Firelord Izumi was doing better with Flare. Fuse could see her confidence improve every day. Izumi’s dragon was responding well to this new attitude as well. Flare now accepted Izumi’s company in the stable and had grown accustomed to, perhaps even fond, of the Firelord’s affectionate nose rubs and chin scratches. It would be a while before the Firelord and her dragon built the trust needed to fly together… but everything in due time. For now it was on to the next step–getting Flare to accept food offered from Izumi’s own hands without harming Izumi in the process. No small task when dealing with a hungry dragon.
But Izumi was determined to succeed despite the risk. It was an admirable quality of hers–no doubt passed down from her father. Fuse would never admit it, but she envied Izumi for that–of knowing where she came from… even if Izumi and Lord Zuko’s relationship was tenuous at best. Fuse couldn’t recall her own parents. Not without flashes of agony.
“Well,” said Izumi. “I’m ready when you are.” Fuse could tell from her tone she was mentally bracing herself and didn’t blame her. She was the Firelord and was expected to remain poised and proper no matter what the circumstances. This Fuse did not envy.
Scaling Flare’s trough, Fuse unscrewed the top off a barrel of ‘fresh’ halibut and upended the contents into the large, rectangular, metal food holder. The fishy smell that permeated the barn was nothing short of unbearable. Perfect for a hungry dragon. Not so much for the poor humans who would be dishing it out.
Fuse swallowed, struggling not to gag openly in front of the Firelord, though one look at Izumi’s face revealed it was clear she was having a similar dilemma. It didn’t take long for Flare to catch wind of her meal. Fuse and Izumi heard her eager sniffing all the way from the paddock outside. When the dragon finally did poke her head inside the building, she had worked up a rather impressive lather.
“Right, then.” Fuse jumped down. Then, after a final, precautionary swallow, she dug her hand into the fishy grossness, yanked out a promising-sized halibut, and held it by the gills. Flare moved within a few feet of her then lowered her huge head, sniffing eagerly as Fuse extended the fish.
“Gentle,” Fuse said firmly. Flare snorted flame. Then, after a moment’s consideration, she parted her jaws just enough to pluck the fish from Fuse’s hand, as gentle as if she were reaching to preen a hatchling. Fuse stepped aside, smiling with satisfaction as Flare munched and crunched and finally tossed back her head and swallowed.
Then Fuse looked expectantly to Izumi. “Your turn.”
The Firelord stiffened, swallowed, and finally steeled herself. She reached into Flare’s trough, unflinching, and pulled out another sizable fish. Flare watched her every move, tongue flicking impatiently. When Izumi slowly extended the fish to her, the dragon’s eyes narrowed and she curled her lip in warning.
Only Izumi’s eyes moved, just for a second, to affirm from Fuse the dragon body language she was just starting to understand.
“Keep steady. She’s testing you,” Fuse answered Izumi’s unspoken question.
When the Firelord didn’t hesitate at her threat, Flare snorted, stomped one foot in frustration, then finally lowered her head to take the food as gentle as she had with Fuse. Again she crunched, reared back, and swallowed.
Izumi and Fuse exhaled their relief simultaneously. “Well done, milady.”
“Thank you.” Izumi gave her a half-smile and Fuse could see pride in her eyes despite the sheen of sweat that still glistened on her forehead. Fuse was proud, too–proud that she had been able to help someone for a change using a skill other than her ability to fight. It was one more small reminder that she could be more than a weapon.
Izumi was in the process of feeding Flare another fish when some unseen scurrying noise across the barn made the dragon hiss. The unexpected reaction made Izumi startle backwards and nearly lose her balance. Fuse caught her shoulder just in time. “It’s all right, milady. It’s just Shouga.”
Shouga ambled in, right on cue, drawn by the smell of Flare’s lunch. She wasn’t alone. Romping along close behind was the black eel-hound runt. He wore a slim leather halter on his head and what looked to be the remains of a training harness. Only one strap was actually still keeping the harness on. The rest of the buckles, and any other bits within teething range, had been chewed off.
The pup bounded to Fuse’s side, rearing up to plant his front paws on her shoulders. Fuse staggered back a few steps. “Well, if it isn’t my little shadow. Did you sneak past Griff again, naughty boy?”
The pup responded with a flurry of eel-hound kisses that made Fuse sputter and spit. She countered him quickly, reaching out to tickle the pup’s ribs until he wiggled himself off of Fuse and onto his side, tail thumping all the while.
“He certainly is fond of you,” said Izumi.
“Yes,” Fuse agreed. “Some might argue a bit too fond. She worked open the last buckle around the pup’s neck and tossed the ruined harness aside. “It’s made training him a bit challenging, I’m afraid.”
“Well, then, perhaps you should take charge of him.”
An intriguing notion. Admittedly, Fuse had considered suggesting the same idea to Griff more than once over the weeks. But Master Jerkface’s ingrained zoology lessons, and the new ones Griff had been teaching her about eel-hounds in particular, always put a quick end to that delusion. It was the same now.
“I would if I thought it would help, milady,” Fuse told Izumi honestly. “But Griff’s having enough trouble getting the pup to respond to him and the other handlers. If I take over training him, chances are he’ll imprint on me as his master. He’d be useless to your stable.”
