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Forks in the Road

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Jet aches. His back is searing, his legs heavy and numb, and his chest constricted from the way his knees are crammed up against it. It’s dark and closed in, and he has to work to bring air into his lungs. Spirits, when Jet dies, he wants to die sharp and quick, not a heavy gradual crushing like this, a losing battle for air he knows he won’t win. Nothing like this.

Jet shakes his head, throwing off the dark thoughts. He isn’t dying, and he isn’t a stranger to discomfort. He could wait for hours without shifting an inch when he was waiting in the trees before raids, bearing the aching stiffness like it just wasn’t there, because the Fire Nation being in his forest was the only pain he had room for. Why can’t he do that now?

His small prison jolts, and stinging hurt burns through his ankles, his back, and his shoulders. Jet’s breath comes out in the weak exhale of a silent cry, and he can taste a thin layer of soil across his teeth from the sand that keeps sifting through the false bottom coat his head and shoulders. He clenches his teeth together and grips the fabric of his pants in tight fists, trying not to think about how much worse this must be for Smellerbee.

He loses track of time. His thoughts trickle away until all he’s thinking about is anticipating the next jostle, bracing his back against the clay behind him and pressing into it to take weight off of his ankles. He doesn’t realize they’ve stopped until the lid above his head is removed, and his tiny prison is flooded with air, and piercing light. He squints against the sharp burn of the light hitting his sensitive eyes, and lifts himself out with shaking arms.

Smellerbee’s already out, on her knees on the ground with one hand holding the wheel of the wagon to steady herself, sucking in lungful after lungful of air. Jet winces in sympathy, but doesn’t say anything. Smellerbee doesn’t like attention drawn to her weaknesses.

The resistance man Blue brought them to is working at some hidden clasp on the pot beside Jet, his head nearly in the rustling purple flowers held in the top lid. He hefts the lid off to the ground with a grunt, and Jet sees the always startling sight of Longshot's head without a hat. The pots are a genius trick, Jet thinks, as he shuffles over on buzzing stinging legs, even if they are damn uncomfortable.

Longshot isn't getting out. He's staring straight ahead with unseeing glassy eyes, and he doesn’t move until Jet grabs him under one arm and tugs. Smellerbee’s retching uselessly behind them, but her noises sound angry, not hurt. She'll be fine.

By the time Longshot’s eyes are regaining life and he’s beginning to take in the layout of the desert surrounding them, Blue is out of his pot. He steps out with a calm face and graceful movement, and Jet is unaccountably irritated with him as he breezes past them and jumps deftly off the wagon bed; until he stumbles on landing and just sits in the dirt, rubbing his hands over his legs. His face is turned away, but Jet bets there’s pain in it now that no one can see his expression.

“Smellerbee?” Jet calls out. She pants a few more times before her breath evens out.

“Fine. I’m fine." she says. "Let’s not do that again. Ever.”

Longshot knocks the back of his knuckles against Jet’s chest affectionately, and Jet steps back, letting Longshot stand on his own. He surveys his Freedom Fighters. Longshot is present again, threading through the pots to reach the canvas their weapons and extra armor are wrapped in. Smellerbee is pushing herself into a standing position, her back rigidly straight and her hands in fists as she forces the fear away. Jet’s heart leaps, fiercely proud of them.

“The next leg of your journey will be much more comfortable,” the resistance man says, watching them all. “I’ve had soldiers who’ve cried after an hour within one of our pots. You handle distress admirably, especially for some so young.”

Jet grins at him, leaning back and trying to look composed and not like his legs want to cave in. “Practice. You have to work through the pain to survive in this world.”

Sympathy flashes through the resistance man’s eyes, but he just turns away, pulling a small package from his coat. “Here’s some basic information, the name of a contact, and some money, for getting passports when you get to Ba Sing Se.”

“False ones, you mean.”

The man nods. “Unless you plan to use your real names.”

Blue’s back snaps tense, and Jet carefully doesn’t react. “Yeah, don’t think we’ll do that. Thank you.”

The man nods again and lightly dismounts the wagon. He’s only taken one step towards Blue before the other boy is on his feet with his back to the bare desert, squinting at him. He’s missing his swords, just like Jet, but he stands with the surety that he can fight if he needs to. He is, Jet already knows, someone who’s always needed to.

The man pulls a thin scroll from his sleeve, holding it out to the scarred boy. “When you reach Ba Sing Se, bring this to the noodle shop closest to the train depot in the lower ring, with flowers in the window. Give it to a woman named Jui, she’ll be wearing white.”

