A/N: Okay, I've got a lot to say on this before I start writing, so bear with me. First of all, I never really cared for Azula before the series finale. Not that I hated her, but there wasn't a whole lot of character development for her before then. Her obsessive perfectionism was interesting, but didn't take on much meaning until Sozin's Comet. Second, yes, this is a Haru/Azula story, and yes, it is a crack pairing. However, what Azula needs most right now is stability and love. She perceives her childhood as a loveless one, and it was admittedly full of upheaval. I think Haru can help her. I had more to say, but I forgot it. Anyway, on to the story!
Chapter 1: Madness
Echoing screams reached Fire Lord Zuko's ears long before he reached the floor that held his captive sister. His shoes clanked against the metal steps as he made his way to the top floor - the level reserved for the most dangerous of prisoners.
Not that there was any malice behind Azula's actions anymore. Not really. Ever since the day of their fateful Agni Kai, his younger sister had been reduced to a screaming, sobbing wreck. Despite his duties as Fire Lord, however, Zuko still made an effort to visit the girl every day since she had been locked up here two weeks ago. She was, after all, his sister. Though she had tried to kill him on several occasions, he hated seeing her like this and would give anything to see her get better.
As he opened the steel door leading to the corridor he sought, the shrieking intensified, and the young Fire Lord was sure he heard the sounds of firebending. While he was mildly concerned, this was nothing out of the ordinary for her.
Concern turned to fear when both the screaming and the firebending stopped. Usually, when she tired herself out, she would gradually get quieter before drifting off to sleep. This had been a sudden change, and he didn't like it. His steps came at a quicker pace, his eyes locked on the steel door at the end of the dimly-lit hall. His apprehension grew as he felt the temperature quickly increasing with each step he took toward the door. By the time he reached his destination, he was sweating profusely.
Ignoring all caution, he grasped the deadbolt and pulled. The metal, glowing faintly red from the intense heat, blistered his hands, and he clenched his teeth to keep from crying out. Using all of his strength to pull at the thing, which seemed to be stuck, he also focused his energy into the heat of the door, trying to use his firebending to cool it. Still too hot to touch under normal circumstances, it cooled a bit, and the bolt reluctantly grated out of place. Ignoring his seared hands, Zuko threw the door open and stepped inside, instantly flinching as the heat blasted him in a wave. Azula's continuous firebending inside the small space had turned the metal room into an oven. And there, on the opposite wall with her arms chained above her head, was Azula. Obviously the heat had gotten so intense that she had passed out. At least, he hoped she had only passed out.
It only took one, two, three steps to reach his little sister, and when he got there Zuko destroyed the chains with a well-aimed kick. Still her arms did not fall to her sides like he expected. Rather, they stayed where they were, and upon closer inspection Zuko realized that her skin was stuck. In the past two weeks her firebending had burned her clothes to just this side of decency, and Zuko was angered to see that the wardens had not seen fit to replace it. The wall behind her had gotten so hot that her skin literally started to cook against it, and was now stuck.
There was nothing else he could do; he would have to pull her loose.
Grasping her by the waist, he gave a sharp tug, wincing as he felt the skin of her back give away. He carried her over his shoulder, not wanting to put any unnecessary pressure on her back, and took a look at the wall where she had been sitting. Small strips of charred flesh clung to the steel, and the young leader fought not to retch in that tiny room. Sickness later; right now he had a sibling to care for.
Leaving the room, he strode down the hallway and back to the stairwell. Rather than walking down each individual step, he pitched himself over the railing and plummeted to the bottom level. Landing roughly on his feet, he heard Azula groan as the impact jarred her. Still, she did not awaken, which was good; while he doubted she had the wits to put up a proper fight, she had turned nearly animalistic in the past week, and he wanted her safely restrained before she awoke.
A few steps and a door took him to the guards' quarters. Several guards looked up at the sight of their leader carrying the mad prisoner on his back, but none questioned it.
"You," he said, pointing to two men playing Pai Sho at the table nearest him. "Get me cold water. At least four skins. Hurry up," he called as they ran for the kitchens. "And you, send a messenger hawk to the palace for Avatar Aang," he commanded the man nearest the door leading to the hawkery. "Tell him to get Katara, and bring her to the palace. Tell him it's urgent." The guard hurried to comply.
