Warnings: Slash and angst. I mean, really, it's Jet and Zuko. The angst, it is impossible to escape.
A/N: Written for the A:TLA Couples Month challenge. Jet and Zuko belong to Nickelodeon, as does the rest of A:TLA; I'm just playing in their universe. I make no money from this fic. Lyrics to "I am a Rock" belong to Simon and Garfunkel.
Don't talk of love; but I've heard the words before.
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died;
If I never loved, I never will have cried.
Jet was one of those people who connected with others easily. He seemed amiable and charming and was easy on the eyes, and he had charisma by the bucket. People trusted him without really knowing him at all – and most of them never really knew him, even if they'd lived with him for years. His mind was a dark well of secrets and anger and blinding hate. He was filled to the brim with bleak despair, despair he hid behind a facade of simple charm and bold action.
Outwardly, he seemed to be in control. He was a rock, solid and indestructible. He was a good leader, and he led with passion and ardor – but only just enough to keep people following him.
His true darkness he did his best to hide. The depths of his sorrow were his best-kept secret. Even when he talked of his parents, even when he spoke of how painful their death had been for him, he always tempered it with strength and cool resolve.
He'd told no one about the nightmares. He slept alone, away from the rest of his gang, and even when he couldn't get back to sleep, even when whoever was on night watch spotted him, he assured everyone – himself and his Freedom Fighters – that he was merely restless, and helping them keep watch.
He'd also told no one about his fear that all of this was in vain, that every last one of them would go down before the Fire Nation and be devoured in flames, just as his parents had been. He never told them that in his darkest moments he believed this fight was futile, that he was only leading them to death and worse.
He had promised himself he would never tell anyone about the nightmares, about the terror that fueled those nightmares. They would only see him as a weakling then, not the Jet they knew, the Jet who was in control. The Jet who was cool and confident and calm. The Jet who was a rock.
Then he met Lee.
When Jet first saw Lee, he thought he had him pegged.
Granted, he had only seen him from the back, but then, Jet knew you could learn a lot about people just from their backs. And Lee had a back that was hard to ignore, wiry and elegant and muscled – visible even beneath his green robes.
The fat old man next to Lee was clearly traveling with him, but even so, Lee seemed to stand apart, an island in a sea of people. He had intentionally put distance between himself and every other passenger, leaning heavily against the rail of the ship, strangling it with white-knuckled fists. The muscles in his shoulders were tense and bunched, and the way he stood suggested he was ready to turn and kick anyone who approached. Other passengers gave him a wide berth; they walked in a large circle around him, glancing nervously at his fists.
When Jet had moved closer, he had been able to hear Lee speaking; every word was a blade: sharp-edged, steely, and cold. There was anger and hurt and resentment that ran deep.
Jet's first thought had been to wonder why he would be so bitter. His second was that Lee would make an excellent recruit, perhaps the best he'd gotten in months – especially now that he had only Longshot and Smellerbee as companions.
"Look around," Lee was growling as Jet approached. "We're not tourists. We're refugees."
The way he said it, it sounded like poison.
Jet watched as Lee lifted a bowl of stew. Jet couldn't see Lee's face, but despite himself he smirked and waited for the inevitable reaction.
A few seconds later, a stream of the brownish stew went sailing out over the water as Lee spat it out. "Ugh!" Lee spluttered, coughing. "I'm sick of eating rotten food and sleeping in the dirt." He bowed his head and sank dejectedly against the rail. "I'm tired of living like this."
Jet felt a twinge of sympathy, as well as a rising sense of excitement. Now was his moment. Now was the moment he stepped up and snared another lost soul into his gang. "Aren't we all," he said.
Lee turned and looked over his shoulder, and Jet saw his face for the first time. For a moment, he could only stare, aghast. A hideous, purple-red scar stretched over Lee's eye, an ugly blight leaving jagged fissures of tissue that sank deep into Lee's black hair. It was hypnotic to Jet. He could hardly take his eyes off of it. Here, standing before him, was someone who had suffered exactly as he had at the hands of the Fire Nation. The only difference was that Lee's scars were physical where Jet's were internal and invisible.
