Rumors of Northern treasure distract June from her failure to capture the Avatar. In the hills surrounding a remote port town, a Fire Nation exile once made his hermitage. Apparently, that got too crowded, so he moved to a remote local beach with caves aplenty. Two weeks later, a landslide took out the entire portion of cliff in that area—burying not only the hapless hermit, but his presumably substantial fortune as well.
It’s easy enough to recruit a crew of local townspeople, including the strongest earthbender in town (not a particularly impressive title; he has three competitors). Everyone “knows” how to find the beach, but everybody has a conflicting set of directions, and nobody trusts each other enough to split up and check out all the possible sites. Whatever, June’s dealt with worse.
Ultimately, they stumble on it out of luck. The strongest earthbender in town can only clear away some of the rocks and debris; everyone pitches in and helps him, even Nyla. They find the hermit’s remains, the remains of the hermit’s last meal, an assortment of no doubt personally significant but unfortunately worthless artifacts, and…well. Turns out the “Fire Nation riches” are just some casks of hundred-year-old wine.
June is back at the local tavern, enjoying the spoils, when she first sees the Water Tribe girl. She’s sitting at the corner table farthest from the bar. Even in the half-darkness, even under a rough brown cloak pulled down over her forehead, her blue eyes and dark skin are obvious. To a woman like June, so is her past.
“Runaway,” she says to the bartender, indicating the girl with a flick of the thumb. He slides another cup of wine across the counter.
“We get them sometimes,” he agrees. June smiles at him, because he is attractive in a mature way and knows when to stop talking.
Others have noticed the girl. “Are you sure?” whispers one gangly boy to another.
“Yeah, I know Water Tribe girls are supposed to be uptight, but it’s the guys who enforce it. If she’s alone…” June recognizes this voice as belonging to Zhian, the member of her crew that she liked the least. He complained about having to do any work, and also kept staring at her chest. (Fortunately, aside from the infighting and squabbling, this was the most trouble anyone gave her.)
June sips her wine. She shares a wry look with the bartender. She watches the progress of the old men’s pai sho game.
“I’m going to talk to her,” Zhian announces. Watching his pimply ass make strides toward the trapped, helpless girl, June weighs her options.
WIth a shrug, she downs the rest of her wine. “One more of these, and another for the lady.”
The bartender refills her cup, fills a second cup, places them both on the counter. June regards the practiced motions of his lined brown hands, and sighs. Then she takes the drinks and goes to save a damsel in distress.
“But why won’t you take your hood off?”
The girl is hesitantly fielding one of Zhian’s questions, likely something invasive and embarrassing. She splutters and stops mid-sentence at June’s approach.
“Here,” says June, offering the cup. When the girl doesn’t take it, she sets it down in front of her. “What’s your name?”
“Excuse me,” Zhian begins. She shoos him away.
“Excuse me,” he says again, with just a hint of teenage ire. She backhands him (not too hard, just enough to get him out of the way) across the chest. He stumbles backwards, into a gawking buddy.
“That guy bothering you?” June asks the girl.
“Y-yes,” says the girl. Her eyes are huge, and she can’t seem to keep them off June. Her features are fine-boned, symmetrical, free of marks or scars. Under her collar, a necklace glints.
“So, what brings you to the Earth Kingdom?”
Her name is Yue. She’s traveling to Ba Sing Se. When asked, she can supply no satisfactory justification. She only says that she’s never been, and that it seems like an exciting place.
June was thinking of heading in that direction anyway.
“You’ll really take me there?” Her hair is cropped nearly to the scalp, and peculiarly white. It makes her eyes seem to shine a lot bigger.
“If you make it worth my while, yes.”
Yue’s face goes bright pink. “Uh. Um.”
“You have money, right?”
Yue’s gaze darts around hurriedly. She whispers an amount in June’s ear. (Her body stiffens where it brushes against June’s, stills with heart hard-beating, like a prey animal.)
“Throw in that necklace, and you’ve got a deal.”
The first few days pass in near-silence. Not that June minds—she prefers quiet companions—but Yue seems like the kind of girl who chatters on constantly, though in a calm and even way. Honestly, it seems like she’s having trouble not making small talk.
Around a campfire one night, June makes an attempt. “If you don’t mind me asking, why’d you keep the betrothal necklace?”
“What?” Yue freezes, nearly dropping her roast fish. Luckily, she saves it. That fish was a bitch to catch, as apparently Yue “didn’t learn that kind of waterbending.”
“The betrothal necklace. If you aren’t going to marry this guy, what good is it?”
“How’d you know—”
“I’m cultured like that.”
“To be honest,” says Yue, “I thought I could sell it. If things got bad.”
“Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but that thing’s worth less than the stick you’re holding.” (That's a lie.) June works open the flaky flesh of her own fish, blowing on the steaming insides.
“Oh.” Yue droops.
