Haha. Man this is late.
There's a number of factors, most of all my own laziness, I think. But at least it's here now. Right?
The white sheets looked like wings.
Jin stood back to admire them for a moment, carelessly waving in the breeze. Fastened to the washing line by a couple of splintered wooden pegs, the cloth rolled dangerously. For a second, they looked almost as though they were about to fly away.
Jin wished she could fly.
She held that one small memory of flight. Of the unmistakable, euphoric sensation of fleeing through the air. The wind tearing the ribbon out of her hair, burning her eyes. It was so remarkably cold, she remembered. The air that filled her lungs were far too brisk for a summer afternoon. And then to fall. The smack of the water. Growing dark. The blinding terror. Being unable to breathe. Jin shook her head. That wasn't something she wanted to remember.
Her hands plunged into the soft basket of wool and cloth, extracting the corner of another sheet. She gathered it in her arm, careful not to let the clean fabric trail on the dust of the earth. It had that familiar, damp smell. Like hair. Something else, sweet. And a lurking undertone of a chemical, starchy odour. Her mother used a special remedy to counteract the smell of soap and chemicals, but it could never completely banish the smell. Not that Jin noticed anymore. After three years of sweating in a laundry, the acrid stench was almost unnoticeable to her. She looked down at her red knuckles and calloused palms. Factory hands. She didn't like to look at them. She could dress up in silk robes and wear perfumes, drape herself in gold and wear her hair with jeweled combs. Even her big flat feet could be hidden underneath long skirts and squeezed into delicate shoes, but there was nothing she could do to hide her rough, working-class hands. Jin fastened the sheet to the line, letting it billow out. She'd tried various creams and exfoliants to smooth her hands, but nothing could shift the long years of labour. When Zuko slept beside her, Jin would examine his hands with jealousy. The smooth, pale skin and slender fingers of a prince. They were soft as a babies. He kept his nails clean and neatly curved, with a sliver of white arching above the fingertip. Jin's were always dirty, cut back as far as possible without hurting her cuticles. Nails in a laundry were a hindrance. If there was one thing Jin could change about herself, it wouldn't be her face or height or breasts, like most girls. It would be her hands.
She didn't see the feet sticking out from under the sheet at first. She gasped, thinking it was some sort of disembodied voice. It was a moment before she collected herself, letting out a half-laugh of realisation.
"Sorry," She went to raise the sheet. "I thought you were some sort of-" Jin's voice died in her throat.
Four Fire Nation soldiers stood before her.
With a scream, she let the sheet fall, backing away from the group on impulse. The sheet was torn down from the line, trampled underfoot as the soldiers approached her. She only made it several steps before a heavy glove reached her wrist. The limb pinned behind her, Jin was forced on her knees, head bowed.
"No! No, what do you think you're doing!" The high shriek of her mother's voice sent a deep throbbing through Jin's chest. She looked up to see the greying woman halfway across the tiny backyard, staggering. Several pairs of eyes looked over both sides of the fence with terrified curiosity. Jin felt deaf. Her vision turned and tumbled in front of her. Her arms were fastened behind her. Something very sharp pressed at the base of her neck.
"Don't try it." Jin shook violently as she was dragged to her feet. Her screaming mother was simply pushed aside, as fragile and ineffective as a piece of paper. They went back through the house, Jin vaguely noticing the sudden, momentary plunge into shadow, and the stepping out into the light of the street. She couldn't see anything. Terror had seized her. She couldn't speak. The thought never came to her to fight back. There was a high ringing in her ears. Then without warning the ground suddenly rushed up to meet her, she was once again in shadows. There was a heavy clang behind her, the ground groaning and shuddering into life.
Her legs felt heavy and dead, and her arms were fastened behind her, but she managed to sit up, staring around her. It was very dark. All she could make out were several thin figures, slumped unmoving on the ground. It was the back of the some sort of cart. The ground pitched and heaved beneath her. She didn't know if the violent churning was the rolling of the cart or her own nausea. She opened her mouth to scream, but only a whisper passed her lips. Jin leaned against the shuddering wall, fighting the heaving sobs that burned in her dry throat. Overcome with a real urge to vomit, Jin moaned audibly as she realised why she had to be there. They didn't want her at all. They wanted him.
Please please please Spirits, let Zuko be okay.
Zuko abandoned the Upper Ring.
It was one of the hardest - no, the hardest thing he had ever had to do. He heard the wailing, howling screams of adults and babies, mingled with the thick smell of smoke and gunpowder. It burned his nose and left him nauseous. He watched, crouching on the roof of a house with the front door scattered in pieces on the ground. He didn't let himself to witness it for long. He could only stand a few minutes before turning away, negotiating a safe route to the familiar slums of the city. He tried to rationalize his actions, telling himself there was no other way. That without numbers, he would do nothing more than sacrifice himself. This wasn't a handful of rogue soldiers. This was the full force of the Army. He had to be pragmatic.
It broke his heart. Every cry, every clang of metal and thud of stone and wood that he heard, sent a fresh knife-wound of guilt surging through his chest. His head hung lower and lower, the further he made his hidden way down the abandoned streets. He felt like an utter failure. He had no swords, no bending. Nothing to fight with. It was the most unsettling, terrifying sensation. It was as though his hands had been cut off. He felt as weak and defenseless as a baby.
