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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 37 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 36 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 38 (The Spirit Within) 
He went by his office to brief Zhushou on the happenings at the meeting, but his efficient secretary not only knew about the impending agni kai, he was actually doing research on the legality of a minor engaging in an fire duel.
Iroh patted his arm with gratitude. "Good man, good man. Don't forget about Lao Chuai either. After this agni kai is over, I want to aggressively pursue him."
"Yes, Sir. I have actually already sent a man down to the harbor to start going over the passenger manifests for the past week."
Iroh sighed. "Thank you, Zhushou. You are invaluable to me – I hope that you know that."
Zhushou puffed under Iroh's praise. "Thank you, Sir. I do."
Iroh headed home after leaving his secretary, although he dreaded seeing Lan Chi. He did not know how he would convince her to go to Ember Island on such short notice – or the reason he would give for the haste.
He found her in the sitting room, practicing, of all things, the liuqin, the four-stringed mandolin she had played briefly as a child.
"Lan Chi?" He barely recognized her. Her hair was down around her shoulders, straight and sleek, with an ornate jeweled comb holding one side away from her face. She was dressed in one of her best robes and matching slippers, and her legs were tucked demurely under her.
"Uncle." She smiled when she saw him, and put the instrument down on her lap.
"I – I don't know what to say. You're practicing the liuqin. I haven't seen you pick that up for – years! And your hair!"
She dimpled prettily. "Do you like it?" She ran her hand through it.
"Y – yes. Yes, of course. It's very comely – that's certain."
She opened her eyes wide. "It took Guniang three hours to straighten it!"
Iroh looked around, as if expecting the maid to jump out at him. "Ah, yes. Guniang. Is she here?"
Lan shook her head. "She went back to the palace to fetch the rest of her things."
"Ah. Well, good. So – she is working out, then?"
Lan shrugged, and plucked idly at the strings of the instrument. "I suppose so."
"Well, she has you looking like a young lady in a beautiful gown, sitting modestly, and practicing the liuqin!"
Lan took umbrage at her uncle's statement. "Are you saying that I don't usually look like a young lady?"
Iroh realized his error. "Er – um – no! I did not mean that at all!" He hastened to assure her.
"Then what, pray, did you mean?"
He gave her a sickly smile. "That you look unusually beautiful tonight?"
She rolled her eyes. "Give over, Uncle. Flattery will get you nowhere. I suppose, to answer your question, yes, she seems to be working out. But –" she raised a finger to make a point. "If my choice is between kinky hair and Zuko or straight, manageable hair, and no Zuko, well," she lowered her hand. "I'll take kinky hair and Zuko. Besides, he loves me despite my frizz. Although I would like him to see me with my hair like this." She held a lock out forlornly.
He shrugged. "I suppose I understand."
"Yes. So let's get rid of her. I missed him today. He came by, for about thirty seconds, but Guniang was watching him like a hawk, and I had to send him away." Her face darkened. "I hate not seeing him."
"But you don't see him every day."
She colored briefly. "I – I know. But today was my day to see him, and I didn't – beyond "hello, Prince Zuko.""
He squeezed her hand.
She turned her hand into his. "So, tell me; I know you saw him. How is he? Is he missing me?"
He was not prepared for that question, so his delay in answering was perhaps overlong. "Oh – oh, he's fine. Yes, fine. We had a good afternoon – working together – in my office."
She smiled. "Can he come over for dinner tomorrow? Cook agreed to delay the pork and pea pods until then." A sudden thought came to her. "Oh! You haven't eaten. Let me call for your meal." She moved as if to summon a servant, but he kept a firm grip on her.
"I'm not very hungry. I had – a snack in the office." He lied.
"Oh, okay. Well, don't do that tomorrow. I don't want you to ruin your dinner. You can bring Zuko home with you. That won't look too suspicious, will it? Oh, will Guniang be gone by then?"
Iroh took a deep breath. "Lan, I don't think Zuko can come for dinner tomorrow."
She looked surprised. "Oh. Well. All right. Maybe for pai sho, then. He really is having trouble learning it."
"He said something about being busy tomorrow night – besides, I want you to do me a favor."
"Oh." She was disappointed. "Okay. I guess. What's the favor, Uncle?"
He plunged right in. "I want you to go to Ember Island for me – tonight."
She withdrew her hand from his. "What? Ember Island? Tonight? Whatever for?"
