"Shoes for three pieces of copper! Come buy shoes for three pieces of copper!"
"Sir, would you be interested in seeing a theater production of the—?"
"We have clothes in all shapes and sizes! Come right in!"
"Fresh fruit for bargain prices! It's a once in a lifetime opportunity!"
An cacophony of voices rose above the marketplace of the village, as people bartered and tried to lure in customers. Zuko had to constantly resist the urge to turn his head to the left, in order to see what the bandage over his eye was covering. Who knew if there were enemies here, just waiting for a chance to take him out and they'd succeed just because he couldn't see them?
"Calm down, nephew." Iroh remarked form his left side, a hand on Zuko's back to help guide him, lest he walk into something and embarrasses himself. "You have nothing to worry about. If someone attacks, just kick them between the legs."
Iroh chuckled and steered him to the side. "Now, now, don't look so horrified, nephew, it's a perfectly valid attack."
Zuko grit his teeth. "It's cowardice!"
"No attack or defense is cowardice, it's just another way to survive the battlefield." Iroh sounded disturbingly happy talking about it as he continued, "And though you may think an attack like this works only on men, it works quite well on women too!"
"Uncle, do you mean you—?"
"Why, yes, once when I was young and misguided and leading a squad of soldiers, an earthbender took me completely by surprise and it was only through my quick wits—"
"Stop talking! I don't want to hear it!" Zuko sped up in attempt to get away from the crazy old man calling himself his uncle, but alas, Iroh just sped up as well.
Zuko grunted when Iroh's heavy arm fell over his shoulders, feeling his knees almost folding beneath him. Iroh genially said, "It's nothing to be ashamed of! She was quite a beautiful young woman you know, had scars on most of her visible body. A worthy opponent."
Zuko felt a shiver of pure disgust blow through him and it must have showed on his face too, because Iroh burst out laughing beside him. Zuko scowled, a curse on the tip of his tongue and ready to shrug his uncle's arm off of him. Instead he said, "I'm sure she must have been a tough adversary, considering your looks never recovered."
"Oh, ho ho~!" Iroh's arm squeezed him tighter, and they turned another corner, bringing them away from the center of the market. "You're breaking my heart, nephew."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Yes, you might just not survive it, old man."
"How cruel of you, nephew! I'm only fifty-two years old!"
"Right. I believe you, uncle."
"I am! Tell him, Lieutenant Jee!" Iroh demanded, his voice so pathetic nobody would ever believe that this was the famed Dragon of the West.
"Yes." Lieutenant Jee, who was on the other side of Zuko, sounded as serious as he always did. "He is only... fifty-two years old."
Not a word of it sounded believe, said as it was in a completely monotone voice. Zuko rolled his eyes and asked his uncle, "How far?"
To his credit, Iroh didn't waste time asking what he meant, but answered, "Just a few more minutes. We're almost there now, nephew."
"And why do I have to come along?" Zuko scowled, hating the way that he sounded so whiny and ungrateful, but not knowing how to change it.
"Well, a healer needs to take a look at you, at how the wound is healing, and we need more medicine. And we can't very well have the healer come aboard the ship, now can we?" Iroh mused, his gentle tone soothing Zuko's ire as f it were water.
Zuko didn't say anything, and soon they finally arrived at their destination.
The village they were in wasn't actually a village, he knew, it just seemed like it in comparison to how big the Fire Nation Capital was. This was a pretty decent sized town, on the very outskirts of the Fire Nation, and more importantly, it contained a healer that Iroh seemed to consider in high regard. Zuko knew that that meant that this healer was actually skilled and she would probably be able to do much more for him than what just Iroh's field medicine could do. That said, he had been dragged off the ship at five in the morning because they couldn't dock too close to the town, and he was not happy about it.
Only uncle Iroh and lieutenant Jee went with him on this trip to see the mystery healer, despite the fact that they had deliberately added five days to their journey out of Fire Nation waters in order to come here. They were careful to go incognito, so all three of them were dressed in civilian clothes, and Zuko's hair had been let out of its tail in order to give him a younger look.
Personally, he couldn't tell the difference, as there was still a giant burn on his face covered by eye-catching bandages that couldn't be hidden, but Iroh had deemed it acceptable.
The house that they finally stopped in front of didn't look like a healer's office. It was small, only a single floor, and was away from any major streets. It seemed almost hidden, actually, where the entrance was for some reason in an alleyway. Zuko frowned and then hissed when it pulled at something in the wound, but it was only a passing pain. To be honest, he couldn't really feel anything at all from the forming scar-tissue.
