Jun's life wasn't too much different after the war officially ended. The treaties were signed, the fighting came to a stop (more or less), but there were still enough people who needed other people to be hunted down and who would pay well for her to do it.
More than before, in fact. Some, no longer feeling scared or trapped, hired her to help them find their lost families. Others hired her to hunt down captains who'd invaded, let their men run rampant in towns and villages, and then ran off once their masters no longer let them do what they pleased. It didn't matter who they were—Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, the stories were the same on both sides.
The jobs were numerous and the pay was pretty good, but somehow her money seemed to slip through her fingers. A lawman that had to be bribed, broken bones that had to be set, medicine for Nyla when he got unexpectedly sick in the middle of a job that would have been really, really sweet.
So for all she earned, she found herself back in the same dive, fighting for a little extra cash and inhabiting a vermin-infested room upstairs. The way it had always been.
She crept downstairs one morning disheveled, hungover, and in a foul mood. There was a rather sissy-looking messenger loitering near the door. He wore Fire Nation colors, which could never mean anything good.
Even though Jun's father had been Fire Nation, she hated the bastards. Every single job she took from a Fire Nation client ended badly. No exceptions. She really should have learned by now. She shot the messenger an evil eye before flopping down in a chair at her favorite table.
"What do you want?" she snarled.
"I bring a message from Firelord Zuko himself," said the messenger.
"NO. I am not taking another job from that stupid little brat. Last time I did, I got stuck in some idiot's personal firestorm and almost got burned to death." Luckily, her hair—it reached down to her chin now—had been the only casualty of the Comet. But that was enough. She could handle smelling like a Ba Sing Se whorehouse for two weeks, but she could not handle being set on fire.
"Pardon me, Miss Wei, but... I understand the payment will be at least a hundred times more than you would normally get over the course of a year."
"Yeah? And how does he know how much that is?"
"I'm not sure, ma'am. But he was most insistent."
Against her will, Jun was interested. Her mind went to her current funds... low, as always. She needed more. The thought of how much was being promised... well, she could do a lot with that much money. And she wasn't in this line of work because she had standards about who she accepted money from. Money was money, and if it was a king who was offering it... She might forgive him for her hair, at the very least.
"So what's so important to him?"
"I wasn't told. He wanted to talk to you in person."
"Forget it. I'm not going to the Fire Nation."
"Actually, he's here in the Earth Kingdom, staying at the Bei Fong estate in Gaoling while he negotiates with the Council of Earth Kings."
Well. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed worthwhile to at least talk to the guy. But this time, she would make sure he had the money up front.
She hadn't realized she'd been thinking silently for an awkwardly long time until the messenger cleared his throat and she came back to reality. The vision of a room full of gold still danced behind her eyes.
She looked at the messenger and quirked an eyebrow.
"Gaoling? Looks like I'd better freshen up, then."
Gaoling was the most utterly boring place that Jun had ever seen. The people here probably needed someone to do her job every once in a while (debt collection... so boring that Jun only took that job when she was really desperate), but it seemed that they liked a bit more subtlety than an overexcited shirshu tearing through the streets. Just for fun, she let him knock over a few extra vegetable carts before continuing up the hill to the estate.
After her arrival was announced, everyone hurried her to where Firelord Frowny was staying. It was as if she lingered in one place for longer than a second, something would rub off and it would be obvious that she'd been there, like a black stain on the carpet or a mud slick on the wall
Nice house, definitely. Overdone and obnoxious, but everything was shiny and expensive-looking. Jun liked expensive things.
Servants opened the last set of doors for her and bowed as they left. Jun looked up at her host. He was a bright spot of red in the middle of the green room and accompanied by a somewhat dusty teenage girl, obviously Earth Kingdom, and a pale young woman in purple. She had pretty hair—Jun was jealous. The Firelord, on the other hand, looked rather nice in a topknot. Almost grown-up. She still had that lingering urge to pinch his cheek and pat him on the head, though.
He sat behind a table covered in seven chests. No two were alike—most were wooden, one was metal, some were covered in carvings and there was even one that was shaped like a dragon.
"So now that I came all this way, what do you want?" Jun leaned against the table, examining her nails. But she kept her attention on those chests. They looked interesting.
"The Fire Nation needs some people found," he said simply. "Former admirals and generals. They ran off when I was crowned, and we need them back. These are dangerous men to have running around out there—they were powerful under my father and grandfather and therefore have a lot of supporters, enough to band together and stage a coup, if they wanted. Or they could be carving out little sections of the former colonies and setting themselves up as warlords. I don't need any of that right now. And above all... these men are monsters, all of them." His mouth tightened. "We need them to stand trial for what they did during the war. I called you here because I know you can do it." He opened the chest immediately to his right. Jun's eyes widened at the sight of the gold inside.
"I thought so. This gold was donated by Fire Fountain City, the birthplace of General Zibei Huo. During his time in the army, he was known for ordering Earth Kingdom prisoners, both military and civilian, to dress in Fire Nation uniforms and march unarmed on the front lines. If you bring him back, you can have the gold and probably celebrity status in Fire Fountain City."
Jun stared. The Firelord closed the chest and moved on to the next one, which was larger. It wasn't full of gold, but cloth bags.
"These are spices from the southern Fire Nation and the small islands off the coast. Saffron, vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves... each one worth its weight—or more—in gold. In return for the spices, they want Admiral Gua Hei, who sorted through their people to find anyone who even looked like they might have a little Water Tribe blood in them, and then torturing and executing them, with the blessing of Firelord Azulon."
Jun felt a slight chill in her stomach. She'd seen a lot over the years. She prided herself on not being moved by all the depressing things she saw—it was like a callus, toughened and made insensitive through overstimulation.
She saw awful stuff all the time. Every day, almost.
She gritted her teeth.
Silly boy. He thought this was affecting her. Only the gold and smelly spices mattered.
The dragon-shaped chest was next. It was full of gold and some gemstones that looked like rubies. "This is from some friends of mine, people who revered dragons back in the old days. They want General Yu Li, who killed three of them. He's the last of the dragon-killers, and a legend. The rest of them are all dead. New evidence suggests that he killed not adult dragons, but three one-day-old hatchlings."
Jun swallowed. Judging by the Firelord's left hand, which was clenched into a fist on the tabletop, he too was trying to seem like he wasn't an animal lover at heart. And dragons, at that...
