Where Words Fail
Book 2: Escaping Ba Sing Se
Chapter 4: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
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:
As an additional bit of note-ism, Sio had previously illustrated part of this chapter; you can check out both pages at the following links!
When Smellerbee met Longshot, Page 1:
When Smellerbee met Longshot, Page 2:
Like all Freedom Fighters, her memories became charred and sooty as they became older.
What was easy to recall at five years old had turned into a chore at fourteen; just at the cusp of her mind, she could remember something about - nice dresses, fancy hairdos, learning proper manners - a flickering notion, at the fringes of memory and growing distant still. Specifics eluded her, but she knew that she'd come from a well-to-do background. She'd had a family - one bound by blood, anyhow, but Jet and Longshot and the rest had proven themselves to be more worthy of the title - and, in the back of her mind, remembered having a pet. A baby rabbiroo, she thought, or else a long-eared gerbil. That, too, had been lost to the ashes of time, and any reflection on the creature came in sepia tones with frayed, crisped edges.
She remembered singing - remembered adults (her parents?) telling her that, despite her tomboyish nature, she had a voice like golden bells chiming on a warm, sunny day. That maybe if she could act more like a proper lady, she would be able to truly do her family proud.
Vivid imagery didn't completely escape her, though, and it was with a quirk of irony that she remembered the destruction of that old life better than any other aspect of it. The scent of burning wood always lingered somewhere inside her nose, and with it came charred tapestries, singed paintings, and the sound of people - animals - shrieking as the fire consumed them.
The heat had seared her lungs - the smoke, scarring her throat. She could still scream and holler, it wasn't like they'd cut a vocal chord...but when she spoke, it came out hushed, like a spider-snake choking on a baby rattle, and her singing voice no longer reminded people of golden bells or sunny days.
She couldn't tell which loss upset her more, and suspected that she wouldn't be able to figure it out until well into her adulthood.
Nine years ago - Jin Se Qiang
"Eww! That's icky." Jin Se Qiang wrapped her lanky arms around her torso and scratched at her forearms with chipped, filthy nails. She made a face, framed by curled locks of brown hair which had, at one point, been done up into a bun that let only her fringe hang free. She and her friend, another girl about her age, hid in a small alcove in the tunnel, sneakin' away so the taskmasters wouldn't catch them talking. You always got punished if you spoke in the mines, but they didn't see each other anywhere else, and they needed to talk, to speak to each other, or else she'd go mad. "Why would you let someone - especially from the Fire Nation - do that sorta thing to you?"
"He - he promised me more food. Clean food. Extra blankets at night." The other girl shifted her gaze down to the rough floor of their cave. "Jin Se Qiang's not digging."
"Neither are you," Jin Se Qiang pointed out, both blunt and piercing at the same time, making the other girl flinch. Of course she'd start addressing Jin Se Qiang in the third person - a sickeningly cute habit she'd brought with her, one that still made Jin Se Qiang want to hunch up her shoulders and hiss.
Heat pressed in on all sides, sweltering, disgusting - like an oven in here, so many slaves smushed in close to each other, working, working, working. The pungent scent of body odor clogged Jin Se Qiang's nose up - somebody, someone before this life, someone she couldn't remember, had tagged the odor with the word "ripe," and that mystery person whose face came before the mines and had vanished somewhere inside couldn't have been more spot-on. Ripe. It smelled like ripe people down here.
A'course, that wasn't without reason; digging for coal and precious metals for hours on end, the sound of pick-axes ringing non-stop in your ears, of shovels scraping and scratching piles of rock, of chains jangling. All that justified the stench, let alone what it did to your hearing. The noise slammed your ears, attacked 'em, and some days you'd go back to the slaves' quarters part deaf because if it. The clothes did little to comfort you, either; itchy, stiff, caked with dirt and dark red, almost black splotches, the shirts always two or three sizes too large. That happened when your stuff came second-hand from other slaves.
"I know. I'm worried that they'll catch you," the girl said, bringing Jin Se Qiang's mind away from her offended senses.
"And I'm worried about what they're doing to you." Jin Se Qiang pursed her lips and scrutinized her dirt-laden friend.
"I'll be...okay." The girl bit her lower lip; she had mousy, brown hair, a narrow head, and a face that had been beautiful at one point; now, though, it was marred with soot and ash and had gone pale from so much time in the mines. Jin Se Qiang saw her eyes glossing over with pending tears. "They might rough me up if they find me not working, but the commanding officer will keep them from hurting me. He likes me, you know. They won't be so gentle with Jin Se Qiang."
Jin Se Qiang frowned. "I just don't see a reason to throw your body at them like meat to a pack of hungry beaver wolves. We're stronger'n that."
"Maybe you are, but you're a lot stronger than most of the adult slaves here. You're a lot stronger than most of the taskmasters, too. Just consider yourself lucky that the ones who like girls think you're too boyish, and the ones who like boys know you don't have the proper parts."
