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"Your future is full of struggle and anguish. Most of it self-inflicted."

Sokka glares, and Aunt Wu stares flatly back, then her eyes flick down to his wrist.

"And as for your soulmate's future..."

Sokka storms past her into the room. "If you're going to make me do this, we're doing it properly."

He doesn't believe in this shit. He doesn't.

But if she's going to be making up stories about his soulmate, she's at least not going to do it in front of the others.

Aunt Wu makes him show her his mark, unwinding the armwrap on his right wrist, and then hmms and ahhs over it while Sokka fidgets and thinks about making a run for it. No, Aang hasn't had his turn yet. He won't let them all leave. He's stuck here.

"Your soulmate has had a difficult life, filled with much pain. There is struggle and anguish to be seen throughout your bond. Perhaps that which I saw in you is from you both, considering how you seem to be taking the pain of your soulbond as your own burden."

Sokka bites the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood.

He had forced them both in here so she wouldn't talk about his soulmate in front of people. It's pretty obvious that there's things he wouldn't want them hearing. She's just extrapolating.

"Things may well get worse for you both before they get better," Aunt Wu continues. "But your soulmate is coming closer, is chasing your fate together, and will find you soon enough."

Sokka is pretty sure he does not want his fate finding him any time soon. They're in the middle of a war. He and his friends are already knee-deep in this whole mess, and his soulmate is caught up in it just by virtue of their bond; he doesn’t need to drag them any further into it.

He pulls his arm back the moment her hand loosens around his wrist and starts rewrapping it. "Great. I'm done."

"Do you not wish to learn whether you have already met–"

"No."

When Aang catches up to him outside, after his own reading, he asks whether Aunt Wu had anything exciting to say about his soulbond. Sokka doesn't answer.

---

The first time they really talk about soulmarks as a group is not long after Toph joins, gathered around the fire as she tries to explain why she hated the group dynamic so much when they'd started out.

"And my parents never let me do anything for myself, not even getting dressed or deciding what I wanted to eat. If I did something it would get redone because I'd obviously done it wrong because I was just so incompetent. They wouldn't even let me feed myself with my own chopsticks as a kid. They almost stopped me from learning to walk because I'd sometimes fall down or walk into things."

Sokka hisses a breath out through his teeth. Spirits, some people are stupid. Had they even met their daughter? Well, apparently not – or not the real her, anyway.

"So I guess I just really hate it when people do things for me? I made my own tent, got my own food and firewood, and I did it myself. I actually got to do things. And getting told that I shouldn't have done them was–" Toph scrunches her nose and digs her toes into the dirt. "Not great. I came here to get away from that."

"I understand that, Toph," Katara says, cross-legged and leaning forward. "And I'm not saying that you can't work or can't pull your own weight, but we usually all have one or two jobs each that we do for the whole camp. It makes things quicker. I should have explained it better, though, and I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions."

"That's okay, Sugar Queen. How else was I supposed to get my dramatic entrance during the fight, if I hadn't stormed off earlier?"

There's a round of laughter – mostly relieved, the fact that they all fought Azula and lived, and there'll probably be time to reflect on that when the moon is high in the sky and he can't sleep – and Katara makes a face.

"Can we not with the nicknames?"

"You and Twinkletoes are stuck with it," Toph says with far too much glee. A hand snaps out to point unerringly in Sokka's direction. "And don't think you're getting away with it. I'll have one by the end of this week."

He rolls his eyes at her, remembers far too late that she can't see it, then lightly kicks a pebble at her foot. "Seriously though, your parents suck."

"Sokka!" Katara chides, but Toph just snorts.

"Got it in one," she mutters, rubbing her wrist under her green bracers, and shit.

"They didn't even tell you about your soulmark, did they?"

"You bet they didn't," Toph grumbles, flicking the pebble he had just rolled back at his head, slow enough that he can catch it. "Not what it is, not really how any of it works. Just that I didn't need to worry about it."

"Do you cover it on purpose?" Aang says, sitting forward. "I can't remember whether you did at your house."

"Nah, but everyone at Earth Rumbles cover them for privacy while they're fighting, so I'm just used to doing it when I'm–" She breaks off like she's trying to figure out how to say it. "When I'm this Toph. The real one. Maybe I'll uncover it when I start wanting to meet them, but I want a bit more freedom first."

Katara rubs her own wrist in the way she's done for years, tracing her thumb in a circle. "Do you want me to go over what we were taught in the tribe? See if it matches with what your parents said? It sounds like they probably didn't give you the whole truth."

Toph hums in assent, and Sokka closes his eyes and can almost imagine himself back in the South Pole, with the crackle of the fire and Katara begging Gran-Gran to tell me again, tell me about my soulmate–

"Your mark is always related to your first meeting in some way, but it's almost always really vague. Abstract. You probably can't tell what it means until it's already happened – or even later. Often when marks are really simple, you don't realise who they're about until long after you meet and something happens to make you realise. Sometimes they're romantic – you realise they're your soulmate and you know you're meant to be together – or they can be platonic and change to romantic later, or they can be platonic and you date or marry people who aren't your soulmate – it's just the spirits' way of telling us this is your person. This is going to be one of the most important people in your life." Her hand comes up to brush her necklace. "Our parents were soulmates, but now that we've lost–" Her voice cracks, and Sokka scoots closer until his shoulder is pressed against hers.

"Dad's with Bato, now," he says. "His right-hand man. He was like a second dad to us after it all happened, and he was dad's best friend since they were kids, and they're really good together – they don't need to be soulmates to be good partners. And there were people in the village who were married to people who weren't their soulmates, and had a platonic soulbond instead. It's not set in stone, just because the spirits apparently decided you'd go well together."

"That's really close to what we were taught," Aang says, bouncing in place in what is definitely airbending-assisted excitement. He always seems to enjoy getting to talk about his childhood and the monks' teachings, and it's not like Sokka can blame him. "Plus, soulmarks are vague for a reason. You're not meant to realise who they are right away. We always said that the spirits designed your marks so that you'd figure it out at exactly the right time, even if that was years after you met. Like me and Katara! We didn't figure it out for months!"

"You two are– Huh. Figures. You're always so together. Like, vibrationally." Toph wriggles her toes. "Heartbeats and breathing and stuff. It does weird things to my seismic sense sometimes."

"That's so cool," Aang breathes. "But yes! Me and Katara! We realised at the North Pole when we were telling people about how we met."

Katara splashes some of her bending water onto the ground at their feet then drags a stick through the mud. Smart. Not that he'd ever tell his little sister that. "This is my mark – a circle. And Aang's is–" She traces a shallow curved line. "It wasn't until we were explaining how we found Aang that we realised – the iceberg I freed with my bending, that he was trapped inside, was round. Like my mark. We only found it because we'd paddled out there and then lost the canoe – and that's Aang's mark. It's a canoe." She smiles at Toph, either forgetting that she can't see it or not caring. "Once you figure it out, you just know, if that helps. I don't think not being able to see the mark would matter in that case. That's the spiritual element, I suppose." The sideways glance she shoots at Sokka is pointed, and he rolls his eyes and grabs the stick.

"Mine is–" He draws it, a vertical line with a small gap before another line goes off at an angle. "And I haven't met them yet. As far as I know."

"Huh." Toph digs her toes into the ground again. "Yeah, pretty vague. Could be that stick you're holding right now if you snapped it."

"Or a tree breaking and falling on me. That's my favourite theory." He scrubs it out with his foot. "Whatever. I'll figure it out. Did your parents tell you about soulpains?"

"Very, very vaguely. All you feel the pain your soulmate feels, oh we're so sorry that we can't do anything to stop soulpains, maybe we should see a healer. Like, it was so minor. Pretty sure my soulmate stubbed their toe or something. But I made the mistake of asking about it."

"I mean, that's pretty much it. You feel the pain your soulmate feels, only localised to your soulmark. Same intensity, though." He squeezes his wrist through his armwrap and tries to ignore the way Katara is watching him and biting her lip. He's made it very clear in the past that he doesn't want to talk about his soulpains. "And the same type of pain. Like, burning or stabbing or a dull ache or something."

Or all at once, like he'd had at the North Pole. It had been when he was talking to Yue, making conversation, trying not to pine too overtly, and he had doubled over in pain, clutching his wrist at burning-aching-agony– He'd convinced her not to tell Katara, after he'd got his breath back, and he'd shown her his mark and tried to sound as casual as possible when he said Well, it wasn’t the worst pain I’ve ever had

Yue's mark was much more obvious than most – a stylised yin-yang, two dots and a curved line.

"I've already met my soulmate," she'd murmured, not meeting his eyes. "I know what it means. It's not romantic, not platonic – I don't really know what it is. But it's a soulbond."

