“With your permission, Lord Zuko?” the guard asked him, and he looked to his left and nodded. He heard the clank, and suddenly, after a quick wash of vertigo, he felt them descending within the deep waters. A faint illumination glowed within the center of the watery chamber. He focused his attention to the light and sighed heavily as he prepared for the meeting.
He distracted himself by admiring the craftsmanship and creation of the submerged prison. The Mechanist, ally to the Avatar and once a prisoner of the Fire Nation, was a brilliant and delighted contributor. Anything to keep her secure, he mused inwardly, remembering the inventor’s eagerness to be a part of the project to lock the princess up. Surely, he used other methods to imprison her, but the watery dungeon was an extra precaution.
One never knew with Azula, and now that he was Lord of the Fire Nation, he would do everything in his power to take such precautions. The newly healed nation depended upon him.
When the small submarine docked at the solitary submerged cage, Zuko shut his eyes and exhaled heavily. His mind drifted to memories of how Azula used to be, and how keeping her here was better in the long run.
This way it was easier for him to not take pity on her.
She didn’t smile at him the way she used to. She tried; he could tell. She smirked at him, but he sensed a lot of betrayal in the mere flex of her face muscles. Her eyes met his with a mixture of desperation and viciousness.
He knew why she called him here – why she called him here every time.
“Make this quick, Azula.” His voice was as cold and thunder-gray as steel.
She opened her mouth, and he knew just what she was going to say.
She wanted to die, and for him to kill her.
But Zuko just wouldn’t allow it.
“Let me out of these restraints, Zuzu,” she purred at him like a cat. He sighed inwardly, but he remained as unmoving as a statue in front of her. When he didn’t budge, she continued her tireless game. “Come on. You and I both know I can’t do any fire bending down here. I can’t escape, and I can’t even begin to match the Fire Nation army, which I’m quite sure you told to recapture me if I became free.” She snorted. “You’re not even smart enough to tell your own men to kill a prisoner if he or she escapes.” She seemed annoyed and disappointed in him. He was guessing she still deluded herself as a better leader.
“I don’t want you to die, Azula,” he told her gruffly. “As much as you think you deserve it…” His mouth twisted in a smirk. “…I decide what happens to you, and I think you deserve life in prison, not death.”
“Let me out of these restraints,” she repeated with a hiss. Zuko studied her for a few moments, and her face turned soft momentarily. “You did the last time.” He’d heard that softness before, but it was rare.
It was becoming less rare the more time she spent down in this watery box.
“Why? You can’t be uncomfortable. They were designed to let your fingers flex and move.” He studied the tailor-made cuffs that wrapped like gloves around her hands and were connected by a single, self-lubricating vine between them. The swamp water benders had designed it, fortifying the defense against her.
Azula snorted, setting back down. She idly stretched a foot between the cuffs and tore through the vine, which automatically repaired itself. She grunted. “Really, Zuzu. This was the best you could do?” She looked around her surroundings and sighed.
“You know there’s more than just this.” Zuko followed her gaze as she looked at the floor.
“It was the cruelest thing you ever did to me,” she said, inspecting her fingers. “I was almost proud of you. It was the first time you defeated me.”
“Don’t praise me. It was the Avatar that stripped you of your bending powers, not me. It was your punishment.” Zuko pursed his lips together as she rolled her eyes.
“That’s what I don’t understand. Why shove me in a hole in the ocean with mystical handcuffs if I can’t bend anyway, dear brother?” she asked snidely.
Zuko sighed again. “I don’t know what the Avatar did, but it was something he’d only just discovered. There’s no guarantee you can’t get you powers back one day and try to escape. Maybe you could even escape this place and free from your binds, but when that day comes I’ll find other ways to keep you locked up.”
“You’re obsessed, aren’t you?” She stood up and began pacing around him in her tiny cell. “You’re so concerned about keeping me away from the precious Fire Nation now that you and the Avatar have ‘cleaned it up’.” Her voice was laced with mocking, and she stared at him, eager for his reaction.
