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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 26 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 25 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 27 (The Spirit Within) 
Zuko was not unaware of that prophecy as he stood in the courtyard of his home, arms spread wide, absorbing the early morning sun as it started its ascent over the horizon. He had come out here, as he did every morning, to clear his head, to practice his bending in silence, and to feel at one with his element. With the resiliency and optimism of youth, he had reconciled the turmoil he still felt from his last encounter with Lan Chi into resolve. Resolve to win her back, resolve to excel at his genbuku, resolve to win his father's approval. All was within his grasp – he knew it. And he knew that it would all culminate tonight. Twelve hours were all that stood between him and achieving his goals. The anxiety that had
agued him for weeks was still there, but he knew that he was well-prepared for this night, and, in his mind, he could ill afford the uncertainties of such a malady, although he still felt vaguely sick to his stomach.
He went through his forms, the only sound the crackle of the flames, the pounding of his feet striking the ground, and the whooshing of his breath.
I am Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne. I am the embodiment of one thousand years of Fire Nation history. My right to rule is divine, my will decreed by the sages. My dominion is the world. The words he had been taught by his tutors since his father had taken the throne rang in his mind. He was heir to the greatest empire that the world had ever known, and one day, he would rule over it, and over the entire Earth, as was his right.
But first, he had to get through his genbuku without throwing up.
There were two other people in the Fire Nation capital who were as nervous as Zuko, and they were, not coincidentally, the two people in the world who loved him the most. One was his uncle and mentor, the other his cousin and the girl who would gladly spend the rest of her life with him. Neither Iroh nor Lan Chi had been able to sleep well the night before, and both had awakened early, to worry. For Iroh, waking early was in his blood; as a firebender, he found his energy in the sun. For Lan Chi, who, as a waterbender, found her energy in the moon, waking early was torturous. Throughout her life, she had been forced, by dint of her location, to rise with the sun and start the day. She would have much preferred to sleep the morning away and go later into the night, but the Fire Nation was not the place to do that. On this day, however, she found herself awake before the sun made an appearance. Awake and anxious.
The day did not improve after that. She spilled her tea at breakfast, put a rip in one of her new robes, and, during archery practice, she broke the string of her bow. Yelling words that no gently bred Fire Nation girl should know, she threw the bow down.
"What upsets you so, Little Duck?" Unbeknownst to her, Uncle Iroh was watching. "It is just a string. We have money enough to replace it."
She sighed. "Things are not going well today, Uncle."
"You're nervous about the genbuku."
"I am not." Her denial was emphatic.
"You may admit it. It is not a sign of weakness. I am nervous – I freely acknowledge it."
Her shoulders sagged. "I feel like throwing up."
"Tea might help."
She saw the sparkle in his eye, and chuckled. "Maybe. So would a nap."
He put his arm around her. "Well, then, take a nap. It is not as if you are scheduled for anything else the rest of the day. Sleep awhile, get up, bathe, and, by then, it will be time for you to get ready." He squeezed her shoulder. "Hua says that you will be wearing the yellow robe with the dragon embroidery."
"You will look stunning."
"I don't want to stun anyone." Lan gave him a sideways glance. "Least of all Zuko."
"Yes. Please. Do not stun him until after the genbuku. He'll need his wits about him."
"Am I to be allowed to greet him – and, dare I say it – perhaps even speak to him?"
He smiled. "Of course. In the reception line."
"Be still my heart! I can actually say hello to him?" Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
"You might even be allowed to say "congratulations on your genbuku.""
"Will Ozai be there?"
"It may be a very short reception – for me, anyway."
He faced her. "Ozai will be on his best behavior. He reserves his misconduct for his family." He chucked her under the chin. "Besides, I will be at your side to protect you."
Lan did as Iroh suggested, and when she awoke, several hours later, she did indeed feel better. She took a leisurely bath and washed her hair, and then plaited it down her back. She would be winding it around her head later in a coronet, but that could wait until after she was dressed. She wrapped a breast binding cloth around herself and rang the servant bell.
Hua came quickly to the summons. "Are you ready to be dressed, my lady?"
