Actions

Work Header

Quiet Shadowed Places

Chapter Text

Some people were born for the ocean. So long as they moved with the water, everything else was far away and blank. Zuko stared over the railing at the water he couldn’t even see and refused to let it was away the discontent he was supposed to be feeling. “Look around, we’re not tourists; we’re refugees.” He lifted the wooden bowl to his lips and sipped the contents suspiciously. “Ugh!” The food came out of his mouth and over the railing before he could stop it. “I’m sick of eating rotten food, sleeping in the dirt... I’m tired of living like this!”

His uncle shifted beside him, but then thought better of whatever he was about to do as Zuko slumped back onto the railing. The water wasn’t even moving. It shouldn’t trick him like this.

“Aren’t we all.” One day, Zuko was going to stop turning his head to voices and expecting to see a face to go with them. He gripped his cane tightly. “My name’s Jet, and these are my freedom fighters, Smellerbee, and Longshot.”

“Hey,” another voice responded.

Zuko turned away again. “Hello.”

The footsteps came closer, and Jet began speaking again. “Here’s the deal. I hear the Captain’s eating like a king, while us refugees have to feed off his scraps. Doesn’t seem fair, does i- wait, what’s with your eyes?”

“What about them?” he pulled his cane between himself and the voice like a barrier, but Jet came even closer, ignoring it completely.

The air moved past Zuko’s face against the stillness. “You can’t see, can you.”

He caught the hand waving past his face. “No.”

“What sort of What sort of king is he eating like?” Iroh broke in plaintively, and Zuko almost slumped against him with relief.

“Th- what kind do you think?” Jet drawled.

“Aww,” Iroh whimpered, but Jet had already bent closer to Zuko’s face to examine the burn scar surrounding one eye and stretching into the other.

“Are they even real?”

“No!” Zuko pushed him back. “Leave them alone!”

“Wait a minute.” Jet peered closer at the glass eyes, his breath landing on Zuko’s nose, voice cold. “They’re yellow.”

I’m from the colonies, alright?” Zuko snapped, thinking fast. “Th- the doctor who put them in was Fire Nation.” His uncle put his hand on his arm and patted it gently. Zuko chose to take it as a sign of approval.

“The Fire Nation did this to you and then they put eyes like theirs in your head? What, did they think they could make you one of them?” Jet’s fingernails tapping on the glass reverberated through the scarred-over sockets and into Zuko’s skull. “That’s sick!”

The soup bowl went flying.

“Eugh!” Jet cried, as the bowl clattered to the floor, splattering rancid, steaming liquid everywhere. “What was that for?”

“I told you to leave them alone!”

Snarling, Zuko planted his cane on the deck and readied himself to fight, but before he had to strike, Iroh put himself between them. The temperature of the air rising off the water rose just slightly. “I believe my nephew told you to leave him alone.”

“Come on, Jet,” the girl at his heels wheedled, and after a pause the three turned on their heels and walked away.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Zuko grabbed the railing hard enough to leave his hands numb. “I can’t live like this, Uncle.”

~*~

Late that evening, Jet and his gang swooped down on the two firebenders again, this time with a peace offering. Digging his stolen chopsticks into the rice and chicken-pork, Zuko narrowed his eyelids over his glass eyes at where he assumed Jet was.

“Listen, I’m sorry about earlier,” Disregarding the glare, Jet folded his legs beside Zuko.

“Just forget it.”

As Zuko spoke, Jet stretched his legs out, and his knee bumped against Zuko’s thigh. “I’m glad you feel that way. Hey, what’s your name?”

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Zuko glanced around for his uncle. One day, he was going to stop doing that.

“Saved you until last,” Jet leaned back against the lower rung of the railing and laced his fingers behind his head. “Wanted to talk to you.”

“So that’s why my dinner’s cold,” he retorted. “Lee.”

Jet laughed. “You’re quick, Lee.”

Zuko shot away from him, fingernails cutting into the handle of his cane. “Don’t you ever quit?”

“No.” His grin showed in his voice.

“Say what you want to say,” Zuko conceded.

“You know, as soon as I saw your scar, I knew exactly who you were.” Zuko’s heart hammered against his ribs. He was cold, and hot, and frozen in place all at the same time. “You’re an outcast, like me. And us outcasts have to stick together. We have to watch each other’s backs, because no one else will.”

Letting out the breath he was holding, Zuko sank back against the bottom of the railing. “I’ve realized lately, that being on your own-”

“Maybe it’s because I’m not a man. I’m a girl!”

“Oh, now I see!” Iroh’s voice followed her as she stomped off. “It’s a beautiful name for a lovely girl!”

Zuko snorted. Beside him, Jet chuckled affectionately. Then, as soon as he noticed the other boy laughing too, Zuko’s jaw set and his expression hardened in self defense. “Well?”

Jet’s next words came out muffled around a mouthful of stolen rice. “I just think you’d have a better chance of making it once we get to Ba Sing Se if you stick with me than if you strike out on your own.” He stretched his arms, and settled one of them around Zuko’s shoulders, squeezing conspiratorially.

Zuko tossed his arm away. “I have my uncle.”

“Yeah, but...” he trailed off.

“But what?” his quarry shot back, pulling his arms around himself. “He’s my uncle.”

“It’s really good of you to stay with him like that,” Jet whispered, “Loyal. But you need someone you don’t have to protect. Someone who can protect you.”

