Letter left at the bar of a very cheap inn at the edge of the royal port district, adressed to Lieutenant Jee Heng
I hope this missive finds you well, and that you will forgive its brusque tone. I am very pressed for time.
Since you appear to be somewhat between engagements and a bit at odds with our good law enforcement officers, I trust you will consider accepting the following proposal. I find myself in sudden need of loyal and able-bodied men to crew a small vessel. I would like you to captain said vessel on a journey as of yet undetermined length outside of the Fire Nation. You would be responsible for outfitting the ship, gathering the rest of the crew, and assuming day to day command under my direction. I fear we have only a few days to prepare for departure, but I hope you will still manage to track down some old and friendly faces from our time at Ba Sing Se. If you can find Cook, I will be eternally in your debt.
Enclosed are the documents detailing our budget (sadly limited), my basic requirements, and papers attesting to your captaincy of the vessel, which will allow you permission to board immediately. Your new ship is named Yuan and moored at the third western dock. I will meet you there at sunrise tomorrow morning, together with my young nephew, who will be accompanying us on our journey. Prince Zuko is thirteen and about as brash as one would expect anyone of that age to be, but he is a kind and caring boy. I trust you will find you have much in common with him.
I thank you for your service, also on behalf of my nephew, who is unable to write to you in person at this moment.
When Jee later complained to his crew about the General's gross misrepresentation of his nephew in that first letter, most of them nodded in sympathy. Cook disagreed and said there was definitely some truth in the General's words. Jee and Prince Zuko did have many things in common, Cook insisted, namely every single one of their many, many character flaws.
Jee opened his mouth to yell at the man, but snapped it shut again when he realized that yelling was what Zuko would do.
At least Jee was old, self-aware and sane enough to admit that he had character flaws. For instance, he knew he was very bad at doing what he was told, but couldn't be left to his own devices for a week without at least getting arrested. Most superior officers brought out the absolute worst in him, but General Iroh had always been the one shining exception. Jee had served at Ba Sing Se for the full six hundred days, and he'd had ample time to find out that the General was just, firm, and rather fun as far as commanders go. He'd been reassigned to Captain Zhao's ship after the end of the great Siege, and that had been a nightmare among nightmares by comparison. Jee was rather happy to have the General pick him up again, even if it was completely out of the blue and for nebulous purposes.
That was before he realized that the General considered himself retired and was no longer interested in commanding anyone to do anything. The child he brought on board, though, took over control of the ship from his uncle with horrifying speed and determination. Zuko was not a kind and caring boy. He was a self-centered little demon with a temper like five vats of blasting jelly, and from the very first time he opened his mouth, Jee knew that there would be no getting along with him.
Zuko wasn't worse than Zhao, but only because he was so much easier to dismiss. He would have been a contender if he'd just been bigger. Jee did try to take him seriously at first - because he was a prince, for the General's sake, and because that strange injury looked damned painful and Jee wasn't heartless. But he just couldn't do it. Zuko was patently ignorant about what it took to run a ship, barely competent at firebending, unbalanced, and phenomenally rude. Within a week, Jee gave up on him and did what he always did when settling in to survive a commander he couldn't respect. He did his job on the ship, ignored Zuko as thoroughly as he could, and coated his attitude with a layer of superficial politeness so that he couldn't be accused of outright mutiny. Zuko wasn't entirely stupid. He noticed what Jee was doing and tried to bring him under control again, mostly by yelling more and louder. Unlike Zhao, though, the brat didn't have the balls to follow through on his threats or the authority to make them sound even a little serious. Jee just wasn't intimidated by superior officers who couldn't look him in the eyes unless they stood on a bucket.
Zuko made himself extremely difficult to ignore, though. It didn't help that the General let his nephew get away with absolutely everything. Half of the men Jee had recruited for the Yuan's journey had served under the General before, and they didn't understand why he let Zuko run them ragged, insult them, and belittle them for trying to do their jobs in spite of a bratty prince getting in their way. They were used to the General giving a damn about the little people. Now the only thing he seemed to care about was drinking tea, playing pai sho, and staring at Zuko's back with an expression that was disturbingly reminiscent of how he'd looked at Prince Lu Ten whenever he used to depart for battle.
After a while, though, even the General seemed to notice that morale on board was comparable to that of a very noisy graveyard. He picked himself up and became a little more like the cheerful man Jee remembered. The good old tradition of music night was reinstated. The General even dragged along his little demon nephew, who turned out to be a surprisingly good tsungi hornist. Zuko knew all the General's favorite songs, as did Jee, so they could play together without having to exchange words. It was oddly pleasant.
After a few weeks, however, Zuko seemed to decide that he hated fun and stopped showing up to music night. Jee went back to ignoring him. If only Zuko had done him the same courtesy, life on board could have been quite bearable.
Entry in the captain's log book of the light patrol cruiser Yuan
Sixth year of Suiseirei Era, seventh month, day 16.
On course to pass Chameleon Bay tomorrow. Will be giving it a wide berth because of unconfirmed reports about a fleet of Water ships patrolling in the vicinity. Weather still good. No incidents and nothing of note, save for observation from pikeman Shi that Prince Zuko has not said "Avatar" even once today and must be coming down with something. We can only hope.
