Bolin’s eyes swept across the crowded screening room, marveling. He had heard that Fire Nationers loved their theater, but this… The crowd he saw as he and Fuse entered the room went beyond ordinary fandom and hinged somewhere between a Nuktuk cult and an unruly mob.
“My, they sure are… spirited… aren’t they?” Fuse said. Her eyebrows were raised but Bolin could see a flicker of delight in her eyes.
“Yeah…” Bolin confirmed, though ‘spirited’ wasn’t the word he came up with in his head. More like “obsessed.” Half the crowd had some sort of Nuktuk memorabilia–Nuktuk t-shirts, plushies, bear-claw necklace replicas, and the like. There was even one group of friends wearing meticulously detailed costumes of the entire Nuktuk cast, including Ginger (complete with Varri-dyed red hair), Unalaq, and even Nuktuk’s animal friends, Juji and Roh-Tan in full body fur suits. The guy dressed as Nuktuk even sorta looked like him. Same age. Same build. Same… hairstyle?
Now that’s just creepy. He gave Fuse’s arm an insistent little tug. “Let’s see if we can find a seat near the back…”
Fuse cocked her head at him. “You don’t want to greet your fans?”
She looked confused. No surprise there. After all the bragging he had done during their afternoon talks, Bolin sneaking away from attention was probably the last thing she expected. The truth was Bolin had intended to drop a few hints to the owner of the theater as to who he was–just to boost himself up a little, maybe get some free snacks or better seats. But now… Getting mobbed by crazed fans in costumes wasn’t exactly the most romantic way to spend a date. Not that he could say that, of course. So he went with the next thing that popped into his head. “Nope. Tonight I’m all yours.” Yeah! That sounded suave!
Fuse liked that answer, too. Bolin saw it in her cheeks just before she looked away.
“Wow,” a voice piped up from the row of seats just beside them. “That’s the sappiest thing I’ve ever heard you say without a script in front of you!”
Bolin felt his own cheeks warm. It couldn’t be. Is that… “Varrick?”
Two seats away, sitting lengthwise so that he took up almost the entire row, Bolin’s friend Varrick gave him a lazy smile.
“The one and only.” He sprang up, gesturing for Bolin and Fuse to join him in his reserved row. Bolin started to decline–to keep his promise to Fuse. But before he could manage two words, Varrick somehow slipped around behind him and hooked his arms around both his and Fuse’s shoulders.
Fuse was not pleased by this. Not one bit. If not for the tiara blocking her tattoo, Bolin imagined there would have been a crater where Varrick was standing. He laughed nervously. “Fuse, this is my friend Varrick… who, apparently, has absolutely no concept of personal boundaries.”
Some of the tension left her face. “Varrick? As in the Varrick from your stories?”
Varrick ruffled Bolin’s hair as he grinned in Fuse’s face. “Has this knucklehead been talking about me? Did he ever tell you about the time he and I barely escaped an exploding train car?”
“The one you blew up, yes.”
Varrick jostled them around into cushioned seats then flopped himself into one on Bolin’s other side. Even with the entire row to themselves there, still wasn’t much space to spare. Varrick, being rich and well, Varrick, had cluttered most of the seats with rich-guy necessities. Fancy pillows for extra cushion, plates of expensive finger-foods and chilled drinks, a tray with a typewriter. A typewriter?
“What are you doing here?” Bolin asked.
“Why, getting inspired, of course. I’m lookin’ to expand the market for Varrick Industries. The war-machine business has been a little… slow since the whole giant-robot catastrophe thing. So I thought, time for a new focus. Something everyone can enjoy. Something that will put Varrick Industries on the map for generations.”
Oh boy, here it comes… Bolin tried his very best not to sound worried when he asked. “And what’s that, exactly?”
“Why, entertainment, my boy! Entertainment. People love stories. They love them so much they’ll pay top dollar to hear them. That’s where I plan to come in.” He winked. “With some strategically placed marking tossed in, of course.”
“Sounds great,” said Bolin as a little bead of sweat dripped down his forehead. “But… why the Fire Nation?”
Varrick threw out his arms as if to embrace the entire room. “Why not the Fire Nation? Nuktuk’s big news here, in case you haven’t noticed. And if there’s one thing potential investors love, it’s to be involved in something big. Plus…” Here his grin relaxed into more honest smile. “…Zhu Li’s always wanted to tour the Fire Nation–something about rustic charm or some such. She’s off seeing the sights as we speak. Says she wants to get a summer home here.” Varrick leaned back in his chair and helped himself to a spicy pepper-popper before offering the tray to Bolin. “I don’t get it, but hey, whatever makes her happy.”
“Oh.” He smiled. It was nice to see Varrick going out of his way to make Zhu Li happy for a change. He took a popper from the tray and bit it in half. Big mistake. Bolin made a mental note: peppers from the Fire Nation were hotter than regular ones. Though his lips and mouth were numb, Bolin somehow managed to stick the second half of the snack in his mouth without drooling all over himself.
