Spoilers: The Cave of the Two Lovers, episode 2.2.
Timeline: a few weeks after episode 2.2.
Warnings: meta use of the mythology of the badgermoles' cursed caves, religious discussion. Also, excuse the title. This is a one-shot right now. I might write a Katara counter-piece, but if I do, don't expect anything beyond that.
Once More, With Dreaming
The two fugitives had settled into their bedrolls for the night, ready to get a few hours sleep before heading southward again in the morning, when Zuko spoke up. Iroh was taken by surprise; it was an uncharacteristic gesture from a young man who usually despised late night conversation, or for that matter any interruptions of his rest.
"The priesthood tells us, no…the history of our nation tells us… that our family is a never-ending line of kings. That those of us who become Fire Lords were Fire Lords before. That back to the earliest days of our people we were born into the line of rulership."
Iroh was not sure where Zuko was going with this topic, and he was reluctant to feed his nephew's depression any larger than it already was. Any conversation about the Fire Nation was a path of eggshells these days, for both Iroh and his young charge. Nevertheless, the topic was strange enough—and Zuko's motivation in bringing it up vague enough—that Iroh decided to wait and see it through.
"Yes Zuko. That is what I was told as a child, like you. Our spirits are constantly being reborn into the royal line of Agni, the dynasty of Angi's blood. That our souls have always been of fire—that we were created from fire and will rule in fire life after life."
"Yes. …That is what I remember." There was silence for while, and Iroh allowed curiosity to get the better of his wisdom. Was Zuko merely feeling maudlin over his forsaken birthright, or was there something else?
"May I ask, nephew… what made you think of this? It has been years since you read the scrolls of scripture."
Zuko flopped onto his back, and stared at the night sky. With the fire out there was only the light of the stars and the moon to see by, and Iroh could not easily decipher the expression on the young man's face.
"I've been having dreams, uncle." Iroh murmured an encouraging sound; this was certainly not where he'd expected Zuko to be going, and now he was intrigued.
"It started several weeks ago, the night after… after I stole the chocobeast." Iroh noted Zuko's falter, and a part of him was relieved to see Zuko admitting the theft for the dishonorable behavior it was.
"I've had the dreams half a dozen times now. I'm in them, but I'm different. And there's someone else, someone I know. But they're different too." The leaves rustled beneath Zuko's bedroll as he shifted, trying to rearrange his limbs as if being comfortable might make speaking easier. "The part that bothers me, the part I don't understand, is that I'm not a firebender. In my dreams, I'm an earthbender. An earthbender! Everywhere I went I could feel the earth move underneath me. It was constantly shifting, constantly groaning and…and creaking! Thinking about it now, I would go mad from the noise. But it didn't really bother me in the dream."
"I'm me but I'm not. My name is… I am… I'm someone named Oma. At first I am happy in the dream, incredibly happy. And then something horrible happens, and I want to die. I become so angry I want to kill everyone and everything that I see. It's like the anger I've felt about… about everything these last few years, only so much worse, because all I want to do with that anger is kill. Kill everything. And then I wake up."
"Is there anything else you can remember?"
"No. I don't even know what happens to make me….Oma… get so furious. I can never remember who the other person is either, just that someone's there."
Though it birthed an acute twang of guilt in his heart to take any sort of pleasure in his nephew's upset, Iroh couldn't helpbut beintrigued. This was a mystery far more interesting than anything he'd heard out of Zuko in weeks. The old general had a horrid weakness for mysteries, especially those of a spiritual nature.
"That is strange, my nephew. Very strange. But what about them troubles you with regards to the Fire Nation lore?" Iroh suspected he knew the answer to this already, but hearing it from Zuko's mouth would be the real trick.
"It troubles me because…" Zuko sat up abruptly. "It troubles me…" He put his head in his hands, pressing the base of his palms over his eyes. "It just…"
Finally he dropped his hands, and bent his head. With an exhale, "I'm troubled because I think they might be memories, not dreams."
Iroh exhaled. Here it came. "You worry that if you are indeed having dreams of a past life, then you were not always a firebender. And if you were not always a firebender in your previous lives, then you think that proves you are not truly a descendant of Agni. That you were never destined to rule, not even from the beginning."
The silence from his nephew was confirmation enough. Iroh sighed again, and shifted to make his old bones more comfortable on the ground. There were many ways he could follow up on this line of thought, but which one? False hope would do Zuko no favors—the odds of him ever ruling now were so small as to be inconsequential. Still, letting him in on a few enlightening bits of information might bring the boy some peace of mind.
"Zuko, there is something you have not considered in this."
"Like what? I don't need consolation, Uncle. I'm not a child and I'm aware that my status is… likely permanent."
"Hear me out, at least." No response, so Iroh continued. "The secrets of the spirits are not easily deciphered, and the secrets of life, death, and rebirth even less so. The great scrolls of scripture are old, very old. But they are not the oldest things in the world, and like all things they have changed with time."
"Listen to me, Zuko. This is the truth of the world: people believe what pleases them most, especially if they are in the position to dictate how those beliefs should be recorded."
"Uncle! Are you saying that the spiritual history of our forefathers is a lie? I can't believe that you, of all people—"
"Hush up, nephew, and listen to me. It is my experiences with the spirits that has caused me to question some of the things we are taught about the spirit world. I am not saying that the scrolls of scripture are lies, or that we are wrong to believe what we do. I am merely saying… that I question certain aspects of what my tutors taught me. Certain things that were not always taught to children of the Fire Nation but are taught now as if they were ancient laws. The claim that we, the sons and daughters of fire, were always kings or queens, princes or princesses in our previous lives, that we keep being reborn into the same family repeating our same successes and mistakes… I have questioned that. I have never questioned that both you and I carry the blood of the great Fire Spirit, that we are true descendants of Agni. No one can take that from you, not even Azula. But there are too many people in the world, too many lives, for me to believe we have always been exactly what we are now."
"What do you mean?"
"Just as the Avatar is reborn into a different world with each new life, so, I believe, are we. There is balance in everything Zuko, including ourselves."
Zuko stared at his uncle for a long time before he spoke. "You've never said anything about this before. You've never said you felt this way."
"You've never expressed an interest in it before. And, as you may imagine, it is not something that most people in the Fire Lord's court would take kindly to hearing, even from the Fire Lord's brother." It was really getting late, and if he didn't sleep soon Iroh knew he'd never close his eyes tonight. "Now, I do not have answers for you about this earthbender Oma, or why you dream of her—"
"Her?" All the quiet thoughtfulness in his nephew's voice was gone, traded for a whipcord of suspicion. "I never told you Oma was a woman."
Iroh winced in the dark. Damn the boy was quick when he wanted to be. "I was merely assuming—"
"No you weren't. You said her. What aren't you telling me? Was Oma a real person? Do you know something about her?"
"I might have an idea, but I don't think you will like it."
"You have to tell me!"
"Alright Zuko, alright. But not tonight. We need rest. Tomorrow you can tell me if you dream again, and I'll tell you about the only earthbender I've heard of named Oma, though in all likelihood it's a common name and had nothing to do with the person in your dreams."
"I don't care how likely or unlikely it is, you're going to tell me in the morning. I'll hold you to your word."
"You have it nephew, you have it. Now sleep, please."