This was the fucking weirdest night of Jet's whole life.
Jet was really confused by Lu Ten. He kept waiting for Lu Ten to do something evil – Lu Ten was a firebender after all. They were meant to do evil shit like it was their job.
When Lu Ten put his scarf around Smellerbee – Jet fingered the hook swords in case he tried to strangle her with it...but he never. Instead he wrapped it around her snugly and apologised that he didn't have much winter gear for her. He'd only brought a few things for Jet – which had now been distributed between Jet and Longshot. He'd brought warm woollen shirts that felt soft as a kitten's fur and thick socks. Smellerbee was using a pair of socks as gloves at the moment.
Smellerbee was definitely the most trusting of their little group.
Lu Ten had won her over at 'I'll cook you a hot dinner'.
Hot food, especially hot, free food was the easiest way to her heart. She'd love anyone who fed her - and this worries Jet. He worries that this hunger has become their baseline. Longshot and Smellerbee practically inhaled the rice, and even though Jet had already eaten, he'd been so hungry for so long that he found room for a bit more. It made him feel a bit sick because he hadn't had this much to eat in the longest time. No one said anything, but Lu Ten had cooked what was their first hot meal together since their village had been destroyed.
They didn't even have a set of spark rocks between them.
No one had wanted to start a fire after that day.
Jet thought that he would always hate fire after that.
He would always be wary of its raw capacity for destruction and the way it hurt and seared.
But he'd forgotten how fire could also be warm and comforting.
Lu Ten had made them a big fire and instructed them all to warm themselves up. He said it in a that bossy, no-nonsense tone that Jet's dad had sometimes used. The sort of voice that was used to telling kids what to do and dealing with cheeky responses. The three of them had inched closer slowly at the start. Then Smellerbee had just started...luxuriating in the warmth. It was almost shameful how much she enjoyed being warm and how expressive she was about this. oh that's so nice, oh that's so warm, oh I can feel my toes!
They had sat for a while, basking in the warmth while Lu Ten fussed with dinner and the supplies.
The weirdest thing about the whole night was the supplies. Lu Ten definitely had to be mad, Jet reckoned – to be bringing them all this stuff. And he just gave it to them...like it was nothing. But this sort of stuff could really help them and some of it was really good quality. Jet wondered if Lu Ten even knew how much some of this stuff was worth. Or maybe he was just touched in the head after all.
He'd brought good wire for snares for a start – what the actual fuck was up with that. Not only did Lu Ten bring the wire, but he showed them how to make a whole bunch of basic traps. It felt almost like school. But Lu Ten was the weirdest teacher he had ever encountered.
Lu Ten showed them how to set the traps and then made them do it over and over again – until he could be sure that they would remember it. Jet kind of resented his bossiness. However Lu Ten did have a point – trap setting would be an invaluable skill in the forest. They wouldn't go hungry if they could set good traps.
They then set the traps up around the camp in a big wide circle. While they were waiting for the traps to snap, Lu Ten set up a tent for them – because the hideout wasn't insulated enough in his oh-so-expert opinion. The Tent was big enough for one large firenation man – but it would suffice for three kids in the time being until a more permanent shelter could be made.
Lu Ten had advice about that too. Use the tent until spring. Winter snow made everything too damp and unworkable so it was a bit too late to build a more permanent structure now. Lu Ten thought they'd be better off in the trees. The forest was full of all kinds of predators in the warmer months (bears and firebenders for one). They roamed the forest floor looking for prey. An elevated position would grant them safety and privacy.
The benefits of the trees were many – according to Lu Ten. But the biggest problem would be finding a way of staying in the tree tops. It would be hard to build a sturdy structure that would be big enough -especially because none of them had any building experience.
Smellerbee had offered that Longshot's dad is...was a carpenter, and Longshot was pretty good as well. Lu Ten and longshot had a conversation...well it would be a conversation if Longshot actually spoke (Longshot hadn't spoken since it happened). As it was Lu Ten had talked a great deal at Longshot and Longshot had nodded a lot at Lu Ten.
The rest of the items in the bag were demonstrated and then stashed in the tent. Lu Ten then started giving them other lessons. Survival lessons. Lessons about being downwind and upwind, and how to find your way by the stars if you got lost.
Lu Ten was just explaining the best ways to collect water when one of the traps went off. Lu Ten had taken Jet aside and shown him the best way to kill it and skin it and gut it. Lu Ten thought that might be a bit too gross for Smellerbee and Longshot. Because Jet was the oldest – he got shown.
They hung the squirrelcoon up to drain – it would be a good lunch tomorrow. And went back to the others. Smellerbee had stuffed the tent full of blankets to make it 'cosy' and Longsot was playing with more of the wire for traps. They were like kids at christmas. Lu Ten explained to them that they could sell the squirrelcoon pelts in the town for money. If they learned to live modestly and use the resources around them...he was sure they'd be okay.
"but until you gets the hang of catching things – you'll need a little bit more to get by." Lu Ten said and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bag – which he handed to Longshot. Lu Ten seemed to believe that Longshot was the most responsible – possibly because his constant silence prevented him from saying stupid things. but Jet said enough stupid things to compensate.
