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the way that we rust

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i.

Zuko doesn’t know how long he’s been in Ba Sing Se.

In the beginning, everything was hazy, uncertain. He slept for hours and hours and couldn’t keep anything down.

He knows he raved at night, screamed and fought the guards. He knows because they mock him for it, now.

He knows while he was crawling his way out of his head, his uncle was being pushed deeper inside his.

 

ii.

Long Feng smiles without smiling, his eyes flickering with grim amusement as Zuko kneels in front of his uncle.

“Iroh,” Zuko insists. “Uncle, your name is Iroh.

Uncle tilts his head, his eyes vacant. “You must be mistaken. My name is Mushi. I am a teamaker,” he says for the millionth time and Zuko—

Zuko doesn’t know what to do.

Zuko—

Zuko stares at his cell wall all night, thinking of his uncle’s clean hair and unlocked door.

Of the single Dai Li stationed in the room.

Of you must be mistaken. My name is Mushi. I am a teamaker.

 

iii.

The next day, he downs the agent with a single blow, grabs his uncle by the arm and says: “Hurry.”

The old man just tilts his head. He doesn’t move.

“Uncle! We have to go.” Zuko yanks his arm harder, listening for footsteps, for approaching guards, thinking of the path most likely to lead to the surface.

Zuko feels Iroh move and makes towards the door, only to find himself flat on his back with no air in his lungs.

“Uncle?” he gasps.

The Dragon of the West is sitting in his chair again, sipping his tea.

“Uncle, we have to go now,” Zuko says, getting to his feet. “You can take your tea, just come with me.” Iroh doesn’t even look at him. “Please, uncle.”

“He won’t leave.”

Zuko whirls towards the door, fire wreathing his fists, to face Long Feng.

What did you do to him,” he hisses.

“It’s a complicated art. Elegant, and quite irreversible,” Long Feng says. “He is useless to us, now. He told us everything we asked, and now all he knows is how to make thirty-four unique blends of jasmine. The only thing he can give us now is a public execution. The Dragon of the West is so very well known in Ba Sing Se.”

Zuko feels himself shaking. His fire is gone, lost with his breath. “What do you want?” he asks.

“Your cooperation,” Long Feng answers.

 

iv.

“Do you have a knife?” he asks his guard that evening, staring at the ceiling of his cell.

 

v.

Long Feng doesn’t comment on his freshly shorn head. It’s oddly light without the weight of the phoenix tail, and sickeningly heavy with the weight of his shame.

Long Feng smiles without smiling and Zuko knows he knows what it means.

(It means defeat. It means yes. It means he’ll do whatever he’s asked.)

 

vi.

They hold his uncle over his head like a prize and a like a threat. They bring him more food than he has had in weeks and he’s only halfway through it when he vomits.

They make him watch as they break three of Iroh’s fingers.

He eats the rest.

There is a training regime and a feeding schedule and a sleeping schedule.

Every minute is planned, every second allotted.

 

vii.

Zuko’s hair is still rough and spiky when they start bringing him to the combat room.

“Fight,” they say, and he fights.

“Eat,” they say, and he eats.

“Jump,” they say, and he asks: “How high?”

 

viii.

He has to remind his uncle who he is every time they let him visit.

“Your nephew,” he says softly. “Uncle, I’m your nephew, remember?”

“Lee?” And his uncle stares at the wall, drinks the tea Zuko makes for him.

“Zuko, uncle. My name is Zuko.”

Zuko combs his tangled hair and tells him stories of their adventures on the Wani, the few months sandwiched between Agni Kai and captivity.

“You are Lee?” Iroh asks for the third time that day, and Zuko feels something inside him break.

“Sure, uncle,” he manages. “I can be Lee.”

He cries for the first time since the Wani was captured.

 

ix.

He fights for hours and hours, kicking, punching, dodging rocks, spitting fire.

Some days they set one or two Dai Li on him.

Some days they set a dozen.

They run scenarios: a plaza, a bunker, a party. Sometimes some of the Dai Li fight alongside him, sometimes he’s alone.

They’ve been at it for weeks when he walks in to see a bed fitted with red silk curtains at the center of the room, a rug on the floor, tables and chaises and oh Agni—

He stops dead in the doorway and tries to tear his eyes away, tries to ignore it, tries tries tries.

“Kid, come on,” one of the agents is saying, one of the ones who fights on his side sometimes. “You gotta breathe.”

He can’t. He’s drowning. He’s—he’s—he’s—

There are callused hands on either side of his head, fingers tugging on new hair. He’s on the floor. He doesn’t know how he got there. The agent presses their foreheads together, blocking his view of the perfect replica of his little sister’s bedroom.

“Look at me, kid. Come on.” There’s nowhere else to look. “There we go. Breathe with me, okay? In, out. In, out.”

