Izumi stirred in her sleep. It was strange; for the past few nights, she had actually been sleeping well. Now, as she tossed and turned, all she could do was worry about her father.
To help ease her mind, she sat up and walked over to her messenger hawk’s perch by the window. The bird was resting, but only lightly, and he cooed at Izumi’s touch.
“There now,” she said softly. “I have something for you.”
He cocked his head as she flicked on a lamp and jotted down a note to her father. Another plea to see reason, to play things safe and come back to the palace. She tucked the message into the bird’s carrier, fastened it tightly, and sent him off.
She watched the skies for a long while after the bird had disappeared into the night.
Why did she have to send notes like this at all? Couldn’t he just be sensible for once? Why did she always have to be the one to explain to him when some drastic action was needed? Even when she was a child…
Izumi’s thoughts slipped back to a time she’d almost forgotten.
She was ten years old. Only a couple years younger than Avatar Aang had been when he was first told he was the Avatar. Her power over bloodbending had increased dramatically since she had first learned of it. Nothing, still, compared to her father’s skill, but enough to give her the confidence that if she ever had to use it, she could.
“I want to see my grandfather,” she announced at breakfast one morning. Her father looked ill. The servants exchanged worried glances and quickly exited the dining hall with no need for a direct command.
“Izumi,” her father said firmly. “We’ve discussed this before. And I told you–“
“You told me than when I was older… more mature, I think your words were, that I could see him.” She straightened in her chair. She was still a bit short for her age, and the chair’s oversized back didn’t do much to downplay that. “Well, I’m ten years old now. It’s time for me to know where I came from.”
Her father massaged his temples. “Believe me, my little firebird, I understand better than you know about wanting to make peace with family. But Ozai isn’t like your aunt. He never showed any remorse or hesitation for the crimes he committed. His sole purpose right now is to try to make our lives as difficult as possible.” He reached over and took a sip from a glass of lime juice. He had that calm look on his face like he just knew that his orders would be obeyed without question. Izumi wasn’t in the mood to take it today.
“If you don’t let me know, I’ll find a way in there myself,” she threatened. It was an empty threat. She felt okay about the idea of using her bloodbending to defend herself, but she wasn’t about to use it to manipulate people to get what she wanted. Her father probably knew that, too.
“Oh, you will, will you?” he said, not putting the glass down.
“Yes,” she said, much more confident than she felt.
Her father sighed and shook his head. “I suppose I can’t put this off forever. Very well, then. But if there are any issues, we’re leaving straight away. Is that understood?”
Izumi nodded. “Yes.”
Moments later, father and daughter descended the forbidden set of stairs to the dungeons. Zuko carried a tray of tea with fragile china cups that tinkled against each other like a miniature set of chimes. Izumi cocked her head curiously at the offering, but said nothing about it.
The dungeons weren’t as creepy as she expected them to be. Maybe she had spent so much time building them up in her mind that reality couldn’t hope to compete. The walls were stone, but solid and dry. There were no creepy, flickering torches, but perfectly functional electric lights.
Her grandfather sat in his cell, his hair long, but well-trimmed. He sat with his back to the bars of his cell. If heard his visitors approach, he did nothing to show it until they stood only a few feet away.
“I know it’s you, Zuko.” His voice was raw and raspy with disuse. “No one else comes down here. Not even your sister. She used to talk to me all the time. Now she doesn’t even have a word for me. Isn’t that sad?”
Izumi’s watched her father’s face carefully as he set down the tray of tea. “Your granddaughter wanted to meet you.”
“Oh, did she now?” At this, Ozai finally turned and faced them. Izumi ordered her heart to slow down. This man would not scare her. She was the Fire Nation princess. He was some helpless old man in a cell. No matter what power he used to have, he didn’t have it anymore.
Of course, a quick glance at the scar on her father’s face reminded her of just how great Ozai’s power used to be.
“I’ve heard of you,” Ozai said to Izumi. “The guards aren’t quiet. Not as quiet as they need to be if they want to keep me ignorant. The Fire Nation crown princess. A nonbender.”
He spat at her. She should have seen in coming, but she had been so focused on trying to stay calm, she hadn’t had anymore attention to give. Most of the spittle landed on her glasses, which she instinctually removed as she stepped back.
She wiped the lenses against her sleeve while her father took a protective step in front of her.
“You dare treat my daughter like that, you–“
“What? Lowlife? Ungrateful horse-pig? Let’s be blunt, Zuko, you aren’t very creative with insults, and I’ve heard them all a dozen times over. Let’s just accept that you’re angry at me and still too much of a coward to do anything about it.”
