Dust, and pain, and what he thinks is probably his stale blood in his mouth, because who else's would it be? He is lying limp on a reed mat, naked, with a coarse blanket draped over him.
His hand twitches. He isn't sure he's moved at all, but a shadow immediately falls over him.
He tries to speak, but his throat seizes and he jolts up violently, body racked with coughing.
"Oh shit, Longshot, Jet's awake. He's—he's awake. Shit, Jet..."
That has to be Smellerbee. His coughs finally subsiding, Jet looks up into the familiar face, peering anxiously at him. Longshot approaches with a water pouch, holding it out wordlessly for Jet to drink, and drink, until he starts to feel like himself again.
Some time later, Jet sits cross-legged on the mat, blanket draped over his legs.
"So...months. I was—gone—for months."
Smellerbee nods, white-lipped. "We thought you were dead. You almost were."
"And the Avatar failed to kill the Fire Lord."
"That's what we hear."
"And we're currently on Western Air Bender territory."
"Seemed the safest; nobody around."
It takes him a while to adjust. He wears the same clothes he's always worn, he's with some of the same Freedom Fighters he's always been with, he even chews the same damn grass he's always chewed. They're in a different place, but that shouldn't matter so much. They've moved around a lot in their short lives.
The thing is...he should be dead. He thought he was, for a while. It was okay, because he went down fighting the way he'd always wanted to. More than he'd wanted; he hadn't dreamed he'd be protecting the Avatar. It was a good death.
Only it wasn't. A death, anyway. And now he's moving ghostlike among the trees, not quite sure what he's supposed to be doing. Jet can feel the concerned, hopeful eyes of Smellerbee and Longshot on him, waiting for their leader to lead again. They are good people, strong, but without him they're directionless. He has to do something soon, but he doesn't know what.
He never actually makes a decision. There are voices in the forest, and then the Avatar is in front of him, yelling "Jet!" Katara flings her arms around him, sobbing; he's grateful for their concern, and puts an arm around Katara's shoulders, a little awkwardly.
Then he sees the scarred firebender behind Sokka.
Jet snarls and whips out his hookswords. "Get back—he's a firebender!"
The Avatar grins a nervous, stupid grin, scratching his head. "Yeah...we know."
There are explanations and more explanations. Jet lets them wash over him with the now-familiar sense that he doesn't know anything, not anymore. He can feel his own anger and frustration as if through a fog, seeing but not understanding.
Since the Avatar trusts Li—well, Zuko, apparently—Jet decides it might be okay. There's something different about Li now, anyway. He's always held himself tense, ready to fight, snarling at the world, but now some of that tension is gone. Li—Zuko, Jet reminds himself. Zuko moves with more grace now. Before, every step and motion was like a strike. Now, he seems to be capable of gentleness.
Jet's not sure what that feels like.
Another thing he notices is that Zuko is...attractive. His hair doesn't stick up like a brush any more, and without the permanent scowl Jet can tell that his eyes are gold.
This is a surprising revelation, because ever since Jet woke up his libido's been pretty much dormant. It's as if he's been disconnected from his own body, until now. Now that he has the chance to really look at Zuko, he thinks he likes what he sees. A mouth made softer without the sneer and growl, whipcord muscles under pale skin that looks like silk, hair that really does look better now that it's a bit longer.
He's pretty sure Zuko likes women, though. He hears them mention a girlfriend, and he wonders if she's beautiful like Zuko is.
Apparently the Avatar is training, going to try and defeat the Fire Lord again. They're sitting, and planning, and Jet's not sure where he fits into all of this.
"Of course we want you here," says Katara. "You're part of Team Avatar!"
She's been dropping fairly large hints, lately, that she wouldn't mind if maybe something happened between them. Jet knows he should talk to her soon, give her some kind of answer or closure, but he's not really sure what to say. He can't tell her he likes men, because that's not the kind of thing it's okay to talk about. Katara, he is sure, has never even entertained the possibility. She's a good girl; a champion, full of light and morals and everything else.
Anyway, he sees the way the Avatar looks at her, worshipful, and he wouldn't have come between them even if he did like soft curves and big blue eyes. He doesn't know how to tell her any of this, and isn't sure he should.
It's a week before he actually talks to Zuko. They've managed to avoid each other, just helping the Avatar commune with the four elements, resting and planning now that there's no eclipse to race. Zuko's getting restless, he can tell. Zuko might not be champing at the bit and wired for a fight anymore, but he's still not the type to sit around.
Jet wakes suddenly to the sense that someone's watching him. And someone is. Zuko's crouched by his head, apparently just waiting for him to awaken.
His voice has that weird scratchy quality that Jet thinks should be annoying, but isn't.
"Spar with me."
Jet considers nodding or shaking his head or saying something, anything, but in the end he just rolls to his feet and heads away from camp, keeping pace with Zuko. The air is cold, and he thinks he should probably have stopped to put a shirt on or maybe shoes, but he doesn't want to go back.
