Author's Notes: I'd apologize for the wait, but this chapter refused to play nice and I wasn't about to post it until I fixed it. I'm still not 100% satisfied, but what can you do? Thanks again for the many wonderful reviews and continued interest and support. If you're looking for another taste of this Universe's Sokka, check out the prequel story "The Raven and the Wolf" (It may be labeled as Maikka, but I hope you realize by now how I do shipping - light on romance, heavy on the awesome). I have two other chapters I could post for that, if people are interested in how it ends. :)
The Dragon and the Wolf
Chapter Six: Red Chains
There wasn't much to do but watch the blood drip down into the puddle beneath his feet. It was either focus on that or his breathing, and breathing was pain. So he watched the red trickle leak from his body and wondered how much more he could afford to lose.
Perhaps he'd made a mistake.
The wheel on the door spun around and the torturer and two of his cronies entered the room, looking up at him. Sokka could barely see them around the swollen mass that had once been his nose.
"You ready to come down?"
A rasping gurgle and a bubble of bloody spit wasn't much of a reply, but the officer seemed to get his message. Sen nodded and one of his men went to a wheel on the wall and started turning it. The jolting descent was murder on his shoulders but when the pressure finally came off them and his manacled wrists he could have cried with happiness.
He probably was crying, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
"Put him on the table."
Rough hands slid under his half-numb, tingling arms and he couldn't hold back the sharp gasp of pain or the subsequent sickening coughs as his lungs tried to clear the fluid they'd accumulated while he'd hung helplessly.
"We've gone easy on you, so far."
Sokka was far too busy trying not to choke to come up with any kind of witty response. The two guards spread him out on the cold metal of the table and Sen looked him over like a butcher inspecting a poor cut of meat. He slid on a pair of black gloves and lifted Sokka's right arm, and then his left, checking the mobility in his fingers and wrists and elbows. Satisfied, he moved on to Sokka's chest and shoulders, pressing and prodding while the captured warrior sucked in his breath and tried not to cry out.
"But don't mistake our mercy for kindness."
Sokka had made plenty of mistakes, but mistaking a Fire Nation beat down for kindness wasn't one he was likely to make any time soon. He wanted to say as much, preferably with some kind of zinger that would eat at Sen's mind for the rest of the week, but he just wheezed instead, coughing up a bit of blood that didn't belong in his lungs anyway.
Sen took a rag and wiped at the bloody spittle trailing from Sokka's mouth and then attacked his face with it, causing a whole world of hurt that Sokka didn't appreciate or feel he particularly deserved. He grunted into the rough cloth and squeezed his eyes shut, which would have hurt enough without all the face rubbing. His eyes were nearly as swollen as his horribly broken nose.
Sen finally let up and continued cleaning the remaining blood from his chest and arms.
It was the roughest bit of doctoring Sokka had ever received, but aside from some cracked ribs and more cuts and bruises than a man should ever experience at one time, he was in remarkably good shape after the beating. Sen was right. They had gone easy on him. Mostly.
The torturer sneered down at him and Sokka saw the tiny reflections of his own face in the cruel amber eyes. It wasn't a pretty sight.
"You're probably wondering why we didn't destroy you back there."
Sokka had a few theories, but he decided to let Sen have his fun. The poor guy had already suffered enough at his hands, after all. The thought brought a laugh that thankfully sounded more like a war balloon leaking air. Sen didn't seem to notice.
"After all the trouble you caused us." The young officer straightened up and put his hands behind his back, apparently thinking that he'd look more intimidating that way. He didn't. "You hijacked and crashed our airship and then kidnapped the princess," he said, as though Sokka needed to be reminded of his own brilliance. The torturer clicked his tongue in disapproval. "I can only imagine what she has in store for you."
She's trained them well, Sokka thought. No matter how much they hated him, they still wouldn't take action without Azula's orders. They'd even left him mostly intact so that she could extract her vengeance instead of fulfilling their own needs. It showed how much they both feared and respected her. But there was trust too - the trust that she would deliver a punishment beyond anything they could come up with on their own.
Sokka put his hand to his bruised ribs and took the deepest breath he could manage. "Shee wont." His voice came out in a clogged whisper and the torturer frowned and leaned toward him.
"Shee wont hurd meh," Sokka choked out, broken nose and clotting blood thickening and mangling his speech. A dark smile started across Sen's features but Sokka stopped it cold. "You thaw us togetha by the sthream."
Hesitation. A flicker of uncertainty. Oh yes, even Sen wasn't dense enough to miss the implications. How strange it must have been for the former Fire Nation loyalists to find their princess enjoying a peaceful meal with their enemy, a man who had caused them all so much grief.
