A completely random thing that came to me, courtesy of a very pushy plot bunny, which is now in my kitchen cleaning out my vegetable crisper.
The air in the dungeon was cold and dry. It smelled of filth and iron and the smoke from the torches that lit the musty corridors. Ty Lee's nose wrinkled unconsciously as she made her way through the halls. She knew her way; she'd come often enough. Down the main hall, turn left; down the stairs, turn right; to the end of the hall, down another flight of stairs… She was getting close, now. She could see the door she wanted, guarded – as always – by two soldiers. They knew her by now. She didn't even have to ask; one of them was already unlocking the door for her. Ty Lee smiled her thanks and stepped through it. The door closed behind her with a hollow boom.
Inside was a small room, hollowed out of the solid rock. There was one torch in a niche in the wall. At the end of the room was a cage; the torch cast a little light on its occupant, picking out the occasional detail – a wisp of straggly black hair, a ragged sleeve, a white cheek, the flash of an eye. Slowly, Ty Lee moved forward, a faint smile on her face. "Hey," she said softly. "It's me again."
"Ty Lee." The voice was quiet. The acrobat could remember when it had been sharp and commanding, or as smooth as silk. Later – once defeat and betrayal and chains had broken it – it had been wild and shrieking, like the roar of a crazed animal. Now it was low and hollow, as if it came from a long ways away.
Gently, as if speaking to a frightened child, Ty Lee said her name - "Azula."
The changes in the body mirrored the changes in the voice. Azula had once been an imposing (if a bit petite) figure, all sculpted limbs and flashing eyes and perfectly manicured fingernails. She had never had so much as a hair out of place! Now she was filthy. Her black hair hung in tangled ropes about her face. Her limbs, once strong and well-muscled, were thin, the bones of her wrists protruding from the sleeves of her prison shirt. Shackles were fastened around her arms and legs. Azula had proved to be far too dangerous to be unchained, even after the Avatar had removed her firebending.
When Ty Lee had first begun visiting the former Fire Princess, Azula had shrieked at her, clawing at the bars of her cage. The acrobat had remained silently for nearly an hour, and then left, her former friend's screams still following her up the hall. Every day for three weeks had been the same, with Ty Lee patiently enduring Azula's verbal abuse. Then the shrieking had become stony silence. This at least afforded Ty Lee the chance to talk. She had kept it light – mostly chattering away about what Mai was doing, or something funny Sokka had said, or the way that Toph had earthbended a drunken suitor to his neck in the street and left him there overnight.
Gradually, some of the ice had seemed to thaw from Azula's silence. Over the course of seven months, she had even begun to speak – usually only single words, more often than not monosyllables. But the overt hostility, at least, was gone.
Ty Lee sat down cross-legged, about an arm's length from the bars of the cage. She could see that Azula was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest; she could make out the white streaks that were her arms, and the silver glint of steel cuffs. "It's the Festival of Agni tonight," Ty Lee said cheerfully. "There's going to be a fireworks show at the palace after dark. You remember those, don't you, 'Zula? Zuko says that the theme is red dragons. The Mechanist helped make them, so I bet they're going to be amazing!"
There was no response from the shadowy figure in the cage, but Ty Lee thought she was listening. "You remember the Mechanist, right?" she went on, her tone still bright. "He's the guy that helped us make all those tanks and war balloons and that big drill thingie that we used on the wall of Ba Sing Se. He's really a neat guy, you know! He made me this glider thing, and Aang showed me how –"
The prisoner flinched visibly. Ty Lee suddenly stopped, kicking herself. Damn! I went and said the Avatar's name again. She hesitated, then went on. "Anyway, I went flying with it. It's really awesome to fly, 'Zula! Kind of like when I did the trapeze at the circus, only way better, because there's no rope to hold me back." She smiled at Azula. "The Kyoshi warriors are going home this week. I did tell you they made me a member of their group, right? Yeah, of course I did. Anyway, Suki wanted me to come with them, but of course I told her my home's here. Not that I won't go visit them, of course! Kyoshi Island's supposed to be a really nice place to live. Although there's some crazy sea serpent thingie living right near it, so it's not a great place to go swimming. Not much like Ember Island, I guess. But I bet we could still set up a net on the beach, so I could teach them all how to play –"
"Was it like this for you?"
Ty Lee blinked as the words died on her lips, shocked into silence. She stared as Azula moved – actually moved – to the side of the cage closest to her visitor, her bony hands gripping the bars. The torchlight fell on the prisoner's face. Azula's mouth was still tight and unsmiling; her eyes, almost black in the dim light, still burned with a strange intensity. Was it madness? The acrobat couldn't tell.
As the initial shock wore off, Ty Lee suddenly realized that Azula had asked a question. She replayed it in her mind, her brow furrowing in confusion. "Was…was what like which? What do you mean?"
"Prison." The former princess didn't blink. "Was prison like this for you?"
Unbidden, memories rose in Ty Lee's mind – the empty cell, the cold shackles around her wrists, the sneering guards, the pain of the fire whip. She had only spent a few weeks in the Boiling Rock. It hadn't been enough to break her, but it had certainly been enough to give her nightmares. She still woke up screaming sometimes.
Uncertainly, Ty Lee looked at Azula. "Well…maybe a bit." Her usually cheerful voice was now quiet. "I was chained and things, like you. But it was different, too, I think. I had Mai. And it wasn't…well, I wasn't there very long."
Still Azula's gaze did not waver. She seemed to consider the answer for a moment. "And I put you there."
Ty Lee's eyebrows shot up. "Yeah," was all she said. "Yeah, you did."
After a pause, Azula moved away, folding herself back into the darkness. The acrobat didn't speak; she wasn't sure what to say. She waited. Will she talk again? But the silence stretched on.
When it became obvious that Azula was done talking, Ty Lee reluctantly went back to her cheery chatter about fireworks and beaches. There were no further responses. At last, with a sigh, the acrobat got up. "I guess it's about time for me to go," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay, 'Zula?" The captive said nothing. Ty Lee sighed again, then rapped on the door to be let out.
Author's Note 2: To see an illustration of this chapter - nikipinz./art/Broken-Dragon-Ch1-Illustration-95880088