The days before the war smell like soft cotton skirts clutched against his nose, thick with tallow and lye from the last week's wash. They are framed by the shadow of a tall, dark-haired figure, who could pick him up and carry him around the circumference of his known world. They feel like the soft white scar tissue on the base of his thumb – a vague and formless burn, pressed into his skin by the handle of his mother's iron.
That flesh is long healed over. The sensation is gone.
At the end of a hard day's sabotage, the new recruits ask Jet what his childhood was like, hoping to figure out the contours of this mythical 'freedom' that they're all supposed to be striving for. They cannot conceive of a world without soldiers on the street-corners.
Jet tells them that he remembers the absence of pain.
Their old nanny goat-pig's milk went sour in early spring. Papa had been renting her to Mister Minh and his wife, who lived on the next farm down the road, but their baby's breath was stolen so they had no longer had any need of the animal. Everyone knew that the crib-deaths were taken by the spirits of the wind, lonely for company in their forgotten temples. Mama said that the infant's passing tainted everything it touched.
Hien had been feeding Nanny apples since he was old enough to walk.
On market-day Papa led the goat-pig home unsold. Her legs were boney and her eyes rheumatic. He had Hien take her out back while he got his work knife from the barn shed. Hien was getting big enough to learn the family trades. He watched carefully when Papa slid the knife across her throat and emptied her life's blood all over the star-bright snow. After they peeled away her skin but the fat remained, stretched across raw red muscle like the white rind on a festival orange.
Hien's father looks much the same when a Fire Nation pole-arm slices the flesh of his back clean off. His pitchfork clatters down onto the gravel. He makes a gurgling sound in the back of his throat that is not bleating. When Hien leans forward Papa smells like blood and excrement.
Bodies are bodies.
The soldiers circle on their mounts.
"Only resisters die - Commander Lu Ten's orders. So get the hell out of here before the main force marches through," one of them tells him. "You're free to go, kid."
Hien guesses that his eyes are blurry with tears, and he has to breathe through his mouth because his nose is clogged up with snot. The sensation of weeping seems far too distant to be real.
He has already made his escape.
When the other displaced children fished a kill out of their rudimentary trap-lines, they skewered it on a stick and placed it over the fire whole.
Hien was studying.
The pocketknife was dull. He found it on the ground, in the rubble of an abandoned Earth Kingdom outpost. He had to saw at the tendons when he was de-boning. The flesh did not separate cleanly, clinging tenaciously to the skeleton beneath. His arms weren't strong enough and the knack for deconstruction did not come to them by instinct.
This was the way to learn about bodies. Fleshy, solid, well-muscled bodies – not the scrappy skinny prey the others caught.
"Where do you get all those chicken-pigs? The army took all that stuff."
Hien did not think that little Van the milliner's son wanted to know what he had to do in the army outpost, in order to get his hands on four chicken-pigs.
"What do you think happens to us if we can't get through the front, to the King's camps?"
"W-what do you mean?"
Hien tested the edge of his knife blade against the skin on the pad of his thumb. He could feel the ball of the joint just underneath, supple with cartilage.
Maybe the knack was coming after all.
"We're different, Van," Hien finally said. Here in the woods north of the village there were no adults. No rules, no guidelines, no maps, and no inheritance. They were free, free to go, except. "You're still afraid."
Van stomped off to another fire, looking like Hien just stole his favorite toy.
Hien felt a little smug about it. He wanted Van to come back so that they could replay the scene all over again.
Jet the broker had talented hands. They weren't as small as they used to be, nor as delicate, but he got by. He was clever with locks and easily unlaced the nets that the army used to hold spare food in the treetops.
It didn't matter how much time Jet spent alone, stalking the byways. A boy with supplies was never lacking for friends.
"Tell us more about your adventures!" The little girl clapped, hands sticky with the toffee that Jet took from a passing caravan of profiteers.
The other children stare at him expectantly. Jet's voice had only just broken, but he already felt infinitely taller and stronger and more wise to the world than these kids. He strutted experimentally across the clearing.
"That's not for you to know," Jet declared. Trade secrets were trade secrets. The little girlie would up and get herself hurt if she tried to copy Jet's methods.