The crew wants to throw a party to commemorate the second anniversary of our departure from the Fire Nation, but General Iroh has forbidden any and all celebrations. He does think that the ship needs more "beauty and cheer" and wishes to make port so he can go shopping. Stores of rice and dried fruit have been low since the minor rat plague we had two weeks ago, so we will lay anchor at the first colonial port we pass.
Jee wasn't sure if his ship needed any additional beauty or cheer. It was sadly lacking in beauty, that was true; over half of the men were downright old, and most of the handful of younger ones hadn't ended up stuck on the Yuan because of their pretty faces. Zuko actually wasn't bad, in profile and from his good side, but he seemed to go out of his way to scrunch his face up in the ugliest expressions he could manage.
Not that they really needed beauty on board. Cheer was more important to morale, but there was already plenty of cheer, in Jee's opinion. Maybe even a little too much.
"So I said, 'Would you like to blow my tsungi horn?', and he..."
Jee slammed his hand down flat on the main table of the mess room, cutting Lei off in mid-sentence. "One more tsungi horn joke out of you and I'm banning you from music night for a month. Enough."
The helmsman pulled a face and took a very grumpy sip from his mug of paint stripper. It seemed to cheer him up immediately. He turned to Jee and held up a not very steady fin ger.
"Wait, sir. You'll love this one. It's about him."
Jee sighed. He held out his own mug to the left, and felt it grow heavier as either his first mate, Haisu, or Cook refilled it. "No. Shut up. Not one more tsungi horn joke, even if it's about Zuko."
Lei's eyes widened, and his finger came up again. He shook it in Jee's face in what he probably thought was a threatening manner. "You said his name, sir! You'll make him sneeze and he'll be mad. Madder."
Jee resisted the urge to blow a lick of flame at the finger. Agni, what had possessed him to bring Lei on board? Surely he could have found a better piece of drunken scum floating around in the royal harbor.
"Oh, not that again," Shi interjected from somewhere behind Haisu. "He doesn't sneeze when you say his name."
Haisu nodded sagely. "If people sneezed whenever someone says their name, the Avatar would come over here and make the prince cut it out already."
Jee snickered, but Lei's stupid finger was waving in the air again, this time poking dangerously close to Haisu's right eye.
"You can't say that word either! It summons him! I'm telling you, he hears it even when I'm up on the bridge and he's down in the hold, he hears it and..."
"Shut up," Jee snapped. "He doesn't. Avatar, Avatar."
Dead silence fell around the table. Jee closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and looked over his shoulder. He focused on the lintel over the door instead of on Zuko's nasty face. At least the lintel wasn't glowering at him.
"Yes, sir?" He put extra effort into sounding uninterested. He'd been enjoying his break, and if Zuko had anything he wanted to rant about, he'd just have to bother someone who was on watch.
"Straighten out this ship," the brat said. There was a tiny, peculiar note of panic in his voice, and it made Jee sit up straight and take a closer look at him. Zuko was in his sleeping robe. He looked mussed and angry. "The lookout just spotted Zhao's ship. He'll be here in ten minutes."
Jee swallowed a curse. He hated Zhao with a passion he rarely reserved for any superior officer, no matter how repugnant. Zuko didn't even come close. They'd run into Zhao's ship no less than eight times over the past two years, and Jee was beginning to think that the miserable bastard followed them around on purpose, just because he enjoyed wiping his filthy boots on Jee's deck and gloating at him about how low he'd fallen while Zhao kept climbing the ranks.
Actually, Zhao mostly seemed to be jumping on their backs at every opportunity because he loved baiting Zuko. He rarely spared Jee more than a supercilious greeting and a nasty little smile or two. But that didn't mean he couldn't take it personally.
"Yes, sir," Jee said, but Zuko had already disappeared, probably to his cabin to put on his armor. Raised voices and running feet sounded on deck. Cook knew the drill, and he was already gathering the mugs with one hand and wiping down the table with his apron.
"Haisu, Shi, get this drunken idiot into his cabin and make sure he stays there," Jee ordered, pointing at Lei. "Find Bao and Lin Wei as well. I want all five of you invisible for however long this takes. Haisu, you're babysitting."
They couldn't leave anyone or anything in view that might indicate weakness, because Zhao would notice and twist it into something he could mock Zuko, Jee, or the whole crew for. He always found something, of course, but Jee rather shared Zuko's desire not to give Zhao more ammunition than they could help. Lei was too drunk to leave in sight, and Shi, Bao and Lin Wei were the youngest of the crew after Zuko. None of them were very thick-skinned, and they looked it. Jee preferred not to expose his more vulnerable crew members to Zhao at all. Most of the time, though, Zuko succeeded in drawing nearly all of Zhao's fire without e ven trying. It was unsettling. Not that Jee didn't understand the urge to poke Zuko with a stick until his bald head popped; he felt it himself all the time. But something about the blatant, almost giddy delight that Zhao took in needling Zuko struck Jee as simply perverse.
