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The Firebending Masters

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So June may have taken advantage a little, when Baohua Fang was paralyzed. She may have slipped her hand into the pocket of Baohua’s ermine-stoat coat right after Yawen took it off, and she might just have found a bunch of carelessly secured documents that could’ve slipped out at any time.

And just maybe she helped herself to the one at the top of the stack that had most escaped its tie.

It’s an ID slip bearing the name “Qintao Sang.”

Further inspection reveals it’s a library card, granting Sang access to some fancy Caldera library June’s never heard of. Why anyone would pay an assassin to deal with library drama, June can’t imagine. What, did this guy forget to pay his late fees?

She nearly throws it in the local dump. She’s on a cleaning spree anyway, throwing out the makeup and the brushes Kuzon wrecked- those were nice paints, it’ll take the entire contents of the “Honor Jar” to replace them- but out of curiosity she decides to keep the card.

Curiosity and a little spite. Maybe she can take down the target before Baohua can, despite not even being on the job. That’d be a first.

A couple mornings later, once Baohua’s been packed off to a out-of-town hospital, June decides to stick the library card under Nyla’s snout. She fully expects him to just run to the shore, back to whatever harbor Baohua came through. Instead, he starts salivating, like the owner of the card’s nearby.

June leaps onto his back- “what the hell, let’s do this-“ and she cracks the whip.

(If Kuzon could survive an Agni Kai, then June can handle a random library thief.)

(It occurs to her she probably shouldn’t be using a boy hopped up on raging hormones as her role model. Not for risk assessment, anyway.)

Sure-footed and quivering with adrenaline, Nyla brings her out to an abandoned farm, storming right through a rotting wood fence and through the wall of a barn. And there’s a guy trying and utterly failing to hide his massive bulk behind some metal machinery. June laughs, because she’s totally got this in the bag.

That’s when the fire starts.

He lets loose a long red ribbon of flame. June yanks Nyla out of the way, and by rights the bolt should pass them by and set fire to the barn. Going by the mold speckling the ceiling, it won’t be a loss.

Then the ribbon of flame loops around like liquid and lashes June’s leg.

She kicks at it and takes the blow on her leather boots, which let out an acrid smell but don’t outright burst into flame. Then, she rolls off Nyla’s back and raises her whip and-

“Stop,” he exclaims, raising up two hands in surrender. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

On prior occasions, June would press his moment of weakness and immediately restart the battle. But now she’s got a kid waiting at home, and in the off-chance she does go up in flames, he might not be happy about it.

Plus this guy’s a firebender, which changes her calculations.

“Qintao Sang,” she says, brandishing a whip in one hand as the other draws a dagger. His lack of surprise at the name confirms that, yeah, he’s the original owner of the library card. “Tell me something. No lies.”

“Anything,” he says, his voice shaking. Though he’s a humongous man, he seems strangely downtrodden.

“What’d you do to get the Fire Lord so mad at you?”

“I worked for one of the royal libraries,” he answers in a rush, “and I misfiled a scroll.”

June lifts her eyebrows, prompting him to continue. “And?”

“That’s all!” His voice rings with truth.

Her opinion of Ozai manages to sink lower. 

(Overcompensation. Seriously.)

“How does a librarian get that good at firebending?” Because he is good, even if he’s unconventional. Normally firebenders send out ranged attacks and forget about them; their blasts follow their initial path, stuck on a straight line. Outside master exhibitions at Fire Days Festivals, June’s never seen someone maneuver flame that far gone. 

“I worked on a section just for advanced bending texts,” he says.

“Firebending?”

“All bending,” he corrects, shaking his head vigorously.

It might be true. It’d explain how he can bend flame like it’s water.

“You a master?”

“I have that title.” He bows his head. “But there’s still so much to learn.”

“...I’m going to let you live,” June says. She’s bluffing, because maybe he’s the one letting her live, but he doesn’t need to know that. “On one condition.”

/

“Kuzon!” June calls to him as he picks flowers in Yawen’s garden, referring constantly to his precious dispensatory. “I got you a firebending master.”

Qintao- Chit for short- is currently paralyzed and bound on Nyla’s back. Carrying him’s slowed Nyla to half-speed, just because of his sheer magnitude. June unbuckles him, and he slides to the ground with a loud thump.

June props him up to sit against Nyla’s side. As Kuzon comes close, she pulls out a dagger and twirls it. It’s something to do with her hands. It’s also an implicit threat. All of Chit Sang’s unparalyzed muscles flinch appropriately.

“I didn’t ask for a firebending master,” is Kuzon’s first response.

June tilts her head. “Are you a master?”

