Jean’s mom had always told him he’d get himself into trouble picking fights.
Although in this case, what he’d picked was turning out to be less of a ‘fight’ and more of an ‘oh-holy-shit-earth-air-fire-and-water-this-is-it-this-is-really-it-I’m-actually-going-to-die.’
“You have to find your center,” his mom said, taking his wrists and tugging his arms out, at right angles to his sides. “Keep your shoulders steady, and bend your arms in, til your fingers touch—good.” She straightened up, bringing her own hands in and pressing her palms together at the center of her chest. “That’s where it all begins. Everything flows from your center—“ she shifted, weight on one toe extending first one arm, then the other as she transferred her weight from foot to foot, “—and everything returns to it.” She repeated the movement, and this time the water in a bowl on the floor rippled and lifted in a shimmering globe, rolling down her arms and across her shoulders, fingertip to fingertip.
“But that’s water,” Jean complained, legs getting stiff from standing to attention. “Water doesn’t work for me, it’s all so slow—“
I’m moving too slow…He hared around a corner, curling his fingers into a fist and firing a sloppy, unfocused fireball over his shoulder. It splashed harmlessly against the stone behind him and a grappling hook cracked into the wall a few inches from his face. The fine steel cord went taught and then retracted past his ear with a deadly whirring noise and he bit off a strangled yell between his teeth as the edge of the hook slashed across his cheek, sending another hot stream of blood rushing over his skin.
He kept running, panting between his teeth, trying to count the narrow alleys but that was getting harder by the second with blood and sweat dripping into one eye and the other swelling shut and the sick, dizzy throbbing in his temples.
“Take a deep breath, I think it’s over.” Even his mom’s soft voice made his pounding head ache as she rubbed her hand in soothing circles over his back. “You’re okay, sweetie.” Her cool fingers rested against the gash on his temple, still sluggishly leaking blood. “You didn’t see who threw it?” Jean shook his head miserably.
“It was ice,” he mumbled, wiping his mouth. “Probl’y bent it, could’ve come from anywhere.”
“Oh sweetie…” she picked up a damp cloth and pressed it against the wound. Jean shivered at the cold and tugged it out of her hands. A second of concentration, and he handed back the steaming, towel. At least he could do that.
“Don’t let ‘em get to you.” His mom ruffled his hair, and he grumbled in annoyance. “’Listening to those idiots is about as much use as…as…”
“As a firebender in the south pole?” Jean suggested, and threw up again.
Was that four alleys? He was pretty sure that was four…he really fucking hoped it was four as he skidded on the slick dirt road and dove off around another corner, the yelling behind him seemed to be getting louder and angrier but maybe that was just the headache…he was still bleeding…he was bleeding a lot…
Jean looked up and instead of the familiar square plinth of the Cabbage Corp statue there was a blank wall, bare wood planks slimy with mold. He was too winded even to swear, slamming his hands against the wall as if he could make the dead end disappear, vision getting fuzzy and he could barely see the bloody handprints he left on the cracked planks, those metalbender assholes were really making noise now, he slumped against the wall vaguely aware of a freezing blast of wind….
“Mama, it is freezing up here,” Jean complained, shielding his eyes from the blasting wind.
“Suck it up sweetheart. I want to try something,” his mom yelled back from the helm of her fishing boat, while Jean huddled against a sidewall trying to get out of the wind. She lowered her arms and the boat drifted to a gentle stop, water around them growing calm. “I think maybe we’ve been going about this wrong. Have you ever seen a lightning bender?”
“I’ve barely ever seen another firebender,” Jean reminded her, hesitantly uncurling as the wind of movement died down.
“I saw the Fire Lord do it at a festival, once,” his mother explained. “Not long before you were born.” She smiled, a little wistfully. “About nine months before you were born actually…what a night that was…”
“Sorry, hon. I’ve always had a weakness for amber eyes. Anyway,” she continued as Jean wretched theatrically, “that was the first time I’d ever seen lightning. And you want to know a secret? He moved like a waterbender.”
“The Fire Lord?”
“Zuko himself. Let’s give it a try, hey?”
"Hey, hey, shit, come on, ohshit please don’t be dead—”
There were words, even if he didn’t quite register the meaning, someone shook his shoulder roughly, cops, LIGHTNING—
Jean flung his hands up in front of him, slapping at the hands reaching for him, trying to focus through slitted eyes and all he managed was a faint fizzle of blue sparks around his fingers.
