When Izumi had said that she was attending an important royal meeting, Korra had assumed that the Firelord meant a meeting about which Firelord portrait should hang on which wall or something. She didn’t think it was the actual meeting with General Iroh and his soldiers about how they should reconquer Sunport.
“There was no significant progress made,” Izumi had assured her. “We decided to send spies into the area to gather more information before we make a move.”
“Oo, spies,” Korra muttered as she punched the empty air and sent out a fire blast towards no one. “That’s really aggressive. I’m sure the bloodbenders are all shaking in their shoes.” Of course, to Izumi’s face, she had simply said it sounded like a fine plan and she would wait to hear more.
Korra punched forward, and a blast of fire appeared before her, vanishing seconds later. Practicing by herself, she couldn’t really work on bloodbending. She’d tried the flight thing out a couple times, but somehow, her heart hadn’t been in it.
Firebending always felt good when she had a lot of pent-up aggression. Plus, it felt like a way she could safely mock Izumi. The stupid Firelord probably just got so harsh with Korra because she could do the one thing Izumi longed to do and never could–firebend.
I won’t be like her, Korra promised herself as she spun on the ground, kicking up flames with her feet this time. Or Zuko. If I get in a situation where bloodbending could save myself or my friends, I’m going to use it. While it had brought her some comfort knowing that Zuko had given it his all against the White Lotus, that didn’t mean he hadn’t held back other times. No one could keep a secret like that and not pay a price for it.
At that moment, Korra heard the door creak open. She stopped firebending immediately, not really in a mood to deal with an irritated Izumi if that’s who it was.
“I thought I might find you here,” Fuse said. She walked in and shut the door behind her. “This is awkward, but I have a question, and I’m unsure who else to ask…”
Korra tried to listen to what Fuse was saying. She really did. But her eyes lingered on Fuse’s tattoo, and she felt Zaheer’s words creep into her head: “They attack villages, murder the adults, and take the children… They’re given the tattoo to direct their chi energy down a forced, distorted path. It’s horrifically painful.”
Fuse noticed. And judging from the look she gave, she was both puzzled and irritated by the fact. “Are you listening, Avatar?”
Fuse let out an exasperated exhale then began again. “I was wondering if you could offer any advice regarding… what exactly I’m supposed to do on a date. I tried asking the guards, but they just laughed at me.”
Hang on, what’s this about a date? “Someone asked you out?”
“Who?” Uck… she was starting to sound like a gossiping schoolgirl.
“Bolin?!” Korra exclaimed. She wasn’t even sure why this surprised her. She knew the two of them had been spending the afternoons together.
“Yes,” said Fuse, a bit more nervously than before. “Is… that a problem?”
Korra waved her hands. “No. Not at all. I just didn’t expect… wow.”
Good for him, she thought. It was about time Bolin had another chance at happiness after the whole Opal disaster. And Fuse did seem to make him happy.
“Anyway,” Fuse was saying. “I guess I just want to know what to expect.” She looked at her feet, abashed. “I’ve never exactly done this before.”
No. I guess she wouldn’t have. Korra tried to go over the basics with Fuse, the way an older sister might. But somehow what started as honest and helpful advice ended up turning into a long-winded recollection of her own muddled romances. By the time Korra had finished, Fuse not only looked confused, she was staring at Korra as if she had grown a second head.
“So let me see if I have this straight. You started dating Bolin, then cheated on him with Mako, who then cheated on you with Asami. Mako then dumped Asami to be with you for good, only you broke up with Mako after a few petty arguments. You then forgot about this breakup after you lost your memory, but Mako didn’t bother to correct you even though he was sort of seeing Asami again. Then you and Asami both dumped Mako, again, and are now seeing each other. All the while Mako and Bolin’s family, who know both you and Asami broke up with Mako, are currently living in Asami’s house.”
“Yeah, that about sums it up.” Man, that sounded really bad aloud, didn’t it?
Fuse kept staring, and her jaw slackened a little. “How are you still friends?”
Korra scratched behind her head. “I… well, you see it’s complicated, and…” Time for a subject change. “You know what? Let’s get you a makeover.”
Fuse startled. “What? Why?”
“Because that’s just what you do, okay?”
Korra led Fuse (okay, more like dragged her) to the Fire Palace spa. Inside, a trio of spa workers and the palace’s head seamstress were gossiping like clucking hens. They nearly fled like birds, too, when Korra barged though the door.
“I have an important Avatar mission for you folks,” Korra announced, with particular emphasis on the “Avatar” part just to make sure they’d take her seriously.
