It took Zuko three days to realize he couldn’t see and two weeks to accept it as fact.
When he’d first woken up he hadn’t registered much other than the sheets. They were so much coarser than the sheets back home. Itchy threads scratched his legs and, no matter what he did, comfort always eluded him. He tossed and turned, but it was no use. And the more he didn’t sleep, the more he thought.
He had been such a fool to disrespect his father. Speaking out at a war meeting? It would have been idiotic to expect any less than what he got. Punishment was harsh in the Fire Nation, but it was fair.
He still remembered looking up at his father’s face as tears streamed down his cheek. The tears had felt cold as ice as he begged for forgiveness, for mercy. And, for a moment, he thought he might get to walk away.
But then his father had held his hand up to Zuko’s face, cradled his cheek in his palm, and let loose white-hot flames. They’d seared Zuko’s face, agonizing pain leaping from one side to another. It had taken a moment for the pain to register and, in that time, all he could do was smell charred skin and burnt hair.
Zuko had still been conscious when his father dropped him to the floor. He’d felt his head knock against the ground before darkness filled his mind, but then he couldn’t remember anything until the rough sheets.
And the sheets were so, so rough. They were all he could think about for so long that, at first, Zuko didn’t register the other sensations creeping up on him. The gentle swaying of a boat on the water. Cool gusts of wind when the doors opened, soft murmurs and quiet voices. A bandage pressed tightly around his face. But then, before he could think about any of them for too long, the itching of the sheets would drag him back.
The next time he woke up he hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep. Warm, callused hands were unwrapping the bandages around his face.
“Who is it?” Zuko asked, scooting away from the hands, pushing himself further into the sheets.
“It’s me, your uncle.” The bandages fell from his face, and he saw his uncle pick up another. But he didn’t see him, not really, just the vague shape where he assumed his uncle would be, a slight difference in color, the briefest movement.
“Uncle, I can’t see you,” Zuko said, his chest beginning to rise and fall with sharp, racing precision. No, he reminded himself, he had to breathe.
“It’s just your burn. Unfortunately, it’s gotten a bit infected. It should clear up in a few days though, you have nothing to worry about.” His uncle put some kind of cold cream on his face before gently rewrapping the bandage.
“A few days? Uncle, I can’t wait that long. I have to,” Zuko said before pausing. What did he have to do? The need, the drive to do it was deep in his chest, and yet he couldn’t remember what his father wanted from him. All he knew was that it was important.
“To capture the Avatar? I’m sure he can wait for you to heal, Prince Zuko. You have to make sure you’re strong enough before you face him.” His uncle got off the bed where he’d been sitting next to Zuko. It sprung up behind him, but Zuko still ran his fingers along the small indentation where he’d been sitting. “Do you want me to stay?”
Zuko thought for a moment. “Could you bring tea?”
“Of course. You know I’d never turn down the opportunity to make tea. I’ll see if Asoko can bring us some duck too.”
The next morning his uncle came in to unwrap his bandages again. Zuko hadn’t slept much the night before, still wrapped up in those rough sheets. But in the time he’s laid awake, he’d come to a decision: he wanted to know what he looked like.
Every time he tried to picture himself all he could picture was smooth, unburned skin. But he could feel that he didn’t look like that anymore. He knew the scar stretched from from the edges of the right side of his face across to his left, covering his entire ear on that side. He could feel the pain across his eyes and the bridge of his nose, down his cheeks in spots where sparks had landed. It was hard to know anything for sure, but he suspected his left eyebrow and parts of his hairline had burnt off too. The scent of burning hair still hung heavy in his nose.
“Uncle, after you unwrap my bandages, leave me for a minute,” Zuko said as the pressure from the bandages fell away.
“Of course. But I made us tea, and you know how I feel about cold tea.” It sounded like his uncle had smiled with the last few words, but Zuko couldn’t be sure. His uncle removed the last bandage and the fresh air hit his face. Zuko kept his eyes closed as his uncle got off the bed, his footsteps tapping on the ground towards the door. Once he heard the door shut Zuko opened his eyes.
He knew his uncle said there’d been an infection, but Zuko had expected to at least see what he’d been able to make out the day before. He’d expected shapes, colors, movement. Instead, all he could make out was the vague blur of a flickering candle. His breath hitched as he stood up, knocking something off the bed with him. With his hands pressed against the wall he walked until he found what he assumed was a mirror, cold and smooth.
He tried to look at his reflection, but he couldn’t see anything until he took his hand and waved it in front of him. Even then it was only the barest flicker of movement visible in the mirror.
He did everything he could to see his own image. Squinting, drawing the mirror closer, holding it farther out, nothing worked. His vision was cloudy, foggy, sandy.
Hesitantly he drew his hand up to his face. If he couldn’t see, maybe he could feel what he looked like. Shaking hands tapped his cheek and came away wet. Was it blood? Pus? He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that it hurt to place his fingers on the wound, even with touches as soft as down.
“Prince Zuko, you shouldn’t touch your injury. It’ll only make it worse,” his uncle said. He hadn’t even noticed the man was behind him.
“I just need to know what I look like, uncle.”
“Wait for the infection to heal, and then you’ll be able to see yourself. Patience yields the best results.” Uncle’s footsteps were soft until they stopped. He must have sat down on the bed.
Holding onto the wall for protection, Zuko inched back to where he had been sitting before. He settled next to his uncle, who handed him a warm cup of tea.