To think they once existed. To think the Fire Nation killed them all, like they were pests.
Gold and rubies. Gold and rubies. Gold and rubies.
The next chest wasn't full of organized gold bars, but assorted pieces of jewelry in gold and silver, some of them glittering with jewels. "General Shu Bujing was infamous for sending raw Fire Nation recruits into wildly unbalanced battles as 'bait' or a 'distraction.'" The Firelord's voice grew flat and tightly controlled as he spoke. "This jewelry was donated by the families of the 41st Division, some of the last victims. I tried to give it back to them and pay for his capture myself, but... they insisted."
Jun could think of nothing to say to that. As she listened, she wondered over and over again how the Fire Nation had managed to keep its people under strict control for so long. A hundred years of this stuff, and these were just the big guys who were still alive, as far as anyone knew.
She couldn't have lived like that, had she been raised in the Fire Nation. Just the thought of four permanent walls around her and a nice little garden made her angry and frustrated. Why, if she had lived in the Fire Nation, she would have...
What would she have done? If a whole nation of people had stayed silent while these things were happening, what could one person have done to change it?
Her fingernails dug into her palms.
I'm just here for the money. I'm in trouble if I get too involved in anything. I learned that years ago.
Before continuing, the Firelord glanced briefly at the girl in purple. Her face didn't change at all, but he seemed to think it had, and he looked back at Jun.
Jun would have guessed "girlfriend" if she thought that was realistic at all.
The next chest contained some of the largest gemstones she had ever seen. She felt her eyes bug at the sight—this couldn't be real. Who needed her to find someone so badly that they would pay...
No. She wasn't going to ask that question. Why didn't matter.
"These are from the Yao family and the city of Omashu, in exchange for General Shinu Deng, who led the conquering army into Omashu near the end of the war. Neither Governor Yao nor his family were informed of the atrocities committed by the general and his soldiers at the time of invasion until after the war had ended and... well, the Yaos are Fire Nation, but what General Shinu let happen was unacceptable by all standards."
Jun knew who she was going after first.
And it was only because of the pretty jewels.
Yes. That was it. If she let herself get involved in everyone's personal sob stories, she'd never get anywhere. This was her job. She didn't do this out of the kindness of her heart.
The sixth chest was plainer than all the others—more of a box, really, and very worn on the edges. The Firelord opened it to reveal hundreds of large pearls, glowing softly in the pale green light of the room. That many pearls... probably worth more than any of the other chests. Jun's fingers itched.
"These pearls come from the northern coast of the Fire Nation. They want Admiral Xi Tang, who did something similar to Admiral Gua. He hunted down everyone who looked like they could be part Air Nomad and killed them. Records either weren't kept or were destroyed when I took the throne, but it's estimated that he killed at least three times as many people as Admiral Gua."
"The Avatar didn't help with the pearls, did he?" Jun said. She wondered why her heart was racing.
"No. He wouldn't. He didn't want any of this to happen in the first place, but it's necessary."
"I thought he was your little buddy now."
"He is," the Firelord snapped, his voice finally rising above the odd monotone he had maintained throughout the presentation of the riches. "He's just..." he sighed. "He comes from a more peaceful time, that's all. He's only been back for two years. Not enough time to adjust."
"Whatever. What's in that last one?" Jun looked at the seventh and final chest. It was smaller than all the others, but sounded heavy when her host slid it across the polished wood table.
Gleaming gold pieces, stamped with a mark denoting their quality. Jun noticed that it was even purer and more valuable than the gold from Fire Fountain City.
"This is what I already owe you," said the Firelord. He sounded a bit sheepish. "From when I hired you to find the Avatar, and then my uncle."
"Huh. Couldn't have paid me then?"
"I didn't have any money. Either time." He blushed a little bit. That urge to pinch his cheek came back. Jun crossed her fingers to keep from actually doing it.
"And now that you do have money, why are you letting your subjects donate their livelihood instead of paying for it yourself?"
"It's a Fire Nation thing—a matter of honor. And... they don't really... uh, I'm organizing this as a gesture to them. Of, uh..."
"They don't like you very much, do they?" Jun smirked. Now she was just playing—she already knew what she was going to do, and she was going to get every last one of those chests. But it was so much fun to tease him. Somewhat less fun now that he'd stopped taking everything so personally, but still quite amusing.
He wilted. "No."
She heaved an affected sigh. "I'll do it. You know I can't resist a box full of shiny gold."
"Don't thank me. Thank your people."
She took the little chest of his gold with her as she left, along with paper-wrapped personal effects from each target. There were a few things to buy, debts to pay off, boots to get repaired, but then...
She was going hunting.
Nyla, his jaws dripping with foam, raced out of Gaoling at top speed.
General Shinu was first. When Jun went after him, she was still running on the spark of righteous anger that she'd felt upon hearing his crimes. She pushed Nyla longer and faster than usual, not stopping to eat for a full day after leaving Gaoling. Their pace slowed down significantly after that, however, as the trail stretched on deep into the heart of the Earth Kingdom.
Jun didn't need a map, not with Nyla who had a full catalogue of scents in his brain and would readily answer to commands like "bar" and "market." But as the wide open sky stretched above them and they passed abandoned towns and painted sunsets on their way towards the desert, she started to wonder where they were. Did anyone know where this was? Did it even have a name? They hadn't seen people in days, but it felt like weeks.
The general was hiding in an ironically-named village, Misty Palms Oasis. It was technically an oasis, since there was a weird little ice spring in the middle of it, but Jun couldn't see any mist or palms and "oasis" wasn't really the word she would have used.
The target himself wasn't the problem. Once Jun and Nyla showed up in town, he ran for it. Once the sandbenders loitering all over the place noticed that she wanted him, they caught him first and tried to get her to buy him from them.
Clearly they'd never seen a shirshu before. By the time Jun rode out with General Shinu slung over her saddle, half the village was lying paralyzed on the dusty ground and most of the buildings were broken. Nyla had clearly enjoyed himself—he had something that looked like a grin on his muzzle and was growling happily, at least.
News traveled fast. Jun didn't need to go back to Gaoling to get her prize—the shiny-haired girl in purple, her face obscured beneath a dark hood, met her in a small town along the way. She had the jewels and her own transportation, a dark green lizard that hissed when Nyla approached. Jun hadn't thought much of her at first. Just a snobby noblewoman that wouldn't deign to string two words together in a commoner's presence.
