before you say anything i'm just gonna say i think every fic author gets one free cliche apocalypse au ok and i'm cashing in
anyway, the new walking dead game came out and i got Inspired™
Forests were the worst, Zuko thought, pulling his jacket free of another goddamn stray branch, he hated forests.
Though, maybe not as much as he hated deserts and all their sand and dehydration; no matter how hard he tried, he swore he could still feel stray sand in his shoes.
Forests were still pretty bad though, especially when the trees were packed this tightly together, foliage so thick he could barely see the sky through all the leaves. He didn't like not being able to see the sky; it set him in edge, the same way being exposed out in the open did. The only bright side was that undead couldn't get through it very easily either, and they always made a lot of noise when they bumped into stuff.
And when they bumped into people.
"Shit," he cursed, kicking the skeletal body off of him and yanking out one of his blades from where they were strapped across his shoulder. It was easy enough to deal with the first one, even if he had been caught off guard, and the second one, even though he hadn't heard it coming.
The third one was a bit more of a challenge, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the—god, there were so many, where did they come from, why hadn't he heard them coming, there were a lot, too many, he wasn't going to—
There was a crash, the sound of a foot hitting bone, and the undead behind him was thrown off its feet and crushed into a tree.
"Hey down there," a young voice coming from above him (?); he glanced up to see a young man swinging through the trees like some kind of rip-off Spiderman.
What the hell.
"The trees are safer than the ground, y'know," the guy called, sounding way too casual for this kind of situation.
Annoying or not, Zuko decided to take his advice; he'd rather get a few splinters than become a midday snack. He felt the boy settle carefully on a branch near him and tried not to visibly tense; if the other tried to attack, he could always try to jump, and if he fell into the small herd below he could drag the guy down with him.
"Looks like we'll just have to wait until they pass," the boy said quietly, voice rough. Zuko bit his lip and nodded, even if the last thing he wanted to do was wait; he had places to be, but taking a risk and getting himself killed wouldn't get him there any faster, "Name's Jet, by the way,"
Zuko braced himself and glanced behind him to look at his alleged savior—wild hair, tan skin, green eyes, bits of mismatched cloth and armor, gun tucked into his belt and hook-swords (? not like Zuko could really say anything) across his back. Took out a good few undead by himself, could probably put up a good fight if he wanted to.
Waiting, head tilted to the side and a wheat stalk (?) between his teeth, for an answer.
"Zuko," he answered eventually, cautious.
Jet grinned, like they weren't dangling a few feet above a fate worse than death. It put Zuko's teeth on edge.
"Nice to meet you, Zuko," he said lightly.
Zuko frowned, but "Thanks," he said grudgingly, because he may be annoyed but he wasn't rude, "for, y'know—"
"Rescuing you?" Jet cut in,
"You didn't rescue me," Zuko snapped back, "I would've been fine."
"Sure," Jet shrugged, "until you got tired. I didn't much feel like watching someone as cute as you be eaten,"
Zuko scowled, "I said thank you," and usually he wasn't this hostile towards someone he just met, but something about this boy rubbed him the wrong way, "You don't have to be an asshole about it."
Jet blinked at that, like he had no idea he was annoying as hell, and said "Uh, you're welcome, then," and that was that.
"So, Zuko," Jet started, landing lightly on the ground next to him; it had taken the better part of an hour for the herd to forget about them and move on, "What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?"
"What do you think I'm doing?"
"Taking a hike?"
Zuko snorted, securing his blades in place and checking for injuries, "Good guess," he muttered, "Hey," he glanced up, cutting off whatever jet was gonna say next, "I appreciate what you did for me, but I can't stick around any longer. I have people I have to get back to."
"That makes two of us, then." Jet tucked his hands in his pockets, "Where you headed?"
Zuko just looked at him.
"Look," Jet sighed, "I'm headed to Ba Sing Se, no matter which way you're going. Though if you're this far West, chances are you're headed there too. I'm thinkin', why not make it easier on both of us and travel together, y'know?"
"No," he said immediately, quick enough that Jet actually looked taken aback, as if he had any right to.
"No," he repeated, "How do I know you won't kill me as soon as I turn my back? How do you know you won't just take my stuff and run? I don't trust you."
"And I don't trust you," Jet grinned—grimaced, more like, "Neither of us have gotten this far on trust, I bet."
Zuko frowned, "I—"
"I'm not asking you to trust me," Jet cut in, "I'm just asking you to have my back for a few days, and I'll have yours. That's it."
