Author's Note: I want to thank everyone who's reviewed and encourage those who read but didn't review to leave a review now :D I've been tickled to get them, honestly! And I do appreciate long reviews, as it lets me know you've been paying attention ;) Some have commented that Mai seems to be enjoying herself a lot with her deception, and I totally agree . . . she must at least have a mild sadistic streak in her to put up with Azula for so long. After the start of season 3 where Mai is openly pursuing Zuko, I became convinced that there's a whole lot more to that girl than most people her credit for. She's a stable ground for Zuko's volatile nature, and they both know each other quite well. It's a unique relationship that they both seem to appreciate. But anyway, this fic isn't about "Maiko." Without further ado, on to the much-anticipated finale!
Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender is the brainchild of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and is owned by Viacom. I own none of the characters in this story, but I did think up the dragon, which I don't expect to be a huge surprise to anyone. What do you figure that egg-shaped golden object that felt alive to the touch in The Firebending Masters episode was? The rest are all lovingly used without permission. This story is written solely for my personal amusement (and posted for the amusement of others) and to keep the crazy idea from boring a hole in my head, so I can get on with my life. I make no profit from this other than peace of mind!
Forgotten Ones: Lieutenant Jee
Aang snapped his fingers and the happy-go-lucky smile returned, "Oh right, that's why you looked familiar! Are you here for dinner, too?"
"Yeah," Jee cracked a dangerously false smile and subtly shifted his weight, disguising his preparation as slight relaxation, "I think I'll ask for roast squab!" With that, he launched a fire blast from his fist straight to the Avatar's face.
The boy was quick, though, and dodged the point-blank shot before it could even singe him. The little dragon squawked in surprise and darted for cover behind Mai's shoulder, but in contrast, the girl seemed completely at ease and just sat back to watch the show.
Jee continued his relentless assault, launching blast after blast to the airbender, which he either deflected off the side of the ship or just dodged. The entire deck was theirs to move around in, and the boy made the most of it, moving faster than any human should be able to.
It didn't take much of this before the veteran began to breathe hard. It was much more of a workout than Jee had counted on, and as much as he may have been able to sustain this sort of fight months ago, those months spent in a prison cell with barely enough room to move had clearly taken their toll.
"Why are you attacking me?!" Aang shouted while deflecting another fire blast, "I didn't do anything to you!"
"You did plenty!" Jee snapped. In truth, he wasn't sure why he was attacking the Avatar. He certainly didn't expect to win. Maybe it was just a wild impulse for revenge? "He earned my respect, and you went and got him killed then put a usurper on his throne!"
"What are you talking about?! I didn't get anyone killed!"
"Oh?" Jee momentarily halted his assault, making Aang look at him warily, folded glider-staff at the ready to strike away another blast, "And what happened to those soldiers at the North Pole?" he continued a little more quietly, catching his breath, "You think they died of old age or a giant fish monster you controlled?"
"I—" the airbender looked down slightly, marginally dropping his guard, "That was the Ocean Spirit. I did what I had to, to save the North Pole."
"Good men died up there, Avatar. I did my best to save those I could, but I couldn't save enough to make up for what you did."
Aang's eyes met his, resolve formed in them, "If Zhao hadn't attacked, I wouldn't have had to do it."
Jee snorted, "I guess that much is true, but you didn't have to summon a monster to get Zuko killed, did you? You just had to show your face."
"What?" the airbender boy looked thoroughly confused now, all pretense at guarding fled, "Zuko's not dead, he's my friend!"
"Oh right, and he's going to drop out of the sky right now and tell me the last twelve hours have been a dream." Jee snarled sarcastically. As if to check, the Avatar looked up, and the veteran had sufficiently caught his breath. He took the distraction to launch a fireball straight at that innocent face—
--and a shaggy-headed youth in typical Fire Nation dark red, gold, and black flipped down out of the sky, leg trailing fire, and intercepted Jee's fire blast, dissipating it with no effort. The newcomer landed in a low crouch, and Jee caught a glimpse of a golden eye and a dark scowl before the young man quickly swept his legs out from under him. Jee landed hard, face-down on the steel deck, wincing as he felt his arm wrenched behind his back and a knee pressing down in the middle of it. He could feel the hot breath in his ear as an eerily familiar voice snarled: "Are you causing trouble on my ship, Lieutenant?"
Jee froze. He knew he knew that voice, but disbelief kept its place from clicking in his brain. It couldn't be . . . she said he was dead!
