Life Off the Boat
Summary: Presumably, by this point you've read the summary.
Disclaimer: Still own nothing. You should have realized this by now.
Second Lieutenant Jee hitched his seabag on his shoulder and stepped off the gangplank and on to colonial soil, trying not to show how baffled he was by the quick glimpse he'd seen of Lee before the boy had ducked behind a warehouse. How? How is he that sneaky? I thought he'd have to catch up to me, not the other way around! He shook his head. It didn't matter, really, so long as they found a room to park their bags (or rather, his bags - Lee, he had discovered, had only the clothes on his back) before he had to report to the commander to talk about his retirement.
Well, whatever. He had his pay and his seabag, time to follow Lee and see if he had discovered anything useful. He skirted the hive of activity that resupply always turned into, heading in the direction he'd seen Lee head off.
Lee was waiting for him just behind the corner, and fell in step behind him with a soft greeting as he headed where he thought the residential districts were - not that the Fire Colonies were ever put together properly, even in places like Hu Xin province. The boy was darting his eyes back and forth, almost vibrating in place as he tried to take in everything at once, from the familiar glass blowers and pagoda-style roofs to the exotic jewelry stalls and earth-bent stone walls with tiny windows. Heh - he's probably never been away from home before. It would be a treat for the boy, if nothing else.
Jee kept a more discerning eye on the buildings as he passed, until he found a neat, out of the way building with a sign in one window saying 'rooms for rent.' The style was more Earth Kingdom than he was comfortable with, but it was close to everything he thought he might need, and the two of them could always go to the garden if they needed some sun or fire-bending practice. He grabbed Lee by the sleeve and pulled him in, ignoring the startled yelp. The landlady was an old Earth Kingdom woman with startlingly green eyes sunk in her wrinkled face, and a decent rent for a retiring officer. Jee looked in on the little upstairs apartment, already sparsely furnished, paid the woman for the next two months, and set his seabag down in one corner. "Get yourself something to eat, kid, I've got to go report," he said, tossing a coin to the boy.
Lee just nodded, eyes darting to one side, and ducked out of the room. Jee sighed, grabbing the paperwork he would need as he listened to the boy chatter at the landlady. Now what's up with him? He had no idea what was wrong, but the boy had gone from being sweet and eager to quiet, almost sullen, the past day and a half. He hoped it wasn't the boy's true personality. Jee sighed again for emphasis, and went off to report.
"Now, if you would kindly explain to me just why, at a time when the Fire Nations' dominion over the world is still under question, you think it is a good idea to simply... walk off? Abandon the Navy? I'm just trying to understand, here," Commander Zhao sneered, sideburns bristling, clearly expecting the lowly Lieutenant in front of him to cower and fill out his re-enlistment papers like a good little crony After all, it wouldn't do for the newly promoted officer to get a reputation for officers retiring on him, and his needs were obviously more important than anyone else's. Jee was having none of it.
"Sir, I have served two tours of duty," he said. And if I have to put up with you as my commanding officer I'll be challenging you to an Agni Kai within a month, he didn't say. The new commander had something of a reputation, and Jee wasn't interested in the sort of political backstabbing that he got up to. Commander Zhao was the sort that liked to surround himself with cronies, fanatics, and particularly clever ladder-climbers. Work-a-day lieutenants like Jee, who just wanted to see the job done and everyone go back to their bunks at shift end, didn't fit.
Commander Zhao got up from his desk, trying to pose himself dramatically in his well-appointed office. So far as Jee was concerned, the effect fell flat. You had to respect a person before you could be inspired by them, after all, and Jee had heard too many rumors to respect Commander Zhao. "You have a duty to your country and people," Commander Zhao said. "The Imperial Fire Navy needs experienced officers, especially if we are to take the fight to those filthy Water Tribe barbarians and the coastal towns."
"The Imperial Code of Military Justice doesn't require anyone to continue serving after their first tour of duty, much less their second," Jee said, staring straight ahead. Zhao had no legal standing to require Jee to re-enlist, and they both knew it. So long as Jee didn't budge from that point, there was nothing Zhao could do.
"We are all required to do our part in conquering the barbarians!" Commander Zhao roared, spittle flying from his lips. "I need - the Navy needs - every man we can get our hands on, to lead sailors, to direct ships, to decimate the Water Tribes and keep them from standing together with the Earth Kingdom. Surely you wouldn't want to abandon your fellow sailors," he said, switching to a low, wheedling tone.
Jee tried not to grimace. You already accepted a different responsibility, and they can take care of themselves, he reminded himself. "I'm sure their training and their commanders will see them through," he said. "Meanwhile, I will be retiring." Enough repetition might eventually get through to the Commander, who knew. Stranger things had happened.
