|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure/Suspense||PG||Very good||No update page|
April 3, 2012 (11 days to Korra!)
Previously in Air
Long Feng has been revealed as the man behind the emerald curtain in Ba Sing Se. The Duke and Pipsqueak -posing as nobles- have gained invitations to join the Emerald Serpent, while Longshot and Smellerbee continue to balance their investigations into the Guild and keeping an eye on their friends.
Chapter Twelve: Slipping Away
"Don't cry, Smellerbee." Jet tried for his trademark cocky smirk, but his face twisted in pain. A violent cough racked his body. When he spoke again Smellerbee saw the blood coating his teeth. "What kind of Freedom Fighter cries?"
Smellerbee turned away to hide the fresh tears.
Longshot stood close by, arrow nocked, waiting for the enemy to come.
Jet's eyes grew serious. "You should go." The words were quiet. At first, Smellerbee thought she misheard him.
She whirled on him. "What?"
Jet's face was dark now. "Leave," he told her. "Before they come."
"No!" Smellerbee shouted.
Longshot nudged her, reminding her to keep her voice down.
"We're not going to leave you," Smellerbee forced out, her voice softer but no less determined.
Jet chuckled. Another cough shook him. "That's Smellerbee," he managed weakly. "Defiant and determined."
With trembling fingers, she reached out and –almost hesitating– took his hand. "We won't," she insisted, holding tight as the tears continued to course.
Jet didn't move his hand –didn't tighten his fingers around hers, didn't pull away. His eyes were beginning to dim.
"There isn't much time."
Smellerbee's heart tightened, and so did her hold on him. "No, Jet, you're gonna make it!"
She knew he was in bad shape; by all rights, he should be dead already. But that was the thing about Jet. He was stronger than anyone she knew. He could endure things that made others cave, like the death of his parents. And what did Jet do after losing his family? He founded the Freedom Fighters to make the Fire Nation pay for all the loved ones they'd taken.
That was why he had to make it.
Jet smiled vaguely; he was already fading. "No I'm not, Bee," he whispered. "This time..." He coughed softly and smiled again. It was an odd, accomplished smile. "This time, I die."
Smellerbee shook her head. "No..."
"Don't be sad, Bee." With the little strength he had left, Jet squeezed her fingers. "We're fighters. Fighters die. We know that."
"But Jet, I...I..."
"Bee?" Jet's voice was distant now. She looked at him and bit her lip to keep from crying out. His eyes were clouding; his breathing harsh and irregular.
"I made a difference, didn't I?" His words were barely audible, floating on a last breath.
Longshot knelt beside them. He knew death was here to claim his leader, but he wouldn't let it take Jet before he said goodbye.
"You know you did," Smellerbee told Jet.
Longshot nodded. He placed a hand on Jet's shoulder. "You did make a difference."
Jet looked up at his friends. They had ventured with him into many dangerous places, and stuck with him through triumphs and mistakes, victories and regrets. He smiled, realizing he wouldn't have it any other way.
There were loud noises in the adjoining cave, rock and stone grinding against one another.
"They're here," Longshot said.
Smellerbee did not move. Tears streamed from her eyes. He gently took her by the arm, but she shrugged him off. "I'm not leaving!" she cried forcefully.
On the far side of the cave, the rock wall began to move.
Longshot glanced down at Jet. Just once. Then, before the Dai Li could break through, he seized Smellerbee around the waist, hauled her over his shoulder, and ran.
"No!" Smellerbee shouted. "Put me down!" She pounded her fists against Longshot's back.
Longshot felt the blows. They hurt, but not nearly as much as her cries.
The Dai Li broke through. Drawn by Smellerbee's desperate screams, they gave chase.
But through her tears and heartbreak Smellerbee didn't see them. Her eyes only sought Jet, alone and helpless.
"I won't leave him!" Smellerbee screamed. She writhed in Longshot's grip, fighting like a wild beast to be free. "Jet! JET!!!"
But Jet didn't move.
It was the only thing on Smellerbee's mind.
Long Feng had killed Jet, and her friend had suffered. She could still see his face, contorted in pain...
Smellerbee clenched her fists, closed her eyes. Her fingers brushed the hilt of her khukri knife with dark determination.
"Long Feng will pay."
Rin was waiting for Longshot and Smellerbee. He was about Longshot's age and an unfortunate life had made him overly suspicious.
"Terra's been waiting for you," Rin said quietly, disapproving. Suspicious. He did not look up at them, but stayed where he was, leaning against the wall with his head down.
