Drip. Drip. Drip.
He measured time by the sound of falling water. Aside from the distant rumbling of the machines in the workyard, which occasionally suffused the walls of his cell with a shuddering akin to thunder, it was the only sound. Ah, and the sound of his breathing. The muffled thud of his heartbeat in his ears. When he pressed his wrist to the side of his head, he swore the sound was amplified; he imagined his body lying in a volcanic crater, the gurgle of the lava as it crept over him…
Teetering out on the edge of losing his grip on reality, he reeled himself back from the farthest point.
It had been nearly a month since Zuko was ordered into solitary confinement. The reason given in the official notice that he had been permitted to read before they locked him up was that his presence 'caused disruption among the prison population'; it was also a consideration that 'harm would befall his person.' This was the only official acknowledgment of what had happened, up to that point, thrice – the first time in the communal showers, and when the guards had put a stop to it, twice more with two separate room-mates. His will to resist was broken after the first time – perhaps even prior to it – and as his cheek was ground into the moldy shower tiles, Zuko wondered briefly if Azula had known, perhaps even provided the opportunity, or given the order herself.
Yet it seemed that it was not so. Or perhaps it was so. The insect in the spider's snare knows nothing of the depths to which the web reaches; and in struggling, it can only prolong its own torment.
They brought him food twice a week. He was aware that he was starving, but the physical sensation of pain was a comfort; a register of flux within the otherwise uniform world in which he now lived. At first he thought it would help if he kept active, but several times during meditation and light exercise he broke down weeping. It was then that he remembered his uncle's words; or perhaps he invented the words, but he could hear them said in his uncle's voice, cautioning him to slow, to wait, to sleep.
Now the dripping water lulled him deeper into his mock-hibernation. The stone underneath his head was cool and rough. He was at the most subterranean level of the prison. A reminder, like the soft rustling of a leaf in the breeze, stirring at the back of his brain. In another three hundred drips, he would have to rotate his body if he wanted to avoid developing more sores from inaction.
Unbidden, an image of the Water tribe girl rose before him. He wondered idly if she would have used the water to her advantage. Somehow, she didn't seem like the type to stay locked up for very long. Whereas he…
He had forgotten what he would have done. Which he, and when? And to what end…?
Her skin was very dark, he remembered, and it made his scalp crawl with ingrained distaste. Her forehead was too broad, and it glistened with sweat when she fought him. Yet when she had touched him in the crystal caverns deep below Ba Sing Se, he had felt no disgust. Her hand had been warm and gentle.
Faced with a present as harrowing as the one he had known in the prison, Zuko had ceased to regret the past – for a time. Solitary provided him with something he hadn't had since a time when he was young, when his mother had disappeared.
Total solitude equals self equals TIME TO THINK.
"Time to get up, Zuko."
Instinctively he jerked away from the presence. He had heard no one approach, and could see nothing. But the smell of another human being was unmistakable. A scent so heavily burdened with memory that he felt his back bow further under its weight, and placing blistered palms to the floor he heaved himself up with difficulty. He could feel his ribs, covered in barely-closed sores, scrape over the stones. His prison-issue clothing, no more than scraps, had rotted in the darkness, and clumsily he sought to cover his nakedness.
"There, there." A woman's voice.
A candle flared to life, gleamed briefly, and then settled down to a scarce, flickering point of light. Pain blossomed behind his closed eyelids, but he forced them open as best he could, prepared to face the presence before him. Through narrowed slits he perceived that the figure, a tall reddish streak, was kneeling before him, bringing the candle closer; then, out of what he presumed to be consideration for his sorry state, it was extinguished.
Zuko had not spoken in weeks. When he opened his mouth, his throat simply refused to produce sound. Then his lips were covered with a slim, soft hand; the long sleeve, its rich embroidery rough against his cheek, smelled of jasmine.
"I waited so long to see you."
