Chapter 1: Prologue
"Oh, the things I did, and oh, I was just a kid,
Burn me now, like an ant, with a magnifying glass,
Leave me charred and let the wind blow away the ash."
- Burn, Admiral Fallow.
When Zuko sleeps, he cries. He is quiet for a while after falling asleep, but before long he is muttering and twisting his head this way and that. Soon he starts to cry, at first little trickling tears but then wracking sobs, and he begins to thrash and kick, fighting away the demons in his dreams. At first, Sokka just tries to ignore it. He attempts to block out the murmurs of "no" and "father" and "Azula", and just doesn't look at the young man sharing his tent, until the dreams end, and the tears stop falling, and Zuko is silent again.
But one night, when Zuko howls his sister's name, begging her to stop, Sokka can't stand it. He turns over, sits up, and shakes Zuko vigorously to wake him. His eyes snap open, shining with tears, and he jerks upwards. He stares at Sokka in bewilderment, then realises what must have happened, and his face drains of all colour. All at once, Sokka's heart swells with pity and he pulls his former enemy into a tight hug, stroking his ragged hair and hushing him gently.
"It's okay, it's okay," Sokka soothes, thinking that Zuko will pull away and be angry: but the prince's hand clutches a fistful of Sokka's shirt and doesn't let go.
"I'm sorry," Zuko says hoarsely.
"Don't be," Sokka replies, "Zuko, what the fuck happened to you?"
Zuko shuts his eyes, and takes a deep breathe, and knows that it's finally time to tell.
Chapter 2: Part One
It first happens when Zuko is nine, and Azula is eight. He is under the overs in his four-poster, sleeping lightly, having just drifted away into sleep. He doesn't hear the creak of the door, or the gentle pad of small feet on stone as Azula enters his room and crosses the floor to his bed. He wakes with a start as he feels someone slide in next to him, disrupting his quiet and warmth. He flips over to face the intruder, and sees his little sister's mischievous smile in the dark.
"Azula!" he hisses, rubbing his eyes, "What do you want? What are you doing in my bed?"
"I wanna show you what I learned today," she tells him in a low voice, her grin not failing.
"No," Zuko frowns, "I don't wanna know. We can't fire bend in here anyway, it's forbidden and you know it."
"It's not fire bending," she says. Zuko is puzzled.
"Then what-" he begins, but is interrupted by Azula pressing a hard kiss full on his mouth. His eyes widen in shock and he pushes her away at once.
"Azula!" he chokes, having to stop himself from yelling and waking someone, "What do you think you're doing?"
"I like it," she tells him plainly, something of a threat in her voice. Zuko's heart starts to drum in fear.
"Go away. Leave me alone. I want to sleep." He tries to roll over again, but Azula takes a hold of his shoulders and pins him still. He wriggles, growing more and more panicked, but she holds him tight. He takes a breath to scream for his mother, but Azula camps her little hand over his mouth.
"I wanna be like the grown ups," Azula tells him quietly, still smiling that awful smile, "Don't fight me."
Keeping one hand over Zuko's mouth, she reaches into his pyjama trousers with the other. He doesn't move, paralysed with terror and confusion. She wraps her hand around his penis, and begins to move her grip up and down along its length. Zuko bites the palm of the hand over his mouth, trying to make her stop; sinks his teeth right into her skin, drawing blood, and yet she doesn't react to the pain, if indeed she feels any at all. She's still smirking. She fastens her pace, her brother hardening in her hand. Zuko starts to cry, struggling to breathe and horrified at his body's reaction to what's happening. Azula doesn't relent. She stimulates him until he orgasms, feeling like an explosion of utter pleasure within him, in conflict with the agony in his mind. He cries out against her hand before she finally lets him go, and he scrambles away, gasping for air and sobbing. He falls back into the pillows, weeping desperately, not knowing what else to do and praying to the spirits that this is all a horrible nightmare. She lies on top of him and kisses him again, and this time he doesn't even fight back.
After seems like an eternity in this Hell, Azula rolls off him and sits up on the edge of the bed, reaching up to adjust her hair. She turns around to lookout him with her massive doe-eyes, and Zuko feels like he's going to be sick, because he's looking at his sister, his little sister, and she looks like a baby.
"Don't tell anyone," she warns, "Well, like they'd believe you anyway. They'd think you were having unclean fantasies and they'd lock you up in the temple to repent for your sins."
She leaves, and Zuko draws his knees to his chest and cries himself to sleep.
Zuko is eleven, and his cousin Lu Ten is dead, bringing his Uncle Iroh home, grief-stricken; and Azula is visiting his bed every night. Sometimes she commands him to come to her room, or even into the palace grounds, because she loves how terrified he is at the risk, and he daren't disobey her and stay in his bedroom, or else she will come and find him, and will punish him with making it all one thousand times worse.
She will always manually stimulate him, with her hands or with her mouth, and if he's lucky, that will be all. But it often isn't. Many times she sits astride him and forces him to penetrate her. Sometimes she penetrates him with her fingers, and once even with the hilt of the dagger that his Uncle sent him. He doesn't touch it after that, so Azula gladly claims ownership. After two years, he's learnt to stop crying, because it only makes her touch him for longer. He hits puberty, and she laughs the first time he comes in her hand. The morning after his mother disappears he finds his sister playing with the knife, twirling it in her hand, tossing it into the air and catching it again. Zuko runs out of the room and is violently sick in the corridor.
After that, there is nothing in life that soothes him. He loves his Uncle, but Iroh is distant, slightly empty, mourning his lost son. Zuko's beloved mother is gone, and his father doesn't care. He can't even talk to Azula's friends: she forbids it, instructs him to behave as though he is simply shy and distant, though he longs to talk to anyone who is not his sister. His fire bending, already not as good as Azula's, suffers further from his unhappiness. There is nothing to console him. And so he turns to food.
After all, he is the crown prince: if he asks for something, it is given to him. He knows that there are children in the other nations, in war-torn towns, with nothing to eat: but that thought is not enough to stop him. All he knows is that if he only keeps eating, he can forget for a while about the feel of Azula's fingers walking down his spine, her mouth wrapped around him like a snake devouring its prey, the smell of sweat and cum. Every bite is a distraction, a comfort, even if just for a short while.
He gains weight. Not a massive amount, but enough that it's noticeable. His face rounds out childishly, his previously skinny body softens. His father's lip curls whenever they dine as a family, and although he doesn't say anything outright, his glare is enough to sting. Iroh rubs one of Zuko's shoulders comfortingly, but daren't speak out against his brother, the Fire Lord. Yet there is something rewarding about the distaste in Azula's face when she presses her fingers against the gentle squish of Zuko's stomach. She taunts and mocks him, and it doesn't stop her visits: but they become less frequent, and Zuko feels safer.
This is all before the duel, before the burn. After that, everything changes again.
