( past )
The way her voice fractured made the marrow of his bones ache and twisted something sharply in his chest. Zuko turned to face her again, assuming that if she was addressing him she was decent again; she was, though he notes her discarded chest wrappings still on the ground. They were filthy, stained with sweat and browned with old blood. Whatever it was in his chest twisted tighter.
She looked on the verge of breaking, this young woman who used her own drinking water to try and hurt him. Unfortunately, he didn’t have to imagine the kind of exhaustion she must be feeling—at least, not to extrapolate how much worse she must feel than he ever had. He’d gone hungry for days and days before, but he didn’t have to endure imprisonment and torture and abuse at the same time. Her shoulders bowed as she spoke, her fingers shaky and digging into the damp, sandy earth of the bank. He didn’t even need to look at her face to hear the tears choking her voice.
He couldn’t leave her here.
It wasn’t because he feared she might run, even as she promised not to, but that she wouldn’t survive. He didn’t know what other creatures or people might be nearby, and if either found her, he might return to her half-eaten corpse or worse, she might be captured again. From some of the things he’d seen over the years, there were plenty of Earth Kingdom thugs that were just as degenerate as the worst from the Fire Nation.
Zuko’s fists tightened. He wouldn’t—couldn’t leave her to fate’s uncaring whims.
”No,” he said, surprised to hear how thick and ragged his voice was. “You’re not staying here.”
Clearly confused, she lifted her face to look up at him, and even in the rising moonlight he could see the salted tracks of tears down her cheeks. He couldn’t stand it. Only two strides, widened with bubbling anger, brought him to her. Lowering to one knee and laying a firm hand on her shoulder, Zuko got her to sit up with guiding pressure. Once she was more or less upright, he leaned in and scooped her up unceremoniously—one arm looped under her knees and the other bracing her back. She was still so light, and it stoked the flame beneath his heart with anger. This wasn’t the most energy conserving way of carrying her, but somehow Zuko didn’t imagine she’d care to be slung over his shoulders like a sack of grain. A small voice in his head also acknowledged that he didn’t want to carry her like that, either; she wasn’t an object he had to haul, she was a hurt person he was carrying.
He’d bring her back here tomorrow, he decided all at once, feeling how her breath still rattled within her chest. There was no way for him to tell just how bad her wounds were before he caught the glimpse of him that he did, but more than a few still looked awful. When she stood up and tried to attack him, he hoped she would recover quickly, but now he was worried she was far worse than he imagined. Unconsciously, his arms tightened around her as he waded across the stream and started up the rocky embankment on the other side.
If he hadn’t already decided he was committed to helping her before, he definitely was now. He would have to go hunting once he got her back to the cave and situated as comfortably as she could be.