Written or Floranna on Livejournal (Floranna2 on Tumblr) for the Hurricane Sandy auction
Until the Walls Break Like Waves
Land didn't slide uphill unless it had help, which was what Zuko told his men when they found the hot spring his uncle had been bathing in full of stones. It was all he could think about as he dashed back to the ship to saddle his komodo rhino, and as he left his too-slow men behind to revisit the scene and try to retrace the steps of the earthbenders who must have taken his uncle.
His men would catch up eventually, probably after Uncle was already free. Probably after Uncle had already freed himself before Zuko even got there, but It wasn't like he could leave him.
When he got back to the now blocked up hot spring, he found his uncle's clothes scattered on the ground. His fists clenched. They hadn't even let him get dressed.
On the other hand, his loin cloth and sandals were missing which a small unreasoning part of his brain told him was the important thing. The important thing, right. His uncle was captured by enemies of the Fire Nation, but at least he was wearing his underwear.
Zuko shook his head and forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings, scanning the scene for anything that could tell him where they might have taken his uncle. He spotted the broken twigs and crushed leaves on the bushes, and when he brushed them aside, he could see ostrich-horse footprints in the dust. They led up a path into the hills, away from the coast. Zuko followed.
In the middle of the trail sat an innocuous looking sandal. Zuko dismounted to pick it up, holding it gingerly between his finger and his thumb as he brought it to his nose. The pungent scent of feet and careless old man hit the back of his throat, and he yanked it away from his face, nearly gagging. "Yep," he said to himself absently, "That's Uncle Iroh."
And just like that he had confirmation. It was strange, but as he remounted his komodo rhino, it was as if a fog had lifted. It hadn't mattered how much he repeated to himself that Land didn't slide uphill unless it had help; there was still that frantic nagging little voice of doubt, that his uncle was fine, and was probably waiting for him back at the ship, and everybody as going to laugh at him the second they thought his back was turned. But now that he had his uncle's sandal, and proof he was going in the right direction, the sharper fear of what had happened that his uncle hadn't made it free by the time he had made it here, the fear of what they could be doing to him or planning to do with him, cut through the cloud of anxiety, and he could think and plan.
Even if his plans were just a spiral of hopes and uncertainties.
The trail took him zig-zagging across the face of a clay cliff overlooking the hot spring and the inlet where Zuko's ship lay moored. With a chill, Zuko realized the earthbenders must have spied his uncle from up there on the trail, and set up an ambush. Sensing his agitation, his rhino snuffled and huffed, until he rubbed gently at the skin around one of her horns. From this vantage point, he could see that his men hadn't even left the ship yet. When he finished rescuing his uncle, he was going to have to deal with them. Everything would be so much easier if they at least pretended to respect him. Then he could pretend to believe them.
As he climbed higher, the trail grew thinner, until he was forced to dismount. He led his rhino back down the trail to a small, flat clearing and tied her reins to the trunk of a nearby tree. The sun had sunk low over the hills, casting a dim orange light that left purple shadows. Zuko made his way back to the trail and continued his climb, snarling at his men, who were only just then beginning to assemble down on the beach with their rhinos.
Land didn't slide uphill unless it had help. That was the one thought that had kept Zuko going until the land had slid uphill around him.
His hands brushed the walls of rock and debris locking him away from his uncle and the earthbenders. Fighting to keep his breathing even, he kindled a weak, tiny flame in the palm of his hand. The sun was just on the other side of those stones. He knew it was there. He had just seen it. He couldn't feel it.
He held the flame to the walls and clawed at the stones, pulling free pebbles and lumps of clay. He couldn't hear anything. The rocks cut off all air, all light, all sound. The earth blocked out the sun and extinguished the fires within. Zuko held the tiny, dim flame close, battling against the rising panic that compelled him to pant, making the flame flare and recede with his breath.
He was wasting air, he was wasting time, he was...
He had to get out of there.
Struggling to steady his breathing, he stared at his little fire and swallowed down the lump of fear choking him. He knew the fire was wasting his air. He knew that he would run out, and he would hate himself before he died for spending it on something as stupid as that useless little speck of light. But it was so hard to close his fist and kill the flame.
"Nephew!" The wave of earth swept over Zuko and rumbled to a halt, shutting him away. Iroh's fire died in his hands as he flung himself at the mound of stones. Falling to his hands and knees, he swept away the largest stones and dug furiously at the rest, but the soldiers grabbed hold of his arms and dragged him away.
His fists filled with fire. Breaking away, he forced the soldiers back and sprinted for the stone pile. Rocks pulled away from the ground and latched onto his legs, but he couldn't have stopped, even if he had wanted to. He could hear the shocked scream, and the tumult of the battle at Ba Sing Se's outer wall. He could hear the silence as the stones closed over Lu Ten's head. He couldn't hear anything else. He couldn't see anything else. The sand, and the choking dust coated his tongue just like they had then. He could see the shadow of the wall as sweat broke out all over his arms, leaching heat and strength out of his limbs. He couldn't- He couldn't lose another one that way.
The Earth Kingdom soldiers stood in his way, kicking boulders out of the ground. Iroh punched fire into the air to break their formation, but the soldiers just raised a rippling, spired stone wall, and the fire broke instead.
Iroh's brain locked down, and the sick rush of fear that came from being on the losing end of a battle filled the pit of his stomach. Every old warrior knew a battle was lost when he froze, and couldn't think. But this wasn't a battle he could lose. It wasn't a battle he could let himself-
The stone walls leapt from the earth around him and hemmed him in. The sky was only a small, slight disk above him.
The Earth Kingdom Army captain launched himself onto the rim of Iroh's makeshift prison on a pillar of stone. Iroh punched the air and sent a fireball at his head, forcing him to duck hastily. "If you keep fighting, I'll collapse the dome," the captain threatened, arms crossed. "And crush him."
Zuko's fingernail caught on his prison wall and broke away, leaving a streak of slippery blood on the clay. He shoved it into his mouth and sucked miserably in the pitch darkness. He pressed his hands hard into his face and dragged them across his skin. His body felt too hot and icy cold, all at once. He swallowed and dropped to the floor, drawing air into his mouth, shallowly and slowly, desperate to buy himself more time.
They were going to leave him here, and he wasn't going to be able to dig himself out...
He was going to die down there, and no one was ever going to find him, to know what happened to him.
He had been trapped by his enemies, trapped under earth, where there was no light, no fire, only heat, the heat of the air slipping away from him.
Clay floated on the heavy, hot air inside the tiny stone chamber. Zuko could taste it in the back of his throat. Sobs forced their way out of his throat and choked off his scant air. They rang around his head and pounded against the stone.
"He's alive," Iroh breathed, gazing up at the sliver of sunlight above him. The stone walls carried his faint words high up, to the ears of the captain, waiting at the edge. "My nephew is alive?"
The captain's eyes flicked to the mound, out of Iroh's sight. Iroh could almost feel the calculation going on inside the captain's mind. The Dragon of the West only had one brother. He only had one nephew.
At last, the captain nodded. "And he's going to stay alive." He smiled. "If you cooperate."
"What do you want?" he snapped. Iroh knew what the man wanted. He wanted to drag him back to Ba Sing Se to die behind its walls. He knew what the man wanted out of his nephew, what they both would become for each other. Hostages for each other's good behavior. If the Fire Nation royals could be trusted not to turn on their own.
It didn't matter.
He captain's smile vanished and the walls came down.
The boulder hovered above his hands, and the horrible, violent hopelessness of deja vu overwhelmed him. The soldiers weren't holding him down. There were no chains to hold his hands in place. The soldiers didn't need them. Iroh drew deep gulps of air into his lungs. His hands shook as he tried to hold them steady.
"You better hurry up," the captain shouted to his men. "Even if the boy's smart and sits tight, he only has a little bit of air under there. He smirked and stepped close to the old general's face. "And most people aren't smart, stuck underground."
Iroh closed his eyes.
And felt his bones smash to pieces.
Sand trickled down onto Zuko's shoulders, and he started to shake. He stopped digging and backed nervously away from the wall, praying that he hadn't destabilized the wall completely, and it wasn't about to crash down on him, and cut off whatever scant bit of time he had left.
But the sand started pouring down, in a shower of pebbles, clay, and dust, and Zuko covered his mouth and crouched down, tasting the ashy, dead taste of failure on his tongue. He had failed. He was never going home. Zhao would capture the Avatar, the Earth Kingdom already had his uncle, and nothing was going to save any of them.
The debris and sand rolled over him. He thrashed against it, in the final, desperate ineffective fighting of a creature already pitched over the edge of death, who just hadn't brought himself the face it yet.
And his hand broke free. He squirmed against the stones, his hands scrabbling, until at last, his head breached the surface, and he sucked in breath after breath of fresh, safe air. He coughed and coughed on the dust, and tried to pull in even more air. He opened his eyes, his heart stopping at the thought that he might not be free at all, that he might open his eyes and find himself trapped in just one more tiny pocket of air, but when he looked up, he could see the sunlight and the trees. A shadow fell over him. Pain tore through his skull as one of the soldiers grabbed his phoenix tail and ripped him free of the earth. He lay where the soldier threw him, listening to his uncle's faint moans and struggling to rise, but the ground crawled around his limbs, and then the stones were replaced by shackles, and Zuko couldn't stop any of it.
"What's the matter?" the Earth Kingdom captain asked. "I thought you wanted to see what lay beyond Ba Sing Se's great wall."
Zuko clenched his bound hands into fists and narrowed his eyes into a furious glower at the captain's back in his uncle's defense, but the Dragon of the West, great general of the Fire Nation, and once heir to the throne, just gazed blandly at the man. "It is strange how life works out."
One of the Earth Kingdom soldiers helped Zuko down from the saddle, and the humiliation was stronger again, sharper, now that this was the last time, now that Ba Sing Se no longer loomed ahead of them. Guards and stable hands milled around them, gawking. Zuko stood in his underclothes, his armor long since stripped away, bristles of hair growing up around his tangled, limp, and greasy phoenix queue. He didn't even want to think about what those Earth Kingdom peasants saw.
It registered in the back of his mind that one of the soldiers who had captured them had run off to tell everyone the good news. Everything only registered in the back of his mind. It was as if the dust and hay and ostrich-horse feathers had settled into his head, separating him from the world and letting him watch as if from far away as one by one, Earth Kingdom officers in ascending rank came to stare at the Fire Nation princes in the dirt and gloom of the stables. All that commotion over one young boy in his under things, and one old man with shattered, ruined hands, in a loincloth and a blanket.
Zuko looked to his uncle, but uncle's face showed no emotion. There was nothing there for him to latch onto, and Zuko felt as if he were out to sea with his anchor cut, drifting beyond the control of the world, weightless and spinning.
At last, one of the officers spoke to the captain that had captured them, and more soldiers grabbed Zuko's arms. He glanced at his uncle's stillness and dignity, and hated himself for the way he couldn't help but radiate anger and shame instead. He kicked at the knees of one of the soldiers dragging him along. His bare, blistered feet glanced off the man's leg, but Zuko lost his balance, and fell, only to be yanked up before he could hit the ground. The guard he had kicked at grabbed his chin and shook. "Stop it you," the man grunted.
Zuko shook his head out of the soldier's grip and glanced back at his uncle, who gave him a very small wry, smile, before he slipped the placid mask back into place. Zuko spat in the soldier's face.
"Eugh!" The soldier's face twisted, and he flicked a globule of spit back at Zuko. He grabbed Zuko's chin again, and turned him around to watch one of the other soldiers slap his uncle across the face.
Zuko screamed, flailing with his legs, contorting himself in their grasp, but nothing worked right, his body wouldn't move the way he wished after nearly a month tied to the back of an ostrich-horse, and the soldiers ended up holding him up more than holding him back. The soldier's hand cracked across his uncle's face once more.
