Thanks: The main body of this story took almost a year to write, all told, and would not have happened without the help of several very dear friends. Many thanks to kittyjimjams and jlh for being fantastic betas and holding my hand and answering a zillion late-night emails and essentially keeping me sane, to gulliblesnail and boredgods (and Kitty, too, for that matter!) for drawing SOME AWESOME DAMNED ART and giving great feedback while they were at it, to emsariel for listening to me talk about this AT LENGTH for MANY MONTHS, to froglartbge for his super-helpful advice and suggestions, to foxysquid for repeatedly assuring me that I would eventually finish the damn thing, and to the folks at jetheartszuko for making this ship a particularly awesome sandbox to play in.
Jet understood people. He'd only known Li for a few hours, but he could tell the other boy wasn't much for conversation. So he volunteered to hand out the food they'd "liberated" as Li went to join his uncle, putting off his own hunger for just a while longer. The other refugees needed a smile and a kind word almost as badly as a good meal, and Jet enjoyed the feeling of benevolence.
He enjoyed Li, too. Kind of a lot. He wasn't exactly sure why, but something about him drew Jet's gaze. It wasn't just the scar, though that had marked Li as a likely sympathizer. It wasn't even that Li was almost unbearably sexy and the shy, standoffish type Jet always fell for, so much so that Smellerbee was already teasing him about it when Li was out of earshot.
No. No, it was something else. Something in the way he'd smiled at Jet across the ferry's kitchen, bags of food slung over both their shoulders. He didn't seem like a boy who smiled very often.
Once he'd finished making the rounds, Jet sat down across from Li and his uncle on the deck, their share of the bounty laid out on the rough wooden planks. Jet couldn't remember the last time he'd seen food like this. There wasn't a lot of roast duck in the forest.
"From what I heard, people eat like this every night in Ba Sing Se," he said, settling crosslegged on a square cushion. "I can't wait to set my eyes on that giant wall."
"It is a magnificent sight," said Li's uncle, oddly somber.
Jet sipped his tea, strong and steaming hot. They must have found somewhere to build a fire. "So you've been there before?" he asked.
"Once. When I was a…different man." Li's uncle looked away as he spoke, his expression shadowed. Jet knew how he felt. He thought of himself as he'd once been, frozen to a tree in a distant forest, and felt a chill go up his spine.
"I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of," said Jet. He remembered the sound of a dam blasted open and the rush of water that followed, echoing through the valley as the girl — Katara, that was her name — called him a monster. "But that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Se," he went on, quieter now. "For a new beginning. A second chance."
Li's uncle smiled. "That's very noble of you," he rumbled. "I believe people can change their lives if they want to." He turned to Li, then, his expression serious again. Two pairs of yellow eyes met, shining in the lantern light. "I believe in second chances." Jet watched them and couldn't help but wonder what had happened, what past lay behind the old man's words.
Li was the first to look away, his gaze flickering around the deck before it settled on Jet again. Jet smiled at him, and after a moment Li smiled back, a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth most people would have missed.
Jet didn't ask any more questions that night. He didn't have to. Eventually, Li would tell him on his own.
"I can't help it," said Jet, already pulling at the buckle of Zuko's studded belt. "You just look so fucking hot in that armor."
Zuko tried to push him away, hands flat against Jet's chest as he glanced down the narrow alleyway. "Which won't do me a lot of good if you take it off," he hissed. "Come on, we're supposed to be-"
"We've got hours," Jet murmured. The belt was slipped off Zuko's waist and lowered noiselessly to the ground.
They did have hours, but that didn't put Zuko at ease. This raid was important. There wouldn't be another delivery this big for weeks, and their own supplies were running low despite Jin's careful hoarding. The populace as a whole was a few days away from desperate, the grumbling in the rice lines growing louder every day. The last thing the Freedom Fighters needed was to loose those people's trust.
Ba Sing Se had been the beating heart of the continent, and when it fell the Earth Kingdom had collapsed around it, the smaller city states unable to survive on their own. The aristocracy had long since fled to private estates in the countryside, quickly followed by any merchants wealthy enough to bribe their way past the Fire Nation checkpoints. The wave of invading soldiers soldiers had taken the homes they'd left behind, lavish mansions converted to barracks, the manicured grounds trampled by komodo rhinos. Food and medicine were strictly rationed, and the lower classes were regularly pressed into work gangs. The only businesses still opening their doors were taverns and whorehouses and the dry goods stores where people collected their meager allotments.
After a century of jealously guarded peace, the war had finally broken through the walls. And now the war was bleeding this city dry.
Zuko's own future had rarely looked so bleak. Azula and her friends were gone. The Avatar was dead. Uncle had left to attend to his own business, the only hint of his intentions a white lotus tile he'd tucked into Zuko's palm. So when Jet had asked a third time if Zuko would join his freedom fighters, it hadn't been much of a choice.
