"...heat up the water first and..."
Little pricks are falling on his face, like embers, kind of, so hot they feel cold (or the other way around). His nose is going numb.
Gotta be the blood loss. He knows blood loss.
"... don't care, just get in, I need ..."
Maybe he's dying again. Because it sure as hell can't be snow. Prison's too warm for snow; it leaks down in dirty soot-streaked water instead, and when it lands on the lake it hisses out as steam. Fucking volcano.
"Alright, alright, but if ... kills..."
Sound fades out again, but touch brings him back -- heat rising up his legs, swallowing him. He blinks his eyes open and there's the steam, blurring away the world. White little flakes of ash.
Water. Someone's putting him in the water.
He's seen people boil alive in that lake, when the guards get pissed off and 'allow' them to escape, if they want it so much -- just without a fucking raft. They die not ten feet from the bank, bodies bobbing along for however many days the meat needs in order to cook off their bones. He goes tense all over -- someone's got his ankles, he's being carried. He plants his heels in the guard's stomach, tries to arch away.
It hurts so much to move he almost doesn't hear the splash, but touch is a more stubborn sense and he knows when the water rises up to swallow him.
Only it doesn't because there's someone just behind him, arms hooked under his armpits, holding him up.
His chest hurts so much it takes him a while to notice that the water doesn't. It's... just warm. He stops fighting, breath wheezing out, confused.
"--safe, Jet!" someone says in an exasperated tone. It's a girl's voice. Doesn't mean much -- Miling's a total bitch, and so is Yuwen. The Fire Nation is fine with girl guards and girl inmates both, and neither of those are any less vicious than their male counterparts. Possibly they're worse...
Water. He's in warm water. Not in the lake. It's not burning. (He twitches his toes, to check he still has them and they didn't boil off -- yeah. Still there.)
The second guard must have fallen in the water with him because there's rock under his feet, but under his ass he's pretty sure that's someone's lap.
"Spirits, but you have pointy bones."
He knows that voice. Boy's voice. It hits him right in the stomach. It's weary and a little low and a little veiled, and...
"Pointy feet, too," grumbles the girl. "Jet? Are you awake? Open your eyes and look at me."
Hand on his face. Smaller hand, still callused. He knows that voice too.
Something burning-cold touches his face, the corner of his eyes. He tries to flinch away, manages a growl. Sounds more 'I woke up grumpy' than 'get your fucking hands off before I chew them off at the wrist' though, fuck. The girl harrumphs and mutters, "He'll be just fine," resentful, but most of the tension flowing out of her voice. He doesn't get it.
He opens his eyes and blinks the fuzziness away and... no, it's still hazy, but it's not his eyes, he was right, there's steam. Fog. Either or.
He still recognizes the face though. Tree-trunk brown skin and sky-blue eyes, gorgeous contrast, gorgeous girl, he didn't think they'd meet again.
He lets Katara poke at his face, even though it hurts, because she's glaring so hard it's a wonder he hasn't come down with a case of icicle through the brain. Then again his head is aching hard enough, maybe she did and he just hasn't noticed yet. He chuckles at the thought, dizzy in the rising, swirling steam and the water that steals his stability. He halfway floats, anchorless.
"Drugged?" he asks. Unclenching his teeth is hard. The more awake he gets the harsher the pain radiates down his temples, seeps into his jaws. It's starting to pulse.
Katara frowns at him, but a little less angry, a little more worried. "No. You took a hit to the head. Your skull is cracked." She marks a little pause. "You'll be fine, Jet."
"You'll be fine, Jet," she repeats between gritted teeth, "because I have plans to break your stupid skull myself for dying and then not and then saving my dad at the expense of --"
"Uh. Katara? Water temperature's dropping."
"So what!" she barks out at the man Jet is lying against, and oh, that's right. There's some guy behind him, someone he knows, and it's not Sokka. Not Aang either, unless the kid's balls have dropped all the way down to his knees in the last -- huh. How many months has it been, anyway, since lake Laogai? Surely not enough.
Anyway Katara is muttering a half-assed, grudging apology for snapping and the guy is mumbling about it being okay when it's clear as glass it's anything but, but Jet is too exhausted to tease out more undercurrents.
He still feels floaty and it hurts down his neck when he tries to turn his head, so he closes his eyes and breathes out and tells himself he can wait to figure it out. S'okay. Katara is too much of a goody-two-shoes to let someone do anything to him she doesn't want them to. (On second thought that's a bit of a worry. Surely there's a lot she'd want to do to him, and not all of it is good. There's a difference between being too good to do something, and being too good to turn a blind eye and let others do it for you.)
