Zuko first feels it when he's thirteen, fire engulfing his face. A nagging pull, beckoning him far away from this awful place.
He later dismisses it as his imagination, an auditory hallucination caused by the blinding pain. Later, when he's huddled in his quarters in the ship, he feels the pull again, just a little bit.
He gets up, running through every form he can think of to keep his mind off it.
The moon has gone dark, and Zuko feels it. The nagging pull transforms into a sharp, burning pain in his chest. The water tribe girl with white hair feels it too, knelt beside the scorched fish even as Uncle battles Zhao.
Something deep inside him tells him to help Tui, to run to give aid.
He stays put instead, watching as the girl with white hair - Yue? - Gently places her hands on the fish, and he can feel it when she collapses unto Sokka's arms, and it grates at his being when she disappears.
But the moon reappears, and the burning pain slowly fades, and he lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding.
At first, he doesn't know why La spares him. Uncle Iroh assures him that there was good inside him that the powerful spirit sensed.
"Tui and La are powerful spirits, nephew. They can read our hearts with ease."
Zuko isn't sure.
Zuko feels it again when he's alone, facing off against corrupt soldiers in an earth kingdom village.
The sun beats down on him, and he can feel it pulling, telling him to get up and face his opponents. This time, though, he feels another force pulling at his soul. It's gentler, telling him with a soft, lilting voice that there's something he has to protect.
Without thinking, he firebends. Zuko stands there, wreathed by flame.
He knows he's not welcome here. Not anymore.
Zuko feels the eclipse. Really feels it, like it's tugging at his spirit, blocking more than his firebending. He tells himself it's the invasion putting him on edge and shrugs it off, instead focusing on speaking his mind. Finally telling his father what he thinks of him.
"It was to teach you respect!"
He's angry. But he knows this anger isn't wholly his own.
"It was cruel, and it was wrong!"
Every word pushes him closer to that quiet, angry voice that pulls him in. He feels it, harsh jarring when the moon shifts away. His hands are up and he is ready.
Zuko redirects his father's lightning without even thinking. Hours of practice and repetion come to fruition as he catches it, redirecting it to strike the ground at Ozai's feet.
Zuko finally realizes there's something else with him.
When the Old Masters look into his eyes, Zuko feels the pull again, burning deep in his chest. He's almost given in to it when Aang tells him to dance.
He does, and when they're engulfed with fire, he feels more at home than he's ever been.
"I think spirits have touched you."
"Huh?" Zuko is taken aback by Aang's sudden words. It's a cold night, so Aang, Toph, and Sokka are all pressed against him somehow.
Aang sighs and shifts, leaning against his side. "I've always felt like I was drawn to you. I thought it was just because you were meant to teach me, but now..." He trails off and stays silent for a few minutes. Katara's watching, feigning sleep to listen. Sokka and Toph are half awake now, and Zuko feels incredibly self-conscious.
"I feel drawn to you just like I felt drawn to Yue."
Every muscle in Sokka's body stiffens on his other side. Aang keeps going. "I didn't realize until we'd left the north pole, but I could sense the moon spirits presence in her."
"Tui," Zuko whispers without thinking. Katara and Sokka are both sitting up, and Aang shifts away to face him. Toph is beautifully oblivious, snoring into his shoulder.
"How'd you know that?" Katara asks quietly. Zuko shrugs. "I...don't know," he admits. "In the Fire Nation, we only learn about the sun spirit, Agni. I didn't even know there was a moon spirit, much less one in the physical world."
Aang frowns. "Do you know if there was something wrong with you when you were born?"
Zuko stares into the fire for a moment, wracking his brain for anything his parents had said: "Yeah, I think so." He shifts. "I was born a month early, and they thought I wasn't a bender. That's all I know," he finishes awkwardly.
"Maybe your parents prayed for the spirits to help you," Sokka mutters. "Like Yue."
"Yeah!" Aang says excitedly. "Maybe you're touched by Agni!"
Zuko smiles weakly. "Probably not, Aang. I was born in the middle of winter. There's no way I was favored by Agni."
Slowly, they drift back to sleep, huddled around the fire and Zuko. Instead of thinking about spirits, he focuses on keeping his breath even to keep his friends warm.
Finally, he drifts off to sleep.
