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the heartless and the gentle

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Sokka is five when the first mark appears. 

It writes itself in a deep red like a wound, as if someone had carved the word nonbender in a messy font across the knuckles of his left hand as if it was handwritten with a knife. Sokka cries for hours, not for the word, but for the pain — actual physical pain (and Sokka won’t discover this until a few years later when the raids take away more than what he can count, but when it appears, the mark also feels like something is burning his skin. Eventually, too, he will learn how to endure the pain of fire.) 

Given his young age, he has a limited understanding of what a soulmark means, but he knows it’s something about what your soulmate dislikes about themselves. And Sokka wonders, is it really that bad being a nonbender? Sokka himself is probably a nonbender, and while Katara’s waterbending seems fun from a distance, Sokka does not have it in himself to understand the concept of envy, just yet. Much less towards Katara.

(When he asks his mother, as she applies salve on Sokka’s knuckles, she sighs deeply and says nothing for a few moments. Her own soulmark is visible from this angle, cheater in blocky brown letters across her collarbones, just beneath her necklace.

“Sometimes, our soulmarks are not the worst things your soulmate can be,” she explains slowly like she’s trying to find the words. “Sometimes, they can refer to something your soulmate has been told is bad, when it isn’t, or maybe someone called them that word in a mean way, and it made them sad.”

Sokka frowns. “But why would they believe it if it isn’t true? Why would someone tell them it is? And– and why would the spirits mark me if it isn’t true or it’s not a bad thing? That doesn’t make any sense!”

Kya smiles sadly at her son’s endless search for logic and briefly wonders the same thing. When it became impossible to deny that Hakoda had not just one, but two soulmates, people in the village started whispering. She knew Hakoda was no cheater, she just couldn’t help it if Hakoda felt that way. Just as Hakoda couldn’t help it when chief in lilac, for Kya, wrote itself behind his right ear, or homewrecker in clay, for Bato, across his forearm. Soulmarks just can’t be helped. And yet she wonders. Sokka looks at her, expectant.

Ever since she was little, Kya was not one for painting the picture prettier than what it was, sometimes even being a blatant pessimist. On the other side of the spectrum is Hakoda — bright and brave Hakoda, who takes his liberties with speeches about hope, that Katara watches as if she was entranced. Sokka makes so many questions, though, so much skepticism inside his little head. And Kya wonders if Sokka is a little more like her. She thinks he might need to be, if Katara turns out anything like her father.

“Sometimes, spirits don’t make much sense.”)

 

Six months after his first mark, at six, lazy brat finds his way to the bottom of his foot, and he limps for days out of the burning sensation of the suffering of his soulmate. At seven, the word pathetic appears on his inner elbow. Not even a week later, useless spawn fixes itself around his ankle, and Sokka wonders who in the world could be treating his soulmate so terribly. He tells his mother and father so, and they just smile sadly. Sokka thinks they do a lot of that, these days.

At eight, he asks his parents what Katara’s soulmark means. Katara was born with hers, AVATAR like a collar in arctic blue, almost like it’s glowing. His father explains it, with all the care and tactfulness in the world a father can explain these kinds of things to his eight-year-old child, but Sokka is still left feeling something a lot like dread the entire following week. At eight, too, the words lucky to be born curl around his wrist. Luck seems so silly to Sokka when his sister’s soulmate is long gone.

At nine, the word gentle cuts itself across his right cheek. As he holds a crying Katara in his arms, mom’s body on the ground, now gone as well, Sokka wishes he could tell his soulmate that ’gentle’ is not a bad thing to be. Sokka thinks he could use some gentleness in his life.

The next week, when the word pretty fixes itself above his belly button, Sokka doesn’t tell anyone; he applies salve to the mark himself and he doesn’t cry — there are more important things happening in his village, like Katara’s loud grief, or his dad becoming Chief, or Bato getting three soulmarks the same week, chief and widow and leader, behind his ear and along his jaw and across his chest in blocky brown letters — the same style as Kya — so Sokka doesn’t mention it or even talks at all. After that, the words stop appearing for a while, but Sokka’s intent to hope for something better died with his mother.

 

Sokka has yet to turn thirteen when he wakes up screaming in pain, about ten soulmarks all over each other between his left shoulder and his ear, red and vivid like burning flesh. Among the few words that are somehow possible to read out of the disastrous scribbling, disrespectful and coward and burned and sorry sorry sorry are the ones that stand out the most to Sokka. He thinks, at the tender age of twelve, whoever did this to his soulmate will be sorry too, one day.

 

After that, the marks never seem to stop.

banished under his right eye.

ugly between his third and fourth rib. 

scarred and disfigured one on each knee.

branded over his left eyebrow.

 

A month after Hakoda leaves him with the job of the protector at the age of thirteen, Sokka realizes, with a bitter taste in his mouth, that he’s got more soulmarks than his entire village combined.

 


 

When Zuko is fourteen, he gets his first soulmark. It goes from under behind his unscarred ear down to where his pulse lays. He immediately panics, to say the least. 

It’s not the stinging sensation that comes with the marking, or the word in particular, as much as it is the knowledge that he has a soulmate at all. Soulmates were said to be a private thing, and yet, although Firelord Sozin was long gone, it’s no secret in the Fire Nation that he had worn AVATAR like a necklace in crimson red letters, so deeply ingrained as if someone had carved them with a knife on skin, referring to the known traitor Avatar Roku. He’d also worn the word friend, Azula told him once, after eavesdropping on one of the adults’ conversations.

So, Zuko is no stranger to soulmarks and what they represent, the slurs that cement themselves on skin like scars — as his mother had said to him once, scars of the soul.

Mother only ever told stories. She had never mentioned her soulmate, but they all knew it wasn’t Father, not when she had the word peasant branded across her nose and cheekbones for everyone to see, and not when Father wears second born on his arm like a sleeve (Ozai is his own soulmate, curiously). And either way, Zuko and Azula never asked. Soulmates are supposed to be a private thing. That’s why only six — without Ursa, five — people know Azula’s soulmate is Ty Lee (monster and daughter on Ty Lee’s ankles in an electric blue; sister in peach pink at the back of Azula’s neck) and none of them are Ozai. Zuko swore to keep it a secret, and he would, but it felt good to hope Azula failed in something Zuko had not, at least in the way their father saw it. 

Now, the word protector in a handwritten navy blue — font for the bond, color for the soul — is denying Zuko his ounce of luck once again. He wonders if that’s what his soulmate wears on their skin. Lucky to be born.

Uncle is delighted, as far as Zuko can tell (he has a strange fascination with soulmates, despite wearing the word wife on his chin, hidden behind his beard). He doesn’t comment on it, though, and if the other members of the crew do comment, they do it behind Zuko’s back. To be fair, the mark is almost impossible to see from certain angles. Does this particular placement mean something Zuko can’t quite decipher just yet?

The following month, Zuko tries to focus exclusively on his Avatar hunt, going from place to place looking for clues, but he can only wonder if he’s met his soulmate already somewhere along the way. He knows it’s not Mai, because Ty Lee also had the words ill-behaved and Zuko’s firelady adorning her hips, and Mai’s bangs are very useful to hide the peach-pink collection doll written on her forehead.

“The three of them are cursed,” the servant they had confided in told Zuko once. On the next port, Zuko catches himself staring at a tall boy with tan skin and bright green eyes, and he can only pray it’s just them three.

 

(At fifteen, killer stings on his ankle until he can barely walk. Zuko stares at it for one solid hour and considers crying a little. In the end, it’s okay, he decides. Plenty of good people are killers, in one way or the other. It could even refer to an animal, after all, and perhaps his soulmate is a sensitive person or something. After all, not even a week ago Zuko woke up with the word lonely on his bottom lip.)

 

After that, the marks never seem to stop.

 


 

Miraculously, Katara finds her soulmate at the age of fourteen. Sokka is still a bit dizzy about the entire situation even after they escape the Fire Nation ponytail freak and his ship, but he knows enough about Katara to understand that if a miracle were to happen to anyone, it had to be her. Now Sokka has a twelve-year-old Avatar to protect. He can think about that later.

Sokka doesn’t know if Aang knows Katara is his soulmate, and frankly, he’d rather they have that conversation just the two of them, preferably in private as well. Few people talk about soulmates, as it is evident that in this war, everybody hates themselves just a little, so it’s easy to not talk about it. Aang’s visible words (which Sokka desperately wants to look away from — helpless and abandoned and lonely) are common enough to belong to anyone. If Katara didn’t carry the word AVATAR around her neck only covered by their mother’s necklace, Sokka might not even give it a thought. But he does. (This ponytail guy can’t be the only one searching for the Avatar. The Avatar is twelve. They cannot go back now.)

He does.

 


 

At the Southern Air Temple, Sokka gets a soulmark. It’s not a new development — he gets one every three months or so. This time it’s unwanted, written messily on his right thumb. (At a nearby port, Zhao’s taunting cuts deep. Iroh tries, but it does little for his sixteen-year-old nephew’s scarred soul, at the end of the day.) It’s not a new development, but a — familiar, at this point — bone-deep sadness still invades Sokka when he thinks about how easily his soulmate believes every curse thrown at them like it’s the only truth they’ve ever known. (It is.)

 

At Kyoshi Island, Sokka gets his ass marvelously kicked, and he selfishly wishes it was Suki’s words that inked itself on Sokka’s skin, instead of this tapestry of the pain of a person he cannot aid, a person he cannot protect. But Suki doesn’t have a soulmate. (She does, in fact, but she won’t discover it until ten months later, inside of a cold prison cell, where a peach pink circus freak on her collarbones will do little to comfort her.)

 

After that, it goes like this;

 

There are children on the trees, and mouth wheat, and a flooded village, and somewhere, the word leader writes itself above Zuko’s heart.

 

There is a storm, and Katara gets the word coward on her lower back, while Sokka’s bunch of marks between his shoulder and ear seems to itch an awful lot, as a Lieutenant tells Zuko he should learn some respect.

 

There is a blue spirit, and the words last airbender curl around Katara’s ankle.

 

There is a fortune teller, and as Zuko goes over firebending basics again, the word unhappy appears on his middle finger.

 

When they meet Bato, he calls them brave and wise, and Sokka thinks it’s a tragedy that soulmarks are so vile when there is so much one can love and appreciate in other people and oneself. (This strange optimism does not last very long, as Aang reveals himself to be a liar and then he almost gets burned so many times — Sokka can feel Katara’s bone-deep despair. In the end, they go with him anyway, and Sokka thinks, maybe not because he’s Katara’s soulmate, but despite it.)

 

They meet a firebending teacher, and not a day later Katara has the word firebender written on her palm. She just wishes Aang could have healer instead (and he does, eventually, across his knuckles, about a month later when Katara is sent to become a healer with the other women where she belongs, right after Aang felt little girl cementing itself across his shoulder blades.)

 


 

Lieutenant Jee has so many soulmarks they cover his body like a tapestry. Some of them are easier to make out than others, like waterbender and southern peasant and boy whore and prisoner and other words Zuko doesn’t want to think about, to name a few. Zuko doesn’t ask if Jee’s soulmate is a boy, or if he’s a waterbender, or if he’s alive at all. Zuko knows about the raids of the South — everyone does, in a way — and he doesn’t think about them too much, in fear of finding something he doesn’t like.

 

Zuko thinks about Jee’s mysterious soulmate while having a cup of tea with Uncle.

“Did Lu Ten have a soulmate?” Zuko says timidly as if he’s afraid Iroh is going to burn the other half of his face off for asking such an insensitive question.

Iroh takes a long sip of his tea. After what seems like hours, he simply says, “ Colony trash, above the heart.”

Zuko gets the message very clearly. International soulmates are doomed to tragedy.

 

As if on cue, after Zhao takes Jee away and blows up Zuko’s ship, he’s left with more scars than he can count and the words southern peasant imprinted on his inner thigh. He misses Jee now, more than he ever thought he would.

 


 

Sokka meets Yue and falls almost instantly. He knows they don’t really have a chance, as Yue is a princess without a soulmate; and Sokka is not, and he doesn’t want to add ’rejected’ to his own skin on top of everything else.

“You have so many soulmarks,” Yue says, almost to herself more than to Sokka. She isn’t rude like that.

And besides, Sokka does have many soulmarks, almost like a second skin. Instead of dwelling on that — as he has been doing for ten years — he smiles at her.

“You have really pretty eyes.”

The blush on her face is almost worth the gentle of his own cheek, or the pretty of his belly button.

 

He still grieves when she dies. She was his first kiss, after all. She was barely sixteen, and she was a princess, and her soulmate was a spirit. She was as lonely as someone could ever be.

 


 

Toph Beifong is her own soulmate.

Sokka has heard of this before just once, about the Firelord. He’s heard it’s a very similar thing to greatness and madness being two sides of the same coin; self-obsession and self-sufficiency. He’s rooting for Toph, though. She seems like an alright kid.

Sokka knows Toph is her own soulmate because both of her knuckles form the word Beifong. The blind at the bottom of her foot is no longer the same seaweed green as her name, but it has faded to grey. When Aang asks about it, Toph answers that blindness hasn’t been a thing she hates about herself for a long time now (Sokka catches Katara stealing a glance at Sokka’s knuckles, nonbender faded to grey as well). They don’t ask how she knows what grey is, or what it represents. This friendship is still at a very early stage. 

 

Often, though, Sokka wonders how being your own soulmate is even possible. Is a soulmate the other half of your soul? Is the soul of your soulmate made of the same thing your soul is made of? Is it simply the person you will need the most? The one you love the most? Sokka doubts it because if that were the case, Katara would have to be his soulmate. Katara is the person Sokka loves the most — the first person he’d burn the rest of the world down for, and no one can really change that. Not even his brokenhearted soulmate.

Maybe that’s what a soulmate is. Someone whose heart breaks similarly to yours.

 


 

Zuko leaves his uncle behind.

He meets a little boy named Lee, and he asks to read Zuko’s soulmarks. Lee asks, unlike Song, and he doesn’t wait for the perfect moment to stab him in the back, unlike Azula, and he doesn’t confuse him, unlike Uncle, so Zuko allows him. Lee’s fingers are careful and gentle in the way only a child’s touch can be. He traces the letters slowly, taking his time to let the words sink. 

