It was Mai, this time.
Azula considered this latest hallucination with detached interest. She'd grown almost used to the things, in a strange way. They tormented her daily, here in the 6x8 cell that was her home now, and which she could see sometimes, when she was closer to reality. Sometimes the visions said horrible things, and she would shriek and rage at them, and wake up hours later, cold and stiff and hungry, wrapped up tightly in chains and leather restraints. This particular hallucination was fairly mild, she reflected, running her golden eyes over it. The specter of Mai wasn't even speaking – just standing there, gazing at her calmly. It was even wearing the crown of the Fire Lady, which was a nice touch. The real Mai would no doubt be actually wearing that soon, if she wasn't already. She and Fire Lord Zuzu were probably living it up right now. With a bitter sigh, Azula closed her eyes. She was done being tormented by this particular vision.
“Chain her up, and bring her.” Azula heard the words before she felt the results. She squirmed and whined like a beaten dog as she was wrenched from her prison cot and forced to her knees. Cold, heavy cuffs trapped her bony wrists behind her back. Shackles bound her feet. Confused, Azula didn't struggle as she was pulled to her feet and made to walk out into the hall of the dungeon.
Could this be real? The prisoner looked up ahead, at the graceful form of Mai that was leading the way though the labyrinthine prison halls. It feels real. But...but they so often have felt real... She considered fighting, but then thought better of it. After all, if this was real, struggling would do her no good – and if it wasn't, there was no sense in wasting her energy. Azula sighed again and shut her eyes, letting the firm hands lead her where they would. She was tired.
Abruptly, Azula found herself being thrust down into a chair. Her arms were unchained and bound to the arms of the chair with leather straps. More straps were fastened around her legs and torso, holding her still. A rough hand tangled itself in her raven hair, jerking her head back. Azula grimaced and squirmed as some kind of a band was tightened around her brow, until she couldn't move her head at all. She whimpered.
“That's good.” The cool voice of Mai broke the relative silence. “You can all go. I want to handle this first session alone.” There were retreating footsteps, followed by the closing of a door. Azula watched as the assassin calmly moved to stand over her. Without a word, Mai drew something from her sleeve and slid her hands around Azula's throat. The prisoner felt the young woman's sharp fingernails trail lightly over her skin – and then, a shooting, sickening pain! She groaned through her teeth. “Relax,” Mai said, her voice dry. “You're not dying. It's just a little dose of something to clear your head, Azula. Give it a minute.”
Some of the fog around Azula's mind seemed to clear. She felt much sharper somehow – more like herself than she had felt in quite some time. She looked up at Mai, who was watching her impassively. “I take it you're not a hallucination.”
“No. You're not that lucky today.” Without haste, Mai dragged a small table up beside the chair Azula was bound to, and began to lay things out on it. Azula watched with some nervousness as a small collection of blades began to grow – all sizes and shapes. “You know, Azula, there's a few things I never got to discuss with you,” she said quietly. “By the time I was released from the Boiling Rock, you were already here, so I never got the chance then. And afterwards, with all the craziness about building the peace and planning my wedding, there just wasn't time.” Mai took one last blade – a small, wickedly-sharp flechette – from her sleeve and laid it with the others. Then she turned to a cabinet on the wall, opened it, and began to take implements from it. At this, Azula finally looked around the room. To her dismay, she realized that she was in a torture chamber.
Still calmly, the assassin laid out a few other things – thumbscrews, clamps, and something metal that resembled a bottle opener. This was one time Azula wished that she had less clarity. She could feel the cold wash of fear and dread. Nevertheless, she held on to as much composure as she could. “So you're going to torture me,” she said, trying to sneer. “Is this your new way of showing your vast moral superiority?”
“I'm going to torture you,” Mai affirmed, as nonchalantly as if she were reciting a grocery list. “And it really has nothing at all to do with morals, and everything to do with plain old revenge.” She picked up the sharp little flechette and turned to her prisoner. Azula couldn't help shuddering as the blade slid in between the skin of her neck and the cloth of her prison shirt. Without ceremony, Mai cut the cloth down the sleeve, then down Azula's side. One more quick slice, and the shirt came off, leaving Azula naked to the waist. The assassin tugged the ruined garment away and let it fall to the floor. “See, you tried to kill my boyfriend – at least three times. I owe you for that. And you sent me to prison.” Mai's blade slipped inside the waistband of Azula's loose pants, slicing through the cloth and down Azula's leg. “It wasn't so bad for me, because my uncle was the warden. But you know what happens to girls in co-ed prisons, right, Azula? And Ty Lee had no protection.” Mai paused in the act of cutting away the last of Azula's clothes. “Do you have any idea what they did to her?”