Why? He actually hadn't thought of a reason – other than the true reason, of course. "Oh, well, that's a funny story, really." He lapsed into silence, searching his mind for a plausible excuse.
"What is?" Her eyes narrowed.
"Ah, well, the funny story is that – Zuko," yes, blame it on Zuko – that's true, after all. "was talking to me today about the times he spent on Ember Island, how happy he was – how much fun he had there..."
"Yes?" She prompted him.
"And – and I thought it might be quite a nice – present for his birthday if we took him there!" Good one, Iroh!
She considered that for a moment, and a smile started to curve her face. She and Zuko on the beach, taking long walks, hand in hand. At night. Under the stars and moon. Alone. "Yes, that would be nice."
"But –" he continued, trying to capitalize on his success, "the Summer Palace has not been opened since – well, a long time."
"I haven't been there since Aunt Su Hsing was alive."
"And I don't think anyone in the family has been there since Princess Ursa's death. It needs to be whipped into shape. You and Hua could go – and hire some of the local girls to clean."
"Hmm." She looked at him shrewdly. "You could send Hua without me. Why do you want me to go?"
Oh, good point. "Well, after all, some – day – it – will – be – yours – and Zuko's, of course." Each agonizing word was drawn out of him. "And, you know, should you find any furnishings that need replacing, you could pick them out yourself. With Hua's help, of course."
"What will Ozai say?"
He waved a hand airily. "He has nothing to say. It may be the Summer Palace, but it's mine, not his – thanks to my father."
"Oh. I didn't know that. I wouldn't have to stay there until Zuko's birthday, will I? That's not until next month!"
"No, no. Of course not. A few days should be enough time to get things rolling. Engage a staff, determine if any repairs will be needed."
She looked at him uncertainly. "And you sure you want to trust me with all of this, Uncle?"
"Why not? You're to be married in two years. Why should you not start to learn? After all, Zuko is learning to be Fire Lord. You should learn some of the duties of Queen."
She looked thoughtful. "I suppose." Her eyes turned back to him. "But why do you want me to go tonight?"
"What?" He was stalling for time.
"Well, because – that way, when I – fire Guniang, you won't – be here! Yes! That's right! You won't be here! It could be unpleasant, dear." He confided to her.
Her smile was a little suspicious, but the thought of preparing a home, an actual home that she and Zuko might share some day, was too great a temptation. And she had always loved the Summer Palace – it was where she had spent her happiest days as a child; it was also the place she first met Zuko.
"All right, Uncle. I'll go." She pointed at him, though, and her face was severe. "But, while I'm gone, you get rid of Guniang. Because when I come back, I shall want thirty minutes alone with Zuko!"
He patted her hand and smiled. "Over my dead body, Lady Lan Chi."
Lan packed a bag and was ready to go less than an hour later. She was bringing only the essentials: enough clothing and shoes for three to four days; toiletries; her bow and arrows; several knives; and her miniature portraits of her parents, her aunt and uncle, and Lu Ten. Only the most important things.
As she packed the pictures, she realized that she had none of Zuko. She would have to remedy that as soon as possible – when she got back, she would drag him down to the open market, where there was an artist who sketched people as they waited. And then she would buy a very romantic frame, and she would place the portrait where she could see it as she fell asleep at night, and when she awoke in the morning.
Hua was already waiting for her at the front door, her eyes darting around the room nervously, and Lan squeezed her hands.
"What's wrong, Hua?"
"Oh, it's nothing, my lady. I just don't –" her eyes darted to Iroh, who stood there with them, "like traveling, is all."
"Well, we'll be there before morning. It's not a long journey, after all."
"No. No, my lady. Of course not."
Iroh had told Hua the truth behind the precipitous visit to Ember Island, and, although she was determined to keep the truth from Lady Lan Chi, as her employer had requested, she did not like lying to the girl. It seemed – dishonorable, somehow, even though it was probably in Lan's best interests.
Iroh escorted them to the stables to say goodbye, although his main reason was to make sure that no one that they saw spilled the truth. He knew that word about the agni kai was already passing around the palace, and he was resolute – no one would betray Zuko's secret to her.
"My goodness, Lan," he said as he handed her bow and arrow up into the carriage, "are you expecting trouble?"
She wagged a finger at him. "If I've learned anything at all from Piandao and Master Jiao Ao, it's to be prepared."
He laughed, and kissed her on the cheek. "You are a true daughter of the Fire Nation, my little duck. Always ready for a fight."
