Entry in the captain's log book of the light patrol cruiser Yuan
Seventh year of Suiseirei Era, third month, day 26.
Ship caught in unseasonable typhoon. Severe lightning damage to the bridge deck, repairs in port necessary. Telescope completely destroyed, will not be replaced because of lack of funds. Food stores partly destroyed by flooding in the hold, full damage to be assessed tomorrow. One serious injury (helmsman Lei, broken arm as a result of leaving his damned post and going out on the damned bridge deck in the middle of a damned typhoon, out of commission for at least three weeks or until I decide to murder him). Three minor injuries (Pikeman Bao, sprained ankle from falling down command tower stairs; Second Mate Lin Ming, head injury from being thrown against the deck railing while wearing helmet; Prince Zuko, did something with his shoulder while catching the helmsman as he fell; all expected to recover in days). No fatalities, Agni be praised.
There was a good deal of space left on the page. Lieutenant Jee gently twirled his favorite writing brush in his fingers, watching the characters blur under his tired eyes as he considered what he was leaving out.
Challenged Prince Zuko in front of half of the crew. Nearly got into a duel with him. Later caught by General Iroh while inebriated and inciting mutiny. Not executed, Agni be praised.
It made him want to snicker a little, but that was probably just exhaustion. Yes, he’d done all that. He really had. And he wasn’t dead yet. The world was full of miracles indeed.
He hadn’t planned to snap, at least not now. But he’d never been so fucking disappointed and angry with anyone in his entire life. Even only half a year ago, he wouldn’t have thought it was even possible for him to feel let down by the brat prince. You couldn’t be disappointed by someone you expected nothing from in the first place. But…
He’d done so much for the brat, and he’d thought that it meant something. That he’d made a difference.
True, he hadn’t made a great start of it three years ago, Jee reminded himself as he leaned back in his creaking chair and ran a hand across his face. He hadn’t even talked to Zuko at all for the first couple of weeks of their journey, because the brat had spent those holed up in his cabin being ill and moping. General Iroh had asked Jee - gently, no pressure, I’m just a passenger this time, Lieutenant, I can’t give orders - to visit his nephew’s sickbed and greet him. It would mean much to him if you could assure him that he is welcome here, Lieutenant. Tell him about his ship, and his men. This is Prince Zuko’s first command, and he’s not prepared. He’s very nervous.
Jee just hadn’t gotten around to it. All the work that came with their extremely hasty departure from the Fire Nation was leaving him with only a few hours of real sleep every night. He hadn’t signed up for also babysitting some puppy of a commander who was apparently too wet behind the ears to even know how a battleship or a chain of command worked.
He’d soon rued not trying to make nice with Prince Zuko, especially when the puppy turned out to be a spectacularly foul-tempered dragon kitling whose idea of “command” was to work his men onto their funeral pyres. It fell to Jee to make sure that nobody died on board, and there was just no end to that job. When he wasn’t busy convincing Zuko that this or that Avatar-hunting tactic would get people killed, he had to patrol the hold and the crew's mess room to defuse countless discussions of mutiny. It was so damned tiring, and General Iroh seemed helpless to stop his nephew from running amok. Jee didn’t have children, but he was very sure that if any imaginary son of his had ever acted out like Prince Zuko did, Jee would have given him the thrashing of a lifetime.
And then there had been that night when half of the men came home drunk from port and decided they didn’t feel like being defused. The mere memory of how close that had been still made Jee shiver, even two years after the fact. He’d discovered the malcontents as they stood waving weapons and debating strategy at the bottom of the stairs to the royal cabins, only just in time to bodily place himself between them and the lair of their prey. He’d yelled himself hoarse at them while praying to every spirit he remembered to please, please make the General show up, because there were eight of them and only one of him, and Jee couldn’t actually stop them if they decided to rush him and drag Zuko out of his cabin.
The General did not show up, but the would-be mutineers eventually lost their nerve and left. As soon as he’d caught his breath, Jee stormed up the stairway to lift Prince Zuko out of his royal bed by his stupid ponytail and give him a piece of his mind that the brat would remember until he was eighty.
Prince Zuko was not in his bed. Prince Zuko was hiding behind a pipe right at the top of the stairs, clutching a knife of all things, and he very nearly gutted Jee with it as he stormed past.
Fortunately, Jee took a proper look at the brat’s face before he launched into any tirades. Prince Zuko did not look like a crown prince of the Fire Nation at all. He looked like a thirteen-year-old boy who’d just been through the longest ten minutes of his life, hiding in the dark as he waited for a posse of furious grown men to make up their minds about whether they were going to come up there and murder him.
Jee had stared at him and asked If you heard them, why didn’t you cry for help, and Zuko had stared back and said Uncle’s still in port, and he’d looked this close to bursting into tears from sheer terror. Jee had left him to that in a hurry and resolved to have that talk later.
He never did, but things changed. Zuko did some very quick growing up, until he was simply very rude and awkward and shouty, not outright insane. And Jee did some hard thinking on why his own men thought that he might condone the murder of a child on his ship, and why it hadn’t even occurred to said child that Jee might come to his aid if he screamed.
Zuko grew up so much faster in some ways than in others. It was a bit of a shock when less than two years later, Jee turned around in the ship's shower room one evening, happened to look straight at a very naked brat prince kneading soap into his long hair, and found himself unable to look away. The spirits went out of their way to indulge his basest instincts, too. Zuko had his eyes squeezed shut to keep out the soap, and he didn’t actually open them for a few very long minutes as he twisted around in absolutely every fucking direction to rub the suds all over his body. He looked good enough to eat, and Jee feasted on the sight for what felt like an eternity until Zuko turned his shower on again to rinse off. If it had been anyone else, Jee would have thought he’d arranged the tableau on purpose.
It was very definitely on purpose when they ended up in a sweaty tangle between the machines on the boiler deck after firebending practice, Zuko’s hands roaming all over Jee’s bare arms and worn vest with clumsy purpose while Jee kept him pinned with a leg between his thighs and simple body weight, rocking against that hard young body as he licked fire from the brat’s tongue.
Jee had realized that Prince Zuko wasn't particularly fond of him, just very bored and frustrated with the lack of other youngsters on the ship that he could have experimented with. But he couldn't bring himself to mind. It was good. It felt good to have someone to touch again, a warm and curious firebender boy to teach and kiss and guide, in the dark and behind closed doors, always quiet, quiet, sir, someone will hear you. It got even better when Zuko began staying the night instead of traveling to and fro between his own cabin and Jee’s at every odd hour. Jee’s bunk was just wide enough for two if they didn’t mind being close, and the brat prince had turned out to be an astoundingly well-behaved bedmate. Based on how he acted when awake, Jee had expected him to be a kicker. Maybe even a biter. Once he managed to exhaust Zuko enough that he dozed off, though, the brat stayed wrapped up in his blanket cocoon all night and barely even moved. Maybe all that yelling and dramatizing really was as exhausting as it looked. Sometimes Zuko still made a nuisance of himself and woke Jee up for sex, or whatever else popped into his very strange mind. But most of the time, even he seemed to appreciate just getting some good rest in a warm bed, in someone else’s arms, safe and sound.
They’d had only months before their fateful trip to the South Pole turned everything on its head again. The Avatar’s appearance had shattered much - the bow of Jee’s ship, their absolute certainty that the Fire Nation would win the war, the delicate balance between the crew and their almost-adult prince. But there was nothing Jee hated the bald menace for more than the way his mere existence had wiped Zuko’s mind clean of everything Jee had tried to give him. Every second of all the nights Jee had spent with him, coaxing him into understanding what the ship needed from him, teaching him to listen, guiding him with hands and mouth and patient, patient words - gone.
Jee had tried to be understanding. He’d tried, the sun was his witness that he’d tried, but it was like spirits had stolen into his cabin in the night and replaced his young lover with the thirteen-year-old nightmare he thought they'd said farewell to for good. He’d known all along, in the abstract, that he was no more to the prince than a particularly interesting distraction, and that Zuko probably placed little value on the words of a low-born old sailor. It was a whole different thing to have that knowledge confirmed so far beyond all doubt. To see everything he'd done and said discarded at the merest hint that Zuko's stupid trophy airbender was alive...
He really hadn’t had a clue.
Jee stared at the half-empty page before him. The log book was only for important matters concerning the ship and their voyage, not a place to record whatever interesting story someone had told him that day. But he was gripped by a sudden, fierce need to put things to paper, if only because it might help him think.
Finally told by General Iroh about the reasons for Prince Zuko’s banishment and disfigurement. Cook forced to return all money entered into the pot for this, because not a single guess made during all of the last three years by anyone on board was even close.
They’d had Zuko all wrong, in… well, pretty much every respect.
