Actions

Work Header

Like a Baby Shirshu

Work Text:

Nyla snarls. The sound’s edged with the slight froth of spit, because a shirshu’s saliva always boils over at the mouth once their prey’s gotten close. June loosens the reins and smiles.

Nyla bounds across a harbor and brings her to a ship. With one unimpressed glance, she sizes it up. Fire Nation flags. It’s a well-maintained vessel, but without the heavy armor and weaponry standard in the navy. A merchant ship then, ferrying luxury goods between the homeland and the colonies, probably with outrageous mark-ups in both directions. That’s good- she’ll feel even less guilt when Nyla tears up the pretty steel.

“Morning.” June nods to the sailors as Nyla tries to clamber onboard, trips over a railing and smushes it with his hind legs. Once he regains his balance, he buries his nose instantly in the deck.

June only smirks a little when the sailors panic.

“What are you-“

“You’ve got a stowaway,” she declares, staring them down. “But one of you already knew that, didn’t you? I imagine a court poet pays well for safe passage, after that unfortunate renku about the size of Ozai’s goatee…”

Dragging his snout along the deck, Nyla twitches, his speeding pulse beating loud under her. June throws another glance around and sees one sailor who’s gone paler than the rest- the accomplice of the fugitive poet, no doubt. She briefly considers turning Nyla’s tongue on him, but he’s not included in the mandate. June doesn’t make a habit of going above and beyond for the Fire Nation army.

(Honestly, this whole affair’s a shame- it was a damn funny poem.)

Nyla lets out a particularly vicious huff, rears his head, and then dives in for the kill. With ease his jaws snap shut around steel, tearing a massive hole open in the deck, and he pulls back to fling the scrap of floor away-

A kid springs out of the hole, two swords glinting in the sunlight, head covered in scarves like they’re from the Si Wong desert. Or maybe they’re bandages, but nobody on a merchant ship would smuggle a kid with a massive head wound. Right?

Either way, the kid scurries backwards, theatrically brandishing the swords in warning, and the sailors cower before them too. Then the kid streaks across the deck and leaps into the freezing-cold ocean. The crew’s heads swivel back towards June, like she knows what the hell’s going on. 

She just shrugs.

With a shirshu’s characteristic good humor Nyla ignores the interruption entirely. After a few seconds more of sniffing, his tongue whips out and drags the middle-aged poet out of the hole. He then licks her entire face for good measure.

The other stowaway’s not within her mandate, so June only hauls the now-paralyzed poet onto her saddle and heads back to shore. She forgets all about the random kid. Not like there’s any money to be made chasing them.

/

Too late that night June moves to the tavern door, with a swaying step that’s a sign of swagger, definitely not the result of drinking the day’s tip. The main bounty still jangles in the bag buckled to her thigh, well-hidden by the flowing black skirt of her tunic. The poet’s been bundled off to the Boiling Rock or wherever Ozai stashes political prisoners nowadays, and now June has enough money to buy a really extravagant set of boots, fitted exquisitely with upturned toes and golden accents. Most importantly it’ll have at least one secret compartment for a knife- the kind that’d be overlooked in a search.

When she throws open the door, the winter wind smacks her in the face. In response she pulls up the hood of her ermine-sheep coat- though it’s plain sheepig wool if the police ask, because stoat-sheep have been a protected species for five decades now. There’s the barest coating of snow on the ground, so thin her boot goes straight through to the dirt and leaves clean prints where she walks. June thinks nothing of it as she heads behind the tavern to the town stable that unofficially belongs to her and Nyla, that she’ll be able to formally put her name on after a couple more years in the business. She ignores the chill and the snow and the tracks until she sees another trail, already leading inside the stable.

Little feet. 

Uneven prints, like they’re injured or unstable.

One-directional, like they went in and never came out.

Instantly, June lays one hand on her whip. The other goes for the dagger strapped to the inside of her coat, laced with heat-treated shirshu spit, the sort that burns even as it freezes you in place. If anyone’s dared to threaten her darling, they deserve nothing less.

June kicks open the door with an enormous smash. “Hey, you!”

Nyla’s coiled up in the center of the stable as he should be, atop the wreckage of what used to be the walls for three separate stalls. He lifts his head briefly, twisting it around to greet June before settling back into place, one happy mass of fur. His breathing’s soft and steady, without a hint of distress.

Option 1: Nyla didn’t notice the intruder. June dismisses this out of hand, because nothing escapes a shirshu’s sense of smell.