"Yes, Hua, thank you."
Hua fetched the yellow robe from the closet and removed it from the hanger. She held the two collar ends and assisted Lan into the garment. She lifted the hems off the floor and folded the fronts of the robe over Lan's breasts. While Hua held the robe together, Lan slid her hands into the openings under the arms and smoothed the visible creases. Lan's hands replaced Hua's, and Hua wrapped a thin belt around Lan's waist and tied it. The housekeeper moved around to the back of the robe, pulled Lan's braid free, and straightened the fabric there. She then adjusted the collar so that the garment sat on Lan's shoulders properly, and tugged at the front panels to twitch them into shape. She fetched the stiff stomach panel, and, while Lan held her arms aloft, Hua put it around Lan's waist. Lan then held the panel in place while Hua tied the wide ribbons in the back, and then the housekeeper stepped back to survey her charge.
"Oh, my lady. I was right. You are as pretty as a picture."
She colored while Hua retrieved the robe's matching slippers from the closet and placed them on the floor in front of Lan, who stepped into them.
Hua led Lan to the vanity, where Lan caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. The robe, butter yellow with midnight blue trim, its wide belt the same dark blue, with an embroidered dragon that she herself had completed above one breast, was easily the most beautiful garment that Lan Chi had ever owned. Lan put one hand over the wide sash and continued to stare at her reflection. She felt like a completely different person – older, more sophisticated – almost womanly.
"Sit, Lady Lan Chi. I'll fix your hair."
Lan did as she was ordered, and Hua began winding Lan's long braid around her head and securing it with pins. "Your uncle has spoken to me about engaging a lady's maid for you. I think it may be a good idea."
Lan's eyes crinkled when she smiled. "Am I that much work, Hua?"
"Well, my lady, now that you are older, you'll be getting dressed like this more and more often. And, to be honest, I am a rather poor lady's maid. I know nothing about the latest fashions or styles. And, once you're betrothed, you'll have to entertain your future in-laws and go to parties. That sort of thing."
Lan grimaced. "Entertain my in-laws? How? Shooting an apple off their heads, or demonstrating knife defense?"
Hua laughed. "Well, my lady, that's why Prince Iroh engaged Madame Nushi."
"She needs to be a miracle worker, I think."
Hua gave a gentle smile. "Don't say that, my lady. You will make a wonderful wife to a very lucky man."
Lan peered at Hua's reflection in the mirror. "I really don't think that I will ever marry anyway, Hua."
Hua had heard this argument from Lan Chi before, so she simply patted the girl's arm comfortingly and changed the subject. "Have you Prince Zuko's present wrapped, my lady?"
Lan smiled. "Oh, yes! It's in my closet."
Hua brought out a large box from the closet, decorated with a yellow ribbon the same color as Lan's robe. "Oh, Lady Lan Chi, what a clever idea. Prince Zuko will be sure to know who gave him this gift."
An embarrassed smile came to Lan's face. "Is it too obvious?"
"Not at all."
Just then, Iroh's voice came up the stairs. "Are you nearly ready, Lan? We don't want to get stuck in the crowd!"
Lan jumped up, grabbed the gift from Hua, and impetuously gave the older woman a hug. "Thank you, Hua, for everything. Really." With that, Lan skipped from the room.
While Lan Chi was napping and getting dressed, Zuko was involved in last-minute preparations with first Iroh and then Jiao Ao. Both men gave him pointers and reminders on how best to showcase his talents, and he was trying to concentrate on everything they said. However, at this point, much of what they were saying was bouncing off him like rubber.
"Remember to remain calm, Prince Zuko, when demonstrating the Breath of the Dragon." Iroh put his hands on Zuko's shoulders and squeezed. "If you allow your instinct to take over from your conscious mind, you should do well."
Zuko nodded. "Will you be backstage with me, Uncle?"
Iroh shook his head. "You do not need me, Zuko. I fear that I will only distract you. Quietness in your soul – that is all you need."
"But, Uncle," he protested, "Where will you be?"