But that was the way things were, and they wouldn't change until Zuko grew up a bit and learned to let mockery go over his head like the rest of them. All Jee could do now was get his ship in order. Haisu and Shi were pulling a protesting Lei out of his chair, and Cook had disappeared to the galley with the mugs and bottles. Jee stamped out of the room to take charge of the chaos outside. There was still time to clear the deck and corridors of all ropes, loose pieces of equipment, obvious coal stains, and people who didn't look their best, but they were cutting it close already.
Only moments before Zhao's much taller ship drew up alongside them, Zuko finally reappeared. He still looked flushed and queasy, and he was fumbling with the left-hand ties of his shoulder guard as he walked. The right-hand ties were tangled in a hasty and inelegant knot. Jee was still so preoccupied with the need to straighten things out that he didn't even think before catching Zuko's arm and wrenching it up so he could reach the ties.
"Hold still," he snapped. "Sir."
Zuko did hold still, but only for a moment. Then the shock of being manhandled seemed to wear off, and he jerked on his arm while shooting Jee an impossibly filthy glare. "Don't touch me!"
Jee ignored him, pulled at the left set of ties until they looked tidy, and moved to Zuko's other side to correct the right-hand knots. Zuko tried to hit him in the gut with his elbow, but it wasn't a very effective angle.
"Get off of me!"
"I'm helping you," Jee grunted, not letting go.
"I don't need your help!"
"Lieutenant," said the General, suddenly appearing right next to them. "Calm down. Thank you. I'll take it from here."
He inserted himself between Jee and Zuko without waiting for either of them to react. Jee had to take a step back to avoid bumping into the General's ample backside, and he growled and threw up his hands in frustration. Alright, maybe he'd been a little grabby there, but he'd been trying to help. Ungrateful little shit. He glared at Zuko, but the brat only had eyes for his uncle.
"Lieutenant Jee meant well, Prince Zuko. We are all just a little nervous." The General picked up the shoulder straps Jee had dropped and began tying them deftly. Zuko turned towards him, hunching in on himself. The General whispered something.. Zuko gave him a nod, lifted his chin, and squared his shoulders. He locked his legs so that he wouldn't stumble when the heavy gang plank of Zhao's ship crashed down and made the deck shake.
As Jee assumed a similar stance, he felt a brief, mad impulse to go stand in front of Zuko. The brat looked small. It didn't feel right to put a half-grown man-child in front and hide all the adults in the back when someone like Zhao came calling. Most of the time Zhao was only infuriatingly rude in a polite way, but he could turn cruel and downright brutal without the slightest of warnings.
Of course, sometimes he preferred to be openly instead of politely rude. The first time they'd run into him had been just after Zuko's bandage came off, when the scar was still a puffy mess of lurid colors. The first words out of Zhao's mouth had been "My, it looks even more ghastly than the day you got it".
When Zhao came striding down the gangplank, it was with his usual swagger, but his face was mostly expressionless. Jee watched as he exchanged bows and greetings with Zuko and the General. He wasn't raising his voice so that everyone on deck would be able to hear it, like he tended to do when voicing some particularly cutting insult, and he didn't try to loom over Zuko or leer at him. He just took a scroll from one of his guards, unrolled it, and held it up. It looked like a wanted poster. Jee couldn't make out the face on it from this distance, but Zuko and the General both glanced at it and shook their heads immediately.
When Zuko still wasn't showing any signs of anger after at least another minute of conversation, Jee began to relax. Apparently, this wasn't one of the social calls Zhao was so fond of. He had some sort of actual, official, pressing affair to discuss that had nothing to do with pestering people who were just sailing around and minding their own business. Hopefully that meant he wouldn't stay long, and that he'd refrain from winding Zuko up into a little ball of impotent rage, which the brat would be taking out Jee and the rest of the crew for days afterward.
"Lieutenant!" Zuko called.
Rhino balls. Jee had been hoping he'd be kept out of it this time. He walked over to the little group, trying not to tense up visibly, but Zhao barely glanced at him.
Zuko handed him the poster. It depicted a shaggy-headed and not incredibly sharp-looking fellow. "This is Chey the Deserter. He abandoned his position in our army almost a year ago. He's still on the run, and someone saw him in Hokkyo ten days ago."
Damn it all. They'd made port in Hokkyo nine days ago.
"We need to make sure he isn't hiding anywhere on board," Zuko went on. He was clearly taking it seriously, but then, he took everything seriously. The fact that Zhao seemed to be doing the same was more alarming. "Have our firebenders escort Captain Zhao's men while they search the ship. The fugitive is extremely dangerous."
Jee frowned. He'd never heard of any Army deserters who weren't tracked down and dealt with in a matter of days, besides Admiral Jeong Jeong, of course. Jee was about as eager to let Zhao's men rummage through the Yuan as he was to let Zhao rummage through the contents of his underclothes, but the idea of this desperate outlaw hiding out somewhere on his ship was even less appealing.
"Yes, sir." He nodded, rolled up the poster and cast a look around the deck to see which of their benders was already in earshot.
Two dozen of Zhao's firebenders were crawling all over the Yuan in minutes. Jee remained on deck and tried to ignore them. The General, bless him, had begun distracting Zhao with some kind of rambling story that involved expansive arm gestures and tiny smoke effects from his mouth and fingers. Judging from the look on Zhao's face, it was about tea, and monumentally uninteresting.
