Actions

Work Header

Letting Go

Chapter Text

He hadn’t slept through the night in weeks.

He dreamed of his father and sister, pulling one of his arms; his sister’s fingernails cutting into his wrist while his father’s grip burned with a familiar flame. Behind them stood mother and uncle, smiling gently, lovingly, beckoning him back to them, to a façade of safety.

On his other side, Jet held his hand, his warm palm firm like iron. He didn’t tug, unlike his family, but Zuko found himself stuck fast. Smellerbee had her arms wrapped around his waist, the highest that she could reach, while Longshot stood steadfast behind Jet, solemn eyes softened with quiet affection. They all had their weapons, which only made him feel safe. They wore them to protect him, just as he wore his to protect them. It never occurred him to fear their weapons.

Behind their love for Li, however, was a dark hatred for Zuko. He hid himself from them (guilt clawing at his stomach) and basked in their mistaken love.

Both sides tugged at him, one steady and comforting, trying to convince him to trust them; while the other insistent, manipulative. His arms strained; his heart ached; it was only growing worse as time went on without choosing a side.

He had to make a choice. One or the other. There was no way to have both of them. Father had always demanded nothing but obedience and loyalty, and as the leader of his group, Jet would surely expect the same from all of his followers.

Zuko didn’t necessarily need to choose just yet – Jet didn’t know he already belonged to someone else, someone he couldn’t simply run away from like the Freedom Fighters. (Sometimes his blood itched with the feeling of them running through it and he wanted to tear his skin off just to get his Father out. But he couldn’t.)

He knew he’d have to choose eventually, and the sooner the better, right? If he wants Jet to keep him, he needs to prove he’ll be loyal, and that he’ll stay with him and carve out the people he used to belong to so he could give him his full loyalty.

He needed to do it quickly, too; before Jet changed his mind or realised that Li was not someone he wanted to own. He’d been thrown away before (His scar prickled at the thought.). He couldn’t let it happen again. All he had to do was become who they wanted him to be. And Jet wanted him to be Earth Kingdom, and loyal.

He could do that, but once he’d done that, he wouldn’t be able to go back to who he was. He had to be sure.

***

In his dreams, Father and Azula and Jet and the gang glare at each other when they think Zuko isn’t looking.

But while Father and Azula looked at Jet like they wanted nothing more than to wipe him off the face of the earth – a sentiment Jet assuredly returned – they almost looked at Zuko the same way, with a little possessive smile thrown into the mix. They’d thrown him away in the past, wanted nothing to do with him, but now that someone else wanted him they wanted him back, just to take him away. They wanted to own him.

Jet wanted the same thing, in a way, but, equally, it was completely different. He wanted Li to be one of his people, he wanted to take care of him, to give him loyalty and have it returned. He looked after the people he kept. When he glared at his family, it was with hatred for the Fire Nation, but not only that.

“You’ll get them back for it,” Jet had promised on the cold nights when his scar still burned, voice tight as his grip on his swords, “and if you can’t, we’ll do it for you.”

Li didn’t deserve his loyalty. He didn’t deserve the emotion Jet felt on his behalf, not for one of the few things he did deserve. He was disrespectful, and he’d earned his scar and everything that came with it. Otherwise, Father would never have given it to him. He seemed harsh at times, but Father always had his best interests at heart. Deep, deep, down.

But father wasn’t here. Neither was Azula, at least as long as Zuko was cautious about covering up his tracks (his desperate fear of her had only grown since he’d gained something she could take away. He didn’t want to lose his new family).

He didn’t want to lose his old family either, but he’d barely had them to begin with, while the Freedom Fighters were right here, in his hands, begging him to join them. Zuko liked to think he wasn’t a fool.

The choice was obvious, as much as he wished the other side would have at least put up a fight. But if he was going to make this choice, he was going to do it properly. Make it so he can’t take it back, or at least make it difficult to.

He was going to have to let them go.

He took a deep breath and thought of his mother. She’d been gone for so long he’d near given up on her already. Hopefully, this was the easiest place to start.

In his mind’s eye he saw her, tall and gentle and strong and safe, and felt a phantom hand carding through his hair, shorter now, heard a soothing, cooing voice. It was almost like the was here, a ghost standing before him. The fire before him became a perfectly clear pond, still except for the ripples of the turtleducks; the musty forest smell became the flowers she had lovingly tended to. The air was clean. He felt a protective presence at his back, could remember the peace of knowing someone loved him and would protect him with everything they had.

