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May 8, 2012
Previously in Air
Ru Yong and Tyro, after talking with the original Joo Dee, realize that Long Feng will not be without some kind of elite protection. Before they can warn The Duke and Pipsqueak, the two spies are called to a secret meeting -Long Feng believes they are spies of the Guild.
Chapter Seventeen: The Vow
Longshot stood over his fallen leader. He listened for any sound of pursuit, any sign of the enemy. In ready fingers he held his faithful bow, a nocked arrow needing only to be aimed.
"Don't cry, Smellerbee," he heard Jet say.
Longshot winced at the obvious pain in his voice. Only once had he ever heard Jet sound so weak; it made him feel like crying himself.
It was almost as if Jet read his expression. "What kind of Freedom Fighter cries?" he demanded, his voice a mere rasp.
Smellerbee's cries were soft. Longshot hadn't even heard them.
Jet coughed violently. Longshot's grip on his bow tightened. He clenched his teeth, feeling every ounce of his friends' pain.
Jet's next words were quiet, yet so commanding Longshot felt compelled to follow them without question. "You should go."
"What?!" Smellerbee exploded.
Despite the tears stinging his eyes, a smile tugged at the corner of Longshot's mouth.
"Leave." Jet was pleading now. "Before they come."
"No!" Smellerbee shouted.
Longshot nudged her, gently. He knew she was too caught up in her own despair to see the same in Jet. Jet knew he was going to die and, like the true friend and leader he was, his last wish was to see them safe.
"We're not going to leave you," Smellerbee bit out. Longshot could hear the tears in her voice, but somehow they made her sound even more fierce and determined.
Jet chuckled, but another cough ruined the comforting sound. "That's Smellerbee," he managed weakly. "Defiant and determined."
"We won't." Smellerbee's insistence was barely a whisper as her tears continued to course.
Longshot's chest tightened. He allowed himself to look away from his watch and cast his gaze on his friends. Jet lay still, eyes only barely flickering with life. Smellerbee knelt close, hands wrapped around his. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs.
Longshot ached for his friend. He felt so useless, helpless. If only there was something he could do! Anything, even if it meant taking Jet's place to ease Smellerbee's pain, he would do it in a heartbeat.
"There isn't much time." Jet's words were barely audible, floating on a last breath.
Smellerbee clutched at his hand. "No, Jet," she cried desperately, "You're gonna make it!"
Longshot winced. He knew Jet would never come out of this accursed cave, never see the sun set on this last day. But Smellerbee thought he would –he could hear it in her voice– and that was what hurt.
The ghost of a smile hovered over Jet's lips. "No I'm not, Bee. This time..." He coughed again, but the smile returned quickly. It was an odd, content smile that sent chills down Longshot's spine. Yet he found himself smiling back. Jet knew he wasn't going to make it, and he was ready for the last great adventure.
"This time," Jet told Smellerbee, "I die."
Smellerbee shook her head. "No..."
Longshot watched as Jet tried to reassure her. "Don't be sad, Bee," he told her, squeezing her fingers. "We're fighters. Fighters die. We know that."
"But Jet, I...I..."
Jet's smile was fading. "Bee?" His eyes began to cloud, his breath was erratic and his voice grew distant. "I made a difference, didn't I?"
Longshot could feel the oppressive presence of death. He knelt beside his friends, determined to say goodbye.
"You know you did," Smellerbee told Jet, almost stubbornly.
But Longshot knew what Jet was really asking. He was afraid. Not of the end, or death, or even pain; Jet was afraid of the choices he'd made, so many mistakes... Longshot could see them haunting Jet's last moments. Slowly, he nodded. Gazing down at his broken leader, Longshot saw in him the man who had struggled to appear for so long. Jet had made mistakes, but he also tried to fix them. And always, above all else, Jet had tried to help those more desperate than he.
Longshot touched Jet's shoulder, bored his intent gaze into him. "You did make a difference."
Jet looked up at him. As ever, he could read Longshot's expressive eyes. He smiled at him, thanking him. Jet turned his eyes then to Smellerbee. She tried so hard to be tough, but she was so fragile. He was sad he had to leave them; how many more adventures they could have had! But it was his time. He could feel it. He was glad they were here with him, at the end.