Option 2: Nyla already gave them a nice welcoming lick and left their paralyzed body for June to find, somewhere around here.

Snorting, June slowly inspects the stables- the shadowy corners, the two stalls she didn’t have to destroy to fit Nyla in, the hayloft up above. Eventually she circles around to Nyla’s head, only to collide with a previously unconsidered possibility.

Option 3: The trespasser’s curled up, tucked under Nyla’s chin, fast asleep but shifting often enough that they can’t possibly be paralyzed yet.

June stares.

“Hey,” she snarls after a second. “What are you doing here?”

The body doesn’t move. Nyla’s covered the head, one front leg draped gently across it like a particularly fuzzy blanket. With an eyeroll, June nudges the ribs with the metal-tipped toe of her foot- 

The previously prone lump shoots to its feet. 

The first thing June notices: a knife held out in the laziest grip she’s ever seen. What a waste. It’s a gorgeous weapon, Earth Kingdom make, with pretty characters etched along the flat, and it deserves someone who knows to treat it right.

The second thing: the knife is shaking.

She considers disarming this wannabe combatant, because it’d be easier than taking candy from a baby or a duchess from a summer manor, but she doesn’t. Because the knife is shaking, and the trespasser is actually the kid from earlier, and those are definitely grimy bandages wrapped tight around the head, over everything but the right eye.

The kid’s seizing short, stabby breaths. Objectively June’s never felt less threatened in her life, but the show of naked emotion catches her off-guard. She therefore ignores it to glare at Nyla for his disloyalty.

“Really,” she says, “I’m not enough for you anymore?”

Nyla snuffles back at her, and June rolls her eyes.

Shirshus are an unpredictable bunch, but June knows hers like a mother knows her newborn. Nyla can be reliably seduced in two ways- either with brined ocean kumquats, or with a cozy heat source.

(Why a giant adult shirshu with an abundant diet and a coat like a fur blanket can’t just keep himself warm, June will never know. But it’s nice when she’s in the wilderness at night, having someone to cuddle.)

June doesn’t smell any kumquats, and Nyla’s learned well enough to be suspicious of strangers. So if this kid’s managed to steal her shirshu’s heart, it must be because…

They sway on their feet and then drop right into June’s arms, a heavy bundle with a raging, radiating fever.

Yep. That’d do it.

/

The knife clatters to the ground when they pass out. June glances at the lettering: Never give up without a fight.

“Well,” she asks the newly unconscious kid, “how’s that going for you?”

Nyla buries his snout into her hair and grumbles, the sound buzzing through her skull. As she lays the kid back down with more gentleness than she’s used to granting limp bodies, June grumbles back. “They’re your pet, you deal with it.”

Then she properly looks at the kid at her feet. The clothes might’ve been expensive once- maybe red, maybe brown. Now they hang too loose, with so many rips and so much dirt they wouldn’t be worth the money to repair them. The swords from before lie in a sheath thrown hastily on the ground. And for some reason a plume of matted black hair sticks out from the back of their head, poking through the bandages. It’s tied with a wide red band, perfectly fitted for a high ponytail, definitely not right for a top-knot. Throw in the high-quality weapons, and the fact that they stowed away on a ship and bolted out like their life depended on it, and June’s got a complete picture.

“Nyla,” she says, “you just caught a wanted criminal.”

Nyla ducks his head back down like he’s shielding the kid.

“Oh, come on. The clothes are either second-hand or stolen, the hair’s terrible- there’s no way those weapons are legitimately owned. They’re way too expensive for this kid.”

Nyla stretches his neck and holds the kid closer.

“Bet there’s a bounty out already.”

Though she hasn’t heard of one, even after a full night in the tavern, listening closely despite the alcohol.

“Might've gotten clocked on the head during the initial theft,” she muses. It could explain the bandages.

Nyla lets out a little whine.

If June was a nice woman, she’d take this kid to the healer in town without a thought, regardless of the cost. As it is, she’s tempted to just leave them in the stable. It’s kinder than she could be, to someone who’s infringed on her territory.

(They start shivering, and Nyla curls up even tighter around them.)

“Of course, if they end up wanted alive,” June says slowly, “then it’s actually cost-effective to stop the fever.”

/

“You want ten fingers,” the town healer calls from behind her door, “sew them back on yourself.”

“That was one time,” June snaps back. “The bounty poster just said alive, how’d I know she’d want her husband back with all his appendages?”

