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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 23 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 22 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 24 (The Spirit Within) 
Zuko, who had been studying at his desk, jumped. He gave Azula a dark look. "Why do you want to know?"
She came over to his desk, leaned on it, and shrugged. "No reason. Just making conversation."
Zuko glared at her. "You never just make conversation. What do you want?"
Her eyes grew big. "Can't a sister care about her brother's life?"
"A normal sister can. You can't."
"Oh, Zu-zu, you're so funny."
Zuko pushed back from his desk and folded his arms. "Give over, Azula. What do you really want?"
She looked at him for a long while, then sighed and rolled her eyes. "Oh, fine! Father says that there will be a ball after the genbuku."
"Mai and Ty Lee want to come."
It was Zuko's turn to roll his eyes. "Why do I want your dumb friends at my genbuku?"
"Well, you used to like Mai."
Zuko colored and turned back to his books. "I don't like her now."
Azula smiled, sensing Zuko's discomfort. "Ooh, Zu-zu! Who do you like?"
He grew redder, and hunched over his book so that Azula could not see his face. "No one." He mumbled.
He turned to face her. "I'm not lying, Azula! You're the liar!"
"That doesn't even make sense. You are so dumb."
"Leave me alone."
"I will. As soon as you tell me who you like."
"I don't like anyone! Now go away!"
Realization dawned on Azula suddenly, and she gasped. "You still like Lan Chi, don't you?"
"No! Now go away!" His face was mottled with rage.
"Zuko, you can't like her! She's a freak!" Azula was genuinely aghast.
He stood and gave her a shove. "Don't call her that!"
She shoved him back. "Why not? It's true! She's a mistake, Zuko. She's the result of a firebender and a Water Tribe woman. She's barely even human."
Zuko pointed at his door. "Get out!"
She looked at him, loathing on her features. "I should have known." She sneered. "You're a freak, too! A freak and a failure, and the world's worst firebender, and you're going to make a fool out of yourself at your own genbuku!" She ran off, slamming the door just as Zuko's fireball hit it.
Lan and Zuko, true to their respective words, each went out of the way in order to avoid the other, each to obey Iroh. They neither one of them wanted to disobey their uncle, but, young love, unfortunately, was often unruly and disobedient, and destiny, as Iroh well knew, often had desires different than the plans of man.
So it was on another cool day in the Fire Nation, as the winter solstice approached, that they both broke their promises.
Days were short and getting shorter, the nights were chilly, and Iroh was drinking much more tea than usual, in an effort to ward off the extra chill. Although he could regulate his body temperature, he noticed, as he grew older, that it became more of an effort to do so; he found that tea warmed him just as well, and had the added benefit of being tasty and aromatic.
Lan, as had been her won't while Iroh was in Ba Sing Se, was purchasing and blending his teas again. So, on this late autumn day, she was walking to the open market, basket over her forearm, with the intention of replenishing her uncle's tea supply. It was a beautiful morning, and the fifteen-minute walk was no burden at all. She was using this time to indulge in daydreams about Zuko, since it was obvious that dreams were all that she would ever have of the prince.
She did not hear her name being called, so deep was she in her reverie.
"Lan Chi! Lady Lan Chi!"
Finally it penetrated her head, and she turned to see who had called her.
"Stop the palanquin!" A draped palanquin lurched to a stop next to her and the curtain pulled back.
"Hi, Lan." Zuko grinned at her.
"Zuko!" It was as if her thoughts had conjured him.
"Where are you going?"
She indicated the basket she carried over her arm. "The open market."
"Me, too! You want a ride?" Although he knew that to ask her was to court calamity, he pushed aside those rational thoughts. They were far enough from the prying eyes in the palace, he reasoned, that is was relatively safe.
Her eyes widened and she raised her hands, fingers spread, palms out. "No, no. Really. I'm fine. I'll walk." Having said that, she turned and began walking away briskly.
He jumped down from the palanquin and grabbed her arm, though not harshly. "Why not?"
She grimaced. "I just want to – to walk."
His grin turned to mischief. "Are you afraid of riding with me in a covered palanquin?"
That got her ire up, and she ignored the alarm bells in her head. "What? No! I'm not afraid of anything."
Her eyes narrowed, and her chin lifted. "All right."
His smile grew. "Great. Come on."