Longshot tensed. Loud sounds of rock grating against stone came from the adjoining cavern.
"They're here," he said.
Smellerbee still knelt, tears streaming from her eyes. Longshot gently took her arm, but she pulled free. "I'm not leaving!" she cried forcefully. She didn't care who heard them now; it didn't matter.
On the far side of the cave, the rock wall began to move.
A hand suddenly grasped Longshot's forearm. He glanced down, surprised. Jet, with a last force of will, clutched his arm. No strength left for words, his eyes burned with emotion. And then he went still. 'Take care of her,' those eyes kept saying.
The rock wall shuddered again; the Dai Li were nearly through.
Longshot didn't wait for them. He caught Smellerbee around the waist and hauled her up.
"No!" Smellerbee shouted. She kicked and struggled violently, but Longshot was determined. He wouldn't let her die here. He slung her unceremoniously over his shoulder and ran.
"Put me down!" Smellerbee pounded on Longshot's back, her small, surprisingly powerful fists beating into his soul.
Longshot felt the blows. They hurt his body and his heart, but not nearly as much as her cries.
The Dai Li broke through. Drawn by Smellerbee's desperate screams, they gave chase.
"I won't leave him!" Smellerbee screamed. She writhed in Longshot's grip, fighting like a wild beast to be free.
Longshot, in turn, fought desperately to keep hold of her. Smellerbee wasn't thinking straight; she was mad with grief. If she got away from him, she would only run blindly back to their fallen leader. The Dai Li would cut her down before she could reach his side.
"Jet!" Her screams were choked with tears and sobs. She kept striking at Longshot, but now the blows were weak. "JET!"
If someone were to rip out his heart Longshot couldn't feel more pain than he did now. Fighting back tears of his own, he grasped her tight and fled, not daring to look back.
Longshot remembered that pain. It was the same that haunted him over his parents' death; it was the same he felt now, watching Smellerbee struggle once more.
The two had been led back here by their separate quarries, to the home that had to be Long Feng's. Their assignments had separated them for several days. While he kept an eye on their friends and Li Fu, Smellerbee had haunted the footsteps of the Serpentine nobles.
Longshot risked a glance at Smellerbee. As he feared, the time alone had not benefited her. Her eyes were dark, almost menacing, and her hand ever hovered over her khukri blade. She still hadn't looked at him.
Longshot sighed. Smellerbee thought he didn't understand. That was just it; he did understand. He probably understood better than anyone else the anger and hatred Smellerbee was feeling. He was Jet's friend too, and no matter what Smellerbee might have said, Longshot did care about what happened to Long Feng. He just didn't think vengeance was the right way. It certainly wouldn't honor Jet's memory.
Beside him, Smellerbee tensed in surprise, drawing him out of his thoughts. Smellerbee scowled down into the street. She didn't say anything, but he knew something was wrong. Longshot moved to her shoulder, peering down.
Cloe, her hands folded into her sleeves, strolled leisurely to Long Feng's door. Before they could make anything of it, a flutter of wings caught their attention. A dragon hawk, a message tube slung across its back, perched beside them on the roof. Smellerbee carefully unlatched the leather satchel, bringing the small parchment out. Longshot peered over her shoulder as she unrolled the message. It was from Iroh. They read it once, frowning.
Longshot and Smellerbee exchanged a worried glance.
The tension between them was still high, but they knew enough to put aside their personal issues for the sake of their friends.
Even from across the street, Longshot and Smellerbee heard the audible crash as the attack began.
"Sounds like trouble," Smellerbee muttered.
Without another word, the two quickly scaled down the building. They made for the side of the house, where they knew a door lurked in the shadows. That was their way in.
Crouched low, Longshot and Smellerbee scurried along the side of the house. Smellerbee had drawn her khukri; Longshot was ready with his bow. They reached the door and separated, one to either side. After a quick nod from Longshot, Smellerbee reached for the curtain. Before she could part it, however, the curtain was ripped aside.
Smellerbee stepped back in surprise, but Longshot was instantly on the offensive, pulling his bowstring back and taking aim. Long Feng had not stepped out of the doorway and he was already in Longshot's sights.
