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Of soft hands and kindred spirits

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Zuko learns from a young age that touch can be one of the most dangerous things in someone’s life.

 

He learns it from father and his heavy hands, from shoulders being gripped too tight and from angry red finger-shaped marks on his body.

 

He learns it from Azula, whose hair he used to braid so carefully, whose hands he held so lovingly, small hands with little wriggly fingers that learn to push him from rooftops and leave burn marks behind.

 

He learns it from mother’s careful and gentle hands that he used to hold, from the arms that held him back and the promises she didn’t keep, learns it from leaning into her and believing in her touch, from getting used to something that will never come back.

 

He learns it from Lu Ten and his crushing hugs, from shoulders he used to ride, from feet he used to step on to dance around his room, from a last hand squeeze that says “I’ll come back”, from a last hug that left him to hope.

 

He remembers before Uncle left, how good his hugs were, how his hands were warm and oh so careful whenever he held Zuko, he remembers being held high and laughing brightly. But Uncle left and it has been so long ago.

 

And so he grows older and grows wary. 

 

He grows older and he learns to stop touching.

 

He shies away from touch, he knows better than to let himself be so open again.

 

The Agni Kai proves him right.

 

When father extended his hand and gingerly cradled his face.

 

When father lit his face alight, seared his skin and marked him as a traitor, as a disgrace.

 

---

 

He doesn’t remember much of the weeks after it, he knows he was touched but he can’t make himself remember the feeling of it.

 

He remembers pain.

 

He remembers darkness, not being able to see, all black and empty, and his balance being off, he remembers hands trying to stabilize him.

 

He remembers trying to touch his face, remembers the feeling of the gauze covering his eye, remembers the way that even with that little touch hurted so much his eye welled up with tears.

 

He remembers how gingerly and carefully Uncle touches him after it.

 

It’s been so long since someone touched him with so much care and delicacy, and still, he recoiled from it.

 

All his brain could conjure was how gently his father held his face before setting it aflame.

 

For weeks he can’t see his Uncle, he can only feel him, somehow he knows he’s not mad, his touch shows it, even if Zuko flinches from it.

 

Eventually, Uncle gives up on touching, and as Zuko feels relief he also feels his heart ache, but Uncle doesn’t give up from loving him, and so he has to believe it’s enough.

 

Uncle sits with him and talks even when he doesn’t answer, Uncle makes him tea and tells stories about the spirit world, Uncle wraps blankets around his shoulders and wishes him good night, Uncle meditates with him and Uncle teaches him not to be afraid of the flames anymore. 

 

Uncle loves him so much that Zuko lets himself indulge his wantings. When Uncle sits by his side Zuko taps his arm. 

 

One, two, three times. 

 

Uncle smiles at him and he knows he understood the message.

 

Living in that boat doesn’t give him many openings for touching people, or being touched, outside of training. 

 

But Uncle is there, always at the perfect distance for Zuko to tap his arm.

 

One, two, three times.

 

---

 

In the earth kingdom Zuko has to learn to not react violently when touched. He’s not Zuko anymore, he’s Lee, and sometimes the customers at the shop get grabby and Lee can’t lash at them like he used to, even though he seethes inside.

 

He’s not Zuko anymore and he’s unlearning his instincts to be violent.

 

He’s not really Zuko anymore but uncle is always there, at a same distance for Zuko to tap him.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It starts to feel like a mantra.

 

---

 

Back in caldera after Zuko commits the biggest mistake of his life he starts to learn to hate touch again, even though he craves it, craves having his Uncle close, craves those little three taps, but Uncle won’t look at him anymore.

 

He and Mai get together again, but it’s easier to see out of the act, to notice the way her touch lingers with Ty Lee and how he still shies away from her. He doesn’t touch her but they talk, it’s more than Zuko thought he would get, they talk and they both acknowledge this is not what they really want, they both keep doing it anyways.

 

---

 

Joining the avatar and his friends is what he comes to acknowledge to be the apex of his touch resocialization. 

