Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to Nickelodeon, Michael Dante DiMartino, and Bryan Konietzko. The original characters belong to me.
A/N: This story went through about 50 revisions before I finally decided on a plot. It's my personal favorite and I hope you like it, too. Thanks for the reviews. :)
Sozin did not love his sons equally.
It was not even a matter of preference for him. One was simply unsuited to be royalty, much less a ruler. He was shy, half-crippled, he did not resemble Sozin, and he could not bend. The boy was a failure.
Luckily, it seemed that his older son would be more than equipped to make up for his brother. Azulon, who was nearing his twentieth birthday, became more and more striking. He had perfected every Firebending form, learned the ways of nobility, married a gorgeous Firebender, and was perfectly capable of succeeding his father as the Fire Lord. Even as a young man, he had conquered numerous Earth Kingdom cities. Yes, Azulon was the perfect son.
It was the grey-eyed boy with disheveled hair that seemed to give Sozin trouble. Aku, now seventeen, was never mentioned in court. In fact, it was not widely known that the Fire Lord had a second son. Aku was so rarely seen and so easily forgotten that only his mother begrudgingly remembered his presence.
"Mother," he would say. "May I sit outside with the servants? I don't like the nobles." He was always honest, which was lucky because his parents noticed that the nobles didn't like him either. So Aku sat beneath his willow tree and watched the turtle ducks dip their beaks in and out of a nearby pond.
An old man approached, one of his favorite servants. He was very thin and wore thick glasses that magnified his eyes, and Aku could always count on Than to keep his secrets.
He wheezed, "Prince Aku, it's good to see you forgive my old willow tree." Than padded closer, shuffling his old feet along the grass.
Aku shook his head, "There's nothing to forgive. I was being foolish and fell out of a tree." He laughed, "At least someone had the decency to set my leg."
Than held out a withered hand to help Aku stand. The boy shifted his weight so that his left leg was not pressed upon.
"How long ago was that little incident?"
Aku smiled, "Over ten years, I think. Hopefully that's long enough that no one remembers but you." They rounded a corner, now leaving the courtyard. Than and the prince made their daily rounds of the city at dusk, when everyone else ate dinner. They would limp along together, looking something like a grandfather and his favorite grandson. They would sometimes speak of the day, or just let their thoughts wander. Aku wore nothing that could distinguish him from the other citizens: no emblem, no topknot, and certainly no crown.
I don't deserve a topknot. And I definitely don't want to see my brother's face if I ask for one. Aku pushed down his flying hair, I'm not even nobility.
"You know, Prince Aku," said Than, "Your father is very old. Older even than me. The time for him to pass into the spirit world is coming." The servant paused to gauge Aku's reaction, but the prince said nothing. He continued, "I fear for you in the coming months, Aku."
The boy lifted his grey eyes. It was clear to him that Than was trying to tell him something important. "Do not be afraid to say what you need to say, Than. I would never hold it against you."
The thin old man hung his head. He mumbled, "There are whispers in the court of an Agni Kai. The servants say that Azulon's wife is trying to become pregnant. He wants to assure that his line will continue, and that you can never lay claim to his throne. He will challenge you, Aku. He will lie, I know it! He'll tell everyone you can Firebend and he'll kill you in the courtyard." Than was breathing heavily and staring at the prince with a fearful look on his wrinkled face.
I must flee.
Aku tugged at his long sleeves. He quietly contemplated his course of action. He trusted Than completely, although he was reluctant to believe his older brother would stoop low enough to murder a crippled, non-bender family member in an Agni Kai. But he did not want to resign himself to death by the future Fire Lord, and he was logical enough to realize he had nowhere to turn. The Fire Nation Capital had always been his home.
"I have nowhere to go," said Aku.
Than sighed in relief because the boy believed him.
"I-I have called in a favor with an old friend. He is already here, and very willing to protect you, my prince," said Than softly. He touched Aku's shoulder. "You must leave tonight, with only the clothes on your back. I'm so sorry it has to be this way, my lord."
