Iroh called a press conference for late Monday morning. It was hardly difficult getting the newspapers to come and listen to him. In fact, his first order of business that day had been answering messages that they were already leaving for him.
Now he stood at a podium with enough flashes from light bulbs to feel like he was hosting a talk with a hyperactive lightningbender. Beyond the interviewers with their clearly marked press badges, Iroh could see a few people in Fire Nation attire watching from the streets. Their expressions ran the gamut from fear to fury. When Iroh cleared his throat into the microphone, it let out a loud squeal that made several of the reporters cringe. Hardly a good start.
“Thank you all for coming to see me this morning,” he said. “As I’m sure most you know, the premiere of Varrick Industries’ docu-movery revealed some…unpleasant truths about my family.”
“Bloodbending scum!” a voice yelled, though between the lights, he couldn’t quite tell where it came from. Hopefully the crowd and not the interviewers. He felt Yuki’s reassuring hand on his shoulder, glancing at Nanami to see her nodding him on. He could do this.
“I just want to state for the record,” Iroh said. “That I am as shocked as all of you are by the footage I saw, and that I am completely denouncing my mother’s actions. They were wrong in every sense of the word, and I fully support President Raiko’s decision to place her under arrest.”
A hush fell over the crowd. Even some of the camera bulbs stopped flashing. For a brief moment, Iroh felt like time had stopped. Then came the barrage of questions.
“So you had no idea she was a bloodbender?”
“What do you plan to do about the children seen in the footage?”
“Did Varrick have any knowledge of this at the time of the filming?”
Iroh held up his hand. “I’ll answer one question at a time, Yes, my mother informed me several years after Harmonic Convergence that she had bloodbending abilities,” he said. “I accepted her as I thought a son should. She is still a human being and couldn’t help what powers she had acquired.”
His stomach felt sick. He was lying to his people and betraying his mother all at once. What kind of Firelord did that?
I’m not betraying her, he repeated to himself until it sounded like it could almost be true. Then, swallowing the bile that threatened to rise in his throat, he continued, “But I had no idea that she had taken it upon herself to train children in this dark art. While I do not yet know what legal ramifications this may have in our country, I assure you, I will be working closely with President Raiko to ensure it cannot possibly happen again.”
There were a few claps. Actual claps. A few of the cameramen seemed to get ahold of themselves and start snapping pictures again. Iroh breathed deeply; he had to keep talking before the questions hit again.
“Furthermore, I think it has become more than obvious that as Firelord, I have grown too distant from my own people, and I would like now take a step towards rectifying that.” He took a step to the side of the podium and motioned for Nanami to come stand beside him. He gave enough enough space that she could step up to the microphone if she wished too, but she simply bowed politely to the audience and allowed him to continue speaking. No one cheered her directly, but it was clear from the hopeful expressions on the reporters’ faces that they were much happier when she was brought into the conversation.
“Nanami was instrumental in the battle of Sunport years ago,” Iroh said. “Furthermore, she has provided me with excellent council since I have become Firelord. I see no reason not to use her wisdom in an official capacity. She will be the speaker, the voice of the common people of the Fire Nation. I want any citizens to feel free to contact her with their concerns. Any suggestions she has for how I can better their lives, she will be voicing in public. I want to be held accountable for how I am treating the citizens of our nation, and I hope this is a step in that direction.”
The questions flooded after that. More accurately, they flooded a few syllables before Iroh finished his last sentence. He had repeat his denouncement of his mother so many times, it felt like he was back reciting verse in grade school. He grew numb to it. But this was what being the Firelord was. And if he ever wanted to see his mother in the free air again, this was what he had to be.
The note did not lead Mica into an ambush. That was the first good thing. After everything that had happened over the weekend, she’d had quite enough of people (and dragons) trying to push her around. She was still in a pretty isolated area, though. The fire-fountain was behind the school, part of a half-finished construction project to make the place look more upscale. No one was working here now, but the smell of wet paint on the benches around the fountain made it clear they’d only left recently. In front of the statue, Mica was met by Rina, along with a sophomore girl she’d met once but couldn’t remember the name of, two guys with the exact same haircut, and of course, the one who had slipped her the note–the I’m-so-mysterious Kuzon.
“So, what’s this all about?” she asked. “I say a secret code during my speech that got me into Hira’a High’s Secret Club of Secretness?”
