AN: My apologies for the delay. This chapter inspired some significant writers block. Many, many thanks for all of the lovely reviews- I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming reception.
On the third day aboard the Lion Turtle, the human fell into a restless sleep and did not wake.
The spirit of the Dragon Mother watched silently, and wished she had something to eviscerate. Preferably the mad perversion of a Fire Lord that had harmed this young one, or –better yet- the shade of the one who had ordered the extinction of her kind.
But times were desperate, and she could not allow her temper to get the better of her. Attracting malicious spirits with her rage… no. Her hatchlings were too young and ill-protected to survive such an encounter unharmed, especially with their human companion so ill. And there were limits to what aid she could give them. Dragons were, after all, mostly mortal creatures, and the greatest of their powers passed with their deaths. Unfortunately for her hatchlings, she knew of no living dragons that could help them.
Why else would she have allowed her little ones to be used in Agni's plan, and trusted their well-being to one frail human child, and a creature of near-terminal ambivalence? Lion-Turtles and dragons did not have the most peaceful of histories. (Nor for that matter, did dragons and humans, but at least some of them could claim to be children of Agni. Could be understood, in a fashion.)
Which didn't mean she was exactly overjoyed that to have to acknowledge a human as kin, now. Or that she would have supported Agni's plan in different circumstances. The creation of a Fire Lord worthy of the title… it was a human affair. The mistreatment of a loyal young human by his own kin might be pitiable, certainly. And abhorrent behavior on the part of the pack leaders. But it was not something she would have moved herself to interfere with, royal prince or not.
However, her hatchlings' fate did depend on the survival of the boy. And that changed everything.
Though not, apparently, for the Lion Turtle. She frowned at the shell her young ones rested on. The Lion-Turtle had not yet deigned to show them his true nature; neither to aid the young human, nor telling her hatchlings their true names. The first could be forgiven- humans were ever unpredictable, and she also preferred to keep herself concealed.
The second… the Dragon Mother growled.
The unnamed were weak. Vulnerable. Prey to any malicious creatures that wished to sip at their strength.
And the Lion-Turtle was hardly ignorant of this danger- he might be the last of his kind now, but there had been a time when his race had young ones. To consign a dragon to the fate of the unnamed- a short, cursed life- to never allow them the honor of showing their strength of an open fight…
The Dragon Mother reconsidered her decision to keep her temper checked. This was not a matter that could be ignored.
She regarded the human once more, and ruefully acknowledged that- while certainly not a protector she would have arranged for her young ones, blast Agni and his plans- at least his failures were of ability, rather than will. Her hatchlings choice to acknowledge him as a nestmate was… at least somewhat understandable. Perhaps he would grow into strength.
With an inaudible sigh, she granted him a warm and ghostly breath, and watched as his color began to return. Then the Dragon Mother slipped away.
She would be having words with the old Lion-Turtle.
To his great consternation, Zuko did not wake up in the same place he had fallen asleep. He could tell as much even before he opened his eyes, and had the sneaking suspicion the dragons had decided to drag him to another part of the island while he was busy being ill. Zuko made a soft grumble and readied a bleary glare for whichever dragon he happened to see first. He opened his eyes.
…It took him a few seconds, but eventually it registered that he was not, in fact, glaring at a dragon. He was glaring at a… he didn't even know what this was. It was terrifyingly huge, though.
"Hello, young human," the giant face boomed. "I hope you are somewhat recovered? Still, best not to strain yourself."
"What?" Zuko croaked. He looked around for the dragons before he felt the white one curled up beside him, and registered a glint of gold on his bad side. His back brushed scales as he tried to sit up, searching for the remaining dragon... who must have been making an active effort not to fade into the forest scenery, judging from how easily Zuko found him.
He didn't relax, exactly. (There was a giant face staring at him.) But it was good to know he hadn't lost anybody.
…Although Zuko kind of hoped this bit was a fever-dream, because he felt like a limp noodle and the dragons probably weren't strong enough to carry him anywhere fast if the creature turned out to be hungry.
"Not particularly hungry, no," rumbled the giant face, sounding amused. (The giant thought-reading face!) Zuko tried to keep his thoughts respectful.
The giant face raised an eyebrow.
