Title: Illusions
Pairing: Eventual Sokka/Zuko
Rating: M
Warning: Some might find this chapter slightly squickly. Most of it is fluff.
A/N: Sorry for the late update. I've had this chapter written up for a long while, I just couldn't find the time to put it up, and I was thinking of re-writing the whole story since my grasp of grammar has improved somewhat. I eventually decided against it. Occasionally I'll edit some of the older chapters, but not with anything worth re-reading. It would be best if I focused on the newer ones.

This chapter is...admittedly a little rushed, but I'm a eager to finish the story. I've had it for far too long.

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Chapter eight: Understanding

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Morning arrived in the form of warm sunshine and a soothing morning breeze. The first thing Zuko noticed when he pried open his heavy eyelids was Aang huddled up against the front of the cabin, his form small, frail and obviously weary. A violent twist in his gut almost sent Zuko doubling over his make-shift bed, bile burning the back of his throat, but he managed to stifle it by squeezing his eyes shut and focusing on the unsteady throbbing of his heart.

The reason the Avatar looked so unwell was obvious, but there was absolutely nothing Zuko could do to ease the burden of guilt. Aang would take the memory of killing those earth soldiers to his grave, and then for the rest of his time as an avatar spirit. Just thinking about the torment his mere rescue had caused made Zuko feel queasy. What would happen if Aang figured out the extent of the abuse he was put though? Would he break down completely? The prince hoped to God that would never happen.

Regretting the soldiers' demise was undoubtedly pointless, so Zuko didn't even try. He did however give into his steadily growing pity and crawled over to the dozing Aang. The younger boy shifted restlessly in his sleep, eyebrows furrowed, lips forming unintelligible sentences and words. Zuko didn't dare touch him until he had fallen silent again.

With his battered body in its current condition he just barely managed to push open the tent flap and ease Aang inside. Once done, he attempted to crawl back over to his bed but found the task much harder now that he had exerted his weak muscles.

Pain laced up his abdomen, his back, and he toppled over onto his aching side. Getting up seemed even more pointless than regretting the deaths of the earth kingdom soldiers, so he didn't. He curled up with his shaking arms wrapped around his knees until his body fell motionless from exhaustion. His mind followed soon after.

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'His little girl', as she was often refered to as, woke him up some hours after he had fallen asleep in the dirt. He took notice of the weight on his stomach as he reached consciousness, and then of the long locks of hair brushing up against his neck and cheeks. Above him, all he could see was the cheerful pudgy face of the five year old, and watched with mild curiosity as her cheeks suddenly flared dark enough to be compared to a ripe tomato.

"Morning," he greeted softly.

The blush gradually began to fade and was soon replaced by yet another smile. It wasn't often he saw the usually sombre girl smile. Soon he was following her example and smiling back. "You weren't in the bed," her cheerful demeanour suddenly fell, voice taking on a quiet tone. "I thought you had left me."

The little fists curled in his shirt indicated just how worried she had been about his disappearance. Zuko stifled a sigh and tipped his head back. Having someone depend on him was unusual, especially since he was barely able to take proper care of himself.

"Why would I do that?" with a hefty groan, he pulled himself up and managed to roll back into bed. "I won't leave you."

To further reassure her, the prince reached over and pulled her over to his side so she could curl up under his chin. Lying there, completely silent, eyes tightly closed was quite possibly the most comfortable thing he had experienced in weeks.

"Promise?" She murmured against Zuko's collarbone. The little wisps of her breath sent a shiver through him. With hesitant fingers, he cupped the back of her head and pulled her further into the crook of his neck, gesture that of a protective carer.

"Yeah. I promise."

Little lips kissed the brow of his forehead, and then he was dozing comfortably in the sun.

Time passed quietly. He was only idly aware of its passing. He knew minutes were ticking by without either his or his girls recognition, turning seconds into minutes into hours, but didn't care to get up while comfortably nestled in copious amounts of both emotional and physical warmth. It was a nice change to what he had become accustomed to for most of his childhood, as well as adulthood.

The soft sound that was unmistakably snoring soon reached his ears and he chuckled. Amidst Zuko's mental monologue his little girl had fallen asleep. Parted lips pressed against his sweaty night shirt and tiny fingers, so small and fragile Zuko immediately felt a tug at his heart upon looking at them, had loosely wrapped themselves around his broad shoulders. The sight was incredibly endearing. He couldn't deny children had once been regarded as a bother to him, but the little girl had turned that opinion of them right around. He was more than happy to accept this one into his life.

Apparently not above emotional attachments, he allowed her to snuggle into his aching chest and proceeded to stare up at the sky for as long as she wanted to sleep.

His attention was so focused on a nearby nest of birds that he didn't even hear Sokka's noisy approach. "Staring at those birds must be a real treat," the water bender greeted cheerfully, raising an eyebrow at Zuko's absorbed expression.

"Yeah," Zuko replied, slowly turning his head to gaze at Sokka. "It better than cement walls, in any case."

