December 28th, 2011
|08:36 pm - Our Grins Might Show Our Bad Teeth (pt.I) (Jun/Azula) PG-13|
Title: Our Grins Might Show Our Bad Teeth (pt.I)
Summary: Set 7 years after the finale, Jun is enlisted by Azula to track down a small band of Fire Nation loyalists. Title from Roll On Arte by The Felice Brothers.
Word Count: 3473
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender or the characters, no copyright infringement is intended
Nyla is getting old.
It's just one of the many factors working against Jun these days.
Sometimes she catches herself wishing for more crime and she might have society figured all backwards but it makes sense, for Jun at least, because more crime means more bounties means more money, which is what it always comes down to, right? So it's fine that she hopes for more cheaters, more double crossing scum, more fun.
But as it goes, business is slower, Nyla is slower, and she realizes, after stopping by a river bank so Nyla can rest and feeling her own body sag against a tree, Jun herself is slower.
This fact is an actual cause for alarm.
She only meant to spend a night in Harbor Town but before Jun realizes, one night stretches into two weeks. It's frightening how easily she falls into malaise when there are no bounties, but the wine is good, the food is cheap, and the men are dumb enough to practically throw money at her in arm wrestling matches.
Nyla sleeps outside and before bed, Jun presents her with a big steak and a bowl of water. They're in a fishing city so the ground is dry and the shrubs never stray far from the ground, as if the salt from the ocean sucks the motivation out of almost everything. Jun doesn't mind it so much, apart from the constant stench of fish, and instead watches low flying things on the horizon swoop in and out of the water, unclear of whether they're catching anything at all. There are men coming in from a day on the sea and she can almost hear their laughter mixing with the screeching of the birds on the wind. They'll be heading towards the inn for a drink, no doubt, and Jun can't help but smile and imagine which one will bet and lose the most to her.
She stretches so her back pops pleasantly before she kisses Nyla's head. Jun promises, whispers, they'll see some action soon if only they could both catch their breath.
It's not that easy.
Her father used to make it seem like bounty hunting was a much more glamorous career than it is. He'd always failed to mention how 80% of time was spent alone and the other 20% amongst criminals.
Not that Jun's complaining, she loves it, actually. Being alone is wonderful and the criminals she's meant to capture don't speak, can't move their paralyzed tongues, and the one's she's meant to bring the captured to are always interesting and, more importantly, pay well.
She just wonders if this is how her father had felt when she wasn't traveling with him, before she was born, wonders if he'd ever just gotten stuck somewhere, like there wasn't enough to be done in the world.
Jun falls asleep so that her ankles are tangled in her whip when she wakes the next morning.
Another week passes before Jun finally heads northwest towards her favorite tavern and, ostensibly, her home. She's missed the tall trees, can tell that Nyla has too, and finds herself feeling oddly sentimental before scoffing and settling down to a cup of tea.
"Any exciting stories for us?" one of the bigger regulars asks gruffly, leaning one arm heavily against her table.
"Nothing noteworthy. Now move your hand before I move it for you."
He laughs as he walks off and Jun's sigh blows the steam of her tea as far as it can travel before disappearing silently in the tavern air. There's something hopeful amongst the debauchery of the other tavern patrons and Jun figures it won't be long until her short phase of unrest, which she now attributes more to environmental circumstances and less to her age, passes.
It ends up taking exactly 24 hours.
"They say you're the best." She's casting a blurred shadow across the table from the tavern's dim candles and, after a brief rustle of robes, punctuates her statement with the heavy thud, clang of a pouch filled with gold pieces dropped unceremoniously.
Jun runs her fingernail along a groove of wood etched in the table, meeting Azula's eyes before, "And they say you went off the deep end."
She smirks then, Azula, before tilting her head down and searching Jun's face. If there's any attempt at intimidation, Jun shoots it down, meatching the stare with her own hard, unamused eyes. She's heard all the stories.
Azula grinds her molars almost imperceptibly and it puts such a distinct knot of pleasure in Jun's stomach that she grins something slimy. "Well all right then," Jun says, scoops the pouch off the table in one smooth movement (money has always been her favorite kind of punctuation) before pushing herself up and extending her arm for a handshake. "Nice to meet ya, Princess."
"Pleasure," Azula rattles off, monotone all of a sudden and looking spectacularly bored with their few seconds of conversation so far. She doesn't take Jun's hand and had it been any other customer disrespecting her, Jun would have tossed the money back and continued to enjoy her hot cup of tea, considered it vacation time. As it goes, the fallen princess of the Fire Nation's presence is compelling enough for Jun to laugh off the deliberate snub and kick a chair towards her.