Azula was shivering in cold and fear by this time. She tried to think as the flechette finished its work; Mai pulled away the last shreds of cloth covering Azula's body. “Mai, I...I have contacts,” she said desperately. “I was the crown princess for years. I can give you connections...”
To her surprise and dismay, Mai actually laughed. “Contacts? You're offering me contacts? Come on, Azula. My family's one of the oldest noble houses in the Fire Nation, nearly as old as yours. I'm married to the Fire Lord. You don't have any connections that I need, believe me.” She paused, surveying her handiwork, her gaze lingering over Azula's naked skin. “Although it is interesting to hear you bargain for your own hide, Azula. And it'll be even better when you start to beg me for mercy.” A sudden, feral gleam made her narrow eyes flash like a cat's – the prisoner shuddered.
Turning away, Mai laid down the flechette and considered her array of tools. Azula wriggled, testing the strength of her bonds, and found them very strong. Mai shot her a cool smile. “So what do you want to do, Azula? Lots of knives here. I could test a few of those out on you. Or maybe you'd like your fingers broken first?”
“No.” Something very close to hysteria was clutching at Azula's throat. “You...you don't have to do this, Mai. It won't change anything...”
“Sure it will.” Mai picked up one knife with a bored look, examined it, then abandoned it in favor of a thumbscrew. “You'll suffer, and I'll feel a lot better.” She moved to the left. Azula clenched her hands into tight fists, but Mai spread out the fingers of her left hand with little trouble, and tightened the implement onto her thumb. The rest of her fingers followed, one by one. “My husband gave you to me as a wedding present,” Mai murmured, pausing in her work to meet Azula's gaze. “A pretty good gift, don't you think?” The fourth and final finger was pinned in position, ready to be snapped like matchwood. Mai smiled a bit. “Got any begging you want to do before we start?”
Fear had turned to terror, and Azula was sure that at least some of it was showing in her face. She gave another fruitless jerk to her bonds. They didn't loosen. Smiling grimly, Mai began to tighten one of the screws.
It wasn't that Azula had never known pain. She'd been a soldier and a warrior since a very early age, and had been wounded before – even wounded badly, once or twice. But that pain was different. It was clean pain, however excruciating, and there was no mental torment about it. This...this was agony. Tears began to flow down the prisoner's white cheeks as the bones of a second finger snapped. She kept her teeth closed tightly, determined not to cry out. Mai began to turn the third screw with deliberate slowness. The assassin was taking her time, inflicting as much pain as possible – finally, she gave the device a vicious twist, and Azula's middle finger shattered under the pressure. The helpless girl gave a little scream of pain.
“Hurts, doesn't it?” Mai's face was stony. “You might want to think about what Ty Lee went through while she was in prison. You know, if you need something to think about while I break this last finger. I'll give you something else when I go to work on your thumb.” She turned the screw; Azula heard herself whimper. “There's a lot of guards in that prison,” Mai said coldly. “And there would be three or four of them in our cell every night. They wouldn't touch me because of my uncle. But I couldn't protect Ty Lee, Azula.” The screw turned again, slowly. “Every night. Hours of it. We were there for six weeks. Do you know how many nights that is?” The sharp screw dug mercilessly into Azula's bone - she could feel it beginning to crack. “That's over forty nights. Can you imagine that?” Snap! Azula screamed again, as tears streamed down her face.
