Azula realizes Sokka is his soulmate. She’s always been like that. One step ahead.
Azula’s eyes flash with acknowledgment, and instead of mockery, she gives him the shortest of nods. Zuko wants to believe this means she's changing, that she’s seen the cruelty of their father. But he knows what it is. When he was twelve, he walked in on her and Ty Lee, their faces pressed together. Azula had shoved Ty Lee off, but they both knew Zuko understood the situation. This is simply her repaying that debt, it must be.
“He’ll be your ruin.” She says it calmly, but there’s something in her eyes that betrays the seriousness of the sentiment. They’re fighting atop the cable car, and Sokka is right there. If Azula wanted to, she could tell him. But instead, she speaks in riddles, ominous warnings. “You know he will ruin you, Zuko.”
Zuko. She only calls him that in moments of sincerity, in moments where it feels like they could be the sort of siblings Sokka and Katara are. Azula always lies, Zuko knows this. But he also knows her well enough to understand that the person she deceives most often is herself. He sees it in the way her eyes flash when she watches Ty Lee, in the way she digs her nails into her palms when she believes herself to be doing poorly in a fight. In the way, Ozai’s expectations of perfection have destroyed Azula’s concept of happiness.
“Good.” Zuko manages, and Sokka shoots him a confused glance. His blue eyes are wide, concerned. Zuko doesn’t know what he would do if Sokka understood the connotations of his and Azula’s current conversation. “At least I won’t be the cause of my own destruction.”
Azula’s blue flame flickers, then grows brighter. He’s hit a weak spot. That’s bizarre. Azula has always taken pride in having no clear weaknesses. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sokka looks from him to Azula, clearly trying to understand the interaction. Out of the corner of his good eye, Zuko can see that Ty Lee and Suki have stopped fighting, watching how he and Azula’s interaction plays out. Zuko does not want to know how they managed to do that.
Azula pushes past Sokka, flame dissipating from her palm. Sokka tries to stop her, but she immobilizes him with one well-placed pressure point. Huh. Looks like Ty Lee has taught her some things. “Does he,” Azula starts, her gaze briefly focusing on something behind Zuko, he assumes Ty Lee, “does he know?”
“Does she?” Zuko counters, and Azula’s amber eyes flash. “I don’t know,” he admits.
Azula shrinks. Zuko doesn’t know if he’s ever seen her this small. The closest, he thinks, is the night their mother disappeared. She had tried to hide it, to conceal as their father taught them, but she was still so little then. Not quite broken yet. “Father figured it out.” She says, and it is so soft, so completely unlike Azula, that he almost doesn’t recognize what she’s admitting.
“I’m sorry.” He says, and is shocked to realize he actually means it.
Azula shrugs, and he can tell she’s worked hard at having a perfectly neutral expression, at appearing completely unphased. At this point, they’ve dropped all semblance of fighting. They’re just two children caught in the crossfire of their father’s war. “I think he wants me dead,” she says. She doesn’t sound entirely against the idea.
Zuko feels the cable car lurch as it reaches its destination, watches as Azula considers her next move. There’s something robotic in the way she fights now. Like her fire, once ferocious, has been replaced with something artificial.
“But you’re the prodigy.” He manages, trying to buy time for the others to unload. Suki seems to have gone back into the cabin of the car, probably to get Hakoda, and Ty Lee is standing dangerously close to the edge of the roof, her dark hair casting shadows on her uncharacteristically morose expression.
“Our father does not approve of defects,” Azula says. “You know this.” Zuko feels himself nod. “Besides, do you really think he’d let me rule alongside him?”
“No.” In all honesty, Zuko has absolutely no idea what his father intended to do with Azula once he won the war. “But I thought you did.”
“Please, Zuzu. I may be a monster, but I’m not stupid. We all know what Father does to people who’ve outlived their usefulness.” Lucky to be born. That’s the phrase that lives in his head, those are the words he sees when he closes his eyes. He’s never considered that Azula had an equivalent to that. Distantly, he wonders if it haunts her the way it haunts him.
“Come with me,” Zuko says, before he can truly understand the consequences of what he’s doing. “Help me train the Avatar. Defeat Father.”
“What?” Azula’s mask of neutrality slips, if only for a second, to give way to an expression of pure shock. “You’re joking.”