"Your honor," she mocks, gesturing for Azula to sit and then motions to the waiter for another cup of tea. "So I'm assuming this money isn't just a gift in good faith."
"I left prison a month ago and found my people lazy, complacent. The Avatar has made my country soft. It is unacceptable." They're bitter, her words, and her molars grind in the other direction this time. "I traveled alone, visiting the so-called Loyalists, and found them just as unbearable. Fuddy-duddy old men who are outraged with my brother but rich enough to sit back and do nothing. One of the less useless ones told me his son had left with recruiters a few months back when they headed to the Earth Kingdom to escape my brother's stronghold against those loyal to the true Fire Lord. His jealousy is pathetic."
Across the table she looks different. Jun makes note of the lines in her skin at the corners of her eyes, the dark circles underneath, decides she can't be much older than twenty and that fact makes her stop a moment, reassess the sharpness of all of her features, and take in the age that shouldn't be on skin so young. Her bangs are uneven, not messy or unkempt, just slightly off and the imperfections make her seem more tangible than the old royal portraits or the much more recent wanted posters.
"I was told you find people when no one else can. That and you're as greedy as a bull-pig. So, you have your money. There is an army growing, I can feel it, and I need to lead it in overthrowing big brother and reclaiming my throne. Take me to it." Her words have risen steadily and when Azula finally stops to breathe she realizes the attention she's drawn to herself, chest heaving and voice wild.
"Don't worry," Jun assures, "Everyone recognizes you anyways. They're pretty much all criminals, they won't even lift their heads," and it's true, even the bartender continues on drying the dishes since no one has bothered to look up since Azula strode in exuding a sense of entitlement that completely negated her attempted peasant's disguise. "So, if I have this right, you want me to to harbor the most wanted fugitive in the entire world and aid her in joining, building, and leading an army into another war after only seven years of peace?"
Azula frowns. "And you have a problem with this?"
She licks her teeth and grins. "Nope."
"So let's begin," Azula starts, standing swiftly and poised, and now her face is keen and fierce, lips quirked in single-minded determination. She looks better like this, Jun decides, can almost imagine what she might've been like years ago in bloody burgundies and royal golds as opposed to the pale greens and dusty taupes of her Earth Kingdom disguise, before hospital linens and prison uniforms.
"Slow down there, Ms. Eager Beaver-bear. First, I need a smell sample for my shirshu to track."
"Here," she spits and throws the handkerchief of the Fire Nation recruitee on the table, not bothering to sit again.
"Second, my pay is a bit steeper than this, no offense to this century's biggest war criminal on the loose."
"That can be arranged."
Jun tries to imagine what that means. Probably Azula pillaging villages in the moonlight, returning with sacks of stolen gold and silver. She finds she's not opposed to the idea in the slightest.
"Good. And third, we'll leave tomorrow. No sense in starting so late." It's amusing, Azula's impatience then, the way she breathes in through her nose and tries to steel herself against that particular bad news, as if she actually expected to leave in the middle of the night. "Problem?"
Azula lies, "No," and it's maybe the exact moment that Jun decides Azula's alleged insanity might actually be worth the unparalleled drive she's just been presented with.
"Look, it might be late, but I figure, between the two of us, we may be able to make some good money yet," Jun tips her head to the left signaling towards the current arm wrestling match taking place at the center table. "What do you say, Princess? Think you can handle it?"
From below, Jun can see Azula's neck strain as she twists her head to watch the game. When she turns back and locks gold eyes on grey, the predatory grin that plays across Azula's face is almost frighteningly similar to her own.
Jun really likes that.
They end up making enough money for several rounds of drinks (alcohol is for idiots, Azula had said, to which Jun had laughed throatily before agreeing with a smile) and one of the nicer rooms for Azula. It's a good night as far as Jun is concerned.
"You know," the Princess starts, "I'm beginning to admire the flexibility of your moral compass."
Jun quirks her head.
"It's a compliment, take it now because you won't be receiving any others."
It should feel like a beginning with the way tomorrow looms ahead of them both and part of Jun thinks she should mark it as such, a toast to the beauty of starts or some such nonsense, but it really all just feels like part of the same middle that Jun has spent the majority of her years wafting through.
