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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 29 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 28 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 30 (The Spirit Within) 
She tucked her hand into his elbow and they began the walk back to their quarters. "You are not old, Uncle."
He chuckled. "Yes, my dear. I am old."
They passed through a set of doors attended by guards. "Well, you look young and vibrant to me."
"You are in a good mood."
She dimpled. "Perhaps."
"Does it have anything to do with that rose in your hair?"
She looked surprised. "Monkeyfeathers! I keep forgetting about that flower!"
"It was a gift, I presume?" They passed through into the family's private quarters.
She blushed. "Perhaps."
"Are you angry?"
"Were you caught?"
"Azula did recognize the flower."
"Oh, dear." He patted her hand. "Well, we'll just have to wait to see if she says anything."
"If I know Azula, she'll say something."
"I am not so sure. The one thing that I know about Azula is that she is always surprising me."
"In a good way or a bad way?"
Iroh considered this for a moment. "Generally a bad way."
"Oh." Lan was slightly more worried now.
As if reading her thoughts, Iroh squeezed her hand. "Don't fret so. Whatever occurs, I will be on your side."
"What of your bargain with Ozai?"
"I have determined that it is not such a bargain."
She leaned her head on his arm as they walked. "It is all such a mess, Uncle. What should I do?"
"I don't know, Little Duck. I wish that I did."
Zuko whistled as he walked back to his room. He was blissful; everything had gone right tonight. He had done exceptionally well at his genbuku, and he had kissed Lan Chi – not once, but several times. He couldn't wait to see her again. He wanted to kiss her and touch her and talk to her. He wanted to hold her hand, and hear her laugh, and – and so many other things! He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, and he wanted it to start now!
He slowed as he reached his room – a guard stood there, and he wondered what had occasioned his presence. The man bowed when he saw the prince.
"Prince Zuko. The Fire Lord requires your presence in the throne room."
Zuko was surprised – but pleased. Father wanted to see him! Maybe he wanted to congratulate him on his genbuku – in person.
Zuko nodded his thanks and turned for his father's throne room. The guards posted outside opened the door for him, and, after he passed through, closed them again.
The throne room, as always, was in darkness but for the flames in front of the throne. Zuko approached the throne with confidence, bolstered by the self-assurance that the night had brought him.
He prostrated himself before his father, forearms on the floor.
"Prince Zuko." Ozai's voice was flat and emotionless.
"Good evening, Sire." Zuko's voice was muffled, coming, as it did, from against the floor.
"Your genbuku was a success."
Zuko smiled, although his father could not see it. "Thank you, my lord." His heart swelled with pride at this praise, faint though it was. It was among the only times that his father had actually congratulated him without reservation.
Zuko raised his head. "M – my lord?"
"Your uncle was – insolent, as usual."
Zuko did not know what to say.
"And your conduct around the Water Tribe girl was – disgraceful."
"Father, I don't – I don't understand."
"I saw you dancing with her."
Zuko's stomach dropped. "She – she was in my set, Sire. And I could not – snub her! She is Uncle's daughter! And my cousin!"
Ozai gave a sound of disgust. "She is no blood of Iroh's. And certainly no blood of yours!"
Zuko smarted at that – he heard the tone of disdain in his father's voice, and his own next words were poorly chosen. "Then we should have no problem with the laws of consanguinity should I decide to marry her."
Ozai's face deformed with anger. "What? Have you run mad? You are my son – son of the Fire Lord! You will marry when, and where, and whom I say! And it will never be with that whore!"
"Don't call her that!" His voice was shriller than he would have liked.
"You dare to reprimand me?" Ozai was nearly apoplectic in his anger.
Zuko saw his strategic error immediately. "My – my lord! I apologize! I merely meant that such a comment is – ill befitting a monarch such as yourself!"
Ozai stood. He extinguished the flames and came down the stairs, his eyes glittering with quiescent rage. Zuko started to scoot back on his knees, suddenly scared.
Ozai reached down, grasped his son by his shoulder armor, and lifted him until they were at eye level and the boy's feet dangled beneath him. Because of the loose ties that held the armor to his body, Zuko slid down inside it until only his eyes were visible.