The sophomore snorted and covered her mouth. Kuzon raised an eyebrow. “Effectively, yes. Rina insists that you’re trustworthy, and I admit I have my doubts, but after hearing you talk today–”
“Just spit it out, Kuzon,” Rina said. Then she locked eyes with Mica. “Never mind, I’ll say it. You’re looking at the only five bloodbending students in school.”
Mica was about to laugh aloud, to shrug it off as a joke. Then she quickly realized it was anything but. “Oh. Um, okay. I see.”
Rina pointed around the group. “You’ve met Kuzon. This is Sapphire. And these goofballs are the twins.”
Mica raised an eyebrow at the two boys. “You guys have actual names or do I just call you ‘the twins’?”
“Yes,” one of them answered.
“No,” the other replied at the same time.
The whole group collectively groaned. Rina waved her hand at the two boys like someone dismissing a little kid to go play and let the grown-ups have a serious conversation. “I’m probably the strongest bender of the group,” she went on. “Kuzon’s a close second, though.”
She stared at Mica, and Mica stared back. She kept her features calm, was calm, despite the fact that Rina and her friends could stop Mica’s heart with a simple bending stance. Was that the point of this? A challenge? A dare to walk away? Mica stood her ground. She’d faced the principal, spirits and a pissed-off dragon. She didn’t leave so easily.
“So…Why talk to me?” she finally asked. “I mean, you know I’m not a bloodbender.”
“No, you’re definitely not,” Kuzon said. “But you understand what it’s like to have a power that everyone fears.”
Mica winced. Ouch. Dragon-bull’s eye.
“Also, you’ve got connections to the Fire Nation royal family,” said Sapphire.
“Huh?” If they were talking about Shyu, Mica wasn’t so sure she’d call that a connection. The more time she was spending with the guy, the less she understood him. No one seemed to pick up on that, though.
“We want to know how Lady Izumi got revealed,” said Rina. “Who set it up–” one of the twins said with a glare that made Mica bristle. She knew who he was accusing even without him saying so.
“If you’re thinking it was my Uncle Varrick, you are so wrong on that,” she challenged back. Yes, Mica would admit he had screwed up, big-time. But deliberately exposing Lady Izumi and sending the Fire Nation into chaos…Varrick would not do. He wouldn’t risk the negative publicity for one. And knowing how such a scandal would ruin his friendship with her parents? No.
“We’re not thinking anything,” Kuzon stepped in, giving the boy a look of his own. “I’m just saying, it doesn’t make sense. Lady Izumi taught us all to guard the secret of our abilities at all costs.”
Mica opened her mouth to further defend Varrick, then quickly shut it again. “She taught you?”
“It’s a long story,” Rina said. “And we don’t have a lot of time to chat. But yes, we all know her, and she did help teach us. We’ll do anything we can to get her out of jail.”
So would Shyu, Mica thought.
Kuzon stepped forward. “I heard on the radio at lunch. Firelord Iroh has officially denounced his mother’s actions. He’s named that voidbender who always hangs around the royal family as the official spokesman of his people.”
“Nanami,” Mica added in. She remembered that much from her conversations with Shyu, at least.
“Nanami, right,” Kuzon said, as if the name was inconsequential. “And she’s talked him into building some kind of…facility. To ‘help’ keep us bloodbenders who can’t control our powers from hurting others.”
“To lock us up,” Rina added on.
Mica shivered. All the memories of that awful mover flared into her brain. She imagined her mother, trapped like an animal in that awful place where she’d grown up, and she could feel the fire that Chief Lilly had talked about twist through her with a pulsing rage. Maybe Iroh meant well. Maybe what he was planning on building was nothing like that place. But if he planned to lock people away based purely on their abilities, he was wrong, and someone had to tell him so.
Shyu has to tell him. She thought she’d kept the words in her head, but then she heard them coming out of her mouth as well.
“You think we can trust him?” Sapphire asked. “I mean, he hasn’t exactly been standing up for Lady Izumi.”
“He hasn’t exactly been doing anything,” one of the twins muttered. Rina glared at him and he went back to keeping his head lowered and his snide remarks quiet.
You wouldn’t want to do much of anything either if your family was forcing you to choose sides, Mica thought but did not say, out of respect for Shyu.
“You can trust him,” Mica declared, confidently now. She may not have liked all of her mother’s lessons growing up, but, Mica had learned how to read people. No one survived in the entertainment business who couldn’t, and Mica’s mother was the best of the best. Maybe Shyu had been acting weird lately, but something told Mica that underneath all the political games, he’d do anything to protect his family. Just like she would do for hers.
“And if he tries to mess with you,” she added on for good measure. “I’ll make him regret it.”