She rather likes this middle, is Jun's final decision, before raising her cup to mostly herself. "To compliments," she toasts, downing the entire rice wine in one gulp.
When she wakes, Jun feels the effects of last night on her like a layer of dirt. Her right arm is sore, the muscle tight in her shoulder, and her mind has the dull throb of a slight hangover. Nothing overwhelming, Jun manages, but her feet feel very heavy against the warped boards of the wooden floor.
When she washes up she finds that she is also covered in an actual layer of dirt. "To beginnings," she mutters, and stretches out her arm.
Azula isn't in her room, Jun learns as much after pounding steadily on her door, so she heads outside to greet Nyla on her own, waking her up with a soft scratch to her belly and a quick pat on the head. The weather hasn't turned but Jun can feel fall approaching when a swift breeze hits the back of her neck in a surprise. It's then that she looks out into the trees and sees Azula doing a chain of push-ups.
Whatever similarities might have existed in the haze of the night disappear soberly in the light of day. Azula is a morning person. Jun should've expected as much.
"Hey!" she shouts, and Azula's head turns and eyes narrow to spot Jun from her distance. She's paused mid-push-up, elbows jutting out in threatening angles, and even Jun will concede that it's just a little bit scary. Jumping up with ease, Azula strolls in a straight line towards Jun and Nyla, and upon reaching them, wipes her forehead of sweat with the back of her forearm. "Good morning," Jun taunts as she prepares the saddle on Nyla's back.
"Good afternoon," Azula corrects derisively before passing them completely and from inside the tavern, shouting, "I've been waiting for hours."
Jun squints at the sun with that, figures it's not even all that late, before shrugging and offering Nyla breakfast with a scratch behind her ear.
When Azula returns, she's fully prepared, and her pack sits squarely across her back. "I've wasted the last seven years of my life, I will not tolerate wasting anymore time."
Jun can't argue with this logic of course, understands the rush to some extent, and doesn't mind the fact that Azula is still somewhat sweaty when they climb up and take off, following some invisible but real path leading Jun away from the warm familiarity of tall conifers.
There is the sound of wind, of twigs breaking beneath Nyla's paws, and of the occasional sniff she gives the air. Mostly they ride in silence.
Azula runs through her breathing exercises, deep inhales and slow exhales. Jun can't see her but imagines her eyes are closed, balanced perfectly atop the moving beast, hands braced against the saddle, stopping occasionally to peek one eye open and take in the surroundings.
At one point Jun reaches back and, with the crack of her whip, can feel Azula's breath against her straining shoulder. She sets her eyes and they continue moving forward.
Nyla is getting older.
It's just one of the many factors working against Jun and Azula on this trip.
After traveling south along the shoreline, they end up having to stop after only a few hours at a smaller town several miles inland. Azula is less than happy. Jun can't blame her.
"Look," Jun tries, "We'll get lunch somewhere. You can have something hot and then maybe you can quit your little temper tantrum, all right?"
Azula's eyebrow arches sharply in a challenge. Jun is losing her patience.
When she receives no response, Jun huffs, "Fine," and turns to head for the small restaurant herself. She wants to crack her whip simply to see Azula's reaction but thinks better of it.
She sits down to a bowl of soup and it's not long before Azula joins her. "It seems like your smelly animal isn't the only one who's getting on in years, is she?" And it's vicious, the way Azula speaks, but it's veiled in simple curiosity. "How's your shoulder?"
"Fine," Jun mumbles, like it's the only word she can say anymore, and resigns herself to the hot meal, deciding to hide any other weakness like some vulgar secret.
Lunch lifts her spirits considerably, she's not sure the same can be said for Azula, but when they leave the restaurant Jun feels much better about the situation.
Nyla looks well rested and as they cross the center of the town, something catches Jun's eye. "The resemblance is uncanny," she says, pointing towards the wanted poster that's plastered on the wooden message board.
Azula looks at it thoughtfully before smirking. "It doesn't look like me at all."
"You should take it, like a souvenir. You can make a scrapbook," Jun jokes and it actually makes Azula snort.
It's as her short laughter subsides that Jun makes one of her bigger mistakes and, like it's a reflex, she licks her lips when her eyes roll over the listed reward money for Azula's capture. She can't help it, the amount has recently been raised, and her eyes dart towards the younger woman. She'd be rich.
The moment passes when Azula looks at her and something like recognition silently crosses her face. Her eyes narrow and it's apparent she's sizing Jun up, calculating how trustworthy she is, how linearly her lusts run.