 

They are a very touchy-feely group, he always noticed it, always holding each other and giving out support in every step of the way. He knew he wouldn’t be included and that filled his heart with as much relief as heartache.

 

Toph, of course, is the exception to it.

 

In his first day with the group, after the whole combustion man catastrophe, Toph joins him, extends her arms and makes grabby hands at him, he spends an entire minute looking at her, confused.

 

“You burned my feet, now you carry me around.” is all she says and he nods to himself because it seems fair.

 

“Shoulders or back” he doesn’t phrase it as a question and she just cranks her head up, as if she’s looking at the sky and rubs her chin.

 

“Shoulders,” she says and then gives him a wicked grin, it looks incredibly adorable in her round face and Zuko tries to stomp off the big brother feelings it gives him “I always wondered what it’s like to be tall” 

 

Zuko smiles at that and he knows that even if she can’t see his face she knows he’s smiling, he sits close to the fountain, and Toph steps into it, maneuvering around so she can comfortably sit on his shoulders. 

 

“Don’t touch my feet,” she warns, her voice is soft but he knows she could still crush him if she wanted to, break all of his bones as easily as he can break twigs, so he only nods and delicately holds her ankles.

 

When he gets up he can feel more than he hears Toph’s breath intake, she pats his head a couple of time and then murmurs he has soft hair, he snorts and somehow he can hear the smile in her voice when she asks him what type of expensive hair product he brought with him. He shushes her and keeps walking to where his camp is.

 

He leaves behind the others in various states of shock.

 

Toph doesn’t get down from his shoulders for him to pick up his things. He lived for three years on a ship during his first banishment, chores aren’t unbecoming for a banished prince, he’s used to weight and deep down he thinks she deserves this aspect of a normal childhood he guesses she didn’t had.

 

He packs his stuff, includes the mechanic set that Toph tells him will get him in Teo’s good graces and then comes back to where the others are, carrying his pack with one hand and hooking the other around Toph’s ankle. She crosses her arms over his head and rests her chin on them, without even noticing he taps her ankle.

 

One, two, three times.

 

When he realizes what he just did he immediately feels his face becoming hotter, he knows Toph must have realized something was wrong with him because she snorts loudly, thankfully she leaves him alone.

 

He goes to sleep in the isolated room thinking about those three taps, thinking about how he wishes he could tap uncle’s arm, thinking about how somehow he wasn’t that annoyed about someone touching him as he thought he’d be. 

 

He taps his own arm.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It feels like a reassurance.

 

---

 

He wakes up early the next day, rises at the same time as the sun, basks in the feeling of becoming awake as the sun goes up in the sky. He washes himself and scouts around for food, he knows he has at least a couple of hours before anyone wakes up. He goes to his camp and gets what he couldn’t bring with him while carrying Toph. An old, scratched and well-used tea set and some provisions he brought.

 

When the others wake up breakfast is ready, spiced rice porridge and some fruits he found while foraging. They eat while he practices his katas far away. Haru compliments him on the cooking while passing and he stumbles a little, he smiles at him and nods once, he doesn’t really think he’d be able to speak if he opened his mouth.

 

When he comes back Toph immediately takes his side, they sit on the ground and just stay there, silent, bathing in agni’s light, when he lays on the ground feeling the grass gently swaying against his skin he can’t stop himself from thinking it’s the most comfortable he’s been in months. 

 

Eventually, she gets up to train Aang’s earthbending, he stays there until she comes back and sits by his side again, she pokes him with her feet and he lets her, she then proceeds to poke his ribs, letting out a delighted noise when he squirms away and suppress a giggle. They stay there, sat together, with Toph randomly poking him and trying to elicit laughs, for the whole afternoon, they say nothing to each other, somehow that’s enough.

 

Toph stays by his side during dinner, still keen in her attempts to make him giggle like before, the others stare at them weirdly for the whole duration of it, somehow Zuko doesn’t care as much as he thought he would.