He'd already made the connection by the time Yue had gasped and clutched her wrist as the moon turned crimson, although he had tried desperately to convince himself otherwise, and he knew what was going to happen that moment at the oasis long before it had.

Yue was soulbound to the spirits themselves. This was always going to happen. Always meant to be.

That didn't mean he had to like it.

"Katara and Aang should really have figured out what was going on months ago," he says, instead of saying any of what he'd been thinking. "She'd never had any soulpains at all until the day we found him. The fact that she didn't realise that her soulpains started the day Aang turned up is pretty ridiculous." Yeah, he probably deserved that muddy water to the face, but it changed the topic.

They drop it after that, for a little while, until Toph abruptly pulls off her bracer and sticks her wrist out, hand only shaking a little, and demands in a voice that's mostly stable, "Someone draw mine."

Sokka's still got the stick, so he waits for Katara to restore the mud at his feet and carefully traces three curved lines, one a full semi-circle and two behind.

"Could be hills?" he offers.

"Yeah, like the skyline," Aang says, craning his neck. "Like, the sky is up here–" He pokes the mud with his foot. "–and then these are hills. One in front, two behind overlapping one another. That could work."

"You're not supposed to try to predict it," Katara says, exasperated like she didn't do the exact same thing for years. "The spirits will reveal it when it's time."

Toph leans down to trace the lines with a finger, then nods decisively and wipes the ground clean with a flick of the wrist. "Right. Useless information, but whatever."

She's good at being blasé about things, but Sokka sees the way she memorises it. Useless doesn't mean unimportant.

---

He manages to avoid the topic until after he's kissed Suki, when they're sitting together for a quiet moment before they have to part ways. She brushes her fingers over the fabric at his wrist and says, "Do you want to compare? I dropped out of a tree and tied you up – not sure how the spirits would show that, if we are."

"Don't need to," Sokka mutters. "Have you– A couple of years ago. Did you get a bad injury?"

Suki's fingers tighten on his wrist, and she sighs and leans her head on his shoulder. "No. I didn't. I've never had any major pains, so I didn't think of that as a method. How bad?"

"Really bad." Sokka folds his hand over Suki's, squeezing. "I passed out. It was– I've never felt anything that painful."

Suki turns her hand until she can interlace their fingers. "What type of pain?"

It takes more effort than he wants to expend to get the words out. "A burn."

He hates the way Suki looks at him, but at least her pity is different. She's a warrior, like him, not like Katara who knows she has to fight but doesn't want to. She's older, less naive. She knows what burning soulpains mean. She gets it.

"I hadn't fought a firebender until the day we fought side-by-side," she says. "So, no. Not me. Do you mind?"

"No. Soulmates don't have to be romantic. Aang and Katara aren't – although I think they will be eventually."

Suki snorts at that. "Yeah, that kid's only got eyes for her – don't you remember how he was trying to impress her back on Kyoshi?"

"That was before they knew, but– Yeah. Guess it shows they're meant to be, in the long run." Sokka squeezes her hand again. "What about you?"

Suki bites her lip. "I say...play it by ear? Neither of us know what's going to happen in this war." She doesn't say neither of us know if we'll make it, but they're both thinking it. "If you find your soulmate, or I do, and it ends up being romantic – we can talk about it when we see one another again. We'll figure it out."

"We'll figure it out," Sokka promises, and wonders why the spirits had to do this, had to make them talk about the expiration date on their relationship barely a day after it began. "Promise that if you find your soulmate, and it's romantic, you won't refuse to be with them just because we haven't spoken about it yet? Be with them and then decide. Don't refuse just because you haven't seen me in a few months."

He remembers the men leaving for war, and he remembers the way he'd heard some of them talk to their partners or soulmates – none of us know when we'll be coming back so don't put your life on hold, don't live as though you're waiting for me–

Yeah, Suki gets it.

Katara doesn't. Aang doesn't. Toph doesn't. They all know death, but they don't know that. He hopes they never have to.

"I promise," Suki says, turning her head to kiss his cheek, just like that first time. "And don't you, either."

"I won't. And, Suki, if it doesn't–" –if it doesn't work out, if it doesn't end in one of us dead– "–I still really want to be friends. You're really cool, way too cool for me, and I still want us to have that."

Suki laughs and squeezes his hand again. "You didn't think I'd let you get away that easily, did you? You still have a lot of training to do. You're not going to get out of it just because we're not soulmates."

After they wave goodbye and he thoroughly grosses Katara out by kissing Suki soundly, Aang spins round to him, bouncing on his toes.

"So, what was it like?"

"What was what like?" Like he doesn't already know.

"Meeting your–" Aang breaks off. "Aren't you?"

"No, we're not. We're dating, but we're not soulbound."

"Are you sure? Soulmarks can be really weird."

Behind him, Katara winces and he can see Toph frowning, clearly trying to figure out why her heart rate has presumably rocketed.

"Look, let's just say that there's a really obvious soulpain that my soulmate is definitely going to remember. I'm not saying what, or when, or in which direction, because it's not just up to me, it's about both of us. But there's a soulpain, and Suki didn't have it, so we're not soulmates. We're just together."

He's not going to talk about it. He's not going to talk about it, no matter how wide Aang's eyes go, no matter how concerned Katara looks. He's not saying anything more.

He doesn't need to, as it turns out. Whatever Katara said to Aang to make him shut up about it works, and Toph just silently punches him in the arm, and it never comes up again.

Sokka's pains die down for a while in Ba Sing Se, to the point that he checks under his armwraps to make sure that his soulmate hasn't died in their sleep or something. That's not supposed to happen before you meet them – that's the whole point of soulmarks, that it's your first meeting – but it could be someone he's met without realising, however unlikely he thinks that is–

Nope. They're alive. There it is, two angled lines, bold and black, not faded to the white scars that he'd spent his early teenage years seeing against his father's dark skin.

The fact that he's so used to pain that a lack of it makes him think his soulmate is dead almost makes him laugh, but this is his soulmate, his person, the person who is supposed to complete him, and they're hurting

The pain kicks in again while he's on his way back to Ba Sing Se, clinging to Appa's back, hard and blunt like his arm – like his soulmate – had been flung into something, and Sokka hisses and grabs his wrist.

Aang glances back, eyes wide, fingers flitting over his own wrist where he must be tracking Katara's pain. "Is your soulmate–"

"It's not that bad," Sokka says quickly, shaking out his hand. "They're probably a bit battered, but it's not– It's just that I haven't been used to getting pains recently."

Aang bites his lip, eyes boring into Sokka's wrist like he can see through the armwrap and through the mark and all the way through the connection until he finds the person that Sokka doesn't know yet. "Are you normally– Are you used to pains?"

His silence is answer enough, as is the way he rubs his wrist again, and Aang's eyes soften. "Oh, Sokka–"

"It's fine," he says brusquely. "I mean, it's not fine, but whatever. It's not like I can do anything about it. Except end the war, maybe."

Aang's jaw tightens, clearly gritting his teeth at the reminder, and he nods and turns his attention back to flying. They don't talk about it any further, and after they pick up Toph, they talk about her and her metalbending. That's going to be useful in the future.

The pains don't stop after they leave Ba Sing Se and start travelling again, sharp little stings and burns and some that are not so little, and Sokka hates that he gets so used to them again that the others have no idea what he's feeling. Except Toph, maybe. Still, he can't bring himself to complain.

Not after Katara had torn her armwrap free after getting Aang on Appa and sobbed at the stark white scar that traced a delicate circle on her wrist. Not after they had all held their breath as it flickered grey-black-grey-black and she strained to heal him. Not after he had whispered explanations of what was happening to Toph as he watched his sister fight to bring her soulmate out of the spirit world.

His soulmate is burning, but his soulmate is alive.

Sokka doesn't really have to think too much about his soulbond again until it's the Day of Black Sun, and Azula taunts him.

"Where's Suki?" he snarls, nose to nose with her as she smiles. "Answer me! What have you done to her?"

"She must have been telling the truth when she said you weren't soulmates, then," Azula says, too calm, too fucking cheerful, and Sokka's chest tightens. "Because if you were, you'd already know the answer to that."

He says a silent apology to his soulmate for the fact that he's about to break his knuckles on the Fire Princess' face, curls his fingers into a fist, and before he can move his wrist burns so fiercely that Azula must have burnt him, must have caught him off guard–

But there's a crash somewhere else in the catacombs, and Azula cocks her head to one side and tells him that firebending is back on, and it wasn't Azula, it wasn't his pain, it's his soulmate's, his soulmate is being burned because the eclipse is over and they haven't ended the war–

They run.