Everything was a lot to be wrong about. Jee didn’t even know where to start making sense of what the General had told them, or how to fit it in with the brat prince he thought he’d gotten to know in the past three years. It was like he’d built a boat’s engine, and then found out at the very end that he’d put every piece in backwards and forgotten all the most important bits at the beginning.
He couldn’t even begin to grasp the politics that had been going on there. Why the Fire Lord had wanted to get rid of his son, why it had to happen like that, why the General had agreed to take Zuko and leave instead of fighting to defend his nephew’s honor and avenge…
Dear sun in the sky, the brat’s poor face.
There had been no training accident, no botched fight with another noble young hothead, or any of the many other likely and unlikely explanations that the crew had cooked up for Zuko’s strange injury. It had been no accident. The kid was going to look like half of a scarlet-skinned demon for the rest of his life because his father had deliberately walked up to him, laid a hand on him, and boiled his flesh off.
And if the General’s description of the scene had been anywhere close to accurate, Zuko had sat still for it and not even tried to struggle. Of course he hadn’t. What kind of son wouldn’t trust his father not to truly harm him? And when the Fire Lord had promised him he could come back and be forgiven if he found the spirits-damned Avatar, Zuko had believed every word of that too, because what kind of dishonorable son wouldn’t trust the father he worshiped not to lie to him?
The General should have told us the truth from the start. We didn’t know. I didn’t know.
True enough. Could he have made a difference? It seemed almost absurd to even contemplate that he might have changed anything about… that. He was only one man, and not a particularly smart one at that.
But he couldn’t help but wonder now. Suppose he’d taken the General’s suggestion back at the very start and gone up to Zuko’s cabin to introduce himself, tell Zuko about the ship he was on, about the people who were going to be his people from now on? What if he'd brought some story scrolls from the crew so the prince would have had something to read and take his mind off things while he healed? What if he’d freed up a few moments every day to bring the log book up to Zuko and tell him how their journey was going, ask him if there was anything he could do to further the mission while Zuko was too ill to take command? What if he’d made any small gesture at all?
Maybe. Maybe the kid wouldn't have just lain there in a darkened room with all that poison churning through his head, going over all the should haves and maybes and trying to twist everything into a picture that made sense to him. Maybe.
You didn’t know. You didn’t know.
But some of the things he’d said…
He should speak to Zuko. Say something. Apologize, even if he didn’t even know where to start. Even if he really hadn’t known, even if it wasn’t his fault, he’d still done wrong. He’d failed to help. He’d added to the burdens of someone who was already burdened far past any man’s breaking point, at a time when he could least afford to have his life made worse.
He’d made it so much worse. If he started thinking about all the ways in which he’d made it worse, he just might conclude that ritual self-immolation would be the only way to restore the shreds of honor he had left.
The leather of Jee’s armor creaked with salt and wetness as he stretched his legs and pushed himself to his feet. He wanted to lie down and sleep, shower be damned. He didn’t need hot water to warm up and he didn’t particularly care how filthy he was. But he’d feel twice as disgusting in the morning if he slept in all this grime, and he couldn’t set a bad example for the men. If the captain started stomping around in rumpled clothing while stinking like a fish, they’d all be doing it within a week.
Tomorrow, he told himself as he made his way down to the shower room. He’d go up to Zuko’s cabin tomorrow and… say whatever he could before Zuko started firebending him out. Jee very much suspected that he wouldn’t be able to close an eye tonight, no matter how tired he was, but Zuko was no doubt fast asleep by now. They’d both stayed outside until almost all of the storm cleanup was done, so late that the General finally came back out in his sleeping robes and ordered Zuko to go wash up and get some sleep. Jee had called it quits a little later, and then he’d spent nearly two hours staring at his writing brush just now. He was probably the only idiot on the ship still awake, apart from the poor buggers who’d drawn the short straw for the night watch.
Some of the lamps in the corridors had gone out, creating dangerous patches of darkness along the narrow metal stairways, and Jee stopped to refill and relight them. The sailor on watch to keep the lamps burning was probably snoring in a corner somewhere. Normally, Jee would have meted out severe punishment for sleeping on watch, but it was probably best to pretend he hadn't noticed in these circumstances. They were all stretched so very thin. Had been for weeks.
The shower room was dark when he entered. Faint reddish-gray light from the narrow window at the top barely illuminated the row of rusty showerheads and the leftover puddles of water on the floor. There was still a trace of warmth in the air, but only barely, and it was probably due to this space being almost right over the engines rather than residual heat from steaming water. Everyone else had long crawled into bunks and hammocks while Jee was sitting up giving himself a headache. Wasn’t that familiar.
Jee pivoted towards the long shelves with clothes baskets along the walls, hands already reaching for the ties of his armor. He flicked a hand to light a lantern -
- and jumped backwards so fast that he nearly slipped in a puddle.
“Lieutenant,” Zuko said, blinking against the sudden brightness.
He was sitting on one of the low stools against the wall, long legs stretched out in front of him. The front ties of his shoulder guard were loose and dangling down his chest, but he was still in full armor otherwise. He was staring at Jee through half-lidded eyes, blankly, as if he didn’t have the energy to even frown.
Jee recovered his wits and managed to produce a rather messy bow.
“Sir… Why are you still down here?”
There was no change in Zuko’s flat, tired expression, but he reached up with his right hand and tapped the opposite edge of his shoulder guard.
“I can’t reach the back ties. My arm won’t work.”
What… Oh. The arm he’d caught the helmsman with. It had been pulled all wrong from catching a full-grown man in midair; Jee had winced just from seeing that happen, and thought Zuko was probably lucky the limb was even still attached. After they’d made it down the ladder again, though, the General had felt around under Zuko’s armor, given the shoulder a thump, and proclaimed it would probably be fine with some rest. Jee had noticed Zuko favoring the bad arm during the cleanup work, but it hadn’t seemed to slow him down much then.
Then again, Zuko had a long and distinguished history of hiding injuries. He’s afraid of being seen to act childish in front of the men, the General had said after a particularly memorable incident when Zuko had keeled over in the middle of firebending practice. They’d discovered a deep gash in his leg, wrapped in an amateurish bandage that felt like it had absorbed half of the blood in his body. It had looked like a sword wound, and Zuko had categorically refused to explain how he got it. Jee had been afraid there had been another attempt at mutiny that he’d missed completely. Days of digging and eavesdropping around the ship had revealed nothing, though.
Toughing out pain wasn’t an unusual impulse in a teenager, not at all, but Jee had always been a bit alarmed by just how much agony Zuko could sit on for hours before he admitted defeat and asked for medical aid. He understood better now. Someone whose definition of pain started with having his face charred off on purpose probably wasn’t impressed by a sore shoulder.
Until it got bad enough that he couldn’t even get out of his armor anymore, of course.
“Why didn’t you get some help, sir?”
“Uncle’s asleep already,” Zuko muttered. He crossed his arms and tucked his hands against his sides. He looked pale and cold, like he'd been sitting here in the dark in his damp uniform for hours instead of using his breath of fire to dry off.
I wasn’t asleep. You could have asked me. But he wouldn’t, would he.
“Sir, how long have you been here? You can’t sit here all night.”
Zuko’s eyes finally slid closed, as if the effort of focusing was becoming too much for him.
“As good a place to sit as any. It’s not like I sleep any better up there.”
Jee shifted his weight from one leg to the other. This… was a good opportunity to work towards that apology. Maybe.
“Nevertheless, sir, you should rest. We’ll have a long day tomorrow. Can I assist you with your armor so you can wash up?”
The good eye creaked open again. It looked like Zuko was wondering if he had the energy to get mad.
“Fine,” he huffed.
He pushed himself to his feet with a lot of squeaking of damp leather and metal. That armor was going to be a disaster tomorrow if they didn’t clean it tonight, but at this rate, they’d be doing a great job if they even managed to wash their faces.
Jee closed the distance between them and began to pull at the shoulder guard’s back ties, working a bit of heat into his fingers to massage the stiffness out of the leather. Zuko didn’t protest when Jee moved on to the rest of his armor, put the pieces away on the shelves, and then helped him shrug his shirt and undershirt over the injured shoulder.
The muscles were swollen, but he looked all right otherwise, apart from some fading training scrapes and a smattering of fresh bruises on his knees. Probably from knocking them against the ladder of the tower. Jee reckoned his own tired legs would look just as bad. There was another large bruise on Zuko’s forearm, right where they’d hit each other during their aborted duel. Jee could feel a matching soreness under his own arm guard even without disrobing.
That had been… What would he have done if it had actually come to a fight, and he’d won? He probably would have won. Jee wasn’t a better duelist than Zhao, not by a long shot, but he’d trained with Zuko often enough to know the brat’s tricks and weaknesses. He’d taught Zuko at least half of his tricks.