 

When he goes to sleep he taps uncle’s picture.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It’s not nearly enough but it will have to do for now. 

 

---

 

The next day he discovers his firebending is gone. 

 

He feels his heart sink to his stomach, his hands get shaky and he has to spend five minutes breathing in and out to stop himself from screaming. He comes to himself with a small hand in the back of his neck, he knows it’s Toph, she says nothing, just let her hand stay there, grounding him while he tries to relearn how to breath.

 

Toph is the one who suggests the dragons, of course she would, he thinks to himself, she’s a little genius. 

 

When Zuko settles himself in Appa’s saddle he crosses his arms tightly around himself, his hand hovering over his elbow. He taps a well known rhythm with his fingers.

 

One, two, three.

 

Aang gets really touchy when he’s scared, he leans into Zuko’s space, grabs his arm, his hands, when he loses the fire he tries to tackle Zuko, childish as he should be, as he was mostly denied to be, he drapes himself across Zuko’s back and his flailing arms make it easier for Zuko to crush the feelings that swell inside his chest.

 

When they stay there, back to back, waiting for the masters judgment Zuko taps his own arm.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It’s a reassurance.

 

He extends his hands and taps Aang’s wrist.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It’s almost an apology.

 

They do the dragon dance and it’s like nothing else matters, not the dragons flying around, not the wind that rushes and roars and almost makes him fall, all that matters are the moves, the way they extend their arms and the position of their feet. Aang bumps their fists in the end and then they are back to back again, staring at the eyes of ancient creatures presumed dead decades ago. Zuko can feel Aang shaking from where their backs are touching, he is too frozen to offer any reassurance right now.

 

The colors are what stuns him the most, the tornado of fire forming a kaleidoscope of hues so vibrant even his bad eye can process, he stares at the rainbow of flames and feels his eyes well up with tears. He looks up and realization dawns on him like the sun dawns the days since the start of time, gentle at first and then blinding.

 

“I understand” he whispers to the air, and he means it.

 

He closes his eyes and taps his own arm.

 

One, two, three times.

 

He almost feels complete.

 

---

 

Toph doesn’t really hug him when they come back, she probably knows he’s not ready for it yet, but she wraps her hand around one of wrists and chats his ear off about what happened while they were gone, talks about how Haru is useless in seeing with his feet and how Katara was mother henning all of them to compensate for Aang not being there. She drags him off to their spot and he lets her, he trips more than once due to her hasty rhythm but his heart feels a lot calmer, he knows she can tell.

 

They sit by each other during dinner and she keeps kicking his shins, at first he just lets her do it and try to ignore her, but then she gets insistent. When she kicks him for the third time in less than a minute he lifts a finger and pokes her in her cheek, her incredibly soft and chubby cheek, she lets out an outraged noise and he pokes her again for good measure. He can feel the other’s eyes on them, but Toph agressively poking his ribs takes his attention away from that, they stay like that for the entirety of dinner.

 

Sokka intercepts him while he’s walking to his room with an incredibly cold hand in his arm, it’s a testimony of how much he’s changed that he doesn’t get any immediate violent reactions except pulling his arm out the other’s grip. For some seconds the two just stay there staring at each other, Sokka with both his hands up and Zuko with his arm against his body, in the pale moonlight he can’t stop himself from thinking about just how pretty Sokka looks, the silver glow makes him look something akin to ethereal.

 

“Sorry, didn’t really thought about it before grabbing you,” it’s what he says and Zuko just gives him a jerky nod “I just wanted to know if you’d be up for a swordbending match tomorrow”

 

His self control ceases to exist for a moment and Zuko just snorts before trying to make himself serious again and nodding, Sokka is giving him a weird look, as if somehow Zuko just gave him some life altering news. 

 

The rest of the walk to his room is peaceful, he does his nighttime routine and then sits against his bed, holding Uncle’s picture close to him. He taps his face.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It’s something of an apology, something of a promise.

