They say I can't put your name on here. Someone else might get this hawk before you do, and our flower club friends are too busy to code it. But that's okay. I don't want them to read this anyway. And I figure you'll know who I mean.
Things have been weird since you left. We built all this together, you know? I can see you everywhere. The kids you trained still fight like you do. They make tea the way you showed them. Wang talks about you all the time. So do those crazy old farts. I guess they have high hopes for what you two are doing.
I guess I should be worried, but I'm not. You'll be fine. Yeah, you did some bad shit before, but everyone loves you now. You're impossible to resist. I should know, right? You'll probably be singing songs with your new buddies around a campfire by the time you even get this. Drink an extra cup of baijou for me.
Wish us luck. It's been rough, but we're getting there. At least now we have tents. Though I'd like to have more company in mine.
Try not to forget about us.
They had built a fire to signal their position, piling green branches on the flames that sent a curl of gray smoke up through the canopy. Zuko watched it apprehensively, knowing whose eyes it was meant for, but Uncle appeared completely unconcerned. His attention was on the cast iron kettle tucked between the coals, a replacement for the one that now lay with the wreckage of their old steamship. Uncle had always insisted that Firebent tea was a sorry substitute.
Uncle poured the hot water into two small cups, leaves swirling to the surface as they unfolded in the moist heat. But Zuko didn't reach for his. He wasn't in the mood to be soothed. "How much longer?" he asked.
"Patience, Prince Zuko," said Uncle. He lifted his own cup and breathed deeply of the perfumed steam that rose from it. "You have waited three years for this moment. Another hour is nothing."
Zuko knew his uncle meant to be kind, so he grimaced and kept his mouth shut. He couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't irritable or defensive or both, no matter how often he reminded himself he was supposed to be excited.
They were about to take the next, exhilarating step toward changing the world for the better. This was the beginning of an alliance that would alter the course of Fire Nation history for generations to come. The scale of this moment's importance was far beyond the petty regrets or desires or hardships of any one person.
But Zuko stared at the moss-draped trees all around them and felt little but shame and regret. This landscape was humiliatingly familiar.
He'd scoured this forest and the ruins it sheltered for days, half-blinded and dizzy with pain, expecting to see a tattooed head around every turn. Hope had still held him in its thrall, then. Like an idiot, he'd still believed what his father had promised. He'd thought he would be home within a year.
Zuko kicked restlessly at the ground, wearing a track through the moss to the dark soil beneath. He'd pried most of the bark off the trunk, and now he carved untidy lines into the exposed wood with his fingernail. What began as an abstract doodle slowly evolved into the character for "hero," the first in the self-appointed name of a certain other boy.
Hero of what? Zuko had asked once, before he'd known how raw a wound lay behind the answer. Not much, anymore, Jet had said, and Zuko had laughed. He'd thought that Jet was joking.
Months later, Zuko finally understood how Jet had felt: adrift in the space between lives, the past cut loose but the future still a terrifying blank.
He slipped his fingers into his pocket, brushing them against a tightly-folded square of parchment. Zuko wished he knew what he'd be able to bring with him, as he moved on to whatever the future held — who would be at his side while the whole world spun around him.
Jet's letters were full of small jokes and sweet sentiments, but they made no promises, the avoidance of commitment obvious in its care. And Zuko couldn't bring himself to ask.
"Nephew," Uncle said quietly, interrupting his thoughts.
Zuko followed the line of his gaze. Between the trees was a flash of orange cloth.
"Uncle…" he whispered.
Uncle lowered his teacup to the ground. "Remember what we spoke of before."
"Uncle, I don't know…" He swallowed. "Maybe we should wait-"
"You have waited long enough, Prince Zuko. It is time to face the destiny you have chosen for yourself."
Zuko stood as four figures emerged from the underbrush, their faces and postures wary: the Waterbender girl, hand quivering over the pouch at her belt; her brother, blue eyes intent and calculating as he toyed with some small object in his fingers; a young girl who moved like an Earthbender four times her size, whom Zuko thought looked familiar; and just behind them, staff in hand…
"The Avatar," Zuko whispered, barely more than a breath.
"Zuko," said the Avatar, low and cautious.
Uncle bowed, his beard nearly brushing the ground. "You honor us with your presence, Avatar Aang," he said. "Thank you for agreeing to hear what my nephew and I have to say."
The Water Tribe boy lifted a Pai Sho tile to eye-level, holding it between thumb and forefinger so they could see the lotus blossom. "A man I trust gave me one of these," he said. "You sent the same tile with your letter. That buys you one conversation." He closed his hand around it again, his eyes flickering between Zuko and Iroh. "After that, we'll see."
The smaller girl tilted her head, as if listening to something the rest of them couldn't hear, then smiled. "It's good to see you again," she said. "I'm glad you're okay, you took a pretty bad hit from Zuko's crazy sister."
Uncle chuckled softly. "I am glad to see you as well."
"You know him?" asked the boy, frowning.
The girl turned her head towards him, although Zuko was beginning to suspect this was mostly for show. Her eyes were milky blue and never moved. "Yeah, he's a friend of mine. He made me tea one time and gave me some great advice. You can trust him."
"You can trust me, too," said Zuko, the words bursting out of him before he could stop himself.
The boy quirked an eyebrow. "Uh huh."
"He did help us fight Azula," said the Earthbender girl.
"Yeah, but where's he been since then? He only gave up hunting Aang because everyone thought he was dead. No offense," he added as an aside to the Avatar, who shrugged very slightly. "So how do we know you're not just here to try and capture Aang again?" he went on, facing Zuko now. "Your letter wasn't exactly informative."
"A hawk can be intercepted," said Uncle patiently. "Which is why we are here to speak with you."
Zuko swallowed, his heart quickening with the beginnings of panic. None of this was going like he'd expected it to. If he didn't say his piece soon, he'd loose his nerve entirely. "We want to help," he blurted, his words rushed. "We came from Ba Sing Se…see, there was this eclipse-"
"We know," said the Water Tribe boy.
Zuko faltered. "Um…yeah. Well, so the eclipse happened, and we took the city back from the Fire Nation…I mean, hah, the other Fire Nation, not us. But we still have to fight the Fire Lord. And my sister. So Uncle and I came to find you, so we can teach the Avatar Firebending before the comet comes." He paused and looked at the Avatar, hoping for some sign that any of this was making sense. "I mean, unless you have a Firebending teacher already…but Uncle would probably be better at it, really, so you should just-"
The Water Tribe boy stepped between them. "Okay, hold up," he said, hands splayed in front of him. "Let's just break this down for a second here. You're telling us that you took back Ba Sing Se?"
"Well….yeah," said Zuko, wavering. "And the Freedom Fighters. And the White Lotus. And the Dai Li…kind of…"
The boy frowned. "The Dai Li?"
"The Freedom Fighters?" the Waterbender snapped, speaking for the first time. "You mean Jet's Freedom Fighters?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "You're saying Jet let two Firebenders into his gang? Really?"
Her voice was thick with sarcasm, but Zuko forced himself not to cringe. He remembered the night beside the stream in the agrarian ring, whispering to Jet under the stars about new hope and old regrets. "He's not the same person you knew," said Zuko. "And neither am I."
The Avatar rested a hand on the other boy's shoulder, gently pushing him aside. Then he looked up into Zuko's eyes, his brow furrowed beneath his tattoo. "Why did you come here?" he asked. His voice was quiet and hesitant, and hearing it after so long pressed the air from Zuko's lungs.
Zuko licked his lips, which felt suddenly thick and dry. "Because…" The Avatar's expression was intent and open; so much more serious than most boys his age. Zuko had often felt older than his years, too, but this was different. This body was young but it held a spirit thousands of years old. For a moment Zuko imagined he could see the line of birth and death stretching out behind him — hundreds of lives that dwelled behind this steady, gray gaze — and felt a thrill go up his spine. How could he ever have thought his honor was worth so great a price?
Zuko bowed his head, and felt his Uncle's hand on his back. "Things have been bad for a really long time," he said. "If they're going to get any better, my father has to be stopped. And if you're the one to stop him, then I want to help you. I want to do anything I can to fix things. Because I owe it to you, for hurting you and your friends. And I owe it to the world, for what my family's done."
For several seconds, no one spoke. The forest was still and sultry, and Zuko could hear the far off song of evening birds.
The Water Tribe girl moved to stand closer to the Avatar, watching Zuko out of the corner of her eye as she spoke. "Aang, I don't know…"
"You said we could be friends, once," said Zuko. "Maybe you were right." He swallowed again through the tightness in his throat. "I want you to have been right."
"The tale of Ba Sing Se is a long and tangled one," said Uncle, his hand still pressed against Zuko's shoulder blade. "Let us tell it, at least, before you turn us away."
The Waterbender touched the Avatar's shoulder. "It's your decision, Aang," she said.
The Avatar pursed his lips. "I do like stories," he said, smiling a little. "It can't hurt to listen, right?"
Zuko exhaled in a rush of broken tension. "Thank you, Avatar," he said, his voice a little unsteady.
"'Aang,'" said the boy.
The smile widened. "My friends call me 'Aang.'"
Well, it happened. I did it.
I'm still alive, so I guess it went okay. Uncle says he told you the details in a coded letter, so you'll know that already. But I can't talk to anyone here about what it was like. How it felt. So I thought I'd write to you. I'm sorry to bore you with this stuff but it's been hard, not having you here. I miss talking to you.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. I knew it would be hard. Of course it would be, after all the things I did to them. But it's kept being hard. I can tell he wants to trust me, but she — I can't say her name, but you know who I mean — doesn't seem so sure. They're all trying to be nice, but I can feel them watching me. Waiting for me to do the wrong thing. Maybe waiting to see if I'll hurt him again. Uncle says it'll get better with time, but I don't know. Maybe it won't. It's not the same as it was with you.
I don't like how this feels. I can tell what people want me to be, but I don't know if I can do it. All these important things are happening, and you aren't here. I can't ask you what you think. You can't tell me it'll be okay.
I miss you.
High in the branches of an ancient tree, Jet refolded the letter — carefully, as the parchment had worn thin at the creases — and tucked it into the belt. It had come a week ago, along with Iroh's promised account of the specifics. But Jet didn't much care about where the Avatar had been hiding, or Iroh's estimation of his Firebending progress, or how many days of food they'd collected. None of that had anything to do with him.
At some point, Iroh would send another hawk, and shortly afterward a group from the Earth Kingdom would cross the ocean to join them. Until then all, Jet could do was wait, his nerves stretching tighter with every day that passed. He didn't know what he would do when that hawk came. He just wanted the moment of decision to come — to force him to choose one way or the other.
A dense tapestry of oak spread across his field of vision, the deep and world-weary green of late summer glowing with filtered sunlight. A crisp breeze wound its way through the forest, and the stronger gusts whirled into crescendos of rustling leaves and the creak of protesting branches. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep, slow lungfuls of air that hinted at autumn. In moments when the wind quieted, he could hear the distant voices of farmers calling to each other in the fields. The sounds of his boyhood, calming in a way very little else was these days.
Jet's hand drifted to his belt and settled on the dagger he kept there. It slid easily out of its sheath, and he examined his reflection in the polished surface of the blade. If he held it just so, it looked as if the characters of its inscription had been painted down one side of his face. It had been forged for an Earth Kingdom general, surrendered to the would-be conquerer of Ba Sing Se, and gifted to the heir to the Fire Nation throne. And now it had been leant optimistically to him, a gesture that was simple in a different way, maybe. Straightforward in the manner everything Zuko did seemed to be.
He re-sheathed the dagger, then, his stomach sour with guilt. He knew that he'd been anything but straightforward in his letters to Zuko — not in the ways that counted.
Smellerbee's raspy voice called to him from the ground. "There's a hawk," she said.
"Who's it from?" he asked, his tone deliberately casual, although he doubted Smellerbee was fooled for a second.
"They're still decoding it."
"Ah," he said, and rubbed the hilt of the dagger with his thumb.
Flanked by Smellerbee and Longshot, Jet climbed the rocky hillside that was their first line of defense, still charred in places from where the Firebenders had cleared the brush away. He'd been argued out of building their camp in the treetops, but no one could sway him from his insistence on higher ground. They could see for miles in every direction from the top of this hill, and the trees shielded them from the prying eyes of Fire Nation patrols.