Did they deserve this? No. Sure, someone like Jiro would argue they had this coming, but Zuko knew the mindset of the majority of citizens in the Upper Ring. Most of them wouldn't have had any idea about anything. They would have just been trying to go about their daily business, blissfully unaware that anything was going on. Forcefully unaware.
Where would they go? He wasn't aware of a large-scale refugee situation like this. Most victims of the Fire Nation were small towns and villages, filled with peasants and dominated by one or two wealthy families, who would have normally fled to the safety of distant relatives. These people are doomed.
It was enough to make him forget about the books in the worn satchel at his shoulder. There were five heavy books in total. He had only enough time to leaf through their contents, crouched on the floor. It took an hour of searching every concealed space in the tall narrow house, but Zuko finally found his prize. After deconstructing the drawing-room, the kitchen, bedrooms and study, Zuko finally walked into a tiny, sun-drenched alcove beneath a low sloping ceiling, containing only a simple knotted rug, two embroidered knee-cushions, and a honey-coloured Pai Sho table.
He knew in an instant he had found his prize. Zuko ran his fingers over the smooth surface, feeling for some sort of secret keyhole. He even grasped the White Lotus tile, pressing it on various points on the board, convinced of its significance. He realised halfway through that such a mechanism would be too obvious and heavy-handed for a man shrewd enough to hide his key under the edge of the desk. Zuko lay on his back under the table, examining the wood closely, but found nothing worth exploring.
It was only when the floorboard creaked under him as he sat back up that he slowly pushed back the heavy wooden table, panting with the effort. He kicked aside the thin rug, heart hammering. There was a definite groove across the boards. Zuko prised them open, staring at a heavy locked box, screwed and bolted into the wooden beams. The key fit perfectly. The five large books were of soft, well-worn leather. They were filled with hastily scrawled notes, charts, and diagrams, annotated in the margins and crossed out in large sections. Four of the books were completely full; the fifth still had half of its pages clean and unmarked. Zuko knew in a moment that this was exactly what he was looking for. After replacing the rug and Pai Sho table, he stuffed the books in a borrowed satchel, disappearing out the open window and down the Jasmine vine.
He tried to keep the sounds out of his head by thinking over the contents of the five heavy books, but it was futile. Nothing, it seemed, could wipe those sights and sounds from his mind.
He'd failed, and he knew it.
The sunlight cut through Jin like a knife.
She was blinded, dazzled, by the brilliant light, such a stark contrast to the heavy shadows of the cart. They used her momentary confusion to their advantage, seizing the girl by the hair and arms, pushing her forwards. She staggered in the light, unable to see, screwing her eyes up in the sun. Blind, she stumbled, and almost fell, crying out at the painful jerk on her hair. The light only lasted a few seconds, but it stretched out horribly for Jin, who still couldn't speak, or even scream or cry. She felt numb and eerie, as though she had received a heavy blow on the head. Maybe she had.
The dim, inside light was a welcome relief. Jin opened her eyes, breath seized in her throat. It was a wide reception room, looking more like some sort of office rather than a prison. She was confused. But they pushed her quickly past this, into a tiny side room lit only by a slit-window, leaking a sliver of pale light on the metal ground. The room had nothing but a wooden table and a single stool, opposite her. One of the soldiers left. The other kept a firm grip on the shackles at her wrist, his breath warm and sticky in her hair. Jin was shaking uncontrollably, still unable to speak. Shame at her disposition began to gather in the pit of her stomach.
"Wh-What-" Her voice was a broken whisper, unheeded. Jin fell silent, squeezing her eyes shut. She had no grand delusions of escape. The clever time to do that would have been when she was being taken here. Now she was in a fortress of steel, with no elements to help her. Her knees were weak and she pitched forward, wavering unsteadily. Zuko where are you? What are they doing to you? He hadn't said much about the nature of the Fire Nation's treatment of their prisoners, but his silence spoke volumes of their brutality. If they thought she had any information to give them, they would be willing to extract it through any means necessary. And Jin would crumble in seconds, she knew. She had a reasonably high pain threshold after years of hard work, but she could never hold up under torture.
The bonds fell from her wrists. Jin's heart rose in her throat, and she balled her hands into fists in a desperate attempt to muster some sort of defense. But the soldier only laughed, grabbing her hands, squeezing them tightly, forcing her arms outwards. He wore a full suit of armour. She was defenseless.
"Stay still and it'll be over in a moment." Jin let out a gasp as the hands circled her wrists, working slowly up her arms. He felt under her armpits, along her sides, and up her stomach. She fought down a fresh wave of nausea. What was he going to do to her? He stood only a few inches behind her, hands grasping and poking as her face flushed deeper in humiliation. He grabbed something from inside the front of her dress - she kept her money in a secret inner pocket in her underclothes to prevent muggers, as well as a decoy purse, filled with scraps of tin and lead, at her waist.
