Zuko hadn't realized, until a few days ago, that Aang and the others knew Jet. He supposed it made sense, given how widely they'd traveled. Still it was a strange thing to watch, played out for him by poor actors reciting bad lines, and Zuko wondered how much truth there was in it. Jet had told him about his Freedom Fighters, about how they'd lived in the trees and kept the Fire Nation from pushing further East into the forest. Jet had said he'd wanted to leave his old life behind him; that a girl he'd known had made him wonder, a little, about how much he'd really helped anything in the end. But he hadn't mentioned the death of his own family; how young he'd been. Zuko supposed the playwright could have added this tragedy for color, but he suspected that wasn't the case. It rang true, after all, explained the edge of madness in Jet's eyes as he'd burst through the door of the teashop, and as the Dai Li had dragged him away.
It was hard to see the real Jet in this imitator that pranced across the stage. Like all the other characters, he was a laughable shadow of the boy Zuko knew. Jet was smooth and confident, his smile disarming and his words easy to believe. Zuko remembered running behind him along the upper deck of the ferry, watching his lean body, the deadly precision of his movements. Zuko had learned not to trust anyone, and yet when Jet had promised to watch his back, Zuko had believed him.
Once he'd let down his guard, it had been easy for Zuko to continue that way; to watch himself as he did things he would normally never have considered. Jet had that effect on people, judging by the way Katara blushed and turned away as her character swooned in his arms. Zuko knew how she felt. As the actors twined together on stage, he remembered how he'd allowed Jet to lead him away on his own, to press up against him in the engine room, well inside the boundaries Zuko usually drew around himself. He watched Jet's character swing hooked arms as he dueled with Aang, and felt his cheeks grow warm. When Jet had reached for him in the dark, it hadn't been cold metal that slid inside his robes.
Jet had told him, that first night, that he'd done things he wasn't proud of; that he'd come to Ba Sing Se to start over, to give himself a second chance. Maybe this — the ruined village, the fight with Aang — was what he'd meant. For a time, Zuko had considered doing the same. It would have been much simpler to lose himself in the boy whose name was Li, just another refugee trying to scrape by.
Zuko had found it hard to refuse what Jet had offered on the train platform. He'd liked Jet, even though he hadn't a clue how to act around another boy his age. And even before those hours spent below deck, he'd admitted to himself that Jet probably liked him, too, which had been a very strange feeling. When Jet had asked him to join his gang, the part of Zuko that was Li wanted to say yes. He'd imagined what it might be like to have a friend, someone to run alongside him over the rooftops and to spar with in back alleyways. And maybe to share a bed with at night, if Jet pushed the matter and if Zuko decided to allow it. But he'd known that wasn't a life he could ever have; wasn't even what he wanted, not really. So he'd turned Jet down, and tried his best to forget about him.
He hadn't, of course. The memory of Jet's hands, the way his stubble had scratched the soft skin of Zuko's throat, lingered even as the weeks passed. Then Jet had thrust himself back into Zuko's life as quickly as he'd left, screaming truths no one wanted to hear.
The first act ended, and Zuko dawdled as the others made their way toward the rear of the theater.
"We're gonna go get some fresh air," said Katara. "You coming?"
"In a minute," said Zuko. He hoped they'd blame the edge in his voice on his annoyance with his character — which was intense, admittedly — and not think to look past it. He needed the time and space to get his thoughts in order. It probably would have helped to talk to Aang, but he felt strangely reluctant to do so. He'd been keeping this connection from them; hidden this secret without even realizing it. He wasn't ready, just yet, to give it up.
Zuko sat in their box and stared at the heavy, red curtains. He wondered what else might make it into this play; how many more old wounds would be torn open, bleeding his shame across the stage for everyone to see. He'd made so many mistakes, and now he had to sit and watch as they were paraded before him. What more would he have to bear? He imagined this Jet on his knees in the back of a carriage, his arms behind his back, and shuddered. At the time he'd told himself there was nothing he could do, but now he was less sure. The only thing he was certain of was that he'd stood there and watched as a boy who'd once been kind to him was arrested — arrested because of Zuko and the secret he kept.
