Authors' Notes: This fic is co-written by HyperFerret and Katrina. While we do reference some events that took place in Katrina's fic, "Switched Powers", the story is intended to stand on its own. (And if it doesn't, let us know in the reviews!) The authors acknowledge some stretching of the Avatar universe rules to make this plot happen. We're okay with that.
Setting: The year is AG 172 and Korra is still in recovery from her battle with Zaheer.
Zuko reached out towards the roaring fire. He felt no warmth from it; only the sensation that the heat improved the circulation in his hands. Which, at his age, wasn't a bad thing.
It was Chief Tonraq and his wife Senna who had opened their home to him on his visit to the Southern Water Tribe, but it was Katara who'd insisted on seeing him first. Not far down the hallway was Korra's room. She was sleeping, of course. At least, Zuko sincerely hoped she was at his time of night.
Katara slipped another log into the fireplace in silence. She'd insisted on starting the flames herself, even when the flint was proving stubborn. He was the guest, after all. Asking him to firebend for their convenience would have just been rude.
As Zuko watched the flames dance, his eyes fixated on the base of the fire. The place where, if only for brief seconds, he could see glimpses of blue. He knew full well the blue fire would bring back bad memories, but he always tried to face his fears. His uncle had taught him that. Without letting the fear overtake him, he allowed his thought to drift back to the day of Sozin's comet…
The battle with Azula had been going so well. He'd even goaded her to prepare a lightning strike against him, despite the fact that he was clearly in a defensive position, ready to direct it back at her. A picture of calm. Then, her gaze shifted. The fear surged through him as he realized that Azula no longer aimed at him. His body had already started to react even before he turned to confirm it was Katara in danger.
The best solution would've been to try to push her out of the way. But she was so far behind him, and his hand was right there. If he reached out and touched the lightning, maybe he could move it away from her. Sure his position wasn't the best, but if he didn't try-
"No!" Zuko cried out. His fingers reached out and touched the white light headed straight for her. He wasn't ready. His stance was completely wrong. The lightning was supposed to feel like a stream of energy, flowing from one hand to the other. The second Azula's attack hit him, however, he felt the heat of it scatter into his body, breaking it like a fragile glass ball. Desperately, he moved his other hand, willing away whatever energy he could. A small amount seemed to obey him. But his arms didn't seem to listen the way he wanted, and rest of the energy wracked his body as he fell to the ground.
What frightened Zuko wasn't the fall, though. It was the fact that he could barely feel it. He rolled over purely from the momentum, and his arms fell uselessly to his sides.
Katara's still in danger, a voice screamed in his head. I have to get up to help her. But no matter how he struggled, he could only lift his head and flex his fingers. The rest of his body refused to obey.
"So," a much older Katara said, interrupting his thoughts. "Is this a friendly visit or a diplomatic one?"
Zuko had to shake his head a bit to orient himself back in the present. His finger twitched, pulling his hands back to his lap. "Both," he finally answered. "Officially, Izumi requested that I ask if Harmonic Convergence revealed any new benders in the Southern Water Tribe."
Katara picked up the fireplace poker as he spoke, nudging the logs around without much rhyme or reason. "No new airbenders; Korra asked me that months ago."
"I assumed as much."
Katara seemed satisfied that the fire wasn't going to spontaneously shut itself down and pulled the poker back from the flames. A log shifted, sending a splattering of sparks onto the hearth.
"One of our nonbenders did become a waterbender, though," she added on. "Oh, and we got one… well, technically three earthbenders."
"'Technically'?" Zuko asked.
"Well, two of them can metalbend, so I guess you'd call them earthbenders," Katara said. "But ask them to move even a little rock, and they just can't do it."
"Really?" Zuko asked. It didn't totally surprise him. They'd found a couple new swampbenders in the Northern Water Tribe who were completely unable to bend water on its own. They were all wealthy kids who, when their abilities were confirmed, insisted there was no way they were going to leave their homes and travel to some disgusting swamp out in the Earth Kingdom. They had to be assured quite a few times that no one was actually asking them to leave.
"And what about the Fire Nation?" Katara asked, with a bit of a tease in that old voice of hers. "You have people who can make lightning but not fire over there now?"
"No," Zuko answered, his eyes darting away from Katara and back to the fire. "We've got bloodbenders."
He tried to say the word quickly, so he didn't get caught in the past again. But the silence that followed his statement left his mind too free to wander…
In the end, it was Katara who took down Azula, though Zuko didn't find out until later how she did it. He only knew that by the time it was over, his father had also been defeated and his friends were back at the Fire Nation palace, gathering around him.
Katara bent down and slung Zuko's right arm over her shoulder. He grunted angrily at the assistance, but the rest of his body leaned against her like a rag doll.
"Hey, I need some help," she said.
Zuko winced. "I-I don't think I can move."
"What are you talking about?" Katara said. "You told me you just felt numb."
"Yeah, as in I can't move!"