"Thank you, Uncle. That's the nicest thing you could say." She gave him a firm hug, and, as she held him, she whispered in his ear. "Tell Zuko that I love him."
After she released him, he gave her a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "I will, darling. I will."
"Can't I stay?" Guniang wrapped her hands around the poster of the Fire Lord's massive bed, and smiled coquettishly at her lover lying in front of her.
He put his hands behind his head and smiled. "Tired of Iroh already?"
She shrugged. "I miss you."
He stretched out an arm and she slid onto the bed and lay against his chest. "Did anything interesting happen at my brother's today?"
"My first day, and you expect insight?"
"No. I expect information."
She traced her fingers over his naked chest. "Well, now that you mention it, there was something interesting."
"Yes?" His arm tightened around her, and he leaned into her for a kiss.
"Hmm. Yes. Your son came to visit."
His fingers tightened on her shoulder. "Oh? Did he come to see Iroh?"
She bit her lip, thinking. "I thought not. He seemed – as if he were there to see Lan Chi."
A dark look came over Ozai's face. "Prince Zuko has become very – troublesome. Very troublesome, indeed."
The carriage, pulled by one of the fastest horses in the stables, made very good time of the overland portion of the journey, so it took only about three hours to reach the coast. A boat ride of a similar length followed, and they arrived on Ember Island as the sun rose. Hua was very ready to be done with traveling; she had slept only fitfully on the two legs of the journey, but, although Hua was ready to fall into a bed, Lan Chi was eager to see Ember Island and the Summer Palace again.
They stepped off the boat onto the dock, and, in the early morning light, everything was bathed in a rosy glow that made Lan Chi give a contented sigh. She had so many bright memories of Ember Island. Memories of frolicking in the surf with Lu Ten and sitting side by side with Su Hsing in low chairs on the beach. Sand castles with Iroh and climbing the dunes with Zuko and Azula – back when Azula didn't hate her. Back when everything was good – back when Iroh was still crown prince – when they were a happy, whole family.
Hua took her bag from her and left it, along with her own, on the dock, and they went off in search of the caretaker.
The caretaker, Aiguo, had been caretaker as long as anyone could remember; he had been ancient the last time
Lan Chi had seen him, and, when he opened the door of his small cottage to Hua's insistent knocking, Lan realized he was even more ancient – and now deaf.
He surveyed his two visitors. "What do you want?"
"We want into the palace."
"We want to get into the palace!" Hua yelled.
"And why would I open the palace to you two?" He squinted at them.
"Because I am Prince Iroh's housekeeper, and this is Lady Lan Chi, Prince Iroh's daughter." She continued yelling.
"Well, if she's his daughter, why aren't you calling her "princess?""
She reached out and cuffed him on the head. "And why aren't you letting us in the house, you old fool?"
He glared at her, but reached behind the door for his hat. "Well, hold your ostrich horses, why don't you? I ain't eighty no more, you know." With his hat and a huge ring of keys, he made his way past the two women. He looked at Lan's bow, slung over her arm. "Is there an invasion?" He shuffled his way up the hill to where the palace stood, forlorn and abandoned.
It was as beautiful as ever to Lan Chi, on stilts rising from the sand, white stucco with long windows all along the front, its roof of red tile with golden fluted edges, and long wide steps leading up to the front door. Weeds choked the garden, however, and grew from beneath the house and in the cracks between the steps.
They mounted the stairs and she reached out and touched one of the wooden columns that supported the wide veranda. It was cool to the touch.
Aiguo fumbled with the keys on the ring until he found one that elicited an "aha" from him, and he fit it in the lock. It did not turn, however, and he swore and chose another key, and then another, and another, until he found the one that opened the double doors.
They swung open on rusty hinges, and Lan got her first glimpse of the formerly grand Summer Palace. Dust motes danced in the light and cobwebs shimmered lazily in the cool breeze that came in.
"Oh, my." Hua entered quietly, as if loud footsteps might wake the memories that crowded the house. "What a mess." Dust covers obscured everything but for the paintings on the wall and several large vases that lined the room. "We have our work cut out for us, my lady."
"It will take until Zuko's birthday to get this place cleaned up." Lan Chi ran a finger along a dusty banister.
"Aiguo, didn't the Fire Lord leave any staff here besides you to look after the place?"
"Nope. After the old Fire Lord died, the new one just closed it all up."
"Aiguo, could you please go fetch our bags from the dock?" Hua took off her coat and hung it on the rack inside the front door. "We'll get started here."