Longshot and Smellerbee felt a dark foreboding.
"We're here now," Smellerbee retorted hotly.
Rin did not reply. He pulled away from the wall, turning his back on them. "Follow me."
A quick glance passed between the two friends. Even the recent tenseness between them meant nothing if their lives were in danger. Were they caught?
Wordlessly, they followed Rin. What else could they do?
Terra did not look up as Rin led them in. Longshot and Smellerbee stood before her at rigid attention, hardly daring to breathe. Rin stepped to Terra's side, his distrustful eyes never straying from the pair.
Terra made them wait a long, tense moment. Finally, though, she set her maps aside and looked up at them. Her eyes were cold. "You didn't follow orders."
"I wonder who reported that?" Smellerbee muttered, glaring balefully at Rin.
Rin scowled at her. He slammed his fist on the rickety wooden table, causing it to shudder. "Silence!" he shouted. "You are suspect of treason!"
"Treason?" Smellerbee cried. "What are you talking about?"
"Quiet, all of you." Terra's voice was calm, but sharp as a knife. Slowly she stood. "You were given direct orders," she said coolly. "You were to go to that nobleman and dissuade him from acting out."
"But we went!" Smellerbee protested.
"Quiet!" Rin snapped.
Terra waited for the echo to recede. "Yes, you went. But apparently you weren't successful, because he's been meeting with his Fire Nation friend and planning ever since. And when you realized you were unsuccessful, instead of completing your mission, you went off following some woman around Ba Sing Se, leaving Ru Yong to his own devices. Naturally, I'm suspicious."
Longshot and Smellerbee glanced at one another.
Terra remained cool and calm, but Rin burned with anger.
"Well?" he demanded. "Have you got anything to say for yourself?"
Longshot watched Smellerbee as she answered slowly. "We went to deliver the message to Ru Yong..." She hesitated. "But we never got the chance."
Terra said nothing, so Smellerbee continued.
"When we got there, he was already pretty shaken up. We tried to tell him to back off, but he said he already had the message, and couldn't we just leave him alone now?
"Longshot and I didn't know what he was talking about so we asked. He was so frightened he told us everything. It seems someone had already delivered the same warning."
Terra frowned slightly. She fingered the corner of a map absently. "And that's why you were following that woman?"
Smellerbee nodded. "She was the one who told Ru Yong to back off."
"Wrong," Rin growled. "I've been watching Ru Yong, too. The woman you've been tailing is his housekeeper."
"That's her cover," Smellerbee insisted. "She's supposed to keep an eye on him, so he can't try anything."
Rin glanced at Terra, wondering if she was actually buying this.
Terra was intrigued. She leaned onto the table, looking the two in the eyes. "Who does she work for?"
Smellerbee couldn't resist a smirk because she knew Terra would like her answer. "The Emerald Serpent."
Terra sat down. She was silent for a long moment, musing. Finally, she spoke. "We've been trying to figure out the Serpentines' game for a long time. They oppress peasants like us, and they've been pitching a fit about the corruption of the Rings." Terra glanced from Longshot to Smellerbee. "What would they want with Ru Yong?"
"Easy," Smellerbee grinned. "He's getting ready to wreak havoc on them. Ru Yong's concerned about the peasants. That's why he was at the Jasmine Dragon; he's getting anyone he can to go up against the Serpentines and bring them down." Smellerbee glanced at Longshot and Rin to gauge their reactions. "And I say we should let them."
Terra arched an eyebrow incredulously.
Smellerbee shrugged. "Think about it; it would save us the trouble of taking on the Serpentines ourselves, and it might even weaken Ru Yong and his Fire Nation sympathizers."
Rin shook his head. "Terra, you can't possibly-"
Terra shook her head. "She has a point," she said thoughtfully. "If Ru Yong and his little gang are going to be ripping apart the Emerald Serpent, there's no need for us to waste manpower on them..."
She thought long and hard on it, weighing the possibilities. Longshot and Smellerbee waited anxiously, hoping their ruse would work. Rin's face was hard, his fists clenched tight.
Terra nodded slowly. "As much as I'd like to take the Serpentines out myself, it makes no real sense for us to go after them. We'll concentrate our powers on ridding our Kingdom of Fire scum."
Smellerbee hid her triumphant grin; Rin wasn't as successful burying his scowl. "However," Terra added to Smellerbee, "I want you and Longshot to keep an eye on the Emerald Serpent and Ru Yong's little resistance. If anything happens to endanger us, we'll...dissuade them."
Longshot and Smellerbee nodded, not daring to look at the other in fear of revealing their triumph.