Blue hesitates, staring at the scroll. His eyes jump to Jet’s for the briefest moment and he takes it, tucking it away somewhere in his clothing.
Before the resistance man can turn away Blue touches his elbow, stalling him. “If you… come across that old man,” He says stiffly. “Tell him. Tell him I’m…” he trails off, looking troubled.

“I’ll tell him you’re safe,” the man says kindly. “And with friends.”

Blue scowls a bit, like he doesn’t agree, like that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all, but he nods anyways.

The man bows deeply to the boy, who’s startled by the gesture (Jet might have next to no concept of manners, but the way Longshot’s eyebrows jump tells him this is unusual), before he makes his way back to the front of the wagon.

Longshot taps something against Jet’s thigh, and Jet looks down to see that Longshot has found their weapons. He takes the hilts of his duel hook swords, and fluidly tosses Blue's weapons to the boy, who catches the sheath one-handed. He doesn’t look quite right, Jet muses, without a weapon in reach. People like them never do.

Longshot gives a low almost inaudible whistle, staring into the distance. Jet squints in the same direction but isn't surprised when he can’t see anything.

“Is something wrong?” Blue asks. His hand is tight on his sheath, and Jet wonders again just what is chasing him that scares him so.

Longshot taps his fingers against his leg twice. No danger yet. Hold.

“Something’s coming, but no sign if it’s a threat or not.”

Blue huffs, like the thought that it ISN’T a threat is preposterous. Jet’s not the most optimistic person, but Blues constant assumption that everything and everyone is trying to kill him wears on him a little. Jet has had backup in his life, friends. From the way Blue acts, he hasn't.

“That’s probably Lu,” the resistance man muses. “He’ll be your guide for the first part of your journey.”

“I can’t believe we’re going through the Si Wong Desert,” Smellerbee mutters. “Isn’t it supposed to not be crossable?”

“It isn’t, alone,” the man says, “But we do have a system in place for desperate refugees. Lu will take you a third of the way, and head back. The hardest part will be the stretch in the middle, where you will go alone. There's a town of the other side of the desert which will send out scouts to pick you up and take you the rest of the way back. This way, you will receive fresh supplies two thirds of the way through the desert. It is not perfect; we lose up to half of the refugees every trip in the stretch in the middle, but that is an acceptable risk for people running for their lives.”

Jet nods. They all know that feeling.

---

Lu has soft light brown eyes, and a gentle way of moving that Jet can't quite understand. He’s not old, but he is darkened and wrinkled by the constant sun enough that you’d assume if you hadn't heard his voice.
.
“So this is what you do,” Jet says, walking beside the man’s camelephant, much more at ease with his armor and his weapons. They all are. “You just escort people across the desert over and over? Do you get tired of it?”

“No.” the man smiles. “This is the way I fight, and I’m glad for it. The army wouldn’t take me, you see, because I have a bad limp. I was burned when I was a child, deeply. Burns like that, you feel them in one way or another for the rest of your life. Even if I'm not in pain, I can't forget the memory of it long enough to stop limping. You never forget something like that, and neither does your body.”

Blue makes a low pained noise Jet knows he wasn’t meant to hear, and Jet clenches his fists and doesn’t look back at him.

At his marked face.

There's nothing Jet can do about it, so he just grits his teeth and HATES.

The sun is almost directly above them when they reach the rest of the caravan. There are about five wagons, swarmed by walking people. Jet can hear the low buzz of chatter, smell the stench of sweat and animals and sickness, and see the blank horror of war in so many eyes.

They fit right in, Jet thinks, with their threadbare clothes and mismatched armor, Blue’s hollowed out (burned) face. With the ashes in their stares, not always visible, but always there.

“There’s so many of them.” Blue mutters, pain in his gaze as he tracks a group of children darting back and forth around the wagons. Children, Jet understands, are one of Blue’s soft spots. It’s another thing they have in common.

“It’s the war,” Lu says, and moves his mount away, towards the front of the line.

“Half of these people won’t make it?” Smellerbee questions quietly, as they slip into the mass of people.

Jet frowns. “We’ll spread out. Everyone keep watch, signal if something goes wrong.” He lets his eyes meet Blue’s, carefully doesn't look at anything but his eyes. “Like this.” He thins his lips and whistles one short sharp burst. Blue imitates him closely, and gives him a solemn nod. Jet nods back. “We’ll see if we can cut those losses a bit.”

