(A/N: Product of a long road trip and mixing up my flash drives. Naturally, I'd have written up Eternal Delusion if I hadn't gone about confusing my USBs. Please enjoy this incidental creation.
Written under the prerequisite that Jet is not suspicious of Zuko and Iroh.)
When a man is a fugitive running from one set of laws or another, he cannot afford to spare effort. Not when you could be walking down the street one minute and running from authorities the next. Thus, as Zuko was wiping down the rotted tables of the second-rate tea house that had hired himself and his uncle, he did not bother putting more effort into his endeavor than was absolutely necessary. He threw his weight onto his left hip that was pressed up against the table, as he lethargically dragged a rag across its surface. Back and forth, back and forth, his eyes glazed and every other breath deepening into a sigh. A former prince of the wealthiest nation in the world reduced to this... Pathetic.
He immediately stiffened when he felt a light pressure against his hand and a brush against his upper arm. His focus sharpened to see a brown hand clasped over his own, guiding it in firm circles that contrasted his effort to exert very little effort indeed. "You know, it'll probably get cleaner this way," a voice whispered in his ear, seemingly amused by his indifference to tea house sanitation.
Zuko shrugged him off, jabbing the man in the collarbone with his shoulder and whipping his hand from beneath the other's. "Thanks, but I know how to wipe down a table," he muttered, using bitterness of tongue to mask his surprise. He caught a glance at the intruder's face as he turned to stride toward the counter where a customer was waiting to pay her dues. As Zuko made the exchange, his face betrayed none of the curiosity that mounted in his gut. The boy from the ship...What was his purpose here? More importantly, from where did he reserve the right to touch him? Zuko unconsciously passed the back of his hand over his apron, as though trying to rid himself of a stubborn spider web. The stranger with the shaggy brown hair, the pieced-together armor, and the easily-forgotten-single-syllable name had crossed his arms and was now observing him with a smirk that was just barely tinged a shade of obnoxiousness. Zuko was so enthralled with watching the man through his peripheral vision, he had yet to realize that he had given the customer he was serving almost twice the merited change. The kindhearted woman corrected his mistake, though blood nevertheless tinged his cheeks as he fumbled around with the coins in the register. Great. His time around these uneducated peasants was starting to affect his mathematical skills.
Speaking of peasants, the tan-skinned teenager was once again approaching. He leaned against the register counter and tapped upon it with each of his fingers, one by one. Zuko prepared his arsenal of snappish remarks, only to be combated with a smirk. "You serve chrysanthemum here?"
Zuko paused, his eyes narrowing. He had been cornered. He wouldn't dare disrespect a paying customer. With grit teeth he spoke, "One moment, please." The firebender took a few steps back and poked his head through the kitchen door. "One chrysanthemum tea, Uncle." He cleared his throat and returned to the counter, thoroughly irritated to find the teenager had yet to find a seat.
"May I show you to a table?" Zuko kept the inflection sharp on the final word, insinuating the other's idiocy. The man simply laughed, shaking his head and drumming the fingers of his right hand against the counter.
"The way you clean them? I think I'd rather stand!"
Zuko breathed out a sigh, clearly not amused by this unproductive banter. This was not a matter to be treated lightly. This Earth Kingdom boy could only be here for two reasons; either he wanted to make another attempt at getting Zuko to join his gang, or he thought Iroh and himself suspicious and wanted to gather information about them. "What are you doing here?" he asked, keeping his voice low and his lips as still as possible.
"Doing here?" The idiot raised an eyebrow, appearing genuinely confused as he shrugged his shoulders and made a lazily gesture toward the ceiling. "If I'm not mistaken, this is a tea house. And I happen to be here to drink a cup of tea."
Zuko inclined his head, trying his best to read the other's expression. Alas, it was to no avail. The man's face was shrouded in a constant smirk, and Zuko was terrible at reading other people. He could just hear his uncle's cheerful voice in his head: 'Well maybe if you spent more time around people, you would come to understand them better!' Such foolishness. Why subject himself to the tortures of socializing unnecessarily?
"A round of jasmine for table five, and a single chrysanthemum!" His uncle popped his head out of the kitchen door, holding a platter out for his nephew. Iroh's face instantly lit up at the sight of the Earth Kingdom peasant. "Ah, your friend from the ferry! Jet, was it?"
"He's not my friend." Zuko spoke at a volume that he was certain the object of the conversation could hear before he snatched up the platter. Jet, that's right. A ridiculous name, really. Shoving a cup of tea into Jet's hands on his way to table five, Zuko's irritation reached an all-time high upon returning when he found Jet still leaning against the register counter, nonchalantly sipping at his tea.
Not one for beating around the bush, Zuko glanced around to ensure that the other occupants of the tea house were firmly rooted in their own business before leaning over to speak, his gaze locked with the stranger's. "I remember you from the ferry. I'll say it once and I'll say it again, I'm not interested in joining your little Freedom Friars-"
"Whatever. Look, stealing that food on the ferry was dangerous and exciting but I'm not in any position to get mixed up in that stuff on a regular basis. So shut up, drink your damn tea, and get the hell out."
The idiot stared at him for the longest time, so long that Zuko almost wanted to tap his fingers against the countertop to break the sheer dumb silence passing between them. But no, he would not be the first to give in. Finally, the teenager with the piece of straw between his lips laughed, an action that tainted Zuko's dignity. "You don't talk to people much, do you?" he mused, catching the other by surprise.
Irritated by the other's roundabout manner, Zuko decided to play by different rules and see where he ended up. Apparently this Earth Kingdom peasant had never learned the meaning of the word 'straightforward'. "No, I don't. The relevance of this being…?"
"I guess it hadn't occurred to you that maybe I came by to just, you know, talk." Jet shrugged, raising his cup to his lips only after cautiously blowing on its surface.
A smirk tinged at Zuko's lips. Got you. "I wouldn't have thought anything of the sort. That possibility could only exist under the assumption that you were positive my uncle and I worked here, implying that you have been spying on us."
Jet's eyes widened, choking on the last gulp of tea he'd so unwisely taken. "N-No!" he stuttered once he'd managed to regain his breath. "That's not it at all!" He became even more flustered at Zuko's feinted accusing stare. "I live in an apartment down the street and I saw you walking to work this morning. Thought I might drop in on an old friend."
"We stole together. That doesn't make us friends."
"No. More like… business associates." This earned a laugh from the idiot by the name of Jet, at which Zuko felt a strange and slightly familiar sensation in his chest. What was this feeling? Something akin to pride? No, it was better labeled as satisfaction. After all, it's not as though Zuko made a habit of trying to make people laugh. He couldn't remember the last time he himself had undergone convulsions of the chest as a result of a physiological response to that which is pleasurable.
"Alright, alright. I get the picture. Still, I stand by what I said. We're outcasts, and the destinies of outcasts have a way of intertwining." He took another sip of his tea, casting a wink toward the other. "It couldn't hurt to have a friend around the city. Especially when that friend is well-armed and a skilled fighter."
"Sounds like you're looking for trouble." Zuko shook his head, muttering with a roll of his eyes, "This is Ba Sing Se. Everything here is just peachy." The inflection on his final word was no less sharp than it was bitter.
"Yeah. It's not exactly what I expected it to be, but things will turn around." Jet jabbed a thumb at his own chest and nodded with conviction. "I start at the post office next week as a mail carrier. Did you know they screen every single letter and package that comes into Ba Sing Se? Nothing goes unopened before it reaches the residents."
Zuko frowned, appalled by this lack of privacy. Not that he was expecting mail anytime soon, but nonetheless… "No kidding? Are they looking for war spies?"
"That's what I thought, but it's a little strange. Any incoming mail that doesn't pass the test isn't traced or kept as evidence. It's burned." Jet shrugged, glancing around the tea shop. "I asked around, but nobody would tell me. Can't complain, though. If it keeps the city safer, I'm all for it."
"Hmm." Zuko felt sick to his stomach at the thought of a Fire Nation invasion at this point. If the city was taken over, he and his uncle would be discovered without a doubt. He was distracted by the clang of Jet's empty cup against the register counter.
"Thanks, that really hit the-"
"That'll be four copper pieces."
"The tea." Zuko's eyes narrowed. "Four copper pieces."
"Ah, right, right." Jet scratched the back of his neck awkwardly, his eyes shifting from left to right. "You see, I don't really have any money on me."
"What?!" Jet winced, not expecting the sudden outburst along with the slam of a hand against the wooden countertop. "You came into a tea house and ordered tea knowing you didn't have any money?!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'll pay you back, I swear. It's just that… I can't pay right now. You understand, don't you?" Jet removed the stalk of wheat from between his lips and inclined his head in a pleading manner.
Understand? Of course he understood. He and his uncle had been living on six meals a week. Things were difficult for refugees, and Ba Sing Se wasn't making them any easier. "But I can't just start handing out free cups of tea. That's how people get fired." Zuko took an uneasy breath, realizing that there was a hint of desperation lining his voice as he spoke. He couldn't afford to mess up; even if these crappy jobs might as well pay them in dirt, it was all they had.
Jet sighed, shaking his head and tracing the sole of his shoe against a floorboard. "I'm sorry, Li. I guess we're going to have to settle this using the traditional 'stop-and-lock' method."
"Stop-and-lock?" Zuko raised an eyebrow.
"Sure. Isn't that how your village settled debt disputes?"
Zuko's heart rate leapt, but he was not dissuaded from a snappish remark, "My village tossed thievesin jail."
"Ah, you must have lived in a larger city," Jet mused, returning the wheat between his lips. "This is how it works: I stop by the tea house every day until I've paid the totality of my debt. Four copper pieces, was it? That way, you know I haven't run out on you. If I don't show up one day, you can assume that I've ditched my tab and you can call up the authorities and give them my address. See? If I stop coming, you lock me up. Hence, stop-and-lock."
Zuko pursed his lip, turning away for a moment to assist a customer at the register. I guess that makes sense. It's not like I can force him to pay if he doesn't have the money. Besides, it shouldn't take him too long to come up with four copper pieces. He turned back to Jet, offering him a slight nod. "Very well. That sounds reasonable. Write down your address on one of those napkins. And don't think you can just switch apartments and get away with it; I'll track you down."
"Man, you take your copper seriously." Jet nevertheless did as the other requested, and Zuko wordlessly pocketed the information. On his way out, Jet turned around and said with a laugh, "That wasn't so bad, was it?" At Zuko's blank stare, he elaborated, "Talking." And with that he spun around, gave the other a little wave, and walked out the front door.
Upon moving to Ba Sing Se, Zuko had been forced to redefine his concept of 'a bad day'. It is not as though he'd experienced a 'good day' for a few years now; however, there were always those sorts of days. The days that stood out among the others as particularly miserable and taxing, thereby earning acknowledgement as exceeding the levels of tragedy previously endured. A mere few months ago, his idea of a bad day would have been the most powerful icon in the world just barely slipping through his clutches, leaving him to search endlessly for leads as to the Avatar's whereabouts. Nowadays, a typical bad day consisted of spilling boiling hot tea all over the floor (or worse, all over himself). Stoves that wouldn't light, stubborn stains on dishes, and exceedingly pompous customers he was forced to be nice to all contributed in part to the experience of one of those days. And honestly? Today was undoubtedly one of those days.
The vile nature of said day reached its peak when Zuko served an entire table tea sprinkled with salt rather than sugar. Really, how was he supposed to predict that a canister of salt might be lying around a tea house? If the manager wanted to keep his lunch-orientated condiments in the shop, he could at least secure them so that they would not be mixed in with the brewing ingredients! The party four had marched out of the shop in disgust, spitting and wiping their tongues against their palms as they left.
"Hey, how's it going?"
