|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 24 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 23 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 25 (The Spirit Within) 
"It's beautiful, Hua."
"If we want use a nice scarlet for the panels, it will be very impressive."
"Hua Chun! My best customer! How have you been?" The proprietor of the embroidery shop greeted the housekeeper warmly.
Hua and Lan had come to the open market for the express purpose of visiting the embroidery shop where Hua had been purchasing her threads and fabrics for years. Lan Chi had completed the dragon embroidery on her robe the day before, and Iroh had been so delighted by it that he had suggested that the sofa in the sitting room be re-upholstered with silk, with inlaid panels of embroidered dragons created by Hua and Lan.
Hua smiled at the man. "We have quite a little embroideress in Lady Lan Chi, Bu. She embroidered the most exquisite dragon on one of her robes, and General Iroh would like us to embellish the sofa with the same dragons. We were thinking of using golden thread on red silk."
Bu nodded. "Sounds lovely."
Lan Chi smiled at him, and handed him the thread. "Don't believe her, Bu. Hua helped me with the dragon – a lot."
Bu chuckled. "Well, you can call it a collaborative effort."
"It is beautiful, though. Hua is right. It's a blue dragon on a yellow robe that's trimmed in midnight blue." Lan's eyes were shining.
"Sounds beautiful. Do you want to see some other shades of gold for the dragon's wings?"
Lan nodded. "Yes. We should have at least three shades of gold, I think. Right, Hua?"
"That is a good idea, my lady."
Bu rooted around in the drawers behind his counter for other colors, and Lan turned to Hua. "I think I should wear the robe to Prince Zuko's genbuku. What do you think, Hua?"
Hua nodded. "You'll be a picture, there's no doubt, my lady."
At the word genbuku, Bu looked up. "Did you say you're going to a genbuku?" At Lan's nod, he pointed at her. "I have just the thing. Got them in yesterday." He disappeared into a back room, and returned moments later with a pile of cloths. He laid them on the counter in front of the two women.
"What's this?" Lan picked up the edge of one. It was a panel of blood red silk about three feet long, and a foot and a half wide.
He smiled, picked it up, and held it out for her to see. "It's an agni kai drape, ready for embroidery. Perfect for a genbuku gift."
Lan's eyes widened. "An agni kai drape? For genbuku?"
Hua nodded. "Oh, yes, my lady. They used to be the traditional gift for the genbuku."
"Perfect for a brother or a sweetheart. You can embroider anything you like on it – a dragon, perhaps."
Lan's brain was whirling with possibilities. She had not purchased a gift for Zuko for his coming of age; she had not even thought of a gift. This seemed to be an answer to a question she had not yet asked. And it was a present that she could pour her heart and soul into – something that symbolized her love for him, at least to her. He might never know her feelings, but it would be embodied in an agni kai drape, if nowhere else
Hua looked at her curiously. "My lady, what are you thinking?"
Lan grinned at Bu. "I'll take one, Bu. And the gold thread." She turned to Hua. "The sofa will have to wait."
Zuko was in a fervor preparing for his coming of age, but his mind was never far from Lan Chi. Although he had not seen her since her fall from the palanquin, he hoped that the basketful of tea and the apology letter had done their jobs, since both were meant sincerely.
He tried to push her out of his mind, as Uncle had asked, but he was never successful, and he came to the conclusion that he would never be free of her – nor did he want to be. His plan of convincing Iroh that he would be a good husband for Lan Chi continued, and he liked to think that he was succeeding. That did not mean, though, that he had given up trying to see her through subterfuge or other means.
Showing up unexpectedly at Iroh's door was one of Zuko's favorite ways to accidentally catch a glimpse of Lan, although sightings of her were rare, and more likely he ended up talking to Uncle Iroh over a cup of tea, which, all in all, was not a bad thing.
However, one day, he was lucky. Very lucky, indeed.
Zuko knew that Iroh was attending a war strategy meeting, so there was little chance of seeing him at home. Zuko scaled the wall of Iroh's courtyard, since to go in via the front gate, which had a bell on it, always seemed to alert Lan Chi to his plans and caused her to flee.