“Zuko!” Sokka shrieks. Zuko was unaware that he’d regained consciousness. “You did not just ask your crazy murderous sister to join us.”
“For once, I agree with this water tribe peasant.” Azula’s trying to be unbothered, Zuko can tell, but she’s failing. Azula. Failing at something. Who would have thought?
“Bring Ty Lee,” Zuko says. “Fight on the right side of history.” Agni, he sounds like a fire nation pamphlet.
Ty Lee perks up at the sound of her name, and Zuko can feel Azula watching her, weighing her options. A spark of blue flame dances on her fingers. She and the circus girl seem to be having a heated argument with their eyes.
“What about Mai?” Ty Lee asks, casting a worried glance at the prison.
“Mai has always been skilled at surviving,” Zuko replies, and it shocks him that he’s not lying. He and Mai always assumed they would have to be married one day, a hollow arrangement for two people who knew they weren’t meant for each other, but it never stopped their friendship. Mai is, besides maybe Sokka, one of the smartest people Zuko has ever met.
“You don’t deserve this chance,” Zuko says slowly, and Azula nods.
“I don’t want it.” She says.
“Well, I’m offering it to you anyways. Like a fool.”
“It was smart,” Azula’s eyes suddenly have a far-off look to them, like she’s remembering something she’d rather not think about, “leaving when you did. And leaving of your own accord. Father hates the things he can’t control.”
“He can’t control me,” she says. Zuko wonders if she actually believes that. “I will come with you. If you give me the throne.”
“I don’t want it.” Zuko sighs. “Yes, Azula. You can have the throne.”
Everything after that happens so fast, with Azula ushering an absolutely shell-shocked group of recent prison escapees (and Ty Lee) to her royal airship, and Sokka yelling at him for the consequences of the vow he’s just made to his crazy ruthless sister, and Suki looking at him in a way Zuko wishes he didn’t understand.
Sokka looks like he’s going to attack Azula at any given moment, but she simply rolls her eyes every time he gets close. “Don’t you think if I wanted you dead, I’d have killed you already?”
When they arrive at the Western Air Temple, everyone is rightfully furious. Except Toph. She seems to be enjoying the chaos.
“This is so clearly a trap,” Katara says, blue eyes hard with fury. (Yeah, this whole situation probably set Zuko back a couple of millennia when it comes to her trusting him.) “We barely let him in, and now he thinks he can just invite his crazy sister—who nearly killed Aang, by the way, to join us?”
“She isn’t lying about wanting to join us,” Toph says. But even Zuko doubts her. Azula always lies. She has no tells.
“Do you know our names?” Aang inquires, looking more curious than anything else.
“Dead Mom, Water Tribe Peasant, Avatar, Blindie, and Zuzu.”
“Is she serious?” Katara shrieks, clearly about to drown someone. Probably Zuko.
Azula giggles. She honest-to-Agni giggles.
“I’ve been trying to kill you for how long, Katara?” She says. “Do you really think I don’t know your names?”
“Maybe she’s changed,” Aang chirps, though even he is eyeing Azula warily. “It would be cool to learn how to summon lightning!”
“ She is right here.” Azula says. Everyone ignores her. Ty Lee pats her on the arm sympathetically, and Zuko wonders just how long they’ve been going on like this. Did Mai know? She probably did.
“This is a huge risk.” Sokka says. “But I trust Zuko.”
“But why now?” Katara snaps, blue eyes cold with rage. “What could possibly have happened—”
Azula rolls up her sleeve. Everyone stills at the sudden motion, preparing for a fight. Instead, Zuko sees what Azula is trying to show them. A handprint on her forearm, a burn not quite scarred over. A familiar mark. Zuko would recognize it anywhere.
“He said he would never harm you.” Zuko says. Azula shrugs. He can tell she’s trying to feign an air of nonchalance.
“Things changed when you left, Zuzu.” Her amber eyes flash with something he’s never seen before —— real, unrestrained fear. He suddenly gets the urge to hug Azula. Huh. He doesn’t know if he’s ever seen Azula hug anyone.
“What are we looking at?” Toph asks, her brows furrowed in annoyance. “You guys always leave me out.”
“Azula’s—” Katara starts.
“Proof of my father’s love.” Azula says. The campfire surges in response, like it’s reacting to her anguish.
Everyone goes quiet.
“Zuko,” Sokka says, breaking the silence they’ve all unwittingly settled into. “Can I talk to you?”