Chapter 3: Part Two
Whilst Zuko speaks, he has to pause often to steady his breathing or choke back his tears. Sokka has to do the same more than once, feeling incredibly ill and tearful at what he's hearing, his mind flickering to Katara and being unable to even imagine what he would feel if she did such awful things to him. Eventually, Zuko sinks down to lie on his back, his speech becomes slower, and his eyelids droop, and he starts repeating himself and losing his thread. At last he is totally silent, and Sokka lies down next to him and lets him sleep.
"Sokka! Sokka, get your lazy ass out of bed and help with breakfast!"
Sokka is woken with a start by Katara's voice, glad of the escape from disorientating dreams about running from something, and not being able to speak. He looks over next to him to see the place that Zuko slept is now empty, and then sits up, running a hand through his hair and yawning. He crawls out of the tent and stands up, scraping his hair up into its little ponytail and then brushing down his clothes. Katara marches up to him, glaring.
"Nice to see you up, mister," she scolds right in his face, dumping a load of firewood into his arms, "Start a fire."
Sokka raises an eyebrow.
"Surely Zuko would be the best for that job?" he suggests scathingly. Katara looks at him witheringly, and Sokka notes that she looks tired, and that she probably isn't in the best of moods today.
"He's disappeared off into the woods; he said he was going to steal some birds eggs for us to eat, but he's been gone for ages now."
"Maybe he's terrible at finding nests," Toph suggests from on top of a little mound of rock she has seated herself upon. At that, Katara rounds on her, and begins to berate her instead, so Sokka starts the fire quietly, then yells behind him,
"I'm gonna go and look for Zuko," and runs into the woods before anyone can stop him.
He's walking along through the forest for a few minutes, whistling, before he hears a rustling above his head. He looks up to see Zuko, settled high in the branches of a tree, a nest in his hands. Not without considerable effort, Sokka climbs the tree until he is on the branch below Zuko.
"You must be a good climber," Sokka tells him, out of breath.
"It seems cruel, to steal the entire nest," Zuko says, ignoring the compliment, "Because what if the mother comes back, and thinks that she is looking in the wrong place? So she searches the trees for her babies, but she can't find them, and she'll never know if it was her fault or not."
"Er," Sokka says with a frown, "To be honest Zuko, I don't think that birds are capable of that level of thinking. She'll probably just build a new nest and lay some more eggs. And we need to eat."
Zuko laughs, a short, harsh bark, and it makes Sokka feels uneasy.
"I guess," he replies, looking down at Sokka, "Think you can get down?"
"Of course," Sokka scoffs, and begins to descend; but his feet slip and he has to wrap his arms and legs around the branch, shrieking involuntarily, to stop himself from falling. Zuko laughs again, but fondly, not unkindly.
"How about I leave the nest here, carry you down, and then I climb back up to get the eggs?"
"Uh. Okay," Sokka says. Zuko gracefully descends to Sokka's branch, and turns away from him, offering his back. Sokka puts his arms around Zuko's neck, and his legs through the nooks Zuko makes with his arms. Zuko climbs down the tree trunk as though Sokka weighs nothing at all, and deposits his passenger on the ground, before shinning back up to get the eggs. Sokka finds himself blushing, and doesn't know why. Zuko descends, and they walk back to the camp together in silence.
Katara seems less agitated when they return, and Sokka supposes that she spoke to Aang, who calmed her down. The water bender, the earth bender and the Avatar are all sitting around Sokka's fire, Aang cooking some fish that Katara caught, and Toph handing out the plates she quickly sculpted with her earth bending. Zuko hands the nest to Katara, who rewards him with a smile. Aang, Toph and Katara chatter whilst they eat their breakfast, but Zuko is silent, and Sokka keeps glancing at him nervously.
"Can you not stare at me?" Zuko says flatly, without looking up, quiet enough that only Sokka can hear, "Eating is unpleasant enough without such an attentive audience."
"Sorry," Sokka says, quickly looking away, kicking himself mentally. He feels strange about the conversation that transpired the night before, like it wasn't real, only another one of his unpleasant dreams. He's not sure if he was expecting Zuko to mention it this morning, but he knows that what the prince told him was not all of the story, by a long shot. Zuko leaves a considerable amount of his breakfast, and leaves to go and sit on his own by the edge of the river, and Sokka can't help but feel guilty.
The five of them already know that there was no necessity of movement today: they are in a safe place, and they can't yet attack, so they might as well remain stationary for a while and regain their strength. Sokka, having no element to master, sits and sharpens his sword, then takes out his dagger and attempts to practice whittling: but he realises he has been absent-mindedly carving the fire nation symbol, and gets frustrated, throwing the circle of wood away from him into the trees. There is an "ow!" from the direction he tossed it, and he realises with an internal groan that he's hit Zuko. He gets up and jogs to where the noise came from, and finds Zuko rubbing the back of his head with one hand, and holding the wood chip in the other.
"You do know I'm on your side now, right?" Zuko jokes good-humouredly.
"I'm sorry," Sokka mumbles, embarrassed, "I didn't know you were there."
"This is pretty good," Zuko says, inspecting the carving, "Though you've missed the indent in the centre part of the flame."
"It's nothing, destroy it," Sokka says, and Zuko shrugs and then sets it on fire, turning it into a little pile of ash in the palm of his hand. Sokka sits down next to him, and they look out through the trees for a few minutes, before Zuko speaks again.
"I'm sorry about last night," he says quietly, "You shouldn't have had to hear that."
"Hey, no," Sokka says, turning to face Zuko and frowning, "It's okay. You needed to talk. You still do. You can't go on keeping this all inside."
Zuko raises a hand to gently touch the scar over his eye.
"I deserved what my father did to me," he says in a quiet his, full of self-contempt. Sokka grabs him by the arms and it's all he can do not to shake him.
"What the Hell, Zuko? No, you did not."
"I needed to be punished. Not for speaking out of term. But I was fucking my little sister," he spits, his voice thick, "She was younger than me, she was vulnerable, and I was fucking her."
"She was raping you," Sokka says forcefully, "She was not vulnerable. She abused you, you're the victim."
"I'm clearly sick enough to have liked it," Zuko chokes, tears falling now, "Given the fact I was turned on every damn time."
"Man, Zuko, no," Sokka murmurs, "That's not your fault. That's just the body's response to… to that. Azula was entirely at fault, no matter how young she was."
"She wasn't," Zuko whispers.
"It wasn't all her fault. She'd been… she… it wasn't."
"Explain?" Sokka asks, "Tell me. You can talk to me."
Zuko sighs, wipes his eyes with his forearm, and continues the story.
Zuko isn't banished straight away. He is allowed time in the palace infirmary for his red raw skin to heal over, and for his sight in that eye to return, if indeed it's going to return at all. He will then have twenty four hours to pack what he needs before he leaves with his uncle to search for the Avatar.
Whilst in the infirmary, he is under almost constant watch. He isn't sure if this is Azula's reason for not coming to him in the night, or if the burn is so disfiguring that she wants nothing more to do with him sexually. But one night, he waves up from his bad dreams to find her sitting at the end of his bed, no nurses around. He starts to draw himself away from her, until she looks up and she looks so pensive.
"Don't worry," she says calmly, "I don't want to have sex tonight."
