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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 30 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 29 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 31 (The Spirit Within) 
He entered the sitting room of his home, and smiled. Lan Chi sat at the tea table, waiting for him. She was dressed in blue, with her hair up, and she looked so grown up that a lump formed in Iroh's throat. She was a young lady now – no longer a little girl, and the thought both frightened and pleased him. He was frightened because the child he loved so much was gone, but pleased because he was so excited for her to be starting her own life – falling in love, getting married, having children. She had apparently begun that life, for she had already fallen in love – with the boy he had chosen for her, it was true, but with the boy who was now the least available to her. He sighed. He wanted to make it right for her – and for Zuko. They had both known so much grief in their young lives – they deserved happiness. And, he had decided, if he could bring them that happiness, he would. But the question was – how?
She heard his sigh and looked up with a smile. "Hello, Uncle. Right on time."
He set his briefcase down and settled himself at the table. "You haven't had to reheat the tea?"
He felt the pot. "Perhaps it should be twice."
She moved to ring for Hua, but he stayed her. "I'll do it, Duck. Or have you you forgotten I am a firebender?" He put his hands around the metal teapot.
"I did, actually, for a moment. I'm so used to having Hua heat it on the stove." She could hear boiling. "I think it's hot enough."
Iroh placed it on its trivet. "It should be nice and strong now."
"Just the way you like it." She poured two cups. "How was your day?"
He shrugged. "I've had better."
"I'm sorry. Would you like to talk about it?"
He shook his head sadly. "Thank you, dear. But, no. I won't complain. Tell me about your day, instead."
She shook her head. "There's nothing to tell, really. I trained with Jiao Ao, I studied history, Madame Nushi told me I was a lost cause –"
"Did she really?" He raised his brows.
"Because I told her that all her work was going for naught."
He laughed. "Why did you tell her that?"
"Because one cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse."
"Are you the sow's ear in question?" He was trying to keep a smile off his face.
She raised her chin. "So to speak."
"And so you think your future as a silk purse is limited?" He sipped the tea. It was very strong, as Lan had predicted, but, oh, so good.
"I think my future as a proper Fire Nation society wife is limited, yes."
"Well, I respectfully disagree. I think that you shall make some man a fine wife someday."
She was silent as she passed him the plate of cookies, her lips compressed.
Although he had a desire to keep the subject of Zuko from their conversation, he could not bear her obvious unhappiness. "You do not want some man."
She was peeved. This was a frequent discussion. "No, I don't. I know the man I want – you know the man I want. I just can't – have him. That's all."
"Lan Chi –" he began with a sigh.
She held up a hand. "No, Uncle. I do not want to discuss it. Truly, I don't. Despite what you must think, I do not want every conversation that we have to be about Zuko – or to end up in a fight about Zuko. That is not my intention. We both of us have lives that do not revolve around him, and I, for one, would like to discuss those things. So, I am sorry if you think that it was my aim to harass you about him. It was not."
He looked at her for a long moment, then gave a firm nod. "You're right. There are many other things we can discuss. Tell me what you were studying in history today. I'm sure it was fascinating."
By the next day, Zuko was starting to feel better, and a bit more normal. The bruises were more noticeable on his face, but no one asked about them, so he had to make no excuses.
Lan Chi probably would have asked, so he was determined to avoid seeing her until after they faded. However, he wanted desperately to see her. Desperately. He wondered if he could see her if he wore a mask – no, that was stupid. Well, perhaps he could see her at night. That was it! He could see her at night, with low lights. He smiled. That was a good idea. There were so many things that they could do at night – like kissing. That was a very good idea.
He had several moments of anxiety about pursuing her in defiance of his father, but he could not fathom never seeing Lan Chi again – never holding her, never touching her face. He was not a disobedient child – in all things, he had always tried to obey his father. With everything that he did, his first thought was how his father would react. His father's desires had always become his own. His father wanted a son who was a superior firebender, and Zuko had done all he could to bring that to pass. The same with swords and hand-to-hand combat – his goal was always to please his father. To see a smile, to hear the words "good job, son," to get a kindly pat on the shoulder or the back – those were all he asked. Until the night of his genbuku, what he had gotten instead was, "you could have done better." However, when his father had said that Zuko's genbuku was a success, the boy had been joyful. Then, he himself had destroyed it with thoughtless words.