“Yeah.” He allows Sokka to lead him out of the temple, into a clearing that overlooks the forest he once camped out in. He knows Sokka is looking at him, but he can’t bring himself to return that gaze.
“What were you two talking about? Today, on the bridge.”
“Oh,” Zuko says, rather ineloquently. “Why does it matter?” He forces himself to meet Sokka’s gaze, to look into his brilliant blue eyes.
“She committed treason because of that conversation,” Sokka says. Then he sighs, and adds a second later, “and I’d like to know who’s going to ruin you, so I can make sure they don’t.”
Zuko snorts at the ridiculousness of it all, at the idea that Sokka believes he’s deserving of protection. “It’s too late.” Zuko says. “I think I’m ruined already.”
“You’re so dramatic.” Sokka rolls his eyes. “There’s no way you’d ever let anyone destroy you.”
I already have. Zuko wants to say, to admit what he’s known since the day they met, since he kicked Sokka in the head and saw the colours his father said he would never see. That Sokka ruined him from the moment they crossed paths, because Zuko always knew he wasn’t Sokka’s soulmate. “We were talking about soulmates.” He admits. “Father didn’t believe in them. He said they were a distraction.”
“Oh,” Sokka says. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” Sokka should know by now that Zuko can’t refuse him anything. And a foolish part of him, the part that refused to give up on the idea of soulmates even when his father said they were something that only existed in fairytales, hopes that Sokka is going to ask if he loves him. If he too saw colours on that day, the one that feels like so long ago.
“Azula’s arm—is your—was your scar from him?” Zuko stills. Tries to ignore the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Tries to think of a response that won’t make him sound absolutely pathetic. “You don’t have to talk about it.” Sokka’s eyes are wide, concerned. This conversation is veering dangerously close to pity.
“Yes,” Zuko says finally, trying to calm his breathing. “I had to learn. Suffering was my teacher.” He doesn’t mention that it wasn’t the first, that there’s a reason he’s rarely shirtless when the others are around, that it would take an ocean of Katara’s magic water to heal every scar on his body.
He doesn’t get a chance to see Sokka’s reaction, to see the pure rage on his normally amused expression. Because Azula chooses this opportunity to flounce down next to them, and Sokka immediately stiffens. “How did you get here?”
“I walked,” Azula studies her nails like this is the least interesting interaction in the world. “You should try it sometime.”
“Funny.” Zuko deadpans.
Sokka storms back to the campfire, probably to make sure Azula hasn’t murdered anyone. “He’s cute.” She says.
“Yes,” Zuko breathes, before he can think better of it. “What do you want?”
“I want answers, Zuzu. I want to know why you’re risking so much to help me. You don’t even know if I’m telling the truth.”
“When was the last time someone gave you an opportunity to be something other than Father’s enforcer?” Zuko reaches for Azula, surprised when she doesn’t shake off his hand. “I got so many chances, Azula. I failed so many times. You never even had a choice.”
“You’re wrong.” Azula says, her voice hard. “I could have left. I didn’t. I chose to fight for Father. I chose to fight you.”
“And you chose to be here.”
“I don’t know why I did that.” Azula admits, and for a brief moment, Zuko can see the turmoil she must be experiencing. “Part of me just wanted you to let your guard down.”
“You haven’t killed me yet.”
“No, I haven’t.” Azula agrees like she’s surprised by herself. “You should tell him.”
“I can’t believe you’re giving me romantic advice.” Seriously, wasn’t she trying to kill him less than 24 hours ago? “You know how ridiculous this is?”
“Oh yes,” Azula says, grinning wickedly. “Grandfather is rolling in his grave.” Good, Zuko thinks. Let Sozin rot.
“I’m sorry for leaving.”
Azula stiffens. “Don’t say that.”
“You’re Zuko.” She says. “I’m Azula. We aren’t supposed to like each other. You’re not supposed to be kind to me.”
“Who says?” As he asks, Zuko realizes just how many people pitted them against each other from the start. Even Ursa.
“Everyone.” Azula replies. She’s always been better at that. At accepting people for who they are — eternally disappointing. “Where has trust ever gotten us, Zuko?” With Azula, questions like these are almost always rhetorical, a way of getting under his skin. But not now. She’s genuinely asking.
“It’s gotten us here.” He says, “it’s gotten us away from Father.”