He shook his son. "Do you know, Prince Zuko," he asked, his voice low and menacing, "what ill befits a monarch such as myself? To see my son sniffing around that mongrel like she is a bitch in heat." With a twisting motion, Ozai tossed the prince through the air, and he landed heavily on the side of his head, his armor striking him against the side of his face. For the second time that week, Zuko lay stunned. He stirred after a few moments, and lurched to a sitting position, to find his father staring at him.
"You brought this upon yourself, Prince Zuko. Do not challenge me again. You will regret it." He returned to his throne.
As Zuko stood, he felt a warm trickle on his face and reached up. His nose was bleeding. He wiped the blood on his pants, and made a low bow to his father before leaving.
As he passed through the antechamber, he met Azula, who had also been called in to see their father. Her eyes widened at the blood on his face. "Zuko! What happened?"
"Leave me alone." He pushed past her and was gone.
Dragging her eyes from the door where he had disappeared, she turned and entered the throne room, and, much like Zuko, she bowed down in front of her father's throne.
"Well, Princess Azula? Were you successful? Did your brother meet with Lady Lan Chi?"
Azula thought of the rose, of Zuko's disappearance during the dance, and of the blood on his face. "No, my lord. Not to my knowledge."
Zuko returned to his room and slammed the door. His head ached and blood stained his new uniform, and his night was ruined. Ruined! And he had no one to blame but himself! How could he have been so stupid – not only did he betray his plans, but he talked back to him! Zuko did not blame Ozai's reaction – he had been disrespectful and impudent to his father. He deserved what had happened. It was all his own fault!
He wrestled with the ties of his armor and pulled it off. With a scream, he threw it against the wall, and then, retrieving it, began pounding it repeatedly against the floor. He did not care who heard him scream. He did not care that his new armor was dented. He slammed it again and again until his arms ached, and then he sat down heavily on the floor, and cried.
Iroh did not pass an easy night, either. After seeing Lan Chi to bed with a kiss, he shut himself in his office to think. Zuko's words had haunted him the evening through, and he needed to concentrate on them. He reviewed his nephew's words and compared them to what he knew about his father's death, trying to reconcile Zuko's tale to the tale that he had been told.
Azulon had died of a broken heart; Ursa had died of shock. He had never questioned either, although, now, he did not know why he had never questioned what he had been told. Perhaps he had not wanted to know the truth – the truth that something untoward had happened. He had no proof, of course, of any misadventure – just the story told by a boy ravaged by grief.
The idea that Azulon would demand Zuko's death – that did not sound like his father. Azulon had been a ferocious, and oftentimes cruel, warrior – that much was true – but he had also been fiercely protective of his family. And to require the death of a child – his grandson, no less, as punishment for his own son's sins – that did not bear a resemblance to the father he remembered.
To be certain, Iroh did not doubt that Ozai had asked for the throne, and he could definitely believe that Ozai had stolen the throne. Iroh was, in fact, nearly positive that his brother had misrepresented their father's last wishes. But the thought that Ozai had hastened their father's death, and the notion that he had, in some way, and for some unknown reason, caused his own wife's death, had never occurred to Iroh. And now it did. And he would have to do something about it – because, if he did not, there was no telling if there would be another victim of Ozai's megalomania, and who it might be.
And who might be caught in the crossfire.
One of the first things that Iroh felt that he had to do the next day was talk to Zuko, to, among other things, reiterate to him the importance of keeping silent about what they had discussed the night before. Iroh did not, however, find Zuko waiting for him in the courtyard, as was his habit. That in itself was odd, and coming, as it did, on the heels of Zuko's confession, Iroh felt a momentary frisson of fear arc up his spine. However, Iroh was not one to jump to conclusions, so he went looking for his nephew.
He found him in the first place that he searched – the boy's bedchamber. To say that the room was a mess was an understatement. Broken pottery littered the floor, and papers and books lay ripped, torn or upended. Zuko's new uniform lay in tatters, and the pieces of his armor, pristine the night before, were bent and scratched as if his nephew had been in a great battle.
