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Chapter 27 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
Chapter information
Series

The Spirit Within

Chapter

27

Written by

Sea-dilemma

Chronology
Last chapter

Chapter 26 (The Spirit Within) [1]

Next chapter

Chapter 28 (The Spirit Within) [2]

That hated voice.

Lan Chi turned around to see three of her least favorite people in the world. Azula stood there, flanked by Mai and Ty Lee. All three girls were dressed in beautiful formal robes – Azula in dark red, Mai in black, and Ty Lee in a lovely rose. Lan had to admit that they all looked – beautiful. She hated them even more.

"I could see you from clear across the room, Cousin." Azula sneered the title. "You look like – an egg yolk."

Ty Lee giggled. "More like a stick of butter."

"Or a stick of something." Mai's eyes raked Lan Chi from head to toe.

Lan's temper flared, but she smiled sweetly. "You would know all about sticks, Mai – being one yourself."

Mai's eyes narrowed. "Azula, I thought that you said your father was being selective about who he invited to the ball."

"Well, obviously not." Lan looked directly at her competitor. "You're here."

Just then, one of the Imperial Firebenders, servants to the royal family, came up. "Princess Azula," he bowed to her, "your father requires your presence."

Azula gave Lan one last, appraising look. "Come, girls. I have to see someone who is actually important."

The three friends walked away, and Lan, in an immature moment, stuck her tongue out at their retreating backs.


Iroh walked into his nephew's room without knocking, and found Zuko clad only in his drawers, having just bathed, hair still hanging wet around his shoulders. He smiled when he saw his uncle.

"Uncle!" He took Iroh in a strong embrace, then pulled back. "Did you like the genbuku?" He ran his fingers through his hair several times, drying it by heating his fingers.

"It was marvelous, Zuko. Simply marvelous."

"Thank you." He grinned, pulled his hair back into a queue, and tied it up. "I better get dressed."

Hearing this, an imperial firebender came forward with Zuko's uniform, but Iroh waved him away.

"You can go. I will assist my nephew."

The man nodded his acquiescence, and left.

Iroh held out Zuko's pants, and the young man took them and slid them on.

"Do you really think I did well, Uncle?" Zuko fastened the front of his trousers and took his shirt from Iroh's outstretched hand.

"Yes, indeed, Zuko. As well as any man that I have ever seen."

Zuko looked uncertain. "D – do you think that my father is proud of me?"

"Of course. He is always proud of you."

Zuko's look turned to doubt. "If you say so, Uncle."

"I do." He watched while Zuko buttoned his shirt, and handed him socks.

Zuko sat down on his bed and pulled them on, followed by his boots, which Iroh handed him.

Zuko stood, and next came his body and shoulder armor, which had been newly purchased. Iroh settled the heavy plates on his nephew's torso, and tightened the ties beneath each arm. Zuko obediently held out both arms, and Iroh wrapped his wrist guards on and fastened them. The young man sat back down on the bed, and lifted first one leg, then the other, for Iroh to secure his boots.

Iroh sat down on the bed next to his nephew when he was done. "You know, Zuko, I did this same thing for your father for his genbuku, and for Lu Ten. It is a tradition, you know, for a young man to be dressed by his eldest male relative after his genbuku."

"No, I didn't know that."

"Yes. A man gets his first set of armor for his genbuku, and his father – or his grandfather – or his uncle, helps him to put it on."

"Why did you help Father – and Lu Ten, instead of Grandfather?"

"Well, he was Fire Lord, you see, and much too important." He smiled.

"Oh." Zuko looked off into the distance. "Uncle, I need to tell you something."

"What is it, my boy?"

Zuko drew a deep breath. "It's about the night that Grandfather – died. Something happened."

Iroh's blood iced in his veins. He remembered Lan telling him, when she came back from the Academy, about something that happened that awful night – something that she thought he ought to talk to Zuko about, although he had not pursued it since that time. Now, it seems, it was pursuing him. "What happened?"

Zuko was slow in responding. He did not want to be disloyal to his father, but the events of that night had plagued him. "Father wanted an audience with Grandfather, and he brought Mom, Azula, and me along with him. Grandfather got mad – at me – because, well, because I wasn't a very good firebender, and Grandfather sent us all away – everyone but Father." Zuko fell silent, choosing his words carefully. "I was leaving – really, I was – but Azula pulled me behind a curtain, and – well, we listened to Father's conversation with Grandfather."

