Fuse rose the next morning, two hours before dawn. She tidied her little edge of the camp far away from Jarven and his fish-smelling pals. Though she really should have stayed within earshot of her handler, no one in this group had the spine to argue with her. They hadn’t they gone out of their way to offer her food or blankets for the night, either. No matter. She didn’t need them, anyway. Master had equipped her with her own camping supplies and food–and the skills to acquire more if needed. It was a point of pride with him. His weapons were meant to get the job done as quickly and effectively as possible–not burden the handler with the cost of their upkeep.
She set to work. Perhaps not quite as efficiently here in the wilderness then back at the compound, but quickly just the same. She prepped her small cook-fire. Gathered water from a nearby stream. Paused a moment to gather a patch of wild mushrooms. Began to boil rice porridge…
Something rustled. A small shadow darted just at the tree line.
“So you found me again, did you?” she said, her mouth curving ever-so-slightly. A slender fire-ferret emerged and bounded over–as best as she could bound, at least–with a meaty squirrel-toad clutched in her mouth.
“A gift? For me? Thank you, Shouga.” She took the present, silently grateful and eager to eat something other than her rice rations or what edible plants she had time to gather. She could have hunted. Rather well, in fact, if she was alone. But traveling with a rowdy gang of rogue benders wasn’t exactly conducive for luring out the local wildlife.
With a few quick strokes of her dagger she prepared the squirrel-toad and set it to roasting on her small cook-fire. In the meantime she divided up her porridge and wild mushrooms, offering Shouga a sizable portion.
How long had it been now since the two of them had shared a meal like this? A year? Yes, at least. Towards the end of her last mission. Shouga was just barely passed kithood–a half-starved, wild-eyed creature torn from her nest too early by the greedy man Fuse was hired to escort home. He was a collector by trade, with many rare treasures in need of guarding. Shouga, a rare volcano-dwelling fire-ferret (or volcat as they were often nicknamed), was among them. She was the fancy pet he promised to present on a pillow to his swooning lady friend. Unfortunately for him, Shouga had other plans, none of them particularly friendly.
When the man finally lost patience with her a few days into the trip he had thrown Shouga’s cage at Fuse’s head and ordered her to “take care of the blasted thing.” So, she had. Just not in the way he’d had in mind.
Fuse divided the squirrel-toad next, savoring hers with guilty slowness. She watched the young animal bolt down her portion, then sit back to groom her whiskers with a steady paw. It was hard to believe that skinny kit had turned into the predator currently curled by the fire.
Footsteps sounded. Jarven’s most likely, since he was the only bender in this lot not secretly terrified of her.
“Is that a volcat?” he asked, catching only a blurred glimpse of ginger and flame-orange fur as Shouga disappeared back into the trees.
“Don’t see many of them this far south of the volcanoes. How’d you tame him?”
“Her,” Fuse pointed out. “And I didn’t.”
Taming would imply that Shouga was her pet. And weapons weren’t allowed to have pets. But the rules were different for travel companions. Shouga could hunt and feed herself, find her own shelter, and defend herself from enemies. So could Fuse. What was the harm, really, if they happened to do these things in the same vicinity now and then?
“Right…” said Jarven with a look that suggested she must have grown a second head or something. Then he straightened.
“We’ve nearly reached Sunport. I want you to go in ahead of us. Then, when I give the signal, I want you to create a big, noisy, explosive distraction to draw off the guards.”
Typical, she thought. ‘You go handle the trained soldiers. We’ll take care of the scary unarmed civilians. Bwa ha ha!’ Coward.
“I can do that.” she said.
It took almost a half hour train ride for Mako and Bolin to make their way from the Royal Caldera City into Sunport. Mako actually preferred it out here. None of the royal guard around, the houses all a mix of colors… the world felt real here.
Of course, with the pleasant weather outside, the city streets were full of happy couples walking alongside each other. Bolin watched each of them pass with his tears on the brink of producing waterfalls. Mako sighed. His brother hadn’t taken the breakup with Opal easily, and Mako had hoped this trip would help distract him a bit. Clearly, it was having the opposite effect. In an effort to redirect Bolin’s thoughts, Mako flicked through some of the pamphlets he’d picked up on the local attractions and began reading aloud.