He didn’t need her for that anymore. He had new people to protect him.

It was too easy to let her go; time had done most of the job already - his calm was long gone, and her protections stripped away. Only memory remained, near useless.

He let out the breath he’d been holding, the fire barely stirring at it, and blew away the spectre of her, watched her drift away like ash in the breeze. Goodbye, Mother.

As she disappeared, she almost seemed to smile.

With the ghost of his mother gone, his longing for her faded into acceptance of what could no longer be, and his heart was freed to love anew. Long-carried grief lifted from his shoulders. He finally felt some of the calm she’d tried to give him. Yes, his new sense of peace spurred him on, This was the right thing to do.

The rest of his family, however, weren’t mere spectres, but real people. He couldn’t simply banish them from his heart, not when they were trying to claw their way back in. He needed to burn them, give them a pyre, have them gone as if they were dead.

He picked up a branch from the forest floor, pulling his knife from his belt and carving the sigil for ‘father’ into the rough bark. His work was haphazard, in part due to a lack of care, but mostly due to a lack of skill, reluctant as he was to admit it. He didn’t have much experience in carving - he was mostly just glad he hadn’t cut his hand.

When the sigil was complete, he stared at the carving for a moment, trying to think of any happy memories he needed to let go of. He felt his desperate longing for his father’s approval, and remembered the cold fear in his gut whenever he had failed him. He managed to stop himself before he thought about the consequences for those failures, tamping down on the urge to rub his scar, as if that could remove it from his face.

He glanced up at his new friends. There was only one thing he could do (one thing he could be) to make them hate him enough to hurt him the same as his father had, and he was cutting off the parts of him they hated. Soon, he will be what they want him to be. He didn’t have to fear them. He would never again have to fear someone he loved.

His desperation for Ozai’s love was suddenly replaced with something resembling hatred, with a bitterness he hadn’t realised was festering beneath the surface. What kind of man would burn his son?

Zuko shivered, remembering that hand coming towards him. No, he did not need his love, not anymore.

He threw the stick onto the fire, harder than he needed to, but had little room to feel satisfaction at watching his father burning there. He could only think of how his father would never touch him again, he would never feel that way again, he could rely on the people around him to protect him from him. Relief soothed his squirrel-rabbit heartbeat as he watched his father splinter and blacken on the fire before him. He was finally safe.

(At least, he was safe from one person, in one respect.)

Azula was easier after to let go of in some respects – he was emboldened by his results so far and knew this was right for him, and he found that making the carving was far easier the second time around. He let his hands work and focused on what he was leaving behind.

Idly, he noticed the others’ eyes on him, but wasn’t bothered. He was doing this for them, after all. He did wonder for a moment if they were going to ask what he was up to, but realised he hadn’t offered, so they wouldn’t ask. They knew where his boundaries were, as much as they tried to push them sometimes - to gain entry to his heart. He could tell them in his own time. Or not at all, if he wanted.

Detached from his need for his father’s affection (he had to remind himself that he was, but it worked, and he knew it would become second nature in time), he was no longer angry at Azula for being his favourite. Looking at her with new eyes, he could see her more clearly than he ever had before - she just wanted their fath- (not his father anymore) she wanted her father’s love, the same as Zuko once had. Pity swelled within him, but he knew there was no hope for her - father had sunk his teeth into her and made her like him. The sweetness of her youth was long gone, wishing otherwise wouldn’t change that. Trying to reach her would only threaten the new life he had found.

If she could change, he decided, she would have to do it on her own. He would not help her. He couldn’t, not when he wasn’t her big brother anymore. Not when he had other people to protect, now.

He pulled his thoughts from her and to the carving on the wood. ‘Sister’, said the choppy letters. He placed it onto the fire with a silent apology, and found himself looking away as she burned. 

He swallowed the guilt he knew he had no reason to feel. She had abandoned him years ago. Nowadays, it was a choice between her and his new family, and he knew who he had to choose.

Hopefully now, if it came down to it, the visions of a cherubic smile on a tiny body wouldn’t plague him when he fought her, and he would be able to protect his family from her.

He met their eyes over the fire. They were still watching him, but didn’t question his actions, even though they would have been able to tell from his expression that it was important. He was glad; he would explain when he was finished and committed to them.

