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He Can't Go Back

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He first spotted him on the ferry.

His pretty profile was enough to warrant a second glance, revealing what looked like dual swords slung comfortably over his shoulder, and guarded body language offset by his seemingly relaxed expression. When he turned to talk to the older man next to him, it wasn’t his soft, sad voice that fully caught Jet’s attention, but the scar, which couldn’t be from anything other than a burn, that marked him as more than a warrior – he was a survivor.

He was like Jet.

He found himself walking over without conscious thought, smoothly sliding into his conversation with the older man – his uncle, Mushi, all too eager to introduce Li – and securing his help that evening. An evening in his company would be enough to charm him, he hoped, into sticking around.

***

The night was a whirlwind of silent footsteps and close quarters, an acute awareness of the other’s actions as they worked in tandem. The boy moved like a shadow, smiles flickering across his face in the thrill of it, only to vanish behind a guarded expression. That was okay. Jet could get through to anyone with enough determination, and this boy was too good to let go.

When they left the ferry, he extracted a promise to meet again at a café by the docks in two days’ time. He was sure he’d have managed to keep him with him and the gang had he not wanted to stay by Mushi. He’d almost have been annoyed at the old man, had he not been an ally, encouraging Li to talk to him, and befriending Smellerbee and Longshot, leaving the two of them alone. (Even if he’d fought Jet, he still couldn’t have hated him, not when every action he took was for Li’s benefit, in one way or another.)

***

They never met in a café again after that first day. No, after that, their meetings varied between Pao’s tea shop and Jet’s cramped room with Bee and Long. And, of course, the rooftops high above everyone else, where they played deadly games of tag and dodged the Dai Li and Li proved a second time that, yes, he absolutely knew what he was doing with those swords.

Their spars were rough, no holding back, no rules. Half the time their swords were abandoned as they rolled around in the dirt, sweating and panting. Li had a vicious mouth that suggested time at sea, his temper long gone as he met someone who could match him, blow for blow. Jet’s teasing comments probably didn’t help with that either, but Li was so pretty flushed with anger and embarrassment he couldn’t help himself. Didn’t want to. He liked seeing him as he was – unrestrained and free.

Every time, Jet was bruised and sweating and grinning, following Li’s shadow across the rooftops, always too quick for him, his form barely visible in his black bodysuit that fit him unfairly well.

***

Every night they met Jet wanted to tell him, and every night they met he didn’t.

***

Sometimes when Jet swung by the tea shop, Li was stuck in the front working double-time to serve everyone who wanted his uncle’s near-famous tea, and Jet found himself talking to Mushi as he watched his brews.

“I’ve always found,” Mushi said on one of these days, “that it is those who believe themselves fearless who have the hardest time taking the truest risks.” He looked at Jet with that little twinkle he’d perfected, the one that Jet absolutely knew not to trust. “You and my nephew are both quite similar in that way. You do not flinch at the harshest battleground, but shy away from simple words.”

Jet loved the old bastard. “You say Li’s the same?”

“That’s not what I said, if he asks,” he replied, but the twinkle gave him his answer.

He told Li that night. The old man was right of course.

(Li had fretted his uncle would worry when he didn’t come home, but Jet knew better.)

***

They split off from their groups and found a place together, where they could be alone, hidden away from the world, at least for a night.

 Jet told him stories about his scars, burns and cuts across his chest and arms from his fight against the fire nation. “This one here was a raid that went wrong, it was a disaster let me tell you, while this one I got for being a stupid punk-ass kid who didn’t know what he was doing, and this one I dropped my swords and told everyone it was from a fight, don’t tell Bee and Long, okay…”

(He’d return to the fight one day, he knew, but he’d learned the hard way that he needed to get his head on straight first. He was no good to anyone when he stabbed at sparks and damned the people around them without thought.

He was safe here while he waited and sorted himself.)

***

A celebration of some sort swept through the lower ring. Every building was lit with coloured lanterns; from every window, ribbons dangled into the street; every surface glittered with childish trinkets. Children ran wild through the busy streets dressed as spirits, holding expensive treats they would never normally waste their money on. The stars seemed to laugh as they twinkled.

Li smiled, his face young and small and delicate like porcelain. Jet held him the entire night, pressed up against him as he watched his joy.

They kissed under the fireworks, and the world melted away.

This, Jet decided, his soul warm and happy and calm, was love.