Fighting again is glorious. They're balanced and wild, two warriors twisting and leaping and slicing. The only sound is their light panting and the small wood frogs in the brush. This is almost like a dance, Jet thinks, then dodges a particularly well-aimed jab. He thinks he's beginning to wake up properly from this dream state he's been in since he came out of his—coma, or whatever. It probably has to do with the physical reactions he's having, the small shivers that ricochet through his nerves. The sun's just starting to rise, pale light filling the forest, and Zuko lowers his swords, steps out of a fighting stance.
"Enough. The others will be awake soon."
In the light of day, the walk back is slightly more awkward.
"So, um," Zuko says, and Jet is inordinately pleased to note that he has not gained coherence since they last met. "I—sorry for dragging you out here. It's just, I thought we could probably both use the practice, and—yeah."
"It's okay," says Jet, and realizes he hasn't spoken in a while. "It was good. We should do it again sometime."
"Yeah," Zuko mutters, not looking up.
They do. Every morning, they slip away and fight, and sometimes Jet thinks that this is the best he's ever felt. There's no way Zuko'sgirlfriend gets this. She doesn't get to see that gleam in his golden eyes that says he could kill, the puffs of breath that hang in the chill pre-dawn air. Jet also thinks that there might be something wrong with how happy he is about that. Yes, Zuko's attractive, but there are other attractive boys in the world. Still, when Zuko shakes his dark mane out of his eyes and slams his shoulder into Jet's side, Jet feels complete.
He thinks the blind girl Toph suspects something, but she'd never say a word. Even though nobody's told him anything about her, and she's loud and brash, he can tell she was brought up aristocratic like Zuko. She understands about discretion and being caught in impossible places.
Jet has never really intended to do anything about the situation. But when he peels off his sweat-soaked shirt and catches Zuko not-looking with the suggestion of a flush cresting his aristocratic cheekbones, the stirrings of something like possibility begin in the back of his mind.
They talk, sometimes, not often. Usually one or the other will quietly start talking about something or someone from his past, and maybe he'll stop and maybe he'll go on, but either way it's not about getting a reaction. Jet understands this.
And then one day Zuko says, haltingly, "I thought—they told me you were dead, you know," and Jet sees something in the twist of his mouth that makes him think it's okay to reach out. They're sitting propped against a tree, angled slightly away from each other, and when Jet puts his brown fingers around Zuko's wrist he feels a little off-balance. As it turns out, so does Zuko, because he slides sideways towards Jet, looking away.
It's at this moment that Jet realizes just how much he wants this. Him. Now, when it looks like it might be possible that this strong, proud boy full of fire might let him close. Jet's hands don't shake as he moves to face Zuko, asking silently is this okay, do you want this?
Zuko almost looks like he wants to run away, but instead he reaches up to slide a hand along Jet's shoulder. Jet takes this as permission, and leans forward.
Kissing Zuko is like nothing he's ever known. Zuko likes to bite a little, and his mouth is demanding and precise, and that's kind of the way Jet likes it. There was never any way their first time—maybe their only time—was going to be gentle or slow; they both know it. Jet whines a little in his throat when Zuko's fingers press hard enough to bruise on his hip, and tries to reciprocate, pushing his hands up Zuko's shirt and straddling his lap. When Zuko rolls them over and presses himself between Jet's legs, Jet dimly realizes he's started to beg and swear incoherently.
"Turn over," commands Zuko, his voice hoarse with lust, and how can Jet do anything but comply? He's never taken orders in his life, but he thinks this is probably a good place to start.
There's not a lot of preparation; neither of them really knows what they're doing. It's just Zuko's spit-slicked fingers, making Jet arch his back and moan, and when Zuko pushes into him slowly, biting the space between Jet's neck and shoulder, Jet thinks nothing has ever hurt this much and he's never wanted anything more. Zuko's panting mindlessly in his ear, things like "Need you," and "Oh fuck, Jet," and when Zuko thrusts at a slightly different angle Jet sees white.
He's not sure whether or not Zuko wants to Talk about things. What might have been moments or maybe hours after Zuko's fingernails clamp down on Jet's hips hard enough to draw blood and Zuko muffles his shout in Jet's neck and Zuko rides out his orgasm buried deep in Jet's body, they hear Katara's voice calling out for them. Jet winces as Zuko hurriedly pulls out, but gets up and dresses quickly all the same. There's blood, he can tell without looking, but he's endured worse to get much less.
Zuko shouts, "We're over here, Katara," as soon as they're both more or less straightened out, and she bursts into the clearing.
"Where were you two? We were worried!" She is clearly paying more attention to Jet, even if she doesn't realize it herself, putting a hand on his elbow and gazing up with half-unconscious adoration. The scent of sex is still heavy in the air, and she wrinkles her nose. "The marsh around here smells terrible."
"We were just training," says Zuko, too quickly, with a glowering look at Katara that Jet doesn't quite understand. Jet smiles, too sex-languid to be anything but amused, and starts back towards the camp.