Behind the door, a pair of heavy wooden sandals clacks away.

“Anyway,” June hollers, “it’s a kid this time, and I didn’t even do it.”

The footsteps stop, then come back this way. With a long-suffering groan Yawen pulls open the door. “What?”

June strides in past her, just barely keeping from banging the kid’s head on the doorframe. She’s draped them over her shoulder, and there they dangle, completely motionless except for the occasional shiver or groan. “Found ‘em in my stable-“

“You don’t own it yet, you know.”

“In my stable,” June says a little louder, “with a fever and a hospital’s worth of bandages. Bet it's the new style of mask among little thieves.”

Yawen takes one look at the kid, and her gruff irritation melts away. She slips into the competent professionalism that makes June come back to her time and time again, despite the heckling. 

“This way,” Yawen says, movements growing sharper, urgent. 

She leads June to an open room, with a bed and a window and a shelf packed full with bottles, and directs her to lay the kid down. As Yawen begins her fussing, feeling the child’s flushed skin and inspecting the bandages, June reaches into her secret wallet and fishes out a gold coin. She drops it on the table, as payment for the kid’s care.

Then she leaves without a word, hops onto Nyla’s back, and rides away, the proud new owner of two swords and a knife.

/

June plays with the knife the next morning, sawing up Nyla’s breakfast. He gulps it all in one go. Once finished, he sniffs at the knife in her hands…

And keens at her.

“Hey,” she warns, “you can’t imprint on every sad kid you meet.”

He sags onto the ground in an utterly theatrical fashion. As she slides the polished skull into her top-knot, June wonders where he could’ve learned such melodrama.

Her next job’s nearby; the target was spotted at an inn not ten miles away last night, and that means Nyla will have a whole bedroom’s worth of items to learn the scent from. If June leaves now, she’ll tie up the case and be back by sunset.

(Sunset’s the start of half-price sake night.)

Bopping Nyla on the nose with the knife’s hilt, she sighs. “Okay, okay. Let’s go check up on your pet.”

/

June raps four times on the door, the way that always brings Yawen scurrying to stop her, whining about bad luck. 

There’s no answer.

She tries again and waits a minute, before picking the lock. That takes longer than it should, because her usual response to locked doors is to smash her way through and she’s not used to all these little fiddly bits-

“Knock that off!” 

Yawen pulls the door open, and June first notes the bags under her eyes, more pronounced than usual. Crossing the threshold, she inhales deeply. She doesn’t need a shirshu’s nose to smell the cooked honey. 

“You’re making burn salve? Why?” 

“The fever resulted from an infection,” Yawen murmurs, following her to the kid’s room. 

“Fevers usually do,” remarks June.

“From a fresh wound.” As June reaches for the doorknob, Yawen places a hand over hers. “You may not want to see this.”

She gives Yawen a really? look. June can handle scenes of gore. June regularly brings her scenes of gore.

Meeting her gaze steadily, Yawen says, “They burned off his left eye.”

June does not reach up to her own right eye, covered constantly by a carefully styled sheet of hair. 

(But it’s a close call.)

“Give this to him,” June says, holding out the knife. 

Now Yawen gives her a really? look, but she accepts it. 

“And…” June hands over another gold coin. “Get yourself some actual burn salve, I need that on occasion.”

“The army’s sucking up the whole supply,” Yawen mutters. “Never mind that corporal punishment comes in cheaper forms...” 

“How old is he?” June asks, for no particular reason.

Yawen’s face softens. “He’s not awake enough to answer questions, but…June, he can’t be more than thirteen.”

June nods. Goes to sake night. Forgets all about a kid with a scar on his face.

/

The next day’s target clearly prepared for his stint as a fugitive. He’s got a carriage full of money, non-perishable food, forged documents, and enough medicine to run a hospital. In exchange for her payment, June turns him over to the authorities with nearly all his belongings.

(If she pockets one vial of particularly snooty burn serum, who’s going to tell on her?)

/

This time June has to finish picking Yawen’s lock, openly carrying two dao swords on her back while a fragile little vial hides in her fist. It’s slow going. June plans out her griping ahead of time- the faster she’s out of here, the faster she gets to her tavern- but the sound of a struggle cuts that thought right off.

There’s a thunderous crash, like a whole shelf full of glass bottles smashing to the floor. June drops the vial down her shirt- hey, it’s an unusually safe spot- and crashes in, fists up.

