They were all together in Iroh's tea shop, watching the sun begin to lower towards the horizon.
Or, rather, everyone but Toph was watching the sun begin to lower. She was busily bending Iroh's pile of broken cups back into something useful, and if the colors in the glazing didn't match up right, who was going to tell her?
Zuko had his eye on one that had a very interesting interplay of gold and red and the slightest hint of blue running across it. Yes, that would be just the cup for a Fire Lord... when he was here on Official Business instead of quietly vacationing with friends and his uncle and trying to blend in as well as he could.
He did appreciate the greetings the people of the city had given him. The widening of eyes one moment, and warm smiles the next. No big deal, no great production, just... them being okay with his presence and taking the earthy colors he was in as a sign he'd rather not make a scene.
(Besides, the Avatar was in town. There was no way Aang was hiding those air nomad markings now that he didn't have to, and there weren't exactly any other airbenders around. What was a Fire Lord compared to the Avatar who had been absent for a century?)
It was good to be able to relax, with people around he trusted completely.
He would never be as paranoid as Azula had been, even in the years before she began to truly lose her mind, but he knew it would be years, decades maybe, before all of the Fire Nation accepted the new way of things.
(How odd, that he felt the need for guards among his own people, but not in the middle of a nation that was not his to command.)
The orange of the sunset was playing in Mai's hair now, and he had to look at her and grin. Much as she hated the color - or said she did - it did make her look beautiful. Well, more beautiful.
Uncle Iroh was sitting just outside the door, sipping at a cup of tea and looking as content as Zuko had ever seen him.
Aang was providing running commentary on the air patterns that had gotten the clouds just right for that marvelous shade of red that was licking under them.
Sokka was trying to draw random passerby. He was miserable at realism, but Zuko did have to admit - very grudgingly, and in his own head only - that he was getting better at capturing distinctive features.
Suki was looking at Sokka's drawing, and giggling at each new attempt. Sokka didn't seem to mind all that much.
Katara was answering Aang with her own water vapor formation commentary on the clouds.
It was good to have more than members of just one nation in a room.
He wondered, briefly, if moments like this were how the Order of the White Lotus got started: benders just sitting, talking, sharing information about the places where the elements met.
"Hey, somebody? I need more tea?"
That was Toph, and he knew the 'somebody' was him. Much as she normally liked doing things for herself, she'd been enjoying bossing him around this afternoon.
And he did still owe her for burning her feet, even though... well...
There was a reason Fire Nation etiquette around all sleeping firebenders was to sit politely until someone woke up on their own, or to call their first name or a nickname if absolutely necessary. There were even separate quarters for the Fire Lord and the Fire Lord's spouse in the royal palace simply on the justification that the spouse needed someplace else to sleep if the Fire Lord was having twitchy nights.
It was not a position that lent itself to sleeping securely, after all.
And he honestly hadn't seen her then, either.
He got up and walked over. "The experimental blend again, Miss Bei Fong?"
"Please. And why did it take so long?"
"What? I came over as soon as you..."
"I've been waving at you for three whole minutes. I counted." She crossed her arms. "And I know from the way you were sitting that you should have been able to see me."
Should have been able, a long time ago. The light was too even in here, and light earth robes didn't create the contrast of the deep scarlets and crimsons of home. Even the greens didn't provide enough contrast.
And for all Toph was, well, Toph, she could be very quiet when she felt like it.
"My apologies, mighty earthbender."
It was the strangest thing. He wanted his friends to know, but he had never told anyone ever and after all they'd been through, well...
It would look like he hadn't trusted them back then.
And he'd gone into battle with Katara by his side without telling her that he had more limits to his sight than an eyelid that wouldn't open all the way. He'd requested her by his side without telling her, or anyone else.
He'd trained beside Aang, and trained Aang, and sparred with Aang, all without telling him - Aang, who never wanted to hurt anything - that he was as limited as he was. Fire he could tell by contrast, except on very bright days. But earth? Air? Water?
