Chapter 15 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
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The Spirit Within



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Chapter 16 [2]

From the moment that Lan Chi discovered that Mai would likely be her opponent at some point in the competition, she began training during every spare moment. She started to neglect her homework, and all of her meals were eaten on the run.

She was determined to beat Mai, for several reasons. Reason number one was Lan Chi's long lamented hair, which was still not fully grown back. Reason number two was the fact that Mai was an accomplice in Azula's ongoing plot to make Lan's life agony. Reason number three was the matter with Zuko – that Mai had kissed him, before Lan. The fourth, fifth, and sixth reasons she wanted to defeat Mai were also Zuko.

Training was not as easy as she would have liked. To begin with, none of the girls in her class wanted to spar with her. Apparently, it was not any fun to spar when there was absolutely no chance of winning, and when defeat usually came within thirty seconds.

So, as a result, she practiced by herself, going through forms, trying to picture, in her mind's eye, the technique that she envisioned Mai would use. Except that she couldn't envision the technique that Mai used, since she had never seen Mai fight. She needed to remedy that.

Her first chance to remedy that came the next day, when, after having learned that Mai was in Master Jiao Ao's last class, she decided to forgo Calligraphy class in order to spy on Mai. Lan did not see it as spying, though – simply as sizing up the competition. However, she did not really want to be seen sizing up Mai. Therefore, she had to wear some sort of disguise.

Her options for disguises, she admitted, were very limited. Really, the only disguise she could muster was her old stand-by – the stolen scarf. She tied it over her hair, and hoped that no one would notice her.

It was a forlorn hope, unfortunately. After Mai's class had begun, Lan Chi crept in, and tried to blend in near the master's weapons cabinet, where she watched the pupils, Mai included, warm up. There was nothing in Mai's warm-up that taught her anything, other than the fact that Mai seemed very flexible.

As the girls warmed up, Jiao Ao caught sight of Lan.

He came over to her. "Lady Lan Chi. What are you doing here?"

She gave him an unconvincing smile. "Just – looking for something..." She trailed off.

He gave her a knowing look. "Or spying on Lady Mai?"

She allowed her eyes to become round and innocent. "Master, I would never do that!"

"Would you lie to your master?" He tugged on her scarf, and it came off. He handed it to her with a wry look.

A look of self-disgust came over her face. "Yes, apparently, I would." Her shoulders dropped. "I'm sorry, Master. I am spying. It's dishonorable, I know, but I just – wanted to see how Mai fights. I wanted to – take her measure as an opponent."

A reluctant smile came over his face. "Very wise of you, Lady Lan Chi. However, that would give you an unfair advantage over the other girls."

She was crestfallen. "That's true."

"However, if the other girls were able to see you practice, then everyone would be equal. Would you be amenable to that?"

She thought on it a moment. "I suppose so." It was said reluctantly. She really didn't mind having an unfair advantage.

"Let's ask Lady Mai her opinion, shall we?"

She was horrified. Let Mai know she was spying on her? "Oh, but, Master –"

Jiao Ao had already called Mai over.

As Mai walked up, she scraped Lan Chi with a look that said that the Water Tribe child was of no consequence.

"Yes, Master?" She asked in her particular, gravelly voice.

Jiao Ao briefly explained the plan as he had concocted it, but he attributed it to Lan, saying it was a wonderful idea. Lan, despite her best efforts to look nonchalant, blushed.

Mai looked briefly at Lan, then back to Jiao Ao. "Fine. I don't care. May I go practice, Master?"

"Yes, of course, Mai. Make plans with your Domestic Arts mistress to come view Lan's class tomorrow."

"She'll be thrilled that I am missing another class." Mai said dryly.

"Ah, well, you can learn how to cook dumplings another day."

He turned to Lan Chi. "I will arrange for the other girls to come see you. Perhaps we can do it all in one day." He patted her on the shoulder and went off to get back to his class.