"Oh?"

"Yes, and Father – Father told Grandfather that," his next words came in a rush, "that, with Lu Ten having – died, that your line was – extinct."

Extinct. The very word that Ozai had used with Iroh the day that Iroh had returned.

"Go on." Iroh deliberately kept his voice calm.

"Well, then, Father told Grandfather that he – Father – was here, and that his children – are alive, and that he wanted to help."

"Help? How?" Iroh thought he knew how Ozai wanted to help.

"By – by being Fire Lord." Zuko's voice was very small.

Iroh drew in a deep breath through his nostrils.

Zuko went on. "Grandfather became very angry. He said that Dad was being – disloyal, to speak of such a thing right after you had lost Lu Ten. He said that your suffering was over, but that Dad's – Father's – suffering had just begun."

There was a lingering silence, which Iroh finally broke. "What happened next, Zuko?"

Zuko shook his head. "I don't know. I got scared and ran away."

"Oh." He thought that was the end of it.

"But Azula stayed."

"She did?"

Zuko nodded. "Later on, she came to my bedroom, and told me that – that Grandfather had told Dad that, because of Dad's – treachery, that he should know the pain of losing a first-born son. And she said that Grandfather had ordered Father to – to kill me." His last words were weak, and he looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap. "She said that Dad was going to do it – was going to kill me."

Iroh wanted to reassure his nephew. "Well, Zuko, we know that's not true, since you are still here."

"But Mom's not."

Iroh thought that he had heard his nephew incorrectly. "I beg your pardon?"

"Mom came into my room and heard Azula, and – and I think she made Azula tell her what Grandfather said."

"And what happened next?"

Zuko shook his head again. "I don't know. Mom came to my room later that night and told me that she had done something – something to protect me. She was wearing the cloak she always wore when she went out at night, but, I was – sleepy, and I didn't notice, and I didn't really understand what she was talking about. And – and I went back to sleep." He shrugged. "And the next day, when I woke up, Grandfather had died, and – Mom had, too. And I don't know what happened, Uncle."

Iroh felt a chill go all the way through him. "Did you tell anyone about this?"

Zuko nodded. "Lan. I told her the night of Grandfather's funeral."

"No one else?"

He shook his head. "I shouldn't have kept this from you for so long. I'm sorry."

"You do not need to apologize. You, of all the people involved, have nothing to be sorry for." He clasped his nephew's hand comfortingly.

The Dragon of the West, who feared nothing on Earth, was suddenly very scared of his baby brother – what he had done, and what he might do.


Azula found her father in his sitting room. He had just changed for dinner into a lightweight armor, and was enjoying a cup of tea.

She sank to the floor in a show of respect.

"Azula." Ozai took a sip of tea. "I have a task for you."

"I willingly do your bidding, my lord."

"Your brother, Zuko. Keep him away from the Water Tribe whore tonight."

She smiled. "Yes, Sire. It will be my pleasure."


Iroh, although vastly troubled by his nephew's story, knew that tonight was not the time to confront his brother. That time, if and when it came, would not be the night of Prince Zuko's genbuku. So Iroh, the greatest of diplomats, adept at masking his feelings, pasted a smile on his face, told Zuko that all was well, and went in search of his niece.

He found her sitting in one of the chairs that bordered the dance floor, scuffing her foot on the ground.

"Well, Little Duck! Prince Zuko will be here soon. Would you like to get in the reception line now?"

Lan glanced at the line, which had doubled in length since she had arrived, smiled, and jumped up. "Yes! I've been waiting forever!"

They queued at the end, and Iroh turned to his niece. "Did you sit in that chair the entire time I was gone?"

She looked sheepish. "More or less."

Iroh looked at her wisely. "There is something that you are not telling me."

"Well, I may have seen Azula."

"Ah."

"She started it!"

"She usually does. But as long as you did not come to fisticuffs –"

"I don't think Azula engages in fisticuffs, Uncle. She's more of a set them on fire sort of person."

Iroh chuckled.

"Did you get to see Zuko?" Lan asked nonchalantly.

"Yes. I helped him dress."

The thought of Zuko without clothes made her blush deeply, and Iroh, despite himself, giggled.

Lan turned to him with wide eyes. "Uncle, did you just – giggle?"

"It happens every so often. Look, there's Zuko." He pointed at the reception platform.

