Where Words Fail

Book One: A Fight for Survival

Chapter 1: Brave soldier boy, comes marching home

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is a fan fiction - nothing more, nothing less. It has been made purely for entertainment purposes, and is not meant for commercial gain. Avatar: The Last Airbender and all characters, places and concepts are copyright of Nickelodeon, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. All original characters are copyright their respective owners and are used with their permission. The story has been illustrated by the talented and awesome SioUte, and this chapter's cover can be found here:

sioute(dot)deviantart(dot)com/art/WWF-1-1-126520560

SCENE DIVIDE

"There's no time. Just go. He's our leader. We'll take care of him." And then, they were gone, and the earth door slid shut behind them, and only the Freedom Fighters remained.

Stupid.

Clutching Jet's hands with her own, Smellerbee felt her face contort into a hideous frown, her eyes scrunched tight. He was - clammy, slick with sweat, and his fingers moved stiffly as he wrapped them around her palms. Hunched over the fallen, shaggy-haired teenage boy, whose armor had been crushed as his ribcage had been, the moment was too surreal for her. This couldn't be happening, Jet was the center of her world, she owed so much to him. They all did, he had saved so many children from the Fire Nation, given them a home and a family where they had nothing else. He laid on this ice-cold stone, eyes gone foggy and distant... he was still there, still alive, but for how long? Not very. Not at all. It wasn't fair.

They were all so stupid.

Smellerbee's throat clogged, and her tongue became thick and useless; she felt moist, hot streams of something tracing thin trails down her cheeks, onto her chin, dripping away, but she couldn't hear herself sobbing. All she could perceive was the reverberated sloshing of water filtering through the caverns, and, and Jet. His hands, so unresponsive in hers; his breathing, shallow and wet, because of the, the blood. The same blood seeping through his tunic, staining it a slick black color, like somebody had spilled ink on him. The same blood that trickled from the corners of his mouth, his teeth and tongue stained scarlet. Her vision blurred for a moment, but she blinked it away, she needed to see him. To keep focused on him. Maybe if she stared long and hard enough, he would just spring back up to his feet, laugh sheepishly and run a hand through his mussed hair. "Oops; I guess I should'a moved a little faster," because he did that whenever he got hurt from something he could walk away from.

Stupid Longshot had to open his mouth - to make Aang's departure seem so final.

Stupid Smellerbee hadn't been able to keep Jet's focus in place.

Stupid Jet couldn't just move on with his life, and now he laid here, facing his own mortality.

She ran a hand through Jet's brown hair, an unkempt mop much like her own. He did that to her all the time, and it annoyed her when he did - because it meant he was pretending to treat her like a kid. It hadn't mattered that he was joking, she took it to heart regardless, but now...now there wouldn't be any more of that, would there? It made her stomach flip-flop inside her belly. It didn't matter how much she hated it, it was still something Jet did, and, and a life without it...

Before she'd realized, words managed to slip past her teeth, low and quivering and weak. "Stupid Jet."

Jet's eyes flickered to her and for a moment, he shone through the creeping fog overtaking him. "Heh. That's not nice." He tried to smirk - to flash the familiar, lopsided grin he'd been so well known for ever since Smellerbee had met him. She felt her throat hitch when his cheeks twitched and the smirk vanished, because, no, it couldn't go away, like him rubbing her hair, and..."Doesn't mean I don't have it coming. Bee...Longshot...I'm sorry."

"Stupid, stupid Jet..." Smellerbee shook her head and slid her hand from the tangle of his hair down to his forehead, smooth and slick and just as lukewarm as his hands. She drew a tight, thick breath, and - oh, she didn't want to say it, but keeping silent would be cold... "Close your eyes...it's okay. You can let go."

"Nfh - " He spasmed under her grasp, his face twisting up - she couldn't tell if it was because of the pain, or because the pain was too far away for him to perceive. "I - I feel like I - failed, Bee. My family - my friends - dying now...haven't made up...couldn't save themghk - " He yielded a feeble, thin cough, a small spray of blood hissing up into the air before settling down on his chin, his clothes. Panic started to tug at her insides but she stomped it down, because, because it was too late for panic, wasn't it? The realization made her stomach burn, because not panicking meant giving up hope and, oh, please, Jet could pull through this, he could...

