Katara woke up early the next morning to a child’s face staring a few inches from hers.
“Wah!” She startled backwards. “What are you doing?”
“Momma tolds me to watch you while she was gone.”
“Oh.” Katara cleared her throat. So much for her plans to leave early. After the hospitality their hostess had showed, they couldn’t just up and leave her daughter to fend for herself. Especially knowing what the woman would do to them should her little girl come to harm. “Did she say when she would be back?”
“Soon. She just went to get bek-fast.” The little girl paused a moment to cast curious eyes on Zuko, who was still sleeping heavily.
“Is your boyfriend gonna be okay?”
“Boyfriend?” Katara choked. “Oh, no sweetie, we’re not–he’s not–I mean–” She cleared her throat again, quickly getting a hold of herself when she remembered she was talking to an innocent little girl who didn’t know any better. “Your name’s Sien, right?”
“Sien. Do you have any water to drink?”
The little girl nodded, tiptoed to the far end of the tent, and began rummaging through her mother’s things.
Katara, meanwhile, leaned over and nudged Zuko awake. To her great relief, he stirred right away. He still looked awful, pale and sleep-deprived, but it was a step above unconscious.
“What day is it?” Zuko asked, his voice groggy and unfocused.
“The moon cycle… what day?”
Katara tried to remember what the sky had looked like before she fell asleep last night. Strange, without her waterbending, the movements of the moon weren’t nearly as strong in her mind as they had been.
“It’s been waning, I know that,” she said. “It might be a new moon tonight.”
“I thought so,” Zuko mused. “It was so hard to heal you.” He shakily stretched his hand towards her face. “And I still didn’t get it right, did I?”
His arm started to fall, and Katara caught it. Zuko exhaled through his teeth with frustration. Then, with some effort, he lifted his hand again and turned her cheek so he could see the faint mark beneath her left eye.
“You’re worried about that?” She brought her second hand up to support his wrist. “If I recall anything from that night, that firebender nearly burned half my face off. You healed all that.” She smiled, gaze fixed on Zuko’s bright blue eyes. They almost looked natural on him, after all the time they’d spent together. And he was staring at her with such intensity that she couldn’t help but wonder if he thought the same about her.
She also realized she was basically still cradling Zuko’s hand against her face and quickly lowered his arm to the ground.
“Well,” she said, clearing her throat. “We’d better get moving.” She leaned down and whispered so only Zuko could hear, “That woman Ren, the one who took us in? She seems nice and all, but I think she’s a bit… unstable. We should leave right away.”
“Um, yeah, about that,” Zuko said. He spread his fingers apart, a shaky motion. “Unless that moon plans on re-appearing midday, I don’t think I’m getting very far today.”
Not good. They couldn’t stay in one place too long or they’d get caught. Not to mention that Ren seriously creeped Katara out.
“I feel like I could waterbend perfectly fine,” Zuko went on. “I just… can’t get the bloodbending quite right.”
Katara chewed her lip. “So, can you manage walking?”
Zuko laughed. “Katara, if I can stand on two feet today, I’ll be impressed.”
Just then Sien toddled back over, an enormous half-full water skin clutched clumsily in her arms.
She smiled at Zuko when she noticed he was awake.
“Um… morning?” Zuko looked at Katara, who smiled sheepishly.
Just then, voices sounded outside, jolting everyone’s attention to the closed tent flap. “No. I haven’t seen anyone by that description.”
Katara recognized Ren’s deep voice. She was just outside the tent. A man spoke next, formal, authoritative. A palace guard! Katara swallowed hard. She looked to Zuko and he looked back. His skin was a shade paler.
What do we do now? She had no answer. If they tried to escape now, they’d be caught. If they stayed and Ren gave them up, they’d be caught.
The guard spoke. “We have reports that the fugitives were last spotted around here.”
“Is that a fact?” Ren said. “Well, I’m no expert on security but seeing as how they’re trying not to be caught wouldn’t it make sense that they’d try hiding somewhere else, maybe somewhere away from the place where you spotted them?”
“I–well–” the guard faltered.
“Lady Azula ordered us to search everywhere,” a different guard said. His voice was gruffer then the other man’s. Katara felt a nervous flutter of recognition in her stomach. Was this the same man who attacked her? “Now if you’ll stand aside…” he was saying, “we’d like to search your tent.”
Katara was sweating now. Zuko, too. He looked like he was going to be sick. Slowly she inched her fingers along the blankets and found his hand. Zuko wouldn’t feel her touch–at least, she didn’t think he would. What little bloodbending he had must have given him some indication, though; he made a gesture and curled his fingers around hers.
Ren spoke, her voice calm and unwavering. “I’d rather you didn’t. My daughter is still asleep.”
“Sorry, ma’am. Orders.” Outside heavy footfalls advanced a step, moving towards the tent.