Once he had straightened his dress uniform, which he chosen for its smartness, he knocked on the door.
Lan Chi was not, alas for her, able to move quickly enough to bolt from the room when she heard the knock. She had just settled down to tea, which was now no small event. Part of Madame Nushi's tutelage was an insistence that Lan Chi serve tea in a formal setting every day, and that she dress the part. Usually, Lan served Uncle Iroh, but he was not home yet, and so, stuck at the low table on her shins, in a camelephant pose from which it was not easy to extricate herself, she heard Hua announce him.
"Prince Zuko, my lady."
"Criminy," she muttered under her breath. There was no escaping.
Zuko entered the room, and his jaw, when he saw her attired in a red formal robe with her hair pinned on her head in a coronet, dropped. Spirits, she's beautiful! He stammered a hello and bowed.
She colored and looked down at her hands for a moment. "Good afternoon, Prince Zuko."
He drew in a deep breath and calmed himself. "Were you expecting me, Cousin?"
Her head snapped up. "No! Why? Did you think I was?"
He indicated the arrangements. "Do you usually take tea like this, when you are alone?"
She flushed again. "Well, as a matter of fact, I do, but I was expecting Uncle."
"He's in a war meeting."
"Oh." She could expect no rescue from him, then, although she really did not want to be rescued, anyway.
Zuko stood expectantly before the table. "Well?"
"Aren't you going to invite me to take tea with you?"
A look of horror passed over her face. "I – suppose so." Uncle was going to kill her, and she was going to make a fool of herself by spilling tea all over Zuko – she just knew it.
"You're so welcoming," he said wryly as he settled himself across from her.
"Do you want tea or not?" She asked testily.
"Please." He smiled, and a dimple showed on his cheek. Lan Chi melted.
She poured two cups of tea shakily, although she remembered to lift her sleeve with her free hand. She passed him the cup and their fingers brushed. She jumped back as if burned.
"Do I make you nervous?" He gave her a cheeky grin.
"No! Don't be ridiculous. I – just didn't want to spill it."
"Hmm." He nodded towards the plate of cookies. "Do I get a cookie, as well?"
"What? Sure, yeah, I guess." She practically threw a cookie at him.
He tried to suppress his laughter. It was so obvious that she was uneasy. "Why are you having formal tea by yourself?"
Lan sighed, and decided to come clean. "My etiquette teacher wants me to get used to serving tea like this. She says that a successful hostess must know this ritual as if she performs it every day – which I have been doing – every day – for a month."
"Oh. You have an etiquette teacher?"
She nodded ruefully. "Yes. Uncle hired her. He says that I need finishing."
"Like you're an unfired clay pot?" He couldn't help but smile again.
She shot him a dark look. "Don't laugh. You don't have to sit through one of Madame Nushi's lectures on my duty to the Fire Nation."
"I thought your duty to the Fire Nation was to defend it against all enemies – not serve tea."
"My duty is apparently to marry well and give my husband many fine sons." She quoted Madame Nushi, and then, realizing what she had said and to whom she had said it, she blushed and looked down at her hands again.
Zuko blushed, too, and began toying with his tea cup. After a few awkward moments of silence, he cleared his throat. "So, tell me how you serve tea formally."
Lan latched onto the topic. "Oh. Okay. Well, first you pour the tea, which I already did. And, then," she stammered, "then, you serve it, in order of rank. So, that means that, as the highest ranking man in the room, you would get your tea cup first."
"I'll always get my tea first, then, since I will always be the highest ranking man in the room."
She gave him a sour look. "Do you think so? How about when you are sitting with your father? Or Uncle?"
"If I am sitting with Father, then, of course he will get his tea first. Uncle Iroh – I don't know. He was the crown prince, for a very long time, and he is a general. But I don't know. I'm the crown prince now." He shrugged. "But any other man in the Fire Nation will be served after me, obviously."
"Well, let's assume for the moment that you, o mighty one, are getting your tea first."
