A/N: Title from a line in Justin Cronin's The Passage. A:TLA, as always, is not mine.
Jun's earliest memory is of her father's fingers in ash.
"You are born of earth and fire," he tells her, taking her into his arms. "Never forget."
She nods. Later, she traces the strokes of gray along her collarbone with a solemnity that feels older than she will ever be.
She doesn't have a head for Pai Sho, but she knows one pattern in particular better than the going rate for a Fire Nation fugitive. Her father challenges her again and again until she can build it from both sides of the board, backwards and forwards, or maybe not—she never cared to learn the rules that went with the game, so she can't really say.
The point being, in addition to having floored most anyone who's ever set foot in an Earth Kingdom tavern, Jun can also perfectly recreate a Pai Sho series that she's pretty sure has nothing to do with winning but that her father assured her had everything to do with finding friends in the right places. Too bad she never plays.
The lotus tile's kind of cute, so she hangs on to it anyway.
She has a list of clients that would make the Fire Lord blush (for more reasons than his family being on it in the first place). Her buyers run the gamut from court favorites to slum queens, but the better part of her jobs are low profile enough to pass by the right side of the law.
That doesn't change the fact she's broken bones and teeth, drunk kingpins twice her size under the table, and made something of a habit of being on first name basis with men and women that should have died years ago. She takes a sort of pride in the no holds barred reputation that comes with the history. The occasional free swig doesn't hurt either.
"Your mother was supposed to teach you this," her father tells her one day, en route to a client, one of the few she hasn't met yet. Her opinion of her father's clients (formerly stingy, obnoxious, condescending) has considerably improved (now rich, stingy, obnoxious, condescending) post the addition of one pet shirshu to their inventory—just big enough to carry her, when he isn't bucking her off into the bushes—so she keeps her stare politely blank. Plus, her mother's involved, and if Jun's learned anything in her life so far, it's that all things so much as remotely related to her mother were more delicate than prayer beads.
The man her father eventually greets is thin and prematurely gray, but June can make out a sharpness to him, clear as the knots of bone and muscle that peak out from under his tattered robes. Perched atop Nyla, she tries to make sense of what bits of conversation reach her ears ("a remarkable woman," in her father's voice, "too young," in the man's) before her father motions her over.
The man spends the next few days shooting flames at her, trapping her in firestorms, and otherwise coming uncomfortably close to scorching her skin under the ostensible banner of training her to hold her own against a firebender. Both he and her father are maddeningly vague on why exactly she needs this particular skill, and besides, a cage of fire is hardly the place to be asking questions, so Jun bites her tongue, chalks it up to her mother, and learns.
(By the time a cackling old man with an abnormally large eye teaches her five ways to take down an earthbender, Jun stops asking questions altogether.)
Between avatars and banished princes, a disheveled man with hands too soft for someone claiming to have grown up in Ba Sing Se's Lower Ring shouldn't stand out. He offers to buy her a drink when she smoothes over a would-be robbery on his behalf. "For future reference," she says, watching him blow at his tea, "trying to understand thieves mid-heist is a quick way to an early grave."
His facts add up when she presses: the son of a blacksmith, born and raised in the middle of a district known for its weapons and armor. He drops the names of all the right shops and taverns, but there's distance to his descriptions, like he's retelling a story from the distant past—someone's experiences, true, but not his own.
"It must be different," she offers, "now that the city's fallen."
"That's true," he replies cheerfully. "I suppose you could say I lost everything. But I think it was for the best."
For a moment, Jun tries to place him to one of the many faces littering the latest batch of wanted posters. He's not stiff enough to be military, not guarded enough for politics. A part of her wants to ask, but she settles for "You're taking exile surprisingly well."
His smile turns wistful. "I wouldn't mind drinking to that."
(In all honesty, it's the bear that stays with her more than anything else. Nyla agrees.)
Jun can map out the lines of a war that no one else can see.
She stopped keeping a running tally of the all the gold-eyed boys in Earth Kingdom green years ago. The battles run long, longer than any enlistment promises, and not everyone has their hopes and dreams riding on victory.
She keeps quiet when she sees flashes of fire too big for any match in refugee camps. Deserters pay well, and honor among thieves doesn't come cheap. They're consistent too, always hiring out the same hands with a reliability that bureaucrats and nobles can never manage.
A few of the hunters call it loyalty. Jun calls them romantics. Some people can't afford enemies.
She's not in the habit of being in the employ of royalty, least of all teenaged princes with profound anger management issues, but it's the Avatar, and even she's curious as to what he's been up to for the past hundred years.
So after spending the better part of the hunt wanting to deck one of her employers out cold senility be damned, she finally comes face to face with a bright-eyed orange blur who bobs around Nyla's tongue with an abandon better suited to a game of tag. She's not all that surprised when he leaves her paralyzed in the arms of a man three times her age and makes his escape. She likes to think she leaves the experience older and wiser, or at any rate, with an idea of how exactly some snot-nosed brat has managed to avoid capture at the hands of more than a few trained naval officers.
It's one thing to recognize the Avatar is a twelve year old boy; it's another thing entirely to understand what that means. She wonders how long the novelty will last. He's not the first kid with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
There are places that earth kings and water tribe chiefs can't touch: places where people could care less about where you're from or who your family is. The war's there, same as the ground below or the sky above, but no one bats an eye at all the freedom fighters with more blood on their hands than the Dragon of the West himself, the Water Tribe bandits with contraband that makes Fire Nation pirates look amateur.
Jun could fight the war if she wanted, but she couldn't forget its shadows.
Sometimes she tries to remember her mother. The most she usually draws up is long nails and calloused palms. If she's lucky she rouses a lullaby that's always cut short. She comes close to asking her father about it once, but never quite makes the jump.
As far as the newly re-established Four Nations (and whether one person can constitute a nation is still hotly contested) are concerned, Jun doesn't exist. If there's any mention of her, it's in the seafaring logs of a newly crowned Fire Lord who knows better than to have records of a bounty hunter on his payroll. All the paper trails in the world couldn't lead back to her, and she likes it that way.
There are benefits to being a girl from nowhere.