Chapter 1: Tied
Jet wakes with a dry mouth and an empty belly. He had no dreams during the night, or none that he can remember. He checks anyway, pausing as he dresses to listen to his kids breathing.
There really isn’t enough room for three of them in this place, let alone all four, and he manages to stumble over Longshot’s legs on the way to the door. Jet turns back with a staying hand raised to find all three pairs of eyes open and fixed on him.
“I’m going to grab some breakfast.” He sounds overly loud in the newness of the day. “Try to sleep a bit longer.”
He swipes the curtain aside and steps out before he can be answered. Longshot won’t sleep again but Smellerbee will, and she’ll do so curled into Longshot’s side, so at least he’ll close his eyes and pretend. Jet doesn’t know what Shi will do. He can guess, based on how the kid was in the desert, but can’t be certain.
That’s alright. If Jet can manage it (if he can keep them safe, together, fed, hoping, if he can do his job) he’ll have enough time to learn.
The street is barely lit in the early sun, and blissfully empty. Jet lets his steps slow, lets his thoughts wander while there are no eyes turned his way, while it’s safe to do so.
Shi’s parentage hadn’t been something he'd thought about as connected to the kid before last night. After the first burst of revulsion and anger he’d only seen it as another injury done to someone who was already bearing more hardship than the spirits should allow. There was no reason to think further; Shi had already been gone, and it had seemed so obvious that whatever curse came with that rancid nation didn’t pass to Earth kids. If it had, Jet would have seen in among his own, back in their forest. And Shi… he bared his blades to save a child the very day they’d met, He’d saved the Avatar, he gravitated towards women who looked like his mother, he got down on his knees beside Jet and helped him dig a grave with his bare hands, he spit and scowled and stomped as he fought his hardest to protect Smellerbee, as he walked straight back into danger for Jet, as he left because he thought it would keep them safer.
Of course Shi was good.
But Shi didn’t see it that way, did he. Shi, who takes on others pain like it’s his responsibility, who turns every bitterness, every injustice, every failure inward.
Shi, Jet realizes with a nearly tangible chill of foreboding, doesn’t think of himself as Earth Kingdom. Shi doesn’t just doubt his place with the Freedom Fighters. Shi doesn’t believe he belongs anywhere at all.
Another thought occurs and it stops Jet’s feet from moving, makes his hands clench and his eyes wide. The damned soldier that branded Shi’s face. That had made him beg. Had he known? Had he taunted the kid with it? Or had he- had he been the one to-
No. That’s nothing but a nightmare in the day-time. The animal that did it would have surely been on the move, would surely lose track of the woman before it was evident she was pregnant, would surely be too apathetic of any child he learned of to track him down.
Unless it was to hurt him.
NO. There’s no reason to wonder. It’s only dawned on Jet because it’s the cruelest thing he can think of. Better to pretend he’d never wondered who it had been, than to risk causing pain where there had prevoiusly been none.
…but Shi’s already wondered. Shi must wonder every single time he crossed weapons with a Fire Nation soldier of the right age. Was it this one? Or that one? Or this one?
Jet swallows hard before pushing his chin up and forcing his legs to move.
At least now he knows, he thinks grimly. At least now he knows where another dagger in Shi’s soul sits. Jet can’t remove it, but he can do his best to keep it from twisting. That’s a shallow comfort, but any comfort has to mean something when the wound is so unbearably deep.
Ba Sing Se has begun awakening by the time he reaches the square. Wagons are being wheeled into the clearing by sharp eyes sellers, and canvas canopies are being erected over crooked stalls. Buyers swirl like a whirlpool in a deep, slow river, and pickpockets dart in and out like hunting birds, striking quick and leaving quicker. Jet steps into the bustle with a fist around the coin in his pocket and follows his nose to the back of a line.
There’s a tightening of the crowd, a noticeable shift as shoulders tense and chatter quiets. Jet follows the sideways glances of the people near him to find a man with a severe frown, fancy hat, and impeccable robes talking animatedly with a stall owner near the corner of the market. There are two men in matching robes behind him, tall and blank faced.
