My mind's pretty much crapped out on this story, so I'll be posting the bits and pieces that I managed to write before all the ideas fled.
Wan Shi Tong is the spirit of Knowledge - Like the Moon and Ocean spirits became fish, he became a Viper-Owl.
He has no idea that Zuko used to be human - He is under the impression that one of the hidden eggs had hatched, and the spirits had taken an interest in the newborn.
"Truly a child, then."
Zuko lives in the lower levels, and Wan Shi Tong instructs him how to speak with the human tongue again, which Zuko finds frustratingly difficult, since he often believes he is speaking, but instead is communicating telepathically to the other spirits. Humans would never hear him like that, and the spoken word is far more weighty than thoughts, to spirits. Lies could be thought, but not spoken by normal spirits. The higher-level ones could, but it was a matter of trust and what was appropriate.
Wan Shi Tong took him to an empty part of the library, whose subject had recently been moved due to the increase in materials collected. The room simply couldn't hold it any longer.
The knowledge-seekers set up poles and cloth walls, creating a maze and a series of obstacles for the dragon to learn to fly.
At that point, Zuko's body was about the diameter of an Ostrich's neck, about 8 feet long. Wingspan just larger than that. His head could easily fit within Wan Shi Tong's taloned foot.
He was awkward and had a hard time walking in a straight line, let alone figuring out the extra limbs.
Only once, did Zuko threaten to burn one of Wan Shi Tong's books. It was during one of his speech lessons, and his frustrations about being unable to speak clearly was building up more than usual. The spirit had procured a book that was meant to help children with a slur or lisp enunciate more clearly. Slowly helpful, yes, but also infuriating that he was reduced to this. Zuko hissed the threat of ignition at the delicate paper, gold eyes narrowed.
The owl turned to face him, saying in a flatter monotone than usual.
"If you decide to follow through with your words, I will have no choice but to eviscerate you. Please keep that in mind."
Zuko spent the rest of the day staring moodily at the book, absently trying to get his whiskers to stop flailing everywhere and actually act as useful limbs for once. He was unsuccessful, but the failures created twinges of helplessness, rather than anger.
He lifted his head and watched as the Owl-Viper landed on the balcony outside what had become his room. With a ruffle of feathers, Wan Shi Tong hopped down and ducked through the archway.
"After some reflection, I have come to realize that you did not understand the true meaning behind your threat. In light of that, it is within my best interest to educate you. Other spirits will not be so lenient against perceived threats."
And so, Zuko began his education in the nature of Spirits.
Spirits were usually centered around a singular concept.
It could be an activity, or an item, or even just an idea. Wan Shi Tong was a spirit of Knowledge, his existence was wrapped around gathering and sharing it. He felt pangs of hunger down here, barely sated by the coyote-fox spirits going out and gathering more scrolls. When Zhao had burnt down a section of his library, the only reason he hadn't flayed the man on the spot was because he was too busy trying to cope with the pain tearing him apart. Losing knowledge so completely, it honestly hurt him, in a way no physical blow could.
Dragons also fell into the category of spiritual beings, but Wan Shi Tong left that lesson for another day.
The spirits were growing restless. The Avatar was to create balance - between the four elements, between the mortal and spirit worlds. The young Avatar had somehow taken that to mean balance between the four NATIONS, and helping in their battles was further imbalancing the minds of men, causing them to believe one element was good or evil.
The Avatar did not know the nature of the world, of the elements, or of his duty.
Soft breaths disturbed the musty air, while black eyes stared down at the new addition to his lair.
He wakes up in the library, surrounded by a fox who looks at him with a cocked head.
His first instinct is to fry the creature. He is so Hungry. The urge passes, and he remains still, watching the canine.
It yawns, exposing thin, sharp teeth and a pink tongue.
It occurred to Zuko that he hadn't eaten anything in a long while. He remembered drinking, from clear fountains lined with green stones. Eating, however... No memory of it. Neither any memory of creating waste.