The captain leading their makeshift party, the one who had captured them and dragged them all the way to Ba Sing Se, who would probably never be so close to power again, glanced over his shoulder. "Quiet him down back there."
"We're trying," the soldier he spat at answered. "Wow, kid, you'd think you'd be used to this by now."
The warmth spilled out of Iroh's smile. As it grew from the tiny sliver he had given to his nephew, it turned sharp and hard as a knife blade. "If Prince Zuko ever grew too used to seeing me in pain, your methods would not work anymore."
The soldier Zuko had spat at grabbed Zuko's hair and wrenched his head up.
"Just shut them up and keep them moving!" the captain barked.
Zuko's eyes watered like a child as the grip on his hair tightened and shook him up and down. "You going to behave yourself?"
Zuko nodded, trying to blink away the tears, too angry to be properly humiliated.
The Captain stopped in front of a grand doorway and glanced back at the soldiers and their captives before nodding to the guards at the door. The door opened into a long green carpeted corridor, a palace corridor. At the end was another grand doorway with a woman standing outside. She smiled a massive, shining grin, eyes squinted into empty slits. "The Council of Five is waiting for you."
Zuko shivered. Her voice was almost sing-song, melodic and absolutely empty, without anything human in it. The captain didn't seem to notice. He nodded to her, and she opened the smaller door set into the grand doors.
"Sirs, uh...yer honors," the Captain said, with a bow, shifting his feet nervously as the soldiers hustled the captives through the door. "The Fire Princes."
At the center of the room stood a large table with a map of the world, figures representing legions dotted across its surface. He was three years and an ocean away from another room with a map, with the same green and red figures showing the progress of the same war. His hands clenched into fists, his wrists tensing against the shackles, and for a moment, he forgot to breathe.
But the generals, standing around the table in armor so elaborate Zuko wasn't even sure they could sit down, were not the same generals. On the far side of the room, one of the generals put his huge, meaty hands on the table and leaned over it. "So the Dragon of the West is foolish enough to return to the Earth Kingdom."
"And with the crown prince of the Fire Nation in tow no less," another of the generals mused, prowling around them, pausing briefly before the soldiers and their two captives.
"My nephew is hardly the crown prince," Iroh said pleasantly. Zuko felt his eyes involuntarily flick to his uncle's face. Iroh had never looked so much like his brother than he did in that moment, face all cruelty and vicious determination. "I am sure you know that he is in exile. He has no claim on the throne, barely a claim to the title of prince."
It burned. Even though he knew his uncle said it to protect him, it burned. It burned because it was the truth. Zuko tore his eyes away from his uncle, and the general, from the table and the map, trying to find something, anything else to look at. In the back of the room, standing next to the shuttered window, was a man in silk and velvet winter robes. When he saw Zuko looking, his lips curved into a small, sardonic smile. Zuko looked away quickly.
The general circling them leaned right into Iroh's face, close enough that flecks of spittle hit his captive's cheeks as he spoke. "If he isn't a valuable hostage, then there's no reason we shouldn't drag him out into the city and execute him. Give the populace something to celebrate."
The Dragon of the West flinched. The general's lip curled knowingly. Zuko's nails dug into his palms.
"If you kill him, Ozai will destroy you." His uncle recovered his poise. "My brother may not love his son, but Zuko still belongs to him."
"A very convenient story!" one of the generals exclaimed, thumping the table with one fist hard enough to make the pieces on the map rattle with the impact. "In fact, everything about this is very convenient indeed." He punched the table again for emphasis. "No one sends their best general to babysit an unwanted princeling in exile. You are here for a purpose, and I suggest you tell us what that purpose is!"
"You are all so much like Ozai," Iroh sighed. "He is afraid of me too. There is no army behind me, just one small ship and its unfortunate crew, for one banished prince and his retired old uncle. If you are so scared of one tired old man, then execute me."
It was with that pronouncement that the man with the smirk stepped away from the window to address the generals as if they were children. "Alright, gentlemen. You've had your fun. The Dragon of the West and the Fire Nation prince will be coming with me."
It was as if a bolt of lightning had swept through the room. The generals froze as one, and slowly turned to him, outrage etched cross their features. The general who had been circling the Fire princes wheeled on the smirking man. "They are prisoners of war," he bit off. "The war is our business, not yours."
The smirking man's smirk fell away. "I speak for the Earth King, General How. Do you want me to bring him here?"
"The Earth King doesn't even know we're fighting a war!" General How shouted. "Go ahead, bring him here, and explain to him all about the war going on behind his back!"
"It's a good thing the prisoners are mine, if you don't have a problem with giving away secrets like that with two members of the Fire Nation royal family right in front of you," the no longer smirking man retorted. "You fight the war outside Ba Sing Se. Within these walls, I hold the power. Your soldiers brought them inside my walls, and they are mine."
He held his hand up and beckoned to the ceiling. Men dropped down to the floor, light as cats, until they filled the room, a hundred or more in all. Walls sprang up from the floor, pushing the soldiers and General How away from the captive Fire princes, and more men in green robes dropped down to grab Zuko and his uncle's arms.
The smirking man bowed to the generals. "Good day, gentlemen. Thank you for your indulgence."
Two of the green robed not-soldiers bent a hole into the floor, revealing a set of stone steps leading down into the darkness. The not-soldiers began to file two by two, arms folded behind them, hands tucked into the voluminous sleeves of their robes. When half of their number had disappeared into the stairwell, the ones holding Zuko and his uncle hefted them off the ground, and carried them down onto the staircase, the smirking man just behind them, as the rest of their fellows followed behind, two by two, in crisp, precise columns.
The last pair of not-soldiers bent the hole in the war room floor shut, as neatly as if it had never been.
"Take the Dragon of the West to reeducation room five." The smirking man spoke softly, but the men in the tunnel cocked their ears to catch every syllable. "The boy stays with me."
As the not-soldiers led his uncle away, the words Zuko wanted to say, to yell even, to scream at their backs in rage, were stuck in his throat like a plug. Two of the not-soldiers stayed behind, their hands on Zuko's arms and shoulders, restraining him. Eight more stood behind him, stone gloves on their hands. With all of his control, he held himself still and didn't squirm in their arms.
The smirking man bowed his head. "Welcome Prince Zuko, to the headquarters of the Dai Li."
Zuko licked his lips before asking hoarsely, "Where are they taking my uncle?"
"Come with me, and I will show you."
Zuko swallowed. "Who are you?" he rasped.
"Oh, I'm so sorry! I haven't introduced myself properly," he said, his face a mask of sincerity. "I am Long Feng, Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se, and leader of the Dai Li."
The tunnels wound round each other in a greenish blur, the strange, steady glow of the walls and the push jostle pull rhythm of the Dai Li not-soldiers holding him, leaving Zuko feeling unbalanced and nauseated. Long Feng led them down one tunnel that descended deeper into the earth, then up another that rose, and then down once more, until ascent and decent, up and down, stopped having any meaning except how Zuko had to put his feet to keep from falling in the arms of his captors.
At last, they emerged into a wide tunnel, nearly three times the size of the others they had walked through. It was long, and straight, and the green glow was much stronger, coming from the crystals that dotted the walls. The reasoning part of Zuko's mind knew that the journey there hadn't been so long, a quarter of an hour in that twisting little maze at most, but his body was so heavy and so tired, that time and distance had seemed to stretch as he had been walking.
One of the Dai Li holding him shot him an amused glance as he stared dejectedly down the seemingly endless tunnel. "You can sit down now, kid."
Zuko looked up at him. "What?"
"Sit down." Both his guards sat down on the tunnel floor, pulling him down with them. Long Feng glanced back at them before sitting down himself. Six of the remaining Dai Li sat down around them in a tight circle, and the last two standing Dai Li brought their hands up above their heads.
Zuko startled as the ground rose up under them. It was as if a ball had formed, just under the floor, pushing it up, and as the standing Dai Li moved their arms, the ball rolled, and a wave of stone carried them down the tunnel, wind whipping across their faces.
At the end of the tunnel, far, far away from where they had begun, the Dai Li let the tunnel floor sink back down into a smooth flat surface. They yanked Zuko up by his bound arms as Long Feng rose smoothly to his feet. "Is this where you took my uncle?" Zuko demanded.
"Soon, Prince Zuko," Long Feng soothed. "Follow me, and I will show you where he is. I believe it will be enlightening for you."
The journey from the long tunnel to their destination went much faster than the journey to the tunnel in the first place, a few minutes, a few hundred feet and a few turns, and Long Feng had led them to a heavy stone door. Two of the Dai Li stepped forward and bent the door open.
It was an empty stone room. There was a stone bench against one wall, and nothing else.
Zuko narrowed his eyes and hissed, "Where is my uncle?"
Long Feng smiled. He stepped into the tiny stone room and touched the floor with both hands. As he pulled his hands apart, the rock separated to create a window just big enough to look through. "Come, young prince, your uncle is below. Watch."
The Dai Li let go of his arms. He stepped forward cautiously and knelt down to look through the window in the floor.
His uncle sat chained to a chair against one wall of the room below, facing a strange contraption with a lantern on a set of raised circular metal tracks.
Zuko shot to his feet, bound arms making him clumsy. "What are you going to do to him?"
Long Feng shook his head. "I'm sorry Prince Zuko, but this is where I must leave you. Don't worry. You will be seeing me sooner than I will see you."
With those words, Long Feng stepped out into the hall, and the stone door came crashing down, trapping Zuko in the little room.
The man who was king of Ba Sing Se in all but name walked into the chamber with his hands folded into his sleeves. Iroh snorted, unimpressed.
"Good evening, General Iroh," he began pleasantly. "I am Long Feng, Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and leader of the Dai Li. I will be questioning you personally in the hopes that we can become better acquainted."
Behind him came three Dai Li agents, one carrying a lap desk and a writing kit. Iroh remembered hearing the name Dai Li whispered among Earth Kingdom prisoners when he had laid siege to this city all those years ago. "Hello Grand Secretariat. I believe I am supposed to be honored by the presence of the true ruler of Ba Sing Se."
"But you aren't," Long Feng finished for him, amused.
"I don't see any reason to keep up a pretense, do you?" Iroh smiled a smile full of steel. "I know who you are, you know who I am, and that is all you are ever going to learn from me before you kill me." His smile widened as he paused. "Unless you are willing to make a deal for my nephew's life."
Long Feng allowed one side of his mouth to quirk up in a frightening smile. "I don't think I need to make a deal with you at all. I-"
"Oh, do you have ways of making me talk?" Iroh interrupted with a gentle, mocking chuckle. "The question is, can you believe what I tell you?"
"Oh don't worry, General Iroh." Long Feng's smile widened. "We have ways of ensuring that as well."
Uncowed, Iroh's bitter smile vanished, back into a hard, cold line. "Torture has never helped anyone get to the truth."
"Oh, you think we're going to torture you?" Long Feng put a hand to his mouth, as if shocked, as if he couldn't understand how Iroh could imagine such a thing. "Maybe the Fire Nation has to resort to such crude tactics, but in the Earth Kingdom, we've moved beyond that."
With a wave of his hand, Long Feng summoned one of the Dai Li agents forward into the circle made by the lantern tracks. With another wave, the lantern began to spin round and round the tracks, flickering and fluttering at the edges of Iroh's senses. The Dai Li agent's eyes were shadowed by his helmet as he spoke. "There is no war in Ba Sing Se. There are no Fire Nation within the walls."
Iroh rolled his eyes, choosing to be blatant with his disrespect as he hadn't been since his first days in the army. "Saying it does not make it true."
The Dai Li agent didn't react. He simply repeated, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se. There are no Fire Nation within the walls."
