Friday, June 26, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 15

Got pretty sick last week, so my apologies for the random silence. Double chapters this week to make up for it. :)

Zuko wanted to scream. He couldn't be here again, helpless, easy to manipulate. He'd left the palace so he could become stronger, so this wouldn't happen again. He listened for the sound of the Kyoshi warriors fighting, but it seemed they too had been cornered. All he could hear was Katara's breathing. She'd moved so her lips were practically at his ears.

"Zuko," she whispered so faintly he could barely make it out. "There's a large beam above our heads. Let's jump for it.'

He glanced up. The beam in question was so far out of jumping range, it was laughable. "Katara, there's no way. I don't even know if Ty Lee could."

"I'm going to go for it first," Katara said. "You're going to use bloodbending to give me a boost."

Zuko stared at her, wondering if she'd gone completely insane. "Are you suggesting I levitate you?"

"You could send a stream of water up there. Why not me?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you're not a stream of water."

That last part was loud enough that one of the guards shot a warning flame in his direction. "Hey, enough whispering. Are you coming quietly or not?"

"I'm giving you permission. It's okay. I'm going to jump on three. One…"

Zuko shook his head. What was wrong with her?


She'd just explained to Ty Lee the dangers of this, right? So she knew full well how delicate it was, how difficult to keep the target safe and how easy to hurt them. How could she ask him to--

"…three!" Katara leapt up. Zuko yelled out in frustration. But her feet had already left the ground; the guards were already to attack her. He had no choice. He held out his arms and concentrating everything on lifting her higher. Just like a pool of water. But so much more precious and delicate that that. He concentrated everything on keeping her safe. He'd done it before. He'd never known the sensation of putting his all into bending like that before. Maybe that was why the lightening had never come to him. He'd never been able to put his total focus there before. But this… this was everything.

Suddenly, Zuko realized that he didn't have to concentrate anymore. Katara was staying suspended in the air on her own, gripping the beam far above them. He released his power over her, and she fired down a series of flames onto the guards' heads. The group of them were so bewildered at what had just happened, their reaction time was horrifically slowed. Then, to add to their confusion, Zuko collapsed. He didn't actually mean to; bloodbending Katara up into the air had taken more energy than he thought. But several of them stood back in surprise, and the rest of them scattered to get out of range of Katara's attack.

I have to get up. I have to help her fight. He flexed his fingers. The movement was right, but he could barely lift his arms; they felt so heavy. Just then, he felt Katara helping him to his feet.

"I'm sorry," she said worriedly. "It was a stupid idea. I should have thought about how much that would drain you."

"It's fine," he muttered, even though it was painfully obvious how not fine he was. Behind him, he heard the sound of several people collapsing to the ground. He looked back to see Ty Lee and the others with a group of fallen guards at their feet.

"Sheesh! Couldn't get a hit in to chi block them, waving that fire all over the place," Ty Lee said, blowing a piece of hair out of her face. "Now we've got some room to maneuver." A guard yelled and charged at her, but she easily sidestepped it, nailing him in the back and sending him down on the ground with his fellows.

"We can handle ourselves," Suki said, preparing her fan. "You two go ahead."

Zuko smiled and nodded. Then he took a long slow breath and straightened himself up. Still with Katara's support, he turned and addressed the guards.

"I am not a traitor," he announced. "I'm going to see my sister. But I'm doing it on my terms!" He took a few steps towards the door that led to the heart of the palace. His strength wasn't coming back nearly as fast as he wanted, but it was coming. He would do this. His friends would help him do this. Katara seemed to sense his thoughts and smiled. Then she threw the door open. Zuko wanted nothing more than to go sprinting down the hallway, but the best he could manage was a quick shuffle as Katara continued to support him. Even so, he could feel a bit of strength coming back. The hall was clear, at least. It seemed Azula had concentrated her forces in that single room. Well, the preliminary forces, anyway. No doubt there would be more.

"Why did you tell me to do that? After all that talk with Ty Lee about how dangerous bloodbending is?"

Katara smiled warmly at him. "Because I knew you could do it if you were pushed to. Especially on someone who was a willing target. Focusing on Azula would've been a whole different mess. But, hey, on this," she gave him the most annoying grin, "on this, I trusted you."

He turned a bit red at those words. It wasn't like people told him too often that they trusted him to be able to get anything right. Even his uncle seemed hesitant to trust his judgment at times. Not that he'd earned a whole lot of trust. But it felt good to start getting some back. Especially from Katara.

Zuko realized that his face had grown warmer, and he couldn't figure out why. He didn't… like Katara, did he? And even if he did, there was hardly a worse time to be thinking about it. He breathed deeply and picked up his pace as best he could.

The path to the throne room was short, but not clear. They ran into at least half a dozen guards on the way. Not all of them fought; he noticed at least two running ahead, no doubt to inform Azula they'd entered. Zuko gritted his teeth as he sprayed water at one guard's feet, turning it to ice and freezing the guard in place. He would have rather faced two more people than lose their element of surprise. Against Azula, they needed every advantage they could get. But Katara's words poured a confidence into him that hadn't been there shortly ago. With the four guards down, they continued on. He could see the door to the throne room, so close he could touch it--

The grand double doors swung open before he got to the handle. And there (his stomach turned at the sight), stood Azula. Her arms were crossed, and she had that smug smile that seemed permanently etched onto her face.

"Welcome, dear brother," she said. "I was wondering when you'd show up."

Zuko and Katara hurried into the room. Zuko could feel his energy draining again. He'd done too much in that last fight; he should've conserved his strength. On instinct, he crouched into a firebending stance, even though the logical side of his brain reminded him that it wouldn't do anything. Azula laughed and strode over until she stood only inches from his face. Zuko glanced around them. Azula had planned for his return, all right. He could see the entire palace staff standing around the huge throne room. A safe distance from the fight they expected to erupt, but eagerly watching to see if the rumors Azula had spread were true. Watching to see if Zuko had betrayed his firebending and his country.

"Nice outfit," she said, nodding down at the Water Tribe clothes he still wore. "I guess you wanted to make your confession nice and official, then?"

Zuko gritted his teeth. Some part of his brain wanted to bloodbend her right here and now. If she had a clue what he could do to her, she wouldn't be bragging. She'd be begging for mercy.

And then what would that make me? he thought. If not a monster and a traitor, even moreso than she says I am?

He lowered his hands, not into a waterbending stance, but simply leaving them loose at his sides.

"Zuko, what are you--" Katara started to say, but Azula wouldn't let her finish. With one hand, she shoved Zuko to the ground. With the other, she prepared her fire. Her blue flame hovered within an inch of his neck as she held him pinned. He could feel its heat, ready to burn through his throat as soon as Azula got mad enough to do it.

"You're a waterbender," she said through an ever-maddening smile. "Admit it for everyone to hear."

Zuko held his grip on Azula's arm, trying and still failing to push it away. Then it felt like a fog had melted away from his mind. He did have a way to beat Azula. And it was by doing exactly what she demanded.

"Yes, I'm a waterbender," he said quietly.

Her eyes widened in shock. "What did you say?"

Zuko didn't answer immediately. He focused his mind not just on keeping his own body moving but on hers as well. He rotated his arm and felt Azula's pressure on his shoulder lessen. Then he yanked his arm out from under her and sent a torrent of water cascading at her chest. It hit her full force and she toppled backwards. The blue flame was quickly extinguished.

"I said, I'm a waterbender," Zuko repeated. He stood so everyone could see, spoke loud enough that everyone could hear. All around him, people gasped, pointed, and whispered. There was no backing out of this now.

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 14

Zuko was disappointed to learn the Kyoshi warriors did not, in fact, know any secret methods of getting into a heavily guarded palace undetected. He knew a few of the least guarded entrances, of course. And maybe if they'd had Toph here, she could've found a way for them to tunnel in. But realistically, they had to be ready for a fight. The only question was where and with whom. One of the Kyoshi warriors claimed she could do a bit of earthbending, but not enough to break down any major walls. If anyone happened to throw a small rock at Zuko or Katara's head, she'd be happy to help out there.

It was a long journey back to the palace and Zuko made most of it in silence. Every step of the way, he second-guessed himself. What if they were moving too early? What if Azula had hurt Aang or Toph… okay, she probably couldn't hurt Toph, but Sokka or any of the palace staff still loyal to him? What had she done in the capital in his absence? The only thing he was sure of was her takeover was not public knowledge yet; even Azula knew that overthrowing two firelords in the same month would've caused more chaos than she could handle.

Zuko looked out over the horizon as the group scaled a series of cliffs leading up to the entrance he suspected was their best bet. In preparation for the day of black sun, his father had left an impressive labyrinth of secret tunnels leading in and out of the palace. The man had assumed in his overconfidence that no one could find the tunnels who didn't know about them in the first place.

Well, that'd be his first mistake right there. He looked out over the horizon and at least took comfort in the that fact that everything in the capital seemed normal enough. Maybe even Azula couldn't cause too much damage over a few days.

