|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 12 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 11 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 13 (The Spirit Within) 
A shiver of happiness went through her, and she smiled. She was happy. It was a strange feeling, and one she had not felt, unreservedly, for a long time. In fact, the last she remembered being happy was when Lu Ten was alive and home. That was a long time ago.
And, now, it was back. She was happy. Zuko liked her, maybe even loved her.
Do not get carried away, Lan, she commanded herself. He had liked Mai, too, and look what happened.
But I'm not like Mai. Am I? She ran through possible similarities in her mind. Neither she nor Mai were exactly sunny people. But at least I have reason to be. What is her reason? She has no reason. She has a mother and father who love her and who are alive. She's doing better than me.
Do not judge a man until you walk in his shoes, Iroh's voice said in her head.
She hated it when her voice of reason was right.
Well, fine. She would not judge Mai. Besides, she didn't need to. Zuko had chosen her, Lan Chi. The Water Tribe mongrel.
Although Lan Chi could have spent hours dreaming about Zuko, about his hair and his smile and his hands and his lips and his eyes – oh, those eyes, she knew she had to find Hua and Jianyu.
A thought that had not occurred to her before popped up in her head. What if they weren't here? What if, in the absence of an employer, they had left? What if Ozai had decided to disband Iroh's household completely?
Why didn't I think of that earlier?
Does it matter? A kinder voice of reason asked. By coming to look for them, you found Zuko.
Well, that was true, but that did not mean that she had relinquished her original plan, which was to find her uncle's servants.
She went to the door, and opened it slowly. It, unfortunately, was the exception to the rule that no door in the palace squeaked. It opened on hinges rusty from lack of use, and, gritting her teeth, Lan poked her head through.
There was no one.
She came out cautiously, and closed the door behind her. The hall was still and silent, and she listened for sounds in the rest of the house. Nothing.
Her heart sank. Perhaps there was no one here. Or, her optimistic self pointed out, perhaps they are eating dinner.
She cautiously made her way downstairs. Standing at the landing at the bottom of the stairs, she could see the house spread out around her, and a tightness came to her throat. Visions of happier times came to her mind. Aunt Su Hsing, Lu Ten, now lost to her forever, eyes closed permanently in death. Uncle Iroh, whose fate she still did not know.
She wiped tears away and walked into the living area. The furniture here was covered, like in her room, but she could see their shapes. The low table where they always had tea. The sofa she used to sit on to stare out the windows. The small altar where Aunt Su Hsing's, and now Lu Ten's, portraits sat. She went over and touched them both reverently. The portrait of Lu Ten had been placed there since her departure; Hua must have set it there.
She took a deep breath. Why wasn't life easy?
She walked to Uncle Iroh's study, where he had spent many hours occupied with Fire Nation business, where she and Lu Ten had studied history and math and literature. Still as a tomb. Everything was as still as a tomb.
She backed out and closed the door softly.
Lan swung around. Hua stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a dishtowel clutched in her hands, her eyes large with disbelief.
"Hua! I'm so glad that you are here!" She rushed into the older woman's embrace.
Hua hugged her for a long time, then finally held her out at arm's length. "Look at you, my lady! Oh, look at you! You're not a child anymore."
"I'm so glad to see you, Hua. Is Jianyu here?"
"What? Oh, yes, Jianyu!" She turned her head to the kitchen to call the butler's name. "Come see! Come see who is here!"
Lan heard the sound of running, and Jianyu appeared in the doorway. "Lady Lan Chi!" His voice was an astonished whisper.
"Oh, Jianyu!" She squeezed him around the middle. "I am so happy to see you." She encompassed Hua with a glance. "Both of you!"
Jianyu exclaimed over her growth as well. "You're nearly as tall as Hua, now."
Hua waved a hand. "Never mind that now! We are so pleased to see you, but what are you doing here?"
Lan blushed. "I ran away."
Hua threw her hands up. "Ran away! From the Academy? Have mercy!" She grabbed Jianyu's hand. "What are we to do?"
Jianyu gave Hua a shake. "Calm down, Hua!"
Hua looked at him in a daze, then nodded. "Yes. I'll be calm." She turned to Lan. "Come, my lady. Let's have some tea."