"My name's Jet," he said, putting on his best smile. "And these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee and Longshot."
Smellerbee and Longshot were immediately welcoming. Anyone Jet liked enough to speak to was good enough for them. "Hi," Smellerbee said, her voice soft. She seemed deeply affected by the sight of the scar, sobered by it.
Lee looked them over, his eyes cold with distrust, and turned away. "Hello," he said.
It wasn't the warm welcome Jet had hoped for. Lee didn't even seem intrigued. He sounded dejected, angry, frigid. But Jet couldn't walk away from this one. "Here's the deal," he said, striding confidently over to Lee. If he couldn't convince him with sympathy, he might convince him with swagger. "I hear the captain's eating like a king while us refugees have to feed off of scraps," he continued. "Doesn't seem fair, does it?"
Lee didn't twitch, didn't turn, didn't indicate any interest at all. But the old man beside him did. "What kind of king is he eating like?" he asked, incredulous.
"The fat, happy kind," Jet said shortly.
The old man drooled.
Jet turned back to Lee, who appeared to be listening now, at least a little. The scarred side of his face was tilted slightly in Jet's direction. Jet stared intently at the scar tissue. A boy with a scar like that wouldn't say no. A boy with a scar like that would want revenge. "So," Jet said. "You wanna help us... liberate some food?"
There was a pause, a pause that dragged. Jet breathed slowly, and wondered why his heart was racing so damn hard. It wouldn't be the end of the world if this kid walked away. He and Smellerbee and Longshot could be successful on their own.
But he wanted this refugee to join them. He wanted someone else who suffered like he did, who hated with the same fire that he did.
He breathed in, and waited.
Lee turned to face Jet full on. His jaw was set, his eyes shining a bright gold in the dying sunlight. The scar was thrown into sharp relief, and for a second it was like Jet was looking at two different people: a good-looking, if aloof, boy, and a refugee full of rage and sorrow.
"I'm in," Lee said, and Jet breathed out.
Jet and Lee worked remarkably well together. Jet was good at planning, and Lee was good at carrying out the plan – but not in the way that Smellerbee and Longshot were good at carrying out plans. Where Smellerbee and Longshot acted like underlings, Lee acted like an independent agent, asking questions, correcting where he saw a flaw. If anyone else had tried to correct Jet, Jet would likely have sent them away at once. Lee's interruptions and suggestions only intrigued him.
In the dark, the pair of them moved together seamlessly, with Smellerbee following closely behind them. It struck Jet that he had never worked with a partner like this before; that every time he'd ever enacted a plan, he'd been the leader, the one in the front, alone.
It was nice, having someone who had your back, who moved exactly like you did.
In the kitchen, they split up, grabbing for different food. In seconds Jet had his prize, and he turned to see what Lee was doing. He watched, awed, as Lee deftly maneuvered eight bowls into a sack using only his swords. The twin blades flashed in the lantern light, moving as two parts of a whole. They fit in Lee's hands as though they were part of him, as though they were no different than his hands.
Lee slid the two swords back into their sheath. They fitted together into one simple whole, appearing at first glance to be just one sword. He looked up, and his eyes caught Jet's. There was uncertainty there, hope – hope for acceptance.
Jet liked Lee and the old man, more than he normally liked his potential recruits. He liked talking with them, eating with them. The old man at least was open and warm, and Lee – well, he was still a mystery, still aloof. But Jet was confident now that he could get through to Lee, someday. Someday soon.
"I hear people eat like this every day in Ba Sing Se," Jet said as they devoured their spoils that night. "I can't wait to set my eyes on that giant wall."
"It is a magnificent sight," sighed the old man, his gaze distant.
Jet raised his eyebrows. "So you've been there before?" he asked.
He caught the sidelong glance Lee cast at the old man. Lee's shoulders tensed, and his fingers clutched more tightly at his spoon.
But the old man said nothing particularly strange. "Once," he said, looking away. "When I was a... different man."
Jet thought back to a few months previous, when he had nearly destroyed an entire village in his pursuit to wipe out the Fire Nation. His nightmares had been growing worse before the Avatar arrived, and every night he awoke with images of his dead companions still burning beneath his eyelids. He knew the Fire Nation would destroy them all. He had been convinced then that his only choice was to destroy them first.
