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In The Garden Light At Dawn

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He smelled it in the air before he saw it. Pungent and sulfuric, burning in his nostrils- the telltale sign of lightning just about to strike.

The kind of smell that acts as a warning, along with your hair standing up. You know in that moment that no matter which direction you go in, or how fast you sprint, you can’t outrun being hit.  

So when Zuko saw the bright white flash that soon followed, he wasn’t all that surprised.

There was an itch -a tickle- in the back of his mind, a part that laughed at how this was reminiscent of that day up on the mountain top when he cried out to the sky in agony, begging to be struck. He thought he was ready then, even more-so now, having practiced the motions numerous times- through the belly and around the heart. It was ingrained in his muscle memory, to the point that he could do it in his sleep. However, Zuko quickly discerned, practice doesn’t come anywhere near actually experiencing this first-hand. 

When it first hit it was exhilarating, the sheer power was something he never experienced before, electrifying and alive. It hurt, he thought a second later, it stung as it coursed through his veins like something molten and hot and angry burning him up from the inside, but he was redirecting it, by Agni he redirecting it-

His mind fought and pushed to work quicker,arguing with itself and debating “where should I redirect it?” Toward his father? (yes - a small part still hissed, despite his earlier protestations of killing the man). Nonetheless, when the electrical energy gathered up inside him and he could no longer contain it, unless of course he wanted to die, Zuko found he couldn’t  wouldn’t  aim the lightning anywhere but up, up at the ceiling where it dispersed, leaving the stones untampered with except for the stray few pebbles that rained back down. 

A mistake he realized, a mistake because here he is now exhausted from the exertion while his father stands without breaking a sweat. should have never came here, should have booked it to the war balloon and ran like your ass was on fire

Crumpling to the ground he felt feverish, and relished in the cool comfort the red stone floor brought. A comfort, he realized, that would not last long because soon there was a hand around his throat, and how did he get here so fast lifting him up, up, up

Panic. The only thing he felt, his mind screaming as adrenaline forced its way through his veins again pushing him to act. 

The pressure around his throat increased, the grip was strong. He clawed at the hand.

A voice spoke out, sharper then knifes, cutting through the air.

You never learn, do you, Zuko?”

His father’s voice, a heavy baritone with that snobby tilt he always carried.

He struggled more. He swung his legs and kicked, kicked again and again trying to reach out and land a hit. Why weren’t they landing?

Nothing was working, he couldn’t free himself, and he couldn’t breathe. Another voice sounded out, his own- he grasped, as a choking sound released itself from his throat.

The smell of ozone was back.

The light was blinding, but not as blinding as the pain in his torso.

——————————————————————

Ozai dropped the body as soon as it went limp.

He looked at the face of his son, noticing how the eyes were distant and glassy. Finally dead, he thought staring down, evidenced further by the blood pooling out around the boy’s middle, soaking into the rest of his clothes and the stone underneath.

Useless in the end, just like his mother. How annoying.

The blood hadn’t stopped flowing, the wound it seeped from was ragged and raw, souring the air. At this point it coated the boy’s hair, clumping into what little had grown back over the months following the cut of his phoenix tail.

Ozai would have to come up with a lie later, when he needed the servants to scrub the floors, menial labor that was beneath a man of his position. In the mean time he worked quickly, covering the body. The guards outside were bound to get a little suspicious after sounds of a fight echoing throughout the chamber, and now was not the time to showcase the boy’s demise.

This could work for me.

Later, He thought. Right now plans included disposing the body.

There will be a time for this, a time to use him as an example for any who might try to oppose me. But that is after I win, after I assume control of everything else and the people need to be shown what happens if they step out of line.

Oh, he knew just the place to leave him to rest.

——————————————————————————————————————————

When Sokka was really really little, he remembered asking his mom and dad about the colorful pictures on his arm.

They sat him down, smiling, happy to talk about such a subject. Lifting their sleeves, Sokka could see their own pictures.

“This one represents your father.”

“And this one is for your mother”

“The one we share if for Uncle Bato, and he has both of ours.”

They’re your soulmates Sokka, you and your sister share them. They often represent something your soulmate may carry around with them or wear, something distinct that will help your recognize them when you first see them. You’ll feel their presences throughout your life and one day you will meet the others and seal your bonds by joining blood. Then you’ll see all the moments in their life where they needed your support, and they’ll feel your presence throughout their lives.”

“You’ll be one big happy soul family.”

Sokka liked that memory. Back then he was full of hope, savoring each time he felt the presence of one of his soul family, and waiting for the day when all six of them were together. Back then he and Katara spent hours analyzing the marks debating what each one stood for, and the kind of person they represented. They were ours.

