Zuko first realizes that something’s wrong when he’s five. Most people around him have really cool, colorful markings. Usually they’re hidden, but sometimes they’re in a spot that’s hard to hide with clothing. One of his servants has two unique, colorful marks on the back of each hand. A guard has three on her upper arm. His mother has one on the back of her neck.
Zuko doesn’t have marks. He just has a weird, wrinkled area on the left side of his belly.
“Mommy?” he asks as they’re playing with the turtleducks in the garden. “Why don’t I have any marks?”
Ursa sucks in a breath. She furtively looks around, making sure no one is listening. She whispers, “You did have them, sweetheart. They’re your soulmarks. But your father and the Fire Lord thought they were bad for you, so they got rid of them.”
“Oh.” Zuko looks down. He knows by now that both his father and grandfather are always right, and he shouldn’t ever argue with either. It’s a shame, though. He likes the pretty colors.
“What do they mean?” he asks.
“It means you have a soul family. The most important people in your life you’re ever going to meet.” She whispers in his ear, “Don’t tell anyone, but I peeked. You have five of them. I’ll help you find them one day.”
Zuko giggles. He loves keeping secrets with his mother.
He first “meets” one of his soulmates a couple weeks after that. He’s climbing a tree in one of the gardens, even though his mother told him he shouldn’t, and he slips and falls, hitting the ground hard.
He starts crying, because ow. A servant runs toward him.
And then the strangest thing happens. He feels a hand.
It’s not visible, and when he tries to touch it, he doesn’t connect with anything. But it’s definitely a hand, as cool as snow from a mountaintop. It gently touches his cheek, and it startles Zuko so much he stops crying and sits upright. The hand stays, soothing his tears.
“What’s all this racket?” Ozai demands, coming into the garden. The servant, who has just finished looking over Zuko, gives a deep bow. The cool hand has now evolved into a protective hug, kind of like what his mother does with him.
“I fell,” Zuko mumbles.
“Did he break anything?” he asks the servant.
“No, my prince,” she answers. “He’s just bruised up.”
“Then stop whining,” Ozai orders. “And go change into something presentable. We’re having dinner with your grandfather tonight.”
Zuko hurries to obey. The ghost hand disappears.
He asks his mother about it, and she smiles.
“That’s one of your soulmates,” she says. “Whenever you need help or support, they’ll always be there for you. At least until you meet them in person and forge the bond.”
He learns later that forging the bond means a quick blood swap, usually through the palms. Both soulmates nick their palms and press them together. Most do this multiple times.
Why more than once? Well, he learns even later that soul-bonding is a bit like time travel. When you create a soul-bond with someone, you go to, as Ursa said, whenever in time (in the past) they need a soulmate’s help or support. Except the only thing you can touch is your soulmate, and nothing else. Basically, soulmates are like time travelling ghosts.
Zuko reads as much about soulmates as he can before Ozai finds out and puts a stop to it. “Soulmates make you weak,” he snarls.
Zuko...disagrees. His soulmates make him feel strong.
Azula starts firebending a year before Zuko. Of course he gets jealous. But at the same time...
“Look, Zuko!” she says, and for the first time, beautiful, golden fire springs from her chubby, four-year-old hands. “I can firebend!”
And Zuko’s reaction? He grins and cheers, “Awesome!”
He’s honestly not sure where it went wrong after that, between him and Azula. He’ll gladly admit that he’s not the best brother. He gets angry and jealous, lashes out at everyone and anyone nearby. But he also protects, teaches, and lets himself be bossed around by people who are younger than him and don’t want to kill him.
The fault, as always, probably lies with Ozai. As soon as Azula started firebending, he immediately began favoring her, poisoning her against the world and her family.
But it’s one of Zuko’s first and fondest memories: her so excited to realize she’s bending, and him, though not yet a bender, whole-heartedly encouraging it. It makes him wonder, if Ozai had been a better father, or just hadn’t been around, what the two of them would be like today.
(And then he meets Katara and Sokka and thinks, Ah. That’s it.)
Over the years, Zuko interacts a lot with his soulmates. And he names each of them to keep them all straight.
The first is Snowflake, the one with the cool hands. She (and Zuko doesn’t know how he knows it’s a she, but he does) is always there when he’s hurt or sick, helping bring his temperature down better than any wet rag. She’s also there when he’s emotionally hurt. When Ozai tells him, “Your sister was born lucky. You were lucky to be born,” Snowflake is gripping his shoulder so tight he’s pretty sure it’s frozen. It’s okay, though. It distracts from the pain in his chest caused by his father’s words.