But the Avatar – and Katara – had made him think maybe he was wrong. That there was a different way.
"I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of," he said, then blinked, surprised at the confession. He glanced at Lee; the scarred boy was looking at him, his stare intense and unblinking. He leaned almost imperceptibly towards Jet, just a few centimeters closer – but it was enough to send the rest tumbling out of Jet's mouth. "But that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Se," he said. "For a new beginning."
He looked away from Lee, but he could feel Lee's eyes still on him, burning like fire. For an instant, Jet wondered wildly if Lee could see through him, if Lee knew all the things he had done – but when he looked back, he saw only confusion and respect in the other boy's face.
"A second chance," he finished, looking into Lee's eyes.
Much to his disappointment, it was the old man and not Lee who responded. "That's very noble of you," he said, smiling warmly. "I believe people can change their lives if they want to." He paused and looked at Lee. "I believe in second chances."
Lee glanced in the opposite direction, a vein twitching in his forehead. His jaw clenched, and he set down his bowl with a rattle, pushing himself to his feet and storming off.
"What's with him?" Jet asked. "Doesn't he believe in second chances, too?"
The old man stared after Lee, his gaze full of worry. "I think he wants to," he said. "But I don't know that he does. Not yet." He turned back to Jet with an amiable smile. "But what do I know?" he said, shrugging elaborately. "I'm just an old man. Maybe you should talk to him. He might listen to you."
Jet chewed thoughtfully at his stem of straw; then, nodding shortly, he got up and followed Lee.
When Jet found him, Lee was standing in a sea of shadow, staring into the darkness. He was alone, separated from the other passengers. It was like seeing him for the first time again; he was gripping the rail again, his shoulders tensed, his expression grim.
"Your old man's pretty intense," Jet said with mild cheer, leaning up against the rail. "All that stuff about second chances and things."
Lee turned his head sharply in Jet's direction. "You talked about second chances too," Lee snapped, glaring Jet down. Such a fearsome stare. Lee's eyes were golden brown, almost firebender-like.
Jet shuddered, half from memory and half from the thrill of holding Lee's gaze. He held up his hands and smirked. "I know," he said. "You just... seemed a bit pissed."
Lee turned away, frowning darkly across the water. Jet's eyes caught on the scar and stuck there, tracing its ragged edges over and over. He wanted to ask how Lee had gotten it, but he did not dare, not yet. Those vicious eyes wouldn't let him.
"I'm not pissed," Lee said. "I'm just..." He sighed, and ran a hand over his eyes. Jet watched Lee's fingers unconsciously trace his scar, and wondered how it felt. "We... were forced out of our former lives," Lee continued, his voice low and heavy with anger. "And I guess... I guess I'm just not used to the way things are in this new life yet."
Jet knew how that felt, being lost, being torn away from home and life and everything familiar. Without thinking, he reached out and put a comforting hand on Lee's shoulder. "It's rough," he said, "But you'll get used to it."
Lee glanced at Jet's hand, but Jet didn't remove it. Lee shifted uncomfortably and finally moved away, pacing awkwardly. Jet followed him with his eyes, tracing the path that Lee walked almost unblinking. "The Fire Nation took my life away too," he said softly. "They killed my parents. I was only eight. It was..."
Lee turned to look at him. There was such agony in his eyes, such torment, that Jet stopped midsentence and stared open-mouthed into Lee's face. It was such an honest expression of pain, such a reflection of the sorrow that drove Lee every day that Jet was left speechless.
"I'm sorry," Lee said.
Jet forced a small smile. "Not your fault," he said. He nodded to the scar. "And anyway, it looks like they went after you too. That scar... it's pretty bad."
Lee flinched and looked away. "Yeah," he said flatly. "I don't like to talk about it."
Jet chewed thoughtfully on his stem of grass and waited for Lee to say something. If the silence stretched on long enough, most people would talk, whether they'd meant to or not. But Lee remained quiet, still mysterious, still a secret.
"They took your parents, didn't they?" Jet said finally.
Lee closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. "My mother," he said. "I think... I think maybe they killed her, but... I didn't see it."