A hand slid up the front of Zuko's tunic, pressed close to his skin by plates of hardened leather. He gasped as Jet's thumb found his nipple. Another thing he couldn't refuse. "What if someone-"
"No one comes this way." Jet leaned in to nip at taught cords of muscle in his neck. His next words were muffled and low; Zuko felt as much as he heard them. "That's why we're here, right?"
"We're here to steal rations, not-"
"Fuck?" Jet breathed, lips against his jaw.
Zuko closed his eyes until the wave of desire passed over him. This wasn't the time. "Jet-"
"The delivery's at midnight." Jet took Zuko's wrist in his hand and guided it down; pushed his erection against Zuko's palm. "Please, baby, it's been so long."
"It's been two days," Zuko muttered, even as he ran his thumb along the length of it, so hot through the heavy cloth.
"I know." Jet's hand moved over Zuko's ribs, past his waistband to the curve of his ass. "Too long."
Zuko exhaled, a long shuddering breath. He was hard, whatever he said. Jet's scent reminded him of the smell of their room, their bed, the sheets a crumpled mess at their feet. "Where would we even..."
Jet's answer was to push Zuko's pants over his hips. When they were low enough he stepped on the crotch with one foot, dragged them down until they lay in a pile on the packed dirt. Jet's fingers dug into his bare thigh, hard enough to bruise. He lifted Zuko's leg and hooked it over his hipbone.
Zuko fumbled with the fastenings at Jet's waist, his own pulse loud in his ears. "This is ridiculous."
Jet spat on his fingers. "Maybe," he murmured, his hand snaking down again, around and behind. "But you don't care, do you?"
"No one's coming." Jet smiled as Zuko squirmed in his arms.
Zuko frowned. "Jin will know."
"She will," Jet agreed. His tongue left a long, wet trail along Zuko's jaw.
This always happened -- Zuko let it, every time. It wasn't that he couldn't stand up to Jet, because he did. Often, and about a variety of things. Jet was reckless, impulsive, arrogant and merciless -- his charisma and certainty and knack for guerrilla tactics made him a natural leader, but left unchecked he'd have marched them all to their deaths months ago. Zuko pulled him back from the edge; forced him to think (ironic considering his own long history of rash decisions); asked him the questions he didn't want to consider, and demanded answers. Success lay somewhere between them, and their ragged band of followers thrived on their compromises.
Some contests, though, were decided before they began. Zuko always won at Pai Sho and the sparing of lives; Jet always got his way with strategy and sex.
Zuko bit down on Jet's leather shoulder plate, struggling not to moan as the other boy pushed inside him. Both his feet were off the ground, now, his thighs squeezing Jet's waist and his back against the plaster wall of the warehouse. His whole body moved with the force of Jet's thrusts, unhurried but hard and deep. It hurt, but he didn't care; sometimes he wanted it to hurt.
Jet's breath was hot and loud in Zuko's ear. "Is this what you want?" he whispered. His hands cupped Zuko's ass, holding him in place as he fucked him. Zuko's arms were wrapped around his neck, his mouth full of dusty leather armor; he knew he couldn't speak without shouting, couldn't shout without getting them caught.
Jet knew this, too, which only encouraged him. "This is why you really stayed, isn't it, Li?" He nipped at Zuko's earlobe, his thrusts quickening. "You stayed for this." He was teasing, of course. He didn't know what he was saying; had no way of knowing how close Zuko had come to giving up and turning himself in to his sister. It had almost seemed worth it, then; worth abandoning everything for a chance to rest, to see his home again.
Zuko closed his eyes, his hands in Jet's hair, his face pressed against Jet's neck. He had stayed for this -- for the boy in his arms. He had no regrets.
He unclenched his jaw. "Jet," he breathed. Jet tensed, his rhythm faltering. "Now, Jet."
He felt Jet's hand wrap around him, the skin warm and calloused and familiar. Already so close, he came a few seconds later, spilling through Jet's fingers and onto his shirt. Jet grunted once as he followed, head bowed, shaking with the effort of staying quiet. Jet was never quiet unless he had to be.
They kissed, still tangled up in each other.
Later, when they'd cleaned themselves off and pulled their clothes and armor back into place, they stood together in the alleyway, alert and waiting. Their faces were serious, eyes focused on the night watchman as he dozed next to the gate. Between them, their fingers interlaced.
The Jasmine Dragon's windows were shuttered, as they always were these days, but candlelight could be seen between the slats. Jet rapped six times on the heavy oak door, two short and four long, and a metal panel slid aside to reveal eyes narrowed with irritation. "You're late."
A moment later the door swung open, just far enough for the raiding party to slip through into the kitchen -- Zuko and Jet, followed by Smellerbee, Longshot and a Dai Li turncoat named Ping. They'd hidden the stolen rations at a warehouse they controlled in the lower ring. The details of how to deal with them could wait until tomorrow.
The boy who'd opened the door was small and soft, his hair pulled back into a braided queue and his eyes peering suspiciously at them from behind round spectacles. His name was Xue Sheng, and he'd been a student at the university before the city fell. Now he managed their meager resources and kept Jin company while the others were out on raids. "You were supposed to be back two hours ago," he said.
