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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.”

Chapter Text

Adrift

The air in front of him burned.

Zuko reached up and swatted the fire blast away, circling his arm back to shield himself.  He kept his body tight as he twisted though the air and only wobbled a little when he landed.  A smile tried its best to yank his lips up.  “So?”

“Do it again.”

“What!” he slammed his hands down on his uncle’s table.  “But I detected every fire blast!”

“And your form was still weak, Prince Zuko.  Do it again.”

“Teach me the next form!”

Iroh put his hand over Zuko’s and squeezed, proud.  “Do it again.”

 

 

Alone

When his own ship had rolled under his feet, he hadn’t needed the cane.  He’d been trapped there with every corridor and every room for years and years and years, and they never changed.

The road didn’t roll, and he didn’t know where it went.

But there was boy holding his hand.  His hand shifted against the boy’s uneasily and he longed to grab for his cane.

“No one can sneak up on us.”

Zuko snickered.  “No kidding.”

He let the boy lead him to his parents and didn’t yank his hand away.

It would be rude.

He felt helpless.

 

 

Aloft

“I hate it too.”

When Zuko didn’t answer, Toph poked him hard between the ribs.  “What?”

“Flying.”  With every little jolt, his stomach bounced up into his mouth.  “First time I was up here and couldn’t see anything...”

“I’m fine.”

He wanted to tell her to shut up; he couldn’t see on the ground either.  She should stop-  “Oh.”  He flushed.

He tried not to remember the air whistling past his ears as he missed Azula’s airship.  “It’s worse when I don’t know where the ground stops.”  She punched him in the arm, but it quickly turned into a hug.

Chapter Text

Zuko saw things. They drifted past him through the pain before he could grab onto them. Time passed like melted stone. Time didn’t exist, not for him.

(Ozai turned his back and walked away from the arena, and it took hours for anyone to summon the courage to lift his son, to hurt even to scream, up from the floor and carry him back into the palace.)

Sometimes, Zuko thought his mother was there, but then other times, he thought his mother was there instead. He heard his father’s voice, cold and dismissive, and he heard Uncle’s voice, angry and loud, but that couldn’t be right. Uncle was never angry anymore.

(Iroh closed the door to his chambers and watched the somber little procession winding its way down the hall. “What is going on?” He grabbed his nephew’s hand. “He’s not...” He felt the pulse and closed his eyes, the sick wave of terror spilling away for just a moment. There were so many things to still be terrified of for Zuko’s sake.

“Firelord’s orders,” one of the doctors mumbled. “He’s not allowed to stay in the palace.”

Iroh’s eyes widened, and then narrowed into slits. He opened the door behind him. “Take him into my room. I’ll talk to Ozai.”

He snuck his nephew into the war meeting. He could sneak him into the palace.)

But he saw things. He knew he did. Even when his eyes were closed.

(The Firelord’s guards smashed the doors open so hard they slammed against the walls. Ozai pinched his lips together hard enough to force away all of the blood. “You have no right, Iroh-”

Iroh leapt to his feet. “I have no right?” he snapped, and grabbed his brother’s arm. The guards moved to stop them, but Iroh just looked at them and they backed away.

“You aren’t the first in line for the throne anymore, Iroh,” Ozai snarled, trying to jerk his arm away, but Iroh’s hands just gripped tighter.

“This is your son,” Iroh whispered.)

He kept his eyes closed as much as he could, because every time they opened, he saw the creatures that had poked and cut at them, and tried to take them away from him. He could hear them in his dreams, and his eyes hurt, even through the strange haze over his body. Whenever he tried to reach them, to cover them, someone pushed his hands away. Uncle’s voice accompanied the hands that pulled his ams down and tucked them back under the stifling blankets. But it should’t be Uncle. Why would it be Uncle? Uncle was a ghost. Since he had come home from Ba Sing Se. He kept to himself and almost never spoke, and Zuko didn’t...

His eyes hurt so much.

Uncle never wanted anything to do with Zuko’s father. He shouldn’t be there.

