Disclaimer: I so don't own Avatar. This story was written for fun, not profit.
This fic is actually a sequel to Long Long Time Ago (subtitle: minor character meets swampbending baby Avatar). Blame this on the last ten minutes of the Book Two finale.
Uh, and no points for guessing who the dude in the other cell is. Hopefully that's pretty obvious.
Lu's little metal box is seven steps across no matter which way she goes - big grown-up steps, with her arms thrown out to keep her balance. There is a window with bars on it, which she can't reach no matter how much she jumps, and a door all covered in locks and bolts and chains, strange and muted like someone stuffed cloth in her ears. When she tries to bend it, she drops her hands like they've been burned.
She has never liked metal, and not just because of what the Fire Nation makes out of it. She's starting to wonder if she was born that way.
After she's double-checked her steps, she sits on the little cot and kicks her feet - her toes don't touch the floor yet - and taps her knuckles on the wall, bump bump bump like Old Hue's drums and the heartbeat of the world.
The man in the box next to her makes a growling noise and hits the wall very hard. "Stop."
She doesn't. She knows this is a secret place, where the Fire Lady's special prisoners go, and she doesn't want to be by herself.
This time the man must have kicked with both feet, because the whole wall seems to shake. "How old are you? Five?"
"I'm ten," she says, mildly insulted, and the man gets quiet and the silence gets big and empty, like it can't fit in her box anymore. "And you might as well talk to me. The Fire Lady's ships won't get here for a while."
He says nothing.
Lu kicks the wall so hard her heels hurt, and then she gets up and starts counting again, great big numbers that Haru taught her. She keeps her voice low and sing-song so she can hear the man's voice - but he doesn't say anything, not even when she calls him a drunk possum-chicken. Twice.
She's pretty sure she's near Ba Sing Se, because that's where the soldiers finally managed to catch her and she doesn't think they carried her too far. There's a shiny burn on her arm - not a bad one, just enough to ache now and show off later - and one of her legs hurts a little where a knife got it, but mostly she just has dirt and dried blood all over her, which makes her look worse off than she really is.
"I got three of them," she tells the wall. "The Fire Nation soldiers, I mean. Right outside the city. 'Cause they were gonna hurt my brother," she adds, curling her hands up inside her pockets.
"You did, did you?" The man sounds like grown-ups do sometimes, when they're not sure if they should pat her head or tell her to stop being stupid.
"My friend helped." She almost says her papa, but that's not what Haru is no matter how much he pretends and no matter what her baby brother calls him - no matter how much she wishes that maybe he could be, just for a while.
"Of course he did."
She thumps the wall and then rubs her knuckles and says one of Haru's old soldier-words, the ones that make him threaten to wash her mouth out every time she uses them. "I bet I could beat you."
He makes a funny strangled noise, like a laugh broken up in sharp pieces. "What did you say your name was?"
"Lee," he says - and she's pretty sure that's not the truth, but it doesn't matter. Sometimes she thinks Lu's a big lie too.
The door has a little flap with more hooks and bolts and locks, which is how the guards bring her food and just enough water to wet the back of her throat. At first she likes to scare them - just by grinning and standing with her hands out, as if she's Lady Bei Fong and can shatter metal like brittle glass - but then one of them tells her when the prison ships will come and where they'll take her, and she'll never see Haru and baby Ahn and Mama Moon and Papa Sun, not ever.
There are lots and lots of ways to keep one little girl alive in deep dark places, and she wonders if she could remember all of them, if only she tried hard enough.
"Did you hear that?" she asks, when it's just the wall and her box and the strange creeping shadows at the very edges of her memory.
Lee says nothing. She's not sure how she knows that means yes.
"Sorry," she whispers, but then her hands curl into tight little fists, gnawed-on nails digging into her palms, and her vision blurs so she can hardly see the cot beneath her. "I never did anything to the Fire Lady!"
"You didn't stop her," Lee snaps, his voice sharp and thick like he's choking. "What did you expect?"
Lu grits her teeth and curls her lip back - she should always be kind and polite, Haru tells her, her more than anyone in the whole world - and she slams her fists against the wall over and over until she can pretend that's why she's crying.
"I don't wanna hurt anybody," she says, and she wraps her arms around her knees and waits and waits for Lee to say something again, to tell her to grow up - anything at all.