And it was ridiculous, meaningless questions like that which served to irritate him all the more. Zuko didn't bother glaring up at the teenager by the name of Jet, as he was much too busy re-folding the new cloth napkins. He had folded them well enough the first time, but apparently it was a criminal act in Ba Sing Se to expose the underside stitching of a napkin to one's customers. Rather than graciously accepting the question as an element of polite conversation and answering with a rather generic, 'Fine, thank you. How are you?', Zuko snapped back with, "Like you care." The inflection on the final word caused Jet's eyes to widen as he leaned against the counter that the other stood behind.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" The young man removed the piece of straw from between his lips and twirled it about habitually. His quirked eyebrows expressed his astonishment, a hint of amusement glistening in his eyes. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't care. Can't waste even your breath in a place like Ba Sing Se."
Zuko's hands paused for a moment, neglecting their napkin-folding duty as the teenager finally met the eyes of the other. However much he found this Jet character to be suspicious and irritating, it was as though the man was vocalizing his own unspoken thoughts. The former prince shook his head clear of any such ideas, scolding himself firmly. I'm of royal blood, a son of Agni and a wielder of fire. He's a peasant who's thrown together a pathetic rebellion. We're nothing alike. The words echoed eerily in his head, as though just lurking, waiting to be contradicted. "Do you have the money?" he asked quietly, completing the last of the napkins after only a brief delay.
The other chuckled, gracing him with a shrug of his shoulders. "Trust me, it'd be in your hands right now if I did. I hate being in debt."
"Which poses the question as to why you would make a purchase knowing you were broke." Jet fiddled with his hands, a nervous chuckle escaping his lips. What, he's embarrassed now? What's with this guy?
"You should hear the way people around here rave about this tea house. Your uncle took over the brewing, right? My landlady was just talking the other day about how good the tea was. When I found out you worked here, I figured you wouldn't mind if I popped in and… you know-"
"Stole from us?" Zuko shook his head, amazed by how easily influenced the people around him were. Hot leaf-juice wasn't exactly something to get stirred up about. A sign of the times, I suppose.
"Steal? I always pay my debts off!"
Zuko bit his lower lip, muttering at the other as he made his way over to take the orders of a new party, "Wouldn't it be easier to just avoid debt altogether?" Still, he had to give the young man credit. Overall, he had predicted that the probability of the teenager returning to take responsibility for a cup of tea was around ten percent at the most. It seemed even Earth Kingdom peasants took to preserving their honor. Realizing that Jet had no further motive to remain at the shop, Zuko was surprised to find the other still waiting for him as he completed the table's order. "Don't you have somewhere to be?" he asked, more out of curiosity than irritation. Zuko couldn't wait to get out of this tea house every day, and here this guy was loitering about as though it was the latest, greatest hang-out.
"Nah. I'm not important enough to have places to be." Despite the joking tone of the other's voice, Zuko had a feeling there was more truth to his words than he was letting on. "Smells nice in here anyway."
"Hmph." Zuko raised an eyebrow, pulling out a piece of parchment from inside of the register drawer and jotting down the last hour's profit.
"What?" Jet asked with a suspicious smile.
"Gets a little old when you're here for eight hours a day," Zuko muttered, keeping his eyes focused on the paper beneath his writing utensil. "It's nauseating."
"Smells better than the streets, you have to give it that." Jet swung one leg behind him and turned around so that his back was pressed against the counter, his head inclined in nostalgia. "Before I came to Ba Sing Se, I used to live in this really beautiful forest. It was full of deciduous trees, and their leaves would change color every winter. Then the trees would start to thin out and the sun would shine through the forest canopy, illuminating all of those colors. I had grown up there since I was born, and for the longest time I thought every place in the world was like that." Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko saw Jet's shoulders stiffen. "But when I was a teenager, I started traveling a bit. I saw swamps, valleys, mountains even. I saw so many villages, adapting to the land in all possible forms. That was also the time I came across Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom." Jet's voice grew bitter, the boy's cool demeanor fading for a moment. "It was like a wasteland. They tore it apart, never giving thought to the effect it would have on the surrounding farmers. I don't think the land will ever be the same."
Zuko bit his lower lip, his fingers freezing in the middle of writing the last digit of the final figure. He should have been used to hearing refuges talk distastefully of the Fire Nation, but to hear this young man speak of it was entirely different. He spoke with a much deeper insistence, as though he was confident of the universal truth that every Fire Nation citizen ever born was a monster. Zuko prodded a little deeper, in hopes of getting to the bottom of the matter. Trying to approach the matter delicately (considering it rather extensively, as 'delicate' was by no means his best practice), he said, "I'd rather see damage done to the land rather than the people." A stab in the dark, but a worthy one.
Jet's eyes softened and his gaze was drawn toward the floor. A long pause ensued before he managed to reply, "Yeah, I guess so. I know I would have rather seen the entire forest I grew up in burn to the ground if it meant my parents would still be here today."
"Died by the hand of the Fire Nation, eight years ago. They destroyed our village." Jet sighed, running a hand through his hair. "We kids went down to the river to collect water, like we did every four days while our parents were making dinner. We came back, saw the smoke, heard the screams… and we knew."
Zuko recognized the look in the other's eyes; it was the look of someone who had hardened his heart, made himself feed off of his own anger just to keep surviving. Was that glint the same in his own eyes? "Why?" When Jet only stared at him, he elaborated, "Why did the Fire Nation wipe out your village?"
Jet's eyes narrowed, his arms crossing at his chest. "The Fire Nation doesn't need an excuse to kill. They just think they have more of a right to live than you or I do."
Zuko desired more than anything to insist that Jet was wrong, and that his home never would have been attacked without reason. Perhaps they had harbored spies, or were planning an assassination, or- but the more excuses he conjured up, the more ludicrous they seemed. He had witnessed the brutal, coldhearted nature of the Fire Nation leadership himself. Their willingness to knowingly sacrifice an entire division of soldiers was by far the most prevalent example. How could he even attempt to defend the actions of such people? Before he could voice something even mildly coherent, the familiar sound of someone clearing their throat caused him to pause. He blushed, realizing a customer had been standing on the opposite side of the counter for Agni-knows-how-long. "Erm, thank you. Come again."
When he turned back to Jet, he found the other biting back a smile, more to his amazement than irritation. Never before had he seen a person's demeanor shift so suddenly. "Are you always so tense?" the teenager asked, earning a quirk of Zuko's eyebrow.
"You almost jumped five feet in the air when you saw that guy there! And your shoulders are always so squared off and stiff, like you're expecting the Firelord himself to sneak up on you. Loosen up a bit." Jet slouched against the counter as per example, resting his crossed forearms on the ledge.
"When you've been through what I have, there's no 'loosening up'," Zuko muttered. Suddenly wishing he had another customer to distract him. He settled for counting the cracks in the floorboards.
"Not even in a city with mile-high walls?"
"What was meant to be a defense could easily become a prison." Ha. If only he knew. Zuko refused to meet the other's eyes, even upon hearing him shuffle and straighten.
"I understand what you mean; I've lived my life never completely trusting in anything. But Ba Sing Se is the last place on earth for people like you and I. We have to make it work."
"I don't need your advice," Zuko muttered, ignoring the chuckle he received from the other.
"I'll be back tomorrow."
Zuko waited until he heard the door open before glancing up. "Yeah, well, make sure you bring money!"
Zuko couldn't define the sinking feeling in his chest as every hour passed by. He'd even forgotten to complain about the tea; in fact, the tea barely made a dent in the minefield of his mind. He cursed himself the third day, when the day passed and Jet hadn't returned. That's what he got for actually having faith in another person: the distraught that accompanied being betrayed. Four copper pieces really wasn't worth calling upon the authorities; he'd replace it himself if he had to. Despite reasoning with himself, Zuko was still angry at having been let down by the teenager. He had tried to deny it, but a moment of weakness forced him to admit to himself that he was hur-… disgruntled by Jet's absence. To his further annoyance, the bell attached to the shop door rang ten minutes before closing time. If people needed tea that badly, couldn't they be punctual about it? No, Zuko had had enough. "I'm sorry, but we're clo-" The word died on his tongue when he saw none other than Jet himself standing in the doorway. Zuko released a sigh of relief, followed shortly by a burst of anger. "Well, well, well. If it isn't the deadbeat."
"Ouch!" Jet winced in jest, bringing a hand to his heart. With his signature smirk encompassing a single stalk of wheat, the young man looked relatively bright that day. "I'm here aren't I?"
"For all I know this 'stop-and-lock' nonsense has no expiration date. I'll be damned if I'm going to work in this tea shop all of my life waiting for four lousy coins."
"Hopefully you won't have to!" Jet inclined his head proudly, arching his eyebrows at Zuko. "You're looking at an official member of the Ba Sing Se postal office. I start in three days. I spent all morning and afternoon studying my mail route. I travel as far as the upper ring and back! Six hours a day of walking, walking, walking. No wonder they need young blood in their division."
"Oh? How's the pay?" Zuko paused, close to regretting the words when he saw the look of surprise on Jet's face. Perhaps he had asked a rude questions by civilian standards? But Jet merely continued speaking, his face tinged with a brighter smile.
"Twenty gold pieces a week. It'll put food on the table."
"My uncle and I don't make that combined; maybe I should consider applying." Zuko picked up the broom leaning against the wall and began sweeping up the spilt sugar and paper bits on the floor.
"If you really wanted to make some money, you could put those skills of yours to work and become a bodyguard for the upper-class folk. But, you do make a damn good tea server."
Zuko paused in his sweeping to glare over at the young man who was now leaning against the wall. "Did you come here just to make fun of me? Or do you actually have the money today?"
Ignoring the last half of the question, Jet uncrossed his arms and gestured openly toward the teenager. "Making fun of you? I'm not making fun of you! It was a compliment!" When Zuko didn't answer he persisted, "I think you're pretty fun to be around. You have this…" Jet frowned, snapping his fingers in the air. "No, no… Not sarcastic. Um, you know, a humor that's really dry but in a witty way?"
"Yeah! You've got this really satirical sense of humor! I think it's kinda clever, all-in-all." Zuko pretended to ignore the other as he fetched the dustpan. Clever? Fun to be around? Zuko had never thought himself a pleasurable person to converse with. To his credit, it's not as though he tried very hard. People-pleasing wasn't exactly his specialty, as it was much easier to simply intimidate people into handing over whatever it was he wanted. Strangely enough, this did nothing to impede the satisfaction he felt upon hearing that Jet found him 'fun to be around'. He had always measured the constant social needs of humans as revolting, yet here he was relishing in the same mud hole. Before he could linger on the thought any longer, Jet butted into his contemplation process with the question, "You have any plans tonight?"
Bent over the dust and grime, Zuko was frozen in mid-sweep with the broom in one hand and the dust pan in the other. Maybe he wasn't familiarized with common folk interaction, but wasn't that somewhat of a personal question? "Plans? Well, I plan to eat dinner. And I plan to go to sleep."
Zuko was tempted to reply with, 'What else is there?' , but simply shrugged.
"Why don't you come over to our place? Smellerbee found work at a butcher's shop, and her boss gives her pieces that don't quite weigh enough to sell." At Zuko's uncertain stare he prompted with a sly smile, "Come on! How long has it been since you've had some decent meat? I know I haven't had any for a while."
The teenager wrapped an arm around his midsection to keep the growling of his stomach quiet. "I-I don't think-"
"I owe you for making you wait all day. Invite your uncle, too. It'll be fun."
The sheer sincerity behind Jet's eyes was enough to make Zuko wonder if the other was truly as good-natured as he appeared. His mouth began to form the word 'no' instinctually, but something made him pause for a moment. Maybe, if nothing else, it couldn't hurt to form a bond with Jet and his friends. His uncle and he were fugitives of the Fire Nation who desperately needed to blend in. Who better to befriend than people who blatantly hated the Fire Nation? There had yet to be a brighter future revealed on the horizon, and if they were going to have to lay low in Ba Sing Se for a while, they may as well build alliances. "Sounds… good. Let me go ask my uncle. We close up shop in a few minutes."