But he couldn't have risked teaching Aang to attack lightly on the left. None of their enemies had been weak to the right, where Aang would have focused his attention.
My father would have killed him. That was that.
Better accidental shame before an earthbender, even as Fire Lord, than a dead Avatar and a dead world.
Than a dead friend.
And better than making Uncle cry from anything but happiness again.
He'd have to tell Mai eventually, if it ever looked like she was going to be the one living in the spousal suite, but... how could he even tell her that the damage was more than just cosmetic? Even outside the royal family, even outside the firebenders, the Fire Nation had a streak of prejudice against those permanently limited by anything other than the wounds of war sustained for the Nation or of an Agni Kai won going back a century.
A burn scar, even to the face, was one thing.
The mist and shadow he saw to his left was another.
And he'd seen men left for lesser defects.
"Zuko, why are your feet shaking?"
"It's nothing you need to worry about, Toph."
And it wasn't. Her limitations, even with her earthbending sight methods, were so much greater than his...
"If you don't want to bow and scrape, it's fine. I know the thing with my feet was an accident."
She didn't know how much of one - she'd approached from his bad side, and with a light source between them. He'd had to react, one way or another.
"What thing with your feet?" Iroh asked.
"A burn accident in the middle of the night," he tried to explain. "She came out of nowhere, I was half asleep, and..."
"And." Simple understanding, from a man one did not decide to wake lightly.
He poured Toph's tea, then carried it over to her. "Here."
"Thanks." She grinned. "Table service by a Fire Lord. And my parents think they pamper me at home!"
They all laughed.
He had his left side to the door, but he could see their heads, backlit from the setting sun.
"Your feet are still shaking."
He heard someone move a chair, and saw someone stand up.
In three steps, he knew it was Katara. No one else had a no-nonsense charge like hers, even through the blur.
"What are you hiding? We all ended the war together, you've got to rebuild the world with Aang, and you're hiding something."
That my secret could have gotten you killed, Katara.
That I don't want Uncle to cry for me again.
That Toph still has it so much worse than me.
That Mai could leave me for this.
That Fire Lords can't show this kind of weakness.
"Katara, you don't need to worry about..."
"We're friends, Zuko. Friends worry. We're all trying to help you and Aang fix the world together, remember? And that means that if anything is serious enough for you to worry about, it's serious enough for all of us to worry about."
There was a general cheer of agreement.
He felt his cheeks heat.
"And you and Aang especially shouldn't be keeping things from each other."
He closed his eyes.
Iroh remained silent. Zuko wasn't sure if he preferred his uncle's silence, or would have liked the old man's guidance.
Aang spoke up. "Zuko, could you tell just me? Not the others? And then if it's nothing to worry about, that's fine, and if it isn't..."
Then it's time for another group session of pitying the new Fire Lord for what the last did to him. Again.
Only he didn't say that.
"It would be fine."
"No, it wouldn't," Toph said.
He hated it when she used her seismic sense against him. "Toph..."
"But he's going to do it anyway." She sipped at her tea.
He sighed, then turned to look at Aang. "Back room?"
They settled into chairs around the small table.
There was instantly a problem - Aang sat to Zuko's left.
Zuko tried to nonchalantly angle his chair towards Aang - it was a trick he'd used in small informal situations for years.
Only this time, it didn't work. He miscalculated, and the chair fell backwards.
"I'm fine." He got up and righted the chair. "I just fell." This time, he angled the chair correctly before he sat down.
"What is it?"
There was a long pause. Somehow this was harder than fighting.
He finally slumped his shoulders, raised a hand to his left cheek, and said, "I can barely see out of this eye."
"Barely?" There was a waver in his voice.
"It's a bit like trying to see through a fog cloud. Only it doesn't get any clearer when something is closer."
"But... Zuko, I could have hurt you! Why didn't you tell me before we started sparring?"
"Because I can still see enough. And my father had no such weakness."
"But it's not a..."
