Zuko remembers fingerpainting. It’s among his earliest memories. He remembers small pots of color laid down on a large picnic blanket in the middle of the living room. Bright white sheets of construction paper. He remembers warm hands taking his and guiding them into the paint and back onto the paper.
A soft voice, “See Zuko, like this. Do you know what color you call this?”
He remembers smashing his hands onto the paper. Red. Green. Yellow! He remembers touching his own face by accident and getting paint on it. How his mom would wrap him up in her arms and take him to the kitchen sink to clean him up. What she used to call him. My little monkey.
They had only done things like that when Father was away. Every time he went away on a work trip Zuko would get secretly happy. Because Father being away meant that at night he got to sleep in the big king bed with mom. It was a huge bed, mahogany, with a large imposing headboard. She looked so small in it.
Up until the age of five Azula would join them too. Those were good times. Mom would read stories in bed. The two of them cuddled up to her with the covers pulled up to their chins. With mom between them Azula wouldn’t be pinching and prodding him. They would laugh together and demand a second story, then a third, and mom would have no choice but to comply.
After she turned five, Azula stopped coming, “We’re too old to sleep in the bed with mom, Zuzu .”
He remembers asking mom about that, “Azula told me. Is it true? Am I too old?”
He remembers her answer, “I’ll always love you, Zuko. No matter how old you get. You can always come be with me.”
That had been a lie.
He thinks about all of this on the nights before he prepares finger-painting lessons for his class. He has a small apartment on the edge of town, there’s a craft store nearby. He buys the materials himself, out of his own pocket. As he has an ongoing ‘working relationship problem’ with the school art teacher, he refuses to ask to borrow materials from him. He will not , repeat not , give Jet that satisfaction.
The project is simple, and it actually ties into a book he’s been reading to the class. One that most of them can actually read themselves. Sunflower Sal. He’s going to let them cut out green stems from construction paper. He has brown construction paper for the center of the flower. Cutting a perfect circle is hard, so he might pre-cut those. Then they’ll fingerpaint the petals around the flower's center.
It’s the second year he’s done this project, and it’s usually very popular. Well, the actual project isn’t that popular. The ‘free-for-all’ with fingerpaint he opens up afterward, where he rolls out a large white sheet of paper--several feet long, and lets all of them go to town on it, that’s really popular.
It was a glorious moment last year when he dropped off his class at Jet’s art classroom and little Jing Jin looked Jet straight in the eye and said, “Mr. Sugita gives us the best art projects.”
He had received a text later.
Stay in your lane, fucker.
That had been a great day.
A few days later he breaks up a fight, coaxes out an apology out of the ‘fight-stirrer-upper’ and talks to the kid who appears more emotional about it in the corner. It’s the corner behind his desk.
“I told him about Hoppy and he was mean!” the kid wails, he’s still full-on crying, and Zuko’s first priority is to get him to calm down.
“Who’s Hoppy?” Zuko asks respectfully.
“My bunny,” the kid explains.
“That’s a good name for a bunny. Does Hoppy like carrots?”
“NO. Hoppy is a stuff animal bunny. He doesn’t eat anything .”
“Do you like to play with Hoppy?”
“Yeah,” the kid says, only sniffling now.
“What did he say about Hoppy?”
“He said only babies sleep with stuff animals.” the kid says in a small voice, looking all glum and staring at his feet.
“Okay. What do you think?” Zuko asks.
He could easily say. That’s not true. But he wants the kid to get there himself.
“Think about it.” Zuko says, he’s crouching down to be eye-level with this kid, and his knees are starting to hurt just a bit. It doesn’t matter though, for his babies, he would stay down here forever.
“I like Hoppy.” the kid says.
“And does holding Hoppy when you sleep make you happy?”
“Does your holding Hoppy hurt anyone?”
The kid looks at him all weird, “No.”
“So, do you think it’s okay?” Zuko asks again.
“I--I think so. But he doesn’t.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to be just like everyone else. You’re you. And you’re very special.”
“You are. I promise.”
Fully calm now. Good.
