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Empty vessels.

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Jet doesn’t belong here, the city makes that clear.  No one turns their head to glance at him on the streets, no one shouts hello or throws him a smile, no one takes any notice of him at all.  All this city, and Jet’s nothing to it, Ba Sing Se will swallow him up and no one will ever miss him, no one will ever even know he was here.    


Today he picks a fight with the city guards, just wanting to feel like he’s somebody.  Doesn’t work; never does.  Smellerbee would tell him he’s crazy and she’d be right.  Jet feels nothing, even with the clash of swords against his hooks ringing in his ears, even with the crushing reverberation in his arms with every attack that he parries, fighting for his life’s just habit to him now.  


There’s none of the rush of adrenaline he used to feel, dropping down on Fire Nation soldiers from the treetops above, none of the thrumming satisfaction that used to bubble up out of him when he took a man down.  It’s all just fighting now, doesn’t mean anything. 


So Jet slashes out with a hook to catch a guard by the ankle.  He misses, and barely notices his heart’s own jolt of alarm.  He’s gotten stupid, gotten slower the longer he spends in Ba Sing Se, the longer he goes without something to eat.  Right now he’s so hungry he’s started to feel like he’s made out of air.  He’s never been this hungry before, even in the treetops; there was always fruit and nuts to gather, game to catch.  But he thinks he’s still fast enough to take out the guards, none of them benders, none of whom can hide behind rock gauntlets or strike out with stone boulders.


Jet doesn’t feel anything until a soldier slams the hilt of his sword into his face, and then it’s a glorious explosion of pain, cracking across his skull and turning his vision white.   


He can’t stop grinning now.  It’s incredible to feel something, anything.  Even this, his own hot blood gushing from his nose and dripping down his face.  Jet staggers back and lashes out with a hook that clips a guard across the shoulder, then sprints away.  He can hear his own laughter, echoing behind him as he darts through the narrow streets.  


He loses the guards somewhere in the twists of the alleyways, then doubles back around to his own private nook, a hiding spot he’s found on the crumling rooftops of a decrepit building, partially destroyed from a fire.  It’s a good place to kill time, until the soldiers give up on him.  It’ll be dusk soon, and the roaming city guards will return to their stations for the night watch.


He shimmies up the window ledges to the roof, picking his way carefully along the treacherous remaining tiles, then slides through a hole and lands on the scorched floorboards inside.  The rooftops here remind him of the trees, tall and safe and hidden from sight.  No one will find him here except the sparrowkeets and crowhawks that roost in the rafters, leaving tufts of soft white down and preening pinfeathers everywhere.  


Even the birds remind Jet of the treetops, waking up each morning to the bright singsong warbling of the blackjays.  He tucks himself up in a corner by a shutterless window and stares down at the darkening streets below.  This city is wide, wide, sprawling lazily over hundreds of acres, and Jet is so empty and there’s nothing he’s found here to fill him up.  


He sits and waits and wishes he had a stick or blade of grass to chew on, something to trick his empty stomach into believing that it's fuller than it is.  Thinks about the Duke and Pipsqueak and Sneers, wondering if they’re all right, if they made it to safety somewhere after they’d split off with the group.  Wonders if they think about him, ever.  About Jinks, who’d abandoned the treetops long ago, and Foxfire who’d died last summer, and Cub, who’d given up and gone back to the village and disappeared; Jet’s never know what happened to him, if he was killed or cast out again or gang-pressed into service to a Fire Nation warship.  


Lately Jet’s been wondering if he’s ever done any good for anyone after all.  He’s thought all this time that he’d saved his freedom fighters from certain death, that he was their savior as well as their leader.  Maybe he’s delayed the inevitable for a while, that’s all, maybe it would have been kinder to leave all those crying children to their fates, whatever they may have been.  Maybe if Jet’d focused his efforts on himself he wouldn’t be here right now, lost in a city where misplaced things are never found.  


Jet hides there until dusk reaches the streets.  He’s aching and starving and still trickling blood all down the front of his tunics.  He swipes half-heartedly at the mess, but it’s not coming of, so he gives up.  


