|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 1 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Fire Lord Azulon stopped on the palace path and waited for his older son to catch up to him. A small smile cracked his weathered face and he clapped Iroh on the shoulder when he caught up.
"Iroh!" He surveyed his son. "You look well."
Iroh, who was puffing from the quick run, laughed. "You mean fat."
"I was not going to say that."
Iroh chuckled again. "You may say it, though – it is true."
Azulon began walking. "I've missed you."
"And I you, my lord." Iroh fell into step.
"How are things in the southern colonies?"
"Good. They are good. There is a report waiting for you on your desk."
"Thank you. You are always very thorough."
"A trait I inherited from my father."
"Flattery will get you nowhere."
"It is not flattery if it is true."
"You inherited your glib tongue from your mother."
Iroh nodded, but was silent.
"Have you heard about Yan Sun?" Iroh asked finally.
Azulon's face was grim. "Yes. A great loss for the Fire Nation. He was one of the best naval men of his generation. How is Su Hsing?"
Iroh shrugged at the question about his wife. "Upset. He was the closest of her siblings in age, and coming upon the death of her eldest sister last year..."
"It has been difficult."
"This is a blow to the navy. Despite the scandal, he was much admired. Did he leave any children?"
"A daughter. Four years old."
"I believe so."
"Did you ever meet Sun's wife – the Water Tribe woman?"
"Yes. She was very beautiful. Very beautiful, indeed."
"Well, a man should not be seduced by a pretty face."
Iroh was quiet again.
"I suppose the child will go to one of Su Hsing's brothers or sisters?" Azulon asked.
Iroh blushed. "Well, Father, as to that, I was hoping – I mean, Su Hsing and I were hoping to bring her to live with us."
Azulon gave Iroh a sideways glance. "I was expecting you to say that."
"Were you? You know me well."
"I know that family is important to you. And I suppose she is a member of your family. How does Lu Ten feel?"
"He is excited."
"He is too tender hearted. Send him to war so that he toughens up."
This was a frequent argument. "Lu Ten's first campaign will be with me, Father. As mine was with you."
"Harrumph." Azulon snorted. "His first likely campaign will be overthrowing the tea fields in the Earth Kingdom, then."
Iroh laughed, unperturbed. "I have greater things in mind for my son, Father."
His father peered at him. "Ba Sing Se?"
"Four years. It will take that long to amass enough regiments to march."
They reached the palace, and Azulon stopped to look at Iroh. "Bring the girl to me when she arrives. I will want to meet her. But mind you keep her under control. The last thing I want is a half-breed child running wild around the palace." He snickered. "Wait until Ozai hears that you are adopting a Water Tribe child. It should be very interesting."
"Here we are, Lady Lan Chi." The carriage rolled to a stop in front of the Fire Palace, and the little girl within peered up at it in concern, and her stomach flip-flopped. It was so big...
Her governess, Mei-Lien, despite the hearty good humor she had tried to infuse her voice with, was concerned as well. She had never been to the capital before, and certainly she had never had any concourse with the royal family! Yet here she was, delivering her charge into the care of Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation!
She glanced over at Lan Chi, dressed in her very best, and her heart broke a little for this poor, orphaned child.
At just barely five years of age, Lan had already had a lifetime of sorrow. She had lost her mother, her unborn baby brother, and her father all within the space of two years. Her father, the esteemed Admiral Yan Sun, who had died earlier in the year, in the service of his nation, was the younger brother of Iroh's wife. As a result of this close kinship, Iroh and his wife, Su Hsing, had agreed to take Lan in and give her back the family she had lost. Indeed, Lan's family, for much of her life, had been her parents' servants. Even after the death of his wife, Admiral Sun had returned to sea, his devotion to his country greater than his devotion to his daughter. As a result of this solitude, Lan was a quiet girl, who would have faded into the background, had it not been for one distinguishing feature: her hair. It was red – a dark, vivid red that rivaled the color of flames. It was said that she had inherited the unfortunate color from her mother's inferior race, the Water Tribe. It was also thought that her hair color was a triumph of fire over water. Some took it to mean that she would be a rather powerful firebender, although, alas, she had no firebending abilities at all. Some even said that the hair was the only manifestation of her Fire Nation heritage, and foretold her inability to firebend. No one was sure how she came by it, but all were certain that it was a result of the miscegenation of her parents.