Sometimes she dreams in the middle of the night and she knows they're nothing of the kind - that the gentle young man who crouches next to her is very real, and that when she tries to hear the wind she smiles like him.
"How'd you do it?" she asks miserably, the dream echoing and twisting and burning-up under Sozen's comet. "How'd you make everything okay?"
He just shakes his head and ruffles her hair - and he is kind like her mama's voice and the sound of rustling leaves, and as strong as the Tree standing tall and fast in the summer storms.
"I don't know," he says softly, sadly, "because you haven't done it yet."
And some nights she has normal little-girl dreams, full of dark holes and burning people and Haru and Ahn gone forever like her mama and papa - and she tries and tries and tries but she can't find them or help them, she can't save anyone. When she wakes up from those dreams she rolls on her stomach and hides her face against her cot, and maybe if she squeezes her eyes shut hard enough they'll forget all about her and stay secret and safe.
"I'm sure someone will come for you," Lee says when she whimpers too loud, like he wants to sound grown-up and bored. "They always do."
Lu raises her head and hits the wall with her fist, her cheeks damp. "I don't want them to. They'll get caught 'cause of me."
"That never stopped them before."
Lu feels like someone dropped a stone in her stomach. "Then I've just gotta get out first," she says, and doesn't sleep again for a very long time.
In the morning she stands up tall and rolls up her sleeves and doesn't sniffle, not at all. She is what she is, and no matter what happens, she can't be a child. That's why Haru can't be her papa, and she can't hope she sees Ahn again.
"Is the Fire Lady gonna lock you up too?" she asks Lee.
He does his strange laugh. "Don't be stupid."
She kicks the wall and starts counting again, bare feet sliding through the strange stances Haru taught her – strong and tough like the earth. "Then what're they gonna do to you?" she asks as she imagines rocks rumbling under her fingers, shattering like the Fire Lady wants to break up the world.
"What do you think?"
She remembers how Haru taught her to read the bounty posters; she knows how to draw "wanted" and "dead" in the dirt, next to little pictures for Ahn. "Were you one of Lady Bei Fong's soldiers?" she says instead.
He laughs very hard at that - long enough for her to realize that he doesn't think it's funny at all - and it takes a moment for him to catch his breath. "Why do you care?"
Lu drops her pretend rocks and frowns at where she thinks his face would be, if she could see through the wall. "'Cause if we're both mad at the Fire Lady, maybe we could be friends."
This time she can't even hear him move or breathe or hit the wall. If she didn't know there was no way out, she would wonder if he was still there.
"And if we're friends," she says, so quiet that she wonders if he can hear her, "then we can help each other get out."
"I'm not your friend," Lee says. "I have never been your friend."
Lu stands in the middle of her box with her hands dropped down at her sides, her heart thud-thudding against her ribs, and maybe she ought to say something wise and grown-up and wonderful - maybe she should be what the Fire Lady thinks she is. But she can hardly hear with all the metal, she can hardly breathe, and she wonders what music the others sing, the ones who can't bend.
And just then she wants to be one of them more than anything, but that's a little-girl wish, and she's not a little girl anymore.
"I don't even know how to airbend," she says instead, "and I can't firebend either, and I don't remember you and I don't care and - " Her breath catches in her throat and she thinks that the guards might hear her, maybe the Fire Lady herself hears her, but she can't stop. "And I bet you don't wanna die any more than I wanna get locked up, do you?"
She is not crying this time, so she bites her lip instead and waits and waits and waits.
"The Avatar can't firebend?" Lee says at last.
She isn't sure why she flinches. "Not much."
He laughs – and it is different from before, harsh and burning and important like Papa Sun at his worst – and she hears him shifting in his box. "Put your hands on the wall."
"I tried to bend it," she says, "I can't," but she swallows hard and puts her hands flat on the metal all the same. "What're you gonna do?""I can't get through the metal on my own, idiot. Not before the guards come."
"After this," Lee says, "you're on your own. I have my own business with the Fire Lady and I will kill you if you get in my way. Understand?"
She doesn't know she is smiling until she feels the corners of her mouth hurting – and she wonders if this is how she used to look before, if the kind man from her dreams grinned this big and wide and happy for no reason at all.
"Are you listening to me?" Lee says.
Lu feels the wall grow warm under her fingertips and squeezes her eyes shut tight, so she can hear the fire better.
"Yeah," she says, and means it. "I'm ready."