He'd met dozens of people as he crawled his way across the Earth Kingdom, so many that their faces blurred together into an anonymous countenance, thin and worried and tired. A few stood apart, and their shadows had darkened even the sunniest days in the palace. The burned girl whose ostrich horse he'd stolen; the boy he'd given his knife to. But Jet haunted him in a way none of the others did. If he closed his eyes, Zuko could still see his wide smile, teeth white against dark skin made darker by a lifetime outdoors. He did so now. He could almost pretend that the low murmur of voices was the soft sound of waves, whispering as they broke against a wooden bow.
Such a short time together, but it nagged at him. He hadn't wanted to listen to the things Jet had to say, but even now, months later, he couldn't forget them. After years of banishment, he'd thought himself beyond the reach of the old propaganda, too worldly to be blinded by it anymore. He knew the war was messy, complicated in ways he hadn't realized when he was young. He was used to blanket hatred, to being cursed by ignorant peasants who cared only that their land and their sons had been taken away, and he allowed himself to pity them. He wasn't heartless, after all.
Jet wasn't a man you could pity. He wasn't ignorant. His hatred was as sharp as it was all-consuming, the truths it was rooted in difficult to dismiss.
"You killed all of them? The whole convoy?" The rumble of the ship's Earthbender engines had been loud, rocks crashing against each other in the massive turbines, but Zuko hadn't had to raise his voice. They'd tucked themselves away in a storage closet, stretched out on the dusty wooden floor with their heads pillowed on coils of rope. Close enough for whispering.
"Yeah," said Jet. The room was too dark for Zuko to see his face, but his tone was matter-of-fact, disarming and unnerving at once.
Zuko knew that he should get up and leave right now, before this could go any further. He could feel himself slipping into this place where he didn't belong, talking with this boy who had so much blood on his hands. But he didn't want to go. His hands were stained, too. He knew what it was like, to be caught up in something bigger than yourself, pulled by currents you couldn't control.
"You can't just kill people because they're Fire Nation," he said, as if it were that simple.
"Yeah, I can," said Jet, and for a moment he sounded dangerous. "I have. And I'll do it again, if I get the chance." He paused, his body taut as he breathed in and out, shallow and uneven. Then he sighed, and Zuko felt the warm weight of the other boy's arm slide across his chest. "They're tearing the world apart, Li. I'll do whatever I have to."
Zuko found that the arm didn't bother him — that would have been ridiculous after what they'd done. He would never have thought he'd end up here, lying in a closet with the taste of another boy's come on his lips, but it had happened, and here he was. Zuko was tempted to blame his situation on Li — to pretend he was only playing a part — but he knew that was foolish. He would have said no if he'd really wanted to, however persuasive Jet might be.
The arm didn't bother him, but the words were another matter. He could forget, sometimes, that he was a prince. For a few minutes at a time, he could forget that he was in exile, that every minute spent on this foolish journey across the Earth Kingdom was time lost to his search for the Avatar. But he could never forget he was a Firebender. He felt it in his gut with every breath he took, a low burn that ebbed and swelled as the sun rose and set. And in moments like this one it pooled in his groin and then spread through his limbs, so hot he felt his skin must be burning with it.
He closed his eyes, pushed the fire back down again. That wasn't who he was right now.
Zuko swallowed and tried to find a way to phrase his thoughts that sounded reasonable, like something Li would say. "Most of them were probably new recruits," he murmured. "Just kids. Some of them weren't even soldiers."
Jet's arm tightened around him. "How old were you when you got that scar?"
Zuko never spoke about this, not to anyone. No one dared to ask, and if they had he wouldn't have answered. But he'd allowed Jet so many nevers that night, and now he allowed this question as well. "Thirteen," he said, and saying it was easier than he'd expected. "I was thirteen years old."