It's only after they reach the Western Air Temple that he realises. There haven't been any more pains. There was the one, bright and burning and unlike any Sokka has felt before, right after the eclipse, and then nothing. He scrabbles for his bracer, pulling the straps loose–

"Sokka?" Katara is at his side immediately, unwinding the long strip of fabric that makes up his armwrap before he can scratch his arm up too badly in his rush, and–

They're fine. Well. They're alive.

"There was a pain. Right after the eclipse. It– It was really bad, Katara. And then nothing."

"The eclipse? Do you think– The invasion?"

"I hope not." Sokka eyes his mark one last time, satisfied that it doesn't seem to be flickering or fading, then sits cross-legged and rests his arm in his lap to begin winding the wrap again.

"Why?"

"I've already met everyone who helped with the invasion, haven't I? If we don't meet up with any more allies until we've ended this war, that means they'll be safe. I can’t lose a soulmate I’ve never met." He leaves it at that. She understands.

And, because Sokka apparently has all the luck, that's when Zuko shows up.

---

Sokka's hardly felt any pains at all since he's arrived at the temple, and he tries to pretend to himself that he only keeps looking at his wrist because the fabric strips are slipping loose and he needs to re-wrap them. The fact that he does it out of sight of any of the others kind of puts paid to that theory, though.

He's just worried, okay? There hadn't been any consequences in the immediate aftermath, but he's seen people die in the days and weeks and months following a bad injury, slowly succumbing to infection, and he just wants to be sure.

Well, he has felt pains, when he thinks about it. The bumps and aches that he supposes most people are used to getting, like their soulmate has fallen over or walked into something. It says something about this whole shitty situation that he barely registers it and instead focuses on the fact that he's not feeling any burns.

He can't help his soulmate. He can't. He doesn't know who they are, where they are, what's going on–

Well. He has an idea. But he can't do anything about it. Just like he can't do anything about all the people relying on him and his plans, all the allies they'd gathered from across the world, rotting in a Fire Nation prison because Sokka can't even manage that.

He can think of all the tactics and strategies and could-have-beens that he likes, but nothing is happening until Aang learns firebending. He's making progress, there's no doubt about that, but it's not enough. It'll never be enough.

Zuko says that his father is as good as Azula, maybe even better if you account for experience, and Aang's never been able to beat her in a straight one-on-one battle. They couldn't beat her during an eclipse. Aang is handling basic firebending katas, but even Sokka can tell that he's not entirely comfortable with the element, despite their mysterious field trip. He's good with water, but not as instinctive or innovative as Katara. His earth is fine, Toph begrudgingly admits, especially for how long he's had to practice, but nowhere near mastery.

He lurks around the courtyard that's been commandeered for firebending training, trying to get some sort of gauge on how long it would be before Aang was ready for Invasion 2.0.

"He'll never become a master with me teaching him," Zuko says warily when asked, looking at Sokka out of the corner of his unscarred eye. "Because I'm not a master. I did say that when I asked to join you. I didn't lie, I didn't try to pass myself off as–"

"Yeah, man, I know, I just–" Sokka realises he's toying with the edges of his armwrap again and quickly folds his arms instead. "Do you think he will be able to become a master? Like, if we find one, I guess, if you're saying you can't do it."

Zuko turns back to Aang, watching as he runs through the same kata again and again. "He will. Maybe not using the forms I was taught, not when he's an airbender, but he's already–" He looks like he's deciding what to say, then sighs and goes with, "He's a prodigy. He's mastering katas that I failed for months. Once he stops being so uncomfortable with his own power and gets a real master, he'll do well."

"Do you think he'll do it in time?"

Zuko doesn't answer that, and Sokka doesn't think he wants him to.

Instead, he just keeps watching, trying to picture how he'd counter the attacks Zuko is teaching, and finds himself looking for any sign of the angry ponytailed jerk that had chased them all over the world in this new Zuko, quiet and awkward and never quite meeting their eyes.

Try as he might, he's struggling. Which Zuko is the real one? The one who taunted Katara with her stolen necklace, who ambushed them dozens of times, who captured Aang at the North Pole? Or this Zuko, who can't tell jokes but does surprisingly good impersonations of his sister and uncle, who willingly does the chores that Katara foists on him every night, who watches them when he thinks Sokka isn't watching him in return with a look of...envy?

Or, he thinks, remembering how frantic Zuko was in the North as he demanded Katara face him, remembering the look on his face when Azula felled his uncle, remembering the taunts Zhao had thrown at him at the temple... Maybe it was both. Or neither.

Zuko dismisses Aang after one last run-through of a set and abandons him to Toph's tender mercies, much to Aang's dismay, and stretches, tunic riding up to show a sliver of skin at the small of his back. Sokka isn't sure why that always catches his attention – it's just that Zuko is so pale. So is Toph, he supposes, but she's usually covered with a healthy coating of dirt and has been getting more tan while they've been travelling. He guesses that to Water Tribe sensibilities, Zuko's Fire Nation colouring is just kind of unexpected.

"Hey," he calls over, standing and checking that space sword is where it should be. "Want to spar? We've got a couple of hours before lunch."

The little smile Zuko shoots his way makes the two hours of aching muscles worth it.

"This is so unfair," he whines, pushing himself up onto his elbows as Zuko sinks down cross-legged to check for nicks and blunt edges on his dao. "You beat me all the time, it's just rude."

"Would you rather I let you win?" Zuko asks, and the look on Sokka's face makes him snort. "Exactly. Look, you're not bad, you can more than hold your own, but you had, what? Two days of training?"

Sokka flops back down onto the grass, staring up at the sky and glad that they'd left the main body of the temple and come out to the meadow to do this. He doesn't need to add bruises from stone floors as well.

"I know. You keep saying that. But I just... I wanted to train with Piandao so it could be my thing, you know? Something I could do so I could hold my own with the rest of the team. And now it turns out that I can't even–"

He breaks off at the brush of fingertips on his forearm, snapping his head up to see Zuko looking wary and shifting closer.

"Sokka, what's prompted this? We've sparred dozens of times and you've never– I don't mean that you've never said it, but–"

"Yeah." Sokka sits up, briefly mourning the way Zuko pulls back at the movement. "Yeah, I know. I didn't sleep well last night, and I just keep thinking, and then this– It's fine."

Zuko watches him for a moment, inscrutable, then says, "I'm not going to stop sparring with you over this whole thing – we both need to keep up with practice. I hadn't fought anyone skilled in months."

Hadn't, Sokka notes. Not haven't. Was that intended to be a compliment, or had it been a slip of the tongue?

"I don't want to stop," he reassures him. "You're right that I've only had a couple of days of proper training – this helps. It's–" He hesitates, almost reluctant to say it, then, "You help. A lot. To have someone to spar with, and who knows what they're talking about, and who gets it. You're really– Fuck." Sokka scrubs a hand over his face, grimacing when he realises it's streaked with dirt. "I sound so sappy. But. It helps. You're helping. So. Thanks."

Zuko makes a little noise that could be, if he were squinting, a laugh, and when Sokka looks over he's smiling, a small, private little thing curling at the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad. I'm– I'm happy to help, I suppose. Sparring, or– Anything. Talking. Whatever."

Spirits, they're both so awkward. Still, for two guys who came of age surrounded in one case by small children and the other by a ship full of grown men – he doesn't know how long Zuko was at sea for, but sounds like it had been at least a year or two – they're not doing too badly at this whole friend the same age thing.

Huh. Friends. Well, they kind of are. At least, Sokka likes to think so.

It's about a week later that he corners Zuko after dinner and says, "So, what you said about being happy to help – what do you know about Fire Nation prisons?"

---

Sokka is beginning to rethink the not doing too badly at being friends thing from last week, because spirits, this balloon flight is the most awkward thing ever, and he had to go through puberty sharing an tent with his equally-teenage sister.

Still, it's not like the same-age friendship scroll came with a chapter entitled So you want to fly towards an inescapable prison on a suicide mission with your once-mortal enemy?

After the truly horrifying silence that falls over the balloon after That's rough, buddy, and Zuko's unburnt ear goes so red that Sokka has a morbid urge to reach out and see if it feels as heated as it looks, Zuko blurts out, "Was she your, you know–"

"No. She wasn't." Sokka sighs and dangles one hand off the edge of the balloon. "I mean, number one, she was engaged. The guy was a right dick, but she was still committed to marrying him because it was her duty. And she had a soulmark, but it was for the spirits."

"You mean that even if Zhao hadn't–"

"No clue. It might have meant that she was always meant to– To do what she did. To sacrifice herself like that. But even without that whole thing, she'd been connected to them since she was a baby." Sokka drops his head back, watching how the silk of the balloon pulses. "I wish we'd had the chance to find out, though. Even though she wasn't my soulmate. That doesn't mean we couldn't have tried it, or that we couldn't have been friends."

