"Are you sure about this?" Zuko had said. "We're not exactly their favorite people right now."
Ursa was well aware of this. She herself had not been pleased with her son when she'd discovered that he had, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped his sister after she'd escaped from the hospital…and then let her escape from him. Azula had been found a few weeks ago, wandering aimlessly, muttering nonsense, and suffering from hypothermia due to being unable to control her body temperature. It was really only Zuko's status as Fire Lord which kept the hospital from filing charges.
But she had to do this. She had to at least try to set things right. So they'd filled out the paperwork which allowed release of confidential information to Ursa, and now she was about to make her first visit to the Mental Hospital for Highborn Ladies.
Judging by the shrieking coming from inside, not all of the patients agreed with this assessment. Ursa hoped it wasn't Azula making that racket…
Ursa started. She'd been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't even seen this man standing right in front of her!
"Oh! Forgive me!" she said.
"That's quite all right," the man answered. He bowed and said, "I am Doctor Yisheng. I'm in charge of your daughter's case."
Ursa looked him over. He was a middle-aged man, with his graying hair in a topknot and sporting a crisp medical uniform. Well, he looked competent enough, at least, if slightly harried.
Dr. Yisheng insisted on giving Ursa a tour of the grounds. To be honest, Ursa would have preferred to see Azula first thing, but she didn't want to give this man any more reason to dislike her.
For what this place was, it actually wasn't unpleasant in appearance. The hallways were wide, clean, and well-lit, and there were paintings decorating the walls at regular intervals. Every so often, they'd pass doors with numbers engraved on them, where Ursa supposed the patients lived.
"We function as both an acute-care hospital and a long-term facility," Dr. Yisheng said as if reading Ursa's mind. "Currently, we have twenty-eight long-term residents, ranging in age from preteen to mid-twenties."
They passed the room of the shrieking girl Ursa had heard earlier…who was evidently not Azula after all. Still, it gave Ursa a bit of pause to see how Dr. Yisheng just walked past the door without even looking at it. She understood that this must be a routine occurrence in this place, but that poor girl was obviously upset for some reason!
"The gardens are out that way," Dr. Yisheng continued while gesturing at a window. This lifted Ursa's mood. It was a nice day out, and she saw several patients sitting in the sunlight. There was a good-sized lawn, and autumn flowers in Fire Nation shades of red and gold were just coming into bloom.
"Shame you couldn't be here during summer…our fire-lily display is quite well-known in this area. Popular with the patients too."
Ursa nodded, trying not to show her slight yet growing irritation at this self-important man. Perhaps she was being too harsh on a man she had only just met, but something about him rubbed her the wrong way.
"We also have a wide range of hobbies and activities to keep our patients occupied. That's the art therapy room over there," Dr. Yisheng rattled on as they turned a corner. He gestured at a room where a girl of about twelve was at a small table, deeply occupied with drawing on a piece of paper as a nurse watched over her.
Ursa snapped to attention as she heard her daughter's name mentioned.
"The Princess Azula has actually proven to have quite the talent for painting…once she stopped making inappropriate doodles to try to get a reaction out of us, that is. It's possible she might even have a future as a professional artist. Her brother ordered special paints and brushes for her. Of course, we couldn't tell her where they came from, since she'd refuse to use them if she knew, but it seemed we were really starting to get a breakthrough with her, until…"
Here Dr. Yisheng paused, and Ursa finally had her opportunity.
"How is she?" she asked softly.
The doctor sighed exasperatedly, and replied, "To be frank, not good. She's been back more than three weeks, and she has yet to recognize any of us. She was at least on speaking terms with her art instructor before, but you'd never be able to tell looking at her now. We have to take her temperature several times a day, since she still has problems controlling it herself. And she'll attack anyone who comes in her room, and with the temperature checks added on to medication twice a day and an enema once a day, you can see how it's becoming a problem."
He saw Ursa raising an eyebrow at that last part, and explained more than a bit defensively, "The enemas are a necessary part of her treatment. Without them, she'll…I beg your pardon, Lady Ursa…she'll hold it until she makes herself sick."
"I see," said Ursa in a level voice, but she wasn't completely sure that she did. They made Azula undergo that every day, and then wondered why she was attacking them? Surely there were less invasive ways to get the same result!
