There was a drop of dew on on the tip of his foot, reflecting in the darkness not the cave around it, but the mortal world from whence his guest had come. He held it up to his eye and then let it slide safely onto the floor by his feet. More water dripped from the stalactites around them, splashing against the cave floor, a thousand copies of the world showing on their surface.
“Look, why does it matter why I came to rescue her?” June pounded her fist against the cave wall. “She’s just a kid. It’s about her.”
Koh smiled, and the face he wore had no lips. “It’s been a long time since I had taken a child’s face. The novelty alone was enticing.” His many feet skittered on the rocky floor, picking their way between heaps of sharp stones behind her. She snarled deep in her throat, and in an instant, he was facing her again.
He almost reached out to touch her face, smoothed back into fragile neutrality, and he wondered if it would be as hard to the touch as it looked. “Look, just give me the face and I’ll go. It’ll be easier for both of us.”
The laughter that filled the cave was soft and dark, and brought the hair on her arms up to stand on end. His eyes carefully flicked over her, but her face didn’t move except to blink. “But I don’t get visitors here often. Talking to you passes the time.” He wanted to hold her face on his own, and tap it to see if it would crack.
“Look, if you don’t give me her face back, I’ll-”
“Fight me?” He circled her, drawing ever closer, until his shell brushed her arm, and his feet pricked the fabric of her clothes.
“Hey, I don’t have any bending back home either.” He could hear the smile in her voice, and he twisted back to her front again, but again, her face showed nothing, rigid and brittle. “I’m used to fighting without it.”
“Are you used to fighting without expression?” he murmured in her ear, suddenly wearing a shirshu’s face, its barbed tongue twining around her jaw. It even struck her, but the venom didn’t come with the face.
June caught the tongue one-handed and refused to let it go. “You’re not used to fighting at all, so shut up.”
Scuttling forward, Koh opened his mouth to envelope her hand around the tongue, but she quickly released it and jerked her hand back. With a wicked grin, he switched faces again, and before the face settled, June could have sworn she saw the face on the painting stuffed in her belt. He tutted at her from behind a monkey’s face and she folded her arms impassively.
“You have no idea what I’m used to,” he smiled, but she didn’t flinch.
“I know you like stealing the faces of kids,” her foot slowly slid back, and her arms moved, ready to block. “Don’t feel up to taking on a grown up?”
Two of his pointed feet pulled her arms gently back to their sides. “Do you know why I like to take children?” He wore the face of a beautiful woman, and smiled with it, a soft easy smile that might have made children come to him it it weren’t set on his disjointed body like a mask. “Someone always comes after them, and then I can take their face too.”
June swallowed down a shudder, blank and closed.
“And they’re so easy to take, frantic, hopeful, a thousand emotions flashing across their faces...” The Fire Nation man’s face was frozen in misery.
June snatched one of his pointed feet and twisted it back. “I blew my advance pay on learning how to get into this place, so if I don’t get that kid’s face, I don’t get my money, and if I don’t get my money, I’m going to take you apart and bring the pieces back to my current clients instead.”
“Big words for a little girl,” he laughed, and in one disjointed movement pulled his foot free and settled it between her eyes. “Maybe I’ll let you go if you leave now, so you can fetch your clients. That way they would be with their daughter. You can’t say I’m always cruel.”
There were a lot of ways an expression could be blank, June realized, and she couldn’t shift between them while he watched. “Smart words for a stupid bug.” She had her fingers hooked between his exoskeleton’s joints, nails pressing at the soft flesh beneath. “But I know better than to quit when my opponent knows he’s going to lose.” Koh froze.
Before she left, June had seen the girl, walking around the house, plump and normal seeming, but purposeless, like there was nothing inside, thinning and fading until all of her was Koh’s. Her nails wanted to slide in.
“It’s not like it’ll be some great cosmic loss,” she said, tapping her finger on him. "The universe’ll probably thank me. I’ll have good karma for a change.”
