The Firelord needed three things: a strong mind, a strong body, and strong fire. Ozai’s beliefs were twisted in a number of ways, but on this, Zuko agreed with him. If their nation’s leader looked weak in any area, the nation looked weak as a whole. Weakness meant distrust in the monarchy. It meant panic and chaos. For everyone’s benefit, the Firelord had to be strong.
“When you were born, we weren’t sure if you were a bender at all. You didn’t have that spark in your eyes.”
Right now, Azula’s mind was anything but strong. She screamed as she moved wildly through her stances. A river of blue fire directed itself at Zuko, but he saw it coming as clear as if Azula had announced her attacks. His arms moved, his body twisted like he was dancing alongside the ancient dragons once again. Heat and light curved around him, throwing themselves harmlessly into the ground. Then came time for the counterattack. When he called on the fire to appear, he could sense the comet’s energy making it bigger, hotter, more dangerous. As a child, it was the kind of power he’d only dreamed of.
“I planned to cast you from the palace. How embarrassing for a prince of the Fire Nation to have a nonbender as his firstborn!”
For a brief moment, Zuko remembered his mother. What would she think of him, seeing him now? She always thought of him as determined. He wasn’t so sure even she thought he could wield power like this. Mind, body, fire. Everything in balance.
That was, until, he saw Azula aiming at Katara.
“Lucky for you, your mother and the Fire Sages pleaded with me to give you a chance. Azula, on the other hand, never needed that kind of luck. She was born lucky. You were lucky to be born.”
Zuko had done a lot of stupid things in his life. He would admit that to anyone. His father and uncle both chalked it up to his compulsive nature whenever he got too emotional. His father called it weakness, while Uncle Iroh called it strength. But whichever it was, Zuko knew one thing. In the middle of an agni kai with Azula was the worst time to get emotional.
He’d kept focused throughout most of the battle. He’d even goaded Azula 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. 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.
Then the fear overpowered him again. This wasn’t right. He should’ve been in terrible pain all over. But though his hands burned and his head felt like it could split it two, he felt nothing else. He should’ve been able to struggle to his feet, yet couldn’t move. The lightning had done something to him. Not killed him. But broken him nonetheless.
Zuko heard the clash of Katara and Azula’s battle, but struggled to follow it completely. The two warriors kept ducking in and out of sight. Katara had lured Azula over to a storm drain. A source of water. Maybe she could win after all.
Please let her do it, Zuko begged. I can’t defend her like this. He winced, the fear spreading like a disease through his mind. So help me, what’s wrong with my body? I can’t do anything!
In his moment of panic, he was barely conscious of a voice calling out to him. “Zuko! Zuko, are you okay?”
He wanted to answer whoever was calling him. But at the same time, he felt so tired. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep.
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.
“Zuko! Zuko, are you okay?” That was Katara’s voice.
He gasped and coughed. His eyes focused a bit better. “I… I don’t know,” he said. “My body feels numb.”
“That’s because you got struck by lightning, you idiot!” Katara yelled. “What were you thinking? You can’t redirect something that wasn’t aimed at you!”
“I think I just saved your life,” he said. “Azula would’ve burnt you to a crisp if I hadn’t stepped in!”
“I could’ve defended myself just fine!”
Aang sighed and shook his head. Zuko could practically read the Avatar’s thoughts: Even with one of you flat on your back, you still fight like crazy.
“Guys, that’s enough,” Aang said, walking up to Katara’s side. Always the peacemaker. He gave a brief (extremely brief) summary of his battle, mostly skipping to the part where he won. Katara’s eyes widened at the news. Zuko felt himself struggling to express anything. The world still felt like it was spinning.
“Anyway, we’ve all been through a lot ,” Aang said. “We should make sure the palace is secure. Can you stand, Zuko?”
Without waiting for a reply, 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 gasped. “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 what was broken. 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 a bit right?” Katara didn’t answer. That worried him. “Right?”
Katara shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never dealt with this kind of injury before.”
From her hunched over position in the corner, Azula began to giggle maniacally.
“Oh, this is a riot,” she said. “Some ruler you’ll be, big brother. Can’t even get up on the throne, let alone firebend.”
Zuko gritted his teeth. Apparently he could still firebend, at least a little bit, as sparks began to fly from his hand.