Iroh smiled. "I will be in the audience, with Lady Lan Chi."
Zuko suddenly looked stricken. "I don't want to embarrass myself in front of her, Uncle."
"You will not. Forget that she is there."
"Not much chance of that!"
"Do your best."
"You will be on the reception line with me, though, won't you?"
Again, Iroh shook his head. "You have your father for that. This night is not for me, Prince Zuko. It is for you. So stand up proudly, and never forget who you are." He clapped Zuko on both shoulders heartily, and left the young man staring after him.
Never forget who you are. Zuko remembered those words – words said to him by his mother over three long years before. The last words that she ever said to him. He wished, for not the first time, that she was standing there next to him. That she was there to see him perform. That she was there to be proud of him.
Zuko took a deep breath. Don't think about her now, he commanded himself. If you do, you'll cry. Don't think of her! He shook his head to clear it. He needed to be clear.
There was a huge crush of people in the grand plaza where the genbuku was to take place. Scores and scores of torches lit up the night sky around the entire area, and Lan could see thousands of chairs set up in front of the newly constructed stage. The ones in the front, cordoned off from the bulk of the audience, were for dignitaries, friends, and family, including Lan Chi and Iroh. The remainder of the chairs were for ordinary Fire Nation citizenry, so that they could take part in this very important celebration with their prince. The privileged guests were also invited to dinner and dancing at the palace, while the rest of Ozai's subjects in attendance that night were to be treated to a street party with free food and drink.
There was a carnival atmosphere that heightened Lan's anxiety, and she clung to her uncle's arm. Their gifts for Zuko had been given into the care of one of Ozai's social secretaries, whose job was to make certain that Prince Zuko opened each present, and whose job was also to help the Prince write thank you notes to each person. When Lan's present was added to a pile the size of a carriage, she looked at her uncle. "I'm glad I don't have to write that many thank you notes."
Iroh nodded. "It could take months."
They made their way up the crowded aisles to the first two rows, where they found their names written on cards placed on two chairs at the end of one of the rows.
They settled down, and Lan smiled at Iroh. "How did we manage to get such wonderful seats?" They had an unobstructed view of the stage.
Iroh smiled at her like a conspirator. "A bit of cajoling. A bit of threatening."
Lan laughed. "You are incorrigible, Uncle."
"I have been told that."
Just then, Jiao Ao took the seat on the other side of Iroh. He was dressed in a formal robe, and he looked even more austere than usual.
Lan bowed in her seat to her master, and he smiled at her. "Good evening, Lady Lan Chi. You look exquisite."
Lan dimpled. "Thank you, Master."
"Your robe is highly impractical for fighting, however."
Lan tried not to grin. "Yes, Master. That is true."
"Hopefully, you will have no occasion to fight tonight."
"I do hope that you are right, Master Jiao Ao." Iroh chuckled.
As the time for the genbuku drew closer, the seats around them began to fill. All of the Fire Sages arrived together and took seats in the first row, as representatives of their faith, there to bless the proceedings with their very presence.
Lan wished that they could bless the proceedings without their miters. The hats blocked much of her view. She leaned over to her uncle. "I can't see past the Fire Sages." She whispered.
Uncle frowned. "Yes. It is rather difficult. Let me see what I can do." He leaned forward and tapped the High Sage, who was sitting directly in front of him, on the shoulder.
"Pardon me, your eminence, could I please request that you all remove your miters, so those privileged to sit behind you might see?"
The High Sage looked at Iroh with annoyance. "The miter," he sniffed pompously, "is to be removed only upon our deaths."
"Do you want that to be tonight?" Iroh asked pleasantly.
The High Sage's eyes nearly popped from his head. "P – perhaps, in honor of this auspicious occasion, we might remove our miters."
Iroh smiled. "Thank you so much." He sat back and nodded at Lan, who had trouble keeping a straight face.
One by one, the hats came off, and Lan was again rewarded with a clean view of the stage.
She leaned over to Iroh. "I hope that Zuko is not nervous."
Iroh smiled with confidence that he did not feel. "Oh, I am certain that he is fine."
