The place smelled, like sweat, cheap alcohol, and cheaper tobacco. There was also the unmistakeable odor of stale saltwater, hard to avoid in a warehouse full of perspiring dockworkers. “What are we doing here?” He asked again, disgusted and uncomfortable in the press of bodies.
“I told you, this is fun.”
He wasn't so sure about that. On one level, he knew he was going to have to start socializing eventually, but on another level, he didn't think a place like this was where he needed to be socializing. But this was where his fellow apprentice from the clinic had invited him, so this was where he was.
“What exactly goes on here?”
The other apprentice, Pasook, raised an eyebrow at him. “What, seriously?” He asked, his voice barely discernible in the din. “Do you ever leave the dorms?”
“Not really.” He confessed, as he was pulled through the crowd, until they hit a thick, filthy rope barring the way. The rope was attached to posts, and he saw it formed a squarish shape in the middle of the place.
At his back, excited dock workers pushed, and he had to grab the rope to hold his place, and stop himself from spilling over into the roped off area. He turned to glare, but it did no good. None of them were paying him any attention. Everyone was focused on the two men inside, standing in opposite corners, in loose pants with wrapped knuckles.
“Looks like we got here in time for one last good fight,” Pasook said, biting his lip.
He turned to him. “A fight? Why are they fighting?”
Pasook frowned down at him, and shook his head. “What do they do in the North Pole for fun?”
“This is fun?” He asked disbelievingly, looking around them. He felt unclean just being near these people.
His companion just sighed, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, this is pretty simple stuff. No bending, no weapons, and no tricks. Can't hit below the belt, can't hit them when they're down. And you can't hit the referee.” He hitched his chin at a man leaning on the ropes. “That's the referee. He handles making sure the rules are followed.”
“So...they hit each other. For fun.” He repeated, looking between the men. The one opposite them was of Earth Kingdom stock, built small and compact, with wild brown hair and eyes. He was flexing for the crowd, to cheers and booing alike.
The other man, the one closer to them, was taller, paler, and leaner. His musculature was longer, to suit his frame, less built-up. His hair was black, and fine. Fire Nation then, probably. When he looked up though, his eyes were blue.
“Who is he?” He asked, curious at such a mix.
Pasook grinned. “Don't know, but he better be prepared for an ass-kicking. That's Mad Dog, over there. He's undefeated.”
He kept quiet, unsure of what to say, as he watched the fighter closest to them. He wasn't grinning like Mad Dog was, but he was smiling, sort of. The corners of his mouth were turned up, at least.
The referee blew a whistle, and moved to the center of the roped off area, the two fighters joining him. Whatever he said to them was drowned out by the crowd, but when he stepped back, Mad Dog swung, and connected right with the man's jaw. His own eyes widened, as the man barely staggered before coming back with one, two, three direct hits, one to Mad Dog's face, another to his stomach, then a knee up into Mad Dog's side as the man wheezed.
He'd never seen anybody move so fast.
Mad Dog coughed, as the tall man went down, and knocked Mad Dog off his feet with one sweep of his leg.
When Mad Dog didn't get up, the crowd began to count, and when they reached ten, and Mad Dog was still gasping for breath on the ground, the referee blew his whistle, holding up the hand closest to the tall man.
“It's best of three rounds, at this stage.” Pasook explained, right in his ear. “If you stay down for ten seconds, you've lost. You can yield too.”
“What does it take to make someone yield?”
Whatever it was, the answer lost in the noise, he doubted he'd see it from this man. He didn't look like the yielding type.
The second round started, and this time, Mad Dog came back with a vengeance. He didn't bother with a showy hit this time, instead, he went for the stomach. The blue-eyed man took it with barely a grimace, and he took the double-fisted blow to his back the same way.
Beside him, Pasook cheered.
Mad Dog went for a kick to the ribs, the swagger in his movements showing his confidence was back. It was premature though, he thought. He didn't know how he knew, he knew nothing about this kind of fighting, nothing about these movements, but there was something in the way the blue-eyed man was watching Mad Dog that told him not everything was as it seemed in the ring. He was waiting.
Again, Mad Dog hit him, and this time, the blue-eyed man stayed down for the ten-count. Around them, there were jeers of beginner's luck and other uncharitable things. Mutt, he heard someone behind him hiss.