Jet moved closer, leaning up against the rail directly next to Lee. He wanted to put his hand on Lee's shoulder again, but he had the feeling that would only send Lee running. "These firebenders are merciless," he said bitterly. "They have no souls. They haven't suffered like we have."
Lee's eyes hardened, and he turned away. "We shouldn't be standing out here," he said. "They'll get suspicious."
"Right," Jet said, surprised and disappointed. "Sure. Back to the bunks then." He followed Lee towards the steps. "So the old guy with you – he's your dad?"
"Uncle," Lee said. He paused. "But he might as well be my father. My real dad - " He stopped again, clenched his fists, and kept walking.
"Is he dead too?" Jet prompted.
Lee glanced over his shoulder. His eyes glittered eerily in the light of a nearby lantern. "No," he said, "But sometimes I wish he was."
He turned his back on Jet and disappeared below the deck. Jet tried to follow, but Lee had somehow disappeared, devoured by the darkness.
In Jet's dream that night, he was tied to a post, unable to move his hands. He was surrounded by leering firebenders, jeering and howling. In front of him all his friends knelt with their heads bowed, their hands chained behind their backs. A firebender stood over each of them; each firebender's face was expressionless, implacable.
"Leave them alone!" Jet cried.
As soon as the words left his mouth, the fire cradled in the first firebender's hands leapt up, seemingly of its own accord, and devoured the tiny huddled figure of his mother.
Jet screamed and struggled against the chains that bound him. He was sweating profusely, and he realized abruptly that he was standing on a huge stack of wood, and the wood was burning, creeping slowly upwards, flames licking hungry lips as they searched for his flesh. He screamed again and squirmed violently, but to no avail.
The second firebender unleashed his flames, and Jet watched Smellerbee disappear in a wave of smoke.
"Stop!" he shouted, pushing furiously against the wooden post. "Let them go! It's me you want – it's me!"
Seconds later, Longshot met his eyes, and burned.
There was one figure left. He was seated on his knees, but not bent like the others had been. His head was bowed, the top of his dark cropped hair facing towards Jet. For an instant, Jet didn't recognize him – but then he looked up. Jet's eyes caught and held the scar.
"No," he whispered hoarsely. "Not him. Please, not him."
Lee's face was placid as the flames leaped up around him, his eyes shining gold like the sun.
Jet awoke with a howl torn from the depths of his belly. For an instant, his eyes only met with darkness – no flames, no firebenders, only emptiness. When he tried to move his hands they wouldn't budge. He gave another strangled cry and struggled furiously against his blankets, trying to kick them off.
"Stop," hissed Lee's voice in his ear, and Jet felt Lee's hands encircle his wrists. "You're all tangled up."
There was a swish and the soft snip of cut fabric, and Jet was freed. He jerked his hands forward and pressed them to his chest, half believing he was still in his dream. Slowly, the cold reality of the night overcame him, and in the dark his face flushed red. His gaze slunk slowly towards Lee, ashamed.
Lee's face betrayed nothing. In what little light there was, he wore what Jet assumed was his usual grim frown. He stood and offered Jet his hand. "Come on," he said, as other refugees stirred and turned to stare. "Let's go for a walk."
Hesitantly, Jet reached up for Lee's hand and took it, letting Lee pull him to his feet. Lee released him and started to walk away. Jet followed Lee towards the door, shoving his hands in his pockets and keeping his head down. Years and years of keeping his nightmares secret, and now he'd let Lee see him at his weakest. For an instant he hated himself violently, and was filled with all-consuming rage.
Lee strode over to the rail of the ship, but didn't lean on it this time. He folded his hands behind his back and stared out towards the sea. Jet noticed for the first time that Lee had stripped down to his waist. He studied Lee's back with a mixture of eagerness and shame. There were no scars there, no fire marks burned into his pale flesh. He didn't seem so tense or unapproachable now. He looked at ease, relaxed. Jet slipped up behind him, unable to meet his eyes.
"Tonight in my nightmare I faced down the firebender who scarred me and lost," Lee said.
Jet jerked his head in Lee's direction, then froze there.