Zuko was not fine, however. He had dressed, as was the custom for genbuku, in a pair of dark red sparring pants cuffed with a small ruffle at the bottom. He was barefoot and shirtless, and around each upper arm, he wore a red leather band. He felt exposed by the skimpy outfit – although he often went shirtless during training, it was a different matter altogether to be so unclothed in front of thousands – and in front of Lan Chi.
He pushed that out of his mind and concentrated on his performance. The swords demonstration would be first, for which he was grateful, since he actually felt more comfortable using blades than he did firebending. Jiao Ao had told him to imagine that he was in his courtyard, training only for his master, and Zuko hoped that such a strategy would help calm his nerves while he was onstage.
From his vantage point from beneath the stage, where the dressing room was, Zuko peered out at the crowd, although he could not really see beyond the front row, filled with the Fire Sages. Zuko made a disgusted sound with his lips – he did not want to see an entire row of sour old men looking at him throughout the night. There was nothing he could do about it, though, so he continued to scan the crowd. He saw a throne set up off to one side, and knew that was where his father would sit. Ozai would enter and sit last, and, after that, Zuko's genbuku would commence.
He turned away from the audience, seeking to calm the nerves that had returned after seeing the vast sea of people. He sank into a lotus position, closed his eyes and attempted to still his mind. He controlled his breathing until it came in regular, even intervals, and he cleared his mind of all distractions, as Uncle had taught him to do. Thoughts of his father disappeared like a wisp of smoke, as did Azula, and Uncle himself. Jiao Ao blew away, and, finally, although stubborn, so did Lan Chi, although Zuko almost regretted the dispersal of her image.
He heard thunderous clapping from outside, and knew that his father had entered the area. He opened his eyes and stood. He was as ready as he would ever be.
Ozai arrived, as Zuko had predicted, after all other seats were filled. He came up the center aisle, preceded and followed by the faceless royal guard, and then by Princess Azula, who, Lan noted, was dressed much like she herself, in a formal robe with stomacher. Azula's robe, however, was a deep, blood red, which, Lan had to admit, suited her.
Lan came to her feet as Ozai passed, and dipped into a bow, as the thousands of other citizens had done.
Ozai climbed the stairs to the throne, and turned to look out at his subjects, all bowed in reverence to their monarch. He smiled. Azula walked to her seat, a smaller, slightly less ornate chair, at the bottom of the platform.
A master of ceremonies came out onto the stage, and cleared his throat.
"We will now recite the Fire Nation national oath," he said, in a voice startlingly loud.
Everybody in the audience straightened, and all the hands moved into the familiar flame pattern. Thousands of voices repeated the oath along with the master of ceremonies.
"My life, I give to my country. With my hands, I fight for Fire Lord Ozai and our forefathers before him. With my mind, I seek ways to better my country. And with my feet, may our March of Civilization continue." Thousands of voices intoned the pledge in unison, and a thrill ran down Lan's spine at evidence of her country's greatness, alive in the voices of countless.
Ozai inclined his head in acknowledgment, and was seated.
"You may now be seated." The master of ceremonies yelled, and the multitude sat.
The man on the stage looked around at the assemblage. "The Prince, Zuko."
There was earsplitting applause, and none clapped louder than Prince Zuko's uncle and cousin.
Zuko, at the bottom of a set of stairs at the back of the stage, waited until the master of ceremonies came down before ascending. The man gave Zuko a solemn nod, and Zuko nodded in return. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, picked up his broadswords, took a deep breath, and sprinted up the stairs.
As he appeared on the stage, the clapping started again, and he came to a stop, startled at the sheer number of people present, and the din of the applause. He drew another calming breath, closed his eyes for a moment to center himself, and moved to the middle of the stage. The audience was all a large blur to him, and he could see no one behind the row of sages.
He bowed to the crowd, and then to his father, who acknowledged him.
Zuko spun the handles of his swords in his hands to get a better grip, and took a fighting stance. He was ready.
