Zuko clutches his chest, whimpering as stray electricity dances around him.
He hears Katara scream his name and Azula’s insane laugh.
Shit. Katara's fighting Azula now. Alone.
Get up, he orders himself. Get up, get up, get up!
Toph would never admit it, but growing up, Zuko—Sunshine—was probably her favorite soulmate.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the others. Just…well, Katara had always taken care of her, and while she was very different from her parents, Toph sometimes had a hard time separating them in her mind. But it was still great to have an invisible ice pack for her cuts and bruises. Suki was usually there to warn her of danger, whenever a fight was about to go too far. Sokka helped her cheat on her tests, which was always fun. And Aang was always down to play with her, something she desperately needed as a child.
But Sunshine? He challenged her.
He helped her bend better, pushed her farther, and always urged her to get back on her feet. That was probably his biggest lesson: always get back up. Doesn’t matter how many times you fall down or what situation you’re in, you get back up.
No one else did that for her. When she got knocked down, she was coddled by everyone but Sunshine, because he knew she could do better.
So she gets back on her feet, even as the airship crumbles beneath her. She keeps bringing down more airships even as she and Sokka get separated from Suki. She keeps going, until she can’t keep going any more.
Zuko can’t get up.
It’s not even a matter of pain. He can breathe through pain, he’s been doing it all his life. Honestly, compared to getting his face burned, this isn’t too bad.
The problem is he can’t breathe.
You overprotective, stupid, selfless, son of a—
Katara’s inner monologue cuts off as she dodges another streak of lightning. Unlike Zuko, she can’t redirect any of it. A single hit, and she’s dead. And then nobody will be there to heal him. Assuming he’s still alive.
Of course he’s still alive, she scolds herself. To think of anything else was ludicrous. Zuko never gives up, even in the face of impossible, insurmountable odds. They could ask him to fetch a pearl from the coldest depths of the ocean and he’d find a way to deliver.
She ducks behind a pillar, in a palace she knows as well as her own village. Zuko is lying in the middle of the courtyard, not moving.
This is all her fault. If she hadn’t moved, hadn’t caught Azula’s eye, Zuko would have won that fight himself. But she let her fear get the best of her. She’d seen too much of what Azula had done, all of her horrible victories, and hadn’t trusted Zuko to handle himself.
Now he’s dying.
Azula’s nowhere to be seen. Katara runs.
“It is respectful to bow to your elders,” Pakku says in the rubble of Ba Sing Se’s wall. He opens his arms. “But how about a hug, for your new grandfather?”
“No way!” Katara yells, hugging him as Sokka squeals behind her. While she’s surrounded by her soul family (most of them, anyway; Aang’s still missing), getting another traditional family member is like striking gold.
“Welcome to the family, Gramp-Gramp!” Sokka cheers, also hugging him. Katara gives them a little space as Sokka tries to come up with more ridiculous nicknames for the already long-suffering Pakku, and sees Zuko open his mouth.
She turns on him and scolds, “Be nice.”
He holds up his hands. “I didn’t say anything!”
“No, but you were going to.” She softens. “Please, Zuko? He’d never hurt me or Sokka.”
Zuko’s face twists a little, but he stays quiet, at least until Pakku pries himself away from Sokka long enough to ask, “And who are these three?”
“Our other soulmates!” Sokka cheers. “That’s Toph, my girlfriend Suki…”
“And this is the extremely overprotective Zuko,” Katara finishes.
“I’m not extremely overprotective,” he defends.
They all make noises against that, but it’s all in good fun, and Katara can tell through the eyeroll he gives that he knows it. They’re all a little overprotective of each other, anyway.
Aang almost kills Ozai.
Not Avatar Aang. Aang Aang.
Not because of the loss of the Air Nomads. That had been Sozin, and it would be unfair to hold his grandson accountable for his actions.
Not because of the loss of Katara and Sokka’s mother. That had been Ozai’s father, Azulon.
Not even necessarily because Ozai wanted to destroy the world.