The other girl has turned her head almost completely to the side by this point; were Jin Se Qiang's questions, her accusations, so unbearable that eye-contact had become impossible? That she would, she'd call her out, call her boyish out the side of her mouth, without even looking at her? Rage, like bubbling lava, rose up inside of her and threatened to spill over, and, and, she knew she shouldn't, she didn't have any other friends here, but she couldn't help herself. Jin Se Qiang lunged, throwing herself at her friend with a roar, voice hot and raw in her throat; they both tumbled from their hiding spot, out into the main body of the mine tunnel, the ground digging into her fingers, her shoulders, her arms, rough and hard and unmoving.
They rolled, and Jin Se Qiang landed hard on her stomach; she whirled around, teeth bared, saw the other girl struggling to push herself up, and, and before she could, Jin Se Qiang had scrambled over to her, fists whipping through the air, hitting the girl's face, ears, shoulders, chest, and the girl cried, bringing her hands up to shield herself. "Jin Se Qiang, stop! Please!"
Most of the surrounding slaves ignored the brawling girls, chipping away at the charcoal-colored walls with their pick-axes; Jin Se Qiang felt a few of them casting only sideways glances at the children, but they didn't want to risk bringing down the wrath of the taskmasters. They were too weak, to scared to fight against those that pilfered family and innocence and voice as if it were their given right.
The young tomboy swung her tiny fists and feet at her companion, warm, sticky blood welling up around her knuckles. Whether it belonged to Jin Se Qiang or the other girl, she couldn't tell; all she could tell was that her voice rebounded off the narrow, hot passage, a shrill scream of protest rising up from the small form beneath her.
"Take it back! Take it back! I'm not boyish, I'm not - "
Crying, the smaller girl rolled out of Jin Se Qiang's merciless pummeling, only in time for strong hands to grab Jin Se Qiang under the arms; flailing, crying, screaming, Jin Se Qiang wriggled free of the grasp of her captors. She lunged for the girl one last time as she was scrabbling up to her feet, and Jin Se Qiang pushed her hard from behind.
She didn't remember the mousy-haired girl falling, really, or how she tripped and whirled around to face her, or the sound she made when she landed on the twisted stalagmite that jutted mercilessly from the ground; she was more than keenly aware of the eyes plastered to her, from both her fellow slaves and their keepers alike. And her mouth, curled into a near-perfect circle, an O, blood spilling from the corner and dribbling down her chin -
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't remember that girl's face, or her name, or how, exactly they'd come to know each other. Though that final picture - the girl, her mouth stretched out into that O - stuck with her, every time she tried scrolling the picture up, her face disappeared into a fog, blurred by years of torture and missions with the Freedom Fighters.
Which was funny. You'd figure that your first kill would be the most vivid.
Six years ago - Little No-Name
They'd regret the day they chained her up, thinking it would control her.
They'd regret the notion of threatening her fellow slaves, thinking it would tame her.
They'd regret taking her name, thinking it would convert her.
They'd regret starving her, thinking it would break her.
They'd regret turning her into a killer, thinking they could use her.
Standing on a cold, grassy hill high above the open-aired encampment that had once contained her, rain hammered down from the cold, unyielding night sky, seeping into the metal shackles still clinging to her wrists; it would only make the rash worse, but that was okay. She'd fought for her freedom and she had earned it, spirits damn them all. The precipitation threatened to extinguish the flames roaring within the metal boundaries of the encampment, and if it kept pissing down like this, then it'd only take...she figured a half hour, at most, but her capacity for measuring time had been lost in the mines. A pillar of black smoke billowed upward into the sky; if it had been a clear night, the soot would have obscured the stars and moon anyway. The fire cast glowing, flickering, orange light on the grass, on the nearby trees, enraged, a testament, a monument to the chaos she'd unleashed in order to get this far. In order to get to this hill, and soon, the woods, away from here, from the taskmasters, from the Fire Nation.
She wasn't sure where she'd go after that. She didn't have a place to belong; she'd just have to go forward and hope to find her way.
Drenched, soaked to the bone, her hair hung in ratty, tangled, mud-colored clumps that stretched down past her shoulders, had started sticking to the side of her head. Her shirt - the same crusty, stiff, rough sack she'd been wearing ever since being taken by the Fire Nation - although absolutely sopping, the water didn't wash away the muddy brown backwash or the maroon splatters that had covered most of her torso. (It did miracles for the fresher stains on her skin, though - others' blood, washed away, gone, lost to the storm, pink rivulets that trailed down her shins, across her bare feet, vanishing into the grass.) Chains dangled down from her shackles, only about a foot long now, the edges pockmarked and chipped, as if somebody had stricken them repeatedly between two rocks in order to break them.
As she had.
"Huh, well...I'll be damned."
She whirled, her chains and hair whipping around her, sending rivulets sliding down her face; she brought one arm up, ready to defend herself, her other hand drifting towards the hem of her pants - the pressure of a knife pressing against her thigh served as some sort of defensive comfort, and whoever it was that snuck up on her had better be ready to start breathin' through their belly buttons.