The water temperature goes back to what it was. Warm enough to seep into his muscles, loosen them -- not enough to burn. He kind of wants to sleep again. But Katara or not, he has no clue where the fuck he is. What happened. He needs to figure it out.
He can't hear the wind in the leaves. He lets Katara tilt his head back, wet his temple with tingly water. Fucking buildings, houses here and cells there and cold smooth floors and walls and he hates stupid buildings and ... where the hell is the ceiling?
There's white columns, and the pool has smooth, manmade sides, but... Huh.
He licks the prickle at the corner of his mouth and blinks up. Huh. This really is snow, not cinders at all. Swirling down and swirling down at him like some huge drain in reverse...
Katara's hands on his jaw brings him back from the sky. She stares down at him, a little concerned but kind of cool -- professional. He flicks her a little smirk, not even a teasing one. She looks competent, 's nice. Reassuring.
"You're safe," she says as she works. "We're in an Air Nomad temple. Sokka found you at that boiling prison, do you remember?"
He grunts something that's almost a laugh. Fuck yeah, he remembers the prison. Not sure how he could forget it.
Doesn't remember Sokka being there.
"You saved our dad," she says quietly. "We won't forget."
And he understands what she's saying there -- that she's in his debt. That his life is safe in her hands, because she owes him her father's and she intends to repay him. He can't remember what happened, saving anyone -- he doesn't save people, does he? But she believes it, and that's good enough for now. He understands honor debts, and he understands she's the kind of person who believes in them no matter what. (Jet doesn't, not always, though it'd sure be nice if he could.)
The guy whose lap he's on shifts his weight, as if Jet's half-floating body were that heavy. Jet cranes his neck a little; it already hurts much less. He can see a dark mess of hair, a chin, nothing recognizable.
Nothing but the edge of a scar, the ruin of an ear.
He jerks, tries to sit up and it flashes white pain in his chest, whites out his mind but he keeps moving anyway, needs to get free, but there are four hands on him now keeping him pinned down and even the water seems too heavy, coiling around his legs to keep him still. He shoves himself half out of the boy's lap, briefly slips under and surfaces choking and unable to get any farther, because what's keeping him up is the boy's hand tight around his upper arm.
"Firebender!" he yells to Katara -- she cannot know, the threat right here so close under her guard, she needs to fight, they're all up in water so she could --
Jet freezes, choked with betrayal.
"He's -- he's on our side," she says but she doesn't even seem to believe it, so how is Jet supposed to calm down? "He's on our -- Jet, settle down right now or I'm dunking you!"
She glares down at him. He stares back, disbelieving.
"He's not going to do anything to you. We have an understanding. Okay?"
The boy with the scar sighs and shifts behind Jet, bends a leg so Jet's back is propped up against his knee, hand cautiously loosening. Not letting go, though, not enough for Jet to jerk free. He gives a tug anyway, and wobbles. It's humiliating to know that if Lee -- if the firebender let go right now Jet would just flop right under the water again, and his chest hurts so badly and he's so weak he knows he'd drown right there like an idiot, in water that would barely come up to mid-thigh if only he could stand.
At least he hasn't pulled him back in his lap. Jet shudders and tugs again.
"The fuck 's going on. Understanding?"
"The understanding," Katara says between gritted teeth, "is that if he does anything that causes the smallest amount of trouble or worry to Aang or any of us I'll stuff him full of icicles. He's here on sufferance. We all know what he is. He's not going to trick us. Now -- oh, Jet, you're shivering," and her voice totally changes, from fierce threat to worry and disappointment. "Zuko -- ah."
She looks up over Jet's head, meets Lee's eyes -- except Lee isn't his name, instead it's that ugly, sharp, so completely Fire Nation name. Hah. Figures. Katara and LeeZuko(traitor) stare at each other in silence and Jet wishes he could think as usual, wishes he knew the background so he can pick up what they're talking about through that long wordless look. He just knows it's not pleasant to either of them.
"Yeah, got it," Not-Lee says, and skims the palm of his hand over the pool, on the far side from Jet. Heat shimmers rise; warm currents slide against his skin, spread out.
"Thanks," she mutters without looking at him, head bowed to look at Jet.
The water starts to glow. She passes a hand over his ribs, guiding it as it seeps into his skin. It tingles a little weird, but he allows it; can't make it worse. He can't even pay that much attention to her and what she's doing. Not with Lee behind him.
