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The Firebending Masters

Chapter Text

“Do not give Kuzon alcohol.”

June rolls her eyes at Yawen. “Yeah, no heavy drinking until he’s at least fourteen.” Seeing her dismay, she exclaims, “I was joking!”

Yawen narrows her eyes in suspicion. “I’ve got half a mind to keep him here forever.” 

She gestures at her clinic, where Kuzon’s stayed for treatment since June first hauled him here. It’s a quiet, dignified establishment, with a well-tended garden out back. As a general rule nothing ever happens here. Maybe some people like it that way.

“But,” Yawen adds with a sigh, “I think he’s ready for something more normal.”

/

“Normal” is not the word June would choose for his new abode- a room right next to hers, rented at the inn above her beloved tavern. As Kuzon moves in the last of his belongings- and how did he gather that many books that fast, and how many of those flowers are secretly lethal- June admits Yawen had a point. Maybe, just maybe, a bar’s not the ideal place to raise a teenager.

But Kuzon’s agreed, and his room’s been paid for, and they’re in this for the long run. June already warned him in general terms about the noise and unruly behavior, but before they get their first dinner, she sits him down for a thorough lecture.

“So here’s what you need to get,” she says from the third floor, arms draped on the railing as she looks down on the central hall below. “Everything in that tavern is political.”

Kuzon’s eyes widen. “You mean...Fire Nation vs. Earth Kingdom?”

“No,” June scoffs. “We’ve got our own little kingdom here. I’m at the top.”

“How’d you get there?”

“Because there are a couple ways of asserting dominance in a place like this,” she explains. “Arm wrestling. Bar fights. Buying people drinks, then drinking them under the table. Turns out all those are innate talents of mine.”

“I...don’t think I’m good at any of those yet.”

“Which is why you-“ she jabs him with her elbow, just a little- “are the social equivalent of dirt.”

“...Oh.”

“Don’t worry,” she adds breezily, “you’re a kid, plus everyone knows you’re my dirt. They’re not going to pick fights with you. Just don’t get stepped on, and you’ll be fine.”

For a second she considers warning him not to pick fights with anyone else either, but it’s unnecessary. Kuzon’s both too calm and too sensible for that.

“So I should expect to be ignored?”

“Yep.” 

He snorts to himself. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

/

“Sake for me,” June hollers, entering the tavern proper. “Tea for the kid.”

“What kind?” the server calls back.

To June, every cup of hot leaf juice tastes the same. She looks to Kuzon.

“What’ve you got?” he asks quietly, mousily, keeping to June’s shadow.

“We’ve got green and brown.”

“...I’ll take brown?”

As the server busies herself with their drinks, June kicks back, boots on the table. Kuzon sits hunched over, eyes kept cleverly down.

“You got yourself a copycat, huh?” One of the locals swaggers up to June and smirks at Kuzon’s hair, which is draped over one eye. He’s loaded it with so much gel it’s hardened to a single piece, like a chunk of exoskeleton.

“An apprentice,” she says easily. “I felt bad, keeping this much expertise to myself.”

Everyone’s listening, and as she predicted they accept the answer easily. Kuzon turns invisible to them- too well-protected to be worth mocking, too young and unremarkable to earn attention in his own right.

Still, June watches him. When their drinks come, he takes a sip of his tea and instantly pouts. June can’t blame him- it’s no fun being a tea-drinking child in a liquor-drenched bar- but there’s nothing she can do about it. 

(Blame it on Yawen’s influence.)

“What’ll you have for dinner?” the server asks.

“Edamame and chicken wings for me.” June jerks her head towards Kuzon. “He’ll need a menu.”

She hands him a grimy-looking placard. Kuzon takes it, though June can see him cringe at the dirt, and scans it.

“Can I have the hot noodles?”

The server looks to June, who looks to him. 

“You sure about that?” June prods.

“Is it...not good here?”

She shrugs. “I’ve never tried it, but I guess this is the way to find out.”