Izumi stepped out from behind her father’s protective stance and put her more-or-less cleaned glasses back on.
“You should watch how you speak,” she said firmly.
“Really? ‘Watch how I speak’? So, Zuko, your daughter not only lacks bending abilities, but also any sense of originality.”
His wry smile contorted into a fierce glare as his gaze went from Zuko to Izumi.
“Do you know what happened when I thought your father had no bending? I ordered him thrown out of the palace. It was only your grandmother’s begging and pleading, and my brush with a whim of mercy that sparred his life. A powerful nation needs a powerful leader. Your kind is nothing but a race of parasites… you will be a leech on all that your accentors have built. The Fire Nation will fall under you.” He lowered his head as if he would genuinely sob over the loss. She saw no tears when he lifted his face again, however. His eyes were no longer on her, but back on his son. On the scar he’d left there so many years ago.
“But it’s my fault… I was too soft. I let this disease grow in our family. I should have burnt it out… turned it to ash before it could flourish.”
“That’s enough out of you!” Zuko snapped. He didn’t stand in front of Izumi or take her hand his time. Maybe he was afraid of his anger. Maybe he needed all his strength to keep it in check.
Bloodbend him, Izumi thought to herself. Show him who’s really weak.
But he never would, and she knew it.
“You may insult me all your like, but you’ll leave my daughter alone,” said Zuko. “Let’s go, Izumi.” He started to walk away, but Izumi didn’t follow.
“Just wait a minute,” she said. “If I let you protect me, doesn’t that just prove his point? I want to be able to stand up to him. Let me have a few minutes by myself.”
“Izumi, I–” Zuko tried to object, but Izumi could tell that she’d won. Her words hit too close. He’d come down here himself so many times to face this man. He couldn’t deny her the same opportunity.
“Call for a guard immediately if you have any problems.”
She nodded and hesitantly, her father walked up the stairs. She listened until his footsteps could no longer be heard. Ozai sneered.
“You know, problems are more than just physical. Mental… emotional strife can be just as deadly. A seed of doubt takes root in your mind and tears you apart. Maybe that will be the Fire Nation’s salvation. The new Firelord takes her own life when the pressure of ruling such a powerful nation becomes too much for–“
He stopped speaking. Choked on his last words, actually. Izumi held her hand forward, ordering his throat to tighten, his lungs to take in less air.
“Let’s get things straight,” she whispered. “I don’t doubt myself. You do. Because even though you had as much power as you dreamed of, you still couldn’t use it to defeat my father or the Avatar. You’ve been sitting in this pit for decades wondering again and again how you failed, what you missed. But the answer to your question is obvious. You’re weak, and we’re strong. You lost because you deserved it.” With a motion, she sent him hurling against the back wall. He grunted in pain, but at the same time greedily gulped in huge breaths of air that he’d been denied.
“You’re alive at our whim; never forget that,” Izumi said. “And know that no matter how Father feels about you, I will never forgive what you did to him.”
He didn’t answer, and she didn’t wait for him to. Her heart pounded as she rushed back up the stairs. Ozai died less than a week later. She never found out why.
When the Nuktuk fanboy approached, Fuse almost didn’t recognize him, dressed as he was (rather sloppily) in Bolin’s formal wear. “You must be the pretty lady.”
Fuse cocked her head. “Pardon?”
The boy shifted, cleared his throat, then looked to Varrick. “Mr. Nuktuk told me to talk to the ‘the guy next to that pretty lady over there.’ He said you need my voice? Or something?”
“Ah, yes. Have a seat.”
Up front, Bolin’s costumed fans were busy moving around props. Fuse was impressed. They actually had some decent arctic scenery thanks to the popular classic “The Boy in the Iceberg” from when this room was used for actual stage performances and not just movers. When the “scene” was set, Varrick gave the cue, and the Nuktuk fanboy cleared his throat and called loudly, “Attention, ladies and gentlemen! I have a special announcement… which is being handed to me now…” He paused, taking the improvised “script” from Varrick fresh out of the typewriter, and waited until the room quieted. “It seems we’re in for a treat today, folks. A special once-in-a-lifetime live performance featuring none other than Nuktuk himself!”
He gestured to the stage, and his friends began singing the Nuktuk theme song. Their enthusiasm was contagious and soon the entire theater was singing, too.