 

---

 

The next day his nerves are flaring. He trains firebending with Aang feeling his heart beating on his throat and his inner flame roaring through his veins. Toph realizes pretty soon the state he’s in, because of course she would, she grabs him by the arm and obliges him to sit on their spot, leaving his dao close by. Once again they just sit silently with each other, basking in the warm sunlight. When he tries to get up Toph physically stops him by throwing her legs on his lap, he tries again and wins a tendon of stone wrapping itself against his thighs, holding him against the ground.

 

“Good try sunshine,” she says in an eerily chirpy tone, he can almost smell the worry “You won’t get up until i feel like your heart is not about to jump out of your body.”

 

“I promised Sokka i’d spar with him.” is apparently the wrong thing to say because Toph’s grin get so big he can feel his own cheeks ache in solidarity. 

 

“Oh” is all she says but her tone tells him everything he needs to know, he feels his face burning and immediately suppress his groan with his hands. 

 

Toph giggles by his side and he just takes one of his hands off his face and pokes her on the cheek, she retributes by poking him on the ribs and letting out a delighted noise that sounds too much like a squeal when he giggles a little. He pokes her cheek again, in retribution, and she pokes him in yet another ticklish spot, this time he does laugh and this just incites her to go on.

 

When Sokka comes to look for him he hears the two of them before he even sees them, the burst of loud and outraged laugh that comes out of Toph when Zuko pinches her sides is what gives away their position, and when Sokka finally locates them he finds Toph kneeled by Zuko’s side, fiercely poking his ribs while he lets out bouts of loud, unashamed laugh. 

 

For a second the whole world seems to stop, time slowing down to allow Sokka to contemplate the view in front of him. Zuko with his head thrown back, throat exposed and hair messy and bouncing around as he shakes with uncontained laughter, despite his scar his face looks so beautiful, so full of happiness and glee in the golden sun glow that Sokka feels as like someone just punched him. It’s a sight so rare and so beautiful that he wishes he was able to timebend just so this moment would never stop.

 

Which happens as soon as Zuko sees him, his laughter dies down and he -incredibly carefully- shoves Toph off of him and clears his throat. His face starts to pinken and then redden and Sokka feels the warm grow under his own skin, he scratches the back of his neck and just stands there, not sure on what to say. Zuko saves him by just getting up, grabbing the previously abandoned dao and nodding to him, he nods back and watches as Zuko ruffles Toph’s hair and bolts out before she can retribute.

 

Their match starts awkward, the two of them circling around each other unsure of how to start, Sokka is still shaken over the vision of a carefree Zuko and Zuko still uneasy over hurting someone that would certainly sic Katara’s rage on him.

 

“You don’t need to hold back on me,” Sokka blurts out, holding his space sword firmly and staring deep into Zuko’s molten gold eyes “I was trained by master Piandao” 

 

“So was i,” Zuko says, softly, one blade in each hand “I’m not worried about fighting you, i’m worried about how many different ways of killing me your sister will find if i end up hurting you” 

 

“I’ll deal with Katara,” he says, because it’s all he can think about saying, the way the sunlight hits Zuko in this angle creates a golden halo of light around his head, it looks like Agni has bestowed him a crown “For now, let’s fight.”

 

And so they do. They circle and dance around each other, in a swirl of red and blue, in a flurry of movements. Sokka’s space swords clash with Zuko’s dao and they keep going, fighting and circling and dancing until the clinking of metal and the heavy breathing fill the room they’re in.

 

They end up in a draw, Zuko is better trained, he has years of practice, but Sokka has high cheekbones and his hair is falling out of his wolf tail and his smile is almost as bright as Agni’s light, no amount of practice would prepare Zuko for this. For the way this smile messes up with his inside, the way his guts feel as if filled with dragonflies, the way his heart suddenly aches. When Sokka laughs, loud and bright and free after he gets the upper hand again Zuko’s heart suddenly hammers its way to his throat. He looks at Sokka, framed in tandem by agni’s light and shade, the realization dawns on him.

