Life off the Boat

Summary: Second Lieutenant Jee was going to re-enlist before he caught that stow-away. Of course, if he had known the trouble it would cause, he'd have gone with the promotion, even if it meant dealing with Commander Zhao.

Disclaimer: I own nothing. Nothing, I tell you.

Second Lieutenant Jee had left his brush soaking in the ink, still contemplating putting the final signatures and seals on his re-enlistment papers, when he noticed the rustling. It wasn't that he hadn't heard the rustling, before - it was just that he had thought it was the papers. Now, though... definitely coming from the ceiling, he thought, casting a considering glance at the vents. The shadows there were just a little too deep.

Faking a casual stretch, Jee got up to walk around the walls of his tiny quarters, as if he just needed to stretch his feet. He kept his eyes from straying to the air vent from sheer force of will, until he was directly beneath the vent, when he jumped.

One hand to yank the grill off, the other to reach in, grab, and pull. Jee stumbled a little under the stow-away's weight, struggling to keep hold of the squirming bundle, but thankfully the kid - boy, some part of his mind noted, can't be older than twelve, grimy - kept quiet after the first yelp, obviously afraid of drawing attention. Good, he thought, I can keep the Captain from getting involved. The man always over-reacted to disciplinary problems, insisting on obeying the rules even when a bit of creativity brought better results. Which was probably why he still hadn't been promoted past Second Lieutenant.

"Hey, ease up there, kid. I'm not out to hurt you," Jee said, trying for soothing. The boy stopped trying to pry his fingers off his collar, but fire-yellow eyes were still glaring up at him suspiciously from under coal-dusted bangs. Jee set him down, gingerly, but apart from glancing at the door (already locked, Jee hadn't wanted to be disturbed and one of the advantages of being officer-class was that you could enforce that) he didn't seem like a runner.

"What do you want from me?" the kid asked, stepping back and fixing his dirty tunic.

Jee stepped back as well, giving the boy some space. "Figured I'd see what was up in the vents before the Captain got involved. He tends to make too much of a fuss over the little things," Jee said. "What about you? What are you doing, hiding in the vents?"

"I," the kid started, stammering a bit, "I'm gonna go find Uncle!" The boy's fists curled into defiant fists, as if daring Jee to argue.

Jee just nodded. "What about your Mum and Da? Won't they be worried?" He asked. Better to get the kid to see reason; then he could send a letter by hawk once they landed, buy the kid a ticket to where-ever home was, and wash his hands of the matter.

The kid's eyes darted to one side, his expression suddenly frozen in mild panic. "Th-they already know. I'm, uh, I'm supposed to find Uncle, 'cause, um... 'Cause!" Jee nearly twitched at the adorableness. Stammering, the slight lisp, the too-serious expression, the hilariously obvious lying - if he scrubbed the grime off, the girls would probably be burning through the woodwork to... volunteer for babysitting.

He just hummed thoughtfully instead. "Well, how about I send a hawk over to your parents when we make port. Reassure them you made it this far, and all that," he said. "You mind telling me the address?"

The kid was now edging towards the door, shoulders hunched. "That's, um, that's not necessary, I can do it..." the boy trailed off, before lunging for the door, scrabbling at the lock.

"Hey!" Jee just barely managed to keep from shouting at the kid. He grabbed an arm, intent on dragging him back to the center of the room and shaking some answers out of the kid, when the kid hissed in pain, cringing around the arm.

Jee took his hand, and pushed the sleeve down. There, under the grime and coal-dust, was a shiny pink hand-print burnt onto the boys arm. Some young firebenders could burn people like that by accident, of course, but the hand print was too big to be a young firebender, and wrapped around the arm as well. It would probably heal well enough that there wouldn't be any scars, but that realization somehow seemed to make the situation worse, to Jee's mind. "How did this happen," he asked quietly, kneeling down to make himself less threatening.

The boy yanked his arm back, cradling it with the good hand, his eyes suddenly looking through Jee's shoulder. Looking into the past. "Father... said my manners weren't good enough at supper. That I should have learned better already," the boy said. As if that explained things somehow.