Lan whirled. Sure enough, Zuko had just mounted the platform and was beginng to greet his guests, a smile on his face. Lan's heart jumped. He was dressed now in Fire Nation armor, and Lan thought that he had never looked more handsome. The shoulder armor made him look even broader than usual, and she felt a thrill go through her body, although she could not readily identify the source.

Iroh watched as Zuko bowed and shook hands and smiled and laughed, but his own eyes narrowed. Neither Ozai nor Azula stood next to the boy, as was proper, and Iroh now wished that he himself had consented to stand with him. No one should have to greet guests at his genbuku alone. Yet another thing for which Ozai had to answer.


It took Iroh and Lan Chi more than a half hour to reach the platform – a half hour in which Lan fidgeted and touched her hair and wiped her hands on her robe – all sure signs, to Iroh, of her nerves.

They mounted the stairs, and finally reached the crown prince. Zuko was just bidding goodbye to a group of well-wishers, and, after they had gone, he turned his attention to his uncle and cousin. Upon recognizing them, his smile changed from polite to genuine. Even though he had been very angry with Lan only days before, upon seeing her, he couldn't be angry anymore.

"Uncle! Lan Chi!" He bowed deeply to them.

Lan, whose face seemed to be permanently red, cast her eyes down briefly before looking at him. "Zuko, you were wonderful earlier." Wonderful. There was that word again. Couldn't she think of any other words to describe him?

He blushed, as well. "Thank you. Did you really – like it?"

"It was – wonderful." Shut up now, Lan Chi!

Zuko was speechless, nodding. She looked so beautiful, and he did not know what to say.

Iroh took pity on them. "Have you seen Master Jiao Ao yet, Prince Zuko? He was quite pleased with you."

Zuko smiled. "He was here a few minutes ago."

"He was so proud of you, Zuko! So was Uncle." Lan blurted out spontaneously.

"Were you?" The words were out of Zuko's mouth before he could prevent them, and he wished he could recall them.

"Oh, yes, Zuko! I was – I am!" Her enthusiasm was so genuine that Iroh wanted to hug her, for it obviously bolstered Zuko's beleaguered ego.

He seemed to sag with relief. "Thank you." It was his turn to cast his eyes down.

"The armor suits you, Zuko." Iroh tried to fill the silence.

His nephew's light eyes came up again. "Thank you, Uncle."

"It does." Lan agreed readily.

"Thank you, Cousin. And your robe – it's so beautiful! The dragon embroidery is – is – lovely!" He finished finally, pointing at the dragon above her breast. Then, realizing where he was pointing, he dropped his finger hurriedly.

Lan, if she noticed his mistake, said nothing. "Thank you. I embroidered it myself."

His eyes goggled. "You did? It's really – beautiful! And I am so glad that you didn't wear red. That was the way I found you in the audience. You were the only one wearing yellow."

"Oh! I'm so glad! I – I didn't want to – blend in, I guess."

Just then, a man behind them cleared his throat significantly, and Iroh took the hint. "We are taking too much of your time, nephew. There are still many people to greet. We will see you in the dining room."

"Oh, yes, Uncle. I'll – see you!"

As they were walking away, Zuko stopped Lan with a hand on her arm. "Will you save a dance for me?"

Lan Chi's eyes slid to her uncle's for a moment, then back to Zuko. "Oh – oh, sure, Zuko. Of course."

He nodded, smiled, released her, and turned to his next guest.

As they walked away, Lan took her uncle's arm.

"You aren't going to dance with him, are you?"

She shook her head sadly. "No. I have no desire to needlessly anger the Fire Lord."

"Good girl." He patted her hand, and began to chuckle.

"What's so funny?"

"Watching the two of you – complimenting each other – it was so cute."

She shot him a dark look. "I find that highly ironic coming from the man who has been trying to keep us apart for the past six months."

He shrugged. "I have often been told that I have an inappropriate sense of humor."


In the dining room, Iroh and Lan gave their names to the servant standing at the door.

"Ah, yes, General Iroh. You are at the family's main table. And Lady Lan Chi, you are at the – um, second children's table."

Lan gave Iroh a knowing look. "Children's table, huh?"

"Shall I complain?" Iroh gave an encouraging smile.

She shook her head. "No. I'll be fine at the children's table. Besides, I think I might lose my appetite at your table."

Iroh laughed. "Perhaps I should sit at the children's table, as well."

Lan smiled crookedly. "Coward."

