The cage the metalbender gangers made for Bolin was nice and sturdy, and a surprisingly decent size.
“Only the best for Nukbug,” teased the big bloodbender who still controlled him.
“Ugh! How many times to I have to tell you? It’s pronounced Nuktuk-ahowf!” Bolin was tossed in and landed flat on his face, evoking laughter from the big guy, the metalbenders, and a irritated squeak from Pabu, who was still in his shirt.
“Whatever you say, Nuktukahowf,” he mocked, grinning. There were more than a few muffled snickers from the big guy’s pals as he ushered them away.
Bolin sat up and rubbed his most certainly now-purpling nose. The rest of his body hurt, too. His feet and toes throbbed from innumerable stubs on rocks and other things the bloodbender hadn’t bothered to steer him around. And his muscles ached with the kind of deep fatigue he hadn’t felt since his pro-bending days. He leaned against the cold bars, struggling against the urge to sleep. Not far away, he heard the leader of the gang giving orders.
“The town’s ours now. Pack up whatever supplies aren’t nailed down.”
“What about the bait?”
“I’ll have the weapon guard him.”
It was nearly dark when Bolin woke again, and for a moment, he forgot where he was. He stood up too suddenly, whammed his head, and fell back over.
Oh, right. I’m in a cage. All because I had to go open my big mouth.
Of course, this cage wouldn’t be a problem if he could metalbend. Why, oh why, couldn’t he metalbend?
“Well, looks like we’ve done it now, huh Pabu?” Silence. “Pabu?” He looked around. Where was the agreeable “churr” of reply? Or the wet poke of a little fire ferret nose on his cheek? Where was Pabu! “Pabu? Buddy, where are you?”
He flagged down a nearby trio of gangers who flashed him a looks of amusement over their hefty bowls of stew. “Um, excuse me, evil kidnapper guys… have you seen my fire-ferret Pabu?”
The three exchanged glances. One snickered.
“Yeah, we seen him. ‘Bout an hour ago before dinnertime.” He crammed an enormous spoonful of stew into his mouth. “Mmmm… now that’s good eatin’.”
Bolin blanched, prompting the three gangers to burst out laughing as they wandered off.
Bolin’s heart sank. “Oh, Pabu! This is all my fault.” He slumped down against the bars.
“Churrr?” questioned a little ferret voice.
“That’s right, Pabu, I am an idiot! If only I didn’t drag you out here, then maybe you’d still be–” He looked down, rubbing his eyes to see Pabu looking back up, his furry head cocked to one side. “Pabu!” Bolin hopped to his feet, scooped up his pet and twirled him about. “You’re alive! And you’re… owf… kinda heavy, actually.” He blinked at his pet’s overly round belly. “Who fed you?”
Pabu squeaked, wriggled free from his hands, and squeezed (barely) through the bars.
A woman stooped nearby over a small cook-fire. She was roasting nuts by the smell of it. Bolin could hear them popping in the flames.
Pabu went over to her and squeaked again. She glanced over. A hint of firelight reflected in her amber eyes. They reminded Bolin of his brother’s eyes–flinty and dangerous. Yet they seemed to soften just a bit when Pabu nudged her. She pulled several nuts from the fire, blew on them, then offered them to Pabu. He made happy noises as he munched and he “churred” even louder when the woman ran a hand down his back.
Bolin’s stomach growled, drawing her gaze. Without a word, she left and returned a moment later with a bowl in her hand.
“Here,” she said, not unkindly, and slid a bowl of the evil bender’s stew through the bars. Bolin peered at the food. It smelled like grease and old shoes and looked about as appetizing.
“Um, thanks,” said Bolin. He put a small spoonful in his mouth, stiffened, turned a sickly shade of blue, gagged and finally managed to swallow.
“On second thought… I’m not hungry.”
Fuse’s captive was a horrible liar. For the next several minutes, she could hear his stomach growling all the way at her cook-fire. Still he edged the bowl of stew away like it harbored a contagious disease. Though judging from the smell of that stuff, it wouldn’t have surprised her.
She sighed. “I suppose I can’t have you starving to death.” Her handler had told her to keep the hostage safe, after all.
Her own food was almost done. Boiled rice, fresh-picked spring greens, and some spicy roasted firecracker nuts. Not exactly a feast, but it would serve. She retrieved the grease-stew from Bolin’s cage, making sure to toss the contents far out of stinking range of her camp, and rinsed the bowl and spoon. Then she divided her meager meal three ways, since Pabu already had his share. Of course, this didn’t stop him from prancing back to Bolin’s cage and trying to beg for more.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Bolin half-spoke, half-mumbled as he inhaled his supper. “Mmm. Wow, you’re a great cook!”
