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1. The Docks

If you were going to peddle your ass on the Yue docks, received wisdom said you should do it on pay day. That was when the ships were in, the fleet included, and all the wharfies had a wad of yuan in their pockets and a day off ahead of them. Catch the right guy when he’d had a couple of starter drinks to loosen him up, and you could count on his wallet hanging open all night.

The problem was that some of those yuan were inevitably earmarked for a couple of pro-bending matches, so Tahno tended to be busy on pay day, what with his real job and all. Besides, in his experience, happy men were more trouble than they were worth. No one liked being told no when they had just gotten paid, and to be honest, Tahno wasn't any better at saying no when he was about to get paid. So maybe what was supposed to be a blowjob turned into fucking. Or maybe fucking with a rubber became fucking without one. It had the capacity to get messy, no pun intended.

So, if he had to peddle his ass on the Yue docks—and he did, if he wanted to be a pro-bender and eat and avoid some even shittier day job like waiting tables—he always went down on the morning the wharfies got back to work. Funny thing was, a hung-over man who'd lost half his pay to the dice table the night before would still open his wallet to get his dick sucked at the ass-crack of dawn if it meant even a few minutes of forgetting that a week of hard labour loomed ahead.

The stars were still out when Tahno made his way to the waterfront. He had been up since the day before, but he was wide awake, buzzing with victory and the post-match celebrations. The exhaustion would hit eventually, but probably not until the sun came up. He had gone back to his apartment to wash and change, and he was currently looking good in his working clothes, which were nice enough to get attention but not so nice that he had to worry about getting jumped for them. The black silk shirt was a size too small, tight across his chest and unbuttoned at the throat. His pants were likewise clinging, and his hair fell artfully over one eye as he propped himself up against a stack of pallets and waited for the early morning shift to come drifting in.

The first few early birds, he let pass without comment. Some didn't have the right look. Others were in pairs or threes, and he didn't do crowds. Then his gaze settled on the first likely mark of the morning: a short older guy who was a little better dressed than the rest of them. Some sort of foreman, maybe. He had the tired, harried look of someone who knew he was going to have to kick some ass and didn't feel up to it.

"Twenty yuan," Tahno drawled.

The guy paused and then turned around. His eyes narrowed in suspicion, and one of his big hands clenched into a fist, like he thought Tahno might be the stupidest stickup artist ever. Then he got a better look at him, his gaze lingering on Tahno's open collar. His hand unclenched. "What did you say?"

Tahno shrugged, an amused smile on his lips. "Twenty yuan. That's how much it costs for me to give you the best blowjob of your life."

There was a moment's hesitation. The guy looked around and then back at him. Tahno thought he might actually be enough of a stick in the mud to say no and continue on to work. But then he pulled out his wallet and flipped through the contents. "I've only got ten on me."

Tahno considered saying no deal, but he had already wasted time on the pitch. "Fine," he said. "But you only get the second-best blowjob of your life."

That earned him a chuckle, like the guy thought he was kidding. Tahno stepped back into the shadowy alcove between the pallets and a timber bin. He sat down on a crate, not about to ruin his clothes by kneeling down anywhere in a two-mile radius of the docks. The banknote exchanged hands, and the guy got his pants open.

Another good thing about working mornings: you didn't want to put anything that had been on the docks all day in your mouth. The guy's work clothes smelled freshly laundered, and his dick was clean. Tahno got his hand around it and stroked it until it was hard, and then he took it between his lips and made good on his promise. He could give great head in his sleep by now, and he nearly did just that—letting his thoughts wander as his chin dipped and his tongue swirled. He replayed the night's match in his head, reviewing where he could have stepped up his game, where he had shown well, and where he could have pushed his luck when the referee wasn't looking.

The guy's breathing rasped in the dark confines of the little alcove. Then he grunted and grabbed a handful of Tahno's hair, thrusting into his mouth as he shot. Tahno let him, then spat out the bitter mouthful of spunk once the guy loosened his grasp.

It probably wasn't more than five minutes between him taking the tenner and the time he was back out under the lantern light. No rest for the wicked.

