Pairing/Characters: Wan Shi Tong, Professor Zei
Theme Set and #: Fire, 44: Library
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Disclaimer: Wish it were mine...but it's not.
When the owl first sees him, it cocks its head at him. "I thought you had gone to pester someone else," it says.
Professor Zei prostrates himself, forehead to the floor. "I could not give up the possibility of such knowledge, o wise spirit," he says. "Perhaps my companions' motives were impure, but mine were not."
"And why should I believe you?" asks Wan Shi Tong.
"I stayed," says Zei simply.
There is a long moment as the owl watches him, and then it sighs. "The comfortable chairs are on the third floor, near the bestiaries. If you drool on them, I will know."
And then it flies off, shadows sweeping behind its wings.
After a while, Zei sits up. "Well," he says to one of the knowledge-spirits skulking behind the atlases. "That went better than expected."
The chairs near the bestiaries are really very comfortable, and when Zei wakes up from his nap he sees that a breakfast has been put on the table by his chair. There is a knowledge-seeker curled up next to it, its head tucked under its tail.
"Did you do this?" asks Zei. The knowledge-seeker lifts its head up, narrows its eyes at him, and then returns to its original position. "Well, thank you," Zei says, and eats.
He spends the day (he thinks it's day - as with all proper libraries, there's no real way to tell the time) wandering through the epic poems. He spends hours poring over a particularly lyrical history of Avatar Usuro, only to be interrupted when another knowledge-seeker pokes his back with its cold, wet nose.
"Yes?" asks Zei. The knowledge-seeker motions with its nose, and Zei sees a tray laid out at the end of the row of bookshelves with another meal. "Why, that's very kind of you," Zei says, and strokes the soft fur at the back of its neck. "Do you have a name?"
"The knowledge-seekers have no names," and Zei jumps a bit because an owl that large shouldn't be able to be so quiet. Wan Shi Tong blinks slowly at Zei. "You are Zei, yes?"
"Yes," Zei agrees. "Professor Li Zei, Head - former Head of Anthropology at Ba Sing Se University."
Wan Shi Tong narrows its eyes. "I should really kill you," it says.
Zei gulps. "I would very much prefer if you didn't," he says.
Wan Shi Tong sighs. "Very well. You'll live - for now. I'll most likely kill you in the morning." It turns to go, then hesitates. It turns its head over its shoulder, slowly, and says, "There is a collection of the poetry of Saffo two rows over that might interest you."
And then it leaves.
It takes Zei a moment to compose himself - he's not in literature, but Saffo, the legendary Kyoshi Island poet whose works in the physical world were reduced to mere fragments! - before he rushes off to read it.
He has no idea how long he exists like that, waking up after each sleep cycle to find a meal, rushing off to read the next manuscript, occasionally on Wan Shi Tong's advice. Each time they encounter each other, Zei bows and Wan Shi Tong reflects that it will probably kill him in the morning, but it never does.
Some indeterminable time later, after a particularly engaging debate about the lost Fire Nation colony of Ro Anoki, Zei dares to ask Wan Shi Tong the question. "How long have I been here?"
Wan Shi Tong shrugs, or as close to a shrug as an owl can come. "Two centuries, give or take."
"That long? I should be dead!"
Wan Shi Tong tilts its head. "This is my library," it says. "Nobody dies here unless I deem it."
Zei stands up straighter. "Are you saying that I may never die?"
"I have decided that your punishment for coming here without permission is an eternity of academia," Wan Shi Tong says. "Besides, the knowledge-seekers aren't exactly brilliant conversationalists."
Zei bows deeply to Wan Shi Tong. "I cannot thank you enough," he says.
Wan Shi Tong bows back. "And I must thank you. Nobody has debated Ro Anoki with me for millennia."
"But - if I may ask - what of the war? With the Fire Nation?"
Wan Shi Tong raises an eyebrow. "You think I would sully my feathers by following mere mortal scuffles? They mean nothing in the long run."
"They are the stuff of history," Zei argues. "What do we read of, if not of mere mortal scuffles?"
"A purely academic argument," says Wan Shi Tong.
"Perhaps," Zei says, "but we live in a library surrounded by histories, poetry, and every type of scholarly tome in existence. One could easily argue that purely academic arguments are the only ones with any bearing here."
"Humph," says Wan Shi Tong, and leaves.
But later that day - or before the next time Zei sleeps, at least - one of the knowledge-seekers leads him to a history of Avatar Aang, known as the greatest Avatar of all time, who brought balance to the world.
Zei regrets, but only for a moment, that he couldn't write a paper on the subject; he thinks his narratives would have shown another side of Aang, and the sky bison and chattering monkey are both omitted entirely.
The knowledge-seeker - Zei will give them names eventually - carefully noses at his shoulder, and he rubs the back of its head gratefully as he looks at one of the engravings in the tome - Avatar Aang, his wife, the master waterbender Katara, surrounded by their children. Aang is smiling broadly, one arm carelessly around his wife's shoulders. He looks perfectly at peace; he looks perfectly at home.
Zei inhales deeply, tasting the scents of ink and parchment, stroking the knowledge-seeker's fur, surrounded by scrolls. He thinks he knows how Aang feels.