 

Oh, he thinks to himself.

 

One, two, three. His heart hammers on his throat. 

 

One, two, three. It keeps the frantic rhythm.

 

He thinks he understands.

 

Sokka is looking at him that way again, as if Zuko is something akin to a mystery, he extends his hand and Zuko grabs it, using it as leverage to pull himself up as fast as he can, he feels the jolt of heat and energy that run through his body at the contact, he recognizes the way he can feel his own heart beating at the surface of his entire body, hammering under his skin. He drops Sokka’s hand as soon as he’s upright, nodding to him and offering an excuse about feeling overheated, Sokka nods back with a lost look on his face, Zuko allows himself to look at him, so beautiful and so golden in Agni’s light that Zuko feels his breath being stolen from his lungs. 

 

He turns his back and walks away.

 

He puts his hand over his chest, over where his heart is thundering and roaring under his ribcage. He touches his chest with his finger. Then he taps it.

 

One, two, three times.

 

It’s not completely it yet, but he knows it has the potential to be.

 

He doesn’t know if he should be happy or terrified at the thought.

 

He breathes deep and keeps walking, he stays in his room until dinner time.

 

---

 

During dinner Toph sits at his side again, he knows his heart is doing pirouettes inside his chest whenever he looks at Sokka because Toph keeps giving him the side eye, he pokes her in the shoulder as if he’s asking her not to say anything, at least not now, she narrows her eyes in the direction of his face but keeps her mouth shut, he feels her lightly poking his ribs. The temple, as all the air temples, gets colder at night and he can feel her shivering at his side so he breathes deep and focuses in channeling his inner flame through his chi paths, making himself warmer in purpose.

 

Toph immediately feels the difference because she scoots until she’s plastered against his side and he lifts his left arm to let her snuggle up to him better. He ignores the weird looks the others are throwing in their direction -frankly they should be used to it by now- on his other side he feels the Duke -who he knows it’s a child, even younger than Toph or Aang- take a sharp intake of breath, so he leaves the now empty bowl on the ground and lifts his other arm. The kid scoots closer, not enough to touch, but enough to benefit from the heat, and then sighs happily, going back to eat.

 

He closes his eyes and breathes deep again, fire comes from the breath, Uncle always said, so Zuko breathes deep and connects himself with his inner flame, feels the heat traveling through his chi paths, feels the fire running through his veins, running through his heart.

 

When he opens his eyes he notices that some of the others have shuffled closer to him. Haru is sitting by The Duke’s legs, his arm almost touching Zuko’s right leg and Aang, despite being able to control his own body temperature, is sitting plastered against Zuko’s left leg, Teo wheeled himself to be at Toph’s side, not really close to Zuko but enjoying the warmth all the same. The water tribe siblings are giving him completely different and at the same time completely weird looks. 

 

Katara looks at him like he just said something she can’t really understand but she doesn’t like all the same, and Sokka has a mix of the same look he did before and something akin to anger almost. Zuko’s heart hammers in his chest and Toph snickers from where her face is buried at the side of his ribcage, he lifts his hand and pokes her cheek, she looks ready to throw herself at him for another tickling attack but the bodies piled against him probably make her rethink it. She jabs him in the ribcage and he knows somehow she’ll get him later. 

 

Still, his heart doesn’t calm down and he can feel that Toph is not happy about it, she wrings her hand on his shirt and gives a small sigh.

 

“Can you talk about uncle?” she asks him, because she knows that even if thinking about uncle makes him all kinds of happy and sad it distracts his mind, she knows Uncle is the only subject capable of distracting him from whatever he’s thinking about. He rests his hand on her shoulder and taps it.

 

One, two, three times.

 

He opens his mouth and, with a soft voice, starts to talk about the only person in the world who gave him the love he never thought he deserved. He rests his other hand on his knee and taps himself.

 

One, two, three.