For a moment, Azula’s posture changes, and Zuko worries that she’s going to strike him down. Destroy him for what he’s said about her hero. Instead, she leans her head on his shoulder, and he feels the silent sobs as her breath rises and falls. When they’re sitting like this, just the two of them, he can tell just how small she really is. She’s only fourteen, barely a year older than he was when he was banished. For all her skill, all her manipulation, she’s barely older than Aang.
Azula drifts into a restless sleep, probably her first time actually dozing off in weeks, so Zuko lays her in his sleeping bag and sits near her. They’ve never had this sort of dynamic before, one that siblings are supposed to have. It feels so foreign, wanting to protect her. Azula has never needed protection from anyone besides herself.
Still, it makes him feel slightly more at ease. So much so, in fact, he almost doesn’t notice Sokka sitting down next to him.
“She’s a lot less scary when she’s sleeping.” Sokka says.
Zuko manages a stifled laugh. “I find that to be the case with most people.”
“Not me,” Sokka jokes. “I look absolutely murderous when I sleep.”
“No,” Zuko says, too sincerely. “You look beautiful.”
Great job, Zuko! Way to compliment Sokka in the most creepy way possible!
“You really think so?” Sokka asks, all joking gone from his tone. His expression is startlingly open, and it hits Zuko like a bolt of lightning.
“Yes,” Zuko coughs, making an attempt at breaking the tension. “So, what’s the verdict?”
“Katara is very against it. Toph thinks we should do it. Aang is on the fence. Everyone else just escaped from prison. Ty Lee is weird. I think she might be sleeping upside down. Like a dragon-bat.”
Zuko sighs. “It’s her most comfortable sleeping position.”
Sokka snorts quietly, his eyes drifting to Azula’s slumbering form. “Are you okay?”
Huh? No one ever asks him that. “I’m managing,” Zuko says, trying to appear nonchalant. Distantly, he wonders how Azula was able to do it all these years. Probably repression. “I think...I think it was easier to pretend Azula was evil than it was to think about how my uncle and I left her alone with my father and never looked back.”
“I knew a girl like her, once.” Sokka says.
“Murderous?” Zuko jokes, but Sokka shakes his head, uncharacteristically serious.
“A princess in an unwinnable situation.” Sokka sighs.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko says, though he doesn’t quite know what he’s sorry for.
“When I met her,” Sokka continues, his posture suddenly stiff, “I wanted her to be my soulmate so badly. I loved her like she was.”
“Oh,” Zuko manages, trying to ignore the pit in his stomach.
“She was always meant to be with the moon,” Sokka is saying, his expression suddenly distant, “and I was stupid to think that I could ever be enough for someone. Especially someone like her.”
You’re my soulmate, Zuko wants to say. You’re my soulmate and you’ve always been enough and— “But you have Suki,” he says instead, interrupting his internal anguish. “And she’s your soulmate.”
Sokka looks at him incredulously. “Suki isn’t my soulmate.”
No,” Sokka shakes his head, “Tui and La, no. She found her soulmate, apparently. Another Kyoshi warrior.”
“Oh.” Zuko says. “So you haven’t found your soulmate yet?”
“I have,” Sokka’s eyes are sad. “I’m just not his.”
“His?” Zuko replies, barely above a whisper. “Who is it?”
Sokka’s blue eyes bore into him. “Who do you think?” He whispers, and Zuko’s heart seizes with foolish hope.
“You’re my soulmate,” Zuko says, instead of answering Sokka’s question. “I didn’t want to tell you because I thought it would be awkward, because I'm not yours.”
“Zuko.” Sokka’s voice is hurried, desperate, “the first time I saw colour was when you kicked me in the head that day in the village.”
Maybe it’s the relief of being out of boiling rock. Maybe he’s just a naturally lonely person, looking for an out.
Whatever it is, he surges forward, pushing his lips to Sokka’s.
Sokka reciprocates, and it’s like everything has clicked into place. Like, for just this moment, things are going to be okay. Sokka’s lips feel like hope, an emotion Zuko has so little experience with. The warmth it creates in his chest is more powerful than any inferno.
Later, as he listens to the steady rise and fall of Sokka's breath, Zuko allows himself to yearn for a future where he doesn’t fall apart when the war ends.
It doesn’t seem so out of reach anymore.