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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 11 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 10 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 12 (The Spirit Within) 
Her eyes opened wide.
He looked around quickly, and grabbed her hand. He pulled her after him, down the corridor a short way, through a door, and closed it behind them. They were plunged into darkness, until Zuko brought forth a small flame, which he kept cradled in his hand.
It was a closet, and they were very close. Lan's pulse quickened. He looked very handsome, wearing a soft brown sparring tunic and pants.
He had a huge smile on his face. "What are you doing here?"
"Promise not to tell?"
"You can't tell anyone."
"I won't. I promise."
"I ran away."
In his surprise, he allowed the fire to go out. He re-ignited it, and Lan blinked at its sudden brightness. "From the Academy?"
"Lan." He was puzzled. "When people run away, they usually don't go home."
She shrugged. "I wanted to come see Hua and Jianyu."
"Uncle's servants." At his blank look, she explained. "They always took care of me when he was gone."
"You're not going to tell anyone, are you?"
"I told you I wouldn't. Can we sit down?"
"Yeah. I guess."
They settled on the floor, facing each other, knees almost touching, amongst the brooms and mops and cleaning supplies.
"Why are you wearing that?" He indicated the kerchief.
She had forgotten she was wearing it. She blushed, and pulled it from her head. "Oh, that. It's my disguise."
He snickered. "Disguise?"
She shook her head. "Not very good?"
"I recognized you." The flickering flames cast weird shadows on his face.
She shrugged. "Well, It seems that you are one of the only people here who knows me. I didn't recognize anyone when I came in."
"Yeah. All of Grandfather's people have gone by now, for the most part."
A thought came to her. "Is Azula here?"
"What? No. She's at Mai's house today, I think."
Mai. "Oh, you didn't go?" She hoped her tone was casual.
He looked at her in surprise. "No. Why would I want to be with Azula and her friends?"
A hope sprang to life in her chest. "No reason."
He was puzzled. "Okay." He was quiet a moment. "No. It's not okay. Why do you think I would want to be with Azula and her friends?"
Her shrug was an attempt at nonchalance. "Because, you know, Mai's your girlfriend – and all." She finished feebly.
"Not anymore." He looked at his hand suddenly. "Do you mind if I let this flame go out for a couple of minutes? My hand is cramping."
No, I surely do not mind! "No, go ahead."
They were in darkness again.
"Thanks." She could almost see his silhouette trying to shake the spasm from his hand. "That feels better." However, if she thought that the last topic was dead, she was disappointed. "How do you know about me and Mai?"
She was very glad of the dark. "I don't know. Girls at school talking, I guess."
"Talking about me – and Mai?"
"Zuko, you're the crown prince of the Fire Nation. Of course all the girls talk about you."
"Do you?" His question was quiet.
Her pulse quickened, and she remembered what she had told Ling, all those months ago. "I don't need to. I know you."
"Yes. You do." His tone was speculative.
There was a long silence. "Sooooo," she asked slowly, "why did you break up with Mai?"
She could almost hear his smile. "Why are you so interested?"
"So I can have things to talk about at school, silly."
He knew she was kidding, so he laughed. "In that case, I should make it a good story. Let me see. First of all, I found out that she is actually –"
"A boy?" It slipped out before Lan could catch it, and she gave a small squeal and covered her mouth.
"I'm sorry, Zuko! I don't know why I said that."
"It was kind of nasty."
She groaned. "I know. I'm sorry. The headmistress says that I have a mean streak."
"It was kind of funny, too, I guess."
"I still shouldn't have said it. I'm sorry. Get back to your story."
"The story about why you broke up with Mai. Remember?"
"Oh, right. I don't know. I can't actually think of anything interesting right now. I guess I just broke up with her because – because, I don't know, because she's never happy, you know?"
Lan nodded, but, remembering they were in the dark, she made a sound of agreement.
"I mean, if it's a nice day, she'll say the sun is too bright. If it's raining, she'll say it's too wet."
Despite her giddiness at having her self-proclaimed rival's defects being pointed out, she still felt sorry for her. "Maybe – maybe she's just not a happy person. She can't help that."
Zuko seemed to consider this. "I guess not. Not everyone can be like Uncle."