Iroh smiled unperturbed, and the agent either didn't notice or didn't care.
As Long Feng watched from the shadows, a strange feeling of mingled scorn and admiration filled him at the old General's unflappable calm and confidence. It was almost a shame Iroh would never have the chance to realize it was so unfounded. Everyone laughed at the lanterns and thought they were stronger, right up until it was too late for them to remember why they were laughing at all.
The door opened with a rumble, and Zuko jerked to his feet. "What do you want?"
The Dai Li who entered tapped his foot against the floor and the window to the room below closed seamlessly, as if it had never been. "You shouldn't stare down at the lanterns, unless you want to end up like your uncle."
"What are you doing to him?" It seemed as if ever since the Dai Li had taken him underground, Zuko's voice had been sucked away, and all of his words came out too quiet and choked off.
The Dai Li didn't answer. He just took one of Zuko's bound arms while his comrade took the other and walked Zuko down the hall like the prisoner he was.
The Dai Li didn't bother taking him far. Only twenty or so paces beyond the featureless stone room Zuko had just left, the agents bent open another bit of wall, identical to all of the other bits of wall around it, and shoved him into another bare, blank little stone room. Zuko fell hard where they had thrown him, his hands and knees stinging from the impact. The wall closed again, leaving him in total darkness. Pulling himself up to his knees, he cupped his hands together and bent a tiny curl of flame between them. There was nothing to see, but shivering in his underclothes, exhausted, hungry, and freezing in the damp underground, he couldn't bring himself to let the flame die.
The wall slid open with a grinding rumble, and Zuko woke with a start, unable to remember falling asleep, the darkness of the cell indistinguishable from the darkness behind his eyes. He had no idea how long he had been in there in the dark, except that he was hungrier, and that he had slid from waking to sleeping and back again more than only this one time.
Long Feng stepped into the room as spots danced in front of Zuko's eyes from the sudden rush of light into the cell, even if it was only the wan glow of the crystals. "Good morning, Prince Zuko." Zuko wondered if it really was the morning. He didn't answer, even though Long Feng paused as if expecting it. After the pause had dragged on just long enough to become uncomfortable, Long Feng continued, "I hope you will forgive me for saying this Prince Zuko, but you smell a little ripe."
Zuko flushed with mortification and rage. He wanted to demand to know how Long Feng would smell if he had been tied to an ostrich-horse for almost a month without being allowed to bathe, but instead he gritted his teeth and opted for stubborn silence.
"That would be my fault I suppose," Long Feng mused. "I have been remiss in my duties as a host. But this does mean the audience I intended to have with you will have to wait until you're more presentable, hmm?"
Zuko wondered what his game was. Heads of State, unofficial or not did not meet with prisoners to tell them they needed a bath. It wasn't like Zuko's unsanitary state could have really taken him by surprise. He had after all met him when he arrived, and Zuko didn't really think his odor could be that much worse now than it had been then. This was a show, for his benefit, and he wished he knew what it was for.
The spots dancing in front of Zuko's eyes hid the two agents behind Long Feng until they stepped around their commander. Thet picked Zuko up again by the arms, their hands slotting in around half-healed bruises. Zuko kicked one of them in the side of his leg. Long Feng curled his lip at him smugly as the agent he had kicked squeezed harder on his arm. In an undertone, the head of the Dai Li told another agent standing outside the cell that it should be cleaned thoroughly, as it reeked of unwashed boy. Zuko figured that was probably for his benefit as well.
The trip to the showers was somewhat longer than the one to the cell in the first place. The tunnels began to turn at right angles, with labels at the intersections, and wooden doors dotted the walls. This part of the Dai Li headquarters didn't feel like it was meant to imprison. His suspicions were confirmed when one of the agents opened the door and ushered him through a doorway into a steamy, cavernous room with twenty or so shower spigots lined up against the back wall. The two men showering looked up when the door opened. On the wall opposite the spigots stood rows of shelves, and on those shelves were two piles of clothing to go with the two men. And each pile of clothing had a Dai Li helmet on top.
A wave of nostalgia swept over him, and for a moment he was back on board his ship, his miserable little wreck of a ship that he had hated so much while he had it.
Zuko didn't realize he had stopped moving until the agents were dragging him forward by the arms, closer and closer to the showers. For a horrible moment, he was afraid they weren't going to let him wash himself, that they were going to do it for him. Then, one of the agents let go of his arm, and bent rock across the threshold, making the door inaccessible.
As the other agent gripped both of Zuko's arms behind his back, one of the naked agents turned off the water and pulled a towel out of a waiting bin. "Is that Long Feng's fire prince?"
The agent holding him laughed. "He's got himself two fire princes, don't forget."
"We're not his fire princes," Zuko spat before he could stop himself.
The washcloth hit him in the side of the head. The agent who had barred the door raised his eyebrow as Zuko turned his head to him, cheek stinging. "Let go of him, Quing, let him get washed."
Agent Quing didn't need any further encouragement to drop Zuko's arms and back away from him with a look of disgust. Zuko eyed all of them suspiciously as he peeled off his underclothes and threw them on the floor.
The agent who had barred the door and thrown the washcloth at him set a bottle on the floor next to him. "Go on, get cleaned up. Don't want to make Long Feng wait."
Zuko gave them one last glare before he seized the tap and turned it on full blast. Piping hot water gushed out down onto him, and he gave an involuntary sigh as his eyes fluttered closed for just a second. He snapped them open determinedly, and squatted down to pick up the bottle of soap and the washcloth. The water ran off his body in brownish rivulets and where it had gathered around his feet, it was almost black with dirt. He poured soap out of the bottle, its astringent smell stinging his eyes, and ran it through the short bristles of his hair. The suds came away beige. His hair was slimy with grease and grime, and most of it, he realized dully, had never been washed before. His phoenix tail was a column of mats, tight enough to pull painfully at his scalp every time he moved his head. He tried tearing some of the worst of the knots out with his fingers, but he could feel the long hairs snap, and he knew-
"Leave it," one of the agents, Quing, barked at him. "We'll cut it out later."
Zuko flinched, then reared up, ready to scream at him, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. Even if they let him, there was no salvaging his phoenix queue. He swallowed down his ire, and glowered at them all behind a curtain of water and steam. The heat seeped into his muscles, making it difficult to stay as rigid and on guard as he knew he needed to be. He scrubbed his skin raw to remind himself where he was, the dirt coming free with every scrape of his nails though the washcloth. He pulled dirt out of his hair in clumps, he dragged it off his skin, and he wrenched the stink away from himself, all in an effort to keep himself from being lulled by the comfort and the ridiculous sense of familiarity that the showers exuded.
For all their talk about not wanting to make Long Feng wait, the agents did nothing to hurry him along. They stood silently at the locked off doorway as he bathed. The agents who had been showering when the brought him in were finished and dressed in their uniforms again, standing near the wall watching him. Zuko couldn't help it. The anger boiled over. He felt his lips pull back in a snarl. "Are you all just going to stand there and watch?"
The two off duty agents jerked at the sound of his voice. One of them had his helmet off and was attempting to fan himself with it. Zuko hoped his winter weight robes were stifling in the steamy atmosphere of the showers. "Don't look at us," the agent said, glancing toward the agents who had brought him in. "They're the ones who blocked the door."
The other off duty agent gave Zuko a long up and down look. "If it makes you feel better, your highness," he sneered. "We could avert our eyes."
Clenching his jaw, Zuko burned with frustration, and the sickening knowledge that he looked like a stupid little boy, again, and he was letting himself be manipulated again, and somehow, even when he could see it happening, he never seemed to be able to stop it. "You could crawl away and die instead!" he bit off. He stood up straight and stiff as he washed the last traces of the road off his body, eyes passing over each of the men in the room in turn, telling them that he wasn't going to cower, or be embarrassed, and he wasn't going to give them what they wanted.
He really hoped this wasn't exactly what they wanted.
When he was finished, he turned the tap off and looked around for a towel. Agent Quing pulled one out of a basket on the lowest shelf and tossed it to him. Zuko caught it and dried himself, doing his best to radiate a lack of concern. He looped the towel around his waist and tied it in place, once again shuddering with the force of the nostalgia overcoming him. He opened his eyes and marched up to the gaggle of agents. "What am I supposed to do about clothes?"
"Hey Laquin, you mind getting the scissors for me?" Agent Quing asked, as he caught Zuko's eye and nodded to a bundle sitting on the shelf. They must have set it down while his back was turned. It was another cheap trick. Zuko was starting to think that was all the Dai Li had, a thousand cheap tricks.
Agent Laquin, the one who had thrown things at him, bent himself a platform out of the stone wall and rode it up high enough to reach the top shelf. He picked up a set of wickedly sharp scissors and rode back down to the floor with them.
Zuko tensed, but Agent Quing just grabbed his arm and pulled him into his chest. Agent Laquin held the scissors up high and opened them with a nasty little smile. Zuko gritted his teeth, and the air came out of him in a hiss that made the clouds of mist sizzle as they turned to steam. Agent Quing twisted him around sharply and pinned him so that all her could see was the fabric of the man's robe. Zuko thrashed, his fragile dignity shattering to pieces. He writhed to get away, but the agent just held him tighter as the scissors came down. They dug at his scalp, leaving angry red scratches as Agent Laquin cut the knots away at the skin. The scissors snipped open and shut again and again, until at last the phoenix queue fell away, and Agent Quing let him go.
Staggering back, Zuko gingerly ran his fingers over the spot on his scalp where his phoenix queue had been. It was bald, and lumpy with scratches, and felt like his head after he had first been exiled and only just started shaving it himself.
"Yeah, I know," Agent Quing said when Zuko turned around gaping. "But it'll grow back in soon, and then you can put it up in a top knot."
Zuko flushed with anger, and as the knot in the towel fell out and he had to hitch it back up around his hips and retie it, he snarled, "I can't wear a top knot, I'm in disgrace!"
They knew nothing. He was surrounded by people who knew nothing, and they didn't even know it, and they could do whatever they wanted to him, and he had to get out of here fast, because...
He was hyperventilating. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears like a landslide.
A hand grabbed his chin and yanked it up to face Agent Laquin, and suddenly he found he couldn't breathe at all. "Then you can braid it back like one of us," the agent said, but Zuko barely heard him. His breath came back in a rush, and he gagged on it. The agent shoved him away as Zuko retched up the thin watery contents of his empty stomach.
Behind him, he heard one of the taps turn on, and he was barely aware of it as they grabbed his arms and dragged him back under the water.
They dressed him like a rag doll, stuffing his arms into the sleeves of his robe, and shaking and shoving him into place so they could button it. When he came back to himself, he had the beginnings of bruising on his arms and face. Zuko held his arms tight around his body as they jostled him back down the maze of tunnels, back to where Long Feng waited.
Heads of State didn't wait around for prisoners to wash up. As they rounded the corner and he saw Long Feng standing there, Zuko's skin prickled with the overwhelming sense of wrongness. This wasn't how things were done, it wasn't, and they were all making so much effort, and acting like they didn't think he would notice, like they thought he was even more stupid than he was.
The agents dragged him to stand before the ruler of Ba Sing Se and held him in place as Long Feng tipped his chin up with one finger. "Now don't you clean up well, Prince Zuko," he said, pleased. "You look almost human."
All that effort was so that Zuko would feel unimportant. A small, traitorous part of him was kind of flattered.
But most of him was just so tired. Why did everybody he met play those kinds of games? Why could he never manage to pull one off?
Turning away from Zuko, the Grand Secretariat waved at his agents to follow. They picked up Zuko's arms again and marched him after their leader as he made his way back to the little room they had put him in before to watch his uncle being... whatever was being done to Uncle.