He glanced at where his ex-sister burned on the fire, and saw her crumble to ash. Goodbye, Azula. I loved you as much as I could. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.

His next move was almost unconscious. As Azula burned upon the fire, his hands found the next bit of wood, warmed and charred from where it had been on the fire before it fell out, and began carving. His thoughts drifted to his quest, the Avatar, a tiny twelve-year-old boy who had lost all of his people, who had asked him once if they could be friends. Guilt curled around his gut. He decided to apologise to him one day, if he could. There was so much he needed to make up to him, and to his friends, but there was little limit to what he could do to help them. Only a limit to what he would do.

He thought of his home, of his birthrights, then pushed them away. He didn’t need them. Had no means of getting them, now. What need did Li have of a throne anyway? Why would Li want to command vessels or rule countries? Li was a simple peasant. He was happier with nothing.

He glanced absentmindedly to his hands, and was almost surprised (though he knew he shouldn’t be) to find ‘Zuko’ carved there, half of the lettering smudged black by ash.

He placed it on the fire without a second thought, and felt nothing. He hadn’t wanted to be Zuko, angry and longing and unhappy, ever since he’d realised there was another option. He didn’t bother to say goodbye as he put the worst parts of himself to rest, just allowed a sense of peace to flow through him as he began to wash away his past crimes, and vowed to make up for them properly, as Li. He could be a good person now. He could be anyone he wanted to.

There was only one person left to do. Uncle.

The peace he’d built within himself seemed to evaporate. He had to let go of everyone, and that had to include Uncle. Half-heartedly, he scanned the ground looking for the perfect branch for him. If he had to say goodbye to him, too, he was going to do it well, with lots of thought and a decent carving. (Uncle deserved far more than that, but he had nothing else to offer him.) However, he found that none of the branches were satisfactory.

With a quiet sigh, he gave up quickly, easily, vowing to keep an eye out the next day so find the perfect branch for uncle. Maybe he’d need to find a few, so he could practise his carving. He might end up having to wait a few days before letting go of Uncle.

He was okay with that. 

His gut unclenched, and he finally relaxed. He was finally rid of his family (sans Uncle) and becoming the person his friends wanted him to be. He felt freer than he had in years, maybe ever.

“Have you finished?” Jet finally asked, tone casual, but not dismissive. Not pushing, more offering to talk, only if Li wanted to. If he decided he never wanted to explain, they wouldn’t force him.

Across from Li, Smellerbee’s eyes glowed in the firelight. She feigned disinterest, glancing down to sharpen her knives, but her head was tilted towards him, listening to anything he wanted to say. Next to her, Longshot’s expression was almost unreadable, but Li could see the small smile in his eyes. Neither of them asked, or even pushed with their looks. They respected him, even with his anger and secrets and little eccentricities.

It was because of that that he answered, even though he wasn’t quite ready. “Not yet,” he said, “I’ve got one still to do. But aren’t any good branches here to work with.”

Jet simply nodded, pointedly not mentioning the branches littering the ground, easily suited to Li’s needs. “Can you tell me what you're doing?”

Another thing Li loved about working with Jet: even though he was accustomed to being a commander, he never ordered Li to do anything, or even phrased his questions like orders – not unless the situation was life or death, at least (not exactly uncommon, but Li accepted it when it happened). Jet saw that Li was uncomfortable with being ordered, and respected that.

Well, unless he was teasing him, but he always had such a soft smile (invisible to those who didn’t know him) when he did so that Li knew and trusted he didn’t mean it. That didn’t stop him from flushing in embarrassment or anger, but he knew Jet acted out of affection, not malice.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Li promised easily, glancing at the others to include them, but mostly addressing Jet, “When I’ve finished.”

Jet didn’t bother to remind him that he didn’t have to tell him; that he would accept it if Li kept it secret, even after he’d promised to explain.

They both knew.

Chapter Text

Despite his vow the previous night to find the perfect branch for his uncle’s carving, Li found himself unwilling to look at the forest floor beneath him. Every time he tried, that curdling feeling rose again in his gut.

Letting go of Uncle was supposed to get rid of this feeling, not bring it on even further.