Apparently the tour was over, because Dr. Yisheng looked her in the eye and said, "Now, before you visit her… I know that this is no fault of your own, but I hope you understand what an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing your son did. It was against medical advice for her to even leave temporarily, but all the rest…that was the worst that could have happened to her at this point in her treatment."
"Oh, I understand, doctor. And I think now he does, too," Ursa answered. She had been horrified when she'd learned the full version of events, and had wasted no time in letting Zuko know it.
"At least now I can say these things without worrying about being executed…but that's neither here nor there. Follow me, please." The doctor said briskly.
They turned off the main hallway onto a shorter, narrower one that ended in a heavy, reinforced door. An orderly was standing guard next to it. A look of shock came over his face at seeing Ursa, and he fell into a clumsy bow. This was one thing she hadn't missed about being royalty…she hated it when people were made uneasy by her presence.
"Anything to report?" Dr. Yisheng asked him.
"N-no sounds since I've been here, sir," the orderly replied as he straightened back up.
"Good. Now Lady Ursa," here Dr. Yisheng turned towards her, "I must warn you that we are not sure how the Princess will react to you. She will almost certainly exhibit disturbing behaviors, and we may have to intervene and sedate her if she starts to get out of control. Do not expect any miracles, or even for her to recognize you."
"I understand," Ursa said again. Part of her just wanted to turn around and head right back to the palace, where she'd be safe. But she knew she at least had to try!
"Stand back," the doctor ordered. Ursa did as she was told as the orderly undid a seemingly endless series of locks and bolts. The door laboriously swung open.
Ursa instinctively braced herself, fearing the worst. But…nothing. No fire, no crazed Azula lunging at her…not even any sound. At first, she couldn't see where Azula was, since there were no lights on in the room. Gradually, her eyes picked out some furniture…a bed with thick, obviously fire-resistant blankets, a table and chair that were scuffed but of good quality, a chest of drawers and some mostly-empty shelves, and the usual plumbing fixtures. And there was Azula near the sink. She was facing the wall, her back to them and her knees pulled to her chest. She was also very noticeably missing something.
"Great," muttered Dr. Yisheng, then said to Azula, "Princess Azula, please put your clothes back on."
That mumbled response was so different from the hysterical shrieking back in Hira'a that it was difficult to believe that this was the same person. And neither of these were anything like the Azula Ursa had known before.
Dr. Yisheng continued to try and persuade Azula.
"Put your clothes on."
"Princess, we have discussed this before. We took your temperature this morning. It's still low, so you need to wear your clothes. Otherwise you will get cold."
"No. Too hot," Azula said while visibly shivering.
Ursa started to say, "If this is a bad time…" but never got to finish her sentence. Almost as soon as she'd opened her mouth, Azula's back stiffened and she hissed, "You."
Before anyone could react, Azula shot up and turned around, still without clothes. Ursa thought she saw something unusual. Surely that couldn't be…? But she had no time to ponder it right then.
"YOU!" Azula repeated. "You took my baby!"
"She took my baby!" Azula screamed at Dr. Yisheng. "I wasn't a good enough daughter for her, so she took mine instead!"
Ursa was completely lost, but Dr. Yisheng looked excited.
"She recognized you! That's big progress!" he exclaimed.
"Azula, please!" Ursa shouted over the noise. She thought she should probably run, but her feet seemed frozen in place.
If Azula heard either of them, she gave no sign of it. Now being too enraged for words, she let out an eardrum-piercing shriek, and would probably have attacked Ursa had the orderly not jumped forward and expertly injected Azula with a sedative. In all the commotion, Ursa had almost forgotten he'd been there!
"Thank you," Dr. Yisheng said as Azula crumpled to the floor almost instantaneously. Then to Ursa, whose hand had flown up to her mouth, "She'll be fine…she'll just be asleep for a few hours. Now, Lady Ursa, may I ask you to step out and wait in the main hallway while we take care of this? We can talk after."
"Yes, of course." Ursa managed to get out, and she walked away, her ears still ringing and her head still spinning.
After a few minutes, during which Ursa had time to mostly regather her thoughts, Dr. Yisheng came back out.
"We should talk in my office," he said. This sounded more like a command than a request, but Ursa had no energy to argue.
They walked in silence, but as soon as the office door closed behind them, Ursa turned on the doctor.
"There's something you're not telling me," she accused, all her politeness having run dry. "What was this about me taking her baby? Does she think Kiyi is her daughter! She didn't even like her when they met!"
