Fuse was pleasantly surprised at the courtesy of the Firelord’s guards. She’d been guarded many times in her life, and she knew the type. Most had very little rank themselves and loved to show off the sliver of authority they had by pushing their charges around. And continuously mocking them. The two guards at either side of her now simply walked along in silence, following where she went, directing her when she wasn’t sure where a certain room was, and generally being nice people except for the looming threat that they would firebend in her face if she tried anything.
As far as being a captive went, she supposed, it was as pleasant as she could expect.
The Avatar seems to want my freedom, she thought. As does that earthbender, Nuktuk-Bolin. If I can get them arguing on my behalf, I should be able to get out of here soon.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the Firelord’s promise that she would be released once she had paid her dues for the damages at Sunport. It was more that she had no idea if the Firelord would call her debt erased after a few weeks or a few years. She could handle being a captive, but the thought of living here for years under Firelord Izumi’s thumb, knowing any small infraction could land in back in a cage for the rest of her life? That was another matter.
And still, as uneasy as that thought was, there was another even more unsettling one nagging in the back of her mind.
Where will I go when I’m free?
Back to her master and his facility? She had failed her contract with Jarven, and failed again in her effort to return. Master didn’t tolerate failure. Faulty weapons were a liability.
She swallowed hard. Another concern for another time. For now she at least needed to fulfill the first part of her obligation. Her apology. After turning more corners and wandering down more hallways than she cared to, she finally spotted Avatar Korra out in the palace gardens. She thought Korra was alone at first until she got closer and saw Bolin leaning against a fountain. Odd, she didn’t see Pabu or Shouga anywhere.
Probably off harassing the guards or some poor servant, knowing Shouga. But Fuse was surprised she’d let Pabu tag along. Very strange indeed. Bolin and his brother was there too…what was his name? Mako, that was it.
“Wait, I’m confused,” Mako was saying. “The combustionbender is crushing your windpipe, you pass out, and you’re still alive how?”
Korra laughed way too loudly. “Oh, come on, Mako. I’m the Avatar. No one’s going to kill me like that.”
“Yeah, Mako!” Bolin chimed in. “Korra obviously did her Avatar thing and saved herself. Somehow.” He looked at her confused. “You did the Avatar thing, right?”
“Y-yes,” Korra said with a slow nod. “That’s exactly what I did. The Avatar thing.”
Fuse cleared her throat.
“I beg your pardon, Avatar Korra, but I am here to apologize to you.”
Surprise registered on Korra’s face. “Oh, no,” she said. “You don’t have to-”
“No,” said Fuse. “No, trust me. I really do.” She drew a breath. This was her first apology, and she wanted to get it right. “I’m sorry for…” She tried to think of a polite way to phrase what she had done, but none came to mind. “…nearly crushing your windpipe,” she finally finished. An awkward silence hung in the air for several moments. And Fuse was not the type to find things awkward. Was her apology not enough? Perhaps not. This was not her only offense against Korra and her friends, after all. She spoke again. “Also, I am sorry for holding a dagger to your friend’s throat. I imagine that bothered him. And you.”
She stood unmoving for another minute, still with no one responding to her at all. The awkwardness was made significantly worse when a frog-dove landed on the nearest fountain, filling the silent air with its loud cooo-rrribit.
Mako narrowed his eyes. “So, what? That’s it? You’re sorry. And we’re supposed to just pretend like nothing happened?”
Fuse didn’t answer. In truth, she had no idea what the three of them were supposed to do. She wasn’t even sure why she was having this conversation in the first place.
“I feel like I need to apologize, too,” Korra said, rubbing the back of her neck.
“Why?” Fuse asked.
“Yeah, I’m with Combustion Girl on this one,” said Mako. “What are you talking about, Korra?”
Korra turned red. “I attacked in a way that I knew would really scare you. I know you only lashed out at me because you were panicked.” She glanced at Bolin, and Fuse got the distinct feeling that even though the Avatar was spot on in her assessment, she had not come to that conclusion on her own.