Smellerbee gasped in recognition. Her hold tightened on the khukri, eyes stinging with rage and tears. She charged Long Feng.
Longshot cried out. He tried to stop her, but too late.
Long Feng acted instantly. He jerked his arms up, raising a small wall of rock and hurled it at her. The instant he moved, Longshot fired. Long Feng's bending move was too quick to be interrupted, but the arrow snagged his sleeve, pinning his arm to the wall.
The world seemed to slow around him as Longshot watched in horror. Smellerbee tried to dodge the missile. It caught her in the stomach and threw her back. She hit the street hard and rolled several feet before her body came to a stop. It was like Jet, all over again.
Long Feng barely had time to blink before another arrow was trained on him. Longshot's eyes burned into his. If he attempted another attack, Long Feng knew he would die.
Longshot cast a quick glance back at Smellerbee. To his relief, he saw her struggle to her knees. She clutched at her side and a cut dripped blood into her eye, but she was alive.
Smellerbee caught his gaze. Rage danced wildly in her eyes. She'd lost her knife. She couldn't stand for the pain in her side. She couldn't kill Long Feng.
But Longshot could.
"Do it!" she screamed at him.
Longshot turned his gaze back to Long Feng. He could hear the tears choking her words, the desperation in her voice.
Long Feng glared at him. He said nothing, but he dared Longshot to shoot.
As he stared at Long Feng –so cold and arrogant– Longshot wondered if the man's death wouldn't be the best thing for Smellerbee.
He could feel Jet grasping at his arm once again, the determination burning in his eyes. Take care of her. That had been Jet's dying order, the words Longshot had lived by. But they were more than a promise from one friend to another. Longshot knew he would never stop looking out for Smellerbee, and he knew it wasn't only because Jet had told him to. Smellerbee was his friend, the only person in the world who understood him. The one person he could truly trust.
I will take care of her. No matter what.
He knew that wherever Jet was, he heard the silent vow. He of all people would understand.
"Do it!" Smellerbee screamed again.
Without a breath of hesitation, Longshot loosed the arrow.
Being brave was hard. It was something Ursa had never really considered before. Dad and Mother always made it look so easy. Did they feel like this, too, on the inside? Like the fear was a weight trying to crush their spirit? Did they struggle with it? Did they ever have doubts? She did. She had so many, like whether Dad could really rescue Roh-Roh, and she was angry with herself for them.
Ursa brushed her hand over the soft grass of the courtyard, rubbed her fingers over the blazing colors of the metal fire lily on her bracelet. Behind her, the water of the pond rippled in the gentle breeze and she could hear the quacks of the native turtle-ducks. She gazed thoughtfully at her Grandmother Ursa's stone memorial, just like her father did when he was troubled. She wondered if thoughts of his mother calmed him, if even from the grave she somehow offered her son the wisdom he needed, if she helped him to be brave.
Ursa wiped at the sudden tears that trickled down her cheeks. Because she couldn't help but wonder if another black stone would soon join this one. Would she be robbed of her brother? In years to come, would she sit at his memorial and hope he could hear her?
No, she had to stop thinking like that! But it was no use fighting the tears. She pressed her head against her knees, sobbing.
Ursa choked on her sobs. She looked up, embarrassed and ashamed, to find her mother looking down at her. Ursa averted her eyes. She wiped at her cheeks and tried to force herself to stop crying, but the emotions swelled in her chest. They only made her cry harder, and hiccup besides. "I'm sorry," she wept. "I'm trying, I really am. I just–"
The little girl's words trailed off as she was caught in her mother's arms. Mai pulled her daughter into her lap and hugged her tight. "It's okay to cry, Ursa," she whispered, tears stinging at her own eyes.
Was it her fault Ursa had tried to hold all that emotion at bay? As hard as she tried, perhaps Mai still suppressed her own feelings. She closed her eyes. That was the last thing she wanted to teach her children. She never wanted them to experience that helplessness. Never.
"Don't be afraid to cry," Mai told her, though she could feel Ursa shuddering with sobs, weeping against her shoulder. Mai stroked her daughter's hair and gently rocked her. She held Ursa until the tears subsided.
Finally, taking an unsteady breath, Ursa looked up at her mother. "I'm sorry," she said again, wiping at her face.