Mei-Lien grasped Lan by the hand when the carriage door opened, and they both climbed out to find a pair of royal guards, who gawked openly at Lan's hair.
Mei-Lien cleared her throat, and the guards snapped back to attention. "The Lady Lan Chi is here to see Prince Iroh and Princess Su Hsing. I am her governess."
The man nodded. "We were alerted to your arrival, Ma'am. Please follow us. Lady Lan Chi's trunks will be brought to Prince Iroh's family quarters."
"Thank you." She and Lan followed the men into the palace. She tried not to stare at the grandness of her surroundings, but the gold leaf and enameled wood were magnificent to her eyes.
The palace twisted and turned around them until they came to a large set of double doors, which were soon opened by another pair of guards.
They turned left immediately, down a long hallway bordering a tiled courtyard. A large fountain and pavilion shared the center of the courtyard, and they passed through another set of doors into another courtyard, which they crossed. Lan started to drag a bit.
"Is it far, please? Lady Lan Chi is fatigued, I fear."
"Princes Ozai and Iroh each have their own wings, ma'am. It is not far."
They finally arrived at Iroh's private quarters, and, again, a pair of guards opened the doors before them. This time, however, Mei-Lien and Lan Chi were allowed to enter on their own.
The room they entered was not nearly as elegant as Mei-Lien had expected. It was very large, but very homey, with several low sofas and tables, as well as large cushions scattered throughout. Torches flickered on the walls, giving it a welcoming glow. Just then, an older couple entered through a large archway.
Mei-Lien recognized Iroh and Su Hsing from a commemorative tea towel she had purchased years ago. Prince Iroh was of medium height, stouter and grayer than he had appeared on the towel, but with a sparkle in his eye that had been apparent even in cloth. Princess Su Hsing was slim, dark-haired and dark-eyed, still striking even in middle age.
Mei-Lien dropped to her knees and bowed. "Prince Iroh, Princess Su Hsing, it is my honor to meet you at last." She stood and pulled Lan Chi forward. "This is Lady Lan Chi Sun, your highnesses, daughter of your esteemed brother, Admiral Yan Sun. Lan, bow to your aunt and uncle, please."
The little girl bowed obediently.
Iroh looked at his wife, who gave him a concerned glance.
"Can she speak?" Su Hsing asked tentatively.
"She can, although she tends to be – quiet."
"Come here, child." Su Hsing beckoned Lan forward.
With a gentle nudge from her governess, the girl came closer. Su Hsing gently put a finger under her niece's chin, and lifted her face. "Do you know who I am?"
The little girl shook her head, and Su Hsing noted pale skin and dark eyes, like her brother, but a smattering of freckles dotted her face. And that hair. Oh, that hair! What a pity it was not black! Su Hsing smiled softly. "I am your father's sister."
Lan looked at her blankly. Mei-Lien bustled forward, and took Lan by the hand. "I am so sorry, your highness. She has become very shy of late." She hustled her off to a cushion on the other side of the room, and snatched a small book out of her satchel. "Here, read this, Lan, while I talk to your aunt and uncle."
"She can read?" Iroh was pleased.
"Yes, quite well, actually," Mei-Lien came back to them. "She is really very bright." She indicated some cushions close to Iroh. "May we sit?"
"Thank you." They settled themselves quickly. "I hope that I may speak freely with you, your highness – and Princess Su Hsing."
Iroh and Su Hsing exchanged looks, but nodded.
"Good. I want to tell you that Lan is a well-behaved, kind little girl. As you know, she has experienced an inordinate amount of loss in her life. Her brother and mother, and then her father, spirits rest their souls..."
"How has it affected her?"
"I would be lying if I did not say that she has become withdrawn. Although," she hastened to add, "with a bit of love and compassion, I think that you will find her a delight."
"You do not have to sell us on my brother's daughter," Su Hsing smiled kindly. "This will be her home from now on – we will not forsake her."
Mei-Lien pursed her lips. "I am glad to hear that – especially since I am unable to stay with her. But – I feel it is my duty to inform you of an – " she searched for words, "an unfortunate habit of Lan Chi's."
"An unfortunate habit?" Iroh was becoming concerned. Was this young girl a firebug – it was not uncommon among young firebenders – they liked to set things on fire just because they could.
Mei-Lien looked around nervously, then leaned in towards the couple. "She – well, she – " she dropped her voice to a low whisper. "Waterbends."