Zuko can’t resist asking. “Do you even know how to read?”

Lee sticks out his tongue in concentration as he observes the words control freak, small and discreetly blue on Zuko’s inner elbow.

“A little bit.” He manhandles Zuko’s arm to get a better angle. “Are they a nonbender?”

Zuko blinks. “What?”

“Here,” Lee points beneath Zuko’s collarbones, where it definitely reads nonbender in the same familiar handwritten font, darkening still, and when it reaches the exact middle point between blue and black, it stings. Zuko hisses.

“Well, that’s a new one.”

Lee giggles. Zuko focuses on the bubbly sound, instead of the southern peasant itching on his thigh. 

(The next morning, when he announces himself as Prince Zuko, and when Lee rejects his knife, Sokka wakes up burning up, alone on his lower lip, the same blood red as always, glaring at his reflection. He runs his tongue over it softly, knowing it’s not of any consolation to his sensitive soulmate, who hates themself with such a passion and who will hysterically laugh along with him, one day, mocking the lonely and alone of both of their lips with sweet kisses in the dark).

 


 

(Zuzu is not written on his soulmate’s body, that’s for sure. There had been a time when it had been light-hearted teasing, and Zuko can work with that. Now, the Avatar didn’t have to laugh about it—)

 

The waterbender offered to heal Uncle— no, she wanted to touch him, and Zuko was the one to leave him alone in the first place, and if he lets anything happen to Uncle again—

—It’s better this way.

 

And Zuko doesn’t want to see Azula again, he doesn’t want to forgive her or try to understand her. He wants to curl into a little ball and ugly cry and he wants to pretend he does not know who his soulmate is and he wants to find his soulmate and ask them— him, if he hates his protector role enough to not include Zuko in his list even if Zuko is willing to beg on his knees for shelter. (Zuko hasn’t been this afraid in a long time.) He doesn’t do any of those things — it would be foolish and erratic and impulsive, and though he’s always been extremely flawed, he’s not going to sit on the mud and worsen himself even more. Instead, he makes tea, he waits for his Uncle to recover, and he listens to Uncle now more than ever.

(When he thinks about it, the way Uncle talks about Azula should worry him, or perhaps pity her, but all it does is wash Zuko in a bone-deep relief.)

(And it takes Zuko a long time to fully realize this, but when the time comes, he will realize he can choose to swim, instead of drowning along with his sister.)

 

Uncle does not shoot lightning at him, sadly (Zuko would rather have Uncle kill him than Azula, for that matter). So he climbs up a mountain and shouts at the universe, and it’s sort of cathartic. This has to be one of the worst moments of Zuko’s life, either finally realizing how murderous his little sister has become, or realizing that maybe he does have an internal turmoil — although he will never admit it to Uncle — and he briefly he wonders which word is currently cementing itself on his soulmate’s skin at this moment.

 

(Nothing appears on Sokka’s skin that day. The spirits are confusing in that sense; if not all the pain we feel can be put into words when the pain is definitely there; when sometimes the pain we feel is about not being rather than being, not doing instead of doing; if sometimes we feel the need to apologize for what we are not, as well as what we are (and years down the line, Zuko will look at his soulmarks and wonder if that’s the reason why Sokka carries more words than Zuko does, when they share the same kind of heartbreak. He will wonder if that’s why his soulmarks lay in the strangest places, where only certain people can see them, because — is that not how Sokka lives through his pain?

It will all make sense, in a few years, but in the meantime, Zuko breaks.)

 


 

They go to a big library to make war plans (the oldest person in their group is fifteen, and if Sokka stops long enough to think about that he will most definitely go insane) because Sokka has never relaxed in his life, and because his shoulder and neck and ear are imprinted with burned and coward and disrespectful and a thousand apologies (sorry sorry sorry) and his knees say ugly and scarred when his belly button reads pretty and Sokka does not know the nature of his soulmate’s relationship with the Fire Nation, but he knows it can’t be good, if being both pretty and ugly can be a weapon against them, and if this is the least of the crimes they committed against his soulmate.

So, he never relaxes, and he always searches for useful information, and he always plans ahead. That’s what he does.

(And Sokka swears he doesn’t mind it, but somewhere far away, Zuko feels the cutting sensation of soulmarking of not very bright hidden at the back of his neck). (Not even a year later, Zuko will look in the eyes of his soulmate and wholeheartedly believe he’s the smartest person Zuko has ever met.)

 

Appa is stolen, and again, the pain and rage they are all feeling cannot be put in concrete words. Still, after they leave the desert Toph wakes Sokka in the middle of the night and doesn’t say anything for a while.

“Well?” Sokka says, finally running out of patience.

Toph shows Sokka her upper arm.

“What does it say?”

Sokka looks. 

Careless.”

Toph nods, covers the skin over again, and goes back to her sleeping bag. 

(Toph trusts Sokka. He never mentions the word again, or the way no one called Toph careless — not Aang, not Katara. No one ever called Sokka half the words that lay on Zuko’s skin. The worst type of cruelty is self-inflicted, no doubt.)

 


 

On the journey to Ba Sing Se, hopeful comes and goes, from the typical arctic blue to faded grey, curling around Katara’s right leg like a snake.

 

Sokka doesn’t kiss Suki — as each of them are needed elsewhere, and as Sokka’s skin is thick with someone else’s soulwounds, and as the last time he fell in love with someone with no soulmate, everything went to shit, more or less — but it’s a close thing.

 

As if on cue, Jet calls Zuko pretty, and Sokka’s stomach burns

Still, when Jet refers to him as an outcast, nothing happens. Jet’s skin is so thick with words it’s almost scary. Zuko has only ever known a couple of people with so many marks — Master Piandao, for one. Lieutenant Jee, for another. The water tribe boy for a third. But Zuko has only ever known one other person with more than one color: Ty Lee, with Azula’s electric blue, and Mai’s maroon. Jet has so many colors — so many soulmates — it’s almost hypnotizing to watch.

When Jet presses Zuko’s back against some door, after the sun has set and their stomachs are full and everyone else is asleep enough for this to be a secret, Zuko asks, “What about your soulmates?”

Jet’s grin is unnecessarily catty. “Have you never heard of platonic soulmates, Lee?”

Zuko has not, but he is willing to trust Jet in this one. So when Jet kisses him, he kisses back. The lonely itches on his bottom lip the whole night.

(Sokka’s alone itches as well. The spirits are easily annoyed, in that sense.)

 


 

Jet calls Zuko an ashmaker not even three days later. Sokka burns with fury and a strange sensation of betrayal when the word appears on his index finger, and suddenly doesn’t take his fingerless gloves very often anymore. He doesn’t tell Katara, or Aang, or even Toph — there are more important matters at hand. He just wishes he would’ve kissed Suki anyway. 

 

(Sokka is no fool, and if the burned on his neck and the branded over his eyebrow match the exact placement as Prince Zuko’s scar, he was always going to be the first one to notice.)

 


 

Suki is captured and interrogated by Azula. None of the slurs used against her mark any bodies. Suki has thick skin like that.

It’s when they send her to the Boiling Rock, barely sixteen years old against giants, that prisoner 473 cements itself on Ty Lee’s wrist, in metallic letters of the same color as the darkest depths of the forest.

“Nice bracelet,” Mai says with a knowing look. “Any point in particular for it?”

Ty Lee is good at pretending. She’s the best at it.

“It compliments my aura!”

 


 

The Da Li is very powerful, but even they can’t erase soulmarks. Smellerbee’s orange boy on Jet’s right cheekbone and Longshot’s dark purple orphan along Jet’s jaw seem to glare at Katara as she leaves him to die, and them to take care of the body. This is the first time Katara doesn’t talk about her pain — she doesn’t know what to say, who to be angry at, where to turn. 

 

(Eventually, this is what will allow her to tell Zuko how Jet died when Zuko timidly asks her after that horrific play which will give Aang two more words to carry on his body. This is what will allow Katara to process and feel her grief as she shares it with someone who knew Jet the same way she did, once. This is also what allows her to understand a little better why— how Sokka never talks about their mom. Sokka will eventually talk, too, process his grief like Katara does, if a little quieter, but still loud enough to be heard by the right people.)

 


 

In all her righteous fury, Katara spits Firelord’s son at Zuko like it’s venom. After everything he’s seen, his gentle nature and broken spirit cannot just see it as a good thing anymore. 

 

Somewhere nearby, Sokka’s forearm burns, and he sighs with resignation at what he already sort of knew. (He starts wearing armbands all the time, too. He isn’t ready to tell Katara just yet.)

 


 

Zuko watches with something close to horror as Azula shoots the Avatar with lightning. It hits Zuko how young he looks — looked? — He cannot be older than thirteen (thirteen is an important age, to Zuko). Zuko turns blind eye to all of the waterbender— Katara’s soulmarks fading to dark grey. He didn’t know that’s what happens when your soulmate dies. He supposes it makes sense.

(That boy is dead , Zuko thinks, officially horrified. That thirteen-year-old is dead. But he cannot go back now. Not after he betrayed Uncle, and not after he was given the chance to restore his honor, and the chance to go home.)

Zuko doesn’t necessarily think about his soulmate that night, but he does think about being thirteen, and about Katara’s soulmarks turning grey, and his sister’s wicked smile and Ty Lee’s words, the same shade of blue as Azula’s lightning.

He throws up a little. He cries all night. Azula tells him to stop whining. He can’t. He wonders if killer now marks the Water Tribe boy’s skin, too.

 

(And when Sokka sees Aang’s body, the protector on Zuko’s pulse aches so hard he screams.)

 


 

Katara saves Aang. Another miracle, in Sokka’s opinion.

(Sokka would know; he was the one holding Katara when the word dead appeared in the exact same place as Aang’s lightning scar. When Aang was able to think he was dead when he wasn’t, either before or after Katara brought him back to life, Sokka doesn’t want to know.) 

After Aang wakes up, they all pretend not to notice gone engraved on Katara’s jawline.

 


 

Sokka’s neck and shoulder are thick with words, but burned has always been the easiest to single out.

 

Hakoda’s arm reads the same, in letters so big it takes up more space than twenty soulmarks combined.

 

The word lays over Katara’s chest, and it never seems to rest.

 


 

“Did you know I didn’t have any words before the iceberg?” Aang confides in Sokka one night, after a particularly vivid nightmare (it was not particularly loud. Aang only woke Sokka up because of course it was going to be Sokka. Aang trusts Sokka.)

“Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Sokka says, one protective arm around Aang’s shoulders as he hides his head on Sokka’s chest. Sokka has a handful of experience in this field — he used to do this with Katara all the time, back when Hakoda’s parture was still recent. “Katara didn’t exist before.”

Aang tenses. Sokka supposes it’s normal to have an ongoing existential crisis about your past life and your new one that are somehow separated by a hundred years and about two weeks at the same time. He kind of wishes he could do more for the kid. Make it easier.

“I know Zuko is your soulmate.”

Now it’s Sokka who tenses under the touch.

“Yeah, me too.”

Aang huffs. His voice is muffled when he speaks again. “Do you… want to talk about it?”

Sokka would rather not — doesn’t see the point of it. But he can talk about it if it’s Aang who needs it for some reason.

“Do you want us to?” Sokka asks. (Us. It’s always us, we, our. Sokka is never alone in his own mind. Sokka is never alone in his own body. He even shares his soul with someone else. And he can’t let it go, either. The group dynamic is built that way, Sokka giving the instructions and the rest following his lead. For this, he can’t even complain. They’re all counting on him.)

Aang looks up.

“It’s not about what I want, Sokka. I asked you if you wanted to talk about it because I wanted to know if you did. To know if you know you can — y’know, you can tell us things. That make you sad, or angry, or whatever. We’re friends.”

“I know, Aang.”

He says nothing more. Aang sighs and hides his head on Sokka’s chest once again.

“One day, you’re going to realize, you don’t have to hide your heart all the time. Not with us.”

 

It’s easy for Aang to say that, Sokka thinks. He doesn’t see the protector on Zuko’s neck the way Sokka does. Aang didn’t see Katara’s terrified eyes and dark grey soulmarks as she resurrected Aang as Sokka did, or Aang’s own limp and small and lifeless body, with a lightning hole on his chest and the bottom of his foot that Sokka could’ve prevented if he’d just stayed at Ba Sing Se instead of running after a man he hadn’t seen since he was thirteen. Aang never wakes up and sees gentle cut through his own cheek, and wishes his soulmate was just a little gentler, so that he would be able to help him.

 


 

When Zuko was nine, his mother held his hands in hers as she took care of a few burns (from either training or Azula or Father, either way, Zuko was definitely in need of her calming presence), when a strand of hair fell over her face. Zuko didn’t think of it twice and carefully — one might even say, gently — put it behind her ear with clumsy aching fingers.

She smiled at him and kissed his knuckles.

“You have such a gentle nature, my son,” she told him. “Don’t let them ruin it.”

 

Now, standing behind his father, allowed to see his face because of a lie, he doubts he was ever gentle at all. Father’s eyes set on his neck, the angle is just right.

“You got a soulmark.”

Zuko swallows. “Yes.”

Father looks at Zuko’s face — really looks.

“Two of them.”

Twelve of them.

(The most recent one fixed itself across his right forearm right after they left Ba Sing Se — eldest son in Zuko’s typical navy blue. Zuko has a slight suspicion it complements the protector one, somehow.)

“Yes.”

After what seems hours, Ozai simply says, “Shame. I had hope for you,” and dismisses him.

The almighty Firelord cannot punish his son for this particular thing — not when he wears his own words, his own insecurities on his own skin. Soulmarks are a powerful, immovable thing.

 


 

Uncle Iroh isn’t talking to Zuko. 

Zuko yells at him. 

He wonders if his aunt was still alive, would crazy old man cement itself on her skin?

 


 

Azula asks for a word with Zuko in the middle of a date with Mai (he can’t say it out loud, but he’s sort of glad. He knows for sure Ty Lee’s disdain for Zuko and Mai’s political relationship doesn’t start with Zuko’s firelady written on her hip, but it doesn’t end there either). She offers him an easy way out.

That night Zuko stands quiet behind Azula, as his sister sends an assassin after a thirteen-year-old.

