Set sometime between Tales of Ba Sing Se and Lake Laogai, Zuko wonders how it all came to this.
Let's go home.
The words echoed in Zuko's head long after he said them. His feet moved on their own volition as he and his uncle walked back to the apartment they shared from the tea shop...the dingy, ancient, crowded apartment he now thought of as home. The shock of it reverberated through him as Iroh chattered on about the people they had met that day and who had complimented his tea. Zuko listened with half an ear, his eyes unfocused as he wondered when he had begun to lose his mind.
Let's go home.
Once...once that had meant a grand castle where his family had lived for generations. He had slept in a bed big enough for five, on sheets that would have cost ten apartments in the building where he lived now. He had run through gardens that put Ba Sing Se's celebrated rock gardens to shame. He had valets and warriors at his beck and call, and barely did more than feed himself. He trained with the best firebenders in the kingdom, honing his body and mind so when the day of his ascension came he would be ready. He had been Prince Zuko, heir to the throne of the Fire Lord. Now...
The sights and sounds of Ba Sing Se seemed magnified as he breathed through the growing feeling of panic that threatened to explode inside him. The plain, earth-toned tunic and pants he wore scratched against skin that had been accustomed to wearing silks in the bolder blood-red shades of the Fire Nation. He was never more aware of how much his back ached from being on his feet all day and serving when he'd once been served. He shopped and bargained for his groceries...or at least accompanied his uncle. He folded up his own mattress which was so thin he could feel every single piece of straw that was sticking up from the well-worn mats covering the tiny area that served as his bedroom. Everyday, he saw the same people leave their dingier apartments to go to their embarrassingly simple jobs that paid less in a year than what the Fire Nation's royal family spent on hair pins in a month.
And Zuko realized he was one of those people.
He and the once great General Iroh now ate simple meals that they cooked on their own, washed what few clothes they owned. They served tea to soldiers they might have fought on the battlefield once and might again, employed by a man who would never have found a job mucking stalls in the Fire Lord's stables.
A tiny sound escaped his lips as his throat closed up.
"Are you alright?" Iroh asked, frowning as he studied his nephew with suddenly sharp eyes. "You're paler...and quieter than usual. Is something on your mind?"
Even he heard his voice had come out tight and unnatural. It only took one look on his uncle's face to know that Iroh was about to use all his powers of persuasion to extract whatever was on Zuko's mind. But Zuko wasn't ready to let him do that and he knew his uncle well enough to know how to distract him...if only for a little while.
"I heard a customer saying that the ginseng tea tasted as if it was steeped for a little too long," Zuko rasped, feeling a hysterical need to laugh as Iroh's face turned beet red.
"Which customer?" the Dragon of the West raged, in a way that would have surprised his former military aides, men who had always considered him to be the eye of the storm. "Ginseng tea is more difficult to brew than other teas. Zuko, did you know that I had to find an tea master from Omashu..."
Zuko nodded when he was supposed to and made the appropriate sounds to keep Iroh's story going but it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other.
He looked down at his hands, chapped and red from washing tea cups all day. He looked past them at his shoes, caked with dirt from days of walking back and forth from the tea shop to...
Let's go home.
Swallowing hard, Zuko closed his eyes for a moment and tried to center himself the way Iroh had taught him. His uncle had always impressed upon him the need for calm, for balance no matter what happened in life, because, as he was so fond of saying, /life happens wherever you are/. No truer words had ever been spoken.
In the beginning, he had used all his focus and energy on not dwelling on how low their lives had become, how far their fall from grace. He had gritted his teeth so hard that his jaw had begun to ache and his hands shook from the frustration of not being able to practice bending; his serving tray often rattled because of the intensity of his anger. In the beginning, his thoughts were stuck on how they would be able to get back into his father's good graces without getting maimed or killed by Azula. He often laid on his mattress, staring up at the cracked and peeling ceiling, mapping out his strategy and imagining what his homecoming would be like.
He didn't know when he stopped doing all those things, but he did know that now, all he thought of at night was how tired he was and how he and Iroh could stretch their pay to be able to have a decent meal the next day. He thought of the faces he'd seen that day, of Jin who still sat in the corner of the shop after their disastrous first date and thought he wouldn't notice that she tracked him with her eyes, of the soldier who had helped him pick up a teaspoon he dropped.
He thought of how his uncle had healed from the devastating lightning blast Azula had shot at him and was exulting in the fact that he was getting a reputation for being the best tea maker in the lower ring of the city. He thought of the little knicknacks and decorations Iroh kept bringing back to the apartment, brightening up the small space they had. He had even started a little bonsai tree that he talked to in the morning, much to Zuko's annoyance, and there were always fresh flowers in various vases around the place. Zuko had only been a little annoyed that his uncle had used his water glass to display some lilies. The other day, Iroh had even brought back a wall hanging in deep reds and purples that he'd put up right on top of a particularly large area where the paint had peeled off. Iroh had taken a depressing situation and made it for the better. Just like he'd done after Lu Ten died and he'd joined his nephew in what was probably a fruitless search for the Avatar.
Zuko's breathing evened out as he remembered how his uncle had stood by him those first few months when he had been in a haze of rage and pain, confused as to why he was being exiled from the only home he'd known, by the man he thought would always keep him safe. Iroh had promised to protect him as they had pulled away from the docks in their small ship. He had been Zuko's defacto first mate and firebending teacher, had always guided him with a gentle hand when Zuko had been stubborn and difficult...and still did.
Even after Zuko had left him not long after Azula's betrayal, Iroh had followed, unwilling to let his nephew go off alone. Zuko would never forget how he felt when he saw his uncle again, only to have him shot down by Azula. In that second, Zuko had relived the moment when he realized his mother was gone and would not return; a crippling pain that had brought him to his knees. If he had lost his uncle that day...
Glancing sideways at the older man, Zuko thought that there was a skip to his step that hadn't been there since the day Lu Ten had died. Though he'd always been lighthearted, Zuko thought for the first time that his uncle was happy and was more than happy to make a home for his nephew in this poorest of places, in the kingdom of an enemy.
Zuko couldn't say that he was happy...but he wasn't angry and he wasn't depressed.
And he had a feeling he knew why.
They neared the apartment building and Zuko looked up at the rotting facade, at the laundry hanging in various balconies. Silently, he followed Iroh up the stairs and waited for his uncle to unlock the door.
Zuko stood at the threshold, taking in the modest furnishings and ridiculously impractical layout of their rooms. But it was spotless and was the one place in the city that didn't overwhelm Zuko with noise and unfamiliar sights...it was a place where he didn't need to have one eye on the exit or wonder if the gazes that lingered his scar were curiosity or recognition. It was a place where he knew he was safe.
Not paying Zuko any attention, Iroh immediately went to the kettle and fired it up. He grinned at his nephew. Zuko stood at the doorway as if frozen.
"Come in and stay awhile," Iroh teased. "Tea?"
"If I have any more, I'm going to bleed tea," Zuko groused.
"The best way to relax at home is to have a cup," Iroh argued with that reasonable tone that made it hard for Zuko to argue.
"If there was such a thing as a teabender..."
"I would be a master!"
Zuko sat down in the low chair Iroh had him wrestle up the stairs days before. He stretched his long legs out and looked at the wall-hanging in front of him.
"Just one cup," he said, hardening his tone even as his shoulders relaxed.
As Zuko leaned his head back, the stern lines of his mouth relaxing, Iroh smiled indulgently at him.
"Home sweet home," he said quietly.