Then there’s Feather, so named because his touch is feather-light. He’s always there when Zuko needs to play. Sure, there’s Mai and Ty Lee, and he likes them (especially Mai). But they’re Azula’s friends, first and foremost. And as the years go by, Azula just gets worse and worse. Feather is there to point him to a group of musicians, or a cute animal, or a nifty knick-knack his mom might like.
Ozai is never there when Zuko successfully completes a kata, or passes his classes, because he doesn’t do it as perfectly as Azula. But Zuko’s soulmate Brother is there. He ruffles Zuko’s hair, puts his arm around his shoulders, and sometimes flicks his ears when Zuko’s being an idiot. Everything Zuko imagines an older brother would do for him.
Punchy is less of a friendly hand and more of an encouraging fist. She usually only appears when he’s down or failed. Whenever he thinks of just giving up, he’ll feel a punch in the arm, or a harsh tug on his shoulder, like someone’s trying to get him to stand up by chucking a rock at him. So he does, and when he finally gets it right, there will be a gentler, celebratory punch on his arm.
Guard shows up whenever Zuko’s in danger. She first appears when Zuko is six, on an Ember Island beach with his family. He’s chasing crabs as the waters temporarily recede, and then he feels a hard push at his back, like someone wants him to run. He does, but not fast enough. The massive wave brings him to the ground, and almost sweeps him away. He spends a good chunk of the day coughing up seawater after that, but at least he didn’t drown.
Between the five of them, hardly a day goes by where Zuko doesn’t interact with at least one soulmate. Ursa gives a sad smile when she hears this, and tries to encourage him to make physical friends in the present. But there’s not a whole lot of opportunity for a homeschooled boy who’s rarely out of the palace.
Cousin Lu Ten is everything Zuko wants to be when he grows up. He’s a brave, strong soldier who goes out to fight earthbenders. Someday, he’ll even be Fire Lord.
They wrestle a lot, and Zuko shows him the firebending forms he’s working on. “Nice,” Lu Ten says. “Your stance is a little off.” He gently corrects his form.
Later, Zuko will realize that he learns a lot better under Lu Ten—and later, Iroh’s—gentle training, rather than the near-abuse of his usual teachers that Ozai appointed. They have a habit of giving slaps and burns to their students when they screw up. Snowflake and Feather always try to help, but there’s not much they can do about the steadily increasing sense of failure and unworthiness that crushes his chest after every training session.
He’s eight when Lu Ten leaves for Ba Sing Se with Iroh. Zuko hugs him good-bye. “Be careful.”
Lu Ten chuckles, patting his head. “Don’t you worry about me, little cousin. And I’ll make sure Dad sends you some good souvenirs.”
He never sees his cousin again.
About a year after Iroh and Lu Ten leave, Zuko picks up a “dangerous habit,” as Ursa puts it. He calls it a fun game.
It’s called jumping off of tall shit onto other tall shit.
Zuko blames a combination of Ty Lee, Feather, and Brother. Ty Lee is constantly teaching them new ways to break their necks, Feather pulls his attention to excellent jumping points, and Brother rewards the behavior with hair ruffles and shoulder-hugs. He’ll take his mother’s scolding for that any day of the week.
Then Azula decides to join him on an excursion to the roof of their beach house on Ember Island. And really, he should not have turned his back on her. Not for a minute. Guard doesn’t even have time to warn him before Azula pushes him off the edge.
While physicians are working on Zuko’s sprained ankle, Azula tearfully explains that Zuko simply fell.
It’s not the first time she’s lied. But it’s the first time everyone unanimously believes her over him.
“You’re soaking wet,” Ursa says, as he storms away from the fountain of giggling girls.
“Girls are crazy!” he shouts. Brother gives him a sympathizing pat on the back.
Lu Ten is dead. Iroh calls off the siege of Ba Sing Se. Zuko cries himself to sleep that night.
The family of four kneels before Fire Lord Azulon. Azula shows off her advanced bending technique. Zuko tries to one-up her, but fails. Ursa tries to comfort him but can’t stop the weight of not good enough not good enough not good enough from getting that much heavier.
A furious Azulon orders them out of the throne room, but Ozai stays. Azula suckers Zuko into eavesdropping with her.
Ozai thinks that Iroh’s new lack of heirs means he should be named crown prince. This makes the frustrated Azulon even angrier, and Zuko flees.
“Dad’s going to kill you!” Azula cheers. “Really, he is.”
He still hears it even after Ursa drags her away, and he tries to drown it out with, “Azula always lies. Azula always lies.”