As he groped inside her underwear, tearing the handful of cloth and money away and throwing it on the table, Jin lost her composure completely, breaking down in tears. Her skin felt icy cold, breaking out in goosebumps as the mans touch lingered on her skin. He ignored her tears, hands in her pockets, emptying the decoy purse, a spare hair ribbon, a small brass key, and a few sweets in a twist of paper beside her collection of money on the table. He felt inside her thighs and along the back of her calves, pushing her legs further apart with a sweep of his feet. Jin complied tearfully, shivering and cold. When he was finally satisfied that he'd stripped her clean of any possible weapons, he stood back. Jin sank to her knees, her trembling arms wrapped tightly around herself, head bowed.
"Clean?" This was a new voice at the door. Jin tried to stem the flow of shuddering sobs, pressing her lips together. The spasms wracked her chest.
"Just that." He gestured towards the cluster of objects on the table. The officer stepped into the room, staring at the crying girl with crossed arms.
"Agni Ren, what did you do? She's just here for an I.D." There was a dissatisfied click of his tongue. He saw the tear in the front of her clothes. Jin swallowed, the shudders ebbing to a quiver. "I've told you about keeping your hands off. Get a woman in next time if you can't control yourself." He shook his head in disgust. "Fourth floor. Shuu's office. He's been waiting for some time."
"Yes sir." Ren's voice was a low growl. He seized Jin roughly by the elbow, hauling the girl to her feet. She met the eyes of the officer, who still stood with his arms crossed. He looked Jin up and down, sizing her up. He wasn't impressed, or worried. Some factory girl, with a rather ordinary record for petty crime. Nothing special. "Won't happen again."
"Make sure it doesn't." Jee heaved an exasperated sigh, watching the pair leave the room.
The door was locked.
Zuko, who had expected to walk right into the house, started as the door failed to give way under his weight. He jiggled the latch, confused. He pressed his ear to the door, but heard nothing. No soft murmurings or clinking of plates. It sounded empty. That was strange. Somebody was usually home.
He made his way back down the stairs silently, the bag heavy on his arm. He didn't like this. Zuko was desperate to talk to somebody, to tell them about what he had seen in the Upper Ring. To sit down and pore through the five heavy books that dragged on his uninjured shoulder.
Who would know where they were?
He rolled his pained shoulder, the sting giving him a flash of remembrance. Of course. Jin and her family had relatives all throughout the city. Surely one of them, at least, would know where she was.
He first tried the pub Renshu frequented one or twice a week. If he wasn't there, which he could very well have been on his day off, someone could give him an address. But Zuko couldn't see him. The barman offered the addresses of Shan's sisters; there were seven. The first home was empty, the second hadn't seen any of the family for several days - and that Jin hadn't crossed the threshold in weeks, the greying Aunt added with a curl of the lip. The third house was the doctors' Zuko had seen earlier that morning. The front half of the house was an apothecary and doctors' surgery. Zuko shouldered the heavy bag, stepping into the now familiar environment of herbs, potions and tonics.
Behind the counter, a young woman read silently. It must have been one of Jin's cousins. She had the same nose, the same almond-shaped eyes, but her jaw was heavier. It was a moment before she noticed the boy had walked into the room.
"Oh!" She lifted her head from the thick book, smiling. "May I help you?"
"Yes." Zuko crossed the little shopfront. "I'm Lee. Jin's boyfriend. Are any of your parents around?" At Jin's name, something clouded her face. She tightened, looking down, before nodding silently.
"Through the back. You were here this morning, right?" Zuko nodded. "Into the doctor's office and keep going. Sorry, I have to watch the front."
"Thanks." He looked back at her with a frown, stepping past the curtain and into the brightly-lit surgery. What was that about? She seemed hesitant, uneasy. Something tightened in Zuko's stomach he crossed the sunny room and into the back.
"Lee!" Zuko stopped still on the doorstep. Chang sat cross-legged on the floor, teasing Momo with a frayed length of ribbon. Hai was in a chair, chewing silently on a thumbnail. His eyes were very bright, hands clearly shaking. The small boy left the ribbon, running across the room and taking Zuko's hand. "Look, I've drawn a picture." He knelt beside several scraps of paper, covered in indecipherable squiggles. "Here's Momo. And here's a moose-lion. And I drew a flower for Mama."
"That's nice Chang." But Zuko wasn't paying attention. He looked at Hai, his pale, sick-looking face and quavering mouth. "Hey, why don't you draw me a picture? I like kangaroo-rabbits."
"Okay." Chang finally let go off his hand, laying out on the rug with fresh corner of thick paper. Momo, content he had 'slain' the ribbon, curled up beside Chang on the soft rug. "I'll colour it for you."
"Thanks." Hai stood up, jerking his head toward the door. Zuko followed him out the door into a little back alley. As soon as the door closed and Hai knew he was out of his brothers' earshot, he leaned against the wall with a low moan, eyes closed. His knees weakened, Zuko holding his arms to stop him from falling.
"Where are they?" Zuko kept his voice low. "The house is empty - No one knows where anyone is." Hai blinked, two glistening tears trailing down his dirty cheeks. "Where are they?"