He hates the way she says it, like it's the most normal, natural thing in the world. Pain sears through his eye and he wants to be sick.
"Do you want to know how I always knew what to do?" she continues. He just stares at her and doesn't say a thing. She looks back, and shrugs. "Well, I'm going to tell you anyway. Father loves me." Zuko blinks, not understanding. She rolls her eyes, and goes on, "Father loves me the way he would love another woman. The way he loved mother, before we were born."
"He's abused you?" Zuko gasps.
"Hush!" Azula commands at once, "The gash I gave the guard won't keep your nurses for long. And no, he has not abused me. I wanted it. He loves me. I love him," she insists, but her voice is rising hysterically, and her eyes are wet, and Zuko thinks it's herself she's trying to convince, "We make love."
"That's sick," Zuko murmurs in horror, "Azula, you were a little child, you're his daughter-"
"And you're my brother, but your cock seems to like the attention, doesn't it, Zuzu," she hisses, "Don't be bitter just because you know I can attract him more than your precious Mama ever could."
At that, Zuko roars and flings himself at his sister, grabbing a fistful of her hair and pulling as hard as he can. She squeals, but then laughs, and reaches out a hand to scrape a single fingernail down his scar. He wails and instantly shifts back, wriggling into one corner of the bed, as if he's safer there. She looms over him, and hisses,
"You're disfigured, and fat, and a failure. But you're a decent fuck, Zuzu. Kiss. Me. Back."
And she presses her lips against his, and he has no choice other than to kiss back, their cheeks both wet with tears.
"Zuko-" Sokka starts, but Zuko waves a hand.
"Sorry," he says, before leaning away from Sokka to be sick on the ground. The little amount of breakfast he ate is brought out, and Sokka grits his teeth and furrows his brown in worry.
"What do you think happened to your sister after you left?" he asks, when Zuko has stopped wrenching and regained his composure.
"I think that my father kept on- doing what he was doing. And that she, having told her herself for years that he enjoyed it, eventually did. When I went home after Azula thought she'd killed Aang, she never once came to my bed, or even mentioned those days. So I assume she was getting… getting satisfaction elsewhere."
"When you went away, with your Uncle; it was three years before you even met us. What happened in those three years?"
"I took control," Zuko mutters. Sokka's hand finds the small of Zuko's back, beginning to rub small circles there, and Zuko rests his head against Sokka's shoulder.
Chapter 4: Part Three
Zuko continues to confide in Sokka, beginning to broach his past issues with self-harm and starvation. Sokka thinks he may feel a little more for Zuko than sympathy.
He steps into her bedroom, looking at her where she lies. He eyes her flat chest. He can see her nipples through the thin silken material of her nightgown. He crosses to her bed to lean down and kiss her cheek. She stirs, and opens her eyes to look at him blearily.
"Daddy?" she says sleepily. He takes her little hands, murmuring,
"It's okay, baby girl, it's okay."
He makes her touch him. She's confused and cries, but he soothes her and kisses her, and tells her that this is their secret, because she's special.
She believes him, because not doing would hurt so much more.
Zuko shuns physical contact and affection. His uncle just wants to take him in his arms and comfort him, but Zuko can't bear to be touched, and in his misery he yells unkind things about Iroh not really caring about him, and just wanting to replace Lu Ten. Iroh receives the verbal abuse daily, and takes it gracefully, hoping that it will help his nephew find the release he needs. When the flesh is burned, the heat is trapped beneath the skin. With Zuko, this is not just physically: he is in intense emotional pain, and it can't escape from within him. Iroh thinks he knows why Zuko is so angry and unhappy, but in reality, he knows so little.
Having searched the air temples and found nothing to give any clue as to where the Avatar hides, Zuko resigns himself to the fact that the search ahead will be a long and arduous one. So he decides to commit himself to training. He rises early every morning, glad of waking as an escape from the nightmares, performing sit-ups and press-ups until he feels he's earned a drink of water and a minimal amount to eat. He practices fire-bending, sword-fighting and self-defence for the entire day, eating only if he feels like he is on the very point of collapse. Iroh worries, but lets him continue, thinking to stop him would make things worse.
Isn't even that Zuko is treating himself like this to lose weight; not yet, at least. He wants punishment. He feels guilty for what Azula did to him; dirty, sinful, grotesque. He abuses his body because he hates himself, and no one else will do it for him. He offered himself up to his father, would not have thought it unjust if he had set him entirely aflame. But Ozai served a punishment harder than death: Zuko has to live on, burned and scarred and burdened with the past.
Zuko's weight loss is fast, and drastic. But then it flatlines; leaving him lightly muscled, still with some stubborn fat around his hips, but slim otherwise. And whilst Zuko continues to work himself to exhaustion, he wants something physical to show for his exertion, for his self-punishment. He starts to hurt himself.
The first time he does it, it's almost an accident. He is sitting in his bath, rinsing the soap suds out of his hair. The warm water is swilling around his body, and he actually feels relaxed for once, but it doesn't last. He gets hard, and as he's dealing with it, masturbating fervently, his mind wanders to the eight-year-old Azula's face, the first time she touched him like this. He curses as he comes, hating himself so fiercely that the water begins to bubble with heat as his free hand flames under the surface. He sits up, breathing heavily, leaning over forward, water dripping from his face and hair. He takes one hand and puts it around his left forearm, squeezing tightly until the pressure makes faint pink marks on his skin. Suddenly, a flash of heat sears through his fingertips, and he yells and lets go at once. He looks at his arm, and sees dark fingerprints on the surface of his skin. He's burnt himself. He swallows, his heart hammering, then quickly gets out of the bath and wraps his robe around his body, so he doesn't have to look at any part of himself anymore.
He starts to test himself. He will press his fingers against the skin of his arms and see how much heat he can stand before he has to pull his hand away. He is covered in burns, and becomes addicted to inflicting them, loving the emotional release it gives him, so starts burning himself elsewhere, on his stomach, his hips, his thighs. He lets himself eat more regularly now he has found his new release: it is punishment enough. One morning, when Zuko rises from the table having managed to eat a proper breakfast, Iroh's hand darts out and grips a tight hold around Zuko's wrist.
"What have you done to yourself?" Iroh demands sternly, turning Zuko's arm so that the small, circular burns are visible. Zuko tears his arm out of his uncle's grip.
"I have accidents while fire bending," he snaps angrily, "Sorry I suck, okay! I don't need reminding!"
"I'm sorry, Zuko," Iroh apologises, his hand falling to his side, "I just want you to take better care of yourself."
Zuko feels ashamed at shouting, knowing his uncle was only concerned, and bows his head.
"I'm sorry, uncle. I'll be more careful."
"Good," Iroh says. Zuko is about to leave, when his uncle comments, "It's good to see you eating more, though. You need the weight you've put on."
Zuko feels as though his heart has fallen into his stomach, and is being consumed by acid. His face palens, and he turns back to sneer,
"Of course, we should all aspire to be as fat as you, old man," before running out of the room into the corridors of the ship, his boots clanging against the metal of the floor.