 


 

It goes like this;

 

Seeing the Fishing Town is nauseating, Sokka can admit that, but they still can’t stay for long. Katara is very clear on her disagreement. (When she calls Sokka cold and heartless, the word does not appear on Zuko’s skin, but it’s a close thing.)

Sokka tells Katara to be reasonable, and he internally goes over the schedule two more times, and he tries to keep it together, so of course, Katara has to mess that up, as little sisters do. (It’s of no matter, in the end, because when the villagers turn against her — the ungrateful bastards, Sokka doesn’t even have to be here at all, they all have more important places to be if it weren’t for Katara’s stupid noble heart — Sokka is the first one to step between them and his sister because of course, he is. He is a lot like Kya, in that sense.)

That night, Katara writes painted lady over Aang’s heart with red paint, and then Toph splashes paint on Katara’s face, and they all laugh and throw paint around and Sokka thinks, maybe them three are worth more than a thousand schedules.

 

One day, Zuko wakes up with four brand new soulmarks, all four curled around his waist, the most visible of his marks since the leader on his chest. He stands in front of the mirror in his room for so long Azula sends Ty Lee to check on him.

“Agni,” she says, more unkindly than what one would believe of her. “Who’s the poor soul?”

(And this is fine — Azula and Ty Lee can’t use these as a weapon, not against Zuko. Not when he knows .)

Zuko can’t stop reading them — incapable and regular and unspecial and unworthy. The words seem so familiar to him, somehow. Must be, he thinks, if they’re soulmates after all.

“I have no idea.”

(On Master Piandao’s residence, Sokka makes a sword made out of space metal, the color is the deepest blue Sokka has ever seen, almost black. It only takes him one year to realize it’s the same color as the words that Zuko carries since he was fourteen.

Master Piandao has plenty of soulmarks himself, in light pink, almost grey. Among them, it’s firebender and deserter and ashmaker, the ones that stand out the most, to Sokka. There is a certain understanding between them, upon having a tapestry of their respective soulmates’ pain adorning their skin. And when Sokka asks, Piandao simply tells him, “Forty-six.”

Sokka looks at himself, half his Master’s age and half his soulmarks. He thinks there’s got to be something worth a poetic statement there, but he can’t quite find it.

Piandao looks at Sokka, half his age and half his soulmarks. He thinks he never adored a boy as much as this one.)

 

Azula takes them to the beach. (None of them have a great time.)

Ty Lee uses her charm the only way she knows and all it gets her is babe fixed above Azula’s belly button. Azula burns with jealousy (and Zuko thinks, is that how a boyfriend is supposed to act? Should he be jealous of boys talking to Mai?) and she calls Ty Lee a slut, now forever imprinted on Mai’s index finger. Zuko feels so much, and maybe he should feel more, and when he calls Mai a big blah the words carve themselves between Ty Lee’s shoulder blades. Azula doesn’t get a word, that night, but Ty Lee’s monster burns until they leave the Island.

(And let it be said, circus freak does not form on Azula’s or Mai’s skin that night, and Ty Lee claims it’s a compliment, Zuko doesn’t think much of it. After the war is won, and after seeing Suki’s collarbones marked with the words he’d spit so carelessly, Zuko will pull Ty Lee aside — sweet, smart Ty Lee, who was there long before anyone else was — and will pour his heart into a late apology. Ty Lee will embrace him, and they will be alright, eventually.

 

Among all the things Aang learns, the most shocking is probably the fact that Sozin wore AVATAR like a necklace, just like Katara does. They aren’t together just yet, as they agreed not to rush into it, but privately it seems fitting to Aang, the way a soulbond started this war, and a soulbond will end it. 

(Whichever is the outcome, Aang will never tell Sokka about how Roku also had gentle on his cheek as if it was carved on wood or bone. He won’t tell Sokka about the matching heartless on Sozin’s cheek. There was little heartlessness about Roku, Aang knows, and there was nothing gentle about Sozin.)

 

It’s a turbulent week for the girls of their little group. Toph doesn’t get any new words, but Aang’s lower back now reads motherly.

In retrospect, Sokka should’ve seen it coming. He was always under this illusion that he had to protect Katara, that he had to be a father for her, that he had to raise her, that he didn’t realize Katara thought she had to be a mother for him, too. He thinks of being fourteen, in the snow, his boomerang bloody and his hands stained but his sister safe and smiling, and how that’s all he saw for a long time. This time out of the South Pole has opened his mind and widened his view in ways he never imagined. It becomes clearer every day why Katara was so angry at their father, or why Sokka can’t remember their mother. Sokka and Katara have been raising each other for as long as he can remember.

He has to do better.

(Back at the palace, eldest son on Zuko’s forearm now has a twin; older brother, bone-deep carved between the space beneath his armpit and above his ribs.



Ty Lee and Zuko don’t cross paths often, because Ty Lee— well. She doesn’t dislike Zuko, exactly. But there is a certain knot in her gut at knowing he’s dating her soulmate. Her soulmate. There’s a lot to unpack on why there is a relationship in the first place, and though Ty Lee knows this, she can feel Mai’s words on her skin every day while it’s Zuko who gets to kiss her, and it’s Zuko who gets Mai to look at him like a soulmate is supposed to, and he doesn’t even want it.

So for now, Ty Lee would rather not cross paths with Zuko, and even if Zuko thinks it’s stupid, he won’t go out of his way for her, either. They aren’t kids or friends anymore. They haven’t been kids for a while. They might have not even been friends at any point.

(“How many words do you have?” Mai asks him.

It’s strange. They haven’t had conversations like this since before Zuko was banished. Zuko assumed it was because they were a couple now, and you can’t just talk about your soulmate with your girlfriend, who is not your soulmate, and whose soulmate is also your sister’s soulmate. Sue him.

But now Mai is asking.

“Fifteen.”

Mai’s expression does not change, but her tone does.

“But you can only see like, not even a half of them.”

Zuko feeds her a grape and shrugs. He will never admit to what extents he’s willing to go to protect his soulmate — leaving just a bunch of hair down to cover the not very bright at the back of his neck, or his outright modesty in the middle of the summer, or the way he only ever mentions the Avatar in his stories; never the waterbender, never the earthbender, never the boy.

“I guess they’re just really emotionally repressed.”

Mai nods, knowing. Understanding.

They don’t talk about it ever again.) 

 

Hama screams and begs as they take her away, and Katara looks, horrified and shocked and scared and only fourteen. She breaks down crying and Aang turns away to find Toph and give Katara and Sokka some privacy, even if the word bloodbender aches terribly in his palm.

 


 

The morning before Zuko finds out about the meeting, Ozai intercepts his son for tea. (It’s something they share, him and Iroh. It’s a pity, really, the way his brother chose to rot in a cell rather than standing next to Ozai, with lands and power and freedom. Ozai feels little but satisfaction at the thought. Second born means nothing, if the first born is as foolish as he is.)

“Well,” he tells Zuko. “Come sit, son. You don’t want to have me waiting, do you?”

Zuko shakes his head gently, and sits in front of his father with equal grace, if wary. Ozai is good at playing this intimidation game they play, but he would have thought he burned the gentleness off his son three years ago. Oh well.

“Did you have a good time at the beach, Zuko?”

Zuko is so stiff Ozai thinks he might break if he can only push him a little further.

“Yes, Father. It was a… pleasant experience.”

It seems the boy hasn’t gotten any good at lying. But Ozai can work with that if he’s going to make him Firelord eventually. Azula would be a lot harder to catch with a lie. 

(But Ozai doesn’t know about Ty Lee, and never will.)

“Zuko,” Ozai says, overly sweet. “You aren’t afraid of me, now. Are you, my son?”

Zuko gulps. His scar is redder than the dawn, in this light.

“Of course not, Father.”

“Good, good,” Ozai smiles. From this angle, only three soulmarks are visible; protector and lonely and nonbender. (It is nonbender that calls Ozai, right beneath Zuko’s elegant collarbones. He isn’t sure why, but even though he doubts it belongs to lady Mai, that is not the reason the word calls to him. This feels like he’s foreseeing something.) He takes a sip of his tea. Zuko hasn’t touched his tea since he sat, it must’ve gone cold by now. “I only want the best for you, Zuko.”

Then Zuko looks at him, and for the first time in sixteen years, Ozai feels truly and horribly seen.

“I know, Father. You always have.”

 

(It’s not until a young avatar takes away Ozai’s bending that the word nonbender carves itself on his now useless knuckles. That’s when Ozai will know, the debt is paid.)

 


 

Even when Sokka gets perfect prince over his collarbones, against the lucky to be born on his wrist and the firelord’s son across his forearm, his hopes for a change remain the same.

 

(When Zuko shows up a day after the invasion failed, Sokka can honestly say he’s not surprised. Doubtful, yes, and he can also say he wouldn’t have been surprised if Zuko didn’t come to them at all either. He can say it’s not at all forgotten, but forgiven. He cannot say he even cares anymore, though.)

 


 

When Zuko confronts his father during the invasion, he knows none of the words he said will mark Ozai’s skin. It comes with being your own soulmate, he supposes, all of the self-righteousness. He won’t let it break him anymore, though — this was never about Ozai. It’s about Zuko.

 

And when the invasion fails, Zuko can feel the sting of a new word engraving itself along his spine. He knew the invasion was going to fail, and he knew how his soulmate — Sokka? — took things personally. Zuko knew he was going to be marked today, and still, the sensation of helplessness and pain and dread is the same as all the times before. He uses the mirror he packed especially for this occasion, failure in the classic handwritten font and navy blue, and a strange familiarity invades his heart when he sees it. (Because Zuko and Sokka share the same kind of heartbreak, really. That’s what this is about, it’s what this has always been about. Despite the now sixteen words Sokka would use to describe himself engraved on his skin, Zuko knows little to not one fact about him, but he is willing to find out. He has the essence, now he needs the substance.)

 


 

Sokka’s hip says honorless.

 

Katara’s spine reads the same.

 

Zuko wears it like a necklace.

 


 

It takes them all a few days, and it takes Sokka four other soulmarks, cursed and villain and ruined between his shoulder blades like a checklist, bad at being good curled around his bicep like a traditional tattoo — but it was ruined that shook Sokka to his core the most, that made him feel an old and familiar and enormous sadness at how much his soulmate hated himself, how vile were the slurs thrown at him and how he believed it with his entire heart; a sadness Sokka hadn’t felt for a long time — and also Sokka might have even killed a man (again), but it seems that now finally, Zuko is a part of the group.

 

(It’s not that they trust him entirely. It’s not that Sokka does, but that actually, Sokka cares very little where his soulmate’s intentions lay, at least with Sokka himself. See, he’s managed to control it, but ever since the invasion failed, Sokka’s been considering the best way to go down while his dearest soulmate and Aang investigated ancient ruins and learned ceremonial dances. How is Sokka to know Zuko knows, too, ever since waste of space wrote itself around his hip, and since alive adorns Zuko’s calf?)

 


 

It went like this;

 

The ruins of the civilization of the Sun Warriors felt, more than they looked. It hummed around Zuko, sparked. He briefly wondered if this is what Aang felt like in the Air Temples, and then discarded the thought. The Air Temples were Aang’s, and much like a massive soulmark around Zuko, even though it all felt intimately his, it wasn’t.

When the dragons showed them their fire, Zuko covered his face. Aang wouldn’t have noticed, not even with the scar, if not for the soulmarks that cover Sokka’s neck and shoulder, among which burned glared terribly at him every time he looked.

When Zuko saw the colors, and he felt their warmth, and his spirit hummed along with the ruins, and he felt Aang’s childlike awe at the rainbow fire, he knew his father was wrong, and he knew he was right, and he thought he could cry. And he understood.

 

(Back in the Air Temple, the firebender on Katara’s palm went cold and grey. Aang cries happy tears on her lap that night, telling her that fire is life, because he, too, understands.)

 


 

Sokka wants to talk to him, and naturally, the last thing Zuko wants to do is just that. Confrontation is terrifying, and Sokka is his soulmate, and his soulmate is very depressed, apparently, and given all the aforementioned facts, Zuko does not know what Sokka plans on doing about anything, but it can’t be good.

(He’s planning a prison break-suicide. That, Zuko didn’t see coming.)

(All Zuko can do now is make sure his soulmate doesn’t die and doesn’t want to die in the first place. Easy.)

“It was my mistake and it’s my job to fix it. I need to regain my honor,” Sokka tells him, and the gentle on his cheek and banished under his right eye and branded over his left eyebrow and a mess of words on his neck and shoulder shine bright and red under the moonlight, calling to Zuko like it’s his name. “You can’t stop me, Zuko.”

And Sokka is right; Zuko can’t stop him (no one could stop Zuko at the time, but they could share the weight he was trying to carry, so he didn’t break too much, too hard, hard enough to never heal again). He won’t even try.

“I’m going with you.”

“No.” The way he says it is almost urgent, or desperate (Sokka cares about little, these days, and Zuko was never a priority, but the guy is still his soulmate; it’s not to save Zuko, but for him to not ask again and save himself; Sokka cannot make himself care for both of them or any of them), but never definitive. “I have to do this—”

“Alone?” Zuko cuts him off. “Have you forgotten I have all of your traumas imprinted on me? There’s no way I’m letting you do this alone, Avatar to teach or not.” Sokka flinches. “What?”

“We aren’t supposed to talk about it. Aang is the only one who knows.”

Zuko sighs. “Right, we don’t talk about it. Sorry. But I’m still going with you.”

Sokka looks at him — truly looks at him. Zuko thinks he might understand Ty Lee a little better now: he doesn’t want Sokka to look at anyone else like that. 

“Fine.”

 


 

Little about the current situation is fine, but at this point, it’s whatever.

 

On the other hand, Zuko is so bad at small talk it’s almost adorable. Sokka honestly cannot believe any of his friends ever found the guy intimidating or scary. Sokka can’t believe he ever thought of the guy as a savage with no emotional depth whatsoever — even when he had more pressing matters at the time, thank you — as he stumbles to a self-deprecating mention of his uncle, eyes full of regret. Sokka has a feeling he knows that regret pretty well, too. He of all people should know about letting people down. (Hell of a brother and a son and a leader.)