"What about your Mum? Didn't she object?" Jee asked.

The boy didn't look up. "Mom's gone," he said, voice flat to keep the tears down.

Jee did wince, this time. "I see," he said. And he did. Given he was looking for an Uncle, instead of the mother... she's probably already ashes. Boy has nowhere else to turn. At least the boy had some semblance of a plan. "Where's your Uncle at, then?"

The boy finally looked up. "He was in the Great Siege of Ba Sing Se." Scratch that. The boy has no concept of forethought whatsoever! The siege had ended nearly a year and a half ago, now! There was barely a holding force left to keep an eye on the Earth Kingdom capital, and everyone else who hadn't died had already been shipped home - Jee had helped shuffle some of those soldiers back to home waters, himself. If the Uncle hadn't made it home, he was probably dead now, too. "He wrote home after our cousin died, he said he was gonna quit the army and go on a trip for spiritual enlight'ment, so I figured if we were both gonna be sad we should be sad together instead of sad alone," the boy continued in a rush.

"Right," Jee said. "Well." He was sure there was something to say to that. Something logical. Something helpful. Something more practical than spiritual enlightenment. His eyes rolled around his tiny cabin, finally landing on his little desk. On the re-enlistment papers. "Tell you what, kid," he said, grabbing the papers and letting a spark crumble them to ash, "it's time and past I quit the Imperial Navy. 'Till you have a better idea where your Uncle's gotten to, you can stay with me." The kid could probably find someone else at port, sure, but he'd found someone right now, and Jee didn't think he could look himself in the mirror if he turned the boy away.

"R-really?" the kid asked, eyes lighting up as he finally smiled.

"Yeah, sure. Just be quiet till we hit port, we can smuggle you out then," Jee said, standing.

The kid was already nodding his head. "I'll be super-quiet! You won't even notice I'm here."

"Right. I'll go get some food for us, but first, what's your name, kid?" Somehow, the very mention of food made the kid's face light up even more.

"It's Z- Lee. My name's Lee."

Jee nodded, pretending not to notice the slip. The kid would probably never find his Uncle going under a false name like that. Not that I probably won't have to raise the kid anyway. "I'm Jee. Good to meet you." He shook the boy's- he shook Lee's hand briskly, before exiting his room, yanking the door closed, and trying to massage away the sudden headache pounding at his greying temples.

He couldn't handle the responsibility of a steady girl, his last three special friends had ended things by hawk, and now he was taking responsibility for a child? What have I just signed myself up for?

Jee had dodged his crew-mates questions and headed back to his quarters with a bowlful of fish and noodle stew. It was cold, now, but he could always re-heat it for the both of them. Sticking the chopsticks he'd taken in his mouth, he switched the bowl to one hand and fumbled with the door, kicking it open when it tried to stick.

He blinked at the sight that met his eyes. Lee had moved his chair under the vent, piling it high with all his books and manuals, and had been trying to screw the grill back into the wall before Jee had interrupted him. The kid stared at him, eyes wide and startled, before the grill slipped out of his hand, and the boy tumbled down after it with a yelp.

Jee just rolled his eyes, bracing his back against the door to close it, spitting out the chopsticks into his free hand before setting the meal down at his desk. "We'll have to share the bowl. Get that chair back over here, clean up the books, and sit down, I'll heat it up for us," he said.

"Uh, right, sorry, I just figured I'd fix the vent, and, well, you saw," the boy babbled, face flushed as he gathered up the books. Jee humphed, both hands on the bowl as he breathed heat into the stew, concentrating. Lee set the books on the desk before pushing the chair into place, climbing up to eagerly watch steam rise from the bowl. Jee pushed the bowl to him, and Lee smiled up at him, saying "Thanks," before muttering a quick prayer, grabbing the chopsticks, and slurping up the noodles. Jee just leaned against the wall.

"Don't worry about the vent, I can solder it myself," he said. "It'll be good enough to last till we get off ship - that's in two days, if you didn't know," Jee added.

Lee swallowed and looked up at him. "Mmn. Solder? You mean like when you melt metals together? I'm a firebender, I can help with that. A little, at least."