Dully he was aware of his head being lifted and placed into the woman's lap. The scent on her clothing was overpowering, and he would have feared becoming ill had his stomach not been completely empty. Her voice was smooth and deep; mellifluous and tender. The motion of her hands was ceaseless, and in her caresses he discovered that his hair had grown long and mangled; that his body was marred with more bruises and sores than he had been aware of. She responded to the painful quivering of his frame with receptive gentleness; her touch became lighter than he imagined possible, and slowly he felt himself lulled, like a cat, into a state of trance.
His eyes flew open; desperately he struggled to raise himself up once again. Torn from his throat against its will, the word "Mother!" resounded in the room like an ugly, harsh crack.
The candle's light bloomed again, and he struggled against the agony in his eyes and head, straining to see her.
The long, dark hair done in the simple royal style. The pale skin gleaming like polished rice. The faint, enigmatic smile. Ursa's eyes were unbearably sad as she beheld her only son.
He dared not believe it. His breath came in gasps as her hands moved over him, the joints of her fingers lingering over each rib. He kept his eyes on the face that had haunted his nightmares and daydreams for over a decade as she embraced him. When her fingers reached the curve of his hip, he colored frantically, realizing that his lower half was caked with dried urine and grime. Trying to warn her, he twisted away like an insect, small noises of protest rising from his closed throat.
But her fingers stilled, then dug in. She would not let him move.
Something was wrong; her smile was widening, cracking, her lips regaining a flushed color not unlike blood; the eyes gleamed amber, not grey, reflecting the light of the candle as it danced crazily…
The candle –
Ursa shifted from her formal sitting posture, and Zuko could see the flame which seemed to erupt from nowhere hovering over her right foot.
Now wildly he fought to free himself, but her grip on his pelvis, her thumb digging into the plane where bone jutted out, became deathlike; he could feel her other palm, flat against his neck, heating up with a fiery intensity, and he froze. It seemed she was strong enough to snap him in two.
The flame went out once more, and they were covered in darkness again.
"Dear Zuko," she said, and the mellifluous tone of her voice dropped, becoming sharper, more rigid, even as the hand on his pelvis snaked lower and lower, "aren't you happy to see me? My return from the shadows hasn't pleased you? I know you've been waiting," and she dropped her head, close enough for their lips to touch, "so very long."
He could remember nothing after that. When he regained consciousness he found himself in a standard issue cell in the main section of the prison, clothed and – for all visible intents and purposes – whole.
It was the last time Zuko had seen his sister.
Some choked-off, abstracted piece of himself was relieved to note that her hair was twisted up in the style she had favored for years, and that the robes she wore were of a style he did not recognize, though they seemed to be pattered off a feminine adaptation of the Firelord's traditional clothing. He dared not meet her eyes; instead he advanced to the appropriate place before her and kneeled, pressing his forehead to the floor. With disgust he noted his legs trembling, and took a long, deep breath to quell his panic.
Unsurprisingly, it did not help.
"Lift your head."
He obeyed without thought. With each motion, he emptied himself of motive, of observation, of reaction. His motions became stiff and mechanical, his face as blank as a doll's. When he met his sister's eyes through the cataract of flame between them, his face held no more expression than a corpse's.
Zuko was terrified.
Azula had seen the expression countless times before: tortured prisoners on the verge of death by slow blood-loss; slaves who had been made to execute their comrades; and it was the face Ty Lee had begun to make after she and Azula had shared a bed for well over a year, each time the Firelady claimed her.
In other words, it was thoroughly boring.
Briefly she toyed with the idea of killing him to make an example. Ozai had made it clear to her that he had no desire to see his son dead, and it would be instructive to her future husband as to how little his wishes meant to her. Of course, she would have to make it seem as if Zuko forced her hand, so as not to rouse her father's wrath. Eventually, though, the realization (if only in retrospect) that it had been for the sake of her pleasure only would find the Phoenix King. Perhaps too late for him to derive any benefit from the knowledge; and that would make it all the more enjoyable. If she wished to ground her tale in reality, she need only enlighten her brother as to the upcoming nuptials…
While she mused, their gazes had not left one another, and abruptly she was struck with a realization so exhilarating that she nearly smiled.