Jet shrugged. "The delivery was late."
"Jin was worried."
"She's always worried."
Bee slung an arm around Longshot's waist and dragged him off toward the door to the main room. "Your turn to explain," she said, grinning at Jet over her shoulder.
They had no use for a space as large as the Jasmine Dragon's lavish main room, and they'd strung up heavy canvas on lengths of rope to divide it into smaller squares. It wasn't much in the way of privacy, but it was all they could manage -- the Earthbenders among them didn't want to risk adding actual walls, and Zuko had argued against it besides. His Uncle had worked so hard on this place -- he couldn't bear to see it torn apart by amateurs.
"Hello, Jin," said Ping. Zuko followed his line of sight.
Jin was at the table, holding a steaming cup. It was obvious from the dark smudges under her eyes that she hadn't slept at all that night. "Hello, boys," she said, only a little exasperated as she stood. She walked over to them and reached up to ruffle Zuko's hair. "What kept you?"
Jet explained, about the late delivery and the unexpected guards inside the warehouse, about the ostrich horse that pulled their stolen wagon going lame, and about the scramble to find another before the patrols caught up with them. As he spoke, he draped an arm around Zuko's shoulders, casually possesive. Zuko was terrible at explaining things and rarely contributed to these reports, but he always stayed to listen. As did Ping, though Zuko knew he had his own reasons.
Jin nodded once Jet had finished. "Not as bad as it could've been, I guess." She glanced down at the front of Jet's shirt, sniffed once, and rolled her eyes. "Again?"
Zuko felt his face go hot, but Jet only laughed. "Can you blame me?" he asked, giving Zuko's shoulders a squeeze.
Jin chuckled and shook her head, waving them away. "Go to bed."
"Gladly," said Jet. He tossed off a mock salute, which Jin returned good-naturedly before standing aside so they could pass. Zuko could hear her speaking quietly with Ping as he and Jet climbed the narrow stairway that ran along the kitchen wall, up into the loft.
The tiny, windowless room had been meant for storage, and it smelled of tea and lamp oil, stuffy in the summer heat. It was the one thing they didn't have to share with anyone else, and while Zuko usually argued against special privileges -- second in command or no, it made him feel uncomfortable -- he couldn't bring himself to argue with this single luxury.
Jet stripped off his armor and tossed it onto the shelves that lined the walls, in between jars of ginseng and jasmine. "We did good tonight," he said.
"It was fine." Zuko frowned as he tugged at the buckles that held his gauntlets in place. It was Earth Kingdom armor, found in an abandoned guard house between the middle and lower rings, and he still wasn't entirely used to it.
Jet came over and gently pushed his hands away. "Let me." Zuko watched his long fingers unfasten the remaining gauntlet, and stood quietly as Jet moved on to the studded leather draped over his shoulders, the plates fasted to either side of his ribcage, the heavy belt. Some other time he might have been annoyed -- he could undress himself -- but tonight he was too exhausted to care. He lifted his arms obediently, and Jet pulled the hooded tunic off over his head.
Jet half-folded the last of Zuko's clothes and tossed them on top of the pile of discarded armor. "We're all alive," he said quietly. "We got the rations. We made it back home." He smiled and reached around Zuko's back, puling him close. He'd taken off his shirt, but the cloth of his pants was rough against Zuko's bare skin. "We did good," he said again, then kissed Zuko softly on the mouth.
Zuko chuckled against his lips. "You're just happy you got to fuck me in an alleyway," he muttered.
Jet grinned toothily and grabbed his ass. "Of course I am, baby."
"Pervert," Zuko teased. He laughed as Jet pushed him back onto the bed, then thew his pants in Zuko's face as he tried to sit up again.
Jet pounced on him while he was distracted, straddling his hips. "You love it," he said. He kissed Zuko on the end of his nose.
Zuko reached up to brush Jet's overlong hair out of his face, tucking it behind one ear. "Maybe," he admitted.
The bed was nothing more than a straw-stuffed mattress, set on top of empty crates and covered by threadbare sheets. Zuko only minded on those rare nights when he had to sleep alone. The warm, solid mass of Jet's body, strong arms curled around his chest and bony knees tucked up behind his own, was enough to make him forget. Jet was enough, for right now. Maybe for longer. Maybe always.
They had each other. That would have to be enough.
Jet had never much bothered with calendars in the forest - he could feel the first frost coming each year, knew how many moons he'd have from that day before food would be scarce, knew the Fire Nation convoys would be more frequent and more worthwhile once the snows melted. He had only a vague sense of how old he was — older than Smellerbee and Longshot, younger than Pipsqueak — and that was fine. Age didn't matter in his woods any more than dates did.
Things were different here. The weeks passed quickly between the city walls, and Jet couldn't ignore them. Even under siege, Ba Sing Se was a place of order, the movements of soldiers and supplies as regular as clockwork. His Freedom Fighters had no choice but to pay attention if they hoped to survive.
