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stronger than lover's love

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Everything happens at once. Katara finds herself being tightly tied up, then rudely dumped into a rough lineup on the ground in the middle of the camp. Aang is on her left side, and Sokka and Suki and Toph are deposited to her right.

Zuko's still fighting, badly outnumbered. Zhao is grinning an ugly smile like he's already won.

"Yip-yip!" Aang yells, his high voice and loud volume cutting through the rest of the shouting and firebending whooshes. Katara turns her head in time to see several soldiers approaching Appa, who's growling and arching his back in defensive aggression like an angry cat. Appa groans mournfully to hear Aang's take-off command when they're in distress and without any of them on his back or in his saddle, but he lifts into the air all the same and flies away, heading east. Appa's staggeringly intelligent. Katara wonders how far he'll fly.

"Follow the bison!" Zhao shouts, sending several of the soldiers sprinting after Appa.

The rest of them have been captured, no one's been killed, but Zuko firebends as though his life hinges on victory, breathing plumed bursts of flame at Zhao and trading blows with long, crackling fire-whips. Pressed hard and by numerous opponents, Zuko kicks and kicks fire, even claws with his short nails at one of the soldiers who gets too close before sending the man spinning away with a fire blast. Zuko fights like a trapped catwolf, and Katara isn't sure why. Zuko always stayed so focused in the dance of attack and defense when they contended with him in the past. Poised during battle even though he always acted furious. Easy to ruffle further, too, but always brave. Facing off against the assassin he'd hired to kill Aang, Zuko was fearless, putting himself between them and a psychotic killer on a ledge, with a soaring deadly drop-off right behind him. All it would have taken was one good shove. Even though Katara hated Zuko at the time, his courage was eye-widening. Now somehow Zuko's been replaced by this frantic, desperate person.

Katara watches helplessly as they slowly but surely move in on him. A couple of the Fire Nation soldiers are armed rather than bending, and at last one gets close enough with his truncheon to strike Zuko over the back of the head, hard enough to knock him unconscious.

"Behind you!" Sokka yells, but the warning comes half a second too late. It was a matter of time, anyway. Zuko's an incredible firebender, especially since the day trip he and Aang took, but no one save Aang in the Avatar state could successfully handle so many skilled adversaries alone.

Zuko goes out as instantly as the flame in his hand extinguishes. Once Zuko's limp, they easily clamp his forearms over his head and lash them tightly, then let him tumble to the ground a short distance from their prisoners. Katara's expecting Zuko to be picked up and dropped in place at the end of their row beside Toph, but the soldiers leave him sprawled on the grass.

Katara hasn't been able to take a firm headcount, but at least fifteen Fire Nation soldiers accompanied Zhao here. When she swivels her head to get a more accurate sense of the true numbers they're up against, a soldier nudges her vigorously in the shoulder.

"Face forward," he says sternly, and the palmful of fire he's holding hovers dangerously close to her hair. Katara faces front but not before glaring sourly up at him.

For a short time the morning is relatively quiet. Zhao and his soldiers move around the camp, tamping their tents down flat with booted feet and rifling through their packs and supplies, searching as though for stragglers or stowaways or treasure. Katara doesn't see any of the soldiers pocket anything, though, not even their coin, and Sokka's sword gets trodden into the soft dirt. The sun is rising, dawn spilling its pale, seemingly sourceless light over the meadow. It makes sense that firebenders would want to execute any surprise attacks close to daybreak, when their bending is stronger, in case of an extended fight. Zuko and Aang are their two early risers, and another ten or fifteen minutes and one or the other would have been awake.

Zuko groans, his head lolling around on the ground.

Aang starts to whisper something to her and gets jabbed in the back, then falls silent.

Zhao's voice comes quiet from behind her, speaking to a subordinate. "Did you find the sky bison?"

"No, sir."

Katara glances over her shoulder in time to see Zhao's scowl, then remembers herself and faces forward. Zhao crosses behind Katara, coming back to stand above Zuko, who's blinking awake.

"Get him up," Zhao says, and one of the Fire Nation guards hauls Zuko to his feet. Zhao grabs Zuko by the back of his tunic, pulls him in and hurls him rather dramatically against the big rock by Suki's torn and fallen tent, right in front of Katara less than three meters away. Zhao only holds Zuko close for a moment before pitching him forward, but the moment is long enough to see the great size difference between them. Katara thinks of Zuko as tall because he's the tallest member of their group, being oldest, but Zhao towers over him, powerfully built and barrel-chested. Zuko looks short and slender in Zhao's shadow, and frail too given his unsteadiness.

Zuko's hips hit the boulder and the force of the shove bends him forward over the surface. Zuko goes down so hard he hits his head a second time. Normally Zuko could probably have planted his feet and resisted being thrown down, but with the recent blackout and his arms bound above his head Zuko's off-balance, his usual grace diminished. Zuko doesn't lose consciousness again, though he looks dazed for a second, and he wakes up fast. A soldier off to the side holds his arms down, preventing him from rising. Zhao stalks Zuko to the rock, coming to stand behind him.

"I challenge you to an Agni Kai!" Zuko yells, unruly panic in his voice.

Zhao laughs at him.

"I can hardly refuse a challenge from the crown prince," Zhao drawls, "but you're not anymore, are you? Crown Princess Azula will be assuming the throne after Fire Lord Ozai ascends." Zhao glances towards the sun and takes a deep, satisfied inhalation of the morning air. "You can't imagine how much it pleasure it gives me to be the one to inform you you've been officially stripped of both your birthright and your citizenship."

"I don't want either," Zuko snarls, and he breathes out a broiling spate of fire that the soldier holding his arms nimbly ducks.

Zhao grabs Zuko by his hair, yanking his head back, and the gout of flame fizzles and cuts off as Zuko hisses in pain. "Don't you? As a traitor to your lord and country, you cannot call on Agni Kai as a shield. And so I decline." Zhao tilts his head, his eyes glinting. "Besides, we just fought."

"Yeah, eight to one, you coward," Sokka says scornfully.

"What do you want?" Katara demands for the third time, and for the first time, Zhao glances in her direction and answers her.

"The Avatar, obviously," Zhao says as though she's stupid, his eyes drifting to Aang and back to Katara. Zhao lets go of Zuko's hair and settles his hand on Zuko's back. "Among other things."

The way Zhao looks down at Zuko is beyond creepy, and wanting to capture Aang doesn't explain tying them up in a row and tossing Zuko over a rock at hip height in front of them. Katara gets the sense that something terrible is about to happen, that Zhao is about to hurt Zuko badly. But surely he won't--

*

"Get off me!" Zuko shouts with a ferocity disproportionate to a hand on his back, and Sokka has a really bad feeling about what Zhao's going to do, and the thought chills him all the way to his bones, which would probably chatter like teeth if not for all his muscle and tendons and stuff.

"Get off him!" Sokka yells for solidarity's sake, straining against the cords keeping his wrists together. It's not like he thinks Zhao or a bunch of Fire Nation soldiers are going to listen, or anything, but he's powerless to do anything else. Stupid high-quality Fire Nation rope.

Zhao looks up, not taking his hand off Zuko, and Zhao looks like he's had enough. "Gag him," Zhao says with a nod of his head to Sokka.

"Don't you dare--!" Sokka shouts before an anonymous firebender crams a ball of black cloth in his mouth, finger-shove by shove, and Sokka's indignant shout becomes a muffled, unintelligible noise. Maybe he should have been a little less mouthy during their capture, but Sokka can't exactly change who he is on a silver piece. The soldier finishes off the gag by tightly tying a single length of cord around Sokka's face, forcing his mouth to stay open and full of used Fire Nation underwear or whatever.

"Now do behave," Zhao says to them, his eyes glittering. "It would be a shame if there was loss of life today."

They've grown accustomed, over the course of the past year, to defying powerful adults and calling them out. Zhao feels like a very different kind of adult, though. Katara doesn't show it, but Sokka can tell she's as frightened as she is angry. Sokka is too, not that he would ever admit being afraid. Zhao may have a cold-blooded smile and unnerving eyes like a serpentshark, and he may have them at his mercy, but a warrior of the Water Tribe shows no fear.

Sokka leans slightly backwards and peers behind Suki's back. A quick glance at her wrists shows she's trussed as neatly and tightly as he is. Same with Katara. On Katara's other side, Aang is the single one of them who's been chained and manacled rather than bound with black cord and smart military knots. Toph got straight-up hogtied after sending a couple of firebenders flying with a stamp of her foot, and the position looks achingly uncomfortable.

"Strip him,' Zhao orders, and two soldiers move forward to methodically yank off Zuko's boots, pants, and the little red silk shorts-and-loincloth number male Fire Nation royalty wear for undergarments (and how weird is it that Sokka knows an intimate piece of trivia like that). The soldiers' movements are synced and economical, like they've done this before. Sokka's stomach lurches, all his strange, amorphous yet somehow certain fears confirmed. Sure they could be planning to lash Zuko or something, but Sokka knows that's not it.

Zuko briefly curses up a storm, swearing by Agni, vowing to kill them, Sokka isn't sure what else because several of the words he's never even heard before. Maybe insulting their parentage, that's always a classic. It makes sense, Zuko did live on a ship with a bunch of sailors for years, everybody knows nobody swears like sailors, and of course dialects vary from one part of the world to the next, Fire Nation obscenities don't usually travel down to the Southern Water Tribe. Natural enough, because how would they? Sokka's heart pounds, but he keeps his eyes on the ground and dwells on the topic of dialect and possible translations for a short time, because it distracts him from the nightmare scenario, unfolding right in front of him, that he's helpless to stop.

A new and different sound lifts his head, and Sokka looks up to see one soldier holding Zuko's bound arms down while the other rips through the backs of both tunic and shirt with a knife. Zuko wrenches against the hands on him, pushing away, and Zhao pins him to the rock with a well-placed knee in his lower back. Zuko grunts at the pressure as he collapses forward against the stone.

Sokka glances at Aang and Katara, then at Suki, not sure whether he's supposed to be watching this or not. Zhao obviously wants them to see this, so maybe he shouldn't look, but the idea of pretending nothing at all is happening right now feels wrong. Aang's staring openly at the pair in front of them, and he appears distressed, but his forehead is puckered in the way he gets when he knows he's not quite caught up to whatever's going on around him. Katara's watching with an aggrieved glower, and it's only because Sokka has known her all her life that he can tell she's scared and worried sick right now. Suki looks at Zhao forbiddingly, like she's been tasked with judging his soul.

As his soldier shears through the last of Zuko's clothing, Zhao reaches down and rubs his own groin through his fancy admiral's trousers, just looking down at Zuko as they get him naked.

"You've grown taller since last time," Zhao says to Zuko politely, as if making courtly conversation.

"I bet you hate that," Zuko bursts out, and though Sokka would have whimsically declared such a thing inconceivable only yesterday, Zuko looks like he's teetering on the verge of tears.

"Not at all," Zhao says casually.

Last time, Sokka processes. 'Last time' meaning last time they met, or 'last time' meaning Zhao has done this to Zuko before? The latter would explain why Zuko was freaking out the whole time he and Zhao were catapulting fireballs at each other. Spirits but the Fire Nation is fucked up.

"You fought better today, at least," Zhao taunts. Zhao leans down, covering Zuko's back with his own. Zhao's so much taller that he has access to Zuko's face when he leans down even without turning Zuko's head. Zhao licks and sucks at Zuko's scarred cheekbone, leaving a love bite there ruddier than the pink outer area of the scar, dark as the worst of the long-damaged skin around Zuko's eye, and Zhao's so disgusting Sokka gets a queasy feeling watching him.