Jun quickly snatches the poster down and shoves it in Azula's hand. "I mean it, you should keep it."
They head back towards Nyla and Jun wonders if she's passed her test, almost offended she's being tested at all.
They make camp in the woods as the sun sets that evening.
It's impossible to tell how far the loyalist army is from their current location, she tells Azula as much, and therefore the trip can take another day or another week. Even Jun doesn't like the sound of this news as it rolls off her tongue.
They fall asleep in their respective tents. As if they are both holding their breath, there's an impatient tension that lingers throughout the night.
Pine needles are pressed to Jun's cheek when she wakes. She remembers why she hates sleeping outdoors.
She stretches when she crawls out of the tent and looks around briefly before spotting Azula a few yards off doing some sort of exercise. She doesn't bother calling out to her this time and instead focuses on twisting the skull adornment onto her top-knot. She settles down on a rock and resigns herself to simply watching the firebending from a distance. The atmosphere quivers in little waves with the heat of every punch, every kick.
It's quite nice, Jun thinks, to be able to see the effects without the flames ever making it so far over to her, like she's involved without any risk.
When Azula strolls past the tent minutes later, satisfied with her morning workout, Jun is struck with the familiar sting of body odor from the young woman. "Woo! You know, if I'm going to have to wake up to this stench every morning I think I might have to raise my prices."
"What?" Azula turns on her heel and asks. Quick movements do nothing to help the situation.
Her left eye twitches and her nostrils flare in a display of irrational anger before the complete eruption: "Princesses do not smell!" Jun can't help but look surprised; it's off-putting, how quickly the scene has turned hostile, but almost immediately Azula presses her eyes shut, breathes in deep, her lips quirking with silent words meant only for herself. "I do not smell," she tries again, this time much more calm, regaining control. Her eye still twitches.
Jun cocks her head in curiosity: things have just gotten interesting. She's not sure testing Azula right now is the best idea but, well, it's an experiment. "Then I'd like to hear what exactly you call that lovely little odor."
Her words like a whip, "Honor. Discipline. Principles you have no concept of."
"Why, dear Jun, in the two days I've known you I've seen you drink your weight in rice wine, sleep away half the morning, and..." she trails off as she watches Jun dig around in her pack and produce a small pouch. "And smoke a pipe. You smoke. How cliché."
Jun can't help but laugh at Azula's syrupy sweet voice of genuflection. "Yes, and I don't have a match. Care to help?" Jun takes a seat back on the rock and starts pinching the tobacco into the bowl, grinning amusedly towards Azula. She gives the whole thing a shake, extending it towards the firebender.
Azula rolls her eyes but walks over anyways, sticks her index finger into the bowl a little too roughly, and Jun watches it heat, puffs in, sees the embers start to glow, and notices a bead of sweat start to roll down Azula's arm from the inside of her elbow. It stops short on the back of her hand and Jun exhales her smoky thanks as Azula retracts and starts picking at her nail.
"You know, you're actually really funny, when you want to be," Jun analyzes, takes a deep puff for effect. "Anyone ever told you that?"
"Of course," she responds without missing a beat, "You're not so clever." She walks off then, Azula, done with their exchange, and Jun thinks she might see the corner of her mouth twitch up in a hesitant smile with her turn.
Jun bites her lip: things have gotten very interesting.
Something close to luck greets them that afternoon. Nyla has circled a particular clearing twice now and Jun sighs in relief. They're close.
"Look," she says, getting Azula's attention from behind, "Nyla's getting twitchy. It means we should be reaching your little army soon."
"Finally," Azula mumbles, but her voice reveals a timbre of excitement that makes Jun's own chest light up warm.
It's not much, not even a promise, but it's enough that something shifts.
Oh dear. This is gonna end in tears for Jun and Azula, isn't it?
It's a different sort of take on the usual "Azula leads a post-war rebellion" type story, because the tone so far is one of a world that has passed our protagonists by. It's a bit like Jun and Azula are quarterbacks who don't want to admit their high school glory days are long over. June's gotten old enough that she can't do what she used to, and something's still gotta be wrong with Azula for her to let stuff like her BO slip like that. The fact this rebel army is out in the middle of nowhere doesn't strike me as suggesting a very effective fighting force. Plus it's been a solid seven years after the war ended and not much longer since a peace settlement was made. Azula might hate those rich anti-Zuko folks for not supporting her, but it's been long enough for them to adjust to the new world order.
this great! where's part 2?