|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 2 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 1 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 3 (The Spirit Within) 
Ozai certainly did not want his children around Lan Chi, and frequently found reasons to keep them apart; Azula was sick, or Zuko was punished, or they were involved in their lessons. Once, Azula and Lan Chi were allowed to play together, but it did not end well, and the play time was not repeated.
At first, Iroh was angry, but his wife's gentle common sense convinced him that it was not a subject worth fighting over.
Lan also faced problems from outside the family, as well. Her red hair was frequently remarked upon, often in a snide or condescending way, especially when her parentage was revealed. Therefore, her aunt and uncle, who had come to love the little girl as much as a child born of their own bodies, took to keeping her at home. It was not that they were ashamed of her; on the contrary, they were proud of her wit and intelligence, which she had displayed from the start. However, they knew that she was aware of the stares and whispered comments about her, and they wished to spare her pain. Still, despite the cruelties of the outside world, they became a happy family, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, his wife, their son, and the little red-haired girl born to a Water Tribe mother and a firebending father.
Lan Chi thrived in this home. Thanks to Iroh's library, she read voraciously, especially when Lu Ten was training and she was bored. She loved the tales told in the ancient books – the books so old that they preceded even the great Fire Lord Sozin. Books that spoke of the balance of the world and the elements, and of a time when all the nations lived in harmony. Lu Ten and Iroh encouraged this interest – Fire Nation history, even centuries old, would be valuable to her one day. She also studied the old texts that talked of great Avatars of the Fire Nation – men and women so magnificent that they mastered all the elements and presided over the mortal realm. But she would not read about the war – any time she came upon a passage about it, she would put that book down and go on to another.
She also showed an interest in learning about the other cultures, of which Iroh had approved, hoping to give her, as he had given his own son, a well-rounded view of the other nations. She was especially interested in her mother's people, and found the stories of their traditions and rituals fascinating.
She found a volume on the history of Ba Sing Se, the great Earth Kingdom capital, to be particularly interesting, and studied that for an entire month. She also learned about the erstwhile Air Nomads, although, when she learned their fate, she put that book down, too.
She asked Lu Ten questions constantly, since he was obviously the wisest and smartest of all the people in all the world, and she trusted his word implicitly.
"Lu Ten," she asked one day as he studied ancient military campaigns, "how exactly did the war start? I mean, I know that Sozin defeated the Air Nomad army, but why did he think the Air Nomads were going to attack us?"
Lu Ten looked thoughtful for a moment. He knew, from extensive study, that the history that was taught was not the complete truth – or, for that matter, the truth at all. "Well, I'm not certain that Sozin did know that the Air Nomads were going to attack. You see, the Fire Nation had been, and still is, of course, a very prosperous nation, and Sozin thought that he should spread the influence of the Fire Nation beyond our borders. This was not a very popular decision outside the Fire Nation."
"Why wouldn't everyone want prosperity?"
"Ah. That's a good question. Because, along with the prosperity Sozin was offering was Fire Nation governance."
"Sozin wanted to rule the other nations."
"Oh. And they didn't want him to rule them."
"Why did he want to rule the other nations?"
He folded his arms along the table in front of him. "Because Sozin was a man who thought himself a god. And because the Avatar at that time was a god who thought himself a man."
"I don't understand."
"The Avatar should have stopped Sozin from trying to take over the world. And he did not. So the war was started. And so it continues to this day."
She was puzzled. "Don't you support the war, Lu Ten?"
Lu Ten sighed. "Little duck, I support our nation, so I will fight in this war, and I will try to win it. But I do not think that the war is right. It is wrong – in so many ways. I hope that answers your questions."
She nodded, although she was more confused than ever.
"And Lan, please don't repeat this conversation to anyone. It would not do for the future Fire Lord to be defaming the war effort." He winked.
"No, Lu Ten. I won't."
As to bending, Lan Chi, for her part, heeded the warnings that bending should be done only in private. Iroh's library, fortunately, had several volumes on basic waterbending, so she was able to train in the hours she was alone.