He had already known the streets of Republic City weren't paved with gold when he had left the swamp with only the loincloth on his ass and a few silver pieces stolen from his old man's lockbox. Things had already been hinky at home, so it wasn't that big a deal when a boat ride as far as Omashu had cost him his ass. What he hadn't expected was how much money you had to spend to make a little back in pro-bending, even when you were probably the best waterbender on the continent. First there had been the buy-ins at all those amateur matches in order to get noticed. Then, once a team was smart enough to sign him, he'd had to pay out of pocket for a uniform and equipment and all the extra meals it took to train that hard and not drop dead. All that in hopes of a championship whose prize money, it turned out, didn't really go that far when it was split three ways and had to last through the off-season.

If there was one thing he'd taken with him from the swamp that was worth a damn, however, it was his mama's advice: "Tahno, baby—in this world, you can work hard, or you can work smart." Tahno had opted for the latter, and that was why he was going to be back at his apartment, warm in his bed within the hour, while the workday was only beginning for the rest of these suckers.

"Thirty yuan," he said as another man walked past.

The guy stopped in his tracks and looked back over his shoulder.

"Best blowjob of your life," Tahno said.

After several moments looking at Tahno's lips, the guy reached into his pocket and counted out three tens.

Tahno smiled smugly. What do you know, he'd broken even already.

 

2. Uptown

The sports car pulled up in front of him while he was loitering outside Central City Station. Shin hung out the driver's side window and grinned.

"Going my way?" he called out.

Tahno peeled himself off the station wall and sauntered over. "Maybe."

A wad of cash dropped out of the window into his waiting hand, and Tahno crossed over to climb into the passenger seat. He took the band off the money and put his feet up on the dashboard, counting bills for something to do as the Satomobile made its way uptown.

"How's it going, man?" Shin asked.

"Can't complain," Tahno said, tucking the money away. The streetlights started to come on overhead as they crossed the bridge. "You?"

"Business is good, my man," Shin said. "Business is good."

Tahno didn't ask for details. The amount of money he got from Shin’s nameless boss implied that he was being paid as much to keep his mouth shut as he was for keeping his ass available. Not that it took a genius to figure it out, with Shin's tacky suits and gaudy jewellery and tattoos. He wasn't crazy about it, but the money was too good to refuse. Besides, Shin wasn't bad looking, and he was pretty good to work with, too. A guy could do worse than a month's rent for an hour's effort.

"I was thinking," Shin said, taking a corner too fast and zipping down a side street, "you should come on my face this time. It would be hot."

Tahno shrugged. "Yeah, why not?" Because it would be hot, and because almost every time he listened to Shin's suggestions, the next roll of bills tossed his way got a little bit bigger.

The building they squealed to a halt in front of was upscale enough to have a doorman, but he and Shin always went around the back, where a burly guy whose look screamed hired muscle let them in the service door. In the rattling cage of an elevator, the bodyguard lit a cigarette.

Tahno wrinkled his nose and fanned the air. "You mind?"

The bodyguard gave him a dismissive look, but Shin straightened up and frowned.

"Put it out."

A grudging moment passed, and then the cigarette was stubbed out against the bars of the elevator. Shin smirked his way, and Tahno returned it. Shin was even better looking when he was throwing his weight around.

The penthouse was exactly the sort of place that Tahno planned to have in a few years. It was an enormous, open, ultra-modern space loosely divided by screens, with glass windows and lacquered bamboo floors. Of course, Tahno planned to do a better job with the decorating. At the moment, the place was crammed full of cheap, expensive crap—white fur and gold as far as the eye could see, and one of those tacky fake waterfalls endlessly gurgling in the corner. Tahno would go with sleek black furniture, and maybe a few spare pieces of art on the walls. He would also do away with the heavy drapes currently blocking the view of the water and the mountains, but then, he probably wouldn't be hiring prostitutes on the sly.

There was only one light on, right over the tall bed. The rest of the place was in shadow. It was an old routine by now: Tahno waited with Shin beside the bed while the bodyguard went out on the balcony, and a minute later, Shin's boss came inside. Tahno only had a vague impression of his face and build. He wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a crowd, and that was the point. He knew his footsteps by now, though. He knew the swagger, and the way he settled heavily onto the couch that faced the bed and poured himself a drink. There was a flare of natural fire and then the glowing cherry at the end of a cigar.