"I can't believe I said that to him," Zuko mutters, rubbing his face with his hands. Sokka looks at him, head tilted.
"Hey, he loves you. He knew you were having a really difficult time. He can't have held it against you."
"It was cruel. And who cares if my uncle's fat? I don't. I remember, when I was a little kid… he would hug me, and I'd rest my head against his stomach, and he was so warm and soft, and I just felt safe. Not like my father; he was harsh lines and sharp angles, and I can't remember if he ever hugged me. So if I don't judge my uncle's body, why do I judge my own?"
"So this is an ongoing thing," Sokka says softly. It makes more sense now, Zuko's sparse eating and his sensitive stomach, upset by very little.
"I don't know," Zuko replies, "I guess… I can't tell you about now without telling you more about then, but it's… it's just difficult."
"I get it," Sokka soothes, "But, Zuko, I just wanted to say… thank you for telling me any of this. For trusting me. It means a lot. You're a good friend."
Zuko looks at Sokka, and smiles a tiny smile.
"Thanks, Sokka. You are too."
They share something for a moment, before Aang's voice brings them out of their reverie.
"Sokka! Katara wants help with lunch! And Zuko! Come help me with fire bending!"
Zuko shrugs, and Sokka gets up, reaching out a hand to help him to his feet. Sokka hesitates for a moment, then gives a quick hug to Zuko, putting his mouth to his ear.
"We'll talk this evening, okay? And if you're not ready, just say, and we'll talk another time. Take as long as you need."
"Thank you," Zuko murmurs, then runs to Aang, Sokka watching him as he goes.
Chapter 5: Part Four
I'm sorry that this chapter is a bit shorter than average! The next chapter should be longer.
There is only once, before Zuko's banishment, that Azula surprises him. She is under him, having flipped over once he was inside, so he's on top. She looks straight at him, and commands in a low voice,
Zuko stares at her. She has hit him many times, and bit him and scratched him, but she has always dominated, and never wanted Zuko to exert any power over her whatsoever. She bucks her hips against him, and hisses again, "Hit me!"
He brings back his hand and slaps her across the face. She gasps at his hit, and commands him, "Harder! Harder!"
He hits her harder, then again, and again. She draws herself up to him and whispers in his ear,
"Tell me what a dirty whore I am. Tell me I'm a whore who deserves to be punished."
"You're a whore," Zuko croaks, "You need to be punished. I'm going to punish you."
With that, he smacks her so hard across her face that blood spurts from her nose. She cries out in orgasm, then falls back into the bed, pushing Zuko off her. He's so overwhelmed by what has happened that he starts to cry, as he hasn't done when in bed with Azula in years.
"Don't be a baby, Zuko," she mutters, her eyes shut, "It's me who should be crying."
Zuko gets out of the bed, and dresses, and leaves.
Zuko struggles to find the equilibrium. He flickers between days of rigorous training and total starvation, and days of lying in bed all morning, drifting in and out of nightmares, unable to find the will to rise, and eating anything that is offered him, out of misery. There is no balance, no point in between. He contemplates his reasons for even wanting this. When he was still in the palace, he knows that he overate for comfort, and gained weight as a defence mechanism against Azula. He was more attractive to her when he was thin, so within his subconscious, he wanted to make himself repulsive to her.
However, it isn't that he is trying to make his body attractive. He wants to go beyond attractive, to become so thin that he disgusts Azula, or anyone else. He feels as though he never wants to be seen in a sexual capacity again, he wants to be a tiny little boy. He wants to disappear. He wants to cease to exist.
Zuko stays in this state for all the three years he is onboard his ship, never getting to either end of the scale, remaining unhappy and angry in the middle. But then he sees the flare in the sky; and his body is hidden beneath armour, and the Avatar becomes his passion, his focus, his drive. Zuko almost forgets Azula. He doesn't consider what she will do if he does capture the Avatar, and regain his honour, and return home.
As Zuko speaks, he and Sokka lie opposite one another, each facing the other. Sokka shuffles a bit closer when Zuko's voice grows quit, and when the prince's throat thickens with sadness, Sokka puts a comforting arm around him. By the time Zuko has finished speaking, he is nestled against Sokka's chest, and Sokka is embracing him protectively. Neither of them pull away.
"Sokka?" Zuko whispers eventually.
"Can we… can we stay like this, for a while?"
"Sure," Sokka says softly.
"Can we sleep like this?" Zuko asks tentatively, his voice quiet and sleepy.
"Yeah," Sokka murmurs.
"Thanks," Zuko says. Sokka looks at Zuko, then inches a bit closer to him, so their eyes are level. Zuko's expression is totally open, trusting, like Sokka's never seen before. Sokka shuts his eyes, and without a word or a second thought places a gentle kiss upon Zuko's lips. Zuko returns it for a brief moment, then buries his head into Sokka's chest.
"Goodnight, Zuko," Sokka says. Zuko says nothing, already asleep.
Chapter 6: Part Five
When Sokka awakes, Zuko is no longer in his arms, nor indeed in their tent at all. It is early morning, the sun still rising over the mountains in the distance, and although Sokka wishes to roll over and go back to sleep, he can't; today they travel to Ember Island, to the house that Zuko spent many a summer in as a child. Sokka rises, fixing his hair and packing up the sleeping bags and animal skin blankets. As soon as he steps outside, everything bundled up in his hold, he is greeted by Toph, who stamps her foot, sending the tent back into the earth that it came from.
"It's a good job I'd emptied the stuff out of there, you could have given me a warning," Sokka grumbles. Toph shrugs.
"It'd be your own dumbass fault," she says, "We have to get moving."
She turns away from him, and with a leg up from Katara, gets onboard Appa with Aang. Katara follows, and then calls back to Sokka,
"Can you tell Zuko that we really need to leave?"
"Er, I dunno, where is he?"
Katara's face falls.
"He's not with you?"
Sokka looks around theatrically.
"Don't seem to have him on me right now, sorry!" he drawls. Katara tosses her head, groaning in annoyance.
"For God's sake! He's so erratic recently! Find him!"
"On it," Sokka replies, turning on his heel and dashing into the woods. He finds Zuko after a few minutes, up a tree near the edge of the forest. "Hey, Prince Treetops," he calls up to him, "We have to be going."
Zuko looks down at him, then sighs, and descends.
"You need to stop doing that," Sokka jokes, "You'll turn into a monkeywolf."
"My head seems clearer up there," Zuko says off-handedly, not meeting Sokka's eye.
"You been up long? I mean, awake. Not up the tree. Though that too."
"I've been awake since before the sunrise. I came out here to think and stayed up the tree for a while."
"Have you eaten breakfast?" Sokka asks carelessly, then wants to kick himself after the look that Zuko gives him.
"No." Zuko says plainly.
"Me neither," Sokka replies, trying to act as normal as he can manage, "Perhaps we can eat together when we get to Ember Island."
Before long, the two of them are on Appa with the others, and Zuko doesn't lift his head off his knees for the whole journey, and a feeling of discomfort about what happened the night before is growing in Sokka's chest.