"On the battlefield, it is a weakness. And that's what's mattered to the Fire Nation for the past hundred years." He looked away. "I've never told anyone. Not even Uncle Iroh."
"Mai doesn't know?"
"Aang, Fire Nation women leave men after injuries that weren't from battle or a victorious Agni Kai. Disfigurement, she's decided to stand. Impairment... I don't know."
"But Teo, and Toph, and..."
"Aang, the values of a culture fighting aggressively in a war are different than those of a culture fighting defensively in a war. You've sat in one of our schools now. You remember what the Fire Nation was like before the war began. You know."
Aang's face fell.
"And even with the war over, and the school books being replaced... The values Sozin's war gave us may well outlive me. I can't let my people know they are led by a man half-blinded. I'll leave enough records that the people will be able to find out after I am gone, but... it's too risky now."
Aang put a hand on his shoulder. "Zuko, even if that's what the rest of your nation would think about you, we don't think like that." Aang smiled, brightening. "And after everything you did to stop the war, when your vision was already limited, maybe... maybe you'd be a good example of how limitations don't have to be limitations."
"Okay, that didn't sound as good as it did when I was thinking it."
Zuko laughed, just a little. "I understood what you meant by it, anyway. But I can't risk that, not until I know I've got an heir capable of continuing what we've started who can hold the throne. My people and this world are more important than that one feature of Fire Nation culture."
"And I've started trying to shift the culture, so that by the time I do have an heir I can trust, my people may just be ready to accept me."
Aang nodded. "Like how dust in the wind can erode mountains faster than thrown boulders can."
Zuko held up a finger, falling into teacher mode intentionally. "Unless Toph is the one throwing the boulders."
They both laughed.
It was good to have a friend. It was better still that it was safe to be vulnerable around his diplomatic partner in fixing the world.
Even if it was hard to accept that, as a child of the modern Fire Nation.
"So, will you tell the others?"
Zuko hung his head. "There's another thing... Uncle Iroh was there when it happened."
He nodded. "The entire royal family, and the court, was there. Mother was already gone. Uncle went with me into exile. He's the one who kept my bandages changed, who made sure I was drinking enough water that the burn wouldn't kill me, who stayed in the room with a hand on my shoulder while I cried at night from the pain." He looked away. "And I hid it from him when I realized my eye was damaged, that the blurriness wasn't just an aftereffect from having a bandage over it for so long."
"You have to tell him. And you have to tell Mai."
"Because not telling them is ripping you apart inside right now. And because you need someone within your own nation you can trust with this. And if you can't trust Mai..."
"...then why am I dating her, knowing all that a Fire Lady has to be to her people and to the Fire Lord?" He sighed. "Aang?"
"Any of the past Avatars have any advice on how to reveal you've been hiding something without looking like the world's biggest jerk?"
"Avatars tend to be honest and open. And to not have much to hide. I think it comes with the job."
"And being Fire Lord means having everything to hide. It was worth a try." Zuko stood. "Well, you know, now."
Aang stood as well. "Will you tell any of the others?"
"In my own way."
Aang smiled at him.
"Hey, Zuko, your feet are still nervous."
It was in that moment that Zuko realized that besides telling Aang, and besides needing to tell Uncle Iroh and Mai, there was one more person in the group of friends he needed to talk to right now.
Because Toph had no way of knowing the ways he was compensating, and that meant all her seismic data about where he was looking was interpreted wrong.
And because she was the one most likely to actually understand.
"Toph, can I talk to you?"
"If it's about my feet or the tea, everything's fine. Don't worry about it."
"All right already."
They went to the back room, but neither sat down.
He wasn't going to accidentally deny Toph her truth-sensing capacity right now, not if he had the option.
"So what is it?"
"I couldn't see you waving at me."
"Zuko, I was waving my hands over my head. And I know from your weight on your feet that you should have been able to see me. And I can tell that you don't expect me to believe you."
"Toph, you were on my left side."
