"You're looking for the prisoner in cell one hundred forty-two," the guard said, his eyes fixed on the wall behind the princess' head. He did not dare look into her eyes.
"Very well," said the princess. She turned on her heel and exited the room. When he could no longer hear her footsteps, the guard breathed a sigh of relief.
The princess stalked the long hallways, full of prisoners behind wooden bars, until she reached the cell she was looking for. Over the frame of the bars the number 142 was scotched into the wood. The princess smiled when she saw the prisoner inside.
Sitting in a dark corner, shrouded in shadow, her head hanging, was the leader of the Kyoshi warriors. Her green uniform had been replaced by that of a prisoner; the soft green silk lost to a coarse brown material. Her makeup, mimicking that of Avatar Kyoshi, had been washed away. Underneath the layer of dirt, her skin was porcelain pale from weeks without the sun to warm it.
"I came to tell you how popular the Kyoshi warriors were in Ba Sing Se," Princess Azula said, condescension in her voice. The warrior's head snapped up, anger burning deep inside her. "We received quite a welcome – even an audience with the Earth King. He told us of a plan for an invasion by the Avatar and the Earth Kingdom soldiers. We wouldn't have known about it otherwise."
"Why are you telling me this?" Suki said coldly, her voice matching her eyes. How dare you impersonate a Kyoshi warrior . . .
"I wanted to thank you for letting us borrow your uniforms. They were so helpful," Azula said, a grin spreading across her face like wildfire spreading across the branch of a tree.
The memory of her imprisonment came back to Suki with the sting of a reopened wound. You imprison me and take my uniform, and now you do me the indignity of thanking me for it? she thought, her anger boiling inside of her. Suki rose to her feet and faced the princess.
"It doesn't matter what small victories you've won now. The Avatar will restore balance and the Fire Nation will lose this war."
"You really think that?" Azula said, arching an eyebrow. "Well, then I guess nobody's told you. The victory was anything but small. Ba Sing Se now belongs to the Fire Nation. In part thanks to you. We couldn't have done it without your uniforms." Azula paused. "And, most importantly, the Avatar is dead." She spat out the last word with pleasure before walking away, leaving Suki stunned. She staggered backwards into the wall of her cell and she slid down it onto the floor. Azula's words had felt like a blow dealt hard to Suki's world.
The Avatar can't be dead. He can't be. She's lying. Azula just wants me to give up. I'll never stop fighting. That's what she wants.
That evening, Azula thought about the Kyoshi warrior. Azula had, admittedly, been impressed by her boldness. She decided she would soon visit the prisoner again. And within a week, Suki found the Fire Nation Princess standing on the other side of the bars once more.
"Do you still think the Fire Nation can be defeated?" Azula asked snidely. Suki stood and said, with calm intensity, "Yes."
"How touching that you have such faith in the Avatar's friends."
Suki stood her ground, something few could to under Azula's iron gaze. "Not just in his friends. I know the Avatar is alive," For a moment after Suki spoke, a look of surprise flashed across Azula's face. What does she know that we don't? Azula tried to guide Suki into divulging the information she might have.
"And what makes you think that? Blind optimism?"
"I know that the Avatar wouldn't let himself be killed. And that his friends would find a way to fight even without him." So she doesn't know anything . . . but this means that I'm not the only one who thinks he survived . . . This must not spread. I'll find a way to break her . . .
"If you're so friendly with the Avatar and his cohorts, why haven't they come to get you out of here yet?" Suki's face fell slightly. So that's your weakness, Azula thought. Breaking her will take time and careful maneuvering . . but it can be done . . . of course it can be done.
Azula left, and Suki, after several moments of silent thought, tried to shake off her doubts. He's coming. She thought to herself. He's definitely coming. They have to know we've been captured – they do! They met Azula in Ba Sing Se. She told me so herself. Aang has to be alive. He is. I know he is. I can't let Azula get to me. I know you're coming, Sokka . . . but please hurry. I've tried everything to get myself out – everything! And I'm nearly out of ideas. Sokka, I'm counting on you.
Azula and Suki did not see each other again for two weeks. Azula was sent to Ember Island with her brother and friends for vacation and upon her return she attended several conferences regarding the war. Suki, on the other hand, had made an attempt at escape, and for it she was sent to solitary confinement for a week. Azula heard of this from the guards and brought it up when they met again.
"I hear you gave the guards a hard time. You simple prisoners all seem to think you can escape. No one escapes."
"It doesn't matter anyway," Suki said with force. "Because –"
"Let me guess," Azula interrupted imperiously. "You think that the Avatar – or one of is friends – is going to come and help you escape?"
"Yes." The word was full of defiance.
"Everyone thinks that they have someone coming to rescue them. But I'll let you in on a little secret," Azula leaned foreword and said softly through the bars, "no one ever does."
"Sokka will." Suki's voice was strong.
"Sokka . . .. that must be the idiot who thinks himself a warrior," Azula said with disdain. So, there is a connection between the two . . . that may prove useful information . . . thank you for that . . .
"He is a warrior. And he is coming."
"Yes, I'm sure," Azula said sarcastically before walking away, a malevolent smirk on her lips.
Sokka will come. Sokka will come. Sokka WILL come . . . Suki repeated it to herself over and over again, but she could not help but wonder if she had been forgotten. Sokka will come. Sokka will come. Sokka will . . . Sokka will . . .
"Oh my," Azula said coldly the next time she saw Suki. "It looks like dear Sokka hasn't come yet. Why, I hope he hasn't forgotten you."
"He hasn't." Suki spoke with a harshness resultant of her fears.