Behind her, on the fringe of the woods that stood at the peak of the hill, stood three boys; older, all of them, not...not adults, but that didn't matter, the older slave children bullied the younger ones in the mines (not her, though, they didn't go near her), and if these three didn't know to leave her alone, she'd, well, she'd show them what she could do. The one in the middle was tallest - he had dark brown, almost black hair, with sharp eyebrows and a tanned face, wearing a dust-red tunic and part of an Earth Kingdom soldier's armor on his hip. He had a twig clenched between his teeth, a smirk on his face - brown eyes swept the scene she'd left behind her, and she could see them reflecting the firelight even from this range. He had two swords strapped to his back - if they were swords, their hand guards were...weird, shaped like moons before they went dark, with pommels that looked like diamonds. He had his attention to the ruins of the encampment, one fist planted on his hip and the other arm limp at his side.
"We were plannin' on hitting this encampment all week," he said. He planted his feet far apart and moved his arms up (she tensed, ready to fight) and clasped his hands behind his head, casting a disparaging glance down at the flaming remains. The scent of burning metal, burning people permeated the air, flitting in through her nose, and the heat of the fire rose up to rake her back despite the chill cast by the rain. "Guard was tight, though - anything we tried would'a gotten us caught."
She said nothing, keeping her head bowed low, gaze plastered on the center boy. He was tall for his age and had an angled face. He wasn't that old at all, but he still seemed almost...disappointed?...that the encampment had been destroyed before he could get to it.
Allowing her gaze to flicker only briefly, the girl tried to take in the other boys on the sides. One had a squat body and a tanned, mocha-colored face; his onyx-black hair had been done up into a topknot, and a grimace ordained his jaw as if he had been born with it there. He crossed his arms over his chest, massive things that looked like they had enough power to smoosh her head...but he was stocky. He'd be slow, and she'd spent enough time learning how to outmaneuver people three times her size that Dumpy wouldn't be able to lay a beefy finger on her.
The third boy seemed to be the opposite of the second; as tall as his leader and gaunt enough to almost match her lanky frame, his carrot-shaped face stood out pale and white against the murky backdrop behind him. He wore a dark wood short bow over one shoulder with a patchwork quiver full of arrows over the other, a straw cone hat pushed up on his head. His eyes - warm, brown...human eyes. So much happened behind those eyes, and peering into them was like reading a scroll, only she could actually make sense of the scribbly shapes that (apparently) made words. Of the trio, only this one seemed to have his attention fixed solely on her; normally, she would have squirmed under his gaze, but his was one so warm, so welcoming, that she didn't really feel the urge to fidget.
"Okay." The one with the twig drew a deep breath, casting a quick glance around, soaking in his surroundings. "...Sneers."
"Yeah?" Dumpy asked, gaze flickering from the fire to his leader.
"You're with me. We're gonna check for more survivors."
"Shouldn't we ask the kid?" Dumpy - Sneers - gestured vaguely in her direction, causing her to flinch; Twig, noticing the motion, hiked an eyebrow before nodding.
"Wouldn't be a bad idea, but you know how younger kids are after getting out of scrapes like this." He shook his head, his earthen hair whipping and shaking free droplets of rain. "He might be too traumatized."
Turning his attention to her, he took a slow, cautious step in her direction, and, and that was enough out of him, she backed away and hunched her shoulders, hissing, curling her fingers as she inched her hand closer to the dagger. She felt her mouth working, teeth gnashing - wanted to scream, back off, don't come near me, I'll cut you just like I cut everyone else that tried to stop me,, but the glistening swords on his back paralyzed her voice, and all she could do was keep her hackles raised and bare her teeth, like a pissed off pygmy puma. Twig's step faltered, only slightly, but she'd seen it, she'd thrown him off his guard. "Hey - it's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you. I just need your help." He raised his hands up, took another step forward, and, and, no more, don't believe the older ones, they lied to you just like the adults did, her arm jerked and she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the knife hidden in the brim of her pants -
Before she could act, before Twig took move any closer, the archer in the straw hat stepped out in front of him, planting a hand on Twig's shoulder; Twig stopped short, greeting Straw Hat's gaze. "What? She might be able to help us - "
Straw Hat's brow furrowed - not a lot, in fact it was hard to even see, but he still did it and she could understand what he was telling Twig, even though he wasn't actually saying it with his words.
Twig and Dum - Sneers - should go investigate the camp. He'd stay with the boy and calm him down.
After a moment, Twig crooked his head and held his hands up, sighing and grinning at the same time. "Alright. Kid's in your hands now." Twig smirked and backed off, glancing once again at the girl. "I'm sorry I scared you."
With that, he gestured at Sneers; the two boys went around the archer and the girl and picked their way down the hill, being careful not to stumble on the slick grass. She watched them until they vanished through the front gates of the encampment, which had been blown forcefully off their hinges and lay in the grass, twin scraps of gnarled, rust-colored metal that shimmered under the rain's touch.
Alone again, almost...she cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the archer, and he still had his round, chocolate-colored eyes affixed to her; studying her, but not in the same hungry, leery way the taskmasters and adult slaves did. (That's what really had started the...she glanced down at the camp, thoughts flickering to the obese slob who had tried to do the same thing to her that they'd done to that girl without a face or a name and a big O for a mouth. He hadn't even been able to lay a hand on her.) She could see the questions he wanted to ask dancing behind his eyes, a smoldering reflection of the fire at the base of the hill; who was she, why was she here, how could the Fire Nation take somebody so young and chain them up? It wasn't right, it wasn't fair that somebody like her should lose so much.