"We're almost there," he whispered. Katara glared at him for stating the obvious. He ignored her. "I don't think Azula will attack me directly," he went on, pulling himself up the final slope. He almost slipped and fell, with Suki catching him and pulling him to safety. "At least, not in private. I'm pretty sure she wants a crowd."

"So, what exactly do you think she's told all the guards about you?" Katara asked.

"Probably to capture me and bring me to her."

Katara crossed her arms. "Well, here's a novel idea. Have you thought about trying to get yourself captured?"

"Oh, right, get me in that waterless prison again and you in another freezer. No thanks."

He pointed in the direction they needed to walk and motioned for everyone to follow. Katara sighed, but fell into line. Zuko wanted to sigh too. Did she actually think that he'd gotten so much better at bloodbending in this short space of time that he could get himself free if Azula captured him? She had way too much confidence.

"Okay, I don't get it," said Ty Lee. "The way you two have talked, it sounds like your bloodbending has only been getting better each day. So why can't you just bloodbend Azula?"

The other warriors looked at Ty Lee like she'd gone insane. Zuko mostly looked at the ground.

"I… I'm not sure if I can do that," he said. "It takes a lot of concentration just to use it on myself, and--"

"Okay, yeah, but you waterbend at the same time. It can't be that much different, can it?"

He still didn't look up at her. Really, the ground was absolutely fascinating right now. Way easier to look at the pretty leaves than to explain just how uncomfortable he felt about her suggestion.

"Do you know what it feels like to control someone else's body like that?" That was Katara's voice. Strange how she sounded so serious and quiet at the same time.

"I know how it feels to stop someone from moving," Ty Lee retorted.

"That's not the same," Katara replied. Zuko chanced to look up now. Katara was holding her hand out, as if grasping an invisible ball. Rays of warm sunlight danced across her palm. "Imagine trying to walk a tightrope."

"I am pretty good at that."

"Well, imagine you're pretty awful at it and then imagine that one little slip and it's not you that's in danger. It's someone else. Someone who has no way to defend themselves against you." She tightened her hand into a fist. "Bloodbending takes a person's life in your hands. Literally. It's nothing to mess around with."

"Well, you better think about messing around with it," Ty Lee said, walking ahead of them both. "'Cause I can promise you, Azula's got no problem using everything she's got."


Zuko was impressed. The secret entrance that had been built into the palace for the day of black sun had actually been left without guards. He and the others snuck in without encountering any obstacles. It felt really good at first, walking down the corridor, straight for Azula. There weren't even any tributaries along this path to get them lost; it just ended at a large storage room. From there, it would be a simple walk up to--

Then Zuko's stomach dropped. Was he really that clueless? Azula knew the palace as well as he did. This path would only be left clear if she was a complete idiot. And that was one thing she had never been. He was probably walking into her hand and only now realizing it.

"Hang on," he whispered. The small bit of sunlight that had been at the entrance to the tunnel was long behind them now. Still, he heard the girls' footsteps stop. "I think we have to turn back," he said. "Find another way in."

"Zuko," Suki whispered in reply. "We're almost there. Why on earth would we--"

Just then, the area around them was flooded with orange light. The tunnel had ended. Now, lit torches lined the walls of the storage room, just as Zuko remembered it, and no less than two dozen Fire Nation guards were poised to attack.

Katara reacted first. "Get into open space!"

No one had to be told twice. The Kyoshi warriors moved with all the speed and efficiency they were famous for, heading off to the left of the storage room and distracting a good half of the guards. However, it was clear the guards had their orders to keep their focus on Zuko and Katara, because the other half of the group quickly had them surrounded. Katara aimed a fireball at one of them, but he dispersed it easily. Zuko tried throwing a spray of water at another. A wave of heat from her hands turned most of it to useless steam. Zuko gritted his teeth.

"So it's exactly as Azula said," the soldier spat, "You're not our leader. You've betrayed your own nation to join the Water Tribe!"

"No, I… that's not how it happened--" Zuko couldn't find the words. And the guards didn't give him a chance, either. Every one of them had a flame ready.

"Azula wants you in the throne room," another said. "You can come quietly or make this difficult. You decide."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 13

Ten minutes later, the group sat around a fire. "Second dinner", as Ty Lee had dubbed it, consisted some boiled root vegetables and rice. The space was devoid of words and instead filled with the sounds of the crackling fire, the midnight scurrying of the woodland animals, and the clinking of everyone's chopsticks against their bowls. It was Ty Lee who finally broke the silence between the human beings.

"Y'know," she said, nabbing another clump of rice and putting it in her mouth, "this has always been a problem with you, Zuzu."

Zuko groaned at the nickname, but decided it best not to waterbend at the people he was asking for help. "What," he said in the best controlled tone he could manage, "has always been a problem with me?"

"You hate looking weak. I mean, really hate it. What exactly would've happened if you would've just… y'know, kept your firebending powers from the start?"

He groaned. "What do you think would've happened? I would've looked--" He cut off his own words, searching for some synonym. When it didn't come fast enough, Ty Lee got a gleeful look of triumph on her face.

"Uh-huh. That's what I thought."

Zuko scowled and rubbed his forehead, mostly to break eye contact with Ty Lee. Suki was a little more sympathetic. "I think I understand where you were coming from," she said gently. "It's natural that you wanted to look strong as a new leader. And you couldn't have known that all this would happen. But now that it has… have you considered leveling with everyone?"

He only grunted in reply. Of course he'd considered it. Did she think he was an idiot? But the problem was that every time he thought about, he didn't see any other option than to admit everything. The fact was, all the palace staff now thought he was a traitor to their country. Anytime Azula wanted to spread that message farther, she had the perfect crowd of witnesses to do it with. And of course, all he had to do was show his face in the Fire Nation again and it would confirm her story. Surely giving them the truth couldn't make him seem worse than that.

"Hey, don't look so down," one of the other Kyoshi warriors piped up. "We can help you get back into the palace, no problem."

Again, Zuko did not reply. Then, Katara's hand was on his shoulder. "We'll all help," she whispered. "Let's do this together."


The group stayed out in the woods that night. Only Zuko couldn't sleep. The night air was filled with the sounds of crickets, scampering animals, and Katara's slow and rhythmic exhales. They weren't in the same little tent, of course. That would've just been uncomfortable. But still, he knew her breathing. She snored.

Zuko sat up and rubbed his face. He'd suffered insomnia enough times to know when sleep was a lost cause. Besides that, the moon was only making movement easier. It would be a good use of time to get up and practice. Carefully, he tiptoed outside and headed for the creek beside their campsite. He watched the water's surface rippling like liquid metal under the moon's watchful eye. Well, the best way to practice was to get his hands dirty. He walked up to the bank and stepped in. The creek was shallow, only coming up to his ankles. He imagined, if he had any sensation in his feet, the cold would be biting into his skin. But the most feedback the bloodbending would give him was the sluggish way his muscles moved when they had to step through liquid instead of air. He briefly wondered if wading out far enough could give him hypothermia without his notice. But then he felt the night wind blow warm and comfortable on his face and decided that last thought was really stupid.

At first, Zuko just stood, lifted up a blob of water and let it float from one hand to another. Then, as he grew bored of that, he started moving the water in larger quanities. At some point (he had no clue how long he'd been out here), Suki walked up and sat down on a rock several yards away from him. At first, she rested there soundlessly, watching as he pulled and pushed the water in rhythmic waves. The sound was comforting, drawing him into his few pleasant childhood memories. He thought of the smell of salt as he stood looking over the beaches of Ember Island with his mother.

"A little late night waterbending?" He'd almost forgotten Suki was there when she spoke up again and surprised him. She then slipped off the rock and walked over. Classic Kyoshi style. If he hadn't seen her approach, she could've snuck up on him without a sound. "Kind of a big day tomorrow, invading the palace and all. Don't you think you should be getting some rest?"

Zuko nodded. "Oh, I know I should be getting some rest. I just… wanted to take the time to do this, that's all." He let out a long sigh and pushed a decent wave across the lake, startling some animals that were taking a drink on the opposite side. "Can I tell you something in confidence?" he asked. Suki nodded. In truth, Zuko wasn't sure he wanted to tell anyone what he was thinking right now. On the other hand, if he didn't tell someone, he might cower out. "I've put a lot of thought into it. And I've reached the decision that… that I think the leader of the Fire Nation should be a firebender. When I return to the throne, I'm going to ask Aang to switch our powers back again."

Suki nodded thoughtfully. "And you're not telling Katara this?"

"I want to. But I know she'll tell me not to do it. She might even refuse to do it. I'm hoping if I can put her on the spot, she won't have any choice." He groaned and shoved a wave of water away. "Arg, I can't believe how much I'm plotting against her."

"Well, it wouldn't be the first time." Suki cracked a smile, but when Zuko didn't return it, her face fell serious again. "But I don't understand. Without the bloodbending, you can't move, can you?"