Long Feng stood against the back wall as his agents dropped Zuko's arms and bent the door shut before parting to stand on either side of the now useless door. The swish swish of the secret ruler of Ba Sing Se's slippers and robes against the stone floor roared in Zuko's ears. He glided like a specter, or like a servant, out of place. Watching him left Zuko with such a palpable sense of wrongness that he didn't want to even breathe the same air as this man, for fear of tasting him on it. Long Feng tapped his slippered foot on the floor, and the stones broke apart. The pulse of the light spinning around the room below them made the shadows on his face flicker, magnifying the sense of unreality about him as he nodded to Zuko. "Come look, Prince Zuko."
Torn between his profound unwillingness to come any closer to the man and his need to... he needed to see Uncle. He rushed forward like a too tight pipa string snapping, and fell to his knees to press his face to the hole in the floor. Distantly, he knew what kind of picture he must have made, on the ground at Long Feng's feet, but it didn't matter. Below them, the lantern spun on its tracks, casting its ever-shifting glow on his uncle's face. It glinted off the drool sliding down from the corner of his slack mouth, and his blank, glass-like eyes with their pinprick pupils. It illuminated the creases and contours of his face, all sense and expression spilled out of it. Zuko shuddered convulsively, and shuddered, and shuddered, until he realized he couldn't stop, too overcome with exhaustion and revulsion that his whole body shook with it. A Dai Li agent stood in the middle of the room with his uncle, in the middle of the circular path of the lantern tracks, his voice soft and steady over the lantern's whir. "How many men did you bring with you on this expedition?"
Prince Iroh, the great general of the Fire Nation, blinked slowly. "Twelve."
"What are the names, ranks, and fields of expertise of the men who accompanied you?"
Without inflection or hesitation, his uncle began to rattle off the names of their crew, starting with Zuko's lieutenant, as if it wasn't an act of unthinkable betrayal to his nation and the people under his command. Zuko's hands went slick with cold sweat. He shoved himself up, away from the hole in the floor, every word his uncle spoke echoing around his head as the man detailed the lives and talents of men Zuko had barely bothered to know. "What did you do to him?"
Below, his uncle didn't even pause at his nephew's voice, even though the cry must have bounced around the walls in the lantern room almost as loud as it did in the empty little room above. He just kept talking as if he and the agent were the only two people in the world.
Long Feng gave his captive a level stare and Zuko's anger burned so hot he was almost sick with it. Flames wreathed his clenched fists. There was no sound in the world louder than his uncle's voice over the roaring in his ears. He growled, a wounded, desperate rumble, when Long Feng didn't answer immediately.
At last, Long Feng raised his eyebrows at Zuko. "The Dai Li have many skills that are useful in helping people to reconsider their mistaken allegiances, Prince Zuko."
"What did you do to him?" Zuko repeated, barely able to force the words out past the constriction in his throat.
"I have a question for you," Long Feng said, as if Zuko hadn't spoken. "It is of minimal importance, really. We'll have it out of your uncle soon enough anyway, but it would be easier for everyone if you would just tell us now. What were the Fire Nation Crown Prince and the Dragon of the West doing in Earth Kingdom territory?"
He rushed forward, fists up, and punched fire at the man's disgusting, smug face. Long Feng jumped back, startled, but he quickly recovered, raising his own fists, and stomping the ground to bend a column of stone at Zuko's knees. He avoided it easily. But weak with hunger, and so tired he could barely think, Zuko had forgotten about the two Dai Li agents standing at the door. The stone gloves snapped closed around his wrists and yanked his arms together behind him. As the agents came up behind him to grab his arms, he struggled to remain on his feet.
Long Feng's lip curled contemptuously as he stepped forward to grab Zuko's chin again. "Do you need assistance with your allegiances, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko spat in his face. The saliva sizzled where it landed, and when Long Feng wiped it away, it left behind a shiny red burn.
Long Feng nodded, and the Dai Li picked him up by his arms and shoved him down to his hands and knees next to the hole in the floor. A hand gripped the back of his neck pressing his head down against the edges of the hole. The agent in the room below spoke softly, but Zuko heard every word. "You are drowning. You struggle against the waves, but it is no use." His uncle writhed in the chair, frantically trying to break his bindings. "They drag you under. Your lungs fill with water." Writhing turned to gasping, his eyes wide with terror as he thrashed.
"Stop!" Zuko shouted, eyes watering.
The agent glanced at him before turning back to his charge. "You fight against the blackness. Fear freezes your muscles." Zuko's uncle continued to sob and struggle for breath.
"You are too useful a hostage as the heir to an enemy nation to harm too grievously," Long Feng's voice went on behind him. "But your uncle is far too dangerous to ransom back to your father no matter what he promises. He is vulnerable, Prince Zuko. He is utterly helpless, and if you wish him outlive his usefulness, you will cooperate."
The agents yanked him up to kneel at Long Feng's feet. Tears ran down his face. "Stop," he whispered.
The man who ruled Ba Sing Se towered over him, face almost glowing above him against the dark of his hair and the stone room. "What were you doing in the Earth Kingdom?"
"We were hunting the Avatar!" Zuko shook, furious with himself, furious with his uncle, furious with Long Feng, and the agent in the room below, with the ones holding him, with...
A sneer spread across Long Feng's face. "The truth, if you please."
"It is," Zuko insisted. "I'm banished, that's... I'm banished."
Long Feng waved at his agents. "Take him back to his cell."
Almost as soon as they had thrown him back into his cell, the door opened, and an agent came in with a tray of food, a cup, and a pitcher of water. The agent watched him eat and drink, and took the empty tray with him when he left. Soon after, two more agents came in to escort him to the latrines. After that, he was left alone in the dark, until the agent brought him dinner, and the process repeated.
Zuko tried to meditate, to hold a flame in each hand and count his breaths. He tried to keep himself steady, and measure the time by the rise and fall of the flames. Then he'd... He would see his uncle's empty face, and his heart would hammer in his chest, and his breaths would come too quick and too shallow, and the flame would surge out of his grasp, white hot and roaring like a living thing as it climbed higher and higher, before suddenly sputtering out. He tried to sleep, but the stones leached the warmth from his bones. The robes they had him in were warm and well made from tightly woven wool, but the cold got into him anyway, burrowing like a maggot-worm into his chest. He tried to come up with an escape plan, but he couldn't knit together his wild disjointed fragments of schemes into even a shadow of a plan, much less anything solid. He needed his uncle. He needed him there with him, and snapped out of whatever trance the Dai Li had put him in. He couldn't do it, he didn't know how to. He didn't...
The one thing he did know was that the meals didn't come at even intervals, or in any kind of pattern. They didn't keep him hungry, but he couldn't figure out day and night from them. He couldn't feel the sun. There was no time in the cell, deep underground, and the Dai Li weren't letting any trickle in.
Zuko swore to himself he wasn't going to let it rattle him, but he was starting to realize he had never kept a promise he ever really meant to, not even to himself.
It couldn't have been too long before they let him out of his cell again for something more than a trip to the latrines. The bald patch where his phoenix queue had been hacked away only had a short bristly covering, and he could feel the scabs where the scissors had sunk into his skin when he ran his fingers through his hair. A week, maybe a little more. That was all the time he had spent down there.
The Dai Li agents who took his arms marched him up to the showers and stood by the doorway as he showered in silence. He snatched up the clothes they had laid out for him and threw them on before they could try to help him do it. Without a word, they grabbed his arms and jerked him down a new tunnel. He did his best to keep his back straight in spite of the punishing grip on his arms. If he was going to be taken to Long Feng again, he would need all the dignity he could muster.
But when they stopped in front of a door and pulled it open, it wasn't Long Feng he saw inside.
"Uncle!" Zuko struggled against the agents' grip for a few agonizing heartbeats, before they just... let him go. He launched himself into the cell and dropped to his knees beside his uncle, arms itching to throw themselves around him and busy his face in his uncle's shoulder as he hadn't done since before his banishment.
But then his uncle blinked at him, and wrinkled his forehead. "Hello?"
That lost, childlike confusion in his uncle's eyes didn't... It didn't surprise him after what Long Feng had showed him, but it still hurt. It still felt like someone were crushing the air out of his lungs. "I'm your nephew," he said, swallowing against the sudden dryness in his throat. "I'm Zuko." And then, Zuko thought of something horrible. "Your name is Iroh."
"You must have mistaken me for someone else." His uncle who was not his uncle gave him a vacant, oddly apologetic smile. "My name is Mushi."
Zuko's fingers went numb with the force of clenching them into fists, and he couldn't comprehend or even feel his nails biting into his palms. It was as if he had stepped out of reality, and left things like palms, fists, and nails behind. He forced his hands open, letting the pain that came as he released the pressure drag him back to his body. "Oh that's right," Zuko heard himself say. "Yes Uncle, I know your name."
Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko sensed more than he saw the Dai Li agents shut the door behind him. He tried to ignore the sound of the tumblers in the lock clicking closed. Suppressing his shivers of fatigue and trepidation, Zuko waited for his uncle to say something, to fill the silence with his oh so familiar comforting voice, even if the words and the mind behind it had been mangled. But he didn't. The silence stayed empty. Eventually Zuko looked away, glancing around the cell to acquaint himself with his new prison.
Were it not for the lock on the outside of the door, and the absence of windows, it might have been a cozy bedchamber. If the stone walls were transformed into sheets of metal, and the green changed for red, it could have been an officer's cabin on a sleek new Fire Nation navy vessel. It might have been his cabin. There was a handsome chest of drawers against the wall, and a low table tucked into the back corner, a heavy green banner with the symbol for the Earth Kingdom stitched in yellow, and even a delicate porcelain vase with a bundle of dried grasses and little yellow flowers. But most importantly, there were two sleeping mats, which answered the question Zuko hadn't been able to ask, if the Dai Li were going to let him stay with his uncle, or whether they were going to take him away again to his dark, barren little cell.
Zuko turned back to his uncle, who was sitting so motionless that his nephew wondered uneasily whether he was able to move without being told to. He stood up and walked the short distance to the door and covered the basket of glow crystals, plunging the cell into sudden darkness.
"What did you do that for, nephew?" his uncle's voice echoed in the darkness, sounding curious, a little puzzled, but not angry, not annoyed. Zuko clenched his jaw and told himself he was happy to have a reaction from his uncle, and not heartsick at how little his uncle sounded like himself.
"Sorry Uncle." He uncovered the glow crystals and sat down on the sleeping mat closest to the door. From that safer distance, he examined his uncle, noting his crisp green robe and damp hair, filing away the knowledge that the Dai Li had cleaned and dressed them both before bringing them to this place, and made them look their best before they saw each other again. He wished... He wished he could figure them out, figure out what they wanted out of the tricks and games they kept using on him, so that he could fight them. He wished he didn't feel so completely off balance, because that at least he could guess was something they wanted.
He had to get out of there.
And that was where the Dai Li agent found him when he unlocked the door carrying a tray with two bowls and two spoons. Under Zuko's suspicious gaze, and his uncle's benign one, he set it down on the table in the corner, folded his hands behind his back, and glided out without a sound.
Zuko waited until he heard the door close and the lock turn. Then, he stood up and crossed the floor to the table. Inside the bowls was a thick, gloppy porridge that smelled like wheat and bean-peas. He took a spoonful. It tasted horrible, like the worst ship food, only without the salt to make it bearable, and it was only Zuko's desperate hunger that made him want it. He shoveled the rest of it into his mouth as fast as he could choke it down, and set the bowl back on the tray with a shudder. "Come over here, Uncle," he said dully. "They brought us dinner."