"I'm surprised you didn't ask earlier, to be honest. It's been nearly a week since your arrival."
'I've been distracted'
Wan Shi Tong explained how dragons subsisted mainly off spiritual flame and wisdom.
'How does that make any sense?'
"Well you haven't been hungry, have you?"
'I wanted to eat your coyote-fox buddy a moment ago.'
Wan Shi Tong blinked slowly at him tilting his head.
"You're growing up, then." His eyes swept over Zuko's coiled form, the broad leathery wings sprawled carelessly over shining tiles. He still couldn't convince the child to tuck his wings close, the limbs held stiffly beside him while moving, or just flopped on the floor when still. It was unbecoming of a dragon.
The news about hunger though, that was disconcerting.
"Has there been any questions that have been burning in you?"
Zuko blinked, startled. He shifted in place, looking sideways.
Wan Shi Tong could feel the lie crawl over the boy's tongue, but let it slide.
Dragons see things in a different way than a human does.
A 'Pearl' may be a thing of wisdom or knowledge, created by dragons that have passed, and given form in the mortal world. Pearls also formed by themselves, in places of great cultural significance, or a gathering of many minds under one idea.
To a human, it would feel like a certain atmosphere lingering around an area, a charge lingering, even when there was no one about.
To a dragon, it would be like thin strands of light stretching out, twisting from a central ball, softly glowing.
A city could create more than one Pearl, as could places revered by many people.
It would be interesting to see Zuko completely absorbed in retrieving a Pearl, tucking it under his chin, where it vanished in a spiral of flame and blue light.
The Library is a Pearl within it's own right, but the ownership belongs to Wan Shi Tong above all else - Dragon!Zuko is able to subsist off it while his body grew, like a newborn would subsist off their parent's Pearls. As he got older, His body started to crave its own Pearl, and he interpreted the feeling as hunger.
Eating would not satisfy that hunger, and dragons are actually incapable of digesting physical matter - If he were to eat a chicken, for instance, He could swallow it, but it'd be sucked of moisture and compacted in his gut and later spit back up as a large pellet, much like an owl spits up the bones and fur of its prey.
Dragons drank water and ate the energy from 'Pearls'
When he hears the chatter of something, he stretches his wings and leaps from level to level, not quite having the hang of flying, instead using his wings to give an extra boost to his snake-striking type of jump.
This place seems timeless, with its rows of books and scrolls, tablets laid out to be devoured with interest.
He makes a vow to the eerie owl, that he will not harm this place, and will not use the knowledge he gains, to harm others. As that thought-promise leaves his whiskers, he feels something snap into place. A pact was made, and would be honored. Somehow he knew, even under threat of death, that the truth he had created could not be broken. His words... His words had power . The owl dipped his head.
"I heard you ask for knowledge, for payment. What kind of knowledge can I offer you?"
The feathered face regarded him placidly.
"I would like your story, to be recorded and one day retold. That will be your payment for my protection and teaching."
"I will not change my name!"
"Zuko is a perfectly respectable name. Written with the characters 'Woods' and 'Serpent' it combines both the who of your past self, and the what you've become."
Those golden eyes blinked.
"So... you just want to change the characters."
"A spoken name holds power, but a written name contains the essence of the person it belongs to. Because you have changed, your name should also change to reflect that."
Those long feathers brushed over the sand pit.
"Now, try again. Write your name."
"I'm not going to change my name."
"Imagine your child's mother insisting that it be called 'Zuko' like his father. What characters would you use, to make the child different than yourself?"
"Well, I would ignore the woman and name the child whatever I want."
"You're missing the point."
"My name is Zuko."
"I'm not changing it."
"You will change the characters and the meaning, but the sounds will remain yours."
"Agni's Breath, why do I have to change my name!"
"Because 'Resurrected Rule' is the name of a dead prince, not a dragon."