He hadn’t brought it up before, what with Zuko’s mark always being covered just like those of everyone else in the Fire Nation, but he’d asked first, so…

“The girl you mentioned, Mai. Are you two...?” He trails off in the same way Zuko did when he asked, giving him the space. It’s only fair, both to ask and to make the same allowances.

Zuko startles, like he didn’t expect to be asked, then glances down at his wrist and the leather bracer on only one arm, so much more noticeable than Sokka’s two matching armwraps. “We–” He blinks down at his arm, like he’s considering something. “No. We’re not. It’s complicated.”

How complicated can a yes or no question be? Sokka almost asks, but his answer had been No, she was soulbound to the literal moon, so it’s not like he can talk.

“Complicated, huh?” he says instead. “Let me know if you ever want to talk it out, I guess.”

Zuko just stares at him for a second, like he doesn’t quite know what to do with that, then nods jerkily and stares back out over the edge of the airship.

Well. That’s the end of that one, then.

---

It’s clear that something’s changed between him and Suki, as soon as he pulls off his helmet and she throws her arms around his neck and buries her face in his shoulder, instead, of y’know…kissing him. The hug is nice too. Suki is nice to hug, just the right height to tuck his chin on top of her head if he stretches, and she fits comfortably into his arms, but it’s just. Well. Not the same.

“The other Warriors?” he asks, and Suki shakes her head without pulling back.

“No. I don’t know where– We were all in some colonial prison in the Earth Kingdom when they separated us, and they sent me here because I was the leader. The other girls could be anywhere.”

“We’re gonna get you out,” Sokka says, then a moment later, because he can’t hold it back anymore– “So you found someone?” he asks, and Suki pulls back to look up at him.

“It’s that obvious?” There’s a flash of guilt across her face, and Sokka hopes he didn’t sound too accusatory.

“No, no, I just… It felt different. More, uh, platonic?” It does kind of sting that their very next meeting after the We can reconsider if you decide to be romantic with a soulmate is the reconsideration conversation in question, but they both knew what they were signing up for.

Suki pulls him over so they can sit with their backs to the door. “Yeah. I– We met a couple of months ago. And– Once we’re out the other side of all of this, I want to talk about whether we feel like working something out, because I do still really like you, but she asked me if I felt it and I said yes and–”

“Hey, hey.” Sokka worms one arm around her shoulders. “Of course we can talk about it, but even if the answer’s no, this is still good. Okay?” He pokes her in the arm. “Now tell me all about her, so I can decide if she’s good enough for you.”

“The spirits have decided she’s good enough for me, Sokka.”

“I have higher standards than the spirits. Did you know they don't even have bathrooms?”

Her name is Ming, and they met a few months ago at the Boiling Rock right after Suki had arrived, and–

“She’s not a prisoner,” Suki blurts out suddenly, twisting her fingers in her lap. “She’s, uh. She was a prison guard.”

“Your soulmate is a Fire Nation soldier?” Sokka exclaims, then winces at the tap on the door. “Sorry, sorry, quiet. But, Suki–”

“I know, I know–” Suki drops her head into her hands. “Believe me, I asked myself the same question, but–” She rubs her bare wrist, and Sokka notes the rough outline of a square in the dim light. The gondola? “We didn’t figure it out until she’d already told me about what’s happening. There’s a rebellion, Sokka. Underground, trying to move pieces into place, but it’s happening. She couldn’t tell me much, in case they tried to torture it out of me, and she’s pretty low in the ranks herself, but there are people in the Fire Nation who are sick of this war and this dynasty, and they’re trying.”

Suki runs through the bare bones of the thing – that Ming had approached her as the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, had spoken to her about the war and about the resistance and about how to keep a low profile in the prison, had enlisted her to smuggle information out in the laundry, how they’d eventually realised that–

“Well,” Suki says, flushing. “You know.”

“Having another guard on our side is going to make this so much easier,” Sokka gloats, but pauses at the look on her face. “Is she not...?”

Suki sighs. “Her people wanted her transferred to a prison in the Caldera for something. I guess they’ve got allies imprisoned there and need someone who can help. She fudged her transfer papers and left a few weeks ago. Hopefully, once this is over…”

“We’ll get you out of here,” Sokka tells her. “And we’re gonna end the war, and then you can introduce me to your prison guard resistance girlfriend, and you can tell her all about how cool I am.”

Suki laughs and elbows him in the ribs, and everything feels almost normal for a moment before there’s a commotion outside the door and suddenly everything is very, very wrong.

---

As much as Sokka feels like he could just sit around the fire forever with his father and sister and friends and sort-of-mostly-ex-girlfriend, it's not right. There's just something not quite–

He leaves the circle and pads as quietly as possible across the open courtyard until he sees Zuko on the very edge of the firelight, sat with one leg dangling over the parapet and hugging the other knee against his chest. Sokka circles around until he can come from his right – he saw how Zuko fought on the gondola, letting him take the lead on his left side. It makes sense that some stuff would be fucked up on that side, he supposes, looking at the size of that scar.

He sees the shift in Zuko's posture when he enters his periphery, the way his shoulders relax, and it's strangely gratifying.

"Hey," he says, quietly enough that he's not going to catch the attention of anyone back near the fire. "Mind moving away from the edge a bit? It's kind of concerning." Zuko's head tilts toward him a little in acknowledgement, just enough to see the slight smile at the corner of his mouth, but he doesn't otherwise move. "C'mon. No more drops and high places. I've had to catch you enough times already today."

Zuko's little huff of laughter is just on the edge of hearing. "Yeah, I guess you have." He turns his body away from the edge and pushes back a little, then reaches one arm up.

Sokka grabs his hand rather than his wrist – he is not going to risk Zuko's leather bracer slipping and sending him back over the edge – and hauls him to his feet and away from the drop.

"You caught me a few times, too," he says, once he's pulled Zuko a few paces away from the abyss, and Zuko – half-shadowed, eyes inscrutable, hand warm in Sokka's – says, "Yeah. I guess I did."

In the end they don't go back to the fire, but Sokka insists on finding a safer place to sit, which ends up being up above the temple on the grassy bank overlooking the chasm.

Are you and Suki– Zuko says on the way up, and Sokka shrugs and tries to explain their arrangement without going into all the detail of who Suki's newfound soulmate actually is. He can't really be bothered right now.

Now they're sat under the stars, and Sokka takes a moment to realise that he hadn't told the others where they were going before deciding that that's a problem for future Sokka.

"I knew my family wanted me dead," Zuko says suddenly into the silence. "But I didn't think Azula would– would just stand there. She would have just stood there and watched us fall. I knew we were messed up as fuck, but–" He falls back against the grass, dark hair fanning out around his head.

"Guess it's a pretty big leap from knowing they hate you to knowing they want to kill you," Sokka says quietly, and Zuko snorts.

"I already knew that. My f– The Firelord has already tried to kill me. But I just didn't think– She's still my little sister. What the fuck happened?"

Sokka tries to picture Princess Azula as someone's baby sister, like Katara is to him, and… No, not happening. He's not going to say that to Zuko, though.

"Ozai tried to kill you?"

"When I left during the eclipse. And, uh–" He rubs a hand over his face. "And I mean, apparently he wanted me thrown from the palace walls when I was born at an inauspicious time and without a spark – without any detectable firebending – so. Not surprising."

"Fuck," Sokka says with feeling, because there's not much more to say to that. Azula being the way she is suddenly makes a little bit more sense. "It looks like her friends didn't expect her to do that, either."

Zuko makes a quiet noise of acknowledgement, then after a moment sits back up and hugs his knees to his chest. For a moment he looks almost like he did in the cooler, all tucked up into himself – and then Sokka is remembering what happened immediately after that, and he's still not quite sure what to do with the realisation that Zuko can breathe fire.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks when Zuko still doesn't say anything. "About Mai, or–"

Zuko sighs. "When I said it's complicated– Mai was my betrothed. When we were kids, and then again when I went back. I really fucked her over, leaving like that. And then she did that for me–"

"But you're not soulmates?" Zuko shakes his head minutely. "But you were engaged–"

"You were dating Suki."

"Dating. Not engaged. Big difference. I mean, not that my tribe really does the big important marriage thing, not like some places do, but we usually think it's better to really take the time to talk through what soulmates mean to you before, y'know, starting to be serious about anything. But you were just...going to get married?"

"In the next year or so, probably." Zuko stares down into the chasm. "It's… I thought it was normal. It's how everyone did things. That soulmates are– are up for debate."

Sokka blinks at him. "What?"

"Avatar Roku and Firelord Sozin were soulmates," Zuko says quietly. "And Sozin believed that it was a sign from the spirits that they would achieve great things together. Why else would the avatar and the firelord be soulbound? That clearly didn't happen. Roku opposed the war, and Sozin let him die because of it. But the Fire Nation… That sort of belief is still around. That the actions of the spirits show their approval. That they bond people based on their positions in life."