He realized quickly that the circle with swirling and crashing wave, the same design on their mothers necklace, represented Katara. And that also, the picture of the boomerang on her arm represented him.

It took a little longer for the others, but after breaking Aang out the iceberg, it was obvious that he was the blue arrow on their arms. When they brought him back to their village he even showed them his set of marks on his back, leading to the three of them quickly becoming close and joining blood to seal their bonds.

The next person they sealed their bonds with was Toph, her mark on them was the headband she wore when they first saw her competing in the Earth Rumble Tournaments -a headband she kept wearing when she ran away with them. 

They would later trace out their marks on her that dotted around her shoulder and collar bone, eyes tearing up with the relief of finding another member of their family safe and sound.

After that, the next bond they sealed was with Suki. Sokka had his suspicions back on Kyoshi Island that the gold fan on his arm represented a Kyoshi Warrior, but they weren’t able to stick around to find out with Zuko quickly tracking them there. Meeting again at Serpent’s Pass, it felt like a piece had finally shifted into place.

When they joined blood to seal their bond, Sokka again saw how much of an idiot he had been back when they first met and made sure to reach out and give Suki a sympathetic pat or two -for ever having to deal with his bullshit.

The only downside of meeting the other three members is that they all confirmed the same thing, no one had felt their sixth member's presence. Throughout the years each one of them had felt the presence of four other soulmates, guiding and comforting them -an apparition that promised they would meet in the future and seal their bonds. However, there was no ghostly hands resting on their shoulders or giving hands from the last person supposed to appear to them.

Sokka had realized young, shortly after his parents first explained the concept of soulmates, that the lack of presence from their sixth didn’t bode well. After meeting the others and confirming it was the same for them, he didn’t know what to think -he was worried. The only sign of their sixth soulmate even being alive was the the mark had yet to grey, the mark still a shining gold. He refused to give up hope though. They’re ours, he would whisper, and the other agreed.

They debated on the shape and what it could be -a crescent moon, but in the center of the inner curve was a an arrow. Almost reminiscent of a flame.

————————————————————

It was towards the end of the battle on the Day of Black Sun, Sokka later admits, that he faintly noticed a pain in his arm.

Sitting on Appa, flying away from his dad and all the other soldiers who risked everything for this, Sokka couldn’t bring himself to say much. The air around them all felt thick and tense, as everyone registered what happened in the last day. Staring down at his lap, Sokka tried not to think about what would happen next, what would happen to-

“I- I just think something might be wrong”

Tuning back in, he noticed Aang had broken the silence, a worried expression marred his face. What now? What more could have gone wrong-

“I don’t know, I felt pain where the marks are”

“But everyone from the battle is here, Aang”

“Yeah but that’s not everyone-“

Don’t remind me.

Katara, ever ready to heal her family, stood slightly and then carefully made her way over to where Aang was sitting. “I’ll check and see if there are any injuries, it may be nothing of concern.” Her calm reassurances had ended the moment she pushed away the fabric, and stared slightly in shock.

What?

Nonono no, don’t tell me Suki-

Dread pooled in his stomach. They haven’t heard from her since Ba Sing Se -only for the feeling to ease as he saw her golden fan shining colorfully on his arm.

She’s safe.

Then what was it?

His eyes trailed further down the row of marks.

“What the hells going on?” Toph, brash as ever especially when worried, asked. Her frustration clear in her tone as she quickly spoke. She couldn’t tell if there was any permanent change to the marks, trusting her family to let her know if something important happened. But she too felt a dull pain around her collar earlier-

The crescent with the arrow, a once brilliant gold was now a dull grey.

“Our sixth.” They’re gone.

—————————————————————————

Arrival at the Western Air Temple didn’t do much to lift the groups spirits. The others with them were relieved to find sanctuary within the ancient stone ruins, excited at the prospect of the many places to hide and explore. Old walkways and rooms still adorned with beautiful statues and murals.

A place that should’ve been filled with laughing children and the hustle and bustle of adults, an image one could easily picture if they closed their eyes, almost swearing they could hear it too if they just strained. Opening ones eyes would faced them with eerie reality, the vast space refused to be filled with the noises coming from only a small group of children. The murals on the walls and the statues lining the paths were old and weathered from the many years without maintenance.

A somber silence from the empty temple rested over team avatar, layered over their own persistent numbness, choking the liveliness out of them. Too much had gone wrong in the past day, and the revelations left them reeling.

Sokka in particular felt especially bad, he couldn’t shake the insistent thoughts that begged attention. His mind screaming at him that he was responsible.