Yellow eyes met black, frustration against cool insistence.
Zuko's claws were definitely not developed for delicate work like writing, but he would bite off his own tail before giving up the mark of intelligence. Reading and writing separated man from beast. This was important.
His neck was beginning to ache from being arched so tightly, to see what his arms were doing. The odd feeling of is this really my body? lingered for a moment, before passing on. He had been stuck down here, in this form for long enough to get somewhat used to himself.
The stick scraped through sand, and his own brows were furrowed in anger. It looked like a child's writing.
This was ridiculous. He was a Prince and his writing looked shoddier than a peasant's! No one would respect him if he couldn't even write his own letters! The anger bubbled up inside, his tail beginning to lash back and forth once again.
And just like that, his anger fizzed out. The owl turned to leave, long tail feathers brushing along those cold tiles. The spirit... the great Wan Shi Tong, had chosen his spirit form to reflect what he was. An owl-viper, who was known for being wise and patient, a creature symbolic of protecting knowledge. A creature who, despite being able to manipulate objects with the folds in his feathers, did not have the dexterity to write.
And so, the ancient spirit was left in this library, with so little knowledge trickling in to satisfy the gut-wrenching thirst, and no way of recording knowledge to share with others, to slack a gnawing hunger.
Zuko adjusted his grip on the pointed stick, flexing his neck and shaking it out before curling back around the sand box. He would learn to write, and he would help. It was only fair.
"Wan Shi Tong... If I used the Fire Nation characters, I could turn your name into 'Wandering Death Butt, and it'd still sound the same."
He received smack to his horns, squawking in protest at the blow.
"Mind your manners, Bean Child."
Wan Shi Tong flew into the lower levels, intending to narrate a new story a human had paid him, once. He had recently recalled it.
Zuko had busied himself with grooming while he was away, the sand-dust making his scales dull and itchy.
The spirit entered the room just as Zuko was attempting to apply oil to soothe his scales, twisting his body into knots. The short legs didn't help at all, and his black mane was ruffled in annoyance. More dust fell from the ceiling when Wan Shi Tong chuckled, causing Zuko to lose his balance and fall onto his side, thrashing in surprise.
Embarrassed by his lack of grace, the young dragon slowly untangled himself, deliberately moving each section of his long body. His scales were dull in some areas, and shining with excess oil in others. A section of his mane was slicked down, though how the boy managed that, Wan Shi Tong did not know.
Interrupting the somewhat awkward silence, the spirit stepped forward, dipping two long talons into the wide-mouthed bowl, afterward gesturing with a 'come hither' sign.
Zuko slither-hopped his way to the great owl, laying his neck down on the floor. As He-Who-Knows-Ten-Thousand-Things began, he reflected on how much the boy had grown, since he came. to his library. Before, the boy's thickest part was barely bigger than his ankle. Now, his neck could pass for one of his library's smaller supporting columns.
The oil-slicked foot slid over the boy's scales, and he bent over to give the wing a nip. It was unfurled obediently, and Wan Shi Tong dipped his foot again before working on the thin membranes.
Really, a desert library was no place for a mountain dragon. He needed fresh airs, fresh prey, mountain streams and a comfortable home. Dry scales and cracking wings was surely not what the dragon-spirits had planned, when placing him here. It was one thing to learn of the past, but to forsake health and life for wisdom was foolish indeed. If one could not survive to share knowledge, what was the point in hoarding it?
A twang of sad irony sank through his belly at the thought. No, he had long ago made his choice. The library would remain sunken, the humans had ruined that privilege.
He had grown fond of the dragonling, slinking down his isles and looking so frustrated when he knocked yet another book off its shelf from his constant wiggling. It would be too sad to see the mortal leave. Too sad.
