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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 21 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 20 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 22 (The Spirit Within) 
She was holding onto two ostrich horses, and he realized that what she was wearing was a riding habit. She was probably going riding with Uncle, but, craning his neck, Zuko could see no sign of Iroh.
Zuko decided that fortune smiles on the bold, and he chose to be bold. He took off at a run and was at the door to the courtyard in under a minute. Taking time to catch his breath and smooth back his hair, he ran through, in his head, things to say to her.
Hello, Lan. You look – incredible. No – that was a little creepy. Hi, Lan. Remember me? The boy you spent an hour kissing? Oh, spirits, no. Try again. Hello, Lan – will you marry me?
"Wait, Zuko!" He murmured. Where did that come from? He asked himself. That was definitely much too creepy.
He shook his head. He would say nothing like that. Instead, he would be aloof, and act as if he didn't care. That would drive her crazy!
He took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the courtyard.
Lan Chi stood in the back courtyard of the palace a little over a month after her return, holding the reins of her own ostrich-horse and Uncle Iroh's new stallion, Xuan. They were to go riding after Iroh completed some business, and she was dressed in a new riding habit, part of the entirely new wardrobe that Iroh had insisted upon buying her. The habit was another of the odd colors that Iroh had requested from Fan and Tong – a fiery orange with a dark blue trim. It was very striking, especially with Lan Chi's hair, and she had already received some looks from guards and bureaucrats who had passed her by. Whether they found her attractive or just garish, she did not know. She had protested to Iroh that the habit was much too expensive, but he had waved off her objections. Ever since he had returned to find her at the Royal Academy for Girls, he had been trying to spoil her, to make that experience up to her.
She absently stroked Xuan's silky neck, in an attempt to keep the high-strung animal calm. The back courtyard, which connected the stables to the palace proper, was a bustling hub of palace activity, and Xuan did not like the noise or the people or the rhinos or the other horses. He was a gorgeous, highly bred ostrich-horse, with feathers as black as ink, and long, well-formed legs, along with wicked claws. Although Lan was an excellent horsewoman, having been taught by Lu Ten when she was young, she was not comfortable around this temperamental thoroughbred.
"What a magnificent horse." The voice that came from behind her was familiar, and she turned slowly, her heartbeat thumping loudly in her ears.
Zuko! She flushed, remembering the last time they had seen each other, months before – when she had run away, and they had shared stolen kisses in her bedchamber. Since coming home, she had taken pains to avoid him. This was not easy with Uncle Iroh instructing him in firebending – especially when Zuko came to their house to see his uncle. Whenever she heard the bell at the gate, she disappeared into her room and waited until she was sure he had gone. She hadn't even had the courage to steal a look at him. She had not wanted to take a chance that, upon seeing him, she would run up to him and confess her undying love.
She really had meant what she had said to Hua when she came home. She was through with the royal family, outside of Iroh, of course. She wanted nothing to do with any of them. They were just too – dangerous.
Even though she had vowed to stay away from him, she was not going to throw away this opportunity to see him.
He had grown, even since she had seen him last. He was at least two inches inches taller, and she thought she could see darkening hair over his lip. His face now began to look a bit more chiseled, although there was still a little bit of childhood softness left in his cheeks. His hair was as dark as Xuan's feathers, and was still held in a queue that swung freely behind him. His eyes, if anything, were more striking than she remembered – golden, like a tiger's. He was lean, and in the simple red uniform that he wore, he appeared rangy and well-built. There was about him a strange air of intensity and insouciance at the same time, as if he expected something bad to happen to him, but was rushing heedlessly along towards that tragedy anyway.
She bowed. "Good day, your highness." She was proud that her voice sounded so calm.
Zuko laid a tentative hand on Xuan's flank. He looked at Lan briefly. "Hello, Lan Chi." Whatever he remembered about their last encounter, he did not mention it. "This is a beautiful animal. Is it yours?"
She shook her head. "No. It's Uncle Iroh's newest acquisition."
His eyes ran over the horse. "He's gorgeous. Have you ridden him?"
"Ah, no. I can't control him. He's much too big."
"Do you think I can ride him?"
"Do I think you can or do I think you should?"
He looked at her for a long moment. "I want to ride him, Lan."
"He's very strong, Prince Zuko," she cautioned.
"Are you saying that I wouldn't be able to control him?" She couldn't tell if the glimmer in his eyes was teasing or anger.
"I'm saying – don't expect sympathy from me if he throws you."
"I won't need sympathy. I'll need you to compliment me on the brilliance of my equestrian skills."
She laughed. "You think highly of yourself!"
"I ride every day on the finest ostrich-horses in the land. Horses from the royal stable. I think I can handle Uncle's nag."
"I thought you said he was magnificent."
"Uncle's magnificent nag."
