warnings: major character injury, random French, purple prose
summary: Jet wakes up.
notes: awful hospital melodrama written for youremyqueen at the jetko_exchange.
He woke up feeling like water.
He couldn't open his eyes and there were only stars underneath the roof, train tracks petering off into the mountains and wind chimes scattered on the floor. He couldn't move his fingers, either, his head was full of cotton and there twigs stuck in the swamp and frogs croaking at the lip of the lake. The bottoms of his feet felt bare and vulnerable.
The bed was uncomfortable. The pillow was lumpy and the sheets itched and melted into his skin until he could feel beads of perspiration begin to collect at the bottom of the bed and seep into the ground. They fell like raindrops.
He became aware later that there was another drip, translucent and vaguely resemblant of diluted soy milk, crumpled and clipped in a dull dialysis bag suspended seventy-five centimeters above his shoulder. Piano music. A small tube had been inserted into his right arm and the piano music dripped into his veins and his ventricles, crunched around his heart and slipped passed his conscious grievances.
"...been like this for almost twenty-two months," someone said, tones hushed and barely audible in the silence of the drip, presumably not addressed to him. "Kind of depressing, isn't it?"
"Twenty-two months," said someone else. "I wonder how much the world can change in twenty-two months."
He recovered his speech slowly in the next three weeks and regained the consciousness in his toes. It was not miraculous and it prickled a lot and his skin was irritating. He wanted to peel his skin off his body, but then he worried about his toes again. His toes were thin and asymmetrical in comparison to the rest of his legs, and the bones in his ankles scratched against each other. He felt like a Hemingway protagonist, only there wasn't a hot English nurse who waited at his beck and call. So he was like half a Hemingway protagonist.
"That's super amusing, Jet," said Smellerbee. "But then again, isn't everything? Everything is super amusing, and nothing hurts."
"Can you walk?" Longshot was less sympathetic (or perhaps more? it was always a bit difficult to tell).
"I-I don't know," he responded weakly. "I...can barely feel my feet. As it is."
"He's Jet," Smellerbee said. As if that explained anything. "He'll be fine. Just believe in him." Longshot nodded solemnly, slumping back into his silent erudition.
His head sunk lower into the uncomfortable pillow. Belief in himself was proving to be a pain in the ass.
There was heavy rain, and over the next three days Zuko contracted twenty-three mosquito bites. Five of them were on his arms and two were on his shoulders; the rest were scattered all over his thighs and ankles and over the hills and under the valleys, crawled over his skin and tickled so much that he began to feel like a walking time bomb, ready to amputate his own legs at the end of every hour he spent scratching his thighs into raw meat.
Perhaps he needed to take the calcium ions out of his mitochondria. Perhaps that was the way to do it. He could steal the keys to the centrifuge room and shrink his body with some magic and then lock himself inside one of the machines, spin himself around and around until everything in his body separated and he was nothing but a bit of miserable pulp. This was most certainly a viable option.
"Aren't you clever," Mai told him. She was careful to channel as much derision as Zuko felt. "Aren't you really fucking clever. You deserve like, a fat gold star with my face on it. I'll give you one for every mosquito bite you have. You're so clever, Zuko."
"Doesn't he know it," Jet piped up from the bed, and that was how it went.
The people around him referred to it later as A Life-Altering Accident. Mostly their faces betrayed them when his physician presented the circumstantial evidence, and Jet looked away every time anybody tried line his clouds with something other than water vapor. It wasn't like he needed the details dissected to him, sliced into thin pieces of sashimi and delivered on a platter. It wasn't like the platter needed to b.e silver. It wasn't like he ate sashimi, at all. And he did want to walk, he really did, but every time he tried to lift his legs it was like the world was exploding and giving away free meteor showers to his hospital bed. Piano music continued to drip into his arms.
At least remembered how to be melodramatic. There weren't a lot of colors left in his heart. (Maybe only a few scars.)
He was allowed to migrate into a wheelchair after another few days and a girl from the unit next door offered to wheel him around the hospital, on his floor only, no exceptions. She was cheerful and considerate and crumbling around the edges. Her ideas were bright and they shone like coins, she enjoyed listening to Korean jazz, her hobbies included writing essays about contemporary hipster culture, and her pet dog was always happy to see her when she went home at the end of the day. She spoke French.
"Teach me," he told her.
"It's not super interesting," she replied. "It's kind of like the idea of walking 500 miles. Exciting concept, but terribly tedious in execution." She took her hands off his wheelchair and stretched her arms. He heard her bones snap.
"But I'm bored. And Doctor Yamamoto said it was a good idea to practice speech exercises."
"But in French?" she laughed. It was a pleasant sound.