“What kinda life did you live before you came here, anyway?” June takes a bite, cools it down with a swig of rice wine.
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Suit yourself.” Beat.
Yue asks, hesitantly, “What about you?”
“Well,” says June, and launches into her life story. It’s been a while since she told it to a new and captive audience. Anyway, she feels like talking for some reason.
Nyla hunches in the shadows, crunching his raw fish.
The next day, Yue starts talking. She tells June about the North Pole, the city made of water and ice. She talks about the seasons, the way light is different there, the animals and the festivals and the (weird-sounding) food. She recounts folktales, only children’s ones at first, but June soon coaxes the more bawdy tales out of her. She never mentions her family, or any specific people.
June tells her about her father’s adventures, the strange people he tracked down and the even stranger people who hired him. She talks about how Nyla came to live with her, the stories of their early lives punctuated by the beast’s grunts of assent and dissent. She describes places she’s been, cities and villages and islands, ruined temples and desolate deserts.
“Really?” Yue can’t conceive of deserts. “Aren’t those legendary?”
June raises her eyebrows and goes into greater detail.
One night in the mountains, June awakens to a knife at her throat. Yue is crying silently, restrained by a man twice her size. There are three or four of the bandits. They’ve seized her weapons. Nyla is nowhere in sight.
“I’m afraid you picked the wrong target, gentlemen.” Her voice comes out calm and dry. “If you’re looking for money, everything we have is in that chest over there.”
“I’m more interested in this chest,” sneers the man holding her. June rolls her eyes, grits her teeth, and focuses on the place where his grip is most weak.
The man motions with his knife for another to open the chest. The one who’s got Yue tightens a hand around her throat. This is when Nyla bursts in, snuffling like a demon.
The ensuing scuffle knocks two bandits out cold. Yue’s captor flees into the night. June is locked in struggle with the knife-wielding man, until a misstep leaves his knife open to her grasp. She usurps it and plunges it straight into his heart.
“Come on,” she shouts to Yue, who’s frozen in place. They hastily pack up the scattered belongings, leaving the man’s body twitching behind them.
It is an hour or so before they stop running. Yue hasn’t spoken.
While June’s setting out the sleeping rolls, she finally does.
“I can’t believe you, you murdered him.” Her face is open, shocked. “You didn’t have to do that!”
“He’d have done the same to us.”
“How can you say that? How can you just—He was alive.”
June snorts. “Would you rather I let him kill you?”
Yue’s eyes go narrow and hard. “That’s evil. You’re evil.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll leave that to the gods to judge.”
Yue tears off her necklace and throws it at June’s feet. The coinpurse follows. “Here’s your stupid payment! I’m leaving.” She grabs her sleeping roll and stomps away.
“Good luck!” June yells after her. When she’s gone, she closes her eyes and sinks into Nyla’s side.
The next night, June is attacked by what remains of the bandits. This time, they pin Nyla under a net.
“Didn’t you learn your lesson?” June snarls, but they just laugh and discuss all the kinds of revenge they intend to enact.
They come remarkably close to enacting these revenges before a ceremonial club emerges from the darkness to bonk them each on the head.
“I may not agree with your methods,” says Yue, as she cuts June’s bonds, “but I don’t think I can get along without you.”
“Damn right you can't,” June says. Yue swats her lightly, and turns her attention to freeing Nyla.
They’re gone before the men wake up.
Two nights away from Ba Sing Se, the sky turns red. Red masks the moon, a thin, sickly film. Yue wakes up sobbing.
Get me to the water! she screams. Her skin is clammy and pale.
They ride till Nyla finds a riverbank. June sets Yue down in its shallows, and she collapses. Her wet dress clings to her knees when she stands again. She doesn’t bother to hike it up before wading further in.
“Where the hell are you going?” June splashes after her.
“They killed her,” says Yue. “I’m the only one who can do this. I have to go, June.” All around them looks gray, but her eyes are still blue.
“You’re talking nonsense.” June catches hold of her shoulder. Yue turns to look at her. Her face is the kind of sad that’s past crying, too much sad for such a young girl. June wants to hide her, wants to sheathe her like a weapon, wants to polish her up and find uses for her that’ll make her forget.
“Can you just,” says Yue, and kisses her.
Yue’s hands tangle in June’s hair, cup the base of her skull with shaky tenderness. June wraps her arms around her, holding her close and still.
“Thank you,” Yue breathes. June kisses her again, her cheeks, her eyelids. She tries to keep Yue in place, but Yue twists back toward the moon.
Suddenly, Yue goes limp. She slumps, collapses. June is strong; she pulls her up. But then the girl’s dissolving, slipping into nothing
and then she rematerializes, white and beautiful, a goddess,
and smiles a single secret smile before she’s gone.
June stays in the water for a long time, looking down.
Soon she is standing in the moon’s bright reflection.