In some ways, it's easy travelling with his aunt. Everyone thinks she's his mom.
No one questions why they are always together. No one suspects the poor widowed woman and her son of anything nefarious. No one does anything but laugh when she hugs him or kisses his forehead or insists on walking arm in arm like he's a proper escort.
In other ways, it's horrible. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth that no amount of tea can cleanse.
The other refugees are so understanding, so forgiving. They all offer him tentative smiles on the boat to Ba Sing Se, and he can see the orphans eyeing him with envy. Jet and Smellerbee and even the solemn Longshot watch them interact like a starving man does food and sit so closely that Zuko barely dares breathe much less anything else.
Later, the teashop is even worse. The patrons tease him about being attached to her apron strings, and the neighborhood girls giggle behind their hands when she pats his cheek. The men laugh and flirt with her outrageously but always cast watchful glances his direction. One even asks him for Ilah's hand in marriage and promises that Zuko will enjoy having his two daughters as sisters.
Even that idiot the Avatar and his friends all think the same thing. They've said as much to his face and then wonder why he flings fire at them so much afterward.
But Aunt Ilah isn't his mom. She'll never be his mom. His mom is gone, probably dead, and his father set his face on fire. His sister hates him and wants him gone. Wants to use and manipulate him. Just like she's trying to do now.
Azula simply smiles that same smug smile as always and barely casts a glance at their aunt in her crystal cage. Her words are more slippery than a serpent-eel, and they twist inside his spirit more surely than the Face-Stealer could ever manage. And Zuko knows it's a lie; Azula always lies. He knows it's a trick.
But it's such a tempting offer. He could go home. He could be welcomed back. He could have it all. His own bed. His own clothes. His throne. His father's regard.
All he has to do is turn away. All he has to do is turn Ilah in, allow her to be taken. All he has to do is stand there and do nothing.
And through it all, Ilah remains silent. His aunt just looks from one of them to the other. However, her eyes seek Zuko the most. Azula is her niece too, but his sister has never liked anyone in their family but their father. She doesn't know that Ilah's tea is the best in the city. Or that she sings better than most professional performers. That her hands are soft under the calluses as she leads him through his katas. That she's looked after him and protected him when everyone else long ago fell away.
His aunt for his home. His guardian and guide for his throne. Ilah for Ozai.
Zuko swallows hard.
This would be easier if Ilah were a man. If he didn't faintly remember her singing to him when he was delirious in between begging him to get better. If she was taller and actually came up to his shoulder. If she didn't smile at him the same way she had Lu Ten and constantly reach up to brush hair from his face. If she didn't have the same gleam to her eyes that his real mom did and look the way Ursa had the night she disappeared.
"Zuko," Ilah murmurs as he stares at her, and her face is soft. Understanding. Full of sorrow and hope both. Affection.
She loves him. She didn't even fight back; she won't fight back. She's already forgiven him for something he's yet to do. She'd give herself up and over to certain death just to make him happy.
Zuko closes his eyes then and makes his decision. He turns to Azula, and she merely smirks as he steps closer. The Dai Li are gone; Azula's so sure of herself that she sent them away, but he doesn't doubt that they linger out of sight. However, neither they nor Azula see his hands behind his back or the motion he makes with his fingers. Ilah betrays nothing as he walks over to his sister, but Azula is all smiles. She knows that she's won. That she's prevailed. That she's brought her brother back into line and conquered the Dragon of the West.
His attack hits her so hard in the chest that she's blasted from her feet; Azula doesn't even have time to be surprised. Much less to respond to the following fires. She hits the ground with enough force that her shoulder and head collide, and her world dissolves into red and then black. She comes to three days later with bandages over her entire right arm, a new lump on her head, and burns on her chest.
Ilah and Zuko are long gone.