Looking Glass Wars
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: AU, Spoilers up to Season Three
AN: For AtLA Land's bingo card writing challenge. Prompt was "Zuko."
Featuring a more cunning Zuko. One who is clearly related to Ozai and Azula but also Iroh, too.
Years later, he still isn't entirely sure how he makes it out of the Fire Nation. His face is recognizable, yes. But only in a distant sort of way. No one outside of the palace and the highest nobles has ever even seen him, much less spoken to him in more than passing. Up until a few months ago, he was just a spare. A prince who no one honestly thought would ever inherit. And with Azula as a sister, he wasn't worth the effort of noticing.
It isn't hard at all to head down to the harbor before dawn and sneak aboard one of the boats going to a different island. Nor is it hard to jump to another boat and another island once there. A week later and a sob story about being sent alone to relatives in the colonies get him a one way ticket on a ship bound for the Earth Kingdom.
Still, it's entirely too easy. Too simple when nothing in his life ever is. Almost like some spirit has finally decided to smile upon him. It only makes him suspicious where he wouldn't have been earlier. Before. When he still had his mother to protect him, his uncle was still fighting, and Lu Ten was still alive. Before a series of near fatal accidents. Before he nearly lost his eye in a supposedly friendly sparring match.
Before he heard his father and his sister plotting his murder with smiles and laughter.
Now, paranoia is his only friend. He questions everything. Every bit of luck. Every hint of chance or danger. Every lingering glance from strangers.
He has money. Enough to last awhile but not indefinitely. Azula and his father were too busy gloating, too busy plotting his untimely death to notice how much he managed to acquire. He's done enough sneaking around to know exactly where the coffers are and how to get inside without being noticed.
It's just as simple to plan the rest of his escape, but even then, he doesn't breathe easier until his foot touches the dock. For a few seconds, he stands there and allows himself to relax before hurrying on.
Only, Zuko has nowhere to go. No real destination in mind aside from going as far away as humanly possible. He hasn't even considered too far beyond surviving. Beyond fleeing as fast and as far as he can. And now, that's coming back to bite him.
He's ten years old. He's alone. He's afraid.
But he's alive, which is more than he'd be if he stayed. Zuko is alive.
He's also a prince of Sozin's line. He might not be Azula, but he can be cunning and clever and even manipulative when needed. The fact that his life depends on it has only improved his learning curve. He can't afford to lose his temper or to be careless. At best, he'd be killed outright. At worst… well, they can make him suffer a long, long time.
It takes him the rest of the day to find somewhere to stay. The woman who takes him in is old enough to be his grandmother. Her children are long grown, and her husband serves in the military. She's lonely. She thinks that he's an orphan named Lee. It isn't hard to convince her of his sincerity. He just offers a smile that wouldn't be out of place on Azula when she's pretending innocence and tries not to squirm with guilt every time she looks at him.
She doesn't care that he's a bender; it's the colonies after all; there are benders a plenty. His dao get a few raised eyebrows, especially when she catches him training. But she says nothing. Just content to have someone around her otherwise empty house.
He stays for a few months, playing the part of the dutiful would-be grandchild, before she receives notice that her husband's coming home. He's retiring. He's planning to stay.
Zuko knows that it's time to go. Two is plenty; three's a crowd. She's making noises of sending him to a proper school, of adopting him even. Besides, a colonel in the army has too much of a chance of recognizing the tragically missing prince.
So young, so innocent. Probably kidnapped, the neighbors all whisper. Enemies of the royal family have done him in.
Zuko is eleven. He leaves her house two days before her husband is scheduled to come back and walks out the gates of the city without looking back. The next colony isn't that far away.
The same story, the same routine, different name. This time, he stays with a widow. It isn't as hard now. She's older, a little senile. Within a few weeks, she really believes that he's her grandson come to stay with her. It doesn't hurt that there's a vague resemblance or that she's a bender, too. Her husband's pension is more than enough to support them both and for Zuko to put some of it aside. She doesn't even notice the difference. Nor does she notice that he doesn't go to school, that he teaches himself or learns from whoever he finds willing to teach him. She just watches him practice his bending and his swordplay with a vague smile from the kitchen window.
Zuko is twelve, nearly thirteen when she dies of an illness. He's still not old enough to live on his own without comment, however. He simply sells her house, contents and all, to the first buyer he can find and makes up a story about going to stay with family. He's out of there within three days of her funeral and on to the next colony inside of a week.