They can’t actually defend him, but the weight of his soulmates—all five of them—huddled around him on the bed is what eventually gets him to sleep.
Looking back, Zuko doesn’t think Azulon ever expected Ozai to go through with it. Even if the man burned his baby grandson to get rid of the soulmarks, that doesn’t mean he wanted him dead. That the whole “Kill your eldest child” thing was just him trying to prove a point: parents whose children are dead or in danger are put in a terrible position, and should not have their birthrights stolen from them. He probably didn’t think Ozai would hate Zuko enough to actually consider it.
At least, Zuko likes to think that way about his grandfather.
Ursa disappears. No matter how much Zuko asks, begs, or shouts, everyone pretends she never existed.
Azulon dies. Ozai is crowned Fire Lord. Zuko finds himself in a position he’d never thought he’d be in: the next crown prince and heir apparent.
All his life, he’d been told he didn’t matter. And not just by Ozai. Everyone knew that once Azulon died, the throne would pass to Iroh, then his son Lu Ten, then his children. Zuko was never supposed to factor into the picture. But with Lu Ten dead and Iroh disgraced, Zuko is now one of the most important people in the Fire Nation.
And yet, Ozai still looks at him with nothing but disappointment.
“Hmph,” he says as he watches Zuko finish his latest forms. They’re in the courtyard, the sages that have been teaching Zuko watching from the other end of the room. “Perhaps if we’re ever at war with turtleducks, you’d make a worthy ruler.”
Zuko winces. Snowflake’s cool touch at his shoulder does little to help. Why can’t he stop failing? Why can’t he be better?
“That’s enough of that, brother.”
Both of them jump, and see Iroh come into the courtyard.
“Iroh?” Ozai asked, bewildered. “You disappeared. They said you went mad.”
“Just traveling,” Iroh says with a smile. He bows before his brother. “The crown suits you, Fire Lord. Thank you for convincing our father to give it to you. I don’t think it’d look nearly as good on me.”
Even Zuko knows a backhanded compliment when he hears one, and has to bite his tongue.
“Why are you here?” Ozai asks.
Iroh pulls out of his bow. “I’ve spent the last year traveling the world. I’d say I’m ready to retire, but I believe your war council still has a seat with my name on it.”
Ozai studies him. “I suppose we could use your advise, since you’ve grown too lazy for the field.”
Iroh laughs. “More like too old.” He finally turns to his nephew, and his face brightens. “Ah, Prince Zuko. You’ve grown so much! You’re taller than I am! And certainly more handsome. Let me see you.”
Zuko lets himself to be hugged, then examined by his uncle. He has no idea how to react. Iroh has never been cruel to him. Certainly not to the extent that Ozai or Azulon were. But he’s never been very...present in his life, either. Most of the time he was out on the field, leading the troops. When he was home, he was busy with war meetings, boasting to courtiers, and spending time with his own son.
He was also a lot...trimmer...than he is now.
This new Iroh, the one who smiles warmly and easily despite having so recently lost a child, who manages to be polite and insulting, and who specifically turns his back on Ozai to give his full attention to Zuko...this Iroh is new.
“I was watching your form,” Iroh says. “You’re not bad! But there is always room for improvement. And you’re not going to get it with these sages. I’ll take over the rest of the your training.”
Zuko blinks. Snowflake squeezes his shoulder, gently. Which means, she’s not mad. This...is a good thing?
Well, he is the Dragon of the West, he reminds himself.
The head sage sputters, walking up to them and Ozai. “This is outrageous! It’s tradition for the Fire Sages to train the royal family.”
“But not mandatory,” Iroh says. “My nephew deserves the best training he can get.”
“He’s getting that with us,” the sage says.
Iroh raises an eyebrow. “Is he? Should you and I step into the ring? I’d like to see which of us has the better claim to ‘Master.’”
Snowflake has moved, now leaning on Zuko, propping her elbow on his shoulder by the feel of it. She’s enjoying this. So is he.
Unfortunately, the sage is smart enough to know that he’ll never win a fight against General Iroh. He gives up the right to train the prince.
Zuko is initially cautious during the first few lessons with Iroh. Every time he makes a mistake—even a minor one—he expects to get a burn, or a smack, or at least some yelling. It’s what crappy students deserve, right?
It never comes. Iroh never raises a hand to him and never raises his voice. The worst he does is give him a firm scolding, and that’s only when he’s doing something dangerous or not getting the fundamentals through his thick skulls.
It’s…nice. His lessons progress much better under Iroh’s direction. And not just firebending.
“You want me to learn a fighting style other than bending?” Zuko asks, incredulous. “Why?”