He practically dragged her into the palanquin and closed the curtains, shutting them in an intimate cocoon. The palanquin was decorated with the royal family's crest, and its pink fabric drapery gave the interior a rosy glow.
Lan Chi, who had strategically placed the empty basket between her and Zuko, was dismayed when he shifted it to the other side of him and slid closer to her.
"Why are you going to the market?" He was very close to her.
"Um," she was distracted by his nearness – the scent of the soap he used, the scent of his clothes, his slightly musky scent. "Uncle needs more tea."
"He drinks more tea than anyone I have ever met." In this light, his eyes took on a dusky color.
She could not take her own eyes off him. "Me, too."
"I don't even think he drinks plain water."
She shook her head. "Me, neither." She knew that her words were inane, but her mind wouldn't function properly. She licked her lips, which were suddenly dry. "Wh – why are you going?"
He shrugged and leaned back, stretching his legs in front of him. "Jiao Ao says that I should pick out a new dagger. He says that the one I have been using is too small for my hand now." As if to illustrate, he splayed his hand before her. It was large, with long, elegantly tapered fingers, and neatly rounded nails. She wanted to take hold of it, feel its warmth, and bring it to her cheek, but she dared not.
He lowered his hand slowly, and looked at her intently. She stared back, tongue tied, until the moment became awkward. He dropped his eyes, a slight tint to his cheeks. "S – so," he stammered, "I haven't see you since I tried to ride Xuan."
She grabbed onto that as a safe subject. "Oh, right! Have you recovered?"
His gawkiness disappeared and he smiled again. "Oh, yeah. But look." He turned the left side of his face to her. "I have a scar."
Indeed, there was a small, thin line, about an inch long, between his eye and his ear.
She touched it, laying her fingers against it for a long moment. "Very manly."
"Thank you." He looked uncertain for a moment. "You never told Uncle about that?"
"I promised that I wouldn't." She frowned.
"Don't you tell Uncle everything?"
"I try to. But, if someone tells me a secret and asks me not to tell him – and it's not a dangerous secret, of course, then I won't tell him."
Zuko sat up again, and turned his body to hers, legs crossed in front of him. "Good, because I want to tell you a secret. But you can't ever tell him."
"Okay. You sure it's not anything dangerous? Like you want to ride a Komodo rhino bareback?"
He shook his head. "You promise not to tell him?"
Her face was solemn. "I won't tell him."
"Good." He looked around them, as if expecting to see a face in the corner. "Come here." He wagged his forefinger, beckoning her closer.
"Zuko! There's no one here. No one is listening."
"You can't be too sure. Come closer." He put his head near hers, and she followed suit until his lips were almost touching her ear.
Then, in a split second, his arms were around her and his lips pressed against hers.
Shock and pleasure warred within Lan until pleasure won out. She kissed him back, all the dreaming and imagining this event giving her boldness. Then, fortunately, reason forced desire back down, and she pushed him away, an astonished look on her face. His face mirrored the same emotion. "I have to go." She started to scramble out of the palanquin, but he stopped her with a hand around her upper arm.
"Zuko, I can't be here. We can't do this. We just can't!"
"Why?" He wanted her to say it – he wanted her to say what he suspected – that Uncle had told her, as well, to stay away.
"Because? That's not much of a reason!"
He still had her arm. "Let me go. I have to go."
His grip did not loosen. "I thought you liked me!"
She put her free hand on her head and gave a growl of frustration. "I do like you, but –"
"Then why won't you stay?"
"I – I just can't!"
"Oooh! Boys are so stupid!"
He finally dropped her arm. "I'm stupid? You just said you like me but you won't stay and you won't tell me why!" His face was dark. "If boys are stupid, then girls are crazy!"
Her face turned red. "Well, if I'm crazy, then I'll go!"
"You already said you were going, so fine! Go!" He crossed his arms mulishly.
"Fine! I will! Stop the palanquin!"
"I will! Stop the palanquin!" He shouted to his bearers.
It stopped suddenly, and Lan, on her knees attempting to exit, was hurled forward, out the curtains, and onto the street. With embarrassment coloring her entire body, she sprang up, unhurt, but fuming.
Zuko, unseen by Lan, watched her fall with horror, and jumped out after her. "Lan, are you all right?" He cupped her elbow solicitously.
She jerked away from him. "Yes! I'm fine! Now just leave me alone!"
His face turned red. "Fine!"