(In her periphery, some of the regulars are starting to listen.)

The food comes fast. The noodles in Kuzon’s bowl are sprinkled with red chili powder; June catches some other patrons coughing as it comes past. She cringes on Kuzon’s behalf as he takes his first mouthful. He frowns, as expected, and instantly calls the server back, no doubt to ask for an urgent tankard of ice water.

“Do you have any hot sauce for this?”

Several nearby tables go quiet. The server raises her eyebrows and then scurries off for a small bowl of chili paste. Kuzon takes it, thanks her, and tastes a little of the sauce in isolation. He frowns even more deeply.

“It’s sweet,” he murmurs to himself before looking up at the server. “This is sweet chili paste, do you have anything spicy?”

The server’s jaw falls open, just a couple degrees. She looks to June again, silently asking whether this is a joke. June’s wondering that herself.

Eventually the server nods. “I can go ask the kitchen for some fire flakes.”

She returns with a shaker half-full of fire flakes- June didn’t even know they had that stuff here- and hands it over. Without hesitating, Kuzon screws off the top.

And dumps the entire damn bottle in his noodles.

“Thank you!” As he passes the now-empty shaker back, he favors the server with the sunniest smile June’s ever seen cross his face. Apparently oblivious to the fact that the entire tavern’s staring at him, he mixes up his dinner and tucks in with gusto.

No tears.

No coughing.

No desperate pleas for water.

For a while, June stares at him. Then she looks around at everyone else who’s staring at him and grants them a thoroughly arrogant smirk.

/

Before they retire to their separate rooms for the night, June stops Kuzon. “Did you do that on purpose?”

Kuzon gives her a quizzical look. “Do what?”

Wow.

With a snort, June crosses her arms and cocks her head. “There’s another big way of asserting dominance down there. Eating spice.”

Kuzon’s face flips through a bewildering series of expressions.

“So in other words,” she finishes, “you just waltzed in tonight and declared yourself king.”

His face finishes its gymnastics routine, landing on something like fear.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps, “I didn’t mean to, to stand out or upstage you-“

“Whoa,” June scoffs. “This isn’t a coup or something. You didn’t upstage me.”

The quizzical look’s back.

“If you win glory in battle-“ she gestures sarcastically at the tavern below, “that says good things about my taste. So really, your wins are my wins. Maybe one day we’ll be benevolent co-rulers.”

He looks at her in total confusion, like nobody’s ever told him about teamwork before, so she gives up and claps a hand on his shoulder and spells it out for him. “Keep ordering your fire flakes.”

/

Something’s cooking in Caldera.

June can’t guess what- she doesn’t properly keep up with court politics except when there’s a wanted poster out- but it’s the only explanation for why her table’s taken over by a gigantic mass of muscle and metal. She scowls and knocks on Kuzon’s door.

“Change of plans. We’re eating out.”

“Out” means a ramen place a couple villages down. Kuzon orders his broth red-hot and eats it with gusto.

“I wanted chicken wings,” June mutters bitterly. “But did you see that guy in my chair back home?”

Kuzon nods.

“Taizhi. Fire Nation assassin.”

For the first time, Kuzon chokes on his pepper.

June waits until he gets himself back under control. “Now, Ozai doesn’t usually splurge for him, his fighting’s not what you’d call neat. Even before the insurance claims come in, he charges an arm and a leg- which might be fair from someone who's lost an arm and a leg- but he’s only worth it- hey!” She calls to the waiter, because now Kuzon’s got tears in his eyes. “More water! Anyway, he’s only worth the money to go after really powerful benders.”

Hearing that, Kuzon’s posture loosens a little, and June feels a pang of sympathy. As if Ozai would send an assassin after the kid of some probably-dead tax dodgers.

June pours him some water when the pitcher comes. “I wonder who Ozai’s scared of this time.”

“What’s so great about Taizhi?” Kuzon asks, voice extra-hoarse even after taking a sip.

“He’s the most powerful firebender you’ll ever meet.”