***

Li kissed each of Jet's scars and listened to his stories with reverence, but never spoke of his own.

It took several nights for Jet to get through all of his, whispered stories in half-darkness, Li watching and listening, rarely speaking, his voice a soft caress when he did.

“That’s the last of them,” Jet promised eventually, laying back on their tiny shared futon. Li joined him, taking one of Jet’s hands in his, and together they listened to the sounds of the never-sleeping city around them, the dim lanterns outside providing the only light.

Li had always lain so that his good side faced Jet. Jet was never sure if he was trying to present Jet with his best look, or just keeping his better eye on him when he slept. He wasn’t sure which idea he hated more.

That night, however, when he looked at Li, he realised he saw none of the beauty that had first caught his attention, but instead the mark of his history that had cemented his attraction.

Neither of them spoke for the longest time, content to be with someone that could not only protect them if they needed it, but could protect themselves, and wouldn’t be dragged away by the pasts they’d each dragged each other into.

“It was my father.” Li didn’t look at him as he gave his near-silent confession. It was difficult to read his expression on this side of his face, but the slight downturn of his mouth indicated a severe frown.

Jet didn’t respond, didn’t interrupt, but squeezed his hand to assure him he was listening, he was there. He pushed past the revelation of what that meant about Li’s heritage. He’d suspected something for some time (those eyes) but knew that evil did not live in an apron in a tea shop, under those steady hands, in that survivor’s gaze. It was easy to accept that he’d been wrong about one thing in the past when he knew he’d been wrong about so much more.

“I was disrespectful, and I earned it,” he said to the ceiling, features thinly outlined in amber lantern light, “I can never go back.”

Jet kissed his face, gently, sweetly, and didn’t ask him to continue. Li curled up closer to him, relaxed for once, the weight of secrets lifted from his shoulders.

The next day he wondered what sort of man who would brand his son, and feared what else he might have done. He forced himself not to think about what Li meant by ‘earned’, choosing to assume Li was proud of himself for standing up to him (not ashamed of the action that lead to him getting it).

He didn’t realise how bad it was until it was too late.

***

He’d betrayed Uncle. Uncle betrayed him.

He’d ruined the life he’d built in Ba Sing Se. He was going home.

 “What if father doesn’t restore my honour?” he blurted to Azula. What if all of this wasn’t worth it?

“He doesn’t need to, Zuko,” his sister rested her hand on his shoulder, claw-like fingernails not quite digging in, her expression soft, kind, for once (a lie, as always, but he would accept it just now). “Today, you restored your own honour.”

Her reassurances washed over him. She was right, of course. She was father’s favourite, she knew how to make him happy, and he could trust her far enough not to betray him (could he?).

“I have one thing still to do before I leave the city. After that, I’ll be done here,” he promised.

***

Ba Sing Se was burning, and Li and Mushi were missing. He’d scoured everywhere he could think that they could be, twice, and checked most of the rest of the city too.

Bee and Long had convinced him to stop and rest for a minute, that they’d keep looking and he’d be no help to anyone in the state he was in. He was back as his apartment he’d shared with Li, twitching at every sound and trying desperately to sleep. The sooner I sleep, the sooner I can get back to searching.

He’d been just about to give up on sleep altogether – he could sleep when he found him – when Li came through the front door.

The half-second between spotting him there and grabbing him to kiss him senseless (oh thank the spirits he’s not dead) was enough for him to see that something was wrong. He planted one last kiss and pulled back, not releasing his white-knuckled grip on his robes.

He looked at him, pale and bruised and good eye slightly red, and waited. The unspoken rule was that they didn’t ask questions, only offered answers, but Jet needed to know what had happened.

Eventually, Li cracked and sagged into him, hands coming up to Jet’s waist, head resting on his shoulder. “I did something. I don’t know if it was the right thing. I… I don’t think it was. Uncle didn’t approve.”

Mushi. “Where’s he?”

“Captured.” Li tried to step back, Jet moving with him. He refused to look him in the eye. “He betrayed the Fire Nation.”

Something cold dropped into Jet’s stomach. His hands loosened. “Li, what did you do?”

Li’s breath caught for a second. “I restored my honour. My – my father will forgive me, and I can go home.”

His father? Li wanted to go back home? Jet thought back to Li’s confession that night, so long ago, trying to figure out how he could have misunderstood him so badly. He tried to focus on the more easily digested part of what Li had said.