(The doctors held held Zuko down. The smell rising from the wound filled the room. They held his eyelids open. His eyes weren’t eyes anymore. The heat had boiled and burst them. Pus oozed out. The knife slipped into their socket and cut them away. The doctor’s fingers swept them out.

The glass eyes rolled around on the table and watched until the doctor with the knife put them inside the sockets.)

The floor moved under Zuko’s body, tilting from side to side, rocking him back to sleep each time he floated up above the sticky, numbing fog. Sometimes, he heard whimpers, and screams, but he couldn’t tell whose they were, and it didn’t really seem important.

(They carried him up the gangway and into the belly of the tiny ship and laid him on the futon before he even woke up. Iroh followed. As soon as they left, he ran his fingers through what was left of his nephew’s hair.)

Zuko saw things. He knew he did.

~*~

Zuko sat up on the futon and pushed away the cup his uncle offered.

“It’s just tea.” Uncle told him, and curled his nephew’s fingers around it.

Zuko touched his closed eyelids with his other hand. “I don’t want it.”

Iroh picked up the new, thin reed cane from off the floor and curled his nephew’s hands around that too.

Chapter Text

The ship crunched through the ice. The ice wall around the pathetic little camp collapsed in on the ship and into the camp. The gangplank sank down onto the snow, and Zuko marched down, in front of his soldiers, swinging his cane. When he tapped it down against the ice, it sank into the snow.

As one of the villagers charged for him with a yell, Zuko’s guards punted him into the snow. Zuko listened to his grunts and squeals as he dug himself out of the snow.

The guard who had knocked the Water Tribe boy into the snow bent down to whisper into Zuko’s ear. “It doesn’t look like he’s here.”

Zuko’s eyelids narrowed over his glass eyes. “Where are you hiding him?” No one answered. Fury knotted itself in Zuko’s chest. He yelled, fist punching the air. Fire rolled out of it, but no one made a sound. “I know you're hiding the Avatar!”

The Water Tribe boy came for him again, and Zuko twisted out of the way as the wind whistled past his ears. He grabbed out, but the boy rolled out of his reach and jerked the cane out of his hands.

All of a sudden, Zuko was cut adrift. His hand closed on the empty air, and even though he didn’t know any less about where he was then he had a moment before, his head jerked from side to side, as if he was still trying to see.

“Not so tough without your weapon,” the boy twittered. Zuko could hear the cane hit his palm, and whip back up into the air and hit the boy’s palm again. “What is this thing anyway? What’re you supposed to do with it?”

“Give that back!” Zuko cried indignantly, grabbing for where he thought it was. But there was a snowdrift in the way. He fell hard against the ice on his hands and knees. The ice burned against his bare skin, and Zuko pushed himself up to breathe hot air onto them.

A crack and crunch sounded hollowly on the frozen air. Zuko’s face crumpled. “No...”

“What is this thing?” the Tribesman asked curiously.

Zuko turned towards his voice.

A moment later, the Water Tribe boy talked from off to the side of Zuko’s head. “Wait a second, are you blind?”

Zuko’s hands balled into fists. He waved his soldiers forward, grabbing onto the gangway. “I’m blind,” he growled, shaking with rage. “But my crew isn’t.”

Chapter Text

To Zuko, firebending had always been a tool, a dangerous, unreliable tool. A tool that was never the right tool for the job, but always had to be good enough. Fire was pain, and blindness, and a time when he had once been able to see. Fire was something he could never turn his back on.

“It’s like a little heartbeat,” Aang whispered. It sounded as if he were smiling, just a little bit. Zuko’s heart sank.

He tried to give that knowledge to the Avatar, but the Avatar was Aang, and there was nowhere for wariness to take root in Aang, only fear or easy acceptance.

Zuko felt the fire in his hand. It was nothing like a heartbeat. He could feel the fire in Aang’s hands like a spot of color in the shadows. All around him, there were little spots of color, and behind him, in the first flame, the color pooled and shimmered.