The young dragon had helped sooth his frustrated hunger for knowledge-sharing, absorbing the stories like a sponge, and writing them down with a slowly developing script that would be both beautiful and unique. Really, how many libraries could say they had manuscripts written by a dragon? His section on the Fire Nation was slowly growing again, all written in a strangely angled, jagged script. It soothed his tattered nerves like a drink of icy water after a long flight. He drew back from the serpent, and the boy twisted himself round to expose his other side.
Wan Shi Tong's mind was drawn back to the group of humans currently wandering the upper levels. If they kept their word, to not try and use his knowledge to harm others... he may consider bringing his library to the surface again.
Of course, there would have to be guards at the entrances, and a thorough cleaning of all the hallways... perhaps the guest room refurbished, for anyone who wanted to stay for more than a day. It would not do to have his great library remain in such disarray, when guests were expected.
With a hissing chuckle, the spirit of knowledge stepped back from his young charge, watching the serpent stretch with a wide yawn, asking if he wanted to start another story.
"I think not. There are some guests on the uppermost floor, who claim to be wanting knowledge for knowledge's sake."
"You allowed humans into your library? How can they be trusted? Are my writings not enough?"
"Your manuscripts are plenty, Mountain Serpent. What remains is my own desire to see this library put back to its original use."
Zuko stretched his body to the outside perimeter of the room, wings tucked tightly to avoid bumping against the overhanging balcony.
"I also see that you're getting a bit large to remain here."
The dragon's head whipped around to face his mentor, gaze intense.
"Do not pretend that you do not wish to fly."
"The spirits placed me here, to learn from you."
"And learn you have. However, it is not your fate to become a knowledge spirit. Nor would I condemn a dragon to never see the sky.
"You're... kicking me out?"
"You are welcome to visit at any time, of course."
"That was amazingly blunt."
"I did not want to strain your mind with riddles."
"Was that a joke?"
Wan Shi Tong ruffled his feathers, turning around without answering. The spots on the back of his head gleamed in the light cast from luminescent crystals.
"I will reflect on what decision I should make, regarding my collection. Please introduce yourself to our guests."
Zuko's brows furrowed, head rearing back.
"That was a joke."
Wan Shi Tong exited his ward's study, taking flight with a flurry of dark feathers.
"The information on the Fire Nation should be right up here."
The Water Tribe boy. He watched the group from a level above them, the Avatar catching his gaze. Of course that boy would be here.
"They destroyed everything having to do with the Fire Nation."
"That's so unfair!"
The Water Tribe boy knelt in the ashes, holding his head.
"Just when I think I'm one step ahead of the Fire Nation, it turns out they came here a long time ago."
Zuko glided to their level, quietly slipping between columns and startling a knowledge-seeker into scurrying away. The Avatar was here. Here, trapped in the Spirit Library. Yet... looking upon that small figure, dressed in bright cloth, he felt no overwhelming urge to sweep him away. It was confusing and a bit unsettling, to have a lack of feeling, when he knew something should be there. Like being presented with your favorite food, and remembering all the times you had been thrilled to have even a taste, yet the dish seemed unappetizing. You should feel desire, hunger or excitement, but nothing appeared. A strange sensation indeed.
"I need to know what happens on the darkest day."
He wanted to know about that day did he?
Zuko let out sharp breath, ashes from the entrance swirling into the air around the group. The older man was the first to turn around.
He fell to his knees.
Zuko supposed he could see where his mentor was coming from, when he slipped out of the shadows to inform someone they were in trouble. The looks of surprise and fear were quite amusing.
The two Water Tribe were next, facing him with scared looks and an automatic reach for their weapons.
The subject of his gaze, the child in brightly colored clothing, whirled around on his heels. Zuko could see himself in those wide silver eyes, a dark figure silhouetted against the brighter hallway.
"I will not let you attack my people!"
Sokka froze, one hand already on his boomerang. Zuko's wings were unfurled, his teeth bared in anger.
Katara and Aang had already moved into bending positions, ready to strike at the serpent.