Iroh and Su Hsing exchanged another look, this of shock. Su Hsing stood and began to pace. "Oh, oh. Oh, dear. Oh, my."
Iroh put a restraining hand on Su Hsing, which stopped her.
"How long has she done this?" He addressed the governess.
"Since right after her mother's death, I understand. She has certainly been capable since I have been with her."
"She was about three at that point." Iroh stroked his beard.
"That is rather young for," Su Hsing pitched her voice low, "bending."
Mei-Lien nodded. "Yes, from what I understand. However, I have never been around those of that proclivity," Mei-Lien admitted. "I do not know what is normal. I have tried to control her. Indeed, I have succeeded, to a measure. She does not do it in front of others anymore. I told her that it is a secret," she threw a look at Lan, who read on, oblivious. "A wonderful secret that she should keep all to herself."
Iroh and his wife were happy to take in this little girl, red hair, waterbending, and all. They had faced such heartbreak; prior to the birth of their only child Lu Ten, Su Hsing had suffered two miscarriages. After Lu Ten had been born, they had lost another son in childbirth, and two daughters had died while still in their infancy. The little girl with the red hair was a blessing to them in their waning years.
Lu Ten was nearly ten years older than Lan Chi, but he had adored her from the moment he had set eyes on her. She was as fragile as a doll, he said, and all his "older brother" instincts, stifled for so long, were satisfied with her. For her part, Lan Chi worshiped Lu Ten. He was her knight, ready to push her on a swing or teach her how to hold a dagger properly, or simply to read with her. At fifteen, he was a man, nearly ready to follow his father into the army, but putting it off a while longer. He would succeed his father as Fire Lord one day, but knew that day was far off, and that he had plenty of time to go to the war once his new little sister was settled and his mother was ready to let him go.
Lan's unfortunate habit was kept a great secret; although Iroh and Su Hsing revealed it to Lu Ten, no one else in the household became privy to it. Lu Ten, to his great credit, accepted Lan's ability with great aplomb.
"How wonderful," he told his father. "To have a waterbender for a sister!"
"That is very enlightened of you, my son," Iroh smiled indulgently.
"Well, this war can't last forever, Father. And when it ends, we should endeavor to accept the other nations. Perhaps, in the pursuit of fellowship, I should marry an Earthbender." He grinned.
Iroh laughed. "Perhaps, but I don't think you should mention that idea to your grandfather!"
Iroh was proud of his son's democratic leanings; Iroh knew that the war would end one day, and that the Fire Nation would have to learn to peacefully co-exist with the conquered peoples. He was certain that, in the end, the Fire Nation would win the war, and he hoped that he could be the Fire Lord to do that, so that he could hand a peaceful world down to Lu Ten.
Iroh introduced Lan Chi to his father not many days after her arrival. He, Su Hsing, Lu Ten, and Lan Chi all dressed in their best clothing, for a family audience with the Fire Lord was a momentous occasion. Su Hsing had fussed over Lan, putting her in first one dress and then another, fretting over whether her hair should be in a top knot or down her back. In the end, Su Hsing called herself satisfied with a miniature version of her own frock, with Lan's hair in a very conservative braid.
Lu Ten looked very dashing in his dress uniform, and Lan reached her arms to be carried by him. With a loud kiss on her cheek, he swung her up onto his shoulders. "This way you can see the entire palace," he said kindly.
Iroh looked on his son's thoughtfulness with a full heart, and knew that he had done the right thing by bringing Lan into their family. Lu Ten had always seemed a bit lonely, and this little girl seemed to fill the hole that Iroh knew that his son had always had.
When they reached the throne room, Lu Ten put his new sister on the ground and Iroh crouched down to speak to her.
"Now, Lan, you will hold Lu Ten's hand when you walk in. When he stops, you stop, and when he bows, you bow. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Uncle Iroh."
"Good girl. Now, there will be flames between you and the Fire Lord. I promise that they will not touch you. They are just there to look pretty, so don't be scared."
"I won't be. Lu Ten will protect me." She looked up at her cousin, whom she had already decided was more like a brother. "Won't you?"
"All my life, my little duck." He squeezed her shoulder.
Iroh smiled and straightened. He turned to his wife. "Are you ready, dearest?"
She blew a breath out. "As ready as I will ever be. I never get used to these audiences with your father."