Zhao was glaring over the General's head to where Zuko was standing. He was obviously eager to get in a brief round of prince-baiting now that his official business was being handled, but the General was an immovable obstacle when he chose to be one. Zuko had removed himself from Zhao's immediate vicinity and taken several paces towards Jee. His eyes were glued on a flock of sparrow-gulls that was conveniently flying in a direction opposite to that where Zhao stood milling about. That was a rather good idea and Jee would have liked to copy it, but it was his job to keep an eye on any threats to his ship's commander, and Zhao was definitely that.
The General babbled on, and the corners of Zhao's mouth twisted further in steadily building annoyance. His narrowed eyes were now going from Zuko to Jee and back again. Jee realized he was standing exactly where Zhao wanted to be standing, almost right next to Zuko, and barely held back a grin. The obnoxious bastard was jealous.
Time to rub it in. Jee tugged part of his left sleeve out of its brace, pulled out a small bag, and warmed it with a quick burst of heat from his palm. The sharp, spicy smell of fire flakes filled the air. They were much better when eaten fresh at festivals, but Cook's recipe wasn't half bad.
Jee took a step closer to Zuko and held out the bag. "Fire flake, sir?"
Zuko shot the bag and Jee's face a suspicious look, but he reached out almost at once and plucked up a few steaming flakes. He didn't say anything. That didn't bother Jee; he'd decided years ago that the brat was probably just allergic to expressions of gratitude or appreciation. Besides, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Zhao's face starting to purple rather beautifully. That was more than reward enough for sacrificing part of his evening snack to the brat prince.
Zuko might have an absolutely boundless talent for making Jee's life miserable, but whenever Zhao came calling, Jee was always reminded that things could be so much worse. His two years on Zhao's ship had been far beyond miserable and down into absolutely hellish. There hadn't even been much camaraderie among the crew that could have eased the weight of Zhao's relentless lack of basic humanity. Zhao had come down savagely on any attempt at levity that sounded as if it might be at his expense.
The one time they'd succeeded in making a laughing stock of him had also ended badly, but it was glorious while it lasted. It had started when one of the sailors made up a dirty poem that told the absolutely untrue story of how Captain Zhao had once tried to dishonor a Water woman, who had taken out a whalebone knife, cut his balls clean off, and made them into barbarian soup. Jee and a few other musically inclined crew members had ended up rewriting the poem to fit the tune of "The Girls from Ba Sing Se", and that had turned out to be a stroke of absolute brilliance. Every person in the world from the Fire Lord to the lowest fish-munching Water savage knew that particular melody, and in no time, the ditty was all over every Earth Kingdom port. Eventually, inevitably, Zhao heard it somewhere while on business off the ship. The face he'd been wearing when he came storming up the gang plank right afterward wa s burned into Jee's mind as thoroughly as if it had been done with hot irons.
It had been beautiful for a precious few seconds. But Zhao had rounded on Jee at once, probably because he was the only one on board who was both a musician and a known troublemaker. Since Zhao was obviously interested in violence rather than talk, Jee had assumed a dueling stance and waited for Zhao's forearm to hit his. Zhao had punched him in the face instead.
The scene had been followed by a month of total isolation in the brig and a discharge for bad conduct as soon as the ship returned to the Fire Nation. But the considerable shame of that had been nothing, nothing compared to being beaten like a common dog in front of half of the ship. Firebenders settled their disputes through proper duels, not fisticuffs. Jee was not only a bender but also a warrior. Zhao couldn't have heaped more insult and dishonor on him if he'd tried.
He never should have stopped spreading th at song around. Why hadn't he taken advantage of his discharge to get the whole Fire Nation to sing it as well? Maybe it was time to breathe life into his most popular creation again. And there was no time like the present.
Jee began to hum, just loudly enough that the sound would carry to where the General and Zhao were standing. The General would just think it was "The Girls From Ba Sing Se". And if Zhao tried to shut Jee up, he'd end up dropping the topic of his perceived lack of balls right at the feet of the Dragon of the West and Prince Zuko.
"Hmm hmm hmmmm.... The balls of Captain Zhao..."
Zuko froze with his hand in the bag of fire flakes and stared at Jee as if he had two heads. Jee quickly went back to humming instead of singing, looking away to hide his grin. Perhaps he should try teaching the song to the brat one day. It might make him a little less nervous of Zhao.
The idea of teaching Zuko anything was a little absurd, in a sad way. As if the brat would condescend to learn anything at all from a lowly commoner like Jee.
Still, sometimes Jee wished he could just walk up to Zuko, show him what he was doing wrong, explain how it could be fixed, and have him accept the help in the spirit it was given. He wasn't going to try it when Zuko would just glower and snap at him, though. Normal glowering and snapping was just very annoying. But there was a deeply unsettling gleam of distrust and fear in the brat's eyes whenever people tried to offer him assistance, and Jee didn't want that look directed at him. It hurt in a way he couldn't quite put his finger on.
His thoughts were interrupted by an agitated shout from the doorway.