It's late evening before Zuko speaks again. They all arrive at Ember Island, and as the others unpack, Katara asks Sokka and Zuko if they can go to the market to pick up some food and other supplies. Zuko seems to pick up a little, and talks, albeit infrequently, and laughs at Sokka's jokes. Sokka's anxiousness about the kiss remains, but it warms his heart to see Zuko's smile.
The fare from the market is plentiful, and varied, and delicious. Sokka's notices that Zuko eats properly at dinner time, perhaps because he's eating food from his home nation. However, when they are all drinking the tea that Zuko has made, following the meal, the young prince is thrown off balance again.
"I love Fire Nation food," Aang says happily.
"Yeah, me too!" Toph agrees.
"I think it's because it's so varied," Katara adds, then goes on to say, innocently but totally obliviously, "Having made colonies everywhere and invaded the other nations, they've taken produce and recipes from there, so they have parts of every culture, cuisine from everywhere."
Katara jumps at the sudden choke for breath that comes from opposite her, and they all turn to Zuko to see that tears are streaming down his face. Katara's eyes widen and she leans forward to grab one of his hands, horrified.
"Oh, Zuko- I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it to sound like that…"
Zuko only shakes his head, murmuring sounds that aren't words in frustration. He brings up his free hand to hit himself hard in the head. Katara grabs that hand, Sokka starts forward then stops himself, while Aang and Toph sit still, not knowing what to do. Katara lowers Zuko's hand to his lap. "Zuko, don't do that," she says softly. He only cries harder, then gurgles through his tears,
"I'm here," Sokka says at once, scrambling forward, taking Zuko's hands from Katara, "It's okay, buddy, I'm here."
"Shouldn't have fucking eaten-" he babbles, "This house- I remember- oh fuck, I remember."
"We shouldn't have brought his here, this place is clearly triggering bad memories," Katara says, and it irritates Sokka that she's speaking as though Zuko isn't right in front of them.
"Come for a walk with me, Zuko. Along the beach, yeah? Come on," Sokka cajoles gently, standing up and helping Zuko to his feet. He walks Zuko down the decking, turning back to wave a hand of dismissal at Katara, who makes to follow them. Sokka and Zuko walk down to the beach, Sokka's arm dangling limply by his side as he considers whether or not reaching for Zuko's hand would do more harm than good.
"I'm so greedy, it's disgusting," Zuko says eventually, angrily, once his tears have dried. Sokka almost laughs.
"Zuko, I eat way more than you. If anyone's greedy, it's me."
"You don't understand," Zuko bites, shaking his head, "The food I ate before I was banished- the food I grew fat on- was stolen from the mouths of starving children. Every luxury lavished upon me came from the spoils of war, from the fact that another Earth Kingdom family had been made homeless, without a bite to eat. The fact I know this, and still want- that's what makes me greedy."
"It's your father's sin, not yours," Sokka tries, "You've joined us, you're fighting to return to those people what belongs to them, to bring piece, so no one has to go hungry."
"My body," Zuko mutters, "Is my enemy. I hate it."
"I wanna starve the demons out. I just want the pain to go away."
"What happened in the beach house?" Sokka asks suddenly. Zuko stops walking, and they stand still for a long moment, the waves lapping gently against the dark shore.
"I know I said that Azula didn't do anything to me when I returned home. Well, I was wrong. But I'd… somehow, I'd forgotten. I don't know how, I must have buried it so deep in my head that I couldn't get to it. But as soon as I stepped inside that house, I remembered."
"Do you want to tell me?" Sokka says.
Zuko is sitting alone on the porch of the beach house, in the dark, after he and the girls trashed the party. Mai and Ty Lee are already asleep in bed, but Azula is still on the beach, glaring out at the waves. Zuko knows he should go to bed, but it's peaceful out here. Azula's absence from his nights has lured him into a false sense of security, so that he thinks nothing of the look she gives him when she turns and begins to walk in his direction, until it's too late.
"We best get to bed," she says when she reaches him, and the tone of her voice sends a shiver through him. She takes him by the hand, and leads him through the house, and he knows he has no choice other than to follow her to her bedroom. Her hand is in his underwear before they're across the floor, and she backs him onto the bed, pulling his trousers off, kissing him fiercely. She bites his lower lip, and he tastes blood as she puts her tongue in his mouth.
She presses him down into the pillows as she mounts him, pulling her dress over her head. She rocks her body up and down, keeping her moans quiet so no one else hears.
"I have something to tell you, " she says.
"What?" Zuko replies breathlessly.
"I was expecting."
Zuko tries at once to roll over and throw her off, but she won't let him. "Yes," she continues lowly, still moving their bodies together fast, "I fell pregnant. Father didn't care. He has two heirs, and he said that my child would be treated as the bastard everyone would assume it to be. I didn't know what to do. But I needn't have worried. I lost the child before I'd even carried for a month."
"Azula-" Zuko hisses, trying to fight her, "You need to get off me- I need to pull out-"
"But I want my own heir," she continues, her voice maniacal, her eyes crazed, "And I need to keep the bloodline pure. Who else would I choose to father my child?"
"Azula!" Zuko cries, "I'm gonna come-"
Azula only smiles as her brother comes inside her with a groan. Only then does she let him pull out, and slides off him, so she's lying on her back, breathing heavily, naked. Zuko pulls on his trousers and runs to the window, which he is sick out of. Azula rubs a finger around one of her nipples delicately.
"Dear, dear, Zuzu, you really do have the most sensitive stomach. Not a desirable quality to pass along. Though it's probably self induced from your weight fluctuating so much. I must say, you've been getting a bit chubby since you came home. Have you no control over yourself?"
"I hate you," Zuko sobs, one hand on his stomach, "I hate you so much."
"No you don't," Azula tells him, "You fear me."
"I'm not scared of you!" Zuko yells suddenly, "Touch me again, and I will kill you!"
Azula stares at him, her mouth dropping open. She almost seems to shrink into herself, like a flower in the dark, pulling the covers across her body.
"Get out," she commands, her voice shaking, "Get out!"
Zuko doesn't need telling twice. He cries himself to sleep that night, and when they return to the palace, the first thing he does is go down to the dungeon, relieving the guards whilst he is there. In a rush, he tells his uncle what Azula has done, and has been doing for years. Iroh turns around to look at him, stricken, and opens his mouth, but Zuko turns and runs before his Uncle can say a word.
Zuko is exhausted, physically and mentally. By the time he has finished speaking, both he and Sokka are seated on the sand, and Zuko is slumped in the other boy's arms. Sokka kisses the top of his head, and scoops him up into his arms to carry him back up the beach.
"Sokka?" Zuko murmurs.
"I… what we have… what is it?"
"I don't know," Sokka admits, "But I wanna take care of you."
"Thank you," Zuko replies. Sokka smiles gently, walking carefully up onto the decking and into the house. He assumes the others are in bed, so is careful to be quiet. He lays Zuko down on the bed, and lies down next to him. Zuko reaches out for Sokka's hand, clasping it tight. And like this, they fall asleep.