Jet turned his head to one side, the covers rustling softly as he moved. The room was pitch black, and he reached out blindly across the bed until his hand met the warm resistance of another body. He smiled and moved closer, sliding his arm across the other boy's chest. "Hey," he whispered. He nuzzled Li's ear, tousled hair tickling his nose. "You awake?"
Li grunted and rolled over, and Jet scooted up behind him, an arm curled around his ribs. He kissed the soft skin of Li's neck. "I can't sleep," he murmured. Another grunt was the only reply, and Jet kissed him again, hands wandering over his stomach, along the line of soft hair beneath his navel. In their first weeks together, Li had been the one who never slept, awake and alert every day at sunrise however late it had been when they'd crawled into bed the night before. Finally the weight of exhaustion had broken him of the habit, and these days he slept deep and long. But not Jet. After a lifetime of being hunted, it didn't take much to jerk him back into consciousness.
He'd no idea what had woken him this time, but he knew there was no point in trying to go back to sleep. He was even more tightly wound than usual. He still didn't care for dates, leaving that sort of thing for Li and Jin and Xue Sheng to worry about, but there were a few he'd been forced to pay attention to. Today was one of them, and his mind hummed with the details of everything they'd planned.
Jin hadn't come up to fetch them yet, and no voices could be heard between the floorboards. That meant they had a few hours left to themselves. Jet's hand drifted further down Li's stomach, and he nipped gently at one angular shoulder-blade. Li was already half-hard, and when Jet's grip on him tightened he moaned quietly. He was so hot like this, sleepy and unguarded. Jet pressed closer, his own erection tucked between the curves of Li's ass.
Jet wasn't sure how long it had been since that first day on the ferry. The weeks passed quickly, but times like this, when it was just the two of them, he felt like he'd known Li for years. He'd always found it easy to get strangers to do what he wanted — Li had readily agreed to help them steal the captain's dinner, and Jet hadn't been surprised — but he was slow to trust himself. He knew too well how vulnerable it made a person, how often it proved a fatal mistake. He was too smart, had lost too many good people, to fall into that trap.
At least, he'd thought he was. Turned out the right bait had just taken its time showing up. He'd shrugged off Smellerbee and Longshot's protests, ignored them when they pointed out how little he knew about Li and his uncle, even though they were right and he was being stupid . But he hadn't been able to help himself. He'd picked Li out from the crowd because of the swords on his back and the scar on his face; but the way this strange, pale boy carried himself was what had held his attention. Jet had thought it was cute how he'd glared out over the water, a bowl of half-rotten stew clenched in one hand, lips pressed together in a thin line of disapproval. He'd wanted to see if he could make those lips smile; wanted to find out how they tasted.
Li filled Jet's hand, now, his breaths quick and shallow between soft moans. Jet knew that if he stroked him a little faster, squeezed a little harder, he'd send Li over the edge. His skin tingled as he imagined it: Li's gasps as he shuddered in Jet's arms, whispered pleas for more, the smell of sweat and come in the small room.
Li mumbled something that sounded like Jet's name, his voice still thick with sleep, and turned inside the circle of Jet's arms. The feel of him was maddening, smooth and solid against Jet's hip. His hands moved over Jet's back, settling just below his ass. "'S too early," he murmured, even as his fingertips wandered.
Jet pushed him onto his back and wished it wasn't so dark. He wanted to see Li's pale skin flush, his erection thick and dark with blood, his lips just slightly parted. Jet held the picture in his mind as he kissed his way down the other boy's chest, tracing the lines of bone and muscle with his tongue. Li was so good. Too good, really, so much so that Jet couldn't let himself think about it. It made no sense that he'd gotten this lucky; that fate had delivered this boy to him, after everything he'd done, the human wreckage he'd left behind him. Li was good and honest and sane, whole enough to stay grounded but broken enough to understand. Li was why people like Jin and Ping and Xue Sheng had stayed to help; maybe why any of them were still alive at all.
Jet slid his lips down the other boy's length, enjoying how he tasted, the sensation of pressure against his tongue and the back of his throat. Li moaned again, louder, hips rising off the bed. Then he shifted suddenly, and Jet felt himself pushed away and to the side, until he lay on his back on top of the sheets. "Not today," Li murmured as his warmth and weight settled between Jet's legs, one hand already lifting his thigh.
Li was right. Today they'd need more than sucking each other off to sustain them, to remind them why they were doing this, why it was worth it. Jet couldn't see, but still he closed his eyes as Li kissed him, hands cupping Li's ass. He felt pressure, a sharp moment of pain, and then Li was rocking against him. "Yes," Jet moaned, and wrapped his long limbs around the other boy, pulling him closer, urging him on. "Li, yes. Yes, I need you. I need you so bad." His voice rose with every word, but he didn't care. Let them hear.
He'd never let another boy fuck him like this. He'd never shared a bed with a lover. He'd never let someone sleep between him and his swords. He'd never spent so many nights indoors, never trusted so many strangers, never let anything but his gut and his experience tell him what to do. "Jet," Li whispered, panting with exertion, and Jet crushed their mouths together, fingertips digging into Li's back. Li, who was so good, who had stayed behind even when his uncle left, who held Jet's hand in private moments and kept the walls from smothering him.
