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Chapter 33 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
Chapter information

The Spirit Within



Written by


Last chapter

Chapter 32 (The Spirit Within) [1]

Next chapter

Chapter 34 (The Spirit Within) [2]

The information that Zhushou had been waiting for came the next morning, and, when he saw it, he grinned. Grinning was not something that Zhushou did often; he was, by nature, a solemn man – as a boy, he had been quiet and introspective, and had spent most of his waking hours devouring books on Fire Nation history. Not for him were the games of hide and explode, or games of any sort, really. He had few friends, and his parents, recognizing his talents and proclivities early, had invested all of their extra money in their only son's education, hoping to procure him, when he was older, a position of responsibility within the Fire Nation government. To that end, he had studied law and military history, becoming the most lauded student in his year.

His parents' plans were successful beyond their wildest dreams. At the age of five and twenty, Zhushou's opinion paper on an obscure battle fought by Azulon's forces thirty years before had attracted the attention of a man who had fought in that very battle: Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation. The prince, recently returned from his disastrous Ba Sing Se campaign, was in need of a secretary who was smart and loyal and too young to have formed prejudices. Zhushou had fit the bill in all of these, and Iroh had hired him – at a very generous salary.

So, when word came in to Zhushou from one of his informants that Lao Chuai, Azulon's former secretary, resided across town, Zhushou grinned. Not only had he accomplished his master's task, its resolution was ideal. The man was still alive, and a short ostrich-horse ride away.

He relayed the news to General Iroh when the general came in after his firebending training with Prince Zuko. Zhushou's employer was very pleased and impressed, although he decided that he would visit the man the next day, since he had already committed his afternoon to his nephew. He cautioned Zhushou to keep his counsel, which, Zhushou, as a trustworthy fellow, agreed to easily.

Zuko, unlike his uncle's secretary, was having a horrible day. To begin with, he was tired. He was tired, and restless, and uncomfortable – for several reasons. He had not slept the night before. His conscience was still troubling him – he felt compelled to talk to his father about the conscription policy that he had uncovered, and the fact that he had been unable to talk to his father the day before simply put his compulsion into abeyance. It was not lessened – just suspended.

Zuko had also not slept because, to be frank, his body was bothering him. Ever since he had kissed Lan Chi the night of his genbuku, he had been unable to rid himself of this aching anticipation that he felt whenever he thought of her – which was many, many times throughout the day. His very bones throbbed with a kind of nagging expectation that he could not explain, or understand. He knew about relations between the genders – he was innocent, but not so innocent that he had not watched the ostrich-horses mate or the servant girls and footmen giggling and kissing and groping each other when they thought no one was nearby. However, he did not recognize, in himself, the same symptoms of burgeoning desire, and, even if he had, he knew of no way to assuage those desires.

He knew that he liked kissing Lan, and he knew that her body held mysterious delights for him. He also knew that his uncle would kill them both if he attempted to discover those delights. Still, that did not mean that he could not dream of her, that he could not touch her – as long as the touching was not in any of the places that Iroh had cautioned him, under penalty of death, to avoid. Lan Chi, for her part, seemed more than willing to allow him certain liberties, provided, again, that the liberties did not violate any of the strictures that Iroh had set. She seemed as passionate as Zuko, matching him with her kisses, allowing and encouraging him to touch her, and touching him, as much as their clothing and their circumstances would allow.

To be truthful, he did not know how he would get through the next two years without going much, much further than Iroh would permit, and he was almost grateful for his uncle's hawk-like vigilance. It kept Zuko, for lack of a better word, honest.

He was to be allowed to see her that night, after dinner – again, as Iroh permitted, and Zuko could not concentrate on firebending or training with the dao – had his muscles not been so conditioned by months of training, he would have been injured several times over – a fact that Jiao Ao pointed out with disgust.

"Second day in a row, Prince Zuko, that you are completely useless to me."

Zuko dropped his arms from the defensive stance he had been holding. "I'm sorry, Master."

"What is in your head, boy?" He thunked him on the crown with the butt of his own sword.

