Ba Sing Se is a bustling city, even at night. Bright lanterns hang at nearly every street corner, even in the Lower Ring, and there are people everywhere. Longshot drifts closer to Smellerbee, not wanting to lose her, or get lost himself, in the crowd.
“There you are!” says Jet, startling them both. He tsks at them. “We’ve only been here a day and you’ve both gone soft on me!”
Longshot politely refrains from rolling his eyes. Smellerbee just sighs and asks if they have enough money for food. It’s another thing they have to worry about, here in the city. It’s been a long time since any of them have lived outside the treetops of their own makeshift community. His own village, from what he remembers of it, was never so big.
“Of course!” Jet dangles a heavy purse from his fingers, then slides it under the fold of his sleeve, before it can attract attention.
They don’t ask him how he came up with the money. Longshot is no stranger to thievery; it’s what they did to survive in the woods, when they had to, especially in the beginning, before any of them were good at figuring out what to eat and what would make them sick; before he knew how to string a bow and take down an animal that would feed the entire group. Some days, it was easier to steal a turkey duck from a Fire Nation encampment.
They can’t, however, steal any turkey ducks in Ba Sing Se; there simply aren’t any running around in the streets or anyone’s yards. The most they might be able to take is a cabbage from the crabby merchant of cabbage, his cart set up two blocks past their hostel, but even that is a dicey proposition. There are far too many rules and regulations here, and too many law-abiding citizens, with smiling, watchful eyes, even in the slums.
Smellerbee catches his gaze and returns it thoughtfully. “We should get jobs,” she says. “It’ll be...better?”
Jet shrugs and leads them to a medium sized, but not too busy noodle house with a sign out front that promises extra large bowls for only a few silver coins. Longshot can’t remember the last time he ate noodles and dumplings. They’re fat and a little slippery; he chases one around his bowl with his chopsticks before picking up his spoon to corner the dumpling. Smellerbee skewers her dumplings on a chopstick one-by-one, like the fried cuttlefish balls sold by street vendors. She eats all of them first, then moves on to her noodles.
After they’re done eating, Jet looks at the both of them, his eyes burning bright. “I think I can track down those two Fire Nation--”
“No,” says Smellerbee. “We’re done with that.”
She stands up and so does Longshot. They leave Jet to pay for their food. He drops a handful of coins on the table and scrambles up noisily behind them. Longshot waits for Jet to bring up the subject again, as they walk through the streets, past the small menagerie of chittering animals, dangerous looking shopkeepers with a glint in their eye, tradespeople with knives hanging from their belts, children playing with broken toys and beggars with their hats out.
“So much wealth in this city,” Jet mutters, “and they can’t even feed their own.” He flips a busker a coin and is rewarded with a scowl.
“Is that the best you can do?” demands the street musician.
Jet’s hands go to his sword hooks, but the busker only shakes his head and continues playing. Longshot relaxes his grip on his bow and he sees a small flash of silver as Smellerbee hides her knives.
It’s a long walk back to their rooms. There’s probably a short cut through the unlit back alleys, but none of them feel like exploring tonight.
Longshot folds his arms behind his head and leans against the wall. He watches the moon outside the window and every so often keeps an eye out on the street below, partly out of habit and partly to give him something to do other than listen to Smellerbee and Jet argue, again, in the dark.
“You didn’t have a problem asking them to join us,” Smellerbee points out.
“That was before I saw the old man firebend!” says Jet. He lowers his voice. “How can you ignore them? How can you forget what they did to your family?”
“It wasn’t them.” Smellerbee drops her armor a little more heavily than she probably should have. “And I haven’t forgotten. I never will.” It’s an old vow, one Longshot’s made as well, but none have taken it to heart more than their leader.