The third round was an entirely different story. While Mad Dog was still grinning, the man put a well-placed foot in his stomach. This was what he had seen earlier. This man was no brawler, not like Mad Dog, not like the men in this room. He was too controlled, too easy at taking hits. This man was trained, and trained well.
Mad Dog never stood a chance.
The final hit was a barrage of kicks to mad Dog's side, the man falling further and further back, until he hit the ropes, and only then did the blue-eyed man lower his leg, a perfectly controlled folding in at the knee before placing his foot on the ground.
Mad Dog didn't get up, even after the ten-count, and even from a few paces away, he could tell the blue-eyed man had broken the three lower ribs on the fallen man's right side. Beside him, Pasook swore, and jumped the rope, going to the downed fighter, to the catcalls of the crowd. Apparently, needing a healer was seen as weakness, but the danger of broken ribs clearly outweighed the man's pride.
“Winner!” The referee announced, holding up the blue-eyed man's hand. “Nameless so far, but how about we give him a name?”
The crowd roared their approval, and around him, names were shouted, some less complimentary than others. He heard the voice behind him start the chant, as it grew to a crescendo, “Mutt, Mutt, Mutt!” They shouted as one, and the blue-eyed man smirked.
“You've spoken, my good people, so here he is, your new champion, the Mutt!”
He personally didn't think it was a very complimentary moniker. There was something almost poisonous about it, resentful. The crowd did not like this man the way they'd liked Mad Dog. They liked the violence, that much was obvious, and even people like this were impressed by efficiency at this level, but the man lacked Mad Dog's careless charisma. He didn't feel like a champion.
He felt dangerous.
The blue eyes flickered across the crowd, and landed on him. It was no trick of the light, and he wasn't looking at anyone behind him. The man was focused on him, his blue eyes dark under the bad lighting, skin washed out, but still too pale, hair still fine and pitch black.
He wasn't wrong, he thought. The man was Fire Nation. Only they had hair so dark with skin so white. But those eyes were Water Tribe.
What kind of life had he had, he wondered, cursed with those eyes?
The mouth, thin and humorless despite the smile, twisted into a smirk as they stared each other down. What did he think of him, he wondered? He was Water Tribe born, with no mistake. No one would ever take him for anything different, with his traditional hair and woven choker. Was he resentful? Was that why he was still holding his eyes, as the referee talked and the crowd responded? A mix like him would never be welcome at either Pole. Never to know the taste of the fresh snows, never to feel the joy in Tui and La every Winter Solstice.
A hand tugged on his sleeve. “Hey,” Pasook, finished with Mad Dog, was at his side. “We should get going. It's getting late.”
The man looked at his companion, and raised one eyebrow in, what, mockery? He couldn't tell.
“What are you staring at?” Pasook asked, shaking him. It broke his concentration, and the odd connection he'd shared with the strange man. His companion wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and led him out, past the muttering exchanges of yuan between people, and the threat of fights stirring up between some groups. “Clinic will be full tomorrow, guarantee it.”
“Do they fight often?”
“What, the fighters?” He'd actually meant the crowds, but he didn't feel like raising his voice and correcting him. “Yeah, there's normally five matches a night. We just got here late, thanks to that accident. I wish you could have seen Mad Dog really fight. He must have been worn out from the previous.” Pasook shook his head.
He disagreed, as they exited the place, his ears ringing from the noise. “The other man would have won.”
“That mutt? How do you figure?”
“I just know.” He frowned, as he freed himself from Pasook on the empty street. “Why do you call him that? Mixes aren't uncommon here.”
His companion shrugged. “Different, isn't it? Water Tribe and Fire Nation? They just...I mean...it's just not a thing.”
“The Earth Kingdom has more grievances.”
“Not really.” Pasook said. “I mean, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom were always mixing, along the borders. War just made it more common. Water Tribe though, I mean, everyone knows what happened to the benders in the South Pole, and then there was that mess back home, near the end of the war. With La getting murdered and the Avatar and Tui. It's just, the Earth Kingdom, they're used to the mixed breeds. Water Tribe like staying pure.”
It nagged him, how Pasook called the North Pole 'home'. He had been born there, but had left at two, and only been back twice, as a child. It made him feel territorial, though he wasn't sure why.
“How is any of that his fault?” He asked, struck by the unfairness of it. “He's only a little older than us, and why should he be blamed for something his parents did? We don't choose how we're born.”