Zuko tips his head up to stare at the stars, profile taut and pensive. "And when it came time for me and Mai to be formally engaged, we would have gone to the temple to have it confirmed, and for the sages to view our marks. I'm sure the story they would have come up with would have been touching." His voice is bitter.

"People lie?" Sokka manages at last. "About being soulmates?"

"Don't you have the stories? Of the children of two rival great families being soulbound, and it being a sign from the spirits that the rift should end?"

"Two warring tribes," Sokka says. "But, yeah. I think it's kind of universal. The eastern Earth Kingdom has Oma and Shu, same story."

"Exactly. And if the daughter of a wealthy weapons merchant is bound to the son of a powerful general, it's clearly a sign that the war effort needs more firepower. That was my cousin's engagement. He died at Ba Sing Se before they could marry." Zuko plucks at the blades of grass by his feet. "And if the son of the firelord is bound to the granddaughter of the avatar, it's clearly a sign that the rift in the bond, caused by Roku's betrayal of the spirits, has been mended. It's in all the history books. That's my parents."

"But they're not–"

"No. My mother told me once, in confidence, that she'd met her true soulmate, but that it was her duty to marry Ozai." He spits out the name. "And if her home village remembered her announcing her bond with some boy, well, it's their word against that of the sages. A marriage for nobility is for duty, and for heirs, and to promote the interests of the nation. Which means helping the war effort. And that means fake bonds."

"Are you telling me," Sokka says slowly. "That the Fire Nation elite have spent the last hundred years using lies about soulbonds to persuade an entire nation that the spirits have legitimised the war?"

"I thought it was normal," Zuko says quietly, an almost inaudible catch in his voice.

"Tui and La, what the fuck."

"Yeah."

"That's why everyone covers their marks?"

"I don't know if anyone other than the court plan their bonds," Zuko says, fiddling with the straps on his bracer. "But people copy fashions, I guess. I was raised knowing that the first person to see my mark would be the Fire Sage confirming my match. No chance for accidental realisations. And it wasn't a problem to keep it covered in the Earth Kingdom, when I was a refugee – people seem to do a bit of both, there. But seeing people with their marks just, just there–"

"Weird?"

"Yeah." Zuko nods towards Sokka's arm. "I guess for you, as well–"

"Oh– No, I don't keep it covered. I mean, armwraps are, like, a Water Tribe thing, but it's not because we believe in keeping marks a secret. I think everyone else has already seen mine." He goes to pull the fabric free, then realises what he's doing. "Should I– I mean, do you want to see?"

Zuko's eyes are bright when he glances up. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah! Yeah, it's fine, we don't consider them a secret or anything–" Sokka unwinds it, taking a moment to be grateful for the stark blackness of the lines beneath, then sticks his arm out. "It's super vague."

Zuko's hand is warm as he cups the back of Sokka's wrist, holding it steady. "I suppose it is," he says. "I've never really thought about marks like that, I guess. I always just knew that it didn't matter for me, whether or not I figured it out."

His thumb hovers for a moment, as though he had been about to trace the lines and has thought twice about it. Sokka can almost feel the phantom pressure of it, and the warmth lingers as Zuko releases his wrist again.

"What's it like?" Zuko asks quietly. "Knowing that you're expected to– to find them. And to be with them."

Sokka's never really thought about it, and he says so.

"But, uh, my situation isn't exactly normal. I know Katara was super excited, though, and it was a big deal when she and Aang figured it out."

Zuko shifts around on the grass until he's facing Sokka, still hugging his knees. "When you say not normal– I know you've talked about Yue–"

"Nothing to do with her." Sokka mirrors him. "It's– I don't talk about it much, so don't spread any of it around, but–" He stares at his wrist, because it's easier than looking up and meeting Zuko's eyes. "When I was a little kid, I used to think my soulmate must be a soldier, because I was always getting pains. More than anyone else I knew. My parents had to sit me down and– and explain that some parents were bad, and hurt their kids. Literally the first thing I knew about my soulmate was that they were being beaten by whatever adults were supposed to be looking after them."

When he glances up, Zuko's eyes are wide. "Did you not– I mean, didn't your parents–"

"It's not a Water Tribe thing," Sokka says. "At least in the south. It's– They're kids. They're going to do dumb shit and make mistakes. That's what kids do. The adults' jobs are to help them learn how to be people as they get older, not to– to beat it into them."

"Oh." There's a note of wonder in Zuko's voice. "That's… I never thought about it like that. That's, uh, not how it works in the Fire Nation."

"Yeah, I noticed that when I had to go bail Aang out of a Fire Nation school and they wouldn't let us leave until I promised to hit him," Sokka grumbles, then shakes his head at Zuko's look. "Long story. Don't ask. But the pains just got worse. One of them was so bad I passed out, and my dad sent word to all of the villages nearby with kids I might have met, to see if there was anyone injured badly enough that they might die. I was unconscious for a while. But– Well, you can see. They made it." He rubs his wrist. "But the whole time we were in the Boiling Rock, I was just thinking– They must be somewhere like there. There's been too many pains, too regular, for them to just be a soldier. I think they're in a Fire Nation prison."

Zuko's face when he glances back up is pale and drawn, biting his lip. "When you say Fire Nation–"

"Yeah. Burns. Lots of them. Definitely some worse than others, but. So many fucking burns."

"I'm sorry," Zuko murmurs, and Sokka reaches out and touches his hand without thinking.

"Hey, no. Don't apologise. You're here now, and you're gonna help us win this war, and then I'll get them out of there and meet them." He pauses for a moment, reconsidering. "I mean, I'm presuming the spirits haven't paired me with anyone who would need to stay in prison once the war's over. No murderers or anything."

"I can't imagine you ever sharing half your soul with someone bad," Zuko says. "You're too… No."

"I'm too what?" Sokka prods, and Zuko rolls his eyes and refuses to elaborate.

"So you think they're a soldier?" he says instead, and...this is nice, getting to actually talk about soulbonds with someone who isn't either already happily bonded or has no interest.

Sokka hums in acknowledgement. "I think it would be nice, having someone to spar with. It's why me and Suki worked. What about you?"

Zuko is tracing lines over the soft leather of his bracer, and Sokka wonders if he's mirroring the design beneath. "When I was a kid, I used to hope that my soulmate would be some wealthy Fire Nation noblewoman."

Something twists deep in Sokka's gut, something he can't explain. "Yeah? Why?"

"Because that way I might actually stand a chance at it being considered a good match. Wealthy, from a good line, able to give my family heirs." He sighs, tipping his head back again, and the pale column of his throat glows in the dim moonlight. "Then I realised that it didn't matter and I'd never get a chance to find them anyway. Matters even less, now."

"Don't say that." Sokka reaches out again, touching his uncovered wrist. "Hey, look at me. If we win this thing, you don't have to marry for politics anymore, right? You can expose all this fake bond bullshit and find them in your own time."

"I'm a traitor to my country, Sokka." Zuko shifts his hand until Sokka's fingertips are over the inside of his wrist, brushing against his pulse-point, where his mark would be on the other wrist. "I still believe that what I'm doing is right, but no-one else is going to see it that way. And who the fuck is going to want me as their soulmate, if they're from another nation?"

"You'd be surprised," he says lightly, and spirits, Zuko's golden eyes are unreal by moonlight. Who the fuck thought that such a shitty family, present company excluded, should get to have such pretty eyes? "Suki's soulmate, that she met at the Rock? Fire Nation."

He goes over what Suki told him about Ming, and about the resistance, and Zuko frowns.

"Wait. Did she tell you what this group is called?"

"Yeah, the Whi–"

"The White Lotus. Of course." Zuko pushes his hair out of his face with a frown. "My uncle is part of it. A secret society working towards balance. You said she was transferred to the Caldera? Probably involved in his prison break on the eclipse."

"Why does everyone know each other?" Sokka complains, just to see Zuko duck his head with another small smile. Good, better. No more self-hatred on this clifftop. "Anyway, you didn't answer the question. You don't have to, but."

Zuko hums. "Yeah, some sort of warrior would be nice, I guess. Me and Mai weren't romantic, but we just bonded over weapons and fighting half the time. That plus an actual bond, either romantic or platonic?" He glances back up at Sokka. "I guess I never really thought about it before. As an actual possibility."

Sokka nudges him in the ribs. "Believe it."

Zuko has gone back to staring at his bracer, and Sokka shifts around until he's sat next to him properly and can lean up against his side. There's a chill breeze up here, and it's a clear night, and Zuko is warm.

"What are you thinking?" he asks quietly.

"I don't know."