"Great." Jet leaned back against the doorframe, adapting a demeanor that somewhat annoyed the other. Anyone who had ever been to an upper division school knew that look; the cool-guy smirk that screamed 'I'm so devious and sly, it's almost sinful'. On the same note, how was it that he had managed to carry on a decent conversation with someone so irritating? Zuko shook his head, crossing the room to duck into the kitchen where he saw Iroh reverently washing out a teapot in the basin adjacent to the stove.
"Uncle, Jet has invited us over to his apartment for dinner." Zuko pursed his lips, keeping his eyes fixed on a stain tainting the opposite wall.
Iroh glanced up from his work with wide eyes, before allowing a smile to cross his features. "Is that so? Well I'd love to join you…" Iroh gave off a yawn that was so terribly exaggerated, that it made Zuko roll his eyes. "But I'm so terribly tired! It's been a long day, hasn't it Nephew? I suppose you'll just have to accommodate the invitation by yourself."
Zuko winced. Surely he hadn't expected that. Alright, then. I'm not going to back down just because Uncle can't come. I don't need him to babysit me. "Very well. I'll meet you back at home then."
He shut the door to the kitchen, ignoring his uncle's cry of, "Don't stay out past midnight!"
Zuko stripped off his apron and hung it on the wall beside the front door, nodding sharply at Jet. The shaggy-haired teenager returned the gesture with a smile before accompanying him out into the streets. The sun had just barely set over the outer walls, causing the sky to appear a dark indigo. Zuko heaved a sigh, his eyes flickering down toward the ground. Sunsets were different back in the Fire Nation; sneaking into the highest watchtower, looking out to where the sky meets the ocean to watch the sun god's tribute to the world. Here the sunset merely signified the end to another day.
"I guess you'll never trip."
Zuko glanced up at the sound of Jet's voice, startled out of his reverie. "Excuse me?"
Jet shrugged, gesturing down at the ground with a chuckle. "You're always watching the ground in front of you. Keep that up and you'll never have to worry about tripping." Unable to decide whether or not the other was mocking him, Zuko chose to shoot the other a glare in compromise. All down the street, lanterns were one by one being extinguished as businesses and street vendors began to close. But, as in most cities, the dawning of night brought on an entirely different set of merchants. Shady residents, no doubt armed and carrying commodities of dubious legality. Noting Zuko's disdainful stare, Jet muttered, "They don't call it the lower ring for nothing, huh?"
Lower, upper… It's all the same hellhole of a city. Zuko didn't bother remarking, falling into step behind the other as Jet kicked open a meter-high balustrade leading into an apartment building in serious need of a paint job, and perhaps some new roofing. Climbing the rickety stairwell lining the side of the building was by no means a safe or easy task. Even the incredibly coordinated teenagers lost their footing a few times before making it to the splintered door on the fourth story. "I'm home!" Jet announced, kicking off his shoes before stepping onto the creaking floors. Zuko paused. Was it rude to follow the suit, or rude to step on the floors with his shoes? Realizing that fretting over such insignificant things was utterly foolish, he removed his shoes and kept his step light as he followed Jet into the small living quarters. The living room was no larger than his own apartment's, but he could see the hallway branched into three rooms rather than two. Standing over the stove was the girl who was easily mistaken as a boy, and the silent one with the solemn face was seated on a floor mat next to the low-standing table.
"Hey, Jet! I'm glad you're back. I was about to start the roast, so it'll be about forty-five minutes before we…" Smellerbee finally turned around, her eyes wide when she caught sight of their guest. "Oh. Guess I should cut up some more bread."
"You guys might remember Li from the ferry. He was a business associate of sorts." Jet winked, causing Zuko's lips to twitch into a short-lived smile.
"Right, right! The guy with the broadswords." Smellerbee sat herself on the counter so she could reach the bread on the upper shelf.
"And he's damn good with them too. Now, you remember Smellerbee. And over here," Jet continued, waving a hand toward the other boy, "is Longshot."
Longshot nodded companionably at Zuko, oddly enough adorning his hat and armor even indoors. In fact, they're all still wearing their armor. Maybe they're all fugitives as well, just waiting for disaster to strike. Jet yawned, strutting forward and slumping down at the spot adjacent to his friend. He motioned for Zuko to join them, exclaiming, "Relax, make yourself comfortable. Washroom's at the very end of the hall on the left."
Making an attempt to cast away his stunning uncertainties, Zuko joined the others at the table. Jet sat slouched over, using one hand to prop himself up and the other to animate his speech. "Li and his uncle work at that tea shop just down the street. I, uh, kind of owe him a little money."
"Oh, Jet, you didn't." Smellerbee's exasperation prompted a guilty smile, as did Longshot's disapproving look.
"I'll take care of it. Besides, Li's an understanding guy." Jet's nonchalance was even more apparent in his own home, his confident smirk only highlighting such. As irritating as it was, Zuko had no doubts it could be perceived as charismatic and charming by most. Isn't that how Jet had weaseled him into stealing the food? And overlooking his debt? And coming over for dinner? Zuko lips pursed into a thin line, refusing to acknowledge that even he had been won over by that irksome confidence.
"Sorry," Smellerbee addressed Zuko before throwing a dirty look toward her friend. "You know, Jet, you're lucky you haven't been skewered by now."
"Psh. They tell me I'm 'asking for it' all of the time," Jet scoffed, throwing in visible quotation marks. "Can you believe that?"
"You? Asking for it? I can't imagine." Zuko was surprised to find that, once again, he had prompted chuckling and even a slight smile from Longshot. The contentment he gained from it was unlike anything he'd felt for a long while. It was almost like… having friends again.
The next half an hour or so was filled with Jet telling Zuko animated tales about the Freedom Fighters' 'golden days', spent setting clever traps for Fire Nation soldiers and battling unwanted troops passing through their forest. Sensing that his dinner guest wasn't much of a conversationalist, he decided to approach the one-sided interaction with as much vigor as he could. Jet stood up at times, energetically reenacting battle scenes and asking Smellerbee and Longshot to step in, both of whom played along for their friend's amusement. At first, Zuko wasn't exactly thrilled about hearing the prime soldiers of his own nation succumbing to a bunch of tree-dwelling children. But as time passed, Zuko learned things about Jet and his friends that could only elevate his respect for them. Apparently, Jet had started some sort of communal orphanage that took in children whose lives had been wrecked by the war. He taught them to fend for themselves, and together they pulled off schemes that even impressed the former prince.
Things certainly settled down as the smell of a sizzling roast permeated the air. Long denied such a privilege, all four of them were inhaling deeply with anticipation as the meat took its leisurely time in the oven. There was a collective sigh of relief when Smellerbee removed it from the oven and cut through it, exclaiming, "Alright, it's finished! Jet, would you come over here and put the fire out? I just sent down the week's rent, and I refuse to burn down the entire complex."
"You got it." Jet rose and accommodated the girl's request, both taking the time to lay out the plates and fix the dishes so that they might look presentable. Meat, bread, rice… Zuko never thought a meal full of staple foods would seem so much like gourmet cuisine. He uttered a quiet 'thank you' when his own plate was set before him, only his commendable self-restrain keeping him from devouring it like a ravenous dog. "Are you guys tasting this?!" Jet demanded, his mouth full of a bit of everything. "Where'd you learn to cook using an oven, Smellerbee?"
"Cook? I just lit it and hoped the food wouldn't burn. It's not too different from a campfire." She took the time to cut her meat into pieces before consuming it, in contrast to Jet's method of tearing it apart via his teeth. Too busy to be appalled by Jet's poor manners, Zuko relished the sensation of flavorful food for the first time in a while. The room turned deathly silent for the first time, no one willing to break the silence in light of their delicious meal. The moment everyone had finished off their plates, Longshot stood and collected them as though on cue, taking them over to the kitchen basin to wash them.
Jet reclined back onto the floor, his hands folded behind his head with a contented sigh. "What a meal. I might try my hand with that stove tomorrow."
"Just not without supervision," Smellerbee said with a chuckle, rising and stretching her arms over her head. "I'd hate to come home to a pile of ashes." Jet stuck his tongue out, a gesture Zuko had never witnessed and was rather bewildered by. "I'm going to take a shower. And if I find anymore underwear lying around, you two can just start washing in the public fountain."
"Girls," Jet mused, receiving a light kick in the side from a passing Smellerbee. "Ow!"
Zuko felt a bit drowsy, allowing himself to lean over to his left side and use a single hand to support his weight while slinging the other arm over his elevated knee. He glanced over at Longshot, who was still scrubbing carefully at each dish, before placing it on a nearby rack to dry. "Your friend doesn't talk much," he murmured, only half-aware that he'd voiced his thoughts aloud.
Jet crossed his arms at his chest, his eyes flickering from Longshot back to the ceiling. "Yeah, but he doesn't need to. We understand him just fine." His brow wrinkled in puzzlement, as though he was searching for words he couldn't grasp. "Longshot is kind of like a mirror. When you're confused or lost, all you have to do is look at him and he reveals a certain side of you that was hidden, or you didn't want to acknowledge. He's like a sage who knows what you're feeling or thinking before you do." Jet sat up, his smirk discarded for a genuine smile. "But you're one to talk. You've barely spoken since you got here."
"I don't have anything interesting to say," Zuko said, holding to his firm belief that unnecessary words should remain unspoken.
"Well, I don't know what you find interesting, but I'd like to hear more about you. Where did you live before coming here?" Jet tilted his head and readjusted the piece of straw between his teeth. (Zuko wasn't entirely sure when he had replaced it after eating. It seemed to disappear and reappear all on its own.)
Careful with his words, Zuko shrugged and pursued the safest route. "We didn't have a permanent home for a very long time. The Fire Nation… took it away from us, so we had to travel around looking for work. Ba Sing Se seemed like it might hold some prospect."
"Have you always lived with your uncle?"
"Yes. He raised me. Or at least, he was the only one ever around." Zuko's eyes flickered, becoming increasingly uncomfortably with the conversation. Why must people be so nosy?
"I see. I thought a while about traveling on my own, because I had no idea if I could even scrounge up food for myself. But in the end I took along two of my closest friends. It's a lonely world without somebody to stick by during the tough times."
Zuko's eyes met the floor, his voice softening. "As ashamed as I am to admit it, I didn't always stick by him. I thought a few times that I could survive better on my own; of course, I was wrong and screwed things up."
Jet inclined his head, looking at Zuko in a way that made the teenager feel as though he was being analyzed. "I understand. I did some pretty stupid stuff when I acted alone. We all need our independence at some point. But those of us affected by the war don't get to enjoy the normal life other people have. Moving out of the house, marrying, having kids… None of that. But, I'm ready to put my faith in the Earth Kingdom troops. Somehow they'll pull through and win our land back. Maybe waiting things out in Ba Sing Se won't be so bad."
"Maybe," Zuko agreed absently, his eyes fluttering shut in thought.
Twice a week. Jet's dinner invitations were extended to Zuko at least twice a week, most of which he accepted out the sheer desire to communicate with someone of his own age group Iroh was understandably thrilled with this development, as his nephew was finally opening himself up to flesh-and-blood members of the human race. Keeping this in mind, he often declined any invitations directed toward himself, trying to remain separated from Zuko's new and unexpected… social life. Though Iroh's excuses were hardly as inventive as Jet's, when the time came for him to explain why he had yet to bring the four copper pieces to Zuko. Plumbing problems, medical bills, and unavoidable donations to orphanage funds were among these.
Iroh had tried to persuade him multiple times to invite his new companions over to dinner at their own apartment, but Zuko had always shaken his head and insisted that neither of them cooked well enough to accommodate guests. While this was by no means a lie, Zuko simply didn't like the idea of these people snooping about their apartment. Perhaps it was an aftereffect of Zuko's paranoia, as it was not as though they left scorch marks on the walls or Fire Nation propaganda lying around. Even so, he was content spending nights with the generous and friendly Freedom Fighters, who seemed to enjoy his company for some reason. (The satirical humor, perhaps?)