Flinging open the door, she finds the boy balanced on top of his bed with his knife pointed at Yawen, who’s cowering in the wreckage of what used to be a medicine shelf.

“Don’t!” Yawen yells, right as June dives into the fight.

The boy’s got better form with his knife this time, and seizing the high ground on a relatively firm bed’s as good a tactic as any. On the other hand, June has the advantage of not being half-dead from fever. She presses that advantage, swiping at his knees while he’s still blinking owlishly at her. Then she tackles him down onto the mattress, aiming for control of the knife.

It’s the least elegant fight she’s been in since the incident with the skunk-bear. Despite the sickness, he’s got speed plus a side of terror, and though she manages to avoid the blade he still thrashes like a wild animal, jamming limbs into her at all manner of hard angles, fighting on desperate but brilliant instinct, and now he’s trying to bite her hand…

(Just like a baby shirshu, snapping and spitting poison from behind the bars of its cage.)

But at the end of the day, June’s the regional champion of arm wrestling, and she knows just how to pull his arm in a direction he’s not expecting and break his grip. She grabs the knife and throws it right into the wall where the shelf used to be. It buries itself deep enough that a feverish patient really shouldn’t be able to get it out.

Well, that wall was ruined anyway.

Then June pushes herself off the bed, smoothing the hair back over her right eye, and takes yet another look at this boy.

His right cheek’s flushed with fever. His left cheek’s a raw, boiling red, a mark like a handprint centered right over a disfigured eye. He stares at her, his right eye widening while the left one just...stays the same shape. His body’s still except for a minute tremor.

June usually likes it when men tremble before her, but she’s got to make an exception here.

“The burn needs treatment,” Yawen says from the ground, still breathless, “but he’s been fighting me every minute. I’ve tried explaining he needs it, but I don’t think he’s hearing me.”

June pulls out the vial. “Will this sting?”

Yawen takes it and examines it for a moment, eyebrows lifted in a rare sign of approval. “No, but his problem isn’t only the pain. He’s scared of touch.”

Sighing, June spins back around and wonders what their choices are now.

Option 1: Drugs. But the painkillers that’d make a dent on a wound like that are addictive, and he’s young and clearly traumatized. Not exactly an ideal combination.

Option 2: Rope. It’s one of the benefits of her profession- June’s got a boat’s worth of rope waiting outside, and she knows exactly how to use it.

“What?” Yawen says warily.

“I was thinking of holding him down,” June admits.

And of course that’s the second when the kid regains his linguistic abilities.

“Please,” he gasps, “no, please, I’m loyal, you don’t have to...”

His coherence falls apart after that, melting into a general wordless pleading, but June gets the idea.

(It’d take a firebender to make a wound like that. The kid’s got to be part-Fire himself with those golden eyes, but that wouldn’t guarantee his loyalty to the Fire Nation or the other way around. In silence June admits that her initial picture of him wasn’t totally complete; he might have come by his weapons honestly, had them pushed into his hands by a relative or a friend who saw the army coming. Wherever he was, he’s probably the only one who got out.)

(May the spirits damn national loyalty.)

June thinks of a baby shirshu, still tiny enough to fit in a palanquin, coaxed out of his cage only by soothing words and a restaurant’s worth of briny ocean kumquats. She holds her hand out for the vial and tries option 3.

“Hey, kid,” she says, painfully aware her human-comforting skills are rusty. “This’ll make it hurt less. If you want, I can get you a brush and you can put it on yourself.”

Now collapsed upon the bed he gazes up at her, eyes going soft and unfocused before narrowing. June braces for another moment of clarity, no doubt accompanied by a fresh biting spree-

“Mom?”

June flinches.

“Mom, you came back?”

June’s done a lot of objectively rotten things in her life, enough to get her locked up in Omashu’s bad chamber if she wasn’t so spirits-damned useful. Still, this feels wrong.

“Yeah. I’m Mom. You’ve been hurt, just stay still so I can…” She looks to Yawen in desperation. Thankfully, the healer points her to a nearby basin to disinfect her hands. “So I can take care of you. You’re going to be okay.”

Silently, Yawen passes her a cloth pad for dabbing, and as June pours some of the serum onto it she keeps up the most soothing monologue she can manage, describing each action as she goes.

“Now, my beloved-“ dammit, she has no clue what his name is- “son, do you want to put the medicine on by yourself, or can I help you?”

Red-rimmed eyes glistening, he nods and answers her, voice small as can be. “You can help.”

“Thank you for your agreement, your highness.”

