I have no business starting another story. Really, I don't. Like, you don't even know how much I don't.
If your time ain't nothing but money, I start to feel really bad for you, honey.
Understandably, June had been wary about taking jobs from Fire Nation clients after that whole business with Creepy Grandpa and Angry Boy, especially nobility types. The thing with that though, she was cutting herself off from some serious cash, which she was in desperate need of; there was this shop in Olkina that had these boots…
So when this uptight lieutenant of the Fire Folk persuasion presented a case about some supposed spy or traitor, June considered it. When they agreed to pay her – extremely inflated – price, she accepted. Find a man by the name of Nezumi and bring him in alive. He wasn't a bender or much skilled with a weapon, to hear them talk.
It was bound to be an easy job.
That's what she thought anyway.
Piandao sat against the wall and thought about his locale. He was never sure whether he liked the Earth Kingdom or not. It wasn't quite that he minded the differences most days or the people generally, and the climate was much less humid here. However, in the Fire Nation, he didn't have quite as many as the bad feelings he'd experienced earlier that afternoon. The feeling was akin to walking on along a quiet path, sun shining, birds singing, a Yu Yan archer has an arrow aimed for the head.
He'd scanned the forest on either side of him. Of course there had been no Yu Yan, probably; the area was too far out of their territory. It hadn't been exactly that feeling but close. He'd felt this before but couldn't identify it. The memory had glided at the edge of his mind, and he'd worried for a moment. He wasn't old enough for this!
His ostrich horse had chattered, prancing to the left side of the road. Piandao murmured to his mount, glad that at least it seemed to agree with him and he wasn't in fact going senile and paranoid. Before he could ponder the thought that he preferred his premonitions to be confirmed by a dumb animal than believe he was going senile, he been abruptly reminded precisely what the feeling was. It was the forewarning that something hungry for blood and gold was breathing down his neck. It had been some years, before his stand in Shu Jing, since anyone had actively tried to hunt him. He couldn't be blamed for forgetting.
One thing he hadn't forgotten was to strike the first blow. Whenever a fight was inevitable – and the feral grin on her face and slobbering jaws of her animal convinced him this one was – hit first. If she hadn't ducked, then it would have been a remarkably short confrontation.
The woman was young, skilled, and ruthless, but with some effort, he'd bested her. He looked across to the other cell at her and the dark bruise at her hairline, shallow cut on her throat, and dark, glaring eyes. He'd been worried for a minute when her shirshu's tongue had tagged his ostrich horse and thought for sure it was going to eat the thing. All of his clothes were packed onto the saddle.
Fighting a woman was a change of pace from the hardened, grizzled, ugly men and stupid, young idiots he usually went up against. Aside from being good looking, this one had gotten him to work up a sweat, although a large part of that came from trying to avoid being trampled by her temperamental monster. She handled the bullwhip with a skill that reminded him of Ogodei and his chains. He didn't understand having a whip or chains as a weapon of choice, but it seemed if someone wanted to learn how to expertly kill with tea cup, they'd call it a weapon too. However, Piandao would admit that she was skilled with it – probably as much as one could be with a pastoral tool – and sported the cuts and bruises to show for it. In fact, there was one on his cheek that was probably becoming infectious as he sat in the stale-aired cell.
After that cut though, he'd stopped playing around and put an end to it. With one fluid motion, she'd gone down on her back, and he'd rested his sword at the juncture of her neck and shoulder. With a slight movement, it'd be off with her head. If looks could kill though, she would have won this right there.
She'd tensed and a familiar look came to her eyes. It was the look men had gotten when they thought 'Maybe, just maybe, I can take him'.
Piandao rather disliked killing women. Chivalrous or chauvinist, he hardly cared for labels.
"I wouldn't," he'd warned. "No need to get that pretty neck cut, is there?"
And about then, the patrol decided to how up – why did the cavalry always come when everything was over? – and arrest her. And him too, for whatever reason. He'd tried to tell them it wasn't a domestic dispute. Fortunately, they didn't know who he was; his wanted posters had gotten his nose completely wrong. The overgrown beard helped that too.
At any rate, he wouldn't be here long. By tomorrow or maybe before, he would be well on his way. There was still plenty of time to make the meeting within the week. Simple, but not necessarily easy. That woman could be a problem. Actually, she was already a problem. It was her fault that he even had to put up with this delay. Her and her shirshu.
And now the woman was glaring venom and barbwire at him. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Those were the two reasons he usually avoided small talk, but it was already there so maybe it'd be less so if he tried it.
"So…I didn't catch your name before."
She gave him a rude gesture. Then the woman turned away from him and stared at the wall, pouting and ignoring him. Piandao rolled his eyes.
"Right. Not in a talkative mood. That's perfectly understandable. However, I was wondering about my ostrich horse here, and how long his paralysis will last. I'd rather not have to buy another one if it's not permanent."
She stared at Piandao blankly for a moment.
Well, that was helpful.
"Whatever. And for the record, if those earthbenders hadn't stepped in, I would have taken you down."
"Of course," he agreed quickly.
Maybe he was being condescending, just a little.
"Don't patronize me."
"I'm not." Oh, yes, he was. "Oh, no, not at all. You had me at your complete mercy. Except for when I had my blade at your throat."
"That only happened because of the earthbenders."
He couldn't help but smirk a little. Not to be arrogant, but did she know who he was? He would admit that she was good, but he was better. Age and experience had its upside, after all.
"Whatever you say."
Her glare would have leveled a lesser man. It just made Piandao want to antagonize her more. He resisted the temptation but smiled wider.
June still hadn't quite figured out how the situation had gone so wrong so fast. A large caterpillar roach scrambled out of a hole, and she squashed it with a tin cup.
She hated bugs. She was beginning to hate Fire Nation clients even more though. Not skilled with a weapon, he said.
Nezumi probably wasn't his name either. She would see that lieutenant pay for the misinformation, if not in gold then with his teeth. June didn't know about other bounty hunters, but she took being lied to personally.
Nezumi. He looked familiar, but she could swear she'd never met him before. Nothing terribly memorable about him other than his height. Maybe from a wanted poster, maybe, but nothing clear came to mind.
What else had that sneaky little rat not told her?
The swordsman hadn't batted an eye when she and Nyla first approached him, but his ostrich horse had frozen for a moment. Nyla tagged it and down he went.
She'd dismounted, and before she could take a step forward, the swordsman had taken a swing at her, she'd ducked, and he'd cut Nyla. Baby kinda got a little…hysterical about it and threw a hissy fit – and that was why Dad had said keeping the 'mangy fluff ball' was a bad idea and how she 'better not come cryin' to him when it stepped on her'.
It was embarrassing, actually. First losing to a bunch of kids who'd barely hit puberty and getting beat by an old man. She didn't know if she was losing her touch, but she'd determined that after this one, there would be no more Fire Nation jobs.
She actually meant it this time.
The fight was something like a blur, and she remembered snatches of it here and there. At one point, she'd been doing really well, but looking back, it seemed like he'd been toying with her. The next moment - and she still has no clue how - she'd landed on her back in the dirt about to get her head cut off.
Then a couple of boondock cops decided that they would detain the whole lot. If she'd behaved rather than kick that one, she probably could have gotten out of it. She'd been in no mood to play the coy little woman though. Despite the earthbenders, he'd beaten her. Because of the earthbenders, she'd been saved having to own up to that loss.
But she had lost.
And now she was going to have to kill that man. Reputations had died over less. In her business, reputation was everything. If it helped her pride at all, well, that would be a plus too. The lieutenant had said dead or alive, hadn't he?
Ugh. What have I done?