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Fractured Ribs and Horsehair

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“Xiao Long!” The surname had heard its share of uses. Shouted across a hay field, slurred in the saloon, grumbled through the sheriff's office. But Yang still wasn’t used to it being used in a terrified screech, even after a good two years of being deputy.

Thankfully, the elderly shopkeep didn’t seem to want her to stop and chat. Holding his bleeding arm, the man frantically pointing towards the end of the street. The ragged group of five faunus, each laden with a bag of dust and bandannas pulled over their mouths and noses, were desperately trying to get onto their horses before she could reach them. Which would be very, very soon - the golden half-draft mare below her stretched into a gallop, kicking up gravel and dust in her wake. Yang reached for her holster, and she heard a panicked yell from one of them.

She tightened her grip as the tallest faunus in the group turned. Even at the distance she was at, she could see the blood around his fingertips - like he’d raked a set of claws across, say, a shopkeeper’s arm or a sheriff's forehead. The hysterical boy that had come running into the sheriff’s office to get Yang hadn’t spared any details about the bandit group that had burst into his grandfather’s shop. While Yang usually had an amount of patience for bandits - a fact that most folk knew better than to bring up - she had zero patience for ones bold enough to attack civilians in broad daylight. And even less for those that attacked her fellow lawmen any time of day.

Yang could see the young, stupid faunus meet her eyes. His went wide at the sight of her barreling down on them.

She cocked the revolver, leaning over Celica's neck as she took aim.

She didn’t even need to fire a warning shot. The pale youngster kicked his horse’s sides, and the whole pack took off towards the end of the street. Yang exhaled, sliding the six-shooter back into its holster. As annoying as chasing the band through the underbrush would be, she really just wanted to get them off the street. A firefight was far easier to have once there were no townsfolk to get caught in the crossfire.

She looked over her shoulder. Nora was right on her tail, grinning ear to ear as her mount caught up to Celica. Ren, steering Sunflower with one hand and leading a tall red stallion with the other, was stopping in front of the shop that Sheriff Nikos was already emerging from. Yang watched her wipe at a blood trail on her forehead, and reach to take her horse from Ren.

As they passed the end of the street, Yang turned back to Nora. “Think we’ll catch ‘em before Pyrrha catches us?” She called out over the sound of thundering hooves.

“We’d better! Magnhild’s ready to break some legs!” Nora hollered back, thumping the thick red roan neck for emphasis.

Yang snorted, turning back to the field they were tearing through. The bandits were still visible, heading down into a gully, ripping through the evergreen trees and down rocky slopes. She and Nora turned at the same time, slowing to a manageable pace as they headed for a gentler slope into the valley.

“Gotta be that new band, mm?” Nora snorted, guiding the heavily built stallion down the hill. “They’re gonna break their own legs tryin’a get down that hill.”

“Yeah. Gods, I hope they move along soon, gettin’ sick of chasin’ the dumbasses down.” Yang grunted. Every now and then a new group of bandits would drift by - usually they would continue on their way after a few days. For a small farming town, Beacon’s sheriff was surprisingly competent and her team well trained and efficient. It usually wasn’t worth the time for bandits to try to rob the town, at least not for long. This group, however, had clung on for the past two weeks. Long enough that Yang had caught a glimpse of the real leaders - a tall bull faunus and a slender cat faunus, both secretive and hard to catch sight of. No one seemed to know anything about either one, and Yang had a bad feeling about them. Especially the bull.

Ever the optimist, Nora reached over to lightly punch her shoulder. “Hey, more fun than dealing with whatever shit Cardin’s gotten himself into.”

“That ain’t much of a contest.” Yang thumped her back anyways, before they reached the bottom of the hill and conversation became difficult again. Both horses picked up speed, Celica’s golden coat and white mane shining in the sun. Pretty to look at, but not exactly subtle. Sure enough, she heard the faunus hollering to each other, splitting up now that they had managed to pick their way to the bottom of the gully. Yang felt the back of her neck prickle as she glanced up at the tree-covered hills that loomed over them, bordered by a shallow river. It would be difficult to pick out an observer in the trees, and she suddenly suspected that perhaps the five youngsters had fled here for a reason.