“You think so?” Izumi said in a thoughtful tone–the same tone she had once used with Fuse over tea when she was trying to reason away the need for Fuse to wear chains. “Well, I think a trained eel-hound is more useful than a willful one running amok across my palace. A trained hound can help advertise the quality of my runner-beasts, maybe even father of a champion litter someday. So if you think about it, you becoming his trainer will only benefit my stable in the long run. Don’t you agree?”
She looked to Fuse as if she expected a reply. Fuse stared back, keenly aware that the Firelord had somehow just logiced her way into giving Fuse ownership of the pup, but still not quite believing it.
“Um… yes?” Fuse finally said, though her answer was only a formality at this point. She was talking to ruler of the Fire Nation, after all.
“Excellent. I’m glad we could come to this arrangement.”
“Me, too.” Fuse wasn’t sure what else to say. What she could say that would possibly express all that she was feeling?. She was surprised and grateful and happy. And still, part of her couldn’t help wonder. Was this a bargain? A trade for her help with Flare?
Did it matter if it was?
No. She stooped down to rub the pup’s belly making one of his hind legs twitch. “You hear that, boy? You’re mine now.”
The pup, her pup, her Shadow, butted her with his snout, knocking her off balance just long enough to tackle her to the ground. He licked her face until it was raw. Fuse made a show of shoving him off. But in truth, she was glad. At least this way Izumi wouldn’t see the happy tears streaming down her face.
The two of them must have caused quite a scene. Even Flare paused in her eating long enough to watch the spectacle before hissing a second warning at Shadow and the volcat who was starting to wander dangerously close to Flare’s trough. The pup, who was too delirious in his own happiness to even notice the dragon until now, sprang up and pressed tight against Fuse. He made a throaty gurgle. A weak warning considering his body was lowered with submission and his tail was still drumming.
Shouga was not so easily frightened. Ignoring the looming dragon above her, Shouga scampered up the side of Flare’s feeding trough and took a curious sniff at the contents. Flare growled and snorted flame close enough to singe Shouga’s whiskers. The volcat, in turn, arched her back and bared her teeth.
“Shouga, that isn’t yours.” Fuse approached and lifted the volcat, pulling her away the instant before Shouga tried to latch onto Flare’s snout. “Probably just as well, too.” Fuse grunted as she hefted the animal. “You’re getting a little pudgy.” Shouga hissed and squirmed in Fuse’s arms. Fuse managed to avoid the worst of her claws and raspberry the volcat’s belly. Fuse did not avoid the angry toe-nip she received the instant she put Shouga on the ground.
“Ow! Why you little…”
Shouga was already running out the door, all too pleased with herself. Fuse watched her go, then seated herself on the closest storage chest and massaged her aching toe. “You think raising a dragon is difficult? Try raising a volcat.” She plucked a clean rag from a bin nearby, scrubbing fish oil and eel-hound spit off her hands and face.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Izumi smirk. “No, ‘milady’ this time?”
Fuse stiffened. Had she really been so careless? “I beg your pardon mi–” She started to stand, to bow in apology, but only succeeded in stubbing her other toe. Izumi held up her hand, trying her hardest not to chuckle.
“It’s fine. Really. No one in here to impress but the animals, and I’m sure they won’t tell anyone.”
“No I… suppose not.” Fuse slowly let herself sit back down and relax again. The woman did make a fair point. Without guards and other impressionable citizens to keep up an appearance for, Firelord Izumi was free to just be regular Izumi. Though why she would let Fuse see this side of her was still unclear. Fuse wondered–had they actually become friends? Was that why she had entrusted Shadow to her?
Izumi handed Flare the last fish then joined Fuse at the rag bin and took a clean cloth for herself. “Kalos used to remind me of that all the time when we were out here. You know he almost brought home a volcat once. He always wanted to try his luck breeding them. I suppose it’s a good thing I never allowed it.” She smiled an odd smile. Wise, wistful, and, for an instant, strangely sad, too. Fuse didn’t know quite what to make of it.
That bothered her. Sure, Izumi was never the easiest person to read, but Fuse had never had trouble like this before. Fuse tried to study her closer, looking for some missed gesture or subtle face change that might clue her in as to what exactly the Firelord was dwelling on–and thus how to respond. But Izumi caught her staring and raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Fuse went back to scrubbing her hands. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing or you wouldn’t have made that face. What’s bothering you?”
Fuse wasn’t aware her expression had changed, which only bothered her more. If she was this baffled inside, she could only imagine how foolish she must have looked on the outside. She twisted the rag in her hands. “It’s… whenever you talk about Kalos, it makes milady…” She tried to think of how to phrase her observation without coming across as offensive. “…hard to read.”
Izumi frowned, just a hair. Fuse scratched behind her head. There was no way to phrase it politely. She sucked in a breath and tried to clarify. “You are happy but sad at the same time, and there is something in your eyes. I don’t know what it is, and I can’t explain why.”