Zuko squirmed. “Are you saying I can’t protect myself?”

“No, it’s-”

“Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I can’t fight!”

“I have a little secret.” Resting his hand behind Zuko’s head Jet leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Everyone needs a little protection, every now and then.” When he finished, he dropped Zuko’s head and shifted away while Zuko hunched his shoulders.

“Uncle and I can protect each other.” After he said it, Zuko wished he’d said something about the walls of Ba Sing Se, or the Fire Nation, or finally being safe, but the words stopped in his throat and wouldn’t go any further.

“You know how I knew the Fire Nation did that to you?” his hand drew close again to Zuko’s face.

“For all you know I splashed a pot of boiling water on my face,” Zuko spat, folding his arms.

“Nah, I know what firebending scars look like.” He tapped the scar’s ragged edge before it trailed over Zuko’s eyelid. “And if you’ve got this, that means you’re a fighter. Tell me I’m wrong.”

In his mind, Zuko saw himself kneeling on the arena floor, staring up at his father and seeing for the last time. “Don’t touch me.”

“I also know what it looks like when someone’s trying to hide,” Jet kept his voice steady, and Zuko felt the waves lapping against the side of the ferry. “It wasn’t your idea to come to Ba Sing Se, was it?”

“Just stop,” Zuko snarled, shooting to his feet, cane in hand.

“I don’t care if you got that scar when the Fire Nation took your home, or if you started fighting after they already had it, you still need to fight, and it’s eating you up. I can see it. You’re like me.” Zuko couldn’t help himself; he paused to listen. “Stick with me, and you get the chance to fight again.”

Zuko clenched his teeth and started walking.

“Listen, just take my advice, if you really want to hide,” Zuko’s free hand curled into a fist at the sneer in Jet’s voice. “When we get to Ba Sing Se, buy some green eyes, or you know, brown.”

“They don’t come out,” Zuko snapped, not even turning his head. “They’re healed in.”

“Aww, man, I’m sorry.” Jet had to call out as Zuko walked away. There were a few bites of rice left in the other boy’s bowl, so Jet picked it up off the deck.

It was hot.

~*~

“We’ve been working in a tea shop all day. I’m sick of tea!

“Sick of tea? That’s like being sick of breathing!” Iroh started making a pot anyway. “Have you seen our spark rocks to heat up the water?”

“No.” Zuko’s foot bobbed in the air in front of him before he gave up and jumped off the couch and closed the shutters. “I’m going to get some air.”

“Ask our neighbors if you can borrow theirs while you’re out.” Zuko nodded.

Once he was outside, he decended the rickedy steps down to the ground, waving his cane in front of himself. Since the ship, he hand’t been anywhere long enough to really know his way around, but they were going to be in Ba Sing Se for a while. At least they weren’t on the water anymore. It was easier when he wasn’t on the water.

At the bottom of the stairs, he waited, but no one came. At last, he spoke out into the darkness. He’d... gotten used to that. “I know you’re there.”

The air parted in front of him with a whoosh. “Lee.”

“Jet.” Zuko remembered that stupid bowl, and he wanted to scream.

A thin edge of metal stopped right next to Zuko’s throat, but he didn’t flinch. He just put his hand on the bend in the hook and held it as he pulled his neck away. Jet was right. Zuko wanted so badly to fight. “How’d you know I was out here?”

“Heard you from inside.” The metal bit into Zuko’s hand, but he didn’t dare let go. “Stay away from my uncle.”

“Oh, is he your uncle?” Jet crowed mirthlessly, “I mean really? Is Lee really even your name?”

“Yes,” Zuko hissed. “He’s my uncle, and if you come near us again-”

“I know what you are!” Jet thundered. “You’re scum, you’re evil... Fire Nation!” His voice lowered, pleased and dangerous. “I just need proof before I turn you in.”

“Leave us alone!” Zuko pulled his hand back like he was going to bend, but that was what Jet wanted.

“I don’t get why you people can’t just stay in your own country!” He spat in Zuko’s face. Spittle landed on Zuko’s cheek, right on top of the scar. “Are you just that evil? Do you just need to ruin everything? Is that why you’re here?”

“You wanted proof?” Zuko pushed heat into the metal, sending it coursing up the sword. With an agonized yell, Jet dropped the sword, and Zuko let it fall too. It clattered to the ground along with the spark rocks. “That good enough? Don’t you think I want to go home? I would give anything if I could just go back...” his voice cracked. When he spoke again, he struggled to keep his voice calm. “If you come near us again, I swear to Agni I will kill you.”

Jet’s footsteps echoed into the night. Zuko picked up the spark rocks from where they fell and ascended the stairs.

When he came back in, Zuko put the spark rocks onto the counter.

“Did you get enough air, nephew?” Iroh struck a fire.

Zuko flopped back down on the couch. “I guess.”

~*~

“I don’t want to fight you!” Jet dropped his hook swords to the ground. “I’m here to help.”

Katara’s bending water froze in midair into a dozen dagger-like icicles. “Tell it to some other girl, Jet!”

“There’re Fire Nation here, in the city!” The water lashed around her and she flexed her fingers, ready to send it right at him. “No, wait, A-an old guy and a kid, blind, burn scar like this.” He traced the shape across his own face.

Katara’s eyes grew wide before they shrank into slits. “Zuko.”