Nora passed her, firing one round into the air from her pistol. The young faunus immediately scattered, three of them turning to follow the treeline, while the other two plunged towards the river. Nora split off after the three, glancing back at Yang before disappearing into the trees.

Yang set her jaw, focusing on the two youngsters ahead of her as they splashed into the river, Both horses, heaving and sweating from the sudden run, plunged their noses into the cool water, ignoring frantic cries from their riders.

Adopting an unconcerned air, Yang slowed Celica as she approached the river. “Ease up, idiots, let y’ horses drink.” Both faunus - not even grown, really, boys with wide eyes and shaking hands - stared at her as the muscular, golden mare plodded up and delicately sipped from the river as well. Yang leaned over the saddle horn, eyeing the two lazily from under the brim of her hat. “Now... I’m gonna need those bags of dust back, boys. Are we gonna be civil about that?”

“Will you be?” The voice was quiet and deafening. Yang’s head turned.

On the other side of the river stood a slim, rugged black horse. It stood straight and tall, tacked as though for some kind of show. Perched atop it was an equally slim, oddly elegant woman. She was dressed in old, but surprisingly decent clothing: dark canvas pants, scuffed high boots, a plain white blouse, and a leather duster that was ripped at one sleeve. A pair of sleek cat ears stood at attention atop a head adorned with long, flowing dark hair. Piercing golden eyes locked onto Yang’s lilac ones, peering out from above the black bandanna that hid her mouth and nose.

Yang had never seen her this close before. Didn’t have a name to link the face to. But she knew danger when she saw it, crackling like the air before an approaching thunderstorm.

Slowly, fully aware that every twitch of her body was a move on a chessboard, Yang leaned backwards. “...I’m only uncivil if I’m forced to be.”

The golden gaze pointedly flicked to the revolver on Yang’s hip, then back to her.

“Not lookin’ for no bloodshed, just the dust back.”

The woman tilted her head. “And if we don’t wish to return it to you?” Her speech was just like the rest of her - elegant, but with a roughness beneath that suggested she’d known more hardship than anyone else in the clearing.

It was a roughness that Yang, reckless as she was, did not want to tangle with today. But she didn’t let the woman see that, instead meeting her gaze steadily. “I’d prefer if we talked this out before gettin’ into uncivil territory, ma’am.”

A pair of feline ears flicked at the title, as though uncertain how to process it. Yang couldn’t imagine her being called by anything else.

A splash beside her. Yang’s eyes flicked sideways. The two boys, almost forgotten, had let their horses finish drinking, and were very slowly trying to sneak across the river. Her revolver was in her hand before the boys could fully turn to look at her. “Nu-uh. You two stay put while I chat with your boss.”

Both of the boys stopped, turning. Then both went white as sheets, staring in her direction with round eyes.  Yang glanced over at the dark haired woman - and found her staring over Yang’s shoulder with a similar expression of fear.

Behind her, a deeper voice growled. “You may have to turn around for that.”

Yang slowly turned in the saddle, already not liking what she was going to find.

The bull faunus leaned over his horse’s neck as they approached the river, black horns glinting against his bright red hair. A bandanna was pulled up over his mouth and chin, same as the others. Yang had no idea why he’d bothered, because the instant she saw his face she knew there was no way she’d ever forget it. A brand was seared across the left side of his face, reducing the eye to a bloodshot, lifeless corpse. The right eye, however, drilled into her her with an electric blue gaze, narrowed as though the hidden mouth was smirking. “Deputy Xiao Long. Good to meet you face to face.”

Yang was a brawler. She’d brought down men twice her size in two hits. She feared no man, woman, or child.

But she knew danger when she saw it. If the dark haired woman was the danger of an oncoming thunderstorm, this man was the danger of a wildcat’s hunting scream seconds before it ripped into prey.

“Hardly fair that you know my name, stranger. I don’t have even a whisper of one for either of you.” Yang nodded behind her, to the cat faunus that she desperately hoped was at least half leader of this gang.

That hope was fading fast, as the man chuckled and continued to stare her down. “It’ll stay that way, deputy. Besides, you won’t be needing to know any names for much longer.”

