Setting is between "Firebending Masters" and "Boiling Rock."
As night settles over the Western Air Temple, the members of the small group of inhabitants are all united with their subconscious in the world of dreams. For some, this nocturnal realm of illusion is a time to be experienced or observed, and then forgotten as soon as the dreamer awakes. For others, the images will stay with the dreamer, even when Agni's Circle is high in the sky. And there are those who are unfortunate enough to face their worst memories and fears during the dark hours.
Prince Zuko is one such person. Despite facing his father during the Day of the Black Sun, almost every night he is haunted by the Agni Kai he had inadvertently challenged his father to. On the few nights he does not relive this scarring event, Zuko dreams of what he counts as the worst mistake of his life: choosing Azula over Aang and his Uncle below Ba Sing Se. Each night, his sins haunt him, his past mocks him.
Except this night.
For Zuko has not gone unobserved on this night. He is in that border between illusion and reality, when he has lost contact with the solid world, but has yet to enter the realm of dreams. It is now that he is approached by two spirits.
The first to approach is a phoenix. Her scarlet body is similar in appearance to that of a crane, having an extended slender neck, and long, graceful legs. The wings were a lighter orange color, the exact same hue of the flames in a fireplace. Her head was like that of a songbird's, complete with a triangular pointed beak that seem perfect for picking berries and nuts. A crown of bright blue feathers, capable of being lowered and raised at will, adorned the top of her head. The eyes were a bright gold hue, denoting her status as a Fire-spirit. Her tail was the most beautiful attribute, gifted with firm yet full feathers of all colors and hues pouring down like a waterfall of flames.
The second was a great octopus, but his exact size and shape would be difficult to determine, even if mortal eyes could see him. The colors were always shifting, changing, and his eight limbs were in perpetual motion, so that no mere human could truly tell exactly what this strange spirit looked like. The only constant were the two eyes. There were two eyes that were always a deep-sea blue, with two vertical black slits for pupils.
The two spirits hovered over the slumbering form of the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.
"Greetings, Ba, messenger of Yue and La," spoke the bird, bowing her head down and spreading her wings in respect.
"Greetings, also, Huang, messenger of Agni," replied the octopus, making a motion with his tentacles that one could interpret as a bow of respect, but it is difficult to tell, as bowing does not seem physically possible for an octopus.
"You know why we are meeting here," spoke Huang. This was not a question.
"Our masters know of the strife between their children," said Ba, "And though they know that the quarrel between the Fire Nation Prince and the Southern Waterbender will end, it is of the best interests of the world if this tension be relieved, to aid in the road toward forgiveness."
"Until full reconciliation is established between the two, it is necessary for us to interfere subtly, in order to make a truce," returned Huang, "What do you suggest?"
Ba was silent for a moment, observing the Fire Prince as he entered deeper into the depths of sleep.
"This one has dreams of his scarring often, does he not?" Ba said, his tone indicating that he knew the answer to his own question, "Let us bring this nightmare from him this night, and let the Waterbender know his pain."
"The dream should be altered slightly in some way," Huang replied, "So that she sees the dream as if she lived through the scarring herself, not merely observing it."
"Indeed," agreed Ba, "Let us begin."
Huang would have a small part in the process during the night. As a servant of the Sun Spirit Agni, her power was weaker during the night and strongest during the day. Ba, one who serves under the Moon and Ocean, was stronger during the night, when dreams often reigned. But Zuko was a child of Agni, and so, Ba could not touch his mind, as it was not his jurisdiction. This would be Huang's part in this phase of the plan: she would remove the nightmare from Zuko's mind, and hand it over to Ba, for him to manipulate and place into Katara's mind.
Huang spread her wings and flapped them once, and the nightmare that so persistently haunted Zuko was driven from his mind. The dream was sent into Ba's waiting tentacles. These limbs immediately went to work, giving the dream slight alterations that would be necessary to place in Katara's head. It was one of his easier jobs; the dream only needed slight modifications.
Satisfied with his work, Ba went over to Katara's room, and let the nightmare slip into her head.
Ba turned so his eyes faced Huang again.
"We will now wait until morning, when it will be time to start the next part of the plan," he said.
"Let us keep watch over the children of our masters," she replied.
And so they watched and waited for the new day to begin.
That night, Katara would experience a new nightmare, but Zuko would experience the first night of peaceful slumber he has had in three years.
Firebenders, in accordance with their element and its origin, rose with the sun, so as to feel its full effect for the entire day.
Zuko awoke at sunrise, feeling completely restful and unhampered by bad dreams for the first time in a long time.
Letting out a rare smile of contentment, he got dressed and walked out to the outer areas of the Temple, to bask in the suns' morning rays.
