“I’m watching you, I’m watching her, I’ll take no pity from your friends.”
There was a loud, frantic knocking at the door and Zuko groaned, covering his face with his hand. He stayed still on the worn, faded couch in the apartment his Uncle paid for hoping whoever was knocking would get tired and leave him alone.
The knocking continued, louder this time.
He spread his fingers over the large mark on his face, cursing the pain he received from doing so.
‘I swear to God, if that’s Azula…’ He thought to himself, still making no move from the couch.
Ever since the accident occurred a little over two weeks ago, the calls from Azula and Co., have been insistent, driving him on more than one occasion to take his wall phone off the receiver hoping that would stop the incessant ringing at least somewhat. And now she - or one of them - was trying to visit him? Ridiculous. He didn’t even know how they got his number, let alone the address to the apartment he was staying at.
There was no cease to the knocking, and he finally lifted up his head and proceeded to yell, “Whoever is out there, go away! I’m not interested.” Of course, the yelling in combination with the loud knocking caused another headache to start forming behind his eyes.
The knocking stopped momentarily and Zuko relaxed briefly. Hopefully whoever it was got the message that he was not interested.
Suddenly a soft voice from behind the door said, “It’s me, nephew.”
Iroh. Well, at least that was better than his annoying sister and her even more annoying friends.
“Nephew, can you let me in?” His Uncle’s soft, yet rumbly voice asked.
Zuko hesitated, not really in the mood to talk to anyone, even Iroh. However, Iroh was the one paying for the apartment, so he figured he had to let him.
Slowly getting up from the couch, he kept one hand lightly over the left side of his face, as he used his free hand to guide him toward the door. The apartment was pitch black, as Zuko had kept it since he moved in. Even the windows were blocked by the large shades, as bright light of any kind caused massive migraines to form. Another great side-effect from the accident!
He brushed his hands over the backside of the couch as he slowly moved to the door. Bracing himself for the inevitable light of the hallway, he closed his swollen left eye and opened the door to see Iroh.
“Oh, nephew,” Iroh said sadly at the pitiful sight of Zuko. Feeling a rush of anger swell inside him, Zuko turned away from the sad expression on his Uncle’s face. He hated pity of any kind, as his Father drove it into his mind at a young age that being pitied was a fate worse than death.
“What, Uncle?” Zuko asked, hating the bitter tone in his voice. He owed Iroh everything nowadays, yet he couldn’t help to be pissed at everyone he saw, even his kind and caring Uncle.
Zuko walked away from the door, slowly guiding himself back over to the couch and sitting down on it once more.
He kept his face turned away from his Uncle, he didn’t want to see Iroh’s sad expression as he took in the pitch blackness of the apartment. While his Uncle had been keeping in touch with him over the phone, the whole aftermath of the accident had kept Uncle too busy to actually come and see Zuko in person. Until now.
Iroh closed the door softly behind him, before walking into the apartment. He stood in the center of the small kitchen and living room and made no move to sit down.
“Sitting in darkness will not help you, nephew.” He spoke softly, keeping his voice low.
“The brightness gives me migraines,” Zuko growled, his hand still spread over the left side of his face.
“Why are you here, Uncle?” He asked, keeping his open eye down to avoid the hurt look that passed over Iroh’s face.
“I’m worried about you,” Iroh moved over to stand directly in front of Zuko’s place on the couch. “Dr. Jee told me you haven’t been to any of the scheduled therapist sessions.”
Zuko groaned, annoyed that the therapist had told Iroh this. He’s not a minor anymore for God’s sake! Shouldn’t the therapist not be telling Iroh this stuff? It’s his business.
Almost as if reading Zuko’s thoughts, Iroh said quietly, “He told me because I am paying for these scheduled sessions. And he and I both think it’ll do you good to get out of the apartment for a little while.”
Another flare of guilt welled its way into Zuko’s heart. While he was grateful for Iroh for taking care of… all this, he hated spending the poor man’s money. It made him feel weak. Another emotion that was drilled into him to never express.
“Uncle, if I step into bright sunlight I get an immediate migraine. I can’t leave.” He replied lamely. While this was partly true, he also had no desire to attend a therapy session and talk about his weak, pitiful feelings.
“Zuko, you know Dr. Jee has offered to meet you here in order to avoid any discomfort going outside may cause you.” Iroh replied, somewhat sternly yet still gentle at the same time.
Zuko bit back another groan. He did know this, as Dr. Jee left a voicemail saying the exact thing. Yet, he had ignored it, as he annoyed all of the therapist’s calls. His father forced him to understand that a man does not show weakness. And talking to a therapist about his issues? That was the biggest sign of weakness of all.
“Tell me, honestly, why you are avoiding him.” Iroh replied, walking back over to the small kitchen nook at the side of the apartment.