But he could not bring himself to forsake Lan Chi. He loved her – and he could not think of his life without her. He could bring his father around. He knew that he could. If only he could prove himself to Ozai.
"Prince Zuko! Please pay attention!" Han Li, one of Ozai's social secretaries, pulled him back to the present.
"I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
"I was saying that, if you do not pay attention, we'll be here until your birthday!"
"That's only a month and a half away."
The man gave Zuko a dark look.
"Sorry." Zuko chose another gift from the pile and began to pull the ribbon from it.
He and the social secretary were seated in Ursa's old sitting room, which was large enough to hold all the presents, and, as an unused room, could be left in disorder. When he had first stepped into the room, several hours before, he had felt physically sick. He had not been in this room since the day after his mother's death, and being here again had brought back to him, like a fist to his stomach, that she was gone. Of course, he knew that she was gone, and it was something that he carried with him always, but, being here, seeing her delicate sofa and the curios that decorated the shelves – it brought it back like a flood. He had considered requesting that they go to another room, but, seeing the enormous pile of gifts, he decided against it. To request that servants haul hundreds of gifts to another room just because of his sentimental mawkishness seemed – abusive. And he was very aware, right now, of the results of abuse. So, he had decided to steel himself and remain without complaint.
"Prince Zuko, from whom is the gift?"
Zuko turned the box over. "I don't know."
"Is there a card?"
Zuko opened the box. Inside was a miniature portrait of his father. Well, that was an – interesting gift. There was a small card beneath it. "It's from – General Zhang and his wife."
Han Li scribbled on a parchment. "And what is it?"
"A portrait of my father."
More scribbling. "Oh, how thoughtful."
"Yes. "Thank you for your thoughtful gift. I am so pleased that you were able to attend my genbuku." Does that sound right to you, Prince Zuko?"
"Yes. Yes. Fine." He was handed the parchment for his signature.
"Mind the ink. It's still wet."
"Thank you." Zuko picked up a brush and signed his name.
The secretary whisked the thank you note away. "Now, the next."
Zuko sighed and picked up the next box on the pile. It was a largish box, with an intricately tied yellow ribbon. He frowned at it – the color looked familiar. He slid it off the box, set it aside, and lifted the lid. Inside was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
It was an agni kai drape, of burgundy silk with gold thread, and, as he lifted it out, he saw that there were golden waves of fire embroidered on one end that reached up towards the middle. He laid the drape on his lap and traced the outline of the waves. It was exquisite. There were thousands of stitches – it must have taken the embroideress who did this quite a long time.
A small piece of parchment lay beneath it, and he unfolded it, although, by this time, he had an inkling who the giver was.
I hope that you like this, and that you never have to use it. Congratulations on your genbuku.
All my love always,
He smiled. Now he knew why the color of the ribbon had been familiar. It matched the robe she had worn to his genbuku. What a clever girl! He remembered how she looked in the robe, her creamy skin visible at the neck of the dress, the beautiful dragon that she had embroidered herself – that she had embroidered. He lifted the drape again to peer at the stitches. She had embroidered the drape herself. He would bet his life on it. It must have taken weeks, if not longer. He smiled again. She loved him. She really loved him.
His heart squeezed, and he was nearly overcome by a desire to run from the room and directly to Iroh's house. He wanted – he wasn't even sure what he wanted. He wanted to see her, to hold her, to kiss her, but that didn't seem like enough. He wanted – her. All of her.
"An agni kai drape, Prince Zuko?" The secretary's voice intruded on his thoughts.
"What? Oh, yes." He folded it back up and placed it lovingly in the box.
"A card, your highness?"
He was silent for a moment. "I beg your pardon?"
"Is there a card?"
Zuko slipped the note in the box, as well as the ribbon. "No. No card."
Ozai was practicing his bending. He loved to train in the late afternoon, when the equatorial sun was the hottest. He liked to strip down to only pants, and feel the sun beating down on him, feel the sweat rolling down him, feel his black hair heat up in the brutal rays.
