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that's rough, buddy

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“That’s it. Use your breath, son.”

Jake inhales deeply then exhales, focusing intently on the small flame between his hands. He’s supposed to be making sure that it doesn’t blaze wildly or just die in the wind.

He’s done this particular exercise a bajillion times now. (Or maybe less – Mrs. Stratton did mention that he needed to work on his math.) Still, his dad says it’s very important to practice his control. Jake supposes that’s fair, given that it’s only been a few months since he nearly singed Nana’s eyebrows off while blowing out the candles on his blue birthday cake.

What he really wants to do is skip forward to launching fire missiles with his fists or propelling himself through the sky on flaming jets, exactly like he’s seen it done in the movies. But his dad says he’s got a long way to go before he can attempt anything more than a basic fire stream, so Jake just nods and does what he’s told. He’ll become a firebending master eventually.

Truthfully, though, Jake thinks that maybe if his dad weren’t working or golfing so much, maybe they’d get to train more often, and maybe he’d be able to progress to something other than breathing.

The funny thing is: when his dad officially walks out of his life, despite all of their training, Jake’s not sure he even still knows how to breathe.

 

--- 

 

His mom’s an airbender, and Nana’s an airbender, and Gina and her mom are airbenders. So Jake wants to be an airbender. (If only it worked that way.) 

He’s unfortunately stuck as a firebender, with no one to teach him how to actually firebend, so he has to resort to copying the Ninja Lion-Turtles on TV. Raphael’s naturally his favorite, although he can’t make heads or tails of how to replicate his fire daggers.

He almost never experiments with bending at home, of course. He’s not the brightest, but he at least knows how dangerous it would be for one of his attempts to go wrong without anyone around to help extinguish the fire. On the rare instance that his mom isn’t at her multiple jobs, she lets him practice while she paints ceramics or cooks. She’s only had to run in with a bucket of water once, but, well– once is enough.

And yes, he could technically be enrolled in lessons… but that would cost money, and Jake would really rather have a full belly than a proper fighting stance. His mom is overworked and overwhelmed as it is; he couldn’t possibly ask her to look into registration fees at the local dojo.

 

---

 

Occasionally, when he’s alone in the park with Gina, he’ll run through the few basic exercises he remembers then attempt some fire-jabs and kicks. He’s not supposed to, but he’s fairly certain that nothing will catch on fire in an open field and that, on the off chance that anything does, a patrol officer will handle it. Gina doesn’t mind at all and usually just uses the time to meditate. 

It’s on one particular trip to the park that it happens. He’s not even sure how he does it, just knows that he goes from buzzing from the inside out to shooting electricity from his fingertips. He lifts his hand up in wonder, trying to get a closer glimpse at the little iridescent bolts. He’s so enraptured that he doesn’t realize where his other hand is pointing. He doesn’t see the string of lightning hurtling straight toward his best friend.

Everything turns out fine in the end. The blast wasn’t strong enough – he isn’t strong enough –  to fatally wound her, but Gina still gets brought straight to the hospital.

“I’m okay, Jake,” she insists with a huff, waving off his umpteenth apology. “Besides, I swear I met Raava in the two seconds your lightning hit me. Did you know she’d be ethnically ambiguous? The scrolls have not done her justice at all.”

Jake chuckles, accepting the jello cup she offers him.

For the most part, he’s glad that she’s fine and that she apparently met the Avatar Spirit and that she still likes him enough to give him her dessert.

Deep down, he feels terrible. He’s never going to lightningbend again.

 

---

 

Jake had assumed that he’d find his path in college and know what to do by the end of it. Instead, he’s a new graduate back in his childhood bedroom, freeloading off of his mom for as long as she’ll let him. He’s really just coasting through life and going through the motions, aimless.

Eventually, his clarity comes – not in a spark, but in a short-circuit fire erupting just a few houses away. 

He’s woken up by loud sirens blaring and screams echoing in the night. He acts on instinct, running out before remembering to put shoes on and running into the blaze without a second thought. The ground should be blistering hot beneath his feet, but he doesn’t notice at all. He keeps going until he’s parting walls of flames, ushering the family of nonbenders to safety.

In the thick smoke rising from the still-burning house, he sees destruction. In his hands, for the first time in a long time, he sees something good.