Or rather, Imperial Fire Nation patrols, as opposed to the colonial ones his own men had helped coordinate. After King Bumi's forces had driven Ozai's army out of the border colonies, militias of Fire Nation civilians and army deserters had taken on the task of their own defense. Jet had met with a few of them yesterday, to draw up patrol routes and hash out the details of supply lines.
Particularly surreal had been his own attempts to assign as many of the deserters as possible to their own colonies. He'd told himself it was for peacekeeping reasons, as civilians were far more likely to cooperate with familiar faces, but he knew perfectly well that empathy had played at least as great a part. He'd felt the pain of being far from home, much as it seemed he was destined to live with it.
He waved to the guards stationed at the perimeter, a former Dai Li barely out of his teens and a Firebender who'd surrendered to them at the palace in Ba Sing Se. Both wore the undyed hemp overcoats that passed for uniforms in the Siguo Jundui — the "Four Nation Army," though everyone called it the Siguo for short. The character for "four" had been painted in white on each of their chests. They bowed, a habit Jet disliked but couldn't talk anyone out of, and as usual he tried to brush off the formality with a "How's it going?" and a lopsided smile.
Jet and his friends walked briskly through the huddle of tents — brown and green so as to make them harder to spot from a distance — nodding to the men and women they passed but not stopping for conversation as they sometimes might. By the time they reached Piandao's tent, the weight of suppressed anticipation was starting to make Jet twitchy.
Inside, Piandao was sitting at the traveler's Pai Sho board he'd made for himself, the circular grid meticulously painted onto a sheet of heavy paper that could be rolled up and stored in a case. Seated opposite him was Xue Sheng, hand poised above a pot of wooden tiles as he waited for instructions. Several tiles had already been placed by then, but Jet couldn't discern any meaning in their pattern. That skill was only taught to initiates of the Order, an honor which Jet had no interest in himself.
The newly-arrived letter was open in Piandao's hands, but there was no point in trying to catch a glimpse over his shoulder. Instead, Jet crossed his arms and tried not to fidget too badly while he listened to Piandao read the list of moves aloud for Xue Sheng's benefit.
Once the last tile was in place, Piandao allowed the scroll to snap closed again, placed it on the ground beside the board and sat back on his heels. "Can you read them on your own?"
"I think so," Xue Sheng murmured. His eyes narrowed behind his glasses as he looked down at the board, his lips moving very slightly. Jet tapped his fingers against the hilts of his swords, beating out an impatient rhythm.
Then Xue Sheng straightened, pushed his glasses up his nose, and found Jet's gaze across the room. "They're ready."
Everything was rusted here — the doors, the walls, the floor, every hinge and pulley and hatch. The air was punishingly hot and saturated, coating every surface with a thin film of moisture. Zuko had grown up in humidity and heat, but this was beyond anything he'd experienced before — like a sauna he'd been forced to live in, his prison uniform perpetually soaked in sweat and his hair plastered to his face.
Zuko looked up at the sound of the peephole hatch sliding open, the metal squealing as it moved. Through it, Zuko could just barely see a pair of blue eyes, peering into the gloom of his cell. The visitor rapped gently on the door, two short and four long like Zuko had told him, then whispered, "It's me."
"Sokka…" Zuko got to his feet and moved to the door, peering at the other boy through the slit. "How long until we're ready?"
"Toph's still hidden in bedrock, but Haru's figured out a way to send her messages with his Earthbending, so that's set. She'll break you and Suki and my dad out of your cells, then we'll all meet up in the watchtower." He hesitated, in the manner Zuko already recognized as the first sign of very bad news. "We've got to move up the timeline, though."
Zuko frowned. "How far?"
"What happened to 'under cover of darkness'? And how're we supposed to let Katara know? She thinks she's picking us up tomorrow night!"
"Things got a lot more complicated," said Sokka, still worryingly vague. "You know those political prisoners you've been talking to? The ones who knew about Ba Sing Se and the Siguo? Did they tell you why they actually ended up here?"
Zuko shrugged a little, although there wasn't any way Sokka could see it. "They're dissidents. They probably just held a rally or put up some posters. The Fire Nation's pretty zero-tolerance about that stuff."
"Yeah, well apparently they're kind of a big deal."
"Big enough that they're being taken back to the capital for public execution."
"Shit." Zuko reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, spinning out implications in his mind. "Sokka, we can't leave them-" He stopped and looked up sharply. Something in Sokka's tone… "Wait. What are you leaving out?"
Sokka hesitated, and even through the peephole Zuko could tell he was flinching. "Your sister and her friends are here to pick them up."
Zuko felt like he'd been slapped in the face. He'd known this would happen eventually, but…not here. Not like this. "We have to get out of here now," he said. "And we're taking those prisoners with us."
"No. No no no no, no I am not going to get myself killed to save-"
"Sokka, they're going to die if we leave them here," Zuko hissed.
"You didn't put them in prison! You weren't even here!"
"They were brought in for supporting the Siguo. The same army we're supposed to be a part of. So doesn't that make them comrades?"
Sokka rubbed the back of his neck. "Technically…maybe…" He sighed. "You're right. But we're not gonna fit that many guys on Appa. We'll have to think of something-" He looked up sharply, his attention drawn to something down the corridor. "Later," he muttered, then ducked out of Zuko's field of vision.
Moments later, several pairs of booted feet approached from the other direction. They came to a stop outside his cell, and a voice Zuko had hoped not to hear again for some time said, "Open it."
Zuko could tell, in those first seconds after the door swung open, that Azula had not expected to find him here. He knew her that well, at least. So he wasn't fooled when she said, "Of course," as she stepped the rest of the way into his cell, the half-remembered figures of Mai and Ty Lee flanking her on either side.
Their recognition came more slowly — neither had seen him since he was thirteen years old — and when it did it was hard to miss. Particularly Mai, whose already pale face completely drained of color.
Four prison guards stood at the ready, but Azula waved them off. "Leave us," she said quietly, her eyes locked with Zuko's.
"But...Princess, he might-"
"Now," she snapped. "And close the door behind you."
The door squealed shut, and Azula dropped her authoritative stance, relaxing as if they were all friends, here. "The warden told me a new prisoner was causing trouble with the dissidents," she said. She couldn't quite hide the glint of malice behind her smile. "Posing as a guard, hmm? I'm impressed, that's awfully clever for you."
"Just tell me what you want," said Zuko.
"Zuzu, I'm hurt! I thought you'd be happy to see me. After all, we are family."
"I suppose I could have hunted you down in Ba Sing Se," she went on, as if he hadn't spoken, "but it hardly seemed worth the trouble. I knew you'd crawl back to the Fire Nation eventually, once you were done sulking over the Avatar." She rolled her eyes through a long-suffering sigh. "Of course, I might have bothered if I'd known that 'traitor' would turn out to be contagious."
Zuko understood what she was trying to do. The Siguo had been meticulous about its secrecy; she couldn't know more than the barest details of their personnel or their plans. She wanted to get him angry enough, or catch him sufficiently off-guard, to blurt those details out himself, and he wasn't so foolish to think she couldn't do it if he let down his guard for even an instant.
He clamped his mouth shut and tried to keep his face neutral, shifting his focus away from her face to the silent companions beside her. Ty Lee looked nervous, shifting her weight between her heels and the balls of her feet and glancing surreptitiously at Mai. And Mai, whom Zuko remembered as an awkwardly gloomy little girl, now appeared as a sculpted column of white, black and red, unreadable and perfectly still.
"Bad enough that your temper tantrum ended up costing me an entire city," Azula was saying, indifferent to his wandering gaze. "But now I hear you've been tempting Fire Nation troops into your little army? Honestly, Zuko, you know they'll all be executed once the next invasion plan fails. I hadn't thought you could be so ruthlessly self-interested."
Zuko watched Mai's face carefully, searching for even the smallest reaction. When they were children, she'd been a frequent ally of circumstance against his sister's boredom. He wondered what she was thinking, now that her friend's mean-spirited games had bloomed into outright cruelty. He wished that he could catch her eye.
Azula pressed on. "Did those traitors you've been talking to explain why they're here? Did they tell you how they were 'recruiting' for your pathetic cause? They'll all be dead within two days, of course. The least I can do is make a public example of them, so no other idiots can be talked into throwing their lives away." She shook her head in a mockery of regret. "Most of them are Firebenders, too. Such a waste."
"Don't talk to me about 'waste,'" Zuko snapped, before he could think better of it. "Don't stand there and pretend you give a shit about anyone but yourself."
Azula pointedly examined her nails. "I can't imagine what you could possibly mean."
"Do you think winning this war is going to make things better for the Fire Nation? What is it that you're even fighting for, anyway? By the time you're done, the whole country's going to be ashes. And the people will keep fighting you until they're all dead."
"Let them. If they're too stupid to understand what's good for them, that's hardly my concern."
Zuko barked out an incredulous laugh. "You really think that?"
Azula shrugged. "I'll burn them and their precious land to the ground if that's what it takes to make them see reason."
"I prefer to think of myself as 'efficient,'" said Azula. "If something's in my way, I destroy it."
She turned, showing her back to him in a display of unconcern, and knocked on the door to signal the guards. "I have no idea why you're here, Zuzu," she said as it swung open. "I can only assume you'd hoped to rescue your idiot friends. I hope you don't mind dying with them instead."
Behind her, for a fraction of a second before following her back into the hall, Mai's hard, emotionless stare met Zuko's across the room. He felt as if she were rifling through his intentions, forcing her way past all the walls he'd thrown up against his sister. Like they were children again, and he was staunchly insisting they shouldn't care what Azula said, or how often she tricked them into tumbling all over each other in the fountain.
Then she turned, her loose clothes whirling, and the door closed behind her.
"Katara, we have to go!"
He could just make her out through the haze of the fog she'd lifted from the lake, her water whip erupting into steam as it caught jets of blue flame. She'd long-since used up the contents of her pouch, and now drew moisture from the air around her with taut efficiency, the cycle mercilessly quick. Water to steam to water again, arcs of it slicing toward Azula between attacks, each more vicious than the last.
"The gondola's across!" Haru shouted, muffled by the wall of stone he'd just drawn up from the pile of rubble in front of him. A fireball broke against it, pouring harmlessly to either side, and he punched it from behind to send a series of rough projectiles toward the line of guards. On this wide, metal platform he'd had to bring his own earth with him, dragging it from the island the prison had been built on. Once the guards were down, he pulled the stone back toward him again, ready for the next attack.
"Got it," Toph grunted. She'd been defending the mechanism that drove the gondolas to the far shore, powered by steam from the lake below. Now she turned and drove her fists through the massive gears, tearing away handfuls of iron cogs and steel cable and throwing them carelessly at the guards who might try and stop her. "Now can someone blow that stupid whistle so we can get out of here?"
Another arc of flame roared across the platform, and Zuko split it in two before it could reach Toph's back, hands together and arms outstretched as if diving into a current. "Katara's not listening to me!"
"Shocking," Toph muttered as she moved on to the second gondola. It had no passengers, so instead of bothering with the machinery she went straight for the cable, pulling it apart as if it were cotton instead of steel. "Maybe go tell her a little louder, then?" she said, shouting to be heard over the racket as the gondola tumbled down into the lake.
The steam around Katara and his sister was now so thick that they were little more than smudges of shadow behind it, bursts of flame burning through the haze only to have the clouds of vapor sweep in again. He glimpsed their faces in these moments of clarity, shining with sweat and condensation.
Their plan had been for Katara to stay with Appa until they were ready, out of sight as she waited for their signal to swoop down and pluck them from the watchtower. But that had been before Azula, and the stolen hawk her brother had sent to explain the need for backup.
Katara had shot across the lake on a tenuous raft of ice just as the political prisoners were being loaded into the gondola. Now she grunted in annoyance as Zuko slid in between her and Azula, deflecting the next attack before she had a chance to. "I don't need your help!" she snapped.
Azula shook her head. "Honestly, Zuzu," she called, "can't you wait your turn?"
A blue torrent of heat poured over him, barely deflected in time. He could smell hair burning. "We need to go!"
Katara tried to move past him, already pulling another snake of water from the air. "I can beat her this time! Just give me another-"
"Not. Now." Zuko growled, each syllable accented by the impact of flame on his defenses.
The bison whistle dangled from a string at Katara's throat, and with a final snarl of frustration she yanked it out of her robes. As Zuko turned aside another burst of flame, she blew the whistle hard enough to puff out her cheeks, although the only sound that he could hear was a toneless rush of air.
Moments later, Appa's silhouette burst from the edge of the caldera, his bellow loud and long as he dove toward the platform.
