He was sick.
Truthfully, he'd known that much since yesterday, but it hadn't been as serious then. He'd just been slightly warmer than usual, and as such, hadn't thought much of it. If he was also a little unsteady on his feet, well- it wasn't like that was anything new. Just because he'd mostly adjusted to being half blind didn't mean everything was perfect. Toph had even asked, but he'd assured her he was fine, and she'd believed it because he'd believed it.
Or had believed it enough, anyways.
Today, however, there was no denying it. He was definitely sick.
The sun had already risen by the time he woke. That was the first sign that something was off- he rose with the sun, not after it. The next sign was how just the simple act of sitting up caused his vision to swim, a wave of nausea bubbling up in the back of his throat that he had to swiftly fight back.
Groaning, Zuko placed a hand on his forehead. He was hot to the touch, even for a firebender, but there were no shakes and shivers that were normally associated with a fever.
Fire sickness, then. It wasn't his first experience with the phenomena, though the last time he'd gotten sick like this, it was back when he was still young and was just learning to firebend for the first time. If there were ever a time for a reoccurrence, it would be now, when he was learning to firebend all over again.
He exhaled, steam escaping from his mouth in an attempt to lower his temperature. He supposed he should count himself lucky it wasn't a real sickness. Fire sickness would fade soon enough on its own- he didn't even need to rest, not really. Sure, it would fade faster with rest, but that didn't mean he had to.
Besides, today was an important day. He wanted to spend it with Toph. He couldn't do that if he was confined to his bed.
Besides, it wasn't like he rested when he was actually sick anyways. He always just powered through it. His father took sickness as a sign of weakness, and the last thing he had wanted was to look weak.
(Azula never got sick.)
Staggering to his feet, Zuko forced his nausea down. He'd be fine.
Thankfully, the baths were empty by the time he got there. He hastily washed, changing into his servant's robes, before stumbling back to his room. Though the fire sickness didn't bring with it any chills, he shivered anyways, the howling winter wind outside a reminder of just how cold it was outside the thick walls of the servant's quarters. He'd been provided with thicker robes and better boots, but sometimes it didn't feel like it was enough. It never got this cold in the Fire Nation, even at the height of winter.
It had actually snowed last week. Snowed. He'd never seen snow before in his life. If he'd gotten a little carried away with it... well, Toph had been the only one around to see. And in snow? She was blind as well... herself, or at least a version of her that wasn't such an amazing earthbender.
She couldn't see anything in the snow, she'd complained. It was all water, and frozen water at that- which meant just the act of stepping in it was enough to make her regret her barefoot lifestyle, however briefly. He'd had to carry her piggyback to their usual spot- she didn't let him put her down until he had melted all of the snow around them.
He hadn't complained. It was good firebending practice, if nothing else.
Grabbing his swords, Zuko slung them over his back. If he had to pause to catch himself on the wall, it was no big deal. Shaking off the brief moment of unsteadiness, he made his way to the kitchen. At least he didn't have any morning chores- especially since entering the kitchen made him realize exactly why the baths had been so empty despite the post-dawn hour.
Usually he was the first person to wake up. Today he was the last.
"Li?" Xia-Su looked up as he entered, almost immediately frowning. "Everything okay? It's not like you to be late."
"I'm fine." Zuko lied. "Just slept in for a change."
Xia-Su arched a brow, exchanging a look with Yun. The older man frowned back, briefly tugging on his mustache before he turned his gaze on him. In response, Zuko stood up straighter, trying to ignore the wave of nausea that the aroma of food had prompted.
Guess he'd go easy on breakfast today.
"You sure that's all it is?" Yun asked. "You're looking a little flushed."
Zuko blinked, absently touching his right cheek. Shit. Was he? He hadn't exactly stopped to look in a mirror- not surprising, since he tended to avoid them. Just because he'd accepted the reality of his scar, didn't mean that he liked looking at it.
"Just got out of the bath." Zuko said. "That's all."
Yun and Xia-Su exchanged another glance, before they both glanced in the direction of Old Lady An, who then turned to look at him. He flinched underneath the old woman's scrutinizing gaze. It was intense even under normal circumstances, but today it felt as if she was looking right through him. It was all he could do to hold it, all while forcing himself to remain upright.
The last thing he wanted was for them to find out he was sort-of sick. He knew what would happen if they did- they'd insist that he rested, and then they'd probably insist that he should let them take care of him, even though they all had their own jobs. They didn't get paid if they didn't work, and if there was one thing he'd learned since being tossed out on his own, it was the importance of a steady paycheck.
These people already did too much for him anyways.
Whatever she saw, it wasn't what he wanted her to see. Beckoning him with one hand, the old woman rose to her feet. He shifted on his feet, having half a mind to just grab his food and leave, but something prompted him forward instead. She gestured for him to bend down, and when he hesitated, she simply straightened her bent back as much as she could instead, placing her hand directly on his forehead.
His burning forehead.
(If he flinched a little, hopefully nobody noticed.)
Her brows shot up, the old woman snatching her hand away as if it had been literally burned. Something twisted in his gut, a momentary spike of panic shooting through him, wondering if she actually had been- before the logical part of him caught up, reminding him that was impossible. Firebenders could do a lot of things, but they couldn't shoot fire from their foreheads. That was just stupid.
Besides, he could barely shoot fire anyways. In the two months since Toph's birthday, he'd managed to create steady flames- even hot ones- but he was still a long ways off from using his firebending combatively, much to Toph's joking frustration.
(She wasn't actually upset, he knew. She just liked teasing him.)
Old Lady An's hand wasn't burned. But she'd definitely realized he was burning.
"You," she said firmly, "-have a fever."
The effect of her words was almost immediate. At once, the already quiet table went silent. Then just as abruptly, Xia-Su was on her feet- surprisingly fast for someone with a limp.
"He has a fever." Old Lady An repeated. "A bad one, too."
Xia-Su glared at him almost accusingly. "You're sick?"
"It's not a fever." Zuko said, which wasn't technically a lie. "I just run hot."
"Not that hot." Old Lady An said. "Come now, back to your room. You need to rest."
