Chapter 37: Journey
They spoke very little the next morning as they ate breakfast and prepared to leave. Jet double-checked his map while Smellerbee made sure that the heaviest of items were in her own bag and not Longshot's. She did not want to risk his health and safety again.
As they set off, ever vigilant of any approaching people or armies but encountering no one, Smellerbee's mind wandered back to Jet's story. Now that it was light out and she could look several paces ahead of her and see him, full-grown and strong, it was harder for her to connect him to the little boy he spoke of in his story. How had he gotten here from there?
When she was eight, she wasn't sure if she was even aware of the war. She played in her family's garden and irritated her sister and made her brother laugh. She'd sneak into the kitchen to steal pastries before dinner and look at the pictures in the books in her father's study. She looked at the illustrations of giant koi and platypus bears, of the beautiful city of Omashu, of the Great Divide. She thought then that she was seeing the world. Now, watching Jet as he walked in front of her, his eyes darting around the forest for any signs of something not right, she knew that the books had taught her nothing.
The books did not tell her what it would feel like to watch a friend collapse to the ground unconscious. They did not tell her that sometimes men pinned girls down so they could not fight back and used their bodies as weapons not just to fight, but to torment and humiliate. They did not tell her there always comes a day when a child's parents can no longer protect them.
She understood now why Jet – why none of them – could never heal with the Fire Nation just outside their doors. They had learned too much about the world's cruelty. The most important lesson of all was that the horror was never really over. There was always something worse that could be done. There was always something else that could be taken away. There was no hiding place so remote that they could not be touched by tragedy.
But they had to try.
They stopped for lunch, and by then, Jet was starting to truly get himself back after last night's confession.
"Once we get into the city, we should head straight to the best ceramic shop we can find. All we have to do is let Longshot work his magic, and we'll be fine," he said confidently. Smellerbee and Longshot exchanged uncomfortable looks.
"Jet," Smellerbee started cautiously. "I don't know if it'll be that easy. They've probably been getting a lot of refugees."
"So, we'll fit right in," Jet said. Smellerbee didn't want to destroy his optimism, so she said nothing as he continued. "Then, we'll just have to find an apartment and it'll be like before. But nothing is going to get in the way this time. It'll be smooth sailing. A new start."
After they set up camp that night, Jet laid out his map by the fire and studied it, a twig between his teeth. Smellerbee wasn't sure if she was heartened or worried by its reappearance. Jet had Smellerbee and Longshot gather around so he could trace their route.
"If we keep moving at this pace, we should be there in a few weeks," he announced. Then he softened and looked at Longshot. "Are you okay?"
Longshot nodded, taking off his hat and tossing it down on his sleeping bag. Yes. Just tired. Jet nodded in return.
"We're about here," he said, pointing. "I marked off a few villages and towns along the way where we can stop and gather supplies. Maybe even stay at an inn?" He looked at Smellerbee.
"We still have money from work," she said, "And I have one or two pieces of jewelry we could sell, but I think we should hang on to them for as long as we can. We're going to need a lot of money when we get into the city."
"Good thinking, Smellerbee," Jet said with a smile, and Smellerbee couldn't help but smile back, blushing a little. He sounded like their leader once again, and she took comfort in his confidence, even thought she knew by now how very fallible he was. The traces of the frightened little boy, it seemed, had been left behind in their hollow tree, miles and miles behind them.
Longshot studied the map, looking from the Fire Nation to Ba Sing Se, and then glanced at Jet.
"I don't think we'll run into any more of the Fire Nation army," Jet said. "We were too close to the coastline before. That was the problem. We can move inland way faster than they can. According to my information, the Fire Nation hasn't gotten this far yet. They've been expanding north to south and all over the shorelines – they have those ships that give them the advantage. If we head east to Ba Sing Se, we should be okay."
Longshot nodded, but Smellerbee could see the hesitance in his eyes.
"If we do run into them, what should we do? Just go around? Or hope they don't notice us?" she asked.
Jet's smile faded slightly. "We'll go around," he said. "We don't need any more trouble than we've already had." Smellerbee and Longshot both nodded in agreement. "We should get some sleep," Jet said, folding up his map. We'll want to be up early tomorrow. We should reach our first village stopping point the day after. We might be able to sell some of the stuff from our apartment we don't need anymore. But we'll worry about that later. For now, sleep."
Jet crawled into his sleeping bag on one side of the fire while Longshot got into his on the other. He looked up at Smellerbee, who hadn't yet put hers out. Where are you sleeping?
She looked down at him, always willing to hold her if she had a nightmare, but she knew she shouldn't get so used to that. She shouldn't rely on anything too much, not even Longshot. She needed to learn to sleep on her own. Reluctantly, she put her sleeping bag down perpendicular to his so their heads would be near each other.
Softly, so Jet wouldn't hear over the sounds of the cracking fire, she asked Longshot, "If I . . . if I can't sleep, can I . . . ?" Longshot nodded firmly. Always. Smellerbee smiled at him and got into her own sleeping bag. Her feet and legs were aching, unused to walking all day long anymore. But perhaps the exhaustion was a good thing after all, because that night, Smellerbee had no nightmares at all.