"Sir! Sir! The rhinos!"
It was Shi, looking flustered and absolutely furious. He ran straight up to them and didn't even seem to notice Zhao. Jee opened his mouth to tell the idiot to get the hell back inside -and where was Haisu, damn it? Jee relied on that man- and immediately choked on a fire flake.
Zuko ran right over him while he was still busy clearing his throat.
"What about the rhinos?"
Shi barely hesitated before addressing Zuko instead of Jee. He was panting a little, as if he'd been running up the stairs. "Sir, they're in the rhino hold! I keep telling them there's no fugitives there because the rhinos would crush them, but they won't listen, and they made the rhinos mad and one of them gave a little nip and then they burned it! On the snout!"
If Zhao's goons had really gone poking around among their komodo rhinos, Jee wasn't surprised they'd gotten a little nip or three. Rhinos liked very few humans at all. It made them rather inconvenient means of transport; they could be persuaded to carry people they didn't care for, but only when the person doing the steering was someone they did like, and even that trick only seemed to work on a case-by-case basis. Of all the people on the Yuan, the only ones who could approach the rhinos without having to fear for their extremities were Shi, two of the other pikemen, and oddly enough, Zuko. The General said his nephew was really very good with animals. Jee thought it was more likely that the stubborn and evil-tempered monsters simply recognized Zuko as a kindred spirit.
Shi was the rhinos' main hostler, so it only made sense that he got angry when his animals were harmed. The absolutely murderous expression that slammed over Zuko's face was a bit more surprising. The brat rounded on Zhao and jabbed him, actually jabbed him, in the chest with two fingers.
"Are you stupid? Tell your people to get out of my hold! If they don't know how to handle a rhino, they don't belong there!"
Zhao looked down at the fingers and sighed. "Prince Zuko," he began, slowly and clearly, as if talking to a five-year-old. "They are just beasts. You are young, so perhaps you cannot grasp that capturing a traitor to the Fire Nation is more important than keeping your pets happy. If animal suffering upsets you, perhaps you should go to your room until we're finished."
Zuko snarled and jabbed Zhao's breastplate again. Jee winced, but Zhao didn't retaliate; he still looked somewhere between indulgent and exasperated.
"Fine!" Zuko snapped, whirling around. "I'll flush them out of there myself!" The amount of indignation in his voice was astounding. Jee wondered if Zuko would get this angry if Zhao's goons had burned one of his human crew members instead of one of the evil monsters.
"Prince Zuko, I'm sure it was just a small accident," the General began, but he might as well have tried to reason with the rhinos. Zuko ducked out of his uncle's reach and stormed into the superstructure, Shi right on his heels. The sound of their feet thundering down the metal stairway into the hold sounded very ominous. The General was obviously thinking the same thing, because he mumbled a quick “Excuse me" at Zhao and hurried after Zuko.
"Ah, children," Zhao drawled, looking at the door Zuko and the General had disappeared through.
With a stab of real panic, Jee realized that the royals had just left him alone with Zhao. He tried to stare very hard at Zuko's flock of sparrow-gulls, and prayed that Zhao wouldn't notice him if he remained completely immobile. That sometimes worked on moose-lions.
Zhao's footsteps came up behind him almost at once.
"Lieutenant. Such a pleasure. We haven't had an opportunity to talk since you were discharged from my ship."
"A pleasure," Jee repeated, taking care not to put any sort of intonation whatsoever in the word. If Zhao wanted to rile him up, he'd have to work for it.
Zhao smiled, relaxed his stance, and began to make a slow full body turn. His eyes seemed to linger over every inch of the Yuan, every bolt on the deck and every scratch on the plating and the walls. It made Jee's skin crawl.
"I do like your ship, Lieutenant. It's very quaint. And there is something to be said for vessels in modest sizes."
...He wasn't about to burden his brain trying to think about that. Zhao was infuriating enough when Jee wasn't aware of every single different insult that the bastard worked into his words.
"She's an excellent ship."
Zhao nodded. "It's good that you're content with your lot. Seeing as your quest is impossible, you'll probably be here for the rest of your life." He gestured towards the Yuan's superstructure without looking at it, as if the ship was too embarrassing to even glance at. Jee glowered at the hand. Even the way Zhao moved offended him.
"Prince Zuko would disagree. He's confident we'll succeed." Prince Zuko was also delusional, but Jee would burn his own eyes out before saying a single bad word about the brat prince to Zhao. Right now, Zhao was the enemy and Zuko was on Jee's team, after a fashion.
"Prince Zuko. Ah, yes. It's good to see that you two seem to be getting along better than you used to." Zhao's smile widened, and Jee tensed. "But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. He has grown a bit. He's rather your favorite size now, isn't he?"
Jee felt his mouth drop open before he could catch himself. Oh, Agni, that was beyond disgusting.
Alright, he'd thought about it. Who was he supposed to fantasize about, on a ship full of old people like himself? He'd thought about it rather more times than he cared to admit, maybe. But never for longer than two seconds. Zuko was a child. It was true that Jee liked his partners a good deal younger than he was, and he still cursed the day that he'd let Zhao find out anything at all about his preferences, but that didn't mean he was one of those degenerates who preyed on ship boys and anyone else too small and weedy to fight him off.