Zuko felt himself bristle, even as part of him wanted to take the old woman's offer. "It's just a small fever. I can still work."
"I thought you said you didn't have a fever." Yun observed.
Zuko shot him a dirty look. It didn't work.
"Maybe you can," Xia-Su said, "-but that doesn't mean you should. You'll only get worse if you don't rest."
Zuko huffed, crossing his arms in front of him. "I've pushed through worse before."
And that was apparently the wrong thing to say, because instantly, the assembled servants' faces went from mildly concerned to deeply worried. He winced, wishing he could take it back, but he knew it was already too late. Nothing he could say now would smooth it over.
"That settles it." Yun said, rising to his feet. "You're taking the day off."
"Nope." Xia-Su cut him off, just as firm. "Come on. Yun and I will walk you back to your room."
He opened his mouth to protest again, but one look from Old Lady An cut him off. Snapping his mouth shut, Zuko stared down at the floor, realizing that this wasn't a fight he could win.
And that just maybe, it was a fight he shouldn't be fighting at all.
"We'll make sure she knows." She promised. "Someone will have to inform Lord Beifong you're too sick to work anyways."
Something that wasn't simply the nausea twisted his gut. It was difficult to discern just where he stood with Toph's father- her mother seemed to like him well enough, or at least, she was sympathetic to what she thought his plight was- but it still felt like her father was looking for an excuse to get rid of him. Toph had assured him that probably wasn't the case, but it was that probably he couldn't help but worry about.
It was with an abrupt sense of clarity that he realized he didn't want to have to leave this place, and even more abruptly, that it wasn't just because Toph was here.
The thought was pushed away in the next second, as Xia-Su laid a soft hand on his right shoulder. He twitched at the touch, but managed to keep from flinching further when she touched his other shoulder, carefully turning him so that he faced the door.
"Come on," she said softly, "-let's go back to your room."
He opened his mouth to protest one more time, only for no sound to come out. Closing it, he slowly nodded, letting the pair of servants guide him back to his room. Fine, if they were going to be so stubborn about it, he'd give them one day of rest.
But that didn't mean he had to like it.
Maybe his father had been right when he'd said that he was just lucky to be born. How else would he explain that the one day of the year he actually got sick, it would be his birthday?
So much for spending the day with Toph.
Li's skin was hot to the touch.
That should be a given, seeing as he had a fever, but she could feel his warmth even through his thick robes. And while it was true that Li ran warm- which made him pleasant to stand next to in cold weather- he didn't typically run this warm.
Frankly, Xia-Su was just surprised he hadn't simply combusted.
She frowned, her gaze briefly darting over her shoulder towards Li. Yun had taken up the rear, just in case Li stumbled and fell over, but he was doing a surprisingly good job of not doing that for someone who was so clearly unsteady. She'd be impressed, if it wasn't clear it was from experience. He'd said it so easily, as if pushing through a sickness was something normal and expected- something everyone did.
He hadn't needed to admit it. She knew the signs.
(Her father had never believed her when she said she was sick. She knew.)
"I don't need an escort," he'd muttered as they'd led him out of the kitchen.
She'd firmly argued otherwise.
As they closed in on his room, Xia-Su quickened her own pace. Usually it was difficult for her to walk quickly, but Li's own halting pace made it possible for her to reach the door before he did, sliding it open so that he could enter without any obstruction. Yun helped him remove his swords, carefully placing them against the wall near where he slept, where he always kept them. He made sure they wouldn't fall over before letting them go- not that either of them thought that would be enough to actually damage them, but still. They were precious to Li, one of the few pieces of his life from before that he still had.
A pair of twin dao and a knife. Barely anything at all. Even she'd had more to her name when she had left her village- and all of its bad memories- behind.
(Both weapons, some tiny part of her always noted. The thought never sat well with her.)
Li shifted on his feet, stubbornly refusing to sit down, much less lie down, like he really ought to. She glanced towards him, then glanced towards Yun, who arched a brow, ignoring the sound of protest Li made as he dug in his things, producing his sleepwear and shoving it towards him.
"Come on," Yun said, "-let's get you changed, kid."
Li flushed, his eyes darting briefly over towards her. She gave him a quick smile, hastily ducking out of the room to give them some privacy. He didn't have anything to be embarrassed about, really. Even if she did look at men that way, which she didn't, Li was a child. She couldn't think of him as anything other than a particularly stubborn and prickly baby brother.
"I don't need your help either," she could hear Li grumble from inside, "-I can change my own damn clothes."
"I'm sure you can." Yun said. "But let me give you a hand with the outer layer, at least."
Li audibly grumbled, but judging from the fact that it was several minutes until Yun joined her in the hall, he'd caved anyways. He must be sick, she decided, if he was actually letting people help him. Usually Li was so independent that it was an uphill battle just getting him to admit that he even needed it.
Given his obvious noble heritage, that felt... well, contradictory.
(And he had to have been noble, once. There was no other reason to explain how he could be that bad at doing simple chores.)
"Let us know when you're done so we can tuck you in!" Yun shouted through the door, ignoring the don't antagonize him elbow jab she gave his ribs.
"I can tuck myself in!" Li shouted right back, with a surprising amount of volume given how sick he was.
It wasn't just how hot his skin was that gave it away. His usually pale cheeks were flushed red, sweat pasting his newly grown in bangs to his forehead. His usually bright eyes were glazed and distant, his voice raspy- at least, more raspy than usual, though that part might admittedly just be puberty. It was amazing that he thought he could even fool them, and it seemed testament to how little the people who had once been around him must have cared that they had been.
(That too, felt awfully contradictory.)
Yun exchanged a glance with her, giving her a cheeky grin. She rolled her eyes, barely restraining herself from elbowing him a second time. Honestly. Sometimes Yun acted far more like a child than she ever did- or Li did, for that matter.
She wished that were different- but if there was one thing she could understand, it was having to grow up way too fast. Sometimes childhood had to take a backseat to surviving.
"Well, you better be done," Yun called out, "-because I'm coming in anyways!"
In spite of what he said, Yun waited several more seconds before sliding open the door, giving Li plenty of time to finish changing. By the time Yun actually opened the door, he was already lying down with his thick winter blanket already pulled over him, almost like a shield.