Try as she might, Ursa couldn't stop her voice from rising in pitch as she talked.
Dr. Yisheng shook his head.
"Well, no one knows for sure what's going on in her head…"
"That's not all! I know what I saw! Doctor, I have had three children…do you honestly think I wouldn't recognize stretch marks when I saw them?"
"Lady Ursa, please calm down…"
"What. Did you do. TO MY DAUGHTER?"
Ursa was generally not easy to make angry, but now she was livid. If these people had abused Azula…if this man had…
"Please, let me explain!" pleaded the doctor, sounding rattled for the first time.
"All right." Dr. Yisheng took a deep breath before he began.
"Sixteen months ago, Princess Azula gave birth to a daughter. The baby was severely deformed and only lived a few minutes. She must have gotten that baby confused with your own daughter. I can assure you, she was already pregnant when she was admitted, although not far enough along that she could have known at that point. If you're still unsure, I can get her medical records for you to look at."
Ursa couldn't find any words in response. To think of her daughter in agony for hours on end…probably while chained down to the bed…and she wasn't there for her! And then, after all that, to have her baby die right in front of her eyes…
"Lady Ursa?" the doctor prompted when Ursa still hadn't answered him.
Ursa finally managed to gasp out something…she wasn't quite sure what. Her focus was getting out of here as quickly as possible and getting back to the palace.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
This was the first thing Ursa said after she got back and found Zuko sitting by their old pond. Somehow, he had known what she was talking about without asking.
"Well, it's not like there was a good time to bring it up, Mom! What was I supposed to say? 'Hi mom, haven't seen you in years! Oh, by the way, Azula had a baby who died, and she's still a bit touchy about it, so please don't mention it around her'?"
Then Zuko flushed a bit and said more quietly, "Sorry. I guess Sokka's rubbing off on me a bit."
"No…no, you're right. It's just…are you sure no one at that hospital's abusing her?"
"Mom…I know Dr. Yisheng can be a bit of a jerk, but he would never, ever do something like that to a patient. I checked him out very carefully. To be honest, he wouldn't be my first choice, but…" he spread his hands helplessly-"not many people wanted the job."
"I'm sure you did everything you could," Ursa reassured him. "It must have been so hard for you, having to deal with this by yourself!"
"I …tried to visit. After. I thought maybe she needed someone to talk to, to help her grieve. That didn't go very well."
Ursa's heart went out to Zuko. He wasn't even out of his teens yet, and had to put up with so much just as Fire Lord…but to also have to deal with this? Now, at least, he'd have her.
"Do you have any idea who the father might have been?" she asked.
Ursa waited for Zuko to speak further, but he just looked at her sadly. Something was gnawing right at the edge of her subconscious, something she hadn't thought about in almost a decade. Then it suddenly came into focus, and her face drained of color.
"Lu Ten!" she gasped.
To say Zuko wasn't following her line of thought would be quite the understatement. He looked at her like she'd just grown a second head and said, "What?"
"It was the day Lu Ten and Iroh left for the siege…just as they were leaving, really. Lu Ten said he had to talk to me about something, but we never got the chance. He looked so upset, too. I felt bad, but I'd totally forgotten about it until now. And then that was around the time Azulon was so furious about something. I thought he just missed his son and was taking it out on us, but…"
She couldn't put it off the conclusion any longer. It hung unspoken in the air as Ursa fell to her knees from the force of her grief.
"Tell me I'm wrong!" she demanded. But Zuko couldn't meet her gaze.
"Mother, it's not your fault…" he tried. But it was, and they both knew it.
Ursa choked back a sob as she stood up and ran out of the courtyard, ignoring her son's calls after her. Somehow, she made it back to her family's suite of rooms.
"There you are!" Ikem said cheerfully as he got up from his chair. " I was just wondering when you'd be back…how did it…?"
But it was at that exact moment that the last tiny drop of Ursa's strength finally ran out. She collapsed bonelessly onto the floor and started crying harder than she had ever done in her whole life.
"What is it? What's wrong? Did something happen?" Ikem asked in a panic as he rushed to her. But Ursa had no answer.
Kiyi came out of her room to see what this commotion was about, but Ikem told her, "Go back to your room for now, honey. Mommy isn't feeling well; you can show her your drawings later." Kiyi looked very taken aback at the sight of her mother, a grown-up, crying, but seemed to sense that now was not the time for questions.