Zuko's chest heaves against the rock like he's hyperventilating.

Zhao straightens and resumes pretending to be decorous, his inflection formal, like he's not committing six different kinds of assault right now. Zhao lands a hand in Zuko's hair again, and he seeks out Zuko's now-wet scar with his other hand, tracing the pink, deep-blistered edges. "And you've grown out your hair. I would hardly have recognized you if not for this." Zhao gives the scar tissue a little pinch, then studies the shaggy, sweaty mop of Zuko's hair. "This unkempt mess makes you look like the fugitive you are. At least you had the minimal decency to cut off your topknot, or I'd do it for you."

Zuko tenses his biceps and deliberately strains against the bindings around his forearms, testing the strength of his arms against that of the cord. He's thwarted by the ornate way he's been tied, with his forearms fastened together but also his elbows tied perpendicular, with the longer stretches of cord interwoven with the shorter loops and running the length of his forearms. His voice quavers ever so slightly. "You deserve to be court-martialed for your idiocy at the North Pole."

Zhao unfastens a hidden panel in his trousers and pulls his cock out with one hand, already hard and stroking himself slowly, sliding his hand out of Zuko's hair and down along his body. Zhao's a big guy, not as enormous as Combustion Man but still pretty tall and hulking, and his cock is in line with the rest of him.

"The fault for that failure lies with your traitorous uncle," Zhao says. "I'll be hunting him down next."

Zuko snaps. "Don't you go near my uncle!"

"Maybe you should worry a bit more about yourself, for now. And your little friends." Zhao strokes his cock lightly between Zuko's pale asscheeks, up and down, and Zuko snarls at the contact. "Did you really think you could escape me, Zuko?"

"Two men can--?" Aang whispers, his eyes wide and round as a pair of seal-holes, and his eyebrows would be in his hair if he had any hair, and he's staring now as if he's just unraveled a great mystery of the world. Sokka isn't sure whether Aang's speaking to Katara or talking to himself, or whether he's even aware he murmured aloud.

Zhao hears him and barks a short, surprised laugh. "Your peasant associates are shockingly ignorant," Zhao muses with a glance sideways. "Yes, Avatar Aang."

Aang stares at him.

"I suppose there's no sexual education in the less civilized parts of the world." Zhao bends further over Zuko's back, bringing their faces close. "But you haven't enlightened them? You haven't told them about us?"

Zuko's still breathing hard, and he shuts his eyes as though its easier not to look at them or at Zhao. "There's no us. There's just you, a creep and a pervert."

"Yeah I didn't want to say anything before, but I got a real molester vibe off this guy," Toph remarks to no one in particular, and oh sure, Sokka got a cloth jammed down his throat, but Zhao just ignores Toph like he didn't hear her.

Zhao licks down the side of his hand and seeks out the entrance to Zuko's body, parting Zuko's buttocks with one hand and testing between them with his wet thumb.

"Take your hands off me!" Zuko almost screams. Zhao ignores him, keeping Zuko's hips pinned to the stone while one of the Fire Nation soldiers continues to hold Zuko's bound arms down. With nowhere else to move, Zuko's leg comes up backwards to kick Zhao with fire.

Zhao dodges the rocket of flame and catches Zuko's calf. Cruelly Zhao bends Zuko's bare foot at the ankle, twisting his foot too far. Sokka can see Zuko in profile repressing a cry, and the pain ends up scrawled across his face with clenched-shut eyes and gritted teeth.

"Don't try that again," Zhao tells Zuko sharply, as though he's annoyed. "Or I'll kill one of your little friends."

The words seem to take a second to sink in, but when they do all the fight goes out of Zuko, like a wheezing exhaled breath. Zhao releases Zuko's leg and presses Zuko's head down to the rock with his face turned towards the four of them. Zuko's eyes rove over them, from Aang to Katara to Sokka to Suki to Toph, and he swallows. His red-rimmed eyes fleetingly meet Sokka's and Sokka can see all the desperation in them.

"I'll let you choose which. One of the snow savages, or one of the dirt girls?"

Zuko sags against the stone, but Sokka watches him, and though dread and despair and resignation all flit across Zuko's face, Sokka thinks from the set of his jaw that he seems to regroup. Zuko has a determination and strength of will most people couldn't dream of; Sokka saw his inner core of fortitude again and again at the Boiling Rock.

"I'll cooperate," Zuko whispers, defeated.

Zhao kicks Zuko's feet apart, angling his legs open, and Zuko doesn't try to straighten them. "You can still struggle," Zhao says, leering, and he grips Zuko's buttocks with both hands, squeezing them. "Confine it to here and you can struggle all you want."

Zhao reaches forward to rub Zuko's nipples, which makes Zuko screw his eyes shut and squirm uncomfortably.

Katara should not be seeing this. Of course none of them should be seeing this -- this shouldn't be happening at all, but if it's going to happen, Katara shouldn't be witnessing it. At least Katara probably can't see too much of what's happening behind the rock, below the belt. But Aang's at an angle to see everything, and Toph will too, and they're both even younger than Katara.

Sokka looks again at his friends, his maybe-kinda-girlfriend (they haven't discussed commitment because things are crazy with the war but oh my goodness does he like Suki) and his sister. Katara's cheeks are red and her face says she's more than ready to commit murder. Aang's sitting statue-frozen now that he has a fuller understanding of what's happening. Aang's averted his eyes, but he steals furtive glances upwards now and then like he can only handle the reality of this in small doses, and he looks aghast. Suki isn't watching Zhao hurt Zuko. Suki's gaze stays fastened on her lap, and though she isn't crying, she looks more unspeakably sad than Sokka has ever seen her. Seeing Sokka's gaze in her peripheral vision, maybe, Suki lifts her head to him. Her expression contains all the sorrow in the whole world, and Sokka tries his best to give her a reassuring look. He wishes he could put his arm around her.

Toph's resting her forehead against the ground, probably just to get as comfortable as she can in a nasty-looking stress position, but Toph's Toph-sonar is always on, and with echolocation like a freaking dolphin-shrew, she can't have been sheltered like Aang and Katara. She'll likely sense everything that's happening, every move and touch, and there's nothing wrong with her ears either. Toph's expression is bland as ever, though, she doesn't wear her emotions outwardly like Aang and Katara tend to do.

Sokka's head bounces up at the sound of his own name, startled out of his moment of distraction.

"Sokka's right. You're a coward," Zuko says curtly.

"An honorless disowned knave who betrayed the Fire Lord thinks I'm a coward," Zhao murmurs. "And his rube friend from the frozen wastelands agrees. Pathetic."

Zuko may have gone limp, but he has indeed collected himself, and if he was on the edge of tears before, he's mastered the impulse now. "You're pathetic," Zuko retorts.

"And yet your destiny led you to me."

"You have nothing to do with my destiny," Zuko says, tight and defiant. "There's nothing you can do to me that'll be worse than what I've already survived and surmounted. You've lost."

"Be careful, Zuko, that sounds like a challenge," Zhao says calmly, and as he bends over Zuko's prone form, Zhao's half-hard cock dips and bobs into the cleft between Zuko's clenched buttocks.

They all jump when Aang suddenly booms out a command. "Admiral Zhao, stop!"

Aang may be just a kid, but sometimes he gets the most authoritative ring to his voice. Something about being the Avatar, maybe. "You have me as your prisoner, I'm coming with you back to the Fire Nation. You don't have to do this to Zuko."

Zhao pauses to regard Aang. "Avatar Aang, allow me to impress a short lesson upon you. There are two kinds of people in this world. Those with the strength to take what they want, and the weak. Predators, and prey." Zhao pets Zuko's hair almost affectionately. "You're right, of course, that I don't have to do this. I choose to."

"Let Zuko go," Aang says, growing heated. "Leave all my friends alone, and I promise I'll come with you to the Fire Nation, and I won't try to escape or let anyone rescue me."

"Aang, no!" Katara cries.

"No." Zuko sounds like a worse version of himself, like he's been deprived of air, his voice raw and strangled. He shakes his head a fraction, croaking out the words with his face pressed into the rock, almost too soft to be heard. "I'm not worth that."

"He's not," Zhao agrees, amused.

"He is to me," Aang says fiercely.

Zuko mutely shakes his head against the rock.

Sokka's of two minds about this debate. He waffles internally, and Zhao answers before Sokka can air an opinion, and then he remembers he's gagged.

"Touching," Zhao pronounces, and Sokka would bet a big delicious pile of blubbered seal jerky Zhao's never been genuinely moved by anything in his entire life.

"I'm not concerned about you escaping," Zhao says to Aang. "Not this time. I know you can't enter the Avatar state, and I believe the infamous Blue Spirit will be out of commission for the foreseeable future."

Zhao returns his attention to Zuko, dismissing Aang. Zhao spits in his palm and rubs the saliva on his cock. Not enough, Sokka thinks. Not enough to keep Zuko from getting hurt, especially given the daunting size of Zhao's hard-on. Zhao spits between Zuko's buttocks once too, and then Zhao nestles his cock up to Zuko's hole. Zuko has not been stretched or prepared properly with whale oil or anything. Sokka knows a man ought to be, for some nicer consensual version of this brutality, and he winces as Zhao pushes in a little bit, holding Zuko's buttocks apart with both hands. Sokka has no real idea what that must feel like, but he knows it has to hurt. Zuko stiffens but holds himself in check.

Sokka knows it's selfish and idiotic but he can't help the gnawing anxiety of wondering whether, since Zhao evidently swings this way, he might be next. Whether all of them might get a turn, if Zhao is this nonchalant about raping his prisoners. They're surrounded by plenty of Fire soldiers. If any of them touch so much as a hair on Katara's head, Sokka is going to get loose long enough to commit murder. Mass murder. He tells himself this knowing full well he can't slip his bonds, but the thought still makes him feel better... a little.

"Agree to make this good and I'll go easy on you," Zhao suggests.

"No," Zuko says flatly.

"As you wish," Zhao says. "Get ready then."

And Zhao thrusts in hard. Zuko throws his head back as his spine arches painfully, and his lips pull away from his teeth. Somehow he stays silent, though it's as if his whole body is choking on the unwanted penetration. The air he's exhaling through his nose changes from normal invisible air to uneven, erratic bursts of dark gray smoke, laced with slivers of orange flame. Sokka yells on Zuko's behalf, although of course little sound travels past the gag. Again Zuko struggles against Zhao's greater strength and weight, though more weakly than before.

"You can't resist fighting, can you?" Zhao asks rhetorically, disapproving. "This hurts less if you yield, you know that." Zhao sighs, a long disappointed gust as though Zuko's tiresome and has let him down. "Such poor self-control."

Zuko slams his head once down into the rock as though in frustration. For a few seconds he continues to writhe, then with an effort forces himself to stop, his movements reduced to quivers. The flecks of fire vanish from the gray smoke emerging from his nostrils.

When Zhao pulls out, his cock is smeared with blood. "You are a son of fire," Zhao murmurs. "You could have been so much more than this."

Zhao thrusts in a few times, then pauses to run his hands up and down the sides of Zuko's body. Zhao repositions Zuko's hips, pulling him back, and Sokka sees just a flash of Zuko's cock before it disappears into Zhao's large hand. The air Zuko's exhaling begins to clear as Zhao jacks him, slowly at first before some faster strokes. Zuko takes it, though he's visibly breathing hard again, and he gets hard, which only makes Sokka's heart go out to him more. Zhao bites Zuko's shoulder hard enough to make Zuko jerk as Zhao clamps down, then worries the skin with his teeth.