His crowd stirred unhappily.
"But listen," Jet lowered his voice and knelt down so that he was eye-level with the kidlets. The adults were over by their wagons, putting all the nice things Jet brought for them back under lock and key. They wouldn't hear him even if he shouted. "There isone secret I can tell you."
The adults thought that he had no more wares to pedal. Jet was beginning to realize how very wrong they were.
"Hey, come on," one little boy complained, when Jet let the silence lie fallow for too long.
"Where are you guys running from?" Jet asked.
"Xiaobin," the girl swallowed. "Mommy says the Fire Nation's going to Ba Sing Se, so they're not gonna attack Omashu province at the same time. We gotta go to live with my Auntie in Hakone."
Jet shook his head, slowly, drawing out the children's attention. He'd savor the scraps later when he was back by his lonesome, stalking some new band of suckers.
Jet was a rumor, a wraith around the supply routes, but right now they were making him real.
"Two years ago folks like you were running to Xiaobin."
Jet smiled, benevolently.
"Look, what you've got to understand is that all adults are part of the war, one way or other. If you want to leave all that behind you can't ask them to save you."
He pulled another toffee out of his pocket and gave it to the girl. In the distance the adults argued over rationing, foolishly optimistic enough to think they'd live long enough for it to matter. Rules and plans made flimsy fences when the wolves are at the door. Jet figured that out the first time he stumbled across the front.
"Haven't you ever wanted to be free?"
Some days Jet killed them. Some days he didn't.
Today he swung one of his hooks so that it pierced clean through the soldier's armored boot. A flick of his wrist and he could feel his enemy's Achilles tendon straining desperately against metal, fighting with all the resilience it had until the delicate tissue finally shredded and snapped.
Jet's enemy fell to the ground in a heap. Like all the others.
"Will you remember me?" Jet asked, conversationally, because he needed this man to send a message. The leg strike Jet used to cripple him was too extravagant for regular use. Standing in place like that would have gotten him killed if the rest of the platoon was not already dead.
The soldier groaned.
"Will you remember? Because you're free to go."
His new companions stood sentry on the perimeter. The corpses of the Fire Nation soldiers rejoiced silently in their emancipation, their cracked bones raised up in supplication to the sun. An Earth Kingdom scout had happened upon the battle. He was dead as well, his bare feet bloody in the shoal of sand he thought would save him.
Jet whirled, theatrically, in salute a to his comrades. They were few but they were enough and they were bleeding out of the trees to join him.
"We're not animals, you know. We're liberators."
In the gaps between the carcasses, the ruins of the old-world order, there were a space where ugly girls are respected and the mute weren't disabled and a boy could be anything he wanted. Anyone he wanted.
The surviving soldier's eyes were sewn closed with tears. Jet was not surprised. Adults were blind to his grand vision.
"Am I the… I mean, have you had other… um…" The other teen flushed. He wouldn't look Jet in the face. Wouldn't even say the words.
Stripped of his armaments and ragged homespun pants, this so-called Earth Kingdom soldier was really only a boy.
Not like Jet.
"You should be quiet," Jet advised him, without malice. His lips twisted suggestively around the stalk of wheat he'd taken to carrying around with him – a signature affectation. "Who do you think you're talking to?"
Jet was a Freedom Fighter.
The warrior held the boy's shoulders in place with one hand, pressing him back into the tree so that he won't buck. Jet's other hand was busy with working over the boy's cock. His conquest's breath grew hitched and erratic, and the moment of Jet's pleasure was the moment of his triumph, when the boy's universe narrowed to the singular sensation of Jet's hands on his body.
"I can make you forget."
"You wanna run that by me again, Jackalope? I can't say as I know where you're coming from." Jet grinned around a blade of grass, unconsciously worrying the stem with his incisors. "A no-account guy like me might not have the education to get where you're going with this."
Jet didn't bother looking at Jackie. This was naptime, the air was hot and sticky with heavy mid-afternoon sunlight, and Jet was damned if he was going to get up when he'd just got the netting of the hammock arranged all nice and comfy between his shoulder blades.
