BEGINNING When he first opens his eyes, he knows something is wrong. Darkness surrounds him, shapeless and black. It’s not cold. But it’s not warm either.
HEAT He feels it, like he never has before. Like breathing. He acknowledges the fact that he does it, but it’s information stored and forgotten. But, without thousands of messages sent from his eyesight, he can feel the rumbling, sizzling heat coming closer and closer... opening the door...
UNCLE The older, elder man is a furnace of coals just before they light up and flame, a hot intensity that crackles like a rainstorm about to waken with bright passion. He is powerful. Zuko wonders. He is so, so powerful. Why has he never noticed him being so much …more?
He hears heavy, balanced steps and a tailwind behind. Uncle brings in the scents of sweet jasmine tea and burnt prayer incense and summer sea salt. SENSES “Zuko? Nephew? When did you awaken?” Uncle's voice is a low rumble, enunciated with the smooth accent of High Court.
CONFUSION “I don’t know. I only just woke moments ago.” He pauses. "Uncle?” he whispers, carefully, hurriedly, “Where are we?” Because this place did not feel like home. Why weren’t they home?
“We are on a ship. A scouting ship. Your ship.” His uncle sighs, breathy and regretful. “Your ship, with your men, to help you hunt down the Avatar to end your banishment.” Zuko’s world crashes down as he remembers and chokes down a sob. YOURS
His fingers can feel the sharp contours, the ragged flesh, the heat and healed skin. It's as coarse as bark. SCARRED His father hadn’t dealt just a blow to his face — he’d dealt a blow to his soul — his heart. He can feel it, still bleeding out.
PUNISHMENT “He was wrong, you must understand,” Iroh starts, moving closer, crouching down. “No father should ever do this to his son, no matter the excuse.” Zuko laughs, wry and angry and so, so sorrowful. “Oh, Uncle. It’s not just an excuse. It’s a lesson. It’s a punishment. All three rooster-pigeons with one stone.”
BLUNT “I’m blind, Uncle.” After questions and inquiries hidden in coddling and cosseting manners, although he’s sure Uncle has come to his own conclusions, Zuko answers with the harsh truth as he’s confined to bed with a high fever that just broke even and Zuko realizes the darkness will never go away.
TRUTH His father had shown up instead of the elder whom Zuko disrespected. And he lost without even fighting, without even trying to fight. But that isn’t the worst of it. He lost more than his honour after that Agni Kai. But… He won’t lose his pride as well. Or what’s left of it, at least.
SIGHTLESS Zuko knows it and he won’t lie to himself. As he sits up from the bed, moving his hands up and wiggling long digits covered in his own tears and sweat; he knows to the core of his inner flame that he will never regain what he has lost.
“I brought it,” his uncle starts and stops. “You truly… don’t want anyone else to know.” It’s a statement. Zuko doesn’t even deign to answer as he puts on the Army helmet, not liking the feel of polished steel and gold, but forcing himself to get used to the foreign weight. He wonders how cartoonish he must look. MASK
SIGHTLESS For no one to realize his sightless, unfocused eyes, he must hide them. And if everyone thinks he’s hiding his scar, well, it is an ugly scar. Apparently. How would Zuko know what's considered ugly, anymore? REASON
No one else must know, because though Fath— Fire Lord Ozai banished him, he still gave him a way home. But a blind prince? No person would allow a blind man to lead them. If rumours rushed back to the Palace of his... disability... Zuko knows he would be disowned on the spot. And the Dragon Throne would pass over to Azula.
He has to capture the Avatar — who hasn’t been seen in a hundred years — and he is blind. Barely thirteen. Not even a firebending master. And he has to fight the master of all four elements. DESPAIR
BELIEF Zuko halts, breathing in three, holding two, breathing out three. HIs father would never set out a loophole if there was no hope in attaining it. He has to hold onto that. Has to believe in him. Because if he doesn’t believe… Zuko closes his eyes from letting out tears.
It feels like years since his banishment, even though it’s only been a week. He’s thirteen. For all intents and purposes, he should not be in charge. He knows it. But he is. And he can’t shake off the leadership to anyone because his father gave him a ship full of misfits and scallywags and Uncle - who, though a seasoned general, is retired.
LEADERSHIP Zuko has to grow up, man up, and be the youngest captain to ever lead a scouting — armed — ship full of less-than-prepared marines and an advisor that has no power.
MEASUREMENTS At first, he’s sure he’ll slip up. He doesn’t know the ship, so at the darkest part of the morning, when the sun is not casting rays of warmth and the on-duty marines are nodding off, he measures the boat in strides. Ten across and twenty-three from front to back on deck. seven and eight in the lobby. Fifteen. Eleven. Nine. Ten. Nine. Four.
CALM There’s so many places and so much to memorize and he stops and breathes and doesn’t give up for three sleepless nights, polishing his stealth skills and learning to feign alertness.