Zhao's fingers end up back on Zuko's nipples, fondling them in a way that makes Zuko shake. Sokka can think of no other word for the way Zuko vibrates and trembles and shivers at the touch. Zhao rubs and pinches, then patiently administers long sharp pinches, only letting up when Zuko finally lets out the small unhappy gasp Zhao was evidently seeking.

Zhao's hips roll into Zuko's, and flex in smaller movements as he leans down against Zuko's back again. Zuko flinches but otherwise holds quiescent. "Make it good for me, and I won't kill any of them when we're done here."

"I don't believe you," Zuko whispers.

"I give you my word," Zhao assures him.

Zuko's wavering, Sokka can tell. Sokka tries to yell 'don't do it' because Zhao can be trusted exactly as far as they can throw the Fire Nation capital city without Aang or Toph helping, but as could probably be expected, the words come out more like -- "Da ooh ih!"

At the same time, Toph, who all things considered has been remarkably restrained through this whole thing, begins loudly, "I'd rather die a thousand fiery deaths than have you give that poop-eating hyenabat one second of satisfaction," and with a flicker of Zhao's eyes and a jerk of his chin, Toph too gets the cloth-stuffed cord-tied mouth treatment. Toph tries to say more, but the soldier gagging her is too quick.

Zuko answers Zhao like Sokka and Toph hadn't just weighed in. "Then you'll probably do something horrible to them," Zuko mutters.

"I won't even hurt them." Zhao pulls out slowly and pushes back in fast and hard, getting streaks of fresh blood on his cock, or maybe he's just smearing the initial bout of bleeding around differently, Sokka can't really tell. Zhao flashes his disagreeable, lopsided smile, like he's enjoying the effect his proposal's had on Zuko. "Nor will my soldiers. You have my word as a man of the Fire Nation. What do you say, Zuko?"

Zuko's jaw clenches, and his single-word answer is sour and disaffected, but the expression that settles over his face is resigned. "Fine."

"That's a good boy," Zhao says as he begins to thrust again, and now Zuko's hips move back to meet his. Zuko's lips draw back in a gnashed grimace, revealing still-gritted white teeth. "I knew you would see reason." Zhao straightens Zuko's head and Zuko's lips open. Zhao slides two fingers deeply into Zuko's mouth, and Zuko passes on the opportunity to bite Zhao or to turn his head away. Zuko just endures it, even licking Zhao's fingers judging by the movement of his jaw. Zuko knows what Zhao likes, Sokka realizes. The epiphany makes him feel a little sick all over again. Zhao and Zuko definitely have some sort of... history.

Zhao swipes his tongue up the scar, starting below Zuko's eye and ending in the melted stump of what was Zuko's left ear, and yes, Zuko's definitely sucking Zhao's fingers.

Sokka surreptitiously continues to struggle with the cords around his wrists, but they hold stubbornly. One of the Fire Nation soldiers pacing behind them notices and maliciously slaps Sokka in the back of the head. Sokka stares daggers-- no, more like space swords up at him, but Sokka also stops trying to tease out the knots, at least for now.

Zhao withdraws his fingers from Zuko's mouth. Zhao seems drawn back again and again to two places-- Zuko's nipples, and the scar. Zhao grips Zuko's face with his right hand and with his left hand rubs at the blotchy red skin of Zuko's scar like he's memorizing the gradations of texture. With lips and teeth Zhao leaves scattered love bites on Zuko's unmarred cheek and his neck, and he suckles additional marks onto the scar.

Zuko's breath hitches when Zhao reaches around and takes his cock in hand again, and he seems to start to speak, but in the end he says nothing, only resumes pushing back against Zhao. Zuko opens his eyes as though to see whether they're still there watching or whether they've all been carted off, or slaughtered by Zhao's men, or gone on a spontaneous Spirit World jaunt, Sokka doesn't know. Zuko's gaze meets Sokka's for a second before he closes his eyes again, and Sokka gets the strange sense that though Zuko's wretchedly ashamed to have them seeing this, he's also drawing strength from them.

Zhao pulls out and spits on his cock a few more times, then begins driving into Zuko with even greater force. Zuko keeps his eyes shut.

"You're still an embarrassment of riches," Zhao tells Zuko, quiet and incongruously fond. Using Zuko's hair again, Zhao arranges Zuko's face just so and tongue kisses him hard and deeply. Zuko opens his mouth and accepts Zhao's lips skimming over his, then diving in thoroughly. Zuko's lips move in answer, and he even kisses Zhao back, though he looks overwhelmed. When Zhao releases his hair and pulls back, Zuko rests his temple against the boulder, staring into nothing at a midpoint somewhere between Sokka and Suki, and his expression looks bleak.

Zhao starts bucking his hips faster and harder, and Zuko meets him thrust for thrust. Zhao's fingers rhythmically squeeze and pull at Zuko's nipples. It's gross, Sokka thinks, that he's going to have a memory of Zhao's likes and tells and probably o-face for the rest of his life. Then Sokka feels guilty for even thinking it, because of course nothing he'll come away with here is a fraction as awful as whatever trauma will be rattling around inside Zuko's head after this morning.

"I've missed this," Zhao murmurs in Zuko's good ear.

Sokka has no idea how bad it's going to get until Zhao brings his hand down to Zuko's groin again, but instead of palming Zuko's hard cock, Zhao bundles Zuko's ballsack into his hand. Zhao reaches his other hand in between Zuko's legs from behind, and Sokka can't tell what kind of pressure Zhao applies, but Zuko starts twisting frantically under Zhao, and Zuko produces noises like Sokka never in ten thousand years of darkness could have imagined hearing from him. A couple of whimpers turn into a chilling howl, which evolves into a high wordless scream for mercy. Zuko's hard-on deflates quickly. The sounds cause even Suki, who's been steadfastly refusing to watch Zhao rape Zuko, to startle and look up and see what ghastly business Zhao's doing to cause them. Zuko's face is unrecognizably contorted in agony.

"Stop it!" Katara shouts, but Zhao ignores her.

Zhao murmurs something Sokka can't hear because the words are lost in Zuko's wail. Zhao must let up on Zuko's balls, because Zuko's sounds end in a choked-off death-rattle noise, only to start up again a few seconds later. What feels like an eternity passes before Zhao returns both hands to Zuko's nipples, thumbing them like strings on that one Fire Nation instrument. The tonkaro? tonkuri? A fragment of Sokka's brain travels on a vacation to find out, but he can't remember with the shrill sound piercing the early morning. At last Zuko's long high-pitched shriek subsides into a low keening.

That sound takes a long time to dwindle, too.

The nipple-kneading turns slightly frenzied, and Zhao's pace grows frantic in a way Sokka can recognize. Zhao, who's been so brazen about violently raping a teenager who's barely old enough for sex in front of a bunch of teenagers who probably aren't, turns his face away to orgasm in some bizarre concession to privacy. (Well, maybe Aang can see Zhao's face from his angle, but Sokka can't.) Zhao's fingers brutally pinch Zuko's nipples, and his hips move into Zuko's with cruel finality, sharpen, then still. Zuko lets out a single broken sob when Zhao's hands let up on his chest.

"You're mine, Zuko, and you'll always be mine," Zhao murmurs, kissing Zuko's burned-off ear.

And then it's over.

Zhao pulls out of Zuko and tucks his cock away. Sokka tries not to look at the diluted pink tinge of the come coating Zhao's cock. Zhao leisurely refastens his trousers; Zuko looks like he's still in agony. He rocks his body to the extent he can, which is about half an inch forward and back, but giving the impression of movement, or an attempt at it.

Zuko's cheeks are wet with tears, and his eyes are full from having his balls squeezed or wrung out or whatever Zhao did. His face is etched in lines of pain when Zhao pulls away, and though he can't wipe his eyes, Zuko forces his face to relax before he tries to speak.

"You gave me your word," Zuko reminds Zhao, his voice cracking.

"So I did," Zhao says. Still behind Zuko and out of his sight, Zhao unsheathes a nasty-looking hunting knife from a pocket or holster within his jacket, shoring the weapon up in his grip with a tiny toss, holding the handle in his fist loosely but firmly. Sokka thinks it's a knife, rather than a dagger, but he can't be sure, because he only glimpses it for a split second. He has the impression it's handsome, a shiny and well-polished gray metal, the sort of blade good for both killing an animal and skinning it afterward. Zhao snakes the knife around Zuko's side. "Here's your destiny, Zuko," Zhao says.

Sokka can't breathe and he can't look away.

Then there's a lot of screaming.

Zhao brings the knife in swiftly, burying it to the hilt low in Zuko's gut. Katara sees the strike about to happen before Zuko does, and Katara's scream, half warning and half simple horror, starts before his and lasts after his is done. Zuko's cry is brief, agonized, and nearly drowned out. Katara's is prolonged and ebbs into a little gasp. Suki yelling Zuko's name comes a half-second later than the other two, probably because she resumed avoiding the sight of Zhao's assault, and Aang too cries out Zuko's name. Sokka can't make more than a muted sound, and Toph stays grimly silent.

"I understand an abdominal wound is a long and terribly painful way to die," Zhao says. "Why, you might last three days."

Still pinned by Zhao's weight and unable to get his arms down to cover the wound, Zuko contorts around the blade, his mostly-immobilized body compelled to crumple further. Zuko's tied arms spasm like the muscles are involuntarily seeking to cover the injury. Zuko screams again as Zhao twists the knife a little this way and that, widening the slice and scraping around the edges of the wound.

"Then again, maybe not," Zhao says, and Sokka takes a second look at the weapon as Zhao withdraws it, and Sokka's heart seizes up, because Zhao's blade is too thick and vicious to allow Zuko to do much of anything besides die.

Zhao pulls back and the soldier holding Zuko's arms steps away, allowing Zuko to tumble down to the ground. Zuko brings his bound arms down in front of him as he falls, and he lands on the grass doubled-over on his side. The line of his arms doesn't quite reach the stab wound low in his gut, but he curls up to compensate, instinctively covering the wound.

Zhao bends and cleans the weapon on Zuko's arm and shoulder, efficient wipes in four straight lines, two for each side to fully clean the blade. Zhao puts the knife away and straightens his tunic, examining his uniform and brushing himself off. "Any last words you'd like me to tell Fire Lord Ozai?"

"That he can go burn, and so can you," Zuko spits out from the ground.

Zhao smiles.

*

Katara holds her breath. She thinks they all do, waiting to find out if Zhao is planning to give the rest of them the same treatment-- whether sexual violation or mortal wounds with Zhao's horrible dagger. If only the moon had been full last night, if only Aang's chakras weren't blocked--

But "Bring the Avatar," are Zhao's parting words, and Aang is lifted between two Fire Nation soldiers and toted away. Aang appears as shocked and sobered as any of them by what they just witnessed, and he's been silently, openly, angrily weeping. Aang's not ashamed to cry to the extent most boys are, and tears have dampened his cheeks and the shoulder of his toga shawl and the bared skin of his chest. Katara perceives it all at a glance. Their gazes lock, and Katara tries to pack all of her promises into her eyes-- we'll find you, we'll rescue you. She'd know Aang understands even if not for the tiny nods they exchange before the division marches out of sight behind the first row of trees.

"Help me Sokka," Katara demands as soon as the soldiers are out of sight, turning and pressing her back against his. Sokka's fingers scrabble at her ties, and they wrestle with the knots together in a terrible silence. Katara watches the pained rise and fall of Zuko's chest with each breath, willing him to hang on.

As soon as Katara is free, she runs to Zuko's side, not even bothering to pull the cloth gag out of Sokka's mouth first.

"Mmpgh!" Sokka says, but his indignance is a hushed and trifling thing, almost obligatory.

"Shh Sokka," Suki whispers. "Let her work."

"Eah, ah noh, ah noh," Sokka mumbles.