After the master of ceremonies announced Zuko, Lan's stomach leapt, and she craned her neck to catch a first glimpse of him. When he came onto the stage, the discomfort in her stomach stretched down into her entire lower torso.
She had never seen him without a shirt before, and she was mesmerized, unable to take her eyes off him. His chest was well-sculpted, his waist trim, and his arms muscular. He was – perfect. In every way. She fell, if possible, more deeply in love with him. He bowed to the audience and then to his father, and moved into a ready position.
To anyone who did not know him, he would have seemed composed, but to Lan, who had memorized every plane of his face, he appeared ill at ease. However, as he began his forms, the tension left him, and he allowed the pure delight that he felt in the art to shine through, and Lan Chi was mesmerized again.
The entire audience was spellbound, as well, with nary a sound to interrupt the performance.
Lan stole a brief glance at Iroh, whose smile of joy told Lan everything she needed to know about his feelings. Jiao Ao, too, looked especially pleased. She allowed her eyes to drift to Ozai, and the smile she had on her face disappeared.
He was looking, not at Zuko, but at her, with a look of such intense hatred that Lan Chi shrank back in her chair. He turned away from her slowly and back to his son.
Lan put a hand on her chest to quiet her heart, which was beating painfully fast. She took a deep breath, and turned her attention to Zuko again, trying to lose herself in the action.
He was doing exceptionally well – Lan Chi, who was as accomplished in martial arts as Zuko, could tell that his forms were excellent and his skills superior.
He finished the display with a spinning attack that was so fast that it blurred before her eyes, and then he dropped on one knee with both swords brandished above his head.
The applause was instantaneous, and deafening. Lan Chi jumped to her feet, clapping wildly, and that was when Zuko caught sight of her. He stood and bowed, and grinned – directly as her. She blushed, as if she knew the smile was for her, and clapped even more loudly. Iroh, too, and Jiao Ao were on their feet, clapping, and Zuko turned to his father to bow.
Ozai sat in his chair, clapping slowly, but with a somber face. Zuko's smile faltered for a moment, but he recovered quickly. That's just the way Father is. It doesn't mean anything. He's clapping, after all.
He bowed again, and ran from the stage to prepare for the firebending demonstration. He had only a few moments to drink water and lay down his swords, and mentally prepare before he needed to return.
In the audience, Lan was bouncing with excitement. She leaned over Uncle Iroh to Jiao Ao. "Master! He did so well! You must be so proud of him!"
Jiao Ao smiled. "I am. He did an exceedingly good job."
Lan smiled at Iroh, and he squeezed her hand. "You're enjoying yourself, Little Duck?"
She smiled. "Oh, yes. Zuko is magnificent, isn't he, Uncle?"
Iroh let out a roar of laughter. "Yes! That he is, Lan! That he is!"
Zuko was ready again. He returned to the stage, and the applause, which had died down, started again. He bowed again to the assemblage and to his father, and quickly assumed a fighting stance.
He launched into a series of complex firebending moves that both thrilled and frightened Lan Chi. The heat from the flames was so hot that Lan could feel it on her face, and she wondered, vaguely, how the Fire Sages, sitting in the front row, were not burned.
His movements were precise and fine, and the fire that he produced was strong and bright, lighting up the sky. Lan was enthralled by it all – despite being a waterbender, she, as a child of the Fire Nation, was fascinated by fire and revered firebenders. And the fact that the firebender she was watching was also the boy that she loved captivated her even more.
She clasped her hands in front of her and stared enraptured as he went through the remainder of his performance, and, when he was done, she jumped up again, as she had done before, and clapped until her palms were sore. Iroh and Jiao Ao were also on their feet, as was much of the audience.
Zuko's face was wreathed in smiles, and he bowed to the audience and to his father one final time before running from the stage.
Lan threw herself at her uncle and hugged him around his shoulders. "Oh, Uncle! It was wonderful! He was wonderful! And you taught him all of that!" She was so happy for Zuko that she was nearly jumping in excitement.
Iroh returned her hug. "Thank you, duck, but I didn't teach him everything. He has had other teachers, you know."
"None as good as you, Uncle." She kissed him on the cheek.