Obviously, Ikem wanted to know what had happened to turn his normally serene wife into this wreck, but he didn't say anything else except for murmured reassurances. He sat there on the red carpet, just holding Ursa, for what could have been hours.
Much later, she was able to tell him about the conclusion she'd reached. He looked shocked but not surprised, and vowed to help in any way he could.
The next morning, when she deemed herself presentable again, Ursa went to the messenger hawk mews to send a letter to Ba Sing Se. It was a short message…just one medium-length, interrogative sentence. By the end of the next day, she had her reply, which wasn't much longer than her original letter. Iroh regretfully confirmed Ursa's suspicions about what Lu Ten had seen…and then gave her a standing invitation to visit his tea house. Despite the grim situation, Ursa smiled a bit at that last part.
This time, it was Ikem who was wary as Ursa prepared to return to the mental hospital a few days later.
"Dear, please think this over! The way you were last time…I've never seen you like that before. Maybe you should let the doctors handle this…at least for now."
But Ursa was stubborn.
"No. I have to make amends even if it kills me!" she declared. But she did let Ikem escort her to the hospital and wait in the main hallway.
Dr. Yisheng ran up to her excitedly.
"You wouldn't believe it…she's had a complete turnaround!" he informed her. "She's recognized both me and her art instructor…well, she wasn't exactly civil, but we were expecting that. I think your visit actually did her good!"
Azula did look very different than she had less than a week ago. She was still painfully thin and had dark circles under her eyes and bruises on her arms, but she was sitting on her bed, fully clothed and with brushed hair, watching Ursa alertly.
"You again," she uttered.
"Me again," Ursa confirmed. Then to Dr. Yisheng, "Can we have some time alone?"
The doctor reluctantly agreed and closed the door, but continued to carefully observe them from outside.
Well, Ursa knew that Azula had little patience for small talk, so she decided to get right to it.
"Was Ozai the father of your child?" she asked bluntly.
Azula's face gave away nothing.
"And what is it to you?" she inquired after a pause.
"Azula, please. I know I've done wrong by you, and I want to make sure I'm there for you from now on." Then, because she just had to know, "How long was it going on?"
"You'll have to be a bit more specific than that, Ursa. I may be a monster, but I'm no mind-reader."
There were times that Ursa doubted that last statement, but she decided to play along and clarified, "How long was he…how long was he having intercourse with you?"
"Oh my, whatever should I say? My mother is here imagining her husband forcing himself upon his young daughter…dare I say she likes the thought?"
"Azula, what are you…?"
"I mean, we're both monsters, right? We were made for each other! Titillating concept, isn't it?"
"Azula, please, I didn't know!"
"Oh, I think you knew," Azula answered, her tone switching effortlessly from playful to cold. "You just didn't care enough to realize you did. You saw nothing that you didn't want to see."
Ursa wanted to argue this…but Azula was right. This had been happening right under her nose, and, intentionally or not, she'd been oblivious to it.
After a very awkward pause, Ursa tried talking again.
"I want to help you," she said. Azula snorted derisively.
"I can't change what happened in the past, Azula. I can't change that I made horrible mistakes. But I can try to be there for you in the future."
For a brief moment, Ursa thought she saw something flit across Azula's face, but whatever it was, it vanished as quickly as it appeared.
"Get out," Azula ordered, although not entirely angrily.
"Just think about it, okay? Your birthday's next month, maybe we could do something for that?"
"I said. Get out."
Ursa realized that she'd done all she could for today, and made to leave. But then Azula spoke up.
"Oh yes, before you leave…in case you were wondering…what Lu Ten saw wasn't sex per se. That didn't happen until you were long gone. Sorry to ruin your fantasies. And I liked it...well, most of the time."
Ursa decided it would be wise to not answer that. She started to open the door again, only for Azula to continue to talk.
"And one last thing…can you please tell those idiot doctors that I know Zuzu got me those paints, so they can stop bending over backwards pretending that they just happened to find them in some old storage closet?"
Something that could maybe be described as vaguely like a smile flitted on the corner of Azula's mouth.
"I'll tell them. Good-bye, Azula."
There was no response as the door opened to let Ursa out.
"Did it go better this time?" Ikem asked when they met up again.
Ursa thought. Well, it was obvious Azula still hated her, and that might not change for months or years or even ever. But still…she felt like a seed had been planted.
"Actually, I think it did," she answered.