"There, see? I'm in bed." Li said, glaring rather impressively for someone so flushed. "You can leave me alone now."
"Hm, I don't know." Yun stroked his mustache thoughtfully, glancing over towards her. "What do you think? Can we leave the kid alone?"
Li shifted his glare towards her, which would have been a lot more effective if she hadn't seen him babytalking to a stray kitten once. Given how red his face had turned when he looked up to see her, he definitely hadn't thought anyone was watching.
Honestly, she couldn't understand how anyone could ever be afraid of Li. He was about as scary as the aforementioned kitten.
"Of course not." Xia-Su said firmly. "He's sick. Someone needs to take care of him."
"I can take care of myself." Li protested.
"Given that your idea of taking care of yourself seemed to be pushing yourself," Xia-Su countered, in what she hoped was her best big sister voice, "-I find that hard to believe."
Li clearly didn't have anything to say to that, because he just resorted to glaring at her some more. It hadn't worked the first time, but that never seemed to deter him in the least. She had to applaud his tenacity.
Then finally, he looked away, clutching at his blanket in a way that just made her want to take care of him more. "You both have work. I can't keep you here."
"I think Lord and Lady Beifong can go without a dedicated tea server for one day." Yun shrugged.
"And we don't have any guests arriving for the next few days, so there's no real need for every single housemaid." Xia-Su said simply. "It's not like you're a burden."
Li's good eye briefly widened, before he ducked his head, leaving only his burnt side visible. It was set in a permanent scowl, that entire side of his face transformed by the violence that had been inflicted on him. Even after all this time, it was hard to look at- not because of how it made him look- she barely noticed the disfigurement anymore- but because of what it meant.
(At the end of the day, her leg had ultimately been an accident. Li's scar, burned in the shape of a handprint, could have only ever been deliberate.)
"Do what you want." Li finally said, rolling over so that his back was turned to them. "I'm going to get some sleep."
Xia-Su exchanged a glance with Yun, smiling. He returned the expression.
Once the spring thaw began, it would be a year since Li had come here. A year ago, Li would have never agreed to let them stay and look after him. A year ago, Li was skittish, wary of getting close to anyone, keeping everyone at an arms length like he was afraid that someone might hurt him if he let them close.
And now he was letting them see his back.
"Then," she said, "-we'll stay."
"We'll stay, she says," Yun muttered underneath his breath, "-and then she immediately sends me out of the room."
Sure, okay, he saw the need for it. Someone had to go and get some cool water and rags and it might as well be the person who was less likely to spill it. But still. For someone who was only a scant handful of years older than Li, Xia-Su sure could be bossy.
(Of course, he was the one letting himself be bossed around by a teenage girl, so what did that say about him?
Well, mostly that he wasn't a jerk. Said teenage girl usually knew what she was doing.)
Balancing the water bucket on his hip, Yun knocked on the door. "Got the water."
Xia-Su opened it a few moments later, giving him a faint smile. "Thanks."
"No problem." Yun said, carefully setting the bucket down. "Ran into Old Lady An in the hallway while getting the stuff. Said she reported Li's predicament to Miyuki."
Xia-Su made a face, like she'd forgotten about that step herself. Which, fair- he'd kind of blanked on it too. Thank the spirits for old women.
"She said she relayed the fact that we would be taking some time off too." Yun added, crouching down by the bucket and removing one of the rags he had grabbed from his robe. "Always thinking one step ahead, that old lady."
"Do you think Lord Beifong will grant our requests?" Xia-Su asked, kneeling back down near Li's bedroll. "I mean, I know he'll grant Li's, but..."
Speaking of Li, the kid must have been exhausted, because he'd already fallen asleep. He'd conked out so quickly that he'd almost thought he was faking it at first, but no- he was well and truly asleep. And to think he'd actually wanted to try and push through his sickness. He knew the kid was stubborn, but that was a little too stubborn, even for him.
Still, he had to admit, it was nice to see him looking so peaceful for a change. Even his scar seemed smoother somehow, less angry now that he wasn't actively scowling.
"Don't see why not." Yun said, dipping the rag in the water. "Li's just a kid, after all, and Lord Beifong is a reasonable man. I'm sure he'll understand."
Squeezing the excess water from the rag, he passed it to Xia-Su. She placed it as carefully on his forehead as she could, but the kid still flinched. Thankfully, it wasn't enough to wake him up. Exhaling, Xia-Su glanced over towards him. He shrugged, removing the rest of the rags he had taken from his robe and setting them aside for later use. He wouldn't want anyone to come anywhere near his face either, if he had a burn like that.
"So... you know what you're doing?" Yun asked.
Xia-Su shot him a look. "I helped out at a healer's hut for several months."
Yun arched a brow. "Can't help but notice that's not a yes."
Xia-Su narrowed her eyes. "I know enough."
"So in other words... no." Yun said.
"If you're just going to be noisy, you can leave." Xia-Su huffed.
"Hey, I said I'd stay, didn't I?" Yun said, holding up his hands. "I'm a man of my word."
Xia-Su just stared at him for a few seconds longer, before she heaved another sigh. Pulling her legs out from under her into a more comfortable position, she lightly rubbed her right ankle. He couldn't help but eye it, his gaze flickering towards the window. Outside the winter winds were howling, though the snow that the clouds had been threatening for days now didn't seem inclined to fall today either.
Probably for the best. Xia-Su's leg always ached when it snowed.
If Li's scar did, he didn't show it.
"You should take a short break. Go finish eating." Yun told her. "Maybe rub some of that cream the healer gave you on your ankle."
Xia-Su opened her mouth to protest, but he just held her gaze. These kids might be stubborn as could be, but he was a proper man of Earth himself, and could damn well be more stubborn than the both of them if he wanted to be. And he knew for a fact that Xia-Su had barely gotten in two bites of food before Li had come stumbling into the kitchen, sick as could be.
And she'd almost definitely put too much weight on it when she'd stood up so quickly. He knew from experience that was never good.
"Fine," Xia-Su finally said, "-but I'll be back soon. And my ankle's fine."