He gave her a wink as he was led away.

He was taken to a table set high on a platform overlooking the rest of the room, where Ozai's throne sat in the middle. To his surprise, his name was on a card at the right hand of the throne. To his dismay, the two chairs to his immediate right were already occupied – by Li and Lo.

He had avoided the two women since their alarming prophecy months ago, and to now find himself trapped with them was alarming in itself.

He mustered a smile. "Ladies." He bowed and took his seat.

They inclined their heads at the same time. "Iroh." Their voices were in unison, which sent a shiver down their quarry's spine.

"We have seen the work that you have done with Prince Zuko." Iroh was not going to even attempt to identify the speaker.

"You have done a fine job." The other intoned.

"But your task is not complete."

"Yes, it is true." Iroh acknowledged.

"He needs you more than ever."

"And his needs will soon be manifold."

Iroh looked around desperately for something to change the subject. "Ah, tea! Would you ladies like tea?" Without waiting for an answer, he filled their cups. "Tea is one of my favorite things in the entire world. I have always been fond of ginseng tea, but lately, I have found that my tastes run more towards jasmine. Of course, lychee is quite tasty as well, although wu long has been piquing my interest lately. It is full-bodied, with a flavorful fragrance and sweet aroma. Because it is semi-fermented, however, it can keep you up at night!" Although aware that he was prattling, he was anxious to keep the women away from making another creepy prediction.

As if in answer to his prayer, Azula mounted the dais, and Iroh's eyes lit up. "Ah, Princess Azula! How lovely you look! I was just speaking to Li and Lo about the merits of different varieties of tea! Would you care to join us?"

Azula looked at him as if he had run mad. "Why ever would I want to talk about tea, Uncle? I have never, to my knowledge, discussed tea in my entire life – and I do not intend to start now." She walked past him to the other side of the throne, where her name sat on a chair one seat away from her father.

Iroh dropped his head in despair. There would be no rescue from that quarter – he didn't know why he had expected there to be.


Lan Chi, in the meantime, was led to a huge table that was already half-filled with boys around her own age and possibly older. To her immediate left was a young man who, when she sat down, glanced at her briefly. His eyes bulged when he saw her hair, but, to his credit, they soon resumed their normal position on his face, and he smiled.

"Hello. I'm Hao Kan Shi." he held out his hand. "Nice to meet you."

Lan took his hand and gave a brief shake. "Lady Lan Chi Sun." He seemed slightly older than Lan, with sandy hair, and warm, laughing brown eyes.

His brows rose. "Oh. A title. Impressive."

She blushed. "Not really. It's from my father's family. It's not as if I did anything to earn it."

"Still. It's good to have a title. No one in my family does."

"Well, with a title and a copper piece, I can get a cup of tea."

He laughed. "True." He gave a nod of his head to the royal family's table. "How do you know Prince Zuko?"

She colored again. "He's my cousin."

He grinned. "So, not just a title – a royal title."

"Not really. We're not related by blood."

"Oh. Well. This is my cousin," he gave a light slap to the boy beside him, who turned. "Zhen Ku."

"Hi." He smiled at her, and she reciprocated. "Where did you get that crazy hair color?"

She tried not to be self-conscious. "I was born with it."

"Oh." He nodded, accepting her answer. "I was born bald. Crazy, huh?"

"Yeah. Crazy." She gave another small smile. "How do you two know Zuko?"

Hao shrugged. "I don't – my father is a minister in – some department. I don't really know which one. And Zhen's grandfather is a general – of something."

"Oh. That's interesting."

"So..." Hao began. "You got a dance card?"

Lan was taken aback. "Uh – I don't know."

He looked around and pointed at a paper in front of her place setting. "There it is."

She picked it up, and, sure enough, her name was on it. "There it is." She repeated inanely.

He held out his hand, and she gave it to him uncertainly. He picked up a small, thin piece of charcoal from a bowl in the center of the table, scratched his name on her card, and passed it to his cousin, who did the same. Lan blushed, but was very grateful. At least she wouldn't be sitting out every dance.

The dining room had finally filled up, and, after everyone was in their place, Zuko and the Fire Lord were announced.

Everyone stood to applaud, and Lan clapped enthusiastically, although she could see only the top of Zuko's head over all the other guests. She could see him better as he mounted the stairs, and, again, her heart thumped painfully. She laid a hand upon her chest – love was uncomfortable sometimes.


