leaned back against the blackboard, crossing her arms over her chest. “So why is firebending celebrated while bloodbending is condemned? Why is it that this one technique is judged rather than the individual wielding that power?”
“Because bloodbending is evil,” a guy in the front row volunteered. He was joined by others, who nodded and mumbled agreement just under their breath.
Mica looked him square in the eye. “Why? Because it can hurt people? Kill people?”
She clicked through slides as she spoke, showing portraits and newspaper articles “In 99 AG, dozens of Admiral Zhao’s troops were drowned in the battle for the Northern Water Tribe. The last Earth Queen had the breath ripped from her lungs by the airbender Zaheer in 179 AG. Heck, in 182 AG, Captain Kuvira of Zofu nearly leveled Republic City with a giant metal robot! And yet we didn’t outlaw any of these bending techniques….”
The guy from before scowled and pointed a finger at her. “You’re just a Republic City brat. You don’t know what it’s like for us, having to worry some bloodbender might sneak up on you and make you their puppet!”
Mica took a step forward, flooding the room with her imposing shadow against the projector. “Have you been hurt by bloodbending?” She spread her arms, indicating the entire room. “Have any of you?”
No one answered.
She stood aside, stepping out of the path of the screen. “Remember those kids I told you about in the beginning who lost their families?” She shifted slides, letting each one linger on screen to let everyone get a nice long look. She showed a picture of her dad and Uncle Mako dressed to impress, posing at Uncle Mako’s award banquet the day he became the chief of police. Then she showed a beautiful picture of her mom on stage in a sequined gown. Then finally, a family portrait they had taken last year. Mica stood front and center, Bandit on her shoulders, with her mom and dad on either side.
She went on, trying to control the temper in her voice as she said, “those kids are my parents and uncle. My family. I never got the chance to meet my grandparents because of firebending, but I don’t go around sniveling in fear because fire exists and can be bent.”
She went back to the board, setting down the clicker beside one of the oversized erasers before leaning back again. “Bloodbending isn’t evil. The people who misuse it are. But whose to say there aren’t good, honest, bloodbenders out there who would use their power to help people? Firelord Izumi saved my mother’s life by making her fly. Imagine how bloodbending could help emergency rescue teams. Or doctors! I mean, if bloodbending can stop your heart, doesn’t that mean it can also start it, too? We won’t know unless one of those good, honest bloodbenders is able to master it. And unfortunately that won’t happen until people stop being so blasted ignorant and get over this stupid stigma.” She unfurled the projector screen, letting it curl up noisily. Underneath, a map of the four nations shown bright and vivid in the projector’s light. Mica jutted her arm aside to point at the map as she declared. “This isn’t the dark ages anymore. This is the future– our future. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to let some century-old paranoia get in my way of living it!”
Mica didn’t expect applause. Not in this crowd. But the thoughtful look on Mrs. Shiro’s face almost made up for it.
“That was…a very interesting perspective. Thank you, Mica.”
“You are very welcome.”
Mica bowed actress style, smiling through the muttered comments and shifty glares of her classmates. She couldn’t have timed her exit better. The bell rang just as she got back to her seat. She almost wished Shyu could have been there. Or Lady Izumi. If anyone would appreciate her performance, they would.
She slung her backpack over her shoulders then gathered her slides from the projector. On her way out the door, however, someone, the guy from the front row maybe, smacked into her shoulder, knocking the slides out of her hands and sending them scattering into the hall.
She turned to swear at him, but he was already gone. Figures. He’d have to learn the hard way. No one bullied her.
Note to self, find the big coward’s locker and plant an explosive surprise after last period.
“Oh,” said a soft voice. “Let me help you.”
It was the guy from the back row…what was his name? Kuzon?
“Thanks,” she said, for lack of anything better. The slides had scattered near and far and it took several minutes of careful searching to find some of them.
“So,” Kuzon asked after they reconvened in the nearly empty hall. “Did you really mean what you said up there? About bloodbending?”
Mica frowned. “You mean was I lying just to get attention?” He flinched, which Mica felt a little guilty for. This wasn’t Shyu she was talking to. Kuzon wasn’t used to her less-than-subtle ways.
“That wasn’t what I–” he stammered, but Mica cut him off.
“I know what you meant. And if you’re asking if I’m going to judge someone badly just because they have a dangerous power, the answer is no. I won’t. No matter what anyone else says or thinks of me for it.” She dropped her voice a bit. “My mom taught me better then that.” She paused, stacking her handful of slides. “Why do you care what I really think, anyway?”
Kuzon handed her back the rest of the slides. “Just curious.”
Mica counted her slides, not looking up. Everything seemed to be accounted for…Her fingers paused at a slip of paper tucked neatly between the last two slides with her name on it. Her head snapped up, looking for Kuzon. But he had slipped away, silent as a shadow.
Weird. Mica unfolded the paper.
Meet me at the fountain today after school. -Rina.
First Kuzon and his questions. And now a note from Rina. Why? Mica wanted to know. And yet, she had a strange feeling, like she was about to step straight into a fire-wasp nest.