Aiguo nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"And find some local girls to come clean. We'll need all the help that we can get."
The old man nodded and took himself off while Lan and Hua began stripping the covers off of all of the furniture in the room. They bundled them all into a corner and Hua stood in the middle of the room and surveyed their surroundings. "I should see if I can find cleaning supplies. I'll go check in the laundry room. Perhaps you can go upstairs and see if there are any chambers that can be slept in tonight. After all, you can't sleep in the nursery anymore."
Lan sighed. "I suppose not."
She climbed the stairs to the second floor slowly. A painting of Ozai's family hung on the wall opposite the stairwell, and she walked up to it. It looked to have been painted about the time she came to live with Iroh and Su Hsing. It was a good likeness of them, but lifeless. Their eyes looked dead. Perhaps it was not a lifeless portrait, though; perhaps they were just lifeless in the portrait. A family held captive by a father's ambition.
She sighed. How she wished that Ozai were more like Iroh. How she wished that Zuko – and Azula, had grown up with a man like Iroh for their father. They would be so different. Things would be so different.
She gave a rueful smile and sighed, and turned towards the bedrooms. Although she had always slept in the nursery while she was here, she knew to whom all the bedrooms belonged. The first on the right was Lu Ten's. She did not go in. She could not bear that right now, with all the memories swirling inside her. Second door on the right – empty. She supposed that it would have been her room, had everything – not changed. First door on the left – Iroh's, with a door that joined to the room next to it – Su Hsing's. Next to it was Ursa's, also with a door that joined it to the room on the other side – Ozai's. The two doors on the opposite side of the hall were to be Zuko's and Azula's, presumably. And the room at the end of the hall – the Fire Lord's. She opened that door. The room was massive with a huge bed, with doors inlaid with glass at one end that lead to a large balcony.
She closed the door and stood in the hallway. She should investigate her room. See if it was habitable. She opened the door. A bed, covered in dust cloths. She pulled it off and dust floated up into the air. She coughed and waved her hand in the air to disperse the molecules. She walked to an armoire and pulled open the bottom drawer to find linens stored there. She pulled them out and held them to her nose. They smelled sweet, like herbs. She smiled. This room was habitable. She opened the wide balcony doors and left the hall door open to air it out. She did the same for the empty room next to hers, and went back down to the bottom floor to find Hua dusting.
"I opened up two of the rooms for us."
"Us? My lady, we can't be forgetting our positions, even though you're doing maid's work. I'll be staying in the housekeeper's room. I've already opened it up."
"Oh. I have to sleep up there by myself?"
She stopped dusting and looked at her charge. "Does it make you uncomfortable, my lady?"
Lan shrugged. "Just ghosts." She took up a rag, and shook her head. "No. I'll be fine. After all, only the living can hurt me."
By lunchtime, four young women had come from the town to help with cleaning, as well as an old woman who had been cook there during Azulon's life.
Lan Chi, released from the most labor-intensive of the chores, wandered through the house, opening windows and uncovering furniture. She came to a set of large double doors – the library. On rainy days, she had spent much of her time in this room. She opened the doors slowly. Sunlight muted by dusty windows shone on the shrouded desk, and on the covered chairs scattered around the room. Bookcase-lined walls called to her, and she peered at the titles on the spines of some of the books. Fairy tales, history books, novels of derring-do – they were like old friends to her. She came to the shelf that held all of the family chronicles, and, idly, she pulled one out and leafed through it. It listed the names of all the Fire Lords and their consorts, as well as all their children. There were also private histories, sometimes written by the Fire Lord, sometimes by their queens. Mostly boring stuff; politics or relationships between people long dead. She replaced it, pulled out another, and settled down on a chair she uncovered. In this book was the history of Zu Jia, the boy Fire Lord. She had always been fascinated by his story – Fire Lord at the age of ten, then the victim of an attempted coup before he was even fifteen. This history was written, apparently, by his wife, Ba Lin, married to him for eighty-five years!
"Eighty-five years. That's incredible. How old was Zu Jia when he died?" She flipped through the pages until she found his portrait, with his dates of birth and death. "He was ninety-nine when he died! Ninety-nine. Wait – that means that he was – fourteen when he married Ba Lin? That can't be right." She found a portrait of Ba Lin in the book, and, sure enough, it showed that she and Zu Jia were married at fourteen. "And had a baby at fourteen! Spirits! A baby – at fourteen! That's crazy!" She shook her head and laid the book down on her lap. Married and pregnant at fourteen – times sure had changed!