He trained in the Fire Lord's private courtyard, which was off limits to all but invited guests. Ozai invited few guests, so, practically, the only people allowed in the courtyard was Ozai himself, servants performing their duties, and the guards who accompanied him or trained with him.
Today, the Fire Lord trained alone, his guards standing just inside the entrance, in case he required something. He required nothing but to be left in peace. His guards were relieved, because his shots were precise and deadly, and more than one of their comrades had been injured after having been their lord's training partner. A rock set up in the middle of the courtyard was the target of Ozai's wrath instead, and bore the brunt of his firebending. Quick, blazing shots hit the rock over and over until it glowed red with the heat of the flames.
The door to the courtyard opened, and Ozai's secretary, Feng, eased in. He whispered something to one of the guards, who shook his head and shrugged. Feng leaned over and whispered to the other guard, who gestured towards the Fire Lord. Feng shook his head in response, but the guard made the same motion, and Feng's shoulders slumped.
On leaden feet, he approached his master. "M – my lord?"
Ozai ignored him, continuing to blast the rock.
Feng waited for a few minutes, then spoke again. "My lord?" His voice was stronger now; perhaps the Fire Lord had not heard him.
Ozai looked at him briefly. "Go stand by that rock."
Feng's color disappeared. "M – my lord?"
"Go stand by that rock." He repeated, and pointed towards his stone victim.
Feng shuffled over to where his master indicated. He stood next to the rock, careful not to allow his robe to come into contact with its glowing surface.
"In front." Feng did not move. "Now."
His limbs trembling and his heart pounding, Feng did as he was bade.
Ozai's eyes narrowed, and he stared at Feng for a long moment. He drew his arm back and then, with a forward, thrusting motion, he shot a small, lethal fireball directly at Feng.
To his credit, Feng did not move, although he shut his eyes as death was launched at him.
After a few seconds, he realized he was still alive. He also realized that his hat was on fire. With a small yelp, he knocked it from his head.
Ozai drew a deep, satisfying breath, and smiled at his own abilities. Then he looked at his employee, and frowned. "Why are you disturbing me?"
Feng dropped to his knees and lowered his head. "My lord, I thought that you would want to know."
Ozai walked over to him. "Want to know what?"
"Y – your brother's man, Zhushou."
"What about him?"
"He – he has been inquiring about the location of Lao Chuai, your father's secretary."
Ozai's blood ran cold for a moment. "Has he?" His voice was calm and menacing.
"Y – yes, my lord."
A cruel smile curled Ozai's lips. "Indeed? Well, I think it might be time for Lao Chuai to take a little vacation."
Lan Chi was awakened that night by the sound of a sharp, intermittent rapping sound. It was past midnight, and the room was in darkness, with the only light the moon coming through her window. She lay in her bed, wondering if she had imagined the sound, when it came again. It was the sound of something hitting her window. Puzzled rather than alarmed, she got out of bed and crossed the room to peer out. A shadowy figure stood in the courtyard below.
Zuko! She threw opened the window and leaned out. "Zuko! What are you doing?"
"Finally! I've been throwing pebbles at your window for ten minutes!"
"What are you doing here?" She repeated, peering sideways into the darkness to see if anyone was watching them.
"I wanted to thank you for your genbuku gift."
She blushed. Despite her misgivings about the gift, she was very pleased that he had liked it. "You're welcome."
"What? No! It's past midnight!"
"I came all this way – at night – to see you. The least you can do is come down and talk to me."
"I've talked to you. Now go home!"
"I'm not going home until you come down. I wanted to come up to your room, but the wisteria vine is gone."
"Thank goodness! What if Uncle Iroh catches you climbing into my bedroom?"
"I saw him. He's asleep in a chair in his study. Now come down!"
She gave an aggravated sigh. "Fine. Wait there." Tamping down the alarms blaring in her head that questioned the wisdom of this decision, she closed her window and fumbled about in the dark until she found her robe, which she tied securely around herself. She slipped on soft-soled shoes and left her room, silently closing the door. She sneaked down the stairs, hardly daring to breathe. If Hua or someone else caught her, she would have some a lot explaining to do.
She slipped out the kitchen door and ran across the courtyard to where Zuko stood, still under her window. She grabbed his arm and dragged him into the shadows of the cherry tree.