An awkward silence passed through the otherwise audacious forest. Sokka, suddenly overburdened by guilt, awkwardly reached behind his neck and scratched while moving from foot to food. Slowly but surely he gathered up the confidence to speak again. "Uhm...I guess they would be. But I didn't come here to talk about birds – unless you want to talk about birds, because then I could probably..."

"Don't over exert that compassion," Zuko snorted. "You might pull something."

Despite the obvious insult, Sokka smiled. "If I do, I'll hold you responsible," he replied jokingly.

Dropping to his knees before Zuko, he gently eased the sleeping child off his lap – much to Zuko's disappointment – and placed her on a nearby bed of fur. That done, he got around to assisting Zuko to his feet. The poor boy's hygiene was absolutely tarnished. If he didn't have a shower soon, no one would be able to offer him one due to the stench. Fortunately, Sokka made sure to mute these comments as he was sure Zuko wouldn't appreciate them while in his current ruffled state.

Zuko struggled with his footing for a moment or two, head sunk deep in concentration.

"What are we doing?" he asked, somewhat perturbed.

Sokka comforted him with a brief pat on the back. "Giving you a bath," he said, stifling a particularly rude comment. "There's a stream nearby."

A bath did actually sound appealing. Cleaning off all the grime and dirt that had accumulated over the last few weeks would be a blessing to his very soul. Finally he would be able to rid himself that that grimy, dirty feeling that came with uncleanliness. The fact he could wash away all evidence of the multiple assaults made upon him was a bonus, although not one he liked to think about.

Inch by inch they hobbled towards the stream. The whole way Sokka complied with his every order. It was odd to have the water bender in such a submissive position. Usually the other boy was a loud mouth who neglected to hold his tongue in the most delicate of situations. Right now, he was quiet and sincere, and Zuko wasn't sure whether he appreciated the special treatment, or found it discomforting.

Either way, they soon arrived at the stream and Zuko immediately began undressing, unaware of Sokka's continuing presence until he felt fingers prying fabric away from his struggling arms. With a yelp he stumbled back and wrapped the cloth tight around him, startling Sokka into falling over. The two exchanged brief expressions of surprise, but thankfully Sokka managed to break the tenseness with a bright, albeit worried smile.

"My sister always said I was good at doing that," he nodded multiple times before hefting himself to his feet. "Can you do that yourself?"

Zuko looked down at himself, his shaking hands, and then back up at Sokka. "Yes."

The expression that crossed the non-benders face was obviously disbelieving, but after giving Zuko's still clothed form a one over, eyebrows furrowed, he reluctantly turned on his heel and left Zuko to his privacy. The prince gave a quiet sigh and slowly began to strip himself, glancing from side to side, nervous, as he did. Throughout his undressing there were no more surprises. No Sokka. No Katara. Definitely no Aang. He was finally on his lonesome, and allowed himself a moment to grieve as he approached the stream.

Wiping his eyes with weak fingers, he lowered himself down onto the grass and threw his legs into the water, scrubbing them with a loose bit of cloth. He had to remember to retain his strength while looking after his little girl. Without his encouragement they would both fail to make it through this tragedy. Zuko was sure he could. He'd pushed his way through recovery after his fathers punishment, and was determined to do the same with this situation, no matter the differences.

He could do it. He...he...

Zuko stared down at his battered reflection in the water and stifled another onslaught of hot tears.

"No, no, dammit," He cursed his wavering emotional state as he lowered himself down into the stream, wary of the plant life surrounding it. "I can. I can do this."

The water turned a murky red colour as he submerged his whole body. He didn't chance looking at it for longer than a few seconds in fear of the knot that would form in his stomach, and hastily distracted himself with cleaning his hair and washing every nook and cranny on his body. Although paler than usual, after washing off the majority of the grime he started looking more like his old self. Not that his old self had been in that great a condition, considering the bad eating habits that arose without the presence of his uncle, but it was definitely an improvement.

On his back, wounds dribbled with newly spilled blood. Rivets ran down his spine and as he turned around, curved to his hip and down his belly. He watched with a mild sort of fascination as multiple dribbles find their way to the front of his body. It wasn't a pleasant sight, but he couldn't bring himself to look away. His eyes continued to focus on the grotesque scene playing before him until a slight rustling in the bushes caught his attention.

His head snapped up quick enough to catch the edge of brown sandle. Either Aang's, Sokka's, or Katara's, he didn't know.

Heart pounding against his ribs in uneven beats, he feigned ignorance as he crawled onto land and grabbed the towel provided to cover himself, eyes trailing the bushes inconspicuously as he dried himself off. The rustling caught his ear again, but was ignored in favour of gathering his clothes. It wasn't until he heard it pass from behind him that he struck out and threw a nearby piece of bark in the general direction of the intruder. The yelp was unmistakable, and his blood ran cold before he could even hope to gather up some semblance of control or anger.

"You..." He couldn't even bring himself to look away.

Sokka poked himself out of the bushes with an obviously shamed expression. Reluctantly, he stepped out and positioned himself a few feet away from Zuko, just in case the other boy felt inclined to exact some sort of revenge.

