Raiko raised his arms like welcoming an old friend when Iroh entered the room. It was about the opposite sentiment that Iroh felt towards him in return. Always the neutral party, Nanami followed behind Iroh, a clipboard and pen tucked firmly under her arm.
“General!” Raiko said with a wide smile.
Iroh narrowed his eyes at the man. Surely coming in his full Firelord robes and polishing the crown on his head would at least remind the United Republic president to get his titles right.
When Iroh did not respond to the greeting, Raiko seemed to notice his attire for the first time and cleared his throat. “Firelord. Firelord Iroh. My apologies.”
“President.” Iroh gave a nod in return. Then, without being invited, he helped himself to the seat in front of Raiko’s desk and motioned for Nanami to pull up another chair beside him. There were not many people who could take such a position without feeling intimidated by the man behind the desk. Iroh relished in being one of the privileged few who caused the reverse effect.
“Look,” Raiko began. “I know, there’s some…tension between us.”
Tension? You threatened to court marshal me when I attempted to assist the Avatar. You surrendered to Kuvira without even consulting me, and you locked my mother in prison. “Yes, that’s true,” Iroh allowed.
“But we’re reasonable men, aren’t we?” Raiko went on. “I’m sure we can find a solution that works for all of us.”
Nanami pulled out her clipboard and began scratch-scratch-scratching out notes with her pen. A drop a sweat trailed down Raiko’s chin.
“I’m sure we can,” Iroh agreed. “You’ve heard of my plans to build an institution for bloodbenders?”
“Yes, yes,” Raiko said quickly. “And may I say, I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’ve seen the latest polls; your approval rating has nearly tripled since that announcement, if I’m not mistaken.”
It wasn’t a lie; Nanami had discussed the polls with Iroh hours ago. His six percent approval rating had risen to sixteen. “Then I’m sure you’re under no delusions as to my full reasons for that institution,” Iroh said. He leaned forward on the desk, resting his chin on his hands. “Release my mother into Fire Nation custody.”
Raiko straightened. Iroh had no doubt the man expected this, but suspected he’d been holding onto hopes that they’d just dance around the topic and Iroh would leave. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Because I have to show that I enforce our laws, Iroh! If someone commits a crime here, especially one as serious as bloodbending, there must be consequences.”
“And there will be,” Iroh said. “My mother was imprisoned for a month, and when she returns home, she will be among the first admitted to the institution. I have Nanami gathering other voidbenders to help her in managing the place. She will spend the rest of her life there, but it will not be as a criminal. It will simply be as someone whose bending became too much for her to control.” Every word burned as he said it. He wanted nothing more than to grab Raiko by the collar and demand the release of his mother, no strings attached.
Raiko rubbed his chin. “I don’t like it, Iroh. There’s too much risk.”
“Risk?” Iroh asked. Time to pull out the big fireballs, apparently. “Your plan to show force could easily go the other way, too. My mother is the daughter of Firelord Zuko, and she’s nearly ninety years old. It’s not that hard to twist the story, show the cruelty in letting her rot in jail.” He leaned forward just a bit more, his voice down to a whisper. “I’m quite experienced in ruining reputations.”
Raiko’s eyes went wide, his face now slick with sweat. It was exactly what Iroh needed. There wouldn’t be an answer right away, of course, but there didn’t have to be. For right now, he had simply shown that the Fire Nation wasn’t going to let one of its most beloved monarchs be mistreated. He had asserted his place.
“I’m heading out to the Fire Nation in one week to oversee the completion of the institution,” Iroh announced, standing up. “My expectation is that I will be taking my mother with me on that voyage.”
Before Raiko could object, Iroh turned and marched out of the office, Nanami still scribbling as she followed behind.
Mica didn’t leave her room for the next three days, not even for meals, despite Zarah’s coaxing efforts to get her to “please eat something.” Every time she thought about food, the memories of Dino and her at Sal’s Diner would come folding back, and her stomach would twist in a knot.