"Thank you, dear."
Lan Chi smiled at Jiao Ao. "Master, wasn't he wonderful?" She knew that she was using the word wonderful quite a bit, but could not think of any other word.
"Yes, he surely was, Lady Lan Chi."
She turned to Iroh. "Can we go to the ball now?"
"Will you walk with us, Master?" She asked Jiao Ao.
"Thank you. It will be my pleasure."
"Are you sure we should not take a palanquin, Lady Lan Chi?" Iroh asked. "Can you manage in your lovely gown?"
"Oh, yes, Uncle! I feel like I could walk to the colonies tonight!"
The three of them started for the ball at the palace. The streets were crowded with merrymakers and party-goers, and the carnival atmosphere that was present before was even more festive. Music was playing, and men, women, and children were laughing and dancing and talking and eating and drinking.
Iroh leaned over to Lan Chi. "I think these people do not know that dancing is forbidden."
Lan's laughter bubbled over. "Isn't this a royally sponsored event?"
"I suppose that it is."
They arrived at the palace quickly, considering the jostling crowds. There was a long queue at the front door, and Lan slipped her hand into her uncle's. "Uncle," she whispered. "We get to use the front door."
He laughed. "It is a magical night, indeed!" He looked askance at the long line. "Come with me. We'll bypass all these people."
Just then, a man in a uniform hailed Jiao Ao.
"Jiao Ao! You old knife sharpener!"
"Bai Song!" Jiao Ao smiled and bowed.
"I have not seen you in years! How have you been?"
"Quite well!" He indicated Iroh and Lan. "May I present to you General Iroh and his niece, Lady Lan Chi Sun? General Iroh, Lady Lan Chi, this is Lieutenant Bai Song. Lieutenant Song –"
"Colonel! It has been a long time. Colonel Song and I were in the navy together, many years ago."
Colonel Song bowed to them, and they reciprocated. "General Iroh, I am honored to make your acquaintance. My brother served under you in the Earth Kingdom."
"It's wonderful to meet the family of my men."
Colonel Song bowed again, and turned to Lan Chi. "And are you related to Admiral Yan Sun, my lady?"
"Yes. He was my father."
"I served under him many years ago. He was a great man."
"Thank you." She bowed in gratitude.
Colonel Song smiled. "Jiao Ao, there is an entire group of us sitting together. You remember Stinky Long and Mad Ghuan?"
"Don't tell me that they are here!" Lan could not remember ever seeing a smile of pure happiness on Jiao Ao's face, as there was now.
Iroh clapped him on the back. "Go and see your friends, Jiao Ao."
Jiao Ao bowed to Iroh and Lan Chi, and was gone.
Iroh smiled at his niece. "Now it's just the two of us, my dear. Let's skip the line."
"How can we do that?"
"I am still a Prince of the Fire Nation, you know!"
"Then, lead on, Prince Iroh."
He did just that, moving them past doors and guards and crowds impatient to enter the ballroom.
They finally reached the ballroom, only to find another line inside, stretching to the reception platform, where Zuko would greet well-wishers – when he arrived. The platform was currently empty.
Iroh patted Lan Chi on the shoulder. "Wait here, Little Duck. I want to go congratulate Zuko before the reception."
"Oh, Uncle, may I go?"
Iroh blushed. "I think not, Lan. He will probably be getting dressed."
Lan blushed even more deeply. "Oh. Then, it's not a good idea."
"No." He smiled gently. "I will be back soon."
"I'll be here."
Iroh left her just inside the door, and she leaned back against the wall to survey her surroundings. The reception platform was set up at one end of the room, but the majority of the ballroom was dedicated to a dance floor ringed by chairs. A band was warming up in a balcony, and Lan swayed as she listened to the music.
She turned her attention to the assembled guests. They were all obviously dressed in their finest clothing, the predominant color of which was, of course, red. Lan looked down at her own robe for a moment, unsure whether it had been a wise idea to wear something so out of the ordinary.
"Well, well, well, Lady Lan Chi. Whatever are you doing here?"
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