Zuko breathes in, the heat of the desert burns his nose and lungs and he only just holds back a heaving cough at the sensation. If he was a firebender, he wouldn’t have this problem, he thinks. If he was a firebender, his father wouldn’t have hurt him, wouldn’t have burned him, wouldn’t have torn him away from his home, his crown.
“It’s okay, Prince Zuko,” Iroh says to him, but Zuko knows it’s not. He’s lost everything, but now he knows that he never had it in the first place. It didn’t matter that he was the first born. He isn’t a firebender and that makes him merely a nuisance.
“He was just-” the words get stuck in his throat and he can’t bring himself to look his uncle in the eyes. “He was just waiting for an opportunity to rid of me.”
Zuko was the first born, but a weakling. He couldn’t be Ozai’s successor. He was in the way.
Iroh doesn’t answer, just places his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, but his silence confirms all of Zuko's fears. The sun burns his eyes and his stomach recoils, but he knows there’s no food in there to throw up. He’s crying before he realises it, hot tears pouring down his cheeks.
It didn’t matter that Zuko learnt the Dual Dao, how to fight with knives and a bow and arrow and anything he could get his hands on. It doesn’t matter because without firebending, he is nothing.
He is weak.
When Zuko meets Song, he is sure that if she did so much as hold his hand, he would explode at her kindness.
Song is everything he wants to be. She shows him the burn on her leg with sadness, but there is pride underneath. I survived, Zuko thinks she means. I survived, and I will keep surviving.
When Zuko looks at his scar, he is reminded how much his father hates him, how little his country cares about him, and how Ozai never even looked at him if there wasn’t a beating – whether verbal or physical – ready behind it.
He is ashamed but he does not want to be.
“It's different for everyone,” she tells him as she deflects another blow from his knife as they spar. “But I believe that everyone can overcome any trauma that has resulted in scars like ours." Her confidence in her words is almost overwhelming, but Zuko finds himself soaking up every word.
He hasn’t talked about his scar since he got it, when he was stupid and spoke when he should have just stayed quiet. But he spoke, told his father that the war plan was wrong, unethical, but none of that actually mattered because Zuko gave his father the excuse he was looking for.
Ozai wanted Azula to be next in line, and he needed Zuko out of the way.
Usually, talking about his past was a near impossible task. It was shameful, embarrassing. Zuko had missed the obvious signs all because he was blinded by his desperation to prove to his father that he was worth something. He doesn’t realise he’s paused in their sparring until Song is suddenly by his side, one hand gently on his back, rubbing tiny circles.
“It just takes time and patience,” she says, and Zuko finds himself believing her.
“You’re allowed to hate it, and you’re allowed to cry about it,” she says gently.
He takes a deep breath, and her hands never leave him, even if it would be easier for both of them if she did.
Zuko’s never really had a friend before, and he wants to be friends with Song more than anything.
They leave as soon as Iroh has recovered from the poison and Song reaches out her hand slowly, as though he is a frightened animal, but somehow he is not offended by it. Song understands what it’s like, she understands.
Her hand – rough from constant physical labour – holds his good cheek, while she gently runs the other across the scar tissue.
“I believe in you,” she says to him, quietly, for only his ears.
Song is not afraid of him, and he hopes one day, that he can look at himself in the mirror and feel the same.
After meeting Song, everything changes.
He looks at the world around him and wants to cry and scream and rage. These people are suffering, people are burned and die and suffer because of his country and he can’t sit back and do nothing, not now, after what he's seen.
And that’s where it begins.
Iroh teaches Zuko all he knows, tells him how the Siege of Ba Sing Se and the death of his son changed him and how he saw the war. It makes everything a lot harder than it could to be. They could have kept their heads down, stayed off the radar, after all, no one cares about some useless exiles, but people do care about a couple of fugitives on the run from the Fire Nation.
They don’t do anything particularly drastic, with there only being two of them, but it’s enough to get them wanted posters.