"Uncle Iroh will kill me if I let anything happen to this horse!"
"Nothing will happen."
"It's hard for even Uncle to handle him."
Hmph." He folded his arms across his chest.
She sighed. "Far be it from me to deny the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation the chance to break his foolish neck."
"I won't break my neck."
"Hmph." She mimicked him.
He raised an eyebrow at her, but mounted the horse nonetheless, as Lan held the reins. The horse began shying as soon as Zuko was seated in the saddle, and Lan continued to hold on until the Prince had settled the animal.
"You can release me now."
"Are you sure?"
He gave her a withering look. She released the reins and backed away. The horse remained still, then, with urging from Zuko, trotted forward, more calmly than Lan would have expected.
"He's not so hard to handle," Zuko said smugly. The animal cantered around the courtyard, and Lan had to admire Zuko's riding skills. He had immediately found the horse's rhythm.
"See, the horse knows who is in charge," he said to her as he came around. "If you let the animal know who is master, you will have no trouble." The horse lurched to the side, and Lan jumped back.
"And which of you is master?" She asked.
"Ha. Ha. Very funny."
Xuan trotted by a tree, and lifted its head high to grab some leaves, but Zuko pulled on the bridle to discourage him. This angered the animal, and it began to shuffle back and forth. The Prince attempted to bring him back under control, but, instead, the animal began to prance around in tight circles.
"Prince Zuko! Pull up the reins more!"
He did that, but the animal retaliated by bending its knees and extending its wings, then pitching forward at a steep angle. Zuko was thrown over the horse's head and onto the ground. Luckily, instead of trampling on Zuko, the horse backed away with prancing, mincing steps.
"Zuko!" Lan unconsciously dropped his title in her panic. She let her own horse go, and sprinted to Zuko's side. She dropped onto her knees beside him and put her hands on his face. His eyes were closed, and she had a moment of dread. Oh, no! She had allowed the heir to the throne to be killed!
"Zuko! Oh, Zuko! Are you all right?" She had no idea what to do. Try to move him? Call for help?
He slowly opened his eyes. "Am I alive?"
She sat back on her haunches. "Thank the spirits. Can you sit up?"
"I – I think so." He propped himself up on his elbows.
She impulsively leaned forward and hugged him. "Are you hurt? I was so worried!"
He closed his eyes for a brief moment as she held him against her, and smiled. "I thought you said not to expect sympathy from you."
She colored and pulled back. "That was before you almost killed yourself! You nincompoop!"
"I did not almost kill myself. I – I miscalculated. And don't call me a nincompoop. I'm the Prince."
A small laugh bubbled up inside her, and she covered her mouth with her hands.
"Are you laughing at me?" He was indignant.
"No, Zuko, it's just – I told you he was hard to control."
A thunderous look came over the Prince's face. "He caught me by surprise." The words came from between clenched teeth.
"Oh, Zuko, you are hurt!" There was a long cut by his left eye that was oozing blood. She touched it gingerly.
"Ouch!" His hand came up to grab hers, and she snatched her fingers away.
"Let me get some water." She ran to get her water skin from the saddlebag, and came back with a handkerchief, as well. She poured water on the cloth and gently dabbed at the cut.
"Does that hurt?"
He shook his head, his eyes fixed on her face. "I haven't seen you since you came back," his voice was soft, but accusing.
Her heart skipped a beat, and she looked away.. "I – I've been busy."
"I come to Uncle's house all the time. You're never there."
"I'm – out a lot, I guess."
"Busy." It was an excuse, and he knew it.
"Yes." Embarrassed, she shoved the handkerchief into his hand. "I'm glad you're not hurt. I couldn't stand to be sent to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls again."
"What do you mean?"
She smiled without mirth. "Nothing. Never mind. I was joking."
"You really hated that place, didn't you?"
She shrugged. "It wasn't the happiest time of my life." She stood.
"Was Azula really mean to you?"
She gave another joyless smile. "No more so than usual." She extended her hands to help him to his feet. "But let's just say that she's not my favorite cousin. If she had been thrown from a horse, I don't know how quickly I would have run to help. Can you stand up?"
He allowed her to pull him to his feet. "So that makes me your favorite cousin by default? Wow, are you strong for a girl!" He kept her hands in his.
"Thank you, I think. I consider you my only cousin. I have to catch Uncle's horse." She pulled her hands away.
"I'll do it." As he walked towards Xuan, who had found another tree to denude, the prince was limping.
"You hurt your leg."
"I'll survive." The horse looked at him suspiciously from the corner of its eye, and Zuko stopped. When the horse turned back to his meal, Zuko sidled up beside him, and snatched the reins before the animal could react. Xuan tried to pull away, but Zuko held firm, and soon had him under control.
He walked the animal over to Lan. "Thanks," she smiled.