Jet trades the coin he made the day before in the Middle Ring for a paper bag full of Baozi and leaves quickly. They sit warm in his hands, and the smell sets his mouth to watering. He walks swiftly back, and they’re still steaming when he enters their room.
Shi approaches eating out of the same bag exactly the same way he approaches fighting, watching with sharp eyes for an opening before darting a hand in to snag a Boazi before anyone can block the way. It’s funny, if only because he’s so serious about it.
Smellerbee tells them about a job she’d heard about the day before.
“It’s a new business,” she explains between mouthfuls. “They make writing brushes and need bamboo to make handles.”
Interesting. “Do you think they’ll be hiring people to carve them too?” Jet asks. “You’re great with a knife.”
Smellerbee shrugs one shoulder and scowls a bit. “I’m not that good. Maybe for the cheaper ones, but some of them were amazing. Like, pretty.”
Longshot places a hand on her shoulder and stares her down, and after a moment Smellerbee slowly nods, “I… guess you’re right. Thanks, Longshot.”
Shi looks between them, eyes narrowed before visibly giving up and going back to his meal.
Jet shifts, leaning forward and smirking to catch everyone’s attention. “So, the task is to find good bamboo quick. That’s probably harder than it sounds.” Jet turns his attention to Shi, gentling his smile and lowering his voice. Inviting him in on the joke. “You happen to remember anyone on our trip to the Middle Ring with a ridiculously extravagant pond?”
Shi’s lip quirks up. Jet’s tiny victory is soured by the way Smellerbee’s head jerks up at his words. “What were you two doing in the Middle Ring?” She asks sharply.
Jet winces. “It was fine,” he soothes, reaching into the bag. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
She catches his wrist, grip and mouth tight. “Jet,” She says. A plea and a warning.
“It was my fault,” Shi interrupts. The attention swings back to him and Smellerbee’s grip loosens. Jet doesn’t pull away. Longshot steals the last Baozi.
“What do you mean?”
Shi shrugs, straightens his spine and meets Smellerbee’s eyes. “Jet’s… helping me get some rice.”
Smellerbee cocks her head, frowning. “You’ve been stealing?”
Shi leans back, uncomfortable. “No. It's… reverse stealing? We just need… replacement rice. For uh, already stolen rice. But not by us.” Shi sends Jet a slightly panicked glance. “Or, uh, by me anyway.”
Smellerbee’s looking at Jet now, disapproval on the curve of her mouth.
“Mu has you stealing? I thought you were just helping some refugees!”
“This is helping refugees,” Jet defends, finally freeing his hand from hers. “Smellerbee, there are more refugees in the city every day and while all the people in charge are busy playing pretend in the Middle Ring, they’re stuck down here with us where there isn’t enough food.”
“I know that,” she says, expression softer.
“We can call it off,” Shi offers. “I don’t need the job if I’m. Working. With you now.” He nods to himself. “I’ll find another way to pay Farmer An back.”
“No, I’m helping with this,” Jet insists. “I’m not going to let you blow your pay for the next three months.” The only reason Shi didn’t protect that barn to the death was because he’d listened to Jet. Shi didn’t do anything wrong.
Jet might have just now, he realizes, as all emotion leaves Shi’s face. “Is that an order?”
Jet takes a deep breath and forces all the tension out of his body. “No. That isn’t how we do things. Not… anymore.”
Longshot stretches a leg out to rest it against Jet’s, steady support. Jet pats his ankle in thanks and turns back to Smellerbee. “I’m hearing you,” he says. “I know you don’t like Mu much.”
“I don’t like you being in danger,” she corrects with a tired sigh. “We can’t watch your back if you’re with him and we’re not.”
“I have to do something,” Jet responds. They’re back in familiar territory now, in a conversation they’ve had before and will probably have again. “And you have to work at this peace thing so you can-” She’s already seen this weakness, he’s already told her about this weakness, just say it- “so you can show me how to stop fighting, eventually.”
That’s supposed to be the goal, after all, the best-case scenario. It still scares him.
“This was supposed to be a new start for all of us.”
“It is. It will be.”
“It was supposed to be safe.”
Jet’s mind goes back to the noble he’d seen in the market, with his silent guards. “I know. I’m sorry it isn’t.”