He figures the guards have lost interest by now, so he swings himself up and out of the rafters,  cuts across the rooftop and climbs down the side of the building, roughing up his hands and tearing the front of his tunic.  And because he doesn’t really know where else to go, he heads back to the tea shop.  


Jet keeps going back and he doesn’t know why, keeping himself out of sight but watching Li through the windows day after day.  


Smellerbee had scoffed at him, and it stung.  Why can't you let it go? she’d demanded.  You’ve got no proof that guy’s a firebender.  You’re just mad that he didn’t want to join us, Jet, that’s all.  That’s no reason to ruin their lives.  They’re just looking for a second chance, just like us.  


And Jet hadn’t been quick enough, clever enough to refute her words.  


It’s just that he wanted Li to come with him and he didn’t; Li hadn’t wanted anything to do with Jet.  And he really shouldn’t, Jet’s nothing but bad luck to anyone.  


But Jet can’t let it go. 


So now he’s crouching half-hidden in the shadow of a building across from the tea shop, watching Li through the open shutters as he swirls around the last remaining customers of the evening, tea tray balanced precariously on one hand high overhead, and Li never looks back through the window, never, not even once.  


But Jet waits anyway, until the last of daylight disappears and the street lanterns begin to glow, until Li’s uncle locks the front of the shop and ambles off down the twisting streets to their tenement apartment and Li is on his own inside the tea shop, his profile shadowed in dim green light bleeding through the shutters as he wipes down tables for tomorrow's customers.  


And Jet shouldn’t go anywhere near him.  But he feels so hollow inside, and if there’s one thing he can count on to fill himself up with, it’s anger.  


He slides through the street to the well where they’d fought last time he’d shown his face to Li, stands there with his hands clutched tight into fists and blood drying stiffly on the front of his tunics.  Waits.


He doesn’t have to wait for long.  Suddenly Li’s there, just as he’d figured, carrying a large clay pitcher balanced on his shoulder.  


Li drops the pitcher instantly, whirling into a defensive crouch.  He doesn’t have swords on him tonight; Jet could take him down if he wanted to, use his hooks to pin down Li’s arms and then pull out the knife he keeps tucked into the wraps around his boots and slit his throat.


Jet wants to, he wants to.


The pitcher lies on the paver stones, cracked open and broken into pieces.  Li’s not even looking at it.  Jet stands there uselessly, hands hanging down at his sides, too tired to even snatch up his hooks.


“Well?” demands Li.  “What are you waiting for?”


Jet opens his mouth.  To say what, he doesn’t know, another accusation or just old-fashioned swearing or what.  But his nose choses that moment to start bleeding again; he opens his mouth and swallows blood.  


He chokes on the blood a little, and Li looks sharply at him.  


Those narrowed golden eyes take Jet in, the blood all over his face and the bruise blossoming on his cheek and maybe even the way Jet’s hands won’t stop shaking.


“You unbelievable idiot,” Li hisses, but in a resigned sort of way.  He stands up straight and grabs at Jet’s arm, pulling him along, away from the well and back towards the tea shop.  


Jet glares back at him.  His nose is probably broken and his pride is definitely wounded and Li never notices him, never misses Jet when he’s gone, and Jet wants to be missed, wants Li to look up when he walks through the tea shop door and wants Li to stare after him when Jet leaves and he wants Li to notice him, that’s all.  


He just wants someone to look at him.  Even if it’s with fear or rage or disdain.  Or with something a shade above disgust, like the way Li is looking at him now.


Because sometimes Jet feels like he might not even exist anymore.  Because these days Smellerbee looks right through him to meet Longshot’s eyes and people push past him in the streets like Jet isn’t even there and maybe if Li holds Jet in his gaze with those sharp golden eyes then Jet will finally, finally exist here in this terrible city where he’s never belonged, he’s been nothing ever since he got to Ba Sing Se and all he wants is to feel like he exists.  Like he matters.  


