attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender, for which we are all very grateful, I'm sure.

Summary: It was just before the winter solstice when Earth Kingdom soldiers captured the prince of the Fire Nation and his uncle, the Dragon of the West. It was the dead of winter when they were brought to Ba Sing Se.

Author's Note: Written for [personal profile] floranna for the hurricane Sandy auction. Thank you to [tumblr.com profile] aromantic-eight for beta reading. Any remaining errors are all mine.

Until the Walls Break Like Waves: Part Two

Had his ears not been waiting, hearing sharpened with dread, Zuko never would have sensed the door open. He whirled around, the sensible part of his mind trying to interject that it was probably just the agent coming to bring dinner, or take them to the latrines.

But it wasn't time for dinner, and the agents never bothered to be that quiet anyway. The shadow standing in the cell doorway was Long Feng. He slipped into the cell as if the floor were moving, and not his feet. His uncle didn't notice, as he performed the laborious task of trying to hook a piece of hair behind his ear with his ruined hands. With his uncle there, and yet not, he felt more alone than ever as he straightened his back and faced Long Feng, like a lizard-mouse facing an owl-cat in the dark.

Long Feng unfolded his hands and drew a letter out of his billowing sleeve. In the green crystal light, his father's bright red official seal was dulled to almost black, standing out against the paper like a blood stain. All at once, Zuko began to tremble. The terrible fear that he had never let himself acknowledge, that his father wouldn't even bother to respond to Long Feng, that he was so worthless to his family and his nation that it was better to leave him to rot in the hands of the enemy than to acknowledge his existence, spilled away, leaving his knees weak. His heart hammered as his eyes latched onto that letter like a lifeline. This was not how he wanted to go home. This was so far from how he wanted to go home. This was...

He imagined stepping off that ship onto the docks, his feet finally safe on Fire Nation soil, but with his disgrace clinging to him, like the putrid smell of his burn when he had first gone to sea, battling fever and rot. He imagined the eyes of his people on him as he was delivered home, and how they would whisper amongst themselves about their prince, too much of a failure even for exile.

At least he would be home. At least it would be better than this.

Long Feng was not smiling. If anything, he looked a little troubled. He unfurled the letter and thrust it at Zuko, who grabbed it eagerly. He crouched down next to the basket of crystals to read it.

Fire Nation forces have captured the fugitive known as the Avatar. With those words, the bottom fell out of Zuko's stomach. It wasn't a letter, for Zuko, for Long Feng, or for anybody else. It wasn't a negotiation. It was a proclamation. And there, down at the very end, underneath the blessings and assurances that victory was within their grasp, written almost as an afterthought, were two sentences, that struck him as if they were made of hammer blows instead of words: The individual who has been known as Prince Zuko is no son of the Fire Nation. He is heretofore stripped of all of his titles and rights as a member of the royal family and as a Fire Nation citizen, and is in all things a common foreigner.

Zuko's hands began to shake, and he panted for breath. The bubble of hope that had so recently risen up inside of him at the sight of his father's seal popped. The air was punched out of him, and he couldn't breathe in new air to replace it. In its place came that old unacknowledged fear, only now it was no longer fear, but certainty, and despair. Though he fought them, the tears came streaming down his face.

Long Feng moved closer, the light from the glow crystals next to Zuko throwing his form into shadow, but Zuko didn't notice until he bent down and gripped Zuko's chin in one hand. As he stood up, he yanked Zuko's chin up with him, forcing him to follow. "No one will be ransoming you, Prince Zuko. There is no leverage I can get out of holding you," he hissed. Then he stopped. "No, not 'Prince' Zuko is it? Just Zuko."

Though Long Feng forced Zuko to look him in the eyes, it wasn't Long Feng's face he saw. The sight of those words: no son of the Fire Nation, and foreigner, and his name, written in those ugly brutal characters danced in front of his eyes, disjointed and mocking. He swallowed against the horrible feeling of Long Feng's fingers against his jaw and throat. Gathering up his strength, he wrenched his chin out of the man's grasp and pulled back away from him. The fighting stance came automatically to him, and before he had even realized what he was doing, he had his hands raised, and his legs bent, and his body between Long Feng and his uncle, the last of his tears evaporating as his whole being readied itself to fight. The crackle in the air almost drowned out the voice in his head telling him he was about to die.

The head of the Dai Li didn't fall into a fighting stance of his own. He didn't call the agents who were without a doubt waiting just outside the door. He didn't have to. Secure in the power he wielded, he had no need of an overt show of force, not when they were both so acutely aware of just who was in control. He just smiled. And he let Zuko wait for a few long seconds, for a blow to come, before he spoke. "You are a lucky, boy, that there are other ways for you to be of use to Ba Sing Se and the Dai Li." He looked his captive up and down. "And you take to it so quickly, too."

"What are you talking about?" Zuko snapped back, baffled. His arms sank to his sides, and he found himself breathing through his nose to escape the taste of failure. Somehow, he had blundered right into whatever trap Long Feng had laid for him. He was so furious with himself he was almost sick with it. It was no use. His father had been right to banish him, had been right to leave him as a captive, where he could do relatively little damage. He was never going to learn how to stop falling for these kinds of games, and it was a mercy his father had found a reason to get rid of him when he did, before he had a chance to put the whole Fire Nation in danger.

If the Dai Li didn't...

Banishment wasn't enough to protect his nation from him. He'd gotten himself captured, hadn't he?

Long Feng let his captive stew for a few moments before answering. "Your uncle informs us that Sozin's comet will return soon." He moved closer to Zuko until they were almost, but not quite touching. "I'm sure you can guess what the Fire Nation will use it for."

Zuko bared his teeth is a feral challenge. "Yeah, I think I can." Ba Sing Se, the prize that had eluded them for a hundred years, would fall. He only had to hold out for a half a year. After that... After that, he had no idea, but just then, it didn't matter.