His uncle shuffled over and knelt down at the table. Swallowing down nausea, Zuko pushed the other bowl over to his uncle. With one finger, he nudged the spoon over to him too. But his uncle didn't pick it up. His eyes stayed on his nephew, expectant. It hit Zuko then, and the porridge in his stomach turned into a mound of bricks in his stomach. All the way to Ba Sing Se, he had tended to his uncle's hands, cleaned them and bandaged them as best he could tried to keep them still and to stave off some of the agony his uncle, tough as the Dragon of the West was underneath the sweet, patient exterior, couldn't help showing. He had fed him, his own hands pinned together with chains, and held the waterskin for him to drink from, and after a few days left alone in the dark, he had allowed himself to forget that, and somehow, he had expected at least one thing to have gone back to the way it was before they had come.
He picked up the spoon, and dipped it into the bowl to lift a lump of porridge to his uncle's mouth. Slowly, laboriously, he guided the porridge into his uncle's mouth, and tipped it inside so it wouldn't spill, until the last spoonful was gone. When at last he was done, he set the bowl and spoon down on the tray with a dull thunk.
His uncle lifted his ruined hand and rubbed his nephew's cheek. "Such a nice boy."
At his uncle's words, Zuko's reserve, the walls of his pride and brittle dignity, broke down, and he with them. He heard his own sobs before he realized he was crying. If he had not already been on his knees, he would have fallen to them.
There in the cell, there was the feeling hanging heavy in the air that they were waiting for something, that this was an impermanent situation. They just sat there in the cell, like they had been put away until they were useful. Which of course led to the nerve-racking conclusion that they were not useful, not at that moment, and every long dormant political instinct Zuko possessed screamed at him that he didn't want to stay unused for long enough to find out what Long Feng did to useless prisoners. But he didn't think he wanted to know what use Long Feng would put them to.
And there wasn't anything he could do about it anyway. Trapped in that cell with his uncle, there was nothing he could do about anything. Nothing that made even the slightest bit of difference. He was useless, to himself, to his uncle to his nation and his father, and he was stuck, like a spider-fly in a lump of amber. All he could do was dress his uncle like a child, and pull the blanket up around his neck at bedtime to keep out the damp underground air, spoon him the slop the Dai Li fed them, and clean his face, and talk to him, his heart aching anew each time his uncle spoke like someone else, and aching even worse when he sounded almost like himself.
Maybe it was kinder somehow that the Dai Li had left him this way unable to remember who he was, or how he had betrayed everything he had ever stood for, and everyone who had ever depended on either of them. Or maybe he was just going crazy to think any of this was a kindness.
Had his ears not been waiting, hearing sharpened with dread, Zuko never would have sensed the door open. He whirled around, the sensible part of his mind trying to interject that it was probably just the agent coming to bring dinner, or take them to the latrines.
But it wasn't time for dinner, and the agents never bothered to be that quiet anyway. The shadow standing in the cell doorway was Long Feng. He slipped into the cell as if the floor were moving, and not his feet. His uncle didn't notice, as he performed the laborious task of trying to hook a piece of hair behind his ear with his ruined hands. With his uncle there, and yet not, he felt more alone than ever as he straightened his back and faced Long Feng, like a lizard-mouse facing an owl-cat in the dark.
Long Feng unfolded his hands and drew a letter out of his billowing sleeve. In the green crystal light, his father's bright red official seal was dulled to almost black, standing out against the paper like a blood stain. All at once, Zuko began to tremble. The terrible fear that he had never let himself acknowledge, that his father wouldn't even bother to respond to Long Feng, that he was so worthless to his family and his nation that it was better to leave him to rot in the hands of the enemy than to acknowledge his existence, spilled away, leaving his knees weak. His heart hammered as his eyes latched onto that letter like a lifeline. This was not how he wanted to go home. This was so far from how he wanted to go home. This was...
He imagined stepping off that ship onto the docks, his feet finally safe on Fire Nation soil, but with his disgrace clinging to him, like the putrid smell of his burn when he had first gone to sea, battling fever and rot. He imagined the eyes of his people on him as he was delivered home, and how they would whisper amongst themselves about their prince, too much of a failure even for exile.
At least he would be home. At least it would be better than this.
Long Feng was not smiling. If anything, he looked a little troubled. He unfurled the letter and thrust it at Zuko, who grabbed it eagerly. He crouched down next to the basket of crystals to read it.
Fire Nation forces have captured the fugitive known as the Avatar. With those words, the bottom fell out of Zuko's stomach. It wasn't a letter, for Zuko, for Long Feng, or for anybody else. It wasn't a negotiation. It was a proclamation. And there, down at the very end, underneath the blessings and assurances that victory was within their grasp, written almost as an afterthought, were two sentences, that struck him as if they were made of hammer blows instead of words: The individual who has been known as Prince Zuko is no son of the Fire Nation. He is heretofore stripped of all of his titles and rights as a member of the royal family and as a Fire Nation citizen, and is in all things a common foreigner.
Zuko's hands began to shake, and he panted for breath. The bubble of hope that had so recently risen up inside of him at the sight of his father's seal popped. The air was punched out of him, and he couldn't breathe in new air to replace it. In its place came that old unacknowledged fear, only now it was no longer fear, but certainty, and despair. Though he fought them, the tears came streaming down his face.
Long Feng moved closer, the light from the glow crystals next to Zuko throwing his form into shadow, but Zuko didn't notice until he bent down and gripped Zuko's chin in one hand. As he stood up, he yanked Zuko's chin up with him, forcing him to follow. "No one will be ransoming you, Prince Zuko. There is no leverage I can get out of holding you," he hissed. Then he stopped. "No, not 'Prince' Zuko is it? Just Zuko."
Though Long Feng forced Zuko to look him in the eyes, it wasn't Long Feng's face he saw. The sight of those words: no son of the Fire Nation, and foreigner, and his name, written in those ugly brutal characters danced in front of his eyes, disjointed and mocking. He swallowed against the horrible feeling of Long Feng's fingers against his jaw and throat. Gathering up his strength, he wrenched his chin out of the man's grasp and pulled back away from him. The fighting stance came automatically to him, and before he had even realized what he was doing, he had his hands raised, and his legs bent, and his body between Long Feng and his uncle, the last of his tears evaporating as his whole being readied itself to fight. The crackle in the air almost drowned out the voice in his head telling him he was about to die.
The head of the Dai Li didn't fall into a fighting stance of his own. He didn't call the agents who were without a doubt waiting just outside the door. He didn't have to. Secure in the power he wielded, he had no need of an overt show of force, not when they were both so acutely aware of just who was in control. He just smiled. And he let Zuko wait for a few long seconds, for a blow to come, before he spoke. "You are a lucky, boy, that there are other ways for you to be of use to Ba Sing Se and the Dai Li." He looked his captive up and down. "And you take to it so quickly, too."
"What are you talking about?" Zuko snapped back, baffled. His arms sank to his sides, and he found himself breathing through his nose to escape the taste of failure. Somehow, he had blundered right into whatever trap Long Feng had laid for him. He was so furious with himself he was almost sick with it. It was no use. His father had been right to banish him, had been right to leave him as a captive, where he could do relatively little damage. He was never going to learn how to stop falling for these kinds of games, and it was a mercy his father had found a reason to get rid of him when he did, before he had a chance to put the whole Fire Nation in danger.
If the Dai Li didn't...
Banishment wasn't enough to protect his nation from him. He'd gotten himself captured, hadn't he?
Long Feng let his captive stew for a few moments before answering. "Your uncle informs us that Sozin's comet will return soon." He moved closer to Zuko until they were almost, but not quite touching. "I'm sure you can guess what the Fire Nation will use it for."
Zuko bared his teeth is a feral challenge. "Yeah, I think I can." Ba Sing Se, the prize that had eluded them for a hundred years, would fall. He only had to hold out for a half a year. After that... After that, he had no idea, but just then, it didn't matter.
"Of course, as protectors of this city, the Dai Li cannot allow that to happen." Long Feng put his hand on his shoulder. Zuko tried to shrug it off, but his captor clamped it tight. "My agents have certain skills that would make them very useful in the war. To this point, we have been loath to leave the city's cultural heritage unprotected. The comet changes that calculation."
Narrowing his eyes, he grabbed Long Feng's hand and twisted it off of his shoulder. "What does that have to do with me?"
"My agents will need to know what to expect from a firebender, which means they need to face one here, before I send them into the Fire Nation."
"Shouldn't be hard," Zuko shot back. "Put them on the wall."
"I don't think that's necessary," Long Feng chuckled. "Not when I have you."
Long Feng's eyebrows rose in false astonishment. "No?"
"I'm not a traitor," he snarled. "You can't make me train your agents, and I won't betray my nation."
Long Feng's expression turned pitying. "You don't have a nation to betray." Vibrating with desperate fury, Zuko lurched forward, but Long Feng slid out of his reach and backed away. "Listen boy," he whispered. "I cannot force you to fight my agents, that is true, but if you refuse, you are of no use to me."
Zuko glared at him. "Then kill me."
The hand darted out fast as a striking rat-viper. Pebbles that had lain ignored, swept up against the walls of the cell, flew up into the air and wrapped themselves around the Grand Secretariat's hands. They lingered there for only a moment before they leapt back into the air and lunged for Zuko's wrists. With a flick of Long Feng's own wrist, the stone hands wrenched Zuko's arms together behind his back. Pain lanced through him as the stone hands continued to rise, lifting him into the air by his wrists, trapped behind his back. His shoulders screamed at the strain. A moan of pain bubbled up in his throat, and he let it gush from him in a burst of flame.
For a moment, Long Feng's eyes grew wide, the whites gleaming all around his irises in the crystal light. He shot backwards from the flames pouring out of Zuko's mouth as sparks burned pinprick holes in the silk of his robes. Then, the surprise spilled out of his face, and his expression returned to that same polite, slightly amused serenity with which he had bestowed on Zuko since the first time they had met. He raised his hands again, and as Zuko hung in the air, the pain making his eyes water and his breath come in shallow fire laden pants, a new pair of stone hands wrapped themselves around his throat and squeezed.
With a rattling sob, Zuko dragged one last thin trickle of air into his lungs before the hands cut off the air completely. The last sparks of fire died. He thrashed, kicking against nothing but air, his wrists rubbing raw against the stone as his shoulders exploded with fresh agony. Tears poured out of his eyes as he writhed against his bindings. His head spun as the light spilled away. His eyes, his skin, his ears, all felt as if they were going to burst from the blood that couldn't escape around the hands choking him. He thrashed again, in spite of the pain it caused, unable to stop himself as he struggled for breath.
Then, suddenly, the hands let go. He dropped to the floor, his knees hitting hard against the stone, pebbles raining down around him. Resting his hands and face against the cool floor, he sucked in gulp after gulp of air. Long Feng stepped closer, his slippered feet coming to stop next to Zuko's throbbing head. Zuko tried to lift his head to look up at him, but he didn't quite manage it. He snarled, but it came out more like a hiss.
"If you are no use to me, your uncle is no use to me." Long Feng nudged Zuko with his foot. "And there is nothing stopping me from turning him over to the generals. A public execution of the famed Dragon of the West would do a great deal to boost soldier morale."
A rushing sound, that might have been the blood still slowly flowing out of his ears, filled his head. He tried to shoot to his feet, but Long Feng's hand stopped him mid rise and slammed him back down to his knees.
"The way I see it, Zuko," Long Feng's voice cut through. "You have a choice, the Fire Nation, or your uncle." He opened the door, and glanced back at the former prince of the Fire Nation, on his knees. "I will leave you alone to make your decision, but before you do, I want you to ask yourself if it really is treason if the Fire Nation has already cast you out."
Of course it was, but that didn't matter. As soon as the door had closed behind the man who ruled Ba Sing Se, Zuko staggered to his feet and wiped the tears and snot off his face.