"I'm going to let you up slowly, and you're not going to attack anyone else, or I will throw you overboard myself. Is that clear, Lieutenant?" the young man's authoritative voice could be denied nothing, especially when he spoke threats the same way a lesser man might hold a normal conversation.
Jee tried to nod, but the deck plating pressed firmly to his cheek got in the way. "Yes, sir," he finally managed to croak uncomfortably. One didn't call someone with a voice like that anything less.
True to his word, the pressure slowly eased from Jee's back and arm, and the old veteran cautiously stood before turning around to face the mild scowl of his assailant. The young man had affected a military stance beside the relieved-looking Avatar, arms clasped behind his back like a general would do while inspecting his troops. In spite of his shaggy black hair and nearly common cut of his clothes, he radiated authority like one born to it. Hit with the almost palpable aura of displeasure, it took Jee a second to realize that the golden glare directed at him was slightly mismatched: the shaggy hair was obscuring a very distinctive red scar around his left eye.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Zuko said to the open-mouthed Jee and arched his good eyebrow, the aura of displeasure dissipating slightly.
The veteran just continued gaping as the flying bison lowed from the deck somewhere behind him where it'd landed. The Avatar grinned stupidly in the bison's direction, then turned to Zuko and said, "That makes sense, since he thought you were dead for some reason. I . . . think you guys need to talk. I'll be over there if you need me," and with that, the young airbender zipped off to join his friends climbing (and in one case flipping) down from his bison. Glancing after the boy quickly, Jee could see several figures, including a vaguely familiar boy in Water Tribe blue and the blind girl in green from that afternoon's hearing.
Zuko glanced at Aang and blinked, then looked back at Jee thoughtfully before turning his face to the slightly smug-looking Mai drinking tea at the edge of the deck. "Did you actually tell him I was dead?"
"No," she replied, "I just said you weren't the Fire Prince anymore. He jumped to his own conclusions right after the hearing, it looks like." As she was explaining this, the little dragon popped its head up from behind Mai's shoulder and let out a little squeak, taking wing and making its winding, snakelike way over to Zuko. It wrapped itself around his torso, foreclaws resting on his shoulder and face nuzzling his scarred cheek, growling happily.
Zuko chuckled, though it was uncertain whether it was at Mai's or the dragon's antics, and reached up a hand to pet the beast, "It's good to see you, too, Fang." Zuko's attention then shifted back to Jee, who was completely dumbfounded, "So, how long has Mai been leading you on? I wasn't planning on sending for you until I got back from Kyoshi."
Jee's brain barely registered the question, and his mouth kept gaping.
"You know, you look a lot like a fish when you do that. Maybe even a wooly rhino eel. I expect an answer someday, Lieutenant."
Jee finally got the hint and snapped his jaw shut. Were his jaws already sore? "A few hours ago, sir. The warden brought me by as soon as he could."
Zuko grimaced slightly, "I'll make sure to thank him for that when he gets reassigned. I guess I've got to learn to be more specific about times and places. Any suggestions for where I should send him?"
The grey-haired veteran blinked slightly in surprise, "You're reassigning him just for that?"
"No, I'm closing the fort and retracting all troops from the Earth Kingdom. With the war over, there's no need for it anymore."
"Oh, in that case," Jee gained a thoughtful look and a slight smile, "I guess I'll have to think about it."
"He was really that bad, huh?"
"That little vindictive toady would've licked Zhao's boots and thanked him for the privilege. Probably did, too."
The young man snorted a laugh, "I thought as much when I met him earlier."
Jee shook his head slightly in amazement, "Is it really you, Prince Zuko?" he asked, still in shock.
"Yeah, it is. And it's Firelord Zuko now, if you don't mind."
"Of course, my Lord!" Jee suddenly realized that he hadn't properly greeted the new Firelord, and quickly fell to his knees, head down in a groveling posture. His aging joints really weren't that comfortable with this position or his haste to get there, "Please, forgive my impertinence."
"Oh, get up, Lieutenant. Do I look like I'm concerned with etiquette at the moment? I'm not even wearing my robes or crown!" The baby dragon doing its best to affectionately burrow itself into his neck certainly did nothing for the Firelord's air of formality, either.
Jee looked up from his prostrate position and had to admit the young ruler had a point. "Thank you, sir," he slowly stood back up, one or two joints creaking in relief, and gave Zuko an appraising look. "You've changed," he observed simply.
Zuko gave a genuine half-smile, and for some reason, it didn't seem so alien to that face. In spite of the ugly scar, the young man almost looked handsome and good-natured when he smiled. "Yeah, I have. It's good to see you again, Jee."