"I'll take it from here," she said in a low, almost smoky voice.
"Sure you can handle it?" Jun said. Her eyes flicked to the prisoner, who was lying in an awkward position on the ground. She dragged General Shinu over and deposited him unceremoniously the girl's feet.
Her expression didn't change, but a note of derision entered her words. "I don't know. He looks terribly threatening, tied up in the dirt like that." She handed over the chest of gems. "I'm Mai. Thank you, on behalf of my family and the city of Omashu."
Hmmm. Sensing something of a kindred spirit, Jun decided to rethink her initial judgment of her.
"Well, Mai, what are you? Queen, babysitter, favorite concubine..." Jun smirked.
"All of the above, plus whatever else I need to be," Mai replied without missing a beat. "Bureaucrat, best friend, mediator, and... a few other things." The barest hint of a smile crossed her lips. Jun thought she saw a glint of silver from within one of Mai's voluminous sleeves, and she raised an eyebrow.
Mai seemed cool. Jun decided to like her.
It was disappointing, really. For all that General Zibei had been a civilian-killing monster during his day, he couldn't fight a rabbit for the right to eat a piece of lettuce.
The scent trail provided by General Zibei's calligraphy brush was strong, recent enough to be clear through all the other ambient scents of the countryside, and only went in one direction. Sometimes, if the target moved a lot, he created a web of trails that made hunting him down incredibly annoying.
But not this time. Jun tucked her whip and the calligraphy brush close to her body and urged Nyla forward, leaning over his neck and settling her body so it was easier to move with his long, powerful paces. There was nothing like this: racing over open territory, following a strong trail, and listening to Nyla's breath rushing in and out and his paws pounding the soft earth.
The general was hiding out in a small Earth Kingdom village. He'd cut off his topknot to blend in with the rest of the peasants, but there was something so un-peasant-like about him that Jun could have picked him out of a crowd even without Nyla's help.
He didn't put up too much of a fight. Maybe after fighting the Avatar, everything seemed boring, but Jun could have sworn that the fight at the end of the chase had always been more rewarding than this.
She rode into Gaoling with General Zibei bound and tossed over the back of her saddle. The Firelord's people were in the middle of packing up all his stuff—he was going back to the Fire Nation, apparently. But she got her gold all the same, a big heavy box of success, and he got his fugitive.
"Maybe we should see what Fire Fountain City's like," she said to Nyla once they had set out again. "He said we'd be famous there. Free drinks for the rest of our lives? I like that idea."
Nyla whuffed a response around the clean bone he was chewing on. She scratched his ears, and he put his head in her lap to take a quick snooze.
As luck would have it, the next job took them into the Fire Nation to look for Admiral Gua, but not anywhere near Fire Fountain City. He was "hiding out" in his wife's family's estate in the mountains, apparently having just gotten back from a stay in the Earth Kingdom. He thought that a few months following the war would be long enough for the new government to forget about him. He thought wrong.
Jun took immense pleasure in letting Nyla destroy all of the nice things in the estate while they dug Admiral Gua out of his hidey-hole. He was a bit more trouble than General Zibei, but not much—they had him in seconds, and soon after than Jun was riding away from the Capital City with a big chest of smelly spices.
Why did people pay so much for this stuff, anyway? Jun's Fire Nation half preferred to drench everything in cheap hot sauce, expensive plant-bits be damned.
Oh well. If people would spend a lot for it, that was good for her.
The hunt for General Yu turned up nothing but a grave.
Jun's experienced eye led her to believe that he'd been murdered. He was buried in the ground, not cremated, and his final resting place was unadorned with all of the honors that would have been given to a Fire Nation war hero. Furthermore, he was buried in a remote area on soil that nowadays belonged to neither the Fire Nation nor the Earth Kingdom.
She took the reward all the same. Her job had been to find him, not hogtie him and bring him back to the Firelord alive and kicking.
It would have been more fun, that's all.
Jun took a moment to catch her breath after that quick jog across the Earth Kingdom. She was finally able to check out Fire Fountain City, and to be honest, she'd never seen an uglier town in her life. Sure, it was clean and the streets were nice and wide, but the ravaged landscape around it was thoroughly off-putting.
She couldn't very well mention that to her hosts however, who, as Firelord Frowny had predicted, had given her a hero's welcome. She ate and drank and partied as much as she wanted, and Nyla was stuffed so full of meat that it looked like he'd never run right again. He might be able to waddle after their future quarries, if they were lucky.
Also, the town was full of some very nice-looking Fire Nation men. What was it about Fire Nation guys? Quite a bit "prettier" than she usually preferred, but hot damn when they took their shirts off, that didn't even matter anymore...
Even though it was ugly, Jun would have liked to stay in Fire Fountain City. But she had three more rewards to collect, and then...
Then what would she do? She already had more money than she knew what to do with. What else was there in life besides hunting and fighting and living from reward to reward?
She could always go back to her favorite dive bar, arm wrestle everyone who challenged her, and drink as much of that backwoods moonshine as she could handle. But... she didn't have to. With all this money, she could buy some land (a lot of land) and spend a really long time exploring it. And when she was done, she could sell it and move on.
Or maybe she could build a big house, hire a bunch of attractive and muscular guys to give her massages and wash her feet, and then...
That was the problem. All of her ideas were impermanent.
She'd lived an impermanent life. Her Earth Kingdom mother had died when Jun was very young, and so she and her father had traveled from place to place. She'd learned everything she knew from him. He taught her to fight, to hunt, to be tough in a tough world. He'd given Nyla to her as a puppy and helped her train him. When her father died, she took everything she had learned from him and used it to carve a life for herself out of what she had been given.
She didn't know how to live in one place. The thought of it sounded extremely unappealing most of the time, but she never knew what it would be like. Maybe it would be a good thing to try.
With a sigh, she drew her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. She looked dispassionately down at the snoring man next to her in bed—that was the disappointing thing. For all their nice muscles, these pretty Fire Nation boys tired out way too quickly.
Jun left Fire Fountain City after plenty of time spent relaxing and being pampered. Always fun to have that every once in a while. And if she ever felt like coming back, they would welcome her the same as they did the first time.
That ugly little town had certainly grown on her.