But because of Zuko. Every bit of suffering he’s been through could be laid squarely at this man’s feet.
Aang wouldn’t even have to kill Ozai to get even. Just burning half of his face would likely be enough.
But he can’t.
The Air Nomads raised him better than that. Gyatso raised him better than that. Spirits, even Zuko raised him better than that. Using the fire of his spirit to help others, to keep them warm on chilly nights and snowy days, rather than burning them.
Aang had done his best to return the favor. Once he’d realized what kind of environment Zuko had come from, he tried to show him that there was some good in the world. Even when his mother left, even when he was banished, there was still some kernel of happiness to be found. Some bit of beauty to appreciate.
The same is true of people. No matter how evil they are, the sheer fact that they’re human deserves to be respected and honored. If he killed Ozai, he’d never be able to look Zuko in the eye.
So he pulls himself out of the Avatar State and finds another way to end it.
Zuko’s going to die.
It would have been bad enough if the lightning had only burned his heart, but oh no. He’s not that lucky. It also got his lungs. Breathing is like fanning a fire in his chest. Every second is agony.
He realizes that he hasn’t felt his soulmates since bonding with them. Nobody realized it because they were all there physically, so there’s been no need to be there as ghosts from the future. No reason for destiny to intervene.
But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s because Zuko’s going to die, right here and now, and they won’t get a chance at a second bond.
He squeezes his eyes shut. I’m sorry, guys. Look after Uncle for me.
“So what’s the plan on the off-chance that this goes really sour?” Sokka asks.
It’s dawn, the team standing in the growing sunlight as the Order of the White Lotus gets ready for the day around them. The four teens are waiting on breakfast.
“What do you mean?” Toph asks.
He jerks a thumb at Iroh’s tent. “In case that goes sour.”
“It won’t go sour,” Katara argues. “It’s Iroh.”
“I know, I know, he’s actually a decent person. But you never know. People can surprise you. I just want to be prepared with a plan for the worst case scenario.”
Katara rolls her eyes, but Toph seems to be enjoying the mental exercise. “It’s not like we can fight him. He’s the Dragon of the West.”
“And the leader of the Order of the White Lotus,” Suki points out. “We need him. At least until the comet’s gone.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sokka grumbles. “We’d probably want to wait for Aang, too. He’d want to fight him.”
“No he wouldn’t,” Suki says. “Aang and Katara can comfort Zuko while the three of us exact revenge.”
Sokka’s eyes sparkle. “I knew there was a reason we were dating.”
“What exactly would this revenge look like?” Toph asks, growing even more amused. She’s got that I-know-something-you-don’t-know smile, but Suki doesn’t know what it could be for.
“Simple: we target that which he loves most,” Suki said, steepling her fingers. “If that’s not Zuko, then it’s obviously the tea shop.”
Sokka brightens. “Oh, yeah! We could have Toph flatten it. Or release a dozen hog-monkeys during rush hour!”
“How would you even get that many hog-monkeys?”
Sokka and Suki both cringe and look behind them.
Iroh’s the one who asked the question, looking completely non-plussed at overhearing them plan to destroy his tea shop. Zuko’s standing next to him, face buried in his hand.
Sokka turns on Toph, who’s cackling. “A little warning, next time?”
“But this is so much more fun,” she says.
Zuko raises his head. His eyes are a little puffy, like he’s been crying recently. But so are Iroh’s. And both of them look relaxed and happy, even if Zuko is also incredibly annoyed. “Why are we planning on destroying Uncle’s tea shop?”
“On the off-chance that he turned out to secretly be a giant dick and was mean to you,” Sokka says, absolutely zero apology in his tone.
Zuko turns to Suki. “You approved this?”
“Not the hog-monkeys,” she admits. “Viper-rats would be the better choice. They’re easier to get and way more effective.”
Zuko face-palms. Iroh laughs.
Then he bows.
“I’m grateful to see my nephew found such good soulmates,” he says genuinely. “Thank you for looking after him.”
