Rich hated boats.
Chloe made fun of him for it, but it was true. He hated them. They were cramped, the made him sick, they were cold, and the ocean was terrifying. It wasn't like Rich couldn't swim or anything, he was fine with that - but the ocean was a big old mess of crap he did not want to go near. Who knew what was lurking in the water, just waiting for some moron to fall overboard for their dinner? Not to mention that being lost at sea was possibly one of Rich's biggest fears. There was nothing there. If you got lost at sea, there was a very high chance you would never be found again. He wouldn't be able to bend. Drowning was a very real and very painful cause of death. Also, sea monsters.
So no. Rich did not like boats.
"Well, tough titties." Chloe shrugged as they followed the captain to their cabin. "We need to get to the Water Tribe and we need to go now."
"We should be going to the Air Nomads." Rich muttered so the captain couldn't hear. "Air's next on the natural order of bending."
He waited for Jake to make some skeptic comment about how if the Fire Nation hadn't killed all the Air Nomads, maybe then they could've gone there, but he stayed silent. He hadn't said a word since they'd left the inn. Since they...
Nope. Not gonna think about it.
"Thanks." Chloe muttered as the captain showed them their room, pressing three silver coins into his palm. He frowned, looking at her expectantly. Chloe rolled her eyes. "You get the rest when we dock, remember?"
The captain grumbled something under his breath and left.
"Well, this is... Cozy." Michael mumbled as he wandered into the room. It was a glorified broom closet, with a small cot shoved against one wall, taking up a good third of the room so there was only about a large coffee table's amount of walking space. Cobwebs were tucked away in the corners, and grimy black mold ran up the walls like veins. Rich shuddered. It felt like there were spiders crawling up his spine...
"W-We can fix this!" He forced a smile. "Okay, uh - we have bedrolls in our packs, right? We can spread those out on the floor and sleep down there, and then there's the cot too, so, yeah! We can totally sleep here!"
"So, who gets the cot?" Chloe frowned.
"I'm sure Rich and Jake wouldn't mind." Jenna smirked wickedly. "After all, they're very comfortable together, right?"
"W-What?!" Jake squawked as Rich's face burst red. "Wh- We are not comfortable! He sucks! He's a firebender, I don't get comfortable with firebenders! He sucks!"
"... Wow." Rich said flatly, shooting him an unimpressed stare. "Thanks."
"Michael, you take the cot." Chloe said quickly, changing the subject with eaase. Rich shot her a grateful look. "It'll be safer that way. No... Injuries."
"Roger dodger." Michael saluted, leaping onto the cot. "I think I'm being stabbed by seventeen different springs."
"Not our problem. You guys, get your bedrolls and spread them out." Chloe ordered, getting her own roll from her pack and sprawling it over the floor like a blanket.
"Uh - Chloe?" Rich said quickly, eyes pleading. "Quick sidebar for a moment?"
Chloe rolled her eyes and grabbed his wrist, making to pull him out into the hall, but pausing at the silence.
"What?" She growled, glaring expectantly at Jake, who still refused to look in Rich's direction. "You wanna say something? Like, you're not letting us firebenders conspire or whatever?"
Jake looked away stubbornly, face tinted red. Chloe shrugged, dragging Rich outside.
"What's up?" She sighed, folding her arms.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Rich mumbled, staring at the floor. "Like - wh-what if I..."
"You're the one who said your nightmares were fine, Rich."
"They are! They are." Rich lied. "I-It's just, like, I don't really like boats so, th-they might happen again and, like, what if they freak out or..."
Chloe looked at him flatly.
"... I don't want them to know, Chloe." Rich sighed. Chloe softened and placed her hand on his shoulder.
"Hey." She murmured, pulling him to her and holding him close. "It'll be fine. I'll be right next to you for the whole night. We'll protect each other, okay? We always have."
"... Yeah." He mumbled into her shoulder, slowly wrapping his arms around her waist. "Thanks, Chlo."