Shi lifts a hand in an aborted movement before setting it back in his lap. “I can go with Jet. I didn’t come to Ba Sing Se to… find peace.”
Longshot leans forward and furrows his brow, exaggerated to help Shi understand.
“Why… did I come?” Shi guesses. Longshot nods.
Shi gets stiffer, turning his head fully away from them to look towards the wall. “It isn’t complicated. I just didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
That hangs for a moment. Jet clears his throat. “Thanks for the offer, but I wouldn’t want you around Mu. That’s not an order, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Shi’s looking back at them, which is good. “Why not?”
“He was… really interested in you, during the planning stages.”
Jet grins. “You might not realize this, but there really aren’t many people around as interesting as you are. You impressed him with your clever traps, and ability to disappear in shadows. He probably wants to recruit you.”
Shi’s nose scrunches up like something stinks. “He- why!?”
Jet’s grin broadens. “He has good taste?”
Shi doesn’t seem to find this nearly as funny as Jet does. “What is with you people!? I’m not- I’m not someone you should want around!”
“Shi, hey,” Jet intervenes, levity gone. The bag is empty now, so he pushes it aside so he can scoot forward and catch Shi’s eyes, careful not to give the scar any noticeable attention. “Mu doesn’t matter. And we already have you, right? We know, we want you, and we have you.”
Shi shakes his head. “This is cruel,” he whispers.
“This isn’t a trick.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Shi flinches when Longshot reaches for him, but lets the archer catch his sleeve. Longshot pulls at him as he starts to stand.
“Yeah,” Jet agrees. “Go with Longshot, get some air.” Gentler, Jet. “…If you think that will help. We don’t have to decide anything right now.”
Shi pauses to think, halfway to standing. He nods finally and lets Longshot guide him away, only stopping to snag his Dao sheath before ducking out of the door.
Jet sighs, deep and loud, and runs his hands through his hair. Smellerbee watches silently.
“Look, I’m going to give you the final call on this one.” Jet tells her. He doesn’t like saying it but relying on Smellerbee this way has kept him out of sticky situations so far. Jet isn’t going to argue results. “Mu isn’t more important to me than you guys. If you really want me to stop I will.”
“Jet, we know that.” Smellerbee says, sliding over to lean against his side. “Even Shi knows that, and he’s…” She grimaces.
Jet snorts. “I know, right?”
Smellerbee and he share a smile. “It does help you, helping Mu,” she says finally. “That first week here was… not good.”
Shake the sting out, take the words as they were given. “I could find another way,” he offers.
She shakes her head. “Just… try not to get too deep. Mu doesn’t get to keep you or Shi.”
Jet smiles, fond, and slings an arm over her shoulders. “I got it. I won’t forget.”
Smellerbee hums, settling against him. “…We’re going to need a bigger place, aren’t we.”
“Probably,” Jet agrees, amused. It’s worked so far because the three of them are so used to being in each other’s space but adding Shi has already complicated that. Also, it might help him settle better if he’s not so obviously the outlier. If he has a place to be alone without having to leave. “Let’s hope your bamboo job pans out.”
They talk a bit longer about lighter subjects, trying to give Shi and Longshot enough time. When they do emerge onto the street Shi seems calmer, leaning against the wall beside Longshot. “There’s a big lake near the fields,” he says. “We can look there. For bamboo, I mean.”
“Sounds good. Lead the way.”
It does end up being a good call. The vegetation appears untouched, and it isn’t long before they’ve come across a small, thickly seeded grove in the side of the bank. It’s muddy work, and the insects are awful, but wading around in the water helps ease the heat of the day. They’ve lobbed the stalks into manageable lengths and are arranging them in bundles when Longshot whistles, sharp and low.
Jet hits the ground on his belly, an immediate reaction. Smellerbee does the same beside him. Shi is- Shi is fine, Longshot brought him down with him, they’re crouched low right at the edge of the bank, closest to the grove.
“What is it?” Smellerbee whispers.
“Careful,” Shi murmurs, eyes darting around in search of their enemy. “Sound carries over water.”
Longshot motions them closer, and by the time Jet sees what he had they’re together, ankle deep in the lake, surrounded by Bamboo.