The silence falls again, but it's less taut than it had been–

Zuko's movement is so sudden that Sokka almost thinks they're being attacked, but he's scrabbling at the straps on his bracer, sparks flying from his fingertips as he gives up on the buckles and burns through the leather, and Sokka jolts and pulls away.

"Zuko, dude, what are you–"

The bracer flies into the abyss in a shower of sparks and Zuko sits panting, grabbing his bare wrist.

"I had to just– I needed to. Before I got scared. I couldn't think twice–"

"Hey. It's fine. I get it."

He reaches out and touches the outside of Zuko's arm, realising a moment too late that it's the arm– Shit, he can feel where the straps had been, the slight indentations, the way his skin is worn smooth after sixteen years of leather being pulled tight around it.

Zuko is still staring down into the chasm.

"And, listen– If you do end up thinking twice at any point? I can teach you how to tie armwraps. Yeah? You can think the system is bullshit and still want to cover it for yourself, like Toph does."

"Thanks," Zuko murmurs. "But I think– This was the right thing to do. For me, I mean. Why did I keep covering it? So I could keep lying to people and find myself a nice political marriage and never have to think about– About what it might be like. To actually find someone."

Sokka shifts around again until he can set his shoulder against Zuko's and lean into him, staring out into the stars.

"You're gonna find them," he promises. "You'll find them, and they won't care whose son you are, and they won't reject you because of what nation you're from. Okay?"

"Okay," Zuko says quietly, and Sokka almost misses the way he leans into the contact. His hand is still holding his wrist, but not clutching it anymore, and after a moment he shifts. "Can I– I mean, do you want to–?"

Oh. Oh.

"How many other people–?"

"My mother. The midwife." His smile is thin and wan. "That's about it."

"If you want to show me–" No, being honoured is not the phrasing he wants to use here. "I'd like it if you trusted me with that," he says instead, cringing at how awkward it sounds but unable to find a better option. "I mean– If you decide that you trust me enough to be the first person you show."

"Of course I trust you." For a moment, Sokka can almost kid himself that Zuko's leaning into him properly, almost like he can put an arm around his waist or rest a cheek against his shoulder, but when he glances over it's to see Zuko's profile, pale and still as he stares down at his hands. As though he can feel Sokka's gaze he looks up, eyes bright, and flashes him a tiny smile. "Of course I trust you," he says again. "You caught me, didn't you?"

Sokka cups the proffered wrist in one hand, just like Zuko had him, and carefully turns it over in his palm.

Such a simple mark, for something with so much meaning behind it. A single line, bent at a right-angle. And all around it–

"Zuko, is that–"

He flushes crimson and jerks his hand out of Sokka's grasp, pulling it into his lap. "It's nothing."

"Zuko."

He silently stretches his arm back out, and Sokka cradles his wrist in both hands and keeps his eyes fixed on Zuko's face. "That wasn't a demand, you know. You don't have to show me anything. Or tell me. Just don't pretend I'm an idiot, or kid yourself that I don't care."

Zuko's eyes are wide when he looks up to meet Sokka's own, but his arm relaxes and the tension leaks out of his shoulders. "'s just burn scars," he mumbles. "And not bad ones. It takes a lot to seriously damage a firebender." He gestures vaguely at his face with his free hand. "These are just… They barely stung, really."

Sokka runs a thumb over the taut shiny skin, marginally paler than the rest of the wrist surrounding it, the black lines of his mark stark against them. He's so focused on biting his tongue and not saying but I thought you said you were the only one to– because there's only one answer to that question, and he doesn't want to make Zuko say it, that he almost doesn't realise what he's doing as he traces the line of the mark with his thumb.

"Sorry, sorry, I–"

Zuko's hand closes over his as he pulls away. "It's fine. I don't mind."

Sokka traces the mark again, feeling goosebumps prickle under his fingertips. One line, causing all this fuss.

"And I thought mine was vague," he says, and Zuko's laugh is quiet and raspy in the silence of the cliffside, but Sokka's pretty sure it's the best thing he's heard in a while.

---

He's going to die. He's-

They're all going to die, because Sokka fucked up this whole plan, he was supposed to know what he's doing and he doesn't, he never does, and–

Suki's gone. She never saw the Warriors again, never went home to her island, barely spent a handful of weeks with Ming, and Sokka's the one that dragged her into this entire fucking mess by coming to Kyoshi, if he'd just left her alone this wouldn't have happened–

Toph's hand tightens on his again and Sokka blinks back the tears, eyes stinging from the ash, as another arc of distant flame lights up the sky overhead. Aang's going to defeat Ozai. He is. He has to. He doesn't need Sokka to do it.

Aang doesn't need him, but Toph–

"Sokka?" Her voice is shaking, and he tightens his grip like it's going to stop a single fucking thing that's about to happen. Boomerang is gone. Space sword is gone. Suki is gone.

"I got you," he manages. "I got you, I– Hang on, I'll just–" He tries to reach down with his other hand, to turn onto his front so her weight isn't pulling his arm out of its socket and he can actually see her– The pain lances up his leg the moment he tries to shift, whiting out his vision, and he doesn't know what sort of noise tears free from his throat but Toph's nails dig into his wrist and he clutches her tighter again.

"Sokka, what–"

"'s my leg," he manages, and instinctively sends a silent apology for the pain to his soulmate–

Fuck. Fuck.

He doesn't know who they are. He never will. Somebody somewhere, somebody he's met once without ever realising, is going to find a scarred mark tomorrow, and they'll never know–

Boots hammer on the metal walkway. Toph's grip falters and slips, and Sokka squeezes his eyes closed and tries to hang on for just one moment longer, for all the good that it's going to do them.

"I don't think boomerang is coming back, Toph," he manages, and her fingers are trembling with the effort of holding on, and he can't let her fall, he can't– He can't pull off his bracer or undo his arm wraps, but he can press his lips to the fabric at the inside of his wrist and send a desperate, hopeless prayer to the spirits that it won't be too painful. "It looks like this is the end," he whispers, to himself and to Toph and to his unknown never-known soulmate, and his grip slips just a little more and–

Boomerang doesn't come back, but Suki does.

---

Ozai is locked away in one of the cabins of the airship. Toph is sprawled flat on the metal, digging her fingers into it like a safety blanket. Suki is stood at the controls, as the only person with four working limbs and any understanding of airships; Sokka slouches against the wall near her feet, trying to focus on the adrenaline thrumming through his veins and not on the way any judder of the damaged ship sends white-hot pain lancing through his leg.

Aang leans against the wall opposite, clutching his wrist, brows furrowed in concentration. "I can't believe you sent Katara to fight Azula–" he starts again.

"Her and Sparky," Toph says, sounding tired. "They're good."

Sokka's been trying not to think too hard about that strand of the battle, how even with the fleet downed and Ozai gone they could still lose

The agony that shoots through his arm is like nothing else, and Suki is shaking his shoulder and frantically asking if he's okay, what happened, if he's hurt, and when did he fall and curl up like that, what's that noise, why does his throat hurt– When did he start screaming?

Toph must do something, because the metal studs of his bracer are suddenly gone and there are hands tearing at the leather and pulling his arm away from his chest to claw at his armwrap.

"Sokka–" Suki says, voice breaking, and he forces his eyes open enough to stare down at his mark, stark white against dark–

"It's shifting," Sokka insists. "It–" It is. Just the barest hint of grey, shading darker then flickering pale again, but it is.

"Sokka, I don't think–" Aang's voice is hesitant, and he doesn't take his eyes off his wrist to see the pity.

The bright agony is still radiating up his arm, so it has to be that his mark is still active, that his bond isn't broken, that it's not just the shadows of the clouds outside the windows–

Maybe this is just what a broken bond feels like–

Toph's hand closes around his and squeezes tight, and Sokka curls into himself the best he can with an immovable leg and stares at his mark and lets her hold him steady instead.

"It is getting darker–" he says suddenly. "It– Look–" The flickering is no longer almost too fast for the eye to follow, ebbing and flowing like a heartbeat, and Sokka presses his lips to it and whispers frantic prayers.

The end, when it comes, is so unexpected that Sokka thinks his soulmate has finally lost the fight – a sudden rush of cool relief spreading up his arm, such a shock it's almost painful – but he's staring at his mark as it flickers darker and darker and suddenly settles, solid black and with only a dull ache.

"They made it," he whispers, and Toph's hand tightens on his. "It's– They did it. They're alive. They're– Fuck." Sokka collapses in on himself, only barely aware of arms around his shoulders and hands in his. "We really put each other through some shit today, huh?" he mumbles against his wrist, and once the tears have stopped he doesn't make any effort to wrap his wrist again. He needs to see.

---

When they're landing in the palace plaza a handful of hours later the Caldera looks almost worse than it had when it had just been invaded a couple of months previously, but Sokka has eyes for nothing but Katara, dashing out of the double doors with tattered clothes and messy hair and dark circles under her eyes, on the verge of launching herself into his arms before she spots the bandages and makeshift crutch.