Zuko's on his side facing them, but keeping his face turned down towards the ground.

"I'm going to heal your stomach," Katara tells Zuko softly, releasing some water from the flask at her hip and floating it in midair. "I need you to lie flat."

"Just leave it," Zuko says hoarsely, holding still, curled up and every line of his body radiating misery.

Katara gets ever so slightly impatient. "Zuko, I'm not going to let you die. Get on your back." Katara leans over him, trying to take stock of the situation, but she can't see the extent of the injury with Zuko using his whole body to hide it.

"I taught the Avatar firebending," Zuko says, mantra-like, and she sees his eyes are glazed over, which is terrifying. "I taught the Avatar firebending. That's what I set out to do."

A cold liquid finger of fear touches her heart.

"Zuko! I need you on your back," Katara insists, and she grips his shoulder.

Her touch gets Zuko's attention, and his eyes sharpen. Conscious of his past misdeeds and his newcomer's status in their group, Zuko tends to do what he's told without complaint or argument, but she's still half-expecting him to jerk away, or even yell at her, and refuse. She wonders if he's too injured to move, but after a few seconds Zuko groans and painfully starts to uncurl himself. His stab wound is bleeding and oozing, his arms are still tied together and he's still very much naked. She's glad he moves on his own, because she shrinks at the thought of attempting to shift him herself. His nudity, the gut perforation, the tears drying on his face, and what just happened are all a little overwhelming. Plus he's bigger than her, and due to the time he saved her from falling rock by bodily throwing himself at her, she knows he's a lot heavier than he looks.

Zuko rolls onto his back in the grass and stills, but despite reclining, his posture gives every sign of ongoing torment. Zuko lies gasping with his legs a little apart and his arms still tied square over his head, plainly in racking pain he's trying to tamp down. Katara bends the water immediately to Zuko's bleeding intestinal wound.

The injury is a grisly one. Zhao spilled blood and more all over Zuko's stomach, and the first thing Katara does is wash the blood and effluence away, sweeping his skin clean, then whisking that water far afield. Katara carefully dips fresh water from her waterbending flask inside the two-inch gap in Zuko's torso, mixing the water with what's leaked into his innards, cleansing and healing with every soft swish. She focuses on the water, moving it as gently as she can, concentrating on her breathing and Zuko's. As an afterthought Katara bathes the smears from Zuko's shoulder and arm too and bends those off. She continues until sweat's beaded on her brow, until Zuko feels repaired inside and she's confident, at least, that he's not on the cusp of death.

"Please get me out Katara," Zuko whispers, shifting his upper arms against the cord that binds his forearms.

Katara nods and shapes some of her healing water into a knife. Carefully Katara cuts the bindings, and Zuko lets out a tiny gasp of relief when his arms are freed. His forearms have a straight, even pattern of white lines from reduced blood flow. As he rubs at the muscles around his elbows it occurs to her that Sokka, Suki and Toph are still tied up. Neither Sokka nor Toph can really complain, and Suki remains silent, but Sokka makes a muffled noise of request when Katara glances over her shoulder at him.

Katara leaves Zuko's side to free them, pulling cloth out of mouths and cutting gags and bindings. As with Zuko's arms, the cord around Sokka's face was tied so tightly that the brown skin of his cheeks is marked with a thin paler line that wraps all the way around his head, and Katara feels a fresh surge of hatred for Zhao and his indifferent soldiers. Toph has a larger quantity of cloth wedged in her mouth, but her gag was tied with more lenience.

When that's done Katara goes back to Zuko, steeling herself for what'll be next before she puts it out of her mind. She has more to do to his gut, first. Zuko hasn't moved, still lying naked on his back, his arms now rigidly at his sides, and his body still looks strung with tension.

"Be right back," Sokka says, promptly heading out towards the trees. Suki trails after Katara and sits down by Zuko's head. Toph heads to their bags, pulls out a fresh outfit, and starts changing her clothes.

Katara casts a questioning look Toph's way, but she decides not to ask. Toph enlightens them thirty seconds later anyway, when she's wandering over. "I can't possibly be the only one who really needed to pee during that."

Katara shakes her head, not as an answer, but because of course Toph would choose to just pee herself rather than hold it like a halfway civilized person.

Katara returns to the site of Zuko's injury, finishing up, making sure everything in the area feels clean, connected and whole, before bringing the water up to mend the outer layers of skin. Sokka comes back from relieving himself, rubbing bracingly at his cheeks. Sokka's gait falters for a second as though he's indecisive about where to go from there, but then he comes and sits across from Katara on Zuko's other side.

Looking down at Zuko, Katara hesitates. She's never healed this next... particular area before, but it's got to be like every other body part. Sense damage through the water, repair through the water.

The only difference is how she's going to go in. With a bruise she'd keep the water on the surface, healing mostly superficially, entering pores only, and not very deeply. With a laceration like the gash from the dagger, she sends the water into and around the opening of the cut. With this, she'll be introducing the water into Zuko's body the same way Zhao went in. The thought makes the back of her neck feel hot. Inwardly she debates. She could direct the water in through the pores, but it'd take longer, and they don't have a lot of time, and the water would need to end up in the same places anyhow...

"Zuko, I'm going to heal your-- your internal injuries now. I need you to open your legs for m--"

"No," Zuko interrupts, and a harsh note of warning and finality rings in his voice despite its hoarseness.

Katara's nonplussed and embarrassed too, though she tries not to show it. "You were bleeding pretty badly, it looked li--"

"Well, I don't care. I bled from it last time too and I didn't die."

"Last ti--" Katara starts, and then her voice expires in her throat and she has to collect herself as she feels her cheeks turn scarlet. "I won't touch you," Katara promises, but he doesn't give her the chance to finish the explanation. "Only the water--"

Zuko's voice is cold and unyielding, even angry. "I said no!"

"Zuko, please-- we have to rescue Aang, and we need you," Katara says urgently. "To be able to walk and fight. We can follow with Appa-- Zhao won't be expecting us to show up so soon. Please, Zuko. We need you."

Zuko stirs at that, his face turning slowly in her direction, though he doesn't open his eyes enough to meet any of theirs. Any of them could have heard a fishhook drop to the grass in the silence that follows. "All right," Zuko says finally, grudgingly parting his thighs a few more inches.

The change in position would have been permission enough, given the desperation of their situation, but Katara's grateful for the verbal consent as she bends a fresh stream out of her waterskin.

Sokka's shifted and is fixated on something between Zuko's legs. Katara's about to elbow him for being weird and nosy when Zuko speaks again.

"I think I'm going to throw up," Zuko says, and his face is ashen.

Toph wastes no time in bending the earth beside Zuko's head into a deep and narrow basin. "Puke to your left, Fireflakes."

"Legs a little further apart, buddy?" Sokka says, and he sounds fake-cheerful and uneasy.

Zuko spreads his thighs wider without protest, raising his knees a little, as though additional humilation has become irrelevant.

"Katara." Sokka catches Katara's eye. "Did you...?"

Sokka unobtrusively points between Zuko's legs. At first Katara thinks Sokka's indicating something about the injury from the rape, but Sokka carefully, without touching, uses a finger to circle Zuko's scrotum. Katara takes a second look, but the area doesn't look particularly bad compared to Zuko's anus, which is wet and puffy and bloodied.

Having cleaned and closed his intestinal wound, Zuko smells of sweat and sex, a distinctive aroma, recognizable even though she's barely been exposed to it before, and impossible not to notice along with the coppery tang of blood even before she sticks her face between his knees.

Katara's changed babies' swaddling clothes for years, and she knows the general appearance of an anus, sort of a small circular pucker.

Testicles, on the other hand. Months ago now she clumsily touched a pair in the darkness of a treehouse, but Katara has no idea what an adult man's testicles are supposed to look like under normal conditions. Her knowledge of male body parts is limited to babies and vague descriptions. The models of the human body used in the Northern Water Tribe healing huts were featureless in between the legs.

Zuko's scrotum looks red, but one of the few things Katara does know about the male body is that the genitals engorge with blood during arousal and the skin is thin down there, so their parts often appear shades of pink to red. Zuko's penis is pale in comparison to his scrotum, though, and maybe the sack is a little swollen?

Of course, it would help significantly if Zuko would tell her what hurts, but right now that seems out of the question.

"No, I didn't," Katara tells Sokka aloud.

"Well, make sure the boys are okay before you do anything else," Sokka says.

Katara rolls her eyes at his phrasing, but she obligingly examines Zuko's scrotum with a tendril of water, slowly entering through the pores in his skin and then exploring deeper.

Sokka's right, there's massive damage within Zuko's testicles. Katara can never tell exactly what harm has been done inside someone, but she can perceive through the water when things aren't right. The right side of Zuko's scrotum feels off, and the left side feels catastrophically wrong. If she had to guess she'd say there's hemmorhaging on the left side, maybe even some kind of larger rupture, and broken blood vessels all over the vicinity. Things feel twisted, and the internal inflammation seems far worse than the outside appearance would suggest.

"You're right," Katara tells Sokka, because she's mature enough to believe in credit where credit is due. Zuko had a measure of outright destruction done to his sex organs, and she'd never have known. Katara bites the inside of her lip. Well, if nothing else, this is all quite the education in the male anatomy. Katara brings more water down to the area, enveloping Zuko's scrotum.

Sokka is not generally mature enough to accept credit gracefully, but they're all subdued by what just happened, and Sokka refrains from crowing like he might on any other day. "That's why he screamed like that," Sokka says shortly, and that's all he says.

The rock was directly in front of her, so while she had a view of Zuko's face for the whole thing, Katara couldn't really see what Zhao did to make Zuko shriek like a lost spirit. She'd assumed it had something to do with, well, raping him.

"Is this where it hurts?" Katara asks, moving the water around. She notices Zuko's teeth are clenched again.

Zuko nods tightly.

"And-- maybe go up too, after," Sokka says a minute later, quiet and instructive. "The pain kind of radiates upwards."

As Katara heals him, some of the rigid anxiety in Zuko's body eases.

"Better?" Katara asks.

"Yeah," Zuko says, barely audibly. "Much better."

Sokka asks, "Are you still nauseous?"

Zuko shakes his head.

"I'm gonna leave that there anyway," Toph says of the earth basin.

"You've got some serious discipline to lie down like that this whole time," Sokka says with what might be admiration, which makes little sense to Katara but she'll ask later. They need to get on with it. Katara slowly withdraws the water from Zuko's scrotum and takes a deep breath before she goes further.

"Do you want some privacy?" Toph offers, and with little effort and at top speed a few feet away she destroys a swathe of grass, erecting a slanted shelter of the sort she prefers to sleep in, large enough for both Katara and Zuko to comfortably be inside.

"We're a little past the point of privacy, don't you think?!" Zuko reaches up and rubs both hands over his face, and he takes the blistering sarcasm of his voice down a notch. "No offense, but being enclosed under two tons of earth is not going to make me feel better."

"Okay," Toph says like she doesn't much care, undoing the earth tent and putting all the rock back. "Then I'm going to elevate your head, Torchy."

"I don't need--" Zuko starts, but Toph ignores him and earthbends him a low head support, slowly and steadily raising his head an inch.

"One more second," Suki says, and she gets up and snags Sokka's not-currently-being-used parka from his pack and folds it efficiently as she comes back. "Lift your head," she says, and Zuko looks like he's going to argue with this too, but then he closes his mouth and obediently raises his head, allowing Suki to slip the arms of the garment beneath for a pillow, cradling his head on top of the dirt Toph lifted.