Zuko sighed and rubbed his head absently. "Too much."

Jiao Ao gave a sympathetic smile. "Girl problems?"

Zuko expelled a breath. "Among other things."

"Lady Lan Chi confided in me. She was actually a bit upset, at first, that I knew about your intentions before she did. I told you that women don't like to be left out of decisions such as that."

"She recovered well enough. Well enough to drive me crazy."

Jiao Ao laughed. "How is she driving you crazy?"

He sighed again. "By everything she does. The way she looks, the way she looks at me, the way she smells – she smells good, by the way, don't tell her I think she smells. The way she laughs; even the way she sits – the way she does everything. Everything." He put a hand on his forehead. "I'm having trouble concentrating."

"Yes, I have seen evidence of that."

He flung his arms out. "And Uncle keeps telling me to keep my hands to myself, and I'm trying, but it's not easy."

Jiao Ao wagged a finger at him. "As well he should! You will not dishonor Lady Lan Chi, young man, by attempting to – to make her a woman!"

Zuko's face reddened. "I can't believe that I'm talking to my sword master about girls! There is something very wrong here."

Jiao Ao took mercy on him, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Being confounded by girls, and doing things that you never thought you would do – all because of girls – is a constant in life from this point on, your highness, so it's best you get used to it now."

Zuko looked at him critically. "This is not helping, Master."

Jiao Ao laughed.

"Uncle, I don't understand what this means." Zuko pointed at a passage in one of the reports that Iroh had given him to study that afternoon.

Iroh leaned over and read the section in question. "Seventy-five percent G. I.?"

"Yes. What is G. I.?"

"General infantry. It means that the men are not firebenders."

"Oh. So does that mean that the other twenty-five percent are firebenders?"


"Is that – is that a normal ratio?"

Iroh shook his head sadly. "No. Ideally, the ratio in a division should be no less than fifty- fifty."

"So why does this division have so few benders?"

"There are fewer and fewer benders available to fight, Zuko. I think that is something that we are going to see more and more of in the future."

"Oh." Zuko looked thoughtful. He flipped through the papers desolately. "There is so much more to this war than I realized, Uncle."

He patted his nephew's arm. "I know, Prince Zuko. That is why you are here. To be an effective leader, you must learn all that you can. Even if it is distressing."

"I can't help thinking about the tax policy. It's wrong to make people enlist just because they can't pay their taxes."

Iroh was silent.

"Have you talked to Father about this?" He looked at Iroh hopefully.

"Yes, I have. He feels that everyone should contribute to the war effort, either through taxes or through fighting. And, in many ways, I don't think he is wrong."

"How can you say that?"

"The rich pay taxes, Zuko, and the poor pay in blood. It has always been thus."

"What? Uncle!"

"Zuko, a war cannot be waged without men to fight it."

Zuko sighed. "But these people are being compelled to fight – all for lack of money."

"There are no easy answers, Zuko. I'm sorry. But things like this – you should learn about them, and think about them. They are not going away. As Fire Lord, you will face these problems daily, and it is important that you realize, now, that the life of a monarch is a difficult one. The life of a monarch in war time is doubly difficult."

"What would you do, Uncle, if you were Fire Lord?"

Iroh's brows rose. "I am not, Zuko."

"But if you were?"

"I don't know. I wanted to end the war. That was my purpose in going to Ba Sing Se. I thought that, with a victory there, peace would come. It was not to be, however." His face was unbearably sad.

"Do you think that the war will be over anytime soon, Uncle?"

He shook his head. "I don't know that, either. I pray to the spirits every day for its conclusion."

"But they have not answered your prayer."

"Oh, no." Iroh gave a sad smile. "The spirits have answered. Unfortunately, so far, their answer has been "no."

Zuko left his uncle soon after, explaining that he had a fitting for his new armor. That was, however, untrue. Zuko was determined to speak to his father today about the conscription of the poor – and he wanted to be certain that he caught his father in the throne room.