"You're welcome. Hey, do you want to go riding some time? I promise I'll ride a more docile horse."
She colored and cast her eyes to the ground. "I don't think that would be a good idea."
His face turned red, offended. "Why not?"
She ran a hand over her face, discomfited. "Zuko, you know your father doesn't approve of me. I don't think he would like us going riding together."
He did not expect that answer. "What do you mean doesn't approve of you? You think he doesn't like you? Of course he does!" He scoffed.
"No, he really doesn't."
"Why would you say he doesn't approve of you?" He was incredulous.
"I'm a half-breed." Zuko blushed, remembering that he, too, had called her that on the night of Azulon's funeral. "Not even as well-bred as Uncle Iroh's horse." She patted the horse's side.
"I'm sorry – I called you that once."
She smiled. "It's okay, Zuko. It was a very long time ago. Besides, the names don't bother me anymore. I'm used to them."
"I'm still sorry. I shouldn't have called you that. I was – upset, but I still shouldn't have said it."
"It's okay, really." She thrust Xuan's reins at him and walked over to grab her horse.
He followed. "And I'm sorry for my father, too."
"But I really don't think he dislikes you because your mother was Water Tribe."
"Well, there was also that whole spending the night together in your bedroom that he still holds against me."
Zuko flushed. "He never knew about that. You were gone when I woke up."
She colored painfully. "He found us together, Zuko."
"What?" Zuko looked off into the distance. "I never knew." He looked back at her. "Why didn't he ever tell me?"
"I don't know." She put a hand on his arm. "But, do me a favor, please. Don't tell him you know. He kept it a secret from you for a reason, and I really don't want to relive the whole experience."
"But I want to know why he never told me."
"But I'll get in trouble again because I just told you now. Please don't talk to your father about this. Or Azula."
"Azula? I'd never tell Azula. Telling her is like telling Dad."
"Thank you." She realized her hand was still on his arm, and she yanked it away.
He absently stroked Xuan's feathers. "I'm sorry if you got in trouble."
She shrugged with one shoulder. "It's okay."
"Does Uncle know about what happened?"
"Yeah. He already knows all about it."
"Don't tell him – about this, okay?"
"About this conversation? I won't."
"No, I mean – don't tell him I tried to ride his horse. It was a stupid thing to do, and he's been trying to teach me about thinking things through and making the right decisions."
"Oh. Okay. Sure."
"And – let me know if you change your mind about going riding with me."
"I won't, but...thanks for asking me, Zuko."
A small, wistful smile curled his lips. "You're welcome." They stared at each other for a long time, and Zuko's hand drifted from Xuan's side to her cheek. Her heart jumped several beats. "Lan, I –"
"Prince Zuko!" A jolly voice came from behind them, causing them both to jump, and Zuko to drop his hand guiltily. Uncle Iroh came bustling over.
"What a pleasure to see you, Prince Zuko! Were you admiring my new stallion?"
Zuko stole a glance at Lan Chi. "Um, yes, Uncle. He's quite – spirited."
"The breeder I got him from had another, a little larger than this. Would you like me to buy it for your genbuku?"
Lan's jaw dropped and she looked at Zuko, who was blushing. "Zuko! Your genbuku? When is it? Have you set a date?"
Genbuku, the traditional coming of age ceremony for Fire Nation boys, was supposed to be between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, and Lan had forgotten all about it! It was a ceremony in which young firebenders were supposed to present their firebending skills, and young non-benders were supposed to present their skill in martial arts.
"Well," Zuko's eyes slid to Uncle Iroh's for confirmation. "Uncle said that I could probably be ready in less than a half a year."
"Oh, Zuko!" Lan smiled, genuinely excited for him. "That's wonderful!" She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "Are you excited?"
He held on to her fingers, a fact that did not escape his uncle. "I have a lot to do, but, yeah. I'm excited. You'll come, won't you?" He asked her earnestly.
She looked at Iroh in a panic, but he nodded. "Of course, Zuko!" Iroh answered for her. "We would not miss it for the world."
She looked back at Zuko and smiled. "Not for the world," she repeated softly.
Iroh clapped Zuko on the shoulder. "You'll be a man."
Zuko blushed a deeper red, as did Lan Chi.
"So, Prince Zuko, shall I reserve that stallion for you?" Uncle smiled.
"Uh, no, Uncle. Thank you, but I don't think we would have room in the stables for another horse right now."
"Don't make the decision too hastily, nephew. Would you like to take Xuan out for a ride sometime?"
"No! I mean, no, thank you, Uncle."
"Well, if you change your mind about the other stallion, let me know."
"Yes, Uncle. I will." Zuko was ruddy all the way up to his ears.
"Good boy." He turned to Lan. "Shall we go, Lady Lan Chi?"
Zuko reluctantly dropped Lan's hand. "I'll help you mount, Lan."