She didn’t reply. Of course he’d say that. Anything would taste better than that shoe-leather stew.
She heard a rustle. Right on time. Shouga bounded through the foliage, this time hefting a shimmering river fish nearly the length of her body. She froze when she realized there were new visitors at the camp.
“Oh, cool! A volcat! I’ve never seen one up close before!” Bolin exclaimed. He leaned close to the bars. “Hello there, little lady.”
Shouga looked hesitantly at him and started to back away. Bolin’s face fell. “Oh, no! Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you, I promise. See, I love fire ferrets.” He grinned and held up Pabu as a shining example. Pabu churred in greeting.
They certainly are a friendly bunch, these two. Don’t they remember they’re prisoners trapped in a cage
Trapped. In a cage. Fuse felt an involuntary shiver at the thought, and she had to take a second to steady her breathing.
Shouga slowly stepped back to the fire and the meal Fuse had set out for her, though she kept an eye on the two newcomers. Mostly Pabu, in fact.
“Thank you again, Shouga,” Fuse praised her. The fish she brought would more than feed the three of them and Pabu too, if he could manage to wolf down any more food. While she set to preparing it, Bolin amused himself making beckoning kissy noises at Shouga while stretching out his hand between the bars for her to sniff. Anything to try to lure her over for a better look.
“Shouga, what a pretty name. Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”
Surprisingly, Shouga did eventually go over to him. Though only to snatch the fish kabob Fuse gave him right out of his hand.
“Wha– Hey, that’s mine!” But Shouga was already darting away, tail bristling with excitement. Pabu squeaked excitedly at this and tackled Shouga from behind. The two ferrets toppled and rolled then bounced up again playfully and war-danced around each other, the pilfered kabob forgotten.
For all her training, this time Fuse couldn’t resist a smirk.
“Never try and get between a volcat and something it wants. They’ve even been known to chase off dragons.”
Bolin’s eyes got round. “No way! Really? I’d pay to see that.”
Fuse didn’t reply this time. She even wasn’t looking at him anymore. Her attention was on the treeline and the faint sound of footsteps and cracking twigs. These weren’t Shouga’s footsteps either. They were like her master’s. Not as graceful, perhaps, but soft as wind whispering in the night.
The sound of them sent a tingle of nervous adrenalin down her spine.
“Hey, sparky sparky boom girl,” a husky voice broke in, along with heavy, uncoordinated footfalls.
Of all the lousy-timed–
She turned and narrowed flinty eyes at the big bloodbender, Crull, who had shambled over and was now leaning on Bolin’s cage. Judging by the color of his face, it was safe to assume the celebratory drinking portion of the evening was well underway.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Marren’s whipped up her famous seven-layer dumpster cake. You should come have some.”
More cracking twigs. Another intruder, different than the one before, just at the tree line. If she moved quickly, she could get the drop on them.
The oaf shifted around, stepping directly in her path.
Her mouth twitched. “You spoke with Jarven? Then I’m sure he already explained why I’m here.”
“Oh, he explained all right. He says you have to do whatever he tells you. Well, tonight Jarven told us to celebrate! That means you too, Sparky.” He took a swig from a large brown bottle and grinned. “C’mon.”
“No, thank you.”
“Ah, c’mon. It’s not really made in a dumpster.” When she still didn’t move, he pulled his hands in a bending stance, forcing her body to stiffen, stop, then turn around. She looked him square in the eye.
“Release me.” Her voice was unwavering.
“Not until you try a piece.”
“I will not give another warning.”
He was already moving away, dragging her along behind.
“Hey!” Bolin banged his fists against the bars. “That’s no way to treat a lady.”
Crull gestured with his other hand, yanking Bolin up, then sending him crashing into the opposite side of the cage.
“No cake for you, Nugglow.”
His concentration divided, Fuse jerked away. The prisoner stared in awe as if she’d danced away, nimble as an airbender.
Fuse drew a quarter breath and exhaled with a sharp “huf.” A beam of energy shot from her forehead and struck the earth between the bloodbender’s feet just as he was shifting stances. He jumped at the sound and the spray of dirt. His right foot caught in a hole where solid ground had been just seconds before. He stumbled backwards, slamming hard into Bolin’s cage.
“Ow! Hey, that wasn’t nice!” He tried to stagger up but his effort was stopped when the cage’s bars sprang apart and curled around him like a snake.
“Wah?” he stuttered.
A woman dressed in Water Tribe gear stepped from the undergrowth. “It’s pronounced Nuktuk!”