Fortune shone on his mission. His father was indeed present, and available. Zuko walked up the aisle somberly, his bearing majestic and mature – he would show his father that he was a fit heir to the throne. He knelt before Ozai in humble obeisance.

"Prince Zuko. To what do I owe the honor of a visit from my obstinate and contrary son?"

Zuko was distressed. "My lord, I am not contrary! I implore you, do not think that! I am your obedient son, and I care only for the wellbeing of the Fire Nation, and its people."

"This sounds ominous – as if your next words will be a request."

"I would like you to review a piece of legislation."

"Oh?" Ozai's voice was cool. "Are you an expert on Fire Nation law, now?"

"N – no, Sire. I claim no such knowledge. I – I have merely been working with Uncle Iroh –"

"I should have known that my brother would be involved in some way. What nonsense is he spouting now?"

"Nothing – nothing, my lord. He is allowing me to assist him – so that, one day, when I succeed you, I will be equipped to lead our great nation."

"Succeed me? You get ahead of yourself, Prince Zuko! Unless you think to overthrow me?"

Zuko was alarmed. "N – no! No, Father! You mistake me! Never! I am faithful unto you! I swear it! I mean only to be of assistance to you – someday. I am preparing for that! Truly! I am your humble servant, here to serve you and our nation!"

Ozai's mouth turned down at those familiar words. "So, how do you seek to serve me, Prince Zuko? By questioning my rule?"

"No, my lord. I never –"

He waved a languid hand. "Say your piece, Prince Zuko, and be gone."

Zuko gave a sigh of relief. "Y – yes, Sire." He pulled a folded piece of paper from his tunic. "It – it is regarding the island of Kykozu. They have been suffering a drought – for – for several years..." He trailed off, trying to choose his words carefully.

"Yes, yes. I am aware of the drought in Kykozu. What am I supposed to do? Command the clouds to rain?" Ozai was impatient.

"No, no, my lord. Of course not. It is the tax policy that has been enacted. The policy that dictates that any family that cannot pay its taxes must send a member to fight for the Fire Nation."

"The Fire Nation requires soldiers – soldiers to fight for it and to defend it."

"I know that, my lord. It's just that, to exchange lives for taxes –" He was interrupted.

"The Fire Nation also requires money – money to pay for training and equipment, and for food to feed the troops. Everyone must bear their fair share, Zuko. Or should the burden fall only to the rich? Or only to the poor?"

"No, no, Sire. Of course not. It's just that –" Again, he was interrupted.

"Sending their children off to fight for glory of the Fire Nation is an honor for any family. And a valid alternative for those who can not afford to pay their taxes. Unless you have a better solution."

"No, but, –" Zuko could think of no other valid argument, and lapsed into sullen silence.

A small smile curved the Fire Lord's mouth. "I thought not." He watched as Zuko continued to squirm. "Have you quite finished, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko nodded glumly.

"Then please take yourself off. I have real issues that require my attention."

Zuko left the throne room disappointed and depressed. He had failed. He had gone in with one goal: to convince his father to repeal the unjust policy of forcing people to enlist in lieu of paying taxes. Instead of achieving his goal, however, he had instead angered his father – as usual, he thought. The Fire Lord, rather than commending his only son for his initiative in pursuing a resolution to what he had considered a social injustice, had accused him of trying to usurp the throne. How could he think that of me? It was very lowering that his father thought him capable of such treachery.

Zuko shook his head. Why did he even bother? His father was never going to be pleased with him. Never.

Uncle Iroh came home early to find Lan Chi in the courtyard, practicing archery.

"I am glad, Lady Lan Chi, to see you doing something productive instead of mooning over Prince Zuko."

She lowered her bow and gave him a scathing look. "Were you home in the daytime, esteemed Uncle, you would know that I practice archery every day. And stick defense. And knives."

"Ah. Glad to hear it."

"And I don't moon."

"What do you call it, then, when you sit around and sigh and smile dreamily?"

She stomped her foot. "I do not sit around and sigh and smile!"

"Smile dreamily." He corrected.