Iroh chuckled and kissed her. "One day it will be the two of us up there, and you will be the intimidating one."
She gave an unladylike snort. "Not likely."
"You say that now. Wait and see."
"Oh, I can wait."
Just then, a page came for them, and they entered the throne room.
The throne room was splendid and impressive, with beautifully polished floors, lined with massive columns that seemed to stretch into the sky. The covered throne was of ornate gold, and sat high on a platform, away from supplicants and commoners. Flames rose high before the platform, essentially cutting the Fire Lord off from the rest of the room. Lan's eyes took it all in with wonder as she made her way to the throne. Never had she seen anything so glorious.
The adults all dropped to their knees and bowed. Lan belatedly joined them, although, as her father had taught her, she pressed her forehead to the ground.
Azulon's brows rose, pleased. At least this child showed reverence, unlike Ozai's two rapscallions! "You may rise, my children."
Iroh, Su Hsing, and Lu Ten all did as he bade. Lan Chi stayed on the floor.
Lu Ten chuckled. "Come, Lan. You may stand and look on the Fire Lord."
She scrambled up and stood at attention, her arms ramrod stiff at her sides.
Azulon ran his eyes over her. "She appears well-behaved, Iroh."
"Yes, my lord."
Azulon turned his attention to his grandson. "Prince Lu Ten, it appears that your new sister knows how to greet her Fire Lord. Do you?"
Lu Ten grinned and ran forward. The flames died down instantly, and he ran up the stairs to embrace his grandfather, who had stood to accept the hug.
"I have missed you, Grandson."
"As I have missed you."
"Your studies have kept you very busy."
Lu Ten pulled away to smile down at his grandfather, now shrunk in old age. "But you will be very pleased, I think, at my progress."
"I am always very pleased with you, Lu Ten. I am less pleased with your father, who insists that you need a few more years at home before leaving for the war." He gave Iroh a dark look. "When I was your age, Prince Lu Ten, I had already been at the front for a year."
"Ah, but you are extraordinary, Grandfather. I can never hope to live up to the standards you have set."
Azulon waved a weary hand at his grandson. "You inherited your grandmother's grandiloquence – like your father. Now get back to your family and try to give me the respect I deserve as the Fire Lord."
Lu Ten sensed no malice in his grandfather's words, and laughed. "Yes, my lord." he dashed back down the stairs to stand next to Lan Chi.
Azulon sat again, and beckoned Lan Chi forward. "Let me see her, Iroh. Bring her here."
Iroh took Lan Chi's cold hand and escorted her to the throne. Her heart started to beat wildly. She was meeting the Fire Lord! Even at five years of age, she knew the importance of such a thing.
She looked at Azulon for a brief moment, took in the gray hair, the deep wrinkles, the crown, and the peculiar smell of camphor, and immediately dropped to her knees again.
Azulon, although secretly delighted, gave no indication of his pleasure. Instead his eyes examined her. "Hmm. Red hair. I thought that must just be a rumor. Apparently not." Although he spoke aloud, he was addressing no one in particular, and Iroh wisely remained silent.
After a long silence, Azulon turned to his son. "Does she bend?"
Iroh's heart skipped a beat. "No, my lord. She shows no signs."
Azulon frowned at Lan. "Pity. Yan was such a talented bender. One of the best in your class, as I recall, Iroh."
"Yes, Sire. Several of his records still stand, from what I hear."
Azulon nodded, and looked at Lan again. "Stand up, child." He made a standing motion with his hand, and Iroh gently pulled Lan up. She looked directly at Azulon, and he nodded again. "I knew your father, girl. A great man. We miss him."
"Thank you, my lord."
"You are now living in a palace. My palace. It is a great honor, you understand."
He watched her for a long moment. "Lu Ten is now your brother. Are you pleased by that?"
Lu Ten! Her favorite subject. "Oh, yes, my lord! He is the best brother in the world, and one day he will be Fire Lord, and he will be the best Fire Lord ever!"
Iroh blushed and put a hand on Lan's shoulder in warning. Su Hsing's hand covered her mouth, although she could not contain a gasp of dismay.
Azulon looked shocked and turned to Lu Ten. "You have a champion, Prince Lu Ten."
Lu Ten was red, as well. "Yes, my lord."
"Mind you keep her close. Nothing ill can befall you with devotion such as hers near, I'll warrant."