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear,” Ren’s voice lowered, still calm, but with a very distinct note of danger. There was a flash of light outside the tent-fabric and the unmistakable crackle of flame. “You take one step into my tent and you’ll be reporting back to Lady Azula in an urn.”
She said it so easily that even the trained and armored guards took pause. Katara could hear one of them muttering.
“We’re wasting time. The fugitives would have gone by now.”
“But our orders–” Gruff-voice argued.
“Didn’t say anything about getting into an Agni Kai with a crazy tourist. Let’s go.”
Footsteps sounded, heading away. Katara almost didn’t believe it. The guards were actually leaving?
Outside the tent, Ren scoffed under her breath. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
Sien stood, giving a stunned Zuko a mischievous little smile.
“Yay! Momma’s back!”
The tent flap opened. Zuko watched as Sien sprang up and ran to hug a tall woman with braided hair and–was that a scar across her face?
“Ah, you’re awake. And how are we feeling today, young man?”
“Fine.” He lied. He wasn’t even sure why. Because he didn’t want to end up on her wrong side, like the guards? Or was it because he didn’t want to seem weak? Turned out his reason didn’t even matter, the instant Ren got a good look at him.
“Really? Because you still look awful.”
She set down her bag of groceries and, with Sien’s eager help, began divvying out food. “Hopefully this will help.”
Breakfast was warm rolls and honey, assorted fruit and tea (or in Sien’s case, fresh milk) heated by firebending rather than a cook fire.
A simple, portable meal. In case the guards come back, some part of Zuko realized. Ren was brave, but she was clearly nobody’s fool.
“Thank you,” said Zuko, accepting a honey-roll and an apple from Sien. He looked to Ren. “And thank you, for earlier, with the guards. That took courage to face them like that.”
“Pah.” Ren looked up from her present task of slicing half a papaya into toddler-sized bites while simultaneously bolting down the second half. “Those ninnies wouldn’t last five seconds in my line of work.”
She turned to face Zuko, giving him his first real clear look at her jagged scar.
Zuko sucked in a breath, almost choking on his roll.
“That mark… it looks like a dragon claw!”
Ren gave a knowing smirk. “And what would a young man from the Water Tribe know about dragons?”
“Um… nothing! I mean… ” Zuko fumbled for words trying to come up with a believable excuse and failing miserably. Katara looked like she was going to slap him, and she might very well have if he wasn’t so weak already.
Ren watched their fumbling with amusement. “Relax, highness. If I wanted to turn you in I would have wasted all that energy making your guards wet themselves earlier.”
“You–” Katara finally found her voice, be it a small shaky one. “You knew this whole time?”
Ren pulled an apple from the bag of fruit and began carefully pealing off the skin. “Not the whole time. The waterbending was a bit of a shock. But then I got a good look at your scar and I knew…” She went quiet a moment, concentrating on maneuvering her knife. She cut the apple into careful slices, setting them by Sien. “That injury wasn’t an accident. You looked the attacker in the eye when it happened.” She raised her chin to look at Zuko square in the face. “That takes grit. Almost as much as giving up your firebending.” There was an odd pride in her voice. The dutiful kind, like a Fire Nation soldier had for their country and their Firelord. Only Ren wasn’t a soldier. No more than he was Firelord.
“I’m not sure why or how you did it, mind,” Ren said. “I’m guessing our Avatar had some part in it. Either way, you should know that as a Fire Nation citizen, I trust your judgment.”
Zuko lowered his eyes. He didn’t deserve her trust. Because what he had done, switching powers, he hadn’t done out of bravery. After the generosity she had shown him, Ren deserved to know this. To know the sort of person she was willing to risk herself and her daughter to protect.
“I never wanted to give up my firebending. There wasn’t any other choice–”
Zuko sensed sudden movement beside him as Katara leaned over to elbow him.
“So,” she said, louder than necessary. “What brings you to the city, Ren?” She smiled a fake smile, sliding her gaze to Zuko at the same time. It was a warning stare. Katara’s polite way of telling him to shut his trap already. Maybe he had been saying too much. Ren already knew who he was and that he was now a waterbender. She didn’t need to know he was also a bloodbender, and that that bloodbending was the only thing keeping him moving.
Ren didn’t see Katara’s warning. Or maybe she did, and she was just pretending not to notice. Either way, she didn’t comment. She just answered Katara’s question in her same, casual manner.
“Supply run. I’m a dragon researcher, you see. I’ve spent the last year tracking one. A juvenile male. Poor thing was attacked by poachers a few days back and he’s grounded up north a ways in the mountains. Only about a day’s hike.”