Jet's grip on him was hard enough to hurt, his hand clenched on a fistful of Zuko's shirt. "The Fire Nation doesn't care if you're a kid," he said, his voice hoarse. "The Fire Nation doesn't care if you're a soldier. All they care about is whether or not they can use you, whether you're worth keeping alive. You're cattle to them, or else you're dead."
"They're not all like that," said Zuko, not able to stop himself. "Most of them are just regular people. They're just doing what they're told."
Jet's bark of mirthless laughter cut through the rumble of the engines. "What they're told?" Zuko expected him to pull away, then, but he pressed even closer, and Zuko could feel that he was trembling. "How do you think the Fire Lord gets away with all this shit in the first place? Because other people stand by and let him. Because the Firebenders do what he tells them to, and the rest of that fucking country stands aside while he burns the world to the ground."
Zuko's mouth was very dry. "That's not fair-"
"Of course it's fair," Jet snapped. "It's true. It's the ones who don't do anything that really get under my skin — the ones who just sit on their asses and let things happen. They're the worst of all. Cowards on top of everything else. At least the bastards torching our villages don't pretend it has nothing to do with them. At least they look us in the eye before they kill us."
"We're all soldiers in this war, Li. We all have to do what we can."
They'd stayed in the engine room all night, sometimes talking and sometimes not, hours melting together in the sunless bowls of the ship. But even as Jet's mouth sought his in the dark, Zuko knew they would never be together like this again. This lie was too dangerous, too difficult for him to maintain. He had no way of knowing what Jet might do if he knew the truth, even some small part of it.
Zuko remembered standing together on the bow of the ship, talking quietly as they watched the city walls rise above the water. He remembered the careful distance he'd maintained, his arms stiff and straight at his sides. He remembered Jet's question in the train station, his own inevitable refusal, the steaming cup of tea that he now knew Jet must have seen.
Sometimes he wondered how things might have changed, had that moment gone differently — if Uncle had used better judgement, or if Jet had looked away in time. Jet struck him as persistent, and Zuko imagined him sitting in the tea shop in much better spirits. Maybe he would have joked with Uncle, or needled Zuko into helping him with some plan or another. Maybe he would have been there when Katara wandered into the Jasmine Dragon. So much had happened in those final days in Ba Sing Se, a chain of cause and effect Zuko could never have predicted, small coincidences building on each other until the city collapsed beneath them. It was strange to think that a cup of hot tea might have made all the difference.
Zuko stood abruptly. He'd sat here long enough, and his friends would wonder what was keeping him.
His friends. Aang the others were his friends, now. After everything he'd done to them, they'd forgiven him. They'd believed in him, believed that he could change, and he had. As he stepped out into the hall and scanned the crowd for familiar faces, Zuko thought once more of that fallen city. He couldn't know for sure, but he imagined that Jet and the others were still there, scraping by as best they could. They didn't care about hopeless odds or scarce resources — from what Zuko could gather, it had always been that way for them. Hell, they'd probably gathered together a little army of their own by now. Jet wouldn't stand by and watch his people suffer; he'd fight as long as he was able to.
Maybe someday, when all this was over and the world was less complicated again — just then, Zuko wasn't interested in allowing for the possibility of failure — they'd meet again. Then Jet would see that they weren't so different, really; that after all the slips and stumbles, after all his mistakes and all his failures, Zuko wanted the same things he did. When the time came, he was sure, his actions would speak for themselves.
He would wonder, later, why he wasn't more upset as he watched Jet's actor disappear beneath a paper mache rock. Maybe it was the absurdity of it, the disconnect between the cheap props and bad acting and the realities they implied. Whatever the reason, Zuko's voice was steady when he turned to Sokka and asked if Jet had just died.
Sokka frowned, considering. "You know, it was really unclear," he said, and Zuko couldn't tell if he meant the play itself or what had actually happened. But Zuko didn't ask. He watched in numb silence as the rock was cleared away, and later he remembered very little of Appa's triumphant return.
Then his character pulled Katara into his arms, and Zuko let out a long, slow breath. This was just a play.