"Th-the prison." Zuko's heart stopped. "F-Fire Nation soldiers came and they took her away. M-Ma and Dad were home but they couldn't do anything. They're there n-now with Jiro and Meng." Hai swallowed, with an odd hiccup.
"Her?" Zuko closed his eyes, trying to stop the awful wheeling of the earth beneath his feet. "Not..."
"J-Jin." The boy stuttered, unable to shake the tears that wracked his skinny frame. "Aunty Shi came and took us here. W-we can't go anywhere and we don't know what's happening." Zuko's hands tightened on the thin bones. "I-I don't know where they are." The pounding of Zuko's heart was deafening, almost drowning out a low, dull roar as the blood rushed through his head. No. no no no no no. "Aunty Shi told me to just..." He stopped as Zuko turned rapidly away, loosening the hinges as he tore open the door.
"Stay here." He slumped to the ground, crumpled.
It was a nightmare for Jin. She was lead up stairs and along passages until her head spun. She was sure she was purposefully being led around, to be lost. She'd stopped crying as she ascended the second set of stairs, feeling dried-out. But the cold terror still remained in the bottom of her heart. She felt sure that this went beyond a simple I.D, whatever that was. Why would they go through all of this effort? The more she thought, the more convinced she became that this had something to do with Zuko. She couldn't shake the belief. Perhaps someone recognised him, and she had been seen with him, and they were going to press her with more information. Maybe they were going to hold her as some sort of bait. It wouldn't be the first time. The higher the pair traveled, the further that cold fear spread throughout her body. She couldn't shake that awful sensation of that man's gloves pawing over her. Her skin crawled in remembrance.
Finally, finally, they stopped outside a closed door. Ren knocked on it several times, standing back in preparation for the response.
"Enter." The voice was as thin and hollow as tin. Jin's throat became stuck, her arms lifeless at her sides. She had to be pushed through the door, one hand grasping her elbow, that awful heavy breathing returning to the back of her neck. She stumbled in the room, bathed in the light of a single lantern. There were no windows. The air was heavy and stale, sticking wetly in her lungs. The man behind the desk was growing bald, his helmet lying discarded on the desk. "Sit." He didn't raise his eyes from the paper. He pushed Jin down into the three-legged stool before the desk. "Outside Ren." His command was met with a low grumble, the heavy thump of books, and the slamming of a door. Jin looked at the papers scattered over the desk. They looked like files, stamped at the top with various marks and symbols. "PRIVATE" read one. "TO BE DESTROYED" headed another. She clenched her hands in an attempt to mask the trembling.
"What am I doing here?" After an hour of terrified silence, Jin finally found her voice. It was warbled and soft, barely above a whisper, but the officer across the desk heard her. He looked up from the papers, arching an eyebrow in surprise at the words. His tongue between his teeth, he slowly set down his bamboo reed.
"What do you think you're doing here?" He tented his fingers, elbows resting on the desk. Jin swallowed, breathing the wet air in shallow gasps. He was testing her. He knew there was something else behind her. Something she was hiding.
"I don't know." She tried to make her voice strong and authoritative, a challenge to the greying officer. But it came out weak and defensive.
"Come now Jin." He knew her name. The skin on the back of her neck crawled, as she shrank inwards. "Surely you must have some idea of why you're here. We don't pluck innocent civilians off the street." Jin sat on her hands.
"Th-They said something about an I.D." Her eyes seemed so large and wide. But Shuu was no fool. This was the terrified, defensive posture of someone convinced they were in trouble for much, much more.
"They were right." He threw a piece of paper down on the desk before her. Jin shuffled forward a little, reading the text. It was a poster. "We papered the city with these. I'm surprised you haven't seen them."
"I-I don't... go out much." Jin's stomach tumbled, heart hammering in her throat. It was encouraging people to turn benders in. Anybody who gave the solid name of an earthbender was paid a nice lump of silver for the information. Oh no.
"They're very new. We put them up just yesterday, but already we've had dozens of names. Seems people are more than willing to rat out friends and neighbours when cash is involved." He slid the paper back across the desk, towards himself. Jin closed her eyes. "Your name and address came to us last night. I spent hours checking the government records." Oh, the records. It was phenomenal. Despite the city's vast size and massive vagrant population, the government had managed to compile information on every single citizen. Every single person had a nice little file that containing their birthday, parentage occupation, and when or if they were married. Some had more. A system on such a large scale was unheard of. But they had done it. "But it wasn't there." Their eyes met. Jin's throat was dry. "We found no trace of you, your parents, or brothers." Brothers? Oh Spirits they must have found something. "I started thinking that it was a hoax, a fake name. People have tried of course, for the reward sum." His eyes narrowed.
"But this morning, I visited the laundry my informant claimed you work at. I spoke to the floor manager as she ducked out for air and yes, you were very real. She pointed you out through the window." That bitch. Jin's lip stiffened. "It's not a good sign when someone fails to show up on government records, Jin."
"I haven't done anything." She argued, eyes stinging. She didn't understand what her record had to do with any of this. She knew something was wrong with it. When she applied for her laundry job four years ago, it took three months for the government office to find her file and update the information. It never took most people more than six weeks. Something in her stomach loosened. This was an old problem. It didn't have anything to do with Zuko. Hopefully.