"Shhh..." She cooed - like a, like a mother to a frightened child, leaned in close, planting the ghost of a kiss on his forehead and it hurt thinking like this because Jet had been the one to raise her. "You fought h-hard, Jet. You were brave. Your family would be proud. We're proud."

"You think so...?" His voice - quiet, now, fading, fast. No, no, no, no. "Bee? Really?"

"Yes. Your family is so, so proud of you, Jet." She wanted to plead with him, no, please don't go, the Freedom Fighters need you, Longshot and I need you. To protest, screaming, balling up her fists and throwing them up into the air, a temper tantrum, because being calm wasn't doing anything, and maybe, maybe if she did act like a kid, Jet would realize how important he was, right? Right? Then he'd fight back against this, he'd be okay, because he was too stubborn to go out like this. Murdered by an Earthbender.

"Oh...good..." He wheezed, his chest heaving, his breath irregular and, and... "I'm so glad - so glad...Bee...?"

"I'm here." She wrapped a wiry, gloved hand around one of Jet's, intertwining their fingers.

"...Take care...my little Smellerbee..."

He snorted, finally managed to give her his characteristic smirk - and lay still.

"...Jet...?"

Smellerbee felt her eyes grow wide, and her vision doubled; drawing sharp, uneven breaths, she twisted her head sideways and leaned in close to his face, hoping to feel his own breath whispering against her cheek, but nothing - nothing, nothing came, and he didn't speak, didn't move, didn't laugh, didn't teach, didn't dance amongst Fire Nation troops with his swords flickering around him like lightning bugs in the pale moonlight...

"No...no, no, no..." Jet's fingers no longer clung to hers; she released his hand and clenched her fists, slamming them hard into the ground beside her, the stone dull and cold and it hurt, kinda, but far away - distant. Emotion rushed over her, drowning her - hot, wet, empty, a raging storm at sea that pummeled her and threatened to drag her down to the very depths of the ocean. Her cries became screams, and the graceful, tough, immovable Smellerbee crumbled.

She grabbed his shirt, sniffling, sobbing, cursing, buried her face in his hair, taking in his scent - she could smell must, had to've been from staying down here, the sea from their trip on the ferry to Ba Sing Se...the forest, cinnamon and honey and syrup and hickory and home, so far away, so long ago, orange and gold and red leaves draped over them, flowing off of the tree branches from which they kept watch, waiting for the unsuspecting Fire Nation caravan to drive by...

Heaving, she needed to hurl, and, and her throat burned, hard to breathe, and Jet was gone. Wet and sticky splattered against the cold tile, gagging, she kept going until she felt empty, both physically and mentally, exhausted, tired...but...

Smellerbee. The Dai Li were coming back.

"Wha..." She felt her breath hitch again, and she shook her head, who was, who...

Bee, hold it together. He didn't want to do what came next without her.

The swordswoman turned away, away from Jet, from the sick plastered to the ground, and - Longshot. He stood with his bow at the ready and an arrow drawn taut in the string, aimed at the only remaining entrance into the room. The way his nostrils flared, his eyes wrinkled in the corners...how his lips curled down, just the tiniest bit...

It hurt, he knew, but there wasn't any other way out. His eyes flicked towards Smellerbee for a moment before returning to his anticipated target. It wasn't the Freedom Fighters' style to lie down and die so easily. She knew that.

"But - Jet - " Smellerbee gnashed her teeth and growled. "Longshot, stop being so cold! Jet's - "

Before she could continue, the sound of echoing footsteps caught her ears, and suddenly the world became sharp and clear again. Six people, coming closer - walking, as if they had nothing to concern themselves with. Like all they were coming here to do was remove corpses from the room and nothing more.

Take that pain, take it and use it. Longshot's brow furrowed as he sidled away from line-of-sight to the entrance the Dai Li would surely use. Just like when fighting the Fire Nation. Turn the pain into rage, capitalize on Jet's loss because the Dai Li weren't just foot soldiers, they weren't the mook patrol, and without Jet or Aang or anyone, six could very realistically slaughter them.

Smellerbee drew a sharp, cold breath, before narrowing her eyes and reaching down to the dagger sheathed at the small of her back. She pushed up from the floor and oh moving away from Jet, it felt wrong, but Longshot was telling the truth and she knew it and rolling over for these murdering bastards was akin to spitting in the face of Jet's death, and of everything he had taught them in life. She pushed herself to her feet, boot scraping against the stone, and drew the dagger with a flash of dull, jade light. Right. Okay. She took a slow, steady breath and moved opposite from Longshot, so they flanked the only way in and out of the room. If she had to go down, she'd go down swinging.