And Li could make him exist.  Li looks at things, really looks at things, noticing every detail.  He hasn’t learned the city-dwellers trick of walking with your eyes straight ahead, unnoticing and weary of the world; he still looks at everything with suspicion and hostility, seeing a threat in everything.  Li still sees everything.  


Still sees Jet.


That’s all Jet wants.  To know somebody can see him.  


Li drags him to the back of the tea shop and hauls him into the backroom, and Jet stands there blinking in the lantern light and swaying a little.


“Stay here,” Li orders, and disappears into the storeroom for a moment; Jet hears him rummaging around on the shelves behind the curtain.  Jet obeys, feeling sullen but so, so relieved; because Li has seen him and noticed him and that means Jet exists.  


Something stupid and weightless flutters up in Jet’s chest when Li returns with a handful of clean rags.  


“Some nerve you’ve got, coming back here,” Li mutters as he shoves a rag against Jet’s bloody nose.  He’s not exactly gentle, but neither is he rough about it, and Jet submits resentfully to his warm, warm hands ( how are anybody’s hands so warm, Li’s a firebender, of course he is, who is Jet trying to kid—).  “You really caused a lot of trouble for my uncle.  Pao took the damages to the shop out of his wages.  Asshole.”


“Sorry,” Jet mumbles into the rags pressed up against his face.  Thinks about the broken pitcher lying in pieces beside the well and how Li hadn’t even bothered to pick them up.  “I didn’t know he’d do that.”


He doesn’t know why he says it, why should he apologize to a firebender , Li should be apologizing to him for all the pain his people have rained on Jet’s sorry, miserable life.  The Fire Nation is responsible for every bad thing that’s ever happened to Jet; Fire Nation’s killed his parents and burned his village and starved and beaten him, created outcasts and orphans of hungry little kids, and now the Fire Nation’s responsible for the way Jet’s heart is twisting inside his chest, and it’s not fair, it never has been but now it’s really not fair that if Jet had to go and fall for anyone it had to be him .  


At least he’s feeling something, Li always makes him feel something.  Even as twisted and warped as it is, it’s better than nothing.


“You should have thought,” Li snaps.  He keeps pressing the rags against Jet’s face until the bleeding slows to a trickle and stops.  


Then he takes another rag, this one damp with warm water, and begins to scrub at Jet’s cheeks and chin, scouring away sticky half-dried blood. Li’s eyes are narrowed in concentration and very, very close; Jet’s maybe never been this close to him before, even when they were fighting.   “You don’t think about anybody but yourself.”


I do, Jet thinks angrily, I think about you, all the time, and I hate it, I can’t stand it, if this is love then I want someone to take it away from me.  


Because Li’s a firebender, and more than anything in the wide world Jet wishes he wasn’t.  And he hates that.


He shoves Li’s hands away, those terrible wonderful hands that Jet can just imagine gripping his waist and sliding beneath his shirt, shoves him away.  “I didn’t ask you to help me.”


Li goes where Jet pushes him, hitting the wall with a thud.  It astonishes him.  Li’s as immovable as a great wall in all of Jet’s memories of their fight, stone through and through, almost as though he was Earth and not Fire.  


Li looks just as surprised as Jet feels.  


“I haven’t forgotten what you are,” Jet hisses.  “You’re a firebender.”


“You don’t know that for sure.”


“But I’m not wrong,” Jet says, voice sharp.  Meets Li’s eyes defiantly.  “Tell me I’m wrong.”


Because if Jet isn’t wrong then he’s right, and oh, he doesn’t want to be right.


“And if you’re not wrong?” Li asks.  His voice is so very careful.  “What then?”


“I’m not,” Jet says defiantly. 


Li snorts.  “Then what are you going to do about it?  Fight me again? You can’t win, Jet.  Uncle will call the guards and maybe this time they’ll take you away.  You’re only hurting yourself.”


“You’re hurting me ,” Jet snarls, “you’re hurting me by being here.  Why’d you have to show up, huh? I was fine on my own before you came along.  I don’t need you to join my gang, I don’t need you for anything.”