He's burning, it's dark, he's alone, why isn't Uncle here-
Yue looks down at him."Not yet, Zuko."
Aang's in the avatar state, trying to kill him, why-
"It was to teach you respect," but it's Azula, and Ozai is burning her, and he's frozen-
Zuko wakes with a start, choking down a sob. The wind around them is freezing. Sokka's pressed tight against his left arm, snoring loud enough it is a wonder anyone was asleep. Katara is barely visible at his back. Aang is asleep on his right, arm draped across his torso, smiling in his sleep. Toph is draped over all of them, her bony arms poking into Zukos stomach.
Instead of thinking about the nightmare, Zuko focuses instead on keeping himself and the others warm. His breath remains jagged, his vision blurring with tears.
Toph shifts slightly, eyes opening a crack. "You okay, Sparky?" She mutters, awkwardly patting his sternum. He swallows another sob. "Yeah," he breaths.
"I'm literally on top of you. I can tell you're lying."
Zuko doesn't say anything, just blinks hard to clear his eyes. It doesn't work, and he feels like he can't breathe.
Toph sighs and sits up, leaning over to Sokka's ear, whispering something into it. The water tribe boy sits with a start.
"I knew it!" He yells, successfully jerking Aang and Katara awake.
Aang is on his feet as Zuko sits. "Sokka! What happened!"
Despite being clearly half asleep, Sokka is definitely as loud as always. "Appa ate Momo!" He yelps, and Toph cackles.
As everyone else talks Sokka out of his hardly awake ramblings, Zuko makes his escape, finally stopping to sit in an empty room, gasping for breath.
He feels the tug ever so slightly, and this time he ignores it.
"Oh, I'll show you lightning."
It's not even a decision Zuko consciously makes. He takes the lightning into himself, and it burns. He's not grounded, and it's too high, and he can feel it burning him from the inside out. He pushes through anyway, and the second he hits the ground he redirects it out.
It's still burning, and electricity is crackling around him. He curls around the smoking wound, gasping for breath, choking on the pain.
His vision blurs as he reaches for Katara. She's fighting Azula, and the last thing he sees before darkness completely consumes him is blue flames burning in the courtyard.
He's surrounded in gray fog. Before him is a teenage girl from the water tribe, with white hair and robes flowing around her. Strong blue eyes stare out at him, her hand outstretched for him to take.
"Yue," he breathes, and he bows. She may be the lovely girl Sokka fell for, but he can never forget that she is also a powerful spirit.
He feels the pull again, but instead of it dragging him away from reality it roots him in place. This is where he's supposed to be.
She takes his hand.
"You have a choice to make, Zuko," she says. "You can return to Agni, who granted you life. Or, you can fulfill your destiny and take the throne, and restore balance to the world."
He closes his eyes. The pull starts to hurt again.
"I can't leave them."
Yue smiles. She kneels and sweeps Zuko into her arms.
"Thank you," she whispers into his ear. She stands, stepping aside to reveal the second figure.
While Yue is shrouded in white robes and blue light, this man is all scarlet and gold. He's looking straight at Zuko, gold eyes and black hair shockingly familiar.
Zuko drops to his knees, bowing low enough that his forehead is brushing the floor. "Great Agni," he says weakly, the heat and power radiating from Agni almost tangible.
"You were born weak. Your mother prayed to me, so I granted you life. Do not forget that, no matter how much power you may hold in the future."
Everything fades to black once again. "Be good to your people, Zuko," Agni says.
"Tell Sokka I'm proud of him," Yue whispers.
"Zuko!" Katara half - sobs, and his vision focuses on her. Her hair is a tangled mess, there's soot on her face and clothes, and she's crying, but she did it.
"Thank you, Katara," he says, fighting through the pain. She blinks, helping him sit. "I should be the one thanking you."
Zuko takes a deep breath. "I, um...when Azula hit me with lightning, I kinda...met Yue."
Sokka freezes. "What?"
"I think I actually might have died for a minute, so it stands to reason that-"
"Is she happy?"
He pauses for a second before he remembers the powerful intensity behind her eyes.
"Yes," he says. Sokka smiles at the ground, blinking hard. "Also, Uh. She told me to tell you that she's proud of you."
Sokka looks up. "She really...?"
Zuko nodded, and Sokka buries his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. After a moment of hesitation, he pulls him into an embrace. Sokka clings to him, openly sobbing into his shoulder.