He thinks that maybe he should join the local fire department, that he should use his bending to help control and extinguish rogue flames. He thinks about it, and then thinks about it some more, and then figures that he probably wouldn’t enjoy the constant reminder of how devastating fire can be.

Months after mulling over it, he finally comes to a decision: “Mom? I think I’m going to sign up for the police academy.”

“That sounds like a great idea, honey,” she replies, pulling him into a tight embrace. “I’m so proud of you.”

 

---

 

It’s rough because all the other trainees have been honing their bending for years, whereas he’d been spending most of his life trying to restrain the inferno inside him.

Most of them laugh; one of them actually slams him against the lockers and calls him a “sorry excuse for a firebender.”

“Don’t mind him,” a voice says. “He wouldn’t know a good bender if the Avatar kicked him straight into the Spirit World.”

Jake looks up from where he’s slumped on the ground and recognizes her as the fierce metalbender no one’s been able to talk to all week. There’s a distinctive scar through her right eyebrow, and he wonders whether it came from a freak accident. (He also wonders how she got into the men’s locker room, or how she knew he needed somebody, anybody.)  

“I’m Rosa,” she says, reaching out a hand to help him up. “Wanna spar?”

 

---

 

He gets better. 

He trains with any firebender that’ll take him on, watches instructional videos, goes on Yahoo! Answers… Soon enough, he’s wielding whirling discs and shooting comets of fire like the best of them.

The only thing he doesn’t even consider attempting is lightningbending. At least not until he’s in his thirties, watching wide-eyed as his new captain generates a cracking stream of electricity out of nothing. It’s just strong enough to stun the escaped convict they’ve been tailing, no real damage done.

“You want me to teach you how to lightningbend,” Holt says without preamble the next day.

Jake opens and closes his mouth dumbly, feeling thoroughly seen and not quite knowing how to respond.

“Before anything, Peralta, I should let you know that not everyone is able to manipulate lightning. It takes a different level of power and a certain kind of–”

“I can do it,” he interrupts quickly. “I’ve done it before, sir, when I was a kid. I just don’t know how to control it.”

Holt regards him for a long moment before nodding. “We start at seven tomorrow.”

 

---

 

Jake’s always thought that fire meant power and aggression and pursuit. Instead, it’s weakness when he’s face to face with particularly-skilled waterbenders – those who can render him useless, temporarily buried within thick sheets of ice; or who send downpours of unrelenting, freezing rain over his head.

(He thinks, as Amy smirks and bends a rapid torrent of water toward his sternum, flinging him halfway across the training room, that he’s weak for her in a different way.)

 

---

 

It had never occurred to him to measure the intensity of his flame. He’s always figured that the fire he produced was hot enough – hot enough to take down perps, hot enough to never turn the heat on in his apartment, hot enough to discreetly keep Amy’s coffee warm throughout the morning. (If she’s noticed him repeatedly finding excuses to pick up her mug, she hasn’t said anything about it.)

Charles, of all people, makes him check. “Hey Jake, do you know if you can keep a flame constant at say 350 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit?”

Jake turns away from his computer screen to look at him, his brow scrunched together in confusion. “Why?”

“I was thinking of doing an open-fire roast for the precinct’s Turkey Day dinner this year.”

“Boyle, you want me to firebend our main course?”

“It would make me so happy.”

Noting zero sarcasm in his response, Jake shrugs then swivels his chair back to his desk. “Okay, yeah– But ask Gina if we can book the training room for this. I’m not firebending a turkey in my apartment.”

 

---

 

It turns out that being a walking furnace really does have its perks. Or at least that’s what Jake realizes as Amy burrows into his side, pressing her nose into the crook of his neck.

“You’re warm,” she mumbles sleepily, exhausted from the day’s departmentally-mandated sparring practice and the just-as-steamy bedroom activities that followed.

(It had to have been well over their thousandth time facing off in the precinct gym, both of them familiar enough with each other that they could anticipate nearly all of their attacks… Except he really could never have foreseen Amy’s final move: completely disarming him, not with a tidal wave but with a kiss.)

Warm?” he scoffs teasingly. “I think you mean hot.”