"You are maddening!"

"I am not the only one." Iroh smiled.

"You just don't remember what it like to be in love!"

He shook his head. "Oh, no – I do. Believe me, I do. You feel odd and out of sorts, and you can't concentrate. You feel rather queasy whenever you think of him, or when he is around. You hunger for the sound of his voice or his laughter. His smile makes your heart jump. Your skin feels especially sensitive when he touches you, like electricity. And, whenever he kisses you, you just melt."

She looked at him with amazement. "I – I – suppose that you – might remember."

He sat down on the edge of the fountain. "Oh, yes. I remember. And I also remember how easy it is be carried away by those emotions. That is why I am so cautious with you and Zuko – why I am so leery of allowing the two of you to be alone."

"What exactly do you think we are going to do in the courtyard, Uncle?"

"Just because there is no bed in the courtyard does not mean that you –"

"Uncle!" She interrupted him, scandalized.

He waved his hand. "Fine, fine. I am just saying that I do not want you to be alone with Zuko – at all."

She slapped the bow against her leg in frustration. "Not at all? No! How can you do that?"

"I do it because I feel that I must!"

"Not even for five minutes? Surely that is not enough time to – to do what you are worried about."

He looked thoughtful. "No. I suppose not."

"Or even ten minutes."

"What? Well, I guess not."

"How about fifteen?"

Iroh's face turned red. "You are not bargaining with me, young lady!"

"I am!" Her hands became fists. "You must allow me some time alone with him."

"After what happened the the night before last? Absolutely not!"

"Yes, you will! If you do not, so help me, I will sneak out of this house and go to him!"

Iroh was livid. "How dare you? I am your guardian, and you will obey me!"

"Obey you? I would obey you if your terms weren't so ridiculous!"

"Ridiculous? Is it ridiculous to guard your virtue?"

"My virtue? Spirits, Uncle! Do you think I'm going to give myself to Zuko under the cherry tree? With you twenty feet away in the sitting room?"

Iroh opened his mouth to retort, but closed it again when he saw the truth in what she said. He took a deep breath, and calmed down. "I suppose not. But I am an old man, and my beliefs are very well established. I am uncomfortable with you and Zuko being alone."

"Fifteen minutes."

"Fine. Fifteen minutes. Only. All other times you will be chaperoned. By me, until a suitable chaperone can be hired."

"What? Are we just supposed to pretend that you are not there?"

"Yes. Ignore me completely."

"Fat chance!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why can't Hua chaperone me?" She ignored his question.

"Because Hua has her own duties. And because you can wrap that poor woman around your little finger."

"Ugh. I really don't want a chaperone!"

"Nevertheless, those are my conditions."

She looked at him petulantly. "Fine."

"Now, perhaps I should let you get back to your archery."

She raised her bow. "And perhaps you should get out of the way."

Zuko arrived at his uncle's house approximately an hour after dinnertime. He had resolved to put the incident with his father behind him and not allow it to affect his evening with Lan Chi. After all, he had precious little time with her, and he was not going to waste it brooding. He heard the bell at the gate as he came in the courtyard, and hoped that Lan Chi would be waiting for him by the time he knocked.

Jianyu opened the door and Zuko entered. Lan Chi was hopping from foot to foot behind the butler, and, once Jianyu stepped out of the way, she launched herself into Zuko's arms. He swung her around with a laugh, and kissed her as if he had not seen her in months, his mouth devouring her.

Jianyu stood looking at them with horror.

"Lady Lan Chi!" Iroh's booming voice interrupted them.

Zuko put Lan away from him, and bowed to his uncle. "Good evening, Uncle. How are you?"

Iroh glared at his nephew. "I really don't know how I am going to survive the next year. I really don't." He pointed at Lan Chi. "I am engaging a chaperone tomorrow. Tomorrow!"

She gave a deep sigh. "Uncle."

Zuko turned to her. "What's he talking about?"

"He's threatened to get a chaperone for us."

"It is more than a threat, young lady. It's a foregone conclusion." Iroh's brows had lowered.