Lee just sits here and allows himself to be used as a seat and pretends to be patient. From the instant Jet met him, Lee has never been patient. This -- this is such a lie.
He's so tired. Useless. He can do nothing about Lee right now, and Katara -- Katara won't, even though she wants to, and he...
"Katara," says Lee in his too-quiet, too-careful, not-Lee voice, and Jet realizes his eyes were closed, it wasn't just a blink, it was whole minutes -- two, ten, he can't even tell.
"What," she says flatly.
"Maybe you should take a break? You look kind of -- strained."
Jet forces his eyes open, just in time to see her throw Lee a look he last saw on a lionhawk mom, that face of 'I am too exhausted by my brood to deal with you, so I'm just going to end you'.
He and Smellerbee hightailed it out of her tree right fast, and promptly crossed lionhawk feathers off the list of acceptable tokens of bravery to collect. There is brave and then there is suicidal. He can't help it, he laughs, and that breaks their staring match, which is pretty much the last thing he wants at this point -- he didn't want to stand in her way, and also his ribs still ache pretty bad.
Katara frowns at him, but he doesn't say anything, so she stares back at Lee instead. "I am not strained."
"You're starting to look gray, Katara," Lee says, a point of frustration in his voice. It's funny how he keeps using her name, like he's trying to hammer home the point that he knows her, they know each other, see, he has her name, surely there's no need for hostilities. Jet isn't sure he's a good enough manipulator to even be doing it consciously, though, and besides it just seems to tick her off, like a liberty he's taking.
"I am not -- listen, you mind your own business, I know what I can do. Okay?"
Ah, and there is the temper he expected of Lee. "It doesn't look like -- oh, never mind. I mean, if you want to make yourself sick and sleepy for half a week so the next time the Avatar injures himself in training you can't help him then fine."
Oh, those are fighting words. Jet starts grinning, even though he's right in the crossfire. Katara looks gorgeous when she's angry. So passionate. Like a tidal wave. (like an inferno.)
(he's never seen Lee bending, but he's seen him angry, too, seen him impatient and determined and prowling and he, too, he's --)
"Hey," Jet snaps. He feels sick to his stomach. "Pull me out of the pool if you're going to go at it. Don't feel like drowning."
It stops them, like he thought it would. It stops them looking so angry (so gorgeous) at each other, it stops the fight before it's even started and any other day he would regret that but --
"My head," he rasps. "Sure you fixed it?"
"Do you feel dizzy?" Katara asks, immediately concerned, and raises her glowing hands to his temples. "I thought I -- oh." She breathes out. "Sorry, I should have told you; it's normal if you feel too exhausted to think, I mean, you are exhausted, I can't fix that. There's things only bed rest can help," she adds with an encouraging smile, and it's pretty too but nothing like her glares. He makes himself flick her a smile back.
It wasn't what he was scared of at all, but he's happy to let her believe so.
Behind him, Lee breathes out very slowly. A gust of warm air runs down Jet's damp neck, probably on accident. Jet shudders.
"Are you in pain?"
"Just my ribs," he lies with a smile. "Breathing's gotten easier, though."
"I mended the broken ones, but there's still hairline fractures left, and then there's the bruising and muscle tears..." Katara sighs, runs a wet hand through her hair. It's unbound, Jet notices, thick and dark, and slightly wavy. He wonders briefly how heavy it would feel in his hand.
"Mnh. Lots of work left, huh." Jet doesn't like it, but Lee was...
Lee was right. Strain is showing at the corner of her eyes; she's exhausted.
Maybe if they take a break now she'll be able to manage without Lee's help afterwards, and Jet won't have to sit with his back to a firebender, and his neck hurting too much to crane and keep an eye on him.
"I'm gettin' really sleepy here. Probably oughta nap right now," he says, gentling his voice just a bit, just enough to make it intimate, she's always responded to that -- and there it is, she blinks at him and her mouth softens, hesitant. "If I'm asleep then my ribs can wait a bit. Yeah?"
Not that Jet has any intention of giving in and actually sleeping. She was talking about Sokka and her dad, he was talking about the Avatar, surely they're close by, but with a firebender around? He won't be able to close an eye, not before he figures out how accepted, how unwatched Lee is, how much Jet can trust the rest to watch his back.
(He just did almost fall asleep, he thinks -- but that was different, it was the warm water. Warmth is traitorous that way, lulls people to a false sense of safety, to sleep -- he can move his arms and legs, he'll just kick his blankets off. Being cold is better than being asleep.)
"Fine," Katara capitulates, "but only because I'm pulling on your body energy to heal you and you really do need rest to make it up." She, he understands, is just fine. He chuckles a little.
