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the snakes, and the people that they bite

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Rai is just a normal guy, really.

Yes, sure, the Fire Nation is no longer at war, and there’s a new Fire Lord, and Rai is just one of the palace guards, but he’s one of many. Six months ago, when the war ended just before he was due to leave to the front, since he was one of the few benders in strong condition, he was reassigned to guard the palace. Never mind that he turned seventeen last month and he’s still not sure what to do with such a high paying job. At least his father sounds happy about the money Rai sends home in his letters.

He’s happy to serve his country, and happier to not be going to war, and while there’s been a few scuffles around the castle mostly it’s been a boring job. Even tonight – it’s a full moon, and his inner fire is burning brighter than normal. Agni is ever the sister of La, and moonlight is just reflected sunlight. The night shift is usually eschewed by most of the firebenders, but Rai doesn’t mind it. Captain Izumi tells him that he should chalk it up to his youth. As the youngest in the guard, Rai is pretty sure that he’d be getting the worst shifts anyway, so he tries to make the most of it.

He makes his way around to the back of the castle, following his patrol route. He normally deviates from it slightly, just as the Captain orders, poking around in the bushes and waiting at certain checkpoints longer than others. The back gardens are lovely in the moonlight, even though he likes the gentle quacks of the turtleducks during the day.

That’s just about when glass cracks, and two people fall out of the second story window to land in a crumple of glass and fire, twisting and curling up and trying to get on top of each other. Rai decides that this is his cue to intervene, and when they break apart, he sends a trail of fire blazing between them. Both combatants startle and turn to him for a second. Rai looks between them, trying to decide which he should support. One is dressed all in black, supple leathers that are designed to suppress all sound. There’s a half mask over his lower face, hiding his expression.

The other is a boy that looks around Rai’s age, late teens, clearly in his sleepwear. Rai doesn’t recognise him immediately in the dark, but he’s probably one of the visiting dignitaries – there’s some sort of new law being discussed this week. He doesn’t pay much attention to politics, but it’s probably his job to stop all fights that are happening on palace grounds anyway.

“Both of you, stand down,” Rai commands, channelling his inner fire into his voice. “No violence is allowed within the boundaries of the palace grounds.”

Instead, the man clad in black leather darts forward again, the moonlight reflecting off a knife in his hand. The boy reacts with the quickness of an otterseal, leaning out of the way of the knife and hitting the man’s hand, trying to disarm him. Rai sends another lick of fire out, testing, and the boy deflects it – a firebender. The man shields his face with an arm, and the fire flickers out against the leather. Treated against fire, then.

“Get out of here!” Rai yells at the boy. Just his luck to have to try and deal with some assassin, and have a noble kid try to get in the way of things and get hurt. He shoves his way between them, and the next knife makes a metallic sound as it hits his armour. At least wearing it is good for something.

They test each other for a few moments – the assassin doesn’t try to firebend at him, instead using moves that Rai recognises as from one of the southern islands. Daggers fly out from seemingly nowhere, flashing around him. The assassin pulls another knife out – this one is painted black. Rai goes on the defensive, firebending to give himself some space, and then the noble boy is in front of him with a sword of his own, and Rai is really not paid enough for this. The boy and the assassin cross blades and Rai has half a second to admire his form, and his strong footwork, and then the boy spins in place, fire flowing from him, and the assassin goes down.

Feeling like he’d been rather unneeded, Rai still goes to restrain the man. The boy is panting, quick, measured breaths that show that he might be more of a fighter than Rai originally thought. Though the way that he put down the assassin also might have had something to do with that.

“Well,” the boy says. He puts his hands on his hips. “That rather ruined my sleeping plans for the night.”

“It’s still two degrees until dawn, sir,” Rai points out. “You should go back inside. I’ll deal with this.” He hardly wants a noble kid getting in the way of bringing this man back in for questioning.

“I’ll hardly be able to get back to sleep after someone has infiltrated my bedroom,” the boy complains. Rai resists the urge to sigh. So now he has a noble brat and a skilled intruder on his hands… he really should have stayed in bed this afternoon.

“Please sir,” Rai starts, ready to launch into his typical handling nobles courtesy talk, except then someone jumps over the wall and attempts to stab him.

The brat moves faster than Rai can even see, and there’s the clang of blades meeting. Rai swears and spins, raising a wall of fire he then pushes towards the new assassin. The assassin bends the fire and turns it back on Rai, and Rai splits it down the middle, the two streams of fire passing him harmlessly. Another man drops down from the outer wall, and Rai swears again, this time shooting a larger fireball up into the sky. Seriously, someone else should have noticed this by now!