…Zuko tried blankly to recall what respectful behavior might actually be in this context, but he couldn't think of anything. And he wasn't sure if he couldn't think of anything because he was panicking, or because he was trying too hard to supress rude thoughts, or because they didn't exactly train members of the royal family how to be properly polite to a giant face, much less one that seemed to-
-contain such awesome wonder and majesty as the one standing before him, Zuko thought loudly, trying to quell his rising panic. Was "giant face" disrespectful, for that matter? Sear it to the depths of Koh's own cave, Zuko didn't know.
…It occurred to Zuko that thinking such curses was not, in fact, particularly polite behavior.
The giant fa- majestic entity! Of great terror and splendor! - sighed. "Peace, young one. I mean you no harm."
Sure, Zuko thought. (Respectfully.)
"This I swear by the Fires of Agni, and the spirits of my ancestors."
"The Lion Turtles that have since chosen to leave this mortal plane," the Lion Turtle (so that's what it was) continued somewhat testily.
"Well, it was nice meeting you," Zuko managed, as he tried to sit up and scoot backward. Best to make a quick retreat while things were going well, before he or the dragons managed to annoy this ancient spirit further. After all, the Lion Turtle hadn't promised not to hurt-
"And I do so swear not to harm you winged nestmates," the Lion-Turtle interjected, giving him a rather odd stare.
There was a pause.
"You are a very peculiar human," the Lion Turtle said at last, sounding bemused. "Perhaps it was best that I waited to make my presence known, unhappy as it made some parties."
…so this was a fever dream, perhaps granted by some spiri-
"No," the Lion Turtle stated. "Your illness has been healed, and your body given strength. And your nestmates led in meditation so that they might find their true names, and thus be sheltered from the spirits."
Oh. Like the Sages did for members of the Royal family, after the first night was safely passed. Zuko really should have thought of doing this for the dragons.
"Hoshi has already found her name," the Lion Turtle added, and somehow Zuko just knew Hoshi was the excitable gold dragon. He wondered what the white dragon who had hatched first would be called. Something strong and honorable, he hoped. And the green dragon needed a well-fortuned name as well, especially-
Wait, Hoshi was a girl?
He was a horrible nestmate, really, why hadn't he-
"You had no reason to think of it," the Lion Turtle told him. "Such ignorance is not uncommon for humans, though one would expect those of the royal line to be better tutored."
Zuko carefully avoided thinking how frustrating he'd often found his tutors. (There was that particular incident with the fireball and the historical tapestry…)
"I'm certain you will be more attentive were I to instruct you on the nature of spirits," the Lion Turtle said. "Though it is likely such instruction would not last long. We will soon be approaching the Southern Lands, and you and your companions will thrive more easily there than upon my back."
Zuko took in the landscape around him with a new eye. He wondered if-
"By 'Southern Lands" I do not mean that I intend to abandon you on an ice plain by the Pole, but an area of the Earth Kingdom avoided by humans," the Lion Turtle said, giving him a bemused stare.
"…And yes, while such areas are often avoided for fear the tales of the fearsome beings that might inhabit such a place, it is unlikely that you will encounter anything that would willingly prey on the companion of three dragons. Are all young humans like this, before they grow into their strength?" the Lion Turtle asked. "The elders always seemed recklessly curious; I assumed the young would probably be worse."
Zuko didn't really have an answer. (He thought he was plenty curious.)
The Lion Turtle gave him an unsettled stare. "About all the wrong things," it murmured. "Well. Perhaps humans have changed over the years. They do seem so very fond of changes."
Zuko didn't feel very fond of changes at the moment. In fact, what he most wanted to do was-
"Sleep, then" the Lion Turtle told him, amused. But there was power put behind the words, and Zuko felt himself growing drowsy.
Zuko scowled in irritation. He didn't appreciate someone tryong to make him fall asleep, no matter how pure their intent. And he wasn't going to fall asleep just becuase he was drowsy. What kind of prince would do that?
"Well, aren't you a strong one," the Lion murmured. "Good. You'll have need of it. But for now... rest. And recover."
Zuko remembered that he wasn't a prince, and felt an even stronger wave of drowsiness hit. Still. Adopted nestmates... didn't... fall asleep...
"Injured, foolish ones do," he heard the Lion Turtle say wryly. "We don't want you dying yet, Prince of Dragons."