She led Lan Chi into the kitchen, where the remnants of a meager dinner for two sat. Lan sank down on an empty cushion while Hua retrieved a cup for her and Jianyu cleared the plates.
"Are there only you two left?"
Jianyu nodded. "After you left, my lady, the Fire Lord appropriated your uncle's accounts and cut the household budget by half."
"More like three-quarters," Hua sniffed.
Jianyu shrugged. "We could not keep everyone on staff. And, then, little by little, the rest left. No one wants to work in a house with no family, even if it is a royal one." He poured tea for Lan.
"But enough about us, my lady," Hua settled across from Lan. "Tell us why you ran away."
Lan didn't know where to start her tale. Or if to start her tale. Looking at their concerned faces, she knew that she could tell them nothing. They would feel obligated to try to help her, and there was simply nothing that they could do. No amount of complaining would bring her home; there was only one person in the world with the power to bring that about, and no one was even sure if that person was still in the world.
Lan smiled slightly. "I just wanted to see you both."
Hua grasped her hand firmly. "We are so thankful that you have come. We really are. But how did you get here?"
She shrugged and averted her eyes. "I climbed over the wall at the Academy and made my way here."
"But how did you get here, to Prince Iroh's quarters?"
"It wasn't hard." She didn't want to lie to them, but she definitely did not want to mention Zuko.
Jianyu looked at her shrewdly. "You had help."
Her lips thinned.
Hua looked at her with concern. "Did you, my lady?" She thought on it for a long moment. "Oh, no. Oh, no. Tell me you did not get him to help you!"
Lan sighed. "Hua, all will be well. He's promised not to say anything. And no one knows that I am here."
Hua looked at her with disappointment. "How many times are you going to allow your association with," here she pitched her voice low, "Prince Zuko to bring you to ruin?"
"Hua, I am not exactly ruined."
"Well, I would say that you are worse off than you were three years ago."
Lan opened her mouth to retort, but Jianyu cut them both off. "Stop quarreling! None of it will get Lady Lan Chi back to the Academy!" He turned to Lan. "You are intending to go back, aren't you, my lady? You're not planning to run off with him, are you?"
Run off with Zuko? What a wonderful thought!
She shook her head. "No. I am certain that Prince Zuko has little desire to run away with me." Her eyes widened. "Besides, where would we go?"
"Well, thank the spirits for small mercies." Hua drained her tea cup. "And for someone with common sense."
Lan took a deep breath. "Look, I am sorry if I have caused worry. Really, I am. I just wanted to see you. I wanted to come home. I've missed it all so –," her voice caught, "so much."
"Oh, my lady." Hua got up and came around to hug her. "You needn't cry. We're just old worrywarts. We'll think of a way to get you back to your school –"
"It's all right, Hua. I can get there by myself."
Jianyu shook his head. "Absolutely not. I will not be able to rest until you are back there safely."
"No buts. We'll get you back safely. And this time, young lady," he pointed an accusatory finger at her, "you will stay."
Lan was taken aback. Easy-going Jianyu had never spoken to her in that manner.
She nodded slowly. "Yes, Sir."
It was decided that Jianyu would accompany Lan Chi back to the Academy early the next morning, before the sun had risen. In order to escape detection, Lan would wear a robe and a conical hat left by one of the houseboys, and she and Jianyu would simply stroll out the servants' entrance.
The three of them spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about happy times, and speculating about Iroh's whereabouts. They had not heard from him, but all were hopeful that he was still alive.
As Lan Chi had hoped, Hua was like a mother hen, making Lan's favorite dinner and tucking her in at bed time. Lan felt cherished for the first time in she could not remember how long.
The next morning came much too soon for Lan Chi. Her leave of Hua was wrenching; she wanted nothing more than to stay at Iroh's house, with well-known and well-loved faces, but knew that the ramifications for the housekeeper and butler would be severe had she refused to return to school.
She and Jianyu were able to leave the palace easily, waved through the servants' entrance by guards who recognized Jianyu's familiar form.
They found an available carriage for hire not far from the palace, which bore them quickly to the Academy. They alighted about a block away, and walked the remainder of the distance.
Jianyu looked at Lan Chi with skepticism. "Are you truly climbing the wall, my lady?"