“Spirits,” Pasook huffed. “You'd think the guy was your friend, or something. It's just the way it is, okay? Stop making such a big deal over it.” He narrowed his pale blue eyes at him. “You know, this is why no one ever wants to hang out with you. You always take everything too seriously.”
He bristled at the implication he was making a mountain out of an anthill. “So you think it's fine for people to be called names for something they had no control over? That it's alright to treat them badly because they don't fit what you deem acceptable?” It smacked of his father's way of thinking too much for his liking.
Pasook threw up his hands in frustration. “Look, no one told his parents to fuck. His mom or his dad, whoever, they disrespected their parents by screwing someone from the Fire Nation. Sucks to be him, fine, but don't expect to get special treatment.”
“It's not special treatment to be treated fairly.” He argued. “And we're not nearly as pure race as we like to claim. The Foggy Swamp Tribes bred with the non-bending locals. They're not any less of waterbenders than we are.”
“Yeah, but no one calls them Water Tribesman, do they?” Pasook rubbed his temple. “Man, I don't want to fight with you over such stupid shit. Let's just go back to the dorms, okay?”
“You go.” He said, shaking his head. “I want to take a walk.”
Pasook rolled his eyes. “It's getting ready to snow.” They could both feel it above them, in the clouds, the swelling of water, and the cold that mean it would freeze.
“I'm from the North Pole.” He replied, emphasizing the 'from', irritated enough to take a jab at him and his pretense. “Snow doesn't bother me.” He needed it to snow on him, really, feel it catch in his eyelashes, sting his cheeks. The burning anger in his stomach would settle for nothing less.
“Suit yourself.” Pasook said dismissively, sticking his hands in his pockets and heading off in the direction of their dormitory.
He let out a breath, and crossed his arms over his chest before choosing a direction.
He had been in Republic City for a year now, and away from the North Pole for two. It had been a long ocean passage from the Pole to the Earth Kingdom, and the whole way, he had woken every morning with the guilt eating away at him, because Tarrlok, he had just left him, and he'd been gone long enough now that his anger had finally narrowed in focus to just his father. But then, he didn't believe his mother had been entirely blameless. After all, she had let their father work them into the ground, and a blind man could have seen how terrorized Tarrlok was by it all. No, his mother had betrayed them in favor of her husband, and he wasn't sure he could forgive that.
But he had left his little brother to fend for himself up there, and he wasn't all that sure he could forgive that either. It didn't seem fair.
The snow started, kissing his face like a mother, and he tightened his arms around his stomach.
“Now, what's a little thing like you doing out here by yourself?”
He whirled on the voice, bending instinctively, the falling snow becoming enough to hold in his hand threateningly.
“Whoa,” the man stepped into the lamp light, hands up in mocking surrender. “Jumpy little thing, aren't you?”
It was the man from the ring, now clothed in pants, boots, and a thick coat, with dark fur lining the inside. Water Tribe style, but the colors were wrong. Black and brown fur, with red piping. His own eyes narrowed in confusion, even as he let the water lose form, falling with a splash to the street.
“You.” He said, feeling stupid for it. The man knew who he was. “Did you follow me?”
The man raised an eyebrow, in that same mocking way. “Don't flatter yourself. I live in this neighborhood, you little brat.” He narrowed his eyes at the insult, but held his tongue for the time being. “But the apprentice dorms, they're that way,” He nodded in the right direction. “So really, you're the one out of place.” He looked him up and down. “In more than one way, am I right?”
He crossed his arms, uncomfortable now. “I live here.”
“But you're not from here.”
Annoyed, he narrowed his eyes at him. “Neither are you.” He was almost sure he was right. “Where did your parents hide? The Earth Kingdom? Because no parent would bring a mix like you home to the Poles.”
Now he had his full attention, no more of that casual mockery. He was in front of him before he quite knew the man had moved, because he was fast, and it turned out, tall, as he looked down at him from a far too superior height for his own comfort. “Got a mouth on you, don't you, Brat?”
He glowered at him. “That's normally how people are born, with mouths, yes.”
The man smirked, but there was nothing funny in it. It seemed more like a threat, than anything else. “The way you talk, you'd think you were looking for trouble.”
“Like you could hurt me.” He returned, curling his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. He wasn't afraid, but for some reason, there was a tremor thrumming through his whole body, like a taut wire pulled hard and let loose. “You're not a bender.”
“You Water Tribesman,” the man shook his head, smiling. “You think bending is the only way to fight.”