Chapter 7: Part Six
This will be the last update for a while: I am going on holiday for two weeks, during which time I will have no internet access. I hope that you enjoy this chapter.
Warning: spoilers for the Sozin's Comet arch.
Zuko knows that he is not the only one who has suffered. Azula, too, has endured terrible pain, and when she is writhing bound on the floor, laughing and shrieking and crying all at once, something twists in his chest, and he feels ill to know that he pities her. There's a constant heaviness in the pit of his stomach that doesn't go away, even when his father is imprisoned, and the war is declared over. His instant, triumphant coronation feels like nothing. What is a kingdom when your only sister has twisted your mind, so that you can't even bear to kiss a boy, a boy you deeply feel for, on the mouth?
Azula is imprisoned, in a different part of the palace dungeons to their father. Zuko doesn't want to risk him even saying a word to her, let alone managing to touch her. She is filthy, covered in dirt and dust from where she thrashed about on the ground, bleeding from her knees, so the servants strip her and scrub her in a hot bath, like she's the princess soon to be Fire Lord again, and she shuts her eyes and leans back and tries not to think, but the thoughts find her, and she starts to scream and kick in the water, and they have to haul her out and bind her arms to her sides to stop her from hurting someone, or herself.
Zuko, who has been watching from the door, glances at her naked body, and then looks away quickly. He knows that she isn't pregnant, it's been months since the Ember Island incident and she would be showing by now, but her stomach is flat as ever, her ribs a little more pronounced. He screams internally at himself for looking and then runs to a small alcove high up in the palace, where Sokka won't find him. Zuko doesn't feel he deserves to be found right now, the comfort Sokka offers is too sweet for him to deserve.
Eventually he comes down, and Katara, Aang, Toph and Sokka are all sitting around the fireplace in the main hall, laughing and talking. Zuko's stomach growls, and he realises with a guilty pang of pride that he hasn't eaten all day. He balls his hand into a fist in his pocket, gnawing on his lip and considering. He doesn't want to lose control entirely, not again, but he allows himself a small victory, and makes a promise to himself that he will eat breakfast in the morning.
"Zuko," Sokka calls over, gently but cheerfully enough not to seem out of place to the others. Zuko walks towards them, and seats himself cross-legged with them, holding out his hands from them to be warmed by the fire, his hiding place having been very cold.
"What have you done today, Zuko?" Aang asks pleasantly.
"I had some business to sort through with my uncle. Although the war is over, the work isn't done yet. There's a lot of unrest in the colonies, and with the Earth King especially. People aren't just gonna forget everything my father and my ancestors did. People don't trust me, and who can blame them." There is a short silence, then Zuko adds, "I also dealt with… Azula's imprisonment. The terms of her sentence and stuff."
Katara simply reaches out a hand and places it on Zuko's shoulder, and he appreciates it. Part of him is aching for Sokka's touch, wants Sokka's lips to softly brush his neck in a comforting gesture that's almost innate, like a mother animal tending its young. It doesn't come, so instead Zuko gets to his feet.
"I hope you don't mind, but I want to get an early night. I'm so tired… I don't know the last time I was this tired."
"We understand," Katara says, "Get some rest, you'll feel better in the morning."
"I'll hold you to that, healer," Zuko says with a smile. He starts to walk away, then hears a scrambling behind him, and turns to see Sokka getting to his feet and making to follow him.
"Oh hey, Zuko," Sokka says, awkwardly, while his sister blinks at him in confusion, "Do you still need help- carrying that- er, that heavy thing you mentioned?"
Zuko looks at him blankly for a second, then cottons on.
"Oh, yeah, sure, Sokka, I'd appreciate that."
"I can help!" Toph volunteers, "I don't know what it is, but if it's on the ground I can shift it with earth bending-"
"Uh thanks but we're good," Sokka says in one breath, before he and Zuko run out of the door. Zuko leads the way up to his room, and they only stop when the door is closed behind them, and they're leaning on it and panting. Zuko laughs, and Sokka's heart thrills to hear the happy sound, it being so rare. Zuko turns his head to face the other boy, and fixes him with a look that makes Sokka's mouth go dry.
"Zuko-" he starts, but at once his mouth is snatched up Zuko's, and he's caught in a passionate kiss, Zuko's hands cupping his face. Sokka kisses back eagerly, letting Zuko push him up against the closed door. They kiss for a number of minutes, Sokka's head spinning happily. Without thinking, he slips his hand up Zuko's shirt, and he splays his palm against Zuko's chest.
It's like a shock of lightning strikes through them both. Zuko's mouth breaks away from his as quickly as it had come, and he jerks backwards, looking like he's just been haunted by a malicious spirit.
"Zuko- oh God, Zuko, I'm sorry," Sokka says desperately, but Zuko is pale, and is shaking his head.
"No, no," he whispers, "No, Sokka, I can't. I just can't. Please just get out."
"GET OUT!" he yells, his eyes filling up with tears. Blinking back his own, Sokka turns and leaves. Zuko falls to the floor and cries.
Iroh is awakened by a timid knocking at the door of his bedroom. He rises from his bed, rubbing at his eyes, and opens the door to see Zuko, illuminated by a small ball of fire in the palm of his hand, his features pale and his face tear-streaked.
"Zuko, what is wrong?" Iroh asks, concern thick in his voice.
"I can't sleep," he replies quietly, " Not… not in that bed. I'll be moving to another room soon, but the servants haven't had time to prepare one yet, and the only other rooms are my father's and Azula's and- the things I know, I… I can't-"
Iroh quickly pulls Zuko into a hug, hushing him gently.
"Ssh, Prince Zuko, it's alright," he murmurs, "You sleep in my bed. I will go and sleep in yours." Zuko pulls back, and looks at him with grateful but frightened eyes.
"Please stay," he says hoarsely. Iroh strokes Zuko's hair.
"I will stay."
He tucks Zuko up in the bed, like he's a little boy again, and then settles himself in the chair by the bedside. He says nothing of Zuko's little sniffling sobs, but begins to hum an old lullaby from Zuko's childhood, as if absent-mindedly, but Zuko knows it's for him. He shuts his eyes and nestles down under the quilt. He is soon in a dreamless sleep, the first he has had in years.
Chapter 8: Part Seven
A few weeks pass without incident. Zuko is eating, sparsely but regularly, and whilst he still looks thin, he doesn't look quite as ill as he had begun to. He warms up to Sokka again after apologising for having yelled, and Sokka is gracious and accepting. They are sitting together one evening in Zuko's new bedroom, in a different wing of the palace, when Zuko surprises him by broaching the topic of sex.
"Have you had sex, Sokka?" he asks plainly. Sokka blinks.
"Uh, yeah, I have."
There is a pause, while Sokka gathers the words for what to say next.
"Have- I mean, other than- Azula-"
"You and Mai didn't…?" Sokka says sensitively.
