Tomas had not gone by the name Tom-Tom in decades, and he vowed to keep it that way. It was difficult enough re-establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Fire Nation. It would have been even more difficult if he’d kept that childish nickname.
And now he was one step closer to making sure no one ever forgot his name again. He’d finally found the village where Zuko’s weakness lay. Weeks after he’d gotten the intel that said weakness existed, of course. Jarven had never been so intelligent as to actually get the location of anything. Or anyone. But no matter. Tomas was here now.
It was a little place on the outskirts of the United Republic… a town all of nonbenders. Ridiculous, really, when he thought about it. If he had been unfortunate to have been born so weak and helpless, the last thing he would have done was found a town full of other weak, helpless people. But all that proved was that these people had neither brains nor brawn.
And yet one of them took down Lord Zuko single-handedly. That was the one thing he had to keep reminding himself, and the hardest part of Master Eli’s story to swallow. Still, one of Zuko’s former guards had sworn it to be true. Lord Zuko had visited this place and completely collapsed on this girl’s approach. Who she was and how she acquired such a power, Tomas had no idea. But he wouldn’t be caught off guard.
The town’s citizens enjoyed their privacy; he made that observation straight away. None of the houses were terribly close to each other. In fact, the house that was his target seemed even more isolated than the others.
He motioned to his weapon. It wouldn’t be a quiet attack if combustionbending had to be used, and he preferred not to be forced into that situation. But better to be prepared, at least. The weapon moved in the shadows, becoming one of them. If Tomas hadn’t been looking, he would’ve missed the man himself.
He leaned against the walls of the house, his breath signaling nothing but calm. There was only one lamp lit in the place, so the girl’s location was more than obvious. Not that she could have known that. In the warm summer evening, the window was open, to boot. He decided to make his move.
He signaled for the weapon to wait just out of sight and then in a single fluid motion, he jumped inside.
The girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book in her lap. She looked up at him. She was in her late teens, perhaps early twenties, yet she gave him a child-like look of curiosity. It put him off guard. Where were the screams? The cries of, “help, help, a strange man just leapt into my room”? He readied himself into a fighting stance, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
“I didn’t invite you in,” she said calmly. “Go away.”
“I’m afraid I’m the one giving orders,” he said. “Nanami, is it? You’re coming with me.”
She yawned. Actually had the gall to yawn at him. If Master Eli hadn’t emphasized how important she was, Tomas might have struck a killing blow just for that.
“I don’t feel like it,” she said. “Again, go away.”
“You don’t seem to realize who you’re dealing with, girl,” Tomas said through gritted teeth. With that, he gave the signal for the weapon to enter. His bulky form flew through the window within seconds. His tattoo was hidden behind a headband for the moment, Tomas only wanting to reveal his true power if he had to. So instead of firing a blast, the weapon reached out towards a lovely scented candle the girl had burning on her mantle, no doubt planning to create a massive fireball and fire into the ground at her feet.
Planning to. The flickering little flame did nothing. The weapon tried again, but still nothing. All the excitement of the chase began to flow out of Tomas, replaced by bewilderment and confusion. What was this, the Day of Black Sun? No, that wasn’t happening for another 600 years? So either Tomas had traveled through time (in which case, six centuries of advancement in human housing were severely underwhelming) or this girl had some ability he had never seen or heard of before.
She blocks bending, he realized. She seemed to read the thought right on his face.
“You look like you’ve figured it out. Amazing what powers the spirit portals released. I don’t need a stance or anything to make it work, either. It just happens. An old friend called it ‘voidbending.'”
Tomas spat the floor. “And would that ‘old friend’ be Lord Zuko, by any chance?”
For the first time, she looked genuinely nervous and took a fighting stance. “I told you twice to get out. I’m not asking so nicely again.”
Tomas raised his fist. Even if firebending didn’t work around her, he was still more than capable of taking out some pathetic little–
She punched him in the jaw. Tomas cried out in pain. He went to take a swing back at her, but she dodged it easily and brought a knee up into his gut. He fell to the ground.
“Get out, or I’ll call the whole town in here,” she yelled.
Tomas gritted his teeth. If she blocked all bending, his weapon was useless. At least from this range. But he could come back. She readied her fist again and he quickly got the message, scrambling out the window and signaling the weapon to follow. He couldn’t reveal his full hand yet. He might only have one shot at this girl. He just had to remind himself, as he went face-down into the dirt and spat several pill bugs out his mouth, that this wasn’t the end.
So that’s how she took down Zuko, he thought as he and the weapon disappeared into the night, with the girl yelling, “and stay out!” far behind them.
Tomas gritted his teeth and rubbed a mix of spit and dirt from his chin. But that guard didn’t say Zuko lost his bending around her. He was on a peaceful mission; wouldn’t have been bending at all. The guard said he collapsed.
His body was starting to get tired now. The weapon had far more stamina. But the frustration of the puzzle kept his muscles moving. Does her power work differently around him? Who loses the ability to move their body when they lose their bending?
He tried to work the problem backwards. What kind of bending might aid someone in moving his body?