"Okay, I'm starting now," Katara tells Zuko, and she guides a thin stream of the water under and in. Zuko sucks in a ragged inhale when the edge of the stream touches the ill-treated skin of his anus, and Katara swallows but holds the surface tension intact. Katara narrows the finger of water, using all her concentration before she gently pushes Zuko open and penetrates him with the water. Once the stream is moving in, Katara widens the thickness of the flow to make this process last no longer than it needs to.

Zuko lets out the tiniest of moans, a creaky sound. Katara pretends not to have noticed, because it wouldn't be-- she's not even sure what. Detached? Kind? Appropriate?

All of those, she decides, and she continues the task before her, keeping her focus as water-whip sharp as she can, which she thinks is pretty good considering how worried she is about Aang, and how her mind is on him, wherever he is right now.

"Ughh," Zuko mutters suddenly, and Katara quickly stops, ceasing the motion of the water within his rectum.

Waterbending healing shouldn't be painful, most people tell her it feels good. "Did I hurt you--" Katara starts before she realizes-- Zuko's penis is stiffening again. A second later Zuko claps a hand over his groin, partly hiding his penis from view as it thickens and fills. Even after everything Katara's witnessed in the last thirty minutes, it's enough to make her cheeks feel hot, because she's causing that.

"Not a big deal," Sokka announces. "Totally natural."

Zuko grimaces, but he seems to give concealment up as a lost cause, taking his hand away from his swelling erection and covering his face with both hands. His penis slowly rises until the length of it is pointing straight up at a ninety degree angle, upright and twitching and she can't stop the thought-- perfect for sitting on, though of course she wouldn't really know, and then it rises even higher after that until it's nearly horizontal like the rest of him. Katara tries to avoid looking. Although she has feelings for Aang, and despised Zuko for far too long to really think of him like that, and though Zuko's just been brutalized right in front of her, it's still somehow extremely distracting to have him lying naked in front of her, all the most private parts of his body fully exposed, and to be arousing him.

The thought crosses her mind that if the situation were anything but what it is, if she felt even a little less horrorstruck and anguished for Zuko, if she felt even a bit less mortified to have a role in his ordeal-- she might feel powerful.

*

It's a smart move, appealing to their need to save Aang instead of a desire to ease Zuko's discomfort. Katara made the choice to let her heal him be the selfless option, done to meet the needs of the group. Not for the first time, it occurs to Sokka that Katara can be incredibly devious, and it's a damn lucky thing she uses her awesome mind powers for good.

Sokka feigns unawareness of the twin scents of sex and arousal coming off Zuko in waves, but he silently and shamefully savors the combination in his nostrils. He's noticed on several occasions that Zuko's sweat and natural smell are spicy and kind of heady, and with sex and come added into the mix, the scent is undeniably intoxicating, enough to get Sokka half-hard just from breathing near Zuko's body. He can't help but check out Zuko's cock, and he can't help but glance at how red and distended Zuko's nipples are from where Zhao abused them.

All of which serve to make him feel like the worst human ever.

Well, maybe not the worst, cause the bar just got set higher than Appa can fly.

Save for the familiar scar and the fresh damage Zhao did, Zuko is kind of stunning, from his weirdly clean feet to his muscular limbs to his elegant boxy hips to his lean chest and his stomach, cut with an enviable six-pack. Sokka would have guessed the Fire Nation royal family would probably be hideously inbred, but Zuko's outwardly kind of ideal. Sokka's thought so before, but he's never seen Zuko without his shorts. Zuko's cock is average-sized, a good size. The hair at his groin is dark, wavy, and soft-looking in a way that tempts stirring. But it's beyond wrong at the moment to be ogling his friend, and Sokka averts his eyes. Ooops, nothing to see here, just being a horrible human being again.

"This seems like worst-day-of-your-life stuff," Sokka says, and Katara stops waterbending long enough to smack him fiercely in the arm and give him a dirty shut-your-dumb-mouth look.

"Ow!" Sokka grouses, but it's muted.

Zuko uncovers his face and rests his right hand back at his side, but his left clings a little longer to the scarring over the burned half of his face. "No," he says. "Not the worst." Zuko pauses. "Just another really bad one."

"Well, I'm glad we could, uhhh, be here for you on a bad day," Sokka says, reconsidering his statement halfway through and too late.

Zuko, who might be prince of the Fire Nation but is already the reigning lord of putting his foot in his mouth, graciously lets this inane remark pass.

"Do you want me to hold your hand?" Sokka asks without really thinking this question through either, because of course Zuko's going to refuse and possibly bite his head off, because Zuko hates being touched, and of all the dumbest moments to ask, now of all times might be the dumbest--

"Okay," Zuko says, and then their hands find each other and Sokka's holding Zuko's warm fingers.

Zuko lets his eyes flutter closed. His cock gets all the way hard and stays that way, stiff enough to cut through a foot of polar ice, not that Sokka is looking. Sokka's impressed by the way Katara utterly ignores Zuko's arousal. It's very professional, he's proud of her. And he should have thought to grab a blanket for Zuko. No sooner has he finished having this thought then Toph is above Zuko holding one out.

"You want a blanket, Torchlight?" Toph asks. This is a new addition to Toph's many nickname-endearment-insults for Zuko, several of which take longer to say than his actual name-- Blazes, Campfire, Firebrand, Flagration, Kindling, Candleabra, occasionally Prince Tinderbox. Everyone else in the gang got one or two promptly chosen monikers that stuck, but Toph hasn't settled on one yet for Zuko. Sokka wonders why that is.

"I'm not cold," Zuko says without opening his eyes, and then his eyes pop open as he abruptly seems to reconsider. "Unless-- if it would make you more comfortable, if I covered up--" A high spot of color rises on Zuko's unscarred cheek.

"Nope," Suki says.

"We don't care," Katara says firmly, and Sokka nods agreement, and Zuko's eyes drift closed again.

"I can't see you, so I care even less than everyone else," Toph agrees.

The spell seems to have been broken, though, for Zuko pulls his hand away from Sokka's and shifts his legs restlessly, uneasily. A white bead of precome appears at the tip of Zuko's cock. "Can you please finish? This is embarrassing," Zuko mumbles a minute later.

"Do you want the blanket?" Katara asks like she's confused.

"It's not going to be magically less embarrassing with a blanket," Zuko says crossly, and then his eyes widen and a jolt goes through his whole body as his hips jump. "Don't-- Katara, do not touch me there."

"Sorry," Katara stammers.

"Zuko, you're our friend," Suki says in a soft voice.

"Our Team Avatar brother," Sokka chimes in, though he has no idea where Suko's going with this. The droplet of fluid nestled in the folds of foreskin spills over, dripping down Zuko's shaft. Sokka tries not to look. To his eternal shame given the situation, he's getting really mightily hard just from witnessing how physically turned on Zuko is, and from the way Zuko smells, too. Hopefully with the way Sokka's sitting, his hard-on isn't noticeable.

"So there's nothing to be embarrassed about," Suki finishes, and Sokka's heart melts a little because Suki really tempers Team Avatar with her sweet humanity. "It could have been any of us. But we could leave you and Katara alone, if you want?"

Zuko glares up at the sky as though it's murderously offended him. "No, at this point I'm really done caring. I just don't want to come all over myself, if that's not too much to ask."

"If you blow that load all over yourself, it's Katara's fault and she's the one we'll be judging," Toph says.

Katara and Zuko both bristle up at her, and they both speak at the same time, and Sokka would be hard-pressed to say who's the most flustered of the two. "I'm not going to--!" Zuko snaps, blushing furiously, and at the same time Katara bursts out, disbelieving and angry, "Where on earth did you learn that kind of language!?"

"The underground pit fighting scene," Toph says. "Where else? Come on, you know my life story."

"I'm almost finished," Katara mutters, going back to her bending.

Suki continues in that tender undertone, "You know, it's okay to not be okay right now."

"I'm fine," Zuko bites off. "There isn't time for anything else."

Sokka's pretty sure that's not how it works, but he's not about to say so to Zuko, and the thing about Suki is that she's been around and known a lot of people and seen a lot of stuff, and having said what she intended to say, she knows when to back off.

Momo flies down out of nowhere and lands beside Katara, then totters over to Zuko and nuzzles his cheek. They all kid about Momo approaching to give snuggles when someone's sad, but Momo really does seem to track human emotions. Zuko closes his eyes for the lemur chin nudges, and he lets Momo curl up against his neck.

Silence briefly descends. Katara coaxes the stream out of Zuko's ass slowly, then hastily flings the water off twenty feet into the field. Sokka's about to ask why the hurry and distance when he realizes he thinks he might know. Katara's trying to keep Zuko from being embarrassed further if there's a-- a smell. And she probably doesn't want to put ballsack and butthole water back in her waterskin, which, after being forced to drink swampy healing water when they were stuck in the desert, Sokka duly appreciates. He's been attentive, since the desert, to what quality of water Katara's putting in her waterskin, and he'd guzzle cactus juice every day for the rest of his life before resorting to butthole water, no matter whose butthole water it was.

"So how're we going to kill Zhao?" Toph asks, changing the subject. "We're going to kill him really dead, right?"

Katara frowns. "Aang's not going to be happy if we do."

Pulling more water from the nearby drinking bucket, Katara bends a current to Zuko's ankle, which reminds Sokka of the nasty twist Zhao gave Zuko's foot. Katara surrounds Zuko's cranium with a floating mass of water where he was struck with the cudgel, then lingers a shorter time on the raw bite to Zuko's shoulder, and she uses smaller globules to fade out the hickeys scattered across Zuko's neck and face and on the paler part of his facial scar. Sokka wonders whether Katara watched Zhao's entire attack categorizing areas to heal afterwards.

Katara lowers two coin-sized droplets of water to bathe Zuko's nipples, red and swollen from Zhao's dedicated abuse. Zuko, who's been lying quietly since Katara drew the water out of his ass, startles at the dual touches to his nipples, then moans, and his hips jerk upwards again with another drip of white. Sokka feels blood rising in his cheeks and an answering throb down below. Katara's crimson.

"Nobody gets to treat Candles like that and live," Toph states, like that's just a fact, and she slaps a fist into her palm, flexing her wrist. "I'm gonna flatten him personally if no one else will."

"I've beaten him before," Zuko rasps, and he clears his throat, though his voice remains low. "When it was a fair fight. I can do it again, although I'm probably not going to ... be at my best. But --" Zuko hesitates, clearly not done with his thought, and so no one else says anything, giving him a chance to finish. "I don't know if I want to be a murderer," Zuko says haltingly. "I've done some awful things, but... I don't know. I take Aang's opinion seriously."

"But you come down so hard on the side of killing the Fire Lord," Suki says, a question clear in her voice.

"That's different," Zuko says with complete certainty. "My father is planning large-scale destruction. Aang's the Avatar, he has a sacred responsibility to safeguard the world. He doesn't get the luxury of a choice. But for personal revenge..." Zuko turns his head vaguely in Katara's direction, though he doesn't look at her. "I know you're glad you didn't kill the man who took your mother from you."

Katara nods. "Forgiveness is never going to happen, but vengeance would have been the wrong choice, for me. I'm going to give you a quick rinse, is that okay?"

Zuko nods and Katara bends the water over him again, this time starting with his hair. "Hold your breath," she instructs, and the water travels over his face and slowly along his body, over his neck and chest and arms and hips, all the places Zhao put his hands. Katara avoids Zuko's junk, not touching balls and asshole since she already healed those, and likewise skirting Zuko's nipples and his cock. Katara moves the water down Zuko's legs and all the way to his toes, a waterbending bath that leaves him clean and mostly dry. Katara waves this less-dirty, tolerably-used water into her waterskin. So if they get stranded again with no water but what's in her waterbending flask, they'll be drinking Zuko's bathwater. Zuko's hot and all but Sokka's not sure he's okay with this idea.