The head seamstress, an older woman with a weathered face but clever eyes spoke. “But of course, Avatar Korra. How may we be of service?”
Korra yanked Fuse forward. She looked like a frightened puma-deer fawn. And why not? She had probably never been in a place like this. Not that Korra could blame her. She never visited spas either. Not willingly, anyway. “My friend here is going on her first date ever and wants to look fancy for the occasion.”
A trio of “awws” from the spa workers made Fuse redden and squirm. A fitting payback for earlier. The seamstress nodded, gesturing to the spa workers. They bowed and scurried off to gather this and prepare that. Meanwhile, the older woman patted Fuse’s hand.
“There, there. No need to be nervous. It’s Fuse, right? My Griff has told me all about you.”
Hearing the familiar name of her employer at the stables seemed to ease some of Fuse’s anxiety. Though she still looked alarmed when Korra turned to leave. “You’re not staying?”
“Yeah, see, I’m not really into all this girly stuff. But you have fun.”
The Fire Nation spies had returned empty-handed. Izumi had suspected they would, but still… this had always been a weak point for her. She always wanted some solution to every problem that didn’t put any of her own citizens in danger. It was the main reason she had stayed out of the battle with Kuvira, not that Korra or Raiko had been fond of that reasoning.
But now it seemed she was left with little other choice but to order her soldiers into a battle that would put a whole slew of innocent citizens at risk. And now her son had the fond duty of presenting that plan to everyone gathered in the war chamber.
“With no other source of information, I’m afraid we’ll have to move in with what we have,” Iroh began.
Many of the men and women gathered shook their heads in disappointment. The tension hung around their heads like a thick cloud of smoke.
“Hey, what about that combustion bender I’ve seen wanderin’ around the palace?” some rookie lieutenant in the front asked. The whole room turned to stare at him.
“There’s a… combustionbender in the palace?” Iroh asked, as if the lieutenant had declared he’d seen a fire ferret earthbending.
“Yes, there is,” Izumi said firmly. “She was being forced by the bloodbenders to assist them against her will. The Avatar and her friends rescued her, and she has been staying in the palace, helping to train the Avatar. Since I obviously cannot do that myself.” She cleared her throat. Probably laying it on a bit thick at the end there.
Iroh didn’t seem to notice, however. Instead, he slammed his palm down onto the table. “You mean to tell me, your highness, that you’ve got a combustionbender that’s aided our enemy living right here, and you haven’t yet interrogated her?” he asked. “Why not?”
Why hadn’t she? Izumi opened her mouth to reply, but realized she had no good answer. There was something about Fuse that made Izumi hesitate to ask her anything about what had happened before her arrival at the palace. Something that made it seem like talking about it could easily break the girl apart. And wasn’t she a citizen of the Fire Nation, too? Shouldn’t Izumi have been protecting her?
“I do not believe she would have very much information,” she said, using as firm a voice as she could to cover up her self-doubt. “But yes, I will question her.”
“When, exactly?” said one of Iroh’s officers. “With all due respect, your majesty, we need to move quickly.”
Izumi straightened. She would not be ordered about and doubted in her own palace, in her own war room, of all places. She might have been questioning herself lately, but everyone else would remember their positions or she would remind them. Firmly.
“We will go forward with the plans exactly as we have discussed,” she said sharply, as if scolding a child. “We will reconvene for one final meeting in twenty-four hours. If I learn anything useful from the combustionbender during that time, I will share it with you and we will alter our plans accordingly. Otherwise, we go forward with the attack on Sunport as scheduled. Now, if there are no other points to be made, this meeting is over.”
Her voice had gotten louder than it needed to; she could hear it echo out of the dips in the walls where lanterns flickered delicate patterns around the room. No one moved or stirred. Iroh narrowed his eyes like he was disappointed in her. It was incredibly frustrating. How did a position with so much power make her feel so helpless?
“No further discussion points,” Iroh said. “This meeting is adjourned.” He stood and left, his soldiers following behind without so much as a mutter. Her soldiers bowed to her. She barely noticed them, too busy worrying about the next step she had to take. There was no beating around it anymore. She had to confront Fuse, no matter what painful memories it brought up.
Bolin was right on time. He was groomed neat as a pin and dressed in (what Fuse had learned from the chatty spa workers) was the latest Fire Nation fashions in burgundy and gold. For some reason she couldn’t understand, Fuse liked this new look on Bolin, even if it was a bit excessive for a simple night out. Not that she had any right to judge.