"Of course, as protectors of this city, the Dai Li cannot allow that to happen." Long Feng put his hand on his shoulder. Zuko tried to shrug it off, but his captor clamped it tight. "My agents have certain skills that would make them very useful in the war. To this point, we have been loath to leave the city's cultural heritage unprotected. The comet changes that calculation."

Narrowing his eyes, he grabbed Long Feng's hand and twisted it off of his shoulder. "What does that have to do with me?"

"My agents will need to know what to expect from a firebender, which means they need to face one here, before I send them into the Fire Nation."

"Shouldn't be hard," Zuko shot back. "Put them on the wall."

"I don't think that's necessary," Long Feng chuckled. "Not when I have you."

"No."

Long Feng's eyebrows rose in false astonishment. "No?"

"I'm not a traitor," he snarled. "You can't make me train your agents, and I won't betray my nation."

Long Feng's expression turned pitying. "You don't have a nation to betray." Vibrating with desperate fury, Zuko lurched forward, but Long Feng slid out of his reach and backed away. "Listen boy," he whispered. "I cannot force you to fight my agents, that is true, but if you refuse, you are of no use to me."

Zuko glared at him. "Then kill me."

The hand darted out fast as a striking rat-viper. Pebbles that had lain ignored, swept up against the walls of the cell, flew up into the air and wrapped themselves around the Grand Secretariat's hands. They lingered there for only a moment before they leapt back into the air and lunged for Zuko's wrists. With a flick of Long Feng's own wrist, the stone hands wrenched Zuko's arms together behind his back. Pain lanced through him as the stone hands continued to rise, lifting him into the air by his wrists, trapped behind his back. His shoulders screamed at the strain. A moan of pain bubbled up in his throat, and he let it gush from him in a burst of flame.

For a moment, Long Feng's eyes grew wide, the whites gleaming all around his irises in the crystal light. He shot backwards from the flames pouring out of Zuko's mouth as sparks burned pinprick holes in the silk of his robes. Then, the surprise spilled out of his face, and his expression returned to that same polite, slightly amused serenity with which he had bestowed on Zuko since the first time they had met. He raised his hands again, and as Zuko hung in the air, the pain making his eyes water and his breath come in shallow fire laden pants, a new pair of stone hands wrapped themselves around his throat and squeezed.

With a rattling sob, Zuko dragged one last thin trickle of air into his lungs before the hands cut off the air completely. The last sparks of fire died. He thrashed, kicking against nothing but air, his wrists rubbing raw against the stone as his shoulders exploded with fresh agony. Tears poured out of his eyes as he writhed against his bindings. His head spun as the light spilled away. His eyes, his skin, his ears, all felt as if they were going to burst from the blood that couldn't escape around the hands choking him. He thrashed again, in spite of the pain it caused, unable to stop himself as he struggled for breath.

Then, suddenly, the hands let go. He dropped to the floor, his knees hitting hard against the stone, pebbles raining down around him. Resting his hands and face against the cool floor, he sucked in gulp after gulp of air. Long Feng stepped closer, his slippered feet coming to stop next to Zuko's throbbing head. Zuko tried to lift his head to look up at him, but he didn't quite manage it. He snarled, but it came out more like a hiss.

"If you are no use to me, your uncle is no use to me." Long Feng nudged Zuko with his foot. "And there is nothing stopping me from turning him over to the generals. A public execution of the famed Dragon of the West would do a great deal to boost soldier morale."

A rushing sound, that might have been the blood still slowly flowing out of his ears, filled his head. He tried to shoot to his feet, but Long Feng's hand stopped him mid rise and slammed him back down to his knees.

"The way I see it, Zuko," Long Feng's voice cut through. "You have a choice, the Fire Nation, or your uncle." He opened the door, and glanced back at the former prince of the Fire Nation, on his knees. "I will leave you alone to make your decision, but before you do, I want you to ask yourself if it really is treason if the Fire Nation has already cast you out."

Of course it was, but that didn't matter. As soon as the door had closed behind the man who ruled Ba Sing Se, Zuko staggered to his feet and wiped the tears and snot off his face.

His uncle was still sitting on the sleeping mat. Zuko's feet carried him over to him, and absently, he hooked his uncle's hair behind his ear.

o0O0o

When the agents came the next morning, Zuko went with them without a word. That they didn't even bother to ask him what decision he had made, probably should have been galling. He was beginning to get used to the way the Dai Li stopped in front of blank stone walls and bent them open to reveal exactly the room they meant to. As he walked under the newly made arch, he glanced up into the room the brought him to. In the darkness above, he could just see the tips of stalactites hanging down from the ceiling. The cavern glowed green with crystal light, but he lit a palmful of flame anyway and carried it into the center of the stone floor. The orange and yellow light that the tiny fire threw chased away some of the green, and for just a few seconds, he let himself imagine that it was a little piece of the world aboveground, beyond the headquarters of the Dai Li.

He waited for the first strike, for Dai Li agents to enter the cavern, the arena, he supposed he should call it. His hand with the fire in it closed, and the fire winked out. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, searching for even the slightest movement of air in the underground stillness, and his legs bent, preparing to spring into the air and run and fight. He waited.

The thing he hated about the Dai Li was the way he knew they could come from any direction. They didn't need to come from the place he had entered from. They didn't need a door. He couldn't just watch that one little section of the wall. Or he supposed they could come up through the floor. Or... Zuko's eyes flicked around the room again before he pulled his fist back and punched up into the air, sending a gout of flame rushing up to the roof of the cavern. In the sudden light, the Dai Li agents stood out, clinging to the stalactites like grape-plums on a vine. They launched themselves for the walls and slid down on rock platforms like children sledding down the snowy slopes of the volcanoes back home. He braced himself and tried to count them, ready to spin a circle of fire as soon as they were close enough.