"I can a small amount. It's how I get the hand movements to control the rest of my body now." He twitched his fingers and lifted his arm to rest his hand in front of his face. The skin was rough, especially on the palms where he frequently gripped his swords. It looked like the hand of an adult. "And maybe with some time…" He shook his head and lowered his hand once again. "It's not my comfort that matters here. Please promise me you mention any of this to Katara."

"Zuko, I really think you should--"

"Promise me." Even if everything else in his world had turned upside down lately, at least he still knew how to give an order.

Suki sighed and shook her head. "Fine. I promise."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 12

It was true that the next night brought some much easier waterbending. Their hostess, who finally told them that her name was Noriko, still thought Zuko looked "awfully unsteady on his feet" when he and Katara insisted on leaving. But Katara let Zuko lean on her shoulder, smiled widely and said she'd look after him. Noriko shook her head like the two of them were the biggest fools she'd ever laid eyes on.

Well, no wonder she thinks we're a little insane, Zuko thought. We are leaving in the middle of the night. Still, Noriko let them go their way and didn't offer any more arguments. She even gave them some more traveling supplies. She seemed like a nice enough lady, Zuko decided after he'd been speaking with her throughout the afternoon as he waited for the sun to finally set. Apparently she had a husband and daughter living not far from here, in a town called Hira'a. But, she'd told them, sometimes she felt drawn to the Fire Nation capital and liked to come out here to visit on occasion. Zuko had said he understood, but the truth was, it'd sounded odd to him. Then again, he hadn't really grown up with the option of traveling alone, whether he felt drawn to a place or not.

Maybe I'll see her again someday, he thought. And somehow, the idea pleased him.


Of course, the downside about traveling at night was that it was hard to tell which of the many things that moved around in the dark might actually be a threat. More than once, Zuko shot out a stream of water at a passing owl-mole or something else equally harmless.

"We just need to get back on the main road," he muttered, pulling the water back into his water skin for the third time. "We're far enough from the capital, and we need to find transport to-- gah!"

This time, it was Katara who overreacted. But instead of smacking whatever had just slithered by Zuko's leg (a turtle-snake, as it had turned out) with a couple good flame blasts, she pointed two fingers at the ground. A line of light jumped from her fingertips to the creature, and it rolled over on its back, extremely dead. Zuko could hear the crackle of electricity around its burned body. He looked up and although the light might've been terrible, he could see how wide Katara's eyes were, could hear her rapid breathing.

"Did you just… shoot lightning? " he asked.

Katara's breathing slowed and he watched her silhouette straighten as she relit the flame they'd been walking with for light. "Um, yes. That is a firebending thing, as I recall. Your sister seems to do it a lot."

He rolled his eyes. "Yes, but you've got my firebending. I could never use lightning."

"Zuko, first you think a stranger looks like your mom, then you think she doesn't, now you don't remember your own techniques? I saw you controlling lightning when Azula fired it at me."

"I was re-directing it. I can't create it."

"Oh." Katara flexed her fingers, staring at them like she'd never noticed they were there before. "Well, I guess you can look forward to having that skill when Aang switches our bending back." She turned a bit red in the face and kept walking. "So, elaborate a bit more on this brilliant plan of yours. What exactly is on our way to Kyoshi Island? I mean, besides the Kyoshi warriors, of course?"

Zuko lowered his head and began to act like walking around the next tree was a lot harder than it actually was. Katara stopped short. "Wait, don't tell me that was your whole plan?"

Now it was Zuko's turn to go red in the face. "Well, we clearly can't come at the palace with brute force," he said. "Suki told me once that she sometimes comes up to this area for training. We need someone on our side who can be--" There was another snap of twigs, only this time it sounded like it came from something much heavier than a forest animal. Katara's flame was snuffed out. Before Zuko could make any reaction, he felt something jab him in the back of the neck. Not a blade, he quickly realized, but someone's hand. It stung, but nothing more. Had his attacker mis-landed the blow somehow? It didn't matter. Zuko whirled around, pulling out the water from his waterskin again. He made a motion as if yanking back on a rope and the water obeyed, shooting over his shoulder and straight into whoever had snuck up behind him. A girl's voice yelled in surprise and Zuko could see several silhouettes emerging from the trees.

"Ty Lee?" he called out. That was sure who the girl had sounded like. At first, he got no response. Then there was a flicker of light as Katara's flames returned. She held one in each hand this time, moving them around so that everyone in the group could see each other. Suki was standing there, with two more warriors besides her that Zuko had not met before. Ty Lee had moved from standing behind him to standing in front, her eyes wide.

"Zuko?" she asked. "But how-- that's impossible!"

"What's impossible?" Suki asked, stepping closer. She looked over his clothes with a bit of confusion, but otherwise couldn't seem to tell what Ty Lee was going on about. "I mean, it's weird you guys are out here, and I'm not sure why you're dressed like that, but--"

"That's not what's impossible," Ty Lee said, stamping her foot. Then she pointed a very accusatory finger at Zuko's chest.

"I landed a perfect chi block on you, and you didn't even react! You shouldn't even be able to stand right now, and yet you were able to--" she narrowed her eyes at him. "Wait, did you waterbend at me a second ago?"

Zuko exchanged a nervous glance with a Katara. She nodded him on, but that wasn't the reaction he was hoping for. His first instinct was the same as it had been at the palace -- lie. Don't let them see weakness. That was what a firelord had to do. But, no, he had come here to ask for help. And that started with admitting everything.

"There's… a good reason. For both those things, actually."

Ty Lee crossed her arms. "Go ahead. We've got time."

"Um, we could at least get them back to camp first," one of the other girls said. "It's getting cold out here." Suki nodded her agreement.

Half an hour later, the six of them sat on some fallen trees in an open glen. Katara started a campfire easily enough, which Ty Lee said was a major improvement from the past few nights they'd camped out here. Zuko told every detail of their journey so far, starting with the agni kai. As Zuko he spoke, he tossed a small globe of water between his hands. It calmed him, oddly enough. Or at least, it gave him something to focus on besides the gut-wrenching guilt that seized him when he described how Azula had ambushed him and how he'd run away. Like a complete coward. Not to mention how he, the leader of the Fire Nation, had given up firebendng in an effort to hide his own weaknesses.

"Well, I think you did the right thing," said Suki, after he'd finished. After way too long a block of silence. "Azula had the upper hand. You couldn't beat her. There's nothing shameful about retreating and re-grouping."

"There is when it leaves Azula in charge of the Fire Nation!" Zuko was getting insanely frustrated, and he pounded the fallen tree to emphasize it. They weren't supposed to support his decision. They were supposed to explain to him in exact detail how he'd been an idiot. He certainly felt like one.

"Explain how you would have done it differently, then," Suki said, voice low and firm. "You just told us your bloodbending wasn't strong enough yet to let you put up a fight against Azula. What else was there to do but retreat until you could re-challenge her?"

Zuko said nothing. Suki's words were so stupid, they weren't even worth answering. Ty Lee coughed loudly. "Hey, anyone hungry? We've all been talking a while. I bet everyone's hungry."

"We ate dinner an hour ago," one of the Kyoshi warriors pointed out.

"So did we," said Katara.

Ty Lee was unfazed. "Details, details. I'll go bring some veggies to roast on the fire."

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 11

"Y-your mother?" Katara stuttered. "But… why? How did she get there?"

"You think I know?" Zuko demanded. "You think if I had half a clue where she was, I wouldn't have dropped everything to go find her?" He gritted his teeth. "We're putting her danger by being here. We should leave." He tried to sit up. Maybe if he propped himself up on his elbows first, he could rest a second and then pull himself up the rest of the… No good. His head and upper back got a few inches off the ground before he fell back again. It was the kind of mind-numbing frustration that really made him wish he was a firebender again, just so he could let out a blast of his anger on the nearest wall.

Katara crossed her arms. "Didn't you just tell me ten seconds ago that you can barely move?"

"Thought maybe I was wrong," Zuko grunted.

"Clearly, you were right. Just calm down. Let's wait out the day here. If yesterday really was a new moon, that means you should be stronger tonight. We can leave then."

"That's another whole day with Azula running the palace," Zuko muttered. Katara didn't answer. Maybe she'd just decided that the best way to help him deal with his worries was to pretend they didn't exist.

"So, um, what are you going to say to your mom when she gets back here? Are you going to tell her the truth?" Zuko stared thoughtfully up at the cloth ceiling. "I'd rather keep it a secret if I can. But I'm having a hard time coming up with an excuse. For all I know, she saw me waterbending yesterday when she found us."

"I, uh…" Katara blushed. "I meant are you going to tell her the truth about how you got your scar."

"That? Absolutely not."

Katara sighed and reached towards Zuko's face. The left side of his face. "I think you should."

Zuko scowled. He wanted to slap her away, just like he'd wanted to slap her the first time she laid a hand on his scar. He hadn't, of course. Only an idiot would slap someone who just said, "Hey, that disfiguring scar taking up half your head? Yeah, I think I can fix that." But the whole thing had backfired. Giving her permission that first time apparently made her think she could pry into the worst part of his past anytime she pleased.