Even from a distance Jet recognizes the half dozen uniforms that seem to float across the bank as identical to those the guards at the market had worn. They watch as they gather in a clump, then seem to walk out onto the water before disappearing completely. In a few minutes it’s like they were never there.
“Move,” Jet orders.
They finish tying the bundles quickly. Shi and Smellerbee carry one a piece, and Jet swings one onto his back and holds the last bundle in his arms so Longshot is free to scout. He’s second in line, staying low and following in Longshot’s muddy footprints. Smellerbee is behind him, and Shi takes the rear.
Once they’re close enough to the gate it doesn’t feel like the threat is breathing down their necks they break into a dead run, tumbling into the street in a clump.
“Who were they?” Shi demands, panting.
“I don’t know,” Jet answers. “But people are scared of them.”
“I guess we know why no one had touched the bamboo at that lake,” Smellerbee comments before crumbling to the ground.
“Next time maybe we really will try the Middle Ring. Hey, c’mon.” Jet starts towards her, his own legs wobbling alarmingly. “We still aren’t safe.”
Longshot helps her up, taking her bundle. They meander through the streets, more concerned with moving then going anywhere, until they’re breathing evenly and their hearts have slowed.
Jet stops eventually, and his kids follow his lead. “Smellerbee, do you know how to reach our employer from here?”
Her face scrunches in as she looks around before nodding. “I’ll only take you there if you promise we’ll get baths later."
Jet grins. “Deal.”
Chapter 2: Sky
Zuko refuses the shop owner’s invitation inside, instead passing his bamboo to Smellerbee and leaning against the wall just to the side of the shop’s side door.
“Alright?” Jet asks, too quiet for the owner to hear, as he passes.
Zuko gives one firm nod. “I’ll keep watch.”
The door shuts. He can still hear the muffled sound of conversation behind him. He’ll know if something goes wrong. The street he’s in barely deserves the name, thin, uneven, and darkened by the looming buildings which hem it in. Zuko keeps most of his attention on the street intersecting this one, larger and busier, with quick checks in the opposite direction and across the roofs. His muscles ache, more from the stress of being on alert than the work.
Even here, hidden in the shadows in an empty street, Zuko feels exposed. He thinks of the Blue Spirit mask, hidden away back in the room. It’s a stupid attachment, and one that would hardly help now, but he still wishes he’d kept it close at hand. It’s just comforting to know he could shed his own face if he must.
The irritation of the drying mud in his clothes and interested insects buzzing around his head are threatening to divide his attention when the others reemerge. The sale must have gone well, their expressions are unbothered and they chat lightly as they divide a bag of coin into six parts and begin tucking them away.
“Here,” Jet says, handing Zuko a small pouch. “hide this.” Zuko places it in his sash and smooths down the cloth until it isn’t easily visible. Jet tosses a coin in the air and catches it, winking at Longshot who raises one eyebrow at the action. “I’ll be right back,” he says and in three long strides he’s turned the corner of the building, out of sight.
Zuko moves after him without thought, then stops himself. Jet isn’t stupid, or unarmed. He’ll be fine.
“What’s wrong?” Smellerbee asks tightly. “Did you see something out here?”
Smellerbee and Longshot, Zuko realizes, had moved with him. Smellerbee stands in a widened stance and Longshot is sweeping his keen gaze over the whole street. It’s jarring. And reassuring.
“It’s nothing. I’m just on edge.” Zuko looks down and straightens his clothing. “…Sorry.”
Jet steps back around the corner, a brown bag in hand. He passes it to Longshot, who frowns at him.
Longshot does. Something complicated plays over his face and he looks up at Jet again, his fingers tightening around the gift.
Jet grins. “I thought so. Next time you want something that bad just say so.”
Longshot taps a rhythm against the bag in his hand and Jet’s eyes softens after a moment. “C’mon. I believe we promised Smellerbee a bath.”
Zuko doesn’t get the excitement until he realizes they aren’t heading back towards the room. He’d been shown, and thoroughly unimpressed by, the meager commodities shared by their entire hall the night before. That bathroom was scarcely more than a large bucket and a hole in the ground. He couldn’t imagine wishing to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary.