Longshot follows the trajectory of an owl cat skimming over the roofs of neighbouring buildings until it disappears from his sight. Even if Jet is right, even if the boy with the scarred face and his old uncle are of the Fire Nation, this city is no place to ambush them. It’s too dangerous and difficult and unfamiliar. It was like being lost in the woods again, after his village burned and he had nowhere else to go. Those first few days -- weeks, to be honest -- he couldn’t turn around in the forest without losing his bearings. What the woods were to him, these streets are now to all three of them. The many walls of Ba Sing Se make for a difficult escape, if it comes down to it.
Jet would realize this too, if he weren’t so obsessed with chasing down and defeating every Fire Nation person he came across.
“I’m sorry,” says Jet, quietly. “I didn’t mean that.”
Smellerbee doesn’t say anything for a while, then all she says is, “Don’t go after them, Jet. It’s not worth it.”
Longshot inclines his head, enough for Smellerbee to know he agrees with her and for Jet to know where he stands. No, those two are not worth their lives or freedom, such as it is, behind so many walls, or any more of their time. He doesn’t know when his need for revenge -- that emotion that kept him alive, forced him to learn how to use a bow with unerring accuracy, tied up his loyalties with Jet and the other Fighters -- abated; he only knows that he often finds himself thinking less on ways to infiltrate and take down a Fire Nation camp and more about ways to...do something else -- be somebody else... This move to Ba Sing Se might be as good a chance as any for a change.
He sits at the window until his eyes glaze over and he can’t put off sleeping any longer. There isn’t any real reason to keep watch, but it makes him feel better to be on the lookout all the same. He falls into a dreamless sleep with his hat and bow within arm’s reach.
They shadow Jet even after they’ve told him - over and over again - that going after the tea shop workers, who may or may not be Firebenders, is a lost cause.
Longshot pulls Smellerbee back when she would have gone into the tea shop after Jet. It’s no use. They can’t be forever circumventing Jet and his fixation with these two men -- or anyone else he thinks are Fire Nation. He and the boy with the scarred face come crashing out of the shop moments later, Jet with his sword hooks and the other boy with a set of dao blades.
Smellerbee wraps her hand around one of her knives, ready to jump in as soon as there’s an opening, but Longshot urges her to fade back into the crowd. This is Jet’s fight, and perhaps, once it is over, it will convince him that there are no Firebenders in the city. The boy is too skilled with a sword to be a Firebender, whom all Freedom Fighters know do not hesitate to use fire to defeat their enemies. They have no need to train with a sword, either. Longshot does not know how Jet missed this, but it seems he is too involved in the fight to back out now and only redoubles his efforts when sparks fly between his hooks and the other boy’s swords.
Then the Dai Li arrive and it’s too late to intervene. They have contingency plans about this, back in the forest, should any of them be captured by the Fire Nation soldiers. First rule: Don’t get captured too. He and Smellerbee follow the clattering cart that holds Jet. They stick to the shadows and rooftops -- easier to run on, but harder to stay hidden, than the trees -- and, trying to catch their breath, are unable to do anything other than watch as the Dai Li and Jet pick up speed past the city limits.
In the morning, he and Smellerbee are awakened by a woman shooing them off the steps of a municipal building. She’s dressed in green, the official colours of the Earth Kingdom, and introduces herself as Joo Dee, smiling brightly and all the while insisting that they move along before the offices in the Middle Ring open for the day.
“But we need to talk to someone!” Smellerbee insists. “We want to know where they took our friend.”
“Who?” asks Joo Dee. She’s still smiling.
Smellerbee is not. “The Dai Li! They arrested our friend.”
Joo Dee’s smiles slips for a second and she glances around quickly. By the time Longshot finishes his perusal of their surroundings and returns his attention to her, she’s beaming again. “I’m sure the Dai Li had good reason to do so. They keep the order around here. Tell me, was your friend out of order?”
“Well, yes, but--”
“There you have it! We have strict rules about maintaining peace and civility at all times here in Ba Sing Se. It’s what makes this city so wonderful. No doubt your friend will be returned to you once he recognizes the error of his ways and reforms.” Joo Dee smiles at them brightly and blankly.