Zuko watches him go back to the play area. He remembers fingerpaint and he remembers his mother. He remembers sleeping in the bed with her. The last time, before she left. The familiar pang of sadness. But it’s not as strong anymore. The image of a kid and a stuffed bunny named Hoppy fill the corners of his mind instead.
Happiness, you know, you’re never going to be too old for it.
Zuko remembers being thirteen and screaming because his face was on fire. He doesn’t remember the week after. Apparently he was in shock. He does remember waking up.
His throat felt so dry. He couldn’t see very well. And his eye burned . Still. Still. His heart rate sped up, and he had to get out. He had to go. It wasn’t safe. Everywhere he looked he saw the image of his father. And fear . No. No. Don’t. Please. Please.
He was in a hospital. And he was alone. Without realizing it, he started screaming again. People came running in. One of them was Uncle. He remembers something being injected into his arm, and falling asleep again.
He’s vaguely aware of this happening two more times. But the fourth time he wakes up Uncle is holding his hand, and touching the unbandaged side of his face. He plants a kiss on Zuko’s forehead.
His heart rate is still going. Really, really fast. But he doesn’t scream this time. Just, just barely.
Uncle doesn’t even say anything, he just holds Zuko’s hand. It’s not really a hand hold so much as Zuko squeezing Uncle’s hand so hard he could probably break bone. Because a soft touch would burn him, a hard touch wouldn’t. For some reason, that makes sense. He can’t touch Uncle, or anyone, softly right now. (It’ll take years before he can).
His father’s touch before the boiling water against his face, that had been soft. It had almost been a trick. A fake out. In the minutes before it happened, he had genuinely believed that father was going to pull him close and tell him it was alright. Suddenly he can’t bear to touch Uncle anymore and he lets him go.
There’s red marks where Zuko’s fingers had been. Uncle says nothing. Zuko wants to climb out of his own skin. He wants to tear off the bandages and scratch at his own face. It itches and it hurts but he wants to do something.
He doesn’t say all of this, three years later, in therapy.
“It hurt I guess,” that’s all he can say.
Even when prompted, directed, over hours and hours. Over several sessions. He can never say it.
He feels a bit mad too. Even though he likes Maya, and her methods, her black leather couch, and she’s never really ever pushed him.
You would never understand! Even if I told you. It felt like fire. Does THAT mean anything to you?
He does eventually manage to get something of substance out, “At first, before, I thought he was going to hug me.”
Then he’s just laughing, and even Maya looks a little worried; she tries to hide it, but he can tell, she always looks just the tiniest bit worried about him. He can’t stop laughing.
I thought he was going to hug me. Oh. Oh my god. I thought. I actually thought.
The incident comes to mind for some reason, when he’s behind his desk. Having just discovered one of his resident troublemaker's making a mess in his supply boxes. He’s taken out everything. Zuko doesn’t know how he possibly missed this. He was doing reading hour with the other kids, and in the meantime this .
Everything is a mess. Zuko organizes his supplies very, very well. Now it’s all chaos. Some of the art materials have got into the reading materials. There’s glitter on the workbooks. Oh no. Glitter doesn’t come out of anything. It’s frustrating. He’s frustrated. And yeah, a little bit mad.
But then he sees the kid looking back at him, he’s worried . The kid looks back to him, and back at the ruined stuff. And he looks scared. Zuko hasn’t even said or done anything yet, and he still looks scared.
Zuko forgets everything he’s thinking about. Friendly letter to parents. Moving the little plastic turtle that represents this kid on the ‘board of behavior’ to the ‘red zone’.
“Hey. Hey it’s okay. It’s just stuff. I’m not mad. I’m not mad.” Zuko crouches down on his knees again, because good-god there’s a lot of that in this profession.
The kid looks instantly calmed. Something in Zuko’s heart snaps like a twig. Attention. He did it for attention. My attention.
“Why did you do that?”
We’ll work on it.
“You never have to be scared of me getting mad, okay? You have to listen to grown-ups. But not because they’ll get mad if you don’t.”
“No red zone?”
“No. This is still not okay. And you’re going to the red zone.”
“Oh.” the kid says, but he also seems relieved, he throws his little arms around Zuko’s neck.