Lan gave a deep sigh. It did not work out the way that she had planned it. Oh, well, at least she would get to observe Mai.

She took a seat on the floor and watched as Mai returned to the sparring circle.

Mai took a wide-legged stance, the dagger held limply in her hand. Her opponent was over eager, Lan could tell, and rushed Mai. Mai stepped aside easily and brought the wooden blade down on the back of her adversary's neck.

The girl rolled to her feet and lunged towards Mai with her arm extended. Mai blocked her fist with her hand and then, using her other hand, hit the inside of the girl's elbow, causing her arm to crumple. The girl lurched forward., and Mai grabbed her around the neck with one arm, swinging her to the ground.

Mai tossed her opponent's dagger to the floor.

Lan blinked. She had not even seen Mai disarm her. She was fast.

The rest of the training went the same way. Mai dealt with all of her opponents ruthlessly well, her movements sparse, efficient, and deadly.

Lan's cheeks puffed as she blew air out. This was going to be more of a challenge than she had previously thought.

Lan did get to see all the other competitors train, but was really only concerned with Mai. The other girls were good, and some were very good, but Lan knew that she was better than they were, and she knew that Mai was definitely better.

The other girls came to see her, as well, and she noted Mai watching her with a strange intensity, as if committing all of Lan's movements to memory. She felt uncomfortable under the gaze of those almond-shaped eyes that never even seemed to blink.

Jiao Ao noticed Lan's discomfort, and came over to see her.

"She is unnerving you."

Lan lowered her eyes in shame. "Yes, Master."

"She will win if you let her. She will exploit your weakness, but you," he emphasized his words with a poke at her breastbone, "you have the capability – the talent – to defeat her, if you let go."

"Of my training?"

"Yes. Of everything. You don't like Lady Mai. You resent her. There is bad blood there, I know. I am not oblivious to the undercurrents between you. But you must let go of it, and see the competition not as a grudge match, but as a matter of survival. Don't go in with anger – go in with the desire to live."

"Yes, Master. I will – try."

Lan spent the last days before the match training, but also meditating. She was trying to figure out how to let go of her training. The training that she had received from Piandao, from Jiao Ao, and from the Yu Yan was the one constant in her life. Everything depended on it. Her school work, her fortitude in facing Azula, her resistance to all of the headmistress's cruelty, her strength to stand in the face of Ozai's ire – all of it was a result of her training. She firmly believed that, and, now, to be asked to divorce herself from that, was very difficult.

Not very difficult – almost impossible. For hours, she sat, trying to will her mind into quietness, trying to concentrate on how her training limited her, how it connected to her, and how she could release it.

She could not detach her thinking mind from her reactive mind. She kept falling back to her masters' words, their teaching, and instead of allowing them to guide her body, she allowed them to guide her mind.

She grunted and shook her head. She could do this. She could release it. She took a deep breath, and searched within herself. She pictured that conscious part of her peeling away, separating, leaving only the instinct that she had honed. The way the dagger felt in her hand, the way her muscles felt as the blade slipped forward, the sensation of finishing off her opponent. The raw, pure energy coursing through her body.

She could feel it tingle down to her fingers, down to her toes. She pulled away the layers of her training, and with it peeled away her ego, her very sense of self, and awoke within herself a primal presence – a presence that allowed her training to become a part of her, not just a facade pasted onto her conscious mind.

She was ready.

Or at least as ready as she would ever be.

The day of the competition was rainy, an early fall storm beating on the windows and clattering on the cobblestones. It was a good sign for the Water Tribe child; her element all around her, sustaining her, bolstering her.

Lan opened the window of her chamber and reached her arms out, feeling the cool water hit her skin with a sting, then feeling the soothing comfort instantly wash away the pain. She rubbed the droplets over her face, and felt the clarity that it gave her. She inhaled the sweetly metallic tang, and felt peace come over her. She would win. She knew that she would.

