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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 28 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 27 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 29 (The Spirit Within) 
As she was following the intricate steps with Hao, she looked up to see Zuko's eyes on her. They were calculating and cold, and they made her feel uncomfortable. She turned her back on him deliberately.
"You're a good dancer," Hao remarked as he turned her in a circle.
"Thank you. My uncle paid for a dancing master."
Hao laughed. "Honest, aren't you?"
She smiled. "I try to be." Just not all the time.
"Does that mean you don't always succeed?"
"It means it's an ongoing project."
"So, do you live in the capital?"
"I live here."
His eyes bulged again. "At the palace?"
She blushed. She had probably said too much. "I live with my uncle."
"Your uncle the Fire Lord?" He indicated Ozai, sitting on yet another throne, on the reception platform.
It was her turn to laugh. "The Fire Lord is not my uncle."
The music ended then, and they clapped. Lan bowed to him. "Thank you for the dance. It was fun."
He smiled and bowed. "Yeah. It was."
The band struck up the next tune, and her next partner came to her and bowed. "This is my dance."
It was the palace dance, which was a line dance in which couples switched partners throughout.
She stood across from him, waiting for the measure that began the dance, but, before it started, she was jostled by someone. She turned to find a girl she had never seen before wedge herself in, guided by her partner. Zuko!
His face was bitter, and she sighed to herself.
The dance began, and Lan stepped in towards her partner. She circled him, and stepped back into line. Her partner then stepped out at the same time as Zuko's, and they circled one another. They stepped back into place, and it was Lan's turn to step out with Zuko.
As they circled each other, he whispered to her. "Is that one of the boys you've kissed?"
A frown settled on her face. "Jealous?"
"No," he said as he stepped back.
She sighed. This was a Zuko she didn't know, and she didn't like. But she also had no one to blame but herself, really. She had as good as told him that she was fickle and had been giving her affections away freely.
She waited until the pattern of the dance brought them back together. "I lied."
He looked confused as he circled her. "What?"
"When you came for tea – I lied."
They stepped away and came back together again, and she continued. "I've never kissed any other boy, but you."
A huge smile split his face. "Really?"
She had to wait until the music brought them back together again. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you the truth."
He had to take her fingers at this point, and Lan's pulse jumped. "Do you have any dances free?"
She thought immediately of Iroh's dance, which she had not even told her uncle about. "The fifth dance. But I'm not dancing with you. Uncle's veins would pop."
He looked around to determine if anyone was listening before speaking. "The fifth dance is right after a break. Meet me outside at the fountain in the courtyard."
They had to wait until the dance brought them back together for Lan to speak. "Could you be more specific, please? There are at least twenty fountains."
He smiled. "At my old house. You know the one."
She blushed. She had fallen in love with him by that fountain. "Yes, I know."
"You'll be there?"
"Against my better judgment, yes."
He smiled as they separated, a dazzling smile that caused her to miss a beat and step on her partner's foot as she turned. "Sorry. This isn't my best dance." She apologized.
The boy looked pained.
There was a break after the second dance, as well – a time for drinking punch and socializing, and, although Zuko would have liked to have remained at Lan Chi's side, she refused.
"Go away! Your father is looking over here!"
Zuko glanced at the throne, and saw that Lan was right, so he grabbed his dance partner's hand and dragged her to the punch bowl.
He thrust a cup in her hand. "You look thirsty."
The girl, named Da Wei, in the same year as Azula at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, had recognized Lan Chi, and had also noticed how she and Zuko had been whispering to each other during the dance. "Is – is Lady Lan Chi your girlfriend, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko, who had been peering over her head at Lan, was drawn back by that question. "What? No! Why do you ask?" He was alarmed.
"You kept whispering to her, and you looked kind of mad sometimes."
"Oh. No. She's – just my cousin. Nothing else, really."
"Oh." Da Wei nodded. "I – I just wanted to say how fun it was to dance with you. And that you did really well at your genbuku."
He looked at her for the first time. She was actually a pretty girl, with dark brown hair and eyes, and a kind face – and he hadn't even noticed.
He smiled at her. "Thanks."