"Why don't you tell me how it happened first," she said, finally getting her hand off him. "Maybe that will make it easier to say to her later."

"I've told you. I fought my dad in an agni kai. I lost. Badly. The end."

Katara frowned. Almost pouted, actually. "You know everything about the worst day of my life," she said. "And you were with me when I finally made peace with it all. But then when I ask about your past, even mention it, you clam up."

"Sorry, I already had my making-peace ceremony," Zuko told her. "A shame you missed it. It would've really tugged at your heartstrings."

For this, Katara pushed him in the arm and he almost rolled onto his stomach. It was the kind of push that was meant to be playful, but had a knot of hurt feelings hidden behind it. Maybe he couldn't blame her for all those feelings. He'd gone to Sokka to find out what happened to her mother. She, out of respect for him, had never asked Iroh anything.

"What exactly do you want to know?" he sighed. "What my dad said to me right before he attacked? How Azula laughed about it for weeks?"

"Anything you're willing to tell me."

Zuko closed his eyes and breathed deeply, willing himself to remember what he'd tried so hard to forget. Maybe it would be good to get it out to someone. Just this once.

"It's weird the stuff that goes through you mind right before you face pain. I remember thinking, 'Keep your hands on the ground and your eyes on him. If you show him that you're refusing to fight out of respect, not fear, he'll forgive you.' But I never saw any forgiveness in his face. He'd disowned me the second I got on my knees. If I hadn't been so stupidly convinced he loved me, I would've fought back. I would've protected myself."

Zuko swallowed. Here was the part he expected Katara to counter with some of her unwelcome to words of wisdom. To tell him that he wasn't stupid, that trusting his father was the most natural thing in the world. That Ozai was all the more evil for betraying that trust. But she only sat and listened. So he continued. "I remember the pain overtaking me, but it never made me unconscious. I tried to will myself to pass out so it wouldn't hurt anymore. Then I heard someone at my side calling for me. I thought, 'It's my father, he's sorry for what he's done. He's tending to my injuries.' Only it was my uncle. I found out later that no one else called a doctor to look at the wound. Just him."

At these memories, Zuko's eyes burned a bit and he feared for a second they might actually tear up. Thankfully, as he breathed deeply and closed his eyes, they felt dry.

"I was in bed for a week after it happened. I… cried a few times I think. I mean, it hurt like I can't explain. Any movement, any touch felt like it sent flames through my body. I remember telling Uncle that… that I deserved it. That Father was right in his punishment."

"And what did Iroh say?" Katara asked, perfectly passive.

Zuko tensed. "He yelled at me. He'd never yelled at me before, and he's never done it since. But he yelled at the top of his lungs that this wasn't my fault. He tried to get me to repeat it, but I wouldn't. I wasn't ready for that. Between accepting that my father never loved me and accepting I'd just really screwed up, one was easier than the other."

He stared into Katara's deep golden eyes, waiting for an answer. But she kept silent. No pity in her eyes, but… some strange understanding. But her parents had both loved her. How could she understand?

"I didn't want to tell you any of that," he said, trying to sound gruff about it, but probably failing. "It was none of your business, anyway."

"I know," Katara said quietly. "That's why I'm so grateful for it." She took his hand in hers. "Thank you, Zuko."

Zuko scoffed, but he didn't pull his hand away. There were some things only an idiot would do. Pulling away from the first person to listen to his story, listen without judgment or pity, would be one of those idiotic things. And Zuko was no idiot.

At that moment, the sound of footsteps approached the tent. Anticipation gripped Zuko and he drew in a sharp breath, waiting to see the mother he'd been missing for so long. A slender hand pulled back the flap of the tent, and…

…and it wasn't her. Zuko exhaled slowly and narrowed his eyes at the woman who had entered. Her hair was rougher, her eyebrows a bit thicker, and her whole face looked much more plain than Ursa's did. But how had this stranger found them? And what did she want?

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said, hoping to act casual. "Are you lost? Can we help you find something?"

The woman in the doorway cocked her head. "No. No, I'm quite sure I'm in the right place." She held up a cloth knapsack. "I found some vegetables and dried meat in the market yesterday. I think that will make a sufficient breakfast."

Okay, now Zuko was seriously confused. The voice reminded him of his mother, at least a little bit, but… "I'm sorry; are you a friend of the woman who found us?" Zuko asked. "Did she send you here?"

For this, Katara knocked him in the shoulder and whispered harshly into his ear. "What are you going on about, Zuko? That's the same woman who left a few minutes ago. The one you said was your mom."

"It's not, though," Zuko said. "It doesn't look anything like her."

She stared at him with a look of bewilderment and concern. For a moment, he wondered if she was playing some kind of strange joke on him. Then he realized she was staring at him as if she was wondering the same thing. Was he going crazy? He had seen someone different when their hostess left. He knew he had. The woman who stood in front of them now… her figure looked the same as Ursa's, and the voice was similar, but the face… the face was completely different.

"Zuko?" Katara asked when he'd been quiet far too long.

"I must have mistaken," he finally said, slowly and sadly. "I don't know; I guess I was out of it or something. But that's not her. I was wrong."

He nodded his apologies to their hostess, who stood there holding the food and looking completely confused. And with that, he closed his eyes and resolved to sleep as much as possible until nightfall.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, 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.


"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 Powers, 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.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Memory Monday: Joke Time!

JT has started telling jokes. If you are not aware of the language development of an average four-year-old, know that jokes told by most children from preschool through early elementary have punchlines that make no sense. The goal of the joke is to say the most ridiculous thing one can think of.

Q: What's turtle plus baby?
A: An octopus!

Q: Why does a fin have two fins?
A: So it can swim!

As a parent, you laugh at these jokes because they do not yet revolve around trying to get you to say something inappropriate by repeating certain letters or the names of certain planets. Incidentally, during my adventures as a substitute teacher, I did have a fourth grader who repeatedly asked me to "spell iCup." It took quite a few rounds of me starting of the spelling with "E-Y-E" before the realization dawned that it was possible, just possible, that I had heard this joke before.

I love my four-year-old and his random word humor. :)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 8

Zuko swallowed, feeling the dry edges of his throat stick together. He couldn't remember being this thirsty, not since the time he'd struck out on his own, away from Iroh. Azula knew how to deal with firebenders for sure, but she seemed pretty adept at making a waterbender just as miserable.

Zuko shifted his arms slightly, but with his hands chained and his body dehydrated, he could barely get any movement out of them. His mind was a blur, every time he tried to think of a way of escape, he came up empty. For all he could see, Azula had won.

One of the four guards assigned to watch him turned around at the sound of the chains moving. He narrowed his eyes at his prisoner, looking like was about to shout something, when suddenly the man's face turned... well, a bit green. He raised his hand and wiped his forehead, which had started to sweat. Then he stumbled backwards, barely catching himself as he fell to the ground, out like a light. The other three barely had time to notice what was happening before they too fell victim to the same mysterious ailment.

Zuko held his breath. Was there some sort of poison in the air? Where was it coming from? Why hadn't it affected him yet?

Before he could come to any conclusions, however, Zuko heard the dungeon door slowly creak open and a light set of footsteps began to descend. A familiar figure rounded the corner.

"Sokka!" Zuko exclaimed. Well, it wasn't really exclaiming, he barely had a voice, it came out as more of a hoarse whisper. Sokka shushed him anyway and walked up to the prison door, fumbling with a set of keys.

"How did you...?" Zuko asked in shock, staring at the four unconscious guards on the floor.

Sokka smirked, though not as much as he normally did when he was explaining how genius his plans were. "The thing is, Zuko, growing up in the fire nation, you don't learn as much about the natural world as the people of the water tribe. It's true, there are plants that make a great stinkbomb. But there's also the varieties that can knock you right out if you eat it. I snuck some into the guards' lunch."

"Not bad," Zuko muttered.

"I snuck in to see Katara already," whispered Sokka. "I wanted to try and spring her out, but the lock was complicated, and..." He stopped and looked at the ground. "And she insisted on me getting you out first."

"What?" Zuko asked, blushing a bit. "Why?"

"Hey, don't get any weird ideas. Your life's in the most danger. If Azula kills Katara, she loses her bargaining chip with Aang. But if she kills you, she loses her only competition for the throne. Of course, if she kills Katara, I'll kill you, but you know…" His sentence trailed off as he began working on the chains on Zuko's wrists.

"Hey, you have any advice for, like, using firebending to keep your body warm?"

Zuko strained to look Sokka in the face, but the odd angle made it difficult. "What do you mean?"

"They've got Katara in something like that cooler we saw at the Boiling Rock. She seemed okay when I talked to her, but later, when I overheard her talking to the guard, she sounded really quiet and weak. Like she was just putting on a brave front for me."

Sokka finally managed to release Zuko's arms and began working on his legs next. His tone was a forced calm – he wanted nothing more than to be with his sister, helping her.

Zuko growled. "There's a technique she knows, but if she didn't start using it right away, it's not going to work now. Her bending will be gone for at least few days even if you got her out of there right this minute."