Iroh sends him a glance after he and the Earth Kingdome boy, Jet, steal food from the kitchens and feed the refugees on the ship to Ba Sing Se and smiles as Zuko passes his uncle a generously filled bowl and Zuko knows now he's finally doing something right.
And for the first time, when Zuko smiles back he feels like he means it.
Zuko holds the dagger in his hands, the coins in his pocket weighing down on his mind. Iroh had urged him to go and treat himself at the markets and take the afternoon off from serving tea.
He already has several daggers on him – the one his uncle gave him, stored away at his hip, a handmade one in his boot from Song, and one more he found abandoned on his thigh.
He sighs, thinking about the sudden rise in wanted posters of himself and Iroh he’s seen around before their arrival in Ba Sing Se, his sister and her fire, her lightning, her sheer power and his father - and shoves his hands in his pockets to retrieve the coins.
The vendor smiles at him as Zuko presses the cold metal into his hands.
With the people in Zuko’s life, maybe another knife won’t hurt.
Zuko isn’t an idiot, and neither is his uncle.
They’ve spent the last three years learning to blend in. By all means, they are refugees. Nothing special. Zuko knows how to deflect curious questions at his odd colouring that’s hardly Earth with a well-worn story that rolls of Zuko’s tongue as natural as ever.
But the woman in their restaurant stands out like a sore thumb. There’s a lemur on her shoulder, her skin is so clearly Water Zuko nearly double takes and not to mention the traditional Water clothes she’s wearing.
He shoots a glance at Iroh, who shrugs minutely. She’s clearly missed the memo of blending in. If Zuko has learnt anything about Ba Sing Se in the six months they’ve lived here, is that blending in is key.
The Dai Li would be watching her like hawks.
Zuko delivers tea to an elderly couple who thank him more than is really warranted and he bows as politely as he can. He likes those kinds of customers, ones who actually spare the three seconds it takes to say thank you.
He walks over to where the girl is sitting, looking around the tea shop with wide eyes. He’s still not the most approachable person, and Iroh always tells him to be more patient - "this is what customer service is like" - but Zuko has learnt that there’s a difference between being an asshole and kicking people out for being disrespectful.
(He thinks back to the time someone tried to pickpocket a young man standing in line. A large scar went straight down his face through his eye, and it was clear that eye no longer worked. The pickpocket used that to his advantage.
Zuko had spotted the person’s hand slide into the man’s pocket and seen red. He knows what it’s like to have a blind side with his own damaged vision, and the thought of someone taking advantage of someone’s injury with so little regard for the fact that they’re in the lower ring. They’re all poor. They’re all refugees.
Does he regret physically throwing the pickpocket out the door with strict instructions to only steal from people who can afford it? No. No, he does not.)
He realises that she’s mesmerised by the painting on the wall, and carefully moves in her line of sight to get her attention without startling her. She blinks as she focuses on him and smiles softly.
Up close, Zuko can see the lines of exhaustion on her face. He opens his mouth about to ask if he can suggest a particular tea, when the lemur leaps from her shoulder on to Zuko’s own, wrapping his tiny arms around Zuko’s head.
“Oh, uh,” Zuko fumbles with his words, his face heating up. He reaches up to stroke the lemur's fur as he nuzzles into Zuko’s palm and he can’t fight the smile off his face.
The woman jumps up, her face red and arms flailing slightly in desperation. “I’m so sorry,” she says, “Momo get down.”
“it’s okay,” Zuko finds himself saying, surprising himself with his own calm. “He can stay on my shoulders while you’re here?” he tries to phrase the question as gently as possible, he doesn’t want to stress out the strange woman any more than she already is. He makes eye contact with her and naturally eyes are drawn to the left side of his face.
She doesn’t let it linger and she doesn’t react. Zuko takes a subtle breath of relief.
Momo pats his forehead with his small paws, and the woman deflates, nodding along tiredly. “If he bothers you, don’t feel like you have to keep holding onto him.”