Smellerbee and Longshot slowly made their way through the crowded street. Neither felt inclined to hurry, but chose to relax after the close call with Terra.
Longshot glanced at his friend. Smellerbee was frowning, lost in herself, barely paying attention to the world around her. What was she thinking? Having to wonder at his friend's thoughts was an alien concept to Longshot. He did not enjoy it. He attempted several times to get her to open up, but so far he had failed. Still, he had to keep trying. He caught her by the arm.
Smellerbee started in alarm. "What is it, Longshot?" she asked softly, instantly alert for enemy presence.
Longshot stood before her, placed his hands on her shoulders. He looked into her eyes and she was caught in his captivating gaze.
What is it? What's the matter? His eyes begged an answer.
Smellerbee stared at him. "The man who killed Jet resurfaced," she breathed, confused. "Isn't it obvious?"
Longshot's eyes softened; Don't worry, his eyes told her. There was a promise there. They could take Long Feng down.
Smellerbee shook her head, biting back a sharp laugh. She lowered her eyes, hiding them from her friend. She glanced at the busy street of people hurrying to destinations, filled with purpose. She had a purpose, too. But he wouldn't understand.
Longshot mistook her reluctance for doubt. His hold on her tightened with determination. He leaned down to peer at her.
Smellerbee finally looked up at him. But there was something in her eyes, a coldness that sent a chill across Longshot's heart. "I won't just take Long Feng down; I'll make him pay for what he did to Jet."
The memory of that day trapped beneath the lake and Jet's dying moments...It all came flooding back. Longshot's grip relaxed on her as his own shoulders fell.
"I'm going to kill him."
Longshot's gaze jumped back to her. The words were so soft he wasn't sure they had even been spoken, but a defiant resolve smoldered in Smellerbee's eyes, and he knew.
He stared at her in horror.
Smellerbee looked at Longshot as though he'd gone mad. "He killed Jet," she whispered, confused at his reaction. Her eyes flashed angrily. "No; he murdered Jet."
Longshot's eyes bored into hers.
Smellerbee could feel his challenge. It squeezed at her heart alarmingly. They had taken a vow never to endanger the lives of innocents, or to kill in cold blood. Smellerbee gritted her teeth as her blood began to boil. He wouldn't guilt her out of this!
"He's anything but innocent," she told Longshot. "We both know that."
Longshot's gaze did not falter.
Smellerbee clenched her fists in frustration. "Yes," she seethed. "Yes, I do have to kill him! He has to pay for what he did!"
Longshot started. The surprise on his face told her one thing: You sound just like Jet.
Smellerbee blinked. Her breath caught.
Longshot saw the doubt in her eyes and took his chance. He seized her by both arms, forcing her to look at him. Smellerbee tried to avert her eyes, but Longshot wouldn't have it. There was truth in his eyes; they echoed her fears. You'll destroy yourself and you will hurt the people who care about you.
Smellerbee trembled with confusion and rage. She shook her head, fighting to keep his thoughts out. She didn't know what to do. Was she really going too far? Could turning the villain over to the authorities be as satisfactory as watching him writhe in the same pain he'd suffered Jet through?
She couldn't think straight with Longshot holding her back, staring her down. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the only image she saw was Jet's dying face.
"No!" Smellerbee screamed. She wrenched herself free of Longshot's grasp and glared angrily at him. "I'm going to give Long Feng exactly what he deserves!"
Longshot winced as though her words were a physical blow.
The sight pained her. Longshot was her closest friend, the only person who truly knew her.
"You don't understand," she tried to explain, her voice soft. "What Jet did and what I'm doing are completely different!"
Longshot shook his head.
Smellerbee felt as though he'd stabbed her in the heart, and rage spilled from the wound. "If you don't want Long Feng as dead as I do," she bit out, "Then you obviously didn't care enough about Jet."
Longshot turned away from her. She couldn't see the pain and sorrow in his eyes; even if she had, she would be too angry and hurt herself to realize it.
The two alienated friends stood still and silent, neither knew for how long. The loud, busy life of Ba Sing Se surged about them, taking no notice of their plight.
"You keep an eye on Li Fu," Smellerbee said finally, her voice cold and distant. "Watch out for Iroh and the others." She clenched her fist. "I'll watch Cloe and the rest of the nobles."
Without waiting for a response, Smellerbee took off. She left Longshot standing in the crowd and didn't cast a single look back.
Longshot almost stopped her. Almost.
Smellerbee often spoke without thinking. Sometimes she let her anger speak for her. Certainly they argued at times, but never before had she turned on him with such ferocity.
