Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Bending, Chapter 10

Katara's eyes fluttered open. She tried to remember what had happened before she blacked out. Everything seemed unclear. She remembered a man recognizing Zuko, the fear that went through her. Then she remembered the same man attacking her.

"Wha-?" She sat up quickly, expecting a jolting pain, since that was the last memory she had before she passed out. But surprisingly, the pain was not there.

The room was dark. Katara stared around, trying to get her bearings. She was in a tent of some kind, a drab brown sort of fabric. Perhaps like something the water tribe hunters might construct on a trip, though of thinner material. The furnishings were minimal – some blankets and extra clothes in neat piles along the wall. A strange woman sat in the corner, rough dark hair down to her shoulders. She had a kind face, and her hands were folded on her lap. Upon seeing her patient awake, she smiled.

"How are you feeling, my dear? You were asleep for quite a while." Her voice sounded soft and nurturing.

Katara rubbed her head. She touched the side of her face. Last she recalled, it was pretty nasty there. Now she just felt the lightest line of raised skin above her cheek. Had her injury been just a dream? It'd felt so real.

"I'm... feeling fine," she heard herself muttered vaguely, still looking around. Then she spotted the one other person in the tent. He was laying down on a single tan blanket.

Zuko. Katara almost called out his name, then she remembered they were supposed to be in hiding. So she knelt down next to him and tucked a piece of hair behind his ear. She could see him breathing, but his body lay so still, and his skin looked unhealthy and pale.

"Is he…?" Katara started to say.

"He'll live," the woman said. "But he's very tired. Very tired." She walked up and pulled a blanket up to Zuko's shoulders, staring at him a good long while before she spoke again.

"This boy…" she said. Her voice had a distant sound to it, like her mind was lost somewhere else. She motioned to the side of her own face. "How did he get that mark?"

Katara swallowed. While she and Zuko had talked about fake names, they hadn't discussed what excuse Zuko would give for his scar. Katara didn't expect anyone to question it. Just some guy from the Southern Water Tribe who got on a firebender's bad side and paid for it. It wasn't like the firebenders had played nice with the Water Tribes these past few years.

"A firebender did it," Katara said clumsily. "During a raid on his village."

The woman nodded like she not only knew Katara was lying, but also like she knew the truth. "I've seen many people with scars," she said. "But most have them on arms or hands, because when a firebender attacked them, they shielded their faces." She put up her arms as if blocking an attack. "Like this."

"They attacked in his sleep," Katara said.

The woman cocked her head to the side, as if looking for a way to contradict Katara's story. Her face started to look less kind now. "His family… I can't imagine how they must've felt."

"I wouldn't know," Katara said, lying yet again. "We haven't been traveling together that long." This time, however, the woman didn't seem to notice her lie at all. Instead, she just kept staring at Zuko's face.

"If anyone did this to my child," she said quietly. "I'd kill them."

The voice sent chills down Katara's spine. She had no doubt that their hostess meant every word. She decided to refrain from any more talk that evening and get to sleep early. The sooner they got away from this woman, however kind her intentions, the safer the two of them would be.

#

Katara woke up early the next morning and already had everything packed and ready to go before either Zuko or their hostess woke up. She walked over and nudged him awake. To her great relief, he stirred right away. He still looked awful, pale and sleep-deprived, but it was a step above unconscious.

"What day is it?" Zuko asked, his voice groggy and unfocused.

"Huh?"

"The moon cycle… what day?"

Katara tried to remember what the sky had looked like before she fell asleep last night. Strange, without her waterbending, the movements of the moon weren't nearly as strong in her mind as they had been.

"It's waning, I know that," she said. "It's been getting thinner and thinner as we've travel."

"I thought so," Zuko mused. "It was so hard to heal you." He nodded towards Katara. "And I still didn't get it right, did I?"

