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Tiger Rag

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Sweat.

That's the first thought that pops into Shiro’s head when he sees Mad Dog Toza close up and in the flesh.

There's something exhilarating, even at his age, about being behind the scenes at the pro-bending arena after a fantastic night of matches. For one thing, he's never been able to afford the kind of seats where you can tell the players apart by more than their colours, and now here's the best earthbender in the game walking towards him, handsome and larger than life and dripping with sweat.

Shiro steps in front of the locker room door with a speechless smile and a wave of his notepad. Mad Dog really is big out of the ring. Big, and disheveled, and moving a little stiffly—not at all like his lunge-and-dodge performance on the platform.

Mad Dog's flinty eyes narrow. "Autograph?"

Shiro lets his gaze slip the reins for a quick shoulders-arms-legs glance, then straightens his jacket. "I'm with the Daily Republic. How about a quote for our readers on the Rhinos' victory tonight?"

Mad Dog takes another step towards him, squinting down suspiciously and, Shiro can't help but note, doing a shoulders-arms-legs of his own. "What are you, twelve?"

Shiro plasters on a smile and takes a step forward of his own, bringing them toe to toe. He has to crane his neck, and when he breathes in, he smells the salty musk of exertion.

"Fireball Fu, head of the Triad, said the same thing to me last month. It was intimidating when he said it. I'm Shiro Shinobi, I'm nineteen years old, I usually cover the crime beat but I'm filling in for Anyu Choi, and I'm currently in awe of the one-two duck kick you pulled in round three. Do you have a comment on the Royals' illegal icing tonight?"

Mad Dog looks at him a long moment, and then he chuckles. It takes a decade off his brow. "Nothing fit to print."

"You're still bleeding, you know," Shiro confides.

Mad Dog reaches for his ear, where a bead of blood is welling up from a half-dried cut.

Shiro pulls his handkerchief out of his pocket and stands on his tiptoes to dab at it. A bud of red blooms on the white linen. Their gazes lock. He folds the handkerchief and mops at the man's forehead.

"Thanks," Mad Dog mutters, his voice gruff.

He can hear the arena doors flying open and slamming shutting. The roar of the crowd drifts in momentarily, followed by the approaching shuffle of the other players. Shiro quickly calculates whether he can churn out a puff piece on arena renovations or the commercialization of pro-bending between the hours of midnight and two-past. He looks Mad Dog over again. Make that between two-past and dawn.

"Let me buy you a drink," he says. Then, supposing he'll be back in the vice halls tomorrow and he might as well try his luck, he licks his lips. "Skip the shower if you like."