Longshot wasn't sure he could ever forget that.
They were greeted at the door by a smiling hostess. "Good afternoon, gentlemen." She bowed, shuffling back to allow them entry.
It was not a grand house, The Duke noted, but its contents were unique and expensive. He suspected this to be Long Feng's home. The man was in hiding from the King which explained its unseemly location in the Lower Ring, but Long Feng seemed the type of guy who liked to be rich. The Duke paused a moment to take in a delicate and painstakingly painted vase.
"This way, please." The hostess materialized at his elbow.
The Duke jumped in surprise.
The hostess smiled, but he couldn't help feeling her air a little too controlling. She turned and began leading the way down the hall.
All the other nobles were already seated as The Duke and Li Fu entered. Now, these men looked like they meant business –no gaudy outfits or whiny protests today. They sat patiently, silently, waiting for the others to arrive.
The hostess seated the two new arrivals in the only empty seats around the round table. Then she faded back to wait against the wall. Lined in like-manner were other servants; each member seemed to have brought one of their own and they all waited patiently for their master's bidding. They were all women, The Duke suddenly realized. And there was something else...another similarity between them all, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
Li Fu's housekeeper joined the other servants, stationed parallel to her master's chair, but Pipsqueak stood squarely at his friend's shoulder. The women frowned at him, but Pipsqueak ignored them.
It's the same frown! The Duke realized with a jolt. He ran his gaze over them again, just to make certain. The way they stood, unmoving, hands tucked into their sleeves, faces fixed now in their enthusiastic, plastic smile...Their manner was practically identical.
That's not creepy at all, The Duke mused, fighting back a shiver. He scoured the room for other oddities worthy of reporting. There was a strange centerpiece on the table, but you can't really judge a person's intentions by their décor. He couldn't quite make out what it was. It looked like a small lantern fastened to a metal ring.
Long Feng stood at one end of the table. His figure was tall, imposing over the seated noblemen, and The Duke wondered if anyone else saw the power lust in his dark green eyes. Long Feng reached forward, opening the lantern's shutter. An odd green flame flickered within.
"You've been invited to protect our beloved Ba Sing Se," Long Feng intoned quietly. "We are the Emerald Serpent. We are the city's protectors."
"We are the city's protectors," the noblemen echoed.
The Duke was surprised. Not even a 'hello' or 'welcome, friends, today we're going to talk about...'
The lantern began to move, drawing him away from his thoughts. Flickering eerily, it slid closer toward him along the metal ring, passing right before his eyes, and then was whisked away. It was strangely enchanting. He couldn't help but watch it.
Long Feng was still talking. "We must protect it from harm,"
"...we must protect it from harm..." came the uncanny echo.
They might have said something else, but now the lantern was coming back toward him and all other thoughts fled The Duke's mind. Slowly, tauntingly, the light moved closer and closer, paused before his eyes, then shot away again.
"We must protect it from the enemy."
"...we must protect it from the enemy..."
The Duke vaguely remembered glancing up at Pipsqueak. His giant friend was just as enthralled as he, eyes glued to the centerpiece, ears perked for Long Feng's enchanting voice.
The lantern's light reflected in Pipsqueak's eyes, and The Duke turned back to watch it.
"We must destroy the enemy." Long Feng's words were cold.
The Duke heard Pipsqueak's deep rumble accompany the echoed reply. To his surprise, he found the words escaping his own lips.
"...we must destroy the enemy..."
Something pricked at the back of The Duke's mind, some part of him writhed in discomfort. Ru Yong. Hadn't he warned them of something like this? What was it the old noble had said...?
The Duke couldn't remember. The light was so entrancing...and the voice so comfortable, soothing...Could it really be that bad?
- First of all, I am so sorry this chapter is late. Kudos and chocolate cookies to my awesome and patient readers. ;)
- Ah, Jet...I just knew I'd manage to work in a Jet flashback somehow. Of course it would turn out to be the death scene. It's something I think we all wonder about, after all. Hope you enjoy (are moved by...?) my version.
- Longshot was hard to write. I'll just up and admit it. From the episodes, it's obvious he holds some kind of conversations with other characters -unless none of them could actually understand his non-verbal communication and made up random things they thought he might be saying, but that's seems unlikely. So finding the balance of eye-to-eye words was a little trying for me, but I think it turned out well. At least, it's not awful. I'm posting it, aren't I? ;)
- Terra...I think she was actually named after a Teen Titans character...
For the collective works of the author, go here.