Zuko followed Iroh’s movements with his eyes, noting as Iroh rifled through the cabinets looking for… something.
“I’m ashamed,” He muttered softly. Even though he didn’t want to tell Iroh any of this, he knew the man wouldn’t leave until he admitted something.
“Ashamed of what?” Iroh asked as he put a kettle on the stove Zuko never used, apparently finding what he was looking for.
“Of everything!” Zuko snapped, his voice raising as the pounding behind his eyes increased. “Of what happened to me! The fact that people found out! I was handling myself fine, and it’s not like it was the first time something like this happened,” His voice trailed off at the end.
“Zuko,” Iroh said softly as he walked back over to the couch with two cups of tea in his hand. “If you had not gone to the hospital, you would have died! And just because it’s happened before, albeit not to this extent, does not make it okay.”
Zuko took the outstretched cup of tea from his Uncle, and Iroh sat on the lumpy chair opposite him. He kept his eyes focused on the dark color of the tea as he said quietly, “Father told me if anyone ever found out, he’d kill me. I’m ashamed that I told someone, and I’m afraid of what he’s going to do! If he finds me, I’m-I…” He stuttered, his voice cutting off, not able to finish the sentence.
“Zuko, your Father is not going to find you.” Iroh responded, his eyes willing Zuko to meet his gaze. “I have already implemented a restraining order against him. Even though he was able to get out of any prison sentence from the accident, if he violates this order he will go to jail. I will see to it myself.”
Zuko hung his head, “Thank you, Uncle.” He whispered, annoyed once more that his Uncle has to do everything for him. “Are you mad at me?” He asked, a tone of fear in his voice.
“Mad at you? Why would I be mad at you?” Iroh questioned, astonished.
“Because you have to pay and deal with all of this! You pay for my apartment, you paid for the hospital expenses and the therapist, and if I go to college next month, you’ll have to pay for that too! And I didn’t even tell the police the full extent of what Father did.” Zuko responded. How was Uncle not mad at him? Or upset? His Uncle had done so much for him and Zuko hasn’t repaid him at all.
“Zuko,” His Uncle said sternly, “I am happy to pay for all of this. I’ve offered to take you out of that house for years. I am not mad at you. And I understand why you didn’t - why you couldn’t - tell the police everything.”
Zuko looked up at Iroh, finally meeting his gaze. “You’re not mad at me?” He repeated.
“I’m not mad at you.” Uncle agreed, confidently. “I am only worried for you.”
Zuko nodded, focusing his eyes again on the still warm tea in his hand.
“How about this,” Iroh started. “You go to one therapist meeting,” He focused his attention on the wall calendar in the kitchen. “On Tuesday. If you hate it, you don’t have to go anymore. And Dr. Jee can meet you here.” Iroh finished.
Zuko hesitated, then nodded. Even though Iroh had insisted Zuko didn’t owe him anything, he still felt like he had to do this. He still felt the guilt and the desire to pay back Iroh somehow for all he’s done. “Alright.” He finished.
“Great. I’ll call him after I leave. Everything will be okay, Zuko, I promise. Now,” And here Iroh’s voice took on a tone of happiness. “Drink your tea!”
Zuko offered a weak smile, before doing just that. Tuesday. That was only three days away.
The therapist - Dr. Jee - was not as horrid as he thought. But it was still pretty annoying.
“And have you been taking the medication the hospital has given you?” Dr. Jee asked, a notepad resting on his lap as he sat on the couch in the apartment.
“Yes.” Zuko said curtly.
Dr. Jee nodded, writing this down. “And have the migraines receded, at all?”
“Somewhat,” Zuko replied honestly. “I can go outside or leave the lights on and it doesn’t bother me like it used to. But loud noises still hurt a lot.”
Dr. Jee wrote this down, before hesitating. “And how do you deal with… people?”
“People?” Zuko asked, confused.
“Being around people. Does it bother you?”
Zuko grimaced. It did. Even when he walked the few steps down to the lobby of the apartment building, he could feel the astonished and pitiful gazes of the people looking at the giant mark on his face.
“Zuko?” Dr. Jee prompted.
“I hate it!” Zuko snapped. “They all stare at me and at the mark of my face. I’m not asking for pity. Why can’t they just look away and leave me alone?”
Dr. Jee looked at him sympathetically, “People are always confused by what they don’t understand.”
“Yeah, well, it sucks! I hate it. I hate my face.”
Dr. Jee noted this, before changing the subject. “And are you still planning on attending college in a few weeks?”
College. Before the accident, Zuko was thrilled to be attending school. New York University, his top choice, accepted him as an undecided major to start as a freshman this fall. Now, with all that happened, he couldn’t imagine being around so many people in class, all of them staring at him. But what other choice did he have? If he got a job, it would be the same way. And Iroh was paying his tuition. If he didn’t go to college, his Uncle would be paying for everything unnecessarily. And he hated that more than anything.