What would he have done once he had Zuko defeated? The brat would have kept fighting until he was too badly wounded to stand up, no doubt. Zuko never admitted defeat even if it was just in training. Would he have forced Jee to kill him? Injure him? And then what?
Once this was over, Jee would have to thank the General on his knees for interrupting them. And for not killing him on the spot for inciting mutiny afterwards. That too. It had been a very poor way of repaying the old man's patience, and also the worst idea Jee had ever had in his life. He wouldn't actually have done it, almost definitely not, but signalling to the others that their captain would no longer interfere if they rose up against their nasty brat of a commander... He should know better than to drink when he was angry.
It was a moment before Jee became aware of the sudden lack of movement in front of him. He blinked.
Zuko had taken a step to the side and disrobed completely, but he was holding his clothes over his arm instead of putting them on the shelves. The injured arm lay at an awkward angle against his stomach. The prince was peering straight at Jee, and he looked a lot more awake than only seconds before. He looked almost like he was suspecting Jee of something.
“Lieutenant, what are you doing here?”
Jee blinked again and focused on Zuko’s good ear instead of the middle of his face. That staring had been a bit strange, probably.
“I… was looking for you, sir.” Close enough to the truth.
The scarred eye narrowed so much that it was barely there anymore.
This was it. He had to apologize, right now. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t had time to prepare a speech. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t be able to look at that sad ruin of a face ever again if he said nothing now.
The silence in the shower room was so profound that the howling of the winds behind the storm’s eyewall was actually audible. They must have sailed away from the center of the eye.
Just talk, you coward.
“Sir,” Jee began, eyes firmly on Zuko’s bare feet. “Sir, we always thought your injury was a training accident. And we didn’t know why you’d been banished. But a few hours ago, General Iroh told us about your Agni Kai with…”
He nearly said your father.
“…your Agni Kai with the Fire Lord.”
Jee didn’t dare look up. Talk, you coward. Apologize.
When he opened his mouth again, though, he suddenly noticed that the air in the room had gone cold. Cold and clammy, much more than only a minute ago; the hairs on the back of his neck were starting to rise. He risked a glance upwards.
Zuko looked like he’d been frozen in place by a waterbender. There wasn't a scrap of color in his face, apart from in the burn.
Brand. It was a brand. Burns were things that happened by accident, or in the course of combat.
“Uncle promised he wouldn’t tell. He swore,” Zuko whispered. His lisp was suddenly far worse than Jee remembered it ever being. “Why did he tell?”
Because I was talking of mutiny, and your uncle knew that if I did it, the others would follow.
“Your esteemed uncle was just doing what he thought was best, sir. I was…” He coughed. “There was talk of mutiny. Because of everything.”
You fucking coward.
The temperature in the room dropped so fast that the puddles of water on the floor creaked audibly. Jee drew in a startled breath, then blinked as he realized he could see it mist in front of his face.
Then the white feet he’d been focusing upon were suddenly obscured by a small pile of gray fabric. Jee watched the clothes soak up water from the floor for a few moments, and then looked up again.
Both of Zuko’s hands were in fists. The one on the good harm was held tight against his side, but the one on the hurt arm was drawn back only halfway, as if he’d started to slide into a bending stance and then realized that he physically couldn’t do it.
Jee frowned. “Sir…”
“I…” Zuko swallowed visibly. The bad arm was starting to shake, and his burned eye was open wider than Jee had ever seen it. The one lamp he'd lit was at his back, but he could see its light flickering on Zuko's face as wildly as if it was being ripped at by an invisible wind. It would get snuffed out if Zuko kept up whatever he was doing, and then they'd be here in the cold and the dark, and spirits, the brat looked scared.
“…I understand,” Zuko finally croaked.
He uncurled his fists, slowly, as if he had to force himself to do it finger by finger. Then he shifted his stance and raised his hands in front of his face, fist against palm.
It took Jee a moment to recognize the posture, because even though it had been directed at him plenty of times during fights and duels, he'd never, ever seen Zuko take it. Judging by the way he was wobbling on his feet, the brat had probably never tried to stand like that before in his life. Left foot forward with the heel off the ground, to break his own root. Upper body bent and shoulders turned inwards to block the chi paths in his arms. Hands forming the shape of the flame, but on outstretched arms like an offering, not proudly in front of his stomach and the source of his fire.
He wasn’t lowering his head to complete the traditional pose of surrender, but he looked like he was too afraid to even blink, let alone take his eyes off Jee.
"I won’t fight if you swear to bring my uncle back to port safely. Don't harm him,” he breathed. Jee could barely understand him at all.
Oh, dear spirits, he was the biggest idiot to ever set foot on a ship. He had Zuko backed into in a corner, naked and injured, while Jee himself was in full armor. He was standing almost right between the prince and the only exit. The showers were so far away from the cabins that any screams or cries for help would never reach the General.
Jee quickly raised his hands, but Zuko took a step back the second he moved, eyes darting frantically towards the door.
"Give me a sloop so I can go on after the Avatar," Zuko said. Pleaded. "Give me a chance. Give me a chance to go on after the Avatar. Please, I'm tired, I can't swim right now."
"Nobody's going overboard, sir! What are you... Sir,” Jee said, quickly lowering his eyes and forming the shape of the flame against his stomach. “Prince Zuko, sir. There was talk, but there is no mutiny! Your esteemed uncle put an end to it.”
He kept his head low and began to retreat, careful not to make any more sudden movements, until he felt himself back into the hard edge of a shelf. There. Now Zuko had enough space to rush by him and escape out the door.
Or attack. The brat had probably surrendered on instinct just because he was already in pain and Jee had scared the living daylights out of him. You could make a man do a lot of things he usually wouldn’t do if you surprised him hard enough.
“…Uncle stopped it? He's okay?”
Or if he thought you might have a hostage, of course.
Jee nodded, keeping his eyes very firmly downcast. “Yes, sir. There’s no mutiny. No soul on this ship wants anything like that. I swear it."
“Liar.” Zuko’s voice still sounded breathless, but horribly close to normal, as if he was still too shocked to be angry. “I know they want me gone. You want me gone.”
“No,” Jee insisted. “There is no mutiny and there won’t be one. Sir, I… I am so sorry. Sir, please.” If the brat didn’t lower his arms soon, Jee would have to throw himself to the floor and beg. The floor looked cold and dirty. It was obvious that no one had come by to clean it after three quarters of the crew had come stomping through to wash.
Finally, finally, Jee saw movement out of the corners of his eyes.
He glanced up to see Zuko crouched on his discarded clothes, one hand covering his face and the useless arm tucked tightly against his body. His head was bent so low that his hair had fallen to the front. He was shaking.
Zuko’s hand curled, and the good eye appeared through a gap between his fingers. “Who else knows?”
“About your Agni Kai, sir?” Jee swallowed. Of course, what else. “Everyone, sir. Cook was there when General Iroh spoke of it. He’ll have told every man by now, and the bat-rats and the rhinos besides.”
The eye closed as a shiver ran through Zuko’s body.
“What are you going to do?”
Jee shrugged. “Nothing, sir. Patch up the ship and carry on.”
“Right,” Zuko breathed. He was rubbing the scar, then his mouth, then the scar again.
Jee shifted. His fingers were starting to tremble from maintaining the flame for so long. It wasn’t a strenuous gesture in and of itself, but every single one of his muscles was screaming stiff. And he'd really prefer to stop looking at that dirty floor.
“Sir, I apologize for frightening you. I didn’t mean to…”
“Leave me alone,” Zuko mumbled into his hand. There was no heat behind it at all, but it shut Jee up like no screamed order ever had.
Jee unfurled his hands and pressed them to his stomach to relieve the roil of fire inside. He was feeling a little sick.
“…We should wash up and go get some sleep, sir. We have a lot to do in the morning.”
Zuko barely spared him a glance, but he did grope at the wall behind him with his good hand until his fingers bumped against a shelf. The metal groaned as Zuko used it to pull himself to his feet. He was still trembling all over, from the fingers rattling the shelf to his bruised knees and below. His feet were wet. He must have stepped into one of the cold puddles when he'd been trying to move away from Jee.
Then his eyes suddenly snapped up at Jee, bright and furious.
“What are you looking at!?”
Right. Right. Don’t stare at the brat prince. Jee had taken that privilege away from himself rather thoroughly.
He quickly turned towards the wall, barely catching a glimpse of white movement out of his eye as Zuko snatched his clothes from the floor, threw them at the shelves, and stomped towards the showers. He didn't turn back when his overshirt fell right back down into a puddle again. A sharper creak of a lever, and then the sound of running water began to fill the room.