“What’s your favorite food, Prince Zuko?” Iroh asks. “I should know this, but I’m sad to say, I do not.”
“Spicy noodles with shrimp.”
“What would happen if you had spicy noodles with shrimp every day at every meal?”
“Uh...I’d get sick of it?”
“You would get sick, period,” Iroh says. “The body is not meant to ingest only one thing, and neither is the mind. We have to expand your horizons. Skills you learn in one area can be surprisingly useful in other areas as well.”
Zuko hesitates. “Well...I’ve always kind of liked swords?”
Iroh smiles. “I know just the place.”
Zuko trains with the dao swords under Master Piandao. Ozai disapproves and Azula scoffs, but he clings to this. It’s the one thing that he excels at that Azula does not.
And Brother is there almost every day, too.
When he’s thirteen, Zuko talks his way into a war meeting.
That makes it sound like he lied. But he meant every word. He wants to become a good fire lord, so he needs to know this stuff. What happens if Ozai keels over of a heart attack tomorrow? So he gets in, under the condition that he not speak.
Yeah. Nothing in Zuko’s life is ever that easy.
He doesn’t need the prompting of his soulmates—he’s not even sure who it is that’s prodding him, he’s so angry—to speak out against the general. How dare he?! How can the Fire Nation call themselves people of honor when they’re shamelessly sacrificing the lives of its people as “fresh meat”?
This is not a popular opinion.
Ozai growls that Zuko is being extremely disrespectful. Dishonorable, even. And the only way to settle this is with an Agni Kai.
“Fire Lord,” Iroh says sharply. “He’s a child.”
“He’s the crown prince. And he shouldn’t even be here. The duel will happen tomorrow.”
Zuko looks at the general and tells him he’s not afraid.
Zuko is confident even though he knows that’s a solid chance he will not win this. He refuses to let such a horrible order—a horrible person—go unchallenged. So he gets in the ring with his vest and kneels with his back to his opponent. Punchy gives him a good-luck punch in the arm that makes him smile, just a little.
He stands and turns around.
It’s not the general.
Right before Ozai burns him, Zuko feels all of his soulmates act. Guard is trying to pull him back, trying to get him to move. Punchy is trying to get him to stand and defend himself. Brother, Snowflake, and Feather try to protect his face.
It’s all futile. They can’t protect anything, and Zuko is rooted to the spot.
He appreciates the effort though.
In the infirmary, Snowflake becomes his favorite soulmate by letting him use her as a big icepack. As soon as he meets her, he’s getting her a box of candy and flowers (girls like candy and flowers, right?) just for this.
He can’t stay long, though. He has three days to get a ship and a crew, and leave the Fire Nation. And since nobody wants to work with a dishonored, disfigured boy, he needs to get to work.
Lucky for him, he has Iroh.
Two and a half years.
He spends two and a half years at sea, first searching the Air Nomad Temples, then the poles, then the Earth Kingdom. He trains, with both fire and sword. He yells at his uncle, his crew, at innocent civilians.
He focuses on nothing but his rage, and his burning desire to regain his honor and go back home.
Despite the harsh treatment, Iroh never leaves him. Neither do his soulmates.
Feather is always trying to cheer him up, even just a little. He’ll poke Zuko’s nose until he looks out the window and sees falling snow for the first time in his life. He’ll draw his attention to the dolphin-sharks that follow his ship. He’ll get Zuko to pause in front of a shop that has cute knick-knacks. It rarely works, but even on his worst days, Zuko finds himself softening just a little when it happens.
Snowflake is always there when Zuko gets hurt. It doesn’t happen very often as he gets better at defending himself and ignoring the hateful sneers. But when he does take a hit, or a cruel word finds its way under his armor, her cool presence is always welcome.
Brother is absolutely invaluable when it comes to strategy. Not every time, but sometimes, Zuko will feel him trying to push or pull his hand across various maps until he’s settled on a specific place that he wouldn’t have initially thought of. These places rarely have news of the Avatar, but they do have deep ports for his ship, cheap supplies, and a relatively friendly attitude toward Fire Nation princes.
Punchy moves from hitting him when he needs to get up—he does that on his own, now—to hitting him when she thinks he’s being an idiot. Which is, apparently, every time he:
• yells at Iroh
• yells at the crew
• yells at anyone who isn’t a jerk, really
(She’s right, of course. But he’ll never admit it.)
