It was an interesting experience, to be Fire Lord with no riches or palace. Zuko had left that all behind for one important last adventure. He had been traveling for months on end in the Earth Kingdom, keeping his identity a secret. After he withdrew his support of the Harmony Restoration Movement, a lot of people were angry with him. Things had calmed down a bit once he, Aang, and Kuei had reached an agreement, but there was a little too much animosity in the Earth Kingdom for the Fire Lord to travel it openly, especially without an escort. Suki had been reluctant to let him go, but understood how important this was to him, and had accepted his decision to go alone. Mai, on the other hand, would require a certain amount of groveling before she forgave him for leaving her again to go roaming around. He would grovel when he returned, with his prize.
The sun was hot, bearing down on his back and shoulders as it was, and Zuko ached with hunger and thirst. Perhaps, he mused, he should have brought more than the meager supply of coins that he did, but in the spirit of traveling incognito… He had managed. Barely. His hair was loose, falling in his eyes and framing his narrow face, and he hadn't had the opportunity to shave in a few weeks, leaving him with a light dusting of black hair across his jaw. He hated it, but it helped him blend in. There was nothing he could do about his burn scar, but many people his age had scars from the war. Once the soldiers returned home, scars like his were practically the norm. He had abandoned the grey and red and gold clothing of his homeland for the more boring tan and yellow and green of the Earth Kingdom. The only allowance he had given himself was a pair of worn leather boots in his homeland's black instead of the earthy brown. He had wandered the world in these tattered boots. He would wear them to do it again. He looked, though, like an Earth Kingdom vagabond, and had lost what little weight he had managed to put on during his two years as Fire Lord. He looked terrible, he knew.
He stopped at a tea shop and sat down, counting the coins he had left. "Lin, you have a customer!" The owner of the teashop shouted. Zuko didn't look at the waitress when she walked up.
"Don't bother. I don't have enough."
"I think I can find something for you." That voice.
Zuko looked up, staring into the kind eyes of his mother. "I… I…" This was it. His search was over.
"You poor dear. You look half starved, and what happened to you?" Ursa reached out and touched his scar, her face alight with concern.
She doesn't recognize me. "It's a burn scar." Zuko jerked away from her hand, dizzy and nauseous and exhausted. The world went black.
Zuko woke up to a damp cloth bathing his face, freezing cold and wrapped in blankets. A pair of big green eyes stared at him and he jerked away from them. A gentle hand was placed on his shoulder. "Shh, it's okay. Relax. You're running a high fever, poor thing."
"You passed out." The green eyes were attached to a boy, maybe ten or eleven. "Mom brought you home to take care of you."
"Ryoku isn't really my son." Ursa said quietly. "But the war took his mother and father. I'm all he has."
Zuko turned his head to look again at the boy, this tiny little thing that needed his mother now. Ryoku had eyes that were as emerald as Zuko's were gold, and his brown hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. The child looked almost just like him at that age. "What's your name?" Ryoku asked eagerly.
"My name?" Zuko stared at the boy, this younger version of himself. If he revealed himself, this boy who still needed a mother would lose the only person he had. Ursa didn't need him anymore. Perhaps she never had. But this Earth Kingdom whelp needed Ursa. "It's Li." He sat up, despite Ursa's attempt to push him back down. "I have to go."
"You're not going anywhere. Didn't I tell you that you're ill?"
"Lay down, Zuko!" Ursa ordered. Zuko's eyes widened.
"What?" Hope and guilt swirled in his chest.
"Li, I'm sorry. You look so much like my son."
"The Fire Lord?" Ryoku asked, staring at Zuko. "You're the Fire Lord?"
"No, he's not. He just looks like him." Ursa said quietly. "I apologize, Li. Please, don't tell anyone about this. If the wrong person found out…"
"They would likely try to use you as bait for Zuko. You're trying to protect him, even after everything he's done…" She's trying to protect me...
"My son has made some mistakes, but he is a good Fire Lord and a wonderful person!" Ursa said angrily. "I'm proud of my son!"
"… Okay then. I'll keep your secret." She's proud of me! "I think that the Fire Lord has done what he judged to be right."
Ursa nodded. "Thank you, Li. Thank you for understanding, and for keeping his secret. Go back to sleep. You need your rest."
Zuko fell asleep, happy knowing that his mother was proud of him. He woke up maybe a few hours later, to her hand under his head, supporting weight he felt too weak to lift and giving him some water. He was desperately thirsty, but he made no effort to take control. It felt too good to let his mother take care of him. For the last time.
When the tears came, they hit him like a komodo-rhino, desperate sobs that wracked his exhausted body and left him breathless and empty. "Li? What's wrong?"
He just shook his head and placed a hand over his face, because how do you explain to your mother that you've decide to let her go after ten years of wanting every day to see her again? How do you say goodbye to someone who doesn't know that she's found you?
He felt like that sad, scared little boy who woke up to his beloved mother gone and no answers to tell him where or why. It tore him open and left him raw and exposed and aching, because she wasn't his mother anymore. She could raise Ryoku, like she had never gotten to raise him. He realized in that moment that, even after all the pain and betrayal he'd endured, he had never understood what suffering really was, and it hurt worse than any pain he had ever experienced. "Li, Li! What's wrong?"
"Go away!" Zuko shouted, jerking away from that gentle touch. "Leave me!" He turned his back to her, hiding beneath his blankets, hating himself for showing her his pain. He steadfastly ignored her, and she left him. Zuko mourned the loss of his mother until he had cried all of the water out of his exhausted, dehydrated body. He fell into a fitful sleep that was haunted by memories he'd sooner forget, and him, chasing, always chasing after something that never quite came into focus.
When he woke up again, he was alone, with a tray of food sitting on the floor beside his bed. He ate, drained the entire bucket of water, and went back to a sleep that was just as haunted as the last.
The sun rose, and with it, the young Fire Lord. He felt physically better, and more than empty inside. Agni, he had to get out of this exquisite Hell. He rose silently and pulled his tunic on before sneaking out of his room and towards the door. "Can I ask what that was?"
"No." Zuko said. "Thank you for your help."
"You can't be thinking of leaving!" Ursa said, grabbing his shoulder. He stumbled, off balance. "You're still feverish! You need to rest!"
"I don't want to be here any longer."
"Why not? If you're so bothered that Fire Lord Zuko is my son-"
"I don't care that you're his mother!" Zuko snapped. "My reasons are my own!" He strode to the door, wrenched it open, and stopped. He didn't want to leave like this. If he had to say goodbye, he could at least leave her with something to remember him by aside from angry words.
"About yesterday… A long time ago, I lost my mother to the war. I miss her… every day." Zuko said quietly, turning to look at her. "I haven't had someone take care of me in a long while. It brought back memories I wanted to forget."
"Oh Li." Ursa pulled him into a hug and he stood awkwardly, afraid to move. If he hugged his mother, he feared he would never be able to let her go. "You poor thing."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Of course not. But don't leave because of that." Ursa begged. "Stay here while you recover. You need to build up your strength. I can look at you and tell you've lost a lot of weight recently."
"You're not wrong about that." Zuko said softly, turning his face into his mother's shoulder, fighting a losing battle with his self control.
"So stay here. I don't mind."
Zuko was so comfortable there, wrapped in his mother's embrace for the first time in ten years, and so very unprepared to let her go. He nodded. "I'll stay. At least let me work for my meals."
"You can help me with some repairs that need doing." Ursa murmured. "But not until your fever breaks. Come on. You should be laying down."
Zuko let her lead him back to the little room that seemed to be his for now and laid down, wrapping himself up in the warm blankets again and fell, finally, into a sleep that was peaceful.