June’s not one for politeness. For her, “polite” is letting a guy walk away with all his teeth after he throws her the wrong sort of smile. Politeness is irritating, and in most situations optional.
As a consequence, she’s never cultivated the skill of gift-giving. It shocks her, when she strolls through a market and her first impulse is to buy something for another human.
(Nyla gets regular presents, obviously.)
“How much for the skull?”
The price shocks her worse than the impulse. June tries reasoning with the seller, but she just gets an earful about supply and demand and the rising cost of materials. Kuzon could probably poke a hundred holes in the shop lady’s posturing- nothing makes that kid’s heart sing quite like fighting bogus accounting- but he’s not here to rescue June.
So June fishes out the coins with a sigh and buys him yet another present.
There’s no scheme behind this gift. It’s not payback for any favor he did her, and she’s not expecting to get anything in return. She’s giving it just because he’ll like it.
(So the Dai Li might’ve replaced June’s entire personality while she wasn’t looking- no big deal.)
Kuzon doesn’t like it.
June’s never giving anyone anything ever again.
She pulls herself off that cliff and inspects his expression more carefully. He doesn’t dislike his present, necessarily; he’s just staring at it like it’s terrifying beyond his comprehension.
(Which is the reaction it should inspire in strangers, sure, but not in him.)
“What’s it for?”
“You wear it,” June says slowly, because what else would you do with it? “I can’t get you one that’s exactly like mine, ‘cause I don’t remember what market I swiped mine from, but this right here’s the closest I’ve found to a match-“
“But...you think I should wear this?”
A good reason for why not smacks her as soon as she asks. It’s a silvery cuff decorated with a skull- and the anatomical proportions are faithful to real human skulls, June’s checked- with a narrow pin skewering it through the middle. It’s morbid, as accessories go. It might not be totally age-appropriate.
“Not a fan of skulls?” June says, trying not to think about the silver skull she’s sporting in her top-knot right now.
Still, Kuzon’s eyes flit right up to it. “Skulls are fine. They’re perfect for- for our line of work. Mom always said actors should be clear and creative with costuming.”
Now June’s got even more respect for the kid’s mother. He refers to her a lot, eyes lighting up every time, even while he never mentions his father. Her approval of bold aesthetics clearly holds a lot of weight in his head. After a few more seconds of awkward silence, he takes the hair cuff in his hands, cupping it like it’s precious and offering quiet thanks.
June’s used to ignoring chaos in her sleep. It’s one of the risks of living above a lively tavern- things crash and crack at all hours. Sometimes people crash and crack. She’s learned to sleep through it all.
So her first reaction when a heavy thunk shocks her awake is irritation- not at whoever caused the thunking, but at her own brain for noticing it happened. Her second reaction is alarm, because the sounds of chaos ought to come from below her, or outside her door.
This came from the wall. From the other side of the wall she shares with Kuzon.
(Something glass shatters down in the tavern; that partly sets her back at ease. Still there’s yelling from the wall, buried under the barroom clamor.)
June glances out her window. Going by the stars, it’s still before midnight, and ordinarily she wouldn’t even be tired at this prudish hour. It’s the kid’s fault with his early morning firebending lessons. She’s stopped accompanying him to every single one- Chit reads as safe to her, and Kuzon’s sufficiently well-armed to stop trouble before it starts- but she still shows up regularly. The kid seems to need the moral support.
Unfortunately, that habit’s dragged her into a proper sleep schedule.
With a groan she drops back onto her bed. June’s nearly talked herself into going back to sleep when the hollering starts up again, now impossible to mistake for anything but a kid rapidly cycling through a limited vocabulary of curse words. That wakes her up for good.
(They need to have a talk about using swear words appropriately. Right now, his grammar’s atrocious.)
June’s makeup pots and brushes are lined up by her mirror, but they’re not worth the trouble. She skips her top-knot too, just finger-combs some hair over her right eye, and heads to her window. It’s not an easy task, reaching all the way to Kuzon’s window, but she grabs a nearby riding crop and easily closes the distance.