Sokka sighs. He does a lot of sighing these days. He reassures Zuko a little, because it’s instinctual at this point, and it’s surprisingly full of truth. He looks at his wretched boy of a soulmate for what it seems the hundredth time today, and he looks a little too much like Sokka.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Zuko says. If Sokka had any doubts about where Zuko stood morally, they’re all gone now — what an amazingly bad liar he is.

“C’mon, you didn’t leave anyone behind that you cared about?”

Zuko frowns. “I did have a girlfriend, Mai. We weren’t — we weren’t really in love with each other, I think. Or good for each other, for that matter. I think we were just…”

Sokka raises an eyebrow, not unkindly. (And how could Zuko not notice the branded mark? It’s not his fault, it’s in the middle of Sokka’s face! Does Zuko really wear his heart on his sleeve like that? Are all of his feelings so evident?)

“Just?”

“Friends,” Zuko says softly. “You don’t get much of those as Fire Nation nobility, I think. It was easy to confuse it with something else at the time.”

Sokka can feel all of his words buzzing with feeling. Zuko does wear his heart on his sleeve.

“What changed?”

It’s not really a question.

Zuko understands this, and says nothing. He looks away.

 

After a while, he takes a deep breath, and he looks at Sokka once again. “I have southern peasant written on my thigh, but I know it’s not because of me.” The question goes unsaid.

Sokka sighs (again).

“I feel in love with a Northern princess,” he says, exhilaratingly easily. And before the courage goes away, he adds, “She turned into the moon.”

Sokka thinks he might explode. This is not something he’s done before — talk about his pain because of him, instead of resolving some outer conflict, or for the benefit of someone else, and instead just so he could tell someone about it. (This also must be what having a soulmate is about, he thinks. Just being.)

Zuko looks up as if to check, even though it’s midday. He looks back at Sokka. “That’s rough, buddy.”

 

Sokka sits back, thinking of a question to make — to even it out again. But there’s so many he doesn’t understand, and probably never will. Words like pretty or gentle or ruined. Words like nonbender.

He says nothing.

 


 

The Boiling Rock has to be one of the most horrible places Sokka has ever been to, with the prisoners shouting and cursing that heard from a considerable distance from outside of the volcano, a torturous heat, the constant threat of falling into boiling water if you take the wrong step. Sokka considers his death wish, and strangely, he finds himself unsure.

 

He and Zuko crash and land and they get some guard clothes and they decide to spend the night inside a janitor’s closet, as you do. 

(They had to get changed, too. None of the soulmarks they saw on each other were pleasant to take in, but in a way, none of them was a surprise.)

And it turns out when you’re trying to actually sleep inside of one with another person, the space within it is very reduced to what you would’ve thought. That’s how Sokka finds himself sitting on the floor with a mop threatening to fall over his body, sides awkwardly pressed to Zuko’s, pointlessly trying to find a comfortable position to get enough sleep to manage a prison break. 

“So,” Zuko starts, with presumably nothing good to say. “Have you ever killed someone?”

Sokka was somehow not expecting that.

“Uh, yeah,” Sokka says, way too casual. “Combustion Man. You kind of… were there too.”

“Oh,” says Zuko. “I don’t think the others realized that yet.”

Sokka snorts. “Yeah, let’s keep it that way.”

Zuko nods. There’s a silence that’s not silence at all, really, with Sokka’s soulmarks constantly buzzing (even more so, now that his soulmate is right there next to him, he would even think he has an urge to… hold him? protect him? which must be either a weird soulmate-ish thing or a weird eldest sibling thing that either way Sokka will not think too hard about), and the sounds the prisoners make, and Sokka’s sense of reason screaming in his head, and Zuko’s breathing. But that’s different. Zuko is a separate thing from everything else, right now.

“I meant like, before though.”

Sokka blinks. “What?”

Zuko won’t meet his eyes, which matches the question he’s about to make. “Have you ever killed someone… before Combustion Man?”

(Sokka’s silence is cold. He doesn’t seem like it, but Sokka is colder than Zuko imagined, in more ways than one.)

“How would you know that?”

“I kind of have killer on my ankle,” Zuko whispers, and somehow Sokka understands that none of what Zuko asked was with the intention of judging. It’s a curious thing to know.

Sokka decides to trust the gentle on his cheek this time.

“I was fourteen, and Katara was waterbending. I saw there was this… guy, a Fire Nation scout. He saw Katara waterbend, when there were supposedly no more waterbenders in the South,” Sokka takes a deep breath. Zuko’s eyes are patient and golden and warm. “Katara doesn’t know. But I did what I had to do.”

(And Sokka is so much like Kya, in that sense. Not ones for optimism, not ones for heroism, head focused, choices made, sacrifices, martyrdom — even more when it came down to Katara. It seems fitting, in a way, that Kya died for the same reason Sokka killed. Always a toast to their last waterbender, to the last remaining of what the South was once like — to her daughter, to his sister. Katara is always theirs to keep and protect. Ten years ago when Kya made the choice to tell Sokka the truth, make him like her, for Katara and himself, it flourished in just the right balance. The wise and the brave — Sokka and Katara.

And now Zuko wears the word killer around his ankle, and half of Hakoda’s words have faded to grey.)

“You did,” Zuko agrees.

Before Sokka can stop himself — again, unprompted, he asks, “How can I have both pretty and ugly? How fucked up is that?”

Zuko looks at him, and Sokka thinks there’s something undoubtedly pretty about him, but the angry light in his eyes can never be anything but ugly. (But that’s okay — he’s got experience with the ugly bits of grief.)

Zuko answers, at last, so low Sokka wouldn’t have heard if he hadn’t been waiting for it. “Very fucked up.”

 

Two hours later, both of them are still awake.

Out of the blue, perhaps, Sokka says, “I have more than twenty-five of them.”

It’s vague enough, and Zuko understands, because of course he does.

Zuko is still warm beside him as he lays the unscarred side of his head on Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka thinks they have reached some level of understanding, tonight.

“I have nineteen of them.”

Sokka lays his head on top of Zuko’s. “We are both so fucked up,” he says. After a while, he continues, “Fun game to play, though. We should do it more often.”

“What’s the name of it?”

“Uh. The Game.”

Zuko snorts. “Original.”

(None of them get any soulmarks that night.)

 


 

Sokka is hilariously reminded of Katara as he has to physically hold Zuko away from defending the prisoner and blow their covers. He can feel the outline of control freak on Zuko’s inner elbow under his fingers.

 

(It occurs to Sokka that maybe the gentle is more of a suggestion, the idea of it, or the essence of it, more than a strict code, or a black-or-white situation.)

 


 

Zuko gets caught anyway.

 

(But they find Suki — Sokka finds Suki, and they hug and she cries and Sokka sees that now circus freak has settled on Suki’s collarbones. He doesn’t kiss her because of this circus freak — soulmates are to be respected, in the Southern Water Tribe — and maybe a little because of Sokka’s perfect prince — on his own collarbones -, although he will never be exactly sure, and if he is, he will never say. He got Zuko caught not even five minutes later, after all.)

 


 

“So,” says the girl with the auburn hair — Suki, Zuko believes is her name. ”You’re Sokka’s infamous soulmate.”

Zuko considers this.

“I think we aren’t talking about it.”

Suki hums and grabs a mop. Zuko follows her.

 

(Sokka is happy for exactly four seconds before Suki reminds him of the time Zuko sort of burned down her village. Zuko looks extremely embarrassed, to his credit. Once they get back to the Air Temple and not constantly hanging on the thread between death and Sokka having a mental breakdown, Zuko will put Suki aside and apologize properly, promising reparations for Kyoshi Island once the war is over. He will desperately and in vain try not to cry right then and there and Suki will develop a soft spot for him, which will become common knowledge among their little gang and useful for a fair amount of jokes.)

 


 

They are not hatching an egg. Everyone involved knows this.

And even though the fight is fake, as Zuko avoids a punch from Chit Sang, he can feel the protector stinging on his neck.

 


 

Platonic soulmates are especially rare, and everyone knows it. It’s mostly seen between asexual people or people who die young. 

Sokka is most surely not one of those and hopefully not the other one — hey, that’s a new thought — so in retrospect, he should’ve expected to be at least a little attracted to Zuko. But he isn’t expecting to open the cooler, Sokka’s very funny guard-joke still lingering in the atmosphere, only to see Zuko with his eyes closed in concentration, pink lips parted only barely, spitting something bright and hot and Sokka thinks it might be the sun. When Zuko opens his eyes and looks up at Sokka with a mean grin and pretty eyes and lonely on his lower lip, Sokka wants to look at him until he dies.

Voices approach the hall and Sokka is bitterly reminded that he and Zuko are not the only people in the world (he can unpack those thoughts later). Zuko pushes him into the cooler and they’re achingly close, and now his dad might be here tomorrow, and he’s achingly fifteen and a leader (the word over Zuko’s heart aches, too) and he can only look at his wretched boy of a soulmate again, in hopes of finding some solution.

“It’s your call, Sokka,” he says, softly and gently and Sokka hates him for it.

“Aren’t you constantly on the cusp of being sent to your asshole of a dad and possible execution for high treason?” Sokka tries to deflect. He doesn’t expect what happens next, either.

Zuko shrugs, and he’s so close to Sokka that he can practically feel it. 

“It’s for you,” Zuko just kind of… says, like it doesn’t burn everything inside of Sokka, like he can’t feel the protector on his neck throbbing, screaming. 

Sokka smiles, just a little pensive. “So what, if I jump into the void, you jump too?”

Zuko chuckles softly and gently bumps their shoulders together, but he doesn’t seem any less serious because of it. “Only the best for my soulmate.”

At that, Sokka looks down, suddenly feeling cold. “I don’t know if I can repay that.”

Because that’s what Sokka does. He protects and leads and repays, and expects nothing in return. But Sokka has five other people to protect and lead for, and he can’t devote to a soulmate. Not now, not like Zuko is painting the picture. 

Zuko looks at him, eyes like a flame or a heartbeat, or maybe they’re the same thing. “You don’t have to.”

And that is the exact moment Sokka starts to understand. It’s when he understands that Zuko won’t ask for anything in return from Sokka. He feels oddly light, like a weight was lifted from his shoulders — a weight he didn’t know he was carrying until he lost it.

But now Sokka can’t stop. The weight is back, and this time he can’t stop noticing it.

“I also think I kind of wanted to die when I decided to come here.”

“I know, Sokka.” Zuko puts his hands on Sokka’s, where his nails were sticking in his own palms. Zuko’s hands aren’t warm, exactly, but warmer than Sokka’s, warmer than he would’ve thought of a guy who is currently inside a fridge. Sokka breathes, and softer, Zuko repeats, “I’ve had alive written on my hip for weeks, I know. It’s okay.”

And it’s such a simple thing to say. Like they are playing the Game, but not really. Like he knows Sokka, or like he knows something about Sokka. Something Sokka doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand. It seems to Sokka that Zuko has reached certain inner peace, and Sokka doesn’t know where to put it when he offers it.

You don’t have to, Zuko said. Somewhere between the lines, Sokka can clearly see the not with me. And he thinks, But I always do.

“Okay,” he says, because he has a thousand other things to say, and this is the only one that won’t burn Sokka down to his core if he says it.

 


 

Chit Sang is getting impatient, and Sokka looks at his Water Tribe Clothes with a certain sadness. How can he take his clothes and just leave when his father might be here tomorrow, missed each other just by a day? But how can he risk all of it when it could be all for nothing? How can he take the risk, listen to Zuko as he encourages him to take another chance when he can ruin everything again? Sokka’s shoulder blades already burn sometimes with the word ruined, and he doesn’t know what it means but he can take a guess. Suki has been here long enough. Chit Sang and his polycule is counting on Sokka too, in a way. Too many people at risk.

 

“If I had just cut my losses at the invasion, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess,” he tells Zuko. (Zuko knows what’s coming.) “Maybe I’m just not made for this, and maybe I’m just not as good as people think. Maybe sometimes it’s just better to call it quits before you fail.”

(This is where he draws the line.)

“No, it’s not,” Zuko says, and he sounds a lot like Sokka, two days ago. Urgent, maybe. Incredulous, as if he genuinely couldn’t believe what’s coming out of Sokka’s mouth. He takes a deep breath. Sokka notices the exact movement Zuko’s lips make, but he can unpack that later. “Look, Sokka. You’re going to fail a lot before things work out. Everyone knows it. I know it. I knew the invasion was going to fail and I knew I was going to get a mark that day.”

Sokka rolls his eyes, tries to deflect, tries to leave, doesn’t even bother telling Zuko not to talk about it (Suki knows, and Chit Sang doesn’t care, and they know. They know). “Is that supposed to make me feel better? Some soulmate you are.”

Zuko pays it no mind. “And I did get a mark.”

Sokka stops walking. “Seriously, not helping.”

“It didn’t matter, Sokka,” Zuko says, and he puts a hand on Sokka’s shoulder, and the tone of his voice is so caring and gentle in a Zuko way it reminds him a little of Katara, maybe a little of his mother, and definitely a lot of Yue, and Sokka thinks he might want to cry. “It didn’t matter, because even with failure tattooed on my back I went to Aang and I tried to redeem myself again. It didn’t matter because I’ve been failing since I have a memory, because I have never been a natural at anything and because all I do and all I’ve ever done is try. You know that, Sokka, you carry practically all of my failures on your skin. You know I never give up, and I know you don’t give up either.”

The knot on Sokka’s throat threatens to break, Zuko’s hand is warm and heavy on his shoulder and his words are the same. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s time to play the Game just now,” he tries to joke.

 Zuko is in front of him now. Sokka doesn’t know if Zuko put himself in front of him or if Sokka turned around, but now he can look at Zuko’s eyes, and he doesn’t find an ounce of dishonesty in them. “The failure at the invasion was just that, a failure. But the failure on my back didn’t matter, because not even a month after it you decided to infiltrate a high-security Fire Nation prison to try and make it right. So maybe you wanted to die a little more than you wanted to redeem yourself, but that doesn’t matter either. It doesn’t matter why you try, what matters is that you try at all. You say you have twenty-five marks? I have nineteen of them. If I can make it right, then of course you can, too. You can’t quit because you’re afraid you might fail. You still have a long way ahead.”