The hunt for Shu Bujing was unremarkable. She found him hiding out on Whale Tail Island, apparently the designated retirement home for old-regime generals. She had a feeling she would be back some other time to clean out the rest of the island. He tried to put up a fight, but it was one of the most boring fights that Jun had ever been in—a thirteen-year-old probably could have beaten him.
What was it with these generals, anyway? Jun had always thought that the guys in charge of the conquering armies had to be better than this. Mighty. Fearsome. Dreadful. Able to frighten their enemies away with a single glance. And, of course, able to crush whoever opposed them with one stroke of the sword.
But so far, they were just... weak. Old. Not the least bit impressive. It didn't make sense. They had to have been intelligent, at least. Cunning enough to get themselves in powerful positions without having to risk their lives on the battlefield. That made sense, but Jun found it pitiable.
More enjoyable than the hunt was returning General Shu to the Firelord. There was something personal in his hatred for the man, instead of the general distaste he'd had for the others.
Jun tossed the old man onto the floor in front of the Firelord's brightly burning throne. Firelord Frowny parted the flames in front of him and descended, glaring down at the prisoner and, in that instant, seeming very tall and menacing. How uncharacteristic of him.
"Remember me?" he said, his voice scarcely rising above a growl.
Jun smiled. Maybe she'd ask him what the story was.
Someday. But right now, she had one last fugitive to find.
Nyla sat down on the pier and whined. He snuffled at the warped wooden planks under his feet, scratched at them a few times, and then started pacing in circles.
"He's still at sea, huh?" Jun said aloud. She scratched the brown-black fur in front of her, which was slightly damp from the fresh ocean breeze. "Maybe he heard what happened to the other guys. Probably thinks he'll be safe out there."
She'd still find him. It would just take longer than usual, tracking his movements and waiting for him to make port so she could run onto his ship and grab him. In fact, this was what happened the first time she met Firelord Frowny back when he was just Prince Pouty—she'd been tracking her fugitive for weeks, waiting for the ship to stay in one place for longer than a few hours, until finally she'd caught up. It was a headache, but this time the payoff would be worth it.
Only one reward left. The box of pearls. The most valuable prize of them all.
What would she do with it all? Who knew. But by all the spirits, she was going to get those pearls now and decide what to do with them later.
Jun held out Admiral Xi's scroll of poetry for Nyla to sniff again. With a fresh taste of the scent, he could run along the coastline until they got closer to the ship from a different direction. Sure enough, the shirshu bolted off along the wharf, giving Jun scarcely enough time to stuff the scroll into her belt.
Plenty of former Fire Nation captains, loath to return home where they'd be relieved of their commands, had turned to piracy at the end of the war. Jun wasn't really surprised that an admiral with that big of a bounty on his head had done the same. She'd mingled with pirates before, but carefully—being known as someone who worked with pirates was something that stuck with you. She couldn't afford to have that kind of reputation, especially now that all kinds of respectable people were hiring her.
Nyla continued along the coast for a day and a half before looking out over the cliffs at the sea, body pointed and tail wagging as if he was a hunting-dog. There was a ship out in the iron-gray sea, partially shrouded by fog.
"That must be him," Jun muttered. She clucked her tongue and guided her mount to a nearby trail which switched back and forth along the cliff, carrying them down to the beach. It was deserted, and slightly spooky-looking: the fog muffled the sound of the waves rushing against the pebbly shore, and the only animal sounds besides Nyla's heavy breathing was the cawing of gullbatrosses high above them.
"I wonder if there's a port nearby," she said to herself, more to break up the silence than anything. "Nyla. Bar."
Nyla sniffed the air and immediately started off along the beach, claws kicking up pebbles with each step.
Not two hours later, they came across exactly the kind of port Jun was hoping they'd find: small, hidden in the arms of a natural harbor, and shady-looking. The boats moored there didn't seem to be Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation, or even Water Tribe for that matter. Just boats, bobbing in the water wit a few hands moving languidly on deck. Maybe they weren't up to anything illegal, maybe they were.
Either way, Admiral Xi had to be coming back here for supplies. It didn't matter how long it took for him to return. She would wait.
"Good, Nyla," Jun said. "A nice big piece of meat for you."
Nyla's ears perked up happily at the word "meat," and he trotted off in the direction of the market.
While he was occupied with the nice fat ostrich-horse leg she bought him, Jun went to the bar to put her feet up and have a drink. It had been a long chase. Now that her target was almost within her grasp, she felt she could celebrate, just a little.
"Seaweed rum," she said, slapping a coin down on the bar. The bartender looked at her with a slightly malicious-looking eye (it was either that or just general ugliness—she couldn't tell) and slid a drink over. She took a swig and sighed. Yes, that was good. Strong Water Tribe spirits, not the sissy flower-water version that the Fire Nation started making a while back. Proper seaweed rum wasn't for the faint of heart. Clearly those pretty Fire Nation boys and their lack of stamina weren't suited for good alcohol, either.
The bar was almost empty. Those who were there were mostly sailors—fishermen, smugglers, small-time pirates, whatever. There was a man in the corner, though, sitting by the fire with a sword across his knees, who was definitely not a sailor. He wore a dull, brown-gray cloak that could have belonged to any of the other patrons, but there was something too alert about him to be anything but a soldier. Former soldier, probably. There was gray in his hair and lines on his dark face.
Jun wondered what he was doing there, and then realized that everyone else was probably thinking the same thing about her.
Never mind. If the man with the sword was dangerous, she'd figure something out. If not, it didn't matter what she did.
She finished her drink and paid for a room for the night. As she had suspected, the bed was clammy and the room smelled like a mixture of sweat and fish, but it was a roof over her head. It had started to rain outside and there wasn't anywhere better to stay. A far cry from her stylish lodgings in Fire Fountain City, but she didn't have enough money yet to make her forget how many nights she'd spent in literal gutters as a teenager.
Voices came through the wall, low and indistinct, after Jun had shucked her boots and started to crack all the joints in her toes. She stopped for a moment and crept over.
With one ear pressed to the wall, she carefully started cracking her toes again, one at a time, in case her neighbor was listening and suspected that she had heard him.
"...Fire Nation ship. It's him."
"What do we do?"
"Wait for him to dock. Then we'll board the ship and find him. His men will leave as soon as he's gone."
"Hmm. That girl the Firelord hired seems to know her stuff."
