Zuko awoke at dawn the next day. He could see through the crack in the tent that the sun was just barely peeking out over the horizon. There were no other sounds around him. So, was he the first one awake?
Zuko shifted a bit, not wanting to wake anyone. It was strange; now that he had actually used his bloodbending the day before to sense Ren’s injuries (or rather, her lack thereof), he found he could sense who was nearby even without turning to look at them. He was not, he quickly determined, the only one awake. Sien and Ren had already left the tent, it seemed. Katara was the only one still sleeping soundly behind him. He sat up carefully, trying not to disturb her. Then he noticed her breathing pattern shift a bit. He was wondering if should just lay still until she woke up when the tent flap flew open and Sien’s face peered inside.
“Hi, you two!” she announced loudly. “Time to wake up! ‘Druk is waiting for you!”
Katara jolted up at the sound, hands up like she expected to waterbend someone. Zuko couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing. Katara glanced down at her tensed hands and went red in the face.
“What? I’m on edge! There’s an army after you!” she said.
Sien was laughing now, too. “Yeah, like an army could take on ‘druk!” she said. Then she stomped her foot and pointed accusingly at Zuko. “You get up right now,” she demanded. “You don’t keep important people waiting!”
He found Druk sunbathing in the center of the clearing, wings outstretched, head high. Ren sat cross-legged on a stray bolder nearby him, sketching away in her journal.
“I’m just saying, you cut it awful close this time,” Ren was mumbling aloud, which was creepy until he realized she was talking to Druk and not to some voice inside her head. “I know you like it here, but it just isn’t safe anymore.” She closed her book and fixed Druk with a serious stare. “You need to find a new home, Druk.”
Druk turned up his nose, snorting a little indignant flame in Ren’s direction. The burst of fire forced her to topple of her rock perch or risk getting her journal set on fire. Ren stood up in a fury. “Stubborn creature!” she yelled. “Can’t you see I’m trying to protect you?”
She threw flame right back at him, much like a fellow dragon sibling would. Druk only had to tilt his head to avoid it.
Ren’s fury only amplified when she noticed Zuko watching. She snapped her fingers in Zuko’s direction. “Maybe you can talk some sense into him. Tell him he has to leave this place.”
Why Ren would think he’d have better luck convincing a dragon to do anything, he didn’t know. Wasn’t Druk supposed to be the one with all the answers? Not the other way around?
Zuko cleared his throat. “You should listen to her, Druk.”
Druk reared up, flaring his nostrils. And who are you to tell me what I should do? He looked to Ren first, posing that very question to both of them with narrowed eyes.
Ren crossed her arms defiantly, meeting his challenge. “I’m the one who helped save your life.”
Druk flicked out his forked tongue, seemingly satisfied. Next he turned his gaze on Zuko.
Zuko straightened. “And I’m the Firelord.”
Druk curled his lip. Dropping back to all fours, he leaned in close to snuff a plume of smoke right in Zuko’s face.
“He doesn’t believe you,” Ren informed him.
Zuko felt shame and rage rise up in him. Standing there in Druk’s looming shadow, he felt eleven years old again — a boy trying desperately to prove himself to his father only to have all his effort and hard work sneered at. But he wasn’t a boy anymore. He was a grown man. The man destined to help the Avatar bring peace and stability to the Fire Nation… and the rightful Firelord.
He glared at Druk. “Then I’ll just have to make him believe me.”
Druk roared. He spread his wings and launched himself up. Beckoning. Daring Zuko to make the next move.
But what was that?
Zuko’s fingers twitched, one hand compelling his body forward while the other pulled a ribbon of water from the stream nearby. The water encircled him like a serpent, twisting and writhing around him with every subtle motion. He began to move. Bloodbending shifted his body into the Dancing Dragon. Only this time, as he executed the firebending movements, a spray of water leapt at his command, like bursts of liquid fire.
Druk circled and darted above him, moving in time with him until the final move was executed. Then, with a force the shook the ground, Druk landed before Zuko and roared.
Zuko let the water around him fall. Let himself surrender to Druk as he had before the Masters. Somewhere off in the distance he thought he heard Katara calling to him, telling him to run.
No, he decided. No, I’m done running. From Druk. From Azula. From myself.
He opened his eyes wide and screamed right in Druk’s face. “You hear me? I’m done running!”
Druk lifted his huge head and roared right back. Odd, he didn’t feel threatened this time. He felt invigorated. The dragon flicked out his tongue. Then, amazingly, he bowed. Actually bowed to him.