"You shouldn't be here!" She hissed.
He pulled her into his arms suddenly and kissed her. Her hands came up to clutch at his shoulders, and her body swayed against his. His lips were soft and his breath was sweet, and she never wanted it to end. He finally pulled away, and, in even the dark, she could see his smile.
"Hello," he said huskily.
"Hello." She could hear her own voice, reedy and unsure.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to come see you." He kissed her again, and she gave into the sensations swirling inside her, her arms sliding around his back. He shifted his footing, and she was between him and the tree, pressed up against both. She finally ended the kiss to come up for air. He kissed her jawline as she breathed raggedly against his cheek. He had realized, when he first held her, that she wasn't wearing any breast bindings. Breast bindings were probably not things that he should have known about, but he had a sister, and he was not completely ignorant about the female anatomy. In fact, it was her anatomy that was affecting his anatomy right now.
"Zuko," she whispered.
He pulled away, looking at her with glittering eyes. "You have your hair down. It's beautiful."
She blushed and averted her gaze. "You don't need to say that. It's not true."
"Yes, it is. Kiss me again."
She did, her mouth slightly open. He plunged his fingers into her hair and his tongue into her mouth at the same time. She was stunned, and jerked away.
"Where did you learn to kiss like that?"
He blushed at how that sounded. "I mean Azula told me that men and women kiss like that."
"Thank goodness she didn't teach you!"
"That's just sick." He kissed her again, and she melted against him. His fingers threaded through her hair again, from the base of her skull upwards until he was cupping her head. She thrilled at the feel of his fingers on the sensitive skin there, and a shiver of sensation rippled through her body, curling into her abdomen.
"Are you cold?" He asked, concern in his voice.
"No. It's just – your hands feel so – good."
He laughed. "But not my lips?"
"Oh, yes, your lips, too," she said earnestly.
"I've been thinking of you – a lot – since my genbuku. And then I opened your present. It is so beautiful. It's incredible. Thank you again." He placed a kiss beneath her ear.
Another shiver went through her.
"You're – you're welcome." Another kiss, this time on the lobe of her ear.
"Spirits, I've wanted to do this for days." He murmured, his breath warm in her ear.
"Really?" Her voice was incredulous.
He laughed and stepped back. "Is that so unbelievable?"
He pulled her into him. "When are you going to believe that I love you?" His lips found hers again.
She pushed him away. "You have to go." She couldn't stand here and listen to his words and feel his hands on her and keep a clear head, and she needed to keep a clear head.
"I love you, and I want to marry you. If you don't know that by now, I don't know what I am doing wrong."
"Zuko! You know I can't marry you!"
He put his lips against the side of her neck, ignoring her words. "Yes, you can. Just say "I do.""
At that thought, visions of Ozai came flooding back into her head. She pulled out of his arms and put Zuko between herself and the tree. "Zuko, you have to go. You can't be here."
"Why?" He tried to kiss her again, but she evaded him.
"You might be caught. And Uncle Iroh will be mad! And your father will kill us both!"
"I can handle Uncle." His hands grasped her wrists and slowly pulled her to him. His lips caught the edge of hers.
"But you can't handle your father! Let go!"
He dropped his hands. "He'll never find out. And I don't care if he does." His words were braver than he actually felt.
"I do! Zuko, I could get in a lot of trouble! And Uncle Iroh!"
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
She sighed. "Look, never mind, okay? But you have to go!"
"No. Not until you tell me that you love me. You do love me, don't you?" He had a sly half-smile on his face.
She blushed. "No!"
The smile did not waver, and he started to pull her to him. "You're lying again."
She averted her eyes, but he put his fingers beneath her chin and forced her to look at him. "Aren't you?"
She was mesmerized by the look in his eyes. She nodded. "Yes." Her voice was a croaky whisper.
"Yes, what?" He pulled her against him. Spirits! He was so warm, and his body so hard – and strong, and – masculine!
She finally put her arms around his neck, and looked him full in the eyes. "Yes. I love you."
"I knew it." His smile was huge this time. He kissed her, and his tongue found hers again. He liked this kind of kissing – he was glad that Azula had told him about it. He pulled his mouth away, even though he didn't want to, because he wanted her to agree to marry him, too. "And you'll marry me?" He pushed away thoughts of how angry his father had been when he had told him that he wanted to marry Lan.
