Fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
Word Count: 4,650
Summary: Smellerbee wept. [The freedom fighters, a body, and what comes after.]
Warning/Spoilers: Spoilers for 'Lake Laogai'. Death, and a few descriptions of unpleasant death things.
Notes: Oh god, writing this made me really sad. The tense shifts at the beginning and end; it's intentional. Thank you to Ingrid for reading and giving advice!
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender.
("He's our leader.")
He told them, in the dim green light, to leave his body be when he died, to just concentrate on getting the hell out of the cavernous compound. It was the practical order to give, and he said it because he felt like he needed to. In fact, he made them promise, each in turn, waiting for the hiccoughing "okay" and the quiet, slow nod.
He had to know that they were going to disobey him, though; he knew them too well. He knew that they would want to give him a funeral.
Smellerbee's eyes are dry by the time she rests a hand on Jet's forehead one more time. It is damp with sweat and a few splashes of her tears, and incongruously warm. She takes a moment to close her eyes briefly, and steel herself for everything that is to come.
Next to her, Longshot's foot shifts slightly. She looks up to find that he still has an arrow trained on the door. It's been more than a minute since the last whispers of footsteps went past it. Smellerbee had been right in thinking that the Dai Li would give chase to the Avatar and the others. No one had so much as paused by the thick stone doors. She's relieved, of course, but somewhere deep in her heart it makes her feel cold and sick and bitter.
Longshot doesn't lower his arms, but he glances at her.
"Yeah," she replies, and closes her eyes again. She can't afford to start crying again now.
It takes another ten seconds or so for Longshot to move, but when he does, it's with the same quiet efficiency that he does everything else. He swings the bow behind his back, but keeps the arrow in his hand as he walks over to Jet's other side. Smellerbee has a dagger in her left hand; has since Aang and the others left, and doesn't put it away either.
Jet had started coughing up blood in the last few minutes, after he was too weak to talk. Most of it's still there, drying on his lips, his cheeks, the nape of his neck. Longshot uses a thumb to wipe some of it away. It smudges, mostly, leaving a trail down his chin. The action pulls Jet's lower lip down a bit; Smellerbee can see the blood glistening on his teeth.
Smellerbee has never seen Longshot cry; she thinks for a second that she's about to. But what happens instead is this: he rests his hand on hers on Jet's forehead; his thumb strokes her knuckles briefly, smudging their leader's blood across her skin.
"Yeah," she says again when he lifts his eyes to meet hers. "I know."
Together, they drag their hands down over his eyelids, shutting away the unseeing brown eyes.
Jet's got a few inches and several pounds on Longshot. Like any other archer, Longshot has a lot more upper body strength than might be expected for someone of his frame. Nevertheless, he struggles under Jet's dead weight for those first few seconds, his hands under Jet's armpits as he tries to hold him up against his chest. Smellerbee straps Jet's swords to her back, and then comes over to take hold of his legs, after which Longshot adjusts his grip. It's not ideal, and hardly practical, but it's their best option at this juncture.
Longshot put his arrow back into the quiver a few minutes ago, exchanging it for a dagger between his teeth. Smellerbee too has a knife curled in one of her fists. She spends a few minutes trying to find an ideal way to hold it so that it doesn't press against Jet's leg, before realising that it doesn't actually matter, and continuing to try anyway.
Smellerbee gives Longshot a nod when she's ready. They adjust him in their arms once more before heading towards the door.
They can't afford to spend much more time here, but they silently agree that slow and cautious is the way to go. They aren't given much of a choice with regard to their speed, anyway; Smellerbee too is a lot stronger than she looks, but she's never had to bear Jet's weight before, not like this… She remembers one arm slung around her neck and the other over Longshot's as they hurried back to the hideout, Jet's left foot twisted and limp. She remembers a dirty boot in her hands as she gave him a boost up a smooth wall to a waiting Longshot. She remembers a chuckle in her ear as Jet draped himself over her shoulder and teased.
A shudder trickles up and down her spine before nesting uncomfortably in her belly. Smellerbee swallows and tightens her grip.
Their footsteps echo hollowly off the high stone walls of the underground cavern, but there doesn't seem to be anyone left to hear it. They shuffle awkwardly along the walls anyway, letting the shadows cover their passing. It's harder for Longshot, who is walking backwards, but soft grunts and jerks of Smellerbee's head tell him where to go.
In what seems like no time at all, Smellerbee's arms are aching, at her shoulder joints and wrists especially, but she breathes deeply through her mouth and tells herself that she can go further.
"I'm fine," she says when Longshot makes a soft noise. "Come on, don't stop."