“Zuko, you’ve got to calm down,” Aang said. “You’ll injure yourself more.” Even as he spoke, Aang suddenly realized that Zuko wasn’t the only one he had to calm down. Katara practically looked like she was on fire too.
“You,” she said through gritted teeth. “You say another word and I’ll…”
Azula started to laugh, however her voice was quickly cut off. Her mouth closed seemingly against her will and she fell with her face down in the dirt.
Aang felt his blood run cold. Katara was controlling Azula, without a full moon. “Katara, stop! You’ll hurt her!”
Azula gasped for breath, her lips starting to turn blue. Her eyes fluttered as she struggled to maintain consciousness.
“I said that’s enough!” A blast of air flew in Katara’s face, breaking her concentration. Azula took a huge gaps of air and passed out, the color returning to her lips, her breathing becoming normal.
Katara recoiled, as if unaware of what she’d just done. Her hands shook furiously. “Aang,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what was happening. I-”
“You wanted to kill her, and your body followed suit,” Aang said. “That’s obvious enough.”
Katara hung her head in shame. “I’m sorry. She just got me so angry, and I- I snapped.”
“Clearly,” Zuko said. Finally everyone looked at him. “But my sister’s got a point. How am I supposed to take over for my father when I’m like this? The position will fall back to Azula.” Voicing the idea felt like a bitter taste in his mouth. Azula might’ve been the only person worse to rule than Ozai.
Toph, who’d been quiet the whole time, suddenly spoke up. “Hey, maybe water sprite over here can fake it for you.”
“Y’know. She can use people like puppets anyway, so maybe she can fake that you’re not injured until you get better.”
“That’s not funny, Toph!” Katara snapped.
For once, she and Zuko agreed. “Come up with a more practical solution, please.”
Toph shrugged. She gave no indication she had been joking, but let the matter drop. The suggestion, however, seemed to give Katara an idea of her own.
“Wait a minute. Aang, how did you say you beat Ozai, again?”
“I… I took his power away from him,” Aang replied. “Why?”
“So you can take away people’s powers when you’re in the Avatar state?”
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,” Zuko said. They all just stared at him as if to say, “Yes, obviously.” None of them had grown up in the Fire Nation. They didn’t get how vital firebending was to the royal family. Zuko exhaled slowly. Strong mind, strong body, strong fire. He could only have two of those. So, which was worse? A weakness that was obvious to everyone or one that he might be able to hide?
“Let me rephrase that,” he said. “If I give up my firebending and word got out about it, it’d be on level with giving up the crown. There’s never been a Firelord who wasn’t a firebender.”
“Plus, I have no idea if I can even exchange powers or not,” Aang said. “I agree with you, 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.”
“I still don’t know if I can actually do that,” Aang said. “Why aren’t you paying attention to me?”
“Listen, the Fire Nation needs a strong leader right now, and Zuko is that leader. If he’s not established on the throne, everything will go into chaos.”
No one could argue with her on that point. Aang sighed and shook his head.
“All right, look. I’ll go into the Avatar state. And if… if it feels like I can exchange your powers without hurting either of you , I’ll give it a try. But if I’m not completely positive I can do it, then it’s no, and we’re not discussing it anymore, understand?”
“Hey, wait a second!” Sokka snapped. “You’re not actually thinking of going through with this, are you?”
“Don’t I get any say in this?” Zuko yelled.
Katara put her hands on her hips, ignoring her brother completely. “Fine. What’s your solution?”
Zuko stuttered. “I… that is… I don’t know!” He grunted with frustration. “Fine,” he said. “Try it then. Odds are it won’t work, anyway.”
Aang stretched his arms to try and relax, taking a step forward to Zuko and Katara. Sokka stepped in front of him.
“Aang, may I repeat my opinion that this is possibly the worst idea Katara has ever had and you’re humoring it?!”
“It’s not the worst idea,” Aang said. “There was that time she decided to help flood a river and almost drowned a bunch of villagers because she was in love with Jet.”
“Can we please not bring up my past stupidities?” Katara asked.
“Zuko’s right too,” Aang said. “If the Fire Nation can’t put itself back together now, everything we did was pointless. We need to try.” With no more discussion on it, Aang took a deep breath and placed one hand on Katara’s forehead and the other on Zuko’s.
“No promises,” he reminded them.
Katara nodded. “Right,” she whispered. “No promises.” With that, Aang’s arrow tattoos began to glow.