“Sien, stay close now,” Ren warned a few hours later. The foliage was getting thicker by the moment and Katara could see they were approaching another rise in the rock. Sien slowed by a pace, but still insisted on taking shortcuts through shrubs and over rocks to get herself ahead, rather then trudge along with the adults.
Ren looked over her shoulder. “That goes for you two, as well. His nest is just over the hill–”
A blast of fire erupted from behind the hill, causing Sien to scream. She had enough distance that Katara could tell she was only frightened, not injured. But seeing as how peaceful hilltops didn’t tend to spit fire at random, Katara’s heart seized when she realized what was waiting for them.
Ren sprinted forward, pulling her daughter behind her. She readied her hands in a fighting position and sure enough, another blast of fire appeared. Only this time, Katara got a flash of crimson scales and white teeth.
“Someone’s very angry…” Ren mumbled under her breath. “He must be in a lot of pain…”
Sien clutched her tightly, reluctant to let go even as Ren pulled her gently away. “Sien, stay with Katara. I’ll signal when it’s safe.”
“Wait! You can’t seriously be thinking about going–” Katara blurted. But it was too late. Ren was already gone, stepping through ferns as confident as a jungle cat.
Katara pressed after her, Sien at her heels, Zuko bringing up the rear. She didn’t have much choice, really. This was why they had come, after all. And still, part of her was afraid to approach any closer. What if something went wrong? She may have had Zuko’s knowledge of firebending, but was she really strong enough to defend them against a dragon?
They emerged from the undergrowth and found the hilltop descended into a clearing, surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides. Below them, Ren had shed her gear and was stalking around a jagged hole in one of the cliffs. She dodged aside, narrowly avoiding a third jet of fire. From the darkness, a pair of yellow eyes flashed angrily.
Katara squatted down trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She had full intentions of staying there too, until she was bumped by Sien and the two of them skidded down the incline together, followed quickly by Zuko. They landed in a pile and Katara groaned under the weight as Sien tried to squiggle her way free.
“Sorry again,” mumbled Zuko.
All three of them froze when a streak of crimson erupted from the jagged hole, hissing and writhing. Ren dodged again, rolling to avoid the swipe of a clawed forepaw aimed at her head. The movement put Druk off balance, forcing him to flap his wings for support. But one wing didn’t unfold entirely and he crashed to his side, shrieking.
Pain drove up his fury even more. He struggled back to his feet and shot fire at Ren. She was too close to dodge, so she assumed a battle stance and redirected instead, pushing away the swirling flames with skill. Druk roared. It was like nothing Katara had ever heard, and she flinched as she helped Zuko to his feet. Some distance away she thought she heard Ren comment, “Yell all you like. I’m not leaving.”
Druk spat flame after flame at her, and Ren brushed aside each one until she was within snapping distance of his jaws. He tried once; Katara could hear the snap of teeth as they closed around Ren’s braid. “Look out!” she yelled.
Ren was already moving. Her hand came up, bringing a flame. She singed through her hair, breaking free of Druk’s grip before he could whip her about and break her neck. She hit the ground and rolled, smothering her sizzling hair in the dirt, and was up again just in time to take a full fire-blast from Druk.
“No!” Zuko gasped. “She’s trapped!”
“Momma!” Sien cried, her shrill voice echoing off the cliffs. Katara tried to cover the little girl’s eyes. Tried to look away herself. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did she ever let Zuko convince her to come here?
“What the–” she heard Zuko gasp again.
From within the orange fireball, a shimmer of purple flame erupted and swirled with the rest. The sight caught Druk off guard. He stepped back as the last of his flame twisted and curled into a huge purple fireball. Then, quick as a snuffed candle, the flames dispersed, revealing Ren at their center. Her hair was shorter and slightly singed, but she was alive. She snorted more purple flames from her nose.
“That was rude,” she scolded the dragon. Before Druk could react again, she lunged forward and caught him by the nostrils, actually caught him, and held on. Druk thrashed his tail and pawed the ground. But he didn’t pull his head from her grip. Or maybe he couldn’t?
Aang had told her once about animals and pressure points. How triggering them released chi and had a calming effect.
“Steady now,” Ren crooned in the same sort of tone she used with her daughter. “Easy. I know it hurts… That’s why I’m here. I came to help you. But first, you need to settle.”
Druk’s eyes were glazing over. He gave a halfhearted growl of protest as Ren raised a hand to stroke his cheek.
“You don’t scare me.”
After a time, Druk let himself sink to the ground with a pained fuff. Ren released her grip on his nostrils, shifting instead to gentle strokes on the tip of his nose.
“It’s okay,” she said, louder then necessary but still in the same reassuring tone. “He’s calm now.” And Katara realized she was talking to them.
“You take it easy, Druk,” Ren said as she stroked him. “This guy here will help you, all right? You’ll be okay.”