Zuko, in the meantime, carried Azula to the gondola that would carry them over the boiling water below. Telling the crew manning the mechanism to prepare for departure, he waited inside the cable car for the guards to arrive with the water he had ordered. Laying her on her stomach, he started feeling around her throat for a pulse. There it was, and it was coming unusually fast. This did not bode well. Trying to remember the symptoms of heat stroke he had learned from Iroh - an important lesson for a metal ship filled with firebenders - he took in her flushed skin, and noted that, despite how the fresh air had cooled him down, she was still too hot to the touch. Despite this, her skin was completely dry; she wasn't sweating. Her breathing, he noticed, had a wheezing quality to it.
"Oh no," he muttered. "No. Come on, Azula, you can pull through this." Fear clenched his gut like a fist. He remembered back when she had attacked them at the Western Air Temple, remembered when she had plummeted through the air and he had thought she was going to die. Back then, the fear he had felt had been tempered by the fact that she was trying to kill him. But now, seeing his younger sister like this, driven mad by Agni only knew what, he knew that losing her would utterly devastate him. That was why he visited her every day, wasn't it?
"Fire Lord Zuko!" a voice behind him called. Running steps quickly approached the gondola, but he did not tear his eyes from the girl on the bench before him. "We brought the water, as you asked. However, we could not get it very cold. We apologize most humbly and ask for Your Highness's forgiveness." Both soldiers knelt before him, offering the four water skins to him.
"Don't worry about it," Zuko replied, grabbing the proffered skins. They felt a little bit cooler than the air, which would have to do. "You did your best. Return to your posts."
"Prepare for launch!" he yelled, to make sure the men at the crank heard him. Sure enough, the gondola immediately lifted off the ground and began moving - at an unusually quick pace, Zuko noticed - over the boiling lake. He quickly jammed a water skin under each of Azula's arms, and another between her legs. With one hand he moved the remaining skin around, hoping to absorb as much of the heat as he could. With the other, he fanned her, hoping to get her to start sweating again. Once the water in the skin heated too much to absorb any more body heat, Zuko flipped Azula over, propped her up with one arm, and trickled some water between her lips. It would not cool her, but hopefully he could rehydrate her and encourage her to sweat.
In about twenty minutes, the gondola touched ground again, and Zuko wasted no time picking Azula up and carrying her out. To his surprise, Appa was already there with Aang and Katara.
"Katara!" he called to the young waterbender. "You've got to help her. She's having a heat stroke."
The girl looked uncertainly between her boyfriend and friend. "I've never treated heat stroke," she said. "I don't really know anything about it."
Of course, Zuko thought. She'd spent most of her life living in the South Pole. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Just cool her down."
Katara nodded, summoning water from the boiling lake. She cooled it and formed it into a large, mattress-like surface. "Put her down on that," she ordered. "We don't want dirt getting into those burns."
Zuko obeyed, placing his little sister on the surface and watching her sink an inch into it. Then, moving her arms and shifting stances, Katara commanded the water to surround all but the princess's face and froze it solid. Zuko noticed that though the outside was ice, the inside was mere water.
"There," Katara finished, stepping back from her work. "The ice should keep the water cold enough to cool her down, but shouldn't give her hypothermia." The look on her face showed every bit of relief Zuko felt. She, like Zuko, had come to pity the young princess in her madness.
"She's not staying there anymore," Zuko decided then. "I'd feel a lot better if she was in the palace, where I can keep an eye on her."
"But Zuko," Aang said, speaking for the first time since the Fire Lord's arrival, "aren't you afraid she'll try to kill you or something? Maybe this is all a trick."
Zuko shook his head. "Look at her," he said. "She's a good liar, and manipulative, but she'd never do it at this cost. She almost died. Besides, the Azula we knew wouldn't allow herself to look like that." They all took in her filthy, burnt clothes, her tangled, greasy, unevenly cut hair, and most of all, her gaunt appearance. The overheated flush had already begun to fade from her skin.