Smellerbee and Longshot split off without being dismissed, and Blue watches Smellerbee go out of the corner of his left eye. Jet wonders if the burn impedes his eyesight. Given how he tilts his head to follow her progress, probably a little.

Blue looks at Jet, and that really is a horrible name for him, isn’t it. If anything he’s red, burned through and through, full of the kind of pain that simmers low in your stomach, not the kind that freezes. It was hard to see at first, under the cautious nature and the bone deep weariness, but there’s an anger in the swordsman, a hot bitterness at his very center. Jet wonders if he’s always been like this or if he changed when the Fire Nation took his life from him, like Jet had.

Blue shifts his swords a bit, rolling his shoulders as if he’s repositioning a heavy weight. He turns and walks down the line of refugees, his head held high but his back stiff like he’s in pain and Jet frowns and watches him go, thoughtful.

---

Nothing happens that day, and as the caravan stops for the night Jet whistles for a regroup and goes to find Blue.

He sees him walking alongside a woman with a young girl on her hip, carrying her pack across his shoulders. He’s listening to her talk with a young look on his face and an unsure shake in his step that makes Jet immediately alarmed. Jet looks for any sign of a fight, it was so stupid of him to think Blue would call if there was a fight- and then Blue darts a glance at the woman’s face and looks like he’s seeing something else, and Jet understands. He wonders how old Blue was when they killed his mother. He wonders how much this woman looks like her, to bring so much grief and wonder to the kid’s face.

“Hey,” Smellerbee jogs up. “Nothing on my side.”

Jet shakes himself, and gives her a bright smile. She’s dusty and tired, but she has the light of purpose in her eyes. “Clear for me too,” Jet says.

When he looks back Blue is nearer, having spotted them. His back is straighter than it was. Jet hopes the time with old memories helped him more than it hurt him. “Are we stopping?” Blue asks, pausing outside Jet’s sword reach in the unthinking manner which means he’s already thought through how to survive a fight with Jet. Jet aches for him, a little. This kid is messed up.

“Yeah, looks like,” Jet says. “We’ll set up camp somewhere high, so we’ll still see if something happens at night.”

“It seems kind of backwards, to travel during the day,” Blue muses, scowling a bit.

Jet shrugs. “I’m sure they have a reason. This isn’t their first time across.”

Blue still looks mulish, but then Longshot’s whistle is filling the air, so Jet just waves him off. “That one means ‘high ground’. Go say goodnight to your friends, we’ll wait.”

Blue searches his face while looking incredibly irritated and Jet makes sure there’s nothing like dismissal or condescension in his expression, noting that he should leave off non-essential orders until the kid knows him better.

Blue finally gives up on finding what he’s looking for, and turns towards the woman. Only a few steps away he swings back around, tensing himself like he’s bracing for a hit. “Why do you keep teaching me your signal system?” He demands in that under-socialized way of his, suspicion in every line of his face.

“Just makes it easier,” Jet shrugs, like he always does this with random refugees he meets.

Blue eyes him for a moment before he stalks off. His gait is visibly calmer by the time he reaches the woman, and Jet can’t help but smile when he gives her a short jerky bow.

Smellerbee snickers beside him, punching Jet lightly in the arm. “When are you planning on telling him he’s been adopted?”

“In a while,” Jet grins. “There’s no rush.”

Wouldn’t want to spook him, after all.

---

The spot is good, and they can see the whole camp from it, along with the open desert for miles around them. Smellerbee gives Longshot’s arm a brief squeeze and heads back down to the wagons to scrounge up some previsions.

“She seems to be doing better,” Blue says, a cautious venture into conversation. “It is ‘she’, right?”

“Yeah,” Jet replies, and carefully holds back his amusement. Neither Blue nor Smellerbee would appreciate it. “The pots were hard for her, she doesn’t like to be closed in.”

Blue nods, his remaining eyebrow curled downward. He doesn’t say anything else until Smellerbee comes back, and he refuses to eat without being told where she got the food. Smellerbee says they have a supply available for the refugees, but Blue still won’t eat until Jet tells him to think of it as payment for keeping guard, because Blue is ridiculous, so proud and independent it’s painful. It’s not even good food, sour tasting and spoiled around the edges.

Blue spits out his first mouthful, face twisting in disgust, but then he looks at Smellerbee pinching her nose and forcing it down and Longshot eating with the blankest face. He clenches the bowl between his hands, squares his shoulders, and tries again.

They’re only halfway through the meal when Blue murmurs “I never thought about it being like this,” into his bowl of slop.

“The food?” Jet prods.