Back at the palace spa, Fuse had spent nearly two hours being sufficiently washed, primped, plucked, dyed, styled. and outfitted. Though she had questioned the spa workers adamantly many times during her outfit fittings–regarding the practicality of various fashions–her protests were always dismissed with hand waves and giggles.
“Kira makes clothes for the royal family,” one of the spa workers had said, indicating the older seamstress with an admiring smile. “And you are a guest of Firelord Izumi and a friend of the Avatar. We couldn’t send you out in anything but the best. This is the Fire Palace, after all. We’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
They had certainly tried their very hardest with Fuse. But after an hour of playing dress up with gaudy, restricting Fire Nation fashions that only made Fuse more and more uneasy, Kira finally stepped in.
“Honestly, you lot. She’s going on a date, not to a coronation,” Kira chided before helping Fuse into a simple sleeveless dress of deep red. The outfit had accents of gold embroidery on the front and around the hem of the skirt, which flared slightly and stopped just at her knees. Fuse was grateful for that. This outfit, at least, she could move in… even if it was a touch flashy.
Bolin clearly approved of her new look, though. Fuse caught him looking her over as if he was somehow meeting her again for the first time.
“You look beautiful,” he said with a touch of warmth to his voice that made her stomach flutter. Fuse started to smile, then looked down. “I feel foolish,” Fuse finally said. Which wasn’t true. What she felt was vulnerable. But she couldn’t dare admit that.
She stared at her feet. Even her boots seemed, in her mind, absurdly overdecorated. They were black and gold with dangling gold pompoms that shimmered as she walked. At least her footwear was comfortable, though. Not like the heels one of the spa workers had tried to put her in. Fuse had barely made it two steps in those before she (politely) requested something “a bit less hazardous.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bolin scratch his chin and she felt his eyes moving over her again. When Fuse met his gaze, she found he was staring at the gold and ruby circlet strategically placed to cover her tattoo. “The tiara is a bit much,” he said, not unkindly. “But I have to say I’m loving the new hair color. Those red tips didn’t suit you at all.”
Reflexively, Fuse ran her fingers through her nearly shoulder length hair–conditioned velvety soft and now dyed a deep black. The color it should have been. “The red was Eagon’s idea. He said it made me look intimidating.”
“Jerkface Junior.” She shifted in place, suddenly eager to change topics. “So, what was this surprise you wanted to show me?”
Bolin grinned. Then he straightened and offered Fuse his elbow. “Right this way.” He led her off the palace grounds and into the bustling capital. Though it wasn’t the first time Fuse had visited a busy city, it was the first time she had done so as a person and not a weapon. This new outlook opened her senses to all manner of things she had never noticed before. The sound of children laughing. The smell of flowers at a florist stand. A store front filled with beautiful artwork. She even caught a few wondering glances from passing gentlemen admiring her outfit–and silently envying Bolin.
“This place is amazing,” said Fuse when they reached a corner and paused for a second to let the traffic signal change. “Is it anything like the city you come from?”
“Sort of. The buildings in Republic City are much taller. It makes things a bit more crowded, but more exciting, too. There’s always something going on. And the people there come from all over the world so you never know who you’ll meet.”
A place that accepted all people, no matter where they came from? Sounded almost too good to be true. Fuse wondered, could she, perhaps, find a place there too someday? A future?
A future doing what exactly? Fuse felt the doubt roil in the pit of her stomach. Who would ever hire a combustionbending criminal? They’d have to be crazy.
When they reached the end of the block, Bolin turned to her. “Now, close your eyes,” he instructed.
Fuse started to protest. How was she even supposed to navigate with her eyes closed? But Bolin saw her argument coming and took her hands in his. “Just trust me, okay?”
Fuse nodded, took a breath, and did as she was asked. This was part of Bolin’s master plan. He would not lead her into harm. Bolin took her by the hand. Fuse heard traffic and people moving and the shouts of shop vendors. They crossed at least three more streets, (Bolin taking extra care that she didn’t trip on a curb), before finally stopping.
“Okay. You can open your eyes now.”
Fuse did and in that moment, all the nervous insecurities in her stomach turned back to excitement. They were in front of a theater. Above them, outlined in lights, was a picture of Bolin dressed in fur holding a red-headed woman in his arms.
“Surprise!” cheered Bolin. “It’s a Nuktuk marathon! I thought, instead of me just telling you about my adventures, I’d actually show you one.”
Fuse smiled, too. Had she been less disciplined, she might even have jumped up and down like an excited pup. “I can’t wait.”