Aku kept his surprise to himself. "I am not your lord, Than. I am your student, and friend if nothing else. Will you come with me?"
Than shook his head, bowing slightly. "Forgive me, Aku. I have been planning this for some time now, ever since your father took ill. I will stay behind and bring news of your death to the palace. This way no one will come looking for you, and you can start a new life."
Torn by this plan of action, Aku felt his throat tighten. "This is all very sudden, Than." He grasped for some way to salvage the news, "Are you sure my brother would do this?"
"Can you doubt it?" Than asked sadly.
And with that, he led Aku into a deep alley between a blacksmith's shop and inn. The old man said, "I give you my blessing, dear boy. It would be the death of me to know that something bad happened to you." The two embraced, both wiping their eyes. "Never forget that you are the greatest of the royal family, no matter what you have been told."
In the shadows, they were slowly surrounded by men wearing triangular hats and green circles on their chests. One of them raised his rock-covered fist and pounded Aku's head, rendering him unconscious. Weeping, Than watched them carry him away.
It was clear from the start that he was underground, but Aku could not seem to place the buzzing noise he heard around him. The stones reverberated for a minute and he realized that the noises were people talking in low voices. He caught glimmers of their conversation.
"- like the rest of them. He's smaller, and the old man said he had a bad leg."
"Can't bend either," said another. "Are we sure this is the one he wanted?"
A third replied, "I wouldn't dare ask. He'll tell us when he comes back, unless he gets some other crazy notion in his head. I'll never understand him."
The men walked away, and Aku was alone again in the darkness with a throbbing head. He saw that his arms and legs were unbound, and he had been lying on a thin pallet.
Sewers? He thought. Am I beneath the city? Who are these people? Than said I could trust them.
A peal of thick laughter filled his ears. From beneath him, there was a rumbling. Aku crawled away, not trusting his leg to run. The men from earlier came back at a sprint. They knelt in rows before Aku.
Popping from the ground, a huge cloaked creature stretched out wide, muscular arms. He was human, and he was an Earthbender.
"Welcome! I hope your head isn't cracked." He loomed closer, pushing out one wide brown eye to examine Aku's head. They were practically nose to nose.
Aku wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball. The man was extremely intimidating. He tore his eyes away to glance at the kneeling men.
He addressed them, "Men, I've made a tunnel. We go back to Omashu immediately. And then, we will feast!" He cackled, and turned back to Aku, "How rude of me! I've forgotten my introductions." He twirled in his cape.
"Let's see," said the brown-eyed man. "These are my friends, the Dai Li! They are my escort for this little adventure. They were created many moons ago by the great Avatar Kyoshi."
Aku crawled back farther. He whispered, "It's f-forbidden to speak of the Avatar."
"You don't say that with much conviction! I notice that you didn't complain when my escort knocked you down, Prince Aku." The man let out a crazy laugh. "Still, it must be illegal to attack royalty, no matter where you are!"
The colossus stepped closer, his huge frame casting a shadow across Aku's wide eyes.
"But, oh! How glad I am to finally see you. We must take to the tunnels!"
And with that, the giant stranger brought a wave of stones beneath his feet. He shoved off his cloak and bellowed, "I'm King Bumi of Omashu. And you, Fire Prince Aku, should keep you mind open to the possibilities before you."
Then they disappeared from the sewer in a rush of sinking boulders and frenzied laughter.
Seated comfortably in Bumi's palace, Aku enjoyed the feast placed before him. He had spent nearly two weeks with the crazy Earth King that he couldn't help but like. Over the course of their time spent together, Aku related his past with the King. Although he was wild and uncontrollable, Bumi was full of wisdom. He taught Aku many things about the ways of the world: the history of the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads. He spoke without fear about the Avatar, and Aku drank up the information greedily.
