The Fire Nation’s first “Institution for Troubled Benders” opened with little fanfare. The press was all over it, of course, especially the moments when President Raiko and Firelord Iroh both personally escorted Lady Izumi all the way from Republic City. Nanami was with them every step of the way, of course. The papers never made a fuss over her, most barely mentioned her, but her purpose in every photo was clear–Izumi wasn’t to be trusted, and Nanami was there to keep her bending in check. It made Shyu sick. Especially paired with the fact that he was getting far more family info from the newspapers than he was from his actual family.
At least tonight he and his dad were supposed to have a phone conversation. Aunt Zarah had been fielding most of the calls, telling her big brother that his son was sleeping or doing homework, or out to dinner at whatever time the call came in. But Iroh had finally told her to lay off the dodging and demanded to know exactly when Shyu would be home to speak to. There wasn’t any getting out of this one. Mica, at least, was sympathetic. She’d agreed to go out with him for a shake once this torture session was over.
Shyu sat by the phone, which rang at 7pm, exactly on the dot. He bit his lip and shakily lifted the receiver. “Hello?”
There was a bit of static before he heard a commanding voice answer, “Hello, son.”
Shyu swallowed. The voice didn’t even sound like his dad’s anymore. The man on the other line was afraid, afraid that if he let his guard down for a second, even in front of his own child, everything would come crashing down on him.
So apparently it was up to Shyu to carry this conversation. “I saw that they moved Grandma today,” he said. It sounded pathetic–and just as fake. He wanted to say they had moved her home, but he knew that wasn’t true, either. A prison was a prison. Whether it was in her home country or a foreign one hardly mattered.
“Yes,” Iroh agreed. “Nanami and I got her to her room and helped her get set up. It’s…nice. Simple. We even played some Pai Sho before I had to leave.” He cleared his throat, a sound he was pretty bad at faking. Or maybe after seeing Dino play Mica the way he had, Shyu was just more in tune with people being phony. “She’s the only resident at the moment,” Iroh went on, “but we’ve already got several others who may be there soon. There’s a juvenile wing, and we’re hiring some of the best teachers in the Fire Nation to–”
“Yeah, that’s all great, Dad,” Shyu snapped. Enough with the pretending. Enough with the fake words. Enough with all of it. “When are you bringing her home? For real?”
There was a long silence. For a moment, Shyu wondered if his father had actually hung up on him. Then, finally, he heard,
“That’s going to take some time, son. You know that. Things are delicate right now.”
If by “things”, you mean your relationship with our entire family, then, yeah, we agree there. Shyu couldn’t take this. He wasn’t ready to start a shouting match with his dad, but he couldn’t listen to this another second, let alone play along with it. “I’ve gotta go,” he said quickly and hung up the phone before the great Firelord had the chance to order him not to.
“Wow, so then you hung up on him?” Mica asked in shock. She had a basket of fries, along with a classic-looking strawberry milkshake in front of her, and she was in the process of stirring it so that the cherry and whipped cream became fully buried in the drink’s center. “Way to grow a backbone, your highness.”
“I’m not sure it was a good decision,” Shyu said. “I have to sit next to him all during the festival tomorrow.” He leaned down to take a sip from his own glass. When they’d arrived at the diner, Mica had been about to order him a chocolate malt. Then she’d learned that he had no clue what an egg cream was and insisted on ordering that for him instead. The drink contained neither eggs nor cream, but Shyu was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to learn that carbonated chocolate milk was a thing you could actually order.
“Meh, you’ll work out the details later,” Mica said, waving his concerns away. She leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “You talk about who set your grandmother up?”
Shyu blushed. “Not really. I mean, it didn’t exactly come up.”
Mica stopped smiling. “What do you mean, ‘it didn’t come up’? Thought that was the point of–”
Shyu put a finger to his mouth. There was a few more people coming into the diner now, and he didn’t exactly want to draw attention to their conversation. Then he glanced up and got a closer look at who was coming in. It was Rina. Mica instantly put her hand in the air and waved their friend over. Rina looked straight at them, but shifted around uneasily, like being seen out with them could cause some serious harm. Mica put her arm down and tried to look a bit more natural as Rina walked over and slipped into the booth on Mica’s side.