He laughed. "O mighty one. I like that. Can you call me that all the time?"
"What? Is your highness not good enough?"
"It's plenty good enough."
"If it's not, you know, I can think of many other things that I can call you."
Darling? He thought. My love? Dearest? How about Husband? They were all things that he wanted her to call him.
Her own thoughts were very similar, and she wondered why she had said such a thing to him.
"Ahem." He tried to change the subject. "Uh, okay, well, I've got my tea. Now, what is the next step?"
"A cookie." Her voice was strangled.
"Got one. Now, do we drink?" He lifted the cup to his lips.
"Yes. But we should make small talk first."
He lowered the tea. "What kind of small talk?"
"Uh, well, I should probably ask you, as my guest, about your family. How it is – you know, that sort of thing. So – how's your family?"
He grimaced. "Oh, okay. My family. Well, I never see my father. He's always busy – you know, being Fire Lord, and all –"
"I am familiar with your father's occupation, Zuko," she said, dryly.
"Right. Of course. And, well, my sister, she's – vicious – and kind of sadistic, and I think she might be a little mentally unbalanced, as well." He finished with a nod.
She blinked, startled. "Oh, all – right, then. Perhaps we should find another topic of discussion."
He shrugged and drank some tea. "I guess I could – ask you some questions. I guess. You know, make small talk. What should I ask you?"
"Well, actually, you should compliment the host or hostess on the beauty of their home – and things like that."
"Oh. Okay. Well, then," he looked around. "The furnishings in this room are very – striking." He smiled at her.
She smiled back. "Thank you. Most of them are family heirlooms."
"From Uncle's family or Aunt Su Hsing's?"
"Both, I believe." She took a sip of her tea, now cold.
"Ah. Well, what else can I compliment you on?"
"The quality of the tea?" She suggested.
"I would expect nothing less in Uncle's house."
She chuckled. "True."
He looked thoughtful, then snapped his fingers. "I know. I can say –" he smiled slightly, "how incredibly beautiful you look today."
Lan's eyes grew wide, and she slowly set down her cup.
"I can tell you that your eyes enchant me, that your scent beguiles me, that your lips – intoxicate me."
"Zu – Zuko." She breathed, thinking she had never heard anything more lyrical in her life.
She probably had not, since those words actually were lyrics, from an ancient love song that Zuko had read in a book. He hoped she had not read the same book.
The next words were Zuko's, though. "You're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen, Lan. I – I think about you all the time. I can't stop thinking about you."
Pain shadowed her eyes. "Zuko –" she began.
"I – I need to tell you something." He interrupted, grabbing her hand on the table.
"Zuko..." She began again, a warning in her voice. She thought, from his demeanor, that she knew what he was about to say. Something that she had yearned for him to say, and now, she wished he would not say it.
"Lan, I think that I lo –"
"Zuko! No!" She stopped him and tried to pull her hand away.
"No, what?" He was confused, but kept a tight grip on her fingers.
"Let me go!" She was certain that Zuko had been about to say that he loved her. The thought that he might actually love her thrilled her beyond all hope, but she knew that, no matter their feelings for one another, they would never be together. Never. And she could not tell him why. She could not poison him against his father. She simply could not. She had to give him a disgust of her, get him to stop pursuing her. An idea came to her – a horrible, horrible idea. She decided on it in an instant. She pulled her hand away. "I – I have to tell you. What you were going to say –"
"Yes?" He prompted, taking her hand back.
"I – I don't feel the same." She schooled her face into looking pitying. "I'm sorry."
He flung her hand from him, his face suffused with anger. "You're lying."
"No, Zuko. I'm sorry. I'm not."
"You kissed me. You let me kiss you!"
"I've kissed a lot of boys." She had become so adept at lying, and she hated it.
"You said you liked me."
"I do. Just – not enough."
"You're lying." His voice was a low growl, and his face was now twisted with rage, grief, and humiliation.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
He stood up abruptly, and knocked his tea cup over, spilling liquid across the table. "You're doing this because Uncle told you to, aren't you?"