Iroh knocked on the wooden door three times in quick succession. While Zuko scowled to make his displeasure known, the door opened. The man behind it looked terrifying. Zuko's brow furrowed in confusion, because the man was heavily muscled and taller than Iroh, a rough beard on his face that was only starting to grey.
"Iroh!" the man burst into a sunny smile, and Zuko stepped back on principle.
Iroh opened his arms wide and cried, "Enkou!"
As Zuko watched on with stunned eyes and his mouth gaping open, Iroh was gathered up in Enkou's arms and spun around in a circle, as if he didn't weigh a thing. He scowled harder, and pressed his lips together harshly. By his side, Lieutenant Jee said, "I wasn't aware General Iroh knew this man so well. It will be of help."
Zuko said nothing.
Finally, the two let go of each other and Enkou stepped back. Iroh waved at Zuko and involuntarily, Zuko walked into the house, expecting it to look like a mess. In spite of his expectations, the inside of the house was hardly cluttered with anything at all. There was a an open doorway that lead into the right side of the house, and a closed one that lead left. Enkou lead the way to the right side, where he splayed out his hands as if he to say "Behold!". Zuko stalked into it and found himself standing in a far more modern healer's den than he had expected.
Enkou's gruff voice sounded from behind him, "Sit down, boy, sit down."
Zuko did as he said, sitting down on a bed in the corner of the room. He stared with challenging eyes at Enkou. "Where is the healer?"
"HAHAHA!" Enkou burst out into loud laughter, his whole body shaking from the force of it. He sounded genuinely amused as he answered, "I am, boy! The great Enkou shall heal you!"
He continued laughing for a whole minute. Zuko counted.
Scowling, Zuko looked over to his uncle for help. Iroh just stared at him with an amused expression on his face, while Jee stood by his uncle's side with his arms crossed. Zuko was clearly not getting any support from there.
He sighed. "Get started, will you."
"Good, good!" Enkou's voice boomed through the building. Zuko was surprised that they hadn't heard him before they entered. "You are prepared!"
Enkou unwound the bandages around his head and the large pressing against his eye. Zuko squinted a little at how uncomfortable they were, and kept his wounded eye shut. Enkou leaned in closer, and from the corner of his right eye Zuko could vaguely see that he looked serious. No more of that obnoxious smile, which at least meant that he had a professional attitude about his job. That was something, at least.
"It's not infected." Enkou finally declared.
Zuko heard his uncle breathe out in a large gust of wind, and he clenched his hands tightly. He had made such a mess of things for Iroh, and now his uncle was here, about to go into exile along with Zuko voluntarily, and still he sounded so relieved. It made Zuko feel wretched inside, like a stone sat in the pit of his stomach, to know what a burden he was to his uncle.
Enkou patted him on the shoulder. "I'm going to get you the ointment I've prepared. You need to put in on the burn three times a day."
"How long?" Iroh asked.
Enkou stood up straight. "I'd say at least six months, if not more. Come back then and I'll take another look at it."
Iroh sighed, and Zuko looked over at his uncle. He looked tired, where he stood with his head bent and his shoulders slouching.
"I wish there was more I could do, old friend." Enkou put a comforting hand on Iroh's shoulder.
Iroh shook his head. "You've done more than enough."
"No, I haven't." Enkou smiled brightly. "But I've taken the liberty of gathering more bandages and dressings for the wound for you!"
Enkou went on over to another corner of the room, and opened up a large trunk. "See?" he asked with his chest puffed out. "This is more than enough to last you six months!"
Iroh's eyes widened and he said somberly, "Thank you, old friend."
Enkou smiled back, and Zuko thought there was something passing between them that he wasn't privy to. Then Enkou grabbed a tray from the desk at the center of the room and walked back over to Zuko. As he approached, Zuko could see that the tray was loaded with medical supplies—a glass jar that he guessed contained the aforementioned ointment and a whole bunch of clean bandages.
Zuko kept his head as still as the man first spread the ointment with gentle hands all over the burn, and then put the dressing and bandages on. Finally, he secured the bandages with a small clasp at the back of his head, so they wouldn't accidentally fall off.
"There we go." Enkou smiled at him, kindlier than his appearance would suggest. "All done! You can get up now!"
Zuko jumped off the bed and only stumbled for a quick second before he rightened himself. He still wasn't used to seeing out of only one eye. There was a lack of depth that meant that he often walked into things or tripped over uneven grounds. Still, he was determined that he would master it.