"You're right," Aang said. "I feel kind of bad for her, with all that's happened. Like it doesn't make all the stuff she's done okay, but she didn't deserve this."
"No," Zuko agreed. "She deserves death."
Katara and Aang both gasped. "How can you say that, Zuko?" Katara asked. "You saw her that day. She was crying. Something's damaged her, but that doesn't mean she should die!"
"That's why I'm keeping her alive," he said.
Azula chose that moment to wake up. Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment she looked like she might speak. Then her eyes darted down her body, taking in her watery prison. Like before, she started screaming, trying to thrash her way out of the ice imprisoning her.
"Katara, uncover her head, now!" Katara did as she was told, and Azula's head whipped around and tried to bite the girl. Zuko stepped in and grabbed his sister by the hair. Holding her head steady, he delivered a blow to her left temple. Her neck immediately fell limp, and Katara caught her head with water before it could hit the ground.
"You can let her out now. She woke up, so her body should be back at a decent temperature." Katara did as she was told, again supporting her on a bed of water.
"I'll take her," Aang volunteered. "We can bring her back to the palace on Appa." He lifted his former enemy onto his shoulder as Zuko had, grunting with the effort. As Katara and Zuko climbed up onto the bison's saddle, Aang summoned a gust of wind to lift him up. Handing Azula off to Zuko, the Avatar took his customary spot on Appa's neck.
"Come on, Appa, to the Fire Palace! Yip yip!"
With a rumbling growl, the bison launched himself into the air. Soon they were making good time to Zuko's home.
"This is what I meant," Zuko continued from their earlier conversation. "You saw how she reacted when she woke up. She acts like a caged animal. Azula would rather die than live like this... but I want to keep her alive," he added. "Even though the royal physician can't help her, I'm hoping me and Mai can."
Azula awoke, stirring with a groan. Her head hurt, so she left her eyes closed. She'd had the strangest dream... A dream of being outside, and hurting. The waterbending peasant was there, and Azula had been trapped, encased in water of all things. Just like that time... How long had it been? A day, perhaps two.
"I'm sorry, Zuko," a hushed voice spoke. Female, and sort of familiar... "I did what I could, but the skin doesn't want to heal smoothly. There will be scarring." Fading steps, and fading voices.
"What about her mind? Did you..."
She frowned slightly. The surface she was lying on felt soft, like a bed. Certainly there was nothing like it in her cell. For that matter, her hands were always chained above her head in her cell. The last thing she could remember was...
Her father's cell was right next to hers. She had just tired herself out thrashing and screaming, trying to escape, and now fell silent. Not that she felt any better, but her raw throat and tired muscles would not allow her to continue her behavior. It was this tiny room, these chains. They made her... uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to scream. Voices, her father's and her brother's, drifted to her ears.
"Finally," Ozai's voice growled in disgust, "that infernal racket has stopped. What pathetic soul do you keep so close to me? Is this meant as further punishment?"
Pathetic? She was not pathetic! How dare her father think that of her?
"It's Azula," came the soft reply. Hushed, as though he did not want her to hear. Like she was some weakling who couldn't stand to hear anyone talk about her.
Her father, however, had no such consideration. His laugh was so loud that the room echoed with it. "A disappointment," he said. "Surprising, but not entirely unexpected. She hid her weakness better than you, but I see she has let me down even more."
What? No. No, she was not a disappointment. They had cheated. She had proposed an Agni Kai - a one-on-one duel. Never mind that she had aimed a bolt of lightning at the peasant. It had still hit Zuko, so the water witch should not have interfered.
"That's all you have to say about your daughter?" Zuko's voice demanded angrily.
Shut up, Zuzu. She did not need to be defended. She was no one's charity case!
"Why did you think I left her behind when I invaded the Earth Kingdom?" Ozai asked her brother. "Ever since she locked her friends in prison, she has been weak. Following me like a lost lizard-puppy."
Azula bristled. She had merely been making herself available to him! Her only friends' betrayal had not weakened her in the least!
"I could very well have made her Fire Lord had she come with me," the man continued. "But I could tell her pathetic mind was about to snap like a twig. And I was right; all it took was a barbaric waterbender to take her down. Had I known she would be such a disappointment, I would have drowned her at birth."