She stood up. "No, Zuko. Uncle has nothing to do with this."
"You're lying! I don't know why he hates me – why he's doing this."
"Zuko, I swear to you that Uncle has nothing to do with this."
"Then I don't know why you're doing this – because I know you love me. I know you do."
"Zuko, no. Please – just go. Please."
He ran from the house, and she could hear only the echo of his boots as he left.
Zuko was angry. He was very, very angry. He had intended to tell Lan Chi how he felt about her. He had planned it in his head. He planned to tell her that he loved her, and he planned that she would proclaim her own undying love and fall into his arms. He planned that they would have lived happily ever after, despite Uncle's meddling.
That was how he planned it. That was not, however, how it happened. What happened instead was that it had all blown up in his face. Not only had he not been able to tell her how he felt, but she, seemingly aware of his feelings, had thrown them back in his face with no compunction or remorse.
And now he felt like a fool. A stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid fool.
He was not convinced that she had been telling the truth, but he had no idea how to prove that. He also did not know whether he cared. If she didn't want him, then he didn't want her!
Oh, who am I kidding? He asked himself. Of course I want her. I want her more than ever. I'm an idiot.
However, he had no idea how to get her.
When Iroh came home that evening, he found Lan in her bedchamber, curled up on her bed, in the dark.
"Lan Chi?" He called her softly from the doorway.
"I'm here, Uncle." She sat up and wiped away her tears.
Iroh lit the lanterns with a flick of his wrist, came in, and closed the door behind him. "You've been crying."
"Yes." Her eyes were bloodshot, and her nose was running.
He pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and handed it to her.
"Hua told me that Prince Zuko was here."
"Nothing." She shook her head.
He sat down next to her and put an arm around her. "When I returned to live here, Lan, we made a pact never to lie to one another. Tell me what happened."
She decided to be honest. "He was going to tell me that he loved me. I know he was. And – and I stopped him, and I – I told him that I don't love him." She began crying again, in earnest, and, despite the fact that she held a handkerchief, she bawled into Iroh's robe.
"Oh, my dear." He stroked her hair. "I am sorry. I am so sorry that you have gotten involved in this petty sibling rivalry."
She pulled her tear-streaked face from his lapels and looked at him. "What? What do you mean?"
Iroh sighed. "I fear, Lan, that Ozai hates you more because you are my niece rather than because you are of a mixed race."
She waved her hand. "It doesn't matter why he hates me. He does, and that's all that matters. He'll never let Zuko marry me. And I wish that I were dead."
"Do not say that. Do not give up hope."
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I don't have any hope left."
Despite all the strictures that Iroh had given her, despite all of the heartbreak and trouble that would come from allowing her to continue to dream about Zuko, Iroh found that he could not bring himself to extinguish that last flame of hope in her.
He drew a deep breath and was silent a long time. "Sometimes, the rarest flowers may flourish where the soil is poorest."
She turned to look at him. "Are Zuko and I rare flowers?"
He smiled and touched her nose with his forefinger. "I think so."
"So, what should I do?"
Iroh shook his head. "I do not know." He sighed. It was time for him to tell her the truth. "Lan Chi, I must tell you something."
She looked at him suspiciously. "I can't imagine what it is. I don't think I want to imagine what it is."
"When I returned to the Fire Nation, I told you that I made a bargain with Ozai so that I might remain here – with you, and with Zuko."
"Yes?" She was wary.
"I told you that, in return for not contesting his right to the throne, Ozai agreed to let me stay – in peace – and bring you home. And be Zuko's teacher."
She nodded, her throat suddenly tight.
"Well, that was not the only condition that I agreed to." He sounded reluctant to continue.
"What other condition was there, Uncle?" She had a very bad feeling that she knew what it was.
"That I would not allow a match between you and Zuko."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she suddenly couldn't feel any air in her body. "You?" She croaked out that one word before putting her head in her hands.
"Lan Chi?" Iroh's voice was concerned.
Lan could not speak. She was livid and hurt and furious. Furious! She lifted her head and looked at her uncle, sitting there, worry written across his face. "You bargained with my life? With my happiness?"