Zuko had learned to sleep through sunrise, but he knew he'd never really get used to it. He could feel the sun as it crossed the sky, stoking the flames that burned deep in his belly and warmed his blood. He felt most alive in the morning, determined if not quite eager to take on the day's challenges.
He didn't see much of the sun in Ba Sing Se, so often strangled by walls and boarded windows. Most days he collapsed into bed a few hours before dawn and slept well into the afternoon. He supposed he got enough sleep, but it never felt refreshing. He started each day with a head full of cotton, his thoughts muddled and slow as he rubbed the sand from his eyes.
Jet's mouth on his dick was a much nicer way to wake up, and what followed had certainly cleared his head. But once the haze had lifted, a blanket of anxiety had settled in its place. Jet had laughed off Zuko's worry about the day's plan, and he was probably right to. But still. This raid would be different than all the others had been. Their life was chaotic in many ways, but there was a sort of routine to it, threads of predictability that knit it all together. The missions changed, but most days began as they strapped on their armor in the storage room and ended when they took it off again. As he pulled his shirt over his head, Zuko couldn't help worrying — about how this day would end, and what they would wake up to tomorrow.
Jin looked up from her ledger as they clomped down the stairs into the kitchen. A few rays of sunlight streamed in through slatted wooden shutters, and Zuko could smell the strong, black tea Jin preferred. "You're up early," she said.
"I thought you might want help with breakfast," said Zuko.
Jin smiled lopsidedly "You worked up quite an appetite from the sound of it."
"Oh, we did," said Jet, his voice so laden with innuendo that Jin laughed out loud.
"He's bad enough without you encouraging him," Zuko muttered, cheeks red as he unhooked a large wok from the wall.
He saw Jet move behind him, and then the other boy's arms were twined around his waist. "You encourage me plenty," Jet rumbled, close to his ear. Zuko was glad Jin couldn't see the look on his face just then.
"Go back upstairs if you've got unfinished business," she scolded.
"Like you don't wanna watch," Jet chuckled, but he gave Zuko one last squeeze and moved obediently away.
Feeling ruffled, Zuko set the wok down on the large, clay stove. A bowl of eggs sat on the scrubbed wooden counter beside it, no more than a dozen. "Are these all we have left?"
"For now." Jin sighed. "We're lucky we have that many. Someone poached one of the hens yesterday."
Jet frowned. "Who?"
"Not one of us," said Jin. "Probably just some hungry kid." Jet nodded, satisfied. There were a lot of hungry kids in Ba Sing Se.
Zuko rummaged around for another bowl, then started cracking the eggs into it. A few months ago, he hadn't known how to cook much of anything, his experience limited to fish and small game roasted over campfires. Before he left, Uncle had taught Zuko how to brew a halfway decent pot of tea, and Jin had patiently guided him through porridge and eggs. In his old life, he never would have bothered with something so domestic — he had more important things to worry about, better ways to spend his time. Now, he was embarrassed by how little he knew, and how useless he was so much of the time. He could handle himself in a fight, but he couldn't set a broken bone, or hammer a nail, or even make his own dinner.
He didn't like to think about how much charcoal he'd forced himself to eat before managing a serviceable omelet. But he had managed it. And he would manage other things, too, in time. He'd have to. He wasn't a prince any longer; he'd have to take care of himself.
Jin closed the ledger and pushed a hand back through her bangs. "I should start the porridge..."
"I'll get it," said Jet, smiling. The remains of last night's rice sat in a pot beside the sink. "Do we have any barley left?" he asked once he'd lifted the lid.
"In the jar next to the salt," said Jin. "You can finish it, Xue Sheng says there were ten more bushels in the shipment you picked up last night."
Zuko pulled the jar down from the shelf and handed it to Jet. It felt light, and after peeking inside Jet upended the entire thing into his pot. Then he moved the pot into the sink and started pumping water. "Hey, Li, is the stove still hot enough to boil this?"
Zuko could tell without looking that the fire had died down, but he held his hand out over the nearest opening. "No," he said, then took a few pieces of dried wood from the bin next to the stove and pushed them into the embers. He gave the fire itself a push, as well, though neither Jet nor Jin commented on how fast the wood caught. They never did. Probably, they hadn't even noticed.
Rice wine and oil were carefully measured and beaten into the eggs, and soon the mixture was sizzling in the wok. Zuko poked at the browning edges with long chopsticks as Jet plunked his pot onto the stove. "You nervous?" Jet asked, eyes on the shelf as he considered what was left of their seasonings.
"We've been planning this for weeks," said Zuko. "We know what we're doing."
Jet threw careless handfuls of salt and dry, shredded pork into the porridge, then tasted it with his finger. "You look nervous," he said as he added red pepper.
Zuko jiggled the pan like Jin had taught him. It didn't look like the omelet would stick this time. "Maybe a little," he admitted. "You won't be there."
