Zuko spends his sixteenth birthday with only his Uncle for company. They are deep within the Earth Kingdom, making their way towards Ba Sing Se in hopes of finding a place to rest. As the morning bleeds into the afternoon, Zuko takes advantage of the trees to avoid his uncle’s probing, expectant gaze. Iroh’s soft chuckles dance after him into the red and orange foliage; the elder calmly continuing his walk on the ground, even stopping to talk to a fellow traveller, confident in the knowledge that Zuko will return to his side when ready. As Agni begins his descent from the sky, Zuko leans against the trunk of the tree he’s currently resting in, legs stretched out along the thick branch, and begins to take long, calming breaths.
He is turning sixteen. If Agni has blessed him with a soulmate, the mark will soon be appearing.
Azula may have grown up with their father’s stories of fire’s superiority and victory at all cost, sharpening the razor edges of her personality in the cunning, deadly adolescent she is today, but Zuko had been raised on Ursa’s stories of soulmates; of the happiness to be found, of the care that the Great Spirits took in choosing a soulmate for some humans. Ursa had never been able to provide an answer for the ever-curious child’s quest to learn why some were blessed with a mark and others not (Some Sages did theorise that everyone had one, but only a few were granted clues in the form of a mark to find them); Ursa herself had no mark -it was the final nail in the coffin of her courtship with Ikem as a mark would have prevented Azulon from ordering her marriage to Ozai. There had also been warnings of what happened to those who attempted to divert a Great Spirits’ will but those were pretty gruesome for a young boy so Ursa had glossed over the consequences. Just merely procured a promise from Zuko that he would never reject his soulmate if he had one.
Zuko is sixteen; he can feel a gentle burning on his left shoulder and for the first time in ages, a smile curls his lips as the fire in his eyes simmers, soft and inviting like the hearth fire on a cold winter’s night.
Zuko is sixteen and reverently removing the rough material of his shirt to reveal his mark. Idly he wonders what the mark on his soulmate looks like; he knows that the marks will match in some way; there will be a similarity that will announce who they are to each other. Zuko is more interested in the differences, he knows from his mother’s stories that differences are often what helps soulmates find each other.
He is sixteen and, instead of feeling blessed, his world is crashing down around him. If there had been the slightest chance of returning home, of Father changing his mind and restoring his Crown; they are all ashes on the wind now. There is no way to return to being the Crown Prince, not in light of this. This is something that Father would never forgive.
The Panda Lily, resplendent against the background of Shuang-gou and a Badgermole, has buried all of his hopes and dreams beneath a mountain of Earth.
Iroh is horrified when Zuko arrives at his campfire in a mess of inconsolable tears. His nephew has not shed a tear since the first week of his mother’s disappearance. Iroh has witnessed a multitude of emotions and moods in Zuko and created strategies for dealing with them accordingly. But Iroh had no strategies for dealing with a distraught nephew. And a snarky voice in the back of his mind was telling him that tea couldn’t actually help in this situation.
For the first time in a long time, Iroh has to completely wing it. With calming platitudes, he settles Zuko on the log next to him, a gentle hand rubbing soothingly across the expanse of his nephew’s back. A back that suddenly seemed a lot smaller than it had a few hours ago, shoulders hunching forwards. Taking a chance, Iroh curls his arm around Zuko’s shoulders and pulls the boy against his side. “Come now Prince Zuko. What happened?”
Zuko’s voice is as fragile as a candle flame in the wind. “I have a soulmate.”
Iroh’s initial response is to beam at his nephew. Traditionally the Fire Nation viewed a soulmate as an honour; proof that a Great Spirit had taken an interest in one’s happiness (Problematically, Ozai found it all to be superstitious nonsense and had removed the laws protecting soulmates along with teachings about them from the national curriculum for schools). And oh, how Iroh had hoped that with all the blows his nephew has been dealt in his short life that he’d at least be graced with a soulmate, someone strong enough to be his rock and weather the storms the world seemed to enjoy throwing his poor boy’s way.