All of his preconceived notions about the other nations were wrong. His teachers in school had lied about everything, and the new things he learned were wonderful. He had no idea that they had all once lived in peace. It made him ache to think that such a life was lost because of his father.
During their dinner, Bumi set down his goblet and stared at Aku from across the table. He said, "I'm surprised you haven't asked why I brought you here. Aren't you curious?"
"Because Than asked you to. He's your friend."
"That is true," Bumi smiled crookedly. "It seems the fates have brought us together. You see, young friend, three days before I received Than's message, I had a great and terrible dream about you. I am no prophet, but there are some truths that I can't ignore."
Aku furrowed his brow, "Was it a bad dream?"
"Only if I do nothing to help you. What do you know of dragons, Aku?"
"They are being hunted to extinction," he gritted his teeth, "by my father's orders. My brother slays them for sport."
Bumi nodded, his messy brown hair swayed, "I have a story to tell you, and perhaps you will be willing to let me help you." He took a deep breath and began.
"Before I became the king of this city, I set out on a journey to find what would soon be lost. I could not have Sozin destroy both the Air Nomads and the ancient dragons. If only I had been faster in my decisions. I remained neutral for too long, and many of the great beasts were lost in your father's hunt. They were so scattered across the world that I could almost never find them in time.
"But fate can sometimes be kind, and the tide turned in the fifth year of my search. Deep in a Fire Nation forest, I found a lovely green dragon that lay dying. Her name was Dat, and she had killed a Firebender that sought her head. She spoke to me, in the strange way that they do, and pushed a beautiful golden stone to my feet. It was the only egg she had ever laid, having lost her mate. Just before she died, she made me promise to protect the baby dragon inside at all costs.
"That was when I realized that some good could come of my journey. Over the course of twenty years I found five more eggs, very carefully hidden in the caves where their parents were killed. None of them have hatched, and I believe it is because they know they cannot survive long in a warring land. As of now, there are only two people in the entire world that know of my little daycare. One of them is me, and the other is you."
Aku's heart raced. He gasped, "Why are you trusting me with this?"
Bumi chuckled, "Because of my dream. A red dragon came to me. He said that his mate had laid an egg of great power. The next ruler of dragon-kind, so to speak. He showed me an enormous purple dragon flying over a crowd of people. In my heart, I knew that the dragon was leading Air Nomads back from the dead. Or perhaps just from hiding."
"But… all of them are dead. Aren't they?"
Bumi nodded, taking a deep breath. "It seems so, but we have all been wrong in the past. In my dream, the red dragon, he never said his name, told me that I was not the one to protect this egg. I am just a nanny for the others," he laughed. "It is you they are asking for. Aku, the red dragon wants you to protect his race. He wants you to undo the sins of your family."
But… who am I to save the dragons?
Bumi looked expectantly at Aku's face. It seemed like the boy was on the brink of tears, or maybe screaming. The Earth King feared he would vehemently refuse the dream-dragon's order.
Aku shuddered, "Wh-why didn't the dragon tell me? I haven't ever had a dream like yours."
"Would you have believed it?" The boy said nothing, and Bumi continued.
"I also saw you, before I knew it was you. You were burning, Aku. You were burning in a courtyard as your family watched. The dragon said that if you cannot fulfill your destiny, none of the eggs will hatch. The dragons will die with you. They need you. It was fate that my friend, Than, was watching you. He must've dreamed of you, too."
Standing on his good leg, Aku rose. He said, "I want to see the eggs."
Bumi toothily smiled, "Right this way, sir!"
They were bigger than he anticipated, and slightly heavier. Each of the eggs stood a pedestal of stone, clearly the work of Bumi's Earthbending. They caught the light in small rainbows, leaving a colorful trail over their intricate patterns. The eggs looked as if they had been carved by a master craftsman- deep engravings ran along their surfaces, and none were the same.