One such night following dinner, Jet sat on the windowsill coating his swords in an anti-rust solution. Zuko reclined against the wall beside him, while Smellerbee and Longshot played a game of Pai Sho using an old set they'd found in the closet upon moving in. The street lanterns maintained by the city shone through the window and illuminated their activities, in addition to the three candles they spread about the room. "I've never seen anyone use swords like those," Zuko said, his eyes fixed on the hook swords the other man so reverently held.
"Well, not to brag, but they take quite a bit of skill to handle." Jet smirked, holding one up to reflect the light. "They're more of a multipurpose weapon than most swords."
Smellerbee teased him, "Yeah. Not only can you stab people with them, you can trip people up and stab them."
The tan-skinned teen laughed. "It took me a while to get the hang of them." Jet's face grew solemn, as he moved onto the next sword. "I found them when I was twelve. They were on the corpse of a guy who'd been… burnt to death." A shiver ran through the room, Zuko included. "We buried the man, but I held onto his swords; the Freedom Fighters were always looking for more weapons. They became my weapon of choice once I really got the feel for them. Now, I bet I could beat any swordsman in the world."
"Oh, really?" Zuko raised an eyebrow.
Most people would have blushed and corrected their error upon remembering their companion was, in fact, a swordsman. However, Jet's smirk only deepened as he replaced his swords and crossed his arms. "Ah, you fight with those dual swords. Why don't we have a little spar? It's been a while since I flexed my muscles."
"I wouldn't want to embarrass you in front of your friends," Zuko taunted, relishing the slight shock that narrowed Jet's eyes.
"Oh, there's no going back now. You have to fight me. The winner gets to spoon-feed the other's dignity straight down his throat."
"I don't have my swords with me," Zuko said, waving a lazy hand in the air.
"Easily fixed." Jet caught his hand in mid-air, causing Zuko to immediately flinch. Why, why did he have to touch…? "We'll just head down to your apartment and grab them." He yanked the boy onto his feet and pulled him along, keeping their hands linked until they reached the outdoors. Smellerbee and Longshot followed out of interest, exchanging smiles at Jet's mumblings.
"…best in the world…"
"Wait here." Zuko entered the apartment alone, waving half-heartedly to his uncle who sat at the table reading some sort of scroll.
"Ah, Nephew! Back so soon?"
"Jet wants to have a spar. I'm going to see if I can't give him something else to smirk about."
Iroh chuckled, eyes trained on Zuko as he fetched his swords from his room and headed back out the door. "Don't get yourselves arrested for disturbing the peace!" The teenager merely huffed, returning outside to find Jet in the middle of the street winding his shoulders back and stretching out his arms.
"Ready to get your pride handed to you?" Zuko asked smugly, unsheathing his swords and poising them for battle. How he loved the swish of the metal as it met midair!
"Only if you're ready to eat your words." Jet took a step forward, falling into his battle stance. The change in both teenagers was immediate. Pride was discarded for the time, replaced by focus and determination. They circled, every step a new chance to analyze the strategy of the other. The first lunge forward was made by Zuko, instigating the sweet clang of metal between their weapons. It echoed through the streets and caused smiles to tinge their faces. It was a beautiful sensation, one only a swordsman could understand. Smellerbee and Longshot sat from the safety of a second-floor balcony, remaining silent as their two comrades faced off in the street below. While equipped with greater speed and dexterity, Zuko was faced with the problem of overcoming a well thought-out strategy. Every time he would side-step to avoid a blow, he would find a hook sword sweeping under his feet to catch him off balance. Thus, he was forced to keep both of his swords attending to the offensive blows. Having an extreme dislike of being forced into a defensive position, Zuko gradually came up with a plan that, while not necessarily intelligent, would be effective.
Rather than stepping to the side, Zuko flexed his swords back and stepped into the blow, flinching as one of the swords cut into his right shoulder. Using one of his own weapons to occupy the other hook sword, he poised his second sword at Jet's throat. "I win," Zuko mused, witnessing Jet's face pale considerably.
"You… You're crazy! You stepped into that on purpose!" Regardless of his shock, Jet's voice held a certain level of amazement and reverence. He quickly withdrew his swords, setting them in their proper place before stepping forward to examine Zuko's wound. It was deep for a sparring wound and bleeding quite a bit, but it was nothing that wouldn't heal over time. "Come on, let's get this cleaned up, you moron." Zuko merely shrugged, as Jet turned to address his Freedom Fighters who had leapt down onto the street.
"You sure put Jet in his place!" Smellerbee said rather cheerfully, accompanied by a nod from Longshot. "Is that cut bad?"
"A little soap and water, and we'll have this bandaged up no problem."
"We? I can take care of a little scrape by myself," Zuko intervened, only to be dismissed.
"I caused it, so I have to make sure you don't pass out on the floor or anything. I'll see you guys at home." Jet waved to the others, before urging Zuko inside. The Fire Nation teen was sure to keep the wound out of plain sight as he stepped into the living room. "Jet and I are going to talk strategy, Uncle. Would you mind heating him up some tea?"
"Ah! Of course, of course! Welcome, Jet." Iroh busied himself in the kitchen, casting a satisfied glance at his nephew's comrade.
"Thanks," Jet exclaimed, nodding toward the man before following Zuko into the washroom down the hallway. Zuko winced, wiping the sweat from his forehead before peeling the blood-tinged shirt from his body and setting it atop the counter lining the basin. He began dabbing at the bloodied wound with a cloth, while Jet did what most would do in his position and took a glance at his opponent's overall stature. No doubt this teenager had done some professional-level training, if his defined abdominal muscles were any sort of indication. His overall figure was almost unhealthily lean, though fitting for someone who hadn't had what most would define as a 'decent' meal for weeks (or for all Jet knew, years). There weren't many prominent scars, indicating that the boy either avoiding fighting or was very good at it. Pulling stunts like he just did, I can't imagine he's careful about it as long as he can win.
"Could you grab me the bandages? They're on the bottom shelf in that cabinet behind you." Too engaged with cleansing his wound to take note of Jet's staring, Zuko didn't see the other shake himself to reality before complying.
Zuko bandaged the cut effortlessly, as though he had done it many times before and tied off the gauze. "Guess I can't call myself the greatest swordsman in the world," Jet said with slight woe, shrugging his shoulders.
Zuko only smiled, taking a hold of his shirt and examining the damage. "I just pulled that because I was getting tired. There's a possibility you could have beaten me if-"
"If you'd played fair?"
"You kept trying to trip me up. That wasn't exactly fair."
Zuko managed to wash the blood from his shirt, but it was left with a nicely sized tear. "Damn. You wouldn't happen to know how to sew, would you?"
Though meant in a teasing manner, Zuko was surprised to hear, "Yeah, I know how." At the other's inquisitive stare, Jet shrugged. "I was never careful and my clothes were always getting torn in the thicket. I had to learn. Give it to me and I'll have it back to you tomorrow."
"Oh. Thank you." Zuko offered the shirt to Jet, who bundled it and tucked it inside of his waistband.
"No problem. Consider it an apology."
"Apology?" Starting to feel a little lightheaded, Zuko rested his weight on his hands extended atop the counter surrounding the basin. "I'm the one who st-" His words were swallowed by a sharp gasp, and he immediately whipped around to see Jet holding his arms up in surrender, an innocent expression on his face. Zuko's hand fell to his own shoulder, still able to feel where Jet's hand had pressed against him. "Wh-what are you doing?" he asked, his voice leaping upward a few notches as he unconsciously rubbed at the spot as though to rid himself of that lingering sensation.
"Giving you a massage." Jet shrugged, his features tinged with what seemed to be guilt. "You're so tense all of the time, I wondered if it might help."
"Sorry, I just… I'm not used to people touching me." Zuko turned to look away, flinching when Jet's hands once again crept to his shoulders, careful to avoid the teenager's wound.
"I understand. Think of it like taking headache medicine. It's bitter in the beginning, but it makes you feel better."
"Wait, don't…" Zuko's words died on his lips as he shuddered. Jet's hands flexed around the muscles at the base of his neck, causing his shoulders to involuntarily hunch.
"Relax," Jet said, amusement lining his voice. "You'll strain your neck that way. Just put your weight against the counter like you were doing before. Try and drop your shoulders."
Easier said than done. Zuko's shoulders descended inch by inch as Jet's fingers curled around them, to the point where they descended lower than he thought they could. Jet's right. I am too tense. But he knew why he kept his body tense and squared now; he felt vulnerable when he slouched or relaxed. The sensation of Jet's hands massaging his neck was nothing short of painful pleasure, like stretching a stiff muscle: there was a point where you were willing to undergo discomfort just for the sake of the sensation. This was no different.
Zuko's eyes fluttered shut as he withdrew the excessive amount of control he demanded over his body. Jet glanced into the mirror to take note of his comrade's expression, seeming to decide that the massage was more to Zuko's benefit than his distress. His hands descended, working out the knots from his upper and lower back to his lateral flexors. By the time Jet was finished, Zuko was slumped over washroom basin in a state of lethargy. Nobody, nobody had ever touched him in such a way.
"That certainly did the trick," Jet observed, in awe at the change in the other's demeanor. He backed away as Zuko straightened up, noting with pride that the teenager stood more like the average human being.
"Thanks. I feel better." Zuko scratched his neck awkwardly, his eyes averting to the ground. "Guess I owe you one, huh?" Whether or not Jet took heed of his uncertainty, he was relieved when the other declined the offer.
"Nah, I'll take you up on that some other time. I might just fall asleep on your floor if you tried."
Before Zuko could respond, Iroh's voice rang out from the adjacent room. "Boys! The tea is ready!"
Sharing a smile and a shrug, the two joined Iroh in the living room.
"I don't know how you manage to wheedle me into doing these sorts of things." Zuko sighed, rubbing his bare hands together as he prepared to scale a stone wall. It was the dead of night, and he and Jet stood at the base of the large postal building that employed the Earth Kingdom teenager. The Dai Lee was sure to be roaming nearby, as it was far past the curfew of the city.
"Come on, you know you're just as curious as I am," Jet taunted, leading the way up the building with his comrade close behind. "I have to see what the postal service is hiding! They have top secret people hired by the Dai Lee to screen the mail, and there is always mountains of personal letters that end up being burned. It's just wrong to read personal mail and filter it like that."
"So it's okay for us to go through the mail?" Zuko mused, his heart giving a start as his left hand slipped momentarily from the wall.
"I need to find out why the people's privacy is being violated! This is the sort of thing we Freedom Fighters do."
"I told you," Zuko paused as he lifted himself over the ledge of the roof, "that I don't want to be a Freedom Fighter."
"Consider yourself an honorary member." Jet took a torch and a spark rock out of the pack he'd slung over his back and illuminated the way before them. "Come on, we have to move fast. The guards are still on the other side, but they'll be back." Zuko warily followed Jet to the foremost tower with a floor panel leading to a downward stairwell. They soundless dashed downward, each keeping a hand on their swords as they went. They ran down the corridors, the torch in Jet's hand barely illuminating five feet in front of them. Jet finally stopped at a vaulted door, and began fiddling with the combination lock.
"How did you get the combination for that?" Zuko whispered as the latch clicked open.
"I have eagle eyes; I watched somebody unlock it from down the hall just this morning." They pushed open the door as quietly as they could, coming to a room full of sacks of forbidden mail that had yet to burned. "Alright, start opening them up and see if you can find a pattern in the content."
"People are going to know we were here," Zuko warned, his gaze flickering back to the door as Jet attacked the first pile of letters.
