“But if we could go into a wormhole—“
“Sokka, there isn’t a wormhole!”
“I’m just saying theoretically! Like, theoretically if there were a wormhole—“
Zuko was distracted by the extreme levels of noise coming from the corner table. Looking up from preparing a matcha bubble tea, he glared at the pack of teenagers by the window.
“I think there could be a wormhole,” offered the smallest one, a skinny kid with over large eyes and… did he have a tattoo on his head?
“Thank you, Aang!” the loudest one turned to the little one—Aang—with an aggrieved expression. His eyes, Zuko noticed, were very blue. Probably the deepest shade of blue he had ever seen naturally present on a human being.
“Don’t encourage him,” the older girl snapped. She tossed back long, dark brown hair, and Zuko saw that her eyes were very nearly the same color as the boy’s. As Sokka’s he thought.
“Calm down, Sugarqueen,” the younger girl said, slapping her companionably on the back. Zuko saw her flinch. “Sokka’ll burn out. Always does.”
“But not before he drives me crazy,” the girl (she had to be his sister) muttered.
“Forget about the wormholes, Katara,” Aang said, his tone pleading. Big eyes widened at the girl, who huffed and turned away. “I think what we should really talk about is Sokka’s haircut.”
“You like?” Sokka preened, running a hand across one of his shaved sides. “I really considered the lightning bolts, but I thought in the end—“
“I can’t even see this shit,” Toph interrupted. “Who wants more tea?” She retracted her feet from where they had been resting on the edge of the table. They landed on the floor with a much more solid thud than Zuko would have expected from such a tiny person.
Her group shook their heads, and then she was heading towards him.
Zuko whipped around, trying to look busy. He’d finished the bubble tea, and no one had ordered anything else since.
“Hey Princess,” she barked. “Yeah, over here.”
He felt himself snap upright, irritation making him bold. His eyes narrowed as he faced her.
“I need another Dragonwell tea,” she leaned over the counter, and he noticed for the first time that her eyes were slightly milky, their gaze unfocused. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m sort of blind over here, so could you deliver? Oh, and wipe that stupid look off your face. I can feel it from here.” She turned and stalked back to the table, joining in with the conversation easily.
Zuko prepared the tea, trying to repress his anger at her. Still, if she called him ‘Princess’ one more time… He had only started picking up this shift right after school because his uncle wanted him home earlier on school nights. He had to stay late to close tonight, but after that… he hoped that these kids weren’t regulars.
“Zuuuko…” the obnoxious one read his name tag aloud to the table as Zuko set the tea down. “How long have you worked here?”
Although Zuko objectively recognized the tone as friendly, conversational even, he was immediately defensive.
“Since it opened. How long have you been coming here?”
Sokka didn’t seem to take offense, “Since it opened. Haven’t seen you before.”
“I usually work the night shift,” Zuko said aggressively.
“Ah,” Sokka swiped the tea from in front of Toph, clearly trying to sip it nonchalantly. Instead, “HOT, HOT, HOT!!! OW.” He fanned vigorously at his steaming mouth. “Ith ithn’t funny, Aang. Thtop lauthing at me,” he sputtered.
“Hey, don’t you go to school with us?” the older girl’s eyes were sharp. “You’re a senior.”
“My year!” Sokka had recovered enough to beam up at Zuko. “Why don’t I know you?”
“I’m new,” Zuko spat, trying not to prolong the conversation. He wanted so badly to get away from them that it was almost painful. “I have to go,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the back of the shop.
“Oh, ok,” Sokka said, his voice understanding, if a little disappointed. “See you at school!”
“Yeah, sure,” Zuko mumbled. He bolted for the door to the back room, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. Why was simple human interaction so hard?
He stood for a moment in the quiet before it hit him. The entire time he’d been talking to them, he’d been waiting for them to ask about his scar. His fingers drifted upward, trembling to a stop just before they grazed the bottom edge of it. Had they looked at it? Had they been staring? Or had they been politely looking away, not wanting to make him or themselves uncomfortable? That was almost the worst.