Lu Ten smiled. "Yes, Sir."
Azulon waved them all away. "Go now. I am tired. Iroh, I will see you at midday for the meeting with the western colonies governor. An abysmal man. I cannot abide him."
Iroh bowed and he and Lan Chi descended the stairs, although Lan insisted on backing down slowly.
The three adults bowed and turned to leave. Lan Chi, however, pulled away and threw herself on her knees again. "I humbly serve at the pleasure of the Fire Lord."
Iroh, Su Hsing, and Lu Ten all looked thunderstruck. Azulon, for his part, looked at her for a long moment, then began chuckling. "Did you teach her that, Iroh?"
"No, my lord. I frankly have no idea how she learned it."
"Well, she surely showed you the proper way to show reverence to the Fire Lord. Perhaps she can give you lessons." With that, he went off into whoops of wheezing laughter. "Go on! Go on!" He waved them away and wiped tears of mirth from his eyes.
Not long after Lan Chi had received Azulon's blessing, Iroh invited his brother Ozai and his family, wife Ursa, son Zuko and daughter Azula to the Summer Palace on Ember Island to meet Lan. Although the entire extended family lived together in the vast palace in the capital, the building was large enough that the families could literally go days and weeks without seeing one another – which suited the brothers well, as they frequently were at loggerheads about many things, including the war.
Lan Chi was only a few months younger than Zuko and two years older than Azula, and Iroh hoped that she would get along with the Prince and Princess, since she really had no other playmates her age. Azula, at four, was already showing signs that she would one day be a powerful firebender, although, much to Ozai's disappointment, Zuko had shown no talent in the area. He could perform only rudimentary firebending skills, such as creating a flame in his hand, but was either uninterested or unable to demonstrate further prowess.
Ozai was uncomfortable with the thought of his children associating with the child of a mixed marriage, but with no valid reason other than that, he knew that Iroh would not be pleased with him for snubbing his ward. So he gritted his teeth and welcomed the mongrel child.
In the late afternoon on the first day of the visit, prior to dressing for dinner, Iroh and Ozai settled down across from each other at a low table, next to long windows that looked out on the shore. Outside, the children played, sometimes quietly, sometimes with loud squeals. Ozai watched them, jaw clenched.
A maid brought a pot of tea, and Iroh thanked her. He poured both himself and his brother a cup.
Ozai ignored his. He crossed his arms. "How can you bring that half-breed into the palace; into our family?"
Iroh looked at him over the edge of his cup. "She is already a part of our family."
Ozai sniffed and looked back out at his children frolicking with Lan Chi. "She may be a part of your family. She is not a part of mine."
"Your intolerance for the other nations does not serve you well, brother."
Ozai did not answer. Instead, he stared pugnaciously out at the children frolicking in the surf.
"When this war is over, we must be able to govern all the people, Ozai."
His brother laughed. "You really think that this war will be over in our lifetime?"
"I know it will be. And I will be depending on your help with the other nations."
Ozai's brows shot up. "My help? Are you exiling me to the Earth Kingdom to govern those savages? Or will you send me to waste away in the North Pole?"
"It is not exile. I will need someone I can trust to govern the colonies. And you must not think of them as savages. Both nations are proud and noble people."
Ozai was silent at the criticism.
"Think on it, Ozai. Is it not easier to get things out of people when they want to give it?" At his brother's stubborn expression, Iroh sighed. "We cannot continue the war at this pace. We are being bled dry. Taxes are higher than they have ever been, we cannot produce all the food we require – neither for the army nor for the civilians. Something must change."
"So what is your magnificent plan to end the war?"
Iroh pointed at his brother. "The key to ending the war is Ba Sing Se."
"We've always known that."
"Yes, but knowing that we must conquer the city and accomplishing it are two different matters. And we must accomplish it. I want Lu Ten to inherit a peaceful world, Ozai. Not one constantly out of balance and at war."
"How do we accomplish it?"
"It will require a massive force, Ozai. Many lives will be lost. But many lives will be saved by our success. If we can convince the Earth King that there is nothing to be gained from opposing us, and much to be lost, we will have won, Ozai. Once the Earth King has surrendered, the Water Tribes cannot stand alone. We shall have brought the entire world together under the Fire Nation flag. We will have restored peace."
Ozai frowned. "You are being naïve, brother. The other nations will never accept us. They are jealous of our superiority."