He might have been easy to rope into these games in the past, but not anymore. Azula was his prisoner, and he was the new Lord of the Fire Nation.
If anything, her pitiful attempts at those reminiscent games of dominance were more amusing than irritating. He didn’t want to be amused by her, but he was. She was still family, and for as much as he disliked her, he still felt a sliver of obligation toward her.
His only favor to her as his brother was that he wouldn’t allow her to die. Not by anyone’s hands, not even his own.
“Just let me out of the restraints, Zuzu,” she cooed at him again. He felt her head resting against the nape of his neck. His body stiffened when he realized how cold she was. Was it always this cold down here? She had never bothered to touch him before.
He moved to step forward but she laced her arms over his head, and he felt the vines of her restraints rub and slither against his neck. He knew she could never choke him in this way; they weren’t designed for that, but the gesture enough was telling.
“Move, Azula,” he said, and his hands came up and gripped her forearms, intending to pull her off. She spun around delicately and came close to his face. Her nose rubbed against his chin, and he could feel her breath against his face. She smelled terrible, and as she rubbed her body against his, he realized how terribly thin she was – no longer muscular and lean.
She was starving. He opened his mouth with shock, and gently, he let go of her forearms and traced her thin waist with his hands. He couldn’t tell with the robe she was wearing, but he could definitely feel her gaunt shape now. Was he not paying attention before? He took a closer look at her, and what he had mistaken for sleeplessness in the past was much more than that.
She chuckled. “What’s this?” She leaned in and nuzzled under his chin. “You’ve never touched me like this before.”
“You’re starving yourself,” he said accusingly, and her laughter grew louder. He threw her arms off his neck and firmly gripped her shoulders. She continued to cackle madly.
“I’m making it easier for you, Zuzu. I’m giving you a handicap.”
“What do you mean?” he asked with confusion. Was she crazy? She’d been down her for six years, so was she finally snapping?
“When we duel next time, when my powers return, I will be so weak that it’ll be easy for you to kill me.” She brought both her cuffed hands down his cheek with a caress. “Aren’t I a good sister?”
“You need to eat something.”
“I eat enough.”
“Starvation isn’t the answer. It’s not honorable.”
“I told you I eat enough,” was her hot reply. Suddenly, her hands where were he didn’t want them, around his neck and then down to his waist. She pulled him against her, and he shuddered as her bony body grated against his.
What did she…?
“Why do you keep me down here, Zuko? Am I you little pet?” she asked softly, rubbing her nose against his chin lightly.
“No. You’re a prisoner of the Fire Nation, our most important prisoner,” he choked out. Her hands were digging under the layers his clothes. He felt her lithe fingers scrape against his bare back.
“I don’t believe you. Any sane ruler would have killed me for the things I did,” she said harshly. Her nails began to scratch. “Tell me what makes you so gentle that you would spare my life for imprisonment? Do you consider yourself a noble and compassionate lord, Zuko?”
“Yes, but not because of you,” he said, grabbing her arms to push her away, but she fought him with whatever strength she had. Finally, she pushed him, and he lost his footing. He felt disoriented, and when he blinked he felt her on top of him, straddling him.
“You always come so quickly when I call, Zuzu. Why is that, I wonder?”
He began to sit up, but she pushed him down. He looked over to the docking post, noticing the guard had already left per his instructions. Zuko really didn’t want to use brute force or fire bending against her. She was weak enough, and hurting her with fire would only require medical personnel to examine and treat her. He made a rule not to let others be exposed to the dethroned princess. He would take care of her himself and eliminate any risk of endangering anyone else with Azula’s unpredictable ways.
So, he had to reason with her with words – if he could.
He looked up at her, and she smirked down at him as he fought a war inside himself.
“Tell me what you’re getting at,” he snapped, settling under her. He glared up at her, and she seemed appeased.
