Kept Alive

Notes: I've seen this concept touched on several times – a good (but depressing!) rendition of this concept is done in 'Bad End', which is a fic I have listed under my favorites.

This fic is dark. Not as dark as it could be, but dark nonetheless.


"So this is the great Avatar. Master of all the elements."

Looking down his nose at Aang, Commander Zhao was a fairly tall man; his armor fairly gleamed in the firelight. He wore his hair in the traditional style of the Fire Nation - a style that hadn't really changed, Aang realized absently, over the last century - and he didn't even crack a smile as he mocked Aang.

He could also see the Commander's nosehairs from this position, which was kind of gross.

It had to be mocking, Aang reasoned. The room that contained him was built of stone. No one in their right mind would try to trap an Earthbender in a room of stone, even chained up as Aang was; you'd only make them angry. Commander Zhao knew Aang couldn't bend Earth, somehow, even though he knew Aang was the Avatar. He grit his teeth and strained against his bonds, but they only chafed and tore at his sleeves and ankles; he couldn't bend enough air with his fingers and toes to cut at iron, and even if he could the process would have been too slow.

Time was not something Aang had a lot of at the moment.

Zhao ignored his struggles, walking around the pillars to which Aang was tethered. "I don't know how you managed to elude the Fire Nation for 100 years, but your game of hide and seek is over."

Hide and seek? Aang snarled. "I've never hidden from you! Untie me and I'll fight you right now!" Aang would win, too. Even without water to bend, he was a Master of Airbending; in close quarters he could defeat a Firebender long enough to get away - and back to his ailing friends. (It was pretty gross that they had to suck on frogs, but if that would save their lives, well ...)

Unfortunately, Zhao wasn't as easy to get to rise to the bait as Fire Nation Prince Zuko. "Uh ... no." He twisted to face the Avatar again, bending close. His breath was hot almost to the point of stinging. "Tell me: how does it feel to be the only Airbender left? Do you miss your people?"

It felt a bit like being punched in the chest. Aang had only been awake in the current era for a few months, and the question raised a flurry of memories like dust picked up on the wind - not the least of which was Monk Gyatso's bones, propped up in the ruins of what had been his home ...

He bowed his head and drew a shaking breath through his nose, determined not to cry in front of a Fire Nation officer. He was almost startled to hear Zhao chuckle, and he jerked his head up again. "Oh, don't worry," Zhao said. "You won't be killed like they were."

Aang clenched his teeth. The fires burning atop the pillars he was chained to flickered in a bended breeze. "See, if you die you'll just be reborn and the Fire Nation will have to begin its search all over again. So I'll keep you alive ... but just barely." Zhao straightened, clenching a fist not far from Aang's face. "And you will never bend again."

"Oh yeah?" Aang challenged. "How are you gonna stop me!?" He drew a deep breath, fully intending to send Zhao flying across the room on sheer principle.

The Commander's fist opened and snapped shut on Aang's neck, cutting off the gust of wind he had about to release. Aang choked.

"Well, Avatar, I'm glad you asked," Zhao sneered. He lifted his free hand, flattening it, and rested the edge against Aang's captured wrist. "First, we will cut off your hands; this is the source of Waterbending and the outlet of Firebending. I can't say I know about Airbending, but then again, there hasn't been much need to study, has there?"

Aang could go a long time without breathing; it was the nature of an Airbender to be able to hold their breath for as much as a quarter-hour. He was not distracted from Zhao's words or motions by his lack of air, and his eyes grew wide with horror.

Zhao continued, calm and smirking. "Then we will cut off your feet." He nudged one foot against Aang's own and twisted with a sudden movement that made Aang's ankle turn; he made a strangled noise as he almost fell to one knee, held up only by the chains around his wrists. "This is the center of Earthbending, after all, and it will keep you from escaping."

Placing his free hand on Aang's side, Zhao gripped the sturdy material there and pulled, forcing Aang back to his feet. His ankle throbbed angrily but supported him. Aang's heart pounded in his chest.

"We will score your lips," Zhao said, bringing his face close to Aang's again; their eyes met, Aang's eyes wide and Zhao's narrowed. "And we will cut off the tip of your tongue, to stop you from Firebending or Airbending from the mouth - as you tried to do just now," he added. "The side effect is that you will be unable to speak, but ah well. Details, Avatar, details.

"And if you are creative enough to find a way around having no hands and no feet and no tongue, well, I'd like to see you try to fight back without your eyes." Zhao once again straightened, and his fingers around Aang's throat tightened to the point of threatening to crush his airway. "Because I'll have those put out too. Just to be safe." And with that, he shoved Aang back to rock in his bonds, releasing his throat and turning away. Aang's breath exploded from his mouth, enough to gust the air around Zhao but without the focus to move him; the young Airbender gasped for breath.

He was trembling, and it was not from lack of air.

Commander Zhao was smiling now. He turned and began to walk from the room, his shoulders straight, proud, and undaunted. "Your situation is futile," he said. "There is no escape from this fortress." At the doors, he paused to look back at Aang. "And there no one coming to rescue you."

Aang knew that better than Zhao did.

"I'm glad we had this little chat," Commander Zhao said, and the doors banged shut.

Aang resumed struggling with renewed effort, and if he fought a little more frantically now, he told himself it was only because he could feel the frogs against his skin thawing - not the pounding in his ankle, or the words ringing in his ears.


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