About two years after she came to live with them, Iroh's wife was taken ill. Su Hsing had begun to feel tired all the time, and, alarmed, Iroh had sent her off to the Summer Palace on Ember Island, to enjoy the bracing sea air and recuperate away from the stresses of the capital city. He sent Lan Chi with her, for companionship, and Lu Ten spent much of his time there as well. Unfortunately, her condition worsened, and doctors found a suspicious lump under one of her arms. They had seen this before, in her family particularly, and were certain that, like her mother and aunts before her, it would turn out to be a fatal illness.
Iroh and Lu Ten were understandably devastated by this diagnosis, but it was Lan Chi, a child who had known much death already, who would not accept the verdict. She spent hours and hours in her aunt's company, sewing and reading and oftentimes just holding her hand, and, frequently, time spent thusly seemed to bolster her aunt's health.
Su Hsing held on until a few weeks after Lu Ten's eighteenth birthday, and Lan, the child who had lost so much in her life, lost the only mother she ever remembered. She was just eight. Lu Ten, who had never known death, decided that he should begin training in earnest for the war. Lan Chi returned to the city to live full-time, and she soon began dogging Lu Ten's every move. She watched him as he practiced his bending and hand-to-hand combat, and she continued to sit in the library with him while he studied old battles and the art of war. After a while, Lu Ten asked her if she would like to train with him.
"Since you are there, anyway," he laughed.
She turned shining eyes to him. "Oh, can I, Lu Ten? Do you think Uncle Iroh would mind?"
"Mind? No, I am quite certain Father won't mind. In fact, I think that he would be very pleased."
"And will the royal tutors instruct me?"
"Of course. Aren't you a member of the royal family?"
She thought this over. "No. Not really. I'm not related to the royal family by blood, you know."
He laughed at this. "Yes, you are."
She scrunched up her nose. "I am?"
"Am I not second in line to the throne?"
"Yes. Right after Uncle Iroh."
"And aren't you my cousin?"
"Someday I will be Fire Lord, and since you are related to me by blood, that makes you part of the royal family. And so you are entitled to the royal tutors. Besides, aren't you related to the first Fire Lord somehow?"
She nodded. "So Master Piandao will teach me?"
"Would that please you?"
"Would it? Master Piandao is the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation! Not better than you, though." She hastened to add.
Lu Ten laughed. "No, I assure you, Master Piandao is the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation. By far. But I am gratified that you hold me in such high esteem."
She impulsively hugged him. "Thank you, Lu Ten. You are the greatest brother of all time!"
"And you are the greatest little sister – of that you may be certain." He put her away from him and looked at her seriously. "Are you certain that you would not rather attend the Royal Fire Academy for Girls?"
A look of horror came over her face, which caused him to laugh again.
"I take that as a no. You are not tempted, even though Azula attends?"
She frowned. "I don't think Azula likes me very much."
"Why would you say that?"
"Do you remember the time she set my hair on fire?"
"I do seem to recall that." He tried to suppress a smile. "As I also recall, you pushed her into the duck pond in retaliation."
Lan smiled slightly. "That may have been an accident."
"It did not look like an accident." He was grinning broadly now.
"Well, then, I shall have to try harder next time to make it appear accidental."
She began seriously training in hand-to-hand combat, and, although she was not a firebender, she learned the fluid movements of firebending. She practiced constantly with forms and she studied theories, even after lessons had concluded each day; she wanted to prove to Lu Ten and to Iroh that their confidence in her was well-founded.
She began to learn the proper use of weapons such as the dagger, the jian and the guando from Piandao, although few in the Fire Nation learned techniques of all three. She also began archery training alongside Lu Ten with the Yu Yan Archers, a legendary group whose members could easily hit a bullseye at 500 paces. It was at this that she excelled. She had a fine and steady hand and a steely concentration, and, after only a few months, she had progressed past many older students. She admired the philosophy of the Yu Yan Archers greatly; their tenets of loyalty, camaraderie, and bravery spoke to her. Iroh had a target set up in the courtyard of the family's private apartments, and Lan spent hours improving her skill. She was determined that, as an adult, she would become a full member of the Yu Yan, and she knew that would require unmatched devotion and proficiency.