Well, bloodbending, obviously. But that doesn’t make any sen–
“Tree,” the weapon said calmly.
“Wha–?” Tomas began to ask, right before running headlong into a thick trunk. He howled out in pain and collapsed on to the ground, holding his nose.
“Don’t just stand there,” he hissed as blood trickled through his fingers. “Get me some medical supplies!”
The weapon shrugged and did as instructed. “I did issue a warning.”
At twelve weeks old the eel-hound pups were nearly as tall as a sky-bison. All but one. The runt of the litter, pup number seven, was having trouble keeping up. And thanks to a scrap over food with six bigger, stronger siblings, he had an injured hind foot as well. Bullying wasn’t uncommon in big litters. Had these pups been hatched wild or been raised back in the Earth Republic, the littlest probably would have been culled the moment his limp appeared. But fortunately for this little guy, Firelord Izumi was still in need of swift runner-beasts and had paid good coin to import the clutch — all seven of them. Griff was no soft heart. But even he knew better than to throw away the Firelord’s money.
So it was, after Fuse finished dishing out fish-gruel to the six boisterous eel-hound siblings, she fetched the runt from the pen and tethered him to her workstation while she set bout grinding medicinal herbs for his leg and vitamin supplements for his food. Fuse didn’t mind. In fact, she found she enjoyed listening to the runt’s various gurgles and grunts as it sniffed about her feet or tugged at her pant legs. His baby hide was still remarkably soft, too. Fuse took a moment to memorize the velvety texture as she leaned into his side and gently lifted his lame hind leg to get a better look. He was by far the prettiest of the bunch–his scales a sleek jet black from snout to tail–strikingly different compared to his siblings’ greens and browns.
She ran her hands down the length of his leg, feeling for breaks. She found none. The pup’s ankle was slightly swollen, though. He hesitated to put weight on it. And when a faint rustling nearby made him jerk suddenly in Fuse’s grip, he yelped.
Probably just a sprain. Those were simple enough to mend, provided the pup could keep still. Fuse went back to work, mentally combing through her herbology training as she mashed various roots and leaves into an unidentifiable green pulp.
Anti-inflammatories and pain numbing for his leg, and a sleep aid in his food, to keep him calm. Yes. That will work.
The rustling sounded again, drawing Fuse’s eye. She glanced a familiar flash of ginger-orange, then deep red as Shouga and Pabu darted into the barn from some unseen ferret-sized entrance. Several bigger beasts stirred at this new pair of intruders, and one particularly bold dragon-moose gave a throaty growl as the two ran past his stall.
This didn’t please Shouga, who arched and hissed right back. She probably would have latched onto the dragon-moose’s nose if Fuse didn’t voice a reprimand of her own.
“Shouga, behave.” Shouga bottlebrushed and was off again, this time straight up to the top of a stack of hay bales. The climb wasn’t difficult for Shouga, sleek and agile as she was. But Fuse caught herself snickering at Pabu’s clumsy attempts to follow her.
“Fire ferrets are supposed to be good climbers. Clearly Bolin’s spoiled you.” She smiled. “But I admire your persistence, Pabu.” Pabu gave a winded “chur” before flopping on his stomach beside his new friend. Shouga in turn leaned down and began grooming behind his ear.
It’s going to be hard to separate them when the time comes. She swallowed then shook the thought away. Best not to dwell on that now.
She heard movement outside. Muttering from the guards. Probably a shift change. She didn’t blame them. The stables were hot and smelly and full of buzzing flies and other far less savory things. Not exactly the ideal place to be wearing full body armor.
“Hey,” a familiar voice spoke. She looked over to find Bolin standing in the doorway.
“Oh, it’s you.”
So that’s what the guards were muttering about.
He took a step inside, unbothered by the barn smells. “I didn’t see you get dinner so I figured I’d bring you some.” He held out a wrapped basket.
Was it that late already? She hadn’t realized. She scooped a handful of her herb mix into a bowl of fish gruel and set it down for the pup before taking a seat herself. Bolin sat beside her, which surprised her since she probably smelled as filthy as she felt. Bolin didn’t say anything on the matter. He was busy trying to untie the basket cover he had knotted, apparently a little too tight.
Still resting atop the hay bale, Pabu pricked his ears at the sound of his owner’s voice and gave a sleepy “churr?”
“Pabu?” Bolin looked around, surprised. When Fuse pointed out the napping pair, his mouth dropped a bit. “I thought I told you to stay back at the inn.”
“It seems Shouga had other plans. By the look of their bellies, I’d say the two of them found their way into the royal pantry on the way here.” She grabbed the second bowl of herb paste and slathered it on the pup’s ankle massaging it gently into the tissue.
“Aw, man…” Bolin scratched behind his head. cheeks reddening. “I spent half the morning playing with them. They were sound asleep when I left…”
“No harm done. I’m impressed you managed to keep her entertained for as long as you did.”
She reached a hand behind her, grabbed a roll of clean bandages, and began wrapping the pup’s ankle. The foreign constriction didn’t please him one bit, however, and he kicked, unraveling part of Fuse’s work. When that failed to deter her, he lifted his head out of his food dish and ran a gruel-covered nose down her neck.