Pipsqueak had the good sense to tell the two youngsters they'd picked up last month that it was time for some hunting practice. Jet could hear him walk them away. It was always a heartbreaker when the little kiddies had their rest disturbed.
Ol' Jackie-lope cleared his throat.
"I'm saying that if we concentrated on the merchant marine caravans along the coast, we'd be swimming in dry goods. As it is we're-" Jackie caught himself, and Jet thought that'd be the end of it, so wasn't he surprised to find that Jack o' Loping had grown himself a set of balls. Who'd have thought? "Jet, we're wasting our time on this crap! You keep attacking those Fire Nation assholes and they'll never leave us alone! I signed up to eat, not to watch my back for fireballs every waking moment."
Jet swatted away the wasp that had been buzzing around his nose with a lazy, boneless gesture. Then he shot this arm out and grabbed Jack-off by the lapels of his tunic.
Jet opened his eyes.
"There you had me thinking I was slow, when really, what we've got here is a problem of perspective."
Jackie tried to step back, but Jet's fingertips were clawed up all nice and snug in the cloth of Jackie's shirt, so fat chance of that happening. Jet levered himself up out of the hammock in time to use Jackie's backwards motion against him. When Jet pushed him away, he stumbled to the earth.
"Your perspective is wrong," Jet explained, reasonably, because he was a reasonable kind of guy.
Jackie tried to stand up. Jet kicked him back down.
Their comrades were silent.
"You're mad," Jackies palms were bloody from scraping against the ground, stained the detritus of fallen leaves. His eyes were rabbit-wide. "You're trying to get everyone here killed, that's what. In the old days it was only about keeping them scared enough to stay off our backs… but it's different now, isn't it? You've finally cracked."
The boy whispered his words like a death-bed revelation.
"You want something better from me? You think you have the master plan? Then c'mon, make it happen," Jet replied. He held his arms open, left maybe two or three good openings, and gestured for Jackie to take his best damn shot.
The boy shrunk back.
"I said, make it happen!" Jet advanced.
Everyone could see how reasonable he was being, couldn't they? He had hardly even raised his voice, which in the grand scheme of things was a nothing threat, a non-entity.
Jackie'd been with Jet since almost the beginning. Jet could remember the days when little Jack-rat had ribs jutting so far out of his chest you could cut yourself on the edges. Jackie'd been a raggedy skin-and-bones orphan brat, right alongside Jet, and it was fucking incomprehensible that Jet would have to listen to this crap from someone who was just like him. Fucking dumb-shit punk-ass coward would not even fight him and Jet needed it, he really needed it, because how anyone could see bodies ground to mulch on the roadways beneath the claws of the dragon-horse cavalry and not get with the fucking program was utterly beyond him.
"Come on! You want your liberty you take it! Are you a Freedom Fighter or are you a fucking refugee?"
Jet noticed that he'd backed Jackalope against a tree. He drove the bladed pommel of one of his hooks into the bark, right by Jackalope's head. Sap bled down all slow-like. Jet could beat him, beat him real good, but he wasn't going to touch Jack-ass unless the boy earned it.
"You disappoint me, Jackalope."
Jet withdrew, smoothing out the sneer on his face while he was at it.
"If all you want in life is to fill your belly, then go join the rest of the fools in the camps. I can't teach you any better."
When they packed up camp, Jackie was still sitting there.
They'd stolen plenty of wine and spirits over the years but this, Jet thought, was different.
Five days of planning, two explosions, and a pair of bloody swords equaled the absolutely most fucking brilliant victory of his entire career - or at least of that month. So the Freedom Fighters had declared this oppressed, downtrodden, restrained Tuesday to be a festival day.
Longshot looked wary but he'd simmer down. Four or five of the gang had already swarmed the bar-man with orders and real live money. There was no way the jokers that ran this place were going to kick Jet's crew out of their pub. Jet's people had cash and weapons. The oldsters had grey hair and failed battles to cry over. It didn't take a genius to run those figures, which was good, because Jet had burned the abacus that one piss-ant commander had tried to pawn off on them in exchange for not getting his legs broken.
Local heroes should do what they wanted.