"We are neither superior nor inferior to other nations."
"We are their betters. It is because of this that we were able to defeat the Air Nomads; it is why we are so close to winning the war."
"Close to winning the war is not the same as winning the war."
Ozai stood up and strode to the window. With his back so straight and stiff, Iroh though that he looked much like their grandfather. He hoped that Ozai was more broadminded than Sozin, however.
"I wonder if Father knows of your egalitarian leanings, brother."
"He knows that the war cannot go on endlessly."
Ozai turned to face him. "It will go on until we have exterminated the other nations and have absorbed their countries into our own."
Iroh's fist came down on the table, causing the teacups to jump. "We will not exterminate the other nations! There can never be another atrocity like the airbenders!"
Ozai's brows lifted. "I did not know that you were so passionate about preserving the ways of foreigners, Iroh. You think that their culture should supersede our own?"
Iroh sighed wearily. "I think that we must learn to co-exist peacefully with the other nations, Ozai. That is what I think."
He stood and strode from the room. Ozai stared out at the ocean for several minutes, trying to quell the anger and resentment in his heart. Iroh was patently unfit to be Fire Lord. Left to him, the Fire Nation would probably surrender the occupied territories and offer the other nations an apology. Iroh was a fierce and brave warrior, it was true, but he did not have a killer's instinct – he was more like their gentle mother, Ilah, than like their father. Ozai drew in a long breath. How much better everything would be if he, and not Iroh, had been the first born. But there was nothing to be done about that. Iroh was the heir, and nothing could change that.
He felt an odd sensation tickling him, and he turned, finally, and started. His brother's ward stood in the other doorway, watching him with wide, knowing eyes. He was discomfited by her gaze, and, with a growl, he exited the way of his brother.
Ozai stomped outside in search of Ursa. He found her building a sandcastle with Zuko while Azula played in the water. His frown increased.
"Can't that child build a sandcastle by himself, for spirits' sake! Must he cling to you at all times?"
Zuko looked at his father blankly, then burst into tears.
Ursa shot him a dark look, and gathered Zuko into her arms. "You are in a foul mood, Ozai! Must you take that out on the children?"
He bristled at the reprimand. "You baby him, Ursa. He'll never be a real man if you continue to coddle him."
"A real man? Ozai, listen to yourself! He is not even six years old!"
"More than old enough to start attending the Royal Fire Academy. I started when I was four!"
"And look how well you have turned out!"
Small fire daggers appeared in Ozai's fists for a moment, then dissipated, although not before Ursa had seen. Her eyes grew wide for a moment, and she stood, snatching Zuko into her arms. "Azula, come! It's nearly dinner!"
Her daughter obediently followed, although she cast a confused look at her father.
Dinner was a strained affair for the adults, although Iroh and Su Hsing attempted to smooth over the difficulties amongst all the parties.
After the children had been put to bed, Ursa returned to the room she shared with her husband. He was already in bed, reading. She gave a deep sigh, and climbed in. "Ozai," she began, "I'm sorry."
He put down the book, although he did not speak.
"It was unkind of me to condemn you for something that was not your doing."
There was silence a moment longer. "I only want the best for Zuko; you know that."
Her lips compressed. "I know that you do. We disagree on what is best for him, unfortunately."
Ozai turned away, and Ursa could see a muscle tick in his jaw. She impulsively laid a hand on his arm. "What is truly bothering you, my love?"
"My brother," Ozai admitted. Ursa remained silent, so he continued. "He has decided to exile me." At Ursa's indrawn breath, he gave a bitter smile. "It is not what you think, although it is, in effect, the same. He wants me to take over governance of all the colonies."
"Ozai, that is wonderful! That is a huge honor!"
"Honor? How could you think that? He is trying to push me out! He wants me away from the capital – away from Father! He wants me to have no say in the war effort. He is trying to poison our father against me!"
"Iroh does not do that, darling. He does not indulge in palace intrigues."
"Why do you take his side in this?"
"I am not taking his side. I am on your side – always! But I do not think that there is any venom in Iroh's actions."
"I will not be banished to the Earth Kingdom! I spent four years of my life chasing the Avatar. I will not let Iroh send me away again!"
"You cannot blame Iroh for that. He was at war when your father sent you away."
Ozai looked down at his book, truculence on his features. "Things would be different if I was the first born."