"If you say so." Yun said. "Now go, before your stomach wakes the kid."
Xia-Su opted not to dignify that with a response, instead getting up and limping towards the door. She paused, briefly glancing back at Li, before finally leaving.
"Stubborn kid." Yun shook his head, glancing back down at Li. "And you're the most stubborn kid of all."
Li said nothing in response to that, probably because he was asleep. Leaning against the wall, Yun folded his arms in front of him, ready to be here for the long haul. Not that he minded. Someone had to look after the kid. Preferably someone who wasn't also a kid.
Damn war had babies looking after babies. Wasn't right.
Well, maybe he couldn't do anything about the war. But he could look after one sick kid, while making damn sure the other kid didn't run herself ragged trying to take care of him. Because he knew that if he let her, Xia-Su would absolutely do just that. Nevermind that trying to push past his limits was exactly what she was so upset at Li about.
He huffed again. Oma and Shu, he really was just surrounded by the Earth Kingdom's most stubborn kids.
Zuko barely caught a glimpse of the fluttering deep red cloak before it vanished. He knew that cloak. How couldn't he, when it had been burned into his memory?
His voice echoed in the empty air, sounding so much younger than he remembered it being. Looking down at his hands, he realized that he was younger. His hands hadn't been this small since he was eleven- before his family truly started falling apart, his cousin and grandfather dead and his mother vanished.
(Azula, taunting him in the night, cheerfully declaring their father was going to kill him.)
"Mom?" He called again, taking a step forward, then another. "Mom, where are you?"
Turning on his heel, the world around him shifted, transforming from an inky blackness to the familiar halls to the Fire Palace. Again, he just barely caught a glimpse of his mother's cloak as she turned a corner, just out of his reach.
"Mom!" He called out, hurrying after her, only dimly aware that his legs were longer now, of the way the armor he wore clinked as he ran. "Mom, wait!"
He turned the corner, and the scene changed once more. A row of flames flickered in front of him, and he felt himself instinctively taking a step back, a surge of fear washing through him. His father's war room spread out in front of him, faceless generals all staring back at him.
He couldn't see his father, but he could feel his eyes.
He turned towards the sound of his mother's voice. It sounded more desperate this time, afraid. His left eye was hot, burning, the smell of melting flesh clogging his nostrils, as he realized his mother's call wasn't a scream for help, but one of warning.
It wasn't enough.
The Agni Kai chamber loomed before him.
"You will learn respect," his father's voice came from behind him, just as cruel as it had been on the day of his Agni Kai, "-and suffering will be your teacher."
He didn't turn around this time.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't help.
Letting the bowl of rice gruel slip through her fingers, Xia-Su bolted back towards Li's room as fast as her bad leg could carry her. She'd never heard Li scream like that before, and the mere sound of it sent a bolt of terror through her heart. She practically ripped the door off in her hurry to get inside, only to find Yun already hovering over him, clearly hesitant to actually touch him to wake him up.
She, however, had no such hesitation. Not now.
Grabbing his shoulders firmly, Xia-Su gave him a firm shake. "Li! Li, wake up!"
Li's eyes snapped open, their bright gold color hazy with something other than fever. He stared straight at her, but somehow, Xia-Su got the feeling that it wasn't her he was looking at.
She froze at the softness of his voice, biting back a comment that she was far too young to be mistaken for anyone's mother, especially Li's. Just like she had never heard him scream like that before, she'd never heard him sound so soft before either.
Then he blinked, the haze in his eyes clearing away.
She exhaled, slowly nodding. "It's me."
Li frowned, narrowing his eyes as he glanced from her face to her hands. Once he realized where they were touching, he flinched, and she instantly drew them away.
"What's," Li began, glancing at her in confusion, an expression which only deepened when he noticed Yun, "-what- what are you two even doing here?"
"Don't you remember?" Yun asked. "You have a fever. Xia-Su and I are taking care of you."
"Oh," Li's brow furrowed, as if he really was just remembering that, "-right. I remember."
She couldn't help but notice that he still sounded shaken, his face pale- even for him. Biting down on her lip, she debated asking about it, but as usual, Yun was always one step ahead of her when it came to painful bluntness.
"Sounds like you had quite the nightmare, kid." He said it so easily, even though she could still make out traces of fear in his eyes- an expression which was doubtlessly mirrored in those of her own. "Xia-Su could hear you all the way from the kitchen."
Li swallowed, looking away. "It's nothing. Just- just the fever."
"Didn't sound like just the fever to me." Yun said.
"Well it was." Li snapped, his temper flaring. "Look, I appreciate the concern, but I'm fine."
"You called for your mom." Xia-Su said softly.
Li flinched. "I said it's nothing."
Xia-Su exchanged a glance with Yun, before frowning, looking back down at Li. He was still stubbornly not looking at either of them, his right eye narrowed to the point where it was no longer asymmetrical with his left.
His knuckles, still clutching his blankets, were white.
She could only sigh, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Pressing him any further likely wouldn't do any good, even if she doubted it really was just because of the fever. They all knew that Li didn't sleep well- and even if he didn't say as much, it wasn't hard to guess that it was due in large part to bad dreams.
No, if the fever was responsible for anything, it was them hearing him for once.
She didn't like that thought at all.
But Li was also sick, and therefore vulnerable. And the more vulnerable he was, the less likely he was to actually open up to them. He might not be that same wary, distrustful kid he'd been when he'd first arrived here, but there were still shades of that- a wall that none of them, maybe not even the young miss of the house, could fully surmount.
Besides, stressing him out further wouldn't help him get better. Best to just drop it for now and let him rest.
"Alright," she finally said, "-if you say so. But just remember- if you need anything, at least one of us will always be right here."
Yun nodded in agreement. "So don't worry about a thing, kid."
"You really don't need to do that." Li just huffed, rolling his eyes. "I could do just fine on my own."
"So you told us." Yun said. "But you can't get rid of us that easy, kid. We're sticking around until that fever of yours is down."