He was idly watching an interesting bird – very interesting; very distracting – when he was struck with the smell of Uncle. He stopped in his tracks, Smellerbee almost bumping into him from behind, twisting to locate the source before he realised what he was doing. Foolish, after tonight he wouldn’t be his uncle, he couldn’t go looking for him.

It didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t Uncle, but a patch of jasmine flowers, their scent strong like they’d been steeped in hot water under the deck of a metal ship. (He realised that that comparison didn’t quite make sense, but still didn’t push the memory away.)

Beneath the patch was part of a fallen branch, the wood fresh and clean. The short but broad shape reminded him of Uncle a pai sho tile (that’s not any better). It wouldn’t be difficult to carve it into one.

He couldn’t misread the sign, regardless of how he would have liked to. He took the pai sho branch with a heavy heart and turned to catch up with the others, only to find them waiting for him. Longshot was scanning the area around him, likely assessing for threats that could have prompted Li’s unexpected movements, as if the cause wasn’t obvious, while the others stood guard, eyes diverted from Li. They all knew what he was doing, but pretended not to for his sake; promising not to question him and offering a veneer of privacy.

Li pocketed the branch without a word and stepped back over to them, and they walked on without a word.

On an impulse, he turned back at the last second and plucked some of the flowers, crushing them slightly in his haste and pretence at indifference, staining his fingers with the smell of uncle.

***

They set up camp early that night. No one said it, but they were all giving him extra time to do what he needed to do, even though they had no idea what it was, only that it was important to him. That was enough.

Li’s first order of business after the camp was set up (with the daily rigmarole of ‘that’s not how you make a fire Li it won’t work like that’ except it will because he’ll make it work but he can’t tell them that) was to shred some jasmine petals, placing them in a tin cup full of water next to the fire. The smoke and makeshift jasmine tea filled his nostrils as he took a deep breath. When he closed his eyes, it was almost like he was here.

He let the memories show up and sit there for a moment (warmth and trust and safety), then pushed them all away and began his carving.

He first shaped the wood into a rough circle, about an inch in diameter and a half-centimetre thick, slightly larger than an ordinary pai sho tile. The basic shape complete, he steadied his hand and focused, letting everything else fade from his head as he worked. He gently carved the shape of the jasmine flower (ginseng was Uncle’s favourite, but he didn’t know what it looked like) onto one side, and the sigil for ‘Uncle’ on the other. Neither image was satisfactory. Li had never had a talent for the arts – he’d been too focused on fighting to listen to Uncle and enjoy the smaller things.

For a moment he contemplated just throwing this one away and trying again tomorrow. But he knew that if he let himself do it that night, he’d do it the next night, and the night after that. If he let himself wait any longer, he’d never be able to give up Uncle. It had to be now.

He held the carving in one hand, rubbing at the sigil with the other thumb, staring into the fire. He thought of Uncle, of his overwhelming support in all things he did, of his quiet confession ‘I think of you as my own’. He thought of long days and nights in exile, his fury at everything being directed at Uncle, just because he was there.

He was the only one that ever was there. He’d never abandoned him, not until he asked him to. Li wondered what he’d think of him, doing this, trying to sever ties with him just to stay with someone else. Uncle would know exactly what do say to make him feel better, he’d know the best course of action to make him happy.

Uncle had never wanted anything other than to be there for him, and he was throwing him away at the sight of a shinier ally.

(His breath caught, and he couldn’t seem to get it back on track, too quickly and too slowly and too much and too little and stop it before you set something on fire.)

He was despicable, to do this to Uncle, to leave him alone again, completely this time, but what else could he do? He had to give him up, he’d already committed to this, letting go of everyone else, he couldn’t go back now, even if he wanted to (by Agni, he wanted to).

He’d lost his breath control like he’d never had it – but he couldn’t take a deep breath, there were flames in his throat (were there?) and if he let them out everyone would know. His throat was tight, each breath burning, getting smaller the more he tried to just breathe.

His vision dimmed, and his eyes focused on the tile between his fingers, watching ‘Uncle’ disappear behind his thumb, only to reappear again as he rubbed it rhythmically.

In front of him, the fire flickered, dying down.

***

Jet wasn’t sure what Li was up to, but he had a bad feeling about it. The rule was that they didn’t ask - Li’s past was his business – but he was starting to hate that rule.