They don't stop. Smellerbee stares straight ahead in determination, but that puts Jet's face directly in her line of sight. His head lolls uselessly against Longshot's chest, and his mouth sags. Smellerbee's stomach rebels at the sight. That is a mouth for smirking, for laughing, for growling, for yelling. Seeing it droop slackly like that makes bile and tears rise in her throat afresh.
After that, she tilts her head up to look at Longshot, focusing on the set of his chin and the words in his eyes.
When they come up alongside what looks like a storeroom, Smellerbee motions to Longshot to stop. They rest his body on the floor, and Smellerbee takes a few guilty moments to massage her shoulders and arms. Then she's stealing quietly into the room, while Longshot stands guard. She emerges a minute later with a length of rope that she loops around one shoulder, and a piece of tarp that she stuffs under her chest plate.
She nods to Longshot. On the count of three, they gather him into their arms again, and continue.
They have one close call, minutes away from their destination. Longshot's spine stiffens, Smellerbee catches a distinct murmur, and then they are hurrying into another vaulted, blessedly empty room.
The sounds of wet, squelching footsteps pass them by. Smellerbee raises an eyebrow at Longshot, and they wait a few more minutes before moving on.
At the foot of the vertical tunnel through which they came, Smellerbee's heart drops like a stone, and all of her half-formed plans of arranging some kind of pulley to get him out are dissolved. Looking up, the ladder is far, far taller than it had seemed coming down. There is no way that the two of them can carry him up there. No way.
They rest him gently at the foot of the ladder and have a quick, tense conversation.
"No, there's gotta be," Smellerbee insists, and then nods bleak agreement at the look Longshot gives her, dragging her hand over her eyes. They don't have time to look for another exit. They've been stupidly lucky as it's been so far; Smellerbee can't expect for that to hold out much longer in enemy territory.
Neither of them suggests the obvious.
After a few more seconds, Longshot falls into a crouch, and it's clear what he wants her to do.
"Longshot, we can't—" Smellerbee bites back the rest of the sentence before she can say it out loud, and feel like a traitor to everything he's ever taught her. She looks up again, to the patch of sky that she can see beyond the opening. Throat slick, she glances down at the slack, bloodied face, squeezes her eyes shut, opens them again. They can. They have to. They're freedom fighters.
She manages a few more protests – ("At least let me carry him; you can cover us from above.") – but Longshot beats them all down. In the end, she takes his bow and quiver from him, and then helps him drape Jet across his back. It is the work of a few minutes to secure him there with a bit of rope. Smellerbee tries to ignore the dampness of Jet's pants, and the way he smells.
It is obvious that Longshot struggles with the weight as he gets creakily to his feet, hunching, but there is nothing for it. He flattens his mouth into a line, gets a firm grip on Jet's legs, and glances at Smellerbee.
"Yeah," she croaks, and then clears her throat. She readies an arrow, remembering an afternoon in the forest, with Longshot warm at her back, positioning her arms and showing her how to notch and loose, and Jet watching with half lidded eyes from a nearby tree. She swallows, and nods. "I'm ready."
It is a slow, awkward ascent. Longshot goes first, after a brief discussion; Smellerbee insists on at least letting Jet's feet rest atop her shoulders as she climbs, to take some of the weight off. She keeps an arrow at the ready; she's not as good of a shot as her friend, but he's counting on her for cover, and she can't start letting him down now.
Longshot's legs are shaking slightly by the time they reach the top. He climbs out, collapses to his knees, and immediately starts untying the rope around his waist. Smellerbee follows quickly, arrow-first, and makes a three hundred and sixty degree turn; quickly on the first go, and then slow and narrow-eyed on the second. Nothing. Off in the west, she can see a crumbled rock wall where there had been none earlier this morning, but the lake and the surrounding environs are deserted.
She satisfies herself with one more sweep before she eases the bow down, and hurries to Longshot's side, stepping over the body. He is breathing harshly, but holds up a hand to say that he's alright. Smellerbee gives him another minute to catch his breath, handing back over the bow and quiver. A breeze blows and ripples the water's surface, making it lap against the stone gangway. Smellerbee looks up. The sun, amazingly, is still shining.
Longshot grunts softly, and then they are grasping Jet by the shoulders and legs again, carefully making their way off the lake and to the shelter of a rock outcropping nearby. It is fresh agony on their limbs.
Again, they put Jet's body to rest on the earth. Longshot leans back against the rock while Smellerbee pulls the piece of tarpaulin out from under her chest plate. It is not very large, but it is large enough. Longshot keeps an eye out while she spreads it on the ground. She folds it in half, and then wonders if she can get away with folding it in quarters. She can't, so she starts folding in the corners, making them thicker, and then gets out a dagger and the rest of the rope.