But they didn't have to come close to him to fire fingernail sized stone projectiles at him. Dodging, he closed his eyes and bent a huge fireball that lit up the room, before letting it die. Uncle had taught him that trick years ago, with a wink, and Zuko did his best not to picture his uncle's face with his uncle's mind still behind his eyes.

As the firelight died, he opened his eyes and circled swiftly behind one of the agents. There were ten. There were only ten agents. He could do that. That wasn't so bad. He kicked that agent hard in the back of the knees and watched him crumple before darting away. Gritting his teeth, he summoned another fire ball, and lobbed it at the partner of the agent he had just struck down. But as soon as the fire bloomed on the air, the Dai Li agents wheeled around to its source and rained a torrent of tiny stones down upon him, pinning him to the floor with their rock gloves.

The agent he had knocked over stood up and shook himself off. "Okay boys, let him up." He brushed glittering dust out his beard, but to Zuko's distant satisfaction, some of it remained, glowing faintly. "Let's go again."

o0O0o

In the aftermath of the training session, or whatever it really was, two Dai Li led him back to the cell, allowing him to stagger along between them, his legs shaking. He could already feel the throb of new bruises blooming across his skin, mere shadows of the stiffness and pain tomorrow would bring. He wished he had been able to hit harder, to strike faster, so that at least he could have made the agents feel some kind of pain before they swarmed him. He wished that at least he had the satisfaction of seeing them falter or limp as they walked beside him, to know that at least he had made some kind of impact, but the agents who led him back showed no signs of the fight at all.

When they opened the cell door, he hobbled over to his sleeping mat and lay down, trying to summon up some kind of a smile or reassurance for his uncle. Eventually, he settled on a tight grimace. "They promised to bring food soon. I'll feed you, and then they'll probably take us to the showers."

His uncle nodded absently. A wave of emptiness washed over him, and he felt as if he were drowning, as if he couldn't breathe, as if he were breathing, and something other than air was filling his lungs.

"Uncle," he mumbled.

"Yes, Nephew?"

"Can you come here?" He hated the way his voice shook, and the way he even had to ask. He hated all of it so much.

His uncle flashed an indulgent smile that made Zuko’s chest... just... and sat down next to him. Hand trembling, Zuko reached up to touch his uncle’s face, just to reassure himself that it wasn’t some kind of a mirage. When they touched, it was like electricity, the shock of him, real and alive and here, almost too much for him, even if his uncle wasn’t really here, even if that was the problem.

His hand rested against his uncle’s face, the pad of his thumb rubbing a trace along the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, for only a moment. The next, he was swept into an embrace. His body pressed against his uncle’s chest, he shook and shook, and couldn’t stop.

o0O0o

He could feel the new unknown person in the room with them, breathing. Instinctively, he shot to his feet and grabbed at him, his mind just beginning to lift out of the fog of sleep. He punched at it, fist wreathed in fire, the light allowing him his first look at his attacker.

It was a Dai Li agent.

Zuko forced himself to stop, and let go of his grip on the man’s uniform.

“Oh no kid,” the agent whispered. “Go on.”

That was all the invitation Zuko needed. He lunged forward to grab the agent’s shoulders and brought his knee up hard into his groin. With a harsh gasp of pain, the agent doubled over, and Zuko wrenched his arm behind his back, forcing him to the floor. “What do you want?” he hissed.

The agent made a choking sound, and Zuko gritted his teeth in frustration as the agent pulled himself together. Zuko knew exactly how much a kick like that hurt. Azula used to do it to him. Just then, Zuko didn’t care. “Let me up and I’ll tell you,” the agent gasped.

“I don’t think so.” Zuko cranked the arm a little bit for emphasis. Then he spotted the reddish chalk in the agent’s other hand. “What’s that for?”

“To mark you,” the agent grunted.

“To mark me,” Zuko repeated. “What for?”

The agent shot him a glower. “Figure it out, kid.” With his free hand, he shoved at the ground, and a pillar of stone jutted up to pop Zuko off. Landing on the sleeping mat, Zuko scrambled up as the agent disappeared through a hole in the floor. With a cry of frustration, Zuko flung himself forward, just as the hole closed.

“What’s wrong, Nephew?” His uncle’s voice startled him back to his feet again.

“Nothing, Uncle, go back to sleep,” he said.

But Zuko didn’t sleep. Long after his uncle had drifted off again, he paced around the cell, brooding on marks and why a Dai Li agent would attack in the middle of the night when they could drag him out and execute him any time they wanted.

o0O0o

When they came for him after breakfast, he held himself straight and tall, as if his body weren’t a mass of bruises, his eyes open wide as if he hadn’t spent the night awake and waiting for another attack, but he was too weak to do more than bare his teeth as they gripped his arms and led him back to the cavern they had used before.

This time, he looked up first. He sent a blast of flame upwards to illuminate the stalactites and chains hanging from the stone above, but there were no Dai Li agents hiding among them this time.

Great.

Strangely, imminent attack leached away the fear-born energy that had kept him up and pacing since the nighttime attack. Maybe it was simply because he knew it was coming now, and he knew he wouldn’t win, because they would just keep coming until he fell, but just then, all he wanted to do was curl up against the wall and go to sleep.

He was really too tired to be circling the room with his eyes like this. It was making him dizzy.

He heard the rumble of stones as the wall opened, and kicked out hard toward it as an agent tried to walk through. He leapt backward, and Zuko followed, feet slapping hard against the floor as he ran. Stone grinding on stone echoed throughout the cavern as doors opened all along the walls, but Zuko ignored them. He shot through the door just before it slammed shut behind him, and found himself in a long, narrow tunnel that from the curve of it, probably looped around the cavern. There were pits and marks in the stone wall separating him from the cavern, which curved outwards, into the cavern dome.