Jet put his feet up on the bar and leaned back in his chair. The bar was worn and scratched up with graffiti. The roof was sturdy thatch. Jet could feel the warmth of the fireplace spread all the way down to his bones and hell if the air inside this joint wasn't too still for his liking. It smelled cloyingly like people.
Contempt roiled low in Jet's belly and he figured drinking was as good a way as any to put fuel to that fire. He waited until Deadbolt got his pitchers and then waved the bartender over.
"Hey. I'm up for some of that," Jet inclined his head towards the ale that Smellerbee had sloshed down on the table in front of Longshot, whose wariness level shot up tenfold at the sight of alchohol. Jet flashed Smellerbee a smirk and Smellerbee rolled her eyes and all was right with the world.
The bartender set Jet's mug down beside him with an audible thunk.
"Hey," the man said quietly. "Can't you do something about these kids, man?"
Jet's throat constricted.
The air was thick. Too thick. It was heavy with sweat and opium and Jet could feel the haze of years spiraling down upon him, closing in like the absence of sky.
"Hey Jet! Over here," Smellerbee waved him over to her table, at Longshot's prompting. Frikking Longshot still looked like someone was about to kill his cat-rabbit.
Jet grabbed his drink and walked on over. Longshot asked Jet what the next target was as an excuse not to drink his booze.
"I've got a new plan," Jet told them. "This shit – we are over this shit, right? We've been doing these hack jobs for too long. I say it's time to take things to the next level."
"What did you have in mind?" Smellerbee sipped at her drink. The girl sat legs-splayed like a boy and her face looked like someone had smashed it in with a wok while her skull was still soft – no one ever asked about that - but she still could be surprisingly dainty when she wanted to be.
"There's a whole village infested with Firebenders five days' march from here." Jet studied the way that the heart-fire reflected in his beer. Little puddles of moisture condensed on the table's surface. "I'm thinking maybe we figure out a way to clean out the nest."
Jet looked up.
"C'mon guys, it's what we talked about, right? We'll show those fucking collaborators what freedom really is."
"Housecats," Jet cursed them under his breath. Tame little pussies bred in captivity took up space everywhere he went.
Jet hated it behind the lines. He hated that he could go almost anywhere he wanted and no one cared. He hated the quaint little houses and people playing happy families with no fucking clue what was going on two weeks' journey way. He hated that he wasn't supposed to be killing the Earth Kingdom Army goons that were hunting him down over that dam stunt. He hated the crappy rationed food and the annoying passport checks and the way that his fighting force broke away from him, bit by bit, with every beaucolic little town they passed through.
What Jet hated most of all, though, were those damned Avatar impersonators.
"What did you say?" A kid with crudely-drawn arrows on his hands turned on Jet, hands on his hips. It was ridiculous. Jet could break that runt's spine over his knee without pulling a muscle.
"The Avatar's just like everyone else," Jet told the boy, hoping that it would encourage the brat to hurry up in line. The sooner they got out of here the sooner they could disappear into Ba Sing Se. There were too many guards around this area for Jet's liking. That one girl with the stupid hat was spending too much time not looking at Jet for it to be safe.
"That's not true! You're a liar!" The kid huffed.
"A lie's a truth with window dressing," Jet shrugged. He wasn't misleading anyone. The Avatar was just like everyone else. A few words here, some acrobatics there, and he was putty in Jet's hands.
Another scrawny kid who wanted to know about freedom and didn't have the stomach to follow through. Another bender that thought he could magic war away if he spun real fast and counted to three, or whatever it was they did. Another person who was painfully correct to despise him. Another person who could tell Jet what he was doing wrong, but couldn't tell him what the he was supposed to do that would be right, in a world where the common folk had nothing too build their lives out of but blood and shit.
Yeah. The Avatar wasn't so different.
"Mooooooooooooom," the boy whinged, "This jerk is saying mean things about my costume…"
"Run along, fanboy."
Jet did not exactly know where he was going, but he knew for certain that an Avatar impersonator could not tell him how to get there.
Jet paused. The combatants' swords had clashed so violently that the bladed guard of Jet's left hook had slammed down into the back of his hand, spreading numbness all along his knuckles. Armor or no armor, that shit was going to bruise like a motherfucker come morning.