Yawen glares at that, but jeez, a girl needs a little sarcasm break- June did not sign up for getting adopted by a delirious baby. Still she goes back to comforting nonsense, pet names and “it’ll be all right soon” and “your mother’s here now,” and she dabs on the serum as delicately as she can. 

He cries anyway, maybe because of the pain. Maybe because June’s not as good a liar as she’s always thought.

/

She does leave both dao swords with Yawen...safely out of the kid’s sight.

/

June stays out of town longer after that. She’s called to the edges of the Si Wong Desert, on a job that’s trivially easy until it isn’t.

The so-called “tiny safehouse” turns out to be a full-blown garrison, with a small army of bodyguards. They’re non-benders, but they’ve got an advantage in sheer numbers, even before Nyla takes a metal-tipped arrow to his left ear and runs away howling, after flinging June off. A whip’s enough to keep the guards away for a bit, but in time they get brave and close in. She’s got poison-tipped darts, but they’re in limited supply. She runs low fast. 

In the end she wins, thanks to her new boots with the hidden knives. Still, she’s got a constellation of bruises and scratches that weren’t there before.

(For one moment, she’d wondered whether Nyla could make it a year in the wild on his own or whether the hunters would get him first. Once safe, she locks that morbid thought in a box, along with every other nasty hypothetical.)

She finds her target hiding in his closet, under a blanket. She hits him with her last poison dart and then drags him outside his fortress by one foot. Nyla’ll show up again, once he’s over his current fit of panic.

So she sits with her captive, in the center of the carnage she wrought. 

Carnage she survived, barely. It would’ve been easier with help.

(One of the guards wielded twin dao that she clearly had no skill with. The blades are much lower quality than her stowaway’s, and June feels a weird flare of pride.)

/

“He's still here?” June says, after knocking only three times at Yawen’s door.

“He didn’t want to be,” comes the answer. “But I did my best to explain how dangerous it is to travel, so soon after a great injury, and I convinced him eventually. Also…”

“Yeah?”

“He tried to offer me that knife you put in the wall, as payment for the shelf he broke. He insists it’s only honorable to pay his debts.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said the half-wit who gave a child a knife in the first place would pay me instead,” she says with a meaningful glance.

Scowling, June hands over yet another gold coin. Yawen takes it with an infuriatingly self-satisfied smile.

“I also mentioned that even if he did grant me ownership of the knife, it would be an empty gesture, as it’s still stuck right where you left it.”

June snorts. 

“If you’d like to see him,” Yawen adds, “he’s in the garden out back.”

If you’d like to see him.

June has no reason to see him. She hasn’t stolen anything else of his. She’s paid his debt to Yawen. There haven’t been any bounties on half-burnt kids.

“It’s a pity about the face,” Yawen murmurs, “but I suspect your no doubt legally acquired serum saved his eye and ear.”

“Does he still run hot, even after the fever?”

“Yes. He has some Fire in him.”

“Obviously.”

Painfully aware she’s stalling, June steps into his empty room. The bed’s been made- with haphazard angles and wrinkles that suggest he did it, not Yawen- and the glass has been swept away. With a quiet grunt, June yanks the knife back out of the wall and looks at the hole she left. “Do I owe you for that too?”

“You saved me from imminent death, I’ll forgive it.”

“Glad to know your standards are so low,” June quips, barely thinking over the words as she contemplates the knife. 

“I…” Yawen pauses before trying again, her voice stronger. “I’ve been talking to him, too, about… He can’t tell me exactly what happened, but it seems to help.”

She inhales deep, eyes closed. “He’s in the garden?”

Yawen hums in assent.

June leaves through the front door, jumps onto Nyla, and rides him carefully around the building, into Yawen’s backyard. She holds the reins tight, making sure he won’t squash the flowerbeds. Not that they’re anything more than dirt right now, in the dead of winter, but she’s made up her mind not to antagonize her local healer for at least 24 hours.

When she approaches, the boy’s kneeling by a flowerbed, utterly fascinated by a patch of dirt labeled “dandodils.” Still, when Nyla rumbles at him- an embarrassingly soft rumble, the shirshu equivalent of a coo- he shoots to his feet. 

He shuffles over, face tilted down like that can hide the scar. June does him the favor of not staring, instead taking in his hairstyle. He’s still got the lone ponytail sticking out the back, but he’d been otherwise bald the last time they met. Now, he’s got a light covering of downy fluff all over.

June could work with that, if she had to.