Showtime. Shin wrapped an arm around his waist and cupped his jaw, then kissed him. Being watched kind of turned him on, and this sort of kissing was all open mouths and flashes of tongue designed to be seen from the couch. It was little touches to start with, soft and teasing. Shin's fingers plucked at the buttons of his shirt. The smell of too much cologne made his nose itch as he nuzzled Shin's neck.

He pulled at Shin's shirt more urgently than he needed to, like he just had to feel him skin to skin. Shin pushed a hand down the back of his pants, and Tahno moaned, the sound not entirely feigned, but certainly amplified. He wasn't naturally noisy in bed, but he let himself go here. It was part of the performance, and it was good practice for the ring. How to look good even when you were sweaty and breathless and distracted. How to ham it up without looking like you were hamming it up. He breathed out more heavily than he needed to, and he made all sorts of little noises as grinding against Shin got him hard.

He ended up on his back, cross-ways on the bed, pants off and shoes slipping to the floor. Shin joined him, naked and half-hard, kissing his way down Tahno's chest. This was definitely the best part. All he had to do was lie back and enjoy it, maybe playing up his moans a little as he stroked Shin's hair with his left hand—the one closest to the wall so as not to block the client's view.

"Oh, yeah..." he said as Shin sucked him. He shut his eyes and arched his back, playing with his nipples.

Shin's mouth teased him, lips taking him to the root and then pulling off entirely, leaving his dick spit-wet and straining. A tongue flickered over the head, making Tahno squirm and pant. It was just enough to keep him hard—enough to make the hot flush turn him pink from his chest to his ears—but not enough to make him come, not yet.

Then, just as he was clutching Shin's shoulders and nearly begging for it, he was turned over onto his hands and knees. A drawer slid open, and a moment later, Shin's slick fingers were rubbing over his hole. He pushed back against them like there was nothing he wanted more in the world, like he was a real slut for it.

"Yeah," he breathed, mouth hanging open and eyes half shut. "Fuck me."

Shin topped like someone who was used to being on the bottom. He wasn't stingy with the oil, but he wasn't sloppy with it either. He took his time with the preparation, fingering Tahno's ass until he was good and ready for it and then snapping on the rubber and easing in nice and slow at just the right angle.

Tahno opened for it with a satisfied sigh. His head dropped forward, and he rocked back, urging Shin in deeper. His dick had softened a little, but it still hung heavy, and he was tempted to give himself a rub. He wasn't sure he could trust himself to stop, however, and it would ruin the artful lines of his pose besides.

He let his hands clutch at the covers instead, putting his whole body into it as Shin fucked him slowly. He could hear the sound of a glass being set down, and maybe, under the huff of his and Shin's mingled breathing, the rustle of silk.

"Harder," he moaned when he was ready for it. He flexed the muscles in his arms and legs, showing them off as Shin grabbed him by the shoulders and gave it to him faster.

"That's it," Shin said breathlessly. "Take it..."

Shin's fingers slid into his hair, and at the faintest tug, Tahno threw his head back like he was being yanked by the roots. He exaggerated the force of Shin's thrusts, rocking forward with every slap of flesh. They made the bed squeak louder and louder until Shin was crying out with every push and Tahno was nearly warbling.

The hard squeeze of his shoulder probably wasn't faked. Neither was the sharp, satisfied shout as Shin came with a shock of rough thrusts. They eased into something slower, with Tahno humming softly and Shin gulping down his heavy breathing.

When Shin pulled out and got rid of the rubber, Tahno rolled languidly onto his back. He raised a knee, letting the guy in the shadows see how well-used he was. Then Shin was back, curling over him with a grin before sucking him again. It wasn't teasing this time. Shin's mouth was hot and wet and noisy around him, urging him hard again and bringing him right to the edge.

He made a sound of protest when Shin pulled off, before remembering that this was a scene, not a real fuck. He stroked himself, hand moving in a blur as his loins drew tighter and tighter. The first spurt caught Shin on the cheek. The second and third hit his waiting mouth and dripped slowly down his lips and chin. Tahno heard a groan from the couch and then a furious smack of skin against skin. Shin really did know his stuff.