Jee enjoyed youth as much as any other man. But most of all, he wanted to feel the warm rush of satisfaction he felt when a body moving under his hands suddenly got it - when someone figured out how to breathe with him and keep a rhythm, realized he could trust Jee enough to just shift and roll with the slightest nudge of his fingers, without thinking. Jee liked to feel people change and learn, and the knowledge that he was the one who had brought it about, and that was all there was to it.
Zhao was still grinning at him. Jee really didn't want to dignify this particular insinuation with an answer, but if he said nothing, Zhao would just assume that he'd hit a nerve. Jee glowered at him and tried to make it obvious from his expression that he thought Zhao was an affront to all living creatures. On a whim, he decided to let some smoke escape from his fists as a warning.
"That is disgusting, sir, and I 'll take it as an insult to my honor if you suggest it again."
Zhao smiled wider, and Jee knew he'd made a mistake somehow. "Ah, yes. Of course an honorable man like you has standards, Lieutenant. Disgusting indeed. But really, if you bend him over, you don't have to look at that hideous face. Or perhaps you can put a helmet on him."
Jee gaped at him, absolutely speechless. He didn't have to concentrate to make his fists smoke anymore, but Zhao just kept talking. "It's really quite a shame. He used to be much better looking, back when I used to visit the palace. Very handsome lad."
"I wouldn't know," Jee growled.
"You don't?" Zhao paused, and then his oily smile suddenly took on a very, very cruel quality. "You don't know how he was injured, lieutenant?"
"No. We weren't told, and my crew isn't interested in gossip." That was quite possibly the biggest lie Jee had ever uttered in his life, and from the glint of victory in Zhao's eyes, he knew it.
"Ah, of course you weren't told. If I had done what he did, I certainly wouldn't want my subordinates to know. It was a shameful affair. He wouldn't have gotten burned at all if he hadn't been so incompetent. Weakness and cowardice are so hard to watch, and one expects better from a prince. If he'd even just refrained from begging and crying, but..." He trailed off. "He dishonored himself completely. Irredeemably, I'm afraid."
Jee had to work not to roll his eyes. Did Zhao really believe he could make anyone think differently about Zuko with such vague and completely ludicrous insinuations? Perhaps Jee knew next to nothing about where the brat came from or what went on in his head, but you learned a thing or two about a person's character during two years on vast and dangerous seas. Whatever else was wrong with Zuko, he was tough as nails, and absolutely fearless in times of crisis. Jee had never seen him shed a single tear, and the idea of him begging... The rhinos would sing harmonies before Zuko ever begged for anything.
He knew it was all hogwash, but didn't mean he was going to let it slide. Jee turned so he was facing Zhao fully and took a long and very deliberate step forward into the man's personal space. Zhao's sneer evaporated instantly. The one nice thing about him was that he was so easy to anger; if you were a lowly subordinate like Jee, all it took was one gesture of clear and open defiance.
"Stop spouting filthy lies about my commander on my ship, or I'll shut you up myself."
Zhao was nearly spitting in Jee's face when he answered, but that was hardly the worst insult he'd ever inflicted on him. "Take my word for it, Lieutenant. Your high-born commander put himself exactly down on your level, and that's where he's going to stay." He sneered and drew away from Jee, as if he were contagious. "I'm surprised you're not rutting with him yet. You're the best he can get, and he's the closest you will ever come again to touching anything that still carries the slightest whiff of nobility to it. But maybe he just needs a little more time. He was always slow."
Jee bared his teeth, making sure Zhao could see the sparks in his mouth. Perhaps the bastard had forgotten that Jee had a short temper of his own, and that he had plenty of bending skill even if he lacked Zhao's raw power. "Pushing it, sir."
Zhao's scowl darkened, but before he could form a retort, one of his own firebenders appeared at his elbow.
"There's no sign of the fugitive, sir."
"Fine," Zhao snarled, and the man leaned backwards so quickly that he almost seemed to lose his balance. "Take everyone back to ship. Prince Zuko and his men have important duties to fulfill, and we mustn't waste their valuable time."
Jee almost said something about what else Zhao was wasting. He contained it, but Zhao seemed to read his mind somehow and got in his face again.
"Make your move soon, Lieutenant. You're gray already. And that at your age. You don't want to become so ugly that even your grotesque little commander won't want you."
"Turned you down, did he?" It was out before Jee could even start thinking.
The fury that suddenly twisted Zhao's whole face was gone again almost the moment it appeared. But there was something so fierce about it, something so out of proportion with the jibe, that it came down on Jee's own anger like a wave of icy polar water.
No. That piece of rhino dung couldn't actually have tried to...
Zhao glanced at something over Jee's shoulder, and his smile returned. It was absolutely savage.
"I don't discuss my private affairs. But take it from me, Lieutenant." He raised his voice. "Prince Zuko looked perfect when he was on his knees. Like he was born to it."