She’s about to go for the third strike when the window’s shoved open and Kuzon’s head pops out.
“What?” he snaps.
She can’t see him well in the darkness, but he seems intact enough. His hair’s thoroughly disheveled, straggly and wet. It’s hanging all over, unstyled, so she can spot the scar. It’s as huge and angry as ever.
He sighs. “It’s just a dent.”
June waits him out, and he sighs harder.
“It’s the cuff.” His right eye goes wide, shining in the moonlight. “I- I’m grateful, of course I am, and I didn’t dent the cuff, which really speaks to the superior craftsmanship-“
June cuts him off. “What’s the problem?”
“...I tried it on and I look stupid. I look so, so stupid.” As June frowns, he continues, “So then I lost my temper and I tried to throw it at the mirror, but I hit the wall instead.”
June makes a noise of severe disapproval. “Your aim’s better than that.”
Kuzon stutters a couple times.
“Oh yeah,” she adds, belatedly realizing she’s the responsible adult in this scenario, “don’t break things like that. I’ll show you how to fix the dent, but you’re paying for the paint.” Then she cocks her head to the side. “Why’d it look stupid? You need help making a bun?”
“I know how to make a bun!” he protests. “It, um...it’s bad with my bone structure?”
Well, that sounds fake. His face is a nice face, minus the awkward burnt patch. Once Kuzon grows out of the baby fat, his features have a shot at becoming almost regal.
Still, June’s had too much sake to find a coherent alternate explanation.
“Fine,” she says, closing her windows and going back to bed.
(A few minutes later, she lunges for her window again to call, “Is this about honor?”
“No,” he squawks, not even opening his own window.)
“It’s entirely about honor,” Prince Zuko says, face buried in his hands. His voice is very, very small.
For a moment, Chit Sang stares, baffled, as the adolescent prince of his nation teeters on the verge of tears. Mercifully, he saves them both that embarrassment. He tosses his head back up instead, long ponytail swishing, and gives Chit a challenging stare.
“I get what you mean,” Chit says, carefully, aware of the fact that he’s chopped his own hair short. That was more out of necessity than ethics- the less he looks like he did on Caldera, the better. But he does feel like he lost more than just the hair.
Prince Zuko huffs. The candle they were supposed to be working with gutters, since he’s won the flame over without even trying. “I never got to wear a top-knot when I was a real prince. Azula had one as long as I can remember, but my father said I hadn’t earned that mark of honor. Not with my bending the way it was.”
Chit frowns. From the prince’s telling, he had the weakest fire in his family. It might be true, but he’s still surpassed most of Caldera. Chit would have to look to the highest ranks of the military to find benders who’d decisively beat him in a fight.
“So now June gave me this hair cuff,” he adds bitterly. “And it was nice of her, and it’s the coolest design I’ve ever seen, and I hate it. But I can’t even tell her I hate it, because then she’ll just laugh and make me put more money in her stupid Honor Jar!”
So that’s a term Chit’s heard a couple times without comprehending it.
“Hey,” he says tentatively, “so what exactly is an ‘Honor Jar’?”
Groaning, the prince drops his head in his hands and visibly deflates.
“If it’s a bounty hunting secret,” Chit says, “you can keep it-“
“It’s not,” he interrupts. “It’s not secret, it’s just ridiculous.”
The prince meets his eyes again. “June and I were talking one time about what you should do, if you get cornered and you can’t talk your way out or win a fair fight. I said you should surrender and accept your fate bravely, whether it’s captivity or…”
He trails off.
Chit nods in understanding. “I get it.”
“So she asked me why I’d accept my fate, and I said because that was the honorable thing to do. And then she said I could play dirty, like by pretending to surrender and then running while their guards were down, and I said I’d never do that, because that’d be a dishonorable thing to do.”
Chit tilts his head. “How’d she take that?”