"You've led missions without me before," said Jet, though Zuko could tell he was pleased.
"Nothing this big."
Jet dropped the pot's lid into place and ruffled Zuko's hair. "It'll be fine," he said, and kissed Zuko on the cheek.
As much as Zuko enjoyed it most of the time, the easy affection between them still felt strange. He'd never liked to be touched, and had never so much as kissed someone before coming to Ba Sing Se. During his exile, he'd learned of the things men did together in their bunks, and he hadn't particularly minded — if that was how his crew wished to entertain themselves, that was their business. But no one had spoken of it openly, and even on those nights when they drowned their homesickness in bad whiskey and worse music, their hands had never wandered in public.
From the day they met on the ferry, Jet had been different. He'd touched Zuko more than he needed to, sat closer than was necessary, held his gaze until Zuko looked away. They'd been standing in the back room of Pao's tea shop when Jet kissed him the first time, mouth tasting of the ginger cookies he'd snitched from Zuko's tray. Afraid of being caught, Zuko had pushed him away, but Jet hadn't been discouraged for long. He could tell his own friends and Zuko's uncle didn't mind, and he didn't care what anyone else thought. His hands always wandered, and soon they'd moved passed kissing, their bodies and their lives all wrapped up in each other. The city had fallen, and they were together, no different in Jet's eyes than Smellerbee and Longshot.
Zuko had worried, initially, about making the others uncomfortable, but Jet had cut him off the only time he'd mentioned it. "If they don't like it, they can leave," Jet had said. So far, none of them had.
No one ever left Jet's Freedom Fighters. Quite the opposite. They had too little space and too many mouths to feed, but Jet refused to turn away anyone who wanted to help. If you could pull your own weight, you could stay. Their ranks had swelled to fill every corner of the Jasmine Dragon — hammocks had appeared in the rafters a few weeks ago — and Jet spent most of his free time learning their names and their stories.
Jet leaned in to sniff at the omelet as Zuko slid it carefully onto a plate, his hand on the small of Zuko's back. "You're getting pretty good at this," he said.
"You guys need a hand?" asked a voice Zuko recognized as Smellerbee's. He turned away from the stove and saw her wander in from the main room, Longshot yawning sleepily behind her.
"We're pretty much done," said Jet. "You can go ahead and tell everyone breakfast's ready."
She nodded and ducked back through the doorway, but Longshot came to stand beside Jet. He raised one thick, dark eyebrow, and Jet laughed.
"Not you, too." Jet punched Longshot playfully in the shoulder. "You're as bad as Li. We'll be fine, okay?"
Jet liked to hold meetings over meals whenever he could. He said they put people into a better mood, and from what Zuko could tell he was right. Everyone knew why Jet had insisted they all eat breakfast together today, but no one mentioned it as they lined up in front of the stove for their bowl of thin porridge and tiny morsel of egg.
Across the kitchen, two short and four long knocks sounded on the heavy outside door. "I'll get it!" said Jin. She wove her way through the crowd, pulled aside a small, metal cover and peered out into the street. "Oh good, I was getting worried," she said as she undid the latch.
Xue Sheng shuffled into the room, hot and puffing from the summer sun. As Jin pushed the door closed he took a handkerchief out of his sleeve and mopped the sweat from his brow. "The supplies are taken care of," he said. "The manifest was completely inaccurate, though. Apparently they don't teach you how to count in the Fire Nation."
"Can't kill a man with counting," said Jet, though his tone was light and met with a ripple of laughter. "Thanks for handling it, Sheng."
"Xue Sheng," he muttered. He was scowling as he took the bowl Jin offered him, but the ferocity eased a bit when Zuko snuck him an extra helping of omelet.
Jin craned her neck and looked around the kitchen, her mouth moving slightly as she took note of each face. "That's everyone," she said a moment later.
"What about Ping? Still casing things out?"
Jin nodded. "He'll be back before you need to leave."
"All right," said Jet. He touched Zuko's shoulder, smiled until Zuko met his eyes, then headed back toward the stairs.
The first few times Jet had held a meeting like this, he'd stood on the table, but Jin had put an end to that. Instead, he climbed halfway up the stairway to the storage room and leaned back against the wall, arms folded over his chest. He didn't have to call for attention. Within seconds, the room had quieted, silent except for the faint scrape of chopsticks as kids too hungry to wait downed the last of their breakfast. Zuko moved to stand with Jin beside the door. The smile she offered was pinched at the corners and didn't quite reach her eyes. Like Zuko, she already knew what Jet would say, and she'd had plenty of time to worry about it.
"I hope you got enough sleep last night, 'cause you'll need it," said Jet. He didn't raise his voice, but it carried to every corner. "We're doing something big tonight. Bigger than taking back the food the Fire Nation stole from us. Bigger than raiding the armory so we can use their own weapons against them. For too long, we've just been fighting to survive. Tonight, we take the first steps toward setting this city free."
A cheer went up, then, and Zuko felt an odd tightness in his chest, pride mixing with the worry into a heady cocktail that made his heart pound.