Chit Sang says something about cuddling, but Sokka pays it no mind. Zuko’s speech is still ringing in his ears, and Zuko is still touching him and Sokka never wants him to stop, and Zuko is looking at him in a way Sokka assumes only soulmates can look at each other. Sokka doesn’t want Zuko looking at anyone else this way, and he doesn’t want Zuko talking to anyone else this way. 

“If it helps,” Suki approaches him, “I think Zuko has a point.” She seems to think about it. “Or two. Or about everything he said.” Zuko chuckles, a bit flustered.

“You should go, though,” he tells her quietly, a little afraid to announce his decision out loud.

“Forget it,” she says. “I’m not leaving without you, world’s most notable martyr.”

Sokka pointedly ignores the descriptive, and smiles at her.

“I’m staying too!” Zuko says as if that wasn’t the entire point of his speech. Sokka is grateful anyway.

The cooler is on the move now, and Sokka and Suki and Zuko are standing on the shore, and Sokka can only hope he made the right choice.

 


 

Hakoda arrives at the Boiling Rock the same way Sokka has always known him; standing his ground, unapologetically commanding, made of the steel of a born warrior.

 

When Sokka reaches his cell and they embrace and Sokka can breathe again, he thinks about the leader on Zuko’s chest, and how it matches the leader on Bato’s, and he thinks he might be a lot more like his dad than what he previously thought.

As his mind inexplicably wandered towards the inevitable subject of  Zuko, so did his mouth, and suddenly Hakoda is probably thinking of how to get Zuko out of their way, and — inexplicably — Sokka cannot just allow that.

“Actually, he’s on our side now.” Hakoda looks at him. Sokka thinks about it, then nods. “I know, I had the same reaction. After all he’s done it was… hard to trust him. But he’s really proven himself. I wouldn’t have gotten here without him, let alone find you. Without him, I might have even…”

His father’s eyes soften, somehow. Nothing about him is particularly gentle, but caring. “Might have…?”

“Died,” Sokka says. He does not say, on purpose, because he wants to keep whatever ounce of respect his dad might still have towards him. But he also thinks he might want to tell him, at some point. Just not now.

 


 

“How did you know I was here?” Zuko asks, and it’s a stupid question, but he has never been good at addressing the elephant in the room in a careful manner.

“Because I know you so well,” Mai says, and she does. She arrived graceful and bored as she always does, but she looks at Zuko with eyes hard as stone. Zuko thinks he deserves it, for leaving that way (and staying that way, when he did stay) but not for leaving in itself. “The truth is, I guess I don’t know you.”

And Zuko wants to scream that she does. She does, since she told him her soulmate was Ty Lee and that she liked that, in a way, and Zuko told her he couldn’t relate, and none of them said anything but they both knew. Mai knows him the way Ty Lee knows him, the way Ty Lee knows Azula, and the way Azula knows Mai, and the way all four of them know each other, in one way or another.

“You do know me.”

“Oh, shut up,” she says, and Zuko won’t risk it. “Seriously? All I get is a letter? You could’ve at least looked me in the eye when you betrayed me like that.”

( Betrayal, Zuko repeats in his head. And weeks later, when Katara yells at him the same word, he will make the connection, and he will not sleep thinking of how many people he betrayed throughout his life. About a month after that, when he finds his uncle and begs on his knees for forgiveness, he will know. It was just one.)

When he tells her, “This isn’t about you!” he knows it’s not about Sokka either, or at least it wasn’t, when he left. It was never about Mai, or Ozai, or Sokka. It’s about Zuko.

(But Zuko made Mai miserable, he realizes as his shameful letter hits his head. It hits him because he knows she made him miserable, too, but that part was never her fault.)

 

“You know,” Mai tells him eventually. “I just thought that even if my soulmate didn’t want me, you would at least pretend to.”

Zuko snaps his eyes back at her. “Ty Lee does want you,” he says, almost surprised.

Mai doesn’t look away. “Less, Zuko.” Then she looks away. “Wants me less.”

Than Azula goes unsaid.

 

The riot begins.

Zuko knows he can only save one of them.

 


 

(Sokka’s eyes search frantically for Zuko before he joins them in the yard. If Hakoda notices, he doesn’t mention it until years down the line, after a particularly strong argument between his son and Zuko, and finding the latter crying and sitting on the snow. These are children, Hakoda will think, and somehow the part of their childhood that died somewhere along the way lives through the pain of it being gone. Like a paradox.)

 


 

The gondola is already a few meters away from solid ground, and Zuko jumps towards it.

Zuko jumps.

Zuko jumps.

Zuko jumps.

And Sokka thinks he might go insane.

 

Sokka extends an arm towards Zuko and he thinks he better catch it. You better catch it. 

Zuko catches it (and firelord’s son on Sokka’s forearm clashes against Zuko’s eldest son; it makes sense, now), and Sokka holds him and drags him inside the gondola and presses their foreheads together and Sokka wants to hold him until he dies, and he wants to follow his fire and see where it ends and see what remains, and Sokka wants to kiss him until he dies.

(That’s a new thought.)

With his hands still on him, breathless, Sokka says, “What the fuck was that? You are so fucking stupid, Zuko, why did you do that?”

“I’m making it so they can’t stop us,” Zuko says. It does little to comfort Sokka. “Besides, if you jump, I jump, right?”

This does crack a slight and fatally boyish smile on Sokka’s face, and his voice is rough and it wavers a little when he says, “I didn’t jump.”

Zuko smiles at him right back. “Semantics.”

 

(Hakoda thinks of what Kya said to Bato once, when they were teenagers still, trying to convince him that the bruises his father gave him were not out of love.

“Love is like,” she started, thinking how to word it properly. “Well, I don’t know, it seems so stupid thinking of love as something that clouds your vision, or makes you act blindly or selfishly.”

Bato hissed as Hakoda pressed ice to one of his worst bruises. “How so?” he said, mostly humoring her.

“Well, they’re opposites, really. Love and blindness. Love is supposed to help you see .”

“It’s selfless,” Hakoda murmured, not meant to be heard, really, but Kya and Bato always heard him.

Kya, Hakoda remembers, used to think she was some sort of cold and heartless person, because she relied on logic, perhaps, or because of her default pessimism. But she wasn’t. She was good.

“Exactly.” Kya gave him an easy smile.

Hakoda sees the exact same smile in Sokka, as he holds this boy who just risked falling on a boiling river for him. Hakoda briefly wonders if they are soulmates.)

 

Zuko touches his own neck and gasps in pain, protector in the shades of black and blue of Sokka’s sword looking now more than ever like someone carved the word on bone. On instinct alone, Sokka cradles Zuko’s neck in his hand and instantly feels the tension leave him.

“Is that better?”

Zuko looks dumbfounded, somehow, eyes wide and bright and idealistic and heart-wrenchingly Zuko-like. “Yeah, I think so.”

 

(Hakoda thinks it makes sense. It’s not love just yet, but it’s close enough.)

 


 

Ty Lee thinks it makes no sense, as she dodges a punch from the girl who has circus freak cemented on her collarbones.

(Not for the first time, and not for the last one, she wonders if Azula is worth all this. She wonders, in case she has to choose one soulmate over the other, if Azula is truly the best option of the bunch.)

 


 

Azula nods towards Sokka and asks Zuko if this is his protector, dismissive and provoking and not actually believing what she’s saying, but Zuko’s always been a shitty liar.

“Unexpected,” she says, throws a fireball, and leaves it alone, as Zuko left it alone for years. This, they understand about each other.

 


 

As Sokka almost falls off the gondola, his only thought is I want to live. So of course, it’s Zuko who saves him. Who else would ever be?

 


 

“It’s Mai!” Zuko says, astounded and heartbroken, in a way, for his best friend who he couldn’t really help, who is now helping him.

This — Mai throwing a knife and taking down three guys at once, for Zuko, and only for Zuko — is the only thing no one expected that day.

(Not Azula, who thinks only of Mai and that is her mistake; not Sokka, who would have expected it, if he had more information; not Zuko, who made her miserable but also sort of saved her; not Ty Lee, who has made a choice, even if she doesn’t know it yet.)

Mai feels her heart beating like crazy in her chest, and her throat, and she feels a little sick, too. She expects Azula’s lightning like she always has.

Mai can see the electric blue in Azula’s fingers, and then Ty Lee hits her elbow.

Ty Lee hit Azula.

Ty Lee hit Azula.

Ty Lee hit Azula.

And Mai watches. She thinks she might throw up.

(Mai didn’t expect Ty Lee to follow right after her. But Ty Lee made a choice somewhere along the way and in retrospect, of course it was always going to go like this. 

This — Ty Lee’s fingers against Azula’s chi paths, taking her down at just the right instant — is the only thing everyone should’ve expected that day.)

 

(Later that night, Azula’s peach-pink words turn grey, and Ty Lee’s electric blue ones disappear completely. This is what she chose.)

 


 

Between catching up with his dad, and making sure everyone is safe, Sokka looks Zuko in the eye and tells him “If you ever do some shit like that again, I’ll kill you myself. If you don’t believe me, look at your ankle.”

Zuko looks back, infuriatingly cheeky, and says, “I promise I will never stop doing shit like that.”

Sokka believes him. He has enough soulwords to prove it.

 


 

Some facts about soulmates:

soulmates are a private thing; 

soulmates are romantic as a default;

soulmates are to be respected. 

 

Sokka repeats these as a mantra every day, filling himself with courage. Soulmates are facts.

The same week Hakoda and Sokka and Katara reunite, Sokka pulls them aside and he’s like, “Zuko is my soulmate” and Hakoda is like, “I suspected it” and Katara is like, “I’ll fucking kill him” but she doesn’t. She doesn’t even serve him the worst part of dinner that night (she’s nice like that, y’know?) but she sure does look threatening when she serves him (she points at him with a spoon, and internally Zuko is like, “this is a fucking toddler” and probably moves on with his life).

 

Sometimes Katara will look at Sokka’s soulmarks and feel a little bad for Zuko, right before she remembers they are sworn enemies still (even though every day, Zuko wakes up and Katara looks just like a five-year-old to him; Sokka, being aware of both perspectives, finds the situation hilarious, if only because he can’t find it in himself to be worried). She will remember the nights she spent next to Sokka as he applied salve to his marks, insisting she didn’t touch them if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. She knows that if she ever does cool down about Zuko, it will be because of Sokka, and only because of Sokka. 

 

(The same way Zuko will cooperate for Aang, and only for Aang.

“You know I know you and Sokka are soulmates, right?” he told Zuko out of the blue during one of their lessons.

“I think he mentioned it at some point.”

Zuko wondered who else knew; Katara and Suki and Hakoda and now even Azula. He thought everyone must, at that point.

“You ever, uh,” Aang dodged a ball of fire from Zuko. “Have you ever talked about it?”

Zuko shot another. “I know, he knows. What else is there to talk about?”

Aang redirected Zuko’s own fire against him, and Zuko had never been exceptional at reading other people, but he could tell the emotion painted on the other boy’s face was some degree of confounded. 

“Well, whether you are together or not of course!”

Zuko hummed. And then he thought about it.

“Is this about you and Katara?”

Aang groaned. “You and Sokka must be made of the same stuff.” And then he thought about it. He giggled. “You and Sokka are made of the same stuff!”

Zuko thought he might never quite understand this kid. He would burn the world down for him.)

 

But anyway. As Katara carefully observes Zuko’s behavior around her brother, maybe looking for some sort of predatory patterns, or maybe for the slightest bit of disinterest (because that is Sokka, and Sokka deserves a soulmate who loves him very much and a lot, even if they are evil), she comes to notice some of Zuko’s most notable soulmarks. They are all kind of hidden, and you have to be looking for a long time or to be specifically looking for them to find them, and even then she suspects the ones she finds are not even half of them. Katara looks at Zuko’s face, looking for evil plans, maybe, and she finds lonely on his bottom lip and protector and honorless on his neck and nonbender on his collarbones, and she sees not very bright behind Zuko’s neck whenever he puts his hair up (however possible it might be to hold his hair up with that shaggy mullet cut he has going on) and she sees control freak on his inner elbow and she sees eldest son on his forearm, and she thinks back to see if she can pinpoint the moment any of those words were thrown at Sokka, if she ever threw any of those words at Sokka.

Sometimes, Katara finds herself looking at Zuko and Sokka. Because when you look — really look, it’s indisputable you’re looking at a pair of soulmates. Sometimes, Zuko will let some fucked up shit about his childhood slip, and Sokka will be like, ‘that’s rough, buddy’ and Zuko will inexplicably snort, very much amused, and just go on with his life, when Katara is very sure that’s one of the worst one-liners Sokka has ever told! Sometimes Sokka will look at Zuko and Zuko will look back, and it looks like they’re having an entire conversation with their eyes. Katara knows she and Aang are not remotely as creepy as them. She briefly wonders if Zuko bewitched her brother at some point. Because there is a certain thing between them, ever since they came back from their little field trip, like they have some sort of telepathic communication going on that Katara — or anyone else — will never be able to understand the full scope of.

 


 

Nonbender, right here,” Sokka says and shows Zuko his knuckles. “Because, like. I’m pretty sure you are a bender.”

They are somewhere on the Air Temple ruins, waiting for the dawn because Zuko rises with the sun and because whenever Sokka wakes up from a nightmare with his heart beating in his throat, he deals with it alone. (Or he used to, he supposes, when it was just him and a bunch of preteens; preteens whose little childhood they have left Sokka had to preserve. Suki has just gotten out of prison and discovered her soulmate is — well, who she is, and normally Sokka would go to her, but now Zuko is here, and he is Sokka’s soulmate, and most importantly, there’s no childhood he could lose if Sokka goes to him after a nightmare.

Besides, “It’s only fair,” Zuko says. “You do the same for me.” And Sokka smiles at him, but Zuko is not done. “And anyway, how would, I don’t know, Toph helping you calm down after a nightmare ruin her innocence, or whatever. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Sokka simply says, “I find it hard to believe you are an eldest child sometimes.”)

Zuko takes Sokka’s hand in his and looks at it for a long minute. His fingers are calloused, very warm, and it seems to hum against Sokka’s skin, fitting, like a puzzle. Because besides having turned grey, he realizes the mark on his knuckles feels always sort of… cold.