"You gave your word that you would not harm otherss with the knowledge my masster provided you. You will abide by your word!"
His words were framed by bared teeth and flattened whiskers. The careful way of speaking had fallen away with his anger, leaving a snakelike hiss fluttering along each syllable.
"We need to defeat the Fire Nation!"
Sokka's mouth was set in a scowl, but his hand fell away from the weapon when the creature did not attack them.
"They're evil, and putting everything out of balance." Katara put in her copper piece, her stance still aggressive.
Aang nodded his agreement.
"I need to fix this! I'm the Avatar, I need to put things back in balance!"
The dragon's gaze fell on Aang and golden eyes narrowed to slits. It rushed forward with a snarl, ignoring the lash of water across his hide. The scales were scratched, but were otherwise unharmed. He could deal with her later.
Aang's attempt at dodging was stopped by one large hand pinning him to the ground, his eyes going wide. He shrank in on himself at the serpent's next words.
"How Dare You."
Katara gathered her water back for a second strike.
"How DARE you sspeak of balance like you know what'ss going on. The Fire Nation isssuffering far more than you could undersstand. It is the elements which are out of balance, yet you foolishly try to blame an entire nation for one man'ss insanity!"
Katara whipped around blade of water toward the dragon, falling backward when a jet of flame evaporated what was left of her stores.
"We know the Firelord needs to be defeated, that's what we're trying to do!"
Golden eyes gazed down at the young waterbender as she shouted at him, the look of contempt never fading. As he took a breath to respond, another voice broke in.
"The perpetrator of this imbalance is long dead, a kin-slayer and bond breaker. His actions corrupted his mind and his family's minds and now the world is falling apart. It is no fault of Agni's children, this imbalance. They are as much victims as all other people in this war. Perhaps more so, with the repercussions waiting to set in."
Zuko lifted his hand from the Avatar, feeling both irritated and embarrassed that the spirit had seen his loss of temper. However, the formidable presence was a familiar one and he let out a smoky exhale, slinking to the side.
The owl's dark eyes turned to the three children. The professor had long ago holed himself up with a stack of books, devouring them like candy. It was … nice... to see a human so in love with knowledge. He could feel a faint thrum of happiness in the back of his mind as it registered the sharing of information.
"I came to let you know the guests you left outside have been attacked."
The three barreled out of the room, the young air bender darting close enough that Wan Shi Tong shifted his tail feathers to let the boy pass. The pale face turned to his ward, beak clicking faintly. Zuko tucked his wings close, looking to the side.
"Do not think I have forgotten your anger." The scaly head lowered a fraction.
"However, I have also not forgotten these things tend to be inspired, rather than decided upon. What has angered you, Mountain-Serpent."
"The Avatar, at least, is not out to hurt anyone. He's letting himself be led along and completely ignoring whatever spiritual training he's had."
The Moon spirit Yue confronts Wang Shi Tong, for Zhao had discovered the physical forms of the Moon and Ocean spirit in his library. (The Ocean Spirit was still recovering from his stint with the Avatar) She is in monstrous fish form, and rails on him about giving information to Zhao.
She overwhelmed the Owl-Viper, water crashing down on top of him and sweeping him roughly against the wall.
Zuko tucked himself into the far corner of the ceiling, cursing his short legs and praising the flexible body in the same breath. He had felt a tickle of something approaching in his whiskers, but had no idea it would be something like this.
Wan Shi Tong was picked up, his enormous form looking pitiful in the many-fingered grasp. Between the sopping wet feathers and stretched out, wriggling body, he looked far more similar to a strange lizard than to his normal birdlike stature.
For some reason, that scared him more than the fury he could feel radiating off the blue spirit.
"That human lied, shattered promises and destroyed a section of my precious collection! You dare insinuate that I would side with him! If I ever find that pitiful creature, he will wish I was merciful enough just to eat him alive!"
The Moon's smooth face softened marginally, looking quite a bit more human.