It was faint, but the subdued gleam in his eye, the motion of the corner of his lower lip, gave him away.
Leaning forward, Azula did permit herself the smile. Yes, and yes, and yes.
When Jet produced himself before Thuza, the overseer was kneeling formally behind a male slave, combing snarls from the slave's dark hair with his bare fingers, which shone with oil from the unwashed hair. The expression on the face of the slave was inscrutable, particularly to Jet's severely dulled sense of emotional perception, but the set of Thuza's jaw, as usual, was serene.
"You've made the Firelady very happy indeed."
It was uncomfortable to sit. Jet paced instead, which was made difficult in the cramped quarters. The walls were plastered with ancient documents – scrolls stretched flat and held in place with nails; tattered maps of unrecognizable locations; calligraphy so beautifully rendered that its meaning was impossible to decipher. In contrast, the furniture was simple: a flat, rolled-up pallet that served as a bed, a worn writing desk, and several 'cushions' of flattened, straw-filled burlap. Even Jet's quarters, in comparison, seemed large and sumptuous. Yet all of it was by Thuza's express wish.
Shaking his head in irritation at how the very presence of the man put him into a semi-hypnotic trance not unlike that of a rat in the sights of a minksnake, Jet positioned himself in a corner, defensively, and waited for Thuza to continue.
Minutes passed. Finally, he spoke again: "Is there something I can do for you?"
"I came for my next set of orders."
"I'm unaware that any were to be issued." Thuza paused, and withdrew his hands from the slave's hair, who immediately turned and knelt to wash the oil from his overseer's fingers using an ornate bowl filled with warm water beside him. "You should rest; you've certainly earned it."
"Rest." The very idea was vile; poisonous. Rest brought idleness, thought, memory. Rest, and he would be alone, without even a piece of prey to console him.
"Perhaps it would be preferable if you were given some direction…?" Languidly, with a motion so mild that Jet nearly missed it, Thuza dismissed the slave, who gathered comb and bowl into his arms and left without a sound. The moment stretched out painfully, and Jet dug his fingernails into the soft beds of his palms. Once they were alone, Thuza waited just a few seconds more, and then at the apex of Jet's discomfort, continued, "Of course, you understand that I am unable to provide you with an assignment as such, as your labor belongs to Our Highness."
At times he was aware that old expressions and habits made their physical manifestation known, like a glimpse of a fossilized insect deep within centuries-hardened amber; and so he could sense, but was at a loss to alter, the sarcastic half-smirk, half-snarl that crept over his features. It's my labor that belongs to her.
"But I do not believe the Firelady would object if I made one small comment." Thuza's heavy-lidded eyes were unblinking, and his body made no unnecessary movement, but the set of his mouth seemed to communicate wordlessly to Jet.
His body tensed, the hair on his arm's bristling like a dog's.
"It seems she has pardoned her brother; both he and the Avatar will be in residence at the palace for the foreseeable future."
More than he'd hoped, but less than he would have liked. Jet had no illusions about the Firelady retaining either of spoils he'd brought back for his own enjoyment; more likely, once she'd had her fill, she wouldn't even permit him to pick over the bones. His snarl deepened, and he turned to leave without a word; suddenly he paused, as if a new thought had struck him, remembering Zuko's willingness to accompany him, and casting it now in fresh light.
Behind him, the scholar tilted his head to the side just within the range of discernable motion, and turned one slim hand palm-up, examining a faint burn mark inscribed therein. His final words snaked out after Jet, departing, and out into the hallway.
Mai was working in one of the disused war-rooms when a knock came at the door, startling her. She purposefully had not informed anyone of her presence there, and she had dismissed her servant girl for the day; no part of her wished to be easily located while Azula decided what was to be done with her new acquisitions. Carrying herself gingerly around the apprehension in her chest that was as tangible as physical pain, she forced herself up to answer it.