"Both of you, please!" Aang begged. "Lay him back down, Katara. If he's injured, we're just going to make it worse by moving him around."
"I know that," she said defensively.
She removed the sash around her waist, folding it up to make a pillow before letting Zuko lay down again. Then, she called forth the water from her side, letting it gather around her former enemy's neck, and back, and chest.
"Nothing broken," she said. "The lightning must've messed with your nerves, somehow."
She concentrated her power, willing the water to mend whatever damage was there. But after sitting in her trance for several minutes, nothing seemed to change, and Katara's hands began to tremble with frustration.
Aang finally stopped her. "Katara, it's enough," he said. "You're going to hurt yourself doing that much. And I don't think the water is going to heal anymore."
Katara's eyes started to well up with tears. "But... he got injured because of me. I have to do something."
"You can stop crying all over me," Zuko muttered. No one listened to him.
"You did everything you could," Aang told her. "And besides, it'll heal on its own in time, right?"
Katara didn't answer.
"So? What's the other reason you came?" Any humor in Katara's voice was gone now. She'd always been like that. Bring up bloodbending, and Katara went from the happy and friendly woman he usually knew to someone he barely recognized at all. Zuko wasn't looking forward to this conversation. "I wanted to talk about Korra."
She didn't answer him. A bad sign.
"Katara, it's been months, " he went on, "and correct me if I'm wrong, but Korra isn't seeing much progress. I know it's not the ideal option, but maybe it's time you let me-"
"I'm handling her healing," Katara snapped.
Zuko gritted his teeth. First she refused to answer and now she was interrupting him? Fine. If she was going to resort to childish tactics, then so could he. "Oh, and that's going marvelously well, isn't it?"
She grunted at him. For the love of Sozin, why did she have to be so stubborn? Her failure to heal him after Azula's lightning strike had been one of the biggest failures in her career as a physician. She'd called it as much, too. As if Zuko's only shot at happiness was her performing a medical miracle. Katara meant well, but sometimes she thought far too highly of herself.
"Healing takes time, Zuko," she finally said. "Don't go pressuring Korra. She's had enough of that."
"If I wanted to pressure Korra, I'd speak to her," Zuko replied. "But I'm speaking to you. Let her learn it. It doesn't have to permanent." It wasn't his smartest argument. Those words had been said before. This time, however, it was Katara who brought up the past. Her voice got quiet, and Zuko's fingers twitched again as he leaned his body forward to hear her.
"'Doesn't have to be permanent?'" she whispered. "I said that to Aang right after Azula struck you. Seems like seventy years of you borrowing a bit of my bending is pretty permanent."
Zuko wanted to answer that it was hardly borrowing. After all, she'd hated bloodbending from the moment she'd learned it. She couldn't wait to get rid of it. Once again, he thought of times past…
"Wait a minute," Toph said. "Aang, how did you say you beat Ozai, again?"
"I... I took his bending away from him," Aang replied. "Why?"
His reply seemed to get Katara's mind whirling. "So you can take away people's bending when you're in the Avatar state?" she asked.
Aang shrugged. "I don't know. It's not exactly something I've tried before now. Why?"
Katara bit her lip. "Could you switch two people's powers?"
It didn't take a genius to see where she was going. "Are you crazy?" Sokka asked.
"It's the only solution that makes sense," Katara said. "If Zuko could bloodbend, he could move on his own until his body heals itself."
"If I could bloodbend, I'd be a waterbender," he said. "Which would be kind of awkward if I'm supposed to running the Fire Nation."
"Plus, I have no idea if I can even exchange powers or not," Aang said. "I agree with Zuko. It's a really bad idea. We'll find another way to help him."
"We don't have another way," Katara insisted. Zuko had never seen her so worked up about something before. She was extremely determined to go through with this.
"It's not permanent anyway," she said, turning to him. "Once you're healed, Aang can reverse our powers back again."
It was one of those plans that would have been absolutely brilliant if it had worked. Not that Aang had failed in any way. He'd taken energybending to a level no one had dreamed of. But sometimes life just didn't work according to plan.
Zuko shook his head. "Look, let's not argue about how long Korra might need bloodbe-"
Katara coughed loudly.
"…might need that technique to help her get around. There's defensive reasons to consider." He brought his voice back up to normal speaking levels. As long as Katara was going to cough through anything questionable, no point in making his voice hoarse through all that whispering. "Let her learn it. It's a useful skill for her to-"
"It will never be a 'useful skill,'" Katara said.
Zuko gave up. Not that he'd expected the conversation to go anywhere, but he at least thought he'd be able to get a few words in. But this was the one topic he and Katara would never agree on. It broke down their friendship and brought them back to where they were barely speaking to each other. Like when Zuko first joined their team all those years ago.
Katara talked a bit more after that, but Zuko really wasn't listening to her. He'd go in to visit Korra tomorrow. Maybe he could reassure himself that he'd been overreacting, that Korra was clearly on the road to recovery, and that the avatar would return soon. But somehow, he had a nagging doubt in his stomach.