He comes closer, within striking distance of a shirshu’s tongue. June monitors Nyla carefully. Maybe normal stranger anxiety will kick in now that the kid’s not radiating enough heat to warm a house.

(Nope. Nyla just wriggles happily below her, clearly recognizing him.)

“Are you June?” he asks.

She nods from the top of the saddle. “You?”

He crosses his arms. “Kuzon.”

“Kuzon.” She can’t help it, her eyebrows shoot right up. “Sounds like the lead of a grand tragic romance...written back in Sozin’s day.”

He furrows his brow. “My mother was an actress. She loved old plays.”

“You have a last name?”

Kuzon flounders, letting out several false starts before she takes pity on him.

“Doesn’t matter. Once you get good enough, you don’t need one.”

“Like how you’re just ‘June’?”

“You catch on quick.”

“Maybe it’s disrespectful,” he says, stealing a glance up at her eye before looking back at her feet, “but I need to know why you helped me. Yawen says that you paid two gold coins for my treatment, and that that’s a lot of money.”

June snorts. “Once you get to my level, kid, two gold coins isn’t much at all.”

“Uh. Okay. Still, people don’t do things for me, just because.”

“Here.” June sticks the knife out, offering him the hilt. “Just because.”

He takes it in disbelief, like he doesn’t trust her show of niceness.

Smart kid.

“Fine, you’re right,” she declares, “I didn’t do it ‘just because.’ None of this-“ she gestures at the healer’s building behind her- “was my idea. Nyla adopted you and dragged me along for the ride.”

Kuzon stares at her, and then at her shirshu. “Is this...Nyla?”

“Mm-hmm.”

And then she goggles as Kuzon extends his hand for Nyla to smell like he’s some kind of tame household dog. She goggles harder when Nyla sniffs it obediently and rewards him a warm, happy huff.

“He’d lick you,” June remarks, “if it wouldn’t leave you paralyzed.”

“Uh...thanks?”

“Yawen says you want to travel soon.” Gracefully, June slides off Nyla’s back, so they’re a little closer to seeing eye-to-eye. “Got anywhere to go?”

“Um.”

“I guess you could stay here,” she says, mostly sarcastic, “and smell the flowers.”

“I love them,” Kuzon replies, entirely serious. “Did you know dandodils are mildly toxic? Not as bad as the ones over there…” He points at a sign for “foxspur.” “But I still wouldn’t want them in my dinner.”

Huh.

“What about these?” With her boot, June nudges a sign saying “camellia.” 

“Those are good, if you like tea.”

“Ugh, no.”

He snorts. Good- June’s been hunting for a sense of humor.

“So, Kuzon,” she says, “are you a wanted man?”

“I...no. I don’t think anyone wants me.”

His eyes well up- even the bad one.

“I meant the law,” June clarifies, fully aware she’s marching into territory with more traps than a Fire Nation ship. “You got any armies after you? Police departments? Short-changed tax officials?”

He squints at her and then shakes his head vigorously. “No, nobody’s looking for me.”

“You actually know how to use those swords you were flashing around?”

“What do you care?” he snaps, and the baby shirshu’s back.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she says smugly, and his instant look of defeat confirms it further. “I ‘care’ because I could use-" a minion- “an apprentice. Someone to collect wanted posters for me. Read boring books. Clean Nyla’s nails.”

He narrows his eyes. “Why would anyone want to do that?”

“It’s a joke, kid. Think about who I am and what I do, and you’ll figure out what it really takes.” He watches her with an inscrutable expression, but she charges on. “See, when something like that-“ she waves generally at his face- “happens, you’ve got a couple choices. You could cry about it for the rest of your life. You could find 'peace' and 'balance,' whatever that means. I recommend option 3: survive. Make yourself dangerous. So scary nobody’s ever going to test you like that again.”

For an instant his golden eyes dart up to the right side of her face, hidden as always behind her hair.

She tilts her head to the left. “Do we have an understanding?”

He nods stiffly and then bows, hands forming a perfect flame. June’s never bowed to a business associate in her life, but she’s certainly not going to stop him.

“Then stay here and get back up to full strength,” June instructs him. “You start work when I get back.”

She hops back onto Nyla and races eastwards, straight at her next target.

“Kuzon,” she says to herself, trying to acclimate her tongue to that funny, old-fashioned name. Then she bends down towards Nyla. “If this goes wrong, I'm blaming you.”

Her ten-ton shirshu wags his tail in complete and utter delight.