Lan Chi took Zuko's hand. "Come on. Let's go."

"Where are we going?" He had a slight smile on his face.

"We're going to play pai sho." She tugged him into the sitting room.

"But I don't know how to play pai sho."

The board was already set out. "I'll teach you."

He obediently took the seat across from her. "Why are we playing pai sho?"

She cast her eyes over to the doorway, where Iroh had just appeared. She raised her voice so that the older man could hear her. "Because Uncle thinks it's a safe way for us to spend our time."

Iroh nodded with satisfaction. "Exactly. I will be over here –" he pointed at the sofa, "reading."

"Thank you, Uncle." She turned back to Zuko. "He said that we can ignore him."

Zuko was puzzled. "When did he say that?"

She started setting out the game pieces, so she did not look up at him. "Earlier. You weren't here."

"What's going on?"

"Nothing. Let's play."

He shrugged. "Okay."

"Fine." She gave him a mound of tiles.

"What should I do with these?"

"Those are your playing pieces."

"Yes, but what do I do with them?"

"It depends on the gambit you are using."

"On the what I'm using?"

"The gambit. The opening moves."

"Is there a point to pai sho?"

"Yes. Of course."

"Well, what is it?"

"To win."

He gave her a dry look. "Very funny."

She began arranging her pieces on the board. "Each player is given fifty-four tiles. You are given a choice where, on your side of the board, you place your tiles to start. This is the gambit. Why aren't you placing your tiles? Go ahead." She made a shooing motion with her fingers.

He stole a look at her side of the board and attempted to recreate it with his own pieces.

"Oh. Do you use the White Lotus gambit, as well?"

"The what?" Zuko continued to place his tiles.

"You're just copying me, aren't you?"

He looked at her with irritation. "Of course I'm just copying you! I have no idea how to play."

She smiled, and a dimple showed in one cheek. Zuko sucked in a breath; she was so beautiful.

"I'm sorry. Okay. The goal of the game is to create more strings of harmonies than your opponent, while avoiding disharmonies – and to try to trap your opponent into placing disharmonies."

He shook his head. "What language are you speaking?"

"Zuko! It's not that hard!"

"Easy enough for you to say." He flung a hand at Iroh. "You've been living with the king of pai sho for most of your life."

"Oh, that's very sweet." Iroh blushed and smiled.

Lan gave her uncle a dark look, then turned back to Zuko. "Be that as it may, Prince Zuko, it is not that difficult."

Zuko sighed. "Go on."

"Okay. Now, the flower tiles," she pointed at a piece with a stylized flower drawn on it, "can be matched with certain other tiles to form a harmony. However, there are certain other tiles that are in opposition to the flower tiles, and, if one of your flower tiles is placed next to one of these tiles, it forms a disharmony. Do you understand?"

Zuko had no idea what she had just said, but he nodded.

"Good." She smiled. "Now, each end of the board is known as a port. The port closest to you is your home port. The port closest to me is your foreign port."

"Why are you foreign and I'm home?" He was confused.

"I'm not. I'm foreign to you."

"You've got that right." He mumbled.


"Nothing. Go on."

My home port is closest to me. But, to you, that is the foreign port. Get it?"

"Yes." He nodded.

"You're lying, aren't you?"

"No." He nodded again.

"You are infuriating. Listen. I have my own home port, and your port is my foreign port. Do you understand?"

He shook his head. "Not at all."

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "This is going to take all night, isn't it?"

"Probably. Let's quit." He started to push his tiles away.

"No, Zuko. You can learn this." She replaced his tiles on the board, and then began reciting the rules again, adding in anecdotal information occasionally.

Zuko lost the thread of her speech within thirty seconds, and simply leaned his chin on his hand to watch her. He loved to watch the play of emotions on her face – her smiles and frowns, her concentration – everything. She looked up at him from the board, and he nodded and smiled, and she resumed her instruction.