He tries a slightly different strategy there. A man this time, elderly and all but blind. Retired navy. He reminds Zuko of his uncle in some ways and of his father in others. He teaches Zuko how to meditate in the middle of a battlefield, how to fight dirty, and how to win even against a bender or opponent of superior skill. Then, they have tea and work in the garden until dusk while talking about philosophy. Some of Zuko's answers make him pause ever so slightly, make the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.
He gives Zuko a pai sho tile with a white lotus blossom for his fourteenth birthday and teaches him the most important lesson he'll ever learn. The old man already knows that he's dying by then; his vision is completely gone, and he has headaches that last for days. He dictates instructions on his death bed and makes Zuko repeat them back twice just to be sure they're correct.
The day after he dies, Zuko walks to a little bar tucked away in an unnoticed corner of town. He joins a pai sho game, wins, and is then challenged by the owner. The middle-aged woman just lifts one eyebrow as he sets his pieces in place and grins as they start to play.
Zuko spends the next two years traveling all over the colonies and throughout the continent. He's the perfect messenger, the perfect courier. Too young to be seen as a threat but not young enough to draw attention. He can blend in, defend himself, and travel on his own without problem. He doesn't look like a Fire Nation prince or an Earth Kingdom refugee or even himself anymore.
He's Lee and Mushi and even a boy named Kuzon. He hasn't used his real name since he fled the palace.
He spends his time traveling, delivering, and growing up. Zuko turns fifteen and watches Fire Nation soldiers burn a village to the ground as the people flee for their lives. He becomes sixteen to the sight of Earth Kingdom nobles snubbing their noses at peasants starving in the streets. He learns more about people and war and death in those two years than his entire lifetime before.
He hears rumors and passes some on. A few, he keeps for himself.
His father and sister are still alive, and Azula is the confirmed heir. His mother hasn't been seen since before he left and is presumed dead, but his uncle is said to be travelling the world on a mission of sorts.
Zuko debates going to find him. Iroh's probably the only person from his former life that he'd actually want to see, but he doesn't know how to explain his disappearance. Doesn't know how to tell his uncle that his own father wanted him dead and out of the way. Doesn't know how to say that he thinks the war is wrong, that they shouldn't be fighting it anymore or even at all. That he's joined an organization that actively works against the nation of his birth.
And really, even more than that, Zuko is afraid. Scared that his uncle won't want to see him. Frightened that he might force him back to the Fire Nation. Afraid that he'll side with Azula and Ozai. That he'll hate Zuko, too.
He spends most of those two years fighting himself on the last point, and he's still trying to build up the nerve to decide once and for all when he receives a message that could change the world itself. One so important that he's to personally take it to the head of his order.
The Avatar has been found. The Avatar is alive. The Avatar is twelve years old and an idiot. At least, that's what Master Jeong Jeong claims; Master Pakku only concurs.
Zuko just rolls his eyes at their words and tucks the papers into an inside pocket. Even if he silently hopes never to have to meet this kid in person.
His destination is a quiet, occupied city in the Earth Kingdom. It's set on a hill above a harbor, and Zuko can smell the salt on the air as he enters the meeting place through a window. He supposes that he could've used the front door; it's one of their safe houses after all. But given what he's carrying, the fewer people who see him, the better for them all. And Zuko doesn't feel the least bit guilty as he ghosts through the hallways and slips inside a nondescript door without knocking.
A man's back is to him as he enters, but Zuko knows that he's already aware of his visitor. He keeps preparing tea all the same like he doesn't have a care in the world beyond that or perhaps his next meal. He is more than a little rotund after all. Not to mention short. His grey hair is pulled up in typical Fire Nation style, but that doesn't tell Zuko much in the seconds it takes him to move to the middle of the room.
Still, there's a vague sense of familiarity. Of recognition. As though they've met before.
Zuko puzzles over that as the man greets him pleasantly and waves for him to take a seat. Both without turning around. Zuko does if only because he's travelled with little to no rest for the last week and the tea smells fantastic. He sits and pulls his hood back in the same moment that the man turns around. Their eyes meet then, and there's a moment of complete and utter silence as they stare at each other.
Then, he hears a gasp and the shatter of tea tray on the floor. That's followed by a word he hasn't heard in ages. Hasn't be called in six years.
Zuko hasn't used his real name in all that time. But he's never forgotten who he is. He's never forgotten his mother or his cousin or his uncle. He's never forgotten that he loved them – and loves them still – or that they once felt the same. And were it anyone else before him, Zuko would already be on his feet and heading for the door.
Instead, he moves without thinking and meets Iroh's embrace halfway.
AN: There's a slight shout-out to my favorite author in here. Bonus points if you catch it.