"Don't apologize." Her mother's words were filled with surprising passion. Mai's eyes softened. "You don't have to be sorry."
Ursa frowned. "But Tutor Gouitn says that a princess is supposed to be strong, because her people depend on her, because they look up to her for strength."
"That may be true at times, when the people are watching," Mai said gently. She would be having words with Gouitn about his terminology. "But princesses are human too." She swept aside a loose strand of hair from Ursa's forehead. "People don't have to know everything that happens in the Palace. Here, with your family, you can be yourself."
Ursa's brow wrinkled in thought. "But a princess is what I am." She looked up at her mother, puzzled. "Isn't it?"
Mai laughed and smiled down at her daughter. "Of course you are," she said. "But you're not just a princess. You're much more than that. You're Ursa. You know far too many proverbs thanks to your father and Uncle, you're a little too mischievous for your own good–"
Ursa blushed and giggled.
"–but most important you are a wonderful big sister, you're my daughter, and your father and I are so proud of you. You're so much more than a princess to us, Ursa, and we love you. You don't have to be strong for us."
Ursa laid her head against her mother's shoulder. She was probably too old to be rocked in her mother's arms, but she didn't care. She was already starting to feel better; it had been nice to cry.
"Mother...?" Ursa hesitated. "Are you scared?"
Mai looked down at her daughter. Ursa's eyes were glued to the sleek black stone and it reminded her of that day.
She knew she would find Zuko here. It was late. The night was dark, but no one slept. Lights burning in the Palace windows reflected his silhouette in the pond, illuminated his drawn face.
Zuko sat staring at his mother's memorial as though it would give him an answer. "I don't know what to do," he whispered. His voice, his spirit, was broken. What could he do?
His mother had been in a similar predicament once, her children not taken from her, but she from them. What had she done? Zuko knew she had fought for them, fought for them hard. Maybe too hard. In the end, it was that fight that got her killed. Ozai had told him so. Zuko dropped his head into his hands. He hadn't believed him at first, but Ozai had offered proof.
"What would she do?"
Zuko looked up, surprised. "Mai..."
She knelt beside him. She had eyes that could stare straight into his soul and he saw there the same fear and panic he could barely keep at bay. "Your mother," she said quietly. "What would she do?"
"She'd fight back."
"So will you."
Zuko laughed bitterly. "You make it sound easy."
Mai wrapped her arms around him and he hugged her back. "It won't be," she said quietly. "But we'll think of something."
Zuko shook his head. "How? If I leave they'll know. If-" He stopped short. Mai could feel him tense as the idea struck. "They can't know."
Mai turned his face to her. "Bring our son home." She kissed him gently. "And be careful."
Zuko clasped her hand and gazed at her for a long moment. She was not a patient woman; she did not like to be told what to do. But she knew what she had to do.
"I will," he promised.
Mai gently kissed Ursa's forehead. "Yes," she said quietly. "I am scared." She wouldn't lie. Every moment she wondered if her son was unharmed, if Zuko was in danger, if she would ever see either of them again.
Ursa swallowed hard. "Didn't you want to go look for him too?"
"Yes," Mai said again. I'll wait for you, she'd told Zuko, but don't expect me to make a habit of it.
Ursa turned her eyes to her mother. "Why didn't you?"
Mai smiled. "Because I know your father can bring Roh-Roh home."
Longshot sat alone at the worn table in the Jasmine Dragon's kitchen. The room was warm from the kettle fires and comforting; this place had been a home to him for over a decade. Now, he wondered if he would be able to stay. It wouldn't be the same; not without Smellerbee.
And it looked like he might lose her, after all.
Earlier that day, when they had reported to Terra, Smellerbee had requested a new post. Something she could handle alone. Terra was just as surprised as Longshot. The Guild leader didn't say anything, but she'd shot him a pitying look. Smellerbee offered no explanation afterward. She merely followed her new orders and left him, standing alone in the street.
Longshot sighed heavily. She just needed time, he kept telling himself; time to come to terms with everything. She would come back. Things would be alright.
He desperately hoped that were true.
Longshot glanced up, only mildly surprised he hadn't heard Iroh enter the kitchen.
Iroh took everything in at a glance. He could see there was desperate need of tea.