No, he's actually fine with it.

"I think morality varies from person to person," Sokka says, and maybe his tone is a little too light for this particular conversation, but humor is how he deals with heavy stuff. "Aang doesn't eat meat, but he's never criticized me for eating it."

"Killing animals to eat them is a little different from killing a person," Suki objects.

"Is it?" Sokka says. "Maybe. Aang also understands that war is a thing, and people kill in war because it's kill or be killed. He doesn't want to slay the Fire Lord, but he's not lecturing us for thinking the Fire Lord needs to die. I also kind of killed someone a few weeks ago, if you recall, cause it was Combustion Man or us. Aang didn't say a word. He knew what had to be done." Sokka takes a breath. "I don't believe Aang would think less of us if we killed Zhao, that's all I'm saying. I think it's your call, Zuko."

"I'd have died at the North Pole if the Avatar didn't think my life was worth saving," Zuko says very quietly.

"Yeah, I wanted to leave you in the snow, and I regret my stance," Sokka says. "People can change, and people can change their minds. Gotta be honest with you though, I don't see Zhao evolving much with a second chance."

"What Twinkletoes doesn't know won't hurt him," Toph says, unconcerned.

"I'm not keeping a secret like that from Aang," Katara says resolutely, like she wants to terminate this line of conversation, and she segues into bossy get-stuff-done mode, maybe because that's easier than making tough life-or-death, vengeance-or-justice calls, or healing their naked friend in a way that gets him beyond hot and bothered into seconds-from-orgasm territory. "Zuko, you lie here and rest. Sokka, start his shirt, I'll do his tunic."

"Start his -- oh." With his free hand Sokka reaches over and retrieves Zuko's shirt and tunic, both neatly cut in a line up the back. "Okay."

Sokka passes Zuko's tunic to Katara. Zuko's sun-bleached red pants and shorts-and-loincloth were cast down beside his discarded boots, and Sokka reaches back and grabs those too.

Sokka nudges the side of Zuko's hand with a corner of his shorts. Zuko curls his fingers around the cloth, looking sideways at his undergarment as though he's never seen it before. The red shorts definitely started out pristine and perfect, and the quality is high-end enough that they're holding up as well as can probably be expected out here in the wild. The shorts are still fancy, with slightly grass-stained gold trim around the angular front loincloth, and made entirely of silk which Sokka thinks is a ridiculous fabric for underwear, but they all live outside and Zuko only brought a single change of shorts, so both pairs are less than immaculate at this point.

Zhao's soldiers left Zuko's pants turned inside-out, so Sokka whacks the dust off twice with his fist, then pulls them right-side-out for him.

Katara takes the tunic from Sokka and continues with her instructions. "Suki, pack up the bedrolls and the tents. Toph and I will go find Appa and bring him back. Zuko, when we go--"

"I don't hate you," Zuko interrupts suddenly, but he seems unable to meet any of their eyes. Zuko squeezes his shorts in his fist, then opens his hand, rubbing the knot of the drawstring with his thumb.

This statement is enough to silence Katara, who blinks, and enough for Sokka to drop the shirt and grope for Zuko's hand again before he thinks better of the urge. "We don't hate you either?" Sokka offers, confused.

"He wanted to make me hate you for seeing this. That's why he did it in front of you," Zuko explains. "But I don't."

"Pretty sure he wanted to kill you, buddy," Sokka says, only a little awkward.

"You don't know him like I do," Zuko says, a grim admission, and at last he raises his gaze to meet Sokka's and Katara's and Suki's eyes in turn. The eye contact seems to take everything he has in him, and he holds each of their gazes only briefly. "He tried to have me killed once and almost succeeded. He blew up my ship with me on it. He could have cut my throat just now if he wanted to." Zuko lets that sink in for a second. "This was him deciding he'd rather punish me. Rather try to blow up my life than kill me. More than I already did." The corners of Zuko's mouth twitch up like this is a joke, but none of them laugh. "Or, maybe he did want me to die slowly, I don't know. He's a good strategist nine times out of ten, but then the tenth--" Zuko coughs once, then continues. Curiously, Sokka notices Zuko's occasional slight lisp is coming out in his voice a bit stronger than usual. "Like with trying to kill the Moon Spirit. He's volatile and he doesn't think things through. My uncle once put it like-- he throws the Pai Sho tiles in the air just to see how they fall."

Suki nods understandingly.

"Okay, you know him better than we do," Sokka says. "Though given how short a time he and I have known each other, I feel surprisingly comfortable saying he's a deeply fucked-up person." This is the strongest swear word Sokka knows, and he uses it judiciously. He picked it up from Jet.

"You have no idea," Zuko says, frowning as he sits up, and the enormity of what just took place here hits Sokka with the feeling of a yawning pit opening up in his stomach. Momo chatters in annoyance at having his resting place in the crook of Zuko's neck and shoulder disturbed.

Sokka flashes back to Zhao kissing the stump of Zuko's ear, and he suddenly has a horrible thought. Is Zhao the one who burned Zuko's face? He wants to ask. Of course he can't ask. But if Zhao inflicted that destruction, it would explain why he seemed so fascinated by the scar, so drawn to the ridged lines and red borders.

"He manipulated me for a while when I was younger, after I was banished," Zuko tells them. A quiet strength threads through the words, though his eyes fasten on the horizon. "And this wasn't, you could probably tell this wasn't the first time he forced-- I should have killed him during our Agni Kai, that's an appropriate time to kill someone, he found me later and--" Zuko's voice cracks, and he breaks off as though speaking these confessions is dizzying. "Ugghh." Zuko looks down at his body, prodding with his fingers at the place that was a gory mortal wound only minutes earlier and is now covered by thin, pink, newly-created skin, a sunken imperfection marring the set of defined muscles in his torso.

"Zuko, you need to lie down!" Katara says with some agitation.

Studiously ignoring the hard-on that bounces with each movement, dotting his stomach with smears of precome, Zuko starts drawing on his shorts, looping the legholes around his feet. "I'm fine now--"

"You're not fine, you just took an injury that could have killed you, and you need to rest unless you want to pull the wrong muscle and undo everything I just did." Katara issues this scolding in her most exasperated imitation-mom voice.

"Let the man put his pants on," Sokka says, shooting her a cautionary look.

Katara could be nicer, considering what Zuko's just been through, but Sokka suspects she's masking her true feelings with this air of brisk and assertive supervision, possibly to keep from breaking down in tears.

Zuko yanks the hidden velvet drawstring on the inside of his shorts to pull them snug around his hips, but leaves the ties hanging out and unfastened.

Sokka's not sure what to say to the unfathomable abyss of a secret Zuko just disclosed to them, and from the expressions around their torn-down camp, he can tell the others aren't sure how to respond either. "You're the toughest guy I know," Sokka says finally.

Katara looks like she's thinking. "Zuko, I meant it when I said we need you to get Aang back, but... do you want to sit this one out?"

Suki frowns. "I don't think we should split up."

"I was thinking he could stay lying down in Appa's saddle," Katara explains, and then she turns to Zuko. "Since he-- obviously has it in for you," she says awkwardly. "He doesn't have to know you're alive, if you don't want him to."

"No," Zuko says, flat and insistent. "I'm not going to hide. I want to help rescue Aang."

"Okay. Then lie down and rest until we bring Appa back." Katara looks at Toph. "What's that going to take, fifteen minutes?"

"Less," Toph says. "I can tell where he is. Kind of a distinctive slow stomp."

Zuko listens to them converse wearing his shorts, his hands resting at his sides, making no move to put on his actual pants.

Katara turns back to Zuko. "So figure ten minutes to get Appa, twenty or thirty minutes to find Zhao. Spend the time lying down," Katara urges. "Rest until we have to fight. Meditate, or something."

Sokka can think of one activity, because Zuko's hard-on shows no signs of flagging and he's got to be in excrutiating groin-ache territory at this point, however composed he's acting.

"Okay," Zuko finally says to Katara, but not fast enough for Toph, who shifts the earth underneath him, putting him flat on his back again in the middle of the word.

"Sugar Queen said rest," Toph says calmly. "And she's the boss of you until further notice."

Zuko sighs, because as far as Sokka can tell, Zuko's never had any idea how to handle Toph. "Okay! I said okay."

"Toph, can you tell where Zhao took Aang?" Katara asks.

Toph stamps her foot, holding the position while the rest of them stand silent and still. "Yeah. I think they're heading to the river. They left their komodo rhinos pretty far away to sneak up on us, so they haven't made good time so far, but they're on them now and going faster. They have a wagon or a cart or something."

Katara glances around at them. "Did anyone else get hurt? And need healing?"

"Nope," Toph says, and Suki shakes her head.

"Okay, all girls clear out, need to talk guy stuff," Sokka announces. "Actually, why don't you all go get Appa? You too, Momo."

Katara stares him down. "Is this really the time, Sokka?"

"Yes," Sokka answers firmly. "Please."

"Whatever, see you in ten," Toph says, and turns and walks off, heading south.

Suki nods and picks Momo up, settling the lemur on her arm and petting the crown of his head between his ears. "Katara, let's ... yeah."

Suki understands, Sokka thinks.

Katara puts down Zuko's tunic and the sewing kit, and though she flashes Sokka a skeptical look, she willingly walks off with Suki, following Toph.

"Don't worry, I'll make sure he stays lying down," Sokka calls after them.

"That looks really uncomfortable," Sokka says as soon as he judges them out of earshot, glancing at the tent jutting up inside Zuko's shorts.

Zuko's good eye widens in surprise, and then he turns awkward. "Yeah," Zuko rasps, sliding his hand back over his shorts in a way that looks automatic, like he's about to clasp his cock through the fabric, but catching himself and stopping before he can complete the motion. "It kind of-- it is."

Sokka's brain invites him to make a joke about it being his job to take the tents down, but he knows this is not a moment for kidding around.

"You want me to keep them away for the next ten minutes so you can handle it?" With the way Zuko's cock is straining against the fabric, Sokka doubts bridging the gap will take more than sixty seconds. Zuko's only a year older than him, alloting the full ten minute window for jackoff time is pure flattery. Sokka plunges ahead. "Or, and maybe you'd rather no one touches you at all right now which I would one hundred percent get, feel free to tell me to sled off, but I could give you a hand, if you want."

Zuko blinks several times, and his lips part. Zuko looks shocked. And probably not by the generous implication that he's capable of lasting ten minutes. For a long delay, while his cheek reddens in the one-sided blush thing he does, he's silent.

Finally Zuko says, "This is a weird time to offer to jerk me off."

Sokka suddenly doesn't know what to do with his hands. He settles for patting the outer sides of his thighs in graceless three-beat taps. "Yeah, well, it's been a weird morning."

Zuko's expression flattens, becoming inscrutable. "Why are you offering?"

"Uh. Well... it seems like a good time to do something nice for you, but mostly-- because I want to?" Sokka rubs the back of his neck and waits for Zuko to decline, possibly with a pointed remark about trained benders ignoring the insignificant complaints of the body, or an insult about not letting peasants put their unworthy hands on his royal person, or maybe a scathing comment reminding Sokka of what just happened to him, and that would be okay, Sokka probably deserves that, and Sokka will call Katara back and they will never speak of this again--

"Okay," Zuko says tentatively, and he pushes his shorts down a few inches until his cock springs out.

Sokka lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding.