“Don’ touch me,” he tried to snarl but it just came out slurred and frightened.
“Woah, easy!” The figure in front of him caught his hands, but it wasn’t the rough, crushing grip he’d been expecting, the hands on his were gentle, warm and…wet? ”Take it easy Zuko, I’m trying to help you.”
Jean took a deep breath, and opened his blackened eyes as far as they’d go. He was slumped in the dead-end ally, at the base of a bloody smear on the wall, someone knelt next to him, face illuminated by a soft, pulsating blue glow…
Jean blinked and his breath stuttered. The damp hands holding his let go and the guy next to him spread his fingers, droplets of water collecting in the air around them, leaching off his skin and Jean’s and their clothing, forming a little glowing puddle in the air above his palm.
The water spun itself into a narrow thread and wove between his fingers, the glow brightening, and he gently lowered his glowing hand until it was the barest fraction of an inch over the deep gash in Jean’s bicep.
His rescuer reached up with his free hand and tugged at the cord around his neck, drawing a tiny leather flask out of the collar of his faded, greyish tunic. He caught the cork between very white teeth, and more water flowed up out of the little bottle, joining the pool over Jean’s arm and spreading out across the friction burns left by steel wires, leaching away the pain….
“”I thought healin’ was a girl thing,” Jean slurred. What am I talking about, Mama couldn’t heal for shit… His rescuer laughed softly.
"That’s what they tell me. Hold still, Zuko." The dark haired kid curled his fingers in (fuck his fingers were long, moved like he was playing an instrument, or braiding silk, or…or pretty poetic shit like that) and the water pulled into a tight globe, the soft blue glow almost blinding white.
“‘S Jean…” he felt himself slip sideways a little, leaning hard against the wall behind him, as the waterbender balanced his little liquid sphere on one fingertip and raised it to the cuts on Jean’s face.
"Marko. This might sting…sorry…" The light softened again, and Jean felt the swelling around his eyes recede. He blinked, trying to focus on Marko’s face in the soft bending-light. He didn’t look all that water-tribe, with dark skin and a shaggy mess of black hair that looked like it was trying to escape his head, and worn-out, non-descript clothes that could’ve come from anywhere. His big, bright eyes, almond shaped and turned up at the corners, were dark, liquid brown, not waterbender blue…Jean would’ve guessed he hailed from the earth kingdom, were it not for the ribbons of water currently rolling over his face, slowly closing up the rents left by the —
"Where’re the police!" he gasped in sudden panic, trying to sit up and sending Marko’s water splashing off in all directions.
"They’re not here—Jean! Hey!" Jean’s head spun with the sudden movement and he slumped back, stomach heaving. "They aren’t here, you’re okay—" Marko seemed to hesitate for a second, and then his arm settled comfortingly over Jean’s shoulders.
It was at that point Jean realized that he was not, in fact, leaning against the solid wall; he’d flopped back against Marko’s chest. Not that you could, from a brief touch, tell the difference between the solid wood and Marko’s muscles. Wow.
While Jean was wrestling down the sudden rush of blood to his cheeks (and just his cheeks, he thought stubbornly), Marko was attempting to gather his water back, without much success. ”Shit,” he sighed, sliding his little leather flask back onto its cord and tucking it into his shirt again. ”Can you stand? There’s a fountain in the main street, I can try to fix up your face.”
"What, this?" Jean shrugged off Marko’s arm and dragged himself up the wall, resolutely ignoring the fresh wave of nausea. Even that wasn’t bad…shit, this water-tribe kid knew what he was doing. He touched a finger to the slice in his cheek, still tacky with blood. ”It’s nothing, don’t—woooah—” he tried to take a step, and when the ground stopped trying to buck him off Marko had one arm around his waist and a faint smile on his lips.
"While I’m not too modest to admit I’m pretty damn good," he said, grabbing Jean’s arm and slinging it over his shoulders, "I can’t actually regrow blood cells. C’mon, let me go get some more water…”
"S’nothing," Jean protested woozily, leaning heavily into Marko’s side. Jean wasn’t particularly short, but this dark skinned bender had a few inches on him, and he was supporting nearly all Jean’s weight on one arm, holding him up like a child. "You could kiss cuts like this better…"
"Ok," Marko said with that faint, soft smile again…and then he shifted Jean effortlessly in his hold, so that they were facing each other, and pressed his soft lips just to the side of the raw wound. "All better?"