Lu Ten wanted them to spend the money wisely – on things the forest couldn't provide. They'd need to by a set of spark rocks. They'd also need shoes each because cold feet lead to illness and catching your death and Lu Ten didn't want that for them. He also wanted them to try and make the money stretch to building supplies in the spring.
Lu Ten ran them through a rough breakdown on what everything should cost, gave them some tips on haggling, banked the fire, checked the tent was secure, filled the waterskins for them and checked the traps. There were two more squirrelcoons, which Lu Ten killed as quickly and painlessly as possible and then made Jet practice skinning them. The first one he mangled terribly – but he did a bit better at the second one.
After that, it didn't seem like Lu Ten had anything left to give them or show them.
Earlier this evening, he had come bursting into a hideout – a big, bad firemonster with everything. Now he just looked like a regular teenager, sitting by the fire with them in just a woollen jumper, black pants and the scabbard with his big broadswords in it. He looked a bit smaller and less threatening out of his armour. He'd even given his big winter coat to Longshot, which made him look smaller still. he looked like a regular man and not a big bad monster.
Jet glanced briefly at Lu Ten and wondered if he was feeling cold at all. And then dismissed the thought. Firebenders never got cold – did they.
Jet thought that he hated all firebenders with a blind passion. He thought they all deserved to die terrible, horrible deaths. But looking at Lu Ten over the fire was making him feel funny inside. It was making him reconsider some things. Maybe he wouldn't hate all firebenders. He couldn't really hate Lu Ten anyway. Not after he given them a home, food, money and the means for survival. Lu Ten had given them hope.
They'd be able to survive now – Jet was sure of it. Him and Smellerbee and Longshot could get by like this.
You couldn't really hate someone who was so generous that they gave Longshot the winter coat of their back – when Longshot's teeth started chattering like mad, even despite the fire.
You couldn't hate a person who patiently showed you how to set a trap so you wouldn't starve and could be self -sufficient. (Lu Ten had been very fond of the word self-sufficient and he'd very much wanted the three of them to be self-sufficient).
You couldn't hate a person who saved you from certain death at the hands of Colonel Mongke (the worst monster in the world).
Lu Ten got up then and told them that the sun would be up soon – and they'd do well to get some sleep. Tomorrow was the first day of the new year after all. He looked around at the three of them, and there was a delicate sort of pause.
Something passes between them. Between Lu Ten and the kids. Jet can't describe or define it at all. But it is something warm and good. It's definitely good. Before Lu Ten arrived – their situation was hopeless and now it's not. Everyone around the fire knows this one simple truth. That means something – it does.
It's there for just a second, that feeling. It is like the light sparkling on the creek in summer. A quick bright flash – then it is gone.
Lu Ten wishes them all the best of luck in a nice voice. It's deep and vaguely raspy and Jet likes it. After wishing them luck – there didn't seem to be anything more to say. Lu Ten started walking away on those big long firebender legs of his.
Smellerbee called out "thank you for everything" at his retreating form. He stopped right at the tree line, turned and waved at her. The last thing he said was "you're welcome. Take care of each other now." Smellerbee said she would and waved back like an idiot. Then Lu Ten smiled, turned and started walking through the trees and right back out of their lives again.
He'd left everything with them. Even the bag he'd run into the forest with. Even the hook swords. Which he'd said was a very important present for his cousin. Which he'd wanted back so badly at the start of the night. Which Jet stole. Jet felt a little wiggly worm of guilt in his stomach. He glanced between the tent, which Smellerbee and Longshot had already clambered into, and the gap in the trees which Lu Ten had disappeared through.
So Jet decided that maybe just this once, he would make an exception.
Maybe not all firebenders were evil.
Maybe Lu Ten was okay in his book.
Maybe Jet should give him back the swords.
He stood up and followed Lu Ten through the trees.
Jet didn't know it at the time, but he was right about to learn the most important lesson of the night; how to use the hook swords.
He was right about to be told the most important prediction of the year; the war will be over by the start of summer.
He was right about to hear the most important promise of his life; I promise you, I'll do my best to get justice for you.
Jet gives a promise of his own; I'll never use these swords to attack – I will only use them for defense.
Everyday Jet practices the moves he's been taught with his hook swords and he gains skill and competency and confidence. He begins to experiment – but tries to maintain good technique. He remembers Lu Ten's words. The swords are an extension of himself and they are two parts of the same whole.
Squirrelcoons are caught and skinned. Pelts are sold. Shoes and supplies are bought. Wood and nails and rope are stockpiled. In early spring Longshot draws up a plan and together the three of them build the first platform of what will later be an enormous and expansive treehouse. Lu Ten is right. It's safer in the trees.
The kids grow less scared of fire. They eat a hot meal every night – even if they are tired of the taste of squirrelcoon and rice – at least they are no longer hungry.
For four months after this night – the world is a better, warmer, less hungry place for Jet.
But this story lasts for six.