Jiao Ao had arranged for all of the combatants to have to the morning free from classes, and Lan assumed that the others were in the bending hall, feverishly trying to get in last minute work outs or trying to hone their skills just that little bit – that bit that would allow them to triumph over their opponents.

She, however, chose to stay in her room, alone, and meditate. Controlling her conscious mind – putting aside her emotions – was so new, so strange to her that she felt she had to reinforce it, and assimilate it until it became second nature.

She sat down on her bed and crossed her legs, and sought that mindless presence...

She vaguely heard the school bell ring, and pulled herself, with difficulty, back to reality. One hour until the start of the match. Time to go.

There was a buzz of anticipation in the halls as she walked through, and, to her surprise, a couple of classmates stopped her to give words of encouragement.

"You can do it, Lan," a girl from Calligraphy class smiled.

"Get her!" This was from a girl in Mathematics.

"Make our house proud!" One of her roommates clapped her on the arm.

Lan smiled. Apparently, some students disliked Mai more than they feared Azula.

The bending hall had been transformed. The piles of weapons were gone, as was the archery target and the equipment used by the firebending students. On three sides of the room had been erected bamboo bleachers to accommodate the audience.

Lan swallowed the dry lump in her throat.

Master Jiao Ao came over to her. "Lady Lan Chi. The other contestants are warming up." He pointed to the far end of the hall, where five girls were busy going through forms or doing calisthenics. She approached them, although she did not greet them, and they did not say anything to her. She recognized the other four girls from around the school, and, although she had never been in Self Defense and Fighting with any of them, she recalled two of them from other subjects. They were all dressed in soft gray sparring clothes, like Lan herself. Mai, Lan noticed, wore her hair as she usually did, long, and not secured in top knots or braids, unlike the other girls, and unlike Lan herself.

She thinks she is not going to get her hair messed up, Lan thought. Oh, I'll mess her hair! She shook her head to clear it. Don't be emotional. Survival should be the only thing in your mind.

She began to stretch, but consciously avoided thinking about the upcoming bouts. Thinking about them would lead her to thinking about strategy, and she wanted to keep her mind away from that. Over-thinking was what Jiao Ao had warned her about, and she was resolute that she would not allow her training to overshadow her survival instinct.

The spectators began to file into the hall, and Lan noted the headmistress and all the teachers settling in one bleacher section. The headmistress stared at Lan with murder in her eyes, but Lan pointedly turned away. This was her moment, and she would not let the woman ruin it.

Azula and Ty Lee came in amongst a crowd of other girls, and took seats in the front row. Lan glanced over at Azula briefly, to find the princess staring at her, a superior, smug smile on her face. Lan's lip curled, but she caught herself, and released the turmoil in a soft exhalation of breath.

Soon, the stands were filled to capacity, and Lan wondered, with half her mind, if the bleachers could hold that many people. As the last students filed in, Jiao Ao called his combatants together.

"Ladies, you are here because you are the best of the best of the Royal Fire Academy of Girls. You are not benders, but you are the equals of every bender in this room. And often, you are their superiors. Remember that, and go out and compete with honor."

Every girl gave their master a firm nod, and Jiao Ao arranged them in a straight line, facing the audience, Lan Chi at one end and Mai, coincidentally, at the other. The master walked over to confer with the headmistress, who nodded several times, and stood.

They walked to the center of the sparring circle, faced the students, and the headmistress raised her arms for quiet. The uproar died somewhat, but it was still too loud for her to be heard. The master, with a stern look on his face, lifted his hands, as well, and a silence fell over the hall. The headmistress gave Jiao Ao a chilly smile, and spoke.

"Ladies, we are in for a special treat today. Master Jiao Ao's Self Defense and Fighting students will be entertaining us today with feats of martial artistry. I am certain that many of you have a favorite for whom you are cheering, but please be respectful to all of the contestants." She turned to the competitors. "Girls, thank you for participating. We all know that it has taken years of dedication to achieve this level, and we applaud you." She started applauding softly, although no one followed her lead. "I said," she yelled, "we applaud you!" The audience launched into thunderous applause, and Lan smiled. It was actually a rather nice speech – not something she expected from the headmistress.