Speculation must have run rampant. If it hadn't, it would soon after Sen and the two guards left him.
"I th'aved hur," he said, missing his old eloquence, "shee almos' dwowned." It hurt to talk, and he sounded stupid, but it was worth every twinge of his bruised jaw and raw throat to see the impact of his words. The armored guards glanced at each other, expressions covered yet still so readable, and Sen was an open book.
But then, Sokka had figured out the officer five minutes after meeting him. Azula probably had no idea her torturer was in love with her. It would have been sad if it wasn't so hilarious.
"Even if that were true," Sen said, taking a moment to compose himself, "it's your fault the ship crashed in the first place. You put her in danger."
"An athadent," Sokka said with the most sincere smile he could manage. "Ask hur." It wasn't entirely true, but Sen didn't need to know that. Hijacking the airship had only been part one of an elaborate plan that had gone out the window with half the control system and Azula's big blast of blue fire. But Sokka was nothing if not adaptable, and so far, things were playing right into his hands. For the most part.
"The Princess is busy deciding what to do with you." Sen sniffed and straightened up. "I wouldn't put much hope in her showing you mercy," he said with an evil grin. "She doesn't know the meaning of the word."
Sokka smirked. "You'd bwe tha'pwised. Mebbe I know hur betta than you thingk you do?"
Lightning flashed in the torturer's eyes and heavy thunderheads rolled in over his expression. "We'll see." He stormed out and stopped in the doorway, turning back to shoot Sokka one more look of intense dislike. "We'll be back to carry out your punishment. If I were you, I'd prepare for the worst."
What had he done to her?
No matter how Azula rationalized the events of the last few days, she couldn't sort things out. He'd escaped, hijacked and crashed her flagship, and then instead of executing him she'd helped him and let him teach her how to fish and even shared a meal with him.
An accusing voice interrupted her thoughts. "A meal he never got to enjoy."
The look he'd given her as her men took him down was burned into her mind. Azula scowled and tried to clear the image. "Shut up, Li."
"Both of you shut up," Azula said. "I'm trying to think."
Thankfully, she was alone in her command room - the command room that was also her bedroom and throne room and private audience chamber combined. The cramped multipurpose space served to remind her of everything she'd lost and she focused her thoughts on that instead of replaying the last day over and over in her head. And then she saw his sword, freshly cleaned of blood and hanging on her wall like the trophy it was.
She clenched her fists and glared at the weapon. "He didn't have to resist!"
"Of course he did," Li said.
"My men would have taken him into custody without violence." Two old windbags chuckled in her head and Azula gritted her teeth. "I will not be mocked."
"Azula, dear," Lo teased, "you're speaking to figments of your imagination and you're worried about your image?"
"If you can't respect yourself, who will?" Li added and then the two of them snickered.
Azula ignored their laughter. "He could have spared himself a lot of pain…"
"If he only obeyed your every wish and command?" Li interrupted.
"Is that what you really want?" Lo purred and Azula scoffed.
"Of course it is. It's what I deserve. I was born to rule others."
A knock at her door snapped her back to reality. "Princess? May I enter?" Azula spent a moment making sure the imaginary, yet still snickering, Li and Lo were nowhere to be seen before schooling her appearance to one of cool control.
Lieutenant Sen took two steps inside and knelt before her, fist to the ground. "The prisoner awaits, Princess."
She stared down at him in silence until he started to fidget. "Who commands this ship, Lieutenant?"
He glanced up, doubt creeping into his features. "You, Princess. Of course."
"Then why do you think you can get away with telling me what I must do?"
He swallowed. "I don't understand."
"Do I need your permission to punish the prisoner?"
"Of course not, Princess." Fear and something else warred behind the officer's eyes.
"Then why do I need your permission to wait?"
He blinked. "Wait?"
"Yes," she said, waving offhandedly and focusing on her perfect nails. "I don't feel like punishing him right now."
"That's…" he trailed off and glanced back at the door. He turned back to her with a mixed look of disbelief and concern. "That's completely up to you, of course. I just, I don't understand."
"I don't expect you to."
She could see the wheels in his head turning, ponderously slow. He licked his lips and leaned forward, whispering, "After everything he did to undermine your authority?"
All it took was a slight pursing of her lips to make the man quiver for his insolence. He dropped down before her, face to the floor. "I apologize, Princess, I meant no disrespect."
"Then choose your words more carefully."