Celica had turned to face the oncoming horse, ears pinned. Somehow, that scared Yang more than anything else - it was a running joke that Celica would probably ask the Devil himself for a treat and kind word. “I ain’t no bandit, but pickin’ off the deputy to cover stealing some dust seems a bit like curing fleas by killin’ the dog.” She kept her voice light as she trained the revolver on him, disguising her racing mind. Even if she shot the man right now, she wouldn’t get ten feet before one of his three followers put a bullet in her back. Talking people down wasn’t her strongest suit, but it was the only play she had - at least, until Pyrrha reached them.

The tall bay horse stepped into the river, showing zero interest in the water even as the sound of the other horses splashing through the river reached them. Its rider slowly pulled a glinting, dark rifle from its holster on his back. “Depends on how badly you want the fleas gone.”

He looked her dead in the eye, cocking the gun. “Or how badly you want the dog dead.”

Yang’s grip on the revolver tightened.

A dark blur in front of her, and she jumped, grabbing the reins as Celica started backwards.

The black horse was smaller than it had seemed on the riverbank. It wrung its tail, pawing and sending water up around them, soaked from its sudden charge across the river. The woman on its back was just as soaked, but she did not so much as flinch as the water her mount was kicking up reached her. She sat perfectly positioned between the two of them, so that any shot would have to travel through her in order to hit Yang. Her back was to Yang, preventing her from seeing her face, but her ears stood straight and tall, framing the bull faunus between them.

For a moment, all three were still.

The bull slowly lowered the rifle. Then the remaining eye focused on the woman between them. Yang watched his brow lower, watched something darker than the threats he’d just given pass behind his eyes.

Slowly, the defiantly pricked ears lowered, then flattened. The woman who was ten feet tall only a moment ago was suddenly little more than a child.

CRACK

The warning shot grazed over their heads. Yang’s head whipped sideways.

Miló was roaring towards them, head low and ears pinned. Even across the field, Yang could see the blood trails running down Sheriff Pyrrha Nikos’ face, and how she was casually ignoring the wound on her forehead in favor of training her rifle on the faunus.

Yells and splashing filled Yang’s ears. She turned back in time to see the terrified boys flee into the treeline, the bull and the cat racing out of the river to follow them. Just before they hit the trees, Yang saw the girl turn back to look at her.

The golden eyes were just as piercing, but the authority that had once oozed from them was gone. Now, Yang could hear her screaming, screaming with everything but her voice.

Then all four of them were gone.

“Yang?! Yang!”

A hand landed on her shoulder, making her jump. Pyrrha’s green eyes frantically scanned over her. “Did they take a shot at you? Are y’ hurt?”

Her voice took a moment to come back, “No, no I’m fine, I-” She looked back at the treeline. No movement. “-think we figured out who leads that gang.”

“I’d say so.” Pyrrha’s worried gaze stayed locked on her. “Gods, Yang, that was too close.”

“I ain’t arguin’.” Yang pulled her hat off, scratching at her head. “...sorry. I was tryin’ to talk the kids down, then that... the woman. She showed up, kinda haughty but she seemed reasonable. Then the bastard walked in and it all went to hell from there.”

“Was he threatenin’ to kill you? Looked like it from where I was.”

“I tried to make a joke about how it was like curin’ fleas by killin’ the dog. I get the impression he was pretty interested in killin’ the dog anyways.”

“Gods.” Pyrrha rubbed her face with one hand, trying to rein in Miló as he crowhopped and snorted with the other. “‘Course we get the lunatic.”

Yang slowly steered Celica towards the riverbank, holstering the revolver. “...I’m more worried about his followers. Don’t imagine he tolerates failure well.’

Pyrrha kept pace with her easily, still controlling Miló’s anxious prancing with one hand as she stowed her rifle away. “They got away with at least two bags of dust, five if Nora didn’t catch the other ones. Don’t think I’d call that failure.”

Yang turned in the saddle to look at her. “How would you react if I jumped ‘tween you and a bandit that you’d lured out into the open?”

Pyrrha raised her eyebrows, reaching up to wipe dried blood away from her eyes. “...I admit, I’d want to have a long chat with you afterwards.”

Yang nodded, feeling a strange sort of anxiety gnawing at her gut. “Yeah. Don’t think I’d like what his definition of ‘a long talk’ is.”