He usually noticed… he just about always saw how people reacted. But damn it, something about Sokka’s effortless charm had distracted him, thrown him off. That and those stupid blue eyes his brain supplied unhelpfully.
“Uncle! I’m home!” Zuko let the door slam behind him as he entered. The apartment he shared with his uncle above the shop wasn’t very large, but it was plenty of room for two. Dropping his keys onto the table in the entryway, he stripped off his jacket as he walked into the kitchen. His sneakers squeaked a little on the ceramic tile, and the sound seemed loud in the silent apartment.
“Uncle?” Zuko let out a relieved sigh when he saw Iroh sitting solemnly at the scrubbed kitchen table. “Shall I put the kettle on?” When Iroh nodded, Zuko filled the battered teapot with water and set it on the stove. Iroh insisted that it was kept due to its “sentimental value”. Zuko thought that was a more polite term for “old as shit”.
As the flame leapt from the burner, Zuko felt a small flutter in his chest. Fire hadn’t always been his friend. Turning back to his uncle, it became clear that he hadn’t missed Zuko recoiling from the flame, but he said nothing, continuing to survey Zuko from under tufty silver brows.
Zuko retrieved two cups from the cupboard and moved to sit down next to Iroh. “How was the shop during the day?” he asked quietly. “It was a bit slow this afternoon.” But still plenty loud he thought wryly, remembering the rowdy group of teenagers from before.
“Zuko,” Iroh said, “have you made any friends at school?”
Zuko wasn’t surprised by the question, but it still took him a moment to marshal his response, “I’m not sure I would say that.”
“Ah,” Iroh heaved himself to his feet. The kettle was beginning to whistle, and he bustled around the kitchen, sure hands preparing tea the way they had for decades. “And why do you think that is?”
“I don’t need them,” Zuko said automatically. The words sounded just as unconvincing to his own ears as they must to his uncle’s. He tried again, “I’ve never had many friends. Why does it matter here?”
“You are trying to start a new life,” Iroh explained. “A fresh start would be made all the sweeter by good companionship.”
“Maybe,” Zuko accepted the mug of tea his uncle handed him. His mind flashed unwillingly back to the teenagers (his mind quickly supplied their names: Toph, Sokka, Katara, Aang). They had seemed so happy, so at ease. So normal. “It isn’t exactly easy when all anyone cares about is how I got—you know…” he gestured vaguely at his cheek. He still couldn’t bring himself to just say the words. My scar. It shouldn’t be as hard as it was.
“There are many for whom external appearances are as shallow as they are in truth, nephew,” Iroh said sagely. “In the mean time, should I set up another appointment with Dr. Jee? He seemed to have been a great help to you in the past.”
“Jee is all right,” Zuko admitted. “Fine. If you still think I need a shrink.”
“What your father did to you was inexcusable, Zuko,” Iroh leaned forward, placing his large, square hand over Zuko’s on the table. “That you are still such a good hearted boy speaks more favorably of your character than it does of his parenting. I know you struggle to control your anger, but it is possible that you must first begin to forgive yourself. You have done nothing wrong. Enjoying friendship,” he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, “or even romance, does not make you weak or less deserving of love.”
Zuko glared down into his tea, hating that he could feel the corners of his eyes prickling. He jerked his head in something that he hoped approximated a nod. It must have convinced his uncle, because his hand contracted briefly before disappearing from Zuko’s. There was a great sigh, the sound of Iroh’s chair scraping back, and then the susurrations of his uncle’s robe as he stood.
“I am off to bed, nephew. May you have pleasant dreams,” Zuko didn’t have to be looking at Iroh to recognize the sad smile on his face or the kindness in his eyes as he looked down at him, sitting slumped over the kitchen table.
“G’night,” Zuko muttered. He knew that if he looked up, it would only become worse.
“Good night, Zuko.”