She reached over to his side to demonstrate a move, and he put his hand out and took her wrist, stilling her. Her eyes fluttered up to his, and he smiled, rubbing the inside of her wrist lazily with his fingers. Her pulse began to thump wildly, as his fingertips brought gooseflesh up on her. Her eyelids became heavy, and he smiled invitingly at her.

"Uncle!" She called abruptly, her eyes locked on Zuko. "We're going outside!" She jumped up and pulled him after her.

"Fifteen minutes!" Iroh reminded her.

She ripped open the front door and dragged him out into the darkness. She waited until they reached the shelter of the cherry tree before falling into his arms.

She took the initiative and claimed his mouth hungrily, pressing herself against him. His arms went around her tightly, his fingers spread across her back.

Her hands tugged the shirt out of his waistband and snaked under his clothes to feel the warm skin at the base of his back. He jumped and tore his lips from hers. "Hands." He whispered, his voice thick.

She made a sound of disappointment deep in her throat, and he smiled. "Watch what I can do without touching anything other than your collar."

She was bemused as his fingers grabbed the edges of her robe and pulled them slowly apart. His smile widened as he exposed her pectoral area, and he lowered his head to press kisses there, above the edges of her breast bindings.

"Zuko!" She gasped as his warm lips sent thrills through her. His tongue flicked out and he dragged it across her skin. She allowed her head to fall back, and he began kissing along her clavicle.

"I love you so much," she breathed as his lips moved onto her neck.

"I love you, too."

"Fifteen minutes!" came Iroh's voice from the doorway.

Lan Chi stamped her foot, causing Zuko's jaw to snap together, and he bit his own tongue. "It has not been fifteen minutes." She growled.

"Ouch." He tasted blood in his mouth.

"What happened?"

He shook his head, rubbing his jaw. "Nothing."

"Lady Lan Chi!" Iroh came around the tree, false jocosity in his voice. "Time is up. Come back inside."

She set her jaw belligerently. "I don't want to come inside."

"You promised."

"I promised that we would be chaperoned. But I want to be outside. So, if you want to chaperone us, you shall have to stay outside."

Iroh smiled, and, even in the dark, she could tell it was insincere. "Funny you should suggest that." He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Jianyu! Bring out my rocking chair!"

Her jaw dropped open. "Rocking chair! Where did you get a rocking chair?"

He shrugged. "In the attic."

She grunted in frustration, grabbed Zuko's hand, and pulled him out of the shadow of the tree.

Jianyu had set up an ancient rocking chair right outside the front door, which Iroh collapsed into. Lan looked at her uncle for a long moment, then yanked Zuko into the middle of the courtyard, near the fountain.

"Where I can see you, Lady Lan Chi." Iroh called after her.

"We're sitting here, Uncle."

"I am sensing some hostility between you two." Zuko said with a smile as he settled down against the fountain.

"Nothing gets past you." Sarcasm dripped from her voice.

"What's going on?" He put his arm around her shoulder as she sat beside him.

She leaned her head against his shoulder. "He thinks you're going to have your way with me if we're alone for more than fifteen minutes."

A deep blush came over Zuko's face and neck. "He – he does? And you've – talked to him about it?"

"I talk to him about everything. You know that."

"Everything?" His voice was small.

She looked at him with a tiny smile, enjoying his discomfort – a little. "Not everything."

"Thank the spirits." He turned his head and kissed her softly.

Iroh cleared his throat, and Zuko pulled away.

"Perhaps we can find something to do that doesn't involve kissing." He gave his uncle a wary glance.

"I don't want to."

He nudged her. "Uncle is only concerned because he loves us."

"I suppose." There was a comfortable silence, and then Lan took Zuko's hand. "You can tell me about your day."

He gave a heavy sigh. "It wasn't the best day I've ever had."


He shrugged. "I found out something yesterday while I was working with Uncle that kind of – upset me."

"What was it?"

He looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. "You don't want to hear about it."

"Why wouldn't I? Zuko, we're supposed to share everything." Her mind pushed away the thought of her waterbending, and the hypocrite that she was being. "I'm supposed to be the person you turn to – to lighten your load."

