|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 39 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 38 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 40 (The Spirit Within) 
She sat up, groggy, and ran her hands through her hair. The beautiful, straight hair that Guniang had labored over was long gone, and her hair was back to its wildness. The humidity and a night spent on the sand did not help in the least, either. In fact, the sand had helped nothing. It was caked on her arms and legs and stuck on her nightgown, as well as stuck in her ears and in the corners of her eyes. She even thought that she tasted sand. She sighed and stood as the water came up again. It would do her no good to get any wetter. On second thought, however, she realized that it would do her no ill to get any wetter, and she waded into the water. It was cold and bracing, but it felt so good. She rubbed her legs and arms to dislodge the sand, and then dove beneath the waves.
She pictured Zuko swimming with her, clad only in his small clothes, and, with a smile, she shot to the surface and began treading water. She imagined his arms around her in the sea, and imagined him drawing her against him, his lips on the curve of her neck. Her fantasies came crashing down around her, however, as she remembered that he would probably have an open wound that would prevent him from swimming.
A thought came to her then, like lightning. He would have an open wound. And they would be surrounded by water. Wonderful, healing salt water. She could do it. Oh, spirits, she could do it – right here on Ember Island. She could heal him with all this lovely water. Not only could she do it, she would do it. She would heal him, and consequences be damned! She had meant what she said to Iroh the night before; she did not care what people said of her, or what happened to her. Ozai could clap her in prison if he wanted. Zuko would be marvelously whole again, and that was all that mattered. True, he might end up with slight scarring; she knew, from experience, that healing should be done as soon as possible after an injury, but what matter was a small scar, compared to what would have been left behind otherwise?
That took care of his physical wounds – but what about his emotional ones? His father had given him this injury – it was not received in war, at the hands of a nameless enemy. It was not received in an agni kai, leveled by a mortal enemy. It was given to him by the man who had given him life. The man who was supposed to love him, and care for him.
She would work to heal those wounds, as well. By giving him all of her love, by devoting her life to caring for him. She would hold him, and kiss him, and allow him to lay his head in her lap, and give him all that he had ever desired of her. If he could find solace or strength with her, within her, she would give it to him. Gladly. She would give him everything. Her mind, her soul, her body. They were all his to command. He could lose himself inside of her, and perhaps find himself again.
That she came to this decision, so easily, was not something that surprised her. She had wanted Zuko for so long, at some atavistic, fundamental level, that the determination to give herself to him, now, was something that seemed like a natural conclusion. He wanted her, too; she knew that. She knew, by his looks and by the touch of his fingers on her skin, that his control, when they were together, was tenuous, at best, despite his declaration that they would wait – that they could wait.
And, if nature took hold and she found herself carrying Zuko's child at fourteen – well, there was a precedence for it. A precedence that just might enable Zuko to marry her despite his father's objections.
She pulled her wet nightgown away from her skin and allowed it to billow freely around her torso in the water, imagining her belly distended with Zuko's baby. Uncle would probably kill her! She shrugged. She had dealt with his wrath before, and had always gotten her own way in the end. She saw no reason why this would be different. Ozai would be another problem, as he always was, but he even he could not go against all the Fire Sages if they declared that Zuko must marry her – if only to legitimize the child. She smiled – she thought that she now knew what Zuko had meant, that night in the courtyard, when he had said that he knew how to force his father's hand regarding their marriage.
She emerged from the surf and, with a quick look around her, bent the water from her clothing and hair, and walked up the steep hill to the palace. The sun was just coming up, and the house was awakening. She found Hua in the kitchen, helping the cook with breakfast, and Lan hugged her from behind.
Hua placed her hands on Lan's arms for a moment to acknowledge the embrace, and went back to work. "Good morning, my lady. How did you sleep?"
Lan sighed and took a seat at the table. "I've had better nights."
Hua shook her head. "It's so sad about Prince Zuko."
She laid her head on the table. "Did Uncle tell you that he was going to bring Zuko here to recuperate?"
"Yes. We have a lot to do to prepare."
