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Jee on pipa
Chapter information

Journey and Return



Written by

Madam Subclause


Madam Subclause

Last chapter

Coming Round

Next chapter

Evasions and Maneuvers


Now dig says the guard, now you better dig harder
Now you dig til you die, now he beat me like a dog
but I don't know why, but I don't know why

It was nearly a month later. Zhao, or Shi as the rest of the men knew him, had been out on the lake for just over a week, and Jee had been doing a lot of covering. If Jee was always behind him in the line, he could ensure that the buckets were passed over Zhao's hand and carefully onto his forearm, avoiding jarring the splinted fingers. He would make sure the transfer of weight was not too sudden, so that the knee, also splinted, did not give way.

Conversation was strained at best, but keeping him talking was Jee's best indication of when Zhao was slipping into one of his odd absences. They happened a few times a week, and he would typically remain standing, eyes open, but otherwise completely unresponsive. The only thing to do then was to knock him out of the line.

"Get up! Get up! Come on, dammit, Shi. Wake up!" The dust covered man lay on the ground, slack faced, staring. Ren reckoned it was the result of a head injury. "You had an attack. Get up, Shi."

It took a minute. "Help me up." Jee hauled him quickly to his feet. "Sozin curse you, you elbowed me in the ribs. You must have. You probably broke them again," Zhao groused.

Jee gritted his teeth. "Mongke'll do worse if you don't... never mind. Just hurry up and pass the buckets."

He glared at the man beside him. There was salt dust on everything, but he was greyer than usual, with a look of desperate concentration. Maybe he had caught his ribs. He wasn't sure why he cared.

"Hey Blue-eye, enjoy your sleep?" This was from a bald man, two down the line. Zhao ignored him.

"I'm talking to you, Blue. You fall down too many times, maybe you won't get up one of these times, you know what I'm saying?" Someone found this funny. Gratified by his audience, the bald man pressed on. "So tell me Blue, where'd you get that eye?"

Zhao managed to look a little contemptuous. "It was a gift from a lady I know," he replied cryptically.

After a moments thought, the bald man countered. "You telling me Fire Nation girls weren't good enough for your old man?" This resulted in more laughter.

Zhao looked for a second like he would have liked to have got into a fight, as his shoulders went back, his head came up. But those actions alone were enough to remind him that he was not up to it, and the shoulders sagged again.

The bald man delivered the punchline. "Hey, at least he liked girls. Guess he was Army then?" All the Army boys laughed. "Your boyfriend there takes good care of you. You must be able to do something right!" The line fell about. Zhao sighed, and head down, kept passing buckets. Something about the situation made Jee chuckle.

Zhao rounded on him, face livid with anger. "You think this is funny?" he hissed.

"A little," Jee retorted. "Helps me get through the day anyway."

Zhao's angry expression changed to surprise and he shook his head as if in disbelief. "I'm not sure that amounts to Karmic justice."

"Not really," said Jee. "But hey, maybe you'll get us of this rock. Then we'll call it evens." He laughed, but Zhao didn't reciprocate. It was hard to say what the expression on his face was. Thoughtful, certainly, and maybe, regretful? Not what Jee would have expected to see. He was familiar with the brash, ego-driven High Admiral of the Fleet. But this Zhao, the broken, mind-sick Zhao, who, seizures aside, often seemed lost in thought; whose biting contempt was most often directed at himself. Well, that was a different thing entirely.

Zhao barely made it to the end of the day, and Jee had to half carry him back to the medical tent after they had picked up their rations. Well, he would have some amusement at the other man's expense by way of recompense.

Baiting the Admiral was becoming a regular event, an accompaniment to the fledgling Music Nights, compensating a little for the lack of instruments. After supper, everyone in the medical tent pretended they weren't listening while Jee, and sometimes Ren, tried to piece together what had happened after the Siege. It was only a matter of time before it became common knowledge that there was a dead Admiral in the camp. When that happened, he would have to be able to look after himself. Mongke wouldn't stand to be outranked.

Tea had been passed round the men, and as Ren sipped, Jee sat cross legged, attempting to tune a pipa cobbled together from bits of wood and a tea-chest. "So you fell in?" he said absently.


"That's what everyone says. At the siege, after you lost the Agni Kai with Prince Zuko, you slipped on some ice and fell in." Jee had found that a keen edge of mockery stopped Zhao sliding into sullen self-pity during the questioning.

Even so, his tone was flat. "No. The spirit dragged me under."

Which was what everyone had heard. It was what happened then which was exercising everyone. "But you escaped?"

"I... I don't know. I thought I did at first. But... "


"I think it let me go."

An experimental strum. "And how did you get the blue eye?"

He waited, but there was no response. He exchanged a look with Ren who took up the baton. "You must have sustained a lot of your injuries then. In the water?"

Jee gently strummed the chords to 'Four Seasons' as they awaited an answer.

"There were ice floes. The tide... it threw me against the ice. I managed to get out of the water. Then I don't remember anything until they found me."

"But they didn't mistreat you? I mean, you'd think they would have been a little peeved at you."

There was the faintest breath. "I was kept in a hole in the ice, where the sun never reached. They didn't want me Firebending, so they fed me enough to keep me alive, but just... barely." He was almost whispering, his expression dark and unreadable.

"But there was no torture, no talk of execution?"

"No. Nothing like that."

Jee joined in again. "Why not?"

A long pause. "They let me live because of the eye. 'Her mark,' they called it. Besides, it's... just not their way. They believe if someone has wronged another, they have to answer for it, in front of the whole community."

"And they made you do that?"

"Yes." Zhao turned away on his cot. He was clearly exhausted from the days work, and was looking gaunt and miserable.

They needed a new tack. A quick burst of South Coast blue grass. "So what's she like then? The Moon Goddess. She a looker?" said Jee, finishing with a shave-and-a-haircut flourish.

Zhao shot him a look over his shoulder. "Don't speak of her like that."

"Sorry Boss. Didn't know you were pious." Everyone laughed at that. Zhao had the grace to look embarrassed. "But you saw her, right?" He resumed his more sombre strumming.

There was a long silence. "Yes."

"And she gave you that blue eye. So does it do anything? Have - I don't know - mystical powers, or is it just to make you look pretty?" Anger rising in his face, Zhao looked for a moment as if he would retort, but instead turned his back to them with a glower of irritation. The game looked to be lost.

The doctor came to the rescue. "It will help. With your recovery. If we can sort this out in your mind, about what actually happened."

"Yes," said Zhao. The game was on again. "That's what you're all doing. Helping." And was lost. But as he turned to eyeball them, he was smiling wryly. "I'm onto you, you know. I'm not as stupid as..."

The mock protestations started from the broader audience.

"Never, Boss, we don't think you're stupid."

"Sharp as a tack, except when he's off on one of his funny turns..."

"Enough." There was a recognisable authority in his tone, but also a wry smile on his face. "Now, I'm sure if I had a proper physician, instead of some Navy quack, he would insist that my recovery would be best aided by sleep. So if our maestro would be kind enough to stick his tea-crate in the brazier, I'm going to get some shut-eye." He reached and with the merest hint of theatre, plucked the drapes shut around his cot, indicating that his court was adjourned for the day.

There were a few retorts and some laughter, but when the Admiral said enough, that was it. Jee thought it was strange. Despite everything; his failure, injury and strange appearance, somehow he still had the ability to bully the men into obedience, even if respect for his station was thin on the ground. In fact, they seemed to like him better now that he was reduced, every day overcoming pain and difficulty to pull his weight alongside them; now that he could take a joke, roll with it, and recover with good grace. He might make a human being yet.

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