"No problem, Richie." She smiled, patting his back reassuringly. "C'mon. Jake's probably throwing a fit right now."
"He's really not that bad." Rich sighed, pulling away.
"Yeah?" Chloe rose an eyebrow skeptically. "Then why have you two been so weird around each other lately?"
Because they kissed in the goddamn inn and yeah it was to scare away the guard following them but it also felt really nice which is weird because Jake is his friend, sort of, and friends aren't supposed to kiss but it still felt really nice and his lips were so soft and he tasted like sugar and earth and he held him so gently and oh god he really wants to kiss him again fuck fuck fuck-
"Nothing." Rich muttered. "Nothing, I - Jake's weird. You know how he is."
Chloe frowned, searching him for... Something.
"Whatever you say..." She said skeptically, walking back into the cabin and leaving Rich alone in the hall.
"You can do this." He muttered to himself. "You can do this. You're feeling kind of sick because this boat won't stop fucking moving, but you can do this."
That night, curled up on the floor, squashed against one wall and Chloe's back, all he could think about were Jake's hands around his waist and on his jaw, tilting Rich's head upwards, his mouth so warm and insistent on his own, holding him close, tight, hips pressed gently together, and, and, and...
Rich woke up with a gasp, cold sweat trickling down his spine. His throat felt raw, his scalp tingled.
His arms burned.
Chloe. Needed Chloe.
He turned, burrowing his face into Chloe's back, muffling his sobs in her shirt. His stomach felt like it had been stuffed with smoke and lead. His arms itched, they stung, they burned, the smoke was everywhere, up his arms, down his throat, into his organs, trapped in his lungs, he can't breathe, he can't breathe-
He's gonna be sick.
He jumped up and raced out of their tiny cabin into the hallway, almost tripping as he ran through the swaying halls of the boat until he finally reached the stairs. He bounded up them two at a time, flinging himself to the portside and retching over the side of the boat. It came up his throat like acid, lingering in the back of his throat like smoke, clinging to his insides and choking him.
After his stomach stopped convulsing inside him, he leaned against the barrier of the boat, resting his head against the cool metal. Everything hurt. His head, his throat, his stomach. His arms burned.
He shivered in the cold air. They must be nearing the South Pole. The air bit at his skin, a stark contrast to his burning arms. They clashed with his burns, making the sensation on his skin close to unbearable. Rich whined helplessly in the back of his throat, curling in on himself against the cold, leaning his head against the railing to try and ground himself. He felt his stomach churning, bile crawling up his throat. He gagged, all but throwing himself over the rail as he retched again, acid burning his throat and making his eyes water.
Tears rolled down his cheeks. It hurt so much.
Against the bite of the cold, he felt a warm hand on the small of his back.
"Shh." A voice murmured gently when Rich stiffened. "It's okay. Just relax."
That was kind of hard to do when his stomach was violently expelling all its contents. Rich just whimpered, clutching his stomach as he choked and gagged over the side of the rail.
"It's okay, you're okay. Just let it out. You're gonna be fine."
Rich choked one last time, spitting out the acidic contents of his mouth and collapsing into the person next to him, exhausted.
"It's okay." The person said again, holding him close. Their touch spread warmth over Rich's skin, soothing the burning sensation and washing away the icy cold. Rich made a small noise, tilting his head up so he could identify his savior.
"Shut up." Jake sighed, tucking Rich carefully against his side. "Just try to breathe, okay?"
"O... Okay..." Rich mumbled, his words slurring out of exhaustion. "W-Why... Why're you...?"
Jake rolled his eyes fondly. "You stepped on me when you ran out, moron. I was gonna leave it, but..."
Rich bit his lip and looked away. Jake was probably the only one who knew about his nightmares, besides Chloe. But still, Rich hadn't expected him to actually care.
"Sorry I woke you..." He said quietly. Jake huffed, nudging Rich's head with his nose.