Lan Chi was right. Ozai had been watching them. In fact, he had been watching Lan Chi the entire night. He had watched her at the genbuku – had seen the way she looked at Zuko. He had seen the expression on Zuko's face when Zuko had smiled at Lan Chi in the audience. And Ozai had not been pleased.
It was for this reason that he had charged Azula with keeping them apart. She, unlike Zuko, knew her place in the world. And, if Zuko did not soon learn his, Ozai would have to take drastic steps.
Lan bid her partner good-bye and went in search of Iroh, whom she had not spoken to since before dinner. She found him sitting with a group of older men, all dressed in military uniforms. She bowed before them.
"Ah, Lady Lan Chi!" Iroh smiled and beckoned her close. "I was just telling these men how talented you are."
"Thank you, Uncle. I'm sure you were exaggerating."
He gave a low laugh. "Perhaps just a little. Let me present you to General Ling. He is the commander of the Yu Yan Archers."
She turned wide eyes on the man Iroh indicated, and bowed deeply. "It is my honor to meet you, Sir. I studied with the Yu Yan when I was younger."
"Ah, yes, I recall Colonel Shinu telling me about you. You are indeed talented, aren't you?"
She blushed. "Thank you."
"I understand that you have met my grandson, Hao Kan."
Lan registered surprise. "He was at my dinner table – and I just danced with him!"
General Ling nodded and smiled. "He is a good boy. When he leaves the Academy, he is going straight into the army. We expect great things from him."
"I am sure he will do great things – he has his grandfather and father to set him a good example." Iroh smiled, and turned to Lan Chi. "Are you enjoying the dancing, Lady Lan Chi?"
A thought dawned on Lan, and she squinted at her uncle. "Uncle, do all of your friends have grandsons?"
He colored. "One or two, perhaps."
She shook her head, but leaned over and kissed Iroh's cheek. "Thank you, Uncle," she said softly.
Zuko's third dance was the first of two dances with Mai. It was the courtship dance, and, although Zuko would have much preferred to dance it with Lan, he had to admit that Mai was a good dancer. He stole looks at Lan Chi and her partner throughout the dance, and, although he tried not to be jealous, he was.
Ever since his last fight with Lan, he had tried to not think of her words. I've kissed a lot of boys. Those words haunted him, and, even though, in the end, his feelings for her had not changed, he had known long hours of jealousy. But Zuko, resilient and stubborn, had decided not to give up. He had vowed that, one day, she would be his, and she would be. He was determined.
That didn't mean that he wanted to see the girl he loved dancing with another boy. But, then again, he admitted as he clasped Mai's wrist, Lan probably didn't like seeing him with Mai.
"You did really well tonight, Zuko," she said, interrupting his thoughts.
He smiled slightly. "Thanks."
"I was really glad when you invited me."
He knew he should tell her the truth – he knew that he should tell her that there was no chance for them – but he also knew that it would cost him nothing to be kind. "I'm glad you could come."
When the music finally ended after the fourth dance, Lan Chi thanked her partner and made her way towards the ladies' powder room. She thought that she could make a safe escape to the courtyard that way. Although there were several ladies and a few girls lingering about the door, she was able to slip out without exacting comment.
She had been worried that guards would try to stop her as she walked to the courtyard she sought, but she discovered that there were quite a few guests milling about, and the guards took no notice of her. She looked over her shoulder several times to make sure that there was no one following her, and, to her relief, she saw no one.
She finally reached the courtyard without incident. It appeared to be deserted, and she walked with trepidation to the fountain. She had thought, for some reason, that Zuko would be here before her.
Maybe he isn't coming. Maybe his father found out.
Hands came up from behind her and over her eyes. "Guess who?" A voice, low and throaty, whispered in her ear.
She smiled with his hands still blinding her. "You shouldn't sneak up on me. I am a trained warrior." She turned, and his hands slid down to cup her face. He was smiling, too, but the smile disappeared as he leaned in to touch his lips to hers.
Her heart fluttered within her chest, and she tentatively brought her arms around his torso. With his armor on, she could not get very close to him, but it was much closer than she had ever been.