"Leave it alone," Li said, in a too-quiet voice that Jet had to strain to hear over the murmur of pedestrians.
They both stood still as statues on top of a tile roof, three stories above the main precinct causeway. Their weapons were raised in solid defensive stances. Only a pro would've been able to tell how tense a swordsman had to be, in order to freeze himself in place like that.
Every particle of Jet's body was on edge.
"Now why would I be up and doing a damn fool thing like that, Firebender?" Jet ground his teeth against a stalk of barley, in askance. "You know, you could be my redemption."
Li charged, with an arcing s-shaped swipe that Jet caught against one pointed pommel. A split second after deflecting the blow Jet realized that the bastard must have wanted Jet to move that way, because he'd up and jumped over to the next roof, back towards the quiet residential streets.
Jet flipped his weapons around so that the grips faced hooks-backwards, all aerodynamic and shit, before taking off in pursuit. He needed to force Li down into the streets where they'd be seen. If Jet could get the guy to Firebend in broad daylight in front of witnesses then it'd all be over. Li couldn't run, Li couldn't hide, and Jet'd be welcomed to the ranks of the righteous no matter what his crimes were.
Catching a Fire Nation spy who'd managed to infiltrate the Impenetrable City could very well be the most important kill of his life.
"Come back here and face me like a man, asshole!" Jet shouted. Li kept running. Shit, Jet'd been stalking the guy for two weeks and he'd gotten nothing from it except a free show at the public baths.
He was tired of waiting.
Jet landed heavily on a rooftop. His heels gouged cracks in the ceramics. He dragged the tip of a hook overtop them, producing a high-pitched screeching noise.
"What, you don't think you can do it? I don't blame you for being scared. You've got no idea how many of your kind I've taken down," Jet drawled, slowing his pace. Whatever Li's game was, Jet refused to play it. "I'll give you a hint – it's been a lot."
On the boat, when they were coming over, Li'd brushed off material Jet'd used to charm the best and brightest – the blessed Avatar himself – like it was nothing. Like after they got that food Jet wasn't there, didn't register, like he was some kind of fucking ghost. Jet couldn't figure it out.
He wasn't going to stand for that. Not when he'd been worrying at the motherfucking feeling for the past two weeks.
Had Jet fallen that far? Had he lost it?
No. No, that couldn't be it. Li was Fire Nation, not an outcast. That was the reason he didn't put out for all the things that brought them running in the warzone.
"This is pointless," Li stopped at the opposite edge of the roof. His shoulders were tensed. His voice was low and controlled.
Fuck. Li wasn't falling for any low-grade reverse-psychology bullshit goading. Jet was not chasing this bastard over half of Ba Sing Se. It was down to plan b.
Jet pasted on his widest, whitest, most shit-eating grin.
"Everything's pointless," Jet said, pitching his voice as though they were having a friendly conversation. "Fire, Earth, this place, their war. You and me don't matter for shit in this thing. Doesn't stop me from wanting to kick your flaming ass, you cock-sucking son of a whore."
Jet jumped backwards just in time to dodge a sheet of flame that threatened to scorch his face off.
Nothing worked right anymore, not since the Avatar'd come and gone, but Jet knew that he could tear the answer out from underneath all that pretty pale skin.
"Finally!" Jet crowed. Dozens of pounds of enraged Firebender were barreling towards him and Jet, paradoxically, felt more in-control than he had in months.
He sidestepped the charge and brought a hook down across Li's shin. Li fell off the side of the building. Jet hurled himself down after him.
Jet wanted a fight. Jet wanted the pain that shot up his legs when he rolled into a hard landing. Jet wanted the street vendors screaming and someone shouting for the guard in the distance and a little girl dropping her lychii nuts all over the pavement. Jet wanted to scratch that fucking nonchalance away until Li bled Jet's absolution. Jet wanted Li reduced to the same feeble, simpleminded bundle of sinew and gore that they all were in the end.
Jet wanted so badly that he couldn't bear analyzing why.
Li recovered himself a half-second later than Jet did, which was just enough time for Jet to cross his hooks and block a sweeping blow that struck sparks against his weapons. Jet recognized the flowing figure-eights and sweeping steel flowers that Li carved out of the air, but he could not place them.
