Pema didn’t so much as look up from her cooking. “Ikki, sweetheart, there’s no need to shout; I’m right here. Lunch will be ready in about fifteen minutes, so please be patient, all right?”
“It’s not that,” her youngest daughter replied breathlessly. “Someone’s stolen something of mine!”
“I see.” Pema turned to her assistant. “Ryoko, could you please…?” The acolyte nodded and smoothly took over stirring the soup. “All right, honey,” Pema continued, wiping her hands on a towel. “What do you think was taken?”
“I…” Ikki hesitated. “Something important,” she finally stammered. “Something personal. It was in my room yesterday afternoon, but when I looked for it just now, it was gone!”
“I see,” Pema nodded. “Maybe if you told me what it was, I could tell you if I saw it when I put your clean clothes away this morning?”
“I told you, it was something personal!” Pema waited, giving Ikki a full dose of the patented Maternal Gaze of Expectation. “I…I…” The girl sighed and glanced down at the floor. “It was…a magazine.”
“What kind of magazine?”
Ikki’s blush deepened. “…Probender Illustrated. It…it had some really good articles and I was reading them yesterday!”
“Say, boss,” Ryoko called from the stove. “Wasn’t the latest issue the Swimsuit Edition? I heard they did a photoshoot on Ember Island this year.”
“Well, I’d have to take your word on that,” Pema smiled. “Is that the issue you’re missing, Ikki?”
“I heard there was quite a spread featuring the Agni Kai Firebending Squad,” Ryoko noted thoughtfully. “Mmmm-mmm! Hot guys in tight red swimsuits…”
“I…THAT’S NOT THE POINT!” Ikki cried. “Mom, someone snuck into my room and stole it! I want it back!”
“Mmmm, firebenders,” Pema nodded thoughtfully. “Dark hair, golden eyes, those fine, graceful movements with those firm, muscular bodies…”
“Makes me wish Mako worked out here more,” Ryoko sighed.
“Oh, I know,” Pema agreed. “I’d watch him do those morning katas and wish I was about twenty years younger…”
“Don’t forget his butt.”
“Oh yes. Mind you, I love Tenzin, but the man is not blessed in that department. Fortunately, he’s more than adequate elsewhere…”
“What, honey?” Pema asked innocently, trying (and failing) to hide her grin. “I’m a woman too, you know.”
“No, you’re not!” Ikki exclaimed. “You’re a mom! Look, are you going to help me find my magazine or not?”
“Let me finish making lunch, sweetheart, and I promise I’ll look for it this afternoon while you’re training. Is that all right?”
Ikki scowled but nodded. “All right.”
“Of course, if I find it first, all bets are off,” Ryoko chuckled.
“For the last time, Ikki, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jinora snapped. “I haven’t seen your magazine, much less taken it! So stop accusing me of stealing it!”
Tenzin cleared his throat; it usually did the trick for getting his children’s attention back on him, but there seemed to be extenuating circumstances today. “Ikki, Jinora,” he finally said in his Dad voice. “Please stop your squabbling and pay attention. You’re both disrupting training.”
“Sorry, Daddy, but Ikki won’t stop bothering me about some stupid magazine she thinks I took from her room,” Jinora replied, rolling her eyes for good measure.
“Well, somebody took it, and I want it back!”
“Girls…” Tenzin sighed. “This is not the time. Please pay attention because this is a very complex move.”
“Yes, Daddy.” Jinora smiled and assumed her stance. Ikki grit her teeth and followed suit.
“Now, the key to success is a quarter turn of the wrist in the middle of the arc…” Tenzin lectured, demonstrating for his less-than-attentive pupils.
“Just give it back,” Ikki hissed at her sister.
“I don’t have it, so I can’t,” Jinora muttered, her eyes fixed on her father.
“Don’t lie, I know it had to be you.”
“Will you shut up and listen to Daddy?”
“Fine.” Ikki harrumphed softly and returned her attention to Tenzin.
“As you move, you’ll want to shift your feet like this…”
“Isn’t Kai enough for you?” Ikki whispered.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jinora said smugly.
“What’s to know? I hear you two every night.”
“GIRLS!” Tenzin yelled. “I don’t know what is going on between you, but I want it set aside right now! We are TRAINING!”
“Yeah!” Meelo jumped in. “Nobody cares about your stupid firebender magazine, Ikki, so shut up about it and let Dad continue!” His momentary pride at getting a dig in was instantly destroyed as he realized four pairs of eyes were now trained directly on him.
“How did you know what kind of magazine it was?” Ikki asked in a dangerously quiet voice.
“You…you said it was one!” Meelo stammered.
“No, she didn’t,” Jinora corrected him. “She never said anything of the sort.” She turned toward her sister. “Firebenders?”
“So?” Ikki said defiantly. “What about it?”
“Nothing at all,” Jinora shrugged. “I prefer Earth Kingdom guys, personally.” She smiled slightly. “But it sounds like you and Meelo have something in common…”
“WE DO NOT!” Meelo yelled.
“Children…” Tenzin finally threw his arms up in surrender. “Take a fifteen-minute break, work out your differences, and come back ready to train! I’ll be in my office!”
“Oh my,” Tenzin sighed, staring at the…heavily-used magazine Pema had gingerly placed on his desk a moment ago. “They’re growing up, aren’t they?”
“Ikki found it on her bed a little while ago,” Pema noted. “It ‘mysteriously’ reappeared shortly after whatever went on at the training grounds took place. Meelo’s denying everything, of course.”
“You know, when Bumi left for the United Forces, he gave me a heavy box marked ‘Old Underwear’, and told me not to open it until I was thirteen…” Tenzin smiled at the memory. “And then I caught Kya rummaging through it and found out what it really contained.”
“While we’re on the subject,” Pema continued, “there’s the matter of Meelo’s socks as well.” She leaned over the desk. “I think it’s past time you had that ‘little talk’ with him, Tenzin.”
“I think you’re right,” he nodded slowly. He took a pencil in hand and carefully pushed the magazine toward his waste can. “I would think Ikki doesn’t want this back, does she?”
Ikki lay on her bed, staring disconsolately at the ceiling. Why did Meelo have to ruin everything? She’d gone to all that trouble to get a copy before they’d sold out, and now she was empty-handed. It just wasn’t fair, she sighed.
“Hey, kid.” Ryoko opened the bedroom door and came in. “Heard about what happened.”
“Yeah, well…” Ikki sighed again. “It was just a stupid magazine.”
“Maybe, but still…” Ryoko grinned and handed her a manila folder. “Thought this might make up for it.”
Mystified, Ikki opened the folder…and gasped a moment later. “These are them! The pictures from the magazine! All of them—no, wait, there’s more…!” She looked up at Ryoko in stunned amazement. “How?”
“Oh, you know me. I’ve got my ways,” the acolyte replied. “I know some people who owed me a favor, so I gave them a call.” She turned to leave, pausing at the doorway. “Word of advice, kid—find a better hiding place this time, okay?”
“Sure thing!” Ikki waited until Ryoko was gone, then spread the photos out on her bed. “Oh wow…they’re so cute…those muscles…”
Out in the hallway, Pema turned to Ryoko. “Mission accomplished?”
“Yup. And just so you know, I gave him copies as well.”
“Thanks,” Pema smiled. “I really appreciate it, Ryoko.”
“Hey, we firebender fans have to stick together, you know?”