But Zuko did not look happy.
“What about your mark worries you, my nephew?” He prodded gently. He watched as Zuko silently debated with himself, fists clenching with resolve before his right hand uncurled and lifted to remove the cloth he’d pulled over the mark.
Zuko’s soulmate was Earth Kingdom. Perhaps he shouldn’t have prayed for Zuko to have a soulmate to be his rock. The Great Spirits seemed to have taken it rather literally.
“I can’t go home, can I Uncle?”
No. Iroh knows his brother well. Zuko would have been welcomed with a Fire Nation soulmate; Ozai could twist that as propaganda, would be quick to change his tune about soulmates had Zuko or Azula proven to have a Fire Nation soulmate. He’d declare it to the masses that his child’s soulmate was proof that Agni approves and blesses Ozai’s dynasty. Iroh knows that if Zuko truly wants to go home and secure Ozai’s approval…with a blatantly Earth Kingdom soulmate…
Iroh knows how deep his brother’s cruelty runs. Ozai would order the soulmate to be killed. By Zuko’s hand.
Zuko is many things, but he is not a killer. And while he is not a particularly spiritual person, Zuko knows better than to throw a spirit’s blessing back into its face. He’s already been spared by the Ocean Spirit; Iroh is under no illusions that had La truly wanted to take his nephew along with Zhao, then Zuko would not be here. And now, Iroh wonders if Agni or Guanyin had a hand in La’s choice to spare his nephew. Separately the Great Spirits of Fire and Earth are formidable; together they are the volcanoes that fought to create land -to create life as humans know it -and crossing both is not undertaken by humans or spirits if avoidable. Iroh is sure that Fire’s and Earth’s mark on his nephew is a form of protection -perhaps the only form of luck his poor conflicted nephew has. It will be interesting, Iroh decides as he raises a hand to idly trace the outline of the panda lily adorning his nephew’s shoulder, to see what Zuko will make of this blessing.
Wiping the tear streaks from his face, Zuko scowls at him suspiciously. “Uncle, you have the same look on your face that you had when you made a poisonous plant into tea.”
And just like that, Zuko’s grief has broken. Iroh bites back a smile and steels himself for the harsh task of informing his nephew exactly what his options were; including the one Ozai would prefer.
It wasn’t a hard choice; in the end Zuko is his mother’s child and chooses to honour his promise to her. His soulmate will not die by his hands…that is a price he is not willing to pay to return home. Grimly Zuko prays that maybe Azula might grow up to be a worthy Firelord, one who cares for their people.
Personally, Iroh isn’t holding his breath (and mentally going over the Succession Laws, while a mixed-nation heir is strictly forbidden; an adopted Fire heir is perfectly acceptable).
Ba Sing Se is larger than anything Zuko has ever known. The Capital back ho- back in the Fire Nation, situated in the crater of an extinct volcano, was only a fraction of the size of this metropolis. Uncle has them situated in the Lower Ring, working in a teashop, and hopefully out of sight of anyone who’d do them harm.
Zuko is so very tired…and so very lost on what his destiny is. A month ago, he’d been so sure it was destiny to capture the young Avatar and return home as his father’s honoured heir. Three years at sea, three years of combing the world for even the most ludicrous claims of the Avatar, rendered useless. He has had a month to accept the new status quo…and a month to find new things to worry over.
His soulmate is Earth. Zuko is Fire. If Zuko meets them now, well, he was offering up frequent prayers to Agni that his soulmate wouldn’t turn him in for being Fire Nation in Ba Sing Se. Just to be safe, his soul mark didn’t see the light of day; he wasn’t taking a chance on anyone seeing it. Not even Iroh had seen the mark since his birthday. Zuko was careful to ensure all the doors and windows were shut tightly and the lamps burning as dimly as possible before ever removing his shirt.
