Ren spent the rest of the day packing up the tent for their trip. Katara offered to help a few times, but Ren insisted she “had a system” and didn’t want them meddling in it. It left Katara more than a little frustrated to have a major crisis on their hands and not much she could immediately do about it.
She could only imagine how much more intense Zuko’s frustration must have been and tried to talk to him. The trouble was, now that they weren’t actively running for their lives, she realized they didn’t have a lot of topics to discuss.
“Can’t believe this scar gave me away again,” Zuko was muttering, more or less to himself. The mention of his scar, though, brought a distant memory to the forefront of Katara’s mind.
“Hey, remember that time we were in the crystal catacombs?” she asked.
Zuko gave her an off look. “Yeah. I think your words to me were along the lines of, ‘You’re a terrible person. You know that?’ Also something about me having hatred and violence in my blood and trying to destroy the world’s last hope.”
“Okay, so I was irked at you,” Katara said, face reddening. “But you didn’t exactly prove me wrong afterwards.”
“We’re bringing that up now?” Zuko asked. “So when you say you forgive people in the Water Tribe, does that secretly mean you’ll give them a couple months before rubbing their mistakes in their faces again?”
Katara flushed. A split second ago she’d felt guilty; now she just felt angry at him all over again. “Just because I forgive you doesn’t mean I understand why you did it.”
To her surprise, he had no reply at first. In fact, he seemed to fall into a deep contemplation, like it had never occurred to him to reflect on that day’s actions before. “I did it because… because I wasn’t ready to admit that my dad hated me.”
For a while Katara said nothing. I’m such an idiot sometimes, Zuko told himself. He’d been lying here wishing he could have an actual conversation with her, preferably not about his psychotic sister or the questionably sane woman they’d be traveling with that evening. And then, when she actually tried to talk, he shut down the conversation. Idiot.
“I remember,” she said quietly. Zuko turned to listen. “Back then, you told me that you thought this scar marked you. But you never even told me how you got it.” She reached out and stroked the side of his face. The left side of his face. He wanted to slap her away (he had enough energy for that, at least), just like he’d wanted to slap her the first time she laid a hand on his scar.
“I have 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 have 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.
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 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 few days after it happened. 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 like that 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. She took his hand in hers and squeezed it. “Thank you for telling me anyway.”
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.
When evening came, Ren wasted little time in waking Zuko from a deep sleep to shoo him out of bed. Though the extra rest had helped him recover a bit of his physical stamina, his bloodbending still felt weak, leaving him shaky and uncoordinated. He wasn’t surprised. If the full moon gave him strength, the new moon would naturally do the opposite. Not that he could explain this to Ren. Even if he could, he doubted it would make a difference. Ren didn’t tolerate slacking, period. Shaky as he was, if Zuko could fold a blanket, or carry a bag, he was expected to do so without complaining.
Not even little Sien was exempt from chores, and to Zuko’s embarrassment, she did them in half the time he took.
“You’re good at this; you must travel a lot,” he said kindly as the little girl finished tucking the blankets he had folded into a toddler-sized knapsack.
“Uh-huh. Since I was little.”
Watching her heft up her backpack, Zuko couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity for the little girl. When he was her age, his days had been filled with family vacations to Ember island or romping about in the palace gardens playing hide-and-explode with cousin Lu Ten—not being forced to hike up mountains in search of dangerous predators. Seriously, what was Ren thinking dragging a child into her insane dragon-tracking quest? He didn’t have the nerve to ask her.
Frustrations aside, traveling with Ren did have one advantage. Being as well traveled as she was, Ren knew all the shortcuts through the city, specifically the ones that guards rarely patrolled. By midnight they had even traveled far enough off the beaten trail to set up camp and have an actual cook fire. While Ren and Sien set up their tent, Zuko helped Katara boil the potatoes and carrots Ren had bought in town along with wild mushrooms and greens the woman had gathered during their hike. Well, really he just sort of stirred the pot occasionally while Katara manipulated the flames underneath to get the right temperature. Later, after the four of them had feasted and Sien was sound asleep, Ren made tea and the three of them talked quietly around the dying embers.
“So, what made you decide to study dragons? I mean, most people still believe they’re extinct.” Katara noted. Exhaustion had given her voice a bit of a demeaning undertone. Katara still wasn’t thrilled with Zuko’s decision to go on this little venture, and she was even less thrilled now, seeing how utterly aggravating Ren was to travel with. Not that Ren gave a viper-rats patootee what Katara, or anyone for that matter, thought of her.
She snorted at Katara’s question. “That’s because most people are idiots. Dragons were the first true firebenders. It was their ancestors that gave mankind, gave us, the gift of fire. I knew any animal clever enough to survive that long wasn’t going to just sit by while their entire species got wiped out. Some had to be alive, living in secret. I’ve made it my life’s work to find them and learn everything I can. The better I understand them, the better chances I’ll have of keeping them safe so they can bring more little dragons into the world. ” She clenched her fists. “I was almost too late this last time. No offense, highness, but your great-grandfather was a stupid fool for starting that dragon-hunting tradition.”
I wish she’d stop calling me that.
Zuko opened his mouth, ready to say as much, but then closed it again. Aside from the “highness” title, everything she’d said was right on target. “I agree. Which is why I was going to pass a law banning it.”
“Oh, really? And what good will that do, exactly?” Ren arched one eyebrow. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a noble gesture. But do you really think a bit of paper and ink is going to stop trained hunters from trying to do what they do best?”
Zuko flinched. There was blunt truth in her words. The proof was written in all the Fire Nation history books. Starting a war was easy. Ending one, on the other hand…
Zuko fought to think. “A sanctuary, then. Somewhere safe that the dragons can live and raise their hatchlings.”
Ren sipped her tea, actually considering this idea. “Might work, I suppose. If you can actually convince the dragons to nest there. But what’s to stop the poachers from sneaking in and stealing the eggs while the mother is off hunting?”
Zuko didn’t have a good answer for that. Or to any of this, really. So much had gone wrong these past few weeks… the plight of the dragons hadn’t exactly been on the top of his list of priorities. But maybe that was his mistake. If (and it was a big “if”) he could somehow defeat Azula and re-establish himself as Firelord. Maybe then he could look into the matter more seriously. For now, well… now it was time to get some sleep.