Afterwards, when Tahno had washed up in the cavernous private bathroom and was dressed again, the bodyguard slipped him a few extra bills and escorted him out. The money was more than enough to take a private cab instead of the streetcar, but Tahno decided to walk. He was too tender to sit down yet, and he took his time on the well-lit sidewalks, enjoying the twinkling lights and darkened boutiques of Republic Heights for a little while longer before making his way home.

 

3. Downtown

He wasn't actually working so much as killing time as he idled in what passed for a park in Dragon Flats. It was mostly empty. The dry grass and stunted trees didn't offer much in the way of scenery, and the weather was turning cool. He cruised here on occasion, but he didn't really need the money after yesterday's job uptown, and he was mostly just getting some air and hoping it might rain. He liked the way it rained in the city. Back home, it was damp and misty all the time, save for once a year in monsoon season when the wind and water blew through and destroyed most of the village.

Either way, you never got entirely dry in the Foggy Swamp. Here, though, the rain came down in fat drops that he could bend away from his good shirt and enjoy as they burst against the pavement and soaked into the earth. Storms were all show and no damage in the city, like a war scene out of an opera: flashes of dramatic lightning and drumbeats of thunder.

He sat down on a bench, arms sprawled across the back of it, and was looking up at the dark clouds when someone approached.

The man looked familiar. Tahno had seen him around here on the days when he really was working, and he had caught him watching once when he was taking money from a customer. At the time, Tahno had thought he might be an off-duty cop. He had the right look for it: a serious face and a really good body. The guy had never stepped in to bust him, however, and now here he was, standing next to the bench and looking out towards the street with a nervous set of his shoulders that Tahno knew well.

"Are you a bender?" the guy asked.

Tahno blinked slowly. That wasn't what he'd been expecting, but it might have been an awkward attempt at small talk. Maybe the guy recognized him from the arena.

"No," he said, both because he didn't really need his two jobs connected and because he'd been approached by the gang recruiters before. "You?"

"No," the guy said flatly.

On another day, Tahno might have made his excuses and left. He didn’t like surprises. This guy was actually kind of handsome, though. He was probably in his forties, tall and lean with a neat mountain-style moustache and blue eyes. He had a sexy voice too, all low and husky.

The guy glanced at him and then looked away again. "I like your eyes," he said.

Tahno stared, and then his mouth curved of its own accord. The guy really was in amazing shape under those clothes. "You're kind of creepy," he drawled. "But it's working for you. What's your name?"

"Li," the guy said.

Tahno chuckled. “Funny. That’s my name too. You wouldn’t happen to have three hundred yuan and a place we can go for an hour, would you, Li?"

"Yes," Li said. "And no. I have the money, but I don’t...live around here."

Married, Tahno decided. He hesitated. He rarely took anyone up to his place, even though it was only a block from the park. He didn't like having strangers nosing around in his things, and he especially hated doing laundry. But he didn't feel like wasting time lining up a room somewhere else.

"Let me see the money," he said.

Li handed it over, and Tahno counted the notes and verified they were all legal tender before putting them in his pocket.

"That doesn’t cover gratuity, just so you know," he said. He hadn't been planning on taking his bedding to the laundry for another couple of days.

Li nodded seriously, and Tahno unfolded himself from the bench. He set off across the park just as the first rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. He walked briskly down the block with the guy following discreetly behind him and then held the door open when they reached his building.

"Give me a minute," Tahno said as they climbed the stairs to his apartment. He smiled wryly when Li looked suspicious, as a guy naturally would when he’d just handed over three hundred yuan and was about to have a door closed in his face. "I need to powder my nose."

He went in and put the cat out, and then he went into the screened-off corner that served as a half-bathroom and got himself ready. After some consideration, he left a little water in the basin in case the guy went off on him and needed cooling down. Li was waiting patiently right in front of the door, back straight and hands folded, when Tahno went to let him in. He took off his shoes immediately inside and then surveyed the place sharply. Tahno wondered if he wasn’t right in his first guess at cop, but the last time he checked, the police didn't hire non-benders.

"Come on," he said, leading Li to the futon.