"Yes, but he's prepared. Besides, she's too flashy."
I am not flashy, Jun thought indignantly. And I'm a woman, not a girl.
"If you say so."
"Her beast has been tracking his scent. She's also waiting for the right time to board his ship and take him."
Jun was annoyed. She didn't like it when people knew things about her, especially what her next move would be. Part of her wanted to wait until Admiral Xi had moved on and she could come up with a new plan that wouldn't involve some know-it-all who thought she was flashy, but her pride was screaming at her to just go with her original plan and show that idiot that she really did know what she was doing.
Night fell, and she lay in bed with her arms crossed over her chest, thoroughly irritated. She didn't know or care who those guys were. She was taking the admiral and she'd take the two of them as well, if they got in her way.
The next day was just as cold and damp as the previous day. However, she was cheered by the sight of the Fire Nation ship just offshore, a big black hulk in the mist that blanketed the sea.
"That's right, keep coming," she said to herself.
Smaller boats guided the ship into port so it wouldn't crash into anything or run into any obstacles that would be missed from such a large vessel. Those on shore or in the boats could see things before the ship's sailors could.
Just before the ship came to a complete stop, Jun went to the shed next to the tavern where Nyla had spent the night, rather more warmly than she had, apparently—he was curled into a ball with some sheepgoats curled up next to him.
"Let's go, lazy butt," she said, brandishing another meat leg (she couldn't tell which animal it came from this time). Nyla sniffed at it gingerly, decided it was all right, and snapped it up in one bite.
Jun saddled up once he was done and gave him the poetry scroll to sniff one last time.
He ran without hesitation down to the docks. His muscles bunched under his fur and he leaped up onto the deck of the ship—as soon as he touched down, sailors were running all over the place, either towards him with spears or away from him when he started ripping up pieces of the deck and throwing them out to sea as if they were nothing.
"Keep going! Find him!" Jun shouted above the noise. She uncoiled her whip and cracked it in the air. Nyla tore more holes in the deck, searching for the admiral among the barrels of supplies and hissing machinery deep within the ship.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone wielding a sword like she had never seen before. Two someones, actually—the cloaked man from the bar, and a shorter, slightly pudgy man, presumably his conversation partner.
Eye on the job, she told herself.
It wasn't long before she realized that something wasn't right. Something felt wrong about this whole thing, and an eerie, lingering sense of impending defeat started to weigh on her. They couldn't find the admiral. He was elsewhere in the ship, far away from the deck, his cowardly ass probably lodged somewhere Nyla wouldn't fit.
Damn. They had known.
"We can find him," she said. She cracked her whip one more time and Nyla bolted forward, into the jagged hole he had torn in the deck, just barely large enough to get through. Jun folded herself low to his neck to avoid getting scraped off on the sharp edge.
The interior of the ship was dark and red. It smelled of coal and dampness, and a lingering metallic tang. All was quiet for now, but...
Nyla followed the scent trail through the narrow, twisting hallways, squeezing through doors and tearing more holes in the metal where necessary. Almost there...
He burst through to a large, empty hold. In the middle, the end of the scent trail was—
A pile of clothes. Empty, folded, and alone in the room.
Nyla paced around it, confused. Jun felt a sense of dread growing within her. This can't be happening... how could he have made a decoy? How did he know that would work? What did he use... a quick sniff check revealed the reek of sweat and old piss. Makes sense, I guess. But... how did that even work? It's not him!
"We have to get out of here," she said to Nyla. She jumped back into the saddle and urged him out of the hold, back through the labyrinth of dimly-lit hallways and rickety spiral staircases that led back up towards the light.
The ship seemed ten times bigger now that they were trying to get out of it. She could still hear the sound of tramping boots somewhere above her.
And then the words "blasting jelly," "light," and "get down."
A roaring blast, a wave of heat, flying debris, and then everything went black.
She didn't know where she was. She didn't know how long she stayed between worlds, fading into consciousness briefly before slipping under once more.
She saw phantoms. Thin, dark shapes against her vision that might not have even been there at all. Dreams of intense panic, waking, blacking out again... The whole world was spinning—was she moving?
The pain, like everything else, faded in and out. Always there, but sometimes worse than others. Sometimes she thought her throat felt raw—had she been screaming? She couldn't hear anything beyond scattered whispers and the rush of her own blood and nerves. And then moments of intense agony, centered around her shoulder, stomach, hip, knee.
It never completely went away, just receded a little from time to time.
It could have been hours, days, or weeks. She could be anywhere. At times her delirious mind wondered if this was an afterlife specifically crafted for her own punishment. Her body cried out for rest. What was left of her mind begged for real sleep.
And through it all, a terrible sense of dread, something undefined that lurked in the corners of her consciousness, always threatening something worse just around the corner.
Finally, when she could almost bear it no more, it was gone.
Deep unconsciousness fell over her in heavy folds. She remembered nothing.
It hurt to breathe.
Jun's brow creased. Gradually, she was coming to, but "awake" was still quite far off.
Everything hurt too much. She couldn't breathe deeply, and her arms and legs responded to consciousness with a complete inability to move without total, incapacitating pain. Her mouth felt dry, just another thing to add to the pile of misery currently stacked on top of her.
I want to be unconscious again.
Soon, but not soon enough, she was once again fast asleep.
Suddenly, Jun was awake.
Still groggy, still unwilling to move and endure more pain, but this was nothing like the agonized half-consciousness from before.
She kept her eyes closed. For the first time in what seemed like forever, she was comfortable. A cool breeze touched her face. She was in a warm, soft bed with her right arm and leg slightly elevated. Something smelled like medicine. There were quiet voices, a man and a woman, talking somewhere near her feet.
"The damage was extensive. It's a wonder that she lived, but I can't tell yet how much she will recover." That was the woman. A doctor, then.
"She will be my guest until she does," said the man. A thoughtful voice. It seemed familiar.
"That's for the best. I understand she has nowhere else to go." There was a sound of a scroll being rolled up. "I still have her on opiates for the time being. Given the length of the recovery time, it could result in a dependence if she stays on them throughout. But that's a discussion for a different time, when she's awake."
"Mmm'wake," Jun's mouth slurred before her brain could stop it.
The doctor's voice was at her bedside almost instantly. A cool hand rested on Jun's forehead. She carefully opened her eyes, squinting against the light from the window, and saw the doctor, a middle-aged Fire Nation woman with soft, graying hair in a loose bun. Her golden-brown eyes were kind and crinkled at the corners when she smiled.