Taking a deep breath of relaxation, he settled down to first meditate, to absorb the light of the sun, and to understand what it meant to be a firebender. New thought fodder was added to his morning meditation, due to his recent encounter with the last two dragons known in existence. It gave Zuko a sense of peace, to know that his firebending, the art that had been used as a tool of conquest and rage for a hundred years, was in reality life.
His meditation was interrupted a few minutes later by a not-quite awake Aang, who was under instruction to meditate with his sifu at sunrise.
"One major downside of firebending," yawned the Avatar, "No more sleeping in."
"Tough it through," replied Zuko, "Focus on the sun. Remember what it gives us. Think about the true meaning of firebending."
"Yes, Sifu Hotman."
"Don't call me that."
After one hour of meditation, Zuko began instructing his student in firebending katas, warming up with some simple ones, before going on to the more advanced forms.
It was only an hour later when Katara arrived to work on her morning chores. She did not like doing these duties, and she liked even less how little the others seemed to appreciate her efforts, but there were jobs needing done, and no one else would do them. Her mood was not improved by the fact that she had a disturbing dream the previous night. She was no stranger to nightmares, having relived memories such as her mother's death and Azula shooting Aang in the back numerous nights. But this dream was new, and it disturbed her.
She shook these thoughts from her head, but before she began her chores, she took a moment to observe the two firebenders in the middle of a certain technique that required agility and precision. She watched the duo for two reasons. One, she was keeping an eye on Zuko, making sure that he did not do anything to hurt Aang. Two, while fire was not her favorite element, it was fascinating to watch a warrior firebend when the flames were not being thrown at you.
The form being practiced was more graceful than most firebending forms Katara had seen; its objective seemed to focus more on hit-and-run tactics, rather than all-out assault. She supposed it was a nice transition form from air to fire. It allowed enough agility and evasion so it came easily to Aang, but also included the aggression inherent in firebending. Katara had to admit, it was a good choice for Aang to study. Not that she would tell Zuko that, of course.
Completing the form with fists thrusting firmly forward and powerful flames directed ahead, Zuko finally gave his pupil mercy.
"Five minute break," he said, "Get some water, take a breather. I'll do the same."
"OK," panted Aang.
While they had only been practicing an hour, firebending was an intense form of combat. Most firebenders do not have the stamina to keep up combat for more than a few minutes at a time, due to the amount of chi involved. The firebenders' ability to create their element was both an advantage and a liability. On the one hand, they could never truly be separated from their fire, unlike the benders of the other elements. On the other hand, it required more chi in order to create this fire, so it exhausted the bender more quickly. That was why many firebending forms focused on ending a fight as quickly as possible.
Zuko and Aang walked over to the fountain, taking deep drinks, rehydrating themselves and replenishing their stamina. Zuko walked away to get a cloth to dry off the sweat, while Aang stayed to talk with Katara.
"Good morning, Katara," he grinned, cheery despite still recovering from his workout.
"Morning, Aang," replied Katara, cheered up only slightly by her friend's mood.
"How'd you sleep?" he asked, "You look kinda tired."
"Honestly, I didn't have a restful night," she admitted, "I had bad dreams."
"Wanna talk about it?"
Katara paused, and took a moment to look around to make sure Zuko was out of earshot before nodding.
She didn't know why she was here. She didn't know why she was among the warriors of the Tribe, back home near the South Pole. She didn't know why they were all in a meeting in the large tent that served as a meeting house for planning attacks and defenses against the Fire Nation. But she did not question it; in a dream, everything made sense.
Her father was telling the warriors that there was a Fire Nation raid coming, and a plan of defense was needed.
One of the veterans, his name slipped Katara's mind, spoke up.
"Perhaps we can send the trainee warriors out first," he suggested
"What chance do trainees have against elite raiders?" asked one of the other warriors.
"They don't," was the reply, and accompanied with a smile she did not like, "They are bait; they will draw the raiders into more favorable ground, where the rest of us will ambush them from the rear. What better to use as bait than fresh meat?"
"But what about the trainees?" Katara shouted, not able to hold herself back.
"Necessary sacrifices," replied the warrior condescendingly, "It is for the greater good."
"Greater good?" she screamed at him, "This isn't necessary; this is slaughter!"
"Perhaps this conversation would be best settled outside," her father spoke up sternly.
"Yes, it would indeed," sneered Katara, ready to beat the living daylights out of this butcher.
She walked outside and waited for her opponent to appear. The warriors spilled out from the tent, and the women and children from the other tents also emerged, to see what the commotion was about.
Katara got into a standard waterbending stance, ready to take on the one who would even consider using trainees, practically children, as a meat shield.