“I-I don’t know.” He said in a soft voice to the Doctor. “I don’t want them all to be staring at me. But I can’t keep freeloading off my Uncle.”
“Do you want to attend college?” Dr. Jee asked slowly.
After a moment’s hesitation, Zuke replied. “Yeah, I mean I think I do. When I was in High School, it was all I thought about. To be away from my father and my sister and her friends. To start over somewhere new. Of course, with the scar.” He waved his hand around the left side of his face. “I won’t really be over to start anew, now.”
“Well,” Dr. Jee started, glancing at his watch. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“What you can do?” Zuko asked, guardingly.
“About the scar. If you want to attend school - and I think it’d be good for you to go - I’ll talk to your Uncle and the other doctors to see if there is any way we can make college more comfortable for you.”
Zuko had no idea what Dr. Jee was getting at, but he hesitantly nodded. “Okay.”
“Unfortunately,” Dr. Jee said, glancing at his watch and closing his notepad. “It’s the end of our session. But I think we have made good progress here, Zuko. I’ll be in touch.” He held out his hand and Zuko shook it carefully.
As the doctor made his way out of the apartment, Zuko flopped back onto the couch. He had no idea what Dr. Jee was planning to ‘make college easier for him’ and he almost didn’t want to know.
The next day, Zuko kept his hand over the left side of his face and headphones on as he sat on the subway. It was his first time riding the subway in over a month, and even though most New York people would leave you alone, he still didn’t want any sideways looks at his scar. He kept his right eye focused down on the cassette in his hand, listening to Joy Division's “Unknown Pleasures.”
He couldn’t believe he agreed to this. Meeting Iroh at a small diner in mid Manhattan. It was the farthest he’s been outside the apartment since the accident, yet when Iroh asked to meet for lunch, he couldn’t say no. Not after everything Iroh has done. Even though Uncle insisted over and over that he didn’t want Zuko to repay him in any way, he still felt a burning desire that he had to. Of course, that was the leftover emotions his Father had ingrained in him.
At the thought of his Father, he closed his eyes tighter, trying to keep his mind focused on the music in his ears. He couldn’t think of his Father. There was no way he could deal with a flashback on a subway for God’s sake. ‘You’re fine.’ He thought to himself over and over in a mantra. ‘You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.’
The subway screeched to a halt, and he opened his eyes, praying that he arrived at his destination. But he hadn’t. There was no platform anyway nearby.
He pulled one ear of the headphone off his head to listen to what was happening.
Over the intercom, a crackling voice said, “We have been stopped momentarily. We apologize for the delay.” And then abruptly shut off.
The other riders on the subway groaned out loud.
He slipped the headphone back over his ear. A subway halt. Fan-fucking-tastic. This was just what he needed.
Zuko turned the volume up on his cassette, praying that the thundering volume could drown out his runaway thoughts.
‘Don’t think about it. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.’ He said, slowly mouthing the words, not caring what the other passengers thought.
But as the subway stayed still, he couldn’t help but to remember the last time a subway halted.
Even though he did all he could to resist thinking about it, the memory slipped in folded, sideways, and upside down.
It was May, only two months before the accident had occurred. It was his last week before High School ended, and as he rode the subway home from school to his Father’s house, the subway halted.
‘No,’ Zuko thought, his eyes open in horror, ‘Please God, no.’
Ozai was strict about the time Zuko and Azula were required to be home from school. Even though Azula always avoided the brunt of it, by calling from Ty Lee’s Nokia and saying she was going over to her house after school, Zuko had no one to go to. And if he was late…
“Fuck.” He said softly. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Ozai was going to kill him.
He felt his breathing accelerate as he prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for the subway to start again.
Zuko was required to be home by 3:30. Even if he was only one minute late, he would still get it.
He checked his watch as he tapped his foot anxiously. 3:20. There was no way he was going to be home in time.
After a groaning noise, the subway started moving again as those around him cheered. But he couldn’t. The momentary stop has ruined any hope for him to get into his house quietly and without an incident.
The minute the subway pulled up to the stop, Zuko jumped up running between the other passengers as they cursed and shouted obscenities to him. He ran as fast as he could out of the subway stop, his breath tightening in his chest.
The outside air was hot, even with all the coverage from the skyscrapers, but he couldn’t stop running. As he pushed through people on the street, they all glared at him and shouted.
‘Please God, please God, please God.’ Was the only thing he could think as he ran, anxiety pushing him forwards.
He paused outside the monumental brownstone his family lived in on the Upper West Side. Zuko checked his watch. 3:32. Oh, fuck.
Zuko felt an overwhelming desire to keep running. To not stop and keep going until he was in downtown Manhattan in his Uncle Iroh’s apartment. But staying away even longer, especially by going to Iroh’s, would only result in an even bigger punishment.