With deadly calm, Mai put her hands on the final screw. Azula wanted desperately to beg her to stop. As it was, she sobbed. “Here's something else to think about,” the assassin said quietly. Her fingers twitched a little, but she didn't tighten the implement – not yet. “She actually loved you – the gods only know why. Even in prison, being gang-raped by your dogs every night, she really believed that you were going to let her out and forgive her. But you weren't, were you, Azula?” The screw tightened. Azula writhed. “You were just going to leave her there for the rest of her life, however long that wound up being, and forget about her. The one person who actually loved you.” Mai's voice grew softer as she pitilessly drove the screw into the hard bone of Azula's thumb. “The irony. You did that to the one person who might have had pity on you. Ty Lee could have saved you, Azula. She would have, in fact. But you – you tried to destroy her.” The helpless prisoner cried out against a pain only partly physical. “And now – she's gone. She's forgotten you, like a bad memory. And here you are.” Mai gave the screw one last turn, and the bone of Azula's thumb snapped. Agony shot up Azula's arm, and she felt her vision going black. She slumped down in her bonds.
When Azula came back to herself, she found Mai still standing over her, seemingly waiting for her to regain consciousness. The assassin touched the side of Azula's neck, and the sharp pain again pierced her; she winced. “I want you awake and aware for this,” Mai murmured. “Don't think you can get out of anything by fainting, Azula.” She turned to the table of implements, and turned back with a second thumbscrew. Azula looked down – her throbbing left hand was still pinned in the first device. Desperately, she clenched her right fist, hard. The assassin again opened her hand and began to fit her fingers into the five vises that would soon snap them like twigs.
Azula normally had great courage, but she had been in prison a long time, and had almost reached her breaking point. “No,” she whispered, flinching as Mai pinned her thumb into its place. “No more...”
Mai actually paused, looking Azula in the eye. Her face was cold. “You know,” she said quietly, “Ty Lee said that, too.” Without another word, she forced the last of Azula's fingers into its vise and pinned it down. “Ty Lee said that, too,” Mai said again, standing up straight and slipping her hands into her sleeves. “She also begged them to stop, and she pleaded with me to save her. Do you have any idea what that was like?”
If bargaining wouldn't help, maybe pleading would. Azula was desperate enough to swallow what little remained of her pride. “Mai, I...I'm sorry. Please, I'll do whatever you want! I...”
“All I want you to do,” Mai said, “is suffer.” Her voice was as hard as flint. “Suffer, and pay the price for what you did to us. Cry. Beg me for mercy. That's what I want.” She leaned over and began to turn the screw pitilessly on Azula's pinkie finger.
The prisoner writhed in anguish. Her other hand inadvertently twitched, sending fresh waves of agony shooting through her. “Oh gods, no. Stop! Mai, n-aaaagggh!” - As her finger snapped. She was screaming now, as much in horror as in pain. The ruthless point of the screw began to press into her ring finger. It was excruciating. “Mai, stop it. Please! No more! No – no!” Ignoring her victim's frantic pleas, Mai coldly shattered each of her fingers, one at a time. Then she moved to the thumb, the last of Azula's digits left unbroken.
Mai paused, and waited until her writhing prisoner's streaming eyes met hers. “Last one,” she said coolly. “Don't forget, Azula. I want you to think about Ty Lee. I want you to think about what you did to her. I want whatever sleep you get tonight to be haunted by her. Do you understand me?” She gave the screw a vicious twist, and Azula screamed. “I want you to think about this, and anticipate what I'm going to do to you tomorrow night. I want you to suffer, Azula. Suffer!” The vise tightened again. Azula sobbed convulsively. “Are you getting it? Are you getting some of what you put her through – what you put me through?” Again the screw sank deeper, and deeper still. Azula could feel the bone giving way. She shrieked and blubbered like the half-crazed animal that she was. At last, with a moist crack, her thumb broke. Choking with sobs, Azula went limp in her restraints.
Methodically, Mai removed the screws from each of the crushed fingers – a process nearly as painful as the initial breaking of bone. Then she put the devices back in their place in the cabinet. Only then did she turn to the weeping prisoner. “They're going to take you back to your cell now,” she said calmly. “No one's going to heal your hands until just before our next session, which won't be until tomorrow evening. And then I'm going to show you exactly what they did to Ty Lee. Only this time, it'll be you instead of her.” As if on cue, guards reentered the chamber and began to release Azula from the chair. The prisoner wailed pitifully as they dragged her to her feet and chained her broken hands behind her back. “Get her out of here,” Mai ordered. And Azula had to stagger back to her prison cell, being half-dragged by the soldiers. They threw her back inside, not even bothering to unchain her. The door slammed shut. Still shuddering and gasping with sobs, Azula collapsed on her filthy cot and tried desperately to sleep.