Aku stared at the six shining ovals. His heart raced and his entire body tingled. There was a noise in the back of his mind that started out quietly, but grew to a loud buzz. He knew immediately that the eggs were talking to him.
He heard whispers in a language that he didn't fully understand. They were soft and curious. The non-noise rumbled in his mind, making images and feelings very clear.
Unaware of Aku's revelation, Bumi cradled the simplest egg. "This one's name is Eggie! He's the first one I found."
Paling, Aku said, "His name is Mot." How do I know this?!
The whispers intensified and the Earth King's smile tripled in size. "Tell me about them," he prodded.
Little voices rang in his mind, "Mot will hatch before the others. He's older, and he'll be very big, and dark green like his parents." Bumi's face lit up like a torch.
Aku walked among the eggs, touching them in turn. "This is Dahn Tu, she's pink and very shy. And the grey one will be Tinh. He already likes her." His words came more freely, "This orange one is Mau, she's faster than anyone else. This is Mau's cousin, Khoe, she's sunshine yellow and always friendly."
Aku paused at the last egg because the mind-whisper was so faint. He strained to hear, but could not help smiling at what the egg said.
"This little one says he doesn't know his name yet, but he likes Bumi. He'll be a light green, and will have a great roar."
For the first time, the King looked at the eggs with their new personalities. His face shaded slightly, "Do they like me, Aku?"
The whispers became like a shout in the boy's mind, "Oh, Bumi, they love you!"
With watering eyes, the great man took a steadying breath and put his hand on Aku's head. "Tell them the feeling is mutual."
How many months ago was I in Omashu?
Aku trudged along, limping in the Fire Nation forest. He stopped occasionally to pull twigs and pebbles from his shoes, or if his leg started to hurt. He had come across a few animals, mostly small birds, and was mildly disappointed that they weren't as friendly as his turtle ducks back home.
Ha. Back home? The Fire Nation is not my home anymore. I'm a nomad, just like Avatar Yangchen. I am home wherever I am. He smiled at his inner monologue and took out a piece of jerky for lunch. One thing I must say about being a nomad, the food isn't the greatest.
The constant traveling had made his once weak body lean and muscular. Aku found that his leg could support him walking for leagues before it completely gave out on him. He still couldn't stand on it alone, which was frustrating. It would take an eternity to find the dragon eggs if he couldn't walk straight.
He traced a small oval in the dirt with his pinky. Although he was still very frightened to meet fully grown dragons, he couldn't hide his excitement at finding another egg. They were such interesting creatures, and he related to them very well. Before he set off on his long trip to the red dragon, he had spent countless hours in the egg sanctuary, or the "daycare" as Bumi referred to it.
All of the unhatched dragons loved to hear about Aku's past. They even pressed him for information about his father's hunts. The ex-prince thought the knowledge might frighten them, but none even flinched when he explained the story.
"You will protect us!" they squeaked in unison. "Dragon-father Aku will keep us safe."
"Dragon-father?" he asked. "I'm too weak for such a title," he smiled nonetheless.
"No!" said Mot. "Bumi is our dragon-brother. You will always be our father."
In a patch of sunshine, Aku lay on his back remembering the babies and their words. It tugged at his heart that he wouldn't see them for so long, but they understood. Only Dahn Tu was upset, writhing inside of her egg and showing Aku pictures of rainy, grey skies. Tinh did his best to cheer her in their unspoken language.
Picking up his gear, he set off along the northern edge of the woods. Aku did not have clear directions of how to find the red dragon, but Bumi was confident that he would wander until he discovered him.
"Follow the Sun!" said the King.
"Bumi," sighed Aku. "The Sun moves."
The Earthbender laughed, "And so will you!"
Lost in his thoughts, he didn't realize that beneath his feet was a set of tracks. They ran along the same path he walked, and he unconsciously covered them with his larger feet. His limp drew a strange, wiggly line over the left one.
He stopped sharply, mouth gaping, for two reasons.