But the man who stood in the middle to face her was not the butcher she so eagerly wanted to pulverize; it was her father.
"What's going on?" asked Katara, shocked, her stance immediately faltering.
"You disrespected me, daughter," her father replied in the coldest voice she had ever heard him use. This couldn't be her father; her father would never do this!
"But he was going to sacrifice children!"
"I will not tolerate a disrespectful daughter, Katara," spat Hakoda. Katara was terrified. How could she fight her father?
"Please, I had the Tribe's best interests in mind!" she cried out as her father started walking towards her.
"Rise and fight, Katara." She was now on her knees, tears flowing freely from her eyes. Distantly, she could hear the other members of the tribe laughing at her, mocking her.
"I won't fight you, father! I'm your loyal daughter!"
A torch appeared in his right hand (where did that come from?), and she felt a burning, searing pain over the left half of her face.
"You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher."
"And I woke up," ended Katara, shuddering at the memory, briefly touching the port side of her face gingerly. Predictably, once she looked into her reflection, she did not see a large burn on her face, but it had felt so real, she would not have been surprised if she did.
"Whoa, that's…" said Aang.
"I don't even know where this dream came from," Katara started ranting, "I know my dad; he would never do something like that; he would never even consider a plan like that! He would personally drown anyone would dare suggest using kids as a meat shield!"
"Katara, I'm sure there's a reason you had that dream," said Aang, trying to calm her down.
The waterbender took a deep breath, and felt her heartbeat slow down. She took another breath to make sure she was calm as she spoke again.
"And the weirdest part is that it was one of the most vivid dreams I've ever had," she said, "The only other times when I dream that clearly is when… I dream about bad memories."
"Like when?" Aang said gently.
"Like, when Azula almost killed you," she said softly.
There was an awkward silence.
Katara inhaled deeply once more and turned around. And then froze.
Zuko was standing there, well within earshot, his jaw slack, face white and eyes wide.
Aang jumped a foot when he realized his teacher was standing there and he had not noticed.
Katara recovered first.
"Don't you know the meaning of privacy?" she demanded, her mind full of suspicion, "Do you just enjoy spying on us?"
"How?" whispered Zuko.
"What?" Katara sputtered. She had expected a defensive or irritated response, not one of disbelief and shock.
"How could you possibly know...?" the Fire Prince rasped.
"Know what?" demanded Katara.
"Your dream," started Zuko, swallowing first, "How could you possibly dream that?"
"Why were you spying on us? What does my dream have to do with anything?"
Zuko took another moment to compose himself, and Aang gently put a placating hand on Katara's shoulder. She backed off, but only slightly.
"Zuko, why does Katara's dream have you so worked up?" Aang asked.
"It's nothing," he finally replied, clamming up and starting to walk away.
"That's a load of donkey-bull droppings!" yelled Katara, grabbing Zuko by the shoulder and making him face her, "Something about my dream is making you act weird, and I want to know why!"
Zuko instantly recovered from his funk, narrowing his eyes in anger at the Water Tribe girl in front of him. She mentally flinched for an instant, before freezing her gaze, as if daring him to make a false move. Aang did not risk stepping in this time, afraid that the two glaring forces would blow up on him if he so much as twitched.
Zuko blinked first.
"Somehow, you dreamed about how I got my scar."
It was Katara's turn to blink, and then Aang's.
"What?" they said simultaneously.
"The faces and the location are different, but it's the same," Zuko continued, "I was sitting in a war council I shouldn't have been attending in the first place. One general suggested the plan you dreamed about; using new recruits to draw out Earth Kingdom forces, and then pummel them from behind with the real army. The Earth army would have slaughtered the recruits, but that didn't matter to the general. I was furious with the plan, and spoke out against it. My father told me that I would have to fight in an Agni Kai, a duel between firebenders, to settle the dispute. I accepted, thinking that I could easily deal with an old windbag in a fight. I showed up at the Agni Kai, only to find out it wasn't the general I was fighting."
"It was your father," Katara said, remembering her dream, "But why, if it was the general you insulted…"
"I spoke out of turn in the Fire Lord's war room," he explained, "So I disrespected the Fire Lord, and so it was the Fire Lord, my father, who I had to fight."
He took a deep breath before continuing again.
"I couldn't do it," Zuko said, "I couldn't fight my own father. I loved him; I respected him; I worshipped him. I begged him for mercy, but he demanded I fight. He said that I needed to learn respect…"
"And suffering would be your teacher," finished Katara softly, unwillingly feeling a sense of compassion towards the exiled Prince. The same compassion she had felt for him under Ba Sing Se.
"That's when he placed this scar on my face," Zuko said, pointing at his unmistakable mark, "Then he banished me, and I only had one chance of coming back home."