Li grumbled, sinking further into his blankets until his face was barely visible underneath them. Yet, for all his stubborn bluster, his grip on them had grown far more lax- and she was pretty sure that was the edge of a smile on his lips she'd seen before his face had disappeared underneath the covers.
He really was a terrible liar.
He didn't know exactly how, but somehow, Li managed to fall back asleep after that. It was a fitful sleep, sure, but at least it looked more like the sleep of someone fighting a fever than it did someone fighting off bad dreams. Heaving a sigh, Yun glanced over towards Xia-Su. He made sure to keep his tone low- the last thing he wanted to do was to wake the kid.
"Troublesome kid, isn't he?"
"Really?" Xia-Su said, a hint of teasing in her voice. "I hadn't noticed."
He snorted quietly, biting back a comment that he wasn't the only troublesome kid around here. "You did remember to eat something yourself, right?"
Puffing out her cheeks, Xia-Su put her hands on her hips. "Of course. I know how to take care of myself."
Yun's lips quirked upwards, holding up his hands in mock defeat. "Never said that."
Xia-Su just sighed, glancing back down at Li. "Do you think we should get a healer after all? I know Li doesn't like strangers, but..."
He'd been turning that same question over in his head since he'd first seen the kid's flushed face, but in the end, he didn't think it was a good idea. Not unless he actually really needed one, at least- in which case, he'd just have to put up with a little bit of discomfort for the sake of his overall health.
Or a lot of discomfort, as the case might be for Li. But if they didn't have to put him through that, they wouldn't.
"I don't think it's a good idea." Yun said. "At least, not yet."
Xia-Su nodded in agreement, before glancing over her shoulder. He blinked, looking towards the door himself, abruptly realizing that they were far from alone. While most everyone had already gone to work, the few that hadn't were lingering outside, with Old Lady An at the forefront of the crowd.
"How is he?" She asked.
"He's sleeping again. I think the fever must be making him really tired." Xia-Su said, frowning a little. "You could have said something if you were there."
The old woman merely shrugged. "Didn't want to disturb."
Glancing back towards him, Xia-Su arched a brow. He returned it with a shrug, taking a seat next to Li's sleeping form. "You go on and finish up what you were doing. I'll look after him for a little longer."
Xia-Su nodded, pausing for the span of a few moments to look at Li, as if checking to make sure he hadn't slipped into another nightmare. Once she was satisfied that he hadn't, she made her way towards the door, the crowd parting to let her past, and largely dissolving once she'd left. Only Old Lady An lingered, watching him as he picked up the damp rag that had fallen off of Li's forehead during his nightmare.
It had barely even been half an hour, and it was already warm.
Yun merely shrugged, dipping the rag back into the bucket. Kid ran hot.
She wasn't usually the type to be caught off guard, but all Toph could do was stare in disbelief at her father's messenger. If her hearing weren't so sharp, she almost would have thought that she'd misheard him- because Li? Sick? She didn't even think he could get sick.
Then again, he'd frolicked like an idiot in the snow last week, and he'd been a little unsteady on his feet yesterday... maybe he really was sick, then.
There was a twinge of guilt at that realization. Surely she should have picked up on it earlier, if that were the case? She'd definitely noticed something, but Li had assured her that he was alright, and it hadn't felt like he was lying...
Then again, this was Li she was talking about. His definition of alright was clearly vastly different from that of her own.
Her father's messenger mumbled something about Li taking the day off to rest. Frankly that surprised her more than the fact that Li was sick. He wasn't exactly the resting type, even normally. Not only did he keep the same late night hours she did, but she also knew that his firebending butt rose with the sun- a concept that was utterly unthinkable to her.
Being awake before dawn? No thanks.
Which meant someone was making him rest. Which, hey- good on them. She knew from experience that making Li do something he didn't want to was no easy task. And there was no way that Li would actually want to rest, sick or otherwise. He hated staying still. Which wasn't to say he couldn't- he could stay very still if he wanted to. But if he didn't?
Then he didn't.
"Can I see him?" Toph asked, even though she already knew the answer.
Predictably, her father's messenger told her no. It would be awful if she caught whatever Li had, after all. She was so weak and fragile that even a mere cold would be enough to threaten her life.
Okay, so he didn't say that last part, but it was very strongly implied.
Oh well. It didn't really matter. One way or another, she'd find a chance to see him. She was an earthbender- patience was just one of her many finely honed skills.
That, and there was no way she was going to let Li be alone on his birthday.
"You don't need to do this."
Xia-Su just smiled at Li, shutting the door behind her. Yun had warned her that Li was awake when they'd traded off, so she'd been somewhat prepared for another barrage of Li's attempts to push them away.
"Maybe not," she said, "-but I want to."
Li huffed, turning his head so that he was staring at the ceiling instead of her. The sigh that escaped her was more bemused than anything, as she made her way over towards his side, setting down the bowl she had brought with her. It was hot in her hands, filled to the brim with Old Lady An's special rice gruel.
"Think you can eat something?" Xia-Su asked.
Li's stomach growled in response, causing him to flush even more.
"I'll just take that as a yes." Xia-Su said.
Li mumbled something underneath his breath, but nevertheless slowly worked himself out from the tangle of blankets. He propped himself up with his elbows, pushing away any of her attempts to help him sit up with a grumpy and extremely predictable I can do it myself.
"What is it?" Li asked, eyeing the bowl with a surprising degree of wariness. She hadn't seen him look that wary about food since he'd first started living here, eyeing every pot like he expected it to contain poison.
"Old Lady An's special rice gruel." Xia-Su replied. "She swears by it."
Li looked skeptical, only growing more so when she removed the lid. "It just looks like mush."
Xia-Su arched her brows. "You want me to tell her you said that?"
Li quickly paled. "I mean, it looks good?"
"That's better." Xia-Su smiled, taking the spoon and getting a spoonful of the gruel. She held it up to Li, who just glared at her.
"I can feed myself." He huffed, snatching the spoon from her hand. "I'm sick, not four."
"Of course you're not." Xia-Su said lightly. "You're thirteen."
Li frowned, looking at her strangely. "M'not thirteen."
Xia-Su blinked, staring at him in confusion. He didn't seem to notice, too busy chewing, apparently having realized that the rice gruel was neither poison nor disgusting.