The first was that he could see a huge gilded city from the edge of a cliff that he stood over.
The second was that, in front of his city-view, there was a girl pointing a very sharp arrow at his heart. She wore red face paint and feathers in her hair. Her lithe body made it very clear that he would not be entering the city without her permission.
Dark brown hair hung against her face where it had sprung from her ponytail, and her almond eyes bore a hole into Aku's head.
She was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen. And he was perfectly willing to be shot at point-blank range with her arrows.
"Get on your knees," she sternly said.
"Unghk?" gurgled Aku.
"Get on your knees!" she repeated. He quickly obliged. "Toss your pack over here."
She rummaged through it with her foot, never releasing her aim on him.
"I'm Aku," he said to her. She ignored him.
"Who sent you? How did you find this place?"
She turned, and he couldn't help but stare at her dark brown skin. It was exotic and the perfect color and-
"WHO SENT YOU?" she yelled.
"Um, I uhh- I sent myself, I guess! I'm here to find the red dragon." Bumi's words returned to him nonsensically, "I followed the Sun."
Her bow immediately hit the dirt and she dropped down, pressing her forehead against it. "Forgive me, my lord," she gasped out. "I didn't know you were… here to seek my masters." She pounded her head on the ground, "My brother's gonna kill me!"
She looked very near tears, and that was the last thing Aku wanted. "It's alright! You were only protecting your city…. That is your city, right?"
She scrambled closer, "Yes, my lord! I am Liri of the Sun Warriors. Please forgive my stupidity, I should have known you were the one they called. Will you allow me to escort you to the Chief?" They knelt in the dirt together.
"Uhm. Yes. And it's nice to meet you Liri. I'm Aku," he extended his hand.
Without hesitation, she kissed it and bowed her head. His skin tickled where her lips had touched. He blushed ferociously.
"Please don't call me that. Just Aku is fine. I'm not your lord." He stood up, leaning heavily on his right leg. He extended his hand again to help her up, and this time she didn't kiss it.
As they walked, Liri didn't seem to know what to do with herself. Back at the capital city, Aku had seen many people behave the same way around his family. It was the discomfort, or the general fear of failure, that commoners had around royalty. He hated it.
"So," Aku began, feeling very timid. "You really scared me. I thought you were gonna skewer me." She seemed unsure if she could laugh. He smiled encouragingly and she grinned back.
Her voice was very smooth, "I thought you were a dragon hunter." She giggled, "But here you are, the total opposite. Thank Agni you weren't though. A Firebender would've beaten me senseless. Do you bend, Lor—Aku?"
He shook his head, "Nope. I leave that fireworks to my brother." Why did I bring up Azulon?
She nodded, "So do I. Although it's sometimes fun to have him light my arrows." He chuckled at the mental image of Liri and flaming weapons.
As they continued to the city, Liri said, "We've been waiting for you for a long time. The dragons sometimes speak to the elders or the Chief, but I think they need someone that really understands them. So, thank you. For the dragons, I mean."
He looked in her eyes and caught her gaze, "Anything. For the dragons, I mean… too."
Without warning, a group of young men burst from a building. They all looked like Liri, but one had a big headdress. He grabbed the little archer tightly and Aku felt an unfamiliar pang of jealousy.
"Liri! What happened? Who is this boy?" Aku bristled at his words.
She pushed against him, trying to free herself from his grasp. "Let go, Po!" He released her and she stumbled backwards into Aku's chest.
They both turned bright red and mumbled half-heard apologies. The man in the headdress grinned mischievously.
Liri said, "Aku, this is my brother, Po."
Aku felt a great deal of tension leave his shoulders. He suddenly liked Po much more.
She said, "Po, This is Aku. He's the one the dragons called. He told me that he followed the Sun, just as they said he would." The men grew wide-eyed, each dropped to a knee. Po replied, "Welcome, Lord Aku-"
"Don't call him 'Lord,'" whispered Liri.