“I don’t want to be patient, Uncle. Just tell me what I look like.” Zuko finished his tea quickly and handed the cup back to his uncle, careful to feel his uncle’s fingertips before he let go. In return for the cup he got a bowl with chopsticks. He tentatively took a bite, happy to discover rice instead of some rare delicacy only Uncle Iroh enjoyed.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s only who you are on the inside that counts.”
“Uncle, I don’t care about your sayings. Just tell me how my face appears,” Zuko said, his voice raising against his control. His uncle shifted on the bed next to him.
“Can we please discuss this another time?” Uncle’s voice was tinged with something akin to fear, a softer rolling version, so Zuko didn’t press. He simply ate his rice and tried not to think about the itchy sheets or the feeling of the bandages as his uncle rewrapped his head.
By the third day Zuko realized his sight was gone. Occasionally, after his uncle took off his bandages, he would catch a glimpse of movement, but those were few and far between. Most of the time all he could register was the absence of anything.
Over the next few days Uncle promised that the infection was dying down. Any day now he’d been back to normal, as close to normal as possible, and his sight would be back. That’s what Zuko told the crew as they stifled giggles at the young teenager pressed against the ship’s walls.
On more than one occasion Zuko tried to figure out who they were, the soldiers and sailors who laughed at him. He was in charge of this ship, he wouldn’t be made into the punchline of anyone’s joke.
He could recognize the crew’s voices, the difference between those with deep voices like crumbling caves and those with words as light as air. Different footsteps would let him know when someone new approached. His system of identification wasn’t perfect, and he couldn’t attach any names or other traits to the people he knew, but it was better than nothing. He could avoid the heavy-footed man with the dewy-soft voice and the woman with the twinkling lilt, because they were the most cruel, but no one could help him identify them.
He’d tell his uncle and the other crew members that he needed to reprimand a woman with a voice like birdsong, and they’d ask if she was tall or short. Lean or fat? What color eyes? What color hair?
He tried to explain that he didn’t know, he couldn’t see her, but didn’t they recognize their shipmates by anything other than sight? Maybe they shrugged, but Zuko couldn’t tell.
In the second week, five days after Uncle declared him infection-free and several minutes after a particularly frustrating conversation about why Zuko had to have scrolls read to him, Zuko accepted that, at least for now, he was blind.
He tried to cry to his uncle that night, but all that came out were aborted sobs and dry heaves. Somehow part of his father’s flame had burned his tear ducts, and Zuko couldn’t even have the mercy of tears.
But this was what he deserved for being a failure of the highest caliber, to his father, his family, his nation.
Uncle Iroh took the news of Zuko’s new blindness with more grace than expected, though maybe that was just Zuko being pessimistic about his uncle’s near unfashionable support. It was a month into their voyage when his uncle decided Zuko was well enough to train again.
“Uncle, I don’t think this is a good idea. I can’t see. How am I supposed to control my firebending?” Zuko asked, keeping to the center of the deck as much as possible. He’d been up long enough to know the layout of the ship so he could get around without clinging to the walls, but the decks were still uncomfortable. So many unaccountable variables he couldn’t memorize.
“The way you always have. Firebending is energy, and energy is all around us. We can’t see it to begin with, and yet I know you harnessed it before.” His uncle’s footsteps got louder as he got closer to Zuko. Suddenly warmth was at his face as his uncle created a flame next to him. He tried not to flinch.
“Where is this flame?” Uncle Iroh asked. “Try to feel it. Not just the heat, but the heartbeat. The energy.”
“It’s in your palm,” Zuko replied. This was a ridiculous exercise. Firebending was fighting, power, control, all the things Zuko had lost.
“How did you know that?”
Zuko had to think for a minute. How had he know? It had been instinctual. He hadn’t had to think, the answer had simply been there. All he has to do was sense it.
It was almost harder to relearn firebending than it had been to learn it in the first place, and bending had never come easily to Zuko. Yet he loved the push and the pull of fire and of energy. He craved the burn of pushing himself, testing the limits of what he could do.
With his uncle’s help, he slowly began to find new ways to experience the world. See wasn’t the right word, because that wasn’t what he did. But he learned to focus on the sounds around him, to feel the energy of every little thing.
One day, in the midst of his frustration, he let out a ring of energy. It wasn’t fire, just something one step short of ignition. Just like that, he could tell the layout of the room. It was deep in the hull of the ship and he knew it by memory at this point, but this was different. He sensed each shape, each object. Focusing, he did it again.
He felt himself growing stronger each day, his arsenal of skills growing exponentially. Using his own technique, the rings of energy, he could sense what was going on in the room, could feel each individual person, animal, object. He wasn’t nearly as good a fighter as he used to be, but he was learning. He was improving.
As he trained he liked to spar with the crew members. Admittedly he was terrible, never winning a fight, but that wasn’t the point. He was holding his own, if only for a moment at a time, and that was really all he needed.
It was easier to fight the firebenders because their energy was more focused. Easier to detect. He still lost, but it took them two minutes, three minutes to defeat him rather than thirty seconds.
Then one day he was sparring with Asoko. And he won. It had been a long fight, almost five minutes, and the nectar of victory was nearly as sweet as the burn of fighting. He’d forgotten how nice it felt to win.
That night, as he was eating dinner, he heard his uncle walk up to Asoko.
“You didn’t have to let my nephew win, but I appreciate you doing it for him. I think he needed it.” Uncle’s voice was soft and gentle.
“That’s the thing, General Iroh. I didn’t let him win. He beat me on his own.”