Hour after hour she practiced, until she could land one bullseye after another. Iroh noted her skill and was pleased.
"Bravo!" He clapped after she had successfully hit the bullseye a half a dozen times.
She grinned, flattered. "Do you think that I will be good enough to be a Yu Yan Archer someday, Uncle?"
"I am certain of it, Little Duck. I applaud you for your dedication to it, but tell me – why do you want to be a Yu Yan?"
She gave him a look of incredulity. "Uncle! Everyone knows that the Yu Yan Archers are the greatest in the world. They guard the Fire Lord. They even swear an oath to the Fire Lord that they will protect him unto death! It is an unbreakable oath!"
He chuckled. "Well, I know that, dearest. But tell me, why do you want to become a Yu Yan Archer?"
She looked puzzled. "Because I want to defend you and Lu Ten, of course. I want to take an oath to defend you unto death."
"Oh, Lan." He opened his arms and she ran into them.
One day, late in the afternoon, when Prince Zuko was practicing with his swords in the courtyard, he heard a repeated "thwack" coming from the area beyond the tall hedges that bordered his family's private area. He approached the hedge and listened closely. The sound was repeated.
Curious, he peered through the branches, only to find a sturdy wall between him and the mystery. Frustrated, he searched for footholds, and started to scale the bush, grateful that the hedge was not thorny. He was able to pull himself up until his head was over the top, and peered over.
He recognized Lan's hair first. No one else had hair that color. She was standing, legs apart, with a bow and a quiver of arrows, aiming for a target far on the other side of her own courtyard. He watched her for a few minutes, admiring her technique.
"Hssst!" He tried to get her attention. "Cousin Lan! Over here!"
She stopped, startled, and her shot went wild. She glanced around anxiously.
"Up here!" He called in a loud whisper.
She spun around and finally found him. "Prince Zuko! You scared me!"
"You shouldn't allow yourself to be distracted, you know."
Her face became thunderous. "You shouldn't try to distract me! I have a bow and arrow in my hands, you know!"
"I know. What are you doing?"
She turned away from him, and drew another arrow. "Practicing archery, ninny."
He took no offense at her insult. "Can I try?"
She let the arrow fly, and it landed within the bullseye.
"Wow," he breathed. "You're good."
She smiled and lowered the bow. "I guess you can try."
He grinned, scrambled over the wall, and dropped gracefully to the ground. He came running over and stood next to her as she released another arrow. Under his scrutiny, she missed the bullseye, although it still landed on the target.
"Do you really train with the Yu Yan archers?"
She lowered the bow. "Yes. Do you know how to shoot?"
He ignored her question. "Are they really cool?"
She looked at him. "Who?"
"The Yu Yan archers, silly." He scratched his nose.
"I don't know. I guess."
"Why do they paint their faces?"
"It's so the sun doesn't reflect on their faces during the daytime and blind them." Her voice was authoritative. "It also prevents them from being seen by the enemy."
"Oh. Do you wear it?"
"No. It's only worn during battle."
"Why is it red?"
"It represents the hawk, whose eyes the archers possess." She recited with pride.
"Wow." Zuko breathed in awe.
Pleased, Lan blushed. She thrust the bow into Zuko's hands. "Here. You can try."
He took an awkward stance and pulled the bow string back. "Can I have an arrow?"
"What? Oh, yeah." She held out an arrow, but he didn't move.
"Can you um, load it for me?"
"Load what?" She was puzzled.
"Oh, okay." She fit the arrow into place while he maintained his stance.
He pulled back the bow string, then released it, sending the arrow wobbling through the air, falling far short of the target.
He lowered the bow in disappointment. "That was terrible."
"Haven't you ever shot before?"
"Oh. Okay. Let me show you." She moved Zuko around until he was in a proper stance. She took an arrow from the quiver and slid it into place. She then guided his fingers into the proper positions, and stepped away.