Guard is always watching his back. It doesn’t matter who he’s fighting or what danger he’s in, she will do everything in her power to alert him. From the thugs who try to rob him on the street, to mutinous crewmembers who think the best way for them to go home is to just get rid of their captain, to Earth Kingdom soldiers trying to ambush him. He can usually spot the danger himself, but just the fact that she’s there and invested in him being alive helps.
Zuko knows that they are most likely in the Fire Nation. Soulmates rarely cross national lines. So he needs to capture the Avatar as soon as possible, so he can find them.
(Later, he’ll realize that soulmates probably don’t cross national lines so much anymore simply because people don’t cross those lines anymore. And that needs to change.)
One day, he’s pondering his maps, when he feels Brother’s hand over his own.
Zuko closes his eyes and lets his soulmate pick their next destination. When the touch is gone, he opens his eyes. And raises his eyebrow.
It’s not a port, or city. It’s the south pole.
And just like that, it all changes again in an instant.
When the Avatar tricks them and escapes the ship, some of the crew want to go back to the Water Tribe village and burn it to the ground.
“He knew the rules!” Lieutenant Jee argues. “He comes with us, or the village burns. He needs to pay the debt.”
Iroh says nothing. Just watches Zuko and lets him decide.
And Zuko, unlike most of his other decisions, actually takes a moment to think about it. Because he knows several people—Zhao, Azula, his father—who wouldn’t hesitate. They’d leave nothing but ash and bones in the snow.
But there are two things holding him back. The first is sheer practicality. Their ship is badly damaged. They need to chase the Avatar. The Avatar flew away from the village. They can’t risk losing his tail just to quench a grudge.
“There are no warriors in that village,” Zuko says, thinking about that stupid boy who barely counts as a fighter and ran off with the Avatar. “No soldiers. Only old people, mothers, and children half my age. Where is the honor is slaughtering them because a child didn’t keep his promise?”
Lieutenant Jee sputters. “He broke his word!”
“His lack of honor doesn’t excuse yours,” Zuko snaps. He marches to his chambers. “We follow the bison. End of discussion.”
He sees Iroh smiling at him, and feels an approving punch—different from the “you’re being an idiot” punch—from his soulmate. But the real shocker comes when he’s alone in his chambers. He takes one step and runs into a wall of soulmates.
At first, Zuko is very confused. He has no idea what’s going on or even how many are with him right now. But after a minute, he figures it out.
It’s Snowflake—he’d recognize that oasis-like coolness anywhere—and, given the calluses on the hands, Brother. And they’re hugging him.
He has no idea why. Maybe they’re glad he finally has a solid lead, or that he’s not dead, or they recognize a bad day when they see one. Either way, he closes his eyes and just lets himself enjoy it for a moment.
The next few months are a whirlwind that turn Zuko’s life upside-down several times over. But what most sticks out is this:
Every time Zuko fights the Avatar and his friends, he does it from a sense of duty. That he has to do this for his nation, for his honor, for his soulmates. But every time he fights with them, it feels oddly...right. When the Avatar asks if they could be friends after the “Blue Spirit” breaks him out of Zhao’s fort, a not insignificant part of Zuko wants to say yes.
That terrifies him.
And by now, he’s an expert at channeling his fear into fury, and fire.
Later, when they’re all there fighting Azula in the ghost town and Iroh takes a bolt of fire to the chest, he wants to say yes again. The waterbender can help. And while they’re his enemies, by now he knows they’re honorable enough to mean it when they say they want to help.
He bends fire at them to chase them away.
Ba Sing Se happens, and Zuko is more confused than anything else.
Iroh tells him that it’s time for Zuko to choose his own destiny, to do good in the world. Azula tells him that he can help her topple an empire and regain everything he’s been striving so hard for: his honor, his father’s love, his soulmates.
But oddly enough, his soulmates...don’t assist him in that decision.
They’ve been with him every step of the way. Every fight, every injury, every roadblock, at least one of them is there, watching his back, soothing his wounds, giving him some sort of guidance. But in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, they’re eerily silent.
He picks Azula, and the Avatar falls.
(Later, he’ll remember that soulmates only appear when destiny deems that he needs them. But sometimes, he needs to make decisions on his own.)
That night, Zuko’s side aches and burns. He dismisses it as a muscle cramp or minor injury from the fight. Later, he’ll learn that it’s not unlike the pain of someone’s soulmate getting perilously close to death.
He has his honor. He has his girlfriend. He has his father’s love and even his sister’s approval.
So why isn’t he happy?
His soulmates appear from time to time, but it’s not like before. There’s little to nothing that they can do. He tries to talk to Iroh about it, but the man says nothing behind the iron bars. He considers telling Mai, but she doesn’t have soulmates and wouldn’t understand.