While she works, Longshot starts divesting Jet of his light armour: his shoulder plates, arm guards, thigh guards, and everything else they couldn't bear to leave behind under the lake. Up here, at least, they have a better chance of stashing them somewhere and returning later. By the time Jet is down to his clothing alone, Smellerbee is done with the makeshift litter. It's nothing fancy, but it should hold him.
(No, not him, Smellerbee tries to correct herself hollowly. It. Jet's not in there anymore. She closes her eyes and practises the word in her mind, but can't get it to stick.)
Longshot is looking at her. They need to decide, quickly.
They wish it could be a difficult decision, but it's not. There is no question of trying to carry Jet back into the city with them. Even if they make it on and off the Monorail without incident – utterly unlikely – they have nowhere to take him where the fact of his dead weight and stench won't be immediately evident. They don't know anyone except each other, have no money for a burial, and no one to trust with the truth of what happened.
Nor can they entertain the prospect of looking for an ideal spot here in the agrarian zone. They need to put some definite distance between themselves and the lake, but it needs to be done swiftly. Time cannot be wasted.
Smellerbee feels tears rushing to her eyes, and she blinks them back savagely. Undercutting the awful hollowness in her stomach and in her heart is a sudden wave of anger.
"He deserves better than this," she spits out, because it needs to be said. "He's—he was a hero; this isn't—"
Longshot cuts her off with a hand on her shoulder, curving around the bone. She almost breaks apart then, punching a fist into her thigh, before she looks up to meet Longshot head on.
"We will. He gave us an order, but he died knowing what we were gonna do."
Her friend nods, firm and unwavering for all the sadness in his eyes, and it's all the comfort Smellerbee is going to get now.
Together, they shift him onto the litter, before hiding away his armour. Smellerbee's already wearing gloves, so Longshot takes the bandages that they unravel from Jet's legs with a pang, and wraps them around his own hands.
Smellerbee grasps two of the rope handles of the litter; her arms scream in protest as she and Longshot rise from the ground and begin walking east.
It's easier, because of the litter, and because they're outside, and because every step takes them further and further away from the Dai Li base. It still doesn't change the fact that their best friend's body swings agonisingly heavy between them, tiny flies beginning to hunt after the blood on his mouth.
They avoid the path that they'd taken to get to the lake, and instead lead themselves deeper into the countryside, while keeping the lake in sight. Lake Laogai finds itself in a fairly secluded area; they don't spot any dwellings or farmlands on their trek, though there does seem to be an abundance of jackalopes about, sniffing around in the billowy grass. It is a breezy day; Smellerbee's sweat barely stains her brow before a cool windy hand wipes it away.
The first handle breaks after about twenty minutes; Longshot has to stop, grip the tarpaulin with his hand itself, and adjust Jet with a knee before nodding to Smellerbee that he is okay to move on. Five minutes after that, the strain proves too much once again, and one of Smellerbee's handles tears through the material. Ten minutes after that, they decide that they have found an ideal spot.
One last time, his back upon the ground.
It is quiet, here; there is not a living creature to be seen or heard for miles. Longshot and Smellerbee have struggled their way to the top of a small incline, where a young apple tree stands watch over the plains. Behind it, the dirt and grass stretch for miles. They test the soil with their knives; it seems pliable enough. Longshot rolls his shoulders perfunctorily before going off to search the nearby area. Smellerbee, in the meantime, does what she can to clean the blood off of Jet's face. It's not enough.
She inspects her hands. The gloves had helped, but she still feels the imprint of the rope grooving deep into her palms, and the marks are visible. Between that, the blood and the dirt, the once white gloves are a sorry sight. Smellerbee feels a pang, low in her belly. Jet had given them to her, years and years ago.
Longshot returns with two thin but sturdy branches, and two pieces of rock; one that is almost flat with jagged edges, and another that tapers off to a rough point. Smellerbee gets out the last of the rope and sets about fashioning two rudimentary shovels. She lets Longshot take care of the knots; his are tighter and firmer than hers.
They divest themselves of their outer layers, and after another quick perusal of the landscape, they start. They dig together, at first; Longshot stabbing and loosening the earth, and Smellerbee clearing it out of the way. It's slow going; their makeshift tools cannot handle much force, and their backs and shoulders and arms already ache with the exertions of the morning. The sun is rising to the highest point in the sky, and the tree buffets the winds that come their way. Sweat pours down Smellerbee's arms and her cheeks, soaking her clothes through and through. She tries to breathe deeply through her mouth, but that only forces dirt down her throat. Coughing, she spits it out.