“A juvenile dragon? But I thought…” He faltered yet again. Zuko had thought there were only two dragons left in the world, both grown. The Masters Ran and Shaw who resided with the ancient Sun Warriors and had helped him rediscover the true meaning of firebending. Not that he could say this aloud. He and Aang had sworn not to tell anyone of their existence. Zuko cleared his throat and quickly covered with, “I thought they were all extinct.”
“Not this one.” Ren finished slicing her apple and popped several pieces in her mouth at once. “But you’ll be able to see him for yourself.”
“Wait, what?” Zuko stammered. Did Ren just imply what he thought she implied?
Ren was tidying the tent as she ate, bundling clothes and packing supplies with practiced efficiency. When she noticed the questioning look in Zuko’s face, she smiled in an oddly unsettling way. Slow and unwavering, like Azula might.
“You heard right. You’re coming with me.”
Katara snorted with annoyance. Zuko could see the spark of temper flare in her amber eyes. She looked almost Fire Nation.
“Look we appreciate your hospitality, Ren, but in case you haven’t noticed we sorta have a little situation to deal with in the palace.”
Ren didn’t falter. “And I’ve got an injured dragon who needs a skilled healer.” She looked to Zuko, narrowing her eyes. “And considering Lady Azula will have me executed for hiding you, I’d say you owe me that much.”
Katara opened her mouth, ready to counter. But Ren ignored her, focusing instead on her daughter who had taken to toasting pieces of her papaya with a small flame, instead of eating them. “Sien, stop broiling your food and eat it.”
The little girl looked up ceasing her flame. Then she crossed her arms and glowered with a near-perfect imitation of her mother. “But I hate papaya!”
“Sien, this isn’t a debate. Finish your food.”
“No!” She balled her hands into fists and began to stop her feet. Zuko flinched. Growing up with Azula he knew the start of a nasty tantrum when he saw one.
Ren did too. Zuko could see the corner of Ren’s mouth twitch. Amazingly, she didn’t raise her voice. Instead, she drew a long breath and said sternly. “Finish your food… or no fire training.”
The little girl paused mid-stamp, considering her mother’s warning as she looked between Ren and the uneaten fruit. Then, after a considerable pause, Sien grabbed up the papaya and stuffed two big fistfuls in her mouth. She grimaced as she chewed and swallowed.
“I’m done. Can we do fire training now?”
“Okay,” said Ren with a smug smile. “You can go and practice flame punches, carefully.”
Sien was already moving. She burst from the tent as fast as her little toddler legs could carry her. A barrage of flame bursts and little girl war cries sounded seconds later.
Ren massaged between her eyes. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, I need to go make sure my daughter doesn’t set something important on fire. In the meantime, you should get yourselves ready. I want to leave my nightfall. Fewer patrols.”
She started to leave, but paused at the tent flap. “What you said before about you not having a choice. That wasn’t true. You always have a choice. I’ll give you some time to think about this one, but I suggest you take me up on my offer. Otherwise… well, the city is crawling with guards, and I doubt you’re in any position to run should word of your location ‘happen’ to reach them.”
Zuko and Katara sat in silence for a long while, watching as little Sien blasted impressive fireballs and Ren deflected them in turn.
“Wow, you were right. She is crazy…” he mumbled.
“What are we going to do now?” Katara asked. The truth was, Zuko didn’t entirely know himself. His friends were captured. His sister was close to taking over the Fire Nation. This wasn’t the time for him to go gallivanting off into the wilderness with some crazy woman.
“Can’t you just, I don’t know, knock her out with lightning or something?” Zuko tried to toss up his hands to let out some frustration. Embarrassingly, he only managed to move one, in a sort of fish-flopping-out-of-water kind of way. Katara wasn’t impressed. With his gesture or his suggestion.
“Really? You want me to electrocute a mom in front of her four-year-old? I’ve got an idea. How about you give her a heart attack with bloodbending?”
Zuko’s cheeks heated. “Okay, point taken.”
“We’ll just have to sneak out somehow. Later when the sun goes down. You’ll be able to walk then, right?”
“Should be, but–”
He looked at his hand, which was still flopped awkwardly to the side. “What if she’s right, about the guards? If someone spots us, I don’t think I’m going to be able to fight them off this time.”
“Zuko,” Katara’s tone was serious. “Please tell me you’re not seriously considering going with them are you? What about my brother, Aang, and Toph? We can’t just leave them.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” he snapped. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Not now. Not when there was so much pain in him. “If we try to go back now, we’ll just get captured, and all the work your brother did to get us out will be for nothing.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Katara chewing her lip. He had a point, and she knew it.
“Our best bet for getting back in will be at the coronation when everyone is distracted. We can free Sokka and the others then.”
Katara gave a small nod but it was an uneasy gesture. And there was a question in her eyes. Zuko already knew what she was going to ask before she cleared her throat and dropped her voice. “And what about Azula? How are we going to stop her?”
Zuko swallowed hard. “I’m… not sure we can.”