“You focus on the second one, I’ll get the third,” the brat says.

“Sir, I’m not letting you fight at all,” Rai says, sweeping the brat’s legs out from under him. He yelps as he goes down, and Rai fends off a fireblast from the firebender. “Stay down!”

Don’t,” the brat snarls, and something in the word sends a shiver through the fire in him. Power recognises power – this kid must be the son of someone pretty high up, to have that sort of command in him. If it was just a bit brighter Rai could get a look at his face to see if he could recognise him, but there’s a bit too much fire flying around to focus on that.

He trades a few blows with the firebender, testing him out. He’s skilled, but his forms aren’t imperial – an island style that Rai doesn’t recognise. He doesn’t like taking chances, so he learns what he can, watching for cues and waiting for a time to strike. He hears metal clanging together and resists the urge to yell. If that noble brat gets hurt, he’s going to get it taken out of his hide by the Captain.

Screw it. He lunges, out of step with the defensive posture that he’d assumed. With a quick series of jabs that he got taught in the barracks rather in proper training, he gets the firebender on the ground and knocks him out with a punch to the head.

The swordfighting is still going on between the other two combatants still awake. Rai sprints over to the two of them and falls into step with the noble brat. He’s using imperial forms at least, and Rai works with him in a classic dual two-step that puts the last assassin on the backfoot. The noble finally disarms him and knocks him out in a single sword slice, and Rai scans the area for anyone else who might have snuck up on them.

“That might not be everyone,” he tells the boy.

“You should come with me,” the brat says. “It’ll be safer inside.”

Okay. Maybe he isn’t so bad after all. Rai knows that most nobles don’t usually think about other people’s wellbeing, especially guards who are meant to put themselves in danger to protect the nobility.

Rai turns to get a better look at him and barely stops himself from wincing. There’s a large burn over the left side of his face, and his eyes are a sharp gold that cuts through him even in the dark of the night. Yep, definitely high nobility. And cute, at that. Rai spends a second despairing over the fact that all the cute boys are nobles who are forever out of his reach.

“Wow, that’s unfortunate,” Rai says, gesturing vaguely to the left side of his own face. “You must get mistaken for the Fire Lord all the time.”

The noble blinks, opens his mouth, blinks again.

“Sorry,” Rai apologises. He really has put his foot in it tonight. He’ll be lucky if he keeps his job after this.

“Don’t worry about it,” the noble says stiffly. “We should alert the Captain of the guard.”

“Please, let me do that,” Rai almost begs. He should at least do one thing right today, and sending a noble to report to the Captain after he’s fought off a few assassins is just the cherry on top of everything else that has gone wrong this evening.

“She’ll probably want to talk to me,” he disputes. “Someone needs to stand guard over these guys, anyway. Why don’t you do that, and I’ll go fetch her?”

Rai stares at the noble, but luckily right at that moment the Captain herself, flanked by two other guards, round the corner at a run. Rai lets out a sigh of relief as they skid to a stop and survey the area.

The Captain sees the kid and immediately looks horrified. Rai tries not to die on the spot as she sends a withering glare towards him.

“Terai, Gentier, stay with recruit Rai until I send someone to fetch you all.” Rai winces. He hasn’t been ‘recruit Rai’ in quite a few moons. “My lord,” she says, forming the flame with her hands and bowing. “Please, come with me.”

The boy looks at Rai, and Rai meets his gaze, nodding encouragingly. The Captain will take care of him. “Go with her. Don’t want to risk your good looks any longer out here.” The boy starts, and Rai looks away. Okay, maybe he pushed it a little far with that one. Still, you miss all the shots you don’t take, right? With one last look, the boy goes with Captain Izumi, and Rai lets out a sigh of relief. That should do him for drama for the rest of the year, right?

The Captain takes the boy across the grounds, and Rai watches them disappear back into the palace.

“Strange for a noble,” he says to Terai. “He handled himself pretty well out there. Pretty attractive too, you know?”

Terai slowly turns to face him. On the ground, one of the bound men moans, before Gentier gives him a kick. Rai looks between the two older guards, and the incredulous looks that they’re giving him. “What?”

“Rai, I can’t believe you,” Gentier says.

“That was the Fire Lord,” Terai tells him. “Rai, you just hit on the Fire Lord.”

Oh man, Rai thinks to himself. The burn. The swords. The assassins. The youth. Maybe he should pay more attention to politics, after all. The Captain is never going to let me live this down.