“I’m sure it’ll be alright. Can I get you some Jasmine tea?” Truthfully, even after all this time serving tea, Jasmine and Oolong are the only two teas he actually knows anything remotely about and Iroh consistently blames it on Zuko’s preferred obsession over blades.
“Yes please,” she says, resting back on the seat.
Momo clings to his shoulders as he goes back to Iroh to deliver his order, earning him amused glances and poorly hidden chuckles from other people in the shop.
Iroh looks at him, smiling with no inhibitions as he passes Zuko more tea to deliver. “Perhaps, you have made a new friend?”
Zuko shrugs, trying not to jostle the lemur on his shoulders or the tea on the tray.
He won’t get his hopes up.
It becomes a habit for the woman - Katara to come to the tea shop every so often. She still wears her traditional Water Tribe clothing, and sometimes she'll bring her family. It's an odd arrangement. Katara and the others seem to like the tea, and Zuko likes the company and Iroh is always gushing about how Zuko's actually interacting with people his own age which encourages her and her family even more.
The boy - Aang - is staring out the window, despair written all over his face when Zuko finally works up the courage to ask what seems to be the problem. Aang looks up at him, wide eyes suddenly all too hopeful as he tears out a piece of paper from inside his shirt. There's a picture of a flying bison on it and Zuko stares dumbly at it.
"My friend is missing," Aang half yells before Zuko shushes him. "My friend is missing, have you seen him?" he repeats, quieter. Zuko doesn't know how someone can obtain a whole bison, let alone lose a whole bison in a city but... Zuko thinks of the Dai Li that are always watching and thinks about how many questions that would raise, how many questions it's raised for Zuko.
"A flying bison?" Zuko asks, sending a glance at the sheet and then back at the kid's face because there were no flying bison last time he checked.
A fist collides into his arm and Zuko curses, rubbing his arm and glaring down the offending pre-teen. "Yeah, hot stuff," Toph says, she grins at him. "Wanna help us look?"
Zuko takes a deep breath, a million questions floating through his head about these people and their animal companions who were, to Zuko's knowledge, extinct yesterday.
“My nephew would love to,” Iroh says, suddenly materialising behind him and it takes everything in Zuko not to flinch at his sudden appearance.
Iroh’s hands are on his shoulders, and his smile is a little too large, but the kids don’t seem put off by him at all. Zuko wants to feel annoyed at Iroh’s insistence on talking to other people near his age but oddly enough, the thought of never seeing these again is incredibly disheartening.
Zuko tells Katara in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se. There’s no one else except for him and Katara and she wants him to come with them. She wants him to join their group, but he can’t unless they know he is.
He’s been living a double life for so long and every connection he makes feels fake, like a lie because he is not the person that people think he is. They think they’re befriending another refugee, displaced because of the war. Just like them.
Katara stares at him for a long time as the words tumble out of his mouth like a waterfall and he knows he’s ruined it.
He is Fire Nation and it doesn’t matter that Zuko isn’t even a fire bender or that they’re nothing but disgusting traitors in the eyes of his country, it doesn’t matter that the Fire Nation will be doing everything they can to deny his and Iroh’s existence because to these people Zuko is the enemy.
“Why are you out here then?” she asks. “Why are you running from them?” her voice is even and Zuko forces himself to meet her eyes.
“I’m a fugitive,” Zuko says. “They want me dead.”
She nods, seemingly unaffected by Zuko's words and walks closer to him. The air around him is thick with apprehension, enough to make Zuko feel sick and he watches her as she reaches to pull out a damned wanted poster of him.
“I had a suspicion,” she says, holding it up. There’s a soft smile on her face. “I used to think every Fire Nation citizen was the same, all just the enemy, but it’s clear to me know that that view was very simplistic.”
Zuko’s mouth is hanging open and he can’t bring enough co-ordination back into his muscles to do a damned thing about it.
Katara pockets the wanted poster and grins at his shock. “Our offer still stands, if you and your uncle want to join us.”
“Yes,” Zuko says, and for the first time in forever, the decision feels right.