Sokka scowled as he freed Zuko's left leg and went for the right. "Guess even knowing all your techniques doesn't help her much if she doesn't realize when to use them," he said sharply. The last of the chains fell off and Zuko shakily got to his feet. He could feel the water beginning to circulate in his body, increasing his control. Sokka handed him a waterskin, which he guzzled like a greedy child until there wasn't a drop left in it.

"Come on," he said, wiping his mouth. "Let's go get her out."

He started for the open prison door, but Sokka put out his hand to stop him. "No. You leave, and I'll get her out. The only reason I came here first was because she insisted. If you go with me, it kinda defeats the purpose, doesn't it?"

He reached down on the floor and picked up something Zuko hadn't noticed before. Some pile of fabric that he shoved into Zuko's hands.

"Here. It's an extra set of Water Tribe clothes. Katara thinks you'll be able to sneak around the capital easier if everyone thinks you're a representative from the South Pole."

As Zuko stared at the gift, trying to concoct some other reason for why he should stay, Sokka turned and headed back up the stairs. The heavy prison door closed behind him, but didn't lock. Standing alone in the silence, Zuko sighed and began changing. Maybe Sokka and Katara had a point. He had to find Azula's weakness to defeat her, and he couldn't do that from inside a dungeon. In fact, as he thought over exactly who might know Azula's weaknesses, his best bet for success lay a long way from here.

Zuko crept up the stairs and slowly eased the door open. Azula had screwed up concentrating all his guards so close to him. Once outside the dungeon, sneaking out of the palace was quite literally child's play, something he'd mastered long ago. If he'd actually stayed in his room every time Ozai told him to when he was younger, he might've died of boredom.

Outside it was already night. Right, Zuko thought. I should've guessed as much. I can't move nearly this well during the day. The moon looked to be about halfway full. Zuko decided to count his blessings and continued to put as much distance between himself and the palace. He wasn't running, wasn't really sure he could run, but if he wanted to blend into the crowd, he couldn't look like he was in a hurry. No one seemed to think anything of him in the Water Tribe attire, but then, not many people had a huge scar covering half their face either. He had to stay cautious.

Guilt ate away at Zuko as he kept moving. Was it really okay to run away like this? Wasn't it his duty to stay and protect his country? What would happen to everything with Azula in charge? And with Aang pretending that all her orders came from Zuko, would he even be welcomed when he returned?

"Hey, wait up!"

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite believe it. Yet when he turned his head, there she was, hurrying in his direction.

Dang it, Katara, you're going to blow my cover, Zuko thought. But, no, Katara was more clever than that. She stood next to Zuko, but looked in the opposite direction.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were someone I knew," she said to a tall guy standing nearby.

"Quite all right," the tall man muttered, and the crowd lost their interest in both of them, moving about their business. Katara winked at Zuko, as if to acknowledge that yes, she did realize how clever she was, and no, he didn't have to break his act to tell her so.

Zuko rolled his eyes. He didn't plan to have anyone come along with him, let alone her. Still, it felt good to have a friend by his side.

"How'd you get out of the cooler?" he asked when they'd reached a more secluded area. "Sokka said you sounded wiped out."

"Huh? Sokka overheard that?" She groaned and massaged her forehead. "Oh, no. I was hamming it up for the guard so Azula would think everything was working. I didn't mean for it to work on Sokka too." Her face suddenly took on a fierce look of determination. "All right, you'd better have a plan to get your sorry self back on that throne before my brother has a mental breakdown. Where are we headed?"

Zuko scoffed. It wasn't like it was his fault that Sokka had misunderstood. And anyway, Azula was probably going to notice sooner rather than later that Katara's cell was empty.

"In the general direction of Kyoshi Island," he answered. "But hopefully we don't have to go that far."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Memory Monday: Enter the Plot Hole

I've decided to start another regular segment on this blog, which I am going to entitle Memory Monday. Mostly, this is going to be me sharing fun moments with my kids, but as it is the Book and Baby blog, I don't think that's too out of place.

Today's adventure... my four-year-old discovers the concept of a plot hole.

My son has asked some interesting questions recently in regards to some of his favorite super-heroes. He loves to act out the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and while he had me pretending to me Michelangelo (on account of that's the only turtle I never mix up with the others), he asks, "Why don't the turtles just call the police and tell them to arrest Shredder?"

Very good point. "I don't know," I reply. "Why don't we do that?"

"Okay!" He proceeds to pick up an invisible phone and tell police that Shredder is being bad and should definitely be arrested. The police wholeheartedly agree and Shredder is thrown in jail. The turtles wait around for a while until my son realizes that pretending to be superheroes when the bad guy already got arrested is kind of boring.

"Oh," he says, sitting up. "The police fell asleep, and Shredder got out. We have to go get him."

"Okay," I agree, and off we go.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the superhero of the month is Batman. My son is questioning how The Joker keeps coming back all the time, even though Batman helps the police arrest him over and over.

"They should just have a fire jail," he declares in the car. "Then when the Joker tried to touch it, he would say, 'Ow! That's hot!' and then he wouldn't try to get out anymore."

Again, very good point. Although now I must wonder if somewhere over the various Batman universes, The Joker has ever been contained in a fire jail. (And if he was, how did he escape?)

Have you ever dissected a favorite childhood book or show by finding all the plot holes in it? (Or had someone too young to have heard of a VCR find them all for you?) Did it ruin the series or do you still love it anyway?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 7

At first, Zuko was unconcerned. His uncle could defend them perfectly fine. However, Katara reacted first. More from panic than planning, by the look on her face. As the flames headed straight for her, she held out her arm, catching the fire's power and changing its course to slam harmlessly into the wall. It didn't cause nearly so much damage as Zuko expected. A reflection perhaps, of Azula's weaker powers, though clearly, they weren't weakened enough.

Azula stood surprised at first, but then returned to her gleeful state. "A waterbender manipulating flames?" she asked. "That looks more like firebending to me. Also," she tossed her hair to the side, "I thought the benders of the Water Tribe had blue eyes, not the golden eyes of the Fire Nation?"

A flurry of murmurs arose from the group. Katara lowered her gaze, but given the fury with which she'd been staring at Azula only moments before, she didn't expect it to do any good. The damage was done.

"Clearly my brother has asked the avatar to swap his powers with those of the Water Tribe girl," Azula went on. "An act of open defiance against our country. How can we trust someone like that to rule us?"

Zuko felt fear course through his veins as echoing voices floated through the crowd:

"We can't trust him."

"How could he do this?"

Zuko felt the shame of banishment creeping, surrounding him again, at the time when he should've been most able to stop it. Several of the guards quickly advanced. He motioned for the water he'd used to heal his uncle to come up next to him, while Katara and Iroh's hands glowed with orange flames.

Azula, however, did not react. "Are you so sure you want to attack me?" she asked. Then, glaring at Zuko, she added on, "Especially you, brother. And when I have such interesting information for you."

Zuko shoved his arm forward and the water shot off like an arrow. Azula easily sidestepped it.

"Don't mess with me!" Zuko said.

"It's hardly messing with you." Azula smiled. "You see, unlike you, I actually know how to talk to Dad to get the info I want." Her eyes narrowed as her grin widened. "I know where Mom is."

For a moment, Zuko thought his heart stopped. Then a voice seemed to chant in his head, Azula always lies. Azula always lies.

"I don't believe you!" he shouted, his hands starting to shake. The guards took a step closer, now within distance to grab him whenever they chose. Iroh and Katara stood unmoving, both looking at Zuko to determine their next moves.

Before anybody could act, however, a low vibration sounded throughout the room. Suddenly, several of the guards blocking the entrance way were thrown backwards as the ground beneath them jolted and curved.

"Thought it sounded like a scuffle up here," Toph's voice called out. She rushed into the room, followed by Aang, Mai, and Sokka. Then she turned to face Azula. "Didn't someone lock you up or something? You're really annoying." Even three more enemies in the room, however, did not throw off Azula's piercing grin. She flicked her fingers, just slightly, barely noticeable. The guards closest to Katara and Zuko moved in and grabbed them, pulling their hands behind their backs.

"Use your feet!" Zuko called out to Katara. She reacted almost instantly. Straightening her constrained arms, Katara pushed her feet down as hard as she could, slamming onto the man's toes. She then twisted herself enough to create a small flame at the man's feet. He jumped back in surprise, loosening his grip enough for her to break free. With full use of her body, she sent a much larger flame in his direction and he staggered away, heading for the safety of the crowd.

Zuko, unfortunately, didn't fare so well. The guard who grabbed him was a bit more clever, holding Zuko's body still with one huge arm and using his free hand to put a dagger to Zuko's throat. Zuko gasped and tried to move, but the blade pressed stronger against his skin, and his arms were far too weak to put up any resistance beyond that.

"Everyone freeze!" Azula ordered. "Unless you want to see your new leader in a pile of blood."

Zuko gritted his teeth. No, this couldn't be happening. He was supposed to be able to hold his own, not be the weakling that Azula used to manipulate everyone. How could he let this happen?