"I dug around." He carried on, ignoring her complaint. "And I found this," Shuu set down a stack of papers covered in brown paper. "In the Dai Li headquarters."
Oh shit. Jin watched the man slowly lift the brown covering. "Jin Gui" was printed clearly on the head of the first sheet. ON WATCH had been stamped across the top, with several other large markings. CONFIDENTIAL. UNDER SURVEILLANCE. HIGH PRIORITY. One on top of another. Her stomach was a tight knot. There was a physical description of her, a date of birth, and her parents' occupation. She couldn't see what the rest of the file held.
"You've been a very clever girl for a very long time." He turned the pages, slowly and idly, skimming the text. He had read it closely the night before. The pretence of reading was only to heighten Jin's distinct sense of unease. Shuu saw her shuffling in the corner of his eye. "No record of public bending. Only two broken curfews, no theft or arson or assault. Nothing that would warrant this level of surveillance." He gathered up the papers, replacing the brown paper cover. "So I had a look at your family."
"Why?" Jin breathed. "What do they have to do with it?" She started feeling sick again. There was a disheartening twist to the officers' mouth.
"Everything Jin. You live with them." He set another file down on the desk, lifting the cover. Jin struggled to keep a straight face as she glimpsed the name. Meng. His file had several new labels. HIGH RISK. TOP PRIORITY. And across all of them, in bright red ink, washing out the faded stamps: JAILED. Her fingers curled around the edge of the stool. "I see your brother was imprisoned indefinitely for the murder of a Dai Li agent four years ago." He gave a little tsk. "The Dai Li kept watch on you for a reason."
"What does any of this have to do with me?" Jin was finally finding her voice. "I don't understand - just do whatever you have to do to identify me and let me go. You said yourself, I haven't done anything. Nobody in our family has done anything wrong."
"Aside from this instance of murder."
Jin fell silent. She watched him gather up the papers, her anxiety and fear mounting. He replaced his chin on his hands, watching her intently, scanning her face for a reaction. But she lowered her gaze, biting hard on her lower lip.
"It was a complicated mess, looking at your file. I was simply trying to unweave it." He drummed his fingers on the stack of wrapped papers. He flicked through them, extracting the file of her father, placing it open on the desk. Jin's eyes widened at the selection of stamps that marked the paper. Over all of them, the word IDENTIFIED had been scrawled in heavy black ink, by hand. "I see your father has already handed himself in to us. He figured it wouldn't be long before we opened his file and found a defective Dai Li agent. He knew we would sniff him out."
"He wasn't an agent." Jin spoke quietly. "He left before he completed training."
"He was as good as, from what the file reads. He walked out in his ceremony." A heavy frown marked Jin's forehead. That isn't what I was told. "There is a reason why I brought you here and showed you this." He leaned back a little in the chair. "By turning himself in, your father has shown compliance. He is willing to play by our rules. As a result, there is very little chance we will follow up on him, unless he does something to outwardly arouse suspicion." Jin tightened her grip on the stool. "We like compliance Jin. And from what your record tells me, you're not one to make waves."
"What do you want from me?"
"Obedience." He leaned forward, elbows on the desk. He almost looked friendly. "I have no interest in striking terror into the hearts of innocent citizens. I have one job: To separate those who have a risk of upsetting our new reign from those who wish nothing else than to go about their daily lives."
You deluded monster. Jin inwardly fumed. How condescending of him, to phrase it so! To speak of rebels as ungrateful criminals who existed only to spoil the bloodstained 'glory' of the Fire Nation. Her fear had calmed down - but now she was angry. She stared at him coldly. But he either ignored, or misunderstood, her gaze.
"We can have this over with very quickly. It's just a simple procedure, and you can go home. It's very likely you won't hear from us again. Isn't that what you want Jin? Just to go home?"
"Yes." Why was he speaking to her like she was a child, in that awful, wheedling tone? She wanted to strike out at him. But she kept her hands down, clenched around the edge of the stool. "I want to go home."
"Excellent." He leaned back, reaching for a little bell he kept on his desk. He rang it twice, and after a moment the door swung open. "Yun, take Jin downstairs. No need for handcuffs." The soldier nodded silently, a smirk playing on his lips. Jin was uneasy at his expression. "Good." He took the files, seven of them, in a stack, placing them in a box on the ground beside his desk. Jin watched them with a pounding heart. Everything was in there. Her history, her families' history. Every black mark, every instance of suspicion, every strike against their name. It was so close. She stood up unaided, not looking back as she was led out of the small office.
Every step she took, Jin grew sicker. She wanted, so desperately, to think that this was it, she was going to be led out the door. But there was something in the officer's eyes, something in the way Yun held her arm; loosely, but with a hand as firm and clenched as stone. She was pushed down a narrow, lopsided staircase. This wasn't the passage she walked up. She wasn't just going back out. She was going deeper inside the metal labrynth.