"Zuko – we're only thirteen!"
"Almost fourteen." He reminded her. "It's perfect – admit it. We have two years to convince Uncle and Father."
"I think it'll will take considerably longer to convince your father."
He wove the fingers of both his hands into hers and looped their arms behind her back. "I know a way we can force Father's hand. And then he'll have to let us get married."
She was suspicious. "What way?"
He shook his head, a secretive smile on his face now. "I'll tell you if and when the need arises. So, say yes."
Her head was spinning, and she wondered if she was dreaming. "Yes. But, on one –"
"No more talking. Kissing." He lowered his mouth to hers again, and, with her arms effectively pinned behind her, she had no choice but to accept it. Not that she minded, or would have pulled away even if she could have. She felt something against her belly, and, realizing belatedly what it was, she turned her face, suddenly red again, and laid it against his shoulder. "Zuko. You have to go. Really."
He sighed, knowing the wisdom in her words. "Okay." His words rumbled against her ear. "When can I see you again?" He laid his head against hers.
She shook her head, and, sandwiched between his shoulder and his head, he felt it. "I don't know."
"I'm not leaving until you tell me when I can come back."
"I don't know." She repeated, pulling away.
He did not let her go, but kissed her again, long and hard, until she was gasping for breath. He released her mouth and laid his forehead against hers.
"When?" His voice was rough. "Tomorrow night?"
She shook her head weakly, her resolve draining away. "The day after tomorrow."
A sudden smile flooded his face. "I'll be outside your window at midnight."
"No. Wait here, under the tree. I'll come to you."
She nodded. "Yes."
He brought her against him and kissed her tenderly. She felt her heart flutter in her chest at the contact. His tongue touched hers again. It was magical. He was magical. He released her hands finally.
"Zuko," she touched his face after the kiss ended, her eyes studying his features. "I can't believe this is real."
"It is," he whispered. "It's very real." He pulled away reluctantly. "I'll see you day after tomorrow. Are you sure it can't be tomorrow?"
She smiled ruefully and shook her head. "Go, but be careful. Please."
"I will. I promise." He smiled and turned away. He ran across the courtyard, pulled himself up onto the wall, and disappeared.
She sighed, content. Zuko loved her. He had asked her to marry him! And she had said yes!
Oh, no! He had asked her to marry him! And she had said yes! What was she thinking? Had she lost her mind? The one thing that had been forbidden to her, and she had gone and done it!
And here she stood, in the middle of the night, in only her nightgown. She ran for the kitchen door and tried the handle – and panicked. It was locked. Oh, no! It was locked! She did a brief inventory in her mind of all the doors on the ground floor. Sitting room door, kitchen door, front door. The kitchen door was locked. The front door was surely locked. The sitting room door – she sprinted quietly towards it. Locked.
She cursed her luck. She would have to try a window. She tried the sitting room windows – locked. She went back to the kitchen. Locked – and too high anyway. All the windows along the first floor were locked, until she came to the windows of Iroh's study. The study where Zuko said their uncle had fallen asleep.
She was torn between wanting to find a window unlocked, and hoping she would not find an unlocked window in that particular room. If any of those windows were unlocked, she would have to crawl in, past Uncle Iroh, and sneak up to her bed. Maybe she could spend the night outside. Sure, it was a little cold, but what was cold compared to sneaking past Iroh?
She peered through the window. There he was, chin on chest, hands folded across his belly, snoring like an asthmatic goose. There was a cup of tea next to him and an open book. She tried the window. Of course, it slid open without a hitch.
She rolled her eyes. Of course it slid open without a hitch. She was the unluckiest person she had ever known.
She listened to make certain that Iroh's snores continued, and then gingerly put her leg through the window, followed by the rest of her. Uncle's breathing shifted with a loud snort, and she froze. He scratched his nose in his sleep, turned his head away from her, and gave a long breath. The snoring ceased, but he slept on. She let her own breath out slowly. He was a light sleeper, despite what the snoring indicated. She tiptoed across the room, past him, and put her hand on the knob of the door.
"So, how is Zuko tonight?" Iroh's sleep-thickened voice asked from behind her.
She squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth in dismay. She turned slowly to him. He was watching her with amused eyes. She dropped her hand from the doorknob.
"How did you know?"
He nodded towards the window. "Those pebbles didn't wake only you."
He patted the ottoman in front of him, and she sank onto it with a heavy sigh. "So he kissed you, eh?"
"Did you see us?" She was aghast at the thought.
"No. But you spent an inordinate amount of time under the tree with him, in the shadows. And I'm certain you were not discussing the weather. Besides, I know the signs, my dear. I am a man of the world, after all. Swollen lips – and your eyes are glittering like stars."
She sighed. "It was wonderful, Uncle."
"I'm sure it was. And he asked you to marry him?"
"Wh – what? No – of course not!" She blustered.
"It's all right. I've known for quite a while that he wanted to marry you."
"What? You've known? How long have you known? How have you known?"
It was Iroh's turn to blush. "Well, he may have mentioned it to Jiao Ao –"
She put her hands up to her cheeks. "Jiao Ao? Jiao Ao knows? Zuko told Jiao Ao?" She could not believe her ears.
"Do not be upset. Jiao Ao is very discreet."
"But you knew? And Jiao Ao knew? And I didn't?"
"Calm down, Little Duck. It is of no consequence."
She gave him a disgruntled look. "You're right. It isn't. I'm glad that you know. Because I said yes, and because I have decided that I am going to marry him."
"Oh?" he looked speculative. "Have you?"
"Yes. I have. And you can send me away to live with Aunt Ming if you like. But I can't guarantee that we won't run away together."
"You would allow Zuko to give up the throne?"
She raised her chin. "It would be his choice – if he gave it up. I will take him with or without it."
"So you are determined?"
She set her jaw. "Yes."
"And what of Ozai?"
Her bravado disappeared. "I don't know. I haven't thought that far in advance."
"This is not funny."
"No. I know. It is not. But – I have."
"You have what?"
"I have thought about it."
She blinked at him. "Wh – what?"
"I have been thinking – long and hard – about your dilemma. Our dilemma, actually, since I am partly to blame for this sad situation."
Iroh looked at her with great consideration. "Perhaps you are right. But, I think that I may have the solution."
"You do? What is it?"
His look turned calculating. "Even though my father left Ozai the throne, he left his personal fortune to me. And I have been investing my own money for years. I am a very rich man, Lan. Very rich. And if there's anything that Ozai wants, it's money. And he can't tax the people much more. More taxes might lead to discontent, which would weaken his authority." He trailed off.
"What are you saying?" A glimmer of hope was born in her.
"I'm saying that I am very rich – and that you are my heir – and Zuko, even though I told a bit of a fib to Ozai about that."
"Are you saying that you are going to buy off Ozai?"
"That is exactly what I am saying. Ozai wants our father's money, and he wants it for himself. So, with a large enough dowry..."
"You think I might become acceptable, even to Ozai."
"Give it to him. He can have it all. I've never wanted your money, Uncle."
"I know." He squeezed her forearm gently. "And, if I can use it to make you happy, then I will. Will marrying Zuko make you happy?"
A shy smile came across her face. "More than anything."
"Are you certain that this is not just a schoolgirl crush?"
She leaned forward and slid her hand into his. "Uncle, I know that there are people in the world who meet their soul mates when they are both children. I am just lucky enough to realize it early in life."
He nodded. "Fair enough. It's a deal, then? I promise to bribe Ozai, and you promise to be happy?"
She threw herself into his arms, tears springing to her eyes. "Yes. Oh, yes!"
"Good." He set her away from him, and looked at her seriously. "But you are both still too young. I want you to go slowly. You can't be married until you are both sixteen anyway. So, if you feel the same way about Zuko in a year's time –"
"...And he feels the same for you –"
"He will. I know that he will!"
"Well, then, that is fine. When you turn fifteen, I will speak to Ozai about your betrothal – and then you can be married a year after that. Until then, you have to be discreet. No hanky panky. Do you understand?"
She nodded, smiling.
"Can you control Zuko's passionate, impatient, impulsive, well – impulses?"
"Can you control your own?"
She blushed. "I will. Two years is not so long, after all."
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