(Soulmates are funny in that way — you don’t realize you were missing something until you have it. It shakes Sokka’s instinctual pessimism to its core, and leaves him feeling devastatingly dazed.)

“My firebending came really late, according to royal standards. Azula could firebend since… always, I suppose. Nobody really liked that.”

“Hey,” Sokka says, teasing maybe, but wanting to go for comfort, too. “At least it came.”

Zuko winces. There it goes. “Sorry.”

Sokka sighs. He interlaces his fingers with Zuko’s, and it’s not platonic at all, even though they haven’t talked about it (what would they talk about, anyway?), and they haven’t kissed, because maybe it’s a little too soon, but they both know. This isn’t meant to be platonic — it never was.

“It’s fine, really.”

Zuko shakes his head slightly, and he guides Sokka’s hand towards his collarbones, where Zuko’s — Sokka’s? — own nonbender rests, still in navy blue and the same messy font they’ve always known. “No, it’s not.”

“It’s like, fine,” Sokka starts, softly and slowly, as if he's trying to find the right words, “because it was never about being a nonbender, specifically.” He inhales and exhales. Zuko appears to have a retort at the tip of his tongue, but he holds back, if only for Sokka’s sake. He gives Sokka his time. “I think it was more about not being able to bend, to fight, it’s like… I don’t know. This is what it has always been about. Being able to fight back, to protect people.”

“And you…” murmurs Zuko, a little hesitant, looking down at something Sokka cannot quite place. “You don’t like feeling incapable of doing stuff. You think being a leader and a… protector, is what makes you worthy.”

Sokka bites his lip, a little self-consciously. “Maybe so.” Zuko lets out a small laugh. After a few minutes, he asks, “Do you have them?” and he knows Zuko will ask for nothing else to understand the point he’s trying to get across. They get each other that way.

Zuko hums. “You saw the leader one, on my chest, right?” Sokka nods. “I have, uh, incapable, and unworthy, both on my waist.”

Sokka looks at him, and he realizes they are very close. The sun is almost completely out, and he thinks something is pulling them together, in a way, that might be destiny, or a soulbond, or like gravity, or maybe it’s just them. He feels no need to get any closer, really. Sokka looks at him again.

“And?”

Zuko frowns. “And what?”

The ghost of a grin dances around the corners of Sokka's mouth, but he doesn’t quite give into it just yet. “And.”

He thinks Katara might be right about the creepy telepathy he and Zuko seem to share, because they make eye contact for about ten seconds, and then Zuko sighs and says, “And regular, and unspecial, also on my waist.”

Sokka gives into the grin. 

“See, it wasn’t that hard.”

Zuko shoves him, lightly and with affection.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I have to do this every time we play the Game. Just learn the rules, stupid.”

“The name ‘Game’ is also stupid, by the way.”

“Not the point.”

(And they keep going. They always do.)

 


 

It has been a month since the Boiling Rock, and the telepathy only gets worse, and one day, they all wake up and Azula is just by their door.

 

It goes like this;

When Zuko pushes Katara out of the way of a pretty lethal boulder, and she all but cusses at him, all Zuko can think is what a fucking child.

When Zuko runs towards Azula, Sokka has half a mind to run after him, but then Aang does run after him, and it’s Sokka’s job to stop him. If he’s learned something during this past month, is that a soulmate — his soulmate, in particular, is not Sokka’s responsibility.

When Sokka says they need to split up, it’s a decision that’s taken, and when Katara says the word family the word leader aches over Zuko’s heart.

When Azula’s fire clashes against Zuko’s, the only reason why Sokka doesn’t reach out to catch Zuko is because his wrist feels like it’s burning alive over the lucky to be born

Azula destroys more than half of the temple. Last airbender throbs in pain around Katara’s ankle.

Katara looks back, having lost a father again, and she touches her necklace, covering the word AVATAR marking her skin, and she looks at Zuko. She thinks her insides might be burning up with rage.

 


 

They spent the entire day flying. There might not even be a dusk, Katara thinks. It was day, and now it’s night.

 

Hearing all of her friends talking about Zuko like this hero makes her blood boil. It may be irrational, but she’s got enough of being rational. That’s what Sokka is for, and he’s apparently so enchanted with his villain of a soulmate he can’t see Katara is about to break down.

“I don’t deserve this,” says Zuko sheepishly, and Katara thinks of the twenty-five soulmarks in burnt red covering Sokka’s skin like a tapestry.

Still, the only thing she says is, “No kidding.”

She leaves.

 

Zuko comes after her.

They both yell. They are both right, and they are both wrong, and they both cry when it’s over.

(Zuko and Sokka might be made of the same stuff, but it’s Zuko and Katara who burned to the same flame. The same person with different souls.)

 


 

Zuko has a plan, more or less, and he doesn’t really think it through.

 

Sokka tells him the story quietly. It’s sort of disturbing, when Sokka is quiet, because he’s never quiet like a whisper, or like he’s listening, or even like he’s lost inside his own head. When Sokka is quiet, it feels a lot like a room with a ghost, like something is happening but you can’t see it properly.

He admits that asking Sokka about his dead mother just like that might’ve been a little… rough. But it was to be expected, he thinks. Sokka has his hair down, and when Zuko instinctively reaches out to push it behind his ear after Sokka finishes the story, his fingers brush the word gentle on his cheek anyway. Zuko wants to tell him, I’m sorry, and I wish I was gentler. Zuko wants to wrap his arms around him and protect him right back, and he wants to kiss him all across his face until he laughs again.

He doesn't. He keeps talking.

“Can you remember any details about the soldiers who raided your village?” he asks him instead. “Like, what the lead ship looked like?”

It seems awfully cold for what he and Sokka have, but maybe it was meant this way. Zuko was never going to stay gentle forever, and any of them thinking otherwise was foolish. He has shit to do, places to be, field trips to take, a redemption to complete. If he can get Katara to stop acting like a toddler around him, he can worry about being a good potential boyfriend later. 

 

(Before Zuko leaves the tent, Sokka takes him by the wrist, and he says, almost timidly, “Gentle?” and Zuko thinks he should’ve expected it.

It’s easy, falling into the rules of the Game.

“My mom used to call me that. My father, too. But it was mom who left.”

Sokka looks at him, and Zuko knows he understands.)

 


 

(The day the southern raiders attacked was just the beginning. Real-life foreshadowing to future marks, future rage, future love. It took Sokka and turned him into a soldier and it took Katara and it forced her into being a civilian. It took Sokka and it made him the new disposable one, and it took Katara and it turned her into the designated hero. This is what they’ve always been like, Sokka being the soldier to Katara’s civilian, the disposable to Katara’s hero. To her fire, the instructions of where to throw it. To her river, the instructions of where to freeze it. The soldier on Zuko’s inner arm to the little girl on Aang’s shoulder blades. The disposable on Zuko’s pelvis to the hero on Aang’s calf.

The head and the heart.)

 

The next morning everything is very loud, and very cloudy after Zuko tells Katara about the Southern Raiders. Even though Zuko’s been awake all night, he cannot pinpoint a moment when he saw the dawn; it was night, and now it’s day.

Zuko wants to abstain from the argument that’s going on between soulmates, but he has not slept at all, and he’s never been good at holding his own tongue.

Sokka says he thinks Aang might be right, and honest to Agni Zuko doesn’t care, and he just wants to get this over with. He’s about to turn around, leave Katara to choose her own, when it happens.

 

“Then you didn’t love her the way I did!”

 

There’s a second of complete silence, and then he feels it. 

 

Sharp pain like a cut across his cheek, a new word carved in flesh. 

Zuko gasps and covers it immediately. He turns around, ignoring Aang calling his name, and doesn’t look back.

 


 

Heartless in navy blue, in an informal font, looking as if someone had written it across his cheek with a knife.

 


 

When Sokka is quiet, it’s like a room with a ghost.

 

Sokka has been quiet the entire day. Not outright sad, or angry. He’s just thinking, it seems. When Toph makes a dirty joke he doesn’t bother in giving her a reaction, and when Suki offers a sparring match he simply says no thanks, and he just exists.

He’s playing with some toy he has, like a stim. Helps him concentrate on himself, instead of micromanaging the entire camp. Keeps his mind off the fact that Zuko hasn’t gotten out of his tent since he obviously got a soulmark in front of three people, which ought to be warranted as what Sokka assumes to be a certified embarrassing experience, so he doesn’t blame him. Or the fact that Katara has been irritable the entire day, and Aang is very much struggling to keep it together, and Suki has been trying to distract Toph from the tense atmosphere of their little camp in any way she could, even if barely succeeding. ( Huh, Sokka thinks, realizing he has been micromanaging the entire camp after all. Old habits die hard.)

There doesn’t seem to be a dusk this time either. It was day, and now it’s night.

Aang sits next to him silently.

“What do you think Zuko’s mark was?”

Sokka wants to tell him he doesn’t need to think because Sokka knows. More than half of the words on Zuko’s skin are words Sokka told himself, rather than anyone else spitting slurs at him. That’s why Zuko has so many soulmarks, and that’s how Sokka knows the word on Zuko’s cheek is obviously heartless. He is honestly surprised it didn’t appear sooner.

“I have no idea.”

 


 

That night, Katara and Zuko leave. 

The next night, the bloodbender on Aang’s palm spasms and hurts so bad he cries. Sokka can only hold him the best way he can, and wait.

(They both know they are expecting a new soulmark on Aang in the next couple of days. They don’t want to say it. When Zuko comes back to take them to Katara, their little quest apparently over, Aang still has the same amount of marks. Sokka doesn’t know if Katara didn’t kill the man, or if she truly needed to kill him, enough not to hate herself for it. He wonders if Zuko was right.

He doesn’t want to know what happened, just yet, and he tells Aang and Zuko both, so Zuko only tells Aang, and Sokka doesn’t have to look at the heartless on his cheek for too long — like this.)

 

When Sokka is quiet, it’s like a room with a ghost.

 


 

It went like this; 

Katara looked Yon Rha in the eye, and Zuko honestly thought she was going to kill him. He didn’t know Katara, not just yet, not like Aang knew her and definitely not as Sokka knew her. He wondered if Aang would get killer around his ankle like Zuko did, back in the day.

But Katara didn’t kill him. And just then, Zuko thought he might have just understood something about her that he hadn’t understood before. And he thinks he might have understood something about Sokka, too, that he thought he understood before, when he hadn’t.

The sky was still cloudy and grey, and Katara looked achingly fourteen when she turned around and collapsed, crying and clinging onto Zuko like she was drowning. Achingly fourteen, ages away from her big brother, she held onto the first another big brother she found.

Zuko held her patiently, and he looked at Yon Rha threateningly enough that when Katara calms down and is ready to leave, the disgusting man is gone. So that Katara never has to see his face again.

 


 

It’s dawn. 

 

They just arrived at Ember Island. Suki is carrying Toph from Appa’s saddle to the room Zuko indicated to her. Sokka forgets, sometimes, that Toph is just twelve, but then again, he never does.

“Where are we?” she asks in a sleepy voice.

“The Firelord’s vacation home,” Sokka answers truthfully.

“Oh, joy.”

After they place her in a bed Suki asks Sokka if he needs her to stay up with him because she always asks, but when Sokka is quiet, he needs the room empty. Suki goes to sleep, and at one point so does Aang, and at one point so does Zuko. It’s been a long night, this week.

 

The sun is still rising.  Katara is making tea in the kitchen, Sokka is sitting on the porch. 

The water boils, and Katara makes tea, and she gives a cup to Sokka, sitting next to him and watching the dawn. 

“How does it feel now that I cracked my soulmate out of his emotional iceberg?”

Katara chuckles softly. Sokka would burn the world down for her.

“I think I get it now.” She takes a sip of her tea and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry for what I said.”

Sokka thinks back to the heartless on Zuko’s cheek, and he thinks that might be the only reason why she feels the need to apologize. Because she can see it — his pain, it’s palpable, and she’s responsible for the staining to some degree. Otherwise, well. It doesn’t even matter. Sokka is anything but angry at her — how could he, when she sits on the porch dressed in blue, her hair down and curly and her eyes bright in the sun, when she’s so beautiful and tired and young and good?

“It’s okay, really.”

“No, it’s not!”

“Look, Katara. We are siblings. We know each other, we know where and how to cut deep. I’ve done it before, too. It’s okay.”

Katara frowns. “You’ve never given Aang a soulmark.”

Sokka looks at her. “You never called me heartless.”

“Sokka,” she snaps, and it’s so Katara-like Sokka kind of wants to laugh. “Would it really kill you to accept an apology?”

The sun has risen. Sokka breathes. “I forgive you.”

(None of them sleep, but they hug, and they talk about Kya — “Sokka, you look exactly like her, you know? Yes, you do” — and they talk about Hakoda, and they talk about Zuko and Aang, and most importantly they talk about Sokka and Katara. Things get worse, before they get better.)

 


 

Ember Island is a strange experience, to Sokka.

For starters, now that Katara has inevitably adopted Zuko into their little family and is now ride or die about the guy, she ponders Sokka for some reason, with the intentions of talking about the very evident soulbond between her new best friend and her brother, as a fourteen-year-old girl does, Sokka supposes. It’s comforting to know that Aang acts the same way towards Zuko, as he finds out one sleepless night venting to each other, as soulmates do, Sokka has decided. And in light of these new developments in their dynamics, Sokka is reminded of the factor of the — admittedly small, but relevant nonetheless — age gap between a soulbond like his and Zuko’s, and a bond like Aang and Katara’s. Let it be said, as much as he would like to, Sokka never forgets he’s dealing with preteens on a daily basis, but rather, he forgets that he is a teen himself, instead of this all-average guy that just sort of exists. He watches as Aang and Katara gush all over Sokka and Zuko, wanting to hear some epic romantic tale — when, like, in reality, Sokka and Zuko are both just… some guys, with, like, many soulmarks. Which in Sokka’s opinion does not make their bond more romantic, and instead it reinforces the correct idea that they are both very depressed and would benefit from therapy, but who cannot make each other more unhappy than what they can be on their own (the opposite, in fact, and although they do not yet see it that way.) Sokka reaches the conclusion, like this, that Aang and Katara don’t know how to move on from the friendship stage onto the full-on romantic soulmates stage, and therefore their harassing of older brother figures is merely a projection. (He tells all of this to Zuko, too, who bursts out laughing mid-rant and doesn’t stop until ten minutes after Sokka is finished talking.