"Well, they're going to know someone was here. If we play are cards right, they won't know who." Jet smirked, setting the torch on a holder in the wall before opening the first letter. Feeling a sort of obligation to his comrade, Zuko followed the suit. They opened letter after letter, reading them as quickly as they could without losing valuable information. After seven letters, Zuko had gone pale as he set the parchment down at his side. He noticed that Jet's eyes were frozen on his current letter, both seeming to have come to the same conclusion.
"These letters all make mention of the war."
The Freedom Fighter nodded, wordlessly gathering up the torn letters in his pack. They sat in motionless silence for a minute or so, each lost in his own thoughts. "Li," Jet began, his voice quivering. "Have you ever heard anyone talk about the war since you got to Ba Sing Se?"
"No," Zuko responded, having already reviewed the matter in his head. "The last things I heard were on the train entering the city. No one is talking about the Earth Kingdom's battle strategies, or how the Fire Nation has affected their lives. It's like… the war doesn't even exist."
"The Dai Lee is trying to keep the war quiet," Jet hissed, the tone of his voice turning Zuko's blood cold. "I bet there are citizens here who have grown up never even knowing what's happened over the past hundred years. I always wondered why there was no drafting system in the capitol city." With this, Jet began picking up the sacks of mail one by one, to which Zuko frowned.
"Jet, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to deliver this mail to the residents. They're from friends, family… They deserve to know the truth. Help me out, would you?"
"This isn't a good idea." Zuko swallowed nervously at the glare sent his way, illuminated rather ominously by the flickering light.
"You can't tell me you're okay with this! People here have no idea that the world is in danger! This is why the immigration laws are so strict… We have to set things right."
"You're just one person, Jet! You can't reveal the existence of a war to an entire city. You'll be arrested on the spot by the Dai Lee."
"That's why you're going to help me."
"No. Look, I played along with your spy games up until now, but I can't afford to get myself into that kind of trouble. My uncle is relying on me to make this work, and-"
"So that's it, then?!" Jet snarled, his voice so full of malice that it made Zuko take a step back. "People outside of these walls are suffering, dying! If the people of Ba Sing Se would pull together and fight, then the Earth Kingdom might stand a chance!"
"I understand how you're-"
"No! You don't understand! If you understood, we wouldn't be having this conversation!" The strengthening volume of Jet's voice made the other wince.
"Jet, please keep your voice down. The Fire Nation… The Fire Nation hasn't been that kind to me either. But causing city-wide panic will only get you thrown in jail; haven't you ever wondered why the people who do know refuse to talk? If the Dai Lee get their hands on you-"
"I care more about the safety of the Earth Kingdom than I do about my own life. What about you, Li?"
Zuko stood quietly for a moment, his eyes fixated on the floor. When he met Jet's gaze, his eyes were filled with solemnity. "And I care more about my life, my uncle's life, than playing hero. Do what you want, Jet, but leave me out of it." And with this he dashed into the dark corridor, leaving the other standing alone in the vault.
"Li? Li… Nephew!"
Zuko jolted, glancing down at the teapot in his hands only to find that the teacup below was overflowing and spilling onto the counter. "Damn it!" Zuko tipped the pot upright and snatched the towel his uncle held out for him to clean up the mess he'd made. "Ah, I'm sorry."
"You haven't been yourself today," Iroh observed as Zuko dried off the sides of the teacup. "Is there something bothering you?"
"Nothing that can be fixed by talking about it," Zuko murmured.
Disappointment flashed across Iroh's face, before he smiled and took the next platter of tea from Zuko's hands. "Yes, well, why don't you at least take a break outside for a little while? The fresh air will clear your mind." He had learned by now that pushing Zuko to tell him something was like poking at a hermit crab: you would only get pinched after the second time.
"Yeah, maybe." Zuko sounded entirely unconvinced. He stepped outside, ignoring the freshness of the air to climb up onto the roof of the tea house and seat himself there. Jet had yet to show… not that Zuko had expected him. Not after what he'd said. The teenager tucked his knees to his chest and rested his head upon them. He had no reason to be upset! He'd made the right decision! So why was he so miserable? His heart leapt when he felt a thump sounding from right beside him, vibrating against the roof tiles. "Hey," he said quietly after a moment. He didn't need to glance over to know that Jet was beside him. For some reason, he had become very good at sensing the other's presence.
"Hey." Jet kept his eyes fixed on the streets, stretching his legs out and crossing them. They sat in silence for a minute or two, until the teenager finally spoke, "I'm sorry about what happened last night. I had the night to think it over and… I realized that I'm starting to become what I came to Ba Sing Se to avoid." When Zuko inclined his head in question, he elaborated, "Obsessed, I mean. A few months ago, I let my anger at the Fire Nation control me. So much so, I almost destroyed an entire village just to kill the soldiers who lived there." Jet shook his head, his shoulders slumping forward. "I was pointed in the right direction, but… I felt like a monster when I realized what I almost did. I can't judge a village or a person by the acts of their nation's leader. Last night, I almost let myself feel that hatred again." Jet bowed his head, his eyes half-lidded with shame. "You must think I'm a sick person."
Zuko sighed, putting a hesitant hand on Jet's shoulder. "You may not believe this, but… I've held the lives of a village's residents in the palm of my hand as well. Despite what I may have tried to convince myself of, the ends don't always justify the means." Their eyes met for a moment, and Zuko had never felt as though anyone could possibly understand him as well as Jet. "The Earth King is probably working on the problem internally; I'm just glad you didn't do anything stupid."
"Me too," Jet admitted after a moment. "I'm not comfortable with sitting back and letting things run their course. I always have to intervene and have my say in the way life happens. A few days ago I felt as though I had nothing to lose; but what you said really got to me." He lifted his eyes, his face sculpted with determination. "I have people who are important to me, so much so that I'm willing to step back and stop being so damn selfish. I have Smellerbee, Longshot… and I have you."
Zuko nodded, running a shy hand through his hair. It's been a long time since I've had someone I can call a 'friend'. But if anyone fits the mold, Jet certainly does. "You, um, wanna come over for dinner tonight? My uncle's going to make an attempt at cooking actual food, so we'll probably end up ordering from the takeout diner across the street."
Jet's laughter sounded far more sincere when he was emerging from a period of distress. "I think I'd like that."
They tried to convince themselves that things could only get easier.
Jet and Zuko's meetings continued as a nightly occurance, Zuko being starved of social contact that suited his persona and Jet having to replace the time he'd spent hating, fighting, and plotting against the Fire Nation. It was a bond that they had both come to terms with as friendship, though they didn't care to voice the label aloud. They maintained silent agreements better anyway. Mostly they found themselves at Jet's house; to earn his keep, per say, Zuko would help Smellerbee with dinner, dry the dishes for Longshot, and help Jet fix the squeaky floorboard that would squeak even louder the next day regardless of their efforts.
It was on one such night following dinner when Zuko noticed that Jet was troubled. His silence during dinner had been odd enough, but now he was staring absently out the window, his gaze one of despair rather than contemplation. "Maybe… I should talk to him," he whispered aloud, more to himself than to Longshot who was standing beside him. Nevertheless, the smile he saw on Longshot's face was more than the required amount of persuasion. But, how would he approach the matter? He was usually too busy sulking on his own to take care in alleviating the sulking of others. Could he intervene without making the matter worse? He set down the dish he had been drying and cautiously approached Jet, as though traveling through a loaded minefield. A cool breeze blew against his throat, sending shivers up his spine as he approached the open window that peered out into the city streets below. He lowered himself onto the floor next to Jet, laying his arm along the ledge where the other was sitting and propping his head up. They sat in a comfortable silence for a while, until Zuko felt he had worn out his silent approach. "Help me out here, Jet. What's so interesting down there that's worth staring at for this long?"
"I find it amazing," Jet murmured, his eyes sweeping up and down the streets. "Some of them know. Some of them don't. But nobody is doing anything."
Zuko held back a sigh. Not this again. "Can you blame them for wanting to live normal lives?"
"But it's an illusion," Jet protested, his hand tightening into a fist. "They can't live behind these walls forever. I'm not used to just sitting back and doing nothing. I mean, sure, let the Avatar handle it-" Zuko flinched. "But I can fight. Just knowing I could be fighting… It tears me apart."
Zuko sighed, following Jet's gaze below to a young girl playing with her doll on the street side. His eyes softened and he admitted, "I spent a long time pretending that the war didn't exist, or that its effects had nothing to do with me. It was a time of ignorance, but it was a hell of a lot easier than facing the world as it is. You can't take on the war by yourself, Jet. Of course you could fight, but what would be the difference? People have been fighting this war for one hundred years, and nothing has changed. Maybe there's more to it than fighting."
Jet finally turned his head, and when their eyes met Zuko lifted a hand to his chest in shock as his heart leapt. "You really think that?" he asked in a voice that made the former prince shiver.
Zuko folded his arms to hide his discomfort and insisted, "Yes, I do. I also think that there's nothing we can do about it tonight."
"So… what should I do to shake this feeling?" Jet asked, shrugging before glancing out the window one last time. "How can I be like them?"
"It's easier said than done, but you'll just have to forget." Zuko chuckled at his own words, realizing how utterly juvenile they sounded. To make his point, he reached up and closed the window before drawing the curtain over it.
"Forget…" Jet slowly nodded, reaching out a catching Zuko's hand in his before it fell to his side. "Would you help me forget?"
There was a warning. A long, drawn-out warning in the teenager's mind. Or maybe he was just seeing in slow-motion at that time. With his hand clasped in Jet's, he remained motionless as the other slid off of his position on the ledge and knelt beside him. Their intertwined hands descended, and Jet's other hand touched his cheek and curved around his jaw. It was obvious was Jet was going to do, and Zuko had thought it very kind that Jet would allow time for him to push him away, punch him in the face, and call him a dirty sodomite. But, to the contrary, Zuko did none of those things, even when he watched Jet discard the stalk of wheat from between his teeth and lean in closer to him. Suddenly, all he was aware of was their bodies. The way his heart was undergoing spasms, the motion of his neck as he tilted his head, Jet's hand still tightly holding his, every twitch and shiver that occurred as the other's lips met his. There was a slight shift, and they held their heads still to relish the pleasure or perhaps the sheer peculiarity of kissing one another.
A soft noise escaped from the back of Zuko's throat as the breath he'd been holding escaped, and he pulled away from Jet with an impassive face. The other's eyes were intense, so intense that it made Zuko want to look away. Instead, he straightened up so that he was kneeling across from the other. He glanced over toward the kitchen, surprised and relieved to find that Longshot had finished the dishes and was nowhere in sight. How tempting those lips suddenly looked, half-parted in bewilderment. For once, Zuko didn't want to think about something. He wanted to do something. Not for his father, or his uncle, or his country. For himself and for Jet. Not equipped with the proper words to say what he meant, he simply uttered, "I suppose forgetting is easier like this."
The apprehension of Jet's face melted away as Zuko pushed him to the floor and captured his lips once again. Their inexperienced tongues met, tongues too busy shouting orders and initiating battle commands to have had much time for kissing. Zuko curled his hands around Jet's shoulders while the other's traveled between them, passing over a sculpted abdomen and bracing the man's hips. The rhythm was a tricky one, between balancing their breathing and keeping their movements attuned. The Fire Nation teenager flinched when Jet's tongue glazed over the roof of his mouth, sparking a teasing longing. For the hell of it, Zuko mimicked the action with more force, pleased when a moan vibrated against his lips. Having quite enough of being pinned to the ground, Jet slid an arm around the other's body and spun him around, straddling the flushed teen with a wild smirk that put his other smirks to shame. "Ever kissed a guy before that?"
"When did this become an interrogation?" Zuko sat up on his forearms and reached for Jet's lips, only to be pushed away. "Alright, alright. No, I haven't. Satisfied?"