The headmistress took her seat, and Jiao Ao took the floor, facing the audience. "Ladies, may I present to you the greatest warriors of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls?"

A roar went up from the audience, although some of the girls looked confused.

Lan had to smile. Jiao Ao was brave – no one could accuse him of cowardice, that was certain.

The competitors bowed to the audience, and Jiao Ao went on to explain the rules. Strikes in the torso, head, or neck won a round. Non-lethal hits in the extremities was considered a strike. Leaving or being pushed outside the ring was also a strike. If no lethal hits were landed in a round, strikes would be counted and the girl who had scored the most strikes in that round was declared the winner of that round. Victory in two rounds won the match.

There would be a total of five matches, with two girls sitting out the first round and the other four battling one on one. The victor of the first round would then, after a fifteen-minute break, and while the other preliminary round was being fought, fight one of the girls who had not yet battled. The victor of that battle would then face the victor of the other, until a winner was declared.

It was a random draw, and Lan Chi was one of the first round combatants, while Mai sat out. It so happened, also, that, for Mai and Lan Chi to meet, it would be in the final match. Lan as much hoped that she did not have to fight Mai as much as she hoped that she did have to fight her.

Lan's opponent was a girl in the grade ahead whom Lan had seen only in the dining hall and during school-wide events, named Bai Sheng. She was about four inches taller than Lan, and outweighed the Water Tribe child by twenty-five pounds.

Lan, however, was not concerned. She knew that weight was not always an advantage.

The daggers were dipped in a red paint, and the combatants stood on opposite sides of the sparring circle.

Jiao Ao stood on the outside of the ring with a girl from his highest class, who would be assisting him in scoring points and judging.

"Bow to your worthy opponent." Jiao Ao took a fan from his assistant.

They did so, and immediately took a fighting stance. Jiao Ao lowered the fan.

They began circling each other in the ring, watching the other warily. Lan watched the girl's face and movements, searching for a clue to her weaknesses. Bai Sheng cracked her neck and began circling closer. Lan did not follow suit. If her opponent came to her, she would have the advantage, since defense was her greatest offense. Forward momentum could be Lan's friend. Bai Sheng drew her knife close to her body, looking for a chink in Lan's defenses.

Lan drew a deep, cleansing breath, waiting for the attack, knowing that it would come. She purposely allowed her muscles to relax, knowing that she could react when necessary.

When the girl moved, although it was fast, Lan saw it coming. Bai Sheng thrust her arm out; Lan took a small step to the side and ducked her shoulder under the girl's forearm, forcing her entire arm up. Lan's knife arm came up and encircled the girl's neck, and, with one jerk, forced the knife out of her opponent's hand, and, with a twist of her own body, forced Bai Sheng to the floor. She scored a point when the point of her own knife touched Bai Sheng's torso.

"Round to Lady Lan Chi!"

Applause and cheers came from the audience. They did not care who the winner was – they just relished a good fight.

The girl gave a grunt and came off the mat with one clean movement. "That won't happen again!" She promised as she stalked over to Jiao Ao. He appeared to counsel her as Lan re-dipped her dagger. The girl nodded darkly, and returned to her starting position.

Jiao Ao came over to Lan. "Nice job, my lady. Keep it up."

Lan bowed. "Thank you, Sir. Yes, Sir."

Lan Chi came back into the circle and she and Bai Sheng bowed to one another again. Jiao Ao lowered the fan and the second round began.

It appeared that Bai Sheng would not make the same mistake twice. She deliberately hung back, trying to force Lan to come to her.

Lan remained where she was, and they continued to circle each other.

"Are you scared, my lady?" Bai Sheng sneered her title.

"No. I'm just not stupid."

