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August 20, 2013
Riding on the back of a Shirshu was a tremulous experience, and as they were very hard to tame, few had ever had the chance. June, however, had never had any trouble getting used to it. Ever since her father got her one as a present all those years ago, she and Nyla had rarely been apart. A bounty hunter himself, June's dad had nearly thrown Nyla to the gutter when he received the creature in a payment for a bounty instead of cash. The town authority had neglected to inform him that his village was broke before the job was done, but June took to the new animal immediately and her father passed it onto her as a present. She named the shirshu Nyla after her mother, despite the fact that it was a male.
When June came of age, she followed in her father's footsteps and became a bounty hunter. By this time, having already been under his tutelage for years, she performed her job at the level of one twice her age with experience. Nevertheless, she now neglected one of the lessons he had taught her never to take assassination jobs, as he said bounty hunting was more. But now, at the top of her game, June could never pass up such a large bounty just to abide by old advice. Now in the Fire Nation, she was following Nyla's lead toward this "Nookyazu" person, or rather the woman from the Earth Kingdom disguised as him. June laughed quietly to herself at the thought, and wondered what this target had done to make her want to flee to the other side of the world and impersonate a man. In the end, this would not matter, since Nyla would sense her anywhere regardless and June would make sure her employers would not be disappointed. They never were.
The Prince of the Fire Nation noticed that the passersby did not recognize him as he paced through the streets of Gangkouz, looking about with both hands folded behind his back. Although they all probably knew his face from drawings of members of the royal family, they would not be used to seeing him as the elites in the heart of Royal Caldera City back in the capital. It was also not often that Lu Ten found himself on his own time, with no duties or scheduled firebending training to occupy his time. He was used to having his firebending talents called legendary, and his grandfather the Fire Lord attributed this to his bloodline. Even his father spoke of his natural talent, but Lu Ten knew that it was his extraordinary teachers and training that made him who he was, and that was a reality only he himself understood.
Although unaccustomed to not having a plan, Lu Ten was grateful for the change. After rising from bed early, he did his daily hot squats out of habit and meditated without guide or supervision. When his father went off to meet in private with other high-ranking military operatives, Lu Ten just knew that it would be a long delay before he saw him again. Then he had wandered out of Old Kao's apartment in a simple under-tunic and set off to find something new for himself on the streets of the city, like a fallen red leaf blowing in the wind, uncertain of its destination at the start of the season. It was not everyday that he had the chance to do normal things with normal people, and the alleys of Gangkouz were becoming his calling.
None of the guards even stole a second glance at Ratana as she strolled through the city gates, back in her disguise and in a tide of other Fire Nation civilians. Without a clue where to travel to next, she had decided to return to Gangkouz for now, despite the abysmal streak of luck she had had there. With the sun fresh in the sky, the earthbender got a proper look at the square around her, including a towering statue she had neglected to notice on her way out the night before. The stone was eroded and the stone was not as smooth as the badgermole statue outside the Museum of Ba Sing Se, but the figure depicted appeared to be regal. Above the inscription at the bottom, there was a design that reminded her of a solar eclipse. Ratana thought that ironic, considering that firebenders were weakened during eclipses. As she was taking a closer look, a voice from behind startled her.
"Nookyazu!" she heard a high-pitched male voice calling her cover name. "Hey Nookyazu, over here." The speaker was a greasy-haired young man in a sleeveless tan shirt. Noticing that he was scrawny save for the arms, Ratana thought he might be tougher than he looked at first glance.
"Oh...umm...hi," the Terra Team earthbender greeted him. Ratana had almost forgotten that Nookyazu was a real Fire Nation citizen who disappeared. "How are you?"
"I'm good," said the man. "It's been so long since I've seen you in Khomin Square. You look different. Did you lose weight or something?"
Ratana could tell that this man who had known the actual Nookyazu was not very bright if he had not noticed she was a completely different person except for the hair and the clothing. "Yeah, that must be it. I lost weight."
"How did you escape?" he questioned her further.
"Escape from where?" Ratana wondered to herself. "When they weren't looking," she told him, blank-faced.
Her new companion raised an eyebrow with surprised skepticism. "Ummm..alright. That sounds odd, given where it was you were. What does it matter, though. You're back in town, and the boss has a job he needs an extra guy for. You in?"
Ratana felt her heart sinking, as she had no desire to waste any more time. "Sure," she replied, not wanting to arouse any more suspicion. She proceeded to trail after the man around one of the corners and down a thin alleyway with a crimson door at the opposite end. Inside was a vast supply of fresh vegetables, wine and tea. It was what appeared to be a storage backroom for a restaurant.
The sleeveless man pushed aside a crate, revealing a trap door, then proceeded to lift it up. At the bottom was a long, trench-like hallway with another door at the end. Ratana had never found out what line of work Nookyazu had been in, but she now had the urge to leave. She was clearly not where she needed to be, and there were most certainly no dragons down here.
"You're late," an older, fatter man berated the new arrivals on their way in. He was sitting at a table on his own, with three other rugged people about him.
"I brought company," the guy from Khomin Square responded, gesturing to Ratana.
The sitting man narrowed his eyes. "I thought they sent you to the coal mines, Nookyazu."
"I'm back now," Ratana replied shortly.
"Well, I was hoping for better when I asked you to bring extra manpower," the sitting man added to the man who brought her in. "I suppose he'll do, but don't be as clumsy as you were last time!"
"Understood," said Ratana, feeling now more out-of-place than ever.
"Listen carefully," he continued. "Yan, the butcher down by the harbor has been stiffing on his debt to me, and others under our protection in his neighborhood have taken notice. An example needs to be made before anything gets out of hand." His words were greeted by four sharp nods by the others in the room. "You'll notice that some things have changed while you've been away," he added to Ratana. "Just do what my new main man Jiro tells you."
"Is Jiro on his way?" Ratana asked.
The sleeveless, scrawny man whom she met at Khomin Square spun about in disbelief. "'I'm Jiro."
"Oh," she replied, her mouth fading. "Right." Ratana could've kicked herself at this point, but the way the man had said it, she assumed that he meant someone who wasn't there yet. Her insides turned to ice, realizing she had gotten too comfortable in her disguise. "I guess I forgot."
"How do you forget that?" her former companion, now revealed to be Jiro, questioned her.
"I must've hit my head pretty heard when they made me work in the coal mines," Ratana said slowly, now having lost her calm. Her facial expression was now betraying her as well, even save everything else. "I forgot a lot of things."
Before anyone else could say anything, a rough, urgent knock came from the other side of the door. "Boss, there's someone upstairs for you. It looks like the authorities."
"Crud!" The chubby man rose from his chair and hurried after the messenger. "Everyone wait here while I handle this." With that, he slammed the door shut once again, leaving Ratana and his four employees behind.
The now more out-of-place than ever Terra Team earthbender stared around at the four sets of eyes on her. As the others assumed their fighting stances, Jiro stepped right in front of Ratana, so that they were toe-to-toe. "You're not Nookyazu at all, are you?"
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