Chapter 1 -- Miscommunication
A few weeks after Sozin's comet, on a hot, fine Fire Nation afternoon, Firelord Zuko discussed his sister's fate with a cold man.
"And now," he finished, "I don't know what to do with her. The prisons aren't an option at the moment. We're trying to sort out who should be released, just when they're also trying to handle a huge influx of new inmates – mostly rebels and war criminals. I don't trust their security measures right now. Not with Azula. Especially since I can't be sure yet of everyone's loyalties.
"Besides, what would everyone think if I threw my crazy little sister into a deep, dark dungeon?"
He paused. The ice in their drinks had long ago melted, but the heat hadn't affected the man's cool composure or pale looks. Zuko tried not to be jealous: he was already irritated enough. It didn't help that he could hear the screams, very faintly, whenever the conversation lagged.
Zuko slammed his glass down so hard that the bottom cracked. "Agni save us! She won't be quiet. We tried to gag her, but she started choking on the gag. So she screams, night and day. And rants and screams and cries and wails and screams. On and on and on. I don't need this! You would not believe the difficulties I'm facing. Crises have been popping up like…like…"
" Wild flowers in a spring meadow, Your Highness?"
"Something like that. But flowers are pretty and soothing and smell nice. The shit I've had to deal with is something else entirely." Zuko ran his fingers through his damp hair, tugged at his robes, also damp with sweat. And sticky. He imagined that the proverbial shit had hit the airbender and sprayed him with foul, glutinous excrement, and that more kept coming.
"How can she do this day after day, every hour of the day? I'm not the only one who notices. The entire household is on edge. My guards are on edge. And the noise disturbs the guests – which is bad, because most of them are important people who are already wound up about something. I mean, I'm the busiest, most harassed man in the world, and even I manage to sleep a few hours every now and then."
Indeed, Zuko looked so harassed that no one would have disagreed with him, even if there weren't dozens of guards lurking about and waiting to blast anyone who ticked him off.
"Sometimes we drug her so that our healers can treat her injuries – which are all self-inflicted, by the way. I'd keep her drugged, but I've been told that could kill her. My men have to force feed her. It's a dangerous job. Even skilled firebenders have a hard time with someone who breathes blue fire. Then she bites and claws and struggles. Those men could be better employed elsewhere.
"The Avatar is coming later today or tomorrow. I've told him that I have no choice. He'll have to take her firebending. It's for her own good."
Zuko stopped, groped for his drink, grimaced when he noticed that all of the liquid had leaked out of the crack at the bottom. He stared into the glass for a moment. In turn, his companion scrutinized him. Doctor Soong, founder and director of the "Readjustment Center for the Psychically Unbalanced," plied a trade in the souls, thoughts, and memories of others. Zuko looked like a man whose thoughts were miles -- or years? – away. What secret vision was the Firelord gazing at in his mind's eye?
Zuko snapped out of it suddenly and turned toward his guest. "She can't stay here, and I need to know that she's secured, controlled, and monitored. I just can't deal with this too. My girlfriend's mother recommended you. Do you know-"
"Ah, yes. I remember the case perfectly."
"What is it that you do, precisely?"
"As you know, our facility is called the 'Readjustment Center for the Psychically Unbalanced'. Some vulgar individuals call it 'The Madhouse'. Maybe that's an apt description, but we considered carefully before choosing our official title. Tell me, Your Highness, what is madness?"
Zuko opened his mouth to speak, then stopped.
"Exactly. We don't have a working definition, for many reasons. There is no one form to madness, each case is unique. And, since every human being is unique, how do we decide when someone is mad rather than eccentric? Or inspired? Or Terrified? I could go on.
"And is there anything truly wrong with the 'mad' individual, or is 'madness' merely a term which we apply to unacceptable behavior? Most believe that madness is a flaw or illness of the mind. But how do we locate this flaw? After all, what is the mind? How does it work? How is it related to the soul, if the soul actually exists? What causes this illness? Is the cause physical?
"You get the point. Every time and place and culture has had its own beliefs about this subject. And every time and place and culture has had its own coping mechanisms. But no one has had a solution. Not yet."
Zuko looked thoughtful. "But you have a solution?"
"No, of course not. The problem is too vast to be solved in one lifetime. But that doesn't mean we can't try. I have…an approach."
"This is fascinating. Please go on."
"We don't know what causes disease either, but we treat the symptoms anyway. There is one symptom which every madman has in common: he or she often displays behavior which most people find abnormal or unacceptable. Children start learning about good and bad behavior from the moment of birth. Most people never stop learning. Given the proper instruction, why shouldn't people with unbalanced behavior patterns learn to readjust them? Now you understand our name."
The ghost of a smile crossed Zuko's face. "You think you can teach Azula to behave herself? Good luck."
"Any behavior pattern can be erased, modified, or instilled. Given the proper stimuli."
"What sort of stimuli?"