At the mention of Iroh, Lan's spirits dropped. "No. I guess not."
"Have you heard from Uncle?"
She shook her head, even though she knew he couldn't see it. "No. Have you?"
There was silence, until Lan finally broke it.
"Zuko, can you put the light back on?"
He could hear misery in Lan Chi's voice. He complied.
She wanted to see his face when she asked her next question. "Zuko, do you think Uncle's – dead?"
Zuko had been dreading that question. Iroh had been missing for almost two years, and, if he knew anything at all about Uncle, it was that he was responsible. Disappearing without a word was not in his character.
"No. I'm sure he's fine."
Lan looked at him for a long moment, and Zuko hoped that she did not see his lie in his eyes.
She smiled. "You're right. He's the Dragon of the West, after all."
Zuko smiled, as well. "Yes."
A long silence stretched between them, until Zuko gave himself a mental shake. "So, do you want my help getting to Iroh's house?"
Alarm bells went off in her head. Yes, of course she wanted his help, but she saw the danger inherent in it, as well. "I don't think that would be a good idea."
Because your father would probably roast me alive where I stood if he caught us! "I don't want to get you in trouble."
He waved a dismissive hand. "I won't get in trouble. I'm the prince, after all."
She was skeptical, and the skepticism showed in her face.
"Or perhaps you don't think I can get you there without getting caught."
She held up both hands in supplication. "I did not say that."
"Good. Because I can." He waved the back of his fingers at her. "Put your disguise back on. Let's go."
She smiled suddenly. "All right. If you think you can..."
He waited until she covered as much of her tell-tale hair as possible under the kerchief. "If people see us together, maybe they'll think I'm Azula."
He shook his head. "No one is going to mistake you for Azula." He let his flame go out, and grabbed her hand. His skin was warm from the flame, and a shiver of awareness passed through her. "Come on."
He opened the door and peered around. It was vacant. He pulled her from the safety of the closet and started at a trot down the hall.
Although she knew she should have been looking around her for danger, she had her eyes glued on Zuko. His queue had grown since she had last seen him, and he had, of course, continued to grow – broader, taller. Heartbreakingly handsome, damn him!
She snapped back to reality when they turned down an unfamiliar hall. "Where are we going?"
They heard footsteps, and he put his arm up to bar her from moving forward. He walked them both backwards until they were in a deep doorway, and put a finger up to his lips. She nodded.
Two guards walked by, flanking Feng!
Lan drew in an alarmed breath, but Zuko looked at her and shook his head emphatically.
After Feng and the others had passed, Zuko and Lan went in the opposite direction.
"Was that your old tutor?" She whispered.
Zuko nodded. "He's Father's secretary now."
They came to a door at the end of a hallway, and Zuko dropped her hand to open it, slowly, with both hands.
The door opened onto a large courtyard, and Zuko peered both ways before entering.
Recognition registered in her mind. "Oh, this is the courtyard where I pushed Azula in the duck pond."
He turned and grinned at her. "Site of your greatest victory." He pointed briefly to the far wall. "Uncle's apartments are on the other side of the wall."
Her jaw dropped. "Really? I didn't know that these two courtyards were adjacent."
"Benefits of living here – I know all the secrets." He winked at her, and, for a moment, she was stunned. He looked so – dreamy. That was the only word she could think to use to describe him. Oh, yes, she would definitely be dreaming about this!
"If we run across the courtyard, it will be faster, but it will be safer if we go along the boundary, because of the hedges."
She had come to the same conclusion. "Let's take the safer."
He looked at her and nodded firmly. "Good idea."
She smiled. We make a good team.
They reached the closest hedge with no problem, and, crouching down, made their way around the border of the courtyard. She reflected that, in her life, she sneaked around quite a bit. It was quite a good thing, then, that Iroh had invested in all of her training. He had certainly gotten his money's worth.
"Up and over." Zuko indicated the bushes against the walls.
More climbing. With a quick look around, Lan started climbing.
Zuko, with his superior height and upper body strength, passed her easily, and, when he got to the top, reached down for her.
"I'm okay." She whispered. "I don't need – ouch! You're yanking my arm!"
He had grasped her upper arm and pulled her up. Unfortunately, he succeeded only in dragging her into the branches, and leaves and twigs exploded around her.