"Shut up, dumbass. I wasn't just gonna let you have a breakdown on the side of the boat, 'specially not after hearing you rant about how much you hate 'em."
Rich looked at him curiously, his cheek pressed against Jake's shoulder. He'd actually listened to that? He'd actually cared?
"... S-Stop looking at me like that!" Jake snapped, looking away, a faint pink dusting his cheeks.
"Thanks." Rich smiled softly. "For caring."
"I - I wasn't-!" Jake spluttered, the faint pink growing into a bright red flush. "I wasn't caring, I was just - y-you're the Avatar, we have to keep you safe!"
"Right." Rich chuckled, still smiling. He nuzzled into Jake's neck sleepily. "Still. Thank you."
Jake made a noise like he was about to protest, but sighed and wrapped his arm over Rich's shoulders, pulling him impossibly closer. Rich sighed contently, soaking up Jake's warmth like a blanket.
"How are you this warm?" Jake frowned. "You're like a human campfire."
"Seriously?" Rich mumbled, gazing up at Jake with drooping eyelids. "I'm fuckin' freezing, man. You're - You're super warm. You're like... a fire crystal."
"Oh, right. Guess you don't have those here." Rich chuckled, his voice laced with longing. "In the Fire Nation, there were, um - there were these crystals. W-We'd harvest them from volcanoes and stuff..." He paused, waiting for Jake to sarcastically ask whether they harvested them through slavery or whatever (they didn't - well, as far as Rich knew. Maybe things had changed now that he was gone), but he said nothing. Cautiously, Rich continued. "So, they'd, um. The big ones would be like, super hot. We'd use them for heating and stuff, yknow? But the little ones... They were nice. You could just hold one in your hand and it'd warm you up. Kinda wish I had one now."
Jake frowned. "You wish you were back in the Fire Nation?"
"No!" Rich said quickly, laughing gently out of sheer disbelief. "Gods, no. Never. Well... Parts of it were nice. My mom. My brother. The forests and the mountains and the cliffs. Yknow, stuff like that? But... No. I don't wanna go back. I just-" He sighed, slumping against Jake's shoulder. "I just wish I could have the good stuff back. Just... Just for one day."
Jake looked away, gazing out into the ocean as if he wasn't quite there - for a moment, he was somewhere else. It looked like he was enjoying it. But then he came back, and the look was gone.
"I know the feeling." He said simply, not bothering to elaborate. Rich didn't pry. He knew from Jake's voice that he was telling the truth.
Rich let out a heavy breath, tucking himself into Jake's side so his arms were around his middle and his legs were moving onto Jake's lap. He waited for Jake to protest. He said nothing.
"I didn't know you had a mother." Jake said softly, his voice melding into the lapping waves. "Or a brother."
"You didn't think I had a mother?" Rich teased. Jake scoffed, pushing him gently, but with no real anger.
"Well, yeah, obviously, but - I dunno." He shrugged. "You never talked about 'em."
"You don't talk about your parents."
"Yeah." He said firmly. "And I'm not going to, so."
"That's fine." Rich said sincerely. "My dad sucks too."
"They don't suck." Jake snapped. "They just - they-" He huffed in frustration, grabbing his hair.
"It's okay, Jake." Rich murmured gently, pulling Jake's hand away from his hair. "You don't have to talk."
"... Sorry." Jake mumbled, glancing at their joined hands from the corner of his eye. Rich smiled, nudging his cheek with his forehead gently.
"Not just for that." Jake sighed, leaning his head on top of Rich's carefully. "I - I know I've been hard on you. It's just-"
"Jake?" Rich interrupted. Jake stopped, looking down at him curiously. Their faces were close - Rich looking up, Jake's face hovering above his. If Rich moved forward a little, their lips would brush.
No, stop. That's a bad thought. He shouldn't be having thoughts like that.