A second later, Zuko’s wrists were pinned to the wall, and a rock glove covered his mouth. The wall opened up under him, dropping him back into the cavern with a thud and a bitten back cry. The wall closed again behind him and the Dai Li agent he had followed, and the rocks binding his wrists retreated. The agent knelt down next to him and held out a hand. “You good to go again?”

“Aw Jianyu, stop coddling him,” someone called from the middle of the cavern.

Zuko spat in Jianyu’s face, distantly pleased to watch the glob of spit run down the agent’s cheek.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the agent said, grabbing Zuko’s arm and yanking him up to his feet.

o0O0o

Zuko slumped against the cell door as soon as they closed it, his hair still wet enough from his shower to send rivulets of water dribbling down the wall. Idly, he waited for the click of the lock to tell him he and his uncle had been sealed in again.

But it didn’t come. Zuko listened to the sounds of the Dai Li walking down the hall, leaving him alone with an unlocked cell door. He shot to his feet, all thoughts of sleep or weariness forgotten. His hand hesitated over the door handle. What if there was a guard?

What if the door just didn’t open?

He swallowed and gritted his teeth, and pushed. The door swung open. The corridor was empty.

Zuko stepped forward, out of the cell. His skin tingled as a sudden, almost forgotten surge of hope bubbled up inside of him. He followed the corridor until it turned downward. His feet carried him from tunnel to tunnel, rising until he found himself in the long, seemingly endless tunnel that had brought him from the outskirts of the city to the Dai Li headquarters.

It was with a feeling of profound unreality that Zuko made his way back to the cell, the knowledge that he had a way out now, this second if he didn’t wait, fluttering inside him. The door was still open when he arrived, and his uncle was still sitting on the sleeping mat, gazing absently down the corridor.

“Uncle,” Zuko rasped.

His uncle looked up at him and smiled. Zuko returned it, feeling his heart break.

“Follow me,” Zuko told him. “Come on. We have to hurry.”

His uncle stood up and shuffled to the threshold, and stopped.

“Come on!” Zuko waved to him, but he didn’t move. The blank incomprehension on his face made Zuko want to scream. Zuko couldn’t remember a single time that look had ever crossed Uncle Iroh’s face, not before. It didn’t look anything like the look the man had always given him to be difficult, when he was pretending not to understand, when really he just thought his nephew was being too foolish to be acknowledged. This was real. This was the face his uncle wore now when he could not understand at all.

Zuko stepped back into the cell and pushed his uncle between the shoulder blades. “Okay, let’s go.”

His uncle didn’t move. Short and round, he seemed to have turned himself into a boulder.

“Come on, we have to get out of here!” he tried not to cry. He lifted his Uncle’s leg and pushed him forward until he stumbled across the threshold into the corridor. And he leapt back through the doorway to stand on the threshold again. Zuko’s skin prickled all over. He took his uncle’s arm, heaved him up onto his back and walked out of the cell.

The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back in the corridor, and his uncle was back inside the cell, staring at him like he didn’t even know what he had just done. The faint fluttering of hope inside him transformed into something hot, and heavy that settled in his chest and wouldn’t move for anything.

“Please,” he whispered.

“He’s not going to come out.”

Zuko turned around to see a Dai Li agent holding a bowl of rice, and cabbage-beans. Jianyu. His mind supplied the man’s name, taking in the flecks of gray in his mustache and beard. “You did this, didn’t you?”

Agent Jianyu didn’t bother to answer. “We were wondering when you would realize the door wasn’t locked,” he said instead, stepping into the cell to set the bowl down.

An almost inhuman sound, of bared teeth and unbearable frustration slid out of Zuko. He knew that it was more important in the headquarters of the Dai Li than ever that he needed to think, to consider every move carefully, and examine every action from every possible angle. He needed even more than he did before to be like Azula. Even Uncle... Even Uncle Iroh would want that right now.

But he... plans slid out of his grasp even as he was making them, and there was nothing he could do about, it, no way for him to get it together, and stop reacting on instinct and the terrible, overwhelming fear that kept crashing over him. He felt as if he had been stripped down, and as if the very ability to make choices had slid away from him, as if he were a coal powered automaton in a storybook. All he had left were a thousand different meanings and motivations for each word and gesture of the Dai Li, and no way to stop reacting, like a frightened rabbit-mouse.

Agent Jianyu gave him a pitying look, which just made Zuko feel even worse. “He will never leave this room without a Dai Li escort.”

“But I can,” he said flatly, the words strangely disconnected from him, harsh and distant compared to the omnipresent animal panic just under the surface.

The agent sighed. “You know, there isn’t a whole lot we could do to keep you if you really wanted to escape. I guess the Grand Secretariat doesn’t see any point in trying.”

Zuko thought about the way they had shut him away in the dark when they had first brought him here, and about locks and chains, and all the innumerable dark, forgotten places they could put him that he could never escape from, and he tried to puzzle out what the Dai Li got out of lying to him about it. “I guess not.”

“But we can make it so that your uncle doesn’t want to escape,” Agent Jianyu continued. “And I’m sure someone has already made it clear to you that your uncle isn’t useful to us alive, except as a way to get you to cooperate. If you leave...”

Zuko very badly wanted to snap at the agent that he had figured that out already, thanks.

The worst part, the really sickening thing about all of it was that he was absolutely certain that Uncle Iroh would never want his nephew to stay for his sake. He would want Zuko to run away and never look back.