"Fine!" She shouted as he hopped back into the palanquin. He ordered the vehicle forward and was gone.
She watched the palanquin go with a mixture of anger and regret, and then realized that she was missing something. "Oh, he's got my basket." She sighed, and turned back towards home, all joy in the day gone.
Later that afternoon, Lan was curled up on the window seat, watching the leaves drift off the cherry tree, and feeling as dead as they. Fighting with Zuko was infinitely worse than not seeing him at all, and she had been holding back tears for hours.
There was a knock on the door, and Jianyu passed her to answer it. He came back just a few minutes later with a basket, which he set down beside her. She sat up and looked at it in amazement. It was her basket, filled with bags of tea.
"This is for you, my lady. It was just delivered."
A smile crept over her face. "For me?"
"Yes. This accompanied it." He held out a sealed letter, and she took it from him wonderingly. Jianyu bowed, and left her to open it alone.
She broke the seal with shaking fingers and unfolded the paper.
I'm sorry for what happened earlier. It was my fault. Please don't be angry with me. I could not bear it.
P.S. I hope that Uncle likes this tea.
She smiled, and ran her fingers over the lettering. This was the only letter she had ever received from Zuko, and she intended to cherish it forever. And he was not angry. In fact, he begged her forgiveness.
The day seemed suddenly brighter, and Lan leaned back against the pillows, happy – and hopeful.
The weeks went by, and the days began getting longer. Although Lan did not see Zuko during this time, she contented herself with re-reading the letter, and imagining him writing it. Choosing the brush, spreading the paper, dipping the brush in the ink, sanding the letter to remove excess ink. Every mundane task involved in letter writing seemed magical when she imagined Zuko doing it. Imagining him choosing the words with care, imagining a slight smile as he wrote the endearment yours always. She wished it was true – that he would be hers always.
Lan's time was not all occupied with thoughts of Zuko, however, Her education in Fire Nation etiquette and protocol was continuing, with Madame Nushi bringing in a dancing master, Bengzhou, to teach her the finer points of genteel Fire Nation dances.
"I thought we are not supposed to dance." Lan Chi said as Bengzhou pushed back the tea table in the sitting room.
He smiled and stood. "Ah, well, generally, the Fire Lord does not allow dancing. However, in the colonies, and, of course, at royally sponsored events, dancing is permitted."
Madame Nushi came up behind Lan Chi and struck her in the small of the back with the sticks of her fan. "You're slouching. Stand up straight."
"Yes, Ma'am." Lan did as she was bade. "So, what am I learning? The camelephant strut?"
Both adults looked at her with horror. "Oh, spirits no!" Madame Nushi shuddered. "That is a peasant dance. No, you will be learning the royal dances."
Lan looked unconvinced. "There are royal dances?"
"Of course. The palace dance, the courtship dance –"
"The courtship dance?"
"The most elegant of dances," the dancing master sniffed. "And, of course, the feather dance –"
Madame Nushi gave a squeak of alarm. "You are not teaching her the feather dance! General Iroh will not permit it!"
The master looked confused. "Why not? All young women learn it."
"I do not know about that!" Madame Nushi seemed genuinely offended.
Lan, who had watched this interchange with confusion, broke in. "What's the feather dance?"
Madame Nushi was flustered. "It's also called the concubine's dance."
Lan flushed a deep red. "C – concubine's dance?"
Madame Nushi waved a hand at her. "It's not so bad, really, it's just that – well, it's a dance of seduction, to be performed by a wife for her husband, and since you are only thirteen," she shot the dancing master a dark look, "I do not think it appropriate."
Bengzhou shrugged. "Fine. Don't blame me if her husband has dozens of concubines."
"Oh, Bengzhou, you are exasperating. She is not even betrothed yet."
He registered surprise. "Not betrothed? What is your uncle waiting for, young lady? Your first gray hair?"
Madame Nushi squeaked again and struck him with her deadly fan. "Keep your opinions to yourself, you mewling half-man! We are not paying you for your commentary."
Bengzhou bristled. "Well! Perhaps I won't teach her anything, then."
"Yes, you most certainly will. General Iroh paid you in advance, so start dancing!"
Despite the insults, Bengzhou did indeed teach Lan the formal dances, including the palace dance, the courtship dance, and the battle victory dance, which were all partner dances.
At the end of the week, Bengzhou proclaimed himself satisfied with her progress. "At least you won't embarrass yourself at Prince Zuko's genbuku."