"Sokka, what did you–"

"Jumped off an airship," he says with a wan smile. "It's fine. Are you–"

"I'm fine, I'm fine–" Her eyes are scanning the rest of their group, checking them all over, and collapses into a hug with Aang for a moment before holding him at arm's-length and looking him over again, and Sokka finally can't hold back what's on the tip of his tongue.

"Where's–"

"Zuko's alive," she says, and that is the exact opposite of reassurance.

"Katara, what–"

"He's asleep in the infirmary, and that's where you need to be as well, so c'mon. You'll be there when he wakes up, and I can tell you what happened."

Toph takes one step through the doors and immediately backs out again. "Nope. Nuh-uh. I'm not going on wood floors, not even for Sparky. Come get me when I can reach him on good solid stone."

Katara glares at the stone tent abruptly erected in the centre of the plaza, but Sokka stops her with one hand. "Leave her. It's– We'll tell you what happened, too."

They do, as they go at Sokka-pace down the corridor, and– Yeah, Toph has a very good reason for wanting to keep her feet on solid earth right now. And Katara tells them about Zuko catching lightning for her.

"I thought he was dead," she whispers suddenly, stopping outside a room. "I think he was, for a moment. He's so damn stubborn, I don't know how he managed to hold on long enough for me to heal him–"

"Without spirit water?" Aang looks like he's about to reach for the lightning scar on his own back.

"You were dead all the way. Zuko was just...mostly dead. I think. It was hard to tell, Azula wasn't letting me get close–" She sighs. "Anyway. He's mostly healed and sleeping now. Don't wake him up."

Zuko looks small and pale in the huge bed, chest bandaged, brow furrowed in his sleep, and Katara and Suki let Sokka drop down into the chair next to the bed with his broken leg outstretched.

"Let me take a look–" Katara starts, crouching, but Sokka flaps her away.

"Absolutely not. It's already set straight, it's not going to get worse if it waits a while. Go sleep. You look exhausted. And Zuko might need you more than me in the morning." Katara keeps hovering, but Aang draws her away.

"Please rest, Katara. You can't heal anyone if you're too tired to stand. Please?"

In the end she lets Sokka sleep in the chair, since it's the safest way to not twist his leg, and promises to come check on him after a nap. He's pretty sure she's going to sleep for longer than that. Suki goes back to the plaza to check on Toph and to tell her about Zuko.

And Sokka– Well, he does sleep, a little. He must only be dozing, though, because the moment Zuko stirs he's awake, watching his eyes flutter open and then screw closed again with a grimace.

"Hey," he says quietly – he's on Zuko's good side, after all – and reaches out to touch his shoulder as he goes to sit up. "Hey, hey, careful. You're fine, you're safe, it's over."

"Sokka?" Zuko's voice is barely above a whisper.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine, I'm good. So is Toph, even though she's insisting on being outside on solid stone. So is Suki. So is Aang. Katara's gone to get some rest." He can't help but smile at the look on Zuko's face. "We all made it through."

Zuko looks like he can barely keep his eyes open as Sokka talks him through what happened, but there's a spark of pride in them when he tells him about Aang and Ozai.

"I'm so glad you're okay," he murmurs, reaching out one hand and wincing slightly as it must pull at his chest. "All of you. I was so afraid–"

"We're all okay," Sokka repeats, grabbing Zuko's hand and leaning over the bed so he doesn't have to stretch too far. "Thanks to you, too. Spirits, I know I asked you to protect my sister, but–" He sighs, dropping his head down onto the mattress. "Please stop acting like you're disposable, Zuko, c'mon." There's a quizzical little noise from above his head. "At the temple, throwing yourself at Azula like that. All those times at the Rock. And– Look, I'm not going to say you shouldn't protect Katara. She's my baby sister, I'm so, so grateful–"

"Aang is trained, now," Zuko says, like he doesn't get the point, and Sokka angles his head to glare up at where Zuko's looking at him, both half-prone on the mattress. "I mean, I know what I'm meant to do now the war's over, but Uncle-"

"Shut the fuck up," Sokka says fiercely and it shocks Zuko into silence, golden eyes wide. "Just– Fuck, Zuko, I'm not saying you're not replaceable because we need Aang to have a teacher. I'm saying you're not replaceable because you're you. Throw yourself in front of fucking lightning all you like, you bastard, Iroh can be firelord or whatever, but what the fuck good does that do me if you're dead?"

"Oh," Zuko says very quietly, and a moment later squeezes Sokka's hand. "I- Thank you. I suppose I'm not really used to–" He turns his head away for a moment, all porcelain-pale profile and sleep-mussed sweaty hair, and then turns back until his cheek is smushed into the pillows again. "If it helps," he says. "I wasn't just throwing myself in front of lightning."

Sokka squints at him. "I'm pretty sure you did. That's why you're laid up in bed covered in bandages."

Zuko laughs, small and tired and raspy. "Yeah. I did. But I– It's different to all that other stuff. I was shit at it today, but I did know–" He pauses. "Wait, is it still today?"

"Mm. You slept for a few hours, but it's still today. Soon enough after that Katara will throw a fit if she knows I'm keeping you awake."

Zuko hums absently, awkwardly reaching up under his head with a grimace and tugging a pillow free, and Sokka stretches up and takes it for his own head.

"I knew," Zuko says again. "That I could do it. I wasn't just– I wasn't doing that and expecting to die. You know that, right?"

Sokka wrinkles his nose, settling his head more comfortably on the soft sheets. "I know you said your uncle had taught you, and you taught Aang, but–"

"No, I knew. I'd done it before." At Sokka's look, he elaborates. "At the eclipse, when I was leaving. I said Ozai tried to kill me? Lightning. And I redirected it. I knew I could do it. Azula caught me off-guard when she targeted Katara, that's illegal, you can't attack a second in an Agni Kai– But she did it anyway. So I still had to redirect it, but it was...messy. Went badly." He grimaces. "But I'm fine. Right? I'm fine."

"Katara says she thinks you died," Sokka murmurs. There's something itching at the back of his brain, something he can't quite pin down. It's probably the sleep deprivation.

"Yeah," Zuko allows. "It's– I don't really know. But I'm fine now."

Sokka sighs, twisting in the chair to rearrange his arms and head on the bed, switching which hand is in Zuko's– Oh. Huh. He's still holding Zuko's hand. Whatever, they clearly both need it.

"Fine," he says begrudgingly. "I guess."

"You said something about your leg?" Zuko asks. He's looking more awake now, even as Sokka sinks closer to sleep.

"Mhm. Broken. 's splinted. Katara can look later, but I don't know what she can do with bone." He watches Zuko through half-lidded eyes as he scans what he can see of Sokka from his prone position, clearly looking for the big secret injuries.

"Wait, where's your sword?"

Oh, yeah, the empty scabbard at his hip. He'll need to take that off at some point. "Somewhere in the Wulong Forest. Or maybe in the sea. Threw it off an airship."

Zuko hums, eyes back on Sokka's face again. "We'll find it. If it's on solid land–" Sokka squeezes his hand in silent thanks, and Zuko huffs out a little breath. "Threw yourself off an airship, threw your sword– Is there anything you didn't–"

"Threw boomerang, too," Sokka murmurs, shifting a little and wincing at the flash of pain down the length of his leg. "Didn't have time to plan it. Fuck knows where that ended up."

Zuko makes a quiet, hurt little noise. "You lost both your weapons?"

"Was pretty sure I wasn't going to have much use for them after another minute or two." Sokka squeezes his eyes closed and for one heart-stopping second there's a hand slipping through his– No. No. He's here, he's now. It's Zuko's hand in his, not Toph's. "Gonna have to ask dad about making a new boomerang with him," he says instead. "He helped me make that one before he left. Made me promise to keep up my training, and I did, but I never figured out how to make a new one that was half as good."

Sokka shifts around on the bed again, wedging his left arm up under his head and twisting the fingers of his right more securely into Zuko's own, and glances up to see him watching him. "What?"

"You trained yourself?"

"Mostly. I mean, he taught me, but I needed a lot of practice."

"Paid off," Zuko murmurs. "That boomerang terrified me. How you always knew exactly where it was going to end up– But then, you were always exceptional with a blade, as well, and even then you were mostly self-taught–"

Sokka can't quite bring himself to meet Zuko's honest gaze and focuses on their hands instead, fingers entwined, resting on the bed between their chests. "It wasn't that impressive. I was just...doing what I could. In between all the bending shit."

There's a little sound that could be a laugh. "Sokka, you and your damn boomerang scared me more than any of the bending from the other two. Really. That first time, when it just came out of nowhere? I had to spend every fight checking it was still in your hand, otherwise it could be about to hit me and I'd never know."