Jee tugged off his boots and set them on the floor by the door before folding his undershirt and trousers on top of one of the empty shelves. He looked himself over in the wan light. There was indeed a tremendous bruise blooming on his forearm, and the helmsman's belt buckle had chafed open much of his left hand. No deeper cuts or other serious wounds that he might have missed during the battle-rush of the storm, though.
He snatched a cloth from one of the baskets, turned on the shower that was farthest away from Zuko’s, and set to giving himself the quickest wash he could possibly manage. Cleansing himself of a day’s worth of sweat, coal dust, and whatever the ocean threw at them was usually one of the highlights of Jee’s life on this rust bucket, but he definitely wasn’t going to enjoy it tonight.
His eyes flitted to the side before he could think better of it, and he caught a glimpse of Zuko running a cloth over one arm with slow, tired movements. The brat was clearly planning to take a long time, but that was all right. It was his ship. He could do whatever the hell he liked.
Spirits be damned, but he was a thing of beauty from the right angle. He’d have been achingly handsome without that thing on his face. All hard lines but with muscles curving in just the right places, lean, strong - he was strong, he’d nearly broken Jee’s hand when Jee had entwined their fingers on the pillow next to Zuko’s head the first time they fucked…
Jee forced his eyes back onto the greenish moisture stains on the wall in front of him. Don’t stare. You don’t have the right. You kicked him out.
Another thing he’d done wrong. Maybe. He shouldn’t have done it, he knew that now. He shouldn’t have gone and dumped the brat when he had. Yes, Zuko had been absolutely unbearable about having missed the Avatar at the South Pole, then at Kyoshi Island, then at Roku’s fire temple and then again with the accursed pirates. Given what had really been at stake, though, it was probably a miracle that he’d stuck to expressing his disappointment with no more than screaming and insults and bullying.
But Jee hadn’t known, had he? Because the General hadn’t deigned to trust him with the tiny fucking detail of exactly why they were out here almost getting killed on a daily basis by their raging lunatic of a commander.
The aftermath of the pirates incident had been the last straw, the thing that finally convinced Jee to make it clear to the brat prince once and for all that Jee was not there to be abused, that his cabin was his space, and that Zuko was no longer welcome in it. It had taken him a long time to come to that decision. Far too long.
In the end, he’d simply dragged his desk over a few feet so that it blocked entry to his cabin. Zuko had come by that evening and started rattling the door, yelling Let me in that absurd tone of baffled outrage he had where he sounded like he had no idea why Jee or anyone else in the world should be allowed to refuse him anything. Jee had kept his eyes on the strings of the pipa in his arms, turned the pages of the music piece he was trying to memorize, and said No.
The next Let me in had been entirely different - soft, almost disbelieving, as if the brat understood exactly what was happening. It had taken Jee an astounding amount of self-control to ignore it and just keep playing.
He still had no idea how long Zuko had stood outside the door after that. There had been no footsteps, but that didn’t mean no one had left; Zuko had somehow taught himself to sneak along soundlessly even in uniform boots. He could also have been out there for hours, though. He’d certainly looked sleepless enough the next morning, and he’d been so quiet and so hard to find around the ship for the next few days that even the General had wondered out loud if his nephew was ill.
That didn’t mean anything, Jee told himself as he turned his shower off and concentrated on bending himself dry. It didn't mean that he'd really hurt the brat. Zuko was only human in the end, and a first lover was always special, no matter how brief or unsentimental the liaison. The blow would have landed hard even if Jee had tried to let him down gently. There had been no way to avoid humiliating him, even if it had been only in private. At least he hadn’t made a public spectacle out of it, like…
I could have done worse was about the most optimistic assessment Jee could make of how he’d handled all of this.
He’d do better from now on. He would. He just needed some time to think. Sleep first, then think, and then try to speak to Zuko again without frightening him half to death right from the get-go. Jee snatched a robe from the baskets on the shelves at random, wrapped it around himself almost before the steam had finished rising from his skin, and made to walk out the door.
Then he heard the cursing. He risked a glance over his shoulder.
Zuko was standing half under the spray of his shower and trying to undo his hair tie one-handed. It clearly wasn’t working. The injured arm made as if to reach up every few seconds, as if by itself, until Zuko hissed in pain and dropped it again. He looked seconds away from spewing fire at something.
Jee was surprised to feel his lips quirk. It was good to see the prince more or less back to his angry self.
“Would you like a hand, sir?”
Zuko snarled at him, the little monster.
Jee shrugged his own left shoulder. “You shouldn’t be using that arm at all, sir. I can get your hair and your back for you, if you like.”
Zuko peered at Jee for a few moments, eyes narrowed to slits, as if he’d be able to tell on sight alone if Jee had any unsavory intentions. Then weariness and frustration seemed to get the better of him, though. He ceased his attempts to untangle the hair tie and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Fine," he grumbled.
Jee took one of the low wooden stools lined up against the wall and placed it down next to Zuko, just at the edge of the spray of water.
“Sit down, sir.”
Zuko glared from Jee to the stool and back again. Then he squeezed his eyes shut, turned his back on Jee, and sat down with a deep sigh.
Jee didn’t give himself time to hesitate; he just reached out and felt along the base of the ponytail, where he knew there should be a lip of ribbon that would need to be pulled out to make the fishbone pattern of the tie come undone. He’d untied Zuko’s hair often enough to be able to do it with his eyes closed, or in the near-total darkness of a supply closet or nighttime cabin.
As soon as the locks began to collapse onto Jee's fingers, sticky and stiff with salt, he reached for the block of soap with his free hand. Zuko had nice hair, thick and so dark brown it was almost black. It would probably be as beautiful as a maiden’s if he had the oils and finer soaps to care for it properly. And if he gave up on the severe shave and grew it out, of course.
The royal physicians had to cut it to care for the wound, the General had said as he described the aftermath of the… duel. There had to be a better word for what had gone on in that arena. Spectacle. Barbarism. I insisted that they leave him at least enough for a topknot, because Prince Zuko had been shamed enough already without losing his hair as well. He decided to keep the cut as a reminder, though.
The tips of Jee’s fingers brushed over Zuko’s scalp as he kneaded soap into the roots of the hair. He thought he heard the prince sigh, perhaps out of weariness, maybe out of something else. Or maybe he made no sound at all - it was hard to tell over the rush of running water and the clanging coming from somewhere in the pipes. The plumbing on their ship was as noisy as it was old. Nevertheless, Jee made an extra effort to keep his touch gentle and his fingertips just on this side of hot.
The skin felt rough with stubble, as if Zuko hadn’t shaved properly in days. That wasn’t like him. He’d always come to Jee’s bed with the grassy scent of shaving oil still fresh on him, skin smooth and slippery-hot to the touch.
Jee hadn’t actually touched Zuko since the last time they’d kissed. That was weeks ago, and it wasn’t a good memory.
“Done, sir,” Jee whispered as he gave the back of Zuko’s head a very gentle nudge. Zuko went with the movement without protest, leaning forward so that the spray of the shower hit his hair.
It was too long and tangled to finger-comb after the soap had been rinsed out, so Jee twisted it into a thick rope that he pushed out of the way over Zuko’s shoulder. He could comb it out properly later if Zuko let him. For now, he picked up the cloth Zuko had dropped on the floor earlier, wrung the cooling water out of it, and held it under the warm spray for a few moments before rubbing it over the soap. The front of his own robe was getting wet, but that was all right. There were more in the baskets.
“I’ll be careful with the shoulder, sir, but this may hurt,” he murmured before touching the cloth to Zuko’s back.
He washed the bad shoulder first to get it out of the way all the same. The muscles were swollen, but apart from a badly discolored patch near the top, there was no bruising. It didn’t look too bad. Good. Their crew was so small that they couldn’t afford to have even a single man out of commission for long, and Zuko did rather a lot of actual work around the ship when he was on watch or too restless to sit still and read scrolls. And the brat would be even worse of a pest than usual while he couldn’t train, get mad and wave his arms around, or climb the walls.
“You’ll be all right if you let the arm rest, sir. But I’d strongly counsel that you get it bandaged if it doesn’t feel better by tomorrow.”
Zuko shrugged, then immediately hissed in pain. Jee couldn’t suppress a quick smile.
Only the sound of running water and faraway storm winds filled the room as Jee continued to run the cloth over Zuko’s back, going mostly on touch instead of relying on the wan light of the single lantern on the far wall. He took care to follow the lines of the brat's muscles and dig in with his fingertips wherever he felt a particularly stiff knot. Zuko was nothing but tension nearly all of the time; especially after the reappearance of the Avatar, Jee hadn’t known him to relax even a finger, even on those few occasions that he’d managed to sleep in Jee’s bunk in relative peace. That didn’t mean Jee had ever given up on trying to make him. It had worked a couple of nights, before, when he’d gotten Zuko a bit to drink and spent hours just kissing him breathless before moving on to the harder work.