“You shouldn’t be apologizing for that. You exploited a weakness of mine to great success. But I violated the terms of our match. It was supposed to be for practice, and I treated it like a life-and-death battle.”
“Yeah, well, in a life-and-death battle, maybe terrorizing you would have made sense,” said Korra. “But as it is, I still say I was wrong, and you need to accept my apology.” She crossed her arms. “Right now or I am telling Izumi on you.”
Fuse straightened. Was she serious? Korra’s tone was so ridiculous; how was she supposed to take it? Then, at that moment, Bolin burst out laughing.
“That’s our Korra,” he said, patting her on the back. “Always one with words.” He straightened, then stretched, arching his arms far over his head. “Man, I’m starved.”
Mako gave him an incredulous look. “Again?”
“What can I say? All this aimless wandering and waiting for reinforcements makes me hungry.” He looked at Korra hopefully. “Whatdoya say we hit the town? Mako and I found this great noodle shop.”
“Actually, I’ve got to get back to… my meetings,” said Korra hastily, “But I’ll meet up with you guys later for dinner.”
“Okay.” He turned to Fuse. “How about you? You like noodles?”
She did, admittedly. And after the nightmare of a her past few days in the dungeon, her stomach was aching for a good meal. But she was a captive. And judging from the looks on Mako and the two guards’ faces, what she liked was irrelevant.
“Another time, maybe.”
She bid them farewell and turned to go, chains clinking, the two guards close on her heels. Where she was going exactly, Fuse wasn’t sure. Firelord Izumi had ordered her to perform menial labor around the palace as the second part of their bargain. She did not, however, specify exactly what sort of work Fuse should do. This proved rather frustrating. What exactly did a weapon do when not being a weapon?
Fuse had no idea. She wasn’t without other skills. Master had given all his weapons a diverse education in topics like history, etiquette, cooking, herb-lore, hunting, beast care, and riding techniques. But he had only done this to ensure she could perform missions without being a burden to her handler. And most handlers weren’t paying for her to dazzle them with her cooking or her knowledge of healing plants.
She still tried, of course, heading for the kitchens first. Bolin had certainly seemed impressed enough with her cooking. Unfortunately, after two hours spent convincing the head chef she wasn’t going to poison anything, she was still refused work on the grounds that her taste was “too bland and simple” for palace life.
Things went about as badly with the head gardener and the lead floor servant. Only in these instances, her presence was “too intimidating” for other members of staff.
By late afternoon, she was not only crestfallen but panicked as well. Firelord Izumi had permitted her freedom (so to speak) only if she worked. But what if no one would let her? Did that break the terms of their agreement? Would the Firelord throw her back in the dungeon?
She had one last hope. The royal stables. Fuse trudged her way there, chains clinking. The stablemaster was a tough old codger by the name of Griff. He looked her up and down then up again, as Fuse explained the nature of her visit while trying her very hardest not to sound desperate.
“So the palace staff sent you here, did they?” His eyes lingered on her shackles and forehead restraint, then on the two guards (who, judging from their expressions, were not pleased by the various smells one tended to experience at a stable). Then he snorted. “Bunch of lilly-livers that lot. Even an old fool like me knows an animal can’t do much harm once it’s been properly muzzled.”
Fuse ignored the jab. “So… I can stay?”
“Sure. Provided you do good work. I don’t tolerate slackers. These are some dangerous critters we’re dealing with, and they’ll claw you up good if you drop your guard.”
“Good. Oh, and one more thing. If I hear you’ve been mistreating a beast, I’ll put you down myself.”
A bit harsh, perhaps. But Fuse appreciated the sentiment. “I would never, but thank you for the warning. When can I start?”
“You can start now.” He gestured over his shoulder. The stables were composed of three enormous barns, each with access to their own fenced outdoor paddock. Griff motioned to the barn furthest to the right. “That’s the guest barn. Apparently the Avatar’s wind buffalo is quite the sorry mess. Tend to it. Then after that you can see to the young eel hounds in barn two.”
