Humans are a marvel. They come in a million different flavors.
Not that Nyla has ever eaten their kind. He’s learned. It used to get him a fire whip to the ear whenever he tried, and now Large-and-His makes soft noises of disappointment if he even sneaks a taste. Still, his nose and his tongue can tell the flavors apart, can memorize any human’s fragrance and never forget. Large-and-His smells of sourness, of the fresh leather of her boots and the blood coating her weapons, no matter how much soap she layers on top. Most nights, she smells of fermentation from the nutty liquor clinging to her breath.
Small-and-His smells like smoke.
He smells like a fire built from mesquite-hickory logs. He smells like there’s a fire inside him, which is why Nyla let him burrow close. He was even hotter than his smell promised that first night. Now his body is cooler to the touch, but still cozy. The smoke grows stronger.
Small-and-His is not the only human to smell of smoke. There are clusters of them all over the continent, usually surrounded by walls and walls of metal and ugly-smelling explosives. They aren’t like other humans. Their voices are unnecessarily loud, and their blood runs pleasantly warm.
(And then there are the humans who smell of gamey, earthy meat. They rearrange the ground like badgermoles, who are the cousins of shirshus.)
(Badgermoles are dull, irritating cousins, best avoided at all costs. Nyla is glad Small-and-His smells like smoke instead.)
Nyla is warm enough to survive, if he has to, but heat is a luxury he chases. The cold seeped into his bones when he was ripped from First-and-Always-His, when he was still a baby unable to recognize any smell but hers. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the richest smoke can burn in its own right. So Small-and-His has enough heat in him to warm Nyla through. To warm up the world, once he works out the airflow.
Small-and-His is precious for his heat, and for the warmth he exudes around Nyla and Large-and-His, and most recently for being the provider of dinner. Nyla’s started salivating every time he smells even a hint that mesquite-hickory smoke. Large-and-His laughs and tells him to knock it off. Small-and-His laughs too. But most times, he smuggles Nyla a snack anyway.
They’re not big snacks- just a pound or two of chopped-up meat. Nyla won’t tell.
Nyla’s humans are playing.
(“Okay,” June says. “Imagine you’re disarmed, and I’m trying to punch you out. If I’m standing like this, what’s the easiest target?”
“Wrong. Go for the legs, a straightened knee breaks easier than glass. If you’re really stressed, hits to the groin work too.”
“Kuzon, if the next word out of your mouth is any version of ‘honorable,’ you’re putting another coin in the Honor Jar.”)
Nyla snuffles in contentment as they tussle in the field. He imagines they’re like baby shirshus, first learning to hunt. Small-and-His falls over and over, but he keeps clawing his way back up.
(“Here’s a tough one, but I’ve got to throw it out there for realism. What would you do if it turned out to be a squad of firebenders?”)
The smoke flares, choking Small-and-His where he stands. Large-and-His tries calling for his attention, but he simply stumbles back.
Nyla leaps forward to catch him.
He tucks Small-and-His in the hollow of his throat. Then he lays one foot down across the boy’s chest and presses it down like a weighted blanket, not hard enough to hurt. He’s guided by some ancient instinct- previously unused, but he’s certain, this is how you calm an overexcited baby shirshu.
The panic subsides in just a few seconds, replaced by a subtle trickle of salt, and Small-and-His quickly wiggles out from under Nyla foot. He lets him escape easily, with a rumble of affection.
(“You okay there?”
“Yeah, I’m...okay, actually. If they all turned out to be firebenders, I think I’d run.”
“Right answer on the first try.”)
Nyla’s humans take him out for a run. It’s not a hunt; Large-and-His doesn’t give him a scent to follow, and their pace is gentler than usual. Small-and-His is riding on his back for the first time, so Nyla does his best to keep his movements smooth, to avoid dropping or even frightening him.
(“There’s a storm. The first time I leave the winter coat at home, of course there’s a storm.”)