"Fight already!" came a voice from the crowd.

Lan ignored the heckler, but it compelled Bai Sheng into action. Instead of attacking with her knife, she swung her leg out to topple Lan. With a flash of insight, Lan grabbed the girl's foot and shoved. Bai Sheng stumbled back onto her rear end, just inside the ring. She slammed her fist on the mat, and jumped up.

"You are not going to get me again." She lunged forward and this time tackled Lan. Both girls went backwards, but Lan had readied her root, and stayed on her feet. Bai Sheng's arms were tight against Lan's sides, and Lan imprisoned her opponent's wrists with her own. Bai Sheng could not maneuver the knife, and it was trapped in a hand made increasingly lifeless by the pressure on her wrists.

Lan suddenly dropped forward, and propelled Bai Sheng backwards, releasing her. She fell to her rear end again, and Lan finished the match by following and touching her opponent's shoulder, near the neck, with the blade.

A thunderous applause went up, and Lan felt all of the tension drain from her body. She had won.

As Jiao Ao announced her as the victor, she bowed to Bai Sheng, who had scrambled to her feet. The girl reciprocated.

"I didn't know you were that good," Bai Sheng admitted.

"Thank you. It was a good fight."

"Yes, it was." She and Lan returned to the bench, and two other girls went to the mat. A bucket of water was there, and Bai Sheng offered her a ladle, which Lan accepted with gratitude.

She sat down, and glanced down at the others on the bench. Mai watched her with narrowed eyes, and Lan returned the stare.

Jiao Ao came up then, and slapped Lan Chi on the shoulder good-naturedly. "Excellent match, Lady Lan Chi!"

"Thank you, Master." Lan smiled.

He turned to Bai Sheng. "You have brought honor to our school, young lady."

"Thank you, Master."

"Rest now, both of you, and watch your comrades."

They did as he said, although Lan's mind was not really on the match. She was reliving, in her mind, the fight with Bai Sheng. She had done it. She had separated herself from her training. She did not recall, in fact, having one conscious thought during the entire match. All she had done was feel – feel the movements of her opponent, and feel her own reactions as they happened.

It was an odd feeling, and one that she was not entirely sure that she trusted.

The match went all three rounds, with one of the rounds decided by strikes, and in the end, a girl in the same grade as Lan was declared the winner.

Lan Chi's second round bout was about to start, and she stretched each limb, her neck, and her back.

Her opponent in this round, Jian Dan, was a younger girl, and smaller than Lan, but she was fresh.

Once in the ring, they bowed to one another, and the fight began. Like Bai Sheng, Jian Dan was aggressive. However, unlike Bai Sheng, she was small and lithe enough to go beneath Lan Chi's defense. She got beneath Lan's arm, and Lan was forced to hop sideways and roll to the other side of the circle. She gathered herself as she jumped to her feet. That was close – too close.

Jian Dan came at her again, and Lan had to keep moving to avoid her swinging blade. Jian Dan came at her with a backhand motion, and Lan saw her chance. She grabbed Jian Dan's arm and kicked her leg out from under her. The girl went down, but dragged Lan Chi with her. Lan landed on her with a whoosh and Jian Dan's knife clattered from her hand. Lan struck against her stomach, and Jiao Ao called the round as a victory for Lan Chi.

Lan retreated to the other side of the ring, but Jian Dan did not rise, clutching her right arm. Jiao Ao rushed towards the girl. The headmistress came running over, as well as the school's nurse. They all examined Jian Dan's arm while the rest of the school looked on in concern, including Lan Chi.

At last, with a nod, Jian Dan rose, assisted by the nurse, and limped out of the ring. Everyone in the hall began clapping.

Jiao Ao made the announcement that everyone had been expecting: Jian Dan would be unable to continue, so Lan Chi was declared the winner.

The headmistress shot a baleful look at Lan Chi and stomped over to her.

"You did that on purpose!" She hissed at Lan Chi.