Bolin entered dressed in the fanboy’s Nuktuk costume. He waved to the crowd and posed, evoking cheers and exclamations.
“When last we left Nuktuk, he was trapped in the evil clutches of Unalaq’s pet bird,” the boy continued reading. On stage, Bolin did his best “captured” impression as one of the fans hoisted him up with a weighted stunt pulley and made bird calls.
All in all, they managed a good performance. Bolin was a natural on stage (and not half bad looking with all his muscles showing), as he “waterbent” his enemies into submission with blue ribbons. He couldn’t have asked for better co-stars either. This group had not just seen the mover but memorized it line for line. And the thrill of working with Nuktuk only added to their acting enthusiasm.
Even with the makeshift set and fake water ribbons, Fuse still shed a few tears when “Juji” died and cheered when Unalaq was defeated. She even felt a spark of unexpected irritation when the girl playing Ginger threw herself into Bolin’s arms and squealed “My hero!” Bolin was a gentlemen about it though, only kissing her on the cheek rather than on the lips like in the film.
It was too good to last. A door at the back slammed open making way for a wiry, hook-nosed man with a stuck-up expression and two of the biggest brutes Fuse had ever seen.
“What is the meaning of this?” the thin man yowled in a voice that sounded more teenage-girl than grown-man. The same voice, Fuse noted, that had blared over the intercom. “I thought I told you people that the show was canceled.”
Bolin stepped forward. “You said the mover was canceled. This is live. Obviously not the same thing, so…”
He narrowed flinty eyes at Bolin. “Just who you do you think you are?”
To Fuse’s delight, and the owner’s irritation, the entire crowd sang out in reply, “He’s Nuktuk! The Hero of the South!”
The man sniffed, turning up his nose with distain. Clearly, he had seen many a costumed enthusiast claim the same and was not impressed. “Well, ‘Nuktuk,’ this is my theater and there are no free shows here. Period.”
Again, practically on cue, the crowd acted, booing and hissing as if this man was not the rightful proprietor of the theater, but an evil villain, come to challenge Nuktuk.
Varrick thought so, too. The only difference was he had access to a typewriter. The fanboy read the new material, his voice carrying over the riled crowd. “Oh, no! But what’s this? Looks like Unalaq isn’t the only threat facing our hero. Behold, the evil Pennypincher and his thugs!”
That did it. The theater owner hand-gestured towards the stage. “Boys, show the young man out. Now!”
The thugs advanced, charging towards the stage like twin trains. The crowd booed. Bolin looked about uneasily as his co-stars scattered. Fuse was moving, too–the weapon in her sprung by old instincts and the fear on Bolin’s face.
“No, seriously, I’m Nuktuk. Look!” Bolin tried to strike a few battle poses but only ended up stumbling over the bag of rocks used to counterbalance the stunt pulley. The thugs climbed the stage. Advanced some more. Bolin was in an earthbending stance trying to pull rocks from the bag to defend himself. But he wasn’t fast enough. One readied a fireball and aimed it for Bolin’s head.
It did not strike him. Instead, the fire twisted around Fuse’s fingers as she shifted stances, turned, and re-directed it harmlessly aside.
“Back away,” she said glaring daggers up at the two men. “I will not give another warning.”
Somewhere in the distance she heard a room full of gasps and a low oooooo sound. Then a voice spoke. “But what’s this? A mysterious woman has come to Nuktuk’s aid!”
The audience. She had forgotten about the audience! That was why Bolin had reacted so slowly. He couldn’t risk using lavabending on a flammable wooden stage in a room full of people. And that meant she couldn’t use combustionbending, either.
Bolin didn’t seem worried about this. In fact, he seemed more interested in addressing the crowd. “Wha–? Oh, yes. Yes. Behold my new partner, Lady… No, Empress Fusa, who hails from the Fire Nation.”
Empress what? Against her better judgment, Fuse took her eyes off the thugs just long enough to shoot Bolin a wary look.
“Just play along. They’ll love it,” he whispered. Then cleared his throat and projected his voice. “It’s good to see you again, my friend. You have perfect timing, as always.”
That was her cue to say something. But what? She shot a look to the crowd. They were waiting expectantly. She could see Varrick in his reserved row motioning encouragement with his hands. The theater owner looked in a froth, too stunned and angry to speak. His thugs just looked lost. Wondering, perhaps like her, how this fight had suddenly become a performance piece. If she was going to “play along,” now was as good a time as any.