Zuko faltered, narrowed his eyes, "Why? You don't that I won't try to kill you."
Jet gave an amused nod of his head, "True. But, you just don't seem like that kinda guy."
"Are you serious?" Zuko ground out, somewhere between incredulous and angry, "You're risking your life on assumption?"
"The fact that I'm still standing is enough for me," he said with a shrug, "I saw what you can do with those swords. If you wanted me dead, I'd be dead already."
Zuko faltered again, if only for a second—Jet's easy way of speaking put him on edge, the same way Aang had back when they'd first run into each other. He was too casual about everything. There was no way in hell he trusted Zuko not to stick a blade or put a bullet in his back while he slept—he was right, no one lived this long trusting by in the good will of humanity—so he didn't understand why he was so open with his offer. He didn't like it. He really didn't like it.
Still. It'd make getting to Ba Sing Se easier—and he had to get to Ba Sing Se. Toph and Aang and the others were on their way there right now, and Uncle was somewhere in the city. He had to get there.
"…Just for a few days?" he asked warily, ignoring the pleased look on the other boy's face.
"Just for a few days," he agreed, "Until we get to the city. Then you and I can go our separate ways, no strings attached."
It was too good an offer, Zuko thought, too good to be true, no one risked this kind of thing on good faith alone—your word meant little to nothing to most people out here, he'd learned.
Jet was good with those stupid hook-swords of his, probably dead accurate with the gun on his belt, and even if he didn't have them, he'd still probably be good with his fists. And he was taller than Zuko, broader than Zuko, might be able to get the upper hand if he were caught off guard—Zuko was fast, but this boy moved through the forest like he was born to it, and so Zuko didn't trust him, couldn't trust him.
But still. Still.
"…Fine," he said eventually, not liking it a bit, "But you even think about sticking a sword through me, and I'm gone." he bit off whatever dumb retort Jet was gonna make, ice and steel, "Try to steal from me, I'm gone. Try to kill me, I'll kill you back. Got it?"
"Got it," Jet replied, seemingly completely serious for the first time, "Right back at'cha, though."
Zuko snorted, "Okay. Good."
He stood in place for a few more moments, searching, before giving a decisive nod and turning to scan the trees. He kept Jet in his line of sight.
"Might as well get moving, then."
Jet hummed in agreement. "Lead the way."
Zuko almost laughed, "Not a chance."
"So," Jet said the first night, lying on his back on the opposite side of the fire, "Who's waiting for you?"
Zuko frowned; he was tired, really tired, but not tired enough to fall asleep with a stranger a few feet away from him. From the way his hands were laced tight tight tight together under his head, neither was Jet. Good, Zuko thought, he'd be either crazy or stupid not to be. He was probably both either way.
"Why do you care?"
He practically felt Jet shrug, "Lotta people don't have anyone waiting for them anymore. You all must be pretty close if you've made it this far together."
"We weren't always 'together'," Zuko frowned, "We all made it on our own for a while. We were just lucky enough to find each other along the way."
Jet hummed. "Used to have a huge family—bunch of siblings, before and after this whole shit-show started." he paused for a long moment, "Big groups? Don't do so well out here. Don't have very many siblings anymore."
Zuko was quiet, pressed his lips together in sympathy at the tone of the other boy's voice. He wished vaguely that Uncle were here—Zuko never knew what to say to stuff like this—and then had to squash down the worry that built up in his throat every time he thought about him.
"I'm sorry," he settled on quietly.
"Yeah, me too." Jet replied; took a deliberate breath, "But two of them are waiting for me—they'll make it there, I know they will," the hard conviction in his voice hurt to hear, "And I won't let them down, not this time."
Zuko let the words settle in the air, stared at the stars through the thick foliage, and understood.
The next day, they ran into two undead ("walkers," Jet called them, which was a stupid name, if you asked Zuko—"What do you call the ones that run?" he'd shot back, and Jet had just laughed like he told a joke).
They were dealt with easily enough, loud enough that they were ready before they even came into sight and slow enough not to panic either of them.
Zuko hated them. Hated how necessary it was to be so brutal about stopping them—they were already dead, but it felt like killing them a second time. And Zuko was good at it, by now; he barely even had to try anymore, and he hated that too.
He was supposed to be graduating high school in a year or two, not fleeing to a city that might not even keep them safe in a world falling apart. Uncle was supposed to be living it up in his damn tea shop, Katara was going to become a doctor, Sokka was supposed to go off to some art or maybe engineering school soon, Toph and Aang would barely be starting high school by now, Azula would be hanging her good grades over his head and Mother would be—not gone. Mother would be here, Mother would be alive.