He knows the Avatar is alive. One of the best waterbenders in the world has a vial of spirit water and is quite possibly soulbonded with and/or dating him? Yeah, he’s not dead. Injured and recovering, sure. But not dead.
And thanks to Azula, if anyone else ever finds out about that, it’s all on Zuko. Everything that he’s worked so hard for will vanish in an instant.
So Zuko does the only thing he can do and hires an assassin.
It leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth, and a sore arm from Punchy’s hit.
When Iroh tells him about his link to Roku, Zuko takes that information and ignores it, the way he’s been ignoring everything else: the fate of the Avatar and his friends, the fact that the national rhetoric and propaganda he took as truth so obviously clashes with what he experienced abroad, the growing sea of guilt and hate and anger churning in his stomach.
This—for the most part—works.
Right up until the war meeting.
“Fire Lord Sozin used the comet to wipe out the Air Noamds,” Ozai says. “I will use it to wipe out the entire Earth Kingdom. And I will rule everything!”
The generals cheer. Azula smirks. Zuko wants to throw up.
His soulmates are at his back, some of them nudging him forward, urging him to speak up.
He studies the massive portrait of Ozai in the hall, Mai hanging on his arm. And he realizes two things:
His father is a monster.
And he has sacrificed everything—his identity, his uncle, his honor—in the name of that monster.
Assisting the Avatar’s invasion would seem like the easiest way to end all of this. Except Zuko can’t. Too much has already gone into preparations. If he tries to change anything, they’ll get suspicious of him and lock him down.
No, he has to let the eclipse go as planned, and hope that the Avatar and his friends, once again, slip out of the jaws of death.
So instead, Zuko spends the morning of the eclipse preparing. He writes a break-up letter to Mai, discards his crown and armor, and packs his swords and some food. As the sun grows dark, he heads for the bunker.
He stands in front of the door that separates him from his father, waiting for the eclipse to officially start.
Snowflake is gripping his left hand, to the point that his palm is frozen. Feather is holding his right, jittery fingers tapping against him. Punchy is squeezing his forearm, Brother’s hand is on his shoulder, and Guard’s is on his back.
“I’m ready to face you now,” he says, and walks through the door.
He feels like twenty pounds has been lifted from his chest as he walks away from Ozai, even as the man calls him a coward.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to your mother?”
Guard, Punchy, and Feather are all trying to push him out the door. And he knows, he knows exactly what Ozai’s doing.
He turns around anyway. “What happened that night?”
His mother is alive.
Iroh broke himself out of jail.
The Avatar and his friends are heading for the Western Air Temple.
Zuko steals a war balloon and chases after them.
It probably says something about Zuko that his “fuck you” to his abusive father is much, much easier than trying to convince the Avatar’s group that no, he’s really not trying to kill them this time.
Predictably, it does not go over well.
Ugh. This would have been so much easier with Iroh.
It gets worse before it gets better. He accidentally burns his only supporter’s feet.
When he screams at the sky after she leaves, Punchy gives him a sympathetic pat.
Early the next morning, Zuko gives serious consideration to leaving. That’s what they want, and so far all he’s ever done is bring more harm than good. Maybe that’s the only way to make this right.
But he can’t. Because this is his mess to clean up. And it’s his nation that’s going to destroy the world. He needs to fix this.
So he resolves to just stay at arm’s length until they decide he’s not a threat.
His soulmates have other ideas.
Punchy’s the first the start prodding him. Then Brother, Snowflake, and finally Feather, all urging him to get up.
“What?” he snaps.
They push harder.
“Fine! I’m up! I’m up!” He gets to his feet. “Now what, you idiots?”
They prod him forward.
Zuko sighs, but he closes his eyes so it’s easier to follow their lead and starts walking. A more cautious man would at least crack open an eye for stray roots or rocks, but Zuko trusts his soulmates more than anyone else.
He realizes where they’re going and opens his eyes. “Really? Back here?” he asks, looking at the upside-down temple. “Right, because this went over so well last—”
He sees the glint of metal. The bald head. The very distinctive tattoos.
Lesson learned: whenever you want to get a group to go from “we want to murder you” to “we’ll tolerate you until you give us an explicit reason to murder you,” just save them from the assassin you hired to kill them and take a dive off a cliff.
Whatever. Zuko never asked for luck, he just wants results. He’ll take their overly-cautious attitude, midnight threats, and cold shoulders with a smile. He honestly wasn’t expecting anything better.
Now, if only he could actually firebend...
Zuko’s mini-adventure with Aang to the Sun Warriors really drives home how young the kid is.