"What?" Lan knew nothing about dancing at the genbuku!
"The Fire Lord is throwing a ball afterwards to celebrate Prince Zuko's coming of age." Madame Nushi smiled. "General Iroh thinks that there will be scores of eligible boys there to introduce to you."
Lan felt vaguely sick to her stomach. "He does?"
"Oh, yes! Perhaps you will even see the man of your dreams there."
Lan cast her eyes down, inexplicably sad. "I am certain that I will, Madame Nushi." But she certainly would not be able to dance with him.
Prince Zuko, too, was busy, he with preparations for his genbuku. He had taken to rising earlier than usual and going out while the sun was still asleep to practice his firebending. He enjoyed seeing his fire light up the early morning sky, and liked watching it become stronger as sunrise neared.
His uncle had been teaching him increasingly harder forms, and Zuko had been having more trouble than he would have liked to admit. Although his firebending had improved greatly since his uncle had returned, his lack of faith in his own ability, and his turmoil over his relationship with Lan Chi, still prevented him from realizing his true potential.
He kept his word to himself that he would try to be the model student in both swords and firebending, and neither of his teachers could ask for more effort from the young man. However, the fact that he excelled much more in mastery of the sword than in mastery of firebending was a great concern to both him and Iroh.
However, although he would have liked to have spent all his free time practicing for the genbuku, his sister and father had different plans for him.
Azula, painfully aware that there would be dancing at her brother's genbuku, and painfully aware that she had never danced a step in her life, had requested, from her father, her own dancing master, and he had obliged, although he set one caveat: Zuko must learn, as well. So, that was how Azula and her less-than-willing brother had ended up in the great ballroom of the palace, standing before their new dancing master, Master Hanzi.
"First of all, allow me to say how honored I am to be able to teach you the formal dances of the Fire Nation." Hanzi smiled at the siblings.
Azula examined her cuticles. "Of course you are."
Zuko rolled his eyes.
"Now, your highnesses, the first dance we are going to learn is the courtship dance."
Zuko looked at the man with disgust. "What? I am not going to dance a courtship dance with my sister!"
Azula frowned at him. "Don't think I want this any more than you do, Zu-zu. Father is forcing me to dance with you."
"Yes," Hanzi wagged a finger at them, "and since it is the Fire Lord's will –" he stopped and wagged his finger more emphatically.
Zuko sighed aggrievedly. "Let's get on with this. I have to get back to training."
The dancing master arranged them so that faced each other, and showed them the first steps of the dance, which included the dancers circling one another whilst holding the other's wrist, and then circling back. They repeated the move several times, and moved onto the next set of steps, which consisted of the mirror images of the first set of moves. Although the dance master was calling out the steps as the siblings danced, Zuko missed a turn and accidentally trod on Azula's foot.
"Ouch! You stepped on me, you clod!" She shoved him.
"Sorry, Azula. I didn't see your giant foot."
"You are so clumsy! You'll probably set the palace on fire at the genbuku – or cut someone's head off with your stupid swords!"
"Are you volunteering?" He snarled.
She gave him an evil smile, and Zuko felt the temperature increase where her hand was in contact with his wrist.
"Let go!" He tried to tug his arm away from her.
"What's the matter, Suck-o? Can't stand the heat?"
He twisted his arm, released himself, and caught her wrist in a firm grip.
The dancing master, noticing that his pupils had stopped dancing and started grappling, stamped his foot in an attempt to regain control. It did little good, however.
"Let go." Azula's voice was low and calm.
"Make me." Zuko's voice matched hers.
She reached up behind her brother and grabbed his queue. "If you want to keep your pretty hair, Brother, you'll let me go."
"Children!" Iroh's voice caused them to spring apart. "What is the meaning of this?"
Azula turned a saccharine smile on him. "Just dancing, Uncle. Right, Zu-zu?"
Zuko gave his sister a searing look. "Yes, Uncle, just dancing."
His look was knowing. "Then please make it look less like combat."
"Yes, Sir." Zuko bowed.
"Wrap this lesson up, please, Hanzi. Prince Zuko needs to work on his firebending."
The dancing master bowed to Iroh. "Yes, General Iroh." He turned to Zuko and Azula. "We have not finished here. We will meet again tomorrow, at this same time."
Azula smiled at her brother. "I can't wait."
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