He seemed to be struggling to do just that. "Princess, you know I have never doubted you or our purpose." He looked up, pleading. "I speak only out of devotion and loyalty."
"If you have something on your mind, spare me the theatrics and get to the point."
"The men need justice."
"Justice?" Azula narrowed her eyes.
"We've been defeated and humiliated and beaten by that man, and now, after his greatest act of defiance, you choose to go lenient on him? Morale is already at an all time low and I'm not sure how much more the men can take."
"I see." She didn't like it, but she couldn't deny it either. The infirmary was full of men who had been injured in the crash and others who had suffered more directly at their prisoner's hands. A young, popular soldier had even lost his hand in the most recent fight and it didn't take much to imagine what his friends were thinking. Those who weren't injured were working non-stop to repair the damage to her flagship and tensions were running high. They were limping along at one quarter speed, and even Azula felt like a sitting turtle duck.
And yet for whatever reason, she still had no desire to punish the one responsible for their current predicament.
"It's none of my business, Princess," Sen said, his tone implying quite the opposite, "but did something happen on the island?"
"Something like what?" Azula had nothing to hide and yet she felt a strange flutter in her chest. Guilt? Embarrassment? She wasn't sure.
"The prisoner made some insinuations," Sen mumbled and then cleared his throat. "And he claimed that he saved your life, which is ridiculous."
"It is ridiculous," she said, catching a smile before it spread as she remembered their somewhat amusing conversation about fishing. Ridiculous, but also true, she thought to herself. She probably should have told Sen as much, but until she figured things out, she didn't want the officer spreading rumors. "The prisoner was at my mercy the entire time."
Sen looked relieved. "Of course, Princess. The men will be happy to hear it and happier still when you dispense judgment on the lying scum. Shall I ready the instruments?"
Sen might have been an idiot, but no one kept their position in the Fire Nation military without having a certain skill in manipulation. In the old days, Azula never had to worry about pleasing her men, but things were different now that they were little more than a rebel faction. Fear could only get her so far.
She sighed. "Take me to him."
Four alert guards stood outside the prison cell while a fifth stared through a small barred window, keeping a constant eye on their slippery prisoner.
"I'll require a moment alone with him," Azula said, and hoped her tone sounded appropriately menacing. She clicked the window shut and waited for one of the men to open the door for her. When the door sealed shut behind her, Azula realized she had no idea what she could possibly say.
He looked horrible, almost unrecognizable behind the mess of bruised and swollen flesh that now passed for his face. But when he saw it was her, he rolled carefully onto his side and slid his battered legs and burned feet over the edge of the metal table he was resting on. He kept one hand on his ribs while he levered himself up to a painful looking slouch. The breath wheezed from his lungs and blood oozed from his nose as he watched her.
Her gut clenched and a wave of undeniable guilt washed over her. Had he really done anything to deserve the treatment he'd received?
And then he smiled, showing off a full set of white teeth that seemed out of place. "Id pwobably looks worse than id fweels," he said with heavy nasal inflection. "But id still dusn't fweel too good." He chuckled and grimaced, clutching his ribs.
She brushed her fingers back through her hair, making sure every strand was in place, but somehow her perfect appearance only made her more uncomfortable in his presence. She glanced back at the door, considered making a run for it, and then squared her shoulders and marched over to the table.
"You do realize," she said, keeping her head high, "that I didn't order any of this."
"You didun't thtop them, eitha. Ath I recall." His voice was thick, whether from emotion or his damaged nasal passages or both, she couldn't be certain.
She frowned. "And why should I have?" Give me something to work with, she wanted to say, though she wasn't sure exactly what she wanted to hear from him.
His shoulders sagged and he stared down at his lap. "No reasun. Nun ad all."
"You have to appreciate my position."
He snorted and winced, lifting one hand to his broken nose."Jus tell me one thingh," he said, and her heart hammered in her throat with nervous curiosity. He turned his head to the side, showing his ruined profile. "How bad does id look? Bwe 'onest."
She raised an eyebrow, disappointed. "That's all you're worried about?"
"I know id may not mean anythin to you, but ith my face and we've been thwough adot togetha." He probed tender flesh and stared cross eyed at the damage.
She scowled and brushed his hand aside, lifting his chin to find better lighting. She rotated his head one way, then another, inspecting his black eyes and cuts and bruises and stubble from every angle and finished with a pinch to the swollen bridge of his crooked nose.
"Ow." His blue eyes watered, the only part of his face that was still easily recognizable, and he looked up at her expectantly. "Whell?"