Zuko is looking out over the beach when he hears Aang's footsteps, purposefully loud. He hadn't exactly been relaxed after a lifetime on edge, and they had all learned the hard way.
"Hey, Aang says quietly. "Are you okay?"
They stand in silence for a few minutes, Aang practically vibrating with some thing or the other he wants to ask.
Aang takes a deep breath. "You have nightmares."
"And, uh..." He falters, scratching the back of his neck. "I was wondering if...have they got better? Since the war ended?"
Zuko remembers all too clearly waking up gasping for breath with Aang's arms around him, pulling him out of the terror of his memories and fears.
He closes his eyes and exhales. "No."
Aang's quiet. Zuko's steadfastly staring at the water, but he's very aware of Aang's steadfast gaze.
It still surprises him when he's pulled into a tight hug.
"I'm sorry," Aang says gently, "That you have to deal with all of this. I get it." Zuko blinks, hard, and wraps his arms around him. "Thank you, Aang. I don't deserve to have you as a friend."
Aang squeezes tighter, and when he speaks there are tears in his eyes.
"You earned everything yourself, Zuko. You don't just deserve good friends, I'm lucky to have you."
At that point, it's all Zuko can do not to cry right then and there.
"We all love you so much, Zuko."
A sob wrenches out of him, and then they're kneeling in the damp sand, Aang mumbling words of comfort as Zuko clings to him and cries harder than he has in years.
"Sorry," Zuko finally whispers. "I got your robes wet."
"Its fine, they're dirty anyway."
"Ew," he laughs weakly. He still has his head on Aang's shoulder, but his grip has relaxed somewhat. Aang snorts. "You're one to talk! Pretty sure you're sitting in mud."
"...So are you."
They both laugh. Zuko's chest is tight, and his hands instinctively curl tighter into the orange robes.
"C'mon." Aang pulls Zuko to his feet, and he gives a weak smile, wiping the tears from his face. "Let's go inside."
As they're walking up the winding path, Zuko can't help but think of the last time they'd been to Ember Island. Those bittersweet thoughts unsurprisingly twist into painful memories of the last Agni Kai. He inhales sharply.
"You were right," Zuko whispers.
He stops walking, staring up at the moon. "Do you remember when we were in the western air temple, and you said I'd been touched by spirits?"
Aang pauses to think. "Yeah, I think so. Why?"
His hand goes to the scar on his chest without thinking. "When Azula shot me with lightning, I...I think I died for a minute." Ignoring Aang's shuddering gasp that hurts him to his core, Zuko keeps going. "I met Yue, and...and I met Agni. He said I was born weak, and my mother prayed for him to save me. He did."
"Zuko, that's..." Aang pauses. "That actually explains a lot."
"The Mother of Faces seemed really permissive about you and Ursa. I...think it's because she knows both of you are in Agni's favor."
"Oh," he says quietly. The pull is there again, but this time it's amplified by the crushing tightness in his chest, leaving his breath jagged and painful. Aang realizes almost immediately and he takes Zuko's hand in his own.
A year and a half ago, he would have flinched and kept walking. Two years ago he would've taken it as an attack. Instead, he squeezes back and swallows his tears. They keep walking together, Aang mercifully ignoring that Zuko's hand is shaking.
When they finally reach the house, Ursa all but tackles Zuko, holding tight as he desperately blinks back tears.
"Thanks, Mom," he mumbles. "Agni is watching over us after all."
He's walking down a hallway in the palace when it hits him again. He pushes away from the pulling, refocusing on Sokka and Katara's vibrant conversation. Aang and Toph flank him, with Suki trailing behind in full Kyoshi warrior garb.
Toph's expression changes slightly. She shifts slightly closer to Zuko, and Aang's watching him like a hawk.
He grimaces as the pull twists into a sharp pain just above the scar on his chest.
"You okay?" Toph asks flatly. Zuko nods. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just sore."
"You're a bad liar."
He's immensely thankful for the sibling conversation in front suddenly turning into a full blown argument about boomerangs.
Suddenly, the sunlight beaming through the windows cuts out, and the cold yellow light of a torch down the hall is the only light in the world.
"What's going on?" Katara asks. "Solar eclipse?"
