“No pain. No fear. No mercy.” Fuse woke two hours before dawn. Firelord Izumi had granted her a bed in the guard barracks. The arrangement was a bit over precautionary seeing as how she didn’t attack without orders and had already come to an agreement with the Avatar. But no matter. A bed was a bed all the same. She started to rise. Nearby her head something warm and furry stirred. Fuse smiled without thinking.
“So you found me again, did you?”
Shouga churred softly then rested her chin on Fuse’s forehead, careful as always, not to touch her tattoo. “I suppose I could use the rest…”
At dawn she rose, dressed, and tidied her bed. Shouga rode on her shoulders as a guard captain –the same one she had knocked flat on his backside the day before, actually– escorted Fuse to breakfast as a testament to how “brave” he was. He put on a convincing act, too, until they reached the dining room and he tried to shove Fuse inside for emphasis. The last she saw of him, he was running the opposite direction screaming like a six-year-old girl, with Shouga snarling and snapping at his heels.
Served him right.
Korra was already in the dining room enjoying a plate of flatcakes with butter and berries, though she did pause eating to watch the guard flee. She smiled when Fuse approached, but it was a nervous smile. “Firelord Izumi has everything prepared. We’re supposed to meet her after breakfast.”
Korra nodded and gestured for her to sit. Fuse obeyed. One thing nice about the royal palace, there was no shortage of food. Fuse helped herself to a small bowl of rice porridge, some milk, and, because she was still recovering her stamina, a small slice of hippo-cow steak. At Korra’s suggestion, she sweetened her porridge with a dollop of honey, and remarkably, found herself craving another bowl.
She resisted the temptation, though, and did so again when the palace staff brought a plate of pastries with absurd, sugary icing. They had next to no nutritional value and still, the array of different colors fascinated her.
“Excuse me, Avatar Korra?” A servant approached and dipped her head. “You have visitors.”
The two looked over simultaneously. It was the boy from before… Nuktuk, was it? His fire ferret and another boy with similar features. A brother, perhaps.
Korra’s face brightened. Happiness at seeing these two, mixed with a little relief as well. For all her smiles and small talk, the Avatar was still wary of her, whether she knew it or not.
“Oh, hey, Mako. Bolin.” She waved them over. “What brings you here?”
The green-eyed brother, Nuktuk, (or was it Bolin now? She’s have to get that clarified later) scratched behind his head.
“Oh you know, just passing through. Figured we’d say hi. See how you were doing… and are those fruit-tarts?” His eyes doubled at the sight of the colorful pastries.
“Oh, yeah. Help yourself,” offered Korra.
He didn’t need to be told twice. Fuse was a bit startled when he flopped into the seat beside her instead of one safely across the table. She didn’t know quite how to feel about it, either. Granted, it wasn’t the first time this boy’s behavior surprised her. It was his irrational decision that got her here in the first place. Still, it wasn’t like her to be so unprepared. It felt… strange.
Mako, the amber-eyed brother was almost too predictable. He sat across the table beside Korra, brooding and distrustful. Not surprising. She had threatened his brother’s life, after all.
“So, um…” Mako began. “How are your talks with the Firelord going? You guys have any plans yet?”
“Mmm,” Korra said while downing a full glass of milk. “More, please.” She thrust the glass out towards the nearest passing servant, who took it and hurried off. Korra shoveled some rice porridge with honey into her mouth in the meantime.
“We’ve called for reinforcements from the United Republic,” she said to Mako. “Iroh should be here in a few days. I think I’ll be ready by then, but Izumi thinks I need at least a few more weeks. It’s really annoying.” She went to scoop more porridge from the serving bowl, only to find it was gone. She then pounded the bowl onto the table as if it had emptied itself just for the pleasure of witnessing its bearer’s rage.
“I hate sitting around, Mako. Who knows what those gangs are doing to all the citizens of the city while we wait around here? I mean, doesn’t Izumi care what’s happening in their lives?”
Mako raised an eyebrow. Fuse thought at first he was about to express surprise at how casually Korra used the Firelord’s first name. But no, his facial features indicated more confusion than shock.
“The Firelord thinks you need a few more weeks of… talking?” he said.
Korra got an expression that implied the porridge had suddenly hardened into a lump in her stomach. “Well, you know, planning and um… training with… uh, um…” she waved her hand in Fuse’s general direction. “With Fuse,” she finally finished.