Jet shrugged, the fingers of his left hand fiddling with a lock of Zuko's hair. "I found a few who I thought to be appealing back home, boys and girls. But I felt that if I admitted that there was a side of me that needed companionship, needed flesh-to-flesh contact as much as the next person, then I would be less of a leader."
"And you would admit this need to me?" Zuko asked, an unexpected blush crossing his face when Jet leaned down and kissed his forehead.
"You're different. You understand me, I just know it." Everything he said, every expression on Jet's face was too intense. But combating another's passion was as easy as letting yourself feel your own.
Jet swept down and ravaged his mouth, one hand gripping the other's hair and one pressed against Zuko's chest to keep his balance. The former prince's heart did back-flips as Jet's hand slid beneath his shirt to gently flex against the defined muscles of his chest. Jet certainly seemed to think his male form was… worthy of desire. But what of himself? Did he find the male form as attractive, or perhaps more attractive than the female form? Or was he just indulging his long-denied sexual drive with the first person who made an attempt at seduction? All he knew was that Jet's tongue in his mouth was sexy. Jet's powerful arms pinning him in place was sexy. Jet vigorously grinding himself against Zuko's hips was especially sexy. Breasts and curves? He could live without for now.
Their intimacy became a fearsome battle, though it continued for quite some time as there was no deciding factor discerning the victor. When Jet parted for oxygen, Zuko let his head fall listlessly to the floor and met the brown eyes of his comrade with a smile. "So, you forget yet?"
Zuko blinked, before pushing Jet off of him to hide a smile. "I'll see you tomorrow." I'm glad I got used to the whole 'touching' thing. He didn't bother looking back toward Jet, whom he could hear whispering softly to himself.
The walk home was mechanical, Zuko's mind absorbed by the occurrence. Jet had kissed him. Jet had kissed him. The teenager almost thought that wondering if Jet could possibly find him… attractive was taking it a step too far. He had never thought himself particularly handsome or enticing, nor had he ever thought his company was desirable in the least. He didn't attribute this to low self-esteem rather than factual information. And there he was, kissing Jet as though it hadn't confused or shocked him, which it certainly had. Stereotypically, a kiss indicated love. Zuko shook his head clear of thought, not even giving himself a chance to think about such a thing. A bond was one thing, as was sexual desire. Love was another. A weakness. Something that could drag you down into the bottom of the sea and not think twice about it.
Zuko opened the door to the apartment, not caring to think twice about his uncharacteristic greeting of 'Hi', before making his way toward his bedroom. "Ah, Nephew!" His tone made Zuko pause, and he turned to face his uncle who fostered a smile that seemed wider than the span of his face. "You left the teashop before you heard the good news! We've been offered our own tea shop in the Upper Ring!"
"Oh?" Zuko wondered why this sounded like a questionably positive thing.
"We'll even be provided with a rent-free apartment not too far from it!"
Right. That's why. Zuko nodded, disguising the nagging he felt in the back of his mind. "It's almost to be expected, after the way people have been going on about your tea." He sighed, taking another step toward his room when Iroh's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Of course, I haven't accepted the offer just yet. I was waiting until I heard your opinion on it." Iroh rose as the kettle on the stove began to softly whistle, leaving Zuko somewhat baffled.
"This is a great opportunity for you, Uncle. Why wouldn't you take it?"
Iroh began fumbling through the assorted canisters of tea leaves as he spoke. "I know it hasn't been easy adjusting to Ba Sing Se. It's been a little over a month, and things are just starting to settle down. I can understand if you'd rather remain here in the Lower Ring." Even in the face of relinquishing such a fantastic prospect, Iroh's voice remained sincere.
The nagging feeling intensified when Zuko realized what was happening. Iroh grasped that his nephew had finally found a few friends. He actually had a reason that would change apathy to reluctance. All secrets aside? Zuko would rather stay in the Lower Ring. Jet, how could he put it, 'understood' him. Spending so much time with any other person would have driven Zuko to live underground if he could escape them. The fact that he enjoyed Jet's presence, and even that of his two comrades, was a unique experience that Zuko wasn't willing to leave behind so easily. But admit that to his uncle? There was no way. He probably already knows. You spend almost every single evening with them. But his defenses kicked in, and he muttered, "We could use a nicer apartment. The water damage on the ceiling is starting to get old." And with this, he darted into his room.
Sliding the door shut, he shed his shirt and fell to his mat in the middle of the closet-sized room. The thought had crossed his mind once or twice since he'd spoken with his uncle that perhaps they could split up, and both of them could get what they wanted. Iroh could move to the Upper Ring and maintain his shop, Zuko could… perhaps move in with Jet and his friends. If he contributed to the household funds, they surely wouldn't mind. But separating from his uncle was almost unthinkable. Crossing the walls distinguishing the rings of Ba Sing Se was an eternal sentence. You were lucky to cross one, and if you did, if was unlikely you'd ever go back. He chuckled suddenly, realizing that he was willing to give up a high degree of luxury just so he could spend time with Earth Kingdom peasants. It was ludicrous! Only when you say it like that. Only when you sound like your father.
Zuko sighed, resting one behind his head and the other on his stomach. He shifted, remembering the sensation of Jet's curious fingers tracing the flesh. He tried to mimic the movements, having little success feeling the same hot pleasure he'd felt at the hands of another. He shut his eyes and replayed the scene again. His hands were suddenly Jet's, running along his chest and gliding over his abs. His nipples creased and hardened beneath his touch, and he captured one between his forefingers and gently rolled it between them. He bit back a moan, wondering if the flesh had always been so sensitive. He rubbed it a little more firmly, and flutters went straight to his groin. "Damn," he whispered, opening his eyes to glance back at the doorway and straining to listen for movements in the kitchen. If he stayed quiet, he might just get away with this.
It wasn't often Zuko let sexual tension get the better of him. He would simply shower the feeling away, or bring himself to a tense orgasm as quickly as he could. But he wanted more, now. Jet had inspired sensations he didn't know he could feel. He wanted to get to know and understand how his body, and the bodies of all men, reacted to stimulation. Jet's drawn out teasing had been pleasurable, and he wanted to replicate the feeling. Keeping one hand preoccupied with that sensitive patch of flesh on his chest, the other descended toward his crotch, where it slowly began teasing him through his pants. He felt his body relax, and he just let himself feel the sensations rather than control them. It took self-control, more than he realized. Every moment that passed, his arousal grew and his desire to climax escalated… but these mounting sensations had him wondering what orgasm would bring.
Again, he shut his eyes and pictured Jet. A Jet whose eyes were clouded with lust, who couldn't keep his hands off of him. He loosened the sash of his pants and allowed his erection the freedom it so desired. However, rather than stroking it, he caressed his inner thighs and teased the tip that pooled with precum. His breath deepened and his entire body grew hot, and he impulsively pinched his nipple with a moan muffled by his grinding teeth. He kicked the remainder of his clothing away, bringing his feet to the floor and spreading his legs. He didn't care how indecent he looked; he just wanted to feel this for a change. Keeping the majority of his body at ease, he tilted his head to the side as his, no, Jet's hand wrapped around the base of his member. His other hand passed over his neck and shoulders before descending to his thigh and teasing the soft flesh.
Zuko's chest rose and fell with increasing speed as the hand began to stroke him, every touch to his erection magnified by a thousand fold in contrast to previous excursions. "Y-Yes… Oh, yes." The pressure built up from his groin into his stomach as the hands found an acceptable rhythm. Sweat began to bead along his body as he felt himself approach the peak; suddenly, he froze and with much self-control withdrew his hands. His hips involuntarily thrust forward in agony, but he denied himself the touch for a just a minute. He had overheard this method discussed by unashamed sailors; apparently, taunting one's self prior to orgasm was a means of escalating the final pleasure. Even if it left you wanton, like an underpaid street whore. His mind replayed the sensation of Jet's backside being ground into his crotch, and the very thought made him squirm and groan. He grasped his erection, the flesh feeling more sensitive than ever before. It was becoming harder and harder not to tense as his hand rubbed his arousal with increasing speed, until his arm blurred to the sight.
The pre-climactic seconds left him writhing, soft noises escaping his lips as tingling pleasure jolted through him. Zuko's lips parted in bliss as the wave of pleasure spiraled through him, causing his lower body to tighten and making his erection almost painfully sensitive to touch. He could feel every muscle in his body twitch to the rhythm of his orgasm, the strongest he'd ever felt. He glanced down, raising an eyebrow when he witnessed the trajectory of his seed. I feel like a boy discovering masturbation for the first time. When those numb, blissful moments following release faded, he cleaned himself up and lit some incense in the room to disguise the scent. Drowsy and contented, he slid beneath the blanket atop his sleeping mat and curled up with images of his friend still imprinted in his mind.
Their nights didn't change for the most part, not until they discovered themselves alone with one another. Then, their eyes would meet and the dynamic of their relationship would change. It usually only occurred at Jet's apartment, as Jet was much less concerned with being discovered. In fact, he had opted for freely expressing their relations. "There's no use publicizing something that's purely physical," Zuko had insisted. Of course, that had prompted an awkward moment of silence between them, though Jet had reluctantly agreed. It would make them look weak, using contact with another to ease their troubles and curiosities.
Following dinner one night, Zuko was loosely embracing the other, seated on the window ledge with the affectionate man in his lap. Jet inclined his head, nipping at the flesh of the other's neck and sucking on it gently. Zuko found the gesture odd, but did nothing to put a stop to the strange intimacy. "You still owe me a massage," Jet murmured against his neck, his breath hitching as Zuko's hands traveled beneath his shirt and pressed against the small of his back.
"Lie down on the floor." Jet swiftly conceded, taking the liberty of removing his shirt before settling down onto the ground. The consequences of Jet's patched-together armor were revealed through the scars lining his back. Zuko cautiously straddled the other's hips and awkwardly began flexing his hands against the other's shoulders. I can't remember ever giving anyone a massage before. However, Jet was more than willing to guide him.
"A little lower… little more. To the left, oooh! There, much harder." Jet sighed, folding his hands and resting his chin atop them. "The floorboard started squeaking again. I'd really thought we had it fixed yesterday."
"Why don't you let your landlady know?"
"She offered to come 'check it out' for six gold pieces. Hell if I'm gonna spend a single coin just so she can tell me I need to nail it back down. The problem is that every time the door opens to a certain point, the nails pop out of place. I don't really mind the squeaking as much as I mind that I've already devoted so much time to that damned floorboard. I can't lose to a piece of wood." Jet hummed with pleasure as Zuko's hands became a little rougher, bringing warm blood back to his muscles.
"At this point, I'm pretty sure it's already beaten you." He rolled his eyes when a tongue was stuck out at him. He paused, his eyes flickering downward and focusing on his hands kneading the flesh of the other man. "Speaking of home improvements, my uncle received a business offer that could move him to the Upper Ring." Zuko was mildly surprised when he felt the other's form tense beneath him.
"Will you be going with him?" The response was delayed, but loaded with urgency.
"I don't know yet."
Jet sighed, thumping his head against the floor beneath him. "Not being able to see you would be the death of me."
Zuko's heart skipped a beat, but he managed to keep his voice steady."Don't you think you're being a bit dramatic?
"Maybe. But it would still suck. You've kept me sane loads of times. With you gone, who knows what I'll do."
"It's not like we couldn't use the money," Zuko admitted, kneading his hands around the base of Jet's spine. He paused. "Of course, there's nothing I hate more than a rich snob, and the Upper Ring is full of them." His sardonic smile went unnoticed.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Jet said with a chuckle, nudging Zuko off of him and rolling onto his back. He contemplated the cracks in the ceiling as he spoke, "Even when I was dirt-poor in the forest, I never felt as underprivileged as I do here. This city just has a way of making you feel pathetic and unsuccessful." Zuko silently agreed, staring down at Jet for the longest time until the other prodded him in the shoulder. "Hey, you alright?"