He’s a prince. He knows he’s been coddled by his mother for years, pampered by his station, compared to the citizens of his nation. He knows it and he capitalizes their thoughts on it. His men think him a spoilt brat prince? He’ll be that. Because if he doesn’t act this way, they’ll realize the reports he’s supposed to do are not being done because he won’t do them — but because he can’t do them.
He can feel the sun no matter where it is. Every firebender worth his core flame does. But he always knows where, all the time, exactly. Precisely. To the very second. He is woken at dawn and is sleepy at dusk. He knows where to stand for most sunlight and most shade. He always misses the sunny days and hates rainstorms like no other because those stupid clouds hide his one and only constant.
But then, he sees it. A flicker. A month after his fever breaks even, he sees it. He sees it like a light in the dark.Sees his fingers - glowing moon bright. Two months, and he sees his uncle, a clouded sun shape, a silhouette of brightness on black. Three, and his men steadily grow brighter and his uncle is the sun. (And he’s blind anyway, so what’s the problem in looking?)
He lights a tiny flame in his hand, a marble so small and insignificant as it illuminates the darkness.
He tells his uncle, the only one to know his first secret, and it’s so hard to explain. Uncle tries to understand, but the disbelief and uncertainty crackles around him with turquoise static. Snarling, Zuko takes off his helmet (a cover, a mask, his blanket to hide away from the world) and he lights a flame and writes - with the only thing he can finally see with.
In the Four Arts that every official had to learn before their coming-of-age ceremony, his uncle taught him pai sho, his cousin taught him music, and his mother taught him painting and calligraphy. Cursive and regular script and clerical script and seal script… Art is the only thing - the most useless thing - that he can do better than his sister.
He never liked reading before. Now, he misses it. Misses it like nothing else. So, when he cracks open a scroll or pulls out a book, he feels the pages, feels the difference in texture. READING
WRITING Printed lettering copied onto paper with Fire Nation stamps and Earth Nation machines are impossible to decipher. But handwritten notes and calligraphy can be felt. Zuko knows he’s fortunate to have been put under stern tutors since he could open his eyes (and see), because otherwise… he would never have known the characters so well.
COMRADE “You walk funny,” Toph ponders aloud. “You sometimes walk with just a bit of …caution? As if you don’t know if the next step is even there.” She stopped. “You walk like I used to."
YEARS It took another few days for Iroh to realize the problem with Zuko. It another few months for it all to be completely hidden in plain sight. And even years later, only a select few figure it out for themselves.
LEARNING He learns some music (to tell the difference between peoples’ voices). He learns some dance (to step on a path without fearing for pitfalls and traps). He learns to feel (for heat temperatures, for movements, for smells. Firebenders are hot, waterbenders are cool, and earthbenders match the ground they stand upon).
Zuko remembers his mother, and he’s forever thankful that he can remember. The scent of cayenne spice and dewy tiger lilies. MOTHER
MEMORIES He knows it’s strange to remember, but he does, and he can’t stop it. He remembers being in a crib, with his mother's and father’s smiling faces looking down at him. He remembers them looking at each other with warmth and wonder. “He has your face,” Ozai whispers, cradling Zuko’s cheek. Ursa smiles, softly, “But, he has your eyes."
Though he didn’t know it then, he knows now. Because when he turned four, his father wanted him to learn firebending. His mother said no. Father pushed. Mother coddled. Whose side would a child turn to, honestly? And then those warm golden eyes that were only for each other — those gazes locked and loved — soon faded. MEMORIES
But Zuko remembers. And he will always remember: he was the reason his parents stopped loving each other.
The very nature of fire shouldn’t allow this. Fire is power, a force, an embodiment of destruction and devastation. Fire burns and lights and transmutes. Zuko shakes his head, not understanding, before calming, taking a breath— breath. Fire is breath. Fire is life. Fire is energy. Fire is soul. And with those thoughts, he breathes and a fire unlike any other fire is lit.
HEALING He can see it. Green and gold and red and blue, a balance of four nations, of four seasons, of four energies embodied in flickering flame. Zuko dashes away any other thoughts though and returns to the present, kneeling down and bringing warmth and lifeenergysoul onto wounds without colour that suck a hole in the darkness.
He can see it. Green and gold and red and blue, a balance of four nations, of four seasons, of four energies embodied in flickering flame. Zuko dashes away any other thoughts though and returns to the present, kneeling down and bringing warmth and lifeenergysoul onto wounds without colour that suck a hole in the darkness. HEALING
His uncle prefers white jasmine or matcha green with a handful of leaves, brewed until it bubbled before sipped. He’s no tea brewer, but he’s pretty sure tea isn’t supposed to bubble when served (to the common, non-firebenders at least). He never tells Uncle that though. TEA
FAMILY He doesn’t mind the boiling tea — because tepid leaf-juice reminds him of mother. And any other green tea variety, sencha the most, brings back memories of family dinners when Ozai and Iroh got along and Lu Ten wasn’t dead and Azula smiled instead of smirked.
END (to be continued?)