“Thank you, teacher.”
Zuko remembers his father’s anger. And his Uncle’s love. He thinks of the softness of this kid’s grip. How could anyone possibly justify hurting a child? He remembers the feeling of fire, his own screaming. But over it he hears that soft, high voice. Thanks, teacher. This kid feels safe with him. And that matters. More than anything. More than the feel of fire on his face.
Zuko remembers Uncle feeding him. It was in the first days after being discharged from the hospital. He was still angry. Not in any particular direction. But just angry. In later years Maya helped him understand that being angry helped him to not feel other things, but ultimately didn’t help him move on. She was a good therapist.
“Zuko. You have to eat.”
Just to be clear, there had been no reason why Zuko wasn’t eating. Not really. There was nothing wrong with his stomach. He was hungry. For that matter there wasn’t any real reason why Iroh was feeding him either. Except the fact that his stomach was literally rumbling with hunger. And he wasn’t, eating that is. Someone had to do something. And Iroh was someone. It made him angry though. Just the idea of it.
“I’m not a kid!”
“You are not.” Iroh says simply.
It doesn’t stop him from spoon-feeding Zuko crushed bananas. It doesn’t stop him from tucking him in at night, as if Zuko was still eight years old. Careful not to really touch him though. Just bringing the covers up to his neck, and leaving him there. Zuko wants to throw them off and scream. But Uncle has been so kind already.
It’s weird. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. But he doesn’t know how it’s supposed to be. Not then.
At midnight he drags himself into the bathroom and dry heaves over the toilet. But he hasn’t eaten that much, and he can’t throw up.
“Zuko?” he hears a voice behind him.
“I’m sorry.” he says it instinctively, “I won’t. I won’t do it again.”
“Come out from there.”
He does. Ashamed.
Uncle disappears into the room’s only closet, and pulls out a book.
“What’s that?” Zuko asks.
“It is one of my favorite stories.”
“I’m not a kid! I’m thirteen. You don’t have to keep treating me like one. I'm not your kid either.” Zuko snaps. He’s angry again.
But when he sees Uncle's face, he feels bad. Just a little.
“In that case, I will read it to myself.”
Zuko remembers getting into bed again. He remembers Uncle sitting beside him. Reading the story. The Ugly Duckling. He remembers thinking its a stupid story. About a stupid bird. With stupid problems. And this is entirely annoying. And a waste of time. But when Uncle leaves he falls asleep.
From then on it becomes a routine every night. Not always the same book. But always a book . Maybe it’s the way Uncle reads. Slow, and in his accent. He doesn’t pronounce all the words right, not the way they’re meant to be said, and Zuko often has to correct him. But it feels safe. And good. Or safer and more good than Zuko's felt in a long while.
He makes sure to tell him that this is ‘dumb’ and he ‘doesn’t need it’. But Uncle insists he’s reading these stories for himself, and that he used to read it to his son, Lu Ten, and he misses that. He says please , let me read them for you too. Just for a few minutes. It's never more than that. Never more than a handful of minutes. And Zuko doesn’t have it in him to say no.
Zuko has the copy of The Ugly Duckling in his classroom. Iroh’s copy. It’s his favorite story to read during ‘reading hour’.
He makes sure each kid eats their lunch, and if they’re not, he keeps an eye on it. He looks after these kids. Thinks of them, in his mind, almost as his own.
He does an assignment once, where he asks the kids to name teachers in their own lives, other than him, other than teachers who they call ‘teacher’. Like parents, siblings, and friends.
The assignment is simple enough, they have a broad sheet of white paper where they’re asked to write down a name, and then come to the front and say what they were taught. If they’re shy, they can just tell him by themselves.
Zuko does his own as an example. He writes the word Uncle . On the paper. Big black letters, so they can see.
He comes up to the front and he shows it to them, “My uncle taught me that it’s okay to accept help from the people that love you.”
They’re just kids, so he doesn’t say the second part. But he feels it in the way he looks at them. Their bright little faces. With his love, Uncle taught me to love again. And now I can. I do.
I love all of you.