Kuzon immediately trades the fear for skepticism.

“I’m not kidding,” June warns. “He shoots fire out of his head.”

“So?”

“What do you mean, ‘so’?”

“Don’t lots of firebenders shoot fire out their heads?” he says, hesitantly. “Or their mouths, at least?”

“I heard he can blow through hills,” June counters.

“Power’s not everything,” he mutters. He sounds a little testy about it.

She just laughs. “Kid, do you know anything about firebending?”

“...No. I guess not.”

He frowns into his ramen. June keeps chuckling.

/

June knocks on Kuzon’s door the next morning.

Nothing.

Hit with an irrational jolt of fear, even though there’s no way Taizhi’d get sent after a random teenager, June barrels down the stairs to the stable. The panic subsides immediately when she finds Kuzon fast asleep, curled up behind Nyla and clutching all his weapons. An imaginative array of what are probably lethal poisons lies within reach. 

Well, whatever helps him sleep at night.

Chapter Text

Taizhi moves on from the village without sparking any major explosions, and June breathes a sigh of relief.

Then Baohua Fang swans into the tavern, a week later. She’s dressed head to toe in black, with a bejeweled band of silver in her top-knot and long gloves and fancy leather boots. As always, June hates her on sight.

“She looks just like you,” Kuzon observes, the first time he sees her from a couple stories up. 

It’s the first time anyone’s said it like that, rather than “You look just like her.”

June reaches out and fluffs his hair, which is finally long enough to mess up. “Have I told you recently you’re my favorite apprentice?”

He smiles. Then he shoots her a nasty look, no doubt realizing he’s her only apprentice.

“Black’s not rare in the industry,” she says. “Most of us wear black or a nice non-committal red-brown, ‘cause we’re not so strict on the national allegiance thing. But she-“ she jabs a finger at Baohua- “copied my look without permission, and did it nicer, which is something I’ll never forgive her for.”

“I like your outfit more,” Kuzon says automatically, without a trace of guile.

“And this is why you’re my favorite.”

“So who is she?”

“Fire Nation assassin-slash-bounty hunter.” When Kuzon immediately jumps back from the railing and tugs down the hood of his own red-brown cloak, she chuckles. “Calm down, she’s really just a glorified janitor. The palace sends her to clean up their least important trash.”

He tightens his lips. “I never knew the palace kept this many assassins.”

“Well, they don’t exactly hang around court publicly. Can you imagine? A bounty hunter taking tea with the Fire Lord?”

“I guess not.” Then he fidgets a little. “Why do you think she’s here?”

“From what I hear, she deals with petty grudges. When Ozai wants some minor nusicance gone, but his logic’s so silly he can’t actually go public with it.”

“The Fire Lord wouldn’t chase people down for little mistakes...” He wilts. “Maybe he would.”

“Hey.” She nudges him with her elbow. “If you want to hide in your room for the night, I won’t stop you.”

“Do you think I’m paranoid?”

“Totally. That’s not a bad trait in our line of work.” She narrows her eyes as Baohua takes a seat directly opposite June’s usual chair, where Kuzon’s been sitting nowadays. “Alternatively, you see that alcove?” She gestures subtly down the hall. “You can hear everything right there, and no one’ll see you. If you get into the mood for eavesdropping.”

Kuzon hurries right over. June returns to her room to freshen up her hair and make-up- the usual battle preparations- and then heads downstairs, into the smog of Baohua’s choking fire lily perfume.

“Baohua. How nice of you to grace us with your presence.” June slides into her chair, pouring every last bit of sarcasm into her tone. 

“June. It’s always pleasant to take a country vacation. It’s so...simple out here.”

“It is pretty simple.” June shoots her first cup of sake. “We actually work for our supper. I’m sure that’s a foreign concept back on Caldera.”

Baohua sips her own cup with a thoroughly pretentious delicacy that this sake doesn’t deserve. “Yes, Caldera’s been occupied with larger concerns than this backwater needs to be. Affairs of state, of the soul of the country… After all, I’m sure you’ve heard about the poor young prince.”

