(Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Cold metal braces dug into Azula's wrists as she stared down emptily at the gray stone floor, her dark, unkempt hair hanging limply in her face. Now and again, her fingers twitched a little, spasmodically, fluttering like albino spiders against the glinting metal armrests her forearms were bolted to. Occasionally she grumbled angrily to herself about something or another, her voice low and incomprehensible. The tiny holding cell that enclosed her had been fireproofed – metal chairs, metal door, stone walls and stone floor – to stop her from burning everything in sight and Firebending her way out. Two guards stood like statues by the door to the cell, staring straight ahead impassively. The rhythm of approaching footfalls from the hall could be heard easily in the cold, dead silence of the tiny room. Azula jerked at the sound of the door creaking heavily open, but didn't look up. A tall, imposing shadow fell over her and was still, waiting for some acknowledgement, and a moment passed before Azula slowly lifted her head. Seeing who it was, she gathered her wits about her and straightened at once.
"Why, hello there, Zuko," she announced in her usual brisk, pompous air, the one that came so well to her but didn't match the limp, greasy hair that fell across her face despite being tied in a sloppy ponytail, the dark shadows under her eyes, or the plain prison clothes that hung off her frail body like rags. "So nice of you to join me for a visit down here. Shall I have the guards make us some tea?"
Zuko, in his regal, finely tailored Fire Lord robe, blinked and calmly sat in the chair facing opposite hers. His expression was neutral, impassive. "I've come to check on you. Make sure you're doing okay. Have they been feeding you enough? You look thin."
"No tea then? That's alright," Azula breezed on, seemingly oblivious to her brother's inquiry. "I'm not in the mood myself. Your guards are trying to kill me anyways, so they would probably poison it, which might put a bit of a damper on your visit, don't you think?"
"No one's trying to kill you, Azula," Zuko sighed tiredly.
At this seemingly ordinary comment, she burst into laughter, a cacophony of ear-piercing harpy shrieks that carried on for far too long. Zuko's face remained expressionless, but his hands, resting palms-down on the metal armrests of his chair, slowly curled into fists. "Oh, darling Zuzu," she gasped, once she finally managed to contain herself. "I know you were always the slow one, but if you want to last more than a few weeks as Fire Lord, you must try not to be so naïve. Rule number one:" She paused for emphasis. "Everyone. Is trying. To kill you."
"You're crazy," Zuko said calmly.
"Am I?" She asked, snickering like a jackal-hyena, eyes wide with the intense, unblinking stare of a mind unhinged. "Tell me that once they've slit your throat while you sleep and stolen the kingdom."
"Who, Azula?" Zuko leaned forward conspiratorially and raised his eyebrows at her. "Who do you think is out to get us? A secret underground group of rebels trained in the art of assassination? Maybe a band of our closest friends is planning to extinguish the royal blood line so they can seize power over the Fire Nation. I bet Mai and Ty Lee are their leaders, and they're plotting their first move as we speak." His tone remained even and serious as he mocked her.
"You fool," Azula snarled quietly, glaring at him out of her mess of dark hair.
"The doctors say you're sick, Azula," Zuko said, his expression softening, "that that's why you think this way. You can't trust anymore because something inside you is broken."
"Oh, nonsense," Azula snapped dismissively. "I simply see what no one else wants to see—what you're far too naïve and foolish and self-delusional to realize, Zuko. People are disloyal. They are flawed and ugly and selfish, and only idiots place their trust in others. Look what Daddy did to Uncle Iroh, and to Grandpa and to Mother and to you, for God's sake! If he could do that to the people who were closest to him, the people he loved, what's stopping your friends from putting a knife in your back, hmm?"
"Ozai isn't exactly a shining pillar of virtue, Azula," Zuko deadpanned.
"Don't you dare go slandering the name of our FATHER!" She screeched, loud enough to make the guards jump and Zuko wince. For a moment they eyed each other in tense, uncomfortable silence. "You filthy, wretched traitor," she muttered savagely.
Zuko decided to go on as if nothing had happened. "I've sent for some of the best doctors in the world to come and have a look at you. There aren't many skilled on how to cure illnesses of the mind, but maybe… maybe they can help fix whatever's inside you that's broken.