The sudden sincerity catches everyone off-guard, except for Zuko, who’s gotten over his annoyance and embarrassment enough to give them a warm smile.
“We should be thanking Zuko,” Suki says, which turns the firebender pink again.
Iroh pulls out of the bow and motions for them to follow him. “Come. Breakfast should be ready, and you children need to eat.”
Tying up Ozai seems a bit like overkill. He’s lost his bending and can’t even stand. But Sokka insists, and Suki agrees, so Toph bends some cuffs out of the airship.
“Zuko and Katara?” Aang asks.
“Dealing with Azula,” Toph says. “But I’ll be honest, I’ve got a pain in my shoulder and I can’t tell if it’s from the marks or something else.”
Suki stiffens. She felt a pain in her leg during the fight, but she’d assumed it was because she landed wrong. Sokka, who was ordered to lie down on a cot across from the ex-Fire Lord, bolts upright and unwraps his wrist.
Once he sees his marks, his brown skin turns pasty. “Get us to Caldera City. Right now.”
“Who is it?” Toph demands as Aang and Suki rush to obey.
“Zuko. He’s fading.”
Suki pauses on her way to the wheel. Ozai is apparently more coherent than they thought, chuckling at them. “So you’re the soulmates. That makes sense. Weaklings tend to flock together.”
She grits her teeth. Even after seeing Zuko's entire life through their soulbond, she still doesn't understand how someone like that could possibly be related to their soul brother.
Sokka turns his arm so the marks are visible to Ozai. The usually golden flame on his wrist is almost white. “Your son is dying,” he says lowly. “Your daughter might be dead, too. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
Ozai shrugs. “They should have been better.”
Suki might not be the best at coming up with insulting names. But she can—and does—knock out a fully-grown man with a single punch.
Katara chains Azula to the grate and runs to Zuko.
The first thing she notices is how small he is, curled up around his chest. It's so wrong. He's the tallest and largest of all of them, capable of wrapping his entire being around anyone to keep them warm and safe.
Don’t be dead, she prays, turning him over and blanching at the bloody wound on his chest. Don’t you dare be dead.
Everyone gets ready to leave. Master Piandao is out securing a ride for Sokka, Toph, and Suki so that Katara and Zuko can use Appa. Sokka puts on his armor, which is proving difficult. His hands won’t stop shaking.
On the third attempt to get the straps together, pale hands take his own.
Sokka jumps, and swears. “I’m putting a bell around your neck, Jerkbender.”
Zuko rolls his eyes and takes over putting on the armor. “It’s good that you’re scared.”
He sputters. “What? I’m not scared. What are you talking about?”
Zuko gives him a look, and he deflates.
“It’s good that you’re scared,” Zuko repeats. “It means you’re not stupid.”
Sokka gives a nervous laugh. He, Toph, and Suki are about to go against several airships’ worth of firebenders juiced up on a magic comet. He’s fucking terrified.
On top of that, his other three soulmates are fighting either the Fire Lord, or his crazy bitch of a daughter. Any one of them could be killed today.
He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t more worried about Katara than…really anyone else. He’d be crushed if any of them died, but if Katara dies, he’s pretty sure he’d break.
“So, Katara would kill me if she heard me say this…” he begins.
Zuko smiles. “I’ll make sure nothing happens to her.”
Sokka lets out a gusty sigh of relief. “Thanks, man.”
Zuko finishes with the straps on Sokka’s armor and steps back. Sokka awkwardly rubs the back of his neck. While they’re definitely friends now, he’s not sure how to act in this situation. The first several months they knew each other, Zuko was the bad guy. The one who could take hit after hit after hit and still get back up, chasing them all over the world. When he joined the group to teach Aang firebending, he was still scary, and formidable, and not someone that anyone was particularly worried about getting hurt.
But then he turned out to be their soulmate, the one firebender Sokka grudgingly liked as a kid. He’d always assumed the man who saved his life at least twice by keeping him warm during blizzards and fishing mishaps was a walking, talking, fluffy blanket.