Doctor Soong shrugged and smiled. "It varies. It's a complex process, one that I've developed after years of research. And every case has its own program, tailored especially for its special needs."
"How have you managed to find so many cases?"
"At first, I had to learn from books. I also found a group of…ah…Earth Kingdom associates with similar goals and interests. They were a great help to me.
"Then, inspiration came. As you know, many of our soldiers are never the same after their military service. I convinced some powerful men that we could help these afflicted heroes. The military funds my project, and I take in their stricken brethren. Soon others were brought to me. Usually families have to care for their own – which can become a terrible or even impossible burden, especially for the poor-"
"Not just for the poor!" Zuko snapped.
If the doctor thought that Zuko sounded defensive, he didn't say anything, but merely inclined his head graciously.
"Of course, Your Highness. As I was saying, families will often turn their troubled kin out into the streets. I provide an alternative. Or, they are turned out, and the town will decide that these homeless and desperate souls are too troublesome to remain free. Again, they are brought to me.
"As far as I know, my facility is unique, in all the world."
Zuko looked skeptical. "Well, maybe you can do something with Azula, but I doubt it. She wasn't exactly normal before she started raving. Or even pleasantly dotty. More like, weird. Violently and aggressively weird. With mean and not cool for good measure. And-"
"Uh, yes. I see. At least I will be able to study her case. Maybe it will accomplish some good for others, if not for herself."
"That will be the only good she's ever done. Just keep her out of my hair. I'll provide you with all the funds you need, of course. And I do think we should discuss your security measures before we make the transfer. Do you…Godsdammit! Here comes my steward. Something must be up."
Doctor Soong looked over his shoulder. An officious-looking man was striding purposefully across the lawn towards them.
The doctor leaned forward urgently, looking animated for the first time that afternoon. "Sir! I need to make sure we understand each other while we're still alone. You want me to, as you put it, 'secure, control, and monitor' the Princess. In return for this service, you will provide me with all the funds I ask for. I may subject her to whatever procedures I see fit, and conduct my research. But you don't expect her to recover?" The doctor stared at Zuko intently.
"Of course! Isn't that what I just said?" Zuko's irritation level soared to new heights as he imagined what his steward was about to say to him. It didn't help that this idiot had inexplicably shoved his face too close to Zuko's own.
Although the Firelord was thinking evil thoughts about people who violated his personal space, the target of those evil thoughts suddenly relaxed. The doctor rose and bowed. "Your Highness, I think we understand each other perfectly."
In due course the Avatar took Azula's firebending. She promptly collapsed, and remained almost comatose for several days. An elite squad of firebenders transported the unconscious girl to her new home, a strange and secretive place in the colonies. There, she was given a room in the facility's maximum security wing. The room's walls were steel, the floor was steel, the door was steel, with a few bars at the top to admit air, and a small panel at the bottom to admit food. There were steel shackles on the walls, but she wasn't in them. Yet.
Eventually, she woke up. For the next month she lay in the dark on the metal floor. There was no light, and no furniture. Nor were there people. The meals came in through the panel in the door, but nobody ever stepped through the door. Or spoke through the door. She was alone…wherever she was.
Finally she got up and rapped on the great steel door with her knuckles. "I demand to speak to the Firelord," she announced clearly, and with a great deal of authority. She stepped back and waited.
A few minutes later a huge man stepped into the room, shedding light on its bleak walls with the fire in his hand. He was dressed as an imperial firebender, complete with skull mask. Azula stood straight and tall, with her chin up, arms folded over her chest. Her hawk eyes were focused..and angry. The soldier guessed that she was seriously pissed off.
"I wish to speak to the Firelord, and your superior will arrange this for me. That is all. You are dismissed."
He stared at her through the mask, and she stared back. Neither moved an inch. Finally the soldier left the room and closed the door behind him. He went straight to Doctor Soong's office, took off his helmet and ran a massive paw through his flattened hair.
"We might have a problem. That one's not crazy."
The doctor didn't bother to look up from his paperwork. "I've been assured that she is. I saw her screaming and howling myself."
"People lose it sometimes. Doesn't mean they're crazy."
"It doesn't matter if she's crazy or not. She's never leaving this place. The Firelord was very clear on that point."
"Are you sure? I don't want to get into trouble for messing around with royalty."
"We're fine. Why do you think he's giving us so much money? And His Highness even mentioned the Bai Jiang girl. You remember the one?"
The soldier thought for a moment. "The family embarrassment? The one who got pregnant?"
"The very one. Obviously, we're going to do a similar favor for the Firelord. His sister is embarrassing. And dangerous. So we make her disappear -- no questions asked. Really, you don't usually fuss like this. "
"So how long before we get rid of her?"
"Oh no. Nothing like that. If she dies at such a young age, people might suspect unpleasant things about the Firelord. Besides, the princess is famous for the strength of her will and the force of her intellect. She will be a fascinating and valuable test subject. "
The tall, powerful soldier turned around to leave. "As long as you're sure."