"Welcome, Aku! I hope your stay with us is all you expected it to be!"
All of the men happily grinned at him. Even as a prince of the Fire Nation, Aku had never been given this much respect. At his side, Liri pulled up her pretty pink lips into a smile.
Sitting between Po and Liri was a lot like containing a pair of bear cubs when fresh meat was around. Ignoring the plethora of food at the large wooden table to steal from their respective sibling seemed to be the natural order of things. They talked over each other, often if it meant leaning entirely into Aku to get the point across. When Liri did it he wasn't bothered, but he could have used a lot less contact with Sun Chief Po. They laughed and bantered with fervor, but managed a sort of refined dignity whenever someone addressed Po. He was goofball, a wise man, and a leader of the people at the forgotten city. It reminded Aku of Bumi.
The food left everyone in a state of painful fullness. According to Liri, celebrations were in order because of Aku's arrival. Everyone was terribly pleased to meet him, and congratulate Liri on finding him. They loved to hear the story.
He covered up the parts about almost being shot, and Liri mouthed a sincere "thank you" when no one else was looking. A creeping flush followed any time they made eye contact.
By the end of the night Po, Liri, and Aku were the only two left outside of their homes. The ex-prince found himself wishing that he could remember more times when he was this happy. He watched Po light one of Liri's hair-feathers on fire. She promptly put it out and punched her brother in the head.
"So, Aku," he said, rubbing his new bruise. "I'll have to teach you the Dancing Dragon form tomorrow. I'm sure your leg won't be a huge problem, especially if you've learned other Firebending forms. You'll know a way to compensate."
Liri's face fell with Aku's stomach. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?" asked Po.
All this way. I came all this way, and it doesn't matter because I can't bend.
"I'm not a Firebender, Po."
The Sun Chief's face lost all traces of humor. His voice took a deeper quality, "This isn't a joke, Aku."
The boy felt his heart twist. He said, "I'm not joking. I can't bend. I can't even walk properly."
Po stood, staring into the darkness with a grimace. Liri pulled at his arm, "It doesn't matter! The dragons asked for Aku specially. They know he's not a bender! They would never punish him for it!"
Liri paled. Her brother turned back to him. "Last time a non-bender tried to see Rao and Shan they ripped him limb from limb and killed his partner, too. The woman he was with could Firebend, but they killed her anyway."
"But why?" He asked, aghast.
"They are dragons," he murmured. "They do not have to explain their reasoning to us."
An uncomfortable silence weighed heavily over the trio. They each stood perfectly still, as if an elk-puma were stalking them. It made Aku want to cry.
"I'll go with you," whispered Liri.
"NO!" yelled Po and Aku at the same time.
She glared, "And why not?" Aku shook his head and stuttered a few words about danger and guilt.
Po said, "I'm the Chief, that means it's my duty to perform the Dancing Dragon with people that come alone. I've done it in the past, and I'll do it again with Aku." He glanced at the grey-eyed boy. "Do you think you could try it?"
Looking at his leg, Aku shook his head. "I can't put weight on it. My leg gives out and I fall. Even now that it's gotten stronger it still can't hold me up by itself. There's no way I could perform a Firebending form."
Po closed his eyes. He muttered, "Are you sure you need to see the dragons?"
Aku's temper flared, "Yes. This is my duty and I'll be damned if I fail at it. I will see them even if they decide I'm an unworthy of their task." He limped away with clenched fists.
He could hear strained mumbling and the shuffle of feet following him. He flopped down at the edge of the forest, leaning against a rock. Knitting his brow, Aku tried to clear his mind of fear. Liri sat down next to him.
"Sometimes I wish I were stronger so that I could punch Po harder. He deserves it," she said. "I'm sorry if he offended you, Aku. He- we just don't want you… we like you. I like you, and I don't want you to get hurt." Her light brown eyes looked at him sideways.