Aang gave up the fight first, immediately throwing his hands up in surrender. Katara, Mai, and Iroh followed suit, and this time two guards came up to restrain each of them instead of one. Toph growled under her breath before finally doing the same.

Azula looked around, anger dancing in her eyes. "Where's the last one?" she demanded. The guards looked at each other in confusion.

"The boy from the water tribe! Where is he?" Azula demanded. Again, more blank stares. Somehow, with everyone focused on the benders, Sokka had managed to sneak out. Not bad.

"Find him – search the palace!" Azula yelled. Three guards ran obediently off. Azula scoffed as they left. She knew better than to let a loose string like Sokka go, but she wasn't going to let it ruin her moment of victory either. She walked first up to Toph.

"I hear you made quite a mess of a fire nation airship. A metal fire nation air ship. That's a pretty neat trick. But don't worry. I'm making sure your prison is especially tailored." Toph spit at her. Unfortunately, she missed.

Azula barely glanced at Katara. "Unfortunately for you, I know very well how to deal with firebenders. You'll be getting your own... private room." Katara scowled.

Next, Azula spoke to the guard restraining Zuko, who'd now been surrounded by several of his comrades. "Take my brother to the dungeon, and I want twice as many guards around him as everyone else. Keep anything away from him that has water, especially plants. He eats and drinks only when someone's restraining him, am I clear?"

"Yes, princess!" came the reply, though they did not yet move.

Finally, Azula faced Aang. "Now, you've got a bit of a dilemma. You want to give people the impression that this is a smooth transition to a new era. That my brother is a capable leader who's got everything under control. Having me publicly seize control of the throne now would be, I daresay, disastrous for you, am I right?"

Aang said nothing. He only glared at her, breaking her gaze once or twice to see if there was any weakness in the guard holding Zuko. But the blade was so close that even the slightest movement could mean a slice through Zuko's throat. Aang clearly wasn't willing to take that risk.

"So here's my proposal," Azula said. "As you so kindly pointed out while I was imprisoned, Zuko has been working together with you to keep the peace. That means that you can speak for him. So I'm going to let my little takeover here remain a secret for the time being, and you're going to do everything you can to maintain the image that Zuko is still running the show. Am I clear?"

Aang still remained silent at first, which flared up Azula's temper. She raised her hand and slapped the avatar across the face. "I said, am I clear?"

"Yes," Aang said through gritted teeth. "You're perfectly clear." Grinning in victory, Azula motioned for the guard holding Zuko to carry out her orders and take him to the dungeon. Zuko hung his head in humiliation. His weakness had gotten them into this situation – emotionally, he had not stood up to Aang and demanded to have all Azula's powers removed. Physically, he couldn't defend himself. He didn't need his father telling him how much of a failure he was now. That was clear all on its own.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 6

Zuko had several reasons to be irritated. First and foremost, against all his experience and arguments, Aang had decided to leave Azula with some of her firebending. Not much, he assured everyone, barely anything at all. Even the slightest sliver, Zuko thought, and she was just as dangerous as when she was at her full power.

The second reason was that Mai had really been giving him the cold shoulder. Not that he'd expected anything else, the way he'd avoided her and yet let Katara follow him everywhere. He wondered constantly if the whole reason he'd refused to let Mai in on his secret wasn't to protect the Fire Nation, but to protect his own pride.

And now, to top everything off, Iroh had been acting strange lately. There was no doubt about that. In his mind, Zuko liked to imagine that it was just his uncle being his usual oddball self, but somehow, he knew better. Iroh could tell he was hiding something and was going to be determined to find out what. Zuko just never imagined exactly how conniving his uncle could be when he put his mind to it.

"Ow!" There was a loud clang as something fell over. Iroh generally came in several times a week to let everyone try his latest recipes before he tried them on customers. (Zuko's attendants had mixed feelings about that.) Lately, it seemed, he'd been coming in every day.

Zuko turned to see what the crash was. His uncle knelt down on the ground, his teapot turned over with a dull green liquid spilled out over the carpet. The metal pot's base was bright red with heat, and Iroh grasped his hand, wincing as he bent over.

"Oo, my hand! My hand! That really hurts!"

Zuko grasped the throne's arm to steady himself for a moment before kneeling down next to his uncle.

"Let me see," he said with a sigh.

Iroh relinquished his grip and allowed Zuko to examine the injury. It wasn't pretty, already the skin was peeling away under the burn. It would probably get infected and scar if not dealt with quickly.

"Come on, Uncle Iroh, since when are you this clumsy?" Zuko muttered. He glanced over at the few attendants in the room and ordered them out. They bowed and slipped away silently. Except for one that Zuko ordered to bring him a bowl of cold water. The attendant obeyed, and then she too slipped out of sight.

"It must be my hands getting all old and shaky," Iroh theorized as he dipped his injured hands in the cold water, wincing again.

"Yeah right," Zuko muttered. He looked at the injury again. It wasn't going to get any better with just some cold water. It needed some serious healing. It needed...

Zuko scowled. He could've cared less that his attendants thought he was odd for keeping his distance from them. He could even tolerate Mai thinking he was a complete jerk. But to let his uncle, who'd always defended him, sustain an injury that he knew perfectly well how to heal? It wasn't an option.

"Uncle, hold still for a moment," he said, holding up Iroh's hand.

"What?" Iroh asked. "What are you planning to do?"

"Just be quiet for a minute," Zuko snapped. He raised his hand over the water. It felt much more familiar now than it did a few weeks ago when he'd first become a waterbender. It still wasn't as comfortable as the fire, it was harder to deal with, but nevertheless, he could manipulate it.

A blob of water rested over Iroh's burned hands. It emitted a soft blue glow, and the skin that had begun to blister on Iroh's hand became smooth and uninjured.

Iroh's eyes widened in surprise, but somehow the surprise in his voice sounded less than genuine. He had a smug smile on his face.

"Zuko! Where did you pick up this little trick?"

"Oh, don't start," Zuko muttered. "You knew something was up right from the beginning."

The smile on Iroh's face grew into a grin. "Well, the change in your eye color did give a bit of a hint. But you haven't explained what happened exactly."

Zuko pulled the water back into the dish. "It's a long story. Maybe I'll have time for it later."

The next voice that spoke was neither Iroh's nor his own, but it drove fear through his spine. "Oh, but come now, brother, we've got plenty of time now for you to explain."

Zuko whirled around. Apparently the attendants had not left him as alone as he thought. And now, standing in their midst, surrounded by a pack of guards, was Azula. Her face sneered in triumph as she turned to face the same crowd of palace staff.

"How did you get out on the dungeon?" Zuko demanded and he and Iroh quickly got to their feet. Azula ignored him.

"You see? It's just like I said. Zuko has betrayed the Fire Nation by taking on the powers of a waterbender!"

A murmur went over the group. Clearly some of them were more skeptical than others. This was good, Zuko thought. It meant that Azula had lured many of them here out of curiosity, and they might not be traitors if steered in the right direction.

"But how is that even possible?" one of the guards asked. "I've never heard of any bender changing powers."

Azula looked annoyed, but kept her cool. "The avatar, of course. Don't you see? If he has the power to take away my father's bending, couldn't he have the power to change Zuko's?"

Iroh stood to speak. "May I ask you, Azula, even if what you say is possible, what reason you think the avatar could possibly have for doing such a thing?"

Azula hesitated. Clearly, this wasn't going in the direction she'd hoped. Before she could come up with a good answer, Zuko heard a voice calling out from behind the crowd.

"That was me!"

The guards turned and made a path for the person who had spoken. Katara walked past them and into the room, standing next to Iroh.

"The waterbending you just saw wasn't Zuko. It was me. I've been... practicing an advanced technique that allows me to bend water from another room. I can see how this would cause some confusion." She made a polite bow to show her apology. Some impressive quick thinking on her part, Zuko observed. Katara had been present at the coronation. Everyone in the palace knew of her waterbending skills. She must've heard just enough to know she had to cover for him.

Even better, the crowd was now starting to turn on Azula, anger and shame written all over their faces. Zuko prepared to give a forgiving speech about how clever Azula's trickery could be, planning to be particularly harsh on whoever had been manipulated into letting Azula out of her cell. However, he had little time to compose. A line of fire flew straight toward himself, Katara, and Iroh.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 5

a/n: So, annoyingly, I scheduled the last chapter to automatically post last week, since I knew I would be gone for Good Friday, and it never actually showed up. So there are two new chapters this week. Thanks for reading. :)

The day Azula's powers were removed was not a day that Zuko had any intention to miss, no matter how lousy he was feeling. Toph, Katara, and Sokka joined in his excitement, practically counting the minutes as they waited for Aang to arrive in the dungeon. Mai had refused to come herself. Although Azula deserved what she was getting, she agreed with that much, she had a difficult time watching her former friend suffer like she undoubtedly would. Zuko didn't blame her for sitting out. If he had ever gotten along with his sister at any point in his life, he might've felt some sympathy for her now. As it was, however, she drained out all of his sympathy a long, long time ago.