"Yeah." Alright? Hadn't Zuko convinced himself that things could never be alright the way they are? But suddenly, things had the potential to be... Maybe Jet wasn't the only one who needed to forget. Zuko leaned over, pressing either hand on the floor beside the other's head. "I'm alright." He said it more to himself than to the other. Leaning down, he initiated a kiss of his own. Then more than ever, it was apparent in his mind that he was kissing another man and that it was notably unusual by average standards. But the sensation remained, that heart-pounding satisfying shiver that ran down his body. Poison edged a little too close to the open wound, as the thought crossed his mind that the attraction had little to do with gender or sexual appeal. Rather, it might be more of a Jet-centric attraction. The thought process melted away as Jet braced his shoulders and maneuvered atop him, his lips demanding as his tongue entwined with the other's.
Zuko shuddered as Jet's tongue swept along his own, suddenly feeling rather… out of control. Kissing Jet was like stretching an inflexible muscle. It was uncomfortable, even painful in the beginning… but the farther it extended, the better it eventually felt. Zuko felt a gasp escape his lips as one of Jet's hands wormed between the folds of his tunic and traveled down his chest, slowly easing his shirt open. It was foreign and bizarre, the gentleness of those hands. Even moving with the strength and passion they possessed, it was much kinder than any touch he'd received over the past years. Those bold hands opened his shirt and pushed it to the floor, seemingly without discretion.
"Wait, your friends…"
"Could walk in anytime," Jet finished the thought, his eyes feasting on the flesh he had cunningly revealed. Desire burned in his eyes, and Zuko made a half-hearted attempt to push the other away as the man descended to touch his lips to his collarbone. "Do you mind that much?"
It was hard not to be bias when Jet's hands were traveling up his shivering spine, and his teeth were gently grazing his throat. Zuko swallowed hard, awkwardly fixating his hands on the small of Jet's back. This was… how did people call it? Making out? His mind tinged with lust, his hazy brain did a few quick calculations. He did want Longshot and Smellerbee to think well of him. However, Jet was closer friends to them than he was. Jet didn't seem concerned about how they might think of it. If Jet had no reason to be concerned, then neither did he. Screw it. Zuko sat up, embracing Jet and bringing him in for a deep kiss, relishing how good it felt to hold another person. The contrasting warmth of Jet's hands with the draft passing through the room drew a groan from the firebender's lips. In a battle for dominance, Zuko pushed him into the floor (earning a squeak from the criminal floorboard they both ignored) and began a clumsy attempt at multitasking: stripping the other of his shirt and devouring his lips. However, the former prince was forced to pull away, glaring at the fabric underneath his fingertips that he could neither find the beginning nor end to. "…the hell?" he muttered, giving a frustrated tug at the armor-clothing combination. "You put this on every morning?"
"Better safe than dead." Jet shot the other a coy smile before undoing hidden clasps with nimble fingers while Zuko sat utterly and awkwardly motionless. Jet finally shed the barrier sheathing his torso, exposing his battle-scarred and roughed flesh to the other. Compared to the pale porcelain chest that was Zuko's, Jet's tanned and worked shin was like putting a peasant and a nobleman side by side. Which, it technically was. Zuko's left hand traced a particularly prominent burn mark descending Jet's left side, to which the teenager chuckled. "Thought I could take on a whole troop by myself. You could say it demonstrates my stupidity, but I like to think scars symbolize bravery. The honor of taking on something you know is bigger and better than yourself."
Zuko felt something in his chest catch fire as he grabbed Jet by the neck and pressed their lips together furiously. The word 'forget' echoed in his mind.
Forget who you are.
Forget who he is.
Forget everything but this.
They connected, fiercely embracing in a passion that left bruises in their wake. Jet's touched burned and spread across his nerves like a wildfire that was only fed. They explored new skin, teased hidden flesh, and drew gasps and noises that were new to the both of them. It went on until Zuko jolted, like someone who had accidentally fell into a light sleep after the rooster crowed. He rose from the unforgiving floor and peered out the window into the pitch-black sky, leaving Jet with his lips parted in harsh breath and his eyes half-lidded.
"City curfew," Zuko said quietly, his heart sinking in his chest. Uncle will be worried. Zuko readjusted his clothing and parted without a lover's kiss or a gentle caress… Whatever they had was enough. Finally, it was enough.
But on the walk home, Zuko realized with a heavy heart that this content could not possibly last long. What he found in Jet's arms was temporary, a sensation that lasted until he woke up the next morning and left him with only a deeper longing. Attachment, he had been taught at an early age, was weakness. Even his uncle warned against attachment; naturally, love was another matter entirely. Whatever 'love' was, it was proclaimed to overcome anything. Attachment was a much weaker force indeed. As he walked through the door of his apartment, after apologizing to his anxious uncle for losing track of time, he touched his hand to his bedroom door and said, "That offer, for your own tea shop… you should take it." Without waiting for another word, he dodged behind the screen and collapsed onto his sleeping mat, trying to fall asleep to escape the combined forces of a headache and the burning of his lips.
"My uncle and I will probably be moving in early next week." Zuko brought his rice to his mouth, taking a significant pause before lowering it back to his plate.
"That's so great!" Smellerbee exclaimed, resting her elbow on the tabletop and snapping her chopsticks together pointedly. "Running your own tea shop… What a lucky break. I guess that means we're not going to see that much of you anymore." Her face fell just a little, though she maintained her smile. "But to have that kind of chance in the slums is just too good to pass up."
Zuko nodded, his eyes flickering to Jet. The teenager was sipping at his water, looking completely unaffected… as was his plate. "Yeah. My uncle's hoping that I can enroll in the university using the pay raise, once we get everything up and running."
The void in Zuko's chest deepened with every word Jet didn't speak. No 'congratulations', no 'good luck', no 'have fun rolling around in dough, you lucky bastard'. Not a word. Even Longshot's nod of acknowledgement was more supportive. Following dinner, Jet complained of a fierce migraine and slunk into his bedroom without having said more than five words to the firebender. Zuko assisted Longshot with the dishes as per usual, his hands working mechanically as his mind was absorbed by Jet's apathy. Surely he had built the argument for supporting his uncle around his own apathy, but Jet's was nothing short of disheartening.
When he realized he was frozen in place, there was a small pile of dishes left by his side and Longshot was staring at him with a knowing gaze. The flipping of tiles paused from the nearby table, as Smellerbee glanced up from her game in recognition of that condensed silence. She stood, her eyes flickering between the two gaze-locked teenagers. "Longshot, I'm gonna need your help carrying the groceries home. Let's get going. Would you mind checking up on Jet, Zuko? When he gets a migraine, it hits hard."
Zuko nodded sharply, only attending to the dishes until he heard the door shut and the apartment was left to himself and the other teenager locked up inside of his room. He sighed, setting down the second-to-last plate as though he had been defeated by some inevitable force and pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to collect himself… and slow the beating of his heart to a reasonable level. His pulse didn't even jump this high when he was in the middle of battle. Why? He knew why. But to think it, affirm it… no. No, no, no, no, no. With a final 'no' for good measure, Zuko headed down the adjacent hallway until he came to the only room with a closed door, which he assumed to be Jet's. His hand extended, poised to open the door, when he realized that perhaps this was the sort of situation that merited a knock on the door. He didn't want to wake Jet up… but he didn't want to barge in on the other when they were already in an awkward position.
Zuko sighed, cursing the complexities of social etiquette, before bestowing upon the door two gentle knocks. A muffled sigh could be heard, followed by the groan, "You can come in if you bring me a cup of water."
It was Zuko's turn to sigh, before dodging into the kitchen to find an appropriate container. At least the price of admission could be easily met, regardless of the fact that he felt like a lackey. He returned, venturing into formerly unexplored territory. Jet's bedroom, however, was about as exciting as his own; small, empty, and with relatively few personal touches. Jet laid back on his sleeping mat with an arm strung over his eyes, the only other object worth noting was the foot-high wooden box across the room that was full of lazily-folded articles of clothing. "Thanks," Jet mumbled as Zuko stepped into the room, resting his support on his forearms and lifting up from his reclined position to see who it was who had entered.
It wasn't a disappointed 'oh'. Nor was it an enthusiastic, angry, or contented 'oh'. It was an I-didn't-realize-it-was-you 'oh'. And Zuko wasn't entirely sure if such an 'oh' was preferred. Nevertheless, he awkwardly knelt down upon realizing Jet couldn't possibly reach the water and handed it over. The teenager once again nodded his thanks, taking three large gulps before setting it by his bedside with a groan. "Water doesn't taste as good here."
Zuko's first reaction was to counter the comment with, 'water is water', but realized that water found in its natural state might taste better to someone who'd grown up with it. He shrugged, inclining his head so that he could see into Jet's eyes. "How are you feeling?"
"No worse." The teenager dragged a hand through his slightly damp hair, his eyes fluttering dangerously. "Thanks, but you don't have to hover over me. I'll be fine."
Hover? An indignant flush spread across Zuko's face. "I don't mind sticking around. Smellerbee and Longshot left, and I shouldn't leave if-"
Jet's eyes came into focus as he glared at the firebender, a slight sneer twitching at his lips. "I'm fine, alright? You can go."
"I'm just trying to help," Zuko said, his voice icy and bitter. He had half a mind to leave well enough alone, but Jet's new attitude toward him installed a steadfast worry in his stomach. It was synonymous to the feeling of knowing your friend was irritated, and assuming it was your own fault. No, not synonymous to the feeling. That was the feeling.
"Well maybe I don't need your help, and maybe I don't need you." Jet's line of sight was drawn back to the window, as though expecting the other to simply leave after that. However, he was not so lucky.
"Oh, is that so? Well maybe I don't need you either!" Zuko didn't care how childish he sounded. The delicate nature of this situation had already been shoved down the throat of the beast.
"Well that's just fine with me!"
"Oh, good! I'm glad so long as it's fine with you."
"I don't care how you feel!" There was an awkward silence here, punctuated by Jet letting out a frustrated groan and slamming his head against his outstretched hands. "Damn it," he whispered after a moment, allowing a harsh sigh to escape his lips. "That's what I tried to convince myself of last night. After you left." Zuko frowned, his frustration withering away at the look on Jet's face. He waited, and the other took this as a sign to continue. "When you told me that you might be leaving, I felt so miserable. More than I let on. I realized then that I had grown too attached to you, and that you had the potential to ruin me. I thought that maybe by convincing myself I didn't care, I could rid myself of that bond." Jet shook his head, averting his eyes to the floorboards. "But I do care. I care too much. These past few weeks have been… Well, I've never had anyone like you in my life. I don't want to lose you."
Zuko had to force a fisted hand to his chest, in some half-hearted attempt to slow his heart down. Had he not tried to convince himself of the exact same thing last night? They were two of a kind, one in the same. He felt an overwhelming relief upon hearing Jet's apathy had been feinted as his own had been.
"Jet…" He swallowed, unable to quench the sudden dryness of his throat.
"You must think I'm such a moron," Jet said with a laugh, raising his knees and slumping over them. "I feel like such a moron."
"Guess that makes us both morons, then."
It took a good few seconds for Jet's laughter to stop, his brow slightly wrinkled as he came to terms with what Zuko had said. The moment his eyes widened in recognition, Zuko illustrated its meaning by pushing him into his mat and straddling him, just barely touching their lips together. "How's this for hovering?" Zuko hissed, his breath deepening as Jet's hand descended and cupped his backside.
"I could become accustomed to it in time." Jet's hands gave him a gentle squeeze, causing the teenager to let out a stifled moan. "If we still have the time, that is."