“So, Agni Fries, huh?” Mica after Rina ordered a club soda. “Gotta say, we don’t really have those back in Republic City.”
“‘Because good food shouldn’t be a battle,'” Shyu said, quoting the slogan he’d heard about a million times already.
Mica raised an eyebrow. “That’s really lame,” she said, reaching for a fry and holding it up as if presenting evidence to a jury. “And don’t tell me that the extreme tastiness of these things makes up for that lameness.” She popped the fry in her mouth. “They are good, though.”
Shyu found himself laughing, but quickly noticed that Rina wasn’t joining in with the humor. Her face was solemn, like she was just waiting for the two immature idiots next to her to get themselves together. The waitress dropped off the water, and Rina waited until she’d walked back into the kitchen before she spoke again.
“Listen, I can’t chat for long,” she said. “Just…thought I would let you two know that I…won’t be in school for a while.”
Shyu’s stomach instantly felt like he had swallowed a brick, and the taste of the soda in his mouth felt sour. “Oh…I’m sorry.” He was almost stupid enough to ask, “Why is that?” but managed to keep his dumb mouth shut.
Rina pushed a piece of dark hair out of her face, though it more seemed like a rushed attempt to wipe her eyes. “Yeah,” she said in a bitter tone, “my parents think it’ll be better for me to attend an…alternative program for ‘kids like me.'” She looked at Shyu with burning, damp eyes. “Mica said you would talk to your dad. Tell him that this is wrong. What happened with that?”
She said what now? “Whoa, whoa,” Shyu said, holding up his hands in defense. “I think both of you are under the misconception that my dad actually listens to me. He doesn’t. And he’s so deeply convinced that this institution is the only way to get my grandma home that he won’t hear a thing about it.”
Mica rolled her eyes, but thankfully, she laid off any declarations that his attempts to bring the topic up hadn’t exactly been stellar.
“So what do we do next?” Rina asked, her voice hollow, like she didn’t expect any real answers.
Mica, however, carried on the conversation like Rina was just as determined as ever. “I’ve talked with Uncle Varrick,” she said. “He admits he spliced the footage in there, and he thought it was Zhu Li who took it. But after talking with her, he has no clue where it might have come from.”
“So now we’re back to the theory that my grandmother had that footage taken herself?” Shyu said, more than a little annoyed at the suggestion. “Why would she do that?”
“Or someone snuck in and filmed it without anyone noticing,” Rina said, voice uplifted a bit. “If they got far enough way, they’d be out of bloodsensing range–”
“Blood…sensing?” Shyu asked, trying hard to sound curious and not completely creeped out. He wasn’t sure he’d succeeded.
“It’s something that takes a really skilled bloodbender to do,” Rina said. “But you can basically tell when someone’s nearby you, even if you can’t see or hear them. Makes it almost impossible for anyone to sneak up on you.” She shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “Lady Izumi told us that it was the first skill that Firelord Zuko taught her–to foil any assassination attempts.”
“There’s some close-up shots of Izumi in there,” Mica said. “Zoom lenses can only get so much detail. I’d say whoever took the footage was twenty feet away at most.”
Rina shook her head. “I’m telling you, that’s not possible. Izumi’s sensing range is farther than that. no one anyone could get near her without her knowing about it.”
“Maybe she was really focused on what she was doing?” Shyu suggested. The two girls rolled their eyes at him. “Okay, maybe not,” he said. “But now that means that no one could have taken the footage. Unless spirits can work cameras all of a sudden.” He wasn’t entirely sure if this was true or not, and from the look on Mica’s face, she didn’t know, either. It seemed that all he was successful in this evening was making his two friends angry, uncomfortable, or both.
“Look, I’ve got to go,” Rina said, standing up. “I told my mom I was just going to the store to pick up some milk. I happened to see you guys walk in here. I don’t want to get in any more trouble with them than I already am.”
Shyu nodded absently as he watched her leave. He felt like a failure. Why was it that whenever he got the chance to stand up for his friends, he either blew up at someone or did nothing? He stared guilty at the bubbles floating to the top of the egg cream’s milky surface. He’d promised Mica he wouldn’t lie to her anymore. He’d also promised he would talk to his father about who was really responsible for Grandma Izumi’s imprisonment. Tomorrow at the concert, whatever else happened, he was going to start making good on those promises.