Li sat down at the edge of the bed, watching him as he closed the shutters. Tahno returned and stood in front of him, undressing. As soon as his shirt was off, Li's arms came around him. Tahno looked down uncertainly as the guy kissed his stomach and his chest. It was weird and it tickled, but there was no slobbering, so Tahno indulged him.

Tahno's thighs were squeezed, his back stroked, his dick nuzzled through his pants. The guy was kind of...intense. Not, he thought, in an "I'm going to cut your pretty eyes out and put them in a jar" sort of way, but more in an off-putting "making love" sort of way. Tahno didn't usually do the boy-friend experience, but he was familiar with the concept.

Fine, he decided, as Li slowly unfastened his pants and kissed his hipbone. But he would be keeping a close eye on the clock. Pitching woo counted towards the guy's hour.

He was tugged gently down on the bed, on top of Li's lean, solid form. The guy was actually a good kisser. Tahno’s lips parted, and Li's tongue slid delicately between them, his hands moving all over Tahno's body, getting him hot. Tahno indulged himself in turn, peeling off the guy's clothes and feeling up all that hard muscle.

"You feel so good," Li rasped, his mouth moving down from Tahno's collarbone to his nipples.

"Yeah," Tahno moaned, pretty sure he could seriously have sex with that voice. "Talk dirty to me, baby."

To his disappointment, Li only kissed him again—hard enough that Tahno suspected that he was being told to shut up.

When all their clothes were off and they were grinding slowly against each other, Tahno reached for the bedside table and grabbed the rubber and the oil. Li pulled back, looking at the objects in his hand, and for a moment Tahno thought he was going to argue about the rubber. Then he wordlessly rolled over onto his side, facing away.

There was a certain sort of customer Tahno sometimes reeled in. They were attracted to the way he stood, the way he smirked. They liked the barely concealed contempt he had for most men who had to pay for sex. These guys liked him to spit on them and tell them they were scum. Sometimes they wanted to lick his ass or lick his shoes. And every once in a while, they wanted him to fuck them hard while calling them dirty little boarcupines. That wasn't the vibe he was getting from this guy, though. Or at least not the boarcupine part.

He laid a hand on Li's ass to be certain. When Li didn't pull away or throw a punch, Tahno got some oil on his fingers and stroked his hole. No complaint followed, and so he tipped out a little more oil on and fingered him carefully. The guy was ridiculously tight, but he didn’t make a sound aside from a soft hiss when one finger became three and a faint grunt when Tahno crooked his fingers and stroked him just right.

The rubber went on, and then Tahno stretched out behind Li and slowly guided himself inside. It took forever, moving in half inches. His eyes briefly fluttered shut, and his breath hitched as the hot grip threatened to unravel his control. It was a lot harder, giving a customer his money's worth from on top. He could let himself be fucked for hours—not that most of his customers lasted more than a few minutes once they got going—but he might have a little sympathy from here on out, because it was almost impossible to hold back when he was the one doing the fucking.

Li started jerking himself off, his eyes shut tightly. Tahno watched his hand, setting his pace by it. Slow thrusts for slow strokes at first, and then gradually speeding up. By the time Li's hand was flying, so was Tahno, biting the inside of his cheek to distract himself from coming until Li tightened around him and spilled over his hand.

Within two thrusts, he was shooting, filling the rubber and clamping his mouth shut to keep back the whining, desperate sound welling up on him. It didn't help; the groan still came out on a swift breath.

Li laced their hands together, squeezing, and then stroked Tahno’s wrist with his thumb. It was a good thirty seconds before Tahno was recovered enough to shake him off.

"Hour’s up," Tahno said, even though it had only been about twenty minutes. He didn’t know if Li was going to try to tell him his life story, or try to beat the shit out of him, or just go for a second round, but it wasn't happening.

The guy was quiet for a moment, but he didn't argue. He got up silently, dressed, and then showed himself out.

Tahno rolled to his feet as soon as he heard footsteps descending the stairs. He locked the door and then watched from the window to make sure the guy was really gone. That was a little too weird, he decided, and not even the fifty-yuan tip on his bedside table was going to keep "Li" off the Never Again list.

 

4. The Arena

"Hey, Toza," he said, leaning in the entranceway to the gym and idly inspecting his fingernails. "My team’s going to need some practice time tonight."