Jee punched him. At least, he tried to, but his right arm was grabbed mid-swing and jerked to the side with enough force to make his shoulder scream. He caught a flash of a striped white face mask -one of Zhao's guards, of course, they'd have come closer as soon as Jee approached their captain, stupid- as he stopped resisting and rolled with the pull on his arm. It was that or dislocate something. He threw out his other arm just in time to break his fall and avoid crashing face first onto the deck.
The weight of another guard came down on him, hard, and his head was suddenly yanked up by the hair - Agni, that hurt. The deck receded all by itself and he knew what was coming, but one of his arms was stuck under him and the other was still being twisted backwards. He couldn't grab, couldn't spit flame, couldn't kick, couldn't do anything except watch the deck approach again, prepare for the familiar but horrible sensation of his nose breaking, and try to at least not pass out from the shock.
But instead of pain, there came a furious shout and the roar of flames above. Close, less than an arm's length above his head, but just too far away to be dangerous, and not that there was anything he could do in this position anyway. But the weight on his back and the hand in his hair abruptly disappeared, and then only heat was slamming into Jee's back.
He tensed and prepared to roll away rather than get up, but when he turned his head to the side, he saw Zhao's boots standing right in front of him. Just in reach, yes, the stupid bastard had actually stayed in reach. He braced his arms and concentrated on pumping chi down towards his feet. Zhao was tall and heavy, but a two-legged kick boosted by some flame would be enough to sweep his feet right out from under him. Jee was far too old for bending acrobatics and spinning his whole body on his hands would probably pop his shoulder for real, but it would be worth it.
He was just about to heave his legs off the deck when he felt another burst of flame shoot over his back, too high to see more of it a fierce yellow glow. Zhao had to take a step backwards to deflect it. The fire was followed immediately by a whoosh of displaced air, and then Jee's vision was blocked by a new pair of boots. They were much smaller and pointed away from him, towards Zhao.
"GET OFF OF MY SHIP!"
Zuko. Jee cringed and shut his eyes as ripple of pure, bitter shame ran down his spine. Of course, of course Zuko had been standing right there, it had been so obvious just from the look on Zhao's face. Jee had been too busy mouthing off like a perfect idiot to notice that his own commander had come up right behind him. Stupid, stupid, useless.
"Ah, Prince Zuko. If you're finished cuddling your rhinos, I believe your sheepdog here also needs some petting." Zhao didn't sound very smug anymore.
Jee growled. He pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the popping of his knees and the ache in his shoulder, and looked around to take stock of the situation. Zhao, Zuko, one firebender guard standing up, one down but also moving to get up. There were no others anywhere near them, but he could hear the sound of many running feet coming up the stairs to the deck. The General was nowhere in sight. Jee kept his eyes on the two guards but didn't lift his hands. Now that he was no longer getting his face ground into his own deck, fighting sounded like a much less attractive option.
He glanced over his shoulder. Zuko was in a bending stance, but he wasn't making the proper challenging gesture with his left hand, and Zhao didn't look as if he was about to launch an attack. He looked livid, though.
"LEAVE!" Zuko roared. Jee couldn't see his face from this angle, but something told him that he didn't really want to know what the brat looked like right now.
Zhao tried to smile, but it looked more like he wanted to rip Zuko's head off. He straightened, brought his hands together, and gave Zuko every last inch of the deep bow that royalty was entitled to.
"Certainly, my Prince. We'll remove ourselves from your space now. Thank you for your forbearance."
Jee didn't take his eyes off Zhao's retreating figure until he and every last one of his men were back on their own ship, and he relaxed only after they'd pulled up their gang plank, started their engines, and were floating out of sight behind the Yuan's tower.
When he turned to Zuko, he saw that the brat was standing more or less where Zhao had left him. The fighting stance was gone. He was still looking away from Jee, though, and his whole posture radiated such a phenomenal amount of tension that he looked as if the breeze that was just picking up might be enough to snap him in two.
"Thank you, sir," Jee said to the back of Zuko's head. He meant it. The brat had probably just defended him for the same reason he'd defended his rhinos, but Jee was still grateful. He'd be standing here with a broken face if Zuko hadn't knocked that guard off his back.
Zuko didn't react. The absolute silence was rather alarming, and Jee let his eyes roam around the deck again in search of the only person who had a small chance of stopping whatever was brewing inside the brat.
Still no sign of him. Haisu was standing a few paces away, though, looking extremely sheepish and guilty. He was probably expecting Jee to chew him out for letting Shi escape. That would have to wait until later.
"Get the General," Jee mouthed. Haisu nodded back and disappeared into the hold again.
"What did he tell you?" Zuko snapped abruptly, without turning around. He still sounded furious and most definitely embarrassed, but something hysterical was bubbling just under the anger. There would be shouting soon.
The prospect didn't annoy Jee half as much as it usually would. He rather wanted to shout himself.
"Just lies, sir." He tried to sound convinced.
Apparently, he'd failed, because Zuko whirled around. His face was a picture of pure fury, but Jee had seen that particular expression on him so often that it had nearly lost all meaning. Jee resisted the urge to smile in relief. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but this was familiar enough.
"Tell me what he said. He was talking about this, wasn't he!?" Zuko didn't point at his face, but he didn't have to.
Jee nodded. If he denied it, Zuko wouldn't believe him anyway.