Being able to read him so clearly didn't seem that strange to the girl; it came naturally, like breathing, and while he appeared reluctant to approach her - cautious and watching, ever-watching with those soft eyes - she understood that it was out of respect for her, that he had seen further than Twig had. The girl felt nothing to fear from the mute archer, and contemplated approaching him - mustering up the courage to speak to him - when she picked up the faint, yet pungent smell of lychee nuts. He had some.
She pursed her lower lip and ran her eyes up and down him one more time...and her stomach growled, a fierce protest to the thought of denying herself food, real food, not that sick slop and creamed corn they'd served her when they felt nice enough. Drawing a deep breath, she exhaled through her nose and tromped across the cool grass, over to the archer, her eyes wandering up, finding and sticking to his.
"You got food."
He blinked, craning his neck back, his eyes searching her. His mouth worked into a tiny frown, and the girl held out a hand - he better .
"I'm hungry. Gimme."
One of his eyebrows rose up; he'd worked hard picking these - they came from the highest branches in the forest. They were sweeter there.
"I don't care if you picked 'em yourself. I want 'em." The girl stomped the ground - if he didn't fork 'em over soon...
This time, both eyebrows shot up and he tipped his hat back even further, a curious frown etched onto his narrow jaw. She could understand him...?
She walked towards him again, stopping less than a yard away. Planting her tiny fists on her hips and jutting out her lower jaw, she stuck her tongue out at him and sniffed. "A'course I can understand you. An' I understand that you aren't givin' me your lychee nuts. An' I'm hungry, so you gotta share."
His mouth fell slightly agape, and she knew she'd pierced some kinda gap in his armor; wordlessly, he reached under the dust-red mantle tied around his neck and withdrew a small draw bag, bulging and lumpy, from his tunic. The scent became more prominent, like hickory and cinnamon; she snatched the bag from his open-fingered palm, her arm a dirt-encrusted orange blur even in her own eyes. Her fingers worked much more nimbly than she figured they would, and the bag's mouth opened to reveal its small, orb-shaped treasures with a few quick motions. She snatched up a handful of the fruits with curled, dirty fingers and popped them into her mouth one-by-one. The sweet skin of the snacks oozed flavor along her tongue, bursting and spraying the inside of her mouth with its succulent juices, and it took all of her will to keep from scarfing them.
The archer, still stunned, nodded and ran a hand along the back of his head; the girl chewed up and swallowed her mouthful, allowing a low, rumbling belch to escape her lips. "So...what's your name...?"
He blinked, as if unsure of how to answer; finally, he narrowed his eyes and met her gaze, waiting, expectantly, for the answer to come from her lips. It was a test, she could tell; she stared, but only for a moment, before breaking out into a gale of youthful laughter.
"Longshot is a silly name."
Meeting Longshot had been like finding someone who speaks the same language as you in a crowd in a foreign country; incredibly unlikely, and incredibly moving. She had no idea what would become of that night - how she and Longshot would become best friends, how he would try teaching her to read and write (and ultimately winding up frustrated by her recalcitrance), how he would wash her when she'd been sprayed by a skunk-bear, how he would care for her when she'd caught the flu that wiped out almost every Freedom Fighter, how he'd try in vain to pluck that splinter out of her finger even though she refused to let him touch it...
...how he'd caught her when she tried to fly, because she really had the right altitude, and if she'd maybe tied a few more leaves onto her arms, she could have lifted off the branch, the ground, and soared through the forest as easily as an Airbender.
How being with him made her feel like she was flying, regardless of how high a branch she jumped from.
Six years ago - Little No-Name
"...a name? What's wrong with the one she has?"
Longshot crossed his arms over his chest and rolled his eyes. A small gyration of the head added a nice little insult Little No-Name was fairly sure Jet missed, but it made her snicker nonetheless.
"Little No-Name is nice, but...it don't got flair." She kicked her legs and leaned back on the wooden bench, her feet not quite reaching the platform below the trio. She rolled her eyes up to the orange-red canopy hanging overhead, a small grin playing across her face. "Doesn't stand up to names like Longshot, Jet or - kinda - Sneers. How long did you guys know each other before you gave each other your names?"
"I called him Mute for about a week before coming up with 'Longshot.'" Jet crossed his arms and bowed his head forward, his wheat stalk bobbing. "He still refuses to tell me his nickname for me, though. It's been driving me insane for years."
"Well, I've been here for a few seasons and you haven't even tried giving me a Freedom Fighter name. Even though you're training me to be one of you - even though I'm better with most swords than you." Little No-Name smirked and ran a hand through her hair. Summer had set in, bringing with it stifling, balmy weather; while the other children and core members of the Freedom Fighters were no longer left in the dark about whether or not she was a girl, it didn't stop her from being...boyish (every time she thought of that word, some kinda dark, inky, burning sensation plucked at her brain - she couldn't really figure out why, it wasn't like the term had ever hurt her before. She pushed it away, same as she had every time beforehand, leaving the mysterious darkness unanswered). As such, she had chopped off most of her shaggy, moss-brown hair so that only a short, prickly layer remained.