"I know. I'll get started as soon as I get dressed."
"Don't you want breakfast?"
She straightened and shook her head. "I'm not hungry."
Hua shrugged. "You'll have more of an appetite for lunch, I suppose."
"Probably. Hua, could you please tell Aiguo to hire a boat and a boatman while we are here? I don't want Zuko to have to walk to town while he is here. He is here to recuperate, not to walk his legs off."
"Good idea, my lady."
"Could you please ask him to have one here by midday? I think that I should like you and me to go to town later to look at bed linens. The one I have found are all faded."
"Yes, my lady."
"Oh, and have one of the girls make up Uncle's room for him, and the room next to mine, for Prince Zuko."
Hua turned to look at Lan. "Is that a good idea, my lady? For you and the Prince to be so close, I mean."
Lan gave Hua a quelling look. "What exactly do you think that we are going to do with Uncle across the hall?"
Hua colored slightly, and averted her eyes. "Nothing, my lady. Of course not."
Iroh arrived back in the capital city well after sunrise, although it was still relatively early. The streets were already crowded with everyday Fire Nation business – soldiers, peddlers, shoppers, and people of all occupations mixed together and clogged the streets, and he was forced to dismount Xuan and walk him through the crowds. The ostrich horse, very tired after two long journeys, seemed grateful for the lightened load.
Iroh finally reached the stables, and handed the animal off to one of the stable-hands. The young man, who looked vaguely familiar to Iroh, bowed.
"I am sorry about your nephew, General."
"Thank you, son."
He walked wearily into the palace and directly to Zuko's room. Mercifully, he saw few people, and none stopped him. He planned to check on his nephew first, then go see Ozai. He had several strong words for his brother, and he suspected that he would receive some in return. He just hoped that words were all that Ozai had planned for him – and for Zuko. He did not know how much more the boy could take.
He found Zuko lying on his bed, the doctors gone. He was staring off into the distance with his good eye, and Iroh suspected that he was reliving the agni kai.
"How are you, Prince Zuko?"
His nephew remained silent.
"Where are the doctors?"
"I sent them away." His voice was thick and rusty, as if he had been crying.
He did not answer.
"Are you in pain?"
The boy shook his head.
Iroh sighed and sat down on the edge of the huge bed. "Admitting pain is not a sign of weakness. The doctors can give you something to alleviate it."
"I want to be in pain."
"I deserve it."
"Why do you say that?"
"I failed Father. He was testing me, and I failed."
"Zuko, what happened was not your fault. You were in an impossible position."
"I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Iroh nodded and put a comforting hand on the boy' shoulder. "I went to Ember Island and saw Lan. I told her what happened."
Zuko sat up, panicked. "She's not here, is she? She can't see me, Uncle!"
"I look like a monster! You can't let her see me! Please!"
"She's not here, Zuko. She wanted to come, but I wouldn't let her. It's not – safe for her here right now."
"Please, don't bring her here! I can't see her!"
"Prince Zuko, Lan Chi told me to tell you that, no matter what has happened, she loves you. What you look like will not matter to her."
"It matters to me! I can't –" His voice broke.
"Calm down, Zuko. Everything will be fine with Lan. I promise you."
"You can't promise me how she will feel when she – sees me!"
"Zuko! You must calm down. She loves you. She told me to tell you that. And that she is praying for you." He took Zuko's hands. "I told her that I will bring you to Ember Island in a few days to recuperate, and she is waiting for you there."
He shook his head and pulled his hands away. "No. I can't go. I can't. What will I do when she sees me? When she finds out it is my – face?"
"She knows, Zuko. And I tell you that she doesn't care. She says that she will wait for you forever. She wanted me to tell you that quite specifically."
Zuko was silent. Maybe she could still love him, despite his – deformity. And the idea of being on Ember Island with her was very alluring. Lan Chi in a bathing suit, the water making the fabric cling to her in – imaginative ways. His hands running over her bare shoulders, her bare midriff, drawing her closer to him in the water. His lips on the curve of her shoulder, her arms wrapped around his neck, the sound of her laughter close in his ear.