When Zuko reached the top of the dais, he saw that he was to be seated at his father's left side, next to his sister, and he groaned to himself. Ozai gave him a nod, and they both sat, followed by everyone else in the room.

He craned his neck to look for Lan Chi, but could not pick her out in the sea of people – even in yellow.

Azula gave her brother an insincere smile. "Hello, Zu-zu. Enjoying your genbuku?"

He gave her a brief look of dislike. "I was."

"Hmm. Aren't you charming?"

"It's a trait that apparently doesn't run in the family," he said absently, still searching the room.

"So clever, Brother. But truly, you did a really good job tonight."

He was shocked enough to look at her. "I did?"

"Of course. All those months being trained by our tea-swilling uncle – if nothing else, he is a good firebender. And your swordmaster – what's his name? Ow Ow?"

"Jiao Ao." Zuko corrected stiffly.

"Whatever." She waved her hand blithely. "You did well. You should be celebrating."

He finally found his quarry, and he smiled. "I am." Now.

"You should. You should eat – and dance –" Her own gaze swept over the room. "Oh, look. There are Mai and Ty Lee." She waved, and Zuko pulled his eyes from Lan Chi long enough to follow the wave's direction.

Mai and Ty Lee were facing them, sitting at a nearby table with several other people about their ages. Ty Lee waved back but Mai looked bored.

Zuko frowned. "What are they doing here? I thought I told you they couldn't come."

She smiled sweetly. "Dad said they could ."

Zuko groaned, and Azula gave him a sidelong glance.

"Don't you think Mai is looking particularly fetching tonight, Zuko?"

He shrugged. "I suppose."

"I told her to wear black. It complements her creamy complexion so well, doesn't it?"

Zuko took another look. Mai did look pretty. She was a good-looking girl – that was what had attracted him to her in the first place. She was slim and willowy, with straight, thick, black hair, and tonight, dressed in black, she was prettier than usual.

"Yes, it does."

"She's so pretty, isn't she?"

Zuko gave a grunt.

"Are you going to dance with her tonight?"

Dance with Mai? He had not thought of it. He planned to dance with Lan Chi, but had given dancing no thought beyond that. "I don't know."

Azula smiled. "I think you should. Where's your dance card?"

"Why should I have a dance card? Girls have dance cards, not boys."

"Not at your genbuku, dum dum. You're the guest of honor – so you get a card, too. All the girls have to compete for your attention."

"Oh."

Azula saw his card and snatched it from the table. "I'll be right back." She pushed her chair back, and sprinted away.

"What? No, come back." He hissed at her, but she ignored him, and he groaned. He was not going to chase her from the dais.

Stupid sister.


During this time, as the meal began to arrive, Iroh's thoughts were whirling. He ran over in his head, again and again, what Zuko had told him earlier. He did not know exactly what to make of it – especially the part related to Azula and Ursa. And, of course, he could ask neither of them. It bore additional reflection – but at a time and place where he could concentrate – when his brother was not sitting a foot away.

He decided to tackle a different subject – one that Ozai would probably not appreciate, either. "I noticed, Brother, that you were not in the reception line with your son."

Ozai, who had been served first, continued to eat unconcernedly. "Do I sense a rebuke, Iroh?"

"It is traditional for the boy's father to stand with him."

"I thought that was the role you wanted."

Iroh turned slightly red. "You are his father."

"Yes. To my unending chagrin."

Iroh stole a look at his nephew to determine if he had heard Ozai, but, luckily, Zuko was involved in a discussion with Azula. "Zuko is a wonderful, bright, brave young man, Ozai. You should be proud of him." His voice was pitched low so that only his brother could hear him.

Ozai gave a bark of laughter. "Oh, yes. He is a paragon."

Iroh, rarely at a loss for words, was silent. There were actually many words that he could say to Ozai, but few were appropriate for dinner conversation. What he actually wanted to do was cuff his brother on the back of his head and tell him to grow up, but that was not possible. Ozai was long past discipline.


Azula came back to Zuko, a triumphant look on her face. "Look, Zu-zu! I got your entire card filled up!" There was mischievous glee on her face.

"What?" Zuko grabbed the card from her hand and peered at it. She was right – every single dance was claimed. "There's not even one empty dance!"

"You are more popular than I thought."

He saw Azula's name scribbled at the top of the card. "You? Why am I dancing with you first?"