“Rude.”

Zuko does not look sorry. “You talk funny.”)

Sokka briefly considers making a plan to resolve this situation, but given the moral dilemmas they are all constantly avoiding to confront that he knows will eventually blow up, he decides to leave it for the acclaimed spirits to deal with.

 

As for Ember Island as a place instead of a new scenario for Sokka to micromanage, it’s… fine. The climate is nice enough, and the people are relatively nice as well, and Suki is starting to smile a little more, which is always a win, as she develops bonds and friendships and easily finds her way back into their group. In theory, Sokka should be ecstatic with the place. In practice, once in a while, Sokka will need more salve for his marks than before Zuko joined them, and sometimes Zuko will get this strange look on his face, drifting to some childhood memory Sokka cannot touch, cannot protect him from.

 

The evening Toph finds out Sokka and Zuko are soulmates, Zuko sits beside him on the porch, knowing Aang and Katara never interrupt them when they’re alone together — if only to ask them about it immediately after they finish talking, but still, a relative advantage — and bluntly says, “Ruined. Do you have it?”

It doesn’t slap Sokka in the face as much as it could have. If anything, the most current disturbing thing about Zuko is how vivid the heartless mark looks like cut across his cheek — does Sokka’s own mark look like this, too? — but it doesn’t stop him from forgetting they have the Game. It’s a thing, right.

He nods. “On my back.”

“I know this might seem redundant,” Zuko says, quiet and ashamed, and Sokka reaches to hold his hand on pure instinct. Zuko’s hand relaxes instantly, and he interlaces their fingers together. (In the background, Sokka hears Aang whisper-shouting “Spirits” and Katara replying “I know! I know!” Sokka glares at them once, and they leave. Apparently. He practically raised the two; they should have some respect for him.)

“Yeah?” Sokka encourages him.

“I used to be this— this happy kid, right?” Zuko says, thinking out loud. “I wasn’t happy exactly, not like I remember it, and like, maybe being here—  that’s how close I got to being happy. And I was good. I was right. And then,” he deflates, hitting some sort of realization. “I was gentle, I think. Mom said so. And now I’m not, you know? Like, I changed sides and all, but I’m still— ugh.” And now he’s crying.

Zuko cries very often, Sokka notices, and he sort of admires that about him. He dries Zuko’s tear-stained cheek with the heartless on it like a brand, and holds him a while longer than necessary. “Take your time.”

Zuko nods. He inhales, and exhales, and takes his time. The experience is as cathartic for Zuko as it is for Sokka, who suffers from eldest sibling disease, in which he finds comfort in comforting, and who after days, weeks, months of seeing Zuko drowning in the weight of his own morality, he'd grown pretty desperate. He'd been waiting for him to collapse and break so he could approach the situation the way he knew. (The chronic planner and the chronic disaster; a perfect couple. Sokka thinks they both need a lot of therapy, but anyway.)

Zuko starts breathing normally again, or at least stops hiccuping every five seconds, and takes Sokka’s hands in his again.

“I was gentle,” he says, flatly.

And now I’m ruined, goes unsaid.

Sokka says nothing. He puts one arm around Zuko, holds him close, presses a kiss to his forehead.

He can barely hear Aang and Toph making some sort of disaster inside the house, Katara scolding them, and Suki on Katara’s side, presumably, but still laughing with her whole stomach. She tells something about chilling to Katara, also presumably, because Katara yells “I’M TOTALLY CHILL” in a very Katara-esque way. Zuko chuckles softly. 

Sokka decides to ask.

“Is this an apology? For the heartless thing?”

Zuko plays with his fingers. “Yeah.”

Sokka nods. (He doesn’t believe Zuko is ruined. Sokka believes he’s quite gentle, in fact, in Zuko’s own curious Zuko-like way. The gentlest person he’s ever met, maybe. But he knows Zuko, and he knows to what extent Zuko believes what Sokka thinks of him. Sokka understands this part of Zuko. He needs to give it time.) 

Against Zuko’s temple, he murmurs, “Okay.”

 

(There is nothing they can tell to Aang and Katara. Aang and Katara are waiting for an official relationship or a kiss. The question is always the same, have you talked about it? And whether it’s because of their age, or their soulbond, or for whatever reason, the answer is always, what’s there to talk about? Maybe not in the telepathic way, but in the way that when the talk needs to be had, it will. This, they know.)

 

(It makes sense, the spirits know, how Ursa’s wish for Zuko came true, even if he doesn’t believe it himself. How Kya thought of herself as heartless, too, and how Sokka was always the vivid image of her. The same kind of heartbreak. This, as Sokka deduced months ago, is what it means to have a soulmate.)

 

Hey, Mr. and Mr. Soulmatisms over there, are you coming to dinner or what?” Suki calls them from inside the house.

SINCE WHEN THE FUCK ARE SOKKA AND ZUKO SOULMATES?” Toph yells.

“Oh,” Zuko says. “I knew we were forgetting someone.”

 


 

Despite his reputation, there are very few people who Zuko truly despises. His father, for one. That lady who kept asking for tea without the herbs on it and yelled at him when he brought her boiling water with the herbs on the side, for a second. The entire bunch of people that are the Ember Island players, for the many following numbers.

However, as it is Sokka who asks, he doesn’t argue too much — he complains, but that’s totally different, you see. (Besides, as Sokka later tells him privately, he’s looking to cheer up Suki, who Zuko knows has been having a hard time since the Boiling Rock. While Zuko wasn’t always a jealous person, it’s ultimately undeniable that he is, now, and there’s an also undeniable tension between Sokka and Suki, the we-were-almost-lovers one, but Suki has been nothing but kind to Zuko, despite all the suffering he — however unintentionally or indirectly — caused her.  The least he can do for her is this.)

So, they go see the play.

 


 

It’s terrible and offensive and the scar is on the wrong side. And quite inaccurate as well, Zuko thinks.

Because Katara and Zuko are most definitely not soulmates.

Good thing is, Sokka never gets jealous, apparently. Zuko's and Katara’s actors start confessing their “magnetic attraction” to each other, Zuko mutters “what the fuck” under his breath and Sokka snorts, infuriatingly amused. Zuko tells him to shut up and Sokka snorts again, softer this time, and they leave it there.

 

But after that, it goes like this;

 

Not-Zuko calls Katara “the Avatar’s girl” and Aang gulps, he stiffens. He stands up and he leaves, and at that moment Zuko sees himself in Aang more than he saw himself in the actor representing him during the entire play. Aang just got a soulmark.

No one comments on it. Zuko wonders if anyone even noticed.

Not-Zuko betrays Not-Iroh and Not-Aang is shot, and the intermission starts. Katara goes to look for Aang, and although Zuko is tempted to advise she gives him some space, he doesn’t want to make it worse. Sokka and Suki leave to… give Sokka’s actor better lines? Or something. Toph cheers him up a little (and maybe Zuko decides he’d burn the world down for her, too) and it all seems fine for an instant. 

 

Katara comes back, eyes red and a frown adorning her face.

“Where's Sokka?” she demands, her voice shaky.

“Backstage, I think,” Toph answers. There is genuine worry in her voice when she says, “Are you okay, Sweetness?”

“I’m fine.” She paces around for two entire minutes. Then she stops and talks directly to Zuko. “When is he coming back?”

“How would I know?”

“He’s literally your soulmate!”

Zuko gapes at her, too shocked to be afraid he’s going to make a strange shocked noise, “I— do you think— you think I keep him on a leash or something?”

This seems to cool Katara down a little. She crosses her arms and slops next to him on the floor, then seems to think better of it and sits so that Toph is between the both of them. Zuko doesn’t comment on it.

Then, she quietly says, “Aang got a soulmark from the play.”

Zuko already knew this, but he’s working on the development of a filter for the stuff he knows, so he refrains from mentioning it. 

“Imagine not being your own soulmate,” Toph comments after a while. “The worst things you ever believed about yourself on someone else’s body? Sounds like a nightmare.”

Maybe it’s not warranted, but Katara gives a small smile, and Zuko gives a small chuckle. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

 

Sokka and Suki come back eventually, just before the play starts. Katara stands up immediately, still keeping her distance from Zuko, and Sokka acknowledges her instantly. He always understands her like that. Suki, Zuko, and Toph wordlessly decide to give them some privacy and go back to their seats. 

Aang is still gone.

 


 

As a general rule, Sokka knows how to read Katara. He has to. He needs to know where the limits are, to what extent she can hold onto her hope, to what extent Sokka's strategic antagonism would be cruel. He knows when she's about to break down.

And she is looking way too close to it for his comfort.

“What is it?” he asks. There's no point in asking if she's okay. He knows her.

“I just, I was— I didn’t— ugh.”

The rambling (or rather, inability to ramble) reminds Sokka of Zuko, once again bringing up the prospect that he and Katara are so so very similar. It's no wonder Sokka’s soulmate is just a different font of the same person who Sokka loves the most.

“Breathe.”

Katara breathes. She's a pain and a migraine of Sokka’s most of the time, but she knows when to listen to her brother, so Katara breathes. “Aang got a soulmark from the play,” she says, and it sounds awfully rehearsed. She sniffles, even though she isn't crying — right now. “Avatar's girl, around the neck.”

Sokka says nothing. He opens his arms, wordlessly, knowing Katara knows how to read him, too. 

So they hug, and she hides her face on his neck, and he shelters her from the world as he promised to himself he would, and it’s fine, now. (It’s fine for Katara, now, in her big brother’s arms. In Sokka's arms, everything is fine, even when it isn’t.)

“I know it sucks,” he tells her, softly against her hair. “I mean I don't know know, but I get it. It's strange and uncomfortable, feeling like your pain belongs to someone else.”

And Sokka knows about that. It was the first thing he ever knew. 

His words, as they often are, are enough to get her started.

“I’m just so fucking scared, you know?” Katara says, her voice muffled, still holding onto Sokka.

“I know.”

“And I’m so angry, too. And I feel so fucking dirty watching that play tossing my character around like cattle.”

“I know.”

“And you're pretty much the only boy at the moment that I don't feel like— you know. That I don't feel grossed out around somehow.”

Katara lets go, but she still clings to his arms, like when she was little and she woke up from a nightmare after their father calmed her down, she clung to him or Sokka, whoever was nearer, and she didn't let go all night.

“I know.”

 

(Katara sits between Sokka and Toph after that intermission. When Aang comes back, they all make the collective choice not to mention the Avatar's girl adorning his neck like a collar and matching Katara's very own AVATAR, the same way they all decided not to mention it when Zuko got heartless cut across his cheek and matching Sokka’s very own gentle. This, they all know, they don’t need to know.)

 


 

That night, Sokka stays with Katara until she falls asleep, and then he gets drunk with Suki and Zuko, the latter claiming the only thing that would make his father rage more than the teenaged Avatar’s gang currently living in his house, is the teenaged Avatar’s gang drinking his booze, in his house.

They’re sitting on the porch, sixteen years old and too much on their minds, they all find a certain solace in their little triad. Suki’s back is against one of the columns as she sits on the stairs, Sokka’s head rests on her lap, his fingers intertwined with Zuko, who is half-sitting and half-lying down, looking at the stars.

After the last joke is laughed off and a waiting silence surrounds them, out of either Zuko’s drunkenness or Zuko’s general personality, he slurredly tells Suki, “Y’know, I kind of gave you that soulmark.”

Suki thinks about it for a moment, seemingly considering the possible answers to the information she was just given, and finally settling for a light-hearted, “You owe me so many reparations.”

Zuko has finished lying down, and he says, “Yeah, I do.”

“You’re both quite concerning,” Sokka tells them from his spot.

 

Not without kissing both of their cheeks goodbye, Suki eventually leaves. She has shit to do, beds to sleep on, things to dream. She can hardly talk, but she can walk perfectly, Zuko notes and admires. 

Sokka’s head is now on Zuko’s lap, when Zuko tells him, “She’s cool.”

Sokka, whose eyes were previously and comfortably closed, perks up immediately. “Suki’s amazing.”

Zuko smiles softly. He sucks on his bottom lip anxiously. “You know you can, like, still be with her if you want, right?”

Sokka closes his eyes again. “You’re my soulmate,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Still.

Sokka looks him in the eye. “Oh.”

The birds start waking up, the sky lightens up bit by bit, Zuko plays with Sokka’s hair, giving him his time to think of what was just implied. He waits for a long time, admittedly more than if Sokka were not drunk, but that’s okay. There are no hurries. Not right now, not when it’s just them.

(Because truth is, Zuko used to think having a soulmate was a destiny thing, much like the concept of the Avatar, soulmates were intense and earth-shattering and apocalyptic, more turbulence in his life, inevitable and his. That’s how being pretty much predesigned for someone else sounded like. And now - now it sounds a lot softer, tranquil, peaceful, it sounds like selflessness and freedom and a certain sense of understanding, of being wanted selflessly and freely and understood right back. It makes sense, now, that if a soulmate is someone whose heart breaks like yours, if you live your lives as a similar catastrophe, you can find a safe space in them. Like warmth after the flood, or a calming rain despite the fire.) 

Sokka sits up, the dizziness of the alcohol wearing off gradually, and Zuko traces the gentle on his cheek with his thumb, and Sokka turns his face to kiss his fingertip. He smiles brightly.

“Okay, then. Maybe sometime in the future.”

It’s dawn, and Zuko smiles back. Sokka relies his weight half on one of his arms and half on Zuko himself, and for the first time he traces Zuko’s heartless on his own cheek. As if it was gravity or fate or maybe just Sokka and Zuko, Sokka leans in and kisses Zuko on the mouth.

 

(Maybe that’s what a soulmate is. The easiest choice someone can make.)

 


 

Aang has to take out the Firelord. That’s how the story is meant to go. It’s a very old story, a hero defeating the villain, getting together with his soulmate, living happily ever after. There can’t be any other version of this story. Not when the world is about to burn.