"Haru!" Zuko called, throwing a handful of fire toward his sister. No matter that it barely phased her, as long as it kept her busy. She'd need a break in their rhythm to bend lightning, and he wasn't going to give it to her.
Azula laughed, unimpressed, as she brushed his efforts aside, and Zuko crouched to meet her returning flame with his hands splayed before him. But Haru slid to a halt beside Katara, then, his hair a sweat-matted tangle around his face, and the fire broke against the wall he wrenched up in front of them.
Then Toph was right behind them, with only a "Don't move" as warning before she bent a column of metal and stone straight up from the ground, launching all four of them through the air. For a brief, panicked moment Zuko was sure that she'd miscalculated. Then his face collided with dusty leather, and the sharp point of someone's elbow jammed into his back as they landed on top of him. He was still trying to right himself when he heard the booming crack of lightening.
But Appa didn't plummet from the sky, and Zuko heard no shouts of pain or horror. He pulled his head above the edge of the saddle in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the gondola platform, Azula standing alone in a circle of rubble and injured guards.
Something about it twinged in the back of Zuko's mind.
"Looks like the airship took off all right," said Haru, facing the other way. "Are they meeting us at the temple?"
"They'll drop off Dad, Sokka and Suki," said Katara, her voice flat. "We still have to figure out where they'll go after that." She blew out a frustrated breath. "Dammit. I almost had her."
"Sure you did," said Toph.
"If you hadn't stopped me-!"
"Even if you'd beaten her, we were still in the middle of a boiling lake surrounded by Firebenders," said Haru. "We had to go."
Katara sniffed. "Maybe."
"Did any you see where Mai and Ty Lee went?" Zuko asked abruptly. The platform had dropped out of sight behind the wall of the volcano, but he watched the island recede as they flew north across the sea. "Or feel them," he added, still unsure how to talk to Toph about these things.
Katara leaned back against the saddle as she thought. "Huh. You know…I'm not sure. Haru, weren't they fighting you?"
"You mean the princess' friends?" He shrugged. "For a couple of minutes. I thought one of you must've been handling them."
"Not me," said Toph. "Too busy trashing stuff."
Zuko ran a hand back through his hair, frowning a little as he tried to remember. He'd seen both of them early on, while the prisoners were being loaded onto the gondola. And he'd glimpsed them fighting Haru, just after Katara showed up. But past that… "Yeah, they must have just…left, I guess..."
"Maybe they fell in the lake," said Katara darkly.
Zuko didn't reply. The nagging feeling was just that — a feeling, with next to nothing to back it up, too vague to properly describe. No point in pushing Katara any further, when he was treading a little close to the coals with her as it was.
Past the edge of the saddle and Appa's massive bulk, they could see the southern coast of what had been the Airbenders' island, rising sharply out of the sea. They still had some distance to go, but when he squinted he could make out the silhouette of a small ship, pulled up onto the sheltered beach of an inlet. A little closer, and he could see that it was narrow and wooden-hulled, with segmented sails lashed to its four masts. Zuko had encountered many like it before, during his years in exile. The sort of vessel preferred by Earth Kingdom merchants, quick but sturdy enough for distance.
Zuko felt a surge of excitement bubbling up in his chest, but just as quickly shoved it down again. The last hawk from the Siguo had been sent a week before their departure from the continent, when their plans were still uncertain. Iroh had never received word on who had been chosen for the voyage. Or rather, who had volunteered.
He never said he'd come, Zuko told himself, as he had dozens of times in the last few days. He never said he'd meet you here.
Zuko had tried to keep his hope as confined as possible, tempered by the realities of history and temperament. To willingly travel to the heart of the Fire Nation, weeks before Sozin's Comet would arrive, was too much to ask of anyone. And for Jet it might have proved impossible.
As Appa dipped into the ravine where the Air Temple hung, down past the rocky overhang and the dangling tiers of pagodas, Zuko forced himself breathe. He's not going to be there. He didn't come.
The wide, stone porch of the temple came into view, and even from this distance Zuko could see it was unusually crowded. Moments later, he was close enough to make out individuals.
Aang and Iroh…Teo in his wheeled chair…Jeong Jeong and Piandao…a man that looked familiar but whom Zuko didn't quite recognize…and, finally, the smaller form of Xiao Si Wang.
Appa landed gently on the ledge, and this close there was no mistaking it. He hadn't missed anyone.
He felt the high of anticipation drain away, leaving a cold, empty feeling in his chest. Only then did he realize how utterly he'd failed to trick himself into lowered expectations. Days of imagined disappointment were nothing to the final blow of reality.
He climbed down from Appa's saddle in a haze, numb to the excited conversation around him. He knew that he should go over and greet the new arrivals, begin to explain what had happened at the Boiling Rock and why an airship full of prisoners would be joining them within the hour, and make some attempt at pretending he wasn't pathetically crushed by his own unreasonable hopes. It would be stupid and self-indulgent of him to wallow, instead of distracting himself with friends and the news they'd brought. But though he stood there dutifully and waited for Aang or his uncle to drag him to wherever he was supposed to be, he was already preoccupied with fantasies of his own room, and the door that would shut out all of this until he was ready to deal with it again.
Eventually he'd want to ask about what Jet was up to, but not yet. He suspected that if he went over there, they'd tell him whether he wanted to hear it or not. So he watched from this safe distance with half-hearted interest, idly pulling small tangles out of Appa's fur. He almost missed the echoing sound of voices from the rear of the porch, where one of the temple's many underground corridors emerged from the rock face. Even this late in the day, the contrast between sun and shadow was too great for him to see anything past the doorway.
He looked out of a lack of anything more compelling to pay attention to, realizing as he did that The Duke was missing from the crowd on the porch. On cue, the boy stepped out into the warm, afternoon light. He was jogging to keep up with longer-legged strides, grinning and talking animatedly to the three figures beside him.
In private respites of self-indulgence, when he was too exhausted to pretend at accepting inevitable misery, Zuko had imagined detailed scenarios for how this moment would play out. In many of them, he would say something clever and understated, the true meaning of which only Jet would understand. He'd maintain an outward dignity, of course, but maybe reach out to take Jet's hand, silently promising much more once they were alone. Or Jet would smile and say, "You're even cuter than I remember," and Zuko would mutter something in embarrassment but inwardly be pleased.
None of his secret narratives had involved a flat-out run across the open-air porch, still dressed in prison robes that smelled of sweat and sulfur and almost knocking over poor Xiao Si Wang in his eagerness. He'd never imagined colliding with Jet at full-speed, such that both of them were thrown completely off-balance and hit the ground with a grunt as all the air was knocked out of them. Nor had he anticipated that once they'd disentangled themselves and gotten to their feet, Jet would hold Zuko's head in both of his hands and kiss him, long and hungry, in front of everyone; or that, when Jet finally pulled away, the corners of his eyes would be wet.
"I missed you," he said.
Zuko reached up to brush his fingers against Jet's forehead, pushing the hair out of his eyes. "You're here," he said stupidly.
Jet smiled. "Of course."
"We got here about an hour ago," said Smellerbee, whom Zuko had only barely noticed. "The Duke wanted to show us around."
"Sorry I wasn't there when you got back," said Jet. He kissed Zuko again, more chastely this time. "I brought your knife."
Zuko chuckled a little as Jet handed it to him. With everything else, he'd almost forgotten about it. "Thanks for keeping it safe for me," he said, tucking it into his own belt.
"No problem," said Jet. Then he looked past Zuko's shoulder, and the corners of his mouth fell very slightly. "I guess this was going to happen eventually…"
"Jet." Katara's voice was unexpectedly close, and Zuko half-turned so that he could see her and Jet at once. She stood with her arms crossed, her mouth compressed into a tight little frown.
"Katara," said Jet quietly. "Been a while."
He gestured to his friends. "You remember Longshot and Smellerbee, right?"
"Sure." She nodded to them, a little stiffly. "Hello."
"Hey," said Smellerbee. Longshot inclined his head.
Katara refocused on Jet, the frown even more severe. "The last time I saw you," she said, "You almost killed a lot of people."
"I know," said Jet.
"I know." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But that's not how things are anymore."
"Because you say so?"
"Because they aren't."
Katara scowled at him for another few seconds, as if trying to see through his skull to whatever lay inside. Then, unexpectedly, she turned to Zuko. "You believe him?"
Zuko blinked. "Um…yeah. I mean, yes. I do."
Katara sighed, relaxing by a fraction. "All right." She turned, then, and started back toward where the others were standing. "Come on," she said as she walked. "We're figuring out what to do with the Siguo prisoners."
Jet turned to Zuko, one eyebrow raised. "Prisoners?"
"A lot's happened," said Zuko. He reached out to take Jet's hand.
Jet hadn't expected the first day to be easy. To begin with, it had been weeks since he'd seen Zuko, and the time between his arrival and anything like privacy would unavoidably be a kind of torture. It would also be spent in the company of the Avatar and his friends, on whom Jet had made a pretty disastrous first impression, to the point where they'd once specifically instructed their allies not to talk to him. The former Captain Chen of the Dai Li's sixth devision had accompanied the party from the Earth Kingdom, and Jet had every reason to believe that a traitor who'd allied with the occupying forces would be more readily accepted than himself — not a particularly encouraging thought.
Smellerbee and Longshot had stood quietly beside him as he mumbled his way through greeting Aang, who regarded Jet with a nervousness that made him feel like an ass, mostly because he knew it was entirely justified. Iroh had seemed genuinely glad to see him, inquiring after the comfort of his voyage and the health of his friends from the Jasmine Dragon days. But when The Duke had come running from one of the pagodas and unleashed a flood of questions and excited chatter, Jet had felt profoundly relieved. A tour around the temple with his old friends was preferable to making stilted conversation, although even that was marred by the question of what Katara would do to him when she got back.
Unsurprisingly, she had watched with steel-eyed wariness as Zuko bounded across the temple porch. And she had been icily curt when Jet greeted her, arms crossed over her chest and blue eyes daring him to try something. But aside from a muttered comment to her brother about "deserving each other," she hadn't been particularly unpleasant, and any urge she might have had to freeze him to one of the stone columns had so far been denied.
Once it was clear there wasn't going to be trouble, Aang had warmed to him considerably, and even Sokka — who had never liked Jet to begin with — had eased up on the suspicious glances after the first hour or so. Later, Zuko had offered an explanation — his own judgement was laughably biased, of course, but Iroh, Piandao and Jeong Jeong and had also testified as to Jet's good character, and after that the matter had been settled.
It had been strange and not a little uncomfortable to stand and chat about what to do with the Boiling Rock prisoners, as if they were all old friends with uncomplicated histories. No one had questioned Jet's support of a group of Firebender dissidents he'd never met, or suggested that he'd have the slightest objection to working with them. He understood that this inclusiveness was meant to put him at ease, but the unquestioning trust of his intentions made him feel like a fraud. In truth, a part of him still hated the idea of welcoming yet more Fire Nation men into his circle of confidence, particularly these sheltered "revolutionaries" who'd never even been to the colonies, or ever met an Earth Kingdom native who wasn't a slave or a prisoner. The Western Air temple was hidden, but hardly impenetrable to a country armed with war balloons. Even if most of the prisoners were sincere, it would take only one traitor to bring the Fire Lord's army down on their heads.
But that discomfort was nothing to what followed, when the stolen airship finally arrived and the prisoners disembarked. Jet had grown used to a fair amount of deference from the members of the Siguo, particularly the younger recruits. But they had been soldiers who'd served with him in the field, traveled and lived alongside of him and seen for themselves what kind of man he was. These men knew Jet only by reputation, and a distorted version of it at that, but the reverence with which they treated him outstripped anything he'd experienced. Not even the runners, who'd so often followed him around the Jasmine Dragon in hopes of catching his eye, had regarded him with such obvious and ardent admiration.
In the forest, he'd spent years learning to cultivate blind devotion — Freedom Fighters who never asked questions, and went unflinchingly to their deaths if he asked it of them. He could remember having enjoyed that feeling. Now, it mostly just made him ill. Coming from Earth Kingdom men, it would have been awkward enough; from Firebenders, it was almost intolerable.
Jet therefore spent the better part of the evening using Zuko as a conversational shield, deflecting talk of the Siguo's accomplishments, offering stilted thanks to the prisoners for their loyalty, and otherwise saying very little. He understood how important these men could prove to be once the comet came, when for a few hours the only defense against one Firebender would be another. He wouldn't be so shortsighted as to turn them away. But when they left to hide the airship in the forest above the ridge he was glad to see them gone.