She groans loudly but cuddles closer to him still, her smile burning against his bare skin.

 

---

 

He gets thrown for a loop when their major serial murder case boils down to a ring of firebenders, all stuck in their old way of thinking.  

“You’re not them,” Amy reminds him, running a gentle but steady hand down his back.

I could be, he thinks. Because even now – especially now – in the calm silence of the evidence lockup, he can feel the sheer power thrumming beneath his skin. All it would take is for him to get too angry or too drunk or too anything, and the worst could happen.

“You’re a good person, Jake,” she says, her tone more firm than before. “You always have been.”

He swallows thickly and nods, letting her pull him into a long embrace.

 

---

 

If there’s one thing he’s wished he could do with his firebending, it’s healing. He’s watched Amy do it countless of times, stepping up as the precinct’s unofficial healer whenever necessary. He’s felt the soothing power of it himself – cool water coaxing at his skin, repairing everything from a black eye to a bloody nose to a stiff back.

Right now, watching the love of his life start to bleed out before his eyes… He’s never felt more helpless.

Damn it!” Jake yells, pushing his jacket into her side, willing the bleeding to stop. With the shooter knocked out and cuffed in the corner, he’s finally free to assess the damage. “When is the ambulance going to get there? You need a healer, now!

J-Jake,” she chokes out, bringing a shaky hand to his clenched fist. “F-f-fire c-can cauter-r-rize.”

He lets out a sharp gasp, his eyes wide with shock. “You want me to burn you?!” He shakes his head vehemently. “No, Amy, no. It’s too dangerous. I could kill you–”

“Y-you won’t,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. The open trust in her eyes makes him want to sob. “Jake.”

“Okay,” he says, wiping hot tears with the back of his hand. “Okay.”

 

---

 

“Can you do the twinkling lights again, Uncle Jake? Pleeaaase?”

It’s bedtime at the Jeffords household, and two little girls are decidedly not asleep.

“Please, Uncle Jake? Aunt Amy? One last story and the twinkling lights?”

He meets Amy’s gaze and raises an eyebrow. She shrugs, her lips curling into a smile. “I suppose just one short book wouldn’t hurt. Right, Jake?”

He hums, feigning thought while glancing at the clock. “We might have just enough time before your daddy and mommy get back.”

Cagney and Lacey cheer as he switches off their bedside lamp, and then watch with glee as he fills their room with dozens of tiny, carefully-placed flames. He makes them flicker with a precise movement of his hands, makes them float like fireflies in the night sky.

The twins fall asleep soon enough, lulled by the soft tone of Amy’s voice and the amber glow of the lights.

Sometimes Jake forgets how enchanting fire can be.

 

---

 

Yet again, he’s at the mercy of a waterbender.

This time, it’s his daughter, only two-weeks-old and somehow already able to cause ripples and waves as she moves a tiny hand through the warm water in her tub. She lacks any real control, which is perhaps the biggest problem.

“Amy!” he calls out, equal parts awed and panicked. There’s nothing much he can do right now, apart from maybe distracting the baby with a dancing flame. (Not that he’d allow her anywhere near fire, at least not yet.)  

 

---

 

“I’m going to be a waterbender like Mommy,” his son declares one day, with all the confidence of a child that’s crossed the jungle gym for the first time. He’s a little older than most kids are when they start bending, but it’s too early to be concerned about it; he could just be a late bloomer. (Granted, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t start bending at all. They’d love him just the same if he were a nonbender.)

“How about firebending?” Jake jests lightly, feeling a bit wounded but also kind of relieved.

“Hmm, maybe,” Max shrugs, before running off again to play.  

Of course, of course, when the boy eventually does start bending, it’s a scorching stream of fire that bursts from his small outstretched fist. He’d been mimicking the probenders they’d seen on TV the day before, copying their fighting stances down to a tee.

Jake meets his eyes and sees the same mixture of fear and amazement he’s come to know so well. He quickly takes control of the wild flame, tamping it down to a low ember before gently passing it back to his son.

Max nurses the glowing warmth between his two palms, staring at it in fierce concentration. It flares too-strong for a moment, then recedes but doesn’t fizzle out.

Jake nods at him and smiles, pride blossoming in his chest.

“That’s it. Use your breath, son.”