"It's always that way," Lee continued, his voice steady and even. "I'm always losing to him. But I keep fighting and fighting, and he just keeps burning me over and over and over again." He lowered his head and closed his eyes tightly. "I keep wanting to prove to him that I can defeat him, that I can live up to his expectations, but I'm too small and too weak and he burns me every time." He opened his eyes and turned to face Jet. His expression was peaceful now, much like it had been when Jet had dreamed of him. "What about yours?"
Jet opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked away, closing his eyes. "I watched everyone I've ever cared about die," he said quietly. "The firebenders – I was tied up, and all I could do was watch. I kept trying to get them to look at me, to take me instead, but they wouldn't." He clenched his fists and burst out, "I hate them! All those firebenders should suffer for what they've done to us."
Lee hesitated. "I've been told," he said, slowly, "That life in the Fire Nation is not so great either. They suffer a lot. And... they think they're sharing all their wealth and happiness with the world."
"What?" Jet laughed. "That's insane. How could they believe that?"
Lee shrugged. "Most people never leave the Fire Nation," he said. "None except the soldiers, and even so, the soldiers do what they're ordered like good little pawns."
Jet snorted. "Whoever told you that is crazy," he said. "Or else the Fire Nation is a lot stupider than I thought."
He glanced at Lee, but Lee wasn't looking towards him anymore. Only the edge of the scar was visible, sinking deep into his hair. "People tell themselves all kinds of lies to feel better about themselves," he said.
Jet shrugged. "I guess." He nervously ran a hand through his hair. "Uh, thanks."
Lee turned back to him with a frown. "For what?"
Jet smiled sheepishly. "For, you know, talking to me," he said. "Making me not feel like an idiot."
Lee half-smiled. Jet choked on his breath. "You're not an idiot," Lee said. "Though you did kind of look ridiculous, rolling around in those blankets like that."
Jet grimaced and turned bright red, and Lee laughed. He shook his head and started to walk away. "Get some sleep," he said. "They'll probably wake us all up early tomorrow to feed us more slop."
Jet watched as Lee disappeared back down into the bunks, and swallowed a thousand different words he wished that he was eloquent enough to say.
The morning was full of fog. Jet arose groggy and miserable, and stayed that way until he saw Lee standing by the rail once more – alone.
He approached slowly and came to stand beside Lee, letting the fog roll between them. "You know," he said, "As soon as I saw your scar I knew exactly who you were."
Lee glanced sharply at him. Jet inwardly cursed and hurried onward. "You're an outcast, like me," he said. Lee's features relaxed. "And us outcasts have to stick together. We have to watch each other's backs. There's no one else who will."
Lee nodded slowly. "I've realized lately that being on your own isn't the best path."
Jet smiled. "I'm glad," he said. "I need someone like you around."
Jet looked at Lee. He met Lee's golden gaze and held it.
Lee didn't look away.
Lee left the ship with his uncle in tow, far ahead of Jet and Smellerbee and Longshot. But Jet made certain Lee's familiar cropped hair was always within view. Sometimes he had to run and dart through the crowd in order to keep up; despite the old man's weight and age, he moved quickly, and Lee slipped through the crowd as though he were made of air. Jet relished the challenge of keeping up with him.
Smellerbee and Longshot, however, did not.
"Jet," Smellerbee panted, when they finally caught up to him for about the eleventh time. "What's your hurry? You're moving like we're being chased. Is somebody on our tail?"
Jet paused, glancing over his shoulder. For the first time in his life, he hadn't actually been thinking about being followed. He frowned "No," he said. "Not as far as I know. I was just - "
He scanned the crowd, looking for Lee – but Lee was nowhere in sight. He and his uncle had moved ahead already, down onto the docks. They'd be through the gates and onto the train to Ba Sing Se before Jet ever caught up with them. Lee would be swallowed by the city, and Jet would never see him again.
Jet drew in a deep breath. It was inevitable, he supposed, that Lee would disappear. He wasn't quite like the others in the group; he wasn't totally alone. He still had the old man to watch over. It was probably better that Jet not get his hopes up, not think too much about Lee as part of the group. Lee had responsibilities. Lee had his own life.