It’s times like this that June wishes she knew something more about the royal family, just to wipe that smug, knowing smile off Baohua’s face.

“I don’t keep up with the royals, got too many jobs for that,” June says. “But I’m sure you know all about what His Highness is up to.”

“Was.”

“What?”

Baohua’s eyes glint. “He’s dead now.”

June doesn’t give her the satisfaction of reacting. Inside, she tries to calculate how old he’d have been. Ten? Sixteen? Come to think of it, what’s the kid’s name? Zulon? Kozu? Kuzon?

She snorts at that last option and concludes that there’s just too many damn royals.

Ignoring June’s consternation, Baohua keeps doling out her gossip. “He had a wasting disease for such a long time, the poor fragile thing. The Fire Lord held the grandest wake when he finally passed. Everyone in Caldera came to pay their respects, and Princess Azula wrote poetry in her brother’s memory and delivered it with really excellent confidence for someone of that age...”

Maybe it’s insensitive, but June can’t help thinking about the fact that funeral guests in the Fire Nation are supposed to offer cash gifts to their hosts. If all of Caldera came, Ozai would’ve walked away even more loaded than he already was.

Baohua sticks to the proper conclusion: “I of course attended, and it was obvious His Majesty and Her Highness loved the prince dearly.”

“And why should I care about a random spoiled brat?” June says, right as another patron butts in from a nearby table: “Zuko died of disease?”

Baohua ignores June and nods vigorously at him. “I hear there was quite the skin condition, by the end; it’s why he was never shown off in public like his sister. Poor child- they had to cover the whole body with golden veils for the funeral-”

“But,” the guy persists, “I heard Zuko went down in one of those fire duels.”

Baohua snorts, but prissily. “Please. The prince was too delicate for an Agni Kai! Could he really firebend at all? Honestly, I’m not sure…”

“I’m surprised His Majesty could spare you in his time of grief,” June deadpans.

Her smile stays saccharine, but her eyes flash. “A bunch of nobodies tried to take advantage of his momentary weakness, and though the Fire Lord’s dealt with most of them, there are loose ends to tie up. It’s a tremendous honor to serve the royal family- a privilege I’m afraid someone like you could never earn.”

“And I’m thankful for it.” June tips back her cup, which a server refilled without her having to ask. They’re getting a double tip tonight.

“It’s a matter of honor, you see. Either you have it, or you don’t.”

Rolling her eyes, June completely ignores the bait.

Then she casually glances upwards, because she could’ve sworn there was a flash of activity at the door to Kuzon’s room. Maybe he’s bored of Baohua’s empty posturing. Spirits know June is.

/

Baohua buys herself several drinks, because June certainly won’t- her hospitality extends to not poisoning them. 

(Which is a real and tempting option now. Kuzon’s surely got something up in his room that she could use…)

With her flimsiest smile plastered on, she escorts Baohua out of the tavern to her ostrich-horse. She pretends it’s because she’s such a good host. Really, it’s because Baohua has no idea how to treat animals and June can surely get some good jibes in once she sees the condition of her latest steed-

A shadow-cloaked figure blocks their path. Then the cloak falls away, shaken to the ground, and June squints in the darkness. She knows who that is.

On the other hand, it makes zero sense.

(June was watching the stairs, how could he have made it down?)

(Also, what happened to his face?)

“Baohua Fang,” Kuzon says, and bless him, he’s trying to make his voice sound deeper than it is. “You’ve insulted June gravely tonight.”

Beside her, Baohua’s about as confused as she is. “Who in the world are you?”

“I’m June’s apprentice,” he says. The words are smooth enough, but June can hear tension coiling in his voice. “That’s all you need to know. In Fire Nation culture, those insults would seriously call her honor into question...or yours.”

Baohua tilts her head. “I’d indulge in an Agni Kai if she could bend.”

“Can you really firebend?” Kuzon shoots back.