He missed it. Spirits damn him, he missed it so much.
Well. It was his own fault that he didn’t have a warm boy in his bed anymore, wasn’t it? A lot of things were his fault. Which was why he was trying to be nice to Zuko in the first place.
“What?” Zuko’s head had sagged until it was mostly under the spray of the shower again. It sounded like he had water in his mouth.
“Sir, I…” I miss you. Please come back. “I want to apologize for the disrespect I’ve shown you.”
Zuko stayed perfectly silent and immobile for a moment. Then he shrugged again, this time only with the good shoulder, and lifted his head out of the water. He didn’t look back at Jee, though.
“I was endangering the ship. You were right.” A long pause. “And if my uncle really told you everything, then you know that I don’t know much about respect. You were right about that too.”
You will learn respect, and…
Jee shuddered. He almost wanted to believe that the General had misremembered the words or had been embellishing his story, but why would he do that?
“I wasn’t talking about today, sir. I mean the last three years. I…” Deep breaths. Deep breaths made everything better. “My behavior was unfitting of a lieutenant. I… let personal feelings get the better of me. You deserve the respect that comes with your station.”
Zuko snorted, and the brief movement shook droplets of water loose from all around his shaved head. Jee couldn’t tell if he was amused, or angry, or just too tired to care.
“You know damn well that I deserve no such thing.”
Temporarily out of bright ideas, Jee settled for kneading the back of Zuko’s neck with his knuckles. As he drew his fingers down along wet skin, though, Zuko raised his head and peered over his shoulder. He looked like he wanted something.
The corner of Zuko’s mouth curled down. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. The burned eye was barely more than a slit.
“I’m not a good commander, am I?”
Well. No. Jee pushed his lips together tightly for a moment before answering.
“Sir, you’re young. You’ll learn,” he sussed, but Zuko started shaking his head before Jee was even halfway through the sentence. He turned his head away again and seemed to slump down on his seat, dropping his head into his good hand.
“Don’t give me that rhino dung about how I’ll learn to do it if I just get some more practice. Uncle’s been telling me that for as long as I can remember. About everything.”
His next words sounded muffled, as if he was speaking into his fingers, but there was an alarming hitch to his voice.
“I never do anything right.”
Jee took another deep breath and clamped down on the urge to wrap his arms around Zuko. Another thing he wasn’t allowed to do anymore.
“You saved the helmsman’s life today, sir. And…” He flattened his hands on Zuko’s back, carefully avoiding the injured shoulder, and sent a pulse of warmth through his fingers. He hoped it would be comforting, or at least calming enough to keep Zuko from getting mad about what Jee was going to say.
“…Sir, you may not agree, but I think it was right of you to defend those young soldiers from the forty-first division. Even if you had to be disrespectful to do it.”
Zuko barked out a harsh, unhappy sound.
“They all died anyway, I heard about it when we made port near the Northern Air Temple. I should have waited for Uncle to speak up. Or appealed to my father after the meeting. I could have saved them if I’d just gone about it another way.”
Jee shook his head, although he knew Zuko couldn’t see it. “It wasn’t your responsibility, sir. That room was full of generals who should have protested against such a dishonorable plan.”
“They probably would have if I hadn’t jumped up and started yelling like an idiot first.”
Jee very much doubted that.
“You tried, sir.”
“I wish I’d never gone into that meeting,” Zuko blurted. His lisp was getting stronger again. “I went in when I wasn’t allowed, and I disobeyed Uncle, and I insulted Father and then I didn’t fight and shamed him in front of all the nobles in Caldera, and…”
Oh spirits above, he wasn’t going to cry, was he?
“…and the soldiers all died anyway. I ruined everything.”
Jee’s fingers hovered along the back of Zuko’s arms, twitching to hold on. But he wasn’t sure how to touch this new person, and even less sure how Zuko would take any overtures now. He probably didn’t want anything to do with Jee anymore. He was busy with his Avatar, and he wouldn’t have forgotten how Jee had thrown him out at the time when he most needed someone to talk to. Or yell at.
He wouldn’t have forgiven it, even if he was too worn out right now to remember that he was supposed to be angry.
“Sir,” Jee tried instead. “You sacrificed your honor, and your place at court, and your eye. It was bravely done, and even if it didn’t work… No one could have given more for those soldiers.”
Zuko twisted around on the stool, so fast that his hair flew from one shoulder to the other and Jee only barely managed to jerk his head out of the way. He wasn’t crying. He looked furious.
“I DIDN’T WANT TO!”
Before Jee could shake the echoes of the shouting from his ears, Zuko went on - at a slightly more bearable volume, but with a voice so raw that it scraped over Jee’s hearing like sandpaper.
“I had no idea what I was getting into! I wasn’t being brave, I was just stupid!”
He glared right into Jee’s wide eyes for another moment. Then he made a strangled sound and covered his face again.
Jee lifted a hand, almost without realizing it, but managed to stop himself just before he'd have touched Zuko's bare knee.
Zuko moaned as he clenched a fist against the scar.
“I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known how much it was going to hurt.”
As Jee held his breath, he became aware of the fire rushing through Zuko’s body, faster and faster, hotter and hotter. The droplets of water still clinging to his skin were disappearing right under Jee's eyes. The spray of the shower was still over Zuko’s back, but it was no longer hitting his skin; the water simply evaporated in midair.
To Koh with being careful, Jee wasn’t going to sit here and wonder if it was all right to touch while a bender was overheating right in front of him. The brat was going to burst his blood vessels if he went on like that.
Jee grabbed both of Zuko’s hands in his own and pulled them away from his face.
“Sir, mind your breathing,” he enunciated.
Zuko stared at where Jee was pushing his hands down on his knees, as if he wasn’t sure if those were his hands at all. His chest was heaving painfully. Jee had never seen anyone look so utterly wrung out.
He tightened his grip as Zuko’s fingers twisted in his own, gripping back.
Accepting, perhaps, a little. His breathing was slowing down. He definitely wasn’t pushing Jee off. Perhaps Jee would be allowed to fix the wrongs he’d caused himself, even if everything else about this horrible situation was far beyond what he could help.
He ran some more water over Zuko’s back to rinse away the last of the soap. Then he reached out to turn the shower off before he sank to his knees, putting his face a little lower than Zuko’s. He ignored the bite of the hard metal floor against his unprotected knees.
“I want to apologize for… for throwing you out of my cabin as well. It was wrong of me. I didn’t understand anything, but I do now, and…”
He swallowed the rest of his words as Zuko’s head shot up.
“How can you understand? Even I don’t.”
Jee frowned. “Sir? What do you…”
Zuko’s grip went viciously tight, and Jee knew in a flash of clarity that this was the moment when he had to shut the hell up.
“I’ve thought about this so often,” Zuko said. He was leaning in now, close enough that his breath was hot on Jee’s face. “Every day. I meditate every day on what I did and on how I can make it right again, and…”
He seemed to falter, mouth opening and closing without a sound. Jee hesitated only a moment before giving Zuko’s fingers and encouraging squeeze.
I’m listening. I’m listening now.
The fingers in his gripped back again, hard.
“I don’t understand… Many things.” Zuko leaned in, as if he thought they were being overheard. “Like why father won’t help me. I wrote to him at once after we found the Avatar at the South Pole, I asked for more money so we could finally replace the main engine, I asked for papers of passage so all ports would have to give us priority repairs and supplies, I asked for more crew, and he didn’t answer at all…”
Zuko took a deep breath. “…And I understand that he wants me to do things by myself. I have to prove myself, with the ship and the money I’ve been given. But this isn’t just about me, it’s about the fate of the whole Fire Nation. The Avatar is our enemy, we have to capture him. And I’m the best in the world at tracing the Avatar! I could catch him in a day if I only had the means, I know I could! But instead Father is letting Zhao get in my way, and he won’t allow me to communicate with the rest of the Navy to coordinate, and…”
A brief silence.
“I know there has to be a reason, I know that. My father would never endanger the nation by hindering the capture of our greatest enemy, not without a good reason. But I can’t think of anything that makes sense.”
Jee barely dared to breathe.
“I’m not stupid,” Zuko blurted, looking Jee straight in the eyes. “I’m not.”
Jee shook his head. “You’re not, sir.”
“If there was a reason, I’d be able to think of it. Right?”
“That’s right, sir.”
Zuko swallowed. The fingers in Jee’s were beginning to tremble. “But I can’t think of anything except that maybe Father doesn’t want me to be the one who catches…”
He blinked, and from one moment to the next, the intense concentration on his face was replaced by naked fear.
“Sometimes… I doubt…”
His voice died.