"Welcome back, Jun. How are you feeling?"
Jun frowned. "Shitty."
"I should think so. You've been in and out for almost a week, and after the injuries you sustained, I would have thought that you'd be unconscious for twice that long. Are you hungry or thirsty?"
The doctor poured a cup of water for her. Jun reached up with her left hand and took it before the older woman could try to help her drink it.
The man she'd been talking to was none other than the man with the sword—that's why he sounded familiar. Jun stared at him as she drank the water. Who was he? She gathered that this room was part of his house—why had he brought her here?
"What happened to me?" Jun asked, feeling a little better now that she had finished her drink.
"The ship you were on was only one of Admiral Xi's ships," said the sword guy, coming forward to the foot of her bed. "He created the decoy to lure you inside, and then detonate the entire ship. I knew that he had a trick planned for sooner or later, but the fact that he personally wasn't on the ship was a surprise to me as well. My colleagues and I—" he and the doctor glanced briefly at one another "—have been narrowing his movements down for a long time. We'll have to start over again now."
"But what happened to me?"
"The explosion sent metal shards flying," the doctor explained. "You took some. Here, here, here, and here." She gently touched spots where bandages had been folded and wrapped on Jun's body. Right shoulder, just under her ribs, her right hip, and her right knee. "I was able to get all of it out and you should make a full recovery. But... it might take a while, and some things might never be the same, you have to understand. The shrapnel did quite a bit of damage to your knee, and your shoulder could possibly lose some of its former range of movement."
Maybe it was the drugs she'd mentioned earlier, but Jun couldn't find it in herself to care just yet. Later. She could think about this later.
"All right." Jun closed her eyes. She was tired. Just this short conversation had left her wanting to go back to sleep. "Where's Nyla? Is he all right?"
The interminable silence that followed filled Jun's stomach with ice.
When the doctor spoke again, it was quiet and hesitant.
"Nyla... didn't make it," she said.
"No. He's going to be fine, right? He's just hurt, is all," Jun said weakly.
No no no no no... this can't be happening...
"I'm sorry, Jun. I did what I could for him."
The ice in her stomach quickly turned to frantic rage.
"You're lying! He's going to be okay! He has to!" She struggled to sit up, ignoring the pain from her wounds and dodging the doctor when she tried to grab her and return her to bed.
He was outside. He had to be. He was resting in a patch of sunshine, covered in nice white bandages. He was going to be okay.
Jun staggered down the hallway, supporting herself on the wall as she limped towards what she thought could be the outside of the building.
She bit back a cry as she collapsed onto the floor, jarring her bad knee and putting her weight on her injured side.
Strong hands grabbed her and lifted her into the air. She struggled and fought, but she couldn't get away—angry tears burned her eyes as she was carried back to her room. She realized that it was the sword guy who was carrying her. The doctor, meanwhile, was preparing a cloudy drink.
She was put back onto the bed. The doctor held her down before she could run again.
"Jun. Drink this."
"No. I need... I need to find Nyla..."
"Drink it or I will force-feed it to you."
Eventually, the doctor managed to get Jun to drink the medicine. She struggled to hold onto consciousness, but her exhausted body listened to the drug much better than her mind did. She slipped into unconsciousness once again, but never stopped trying to get up and find Nyla.
He was going to be all right.
Jun expected to find him alive and recovering when she woke up.
Eventually, she accepted the reality. But it didn't seem real, no matter how many times she repeated Nyla is dead to herself, over and over again, as if to desensitize herself.
She never thought she would have to experience this.
She had never been this alone before. First it was her father and mother. Then it was just her father. Then it was her father and Nyla. Then it was just Nyla. And now... Jun was alone. Nyla had been everything to her.
He wasn't her pet. He was an animal, but that didn't make him something that she owned.
Thinking about it brought another kind of hurt, one that the doctor couldn't do anything for. Jun decided not to think about it. She closed it off. She wasn't going to think about it. She wasn't going to let it hurt her anymore.
She could ignore it when she was busy. But when she was sitting by herself, alone, in a quiet room, she couldn't stop thinking about it.
Piandao explained that he didn't normally keep servants, aside from his butler and a housekeeper. They were for Jun's benefit while she healed. When the doctor pronounced her fit enough to leave her bed, Piandao enlisted a couple of menservants to carry Jun's favorite chair around, with her in it, until she could walk again.
Jun didn't remember ever being introduced to the swordmaster. The doctor called him Piandao, and the servants called him Master. She personally didn't believe in calling people Master (generally, the higher rank a person was, the more insulting her nicknames were), so she just called him Piandao. He didn't seem to mind, and no one insisted that she should call him anything different.
He spent a lot of his days doing calligraphy, or arranging his rock garden, or meditating.
Jun found him frustrating. He didn't explain anything about himself unless asked outright, which she rarely did. Besides, his explanations were often too cryptic to decipher.
He wasn't a noble. He didn't act like a noble. He didn't even look or dress like a noble. He didn't keep noble company—just a bunch of old people who liked to play pai sho—and didn't insist that his staff bow and scrape like most nobles did.
But he lived in a castle. His chosen hobbies were educated pastimes—no ordinary commoner read or wrote so much poetry. Most people didn't even know how to read the archaic script he preferred to use for much of his calligraphy.
And neither noble nor commoner could fight like he did without bending.
Jun watched him fight an informal match against his butler. These were his own techniques he was using—elegant and refined, but deadly. No one fought like this anymore. They were either trained to use their bending, or trained to carry a spear on the front lines. Sword fighting, the kind Piandao did, was an art form, not a way to kill someone. But it sure looked like he had killed a few people with these old moves. He had a battle-hardened look about him. He had seen war, not just studied swordsmanship on the sidelines and fancied himself a warrior.
Jun, unwilling to sit by herself where her mind could wander and make her think of things she didn't want to think about, stayed where he was. He was frustrating, but interesting.
While she was recovering, she had a few visitors besides Piandao and the doctor.
Mai was first. That was good. Jun liked Mai. She knew that talking couldn't solve everything, and that silence was often better for things that hurt to bring up. They had tea together and talked about nothing important. Jun learned that the younger woman was skilled with throwing knives—now that might be something useful to learn. Mai promised to show her how someday, after her shoulder had healed.
