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the hands that feed

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The information they’d been given was wrong. The island base was supposed to be nearly abandoned; instead, it was crawling with Ozai-sympathisers.

They almost didn’t make it out alive. If Zuko had only gone with Suki, as he was originally planned, they both would have been dead.

None of them made it out unscathed, but it was Zuko, heading the mission, that took the brunt of the surprise attack.

Sokka helped Suki half-carry him down the rocky shore and onto Appa. He lolled against the saddle. Blood gushed from his temple, and his eyes flickered rapidly behind their lids.

“Stay with us, man,” Sokka said, propping Zuko more firmly between him and Toph, a parody of the way they cuddled together on cold flights. “We’re almost there.”

Toph gripped the front of Zuko’s shirt. “Katara.”

“As soon as we land,” Katara said. “I lost the last of my water getting us out of there.”

The minutes stretched out into an eternity, though they couldn’t have been in the air for long. Zuko didn’t stir. It reminded Sokka faintly of Aang, so still and pale as they raced away from Ba Sing Se.

The war was over, but they were still getting hurt. Still almost dying. Sokka wondered if they’d ever be able to truly rest.

Appa landed on the shore of a tiny, empty island. With some help from Toph’s earthbending, Suki and Sokka managed to clumsily carry Zuko off the saddle. He groaned as they set him down on the rocky sand.

“Where are we?” Sokka asked.

“I’ll take Aang and check the perimetre, just in case,” Suki said, dusting sand off her robes. “Will you ...”

Sokka tightened his grip on Zuko’s arm. “We’ve got him. Go.”

As Suki left, Katara dropped to her knees beside them, saltwater swirling up her wrists. The sand was damp and littered with sharp stones. They didn’t care. They crowded in close, barely breathing as Katara bent over Zuko.

Zuko whimpered at the first brush of Katara’s hands against his skin. “It’s okay,” she soothed. “It’s just me, Zuko.”

Zuko twitched, as though Katara’s touch burned him. His breathing was too fast. Sokka had been on the periphery of Aang’s lessons; he knew how pedantic firebenders were about their breathing.

“Come on, firefly,” Toph said. “Wake up.”

Sokka gently prodded him. “Yeah, stop being lazy. You don’t get to take a nap just because you were almost murdered by a bunch of Ozai fanboys.”

Zuko threw his head back. Sand stuck to his bloodied face in clumps. Katara braced a hand under his neck, stopping him from cutting himself open on the jagged rocks, while her other hand cupped his jaw.

Zuko jerked awake when Katara touched his face. He flinched violently, crashing into Sokka and Toph, shoving Katara back. “No.”

“Zuko, calm down!” Katara held her hands up. “You’ve got a head wound. I need to inspect it.”

Zuko was breathing hard. His eyes were glassy and far-off. Sokka remembered that, for firebenders, raised hands weren’t a sign of surrender.

Katara inched closer. She reached for him again, trying to keep her movements slow. “I need to look at your injuries.”

Zuko braced himself against Sokka’s knees. He didn’t seem to register that he and Toph were there, just stared intently at Katara’s hands. When she touched his chest—trying to get him to turn onto his back instead of staying awkwardly curled on his side, like an armadillo-deer braced for an attack—he weakly pushed against her hands. It was a pitiful gesture, like he was trying hard not to fight her. Like he thought resisting was somehow dangerous.

But then, Sokka thought, Zuko purposefully didn’t fight them all the time. When Sokka threw an arm over his shoulders, or Toph buried into his side during cold nights, or Appa covered his fancy Fire Lord robes in slobber.

This was different, though. This wasn’t Zuko accepting their affection. This was Zuko, pupils blown wide, trembling in the sand, trying to hold still under hands he thought might hurt him.

“Hey,” Sokka coaxed. “Come on, buddy. You’re alright. It’s just us.”

“His heartbeat is all over the place,” Toph said. “Last time I heard it this bad, he was having a panic attack.”

Katara inched back a bit. “Zuko? Do you know where you are?”

“He wouldn’t be acting like this if he did.”

“I know that, Sokka. But what else can we do?”

When Suki and Aang returned, Zuko’s condition had only worsened. He flinched whenever someone moved or touched him and murmured indistinctly under his breath.

“Oh, Zuko,” Suki said, something hard in her eyes. She had been his guard, Sokka remembered. It was difficult seeing a friend like this, but there must have been something else, seeing someone you spent so long protecting bloodied and delirious.

“What’s wrong with him?” Aang asked.

“I’m not sure,” Katara said, sounding frustrated. “He keeps moving around whenever I try and look at him.”

Zuko swallowed roughly. When he spoke, he was hoarse and sounded so young. “I’m sorry.”

Katara shushed him, running a hand through his tangled hair. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

Zuko leaned away from her hand and attempted to climb to his feet. They all rushed to push him down before he could fall and hurt himself, and all of their hands, coming so quickly towards him, made him topple back onto the sand.

“Sorry,” Zuko said again, eyes flicking rapidly over them. There was no recognition there. Only blank fear. “Sorry. I’ll do better.”

Zuko struggled up onto his knees. Katara hovered him, worried he was going to try and stand again. That’s not what it looked like to Sokka, though. It looked almost like Zuko was trying to prop himself up in a seiza position.