Toza was refilling the water tank and didn't so much as look up to acknowledge him. "Check the sign-up sheet."

Tahno rolled his eyes. In the year and change he'd lived in the city, he had learned that people always said yes to him eventually, and it was starting to get a little tiring when people didn’t get with the program right away. "The sign-up sheet is full."

Toza grunted as if Tahno had his answer. "Then it’s full."

He heaved a sigh. "Come on, Toza. We’ve got an alternate taking over for Shaozu next week. We need an extra slot or three to break her in."

"Should’ve signed up earlier, then. Or you can hang around and see if anyone doesn’t show up for their slot."

"You’re always here late," he pointed out, frowning in annoyance when Toza finished with the tank and went straight to stacking the discs. It was rude not to look at someone when they were speaking. "Let us have the hour after closing. We’ll clean up after ourselves."

"Nope."

"Oh, come on. Why not?"

Toza finally turned to look at him—a look that lingered, taking in his casual pose with a glower. "Because the gym’ll be closed then."

"Not if you don’t close it."

"And why would I do that?"

Tahno tilted his head, weighing whether this was worth making an offer over. He usually didn't like his day and night jobs to mingle, but they did need the practice time, and he admittedly had a bit of a weakness for the players he used to follow as a kid. He remembered climbing a tree when he was maybe six years old, all the way up to the canopy, where he’d had to hold the half-broken radio over his head to get a signal and listen to Mad Dog Toza’s final match.

Why not? He let a smile spread slow and dirty across his face. "Because you’re going to owe me a favour."

Toza’s head jerked up. Message received. Tahno slunk into the gym and closed and locked the door behind him. His walk was loose as he crossed the floor, and he let his eyelashes flutter. It was a little over the top, but in his experience, there was a certain type of hard-headed earthbender on whom subtlety was wasted.

"Who says I’m interested?" Toza said warily, his eyes narrowed as Tahno stopped just a little too close to him.

Tahno shrugged, one shoulder lazily rising and dropping. "Who wouldn’t be?"

Toza looked him up and down again. He licked his lips—and Tahno would bet he didn't even know it. "You think too much of yourself, kid."

Tahno put on his best attempt at a concerned expression. "If you’re trying to say you’re too old to get it up, that’s okay. We can just cudd—"

At that, Toza lunged at him. It was only at half-speed, all bluster, and Tahno easily sidestepped it. Then the ground jutted up under him at a stomp of Toza’s foot, and he fell off-balance, but not before whipping a stream of water out of the tank and nailing Toza in the eye.

He landed hard on his ass and nearly had the air knocked out of him as Toza’s solid bulk flattened him. Despite a strangled wheeze, he managed to grin. Then his hand squirmed down and grabbed Toza through his pants, rubbing insistently until he felt him swell. Turned out the Mad Dog could still growl.

Within seconds, Tahno was pinned down. Toza knelt over him menacingly, getting his pants down with rough, angry movements. Tahno’s jaw was pinched hard at the hinges until his mouth dropped open, and, refusing to look cowed, he wagged his tongue in invitation.

"Saucy little brat," Toza grumbled.

He hummed smugly as Toza’s dick rubbed over his lips. He had never sucked anyone off from this position before, but he was a flexible kind of guy. It turned out to be just the thing for the lazy hustler who was not strictly on the clock. Toza had a thick one on him, but it wasn't long enough to gag on, which meant that all Tahno had to do was keep his mouth obligingly open and his tongue and teeth where they should be and let Toza fuck him to his heart’s content.

A hand tangled in his hair, pulling hard enough to make him huff an irritated breath out his nose. He could do without that, and he had to keep his head tipped back even further to get a clean breath, but overall, this was a nice surprise. He could feel himself getting hard, flushed in the face and wishing he could get a hand down his pants.

No such luck, however. His arms were held down, and Toza didn’t let up, thrusting brutally into his mouth and twisting his hair around a clenched fist. Tahno moaned, his hips pushing up a little, seeking any friction he could get. He worked his tongue against the underside of Toza’s dick, urging him on.

It didn't take long. He felt the tremor that heralded the first shot, and then Toza barked out a rough shout and came, flooding the back of Tahno's mouth.