He shot the arrow, and it landed on the target, although wide of the concentric circles. He whooped in joy. "I did it!"
She smiled. "That was great."
He looked at her, astonished. "Really?"
"Yeah," she nodded.
He smiled shyly. "Thanks."
"Why don't you study archery? Don't they teach that at the Royal Fire Academy?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I don't go there."
"Mom says that I get a better education from the royal tutors."
"Doesn't Azula go to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls?"
"Why does she go if you don't?"
He shrugged again. "I don't know. She wanted to go because her friends go there."
"Why don't you go to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls?"
"I didn't want to. I wanted to train with Lu Ten."
"Oh." He handed the bow back.
"So why don't you study archery?"
"I study swordsmanship."
"Oh! Are you good at it?"
He smiled. "Yeah." He had a sudden inspiration. "Do you want to see?"
"Wait here." He ran off through the gate in the fence that divided their living areas. Lan walked over to the target to retrieve the arrows.
After a few minutes, there was a knocking on the gate. "Lan!" He hissed. "Open up."
She ran over and yanked open the gate to let Zuko in. He had a pair of dao swords clutched in his hands.
"Wow. Those are nice."
He held them out at arm's length and examined them briefly. "Thanks. They belonged to my mom's grandfather."
"Can you really use them?"
"Yeah. Of course! Step back."
She obeyed, and Zuko took a step back as well. He held out both swords at arm's length apart and spread his feet wide. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started moving through a series of forms. The swords flashed in the sunlight as his arms swung around, tracing intricate patterns. Lan thought she could almost hear the whistling of the blades as they cut through the air.
He finished the forms, brought the swords together in front of him, swung them in a wide arc, and sheathed them.
Lan's hands were over her mouth in wonder. She jumped up and down and clapped. "Oh, Zuko! That was wonderful!"
A huge smile spread across his face. "Really?"
"Oh, yes! Really!"
He colored painfully. "Thanks."
"Prince Zuko!" Zuko's tutor, a young man named Feng, in search of his pupil, had followed the sound of voices and found the two children together. Feng, whose main goal in life was to secure a permanent position on Ozai's staff, knew that Ozai did not want either of his children to associate with the Water Tribe girl, even if she was half Fire Nation. That knowledge may have caused him to speak sharply, and the children jumped guiltily.
Feng's face twisted. "What are you doing here?"
"I – I was just showing Lan –"
Zuko was cut off as the tutor grabbed him by the arm and shook him. "Lan? How dare you be so familiar with her? She is Lan to you, is she?"
"No! Lady Lan Chi! I meant Lady Lan Chi!"
Lan's eyes were wide with horror.
Feng shook Zuko again. "You know you are not supposed to be here!"
Zuko's head bobbed back and forth like a rag doll's and Lan shrieked. She grabbed the tutor's arm. "No! Let him go! Let him go!"
He ignored her, so she kicked him, hard, in the shin.
"Ouch!" He turned his attention to Lan. "You little half-breed!" He shoved her away, and she sprawled on the ground, crying.
Zuko snatched his arm from the tutor's hand and pulled the swords from their sheath. "Leave her alone!"
The tutor's pupils constricted, first from fear, then from anger. "You will pay for that!" He snarled, then grabbed Zuko's wrist and yanked him forward. The swords dropped from the young man's grip and clattered onto the ground. With one hand still gripping Zuko's wrist and one hand scooping up the swords, Feng dragged his crying charge through the gate.
Lan watched them for a moment, then scrambled up, yelling for Iroh. She dashed back into the house and into his study, where she found him at work. Between sobs, she poured out the tale to him. A muscle in Iroh's jaw twitched, and he wiped her tears away.
"All will be well, duck. I will take care of it. Now go find the housekeeper and have her look at that scrape on your elbow."
Lan nodded. "Don't let them hurt Zuko, Uncle. It's my fault he's in trouble." Her eyes welled up again.