Blue shakes his head, a troubled tilt to his mouth. “The refugees. I don’t know what I thought was happening, but this…” He shakes his head. “I never…” He bites the words off, turning his head towards the wagons. Jet can’t see his face, but Jet’s good at people and he can read the shame in Blue’s shoulders.

“You feel guilty, because you didn’t think about them?” He asks softly.

Blue doesn’t react, but Jet knows it was a clean hit.

“We’ve all done it,” Jet tells him, keeping his voice level and unthreatening. “After they burned my village to the ground I didn’t think about the rest of the world, or even look to see if anyone else made it out. I knew the people I loved hadn’t, and… I was caught in my own pain.”

Blue makes a choked sound, turning back to Jet. “That’s not-”

“It’s okay to be stuck there, for a while,” Jet barrels on. Blue has to hear this. “It took me finding my first war orphan to realize that it wasn’t just about me. That I wasn’t alone.” He reaches across the space between them, and Blue starts, leans back so that Jet’s fingertips barely brush the fabric of his shirt. “It wasn’t your fault, okay? It’s the Fire Nation’s. It isn’t your fault that they died, and you survived. They’d want you to-“

Blue bolts, spilling his bowl onto the dirt and scrambling backwards and up, disappearing into the dying light in the blink of an eye.

“You pushed pretty far,” Smellerbee says in quiet rebuke.

“Maybe,” Jet concedes, but he had seen the guilt in Blue as he watched that woman talk. This was something that the kid had to hear. Jet just hopes something he said got through.

--

When he wakes up everything is burning. The sand is scalding hot under his face and he jumps up with a shout, looking around frantically. Smellerbee isn’t here, or Longshot. They left him, he never wanted them to LEAVE him-

There’s a blue and write mask on the ground in front of him, sinister in the glow of the flames. The entire left eye has been burned out, leaving a grotesque black rimmed emptiness in its place.

Jet careens into the burning caravan, yelling frantically for his Freedom Fighters. He stumbles around pieces of flaming wood and over bodies, his lungs heavy with the effort of pumping hot smoky air into his body, his mind already growing fuzzy, but he can’t stop screaming for-

-he’s eight years old, and watching a village burn for the very first time. His parents are in there, and he wants to go to them but the heat is a wall against his tear stained face, and he knows the only thing that’s left he can do in this place is burn and he’s terrified.

There’s a man with a mostly bald head, looking at him through squinting yellow eyes, and Jet knows with terrible and absolute certainty, that he did this to them. That he’s looking straight into the face of a monster, and nothing will ever be alright again.

-no no no anger, grief, pain, KILL, why, why, we didn’t do, HATE anything to them, HATE HATE HATE THEM ALL-

He’s older, and furious, swinging hooked swords like a man possessed, cutting into flesh and spilling hot blood over the ground, in a chaotic circle of revenge. Someone grabs his shoulder and he pivots and mercilessly, viciously, drives the knifed handle of his hook sword into the attacker’s chest.

Longshot’s blank eyes stare at him.

Jet SCREAMS. He backs up, Longshot’s blood splashing against his chest, and he can’t find a way out, there’s Fire Nation swine closing in from all sides, and maybe that’s okay, he killed Longshot, he’s been killing them all along, maybe this is a good time, maybe he can finally die-

And then he’s in a meadow, soft grass brushing his bare legs. There’s no fire, there’s no heat, just an eerie blue glow about the place, a silence that somehow feels alive. The trees are twisted and stately, covered in gently swaying moss, and he can hear water running somewhere to his left.

“You have a very troubled mind, my friend.”

Jet whirls, his heart leaping into his throat as he realizes he’s weaponless. There’s someone standing there, not much older than Jet. He’s pale and ghostly, dressed in white and almost transparent, but Jet can’t remember a single kid of his that looked like him, and there’s no one else who deserves to haunt him.

“This is new,” he croaks out, his eyes darting around, waiting for things to go bad. The ghost smiles, a sad thing, and steps forward on disconcertingly silent feet.

“I’ve seen the twist your destiny has taken,” he tells Jet, his voice an almost physical thing brushing past Jet’s shoulders with the scent of flowers. “You stand before two paths, and which one you choose to take will either hinder or aide the return of balance to the world.”

Jet blinks. “Balance to the world? What are you talking about?”

“On one hand, you will fight for your soul with all you have, and you will fail, leaving the world in an insignificant death.” The ghost states, not cold, but indifferent.