So this is what dying feels like, Jean thought vaguely. It didn’t occur to him to protest when Marko looped an arm around his waist again and started gently walking him out of the muddy alley. He was extremely aware that the end of the cut on his cheek extended down across the corner of his mouth…a kiss would probably make that a lot better too, he thought with the happy logic of the mildly concussed.
"At least let me get you home," Marko said softly, close to his ear. "Do you live far from here?"
"Hah? I uh…no, just right around the what in the actual fuck is that.”
They’d turned the corner, back into the wider alley that fuck-up gang of cops had chased Jean down…which was now occupied by an impressive, spikey avant-garde sculpture in the medium of dirty ice and semi-conscious policemen.
"I told you they weren’t a problem anymore," Marko said. His voice was still soft and light, but there was a distinct edge to it now, like the soft crack of an avalanche about to fall. Jean just leaned weakly on his shoulder and stared.
"Remind me not to piss you off, Freckles."
"I don’t like bullies," Marko said softly. "Especially not bullies with uniforms." Jean looked up at him, at the sudden ice in his formerly warm eyes, and decided not to ask. He didn’t like the sudden hardness in Marko’s expression. He especially didn’t like the familiarity of it.
"You’re crazy," he said hoarsely. Marko smiled, some of the warmth returning.
"That’s my line. You started it. "
Jean didn’t answer immediately, pressing two fingers to the tingling spot on his cheek. “Y’know, I’ve never been so glad to get my ass kicked.” Marko laughed, and it might have been the concussion talking but Jean thought maybe there was a tinge of pink to his tan cheeks, under the freckles.
“Where do you live?”
“Uh…tea shop, Kiyoshi’s, right past the fountain…above there…not very far…”
There was a knot of policemen in the central square, conferring in fast whispers. Jean’s chest clenched in panic, but Marko squeezed his hand and steered him calmly right past them, without the faintest hesitation. None of the metalbenders spared them a glance.
“Go ‘round the back,” he mumbled to Marko. “There’s stairs…’m on the top…floor…” Marko balanced Jean on one arm and dragged the back door of the little tea shop open, as Jean’s entire body screamed at the thought of the six flights up to his little attic flat. “C’mon, fast, before—“
“Jean? About time, the oven’s almost Holy Mother of Earth what happened to you?”
“Hey Sasha…” Jean sighed miserably, avoiding his landlord’s eyes. “It’s a long story…sorry…just gimme a chance to change clothes—“
“Oh hell no.” Sasha shook her head vigorously, ends of her long ponytail slapping against her cheeks. “The world will not be out of balance if I light the ovens myself once in awhile. You look like you need a doctor.”
“I can heal,” Marko told her softly. “I’ve got him.”
Sasha gave the waterbender a long, appraising look. “One hair on his head out of place and I’ll drop an actual house on you,” she said eventually, with a cheerful smile.
“Earthbender?” Marko asked, sounding amused, as she bustled away again. Jean just shrugged helplessly.
Marko looked from the steep, narrow attic stares to the battered firebender on his arm, and then scooped Jean off the ground, oblivious to his protests. He was barely winded when he set Jean back on his feet at the top, six flights later.
“You some kind of pro-bender or something?” Jean mumbled, trying desperately not to blush as he fished for his keys.
“I wish I made that kind of money,” Marko sighed. “I worked on the fishing boats back home.”
“Yeah? My mom’s a boat captain. Southern water tribe.”
Marko grinned. “Northern. How’d a firebender end up on the south pole?”
Jean grimaced. “Let’s just say I was a big surprise. For everyone. My mom was sixteen when she had me.” The sticky cast-iron latch finally shifted, and Jean shouldered the door open, stepping into his tiny, sunlit attic room. “You don’t have to come in,” he mumbled, avoiding Marko’s eyes. “It’s…pretty tiny.”
“It’s nice,” Marko said sincerely. “And I’m not leaving ‘til your head’s cleaned up.” He seemed, thankfully, inclined to just let the remark about Jean’s mother slide.
“Suit yourself,” Jean shrugged. He flopped onto the nest of blankets on the floor, standing in for the bed he hadn’t been able to afford, and glared at the fireplace beside it until it flared to life, spreading blessed warmth through the tiny stone attic.