“So,” said Varrick. “Now you know why I’m here. What brings you to the Fire Nation, Bolin? As if I have to ask.” Varrick prodded him in the ribs with his elbow in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge way.
Bolin coughed, nearly choking. He shot Fuse a panicked look. “Oh, it’s not like… I mean… I don’t think it is. Unless… well…” He loosened his collar, his face burning.
Fuse didn’t even notice. Or pretended not to. She was busy mixing him a drink concoction from the array of options Varrick had set out nearby. “We’re friends,” she said at last, handing Bolin the glass. She didn’t sound as unsure as he did. But there were unspoken questions in her eyes. Bolin wasn’t sure how he was going to answer them. Not that he could at the moment. He chugged the drink without question and was surprised by instant, cooling relief with a tangy aftertaste.
“Fantastic!” Varrick cheered, reaching past Bolin to offer Fuse a handshake. “Any friend of Bolin’s is a friend of mine. What did you say your name was again?”
Fuse tolerated Varrick’s grip longer than Bolin expected but still looked visibly relieved when he finally let go. “I didn’t, but… it’s Fuse.”
“Fuse?” Varrick raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. Interesting nickname.”
“Interesting… yes.” Fuse muttered. Bolin could see her eyes darting nervously, combing the room for a change in subject. “You know, Varrick, if you’re looking for Fire Nation support, you could always make a new Nuktuk mover. That was how you gained reputation among the Water Tribes? Am I right?”
“Sure is,” said Varrick proudly. “Well, with the southerners, at least. The northerners are still a little angry after the whole vilifying their former leader–even though in the end he was sort of a villain–anyway, that’s not important. What is important is you’ve just given me a brilliant idea, Fuse. Nuktuk. Fighting bad guys… but in the Fire Nation this time!” He made a dramatic sweeping motion. “We could call it… Nuktuk: Hero of the Fire Nation.”
Bolin perked up. “Does this mean I can be a mover star again?”
Varrick thumped him on the back. “Well, naturally. We can’t have Nuktuk without Nuktuk, can we?”
He yanked out the paper from his typewriter and crumpled it. Then he inserted a blank page, wound it into place and began typing out the title for his new screenplay. “Now we just need some ideas for a plot…”
Bolin thought. There would have to be action. Something only the Fire Nation could offer. “Ooo, oo! How about the Fire Nation is under attack by an evil dragon and the only way to defeat it is for Nuktuk to battle while riding another dragon?” Bolin practically shouted that last part. He couldn’t help it. The thought of having a career… of being a hero again made his heart race.
Fuse raised her eyebrows. “Sounds exciting.”
Varrick laughed and grinned. “It sure does! I like it!”
The lights dimmed. Showtime. The darkness forced Varrick to pause in his typing which was just as well since the click-click-click-click-ding-swish of his typewriter was still quite noticeable, even after the Nuktuk theme song started playing.
Fuse’s eyes stayed glued on the screen even when the costumed fans in the front row started singing along as loud as they could.
Who’s gonna fight for friends and freedom? Nuktuk!
He’s the biggest, baddest, bending-ist man I know.
Who protects the icy tundra? Nuktuk!
Battling Northies up there in the snow!
When Unalaq starts trouble, he’ll punch him in the mouth.
He’s Nuktuk, the hero of the South!
Bolin knew he should have been watching the screen, too. But he kept catching himself looking at Fuse instead, if only to see her reactions. He watched the way her eyes lit up when he came on screen. The cross frown she got when Ginger was captured. Her silent fury at the evil Unalaq as he threatened to freeze the world with his doomsday device. And when Nuktuk passionately kissed Ginger (ill timed as it was with her strapped on a moving conveyor belt of death), Bolin saw a strange, unreadable expression cross Fuse’s face. As if she was seeing something completely new and didn’t know quite what to feel.
They were such honest expressions. So innocent. Almost like a child. The child she hadn’t been allowed to be? Yes. That was it, Bolin realized as he drank in the sight. This is Fuse without her barriers.
The lights came on too soon, making him blink in surprise. The crowd murmured excitedly amongst themselves, some standing and stretching. Varrick was back hammering away on his typewriter.
Intermission time already? Had he really not noticed how close they were to the finale? No. How could he? He had been watching a completely different show. Bolin felt his ears burn. Had Fuse noticed?
He blushed even harder when she looked his way. But now was not the time for awkward pauses. He had to say something. “So,” he said as he cleared his throat. “What do you think of me so far? I mean–not me me, the me on screen. Nuktuk. The mover.” Bolin tried not to sound as awkward he was feeling inside, but he failed miserably.
Fuse humored him with a smile. “It’s very exciting. Though I was wondering why Ginger doesn’t simply break herself out.”
Varrick stopped typing. “Break herself out?”