“Zuko,” Katara said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”

Zuko flinched, shoulders curling around his ears. Aang crouched down beside Katara. “Don’t yell at him! You’re freaking him out.”

“I know that,” Katara huffed. “I’m trying my best, Aang. But we’re all exhausted and injured, and we’re not safe staying here, and Zuko is going to hurt himself even more if he keeps panicking.”

“Well, you’re not making it any better by yelling at him.”

“And neither of you are helping by arguing,” Toph cut in. “I think something is seriously wrong. His heartbeat is getting worse.”

Zuko swayed from side to side, eyes fluttering like he could barely keep them open.

“Zuko?” Katara asked, much gentler this time. “Are you still with us?”

This time, when Katara tried to touch him, he latched onto her sleeve. It reminded Sokka of the early days of their friendship, when Zuko would shy away from them and lean closer in equal measure, still trying to find his footing.

“Please,” Zuko slurred. “Don’t leave. D-don’t make me leave. I’ll do better.”

“No one’s going anywhere.”

The words didn’t seem to penetrate the fog that had fallen over him. “Please. Please, Father. I’m your loyal son.”

Sokka felt like screaming. He couldn’t, not with Zuko so close and so confused. He wouldn’t stir up old memories. Wouldn’t hurt Zuko more than he’d already been hurt.

Zuko’s begging was getting to Katara. Her eyes were wet. “I know. You’re not in trouble. We—we’re really proud of you, okay?”

“Really?” Toph hissed over Zuko’s head. “We want him to think Ozai is proud of him?”

Katara shrugged helplessly. Sokka looked at their swaying friend, blood still steadily dripping from his temple, and said, “He deserves a dad that does.”

“He already has one. He’s in Ba Sing Se waiting anxiously for Zuko to write and tell him that we’re all okay.”

Katara’s fingers brushed against his cheek, trying to keep him still so she could look at his head wound. Zuko shuddered, a full-body gesture.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko said, so quiet his voice was almost lost beneath the crashing waves. “Please don’t burn me again, Father. I’ll be quiet. I won’t question you again. Please.”

His voice cracked on the last word. And in that moment, all Sokka could see was the age of the scar warping one half of his face. When they met, Zuko was sixteen and the scar was just as old as it was now, and that meant—that meant—

Katara snatched her hand away. The water she’d gathered from the ocean splashed over the sand. Sokka’s nose stung with briny salt, the metallic tang of blood, and beneath it, something cloyingly sweet like perfume.

“I think he’s been drugged,” Sokka said.

“He’s not lying,” Toph said.

“I didn’t say he was. But I doubt a head wound would make him act like this.”

“But he’s not making any sense,” Aang said. “I mean, his dad wouldn’t—his own family wouldn’t burn him, would they?”

“Aang,” Katara said softly. “You know what his family is like.”

Aang shut his eyes. He did. They all did. And they knew what Zuko was like, all the ways Ozai had twisted him up inside, made him hate and doubt and slow to trust.

But Aang had only been out of the ice for eighteen months. Everything was fresh. Cruelty was a lesson he had had to learn, while the rest of them had grown up in a world at war.

“Why don’t you go check on Appa?” Katara suggested. “We’ve got a long flight back to the Caldera.”

“Let me know when Zuko’s okay,” Aang said softly. “I owe him a hug.”

Aang clumsily got to his feet. Sokka wondered if he regretted not killing Ozai when he had the chance, and then roughly shoved that thought away.

When Aang was gone, Katara started properly checking Zuko over. It was easier now that he wasn’t fighting her, and she quickly found the source of his delirium: a pinprick near his elbow, the skin tinged purple like a fresh bruise.

Zuko still twitched under her fingers. All of them pretended not to hear his quick breathing or the little pleading words undercutting every flinch.

It was just slurred murmuring, delusion brought on by poison, but it hurt to listen to. Sokka didn’t understand—how could Ozai have looked at his son when he was awake and aware and ignored how frightened he was? How could he have heard him beg and only hurt him worse?

“You know, I never got my field trip,” Toph said. “Maybe the four of us could take a quick trip to Ozai’s cell when we get back.”

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Suki said. “But even if we could, this isn’t something he’d ever want us to know.”

Sokka shook his head. “And now the choice to tell us has been taken away from him.”

Katara closed the gash on Zuko’s forehead. His ribs were knitted back together, and the poison was drained from his arm. None of them spoke until Zuko’s breathing evened out.

“I’m pretty sure the dose was nonlethal,” Katara said. “But we should get back to the Caldera so we can test it, just in case.”

“But he’ll be okay?” Toph asked.

Katara smiled, small and exhausted. “He’ll be okay.”

In the coming weeks, they would weed out the Ozai-sympathiser who feed them the incorrect information. There would be more missions, more plans, more injuries for Katara to heal.

There would be Zuko, bone-white and scared as he asked for them to sit with him in his mother’s gardens. There would be a story, years-old and yet sickeningly recent, unraveled in fits and starts, as Zuko walked them through the day his childhood ended.

But right now, they were all covered in sand and each other’s blood. They clambered back onto Appa, Zuko dozing between Katara and Aang. He didn’t flinch when Aang cuddled into his side or Toph took his hand in her’s. That was enough. Everything else could wait.