June’s not a fan of plotting behind her protegee’s back. But this time, Chit Sang convinces her it’s necessary.
“Why are you coming with me?” Kuzon asks as they head into his morning firebending lesson. “I’m not ungrateful, of course, but I thought you had a job up north.”
“Ditched it,” June replies simply. “The price was on the low side-“
“But couldn’t you negotiate?” he interrupts. “I thought-“
“More importantly,” she interrupts him right back, knocking on the door, “I had better things to do.”
Chit sweeps it open immediately, revealing an unconventional breakfast feast. There’s a pot full of hot noodles with a bottle of fire flakes on the side. There’s a pot of tea with fancy- in June’s opinion, horribly overpriced- leaves. There’s a basket covered with cloth to keep the heat in, and Chit’s rigged up a line of yellow paper lanterns, strung across his room. The place could almost pass for festive.
June drops a hand on Kuzon’s shoulder. “Happy birthday, kid.”
She’s not prepared for him to shoot her a look of utter bafflement.
“You mentioned it offhand to me,” Chit Sang says, and Kuzon’s gaze snaps back to him. “I thought we’d switch things up and celebrate.”
(Chit holds Prince Zuko’s gaze steadily, begging him to understand. It’s not his real birthday- it’s not even the right season- but Chit switched the numbers of the month and the day. The Fire Lord’s stolen so much from his son, it’d be a shame to rob him of birthday parties too. Of having a day for himself.)
After a long moment, Kuzon exhales slowly, comprehension dawning. “I never expected anything like this.”
“Yep.” June strides in and starts helping herself to a bowl of hot noodles. “That’s the idea with surprise parties.”
Hesitantly, Kuzon joins her. He dumps half the bottle of fire flakes into his bowl and then passes it to Chit Sang, who readily dumps out the other half. The two of them share the tea too.
“It’s good,” Kuzon says appreciatively. Then he takes another sip and re-evaluates: “No. It’s really good.”
“It’s a white dragon tea,” Chit informs him. “Just a local plant from the forest here, but isn’t the flavor beautiful?”
Kuzon hums in enthusiastic agreement. “Tastes like...citrus, nuts and cinnamon.”
June tries one sip out of curiosity. It tastes like every other cup of hot leaf juice, but she doesn’t rain on the kid’s parade. Call it her birthday gift.
Chit unveils the real birthday gift soon enough, pulling the cloth off the basket. “Here’s something to go with your tea.”
He reveals a pile of fresh golden cakes, each shaped like…
“What the hell?” June grabs one, squinting at the inchoate mass of pastry. “Maybe normal taiyaki just look like fish, but Emi swore she could do other animals if I paid her double.”
“You got ripped off,” Kuzon says sagely, taking a cake of his own. “What’s it supposed to be?”
“Half of them are shirshus,” June answers. She bites into hers, and at least the red bean filling tastes good. “Other half are turtleducks, like your mom used to have.”
Kuzon takes a weird stabbing breath, but he keeps chewing, happy enough. Then he diligently sweeps all the crumbs he’s dropped into a neat pile and puts it on his plate to be easily disposed of. After that he goes for seconds, pulling out a cake that looks equally like a turtleduck and a shirshu. It might just be an unholy hybrid.
He bites in.
Curls up into a ball, shoving his face into his knees.
June scowls. “Poison?”
Kuzon shakes his head, but he doesn’t otherwise move. June watches with a mix of surprise and terror as the kid dissolves into body-shaking weeping. And he’s welled up before, and he’d cried in silence when he was ill, but this is full-blown ugly sobbing.
June meets Chit’s eyes, and they freeze, sharing one moment of mutual consternation.
Chit moves first. He just opens his mouth to say, awkwardly, “It’s alright.”
June rolls her eyes. She’s not sure what this is, but “alright” is pretty clearly not it. Kuzon grips his half-eaten pastry a little harder, like he’s somehow not comforted by that statement.
Chit tries again: “You’ve been torn between two different lives. It’s okay to be sad.”
“I’m not,” Kuzon retorts. He’s trying for waspish, though the ongoing sniffles ruin the effect. “You’re both being really nice, and I’m not sad. I don’t know what I am.”
There’s presumably years of warped, tragic history behind that statement and this entire breakdown. June doesn’t know about it. She doesn’t get it.
Maybe she doesn’t need to.
“You’re awesome,” she says firmly. “That’s what you are.”
A chuckle escapes among the sobs, and she chuckles too and drapes one arm around his shoulders and pulls him in.
“And emotions are the worst,” she adds. “Hope I never have one.”
“I’m being weird,” he mumbles into her shirt.
“Bold you to say that, like you’re not always weird.”
He chuckles again, a series of funny wet noises, while June smirks, ruffles his hair as much as his gel will let her, and helps herself to another cake. Chit Sang just sips his tea and watches them both, a soft, contemplative look on his face.
“Hey, so I need firebending help.”
June drops her sake glass with a clank and looks at Kuzon as he joins her for dinner. “Hate to break it to you, but I’m the wrong person for that.”
“I’m not sure about that.” He pulls out a piece of paper covered with his unfairly neat characters. “Master Chit and I made a list of advanced skills I could work on, to add to my repertoire. I’m not sure what’s most useful, from a combat perspective.”
Naturally, June ignores the twenty valid options, honing right in on the one word that’s been crossed out up top. “Why don’t you try lightning? Sounds epic to me.”
Kuzon frowns. “That’s one of the most difficult techniques in any element, ever. Only the Fire Lord and his brother can do it.”
June snorts. “If Ozai can do it, anyone can.”
He frowns harder.
“Fine.” She sighs and looks through the list more carefully, reading the names of all the moves and their descriptions. “Charged attacks would be useful. Fire walls are also a solid option, firebenders never have any idea how to defend themsel-“ She falls off mid-word. “You could make a fire whip?”
“What? Oh, yeah, they’re decent for larger battlefields and you don’t have to keep making new fire, and Master Chit says I’d have an advantage sustaining the threads since you’re teaching me about real whips…”
He trails off. June doesn’t notice, lost somewhere very far away.
“Huh?” She inhales sharply, rapidly blinking. “Wait, something’s in my eye.”
He’s still frowning, a little differently now.
“Should I...not learn this?” he says, tentative though he’s not calling her bluff. “There are a lot of other techniques-“
“Please learn it,” June cuts in. His eye widens at her voice- harder than he’s ever heard it. “Be the best fire whipper the world’s ever seen.”
“Well, it’s hard to be the best…” He tilts his head, catching something in her expression. “But I’ll do my best. I promise.”
And his best, she can safely assume, will be pretty damn exceptional.
June shoots the rest of her sake. “Thanks.”
“Is this a strategy thing or…”
She wipes her mouth. “No. And you shouldn’t actually dump time into this if you’ve got better uses, but...it’d make me way too happy.”
(Infuriatingly vague, she knows. But she knows he won’t pry.)
He just shoots his own cup of tea, mirroring her and regretting it as he scalds his tongue. “You got it.”