Bolin sighed. Varrick never did take criticism well, especially when it came to his “artistic genius.”
“Yes,” said Fuse. “Instead of sitting around whining and waiting for Nuktuk to save her.”
“Well, of course she’s whining. She’s in distress. Every good story has a damsel in distress.”
Fuse raised an eyebrow, “a ‘damsel in distress?'” She emphasized the words, as if questioning a foreign concept. To her it probably was, considering how and by whom she was raised. One thing was clear though… she did not agree.
Bolin touched her shoulder, trying to diffuse the tension before Varrick got himself blown up. “Don’t get mad, Fuse. It isn’t real.”
Fuse crossed her arms. “Even still, when someone threatens me, I don’t wait around for someone to save me. I kick their butt.”
Varrick stared at her and Fuse stared back, challenging. Thankfully Fuse didn’t unleash her combustion awesomeness on him. Instead, Varrick’s face lifted and he laughed hard. “Ha! Wow I like you you’re tenacious! Just like my Zhu Li.” He gave Bolin a friendly nudge in the shoulder. “Bolin, you should totally marry this one. Sassy little thing like her is just what you need to keep you in line.”
Bolin didn’t know what to say to that but babbled something like “I… wait–what?”
Fuse was staring at her hands, her face pensive and also a bit shaken. As if the prospect of marriage had never even occurred to her until that moment.
Varrick was none the wiser. No surprise there, considering he had all the subtlety of a locomotive. “Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea for the mover. What if we bring in another hero, a woman, to fight alongside Nuktuk? Hmm… yeah… I can work with that!”
Something exploded. Bolin flinched at the noise, fearing for a second it was the sound of Varrick’s typewriter being blown into a million pieces by Fuse. It wasn’t.
Fuse was already on her feet, jarred out of her seat and into weapon mode. Others in the crowd were joining in, standing, questioning.
“What the heck was that!” Varrick demanded. Rather than standing, he had somehow managed to throw himself under the seats.
“There.” Fuse pointed to the source. Behind them Bolin saw a door to the projector room fly open. A cloud of smoke billowed out along with two staggering, coughing, employees.
“Well, that doesn’t look good… ”
Varrick crawled out from his hiding place and brushed himself off casually as if he hadn’t been cowering just a moment ago. “I better go have a look see.”
And with that, he was gone. Bolin sat back down. Nothing much else he could do, really. After all, the last time he had tried to help Varrick fix something, they’d ended up blowing up half a train. Fuse eventually followed suit.
“Don’t worry,” said Bolin when he saw the concern on her face. “Varrick’s a genus with machines. He’ll be able to fix it.”
Twenty minutes later, Varrick returned wiping grease from his hands. “Well, the good news is I fixed the projector. The bad news is the film was ruined in the explosion.”
Fuse’s face fell. “You mean… we can’t watch the ending?”
There was a burst of static in reply as the theater’s intercom came on.
“Attention, ladies and gentlemen,” came the nasally voice of the theater’s owner. “I’m afraid due to technical difficulties, I have to cancel the rest of this presentation. Now if you will please exit the theater in an orderly fash–”
Voices rose, cutting him off. Angry Fire Nationers. Not good. Some even started booing “Nuktuk’s the worst!” As if the made-up-character was somehow responsible for destroying the film. Seriously, what was wrong with these people?
Bolin had a sinking feeling. If any an angry fan realized he, the one and only Nuktuk, was there now, the reception would be vastly different. Varrick was one step ahead of him, packing his things. “And that’s our cue to exit…”
“Good idea.” Bolin turned to Fuse, only to find that she was one of those angry Fire Nationers too.
“Now wait a minute, Bolin. You can’t just leave.”
“Sure, I can. It’s easy, see, I’ll show you.”
Fuse didn’t budge. “But you’re Nuktuk. Can’t you just show us the rest?”
Varrick and Bolin exchanged looks.
“You mean act out the mover… here?”
“That’s a brilliant idea!” Varrick cheered. “A live show! Talk about great publicity!” Varrick sat back down and hastily set back up his typewriter. “Quick, Bolin, go round yourself up some co-stars. That costumed bunch at the front looks like they’ll be up to the job. Oh, and find me someone with a nice ‘announcing’ voice.”
Oh, brother. He started to hesitate then caught the excited look in Fuse’s eyes and something in him melted. Well, I did promise to show her one of my adventures.
He made his way to the front row, to the group of costumed fans. Here goes nothing. He tapped the other Nuktuk on the shoulder. The guy turned in a flash. “What do you wa–oh, flames. Are you… who I think you are?”
Bolin puffed out his chest. “That’s right. And I’m afraid Nuktuk needs your help, citizens.”
The fans gasped and exchanged excited glances with each other. The fanboy straightened. “Of course! Anything, Mr. Nuktuk, sir.”
The Nuktuk fanboy looked like he might wet himself, which Bolin dearly hoped he wouldn’t considering what he was about to ask.