“Then why are you here?” Li demands. 


He doesn’t need Li.  But spirits, he wants him. 


Jet hadn’t wanted to admit to himself, he’s been twisting himself in knots trying not to let himself know.  Somehow it was easier to go on telling himself that Li was a firebender than to admit that maybe Li just didn’t want to be with him, and that had hurt.  


“I don’t know,” Jet confesses.  “This is so stupid.  I should hate you.”


He should hate Li and everything that he stands for, but he doesn’t, and he shouldn’t care whether or not Li likes him or why he hadn’t wanted to join the freedom fighters but he does, he cares so much it’s the only feeling left in him.


“How come you didn’t want me?” Jet asks.  Despises himself for asking.  “Did I do something wrong?”


“No,” Li says. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong.”


“Then why, why wouldn’t you come with me?”


Li looks away.  “My uncle,” he says, clearly reluctant but answering Jet anyway.  “I couldn’t leave him.  I’m all he has.”


Li’s such a liar, nothing about him is true; Jet’s known it from the beginning. Li’s not even his name, he can tell from the way Li never looks over at Pao when he’s being called.  Just another lie, that’s all.  


“I should hate you,” Jet repeats.  “I want to hate you.”


Li’s head jerks back up.  Considering.  Like he can see Jet all the way through to his rotten insides, to all the horrible things Jet has done in his sorry life.  But all he says is, “I don’t hate you.”


It’s not I love you, not even I like you I don’t hate you ’s about as far from I like you as you can get.  


But it’s not nothing.  So Jet kisses him. 


He doesn’t know why.  All he knows is that Li makes him feel something, whatever it is, hate or love or fury all knotted up together and snarled in his gut, and he’s so desperate to feel anything, even if all Li does is shove him away and spit in his face.


But Li doesn't.  He lets Jet tangle his hands in the folds of his apron and press him against the wall and doesn’t move until Jet breaks off the kiss and pulls away, letting go of Li’s apron and backing up.  


Jet never should have come here, never should have let Li get this close.  


“Why are you here, Jet?” Li asks again, quieter this time. 


Because,” Jet snaps, “because—”


He’s here because Li’s eyes are golden-amber and intense.  Firebender’s eyes.  He’s everything that Jet should hate, everything that Jet does hate, Jet hates him so much right now, he wants to fight him or kill him or—


Li kisses him back.


It takes Jet by surprise.  That’s the only reason he lets Li close the distance between them, pressing close against Jet’s chest ( so warm and too close, he shouldn’t ever let anyone get this close, danger danger danger—); if Jet hadn’t been caught off-guard Li never would have had the chance to get so close.  Jet never would have let him.  He would have snatched up his hooks and Li would have whipped out his swords and they’d be breaking chairs and shattering teapots.


But instead Jet kisses him again, opening his mouth so that he can feel Li’s hot breath against his lips.  Li tastes a little like tea and a little like smoke and they both taste a little like the blood that’s still trickling a little from Jet’s nose, and Jet shouldn’t want Li to keep on kissing him but he does, Jet really shouldn’t like the way Li’s hands are gripping his shoulders but he does, this ought to be the worst thing ever but it’s really, truly not.  


Jet ought to hate every second of this kiss but he’s too confused and too hot and Li is too close and that’s the only reason it goes on for as long as it does, Li is kissing him and Jet is for once the absolute center of his attention and it shouldn’t feel so good but it does.  


Li keeps his eyes open, watching Jet closely; he can see his own reflection there.  It ought to be unnerving but all Jet can think is, He sees me, he sees me, I really exist, I’m here and he’s here and I’m not alone for once—


There’s nobody in Li’s entire world right now but Jet and that shouldn’t be such a good thing, shouldn’t make a rush of pleasure rush through Jet but it’s there, gushing through his empty, empty chest and filling him up.  