Commander Zhao continued trying to coax him. "Come now, don't be unreasonable. I realize, you are long overdue for a promotion; I'd be happy to reward your outstanding service to the Navy. A man of your years deserves respect and accolades. Perhaps your own ship to command in my battle-fleet. Your service record speaks very well of your skills and judgement, and I would be glad to have you serving under me," Commander Zhao said. "I'm sure we can find the perfect assignment for you." As if Jee could be bought off with a promotion and a bit of worthless praise.
"I have other things to do, and would like to retire and get around to doing them," Jee said, gritting his teeth. His temper was starting to get the better of him.
"What could possibly be more important than-" Commander Zhao said, and then stopped, suddenly, as if something had just occurred to him. "Ah. What could possibly be more important. Well, while I would like to sign your paperwork, unfortunately there seems to be a few things missing. I'd like a complete history of your first tour of duty under Commander Hizun, first," he said, thumbing through Jee's papers, before handing them back.
Jee suppressed a shudder as he took his papers. Somehow, Commander Zhao being reasonable, if a bit petty, was more creepy and threatening than him yelling. "Sir," he said, folding one hand on top of the other and leaving the office. Commander Zhao might be delaying his retirement, but at least it would happen.
He turned a corner, and drove a flaming fist into an already ash-streaked spot on the wall.
Jee couldn't send off a civilian hawk with a letter so late in the day, and he couldn't justify using a military hawk just to ask for old records, so that left trudging back to the apartment. He stopped through a market to buy rice and eggs for supper, got briefly lost, and returned just in time to see Lee and the landlady watering the herbs in her window-box, chattering together like birds. As tired as he was, he still drudged up a smile, but Lee's smile became a little dimmer regardless.
"Hey, kid. Long day, don't worry about it," Jee reassured him.
"Oh. Me and Madam Lin were watering her plants," Lee said, apparently taking him at face value. "She has a lot of plants and herbs and spices and stuff for cooking, she said we could borrow some if I helped with watering," he continued.
"Ah," Jee said, "that's... nice of her." He looked down at his shopping bags. Rice and eggs were about the limit of his cooking abilities, to be honest. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with herbs and spices.
"Yes, you're son's been quite the helpful young lad," the landlady said, face crinkling into a smile. "So nice to see young boys brought up to properly respect their elders."
Jee thought about correcting her, but the explanation was too long, and she might think less of Lee if she heard he was a stowaway. He just shrugged, uncomfortable. "Ah, yeah, he's a good kid. I was just thinking we should get started on supper, actually." Lee frowned at him, suspicious. He can't have heard about the time with the soup - that was months ago! No one would be talking about it still, right? Right. "Just something simple," he added.
"Ahh, simple is good. Here, a little pepper and cumin, they make any dish better," Madam Lin said, yanking seeds off plants and handing them to Jee.
Jee thanked her and tried to smile, and fled up the stairs to the little apartment, Lee trailing in his wake. In their room, he rustled through the pots and pans, and put two on the stove, which he lit. He stared blankly for a moment, before putting water in the pot, adding some rice and throwing in a handful of cumin for good measure.
"So... we're making supper?" Lee asked. His shoulders were hunched and he wouldn't look directly at Jee.
"Yes. Rice and eggs," Jee said. His attempt at a smile came out more as a grimace. He poked the pan, and looked at the eggs. Spices were supposed to mix with eggs, so... maybe if he dumped them in the pan, and mixed them there? He dumped the pepper in the pan, and cracked the eggs open against the bottom. The eggs spattered out of their broken shells, slimy against his fingers, the yellow parts oozing into the clear part. "Ugh. Are they supposed to be that slimy?" Jee asked.
Lee was looking at him. It was a very suspicious and completely uncalled for look. "I dunno. But I don't think you're supposed to leave bits of shell in with them." Lee pointed.
Jee looked. There were indeed bits of shell sticking out of the eggs. "Well, why don't you pick the shell out," he said, handing the pot to Lee. He had no intention of feeling that slimy mess more than he had to.
Lee just raised an eyebrow at him, and grabbed a pair of chopsticks to pick at the eggs. Jee tried not to look as foolish as he felt. They both lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.
Lee finally finished picking the shell out, and handed the pan back to Jee. Jee put it on the stove, next to the rice. The silence continued.
Jee fidgeted, and felt for where the sun was. It had slipped a little further down towards the horizon, so maybe the rice was done? Jee lifted the lid and nearly flinched when the steam surrounded his face. "Well, the rice looks like rice, so lets eat," he said. He grabbed two bowls, and tried to shovel the rice into them without letting too much of the water in the bottom escape. After that, he scraped the eggs out of the pan on top of the rice, and handed one of the bowls to Lee.