One of the undead looked like a mother, he thought, staring up at him with lifeless eyes and see-through skin. Long dark hair and what Sokka called "mom jeans" and what would probably be a pretty face a few years back. He could picture her with a child or two, all kind and caring and there. He could see it so damn clearly—he hated looking at these—these creatures—because they were people once, and they had lives and they had family and now they were dead, just empty bodies that weren't even human anymore.
And this one looked so much like a mother (so much like his mother, he could see her hear her voice almost like it was years and years ago and she was still there and still happy) it was hard to breathe.
"Hey," he heard, and flinched much harder than he had in a while, looked up with wide eyes and hands flying to his blades, but "Woah, woah, hey," it was just Jet.
Zuko blinked rapidly, willing himself to let go of his weapon, not seem like a threat—he didn't think he could fight Jet right now, not after—after that.
"Where did you go?" Jet asked softly, throwing Zuko completely in for a loop.
He swallowed hard and dry and shook his head, "Why do you care?" he got out eventually, "Don't answer that," he added when Jet opened his mouth, "Just—give me a second."
Surprisingly, Jet backed off—nodded and took a step or two back, scanned the trees for anything else to give him some semblance of privacy.
Zuko leaned heavily against a tree. Dug his nails into his opposite arm to ground himself and breathed in deeply, one, two, three times, cursing himself.
What was wrong with him? He hadn't thought about her in weeks (that was a lie, shaking in the middle of the night with her voice in his head, the same way he could still feel Father holding his head against the stove before he blinked himself awake).
He closed his eyes, willing his heart to stop beating so goddamn fast—it was fine, he was fine, he was—alone, with Jet, with a stranger, who might see whatever the hell this was as some kind of weakness, a liability, not strong enough to handle himself so might as well stick a knife in him and take his food and go and—
"Hey," he heard again, glanced up sharply, "You okay?"
He had to look down again because Jet looked way too concerned about someone he'd met yesterday.
There was a pause, and Zuko realized he was actually expecting an answer, so he gave a jerky shrug of his shoulders and a flat "I'll be fine."
Jet nodded, settled back against a tree next to him.
"What happened?" he asked quietly, leaving the question dangling, giving him the choice to answer or not.
After a solid five minutes, Zuko whispered, "Looked like Mom."
Jet was quiet; Zuko deliberately did not look at him.
"I'm sorry," Jet said eventually.
"Yeah." Zuko muttered, an echo of Jet's finalizing statement the night before, "Me too."
They reach the water early the next morning.
Which, if he was being honest, he had not expected. To be fair, the directions he'd gotten had been pretty vague, mostly just which way to head and how long it would take, nothing about undead-infested deserts or wild gangs that stole cars or forests or huge ass…lakes? Parts of the ocean? All he knew was that it was big, and it was dark, and it was deep.
And he'd seen water-logged undead before. They were just there, under the water. You'd never see it coming.
"Great," he muttered, "Fantastic. What the hell are we gonna do now?"
Zuko just glared at him.
"Kidding, kidding," he grinned faintly, "Maybe there's a boat somewhere? This place used to be a dock, I think—ferries and stuff,"
Zuko hummed, gripping his dao handles tight and scanning the shore, "I don't see anything,"
"Me either," Jet frowned, rolling that damn wheat stalk between his teeth absently.
They searched up and down the coast for the better part of an hour. They found three undead, two car tires, and zero boats.
Zuko felt dread settling in the pit of his stomach, quickly bordering on panic. There had to be a way across—there had to be, how did so many people make it to Ba Sing Se if there was no way across the water? He'd bet his ass Aang and the others were already there, they had to have found a way, there had to be a way, there had to be—he had to get to that goddamn city.
"I think there might be another way across," Jet's voice dragged him swiftly out of his panic.
"A while back, we stopped at this little town near Kyoshi, and I heard some people talkin'," Jet glanced back at him, "They said something about an alternate route to Ba Sing Se. Called it 'The Serpent's Pass,' or something ominous like that,"
Zuko blinked, thinking hard because he'd heard that name somewhere before, he was sure. He was also pretty sure it wasn't anything good.
"Where is it?" he asked anyways, because he was getting to that goddamn city.
"Somewhere a little ways North, I think. There should be a sign,"
Zuko snorted, "'Should be'. Don't know if you've noticed, but people don't care too much about signs anymore,"
The Serpent's Pass was Not A Good Idea.