"Maybe – maybe I could go. Do you think Father would let me?"
"I will talk him into it."
Zuko gave a slight smile.
"I nearly forgot." Iroh smiled kindly. "She gave me something for you."
"Oh? What is it?"
"This." Iroh leaned forward and gave his nephew an avuncular kiss on the cheek. "She told me that – um – from her, it would be very – different."
Zuko blushed. "Er – thank you, Uncle."
"And now that we have sorted out everything with Lan Chi, you have other things to think about."
"Yes. You're right." He took a deep breath. "Have you seen Father today?"
"No. I came here first. I'm going to see him now."
"Will you – will you tell him that I'm sorry?"
"Yes, Zuko. I will."
He left his nephew after convincing him to take more of the medicine that the doctors had left, and made his way to his brother's throne room. He thought that he would be barred from entering, but the Royal Guards stood aside for him.
There was a finance minister giving a report on tax revenues from the colonies, and Iroh, rather than blazing forward and interrupting, realized that discretion was the better part of valor, and waited patiently for the man to finish. During the delay, he took his time to review the words that he would say. As he had tried to teach Zuko over and over, planning and making good choices often made the difference between success and failure.
Finally, the finance minister shuffled past him, giving him a sidelong, rueful look, and Iroh walked forward until he was before the throne. Although he wanted nothing more than to walk up to Ozai and throttle his younger brother, he lowered himself to his knees. It would do no good to antagonize the Fire Lord.
When Ozai spoke, his voice was almost amused. "Well, well, well. Iroh. I was wondering when you would come to chastise me."
At this, all of Iroh's plans to remain calm evaporated. "Chastise you? Is this a jest to you, Ozai? Was it a joke to burn and disfigure your only son?"
"He needed discipline."
"Discipline? Discipline is a spanking! Or taking away a toy! Discipline is not burning off half his face!"
At this, Ozai surged to his feet, and Iroh did the same. "He is my son, not yours!" He yelled, his hand on his chest. "I will decide what is appropriate punishment! Not you! Your son is dead!"
Iroh extinguished all of the flames before the throne and climbed the stairs with deliberate, seething anger. He came nose to nose with Ozai, and, although his younger brother was much taller than he, Iroh was not intimidated. "I know quite well that my son is dead, Ozai. I am reminded of it every day! But your son," he poked Ozai in the chest, "is alive, and you have thrown him away, like a bit of trash."
"But he is mine, to do with as I please. Keep that in mind, Iroh."
A cold seized Iroh's heart, and he stepped back, his face twisting in horror. "Is that what this is about, Ozai? You exercising your power? You putting me in my place? Destroying Zuko's life to show me that you can?"
"Oh, you have been always been so smug, Iroh! You have always thought yourself so clever. Brilliant, glorious Iroh! The first born! The chosen one! Father's favorite. But I am Fire Lord, Iroh, not you!"
"And we both know how that came to pass, Brother." Iroh snarled.
"Oh-ho! Now we come down to it. You think you know everything! But you know nothing! Less than nothing! And what's more, even if you do know, you can never prove it!"
"Because you've gotten rid of all the witnesses. The High Sage. Ursa. Lao Chuai."
"Oh, yes! Lao Chuai! How you tried so hard to find him. To make him talk! But he is beyond your grasp now, Iroh." He sneered at his brother.
"And probably in a watery grave."
Ozai smiled evilly. "Lao Chuai was a very old man. Accidents befall very old men all the time."
"So this has all been a plan to – what? Distract me from discovering that you stole my throne?"
"No, no, Iroh. You mistake me. The past does not interest me. It is the future that concerns me now – the future of the Fire Nation."
"The future of the Fire Nation lies in a bed, scarred and disfigured by his own father!"
"Lay that blame at your own door, Iroh!"
"It was not I who wielded that fireball!"
"It makes no difference that I was the instrument, Iroh! You – you were the architect!"
"You make little sense, Brother. I think that your wits have gone begging."