Then his eyes flew wide open as his mouth twisted in horror. He almost pulled his hands away, but Jee held on purely out of surprise.
“I didn’t say that. Don’t tell anyone I said that. Don’t tell my uncle!”
Jee shook his head, as much to shake things loose as in answer to Zuko’s order. “Sir, I serve you. Not your esteemed uncle. You’re the commander of this mission.”
Zuko lowered his head with a trembling sigh.
“I didn’t say…” His throat moved as he choked something down. “I don’t know.”
Slowly, finger by finger, Jee loosened the death grip he had on Zuko’s hands. He began to rub the knuckles with his thumbs, exerting steady, gentle pressure.
“Sir, I don’t have any answers for you,” he said, trying to sound as apologetic as he could. “I’m just an old sailor, I wouldn’t pretend to know the Fire Lord’s thoughts. But is there anything else I can do?”
Jee nodded. Now or never. “Yes, sir. I regret what I did. Very much so. Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”
Zuko blinked. “Like what?”
“Anything you want,” Jee said before he could think better of it. “I want to help you go home, sir. Is there anything I can do?"
He knew he'd struck gold before he'd even finished the sentence. It was like he'd pronounced a spirit spell. In an instant, every trace of confusion and weariness on the brat's face vanished as if it had never been there, to be replaced with almost nauseating amount of relief.
That was it. That was what Jee should have said weeks ago. Years ago. If he'd said this years ago, if he’d just taken ten minutes out of his busy early-voyage schedule to go up the royal cabins and visit that sick child and say I’m here to help, tell me what you need…
Zuko was opening and closing his mouth, oblivious to the mess in Jee’s head.
“Help me capture the Avatar,” he finally blurted.
Jee frowned. “I’m already doing that, sir.”
Long wet hair flew across Zuko’s shoulder as he shook his head irritably.
“No, you’re not! You’re just standing around doing nothing until I give you an order. You’re not even trying.” It barely sounded like an accusation, as if Zuko was too used to this to even get worked up about it anymore.
Jee closed his eyes for a moment. It was true, wasn’t it? Not his fault, not this either, but…
For him, this Avatar hunt was another commission in a long line of commissions, work he did to get pay and meals and board. For Zuko, it was a fight for every single thing that was worth living for.
“What would you like me to do, sir?”
"Teach me things. I need to do better," Zuko said at once.
“What things, sir?”
Zuko shook his head, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was asking, either.
“Firebending moves. Uncommon things. Anything that might give me an edge over the Avatar! I keep missing him! I need to get good enough to catch him, now!"
Spirits, the Avatar. What use was anything Jee knew against the Avatar?
“You’re learning more about your enemy every time he evades you, sir. You’re getting closer day by day. It’s only a matter of…”
An awful, horrible grimace twisted Zuko’s face, but it was gone before Jee could take a good look.
"You don’t get it! I don’t have time for trial and error! If I don't get it right now, I'll never have another chance!"
Jee shook his head. “Sir, I only know some dirty tricks that I learned in the barracks, no techniques to battle an elemental spirit! Surely your esteemed uncle…”
Zuko snarled and slashed a bright ribbon of fire through the air.
“Uncle doesn’t want to help me catch the Avatar, I know it! All he does is drag his feet and slow me down! He’s not even trying either!”
Before Jee could protest that, Zuko grabbed at the front of Jee’s water-soaked robe and clutched, barely wincing as he moved his bad arm.
"Help me. Help me.”
Believe in me.
All he wanted was for someone to fight at his side. That was really all he wanted.
"I'll do anything I can, sir. I swear it,” Jee said as put both hands over Zuko’s knees and squeezed. Perhaps he should make a formal vow.
Zuko seemed plenty happy with this, though. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes were shining with hope.
Before Jee had time to process the idea that he’d done something right, Zuko abruptly released his poor robe and made to get up. The stool’s legs scraped over the metal floor.
"Wait, wait… There’s something else. I got a new chart of the northern sea in port the other day, one that shows the winds as well as the currents. I thought it would help me predict the bison’s likely path, but it has a bunch of symbols on it that I don’t know. Show me how to read it!” He frowned. "And there was something else, let me think..."
A wind chart… Yes, he’d seen a couple of those. Years ago, but they were uncommon enough to be memorable, and Jee was fairly sure he remembered how they worked. Mostly. Enough to explain the basics to someone if he had a chart in front of him, at least. Zuko wouldn’t need more than a hard nudge in the right direction to figure out the details. He actually was pretty clever. It was true that the General had never taken much of an interest in their quest, but the old man never stopped boasting about how his nephew had taught himself to read four dead languages in order to decipher the Avatar scrolls he’d gathered.
But this was not the time for thinking work. Jee patted Zuko’s knees.
"I’ll show you, sir, but we’re exhausted. We couldn't catch a cold right now, let alone the Avatar. You need to sleep."
Fire flashed in Zuko’s throat, bright and angry.
"You said you’d help me!”
Hey, now. "Yes, sir, and that's exactly what I'm doing. You’re tired and injured, and I'm giving you advice on how to get back in fighting shape as soon as possible." Jee shifted on his haunches, stretching the cramped muscles in his legs so he might be able to get up without falling over. “I’ll show you how to read that chart first thing tomorrow. Come, let me take you to your cabin.”
Zuko shook his head irritably. He glowered down at where Jee was still pressing down on his knees, keeping him seated.
“I can’t sleep anyway. I…” He grimaced and scratched at the scar, hard enough that Jee winced at the mere sight of the movement. “I’m tired and I get under the covers, but I can never stop thinking. I might as well stay up and work.” Zuko sighed. The faint purple blotch under his good eye was turning dark and shiny under his rubbing fingers, and the eyelid was starting to swell red.
Jee reached out and gently pulled the hand away. Perhaps he could help here, too. He was even more than half sure that he could manage to offer said help without sounding like he was just being a lech.
“Sir. Do you think you could get more rest if you came to sleep in my bunk again?”
Zuko’s head shot up. The look on his face made Jee want to crawl into the darkest, most remote cupboard on the ship and never show himself to anyone ever again.
“I can come back?”
He couldn't possibly be aware of exactly how desperate he sounded.
Or maybe he was. When Jee didn’t answer right away, Zuko’s eyes went wide and urgent. His hands hovered in the air between them, as if he was unsure whether it would be a good idea to grab at Jee’s robe again.
“I mean… Just sleep, if you don't want... I won’t touch you,” he stammered.
Jee opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again in favor of trying to swallow past the lump in his throat. There was nothing he could possibly say that would make up for causing this. Nothing.
He opened his arms instead.
He’d meant to rise to his feet to draw Zuko up, wrap him in some of the spare old robes from the baskets on the shelves, and take him out of here and to the nearest warm bunk -
- and then he found himself sitting on his ass against the shower room’s stained wall instead, water from the floor soaking into his robe, legs bent awkwardly in front of him, and a naked boy crushed against his chest.
“Sir,” Jee choked. One of Zuko’s hands was twisted so tightly in the robe that he was pinching Jee’s skin along with it, and the other arm was slung around Jee's neck. His breath was coming in hard gasps. These weren’t sobs, though, definitely not. Jee knew what it sounded like when a man had been underwater for an eternity and had just found his way back to the surface.
He squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in the warm, slick skin of Zuko’s neck. There was long hair tickling his nose and fire pulsing under his lips, in time with Zuko’s breathing, fast and straining for relief.
Jee adjusted his grip on the prince’s torso, holding on as tightly as he could without running the risk of crushing ribs. The press of that familiar, heavy, wonderful warmth against his own was playing havoc with his ability to make words. He was definitely aware enough of his surroundings to know that there were far better places for cuddling the brat prince naked, though. Like his actual bunk.
“Sir,” he mumbled against Zuko’s good ear, chapped lips rasping over lovely soft skin. “Sir, we should go. Someone from the crew could come in here at any moment.”
Hot breath exploded against Jee's collarbone.
“This is my ship and I can do whatever I like on it!”
…All right then. Just a little while. Everyone except the night watch was asleep anyway, and the night watch would be far too busy with the rest of the storm cleanup to make random visits to the shower room. Hopefully.
Jee shifted Zuko around until the prince was lying across his lap, head supported by Jee's arm and face pressed against the soaked robe just over Jee’s heart. Zuko grumbled a little at the manhandling and curled up, good arm around Jee and the injured one tucked carefully against his chest.
He closed his eyes and sighed, long and deep. Almost at once, all tension seemed to flow out of his muscles, as if simply being cradled instead of having to hold up his own weight made some sort of incalculable difference.
The General could never do this for the boy, Jee realized as he lifted his free hand from around Zuko's middle to brush a few long, tangled strands of hair from his cheek. Zuko would never stand for being held and petted like a child by a guardian, no matter how sorely he needed the comfort, or the company. He was too old to accept this sort of relief from anyone without a plausible excuse for why he was letting his guard down. Like that he was just sharing a brief embrace with the fellow soldier who helped him relax at night with a kiss here and a quick fuck there.