They find shelter in a cave, and the humans build a small fire. Too small. Nyla whines, and Large-and-His gives some namby-pamby excuse he’s glad not to understand.
(“Nyla- if we go out for more fuel in that, we’re not coming back.”)
They put out the fire too soon, leaving a little spare kindling on the side for later.
(“But how do you sleep right on the ground? There’s bugs...”
“You think beds never have bugs?”
“I’m just saying-“
“I’m sorry I forgot the silk sheets, Your Highness.”
“Stop calling me that!”)
Large-and-His is snoring soon enough. Small-and-His sleeps too for a bit, only to wake with a whimper and another hint of salt.
(“You’re still cold, aren’t you, Nyla?”)
And then there’s heat, glorious heat, blossoming by Nyla’s snout. Not from a campfire- there's no smoke from fuel. Just pure flame flickering in mid-air. It pulses with every breath Small-and-His takes, growing larger and warmer over time.
(“I hope shirshus can keep a secret,” he laughs to himself.)
Quietly, without waking Large-and-His, Nyla basks in the toasty warmth that wraps him up like a blanket. He won’t tell.
There’s another person who smells like smoke standing outside Nyla’s stable. Not sweet smoke like Small-and-His. It’s a darker, spicier scent.
(“I heard you are the best there is, for finding missing people in the colonies.”
“You heard wrong. I’m the best on the whole continent, maybe excluding those Dai Li creeps.”
“Then please-“ there’s a loud clinking of metal- “I beg you to provide your services. My nephew has been missing all winter, and I fear for his life.”
“Don’t worry, I could find him even if he’s dead...if I didn’t have a full schedule this week already.”
More coins clink.)
Large-and-His strides into the stable with bounce in her step.
(“Baby, you’re about to make us a fortune.”)
At her command, he lumbers out of the warmth of the stable.
(“You said you had his old clothes? Just put them in front of Nyla here, and we’ll be on our way.”)
There’s Small-and-His’s mesquite-hickory smoke. It’s muddled a bit with soap and age, but Nyla never forgets a flavor. So his mouth promptly bubbles over with saliva, and his tongue lolls. Small-and-His means treats. Suddenly, Nyla is starving.
Large-and-His speaks again, sounding confused. Nyla can’t imagine what’s unclear here.
Then the whip cracks against the tough skin of his side- never hard enough to do damage, not at all like a fire whip to the ear, but he whines. Then Nyla digs his face into the sweet smoke and finds only empty fabric, no warm body anywhere. He whines harder.
He’s got every right to. Sweet smoke promises Small-and-His, and Small-and-His (usually) promises food, and instead Nyla’s gotten a lash on the side. He might deserve it for feigning hunger again, but seeing how he’s never been hit for that before...
(“What does it mean?”
“He’s pretending he’s hungry, but he’s not, he got seconds at dinner yesterday…”)
There’s another thing being shoved against his snout- a little piece of metal that still smells like Small-and-His but isn’t him. When he gets another lash, Nyla gives the only reasonable response.
He curls up and whimpers at a thoroughly unfair world.
(“I guess...your nephew isn’t in this world anymore? He’s not dead, that we could work with. Unless the corpse got destroyed to the point it doesn’t smell like him at all,” June adds thoughtfully.)
The dark smoke starts to mix with salt, as the stranger leaves.
(“You just lost us twice my weight in gold,” June says, swallowing some tears of her own.)
Nyla nurses his wounds by licking them, once back in his stable, because shirshu venom applied to oneself has a nice local numbing effect. It’s not that the lashes sting anymore, but he’s making a point for Large-and-His.
Whips are for work, not for stopping dramatic snack requests.
But he forgets about both the lashes and his wounded sensibilities once the real Small-and-His comes to him that night, warm and present and bearing dinner. Nyla nuzzles him once and then tucks into his meal, his prior concerns melting away. All is right with the world.