Jet inhaled so quickly he practically swallowed his stem of grass. He snorted, coughed, and spat the grass on the ground. "Hi," he wheezed, staring up into Lee's face.
Lee half-smiled. Jet realized he'd never seen Lee full smile at all. "Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to scare you."
"You just startled me," Jet snapped, straightening. "I... uh... I thought you'd already be in."
"Us? No way," Lee said, glaring at the long lines of people. "My uncle's holding a place for us, but I couldn't stand it there. All those families standing around..."
Lee stopped speaking, staring off into the distance, into some dark place deep inside himself. Jet watched, fascinated, as every fleeting feeling flickered across Lee's face: anger, sorrow, confusion, despair.
"It's not fair," Lee said finally, dreamily. "All those families in their rags, without their fathers..."
Jet closed his eyes and bowed his head. "No," he said. "It's not fair."
He looked up. Lee was looking at him again, his eyes sharp and focused now. Jet reminded himself to breathe deeply and evenly. Then he reminded himself again. Then once more. He was transfixed on the scar again, the long, purplish scar that said both everything and nothing about who Lee was. Jet felt irresistibly drawn to it; he wanted to touch it, to feel the fire that had left it there, to see if the feeling of it would reveal any more secrets. Maybe touching Lee's scar would help Jet reach his own.
"I'm sorry," Lee said.
The urge dispelled, and Jet leaned back, away from Lee. He realized he'd been leaning closer and closer in. "For what?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"For your family," Lee said. "What happened to them." He looked away. "I just want you to know I wish it hadn't happened. That I'd change it if I could. What was done to them... was wrong."
Jet swallowed hard. He turned away abruptly and kicked at a rock. "Uh... I... look," he said, turning back to Lee.
Lee glanced at him, his gaze full of shame.
"I appreciate the thought," Jet said, gruffly, "But there's nothing you could have done."
Lee's eyes darkened. "No," he said. "I guess not."
Jet chewed at his lip in the absence of the grass. He ran a hand through his hair and shifted his weight, then shifted it again. "So..." he said.
"I should get back to my uncle," Lee said.
"He's probably causing trouble," Lee continued, half-smiling once again.
Three times. He'd smiled three times by Jet's count. Half-smiled. Never a full smile. People like Lee never smiled real smiles.
People like Jet.
"You could hang out with us," Jet blurted out, jerking his thumb back at Smellerbee and Longshot. He glanced over his shoulder. Longshot had his arm around Smellerbee's shoulders; they both looked at Jet with mild surprise, but nodded quickly.
Lee shook his head. "Thanks," he said, "But I really should go."
Jet slumped. "Oh," he said. "Right then."
Lee lifted a hand and gave a low wave. "I'll see you in the city," he said.
Jet smiled. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, definitely!"
He realized, with some surprise, that his smile was full.
Jet still followed Lee as closely as he could, clinging to the promise that they would meet again. The fact that Lee had said it made it matter all the more. Jet believed Lee would try to find him – but even so, he wanted to keep him in range. Just in case.
Smellerbee and Longshot didn't appear to share Jet's enthusiasm. In fact, they didn't seem to share his opinion of Lee at all.
"I think Lee would make a good Freedom Fighter," Jet said, as they watched Lee and his uncle walk away with their passports stamped. "He's just trying to find his way in the world. Like us."
Smellerbee gnawed at the inside of her cheek, her arms crossed firmly over her chest. "You don't know anything about him, Jet," she objected.
That's not true. I know more about him than you do. I know he has nightmares like mine. I know he feels my pain. "I know he didn't get that scar from a waterbender," Jet said instead, callously, off-handed, as though it meant nothing, that scar that so intrigued him.
Smellerbee was obviously not convinced. "Besides," she continued, "I thought we were going straight now."
Ah yes. The plan to go straight. To be safe. To keep the Fire Nation off their backs. To be a new person.
Well, Jet would be a new person. He would be a new person with Lee.
"We are," he said. "And the new Freedom Fighters could use a guy like Lee." He glanced over Smellerbee's head at Longshot. "What do you think, Longshot?"
Longshot glanced at him. His face spoke of fear, of worry, of years on the run, of strangers who had come and gone and hurt everyone in the process. His face reflected the memories of Fire Nation spies, family members dead, Freedom Fighters too hurt to be saved.