Not that it mattered. Mica didn’t have the energy to practice her bending, or sing, or play records, or do much of anything except lay in the dark with Bandit curled beside her and try and sleep away her pain. But nights brought back memories, too–all the sweet lies she had fallen for, and Mica wept bitterly for hours each time she remembered. Sometimes she cried so hard it woke Shyu in the next room.
On those nights he sat outside her door, trying to talk to her. Telling her that she should be glad Dino was gone. That he was just a manipulative scumbag and, she was better off without him.
But Mica blocked him out. Shyu didn’t understand. Dino may have been a jerk, he may have said horrible things, but he was still the first boy she had ever loved. She couldn’t just forget that…no matter how much it hurt.
The days stretched on, and despite Zarah’s understanding, eventually Mica was forced to return to school. To life. She was depressed to learn nearly everyone in Hira’a High knew about her breakup thanks to some loudmouth at the Flare Ion Hotel. Worse still, now there was a rumor going around that she wasn’t mentally stable.
“Maybe they should lock her up in that new institute along with the bloodbenders,” Kaiden mocked openly in front of her, more than once. But Mica didn’t have the energy to deal with him. Or anyone. She just wanted to go home. Then again, she wasn’t ready to talk to her parents, either. She did pass brief messages through Zarah, letting them know she was still alive and whatnot. But every time Zarah offered Mica the phone, her throat tightened up and she left the room.
“Your parents wanted me to tell you they’re on tour in the Fire Nation,” Zarah informed as she reappeared in the kitchen one Saturday morning after such a phone call. “They plan to be in the Capitol for Avatar Day for the festival.”
“I know. I saw the PB ads,” Mica said softly, not meeting Zarah’s gaze. Her folks weren’t the only ones attending. Cabbage Corp was going to be there as well, showcasing themselves with a performance of “My Fair Avatar” in the big amphitheater.
She poked unenthusiastically at the bowl of cereal Shyu had set in front of her before she could refuse.
Uncle Varrick agreeing to work alongside Cabbage Corp…that’s a first. He must really be trying to fix things.
“You know,” said Zarah, suddenly thoughtful. “That’s only a few days from here. Could be a fun trip…if you two were interested.”
“Not really,” said Mica flatly, setting down her spoon as her stomach spasmed again.
Shyu looked conflicted. And not just because Bandit took the opportunity to shove his face into Mica’s uneaten cereal. “Depends. Is Dad going to be there?”
Zarah gave a bark of laughter. “Your father, having fun at a festival? I can’t picture that, can you?” She winked at Shyu, coaxing a small smirk onto his face. Then, a bit more serious, she added, “I suppose we do need to have a family chat with him about some things. I’ll give your mother a call. She’ll convince him to go.”
Shyu nodded. “If that’s the case, then I guess it wouldn’t hurt to visit the Capitol. I am going to live there soon, right?” There was a hint of sadness at the end of his sentence, like he was just now realized he should have been more homesick this whole time they had been away.
Zarah gave him a playful pat on the shoulder. “We can worry about that later. For now, let’s just concentrate on this.” She went to her pocketbook, extracting a sizable amount of money and a set of satomobile keys. “First, we need to get you properly attired. You are still a prince of the Fire Nation, after all. Can’t have you showing up to a major event in ripped jeans and a sweatshirt.”
Shyu groaned. “Just as long as it’s not those stupid robes again.”
Zarah cringed. “Those things are ugly, aren’t they?” She handed Shyu a few rather large denomination bills. “Here. Go pick yourself out something more tasteful. And maybe get a haircut, too. You can take my car.”
Shyu looked ready to say something but stopped and stood. “Right. Thanks, Aunt Zarah,” he said, tucking the bills into his wallet. Then he glanced expectantly at Mica.
“Have fun,” she finally said.
“Actually, you’re coming with me. You promised you’d teach me to drive,” Shyu pointed out.
Mica flinched. At that moment, part of her wanted to slink back to her room, to fake an illness or some other excuse to weasel out of this. But for some reason, she just couldn’t bring herself to speak. She might not have liked it, but a promise was a promise. And this promise had obviously meant something to Shyu.
She pushed herself up from the table, extending her palm for the keys, not caring that she wasn’t wearing makeup, her hair was unwashed, or that her present outfit consisted of sweatpants and a tank top.