“Hey, fun fact. Did you know that Sunport used to be known as Harbor City? Its name was changed by Firelord Zuko in the year 107 AG, with the official explanation being that the old name was ‘too blasted obvious’.”
He grinned awkwardly as he looked up from the pamphlet. Given that his brother’s dejected expression hadn’t changed in the slightest, Mako took a guess that his tactics were failing.
“Arg, I don’t get it! Why am I being rejected by all the women in my life?” Bolin lamented way too loudly. “Opal hates me, Korra doesn’t want me around. I bet if I met Firelord Izumi, she’d kick me out for being too Bolin-ish!”
Mako glanced around them. This town was not as well-policed as the area just outside the palace, and more than a few heads had raised when Bolin started ranting about the Avatar and the Firelord.
“Let’s try not to draw attention to ourselves,” he said quietly. Then, only because he couldn’t resist, he added on, “and you did meet Firelord Izumi. She was sitting there when you burst in on the world leader meeting and President Raiko tried to have you arrested.”
“Oh, yeah,” Bolin said in a surprisingly upbeat tone. “I’d totally forgotten about that.”
Mako glanced back at the crowd around them. Most of the people whose attention they’d drawn earlier had gone back to whatever they were doing before the crazy loud guys interrupted them. But two men, two particularly unfriendly looking men, stood up and moved in Mako and Bolin’s direction.
“What was that you were saying about the Avatar?” one of them spat. The street was not particularly wide, and they had tactfully positioned themselves to block off any easy escape. Mako and Bolin exchanged nervous glances. Mako tried to hazard a guess about how much these men had heard and calculate how much they could downplay any connection to Korra whatsoever.
“That’s right! Me and the Avatar are like best buds, is what I was saying!” Bolin announced. “Why, if she found out you were messing around with her numero uno friend, she’d kick your butts so bad, you’d… you’d, um… wish you didn’t have butts!”
Mako covered his face. Not surprisingly, the two men erupted with laughter. Pabu groaned and hid in Bolin’s shirt.
“Friends with the Avatar, huh?” one guy laughed. “Now that’s a good one!”
“Hey, wait a sec!” the other guy said. He grabbed Bolin’s chin and turned his face from side to side. “Ain’t you that mover star? That Numbtuck guy?”
“Nuktuk,” Bolin quickly corrected, even though regret flushed across his face half a second later.
“Yeah, that’s it!” the man said. He released Bolin’s chin and turned to his colleague. “You know, I heard the Avatar is a huge Nuktug fan. I bet if we kidnap this guy, he’d make great bait.”
“Nope, I’d make terrible bait!” Bolin exclaimed, waving his hands in front of him. “Korra hates Nuktuk. The only thing that Korra hates more than Nuktuk is people who mispronounce Nuktuk’s name.”
“Ha, nice try.”
The two mens’ stances changed. Rather than trying to block off both brothers’ escape, they were now focused only on “Nuktug”. Bolin put up his fists.
“All right then, I’m afraid you leave me no choice. Prepare to face the wrath of Nuktu–” His words were choked off as his body was pulled suddenly against his command. “Ack. Oh… bloodbenders… you’re bloodbenders!”
“That’s right,” grunted the bigger of the two. “and you’re comin’ with us, Nuklug.”
“It’s pronounced… oh, never mind.”
The three started to head away, the two men in front, Bolin jerking clumsily behind like a puppet on a string.
Everything in Mako screamed that he had to protect his brother. But the two thugs had hardly taken an interest in him. He advanced a step, ready to scream at them. To tell them they’d have to rip him apart before they took his brother away. Bolin yelled instead, even louder then usual.
“Okay, okay! I’ll go with you… seeing as how there is no way someone like me could possibly defend against bloodbending! Yeah, I really don’t know how I’m going to get out of this one. If only there was someone who could GO GET HELP!”
Mako froze. Bolin was right. This might be his one chance to slip away unnoticed. His only chance to get help.
Sorry, bro, he thought to himself. Then, wincing, he turned and sprinted down the street. He heard a few shouts behind him, but as his lungs screamed for a breath, the voices got softer and softer. No sounds of footsteps followed.
I have to get Korra, he thought. I have to get help.
He rounded the corner at a full sprint. He had to get back to the train station. He had to get word to Korra…
Something flashed in the corner of his eye. A light too bright to be the sun. Then came the explosion.