Lee poked at the meal suspiciously, before trying a small bite. "The top of the eggs is rubbery, and the bottom is crunchy," he said.
Jee used his own mouthful of badly cooked eggs on badly cooked rice to avoid answering.
"And the rice is undercooked and watery, and the spices aren't ground up," Lee continued.
Jee managed to swallow. "Shut up and eat," he said, before taking his own advice.
Lee gave him another of his looks for a moment, muttered that it needed salt, too, before gritting his teeth and eating. Jee wished he could blame him for looking so disgusted, but the same expression was probably on his own face too.
"So, I've a few things to do tomorrow, but I can start looking for your Uncle. Do you know any old army buddies I can get in touch with? Know where he went for his little spiritual trip?" Jee asked.
Lee set his bowl down, half-eaten. "I... don't know. He's somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. He hasn't sent a hawk since just after Ba Sing Se."
Jee managed to keep from groaning, but only by gritting his teeth and grinding grains of rice into his gums. Such a very, very unhelpful answer, but this was a little kid, not one of his sailors, and apparently the Uncle hadn't bothered to keep in touch. He should be planning how he was going to take the Uncle aside and quietly dress him down. "Right. Well, do you know what unit he was in, at least? What part of the walls he was assigned to?"
Lee hunched in on himself. "All of it," he said, shrugging one shoulder. He glanced back up at Jee then. "I can find him on my own," he said, "you don't have to worry about me."
Jee's hand met his forehead. It was manifestly obvious that the kid couldn't find him on his own, and the only person who didn't seem to realize that was the kid. "Nothing wrong with getting a bit of help setting up base and finding people. Should make the whole process go smoother. Just... tell me about your Uncle. His name, assignments, his superior officers, anything."
Lee glared at him, then. "Why?" he asked, sharply.
Jee blinked, confused. "Because if I can start looking up records on him, we might find someone who-"
"No!" Lee cut him off. "I mean, why are you helping me?"
Oh. That... was not a question he had thought needed answering. "Because you're here, and you need help. Do I need more of a reason?" Jee said.
Lee glared. "You're not my father!" he shouted.
Jee's temper snapped. "I wouldn't want to be!" he shouted back, fists smoking. He couldn't believe...! He'd been trying to be nice to the kid, and the kid thought he was like that-! "There's nothing good about-" Jee cut himself off from cursing like the sailor he was, but only barely.
Lee still rocked back as if Jee had struck him, eyes wide. Then he turned and scrambled out the open window. Jee rushed after him, but couldn't grab his tunic before he tumbled down the tree outside. Jee stared after him, swearing under his breath.
Faintly, he could hear Madam Lin edging up the stairs. Hear her calling out questions. Jee opened the door and stumbled through an explanation - taking the kid in, hoping to find a remaining uncle, he wasn't paying much attention to what he was saying. Too busy being frustrated. The kid had seemed all nice and sweet at first, but he had more tricky turns than a puzzle box. How was he supposed to look after him when the boy kept flying off the handle?
"Ah, the poor dear. He must be missing his family terribly," Madam Lin said. "You mustn't push, he'll just fight you if you do that. Let him learn he can love a new family, without letting go of his old family," she continued, patting his arm and nodding her head.
Jee shook her off, nearly spitting sparks in irritation. The old landlady had no idea what she was saying. Sure, the boy missed his mother, and his cousin, but loving that sorry excuse for a father? Hah.
Only it wasn't quite that simple, was it. After all, if the boy didn't love his father, why would he be hurt when the man insulted him? Which meant it hadn't just been nothing that had set the boy off. "I think I see your point. I'd better go and look for him," he muttered, edging around the landlady and down the stairs.
And then he was on the street, looking around for any sign of Lee. Nothing. He jogged to both corners of the street, but there was no sign of the boy, and all the doors were closed. Calm down, Jee, he thought to himself, he can't have gone far, and the colonies are safe. It's not as if he'll be attacked by- and it was at this point that his imagination betrayed him, throwing up thoughts of Earth Kingdom terrorists and hardened thugs, and then there was the very real possibility that Lee would hit the town limits and just keep running.
Jee picked a direction, and ran.
Comments, questions, concerns? There is this thing, it's called reviewing. Please, feel free to use it!
Also, since someone asked - the story probably won't go too far into Jee's history, but he's never really had any prior contact with General Iroh. Oh, he knows who he is, and any order with his seal would be immediately obeyed - but Iroh was primarily concerned with the Army and the Siege of Ba Sing Se, while Jee is solidly Navy, and relatively low-ranked at that with no powerful relatives. In canon, Iroh probably asked his White Lotus buddies for a recommendation on a reliable commanding officer for Zuko's ship, and picked Jee out of the list.