"I can respect that," Jet murmured, and turned back to watching Lee.
They got their passports stamped, finally, after hours of waiting. Lee and his uncle had long disappeared, but none of the trains into Ba Sing Se had come yet. They would still be there, somewhere.
Jet left Smellerbee and Longshot at a bench on their own. They were careful not to be physically affectionate around him, but even so, Jet knew they were a couple. And he knew they'd want to be alone. That was all the better for him – he wanted to be alone too, with someone else.
He hunted through the crowds, searching, and finally spotted Lee sitting on a bench below one of the lights. He looked stark and sad there, with his arms crossed firmly over his chest and his face set in a grimace of anger. Other refugees stayed out of his way. That was probably what he wanted.
Despite the angry expression on Lee's face, Jet pushed his way through the crowds and dropped onto the bench beside him. "So," he said, smiling broadly, "You - " He saw the old man's knee from around the corner, and inwardly hissed in frustration. " - guys got plans once you're inside the city?"
Lee glanced at him, sullen and cold, but didn't have time to say anything. A tea merchant's call broke over the dull roar of conversation, and the old man waved his hand eagerly, bringing the merchant over. Jet glared at the merchant in irritation, but he didn't notice.
"Jasmine, please!" the old man exclaimed. The merchant brought him some and moved on. Jet couldn't see the old man's face, but he watched Lee's face instead. Lee grimaced as his uncle spat tea across the platform.
"Coldest tea in Ba Sing Se, is more like it!" the old man said. "What a disgrace."
Jet shifted impatiently. He'd never get any alone time with Lee with this geezer around. And he needed to talk to Lee, desperately. He knew he had Lee's sort-of promise that they'd meet again in the city, but he wanted more. He wanted to be sure. He wanted Lee to join their group.
"Hey," he said, leaning into Lee. "Can I talk to you for a second?"
He watched, fascinated, as the scar tissue where Lee's eyebrow should have been shifted and twitched. It would, he realized, have been a raised eyebrow, if the hair hadn't been permanently singed off. He rose and motioned for Lee to follow.
For a moment, Lee didn't follow him. Jet drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Calm down. He'll come. You know he'll come.
A second later, Lee sighed and got up, and Jet breathed normally again.
He led Lee to a more secluded corner of the station, making sure they were far away from other passengers. Then he turned to face Lee, putting on an easy smile. "You and I have a much better chance of making in the city if we stick together," he said, leaning eagerly towards Lee. "You wanna join the Freedom Fighters?"
He searched Lee's eyes, hopeful, anxious. Lee's gaze was flat, a little cold – suspicious, even a little uncertain. Jet smiled wider, trying to put him at ease. It's all right. You'd be great with us. You know you would. You and I, we're the same. We're exactly the same.
"Thanks," Lee said, "But I don't think you want me in your gang."
How wrong he was. "C'mon," Jet said, holding out his hand. "We made a great team looting that captain's food." He motioned widely to all the sad, ragged people around them. "Think of all the good we could do for these refugees!"
When he looked towards Lee, Lee was walking away. "I said no," he snapped, and marched back to his uncle, his fingers bunched into tightly clenched fists.
Jet felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. No? No? How could Lee say no? They'd worked so well together. They had shared the same life of rejection and pain. They'd had a bond. They'd even shared their nightmares.
No wasn't an answer. No was impossible. No meant Lee wouldn't be coming with him, wouldn't be a part of his life, wouldn't be there when the nightmares came, not ever. Not again.
Jet clenched his fists. He wanted to scream. He wanted to kick something. He wanted to snatch Lee back and shake him. You'd be good at this! He bit his lip angrily. You'd be good with me.
He breathed deeply, and swallowed the bitter bile of his rage. Why should he care? It was just one guy. Just one guy who cut himself off from everyone else, who hated everyone else because of what he'd suffered. Just one guy who couldn't stand to talk to other refugees, who didn't even want to be one of them.
Just one guy who stood alone, a cold, implacable island.
Fine then. Let Lee be an island. Jet would be a rock.
And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.