The swordswoman turned her attention to Jet, still lying on the floor, eyes aimed up at the dim, damp ceiling overhead, yet perceiving nothing. He, it wasn't right that he lay there, he couldn't be gone, he was too bright and passionate and charismatic for that sort of thing, and looking at him - she still kinda did expect him to pop back up, because there wasn't an possible way such a vivid, real person could just stop. It was Long Feng's fault, the man leading the Dai Li - the same men who came towards them with all intent of seeing anyone left behind dead. They did this, they stole a star from the sky, and, and as the burning sensation rose up to her throat again, she seized it, claimed it for her own, and felt bubbling, unyielding fury swelling up beneath her skin, rushing through her body. Familiar. Part of her life. Part of her style.

She had no problem with making these monsters scream for their lives, and heaven help her, she would enjoy it.

SCENE DIVIDE

Longshot had exceptionally keen hearing.

As an archer, it was a necessity, and while most of it came from training and experience, he liked giving at least partial credit to the size of his ears. Big and round and awkward, they'd embarrass the hell out of most teens, but they couldn't be more important to Longshot. They helped him pick out Fire Nation troops hiding out of sight, or enemy archers lurking in trees, waiting to strike at his friends...and it put a damper on any Freedom Fighters from trying to sneak up on him. Only Smellerbee had the grace to stay undetected and pounce on him. Sometimes. Those had been fun times, but - distant, now. With the trees and the laughing orphans and where death was...well, it had been there, too. But death at the forest had been natural recourse, sometimes it just happened - it was part of the lifestyle. It had been something to deal with on their own terms. Never in a foreign place, and certainly not at the hands of another native of the Earth Kingdom.

His hearing was a gift, and without it he may as well not have thumbs; a deaf archer was a crippled archer. But by the same token, sometimes he heard too much, or things he'd rather not have heard to begin with. The approaching footsteps, six sets, calm and professional and muted; Jet speaking, his last words, so painful, but if Smellerbee would lose focus here then he'd turn his emotions away for her sake. It wasn't like he didn't understand how she felt, because he did. Losing loved ones was what drove Longshot to silence in the first place, but if he needed to be the strong one, if this situation necessitated him to be cold-hearted, then so be it.

Internalizing that thought left him feeling off-kilter, because it drifted precariously close to nihilism, of which he wasn't by nature, but living the life of a Freedom Fighter meant sacrifice. It wasn't an unusual problem to face.

Even over the constant flow of water from all sides of the room - massive, round pipes draining their contents into a deep crevice on either side of the room, one Longshot had not been able to judge its depth - he could tell that they were close. Another couple seconds, and the Dai Li would round the corner. From there, it'd just be a matter of hitting them as hard and fast as possible; maybe, maybe, the pair would be able to move past this room. They might be able to escape, to survive.

Maybe.

Suddenly - nothing. A red flag shot straight up into the air in Longshot's mind as the footsteps came to a halt before the Dai Li even reached the door; he glanced over to Smellerbee, whose eyes had gone wide, a frown pulling down on her mouth. She knew, too, and the pair jumped back, away from the entrance, just as a pair of rock walls erupted from the ground on which they'd been standing moments before.

Dammit - they'd expected them. The room trembled, shaking beneath their feet, and with a low grinding noise, two more entrances opened up from the sides of the room, a pair Dai Li spilling out of each. As Longshot worked to clear his head, to be the backbone Smellerbee needed, old memories started to rear up as the newer layers got peeled away, and this was not an appropriate time for it. The archer had been the first; he and Jet had known each other for years, now, before there even was a "Freedom Fighters" to be a part of. While there had been some communication errors along the way, he'd mostly understood Longshot's unspoken language. He'd picked up early on that the archer didn't like it when people talked just for the sake of filling silence, so he didn't always need to say things. They genuinely enjoyed each others' company, and focus, Longshot, don't drift off now!