It was a guard, one whom she recognized as a special favorite of Thuza's. At his side, with his small wrists manacled in front of him, was the Avatar. Briefly the guard explained that she would have custody of the child while Thuza attended some business; then the two of them would find suitable residence afterwards.
She regarded him without expression, recalling her training in the protocols of slave-dealing. Displays of emotion serve no one. You do not lavish affection upon tools; neither waste human exchanges upon mere animals. Always it had been difficult for her to do so with her actual slaves, but this was different. Standing there before him, Mai felt a thick rush of anger. This child was the reason for which her world was torn to pieces. If he had been unable to stop Azula then, certainly he would be unable to do so now. She doubted that the Firelady would kill him, but it was certain that he was not to enjoy, at barest, comfortable existence within the palace walls.
As if he followed her train of thought, he reached out to take her hand. Startled, she pulled away before he could make contact, a spray of needles slipping instinctively into her fingers from within the folds of her robe. He watched her curiously, without apparent fear.
"Sit," she managed dryly, gathering herself. "Anywhere is fine."
He obeyed silently, taking a cross-legged position on the floor near where she had been working. His still-childish movements, with shuffling feet and awkward posture, reminded her briefly of her little brother, and a dart of empathy lanced the heaviness in her chest. When he had settled down, he looked up at her, and against her better judgment she re-drew one of her needles and, kneeling, used it to pick the lock on the cuffs which bound him. As she worked, she felt his steady grey eyes boring into her, and fought a feeling that they had met before.
"My name is Amit," he said, when the cuffs had fallen away. Though his wrists were red and slightly chafed, he made no motion to rub them.
"I'm Mai." There was something disarming about this young Avatar, and after a few moments had passed in silence, fear for Zuko's safety won out over fear of Azula. "You were travelling with Pri – with Zuko, is that right?"
The boyish face became a little less solemn at the mention of Zuko's name. "Do you know him?"
Mai drew her lower lip in between her teeth, then rose in one swift motion, turning to her work, and did not answer. Curiously, the boy did not press her further, and when she stole a glance in his direction she observed that he was meditating with his eyes closed, looking for all the world as if he had dozed off in a sitting position.
Another knock, softer this time, came at the door, and Mai swore under her breath as she rose, gathering the cuffs from the floor in preparation to put them back on Amit if it proved to be Thuza, or worse, the Firelady –
But the guest at the door asked no further permission following the knock, and instead simply entered.
It was Zuko.
At the sight of him, the ache in her chest subsided considerably, then redoubled, bringing with it new and strange pain. She struggled with a greeting, determined not to betray her feelings by word or expression.
He had aged awfully since she had last seen him. Gone were the traces of bright youthful energy. Though Zuko had carried a formidable burden from the day on which he was scarred and exiled, as Mai had known him in his teens, he seemed to retain an openness that was perhaps as simple as youth itself, or the struggling desire for redemption. Now his face bore other scars in addition to the burn; his hair had grown long and unkempt; and he was dirty and thin, but above all he seemed defeated. From the way he moved into the room, limping slightly, she could tell that he had either a recent wound, or a serious, older one, or a combination of both.
Briefly she wondered how she appeared to him, but cast aside the thought as quickly as it arose, as it could not have been plainer that he simply did not care that she was there. Amit had clambered to his feet and practically run over to Zuko, who gave him a stiff, one-armed hug and then finally looked to Mai.
Was it her imagination, or had his expression lightened somewhat when the Avatar embraced him?
Zuko bowed to her formally, and with obvious difficulty. "Thank you for looking after him."
She did not return the bow, and forced herself to gaze coldly upon both of them. "I have work to finish."
He nodded, and taking the child by the hand, left the room, shutting the door quietly behind them. Silence filled the void they left, looming large upon her. She imagined that she could hear the wild sound of her heartbeat her hand convulsed reflexively around the needle she'd used to unlock the handcuffs, driving the metal deep into the flesh of her palm.
One shaking hand found the edge of the table and gripped it desperately as she struggled to breathe.