Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender or the song 'I've Got A Dark Alley and A Bad Idea That Says You Should Shut Up' by Fall Out Boy. Title taken from a novel by Nicholas Sparks.
A/N: Yeah. I'm back with a new story, new pairing, new setting from anything I've ever done before. Though you might wanna bear in mind that I have never seen an episode from season two, so I wouldn't know exactly how Azula and Mai and the rest of the gang would usually act. This fic was inspired from reading episode guides and fics, and so almost everything was based on them. So, yeah, forgive me if I get them all wrong, but I just had to write this. Somehow motivated by 'Best I've Ever Had' by DaBiscuit and 'Death Row' by Meelu the Bold- good reads, I tell you. Anyway, enjoy.
And my back has been breaking from this heavy heart
We never seemed so far…
The agile figure hastily slipped into the dim-lighted hallway, immediately blending in with the shadows. Soon, she arrived at a crossway. She halted in mid-step.
Straight ahead was the banquet hall, full of drunken aristocrats and servants who weren't permitted to their quarters until the last monarch had left, usually with a young slave girl with a bowed head trailing behind. She could hear their foul laughter inside, relishing a victory that wasn't even theirs.
To the right was the courtyard, perfect for a crisp, moonlit stroll in the night that would pave a path to a jostling and macabre morning.
And lastly, to the left, beneath an array of intricate woven pictures of past royal families and expensive paintings of battlefields dating back to the time of Fire Lord Sozen, was a small flight of steps, leading into a world of pain that also held an obligation.
Without further ado, she turned left.
The staircase was narrower than she'd anticipated, but the Fire Nation had always been frugal with people they though to be beneath them. As she descended, she felt the scampers of rats across the hem of her dress and heard the squeaks of more in the garrets, and repressed a repulsed shiver. The impassive attitude had been with encompassed with her emotions for years; why stop now?
There were flickering oil lamps lighting the way, but even with the poor illumination her perception caught on the grime on the walls, splattered every now and then with brown stains that were all too recognizable. She'd seen them on the edges of her blades on rare occasions when she'd neglected to clean them the evening before. They weren't simply tarnishes, the product of oxidation.
Then she reached level ground, knowing at once that she had arrived. Before her loomed the corridor of iron bars and despair. She had expected men to be bursting from their cells, reaching out to her with filthy, immoral hands, hooting with blatant innuendo. She really should stop listening to Ty Lee's outrageous stories about girls being ravaged in...
She shook her head to rid herself of the useless thoughts. This was a different world she was entering, not one of those created in gossip-filled sleepovers that desperately needed to be entertaining.
There was a heavy, anguished atmosphere, the deafening stillness disturbed only by groans and the shuffling of metal. Steadily, she walked on, not letting herself be distracted by the hollow eyes that stared at her whenever she passed by. Once, she almost slipped on a puddle on the floor, and upon regaining her balance, noticed the color of the liquid was alarmingly close to that of…
She risked a glance in the cell where the puddle was in front of, and gasped in shockhorrordisgust.
There was a man leaning on the barriers that entrapped him. He had brown hair and a lanky frame, but that wasn't the first thing she noticed.
Bare except for a few scraps of clothes which might have been once an Earth Kingdom tunic and pants, she could plainly see the damage on his body. Long wounds crisscrossed on his chest, made presumably by a thorn whip, and his limbs were twisted at odd, unnatural angles, the pivot points of which where white bones jutted out from the tanned flesh. His mouth, which was parted with a straw sticking out from between his teeth, was tinged with red. He looked at her with surprisingly clear eyes, as if aware of what was happening around him.
"Oh, Agni," she can't help but blurt out. He was aware of it all!
She stumbled backwards, hoping the image wouldn't be stuck in her memory and keeping herself from retching. People have wrong assumptions about her. They say she kills without mercy; instead she kills without remembering. They say she has seen more than her fair share of warfare; instead she looks, but doesn't see. They say she enjoys what she does; instead she only wants to get it over with. And they say she doesn't care about the affliction experienced in death; instead she slays swiftly, trying not to imagined what felt like to die.
Then she hears a hacking sound; it comes from the man, which she realizes was still only a boy with hardened features that knew torment. He's looking at her now, and the coughs were produced by attempts to speak to her.
"You're… one of them," he finally says, with a voice that was spliced and raspy and nearly indistinguishable.
She nods without understanding. He probably meant from the Fire Nation, or something of the sort.