“I- no, but-“

“But you can make twice the money if you get your bending up to snuff.”

He glares at her, jaw tightening. “It’s not worth it. I’m never going to be a good bender.”

“Kuzon,“ she says sharply. “You’re a kid, and you already won your first duel.”

Slowly, with effort, Chit raises his head.

Kuzon doesn’t notice. “If I had the ability to be a master firebender, I’d already be one!”

“You’re twelve!” she protests.

“Thirteen!” he shoots back with a glower.

“You won an Agni Kai at age thirteen?” Chit says quietly, breaking into their burgeoning argument. 

Kuzon hesitates. June doesn’t: “He just beat up Baohua Fang. Which is lucky for you, ‘cause she was on your trail.”

“I’m not worth teaching,” Kuzon insists. “I’m-“

“I would be happy to teach you,” Chit interrupts.

“You’re happy I haven’t turned you in yet,” June mutters.

“I’m not a patient man,” Chit continues from where he sits limply on the floor, addressing Kuzon. “I guess you aren’t either. But the best skills can take years of work. That’s something I can help with.”

“Why do you think you’re qualified?” Kuzon snaps. Amazing, how he can swap from self-loathing to snobbery in the blink of an eye.

Chit Sang lifts his head a little further, defying the shirshu poison still in his system. “Try me.”

June opens her mouth to comment that, no, nobody should be tested on firebending skills while paralyzed. But Kuzon doesn’t move to attack, at least not physically.

“In the katas established during the reign of Fire Lord Azulon,” he demands with peak pomposity, “what distinguishes the regular reverse entry from the second variant when mounting the komodo-rhino?”  

What.

Chit scrunches up his gigantic forehead, like he’s just as lost as June. He opens his mouth, surely to protest it’s a gibberish question.

“The angle of the knee,” he answers after a moment. “In the second variant, the kneecap passes the toes, which gets you a deeper lunge. Might get you a better breath, if your flow’s like that. The regular version’s just got a right angle, so it’s faster to get out and hit the roundhouse kick.”

So that sounded like a gibberish answer, but June’s not the judge here. She looks back at Kuzon, who crosses his arms and glares.

At last he sniffs, momentarily appeased. “When would you favor a dragon-moose form over the komodo-dragon? Assume you’re in close-quarters combat with two to three opponents…”

June just watches as Kuzon reveals a previously unearthed taste for cruelty, dragging Chit through the world’s most sadistic pop quiz. She’s listened to firebenders discuss their craft before- Baohua loves to brag, after all- and she’s read plenty of battle reports. Still, she misses every other word out of Kuzon’s mouth. Maybe he’s discussing genuinely cutting-edge tactics. Maybe he’s talking about ordinary moves, but in the most pedantic, pretentious fashion possible.

Somehow, Chit Sang keeps up with him. He answers in simple, clear words- miles clearer than Kuzon’s- and gets more enthusiastic the further they delve. His posture relaxes over time, and it’s not just because the toxin’s wearing off.

It’s a duel of wits, and he might just survive.

“What do you think is the most powerful technique in firebending?”

June does a double take, because that’s the most straightforward question Kuzon’s come up with. Unless it’s a trick question. Who knows.

“Lightning,” he says after a moment.

Kuzon smiles.

“The ability to redirect lightning,” Chit finishes.

His smile immediately disappears. “That’s not possible.”

“You mean no one’s done it yet,” Chit says with a shrug. “My bet is it’ll take a ton of skill...and inborn power.”

Kuzon gets the oddest look on his face. When he speaks again, he stumbles: “What...what do you want to learn? As a firebender?”

“Me? Well, I’ve never pulled off the breath of fire.”

“The…” Kuzon frowns. “That’s not hard, though.”

June can’t keep from interrupting: “Hang on, can you breathe fire? Like a dragon?”

Kuzon gives an irritated huff, and yeah, there’s a hint of flame on his exhale. “See? Not hard.”

June stares at him in disbelief. Chit’s looking up at him with something like reverence.

She decides at that second to hit Chit with another shirshu dart.

“Sorry about that.” She’s not sorry in the slightest. “I gotta go find you a quiet place to stay, in case you pass the rest of his audition.” To Kuzon she says merrily, “If he makes a wrong move, I’ll help you hide the body.”

She leaves Nyla with Kuzon, just to play it totally safe, and heads down the road.

(Chit Sang groans a little as the second wave of poison hits. Takes a second to adjust. Waits until June’s disappeared from sight.

“I don’t know what I expected when I came to the colonies,” he says, “but I didn’t guess I’d run into you, Your Royal Highness.”)