“Yes, sir. But it was all lies." He thought for a moment, trying to find the right thing to say. “I know you'd never disgrace yourself the way he said you did."
He tried to make it sound reassuring, because he thought he had some notion of what the brat was going through right now. Accusations of dishonor hurt no matter the circumstances. To have them delivered behind one's back to a relentlessly disobedient and unfriendly subordinate, though... Zuko probably thought Jee was going to spread Zhao's drivel around the mess room first chance he got.
Not that he actually expected Zuko to believe any reassurances that came out of his mouth. Zuko never believed him on anything. Still, the brat had done him a good turn just now, and Jee felt like he had to make the effort. He kept his eyes on Zuko's face and prayed he'd see at least a small glimmer of acknowledgment.
Zuko maintained his furious glare. A few seconds went by and Jee began to hope, but then Zuko bared his sharp little teeth and opened his mouth. Jee just sighed very quietly and braced for impact.
It didn't come.
Zuko's mask of complete outrage wobbled, crumpled horribly, and for one hair-raising second, there was no doubt at all in Jee's mind that the brat was going to burst into tears right there and then.
But the nightmarish sight vanished as if it had been no more than a spirit trick, and all of a sudden Zuko was only a finger's length away from Jee's nose and snarling like a rabid tigerdillo. If Jee's reflexes had been even a little slower, Zuko's breath would have cooked his face right off of his skull.
“Repeat one word of this, and I will kill you."
And then he was gone, disappearing from Jee's line of vision before Jee had even began to understand the words. He moved from right there to the door of the superstructure so fast that he might as well have airbended himself, and disappeared into the darkness of the ship.
Jee gaped at the empty doorway. He knew he was disappointed, insulted, and far beyond angry, but his mind refused to settle down long enough for the emotions to actually take hold. That unbelievable little monster...
It felt like hours later when a warm, steady presence materialized at his side.
“Lieutenant? Is everything all right?"
Jee looked down. It was the General, finally. Much too late, but Jee was so ridiculously glad to see the old man and the normalcy he brought that he didn't really care. He quickly straightened up and tried to make his face settle back into a more normal frown.
It seemed to be good enough for the General. He patted Jee's arm reassuringly.
"My apologies for leaving you waiting so long, Lieutenant. The situation in the rhino hold was a bit of a muddle. But no one is hurt, and it seems the poor animal that was injured will recover." He sounded dreadfully tired. "Do I hear a rumor that you almost hit Captain Zhao?"
Jee stood up a bit straighter. "I'm afraid so, sir."
"Why, if I may ask?"
"He was speaking ill of Prince Zuko." He couldn't believe he'd spoken up for the little shit. He couldn't believe it.
The General gave him a very doubtful look. "You speak ill of Prince Zuko. Frequently."
It took Jee a few moment s to remember exactly why he'd decided not to let Zhao's slights against the brat slide. The old man would probably detect any untruths. He also wouldn't take kindly to being told that his beloved nephew was an ungrateful, crazy beast from the underworld that had shape-shifted into human form and had been fooling him for all these years.
"Not in the way Zha... Captain Zhao was doing, sir. He doesn't know the prince. He doesn't know what he's talking about," Jee ground out.
"Neither do you," the General sighed. "And neither do I, I'm afraid. Where is my nephew?"
Jee stared, puzzled. "He already went inside, sir."
"Very well. I'll go speak with him." Suddenly the General smiled, and Jee felt better right away. The old man had a rare gift for pulling everyone around him into his own mood completely unintentionally. It worked even on a sourpuss like Jee.
"I can't say I approve of inflicting violence on esteemed officers of the Fire Navy, Lieutenant. But thank you for defending Zuko in my stead. I'm very glad he has you to rely on."
Then he sighed again, although he didn't look quite as defeated as before. "I assume Zuko didn't appreciate your assistance, though. He must have been very cross with you. My apologies for his behavior."
“It's all right, sir," Jee said, but he must have pulled some kind of face, because the General gave him a tiny frown that was half exasperation and half rebuke. Jee had seen it before often enough to recognize it. The General turned it on anyone who complained about Zuko, even when the complaints were justified.
"Remember that Zuko is young, Lieutenant, and not yet very good at figuring out for himself how those around him should be treated. He mostly reflects back what others show him."
That was a nice excuse. Jee resolved to use it for himself the next time Zuko accused him of disrespect.
Various crude and inexpert drawings on the door of the latrines
A rhino and Captain Zhao in a compromising position
A rhino and Captain Zhao in another compromising position
Captain Zhao doing something unspeakable with a tsungi horn
Prince Zuko carrying Lieutenant Jee in his arms, one foot on a fallen Captain Zhao's head
Written with a sooty finger across the drawings
For the last time, that is not what happened.
I gave you lot permission to draw on this one door because you'll cover my whole ship in graffiti otherwise. If you're just going to abuse my generosity to spread lies and rhino pornography, I'll withdraw it entirely. One warning only. Keep in mind that a person who isn't of age also has to use this room.
Unsigned, written under Lieutenant Jee's note
I'm pretty sure he drew at least one of those pictures, sir.