She gazed around the room, her eyes becoming heavy. Between the relative cool of the room and her lack of sleep the night before, it was not long before they closed.
Iroh did not sleep at all, and, when the sun rose, he gratefully gave up the pretense of rest. He dressed hurriedly, intending to see Zuko. As he was descending the stairs, he crossed Guniang, ascending.
"Good morning, General Iroh. I cannot find Lady Lan Chi. Her bed has not been slept in!"
"Oh, Guniang. I'm glad to have run into you. I sent Lan to Ember Island for a few days."
Guniang seemed surprised. "Oh. Oh, I see."
"I also wanted to tell you that – well, you are quite a superior lady's maid, but I think that Lan Chi is still too young to need your services."
"Are – are you firing me, General?" She was bewildered.
"No, no – not firing you. It just seems like you two don't – suit. I'm sure that Princess Azula will be happy to have you back." He passed her, but, as he did, he threw up an arm. "Oh, and don't worry. I'll see that you're paid through the end of the month."
Guniang watched him go with an open jaw.
Zuko was training in the courtyard, and Iroh was relieved to see that the young man's firebending was strong and consistent.
"Uncle." Zuko ceased bending and offered Iroh a bow. His expression was cloudy, though. "Were you able to convince Lan to go to Ember Island?"
Iroh nodded. "Yes. It was not easy, though."
"What did you tell her?"
Iroh shook his head. "A lie, I'm afraid."
"I'm sorry that you lied to her on my account."
Iroh patted his shoulder. "It's of no consequence. A little white lie to save her an entire day's worth of worry."
"And me, as well."
"You are not worried about anything other than Lan Chi's reaction?" Iroh was incredulous.
Zuko shook his head. "I'm really not worried about the agni kai. I'm prepared. I know that I am. My reflexes are sharp, and he won't be able to hurt me. I am going to win. But don't concern yourself, Uncle – I shall not humiliate him. I have learned my lesson."
"Good boy. Let's do a little bit more training, then I want you to rest. I don't want you to be overtired."
"What about Jiao Ao?"
"I sent him a note last night. Since Lan Chi is not here either, he has the entire morning off."
"Oh. That's good. Will he be at the agni kai?"
"I don't know. I told him about it, but it is his decision whether he wants to see you fight."
"I hope that he does. I want him to see what a fierce warrior he had helped to make me."
"Oh, he knows, Zuko. He knows."
They were sitting in the shade of the cherry tree. He was dressed in the traditional clothing that he had worn at the genbuku – just red sparring pants and leather bands around the arms. She wore the robe from that night, as well, and, as she looked down at herself, the blue embroidered dragon began undulating on the cloth, and, struggling mightily, it pulled free and flew off. Zuko shot a fireball at it, but it changed direction and disappeared into the clouds.
He turned to her. "It got away."
"It's all right." She reached out to touch his face, but he was suddenly gone, and, in a panic, she turned to look for him.
He stood several feet away, his back to her, looking at something that she could not see.
She stood to go to him, but he was gone again.
"Lan!" His voice came from behind her, plaintive, but, as she turned to him, the walls of the courtyard began exploding around them in a shower of rubble and twigs. She shielded her face and began running towards Zuko, but found her way blocked by Ozai, grinning down at her maliciously.
"You will be queen of nothing." He turned away from her and released a huge, swirling vortex of fire at Zuko. He raised his hands up to his face, screaming, and Lan Chi screamed, as well.
Lan sat up with a gasp, and the book on her lap slid to the floor. Mid-afternoon sun was coming through the library window, and she rubbed her face sleepily. It had been a dream – a horrible, horrible dream. Why couldn't it have been a good dream? A dream in which she and Zuko were sitting under the tree kissing or walking along the beach, hand in hand? She retrieved the book from the floor and tucked it under her arm, then stood up. It was time to get back to work, anyway.
She heard Hua before she saw her, ordering the new maids to "put some muscle into it!" She was bent over a low table, rubbing a lemon-scented oil into its surface. She looked at the maid and demonstrated the technique again. The girl nodded, and Hua smiled.
"Good girl. Now do this table, and the dining table. And then the sideboard. And then you can do the Fire Lord's bedroom." She saw Lan, and smiled. "Oh, there you are, my lady! I was wondering where you were."