Zuko himself lay sprawled on his bed, snoring, clad only in his drawers, his face half-pressed into the pillow. Iroh gently placed a hand on Zuko's back to check his temperature and breathing. Both seemed normal, and Iroh patted him gently and stood to survey the wreckage of the room. He should clean some of this up before the boy woke.
He picked up the books and papers first, and tried to smooth them out. Next he picked up the uniform. It looked like his nephew had removed it without benefit of buttons or ties – as if he had literally ripped it from his body. His armor was in even worse disrepair – bent so out of shape as to be unusable, scuffed, and scorched.
"Uncle?" Zuko's sleepy voice distracted Iroh from his examination of the armor.
"Good morning, Prince Zuko."
Zuko, seeing the armor in his uncle's hands, pushed himself into a sitting position and rubbed his face.
"What happened to your armor?"
Zuko looked at the armor, then at his uncle. "I fell – down the stairs."
Iroh's brows rose. "How many flights did you fall?"
Zuko colored. "Just one."
He indicated the burn marks. "Were you on fire?"
"No!" Zuko looked down at his hands.
Iroh sighed, placed the armor on the floor, and sat down on the bed next to his nephew. He peered at Zuko's face closely. Blood was dried around the edges of one nostril and smeared along his cheek, and a few purple bruises were on the same cheek.
"Zuko, what happened?" Iroh had a good idea, but he wanted confirmation.
"I told you –"
"The truth, please. And do not dissemble."
Zuko shook his head. "Nothing. It was nothing."
"Zuko, did you talk to anyone about – what you told me last night? About the night my father died?"
He gave him a confused look. "No. I told you; I've never told anyone but Lan Chi."
Iroh breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. So tell me what happened last night."
"Nothing happened, Uncle. Truly."
Iroh laid his hand on the boy's arm. "Zuko. There is no dishonor in being a victim. Only in continuing to allow yourself to be victimized."
"It was my fault, Uncle." Zuko looked at his uncle earnestly.
"How was it your fault?" Iroh frowned.
"I – I was rude. And disrespectful. And he – he was right."
It was Ozai. "What happened?"
He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. It won't happen again. I've learned my lesson."
Iroh decided to leave it at that. "And the room? Your armor? Was this you – or your father?"
Zuko looked around at the rubble. "It was me. I was – angry. At myself, mostly. For ruining last night. For ruining everything."
"You didn't ruin anything, Zuko. Last night was a huge success. You were wonderful."
"But, then – never mind. I don't want to talk about it."
"It may help if you do."
He shook his head again. "No. It won't." A thought occurred to him, and he looked at Iroh. "Uncle, please promise me that you won't talk to Father about this."
His eyes constricted in fear. "Uncle, no! You have to promise me you won't say anything. Please tell me that you won't. Please."
Iroh's lips compressed into a line, but he nodded. "All right. I won't. But you must promise me something."
"You must strive to control your temper and practice self-restraint."
Zuko nodded somberly.
"Now, I want you to get up, bathe, get dressed, and go about your day, as you usually would. Act as if nothing is wrong."
"And I will take your armor to the smith, and see if he can –" he looked at the twisted metal, "well, perhaps he can melt it down and re-cast it. Either way, it shall be as good as new."
After exacting a promise from Zuko that he would train with Jiao Ao later and try to spend his day as normally as possible, Iroh left his nephew cleaning up the rest of his room. He turned towards his office, with a thousand different things on his mind. The mystery surrounding his father's death had now been joined by Ozai's apparent abuse of Zuko. An abuse that the victim would not discuss and of which Iroh did not know the genesis.
As he passed through his secretary's office on the way to his own, he beckoned to his man. "Come, Zhushou. I have need of you."
"Yes, Sir." The small man jumped up and followed Iroh without hesitation.
Iroh sat behind his desk. "Please close the door and sit down."
Zhushou's nerves jumped. Was he about to lose his position?
Iroh waited until his orders were followed. " Zhushou, I know that you are the most discreet of men – indeed, that is why I employed you. You have kept my secrets, and the secrets of the Fire Nation, exceedingly well. However –"
Zhushou was beside himself with anxiety. He was being fired! "General Iroh! I do not know what I have done, but I swear to you that I have kept your secrets! Without fail! I don't know why you are firing me! What have I done?" He pulled at his hair.