It was a lie. Fuse could tell right away, and she was quite sure that Mako could tell, too. The only question was what exactly the Avatar was lying about. People loved to wrap their lies inside truths. The fact that she and Korra were training togather obviously true, so perhaps the lie lingered in her words about the Firelord?
Perhaps the Avatar was hiding something that she didn’t wish Fuse to overhear. Fuse heard potential buyers voice that concern before, pointless as it was. If she had the opportunity to listen in on these two when she was not present, it might reveal much more information.
Information that is none of your concern, she thought to herself. Was business did she have being so curious, anyway?
She reached for another helping of porridge, only to remember that Korra had single-handedly drained it of its remains. She settled for an apple while Mako eyed the empty serving tray.
“You’ve got a healthy appetite for someone who’s just been… talking these past several days.”
A good observation. The boy had potential.
Korra laughed especially loudly in response to Mako’s statement and slapped him on the back. Very strange behavior indeed. Why would Korra keep her intentions secret from those she called friends? Certainly not to protect them. These two were both skilled benders from what little she’d seen. Fear? Yes, that must be it. The Avatar was afraid of traumatizing their friendship with whatever secret she was guarding. It didn’t make a lot of sense to Fuse. Then again she was not trained to deceive or make friends. Weapons had no need for either.
“Churr?” she felt a nudging on her arm and looked over. Bolin’s fire ferret, Pabu, was sitting on the table giving her a very pathetic look. Wordlessly, she carved a slice from her apple and offered it. He made a delighted squeaking noise. The sound sent a strange pang through her. Weapons didn’t make friends. But Shouga and Pabu didn’t seem to understand what she was. Was that why she enjoyed their company so much?
Come to think of it she would need someone to watch over Shouga for her while she was training Korra. This wasn’t the forest anymore and she highly doubted Shouga’s wild volcat tendencies to hunt, forage, steal and hide things would be tolerated. Shouga seemed to like Pabu’s company. Perhaps Bolin would be up to the task.
She glanced his way. Bolin was busy munching down his third pastry, heedless of the multi-colorful jelly patterns that were accumulating on his face. She must have stared a little too long because Bolin shot her a perplexed look.
“What? Do I have something on my face?”
She wasn’t sure if he was joking but she smirked a little just the same.
“I must ask a favor.”
Mako piped up. Fuse suspected he might. “If it involves using my brother as your shield again, the answer is no.”
She met his eyes equally serious. “It does not.”
“What is it?” asked Bolin as he rubbed his face down with a napkin.
“I need someone to keep Shouga out of trouble while I train the Avatar.”
“Oh sure, no problem. I can totally handle that.” He took another pastry from the now half-empty tray. His brother sent a disapproving look his way.
“I can’t help it. They’re so tasty.”
“No. I mean agreeing to help–” Mako massaged between his eyes. He poured his attention to poking an array of steamed dumplings with the broad end of a chopstick. “Forget it,” he muttered.
No problem there. It seemed Bolin already had. “Mako and I used to beg our parents for these all the time when we were kids. Cherry is my favorite. How about you?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Her answer was honest. But it triggered a surprisingly strong reaction from Bolin.
“Haven’t you ever had a fruit-tart before?”
“Seriously?” his expression changed, giddiness shifting to disbelief and … pity?
What an odd reaction. Who in their right mind would pity a weapon? “Seriously,” she said, which inevitably prompted the boy to slide the tray closer.
“Well then, today’s your lucky day.”
She failed to see how luck had anything to do with eating baked goods but decided to humor him anyway.
Fuse picked up the smallest fruit-tart and examined it closer. The pastry had a soft, doughy texture and the outer layer was covered in a fine sugar that stuck to her fingers. On the top, a well of yellow jelly oozed. She took a small bite off the top and was startled by the unexpected tartness of lemon.
“Try eating it from the side, like this.” Bolin demonstrated, taking a bigger-than-average bite of his own pastry for emphasis.
Fuse took another bite, this time making sure to blend the lemon with the doughy, sugary outside. The texture was cakey and gooey with a wonderful crunch from the sugar. And the flavor…
Bolin watched her expectantly, waiting for a response.
“It’s…” Fuse fumbled for the proper word that could possibly describe the fantastic-ness that was a fruit tart. She decided to go with Bolin’s description. “…tasty.”