His uncle was still sitting on the sleeping mat. Zuko's feet carried him over to him, and absently, he hooked his uncle's hair behind his ear.
When the agents came the next morning, Zuko went with them without a word. That they didn't even bother to ask him what decision he had made, probably should have been galling. He was beginning to get used to the way the Dai Li stopped in front of blank stone walls and bent them open to reveal exactly the room they meant to. As he walked under the newly made arch, he glanced up into the room the brought him to. In the darkness above, he could just see the tips of stalactites hanging down from the ceiling. The cavern glowed green with crystal light, but he lit a palmful of flame anyway and carried it into the center of the stone floor. The orange and yellow light that the tiny fire threw chased away some of the green, and for just a few seconds, he let himself imagine that it was a little piece of the world aboveground, beyond the headquarters of the Dai Li.
He waited for the first strike, for Dai Li agents to enter the cavern, the arena, he supposed he should call it. His hand with the fire in it closed, and the fire winked out. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, searching for even the slightest movement of air in the underground stillness, and his legs bent, preparing to spring into the air and run and fight. He waited.
The thing he hated about the Dai Li was the way he knew they could come from any direction. They didn't need to come from the place he had entered from. They didn't need a door. He couldn't just watch that one little section of the wall. Or he supposed they could come up through the floor. Or... Zuko's eyes flicked around the room again before he pulled his fist back and punched up into the air, sending a gout of flame rushing up to the roof of the cavern. In the sudden light, the Dai Li agents stood out, clinging to the stalactites like grape-plums on a vine. They launched themselves for the walls and slid down on rock platforms like children sledding down the snowy slopes of the volcanoes back home. He braced himself and tried to count them, ready to spin a circle of fire as soon as they were close enough.
But they didn't have to come close to him to fire fingernail sized stone projectiles at him. Dodging, he closed his eyes and bent a huge fireball that lit up the room, before letting it die. Uncle had taught him that trick years ago, with a wink, and Zuko did his best not to picture his uncle's face with his uncle's mind still behind his eyes.
As the firelight died, he opened his eyes and circled swiftly behind one of the agents. There were ten. There were only ten agents. He could do that. That wasn't so bad. He kicked that agent hard in the back of the knees and watched him crumple before darting away. Gritting his teeth, he summoned another fire ball, and lobbed it at the partner of the agent he had just struck down. But as soon as the fire bloomed on the air, the Dai Li agents wheeled around to its source and rained a torrent of tiny stones down upon him, pinning him to the floor with their rock gloves.
The agent he had knocked over stood up and shook himself off. "Okay boys, let him up." He brushed glittering dust out his beard, but to Zuko's distant satisfaction, some of it remained, glowing faintly. "Let's go again."
In the aftermath of the training session, or whatever it really was, two Dai Li led him back to the cell, allowing him to stagger along between them, his legs shaking. He could already feel the throb of new bruises blooming across his skin, mere shadows of the stiffness and pain tomorrow would bring. He wished he had been able to hit harder, to strike faster, so that at least he could have made the agents feel some kind of pain before they swarmed him. He wished that at least he had the satisfaction of seeing them falter or limp as they walked beside him, to know that at least he had made some kind of impact, but the agents who led him back showed no signs of the fight at all.
When they opened the cell door, he hobbled over to his sleeping mat and lay down, trying to summon up some kind of a smile or reassurance for his uncle. Eventually, he settled on a tight grimace. "They promised to bring food soon. I'll feed you, and then they'll probably take us to the showers."
His uncle nodded absently. A wave of emptiness washed over him, and he felt as if he were drowning, as if he couldn't breathe, as if he were breathing, and something other than air was filling his lungs.
"Uncle," he mumbled.
"Can you come here?" He hated the way his voice shook, and the way he even had to ask. He hated all of it so much.
His uncle flashed an indulgent smile that made Zuko's chest... just... and sat down next to him. Hand trembling, Zuko reached up to touch his uncle's face, just to reassure himself that it wasn't some kind of a mirage. When they touched, it was like electricity, the shock of him, real and alive and here, almost too much for him, even if his uncle wasn't really here, even if that was the problem.
His hand rested against his uncle's face, the pad of his thumb rubbing a trace along the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, for only a moment. The next, he was swept into an embrace. His body pressed against his uncle's chest, he shook and shook, and couldn't stop.
He could feel the new unknown person in the room with them, breathing. Instinctively, he shot to his feet and grabbed at him, his mind just beginning to lift out of the fog of sleep. He punched at it, fist wreathed in fire, the light allowing him his first look at his attacker.
It was a Dai Li agent.
Zuko forced himself to stop, and let go of his grip on the man's uniform.
"Oh no kid," the agent whispered. "Go on."
That was all the invitation Zuko needed. He lunged forward to grab the agent's shoulders and brought his knee up hard into his groin. With a harsh gasp of pain, the agent doubled over, and Zuko wrenched his arm behind his back, forcing him to the floor. "What do you want?" he hissed.
The agent made a choking sound, and Zuko gritted his teeth in frustration as the agent pulled himself together. Zuko knew exactly how much a kick like that hurt. Azula used to do it to him. Just then, Zuko didn't care. "Let me up and I'll tell you," the agent gasped.
"I don't think so." Zuko cranked the arm a little bit for emphasis. Then he spotted the reddish chalk in the agent's other hand. "What's that for?"
"To mark you," the agent grunted.
"To mark me," Zuko repeated. "What for?"
The agent shot him a glower. "Figure it out, kid." With his free hand, he shoved at the ground, and a pillar of stone jutted up to pop Zuko off. Landing on the sleeping mat, Zuko scrambled up as the agent disappeared through a hole in the floor. With a cry of frustration, Zuko flung himself forward, just as the hole closed.
"What's wrong, Nephew?" His uncle's voice startled him back to his feet again.
"Nothing, Uncle, go back to sleep," he said.
But Zuko didn't sleep. Long after his uncle had drifted off again, he paced around the cell, brooding on marks and why a Dai Li agent would attack in the middle of the night when they could drag him out and execute him any time they wanted.
When they came for him after breakfast, he held himself straight and tall, as if his body weren't a mass of bruises, his eyes open wide as if he hadn't spent the night awake and waiting for another attack, but he was too weak to do more than bare his teeth as they gripped his arms and led him back to the cavern they had used before.
This time, he looked up first. He sent a blast of flame upwards to illuminate the stalactites and chains hanging from the stone above, but there were no Dai Li agents hiding among them this time.
Strangely, imminent attack leached away the fear-born energy that had kept him up and pacing since the nighttime attack. Maybe it was simply because he knew it was coming now, and he knew he wouldn't win, because they would just keep coming until he fell, but just then, all he wanted to do was curl up against the wall and go to sleep.
He was really too tired to be circling the room with his eyes like this. It was making him dizzy.
He heard the rumble of stones as the wall opened, and kicked out hard toward it as an agent tried to walk through. He leapt backward, and Zuko followed, feet slapping hard against the floor as he ran. Stone grinding on stone echoed throughout the cavern as doors opened all along the walls, but Zuko ignored them. He shot through the door just before it slammed shut behind him, and found himself in a long, narrow tunnel that from the curve of it, probably looped around the cavern. There were pits and marks in the stone wall separating him from the cavern, which curved outwards, into the cavern dome.
A second later, Zuko's wrists were pinned to the wall, and a rock glove covered his mouth. The wall opened up under him, dropping him back into the cavern with a thud and a bitten back cry. The wall closed again behind him and the Dai Li agent he had followed, and the rocks binding his wrists retreated. The agent knelt down next to him and held out a hand. "You good to go again?"
"Aw Jianyu, stop coddling him," someone called from the middle of the cavern.
Zuko spat in Jianyu's face, distantly pleased to watch the glob of spit run down the agent's cheek.
"I'll take that as a yes," the agent said, grabbing Zuko's arm and yanking him up to his feet.
Zuko slumped against the cell door as soon as they closed it, his hair still wet enough from his shower to send rivulets of water dribbling down the wall. Idly, he waited for the click of the lock to tell him he and his uncle had been sealed in again.
But it didn't come. Zuko listened to the sounds of the Dai Li walking down the hall, leaving him alone with an unlocked cell door. He shot to his feet, all thoughts of sleep or weariness forgotten. His hand hesitated over the door handle. What if there was a guard?
What if the door just didn't open?
He swallowed and gritted his teeth, and pushed. The door swung open. The corridor was empty.
Zuko stepped forward, out of the cell. His skin tingled as a sudden, almost forgotten surge of hope bubbled up inside of him. He followed the corridor until it turned downward. His feet carried him from tunnel to tunnel, rising until he found himself in the long, seemingly endless tunnel that had brought him from the outskirts of the city to the Dai Li headquarters.
It was with a feeling of profound unreality that Zuko made his way back to the cell, the knowledge that he had a way out now, this second if he didn't wait, fluttering inside him. The door was still open when he arrived, and his uncle was still sitting on the sleeping mat, gazing absently down the corridor.
"Uncle," Zuko rasped.
His uncle looked up at him and smiled. Zuko returned it, feeling his heart break.
"Follow me," Zuko told him. "Come on. We have to hurry."
His uncle stood up and shuffled to the threshold, and stopped.
"Come on!" Zuko waved to him, but he didn't move. The blank incomprehension on his face made Zuko want to scream. Zuko couldn't remember a single time that look had ever crossed Uncle Iroh's face, not before. It didn't look anything like the look the man had always given him to be difficult, when he was pretending not to understand, when really he just thought his nephew was being too foolish to be acknowledged. This was real. This was the face his uncle wore now when he could not understand at all.
Zuko stepped back into the cell and pushed his uncle between the shoulder blades. "Okay, let's go."
His uncle didn't move. Short and round, he seemed to have turned himself into a boulder.
"Come on, we have to get out of here!" he tried not to cry. He lifted his Uncle's leg and pushed him forward until he stumbled across the threshold into the corridor. And he leapt back through the doorway to stand on the threshold again. Zuko's skin prickled all over. He took his uncle's arm, heaved him up onto his back and walked out of the cell.
The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back in the corridor, and his uncle was back inside the cell, staring at him like he didn't even know what he had just done. The faint fluttering of hope inside him transformed into something hot, and heavy that settled in his chest and wouldn't move for anything.
"Please," he whispered.
"He's not going to come out."
Zuko turned around to see a Dai Li agent holding a bowl of rice, and cabbage-beans. Jianyu. His mind supplied the man's name, taking in the flecks of gray in his mustache and beard. "You did this, didn't you?"
Agent Jianyu didn't bother to answer. "We were wondering when you would realize the door wasn't locked," he said instead, stepping into the cell to set the bowl down.
An almost inhuman sound, of bared teeth and unbearable frustration slid out of Zuko. He knew that it was more important in the headquarters of the Dai Li than ever that he needed to think, to consider every move carefully, and examine every action from every possible angle. He needed even more than he did before to be like Azula. Even Uncle... Even Uncle Iroh would want that right now.
But he... plans slid out of his grasp even as he was making them, and there was nothing he could do about, it, no way for him to get it together, and stop reacting on instinct and the terrible, overwhelming fear that kept crashing over him. He felt as if he had been stripped down, and as if the very ability to make choices had slid away from him, as if he were a coal powered automaton in a storybook. All he had left were a thousand different meanings and motivations for each word and gesture of the Dai Li, and no way to stop reacting, like a frightened rabbit-mouse.
Agent Jianyu gave him a pitying look, which just made Zuko feel even worse. "He will never leave this room without a Dai Li escort."
"But I can," he said flatly, the words strangely disconnected from him, harsh and distant compared to the omnipresent animal panic just under the surface.
The agent sighed. "You know, there isn't a whole lot we could do to keep you if you really wanted to escape. I guess the Grand Secretariat doesn't see any point in trying."