When he was chasing them, it didn’t really click that the Avatar was only twelve. He just saw his prey: a dangerous bender who grew more and more powerful every day.
Now, after only a day of actually...hanging out...with Aang, the fact that this is just an overly-optimistic, unusually wise, actually terrified child smacks Zuko in the face. He’s extremely timid around fire, he’s wary about the traps, and he’s even more scared of Zuko’s father than Zuko was at his age.
And he has to save the world in two months.
On the flip side, the first time Aang manages to firebend on his own without burning anybody, his face is one of pure joy and wonder. Zuko will remember that face for the rest of his life.
The whole thing boils down to Zuko vowing to himself to protect Aang with his dying breath.
“Protect Aang” in Zuko-speak translates to “grill him with all the training.”
Toph, at least, greatly approves.
As the week creeps by, Zuko finds himself gradually becoming accepted into the group. He does chores with Teo, Haru, and The Duke. He trains Aang. He asks Sokka why Aang and Katara aren’t dating, because he thought they were an item from day one, and Sokka shouts, “Exactly! If I have to watch them make goo-goo eyes at each other after the war, I’m locking them in a closet together.” He gives Toph piggy-back-rides until her feet heal, and even after they heal because she’s a jerk like that. Katara grudgingly accepts his tea with her dinner.
And he starts having dinner with the group rather than alone in his room. He still sleeps separate from them. Part of it is because, while he’s definitely connected with Aang and probably Toph, he’s still very much an outsider. They’re still awkward around him, sometimes even tense, like they’re waiting for him to attack.
Which is ridiculous, because even when he was actively chasing them, he was never smart enough to come up with a plan this good.
The other reason is the nightmares. He used to get them during his exile all the time, and then they tapered off. Now they’re back. Sometimes it’s the old ones—Ozai burning him, his mother crying for help but he can never find her, drowning in darkness while Azula laughs—and sometimes they’re new. Ozai burning Aang features prominently. Uncle Iroh getting hurt or worse, and blaming Zuko. The world burning.
He usually doesn’t wake up screaming, but it does happen. Better to just stay away and save that mess of a conversation for later.
But he still has dinner with the group. And it’s during one such meal that the subject of soulmarks comes up.
Zuko’s soulmates haven’t appeared in a long time. Not since they pointed him in the direction of the assassin. He’s a little disturbed by it; he can’t remember a time he’s gone so long without interacting with at least one of them. But at the same time, he doesn’t really need them right now. He’s busy with Aang and the rest of the team, and for the first time in a long time he knows exactly what his purpose is and how to fulfill it.
Also, he really doesn’t want to explain to his soulmates what a horrible asshole he was until he’s had some time to make up for it.
Sokka’s in the middle of a joke when he suddenly stops talking and looks down at his hand. Zuko frowns. “Sokka?”
He doesn’t answer, and starts unraveling the wrapping around his arm and glove.
“I don’t feel anything,” Toph says.
“Me, neither,” Aang adds.
Katara smiles at her brother, who’s ignoring them. “You probably just have a cramp from sparring today.”
“I know, I know, but...” Sokka’s glove finally comes off, revealing a line of soulmarks that starts at the base of his thumb and goes to the inside of his elbow. As Zuko’s sitting right next to him, he has a prime seat, but looks away. Those are private. Sokka studies one of the marks and breathes a sigh of relief.
At everyone else’s confused looks, Katara explains, “One of our soulmates is missing.”
“’Our’?” Zuko echoes.
“Twinkle-Toes, Sweetness, the idiot and I are all soulmates,” Toph explains, ignoring Sokka’s protests at his nickname. “We also have Suki, that’s the girl who’s missing, and a sixth person we haven’t met yet.”
Zuko hums into his bowl of noodles. He’s completely unsurprised that the four of them (plus two others, apparently) are soulmates, considering how close they are and all they’ve been through. Well, maybe the fact that Katara and Sokka are. Siblings are rarely matched, simply because they’re already so close, so destiny rarely has to get involved to keep them together.
“I have three,” The Duke says, rolling up his sleeve to reveal them. He points to one shaped like a log. “That’s Pipsqueak. I don’t know who the other two are.”
“I have four, but they’re on my legs,” Teo says, looking down at his wrapped limbs.
“None for me,” Haru says with a shrug.
They all look at Zuko. Maybe it’s just his imagination, but Sokka, Aang, and Toph look like they’re all holding their breath.
“Five,” he says, hoping to leave it at that.
Aang leans forward. “Can you show us?”
“Why not?” Katara challenges.