But Zuko couldn't.

o0O0o

Zuko had never slept well. Whatever thoughts and fears he managed to hold at bay during the day came home to roost at night, and the long dark hours stretched out ahead of him, perfectly made for silence and brooding. This... This hadn't improved after the capture. In the darkness underground, it was as if every moment was nighttime, and his thoughts twisted away from him until he couldn't... And this was why he was somehow distantly surprised that the Dai Li caught him as he slept again. They must have been watching him somehow, without him knowing, waiting for him to fall asleep and stay asleep for long enough.

That... thought wasn't going to do his ability to get to sleep any good either.

He wasn't even awake when he batted the first rock glove away before it could close around his throat. Waking with his arm already in the air, Zuko brought his legs up and around in a circle, sending a ring of fire radiating outwards as he leapt to his feet and readied himself for the fight.

Ducking a flying rock hand, he brought his hand up and shoved flames into the air, and then without pausing, he punched three fireballs with his other hand at the shadows the flames had cast. Two of the agents dodged, but the other yelped with pain as the fireball caught the fabric of his robe and burned through to his chest.

Zuko didn't even have to look to know the sound hadn't woken his uncle. He let out a loud snore as his nephew batted a rock hand out of the air. It would have been so much easier to fight his attackers if his uncle hadn't been asleep next to him on the mat. If he didn't have to shield him from the fire and rocks, if it were just him and the Dai Li, he could have...

Lost, like he kept losing in the training sessions.

And if his uncle weren't there, he wouldn't be there either. He would be gone so fast... He might as well imagine what it would have been like if they had never been captured at all.

Pressing his advantage, Zuko barreled toward the agent who he had hit and tackled him to the ground. Abruptly, his arm was yanked back, his shoulder almost tearing free of its socket, as a rock glove closed around his wrist and dragged it up and back. As the agent scrambled away, Zuko snarled and swung his arm like a club at the face of the agent behind him. The crunch of a finger breaking echoed through the cell, as Zuko’s rock covered arm. collided with the hand the agent had brought up to defend himself. The rest of his fingers went limp. Zuko picked up the piece of chalk that fell from them. With no sound except for the injured agent’s pants of pain, the agents left the cell through the door Zuko was almost certain they didn’t enter through.

o0O0o

It took a long time before he fell asleep again, but when he did, they were back. Zuko stared at them, trying to shake himself out of his stupor, and before he could even figure out how to get to his feet, they had his arms and legs pinned. As one of the agents darted forward with the chalk, Zuko breathed out an exhausted trickle of fire. Startled, the agent stopped and waited for it to die away before he drew a long red line across Zuko’s throat.

o0O0o

When the Dai Li came to bring them breakfast and take Zuko to training, Zuko blinked at them for several long moments before he remembered how to work his limbs and take the bowl from them. He carried it over to his uncle and knelt down next to him, and as he pushed the spoon into his uncle's open mouth, he watched the Dai Li agents through slitted eyes.

He was so busy watching them in fact, that he didn't notice his uncle had eaten all of the cabbage-bean soup until the spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl and came up empty. Exhaustion had left a distance between him and the world, as if he couldn't quite... Maybe it wasn't distance. Maybe it was time, just a few seconds between when something happened, and when he could grasp that it had happened. He looked at the empty bowl, and at his uncle, and it took so much longer than it should have for him to realize that meant he wasn't getting anything to eat. He took in a breath, and let it out again, and picked up the edge of his robe to wipe his uncle's face.

He was probably hungry. That was probably what that feeling was gnawing at his insides, undefined and empty, but he didn't feel like eating. He was too tired to think. Or he was too tired to keep from thinking, which was somehow even worse. With another shaky breath, he handed the bowl back to the agents and followed them out of the cell.

He... Zuko wished he knew whether the journey to the training cavern was different every day, whether the tunnels did turn in different directions, and have different exits, or if it just seemed that way to him. He was surrounded by earthbenders. They could be moving. A small traitorous part of him wished they had pinned his hands and taken his arms this time, so that he didn't have to stumble along between the two of them, pretending like he knew where they were going to turn next.

Then, as the agents opened the wall to reveal the cavern, Zuko's fingers found line of red chalk across his throat. He stopped. The wheels of his mind ground to a halt, locked on a single thought, so terrible in how obvious it seemed, how clear it was now that he had realized... He couldn't breathe. He couldn't... His chest wouldn't expand. His mouth opened, but air didn't flow into it. And then all of a sudden, the air rushed into his lungs with a ragged croak.

The agents glanced down at him as he stood there, not moving, not stepping forward into the cavern like he was supposed to, and he gazed back, wild eyed. “You're going to kill-” The word ended as his air ran out. He gasped for breath, curling in on himself with panic. “You're not using me to train for war, this is about assassination! You want me to help you kill my family!”

The agents' rock gloves covered his mouth and encircled his wrists, pulling him down to his knees. “Get Long Feng,” Jianyu ordered, tightly. Distantly, Zuko recognized his voice, and tried not to wonder whether it was the helmet that hid the man's face, or whether he had been just too tired to notice what agents had fetched him.

As the other agent dashed off, Jianyu crouched down next to Zuko and ran his hand through the short fuzz just beginning to emerge from his scalp. “Deep breaths,” he urged, stroking.

Zuko heaved in air through his nose, his stomach roiling. With the stone hand clamped over his mouth, he couldn't suck in gulps of air to swallow in order to steady himself and drive back the waves of nausea that threatened to engulf him. They wanted him to help them kill his family. They wanted him to help them kill his family! The air made a high whistling sound as he sucked it in faster and faster.

Agent Jianyu, shushed him, rubbing slow gentle circles into his scalp. “Deep breaths,” he said again, more forcefully, but Zuko barely heard him through the rushing in his ears. In the chill of the underground, his tears were so hot they felt as if they were burning him. He jerked against the stone binding his wrists, desperate to slap the agent's hands away. But the stone held, and Agent Jianyu pulled Zuko into his arms. Unable to stop him, or balance, or do anything but squirm with humiliation and rage, Zuko toppled against the agent's chest, his face pressed to his robes. He couldn't breathe. “Shhh,” the agent whispered as Zuko's panic dissolved into helpless, stupid, worthless crying. “Shh, kid. Shh. It's easy to forget, isn't it? You're just a kid, aren't you.”