They still meet in the mornings, but they don't pretend it's for training anymore. Zuko fucks like he does everything else, with intensity, throwing his whole self into it. When Zuko's inside him, Jet feels more like himself than he has for a long while, which is a little strange given the newness of all this. Nonetheless, he's cocky and dark and amusing nowadays, really listening when people talk, feeling things like normal people do.
Zuko, on the other hand, is quieter now. He tends to stay close to Jet, but Jet doesn't think it's on purpose, which is a little flattering.
They're focused on a mission, and that's good. They've started traveling, heading towards—some ancient city, Jet's not too clear on the details. The important thing is that things are going pretty well for once. He has regular sex with Zuko, good friends, and a cause to fight for.
They come across a small Fire Nation outpost that's been terrorizing an Earth village. Jet thinks Zuko is magnificent when he slits the general's throat like the fat pig he is. Katara doesn't agree.
"What the heck was that, Zuko? You didn't have to kill him. We had the situation perfectly under control. If you keep giving into these—these base impulses, I don't know if we can trust you! Why can't you be more like Jet?"
"Or Sokka!" her brother adds. Katara ignores him.
"Jet's got just as much right to hate the Fire Nation as you do, maybe more, and he can control himself. He's a champion."
Zuko's rage and tension has been slowly building, but instead of snapping like Jet expects him to, he turns and stalks away, stiff-shouldered.
"I'll go after him," Aang offers, but Jet cuts him off.
"No, I'll go."
He's not quite sure what he's going to do or say, only that Zuko needs him or maybe he needs Zuko to need him. Either way, he has to be the one to bring Zuko back.
It doesn't take him long to find Zuko, who snarls at him. "Why'd they send you, champion? Shouldn't you be off celebrating with your girlfriend?"
"What?" asks Jet, genuinely confused.
"Katara," Zuko spits. "The one you keep flirting with."
"Katara? She's not—I mean, I don't—" Jet pauses to collect himself. "I thought you understood, about me."
"That what we-that I'm just a convenient fuck?"
"No!" Jet's getting genuinely pissed now. Zuko tends to bring that out in him, he thinks. "I don't want Katara because she's" not you "a girl. I'm a—a deviant, you goddamned idiot."
"Oh." The fight has gone out of Zuko's stance, and he mostly looks confused and unhappy and a little pleased.
Jet can't really believe what he's just admitted aloud. Some part of him had always hoped that some day he'd get over it; be normal. Still, he thinks it might be worth it for the way Zuko's mouth has lost its hard sneer.
"So..." Zuko's voice is uncertain. "We. Um. Our—I mean...what about us? What are we?"
There's going to be a Talk after all. Jet's not sure this is the best time or place, but he can't turn away now. He chooses his words carefully, trying to say exactly what he means.
"I...want this. I like it, a lot. It's up to you what you want it to be."
"Up to me? Since when has anything been up to me?"
Jet watches Zuko pace, dark confusion almost tangible around him. He is unsurprised to find that his heart is racing, his body poised on the edge of—something. After an eternity, Zuko stops and turns to him.
"If it's up to me, then I say we have a—a relationship. You don't get to fuck around on me."
"Same goes for you, then."
Jet's not sure, but he thinks Zuko's his boyfriend now.
That night, Zuko creeps into Jet's tent and spends at least an hour kissing him, running his hands over Jet's skin. Jet is only too happy to reciprocate, and when Zuko makes a particularly delicious noise in the back of his throat, Jet slides down his body and tugs his pants down over angular hips.
Jet wakes uncharacteristically slowly. He dimly begins to register pale skin and dark hair, hard muscle pressed against his chest, and a scar that makes his heart clench inexplicably. He thinks it might not be too bad to lie here forever, measuring time by the space between Zuko's heartbeats. Still, he shakes Zuko awake and tells him they need to get dressed and ready before anyone else wakes up.
Breakfast seems better than ever for some reason. It probably has to do with the way the last traces of Zuko's uncertainty and anger seem to have disappeared, and he's quietly glowing. Katara tells Jet how impressed she is that he's reaching out to Zuko, and Jet smiles and says it's not that hard. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Toph hiding a grin.
After breakfast, Smellerbee and Longshot pull Jet aside and tell him they're done fighting. They really just stuck around to make sure Jet was okay, which he seems to be now, and they want to stay in the Earth village. Apparently Longshot's found a girl or something. Jet says he understands, and he's happy for them, and later he quietly breaks down far into the forest, where nobody can see. Zuko appears like Jet sort of knew he would and stands awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other. Jet tugs him down and breathes in the warmth of his neck, letting himself be weak for once, now he has no Freedom Fighters to take care of.
Some time later, Jet sits leaning a little against Zuko, mind full of Aang's skill and Sokka's determination and Toph's power and the way Katara dreams, but mostly how much he cares for the proud angry impossible boy next to him.
He thinks things are going to be okay now.