"I thought you told Yun you were thirteen." Xia-Su said.
"I mean, I was." Li said. "Today's my birthday, actually."
All she could do was stare at him. He'd said it so easily, like it wasn't a big deal. She couldn't shake the sinking feeling that was exactly what he thought. The subject of Li's birthday was one that had come up among the servants- they always tried to hold small celebrations for one another- but none of them actually knew when it was. They'd all assumed that he'd tell them when it was getting close, but from the sound of it, if she hadn't brought up his age, he might never have mentioned it at all.
He would have just let it pass, unmarked and unnoticed.
And that was extremely unacceptable.
"I suppose I should wish you a happy birthday, then." Xia-Su said, hoping that he hadn't noticed her continued silence. "You're fourteen now, right?"
Li just nodded, still more focused on eating than he was on the conversation.
"I guess you wish it was happening under better circumstances, huh?" Xia-Su asked.
"Pretty much." Li admitted, briefly glancing over at her with a frown. "What is it?"
"Nothing!" Xia-Su said quickly. "I'm just... why didn't you tell us it was your birthday?"
Li tilted his head. "I did. Just now."
Which was fair, she supposed. He had indeed told her just now. But normally people mentioned their birthdays a little sooner than the day of.
"Well... is there anything you want?" Xia-Su asked.
"...to be let out of bed?" Li ventured.
Xia-Su's gaze sharpened. "Not happening."
Li clicked his tongue, muttering something underneath his breath that sounded a lot like worth a try. "Then not really, no."
Was there really nothing he wanted? Or was he just saying that because he didn't want to be a burden? Her heart sank at that thought. As stubborn as he was, she would have thought he would have realized how important he was to all of them by now.
And he was, whether he realized it or not. He was a part of their family- how could he possibly not be important?
This, Xia-Su resolved, was not something she could allow to continue.
"Are you finished?"
Setting down the bowl, Zuko nodded his head. He'd only eaten about half of the rice gruel, but his stomach was already protesting. The last thing he wanted to do was throw up, and give Xia-Su something else to fret over.
She didn't need to be fretting at all- her or Yun, or any of the other servants. It was bad enough that they'd all heard him having a nightmare- and he wasn't even going to touch on having apparently mistaken Xia-Su for his mom- but he didn't want to give them any further cause to worry about him. He really was fine- or he would be soon enough. Fire sickness would go away on its own. It always did.
Though, he guessed she didn't know that. She didn't even know it was fire sickness. And frankly, it was probably better to keep it that way. A sickness that only firebenders could get? Yeah, it was definitely better to keep something like that a secret.
At least they hadn't called for a healer. He'd heard them talking about it when he'd been pretending to sleep, but he was really glad they had decided against it. He didn't know if there were even any healers in the Earth Kingdom that could diagnose fire sickness, but he'd rather not take his chances.
As for they reason they had given...
...well, they weren't wrong. He wasn't found of strange people- or even people he knew- touching him. He'd expected that fear to fade as he slowly got used to his fire again, but it was still just as strong as ever. It made him feel kind of pathetic. Most people weren't his father, out to do him harm.
Most people were good and kind. Like Toph. Like Xia-Su and Yun, and all the other servants who lived here. Even Toph's parents had their own kind of kindness. He wouldn't be here if they didn't.
...he wondered if he was kind too.
Xia-Su's voice startled him out of his thoughts. Jerking his head up to look at her, she just gave him one of her usual smiles. "Can I take your bowl? I can keep it in the kitchen to warm it up later."
He opened his mouth to say that he could warm it up later himself, before catching himself. His heart pounded in his chest, internally cursing his own carelessness. He couldn't say something like that. Whatever happiness he had here, it was bound to end the moment these people found out that he was a firebender.
He couldn't give himself away.
"Sure," Zuko nodded, passing her the bowl, "-thanks."
"No problem." Xia-Su said, taking the bowl from him. "Then, you rest. I'll be right back."
He watched her go, before heaving a sigh and lying back down. He really didn't want to rest, but he guessed he had no choice. He had promised, after all.
Toph grinned to herself. She'd wanted to go straight to Li's room, but she could sense someone in there with him. So instead she'd opted to search for someone that she could grill for information- er, ask about Li's well being.
But also grill them for information.
She'd shifted her feet slightly to get a better look at the servant. He hadn't noticed her yet, too engrossed in drawing water from the well. She was just glad the snow from last week had cleared up, or she wouldn't be able to see him at all- or anything else, for that matter.
Ugh. She hated winter.
The servant, she determined, was one she knew- she recognized him as her family's tea server. Li had described him to her as having a dumb mustache, and had said his name was... Yun, she thought. And if Li talked about him...
Her grin widened. That made him the perfect person to pump for information.
In later retellings, Yun would leave out the fact that he'd nearly leapt out of his skin, flinging the bucket of water that he'd come to collect into the air. It thankfully managed to avoid splashing him- or the young lady of the house, for that matter.
That one would have definitely been worse.
"Miss Beifong!" Yun exclaimed, nervously glancing around to check if anyone was watching, only to find that there was no one around but the two of them. There was no sign of any guards, nor even a single maidservant or retainer.
It was just Lord Beifong's daughter.
Alone. By herself. Which she definitely wasn't supposed to be.
"That's me." Toph said, her voice surprisingly level. "How's Li?"
"I," Yun opened his mouth to reply, uncertain, "-he's resting. He's not feeling well today."
"So I've heard." Toph said- and he swore the edge of her mouth quirked upwards in a grin. "Can I see him?"
"I don't think," Yun frowned, shifting nervously on his feet, briefly wondering if this was some kind of test, "-I don't think your father would approve."
Toph narrowed her eyes, tilting her head so that she was looking in the general direction of his face. If he didn't know any better, it was as if she was trying to intimidate him.
Well, it was working.
Not that he'd give in. No sir, not him. He was a grown man, and she was a ten year old girl. He was not going to let a ten year old girl intimidate him. He got enough grief from Li and Xia-Su as it was already.