Caged within the agent's arms, Zuko couldn't answer.

o0O0o

The hair at the back of his neck prickled, and he felt rather than saw Long Feng looming. He scrambled to his feet as the rock gloves snapped back to Agent Jianyu's hands. Swiping the tears out of his eyes with the heel of his hand, he bit back the creeping fury that Long Feng seeing him like this, and the knowledge that no matter what happened, Long Feng wasn't going to forget the sight of him kneeling, humiliated, and crying on the floor. It was just one more thing he was going to see every time this man looked at him, reflected in his eyes and the sleek, oppressive smugness of his smile. He balled his hands into fists and bared his teeth in a futile attempt to drive that image away. “You...” he trailed off, gathering himself. “You're using me to train your people to assassinate my father. Probably my sister, too.”

Just saying it made him feel like he was going to empty the contents of his stomach all over the stones and Long Feng's slippered feet.

The head of the Dai Li and true ruler of Ba Sing Se inclined his head, not bothering to deny it. “Ba Sing Se is fighting for its survival. Needs must.”

“It's not going to happen!” Zuko yelled.

Long Feng folded his hands into the sleeves of his robe and smiled in a manner that was probably charming to people who weren't his prisoner. “I wonder if you realize I intend to make you Firelord.”

“You've got to be kidding me,” Zuko sneered, voice shaking with revulsion.

“Oh no, not at all,” Long Feng assured him. “Would Firelord Zuko make war on the Earth Kingdom as Firelord Ozai does? The world is a much better place without your father in it, with you on the throne in his stead.”

“You intend to rule the Fire Nation like you rule Ba Sing Se,” Zuko said flatly. “With me as your puppet.”

Chuckling at Zuko as if he were a teacher, and Zuko were a clever student who had answered all his questions correctly, Long Feng reached out a hand to pat Zuko's cheek, but his captive ducked to avoid it. “A young ruler would of course need advisers, and he would be wise to heed their council.”

“I am not going to help you kill my family,” Zuko repeated, seething, trembling with the effort it took to keep from screaming. He spoke tightly, so tightly that the words couldn't run together, and he had to pause between each one and let them fall separately.

Long Feng eyed him with faint amusement. Then his expression grew serious. “Your sister.”

“What about her?” Zuko demanded nonplussed, bewilderment and rage warring inside him.

“She is growing into a fine young woman, I hear.” He had that look on his face, the narrow-eyed look of complete confidence that said he had already won, and Zuko was just too stupid to realize it yet. “Perfect as a wife for the Earth King.”

Zuko really hated himself for the fact that his first response, before he launched himself at Long Feng's throat, was a rush of pity for the Earth King. But he did fling himself into the air to tackle Long Feng, even if he didn't get very far before more stone hands yanked him back down to his knees.

Long Feng waited until the stone gloves covered Zuko's mouth, stifling his breath of fire, to come forward and tip his chin up. “Your uncle is an old man, which means for the Dai Li, his use as a means of ensuring your obedience comes with a time limit. Your sister doesn't have to die, if you do as you're told, like a good boy.”

The stone gagging him scratched his face as his expression contorted with misery and helpless fury. Tears ran down his cheeks to splash down on the stone gag.

“The choice I gave you before hasn't changed, Prince Zuko,” Long Feng told him, voice low. Zuko flinched as he heard the title he no longer had a right to. “Your loyalty to your former country, or the life of your uncle and also your sister in the not too distant future. Your father will die, and the Fire Nation will be stopped. I am simply offering you the choice of what role your remaining family will take in the future, and which ones you're willing to lose.”

As Long Feng patted his cheek and rose to leave, Zuko stared up at him with a horrible, paralyzed numbness. Tears ran down his face in salty streaks, and he could hear distantly, as if they were coming from someone else's throat, the sound of his sobs, muffled behind the gag. It wouldn't work, he knew. Azula wasn't like him. Azula was braver, better, stronger, smarter, and even if she let herself be captured, she would be able to see through all of the Dai Li schemes. She would be able to turn those schemes back on them. She would understand that sacrifices had to be made, and unlike him, she would have the courage to make them. She would let Uncle die, like he would want her to, like he would want Zuko to if he were still capable of it. She would let Zuko die too if it meant winning. She would fight until she either won or made them kill her, but either way, she would never be here like this, trapped and on her knees.

o0O0o

Zuko didn't remember the next three days. He remembered nothing about them at all. From one moment to the next, he didn't remember. After the rock restraints had fallen away, and the agents had picked him up and shoved him into the training cavern, the world had narrowed into one long frenetic fight, in which the Dai Li controlled the very ground he walked on, and he had to fight back or be crushed. Intermittently the fight would pause, and the Dai Li would take him back to his uncle and their cell, or to the showers, but then the fight would start again, and it wasn't... He didn't...

He was too tired. Every time he closed his eyes, the Dai Li rushed in, and it just wasn't worth it to keep track of where he was anymore.

Sometimes, through the haze that was sleeplessness and the confusion of the fight, his own thoughts whispered to him as if they belonged to someone else, that this was temporary. It had to be. It was temporary and pointless, because eventually the Dai Li were going to make a mistake, and he was going to falter, and they would crush him, and Uncle would be useless then, and they would execute him.

He dodged a stalactite and blasted a ball of fire at the agent who had dislodged it. No, the voice of his own thoughts insisted, this is temporary, because Uncle couldn't live forever, and Azula would never work as a hostage, and if he waited it out, if he waited for his whole family to die...