Zuko realized this about five minutes into hiking up narrow, twisting stone paths and kicking an undead ferry captain into the water far far far below.
They continued anyway, because they were both stubborn and desperate and needed to get to that goddamn city like their lives depended on it.
"Nice view," Jet said as the sun sets, coming in light orange rays over the jagged mountaintops and straight into Zuko's eyes.
"It's lovely," Zuko said flatly, bringing a hand up to block out the sun.
Jet huffed a laugh, "You're not one to appreciate nature, are you?"
"Not when nature's trying to kill me. Or blind me," he added dryly.
"I was gonna say that not everything's out to get you, before I realized that pretty much everything is out to get pretty much everyone, nowadays,"
He said it so monotone that it actually startled a laugh out of him.
Jet smiled back.
The Serpent's Pass was dangerous and unsteady and really really long, so it took them the entire next day to wind their way through it. It was slow going and irritating, and Zuko was nearly out of water by the end of it, but if it was going to get them to the city faster, it was worth it.
The second night they spent on the cold rock, they managed to gather enough mountain grass to light a small fire, damn if it attracted anything—it felt like hell frozen over at night, and he'd take any heat he can get.
"So," Jet said, just like the first night, teeth chattering and hands tucked into his armor, "Who's waiting for you?"
He didn't have the energy or will to frown this time. Just leaned back against the stone and tilted his head back to look at the moon, shining down on them like the world below wasn't falling to pieces.
"Friends," he said eventually, "We were separated in the desert—one of those crazy gangs out there attacked, and we had to run," he swallowed, pushing back the nausea the memory brought, "And my uncle—he's there, too. He's been there for a while, I think. We…well, we parted ways a while back. He said he'd always planned on going to Ba Sing Se, so," he shrugged, so so tired, "I'm hoping I'll find him there."
If Jet noticed the ways his hands shook when he said I'm hoping, he didn't say anything, and if he thought the absence of any other family members was strange, he didn't say anything about that either. Everybody'd lost someone; hardly anyone had any family anymore.
"And if he's not there?" Jet asked eventually; not accusing, just—a simple question, one that Zuko did not want to think about.
"I—I don't know why he wouldn't be there," he swallowed shakily, "But if he's not, then," he shrugged a freezing shoulder and tried to force back the hot sting in his eyes, "I'll keep looking. I'll find him. I have to."
Jet, using his silences carefully as always, nodded, shot him a reassuring smile, "You'll find him," he said simply.
They reached the wall by midday.
It wasn't what Zuko had pictured, when people talked about the amazing impenetrable city. It was thick stone, built up high, with squares of metal all along the borders they were afraid the stone would crumble.
The gates themselves were a patchwork of metal, rock and willpower. There were guards perched on the walls on either side. Zuko felt the prickle of gunpoint, and tried not to tense. Forced himself not to reach for his weapon. He didn't really wanna get shot.
The process of being questioned at gunpoint was long and irritating, and at one point Zuko was afraid they wouldn't be let in. Eventually though, mostly—and Zuko would never willing admit it out loud—due to Jet's easy air and way with words, they were cleared. Even though Zuko could see his fists clench and unclench to keep himself in check, he never seemed to get mad or annoyed at all.
When they were allowed in, gates creating open slowly, Zuko's heart leapt and dropped at exactly the same time.
There were people here, people who were alive and breathing and safe, actually safe, with enough food that they didn't look half-starved. They would be safe here. It was also huge. A city bigger than any he'd ever seen. There were at least a thousand people here, if not a few thousand more, which was incredible and so good, but also. Not very convenient for him.
He didn't know how he'd ever find anyone in here. He didn't if he could ever find anyone in here.
It was huge and he was one person and he didn't know what he could do—he'd come so damn far for this, but what if he couldn't find them? What if they hadn't made it? What if Uncle wasn't even here? What if he'd never been here?
"Jesus," Jet whistled, actually looking a bit jumpy and overwhelmed himself, "This place is fuckin' huge."
"Yeah," Zuko agreed numbly, "I don't know if—" he cut himself off.
"Yeah," Jet agreed with a wry smile; he paused, rolling the wheat between his teeth thoughtfully, "Now that we're here," he said slowly, "We can split ways. Or," he added a moment later, "if you want, I could help you find your people, and you could help me find mine?"
Zuko side-eyed him for a long moment, "You know what? Sure, why not." he rolled his eyes at the way Jet's face lit up, "Besides," he added with a small smile of his own, "I think you and Uncle would get along."