He wasn’t aware Marko had knelt beside him until he heard the soft slosh of water; he turned to see Marko settling himself crosslegged on the blankets, Jean’s lone cup in one hand.
“Hold still,” he said, twirling his fingers and gathering threads of water into his palm again.
“Why are you doing this?” Jean asked. Marko didn’t answer, brows tight with concentration as the water twined around his fingers began to glow again. “How did you find me? H-how—“ he was on thin ice, but he was tired and in pain and his head throbbed too hard for his rational mind to stop the words, “How d’you know I didn’t deserve—“
Marko put his dry hand on Jean’s shoulder and cupped his face with the other, long fingers resting to either side of the gash on his cheek. Jean broke off with a stuttering gasp, the gentle hum of Marko’s healing magic leaching away the ache and the unpleasant pull of dried blood on his skin.
It had been a long time since anyone had touched him.
“You needed someone to find you,” was all Marko said, with that warm smile and Jean was all too aware of how fast he was breathing, unable to think past Marko’s gentle touch even though exhaustion was making his head spin.
Marko pulled out the little round flask again, and refilled it with the water spinning around his fingers…it was a turtleduck, Jean realized, a little carved-leather turtleduck with a turquoise stone set in its shell…and Marko’s hand on his face was gone and he could barely keep his eyes open, the warm oblivion of sleep rushing up to enfold him in the emptiness left behind by the pain.
When Jean awoke, it was to a black sky outside the windows and the soft, slow crackle of a banked fire. He’d been cocooned tightly in his blanket-nest on the floor, the raw cuts on his arms and face now just faint stripes of reddish-pink skin. Marko had even taken off his ripped, bloody shirt…Marko…
There was soft movement behind him, and Jean turned over, shaking some of the blankets loose as the heat from the low-burning fire sank into his bones. He sat up, slowly, chest going tight again but this time, not with fear.
Marko had his back to him, flickering gold firelight glowing on the curves of his bare shoulders; his worn out, non-descript tunic and jacket were folded in a corner, though he still had a martial artist’s wraps on his forearms and the cord of his little leather turtleduck around his neck. As Jean watched in silence, he straightened up, muscles flexing under his soft skin, held out his arms and brought them into the center of his chest, pressing his palms together just like Jean’s mother had tried to teach him, years ago.
Marko rolled his neck, inhaling and exhaling slowly and evenly (the freckles that spattered his cheeks continued down his neck, in unruly patches across his arms, the dip of his spine between his shoulder blades where the knot of the cord around his neck rested) and as he breathed out all the tension seemed to flow out of his stance, muscles relaxing one by one so that when he began to move it seemed as natural as water rolling off a stone.
This was what his mom had tried to explain to him, what he’d never been able to wrap his head around…Jean swallowed, hard, as Marko moved through the forms. It was different from the exercises he’d seen Southern benders do, faster and sharper, but his mom’s teachings were there nonetheless, endless circular motions flowing from the center and returning to it, each cycle leading to the next.
Marko turned on the balls of his feet, weight shifting from one leg to another as he moved his arms to keep his balance. His black-tea eyes were open, soft and distant with concentration in the low golden light, but they focused as they slid across Jean’s face, his lashes dipped lower and he smiled as he turned away, almost as though he’d expected Jean to be watching. The fire flared and popped at Jean’s back, trying to burn hotter than its coals would allow.
He completed the cycle and brought his hands back to center, and Jean got hesitantly to his feet, too many words in his mind to let him speak. Marko exhaled and raised his head, looking up over his shoulder. His unruly hair had worked itself loose from the tie that barely kept it contained, and he shook it back out of his eyes with a flick of his head, smiling when the fire flared again.
It gave Jean the permission he’d been looking for, the courage to break his hesitance, step up close behind him wrap his arms around Marko’s waist, sliding his hands over his warm skin faintly slick with sweat. He pressed his face into Marko’s neck, shutting his eyes tight afraid to break this silent, firelit spell and felt Marko’s arm come up, felt his shoulders flex against his bare chest and he ran his long fingers through Jean’s hair, slow and patient until his grip relaxed enough for Marko to turn in his arms.