“I want to know where you are getting at, dear brother,” she mocked. “I don’t understand why you just don’t kill me. I’m an enemy to the Fire Nation. I’ve committed unthinkable crimes. I’ve attempted to murder the Avatar countless times. I’ve even attempted to kill you.” She pushed her palms down hard on his chest, and he winced.
“This is your punishment, Azula. Live with it,” he sneered.
“And how long do you intend to keep me down here…as your filthy pet?” she snarled at him, but he feigned placidity.
“For life, Azula. That’s what a life sentence is,” he said.
She balled her fists in his shirt, her face raging with anger. “Kill me. Execute me. Fight me in a duel, and I promise to lose, but don’t keep me here another second longer!”
“No, Azula,” he said, forcing himself to remember her old ways.
She tugged roughly at his shirt garment, and he could hear the stitching rip. “Kill me!”
She pounded her fists at him, and for the first time, he saw his sister caught in a moment of intense weakness. Tears struggled at the sides of her eyes, and he was sure she would never cry.
But this was a different Azula than the fiery, confident and calculating princess of six years ago.
This Azula was frail and desperate. She clung only to the past, and if her future couldn’t be exactly like her past, she would have death and nothing else.
Softly, Zuko rose and shifted her in his lap. When she cried, he drew her against his chest. “I’m sorry but I’m not changing my mind. I’m the Lord now, and this is best for our people.”
She choked out a sob. “Best for our people?” she rasped in mocked tones.
He pulled away from her and moved to stand. “Do you think I’m lying?”
Her eyes widened at him, but within seconds her expression changed to a sneer. “It doesn’t matter does it? I know the real reason you keep me here, even if you don’t admit it to yourself.”
He stared at her in minutes that felt like hours. His jaw tightened. He turned to the hatch, and a tiny spark of fire from his finger signaled the sub-ship to come back and pick him up.
“The next time you call me down here, do not ask me it again,” he ordered. Azula glared defiantly at him.
She moved toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck again. Her breath blanketed his face. He looked into her eyes and felt his body stiffen.
“The next time I call you down here, Lord Zuko, it will be for something else.” He watched her lick her lips slowly, and she sweetly said, “I have other ways of getting what I want.”
“I will not give you death or a duel, Azula.” He brushed off the funny feeling he felt when she called him ‘Lord Zuko’.
“The next time I will not ask for it, but I will get it.” She seemed very sure of herself, though he hated to fathom what she intended to ask him next time.
The movement of her pelvis against his thigh clearly indicated her motives, however.
“I’m going to be twenty-one soon. I think you should come down here for my birthday, Zuzu,” she said in segue.
“I’ll think about it,” he said, still stiffening to her closeness.
“If you won’t bring me what I really want, bring me something just as nice,” she cooed. She looked at him amorously, a look he’d caught many times in his youth and even some times when she’d been confined. It was a look that frightened him and usually led to emotions other than fear.
The shuttle sub docked to her cell, and Lord Zuko swiftly removed her hands from around his neck.
“Eat, Azula. I’m going to have someone watching you.”
“And if I don’t?” she challenged. She settled back down in her bed coverings on the floor, watching him with fox-like eyes.
“I’ll come and make sure that you do. You’re not going to die on me that way.”
“And what way do you want me to ‘die on you’, Lord Zuko?” his sister mocked again.
Zuko stopped for a moment and watched her with pity. “Very old and very, very regretful.”
Azula smiled despite her obvious feelings. Her words came out like sugar. “As you said, we can’t always get what we wish for.”
The hatch closed behind him, and her sweet words settled on the surface of his mind. He turned away from her gaze and did not look behind him.
He did not need to watch her as she settled back into her lonely prison. He’d be back soon enough at her beck and call. Zuko sometimes wondered who the real prisoner was here, and he hated himself for feeling that maybe it would be better if he let her have her wish.
But the more she wished for it, the more he wanted to deny her. Azula had been right all along. He wasn’t doing this for the betterment of his people.
He was keeping her alive solely for himself.