"No." She stopped short in her walk. Her heartbeat was a deep throb, pulsing in her ears. "No, please-"
"Come on." Yun grabbed her, one arm wrapped tightly about her middle, forcing her to walk down the stairs. Jin dragged her feet, shaking her head. There was something very, very wrong. She was slowly filling with the intense fear that she might not return from this monstrous prison. "Get going." She dug her heels in, fighting his grasp. "Hey!" With a sharp knee to the groin, Jin winded the young soldier, shaking free of his grasp and clambering up the stairs. Gasping for air, paralysed in pain, Yun climbed after her on his hands and knees, staggering as he bent almost double. He managed to reach out and clasp Jin by the ankle, the girl screaming as she fell heavily on the metal stairs with a horrible thud. Pinning her on the ground with a knee, he forced her hands behind her back, reaching for his cuffs.
"No!" Jin squirmed and struggled as Yun pulled her to her feet, dragging her unceremoniously down the stairs. "No - Stop - Please-"
"Shut. Up." He pushed her, hard, against the wall, lip curling. He still limped, his middle still throbbing. Her hands crushed in the cuffs, pressed against the wall, Jin fell silent, eyes burning as she realised how trapped she was. Nobody was around to help her if she was attacked - and if anybody did come, who would care? She was just a prisoner here. Satisfied he had scared her enough, Yun grasped her by the elbow, pushing her down the narrow passage at the bottom of the stairs. Jin cried quietly, blinking rapidly as she was forced through a low door, down several dark passageways lit only sparsely by pale, flickering lanterns. It was growing very warm. She heard someone scream. Several people pushed past them - mostly soldiers, but two dragged someone behind them, unconscious, in green. There was another scream, high and pained. It sounded like a woman. Jin screwed up her eyes as she was pushed into a small room.
The warmth hit her in the face. She opened her eyes, breath stalling in her throat as she looked at the tiny room. It looked more like some sort of kitchen, with an open furnace, and a clumsy wooden table. At the table sat a woman. Plump, with greying hair, Jin didn't recognise her. Her arms were strapped to the table, a solitary soldier fiddling with the bonds. He grabbed her by the elbows, pulling her up. She was limp and unresponsive, looking in shock. Jin let out an involuntary moan, shrinking back as the woman staggered past her. Their eyes met for a moment, Jin's wide and tearful, hers emerald-green and dull, marked with heavy lines. Jin didn't see her wrist.
"Sit." Jin was pushed past the woman, the spell broken, forced into a low chair. Aside from Yun, there was a single other man, low and fat, poking at the burning wood with an iron poker. They'd learned several days ago not to use coal - the bandages were heavily wrapped around this man's shoulder. He set the poker down as Yun unbound Jin's shaking hands. "Careful. She's trouble." They grabbed one arm each, Jin silent and unmoving. The fight had, at the moment, died in her. Her right arm was strapped crookedly to the table, held fast. Her left was stretched out, strapped down at the hand, just below the wrist, and the elbow. Her bare arms began to flush in the heat of the close furnace.
"No." Jin breathed, starting to struggle as the fatter man pushed his hand into a heavy glove. "No please!" Yun's hands dug into her shoulders, struggling to hold her still. She couldn't move her arm an inch. Tears poured down her cheeks, in pure terror, as the branding iron was pulled from the furnace. She kicked out but the table was bolted down. They had made the system much more foolproof in the last two days, ever since the process became less 'voluntary'. Better to hold them down with machines and not risk more soldiers getting hurt.
Her scream tore through the tiny room, echoing beyond, into the low passageway. She had been burned before - it was inevitable in the laundry, and her hands had several scars from boiling water and heated irons - but not like this. The iron was pressed to her skin for several seconds before being lifted away. There was no sympathy in the hands that clenched her shoulders as she sat frozen, immobile from the shock and pain. She fought a wave of nausea, pushing at her throat. Her mouth was filled with the bitter taste of bile. Jin bent her head, eyes closed as she sobbed helplessly, her right arm flaring with agony.
Why did they do this?
Renshu tried very, very hard not to be afraid.
Ever since that moment of rebellion, that outburst that had shaped his fate and branded him as a defector and a traitor, Renshu had done everything he could to remain a faceless, nameless shadow. He became a law-abiding citizen, without drawing too much attention to himself. He paid his fees and taxes and licences on time. He was reasonably capable at a steady trade. He had a wife from a respectable (if unfortunately destitute) family. He didn't drink away or gamble his hard-earned money, but was always willing to lend to a friend. He kept the company of upstanding citizens neither above or below his hard-fought station. Renshu voted for officials and councillors backed obviously by the Dai Li. He treated his children well, and his neigbours remarked that Shan was one of the few wives on the street that never had a bruise to hide.
Which was why it was so unfortunate, people said, that his children turned out the way they did. Renshu was no fool. He knew the names his three eldest had been called. Loose. Criminal. Rebellious. Foolhardy. Stupid. Trouble. They had all been called Trouble at some point or another, with dark looks exchanged behind tight lips. Such a shame, from such a fine man and woman.