Zuko thought about the way they had shut him away in the dark when they had first brought him here, and about locks and chains, and all the innumerable dark, forgotten places they could put him that he could never escape from, and he tried to puzzle out what the Dai Li got out of lying to him about it. "I guess not."
"But we can make it so that your uncle doesn't want to escape," Agent Jianyu continued. "And I'm sure someone has already made it clear to you that your uncle isn't useful to us alive, except as a way to get you to cooperate. If you leave..."
Zuko very badly wanted to snap at the agent that he had figured that out already, thanks.
The worst part, the really sickening thing about all of it was that he was absolutely certain that Uncle Iroh would never want his nephew to stay for his sake. He would want Zuko to run away and never look back.
But Zuko couldn't.
Zuko had never slept well. Whatever thoughts and fears he managed to hold at bay during the day came home to roost at night, and the long dark hours stretched out ahead of him, perfectly made for silence and brooding. This... This hadn't improved after the capture. In the darkness underground, it was as if every moment was nighttime, and his thoughts twisted away from him until he couldn't... And this was why he was somehow distantly surprised that the Dai Li caught him as he slept again. They must have been watching him somehow, without him knowing, waiting for him to fall asleep and stay asleep for long enough.
That... thought wasn't going to do his ability to get to sleep any good either.
He wasn't even awake when he batted the first rock glove away before it could close around his throat. Waking with his arm already in the air, Zuko brought his legs up and around in a circle, sending a ring of fire radiating outwards as he leapt to his feet and readied himself for the fight.
Ducking a flying rock hand, he brought his hand up and shoved flames into the air, and then without pausing, he punched three fireballs with his other hand at the shadows the flames had cast. Two of the agents dodged, but the other yelped with pain as the fireball caught the fabric of his robe and burned through to his chest.
Zuko didn't even have to look to know the sound hadn't woken his uncle. He let out a loud snore as his nephew batted a rock hand out of the air. It would have been so much easier to fight his attackers if his uncle hadn't been asleep next to him on the mat. If he didn't have to shield him from the fire and rocks, if it were just him and the Dai Li, he could have...
Lost, like he kept losing in the training sessions.
And if his uncle weren't there, he wouldn't be there either. He would be gone so fast... He might as well imagine what it would have been like if they had never been captured at all.
Pressing his advantage, Zuko barreled toward the agent who he had hit and tackled him to the ground. Abruptly, his arm was yanked back, his shoulder almost tearing free of its socket, as a rock glove closed around his wrist and dragged it up and back. As the agent scrambled away, Zuko snarled and swung his arm like a club at the face of the agent behind him. The crunch of a finger breaking echoed through the cell, as Zuko's rock covered arm. collided with the hand the agent had brought up to defend himself. The rest of his fingers went limp. Zuko picked up the piece of chalk that fell from them. With no sound except for the injured agent's pants of pain, the agents left the cell through the door Zuko was almost certain they didn't enter through.
It took a long time before he fell asleep again, but when he did, they were back. Zuko stared at them, trying to shake himself out of his stupor, and before he could even figure out how to get to his feet, they had his arms and legs pinned. As one of the agents darted forward with the chalk, Zuko breathed out an exhausted trickle of fire. Startled, the agent stopped and waited for it to die away before he drew a long red line across Zuko's throat.
When the Dai Li came to bring them breakfast and take Zuko to training, Zuko blinked at them for several long moments before he remembered how to work his limbs and take the bowl from them. He carried it over to his uncle and knelt down next to him, and as he pushed the spoon into his uncle's open mouth, he watched the Dai Li agents through slitted eyes.
He was so busy watching them in fact, that he didn't notice his uncle had eaten all of the cabbage-bean soup until the spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl and came up empty. Exhaustion had left a distance between him and the world, as if he couldn't quite... Maybe it wasn't distance. Maybe it was time, just a few seconds between when something happened, and when he could grasp that it had happened. He looked at the empty bowl, and at his uncle, and it took so much longer than it should have for him to realize that meant he wasn't getting anything to eat. He took in a breath, and let it out again, and picked up the edge of his robe to wipe his uncle's face.
He was probably hungry. That was probably what that feeling was gnawing at his insides, undefined and empty, but he didn't feel like eating. He was too tired to think. Or he was too tired to keep from thinking, which was somehow even worse. With another shaky breath, he handed the bowl back to the agents and followed them out of the cell.
He... Zuko wished he knew whether the journey to the training cavern was different every day, whether the tunnels did turn in different directions, and have different exits, or if it just seemed that way to him. He was surrounded by earthbenders. They could be moving. A small traitorous part of him wished they had pinned his hands and taken his arms this time, so that he didn't have to stumble along between the two of them, pretending like he knew where they were going to turn next.
Then, as the agents opened the wall to reveal the cavern, Zuko's fingers found line of red chalk across his throat. He stopped. The wheels of his mind ground to a halt, locked on a single thought, so terrible in how obvious it seemed, how clear it was now that he had realized... He couldn't breathe. He couldn't... His chest wouldn't expand. His mouth opened, but air didn't flow into it. And then all of a sudden, the air rushed into his lungs with a ragged croak.
The agents glanced down at him as he stood there, not moving, not stepping forward into the cavern like he was supposed to, and he gazed back, wild eyed. "You're going to kill-" The word ended as his air ran out. He gasped for breath, curling in on himself with panic. "You're not using me to train for war, this is about assassination! You want me to help you kill my family!"
The agents' rock gloves covered his mouth and encircled his wrists, pulling him down to his knees. "Get Long Feng," Jianyu ordered, tightly. Distantly, Zuko recognized his voice, and tried not to wonder whether it was the helmet that hid the man's face, or whether he had been just too tired to notice what agents had fetched him.
As the other agent dashed off, Jianyu crouched down next to Zuko and ran his hand through the short fuzz just beginning to emerge from his scalp. "Deep breaths," he urged, stroking.
Zuko heaved in air through his nose, his stomach roiling. With the stone hand clamped over his mouth, he couldn't suck in gulps of air to swallow in order to steady himself and drive back the waves of nausea that threatened to engulf him. They wanted him to help them kill his family. They wanted him to help them kill his family! The air made a high whistling sound as he sucked it in faster and faster.
Agent Jianyu, shushed him, rubbing slow gentle circles into his scalp. "Deep breaths," he said again, more forcefully, but Zuko barely heard him through the rushing in his ears. In the chill of the underground, his tears were so hot they felt as if they were burning him. He jerked against the stone binding his wrists, desperate to slap the agent's hands away. But the stone held, and Agent Jianyu pulled Zuko into his arms. Unable to stop him, or balance, or do anything but squirm with humiliation and rage, Zuko toppled against the agent's chest, his face pressed to his robes. He couldn't breathe. "Shhh," the agent whispered as Zuko's panic dissolved into helpless, stupid, worthless crying. "Shh, kid. Shh. It's easy to forget, isn't it? You're just a kid, aren't you."
Caged within the agent's arms, Zuko couldn't answer.
The hair at the back of his neck prickled, and he felt rather than saw Long Feng looming. He scrambled to his feet as the rock gloves snapped back to Agent Jianyu's hands. Swiping the tears out of his eyes with the heel of his hand, he bit back the creeping fury that Long Feng seeing him like this, and the knowledge that no matter what happened, Long Feng wasn't going to forget the sight of him kneeling, humiliated, and crying on the floor. It was just one more thing he was going to see every time this man looked at him, reflected in his eyes and the sleek, oppressive smugness of his smile. He balled his hands into fists and bared his teeth in a futile attempt to drive that image away. "You..." he trailed off, gathering himself. "You're using me to train your people to assassinate my father. Probably my sister, too."
Just saying it made him feel like he was going to empty the contents of his stomach all over the stones and Long Feng's slippered feet.
The head of the Dai Li and true ruler of Ba Sing Se inclined his head, not bothering to deny it. "Ba Sing Se is fighting for its survival. Needs must."
"It's not going to happen!" Zuko yelled.
Long Feng folded his hands into the sleeves of his robe and smiled in a manner that was probably charming to people who weren't his prisoner. "I wonder if you realize I intend to make you Firelord."
"You've got to be kidding me," Zuko sneered, voice shaking with revulsion.
"Oh no, not at all," Long Feng assured him. "Would Firelord Zuko make war on the Earth Kingdom as Firelord Ozai does? The world is a much better place without your father in it, with you on the throne in his stead."
"You intend to rule the Fire Nation like you rule Ba Sing Se," Zuko said flatly. "With me as your puppet."
Chuckling at Zuko as if he were a teacher, and Zuko were a clever student who had answered all his questions correctly, Long Feng reached out a hand to pat Zuko's cheek, but his captive ducked to avoid it. "A young ruler would of course need advisers, and he would be wise to heed their council."
"I am not going to help you kill my family," Zuko repeated, seething, trembling with the effort it took to keep from screaming. He spoke tightly, so tightly that the words couldn't run together, and he had to pause between each one and let them fall separately.
Long Feng eyed him with faint amusement. Then his expression grew serious. "Your sister."
"What about her?" Zuko demanded nonplussed, bewilderment and rage warring inside him.
"She is growing into a fine young woman, I hear." He had that look on his face, the narrow-eyed look of complete confidence that said he had already won, and Zuko was just too stupid to realize it yet. "Perfect as a wife for the Earth King."
Zuko really hated himself for the fact that his first response, before he launched himself at Long Feng's throat, was a rush of pity for the Earth King. But he did fling himself into the air to tackle Long Feng, even if he didn't get very far before more stone hands yanked him back down to his knees.
Long Feng waited until the stone gloves covered Zuko's mouth, stifling his breath of fire, to come forward and tip his chin up. "Your uncle is an old man, which means for the Dai Li, his use as a means of ensuring your obedience comes with a time limit. Your sister doesn't have to die, if you do as you're told, like a good boy."
The stone gagging him scratched his face as his expression contorted with misery and helpless fury. Tears ran down his cheeks to splash down on the stone gag.
"The choice I gave you before hasn't changed, Prince Zuko," Long Feng told him, voice low. Zuko flinched as he heard the title he no longer had a right to. "Your loyalty to your former country, or the life of your uncle and also your sister in the not too distant future. Your father will die, and the Fire Nation will be stopped. I am simply offering you the choice of what role your remaining family will take in the future, and which ones you're willing to lose."
As Long Feng patted his cheek and rose to leave, Zuko stared up at him with a horrible, paralyzed numbness. Tears ran down his face in salty streaks, and he could hear distantly, as if they were coming from someone else's throat, the sound of his sobs, muffled behind the gag. It wouldn't work, he knew. Azula wasn't like him. Azula was braver, better, stronger, smarter, and even if she let herself be captured, she would be able to see through all of the Dai Li schemes. She would be able to turn those schemes back on them. She would understand that sacrifices had to be made, and unlike him, she would have the courage to make them. She would let Uncle die, like he would want her to, like he would want Zuko to if he were still capable of it. She would let Zuko die too if it meant winning. She would fight until she either won or made them kill her, but either way, she would never be here like this, trapped and on her knees.
Zuko didn't remember the next three days. He remembered nothing about them at all. From one moment to the next, he didn't remember. After the rock restraints had fallen away, and the agents had picked him up and shoved him into the training cavern, the world had narrowed into one long frenetic fight, in which the Dai Li controlled the very ground he walked on, and he had to fight back or be crushed. Intermittently the fight would pause, and the Dai Li would take him back to his uncle and their cell, or to the showers, but then the fight would start again, and it wasn't... He didn't...
He was too tired. Every time he closed his eyes, the Dai Li rushed in, and it just wasn't worth it to keep track of where he was anymore.