“You sure?” was all he said, and Jean was desperately grateful for the tremor in his voice, the flutter of the heartbeat against his chest a little too fast for simple bending forms, grateful for the heat in Marko’s eyes when he nodded and the way he gasped when Jean tangled a hand in his hair and kissed him.
It was slow, slower that Jean would have liked if not for the ache of his injuries holding him back, but underscored with a kind of shaky, needy urgency, both of them holding on too tight and too unsure and Jean wondered if maybe, just maybe he wasn’t the only one of them lonely and longing to be touched…
He tugged Marko backwards, trying to pull him down without breaking away from his lips and sending them both tumbling gracelessly into his nest of blankets. He laughed awkwardly, suddenly shy, propping himself up on his elbows as Marko leaned over him, nuzzling his nose against Jean’s sharp cheekbones.
“This isn’t ‘cause I helped you, right?” he whispered, voice raspy and breathless, and Jean just blinked in confusion. “You don’t owe me for healing you, you know that? You don’t owe me anything.”
“I know.” Jean slid his hands into Marko’s hair (it was soft, his hair was so soft tangled around his fingers, it smelled a little like the tang he remembered on the air back home when the first snows of winter blew in off the ocean) and Marko sighed, shaky and relieved.
“I wanted to kiss you,” he whispered, eyes still shut, so close that his long lashes brushed Jean’s cheeks. “Really kiss you, back there in the alley, I wanted it so bad—“ and Jean cut him off with another kiss, this one harder and surer, Marko’s mouth opened against his and his tongue flicked across Jean’s lips. His hands on his shoulders pressed him back, into the cushion of his blankets, he opened his eyes as Marko leaned over him and his turtleduck pendant swung forward and whacked Jean right in the nose.
Marko covered his face and laughed as Jean yelped and rubbed his stinging nose. “Sorry, I tend to forget it’s there.” He pulled the pendant off over his head, and Jean seized the opportunity to catch Marko’s shoulders and flip them, swinging a leg over his hips as Marko’s breath caught and the leather turtleduck slipped out of his hand.
When they kissed it was slower again, both feeling out the other, hands wandering as they felt out eachother’s pleasure. Jean couldn’t keep his hands off Marko’s chest, sculpted with the kind of muscle that came from years of serious labor and Marko arched into his touch, head falling back with a smile as Jean trailed his fingers down the line of black hair on his belly and Marko tugged him back down into another kiss, hissing and biting his lip when Jean hesitantly dipped his fingers beneath the waistband of his pants.
Marko groaned a curse and rolled Jean off to one side, shoving his pants down over his hips. Jean scrambled to follow suit and the second they’d both kicked their clothes off Marko grabbed him, whipped his long arms around Jean’s shoulders and crashed back into the blankets, kissing him with genuine hunger and Jean gasped and clutched at him as their bare hips met.
There was still an edge of uncertainty, even as they fell into a rough rhythm, Marko’s fingers digging into his hips. He wasn’t sure of Marko’s intentions in this, wasn’t sure of his preferences until Marko caught his hand and brought it between his legs, Marko’s arms around him, nails scoring red trails across his pale skin as Jean pressed in, fingers first then all the way, gasping Marko’s name against his lips, heart hammering wildly against his ribs. Marko clung to him, buried his face in Jean’s neck and his teeth caught the curve between his neck and shoulder as Jean held himself still, letting him adjust, ‘til Marko squeezed his hip, pulling him foreward telling him to move, and Jean just fell into it, fell into him, lost in the sight of the graceful, controlled waterbender coming apart in his arms.
Marko broke first, slid a hand to the back of Jean’s neck and pulled him down into a bruising kiss, gasping and biting the firebender’s lip when he came, and the sudden sting was all it took to push Jean right to the edge, scrambling to pull back in time. Marko knocked his hand away as he reached down to touch himself, and Jean moaned through gritted teeth, letting his head drop against Marko’s chest as his calloused fingers closed around him, sending his brain into sparking oblivion.
Jean came back to himself with Marko’s arms around him, stroking slowly down his back as the last of the shivering shocks faded. He tipped his head back, clumsily finding Marko’s neck and pulling him into a tired, sloppy, grateful kiss as the exertion caught up with his battered body and he sank into sleep with the memory of the kiss still on his lips.
The final time he awoke, it was to an unpleasant chill, bright light hurting his eyes and something round and hard digging into the small of his back. The fire had burnt itself out, nothing but a heap of dead gray coals. The sun was high in the sky, throwing too-bright light through his east-facing windows. And Marko was gone.