June looks back and forth at this conversation and feels like she’s been tossed into a foreign language. Then she looks behind her and finds the tavern emptying out onto the road. Its patrons are gathering to watch...whatever this is.

What is this?

Suddenly Baohua slices one hand through the air, leaving flame in its wake. “Of course I am blessed with Agni’s fire. But she isn’t, so this is a pointless discussion.”

“When you insult my master, you insult me.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“Unless you’re too scared,” he sneers.

Baohua lifts her chin, and a chill runs through June. “Fine.”

“Agni Kai,” Kuzon spits, “right now.”

Suddenly, June’s sake-addled brain untangles what’s going on here.

“Oh, no, you’re not.” She strides right forward, wraps one arm around Kuzon’s torso, and begins hauling him away. “I don’t know what your deal with honor is, but there is no way you’re fighting an Agon-whatsit when you not even a-“

Suddenly, the child she’s dragging along the ground is on fire.

So she drops him.

And maybe screams a little bit.

Sputtering, Kuzon picks himself up off the ground, brushing away the dirt, and wheels around to face Baohua. His skin gleams eerily pale in the moonlight.

“Let’s do it,” Baohua says with vicious enunciation.

“Let’s not,” June says, but since when has anybody listened to her.

Then Baohua flings out the first fireball, and June, being possessed of no super-secret bending whatsoever, dives out of the way. By the time she gets back up, there’s a full-blown fire duel going on, and it looks painfully one-sided, and June suddenly regrets playing Baohua’s skills down to Kuzon. She may be the world’s worst royal assassin, currently a couple sheets to the wind, but she’s still a royal assassin.

Baohua punches out blast after blast, searing fire that spectators have to flinch from. They’re pointed packets of flame, red with a tinge of blue at the heart. June steels herself for the screech of a newly-rebroiled kid.

It never comes.

When she manages to force her eyes open again, she realizes that Kuzon’s sneaking between all the blasts. He’s just using his size to slip between them, dancing from side to side, wearing Baohua out. But then Baohua swaps to a horizontal fan of fire, something he can’t avoid by jumping to the side, and June cringes again, and Kuzon…

Just parts it with a wave of his hands.

He makes it look easy.

Like he’s just teasing Baohua.

The crowd from the bar’s begun cheering for him, and their encouragement gets louder every time he survives what’d be a deadly blast to anyone else here. Though Baohua’s audibly panting, Kuzon hasn’t let out a single flame, and even as he evades her blows he closes in on her, step by step. Baohua starts moving back, which is when Kuzon launches a stream of fire right at her feet, the tricky little rascal.

Dammit, June’s proud.

As he gets closer, her blasts get hotter and wilder. She lets out another blazing fan of fire, but Kuzon just ducks right under it, dropping to the ground and whirling his feet around in a circle. He kicks out a massive circle of flame, and Baohua falls out of her proper stance and stumbles back, obviously panicking. She makes the mistake of straightening one leg while preparing for her next attack, and Kuzon takes the chance to jam his heel right through her kneecap, just like June taught him. Seconds later, he’s wrestled her to the ground, pinning her hands under her and holding a dagger to her neck.

The dagger’s just casually made of fire.

“Say it,” he growls. 

Baohua mumbles something,

“Say it right now!” His voice is shaking, maybe with fear. Maybe with rage.

Then June hears two words she never thought would come out of Baohua Fang’s mouth: “I surrender!”

Which is when June lunges, stabs her with a teensy-weensy shirshu dart and hauls her paralyzed body away.

(The paralysis never seems to stop people from running their mouth. Maybe Kuzon can fix that.)

/

Yawen shuts the door to what’s now Baohua’s room, having finally set her leg.

“You’re sure Kuzon wasn’t drinking?” she hisses at June.

“That wasn’t alcohol, he’s just like that.” June flashes her a grin. “Hasn’t hit puberty, but he just won his first bar fight.”