He'd been running, not even realizing it from struggling to keep everything in balance. Come on, what good was his advice to Smellerbee if he wouldn't capitalize on it himself? He was letting himself fall apart. The Dai Li swarmed, the four that had come from the sides of the room rushing around the pair of Freedom Fighters, emerald and ochre robes flowing. The six from the main entrance surged in as well, and Longshot tightened the muscles in his shoulders, clenching his teeth; six would probably have been able to do in the two Freedom Fighters, but ten was overkill - maybe they'd anticipated the Avatar and his friends would still be here? Oh, it didn't matter at this point!

Longshot took careful aim, lining up his arrow as he moved, his legs jarring against the stone floor; one of the Dai Li came to a stop as he planted one foot forward and thrust a fist at him, shooting a stone spire up from the ground. The archer backpedaled and unleashed his arrow at him, a sharp twang! rattling from next to Longshot's ear as the string snapped back into place. He didn't even wait for the arrow to connect before drawing another; his target stepped back and pushed a wall up from the ground, a knee-jerk reaction, but it left him wide open, and another arrow pierced the air -

A coal missile - one of the Dai Li's gloves - soared into the arrow's path, knocked it askew and exploding in the process. Longshot pushed down the urge to curse, the air already tight and hot around him even through this place was so dank and musty and damp. Each breath careful, timed, because timing was important too, he nocked another arrow, caught a flash of green movement to the side, released, yes! The arrow lodged into the Earthbender's ankle, sending him stumbling forward.

Smellerbee charged past him as he reached for another arrow, crouching low to the ground with her dagger in hand; she pulled a narrow arc around one of the Dai Li, slashing him and withdrawing before he could counterattack; an earth pillar erupted into the ground at her heels, and Longshot saw her stumble just the slightest bit. She recovered, and was gone just as quickly, juking between Dai Li and their attacks. Longshot felt his chest tighten at the sight, because, because Smellerbee was as much his best friend as Jet had been, and as sweat turned his forehead slick and sticky, he nocked two more arrows and buckled down his resolve.

Okay, Longshot. Time to throw everything into it.

One of the Dai Li leapt into the air, landing on a swelling pile of crumbled rock, riding it like a surfing Waterbender. He closed the distance between himself and Longshot almost too suddenly, and the archer released his arrows; the Earthbender swatted one away, but the other impacted his shoulder, sending him rolling back, his stone wave collapsing in on itself with a spray of dust and pebbles. Why couldn't Longshot land anything fatal? He drew another arrow, intending to finish the one he'd just downed, but before he could, something solid and hard hit him, and he spun, landing in a heap on the ground, the world alight with brilliant shapes. His cheek throbbed, hot and sticky and tight; he worked his jaw, felt the hinge creak, and -

- another blow, this time from below him, and a grunt escaped his lips (maybe? Hard to tell), landing hard on his side, rolling, and then, no support from below - he whipped his free hand out and managed to catch the corner of the floor, the massive sluice dropping away beneath him. He glanced downward into the yawning chasm below, and the dim, glowing light the illuminating crystals cast did not reach any perceivable bottom.

So that's how deep the thing ran. He swallowed back a jitter that threatened to rise up into his throat; he'd spent his entire life growing up and living in tree houses, so it wasn't like heights scared him...but this, this was an exception, because he couldn't tell what laid down there in wait for him - and he knew, no matter what it was, he wouldn't be able to climb out. The walls were too slick and he didn't have any rope to tie to an arrow.

The familiar beige crescent in the top half of his vision had vanished, and through the haze Longshot realized he couldn't feel the knotted fabric beneath his chin. Hat had been knocked loose. He still had his bow, at least; he tightened his grip around it, raised his head, and kicked against the slick stone, hoisting himself up over the edge and into a crouch. Solid ground had never felt so good - and there, three more Dai Li rushing at him, their heads bowed so their conical helmets protected their heads. That was okay, though, all the archer needed was a good shot at their shoulders or ankles, and he reached back, grabbed an arrow, nocked it -

The bowstring yielded too much. Eyes going wide, Longshot glanced down to see that the lower limb of his precious weapon had splintered and was on the verge of snapping clean off. Defenseless now - he hadn't even done that much, but then again, the Dai Li were good, and the first six would have probably done the two Freedom Fighters in anyway. Nothing to do but run, run and use what he had left. Chest tight, lungs and throat burning, he crouched down low and sprinted across the cool stone, legs and heart hammering, the ground slick with every sopping step he took. The Dai Li altered their course and he saw one of them thrust his arms out; a slab of rock burst out from the ground, missing him by inches, the vibrations rocking his feet and ankles.