I was the one who planned the invasion. I lead so many into this mess, and-

No. Bad Sokka, he told himself. Refusing to even entertain the possibility that-

what if our sixth was one of the fire nation soldiers killed in the invasion, what if I lead them to their death too?

————————————————————

Sitting across from him, Aang was feeling restless. For a while he entertained the idea of their sixth soulmate being a fire bender and teaching him, the others agreed that it was a possibility. After all the mark does look kind of like a flame. But now, he felt like his thoughts were spiraling-

What if I’m really not supposed to learn fire bending? What if this was apart of my destiny, and our sixth got dragged down with me?

There was a person speaking, Aang realized, high pitched and slightly frantic. It was him, voicing his rampant thoughts.

Toph walked over and punched Aang in the arm to ground him, but refused to say anything more. Her mouth felt like it was glued shut, and she was scared that if she did open it, she wouldn’t be able to hold back her tears.

“You can’t think like that Aang, it won’t do you any good”, Katara reasoned, bringing some rationale back to the group amidst her own despair. She grabbed Sokka, who had be quietly staring into the dirt in front of him, and made her way over to where Aang and Toph were standing and pulled them to her as well. And with that, it was like a dam had burst within the younger children - none of this is fair, she thought, none of this was supposed to happen.

After a second, Toph pulled back, a strange look passed over her face as noticed something in the distance. Turning her body in a different direction to focus more of her attention, a new voice sounded out.

“I believe we may be of assistance.”, soft spoken but still bounced off the temple walls, demanding attention -with a hint of familiarity.

If you would allow me, I would like to teach you, young avatar.”, The retired General Iroh stood across the courtyard, along with several other faces old and new- Pakku, who they hadn’t seen since the North Pole, as well as Piandao, Aang’s first firebending teacher, Jeong Jeong…. and even King Bumi

—————————————————————————————————————————

An airship landed in the court yard, the final battle over before dawn break. Red skies still burned above as Sozin’s Comet continued to rage onwards at full force, yet its new genocidal leader could no longer command its power.

Iroh stood underneath as the gang plank was lowered. He had accompanied the young Master Katara to help defeat newly crowned Firelord Azula. The later young girl shrieking as she was dragged off. Chains used to subdue her were handled with care as they had heated in the girl’s outburst, most of the courtyard still on fire from her rage. It was a hasty and temporary solution to put her in a holding cell while they debated a more permanent answer was decided upon. While it eased Iroh to know that his young niece may be spared yet from prison, he couldn’t shake his dread as his nephew was nowhere to be found; especially with the ramblings that Azula was crying out as she left.

No, please! Don’t treat me like this, I’m loyal! I don’t want to end up like Zuko!

His thoughts were interrupted as familiar faces started pouring out of the airship. Trailing behind them, encased in metal and looking much worse for wear than the rest was the defeated Phoenix King. Stopping at the end of the gang plank, Ozai was left behind as the children filed around, comforting each other in obvious relief to see their family safe after the battle. Iroh remembered similar looks on the faces after he helped young Sokka stage a rescue at boiling rock, which reunited them with Chief Hakoda and soulmate Suki.

Turning his head, Iroh looked down at the prone form of his younger brother who met his eyes with a cool gaze.

“Have you come to see me executed.” The first words he heard from his brother in years.

“No. Not now, not after Avatar Aang worked so hard to find an alternate resolution to your fight instead of killing you . However, the world leaders will converge shortly to decide your fate in the end.” He replied smoothly. Yes, he had a feeling that Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe and many Earth Kingdom officials, as well as the Earth King himself, would be advocating for Ozai’s death.

“It would be in your best interest to not let anything happen, that is, if you cared at all to know where he is.” Ozai stated this easily, but something dark entered his tone, something Iroh couldn’t identify. He was about to question further, but several sages appeared and led Ozai away to the prison.

Him.. He couldn’t mean…

Just where is Zuko..

—————————————

Toph was roused from her sleep to several guards and officials rushing around… just like the last several days. With her consciousness returning, she glanced around her temporary quarters. She had asked her family to describe the room and only got the answer of “red, lots and lots of red” like that meant something to her. To the right of her she felt long draping curtains pooling on the floor, shifted slightly to the side allowing some sunlight to trickle in and warm the floor in patches. God what time was it? Felt early, really early. Pushing her head back into the pillow she debated staying for five more minutes before those thoughts were dashed at the sound of someone with particularly heavy feet stomping down the hall.

Damn fire benders “wake up at dawn” philosophy.