“You helped them take Ba Sing Se.” Jet should be angry at the betrayal, he knew, but there was only this depression washing through him. “You betrayed this city, our home, for that monster?”

Li blinked, stepping back fully. Jet caught his wrist, gently. “What do you – he’s not – he’s my father, that’s my home, my real home, of course I want to go back-“

“He burned you, Li!”

“I deserved it!” Jet stared at him in horror. This was inside Li’s head the whole time, this was what he thought of himself, and Jet hadn’t even realised. “He never would have done it if I hadn’t disrespected him. I was a coward and I was weak; I needed to learn.”

Jet was supposed to be angry, it would be easier if he was angry, so why were his eyes so damp? He pulled Li back into himself and tried to breathe evenly. Li returned the hold with vigour, opening his mouth to speak a few times, but never saying anything. There must be more, then. That was okay, he could deal with this, for him, he could do this. Jet just needed to take a minute to hold him here, safe, and then he’d figure out how to fix everything.

Li’s scar, his words, his utter confusion (of course I want to go back’) swirled around in his head: Jet knew deep in his bones that none of what Li had done was his fault, not when he was this messed up inside. He forgave him without a second thought, clutching him ever so slightly tighter.

He couldn’t quite forgive himself for not realising sooner, but he knew he would in time, as long as he could stop Li from going back to that asshole. He just needed this minute with him, to deal with all of this, and then he could get to work.

He didn’t have a minute, as it turns out.

“How much longer will you be, Zuzu? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we have a lot to do today before we can go home.”

Li jumped – actually jumped – pulling himself away from Jet, his hands curling into fists to hide how they shook. He whirled around to face the girl leaning against the doorway, disdain and amusement playing across her face. Jet found himself hating her instantly, even as something about her froze his blood. She was involved with the people who’d hurt his Li. Judging by his reaction, she’d hurt him personally. By her own admittance, she planned to pluck Li from his grasp with a few honeyed words, and Li was confused and hurt enough that it could work.

He didn't know what to do.

“Azula.” Jet took a half step back as sparks flew from Li’s fists. Firebender. His hand was on his sword before he realised what he was doing. Azula glanced at him, her smirk widening a fraction at his reaction.

“I told you to wait downstairs,” Li said, his attention fully on her as if Jet wasn’t even there.

“I got bored,” she said simply, ignoring Jet as well, “And maybe I wanted to meet your little boy-toy.”

“He’s not-“ Li puffed up like an angry wolf-bat. Jet found himself bristling too, but didn’t know what to do about it. Anger would do nothing against her and her sharp words, and he knew - just instinctively knew - that a physical fight was out of the question. “Don’t call him that,” was all Li could say.

She examined her nails. “It hardly matters either way when you're breaking up with him.” Jet flinched, and she locked eyes with him for a second. She was enjoying herself, twisting a knife in Li’s back just for the fun of it. “You know Father would never approve. Is he even a bender?”

‘Father’. She was his sister. If she took Li, she would be around him all the time, stabbing him with her words. Just being here was giving her more ammunition to use later. She’d use him to hurt Li, and there’d be nothing he could do about it.

(If just his sister is this bad, how much worse is their father?)

“S-swordsman.” Li was stiff, soft-voiced, his anger having bled away into poorly concealed fear.

“Pitiful. Though I suppose it’s hard to do better than that, with the state your face is in.” Li didn’t even seem to notice the insult.

Without warning, her entire demeanour softened, just a tad, but far too quickly to be real. “We’ll find you a girl back home that father would approve of, and everything will go back to how it was.”

Li let out a breath, shooting out a short tongue of flame with it. Jet managed to hold back the flinch that time. “I just need another minute, Azula.”

“You say that, but it’ll be an hour if I leave you alone. We don’t have time for that.” She took a hold of his wrist, pulling him out of the room with her. “You’ve said enough, Zuzu, he knows what happening, let’s just go.”

Li - Zuzu? - protested weakly as she led him away, his steps a reluctant shuffle. He looked back once, apology in his eyes, not seeming to notice Jet’s panic – she was taking him back to her father.

It was like he’d blinked, and she stole him away.

Jet stood stock still, heart in his throat, trying to think of anything he could say to make him stop for a minute, just so he could make him understand that he couldn’t go home, he wasn’t safe, they hurt you can’t you see that?

The words caught in his throat. Azula smirked at him over her shoulder, and Li was gone.