As was Zuko, it seemed, although for different reasons. Once the airship and its passengers had risen up and out of sight, his shoulders fell as he quietly sighed in relief. "Finally."
Jet smiled a little, willfully shoving aside his musings on politics to concentrate on more pleasant matters, like the way Zuko's waist felt as he curled his arm around it. "Long day?"
"I started it in a prison cell," said Zuko, with the same tone one might use to discuss the weather. "Then I saw my sister for the first time in a year, and she tried to kill me."
"Again?" Jet asked, following his lead.
"Then I had to fight my way out of the middle of a boiling lake. And then I had to act like royalty for the rest of the afternoon without saying anything stupid."
Zuko turned to meet Jet's gaze, his own a little hungry. "We don't need to be here anymore, do we?"
Jet's mouth curled into a wider grin. "No. Don't think we do."
He laughed as Zuko took his hand, the grip firm enough to hurt very slightly. "Uncle, I'm going to show Jet his room."
"He can just pick whatever room he wants," said Sokka, still close enough to overhear. "Mostly we end up sleeping out here anyway."
"I could take him," said The Duke. "I've seen more of the temple than anyone. I'm kind of an expert," he added, with affected nonchalance.
"Yeah, and I wanted to show you this great new move I invented!" said Aang. "I call it the 'Hot Squat Hop and Stop.' See you hop up from the squat…and then you stop your opponent."
Zuko fixed his uncle with an intense gaze, one which silently pleaded for intervention. "Um…" he said, then swallowed. Jet tried to keep his expression neutral, though he doubted his success. Smellerbee, who had barely spoken since they'd arrived, now eloquently rolled her eyes for Longshot's benefit. He nodded back, a shadow of a smile on his lips.
"Perhaps Prince Zuko would like a chance to speak privately with his friend," said Iroh mildly.
"Yes," said Zuko. "Talking. Sure."
"We'll be back in a little while," said Jet, already in motion as Zuko half-dragged him away.
Minutes later, they stepped out of daylight and into temple corridors. The cool, dim interior enveloped them, ancient and serene in a way that reminded Jet of the forest and which soothed the frayed edges of his nerves, enough to allow him to appreciate his situation: alone with Zuko for the first time since he had left Ba Sing Se.
As they ascended the hanging pagodas' narrow stairways, Jet was aware of every point of contact between their hands; the warmth of Zuko's skin, and the blunt points of his knuckles; the rasp of his breath, familiar in the urgency it betrayed; the shape of Zuko's body, revealed in the places his clothes pulled tight. Jet stopped mid-stride just shy of the landing, thoughts of Zuko's mouth on his coursing through him with electric insistence. The other boy, who had been pulling Jet forward at a near run, now turned to gape at him with a wide-eyed look that asked what could possibly be more important than reaching their bedroom.
He grunted softly as Jet pushed him against the wall, and had time for half a syllable of protest before Jet kissed him with the teeth-clicking, lip-bruising, breathless hunger of too many days apart.
Zuko moaned as Jet reached down between them, long fingers sliding between the layers of his tunic. No point in wasting time. "What if someone…"
Jet's fingertips brushed a hot, hard bulge that strained against soft cotton. "Don't care."
"This is ridiculous…" Zuko muttered, although he made no effort to stop Jet from pushing his trousers down over his hips.
"It is," Jet agreed. "Ridiculously fucking overdue."
Zuko leaned back, his face turned up toward the ceiling as Jet licked and nipped the length of his neck. "You're here," he murmured, hoarse and eager.
Jet pressed his face to Zuko's neck and breathed the scent of his skin. "Of course."
Unsurprisingly, Toph was the first to notice them as they walked across the temple's porch. "How'd your important secret meeting go?" she asked. "Other than loudly."
Toph, Suki, Sokka, Katara and Aang were seated in a half-circle around the campfire, the others having presumably gone to bed. They faced the canyon and the sky beyond, but neither could be seen with the flames so bright and close. Beyond the porch and columns, the world dissolved into pitch black emptiness.
Zuko choked a little, but Jet answered with a smooth, "Just fine. We worked a few things out."
"Oh, I'm sure you did," said Suki.
"Mind if we join you?" asked Jet.
Aang scooted over a little, although there was no real need to make room. "You missed roasting chestnuts."
"I think he had something else keeping him warm," Sokka drawled suggestively, prompting a jab in the arm from Toph. "What? You were doing it!"
"Gotta keep it a little more subtle than that, Chuckles. You'll offend Katara's delicate sensibilities."
Katara frowned. "Hey!"
"There's an art to these things," Suki agreed.
Zuko's cheeks were burning as he sat cross-legged on the ground between Jet and Aang, but the younger boy was either honestly oblivious or making a cheerful show of it.
Jet, of course, was wholly unconcerned. "So what did we miss?" he asked as he draped a casual arm around Zuko's waist.
"Not much," said Aang. "Lots of talking. Comet stuff. Whatever." He shrugged. "Hey, you know, there's a really great swimming hole a couple miles from here. Maybe tomorrow we can-"
"Aang, I know you don't want to think about it," said Katara, with an exasperation Zuko guessed was carried over from an earlier conversation. "But we only have a few weeks before the comet gets here. We need to figure out what we're going to do."
"Wait, didn't we settle that already?" asked Zuko, marginally more comfortable now that the subject had shifted away from himself. "Aang defeats my…the Fire Lord before the comet comes. I deal with Azula. We install peacekeeping forces and set up a new government."
"No big," said Sokka.
"That is what the order said they wanted to do," said Katara. "But…"
Aang fidgeted, his eyes on his hands. "I was kind of…thinking we should just wait until after the comet comes. Actually," he said.
"Wait to what?" asked Zuko, suspicious.
Aang hunched down even further. "Fight…the Fire Lord…?"
Zuko stared at him for several seconds. "You're kidding."
Aang rubbed the back of his head, looking sheepish.
"Well, I'm glad you decided to tell us you're not planning to save the world anymore," said Sokka. "That's good to know."
"I didn't say I won't fight him at all," said Aang defensively. "Just…maybe not right away."
"Well, you know, that's fine," said Sokka. "No rush. It's not like he's totally evil and trying to take over the world or anything."
"Look, I'm just not ready, okay? I need more time to work on my Firebending. I mean, I've only had a few weeks…he'll kill me if I try and fight him now."
"Aang," Katara began.
"And besides, after the comet the Fire Lord won't be expecting anything, right? I could take him by surprise!"
"Aang," Katara said again, her tone much gentler now. "I understand why you're nervous…but I don't know if we can afford to wait much longer."
"We can't," said Zuko. "When the comet comes, he'll use it to do as much damage as he can."
"The Siguo's gained a lot of ground since the Day of Black Sun," said Jet. "But we're only just hanging onto it. We can't risk giving Ozai a chance to take it back."
"The Earth Kingdom's been at war for a century," said Suki. "Even with the Siguo helping out, the Earth King's armies are stretched really thin. Why do you think we had to go and help out with security at Full Moon Bay? And that was before Ba Sing Se fell."
"We have to stop him now," said Zuko. "It's just going to keep getting worse until we do."
"That's easy for you to say," Aang snapped. "You're not the one who has to fight him."
Katara shook her head. "I don't understand…you've been getting ready to fight the Fire Lord for a year. But now it sounds like you don't want to do it at all."
"Of course I want to! But I can't."
"Aang, I think you're selling yourself a little short," said Sokka. "You've been training really hard, and seriously…you're the Avatar. You can take him out."
"See, and that's the other thing," said Aang. "Whenever the White Lotus guys talk about this, there's always a big list of stuff that'll have to happen after the Fire Lord's dead. Like how they'll have to fortify the capital, so when the comet comes some general can't try and take it for himself."
"Sounds good to me," said Sokka.
"Yeah, except for the part where Fire Lord Ozai's dead and I'm the one who's supposed to kill him!"
"Aang, I don't mean to be a jerk about this," said Sokka, "but what did you expect? That you'd just sit down and talk it out, and he'd realize he'd made a horrible mistake?"
"Yeah, well that's not how it works," said Zuko quietly. "Even if you managed to put him in prison, he's one of the most powerful Firebenders in the world. He'd find a way out. Or someone else would help him. He's not as unpopular as my Uncle wants everyone to think. You've been in the Fire Nation for months, Aang, you now how people talk about him."
"I know, but…" Aang ran a hand back over his head, following the line of his tattoo. "I'm a monk. It goes against everything I believe in to take another life."
"You've killed before," said Jet flatly.
Katara glared at him, her hand moving to rest protectively on Aang's forearm. "What do you-"
"I heard about what happened at the North Pole."
A haunted look passed over Aang's features. "That was different," he said. "That wasn't me."
"Why, because the Avatar Spirit made you do it?" Jet snorted. "What if I said my lousy childhood made me flood that village? Would that've made it okay?"
"Stop badgering him, Jet," Katara snapped. "You wouldn't understand what it's like not to want to hurt someone."
Jet didn't look at her, but Zuko could feel him tense. "I get that you don't want to kill him," said Jet. "I get that just because it's happened before doesn't mean you want to go through it again. But sometimes we have to do shit we don't want to."
Aang curled up with his knees against his chest, Katara's hand shifting to his back. "I don't think I can."
"Well, you're going to have to," said Zuko.
"Why don't you do it, then?" said Katara.
Aang sighed. "Katara, you know what Iroh said. If Zuko kills him, history's just going to see it as senseless violence. 'A son killing his father to grab power.'" He swallowed, hugging his knees even tighter. "I know I have to fight him…I just don't know how."
"Or when," said Sokka.
Katara shifted a little closer to Aang, her arm sliding across his shoulders. "Maybe Aang's right," she said to her brother. "Even if we did stop the Fire Lord, we'll never be able to deal with all the Firebenders in the Earth Kingdom before the comet comes. Maybe it would be better to wait until Aang's ready. I mean, if something happened to him…" she trailed off, but Zuko understood what she meant. Losing Aang would be terrible. Losing the Avatar would turn the tide of the war.
"Maybe," said Sokka. "But I'm worried that-"
"Wait," said Toph, holding up one hand. Her face, which had been neutrally thoughtful while she listened to their conversation, was now alert and serious as she turned it toward the darkness. "Someone's coming down the path."
"Who?" Katara hissed.
"Shut up and maybe I can tell." Toph lay her palms flat on the ground, her brows knit as she concentrated. "Three people. One of them's Wang..."
"Must've gone on patrol," Jet murmured.
Sokka leaned forward. "And?"
"Two girls. They seem familiar, but…can't quite put my finger on it…"
Soon, the footsteps on the rocky path were loud enough for Zuko to hear — three sets, just as Toph had said, with no attempt at stealth. All of them stared into the night, breath quiet and bodies still. Zuko made a small gesture, and the smoldering campfire brightened, pushing back the darkness.
Toph's hand shifted on the ground, as if adjusting the focus of her bending. "Oh man…" she murmured.
But by then, there was no need to explain. Xiao Si Wang had stepped into the light, swords sheathed but stance rigid and wary. "They asked for Zuko," she said.
Behind her were two figures in dark robes, their hoods drawn up and their faces shadowed. The tallest raised a slim, gloved hand and pushed back her hood.
Zuko got to his feet, his heart quickening. "Mai," he said. "What're you-"
"Azula's coming," said Mai, cutting him off.
By then the others had stood as well. "When?" asked Sokka.
"Dawn," said Mai. "Maybe earlier, if she notices we're gone."
Katara's hand moved to the water skein at her hip. "Why are you telling us this?"
Mai puffed out an impatient sigh. "We don't have time for-"
"They're going to burn the Earth Kingdom," said Ty Lee, her voice emerging from the hood.
"What?" Jet croaked.
But Ty Lee was focused on Zuko, and drew back her own hood as she took another step toward him. "Remember what she said? At the Boiling Rock?"
Zuko swallowed. "She won't really-"
"She will," said Mai. "When the comet comes, the Fire Lord will take a fleet of airships to the Earth Kingdom. And he'll burn as much of it as he can."
"How can you expect us to trust you?" asked Suki, her face hard with skepticism. "You put my girls in prison. You helped Azula take Ba Sing Se. Why the change of heart?"
"We're at war," said Mai tonelessly. "Taking prisoners and conquering cities is one thing. This is different."
"When Azula told us, we knew we'd have to do something," said Ty Lee. "Then we saw you at the Boiling Rock, Zuko."