Zuko glanced around, heart pounding in his ears and found Katara. She had one hand to her mouth, but her eyes were shining with happiness. Ren looked pleased, too. She took a step forward, bowed deeply, and raised her voice loud so it would carry off the cliffs.
“Long live Firelord Zuko!”
“Firelord Zuko!” Sien mimicked, dipping even lower then her mom. Zuko felt the sting of tears, but didn’t let them fall.
Druk was still before him, bowing. Almost like he was waiting for something. Zuko had a hunch he knew what that was, and the thought sent a thrill through him.
It took all his concentration, but Zuko managed to pull himself up onto Druk’s neck and close his fists tight in the dragon’s mane. His throat trembled as he spoke a command.
Druk reared up beating his huge wings. Zuko felt his heart sink into his stomach as he saw the ground fall away. His head swam.
I’m riding a dragon. This is really happening.
He could hear cheering below. Katara and Sien were calling after him, Katara waving dramatically while Sien jumped up and down. Ren’s deep voice echoed. “Way to go, your highness!”
Druk roared. Zuko had to concentrate hard to move with Druk’s body as the dragon made a sharp turn and came back around.
“We should land soon,” Zuko told him. Not that he didn’t enjoy the thrill of flying on dragonback. But he had important Firelord business to attend to, not the least of which was making sure his crazy sister didn’t steal his throne.
Druk descended, as he requested. Only, the dragon seemed to be moving too fast to land.
“What–” Zuko stammered. Too late. Druk accelerated into a full dive, claws extended as he barreled towards Katara and the others. The three of them were already scattering for cover in separate directions. To Zuko’s relief, Druk veered away from Katara and little Sien, who was shrieking wildly.
When Ren made a dive for her daughter, however, Druk whipped back around and snagged up Ren mid-sprint. She wrenched about in his fist, cursing up a storm. Zuko managed a glance downward and found Ren’s furious and terrified face glaring up at him.
“What are you doing!” she hollered.
What am I doing? I’m holding on for dear life! “It’s not me!” Zuko yelled back. There was fear in his voice too, he knew, unbefitting of a Firelord. But he didn’t care. Because at that moment, he wasn’t just the Firelord. He was a human being completely at the mercy of a dragon.
Druk beat his wings, surging upward parallel to the sheer cliff side until he came to the jagged tear of rock that was the entrance to his den. He slipped inside, zigging and zagging through narrow passages and around stalagmites. Then, suddenly, the tunnel opened into a vast chamber big enough to house a dozen Druks.
At last, Druk slowed, beating his wings to a hover, then lowering himself to the stone floor. Zuko slid off his neck, landing with a muffled oof right on his face. Ren was dropped beside him. When Zuko glanced over he saw she was pale and shaking but otherwise unharmed.
Once Ren realized this she was up in an instant. She offered Zuko one elbow, helping him to his feet. In her other hand, she formed a flame, illuminating a portion of the cavern.
Why would Druk bring us here? Zuko wondered. Druk was making his way to a crater in the cavern floor. Zuko could see the outline of rocks inside, six at least. Druk circled the indentation twice then lay down, sniffing and probing the rocks with his nose. Zuko strained to see in the dim light. No, they were too smooth to be rocks. There was something more to them, something Zuko could just barely sense across the cavern. Six tiny heartbeats…
Zuko took cautious steps into the dark, Ren on his heels. Her brisk steps revealed how much her Fire Nation temper was still racing with adrenalin. And Druk’s sudden lack of interest in them only fueled her rage. “What in the name of flames’ breath were you thinking, Druk? You could have killed us! Are you even listening?”
He wasn’t. And neither was Zuko anymore. His stare was fixed on Druk and the six oval eggs he now encircled.
“Ren…” Zuko whispered, tapping her shoulder. She stopped mid-lecture to turn on him.
Zuko pointed, and Ren stilled, all signs of rage leaving her like snuffed candles.
Suddenly it all made sense. The reason Druk refused to leave the area despite the danger to his own life. Why he had waited until now, only after Zuko and Ren had proven themselves worthy of his trust, to reveal his secret.
Zuko and Ren moved together, taking slow, cautious steps until they reached the rim of the nest. Then, following a permissive head-bow from Druk, Ren knelt and rested a palm on one of the eggs. Then her cheek.
“They’re going to hatch soon,” Ren whispered. “Come listen.” She invited Zuko to her side and he gently pressed his cheek to the opposite side of the egg. The shell was smooth and surprisingly warm against his skin. And he could hear small sounds inside. Zuko closed his eyes a moment, letting the world fade until there was only him and the muffled stirrings inside the shell. He could sense the tiny dragon heartbeat beating in time with his own. The heart of a true firebender.