Izumi was quiet for a moment, and Fuse could see her face go still and serious as she mulled over Fuse’s words. “Something in my eyes when I talk about…” All of a sudden, Izumi’s features lifted and she nodded in an exaggerated oh-so-that’s-what-this-is-about sort of way. Then she smiled a motherly smile. “You’ll find out what it means someday… when you fall in love.”
Love again. That explained why she was so confused. Fuse shook her head lightly. “That’s doubtful, seeing as how I can’t fall in love.”
“Oh? Why do you say that?”
An honest question. “Because I’m a…” Fuse began and stopped when she remembered she was only part weapon now. “Because… no one taught me how.” It was as good an explanation as any, and yet it came out so clumsily, Fuse actually felt her cheeks warm. She startled a little when she felt Izumi rest a hand on her shoulder.
“Love isn’t a skill, Fuse. It can’t be taught or rationalized. It just happens. Sometimes without you even realizing.”
Without realizing? How was that possible? The more she learned about this love thing, the more complicated it seemed to become.
Shadow perked his ears and stood. He darted to the door, bouncing and yipping with puppyish joy. He nearly toppled over Bolin, who gave Shadow head scratches as the eel-hound leaned into him. “Hey, buddy. Is Fuse around?” Odd. He sounded a little nervous.
Shadow garerrrred in answer, trotting back over to Fuse’s side for more pets. Bolin looked over but immediately straightened when he noticed that it wasn’t only Fuse nearby. “Oh, hey. Are you busy? You look busy. I’ll come back. ”
Izumi stood, prompting Fuse to do the same. “That’s not necessary. We were just finishing up.” She offered Shadow a light chin scratch then looked to the pup’s new owner. “I’ll go settle things up with Griff and have him draw up Shadow’s ownership papers for you.”
Fuse nodded then dipped her head just slightly. The gesture was not meant as the formal bow of a subject, but rather, an acknowledgment of deep gratitude and respect from a friend. “Thank you.”
Bolin smiled, clearly happy that she was happy, but also a little unsure how to conduct himself in his present company. “Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s good, ’cause um… you were kind of wanted in the big war meeting room place.”
Fuse assumed he was talking about Izumi. But Bolin’s eyes never left her for some reason. She wasn’t the only one who noticed, either. One of Izumi’s eyebrows arched in Fuse’s direction. She pretended not to notice. “I assume you mean the Firelord?” she asked Bolin.
“Oh! Yes,” he quickly clarified, giving Izumi a hasty bow. “You. Your majesty. Firelord, ma’am.”
“I appreciate the notice.” She started to leave, though not before offering the two of them a knowing little smile. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Bolin cocked his head. “Um, enjoy what now?”
Fuse shrugged and ruffled Shadow’s ears. “You’re early today. Why? Is everything all right?”
“Yeah, sure. Everything’s fine.” He shifted in place. “I was just thinking. You’ve been working nonstop since you got here.”
True but not entirely accurate. She had been working nonstop since she was seven years old. Bolin went on. “Every morning you’re up training Korra with the–you know–heipp-boom. Kaboom!” He drew a breath mimicking her combustionbending exhale then gestured with his hands to indicate the explosion to go with his sound effects. “And the wwahhh!” This time he pulled himself into a mock fighting stance that make him look like a clumsy insect. “And then you spend all afternoon here where you’re like, ‘I am the mighty dragon whisperer. Behold my awesomeness!'” He wiggled his fingers in the direction of Flare, as if casting some sort of spell.
Fuse laughed. “That’s about how it goes–sort of. What’s your point?”
“My point is you deserve a night off for a change.”
An intriguing thought. Even though realistically she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. But Bolin was trying to lead up to something, so she decided to humor him. “I suppose I am a few decades overdue for a break.”
It was just the answer Bolin was waiting for. “Great. Now that that’s settled…” His voice got nervous again “I don’t suppose you’d want to… go into town with me later? Just the two of us?” He put a little emphasis on that last part, an implication Fuse didn’t understand. Why would going somewhere with Bolin be any different than the time they spent together here? And why was the suggestion making him so nervous? What was he scheming? Best to find out.
“To do what, exactly?”
A boyish smile bloomed on Bolin’s face, like he had been waiting for her to ask that very thing. “It’s a surprise.”
A surprise? Now there was a novel concept. Jerkface had taken special care to train his weapons to predict and counteract before anyone managed to surprise them. But despite all those lessons, despite all the time she had spent with Bolin, Fuse still had absolutely no clue what kind of surprise he had in mind. How could she really when he was so unpredictable–so, well, Bolin-ish–all the time? It was both frustrating and oddly invigorating, too. Bolin kept her on her toes. Kept her curious and wanting to know more. See more. Live more. He was doing it again now.
“A surprise, hmm?” Fuse scratched her chin. “Yes, that sounds fun. I’d love to.”
“Great. It’s a date. I’ll come by later around sunset after your shift is over.”
“Great,” replied Fuse. She watched Bolin walk away, chest high and with the cutest little bounce in his step. Then she rubbed Shadow’s ears again. “Hear that, boy? I’ve got a date.” The eel-hound made a short of grarru noise and cocked his head as if to ask, “What’s a date?” Fuse realized she didn’t know, either. Crap.