Lan smiled. "Do you think that I cannot do it?"
"Oh, no, my lady. I am certain that you can. I just would worry about you."
"You needn't worry about me. I will be fine."
"Mind that you are. Prince Iroh will want you well when he returns."
Lan gave the old man a tight hug. "Thank you, Jianyu – for everything."
He embraced her. "I have done little enough for you, my lady, and for that I apologize. I'm just your uncle's old butler, after all, with neither influence nor money. But," he set her away to look at her, "I swear to you, should you ever truly need me, send word, by whatever manner you can, and I will come for you. I promise."
"Thank you, Jianyu. I shall." She smiled. "I can actually use your help right now. Could you please give me a boost over the wall?"
Over the wall, back across the grounds, up the tree, across the roof, and into her bedroom, just as the sun was coming up.
Her chamber was exactly the same as she had left it, with the dummy still in the bed. Could she actually have done it? Made an escape and gotten away with it?
She grinned as she peeled off the sparring clothes and donned pajamas. She was pleased with herself. Pleased with her successful and unnoticed escape, pleased with her penetration of the palace security, pleased with her visit with Hua and Jianyu, and definitely pleased with her encounter with Zuko.
Oh, yes, she was particularly pleased with her encounter with Zuko. Memories of his kisses floated around her head as she replaced the dummy in the bed with herself. Fantasies of him lying with her there in her bed, as they had in her chamber at home, filled her mind as she drifted off into slumber.
She did not know how much later she was shaken awake by a rough hand.
Rubbing her eyes, she turned over to find the headmistress glaring at her. "You wicked, wicked, wicked girl!" She gave her another rough shake. "Where have you been?"
Lan faced a tactical decision: brazen it out and deny everything, or admit that she had run away?
"Asleep, ma'am." She convincingly yawned.
A slap from the headmistress woke her up. "Liar! You were not here last night – or yesterday, at all! Oh, yes! I discovered your feeble attempt to fool me! How long did you think that a pile of sheets in your bed would trick me?"
Lan rubbed her head. Time for confession – of a sort. "Longer than it did, apparently."
Another smack made her head ring. "Don't you dare be impertinent with me! Do you know what I had to do? Do you have any idea what I was forced to do? Who I had to contact? I had no choice!"
Lan's blood ran cold. Ozai. "Please tell me that you did not contact him."
"Of course I did! He gave me implicit instructions. Implicit! I dared not disobey him. Had you been found out on the streets, had I not informed him of your disappearance –" her lips thinned. "I will not bear blame for your idiocy!" She grabbed Lan's arm and yanked her out of bed. "Now, tell me where you were!"
Lan Chi, however, was not going to tell her that she had gone to the palace. She simply could not tell her – too much was at stake. Hua, Jianyu, Zuko – they had all conspired, had all helped her. They could be in serious trouble, all thanks to her. And the trouble that she herself would be in if the truth was discovered was considerable, at least.
"I just ran away! I walked around the city. I swear!" She hoped that her lie was not obvious.
"You're lying! You went to the palace, didn't you? You saw Prince Zuko! I know that you did!" She shook her by the arm.
"No! I didn't! I really didn't!"
"Then where did you go?"
"To the market, and, and to the – the park! I slept in a tree there! I swear it!"
The headmistress released her so suddenly that Lan stumbled to the floor.
The woman stood over her, pointing an accusatory finger. "For your sake, I hope that you are not lying." She turned with a swish of her skirts, but stopped at the door and pointed at Lan again. "You will stay in here until I come and get you. And I warn you, do not try to leave. You will not want to pay the consequences."
She slammed the door behind her, leaving Lan Chi alone. The girl took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. The headmistress was very, very mad.
And Lan was in a great deal of trouble.
The letter that the Fire Lord had received the previous evening was short, yet still, in its brevity, obsequious. It began by lauding the Fire Lord's accomplishments, then his mercy. It finally concluded with one sentence that inflamed him beyond reason.
...We humbly beg your majesty's forgiveness, and, with distress, must inform you that the Water Tribe child has run away, and we do not know her whereabouts, despite an exhaustive search.
He crumpled the letter in rage, then incinerated it in his hand.
He called one of his guards to him. "Bring Prince Zuko and Princess Azula to me. Immediately."