A clank-thunk noise sounded near the dining room entrance drawing gasps from servers and snickers from palace guards. A moment later Shouga emerged butt-first, dragging a certain Fire Nation captain’s helmet by one of its pointed prongs. She pulled her prize over to Fuse’s feet, where it landed with a loud clang. Somehow, this seemed to startle Bolin’s brother out of his dazed chopstick assault on the dumplings, and he straightened in his chair.
“Hey, Korra. Is there a library somewhere around here?”
The Avatar rolled her eyes. “No, Mako. We’re in the Fire Nation palace. There’s no way anything resembling a library exists around here.”
“Palace. Right.” Mako seemed to have his mouth at the table but his brain in a completely different world. His eyes darted back and forth, clearly lost in rapid, disjointed thought. “Any idea how I would get access to that library?” he asked, first looking at the food, but then back at the Avatar.
“Gee, I have no idea. Have you tried asking the Firelord?”
“Firelord. Of course. I’ll ask the Firelord.” He stood up from the table, smacking his leg against the chair. “Thanks for the advice. Firelord, Firelord…” He continued muttering to himself as he grabbed an additional dumpling and left the room.
Fuse finished the rest of her pastry, wiped the sugar of her mouth and fingers, and cleared her throat. “Right then, now that that’s settled.” She stood indicating to Korra. “Shall we?”
Bolin picked up the helmet, Shouga still latched on to the point, snarling.”Are you guys doing sparky sparky boom stuff now?”
“That’s not its name,” Fuse corrected, “but… yes. Yes, we are.”
Korra led Fuse on the way to the Agni Kai chamber (only getting lost once this time). Inside Izumi was sitting on her throne looking irritated. She eyeballed Fuse.
“I have an entire unit of guards posted just outside. If you so much as put a toe out of line–”
Fuse didn’t flinch. “Understood.”
Next she nodded to Korra. “Right then. Time to start. Your goal is to strike me. Use whatever bending you like.”
Sounded simple enough.
Korra moved, shifting halfway into an earthbending stance. Better to start slow since Fuse was still recovering. No sooner had she readied herself, however, she felt a blow on the shoulder, and her feet were kicked out from under her.
She landed on her back against the smooth, and all too annoyingly familiar, marble.
“Hey! That was a cheap shot!” she yelled. It felt good to yell for once. She couldn’t exactly go around mouthing off to Firelord Izumi when they had lessons.
Fuse backed off a pace, waiting for her to rise. “You have slow reflexes,” she observed. “I’ll move at half speed.”
Korra glared, took a waterbending stance, and was knocked down again.
“Come on, Avatar. If this was a real fight, I would have killed you twice already.”
What was it with her so-called teachers kicking her around and calling it training? “Well, maybe I’d do better if you actually taught me something useful!”
“I am.” Fuse threw a punch. Instinct brought up Korra’s hand just in time to block it. “You see? That time you didn’t think. You saw the attack and let your body decide how to counter. That’s all a fight is. Moves and countermoves. It should be the same with your bending.”
Fuse darted back a few paces. This time Korra tried fire. Though her aim was good, Fuse still dodged it easily.
“Knowing the correct counter is only part of this technique. Knowing your opponent is the other. You, Korra, anger easily, and when you’re angry, you instinctively tend to use firebending.”
Fuse dodged the second fireball that Korra was in the middle of lobbing, darted within an inch of her, and flicked Korra on the forehead. “Which is precisely why I provoked you earlier.”
Korra fumed. Behind her she heard Firelord Izumi mumble something, then cough deliberately. “The girl has a fair point, Korra. In battle it is best for a warrior to utilize all their strengths to their advantage without hesitation.”
“Working on it,” Korra snapped, not turning around. Izumi was right, of course. Quick as she was, Fuse couldn’t counter bloodbending. Still…
Korra sucked in a breath, readied a fire attack, then changed her stance at the last second. A strong air gust pelted Fuse, sending her hurtling backwards, just like when they fought back at the bloodbender gangs’ camp.
Fuse tucked and backflipped several times, landing gracefully several meters away.
“Looks like I’m not the only one who’s predictable.” Korra grinned.
Fuse smirked too. “So you were paying attention after all. Good. You’re going to need that focus for the final lesson.”
She drew a breath, shooting a beam of heat at Korra’s feet. Korra dodged aside, barely avoiding the spray of pulverized marble that flew at her face.
“When you face a combustionbender, don’t ever let them get out of range.”