Longshot and Smellerbee exchange a troubled glance. They move off the steps in unison and head back towards the Lower Ring; maybe the merchants and immigrants can tell them more. He looks back for a moment at Joo Dee, still standing on the steps watching them leave, with that fixed expression on her face. It’s inexplicably frightening.
“It’s not like Jet was captured by the Fire Nation, right?” whispers Smellerbee. “And we’re not at war with the Earth Kingdom.”
The busker from the night before glowers at them over his flute, as they hurry past. No help from that corner, then. They go back to the tea shop where the fight started, but there’s no sign of the boy or the old man.
“Out!” says the shop owner, once he discerns that they are not there as customers.
“We’re looking for work!” says Smellerbee, in a hurry. She points to a sign in his window.
The shop owner looks them both over. “I can only hire one of you. And no face paint or weapons! It scares the customers!”
Longshot hands Smellerbee his bow and arrow, and follows the shop owner to the kitchen in the back. He stays there, washing tea cups and dishes. He keeps a low profile, hides under his hat and is careful not to catch the boy’s attention. Smellerbee is outside by a window or on the roof listening in on the conversations.
“Nothing,” she reports glumly. “All they talk about is tea! Two weeks of spying and all I know is that the Dai Li loves the old man’s tea. It’s always hot, they say. Maybe Jet was right and they are Fire Nation.”
Longshot divides his week’s pay and gives Smellerbee half. If they were Fire Nation, they’re doing their best to hide it, which... He’s not sure what it means, except that they seem content to serve tea and not make trouble. He sighs. He can’t imagine the Fire Nation looking to bring down a city as impenetrable as Ba Sing Se one cup of tea at a time.
“You’re right,” says Smellerbee. She pockets her coins and they go back out to ask if anyone has answers on how long the Dai Li usually hold people who start sword fights in tea shops. So far, no one has been forthcoming with information. They’re told to get lost, no one knows anything.
It’s nearly three weeks later when they come across a wall papered with images of the Avatar’s airbison; they’ll be gone soon enough, either by people stealing paper or city officials who want to keep the walls clean, though they’re not quite as diligent about it in the Lower Ring as they are in the more affluent areas of the city. Longshot carefully peels away one of the fliers and studies it. He hands it over to Smellerbee who is better at reading than he is.
“The Avatar is looking for his airbison. They think he’s being held somewhere in the city,” she reads out loud. She rolls up the flier and sticks it under her armour. She glances around and lowers her voice. “Do you think the Dai Li have him too?”
Longshot doesn’t know how Jet’s disappearance might be connected to the airbison’s disappearance, but it seems that the Dai Li are extremely efficient at disappearing those who disrupt their order, so he nods. They have no other leads to follow, anyway. It’s worth a try.
The Avatar and his friends are housed in the Middle Ring, which means he and Smellerbee are less likely to be inconspicuous the way they are in the Lower Ring. They pretend to be taking in the sights that are too grand and luxurious for two shabby foreigners. As long as they don’t loiter or talk to anyone or touch anything, they’re left alone, with no signs of Joo Dee or the Dai Li nearby. The Avatar and his friends also don’t notice two figures trailing behind them.
“Jet!” Smellerbee runs into his arms and hugs him. Longshot blinks in surprise. They lost the Avatar and his friends for a few hours and now, here they all are, Jet included. Except the missing airbison. Longshot looks up at the sky and sees nothing but the sun.
He remembers with vivid clarity the first time he met Jet.
Lost and scared, too far in the woods to ever find his way back out, a boy, not much older than he was, drops out of a tree and proceeds to scare him even more than he already is. It’s the shock, he realizes upon reflection, that makes him freeze instead of running away, as he’d been doing since the Fire Nation came to his village.
“Are you a Firebender?” the boy demands. He holds a long stick out in front of him like it’s a weapon.
Longshot can only shake his head.