Druk made a low grumble, like he couldn’t quite decide if he believed this crazy woman or not, but for the moment, he stayed still.
“Sien,” Ren said in the same soothing tone, “grab the bucket from our gear and go fetch our healer some water.” She gave a slight nod to the side, but never broke her gaze with the dragon.
Zuko watched her go, just now noticing a stream lay about fifty paces or so away.
“Not sure how close waterbenders need to be to a patient, and sure don’t want to tell Druk to move.”
“Right,” Zuko muttered, still trying to get over the shock of everything he had seen. “That color–How–”
“You like that, huh?” Ren snorted again, exhaling small puff of purple. “I call it dragon fire. But we can talk about that later. Right now I need you to focus, understand?”
Zuko nodded slowly, trying to clear his mind and concentrate on the enormity of what he was about to do. Sien skipped down to the stream and filled the bucket, followed by Katara, who helped her to carry it when the girl clearly realized that her skinny four-year-old arms weren’t going to do the job alone.
Zuko swallowed hard. As Druk lay still, Zuko could hear how labored the dragon’s breathing was. The creature was still in terrible pain, even if he wasn’t showing it by lashing out like he had been a few moments ago. Then there was his size. Nothing like the massive forms of Ran and Shaw, of course, but if he had the mind and health to do it, he could no doubt carry both Katara and Zuko with little effort. As Zuko took a step closer, he saw Druk’s thick muscles tensing under his scaled skin. Fear. Fear that the healing process was going to be as painful as the injury itself.
“How do I even begin a healing like this?” Zuko whispered to Katara when she sat the bucket down beside him. “Where do I start?”
Katara wasn’t quite as eager to step any closer, so she spoke to him from behind. Softly, so as not to scare Druk more. “It might take a few healing sessions to get it fully. But with Aang, I tried to focus on where the pain was most intense first. Where the injury was the worst.”
“Good advice for healing someone who can talk to you,” Zuko muttered back. “Suggestions for what I should do if I don’t speak dragon?”
Katara didn’t reply. She didn’t need to. She and Zuko both knew he had one method to tell where the injury was at its worst. He was just hoping he didn’t have to use it. Bloodbending was difficult enough on his own body and he’d yet to try it for any length of time on a second person, let alone a dragon. Still, if it was the only solution…
Zuko took another shaking step forward and knelt down on his knees. A decent amount of blood was still coming from Druk’s left wing, dripping onto the ground. The injury lay on the underside of the wing, meaning Zuko still didn’t have a great view of it. He lay on his back instead, positioning himself beneath the injury. Well, at least it takes less bloodbending to lay down than to kneel. He felt a little more energy in reserve now. He was probably going to need all of it and then some.
“Lower your wing for me,” he coaxed. Druk grunted in irritation, but did as requested. Zuko ran his fingers across the wing’s edge and gripped it gently but firmly. Then, with a deep breath, he moved his other hand back and forth. Druk’s blood obeyed. Instead of seeping out of the injury, it flowed through his veins and arteries without exiting. Then, near the edge of the gash, it began to solidify, closing some of the gap and easing Zuko’s efforts to control the bleeding on his own. As Zuko focused more, he found he could sense the whole body of the dragon, not just the external injuries he could see, but the ones inside as well. They were painful, no doubt, and could be deadly if not treated. But they could be healed.
“What’s he doing?” he thought he heard Ren whispering. “Don’t healers need water?”
Zuko winced. How could he have been so stupid? He tried to reassure himself with some slow, careful breathing. Katara had said that very few people knew bloodbending was even possible. Maybe Ren would just think that he had been using water, just not a large amount of it. But that idea was quickly shattered when he heard her ask in a horrified voice, “Are you… are you bending his blood?”
The dragon reacted instantly to the change in tone. Or maybe in her shock, Ren had stopped the nose-scratching thing for half a second. Whatever the reason, Druk yanked his head away from her and whipped around to roar at Zuko. He lashed out his uninjured wing, hitting Ren in the face and knocking her to the ground hard. She didn’t move.
“Momma!” Sien screamed.
“No, stay over here!” Katara yelled. Even without a good view, Zuko could hear the two of them struggling, and the chaos only fueled Druk’s panic. The dragon roared again, stomping his feet, barely missing Ren by inches. He seemed just as distressed at her unconsciousness as Sien was.
I have to know if she’s hurt! Zuko tried to focus. If he could sense Druk’s injuries, he should be able to sense Ren’s the same way. He reached out his hand and focused on her limp figure. A picture came to his mind, vague at first. Making sense of it felt like trying to mold a solid shape out of smoke. But Zuko took it slowly, listened to the direction of her blood’s flow, strained to key in on any irregularities.
There were none. Zuko dropped his arm. He’d never imagined bloodbending could do all that. For the first time, Toph’s claim that she could “see” ants walking a dozen paces away didn’t seem so insane anymore. Not when he could do things like this.