"I thought everyone had gone by now," he commented, turning away to set a kettle to boil.
The Duke, Pipsqueak, Ru Yong and the others had all gathered to congratulate themselves on the unveiling and dismantling of the Emerald Serpents. Tyro and Ru Yong explained how they had found the Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator and realized that Long Feng would not be defenseless; The Duke amused them all with his emphatic telling of how Tyro had burst up from the room's stone floor, surprising the Joo Dees with a sudden attack and scaring the nobles witless. It was Iroh who informed them all that the names of the Serpentine members had been passed on to Kuei and the Joo Dees taken into custody. Their little game of cloak-and-dagger was officially at an end.
Iroh joined Longshot at the table and they shared a long moment of silence.
The old man studied him carefully. Finally, he spoke: "You did the right thing, Longshot."
Deep down, Longshot knew he was right. Yet he couldn't forget that satisfied glint in Smellerbee's eye –an almost primal joy– when he'd loosed the arrow at Long Feng.
And as the arrowhead pierced through the fabric of his green robes to pin his free arm harmlessly to the stone wall, those same eyes had turned to him so hurt and angry –and betrayed.
"Long Feng will be dealt with properly," Iroh assured him. "Kuei knows more than anyone what a snake the man is."
Longshot nodded absently.
The kettle began to sing. Iroh glanced at it in surprise, as though he'd forgotten about it, and quickly rose. He returned a moment later with two steaming cups of ginseng, placing one before Longshot though he made no move to touch it.
Iroh cupped his hands around the tea, slowly turning it in his palms.
"As long as I've known you," he began softly, "You have always looked out for Smellerbee. You are quite vehement about protecting her from anything that might cause her pain. But there is a thin line between protecting her, and shielding her. As unpleasant as it is, Longshot, there are some pains in this world that are necessary to experience. Without them, you can't truly live."
Longshot's eyes were on him now, steady and solemn.
Iroh sipped carefully at his tea, grimaced when it scorched his tongue.
"Right now, she is hurt," he continued. "Time alone won't heal her. Time can't make her understand. That is something only you can do for her, Longshot." Iroh leaned forward, his serious eyes boring into his young friend. "You need to talk to her."
Longshot frowned thoughtfully. Even today, the little time he'd spent with Smellerbee, he had seen how much that bare contact with him had pained her. She couldn't even look at him without her eyes flashing. Longshot dipped his gaze. "It hurts her," he whispered.
Iroh smiled sadly at him. "You can't protect her from everything."
Longshot raised his eyes. His expression was hard to read. There was uncertainty there; desperation; fear.
Iroh's eyes softened. "And what about yourself, my friend? You spend your energies guarding Smellerbee's emotions, but what about your own?"
Longshot fell silent, carefully regarding those words. Iroh might be right. For years his only concern was Smellerbee's happiness and well-being. But was that so wrong? It made him happy; when Smellerbee was content, he was content. Seeing his friend sad or in pain was simply too much for him to bear.
Longshot slowly shook his head. "I promised," he said softly, remembering his vow. "No matter what."
- Jet's dying!? Again?!
- It's true; I decided to revisit those heartbreaking last moments. There were such different emotions and views in play between Longshot and Smellerbee -especially toward the end- I felt they worked best in separate chapters focused on said emotions. Also, I'm evil. ^_^
- Whoa, wait! Ursa's DEAD?! First Jet for the second time but...but...now URSA?! One of your main reasons for writing this story was to answer the dreaded question of her fate!
- What can I say? She hasn't been hanging around the story, and it's been twelve years. You think she's hiding out in an Earth Kingdom village waiting for Zuko to come find her? Please. She would have popped up by now. Whatever happened after her banishment is between her and me. Didn't I just say I was evil?
- ...but you said she 'fought' for her kids. What did you mean?
- -tactful silence-
- Perhaps I should have called this chapter The Flashbacks instead. Hmm...
- Most of this chapter was written out of context.
- This is the first chapter to contain Notes in the form of imaginary conversations between the author and a 'reader'. It is believed a direct result of too little sleep and the author's insufficient drive to write a blog version. We apologize for any inconvenience and/or frightened children as a result of this. Thank you.
For the collective works of the author, go here.