Jet swallows, and he can almost feel a crushing in his chest, the blood as it fills his lungs and chokes him. “And the other path?”

“You will give up the one thing you cling to most,” the boy says, “And secure the salvation of the world.”

Jet’s stomach drops like a stone. Smellerbee and Longshot. “No, you…” he swallows. “You can’t ask me that, I can’t do that, I won’t give up on-“

“Then,” the ghost says, his eyes suddenly cold, “you are doomed.”

The grass collapses into smoke, and Jet is screaming again, falling, down down-

-downdowndowndown-

There’s no screaming.

---

Jet jerks awake, a silenced yell thick in his chest. He looks around wildly, his heart only beating again when he meets Longshot’s dark LIVING eyes, sees Smellerbee sleeping on her side a few feet away. He crawls to her without thought, shaking and still reeling and has she always slept this still?

Jet closes his eyes in dread and presses his fingers to the pulse point at Smellerbee’s neck. He feels a beat, two, before the pulse jumps. His eyes fly open and he jerks back, barely avoiding the blade cutting for his throat. She’s on him before he can make a noise, pinning his arms to his sides with her thighs and holding his head still with one hand and the knife above his eye with the other. Just like he taught her, Jet thinks in hysterical pride.

She recognizes him, her eyes darting wide. She throws the knife to the side and lurches off of him. “Jet!” she hisses, horror and adrenaline thick in her voice. “I almost killed you! What are you DOING?” she snarls, pressing her hand over her neck. She blinks after a moment, registering the placement of her hand, and runs searching eyes over his face. He wonders what she sees.

Her eyes turn sympathetic. “Bad dream?”

He swallows thickly. “Sorry,” he says, his voice thick with the screams he’s learned not to let out. “That was a stupid thing to do, I wasn’t thinking.”

“It was.” She crawls over and sits beside him and Longshot, who walked over some time during the whole spectacle, crouches on his other side close enough they’re almost touching. Jet pulls himself into a sitting position and will never stop being thankful for the living heat radiating from their skin.

“You want to talk about it?” Smellerbee whispers.

“No, it’s fine,” Jet rubs a palm against his eyes, over the bridge of his nose. “It was just… so real.”

Smellerbee leans against him, comforting and strong. They just sit that way for a while, listening to each other breathe.

“He finally came back?” Jet asks when he feels like he isn’t going to break into tiny pieces anymore, nodding his head at Blue. The teen is curled on his side, facing the dying embers of their fire, his hand fisted around the hilt of his weapon. His forehead is furrowed, and Jet doubts his dreams are any nicer than Jets.

“Yeah, as soon as you fell asleep, but he didn't conk out until near the end of my shift,” Smellerbee whispers back. “And definitely not on purpose. Looked like he meant to stay awake all night.”

“Again,” Jet says grimly. “He didn’t sleep at all last night, in the hidden room.”

Smellerbee blinks. “Really? I thought he did.”

He faked it, Longshot corrects with the tilt of his mouth.

“Pretty well, too.” Jet murmurs in tired humor, and then frowns. “I think he’s been on his own for a really long time. People put him on edge. It’ll be a while before he can let us watch his back.” If he ever can.

“What, you can’t just grin and make him trust you?” Smellerbee asks, sharper than she meant, he knows.

It stings, but Jet lets it go and gives a quietly grim bark of laughter. “It’d take a hell lot more than a smile to get that kid to trust again.”

They’re silent for a while. Smellerbee watches the sky, and Longshot scans the area around them with practiced eyes, since technically he’s still on watch. Jet just soaks in their presence.

“What do you think happened to him?” Smellerbee whispers. In the dark Blue’s scar is black, like his face has been hollowed out. Jet thinks of the mask in his dream, and feels bile on the back of his throat.

Jet has to look away. “Well, I know you don’t get a scar like that from a Waterbender.”

Smellerbee shivers. “Yeah, I guess not. Just… try to be careful, Jet. With him, and of him. I think this is one of the bad ones.”

“I know. I’ll be careful.”

Longshot pats him on the shoulder and stands, retaking the spot he was previously watching from.

Smellerbee is frowning at the sky, so Jet reaches over and puts his hand over her eyes, pushing her backwards until she’s lying on her back. “Enough thinking, mother Smellerbee. Go to sleep. Everything is going to be fine.”

“You’re a really good liar,” Smellerbee tells him, shoving at his wrist halfheartedly.

Jet thinks about the too real dream, about giving up the only thing he has left for the fate of the world, about how many times he's said the word 'fine' when it really really isn't, and agrees with her.