"I have all my wits about me – wits enough to know that you broke your pledge to me. The only pledge that I asked of you upon your return."
"And what pledge is that, my lord?"
"Do you think me stupid, Iroh? Did you think that I would not discover your feeble attempt to wed that whore to my son?"
Iroh's pupils constricted in shock.
"Oh, yes! I see, by your reaction, that I have surprised you! Are you astonished that your strategy was unsuccessful? I would think that you would be familiar with that, after your inspired strategy failed you at Ba Sing Se!"
"You did this because Zuko wished to marry Lan Chi?"
"I did this because he is an idiot, and a fool, and is too easily swayed by bitter old men!" He pointed at Iroh triumphantly. "And even if my weak-willed son is still stupid enough to wed her, that Water Tribe child," he spat the description, "will never sit on the throne. Ever. And neither will your pawn."
"You mean to put Azula on the throne? Have you found some obscure precedence in an old scroll that will miraculously allow you to name a woman as successor?"
"No need. I am a young man, and I intend to rule a very long time – no matter how you plot my downfall. Long enough that Azula will present me with many, fine grandsons. She may never be Fire Lord, but she will be mother to one."
"What an ingenious plan." Iroh's eyes narrowed. "But how do you expect to bar Zuko from the succession?"
"It won't be hard, Brother." Ozai stepped back, an evil smile marring his handsome features. "But I am afraid you will just have to wait to see."
Unfortunately, for Iroh and Zuko, they did not have long to wait.
After leaving Ozai, Iroh went back to his nephew, who was, mercifully, asleep. One of the doctors had returned, and had, while Iroh was gone, replaced Zuko's bandage.
"How is it?" Iroh asked.
The man shook his head. "Too early to tell. It shows no sign of infection, which is, of course, excellent news, but there's still no way of knowing whether the vision in his eye is compromised."
"When will we know?"
He shook his head again. "We don't want to rush it – he should not open his eye and disturb the skin regrowth."
"My nephew is not a patient young man."
"Well, then, it will take those around him to help him become more patient."
Iroh thought of Lan Chi – as hot-headed as Zuko, and sighed.
The doctor continued. "It will have no impact on his ability to rule, of course. It will impact him personally most of all. But it's not as if he is fighting in the war, after all."
"What good is a half-blind firebender?" The voice came from the direction of the bed, and the two men turned to see Zuko sitting up in bed. His one eye was glazed and droopy – he was obviously still feeling the effects of the drugs.
"Prince Zuko!" The doctor blushed. "I – I meant – I just meant –"
His one brow drew down. "You meant exactly what you said. It will impact me personally. Who will want to marry a man with a half a face? Who will be governed by a man as ineffectual as I shall be?"
"I – I am sorry, your highness." The doctor was beside himself in embarrassment.
"Zuko, how are you feeling?" Iroh came and sat beside him, his face a mask of concern.
He looked at his uncle with barely concealed impatience. "Uncle, are you going to ask me that every time you come into the room?"
Iroh smiled gently. "For the near future, probably."
"Well, stop it! How do you think that I am? Half of my face is gone, I am probably blind in one eye, and I have no hair!"
"Zuko, I did not mean to –"
"To what? To remind me of what happened? Believe me, Uncle, I need no reminder! My reminder throbs constantly! My reminder is a big wad of bandage across my face!" He got up and snatched a piece of cloth off a chair and threw it at Iroh. "My reminder is a singed and bloody agni kai drape!"
Iroh caught the material. It was indeed Zuko's agni kai drape, and Iroh could see that it was, as Zuko said, partially burned, and it seemed to have blood on it. It must have been behind Zuko and taken some of the blast, and the prince's body as he fell.
"How did you get this?"
"Some kind soul brought it to me earlier."
"Zuko," Iroh started, but his nephew held up his hand.
"No more, Uncle. I will talk of it no more." He looked at himself in the mirror on the wall. "I don't want to."
Just then, there was a knock. "Oh, spirits!" Zuko threw up his hands. "Has someone else come to annoy me? Come in!" He yelled.