If Mai's visit was pleasant and comfortable, Jun should have known that the Firelord's would be the opposite.
"I'm sorry about all this," he said for probably the tenth time. "I should have known that he would catch on. I'm sorry. If there's anything I can do, please tell m—"
"I'll tell you what you can do," Jun snapped. She'd had enough of him. "Go away and stop. Pitying. Me."
"It's not pity," he said indignantly. "It's..." but then he trailed off, and the annoyed look on his face faded. He looked at the floor and traced a pattern on the shiny wood with the toe of his boot. "Yeah. I get it."
The doctor came in just then with medicine and fresh bandages.
"Zuko, stop upsetting my patient."
He sighed. "Sorry, Mom."
Then, with a smile, she patted his cheek and sent him out of the room before anything got broken.
Jun's hair reached down to her shoulders these days. Almost back to the way it was.
She didn't like how the seasons never seemed to change in the Fire Nation. It was either hot and dry or hot and rainy. She missed waiting for the snow to melt, for the days to get longer and longer and finally waiting for the leaves to change color again and fall to the ground. And then the first snowfall of the year... Nyla always loved the first snowfall of the year. He liked to eat the snow, roll in it, dig through the drifts to find little creatures hiding underneath.
Jun gritted her teeth. No. She wasn't going to think about that. Not now.
Her servant-borne chair, thankfully, was no longer a necessity. It was replaced by a crutch, and then a cane, and then Jun could hobble most anywhere she wanted without it. She took it with her when she went into town, though, but the deference with which the townspeople treated her made her skin crawl.
Most of them thought she was a soldier. Worthy of their respect for being wounded, but a recipient of their shame for what the Fire Nation had done to everyone else.
She had never been a soldier. She never swore a single oath to anyone but herself. She never fought for anyone but herself.
No. Not now.
All things considered, it was better to stay at Piandao's castle. Everything was quiet, sometimes too quiet, but no one looked at her funny or crossed the road when she walked by.
The paper was blank, stretched taut between two weights. Jun stared at it. She drummed the end of the dry brush against the table. Across from her, Piandao serenely painted characters on his own paper with confident, precise strokes.
She set the brush down.
The paper remained blank for a long time.
Piandao's courtyard was still damp from yesterday's rain, and the sky overhead was choked with rolling clouds. He stood by, one hand resting on a wooden practice sword, while Jun rubbed her sore right shoulder.
"If it hurts, it must be good for me," she growled.
"An interesting philosophy. Not always true, but the spirit behind it is admirable." His face was calm, as always. Jun suspected that she was a particularly frustrating student, though, with all of her pent-up anger and hurt that only came out when she had a weapon in her hand. She wasn't like him. She didn't paint and arrange rocks in a sand pit because she wanted to wield a sword better. She practiced with an actual sword because she wanted to wield a sword better.
She was direct, impatient, and forceful. He preferred to study everything in detail before he made a decision. For all he could gather physical facts about a situation in the blink of an eye, he wasn't satisfied with any one decision until he had applied every possible approach and pondered how it would turn out.
But in that too, he was different when he held a sword. He made decisions immediately. And they were always the right decisions.
Jun considered herself a pragmatist when fighting. It turned out that Piandao was too, he was just more... elegant about it.
Her hand fell to her side. Her shoulder was still tender, the jagged pink scar on her kind still sensitive to the touch. The muscles underneath were tight, still healing from being pierced through with a sharp bit of metal. The same went for her other injuries. After training for too long, it hurt to breathe—when she lifted up her shirt, the scar above her stomach was inflamed. Her right leg wouldn't move like it used to. She favored it, putting most of her weight on her left leg when she fought, but she was unbalanced and quickly defeated.
"What do you think a box of pearls is worth?" she asked Piandao at length.
"A box of pearls. What kind of pearls?"
"Big ones. From the north of the Fire Nation. A box about this big."
"Hmmm." Piandao looked up at the pearl-gray sky. "Well, I suppose it depends on the person who is looking at them. To a starving man, a dry crust of bread is worth more. To a greedy miser, they are something to be acquired for the acquisition's sake, but never to be used. To a holy man who has given up everything in the search for enlightenment, they are worth absolutely nothing."
"Are they ever worth enough to justify putting your best friend in danger if it meant that you might get to have them?"
Piandao raised an eyebrow. "That would depend on how highly you valued your friend."
"You loved him more than anyone in your life. You would never imagine doing anything to hurt him."
The swordsman sighed. "Humans are imperfect. We are blind. Sometimes we see only the tangible reward and ignore the consequences of going after it. It doesn't make you a horrible person, it just makes you normal. Everyone makes mistakes."
"Not everyone makes mistakes that get their best friends killed."
"No, not everyone. But some do. And once it happens, one can't keep wondering how things could be different." He signaled to his butler to bring some refreshment. Jun sat down on a low wall nearby and stretched out her leg.
"I could have done something," she said.
"Possibly, yes. But in that moment, there was nothing you could have done. You have to let it go and focus on what you're going to do now."
"I don't know what I'm going to do now."
"You have plenty of time to figure it out. Until you do, you are always welcome here." He looked up. Fat had returned with the drinks—hot oolong tea. Piandao gave one to Jun and took the other for himself.
She took a sip and burned her tongue. Unprepared, she dropped the cup on the ground, where it smashed into a dozen pieces.
She looked up at Piandao, blinked, and then looked back down at what remained of the cup.
A big, hot tear rolled down her cheek. She squeezed her eyes shut, fists balled on her knees, teeth clenched, anything so that she wouldn't cry.
It didn't work. Another tear followed, and then another, and another. A sob worked its way up and got caught in her throat.
"It's just a stupid teacup," she said through her tears. "I shouldn't be crying about a teacup."
But she was. And she couldn't stop. And soon she couldn't speak.
She just sat there on the wall, helpless with her hands in her lap and the shattered cup at her feet, tears flowing freely from her eyes, until Piandao walked over to her and carefully folded his arms around her. He held her until she stopped crying—by that time, the rain came back, and they were both thoroughly soaked by the time they got back inside.
"I don't really like Fire Nation boys."
"Hm? And why is that?"
"They're boring. Bland. Too pretty for their own good. And they tire out too quickly."
"There's your problem."
"You've been going for Fire Nation boys, not Fire Nation men."
