The scar isn’t nearly as bad as everyone says it was. Spirits, what a fucking prick, Zuko thinks, breathing in the cool night air to get rid of the taste of the nasty ass champagne he still has on his tongue.
Now that he’s outside, he doesn’t really know where to go. He cleared his sparse schedule for this dumb party, and Mai’s out of town on Business. Whatever that means. He sighs, stomps over to the staircase that juts out over the side of the incline the noble’s house is on, and sits down hard.
If he squints hard enough, he can almost see the ocean from here. Maybe. It’s dark, so it’s hard to tell.
Nobles and their bullshit and their shady Earth Kingdom real estate shit. He wonders how bad everyone said his scar was. He wonders if anyone at the party was there, at the Agni Kai. He supposes the scar would seem worse to people who were actually there, actually saw the burn happen. He decides not to care about it, no matter how oddly vulnerable the idea makes him feel. Fuck the real estate guy.
He hears the door open and close around the corner, and breathes out to calm himself the fuck down. Hears footsteps approaching, and braces himself for whatever snarky bullshit Azula has to say. It doesn’t come. Instead, he hears her crouch down beside him.
“Here,” someone says - not Azula he registers, and turns his head to blink. At Ty Lee, apparently.
Ty Lee tilts her head at him and smiles, a little amused.
“Here,” she says again, and she holds out a glass, offering, “Thought you might not‘ve had the chance to grab any on your way out.”
He blinks down at the cup, “What is it?” he asks even as he takes it, and doesn’t wait for an answer before he brings it to his lips. Warm, familiar flavor explodes in his mouth, and he resolutely does not gasp. Sake. Where the fuck were they hiding this?
“Shit,” he breathes, “Where the fuck were they hiding this?”
“It was back at the table near that weird statue.”
“The freaky mountain spirit one?”
“With all the eyes? Yeah.”
“Yeah, I didn’t go over there.” He thinks there must’ve been another party here, once, when he was younger, because he remembers staring up at that freaky ass statue and feeling like it was staring back at him. Azula had told him if he stared too long, it would think he was being rude and it would follow him home. Azula always lies, but fuck if he hadn’t believed her then.
“I don’t blame you. I know it isn’t, like, alive, but its aura gives me the creeps.”
“How does it have an aura if it’s not alive.”
“I don't know. That’s why it gives me the creeps!” Ty Lee says loudly, voice echoing over the hill. He wonders vaguely if anyone inside heard her.
“Weird,” he says, and takes another sip. “Spirits,” he breathes, “I haven’t had sake in literally years.”
Not that he was supposed to have had any before he came of age, but what Mother and Uncle didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, he and Azula passing a jar back and forth down on the Ember Island beach or sneaking a glass or two at parties.
“Me either,” Ty Lee says with a wistful sigh, “They just don’t make it right anywhere else but here.”
Zuko tilts his head in agreement, “They had some at a few of the ports we stopped at, but it was never the same.” he looks at her, and the cup, and decides not to be suspicious, “Thanks,” he offers, because, contrary to what the nobles think of him, his mother did teach him manners.
Ty Lee shoots him another smile, “You’re welcome.”
He wonders if this is strange, Ty Lee bringing him a drink and acting like they’re friends. Thinks it might be out-of-character, before he remembers that he hasn’t held a conversation with her since they were children - and even then, Azula was usually there, too, and there’s never much room to make conversation when Azula is there - so he doesn’t know what out-of-character for her would even look like. Now that he thinks about it, he can’t remember if they’d actually ever even held a conversation to begin with.
“I heard what that noble said,” Ty Lee starts when he doesn’t say anything else, a bit hesitant but not hesitant enough to not fucking say it.
Zuko snorts, “Which part of it?”
“All of it,” she admits, “But mostly the…”
“The scar part?” he fills in bluntly. He’s had enough dancing around shit, all the stilted conversation he’s been forced to have with the aristocrats, to last a fucking lifetime. Things were never this difficult in exile, not even back at the tea shop where he had to ‘be polite to the customers, nephew, we do want them to come back’. And thinking about the tea shop just makes him feel even more like shit, so he takes another sip of sake.
“Yeah,” Ty Lee nods, “The scar part.”
Zuko shrugs, “I’ve heard worse. He was actually quite polite about it.”
Ty Lee breathes out something like a laugh; he’s never heard her sound quite so tired before, and he feels it. Feels her fatigue like it’s something he can pick up. He can’t imagine Azula’s been easy to deal with - he can’t imagine being her friend to begin with. Doesn’t want to imagine it.
“Azula talked to him afterwards,” she says, “I don’t know what she said, but he looked terrified. He left, right after.”
That surprises him - not that the man had looked terrified, but that Azula had… done whatever it is she did.
“Did Azula send you out here?” he asks.
“No,” she answers, and doesn’t seem offended that he asked. He doesn’t know if he believes her or not, and decides that it doesn’t matter.
Zuko remembers how fucking furious Azula was when she found out Ty Lee had run off to join the circus without telling her about it (“She probably didn’t tell you about it because you would’ve stopped her from going,” he remembers telling her, feeling vicious that day because Azula had finally lost something, too. She had looked at him like she wanted to roast him alive, and his sheets had caught on fire two nights later.) He can’t imagine that it was a nice reunion, however it had gone.