A new face sat on his body, and unconsciously, June’s fingers reached for the painting matching it. Underneath her fingers, she could feel his laugh rumble its condescending way out of his segmented form. “You really believe killing me would give you good karma?” She shrugged. “You think I’m a destructive, evil presence, and all would be better if I were gone? You think I have no purpose?” His voice softened and deepened as he spoke, pouring out of the little girl’s mouth like putrefying leaves, falling apart as they fell. June shrugged again and tilted her head, prodding the soft unprotected flesh. She could feel him keeping himself still under her finger, but he kept turned to her, the child’s face twisted in an ugly smirk. A tremble ran through her whole body, and for a second, she clamped down on her expression, terrified it would crack, and she could almost hear the sound of it shattering inside the roaring in her ears.
But that was just her fury. “Uh uh, you don’t get to claim the moral high ground. You stole the face of a little kid.”
“I’ve stolen the faces of many children. You’ll have to be more specific.” She didn’t bother replying other than to press her nails in a little harder. His warm laughter bubbled out of him and shattered in midair. “Do you know how I get faces, how I get humans to venture into my lair at all?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
“They come here without any persuasion.” His voice rose and fell, halfway between singing and speaking. “Sometimes when they’re lying in their beds, they aren’t slipping off to sleep.” She wished he would change faces, to any face, any one at all except that kid’s. “They’re slipping in here, and I wait.”
“You’re not unnerving me; you’re just pissing me off.”
The little girl’s lips bent all the way back into a sneer. “Do you know how much damage a human could do here?” he murmured.
She just gazed back at him, eyes not even all the way open. “It’s sad I can’t take your faces when you lose your cool,” she told him, “because you’re losing it all over the place.”
“I have a purpose.” His soft chuckle struck the stone above them as if it were a scream.
“That little child could have smashed your little world to little pieces, little human,” his voice fell so low June had to strain to hear him even with his face next to hers. “what’s your purpose?”
June blinked the dryness out of her eyes. “I bring people together.”
“I protect your world,” he sneered, and she had to force her lips not to pull back in a sneer of her own.
“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you actually care what I think of you,” she said instead.
“I just don’t want you to think your karma will improve if you dispose of me. I have a use to the world.” One of his claws brushed across his face when he couldn’t stand it any longer. The flesh gave way over bone and didn’t shatter. “I don’t have to worry about the balance. I am an instrument of the balance!”
Her stomach roiled. “Big, fat commission payouts make up for a lot of bad karma.” Suddenly, she jabbed her nails deep into his flesh, bursting his skin open like a popped blister and driving her hand in up to her wrist. Her fingers squelched through the muck, searching, probing, desperately trying to find his soft, unprotected spinal chord, but her fingers just kept combing through mush.
With a great shudder and spasm, his body arched back like the bend of a boomerang and the plates around her arm slammed closed like scissors. She screamed. It shot through the deadened air like glass cooled and then heated so fast it cracked and exploded. The blood rushed out of her face and into her crushed arm so fast she gasped at the flow and her knees went weak.
Fast as a striking viper-rat, he whipped around, the boneless clicking body at last opening around her arm and releasing it. His face met hers, the little girl’s face white in a parody of pain, biting her bottom lip.
But then the lip slipped out from between her teeth, and Koh curved the girl’s lips up in a frozen smile.
The sound left June’s ears. Her body went slack and heavy, and fell away from her. Nothing moved and nothing touched her, and she couldn’t find anything of hers to move. The world had no color, not even blackness. There was nothing to it at all. She stayed, horrified, imagining the faceless husk on the floor of the cave, and wondering if the body back in her current clients’ house had started moving yet, in that odd, purposeless drift the kid had, and wondering if her clients would follow.
Suddenly the world came back to her. She felt her eyes open and she gazed out at the stunted trees beyond Koh’s cave. A breath ghosted past her lips before she felt them bend into a wicked, cruel smile.
The world spilled away again as Koh switched to someone else’s face.
The drop condensed on his conical foot as he watched the darkened entrance to his cave, spinning light over the pitted walls. A thousand worlds glittered and flashed over its surface, tumbling over themselves in the gloom. He stood on his many tottering feet and held himself still, waiting for his body to seal itself again, and in one sharp movement, he flicked the bead of dew against the ground and watched it shatter the pool of water into which it landed, like glass shards driving into the stone.
If June had still had a stomach, she would have thrown up.