Eventually, Toph lowered her gaze- and he swore she clicked her tongue. Or maybe it was someone breaking a branch somewhere off in the distance. That would make more sense.
(All he could suddenly think about was how Li had wanted to buy a knife for her.)
"What's he sick with?" Toph asked. "I asked, but nobody would tell me."
"It seems to be a fever." Yun told her. "I'm sure it's nothing a day of rest can't cure."
Abrupt appearance aside, she'd probably just come because she was worried about her friend. He was certain Li would be delighted to hear that she'd come to check on him- though probably less delighted to hear that he'd turned her away.
But no. If Lord Beifong found out he'd let her in the same room as a sick person, he'd be fired for sure. He liked having a job, thanks.
"I can pass a message to him, if you want." Yun offered.
Toph tilted her head, seeming to consider this, before nodding. "Tell him he better get well soon."
That sound amazingly like a threat, Yun marveled.
"Oh," Toph added, "-make sure to tell him I said happy birthday too."
"I'll be sure to tell-," was all he managed to get out before what she'd said actually caught up with him. Opening his mouth, Yun could only gape for a few seconds, processing what he'd just been told.
Today was Li's birthday?
Today was Li's birthday, and he hadn't told them?
He was just about to ask Toph if she was sure, only to realize that she'd already left. He scanned the area for her, but failed to find the Beifong heiress anywhere. She'd vanished, seemingly in the blink of an eye, making him wonder if she'd ever actually been there at all. Though given that the alternative was him hallucinating his employer's daughter...
...yeah, she'd definitely been there, he quickly decided.
"I need to talk to you."
Xia-Su blinked, just as Yun did the same. It was fortunate that she'd run into him in the hall on her way back from putting away Li's bowl, but she hadn't expected the echo.
"You go first." Yun said.
Xia-Su nodded, taking in a deep breath. "It's Li's birthday."
Rather than look shocked, Yun just blinked. "You knew?"
"I just found out." Xia-Su said, frowning. "Wait, you knew?"
"I just found out!" Yun was quick to defend himself. "I met the little lady outside. She's the one who told me."
Xia-Su blinked again. "The young miss was here?"
"She came to check on Li, apparently." Yun told her. "She was worried."
In spite of herself, Xia-Su couldn't help but smile at that. It was obvious that Li cared about the young miss- he had fretted far too much about finding her a good present to not- but it was nice to know that the sentiment was apparently returned.
But she'd be lying if she wasn't a little jealous- and more than a little hurt- that Li had apparently told her today was his birthday, and not them. Did he really think they wouldn't care?
Well, that was just all the more reason to prove him wrong.
"We need to do something about this." Xia-Su said.
"What, about the little lady?" Yun asked.
"No, not about her." Xia-Su rolled her eyes. "About Li! We need to show him we care."
"We do care." Yun blinked. "What, does he not know that or something?"
"I don't know." Xia-Su admitted with a frustrated sigh. "He didn't tell us it was his birthday today. His birthday! We should have all celebrated it together, but he didn't even mention it."
"And you think that means he doesn't think we care?" Yun asked.
"Maybe." Xia-Su said. "Or maybe he just thinks he's not important enough."
"Well that's bull." Yun snorted. "Of course he is."
"Right." Xia-Su said. "Which is why we need to make sure he understands that."
Crossing his arms in front of him, Yun nodded. "Makes sense. So? What do we need to do to accomplish that?"
Xia-Su blinked, frowning. She hadn't actually thought that far ahead.
"I... suppose we could get him a present?" She suggested. "I don't think he expects to get anything, so a present might show that we think he means something."
And that he's worth something, she mentally added.
"What kind of present?" Yun asked. "It would have to be something he likes."
Her eyes narrowing in thought, Xia-Su rested a hand on her chin. What did they even know about what Li liked? He had so few personal possessions, that it was difficult to pin him down. Other than the single theater mask he'd hung on his wall as a decoration, and the swords and knife he'd had with him when he'd arrived, he really didn't have anything that was his. His clothes, maybe, but somehow a present of clothes didn't sound right.
"Spices?" She finally ventured, "-and masks."
Yun snorted. "Spices and masks."
Xia-Su just glared at him. "Then what do you think he likes?"
Yun very purposefully did not meet her eyes. "...swords?"
"Swords." Xia-Su repeated, before heaving a deep sigh. "Anything else?"
"...theater scrolls?" Yun suggested.
"Well, it's better than swords." Xia-Su admitted. "But what if we just got him something he hates? What if he took it the wrong way?"
"I think you may be overthinking this." Yun said. "Weren't you the one who said it's the thought that counts?"
"That was then, and this is now." Xia-Su glared at him, before heaving a long sigh. "At least if we had some idea of what he wanted..."
A vague image flickered in her mind's eye, causing her to blink. Narrowing her eyes, she tried to recall just what it was. If she recalled, during their shopping trip with Li...
"You have an idea?" Yun's voice broke her from her thoughts.
"Maybe." Xia-Su said, still somewhat uncertain. "Do you remember when we took him to the artisan's street?"
"How could I forget?" Yun asked. "He tried to buy the little lady a knife."
"And you tried to suggest buying her alcohol." Xia-Su pointed out. "Anyways, that's not the point. Do you remember the first shop we went to?"
"The pottery shop?" Yun asked. "What about it?"
"Do you think they still have that teacup?" Xia-Su asked.
"Teacup?" Yun asked, before seemingly remembering. "The one with the red flowers?"
Xia-Su nodded. "He seemed to like it."
At least, she thought he did. The look on his face... it had almost been nostalgic. But he'd set the cup down so quickly when she'd called out to him, that she couldn't be sure. But he did say he liked the design...
Yun hummed in consideration, stroking his mustache. "Well, it's better than more spices. You'd swear that kid had a Fire tongue."
Xia-Su snorted, but didn't deny it. "Don't tell Yang that. He'll take it the wrong way."
He was already convinced that Li was some kind of Fire Nation spy. None of them were exactly about to volunteer information that might make him think he was actually right. It was why she kept silent about the color of his eyes, and the way they reminded her of the soldier that had carried her to the healer's that night almost five years ago now.