Zuko's lips moved against the wet cloth over Jee's chest. The small sound that came with it was too deliberate, as if there had been words there that hadn't quite made it past a whimper and into their proper form.
That had not been a Thank you, Jee told himself as he blinked against the sudden, harsh stinging in his eyes. He wouldn't acknowledge it. He wasn't going to sit here and let himself be thanked for ever so graciously allowing the lover he'd cast out back into the very questionable safety of his arms and his bed. But he'd probably just make it worse again if he said anything like You have no idea what you should be grateful for and what not, or You can't depend on me. Both of those things were perfectly correct, no doubt, but Jee wasn't going to tell the brat that he had everything all backwards and wrong again. Not when the poor bastard looked so comfortable lying in Jee's arms that he might actually doze off right here and now.
The scarred cheek was facing upwards. Jee couldn’t have positioned Zuko any other way, or they’d have ended up putting pressure on the bad shoulder, but he didn't like the way the lamp light played across the mangled mass of angry red tissue. The moving shadows and faint glinting of light on lingering wetness made the scar look even more like a separate living thing than usual. It seemed to be looking up at Jee, even though the eye itself was closed.
As Zuko’s breathing began to slow, Jee opened his hand over the prince’s face, not touching but hovering close.
The scar was exactly the size of an adult man’s hand with the fingers spread out. How in the world had he never noticed that? The color was darker where the palm would have been. There was a smaller dark blotch near the top edge, where the thumb would have rested across Zuko’s brow. Then four spikes, one for every finger.
Everything aligned perfectly under Jee’s gaze. It even looked like his hand was the same size and shape as Fire Lord Ozai’s.
“What are you doing?”
Jee quickly drew away his hand, revealing the burned eye opened to a slit beneath.
There was so little Jee could say in the face of this. At least very little that was likely to make any kind of difference.
“This was harsh punishment, sir,” was what he settled for. That was innocuous enough.
Warm breath curled over Jee’s chest as Zuko closed his eyes with an exasperated sigh. He almost looked like he’d heard this eighty times before. Perhaps the General had tried it too.
“My father has to be strict with me. I’m the crown prince. I have to learn not to make mistakes if I’m going to lead the nation one day.”
Ah. Apparently they were back to not doubting the Fire Lord.
“…Yes, sir. But I think this was too much,” Jee murmured as he wrapped his hand around the side of Zuko's neck. He rubbed along the sharp jawline with his thumb, taking care not to touch any higher.
Zuko frowned and shivered, as if he was cold in spite of the firebender-warm arms wrapped around him. He didn’t open his eyes.
“My father is the Fire Lord, and what he does is right.”
As he traced the jagged lines of the brand with his eyes, Lieutenant Jee experienced the first treasonous thought of his life that he actually meant.
This was not his Fire Lord. The sudden certainty of that in his heart was almost frightening.
“Yes, sir. But…” He groped for the right words, an ambiguous explanation, anything that Zuko might not take offense at. He couldn’t speak ill of the Fire Lord directly. Never mind that it was treason, Zuko wouldn’t stand for any insults to the father he so desperately needed to keep believing in.
“Sir, I… I can’t help but think that I would have done differently,” Jee finally said.
Zuko shifted, using Jee’s legs against his back for support so he could look up at Jee properly without twisting his neck. He was frowning again.
“In the situation your esteemed uncle described, sir. If I were your father, I’m sure I would have done things differently.”
Zuko closed his eyes, but he didn’t try to hide his face against the robe again. His arms were stiff and tense against Jee’s ribs.
“…What would you have done, then?”
Jee looked down, almost doubting he’d heard that right. Zuko’s face was a mask of strange tension, and the always-present knot between his one eyebrow and the scar had tightened into a tangle of deep lines.
“If it had been you,” Zuko said, very quickly. “If… you were the Fire Lord. My father. And I had disrespected you in front of your generals. What would you have done?”
His voice was barely more than a breath, as if he was afraid that his father might hear him all the way from the home islands.
Jee opened his mouth to say something about how he couldn’t imagine standing in the shoes of the Fire Lord, and that was not his place besides. The words died in his throat. This wasn’t the time for cowardly platitudes. He’d started this conversation, and he couldn’t imagine what it was still taking out of Zuko to even consider that the Fire Lord might have done something imperfect - that this fantasy of a caring father that he’d concocted for himself might be flawed.
“I think I’d have had you removed from the war chamber and given you some kind of punishment later, sir,” Jee said, slowly. “Maybe caned you until you remembered why you should respect your elders. Or locked you in your room with only rice and water until you understood what you’d done wrong. Whatever the royal family does to discipline children.”
For a few moments, the only sounds were the quiet hiss of steam around them and the plick-plock of water dripping from the broken shower head at the end of the room.
“I disrespected the Fire Lord,” Zuko finally said, as if he thought that Jee wasn’t comprehending the magnitude of his crime.
That was right, he didn’t.
“Yes, sir, but you were a child. Children don’t know enough to avoid accidentally disrespecting others. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a good thrashing when they deserve it, but they should be given a chance do to better.”
Zuko’s good hand tightened in Jee’s robe.
“I did get a chance. I can come home again if I capture the Avatar.”
No. No, he couldn’t. If you wanted to mark a man as a criminal but intended to pardon him at some point, you’d brand him on the chest or the arms, where the evidence of shame and punishment could be hidden under clothing once all had been forgiven. A brand on the face was forever. Zuko wasn’t meant to ever show himself in Caldera again, Avatar or no Avatar.
Jee could never say that out loud. He didn’t have the heart. Not anymore.
Jee let his eyes slip shut and concentrated on the sensations under his hands. The skin of Zuko’s neck and hip was soft, tender, a flimsy barrier between Jee’s fingertips and the fire below. If the prince was upset about anything, Jee would be able to tell just from the touch.
“If… if you were my father. Would you have banished me?”
Jee opened his mouth, and words flowed out before he’d even started to think.
“Never. I’d be the proudest man in the world if I had a son like you.”
The intake of breath against Jee’s chest was sudden and hard, and the chi under his fingertips throbbed like a speeding heartbeat.
It was a long, long time before Zuko exhaled again.
“…I’m the crown prince.”
It was much easier for Jee to focus on the voice without vision to distract him. Zuko sounded sad. Unhappy. Like he regretted it.
“You are, sir.” Nothing Jee could do about that particular fact.
“If I make a mistake when I’m Fire Lord, the whole nation will suffer. I have to be flawless. Not just… good enough.”
There was probably something perfect Jee could say right now. Something that Zuko could hold on to while he tried to figure out what he wanted from his father and his life, a saying or a word that might offer him some comfort whenever he truly had no idea what to think anymore. Jee had no idea what that something might be, though.
No, still nothing. Oh well. “Sir, I can’t help you with… All I know is that I’d want you. For a son, or…”
He almost said or in my bed. Almost. He should probably just shut up and never say a word again in his life. Whenever he wasn’t busy saying the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time, he excelled at combining things that should never even be in the same thought together.
Jee let his hand wander up, fingers ghosting along Zuko’s throat to finally cup the back of his head. The way Zuko leaned into the touch made something bright and warm curl in Jee’s chest.
Perhaps he might have liked to have a son.
“Sir. All this probably doesn't mean much to you, coming from an old sailor. I know I’m not what you want. But will you keep in mind what I said?”
It was hard to tell, but he thought he could feel a nod against his chest.
This was enough for one night. He could hear the ship’s bells far away in the distance, sounding the start of the midnight watch. They’d need to have an early start tomorrow if they were going to make it to the nearest port before the night fell again, even if the storm quieted down enough to let them steam ahead with all the speed they could coax out of their rickety ship. And Jee’s head was starting to feel so clogged with things that he no longer trusted himself to choose his words carefully. He had enough trouble with that when he wasn’t completely worn out.
He leaned his head back against the wall, idly contemplating whether it would be a good idea to turn the shower back on. The flow of hot water would feel nice, and his robe was thoroughly soaked anyway.
Perhaps it would be all right to sleep here for a little bit after all…? The next watch bells would wake them in time to get out of here before the men of the midnight watch came to take their showers.
Or maybe they could just not sleep until their brains turned to sea foam. Jee very carefully did not sigh. No rest was the price of associating with the brat prince. He’d known that before today, and it was unlikely to ever change.
“After we catch the Avatar and I go home, will you go on to another ship?”
Jee cocked his head but didn’t bother to open his eyes. He absently rubbed a thumb along Zuko’s hipbone. “I expect so, sir. That’s how it goes.”