She's never seen the scar, or felt it. She may not know it covers my eye.
"And that's the side of my face where my father burned me."
She held out a hand. "Show me?" she asked.
He knelt to give her a better angle - they were practically eye to eye now, not that that would matter to Toph - then took her hand in his and guided it to his face.
"Your eyelid doesn't open all the way," she commented.
"And there was damage to the surface of my eye. I can see colors, lights, darks, large objects, heavy contrasts..."
"And not earthbenders who blend in with Earth Kingdom wall paint."
He smiled, knowing she would feel his face move. "Exactly. The sunset washed out everything inside the building."
"And you weren't going to tell anyone this?" Her voice held an edge.
"Toph, it's different in the Fire Nation. We've been a completely militarized society for a century. And our bending relies on sight. If you can't see where you're throwing fire..."
"...you might burn someone's feet."
"Uh... yeah. Sorry about that."
"Did Aang tell you to tell me?"
"No. I knew you were the most likely to understand. For the others, it's all theoretical. Even if they're blindfolded..."
"...they can always just take the blindfold off."
She hugged him, and he gave her a hug back.
"Just so you know," she said as they pulled away, "Aang loved taking the blindfold off when I was teaching him earthbending."
"He would." Zuko chuckled, and shook his head. "Airbenders. Even when my people take to the air, we bother having something solid under our feet."
She laughed, then quieted. "Thank you for telling me this."
"Thank you for listening. And for understanding."
"And now I know not to assume you've seen something on your left."
"...You're going to use that as an excuse to make funny faces at me all the time, aren't you?"
"Zuko, I'm twelve. What do you think I'm going to do?"
By the time he and Toph returned, everyone but Iroh was back inside.
He could hear the night sounds of the city beginning outside.
He sighed, then started moving for the door.
"Uncle? Can we talk?"
Iroh looked up at him from his seat just outside the door.
"I've... I've been keeping something from you. And I shouldn't have been, but..."
The older man motioned him closer, and Zuko obeyed.
"I've known about your eye for a long time," he whispered. "Since the first time I changed the bandages, and saw." He hugged him. "And I was so proud when I saw you adapting your firebending to fit what you could still see."
"I've still got a little vision left in that eye," Zuko explained, quietly.
He felt his uncle nod. "And yet you and I were both taught to never mention such a thing as anything but a weakness. Even though you can hold a straight line of flame as rigidly on target as any other firebender I have ever heard of, and need not close an eye to aim it."
He felt his cheeks flush. "Thanks."
"And don't keep secrets from me again. I helped put you in your throne. I'm not about to take you out of it."
There was something in the old man's voice. Zuko pulled back. "Uncle?"
"If your grandfather had not died the way he did, and I remained his heir, I would have named you as mine."
Zuko's blood chilled, then burned, then chilled again. "But... Grandfather... Father..."
Iroh nodded, looking out at the setting sun. "There's a reason I never told anyone what I know about what happened the night your mother disappeared. I had just lost my son, and a slight against me was about to be punished by taking away the one other member of the royal bloodline left who I cared for."
Zuko was shocked. "Uncle, you knew..."
"Knew enough. I had seen war, and wanted no more of it once my son died. Either way, whether it was I or my brother who ruled, I knew you would take the throne one day. Even back then." He looked away. "I assumed the price of your mother's departure would keep you safe from your father.
"I was wrong. And it was you who paid for that."
There was a slender hand on his back. "And I figured out about your eye, too."
He turned. "Mai?"
"When you think no one is looking, or loosen up enough to stop caring, you don't keep your head facing forward. And when you really want to look at something, it gets quite pronounced. I was surprised you didn't have a crick in your neck after you came over when my parents were away."
He felt himself blush.
Iroh laughed. "Ah, young love."
He got up and walked into the building, smiling and chuckling the whole way.
Mai sat in the empty chair.
"So... you knew, and you didn't care?"
"Of course I cared!"
"I didn't mean it that way, I..."