He felt his ears turn red, but he replied, "I like you, too. And no matter what I know that I have to see the dragons. They need me. How could they kill me? Tomorrow morning I'll go alone, if you'll show me the way."
Liri sighed and scooted closer to him. "Will you stay out here?" she asked. "It's a beautiful night and I was planning on sleeping outside anyway." Unless Aku was very much mistaken, he sensed shyness in her voice that was not usually present.
Is she afraid I'll leave her?
"Uh, yeah. Let's stay out here. Are you cold?"
She closed her eyes, leaning her head against his shoulder. "No, you're very warm."
Is she voluntarily snuggling with me?! Play it cool. Play it cool. Play it cool.
"You're hot," he choked. "I mean soft! Soft and warm, too. I… uhm. I meant soft."
She giggled. "Tell me about the dragon eggs you mentioned earlier. I want to know about them. And your friend, Bumi. Tell me how you got here."
After a pause he said, "Get settled then. It's sort of a long story." She nestled her head closer to his chest so that it rose and fell as he breathed. Aku was sure his racing heartbeat could be heard for miles.
And he started his story. She didn't interrupt, except to ask a few questions or laugh appropriately. When he finally finished, he thought she had fallen asleep. He twirled her hair lightly with his fingers.
"You're a very interesting boy, Aku." His fingers tensed and he released her hair. "Why'd you stop?" she asked.
"I thought you might not want me to…"
Pressing her cheek against him she said, "I want you to." He bit his lip and began twirling again.
They stayed that way until the Sun rose.
The stairs were the worst part of Aku's trip to the dragons. Every faltering step he took seemed to confirm his inability to succeed. His crippled leg dragged him down, wasting energy, and made him furious to think that Liri was watching. He wanted to be strong for her, especially after she had repeated her fears about his meeting the Firebending masters.
"You aren't a bender, you can't perform the Dancing Dragon, and you're going alone. It's like you're breaking every rule they've ever laid down for us to follow," she said.
And he had no response. He knew she was right, but how could he ignore Bumi's dream and the words of the unhatched dragons?
At the top of the staircase, he stood in the middle of a thick stone bridge. He noticed that more of the Sun Warriors had come to watch his ascent. The thought made him nauseous.
Nothing happened for several minutes, leaving Aku standing and sweating in silence. He cleared his mind, hoping to contact the adult dragons the same way he spoke to the eggs.
He said, "Forgive me, great ones. I have no dance for you. I have no fire and no partner and no sacrifice. I have only myself and a promise."
In the deepest part of his mind, he heard a distinctively female voice say, "We ask for nothing more." Aku released the tension in his body. The female dragon spoke again, "Let us look at you, hatchling."
With a great rumbling and rush of wind, the dragons sped from their caves on either side of the bridge. The entire human congregation collectively gasped beneath them.
He was awestruck.
The dragons, red and blue, were huge and graceful. They flew like swimming fish through the air, never taking their eyes off of the young man before them. The blue dragon, which Aku immediately identified as the female, seemed to grin. The red male, however, spoke with venom in his voice.
"We take a great risk with you, son of monsters. How can we be sure you will not betray us? We have killed the deceitful in the past: hunters disguised as dragon-friends. Your own father rides one of our kindred like a common beast. He hunts us, slays us, butchers our eggs. What can you promise us?"
Aku tilted his head to the clouds. In the mind-voice he said, "I could give you my word as a prince, but that means nothing to me. I could give you my word as a man, but I'm hardly old enough to be called one. The only thing I can give is my spirit. I swear on my spirit as the dragon-father that I will never allow a dragon egg to be harmed."
With a quick motion, the dragons latched on either side of the bridge and exhaled.
Colorful flames ran from their mouth, swirling around Aku, and shooting to the sky. In the fire he saw the path he must take. He could hear the dragons' laughter and joy, and he smiled with them. Aku's heart became the Sun, and he felt a living fire in his soul. He completely understood the language of the dragons; they were words of energy and life that would one day save the world.