It wasn't bad parenting and it wasn't just one of those things. Shan had spoken very plainly on the matter, dozens of times. They were just like him. They had a painful awareness of the world around them, and rather than allowing themselves to be swept along in the current, they fought back against it, as though their actions could somehow shift the tides. They had his blood, his spirit. She spoke of it with an odd sort of pride, even though they caused her so much trouble. Renshu thought of it more as a curse. They were cursed with his blood and his name, it had given them the fire of rebellion, and short of beating it out, there was nothing he could do. He'd only raised his hand to any of them once, when the twins were eleven. They had skipped out on their chores to watch an execution. By the time he had found them, the poor man was dead, and Jin was sobbing uncontrollably. Jiro was white-faced and trembling. It was when he said the man was a hero and didn't deserve to die that Renshu lost control, giving Jiro a nasty red mark that lingered on his right cheek for two days. But if Renshu was too soft then, he had left it too long now. They were bigger and stronger. The boys, at least, would be able to fight back.
But they still needed him.
The air was heavy and stale, with that familiar, metallic taste on his tonge as he breathed in. He was not afradi, he tried to tell himself. He was not afraid. This was no different to those mornings when he had to bail the children out of the Dai Li's cells after a particularly wild night. He tried to remember how he felt, then. It wasn't fear. It was annoyance and exasperation. He wasn't afraid of the Dai Li. He knew that the so-called 'crimes' that kept his teenaged children behind bars could easily be brushed aside with enough money. Everything had a price.
"Yes?" The tired, young face stared down at him. Renshu kept his shoulders square and head erect. He knew how to play this. As long as he stood his ground, refused to back down, and flashed a handful of money at the right moment, he would find her easily. These people were all the same, no matter what colour they wore.
"I'm here to see someone. My daughter." His voice was cool and clear, without a hint of a quaver. "She was taken from our home this afternoon. We were not told of any charges and there was no warning. I demand to either know why she was arrested, or have her let go." Behind the desk, red-rimmed eyes widened. The young clerk didn't know how to deal with his. This man wasn't scared - but he wasn't angry either. He hadn't dealt with anybody as concise and level-headed. "Her name is Jin."
"I-I can't just release that information." Renshu's lip twitched at the voice. He had the little worm. "There's protocol, It's not a matter of-"
"Don't bullshit me." He kept his voice low, lest anybody with a spine heard him. "I know you have records. I know you can easily enquire about her with the patrol officer. You don't simply take people in without at least learning their name." Maybe he was being hopeful. Maybe the Fire Nation didn't have the same level of overbearing beauracracy the Dai Li had.
"Even if I did-"
"It would be entirely ordinary for a clerk to find the location of a prisoner. Spirits, what else do you do all day?" His jaw was tight. "My sixteen-year-old daughter was taken from our home without charge." He re-emphasized this. "I have every right to know what has happened to her."
"I'm not asking for her release." That was for later. "I'm not asking you to break any rules. All I want is some information about my only daughter." Was it worth it, to play at this boy's emotions? It seemed to be working. Renshu's hands clenched around the money in his pocket. He may not even need it, in the end. The exhausted-looking clerk looked down at his page, and back up at Renshu, before raising his eyes to the ceiling in a long, heavy sigh. That was the problems with the young ones. They were far too soft. Renshu's heart, nevertheless, thudded in his throat with the fear that it may not work.
"Dammit." The clerk swore under his breath in resignation. Renshu's heart leapt. The boy reached for a piece of paper, rubbing at his temples. "What was her name again?"
"Jin Gui." This time, Renshu couldn't get the tremor out of his voice was he gave the full name. The clerk's eyes flicked up to him, the pen loose in his hand.
"Really?" His brow creased. Gui. Ghost. He'd only ever heard it as an insult. He never thought it could be somebody's family name. Renshu nodded wordlessly at the familiar incredulous look. "I don't know the character for the last name." He pushed the paper across the desk. "Write it down for me." Not many did. Renshu's fingers were trembling as he accepted the sharpened stick of bamboo. His own hand was smooth and elegant next to the wonky scratch of the clerk. "Gui." The clerk breathed, shaking his head. Finding her would be easy with a name like that. He blew on the scrap of paper, his warm breath hardening the black ink in a heartbeat. "Stay here." He pushed the chair back with a horrible screech, leaving Renshu to stand before an empty desk with burning eyes.
Spirits. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks, releasing the tight grasp he had on the money around his pocket.
Zuko stood in the entranceway to the courtyard for a very long time. He had marched straight there with the intention to break the door down. He wasn't afraid of the huge fortress. The iron would bend and the stone crack under his bare hands. When Zuko was this angry, nothing could stop him. He never backed down from anything, no matter how hopeless it seemed. But when Zuko finally made it to the huge iron prison, there was one sight that made him pull up short in his walk, clenched fists loosening at his sides.
Shan sat by the open door with her shoulders hunched over, head bowed. She wrapped her arms about herself, as though she was struggling to hold her breaking body together. On either side of her, her eldest sons sat with their hands on her shoulders, leaning into whisper words of comfort. Words that were ignored. Her face was pinched and grey, marked with heavy lines and a tiny, wrinkled mouth. She wasn't crying - she was beyond tears. Shan was withered and hollow, looking as though she was about to collapse inward, completely. Zuko couldn't swallow the burning ember in his throat.