The agent (Jingsheng?) locks his green gaze to Zuko’s gold until he comes around enough to shove him away.

He slumps against the doorframe and pants, feeling wild, feeling unhinged, feeling—

Traitor, traitor, traitor.

“You’re going to kill them,” he breathes, and Jingsheng’s face tightens. “Agni, you’re—I can’t—I can’t—I can’t—”

Thirty seconds of listening to his uncle scream and he can.

It takes six Dai Li four minutes to take him down.

 

x.

“She’s twelve,” he says one day to Jingsheng. “My sister is twelve.”

He doesn’t say she’s stronger than me.

He doesn’t say she’ll eat you alive.

He doesn’t say if you wanted to practice killing an imperial firebender, you shouldn’t have used uncle as your hostage.

He is only alive because they do not know these things. Uncle is only alive because they do not know these things.

They think he is useful, so he lives. Uncle lives.

“She’s twelve,” he says.

 

xi.

“Fight,” they say, and he fights.

“Eat,” they say, and he eats.

“Sleep,” they say, and he wakes screaming, his sister’s—father’s—uncle’s blood on his hands.

 

xii.

His hair tickles his ears now, brushes the back of his neck. It is soft. He wonders if it shines like it did when he was young. He has no mirror to check.

He is stronger now, then when they took the Wani. Stronger than before the Agni Kai. Faster, meaner.

It takes a dozen Dai Li to take him out on a good day.

He eats obscene amounts of fish and chicken-pig and vegetables and not much else.

He sits and drinks tea with his uncle, staring at the sweets the old man chews on, wondering what they taste like.

He doesn’t remember.

He reaches for one and gets backhanded by the guard for his trouble.

He sips his tea, tasting blood.

 

xiii.

They ask him for maps of the palace.

They ask him for his father’s routine, his sister’s.

He sits in the corner of his cell and answers, the heels of his hands digging into his eyes, tears running down his face.

 

xiv.

“Your father knows you’re here,” Jingsheng says one day. Zuko stares. “Long Feng tried for ransom, first. They declared you dead.”

Zuko tries to answer, but no words make it past the lump in his throat.

“Just—I just thought you should know, kid,” the older man sighs, scrubbing his face with one hand. “Maybe you shouldn’t be wasting all that pain on that family of yours.”

 

xv.

Zuko’s hair is nearing his shoulders the first time Long Feng sends him to the bedroom to wait.

After, he wonders why he had never considered this possibility (eventuality).

There are so, so many people his father has hurt.

 

xvi.

He’s stuck in his room (cell, nicer now, but still a cell) one day, after a bedroom night. Long Feng must’ve set rules on damage, because none of the men or women had hurt him much before, but this time was different. Things had gotten out of hand.

Jingsheng stops by to visit and doesn’t say a word, just hands him a cup of tea and sits down.

His eyes linger on the bruising around his neck and Zuko wonders if it’s distinct enough to see the fingerprints.

There’s pity in the older man’s gaze and Zuko throws the cup of tea at him, snarling.

 

xvii.

Sometime after Zuko’s hair reaches his shoulders, his uncle stops speaking.

He still goes and sits with him as often as he can, combing his hair and telling stories until his voice is hoarse and aching.

Some days, he just cries.

 

xviii.

He kills the next man he waits for in the bedroom and they drag him, bruised and bleeding, to his uncle’s room.

They break all of his fingers, tear off the nails. They hold a red-hot iron against his wrinkled forearms, again, and again, and again.

His uncle whimpers and cries, and Zuko screams himself hoarse from five feet away, a Dai Li holding each of his limbs down, another dragging his head up by his hair, so he has to watch.

He’s not sure if he could look away anyway.

He thinks, distantly, that he sounds like a dog, echoing one of the wildfire warning horns back home.

He doesn’t know who the man was.

He can’t bring himself to care.

Is there a limit, he wonders, to how many people one can care about?

 

xix.

Jingsheng pulls him into a tight embrace in the combat room the next day, then leaps back like he’s been burned when Zuko flinches hard, every muscle in his body tense.

He tries to apologize, but Zuko brushes past him.

So there are handprints bruised across his body, does the idiot think that’s a new phenomenon?

It takes fourteen Dai Li to put him down.

Five of them have to go to the healer.

 

xx.

He has new scars, now, to go with the big one on his face. His body is littered with jagged white lines from shards of stone, ropy, raised skin from glancing blows from chunks of rock or bad falls.

There’re some new ones on his face, too, he knows, but he hasn’t seen them.

He licks his lip and feels the smooth scar tissue where a split lip didn’t heal right.

He can’t remember if it was from the combat room or the bedroom.

Most of the ones on his face are from the bedroom.

 

xxi.

They’re stronger than me, better than me, he thinks.

They’ll wipe the floor with you.

Zuko wipes the floor with them, these days.

