Packing up was easier the next morning. Partially because Zuko and Katara knew what to expect and also because Zuko’s bloodbending was much improved now that the moon was coming out again. They were fed and on the trail in half the time, which, in turn, put Ren in a better mood. Though she was still moving at her own casual-yet-blistering speed, she spent less of that time hollering at them to “stop dragging your feet, slackers” or pointing out that “my four-year-old hikes faster than you” and more time actually talking with them. When they could find the breath to spare, that is.
“So, this dragon,” Zuko puffed, trying to keep his mind off how very steep the hill they were climbing was. “What’s he like?”
Ren actually smiled. “His name is Druk,” she said as she crested the hill yards ahead of them. “And he’s actually a real sweetheart… if you earn his trust.”
“If?” Katara reached the top next, bending down to steady her hands on her knees. She had tried asking Ren to slow down (thrice, actually), but every time she’d gotten a few words into the request, Zuko had picked up his pace and talked over her. Call it pride. Or stubbornness. Or foolishness. He didn’t care. He was moving on his own, and he was determined to keep it that way.
“That’s right, if,” said Ren. “So I suggest you be polite.”
“Polite. Sure, no problem,” wheezed Zuko. How did one behave politely to a dragon, exactly? He was slick with sweat from all the bending, but he kept his face impassive, his breathing steady. Katara made a nervous face and quickly changed topics to one less ominous.
“So, what’s the name ‘Druk’ mean?” she asked, “Is there some special Fire Nation meaning behind that?” She staggered and nearly tripped when Sien scampered past her with a burst of four-year-old energy.
“I win!” she yelled, stretching her arms over her head in victory as she bolted past her mom. Ren shook her head in wonder, and then replied. “No, nothing special behind the name. Except that ‘Druk’ is how Sien says ‘dragon’.”
Sien trotted back to her mom, this time circling her and cheering, “Yup! We go to see the ‘druk! Right, mommy?”
“That’s right, baby girl.”
Katara smiled, but at that moment, Zuko caught his foot on an unseen rock. He stumbled and had to lean his entire weight against Katara to catch himself. She actually almost went down with him, only avoiding a fall by bracing herself with an earthbender-like stance. Apparently she had been paying closer attention than he thought when Toph and Aang were going back and forth at each other with rocks.
“Sorry,” Zuko muttered. He could hear the fatigue in his own voice. Mentally and physically, he didn’t think he could do this much longer. And, judging from the way Katara was staggering, neither could she. Still Ren pushed them on. Up hills, across streams, and through underbrush, her deep voice urging them like the bellow of a war horn.
By midday, even little Sien was getting fed up with walking. But rather than pause like a sane person would, Ren hefted the little girl onto her shoulders and charged on. It was about then that Zuko began to realize that this was more than just Ren testing limits. She was worried. Ren had said Druk was injured the last time she had seen him. She hadn’t mentioned how badly.
It was another hour before the extra weight of Sien finally took its toll and Ren was forced to slow. “Time for a break,” she suddenly announced.
Zuko didn’t need to be told twice. He sank to the ground, letting his back rest against a giant boulder. Katara lay flat in the grass beside him. Sien, it seemed, had ample energy thanks to her piggy-back ride, and she used it to jump from one rock to another, a decent distance from the group, but still well within her protective mother’s line of sight.
“So tell me,” Ren said, pulling out a water skin and taking a long drink. “All those promises you were making… how do you plan to keep them if you’re running away from the palace?”
Anger and humiliation surged through Zuko at the question, even more so when he couldn’t vent it with a good, strong fireball to the nearest rock. “I wasn’t running! I mean… it’s complicated, okay?” he snapped. “I can’t exactly be the Firelord if I can’t firebend, now can I?” He expected this to end the conversation pretty quickly, but Ren just waved him off.
“Bah,” she spat. “A pointless law, if you ask me. You know how the Fire Sages used to select the Firelord?” Zuko was about to answer that yes, he did know, but she cut him off before he got that far. “Same way the ancient Sun Warriors chose their chief. The dragons.”
“You’ve… heard of the Sun Warriors?” Zuko asked cautiously. Ever since he and Aang had met those amazing people, Zuko had been dying to learn more about their culture. But few people outside the sages and Fire Nation history students were aware they’d ever existed at all.
“Heard of them?” Ren barked out a laugh. “I’ve met them.” She tugged at the small chain around her neck, pulling a pendant out of the folds of her shirt and into clear view. It was a betrothal necklace. The Fire Nation had its own version of the Water Tribe custom. Usually it was a ruby–for poorer families, a bronze pendant of the Fire Nation insignia–on a long, thin chain. This necklace held a miniature sunstone at the end. Zuko gasped at the sight of it, and a knowing smile came over Ren’s face. “You might even say I have an intimate knowledge of them,” she added quietly.
“So… Sien’s father?” Katara asked.
Ren nodded slowly, and Zuko could see her eyes redden as she fought back sudden tears. “His name was Stormrider. When I found the tribe and explained my interest in learning about dragons, he was the first to volunteer to help me. You could say he was a bit of a rebel.” The tears welled up in her eyes now, though they did not fall.
“What… happened to him?” Katara whispered.