"Fix me how, Zuko?" Azula demanded. A piece of hair had fallen across the bridge of her nose, and she flicked her head impatiently to dislodge it. "Are you hoping that these doctors will help me realize the error of my ways so I'll come crawlingyou on my hands and knees, beggingyou for forgiveness, just like you begged the Avatar and his band of lost boys?" A deriding smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. "Or, I know! You want me to become a good girl so you and I can have that sweet, darling brother-sister relationship we never had! You could call me 'sis' and get all protective whenever I bring a boy home—only wait, sorry, Azula doesn't bring boys home because she's a crazy monster—but never mind that! We could play cute pranks together instead!" She let out a high-pitched giggle. "Silly Zuzu and silly Azula, always lighting things on fire!" She sing-songed, her voice high and childish. "Maybe we could play House again. Remember that game, Zuzu?" She grinned wickedly. "I'll be the mommy and you be the daddy, except don't do what our Daddy did and kill Mommy, because that'll ruin all the fun and traumatize the children for life! Let's hold hands and skip through dewy meadows together with puppies and kittens and rainbows, just you and me, Zuzu, brother and sister, family forever! Wouldn't that be sweet?"
Azula snickered. She giggled. She sniggered and cackled and laughed her wild, crazy laugh, her head thrown back, howling at the sheer absurdity of her own joke. As she went on, slowly the hysteria seemed to seep from her bones until she slackened in her chair and her laughter faded into nothing. Tired and self-defeated, Azula waited for her brother's reaction. A small smile of satisfaction crept across her face as she watched a muscle working itself in Zuko's jaw, clenching and unclenching, reveling in this small sign of his mounting aggression, considering it a tiny victory. Now that Zuko was Fire Lord, he had the luxury of being lofty, of calming his temper and taking the higher ground, of not having to care about his crazy sister's jabs and insults and mockery—which made it all the more satisfying to Azula to see she was wearing on his nerves. She waited in anticipation for the barrage of insults, for her brother to jump to his feet in a rage and storm out—but instead, Zuko raised his hand wordlessly in a signal to the guards. The two men exchanged a look, then turned and filed obediently out the door.
"Wait!" She cried. "Where are you going?" Her eyes widened as Zuko stood from his chair and approached her, stone-faced. "What are you doing? Get away!" She ordered, panic clawing its way up her chest as her brother neared. Azula strained against the metal braces tying her to her chair, trying to rise, trashing desperately. She gasped, whimpering as Zuko bent down on one knee to look at her, snarling and struggling like an animal. When he reached a hand tentatively towards her, Azula reared instinctively and tried to bite him. He jerked back.
"Stop it," he commanded sternly. She slackened obediently, like a dog that had been told off. Fighting was useless, she realized, looking away. She sat tense, waiting for whatever horrible thing he was surely about to do to her. As Zuko reached toward her, she bit back a sob, his hands slowly trailing around the back of her head, and… Gently, fumbling, he pulled loose the tie securing her hair.
Eyes widening, Azula gazed at him in mute surprise as the dark, lank mess tumbled free around her shoulders. Zuko stared at her dispassionately. His manner was brisk but gentle as he combed his fingers through the greasy strands, carefully brushing it away from her face and sweeping it into a simple ponytail. She could only sit, dumbstruck. What was this? What manner of game was he playing? If this was a sign of affection, it was the first one he'd given her in many years. (When was the last time they'd even touched? She couldn't recall.) No; she rejected the idea immediately. Zuko was simply keeping up the pretense that he cared about her in order to keep her submissive, complacent.
"I see your hair's recovered from that hack job you gave it, but the servants still don't know how to keep it washed properly," he remarked idly as he worked.
"You mean the guards," Azula shot back, recovering from her initial shock. "This is a prison, Zuko, not a hotel suite on Ember Island."
"Azula, listen to me. If there's one thing the Avatar's taught me, it's that everyone deserves a second chance." He paused thoughtfully. "Or a third." He drew the ribbon neatly behind her head, firmly knotting the ponytail in place. "It doesn't have to be like this. And I don't think you want it to, either."
She averted her eyes. "What do you know? Go and rule your kingdom," she muttered bitterly. "Leave me to die. You and your doctors can't fix me, Zuko. There's nothing to fix. I've always been like this, and I always will."
"It doesn't matter," he whispered hoarsely. "I still love you."
It was then that Azula realized that she had been deceived. Her brother still had his arms around her, but he was no longer trying to fix her hair. This was a trick, a trap, a ruse.
This was an embrace.
By all means, she should have fought him. She'd never allowed him to be her big brother before; why should she now? Now that he'd locked her in this cage and taken her kingdom; now that she was beaten and sore. She should've struggled and bit and breathed fire in his hair
Instead, Azula pressed her face into Zuko's shoulder and sobbed.