"That's what I meant. I've got too many other problems to worry about."
"They will torment you," she agreed. "In fact. Dans cette chambre, il y en a deux."
The atmosphere was thicker on the days when he received visitors. There were fewer stars and more clouds that hung in the skies and the winds shifted until he could feel nothing, merely the brewing of a cosmic paradox. Smellerbee and Longshot dropped by whenever they could, but with A Life-Altering Accident the business of Jet's cause had fell into their hands and it was difficult to balance visiting a recovering coma patient between paperwork and international reconnaissance meetings. Katara came once with Sokka and Toph, and it was only a bit awkward. Zuko entered his hospital room surprisingly often, but left most of the time without saying anything. Mai and Aang were the only ones who seemed remotely charitable; everybody else came and went in a manner that appeared to be more perfunctory than truly sympathetic. It was just as well, because he did not require their sympathy.
"Whatever," said Zuko. "It's not like it means that much to anyone except you, anyway."
"What are you even trying to say," said Jet. He turned to Mai for help. "What is he even trying to say."
She rolled her eyes. "He's just annoyed. You can tell because he gets annoying when he's annoyed. The irony."
"I gathered that part. But what could he be annoyed about?"
"Oh, I dunno. Repressed childhood trauma. Car accidents. Domestic terrorism. Lots of stuff on his plate, you know?"
Zuko frowned. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here!"
"Then why the fuck are you being like this?" Jet retorted.
"I'm leaving this one for you guys to solve," Mai said. She let out a huge yawn, and didn't try to cover it. "See you later, Jet. Azula's still waiting on the memo, Zuko." She left the door open on her way out.
Zuko hurried to close the door. There was an ugly look on his face. "Can't believe her," he muttered.
Jet sighed. "Look, if you're not gonna contribute to the positive energy in this room, I think it's better if you just leave."
"Leave you?" Zuko repeated, incredulous. "You mean leave you, so that you can go back to flirting with that stupid French girl?"
"What's wrong with that?" Jet said. His head pounded, and his fingers were beginning to hurt. "She's cute. You sound like you're jealous. Which is silly."
"I have every right," said Zuko, his teeth clenched. "I have every fucking right to be jealous."
"What do you mean by that?" said Jet. "You're making my head hurt."
"Sorry," said Zuko. "It's nothing." He was silent for a while. "I don't mean anything by it."
It was one month and then two, and then he was allowed to travel to different floors in the hospital. The piano music stopped trickling. He had achieved mobility in his arms but his legs were still useless and he'd all but given up hope in them, resigned to sitting in the wheelchair. There was a rooftop garden and it was closer to the sky, and the girl who spoke French wheeled him there every other day, as long as it wasn't raining. His hospital ward had been cramped and secluded from the rest of the building, a quiet area that few visitors frequented. It was refreshing to see other patients wandering the garden on the roof, regardless of the fact that it wasn't so much a garden as it was a plot of dirt with some flowering brush planted in the corners.
"I wonder why Zuko gets so pissed off," he said, snapping off a long piece of grass from the ground and putting one end in his mouth. The flowers in the garden were all primary colors. Yellows and reds, mostly, probably a subliminal message from the psychiatrists in the building.
"Zuko? You mean that guy with the scar on his face?" said the girl. "I'm sure it's because he's worried."
"Worried about me?" said Jet. The grass tasted fresh. It was full of photosynthesis. "Is that what you're suggesting? Now there's an interesting idea."
"Y-Yeah," said the girl, her face flushed. "I-If you don't mind me asking, are you guys...you know, together?"
"'Together'? You mean like dating?"
"I'm sorry! I-I was just curious. You don't have to answer! I-It's just because he was always here to visit you, and even during the time before you became conscious, when I just got here and you'd been in a coma for nearly twenty months, he visited more than anyone else, and almost every day."
"Why would he do that?"
"He came all the time. He even brought tea for the nurses in charge of the ward. He didn't talk to us very much, and all he did was come into your room and sit next to you. He didn't say anything even then, but I mean well, you couldn't say anything either, I guess? A-And he was just here, you know? It was kind of...kind of sweet of him. To do that. Please excuse me I'm rambling so much I'm sorry."
"It's fine," said Jet. "But that's just kind of weird."
"It's true," a voice interrupted from behind, surprising them both. Jet craned his neck to see who it was. He could only catch one side of her face.
"Excusez-moi," said the girl who spoke French. "It appears that I've said too much."
"Non, s'il vous-plait, continuez," said Mai, her voice flat. She circled around the garden plot to face Jet and his companion. Crossed her arms over her chest. "Keep telling him all about how he's failed to remember his relationship with the one guy who probably cares more about him than anybody in the world. I'll just listen."