After a satisfying interval, he pulled away. "I've missed you so much."
"Me, too." Why did her language skills always dissipate whenever he was around?
"Did you have trouble getting away?"
She shook her head wordlessly, simply drinking in the sight of him in the light of the moon and of the torches scattered throughout the courtyard. By the spirits, she didn't think she would ever tire of looking at him.
"Who are those boys you were dancing with?" He tried to make his voice nonchalant.
"They were at my table. I think that Uncle convinced them to ask me to dance."
"I doubt it."
"Who wouldn't want to dance with you? You're the most beautiful girl at the ball."
She blushed. "Zuko..."
He interrupted her. "I want to show you something."
She nodded, and he took her hand to lead her to a door in the wall that was almost completely obscured with vines.
"I've never seen this door! Where does it lead?"
"Patience." He tugged it open, and pulled her through.
They were in the palace gardens, a place that Lan Chi had only been a handful of times. "The gardens are this close to Uncle's house?"
"Mm-hmm." He grinned at her. "I know this palace like the back of my hand."
A multitude of flower beds stood in rows, and, although winter, the capital was close enough to the equator that most of the plants stood in full flower.
"Come here." He led her to a bed directly in the middle of the gardens, where a dozen rose bushes were covered in blooms. He held one of the blossoms for her to smell.
She obliged, and drew deeply of its scent. It was sweet, with faint overtones of anisette and fresh tobacco.
"It smells wonderful."
"Can you see the color?"
"Not very well."
"Here." He brought a small flame from his hand. The rose was large and many petalled, with a deep, rusty bronze color.
"It's beautiful." She looked at him, and noticed that his face was unusually somber. She put a hand on his cheek. "Zuko, what is it?"
The flame he held went out, and he brought his hand came up to cover hers. It was still warm. "It's called the Princess Ursa rose."
"The gardeners have been cultivating it for years. It's funny, because she always wore that shade of red. Always." His voice was thick with tears.
She brought her other hand up to frame his face. "Zuko. I'm so sorry." She stood on her toes to kiss him, her lips soft against his.
His hands drifted to her waist, and he brought her close to him. He slanted his face to deepen the kiss, but, thinking better of it, he pulled away, but did not release her. "You are so beautiful." He whispered.
"So are you." Her voice was wispy.
He chuckled and released her. "I want to give you something." He grasped a rose by the stem and heated his fingers until the stem burned away. He tucked the flower into her hair, and smiled. "Now you're even more beautiful."
Even though she wanted nothing more than to stay there with him, reason got the better of her. "We should get back to the ballroom. The dance is probably over."
"When can I see you again?"
"I don't know. Uncle still won't like it."
"I'm starting to not care who will and won't like it."
"Zuko – don't say that. You know it's not true."
"It's my life, Lan Chi – not Uncle's or Father's or Azula's."
"I know, but –"
"Don't you want to see me again?"
"Of course, but –"
"Too many but's. I'll find a way. And soon. I promise." He gave her a swift kiss, and grabbed her hand. "Let's go."
Zuko's absence did not go unnoticed by those in the ballroom. However, he was not the only person whose presence was missed.
Princess Azula was dancing with her partner, a very handsome boy she thought was potential boyfriend material, and she was enjoying herself. So, when Ty Lee hissed at her from the edge of the dance floor, Azula very pointedly ignored her.
"Azula! Azula!" Ty Lee's whisper was not quiet.
Azula continued to pretend Ty Lee was not there, until her partner sighed. "Princess Azula. I think your friend wants your attention."
"Don't look at her. She'll go away."
"Azula!" Ty Lee was hopping up and down. Azula rolled her eyes.
"Fine. One minute." She stomped over to the other girl. "What do you want?"
"This is my dance with Zuko, but I can't find him."
She was instantly alert. "Oh, really? Is anyone else missing?"
"Yes. Mai! Her partner's standing over there." She indicated a portly boy looking around anxiously.
Azula smiled. "Well, there you have it. They're together."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Zuko was talking about kissing Mai earlier. He's probably taken her outside."
"But I was supposed to dance with Zuko."
"Just dance with Mai's partner. He looks –" she hesitated. "Perfectly presentable."