Iroh was confused. "What are you talking about? I'm not firing you!"
Zhushou released his hair. "You're not?"
"No. I'm not. In fact, I have a rather important project for you."
"You do?" He smoothed his hair down.
"Yes, but you shall have to be a little less emotional in your approach to it." Iroh was giving him a strange look.
Zhushou sat up a little straighter. "Oh, I will, Sir. I promise!"
"All right, then. But keep in mind, you must be the soul of discretion. No one must know your mission, or even guess at it. You must be as canny and clever as you have ever been. Do you understand?"
"Oh, yes, Sir."
"Very well. It concerns my father's death." At those words, Zhushou's eyes grew wide. "Oh, yes, I see that has piqued your curiosity."
"The death of Fire Lord Azulon?"
"Yes. And I bring this to you because you have served me very well. After all, you found my father's will – for which I shall be forever grateful."
Zhushou blushed. "I was just doing my job, Sir."
"And I am calling upon you again. Are you familiar with my father's secretary?"
"Yes. The very same. I would like to talk to him."
"As I recall, he retired after the Fire Lord's death."
"Yes. I had heard that. Do you think you will be able to locate him?"
"I will try."
"Good. But, please, recall that you must do it secretly."
"Yes, General, I shall."
"And once you have found him, let me know immediately. I will approach him myself. I cannot chance him going to ground."
"Also – Princess Ursa's lady's maid."
"Find her, as well. I would like to speak with her."
"Again – discretion is key."
"I will be; I give you my word."
"Good. And one more thing. The Fire Sage who was High Sage at the time of my father's death. I would like to speak to him, as well. He should be much easier to find – as High Sage, he should be resident in the palace. And it should arouse no suspicion that I wish to speak with him."
Zhushou's face fell. "Sir, I am afraid that will be impossible."
"He died a few months after your father, I'm afraid. Fell down a flight of stairs."
Iroh was disquieted by the news regarding the High Sage, but he was not, unfortunately, surprised. The more he learned about Ozai, the more he was convinced that his brother was capable of nefarious deeds – even deeds as heinous as regicide and patricide. This, of course, made his ill-treatment of Zuko all the more believable.
Still, he did not know how he could do anything about the abuse without confronting Ozai about it – which he had promised Zuko that he would not do. And he could not break his word to Zuko – that might destroy their relationship, which Iroh could not bear. Ever since he had returned from his travels, Iroh had cherished his time with Zuko. He had seen in Zuko something that needed nurturing – a fragile ego, a blossoming intelligence – a nobility. Iroh could admit, also, that within Zuko, he could see Lu Ten. A young man not lost to him, a young man who still needed him.
A young man who could be saved.
In contrast to weighty problems such as possible murder and child abuse, Lan Chi's difficulties seemed inconsequential, although to her, they were monumental. Monumental – and ruining her concentration.
"Arms up, Lady Lan Chi!" Jiao Ao came towards her, brandishing a staff.
Lan did as she was told, bringing her own stick up at the last moment to block him. Unfortunately, however, her hands were in the wrong positions, and Jiao Ao struck her fingers.
She dropped the staff and jumped around the courtyard, howling in pain.
Jiao Ao lowered his weapon. "You are not concentrating today, my lady."
"I'm sorry, Master." She shook her hand vigorously.
"Are you still thinking of Prince Zuko?"
Her hand stilled, and she looked at him with frightened eyes. "Wh – what?"
"His genbuku! Were you still thinking about it?"
She was relieved. "Oh, yes! The genbuku! It was – a lot of fun."
"I saw you dancing with Prince Zuko. You looked like you were enjoying yourself."
"What? No – no! I wasn't – I didn't –"
Jiao Ao held up a hand. "Peace, Lady Lan Chi. We won't speak of it again, if it makes you so uncomfortable."
Jiao Ao indicated that she should raise her stick again, and he raised his own. She was just advancing on him with her staff when he spoke. "Although you made quite a handsome couple." She faltered, and her master took his chance to disarm her. He smiled. "Distracted."
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