Every day Jet thought about that rule and just wanted to pull Li out of his head and make him tell him everything he’s thinking. Then he could change it, make it better. He knew Li was messed up inside, that everything he thought was wrong one way or another, but no matter how he phrased things, tried to show him that he cared, that they all cared, he still managed to take everything the wrong way.

(It was almost disturbing how someone so strong outside could be so broken inside. Or, at least, it would be if Jet had known anyone who was actually healthy inside since he was a little kid who didn’t know better.)

He knew Li would talk one day - when he was ready to and not a moment before - and Jet wanted to respect that, even if it meant he never got to find the asshole that marked him and twisted up his thoughts (never got to kick his fucking teeth in and leave him begging in the dirt).

He wanted to trust that they would get there eventually, and Li would tell him, and he could help him. But he wasn’t sure that he’d manage it before it was too late, and Li did something that couldn’t be taken back.

Like whatever these carvings were. He knew they were no good, and he knew he couldn’t do anything until Li was done with them, and being forced to just watch him do whatever he was doing without being able to stop help him was setting his teeth on edge.

Li had promised to tell him what the carvings meant after they were done (so at least he could do some damage control), but the symbolism there was worrying. Li was trying to destroy something, something important, and the fact that he was willing to talk about it was worrying in that he never wasthis was something big, and Li wouldn’t let them get involved until it was over.

There was one left to go, he’d said. It was in his hands just now, and was getting a hell of a lot more care than the others had. Whatever it was that he was about to symbolically destroy, it was huge, and the fact that Li had delayed it a day said that he didn’t want to do it.

Another sign that Li didn’t want to do it was the fact that he wasn’t fucking breathing.

Jet was by his side in an instant, tense panic crushing his insides, a careful hand on Li’s shoulder (internally preparing in case Li struck him in panic), his other hand gently turning his head away from the piece of wood, carved like a pai sho tile. He pulled one of Li’s hands from the tile and onto his chest, letting him feel how Jet breathed.

(He found this method useful as it forced him to breathe normally as well.)

“You’re okay, Li,” he told him, just barely keeping his voice even, “Just breathe with me, okay?”

Li gave the tiniest of nods, a small sound escaping his mouth. His hand grasped weakly at Jet’s tunic as he focused on the rise and fall of his chest. He took in one shaky breath, too slowly and too little, but Jet didn’t let him see his panic, just focused on breathing for him, pretending to himself that the breath was going onto Li’s lungs, not his own, to force himself to keep steady.

One breath was enough for more to follow, Li slowly sagging as he managed to relax, while his free hand tightly gripped the makeshift tile. Jet moved to hold him against him, one arm behind his back as the hand slipped off his chest. Li leant against his chest and breathed with him. He was okay.

Jet dared to take his eyes off of Li for a second and was unsurprised to see his crew sitting next to them, Smellerbee gently rubbing at Li’s wrist, running her fingers over his pulse again and again (reassuring herself as much as Li). Longshot didn’t touch either of them, he wasn’t one for contact, but his eyes were keenly focused on Li, watching the rise and fall of his chest, the pulse move in his neck.

Even after Li had calmed, they all stayed put right next to him.

He broke the silence with a, “Sorry,” and Jet barely had the energy to be angry at whoever made him think that was the right reaction to have.

“You don’t have anything to apologise for, Li,” Smellerbee said, before Jet could.

“You’re allowed to be upset, if you need to be,” Jet struggled to keep his voice level. “But this is worrying.” It was so fucking far beyond worrying. “Are you sure that whatever you were doing is what’s best?” Because I sure as shit don’t think so.

Smellerbee gave him a look, a don’t-do-this-just-yet, let-the-guy-breathe-for-a-minute, spirits-you're terrible-at-this look. Jet was very familiar with it, and not just because she stole it from Longshot, who mirrored her.

Li didn’t answer him, and Jet didn’t push, even though he burned to. He felt the other’s eyes on him as he tried to figure out how to proceed.

Not pushing paid off, however, when he started talking at a breakneck pace: “Before I found you guys,” he said, “I was with some other people… I- I don’t know if they were the best for me, but I knew them for so long and we knew each other so well and everything I knew and was had been influenced by them and-” He stopped to take a breath and gather his thoughts.

“Even after I was kicked out,” he continued at a slower pace, and Jet rubbed his shoulder soothingly, hiding how his anger swelled at his words, “for reasons that, in hindsight, might not be, uh, valid, I was desperate to go back to them.