"What are you doing here, Zu-Zu?" Azula was surprised to see her brother.
He was slumped in a chair in the ante-room outside the throne room, kicking idly at a rug. He looked up at her and shrugged. "Dad wants to see me."
She took a seat next to him. "He sent for me, too. I wonder what he wants. And at this time of night." Dark had fallen two hours prior. Why would her father call them to his throne room of all places, right before bedtime?
Zuko shrugged again. He was avoiding her eyes.
She looked at him shrewdly. "What did you do, Zuko?"
He swung to look at her then. "Nothing!" His voice was indignant. Too indignant. "It was probably you, Azula. Accidentally burn anyone again?"
Her face suffused with rage. "Not yet." She snarled.
"Well, I didn't do anything. Don't look at me."
One of the royal guards came out from the throne room. "The Fire Lord will see you now."
The siblings walked down the long, imposing aisle, their matching boots making matching sounds on the highly polished floor. Once at the front, they both dropped to their knees, bent their torsos forward, and placed their forearms on the floor.
Their father was a long time in speaking. "Sit up."
They complied. Zuko noted that his father had not doused the flames in front of the throne. As a result, all that he could see was Ozai's shadowed figure.
"I will not prevaricate with you, and I expect the truth from you both."
Azula and Zuko, despite their usual enmity, shared an apprehensive look.
"My brother's ward has run away from the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Which of you is hiding her?"
Zuko's pulse jumped, but Azula was the first to speak. "It is not I, Father. You know that I loathe Lan Chi. I would never help her." She looked pointedly at Zuko, who did not dare return her stare.
Ozai turned to his son. Sniveling little fool! "That leaves you, Prince Zuko."
"I have not see her, Sire." It was best to be very respectful. He hoped that his voice was even and did not betray him.
"She was a playmate when you were younger, Zuko. To whom else would she turn?"
Zuko, despite his internal quaking, looked at his father with an air of calm. "I do not know, my lord. It has been several years, after all, since I have seen her." He turned to Azula. "Azula has been in school with her every day for two years. Surely she knows Lady Lan Chi better than I."
"Are you accusing me, Zuko?" There was a note of outrage in her voice.
Zuko was all innocence. "Not at all, Azula. But you had a rather exaggerated reaction to that comment."
"I did not!" She turned to her father. "Father, I did not!"
"Silence!" He bellowed, and the flames exploded, sending the children back onto their rear ends. "Cease your bickering!" The flames continued to roar for a few moments, then returned to their normal size. "If I find out that either of you has lied to me, your penalty will be severe." He waved his hand at them, which caused the flames to lick out towards them. "Get out of my sight."
Zuko was proud of himself. Actually, he was proud and ashamed. Proud that he had been able to stay so calm in face of the turmoil within him. Proud that he had been able to turn the tables on Azula, who had obviously been so eager to place the blame on him. Ashamed that he had lied to Father – he had never lied to him before, and the experience left a bad taste in his mouth. But the look of utter and absolute terror on Lan Chi's face when she had thought that he might tell someone – that convinced him that he should remain quiet.
He felt a shove as the throne room door closed behind them. He turned to find Azula standing behind him, hands fisted at her sides and smoking, and a murderous look on her face. "How dare you accuse me, Zuko?"
He smirked, just a little, and folded his arm across his chest. "You seem awfully defensive for someone without a guilty conscience."
She stepped close to him, so close that he could see the pores on her face and the striations in her irises. "We both know that, if anyone helped your little girlfriend run away, and if there's anyone protecting her, it's you." She poked him in the chest.
He kept his smile fixed on his face. "You can't prove it."
Her eyes narrowed. "Maybe not. But I am going back to school soon."
His eyes flickered uncertainly. "So?"
"So? So you know that she'll be found, don't you? And returned to the Academy. So, my question to you is: who's going to protect her then?"
Lan Chi had never been more afraid in her entire life, and for a girl who had lead a life such as hers, that was saying quite a bit.
She had, in fact, been very frightened since the headmistress had told her that Ozai had been contacted. Lan knew that she could survive the headmistress's wrath - she could face any punishment, any angry recriminations.