He whirled around, hurling his bow at his pursuers; it spun through the air and connected with one of the Dai Li's helmets, rebounding off with a dull clang!. The Earthbender jerked back instinctively, left himself open - yes! - he drew another arrow and whipped it at the monster, it didn't have the same power, but it was enough, it lodged in the man's throat and sent him sprawling backwards.

Finally, a good hit - unarmed, no less. But that had been one of his two trump cards; the downside to a surprise attack was that it was only a surprise once.

The remaining two Dai Li tightened their pace, splitting apart from each other; one weaved around to the archer's left side, and from the corner of his eyes, he saw the Earthbender line himself up against the nearest wall. Longshot grunted, unslinging his quiver in one swift motion; just a few minutes ago (though it felt like an age, years at this point because there had been a Jet in his life) he'd seen other Dai Li do the same trick the one near the wall was going to pull. Just wait for it, wait for it - keep your eyes on the other guy too, Longshot - and the Earthbender jumped, pushing up onto the wall and running along it, and it was perfect! Longshot spun around and snapped the quiver and his remaining arrows at him, catching his ankles and sending him sprawling to the ground.

Okay, one left and that was it, Longshot twisted to face him, and they might actually come out of this alive -

A rock the size of a fist slammed into his chin, sending the archer reeling, pain exploding all along his jaw, in his teeth, his tongue as he bit down on it - he fell backwards again, and, and (get up, damn you), but his limbs wouldn't work, they tingled and prickled but he couldn't get them to move. Couldn't do anything now, really defenseless this time, and, and something lifting him by the collar of his tunic. He couldn't fight back, he couldn't...

SCENE DIVIDE

They were just emerald blurs at this point - Smellerbee didn't need to distinguish them any further than that. She knew they were there and she knew that they were - well, not human, because that would indicate they knew more than the dystopian society Long Feng had constructed. Regardless, they were alive, and living beings bled, and she thirsted for that blood, the hot, warm, sticky, crimson life fluid, she would take it from them like they had taken it from Jet, she would. As she juked and weaved between the Dai Li, moving too fast for them to pin down and attack, she sliced the air with her curved dagger, a gift, a precious gift, or close to it. Her first stolen blade, her first field mission with Jet and Longshot. She'd got it from someone sneaking around in the bushes, planning on stabbing Jet with it while his back was turned, but Smellerbee shown the bastard, shown him and killed him, and though the dagger hadn't been a gift from anyone in particular, it had been a gift in principal.

She'd saved Jet's life more than once with this knife; she'd used a lot of other swords, too, but this knife was the longest-lasting, and she would use it to kill the Dai Li just as she'd killed that bandit. She would.

The air thick with the scents of dirt and moldy water, the room dimly lit with glowing crystals the color of limes, Smellerbee's breath came out hot and ragged and angry and she could have breathed fire if she really wanted, she didn't even really register what was going on - just that if there was motion near her, she lashed out. While they couldn't get a fix on her, they were pretty fast too - she couldn't get a good hit in on any of them, just nipping their flowing robes, catching on the fabric for a moment before momentum tore knife and cloth apart. It was a swordsdance, except the Dai Li didn't have any swords and through the haze of bloodlust, that irritated her because it'd be so much more poetic if she could steal them and cut down their former owners. But they didn't, they relied on their magic rocks, and that was okay, even as spires and columns and walls erupted from the ground, she weaved and dodged around whatever they threw at her, she had too much experience with this sort of thing to get caught by traps like that.

(Okay, so she wasn't perfect, Sokka had lured her and Pipsqueak into those poacher traps, but that was a fluke - right?)

The ground trembled beneath her feet with every step, mostly because of the Earthbending, reverberating up her ankles and knees, and, and dammit, she slashed out at a Dai Li that had ventured too close, missed. They were stalemated, however many of the assholes had decided to gang up on her versus just one Smellerbee. It'd become a battle of attrition. They all had limited stamina, but she only had Longshot to fall back on if she got exhausted, and he was out there somewhere fighting his own tangle of enemies; if one of the Dai Li tired, there were others to take his place, and unless Smellerbee could find an opening, capitalize on it...