Turns out, he wasn’t far from the mark. Zuko’s an awkward turtleduck, something Sokka finds hilarious as well as endearing. The desire to bundle him up in a dozen blankets and keep him tucked away from the world began to kindle as soon as he and Aang bonded.
It turned into a raging need when it was Sokka’s turn to soulbond with him.
Which is stupid. Intellectually, Sokka knows that Zuko is just as scary, formidable, and fierce as ever. Arguably more so, now that he has something more wholesome and concrete to fight for. His bending is stronger than every before. Spirits, even without the bending, he’s more dangerous than most people on the planet.
So is Katara. That doesn’t stop Sokka from worrying.
“Don’t die today, okay?” he asks. “We kind of need you.”
Zuko rolls his eyes, and there’s that self-deprecating look Sokka hates so much. “Worst case scenario, Uncle Iroh takes the throne and—”
“I’m not talking about the fucking throne or the world or whatever,” he snaps. “We need you. Get that through your thick, fiery skull.”
Zuko stares at him, then cracks a tiny smile. “I’ll try not to die today. Promise.”
Sokka honestly can’t say how long it takes them to to reach Caldera City. He spends the whole time staring at his wrist.
Come on, Zuko, he thinks, clutching his arm so hard there will definitely be bruises. You promised.
Aang is outside of the ship, using his airbending to make them go faster. Toph leans against the wall, not too far from Ozai, who’s drooling on the floor from Suki’s hit. Suki herself is driving the airship.
The mark flickers, going from gold to gray and back again. It flickers like a real fire, or some other thematically appropriate shit.
And then, suddenly, it stops.
He holds his breath.
“Sokka?” Suki calls, concerned. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
Is he crying? Sokka wipes his face and realizes that, yup, definitely crying.
He looks up, grinning as he shows her his wrist. “He’s okay.”
Zuko squeezes his eyes shut. I’m sorry, guys. Look after Uncle for me.
It’s getting harder to breathe. Katara and Azula are still fighting. He gives himself maybe two minutes before he’s dead, if he's lucky.
That’s when he feels it. Light, fluttery fingers tapping I’m here over and over on his shoulder.
In a blink, they’re all there. Katara’s curled up against his chest, cooling the burn. Suki’s at his back. Sokka’s holding his hand so tight he wonders if souls can leave bruises. Toph’s fingers dig into his arm right under Aang.
He honestly can’t tell if they’re physically there, or if it’s the soulbond, or just his imagination. He can’t hear anything anymore, his lungs are pulling in less air with every breath, and right now the only things that really process are the pain and the touch of his soulmates.
It's not the worst way to go, but right now Zuko's thinking that this isn't the way he goes. He might just survive this, if he can keep sucking in one breath after another.
He manages to force another six thin, raspy breaths--barely--before someone rolls him over. The cool feeling seeps into his chest, soothing the burns on his heart and lungs. The pain lingers, then dissipates.
He takes a full breath and opens his eyes.
His soulmates are gone but for Katara. The glow of the water illuminates her face until it stops, and she meets his eyes. She’s smiling, and crying.
“Thank you, Katara,” he whispers.
It still fucking hurts.
Not like he’s going to tell anyone else that.
The first thing he asked, once he was sure Azula was secured and Katara herself was okay, was to see her soul marks so they could check the others. Her marks form a ring around her bellybutton. They’re all there, vibrant and colorful and so not dead.
Now, as the airship lands in front of the palace, Zuko does his best to cover the very visible wound with the burnt remains of his shirt. It doesn’t work, though, as the first thing that happens is Aang flies down and grabs him in a hug.
“You’re okay!” he cries.
The Avatar immediately pulls back. He tugs Zuko’s shirt away, and winces, but gives a wobbly smile. “Looks like we’re scar buddies.”
Zuko looks him up and down. All sorts of nightmarish scenarios came to his head when he realized Aang spent the last half hour fighting Ozai, ranging from him dying to getting a burn like Zuko’s to getting shot by lightning again. Even after seeing the mark on Katara confirming he was alive, that didn’t mean he wasn’t hurt.