Ozai, however, was another matter entirely. He literally had the power of life and death, and she was not certain that he would refrain from exercising that power.
Hours went by, and she waited, just like when she was ten, and had been caught in Zuko's bed. She had waited for hours then, and she was doing the same now. Waiting. Waiting for what, she wasn't sure. Expulsion and then banishment? It would be horrible, but not much more horrible than life now – although Zuko would be out of her reach. House arrest? Still bearable. An audience with Ozai, and whatever punishment he could dole out? Absolutely, gut-wrenchingly terrifying.
When the summons finally came, it was almost a relief.
The headmistress flung open the door, as if she were afraid that Lan was waiting behind, ready to slit her throat. Her face was expressionless. "Come."
"Wh – where are we going?"
"Oh." The worst fear trickled away. At least she wasn't going back to the palace. At least she wasn't facing Ozai. What was the worst that could happen? Maybe a paddling. Maybe year-long detention. Maybe she would be removed from the self-defense class. Bad but not tragic. Besides, anything that happened to her would be worth it. She would not have traded her time with Zuko – not for anything.
They came to the headmistress's office, and the woman opened the door. She indicated with a wave of her hand that Lan should precede her.
Lan walked into the office, and the door slammed behind her.
Ozai sat behind the headmistress's desk, and Lan jumped. Belatedly, as his eyes narrowed, she fell to her knees and pressed her forehead to the floor. She hoped that she would live to lift her head.
"My lord." Her voice was almost inaudible from the fear that closed her throat.
His voice was smooth and mellifluous. "Surprised to see me, Lady Lan Chi?"
"Yes, my lord."
He rose from the chair and came around the desk to loom over her. She could see his shadow fall over the floor, as well as the tips of his boots, and the hems of his robes.
"Do you know why I am here, Lady Lan Chi?"
"Answer me!" He yelled, and, again, she jerked in fear.
"Because I ran away, Sire."
"Yes. Because you ran away. Where did you go, Lady Lan Chi?"
She closed her eyes and asked the spirits to make her lies believable. How shameful, her inappropriate conscience said. "The city, my lord."
"The city? You live in the city."
"I – I am not allowed out."
So you went to the city – for what purpose? Why?"
"Because I could, my lord."
"So you ran away to the city because you could?"
"You didn't go to the palace?" His voice was deceptively light.
She shook her head again. "N-no, Sire."
He reached down and grabbed her collar and raised her to her knees to look at him. "You did not go to my palace to visit my son?"
She shook her head emphatically. "No, my lord."
"He has denied it, as well. Strange, I never pegged him for a liar. You, on the other hand, Lady Lan Chi – I suspect that you are an accomplished liar."
"Majesty, I pledge that I am telling the truth." The falsehood slid easily from her lips.
"So you did not sneak into the palace, meet with Prince Zuko, and take him to your bedchamber?"
Although her eyes dilated, she retained her composure. "N – no, my lord."
He released her clothing. "No, of course you didn't. My brother raised you well. You didn't go to your bedchamber with Prince Zuko, remove your clothes, and allow him to take your maidenhead, did you, Lady Lan Chi?"
Her breath caught in her chest. "No, my lord! I would never! We would not! I swear!"
He nodded, his eyes like ice chips. "Good. Apparently when last we met, I did not make my position known to you. I would like to rectify that, and make myself very, very clear to you, Lady Lan Chi. You are never to see my son again. Ever. You are not to speak to him, you are not to write to him, you are not to think of him. You will never be allowed to marry him. Even if you carry his bastard in your belly. Never. You will never be queen. Never, while I live."
During this speech, he had grabbed both sleeves and raised her to her feet. Leaving his hands entangled in the cloth, he allowed them to heat until the fabric smoked.
He released her before the heat reached her skin. "I am grown weary of dealing with this issue of you and my son." He leaned over and put his lips close to her ear. "And if I have to consider the issue again, Lady Lan Chi, then you won't be an issue anymore."
She closed her eyes, waiting for the blast of fire she was sure was coming to hit her.
Instead, she heard footsteps, and then the opening and shutting of the door.
After he had gone, she drew in deep, ragged lungfuls of air, not even realizing that she was holding her breath. She turned and took a step towards the door, but her legs would not hold her, and she crumpled to her knees.
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