Aang's eyes fluttered open. He tried to remember what happened in the past few moments. It felt like Appa had run headlong into him. He stared around him to try and orient himself, figure out what was going on. Zuko was lying on his back on the ground. That looked familiar enough. But now Katara was laying unconscious next to him.
"Aang, are you okay?" That was Sokka's voice. Dizzy and blurry-eyed, Aang turned in the direction of his friend's call and saw a fuzzy blue figure moving quickly his direction. "Are you okay?" the figure asked again.
"I-I think so," Aang answered slowly.
In response, something hit him sharply across the face. It felt like an open palm. "You said you weren't going to try it if you couldn't do it safely!" he yelled. "What did you do to my sister, Aang?"
"I..." Aang's vision finally started coming into focus. It was Sokka, all right. But Aang had never seen him so angry. His eyes were wet, his body shaking, his face red with anger.
"If you hurt her just to try and help Zuko-"
"Water boy, relax," Toph said calmly. She was kneeling on the ground, her fingers scraping the dirt. "I can feel their bodies moving. They're both okay. Or at least, they're both alive."
Sokka rushed to Katara's side. Delicately he lifted her head. "Katara!" he called "Katara!'" He looked helplessly in Aang's direction. "Why won't she wake up?"
Before Aang could respond, Sokka suddenly recoiled. "Ow," he said. Then, putting a hand to Katara's forehead, his eyes widened with fear.
"Aang, she's burning with a fever. What do we do?"
Next to them, Zuko began to stir, though he did not open his eyes. "What's happened?" he muttered.
"Aang was an idiot and tried to switch your powers," Sokka snapped at him. "And now my sister's got a fever like I've never felt before."
Before Zuko could reply, Katara's body jolted. Her eyes flew open for just a split second before closing again. They were a brilliant shade of amber.
"No... way..." Sokka whispered. "You actually did it?"
Zuko muttered something again. Sokka was tempted to ignore him, but then again, it might be important.
"Fire," he repeated. "There's too much fire in her system. It can happen to a bender who's just discovered their powers. She needs to get it out."
Aang held Katara's shoulders. "Katara, listen to me," he said firmly. "I need you to firebend. Do you understand me?"
Her body continued to shake and her skin still felt wickedly hot.
"I-I can't..." she said. "It's too cold, I can't..."
"It's your fever," Aang said. "Come on, Katara. Try it." He held his hand forward, flexing his fingers, showing her how to do it.
Her eyes fluttered open again and slowly she reached her hand forward in the same motion. Her shaking fingers bent inward, and at first, nothing seemed to happen. Just as Aang thought she'd misunderstood and started to demonstrate again, a blast of fire flew from her hand. Sokka and Toph tumbled out of the way, and Aang nearly got his clothes singed.
Katara closed her eyes again, sweating and taking heavy breaths. Sokka reached over and felt her forehead again. "She's still warm," he said. "But it feels much better."
Next to her, Zuko coughed. Everyone turned around to notice for the first time that his eyes were open, and like Katara's, they had changed color as well.
"That was... some impressive bending," Zuko said.
"Well, yeah, it's your powers," Sokka retorted. He took a closer look at Zuko's face. "Okay, blue eyes on you look creepy."
"Interesting," Aang muttered. So it seemed that he had not only exchanged Zuko and Katara's bending abilities, he had transferred all their memories of moves and techniques as well. Which meant...
"Zuko, can you use bloodbending now?"
Zuko laughed, which caused him to cough again. "Of course, why didn't I think of that? Now that you've used your magic Avatar powers, executing an advanced waterbending technique should be no trouble at all for me."
Aang sighed, not exactly in the mood for Zuko's sarcasm. "Come on, just try it," he said. "I might not be as good as Katara, but I know a little bit. Your body is full of water. Concentrate on it and move it to your will."
Zuko sighed, but nevertheless, closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Katara's healing seemed to have at least given him some control over his hands. Aang watched anxiously as his fingers quivered and pinched together, like someone picking blades of grass. Then slowly, very slowly, he began to raise his arm a few inches off the ground.
"That's it, you're doing it!" Aang said excitedly. Zuko gritted his teeth and his arm fell down again.
"It's less difficult when you're quiet."
Aang lowered his head in a silent apology. He got overexcited, he couldn't help it. Zuko sighed, seeming to understand. "It feels like I'm trying to lift a lead weight," he said. "It's not like moving my muscles at all. It's completely foreign."
"Like learning how to see through earthbending," Toph said. "It took me a while, but once I got the hang of it, it's not even something I think about anymore. Like hearing or smelling--it just comes to me."
"Good for you," Zuko muttered. "That only took you how many years of practice? I've got to master this as soon as possible."
Toph grunted, blowing her bangs out of her face. They immediately fell back down again. "Well, when's the next full moon? You'll probably be a lot better then."
"The full moon passed a few days ago," Aang said. The group let out a collective groan. "But, no problem!" Aang said. "We'll just get the coronation going as quickly as possible! In the meantime, we've got to make sure the palace is secure."
"Easy enough with Azula out," Katara said.
"Says the person who can walk," Zuko muttered.
"Well," Aang said thoughtfully. "One of us can stay here with you while the rest go in."
The group paused and all eyes fell to one person. Sokka scowled.
"Me? Seriously? Why am I the one who always gets stuck with these things?"
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 Zuko 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 and elegant. Only the six of them would know the real reason. Unfortunately, Zuko wasn't terribly good at faking even a slow stroll.
"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 free-flowing 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 two of them. "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's 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."
"Why?" Katara bit her tongue. She had no reason to ask that question; this conversation was embarrassing enough at it was. "Erm, that is... I mean--"
"Why was I curious?" Mai's smile faded. "Because he used to be my boyfriend."
Outside, a blast of instruments silenced the crowd and saved Katara from any further humiliation.
"Okay, people, let's move it!" Sokka yelled. "We've got a coronation to start!" Mai immediately broke off the 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.