Alarmed by the sound, he tugged her up quickly, and she slammed into him, sending them both tumbling to the other side.
They lay there stunned for a few seconds before Lan collected herself. She grabbed his hand and dragged him back into the shelter of the wall.
"Are you hurt?"
He rubbed his head as he shook it. "I don't think so."
She surveyed her surroundings, and realized, in a rush, that this was the first time she had seen her home since that fateful night of Azulon's funeral, more than two years before.
Everything was as she remembered it. The benches, the small fountain, the cherry tree, now heavy with unripe fruit, with Lu Ten's swing still on it. She swiped away tears.
"Let's try the front door."
She nodded and they dashed across the courtyard to the doors, although there was no one to see them in this sad, abandoned home.
Lan tried the knob, but it was locked.
Zuko started to knock, but Lan grabbed his wrist. "Are you crazy? Don't knock!"
"How are you supposed to get in, then?"
"If we knock and someone I don't know answers the door, we could end up in your father's office."
He looked surprised that he had not thought of that. "Oh. Good point." He looked around. "How are we going to get in?"
"We are not going to get in. I am going in by myself."
"Fine. How are you going to get in?"
She smiled. "Simple. I'll go in my window." She pointed to a second floor window. A wisteria vine spread along the wall, and provided ample foot and handholds.
"Are you going to break in?"
"No. The latch is broken. It's been broken for years."
She caught his sleeve. "Let's? I'm going by myself."
"I'm not letting you climb into a strange bedchamber by yourself."
"A strange bedchamber? It's my bedchamber."
"That you haven't slept in for over two years. I'm coming."
He started off, and she stared after him, a small smile curving her face.
They climbed the vine, and, after a little jiggling of the latch, it lifted free.
"Ha! Told you." She lifted herself over the ledge and tumbled into the room, followed by Zuko.
It looked the same, except that all of the furniture was now covered in protective cloths.
Zuko was still seated where he had landed, his arms braced on his knees. "So this is your chamber?"
She blushed painfully. Zuko was in her chamber. "This is it."
"So now we need to find Gua –"
"Hua," Lan corrected. "But you have to go, Zuko. She can't find out that you helped me. She'll kill us both."
"You're throwing me out?"
"I'm not throwing you out."
"Good, because I think it might be easier for me to sneak back after dark."
"After dark? Have you lost your mind? You can't stay here that long!"
"Why not? No one knows we're here."
She opened her mouth to argue, but closed it again. "I guess you're right."
He smiled and scrambled up. "Let's take the covers off."
They uncovered everything, and then looked at each other awkwardly, expectantly. Lan belatedly snatched the kerchief from her hair.
"Do – do you want to sit down?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I guess." He sat on her bed, and she sputtered.
"You – you can't sit there!"
He was confused. "Why?"
"It's my bed."
"So? You haven't slept in it for two years. Your actual bed is at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls."
She looked at him sullenly. "I guess you're right."
He slid to the far side and lay down facing her. He watched her for a long moment, disconcerting her.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" She demanded, finally.
"I've missed you."
That drained all of her ire.
"Have you missed me?" His voice was hopeful.
She nodded, unable to speak.
"Tell me about the Academy. Do you like it?"
She shrugged and looked away. "I guess. It's okay."
"Do you like your classes?"
She sank down on the edge of the bed. "Some of them. I really like my self defense and fighting class. My master, Jiao Ao, was a classmate of Piandao's."
"I miss Piandao."
She frowned. "What do you mean? Has something happened to him?"
"I thought you knew. He left not long after Grandfather died. He moved to one of the smaller islands, I think."
She looked thoughtful. "No, I didn't know."
Zuko shrugged. "It's okay. My new master isn't that bad."
"Oh. That's good – I guess."
"Do you ever see Azula?"
Lan's eyes widened. "Oh, yes. I see Azula."
His lips curved. "It sounds as if you would prefer not to."
Her brows lifted. "You know me well."
He twined his fingers with hers. "Maybe I do."
Her heart started drumming painfully, and she was certain that he could feel it, or, at the very least, hear it. A silence fell, and, in it, they stared at each other.
Then, despite her best attempts at self-preservation, she stretched out on the bed, facing him, much like that night so long ago.