"I'm finished," the girl whispered.
"Then I'll help you," Mai said. She uncrossed her arms and checked her nails. "Nothing much left to tell, anyway." She raised her eyes and stared directly at Jet. "You and Zuko were together for five years before your Life-Altering Accident. You lived together in a condo. You painted the walls blue last Christmas. You met him in a limousine to a party at my house eight years ago. It wasn't even a party you were invited to, if I remember correctly.
"You were passing out these stupid flyers for another one of your dumb causes. I think that one was about internet censorship or something either way it was just really dumb. Totally ruined my dart-throwing competition. And Zuko got dragged into it somehow, I don't even fucking know, I do remember Sokka bringing live roosters somewhere for something, either way then you guys were fucking each other. The end."
"You're making my head hurt," said Jet. "This is all too sudden."
"I'mnot making your head hurt," Mai scoffed. "You're probably just going through nicotine withdrawal."
"I used to smoke?"
"No, certainly not," said Mai. She looked to heaven for patience. "You just happened to live five meters under a cigarette factory. Of course you smoked, you dumb fuck."
"I didn't realize a traumatic injury could turn someone straight," said Jet.
"You were always straight," said Zuko.
"I was? Huh."
"You only dated girls before you met me."
"Doesn't that bother you a little?"
"It doesn't. We had this conversation too, before you injured yourself and fucking forgot all about it."
He sat up straighter in his bed. "But why doesn't it bother you?"
Zuko shrugged. "I thought I was straight too. I went out with Mai before you. Only difference was that I realized I was a bit more gay than you."
"Whoa. You totally never told me that. About Mai."
"You're right about that, at least. Guess it never came up the last time we talked about this."
"No wonder it's awkward talking to her."
"Nah." Zuko let out a small laugh. "That's just her personality. We're still friends. Kinda. Plus she likes you, trust me."
"How do you know that?"
"If she didn't like you, you'd know. Actually, you wouldn't. You'd probably be sleeping at the bottom of the reservoir."
"Ah. And never wake up?"
"Never wake up."
There were all sorts of stars to choose from. Silver ones, green ones, red ones, all of them lined with a tacky tinsel that jingled a bit if you shook it too hard. They were fifty for seven dollars, and worth the penny because you could get them customized and have pictures blown up in the center. In her head she could already come up with twenty-five kinds of disgusting things she could accomplish, a la aluminum stars.
She knew exactly which one she was getting, anyway. She handed 28 dollars to the cashier and pointed at the fat gold star on display.
"I want two hundred of those. And here's a photograph of my face."
He was given notice for discharge in the next week, when the sheets in the bed had finally begun to feel more comfortable. In his last night at the hospital he fell asleep while there were stars underneath the roof, train tracks petering off into the mountains and wind chimes scattered on the floor. He was still confined to his wheelchair, but there was feeling in his right leg, and he could also make small rotations in his feet where the tendons connected to his shins. He was prescribed painkillers and told to check back three times every week at the local clinic for physical therapy. Perhaps it would become a miraculous recovery, after all, and he'd be able to run and leave the house at night and see the sky again. Perhaps.
The girl who spoke French bid him adieu with a small kiss on the cheek and accompanied him to the rooftop garden one last time so that he could stock up on long pieces of grass. Later, he excused himself, wheeled his chair to the hospital bathroom and, for the first time in two years, was able to carefully examine his face in a mirror. His hair had been shaven short, his eyebrows more comically pronounced than ever. The barber had also left a distasteful moustache on his upper lip. The skin on his face and his neck was loose and rubbery, and he wasn't tan anymore-probably hadn't been for two years. He discovered a faint ring of fat around his cheeks, but this didn't horrify him as much as it probably would have, before. Time changed, and he had changed with it.
Took a deep breath. Left the bathroom and wheeled himself to the elevator.
"Did I really live here with you for five years?"
"I guess you did. Look at all these old cigarette lighters you left behind."
"I remember those."
"At least it's fun to play with the flames."
"Heh. You were always a bit weird like that, weren't you?"
"Dude. Fire is not just destruction. It's-"
"-also life. Energy."
"Think I'd forgotten? You used to harp on about it all day."
"...I don't understand why you'd remember something like that and not about the five yearswe spent here together."
"Selective memory, I guess."
"Maybe you just didn't want to remember me."
"Maybe the world's changed."
"Am I that forgettable to you?"
"I don't know. Didn't realize you'd wait for me, all this time. I'm turning twenty-seven next year. I've been asleep since I was twenty-five."
"That's funny. I feel the same way."
feedback appreciated, as always!