"Swallow it," Toza said, his hand still wound tight in Tahno’s hair, holding him fast, and his face flushed a dangerous red.

Tahno glared up at him as the bitter mess slid over his tongue, and then he grudgingly obeyed. When he was finally let up, he did his best to look unruffled.

"It's a deal, then," he said breezily before swishing his way out and finding the nearest bathroom. There, he rinsed out his mouth vigorously before locking himself in a stall and jerking off.

Later that night, he was back at the arena with Shaozu, Ming, and their new alternate, Yuki—who was peering worriedly around at the darkened hallways surrounding the gym.

"Are you sure we’re allowed to be in here?" she asked.

"No worries," he said, smiling. "I got the big guy’s permission."

Ming cast a suspicious look his way, but Shaozu only shrugged and opened up the gym, going ahead to set up the room for a three-way practice.

Yuki looked impressed with him. "Really? Toza’s usually such a Sozin about the sign-up sheet. He must like you."

"Honey," Tahno said, slinging an arm around her shoulders and steering her in, "one thing you're going to learn about me is that I’ve got natural charm."

 

5. Ginger Market

The weather had finally taken a hard turn for winter, and Tahno was kicking himself for not bringing his warmer coat as he propped up a lamppost outside Central City Station. He had already done a brisk trade earlier in the evening, but the streets were now emptying out. Still, he didn’t like the idea of calling it a night when a few more customers could mean buying a brand new coat tomorrow. His current one was so last year.

He was blowing hot air on his hands when a shadow infringed on the halo of the streetlamp. He looked up and was greeted with a familiar, exasperated sigh.

"Staying out of trouble, Tahno?"

Tahno offered one of his sleaziest smiles and tried to sound offended. "Always. Heading home, officer?"

He knew perfectly well that Captain Saikhan wasn’t a mere officer, but addressing him by his name didn’t ruffle him enough. Not that the captain ever said anything about it, but unlike calling him Saikhan, it couldn't be mistaken for partiality.

"I was," Saikhan said. He was still in his uniform, save for having swapped helmet for hat, with a long coat on over top. He was carrying a battered leather satchel, probably full of boring paperwork that he was taking home for a boring night.

"But now..." Tahno prompted, leaning back against the lamppost with his back arched subtly.

"Let’s go," Saikhan said with a jerk of his head.

"Ah-ah," he chided, a little annoyed that he had nearly stepped forward without thinking. It was the tone of voice. Cops didn't play fair. "Time is money."

A minute later, the low end of his hourly rate in hand, he was following Saikhan away from the station and down Unity Street. They passed through the gates to Ginger Market and turned down a dark and narrow alley. Then Saikhan opened a door and they slipped into Fong's Midnight Dim Sum—one of the only reputable places open this late.

The restaurant was mostly empty, and they took their usual corner booth. Tahno's hands thawed as Saikhan ordered a pot of tea and the feast for two. The warm smells made his stomach start growling long before the heavy tray was put down on the table. It took great restraint to wait for Saikhan to pick up his chopsticks first. Once he had, Tahno snagged a shrimp dumpling and popped it into his mouth.

"Are you being careful out there?" Saikhan asked, sipping his tea and taking his time with a single pot sticker.

"Scrupulously," Tahno said.

"We had a girl come in last night. Someone had cut her face up."

Tahno considered saying he hadn't done it, but something about Saikhan's expression warned against kidding around. He shrugged instead. "Her bad luck. I can look after myself."

He flicked a fingernail against the flask of water he kept inside his jacket in case of emergencies on dry nights.

"You know," Saikhan said. "I heard they’re hiring at the waterworks. I could put in a good word for you."

Tahno rolled his eyes.

"Don't. I know it's not as glamorous as pro-bending, but you wouldn't have to give that up. They have flexible shifts."

"Listen," Tahno said. "How much money do you make in a week?"

Staunch, old-fashioned silence was his only answer.

Tahno smirked and reached across the table. His fingertips trailed over Saikhan's broad chest. Saikhan didn’t budge as Tahno plucked the little steel-encased duty notebook out of his front pocket. He slid the pencil out of the spine and offered it to him.