"Did you mean what you said?" asked Mai. "Do you actually still care about what's best for the Fire Nation?"
"Of course," said Zuko.
"Then let us help you."
Zuko turned to Aang, who had listened to all of this with his brow furrowed.
"Aang," said Zuko quietly. "What do you think?"
Aang looked between Ty Lee and Mai, examining their faces in turn. "Wake everyone up," he said, bending down to pick up his staff. "I'll go tell the prisoners to get the airship ready. We'll leave in an hour." The wings of his glider snapped open with a puff of wind, and he turned to the two girls once more. "Stay with Zuko. If you try anything, we'll leave you behind."
He took a few, quick strides and leapt off the edge of the temple porch, sweeping off into the dark ravine.
Zuko reached out and found Jet's hand with his own. The other boy's palm was hot and slick with sweat.
"I don't like this," said Katara, cross-legged on the floor of a canvas tent. "We should wait for Aang to get back."
"Avatar Aang already knows what part he will play tomorrow," said Iroh. "And he knows that we are counting on him. He will be waiting on Crescent Island before the Fire Lord and his fleet pass overhead."
"But we don't even know where he is," Katara pressed. "Maybe he's hurt…or lost! Or maybe he's in the Spirit World again! We should be looking for him, before-"
"We've asked him to sacrifice a great deal to fight for all of our freedom," said Piandao, somehow managing dignity despite the trickle of sweat on his temple. "The least we can offer in return is a chance to make peace with himself."
Jet stifled a yawn and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm. He had said very little since this meeting had started an hour ago. Not because of a lack of interest — Aang had grown on him in the last few weeks, and he was as worried about the kid as anyone else — but because he had never been this goddamn hot for this many days in his life.
He understood why they were here, and couldn't really complain given the circumstances. Azula had found their last camp with scouts and good guesses — in retrospect, of course she would have looked for Aang at the closest Airbender temple. Leaving under the cover of darkness with next to no time to prepare, they had been forced to choose a new hiding place they could reach before dawn, where they couldn't be seen from the air and which Azula wouldn't immediately think to search.
Thus had they ended up in the dense jungle at the fringes of the Sun Warrior ruins, their tents and dismantled airships hidden beneath the lush canopy of leaves and tangled vines. After half a month of sweltering days followed by infinite, airless nights, Jet's energy and patience were both in short supply. But he was no stranger to poor sleep and discomfort, and at least they had the Sun Warriors' help with keeping their stomachs full.
He bit the inside of his cheek and tried to pay attention.
"With our new allies from the Boiling Rock helping us, our numbers in the capital will be larger than we'd counted on," Hakoda was saying. "If we're smart about it, we should be able to overtake the Imperial forces without too many people getting caught in the crossfire."
"I'm more worried about those air ships," said Sokka, leaning forward to peer at the map laid out at the center of their circle. "We're sure that's where Ozai's gonna be?"
"Our intelligence has confirmed most of what the two defectors have told us," said Chen. "The Fire Lord plans to lead the airship fleet himself and participate in the assault. He will leave the palace bunker approximately four hours before the comet's arrival, and the fleet will reach Crescent Island two hours after their departure from the capital. That should allow the Avatar sufficient time to engage him, as well as provide a window for our own forces to move into the caldera before the effects of the comet bolster Fire Nation defenses. This should help minimize civilian casualties, as discussed. However, the princess' agenda remains uncertain."
"She'll be on one of the airships," said Zuko quietly. "Razing the Earth Kingdom was her idea. She'll want to see it for herself."
"Aang's going to have his hands full just trying to fight Ozai," said Sokka. "We'll need someone else to keep Azula busy while my team disables the airships."
"I'll do it," said Zuko.
"Not by yourself," sad Jet, speaking for the first time in an hour.
Zuko shook his head. "She's my responsibility. I can handle her. "
"Last time we fought Azula, Aang almost died," said Katara. "I'm coming with you."
"Pakku brought another vial of water from the Spirit Oasis. That's what saved Aang, but I have to be there to use it." She reached up to finger the leather cord it hung from, tied around her neck. "Besides," she added darkly. "I owe her."
"So do I," said Jet. "I told the Siguo she'd pay for what she did. Don't make a liar out of me."
"This is not a mission of vengeance," said Iroh. "What we do tomorrow will be in the name of peace. Not retribution."
"Call it justice, then," sad Jet. "I don't care. Just let me be there to make it happen."
"I have been told of your battle with General Zha," said Jeong Jeong, "and I do not mean to diminish that triumph. But Princess Azula is one of the most powerful Firebenders alive. Swords and quick thinking will not stop a bolt of lightning, and only a Firebender can learn to redirect it."
"Would you say the same to me?" asked Piandao.
"You are a master. He is a boy."
"And I've been fighting Firebenders since I was eight," said Jet. "Besides. I won't be alone. Zuko and I know how to watch each other's backs." He turned to Zuko, flashing a lopsided grin. "Right?"
Zuko licked his lips. "Actually…" His throat moved as he swallowed. "I'm not so sure you should go."
Jet blinked at him. "What?" he asked with an uncertain chuckle. "Why not?"
"I just…don't think it's a good idea."
Jet felt heat rise to his face as he looked around the informal council they'd assembled. No one moved to argue with Zuko. Of course not, Jet thought to himself, the nauseating weight of embarrassment settling into his stomach. He's the only reason you're here at all.
"You know, I told Smellerbee and Longshot I'd help them get their gear together for the raid on the airships," he said as he got to his feet, his affect as casual as he could convincingly manage. "Lemme know what you guys decide on everything else, all right?"
He slipped through the door of the tent before anyone could reply. A handful of the Boiling Rock prisoners were hovering outside, likely waiting their turn to speak to Zuko. Jet nodded to them but didn't meet their eyes, his shoulders hunched as he pushed his way into the underbrush.
The air wasn't any cooler out here than it was inside, although at least he could feel a hint of breeze coming from the brook a short way away. Their camp had been erected in the densest part of the jungle, tents built around tree trunks and in the hollows of vast root systems. They had tied long ropes between the trees to guide them at night, or to keep them from getting lost in the daytime when they moved out of sight of camp. Within a few strides, Jet could no longer see patches of canvas through the undergrowth.
At home, he would have pulled himself up onto a low-hanging branch and listened to the wind in the leaves for a while. But the canopy of this forest was too high to easily reach, and the air stuck to him like a second skin, dense with a cacophony of insects and birds and the small, quick panther monkeys that lived in this part of the jungle.
He was perched on the trunk of a fallen tree, watching a line of ants progress along its bark, when he heard Zuko call for him. Just then, he didn't particularly want to answer, but he supposed that Zuko would pin him down soon enough regardless. With years of tracking the Avatar behind him, Zuko had a knack for finding people that bordered on the supernatural.
"Here," said Jet, just loud enough to cut through the din. He didn't look up as Zuko picked his way through the brush and settled down onto the log beside him.
"I don't think this is where they keep their gear," said Zuko quietly.
"Yeah, well, you caught me."
He felt Zuko's hand on his back, the same touch that had comforted him so often that summer. Now he shrugged it off, tense with unfocused irritation. "I shouldn't have come," said Jet.
"No one wants me to be here," said Jet, embarrassed at his own petulance but unable to stop himself, sitting in this jungle where he so obviously didn't belong. "No one wants my help. Not even you."
Zuko frowned. "Jet…"
"It's fine," said Jet with a fierce stab at indifference. "I get it. You don't think I can handle her. Whatever."
"No. You don't understand," said Zuko. There was a quiet, frightened urgency to his tone. "You don't know what she's like. It'll be bad enough having Katara there…Jet, she'd go after you just to get to me. And I can't…" Zuko reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I wouldn't be able to help myself. I'd do anything."
"You would for anyone," said Jet.
"It's not the same."
Jet remembered the look on Zuko's face under Lake Laogai, when Ping had told him there wasn't time and they would have to leave Jet behind. There had been no considered decision; no careful weighing of options. In that instant, Zuko had thrown away the life he'd built, exposed all the lies he'd told and begged the vengeance of those he'd told them to, rather than risk whatever the Dai Li might do to the boy he loved.
Jet bowed his head, his hands folded over the nape of his neck. He could still feel the too-smooth skin where the burns had healed over. "I shouldn't be here," he said again.
"I need you."
"I do," said Zuko, stubbornly insistent.
"What am I supposed to do, then? Join the airship team? Peacekeeping in the capital?" Jet sniffed. "You don't need me for any of that."
Zuko looked down at his hands, palms turned up to catch what sunlight managed to filter through the leaves. "Look, Jet…even if we actually manage to take back the capital tomorrow, there's no telling how bad things will get," he said. "If the peacekeeping forces can't reach the palace before the comet arrives, a lot of people could get hurt. Hundreds of servants live there, and it's not like any of this is their fault."
Jet grunted in acknowledgment, his eyes carefully focused on his boots.
"I want to send a small team to evacuate the palace staff and secure the grounds," said Zuko. "Mai and Ty Lee know the layout better than anyone — they were there a few weeks ago, and there's only so much Azula could've changed since then. But we can't send them in alone. We barely trust them enough to sleep in our camp."
"Then there's the seven Dai Li my sister brought back with her. Chang wants to be there to fight them, but…look, I know he's done a lot for the Siguo-"
"No, you're right," said Jet. He sighed, relaxing a little into the familiar rhythm of logistics. "Smellerbee and Longshot should stay on the airship team. They're good with heights, they've done a lot of sabotage on Fire Nation equipment. Keep their heads."
Jet rubbed his eyes, hard enough to hurt a little. "Fuck, I wish Ping was here."
"I know," said Zuko.
This time, when Jet felt Zuko's hand on his back, he leaned into the touch. "Chang and Xiao Si Wang really clicked on the way over here," he said. "He says she reminds him of his little sister from back home, before Long Feng took him away. He's from the plains, did you know that?"
"If she comes, he'll behave," said Jet. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth, contemplative. "Who else…"
"He'll go with Teo. Help him run the transports."
"What about Haru?"
"Mustache?" Jet smiled a little, remembering a rooftop conversation from what felt like another life. "How good is he, anyway?"
"Ni Shui Jian good. And Ty Lee likes him."
Jet snorted. "She likes everyone."
"I can handle her. And Mai. You don't need to worry about me."
He tried to sound confident, not wanting Zuko to worry any more than was unavoidable, but in truth he felt anything but. He had no idea what the Fire Nation capital looked like, beyond the barest details gleaned from conversation. He imagined the palace as a sweltering temple to imperial might, all sharp angles and dark corridors and gaudily patriotic decor in red and gold. No less alien a landscape than this forest, and far more dangerous.
Despite the dripping jungle heat, Jet pressed closer to the other boy. "Can she really bend lightning?" he asked, very soft.
Zuko's arm slid around Jet's shoulders, and he felt warm breath against his hair. "Uncle taught me how to redirect it," Zuko murmured. He kissed Jet's forehead. "I'll be fine."
Jet closed his eyes. "You might have to kill her. You know that, right?"
They sat together that way for some time, listening to the forest, until the light dimmed.
Katara was waiting for them when they returned to the camp. She stood outside the small tent they shared with Longshot, Smellerbee and Xiao Si Wang, her face drawn with worry. "Where have you been?"
"Just needed to talk about a few things." said Jet.
"Sorry," said Zuko.
"A hawk came from Fat while you were gone," said Katara.
Jet arched an eyebrow. "Who?"
"Piandao's butler. He's been keeping an eye on the capital for us," said Zuko. He looked back to Katara, frowning. "What happened?"
"Ozai's lost it," she said. Jet could hear the panic in her voice, now. "He's started calling himself the 'Phoenix King'-"
"The what?" asked Jet, his nose wrinkled.
"Look, I don't know," Katara snapped, although Jet could tell she was more afraid than angry. "He crowned himself this afternoon."
"What about Azula?" asked Zuko quietly.
Katara hesitated, her hand coming up to tug at a lock of her hair. "Zuko…"
"Just tell me."
Katara sighed and shook her head. "He made her Fire Lord," she said. "The coronation's tomorrow."