He took a single step towards them, before his knees buckled, and he pitched forward. He had gone from being determined and unshakeable to as flimsy and ineffective as paper. He threw a hand to the ground to stop himself, staggering. They didn't see him. They weren't looking about themselves. The white-hot rage that had burned in his chest exploded in a wave of guilt, rolling down his back, cramping his stomach and leaving his hands and feet cold.
What have you done to them.
Zuko's stomach lurched with the very real sensation that he was about to be sick. He bent over, breathing heavily in a futile attempt to attack the nausea that fought inside him. How could this have such an effect on him? His head spun and his mouth tasted bitter.
You asshole. You know why.
Zuko swallowed heavily, trying to push the sensation back down. He straightened himself, trying to calm himself. Thankfully, nobody paid attention to him. They were all wrapped up in their own private grief. He went to take another step, but his feet seemed cemented to the stone. He couldn't move them. Zuko was stiff and unmoving. What is wrong with me.
Then he saw her. Emerging from the open mouth of the iron fortress, she wobbled with her father's arm wrapped around her shoulders. Zuko let out a physical cry of relief, knees threatening to buckle again. She looked like she was crying. Was something wrong with her left arm? She held the limb close to herself, cradling it with the right. Zuko watched with wet cheeks as Jin sank to her knees beside the slumped form of her mother. For a moment, there was no reaction. Then the woman bent her head into the crook of Jin's neck, clinging to her. Her shoulders heaved with painful, obvious sobs.
You coward. He stepped backwards with the sick realisation that he couldn't go near them. He was terrified of what they would do, what they would say. The urge to vomit rose in his throat. She was so close, he felt he could reach out and touch her. He ached to. But his feet were still encased in stone and he couldn't take a single step towards them. He couldn't face them and their grief, not while thinking that he was the cause of it. Zuko but down very hard on his lip, feeling the muscle tremble between his teeth. He took a step back, away from the tiny group that couldn't see him. The pain in his chest was terrible - something had broken within him entirely. What did they do to you? He scoured what he could of her, looking for any physical signs of damage. Shan had scrabbled at Jin's arm, pushing back the long sleeve. She clapped a hand over her mouth at the sight, pulling Jin close and sobbing, her fingers tangled in the girls knotted hair. Zuko fought back another wave of nausea as his stomach lurched in horror. What did they do to you?
But he couldn't move towards them. He felt repelled, by an invisible force. His own fear, of them. Of what they would say. He could never dream to burst in on their private circle of grief. Zuko knew they would all hate him for this. For hurting her - again. They were rising to their feet, getting ready to leave. They weren't going to stay under the shadow of the prison any longer than needed. Both of the boys had to haul Shan to her feet, and Jin leaned heavily on her father. Zuko let out a muffled cry behind his bit lip. He couldn't bear to be seen by them. Even though his heart burned to approach her, to hold her and whisper in her ear and say thank Agni she was all right, he couldn't face the others. He anticipated the hate and grief and overwhelming anger, and was terrified by it. So for the second time, Zuko did something that made his stomach wither with shame. He took another step back, and another. And he backed out of the courtyard without another word, turning away from the pitiful sight before him.
And with blurry eyes, Zuko stepped into the busy street, vanishing in the shifting puzzle of green. Like a ghost.
But not entirely unseen.
Jin recognised that untidy mop of black hair in a heartbeat, even from across the courtyard. Her chest constricted, and she opened her mouth to call Zuko over, to tell him to come here and that it was all right, but he had turned away from all of them, and although Jin struggled free of her father ran across the courtyard, he had vanished long before she stood at the open gates. She ignored, for the first time, the horrible pain in her arm, eyes fixated on the spot where she'd last seen him. You idiot. She screwed up her eyes, fingers brushing the mark on the inside of her wrist, unable to ignore the sick fear that he had separated himself from her.
Zuko tried so hard to keep his composure as he made his way down the street, feeling painfully self-aware. He was convinced that everybody on the street could see his red-rimmed eyes and shaking hands. He kept his gaze fixed to his shoes, the erratic step marching in time with his pounding heart. It beat in a drum, sounding out curses and insults. You fool you fool you fool.
More than ever before, Zuko wished he was somebody else.
Everything, it seemed, stemmed from his name. Lee hadn't done anything wrong. It was Prince Zuko, who had caused this grief and pain. He was the one to blame for this. But nothing could be done. Zuko was helpless. Having a new name couldn't change a thing, not when the scar made his face so obvious. That was what he needed. A new face. He let out a half-laugh at the ridiculous idea. That was one thing he could never, ever change. Zuko stopped in his walk, looking up at the sky. It was a very hot day - the sky didn't even look blue. It was heavy and grey. The heat pressed down on him. As he lowered his eyes, he looked around at the dim little shop front, the children that crouched in the shadows, hiding from the oppressive heat. He continued in his walk, until a bright flash of colour at the corner of his eye made him stop, turn about. His mouth fell open. A mask store. There were a dozen of them hanging on hooks outside the shop front, carefully painted to resemble animals, spirits, people. Of course. Zuko approached the shop front, scanning the colourful disguises. Zuko reached out and touched one of them, painted in brilliant red and gold to resemble the sun.
A new face.
Zuko's lips twitched in a rare smile.
Next one will be out very soon. Promise.