He closed his useless glass eyes. Fire pulsed and wove through the air around him, but Zuko held tight to the fire in Aang’s hands and followed it up the temple steps. And when it went out, he climbed a step that wasn’t there and stumbled. As he fell heavily to his knees on the stone bridge, his hand itched for his cane, in the hands of the Sun Warriors at the bottom of the stairs.

The bridge under their feet rumbled under them both, and Aang froze and Zuko ran into him. “Uh oh,” Aang said softly, standing rigidly, back to Zuko.

Then the rumbling stopped. A roar cut through the air and Zuko turned his head to the sound, hands coming up to shield his face.

“You still think we can take them?” Aang whispered. Zuko could hear the smirk in his annoying little voice.

“Shh.” Zuko hissed. “I never said that.” Then what else Aang had said connected inside his brain. “Wait, there’s more than one?”

Aang nodded. Zuko could feel the flex in his shoulders until he moved back. “Two.”

Two dragons. They had to be dragons.

“Zuko,” Aang muttered, poking him in the back with his elbow. “I think we’re supposed to do The Dragon Dance with them.”

“What?” Zuko demanded. “What about this situation that you think they want us to dance?” Of course this was how it was going to end. He was going to be eaten by dragons.

“Well, I think they want us to do something,” the Avatar hissed anxiously. “Let’s just try it.”

Zuko hadn’t seen the statues. His body scrambled to remember the sequence of moves. Every time he put his feet down, he breathed out, afraid the ground wouldn’t be there. The bridge’s edge had to be somewhere. He heard the sounds of the dragons, flying just beyond.

His fists hit Aang’s, and the two stilled. A snarl sent hot air into Zuko’s face. Aang shook, and Zuko froze.

The fire came for them both. The screams burst out of their throats together. They couldn’t stop them.

The fire rolled through the air past them and around them. Zuko felt the fire, and the warmth as it wrapped around them. It lived. It moved around them. Sunlight. It felt like sunlight, if sunlight breathed.

“I understand,” he breathed, but he wasn’t sure he did anymore.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother,” Azula spat, fire already springing from her hands in anticipation.

“No,” Zuko said, too softly for her to hear. “You’re not.”

Sometimes, when he had been trapped on his ship with his uncle and crew, he had wondered if it was a sick joke of destiny that the only people we could really fight were firebenders. Sometimes he had to keep himself from wondering if that’s what his father meant.

Azula rode the waves of her fire. The whisps of feeling at the edges of his vision that he had struggled, and fought, and tormented himself for years learning to read, and to block were gone.

His father hadn’t meant him to fight at all. His father had meant him to give up.

Zuko couldn’t see Azula. He couldn’t see Katara, or the columns around them, or the arena floor beneath him, or the sky above. But he could feel the fire. It stood out against the cold, dark world. Under the comet, Azula’s fire wasn’t a faint trace he had to grab onto. It was a roar, a bright, breathtaking beacon that guided him back to her.

Chapter Text

“But Toph can-”

“I don’t care what Toph can do!” Zuko snapped back, letting loose a blast of fire out over the edge of the cliff.

“It’s just you were talking about feeling the flames, and I thought...”

So Toph could use her bending to see. The Avatar, Aang, should really shut up about... “Look, you have to feel the fire. Your own fire. You have to feel it or you won’t be able to make it, and you have to feel the fire coming at you, because even when you see it, even when your brain tells you to run, you might not unless you feel it.”

“Wowwww,” Aang breathed, and went quiet for a moment, and Zuko thought he might actually have gotten through to him about... something. “That’s a lot of words in a row from you, Sifu Hotman.”

Zuko groaned weakly and turned towards where he knew the cliff edge had to be.

Aang reached up and put a hand on Zuko’s arm, and didn’t let him flinch away. His voice when it came was so much softer than it just had been. “Is that how you lost your eyes?”

“No.” But as soon as the word came out, Zuko wished he could take it back. It was just another way to describe it. Mostly. And Aang would ask now. “No.”