He sighs, and lifts up his shirt, revealing the old scar. “Because my grandfather burned them off when I was born.”
Everyone either pales or looks vaguely ill. Zuko tries not to squirm. He’s been half naked in front of a ship full of people and he’s never felt this exposed.
“Perhaps this is a strange question,” Sokka asks, “but why?”
“Him, my father, and Azula don’t have soulmates,” he explains, dropping his shirt. “They think soulbonds make you weak, and the best thing to do is just avoid them altogether.”
“So you have no idea what your marks look like.”
Zuko shook his head. “Right after it happened, my mom tried to draw them, so she could show me later and help me find them. But my father found them and destroyed them.”
“Soooo, it’s possible that you have met your soulmates already and just don’t know it?” Sokka asks.
Zuko flinches. “I sincerely hope not!”
“Why not?” Toph asks.
“Jee, I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve been a total bastard for most of my life and I really, really don’t want that to be how my soulmates think of me?” He looks at Katara. “If we’d had another minute in the catacombs, I would have asked you to heal that scar instead of the one on my face.”
“Then I’d say we did your soulmates a favor,” she says.
Toph whistles. “Low bar, Sugar Queen, even for you.”
“Oh, come on! How do we know he’s—”
“He’s not lying,” Toph says.
“And I’ve felt them,” Zuko says. “All of them. So I definitely meet them at some point. I just haven’t met them yet.”
“Hold on,” Sokka says. “I have a theory. Zuko, look at these.”
Since he’s explicitly being asked, Zuko looks. At the base of Sokka’s thumb is a golden fan. Down his arm is a blue Water Tribe-like symbol that probably matches the design of Katara’s necklace, a blue arrow like what’s on Aang’s head, a cloudy eye that looks like Toph’s, and a golden fire symbol.
“Mine’s a boomerang. They have it,” Sokka says, waving his hand at his other soulmates. “Now this one here...” he points to the fire symbol “...looks an awful lot like the Fire Nation insignia, right?”
“Yeah, except the color’s off,” Zuko says.
“Does the fact that it’s gold mean anything to you?”
Zuko shrugs. “That is the color of the crown. But it could also mean that your sixth is a jeweler, or gold thief, or any number of things.”
“Well, here’s the other thing,” Sokka says, “We know this guy is a firebender. The heat that his spirit gives off is like a fire pit. Pretty handy when you live in the South Pole.”
Zuko narrows his eyes and warns, “Stop it.”
“I’m just saying: it all fits. So far every one of our soulmates is helping to end the war, which is what you’re doing. You admitted it yourself that the color matches the royal crown, and you are a prince. And in our line of work, coincidences aren’t exactly a thing.”
“I am not your soulmate,” he says, praying that it’s true. Everything that he’d done to them and put them through was horrible enough when inflicted on random people. But if they’re his soulmates? He might as well jump off a cliff right now.
“Well, there’s really only one way to find out,” Teo says.
“I’ll do it!” Aang cheers, airbending over the fire so he’s sitting cross-legged in front of Zuko. “Sokka, do you have a knife?”
“Guys, come on,” Zuko tries.
“Look, if it’s nothing, it’s nothing,” Sokka says. “You’ll still be our teammate. We just...want to make sure.”
Zuko sighs and watches Aang prick the middle of his palm with the knife Sokka produces. “So what exactly can I expect here?”
“Well, if we’re soulmates, there will be a light as soon as we touch blood, and then our spirits will get sent back,” Aang explains. “For our bodies, this takes only about three seconds. But in our minds, we’ll be going through every moment and event that we are needed, either to intervene in or, in some cases, just something the universe thinks we need to see. It’s kind of random sometimes, honestly. But it’s really cool!”
“Great,” Zuko says weakly. Sokka takes the knife from Aang and wipes it on his pants, then hands it to Zuko. He takes it and pricks his palm, but hesitates.
“Look, Aang,” he says, “Are you sure you want to do this? Because if we are truly soulmates, then what you’re about to see...it’s not going to be pretty. And there are a lot of things I’ve been through that I would really, really rather you not be a part of.”
Aang’s exuberant smile slides off his face. He scoots closer. “Honestly Zuko, I’ve never thought your life was...entirely pleasant. But that just means that, if we are soulmates, then you’re really going to need me, need us, to get through it. Right?”
Zuko feels himself choke up. He swallows it down. “Right,” he mumbles. He takes a deep breath. Please don’t be my soulmate, please don’t be my soulmate. “All right. Here goes.”
He holds out his hand. Aang takes it in a firm handshake. And—