"But you are not. And I, for one, am grateful." She gently turned his face to hers. "I would not like to share you with the Fire Nation as Su Hsing shares Iroh. Our life is so much easier than theirs. And if we are sent to the Earth Kingdom, we will go – as a family. You will be the greatest governor the colonies have ever had, and we will be happy."
"My flower, I have had a thought."
Su Hsing put down her book to stare warily at her husband. "Your thoughts concern me sometimes, my love."
Iroh smiled sweetly. "This thought should put you at ease."
"Oh, yes?" She was still leery.
"I have been thinking of Lan's future."
"How forward thinking of you, my dear. She has only been with us a month."
"Well, those who fail to plan, plan to fail."
"Indeed. Tell me," she shifted to face him fully. "What plans have you made for her?"
"I think that she would be a perfect consort for Zuko."
"Iroh, you are a scoundrel."
The scoundrel in question grinned at his wife as he pulled back the covers to climb in bed. "My dear, what can you mean?"
"You are an inveterate matchmaker."
"Zuko and Lan will make a wonderful match."
"And you can tell this how?"
"Observation of two small children playing in the sand?"
"They play well together."
"Well, I admire the spirit of your plan, dear, but isn't Zuko's marriage a subject for Azulon?"
Iroh's smile grew. "My father can't be bothered with the betrothal of the fourth in line to the throne."
"He arranged our marriage. And Ozai's. And he will arrange Lu Ten's, won't he, when the time comes?"
"Yes, of course, but Lu Ten is in the direct line of succession. It falls to the first in line to the throne to arrange the marriage of all those not close to the succession."
"But Ozai –"
"Ozai was second in line when my father betrothed him to Ursa. Besides, you know he needed a connection to Roku's family."
"And you were already taken."
"But you are to arrange –"
"The marriages of Zuko and Azula, and Lan Chi. And Lu Ten's children, when he has them."
"My, my. You will be busy."
"Did I tell you that my father has approved the adoption officially? The paperwork came today."
Su Hsing smiled and cuddled up to Iroh. "We have a daughter now."
"Without all the fuss of pregnancy and diaper changing and midnight feedings."
"Hmm," Su Hsing became thoughtful, remembering Lu Ten's baby days. She snapped out of her nostalgia. "So you, clever husband, will kill two birds with one stone by betrothing Lan to Zuko."
"It's perfect. You know it has always been my intention for Zuko to be Lu Ten's minister one day, and – "
"Shouldn't you let Lu Ten decide that?"
"It is always best to have a family member as your most trusted advisor."
"As Ozai is for you?" Su Hsing asked nonchalantly.
Iroh chuckled. "Good point. Still, Zuko is no Ozai."
"Thank the spirits for that!"
"And his mother."
"Yes. Ursa's influence is very apparent in Zuko." She shook her head. "It is not as apparent in Azula."
"Azula is, for better or worse, her father's daughter."
"You should find a nice boy for her. A calm boy."
"Yes, I shall. One who lives somewhere outside the capital. I fear Azula will someday be corrupted by the political intrigue should she remain. She has not as strong a moral compass as her brother appears to be developing."
"Had Ozai grown up outside the capital, do you think he would be different?"
"I think, had our mother lived, he would be different. As it stands, he is very – troubled."
They were both silent for a moment, then Su Hsing spoke. "I wonder what Ozai's reaction will be to you betrothing Zuko to a girl who is half Water Tribe."
"We won't tell him just yet."
The next day, the weather was again fine, and Iroh and Su Hsing decided that a picnic on the dunes was in order for the children. However, as preparations were completed, Su Hsing found that she was fatigued, so Iroh set out with Ursa and the children. Lu Ten and Ozai had opted to stay at the palace and train together, which pleased Iroh. He knew that Ozai's firebending was peerless, and that Lu Ten would profit from such an exercise.
As the party climbed the dunes, the children ran ahead, Zuko and Lan in front, and Azula, with her shorter legs, bringing up the rear. Zuko reached the top of the dune and grabbed Lan's hand to hoist her up the final feet. Azula needed no help, though, and sprinted past Lan to reach the top before her.
"Look at Zuko," Iroh nudged Ursa. "How chivalrous he is!"
She smiled. "He seems taken with Lan Chi."
Iroh smiled mysteriously.
The adults reached the top of the dune and stopped to admire the view. Ember Island and the ocean were spread out below them, sparkling in the strong spring sun.