"I fell asleep in the library." Lan watched as Hua stood up.
"Oh, I'm so glad you got a little bit of rest. I tell you – I am certain to sleep well tonight. Are you hungry, my lady? I am a little peaked. I'd love some tea and a few cookies."
"Yes, Hua. Thank you."
"Let's go along to the kitchens. The bellpulls don't work. Probably rotted."
They walked to the kitchen, and Hua noticed the book Lan carried. "What's that you have there, my lady?"
Lan showed it to her. "It's one of the private histories of the Fire Lords. Hua, did you know that Zu Jia was married at fourteen? And that his wife was also fourteen? And that they had a baby the same year?"
A look of disapproval came over Hua's features. "Well, what that history doesn't tell you is that the baby almost arrived before the wedding."
"What do you mean?"
She gave Lan a sideways glance. "Now, Lady Lan Chi, I know that you know where babies come from."
Lan blushed as she figured it out. "Oh, I see. They – before they were married. Oh. Ooooohhhhh."
"And Zu Jia's mother was not very pleased. At least that's what is always said about Su Zhu. She didn't want Zu Jia to marry Ba Lin, but, with the baby on the way," Hua shrugged. "Didn't have much choice. The Fire Sages declared that he must marry her - because of the baby. It was a boy, too, so he became Fire Lord later. But not until he was very old." They reached the kitchen. "Jasmine tea all right with you, my lady? There is not much choice." She clucked as she put water on to boil. "We'd better bring tea back when we come next month. Prince Iroh will not drink this."
Iroh had to practice a mighty amount of self-control that day. He found himself, several times, on the verge of going to his brother and pleading that he call off the agni kai. However, mindful of Zuko's request that he not say anything to Ozai, Iroh instead spent a fretful day in his office, accomplishing little.
It turned out that Zhushou's thought that a minor could not legally participate in an agni kai came to nothing. There was no precedence at all for it, and Iroh gave up his last hope that the agni kai could be avoided.
As the hour of the agni kai approached, Iroh gave up all attempts at work, and headed for his nephew's room. He found him seated on his bed, already clad in the traditional agni kai attire, which was identical to that of the genbuku – form-fitting red sparring pants with a small ruffled cuff, and red leather bands around his upper arms. He had the drape that Lan Chi had embroidered spread over his lap, and he was running his fingers over the embroidery thoughtfully. He raised his head when his uncle entered, smiled, then went back to his contemplation of the drape.
"This is so beautiful, Uncle. Have you ever seen it?"
Iroh shook his head and came to sit next to his nephew. "She kept it a secret. It is exquisite."
"It must have taken weeks to embroider – maybe months." He looked at Iroh. "She really loves me." He looked down at it again. "And I love her so much." He sighed. "I hope that I don't fail her."
"How could you fail her, Zuko?"
"By losing. By making a fool out of myself."
"She doesn't care about any of that. She loves you. And Lan Chi's love is no trifling thing – I can tell you that."
"I suppose so." He gave a smile that lifted only half his mouth.
A thought came to Iroh, then. "I forgot to tell you. When she left, she told me to tell you that she loves you."
Zuko's smile widened, and he gave Iroh a skeptical look. "You just made that up."
Iroh chuckled. "No. I vow that I did not. I'm afraid that it slipped my mind today – I was otherwise occupied."
"Worrying about me."
"A little, perhaps."
There was a long pause. "Uncle, I just want you to know that – whatever happens, I'm grateful. To you. For being my teacher."
Iroh recognized notes of melancholy and doubt in Zuko's voice, and he slapped him on the back heartily. "Come now, Zuko, my boy! You act as though you believe you will lose! Where is that confidence that you had earlier?"
Zuko took a deep breath. "I still think that I will win. I have no choice. My father will never forgive me if I lose."
"Don't be silly. Your father loves you – no matter the outcome."
"If you say so."
"Well, let's just say that he'll love me more if I win." He stood up and placed the drape around his shoulders. "I have something I want you to give to Lan." He picked up a scroll off his desk and gave it to his uncle. "It's a note that I wrote for her to read before the agni kai." He shrugged. "I know she won't read it until after, now, but – give it to her anyway."
Iroh nodded and slipped it into his sleeve. "I will." He stood and gave Zuko a long hug, squeezing him tightly.
"Careful, Uncle. You're wrinkling my drape."
He laughed and released his nephew. "Come now, Prince Zuko. Glory awaits."
For the collective works of the author, go here.