Rao, the red dragon, spoke, "You are a dragon-father, indeed. Your task will be to find the hidden eggs of our kind. Return them to your rock-friend's sanctuary." Aku laughed at their moniker for Bumi. "He will be very distracted in the future, so the dragons will fall to you. They will call you when they are afraid, and you will travel the nations to gather them together."
"Will I go alone?"
The blue dragon spoke with amusement in her voice, "You have already made a friend that wishes to protect you."
Aku could not see Liri through the flames, but knew she watched him from far below.
"What do I do when I've found them?"
She continued, "Return them to the Earth King's sanctuary. All but our own egg. It must stay here, and will only hatch when the Fire Lord and Avatar are reconciled."
"Your child, the purple dragon, will he find the Air Nomads?"
Rao roared with delight, "Wait and see. Some of your own family members will help the Avatar reunite the nations. They share your heart." He flicked his tail, "Put our egg in the heart of the city, and surround it with traps. Only the worthy ones should draw near it."
Aku whispered, "I will defend the eggs with my life."
The flames stopped, and Rao and Shan circled above the boy.
Together they said, "We will give you a gift, hatchling prince. Stand straight, and hold out your hands."
Aku looked to the sky, arms outstretched, his bad leg burning. Their golden egg fell against him softly with a gentle chirp in his mind. He felt instantly stronger with the new life in his hands.
Rao and Shan sped back into their caves with the sounds of laughter. Aku strode down the stairs with their son, powerfully and gracefully as a dragon, all signs of a limp erased from his body.
After Aku's return from Rao and Shan, the Sun Warriors bowed before him and the egg. Only one young woman ran to face him. She surveyed his body, checking for signs of injury, before capturing him a tight hug. Aku felt endless happiness holding Liri with the egg pressed between them. The egg chirped again, wiggling with curiosity at the warm humans.
Two days later, Liri and Aku placed the egg in the center of the city. With the help of Po and his friends, they assembled a series of dangerous traps, including a strange goo that caused a great deal of trouble for the warriors. Po found it endlessly amusing.
The next morning Aku woke with a confused expression. Liri was already awake, watching him knit his brow as they leaned against their rock.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
He looked at her, somewhat dazed, and replied, "I'm great. It's just… I had a dream. I had a dream like I've never had before and… I think it was the egg. I think Tuan Jie wanted to show me something."
"Who's Tuan Jie?"
"Our egg," he said. She smiled back, "Our egg?"
"He likes you a great deal, so I'd say Tuan Jie is 'ours.'" He stroked the back of her hand.
"He showed me two boys, no older than we are now, and they held his egg. One had a blue arrow on his head, and the other was scarred." He motioned to his eye. "The scarred one looked a great deal like my brother, and I think the other one is an Airbender."
She clenched his hand tighter, "Were we there?"
Aku shook his head, but he looked pleased. "Not yet. I think that the boys are the Fire Lord and Avatar that the dragons spoke about. They'll be the ones that find Tuan Jie's egg." He laughed, "It'll be years away! I'm not sure that those two are even born yet!"
He stood, no longer having to rely on his good leg, and smiled, "I think one day we'll get to meet them."
Liri pulled him back down to her, and said, "As long as we stick together. I'm not letting you have all the fun, Aku."
With no hesitation, he kissed her softly on the lips. He felt her press back. Pulling away slowly, he said, "Just don't try to shoot me again."
She lightly slapped him on the arm. "I'll shoot you whenever I want."
Returning to the city, they prepared their goods and said their goodbyes all day. Po wrapped them in painful bear hugs, blessings and words of love slipping from his mouth.
They left the Sun Warriors' city that night. The young man and woman were to return to Omashu and tell Bumi of the dragons before they set off to search for the eggs.
Striding hand-in-hand with Liri, Aku felt like he had finally found his place in the world.