Jet crossed hook, intent on catching Li's blades and rendering them immobile. It worked. They stayed in a clinch for a good thirty seconds - Li's breath hot on Jet's neck, Jet pushing furiously for leverage against the cobblestones – until both combatants realized that they couldn't find a strength advantage. Jet released the deadlock with a grunt. Li pulled his swords back and around to gain momentum for another stab at slashing Jet's stomach open.
There was no way Jet was getting near Li with those broadswords making protective passes around Li's body at the same time as Li attacked. Jet's only hope was to wrench them away.
They traded blows back and forth, testing, waiting for the panicked crowd to get out from underfoot. That was when Jet made his move. He ducked under Li's latest pass and flung himself to the side, sticking his hooks out so that they'd catch on one of the broadsword's handles. Then Jet twisted with everything he had, tumbling backwards, until he finally felt the sweet relief of one hook digging into Fire Nation flesh and the other sending Li's right broadsword flying.
It was a simple matter to recover. The boy slid back on the balls of his feet, stopped, then ran forwards. Disarming Li at that point would be ridiculously easy. Jet knew from experience that missing half of a dual weapon was like missing an arm. There wasn't any getting up from that shit. The balance shifted.
Soon it would be over, and then.
Then Li would be forced to Firebend.
It would all be over.
Except it wasn't over, not by far, for as soon as Jet was in striking distance of Li he was felled by a sudden searing pain in his heels. He tipped forward, too surprised to stay steady. The searing sensation repeated itself, this time flickering over his wrists like matches ground into his pulse points.
Jet's eyes widened. He dropped his hooks.
Did no one see? Did no one know… what was that? Firebenders didn't do that.
Jet dropped down to the cobblestones. His body felt heavy underneath the trappings of his armor. Stray stones lacerated his palms and ground into his knees through the thin material of his trousers.
Li's remaining broadsword was pressed into Jet's throat. Jet tilted his neck back and felt the blade brand a cut into his neck, feather-light.
"You don't know what you're doing," Li ground out.
"I know I want this."
Jet's answer. The one he'd always known.
"What are you waiting for?" Jet rasped. He was still reeling from the rush of battle. His heart was beating two times too fast and his blood was heavy, heady with desire.
When Li re-sheathed the sword, Jet thought it must be a hallucination.
"The city guard will be here soon."
"They'll kill you if you stay," Li continued. His brow was furrowed with annoyance. The pink whorls of his scar crinkled at the edges.
Jet shook the sweat-drenched mop of hair away from his eyes, shaking the moisture off like a dog.
"Will you move already?" Li snapped. He extended his hand, apparently intending to tug Jet to his feet if necessary.
Time didn't slow. Jet's heart didn't skip a beat. Music did not play. A flock of spirits did not descend to paint the moment with good omens. Li didn't look any more attractive than he usually did, even though his robe gaped open and his shirt was plastered against his torso with sweat.
"Yeah. I'll follow you."
Jet got up.
Author's Ramblings About Her Fight Scene: Jet vaguely recognizes Zuko's fighting style because he's fought Firebenders before. Firebending is based off of Northern Shaolin kung fu, and cern-dao fighting (with dual broadswords) is based upon the Northern Shaolin Tiger style.
Predictably, Lightningbending appears to be based on Northern Shaolin Snake (you can tell by the way that Azula holds her hands), which is considered the opposing force to Tiger. Snake is a calculating art based on precision strikes and flexibility, while Tiger is more "emotional" and centered on brute force. Tiger is a very offensive style, but cern-dao transform Tiger into a simultaneously offensive and defensive style. The sweeping attack motions and patterns used with cern-dao create a barrier around the wielder at the same time as he attacks his enemy.
That's why I'm not sure if we'll ever see Zuko Lightningbend. I think if he does more than basics then that talent will come in the form of some kind of sword-related defensive barrier (like the big whirl of flame he called up around himself in Zuko Alone). The show will probably prove me wrong.
The bending Zuko uses to surprise and disarm Jet is based upon the little bitty flame he used to break the archer's bow in "The Desert".
… watch this fic be totally jossed with tomorrow's ep. Ah well!