It hadn’t been a nice reunion for him, either.
(Azula had spit on her name, whenever it was brought up - which wasn’t much, after that first time; it was almost like Mother all over again, the way everyone pretended she’d never been here to begin with - called her a traitor and said that if she wanted to throw her life away and run around with animals and freaks, that was her own damn business. Mai had said nothing about it, because Zuko hadn’t asked her. He doubted she would’ve said anything even if he had asked. As it was, though, he didn’t, and so neither did she.)
“What was it like?” Ty Lee asks, out of the blue. He doesn’t jump, but he does startle a little bit. He feels the sake slosh over his wrist a little bit, and laments the loss.
“Y’know, in exile? On your ship?”
Zuko blinks at her, and isn’t that shocked that she’s asking outright, where nobody else has had the guts to. Ty Lee, with her Chi Blocking and her frilly circus shit, has always been bold. He thinks that might be part of why Azula liked her so much - likes her, still, enough to track her down and bring her back.
“C’mon,” she says when he’s silent for a moment, “It must’ve been exciting.”
That’s one word for it. He decides, for once, not to be mean about it; Ty Lee isn’t bad just because she’s friends with Azula. And she did bring him sake.
He shrugs, letting out a long breath, “Not really. My ship was tiny, compared to standard warships. The kitchen was small; the pipes always leaked and the heater gave out every single winter, no matter how many times we fixed it. It was such a shit hole. Some fucking pirates blew it up.”
“Pirates!” Ty Lee says loudly, like it’s the most exciting thing she’s ever heard, “Wow, I didn’t know those existed outside of plays!”
Despite himself, Zuko can’t help but feel a strange sense of endearment. He hasn’t seen Ty Lee in years, and she was helping his sister literally hunt him down across the earth kingdom a few months ago, but she’s still so similar to the kid he remembers, if a little vaguely. Spirits, it’s been such a long time since they were kids. He wonders if he’s anything like she remembers, or if he’s changed as much as the nobles and servants like to say he has.
“They’re not all that exciting, either.” He promises.
They lapse into a vaguely comfortable silence. It’s almost odd, the way Ty Lee sits quiet and still; he’s used to seeing her always moving, always filling the space around her. He crosses his legs, feet swinging over the step, and takes a sip from his cup.
“Do you miss it?” Ty Lee asks suddenly; Zuko glances over at her, and finds that she’s looking out over the hill. He wonders if she can see the ocean, too.
She shrugs, “I dunno, just — being out there? Away from all this, doing whatever you want, going wherever you want.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Zuko says, and wants to laugh — does laugh, if that’s what you could call it, a harsh huff of breath, bitter, “I wasn’t on vacation; I was in exile. I couldn’t do what I wanted, because I wanted to come back.”
Ty Lee hums thoughtfully, “Sorry,” she says softly, “It’s just... that’s why I left, you know?”
“Ran off and joined the circus?” he offers. He remembers how deeply sad Azula had been, underneath all her anger.
She smiles, brief, “Yeah. I wanted to get away from it all. I don’t think I would’ve been all that sad if I could never come back.”
“But you did come back.”
“Azula asked me to,” she says simply, matter of fact. Zuko understands.
“If it’s any consolation,” he says, “I gladly would’ve given you my exile sentence if you really wanted it that bad.”
He wasn’t trying to be funny, but Ty Lee laughs softly into her cup anyways. “I can’t imagine you joining the circus.”
“I never said I would have.”
“What would you have done, then, if you could run away the way you want to?”
He almost says I never wanted to run away. Thinks about the spaces his mother and cousin left and the space his father and sister filled.
“I don’t know,” he says thoughtfully; slowly, and the night is dark and the party was shitty and Ty Lee brought him sake, “I think maybe I would’ve liked to look for my mother.”
He hasn’t thought about it in years, and is surprised he’s thinking about it now, with fucking Ty Lee of all people. It must be the sake, he decides, flowing light and airy through his veins, warm and calm.
Ty Lee doesn’t say anything for a long moment.
“The ocean’s always sounded nice. I think I would’ve liked it.”
“The ocean was a bitch,” Zuko answers, “It tried to kill me, after all that time we spent together.”
Ty Lee laughs for real now, and it’s nothing like he’s heard her sound when she’s talking to boys, or girls, or nobles, giggling at whatever they say.
“Spirits, Azula was right — you never used to swear this much.”
He’s briefly off-put by the idea of Azula talking about him in any capacity. Then he gets over it and scoffs.
“I spent three years alone with a bunch of sailors. That’s all they know how to do.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. Better than circus animals — those don’t even know how to talk! All they do is growl and, like, eat. Perform a few tricks.”
“No,” Zuko says decisively, “That sounds about right.”
Ty Lee smiles, and Zuko downs the rest of his cup.
“Doesn’t sound too bad,” she says again.
Sound better than this, he hears, better than here. Even after all this time, after everything he’s done to get back here — maybe because of everything he’s done — he finds that he almost agrees with her. He remembers watching his little shit hole of a ship burning. Vaguely, he thinks that maybe, just a little bit, he misses it.
“No,” he says, finally, “I guess it wasn’t.”
He sips at his sake, and decides he doesn’t have much else to say.