The man lunged, and he raised a water whip to strike, but then, two of the man's fingers hit something along his arm, in a quick succession of forcefully painful taps, and then...
It was like when he slept on his arm, and he woke with it buzzing, but more than that, he couldn't feel the water anymore in that arm. He had never realized just how connected a bender must be, before that second, because it was indescribable, the loss. Like he'd gone deaf, or blind.
In his shock, he never noticed the man grabbing him, pulling him against him, with his good arm twisted behind his back, fingers pressed into a point on his wrist that made it painful just to move his hand, removing the possibility of bending with it.
“Care to repeat that thought?” The man's voice was hot on his ear, lilting up in clear amusement.
If he had been anyone else, he thought, anyone but a freak of nature, he would have been completely incapacitated. He knew no fighting styles beyond waterbending, knew no way to get out of this, except by using the evil his father had put inside of him.
The man wasn't going to kill him though. He was merely making a point. There was no need, he assured his racing heart. No need to harm him, no need to release that monstrous thing within.
“What did you do to my arm?” He asked, instead of struggling. The pressure on his pinned wrist made that a distasteful option anyway. It already ached like a pin being stuck through it, no need to make it worse.
The man released him, still smiling, as he took his numb arm into the cradle of the hurt one, trying to restore feeling to it.
“Chi-blocking, Brat.” He said, arrogant now, annoyingly so. “Stops the flow of power using pressure points.” He had never even thought that was possible, had never even considered it. His bending was as much a part of him as his blood. He had never thought it could be stopped.
But then, blood could be taken too, couldn't it?
“Where did you learn that?” The man mimed drawing a zipper across his lips, then turning a key. Irritated by his own ignorance, he scowled at him, and recoiled when the man reached for him.
“Calm down,” the man scoffed, and pressed hard at a point above the crook of his elbow. With the painful feeling of needles pricking his skin, the chi flowed again, down his arm, and he called the water below, on the street, back into his hand. “Better?”
Grudgingly, he nodded, before looking back up at the man. There was still that strange hum running through him, wanting something he couldn't put a name to. “I was only taking a walk.” He rubbed at the wrist the man had hurt, was sure he had bruised. He would heal it later, he told himself. “My friend went home.”
“Oh yeah, the one falling all over Mad Dog.” The man replied, digging in his pocket. He produced a case he had become all too familiar with here in the city, lighting the cigarette he chose with a clockwork lighter that had a Future Industries logo stamped on it.
He grimaced at the pungent smell. “Those things are vile. And poisonous.”
“You're a little self-righteous. Anyone ever told you that?” More than once. The man dropped the thing in a very showy way though, the ember of it burning out on the thin layer of snow sticking to the street. “If I were you, I'd get back to your dorms. This isn't a nice neighborhood at this hour. Triads are out. And they're benders.”
“I'm not scared of the Triads.” That wasn't a lie. They were mostly untrained bullies who could be easily dispatched, especially by someone like him, who had spent most of his life being trained. “Neither are you.”
The man tilted his head at him, still smiling in that infuriating way. “Me and the locals have an understanding.”
“How can you have an understanding with a group too brain-dead to tie their shoes?”
The man laughed at him, and there it was again, that uncomfortable mix of vertigo and vibration inside. “That mouth is going to get you in trouble, Brat. I suggest you watch it, around here.” And with that, the man seemed to decide he was done with him, walking around him with his hands in his pockets.
He was favoring his right side, he noticed.
“You're injured.” He called after him.
The man stopped, and looked over his shoulder at him. “What of it?”
“I can fix it, if you want.” The offer came out before he could stop it, and he just didn't know why. He couldn't let him leave though, not yet. He wasn't done with him. “I'm a month away from completing my apprenticeship. I know what I'm doing.”
“As long as I'm not paying.” The man said, and waited, for him to catch up to him.
“I'm an apprentice. I can't charge.” He reminded him, as they walked, the fine snow crunching under their feet. “You didn't seem hurt, in the ring.”
“Didn't hurt yet.”
He didn't understand. “How?”
“I hadn't decided to let it.” He was more confused at the answer, but he didn't know what else to say to that.
The man lived in one of the many nondescript buildings in the neighborhood, and he followed him up the steps to the fifth floor easily enough. His own dorm room was on the sixth, though his steps were not quite so steep. It didn't seem to bother the man at all, despite what he knew had to be some awful bruising by now.
