It seemed that flying bedpans were a common occurrence around these parts. The Fire Nation Capital Asylum was not a place Iroh would ordinarily have visited, but Zuko had begged him for moral support with sweaty hands. And so there they were, dressed in royal robes with their royal hairpieces, dodging flying excrement.
"I guess we should have brought umbrellas," Iroh joked.
Zuko didn't smile. He was too busy wiping his hands on his red robes. "What if she's still evil? And still crazy?"
"Then you can run out the door and never come back," Iroh said. "She can't firebend right now. What's the worst that can happen?"
Zuko swallowed and rubbed his hands together. "I don't want her to be crazy. I just want her to be normal. Healthy."
"That would take a miracle," Iroh muttered.
"She's this way," the nurse said. Most of the white strands in her black here were flying in an invisible breeze as she moved.
They followed her down white corridors. Iroh tried to ignore the shrieks and moans from the cells. Presently, the nurse unlocked an unremarkable cell and let them in.
"Call if you need any help," she said, then bolted off to her next emergency.
Azula was lying on her side, back turned to them. Her ankle was shackled to the foot of the bed. Her hair was in a simple braid, and two mitts were tied around her hands. That was probably related to the scabbed-over claw marks on her cheek and neck. She seemed reasonably clean and well-groomed, but then again this hadn't been a surprise visit.
"Azula?" Zuko said.
Iroh saw her eyelashes flutter, but she gave no other sign that she'd heard her name.
Zuko sat next to her on the bed. "Azula, can you hear me?"
Azula murmured something that Iroh couldn't hear. Zuko's scar seemed to glow red as the rest of his face lost its color.
"What did she say?" Iroh asked.
"She wants me to kill her," Zuko said. He touched her shoulder, and she winced and pulled away from him. "What's the matter?" Zuko asked her.
Iroh joined him at Azula's bedside. He untied the red robe and pulled it off his niece's arms, leaving her wearing a white camisole underneath a silver mesh corset. Azula's arms were covered in bruises which ranged from yellow and fading to fresh and purple. She didn't say a word as they undressed her; in fact, her yellow eyes glazed over and her spirit seemed to leave the room completely.
"She's so thin," Zuko said. "And someone's been hitting her."
"It's possible she did that to herself," Iroh cautioned.
"Yes, Uncle, I'm sure she put this hand-shaped bruise on her own back," Zuko snapped, pointing to Azula's back.
Iroh joined him at the head of the bed and saw that Azula did indeed have a near-perfect handprint on one shoulder blade. The print was larger than Iroh's hand.
"It's like someone slapped her really hard," Zuko said.
Either that or someone had pressed all their weight onto her shoulder in order to hold her down. Iroh didn't mention that.
"I have to get her out of here," Zuko said.
"Who will take care of her?" Iroh asked. "You have duties and responsibilities as Fire Lord."
"I'll hire a nurse," Zuko said. "I'll hire the Kyoshi warriors to make sure she's safe. I'll figure something out. I can't leave her here. She may be crazy and evil, but she's my sister."
Iroh sighed. "I suppose as long as she can't firebend, she's not much of a threat," he conceded.
Zuko hugged Azula, who remained wherever she had fled to when they'd undressed her. Her body was limp, seeming as pliable in Zuko's arms as string.
"I'm going to get you out of here, Azula," Zuko said into her hair. "Does that sound good?"
Azula stirred. "What?"
"Do you want to go home?"
She gave him a suspicious look. "Don't play games with me."
"I'm not." Zuko struggled to put her robe back on, tying it with a clumsy knot. "Come on, we'll leave right now."
He melted the chain attaching her to the bed. Azula tried to sit up. She got halfway up before flopping helplessly against the pillow.
"It's okay," Zuko said. "I can carry you." He cradled her like a baby, lifting her smoothly off the bed.
"Do you need help?" Iroh asked.
"No." Zuko's jaw was clenched tightly. "I've carried tea trays heavier than her. Can you get the door?"
They marched out the front door with Azula still dressed in her robe, part of a chain dangling from her ankle. No one questioned the Fire Lord.
Back at the palace, Azula slept for nearly two days straight, according to the Kyoshi warrior assigned to watch her. When she finally awoke, she seemed quieter than before, if just as paranoid and unpleasant. Iroh observed her long enough to make sure she wasn't ill or making plans to steal the throne from Zuko. Zuko sat with her for most of that afternoon.
"How is she?" Iroh asked when his nephew finally joined him for tea.
"Broken," Zuko said. "But she seems more like herself now."
"I'm not so sure that's a good thing," Iroh said.
"She can barely breathe with that device squeezing her," Zuko said. "She can't even light her fingers on fire. And her muscles have gotten so weak that I don't think she could move much even without the corset."
"I hope you are not thinking of taking it off of her," Iroh said, trying to conceal his alarm.
"I'm not stupid," Zuko said. "I still have the scars from when she almost killed me." He thumped his chest. "But she was sick then. Maybe when she gets better…"
"And what if she never gets better?" Iroh asked. "Are you going to let her live so close to where you sleep? You have enough problems with assassins as it is."
"About that," Zuko said. "I was thinking that Ba Sing Se might be a good place for her to recover."
Iroh took a swig of calming tea. "I don't think I like where this is going."
"You changed my life, Uncle," Zuko said. "I don't trust anyone else to take care of her."
"You don't even know if she's well enough to travel that far, Zuko. It is a very long journey to Ba Sing Se."
"Then you two can stay in our home on Ember Island until she can travel," Zuko said. "She needs you, Uncle. She needs someone to give her weird advice that doesn't make sense at the time, about our father's abuse and finding her own path and making her own destiny."
"I don't think there's any hope for her," Iroh said bluntly.
"A lot of people could have said that about me," Zuko reminded him.
"You were different."
"Because I had you! I knew you loved me, and I knew my mother loved me wherever she was, and I eventually made a bunch of friends who loved me. Azula's never really had anyone but our father, and you know what a great dad he's not. We kind of abandoned her. It's partly our fault she turned out crazy and evil."
"Did she tell you that?"
"No. I don't think she'd want us to get any credit for that." Zuko sat back. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think Azula needs… love."
Iroh drank more tea to avoid answering. Azula had never been as friendly and likeable as Zuko. But, now that Iroh reflected on it, he had never really made an effort to be friendly with her, at least not in a way she could understand. He had treated her like he'd imagined little girls ought to be treated, pretending that her fondness for swordfighting and warfare didn't exist. Since she'd gotten older, he'd treated her as Ozai's insane secret weapon. Perhaps that had been a mistake. After all, she did share Zuko's lineage. Zuko's conflicting bloodline had led to a fever, but maybe Azula's had led to insanity. Perhaps if he focused on the the similarities between her and Zuko, rather than the differences, he could learn to love her the way he loved Zuko. The pleading look his beloved nephew was giving him made up his mind.
"I will do it," Iroh said at last. "I can't promise she will get better, but I will keep her safe and give her my 'weird advice'."
Zuko nearly dropped his teacup in his rush to hug Iroh. "Thank you, Uncle!"
Iroh just shook his head, not sure what he'd gotten himself into.