Sokka snorts. "Good. Deserved it, after how you broke–" The strange prickling at the back of his skull is back again, and there's something right on the edge of his mind, just barely out of reach, and he feels almost feverish with it–

Zuko's marked wrist is face-up on the bed, his fingers tangled with Sokka's palm-down hand, and he carefully pulls their fingers apart and twists awkwardly to lay his hand the other way up. Zuko curls his fingers around Sokka's palm again, blinking at him in sleepy confusion.

"Sokka?"

"After how you broke my spear," Sokka murmurs. "And I– Listen, I didn't say it before, but in the airship on the way back here, I had this, this pain, like nothing I'd ever felt– Well, no. I'd felt it once. But not that bad. And my mark faded, just for a moment, and it was flickering for, fuck, felt like for hours–"

Zuko makes a wounded little noise, and when Sokka glances up from their hands he's staring at him. "But it's dark now, right? It's– I mean, you still have–"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do."

Sokka pushes himself up onto his elbow, breathing through the stab of pain in his leg, and reaches down to trace a finger feather-light over the scarred skin of Zuko's mark.

"Tell me if I'm fucking this up. But, uh–"

Is he going to say this? Is he really going to– But the certainty is flooding his veins, and he knows, he just knows, like he's never known anything in his life, and he almost lost his soulmate today and he can't go another day without knowing–

"But does this look like a boomerang to you?"

Zuko is still staring at him, wide-eyed, and Sokka twists their fingers together again and pulls their hands up to eye-level, trying not to jostle anything.

"Zuko? I– Please, just, say something, I can't–"

Zuko's hand, fingers trembling, guides Sokka's wrist up until he can see it from where he's prone on the bed, brushing his thumb across the mark. Two lines, one angled away from the other, like something has snapped in two.

"That first fight," he murmurs. "When you came at me with the spear and–"

"–and you kicked it in two. And then boomerang came back–"

Zuko's voice cracks. "And Katara says I almost died. Or that I did die. And your mark–"

"I felt a pain like that twice," Sokka says. "Once at the eclipse, although it was only for a moment. And then again today. And–"

"You said you were just a kid when you had a pain so bad you passed out–"

"Twelve. I was twelve, but– You were thirteen?"

Zuko shrugs awkwardly, sending a brief spike of pain shooting through Sokka's wrist. "Ozai," he offers, and then a look of horror crosses his face. "I hurt you, I hurt you so much you thought your soulmate was being tortured–"

"Hey, no, no, please–" Sokka scrambles for Zuko's hand again, squeezes it, guides it up to where he can press his lips to the mark in the way he did for his own, all those lonely nights with only the moon and the soulpains for company. "Please don't beat yourself up about this shit. Please. It's not your fault–"

Zuko's still staring wide-eyed at where Sokka is holding his wrist, but his face twists into a grimace at that. "It is my fault–"

"Nope. No, we're not doing this– Okay, fuck, this is going to hurt, and Katara's going to kill me, but–"

Sokka drops Zuko's wrist and braces both hands on the mattress as he pushes himself up to stand on his one good leg, grabs his knee and tries to hoist it onto the bed–

"Ow," Zuko says weakly, and Sokka murmurs apologies as he finally manages to sit properly on the bed and then flop down to sprawl on the mattress next to Zuko, grabbing his hands again.

"There. Just don't kick my leg."

"Did you mean it?" Zuko says quietly, and Sokka blinks at him.

"About what? Not kicking my leg?"

"When we sat in the meadow, and talked about soulbonds, and you told me that I'd find someone who–"

"Who doesn't care about your dad. Who doesn't care about your nation. Of course I meant it. I– Fuck, the spirits were laughing at us that day, weren't they?"

Zuko pulls Sokka's hand up between them and presses a kiss to his mark, lips chapped and warm, and they could have had this for weeks if they'd only–

"I never dreamed it could be you," Zuko murmurs. "I never let myself think–" He glances up at Sokka again, a gust of warm breath against the inside of his wrist. "Can you feel it? I mean, do you–"

Sokka thinks about holding Zuko's hand. About leaning into his warmth and how easy it could have been to slip an arm around his waist and tuck his face into his shoulder. About watching him train, muscles shifting under his skin; about all the conversations under the cover of sparring, sprawled in the grass. About how Zuko looks at him sometimes, soft and warm and–

"Yeah. Yeah, I– We are. I think. If you want."

It's a matter of moments to shift his hand until he's cupping Zuko's cheek, and considerably more moments to figure out how to move closer without hurting them both, but then Zuko's head is on the same pillow as his, twisting as far to the side as his chest allows, and the twinges in his leg and wrist have died down again, and Sokka leans up and–

Something slots into place deep in his soul, something he didn't even know he was missing, and he hears himself make a helpless little noise as Zuko's lips part against his that's echoed a moment later, hands tangled into hair and flattened against bare skin and Zuko is pressing him down into the bed and–

Zuko swears breathlessly into his mouth as pain shoots up Sokka's arm, breaking the kiss to flop back down onto his back on the bed, pale and sweaty – the fever-sick kind, not the sexy just-finished-training kind.

Also, how the fuck had Sokka missed how hot Zuko is, it's so obvious in hindsight, from the moment he'd shown up in the Earth Kingdom with better hair and no pointy armour– Not the time, brain.

Zuko is mumbling apologies, eyes screwed shut and one hand flattened against his bandages, and Sokka ignores the sharp ache in his wrist to stretch up and press kisses against whatever part of his neck and jaw and cheek he can reach.

"Hey, no, it's fine– We're both hurt. We're not going to get a big dramatic scene like in one of those plays you watch." Zuko huffs out a little laugh at that, and Sokka tucks a smile into the crook of his neck and breathes him in. "Look, as much as I'd love you to push me down onto a bed and kiss me stupid, sweetheart, it's not going to happen for a while. Need to get doctors' approval first."

Zuko's lips brush his temple and, a moment later– "Wait, what did you call me?"

It takes a moment for him to backpedal but when he pulls away, apologies on the tip of his tongue, Zuko is blushing pink and biting his lip, and Sokka grins up at him. "What, you like that, sweetheart?" Zuko grimaces and buries his face in Sokka's hair, and he laughs. "Aw, c'mon, don't be like that, love. Honey. Darling. My precious little turtleduck–"

"You're pushing your luck," Zuko says, muffled, but goes easily when Sokka pulls away and ducks in for another kiss, melting into it. "I never thought it would be this easy," he murmurs against Sokka's lips. "I never expected–"

"We'll see if you still think it's easy when Katara finds out we've been canoodling while injured," Sokka says. His whole body is aching to roll over flush with Zuko, to meld them together and never pull apart, to wind his arms around Zuko's slim waist and pull him closer, but– Well, his whole body is aching, end of story. Rolling over and cuddling isn't really on the cards.

Zuko flashes him a tired smile. "A couple of kisses isn't canoodling. It would be pushing it to even hug you right now, though. Your sister is scary."

Sokka hums in agreement, weaving his fingers into Zuko's hair as a less painful skin-to-skin alternative compared to wrapping his entire body around him. Zuko melts into the contact, making a soft little noise as Sokka scritches at his scalp.

"Mhm. Katara's pretty scary if she thinks you're fucking with your health. And she's gonna guilt us both into being the most obedient patients in the world over our pain being shared, so I hope you're ready for that."

Zuko's alternative to rolling over and cuddling ends up just being grabbing Sokka's hands at every opportunity, which he probably shouldn't be surprised by, and his lips are brushing Sokka's mark again when he quietly says, "So you don't think people will be angry?"

Sokka is too tired to do much besides pat vaguely at Zuko's cheek and smile at the way it makes him pout. "'m gonna kick their ass if they try," he says. "Big scary boomerang guy, remember? Don't need two working legs to throw things at people's heads."

At some point, they'll need to talk to the rest of the Gaang about this. At some point, they'll need to explain how they managed to go this long without realising when there were such obvious soulpains, and probably be mocked incessantly for it. At some point, Zuko will have to face his people with his wrist uncovered and a Water Tribe soulmate at his side.

For the moment, Sokka is content to nuzzle his face into the side of Zuko's neck and hold his hands and hear his breath, feeling the line of warmth down his side from shoulder to hip where they're pressed together, and–

"Why're you laughing?" Zuko mumbles, sleepy, and Sokka kisses his cheek again.

"Woman claiming to be a psychic told me once that my soulmate was chasing me," he murmurs against Zuko's skin. "Back when you actually were. What are the chances that she'd pick that wording, y'know?"

And if Zuko's next words, through a haze of sleep, are anything along the lines of Maybe she said that because she knew– then Sokka determinedly doesn't hear it.