Zuko answered him with a kiss, relishing the sensation of their intertwining tongues. The time for words had ended, replaced by sharing the sensations passing between their bodies. Jet's eager hands escalated in their adventurous intimacy, gliding to the other's thighs and gently massaging the hidden flesh there. Zuko grunted, allowing one hand to curl behind Jet's neck and the other to fall on the man's chest. The chaste kiss was tainted by Jet's pursuits, as he brushed a thumb over Zuko's crotch and began working at the sash holding his shirt closed. The chocolate-haired teenager kept glancing into his eyes between every kiss, trying to gauge his reactions to his touch. It was more strategically carried out than before; both knew what they wanted, but neither was sure how far the night would take them or how their inexperience would play out.
Zuko's tongue prodded demandingly between his lips, eliciting sharp moans as he laid their bodies flat and ground them together. Never contented with playing the submissive role for long, Jet wormed a hand between their bodies and teasingly caressed the other's forming erection, using the jolt of surprise to flip the man over and begin his own hunt. He stripped Zuko's tunic from his body, his lips traveling with courage they never had before. They fled down his chest and forged a course around his navel, causing the teenager to shiver and grip Jet's hair from the unique nature of the sensation. Their touch was clumsy, but their inexperienced flesh were hardly seasoned enough to know this. Careful not to seem too terribly obedient (after all, Jet mustn't think he could have it all as he pleased), Zuko tilted his head down and bit a territorial mark into the other's neck.
"Ah…" Jet glanced up, his breath hot against Zuko's abdomen as he whispered, "My friends are gonna make fun of me when they see that. They'll think I'm your bitch."
"And you haven't the grounds to dispute them." Zuko moaned as Jet nipped the skin just below his final rib, shaggy brown hair gently tickling his midsection. How terribly erotic it was… It seemed that teenage hormones and instincts would guide them well enough. The firebender worked his hands around Jet's armor, gracelessly unbuckling the many clasps, of which he had memorized the positions watching Jet fiddle with them the former night. He grunted with annoyance as the other kept squirming, leaving trails along his hip using his tongue and teeth. Finally, he managed to relieve Jet of his shirt and found the teenager sitting in his lap with his legs wrapped around his waist.
Jet leaned forward, touching their foreheads together as Zuko's arms entwined around his waist and pressed their chests together. Both shuddered upon feeling the other's pounding heart, and Jet took care in shifting the other's raven hair away from his face as he spoke in a raspy whisper, "Just thought I'd give you fair warning; I have no idea what the hell I'm doing."
Zuko chuckled, keeping one hand on Jet's neck and trailing the other down to the waistline of his pants. "And here I was, blushing like a virgin schoolgirl." He rolled his eyes and pressed his lips against the other's cheek, an admittedly sappy and affectionate gesture. "We'll just go with the flow. It's gotten us this far, hasn't it?" He took command of the other's lips, pleasantly surprised as Jet melted against his body, unintentionally grinding their constrained arousals together. A spark of desire elicited a sharp moan from them both, and their eyes met in a deep haze. Feeling a sudden need to take charge, Zuko was the first to descend to the sash of the other's pants. He allowed one hand to work toward loosening the fabric, while the other hovered uncertainly in midair. He wanted to instill those precious feelings in Jet, ones that ran his heart rampant and sent blissful convulsions throughout his body… But how? How could he touch another person with such intimacy when he barely cared to indulge himself? His best and only starting point was doing to Jet what he enjoyed.
He looked up, keeping his eyes locked in Jet's as he slowly moved a hand over the man's arousal. Calculating his reaction, he cupped the erection through the straining fabric and watched Jet's breath deepen through parted lips and his eyes widen and then flutter shut in anticipation. Zuko gently cupped the hidden manhood of notable size, as he cared to note, and began rhythmically stroking it. "Uhn…" Jet rolled his shoulders back and allowed his weight to fall onto his extended hands, immersed in the only slightly familiar sensation. Suddenly, the boy seemed all-too-eager to assist in the removal of his clothes, arching his hips off of the bed and kicking his shoes onto the floor.
No hesitation. The words of every single combat teacher Zuko had ever trained under. If only they could see him now. As though to spite them all, he whipped the remainder of Jet's clothing from his body, earning a hiss of approval as his hand graced the underside of the other's erection. Left completely exposed, only the faintest of blushes could be seen on Jet's face, along with a twitch that meant, 'I haven't the slightest idea what to do with my arms'. Unable to reach Zuko's figure, yet unwilling to allow them to hang uselessly… The other saved him the trouble of deciding, however. Keeping his lips attached to Jet's neck, he rounded the young man and pulled him into his lap.
"Li…" Setting one hand on Jet's chest and the other on his thigh, Zuko rested his head in the crook of the other's neck. He had to keep a clear mind if he wanted to do well. He had to analyze, assess, gauge his reactions. Zuko was well aware of the predatory stare he must have acquired, for the moment their eyes met, Jet's widened with anticipation. The firebender nestled his head into the other's shoulder, comfortably griping the other's erection at its base. Startled by the contact, the hips drove backward, firmly pressing against an arousal still constrained by clothing. "Damn," Jet whispered, as the other bit back a hiss.
Zuko was assigned the ultimate test of trial-and-error as he began to pump the other's erection. At a slow and gentle pace, Jet would squirm against him and moan, letting out noises of discontent. At a faster and fiercer pace, the man would throw his head back and pant with mounting longing for release. Zuko smiled, content knowing he was the one who was causing such bliss. The hand support Jet's chest shifted, brushing over an erect nipple and earning a shiver from the teenager. "That's…" Jet's words were lost in a moan as Zuko quickened the pace, his own body twitching with desire as the man rubbed up against him again and again. But no, he couldn't indulge his own body just yet. This was so much better, watching the results of his efforts manifest in the red tinge on the other's face or his rapid breathing escalated by yearning. "Li, I… I'm gonna…" Zuko's heart pounded, thrilled as he felt Jet's entire body shudder and convulse as the young man let out a sultry cry. A few strokes followed his orgasm, leaving him shuddering with pleasure as he tried to catch his breath. The Fire Nation teen wiped his hand against the sheet below as Jet turned to face him, his glazed eyes focused only be the desire to reciprocate. Jet's hands glided down his chest and braced his hips, though Zuko attempted to appear largely unaffected one way or another. He lowered himself down to his stomach, the submissive position almost enough to stir up Zuko's primal instincts. He licked his lips, wondering if it would be too much to simply draw Jet upward and thrust violently against him. His thoughts melted away as Jet's mouth hovered over his cloth-shielded arousal, encompassing it only briefly.
"Uhn…" A jolt of warmth shot through his body, causing the teenager to jerk his hips forward. Zuko gripped Jet's shoulders, biting his lower lip until he tasted blood. They were walking the line between pleasure and fear; there was no greater terror than being out of control. Be it mind or body, Zuko could not maintain any form of regulation. Highly unusual, yet refreshing for someone as 'tense' as him. The teenager felt an inescapable blush tinge his cheeks as Jet began working the sash of his pants. He had undressed in front of other men on occasion, but something about a man undressing his aroused state was highly unusual. The moment he felt air brush against his erection, he shut his eyes and tilted his head in order to hide his flushed face. The redness only deepened when a voice whispered into his ear:
"Now I know why you were so intent on getting out of those clothes."
Stunned, Zuko lacked the self restraint required to suppress a moan as Jet ran an experimental hand over his erection. This was so, so much different than touching himself. Had it felt this good for Jet? He gained the other's attention by wrapping his arms around his neck and pulling him upward, so that they remained face-to-face. Following a gentle kiss, he murmured against the other's lips, "You know, in terms of romance, this isn't exactly what I was expecting."
Jet's face fell a little, his eyebrow quirked with uncertainty. "What, you want me to go out and buy some candles or something?"
"Not at all. I just wasn't expecting the first person to touch me like this would be… a man." Zuko shrugged, taking pleasure in the sensation of the other's hands trailing just beneath his shoulder blades.
"Don't think of it that way," Jet insisted, straddling the other's lap and pressing him down into the mat with eyes narrowed in mischief. "Man, woman… I don't care so much about gender as I want you to be the one to touch me."
Zuko's eyes fluttered shut as Jet's touch descended, no longer plagued by the sheer irregularity of this encounter. Someone cared for him in spite of… no, because of who he was, and this was a unique feeling in and of itself. The only guilt he felt would be in the morning, upon re-acknowledging that Jet cared for a man by the name of 'Li', and that whether or not Li and Zuko were truly the same person had yet to be verified.
"Uhn." Zuko ran a hand through his hair, cursing the blinding rays of sunlight that escaped through the window that no one had been thoughtful enough to shut. He shifted, the unfamiliar sensation of bare flesh causing him to flinch and open his eyes. His gaze met that of a bleary-eyed Jet, who shot him a smile before burying his head into the pillow they shared.
"Be a dear and shut the window," Jet groaned making every attempt to shy away from the sunlight.
"It's your window. You shut it." Zuko shuddered, feeling in need of a shower but unwilling to rise from his semi-comfortable position beneath the thin sheet that was loosely draped around them both.
Zuko sighed, as though it was the largest inconvenience in the world before shifting out from underneath the sheet and rising up just enough so that he could reach the edges of the drapes. He snapped them shut, turning to find Jet staring without shame at his naked form. "Knock that off," he scolded, joining the other on the sleeping mat now that the room was comfortably dimmer. "Have a little decency."
"Nothing we did last night was decent," Jet assured him, a smirk crossing his face as he turned onto his side and wrapped an arm around Zuko's torso.
"And keep the cuddly crap to a minimum," the firebender muttered, trying unsuccessfully to shrug the other off of him.
"Not a morning person, eh?"
Zuko didn't bother correcting the other, as he was often a 'morning' person. A sunrise person, even. But just not today. Speaking of sunrise, it must have been a good few hours after. "My uncle is going to kill me," he groaned, oddly contented as Jet's hand gently trailed down his forearm and intertwined with his own.
"Just tell him that you lost track of time and didn't want to break city curfew, so you spent the night over here." Jet shrugged, an endearing smile on his face as he inched his unoccupied arm around Zuko's waist. "Or, you could tell him the truth. I like the idea of staking a claim to you."
"He'd be so disappointed. He really wanted to see a few grandnieces or nephews." Zuko stifled a yawn, wondering how he could be so notably uncomfortable yet comfortable all at the same time. "Of course, having you around is sort of like taking care of a child. Perhaps he'd be pleased."
Poor morning reflexes allowed for a fifteen second delay before hearing a, "Hey!" that signified the other's loss of dignity. Zuko smiled, turning Jet's embrace with a mutter, "Though I do hope that I can convince him that staying here would be best for me. I don't want to keep him from opening up his own shop, but maybe there's some-" His words died on his lips when Jet unwrapped their bodies and reached toward the hinged box a few feet away. With a bit of fumbling, he withdrew a few entities with a familiar jingling sound to them and pressed them into Zuko's hand with a rather noticeable blush.
The other glanced down, his brow furrowing at the sight of four copper coins lining his palm. Zuko's blood ran cold, and he glared over at the embarrassed teenager with a growl, "If you're going to treat me like a whore, at least pay me minimum wage."
"No, no!" Jet sighed, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly as he sat up to face the other's glower. "I'm fulfilling my debt. Remember, stop-and-lock?" Zuko's expression softened as he glanced down at the coins, and back up into Jet's eyes. "That day, when I went into the tea house… I lied to you about not having the money. And every other day after that. I thought that maybe if I was in debt to the tea house, I'd be able to talk with you a little more often, but then I was afraid that if I handed over the money you would-"
"You planned this?" Zuko lips parted in awe, with a mixture of puzzlement, irritation, and admiration.
"Well, not this." Jet gestured to the mat where they laid, his blush deepening. "But I did want to get to know you better. I'm sorry..." Preceded only by the sound of coins clattering to the floor, Jet found himself locking lips with a fervent Zuko. Shocked but nonetheless pleased, he wrapped his arms around the other and deepened the kiss. Unable to calm the pounding of his heart, Zuko drew away for a mere moment, only to whisper:
"After the third day, I just considered the tea on the house."