“One of them had come with me,” his hand tightened on the tile, “into exile and impossible tasks that I was always supposed to fail at. All I did was shout at him, and all he did was care for me and…”

He trailed off, seemingly unsure of how to continue.

Jet glanced at the tile. “Is that to do with him?”

Li’s free hand moved to rub at the tile, the motion clearly practised and familiar, and he missed the way Smellerbee glared at Jet for pushing him again (but how could she not see it, he was finally talking to them).

“He loves pai sho,” Li said, “And tea. Spirits, he’s obsessed with tea. I wanted was to fight everything, and he wanted me to slow down. It was infuriating, but he was only doing what he thought was best for me.” He paused to take in a slow breath, shaky in a way that make everyone around him stiffen. “I burned a branch for everyone else in my… group, so I could cut ties with them, i-in my heart I mean, like a funeral or…”

Jet squeezed his shoulder. “I understand. It’s okay.”

It was more than okay, letting go of people who’d hurt him, recognising what they’d done and moving past it. It was a bit of an odd way to do it, burning someone to ash doesn’t make for the most peaceful goodbye, but if it got the job done and got them out of his head then all this was nothing but good news. This was the first healthy thing Li had done since the day they’d met, and he’d listened when someone told him he didn’t need to be alone.

Li’s posture softened at his reassurance. He looked down at the tile in his hand. “When I’m done with him,” he said softly, almost smiling in that way he does, even as his grip tightened, “I can really be a part of this group.”

That, however, was not okay. That was so fucking far from okay. Jet tried to hide how he stiffened, exchanging panicked glances with the others. He tried to convince himself that Li wasn’t really trying to cut off ties with people he’d cared about because he thought they wanted them to.

Sure, Jet felt like punching, or maybe stabbing, these people for making Li feel this way – because he’d always known it was someone’s fault he was like this and now he had people to blame for it – but if Li was going to get rid of them, it had to be because he understood that they hurt him and that it wasn’t okay and wanted to do it, not because he felt like he had to.

No wonder he was in such a state. He had to really care about pai-sho-tea-man. He sounded like he might be an okay person, and Li needed as many of them as he could get in his life.

“Li,” Jet starts, slightly too harshly when he realised that he had let the silence go on for far too long, “You don’t need to cut ties with people for the sake of this group.”

Li frowned at him, the firelight digging into his scar (did they have something to do with it). “Of course I do,” he said, tone almost incredulous, confusion plain across his face, “I can’t be loyal to another group and be loyal to this one at the same time.”

“That’s not-” Jet tried to figure out a way to explain it, tried to figure out how he had got it so wrong, “That’s not how friends work, Li, you're allowed to care about people who aren’t us.”

Li turned fully to face him, pulling himself out of Jet’s grip. “But if I don’t cut ties with them, how can you trust me? What if our groups ended up fighting – and you would hate them, you do hate them, I know you do-”

“We can find some way to figure this out that doesn’t tear you in two, Li!” Jet tried not to shout, he really did, but he was so angry at whoever made Li think like that, and Li was shouting too and-

“What do I matter? This is about the group!” For fuck’s sake, Li!

“This is about you, and making sure you’re okay!”

Li stared him straight in the face for a long second, mouth slowly moving with nothing coming out.

Li almost crumpled, ducking his head away. “But that doesn’t make any sense,” he said to his hands, voice barely above a whisper, seemingly shocked at the idea that people he cared about were willing to risk things for him, “Father always needed my full loyalty, couldn’t let me stay when I made him doubt it…”

‘Father’. For the love of the spirits, don’t tell me… “This other group is your family, Li?” It was easy to stop shouting, now that all breath had left his lungs.

“Not anymore,” Li promised with a small hopeful smile, finally looking Jet in the eye. “I got rid of them for you.”

Li was right about one thing, and one thing only. Jet definitely hated his family.

Jet pulled Li back into his arms, knowing full well that it was the wrong thing to do. Positive reinforcement was the last thing Li needed right now, but he wouldn’t understand if he started shouting. Jet just pulled in all his anger and crushed it into a tiny ball and promised himself he’d yell at the sky tomorrow when Li couldn’t hear him and think it was his fault.