"Will you…" More blood spatters out. His face contorts with agonizing effort. "Tell him… he was my best friend, and… and I'm sorry for getting him into this mess…"
"Pardon me," deadpan as she was, she couldn't help but be curious… and sympathetic. "Who are you talking about?" Her voice seemed resonant and pure in the dismal place, and she tried to be more hushed.
A smirk tugged at his lips, and she wondered how he could manage it. "It's Smellerbee… I reckon… he's up there with the lot of you… After they hanged him yesterday… but at least they didn't… get to torment him, like me…" He was rambling, eyes off into the distance, even if it was in her direction.
"I don't understand…"
"You… are an angel, aren't you?"
That confirmed her suspicions. He was mad, driven to insanity by the sheer amount of… Oh, what could be the things he'd been forced to endure, and what crimes could he have committed to make him worthy of such punishment?
A ghastly realization dawned on her at that moment: this dismal place wasn't merely a prison. It was a torture chamber.
If this was what common, dime-a-dozen rebels got for their revolts, what more if…?
She began to walk faster. Every second she hesitated was another second of pain on his part.
Finally, she got to the very last cell, reserved for only the lowliest of criminals. Torches weren't even lit for the warmth, the very ability to see.
She grips onto the bars and peers inside, straining to see. A pair of gold eyes flicker, even in the darkness.
She takes the key from a pocket sewn into her skirt. She had taken it from Azula's drawer dresser a while ago, when the princess had been too busy wallowing in the glory of her conquest.
She feels around for the keyhole, and turns the lock. Fumbling, she opens the door, its hinges creaking in protest after years spent with rust, and doesn't bother to close it behind her. She was just about to worry about the lighting when one suddenly did in front of her, and she saw him.
"Who's the-- oh, it's you." He was nonchalant, a fist glowing with flares that gave enough light to the room.
He was sitting on the ground, back to the tartar wall. His arms were shackled to the wall, feet to the floor, immediately restricting escape. He couldn't use firebending, for it would only make the metal melt into his skin. For him, there was truly no way out.
His condition didn't seem to be as bad as the raving mad-boy, but the bruises all over him were as bluish-purple as anything else, and the numerous abrasions looked deep and still bled. His short hair was matted and there was blood drying darkly on the scarred part of his face.
"Zuko…" she starts, but he didn't let her finish.
"Why are you here?" His tone is flat, smooth even. "Have you come to throw a couple more blows in for good measure, or maybe gloat a little bit? Haven't you all done enough?"
Of course she'd never really predicted him to welcome her with open arms, for she had been one of those responsible for putting him here. So the bitterness was predictable, but his words still hurt.
"I understand why you hate me." She looks away, in shame or that familiar shyness that tugged at her heart whenever she was around him, she wasn't certain.
They stayed in silence for who knows how long, when she almost forgets her purpose.
But before she could shatter it, he beats her to it. "Why have you come?" Without the edge to his voice.
"I-I…" Her stuttering is incessant, unheard of. "I don't expect your forgiveness. I don't deserve it. But…
"I want to help you."
At this he laughs dryly, but his mouth was set in a scowl. "There's no possible way you can."
"Not in the way you're thinking of, no, of course not." She tucks away a lock of ebony hair that had fallen into her line of vision. "But, Zuko… how are you feeling?"
His eyes narrow. "Azula sent you, didn't she? She's hoping you can dig up something incriminating on me, then report it to her, and she'll use it to humiliate me even more than she already has, and…"
"It's not about Azula," she utters quietly. There is a blush so pale it's barely there on her cheeks, but it highlights her face in the thick obscurity.
"I just… I don't want you to suffer more than you already have."
He was still wary, despite her attempts. "Why? What's it to you if something happens to me? Why do you care so much?" The irony wasn't lost on both of them.
"I-I just do." He doesn't respond, so she continues. "Zuko, I know I've wronged you in more ways than you can dream of…" Her monotone heightens slightly. "But please, answer me truthfully…
"Are you afraid of tomorrow?"
He averts his eyes, and the fire in his hand diffused. "I suppose it doesn't matter now…"
She bites her lip in anticipation.
"I'd like to think that I'm brave, steadfast to the very end, just to prove that I do deserve my honor but… right now, the blood is rushing in my veins and I can only think about dying. So, yes… I am afraid."
She kneeled down in front of him. "Then that's all I need to know."
She brings out a stick-shaped object from the entwines of her corset. His eyes widened in apprehension and betrayal, recognizing the weapon. A dart shooter.
"I'm only doing this for your own good," she murmurs as he thrashed violently in his chains. "I only hope you don't feel hate for me in your last thoughts."
She aims for a spot on his neck. "Sleep well, Prince Zuko," and there she blows.