"Zuko, I understand controlling Fire Nation noble parents. I have a pair myself." She graced him with a smile. "You have limits - everyone does - and you've learned to thrive within yours. How could I fault you for that?" She kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, "Even if it does feel very strange to be oggled by a man with his head turned away. But I do think I could get used to that."
She embraced him and he embraced her, they kissed, and there was cheering from inside the tea shop.
Zuko turned around and yelled, "What are you, twelve years old?"
Aang and Toph immediately yelled back, "We are twelve years old!"
That was when Mai laughed in his arms, and he could feel her smile against the scar on his cheek.
And the thought of letting the rest of his friends know - even of facing Katara - suddenly seemed a lot less scary.
It was after the sun finished setting when Zuko and Mai finally walked back inside.
Aang and Toph were noticeably absent. Zuko raised his eyebrow.
"They already went to bed," Katara told him. "And the rest of us should be thinking about following. Just how far did you travel today to get here?"
"Far enough," he admitted.
He could hear his uncle putting up cups in the storeroom.
"So, there seems to be a lot of talking in private going on today," Sokka commented. "Mind sharing? Or are you going to talk with the rest of us one on one too?"
He sat down in a chair. "I've been keeping a secret. And I can't stand keeping it any more."
Mai put her hand on his shoulder in silent support.
"Secrets tend to get like that." Suki leaned on a table with her elbows. "So, spill."
"This can't get back to my people."
Katara walked closer. "Secrets from your own people? It's a little soon for that, isn't it?"
He sighed. "Not with the Fire Nation's value system. Which I can't change overnight - it took a century to warp into what it is."
"It can't be that bad. The secret or the system."
Mai spoke up. "It can be. This is not an idle worry."
"Then what is it, Zuko? We can help."
He hung his head at the emotion in Katara' voice, remembering the danger he had put her in.
Mai squeezed his shoulder.
"I can barely see anything out of this eye." He touched his cheek.
There was silence for a moment.
"And that's why you didn't see Toph?" Sokka asked. "And this is supposed to be something you need to hide?"
"We've been a military nation for a hundred years. That's where our current cultural values have come from. Any weakness..."
"Zuko, I saw you nearly take your sister out. 'Weakness' is not a word I'd ever use when talking about you." Katara pulled a chair up and sat in front of him. "Do you think that way about Teo? Toph?"
"I've had to learn to think differently. My people are another story."
"You could be an inspirational example..."
"Suki, Aang's already tried to convince me of that."
"And I'm waiting until I have an heir I can trust to continue the changes. In case the people decide to reject me."
"Zuko, you stopped the war. There's no way they would oust you from the throne."
"I'm not sure enough of that yet."
He heard Katara gasp.
Here it comes.
"Is that what happened to Toph's feet? You couldn't see her and firebent anyway?"
He relaxed and nodded. "I had announced my treason to my father's face during the eclipse. I expected to be hunted by his men. I did not expect any of you to come looking for me at night. By the time I heard her voice, or saw she was wearing Earth Kingdom colors, it was already over. When I offered help, she started chucking rocks at my head."
Everyone laughed. Sokka told him, "Yeah, that sounds like Toph."
There was silence again.
"Zuko, why didn't you tell me before we fought Azula? Or before anything else we did together?"
"Because I've been like this for years, and my bending style has changed to compensate."
Mai squeezed his shoulder again. "And because firebenders haven't spoken about such things openly for a hundred years."
"And yet you bend the most dangerous element." Sokka's voice was almost mocking.
"Permanent injuries from service in the war or from victorious Agni Kai battles are accepted, even praised as badges of honor. This was neither."
"It sounds like a lousy way to live," Katara told him.
Iroh called out, "Why do you think I retired here?"
"Because if you'd retired back at home, you wouldn't get to play Pai Sho all day long," Zuko shot back.
The laughter that followed was one of the most comforting things he'd ever heard.
It was good to have friends. Real friends.