"How do we always end up lying together in bed?" She asked, unaware how that sounded. She blushed then, when she replayed it in her head. "That did not come out right."
"I knew what you meant." He was quiet. "I can't believe I haven't seen you since Grandfather's funeral. It seems so long ago."
"I know. We're thirteen."
"Ancient." He agreed, sincerely. "I wrote you a letter – after that night."
Her eyes widened. "You did? I didn't get it."
His expression darkened. "It was returned. You weren't allowed mail."
"What did it say?"
He shrugged. "Nothing important. Just thank you. You know."
"Oh. Well, you're welcome."
He chuckled at that, but became serious again. "Life is so odd now, isn't it? I mean, you're at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, and all my tutors have changed, and – everything."
"Why – why did you go to the Academy so suddenly? I've always wondered."
A cold rod of fear slithered down her spine. She couldn't tell him; she could never tell him. The things that his father had said – they was too embarrassing to repeat. "I – I just decided that it might be a good place – to go."
He did not seem convinced. "But you had always said –"
She cut him off. "I know. But I decided that I – was wrong."
"Oh." He compressed his lips for a moment, then spoke. "I wanted to go see you, but Azula said that she didn't think you had time – to see me, I mean."
He had wanted to see her! It thrilled her heart, and she smiled. "You know that Azula always lies."
He smiled at that. "Yes."
He pulled on her hand gently, and she leaned forward. He slid forward to meet her, and touched his lips to hers. Fireworks shot off in her body, her stomach twisted, and she felt slightly nauseated. Was this love? If it was, it felt a lot like food poisoning.
Zuko put his hand up to cup her cheek, and the kiss continued. Lan wanted nothing more than to lean farther into him and feel his warm arms go around her, but she lay still.
He pulled away finally, and smiled at her. "You taste good."
"So do you. I didn't know that boys tasted good."
He chuckled. "Is this your first kiss?" He asked, surprised.
"No!" She declared hotly. Then, looking at him, she sighed. "Yes."
"I don't get many chances at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls."
"I guess not." He pulled her into him. His lips found hers again, and then, as she had wished earlier, he slid his arms around her. "I'm glad."
"That it's your first kiss." He kissed her again.
"Now – now, it's um, it's, now – it's my third kiss."
"Fourth," he corrected, and kissed her again.
"Zuko –" she began slowly, intending to say I love you, but he sighed, misinterpreting.
"Yes, I know. It's getting dark."
Dazed, she glanced around. He was right; the sun was almost gone. They had lain there for longer than she had realized. She sat up and tried to smooth her hair down. It would not do for Hua to catch her looking like a hoyden.
Zuko sat up again and watched her. He frowned and touched the end of her braid, which reached a little past her shoulders. "You've cut your hair."
"Azula cut it," she said it before she could stop herself. Her eyes grew wide.
"Azula cut it? Did you ask her to?"
She put a light hand on his arm. "Zuko, it's okay. Really. It's been easier to take care of it."
"Did she hold you down, or something?"
She cast her eyes down. "Something like that."
His face turned red. "I am going to – "
"Zuko, please don't." She interrupted, pleading. "Whatever you are going to do, don't do it. She can never find out that you saw me. If she finds out, she is going to tell the headmistress and worse, your father, and I can't even imagine how much trouble I am going to be in. You can't, can't, can't, can't, can't tell anyone that I was here. You promised, remember?"
Zuko was silent for a long moment, then he took a deep breath and exhaled it. "Yes. But I'm sorry that she did that."
Lan held up her hands. "Don't apologize for her. She isn't sorry, so why should you be?"
"Because I am."
She smiled. "Thank you."
"I better go."
She nodded, and he stood. She followed suit.
They walked over to the window together. He started to climb out.
"If there's a mixer this year, do you promise to come?" He asked as he hooked a leg over the ledge.
She nodded as he grabbed onto the wisteria.
"So you promise?" He asked again.
"Yes. I promise." It was an empty promise; she knew that.
He smiled, and, before she could react, he kissed her.
"Number five." He grinned and lowered himself down the vine.
She watched him until he disappeared over the wall with a brief wave. She lifted her hand in return, and left it up until long after he left.
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