Ty Lee looked unconvinced. "I don't know."
Azula sighed. "Well, do what you like. I'm going back to my partner."
Lan and Zuko returned to the ballroom separately, just as the fifth dance was ending. Lan's partner for the sixth dance, Zhen Ku, found her quickly, and they found a spot on the floor.
Zuko's partner was the third of the three girls he didn't know, but he bowed graciously to her and led her onto the dance floor with a smile. He couldn't prevent the smile; he was happier than he had been in a long, long time. His genbuku had been a success, and the girl he loved liked him back. He wanted to think that she loved him as he loved her, and he was almost one hundred percent certain that she did, but neither had said it to the other yet. He had been very tempted to tell her tonight, but the last time that he had attempted it, she had panicked. He did not want to spook her again – there would be time enough to tell her of his feelings. After all, they had the rest of their lives.
Lan, too, was in a good mood, and she smiled and laughed at every silly thing that her partner said. Her lips still tingled from Zuko's kisses, and she could still taste him there.
"That's a pretty rose in your hair." Zhen said. "Where did you get it?"
She shrugged. "The gardens."
"Oh. It's nice."
She smiled again. "Thanks."
The dance ended, and she bowed to her partner. "Thank you. It was fun."
"It was fun." The boy blushed. "Do you – maybe – want to go out – for tea some time – or something?"
Lan blushed in response, and searched her mind for an excuse. "Thanks – that's really nice of you – but my uncle – doesn't really let me date yet."
He looked disappointed. "Oh. Okay. That's okay. Maybe – some other time."
She smiled as they walked off the dance floor.
Zuko, who had been watching Lan Chi throughout, started moving towards her as the dance ended, and heard Zhen's words. His face darkened. His shoulder dipped, and he slammed into Lan's partner.
The poor boy staggered to the side, and Lan whirled to see Zuko cover up a smirk.
"Oh, I am so sorry." Zuko was all apologies. "I did not see you." He bowed to the other boy, and then to Lan Chi, with a knowing smile on his face. "Lady Lan Chi. Wonderful to see you. Have you been having a pleasant evening?"
"I was, Prince Zuko – until you nearly crippled my partner." Despite her harsh words, she smiled at him.
He bowed to her again. "Then I beg your pardon, as well, my lady." His emphasis on the last two words did not escaped Lan Chi's attention. She felt a thrill go through her – my lady. She liked the idea of belonging to him. It was – nice.
Zhen straightened his uniform. "It's quite all right, your highness. Congratulations on your genbuku."
He inclined his head. "Thank you."
Just then, Mai came up. "The next dance is starting, Zuko." Her eyes slid to Lan Chi.
Lan was miffed that Mai did not use his title when speaking to him in public – it was a little too familiar. Still, she was too level-headed to shove the other girl, as she itched to do, so she contented herself with a nod and a smile, and walked off.
Zuko watched her for a brief moment, but, cognizant that Mai was staring at him, he turned to her and proffered his arm.
When the dance ended, Zuko thanked Mai, led her from the dance floor, and went in search of his uncle.
Azula was very dissatisfied with her last partner, who had sweaty palms and who had stepped on her foot. As she gladly left him, she saw Zuko, with a smile, departing from Mai, and, with a smile of her own, Azula headed over to see her friend. She slipped her arm through the older girl's, and drew her away.
"So. You're welcome."
Mai frowned slightly. "I should be thanking you?"
"Of course. For sending Zuko your way."
"For two dances? I guess I can say "thank you.""
Azula looked at her as if she were crazy. "Two dances? What about sneaking outside during the fifth dance? Didn't he kiss you? I told him to."
Mai stopped. It was her turn to look at her friend as if she were crazy. "I wasn't outside with Zuko."
Azula was puzzled and annoyed. "Well, where were you during the fifth dance?"
"I was in the bathroom. Some stupid boy spilled an entire glass of punch on me. I was cleaning up." She held out her skirts, which did look stained.
Azula's eyes narrowed in thought. If her brother wasn't with Mai during that time, where was he?
She had a suspicion – one that did not please her – and one that would definitely not please her father.