It was Lan Chi's chance to blush. Zuko brought a mounting stool over, and, offering Lan his fingers, she climbed it. When she reached the top step, she dropped his hand and turned to face him, on the bottom step. He put his hands on her waist and lifted her up into the saddle, as if she weighed nothing. He allowed his hands to remain there overly long. She stole a look at him; his face and his eyes were solemn as he stared at her.
Iroh cleared his throat, and Zuko stepped back, steadying the horse as she gathered the reins. She and Uncle turned towards the city gate, and Lan twisted in the saddle to get one last look at Zuko. He lifted his hand, and noticed that he still had her handkerchief clutched in his fist. He tucked it inside his tunic.
Iroh waited until the gate closed behind them to speak. "So Zuko was thrown from the horse?"
Lan whirled on him, her eyes huge. "You saw?"
Iroh chuckled. "No. I made an educated guess. He has a cut on his temple. He was favoring one leg as he stood. Also – he has a rip in his pants."
"He didn't want you to know." She turned the horse carefully around a parked carriage.
"Prince Zuko is a very proud young man. And a very foolhardy one." He glanced at her sideways, and she blushed. "However, he is also kind, and loyal. I think that he will make an excellent Fire Lord someday."
She looked down at her hands, gripping the reins tightly. "I think so, too."
"I will have to talk to him, though, Lan. You know that I will." Iroh navigated a group of people.
She looked at him when they came back together, beseeching him. "Please don't, Uncle. I won't see him again. I promise! I didn't plan to meet him today. It was just a coincidence. Look, I've avoided him for the past month. I won't see him again."
"Do you plan on avoiding him the rest of your life?" They turned into the park, their destination.
She looked miserable. "He'll get over me soon enough. Or maybe Ozai will betroth him to someone soon."
Iroh was taken aback. "Is that what you want?"
She was exasperated. "No! That's not what I want! I don't want any of this mess! But it's not my decision, is it? I don't get to make the decisions! I don't get to decide who I marry, do I? Because, if I did, it would be Zuko!" She slapped the end of the reins against the horse's neck, and he leapt forward.
Iroh caught up with little difficulty. "Lan, please, calm down. You must understand – things look dark now, but you are only thirteen. I fell in and out of love a dozen times before I met your aunt."
"Well, that's you, Uncle. I've been in love with Zuko since Lu Ten died. And that's a long time."
She reined her horse in and stopped to look at him, and he did the same. "Stop it! Stop saying I'm sorry all the time for this. It doesn't make me feel any better."
"What can I do to make you feel better?"
"Just – just leave me alone." She gave her horse the signal to gallop, and it shot forward, leaving Iroh to stare after them.
She let the horse have his head and they streaked the length and breadth of the park, until the poor bird slowed to a walk, by a large lake. Lan Chi slid out of the saddle and led him to drink. As he drank, she sank down on the bank and stared at the turtleducks as they floated lazily on the water.
The tears started, then, and she let them come without check. She had thought that all her troubles would be over if she just left the Academy, but she had simply traded one set of problems for another. And these problems were harder – they were worse. These were worse, because they were without end. At least, at school, there was always the knowledge that, some day, she would graduate and escape. But Uncle Iroh was right – she could not avoid Zuko her entire life. And even when he was safely married to someone else, there would be no escape for her, because she would still be without him.
The horse finished its respite, finally, and tugged on the reins to be off again. She stood up wearily and looked up – and up, at the saddle. Spirits! How was she going to get back into the saddle?
With a dejected sigh, she led the horse back home.
Although Lan Chi's day was ruined by her encounter with Zuko, Zuko's day was wonderful. After watching Lan and Iroh ride away, he stood there a few minutes, eyes not leaving the spot that where they disappeared. He thought over and over again about how her waist felt beneath his hands, the softness of her hands, the feel of her body against his when she hugged him, the flush of her cheek beneath his fingers. Her scent, of lilacs and ginger, intoxicated him. He had wanted nothing more than to drag her behind the stables and kiss her until they were both senseless.
A fluttering in his abdomen told her that these feelings were serious, indeed. He had never felt this way around another girl before. He had liked Mai – it was true – but he had lost interest quickly, and, besides, it had not been like this. This inability to think of anything other than Lan, this desire to see her smile, this yearning to touch her – just to brush his fingers against her arm – it was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
He turned, and made his way back into the palace, not even remembering where he had been going earlier, before he had seen her. Before he had seen her standing there – before he had realized that he did not want to live another day on Earth without her. His stomach jumped again just thinking these thoughts, and he wondered if she felt the same way.
She must! He thought. She can't not feel this way! He smiled. She felt the same. He was certain. Now he just had to get her to confess it. Or, if not, at least get her to kiss him again.
And, then, get her to marry him – someday.
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