"Is there a difference?"
"There is a big difference."
Jun woke up one morning and randomly decided to cut off all of her hair.
She'd spent so long growing it out, trying to get it to look the way it had looked before some high-on-Comet-juice idiot firebender had burned it all off. And now that it was finally long again, she was cutting it off.
She tied it back with a strip of cloth, took a pair of scissors, and cut just above the tie. A thick sniiiip that left her head feeling light and free, relieved of the burden of her long hair.
Everything was different now. She'd grown her hair back so that everything would go back to the way it had been. Nothing was the same now, and she needed a fresh start on everything.
Piandao liked it. He ran his fingers through the short fringe, traced her face, and then kissed her on the forehead.
They spent the day in the rock garden. Of all the things he liked to do, Jun found this one the most boring—and she had even started to appreciate some of his other pursuits. She liked calligraphy. The others, not so much. But he seemed like there was something he wanted to say. He'd seemed like that for a while, at least since Jun had started to become able to discern what he was thinking from his expression. That was always an adventure, given his usual placid, stoic nature. It was never obvious, like it was with some people.
"I know you want to talk to me about something."
"Hmm?" He looked up from the sand he had been carefully raking.
"You've wanted to say it for a while." From atop a large rock, Jun looked down at him with an expression that she hoped said "tell me or I will never leave you alone about it."
"Yes, of course." He leaned the rake against a nearby wall. "You never asked me why I got in your way on your last job, but I assume you want to know that as well."
He sat down. This would be a long story, she could tell.
"When I was young, I joined the Fire Nation Army. I am not a bender, so it was difficult for me to achieve as many ranks as the benders—that is how I first became interested in the way of the sword. I learned how to fight as well as the firebenders could, and I was promoted. Eventually, I found myself in a position of power over a large number of soldiers. We were stationed in the northern Fire Nation, working closely with the navy there to keep the former Air Nomad islands under our rule. There were a lot of rebels at the time, you see. For us... it was all business. Keep the rebels down, keep the islands Fire Nation, and maybe you'll get sent off to the Earth Kingdom with a more important mission.
"Admiral Xi was the new person in charge of the navy detachment there. He took the rebels more seriously than anyone else. We mostly just took people to prison, fought small battles when we were attacked, that sort of thing. But Admiral Xi... when he caught a rebel, he killed him. Every single time. Eventually he decided that anyone who bore Air Nomad blood (there were many, even though the airbenders themselves were long gone by this time) was a potential rebel. He started with the village leaders, the men involved with local militias and such. People who were in charge of protecting their communities. He had them all arrested and killed.
"All this was going on in the islands, and I was on the mainland, going about my job as I had always done. No one knew what was going on with the Admiral, because none of his sailors came back to the mainland during this time, and he kept no records. It was absolute tyranny. His soldiers got caught up in it all, and soon they were helping him on a level that was more than just a grudging obedience to orders. Soon the civilians were helping as well, turning in their friends and neighbors on suspicion of being Air Nomads. Suspicion was all he needed.
"I knew something was wrong when he brought in six shirshus from the mainland. They came through my office and got on a boat headed out to where he was working. He had lists of people they were looking for, who were in hiding. The shirshus were sent to find them. And that is how he learned to make a shirshu decoy," Piandao said with a declarative pointer finger. "People found ways to hide from them. Some were more effective than others. But the best one was to make a strong-smelling decoy of your personal items, and disguise your own scent with something even fouler. Plenty of people managed to escape this way—unfortunately, we may never know how many or where they went, but it worked.
"I went out to where this was happening. I saw things that stay with me to this day. I saw bodies lined up on the ground: men, women, children, it didn't matter. I went to the admiral and demanded to know what he was doing. He told me that he was keeping the rebels down and ordered me not to challenge his authority again, or I would be killed too. And I knew he meant it.
"I could do nothing to stop him. Though I had rank, I was nowhere near his equal. So I left. I deserted from the army and traveled for years, learning everything I could in hopes that someday I could return home and put an end to the madness. Opportunities presented themselves. I met people who would help this happen. But it always stayed just out of my grasp, until now. With the Firelord holding those who committed these crimes accountable, it became easier for me to look for him. I still hope that one day I can bring him to justice and pay back even a drop of the guilt I carry for doing nothing when he was killing his own people."
There was a long silence when he finished talking. Jun looked to one side, feeling slightly ashamed. Why had she been tracking the guy? For money. Sure, she'd felt a little something when the Firelord told her exactly why they needed Admiral Xi, but it wasn't enough to get her to find him on that alone. And how many years had Piandao looked for him, solely out of a sense of duty and shame in his own failures?
"What could you have done," Jun said before she could stop herself.
As if she was any sort of person to be saying these things. She wasn't a very good example of that philosophy.
"Anything. Even if I could have helped one person escape... it would have made a difference to that one person, never mind the statistics."
"Well... you escaped. If you hadn't gotten mixed up in it in the first place, you wouldn't have left the army."
"I think I would have found another reason. If I was the sort who wanted to stay for the sake of staying, I probably would have helped Admiral Xi." Piandao sighed. He looked tired.
Jun couldn't think of anything further to say. They had a lot more in common than one would think. Burdened by guilt, desperate to do anything to relieve it. Full of ideas of how they would have acted differently if put into the pivotal situation once again. And yet, powerless to change anything that had happened.
"Well, my arm and leg are almost better."
"Yes, you've come a long way."
He didn't get the hint. Jun frowned and pressed on. "What I mean is that I can fight without collapsing and hurting myself. I want satisfaction for getting injured and losing Nyla. You want justice for all those people who died. Let's go. We can find him. Together."
He looked up, an expression of mild interest on his face. Jun knew that "mild interest" in his case was something much more.
"Yes... I like this idea."
"Let's start tomorrow."
"Today. We can start by gathering provisions and getting the latest intelligence on his traitor fleet. I know someone who can get it to us by sunset. Are you sure you're up to it?"
"Only if you are. I've been waiting to get out of here and fight someone for weeks."
He smiled at her, and suddenly Jun realized what she had been feeling all along—so subtle that she hadn't noticed it at first, but so warm and comfortable around her heart that she couldn't ignore it even if she tried.
For the first time in her life, Jun knew what she wanted to do tomorrow, and the next day, and any day that came after that.
She was lost no longer.