Zuko found his uncle where he had been all evening – sitting with his cronies, swapping tales of glory days. Zuko bowed to all of them at one time, and turned to Iroh anxiously. "Uncle, I think it's almost time for the tribute ceremony. Are you ready?"
Iroh looked at him blankly. "Tribute ceremony?"
Zuko became concerned. "The tribute ceremony! The toast!"
Recognition dawned. "Toast! Oh, yes, the toast! Of course."
Zuko's eyes widened. "Y – you did prepare a toast, didn't you?"
"Of course I did! I've had it written – for days!"
His nephew gave a relieved smile. "Thank you, Uncle. I will see you in the dining room."
"Yes! Yes, my boy! I will see you in there – soon." When Zuko was gone, Iroh gritted his teeth. The toast! How could he have forgotten to write the toast?
As if on cue, a servant announced that the tribute ceremony would take place in ten minutes in the dining room. Iroh gave a weary sigh. He had ten minutes in which to compose a stirring, heartfelt toast to his only nephew.
Upon the announcement of the tribute ceremony, Lan Chi decided to visit the powder room. When she reached it, she wished she had made the decision earlier, because it seemed that every woman at the party had the same idea at the same time.
She sighed, and queued up. Several minutes passed, and she began to fret that she would miss the toast entirely. She was just about to give up and leave, when she froze. Azula, coming out of the powder room, had seen her, and was coming directly over.
She stopped in front of Lan Chi, her arms crossed over her chest. "What is that in your hair?"
Lan's hands flew up to her head – what was Azula talking about? The rose!
"Is that my mother's rose?"
Lan held her chin up, but did not speak.
"Where did you get that?" Azula's voice was dangerously calm.
Again, Lan Chi was belligerently silent.
Azula gave her a dark look, but said nothing, and turned on her heel and marched away.
Lan Chi finally made it back to her dining table, already filled with all of its other occupants. Hao gave her a smile as she sat down.
The dinner debris had been cleared, and tea and plates of cookies had been left on all the tables for the tribute ceremony.
Everyone in the room rose as the royal family entered and resumed their own places on the dais. Everyone sat again as servants scurried to all the tables to pour tea, After the servants retreated, Iroh smiled, stood up, and cleared his throat. He looked around expectantly at the audience, and then smiled broadly at Zuko, whose face was lit with happiness.
"This is the third time that I have been given the honor of presenting the tribute at a genbuku. You old folks may remember my baby brother Ozai's genbuku, many years ago." He smiled at Ozai, who looked displeased at being called baby brother. "In fact, some may remember it better than others. How's the arm, Kahchi?" Iroh called out jovially.
A voice from the back of the room responded. "Better!" This elicited loud laughter from most of the adults, although Ozai's frown deepened.
"And still more of you may remember my beloved Lu Ten's genbuku, ten years ago." Iroh's voice became strangled with emotion. "May the spirits ease your flight into their world, my son."
Lan's eyes filled with tears, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand.
Iroh shook his head as if to clear it, and smiled again. "But tonight is a happy occasion. A night to celebrate my nephew, Zuko. Those of you who know Zuko well, know that he is a kind, generous, intelligent, trustworthy young man. He displays loyalty, honesty, and honor at all times – traits well befitting a future Fire Lord. I am certain that his reign will be marked by prosperity and integrity." Iroh picked up his tea cup and held it aloft. "Please be up standing for my nephew."
Chairs scraped back, and all in the room rose. They lifted their tea cups in imitation of Iroh.
Iroh turned to his nephew and raised his cup higher. "I give you our prince, Zuko!"
"Our prince, Zuko!" Hundreds of voice gave the tribute in unison before drinking.
Lan looked at Zuko, who was standing, as well. He bowed to his uncle, and to his father, who had remained seated throughout, as was his right, although Lan thought that it would have been nice if he had risen for his own son.
"Thank you so much, Uncle. I have been so fortunate to have you as my teacher. You have taught me so much." He smiled, and bowed to the audience. "And I would like to thank all of you, for coming. I am so humbled and honored by your presence." His voice was strong. "Truly."
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