Lan's eyes grew wide. "No, Ma'am. I did not. It was an accident."

"Ha!" She scoffed. "Quite a convenient accident, wouldn't you say? You've won the match by forfeiture."

Unseen by Lan and the headmistress, Jiao Ao had come up.

"What is this about, Headmistress?" He demanded. "Lady Lan Chi would never intentionally harm another person simply to win a match. She has no need; she is quite an extraordinary fighter." He put a hand on Lan's arm in support. "Now cease this vitriol and get back to your seat." He pointed at the bleachers.

The headmistress's opened her mouth and closed it several times, at a loss for words, and Lan Chi gaped at her master. The woman turned on her heel and walked back to the stands, her chin high.

"Thank you, Master, for defending me."

"You are an honorable young woman, Lady Lan Chi, even if there are others who are not quite as honorable." He turned and smiled at Lan Chi. "You're going to the final match, my lady, so go get some water and rest. We still have to determine who your opponent is."

She nodded and walked back to the bench as Mai was approaching the ring for her first match. As she passed by Lan, she dipped her shoulder and struck her. Lan staggered back a bit, then whirled to see Mai walking away, looking at her with a smile on her hated face.

Lan felt a surge of anger go through her. She hoped that Mai won this match, because she wanted to wipe that smile off her thin, weaselly face!

Lan got her wish. Mai dispatched her opponent in straight rounds, and the final showdown was set. A fifteen-minute break was called so that both girls could rest, and so that their master could speak to each.

He spoke with Mai first, and Lan sat on the other side of the bench, trying not to watch them. He made some emphatic hand gestures, and Mai nodded seriously several times, and he ended by clapping her on the shoulder, as he had done so many times to Lan Chi. Lan's face fell. She had thought that was their special thing.

She got up suddenly and began stretching, facing away from them, and away from the audience. She wanted to shut out all distractions – everything that would prevent her from achieving her goal. Everything that would prevent her survival.

She stilled, closed her eyes, and drew in a long breath. As she exhaled, she tried to allow the detritus of her life to be stripped away until there was just pure awareness in her body, and mind. A feeling of peace washed over her, from her head to her feet, and she felt she was ready.

She opened her eyes to find Master Jiao Ao standing before her, a slight smile on his face.

"It is good for you to meditate, my lady. It clears the mind."

She nodded. "Yes. It does."

"I want you to know, Lady Lan Chi, that I consider myself the most fortunate of men to have had the privilege of instructing you." His smile became chagrined. "Although I do not know how much teaching I did. Piandao instilled much in you – he obviously recognized your greatness very early."

Lan's heart swelled. "Thank you, Master. But you have been a great teacher. And, more than that, you saved my life. I was miserable here, and being in your class is the only thing that has carried me throughout the past year and a half. I am grateful for you – very grateful."

"Thank you, Child. But I apologize; this talk is supposed to be about you, not about me. I know that you have the ability to win this. You and Mai are very well-matched. However, as I have told you, she has an extraordinary ability to separate herself from her emotions. Be mindful of that. She can defeat you by getting inside your head much more than inside your physical defenses. Do not allow her to do that."

"Thank you, Sir. I will try."

He clasped both of her shoulders and squeezed lightly. "Release the greatness that Piandao saw in you, Lady Lan Chi. It will serve you well."

"Yes, Master." She nodded, and he stepped back with a final encouraging smile.

He went to confer briefly with his assistant, and took the fan from her. He indicated that both combatants should get their daggers ready, and each dipped their blades in the jar of red paint that stood nearby, careful to avoid the other.

Mai and Lan chi stepped into the circle, on opposite sides, their knives ready, their bodies prepared.

They bowed to one another, and Master Jiao Ao lowered the fan.

The fight that Lan Chi had been unconsciously preparing for since the moment that Mai had held her down in the dining room, more than two years before, began. And Lan Chi would be the victor. Of that, she was certain.

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