Jee raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "Yeah? How good at it are you?" he asked.

Lee's eyes were glued somewhere past his shoulders again. "Father said I was useless, and shouldn't bother- never-mind," he cut himself off.

Huh. Given that the boy's table-manners were better than Jee's (Lee even had perfect posture, for Agni's sake), that could mean just about anything. Regardless, something about the way the boy had said it had Jee itching to challenge his father to an Agni Kai - and he'd only heard three sentences about the man. Getting angry isn't going to help the kid - he needs you to be responsible, not spitting sparks, he thought, ruthlessly suppressing the urge to start doing just that. "Well, soldering's easy, it just takes a little time to do it right. How about I show you after we're done eating?" he asked Lee.

Lee's eyes darted back up to his, and the boy was suddenly all smiles again. "Really? That's great! Oh, would you like your half of the food, now?"

Jee looked down at the bowl. It wasn't exactly half, but he wasn't going to say anything. "Yeah, sure." He picked the chopsticks up, using them to shovel the noodles and fish into his mouth. "So, we should - mngh - should figure ou' how we're gonna do this," he mumbled around the stew. "Y'think y'can sneak off board on y'r own?" he asked.

The boy looked briefly horrified, before realizing what Jee had said. "Huh? Oh, yeah, everyone's nearly dead asleep at night, it'll be easy then."

"A'right," Jee said, before chugging the broth down. He used the back of his hand to wipe the thin trickle of broth off his chin, licking that up too. "You can take care of that, then. In the meantime, we'll share my bed, it's probably more comfortable than where-ever you've been sleeping, but you need a wash, first. Showers are down the hallway, three doors on your right, you can do that after we solder the vent, they should be empty right around then. Sound good?"

The boy nodded eagerly, already piling Jee's books back on the chair. Jee eyed the grill as they approached, and the three screws Lee had managed to find. It would be enough to hold the grate in place, but they would need a bit of wire to melt to keep the screws from shaking out when the ship went full speed. "Okay, kid, here's how we're doing this - I'll hold the grill in place and start putting the screws in, you get the copper wire and cutters out of my desk - bottom left drawer - and we can use that for the solder, just under the head of the screw."

Lee nodded, already darting back to get the wire. Jee started putting the screws in, careful to leave enough room for the two of them to work in the wire. "So, Mister Jee, why do you have so much wire?" Lee asked, jumping up on the chair to start wrapping bits of copper around the screws.

"Armor repairs, mostly, and it's Second Lieutenant Jee, at least until my enlistment runs out," Jee said. He used the cutters to snip the trailing copper wires as close to the screws as he could, and used his fingers to turn the screws as far as he could, stepping back to survey his work. "Now we just need to melt the copper."

"Okay!" Lee said, and punched fire at the vent.

Jee blinked. It was a good punch, admittedly, and the form wasn't half bad, but the power behind it was lousy. "No, no, we want a slow and steady warmth for this." He placed a hand over the highest screw. "This isn't a fight, we don't need to be on edge for this, this is," he paused, searching for the right words. He had never figured out how to properly explain this, how to say why and how it worked. "This is like teaching the metal how to sunbathe," he said. He breathed, in and out, concentrating on the memories of lazy contentment and radiating warmth that sunbathing brought out, letting that warmth and more sink into the metal until it was a soft, faint red, and the copper had melted under the screw. He drew his hand back. "See? Like-"

Jee stopped, because Lee had drawn his hand back as well, but the metal under his palm was a bright, cherry red. "Oh," Lee said, sounding surprised. "This is easy. It's nice."

He's stronger than me, Jee thought. He shook himself. "Yeah, it is - you want to get the last one before heading for the showers?"

"Sure," Lee said brightly. Jee stepped back to watch, still just a little shaken. Seriously - what have I signed myself up for, with this?

Comments, questions, concerns? There is this thing, it's called reviewing. Please, feel free to use it!

Also, if anyone has the time and inclination to beta (especially if they have a good feel for Avatar - I haven't seen all the episodes), I would love to hear from you.