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The Firebending Masters

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“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.