Still, it weighed on him. In the hall, Toph wondered why he was so down, and he told her how it was different for him. How it took the mistakes he'd made in his life and shoved them back in his face. They spoke of his Uncle, then, and her words were more comforting that he would have guessed. She was right, he knew — Uncle would forgive him. That was his way. But Uncle wasn't the only thing on Zuko's mind.
Their conversation dipped into a natural lull, and Zuko broke it cautiously. The fight at the tea shop hadn't made it into the play, nor had the days spent on the ferry. "You were there, under Lake Laogai," he said.
Toph's expression sobered. "Yeah, I was."
"Then you saw what happened. With Jet."
"Yeah, I did."
Zuko pulled his hood down further, though he knew it had no bearing on her ability to read him. "So did he…" Zuko licked his lips. He found he didn't want to say it again.
"Well…we left so I guess there's no way to be sure, but…probably? Why?"
"No reason," Zuko murmured. "Just curious."
A torch burned close by, illuminating the balcony. Zuko watched the flame as it jumped in the light ocean breeze. He thought of the throne room, and of the second and last war meeting he'd attended there. The usual screen of fire had been quieted that day, unnecessary in the company of advisors and generals. Zuko had been equal parts elated and terrified, remembering what had happened at the last meeting, unsure what was expected of him now. He'd listened to General Shinu's report with his lips pressed tightly together.
He was surprised, then, when his father turned to him and asked so direct a question. "Prince Zuko, you've been among the Earth Kingdom commoners." His tone was thoughtful, a small frown on his lips. "Do you think that adding more troops will stop these rebellions?"
A hundred strangers' faces flashed through Zuko's mind, months of time and miles of distance passing in a moment. Then the storm of memory calmed, leaving only one face in its wake, jaw clenched and fists tight on the hilts of hooked swords. "The people of the Earth Kingdom are proud and strong," he said. "They can endure anything as long as they have hope."
"Yes, you're right." The Fire Lord's mouth twisted into a cruel, hungry smile. "We need to destroy their hope."
Zuko's heartbeat quickened. "Well...that's not exactly what I -"
Azula cut him off, her tone chillingly casual. " I think you should take their precious hope and the rest of their land and burn it all to the ground."
The plan came together quickly, the gruesome spectacle of it catching hold of the Fire Lord's imagination. They talked of air ships and plumes of flame, of harnessing the comet's strength to raze everything the war had spared, and Zuko listened in horrified silence, his stomach churning as bile rose in his throat. He remembered what had happened the last time he spoke out, forcing himself to concentrate on the memory of fire against his skin and the smell of his own flesh burning. There's nothing you can do, he thought. There's nothing you can say.
The meeting had ended without his speaking another word. He'd sat and done what was expected of him -- what he was told. And he'd never felt more of a coward, before or since.
"You okay?" Toph asked.
Zuko started a little, looking away from the flame. Her milky eyes were narrowed. "I'm fine. Sorry."
She punched him in the arm. "Stop worrying so much."
"Yeah, I'll try," said Zuko, forcing himself to laugh a little. Then, as casually as he could manage, "You know…I don't think Jet's dead."
Toph frowned. "Uh…okay."
"He's tougher than that. I'm sure he's fine." Zuko knew he was giving himself away, talking like this, but he didn't really care anymore. "He's probably running around Ba Sing Se right now with those friends of his. Messing with the Dai Li…blowing things up."
"Yeah, maybe." Toph turned her face toward him, which she almost never did. "I didn't really know him that well."
Zuko thought back to that dark, wooden room; the feel of long, calloused fingers against his skin; and the sound of a low voice in his ear. He realized, then, that Jet had never really met him. Not as he was now. Zuko wasn't that boy on the ferry anymore -- not Li the refugee, nor the banished prince on his hopeless quest. For the first time in his life, he was just Zuko. Once the war was over, maybe Jet could be just himself as well.
"He's fine," Zuko said again, and found himself believing it. Maybe because he needed to. He'd done too much damage he could never repair, made too many mistakes that he could never take back. But not this.
This he would set right again.