He walked over to his uncle and stood next to him. Meanwhile, Jee gathered up the chest with a single heave and prepared to leave with them. Iron handed over some money to Enkou and while Zuko lingered in the doorway, he saw them whispering to each other. They were too far away and being too quiet for him to hear them, though. Still, from the way that they stole glances at him, he guessed that it was him that they were whispering so secretly about.
As they left, Iroh gave Enkou one last hug and a tearful, "Till next time, old friend!"
Zuko was sure that the sappiness was just played up to get his mind off of other, more sinister, things.
That didn't mean that it wasn't effective.
Scowling again at the thoughts his mind was full of, Zuko pressed a hand over the bandages. He couldn't feel anything of it, not the pressure of his hand, not the pain that should be the result of such or the shape of his hand. It was as if he had lost sensation in the whole area, which was not something that he had ever known could be a consequence of scarring before.
They walked back through the market in order to return to their ship. It was the fastest way, and none of them wanted to be stuck here longer than necessary.
Father hadn't been shy about what would happen if they didn't leave Fire Nation waters in time.
On the way back through the market, Zuko relaxed a little, just the tiniest bit, as nothing happened. They had gotten their wares and been giving a medical opinion by a professional, which meant that uncle could finally stop worrying so much. Zuko felt his shoulders relaxing just a little bit from how tightly wound they had been ever since he had stepped off the ship this morning, and he permitted himself to look more closely at the people that they passed by.
At first, he hadn't paid them anymore attention necessary than to determine that they weren't a threat, but now he took the time. They walked with their heads held high, their backs straights and a proud bearing in their shoulders. Yet, they also constantly looked around themselves, as if they didn't trust the people they were living next to. They talked and smiled, but they never really laughed. They played games and held contests, but Zuko never saw anyone win. The children ran wild on the streets, but no-one ever complained about them.
They were grimy, their clothes more tattered and worn than he had first seen. The most attention Zuko got wasn't for the wrapping around half his head, but for the clothes he was wearing.
"Uncle, why are they...?" he grimaced when he didn't know what to say next.
Thankfully, Iroh seemed to know what he meant, as he answered, "War affects everybody, Zuko. Even the country that's winning. A one-hundred year long war even more so."
"Oh." Zuko lowered his gaze and fell silent.
He supposed it was stupid of him to think that the Fire Nation was somehow less affected by the war than the other nations. Really, it only made sense that they had. He was always so stupid, never thinking far enough ahead.
He felt uncle's arm get thrown over his shoulders. He grunted, and listened as Iroh stated, "It's nothing to be ashamed of, nephew. I know that that's not Ozai's focus on your lessons."
Zuko didn't respond.
He tore himself out from under uncle's arm and stalked ahead, a glare forming on his face. He didn't want to think about his father. It hurt enough that he had left Azula behind, he didn't want to think about the pain that father had caused him too—he didn't want to remember the smell of his own flesh burning.
He could feel a ball of rage (a ball of quiet hurts and silent agony) forming in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't be around uncle when he felt like this, as if he was one step away form imploding. He wanted to scream and cry and beg his father to please, please just take him back. He would be quiet, he would never say another word, never go to another war meeting, just let him go back.
Zuko scowled, his stomach twisting into knots, and ignored the cries of his uncle as he sped away from him and lieutenant Jee. He didn't know where he was going, and he didn't care. He just needed to get away, before he showed his shame to uncle.
Eventually, he stopped his furious walking.
For some reason, he found himself in an alleyway.
Zuko groaned, burrowing his head into his arms, sitting on the ground and leaning against a dirty wall. He wasn't sure how he had gotten here. He wasn't sure where here was. How was he supposed to find his way to the ship now? No, uncle and Jee would be leaving pretty big tracks carrying that large trunk, all he had to do was find where the path was. But how was he supposed to find his way back there? This village looked the same in all directions, a typical outpost. There were no landmarks that he could use, not when the houses were all the same size, the same color, the same everything. Even the general layout was the same everywhere.
He grit his teeth again and banged his head back against the wall, shame filling him. He was so stupid! Why would he think that walking away like that would help? He was just going to make uncle more worried about him, and his uncle had finally calmed down a little from the seeing the healer.
Zuko scowled, glaring at him his own hands as he sat up straighter. He could see the tiniest little shakings in them, the tiniest little clues that he wasn't as okay as he wanted his uncle to believe.
He hated it.
Something fell on the ground at the edge of the alley. Zuko looked up sharply, then grimaced when he realized that he couldn't see anything. It was on his blindside. He turned his head and stared at the figure that met his sight.