A sky bison and hatchlings. He’s giving me the docile ones to care for. Probably to test my skills.
“What’s in the third barn?” Fuse asked. She normally wouldn’t have been so nosy, except she noticed that unlike the other two buildings which were wooden, the third barn was constructed of reinforced platinum.
“That’s my concern, not yours. Now go.”
Later that evening, despite some irritated looks from the guards, Bolin and Mako met up with Korra in the palace dining room. Korra was in the middle of her second helping of meat-buns and veggies. She and Mako made small talk over the bloodbender gang situation… well, mostly Mako talked, actually. Korra just sorta ate and made “hmm” noises whenever Mako asked her about Firelord Izumi’s plans.
Bolin tried his hardest to listen but kept finding himself glancing at the door. It was nearly sundown. Dinner would be over soon and Fuse sill hadn’t shown up.
“I’m gonna go check on her. You said she was at the stables right?” Bolin asked Korra.
Korra nodded. She actually seemed relieved by the change in subject. “I saw her earlier when I went to check on Juicy. She… took really good care of her, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that bison so clean. And she even made an herbal remedy for Juicy’s allergies.”
“Great,” said Bolin. “I’m sure Opal would appreciate…” he trailed as his throat tightened. When Mako broke up with Korra… and Asami, come to think of it, the three of them had still managed to stay friends. But Opal… he wasn’t sure if Opal would ever forgive him, and that made him sick inside. If there was one thing he didn’t like doing, it was hurting people. But he had still hurt Opal. And she had hurt him back in the worst way. Was still hurting him… even now, half a world away.
He looked down, busying himself by overturning a bowl of rolls then filling it with meat-buns from a serving tray. Korra and Mako didn’t say anything. Probably because they didn’t want to make him start crying, But also because it was awkward. At the end of the day, Opal was still their friend.
He raided the veggie tray, tucking carrots and celery neatly amid the meat buns. He may have messed things up royally with Opal, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying to earn back her friendship… someday. Right now, however, there was another person who seemed like she needed a friend even more.
He wrapped the bowl in a napkin, forming a makeshift basket. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Mako eyed him from across the table. “Why do you care about her so much?”
Man, he just had to phrase it like that, didn’t he?
“I don’t ‘care’. Not like that. I mean-” Come on, Bolin, keep it together. “Weren’t you the one who told me I needed to get my mind off…” he couldn’t bring himself to say Opal’s name again, “…you know? Things?”
Mako made a face. “Yeah, sure. But fawning over some psychotic combustion girl isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
Fawning. Okay, first of all, he totally was not doing that. And second, since when did being abused and manipulated suddenly make you psychotic?
Bolin frowned. “She’s not crazy.”
Mako stared at him as if he was the crazy one. “She held a knife to your throat.”
“That was just so she could try and get away.”
“And get back to blowing up Sunport.”
Talking to Mako was impossible sometimes. Him and his stupid logic and his policey ways. It was maddening. Bolin threw up his arms. “Okay, I get it, she’s not perfect. But neither are we, in case you’ve forgotten.”
It was the truth. As kids they had lied, cheated, stolen and joined a gang to survive the streets of Republic City. And as adults, their track record wasn’t much better. Yes, okay, they did help save the world. Many times. But Bolin had also helped a power-hungry madwoman hurt innocent people. And Mako had murdered Ming-hua. Not even the all-mighty Mako could logic that away, and his brother knew it.
“None of us are,” said Korra softly when she saw the pained look on Mako’s face.
Mako massaged between his eyes. “All I’m saying is you don’t even know this girl. Where does she live? Where is her family? I mean, for crying out loud Bolin, we don’t even know her real name.”
“Well, mister smarty smart detective, if you can find out those things without actually talking to her, then be my guest. In the meantime, I’ll be at the stables.”
Mako turned to Korra. “Korra, will you please talk some sense into him?”
“Actually, I’m siding with Bolin on this one.”
“Really?” both Mako and Bolin said simultaneously.
Korra nodded. “Really.”