 

---

 

He should know that Sokka had something on his mind purely out of his expressions during dinner, but Zuko surely wasn’t expecting this. He tries to simmer down the disappointment he doesn’t even understand why he feels, he tries to keep quiet but looking at Sokka’s expression is affecting him. Sokka talks about his father and Zuko thinks about uncle, thinks about his own failed attempt of a prison break. He sighs deeply and crosses his arms, nestling his hands close to his ribcage.

 

One, two, three.

 

“I might have a hunch” He says, because he thinks that maybe knowing would be better than staying in the dark. Sokka listens to him with a clenched jaw and tense shoulders, he promises Zuko he’s not planning on anything, somehow he doesn’t believes him.

 

He finds Sokka just as he’s preparing to leave and it takes one glance at his face, determined and oh so pretty under the silver glow of the moonlight for Zuko to decide to follow him. He writes a note and swallows down how upset he feels about lying to Toph, he thinks about waking her up to tell her the truth, he is tired of lying, but he knows that worse than trying to stop them, Toph will try to follow, and he will not risk losing her.

 

He walks in front of Sokka, leading him to the hot air balloon, at one point he feels the other boy tripping and extends a hand to grab his arm and ground him. They stay there for a second too long, his hand warm against slightly colder skin, Sokka’s blue eyes gleaming under the moonlight. Crushing down the feelings crawling around his ribcage Zuko lets his arm go and keeps walking forward. He taps his fingers on his thigh.

 

One, two, three.

 

The ride to the boiling rock is awkward and uncomfortable, Zuko thinks about everything he left behind, he thinks about Mai, who loved him so much and at the same time not enough, he thinks about Ty Lee’s laugh and the way Mai would forget about hating the world whenever graced by the sound. He thinks about girls that used to hold his hands when they were children, who used to braid his hair and play with him. He breathes deeply and keeps feeding the flames, he counts with the crackle of the fire.

 

One, two, three.

 

---

 

Zuko was not ready for what comes with boiling rock. He was not ready to see Mai again, he was not ready to talk about it, he was not ready for the crushing feeling of seeing Sokka and Suki together, he was not ready to actually face Azula and he was not ready for actually being in the same space as Hakoda, as Sokka’s father. He was not ready to watch Mai go against his sister, to see Azula crumble and to watch as Mai brings Ty Lee close to her body. This was not how it was supposed to go and he was not ready for it.

 

His hand and forearm are still throbbing from the force of Sokka’s grip earlier but he barely acknowledges it, all of his nerves are flaring up, he watches Hakoda’s every move. He leaves his hands close to his body but he keeps his feet in perfect stance, ready to fight if needed, ready to protect. He knows he’s not being as sneaky as he thinks because when Hakoda finally looks at him, is with eyebrows raised, he moves forward and Zuko has to block himself from instantly stepping in front of Sokka. 

 

He steps out but stays in the sideline, watching, waiting, his head is pounding and he feels like throwing up. Instead, he crosses his arms and rests his fingers atop the bruise Sokka left on his forearm earlier today.

 

One, two, three.

 

He will fight if needed.

 

---

 

When they arrive to the air temple the first thing to happen is Katara throwing herself against her father. Sokka snakes himself into the hug and the three stay there, holding each other. Zuko feels a small hand grab his wrist and looks down to Toph’s worried expression, her hand slide from his wrist to hold his fingers and he gently squeezes. She opens her mouth but before she can voice her concern a sudden movement from the corner of Zuko’s eye makes him jump. Hakoda has a hand extended in his direction and the white hot surge of panic that runs through his veins makes his heart roar on his ears, he doesn’t think twice before dropping Toph’s hand and dashing away.

 

One, two, three, one two, three, one two, three.

 

He trips and stumbles and he keeps going.

 

---

 

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIM?” Toph roars almost as soon as Zuko is far enough from them, the others turn to her, she knows that they’re shocked and she couldn’t care less, all she can feel is Zuko’s heart hammering, all she can feel is the panic exhaling through him, it makes her sick.