“Fine,” she said as Bandit jumped to her shoulders, still licking milk from his whiskers. “I’ll meet you in the garage.”
For all his apprehensions about doing normal teenage things, Shyu was a surprisingly quick learner behind the wheel.
“I’ve read plenty of driving manuals,” Shyu explained. “I just never had anyone to take me out before. My parents think driving is a waste of time, you know? I mean, I think the guards would have a panic attack if we suggested it.”
Mica raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t your Dad drive a ship in the military?”
“Yeah. Ironic, huh?”
After a few hours cruising around an empty parking lot with nary a toppled street lamp or explosive-induced hole in the ground to show for it (Uncle Mako really was an infuriating teacher), Shyu let Mica back into the driver’s seat to brave the traffic and drive them to the fancy shipping district his Aunt recommended.
When they arrived at the ritzy “Angie’s Salon and Spa” a well-dressed man in formalwear greeted Shyu with enough smiles and handshakes for ten people.
“Prince Shyu! Delighted to meet you, sir. Absolutely delighted! Please don’t be shy–come in! Right this way!”
He paused in his bootlicking to set shifty eyes on Mica. “Shall I tell your servant to wait outside?”
Mica ignored the jab; she had nearly turned to go anyway. Shyu, however, went rigid, stepping away from the man in a rage.
“Mica is not my servant. She’s one of my closest friends. So I expect her to have the same treatment, understand?”
The greeter looked like he might faint right there at Shyu’s feet. “I beg your pardon, Prince. Y-your highness, sir, I didn’t realize–” He made a flurry of apologetic bows, then clapped his hands, summoning a dozen attendants. Before she could protest, Mica found herself being ushered off to one of the private bathing stations for a hot spring mineral soak.
An hour later, clean and robed, she sat beside Shyu in a salon chair, hair soaking in moisturizer while no less than six attendants fussed about her, plucking and primping and mani-pettying.
I forgot how nice it was being pampered, she thought. Then a bit sadly, Dino never treated me to spa days. Or to anything she wanted to do, for that matter. On the rare occasions when he did break down and go with her to see one of her “chick-movers” or just hang out while she exploded things at the scrapyard, he always complained and expected her to make it up to him later.
Mica was received more respectfully at the Kindle and Ember boutique but only because the owner was a huge Nuktuk fan.
“I was there at your parents’ very first performance together!” the owner bragged, as the pair of them waited for Shyu to finish changing into the handsome black suit she had gathered for him to try on.”The funny thing is the act wasn’t really planned. Your father just sort of recruited me and a bunch of my friends to perform the end of the mover after the projector broke. Then, when the owner tried to stop us, your mom joined in. And the rest is history, as they say.”
Mica nodded, remembering the nights her father recounted that same story over the dinner table. Of course, the way he told it, her mom had been part of that group of friends. She wondered. What other stories had they fabricated to keep her mom’s past a secret?
“You know, they’re going to be in the capitol for Avatar Day,” Mica told the tailor.
“Well of course I know, dear. I had to wait in line for six hours, but I got tickets the first day they came out. My kids can’t wait! They just love Nuktuk and Fusa.” The woman smiled, and Mica felt her heart warm. It was good to know that, even despite everything that had happened between the spirit portal and Uncle Varrick’s movery, her mom and dad still had some loyal fans.
Shyu stepped shyly out of the fitting room then, prompting the woman to look him over and tug at this fold or straighten that crease like an over-meticulous parent.
“Well, that is a nice fit if I do say,” said the tailor, all too thrilled with herself.
Shyu didn’t seem nearly as convinced. “I don’t know…What do you think, Mica?”
Mica watched his face scrunch as he scrutinized himself, and she got the distinct feeling that the suit wasn’t the problem. Something with his appearance, then? Mica studied him a bit longer, searching. Then Shyu struck a thinking pose and it hit her. The stylist at Angie’s had meant well, but with Shyu’s hair freshly cut and slicked back he reminded her a bit too much of Iroh.