He’s not sure anymore if these thoughts (held close, never spoken) are still relieving or now dread-inducing.

He’s not sure who he hates more. Who he hopes will lose.

Azula, he thinks one night, staring at the ceiling, could get in here anytime she wanted.

Zuko could leave anytime he wanted, now. He knows all the Dai Li's tricks.

He doesn't leave.

He can't.

 

xxii.

Jingsheng is the one guarding his uncle’s room, one day.

Zuko stops half-way through a story about pirates and a storm near the North Pole.

Jingsheng shifts.

Zuko keeps combing.

Jingsheng says: “Are you not going to finish?”

Zuko stares at him. “Does it matter?”

“It was a good story.”

“He doesn’t even hear me anymore,” Zuko says harshly. “It doesn’t matter if I finish the fucking story.”

The agent doesn’t have anything to say to that.

 

xxiii.

He can tell they start to worry about his uncle’s health because they start hitting him instead.

He doesn’t mind. They can’t do much to him if they want to keep him useful.

His uncle has sacrificed enough, given enough, bled enough for him.

It’s only fair that Zuko gives for once instead of taking taking taking .

 

xxiv.

He breaks his hand in the combat room one day when his hair is long enough to make a decent tail (he doesn’t, though)

Long Feng shows up in is room (cell) for the first time in weeks (months? years?) to tell him to be more careful. He emphasizes it with bedroom nights scheduled every day for two weeks.

He’s not allowed to visit his uncle until he’s back in fighting shape.

He spends his days sleeping and staring at the walls, thinking of gray hair in his hands and the smell of jasmine tea.

He endures.

 

xxv.

When his hair gets long enough that it’s getting in the way and he refuses to tie it back, they hold him down and cut it all off.

He thinks the tail would’ve been pretty long.

He wonders how long he’s been here. Jingsheng would probably tell him, if he asked.

He doesn’t ask.

 

xxvi.

He’s grown, he knows. His shoulders are broader, his frame solid, his punches and kicks lethally strong. His fire burns light and bright, hotter than its ever been. He supposes that’s what all the food is for, all the sleep.

He wonders how much he looks like his father, now. He surprises himself when he realizes he’s relieved for the scar.

He’ll never look much like his father.

By the time his hair is brushing his ears again, it takes two dozen Dai Li to take him out clean.

Twenty, if they’re willing to take casualties.

Zuko wonders if they think they’ll be able to get that many into the palace.

He wonders what they’ll do with him if they don’t.

 

xxvii.

He thinks that, sometimes, when he goes to the bedroom now, the person who comes doesn’t know who he is.

He’s not sure if that makes it better or worse, that they’re not there for his father, but for him.

It means less bruises, though, so he guesses that’s something.

 

xxviii.

He’s sitting against the wall, one night, breathing through the aftermath of a nightmare, when a group of children turn down his hall.

“Whoa, hey, are you alright?”

Zuko blinks at the yellow and orange boy, his tattooed blue arrow and big gray eyes.

“Toph, can you open this?”

The bars fall as the earth around them dissolves. Zuko shakes his head.

“You go three rounds with a platypus bear, buddy?” one of two older boys says, dressed in blue. “Your face is like, four colors.”

“No,” Zuko says slowly. “Who are you?”

“I’m the Avatar!” the yellow boy chirps, grinning. “You want to break out? We’re breaking out my friend, Appa! He's a flying bison!”

Zuko lets out a noise that might have been a surprised laugh, once. He doesn’t move. He wonders if he's dreaming. “They have my uncle.”

“We can get him, too,” a girl dressed in blue assures.

“Yeah!” the Avatar agrees. “The more people we can get out of here, the better. Long Feng is awful! He brainwashed Jet!”

Zuko eyes the indicated boy. “He doesn’t look very brainwashed.”

The boy jerks a thumb in the blue girl’s direction, straw sticking out his mouth. “Katara here sorted it out.”

Zuko calculates, figures that this is too fucking ridiculous for Long Feng to come up with, and stands.

 

xxix.

His uncle dies a few weeks later regardless, his health too deteriorated from years of neglect, but his mind is clear for the first time in years.

Zuko sits with him wherever they camp and tells him stories, lifting a cup of tea to his lips.

“How long, nephew?” he asks one day.

“Years.” And the old man’s weeps.

 

xxx.

The day after Iroh dies, Zuko sits down to tell a different story, one he’s never told before.

The faces around the campfire are all so young. They look up at him in anticipation, maybe expecting a good story, like the ones he would tell Uncle, full of adventure.

He is sorry that this is not one of those stories. He is sorry they have to hear it.

He knows some of them are almost the same age as he is, but sometimes he feels so, so old. Like he was under the lake for decades instead of years.

“I don’t know how long I was in Ba Sing Se,” he begins. “In the beginning, everything was hazy, uncertain. I slept for hours and hours and couldn’t keep anything down.”