Zuko's not wrong. In fact, he severely understated the case with 'weird time.' This is nothing less than atrocious timing and under a truly crappy set of circumstances, but no one could argue relief isn't needed now. Zuko nods once, gazing up at Sokka a bit uncertainly, but he looks surprisingly trusting and a hint of needy anticipation steals across his face, a twinge of his single eyebrow, and then it's a done deal. Sokka reaches in and wraps his hand around Zuko's cock, which is again hard as ever, as if still holding out in anticipation of some good touch even after Zhao's foreplay-torture, followed by all Katara's inadvertent stimulation with no chance of anything resembling private relief in sight. Zuko's so grumpy and negative, who knew his cock would be such a hopeful little optimist?

Zuko moans just from having his hard cock taken in hand, and gripping Zuko and hearing this noise is enough to make Sokka's cock throb and his balls ache. He's been hard too long without release, too. Katara thinks he's disgusting, but whatever, it's not his fault he's male and sixteen. Sokka refuses to hold back from jerking it when he can get a couple minutes of semi-privacy. A man has needs.

But now is not the time, and Sokka tries to ignore the feeling of increasing pressure calling him to take his own cock in hand and pump.

Under other conditions, Sokka would start with some languid, teasing touches, but this is not the time for light touch. Sokka uses both hands on Zuko, combing his fingers through Zuko's pubes while he begins to stroke. Sokka's never done this for another guy before, but what to do comes pretty naturally, and Zuko's audibly appreciative to have Sokka's hand on him.

Zuko makes a low, pleased, breathy sound when Sokka delicately peels back his foreskin, and Zuko's hand reaches up and coils around Sokka's to give him a quick and dirty demonstration of preferred technique. Sokka lets Zuko guide his hand and discovers that Zuko likes a fairly tight grip combined with a medium speed.

Cocksucking wasn't originally part of the plan, but some wetness will make the experience substantially better for Zuko, so Sokka resists the next guiding upwards tug of Zuko's hand, leaning down and lapping his tongue against the head of Zuko's cock instead. Zuko's a responsive recipient of mouth attention-- he gasps and surges up into Sokka's hand and against his tongue. Sokka rewards this eagerness by running his tongue all around the glans. Zuko's free hand comes to rest on the back of Sokka's head, partly touching skin but mostly over Sokka's hair, a warm and pleasant weight. Sokka licks the glans and gets everything nice and wet before rolling Zuko's foreskin back up.

"Yes. Please," Zuko whispers. Zuko's looking at Sokka like he's a cold bucket of clean non-swampy water in a desert and Zuko's dying of thirst, like right now Zuko would do anything he says.

Sokka's tempted to reach up and caress Zuko's nipples, having witnessed firsthand how hypersensitive they are, but Sokka thinks that might be too intrusive, like Zuko should get only what he needs here, no more and nothing elaborate. Like Sokka himself should be detached from this particular orgasm. Sokka feels weird even about the urge to touch, like he learned that Zuko's nipples are sensitive via cheating. Maybe because it's a fact he shouldn't know, has no right to know, and he'd rather not remind Zuko he knows.

Sokka takes his mouth off just long enough to make sure none of the girls have changed their minds and headed back, and then Sokka replaces his lips and tongue on Zuko's glans as Zuko increases the pace of their tightly melded hands. Zuko's hand feels hot over his, and Sokka breathes in the spicy, sexual scent of him.

When Sokka fully sucks the head of Zuko's cock into his mouth, Zuko arches his back and lifts his hips and swears. Zuko allows his hand to fall away, digging the fingers of both hands into the meat of his thighs, letting Sokka take over fully. Zuko rolls his hips to meet Sokka's strokes, rhythmically fucking up into Sokka's hand and mouth.

On an upstroke Zuko hooks his thumbs into his waistband and tries to yank his shorts farther down. He's uncharacteristically uncoordinated about it, but Sokka sees what he's going for and helps pull them past Zuko's knees. Zuko willingly spreads his thighs, so Sokka cups Zuko's balls in his free hand. Judging by the tension and tautness of his sack, Zuko's close, and Sokka knows he's going to come hard.

"Please, Sokka," Zuko begs. "Please, pleaseplease--"

Sokka sucks the head of Zuko's cock and jerks up and down the shaft in swift strokes. Sokka watches Zuko from under his eyelashes when he can, and Zuko's gazing at him. Zuko's mouth is open, his eyes are a sizzling liquid gold, and he's staring at Sokka like Sokka's the most extraordinary thing that's ever happened to him. Zuko's cock throbs and swells under Sokka's fingers, and suddenly Zuko's hips go off, all self-control shattered, thrusting up three times cheetahrabbit fast. Zuko's flushed and pink and biting his lower lip, and his hair is falling more in his eyes than usual. Zuko grabs Sokkas shoulder in warning and comes with a stifled moan. Zuko shoots long and hard and in unexpected volume, pulsing white streaks across Sokka's chin and stripes on his own stomach on top of the spurt Sokka catches in his mouth. The flavor hints at the odious chemical scent and bitterness of his own taste, but it's actually pretty tolerable in this small quantity, so Sokka swallows rather than spitting or wiping off his tongue.

"Thanks, Sokka," Zuko says, sounding drowsy, or maybe exhausted.

Sokka pats Zuko's hip, checks again over his shoulder for Suki and Katara, and wipes Zuko's stomach off with the blanket Toph left lying on the ground. "Happy to do it, buddy."

As Sokka stands he sees Zuko checking out his package. Sokka's dying to come, but today's not a good day to ask anything of Zuko sexually, heck this week, this month, maybe this year might not be a good time, and he's not going to ask with his body language any more than he would in words. This little interlude was not supposed to be about him, not whatsoever, so he turns around and walks away to make it clear that they're done. Sokka can suffer through the pent-up sore feeling. As soon as his back is to Zuko, Sokka takes the opportunity to adjust himself.

As he cleans his chin with the back of his hand, it occurs to Sokka that he's thirsty, and on the heels of that thought he realizes Zuko should hydrate, so Sokka grabs the half-full drinking bucket, takes a few slurps and passes it to him.

Zuko sneaks a glance at Sokka's face before he sits up to drink. Zuko strains a floating insect or a piece of vegetation out of the bucket with his fingers before he takes a long draught. Zuko sets the bucket aside, wipes his wet fingers against his stomach, and sits on the grass for a minute before tugging his shorts back up, then reaching over for his pants.

Sokka sits down next to him, picks up the sewing kit and Zuko's sleeveless shirt and starts repairing the tear. The sides are long and evenly cut, making them relatively easy to fold over and sew together. Zuko lies beside him in silence, watching. By the time Katara and Suki come back five minutes later, Sokka's halfway done with the shirt, and Zuko's lying on his back with his pants and boots on.

Katara looks angry, but Sokka can tell at a glance that she's been crying. Maybe on Suki's shoulder, maybe silently and alone, Sokka doesn't know. Sokka stands up, still holding the shirt and bone needle, and goes to her. He and Katara don't embrace often, but Sokka opens his arms and Katara comes in to the circle of them, and he gives her a big, long hug. They've been through a rough and ugly thing, and they're about to plunge into the next thing, but right now they're alive and okay, and Katara's been crying and that's really all Sokka needs to know. Her face has softened by the time she pulls away.

Katara glances over Sokka's shoulder at Zuko, then refocuses on him. "What was that all about? 'Guy stuff?'"

"You don't want to know, and I don't want to explain," Sokka says, waving his hand dismissively, and then he thrusts Zuko's shirt at her. "Will you please finish this? I'll pack the tents up."

Katara takes one look at his stitching and sighs, but she accepts both shirt and needle and goes to sit down by Zuko, picking up the sewing where Sokka left off.

Suki's already kneeling at's Zuko side, and she holds out her canteen. "You should have some water."

Zuko demurs, making no move to take it. "Sokka gave me some."

"This water is cold and fresh and hasn't been sitting outside overnight," Suki adds, and probably because it's easier than arguing, Zuko props himself up on one elbow, takes a gulp and hands the canteen back.

"I'll help Sokka with the tents," Suki says, and she goes off and busies herself.

Sokka shifts his weight uneasily as he wrestles pole from canvas. Before he has sex with Suki again, Sokka's going to have to tell her he jerked Zuko off. And licked Zuko's cock just a little, merely a guy thing, helping a brother out. Suki will understand. He thinks.

"How are you doing?" Katara asks carefully.

"Fine," Zuko says, and his eyes flicker to Sokka. "Better."

Katara sews fast, her stitches short and even. Then she reconsiders, glancing at Zuko's midsection. "We should go over your stomach again before we go. Just to make sure everything's good," Katara says.

"All right," Zuko says.

"Sokka, keep going on this for a minute," Katara says, holding the shirt out, and Sokka obligingly puts a tent pole down, plants his butt beside her and takes them. Sokka stares accusingly down at the sloppy line of uneven stitches that looked fine before they were followed by a straight line of utterly perfect stitches, sighs and reapplies himself.

Katara applies a fresh mass of water to Zuko's healed-over wound, and for a brief time they have silence.

"This may scar," Katara says.

"It's funny that you think I would care about that," Zuko says in his husky voice, deadpan.

Katara bites her lip. "Zuko, listen. I want to apologize for how I reacted when Aang --"

"It's okay," Zuko interrupts. "He shouldn't have offered Zhao that."

"If there was anything short of that we could have done for you... but I was afraid of getting you or one of us killed."

"It was the right call, you don't have to explain," Zuko says, and he makes eye contact before he says humbly, "I'm sorry I yelled at you before, Katara. Thank you for-- everything."

"You're welcome." Katara smiles at him, and if she still seems embarrassed, mostly she's remorseful and a little sad. "I feel terrible for... you know. I just wanted to heal you."

"I know. You saved my life," Zuko says, and though he stays flat on his back, he presses fist to the base of flexed hand in the Fire Nation salute. Executed from a repose position, the movement is stilted. "I'm grateful."

Katara's smile flashes firmer this time, and she gives him a little inclination of her head in answer as she bends the water away from his body and back into her waterskin. "You're good here."

"Then I should stretch before we fight," Zuko says tentatively, as though he expects Katara to dispute the wisdom of this notion.

To Sokka's and probably also Zuko's surprise, Katara nods, and Zuko sits up, then rises. Zuko turns and his eyes visibly fasten on the boulder where he was assaulted, just sitting there near the spot where he ended up stretched out flattening the grass, and then he turns and walks about twenty feet away, draws a deep breath and slides into a firebending stance. Sokka recognizes the pose as the first in a series.

This time Sokka says nothing as he hands Katara the sewing back.

Katara takes the shirt with a nod, but she calls out to Zuko, like an afterthought. "Do you need a second round of healing anywhere else?"

Zuko glances over his shoulder and shakes his head.

Of course Zuko's going to say no to that question, regardless of whether he actually could use more healing anywhere. It's kind of hilarious, considering Zuko probably used to have servants wake him up in the morning and dress him and cook for him, and wait on him and take off his princely clothes at sundown and tuck him into bed, but Zuko has no idea how to let other people take care of him.

Sokka bends down and pulls up several tent pegs that had their guy lines severed. Zhao's soldiers trashed nearly all of their motley collection of shelters, snapping poles, severing lines, slashing through canvas. Sokka wonders how many of their tents can be salvaged.

*

They pack up the camp and pile onto Appa, where Suki dishes out portions of nuts and hippo cow jerky for each of them. One of the nicest things about having Zuko around is that they haven't gone hungry lately. When Zuko left Caldera, he brought his single change of underwear, a portrait of his uncle, a dagger from the Earth Kingdom, a long cloak with a hood that hides his face, two thin swords and an awesomely heavy bag of Fire Nation coins. (It's not how Sokka would have packed, but whatever.) Zuko handed over the money to be merged with their always-slim pool of resources almost immediately after they agreed to let him stay, shortly after Sokka showed him to his assigned sleeping space, in fact. Sokka remembers weighing the bag in his hands at lunch that day, kinda mesmerized by the heaviness of the gold and silver and copper coins and what they signify. He'd never held so much money in his hands at once before. In short, princely funding is the best, they can shop rather than stealing from the local market to survive, and there's always food available, at least for now.