"Write it down. I won’t tell."

Saikhan gave him an unimpressed look, but he tore a piece of paper out, wrote down a figure, and then folded the page in half and pushed it across the table. "After taxes."

Tahno read it and raised an eyebrow. Then he took the pencil and wrote down what he made in a week. A really good week, admittedly. An uptown week.

He pushed the piece of paper back across the table. "Tax-free."

Saikhan looked at the figure and snorted. "I'm in the wrong line of work. And don't tell a cop you don't pay your taxes."

Tahno leaned back in his seat and put his feet up next to Saikhan's hip. "We're going to win the championship again this year. My cut will get me a better place in a better neighbourhood—better clientele. Then once we score lucky number three, I'll get one of those endorsement deals. Be a corporate whore." He poked his tongue against his cheek and mimed sucking corporate dick.

"All right," Saikhan said mildly, but there seemed to be an unspoken 'if you say so' hanging from the end of it.

Just for that, Tahno finished the shrimp dumplings without sharing any of them. "So you should take advantage of my ass while it's still on the market, officer. It’s a limited-time offer."

Saikhan smiled faintly and pushed the plate of fried squid his way. "I'm a married man."

"No, you’re not," Tahno said, popping a tentacle in his mouth. "You’re a divorced one."

That still wasn't enough to rattle Saikhan, but it did warrant a faint line between the eyebrows. “You’re an investigator too, now?"

"If you were still married, a guy like you wouldn't be having dinner with a guy like me when he could be home. And if you had never been married, you wouldn’t be so used to not getting laid."

"Separated," Saikhan said.

"Separated," Tahno agreed.

Saikhan put away a few meatballs, but otherwise just sat there, drinking his tea and watching Tahno eat enough for two. His expression never wavered, whether Tahno was practically fellating a sparerib or knocking back a little cup of rice porridge, which was just about impossible to eat sexily. Tahno still couldn't decide whether that was charming or off-putting. But he wondered, as he always did, what it would be like when Saikhan finally gave in to the inevitable.

Maybe they would go back to Tahno's apartment. Saikhan wouldn’t stand for renting some scuzzy room for sex, although he was probably living in one, if he really was separated. Maybe Tahno would end up blowing the nice captain on his sofa, showing him the good stuff while the man came apart under his hands. He imagined that Saikhan would be a heavy breather, quiet otherwise, his voice soft and low and his hands careful.

Or maybe the captain was going to snap one of these days. Maybe Tahno's teasing was finally going to find its target, and it would be bye-bye to the respectable figure at the podium on the front page of the newspaper and hello to Saikhan the street cop. Maybe Tahno would find himself slammed up against the wall, his pants pulled down and his dick roughly pulled until he came. Then he'd be fucked with nothing but spit and his own come to ease the way, bruises forming on his hips and his face scraped up from the bricks....

"Asshole," Saikhan muttered almost fondly over the rim of his teacup.

Tahno gave a start and then realized that he had put his chin in hand and had been gazing across the table like a lovesick girl. It hadn't been a put-on, but he laughed anyway. "Yeah," he said unapologetically.

Things always got boring fast after you slept with someone, he reminded himself. But sometimes the initial fun was worth it.

"We've got a match tomorrow," he said as he finished up the last of the spring rolls. "A big one—against the Catgators."

Saikhan smiled indulgently. "Are you going to win?"

"Of course," he said. "But if you come watch, I'll draw it out. Give you a good show."

"I'm just a poor civil servant," Saikhan said dryly. "I don't have the money to be seeing pro-bending matches."

Tahno laughed again, but this time he didn't entirely mean to. He shrugged to cover it, and he stood up. He pulled a couple of coins out of his pocket and set them on the table.

"My treat," he said. Then he added another one. "Get something deep-fried on a stick."

Saikhan looked at the money with an amused expression, and then, with a twist of his mouth, he took it. "All right," he said. "But it had better be good."

Tahno shuffled out of the booth and smiled when Saikhan gave him a little shove on his way.

"Stay safe," Saikhan said gruffly.

"Always do," Tahno said, and he left the restaurant, heading back into the street with a full stomach and money in his pocket.

Not bad for a night’s work.