Disclaimer: I do not own Zuko and Mai. I am merely playing with them.
Her world has shrunk down to contain only the darkness, the sound of the rats skittering through the old dungeon, the gentle dripping of water and the footsteps of the guard outside her cell. He passes by in the hallway every night; she knows only because she doesn't sleep much anymore.
She rarely has visitors anymore. Only two people come to her with any real regularity, that pink-loving girl and the prodigy with golden eyes like twin suns. They introduce themselves by name when they visit, but she never acknowledges it in her mind. In her mind, they're just what they appear to be—a girl wearing pink and a girl with golden eyes.
In other cells she hears prisoners rambling, their minds lost long ago due to confinement. Someone has gotten their hands on what sounds like a ball and is bouncing it against the wall. If she actually pays it any mind, the sound would be maddening.
But in a distant past that is as murky to her as polluted water, she knows that keeping quiet and ignoring distractions is extremely important. She heeds it because it's almost instinct now in her blank mind.
She leans back against the wall and gazes up at the ceiling, closing her eyes. Her stomach rumbles faintly with hunger, but she knows the guard will come by soon enough with his rations, and he'll probably torture her a bit to see if she'll cave. As simplistic as her nature has become, she still refuses to gobble food down like a wild beast. She still has some dignity left, scant as it is.
Opening her eyes, she tilts her head slightly and studies the barred window high above her head. Small, weak beams of sunlight break through the bars, leaving scattered sunbeams on the dusty floor. To her limited knowledge she is the only prisoner with a window in her cell, and she wonders if her third nightly visitor is showing some odd favoritism.
She shudders and beats back the memories before they fully arise and take shape.
There is a reason she doesn't sleep much anymore. In fact, there are two reasons.
There's also a reason why she's still alive after so much time in the darkness, still alive after surviving only on cruelly small rations and nightly visits from the tall, muscular man with golden eyes like that one girl who claims to be her friend.
There is a reason, but her mind has blanked out much of her life before her time in the dungeon so she no longer recalls it clearly. She just remembers a voice, words, but no face to go with it.
But the voice is oddly soothing, like she's heard it somewhere before, and she clings to this fragile memory as though afraid that the sands of time will sweep in and bury it, ripping the last shard of her past from her, the last remnant of the person she used to be.
"I'll come back. I swear I will. Just… wait for me, and I'll come back for you."
So she waits. She doesn't really know why she waits anymore, or who she waits for, but she waits anyway.
Waiting is her only reason for still being alive anyway.
She notes quietly that the guard has decided not to grace her prison cell today, and she can see the sunbeams on the floor starting to darken and fade away. Night is coming.
Her ears perk up at the sound of footsteps coming her way; but no, these footsteps are too light and quick to be made by the guard, but they're still heavy enough to not qualify for the pink-clad girl or the girl with golden eyes.
Her eyes widen as she crunches up into a ball, trying her best to shrink into the corner. Tremors race through her body, staring at her head and traveling down her spine, spreading throughout her system until she's shaking like a leaf.
In the past, when she was first imprisoned, she used to fight back—with her nails, her teeth, anything it took to keep him away from her, to keep him from touching her, kissing her…
But now she knows fighting is useless, because his domination over her is inevitable, like a never ending cycle that repeats every night and no matter what she does it will never break.
She is his prisoner, and they both know it.
The moon was only a crescent in the cloudy night sky, bathing everything below in dark shadows and blackness. It was under this cover that he moved, Zuko of the Fire Nation, traitor to his people and savior of his uncle's life.
Iroh's announced execution date had been the fire that caused Zuko to finally make some move against his father, as he refused to let his uncle die right before his eyes. Freeing the old man had been his first step, and fleeing had been his second.
He would have settled down with his uncle when Iroh reached a small Earth Kingdom village, but he still had one more person to retrieve before he could go back and start building a life there.
Moving slowly, he kept his body low to the ground in the hopes of putting some speed into his gait. Keeping silent would help him go in and out quickly, without alerting anyone to his presence.
At least, he hoped so.
He stepped on a twig.
The snapping of the small wooden object sounded like a fire blast in the dead silence of night and Zuko flinched, cursing softly. Any patrols lurking nearby were certain to hear the small noise and come investigate, because that was their job, what they'd been trained to do. To think they wouldn't come would be like committing suicide without even trying.
Already he could hear the shouts, could hear them coming towards him. He bared his teeth in frustration. Damn. He hadn't wanted to fight, not tonight of all nights. His back bumped against a tree, causing him to jolt in surprise.
So he had no choice, after all. He reached for his broadswords.
The next instant a pair of warm arms hooked along his shoulder and neck, pulling him up into the tree with startling speed. An almost womanly yelp escaped Zuko, but his savior's hand clapped over his mouth before it could even pass his lips. He choked and whimpered regardless.
"My goodness, you're jumpy." The soft voice that sounded in his ear was almost amused. "I'm trying to save your life, you know. Don't make me pressure point you to keep you still."
With the grace that only an acrobat could possess, the pink-clad girl deposited Zuko on the tree branch and sank back against the trunk, panting. "You're heavy," she rasped. "Did you gain a few pounds while you were away?"
"HEY! I didn't expect to be pulled into a tree, either!"
"Keep it down!"
Ty Lee pushed her hair out of her eyes, leaning forward to peer through the tree leaves to the forest floor below. Her whole body was unusually tense and strung like a bow, and the quiet tension she contained unnerved Zuko.
"Good, they're leaving," she murmured. "Probably just think it was an animal or something." She looked up, rocking back on her heels, and grinned. "That was a close one even for you, Zuko."
"Hey now, wait a minute…"
In an instant, the good humor melted from Ty Lee's face, and quiet determination had replaced it. "You came back to get Mai, right?"
"What? How did you..?"
"It's written all over your face… lover boy." A teasing note flitted briefly through her voice. "Azula intercepted a messenger hawk carrying news of your return and sent me out here to get you and help you out." She frowned a moment. "Actually, she never told me what she did to that hawk either. I should probably ask, the guy who takes care of them has been looking for it…"
Ty Lee didn't have much time to contemplate this, as Zuko was suddenly gripping her shoulders. She jolted and squirmed at the sudden, slightly painful touch. "Ow! Hey…"
"Wait, what do you mean Azula sent you to help me? Mai's still with her family, isn't she? She'd gone back to them when I left."
She stared for a moment. "Still with her family? You don't…?"
The next instant the acrobat twisted free of his hold, stepping back and staring at him with wide eyes. A small tremor rippled through her body and she closed her eyes, shaking her head. "Azula said you wouldn't know," she admitted. "I was hoping she'd be wrong, but…"
"Know? Know what? What am I supposed to know? Ty Lee, what happened to Mai?!"
She said nothing; finally, Ty Lee bit her lip.
"You… follow me, okay, Zuko?" Her voice was unusually subdued. "I'll take you to where Mai is. Just… she isn't really herself anymore, so be ready."
Ty Lee turned away, leaping to another tree branch.
"You'll see what I mean."
Please be kind to an inexperienced novice attempting to write her first "dark" Avatar fic. And I do mean that. This story will be dark, probably the most mature fiction I've tried to write so far in regards to Maiko or any other pairing, so please bear with me here.
I would also like to thank Cat (Fearlessgurl283) for taking the time to discuss the basic plot of this story with me and helping me clarify some things to myself. I can honestly say this wouldn't have been written if not for her, so this fic itself is for her.
Read and review, please!