The dart was less than an inch long, but the effects took place promptly. In seconds, his eyes became lidded and his raised chin lowered, his arms proving limp in their binds.
"Mai…" he whispers hazily, before going unconscious. She alights the shooter to the vanishing flame in his hands to use as a torch for when she goes back, and not an instant too soon.
She couldn't help a contented smile. This prison made room for not only physical torture, but mental ones as well. She knew condemned men would not sleep on the eve of their execution date, and she could just visualize what he had been thinking of.
He would be grieving for the old General, the Dragon of the West, who was killed in the battle, the one in which he was finally captured after years of elusion. He'd be remorseful, for he had never fulfilled the goal which Lord Ozai had set upon him, never regained his honor, his title, his throne. And he would be gravely awaiting his death, counting every breath and every second and every blink of his eye as a step closer to his own demise. One glimpse at his battered torso and… she shuddered involuntarily . So she took a couple of tranquilizer darts and sneaked a visit, just to spare him. He's already suffered enough.
She was preparing to leave when she realized this would be the very last time she'd be alone with him like this. Shouldn't she do… something, as a farewell?
She reached out one delicate hand and brushed the back of it against his high cheekbone, his skin marred but velvet at her touch. Shouldn't tears be stinging at her eyes by; shouldn't she be breaking down and crying on the floor in pieces?
Then she traces his mouth with a porcelain finger, finding out that the lips that had said her name so sweetly were chapped, with a smear of blood across them. His breathe was warm and steady, peaceful, as she gazed at the very lips she had wanted (and still do) to press her own to, but to do that now would be another crime against him, to steal a kiss, which she would not allow.
Then she stood up. There was nothing more than can be done here. It had been her choice all along; she helped his enemy, his sibling, to ensure his arrest; she had tied him to his fate, and to regret that decision would be pointless.
The tears that refused to fall became the sobs that died in her throat as the prison door closed again, a key turning its lock, her footfalls becoming distant echoes that drowned in the night.
A bead of sweat trickles down the arch of her back as the sun, high in the sky, burns hotly onto the forthcoming afternoon.
She observes mutely as the Fire Lord gives his statement, where he stops in intervals to let the morbid crowd to cheer on the execution. Later, Azula climbs onto the platform and bestows a similar speech about her great triumph, ever-mocking, ever-unfailing.
It was a glorious day for the Fire Nation as they come to see their Prince die before his own kingdom.
She tunes everything out until they finally bring him into the scene.
His stance is defiant, still proud and unfaltering to the end, as he walks up to the block. The locals jeer and boo him to the core, but his expression is set, hard and penetrating
When asked what his last words were, he countered with a facade.
"My name is Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne."
The officers standing on the stage with him look mortified, Lord Ozai was frowning, and Azula enraged, sending a punch to the side of his head, which she's seen bleeding the night before, that he doesn't dodge. The mob's taunts are loud and they throw spoiled crop at him, but she knows they cannot hit him where it really hurts. She'd already done that.
If she were anybody else, someone with a heart not so close to being akin to a stone, someone with more feeling, she would have at least tried to catch his eye and somehow tell him across the din I'm sorry for everything, you will never know how much I cared for you, but even then it is too late.
They had already put the ink-black bag over his head and push him to the block.
He doesn't flinch, doesn't tremble, doesn't show signs of fear as the axe descends, excruciatingly slow, and finally severs his neck from his spine. His blood sprays on those on the frontline of the multitude as his head rolls across the wooden floor, his remains to be cremated in a different ceremony later.
Nothing flickers across her face, no traitorous emotion displaying itself to the world as he dies. But inside, she feels the one final shred of humanity in her die along with him, for he had been the only one keeping it alive. Now, she reduced to a puppet, molded into whatever her nation needed and desired of her. Nothing left but the shell of the girl that had never truly been there.
After it is all over, Ty Lee and Azula join her as they walk away from the gruesome scene.
"So, tell me," Azula's voice is scandalous, carefree, as of she had not just witnessed the slaughter of her only brother moments before. "What have you been doing in the dungeons last night? You stole Zuko's cell key from me." As if he were still breathing.
So she has noticed, hasn't she? "I… just went to throw a couple more blows in for good measure." Remembering his exact words.
Azula smirks, putting an arm around both of her 'friends.'
"Well, good for you, then."
Mai nods and smiles primly, just like the china doll she is.
I'm hopelessly hopeful, you're just hopeless enough
But we never had it at all…
A/N: Cookies to anyone who can tell me the identity of the other guy Mai saw in the prison. Oh, and please