“Do you like that?”
What an odd thing to ask. “I don’t enjoy being separated from my friends any more than anyone else, sir. But that’s how it goes when you’re a career officer in the Navy.” If you could call what Jee had gotten up to in the last few decades a career. “And I’ve had too many fights with superior officers to hope that someone will give me a permanent posting anywhere. There’s no point in dwelling on something I can’t change.”
The sound Zuko made said with great eloquence that he didn’t approve of accepting the inevitable.
“When I’m back home, I’ll have your record cleared and give you permission to retire. You’ll have a stipend, and a home for… for your good service.”
Jee squeezed his eyes shut tighter and shook his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs. He was going to give Jee a what, now?
“A… Where, sir?”
The movement under his arm might have been a shrug.
“Wherever you like. In Caldera, if you want.”
Jee frowned and opened his eyes just a crack, enough to peer down at Zuko. His voice had sounded perfectly casual, and that was cause for suspicion more than anything else. The brat prince didn’t do things in a casual fashion.
“I thought only nobles were allowed to live in the crater, sir. People like me aren’t even allowed up the volcano road, unless they’re in the employ of a Caldera family. Or the palace.” He couldn’t even bring himself to feel annoyed that Zuko didn’t know that. Tolerating Zuko’s lack of knowledge or empathy about the lives of regular people was a lot easier than getting worked up about it, Jee had realized a long time ago.
“I’ll give permission. I’m the crown prince.”
“…I’m too young to retire, sir.”
Zuko huffed. It sounded like he was definitely running out of patience with all these reasonable objections. “How old are you?”
Zuko’s healthy eye opened and took a good long look at Jee’s face. Jee’s skin crawled with the awareness that every single one of his wrinkles and gray hairs were being scrutinized, and he suppressed the sudden urge to finger-comb his hair and sideburns back into place. Getting drenched always made him look like a drowned boarcupine. An old and ugly one.
“You look a lot older than thirty-eight,” was Zuko’s final judgment.
And you look like a very rude boy. And you’re going to be twice as wrinkled as me in ten years if you keep frowning like that all the time, just watch. “Thank you for mentioning, sir.”
The twitch of Zuko’s mouth was almost a grin.
It was gone as soon as it appeared, though, and then Zuko turned his face into Jee’s chest again. He seemed to tense all the muscles in his body, then relaxed, drawing his legs up against Jee’s side and curling around him like he was a large, warm pillow.
Jee shifted his arms and drew his legs up a bit more so that he could support Zuko properly. There was an uncomfortable knot of pain developing in his lower back, and his thighs were tiring already. Zuko was exactly as heavy as his generous helping of muscles suggested. It probably didn’t bode well for Jee’s weary arms and legs that the prince seemed to be settling in for a nice, long nap.
He felt wonderful, and Jee never wanted to let him go.
“You could join my royal guard,” Zuko muttered. “I didn’t have one of my own before, but I will when I go home. I’m of age now.”
Jee felt his eyes pop open.
“In the palace? Sir.”
“Of course in the palace, where else.”
For a heartbeat, Jee struggled with the thought of sharing a building with Fire Lord Ozai. That would not go well, oh no. He had enough trouble getting through the day without mouthing off to anyone while he was on a normal commission.
Then he remembered that this was all just make-believe. He’d never be forced to stand face to face with the man who’d burned his brat prince, because Zuko wasn’t going to go home. Zuko wasn’t going anywhere. He was staying right here.
Indulging his fantasies of the city in the mountain and the father who would welcome him back was the least Jee could do for him, though.
“Sir, I’m a sailor. Not a guardsman. Those are entirely different things. You’ll have your pick of experienced professionals once you’re home.”
“I don’t care about…” Zuko sighed. “The royal guards are all people I don’t know, and I don’t trust them. You will come with me to Caldera.”
Jee closed his eyes in an attempt to hold on to the rush of exasperated, warm, lovely bliss he felt for just a few moments longer. All right then. If he asked so nicely.
“If it would please you, sir, I’d be honored to join your guard.”
Fire-heat peaked in the hands on his torso. “It would please me,” Zuko whispered.
Jee smiled at the images of broad corridors with golden doors and golden walls that swam in front of his mind. He’d never been inside a palace, but he could imagine enough from all the pictures in story scrolls that he’d seen in his long life. Somehow he doubted that even the Fire Lord had golden walls. There might be golden doors, though. Maybe Zuko could be persuaded to give some details.
“Tell me about your home, sir.”
The grip on Jee’s chest became almost gentle.
“Caldera’s the most beautiful city in the world,” Zuko said, breath hot against Jee’s skin. “All colors. There’s gardens everywhere, with ponds, and a lake. All the houses have red roofs and golden eaves. There are lanterns above all the streets.”
Well, that was promising. If they could do golden eaves, they could probably manage a golden door or two. “Does the volcano still live?”
“Yes. When you sit down to meditate, you can feel it very far below.”
Jee couldn’t lie, that was something he’d want to experience for himself.
“Like we can feel the ship’s engines here?”
A snort. “If this ship were eight thousand times the size it is.”
So the city was the very opposite of where they were now. It really was just a fantasy. Maybe even Zuko knew it, deep down.
Jee closed his eyes, concentrating only on the warm body in his arms and the soft, slowing breaths against his skin. It was a fantasy, yes. But if they were fantasizing anyway, surely there was no harm in joining in.
He could imagine himself walking through a clean city of red and gold, along parks and ponds that weren’t lined by shacks or surrounded by muddy streets. There would be no shouting vendors or screaming children, no endless rattling of carts or thrumming of engines, but just the sound of the wind whistling through the rock spires around the crater. The stars would look so much brighter. Maybe. Jee wasn’t certain, he’d never been on a mountain, but surely everything in the heavens would be bigger when seen from such a high vantage point.
He could almost feel a dozen different kinds of fire playing with his senses. Torches on the houses, candleflames in bobbing lanterns strung above his head, the deep and living pulse of the volcano spirit under his feet. And a few steps in front of him, Zuko’s erratic flame whirling and tumbling restlessly with his every breath as he stepped with confidence through a place he knew and loved. He’d be dressed in bright red and gold to match his city, instead of the dark Navy armor that only emphasized his near-perpetual bad mood. The colors would suit him well.
A surge of warmth ran through Jee’s body, clean and clear enough to make him shiver and tighten his arms around his boy.
He had never realized exactly how little he’d expected of Zuko when they began this, and how profoundly, irrevocably that had changed. The prince was absolutely out of his mind three quarters of the time, but there was something special about the way he moved through the world, so full of absolute confidence that he could make the things he desired happen. It was almost laughable, except…
They had found the Avatar, hadn’t they? After countless other searchers had failed for a hundred years. Sometimes Jee couldn’t rid himself of the idea that the airbender had been called into being again by the sheer force of Zuko’s faith in his existence. It simply couldn't be a coincidence that Zuko had decided to take the ship to the South Pole just in time for them to witness the reappearance of the Avatar. He'd known. Somehow, by some spirit magic, Zuko had known where to go.
It was inspiring. It made Jee want to think about possibilities he’d usually discard as hopeless the moment they even occurred to him.
He wanted to see Zuko succeed. Jee could almost, almost bring himself to think it actually possible. That he might live in a city of red and gold one day, a guardsman in a palace, honored and entrusted with the lives of the most important people in their nation. That he might get to know yet another Zuko - the prince who lived on a fire mountain, proud and fierce and beautiful.
Who could have anything and anyone his heart desired but still chose Jee to stand by his side.
Oh, you poor fool.
Jee breathed out, slowly dispersing the spike of fire in his blood before Zuko could sense it, or the spark of hope beneath. That was no use, not even as a fantasy. He couldn’t let it grow. He was too old for… everything.
But it was too warm and sweet not to savor for just a little longer. Who could blame him for imagining some beauty for himself. It probably wouldn’t last long. With the Avatar on the move and thrice-damned Zhao in the game as well, this would all be settled soon, one way or another. And whatever the end might be, Zuko wouldn’t have much time to think about the grizzled old sailor he’d shared a bed with for a time, when he was cold.
Jee lifted his arm from around Zuko’s waist and reached up to twist the lever of the shower again, ignoring the sharp growl of protest that reverberated against his skin as soon as he moved. The pipes hiccuped, but after a moment, blissfully hot water began to pour down on them again. Jee closed his eyes against it. Then he took a deep breath to stoke the fire in his gut and placed his palm flat on the floor, to distribute the heat.
Steam began to rise around them in thick curls. Zuko’s toes twitched, and he made a soft, pleased sound.
Jee hunched over him to protect his scarred face from the falling water while he slept. He couldn’t doze off himself, much as his tired muscles were begging him to; he had to keep watch. But he could dream all the same.