"No," Zuko replies, "We never had sex. We never even slept in the same bed. She wanted to, but I… I just couldn't. Especially because I was still in the bedroom I'd been in for all of my childhood, in the bed that Azula…" he swallows, "Azula had abused me in. I just couldn't deal with it. I started to freak out any time Mai and I got even slightly intimate. She just thought I was having the nerves and guilt of a virgin," he ends, slightly venomously towards himself. He looks up from his lap, "You and Suki?"
Sokka grins in remembrance.
"Yeah, we did, and it was great. Obviously, things didn't work out between me and her, but we had a good time and really enjoyed being with one another, both our company and our bodies. That's what sex should be about, Zuko. It's great if it's out of love, but it can be just about fun and pleasure too."
Zuko is silent. Sokka knows that it's because sex has never been for love nor fun with Zuko, and the physical pleasure that it brought was heavy with guilt. He kneels in front of Zuko, reaching up a hand to caress his cheek softly, looking into his eyes. Zuko looks back steadily, trusting Sokka's touch. Sokka leans forward and kisses Zuko lovingly, slowly and gently. Zuko slides his arms over Sokka's shoulders and kisses back willingly, opening like a flower. Sokka breaks back, and looks intently at the prince.
"Do you trust me?" he asks.
"Yes," Zuko whispers in reply.
"I want to have sex with you." Sokka tells him. It's not something he would say in this situation with anyone else, but he feels that here and now, with Zuko, is no time for spontaneity or euphemisms. He needs Zuko to feel safe and in control, knowing every moment what is happening.
"I want to have sex with you too," Zuko replies quietly, not taking his eyes off Sokka.
Sokka carefully slips his arms around Zuko and picks him up, carrying him from his chair to the bed on the other side of the room. Sokka then climbs up after him, kneeling in front of him. The lights are low, and the air in the room is pleasantly warm. Sokka begins to undress himself slowly. He lets his hair down, pulls off his tunic, and then unfastens his trousers, sliding them off his hips. His body is slim and muscled, his brown skin smooth. He sits naked in front of Zuko, his chest rising and falling with every steady breath. Zuko looks at the other boy's body, drinking him in, then with slightly trembling hands begins to remove his own clothes.
He is awkward and ashamed, keeping his arms pressed to his sides after he's removed his top, in an attempt to hide the burns high up on the undersides of his arms, and Sokka can tell from the hitch in his breath that he's holding in his stomach, even though it's almost concave. He slides his trousers off, and Sokka has to stop himself from wincing at the littering of burn scars all over Zuko's pale thighs. They look raw, aggravated, and Sokka suspects that Zuko scratches and picks at them when he's upset. He looks at Zuko's penis, in a crown of dark pubic hair, lying flaccid between his legs, and he hates that the existence of sex and the human anatomy, two things that should always be beautiful, can be poisoned in the way they have been for Zuko.
Zuko lies down, his eyes half closed. Sokka reaches out a hand to Zuko's upper body.
"Can I-" he asks tentatively. Zuko swallows, then nods. "Just tell me if you want me to stop," Sokka whispers, then places his hand against Zuko's face. He leans over to kiss the scarred tissue around his eye, then begins to work kisses down the prince's body. He brushes his lips against Zuko's adam's apple, then his prominent collar bone. He runs his fingers softly over Zuko's ribs, swirling patterns around the protrusions. He kisses Zuko's stomach, sucking ever so gently, and Zuko gasps, causing Sokka to look up.
"Okay?" Sokka murmurs.
"Yes, yes," Zuko whispers. "I like it."
Sokka continues, running a hand down Zuko's side, pausing where his waist dips in then rises again at his hipbones. He moves his head to graze his lips over Zuko's thighs, giving each scar a kiss. He can feel Zuko's muscles tense up, and Sokka knows that Zuko's not comfortable with Sokka being so close to his crotch. Sokka wriggles upwards so that he is face to face with Zuko again. Zuko looks pale and anxious, and Sokka's frowns in concern, places a quick kiss on Zuko's lips, his eyes open.
"Are you alright, Zuko?" he asks, "We can stop and just sleep, if you want to."
"No," Zuko murmurs lowly, shaking his head, "I want you, Sokka. I want you right now… but I want… I…" He struggles to get the words out.
"C'mon, it's okay," Sokka encourages, "What do you want?" Zuko shuts his eyes, gulps, and then says,
"When I was with Azula, she wanted to control me. I don't want it to be like that."
"It won't be like that," Sokka tells him earnestly, pressing a kiss to Zuko's neck.
"I want to be in charge."
Sokka understands. He holds Zuko's gaze, and then stretches out slowly.
"Oh, Sokka," Zuko murmurs.
"Take me," Sokka replies. Zuko moves so that he is kneeling on all fours over Sokka, leaning down to kiss him hungrily. Sokka moans, tilting his head back as Zuko begins to suck roughly on his neck. Zuko runs his hands through Sokka's hair, licking the dark, smooth skin of his neck, running his tongue over his throat. Sokka's hips jerk in reaction, and he can feel himself hardening.
"Jack me off," Zuko says breathlessly. Sokka obeys, rubbing his hand rapidly along Zuko's cock. Zuko grunts then gasps as he begins to get hard. Sokka rolls over onto his front as Zuko lowers his body on top of him. Sokka cries out as Zuko penetrates him, gripping handfuls of the bedsheets.
"Sokka," Zuko rasps, "Are- you- okay?"
"Yes, fuck yes, it feels good, don't stop," Sokka moans.
Zuko pumps his hips against Sokka's body, his breathing growing faster and faster, Sokka murmuring affirmative words against the pillow. Both of them yell out when Zuko comes, and as soon as Zuko rolls off onto his back, Sokka gets on top of him and kisses him gladly. They stay like this for a while, panting, before Sokka lies beside Zuko, holding his hand.
"Did you… did you enjoy that?" Sokka asks, when he's regained his breath.
"Yes," Zuko says, "Yes, I did." He looks at Sokka like he wants to say more, but says nothing else. They get under the covers together and fall asleep in the warm afterglow, still clasping hands. The moon is high in the sky outside the window, and she smiles on them happily.
Sokka has been living at the palace for a month now, and as Katara, Aang and Toph have lived there too, and do not know that Sokka and Zuko go to one another's rooms every night after dark, no one suspects their relationship. Zuko feels happier than he has in a long time.
Sokka is lying on Zuko's chaise lounge one evening, while Zuko sits with Sokka's head in his lap, stroking Sokka's hair. Sokka wriggles happily into a more comfortable position, and then rests one hand on top of his stomach contentedly. Zuko's eye follows the fall of his hand, and he notices for the first time that Sokka's belly is slightly swollen and rounded. Zuko doesn't mean to stare, but he must by accident, because Sokka notices where his gaze is falling and chuckles, patting his stomach lightly.
"Heh, you looking at this?" he laughs.
"Sorry," Zuko says instantly, averting his eyes. Sokka clicks his tongue fondly.
"Hey, it's okay. Living like a king and taking a break from fighting like a warrior has clearly caught up with me."
Zuko isn't really sure what to say. He isn't exactly surprised that Sokka is nonchalant and laid back about this, and part of him is jealous of the other boy being able to feel this way about his body.