Jean sat up, shivering, and wrapped a blanket tight around his shoulders. He stood, surprised at how easy it was, and peered into the mirror propped up on the sink in the corner.
There was no sign of the ugly gash ever having been there. Even the bruises around his eyes and the smaller splits in his lip were gone, and his muscles weren’t so much as sore…Marko must have finished healing him while he slept.
He’d left the purpling bruise at the base of his neck, though, and the pink scratches on his back. As though they were memories, reminders, not wounds to be healed away. Jean turned away from the mirror, pulling his blanket tighter around him, and something caught in the folds slipped loose and clattered to the floor.
Jean knelt, knowing what it was before his fingers closed around the leather shell.
He stayed like that, kneeling on the floor of his empty room, for a long time, Marko’s pendant clutched tight in his hand.
Bet you thought I forgot about this thi ng
Marko woke before dawn with a stomach-twisting jolt, eyes flying open to an unfamiliar ceiling and a heavy weight on his right side—
He managed to clamp down on the panic response just in time, remembering where he was right before the panicky adrenaline sent him flying to his feet. He shut his eyes and took a long, slow breath, in through the nose out through the mouth, forcing his body still as Jean shifted in his sleep, nuzzling his warm face into Marko’s shoulder.
You could stay…Marko thought to himself as his skin tingled. You don’t know it’ll go bad—
He squeezed his eyes shut, breaking off that dangerous train of thought, and gently disentangled himself from the sleeping firebender. Jean mumbled grumpily, eyes crinkling as he rolled into the warm space left behind, and Marko’s stomach twisted again.
Why did I stay? He thought, refilling the wooden bowl of water as quietly as he could. …’cause he was hurt and scared and he hasn’t been touched in a long time…and neither have I and he was grateful…
He lifted his hand, palm up, and let the water pool in the air about his hand—good, clean water, he realized, not the dusty stuff the aqueducts poured in from the hills. Jean’s sweet-faced landlady must have a well.
He’d learned to heal with water melted out of the glacier, liquid ice clear and sharp as a diamond, and this cool, mineralized groundwater almost felt like home again.
Marko gently tugged the blankets back, and Jean squirmed and grumbled again. Marko settled his hand over his temple, letting the water warm and glow around his fingers. “Just sleep, sweetheart,” he whispered, gently nudging him back into slumber. “Stay asleep…”
Don’t wake up, don’t look at me with those eyes again, let me heal you and let you go, don’t let me find a reason to stay…
He was grateful and you were lonely and you thought why not, why not it’s just one night. You didn’t count on him holding onto you like an anchor, didn’t count on him laying you down and kissing you like you were the only thing that mattered in the world…
You didn’t count on it being so hard to walk away in the morning.
He spread his fingers over the gash in Jean’s bicep, letting the water guide the work as his mind wandered. The skin was closed and the swelling faded, and his worked his way through the deep bruises in the muscle, from the bottom up, feeling his way…Jean’s whole body was a mess of fading bruises and old cuts and the jagged note of an old broken rib…he wasn’t starving, but his skin clung to his bones in places and the shadows under his eyes were too dark and too hollow for someone so young and he’d kissed him like he was scared that Marko would vanish the instant he let him go don’t give me a reason to stay.
He saved the head wound for last, knowing that if anything would wake Jean up it would be the painful process of closing the hairline fracture in his skull. He whimpered, faintly, and Marko was hit once again by the fluttery desire to kiss him. His head tipped to the side and Marko hesitated, touching a fingertip to the dark bruise at the base of his neck and the warm flutter in his stomach pulsed at the memory.
He didn’t trust himself to heal the marks on Jean’s neck. He’d already stayed too long.
So there was no harm in lingering one more moment, to run his fingers over the sharp lines of Jean’s face, stroke his hair and kiss him, one more time, on his parted lips…
Despite his hesitancy, the sum was just barely breaching the horizon when Marko left, a faint yellow smudge behind layers of heavy rainclouds. Fat blowing rain slammed against the roof over the narrow stairs, already full of the smell of baking bread. He should’ve guessed the owner of a café would be up before dawn.
The owner of the café also seemed to be capable of hearing through solid stone: she was waiting on the landing that opened into her warm, cave-like kitchen, holding a steaming mug.