Jet lay on a thin, damp mattress on the floor of a musty tent, his bare skin slick with sweat and his ears full of the sound of insects and night birds, alone with the suffocating darkness. A few hours before, he had watched Zuko and Katara disappear into the forest, lead by one of the Sun Warriors toward the ruins of their city. An hour from now, before the sun rose, he would climb aboard Aang's bison, along with the team he'd chosen, and set out for the Fire Nation capital. Not to strike at the heart of the empire which had taken so much from him; which had orphaned a boy in the forest and turned him into a killer; which had burned and beaten and raped and enslaved his country and his people. Not to exact the revenge that he had hungered for since the night he'd watched his village burn. But to save Fire Nation lives from the careless cruelty of their own sovereign.
Jet stared into the blackness above him and laughed, desperate and breathless, until his stomach arched and his lungs burned, gasping for air like a drowning man.
Zuko held his scrap of fire cupped in both hands, arms extended and head bowed just as Chief Wuruk had shown him. He had taken it from the Eternal Flame and carried it up the mountainside and the great stone staircase, just as he had weeks ago when Uncle had first brought him to this place. Only now he stood alone on the narrow walkway between the masters' caves, and the favor he had come to ask was far greater than a brief moment of insight, however profound. It had cost Ran and Shao very little to share the truth of their art with him, but this request was of another order entirely. This could easily get one of them killed.
He felt the roar before he heard it, vibrating through the stone walkway. It reached his ears as a cool breeze stirred his hair, forced up from the depths of the caverns. His body tensed in anticipation, but he kept his hands outstretched, concentrating on the flame. He wouldn't lose it this time.
Master Ran erupted from the mouth of his cave, his enormous head glimpsed for only a moment before it roared past, the coils of his body flowing past Zuko like a river of fire. Another blast of wind buffeted him from behind, and a second current of scales joined the first, twin streams of red and blue that glittered in the dawn light.
Below him on the platform, he could hear Katara's alarmed voice calling his name.
Glimpses of a persimmon sky could be seen through the palace windows, a streak of light just visible above the eastern battlements: the comet, burning with white-hot malevolence as it tore across the midmorning horizon. Jet had been told what to expect, but in hindsight the explanations seemed laughable. No words could have prepared him for how this would feel. The air itself was on fire.
"I thought we were trying to do this before the comet came," he'd grunted as they'd scaled the far slope of the caldera, through the same blind spot between the guard towers that Mai and Ty Lee had used on the night they'd left the palace.
"It's like the eclipse," Mai had said. "It doesn't just happen all at once."
Wang had paused in her climb to peer up at the sky, then eerily tinged with yellow as what looked like a second sunrise broke over the ocean. "How do we know when it's time?" she'd asked quietly.
"When you can hear it," Ty Lee had replied, disconcertingly sober.
With Azula's coronation so close at hand, Jet had expected the halls of the palace to be a whirlwind of activity. Even the Freedom Fighter's triumphant parade through Ba Sing Se, mere days after the end of a devastating occupation, had required dozens of hastily conscripted attendants. This was the Fire Nation capital near the peak of its power, its palace glutted with the spoils of a hundred years of war, about to crown a new monarch on the morn of its fiery dispatch of the continent.
But they had found the palace halls abandoned, the expected Imperial Firebenders missing from their posts. The living quarters of the servants they had come to protect showed signs of hasty departure, clothes scattered and emptied drawers left open. Muttering something about auras, Ty Lee had found a young attendant hiding in a wardrobe, a small bag of her possessions clutched to her chest. "I have to go," she'd said, her face hidden in her hands. "She'll kill me if she finds me here."
"What happened?" Ty Lee had asked gently, her smile at its most disarming. "Where is everybody?"
"Banished," the girl had whispered.
Azula had banished her servants that morning. And the guards. And her advisors. All that remained were the handful of Fire Sages who would perform her coronation.
"What about the Dai Li?" Jet had asked, struggling to keep his voice calm.
The girl had shaken her head, tears on her cheeks as she told them she didn't know. But Chang had been certain he did. "They're here," he had said quietly. "Even if she did banish them, they wouldn't leave. They must know what's happened in Ba Sing Se. They have no where else to go."
Now Jet and his group moved through the deserted marble corridors, past the royal portrait gallery and the shrouded entrance to the throne room, down hallways of gilt and lacquered wood and gleaming marble floors, toward the grand courtyard at the heart of the palace. Zuko had once lived here, he knew, but that fact was hard to actually believe. How could this place be a home to anyone?
"This way," said Mai quietly, her footsteps silent beneath her billowing trousers. Jet stayed close behind her as she crept toward a length of heavy brocade, emblazoned with the Fire Nation crest, that hung at the far side of the room. Her thin, white hand reached out to push the edge of it aside. And in a moment that would count among the most surreal in his life, Jet peered through the gap into the courtyard beyond, where Princess Azula knelt before the robed Fire Sages.
Jet watched as the royal coronet was lifted into the air, its golden surface gleaming in the comet's unsettling glow.
Above the rooftops of the outer walls, a sinuous outline wound its way across the sky, two figures seated between its wings.
Then a stone fist hurled toward him from the rafters above, and there was barely enough time to knock it aside with his swords before a dark figure in a wide, flat helmet jumped down in its wake, cracking the stone slabs beneath them with the force of his impact. Jet tried to keep his balance as he leapt hastily backward, swords extended to either side. But Haru was already rushing forward to come to his defense, stopping the second fist in mid-air before it connected with Jet's throat.
A wave of stone shot across the marble, and Jet pushed off from its crest with one foot as Chang swept past him. He landed beside Xiao Si Wang, her own blades flashing as she cut shards of rock from the air, the stray fragments stinging his cheeks. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another Dai Li pull a shield of marble from the floor to catch the handful of daggers Mai had thrown. He looked away completely as he knocked the next wave of projectiles aside, but he could hear the Dai Li's shout of alarm and the thud of a limp body hitting the ground.
Ty Lee, Jet thought, grinning even as he rolled to avoid a razor-edged discus of stone. That left five more, by his count.
Jet knew what had happened in the Fire Lord's bunker during the eclipse. He knew they had to keep the Dai Li busy for as long as Zuko needed them to, whatever the cost to themselves. Azula wasn't interested in a "fair fight" any more than Jet would've been in her place, and the Dai Li had every reason to try and win back her favor.
Maddening fragments of sound drifted in from beyond the curtain — a woman's bloodthirsty laugh, the crackling torrent of Firebending, a gasp that might have been Katara, a shout that he knew was Zuko.
In rare moments of silence, he could hear a low rumbling in the eastern sky.
The power was incredible.
Great torrents of flame poured from Zuko's hands, dwarfing him with their size and baking his skin with their heat. He felt as if a wildfire raged in his chest — a vast reservoir of energy that strained against the inside of his ribs. In the past, the act of bending had felt like the strength of his heart manifested as flame., redirecting the flow of chi within him his body and urging it to heat the air in front of him. There in the courtyard, the effort was not one of creation, but of restraint. Each gesture opened a floodgate, and the boiling mass of fire rushed out of him in a stream so forceful he could barely contain it. His ears rang with the deafening roar of combustion.
Azula made no attempt at control. She threw haphazard waves of fire across the courtyard, blue with deadly heat and wholly indiscriminate. Precision and ruthlessness had always been her strengths, but without the first the second had consumed her. Zuko channeled what he could away from himself, but the excess splashed against the walls, licking at wood and plaster. The palace was on fire, and Azula did not care. He wasn't sure she'd even noticed. Her laugh had a raw, unhinged quality that prickled the back of his neck.
Master Ran had retreated to the rim of the caldera, his silhouette just visible against the red, low-hanging clouds. Katara, whom Zuko had made promise not to interfere, now shook with the effort of self-restraint behind him. Somewhere inside the burning palace walls, Jet and Xiao Si Wang and Mai and Ty Lee and Haru and even Chang were all fighting the Dai Li and Imperial Guards. The people of the capital had watched the lost heir to the throne descend on the back of a dragon no one had thought still existed; Zuko knew that an army of strange men and women — and an army it was, whatever Uncle called it — was now moving through the streets, overpowering imperial guards and telling citizens to stay in their homes until the comet had passed. An entire city was waiting for him to win this Agni Kai. And all of them would suffer if he didn't.
As he and Katara had flown toward the capital, the massive bulk of Master Ran beneath them and the Fire Nation archipelago stretching out toward the horizon, Zuko had finally understood what his purpose would be that day. Far more powerful benders than himself could have fought Azula, if winning were the only thing that mattered. But they had decided he would face her alone, in the palace on the day of her planned coronation. And his triumph would count for more than simply besting his sister in combat; the reward for victory was the crown itself.
Zuko didn't want to die like this, standing in the courtyard of his home after three long years away, finally at the cusp of the destiny he'd chosen for himself. As a boy, he had been burned and banished because of his compassion for his countrymen. He had been too young, then, to stand up against the cruelty of his father. He hadn't known to question the world that Sozin had made, and had had no hope of changing it besides.
He wasn't too young any more. And his people had waited long enough.
"They must be desperate if they sent you here," said Azula, shouting to be heard over the growl of her own bending. "At least Uncle Fatso would've been a challenge. This is just depressing."
Another slash of her arms sent an arc of fire toward Zuko's head. He dropped to sweep his leg along the ground, kicking up a defensive wall for her next attack to shatter against.
"Although I suppose you do get some credit for nerve," she went on, her smile crooked and hungry as she conjured a torrent of blue heat. "It must have taken quite a bit of it to show your face here again."
Zuko braced himself, arms half-bent as he redirected the stream of flame, his feet slipping on the granite paving stones. "I had to come," he growled, jaw tight and forehead beaded with sweat. "I had to stop you."
Azula laughed, and Zuko saw the telltale shift in her stance; the change in her hands, all but the first two fingers of each clenched into a fist. "You should've stayed in Ba Sing Se, Zuzu," she said, half snarling malice and half manic amusement. She drew circles of crackling energy through the air before her, erratic but no less deadly. Zuko felt his hair stand on end. "Oh, well!" she chirped, bright and sharp as a blade. "Better to die a traitor than a coward."
Fighting every instinct he had, Zuko reached out toward the bolt of jagged, white light, his fingers pointed as hers were, his uncle's words echoing in his memory. A buzzing, prickling numbness coursed down the length of his arm, the muscles tensing into hard knots that resisted every effort to do as he'd been told; to pull the stream down, through his stomach and away from his heart. His gut, already simmering with the heat of the comet, clenched into what felt like a hot block of stone as the lightening passed through it.
Then the flow of his chi pushed it up again, the energy skimming along the outside of his ribs and down his other arm. He released it back into the air with an explosive burst of heat and sound. For an instant, he couldn't see anything past his own hand, the tendons stretched taut beneath his skin.
Silence followed. Zuko blinked, still half-blinded by afterimages, and rubbed at his eyes with the knuckles of his trembling fists. When he looked again, he saw a crumpled figure lying on the ground. At first, he wondered who had gotten in the way — what poor idiot had wandered into the middle of an Agni Kai.
The Dai Li were the first to notice — clued in, Jet supposed later on, by some trick of their bending. They froze mid-attack, their heads turning as one to face the palace courtyard, the abandonment of offense so sudden that Jet's own men ground to a halt, hesitant in their confusion. All except Chang, whose expression was one of exhausted satisfaction.
"The Princess," one of the Dai Li murmured, barely audible beyond the crackle of burning wood in the middle distance.
Ty Lee's hands flew to her mouth, her gray eyes wide and round. Mai sighed and re-sheathed the daggers in her hand. "Come on," she said as she strode across the antechamber, toward the brocade hanging at the far end. "We should make sure the Fire Sages don't try anything."
Jet glanced at Chang, who said, "I'll manage the Dai Li."
"I'll help," said Xiao Si Wang. Jet offered a tight smile and quick nod, then followed Mai and Ty Lee into the courtyard.
Scorch marks traced paths of combat across the paving stones. Small fires licked at the the elegant rooftops of the long, covered galleries to either side of them, sending black tendrils of smoke up toward the burning clouds. The comet's savage purr seemed to come from the whole of the sky.
Zuko knelt on the ground beside a woman in gilt leather armor. Her sleek hair had come loose of its bindings and now pooled haphazardly around her, a few flyaway strands of it laid across her face. Her skin was bone white. Her chest was perfectly still.
The Fire Sages watched from the palace steps, lines of indecision carved deeply into their ancient countenances. Katara stood to one side, her expression unreadable and her fist clenched over her collarbone.
Ty Lee sunk to her knees at the top of the steps, her hands still at her mouth as she shook her head, her long braid swinging. Mai's features were even stonier than Katara's, her lips set in an unwavering show of indifference. But her fingers moved to rest on Ty Lee's head, and the thrum of her pulse was hummingbee-quick along the side of her slender neck.
