“’scuse me?” It’s a tiny, sniffly voice and it’s accompanied by a tugging on the bottom of his cloak. Zuko looks down. “’scuse me?” The child looks like he’s trying very hard not to cry, but tears are slipping down his face and dropping onto his clothes. It’s obvious from the wear of them that he doesn’t come from a particularly wealthy family. “I’ve...” A sniff and a jerked series of breaths in. “I’ve lost my mom. Please, please can you help me?”
Zuko crouches down and goes to tug off his hood but thinks better of it. (He doesn’t want to cause a scene in the middle of the market.) “Of course,” he says, softly. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ken.” A wet cough-like sob. “I’m five.” The ‘five’ wavers and it’s obvious that the not-crying will be a losing battle any minute now.
“Nice to meet you, Ken. I’m Zuko.”
“Like... like the Firelord?”
“Yeah.” He smiles. “Like the Firelord. Would you like to sit on my shoulders, Ken? You might be able to see your mom that way.”
Zuko grabs the child round the waist (he’s tiny; half the size of Aang, and weighs less than one of Uncle’s tea-sets) and swings him up onto his shoulders, careful not to knock his hood off. As soon as the child’s up there, he starts twisting in every direction, looking frantically through the crowd for any sign of his mother, and Zuko has to unbutton the cloak clasp to prevent it from choking him.
“Careful, Ken,” he says.
Ken doesn’t listen. It’s ok. He said it quietly, anyway. “I can’t see her!” he wails.
“What does she look like?”
“She’s really pretty and she has long black hair and Daddy says we’ve got the same nose-” Ken cuts himself off, voice strangling in a throatful of panic. “I don’t know where she is! I can’t see her at all!”
“Ken,” says Zuko, as calmly as he can, “she’s not gone. She’ll be looking for you. If we just stay here, she’ll be able to see you above the crowd and find us both, ok?”
“Ok.” He digs around in his pant pocket and comes up with a clean rag, which he passes to Ken. “Now, dry your eyes and blow your nose and calm down, alright? We’ll find her.”
There’s the sound of a very messy nose-blowing and several sniffs. The rag is passed back to him in a small hand, covered in clear snot. Zuko takes it gingerly, folds it up, and stuffs it back into his pocket.
“What was she wearing today?”
“Um... red. And she’s got a basket.”
“A big basket?”
“A vegetable basket. It’s for the market. She was getting carromatos but I wanted to look at the fountain.”
“Was she wearing an apron? Or a hat?”
“Um, no. I can’t remember. I’m sorry...” Ken’s voice wavers and wobbles.
“It’s ok, Ken. It’s fine.” There don’t seem to be any panicked women with baskets that he can see, but hopefully-
“KEN!” There’s a shout from his bad side, a young woman’s shout, and he turns around as quickly as he can without unseating Ken.
“Mom!” yells Ken, and scrambles to get down. When he’s off, he runs, catapulting into the woman just as she crouches down to receive him, in the process dropping her basket of vegetables. She’s in her late twenties and has her long black hair, just as Ken described, tied up neatly in a bun on the back of her head.
“Where were you? I was so worried!”
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I wanted to look at the fountain! I thought there might be fish!”
“They don’t put fish in fountains, sweetie. Oh spirits, I was so worried-”
Zuko watches, smiling. He snuffs out the little twist of jealousy - this kid deserves his mom and her hugs, even if Zuko can’t have the same – and waits, just in case Ken wants to say goodbye. He has nowhere to be, anyway, except for a meeting he’s already rescheduled.
After several minutes fussing over her son, the woman looks up. “I’m so sorry about Ken. He-” and then cuts herself off with “oh, Agni,” face growing pale. Ken, in her arms, picked up when she straightened, is oblivious to it.
“Mommy, this is Zuko, like the Firelord. He helped me find you.”
“Honey, that is the Firelord.” Even her voice sounds pale. “Agni, Ken. Agni.”
“Why’re you saying Agni?”
“That’s the Firelord, Ken.”
Ken’s mouth falls open. “You’re the Firelord!?” he squeaks. “Mommy, why is the Firelord at the market?”
“I don’t know, Ken. I don’t know. I’m really sorry we wasted your time, my lord. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She’s backing away and bowing as best she can with Ken in her arms, and nearly trips over the basket she’s dropped. Zuko steps forward and steadies her. She flinches at his touch and almost falls over the basket again. (He doesn’t steady her this time.)
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to alarm you.”
“That’s alright, my lord. We were just going-”
“Mommy, can I say goodbye first?”
“Ken, we don’t want to bother the Firelord.”
“It’s ok. He can say goodbye if he wants.”
“He wants to hug you, m-my lord-”
“That’s ok. He can do that.”
After a hesitant, bewildered glance at his face (she’s been looking at his feet the whole time), she finally relinquishes her grip on Ken and allows him to climb down onto solid ground and barrel into Zuko’s legs.
“Bye,” he says.
Zuko pats his head, fondly. (He’s getting better at accepting hugs, but he’s not too good at them yet.) “Bye, Ken,” he says. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Mommy’s making spiced picken noodles for lunch. Do you want to come and have some?” (His mother chokes.)
“That’s alright, Ken. Thank you for inviting me, but I have to get back to the palace at some point.”
“Why?” Ken’s little nose has buried itself into his abdomen and his voice is muffled.
“Because otherwise my staff will miss me.”
“Does that mean servants?”
“How many servants do you have?”
“Alright, that’s enough, Ken,” says his mother, pulling him away apologetically and taking his hand in hers. “Wave goodbye and let’s get going, ok? He’s been very patient with us and we don’t need to take up any more of his time, alright?”
“Alright,” says Ken, sounding disappointed. He looks up at Zuko and waves shyly. “Bye Firelord.”
“Bye Ken,” says Zuko, and his mother whisks him away, bowing as she goes, her face red.