"Zuko I...uh...I'm really...I didn't want to leave you on your own," he struggled for the right words. "Why didn't you tell us about those..."

"What was I supposed to say?" Zuko choked out suddenly. The high tide of emotions was causing him actual pain, deep and wounding, overlapping the torment that had already settled in his mind. He was stuck between running and forcing Sokka away. "Why don't you tell me."

Sokka stared at him silently for a moment, lips turned down in worry, eyes squinted. "...I don't know," he admitted solemnly.

"...Get out," Zuko eventually demanded. "I can do this on my own."

"You were struggling a moment before. You can't pretend those injuries aren't hurting you."

"I told you I can do this on my own. I bathed on my own, and I'm more than capable of this!"

"I would love to agree, I seriously would, but..."

The retort on Zuko's lips fell silent as Sokka stepped forwards and hitched the towel up over Zuko's shoulder so each blood trail was stopped. They stood in silence as each examined the other closely. Zuko stared at Sokka's face, while Sokka stared at the expanse of wounds on his back. Some were festering and red to the point of infection. There was little pus, but Sokka was still concerned. The wound wasn't one that could go untreated.

He drew his fingers down the knife welts until blood had gathered thickly on his fingers. It was warm to the touch, as was Zuko's back, almost boiling even. Throughout this Zuko was silent and still, refusing to even properly acknowledge Sokka as the boy circled him and checked each of his wounds.

"Come sit down," Sokka offered on his way towards the stream. "I'll clean them for you."

Against his better nature, Zuko considered running straight for the hills, but eventually gave into Sokka's look of honest concern and sat down across from him.

With Zuko's permission, Sokka went to work on cleaning each of the wounds. After removing the towel, he dipped a piece of cloth into the water and gently ran it over Zuko's tense shoulder, ilicting a startled hiss. Only after Zuko showed signs of relaxing did he start again. Each stroke was taken with great care and thought. Even without medical knowledge Sokka seemed to know what he was doing. He wiped here and there, cleaned off all the grime with gentle strokes, humming quietly under his breath as he did.

The prince eventually relaxed himself into Sokka's massage like cleaning. Both eyes dropped down low enough to completely obscure his vision, but he didn't allow himself to completely fall into the depths of security. He knew better than to do that after all his experiences, even around friends.

Sokka's brushing eventually coaxed a pleased groan out of Zuko. He shuffled in place and slowly drew his thin legs up to his chest, allowing Sokka access to the deep cuts hidden behind towel. The sudden relief that came with been cleaned was greatly pleasing. He was having a hard time keeping himself quiet, especially when Sokka began to clean and rub the base of his neck at the same time. His long, thing, swordsman fingers felt wonderful against the tight knots that had formed overnight.

He blinked sleepily, drooping along with his towel, which was now hanging loosely off his hips and pooling around his legs. Sokka didn't take notice of his half-naked state and seemed content with sitting there, in the sun, rubbing all his pains away with simple kind gestures.

As a big brother he had done this multiple times the past to comfort his sister. All her scrapes and boo-boos had gotten a big 'ol kiss from him, as well as a gentle scrub down. He could recall the days Katara had done the same for him as well. She was rather motherly after all, and seemed to enjoy looking after her big brother in the same way he imagined their mother would have looked after them both.

He continued cleaning lower and lower until he came to the small of Zuko's back, which he examined closely. There were bruises the shape of hands on both his hips and what was exposed of his thighs. Sokka was more or less naive where sexual crimes were concerned, but not enough to let the possibility pass without a thought.

He placed the cloth aside and began rubbing circles with his hands instead. Zuko accepted the intimacy without protest, so he boldly decided to gently touch the bruises as well.

A violent slap to his hand dissuaded him from exploring the bruises any further. He hissed, jerked back, and cradled his throbbing fingers against his chest. In front of him, Zuko was looking over his shoulders, both furious and surprised.

"What was that?" He asked, panic evident in his voice. "Why did you – what were you trying to do?"

"I was just checking the bruises," Sokka admitted quickly. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and allowed Zuko a few feet of space. "They looked, I mean...they looked like hands. I just wanted to see if I was right or..." He swallowed thickly. "I know you're not going to tell me what happened to you, b-but I want to help. First I need to know the injuries. I... won't tell Katara, or Aang. But you definitely need medical assistance."

A deep angry scowl was his only response, and then Zuko was gathering up his clothes, dressing himself, and limping away.

Failure drooped Sokka shoulders until he was slumped over his knees and a mere disturbance away from falling into the river. There was no way dealing with Zuko would be easy. The prince was an absolute statue when it came to opening up to people, even more so now he'd gone through inhuman methods of torture.

Thankfully, a distraction came in the form of a sleepy looking Katara with a bundle of dirty clothes in her arms. She greeted him with a slight smile before dropping to her knees before the stream. Obliging her silent request, Sokka inched forward and took a foul smelling article of clothing from the pile and got to work.