 

“We did nothing!” Katara exclaims, Toph knows she’s crossing her arms and she loudly scoffs and stomps her feet, she knows she is behaving like a child but she couldn’t care less in this moment “Dad just raised his hand,” 

 

And that’s when the pieces connect and Toph can’t stop the loud noise that escapes from her throat, she turns to where she knows Hakoda stands and she narrows her eyes, she can’t see him but she needs them to know that this is serious business.

 

“I will find out what you did to him” she says, her voice going as low and at the same time as clear as she can make it “I don’t care that you’re their dad, i will throw you off this temple if i need to.”

 

And then she completely ignores Katara’s outraged cry and stomps in the direction she knows Zuko headed to. Her head is pounding and she is angry at them, she’s angry at Katara for going out of her way to antagonize someone who’s always scared out of his mind, she’s angry at Hakoda for whatever he did to Zuko and she’s angry at Sokka for letting it happen. She can feel someone going after her and stops herself from snapping as soon as she realizes that it’s not any of the water tribe siblings.

 

“Why are you following me?” she asks the other earthbender, tapping her feet impatiently, she wants to get to Zuko soon, she doesn’t like the thought of him being alone while blinded by panic, she hears him make a noise and guesses he shrugged before realizing she can’t see it.

 

 “I just want to check on him,” Haru says, quietly, she guesses he even has his hands up in mock surrender “They have their story with him but he was nothing but nice to me and he looked pretty much out of it.”

 

She nods at him and then turns around and sprints, not even caring if he’s following her. She can hear the way her feat pound against the ground but she doesn’t care about it, all she thinks is about getting to Zuko. All she thinks is about his heart hammering and the way his hand shook before he let hers go.

 

--- 

 

Zuko is retching when he feels a small hand gingerly rest against his neck. 

 

This is the moment he realizes how he got used to Toph touching him, the epiphany hitting him hard when he realizes that her hand against his neck in a moment of vulnerability didn’t sent him throwing flames through the air. He rubs his mouth and taps the ground with shaky fingers.

 

One, two, three.

 

Toph squeezes his neck before wrapping her hands around his arm and gently pulling him, he hears another set of footsteps before another pair of hands join her efforts to get him up, Toph seems fine with it so he doesn’t react much, his head pounds and he can faintly hear two voices, he squints and try to focus but the second person is on his deaf side. He moves his head and recognizes Haru’s hands lifting his arm to drape it around the other’s shoulders.

 

He lets himself be dragged for a couple of feet before his legs give up and he falls the two holding him up, he can hear Toph saying something and then he’s being lowered to lay on the ground. Haru is gently trying to make him more comfortable, his head pounds and he can feel the panic and adrenaline leaving his body, he breathes as deeply as he can and then Toph kneels at his side and puts her hand on his shoulder. For a while she just stays there, touching him, grounding him on reality.

 

“I don’t know what he did to you,” she says, quietly but fiercely, Zuko doesn’t has to force his brain to know she’s talking about Hakoda “But if you need me to i will throw him off this temple with my bare hands, I won’t even use my bending.”

 

Haru snickers and Zuko seems to be processing what she just said for some minutes, then he laughs weakly, the sound is hollow and raspy in all kind of wrong ways, Toph hates it, she never wants to listen to it again.

 

“Thanks Toph” he says, quietly, his voice sounds incredibly small but she can feel how calmer his heartbeat is. 

 

He covers her hand with his own, then gently taps the back of her hand.

 

One, two, three.

 

She extends her fingers on his shoulder and gently taps him back. She understands, she'll protect him, she's here.

 

One, two, three.

 

She understands, she'll protect him if he needs her to, she's here, she won't go anywhere.

 

She sweeps the back of his hand with her thumb.

 

One, two, three.

 

She doesn’t need to see him to know he is smiling, she tilts her head and broadly smiles back.

 

One, two, three.

 

They'll be fine.