"What a beautiful spot!" Ursa exclaimed.
"Let's sit here, shall we?"
Iroh and Ursa set out the picnic, and called the children over to eat. The three of them settled down; Zuko and Azula, their appetites whetted by their long walk and their playtime, ate with gusto, although Lan Chi was not as enthusiastic.
Iroh pushed a sweet bun into Lan Chi's hands. "Eat, little duck. You are much too thin."
"Mama, why does Uncle call Lan a duck? Does she lay eggs?"
Iroh chuckled at Azula's questions. "No, little one. I call her that because her mama was from the Water Tribe."
Azula drew back in horror. "Water Tribe? But they are our enemies! Papa said so!"
Lan watched Azula with sadness, and Ursa put a hand on her shoulder. "Lan is not our enemy, Azula. She is a member of our family now."
"But how can she be a member of our family if she is from the Water Tribe?"
"Families can be made up of all sorts of different people, Azula, darling."
Azula seemed to accept that, although she continued to look at Lan Chi a bit suspiciously.
Iroh slapped his thighs. "Come, children. I will race you to the bottom of the dune." He jumped up and took off, and the children followed quickly.
Ursa watched them with a wistful smile on her face. Iroh seemed so natural with children. She wished that Ozai was like that. He never played with his children. In fact, he never spent time with the children at all unless firebending was involved. Zuko's poor bending was a sore spot for Ozai – secretly, Ursa believed that Ozai was disappointed in his son.
Zuko reached the bottom first, followed by Lan and Azula. They stood and cheered as Iroh puffed to the bottom of the dune.
"Well done, Prince Zuko!" he said, grasping the boy's shoulder. "You are very fleet of foot!"
"Thank you, Uncle!" Zuko bowed.
"Can we race to the top of the next dune, Uncle?" Azula jumped up and down, clapping her hands.
"By all means, Azula! Lead on!"
The little firebender took off, whooping as she began running up the next dune. Zuko followed, but Lan stayed with Iroh, slipping her hand into his.
"Uncle?" She asked quietly. "Am I your – enemy?"
"What? Oh, of course not, little duck."
"But Azula said –"
"She's just a baby, Lan. She doesn't understand."
"Oh." Lan looked unconvinced, but another thought came to her. "Uncle? Should I call you father, as Lu Ten does?"
"If you would like – but you need not. I am pleased to be called Uncle, if that is your preference."
"Well, I have a mother and a father, even though they are in the Spirit World."
"And I can only have one mother and father. But I can have lots of aunts and uncles."
"Yes, indeed." He smiled.
"But may I continue to call Lu Ten my brother? Because I can have lots of brothers, can't I?"
Iroh tried to be serious. "I think that he would like that."
She smiled back at him, and Iroh impulsively drew her into a hug. "You are a dear little girl, Lan Chi." He pressed a kiss into her hair. "Why don't you catch up with Zuko and Azula? I am certain that Azula wants to play with you. Zuko, too."
"Yes, Uncle." She obediently ran after them.
Iroh walked, rather than ran, up the dune. Zuko stood at the top, watching his sister and Lan as they picked flowers and tumbled down the other slope. Their laughter came back up the hill.
"Why aren't you picking flowers with the girls, Zuko?" Iroh asked, laying a hand on his nephew's shoulder.
"Picking flowers is only for girls, Uncle!"
"You say that now, young man, but there will come a day when you will pick flowers, happily, for the girl you love."
Iroh laughed. "Why don't we pick flowers for your mother, then?"
At the end of the weekend, as his brother's family pulled away in their carriage, Iroh hoisted Lan Chi onto his shoulders so that she could see them out of sight.
"Did you like meeting Zuko and Azula, little duck?"
She nodded and he lowered her to the ground. They turned for the house. "Uncle Iroh," she said, "if you are my uncle, and you are also Prince Zuko and Princess Azula's uncle, does that make them my cousins?"
He thought for a moment. Although there was no blood between himself and Lan Chi, nor between Lan Chi and Ozai's family, he did not see the harm in letting Lan Chi think that they were her cousins.
"Would that please you? If they were your cousins?"
"Oh, yes," she had answered with innocent enthusiasm. "Because Lu Ten is my cousin, too, and he is the person in the world I like the best! So cousins must be very good to have."
He smiled and put an affectionate hand on her head. "Then they are your cousins."
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