As they fly and eat, mostly in silence, Zuko asks, "Have you ever killed anyone, Toph?"

"Ask me again in half an hour," Toph says with her mouth full of half-chewed food. Zuko feeds a few nuts to Momo, pockets the remainder of his ration and stares at his slackly folded hands in his lap.

They fly high, over the clouds, towards the river and land Appa. Toph sets foot on the loose gravel of the riverbed and determines they need to go two miles north.

From there, Zhao's division is easy to waylay.

"I'm not keeping secrets from Aang, but I won't judge you if you decide to kill Zhao," Katara tells Zuko before she jumps off Appa. Zuko says nothing.

"Thanks for your blessing," Toph answers, and follows Katara to the mossy forest floor, landing with a sharp crack. The second after she sets foot on the ground, Toph all but destroys a hundred feet of forest, trapping a lot of both steeds and riders in sharp, pointy rock and dirt mounds that arc in, pressing Zhao's soldiers' chests tightly, and the shouts of alarm and pain and the bellowing of komodo rhinos fills the air.

"She's very effective," Sokka says to no one in particular.

"Love watching her work," Suki agrees before she sprints after Katara.

"I believe you have something of ours," Sokka yells at the collected soldiers as he raises his awesome space sword and runs in, because he can't go into battle, even a mostly-won battle, without yelling something.

Sokka and Zuko easily wreck the handful of surprised firebenders who don't end up with their arms pinned to their sides by earth, while Suki and Katara run off to kick a few butts at the rear of the company and free Aang from the prison wagon where's he's presumably been stashed. Thirty seconds later, Sokka's left looking between Toph, who's at the front of the squadron taunting an enraged Admiral Zhao, and Katara, who's to the back using water to cut through the lock on the wagon.

Sokka can see Toph tightening the earth around Zhao, squeezing him. Zhao struggles ferociously inside his dirt prison.

"Uh. I think it's time to decide whether you want to do damage or damage control," Sokka says, because he's too far away to catch what Toph says to Zhao, but Toph's raising her hands, collecting an enormous, cresting wave of dirt off to the side, more than enough to smother one loathsome Fire Nation admiral. Zuko follows Sokka's gaze and his good eye widens.

Zuko dashes forward, and Sokka follows at his heels. Zuko slows to a jog as they approach Toph and Zhao.

Toph's certainly gotten Zhao's attention, but he glances away from her to Sokka and Zuko as they reach her, and for one fleeting shocked second, before an apathetic veil comes over his face, Zhao looks like he's seen a spirit.

"Good, you're here," Toph says to Zuko. "Crispy crushing smiting time?"

"No," Zuko says, his face schooled into emotionless neutrality.

"I'll do it if you won't," Toph says. "People like him shouldn't be walking around."

"Don't. I don't want you to," Zuko says. "He's not worth it."

"Apologize to Tinderbox," Toph demands of Zhao.

"No," Zhao says, far too smugly for someone encased in a dirt mound by a vengeful earthbender. Clearly the man does not know when to quit. Must be a Fire Nation thing.

"I don't need to hear an apology he doesn't mean," Zuko says. "I don't need anything here. Let's go."

Zhao's trapped komodo rhino bawls, a long desperate braying cry, which sets off the komodo rhino the next mound over, slightly behind Zhao's. Only the beasts' heads and part of their necks are emerging from Toph's thick rock confines. Ignoring Zhao and the soldier next to him, Zuko takes three steps forward, getting out of the rhinos' lines of vision, past the blinders on the bridle, and stretches out his arms to lay a hand on each rhino's neck. Were riders and rhinos to achieve freedom, Zuko would be dangerously at risk of being trampled, but Zhao and the other rider are thoroughly trapped and Zuko's apparently back to his normal state of fearlessness.

The rhinos calm with Zuko's hands patting and smoothing over their leathery necks, their unhappy roars settling to low rumbles.

"The first person you kill should be an impressive bad guy," Sokka agrees. "Not this loser." Sokka says it only to back Zuko up, because Sokka thinks Zuko's wishes should be honored in this case even if personally, Sokka's on Toph's side. Zhao should not be walking around, let alone in an elevated position of military power leading a regiment of complicit soldiers around the countryside. The Fire Nation sucks ass.

"Do it, girl," Zhao goads Toph, like he's daring her.

"I would, but it's Firestarter's call," Toph says, heaving a reluctant sigh. "Kill yourself on your own time, asshole."

Toph half-turns away but then stops and stabs her finger in Zhao's face. "But if I ever hear your clumsy stomp within a mile of us again, none of this infectious namby-pamby pacifist garbage is going to stop me from burying you alive. No questions. No hesitation. No regrets. I'll never think of you again."

Zhao looks at them contemptuously, and then he sucks in air and his face contorts in shock and pain as Toph makes a fist and punches forward into the air.

Toph shakes her head. "Ah, if only you'd apologized..."

Zuko glances up when Zhao gasps, then returns to stroking the komodo rhinos.

"Such a shame, cause I know the earthworms here would just love you," Toph says regretfully. Zhao's face is turning white.

Sokka yells to get them moving, because Toph's just standing around smack-talking Zhao like they have all day and Zuko's absently petting the rhinos like he's in another world and they really ought to get out of here. "Guys! Katara and Suki have Aang, let's go!"

"I was done anyway," Toph says, and Zuko wakes up from whatever memory or reflection his mind is meandering in, and together the three of them high-tail it back to Appa, Sokka and Zuko sprinting side-by-side just ahead of Toph, who surf-strides effortlessly on a dirt wave. Must be nice.

When they're halfway to Appa and well out of Zhao's earshot, Zuko looks at Toph. "What'd you do to him?"

Toph smirks. "You know what I did, Heatwave."

"I guess--" Zuko tilts his head as they run, considering. "I'm wondering about the severity and permanence of what you did."

"No idea," Toph says blithely. "Probably pretty bad though." Sokka glances back at Toph, because sometimes she's terrifying, and he nearly trips over a rock, and he keeps his eyes forward after that. They reach Appa, and tangling his hands in Appa's fur as he climbs up is a relief.

The second Sokka and Toph and Zuko have scrambled up into Appa's saddle, Aang shouts, "Yip-yip!" from somewhere up front and Appa begins to ascend.

Toph plunks herself down in the saddle next to Katara. Zuko lands in a crouch beside Sokka, and as he straightens a fraction he starts to turn his head to look back at the scattered Fire Nation soldiers, but no sooner has Appa left the ground than Aang makes a long leap from Appa's neck, launching himself at Zuko in the back of the saddle. Zuko sees the bound coming and steadies himself for impact in time to catch Aang in a hug, which is fortunate, because Sokka can just imagine Aang knocking them both spiraling off Appa's back.

Aang flings his arms around Zuko fervently. Zuko's never seemed all that comfortable with casual touch, not that any of them make a habit of touching him, but though his shoulders hunch a little, his reaction says he was expecting this embrace, and he doesn't jerk away. Indeed, Zuko appears very nearly relaxed, at least momentarily, with his chin resting on Aang's shoulder.

"I thought you were going to die," Aang says, his tears sliding unabashedly down his cheeks. Aang hugs Zuko like he thinks Zuko might dissolve into ashes in his arms. Zuko rests his hands on Aang's shoulder blades more lightly.

"Yeah," Zuko says. "Me too. Katara healed me."

Aang pulls back partway. "That was the most horrible thing I've ever seen," Aang says with his usual unsparing, unflinching honesty, eye contact, and zero thought given to the possibility that Zuko might not want to talk about it.

A pause ensues, and then Zuko says, "Zhao's good at that."

Teacher and student, they're a strange pair. Zuko's older and grounded and guarded and prickly as a desert cactus, and Aang's the warmest, most soul-baring, touchy-feely free-wheeling kid Sokka's ever met in his life. Zuko softens a little around Aang, though.

"Are you okay?" Aang asks, unvarnished concern in his earnest face.

Zuko lowers his gaze to the wood of Appa's saddle. "More or less."

"I mean." Aang bites his lip, because even he knows better than the yes-or-no of what he just asked. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah, it's nothing I-- yes, I'll be fine," Zuko says, and then his eyes narrow and he refocuses on Aang. "Don't ever put yourself in harm's way for me. You're too important."

"You're important too," Aang insists.

"You're the only one who can stop my father," Zuko counters, like that's the ultimate tie breaker.

Aang is steadfast, his convictions an unshakable foundation. "It's what friends do, Zuko. Get used to it."

The wind blows Zuko's hair all around as he shakes his head, but a slight smile crosses his face as he looks down at Aang. It's a weak, faint, ephemeral smile, but those are really the only kind Zuko's face seems capable of producing, and the expression contains traces of gratitude, too.

"What happened with Zhao?" Aang asks, as if bracing himself for the answer.

"I was going to make him go splat, but Candles said no," Toph says, because while Toph knows how Aang feels about the intrinsic value of life, she's never given a pebble about anyone's disapproval. "So I left them all imprisoned in rock and dirt. It'll take a while, but the ones you guys knocked unconscious can dig them out. And the komodo rhinos will be fine, Fireball, I know you're worried about them."

Zuko opens his mouth as if to deny this last assertion, but then instead he subsides. They're off the ground, Zuko could contradict her without getting called out on fibbing. Apparently Toph now has all of them trained them not to lie in front of her.

Aang looks back at Zuko, and his eyes are shining, and not from any sorrowful emotion now. "I'm proud of you," Aang says seriously.

Zuko gives a tiny one-shouldered shrug, but he flashes that nearly-straight, bare-bones smile again, too. On anyone else the slight curvature of lips would be nothing, but it might be the damaged, stifled Zuko-equivalent of a dazzlingly happy expression. The reaction is at least enough to tell Zuko's gratified.

Sokka wonders what long-term consequences this morning will have. Sokka likes to know what to expect, to plan and prepare. He has no idea though. Everything feels up in the air, like Iroh's metaphorical Pai Sho tiles. Who knows what the fallout will be.

Aang throws himself into Katara's arms next, where he gets a considerably warmer reception and a much cuddlier, longer-lasting kneeling hug. A year ago Sokka would have broken the embrace up and demanded to know whether Aang's planning to marry Katara if they're gonna be pressing three-quarters of their bodies together like that, but Sokka will be the first to admit he's chilled out, and he lets it go. He's torn between being glad it's Aang and appalled at the blechiness of seeing his bestie and his sister wrapped around each other like the young and supple branches of a braided ficus tree.

And ughh, now he's grossed himself out.

Zuko settles down next to Sokka. Possibly Zuko sits by him to afford Aang and Katara what space and privacy can be had on the saddle of a flying bison five thousand feet up in the atmosphere, but Sokka doubts that, because Zuko couldn't read a room to save his life, and the guy has no idea how to be a pal. Sokka prefers to think Zuko's going for sort of a companionable proximity to him, anyway. Sokka resists the impulse to sling one arm around Suki's shoulders and the other around Zuko's, then his inner debate team comes out on the side of 'what the hell,' and he gives in to the urge. Suki relaxes and leans into him, resting her head on his shoulder. Zuko crosses his arms across his chest and looks away, but he doesn't shrug off Sokka's arm either. Sokka will count it a victory for the dude who has no idea how to let other people take care of him and no idea how to have or be a friend.

But they're going to change that, Sokka decides. Maybe they already are.