"You all know about the checkpoints between the rings. The Fire Nation uses them to strangle our supply lines. They want us hungry and desperate, and so far they're doing a pretty good job. I can't remember the last time I felt full." Low murmurs of agreement, a few bangs as empty bowls were slammed down on the table. "Lucky for us, they're not as smart as they think they are. There's a checkpoint that isn't guarded as well as the others: the Eastern Gate, between the middle and upper rings. If we take control of it, we can move as much rice as we like, and there's nothing they can do to stop us. Who are they to tell us where we can and can't go?"
"No one!" someone shouted. Probably Gen, one of the older fighters at something like fifteen.
"That's right," Jet agreed. "So we won't let them tell us. We'll show them they can't push us around.
"So, it's like this. We'll break into two units, and if I haven't told you otherwise then you'll be with me. Smellerbee and Longshot are my lieutenants on this raid, so listen to them. It'll be important for us to work together and move together."
A girl with a long, curved scar under one eye — Xiao Si Wang, whom Zuko had taught the art of dual swords — raised her hand. "What about Li?" she asked after Jet had nodded toward her. "Where will he be?"
Zuko saw Jet's shoulders tense at her question, though he doubted anyone else had. Except maybe Jin, who saw more than most people did. "Li's in charge of the other unit," said Jet, smiling to show there was nothing to worry about. He didn't elaborate, and Xiao Si Wang didn't ask him to. She did meet Zuko's eyes across the room, her expression questioning, but he smiled, too. Better she not know.
The way Jet spoke of it now, Zuko's mission sounded like an afterthought. Only a handful of them knew the truth of it, and Jet wanted to keep it that way — if the Dai Li caught wind of their deeper motives, the whole thing would fall apart.
In a few hours, Jet would lead his ragged army in a full-scale assault on the checkpoint, a battle far beyond the scale of anything they'd dared to try before. Before Jet and Zuko let him in on their secrets, Xue Sheng had argued that the raid was a reckless waste of time and men — even if they managed to win, they didn't have the numbers to hold captured territory. The gate would be retaken within a matter of days. And the checkpoint was only a minor inconvenience, really, beside their larger problems — they carried rice in sacks along the rooftops, and most nights these deliveries went unmolested. The raid was foolish and short-sighted, the sort of rash bravado the Fire Nation expected of them.
Exactly what they expected, so much so that they'd never think to question it. It had been Zuko's idea, originally. "They don't respect us," he'd said, remembering the "us" just in time. "They think we're stupid, angry peasants, and that's good. They'll underestimate us."
The problem wasn't checkpoints, but the whole idea of territory. The Jasmine Dragon and a few, scattered warehouses were all they could hold onto. The Fire Nation had superior numbers, true, but numbers alone could be worked around. The wall standing between them and real progress was firepower. Not bending, which they had as well, but tanks. Hundreds of iron tanks that could mow down a dozen men in seconds, could roll right over blockades and could withstand all but the most precise and powerful Earthbending.
Which was why Ping and not Jet would be by Zuko's side that night. While the rest of the Freedom Fighters pounded away at the Eastern gate, Ping's handpicked team of benders would try to dismantle an iron fleet.
"So how'd I do?" Jet asked. Once he'd finished explaining the details of their evening's plan, he'd settled down on the steps with his own bowl of porridge, listening to snatches of excited chatter as he ate. Within three bites, Li had appeared and sat beside him. The steps were narrow, and Li's body was tucked up close against Jet's own, just as Jet liked it to be.
"You did fine," said Li. He turned to give Jet a quick kiss on his temple, his lips feather light against Jet's skin before he flushed and pulled away again.
Jet chuckled. "We've still got a couple hours. Maybe we should head back upstairs..?" Li's eyes widened, his undamaged cheek burning red, and the chuckle became a full laugh. "You're cute, you know that?"
"You know, in a manly, sexy way."
"I…" Li lowered his eyes. "I think Ping's back."
Jet thought it was cute when Li abruptly changed the subject like this, too. But before he could say anything about it, another series of knocks sounded on the door. The front door, which only two boys were guarding right now, and the wrong knocks, which hardly ever happened. Jet frowned, his eyes on the doorway between the kitchen and the main room. Smellerbee had already disappeared to investigate, and Longshot's fingers twitched along the hilt of his knife.
"Are we expecting anyone?" Li asked as they both stood.
"Maybe it's just another orphan."
"Maybe," said Jet, though he didn't believe it. Kids and friendly visitors turned up at the kitchen door. The good surprises never came from the front.
Everyone in the room quieted as Smellerbee jogged back in. "It's a man. Alone. He wants to talk to you," she said, her eyes on Jet.
"I think he's all right. He mentioned Li, too."
"Well then," said Jet, and jumped down from the steps.
The man was young, about Jet's age or maybe a little older. He had long, straight hair that spilled down the back of his Earth Kingdom armor, and a tidy mustache and goatee that looked only a little ridiculous. He had waited for them on the wide, stone porch that overlooked the city, leaning on the wall that bordered it. He straightened as Jet and Li approached, his expression somber. "Hello," he said once they were close enough to hear. "My name is Haru. I've come to ask for your help."