“She’s not hurt!” he called out. “She’ll come to in a moment!”
Sien’s screaming stopped and turned to whimpers. Druk didn’t exactly stop raging, but he at least paused, as if unsure what to do next. Zuko seized the opportunity.
“Please, listen to me!” he begged, reaching his arm out towards the dragon. “I’m trying to help you. I’m the Firelord.”
Zuko started to sit up, but Druk turned and pressed his large snout to Zuko’s chest. Smoke poured from the creature’s nostrils and stung Zuko’s eyes. He stretched his hands out to where Druk could see them, all too aware that the dragon had him pinned and could kill him with a breath.
Druk bore his teeth and gave a throaty growl. Strange; it sounded like a question. Are you really the Firelord?
Zuko found himself at a loss for words. Why had “Firelord” even come out of his mouth? “I’m a healer” would have been a more accurate statement and probably more reassuring. It wasn’t like the Firelord had done much good for the dragons in the past hundred years. He was as lousy at making peace with dragons as he was when he tried to mend things with Aang. He figured at the very least, when dealing with a dragon, it was better to be honest.
“W-well, I– I’m not sure what I am,” he admitted. “But I can promise I’m here to help you. If you’ll let me.”
Druk considered him a long while before finally giving a grunt like it wasn’t quite the response he was looking for, but it was passable. He lay back down on the grass, hissing with pain a few times, and lifted up his wing.
“You can lower it again,” Zuko said. “I’m going to work on the internal injuries next.”
The dragon complied, though his wing quivered quite a bit.
Zuko had to focus. The internal bleeding had to stop first. He began to move both hands rhythmically across the dragon’s body. Once he was sure he had the blood moving in the right direction, he had an uncomfortable realization. He couldn’t spare some huge waterbending motions to call the water over here. The bleeding would just restart. He called out to Katara, keeping a calm but firm tone: “Bring the water closer. I need it now.” She reacted instantly, or at least, he heard her grunting and tugging on the bucket. The sound was then followed by Sien grunting along with her. Finally, Zuko had the bucket practically shoved against his face, several droplets prickling his cheeks when they dripped over the edge. He grinned. “Perfect.”
With only a minimal motion required now, Zuko pulled the water from the bucket and focused all his energy on making it glow. He’d never wielded power like this before, at least, not since Sozin’s comet. It felt like he was holding a massive weight on his arms and if he stopped the bending movements even for a second, the weight would collapse on him.
It’s almost like the water is heavy with Druk’s pain, he thought. Katara had never suggested anything like that, but as Zuko willed the cuts inside Druk’s body to close, the water began to feel lighter, easier to manage. He continued moving. For some reason, breathing started to seem a bit difficult. He could feel lines of water running down his face–was the bucket dripping again? As he continued the healing, it felt like the edges of his vision were going dim. He vaguely heard Katara’s voice calling out, “It’s too much! You’re going to hurt yourself again!”
Druk seemed to understand. The dragon gave a loud roar and stood up, stretching his mighty wings. You’ve done enough, he almost seemed to say. I will be all right. Zuko smiled and finally let his arms drop. The water he’d been bending ceased to glow and fell overtop of him. With the light breeze blowing across his soaked face, it actually felt quite nice.
Off to the side he heard movement and Ren’s deep voice grumbling a few choice words probably not fit for Sien’s ears. Then her tone changed to one of confusion and wonder. “What happened? Whad I miss?”
Sien jumped up and down, squealing with delight. “You did it! You made the ‘druk better! You did it!”
Yeah, Zuko thought, smiling. Yeah, I guess I did.
A short time later, Katara, Zuko, and Ren were sitting around a campfire, drinking some tea that Ren had thrown together from the local vegetation. Zuko took slow, careful sips. It wasn’t as good as Uncle Iroh’s, but it was certainly nice. It seemed to re-energize him a bit, too. He was less dizzy now. Nearby, Sien was cuddled inside her sleeping furs.
Ren shook her head as she fed a small log into the fire and gave some branches that hadn’t caught yet an extra blast of flame. “Honestly, his majesty really needs to work on not killing himself when he heals somebody.”
Katara laughed. “I’ll try to work with him on that.”
Zuko stared into his tea, still not feeling too thrilled that this woman knew who he was. Or, rather, knew who he used to be. Why was he so blasted good at remembering everything that was going wrong?
“We still haven’t solved our biggest problem,” he said. “The Firelord has to be a firebender. How am I supposed to stop Azula and take back the throne?”
Katara’s cheerful expression quickly faded, but Ren shrugged like this was the easiest question in the world.
“Why don’t you ask Druk in the morning?”
“What? Ask the dragon if I’m supposed to be Firelord?”
“Who else would you ask? Some old geezer who’s never even seen a dragon?”
Zuko had no answer to that and from his experience with Ren so far, it seemed best not to try to come up with one.