"What if he's found another girl? How terrible would it be if you were here, waiting for someone who has left you behind?" Azula smiled as she realized that this thought had not yet occurred to Suki, and as she realized she had been right. There was a romantic link between the warriors. That's right, Azula thought. Forget him. Forget hope. You're going to die here anyway.
After so many weeks of traveling and fighting, of plotting and planning, Azula found her sedentary life back at the palace rather dull. Her daily routines began to bore her. Her only source of entertainment, apart from firebending practice, was visiting the Kyoshi warrior. Each day she hinted that Sokka wasn't coming, but each day Suki was as firm in her convictions as ever – she still insisted that Sokka would come for her. Or at least, that was the side that Azula saw.
Suki had had doubts before Azula ever set foot in the prison, but her visits were fanning the flames of Suki's fear. Suki had once been so sure that Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Toph would come bursting through the prison doors any day and liberate not just herself, but all of the other prisoners as well. But as the weeks passed, the light of hope that had once shone so brightly inside of her was slowly fading, like the last embers of a once powerful fire. But she knew that she couldn't let Azula know that. She knew that Azula would only exploit it. And Azula did. Upon her next visit, she began as usual; relaying her doubts of Sokka.
"It doesn't matter what you say. I know that Sokka would never forget or abandon me," Suki said with venom. Azula just laughed softly. "What's so funny?" The sting had not yet receded from Suki's voice.
"Oh, nothing," Azula said with coy cruelty. This will begin to break her. "It's just that – well – I just realized what was going on between you two." It was a lie. Azula had had it figured out for some time now. But she wanted Suki to underestimate her. That would make victory that much sweeter.
"Oh really? And what do you think that is?" Suki worked hard to suppress her anguish. But she could not match Azula's skill for turning words into quiet poison.
"Do you love him?" Suki stayed silent as she resisted her will to cry. "Oh, dear. I think that's a yes." A smile of infinite enmity was laughing at Suki from Azula's lips. "It really is too bad that he doesn't love you."
Suki fought the pressing despair, but one night she had a terrible dream that nearly shattered the her remnants of hope.
In her dream, the prison was on fire, rapidly vanishing into the smoky darkness. Aang, Katara, and Toph all appeared, helping all of the prisoners escape to safety. Sokka, too, was dashing back and forth, freeing people left and right. But when he reached her cell, he could not open the door.
"Sokka, please hurry!" She had pleaded through the bars.
"I'm trying!" He called over the chaos.
A small flame flickered in the corner of her cell.
"It's not working!" He cried, working furiously at the lock. The flames grew higher and devoured more of her cell, and Suki screamed as she watched the fire's progression.
"Please, please, Sokka!" Sokka looked at her desperately before saying, "Suki, I – I can't! I'm sorry, I can't! Suki, I –" and he fell backwards, devoured by the dark nothingness.
Suki was surrounded by nothing but flames, and before her eyes one shaped itself into Azula's image, watching, laughing, as Suki screamed. Just before the fire reached her, Suki woke, still screaming. She fell silent immediately. There were guards outside of her cell – she could see their smoky shadows and she could hear murmurs from other prisoners. Had she been screaming that loudly?
"Send word to the princess," one guard said to the second.
"At this hour? We can't –"
"We have strict orders from Princess Azula herself!" The first guard said in a loud whisper, cutting off the second. "She ordered us to inform her of anything strange that happens with this prisoner."
"Plenty shout in their sleep."
"None like this. Now send word."
"Do you wish to see her reaction when woken at this time of night?"
"Do you wish to see her reaction if we don't follow her orders?"
There was a chilling silence.
"Very well," said the second guard. His footsteps disappeared into the distance.
Within an hour, Azula was standing before cell one hundred and forty-two, and the guards were back at their stations.
"Did you have a nightmare?" Azula asked in her usual tone.
Suki gave her a look that was beyond mere contempt or loathing. It was a deep, burning emotion, stronger than the sun. Suki's look bore into Azula, seeing past the exterior, seeing only a person she held infinite hate for. She wanted to put Azula through all of the pain she had been through, make her see the nightmare her life had become – a nightmare she couldn't wake up from. From her place on the floor on her hands and knees, Suki glared with burning fury.
"Was it about him? Because, like I told you, he's never coming." Azula said it softly, but with so much icy, bitter coldness behind it that it caused Suki to lose control. She shrieked and threw herself foreword, not in an attempt to do physical harm to Azula, but just to do something. She collided with the bars and clung to them – and then, suddenly, her fury gave way and she began to cry, all of the pain she had been though in the past few months expelled in the form of tears. It was the pain of loosing her freedom, of worry about the fate of her dearest friends and companions, the Kyoshi Warriors. And it was the pain of not knowing. Not knowing if Sokka still cared about her. Not knowing if anyone cared about her. Every dream, every hope, every last wish she had dissolved like smoke. Everything gone. Burned up in flames.
And she cried for a long time, until she no longer could. She was exhausted, as though she had just been involved in a great battle. Which, in a way, she had been. But she didn't know yet if she had lost or won.
Azula stood over Suki, watching her all the while. She smiled. She had broken the warrior.
When Suki stopped crying, she let herself stay on the ground, stretched out, listening to the sound of her own deep, steady breathing.
The peaceful and healing silence was shattered by Azula.
"Today is the solar eclipse. Your friends have plans to invade the Fire Nation today. I'll probably be seeing your precious Sokka. I'll tell him that you said hello." Azula's malicious and vindictive intent rang through each syllable. With a final wicked look backward, Azula left.
Suki raised her head off her arms. The fire was back in her eyes. She knew that today was the day to escape. She would be free by this time tomorrow. She was determined. It was time to count on herself for her own rescue.
I'll prove you wrong, Azula.
Part 2 is coming soon! Comments appreciated