After the end of Sozin’s Comet, her family decided to stay at the palace in Caldera to assist in immediate reparations and the organization of troops returning. So now they were currently “living it up” at Iroh’s insistence.

Pushing her hair back and swinging her legs over the side of the large bed, “or maybe you’re just small”, Sokka had joked when she commented on it days ago, she pushed herself up and padded into the hall. With her seismic sense she felt a large group gathered in the council room two halls away, even feeling the heartbeats of the rest of her family.

Guess I’m the last one to arrive.

Iroh’s heartbeat was particularly panicked this morning, he had been saddled with a lot of responsibility, going to be crowned next Firelord and all was definitely a big deal. However, she suspected, he was mainly concerned with locating his nephew. A search that was becoming more and more futile with each passing day, and he likely didn’t get any new information about him this morning either. The rest of her family was still less than pleased with Zuko’s actions in the months before she met them, and his ‘betrayal’ at Ba Sing Se, although it didn’t really seem like he definitively changed sides back them so could they really call it a betrayal? Sweetness does like her grudges, but I can’t really blame her. However, feelings aside, they still respected Iroh’s mission to locate his missing family. He had been questioning every guard and servant he could find who worked under Ozai, but so far none of them knew where Zuko went, only that he disappeared after the eclipse; and Ozai himself was keeping his lips particularly tight. Great, just great.

Pushing open the double doors she caught the tail end of a conversation-

“-we’ve located bodies of the soldiers who died on the night of the comet. We will begin the preparations for the funeral pyres.” There was someone standing next to Iroh who she didn’t recognize the voice or heartbeat of.

“Thank you, Captain, I’ll leave that in your care. Several sages will be sent to accompany you, so they may bless the proceedings.”, Iroh spoke, sounding weary and tired.

The man who stood beside Iroh turned and left as she made her way over to where she felt Sokka standing. His heart beat stuttered for a second as he processed the guilt of taking lives during the final battle of the war. What does he expect, no casualties? Nevertheless, she sympathized with her soul brother as she replayed the conversation in her head. Wait.

“What do you mean by funeral pyre?” She broke the silence that had settled over the room.

“We burn our dead, to return our fire to Agni, the one who blessed us”, was the solemn answer. Ah, ok. She figured the different nations had different funeral customs, and understood the need to return to your element in death, after all, earth benders buried there dead to return them to the earth. But…

“Then what’s buried in the gardens?”

You could hear a pin drop after a question like that, she mused. No one really knew how to reply to that on its own, or the implications of it based on the previous conversation.

“What do you mean?” There was a seriousness to Iroh’s tone that she rarely heard. 

What did she mean indeed, she wondered. She noticed on the first night here that there was not one, but two masses submerged the garden’s soft dirt. Her seismic sense didn’t help much for finding out what they were exactly, as she figured something was wrapped around them, obscuring their shape. She felt bodies before though, when traveling through the Earth Kingdom, and at first she entertained the thought on how reminiscent it was of that. But now, that doesn’t make sense…

Voicing her thoughts, she noticed how the heartbeats around her rattled.

————————————————————

Sokka didn’t like where this conversation was going, but he couldn’t resist wondering what Toph felt as well. Welp, there’s only one way to find out.

He stood up and motioned at the others, “This council meeting ended anyways, let’s see what buried treasure they wanted to hide.”, he tried to joke but it didn’t ease the apprehension he felt in his stomach. The others either didn’t notice or didn’t comment on that as they also stood and moved to follow him. Iroh dismissed them stating that he wanted to review some documents.

Making the way down the hall, Sokka registered the pain in his leg and hand from the day of the Comet. Even after a couple healing sessions with Katara he wasn’t quite back to a hundred percent, his sister claiming that “bones aren’t my specialty Sokka” and “it’s thanks to me anyway that you didn’t lose a finger”.

Hanging over the side of the airship, enemies closing in on both sides. His space sword and boomerang weren’t returning, and his grip on both the walkway and Toph were slipping. With a burst of adrenaline he tightened his hold on both, feeling Toph grip his one hand back, while metal dug into the flesh of the other, cutting-

Suki strolled up next to him as they all walked, placing her hand on his shoulder with a tentative smile. Everyday he thanked the spirits that they found her at boiling rock, and he was by no means a devout believer.

Soon enough they reached the gardens, and the group was greeted with a place that would have possibly been beautiful in its prime, but had now settled into disrepair with its lack of maintenance. It was a complete mixture of overgrowth and death. Weeds ran rampant, clashing with patches of dead grass. Half of what Sokka could only assume were some type of flower bush had grown past whatever neat trimmings it used to be confined too, while the other half had shriveled up. Off to the side a lone tree stood, many large of its branches no longer supporting leaves, despite it being the season to do so.