She shook her hands. "No. Wait. Let me see if I understand this. So that you could stay in the Fire Nation, you agreed to keep me and Zuko apart?"
"I am sorry. I did not know that you had fallen in love with Zuko. Or he with you."
"But you didn't ask me – or Zuko. And you didn't tell me! And all this time, I thought that you were keeping us apart because you were worried about what Ozai might do to me! But you were worried about what Ozai might do to you!"
Iroh shook his head. "That is not completely true –"
"But it is not completely false, either, is it?"
"I made this agreement, Lan, and I should not have – not before talking to you, and I am sorry. I did what I thought was best – for everyone."
Her face was miserable. "Then you aren't nearly as wise as you think that you are, Uncle." She ran from the room, down the stairs and out into the courtyard. It was a cold night, but she did not notice it. Her mind was consumed with her uncle's confession. He had lied to her! He had lied to her, and he had ruined her life!
Her voice of reason spoke up. How exactly did he ruin your life? Your life was pretty lousy before he came back.
She sighed. He ruined it because now, if I don't stay away from Zuko, Uncle will be in trouble, too. Her life was ruined without Zuko; Uncle's life was ruined if she was with Zuko. And therefore, her life would be ruined with Zuko, as well. She felt sick, and confused, like her world was spinning out of control.
She fisted her hands and put them against her ears and screamed as loud as she could. The water in the fountain shot up out of the basin, and splashed all over the courtyard, drenching her.
She stomped her feet in frustration as Iroh, Hua, Jianyu, and several other servants rushed out of the house in response to the scream.
"Lady Lan Chi!" Hua surveyed the scene before her. "Whatever happened here?"
Lan cast Iroh a dark look. "I fell in the fountain." She clumped back into the house past the astonished faces staring at her.
Iroh knew that he would have to face Zuko the next morning, and he went to Zuko's lesson with trepidation.
His nephew was in the courtyard, going through his forms. He had already stripped to the waist, despite the chill, and the sweat glistened on his skin.
Iroh took a deep breath. "Prince Zuko, I'd like to talk to you."
Zuko stopped and dropped his hands to his side, disconsolate and angry. "If it's about Lan, Uncle, I don't want to talk about it." He turned his back on his uncle and launched a fireball with one foot.
"But, Zuko, it is not healthy to keep things bottled up inside."
He swung around to face Iroh, fury on his face. "I said that I don't want to talk about it!" He screamed, and fireballs blew up from his fists.
Iroh nodded slowly. "Very well. If you decide that you would like to talk – I am here for you."
Despite all that had happened, or perhaps because of it, Lan Chi spent all of her free time working on Zuko's agni kai drape. She suspected that Iroh would not be pleased by the gift, and Ozai would be incensed, but she didn't care. In fact, after her uncle's confession - after she had found out that he had played with her future like he played pai sho, she was more determined than ever to give the drape to Zuko, consequences be damned. She was mightily tired of tiptoeing around what she wanted. She had, for so many years, subdued her own desires in hopes of pleasing others, in hopes of being left in peace, in hopes of being spared pain, but that had rarely worked out in her favor, and she was weary – weary of fighting Zuko, weary of fighting her uncle, weary of fighting Ozai, and weary, most of all, of fighting herself. She loved Zuko; she always would, and nothing could change that. Why should she continue to try to deny it? How about to spare your own life, you ninny – and Uncle's? She sighed. Nothing was ever easy.
She had decided on a golden border for the drape, with thin waves of golden fire on one end. She was pleased with the way the borders were turning out, having to only rip out a few rows of embroidery – more than once, unfortunately, but she counted herself lucky that was the extent of her mistakes so far. She also counted herself lucky that Hua was always nearby to give her encouragement and advice.
One day, after finishing with Jiao Ao, Lan was sitting at the kitchen table sewing, while Cook prepared the evening meal and Hua was repairing a tear in one of Iroh's favorite robes. Although there were maids who could do such menial work, Hua had always taken it upon herself to make certain that all of the general's clothes were presentable.