And if his hands had twitched as if he had wanted to touch his scar when she'd mentioned her father, well, that was a secret between survivors, not something to be shared.
"Wouldn't dream of telling that bastard anything." Yun said. "I'll head down to the shop now. Maybe I can get something for Li's fever while I'm out too."
Xia-Su nodded. "Good plan."
"You be sure to keep an eye on him." Yun said. "I get the feeling he's going to become even more of a handful once he actually starts getting better."
Xia-Su laughed. That was far too easy to see. They might not know that much about who Li was, or where he had come from, but they certainly still knew him. And if there was one thing they had learned about Li, it was that he was as stubborn as they came.
And frankly, she wouldn't have it any other way.
Blinking awake, Zuko frowned. He didn't even remember falling asleep, but he must have. That was the only explanation for why the sun had already set.
Beside him, someone stirred. He tensed, reaching for the knife he kept hidden underneath his pillow, only to relax once they called out to him, recognizing the voice as Xia-Su's.
"Li?" She asked. "Are you awake?"
Guess she hadn't been kidding about staying by his side.
He nodded, pushing himself up into a sitting position. His vision didn't swim this time, he noticed. Placing a hand on his forehead, he realized that his temperature was back to normal. His fever was gone.
The fire sickness had passed.
"How's the fever?"
Zuko started a bit, glancing in the other direction, surprised to find that Yun there. Guess they both hadn't been kidding about staying by his side, then.
"Better." Zuko said. "I think it's gone now."
"Really?" Xia-Su asked, holding out her hand with a questioning tilt of her head. "Is it alright if I check?"
Zuko bit his lip, before nodding his head. Xia-Su smiled, resting her hand against his forehead, careful to avoid touching his scar. Her hands were chapped and dry, and he couldn't stop his heartbeat from picking up at the simple touch.
"You're right," Xia-Su said, pulling her hand away, "-it's back to normal."
"So does that mean I can stop resting?" Zuko ventured. It couldn't be that late. Maybe he could still catch up with Toph.
"Not a chance." Xia-Su said firmly. "When you're just about recovered is the most time dangerous time for fevers."
Zuko opened his mouth to protest, before his own stomach cut him off, loudly growling. He felt his cheeks heat up, ducking his head in embarrassment. With his fever gone, his nausea had vanished too- which meant he was back to being hungry. Come to think of it, all he'd eaten today was half a bowl of rice gruel...
Yun, damn him, let out a bark of laughter. "I think the kid's hungry."
"I think you might be on to something there." Xia-Su teased. "Hold on a minute. We still have some rice gruel left. I'll go heat it up."
"I'll help." Yun said, getting to his feet. "Don't you go anywhere kid."
Zuko only nodded, too embarrassed to look up. Thankfully, they pretty quickly. Exhaling, he glanced towards the door, briefly entertaining the thought of leaving while they were both gone.
Then his stomach growled again, and he quickly dismissed it. Food first.
They returned soon enough, Yun carrying a tray that contained a bowl of rice gruel and a teapot- but curiously enough, no teacup. He set them down next to him, crouching down to pick up the teapot, only to blink, as if only now realizing his mistake.
"Huh," he said, "-there's no teacup here."
"There sure isn't." Xia-Su said, her tone more than a little strange. "What should we do about it?"
Glancing up at her, he couldn't help but notice that she seemed to be hiding something behind her back. Arching a brow, he glanced back down to Yun, who almost seemed to be smirking.
Was this a prank? Was he being pranked?
"Well," Yun said, "-I guess we'll just have to find a teacup somewhere."
Xia-Su hummed. "Well, if it's a teacup you're looking for..."
She crouched down next to him, producing what she'd been hiding behind her back with a smile. "...then I might just have something you could use."
Zuko blinked, staring down at her hands. Sitting in it was a familiar teacup, vividly painted with a decoration of red lilies.
It was the same one he'd looked at while searching for a present for Toph, two months ago. The one that had reminded him so much of fire lilies- and of home. Looking up at Xia-Su, she met his perplexed expression with a smile still, placing the cup down.
"We both remembered how much you seemed to like it." She said by way of explanation. "We thought it would make a good gift."
"You didn't think we'd let your birthday pass without a present, right?" Yun chimed in, beaming.
He did, actually. That was why he hadn't even bothered to mention it to anyone but Toph. Not because he expected Toph to give him a present, but just... he didn't think it was that important. Even when he was still a prince, birthday celebrations had been more about putting on a show for the nobility than they had actually been about him. Father certainly never gave him any presents- only his mother had.
And then she'd vanished, and the only person left who gave him presents was Uncle.
Ducking his head, he sucked in a breath. Was it really okay for him to keep doing this? To keep taking advantage of these people's kindness like this? They didn't even know what he was, much less who he was.
"Do you not like it?" Xia-Su asked.
"No!" Zuko said, snapping his head up. "I just- you didn't have to do this."
"I know." Xia-Su said. "But we wanted to."
Swallowing, Zuko looked at the both of them- at their smiles, their kind faces. He still didn't know what was right, but there was one thing he knew for sure- that he was happy. Not only had they spent all day looking after him while he was sick, they had also bought him a present- had remembered something so small as him looking at a teacup once. How could he not be happy?
"Thank you," Zuko said, "-really. Thank you."
Xia-Su and Yun exchanged a glance, before they turned to look back at him with a smile.
"Happy birthday, Li."
Outside of Li's room, Toph smiled to herself, leaning against the exterior wall of the servant's quarters.
She'd been worried about Li being alone on his birthday, but she guessed her worries had all been for nothing. She should have known- it was obvious from the way most of the servants spoke of Li that they cared for him a lot. They knew what she knew- that Li was less of a raging inferno, too dangerous to get close to, and more like a warm campfire- a constant, reassuring presence that kept people warm even on the coldest nights.
For sighted people, they weren't bad, she decided.
Pushing off the wall, she walked away. If she knew Li- and she did- she'd see him tonight at some point. For now, she'd let the rest of his family look after him.
"Happy birthday, Scruffy!"
"Now come here and let me beat you up for pretending you weren't sick."
Zuko took one look at the glint in Toph's eyes, and ran.