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.

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