The cook, who also knew who the agni kai drape was for, exclaimed over it as Lan laid it out on the table to check her stitches.
"Oh, my lady, that is beautiful."
"Thank you. I am so happy I'm almost done with the borders. The stitches are so small. I swear that I shall be half-blind when I've finished."
"Oh, it will all be worth it when Prince Zuko sees it."
Lan blushed. "Oh, I'm certain he'll get dozens more – much better than mine."
"I doubt that. Even if he does get others, I will wager none will be done with such a loving hand." Cook smiled and patted Lan on the shoulder.
Lan Chi darted a look at Hua, who glanced back surreptitiously. Were Lan's feelings for Zuko so apparent that even the cook had guessed them? Yes, it was true that Lan was going to quite a bit of work for the gift, but Prince Zuko was, other than Iroh, her closest male relative.
Lan Chi cleared her throat. "Ah, well, yes, I thought that, as he is my cousin, I should invest something more than a few gold pieces in his gift. After all, anyone can purchase a ready-made drape." Her eyes slid to the cook to gauge her reaction to the lie.
Cook shrugged, and turned back to measuring flour for dumplings. "And that's why you are such a good girl, Lady Lan Chi. Always thinking of others."
Lan closed her eyes and gave a sigh of relief at her close call.
Iroh watched Lan Chi from the doorway of the sitting room. She was in her usual place at the tea table, practicing the tea ceremony. Since their argument several days before, she had been avoiding him, seeing him only at meals, speaking only when spoken to – and only on the most trivial of subjects.
She had been absent during his regular tea time, as well, choosing to take her tea alone, when she knew him to be working in the palace.
Iroh knew this had to stop.
He drew a deep breath, and entered the room.
"You look lovely, as usual, Lan." He smiled, and she jumped.
"I – I didn't know you were home, Uncle."
"It was quite unexpected. My meetings were much smoother than I anticipated." He settled down across from her. "So I have time to spend with my favorite niece – for tea."
She gave him a jaundiced look, but poured him a cup nonetheless.
Iroh was right – she was lovely. She had so far avoided the awkwardness that seemed to plague many teenagers – her skin was clear and her body proportional. However, she had not been able to avoid the vagaries of emotion that came with the teenage years. The moodiness, the euphoria, the melancholy – and the rapid fluctuations amongst all those emotions – were common.
Iroh felt at a loss for words, which, for Iroh, was very unusual, indeed. He absently took a sip of tea, and looked around the room – anywhere but at Lan Chi.
She, for her part, stared into her own cup.
Iroh finally broke the silence. "So. You are well?"
She looked at him incredulously. "Am – I – well? Am I well? Have you been living somewhere else for the past week?"
"No, I assure you. I have been witness to everything in this household."
"What does that mean?"
"It means nothing, my dear." He sighed. "I do not wish to fight with you anymore. I am sorry for what I did, and, if I could do something about it, then, believe me, I would."
She was truculently silent.
"Besides, even if I had not made that arrangement with the Fire Lord –"
"I know." The anger went out of her. "He would still not let Zuko marry me. I just was so – enraged that you did not tell me. That you lied to me, even though you promised that you would not!"
"I did not lie to you, exactly. I omitted some things."
"Anything else you've omitted?" She asked dryly.
"About this? No, not really. And what about you, Little Duck? Anything you would like to tell me about Zuko?"
She blushed. "No."
"No accidental meetings? No stolen kisses when you thought no one was looking?"
She set her jaw stubbornly. "None of your business."
He chuckled. "We both of us have been less than honest, it appears."
"Well, what should we do, then?"
"Make a new pact. Complete, one hundred percent honesty, from this point on." He held out his hand, as if to seal the deal.
She took it warily. "I should tell you, then, that I have been working on an agni kai drape for Zuko's genbuku."
She pulled her hand away. "How did you know?"
"There is little in this house that escapes my notice."
"You are very meddlesome, Uncle."
"I prefer to think of it as well informed."
For the collective works of the author, go here.