Katara brought her hand up to her cheek and felt the faint scar under her eye. "That?" She tossed back her hair. "If I recall anything from that night, that firebender nearly burned half my face off. You healed all that." She smiled and suddenly the tent felt a lot quieter than it had a moment ago. She stared into Zuko's bright blue eyes. They almost looked natural on him, after all that traveling together. He was staring at her with such intensity that she couldn't help but wonder if he thought the same about her.

"Well," she said, clearing her throat. "We'd better get moving. I've packed everything we need." She leaned down and whispered, just in case their hostess was a light sleeper. "That woman who took us in. She seems nice and all, but I think she's a bit... unstable. We should leave right away."

"Um, yeah, about that," Zuko said. He spread his fingers apart, a shaky motion. "Unless that moon plans on re-appearing midday, I don't think I'm getting very far today."

Katara didn't like the sound of that. They couldn't stay in one place too long or they'd get caught. Plus, that woman who'd taken them in seriously creeped her out.

"I can move my hands a little," Zuko went on. "And I feel like I could waterbend perfectly fine. I just… can't get the bloodbending quite right."

That sounded promising. "So, can you walk normally then?"

Zuko laughed. "Katara, if I can feed myself today, I'll be impressed." The sound finally roused their hostess from her sleep, and she sat up groggily. Katara might've slapped Zuko if he wasn't so weak already. This woman already knew Zuko needed to recover, she didn't need to know how much.

"I'm so sorry, children," she said, rubbing her eyes and pulling the blankets awake. "I didn't realize you were awake already. Do you need something for breakfast?"

The moment Zuko saw her, his eyes widened. He turned his head to the side and made a coughing, gagging sort of sound. It was a bit melodramatic in Katara's opinion, but then again, she couldn't fault him for wanting to hide his face after what had happened the previous night.

"Is he sick?" the woman asked, stepping closer and reaching out a concerned hand.

"No, no, he's fine," Katara said quickly, rubbing Zuko's back. "But, yes, breakfast would be lovely. Thank you so much."

The woman stood there and gave a hard stare to both Katara and Zuko. Still, she nodded and exited the tent without an argument. Zuko wouldn't face Katara until she left.

"It's okay, you can cut the theatrics," Katara told him. Zuko finally turned to face her. He still looked very pale.

"Theatrics?" he asked, shaking his head. "Katara, did that woman act like she knew me? Did she say anything about me last night?"

"Um, she…" Katara wasn't too happy about admitting how bad a liar she'd felt like last night. "Well, she asked a lot about how you got your scar."

Zuko groaned.

"But, I made up a story for you," Katara went on. "See, you were asleep in your home in the Southern Water tribe, and then Fire Nation soldiers came and attacked you in your sleep, so you didn't have any chance to defend-"

"Katara, she knows you're lying. She knew who I was the second she found us."

Katara pouted a bit at this. "Hey, I know my deception skills aren't the best, but give me a little credit. It wasn't like I announced anything."

"No, no, it's got nothing to do with that," Zuko said. "She knows you're lying because she's my mother."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Bending, Chapter 9

Katara nodded down yet another alleyway, and Zuko followed her. They'd been approaching some sort of market, and the mass of people looked near impossible to work through. It had been three days since they left the palace, and so far, no one had given them any trouble, not even any strange looks. It seemed to be as Sokka had said, everyone just assumed he was a visitor from the Water Tribe. Zuko brushed his hands against the side of an old building. Small side streets had both good and bad points. On one hand, it kept them away from large crowds and Zuko figured that even in disguise, the less people who saw him, the better. On the other, if anyone did want to corner them, a quiet alley would be the ideal place to do it.

"Hello there, your majesty." The voice sent chills down Zuko's spine. He hadn't even realized someone was behind them until the man's breath was at his neck.

Katara impressively kept her wits about her and put on a convincing insulted face.