His place was much bigger than his own dorm room though, a real apartment, not just a room for sleep and study. There was a designated area for cooking, and a table for sitting, a bed and not a bedroll, with a solid wooden frame, and shelves.
On the wall, in brackets, sat two sticks of equal length, with a flame carved into the handle of both.
There was the sound of rushing water, and when he turned, he saw the man actually had a tap above a metal bowl attached to the wall. A real sink, granted, a small one, in his living quarters? He had never seen something like that. They had them in the clinic, of course, but not where they slept.
The man filled a bowl, and put it on the table, looking at him. “What?” He asked.
“You have a tap.”
The man looked back at it, and shrugged. “They're getting more common, in these new buildings. Lots of the higher end places have their own bathrooms in the apartment.”
“What, really?” This building, like his own dorm, probably had a floor bathroom for the tenants. He knew free-standing houses had their own now, but having one in an apartment seemed like an expensive idea, if not a desirable one.
The man nodded, hanging his coat on the back of the chair, before shucking his shirt. “You going to stand there, or be useful?”
And he had been so calm now, too. This man was purposely infuriating, he had to be. People weren't born this annoying.
He took off his gloves and coat, placing them across the other chair. The water in the bowl had the curiously metallic impurity all piped water had in the city, and when he bended it out of the bowl, the impurities stayed behind, like sand on the beach.
In this at least, he felt confident again. This man had thrown him too far off balance for his own liking, but now, standing over him, analyzing the bruising, feeling out the damaged areas, he felt strong again. The water responded to him easily, following the broken chi lines, restoring them to where they were supposed to be, as he soothed the swollen blood vessels, rebuilt the broken ones. As simple as breathing, and he had never known, until he came to Republic City. Healing had still been considered a woman's art, at home. For men, it was fighting, or nothing. For his father, it was fighting, or nothing.
No one had ever told him bending could feel like this, could make him feel like his heart was lightened of its ache just by relieving the pain of others. This was the truest bending, he thought. This was what the Moon had really meant to teach them, thousands of years ago. How to help each other, not make war. If the healers hadn't found him that first week in the city, recruited him, he had no idea what he would have done.
Finished far too soon, he let the water fall back into the bowl, but before he could lift it, the man grabbed his wrist. This hold was nothing like the one before, as his thumb traced the veins just beneath the surface, his eyes trained on him with a focus that made it hard to breathe.
“Do you know what you look like when you do that?” His voice, already deep enough he could feel it echo in his marrow, had a huskier quality now, one that heated his blood like nothing ever had before.
“No.” He shook his head, mouth dry.
The man stood, and pulled him close again. He only came to his shoulder, still too small, still growing, but then it didn't matter, because the man was kissing him, and no one had ever kissed him like this. He was clutching at his shoulders before he could stop himself, eagerly pressing himself to him, because this was what he had wanted, his body sang, this was what that thrum meant. It meant heat and want and an ache between his legs that made him gasp, as the man kissed him hard, moving down to his neck.
He closed his eyes, the lights in the room too bright, and tried to breathe, but failed, as the man's mouth sucked a bruise into the crux of his neck, his fingers working at his spine in a way that made him claw at him. He didn't know what he was doing, had never felt like this with anyone, so when the man pushed him on to the bed, he went willingly, because it felt good to have that weight on top of him, pressing him down into the quilt.
He was close, and not close enough, as he wrapped his leg around the man's hips, trying to force him down against him. He needed the friction instinctively, as the man kept on, pushing at his robe, trying to get to the skin of his chest. He still couldn't get in a breath, couldn't think at all, except that all of this was good and right, and he wanted it to keep going.
The knot of his robes was pulled undone, and the shock of cold air hitting him was enough to spark something in his brain, enough to bring reality back, and he hurriedly pushed at the man, disentangling himself as he pulled it shut again.
“The fuck,” the man swore, as he got off the bed, retying the knot, and scrambling for his coat and gloves. “What's wrong with you?”
“I don't know you.” He snapped, fingers fumbling as he pulled it over his head, his humiliation making his face burn. “I don't know your name, I don't know anything about you.”
“Do you want to know my name?” The man asked, leaning back on his hands.
“No.” His voice stuttered, and if he had been paler, his blush would have been more obvious. “I just want to go home.”
The man shook his head. “Great. You get me worked up, then you leave. Brat.”
He glowered at him. “Degenerate.” He shot back, before slamming the door shut.