He’s got a few bruises and his shirt is gone. But he’s fine. Not a single burn.
The relief is so powerful Zuko almost falls. Katara and Aang catch him and sit him down on the edge of a little stone wall around a garden.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he mumbles.
“Right,” Aang says.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah! Got the Avatar State back and everything.”
“Is everyone else okay?” Katara asks.
“Well, Sokka broke his leg…”
The idiot in question hops out of the ship, with Suki the only thing keeping him upright.
“Sit your ass down before you hurt yourself!” Zuko orders.
“It’s fine.” He hops until he’s got one arm around Zuko and another around Katara. “You’re both okay!”
Katara smiles. “We are.”
Sokka smacks Zuko over the head. “Don’t scare us like that again, Jerkbender.”
“Hey, it wasn’t actually my fault! Blame Azula. She’s the one who shot lightning at Katara.”
The waterbender winces while Sokka reels back, looking at his sister. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she says. “Because somebody took the hit without properly redirecting it.”
“I redirected most of it!” Zuko defends.
At Katara’s flat look, he amends, “Some of it. Enough that I’m still breathing!”
Sokka looks at him and seems to be about two seconds away from crying. Zuko quickly points out the broken leg to Katara, and she gets her brother lying on the wall to look it over. Suki rolls her eyes and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, “Men.”
Zuko looks around and frowns. “Where’s Toph?”
“Securing Ozai,” Suki says.
He blinks. “He’s…still alive?”
It’s a weird feeling. A part of him is relieved, which is a surprise. The other part is filled with dread. Already he can see the Fire Nation splintering as at least half of them refuse to follow him and instead flock to Ozai. The Hundred Year War might be over, but a nasty civil war is just a heartbeat away if…
“I took his bending away,” Aang says.
Zuko stares at him. “Is that a euphemism or…”
“It’s call energybending. It’s really cool, and I think it might be how we got our bending in the first place. See, there’s this giant lion turtle who showed me, and—”
“Hey, Sunshine!” Toph calls, stepping out of the ship and metalbending something behind her. “Where do you want this?”
Ozai is in crude metal cuffs and has a nasty black eye. Toph drops him at Zuko’s feet.
Ozai bares his teeth.
Zuko stares back at him.
After a beat, Ozai glances around and asks, “So. Are you going to deliver the killing blow yourself, or have one of these children do it?”
Zuko raises an eyebrow. “You think you’re here to be executed?”
“Isn’t that what you want, Fire Lord?” he sneers. “Revenge?”
No. That’s what Ozai wants. Zuko, realizes, wants absolutely nothing to do with him.
He realizes with a jolt that his father has built his entire identity around firebending: using it for power, using it for fear, using it to secure his own superiority over everyone else. Without it, he’s nothing. Right now, death would be a relief.
Zuko stands. Katara reaches out to steady him, but he doesn’t need it. He cradles his father’s head, his thumb almost touching the left eye. “If I wanted revenge, you would already be on fire.”
Ozai stiffens beneath his hand. His soulmates—his family—hold their breath.
Zuko pulls away. “Toph, you know where the prison is?”
“Do me a favor and take him there. Make sure to warp the lock until I know the guards can be trusted."
She does it without question.
Iroh finds him later, after he’s been properly bandaged.
The entire soul family is in the palace. Zuko could have claimed the royal chambers for himself and given everyone else lavish guest rooms, but they decided against it. Iroh stumbles upon them all in one of the audience chambers. Mattresses, blankets and pillows litter the ground. Some are haphazardly thrown, while others—namely the ones supporting Sokka’s broken leg—are carefully placed.
They’re all dog-piled on one another, each child touching at least two of their soulmates. Zuko is sandwiched between Katara and Sokka. All of them are asleep.
Iroh smiles, and leaves the room, ordering the servants not to let them be disturbed until morning, at least. They deserve the rest.