The place Jet leads them to just looks like a house. A squat woman with a large smile greets him by name and ushers them inside. “There’s little to do in the garden today,” she says as she leads them through the door. “But I’ve got a broom and a mop that aren’t being used nearly as often as they should be.”
“We actually have coin this time,” Jet tells her. “But if you’d rather have your floors swept…”
She smacks him on the shoulder and he hands over the money with a teasing grin. She unlocks a door and turns to wag a finger in his face. “I told you, didn’t I? Things will look up eventually.”
It’s a large room. There are several small pools sunken into the ground, obviously earthbent, with squat partitions of woven grass dividing them. Curtains hang in each corner of the room. Jet waves them towards one, and Smellerbee moves towards the other. Zuko strips of all but his undergarments quickly. He isn’t quite sure what to do with his clothes. He would fold them neatly on the low earthen bench as Longshot is doing, but he’s wary of leaving the items he’d tucked away in their folds out in the open.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Jet says. “It’s only us here, and Jingua is a good business woman. Nothing will go missing.”
That only soothes part of Zuko’s worries but dawdling longer would only draw more attention. He lays his effects down and quickly folds his garments, set on using them to hide the items from view.
Jet catches his wrist before he can. The touch, too tight, too close, too sudden, rattles his nerves. He shifts to the side enough that he can look sideways, watching Jet’s face without turning his head.
“Isn’t that the message you were supposed to deliver for the rebels?”
There’s no denying it. Jet had been there when the missive was first handed to him, and even if he doubts his own eyes Zuko is certain Longshot, who is standing silently right behind him, wouldn’t do the same. He nods tightly.
Jet’s grip doesn’t tighten, but it doesn’t loosen either. “Why haven’t you delivered it?”
The truth is damning. Zuko has accepted his lot in life; with ill grace he’s sure, but he’s done his best to face the fact that even if he could reclaim his place in the Fire Nation he is no longer a person fit for it. He cannot, will not, raise a hand against the Earth Kingdom. He no longer believes in the glory of the War. All he can do is bring no shame to the new name he was given. All he can do is protect, and ease the pain his forefathers have wrought if at all possible. But there is one step he cannot take.
He cannot kill his own countrymen.
Zuko doesn’t know what intelligence he was asked to deliver, but he knows his own luck. He knows if his actions bring death to the soldiers, the countrymen whose only true sin is their loyalty to his family and their twisted edicts, it will break him in a way he’ll never heal from. So he cannot do it.
He drops the clothes and rips his wrist from Jet, tossing the curtain violently aside and stumbling past Jet and Longshot. There is nowhere to go and he’s bare besides, but there is danger here, there’s always been danger here, and he doesn’t know how to stay.
Jet cuts him off before he reaches the door. His empty hand darts out and Zuko, cautious of the slick stone beneath his feet, braces for the hit instead of dodging.
There is no hit. Jet’s hand lands firmly on the back of Zuko’s neck and jerks him closer, a touch both rough and painless. His face is grim, eyes glittering. Zuko tries to jerk away but that grip, too close, too much, too disturbingly non-threatening, won’t let him.
“Just talk to me,” Jet says. His voice rings in the empty room, a terrible authority. “Just take a breath and explain.”
Any other time Zuko’s heard a voice like that trouble follows.
Zuko forces himself through his panic, through the buffeting, ill-timed emotion. He wants to breathe deeply but it’s too dangerous with Jet’s hand snug against his skin. Instead he closes his eyes and tries to order his thoughts.
The truth may be damning, but Zuko has other reasons. Shameful, personal reasons. Safer reasons.
“I’m a coward.”
“I’m going to need more than that.”
Zuko grits his teeth. “I only knew about the rebels because of someone else.”
Jet’s hand gentles. “The old man you talked about?”
“Yes. If I go there he’ll be able to find out where I am.”
Jet leans just a touch closer, searching Zuko’s face. It’s uncomfortable. “That’s a bad thing?”
The reason he needs is an ugly buried thought, and Zuko can’t voice it in more than a whisper. “I am not enough. I never do the right thing for him, or by him. He gave me chance after chance, and I try but it’s never- I can’t-”
The hand firms again. “I’ve got you,” Jet murmurs, still looking at Zuko like he can see him. “What else?”