Zuko did not look up as Jet crouched at his side. His head was bowed, and this close Jet could see the tears that ran along his nose, leaving dark spots on the brocade of Azula's sleeve. "She's dead," Zuko whispered, hoarse with panic and sorrow. "Jet, she's dead."
Jet had no idea what to say. This woman was the Fire Lord's chosen successor. She had almost destroyed Be Sing Se, and had left what remained in the hands of a merciless occupation. She had masterminded the firestorm that Ozai now hoped to rain down on the Earth Kingdom. Moments ago, she had tried in earnest to destroy the man that Jet loved.
But she was also Zuko's little sister. And the part of Jet that remembered family — the dusty, atrophied part that had once been a village boy, with parents and an infant brother of his own — reached out to pull Zuko into his arms, burying his face in hair that smelled of ozone and smoke.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, and meant it.
The soft scuff of booted footsteps made Jet lift his gaze. He hadn't noticed Katara move before, but now he watched as she knelt at Azula's other side.
For several seconds, Katara stared silently at the other girls' still face, her hand still clasped at her throat.
"I should just let her die," she said.
"Probably," Jet agreed.
"It's what she deserves."
Katara looked up at Zuko, whose face was pressed tight against Jet's shoulder. Then she sighed, quick and irritated, as she lifted a leather cord up over her neck, the small glass vial that dangled from it catching glints of red light.
"Dammit," she murmured.
She held the vial in one hand as the other bent its contents out into the air: a glowing tendril of crystalline water which spun in a tight, circular blur above her palm before she lowered it to Azula's chest, at the place where her armor had burned away.
"Today, this war is finally over. I promised my Uncle that I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation, and I will. But the road ahead of us will be a challenging one. A hundred years of fighting have left the world scarred and divided.
We've already taken the first steps toward returning to the right path. The Siguo Jundui has been true to its name — an army for all of us. And with the Avatar's help, I believe we can heal the rifts that have separated us for so long. As one people, working together, we'll build a better future. And we'll begin a new era of love and peace."
Zuko knelt, his long robes trailing on the ground, as the oldest of the Fire Sages moved to stand behind him. The sage lifted a shining, golden diadem high in the air. Along with Zuko's clothes, it seemed comically huge — like hand-me-downs he hadn't quite grown into.
Then the sage inserted it into Zuko's topknot, and with it marked the younger man forever.
"All hail Fire Lord Zuko!" the sage cried, and the crowd erupted with cheers. All but Jet, who stared dumbly at the crown as a knot of dread twisted itself up in his stomach.
He stood between Wang, Longshot and Smellerbee, their group a little apart from everyone else. All around him, families and old comrades were reuniting, hugging and thumping each other on the back as they shared news of the parts they had each played yesterday.
Jet hadn't wanted to miss watching Zuko's coronation, but now that the event had passed he didn't much feel like celebrating. He'd spent the last twenty-four hours or so hovering around the edges of court business that didn't concern him, and mostly he just wanted to find a quiet, dark place to go and get some sleep.
Shit, he thought, and looked up in time to see Pipsqueak moving toward him through the crowd, The Duke pointing excitedly from atop his shoulder.
"See, I told you!" The Duke chirped. "I told you, he was at the Air Temple with us!"
"Pipsqueak," said Jet, looking up at the much larger man.
"Jet," Pipsqueak rumbled. "Longshot. Smellerbee."
"Hey," said Smellerbee. Longshot inclined his head.
"Been a while," said Jet.
"It has," Pipsqueak agreed. "Can't say I was expecting to see you here."
"Yeah…" Jet rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes now focused somewhere in the middle of Pipsqueak's chest. "Well, you know. Been a pretty crazy summer."
Pipsqueak frowned slightly. "That's one way of putting it."
"Um…" Jet glanced over at Wang, who looked up from Pipsqueak from her slight stature with a reverence Jet wouldn't have expected. "Are you…one of Jet's Freedom Fighters? From the forest?"
Pipsqueak's thick eyebrows arched. "Sure."
She started to bow, but thought better of it halfway through and instead offered her arm, forming a comically steep angle with the ground. "I'm Xiao Si Wang," she said, high-pitched and warbling. "I'm a Freedom Fighter, too. From Ba Sing Se. I mean…well, I was. I guess now I'm in the Siguo instead, but-"
"We're still Freedom Fighters," said Longshot quietly, making Wang jump. "It's a part of us. That won't change."
Pipsqueak chuckled. "Maybe."
"Wait…does that mean the Fire Lord's a Freedom Fighter?" asked The Duke from his perch, sounding cautiously hopeful.
Smellerbee laughed. "Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, he-"
"That's different," said Jet, the words clipped. The others turned to look at him, five brows wrinkling in concern, which only ruffled him further. He pulled a stalk of grass out of his belt and tucked it into the corner of his mouth, then jammed his hands into his pockets, his shoulders hunched up toward his ears. "Look, there's some shit I have to take care of."
Smellerbee pursed her lips in disapproval. "Jet, come on, we're just-"
"You guys have fun catching up," said Jet, turning away from them. "I'll find you later."
He elbowed through a crowd of Earthbenders, not especially caring about any direction but "away." No one called after him, though he imagined he could feel their stares on the back of his head.
Fucking Pipsqueak. Jet remembered listening to that deep, rumbling voice on his last night at home. Pipsqueak had explained, at length, how the Freedom Fighters had no choice; how the flooded town would only bring more Fire Nation, more soldiers, more misery for everyone; how they couldn't afford to let things get any worse; how Jet had gone too far one time too many. "He's gonna get himself killed," Pipsqueak had said. "It's just a matter of when, and how many of us he takes with him."
Jet had always assumed he'd be able to talk his way back into his old friends' good graces; that the village he'd built would welcome him home again, after everything he'd done in Ba Sing Se. But really, who was he kidding? From what The Duke had told him, Pipsqueak had been completely, infuriatingly prescient. The Fire Nation had come. The Freedom Fighters had scattered. All he had to look forward to were more awkward reunions in strange places, where the others would pretend they hadn't thrown him out, and Jet would let them get away with it. Not even he could deny that they'd had every right to.
Jet slouched toward one of the covered walkway that ran alongside the courtyard, carefully staying out sight of anyone who might recognize him until he'd ducked into the shadows beneath the long, tiled roof.
They'd given him a room of his own, but he didn't remember where it was in the labyrinthine palace complex, and didn't particularly want to go there besides. He'd spent the night alone, sitting crosslegged on an enormous silk-draped bed and watching the moonbeams travel across the floor. Zuko had finished overseeing the imprisonment of his sister and father, and then been whisked away to an emergency audience with his advisors which had lasted until dawn.
Two hours before the coronation, Zuko had turned up at Jet's door with a platter of dumplings, a pot of tea and a basket of the necessary porcelain balanced in his arms. They'd shared a brief but private breakfast, during which Zuko had rehearsed his speech several times and demanded Jet give him an honest opinion. ("They'll love it," Jet had said, although he'd felt strangely irritated when the crowd had proved him right later on.)
And now Zuko was Fire Lord, apparently. Jet caught glimpses between the columns of him waving to the crowd, looking serene and somehow regal in his outsized brocade as he stood with Aang at his side.
Jet still wasn't entirely clear on which parts of the palace he was allowed to wander through, but he assumed some guard would kick him out of anywhere he wasn't welcome. He slipped into one of the interior corridors, empty except for a single imperial Firebender who looked annoyed at having to miss the ceremony outside.
All at once, he felt impossibly out of place beneath the vaulted ceiling. At least at the Earth King's palace he's been among his own people, with a job to do and trusted allies all around him. Here, Jet was nothing but a shabby, unwashed trespasser who'd served his purpose and overstayed his welcome.
"You look lost."
Jet stopped, then backed up several steps to the dimly-lit doorway he'd just passed by. As his eyes adjusted, he saw towering shelves of scroll cases that disappeared into the gloom above, illuminated by a small, glass lamp on one of the reading tables. There sat Mai, a teapot beside her and a jade cup held to her lips.
Though not precisely unhappy to see her, Jet wasn't interested in company just then. He scowled a bit and squared his shoulders. "Shouldn't you be off getting trashed with Ty Lee somewhere?"
"She's busy," said Mai. She took a delicate sip from her cup. "Probably trying to win over the Kyoshi Warriors again."
Jet snorted. "Didn't you guys put them in prison?"
"Seems like kind of a lost cause, then."
Mai shrugged with graceful nonchalance. "She likes their auras."
"And she can teach them chi-blocking."
"True." Jet took a step inside the room, peering up at the stacks of gilt cases. "Surprised she never taught you, actually."
Another shrug. "Not my style." She gestured to the seat beside her — mahogany, with delicate serpentine dragons carved into the back. "Come on, you're making me nervous." She set a second cup in front of him as he settled, and lifted the kettle to pour.
"No thanks," said Jet, covering the cup with his hand. "Not really in the mood for tea."
"Neither am I," said Mai. Something in her tone made him relent, and she poured him a measure of amber liquid. It wasn't until he raised it to his lips that he caught the sharp scent of alcohol.
He laughed and downed it in one gulp, wincing as it burned his throat. "Fuck," he said, his voice somewhat constricted. "That shit's not messing around."
"I only have an hour before the banquet," she said. "This seemed like the most efficient way to make sure I don't kill everyone there." Another sip, her perfect composure more impressive now that he knew what she was drinking. "You should get dressed, by the way."
"There's no fucking way I'm going to that thing."
"And how exactly do you think you'll get out of it?" she drawled. "Zuko-"
"Has more important people to worry about than me."
Mai regarded him with arched eyebrows for several seconds. "You're an idiot," she said as she poured him another cup.
This time he sipped it with a fraction more reserve, although it felt like it was sizzling on his lips. "Fuck you."
"I'm serious. You're what…General of the Siguo Jundui?"
"Major General," Jet muttered into his cup. "I think."
"And his boyfriend."
"Something like that."
"Well, I'm the ex-friend of the girl who just tried to kill the Fire Lord, and consequently one of the least popular people in the city," said Mai. "So if I have to go to this banquet, so do you."
"You're nobility. And you're, you know…Fire Nation." The words came out more like an insult than he'd meant them to be, but he blamed that on the whiskey. "It's not the same. I don't belong here."
"Don't be stupid," said Mai. "None of us 'belong' anywhere. We end up where we end up, and we try to make the best of things. At least no one expects you to know what you're doing here. Zuko's probably ready to throw himself off a balcony by now."
Jet raised his eyebrows and held out his now-empty cup. "Why? He's home. He's Fire Lord. His crazy sister's in jail and his dad can't Firebend anymore. Sounds like he's pretty on top of things to me."
Mai rolled her eyes. "Think about it," she said as she refilled the cup. "He was banished when he was thirteen, so the commoners barely know who he is, other than a story you use to scare misbehaving children. He's been living like a peasant for years and half his allies are foreign commoners, so the court won't take him seriously. The royal advisors will tell him he's an idiot for ending the war like this, and if he he tries to replace them the governors will throw a fit. I should know, my father's one of them."
"So how's it gonna help anything if I go to this stupid banquet?" He took another sip. "Sounds like he'd be better off without me hanging around."
Mai sighed. "Look, it's not just this banquet. He's going to spend the next year being told he sucks at his job, that he's a traitor, that Ozai was a better Fire Lord. He'll wake up every morning wondering why he didn't just stay in Ba Sing Se, and he'll go to bed every night wishing he had. It'll be awful, and probably at least once someone'll try to kill him."
Mai gave him a withering look. "He's going to need people he trusts," she said flatly. "He won't make it through this otherwise."
"I think Aang's got him covered."
"The Avatar has kind of a lot on his plate right now."
"Iroh, then. Whatever. He'll be fine"
For the next several seconds, Mai regarded him thoughtfully over the rim of her cup. Then, "Oh. I get it, now."
"You're just looking for a reason to leave."
"What?" Jet spluttered.
"You obviously don't want to be here, but you haven't left," said Mai, with an infuriating matter-of-factness. "So, what, are you waiting for permission?"
Jet could feel his ears burning. "I never-"
"Look," Mai went on, somehow cutting him off completely without actually raising her voice. "It's like I said. Things are going to be pretty fucking terrible around here for a long time. And the last thing any of us need is some smug asshole from the Earth Kingdom sneering at us while he whines about how no one likes him."