A Royal Guard appeared in the doorway, and Zuko stiffened. "What is it? A message from my father?" His voice became soft and hopeful.
"Yes, your highness. The Fire Lord demands your presence."
"Demands?" This from Iroh, still clutching the drape.
The Royal Guard nodded. "We are to wait for you, your highness."
Iroh and Zuko exchanged looks.
Zuko drew himself up. "Thank you. You may wait outside."
Once the door was closed behind the guard, Zuko turned to Iroh. "Demand? Uncle, what do you think this means?"
Iroh's lips compressed. "I don't know, Prince Zuko."
Zuko drew a deep breath. "I want to wear my dress uniform." He looked at his uncle and a glimmer of the old Zuko was there. "Could you please help me, Uncle?"
"Of course." He and the doctor fetched Zuko's best uniform and helped him into it. Once the foundation pieces were on, they carefully maneuvered the armor over his bandaged head and tied it on. His wrist guards and boots went on next, and Iroh pronounced himself satisfied with his nephew's appearance. "The new armor fits well, Zuko."
He nodded silently. "Uncle, will you come with me? Please?"
Iroh nodded and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Of course, Prince Zuko."
Zuko and Iroh drew many interested glances as they walked through the palace. Steps hesitated or faltered when Zuko appeared. Eyes darted to the prince's face and then away again in either embarrassment or shame. Whispers began after they passed.
Zuko bore it all with stoicism, his shoulders high and proud. At the entrance to the throne room, Zuko drew in a deep, calming breath. "I'm ready to face you." He murmured it for his own ears, and pushed aside the curtains.
His footsteps in the dress boots were staccato clicks as he walked to his father's throne. He went down on both knees, and bowed his head. He had considered bending forward and laying his forearms on the floor, as he usually did, but he was not certain that he would not pass out.
"I should have known that you would bring your nursemaid, Prince Zuko."
Zuko closed his eyes.
"Look at me."
Zuko lifted his head slowly and focused on his father's silhouette behind the flames.
There was a long silence.
"Prince Zuko, do you know why you are here?"
"Yes, my lord."
"To – to discuss the agni kai."
"To discuss the agni kai. Do you really think that?"
"Well, yes, Sire. I mean – why else?"
"Why else? For you to apologize!"
Behind him, Iroh, also on his knees, blanched.
"A – apologize?" Zuko stammered.
"Do you not think that you owe me an apology, Prince Zuko? You humiliated me in my own war room, and then you refused me the opportunity to gain satisfaction by deloping. You made me look a fool!"
Zuko's eye grew wide. "No, Father! I did not mean – I did not want to fight you! I could not! I am your devoted son – to raise a hand to you is – anathema to me!"
"Do you consider me unworthy to battle? Do you think my honor is undeserving of defense?"
"Yes! I mean no! I don't know! I don't understand! I'm confused, my lord!" He raised both his hands to his head.
"Then let me make this perfectly clear to you, Zuko. You are no longer my son."
"What?" Iroh roared and jumped to his feet. "Ozai!"
"Father!" Tears sprang to Zuko's uncovered eye, and he, too, stood. "No! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I meant no disrespect to you! I am your son! I love you, Father! I love you!" He staggered forward and fell down on his knees just inches from the flames that separated them.
"Love?" Ozai scoffed. "Love is for the weak – the feeble! I demand obedience, not some meager sentiment!"
"I am obedient, Father! I will do whatever you ask of me! Whatever you say!"
"It is too late. You cannot redeem yourself. You have shown shameful weakness, Prince Zuko, by refusing the agni kai. You have brought dishonor on yourself. You have shamed me. You have shamed the Fire Nation."
Zuko lifted a tear-soaked face to him. "Sire! I am sorry! I am sorry! It was not my intention to be disrespectful to you! I am your dutiful son! I will do anything you ask! I vow that I shall! Ask whatever you desire of me, and I swear that I shall do it!"
A small smile curved The Fire Lord's mouth. "Indeed? In that case, Prince Zuko, I have a task for you."
For the collective works of the author, go here.