“Not trying to sneak out on us, are you?” she said, extending the cup.
“He’ll probably sleep all day,” Marko said softly, avoiding her gaze. “If he knows what’s good for him.” He was agonizingly aware that his tunic wasn’t tied and his hair was a sweaty, ruffled mess and there were probably hickies he didn’t know about.
She just smiled, lifted his wrist by the sleeve and forcefully curled his fingers around the mug; her hands were small but crisscrossed with thick callouses, practically scars, like the rope-scars sailors got. “Jean wouldn’t know ‘good for him’ if it bit him,” she said cheerfully. (Marko awkwardly rubbed his tender neck.) “But you brought him home and took care of him all night, at least let me make you breakfast.”
The spicy black tea and the warm bread smelled too good to say no, and the wind was slamming against the little stone building harder every second. Marko followed her through the kitchen to the little parlor of her tea shop.
Kiyoshi’s felt like a place out of time, a throwback to the old days of the Earth Kingdom before the Republic formed and the walls of the empire opened. He sat at the counter, where the heat from the big stone ovens spilled into the room, and sipped the powerful tea.
“My name’s Sasha, by the way.” Jean’s landlady waved a hand and a loaded earthenware plate zipped across the counter.
“Marko,” he mumbled, picking up a nut-studded roll. It smelled incredible…how long had it been since he last ate? Sasha smiled her warm smile and came around the end of the counter to sit next to him with her own mug of tea. She lifted her right leg onto the stool with a faint wince, massaging out some point of pain in her hip.
“You look like you’re a long way from home.” Marko raised his eyebrows, and she shrugged. “I see a lot of people come through here…you learn to spot the signs.” She smiled again, and her eyes flicked towards the stairs at the back of the shop. “My regulars say I attract strays.” She refilled his cup from a round green pot. “Where’d you blow in from?”
“Blow in from…”
The wind always smelled like the sea when it blew in off the ice caps, and sometimes like rust and iron too when the fat fishing trawlers scraped off the drydocks, sitting high in the water ready for the nets to load them down with tons of squirming silver, chunks of ice bouncing off his legs as they guided the ship back into the bay (chunks of ice cracking apart when his back hit the icepack and the ocean closed over his head blood floating up through the water in long dark spirals as the light at the surface faded behind the reforming ice—
“I worked on the fishing boats,” he said.
“Yeah? There’s not many of those around here.”
“You are wasted on the dry docks, kid, and I don’t doubt you know it,” the old woman said as he dangled upside down from the tendril of water around his ankle and hacked the seawater out of his lungs. His head spun as she dropped him by the fire burning on the center of her little raft, he remembered smashing through the ice with the force of the fall before the ocean picked him up and spat him out on this little wooden island.
“Heal, kid,” she told him as she cleaned the blood from his frostbitten hands. “You’ve got power, more than I’ve seen in a long time, and that means you've got a choice to make. Every day you've got a choice to make." She released his hands and sat back, tucking up her braided hair into two loops that framed her face. "Heal all you can.”
“I’m a healer,” he told Sasha, trying to sound certain. “Or I’m tryin’ to be—“
The front door of the shop banged open admitting a gust of wind and rain.
“I’m closed!” Sasha yelled without looking around.
“You’re open now!”
Sasha rolled her eyes at Marko and slid off her stool (keeping her weight off that leg again) and Marko froze absolutely solid as a couple of metalbender police clattered into Sasha’s tea shop.
“—another goddamned backwoods water bender blowing holes in my goddamn city—“ the older of the two banged his helmet on the counter, sending silverware bouncing in all directions, and reached for a mug.
“You could light a fire with your smile, Heichou,” Sasha said cheerfully, pulling a heavy black kettle off the iron stovetop.
Heichou, Marko thought. That’s a title…and Sasha thumped her fist on the counter, and the scattered forks flipped neatly back onto the plate.
You’re not just an earthbender, you’re a metalbender. What’s someone who can bend like that doing running a tea shop…” blade scars and calloused hands, she called the police captain Heichou and walked like she was favoring a bad injury, cop you’re a retired cop—
You’re a retired cop and I told you my name—
Marko grabbed the first handful of coins he could come up with and dropped them on the counter, backing towards the door by the kitchen. “For the tea,” he grunted. “Thanks…”
“Aww, Marko wait--!” Sasha spun towards the door in time to see it slam behind him. She rounded on the police captain with a murderous glare. “Levi, what did I tell you about terrifying my customers?”