He almost says 'fuck it, it was a bad idea' when Lee moves from behind him, wraps an arm around his back (shit, his ribs, it hurts all around from front to spine) and reaches to slip his other arm under his legs. Being carried like a baby is nothing. It's --
He can see Lee's face. His expression, all grim and, and shit, how did Jet ever tell himself those eyes were honey-brown, just a light honey-brown, still Earth enough. They're gold, plain and simple, heart of the flame.
They flick to his face and he stops breathing.
"Katara, are his ribs--"
"They'll be fine," she snaps, 'how dare you doubt my abilities', but it comes out half-hearted. "Just don't fold him in two."
She gets up, water streaming down her body. Her clothes are glued to her skin, drenched through; it's not a great moment for it but Jet will probably need to be a lot closer to death to stop noticing that. Lee imitates her, more carefully, eyes heavy-lidded in concentration as he carefully balances Jet's weight. Jet's ribs might not be breaking again but they hurt like a Dai Li punch anyway. Jet forces himself to breathe, to think nothing but taking in and releasing air with each of Lee's steps, so he won't think about (how close he is) (how Jet should be fighting damn it he still has teeth) the pain.
Out of the pool now, and that means Lee balances his weight better. Lee and Katara pause to look at each other. Jet cracks his eyes open to stare at the broken ceiling and the gray clouds overhead, and wishes he had something to chew on. A blade of grass, a stick, whatever; it would make a nice distraction. He can feel them staring, silently arguing across his body, and he knows it's about him and he knows they won't share.
Katara grunts something that means 'end of conversation', twists her hand and tugs; the water drains out of their clothes. "Just get him to that little room off the second courtyard. I'll go get bedding." She looks down at Jet, manages a little smile. "It's nice and quiet, no one to bother you, you'll like it."
At least now he's certain, he won't sleep. Even having to think about (kataralee fighting burning gorgeous hewantsthis) really wrong stuff, even that is better.
(Don't leave me alone with the firebenders, something whispers in the back of his mind, don't leave me alone not alone please not alone I'll do anything, anything.)
(He must have been the only prisoner ever who wanted to share a cell, who thought solitary was worse than being burned.)
"Ah -- Katara."
She turns on her heel and she glares at Lee the way she used to glare at Jet, all suspicious and sharp, she almost doesn't look tired anymore. Jet ... Jet is in a rather unique position to observe Lee's expression. Close. He's all -- quiet. Careful. Restrained. Since when is Fire the nation of restrain?
"Maybe you should ask --"
"I don't need help to carry bedding."
"I thought," Lee retorts with only a brief flare of irritation, "that little boy, doesn't he know Jet? It sounded like he did, he was worried, right? He'd want to see him."
"Oh," says Katara, caught completely off-guard for an instant. It makes her look softer, unprotected. Jet lets out a little incredulous chuckle. Maybe Lee is a good manipulator, at that, if he can slip under her formidable defenses even though she knows what he is.
Lee starts walking and Katara leaves while Jet is still thinking, still going 'wait' inside his mind, and then they're alone.
Lee doesn't look at him. Just stares ahead. There's so much Jet could say, so much he's wanted to say if they ever met again, but none of it took into consideration that when that happened he'd be weaponless and too exhausted to lift a hand and dependent on Lee's good will.
He seems to have a lot of good will, that Lee -- that Zuko, that person Jet doesn't know.
"Little boy?" Jet asks, very, very quietly, like he's balancing on the edge of a cliff and even his own voice might tip him into the void.
Lee walks, the muscles of his jaw rolling under his skin. It tries to look stubborn and irritated but it's more like he has a hundred words in his mouth and they're all fighting to come out and he won't, he can't allow them to.
"Baron?" he says, and very deliberately doesn't look at Jet. "The Count? Something like that."
"The Duke," Jet corrects without thinking, and oh. Oh.
One of his Freedom Fighters. One of his people, his men.
He's not alone. The Duke is the youngest but he's fierce and his knives -- he'll have knives on him, never without, and -- and he left Jet, he and Pipsqueak, but he won't leave him defenseless, it doesn't matter that they left the Freedom Fighters because they were right, Jet had been a bad leader, he'd deserved it.
"Think you'll be able to sleep?" Lee asks, and keeps staring ahead and not looking at him, and Jet hates him for knowing, and for making Jet feel grateful to him at all.
But when The Duke trots up to them with his armful of furs and a determined expression on his face, Katara on his heels, Jet almost forgets to hate.