“She said I was just resorting to honor as an excuse to quit thinking. But that’s not true.” He crosses his arms, scowling. “I think a lot.”
“I bet you do.”
“...It’s just that I think about honor.”
Chit rapidly sets a deep breathing exercise for himself. It keeps the smile off his face.
Prince Zuko shakes his head and lets out a heavy sigh. “She just doesn’t get it.”
He’s not wrong.
Thing is, she’s not wrong either.
“She’s not from the world we know,” Chit says at last. “Honor can’t fill your belly or keep you company. You can’t sell it. So in the colonies, they don’t care about honor the same way we did back home.”
Prince Zuko snorts at the understatement.
Chit keeps going. “But that doesn’t mean they’re without honor. Take June. She cares about doing her job well. She cares about how people see her. She cares about doing right by you-“
“Because she doesn’t know who I am,” he interrupts, voice raw and strained. “If she knew the real price she’d get for me, she’d sell me. She basically said so.”
So Chit’s not touching that with a ten-foot pole.
“Isn’t that honorable in a different way?” Chit ventures. “She didn’t know who you were. It didn’t matter. She saw a boy in trouble, and she helped. You didn’t have to be a crown prince for her to help you out.”
Prince Zuko watches him carefully, like he’s not sure where Chit’s going with this. Chit’s not sure where he’s going with this either. He’s not supposed to be advising anybody on matters of honor.
But he straightens up and squares his shoulders. “You’re in a tough place, Prince Zuko. I won’t tell you how to feel. But I think people from Caldera, and people in my village growing up, and people in the colonies all know about honor, even if they don’t say so. We all know the same things- respect, bravery, doing what’s right- even if we’re using different words.”
“Huh.” The boy tips his head. “Maybe if I just talk about dignity instead of honor, I’ll stop losing money.”
Chit chuckles. “One way to do it.”
“But I still shouldn’t wear a top-knot.”
He’s looking down again with a frown embedded in his brow, more pensive than a kid that age should have to be.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
Chit’s got no honor to speak of, by Caldera’s standards. His prince would be within his rights to laugh in his face.
Instead, he inhales sharply, head jerking up, gold eyes glowing with hope. “Really?”
“I wouldn’t blame you either way,” Chit answers. “Maybe you didn’t earn a top-knot when you were a prince.” And that’s a giant maybe right there, but he wants to meet the kid where he’s at. “Still, that’s not your place in the world right now-“
“Because I ran away,” he cuts in, jaw tight with tension. “I climbed out a window and ran to the harbor when the healers weren’t looking. I let fear and shame pull away from my duty as a prince-“
“You did what you had to, to live another day,” Chit counters. “But let’s say you aren’t a prince anymore. Let’s say that’s all gone. Do you think you’ve got honor, as apprentice bounty hunters go?”
He visibly flounders. “But my father…”
He trails off again. Chit nearly says something deeply illegal, but he stops himself. Then he remembers he’s already wanted for treachery against the throne, so he rephrases his original statement as a question and puts it out there.
“Do you think your father is a good judge on which marks of honor you ought to wear?”
He doesn’t gesture at the boy’s scar. There’s no need to.
After the question hangs in the air for a few moments, Chit redirects their attention to the candle. “Anyway. Try to pull that flame up and curve it around, like you’re at an festival exhibition…”
A flash of silver catches June’s interest when Kuzon shows up for his daily weapons lesson.
(Whips, today. June’s got too many whips already, but if Kuzon takes a liking to them? She’ll finally have an excuse to buy more.)
“I see you reached a compromise.”
Kuzon’s got the skull in his hair, without a top-knot. Instead, he’s managed to thread his usual ponytail through the cuff. It’s a complicated setup, with an extra silver ribbon woven in to keep it in place, and June has no idea what he did with the pin that came with the cuff.
“Is this okay?” Kuzon asks, strangely shy.
“Looks great. Will it stay?”
After a second, he shakes his head. “Not in a real fight.”
June shrugs. “Whatever. Works for now.”