She hears Longshot stop next to her, and she waves a palm at him.
"No," she rasps, "if we stop now, we'll never finish. Keep going."
He's silent for another few seconds, and she can tell that he is looking at her back, but she doesn't turn to see what he's saying. He resumes digging away at the dirt moments after she does.
After the first hour, the ropes on her shovel start coming loose, and she pauses so that Longshot can do them up again. A half an hour later, it starts happening again, and Smellerbee gives up on the implement. She abandons the wooden handle and the rope, and starts hacking away at the earth with the flat rock grasped between her fingers, scraping and shovelling dirt to the side.
Another hour later, they're only about two and a half feet deep, and it's getting harder to dig and move around each other. Smellerbee almost has to bodily push Longshot into taking a break before she does. She watches him as he climbs out of the hole and moves to stand next to Jet, looking out at whatever he can see in the distance. Seconds later, he looks down. He frowns, and unties his hat, sweeping it off of his head and towards Jet's face. A dozen fat flies rise from it, angry and buzzing.
Smellerbee swallows, and turns away. She reaches out of the hole, for her chest plate that she'd left at the edge, and uses it to clear loose dirt out of the pit.
Her movements have become mechanical, jerkish and slow, but she doesn't dare stop. The pain in her muscles is thick and constant; she tries moving with it, instead of against it. She finds a sluggish sort of rhythm: stab and dig at the earth with the rocks, scoop the soil into the chest plate, heave it over the side. She turns, but doesn't pause when she sees Longshot unsling his bow and draw an arrow in periphery; he signals to her that it's just a rabaroo sniffing around. He stands, though, and doesn't put away his weapons until he turns, jumps down into the hole next to Smellerbee, and rests a hand on her shoulder.
She shakes her head as she climbs out, wiping away sweat from her brow with her forearm. She knows she's not doing herself any favours by not calling the hole what it really is, but she supposes it doesn't really become a grave until they're done.
Knees creaking, she sits next to the body that was once Jet. In Longshot's short absence, the flies have come nosing back again, hunting after the feast of blood on his face and the stench of death on his clothes. Smellerbee grabs the hat and drives them away again. Her stomach roils to see how the little breeze that she creates shifts his hair and clothes, creating a parody of movement and life. After a moment, she reaches out to touch his cheek. By now, it is horribly cool, despite the heat, and disturbingly stiff. She snatches her hand away, horror coiling around her insides. Before her eyes can become damp again, she reaches for her favourite dagger, and directs her gaze to the vista.
The rest does her good. They continue like that, switching in and out for four more hours, until the sun begins to swing low in the sky. The grave – her heart tenses and squeezes – is only a few inches taller than Smellerbee, but they know they can't stay out here after dark.
"Alright. Let's do it."
Longshot approaches the body first, while Smellerbee climbs out. He is ghosting a hand through the wild hair; in the brilliant orange light coming from the setting sun, Smellerbee can see how dark and sad his eyes are. He looks, she supposes, just like she does, with his unruly hair and dusty sweaty clothes and smudged face.
They cut the ropes away from the tarp. Smellerbee spends some time arranging the tiger head hook swords on his chest. Longshot hunts through his quiver for his best made arrow and tucks it into Jet's right side; Smellerbee gets her favourite dagger and slips it into the curl of his stiff left hand. The tarp is all they have for a shroud, so they make do, and wrap Jet's body with it as best as they can.
Longshot stands at his head, and Smellerbee at his feet. With a last surge of energy, they grip the tarp, crabwalk the three feet over to the grave, and ease the body in on three.
They do it badly. He falls heavily, the last couple of feet, swords jostling and clanking. A great cloud of dust rises like poison into the air. As it settles, Smellerbee can see Jet's bare face, pressed against the dirt wall, a fly already zooming down to investigate.
The feeling that has been roiling unpleasantly in her stomach all day rises with a violent surge, and Smellerbee stumbles away, retching into a bush with mighty heaves. Each seems to come more potent than the last, wracking her body. Even after her stomach is empty, the nauseous feeling persists, breaking out all over her skin in little, horrible sweats. Jet is dead. He's dead.
Smellerbee heaves, more violently than before.
When she can finally move again, minutes later, she looks over to the grave and sees that Longshot is crying. His forearm is pressed to his eyes and he breathes deeply through his mouth as the tears leak down his dirty cheeks. Smellerbee's stomach revolts again to see it, even as she wipes the bile away from her mouth. He is making a tiny, gasping sound, the likes of which she has never heard coming from his mouth. Her eyes water.