(Distantly, words clogged her mind - foggy, covered in soot, the voice lost to static though the meanings were clear as day. "Don't play in the mud _!" " _, a proper lady does not belch after meals!" "Speak only when spoken to, _! Think of your father's status!" and "Your singing voice is so beautiful, but if only you could act more dignified, _." She ignored these. Whoever had plugged her brains with that nonsense was long gone...garglemesh meant for somebody else, someone that wasn't her, choked by the same ash that had taken her voice away. There were different people in her life that weren't so hell-bent on making her something she wasn't.)
"I just don't think you're ready yet, is all." Jet's indignant tone invoked a small shake of the head from Longshot, and Little No-Name bristled.
"I think you're being overprotective," she spat, defiant anger seeping up through her body. "And sexist. (Longshot taught me that word.) I've seen how you stare the teen girls in the village. You may be on your way to mastering those swords on your back, but I already know how to use a bunch of different, ones. I can handle my own in a fight, Jet, just let me go on a mission and prove myself!"
Jet harrumphed, but did not give further response; when met with a querying gaze from Longshot, Jet shrugged and mumbled, "I'd get up and stalk away, but it's too damn hot. Sneers appreciates my company."
"I don't think Sneers wants to deal with your attitude, anyway. Your sexist attitude."
"Sneers isn't a girl."
"Had me fooled. He's a complete wimp."
Longshot snorted, bowing his head low enough to obscure his eyes with the brim of his hat - and the faintest ghost of a smirk floated across his lips as he shared his own personal opinion of the squat monk. Little No-Name drew a sharp breath before admonishing the silent archer.
"How very obscene, Longshot!" She laughed, and Longshot's smirk broadened.
Jet snorted and flopped backwards. "Okay, then...since I'm not gonna get let off the hook, and I'm curious - what name were you thinking of?"
"I..." Little No-Name pursed her lips, gaze flitting to Jet quickly before turning towards the ground. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "I don't know, actually."
"See?" Jet crooked his head and smirked - he had the obnoxious habit of finding his answers in Little No-Name's silence. It cheesed her off, and she felt her shoulders bunching up in irritation. "You're not even ready to name yourself ye - "
Longshot had one.
Little No-Name and Jet turned to the archer, who leaned back against the bench with one arm slung over the back, sweeping the air with the fingers on his other hand, a light grin playing across is face. Besides, it wasn't Freedom Fighter tradition for one to name themselves. Somebody else always had to give the name out. That's what made them important. And he just so happened to have an idea. He figured...
Little No-Name felt a smirk wriggling onto her face; stretching, resting her hands behind her head, her hair prickling her palms, she said, "I like it."
"I don't get it." Jet narrowed one eyebrow, frowning. "I can't read him like you can. What's he saying?"
Little No-Name opened her mouth, but before she could relay Longshot's message, the words tumbled out from a different - more hushed - source.
"'Float like a flutterfly...sting like a smellerbee.' That's what she reminds me of when I see her fighting." Longshot shrugged and crooked his head to the side, a smile ghosting across his face.
Jet and Little No-Name's eyes went wide; she had only known him for a few months, but this was the first time she'd heard Longshot say anything. Judging by how Jet's mouth hung open, the same thing held for him - only it had taken almost two years for this to come to pass. Longshot's voice was - quiet, subdued, fitting perfectly with his personality; she felt heat rising up into her ears, her cheeks, because it was actually kinda...handsome.
"Well." Jet cleared his throat and hawked, spitting a loogey off into the distance. He pretended to look to the side, into the trees - to be disinterested - but Little No-Name knew enough about body language to tell that their leader had been humbled, and felt nothing but pride for what Longshot had just done. "I guess if it's important enough to get Longshot to speak (for the first time since we've met, I should mention, you jerk), we oughtta give it a shot, huh?"
This time, Smellerbee - her old name already forgotten - was the one to grin.
She hadn't ever assumed that Longshot couldn't speak, because he did...it just wasn't verbal. You only didn't notice if you were ignorant, if you didn't bother listening to it; he wasn't stupid, he wasn't mute...he was just really quiet. It lent itself to his style, to the charm that made him who he was, and that was just as important to her as his presence.
Five years ago - Smellerbee
She loved music night; sure, the Freedom Fighters weren't necessarily the next Ba Sing Se Orchestra, but Smellerbee imagined they had a helluva lot more fun.
They all 'specialized' in one instrument or another; Jet could rock the shamisen really hard, while Sneers (grudgingly) stuck to the bongos (because Jet had goaded him into partaking); Longshot could play a stirring melody on the biwa (the only one of them with any real musical inclination, which was pretty funny given how little he spoke), while Pipsqueak would switch out between the piccolo and the triangle, the latter of which he admitted to being a lot more proficient in. Mortar and Pestle doubled up on a xylophone the Freedom Fighters had stolen from a Fire Nation convoy, made of hollowed, darkened bamboo chutes, while Viper and Piper made their mark with those foreign drums that came from around the equator, which were like hollow, metal barrels that made weird pinging noises. So many others joined in, too, it was oftentimes hard to keep up with them all.