Looking over Li’s shoulder he saw Smellerbee pressed against his back, her head turned up to look at him. She gave a tiny shake of her head - she didn’t know what to do about this either. Longshot placed his palm against other Li’s shoulder, gently rubbing the knotted muscle. They knew Li would appreciate the gesture - as much as he pretends otherwise by daylight (when he rewraps himself in protective prickles that hurt him more than them), he had a desperate need for physical contact.

“Li,” Jet eventually tried again, “You don’t need to change yourself to fit here. We want you here for who you are.”

Li pulled back a little, reluctantly, but Jet held him tightly and he relaxed in his grip. “I’d been lying and pretending before. I’d been acting how you wanted me to, as much as I could. But I’m not anymore; all the lies are true now.

“And besides,” he added, “it’s done now. I burned them. I burned my old name,” -what in the name of all that is Holy- “and I’ve only got one part left to do.”

“Your pai sho man.” Who you cannot burn. Under no circumstances can you burn pai sho man.

Li shivered lightly, the bob of his throat nudging against Jet’s shoulder, where he rested his chin.

“You don’t have to do it, you know,” Smellerbee offered from behind him. “We don’t want you to do it.”

“We want you not to do it, I think,” Jet agreed. “You care about this guy, and, by the sounds of things, he cares about you.”

Li breathed wet breaths. “He does,” he said, “He was the only one to care about me for years.”

“Then don’t do it.”

“But you hate him.” Li protested, unable to understand that he can have things and care about people that he wants to, regardless of them.

There’s only one reason why they would want Li to drop this guy anyway. “Did he ever hurt you?”

“No,” he says, some of his usual bite back in his voice. “Never.”

“Then it doesn’t matter.” Jet just barely resisted the urge to run a hand through Li’s hair to soothe him. “He cares about you, we care about you, what else do we need?” He chuckled, “It sounds like we have a fair bit in common with the guy.”

“He’s still-”

“He could be the bloody Prince of the Fire Nation, Li,” Smellerbee says, and Jet almost can’t believe he agrees with her, “and we wouldn’t care. He looked after you when we weren’t there to.”

Li was silent for a long moment, just breathing those wet breaths, tucking his head down to hide it in Jet’s shoulder, which grew damp.

“He-” Li says at last, “He’d like you guys, I think. He’d feel the same about… I mean he-” Li trailed off for a moment, struggling to find the words. Then, stronger: “He’d be happy that I’m with you guys, that you’re here for me while he’s not.”

“If he’s the same as us,” Jet says, “He would tear the whole world apart for you, if you needed it.”

Li gave a choked laugh, pulling his head off of Jet’s shoulder to look him in the eye, his own slightly red. “I’m sure he’d find a solution that involved everyone talking it out,” he says, emphatically not denying that he trusted them to protect them the same as pai sho man.

They held each other’s eyes for a long moment, aware of the others watching them at the same time, all thinking and hearing the same thing. Jet felt Li’s heart beat in time with his against him.

We’re here for you, he promised with looks and touches, as the other’s backed him up behind Li.

I know, Li held him tighter for an instant.

“And he’d use the time to lecture me in tea making again.” Li broke the moment and their shared gaze with a roll of his eyes, as if he could shrug off everything and pretend it had never happened, already trying to retreat back into himself and be less vulnerable, even as they all crowded around him in comfort.

That was okay. Li knew he could show them this when he needed to.

They slowly separated, Jet giving him a final pat on the shoulder as he let go, each of them going back to their sleeping bags and preparing for the night. No one said a word bout anything that had happened. Jet kept a close but subtle eye on Li until he saw him stash the tile in his pocket, keeping it safe.

In the silence later, when they were all laid back to gaze at stars hidden by leaves and clouds, but still so bright away from the cities, came the whisper: “I would tear apart the world for each of you, too, if you needed it.”

The fire had dimmed down slightly as they talked, and the light was likely too dim to see each other in. Jet wasn’t quite sure, though, because he didn’t check; there was a reason Li had waited until now.

“We know,” Smellerbee told the sky. “Just remember to do the same for yourself.”

Li promised nothing; gave them a different gift instead. “Uncle would love you all with everything he could, if he knew you.”

“I think it’s mutual.” Jet accepted his gift with a tug in his chest. He’d have to find Uncle pai sho one day, not just for Li.

“I’m glad.”

They watched the stars move as the fire dimmed. They slept peacefully.