She staggers towards him, but before she can reach his side, he holds up a hand, wiping at his eyes and giving her a small, grim smile. Smellerbee stares. He's lying, of course; he's not alright, not anywhere close to it, and neither is she.
They both need to pretend to be, though, to finish this.
Longshot jumps down into the grave, before she can say anything. She watches as he rights the body and the weapons with almost pious care. He spends the most time on Jet's face, wiping away the dirt from his mouth and eyes. Smellerbee remembers a quiet, breezy afternoon: Jet, Longshot, and a mud-fight near the riverbank while she bathed further upstream. She remembers laughing as a mud-splattered Longshot finally caught their leader unawares, much to the latter's chagrin. She remembers wading up next to them, helping Longshot wash the sludge off of Jet's face, his shoulders, his hair.
Longshot sighs, deep and from his belly, before replacing the tarp. Smellerbee is waiting near the edge to give him a hand up; his palm is damp from the tears.
They stand at his feet. Smellerbee doesn't let go of Longshot's hand, and he doesn't move to pull it away yet. He glances at her, and she knows that he's right. She doesn't know what to say, though. Seventeen years of fighting, laughing, struggling, rebelling and living; Smellerbee doesn't know if there's anything that she can say that will be enough.
Longshot shows her how; he goes first, and he keeps it simple, eyes boring into the place where Jet's eyes should be. Smellerbee squeezes his hand.
"Yeah," she agrees hoarsely. "And we miss you already. We'll… we won't ever forget you."
It's a few more minutes before they can move again. Smellerbee grabs her chest plate, Longshot grabs the flat stone, and together, they scoop and scrape the earth back into the grave, not watching as the dirt hits and covers his body. The sun has almost set by the time they're finished. They pack the dirt down as much as they can, and then spread a few leaves and sticks and brush over the top, unable to do anything else to mask the fact that here lies a body.
Soft breezes blow as they walk about, gathering up their belongings. Smellerbee's eyes are downcast, and that's how she notices one of Jet's daggers, probably dislodged from a boot, lying on the ground near to the grave. She rushes down and grabs it, holding it to her chest, curling her palm around it and squeezing tight, not caring that it slices through her worn glove and into the meat of her palm. It's the only thing left of him that can still taste the air. It's the only thing left of him that they have, other than their memories.
A shudder runs through Smellerbee's body, but Longshot's hand on her shoulder calms it to a tremble. With his help, she rises to her feet. The grave is heavy at their backs, and there is no controlling the urge that makes her turn, and give it a last stare, before turning back to her friend. There are tear tracks lining Longshot's dirty cheeks as he nods to her, just once, squeezing her shoulder. Smellerbee nods back, heart in her throat.
Together, they start walking down the incline.
A year later, Smellerbee and Longshot stood beneath a fiery canopy of leaves as Aang and Toph bended a solid cuboid of earth into a new grave. Katara was off gathering flowers, and Sokka stood a little ways off to the side, looking as if he wanted to help, but not sure how to.
We did it, Smellerbee thought, knuckles digging into her eyes as Longshot moved closer to her side, and brought up an arm to rest on her shoulder. You told us not to, but you knew we would. And we did.
Tears swam into her vision as soon as Jet's body settled into its new resting place; she saw Longshot's fingers twitching as Aang and Toph filled up the rest of the grave, almost before Smellerbee could blink. Smellerbee remembered that day, toiling for hours and hours under the hot, broken sky, and did not regret a second of it.
Longshot pulled her into his side as her face crumbled, and she started crying. She forced her hands away from her face, though, forced herself to look, look at the grave of one of the people she had loved best. Glancing up, she saw the silent tears on Longshot's cheeks, and saw that he was looking too.
Aang, Toph and Sokka lingered by Appa, solemn and quiet in the deepening forest air. Katara emerged from the trees, and placed a thick bouquet of wildflowers onto the gentle mound as the two freedom fighters stood together. The forest was getting dark, and fiery leaves fluttered down and around the grave. Smellerbee wept.
("We'll take care of him.")
Notes: I know, I'm pushing it by asking you to believe a few things here. I don't suppose it's totally impossible for Longshot to climb out of there with Jet on his back, but it would be really, really difficult, even with Jet's feet on Smellerbee's shoulders.
I've also never dug a grave before, but I estimated it took about seven hours for Longshot and Smellerbee to dig one that's about 5 feet deep, 6 feet long, and 3 feet across, with really shitty tools. That could be off.
I just really like stories where people carry around the bodies of their loved ones after death, okay. /places face into hands
Comments appreciated. :)