Sweat soaked her headband, her face and ears flushed hot, her throat burning. Through the corner of her eyes she saw one of the Dai Li thrust his fists out at her from a distance, his earth-brick gloves soaring at her; she dropped down to the ground, felt a cool backdraft as they soared overhead, blowing back her hair - and then, a solid crunch, followed by an audible grunt, and the heavy sound of a body crumpling to the floor. He'd hit one of his comrades! Not as good as killing a man with his own sword, but good enough, and it caught the offending Dai Li off-guard enough where she could rush behind him. One quick snap of the wrist, and her knife finally drew first blood, slicing through the tendons in the back of his knees, and he fell forwards, and, and, finally, things might be turning around -

Another rock spire jutted up from the floor, catching her heel; she stumbled forward, off-balance, landing hard on her shoulder. The rough floor dug into her sleeve, searing the skin beneath it, and she crashed shoulder blades-first into a wall with a grunt. Come on, get up and move or else they'll kill you before you can do more damage to them, and she shoved herself to her feet despite her upper body being alight with pain, and the Dai Li were already coming at her, and -

Something glistened from the corner of her eyes, something long and shimmering and curved in the dull cavern's light. She didn't need to question its presence, she'd seen it stuck in the wall as soon as they'd come in here - one of Jet's swords, the razor-diamond pommel embedded in the stone. She thrust an arm out, wrapping her fingers tightly around the leather grip - still, still warm, Jet had only been holding them a few minutes ago - and she pulled, dislodging it from the wall with a spray of dust and pebbles. Cheeks tingling, a snarl tore her face in half; this more than made up for not being able to kill them with their own weapons. The sword's grip was a little too big for her hand, and in the back of her head, behind the fury and rage and bloodlust, a sense of symbolism chimed - but she pushed it away, because it was time to yield to the inner fire, to rend flesh and sunder muscle, maybe even break a bone or two if she was lucky.

She had already started moving, hadn't even realized it; bending her knees, keeping low to the ground, every step a crack of thunder, she hurtled at the nearest Dai Li in an arc, swerving every time a pillar of earth shot up from the ground, or a free flying rock had been chucked her way. They had no chance in hell of hitting her now, and her throat burned, hoarse and raw and it dawned on her that she'd started screaming, an unintelligible roar, ferocious and bestial and just as lethal as the blades she held in her hands -

One of the Dai Li had come into range; she had gotten so close to him that he could only react instinctively, swinging a fist down at her. She dropped down beneath it, swung around, and slashed with Jet's sword. It wasn't a clean cut, the hook caught on the fabric of his robes and dug partway into his calf; he went down, but the sword went with him. Smellerbee tried to wrench the blade free, but another Dai Li must'a seen that she was vulnerable; he hurled his rock gloves at her, and she crouched down again. It clipped her dagger, though - and suddenly, it was torn from her grasp, her palm and thumb echoing dull pain. All that was left was Jet's sword, and it wouldn't come free -

Something, something hard hit her stomach, a bright white light flashed before her eyes - and she was on the ground, on her back, the stone cold and grainy, her vision swimming. They'd blindsided her, took advantage of her while off her guard. She'd been so stupid, refusing to let go of Jet's sword, clinging to it like it could have helped her. She'd only ever held them once before, when she was still young, and the grips were still too big...and, and, hard to focus, the swords were Jet's, she should have held onto them regardless, they were more important than anything now because they had legacy, because...

One of the Dai Li grabbed her, hoisted her up, but it was so hard to tell what was going on - they'd hit her hard, fire rippling in her abdomen. She coughed, a rough, burning sensation tearing up her throat, and - oh, oh this was the end, wasn't it? They hadn't done much damage at all, the Dai Li had managed to take them down, and Jet was, Jet was still...

They bound her hands behind her with their gloves - bricks of coal, rough and rounded, cinched tight around her wrists, and pushed her back onto the ground. The stone pressed into her cheek, and after a moment, Longshot landed beside her, his jaw clenched and his eyes tightened. Smellerbee felt her jaw drop - they'd both been caught. Looking at him, seeing him like this...

Suddenly, she regretted not trying to get out alive. He understood and nodded in return; his gaze flickered away for a second before he let his eyes slide shut. It hadn't been a very smart move, had it...?

"No," she murmured, a bittersweet grin twisting to life on her face. "It wasn't."

"Long Feng wants these tunnels collapsed."