Aang's avatar garb was similar to his usual monk robes, but finer material, embroidered with the symbols of all the four nations. He said it looked ridiculous and he liked his old clothes better.

"It makes the people feel united," Zuko had explained. "Just wear it. It's not hurting you or anything."

The group covered their faces to avoid breathing in the potent fumes that kept Azula subdued along with her chains. Her wild hair was matted up hopelessly as she leaned over, arms bound behind her back, sobbing and wailing. At least two days worth of food sat off to the side untouched.

"Azula," Zuko said in his most commanding voice. "Look up at me."

She did so. At first, her eyes were bloodshot, insane with despair. Yet when they fell upon Zuko, he saw a bit of the old Azula again. That conniving, plotting expression that always told him she was one step ahead flooded onto her face.

"How…?" she asked. "How are you walking?"

"By putting one foot in front of the other. I picked it up in toddlerhood. You know, that wonderful time of my life before you were born."

Toph and Sokka snorted behind him at this, but Katara elbowed him in the side and Aang gave him a condescending, "That's not what we're here for," sort of look. Azula didn't react to his mocking at all. Instead, she continued her intense stare, first at his feet, then on his face.

"I saw that Water Tribe brat try to heal you and fail. The girl who healed the avatar from my lightning strike couldn't help you. So how…?"

Now her gaze fell to Katara. Zuko felt a bead of sweat crawling down his face. For once in his life, he had been relieved to have his scar - unless someone stood reasonably close, spotting his blue eyes wasn't easy. Especially when he'd been going out of his way to avoid eye contact with anyone who didn't know his secret. Katara, on the other hand…

Zuko's hand flexed as he stepped between Azula and Katara. This didn't ease his nerves one bit. Azula examined his hand as much as she had his face.

"This conversation is over," he said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. "We've got other business here."

Azula smiled her usual cat-like grin. "Of course we do. So, Zuzu, what do you want with me?"

"You know very well what I want," he replied. "For crimes against the other three nations, your punishment has been decided. The avatar will remove your firebending powers. After your time in prison is complete, you will be released and confined to a restricted area of the palace." He gritted his teeth. "It's more than you deserve, you should know that."

Azula laughed. "Why not execute me? Isn't that what you normally do with war prisoners?"

"Avatar Aang is in charge of keeping the peace between the Fire Nation and the other nations. Your punishment is his decision."

Another hideous laugh. "You're a coward, brother! You always were! You're too scared to get a little blood on your hands, so you're blaming the decision on the pacifist avatar. I knew you were weak! I always knew it!"

Zuko held himself back from attacking her. His temptation was to fire blast her, but that wasn't going to end well, even if he could do it. He'd already decided how to deal with this. Best to let Aang go forward and not think about it anymore.

He unlocked the door to her cell. Aang stepped cautiously in, clearly ready to counter if she tried to breathe a blast of fire in his direction. She did no such thing, however, merely lowered her head back down and started sobbing.

"Please don't do this to me!" she begged. "I'd rather be executed than humiliated like this! Stop being so cowardly and just kill me!"

"You know I can't do that," Aang said calmly. "You'll find a way to live without your firebending. Start over-"

She sobbed louder. "Don't you understand? My firebending is all I have! If you take that away, what reason do I have to go on living?"

Zuko saw the hesitation in Aang first, he was sure of it, but Sokka got the words out before he did.

"Aang! Don't listen to her. She's just trying to mess with you! Take her bending away now!"

Aang's hand was shaking. Not a good sign. What was it he had said? That if he didn't have complete concentration, the energybending could go awry? He could injure both people involved. He'd been able to take the powers of Ozai against his will because of his own determination and strength. If Azula made him falter on those, then this could be a much more dangerous act than defeating her father.

Aang knelt down next to her. "Listen," he said calmly. "I'll do what I can, all right? I have to make sure you're not a threat to this nation anymore. If I can do that without removing your powers completely-"

"Aang, that's not what we discussed," Zuko said sharply. "Azula's dangerous. You have to remove them completely. "

"I had to do that for your father because of his authority," Aang said. "Azula doesn't have any authority here anymore. She's just a helpless prisoner."

Azula put on the most pathetic face she could, an act that irritated Zuko to no end.

"I was an exiled prince and look where I've gotten," Zuko argued. "If she even has an ounce of power, she's-"

"Your highness," Aang said, in a tone more serious and formal than Zuko could ever remember. "You said you were putting this decision on my shoulders. If you're taking that authority away from me, please tell me now. Otherwise, I have to act the way I feel is right."

Dang it, stupid Aang putting the ball in his court like that. He'd told his people he'd be trusting the avatar. This was pretty early on in the game to go against that.

"Fine," he said. "Do what you think is best, Aang. But please remember what I told you."

Aang smiled childishly now, like a kid who'd just won a clean victory at Pai Shō.

"Thanks, Zuko." He walked up to Azula's side. She still crouched over, whimpering as tears streamed down her face. Aang closed his eyes, slipping into the avatar state. Only this time, not only his tattoos glowed. His entire body gave off a soft bluish-white aura. Zuko remembered it vaguely. The state in which Aang would energybend.

Slowly, Aang reached down and touched Azula's forehead.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 4

The coronation ceremony itself became mostly a blur. The crowd loomed before Zuko, a mass of faces from Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and even Water Tribe. He spoke to them as openly as he could, and shared with them his vision for a brighter future. Though, for the life of him, if someone would've asked him later what all he said, he wouldn't have been able to remember a word of it.

With the moon high in the sky, the coronation ended, and Zuko retired to the palace. Out in the garden, he found Iroh sipping a mug of tea.

"Congratulations, your highness," Iroh said with a chuckle. "Looks like all your dreams are finally falling into place, eh?"

Zuko leaned against the wall. After bloodbending his body all day, he wasn't sure how much more of it he could do. Especially without Mai and Katara, who'd both gone to their rooms for the night, he felt unsteady on his feet.

"You look tired," Iroh observed.

Zuko smiled. "Yeah, well, I'm still pretty weak," he said. "Azula hit me pretty hard."

"Yes, I know," Iroh said, setting the tea aside. He had a knowing look in his eye, like he was fully aware of everything his nephew was thinking and just playing a game trying to get him to drag it out.

"What was it you decided to do with her again?"

"She's imprisoned for now until the avatar removes her powers," he said. "When we've tried to get near her, she's gone a bit ballistic."

"I see. Why don't you come sit next to me and rest?" It was a welcome invitation, and Zuko took him up on it, keeping one hand on the wall to steady himself. Sitting he could handle. His hand flicked and he lowered himself down, feeling the smooth stone wall against the back of his head and neck.

"Tell me again, exactly how she injured you?" Iroh said.

Zuko narrowed his eyes. So, it was going to be a game of twenty questions now? He was smarter than that, he wouldn't lose so easily. The less people knew about his condition, the safer everything was. "She shot me with lightning," he summarized.

"And you redirected it?"

"Sort of. I was caught off guard. I started to redirect it, but I wasn't completely successful. Katara... the Water Tribe girl, helped heal my wounds, but her abilities only work so well."

Iroh nodded. "That seems a valid explanation," he said, in a tone that indicated the complete opposite. "Well, then, I guess I should let our new leader get his rest, and I'll get back to my tea shop."

Zuko smiled. His uncle was probably still suspicious, no doubt there, but it was clear he had nothing but love and concern for Zuko. Couldn't hold anything against him for that.

Once Iroh was gone, Zuko sat resting for a while longer. He kept meaning to make his way back to his room, but the cool night air felt so refreshing. Suddenly, though, he became aware of someone walking along the top of the stone wall behind him. He whirled around, trying to think of the best way to defend himself, when he saw Toph taking a seat on the wall's edge.

"Hey there, your majesty," she said.

He lowered his fists and let out a huge sigh of relief. "Don't scare me like that."

"Aw, I'm sorry. Your Fire Nation capital is just so big and amazing, it's easy for a poor little Earth Kingdom girl like me to get lost." She leaned back and kicked her feet into the air. "Say, would you demonstrate some of that nifty firebending you people here do?" she asked.

Zuko narrowed his eyes. If she meant to mock him, but he didn't get the joke. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It was supposed to make a point," Toph said, slipping down from her perch on the wall. "The other option was to start earthbending in your face and see how you defended yourself, but I didn't think you'd appreciate that."

"Your concern for my well-being overwhelms me."

"Don't mention it. Look, my point is that it's not too smart of you to go walking around with no way to firebend. You need a back up. Someone who knows what's going on and can do it for you in a pinch."

"The only people who could fill that role are Aang and Katara," he said. "And the avatar's a little bit busy… well, being the avatar."

"Well, looks like you and Katara are going to be spending a lot of time together, then." She pulled herself back up onto the wall and started to walk back the way she'd come. "Oh, and for whatever it's worth, you are walking better. Even if it doesn't feel like it."