A girl, filthy and looking no older than ten, stared back at him. She had large brown eyes, a mess of black hair that fell like a mane sound her shoulders, messy and dirty, clumped together with mud and dirt. Her clothes were more worn than he had seen so far in this tiny village, almost every inch of it patched up with different fabric. If someone told him it had been made from a bunch of different clothes and pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, he would believe them.
She stared at him with wide, shocked eyes. Then she straightened her back and walked a few steps further into the alley. The further in she walked, the better he could see her, and as she approached him, he could see that her entire right arm was a patchwork of scars, burn scars specifically.
"Hello." she said when she was no more than a meter away from him.
Zuko stared back at her. He watched her gulp, he could see the unease in her eyes, yet she stayed stubbornly close. He narrowed his eyes and scowled at her. "Go away."
"Are you new?" she asked, and settled down on the ground with no regard for the dirt. She sat crosslegged and her wide eyes were a dichotomy, full of innocence and wariness at the same time.
Or maybe just innocence. Reading people had never been his strong point.
"Go away." he repeated and turned his face away from her.
He heard her sigh, and then he felt her settle next to him. He felt her shoulder touching his arm, and he didn't move away. Why didn't he move away?
She leaned her head on his shoulder. "My name is Chou. What's yours?"
Zuko kept his mouth shut, his only useful eye left staring at the wall opposite him. He couldn't tell her his actual name. He would never be able to use his actual name for the duration of his exile. In the Fire Nation, it was a oneway ticket to getting his ass handed to him and booted out of the country. In any other place, it was a oneway ticket to prison and probable ransom, unless they decided to just kill him first. Iroh had made sure that he knew how serious the subject was, how he couldn't ever let anyone know his name, especially when he was alone.
"Are you going to stay long?" Chou asked, her voice sounding tired.
Zuko grunted. "No. I'm leaving as soon as possible."
"Okay." he felt her nod against him.
Silence settled over them. Zuko could only take it for a few minutes before he started fidgeting, a need to do something smothering him. And he needed to make it back to the ship, before uncle launched a full-scale assault on the village in the name of finding him. He jostled the girl as he got his feet under him and rose from his seat. He hissed as his legs shivered under him, apparently having fallen asleep.
When he looked back, he could see the girl staring back at him with tired eyes. She frowned at him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm finding my ship."
She peered up at him. "Are you going to fight in the war again?"
"I—" he stopped himself. He hadn't fought in the war, so why would she think he had? No, he knew the answer. It was the bandages, and the very obvious scarring that must be behind them. And he honestly couldn't say that it was impossible, because boys younger than him had gone to fight in the war. That's what happens when your whole military keeps dying because the war has been going on for too long.
And technically, maybe he had been at war. A war to get his father to like him. To get his father to be proud of him.
(And he had lost.)
He shook his head. "I'm not going to war. I'm leaving the Fire Nation."
He didn't say that he desperately didn't want to leave. That he would do anything to be allowed to stay. That all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they were, before. Before, when his mother was still with them. Before, when Azulon was still Fire Lord and father couldn't just banish him.
Before, when somebody wanted him.
She tilted her head. "That's okay, too. My mother says running away is always a good option."
Zuko kept in the words that wanted to leave his throat. He wasn't running away. He was being chased away. There was a difference.
He growled, and walked away. Leaving the alley was easy, but orienting himself was harder, when everything was so identical. He frowned and tried his best to make out where he was, but he couldn't recognize it. If he went to the market he would at least have an idea of where to go, what with all the stalls selling different things, but he didn't even know how to get back there.
"Where are you going?"
"To the market."
He heard her hum. "I'll take you there."
Zuko found himself following her, knowing full well that he had no better option.
Soon, after walking through many, many alleys rather than any proper streets, they arrived back at the marketplace. Zuko scowled and let go of the girl's hand, ignoring the pouting look that she gave him in response. He stalked through the streets and passed the many stalls, looking them over until he saw some that he recognized.
He stopped walking when he realized that he could find his own way back. Scowling, he turned to face the girl. "Here." he said and held out a silver coin bearing the national emblem.
"For me?" she asked, almost stuttering.
Zuko scowled harder. "I am not dishonorable."
She gripped the coin harshly, her fist curling tightly around it and breathed out, "Thank you."
Zuko nodded. "Good. Then I'm going now. Good day."
He felt like slapping himself. Where were his social skills? He was a prince, he was supposed to be smoother than this!
He nodded to her again and walked away. Soon, he was back at the path where they had entered, a forest waiting for him. He could see the footsteps of his uncle and lieutenant Jee, and breathed out in relief knowing he was going in the right direction. Soon, he was back at the ship where his worried uncle waited anxiously for him.
He didn't give the village any more thought.