Her eyes became innocent. "Well, Father did want us to dance – and I thought the first was probably the most appropriate. It's the battle victory dance."

"Fine," Zuko grumbled. "But who is this? And this? And this?" He indicated three names. "I don't even know these girls!"

"Well, you will by the end of the night, won't you?"

He set his jaw stubbornly. "I am not going to dance with them! Or Ty Lee!"

"But they're so excited, Zuko! You don't want to disappoint them, do you?"

He gave an aggrieved sigh. "Why is Mai on here twice?"

Azula smiled. "Because she likes you. And because you said she was pretty."

"What? I did not! You said that! You didn't tell her I said that, did you?"

"I wasn't supposed to?" Her voice was guileless.

"Argh!" Zuko balled his fist in frustration. "Well, I need one dance open, so I am not going to dance with her twice."

Azula's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Why do you need a dance open?"

Zuko's eyes took on a hunted look – he did not want Azula to know that Lan Chi had promised him a dance. "I – I might need to rest."

She was incredulous. "Rest? Dancing is not strenuous exercise. I am certain that you can manage to get through seven dances without a sickbed."

Zuko's look was thunderous, but he said nothing. He would simply scratch Mai's name off later, and dance with Lan then.

"Oh, look, Zu-zu. Noodles!"

Waiters had placed the first course before them, and Azula dug in with gusto. Zuko ate sullenly, and Azula, around a mouthful of noodles, smiled secretively.


Lan Chi was surprised that she had filled six of the seven slots on her dance card, and even had the opportunity to fill the last, although she had declined the nice boy who asked her, telling him that she was saving a dance for Iroh. He accepted it with good grace, and no questions. All the dances were engaged by boys at her table, and it was then that Lan realized that there was only one other girl at a table of fifteen. She wondered if it was by design – Ozai throwing her at other boys. If so, she did not really mind. She had had little enough experience with boys, and so should have felt more awkward, but she did not. They were surprisingly easy to talk to.

Lan took the precaution of writing Iroh's name in the one empty space on her dance card. She did not even know if Iroh would dance with her, although she knew of no reason why he should not, but she thought that she could use one dance during which she would not have to make small talk.


Small talk was the last thing on Zuko's mind, as well. At this point, he wanted to escape his sister, who was continuing to be overly nice to him. Overly, suspiciously nice.

She was watching him almost constantly, a smile on her face, and it was unnerving. He tried to distract himself, so he turned his thoughts to Lan.

"So, Zuko, are you going to kiss her?"

He had not been paying much attention, so he shrugged. "I don't know. I might." His mind finally registered her words. "Wait. What?"

She leaned on her hands. "You don't need to be shy. I know you've kissed Mai before. She told me."

"Sh – she did?"

Azula nodded. "But, you know, Zu-zu, you're both older."

Zuko was confused. "So?"

"So? You're not children anymore. After all, you're a man now. You can kiss her with your tongue – I'm sure she'll like it."

Zuko's eyes opened very wide. "Wh – wh – what?"

She gave an exasperated sigh. "Don't you know anything? Men and women – when they really like each other – that's how they kiss."

"Wi – with their tongues?" he asked, skeptical.

"Yes. Honestly! How old are you, anyway? They stick their tongues into each other's mouth!"

Zuko reddened. "I – I knew that."

She clearly did not believe him.


Lan Chi enjoyed dinner – the meal was good, and the companions pleasant, and she wondered if Zuko was enjoying himself, as well. She was seated facing away from the royal family's table, so she could not see him unless she turned around completely or stood, and, since both would cause comment, she did neither and hoped that he was.

As dinner wound down, she could hear the band starting to play a song. Many of those at her table began to chafe to move back to the ballroom, and waited impatiently for Ozai to rise and indicate that it was permissible to leave the room.

He finally did, followed by Zuko, and the dining room rose in response. The Fire Lord and his son started for the ballroom, followed by Azula, Iroh, and finally, Li and Lo, moving much more slowly. As Zuko passed close to Lan Chi's table, he smiled at her, then started when he realized that she was surrounded almost entirely by boys. A frown pulled his face down, and he looked daggers at the young men. She saw the change in his expression, and felt inexplicably guilty for a moment. However, when his eyes moved back to hers, she smiled reassuringly at him, and his face cleared.

After he and the rest of the royal party had left the room, the party-goers started to follow. Hao grabbed Lan's hand unexpectedly. "Come on. We don't want to miss the first dance!"

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