Perhaps training a thirteen-year-old for murder is a little harsh, but Sokka knew this was coming. Sokka’s been training Aang for murder since he met him. Killing out of necessity. This is something Sokka can teach him. This is the only thing Sokka can teach him. (He’s wrong — so wrong.)

But Aang can’t make the final strike against a melon in practice, and when Sokka does, he flinches.

 

(That night, before Aang’s disappearance, Zuko hears him and Sokka arguing. He should know that know-it-all matter-of-fact tone of Sokka’s is infuriating. “Look, I know you have a special thing with all lives being sacred and all, but you’re just being irrational right now.” 

Aang says, “No. I can’t let my— these values just die completely, you know?”

“Would you listen for a second?” Sokka says, less aggressive than earlier but still firm, “Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t like—”

“It’s not even about that, Sokka! And you— you’re always like this with our enemies, you were like that with Zuko, back at the North Pole! It’s like you don’t even—  it’s not my fault you’re so—” and he stops. 

There’s a long, long silence.

They all know what word he was going to call Sokka.

Zuko is holding his breath for another mark. His unscarred cheek aches.

After a while, Aang says, “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re fine, Aang,” Sokka immediately replies, as if he was just waiting for the moment Aang spoke up so he could comfort him. “You’re just under a lot of pressure right now, and we’re both very tired.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“You didn’t even say anything,” he says, in that soft voice he uses only with Katara, with Toph, with Aang. “I know, Aang. Why don’t you just go to bed, okay? We can talk in the morning.”

“I think I’m gonna go meditate,” Aang says, and now that Zuko listens to the way he sounds, his voice is sort of muffled, as if he was being embraced. Zuko forgets, sometimes, that Aang is just a child, but at the same time he never truly does. “I love you, Sokka.”

“I know, Aang,” Sokka says, and he sighs. “Me too.” And then Zuko hears Aang leaving the room. 

 

“You can come out now, Zuko.”

Zuko winces. “Sorry.”

Sokka just chuckles. As Zuko approaches him to comfort him, he can pinpoint the exact second Sokka breaks.

And then there’s Sokka, crying in Zuko’s arms, in the same room his mother called him gentle for the very first time. Zuko discovers that when Sokka cries, he does it quietly, too. Like a room without a ghost.

Sokka’s voice shakes, wet and quiet and Zuko feels it against his shoulder, “I wish I could just kill him myself, y’know?”

And Zuko knows this, too. Sokka has been training Aang to kill since they first met.

“I know, love.”

“I wish I could help him more— I wish I could protect him better.”

And Zuko knows. The protector on his pulse, the killer on his ankle, have been aching since this morning, and not even Sokka’s accidental touch seems to ease the pain. That’s the thing, really; it’s not that Aang was ill-intentioned — it’s that no one knows how Sokka’s pain feels like in the first-hand way Zuko does.)

 


 

Aang disappears. Katara touches her neck constantly after that, probably wanting to ease the discomfort the AVATAR is causing her (like the Sokka to her Zuko. It's funny, but not as much as it is strange and concerning, so Sokka doesn't mention it.)

After a few other shenanigans with June, their little gang eventually reaches the White Lotus Camp. (June had off-handedly mentioned to Sokka, “You have an awful lot of those,” looking at his neck and left shoulder, where the, some blood red, some cold grey soulmarks — burned and disrespectful and sorry sorry sorry — clashed together since he was twelve years old.

Sokka looked back at her, a single spoiled brat visible through her fingerless gloves. “You should see the other guy.”)

Zuko begs for forgiveness on his knees, and the warmth he gets it’s not one of a flame, but a family.

Iroh tells Zuko, the next morning, that he should become Firelord instead. They all stare, curious and cautious, but it is Sokka, of course, who is paying more attention than what he leads on.

None of them expect the “I was thinking I’d start the process of dismantling the monarchy, actually.”

Iroh seems to think about this. “It’ll take a long while, and a lot of work.”

Zuko chuckles, but it’s not really a laugh. “What else is new?”

 


 

Their goodbyes are made of trembling hands and threats with no heat and promises of coming back alive at the very least.

(“Good luck, little boulder,” Zuko tells Toph as she lets go of his leg.

“You too, Sparky,” she says warmly, and then she adds, “Leave the nicknames to me, by the way.”

Zuko laughs. There’s no way he’s doing that.)

Sokka and Katara hug for so long it’s incredible to see. There’s not one second of it both of them don’t desperately need.

When they let go, and Katara goes to Toph and Suki, Sokka finally goes to Zuko, hugs him, and it feels a lot like that time at the gondola. Sokka wants to kiss him again, so he does. He briefly registers Katara exclaiming “When did this happen?” but he pays it no mind, with Zuko’s hands clinging to his neck, and Sokka’s hands cradling Zuko’s face, and no movement at all, just the familiar pressure of their lips together that still gives both of them that funny sensation on their stomachs. They break the kiss at the same time, as they usually do (it’s not creepy! it’s a soulmate thing, yes, thank you very much) and they press their foreheads together, and Sokka murmurs, “If you jump again, I’ll kill you.”

Zuko’s smile is shy. “I promise to jump again.”

Sokka hugs him again. Directly to his good ear, with all more feeling than Zuko has ever heard of him, he says, “If you can, please look after her.”

They let go.

“I will.”

 


 

When their mom left, Azula cut her hair.

Ursa used to brush her hair in the mornings, after insisting to the servants for a long while that she could do it herself. Sometimes, she  put Azula’s hair in a braid, so it wouldn’t mess up so much as she slept. This was a thing they shared, Ursa touched her hair, and then she was gone, so by logic, the hair should be gone as well— some of it at least. It was a small cut, really, and it was getting too long anyway. It was a small thing, but the weight in her head was lessened, and it felt cathartic. 

Azula can’t cut off Ty Lee’s grey soulmarks.

Ozai never brushed her hair. Azula cuts it anyway. And just like that, mother appears again.

 


 

It goes like this;

 

When Aang sees the Firelord for the first time, it feels strangely off. He doesn’t seem like a beast — no gruesome scars, or amazing size, but just what one would expect out of a Fire Nation aristocrat. He can only hope his plan works.

 

Azula cut her hair. Zuko let it grow. He can take her this time.

When she tells him, “I’m sorry it had to end this way, brother,” Zuko can almost feel the word cementing on Sokka’s skin himself.

 

Sokka doesn’t get any marks, not right then. He’s a one-man army here — with Suki and Toph. They are a three men army, he supposes. He fights firebenders with fun, and somehow plans an airship slicing in the span of three minutes, and he can only wish Aang makes it out alive so he can thank him.

When Sokka thinks he’s lost Suki, it’s like fuel. He holds on to Toph and he doesn’t let go, with his leg screaming and her weight pulling him down, and he almost doesn't notice the sensation of a word carving itself on his body. Almost. When Suki comes back, and when Toph is finally safe, just then he can feel glad to know Zuko is still alive, even if in pain.

 

When Azula’s lightning bolt sprints towards Katara — Katara, Zuko doesn’t hesitate for a second. He can somewhat register what happens after he takes the bolt for Katara — Katara, but he can tell Katara beats Azula. 

(It’s late, anyway. Brother is already written on Sokka’s chest, on the exact same spot Zuko took lightning for their little sister.)

 

Aang takes Ozai by his stupid goatee, and he feels all the rage he was denied, and he lets his anger out. He stops. He looks down at the man. He gives him a new soulmark, NONBENDER in crimson across his knuckles. And just like that, the debt starts to be paid.

 


 

They meet back at the palace.

The first thing Sokka does when he arrives is latching onto Katara, make sure she’s okay and safe and alive, despite Suki’s protests (“Sokka— Sokka your leg —!) and throughout the pressing question of where is Zuko burning at the back of his mind. Katara is alright. She beat Azula, and she’s alright.

Surprisingly, Katara doesn’t scold him for his leg and holds onto him the exact same desperate way he holds onto her. (Sometimes Sokka forgets, not that Katara loves him as much as he loves her, or that she needs him as much as he needs her, but that she wants to protect him right back — that if Sokka would burn the world down for Katara, Katara would burn it for him, too.)

(“Let’s go to the infirmary, yeah?” she tells him after they let go.

“Wait,” Sokka says. “Where is Zuko?”

Katara looks at him. “Uh. In the infirmary.”

What .”

“He kind of, uh, jumped? Between me and Azula’s lightning,” Katara tells him, evidently not knowing how exactly to tell the story. Which is fair, considering the story.

Sokka thinks about it, and before panicking, he deduces Zuko is relatively alright if Katara is as calm as she is.

Sokka sighs. “Why do I ever bother with you two?” he says without any heat, and they go to the infirmary.)

 


 

The six of them reunite with as much warmth and euphoria as one would imagine, maybe even more. They don’t separate the entire day; they eat in the infirmary, they sleep in the infirmary, they get to think and process and hug and cry and reassure each other for the entire week. 

War does that to children.

 

(The first night, Sokka wakes Zuko up after he has a nightmare about hands and lost swords and Toph falling and— and he wakes him up. Zuko kisses him on the cheek and on the lips and on the forehead and he holds him through it, as he does, and when Sokka asks him if the brother mark was because Azula shot the lightning or because the lightning was directed towards Katara, Zuko discovers he doesn’t know. 

“A little of both, I think.”

Sokka nods, and he holds Zuko back.

This is how the story goes. This is how they made it to be.)

 


 

    When Sokka is sixteen, he gets his 27th (ish) soulmark, tattooed on his chest in a blood-red like a burnt wound, in letters messy and uneven as if someone had carved firelord over his heart as if on stone, or bone. They both know it won’t last forever, though. Words and slurs and nouns and titles seem so silly, when they both know.

 


 

Aang and Katara don’t get together just yet. Katara needs some time to own her grief and her spirit and her life, without having to see it plastered all over her boyfriend. Aang needs time to breathe, to grieve his people and his culture, he needs time to heal properly.

And Sokka gets it. He doesn’t need the same things they need — he needs Zuko near him, maybe not necessarily physically but emotionally; the emotional closeness only soulmates can have. Zuko needs him right back, if not physically, emotionally. They are all different people before they are someone else’s soulmate, and they all need different things.    

 

(Some day — any day now, Sokka will go back to the Southern Water Tribe, to rebuild and rest and heal at home. Zuko will go back to the Fire Nation, to try and fix whatever he can out of what his ancestors broke, getting Sokka words like obstinate and foolish and weak-willed, but not getting kind or beloved or wise. Zuko can be a leader, without having to be a king. Some day, Sokka will grow tired of the world and leave and invent and create art and innovate with his discoveries, and he will know how to be worthy and special and appreciated by being whatever he wants to be. 

Some day, Suki and Ty Lee will connect, and it will be hard and fast and intense for a long while before they almost lose Mai in a fight, and they find a balance. (Suki and Mai aren’t soulmates, but they share one, and that is sort of soulmate-esque in itself. Suki is way cooler than Azula, anyway.)

Some day, Azula, too, will find a balance, maybe not with Ty Lee, not when her soulmarks are grey and Ty Lee’s are gone, but within herself, with her uncle, with a nice Earth Kingdom girl whom she has never directly or intentionally harmed, or ever will — they aren’t soulmates, but they are as good as —  and most importantly, with her brother.

Some day Aang and Katara will also find a balance. Because when it has to happen, it will.

But for now —)

 

For now, it’s dawn, and Sokka and Zuko haven’t slept all night. Not because of nightmares. They were talking. They are always talking to each other, it seems, even when they aren’t. They sit on a roof in some place in some city, and they just are. Sokka lies between Zuko’s legs, playing with his hair — they are so clingy when they're alone it’d be disgusting if they weren’t — and Zuko’s smile is soft, and Sokka thinks he’s sort of shining, even.

Sokka kisses him, for no particular reason. Maybe because he loves him.

(Sokka's way of loving is larger than romance, or the spirits, or any universal forces. Maybe it’s not stronger, but larger. It’s larger than himself. When he chooses, he gives the best, the largest part of him. Sometimes Zuko thinks Sokka could be some sort of deity, a spirit himself, a personification of fate. If only because his love is so vast.)

(Zuko's way of loving is stronger than himself. When he chooses, he gives all of him, but he gives it honestly, subtly, as gently as he can.) Zuko likes looking at Sokka between kisses, and Sokka likes looking back. Sokka's lips are teasing enough, little pecks and nothing more. Zuko's hand lays on his cheek and the other around his shoulders, and he's warm and comfortable under Sokka's weight, his heart beating like crazy.

The amount of attention makes Sokka's heart beat like crazy, too. He wants to keep Zuko on all the roofs he wants to, kissing him any time they want to, away from ugly words and slurs and lies that make words like gentle sound like curses. Instead, he kisses him on the mouth, and then his nose, and then his right cheek — heartless buzzing happily under his lips — and then his scar, and then back to his mouth, and he can only hope it's enough.

And Zuko — Zuko sees Sokka's heart more clearly every day. He sees it in the way their kiss deepens, and Sokka lets out a sigh and they both smile into the kiss because it's dawn, and they haven't slept all night, and their soulmates feel light — lighter than before, when they didn't know their soulmarks were heavy at all until the weight was removed. 

But then.

“Sokka. You're crushing me.”

“Stop being such a baby.” Zuko looks at him. “Fine,” he says. “Sorry, baby.” 

Sokka lies down next to Zuko on the roof. He can never quite let go of the roof thing, it seems. He takes Zuko's hand in his, he looks him in the eye. Sokka thinks he might be the sun.

Unwanted?” Sokka asks softly.

Zuko looks away. He bites his lip. “The obvious answer.”

There is an obvious answer. Sokka knows this, ever since he got ten soulmarks on his neck and shoulder at the age of twelve and ever since he asked, one night at Ember Island, just so see if Zuko wanted to talk about it.

So, yeah. There probably is an obvious answer. But it's untrue. This is something Sokka wants. The thing he wants the most.

“Wanna tell me anyway?”

Zuko looks back at him. “I sort of love you, you know?”

Sokka smiles with his entire heart. “Yeah, I know.”

This, they know.

 

(Besides, Sokka has about fifteen words on his body left to discuss, and Zuko has about eleven of them left. They have a long way to go.)