“I just don’t get it at all,” said Korra, wiping her brow with a damp towel after another round of sparring with Fuse. She’d been improving a lot in their matches over the past week. This time she had only let Fuse out of range once, and then quickly closed the gap before Fuse could aim an attack at her.
“Firelord Izumi keeps training me, and she keeps making plans to take back Sunport, but somehow it doesn’t seem like I’m ever part of those plans.”
“You sure she plans to use you at all?” Fuse asked. “Perhaps she only desired to teach you bloodbending for your own safety.”
“Yes, I’m sure!” Korra snapped, throwing the towel on the floor. Fuse made no reaction as usual, and of course, the towel could care less. Korra thought back to when Izumi had first agreed to teach her. Now that she thought about it, the only reason Izumi had given in was because the bloodbenders now thought Korra could match their powers and would inevitably attack her because of it. “I mean… she has to use me,” Korra said. “I’m the Avatar.”
Fuse shrugged, wiping her own brow and slinging the tower over her shoulder. “The Firelord is like you in many ways. She feels a fierce determination to prove herself. So much so that she will refuse assistance even when she could use it.”
“I don’t–” Korra began, then sighed and shook her head. “Okay, I do. But how does that help us now? I know I could help with the invasion. How do I clue Firelord Izumi in on that?”
“Easy. You think of what would get you to listen to reason, and you do the same with the Firelord.”
Her training with Korra concluded for the day, Fuse was off to the stables to tend to Juicy and the growing eel-hounds. The runt’s limp was nearly gone and he was starting to catch up in size now, though he still preferred to eat separate from his greedy siblings. Well, actually, more like he preferred Fuse’s company to theirs. It didn’t matter what other chores Fuse was in the middle of doing or how hard the other stablehands tried to keep the pup in the paddock. Somehow or another, the pup always ended up at Fuse’s heels like a living, breathing shadow. Fuse didn’t mind, though. She liked his company, too.
Bolin made a point to visit her every evening, usually with a fire-ferret on each shoulder and a new kind of tasty dinner for them to share. They’d sit and eat and offer morsels to Pabu and Shouga and the eel-hound pup, and Bolin would chat about various things. Fuse had to give Bolin credit, he had the most fascinating stories. She especially enjoyed hearing about his adventures with the Avatar, and Bolin, being Bolin, was all to happy to share them. It was the same that day. Fuse sat and listened attentively as Bolin chatted on about him and his brother Mako’s “epically awesome escape from the Northern Air Temple.”
“So there we are, caught between a thousand-foot drop and a river of molten lava…” Bolin made an exaggerated arm movement, swinging the cold cut sandwich he held much too close to the equally attentive eel-hound pup. “All seemed lost until… I willed myself to learn lavabending and saved the day.”
“Oh my,” said Fuse, trying not to smirk as the pup plucked out the meat from Bolin’s sandwich and ate it without Bolin noticing.
Bolin grinned. “Yeah, it was pretty awesome.” He took a bite of his sandwich and made a confused face. Fuse laughed. She couldn’t help it. Bolin laughed too, which oddly only made her laugh harder.
“It’s nice talking with you, Bolin,” said Fuse when she finally managed to recompose herself. “I love hearing your stories. You’ve been so many interesting places. Sometimes I wish I could travel like that.”
“Why can’t you?”
She raised an eyebrow, and then her wrist just enough to make the chain jingle.
“I mean after that,” Bolin clarified. The Firelord isn’t going to keep you locked up forever.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“So what’s stopping you? You’ll be a free woman. Why not see the world?”
She wasn’t sure. Actually, she was, but she had been trying not to think about it. “It’s… complicated,” she finally said, hoping that would be the end of the topic. She watched Bolin’s face as he tried to understand her logic. A difficult task since she herself didn’t quite understand it.
“You’re not planning on going back to…” he trailed.
“My master?” She watched Bolin flinch in disgust.
“Quit calling him your master.”
“What should I call him then?”
“I don’t know…” Bolin threw up his hands. “He was trying to think of something clever but apparently wasn’t having much success. “Jerkface,” he said at last.
“Okay.” Strange. Jerkface had an oddly satisfying ring to it.
A pause. She still hadn’t answered his question. Where would she go once her sentence was over? She had no home, no family, and a mark that ruined any chance she may have had for a so-called ‘normal’ life. Those that didn’t fear her would see her as a threat and chase her off, maybe even try to hurt her. And that was only the civilians. If Mas–Jerk-face got wind that she was still alive, he would send other weapons to eliminate her.
If she returned to the facility her life may be spared, if Master deemed she was salvageable. But she would need to be… recalibrated. Fuse didn’t know exactly what that involved. But she did know Master Jerk-face didn’t tolerate failure. A minor infraction like shooting a combustion beam at the bloodbender Crull’s feet might land her in the cells for a week. But she had done far worse than that. She had failed her contract, Jarven, then failed in her effort to escape the Fire Palace after the Avatar captured her. And now… every moment spent not trying to escape, every fact she shared with the Firelord, every training session with Korra… Everything she did was a new failure. What did Master Jerkface have in store for her back at the facility? Nothing good.
Where would she go when she was free? She belonged nowhere and had nothing. Was that the answer Bolin wanted? She almost asked him. But Bolin stood, so quickly it actually startled her.
“Please tell me you’re not going back. You can’t!” He reached out and gripped her shoulders, making her tense. Bolin didn’t seem to notice. He was leaning so close, Fuse could smell the odd sun lotion he wore. She felt strange. She wasn’t in danger, but her heart was doing an odd flutter that made her suddenly very unsure of herself.
“Promise me!” Bolin insisted.
Fuse swallowed. She couldn’t discuss this now.
“Okay, I promise,” she said. She felt awful afterwards. She had never had to lie to anyone before. Weapons had no need for deception. But she had needed it now to get away from this topic and gain back control of herself. Her answer must have been convincing enough. Bolin released her and sat back down, looking at his hands. The eel-hound pup came over and laid his head between them. Bolin rested his hand between the pup’s ears and stroked him softly.
“Sorry,” he said after a pause. “I didn’t mean to yell like that. It’s just… you’re my friend. And I don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
Something stirred in her. A warmth in her chest. Perhaps there was still hope for her. If Bolin was willing to befriend her, even knowing what she was… could she dare to hope for a normal life?
She stared ahead, wrestling with her thoughts much like Shouga and Pabu were wrestling with each other in the hay. She could still feel the imprints Bolin’s fingers made when he held her shoulders. She wasn’t alarmed, exactly. Sometimes that happened when Korra used bloodbending. The muscles or joints she seized control of would ache for a few hours after. But this was different. Bolin hadn’t hurt her and didn’t even know bloodbending. So why?
Too many questions. Too many confusing feelings. It was too much. She drew in a breath and exhaled over and over until her heartbeat finally calmed.
No fear. Breathe. No fear. Breathe. No fear. Breathe.
“Thank you, Bolin,” she said at last when she was right again.
“For what?” Bolin looked over, his face riddled with uncertainty. He was still upset with himself. She wanted to reassure him, but wasn’t exactly sure how. She reached hesitantly and rested a hand on his, the way she often did to reassure Shouga or the pups.
“For being my friend. It… means a lot to me.”
Her assurance worked. The tension dissolved from his face leaving only the kind, playful smile she had come to enjoy so much.
Then the moment was shattered.
Outside the air rattled with the sound of an explosion and a deep, bestial roar. It was coming from Barn One, the barn Fuse wasn’t allowed to go into.
Bolin raised an eyebrow. “Well, that… didn’t sound good.”