Smellerbee liked the sungi horn, personally; it was loud and brassy and obnoxious, and even though it was hard (she didn't have the lung capacity for it...yet), playing the thing was just another challenge, like learning how to use a new sword. That made it more fun, you know? Sure, it didn't have a hilt or a blade or a hand guard or a pommel, but it was metal, and it carried the same weight (and weight was important in swordplay). Instead of piercing flesh, it pierced the air - but with a floating, broken melody. She remembered enough of her past life to know how to hold a note, but...well.
Sometimes they would play songs that required somebody to sing; Pipsqueak was an incredible baritone ('incredible' being a matter of perspective), while Pestle and Mortar could really hit the high notes; Jet fell into the middle ground, and he was better than the rest, and that was it, really...some of the others took a swing at that job - but there were always three exceptions. Sneers, because he outright refused, though Pipsqueak had made it a personal project to get him to loosen up; Longshot because...well, he was Longshot; and herself, because that would bring the old times crashing down around her head, and it would hurt, and her throat and chest would tighten, and she'd lose herself to the slipknot that separated one life from the next.
She always told them that it made her throat hurt if she sang, and that did the trick. It wasn't entirely untrue.
Longshot, Jet and Sneers would look at her sometimes, though - because they knew. They were the only ones who did. They never said anything aloud, and she was grateful for that...but by the same coin, they never had to. She knew what swam behind those eyes, because she'd always been good at reading people, and while she appreciated them not airing her dirty laundry, she sometimes wish they'd just let the matter drop. It wasn't like she went around trudging up their pasts, feeling sorry for the people they'd been. Every Freedom Fighter had lost people they loved, that one important thing...empathizing with that wasn't outta the ordinary here. Anything that came before the Freedom Fighters only mattered to those who had experienced them.
Anyway. Music night helped her do what she'd loved doing so long ago without having to regress and get caught between two walls of icy, sharp rocks.
It took years to break Longshot and Jet from their habit of pursuing her passively (Sneers had been easy, because after a point he just stopped caring); she just had to call them out on it, privately of course, and that did the trick, that made them back off, and...
...and it really didn't make her feel any better. She sort of wished she could take it back entirely at this point, to just let them think what they would, but the Freedom Fighters didn't operate on the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens.
Three years ago - Smellerbee
She scooped up a piece of turtle duck with her bare fingers, the broth running down the meat, warm and wet beneath her fingertips; Sheng cast her a sideways glance before picking up a pair of chopsticks he'd been holding between his knees, snapping them apart.
"Do all your friends eat like savages?" He poked the wooden bowl he held in one hand, grimacing at the lackluster appearance of the contents within. "And is this really the best meat you could find?"
"Hey, if you want to try grabbing somebody else's meat without getting caught..."
"Up yours, you know what I meant."
Sheng gave an uncomfortable shrug, stirring his soup half-heartedly. "I'll leave the pick-pocketing and lock-picketing to you, then."
"Besides, we don't always have enough utensils for everyone back home, and there are over a dozen kids on board at any given time. It's just a part of the life." Smellerbee shrugged, popped the nugget of meat into her mouth, and leaned back on the thatched roof of the farm she and her companion had bunked out in for the night. Mostly flavorless and gamy, but it would sate her hunger while giving the swordswoman the chance to gnash her teeth on something and think. Avoiding that awful sensation of wanting to throw your stomach up so you could eat it. Starvation was also part of the life of a Freedom Fighter, but she wouldn't tell this Fire Nation weenie that. It'd be too personal.
The stars shimmered high above them, thousands of brilliant points of light flickering down from the ink-black sky; though it was spring, the wind was the perfect temperature - a comforting warmth that swept through her hair, brushed her cheek. The straw rough at her back, prickling her neck, she turned her attention inward; she had not been this alone in three years, and was way too used to having the other Freedom Fighters - usually Longshot - watching her back. She hadn't gone without that sense of security for far too long, and being out here - alone with only Sheng for company - made her long for a familiar face.
She swallowed the chunks of meat and grunted. "Well - not the worst turtle duck soup I've ever had, but it's edible. Given the ingredients we had to work with, you're not a bad chef. I guess I didn't give you enough credit."
He chuckled and rubbed the back of his head, his cheeks turning a crimson color that would have matched the color of his armor, had they not sold it so they could afford some more inconspicuous Earth Kingdom robes for him. "Thanks. I told you before that I think my true calling would be as a cook, and joining the military was a mistake. The Fire Nation had enough soldiers before bumbling, nervous Sheng joined up."
"Hmm." Smellerbee considered this, her lower lip pursed out. In the distance, manticadas chirruped through the night. "I think...I think you made the right choice, to be honest."
"Huh? But you said you hated the Fire Nation."
"True." Smellerbee drew a deep breath through her nose, letting it out between her teeth. "But...you ain't so bad." As much as she hated admitting it, he was the most human person from the Fire Nation I've ever come across; he'd joined under the false pretense of spreading greatness instead of destruction, it wasn't like he just hadn't know any better. Thinking these thoughts - knowing what she would be pulling when she got back to the Forest...ugh, she wasn't sure if she should be proud of or disgusted with herself. The Fire Nation were the bad guys! They'd - they'd stolen the homes and families and voices and Precious Things of the people living there, and inviting in one of the demons that had brought that destruction down on them...