“I have an idea.” Mica hurried across the shop and returned a moment later with a fine-toothed comb and a pair of glasses. With a practiced hand, Mica spiked the front of his hair, just a little, to give him a touch of rebellion. Then she traded in his conservative, black-rimmed glasses for classy gold wire-rimmed ones.
Shyu admired himself in the mirror and smiled. “Wow…I look…” he fumbled for the right word.
“Hot,” Mica teased, making Shyu’s cheeks turn a shade darker.
“As you should, young Prince, as you should!” beamed the tailor. “Now, let’s see…” She stepped back, framing her fingers into a square around Mica and Shyu as if to take a picture. “Yes! I know just the outfit for you, dear. Be right back!”
“Oh–I wasn’t–” she tried to speak up. But the tailor was already whisking across the store plucking glittery dresses off hangers.
Mica slumped back down on a waiting bench and rubbed a hand between her eyes. Bandit came up onto her lap and nuzzled into her as his eyes fell pleadingly on Shyu.
Shyu sat beside her. “You can’t keep avoiding them forever, you know,” he said softly.
Mica hugged herself as her stomach cramped again. “I know. It’s just…it hurts. Hearing everything Mom went through. Knowing she and Dad lied to me my entire life. And now this whole mess with Dino. I’m just sick of being lied to, Shyu. I’m so sick of it.” She pounded a fist on the padded bench but found she didn’t even have the strength to made a decent imprint.
“I know what you mean,” said Shyu, and Mica knew from his tone that he meant it. He had been hurt by his family’s secrets, too. Was still being hurt every day his father was forced to choose sides against Shyu’s grandmother. All because someone they trusted was also a liar.
Mica continued to stare straight ahead. They were in a private dressing room, but she still kept close tabs on tailor to make sure the woman was at a non-eavesdropping distance before she questioned, “You and your aunt still don’t have any theories as to who…you know…let the volcat out of the bag?”
Bandit perked his ears and churred curiously at the word “volcat,” prompting Shyu to pat him on the head. “No. But I do know we want to tell dad in person, in case the phones are tapped or something.”
“Good plan,” Mica agreed.
They were quiet for a while. Then Shyu spoke again. Softly. “You know, about what you said before? I know one person who won’t lie to you Mica.”
Mica looked over and found him staring back. His expression was as honest as his declaration. “Promise?”
“Yes,” Shyu promised. He cleared his throat a little. “And as long as I’m being honest, I just want to say…I really think you should come with us to the Capitol–to see your family.”
Mica’s stomach cramped harder. She drew a tight breath. “Did Zarah ask you to say this?”
“No. Though she’s just as worried as I am. You haven’t been yourself in weeks, Mica. You’re not eating, you barely sleep–” He looked down at the floor again.
Mica let her breath escape in a slow hiss. He wasn’t wrong. Admittedly, there was part of her, a fragile, broken part, that didn’t care regardless. But as she sat there watching Shyu’s brow furrow and his eyes start to tear behind his glasses, Mica realized he was more than just worried. He was scared for her. Of what would happen if she went on like this. It was the same fear Chief Lilly showed when she sat Mica down and told her to her face that her pent rage and sadness were twisting her own power against her. Harming her. Maybe even…killing her?
Shyu spoke again, a note of desperation in his voice now. “I’m asking you as a friend, please.”
Mica swallowed. Was keeping her pain pent up really worth dying for? “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come. And I’ll try to–” she swallowed again when her voice caught. “–to talk to my parents.”
Shyu looked up again and inched a tad closer, just enough to lean his shoulder a little into hers. “Good.”
The tailor came back with an armload of dresses in every style and color imaginable. Mica tried on several, now that she had good reason to, and found she actually liked two: a sassy, purple, knee-high, number with a belted waist and laced sleeves that looked adorable with her boots, and an elegant sleeveless copper-colored gown cut slightly longer that accented her in all the right places.
Mica held up one then the other.
“How about it, Shyu? ” Mica asked with an uncertain smile. “Which one suits me best? Remember, you promised you wouldn’t lie.”
Shyu assumed a thinking pose again then snapped his fingers. “Both,” he said with a little grin. “One for now, one for the concert.”