Jee snapped a salute, "It's good to be seen, sir."
"So, tell me," the young man asked, cutting to the chase, "did you get a good look at the ship while you were waiting?"
"Yes, your . . ." Jee searched for the right word to describe Mai, "uh, lady-friend Mai graciously gave me the grand tour, then we had a conversation on deck until you arrived. Although why she led me to believe you were dead instead of in charge is still confusing me," with that, they both turned their heads to regard Mai still sipping her tea.
The young woman feigned innocence, "It was more interesting that way."
"You gotta agree with her there," Zuko chuckled.
"So, did you like what you saw? The ship, I mean."
"Very much, sir. She's an excellent vessel, truly worthy of bearing the Firelord."
"On your tour, did you notice anything in particular missing from the ship?"
Jee contemplated the question for a second, turning back to Zuko, "Well, a good portion of the crew isn't here, but Miss Mai said they were mainly on shore leave."
"Hmm," Zuko looked thoughtful, "Yes and no. A good portion of the crew's missing, but they're not on shore leave. I wanted to come here with people I knew I could trust beyond a doubt. I'm . . . not exactly popular with some of the military higher-ups at the moment. Those guys still think my father's megalomaniacal plans were genius, even if they involved genocide on a global scale and long-term occupation we never could have sustained."
Jee certainly understood that sort of mindset, "Glory hounds."
Zuko nodded, "A few of them would give quite a lot to take advantage of an unguarded moment out at sea or something like that, which is why I need people on this boat whose loyalty is unquestionable. Pickings have been slim, so far, though lots of soldiers have been eager to come."
Putting two and two together, the veteran was starting to draw suspicions, "So you were testing my loyalty today, weren't you?"
Zuko shrugged, "It sort of turned out that way, but that's not exactly what I intended when I came here," his face turned thoughtful, "It was pretty convenient you hadn't heard who I was by then, actually . . ."
"Then what did you intend?" Jee asked, ignoring the serendipity of the last comment.
"An offer," the scarred young man stated simply, "Your loyalty was never in question after I went over your records from here, but it was certainly nice to see it proven," the corner of his mouth twitched, "Did you really mean what you said earlier up there?"
"And you like this ship."
"No sailor wouldn't, my Lord."
"Then it's yours."
Jee blinked, "Excuse me?"
"I'd like to re-instate your commission and give you a promotion, Lieutenant. And command of this ship. I'm currently missing a captain, among other things, though if you'd rather just retire completely, I understand. Either way, you would officially be under no disgrace."
The former lieutenant was dumbfounded again. This felt like a habit lately. "I don't know what to say," he managed finally, "You'd make me the captain?"
"Or commander, or even admiral, if you really want. I can do that, you know. But as a captain, you'll only be expected to command one ship, and as captain of this ship, you answer only to me," he smirked knowingly, "It'll be like old times, except we'll actually be allowed home. How does that sound?"
"Like an offer I'd be a fool to refuse. It would be an honor to serve you again, sir," Jee bowed formally, and Zuko nodded respectfully in response and smiled.
"I'm glad," the former prince's voice had softened considerably from its earlier threatening tone. He had certainly mellowed from the angry, if ultimately honorable, young man Jee had been forced to bid farewell to seven months ago. Having gotten a taste of his current speed and power, the veteran would also have to say he'd gotten to be a much stronger bender, too, in terms of both raw power and control. Jee could only begin to imagine what had caused the dramatic change, but he figured he'd have plenty of time to figure it out.
"So is it true what they say?" Jee couldn't help but ask.
"Depends what they say," Zuko snorted.
"Did you really teach the Avatar firebending? Are you really descended from Avatar Roku? Did he really put you on the throne? And how in the world did you get a dragon? Aren't they extinct?" there were so many more questions from those gossips earlier today, but Jee settled for the ones that bugged him most.
"Yes, on my mother's side, and maybe," Zuko answered without preamble, "I sought him out specifically to train him in firebending and help him defeat my father, but Aang became my first real friend ever, too. It was honestly more than a little weird after spending so long trying to capture him and bring him home like some sort of trophy. Without his help and the help of my other friends, I wouldn't have made it to my throne, but he didn't exactly put me there. I won it myself and legitimately," he smiled wryly at the older man, "As for your last two questions, like with most things in my life, the story's rather complicated. We should have plenty of time to catch up on things later, though. I'll have someone show you to your new quarters so you can get ready before dinner. You will be joining us, won't you . . . Captain Jee?"
The new captain smiled warmly, "Of course, Firelord Zuko."