At night, Zuko runs curious fingers across the black and white of the panda lily as he wonders if his soulmate has a panda lily on their mark or perhaps a Fire Nation flower spills across their shoulder…or maybe instead of the Badgermole, it is a dragon draped across their skin. The Shuang Gou holds his golden gaze more often than not; he is certain that the uniquely hooked swords will be his means of identifying his soulmate -he’s avoiding the City Guards and the rougher parts of the Lower Ring for this very reason. He’d grown up eagerly drinking up Ursa’s stories and he’d promised he wouldn’t reject his soulmate…he never promised that he would actively seek out his soulmate. It is too dangerous, especially given that they were born on opposites of the War and he’s now in Ba Sing Se with protective walls that could easily turn into a prison cell.
His thoughts drift into wondering how his soulmate takes having an obviously Fire Nation soul mate…he hopes that they won’t be like Lee and the villagers who were perfectly happy to know him right up until he had to fire bend to save them. It’s not fair. Zuko thinks, and cringes at the whiny tone of that thought. But it still hurts. He’d only bent in order to save himself and Lee…why did he have to be condemned for it? Why did being Fire automatically make him a monster in their eyes? The War is wrong, he knows that now; it’s hard not to after months of traversing the Earth Kingdom, of meeting people like Lee and Song…but it goes against everything he was told growing up. It’s hard to reconcile what he’s seen with what he was taught.
Zuko’s thoughts circle around and around until he slips into dreams of Badgermoles, Shuang Gou, and Panda Lilies.
A year earlier, a young man living in a forest near Gaipan received a blatantly Fire Nation soul mark. He did not take it well. The next raid he’d led had been the most vicious yet.
Why did Fire have to take everything from him?!
His parents had been soulmates and, spirits, how happy they’d been; dirt-poor with barely two copper coins to rub together but they’d been richer in heart and soul than the Earth King himself could dream of. His early childhood had been full of love and happiness and dreams of a soulmate of his own. On his sixteenth birthday, he’d felt the gentle burning on his shoulder that his father had described. He’d been quick to rip off his shirt for a look...and that last link to an earlier, happier Jet went up in flames.
Fire took his parents. And then had the nerve to give him a soulmate.
For a year prior to meeting Aang, Sokka and Katara, Jet spent his nights glaring at the mark. The Panda Lily resting on a crossed pair of broadswords was innocuous enough…but the spirits-damned red dragon curled around them caused Jet’s vision to go white with rage.
After Katara, the dam, the Freedom Fighters breaking up, and no raids to plan and only Smellerbee and Longshot for company…Jet had a lot of time to think. He didn’t like the conclusions about himself that he came to. Which was why he was currently on a ferry into Ba Sing Se; he still struggled to tamp down the knee-jerk reaction to attack anyone Fire Nation…he needed time and space away from the War…and there was only one place left untouched by the War.
He had a Fire Nation soulmate. He hated the Fire Nation, hated anything to do with them…but he didn’t want to hate his own soulmate. He’d grown up praying for a soulmate, prayed that maybe he’d be lucky enough to be as happy as his parents. No, what he hated was the War and all that it took from him… the Great Spirits had chosen Fire for his soulmate for a reason…he had to overcome his paranoia and reactions to being anywhere near Fire Nation people.
Smellerbee had smiled so proudly at him when he’d explained his reasoning…after punching him hard enough to numb his arm for an hour afterwards (He remembered belatedly that he’d never told his Freedom Fighters about his soul mark). That night when they’d settled into a corner somewhere below deck on the ship to sleep, Jet allowed himself to wonder…what would his parents think? His father…heh, the old man’s first response would be to brag to everyone in the village repeatedly…two generations in a row having soulmates were damn rare after all. He could hear his mother’s excited laughter; clear and so loud that their entire village had always known when she was happy…maybe she’d have even done her happy little clap had she lived long enough to see her son adorned with a soul mark.
…And if he rejected his soulmate, forget the spirits, his mother would claw her way from the spirit world to deal with him.