He didn't stare at Li's scar, which made Jet that much more inclined to hear him out. "I'm listening," Jet said.
Haru glanced around them. "Maybe somewhere a little more private."
"Top secret, huh?"
Jet shrugged. "All right," he said. "The roof, then."
A lifetime in the trees meant Jet was more comfortable up high than on the ground — sometimes he'd climb up here just to take in the view and breath in the cool, fresh breezes that never quite reached the street. Now, he felt no pleasure as he clambered onto the sloped expanse of tile, all his attention on the strange man below him who Earthbent handholds into the wall. And Li, who'd climbed up first and stood on the long, narrow beam that ran the length of the roof.
"Private enough for you?" Jet asked once they were all up on the ridge. He could tell Haru was trying very hard not to look down, but the man hid his fear well. Another point in his favor, if a small one.
"It'll do," said Haru. He met Jet's gaze directly, his eyes narrowed. "Sokka told me not to trust you."
It took a lot to catch Jet off-gaurd, and that comment came close to managing it. He hadn't expected to hear that name again. "I guess he'd have reason to say that," he said, choosing his words with care. "We didn't exactly part on good terms."
"No," Haru agreed. "He said you might want to help us, but that I shouldn't let you. He said your methods are too harsh. Reckless."
Li spoke, then, startling them both. "Maybe before," he said. "Not now." Jet felt a fresh swell of affection, then, even if he couldn't let it show.
"That's what I hear," said Haru. "The whole Earth Kingdom's talking about you. About what you're trying to do. I guess I'll have to gamble that Sokka was wrong."
"Who's this Sokka person, anyway?" Li asked quietly, turning to Jet. "The name sounds familiar."
"A friend of the Avatar's," Jet muttered. Li's breath caught at that, but Jet didn't pay it much mind. He was still watching Haru. "Not sure why Haru here's running his errands, though."
"Because the Avatar's my friend, too," said Haru. "And right now, he needs your help."
Jet scowled more deeply, trying to judge if this guy was crazy or a liar or both. He hadn't been there, himself, but everyone knew what had happened in the catacombs under the city.
"The Avatar's dead," Li whispered. Jet did look at him, then, surprised by the tremor in his voice. Li was pale, even for him, and his hands were curled into fists. "Azula…Princess Azula…she killed him. She killed him months ago."
"That's what I thought, too," said Haru. "Too many people were after him, so he's stayed hidden all this time. But he's alive. By now, he's halfway across the Fire Nation."
Li seemed too shocked to say anything else, so Jet spoke again, not bothering to hide his irritation. He didn't like being manipulated. "What does this have to do with us?"
"The war is going badly. You know that better than anyone, from what I've heard. So we're bringing the fight to them."
"What…like some kind of raid?"
"An invasion," said Haru. "Right to the capital. A fleet of Water Tribe ships are gathering at Xi Mian Bay right now. In a week, they'll set sail for their rendezvous with the Avatar. And I think your men should be on board."
"You do, huh?"
"You're wasting your time here," said Haru. "Even if you could take back the city, what would you do then? The rest of the Earth Kingdom is crawling with Firebenders. You couldn't survive as an island for long. Our only hope is to help Aang take out the Fire Lord and end this war for good."
Jet could feel Li shaking beside him, and he rested a hand on the other boy's shoulder. "Sounds like a fun time," he said, not even pretending at good humor. "But I'm gonna have to turn you down."
Haru frowned. "What? Why?"
"You said Sokka doesn't trust me," said Jet. "That's 'cause I hurt the people I was supposed to protect. I cared more about slitting Fire Nation throats than taking care of my home." He lay his arm across Li's shoulders, pulling him close. "This is my home, now. I'm not gonna turn my back on it."
Haru had remained calm through all of this, but now the strain began to show in his face. "We could end this war in a day," he said. "One day, and it's over."
"And then we'll come back to a city that's got nothing left to save," said Jet. "Sorry, friend, but no. I know where I'm needed, and it's not some Fire Nation beach. If I die, it'll be right here, on my own land, with my own people next to me."
Haru looked at Li, as if asking what he thought of this. But Li only shook his head, jaw tight and lips pressed tightly together.
"I can't make you do this," said Haru. He reached into his pocket, producing a folded square of parchment. "Here's a map to Xi Mian Bay. If you change you minds, I'll see you there in six days."
"We won't," said Jet. He didn't take the parchment, and after a moment Haru sighed and tucked it back inside his tunic.
Jet watched as Haru lowered himself back down to the street, following his progress until he turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Only then did he turn to Li, who didn't seem to be looking at anything at all. "Hey," he murmured. "You okay?"
Li's throat moved as he swallowed. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Jet gave Li's shoulders a squeeze. "Don't let that guy worry you," he said. "We'll be all right. He doesn't know what he's talking about."
"Yeah," said Li. He closed his eyes. "He doesn't know."