"Excuse me?" she said. "My friend Rokka here is just a representative from the Southern Water Tribe. He's not a leader there." Before she had the chance to move forward, however, another man darted out from behind a corner and stood right at her back. Neither had drawn weapons, Zuko noted. Of course, if they were skilled firebenders, they hardly needed to.

"Your sister's looking for you," the man next to Zuko whispered. "Now, if you'll just come quietly with us, this doesn't have to get ugly."

Right, because walking right into Azula's death trap isn't ugly. He had a plan worked out in his head for how this would work. First, it was best to get their guards down by going along with them a little ways. Then he could find the perfect opening when their backs were turned, and…

…and Katara really didn't follow the same strategy. With a flick of her hand, she'd already thrown a small flame in their enemies' direction, causing them to jump back and ready themselves for a full-on battle. Katara readied a firebending stance herself, pausing just a moment to narrow her eyes at Zuko.

"A little help would be nice," she said.

A little subtlety would've been nice too. Zuko said nothing and readied an attack position as well, but couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. Katara glared at him like he was the stupidest person ever born.

"You didn't bring any water with you?"

"Hey, I'm not used to having to carry anything to use my bending, all right?" he snapped back. "I mean, can you imagine having to carry a torch with you everywhere or hope you get lucky enough to be standing near a lantern when you firebend? How stupid would that be?"

"Then find some water, you idiot!"

Zuko looked desperately around him. At the end of the alleyway, he saw a small fountain. Perfect, he thought. Or rather, it would've been perfect if he could call the water from this far a distance. Cursing himself for his stupidity, Zuko ran towards the water source, with one of the men on his tail and the other fighting off Katara.

Their enemies were both firebenders, for sure. Zuko could feel the hot flames behind him, each barely missing an arm or a leg. His mind was a blur as he focused on nothing but running, nothing but getting within range of the water. At last, he reached out his hand and a large jet of water came towards him so fast, he had to sidestep it. It pummeled the guy chasing him and knocked him unconscious to the ground. An excellent start. He turned to see how Katara was faring and saw it wasn't nearly as well.

The other firebender had Katara pinned to the ground, his hand inches from her face. She turned her head this way and that to avoid him, but getting out of his grip proved impossible. And no matter how fast Zuko ran, he could not get there fast enough. He watched in horror as the flames erupted from the man's fingertips, flowing onto Katara's exposed skin. Her scream pierced Zuko's ears. He felt a moment of fear, then his body was overcome with rage. He ran forward, barely aware of his own actions. The water from the nearby fountain lept up and came alongside him, split, and hardened into a blade of ice in each hand. He thrust the weapons forward, catching the man off-guard.

He jumped back, barely missing being wounded on the arm. Katara, still gasping in pain, had enough of her wits about her to roll away from danger. Covering the injured side of her face with one hand, she threw a line of fire in the man's direction. Now outnumbered, he threw up his hands in surrender, and disappeared down the road.

Zuko's first intuition was to follow him, hunt him down and make him pay for the pain he'd caused. Then he heard Katara's voice, quiet, whimpering. She knelt down on the road, clutching her face and leaning over. Zuko ran to her side. Even with her fingers hiding most of the injury, he could tell it was bad. Gingerly, he tried to pull her hand aside.

"It... it hurts," Katara whispered.

"I know," Zuko said. "I know, but I need to see it."

Reluctantly, Katara moved her arm and Zuko saw her face in full view. Her right eye was swollen shut, the skin around it red and raw from the burn. The sight brought far too many memories to his mind. He heard his 13-year-old self crying for mercy and getting none of it. Instantly, the cold dagger in his hands melted into an orb of floating water. It rested on Katara's face and began to glow. Zuko concentrated all his energy into healing the injury. He could see the skin starting to heal, but only lightly. This wasn't working. Not as well as he needed it to. A bead of sweat dripped down Zuko's face as he concentrated harder. He had to heal her. He couldn't let it scar. Not Katara's beautiful face. He would restore it, even if it took hours, even if he had to spend all the energy he had.