Toph soon pointed in a direction and he followed her lead. He noticed, first, that the ground in the nearby area seemed tampered with, with more dead grass patched over hastily. The others had lost the nerve to continue, some voicing protestations. He didn’t listen, he couldn’t even tell who said it, his mind was elsewhere and he felt like he needed to, no he had to continue, something was drawing him in. Hands sunk into the ground, pushing it aside. The air turned foul, but he continued to move dirt out of the way. Next time he reached down his hand felt something different. Cloth, he realized, red cloth… but why?

No, not just dyed red, it’s blood soaked.

By the time he concluded that, it was too late, he was already holding it in his still healing hand.

And there was a flash.

————————————————————

Katara knew something was wrong the moment the smell hit and shouted for the guards. Looking down again at her brother, she saw him picking up something. She was quickly filled with dread, however, when she saw the small flash of light when it made contact with his palm.

That can only mean one thing.

—————————————————————

When Sokka opened his eyes again, he was surprised to find that he was still in the gardens. Except, instead of the decayed and dismal state that he knew it to be, the area around was lush and well kept. Instead of his friends crowding around, there was a little boy running and chasing turtle ducks.

No.

A familiar little boy who was laughing and giggling as the creatures quacked along. A familiar little boy who didn’t have his familiar scar.

No.

Zuko’s back was towards him now as the turtle ducks headed back to the pond. Sokka reached put a hand on his shoulder. This cannot be happening. The boy before him felt the touch and spun, facing Sokka now, and peering curiously at the air before him. Of course, he couldn’t actually see Sokka, no one can see their soulmates until they actually meet in the future, but that didn’t stop him from trying with childlike innocence. Holy shit.

Holy shit.

He’s our sixth.

The gravity of the situation was trying to sink its claws into his head, but he tamped it down. Can’t afford to freak out right now. As if to not startle the child before him any more, Sokka reached out again, this time to poke him gently on the nose. Laughter quickly erupted from the small boy in front of him, and Sokka watched him run off to go find the animals from before.

With that the moment ended, and Sokka felt himself get swept off to another

and another and another and another.

With each memory pouring into the next, Sokka watched as their enemysoulmate grew into the person he recognized. He learned. And in the end, Sokka witnessed how when Zuko finally did stand up to change sides, he was killed by his own father.

He couldn’t turn away. He never felt so useless, watching something that he knew already happened but wanted so badly to change.

With a final flash he had no choice but to return to himself in the present.

————————————————————————-

The sharp intake of breathe was the only indicator that her brother returned to himself. Everyone had been made aware of the situation after the guards rushed in, once they pushed more dirt aside, there was no denying what was buried there.

Turning back to Sokka she noticed tears sliding down the slides of his face, his breathing erratic.

After a minute she saw how he forced his breathing to become steady, the words on his lips barely more than a whisper:

It’s Zuko.

——————————————————————————

Iroh rushed to the medical wing. The guards had all but bursted down the doors to the council room earlier to inform him of what was discovered. He didn’t want to believe it. Please Agni, don’t let it be true. 

Inside was dark, lit dimly by candles at the edge of each table. In the center were two prone forms, both covered by sheets. Uncovering the head of the first confirmed his worst fears. No. On the table next to him, more bloodied had been cloth set aside. The other children wanted to seal their bonds, but the doctors wanted to make sure no bacteria had set in with the decay.

Peeling his eyes away, he shifted focus to the second form. No flesh remained on the others face, only bone; but when he looked at the table beside them to see what else was dug up alongside, one thing stood out amongst the rest. A hairpiece, gold with only a single pointed flame.

Oh Ursa… another life this family has claimed.

————————————————————

Team Avatar gathered in an empty sitting room. The decorations there were sparse, but one thing that caught everyone's eye was an old family portrait hung in the center of the wall. On the bottom left corner sat a familiar young boy, and in his hair was a familiar gold shape.

What they thought was a crescent moon and arrow was actually a hairpiece, a hairpiece fit for a prince.

The others had completed their bonds earlier, finally receiving the answers to their many questions. It hurt. It stung to know the truth when nothing could be changed at that point. All along their sixth was so close, but in the end slipped through their fingers. Zuko’s memories revealed that his marks were burned off long before he even knew what they meant. At that point there was nothing left to ask except “what if?”.

Aang took this moment to break the silence.

“Maybe we weren’t destined to keep him, but in the end we were able to know him and be there for him.”