"Right," he says stiffly. Sokka wriggles up into a sitting position so that he is eye to eye with Zuko.
"I just don't see it as the end of the world. I'm happy to be living here with you, I'm healthy, and I can lose the weight if I want, I just need to do a bit of exercise."
"I wish I could think like that," Zuko mutters. Sokka looks at him, his eyebrows rising a little in sympathy, and then kisses him.
"You'll get there, Zuko," Sokka promises, "We'll get you there."
"Thank you," Zuko replies quietly. He pauses for a moment, then presses his hand against Sokka's tummy lightly. Sokka smiles, and Zuko follows suit, saying, "It's nice. You're just a little soft. It's kind of comforting."
"Like when your uncle hugged you, when you were little," Sokka suggests. Zuko laughs, and raises an eyebrow.
"You're not quite like my uncle, Sokka. Not yet, at least."
"He's an inspiration," Sokka grins, "When I'm an old man, I intend to be very fat."
"Yep. Fat, jolly old man. That'll be me."
"Well, you're already jolly… and, ahem… guess you just need to work on being old," Zuko teases.
"Oh! Oh, is that so?" Sokka says in mock-outrage, puffing up his chest, "I'll show you, you beanpole-" He begins to tickle Zuko mercilessly, and the prince laughs until he can barely breathe, and ends up lying across Sokka, his head rested on his tummy, smiling from ear to ear.
Chapter 9: Part Eight
Azula's actions trigger a relapse in Zuko, which Sokka feels powerless to stop.
Occasionally, Zuko visits his father, and he feels that he ought to give Azula the same treatment. The first few times he goes to her, she says nothing, either sits still with her eyes closed and pretends she doesn't know he's there, or tries to frighten him by staring at him and rocking slowly.
"I know what you're trying to do," he says firmly, "And I'm not scared."
At that she stops rocking, and her eyes grow even rounder. She looks so different with her hair down and unkempt, and without her make up. She looks younger, more vulnerable. She looks a little like Zuko himself, which is unnerving, and if he let himself think about it, he would wonder about the narcissism in her abusing the brother who could be her twin.
The last time he visits her, she speaks. She comes right up to the bars, reaching out a hand, and he instantly backs away, like she is diseased.
"I love you, Zuko," she says, in a voice so sad and sincere that he has to believe it, "I didn't want to hurt you. I just wanted you, and that was the only way I knew I could have you."
"Do you realise what you have done to me?" Zuko replies, "You tore me apart. Because of you, I've been hurting and starving myself since I was thirteen years old. You've made it so hard to trust or love absolutely anyone. I can't stand the sight of you."
Her lip trembles; and for once he can't tell if the shining of her eyes is just crocodile tears.
"I love you," she trembles, "Please love me."
Zuko looks at her in disgust.
"You don't understand, Azula." he spits, "It's not just that I don't want to love you, though I don't. I can't love you."
He turns on his heel, and leaves before she can say another word.
Zuko is roused in the middle of the night by a panicked guard, who is so prepossessed by his task that he doesn't even seem to notice that the prince has been sharing his bed with Sokka, who is waking beside him.
"Sire," the guard says breathlessly, "There's been a terrible accident. We need you in the cells, and a healer or a doctor, urgently."
Zuko's eyes widen, and he leaps out of bed, yelling back to Sokka, "Bring Katara!" before running out of the room on the guard's heels. His heart drums so fast it feels more like a whirring, and dread rises in his stomach as he descends the steps to the cells where Azula is being kept. His throbbing heart seems to stop altogether when he reaches the cells, and sees what has happened within it.
The iron smell is almost overpowering. Azula is sprawled in one corner, her head slumped forward on her chest, her knotted hair falling in front of her face. Her skin is almost completely white, and she lies in a pool of blood, slowly growing around her, edging towards the walls. She is bleeding heavily from her wrists, which have been slashed open repeatedly, and one limp hand holds onto a piece of bloodied glass.
Zuko howls and throws himself towards her, pulling her up into his lap, covering his hands and his clothes in her blood.
"Azula!" he screams, "Azula, wake up!" he looks up, wild and desperate, "KATARA!"
Katara runs around the corner and into the cell, holding her vial of water. At once she kneels beside the sobbing prince and the silent princess, and gritting her teeth begins to bend the water over Azula's cuts in an attempt to heal them. She works determinedly for a number of minutes, and eventually the cuts seem to seal over, and the bleeding stops.
"We need to get her to a doctor," Katara says to Zuko, trying to keep her voice even and remain as calm as she can for his sake, for he is shaking and crying and she can't let herself do the same, "She needs stitches and bandages, what I've done won't heal the skin permanently."
Zuko only nods, then tries to get to his feet holding his sister, but his legs are weak and he can't. Sokka darts forward, taking Azula from him and hoisting her up into his hold, before turning and make his way up the stone steps as fast as he can. Katara puts an arm around Zuko to support him, and helps him up in the palace. They don't follow Sokka and Azula. Katara takes him to his bedroom, where she cleans the blood from his face and body. He wordlessly strips to his underwear and burns the blood-stained clothes, too tired and horrified to care what Katara sees. Her eyes widen at the scars. She says nothing, but she feels incredibly sad, and kisses his forehead chastely before taking him to the bed. They lie together, on top of the covers, and eventually Katara sleeps. Zuko stays awake until dawn, when he rises, steps into his bathroom, and hesitantly presses his fingers against the scar from he and Azula's Agni Kai. He burns the damage fleshed again, falling to his knees with the agony of it. He curls into a ball, and wishes silently that he were dead.
Relapse is the simultaneous losing and winning of a war, in which you are fighting for both sides. A part of you fights for normality, health, balance, whilst the other part strives for the madness that comforts you, for the pain you think you deserve. Relapse is your happiness being crushed under the steel-tipped boot of your anxiety and desire to self-punish.
Zuko is unwell, and too weak now to delude himself otherwise. His weights rises erratically and then dips dramatically, he cannot get through a day without bursting into tears and one moment or another, and he's harming himself again. He winces every time he sits and rises as the movement tests the raw scabs on his thighs horribly. He still sleeps side by side with Sokka, but fears Sokka's gentle touch, for Zuko thinks if he grows attached to it, it will be taken away, as was the love of his mother.
He sleeps badly. Whenever he closes his eyes and tries to rest, he sees Azula's pale figure slumped in a circle of her own blood, and the images burn in his mind until utter exhaustion sends him under.
"You're making me fat," Zuko cries, beating feebly at Sokka's chest with his fists, refusing the mouthful of food.
"I'm making you better," Sokka replies through gritted teeth, "I'm trying to save your bloody life, so fucking eat, Zuko"
"I hate you," Zuko chokes, "I hate everyone. I hate my mad family and the madness they've put in me."
"You're not mad, you're just unhappy and tired and very ill," Sokka insists, "And we're gonna get you better." Zuko weeps pathetically, and continues to refuse the food until Sokka gives up in frustration, throws the spoon down into the bowl and quits the room.