Waterbender... drown... As if the words had summoned her, the peasant suddenly appeared before her.
"So you lived," her own voice said from the waterbender's mouth. "Looks like Zuzu's being too weak for his own good again. Too weak... Just like you!"
The girl faded into the air, but not before a bubble of ice formed around Azula. Panicking from the sudden reduction of space and, therefore, air, the princess screamed and exhaled fire at the ice, melting it instantaneously. Before she could breathe a sigh of relief, the frozen wall returned, this time with a steady flow of water falling at her feet, soaking her clothes and filling what little space she had. It covered her legs... passed her hips... rose to her chest... now only her head remained dry, and still the water level rose. Her breath came faster now, her heart pounding, as she remembered the terror of being helpless, unable to move or breathe as she was chained down.
She opened her eyes, snapped out of the memory. That must be why she was here; the waterbending witch had nearly drowned her, and she had to be taken out of her cell.
Looking around, she realized that she was lying facedown on a small bed, in the infirmary of the palace. Perhaps for her own protection. She moved a hand to brush her unevenly-cut hair out of her eyes.
Or at least she tried to. Looking at the hand that refused to obey her, she realized that she was tied down to the bed with leather straps. Panic welled in her chest as she realized that she was helpless.
"Azula! You have to relax," her brother, sitting on the bed next to hers, said. She could just barely see him out of the corner of her eye. Then, more uncertainly, "You can understand me, right?"
Azula scoffed. "Honestly, Zuzu, I didn't know the crown would make you stupid. Of course I understand you."
Where normally her words would have sparked one of his delightful temper tantrums, now he only sighed with relief. She wondered at that.
"Good," was his reply. "I had Katara try to heal your - "
Alarm. "The waterbender?" Azula demanded. "She tried to kill me, and you trust her enough to heal me?"
"She wasn't trying to kill you," Zuko said calmly. "You had a heat stroke. When you woke up outside, she was - "
"I never woke up outside." Azula's muscles tensed. "I'm talking about when she tried to drown me in my cell."
"Azula. You firebended yourself into a heat stroke, and she healed you. She might have even healed your mind. For the past two weeks you've - "
Shut up shut up shut up shut UP! "Liar!" she shrieked, struggling against her restraints. "You're messing with my head, trying to make me believe things that aren't true!" She suddenly felt two cool hands on her head, water slithering toward her ears. "Leave me alone!" They were trying to kill her, or control her mind, or -
The water slid into her ears, into her head, and she knew no more.
"She's in bad shape," Katara observed as she laid Azula's head down. "I've managed to heal her mind back to self-awareness, but she's got deep-rooted paranoia. There's nothing I can do about that."
"I know," Zuko said quietly. "Seems like she's hallucinating, too. But at least now we've got a shot at getting through to her."
"What I don't get," Katara puzzled, "is why she hallucinates about me."
"That's easy. When we were little, at least, Azula was terrified of water. She fell through the ice into the turtle duck pond one winter when I was six. Took us a whole minute to get her out, she nearly drowned."
"...Oh." The girl's brow furrowed.
"Don't apologize," Zuko told her. "You did what had to be done. Besides, whatever's messed her up goes a lot deeper than that."
"I guess," she murmured uncertainly.
"Well, she seemed like she was getting better," Aang added optimistically, entering the room from his hiding place outside the door. He and Katara had kept out of Azula's sight to keep from agitating the princess further. "So what now?"
Fortunately, Zuko had been pondering that very question, and had come up with an answer. "Aang, I need you to go to Kyoshi Island," he requested. "We need Ty Lee here to disable Azula's bending, or knock her out if necessary. Katara, I know you're busy healing people and helping them rebuild, but do you think you could try to treat her once daily? Whatever you did to her while she was unconscious, it worked."
"I can try," the waterbender acquiesced. "But I doubt I'll be much help as long as she's afraid of me."
"What about you?" Aang inquired.
"I'm going to see Uncle."
A/N: Sorry if this chapter isn't anything spectacular. I've never written about a character driven insane before, and it's a challenge. It didn't come out at all the way I envisioned it. For better or for worse, we'll see.