Smellerbee wasn't dumb. One day, the war would end, and the Fire Nation would stop being the enemy. She gave a defiant sniff, the turtle duck soup wafting up to her nose; it smelled about as delectable as it tasted, and it didn't do anything to help her sort these confusing, stupid thoughts out. Acceptance needed to start somewhere, and if - if she could start with Sheng, with this greenhorn flab bucket who had all the good intentions in the world and little capacity to follow through with them...well, it'd be better than trying to hug the Fire Lord. Even if she couldn't tell any of the Freedom Fighters about it.
Sheng allowed a smile to curl up on his round face, the expression very similar to Sneers' namesake in that it looked as if it had been carved there upon the man's birth; Smellerbee snorted in response, crossing her arms over her chest. "But don't get the wrong idea. You're still a dumbass."
They pushed the ostrich horses until Ba Sing Se reduced to an earthen clump sticking out from the ground in the far distance, the two beasts panting and heaving. Rugged plains stretched out between the Freedom Fighters and their former prison and place of refuge. Thoughts and memories of the past kept her occupied, preventing her from dwelling on their losses.
She and Longshot pulled their ostrich horses to a halt at the edge of a sparse, ratty forest; it certainly didn't stand up to the grandeur of the Hong Ye, with ragged, almost sickly pale branches that spread out like gnarled old hands, stunted trunks and curled, dying leaves. Even in this storm, whose ferocity grew by the minute, this was the safest thing Smellerbee and Longshot would be able to find and substitute as shelter until the rain let up. (Hopefully the thunder and lightning would keep itself at bay...) The gloomy, midday light had difficulty penetrating too far into the meshed canopy, so it would keep them dry enough.
That didn't make the fact that she was absolutely soaked to the bone again any less shitty. This time, there wouldn't even be a fire to help keep the Freedom Fighters warm.
Thighs numb and back sore, Smellerbee dismounted her ostrich horse and led it by the reins into the grove of trees. Longshot followed at her back, the archer casting flickering, fleeting glances over his shoulder every few seconds. Sound strategy, making sure they hadn't been followed...but at this point, Smellerbee wasn't entirely sure it had served a purpose now. The Dai Li had bigger things to deal with other than two teenagers who had escaped their damn city of walls and secrets. Longshot must have picked up on her attitude; after a few moments, he lowered his head and kept his gaze on the ground.
Still, run through the motions, Smellerbee, you've got to take charge of the situation now... "Did they follow us?" Smellerbee's voice came out terse, and she sensed the hesitation on Longshot's part in responding; at last, she picked up a minute shake of the head, and she allowed a quick, wobbling breath escape. "Good...good."
Silence overcame the two Freedom Fighters; only the sounds of the rain pattering down through the trees overhead and the brush being crunched underfoot accompanied them, and despite having Longshot for company, Smellerbee felt alone - as if a rift had grown between the two while she'd been reminiscing. Cold, empty...isolated. Worse than it had been beneath Lake Laogai, because...because the archer had been there, just segregated. This felt more like the opposite - while inseparable physically, it was like he'd - he'd closed himself off, locked his mind behind the metal bars.
The trees in the forest parted enough to the point where the undergrowth yielded a clearing large enough where they'd be able to rest comfortably; rain drizzled down from a gap between the trees, but that would be okay - they'd gotten by on worse, like the apartment in Ba Sing Se -
a dusty, tiny little thing, with a draft and bad furniture and four walls and a ceiling and a floor and no branches and nothing to do, but it was home, dammit, and they'd spent two weeks waiting for the Dai Li to release him, so that he could come back, so that they could be with Jet again
That did it, that was enough, that thought, that single concept, because, because they'd waited and waited and they finally found him only for him to be taken away again, forever, and, and, she couldn't keep it all in anymore, she felt herself start to overflow as she collapsed forward, the foliage scraping her through her clothes. She clenched her fists, felt her back, shoulders tighten, squeezed her eyes shut - it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, Jet had been a part of her life for so long, a part of all their lives! He was their father, their brother, their best friend, to every Freedom Fighter, to all the stray, disoriented children who had lost home, family, voice. He was too passionate, too brilliant, too unique of a person to just be gone, a spark extinguished by, by an Earthbender of all people, not a Firebender, not the enemy they'd been trained to recognize growing up, not...
She could feel Longshot hovering over her, and she knew he'd have his arms spread, fingers and palms ghosting over her shoulders, soothing her with his touch. It was like watching Jet die all over again; her, sobbing into the ground, crying - and him, so calm, so collected...
She grit her teeth and screamed hard into the ground, scraping her throat raw; dirt kicked back and lodged in her esophagus, and she heaved a dry, throaty cough, her breath catching and her body shaking. How could somebody so relevant, so important, so, so caring, just not be there anymore...?
Longshot planted his hands on her shoulders, finally, and Smellerbee felt the tension slip away, just a little bit; his grip, while not painful, was firm, comforting - warm. Sobs dissolved into sniffles and hiccups, and she felt so young again - like the child in the mines, before she could kill, before she could even comprehend what the term 'enemy' meant, let alone learn the meaning only to lose sight of it.