She dropped her hand away and wiped it against her pant leg. "Well, you sound ridiculous, but don't most women appreciate rugged features?"
Apparently that wasn't what he wanted to hear. His split lip trembled but before he could start crying or whining or complaining or lamenting she reached out and placed a knuckle on the opposite side of the break and steadied his head with her other hand.
"Wud aw you…?" A loud crunch cut him off as she jammed the cartilage back into place. "Ow!" He scrunched his face and grabbed his straightened nose. "Ah, ha ha, ow…" After a bit of probing, some painful looking scrunching and a few soggy sniffs, he broke into a wide, childish grin. "Thanks!"
She blinked and tried to remember the last time someone had honestly thanked her for something she did. His open gratitude made her feel uncomfortable and she straightened, putting her hands behind her back, and pretended nothing had happened. "Now I have a favor to ask of you."
He was still poking his bruises and wiggling his straight yet swollen nose like a child with a new toy. "Don't know what I can do for you, but sure."
"My men are waiting outside. They expect me to punish you. Severely."
"But you don't want to?" He looked up, black eyes glistening with unshed tears and hope. Optimism was a funny thing to see on such a battered face.
"It's not about what I want, it's about what they need to see."
He frowned. "Ah yes, your position. Can't have your men lose faith in you, now can we?"
"The sarcasm is unnecessary. I'm just giving you a chance to have your say."
He straightened up to the best of his ability and met her gaze as though they were equals. "I say don't do it."
"That's not an option."
He exhaled a shaky breath and seemed to deflate. "Well, you don't have to worry about me playing my part, but I'm not going to help make this decision easier on you. I've already had enough pain for a lifetime."
"I'm giving you a choice." She put her hands on her hips. "It's more than I've ever given any other prisoner. You should be grateful."
He folded his other arm over his chest and hunched in on himself. "You have some funny notions about what people should or shouldn't feel."
She pursed her lips and he glared right back, not giving an inch.
"Guards!" she barked, and Sen came in with a case under his good arm, followed closely by two other armored men.
"What will it be, Princess?" The lieutenant placed the case on a desk and opened it up for her and Sokka to see. The instruments of torture glistened in the torchlight and Sen picked up a pair of pliers. "Shall I remove his teeth? Or perhaps his fingernails? Or both?"
Sokka swallowed and gave her the tiniest pleading shake of his head.
"Do you think he'd be any less dangerous if we de-toothed and de-clawed him? He's not an animal you can train to stay off the furniture."
Sen looked appropriately cowed by her words. "Of course not, Princess." He licked his lips and picked up a pear shaped device. "We could destroy his jaw to make sure he never says another bothersome thing again?" He twisted the handle and the bulbous end expanded. "Or you could put it somewhere else and cause considerable damage."
Sokka's eyes widened and Azula waved her hand, showing her disinterest.
"We could cut out his tongue?" Sen held up a wicked knife. "Or chop off a few of his fingers? Or gouge out his eyes?"
She didn't need to see Sokka to know he didn't like his choices. She thought fast. "What we need is a way to stop him from trying to escape."
"Of course, Princess. You are absolutely right."
She spun on her heel, facing her prisoner with the best option she could come up with, one that wouldn't necessarily damage him for life. Years of practice being intimidating lent her voice the proper air of menace as she leaned toward him, smiling her most evil smile for the sake of their audience. "Do you like your knees?"
She saw the light of understanding in his eyes and he grinned like an arctic wolf, his chest rising and falling fast as adrenaline coursed through his body in anticipation. "I love them."
"Which one do you love more?"
She could see him thinking about it, weighing his options. "I'm gonna have to say, my left."
It's what she would have gone with, if she were him, and she had no intention of damaging a healthy limb if he'd said otherwise. She knew his left leg had already been wounded numerous times in the past and at least this way he'd still have one good leg to rely on.
"Break it," she commanded, and Sen picked up a heavy hammer while the two guards moved over to subdue their victim. Sokka's bruised nostrils flared and he resisted just enough to look convincing, but not enough to land himself in more pain. He growled and struggled but his left leg stayed right where it needed to be for Sen to raise the hammer and bring it crashing down with a wet crunch.
Sokka's eyes rolled back and he went limp in their arms. The three soldiers cheered. "That got him!" Sen looked thoroughly pleased and Azula gave him a tight smile.
"Yes, I'd say he's learned his lesson."
"The men will be pleased. I can't wait to spread the good news."
"Well, what are you waiting for? And have someone bring in a stretcher so you can take this filth back to his cell." One of the guards remained behind, hovering by the door, but Azula waved him out. "I'll watch him until you get back. Go help with the stretcher and be quick about it."