Remembering what his Uncle always said whenever he had an attack, “Keep your breathing even, nephew. Focus. Calm breaths.” Zuko took a moment to breathe. In, out. In, out. He could do this, he thought. But his shaking hands gave him away.
He slowly entered his key in the door of the house, going in slowly.
At first, his eyes had to become adjusted to the darkness of the foyer, a sharp contrast to the outside brightness. Maybe he was in luck. Maybe Ozai had to stay longer at his office for some reason. Maybe he could go to his room unseen. Maybe-
All of his hopeful thoughts were broken off as his gaze focused on his Father, sitting in a stiff armchair in the foyer, his piercing golden gaze focused on Zuko.
“Close the door, Zuko.” Ozai said calmingly.
Zuko felt his hands shaking as he closed the door slowly behind him. Don’t give away fear, that’ll only make it worse.
“Father, I’m-” Zuko started, before being cut off.
“What time did I tell you to be home by?” Ozai asked, his voice still eerily calm.
“3:30.” Zuko gulped.
“And what time is it?”
Zuko glanced at his watch. “3:35.” He whispered.
Before Ozai could speak again, Zuko rushed his words. “Father I’m sorry, the-the subway halted, I didn’t-”
He couldn’t finish, Ozai had stood up and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Ozai’s eyes were unfeeling, cold, calculated.
“You can’t do anything I ask.” His father hissed, his free hand winding back. “I pay the bills for you to live here. I pay for the private school you attend. I bring home food. Yet you still can’t do anything I ask.”
“I’m sorry-” Zuko started again, the tremble in his voice giving him away.
The slap came harder and it wasn’t until he felt the hot-red heat on his face that he realized it happened.
“You’re pathetic.” Ozai growled, pushing Zuko backwards, “A weak excuse of a man. Get out of my sight.”
Zuko knew better than to respond. He silently picked himself up and walked slowly up to his room.
It wasn’t until he sat on his bed that the hot tears came down his face.
The subway started up again and Zuko blinked out of the memory.
His hands were trembling, and he sat on them to try to keep himself calm. ‘It’s okay, you’re okay.’ He repeated to himself again and again. ‘Focus on your breathing.’
Zuko took long calm breaths. He wasn’t seeing Ozai. He was seeing Iroh. Iroh wouldn’t mind if he was late. Iroh wouldn’t do anything. He was fine, he was fine, he was fine.
The subway groaned to a halt outside the train stop. Zuko kept his breathing even, his pace calm as he walked out of the train and out of the underground. As he walked, he saw New Yorkers give passing glances to his scar. Some widened their eyes in horror. Some looked away. But the ones he hated the most were the glances of pity he got.
He returned his hand to the left side of his face, as he walked evenly and calmly to the diner he was meeting Iroh at. Zuko was fine. He was fine.
“Nephew!” Iroh called excitedly as Zuko made his way into the diner.
Iroh moved his arms out to hug Zuko, and Zuko flinched at the approach. He hated being touched even more than he hated being looked at.
Iroh seemed to realize what had happened and he lowered his arms, looking apologetic. “Sit,” He said pointing towards one of the chairs. “I already ordered for us, I hope you don’t mind.”
Zuko nodded. He couldn’t mind. It was Iroh’s money paying for it, after all.
“So, why did you want to meet, Uncle?” Zuko asked after they both sat down.
“I was on the phone with Dr. Jee and some of the doctors. They agreed the progress you’ve made in recovery has been phenomenal!” Iroh smiled, and Zuko returned a weak one.
“Now, nephew,” Iroh said, picking up his cup of tea. “Dr. Jee mentioned you still have an interest in attending New York University when school starts next week.”
Zuko shrugged slightly. “I guess. I mean it’s all I thought about for so long… But with the accident...” He trailed off, his hand gesturing to his face.
“Dr. Jee mentioned that. I understand your concern around so many people, so we came up with an idea.” Iroh lowered and picked up something from under his chair.
He handed the object to Zuko who looked at it confusingly. It looked like a Halloween costume. It was a white mask, fitted for the left side of Zuko’s face. He put it on cautiously. It went from the top of the left side of his forehead to right above the left side of his mouth. “A mask?” He asked.
Iroh nodded. “It was Dr. Jee’s idea. And the doctors who treated you said it might be a good idea to cover your scar for at least a month or so to keep germs out and allow it to heal properly. What do you think?”
Zuko hesitated. A mask. The other students at school would probably think he was so strange. But most people in High School thought he was weird anyway, for not having any friends. Seeming weird to people would be better than them seeing his scar and giving him pity. Besides, maybe it would keep people from asking about his face.
“Okay.” He replied, lifting the mask up and fitting it in place.