"Capture the Avatar," said Aang, his eyes popping wide in realization.
"Wait a minute, wasn't Aang in an iceberg when you were banished?" asked Katara.
Zuko gave a mirthless grin.
"He wasn't expecting you to come back?" she screeched. She knew the Fire Lord was an evil, horrible person, but to do that to his own son…
"He didn't want me around," said Zuko, "It took me three years to figure it out, and even then I had to go back home to realize that to be the son he wanted, I would have to be just like Azula."
"Now I can understand why you chased after me so much," said Aang, "I think I would do almost anything to have the Air Nomads back, to have a home again."
Similar thoughts were going through Katara's head, although she did not voice them out loud. She wondered how far she would be willing to go to earn her father's love. Would she be willing to betray Aang to have her family back? Katara chose not to think about the answer.
"OK, I admit, I can understand why you've done what you've done," said Katara, her voice settling in that harsh tone that she enjoyed using on Zuko, "But get this straight: I still don't forgive you."
"Fair enough," answered the firebender, his composure regained.
"Don't worry, Zuko," said Aang, "Katara and I won't tell anyone else. Right, Katara?"
She narrowed her eyes at her airbending friend and his tone at the last two words.
"Fine," she agreed finally, "I'll keep your little secret; I'm not a gossiper, anyway."
Zuko's expression revealed that he did not quite believe Katara's self-description, but he nodded his thanks anyway.
"So, Sifu Hotman, how about we get back to firebending training?" asked Aang, trying to lighten the mood.
"Good idea," agreed Zuko, and then added as an afterthought, "And don't call me that."
Katara watched the two get started on their forms, and then she went to work on her chores.
She meant what she said to Zuko. She could understand the reason behind chasing the Avatar and betraying them (and her) under Ba Sing Se, but that did not mean she forgave him, nor did that mean she trusted him. Still, Katara supposed that she could at least tone down her outright hostility, and settle for cold civility.
Huang and Ba were content. Huang was the primary force behind the manipulations of the morning. It was she who made sure that Zuko listened in on Katara's dream, by nudging him to come back in time to overhear her. It was also she who made sure he remained frozen and unnoticed until Katara's tale had been fully told.
"You did well, Ba," complimented the phoenix.
"As did you, Huang," returned the octopus, "Our business here is concluded."
"Indeed it is," replied Huang.
"Farewell, Huang, messenger of Agni," concluded Ba, making the strange motion with his tentacles that one could interpret as a bow of respect, "I look forward to our next act of cooperation."
"Farewell, Ba, messenger of Yue and La," replied Huang, spreading her wings and bowing in respect, "I, too, await our next mission."
And the two servants returned to their masters, reported their successes, and awaited their next task.
Author's Note: The Chinese Phoenix was called the Fenghuang. Males were called Feng, and females were called Huang. However, more recently, the two names merged, and were more often referred to as a female. The Fenghuang is considered to be the feminine yin to the masculine yang of the Chinese dragon. While the Fenghuang is associated with fire and the sun, it is not known to go through the "rebirth" cycle, unlike the phoenixes of the Western world.
I chose the octopus as a spirit-servant of Yue and La because it is considered to be the most intelligent animal in the ocean, after the dolphin. The constant shifting of colors is based on the real octopus' ability to change the color and even the texture of the skin. This is particularly observed in the mimic octopus, which will not only mimic the surrounding environment, it will sometimes copy other animals (such as lionfish, sea snakes, and stingrays), successfully enough to fool would-be predators. "Ba" is simply the Chinese word for eight.
I realize that the Gaang learning about Zuko's scar is hardly an original plot for a story, but you have to admit, it does make great fanfiction fodder. After all, we don't see it done in the series proper, so it's left to the imagination of the audience as to when (or even if) Zuko tells his friends about how he got his trademark scar. I wrote this story because I would find it hard to believe that Katara would treat Zuko as harshly as she did if she knew certain parts about his past. And considering how during the time when she held a grudge toward him, she spent most of it not being outright hostile, but being coldly civil and dealing out verbal jabs at him. I imagine that some of that had to do with out of respect toward Aang, but I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to think that maybe something happened between the two that she decided that she be at least civil toward him.
I make it a point not to hate anyone; not just on religious grounds, but it's also a waste of time and energy. I can understand why people can hold a grudge (such as Katara hating Yon Rha), but I have no tolerance for those who continue to hold onto their hate after the offender has repented (i.e., Katara and Zuko). I'm with Aang on this issue: forgiveness is the better road. But it is also a two-way street; for there to be true forgiveness, the offended has to be able to let go of the anger, and the sinner needs to repent of his wrongdoing.