"Um." Rich cleared his throat, trying to bring his mind back to the subject at hand. "Yeah, I - look, I understand you're whole... thing, with me and Chloe. The Fire Nation attacked your home, enslaved your people, I - I understand why you hate us. Honestly, I would too."
"I don't..." Jake started, frowning to himself, like he was looking at a painting in a new way. "... I don't hate you..."
"You don't?" Rich frowned, cocking his head.
"No - I mean - ugh..." Jake sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I - I don't trust you. Not completely. A-And I know I'm hard on you and Chloe because - because it's all I've ever known, yknow? You're the - you're supposed to be the enemy, it's... It's weird. Having you be so normal."
Rich hummed, eyes flicking to his scars. He and Chloe weren't even on the same planet as normal.
"But I don't hate you!" Jake said quickly. "You guys - you are pretty cool. I just... I don't trust you yet. But maybe I will, if - yknow."
If the revolution succeeded.
"But..." Rich frowned. "If you don't hate me... Why have you been so weird lately?"
"Um!" Jake stiffened, his face flushing. Rich tried not to giggle. Jake looked funny when he was all flustered. Almost... Cute.
Rich winced. That was another bad thought.
"I wasn't - I haven't been-"
"You have." Rich said simply. "C'mon, Jake. You just saw me puke into the ocean. I think we're a little past boundaries right now."
Jake chuckled gently. Rich swore he felt Jake squeeze his waist gently but... No. No, that wasn't right.
"I guess, um..." Jake mumbled. "I was a little, um... A little weirded out. Because of... Because of what happened at the inn."
"Oh..." Rich said quietly. He didn't know why, but knowing Jake was that upset about the kiss made him feel kind of... Sad. "Sorry. I didn't mean to freak you out or anything."
"What?" Jake frowned. "Dude, no. I was the one who did it, nothing was your fault. I just..." He looked away and bit his lip. Rich's eyes zeroed in on the motion. "I dunno. Wasn't it weird for you? Like, I just... I just kissed you out of nowhere, wasn't - wasn't that weird?"
"I, um." Rich mumbled. "I didn't mind it."
Jake stiffened. "You..." He murmured, looking at Rich with wide eyes. "You didn't?"
"Not really." Rich shrugged. "I mean, you took me kind of off guard, but... We're friends. Aren't we? I mean, you're definitely mine. I know you don't really trust me - which is totally fair! - but I didn't mind it. I'm close with all my friends, and you only did it to get the guard to go away, so. Yeah. It's okay."
Jake frowned at him, almost offended.
"Friends?" He asked quietly.
"Well - yeah?" Rich shrugged. "I mean, like I said, I know you don't trust me, but I still consider you a friend-"
"Everything that's happened." Jake said sharply, but he wasn't looking at Rich anymore. He was glaring into the sea, as if he were talking to it and not Rich himself. "Everything that we - you and I, we-! Fucking - shared a fucking bed, we... But I..."
"Jake?" Rich frowned at his angry nonsensical muttering. "I - um. I didn't mean to upset you? Are you okay? I-I can take it back, we don't have to be friends..."
"No." Jake said quickly. "No, that's - that's fine, I don't..." He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "I dunno what I'm talking about. Friends is - friends is fine. I mean-"
"You don't trust me." Rich finished, smiling gently. "But I can still call you my friend?"
"... Yeah." Jake said slowly, eyeing Rich curiously, as if he were searching for something. "Friend. A friend, that's - that's what I am to you?"
"Absolutely!" Rich grinned, wrapping his arms around Jake's middle in a fierce bear hug. He waited for Jake to protest, but instead, Jake gingerly curled his arms around Rich's waist, holding him gently.
"Okay..." Jake mumbled. "Friends... Friends is fine. Friends is... Yeah."
"Yeah." Rich smiled, nuzzling Jake's cheek. "Friends is yeah." He sighed contentedly, rubbing his cheek against Jake's and relishing in the warm tingle it left behind. "Thanks, Jake."