Sometimes, through the haze that was sleeplessness and the confusion of the fight, his own thoughts whispered to him as if they belonged to someone else, that this was temporary. It had to be. It was temporary and pointless, because eventually the Dai Li were going to make a mistake, and he was going to falter, and they would crush him, and Uncle would be useless then, and they would execute him.
He dodged a stalactite and blasted a ball of fire at the agent who had dislodged it. No, the voice of his own thoughts insisted, this is temporary, because Uncle couldn't live forever, and Azula would never work as a hostage, and if he waited it out, if he waited for his whole family to die...
If he waited for the Fire Nation to be conquered, if he waited for them to kill his family, if if if... If they never let him go. They might give him a clean death if he were useless then.
He couldn't think. The thoughts swirled around and spilled away, lasting just long enough to flood him with hopelessness and distract him as he tried to slip through the Dai Li agents' fingers for just a little longer, so that they won't have won, even though they already had.
He couldn't breathe.
The fire burst from his hands like fireworks. He kicked away a boulder and elbowed an agent behind him hard under his ribs. He wanted to be glad, glad that even if they killed his family, Long Feng wouldn't get what he wanted, wouldn't get a Fire Princess to marry the Earth King, or a puppet Firelord, and that maybe, one day, he could get out when Long Feng had nothing and no one to hold over him. He wanted too badly to feel something other than cold dread and numbness.
He didn't remember his knees hitting the floor, and he didn't remember his hands following, smacking against the cold stone, stinging his palms. He couldn't hear his own ragged pants for air. But there he was on his hands and knees when one of the agents came over to check on him. As the agent bent low, Zuko raised his hand to bend a jet of flames into the agent's face. He breathed in and pushed, but nothing came. There was no fire left. Somehow, inside himself, he could feel it guttering. He was missing something, something important, if he could just think.
They took him back to his cell. He lay down to pretend to sleep, or maybe get sucked down into real sleep, or lie there eyes open and staring, frozen awake, or wait for the Dai Li.
It hit him, as if it weren't a thought, but a physical blow, just as he was falling asleep, and even as it knocked him awake, the clinging threads of sleep and exhaustion tried to pull him back down. Firelords, even puppet Firelords needed heirs. They... His father once told him children made the best hostages. Once Long Feng realized his sister wouldn't work, he would be the one married off, he knew, forced somehow to make a child for Long Feng to use. There was nothing temporary about any of this. It was never going to end. Long Feng wasn't going to give him up. There were always going to be people, people Zuko didn't even know yet, that hadn't even been born yet, people Zuko was responsible for, whose lives Long Feng could trade for his puppet's cooperation.
It was never going to end.
He didn't wake up until there was already a line of red around his throat. One of the agents kicked him in the ribs. "It isn't fun when you don't fight back, kid."
In response, Zuko punched at him, a small gust of smoke trickling into the air where flame should have been. Zuko woke up the rest of the way with a sickening start.
He punched the air again, and when nothing came out, not even a single spark, he yelped, breath coming too shallow and fast.
"Hey, someone get Jianyu!" the agent who had kicked Zuko yelled.
Suddenly it was all temporary again. It was all going to end fast, if he didn't have fire, if he couldn't fight, he was... They were going to kill his uncle. Tears poured out of his eyes, and ran down his face. His hard gasping breaths drew them into his mouth and he choked on them.
There were arms around him. He hadn't even heard the agent come in, and then all at once, there were arms circling him almost like an embrace. Agent Jianyu pulled him around to face him, and put his hands around Zuko's cheeks, his thumbs rubbing away the tears as soon as they fell. "Kid," he murmured. "Kid, it's all right. We know what happened. We know you didn't try to stop fighting. It's all right. We got what we need out of you."
Zuko couldn't talk, and he couldn't stop crying. The crying got harder, and he couldn't stop that either.
"We're not going to kill your uncle over this," Jianyu told him softly. "Long Feng has other uses for you, don't worry.
Zuko hated himself for the feeling of relief that washed over him.
When Zuko opened the door, there were people in Long Feng's office who weren't from Ba Sing Se, weren't even Earth Kingdom, and it took his mind several long moments to comprehend what they weren't before it could even attempt to register what they were. He stood dumbly in the doorway with the tray with the teapot and cups on it in his hands as their faces shifted from confusion to narrow-eyed recognition. "You!" the girl in blue hissed.
Zuko's eyes snapped to her face, and it was only then that his mind supplied her identity to him. The Avatar's waterbender. Water ringed her hands, rising from a pouch at her waist, flowing back and forth with the faint, furious tremors of her body. Her brother held his bladed boomerang aloft, and Zuko wondered that they had been allowed into Long Feng's office armed.
Zuko didn't know how to answer, so he just ducked his head in a bow and set the tea tray down on a side table.
"Oh that's right," Long Feng said, as if to himself, as if he were remembering something. "My sources did inform me you knew each other."
His sources, Zuko thought. Right.
Off to their side and slightly behind, another voice broke through, and Zuko knew she had to have been there all along, but the other girl in Earth Kingdom green hadn't seemed real until she spoke. "Uh, guys, who is he?"
"Oh, I don't know, no one important," the Water Tribe boy's voice went shrill, his hand gripping his boomerang tighter. "Just the prince of the Fire Nation."
"Wait," the one with the hooked swords burst out, and Zuko realized he recognized him too, from the Dai Li cells. The rumors then were true. His knees felt weak with a desperate, unhappy kind of hope. "Fire Nation?"
The water rolled around the waterbender like a living thing. "What's he doing here?"
Zuko felt his jaw loosen, and lips part, and then shut again without a sound coming out. Without the tea tray, his arms folded behind him, the sleeves of his robe pooled to cover his clasped hands. Before he realized, he had his back to the wall and his head down, the position reflex, as if it would make him invisible with every eye in the room on him. His eyes flicked up to look at them through his hair. The waterbender's expression had shifted into confusion again, and Zuko just felt sick.
He wondered what they saw, these people who could remember him from before, and could see just how much had changed. Most of the time, it was so hard to remember that he had been a different person before, but just then, he felt dizzy with the reality of it. He used to hold his chin up and his head high. He used to walk without shuffling, and meet danger with a fighting stance and a snarl instead of a bow and an attempt to make himself as small as possible. And he had become smaller, thinner, his shoulders narrower, his muscles wasted away from too little food, too little movement, and too little sunlight. From what he was now, it was almost impossible to imagine what he had been.
He knew he had interrupted them, and he knew that was just what Long Feng had wanted. These weren't the first people Long Feng had paraded him before. Generals, city officials, upper ring nobles, Long Feng had dangled Zuko in front of all of them. Look, he told them. Look what I have done to the Firelord's son. Look how he cringes and obeys. Look what I can do to you. Zuko knew he was there to be seen. He just wondered what they saw, and if anyone ever saw anything other than what Long Feng wanted them to see.
"Thank you Zuko," Long Feng said with an air of contented finality. "I don't think I will be needing you for anything else this evening."
Zuko peeled himself away from the wall, bobbing his head. He hadn't said a word since he had entered, but he knew that he had said everything Long Feng had wanted him to say. There was, for all he tamped down on it and buried it deep, for all he knew it was useless, a warm flicker of anger that grew within him at that.
Before he closed the door behind himself, he dared a small, covert look back. Long Feng didn't notice. He was too busy favoring his new guests with his cat-like, predatory smile. Zuko wasn't worth paying attention to anymore, he supposed. He was no longer prey because he had already been consumed.
The waterbender was still watching him, though, and her gaze caught and trapped his. There was ice in her eyes, hard, cold, and unbreakable. She looked like what was left of her had shattered mountains, and left pieces of them strewn from the North Pole to the walls of Ba Sing Se. She looked as if those walls would crumble in a heartbeat if they dared continue to stand in her way.
Zuko closed the door and slumped against it. He heard things. The agents talked in front of him as if he weren't there. He had become good at being invisible. And he took a bleak kind of pride in that. After all, Long Feng didn't really want him to be invisible, just to try and try and try for invisibility and fail. But he heard things, and he had heard the way that after the Avatar had been captured, the waterbender and her brother had continued on to the North Pole, how she fought Pakku, the great waterbending master of the North with her own untaught waterbending every day until he agreed to teach her, the first girl trained to fight in the North for as far back as anyone could remember, how her brother claimed to have robbed crucial intelligence in the war from a library guarded by a powerful, ancient knowledge spirit. And he had heard that Long Feng had only seen fit to speak with them when the waterbender had somehow washed away Dai Li brainwashing, first on the boy standing with them, and then on the Joo Dee sent to babysit them. The Dai Li were scared, and Zuko was in the middle of it, beneath their notice, a ghost.
The Dai Li were scared of her. The Dai Li were scared of all of them, but most of all, of her.
Zuko knew where the Avatar's bison was hidden. He knew when there wouldn't be agents around, and he knew that even if an agent saw him with the bison in tow, there was a good chance they wouldn't even blink. He could... He had something to offer, and if he could get her to... Uncle...
Maybe, just maybe, after everything she had seen and done, maybe she had decided that one cast off former prince just wasn't worth hating, that she, they, had bigger enemies to fight. Maybe if he had something to give them, they would... She could fix Uncle, make him Uncle again, and that's what mattered. He could beg if they wanted him to. He could crawl. He had been doing it for months for the Dai Li. He could do it for her. She could bring his uncle back to him; he just had to give her a reason.
Zuko closed his eyes and slid his head to the side as if to rest his face against the cool stone, but as he did so, his unburnt ear pressed against the crack between the door and the wall. The muffled voices of Long Feng and his begrudging guests trickled out to him, and as he concentrated, he could pick out individual words and voices, and string them together to make sense out of them. He stood there, his spying hidden from any passing agent by the simple expedient of appearing too tired to stand on his own, and by being too downtrodden to pose a threat, as he listened to Long Feng's ultimatums, and his opponents' quick retaliations.
And through it all, his mind whirred. Desperate plans sprang up in him as familiar and natural as his own breath, and they came to him now. The tunnels and caverns of the Dai Li stronghold unfurled in his mind as if printed on a map, and the cold knowledge of what he had to do next drove out all other thoughts, all of the and-after-thats out of his head. He knew with white hot certainty in that moment that if he tried, his fire would come to him. He could feel it crackling under his skin.
Zuko started, jerking his eyes open, loud but indistinct panic shouting, Look like you were just asleep! Look like you're waking up!
Agent Jianyu didn't appear to notice Zuko's deception however, and gave him a small, friendly smile. A stab of guilt shot through Zuko for lying to him, and he wondered, fleetingly, whether it counted as a lie if he didn't use any words. Tricking him then. And he couldn't... He shoved the guilt down roughly. He couldn't let guilt get in the way. He was going to escape. The Dai Li were his enemies. It wasn't about being a good boy now.
Agent Jianyu put a hand on Zuko's head. "That tired, huh?"
Zuko shrugged. "Yeah." Then he swallowed. "Yes Agent Jianyu."
"Okay then." The agent gave a small huff. "I don't think anybody's going to miss you if you call it a day now. Come on. I'll take you to the kitchens and we'll get you something to share with your uncle, okay?"
Zuko ducked his head in assent and followed Agent Jianyu down the hall, through the hidden doorway, and into the mouth of the tunnel that would take them back down into the Dai Li base. As the gloom of the palace interior sank away behind them in favor of the tunnel's faint phosphorescence, a thousand fears, a thousand ways for the whole endeavor to end in devastating failure skittered through Zuko's mind, and worse, the numbing uncertainty of what would happen if nothing went wrong at all. There was nothing out there for him, no home, no ship, no avatar, no- he was about to help the Fire Nation's enemies, he-
He dug his nails into his thumb, letting the pain steady him and bring him back. He could think about that once it was over and he was away from here.