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fettered, our veins still run with fire

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The first prison is cold and dark, damp from the water that trickles down its rough-hewn corridor walls. The cells themselves are more polished, of course. There is nothing Azula could scrape herself against, no jagged rock that could slice through skin.

Not that it matters, when she's chained too tightly to move.

The darkness doesn't bother her. Everything is still the brilliant blue and scarlet of fire, spiderwebbed with white lightning. She loses herself in the afterimages, in the fight played over and over again. It isn't herself and Zuzu she sees, only the purity of flame.

But even blinded, the drip drip drip of the water is endless, and in time shadows creep in around the edges of her vision. She is struggling to hold them back, eyes clenched shut, when soft hands and voices come to move her.

Azula pays them very little heed. Her attention is focused on preserving the tiny pinpricks of light that are all that remains of the flames. But when they betray her, flickering away, she finds not darkness but a faint, pinkish glow. She opens her eyes.

The second prison has whitewashed walls and smooth, high arches. Baskets of gleaming crystals light every empty corner of the room. There are no shadows here. There is also, she notices, nothing that can burn.

Her chains are still there, but now they bind her not to cold stone walls but to a metal chair. The chair has wheels. Once a day, attendants come and push her out into a small courtyard. Its walls are the same whitewashed stone, broken only by a single vine of half-dead ivy, but five stories above Azula can see a square of twilight sky.

It is a very faint consolation for the lost vision of flames. She decides, after her first trip to the courtyard, that it is not worth tilting her head back to see.

That leaves her with nothing to observe except her attendants, who coo more than a mother turtleduck and with just as little meaning, and the other prisoners.

There is a boy, his skin a patch-worked map of burn scars, his mouth a narrow slit in a blackened face that lacks a nose or ears. Sometimes he giggles. Sometimes he cries. She likes the crying better.

There is a young man, his eyes blank and entranced, his breathing slow. Azula times it once, when her skin is crawling against the chains from boredom, and frowns. Nothing that breathes so slowly should live. But the attendants wheel him in and out every day, and talk quietly to him, and sometimes stroke his long, black hair.

No one would dare to touch hers. Even her frown makes her attendants flinch and squawk.

There is an old woman, her hair white as ash. It falls in tangled clumps nearly to her waist, and no one strokes it, either. Her eyes are very cold.

Sometimes Azula catches the old woman staring at her. She cannot snap at her about respect and rank. Her mouth, except when she is eating, is kept gagged. The Dragon of the West was not the only one to know the trick of breathing fire.

So instead she looks away, and sometimes squeezes her eyes closed. She chants old histories in her head, relives past glories. She tries to summon the flames.

Her face clenches and relaxes, clenches and relaxes, and the attendants cluck in sympathy for whatever aches and pains they imagine her to suffer.

She ignores them. There are tricks even her dear, doddering uncle never mastered. And what an old earthbender could do--alone, encased in metal, with nothing more than a twitch of his face--she can do as well. She is certain of it.

She tilts her head up to the sky, a tiny motion, and imagines flame following that same curve. Her cheek feels warmer. She tells herself it is more than the heat of the sun.

When she opens her eyes, the old woman is watching her again. Azula lets her lids drop, then flings them open. For a moment, she thinks she can see sparks.

The old woman dips her head, a pleasingly subservient gesture. Then she tosses it up again, and the topmost tendrils of the ivy vine waver.

It could be a breeze, Azula concedes. The courtyard's floor is shielded from the wind. But the woman's eyes are bright with pleasure--or challenge. Azula will not be bested, even if it is only in the woman's mind.

Azula blinks again, and watches one eyelash smolder. The old woman nods her head, and another tendril peels away from the wall.

Their gazes meet, and Azula feels her mouth tightening around her gag as she tries to match the old woman's smile.