"... No problem." Jake murmured, hugging Rich closely for a moment before gently pushing him away. "C'mon. We're gonna freeze out here. Back to the cabin?"
Rich pouted at the sudden lack of warmth, wanting desperately to burrow into Jake's chest, bury his face in his neck and sprawl over his lap like a big blanket.
"Yeah." He sighed. "Okay. Back to the cabin."
"Cool." Jake cleared his throat awkwardly, jumping to his feet, Rich following slowly. They wordlessly padded down the stairs to the belly of the boat, heading to their tiny broom closet of a room.
"Thanks, Jake." Rich smiled as they entered the room quietly. "It, um. It means a lot."
"Nah." Jake shrugged. "It was nothing."
"Still." Rich whispered softly, nudging his shoulder. "Thank you."
Jake smiled fondly. "No problem, dude."
Rich settled into his corner of their little nest, curling up under the blankets and huddling down like a fox in it's den. He could hear Jake nestling into his own corner and sighed contently, trying to let the rocking of the boat gently sway him to sleep. It totally didn't make him feel sick. Not at all.
He huffed, pulling his blanket up to his nose and screwing his eyes shut. Any moment now, he'd fall right asleep.
Jake rolled his eyes with no real annoyance, tugging back his covers.
"Come on, moron."
Rich grinned, scrambling under Jake's blanket and tucking himself under his shoulder, his nose brushing Jake's collarbone.
Jake chuckled gently, nuzzling Rich's hair.
"Whatever, nerd." He smiled. Rich could've sworn he felt Jake's lips brush his forehead, but... No. That couldn't be happening.
"G'night, Jakey." Rich whispered against his neck. Jake smiled, holding Rich close to his chest.
"Night..." He murmured into Rich's hair. "Richie."
Rich sighed softly, Jake's body comfortably warm against his own. He fell asleep smiling softly into Jake's shirt, tucked against him carefully. He didn't feel sick anymore. He felt... Content.
"They could at least try to be subtle about it!"
"Come on, guys!" Michael sighed, smiling fondly at Rich and Jake, snuggled together on Jake's narrow bedroll. "It's cute!"
"It's annoying." Chloe seethed. "Rich is the Avatar, we don't need Jake messing up our mission because he can't keep it in his pants!"
"Hey, it takes two to cuddle!" Jenna reasoned. "How do we know Rich is totally innocent in all this?"
"Jenna, Rich has the maturity of a newborn puppy." Chloe deadpanned. "He's innocent."
"Still." Michael shrugged. "He does like his cuddles."
"Whatever." Chloe huffed as she packed up her bedroll. "We'll be docking soon, someone wake them up and get them to change into their warm clothes. We don't wanna freeze here."
"Aw, c'mon, Chloe!" Michael begged, still grinning wide. "Can't we just give them five more minutes?"
Chloe threw her head back and groaned dramatically.
"Fine." She growled after about a minute of groaning. "Five minutes, and then I'm kicking them awake. Fair?"
"Fair." Jenna nodded, slinging her pack over her shoulder as she headed to the door. "I'm gonna go get some rations from the cook. They'd better be awake when I get back, or I'm eating their shares."
"Save some for me!" Michael called, chasing after her. Chloe sighed, picking up her pack to follow them. She stopped just before the door, glancing at Rich from the corner of her eye.
He was buried against Jake's chest, his cheek smushed against Jake's collarbone. Their arms were wrapped tightly around each other, and their legs were tangled together like knots. Jake had his face buried in Rich's hair, clutching him tightly. It would be impossible to drag Rich away from him - not that Rich would want to, of course. He was tucked against Jake in the closest possible way, his hands clinging to his shirt.
Chloe sighed once more, looking at Rich with concern.
"Be careful, Rich." She murmured softly. "You know we can't get too attached."
Rich just snored loudly, burying his face in Jake's neck. Chloe walked out the door, trying to ignore the seed of worry and regret growing in her stomach.