The door shut and Sokka cracked open an eye and hissed in a breath. "Your plans. So bad," he groaned and curled on his side, clutching at his knee without touching the wound. "Never. Ever. Again."
"Lieutenant Sen is still recovering from that dislocated shoulder you gave him. I doubt you'd find a weaker swing on the entire airship." She stepped over and tore back the fabric of his tattered pants to inspect the injury. His knee was bleeding and already bruising, swelling up fast. "Broken," she announced.
"Ya think?" He squeezed his thigh and gave her a halfhearted scowl.
"The damage is minimal. You'll be back on your feet, terrorizing my crew again in no time."
They both blinked at the layer of implications and she could see him trying hard to decode her intent, which was humorous, since she wasn't sure what she'd meant by it. The odds of him still being aboard her ship by the time he healed were slim. Death, rescue, escape, exchange, ransom - there were so many ways he could leave, and none of them particularly appealed to Azula right then.
He stared up at her, contemplative despite the fresh agony, and she couldn't help but admire his tolerance. "So where does this put us?"
She brushed a stray strand of hair back in place while she ordered her thoughts. "You saved me from drowning, I saved you from permanent dismemberment. We should be about even, no?"
He grinned and tried to hide his pain behind his usual joking mask. "Only if you don't count the rest of my extensive injuries."
"But you nearly destroyed my flagship. We're still flying at reduced power and it's going to cost a small fortune for repairs. That has to be worth as much as a few burns and bruises."
"Alright, but you captured me and you're holding me against my will."
"Oh really?" She folded her arms and tossed her head to the side, disrupting the same pesky strands of hair. "You could have easily escaped multiple times, already, if you'd tried. I think you let yourself be caught, and until I figure out your motives, it counts for nothing."
He snorted a laugh. "Oh yes, because I got bored one day and decided it would be fun to be captured and tortured by you."
"You say that as though you're not the most difficult prisoner I've ever had the misfortune to collect."
He let go of his leg with one hand and pushed up on his elbow, jutting his chin in a defiant grin. "You say that like you don't love the challenge."
"I don't love anything," she said, leaning in to make her point abundantly clear. She smiled wickedly and he grinned back, blue eyes locked with hers.
And then maybe because he was distracted by pain, or somehow thought it appropriate, he reached up to brush the wayward strands of her hair back into place. She caught his bruised wrist without thinking, and they stared at each other, exchanging a mutual look of shock and surprise.
"Your hair," he explained, lamely, when she didn't let go. She was hurting him, she could tell, but her brain was too busy trying to process what he had been about to do for her to even consider loosening her grip. They were close. Close enough that she could feel his breath rushing against her face and he was looking at her again, with the same sort of expectation he'd had at the riverside.
He swallowed, licked his lips, and slowly, gently, pushed against her weakening hold, continuing in his foolish task of reaching for her displaced hair, and for some reason that Azula could not fathom, she was letting him.
His filthy fingers brushed against the perfect skin of her cheek just as the cell door gave a warning squeak. Azula didn't think. She twisted and shoved and Sokka slid off the table, crashing to the floor on the other side with a pained yelp.
Her guards rushed into the room, loyal men all. Two of them hauled Sokka up and it was Sen who drove his armored fist into the prisoner's unprotected abdomen, rocking him with the blow.
Everyone froze and turned to her and it was only then that Azula realized she'd spoken. Even Sokka, gasping for breath and helpless in the hands of his captors, had all his attention on her.
This was her chance, her moment to try and make things right between them.
"No," she said again, struggling to regain her bearing and doing everything she could to avoid meeting the wounded warrior's penetrating gaze. "That's enough. Just take him to his cell."
Sen gaped and clamped his mouth shut, giving her a strange look before he snapped his fingers. The guards ignored the stretcher and dragged Sokka out of the room, leaving a thin smear of blood behind. His eyes might as well have been glued to her and Azula allowed one moment of contact before he disappeared from sight.
She'd expected to see a little gratitude, but his expression was one of bewildered surprise and compliance, befitting a prisoner in his situation. But then something cracked in the mask he wore to hide his secrets from the world. The corner of his lip twitched, a smile not of appreciation, but of smug satisfaction and victory. Over her. And then he was gone.
Azula felt the heat drain from her face.
"Are you alright, Princess?" Sen asked, his voice softer than usual. She blinked and fixed him with her best intimidating stare, but it felt like a lie. It was all a lie.
"I'm fine. He just surprised me."
An understatement, if ever there was one.