Yawen tuts like she’s trying to disapprove, but there’s pride glinting in her eyes regardless. June smirks and heads back outside, only to encounter a shadow-cloaked figure huddled near the door.

Getting to his feet, he exhales shakily. “I didn’t burn her, did I?”

“Nope.” June pops the “p.” “Did a number on her knee though. Yawen’s going to get a lot of money out of this one.”

Kuzon turns away, his hood obscuring his face. “Are you gonna…”

As he trails off, June frowns. “Am I going to get mad at you? Not particularly, Baohua’s had it coming-“

“Are you going to sell me?” he interrupts, his voice small and bitter.

And that’s the biggest shock of the night.

“I know- everyone knows they pay for firebenders, on the other side of the border.”

June lets out a startled laugh, because what else can she do? “Is that why you didn’t mention you can shoot fire out of your hands?”

Kuzon’s eyes go huge with panic. “Please, I can’t outrun Nyla, but I promise I’ll be good, I’m your loyal apprentice-“

He looks pitiful, one second away from begging at her feet.

“I’m not planning on selling you,” June cuts in, in a tone that brooks no argument. “The bounties on firebenders are tiny, you’d have to be desperate to go after those. I haven’t bothered in years.” He still looks too concerned for comfort. “Think about how much money you’ve already made me, with your accounting. You’re worth way more as a taxbender than a firebender.”

“That’s not a thing.”

“I’m just saying,” she says with a shrug, “to be worth selling? You’d have to be a lot more than a random firebender.”

Even accounting for his parents’ likely financial crimes, the numbers just don’t work out.

“That’s...great to hear.” He sounds like he’s being actively strangled.

“Also, kid.” His eyes snap up, and she continues: “Going forward, you don’t need to defend my...honor.”

“I… Can I say it without putting money in the jar?”

June waves a hand. “I’ll give you tonight free.”

“I get you’re okay with it,” Kuzon says. “Anyone can say anything about you, and you just keep going, and. Um. I wish I was like that.”

June tilts her head, not quite understanding.

“I think what I’m trying to say,” he adds, not meeting her eyes, “is this was...more about my honor than yours?”

June still does not comprehend what goes on under that ponytail, but she gets it more now. Maybe.

“Hey, do you need to get checked out by a healer?”

“What? No, she didn’t land a hit on me.”

“Cool.” 

June opens the door to head back in before she turns away. It’s why the light from inside suddenly illuminates Kuzon’s face, revealing dark blotches like bruises around his eye and a swollen, discolored mouth.

“The hell- get over here!”

His face falls into his classic guilty look as he steps obediently into the light. June leans in and makes a closer inspection and gets genuinely mad for the first time all day.

“Are you wearing my makeup?”

He stammers and stutters and he’s totally wearing June’s makeup. It explains the sudden paleness- he’s wearing foundation that’s several shades too light for his skin tone, maybe because it’s not his. And he’s got dark red lip paint smushed on his eye, and dark blue eye paint smushed on his lips. This means he rooted through all the cosmetics she left out. And that means he broke into her room, possibly by picking the lock, possibly by parkouring his way through the three-story-high window. June doesn’t waste more than a second on that thought. That’s not what she’s angry about.

“Did you mix up my brushes?”

“I didn’t want her to recognize me,” Kuzon squawks in alarm, “I mean, in case we see each other sometime in the future, and-“

“Ugh.” June shakes her head wearily. “Next time you decide to slather on makeup, ask me for help first.”

“I…” Wisely, he shuts his mouth. “I will do that. Promise.”

At least he’s got a scrap of self-preservation.

/

“I forgot to say it last night,” June tells him the next morning over breakfast, because she’s feeling like she ought to play the responsible adult here. It’s an icky feeling. “But you shouldn’t go around challenging assassins to duels, fire or not.”

“Yeah,” he mutters, poking at his porridge. “Yeah, I got that.”

“You gotta wait a couple more years, ’til you’re all trained up.”

He looks up from his bowl and then shoots her a smile, fast and blinding as lightning.

Chapter Text

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.”)