Fuse jerked away in surprise. Bolin smiled. “Squirmy little guy.”
“Yes.” Fuse agreed, narrowly dodging a barrage of eel-hound kisses right on the lips.
“Here,” Bolin gestured for her to scoot over so he could sit in her place. “Why don’t I finish that while you take a break?”
A thoughtful gesture. Surly Griff wouldn’t mind if Bolin helped for just a moment as long as she was there to supervise. And the pups needed human socialization anyway. She moved aside, offering Bolin instructions and the pup a distracting head rub.
“Relax,” he said. “I got this.” Implying, of course, that she should use this chance to eat the meal he had brought. She untied the Bolin-loosened napkin carefully. Then, since she couldn’t wash her hands, she used the cloth to pluck out a meat-bun from the basket. It was spiced and savory. She could see why the palace chef had called her taste plain.
“So I guess Firelord Izumi is keeping you pretty busy, huh?”
Fuse nodded. “Yes. It’s part of my punishment. I don’t mind the work. Master never tolerated laziness, so I’m used to long hours.”
“By ‘Master’ you mean the one who–”
“Marked me. Yes.”
He looked uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he was worried she wasn’t eating enough of the meal he had brought? She helped herself to another bun.
“How long ago was that?”
“I was ten when Maser marked me. But I worked in the kitchens for three years before that.”
His tension worsened. What was she doing wrong? Maybe it wasn’t about the food. She tried to think. Korra had similar reactions in conversation several times. Mostly whenever the subject of her past or her training with Master came up. Was that what was bothering him?
“You were seven…” Something shone in his eyes. A deep pain. He mumbled something too, something she had a hunch he hadn’t meant to say aloud. “That’s how old I was when Mako and I lost…” He swallowed. Recomposed himself. “How did you even end up there? With your master, I mean?”
Nothing this boy does makes any sense. Why keep asking me these things if my answers make him uncomfortable?
“You ask a lot of questions,” she said.
A hint of color shone in his cheeks. “Yeah, I guess I kinda do, don’t I? Tell you what, how about you take a turn? Go ahead, ask me anything.”
“Okay.” She thought a moment and found she had a dozen questions. What made him decide to bring her here? Why was he constantly going out of his way to defend her? Why did the mention of her master bother him so much?
But she imagined asking one of them would only bother him further, which she didn’t want. “Why do you have two names?”
He raised an eyebrow. She quickly clarified. “Sometimes you are called Nuktuk and others, Bolin. Why is that?”
“Oh, I’m not really Nuktuk. I mean, I am, but Nuktuk isn’t really me.”
That had to be one of the most confusing things she’d ever heard. Bolin saw her blank expression and quickly tried to explain.”Nuktuk is a role I play. He’s a mover character. He isn’t the real me.”
A mover character. She had only vaguely heard of movers. Master had called them a waste of time. “I see,” she said.
“It’s kinda the same for you, though, if you think about it.”
Fuse tried, but still didn’t quite understand. “How so?”
“Well, you keep saying you’re a weapon. That you belong to this ‘Master’ and that he marked you and called you Fuse. But that’s just a role you were given. You have another name, too. A human name. The one your parents gave you.”
Her parents. Fuse’s chest tightened. At the facility it was forbidden to speak of such things. Those that did were thrown in the cells… She had been one of them, once.
She drew a slow breath.
No fear. I’m not at the facility. The rules are different here. I won’t be locked up for answering.
She exhaled. And breathed again.
“I don’t remember that name. Master said I had no need for it anymore.”
“What about your parents?”
“Killed by bandits, like the rest of my village.”
Bolin’s face got sad, which, strangely, worsened Fuse’s chest pain.
She breathed again, trying to concentrate. No pain…
Only the pain didn’t go away. Instead it got worse, spreading from her chest to her throat.
Why was this happening?
The pup gave a little whimper, drawn by the smell of the meat buns. The sound shattered the stillness and startling Fuse to her feet.
“Here, I’ll take him.” She led him away. His tail drummed as he leaned against her, and this time when he tried to muzzle her she gave in and let him lick her hand.
Behind her she heard Bolin stand and speak softly. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Fuse didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure what to say. Wasn’t even sure why she was behaving this way. Bolin had asked honest questions and she had answered him truthfully There was no sense getting upset. And yet she was. Why?
She opened the pen door and let the pup inside, staying to watch as he ambled over to the sleeping pile of his siblings. Maybe she was just tired. That must be it.
“You don’t need to apologize,” she said at last when her breathing techniques finally worked. “I shouldn’t have reacted like that. It’s been a… trying day.”
She closed the pen door and found the chains on her wrists felt much heavier then they had a moment ago. How long had she been standing there?
“I should get back to the barracks. I need sleep.” She sniffed and cringed. “And a bath.”
She turned to leave and found Bolin standing before her, Pabu draped across his shoulders, Shouga in his arms.
“I’ll walk with you.”