They were supposed to be his.
Two silhouettes sat by the edge of the cliff, above an ocean where the setting sun became a liquid gold reflection on the waves. Their heads were bent close together as they whispered, the palm of their hands lied flat against the stone, barely a finger-width apart. The sound of waves colliding into the steep slope was deafening, enough to drown their conversation out. Enough for them to drown the rest of the world out.
Jet wrenched his gaze away. Resisting the urge to look back, he slunk back to the other side of a nearby outcrop. His footsteps were not nearly as smooth as they would have been on wood, but the sand swallowed any noise from his clumsy footing. As he continued onwards, he spotted the cave they found earlier that day. Not too far away was their boat, pulled up onto the shore.
A modest amount of light was pooled at the foot of the cave, granting him just enough visibility to see the packs they brought with them. Three bedrolls neatly stacked together, a few canteens propped up against the walls, stray nuts and berries stuffed into a pouch, extra clothing and other materials placed in another bag, medical supplies carefully organized in a kit.
He remembered bountiful harvests stored in wooden pantries and a makeshift armory full of blades and armor and, of course, barrels upon barrels of blasting jelly. The smell of tar after an explosion was heavy and pervasive, but the forest was endless and the air cleared soon enough.
Now, it was all gone. Seventeen years of living freely only to be reduced to a pathetic cave that held only the barest of human necessities. He dropped to a crouch, rummaging through the tools bag for some spark rocks.
“You don’t have to use the spark rocks, Jet. We’re trying to conserve our materials right now.”
Katara stood at the cave entrance, eclipsing the little sunlight left. And closely following her — Zuko, former Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.
Once, she was a girl with a smile in a fiery forest and he was a boy with a scar on a crowded ferry. Once, they were supposed to be his.
Even as his fists clenched on the spark rocks, Jet forced a carefree smile onto his face. “Sorry, Katara.” His voice switched from genuine to contemptuous. “I forgot about your firebender.”
An angry flush crept up Katara’s face while Zuko flinched behind her. “Can’t we try to get along?” she huffed, dropping a stack of wood onto the floor. Jet didn’t answer.
Together, she and Zuko knelt down to pile the wood into a cone shape. Zuko spared him a wary glance before shooting two fingers at the kindling. A fire flared to life.
Jet forced himself to watch the flames, though he purposefully kept his gaze away from Zuko’s face. If he looked, he was certain he would see the flickering fire reflected in his eyes, like shifting waves of gold, ebbing and flowing. He nearly laughed at his own comparison of Zuko’s eyes to water — even the all-powerful prince of fire could be conquered by his opposing element. Perhaps Katara held more sway over the firebender than he gave her credit for.
As if sensing his thoughts, Katara frowned before taking out a few sticks, each with a fish gutted at the end. “So we did our share of the fishing. Did you manage to hunt anything down?”
“Of course.” Jet gestured at the dressed and cleaned deer-rabbit lying on their makeshift table, a wooden stump with a cloth on top. “Though I’m a little surprised I caught it in less time than it took for you two to finish up. Then again, you two were probably busy with other… activities.”
“We were talking about our plans,” Zuko said.
“And you’re sure that’s all?”
“Yes,” Katara said emphatically. “We took a long time discussing because we still need to find Aang,” she glanced over at Zuko. “And Zuko’s uncle.”
She held a fish over the fire. With a flick of Zuko’s fingers, the fire grew hotter and the fish was cooked within minutes. They did this for each of the fish they caught, Katara rotating the stick while Zuko stoked the flames. How ironic it was that water and fire were working together, Jet mused. How naive.
When they finished, Zuko cautiously looked to Jet. Jet glared at him, finding satisfaction in the small sigh it drew from Zuko. “Just…” Zuko waved in the deer-rabbit’s direction. “Do you want me to cook that?”
Jet wanted to snap back at him. As if he’d ever trust dirty Fire Nation scum, as if the prince wouldn’t take the chance to burn him when he was close enough to do so. But before he could say anything, Katara spoke.
“We should save it,” she said. “We’ll preserve it with salt, and take it with us on our way to Piandao’s estate.”
“Piandao’s estate?” Jet wrinkled his brow in confusion. “Who is Piandao? And why are we going to his estate?”
Zuko and Katara quickly looked at each other, holding the other’s gaze for a few seconds and silently deciding whether Jet was trustworthy enough to give information to. They were both too easy to read. Jet pushed his anger down.
Finally, Zuko addressed him. “He’s one of my uncle’s contacts. And he was my former teacher,” he added quietly.
Katara raised an eyebrow at that. “You didn’t tell me he was a firebender.”
“He’s not. Piandao is a master of the blade. My cousin helped sneak me out of the palace for a few lessons before.” His features softened as he spoke, eyes distant with reminiscence.
“I thought the swords were decorative. Why fight with swords when you can burn the world down with fire?” Jet asked sardonically. Nevermind the fact that he’s seen Li use his dao before, movements fluid and precise as if the blade was simply an extension of his body.
Zuko stared at him disbelievingly. As soon as he realized Jet wasn’t going to admit anything, he redirected his attention to bite his fish with too much force. Katara shot Jet a warning look before nudging Zuko playfully. “I bet your sword skills don’t stand a chance against my water disks.”
A crescent moon glowed in the rapidly descending night. Zuko tilted his head in its direction. “Right… How about you try that when the sun is up?” His delivery was awkward and uncertain, but there was no mistaking the lighthearted challenge in his tone.
A surprised smile lit up on her face before it transformed into a smirk. “Don’t think I forgot ‘you rise with the moon, I rise with the sun.’ I’m not giving you any advantages.”
A half-hearted groan. “How can you bring that up so casually?”
“What’s the point of you being my former enemy if I can’t even tease you over it?”
Zuko flushed before furiously biting into his fish again. Katara’s expression was smug, but her eyes were tender. Jet frowned.
They were so different. Gone was the girl who blushed in his arms as they ascended to the treetops. Gone was the boy who spoke as curtly as possible yet readily gave his assent to steal food for a ship’s worth of refugees. There was a whole history between them, this Katara and Zuko he never knew, one that he could never have anticipated.
He saw them by the cliffside again, the shadow of their outlines so close that they were almost touching. He saw them now, tentatively teasing and smiling and laughing and trusting. And where was he in all this? Jet was losing them while he was forgotten and discarded — once, twice, thrice.
Katara said something that drew a rare smile from Zuko. It didn’t make sense. The prince was no innocent villager (except there was no such thing as an innocent villager in the Fire Nation), he was her enemy. His people killed her mother; his people burned his face. Where was the Katara whose gaze held adoration? Where was the Li whose small nod spoke of his respect? Gone, lost to another life.
Jet abruptly told the two that he was going to sleep. As he buried himself into his bedroll, he shut both his eyes and the noise of their bantering out. He could kill them both in their sleep, slit both their throats while they were helpless, rid the world of a monster and a traitor, a tyrant and his waterbending whore. Only he wasn’t so sure that if her dying breaths would be pleas from the Katara-of-before, or if his eyes would snap open with the burning clarity of Li. No, he couldn’t let them die yet, not when they were supposed to be his.
Yes, yes, that was it. He lost everything twice over, so he could take these two back, right? They were supposed to be his, and if he was patient enough, he would have them again. Everything else would follow after that — his home, his purpose, his meaning.
The fire died down to a few stray embers. Jet fell asleep.