He looked uncertain. "So you really want to hear about it?" This surprised him.

"Of course. I'm supposed to be your support. That's what wives are for."

So he told her about everything that he had learned, and he told her about going to his father, and he told her his father's words.

She listened attentively and did not interrupt, but asked intelligent questions during pauses.

He answered them, and, once he told her the entire story, he did feel – lighter. "What – what would you have done, Lan?"

"The same as you."

"But I didn't change anything." He protested.

"You don't know that. Maybe you've caused your father to think about it."

"I doubt it."

"Well, you don't have to give up, you know. Everything that is worth anything at all is hard work."

He gave a slight smile. "You sound like Uncle."

She sighed. "I know. Casualty of living with him, I suppose."

"He is wise, though, isn't he?"

She stole a glance at Iroh, who seemed to have fallen asleep. "Yes, he is that."

"Thank you."

She turned back to him. "What for?"

"For listening. For lightening my load."

She grinned. "That's what I'm here for."

He gave her a light kiss. "I love you."

She touched his face. "I love you, too."

He stared at her for a long moment, then, inexplicably embarrassed, he looked up at the sky and pointed at the stars. "Do you see that?"

She followed his finger. "What? The stars?"

"Yes. Have you ever heard the Fire Nation legend about how the stars were formed?"

She looked at him with skepticism. "The Fire Nation has legends about something other than the sun?"

"Of course. We're not simple minded. We can have legends about other things."

He scooted away from the fountain until he could lie down, and she lay with him, his arm around her. He pointed up at a large star in the sky. "Do you see that star?"

"Is that the evening star?"

"I think so."

"Isn't it too late to see it? I mean, isn't it only visible in the early evening?"

He gave her an outraged look. "It's the evening star, Lan Chi."

"Okay." She smiled.

"Anyway, it's a pretty story. At one time, only the evening star and the morning star existed. The rest of the sky was black."

"It must have been very dark, indeed."

He nodded. "It was." He resumed the tale. "One night, the morning star, as he woke, caught sight of the evening star, and, well, he fell in love with her immediately. She was so beautiful, you see."

"Was she?" She turned on her side to face him.

"Oh, yes." Zuko idly touched her braid. "Very beautiful."

"Go on."

"Extremely beautiful." The low light caught the his pale eyes, and they shone.

"I meant go on with the story."

"Oh, right. Well, he fell in love with the evening star, but, even though he began rising early every morning – just to see her, he could not catch her in the sky. She was just not interested." Zuko pulled the ribbon from her hair and began unwinding the braid. "Every night, she moved through the sky, and he followed her, but she never slowed down for him to catch her."

"She was playing hard to get."

He smiled. "Perhaps." Her hair was loose now, and he ran his fingers through it, luxuriating in the feel of the cool, heavy curls.

He continued. "So the morning star thought to himself, "if only she knew how much I loved her, she would slow down and wait for me." But he didn't know how to make her slow. Then, he thought, "aha! I will give her gifts so dazzling that she will have no choice but to slow down!" He thought that, if she stopped to gather the gifts, it would allow him to catch up with her."

"What did he do?"

"Patience." He brought a lock of her hair to his lips. "So the morning star pulled shimmering stars from his body, and he threw them all over the sky, as tokens of his love for her. "Surely she will stop for all the stars that I have thrown before her!" But the evening star was vain, and did not stop – she considered herself more beautiful than all the stars he scattered."

"She was rather conceited, wasn't she?"

"Very much so. And, do you know? To this very day, she has not slowed to allow him to catch her."

There was a long silence, and Lan smiled at him. "That was a beautiful legend. Are you sure it's Fire Nation?"

"Very sure." He continued to allow her hair to slide between his fingers.

She looked up at the sky. "But the evening star – I don't like her. Everything the morning star did for her, and she was still unimpressed. She never waited."

He shrugged. "Would you have been different? If you were the beautiful evening star, and the morning star pursued you?"

She nodded. "Oh, yes. If he loved me, I would wait forever."

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