Sokka shakes his head, turning to Aang questioningly. The boy shrugs, eyes narrowing in focus. As he watches the young avatar, suddenly the pain in his chest explodes.
Zuko screams, the sound strangled and distorted by pain. His legs give way and he hits the ground, clinging desperately to consciouness as a cacophany of voices cry his name. He can almost - not - quite see Sokka on the ground next to him as he curls tightly in on himself, pained tears staining his cheeks.
He's afraid. He's afraid if he lets himself black out he won't wake up. But the burning pain consumes him, leaving his world red and gold and black.
Zuko opens his eyes to darkness.
He slowly realizes what he sees isn't darkness. It's Agni, on the ground, bleeding fire, exuding death and decay. His heart seizes, and he knows what he must do.
His eyes slowly drift open. After a moment, he realizes he's in Sokka's arms, looking up at his friends crowded around him.
The pain isn't gone. It's just as awful. But, something is keeping him rooted and awake. Sokka pulls him closer, and only then Zuko realizes he's crying.
"Sorry," Zuko chokes out, and his voice is rough and pained. Sokka sobs and clings to him like a lifeline.
"You weren't breathing," Toph says weakly. Her voice cracks and her tiny hand tightly squeezes his. "We...we thought..."
"I'm sorry," Zuko whispers.
"No!" Katara yells. "No, this isn't your fault. You have nothing to apologize for."
He feels Aang's hand on his back. "What happened?"
Zuko sits up. "I...Agni is dead. Dying, maybe, but...Aang, I need your help."
The Avatar blinks. "Of - Of course."
Zuko's never been very good at meditating, but Aang pulls through anyway. His cool hands on his own distract him from the blinding pain in his chest, the darkness, the fear. He knows what will happen, and he knows Aang knows.
He has a duty to fulfill. So he has no choice but to fulfill it.
Finally, his eyes open, and he knows what he must do.
"We need to go outside," Aang says, and helps Zuko to his feet. Katara's on his other side, and they help him outside.
He sits beside the old pond and sets his crown down on the grass beside him. The turtleducks are hiding, the blackened sun leaving everyone drained. Zuko is pale and weak, and they passed several guards on their knees, shaking and coughing.
He looks at his friends and forces a smile.
Sokka realizes first.
"No." He drops to his knees, taking Zuko by the shoulders. "No, I'm not letting you do this. I'm not losing you, I can't-"
"Sokka." His voice softens slightly at his crushed expression. "You'll be okay, Sokka. I know you will."
He feels the pull again, stronger than ever before, and he thinks back to that night on the pier.
"I love you," he says quietly. They all hear it, and he can feel their sudden fear. "Tell Uncle," he adds after a moment. Agni, how could he leave them to tell him?
Zuko closes his eyes and slowly exhales. He can feel fire burn deep in his soul, brighter and stronger than anything he's ever felt.
Zuko last feels it when he's nineteen. This time, he embraces the fire.
When Zuko falls to the side, Aang is the one who catches him, holding him close. His eyes are closed, hair falling into his face, but somehow, he looks completely at peace.
The horrible darkness over the sun is erased, bright sunlight filling the sky again. As light returns, Zuko's body fades, leaving Aang on his knees, arms wrapped around empty air.
For a second, they see him, across the pond. A young man in scarlet and gold, with a scarred face and an awkward, crooked smile. Fire, warm and comforting, burns at his feet. He turns, disappearing into the sunlight.
Aang feels tears run bitterly down his face. His friends are crying, and despite the warm sunlight beating down on them, they all feel horribly cold without the kindhearted firebender in their midst.
Zuko is gone.
It doesn't come to him until months later, after Iroh is coronated, after Zuko is named as the sun spirit.
They're sitting together for the first time since the funeral, subdued despite the reunion.
"He's not gone."
Whatever conversation there was dies down immediately. All eyes are trained on Aang, whose gaze never leaves the clear sky.
"He's watching over us. I mean, he's the sun, isn't he?" Aang blinks back tears, and the warmth of the sun no longer feels bitter and remorseful. "Zuko's still protecting us. We just can't always see him."
No one says anything. They don't have to.
He's gone, sure. Zuko(teacherfriendbrotherZuko) is gone.
But the avatar is the bridge between the two worlds. Surely Zuko can spare some time to meet with him once in a while.
Aang knows, better than anyone, that this is not the end.