Zuko did not take Toph's advice lightly. Mostly because he had no good argument against it. It had been almost a week since the coronation, and Katara had rarely left his side. Today, they sat down by the pond. The large tree at Zuko's back provided the perfect amount of shade, and Katara had suggested that the fresh air would do him some good. She'd been right. Zuko closed the scroll he'd been reading, set it down in the grass, and picked up a new one from the pile. It wasn't exciting work, he'd readily admit that. Still, he wished Katara wouldn't keep reminding him just how boring it was.

"Geez, don't you need a royal mental break or something?" she asked.

Zuko took a extra long pause before answering, just to annoy her. "The Fire Nation is vast and complicated. It's my job to know every detail about it. My father was twice my age when he took the throne."

"Yeah. And someone's totally going to stop you on the street and quiz you on," she looked over his shoulder, "the price of cabbages five years ago."

"I'm studying the fluctuating market prices of common goods."

Katara groaned and leaned back against the tree again. For at least five minutes, she didn't say anything. Then, she went at it again full force. "Seriously, just tell your uncle what's going on. Then you'll have a firebender to hang out with you who actually knows something about Fire Nation history."

Zuko's grip on the scroll tightened. If he could actually firebend right now, it probably would've gone up in flames. "I was hoping you'd understand walking up to my uncle and saying, 'Hey, could you follow me around just in case I have to firebend in front of anybody?" doesn't sit well with me."

Katara lowered her head, looking embarrassed, so he'd probably made his point. Still, he continued the mock conversation, mimicking Iroh's deep, easygoing tone: "'Why, Zuko, why ever would you need me to do that?'"

"'Oh, no reason, Uncle. Just because I thought the general public wouldn't approve of me being a waterbender.'"

He said the last word in a hushed tone, just in case, and Katara turned bright red. "Okay, okay, you made your point," she muttered. Then she flicked her fingers in front of her, a small flame appearing in the air for a just a second. If Zuko hadn't been so irritated at her, he might've laughed. He'd done the exact same thing as a kid whenever he got bored with his mother's lessons.

Zuko went back to his scroll, though in truth, he had to admit the price of cabbages did not make for exciting reading. And Katara continued to entertain herself by tossing little flames into the air. It distracted him in no end, but he couldn't ask her to stop either. It brought back so many memories he didn't want to ignore just yet.

Just then, one of Katara's flames got just a tad too close to the open jar of ink sitting in the tall grass by his feet. While this shouldn't have been a problem in theory, the liquid inside suddenly caught fire and an orange flame flickered inside the jar's rim. Zuko pulled back as Katara yelped in surprise.

"Who filled the ink jars?" he demanded.

"I think it was Sokka."

"Your brother can't tell the difference between ink and lamp oil?"

"Oh, excuse me if we aren't versed in Fire Nation menial labor!"

"I don't think it's too much to ask him to do something simple without setting the palace grounds on fire!"

"If you're such a great leader, why don't you stop yelling at me and do something about this!" She jabbed her finger in the jar's direction, were the flame came dangerously close to setting the dry grass alight. Face hot with embarrassment,

Zuko started to reach down to pick the jar up, only to jerk his hand back when he got near.

"Ow, that's hot!" Katara rolled her eyes, which Zuko tried to ignore. Instead, he motioned at the pond. A ball of water floated out and positioned itself around the jar. Then he used the water to lift the jar and carry it over to the pond. The jar was impressively buoyant and when he sat it on the water's surface, it floated like a little glowing boat.

"Oh, wow," Katara breathed. "Zuko, that's actually really pretty."

Zuko watched as the little jar bobbed its way back and forth in the gentle water, carrying its golden flame with it. It did look kind of nice. Not that he was ever one for aesthetics.

"Hey, go ask a servant to bring us more ink, would you?"

She did and one of the maids came back with ten jars of it. Once he was sure they were alone again, Zuko lay each jar of the pond's surface, commanding the water to hold them in place while Katara set a small flame atop each one. Then, he moved the water currents to arrange the jars in all sorts of patterns - a swirl, a crescent, a teardrop. Katara kept making suggestions and he kept trying to meet each challenge. He barely noticed the sky above them turning to dusk or the first couple stars starting to come out. They had, quite by accident, discovered their own personal set of stars right on top of the pond. The pathetic thing was that while Katara stood there in wonder at the whole thing, all Zuko could think about was just how much he'd lost.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

(Belated) Fanfic Friday: Switched Powers, Chapter 3

Mai hated her. Katara just knew it. She disliked the fact that Katara was in the palace to begin with. When she found out that her boyfriend had gotten hit with lightning trying to protect Katara, she'd upgraded that dislike to mild fury. Then, when she found out that Zuko's precious firebending skills were temporarily on loan to Katara, her expression read only one thing: ready to kill. And Katara couldn't think of a thing to say to make things any better. For now, she just watched her back whenever Mai was in the room.

"You're still stumbling," she heard Mai say in a scolding sort of voice.

Outside, the moon was high and all around the palace, crowds of people had gathered to watch Prince Zuko's coronation. The tension in the waiting room was unbearable. Zuko leaned on Mai's outstretched arm with both hands, taking one clumsy step after another. The idea was supposed to be that he and Mai would walk arm-in-arm down the coronation hall. To all the guests, it would probably look regal. Maybe even a little romantic. Only the six of them would know the real reason. After Azula's attack, Zuko's newfound bloodbending skills remained the sole reason he could get his body to move. And, unfortunately, he wasn't terribly good even at that.

"You think I'm trying to screw this up?" he asked. "This is supposed to be the most momentous occasion of my life. You think I want to spend it tripping over myself?"

Mai sighed. "Well, want to or not, you're going to look like a fool if you don't get it together."

Katara watched the two of them from across the room. Mai's words were harsh, but Katara didn't blame her. Both she and Zuko were exhausted and completely stressed out. They'd been practicing all with hardly any rest for two days straight and still Zuko's steps were clumsy and faltering at best. It was almost like he got worse the longer they tried.

"Um, if it helps," Katara said quietly. Mai shot her a look of pure hatred, but she didn't care. Mai couldn't offer advice, and she could. "Waterbending… it's a very freeflowing sort of thing. When I concentrate too hard, the water's movements get all jagged and less controlled." She stood and walked up to the royal couple. "I know it's a huge day for you and this is hard, but I think if you relax, the bloodbending will come easier to you."

Zuko nodded. Even smiled at her. "Thank you, I'll try that."

"We should head out soon," Aang said, after peeking out behind the curtain for about the fifteenth time. "Now, you're totally sure that there's no coronation rule where you have to give some sort of grand firebending display or anything like that?"

Zuko rolled his eyes. "For the final time, no," he replied as Mai pinned his hair. "And will you please stop checking out there? People have probably thought it's starting five times over already."

Aang lowered his head and walked a safe distance away from the curtain. "Sorry," he said. "I'm just excited. I've never even seen a coronation before, never mind being a part of one."

"Congratulations," Zuko muttered. Katara tried to smile at Aang enthusiasm, but still found herself nervously smoothing the red silk dress that hugged her waist. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe they should've waited longer to have the coronation. But the quicker Zuko was established on the throne, the quicker the Fire Nation could start pulling itself back together. She had to keep that in mind.

Mai cleared her throat, looking sharply in Katara's direction. At first, she pretended not to notice. Mai coughed loudly, and finally Katara looked up. Mai nodded off to the side, motioning away from Zuko's earshot. Katara cocked her head in confusion, but followed along behind her nonetheless.

"Is everything okay?" she asked.

"Fine," Mai said. "But I've been wondering. What exactly is your... relationship with Zuko?"

Katara blushed. "Relationship? None! What makes you think we've got a relationship?"

Mai raised her eyebrows like she didn't quite believe it. "Nothing," she said calmly. "I was just curious, is all."

Outside, they could hear a blast of instruments silencing the crowd. "Okay, people, let's move it!" Sokka yelled. "We've got a coronation to start!" Mai immediately broke off the awkward conversation with Katara and hurried to Zuko's side. Katara went and stood next to Aang, who had his hand ready on the curtain.

"It's time," he said to Zuko. "Are you ready?"

Zuko nodded and straightened up. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then he put one arm to the side and gripped Mai's arm with the other. Gently, he placed one foot in front of the other. His steps were better, but they weren't good either. People are going to notice, Katara thought. There's no way no one sees that. Still, she couldn't do anything more than she had, so she stood to the side, ready to let the coronation proceed as it would. The moment Mai came past her, though, Katara felt an elbow jab into her side.

"Take his other arm," Mai hissed. Katara blinked, not sure if she heard right. Maybe Mai just wanted Katara in a good position to stab her.

"I don't know if I should…"

"Don't be an idiot. I can't do this alone. He needs you."

Katara nodded and without another word, she came up to Zuko's free arm and wrapped it around her own. He didn't object. In fact, she could've sworn she heard him breathe a sigh of relief. His pace became smooth, and the curtain parted before them. Katara tried her best to look as serious and regal as Mai did, but in truth, her heart pounded. Walking out in front of all those people, she never felt more nervous in her life. Still, she would be here for Zuko, whatever he needed. She felt sure of it.