Fuse straightened, exhaled, and stuck out her chin. Bolin had given her a royal role. And she had only one example of royalty to follow. “Yes,” she said, pushing her tiara up on her head with her index finger. “You know, Nuktuk, you really need to stop making so many enemies.”
The audience laughed. Actually laughed. Flames, was it really that easy?
The sound seemed to bring the theater owner out of his daze. He stormed towards the stage yelling at the thugs. “Don’t just stand there gawking, you idiots! Get them!”
Bolin advanced a step so he and Fuse were standing shoulder to shoulder. Then he took an earthbending stance. Fuse shifted into a defensive posture beside him to deflect any incoming fire.
“Try all you like, Pennypincher. You’re not the only one with firepower!”
Fuse’s stomach tightened. “Um… ” she hesitated. “I can’t actually create fire.”
Bolin was shocked by this.” What do you mean you can’t create fire? You’re a firebender, aren’t you?” He asked, a bit too loudly even for him.
The thugs chuckled. Fuse sucked in a breath. Tried to answer without sounding bitter. “Yes, but that power was blocked–” she began, only to realize, again, there was still a room full of people watching. Flames.Okay. Don’t panic. She tried to think. Varrick said he still needed a plot for this mover. And don’t some of the best stories have fragments of truth?
“Blocked?” questioned Bolin.
She stared again. “Yes. By my mast–” No. No way was she going to glorify that man. “My sifu.” She looked towards the crowd, lifting her voice so it carried. “For you see, I am being trained in the deadly art of the… seven secrets.”
“Seven secrets?” Bolin asked. He was back in the act now, emphasizing the query with his dramatic flare. “Why seven?”
“One for each chakra. Sifu will not return my firebending until I master all seven… and discover who I truly am.”
The crowed was enamored. Varrick was typing furiously. The thugs advanced again, one circling around to flank them so that she and Bolin were forced to squeeze in back to back.
“Know any secrets for getting us out of this mess?” Bolin prompted,
“Only one.” Fuse reached up and lifted the tiara from her head exposing her combustion bending tattoo. “Secret of Foresight.”
The audience clapped. One of the thugs tensed and stepped back.
“Holy crap, she’s–”
His companion whacked him on the shoulder. “Relax. It’s just a costume.” He shot a fireball. Fuse shifted aside in front of Bolin, catching and re-directing, before moving again. The instant she was clear of him Bolin sent a rock flying. The thug brought up a meaty arm, deflecting the rock like it was a biting insect. “That all you got, hero?” he barked.
“Not even close,” said Bolin. A dozen smaller rocks, the ones Bolin had scattered by the brute’s feet while he was distracted, now moved simultaneously like shifting sand. The thug’s foot slid out forward, to quickly for him to control, and he toppled backwards. The entire stage resonated with a huge “thu-dunk” as he landed flat on his back.
“Bet he’ll feel that tomorrow,” said Fuse, provoking chuckles from the crowd.
His pal lumbered forward, emboldened by fury. Fuse met him halfway, dodging a huge fist purposefully at the last second. Then another. It wasn’t hard. She had fought his kind before. Powerful but no fitness whatsoever. Each miss only made him that much clumsier, and her dodges more graceful. After his third swing she shifted stances and landed a knee right in his gut.
He was tougher then she expected. He only staggered back a pace before pulling up his fists again.
“I recommend you stop now, before you get hurt.”
The thug reddened. Charged again.
Fuse sighed. “I did issue a warning.” This time when he came at her, she caught him by the arm. Then, using his own momentum, she shifted, turned, and re-directed the big man like she had his buddy’s fire. He staggered out of control, slamming right into his pal, who had just managed to get to his feet. The two fell together, toppled off the stage and right onto their stunned employer.
The audience clapped. Then cheered when Bolin came over and gave her a high-five then handed back her tiara.
“Nice moves,” he spoke louder than necessary, and Fuse realized he was talking for the audience’s sake again. To them, this was still a performance, and they were overdue for some clever plot-advancing dialogue.
“I may be in training, but I still have a duty to protect the people of my nation,” Fuse said, settling the tiara primly back on her head.
Bolin took her cue, puffing up his chest and announcing dramatically. “Well, you won’t have to do it alone! Wherever there is evil threatening innocent people, you can count on Nuktuk to help!”
The Nuktuk fanboy announcer’s voice blared, “Let’s hear it for Nuktuk, hero of the Fire Nation!”
Bolin pulled Fuse to his side so they stood shoulder to shoulder, and the two battle posed stirring the crowed into a standing ovation.