Ren wiped away the tears and composed herself. But instead of answering Katara, she turned her attention to Zuko, as if he’d been the one to ask her. “You’ve met the Sun Warriors. They aren’t exactly fond of anything… or anyone breaking their traditions. Rider and I both knew this from the start, but… sometimes you can’t help who you love, even if you know it isn’t right.”
For some reason he couldn’t explain, Zuko found his gaze shifting to Katara. Heat flooded his face when he realized she was watching him back. The two of them quickly broke eye contact and focused on Ren and her story.
“When the elders found out about us, they declared Rider a traitor and demanded his blood and mine be sacrificed to the masters in atonement. We were bound back to back on the platform to insure no chance of escape when the ceremony began. But Rider somehow managed to hide a dagger under his shirt. He cut my bonds first… shoved me out of the way just as the masters emerged…”
Zuko nodded. There was no reason to force her to finish. “The masters… they killed him.”
For a long while, Ren said nothing else, just stared over swaying grasses as she kept a watchful eye on her daughter. “He was the only man I ever loved,” she said softly. “And he died because he had dared to love me back. I’ll admit, at that moment there was a part of me that wanted to die, too. But then I looked down and saw his tribe cheering. The tribe who had raised him to honor the life and energy of the sacred fire… cared more about their traditions than the life and fire of their own people. Something in me snapped. That’s when I stood and turned my fury on his killers.”
Katara covered her mouth. Zuko gasped. “You defeated the masters?” he asked. “With your bare hands?
“Defeated?” Ren laughed. “Are you kidding? It was me versus two dragons.”
“Then…” Katara asked, apparently trying to phrase her question as something other than, “how are you alive?”
“How did you escape?” she finally said.
“I gave them everything I had in that fight. All my knowledge of dragon movements, every firebending technique I ever learned fueled with all my rage. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.” Ren raised a hand and gently traced the path of the scar across her face. “I was badly injured and exhausted but even then, even when I knew my time had come, I didn’t look away. I wouldn’t give the masters or the Sun Warriors the satisfaction of breaking me. I think the masters knew this too. Because instead of killing me… they gave me their gift of fire. There were so many colors… I’ve never seen anything like it.” She stared off for a moment, her eyes distant, as if trying to recall the memory. Then, Sien’s laughter echoed out, and Ren’s focus returned in a blink. “The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a Sun Warrior hut. The masters had chosen me, they said, and according to their sacred laws, I was free to go. I’ve never gone back. Not even after Sien was born.”
Some yards away, Sien tripped and toppled over, prompting Ren to rise. But the little girl didn’t cry. She shook her head and was up again. Ren sighed and sat back down. “Many people think I’m crazy, bringing Sien on these trips. And maybe I am. But dragons brought her father and me together. Being near them… makes me feel close to him. And I hope that someday, when she’s old enough to understand, they’ll help her feel close to him, too.”
The silence that followed the end of her story was painful. There were so many things Zuko thought of to say, felt like he should say, but none of them came to his lips. From the look on Katara’s face, he guessed she felt the same way. “Why tell us all this?” he finally asked. “Aren’t you sworn to secrecy?”
“Aren’t you?” she countered. “Your girlfriend seemed to know who the Sun Warriors are. Was she there when the masters gifted you their fire?”
“How did–?” Zuko felt himself quickly turning from sympathy to irritation. The level to which this woman was able to read into him was nothing short of infuriating.
Ren laughed again. “How did I know they chose you? It’s pretty obvious. You’re still alive.” She paused, her eyes growing thoughtful. “And you have that spark inside you, that inner fire. The masters can sense this in people. It’s that fire that determines whether or not you are worthy of their gift.”
“An inner fire, huh?” Zuko lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I guess I just don’t see how that’s possible–”
“–because you’re not a firebender anymore?” Ren finished his sentence almost word for word. There was no sympathy in her voice. In fact, she looked like she had half a mind to stand up and smack him.
“Inner fire is something you’re born with. It’s part of who you are.” She gestured aside to where Katara was sitting. “I know you may not believe me right now, but I saw that fire in your eyes when you were healing Katara.”
Zuko swallowed, glancing at Katara. His gaze fell on the faded scar under her eye. Katara noticed this too, and she smiled weakly, then turned away.
What if Ren was right?
He looked towards the sky; the sun was high above them, and by all accounts, his waterbending should have been at its weakest. Yet he felt a strange energy invigorating him, almost as if the sun was urging him on.
“Well, time to keep moving,” Ren announced, standing up. “Sien!” Her voice echoed over the rocks. “Get yourself over here! We’re leaving!”
Sien looked up and waved to acknowledge she’d heard her mother, but kept up her game of jumping from one rock to another as she made her way back to the group.
Katara groaned a bit at the thought of moving, but Zuko kept watching the sky. Maybe the bending switch wasn’t so simple; maybe there was some fire in him yet. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, remembering that moment the dragons’ fire had swirled around him. Fire was more than destruction. It was heat. It was life. With considerable more ease than he’d shown up the mountain, Zuko got to his feet. He still took Katara’s offered hand to steady himself; he wasn’t an idiot. But he found his body filled with a renewed energy that he hadn’t had since his Agni Kai.