“Are you a spy?”
He shakes his head again.
“Okay! I’m Jet!” Jet smiles at him, sure and friendly, and just like that Longshot finds himself following this strange boy up a tree.
They start out small; there’s only the three of them, after all, him, Jet and Smellerbee. It’s not until several months later that they find Pipsqueak, and then a year after that, the Duke. By then, their one tree house has expanded to a series of trees, connected by branches and ropes. It’s the second time they’ve moved their base of operation, since a Fire Nation soldier got too close once and they weren’t able to silence him before he returned to his camp.
“I’m sorry,” says Jet, bringing Longshot back to the Dai Li’s underground prison.
Smellerbee shakes her head. “Don’t be.”
Longshot readies an arrow and waits.
He and Smellerbee miss the battle; they are imprisoned under Lake Laogai in a cell with no locks or doors. They hear all about it after, from their neighbours and during the festivities and rebuilding. Their part of the story is told too, of King Bumi’s liberation of the unjustly imprisoned people; though what Longshot remembers and how its written down and passed on never quite matches up.
The prison walls part almost soundlessly and they, along with other prisoners, multiple Joo Dees and a handful of Dai Lis still loyal to the Earth King, are escorted up to the shore by the old man -- whom they now know as Iroh, uncle to the new Fire Lord -- and Bumi, the elderly, eccentric King of Omashu.
Longshot blinks under the full force of the sun. He hasn’t seen this much light in weeks. He and Smellerbee are given a change of clothes - in Earth Kingdom green, of course - some food and water, and official refugee status. One of the Joo Dees notes down their names and pats Smellerbee on the head. Smellerbee scowls at her.
It’s odd that the Fire Nation ended up fighting themselves. He supposes he should be thankful, but mostly he feels adrift. He watches King Bumi lower the entrances to the prison back under the lake and almost asks him to stop, they’ve left someone behind. But it’s too late now, and the waves crest gently against the shore. The water is so blue it stings his eyes.
Smellerbee touches his arm and he looks away from the lake. They return to the city and their old rooms, which are a little dusty, but no worse than that. It’s not the poor sections Azula and her soldiers were intent on attacking. Longshot thinks he’s never been so tired, even though he’s done nothing but sit and wait inside the lake.
He reaches for his bow and quiver of arrows, but they’re long gone. His fingers close on Smellerbee’s hand instead. And when she says, “I won’t let go. Go to sleep,” he does.
They run into Toph first, weeks after the new Fire Lord and Avatar resolve to create an era of peace. Things have settled down a little, and there’s plenty of work to be had reconstructing parts of the old buildings that aren’t made of earthbendable material.
“The Jasmine Dragon has great tea! And cakes and bao!” Toph says, skipping over re-introductions and pleasantries. She’s on her way to meet her friends and invites them to come along.
“We’ve heard.” Smellerbee does not catch Toph’s enthusiasm, but she offers, “Maybe later?”
Toph tilts her head towards them. “Okay. And...” she pauses, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “I’m sorry about Jet.”
As she walks away, Longshot wonders what she can hear in his heartbeat.
It is too early to tell how King Kuei, recently restored to the throne, will rule. He promises a great many things, but he’s been led astray before. Long Feng and the Dai Li are no longer in power, but that does not mean they are without allies. Longshot thinks they’d be extremely foolish to return to the city, especially where a senior member of the Order of the White Lotus, with near direct access to the Fire Lord’s ear no less, has set up shop.
The war might be over, but neither the fighting nor the resolution dissolved the social strata of Ba Sing Se. Still, they might take up Toph on her offer to sample the tea at the Jasmine Dragon. He and Smellerbee fit in as well as they ever have among the merchants and new immigrants in the Lower Ring. It’s not a bad life here, but perhaps they will travel to another city or visit to their old villages or live in the woods again. He likes the impermanence.
Smellerbee looks at him and he smiles back. They’ll be all right, he thinks, as long as they’re together.