If he waited for the Fire Nation to be conquered, if he waited for them to kill his family, if if if... If they never let him go. They might give him a clean death if he were useless then.

He couldn't think. The thoughts swirled around and spilled away, lasting just long enough to flood him with hopelessness and distract him as he tried to slip through the Dai Li agents' fingers for just a little longer, so that they won't have won, even though they already had.

He couldn't breathe.

The fire burst from his hands like fireworks. He kicked away a boulder and elbowed an agent behind him hard under his ribs. He wanted to be glad, glad that even if they killed his family, Long Feng wouldn't get what he wanted, wouldn't get a Fire Princess to marry the Earth King, or a puppet Firelord, and that maybe, one day, he could get out when Long Feng had nothing and no one to hold over him. He wanted too badly to feel something other than cold dread and numbness.

He didn't remember his knees hitting the floor, and he didn't remember his hands following, smacking against the cold stone, stinging his palms. He couldn't hear his own ragged pants for air. But there he was on his hands and knees when one of the agents came over to check on him. As the agent bent low, Zuko raised his hand to bend a jet of flames into the agent's face. He breathed in and pushed, but nothing came. There was no fire left. Somehow, inside himself, he could feel it guttering. He was missing something, something important, if he could just think.

o0O0o

They took him back to his cell. He lay down to pretend to sleep, or maybe get sucked down into real sleep, or lie there eyes open and staring, frozen awake, or wait for the Dai Li.

It hit him, as if it weren't a thought, but a physical blow, just as he was falling asleep, and even as it knocked him awake, the clinging threads of sleep and exhaustion tried to pull him back down. Firelords, even puppet Firelords needed heirs. They... His father once told him children made the best hostages. Once Long Feng realized his sister wouldn't work, he would be the one married off, he knew, forced somehow to make a child for Long Feng to use. There was nothing temporary about any of this. It was never going to end. Long Feng wasn't going to give him up. There were always going to be people, people Zuko didn't even know yet, that hadn't even been born yet, people Zuko was responsible for, whose lives Long Feng could trade for his puppet's cooperation.

It was never going to end.

o0O0o

He didn't wake up until there was already a line of red around his throat. One of the agents kicked him in the ribs. “It isn't fun when you don't fight back, kid.”

In response, Zuko punched at him, a small gust of smoke trickling into the air where flame should have been. Zuko woke up the rest of the way with a sickening start.

He punched the air again, and when nothing came out, not even a single spark, he yelped, breath coming too shallow and fast.

“Hey, someone get Jianyu!” the agent who had kicked Zuko yelled.

Suddenly it was all temporary again. It was all going to end fast, if he didn't have fire, if he couldn't fight, he was... They were going to kill his uncle. Tears poured out of his eyes, and ran down his face. His hard gasping breaths drew them into his mouth and he choked on them.

There were arms around him. He hadn't even heard the agent come in, and then all at once, there were arms circling him almost like an embrace. Agent Jianyu pulled him around to face him, and put his hands around Zuko's cheeks, his thumbs rubbing away the tears as soon as they fell. “Kid,” he murmured. “Kid, it's all right. We know what happened. We know you didn't try to stop fighting. It's all right. We got what we need out of you.”

Zuko couldn't talk, and he couldn't stop crying. The crying got harder, and he couldn't stop that either.

“We're not going to kill your uncle over this,” Jianyu told him softly. “Long Feng has other uses for you, don't worry.

Zuko hated himself for the feeling of relief that washed over him.

o0O0o

When Zuko opened the door, there were people in Long Feng's office who weren't from Ba Sing Se, weren't even Earth Kingdom, and it took his mind several long moments to comprehend what they weren't before it could even attempt to register what they were. He stood dumbly in the doorway with the tray with the teapot and cups on it in his hands as their faces shifted from confusion to narrow-eyed recognition. "You!" the girl in blue hissed.

Zuko's eyes snapped to her face, and it was only then that his mind supplied her identity to him. The Avatar's waterbender. Water ringed her hands, rising from a pouch at her waist, flowing back and forth with the faint, furious tremors of her body. Her brother held his bladed boomerang aloft, and Zuko wondered that they had been allowed into Long Feng's office armed.

Zuko didn't know how to answer, so he just ducked his head in a bow and set the tea tray down on a side table.

"Oh that's right," Long Feng said, as if to himself, as if he were remembering something. "My sources did inform me you knew each other."

His sources, Zuko thought. Right.

Off to their side and slightly behind, another voice broke through, and Zuko knew she had to have been there all along, but the other girl in Earth Kingdom green hadn't seemed real until she spoke. "Uh, guys, who is he?"

"Oh, I don't know, no one important," the Water Tribe boy's voice went shrill, his hand gripping his boomerang tighter. "Just the prince of the Fire Nation."

"Wait," the one with the hooked swords burst out, and Zuko realized he recognized him too, from the Dai Li cells. The rumors then were true. His knees felt weak with a desperate, unhappy kind of hope. "Fire Nation?"

The water rolled around the waterbender like a living thing. "What's he doing here?"

Zuko felt his jaw loosen, and lips part, and then shut again without a sound coming out. Without the tea tray, his arms folded behind him, the sleeves of his robe pooled to cover his clasped hands. Before he realized, he had his back to the wall and his head down, the position reflex, as if it would make him invisible with every eye in the room on him. His eyes flicked up to look at them through his hair. The waterbender's expression had shifted into confusion again, and Zuko just felt sick.