Jet slammed his cup down, spilling the better half of its contents on the table. "Lady, where the fuck do you get -"
"So if you want to leave, then go," she concluded, nonplussed. "Save us the grief."
"Maybe I will," Jet grumbled, surly and humiliated. "No one wants me here."
"Are you being this dense on purpose?"
"Other than Zuko."
Mai refilled his cup another time — as if he'd simply drunk it down again, rather than sloshing it around in impotent fury. "Why do you care what anyone but Zuko thinks?" she asked. "He's the Fire Lord."
"You just…" Jet clenched his jaw, momentarily overcome with the urge to either strangle her or tear out his hair or both. "Mai, you just told me about how fucked he is."
"I said things would be tough," said Mai, the tinge of amusement in her voice doing nothing for Jet's mood at all. "And they will be. But if he wants you here, no one else will tell you otherwise. That crown does actually mean something." She sighed. "Jet, you're overthinking this. Really. No one will blame you if you decide you can't handle the palace. All I'm saying is that no one's making you leave."
Jet slumped back into his chair, another mouthful of fire whiskey smoldering its way down his throat. "You really know how to cheer a guy up," he said, not quite managing sarcasm.
"I've had enough of boys slouching around feeling sorry for themselves," said Mai. "It's excruciatingly dull."
Jet opened his mouth, full of bristling indignance, but was saved from having to come up with a response more clever than "shut up" by a new arrival at the entrance of the library. Sokka, still dressed in his Water Tribe armor, leaned against the doorframe with his arms crossed. "So this is where you've been hiding," he drawled, his eyes on Jet.
"I'm not hiding," said Jet, with a slightly slurred petulance that he knew couldn't be helping anything.
Sokka lifted one brow. "Well, Zuko's been looking for you," he said. "So maybe you could hide in his room for a while instead?"
Jet pushed back from the table — the moment when, in his admittedly extensive experience, he'd discover exactly how drunk he'd become. On this occasion, the answer turned out to be "moderately."
He put his cup down on the tabletop with deliberate care. "You'd better show up for dinner," he said to Mai. "I'll need you to tell me which bowl to use."
"I'll do what I can," she said, and Jet imagined her tone was fractionally warmer than before.
Sokka had a somewhat better grasp of the palace's labyrinthine corridors than Jet did, but the only route to Zuko's chambers that he could remember was an indirect one, and as such the two of them had a much longer walk together than Jet had counted on. Although Sokka had apparently gotten over the worst of his dislike of Jet, their connection could hardly be called a friendship, and they had spent next to no time alone together since Jet's arrival at the Western Air Temple several weeks before.
As they left the library behind, Jet expected their trek through the palace to pass in silence, awkward or otherwise, while he wondered how much more whiskey it was going to take to get him through the banquet. They had only made a few turnings, however, when Sokka abruptly started talking, which in Jet's current state made him teeter a little to one side in surprise.
"Hey, you know," said Sokka, "I never thanked you."
Jet scanned through his recollections of the past month, but nothing came to mind. "For what?"
"Katara told me what happened during the eclipse."
"I know she can take things a little far sometimes," Sokka went on, more serious than Jet was accustomed to. "I mean, she's my sister, I've seen her go through some pretty bad stuff. She doesn't always know when to stop."
"Sure," said Jet, who still had no idea what Sokka was talking about.
"You weren't there," said Sokka, "but when Azula almost killed Aang…that hit Katara really hard. We were just kids when we lost mom, you know? This was different. She hasn't really been the same since then."
"Yeah," said Jet. "I know how that can be."
"So when Zuko hit Azula with that lightning yesterday…Katara knows she did the right thing. But she told me she almost couldn't go through with it."
"Can't say I blame her."
"Yeah. But I guess having you there really snapped her out of it. If you could bring yourself to spare some Fire Nation general, well…the least she could do was help Zuko's sister."
"Oh," said Jet. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. Sure, I guess, but it's not like I actually did anything…"
Sokka shrugged. "Katara thinks you did."
They walked another few yards, past tapestries and gilt molding and other absurd trappings of Fire Nation royalty. "All right," said Jet quietly.
"Look, I don't want this to get weird," said Sokka. "I guess I'm just sorry I was kind of a dick to you before, okay? Obviously I read you wrong."
"No," said Jet. "You didn't. Some things changed, is all."
Sokka chuckled. "Speaking of which…" They turned a final corner, then, and Jet abruptly recognized where they were — the corridor in front of Zuko's rooms, the doorway flanked by Imperial Firebenders in full dress uniform despite the summer heat.
"His Highness isn't accepting visitors," said the guard on the left.
The guard on the right turned to hiss at her. "That's him."
The first guard's eyes widened as comprehension dawned. "I'm sorry, sir. You're expected."
Jet felt Sokka clap him on the shoulder. "Just try and keep him from making a break for it, okay?"
Then Sokka was gone, whistling tunelessly as he turned down an adjacent hallway, and the guards were bowing slightly as they opened the door for Jet to pass through.
Zuko's chambers — they could hardly be described any other way, no matter how silly Jet felt about it — began with a sort of formal sitting room, which had been stripped of Ozai's furnishings and refilled with a few pieces that had once belonged to Zuko's mother. It had the musty smell of storage and seemed almost barren, with only a few tables and chairs and a handful of art pieces to fill the enormous space.
Jet found Zuko in the room beyond — a cavernous, marble box with a bed in the middle and tall windows all along the far wall. They faced the largest and most elaborate of the palace gardens, and the curtains had been drawn back, allowing warm rectangles of afternoon sunlight to flood across the floor.
Zuko paced before them, his Fire Lord's robes whispering as they dragged along the ground and his crown flashing in the sun. Anxiety rolled off of him, his every movement terse and uncertain. He was also talking to himself, reciting what sounded like a list of names and titles, and as such didn't hear Jet's footsteps crossing the room.
"Hey," said Jet. "Busy?"
Zuko stopped mid-stride, his robes billowing around him. "Jet," he said. His voice, always raspy, now sounded outright strangled. "You're here."
Zuko swept toward him, and suddenly Jet was encased in a hug that was as much brocade as boy, Zuko's face pressed against his cheek and his hands clenched on fistfuls of Jet's shirt. "You're here," he said again, hoarse with a relief that caught Jet entirely off guard. The same way he'd sounded at the Western Air Temple, clinging to Jet as if he'd come back from the grave. As if he'd never expected to see Jet again.
Jet felt a sharp pang of remorse in his chest, the warm buzz of alcohol seeping away. He'd been such an ass.
Jet kissed the scarred corner of his eye, his fingers sliding into the short hairs at the nape of Zuko's neck that had come loose from his topknot. "I'm always gonna be here," he said. And though his own, chaotic life bore testament to how ridiculous a thing that was to say, he meant it.
"Good," Zuko muttered against Jet's neck.
Jet chuckled. "So what's the problem?"
"I'm fucked," said Zuko.
"Not yet," said Jet, grinning. "You said I had to wait until-"
Zuko pulled back enough to glare at Jet unconvincingly. "Jet, seriously, they're gonna kill me."
"The governors," said Zuko. "And the court. Basically everyone." He pulled a scrap of parchment from his sleeve and held it still long enough for Jet to glimpse a long list of names and short descriptions, all written in Zuko's careful scrawl. "I'm supposed to have these memorized," he said, tight with panic. "I've never even met most of these people."
"So they'll introduce themselves."
"No, see that's the thing, I'm supposed to just know."
Jet laughed a bit, incredulous. "That's crazy."
"It's completely crazy!"
Jet plucked the list from Zuko's fingers and frowned down at it, quickly skimming the characters. "You know, this isn't any worse than remembering all the Freedom Fighters at the Jasmine Dragon," he said.
"Which I was terrible at."
"Maybe," said Jet. He walked over to Zuko's bed and sat down on it crosslegged, the list still in his hand. "If we break this down and memorize it in chunks, I don't think we'll have a problem."
His robes made it impossible for Zuko to sit properly on the bed, so he perched on the edge of it near Jet, his hands on his knees. "Jet, I'm not you," he said, at once irritated and anxious. "I can't just remember a whole bunch of people in an hour."
"Then I'll stay close enough to give you hints," said Jet.
Zuko shot him a dubious glance.
"No, listen, I'll just be like, 'Oh, look, your Highness, isn't that Lord FlameAss over there, governor of the Fire Provinces?' And then you'll be all, 'Why yes, General, I do believe it is! Smashing!'"
The corner of Zuko's mouth twitched. "I don't really think that's in keeping with court etiquette."
"So what? I'm the eccentric foreign dignitary. No one expects me to know this shit. I'm just supposed to stand around being interesting and exotic."
"I think this system's gonna work out," Jet went on, scooting closer to Zuko across the quilt. "I'll be like your Royal Who-the-fuck-is-that-guy Advisor."
Zuko finally gave in to a proper smile, then. "I think we might have to come up with a shorter title."
"I get to sit near you at the banquet, right? Or at least Mai, she's my bowl consultant."
"Aang will be at my left. Uncle will be at my right." Jet felt his chest tighten a little before Zuko added, "You'll be next to Aang. He said he wouldn't mind us talking over him, and Katara wants to sit with her family anyway."
"Oh…" Jet rubbed his neck, the old scars a little warm under his fingers. "Wow. Yeah, that sounds fine." He paused, looking up at Zuko. He could see his reflection in the engraved diadem, golden patterns of flame and dragons overlaid across his face. "Are you sure that's okay?"
"You're part of my life," said Zuko, quiet but firm. "You belong at my side." He faltered, his gaze flickering away. "If you want to be."
"Well, I'm sitting in the Fire Lord's bedroom," said Jet, who had grown so used to saying absurd things that he almost didn't notice anymore. "So yeah, I guess I do."
Zuko clasped his hands in his lap, the tendons standing out along his knuckles. "This is my room."
"I'm the Fire Lord."
Zuko bowed his head, until his brow rested on his hands. "This is so messed up."
"It's not," said Jet. "It's what needed to happen. Really."
"I don't know," said Zuko, his voice muffled. "This isn't what I thought it would be like. I didn't think I'd have to see Azula screaming and crying in a prison cell. I didn't think I'd even have a father anymore, let alone…" He said up again, laughing from nerves. "I mean, taking his bending away? How is that even a thing you can do?"
"Dunno," said Jet honestly.
"And I'm glad Aang got to be a monk about it, I guess, but you know, some people are a little freaked out that Avatar can just up and decide you don't get to be a bender anymore. Some people like the Fire Sages. And the courtiers. And the governors-"
"That's Aang's problem to worry about," said Jet. "Not yours."
"Is it? Because no one here seems to think so." Zuko ran a hand down over his face, pulling at his skin. "Fuck. Jet, I have no idea what I'm doing,"
Jet slid an arm around Zuko's waist, leaning in to kiss the other boy's throat as he pulled him close. "You'll figure it out," he said. "We're all still learning, you know? The world's not the same as it was yesterday. You can't just turn heel overnight."
"But I have to," said Zuko. "Everyone's-"
"Everyone can fucking wait a couple days, Zuko. Really."
"It's all gonna be fine," said Jet. "I promise."
"You can't promise that," Zuko muttered, although he relaxed a little as he leaned into Jet's arms.
"I just did," said Jet. He smiled. "Lucky you, I keep my promises."
The palace, overwhelming even in daylight, became a forbidding cavern of flickering shadows after sunset. Jet and Zuko had stumbled back to the Fire Lord's chambers after the banquet, drunk and exhausted and leaning heavily against each other, and Jet had had barely enough wherewithal to be annoyed with the servants who insisted on helping Zuko out of his formal robes. Soon enough, the two of them had been left alone, the enormous room lit only by a small lantern, the walls and ceiling lost in the dark.
Zuko fell asleep immediately, but Jet lay awake for what felt like a very long time, watching the curtains stir in the breeze. Beyond them, the calls of unfamiliar insects and night birds filled the moonlit garden.
Jet did not know this place, and despite Zuko's assurances, Jet was aware of how reluctantly it welcomed him. He was a child of the Earth Kingdom forests, born and grown to manhood beneath distant trees, and he felt somehow that even this sheltered palace garden could sense it. His presence here was dissonant, and would be for some time.
And yet. He listened to the other boy's soft, slow breathing, and felt the thrum of his heartbeat through his ribs. His hand rested on the sharp point of an exposed hip, and his nose was pressed to the nape of Zuko's neck, inhaling the scent of jasmine tea that always seemed to linger there.
Home, Jet thought. For now, at least. Maybe for always.
:: The End ::