“What if he doesn’t want to see me again?”
Zuko didn’t even realize how deep that fear sits until he hears it come out of his own mouth. He tries to step away, but Jet just steps forward with him, hand steady.
“Then he’s a fool.”
It feels like a slight, and Zuko’s shoulders draw up, eyes narrowing.
“No, listen to me. Anyone with an ounce of sense would want you. I did.”
“That doesn’t count, you’re insane.”
Jet smiles, brief and deeply amused, and lets his hand fall away. “I’ll deliver it.”
Zuko blinks, straightening. He refuses to rub at the back of his neck, pressing his palms against his legs. “What?”
“I’ll deliver the message. If he’s there and wants to see you he can go through me.”
It’s a neat solution to both of Zuko’s problems. If Zuko delivers the message he’s selling out his own misled people for passage through the desert, but if Jet does it, he’s using the resources available to him to defend his country. Zuko might lose sleep over it, but he can bear it. And if Uncle really has had enough of him Zuko can just pretend he wasn’t there. It’s such a good fix Zuko hates it.
“Okay,” Jet repeats. “C’mon, water’s getting cold.”
…Zuko had mostly forgotten they were in a bathhouse. He keeps his head down and slips into an unoccupied pool, resolutely not looking towards Smellerbee or Longshot.
“Is this always how you guys talk?” Smellerbee demands. Zuko eyes the grass partitions distrustfully and sinks lower to fully hide his reddening cheeks in the lukewarm water. “Jet, we’ve talked about this, why are you so intense. I was just listening and I’m exhausted.”
Jet laughs. “It’s fine. Shi gets pretty intense too. Don’t you, Shi?”
Zuko takes the only course of action that makes any sense and plunges himself completely under the water.
Zuko doesn’t have to think much for the rest of the day. He helps Longshot lug water from a well close to their place for most of the afternoon, which Smellerbee and Jet use to wash their clothes. They don’t have much collectively, but mud and dirt and grime have been basically ground in, and the sunlight is softening when they’re done.
He helps Smellerbee hang clothes on the line in their room as Jet pulls out the sleeping mat and Longshot lights a small fire with spark rocks and sets a pot of water to boiling. They eat supper like they ate breakfast, four pairs of chopsticks snatching rice from the same bowl.
Zuko goes out to dump dirty water from washing the dishes into an alleyway. When he comes back there’s someone new in their doorway, head bowed close to Jet’s. The stranger, a tall woman with well tanned skin and severe features, straightens before Zuko arrives. She nods to Jet and gives Zuko the barest glance as she passes him.
“Who was that?” Zuko asks as he steps inside.
“Our landlady. There’s going to be a bit of a curfew for the next few days.”
Zuko frowns. Jet shrugs in response. “Apparently there’s a festival coming up. I bet you that's why our... lake friends have been so visible today, they seem to be shaking the place down before the big day. They’re going to be testy, so no midnight treks outside for a while. Sorry Smellerbee.”
“I’ll handle it,” she says, face grim.
Longshot sits in front of her, Jet’s gift in hand. He pulls items from it carefully and sets them before him; a brush, a tiny inkwell and bottle of black ink, and a stack of parchment. After he’s done, he pats her twice on the head and points to the paper.
“hmm… Sky.” Smellerbee says.
Longshot picks up the brush and dips it in ink. He draws the character for sky in slow precise strokes while they watch. His back straightens and his grip shifts until his technique would benefit anyone of high birth. Then he picks the paper up and waves it carefully to dry the ink. He sets it to the side and starts again, writing sky once more. Then another time on a third piece of paper. Then on a fourth.
As night approaches Zuko ends up in the hammock and Smellerbee and Jet take the sleeping mat. The sound of Longshot’s brushstrokes against paper continue long after the fire burns itself out completely. It's unnerving at first, the sound of writing in the dark, but Zuko eventually falls asleep to it.
In the morning he opens his eyes to find endless repetitions of the character for sky plastered across the ceiling, wall to wall, with not a single space left bare.