He wondered what they saw, these people who could remember him from before, and could see just how much had changed. Most of the time, it was so hard to remember that he had been a different person before, but just then, he felt dizzy with the reality of it. He used to hold his chin up and his head high. He used to walk without shuffling, and meet danger with a fighting stance and a snarl instead of a bow and an attempt to make himself as small as possible. And he had become smaller, thinner, his shoulders narrower, his muscles wasted away from too little food, too little movement, and too little sunlight. From what he was now, it was almost impossible to imagine what he had been.

He knew he had interrupted them, and he knew that was just what Long Feng had wanted. These weren't the first people Long Feng had paraded him before. Generals, city officials, upper ring nobles, Long Feng had dangled Zuko in front of all of them. Look, he told them. Look what I have done to the Firelord's son. Look how he cringes and obeys. Look what I can do to you. Zuko knew he was there to be seen. He just wondered what they saw, and if anyone ever saw anything other than what Long Feng wanted them to see.

"Thank you Zuko," Long Feng said with an air of contented finality. "I don't think I will be needing you for anything else this evening."

Zuko peeled himself away from the wall, bobbing his head. He hadn't said a word since he had entered, but he knew that he had said everything Long Feng had wanted him to say. There was, for all he tamped down on it and buried it deep, for all he knew it was useless, a warm flicker of anger that grew within him at that.

Before he closed the door behind himself, he dared a small, covert look back. Long Feng didn't notice. He was too busy favoring his new guests with his cat-like, predatory smile. Zuko wasn't worth paying attention to anymore, he supposed. He was no longer prey because he had already been consumed.

The waterbender was still watching him, though, and her gaze caught and trapped his. There was ice in her eyes, hard, cold, and unbreakable. She looked like what was left of her had shattered mountains, and left pieces of them strewn from the North Pole to the walls of Ba Sing Se. She looked as if those walls would crumble in a heartbeat if they dared continue to stand in her way.

Zuko closed the door and slumped against it. He heard things. The agents talked in front of him as if he weren't there. He had become good at being invisible. And he took a bleak kind of pride in that. After all, Long Feng didn't really want him to be invisible, just to try and try and try for invisibility and fail. But he heard things, and he had heard the way that after the Avatar had been captured, the waterbender and her brother had continued on to the North Pole, how she fought Pakku, the great waterbending master of the North with her own untaught waterbending every day until he agreed to teach her, the first girl trained to fight in the North for as far back as anyone could remember, how her brother claimed to have robbed crucial intelligence in the war from a library guarded by a powerful, ancient knowledge spirit. And he had heard that Long Feng had only seen fit to speak with them when the waterbender had somehow washed away Dai Li brainwashing, first on the boy standing with them, and then on the Joo Dee sent to babysit them. The Dai Li were scared, and Zuko was in the middle of it, beneath their notice, a ghost.

The Dai Li were scared of her. The Dai Li were scared of all of them, but most of all, of her.

Zuko knew where the Avatar's bison was hidden. He knew when there wouldn't be agents around, and he knew that even if an agent saw him with the bison in tow, there was a good chance they wouldn't even blink. He could... He had something to offer, and if he could get her to... Uncle...

Maybe, just maybe, after everything she had seen and done, maybe she had decided that one cast off former prince just wasn't worth hating, that she, they, had bigger enemies to fight. Maybe if he had something to give them, they would... She could fix Uncle, make him Uncle again, and that's what mattered. He could beg if they wanted him to. He could crawl. He had been doing it for months for the Dai Li. He could do it for her. She could bring his uncle back to him; he just had to give her a reason.

Zuko closed his eyes and slid his head to the side as if to rest his face against the cool stone, but as he did so, his unburnt ear pressed against the crack between the door and the wall. The muffled voices of Long Feng and his begrudging guests trickled out to him, and as he concentrated, he could pick out individual words and voices, and string them together to make sense out of them. He stood there, his spying hidden from any passing agent by the simple expedient of appearing too tired to stand on his own, and by being too downtrodden to pose a threat, as he listened to Long Feng's ultimatums, and his opponents' quick retaliations.

And through it all, his mind whirred. Desperate plans sprang up in him as familiar and natural as his own breath, and they came to him now. The tunnels and caverns of the Dai Li stronghold unfurled in his mind as if printed on a map, and the cold knowledge of what he had to do next drove out all other thoughts, all of the and-after-thats out of his head. He knew with white hot certainty in that moment that if he tried, his fire would come to him. He could feel it crackling under his skin.

"Hey kid."

Zuko started, jerking his eyes open, loud but indistinct panic shouting, Look like you were just asleep! Look like you're waking up!

Agent Jianyu didn't appear to notice Zuko's deception however, and gave him a small, friendly smile. A stab of guilt shot through Zuko for lying to him, and he wondered, fleetingly, whether it counted as a lie if he didn't use any words. Tricking him then. And he couldn't... He shoved the guilt down roughly. He couldn't let guilt get in the way. He was going to escape. The Dai Li were his enemies. It wasn't about being a good boy now.

Agent Jianyu put a hand on Zuko's head. "That tired, huh?"

Zuko shrugged. "Yeah." Then he swallowed. "Yes Agent Jianyu."

"Okay then." The agent gave a small huff. "I don't think anybody's going to miss you if you call it a day now. Come on. I'll take you to the kitchens and we'll get you something to share with your uncle, okay?"

Zuko ducked his head in assent and followed Agent Jianyu down the hall, through the hidden doorway, and into the mouth of the tunnel that would take them back down into the Dai Li base. As the gloom of the palace interior sank away behind them in favor of the tunnel's faint phosphorescence, a thousand fears, a thousand ways for the whole endeavor to end in devastating failure skittered through Zuko's mind, and worse, the numbing uncertainty of what would happen if nothing went wrong at all. There was nothing out there for him, no home, no ship, no avatar, no- he was about to help the Fire Nation's enemies, he-

He dug his nails into his thumb, letting the pain steady him and bring him back. He could think about that once it was over and he was away from here.

Part One

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