"You truly did not mean for any of this to happen?"
The Owl-viper shook his head, water droplets flying.
Her hair and garments flowed outwards, rippling like decorative fins. The face started to look familiar somehow.
"Is there anything I can help you with, Knowledge-keeper?" She looked around at the puddles on the tiles, and Wan Shi Tong's bedraggled form, too proud to huddle in on himself for warmth against the chill of shadows and icy saltwater.
" Your form is far more tied to this world than my own, and I would like to avoid any lasting grudges from my misunderstanding."
The beak clicked, moving out-of-sync with his words, as always.
"I have nothing in mind at the moment. And you?"
Zuko started, having not realized the old spirit had known the dragon was still in the room, had been spying on him.
"Was there anything you would like to request? Within reason, of course."
He carefully slipped down from his hiding place, feeling rather out-of-place among the two legendary spirit beings.
Ancient Knowledge and the Moon.
The Moon spirit, whose lover had all but slaughtered his countrymen, leaving them to drown in his lover's body. Their spirits were doomed to unrest, unable to find their way home.
"I would... like to make a request, if it pleases you."
Zuko felt a pang of annoyance, speaking with a faint lisp.. He was supposed to be a prince.
He hastily squashed that train of thought, reminding himself 'This is the way things are, now.' He needed to concentrate. This mouth was still hard to work with, too many teeth and too much tongue.
Those silvery eyes gazed down at him with curiosity, and even his guardian seemed intrigued.
"My people... that is... the Fire Nation... They have burial rites for men lost at sea. Would you allow... no, I know the Water Tribe would not allow that. Would you help the spirits find their way back to Agni, or to their homeland?"
A small titter of laughter met his ears, and his scales stood on end, outraged at the dismissal of his proposal.
The luminescent girl simply waved her hand.
"If only it were that easy. The children of the Sun do not respond well to the requests of the Moon, and those people's living clansmen have only been able to sail so close, with their lanterns alight. I'd gladly return them, if only they could find their way."
Wan Shi Tong took that moment to interject, tilting his head to the side.
"If it such a trouble, I would be happy to let my student aid your cause, since he is so eager about the subject."
Zuko whipped around, shock in his eyes.
The two spirits continued talking over his head.
"It really is bothersome, for my dear to be weighed down by the restless humans, but your ward would have to find his own way to the Arctic."
By the time Aang and Co. arrive at the desert, Zuko's head is about the size of a large dog's entire body. He'd be able to carry a small person on his back, if he weren't still so clumsy in the air. The library did him good. Sokka worries that Appa might be eaten by having a large predator tag along, but Zuko denies it' (They've all just been calling him 'Dragon' ) "If I were a giant, flying, carnivore, that's exactly what I'd say to my prey, too!"
Go straight from the Library, across the desert, across Serpent's Pass, to Ba Sing Se with the Avatar and co. (Who he meets up with, outside the library - The kids had failed to rescue Appa, but it was due to a sandstorm and decreased visibility all around, not just Toph's fault)
After the Pass, Zuko travels alone, to the Arctic Ocean.
"You are welcome to visit, should you desire knowledge to improve yourself. Until then, remember what I've taught you."
The group of humans perked up, offering their own sage advice as a guess to what the Owl-Viper 'taught him'
"Don't judge a book by its cover?"
"Sand isn't good for ancient tomes?"
"Foxes can't, in fact, be litter trained?"
"Learning is second only to teaching?"
Zuko ignored the humans, bowing his head respectfully to the old owl-viper. The Owl's next words caused him to choke on air, coughing wildly.
"You really ought to take his word when a man says the scrolls under his bed are forbidden."
The dragon shook his mane, eyes clamped shut with a wail of despair.
"How was I supposed to know you wrote fanfiction!"
"You should have suspected, and My OTP is Zukka."
Zuko's howls echoed across the desert, those images relentlessly burned into his mind.