Smellerbee craned her neck up; one of the Dai Li moved into her line of vision, standing before the two downed Freedom Fighters, his hands folded into his broad sleeves, his helmet a great dome cast against the pipe-riddled walls. "Now that the Avatar has secured his bison, we have nothing to keep them in check. They will go to the Earth King. Long Feng has ordered this base destroyed in the event they decide to come back and use this as proof of our true purpose."

The swordswoman felt a growl rumble up into her throat; she managed to slide her knees beneath her, and with a grunt, threw herself upright. She glared at the Dai Li agent from the floor, panting, breath hot and sore. "What, is that it? You're just gonna pretend like none of this ever happened?"

The Earthbender hiked a brow and cast a cold glance down at the Freedom Fighter, his eyes flickering for a moment before becoming impermeable. "That's the general idea, yes."

She inhaled and realized that her chest had tightened, and her jaw worked so furiously that she felt her teeth crack, heard the joint creaking. "Don't you realize what you're leaving down here? Your leader killed our leader - and Jet was a thousand times of a man any of you, especially Long Feng, could ever hope to be! He fought proudly for his country, and you, you assholes stand here, acting as if that didn't amount to anything! Aren't there things more important to you than Long Feng's agenda? Are you even human under those robes?" And, and her vision blurred, and - shit, she'd lost control again, she couldn't keep the tears from trickling down her cheeks. Her abdomen tingled, her lungs alight with vengeful fire, every breath a burst of invisible flame, deep and searing and, and - she screamed again, threw herself up to her feet, sprinted at the Dai Li agent - shoulder-checked him in the gut, sent him reeling, and he had it coming, how dare he even think of burying them alive, that wasn't a warrior's death, and it did Jet no justice, it didn't, it, it, it -

A large, tan hand grabbed her by the tunic and threw her back to the ground, landing hard on her shoulder, next to Longshot again - but she could barely see him, her gaze had gone red and blurry and she would kill them, she...

Coughing, the Dai Li she'd tackled regained his balance and cursed. "Take these two down to the prison cells in the center of the base - I don't want any more to do with them. For their crimes against the state of Ba Sing Se and murdering Dai Li agents, let them starve to death in the bowels of this place."

"MURDER?" Smellerbee roared, her voice catching. She thrashed, but another set of hands clamped down on her ankles, binding them with the coal gloves. "You don't know anything! You - "

Stop.

The swordswoman squeezed her eyelids shut and clenched her jaw, Longshot's thoughts piercing her own like one of his arrows to a bulls-eye. They'd made the mistake of going into this fight with a death wish; now they at least had a chance to correct that mistake, because the Dai Li would leave them alive.

Right. Longshot was right, and she had to curl her head into her chest and draw a deep, shuddering breath to keep control of herself. It - it wasn't easy, because Jet was in the same room, cold and empty and not Jet anymore, not...

The Dai Li hoisted both Freedom Fighters to their feet, the rocks shackling her ankles peeling back so she could walk. As they were marched away, their footsteps dim and dull and far away, mingling with the sloshing of the water pouring from the pipes, Smellerbee caught a glimpse of his body, prone with his arms at his sides...he looked almost peaceful from here, like he'd decided to take a nap. But he wasn't, he was gone, gone from them in spirit and soon in body because it wasn't like the Dai Li would let them take it with them. Thinking of Jet as an "it" instead of a "him" was just another punch to the gut; she clamped her teeth down on her lower lip to keep from screaming, screaming his name, slamming the heartless bastards ushering them away with a typhoon of curses that would have made Skillet blush...

They passed through the archway that Long Feng had disappeared through after murdering Jet, that the Dai Li had approached them from, the light growing dimmer with fewer crystals to light their way; from behind, a dull rumbling began to echo, growing louder, a racket, a din, unbearable, rock and stone collapsing in on itself, grating and crashing, rattling Smellerbee with every step, jolting up through her legs, into her torso, and, and Goddammit, Jet was still in there, Jet was...

With a deafening thunderclap, any light filtering in from behind vanished, leaving the two Freedom Fighters and their captives alone in a gently sloping corridor. The impact jarred her, bounced her off the ground, and Jet was really gone now.

Stupid Smellerbee. Stupid Longshot. Stupid Jet.

Smellerbee stole a quick glance over to Longshot; the archer met her gaze and nodded, the same thought running through their minds.

It had been stupid going into this, thinking that it hadn't been a battle for survival.