"I'm sorry, Longshot, I'm so sorry..." Her voice wobbled and she felt her lower lip sticking out. Hot, sticky rivulets leaked from her eyes, sliding down her cheeks, vanishing into the dirt and twigs below. "It - it all caught up to me. There's just - oh, Longshot, so much, too much..."
He shifted his weight, came into her field of vision; with a little difficulty, heat rising up into her face, Bee managed to bring her gaze up to meet his for a fleeting moment before turning away. He knew, oh Spirits he knew...Jet had been everything to everyone he'd cared for, and they had been the first, he and Longshot, and he knew she'd been trying to keep everything under control, and it was so hard, he could barely function anymore either, it...
"Jet...yeah, it's Jet, but...more than that. It's everything. It's life." She drew a shuddering breath through her teeth. She tried to articulate this next part - the scrap of fatal news Longshot hadn't heard in that horrible dystopia, but, but the rational part in her mind had been turned to jelly. So - nothing to do it, no way to cushion it, no fancy words to make it sound eloquent. Just come out. Just say it. She took another breath, cold and raw, and said, "One of the Dai Li said that Aang had been killed in Ba Sing Se."
She found herself staring at him again, the word still lingering on his lips; his eyes had gone wide, the corners of his mouth pulled down into a frown. Their gazes met again, briefly, before Longshot sat down hard on the ground, his arms splayed over his legs. Smellerbee looked away; as if confirming all Longshot needed to know, he bowed his head, hiding behind the brim of his hat.
After a long, painful pause, Smellerbee took a slow, steadying breath, pushing herself back into a kneeling position. She furrowed her brow - tried to, to think, to pull all the scurrying ideas together into cohesive thoughts, words, sentences...she, she wasn't the leader Jet had been. Jet would know what to do, he would have figured out how to escape from Lake Laogai sooner, would have pulled off their escape from Ba Sing Se more efficiently. He had had so much charisma, he could lead anybody he wanted to, he could manipulate the Avatar and his friends, he could inspire those he cared for, he could unite the Freedom Fighters against any cause, he -
...he could. But, he wasn't here anymore, it was just Longshot, just Smellerbee, and she had to step up to bat. Jet had been training her, teaching her how to lead, and she had still been learning when they left the forest, left that life behind to go straight, but she remembered what Jet would tell her about good ideas and how suddenly they'd crop up. Uniting the Freedom Fighters...rallying them, pulling them together...yes. Yes, that made sense. She lowered her gaze, shook her head, and said, "We need to bring back the Freedom Fighters."
Longshot glanced up at her again, an eyebrow lowered inquisitively. The ghost of a frown trudged across his narrow jaw, rain streaming down his hat, tiny rivulets of the stuff dripping down from the brim.
Was she sure? Did that - would that be the right thing to do?
"Y...yes. I'm pretty sure." Smellerbee cleared her throat and brought one hand back, around the side of her head and shaggy hair; her fingertips lighted across the smooth, leather hilts of Jet's swords. From behind, the ostrich horses scuffed the ground, snorting - and then, a massive beak filled one side of her vision, the mount she had stolen, resting its head against her own. It croaked, and...and Smellerbee shuddered, because it was weird for a creature like an ostrich horse to act like this, as if it knew what she was going through.
Did it matter, though...? It was offering her comfort, and Longshot's had crossed around to his side, ducking its head towards him...something was odd with these beasts, but taking this repose for granted felt...silly. Smellerbee brought one hand up to the opposite side of the ostrich horse's head and pressed her cheek into the other, its down warm and light against her face. "Sneers won't be too happy to see us, but once he hears what happened..."
Longshot nodded, his eyes flickering to the swords on her back before returning to the ground at his feet. They'd have to find The Duke and Pipsqueak, too, and hope that they would come along.
"Yeah. They went to Omashu, so our first stop should be there." Bee scuffed a boot against the ground. "Their problem was with Jet, anyway, so convincing them to come back into the fold won't be hard."
This elicited another nod from the mute archer, and Smellerbee could see his expression collapse; suddenly, a layer peeled away from Longshot, and Bee could see just how tired the previous events had made him. The same barriers that she'd been holding in place to keep from overflowing - crumbling, roughshod walls made of twigs and mud that sunk when she pressed her hands into them - fell away, leaving him exhausted, vulnerable. The swordswoman bowed her head and climbed up to her feet.
"You ran around Ba Sing Se for like four hours, Longshot. Take a nap, get some rest; I'll make camp and start pitching the tent, okay?"
He glanced up to her and smiled, but the warmth she had come to expect from those rare, precious treats didn't fill her up. While not hollow - the gratitude certainly was there - the swordswoman now had visible proof that a gap had formed between them. She felt something, something unfamiliar, burble up into her chest, grab at her throat, and - and all she could do was sigh. Because trying to put any more effort into anything right now would make her overflow all over again. She turned, started to unsling the camping gear strapped to Longshot's ostrich horse, and gave herself to the busywork that laid ahead. It would numb her mind and keep out the emotional wringer looming just out of reach.