Captain Levi made a noncommittal noise into his teacup, grabbing a roll off Marko’s half-empty plate. “Who was that, anyway?”
“Funny you should ask.” The captain reached for another roll and Sasha nudged the plate out of his reach. “He brought home the kid who rents the upstairs room from me last night.” She leaned down on the counter to meet the captain’s eyes. “Tell me something, Levi…why would a sweet south pole kid who picks up shifts at the power plants most days turn up with steel cord burns all over him?”
For a long, silent moment Levi said nothing, his pale eyes searching her face. “I’ll trade you,” he said, eventually. “A bunch of Triad kids tried to smash-and-grab a Cabbage Corp wagon yesterday, and it ended with six officers frozen in a giant chunk of ice. Why would a water bender who packs that kind of a punch be hanging around in an alley off of city center?”
The silent stare held, and Sasha gritted her teeth in frustration. “Levi—“ she began—
The captain’s eyes widened, and then his nose wrinkled theatrically. “Motherfu—“ he blurted, and then sneezed explosively.
Sasha brightened up at the sneeze and looked towards the door as it opened to admit a young man in the robes of an air acolyte. “Connie! You’re early!”
“Stay away from me, you walking ball of allergies,” Levi snuffled.
“Sorry man, it’s shedding season,” Connie said, leaning over the counter to kiss Sasha. “There is no escaping the bison hair.” The captain grabbed his helmet and recoiled.
“If your waterbender comes back, I want to talk to him,” he said with a sigh, flexing his muscles to tighten his armor around his chest.
“I’m off the force Heichou,” Sasha said with a sigh, her eyes downcast. “I don’t report on leads anymore…if Marko comes back to heal Jean I’ll talk to him. Just talk.”
“’Just talk’s all I want, Sweetheart,” Levi said softly, and turned to go.
“Hey, Levi?” The captain looked back over his shoulder, and Sasha leaned forward over the bar again. “There were cord burns on his arms and the back of his neck. He had grapnel cuts on his face,” she said, flatly. “You don’t accidentally land a face hit with a flying hook. You try to kill someone, and you miss.” While they’re running away from you, trying to cover their head with their arms, she added silently. Levi closed his eyes, the lines on his face deepening, and nodded shortly before he ducked back out into the pounding rain.
“Sorry, baby. How’s the bison—Connie?” Sasha turned back to her fiancé and broke off at the look on his face: he looked almost frozen, his normally bright eyes dull and distant.
“You met a waterbender named Marko?” he asked, with a faint, sad smile.
“Hm? Yeah, he brought Jean home last night…north pole kid, I guess.”
“You talked to Marko?” They both started, and turned to see Jean standing in the kitchen doorway, leaning dizzily on the frame. He glared at Sasha. “You lit the ovens without me.”
Sasha laughed. “It’s almost ten, honey. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“’m fine.” Jean waved her off and grabbed a roll, tilting his head to the side as he did so. “See? He fixed me.”
“Damn.” Sasha whistled at the clear patch of pink skin that had been a bloody lesion less than twenty-four hours ago. “He is good. I don’t think the temple healers could get something that clean that fast.”
Connie’s teacup smashed on the flagstones.
“He was a healer?” His wide eyes flicked from Sasha’s face to Jean’s as they stared at him in shock. “A healer from the north pole?”
“And his name was Marko? Sasha, you’re sure his name was Marko?”
“Pretty sure,” Jean grumbled before she could answer. “Connie, what’s—“
“Tall? Freckles? Looks a little earth kingdom around the eyes?”
“Sounds about right.”
Connie sat down, hard, as though the sudden manic energy had just drained right out of his body. “And a turtleduck pendant…he’d have a little leather bottle carved like a turtleduck,” he whispered, mostly to himself.
Wordlessly, Jean stuck a hand in his pocket. “With a turquoise stone in the middle of the shell?” he said, pulling out the pendant and letting it dangle in front of Connie’s face. “You know him?”
The air acolyte reached out and brushed his fingertips over the little duck’s leather shell, like he was expecting it to evaporate at his touch.
“I knew him, yeah.” His voice was soft and flat with shock. “He’s been dead for five years…”