It feels so good that Jet doesn’t even mind when Li pulls him down to the floor.  Jet’s wearing his mismatched armor but Li’s wearing only silk tunics and the whisper-soft fabric is so smooth against Jet’s hands and the silks slide up and down Li’s body when he shifts under Jet.  He’s so soft when Jet remembers him as hard and unyielding, utterly implacable in his attacks.  Jet exists in all the places Li is touching him, he exists in Li’s leg curling around his and Li’s sweaty palm on the small of his back and Li’s mouth kissing the hollow of Jet’s throat.  


He has Li’s absolute attention and it’s so good, it’s so much of something Jet hasn’t felt in so long.  Something Jet maybe hasn’t felt before, ever.  He just wants Li to go on looking at him like this and then maybe everything will be okay, even though it can’t because of what Jet is and what Li has always been, from the moment he met Jet’s eyes on the ferry.


Li is kissing him and his warm, warm hands are on Jet’s chest and Li tilts his head up to look into Jet’s eyes and gasps his name and Jet is so, so full, and so, so empty.  


Li doesn’t even stop looking at him afterward, even though Jet kind of expects him to; where he’s from, you don’t just look at people like that, you do what you need to do and then break away and roll back to your place on the bedroll and life goes on, bleak and endless and empty.  But Li keeps looking at him, long after it’s all over and Jet is miserable from wanting and upended from getting and horribly afraid that now it’s over that he’ll go sliding back to that desolate, unmoored emptiness.  


Jet’s used to having nothing but in this sudden absence of kissing Li he’s finding it hard to breathe.


“You okay?” Li asks and Jet doesn’t know what to say.  He doesn’t feel like anything he’s ever felt before.  Jet’s got nothing to fill himself up with.  He’s an empty vessel that ought to hold something but doesn’t, so cracked all up and down the whole of him that Li could pour all the love he has into Jet and it would all come leaking out of him, he can’t hold anything inside except anger, and now Li’s gone and taken that too.  


Li traces a finger against Jet’s cheek.  There’s a intent look on his face.  


“Why are you staring at me that way?” Jet snaps.  It comes out that way because he’s been so happy and now he’s so miserable and he’s so afraid he’ll always be this way, always looking for something he’ll never get to keep.


“You’re always looking at me,” Li says, very seriously.  “No one’s ever looked at me like that before.  Like you wanted me.”


I do, Jet thinks, I do want you and I hate it, someone take this away from me.  But even as he thinks it he changes his mind.  “So what if I do?” he mutters.  


“No one’s ever wanted me before,” Li answers.  “It was nice.” 


Simple.  Like it’s nothing.  And Jet starts to wonder if maybe Li has hollow places inside him too.  Because Li should want more than that.  Li should want more.  


“You knew the worst of me,”  Li says.  “And you still wanted me, just now.  What does that mean?”


Jet laughs, sort of hysterically.  “You don't even know the worst of me.  I’ve done horrible things.   I’ve got so much hate in me, so much anger, and it’s all I am—I’ve hurt people, Li.  People who never deserved what I did to them.”


“So have I,” Li replies.  Jet thinks about those swords of his and how he’d wielded them like extensions of his spirit.  If swords were an element you could bend, then Li would.  Jet believes him.  


“Well,” he says weakly, “well, now you know, too.  About me.”


Li thumbs away a drop of blood from the corner of Jet’s lips.


“Your anger,” Li says.  “I don’t think it’s all you are,” and Jet leans forward and kisses him again and again and again, because he thinks maybe that emptiness inside him is gone for good, because Li lives there now, and because it feels so good to have something like this and Jet wants Li to have that, too.   


If Jet can be more than what he is, then maybe Li can too.  And Li’s still not his but he doesn’t hate Jet and that’s something, enough for a new beginning or a second chance or whatever this is; Li’s not his, maybe he’ll never be, but what Jet feels for him is there in his chest, a wellspring of fire and heat and life, and no one can ever take that away from him.  He wants to keep this feeling hidden away, protected behind the armor under his tunics; for better or worse it’s his now.  And Jet has always taken care of his own.