"I will take care of it." He repeated, smiling. "Now, go." He gave her a gentle push, watching until she had gone. The smile disappeared, and he rushed out, headed for Ozai's quarters. His brother's guards came to attention as he pushed past the doors, and he turned towards where he knew Ozai's own study was. The door was partially open, and he could hear voices, as well as Zuko crying. He thrust the door open to find his nephew standing before his father's desk, his face pressed into the inside of his elbow.
Ozai and the tutor abruptly stopped speaking when they saw Iroh. Feng bowed, although Ozai truculently crossed his arms over his chest.
"Feng," Iroh addressed the tutor, although his eyes were on Ozai, "please take Prince Zuko to his mother."
Although Feng threw a look at his employer, he obeyed, taking Zuko, still sniffling, by the hand. As they left, Iroh stopped the tutor. "Should I hear that you have laid another hand on my nephew, you will have me to answer to."
Feng nodded slowly, and they were gone. Iroh quietly closed the door behind them. "Tell me that you disciplined that young man."
Ozai went behind his desk and sat down. "To whom are you referring?"
"Feng. This is not the first time that I have heard of his abuse of Zuko."
"Abuse? He is teaching Zuko what he needs to know."
"And what exactly is it Zuko needs to know that is taught with a fist and a shove?" Iroh leaned over his brother's desk menacingly.
"Zuko is in dire need of self-control, among other things. He was told not to leave our courtyard."
"He didn't run off to Ember Island, Ozai! He opened the gate and walked through to my quarters."
"And how, exactly, did you learn of this, Iroh? Did the little Water Tribe mongrel carry the tale to you?"
Iroh's face turned red. "You are my brother, Ozai, and I love you, but it seems you are need in self-control. You will never refer to Lady Lan Chi with that term again – ever. Do I make myself clear?"
Ozai's eyes were slits. "Yes, Brother," he snarled.
Iroh straightened. "You will dismiss Feng from his position. Tomorrow I will send Master Piandao to you to continue Zuko's swordsmanship. Zuko will thrive under his tutelage, I am certain."
Several hours later, Ozai found Ursa waiting for them in their private sitting room. Ozai sighed when he saw her thunderous expression.
There was no preamble. "I want you to get rid of Feng."
He shook his head. "Absolutely not. He's loyal." He threw himself down onto a low sofa, and snapped his fingers for tea. "To me, not to Iroh or my father. And that, my dear, is priceless."
Her lips thinned out mutinously. "He hit Zuko."
Ozai stared at her without speaking.
"And," she went on, "what's worse, he hit Lady Lan Chi. A child over whom he has no authority."
He shrugged. "They probably deserved it."
He waved his hand at her as a maid brought him a pot of fresh tea. "It's of no consequence. Master Piandao will be in charge of Zuko's education from now on. Iroh is seeing to it." His lip curled as he poured a cup for himself.
Ursa relaxed. "Piandao! Ozai, that's wonderful. He is one of the best sword masters in the Fire Nation!"
"And he's Iroh's man, so I'm certain that Zuko will learn all about rare teas and pai sho."
"You should not judge Iroh so harshly. I am certain that he has only Zuko's best interests at heart."
"My brother has his own best interests at heart. He is trying to turn my son against me."
"Don't attribute such malice to Iroh." She reached for the tea pot, but he caught her wrist.
"Do not fool yourself, my darling. Iroh was not given the title of dragon for nothing. He earned it."
"Prince Zuko, I am Master Piandao."
Zuko bowed solemnly. "I am honored to meet you."
Piandao smiled kindly, although Zuko, still prostrate, did not see it.
"I understand that you had some – difficulty with your previous tutor."
"Yes, Master. It was entirely my fault."
"What has happened in the past shall have no bearing on our relationship. I will judge you on your actions from this point on. Is that acceptable to you?"
Zuko's heart leapt with hope. "Yes, Master."
"May I see your swords, please?" Piandao held out his hand.
Zuko unsheathed the swords without raising his head and handed them to his new tutor. Piandao accepted them with reverence. He inspected them closely. "I know these blades."
"They belonged to my maternal grandfather."
"He was a great hero of the Fire Nation."
Zuko had never heard any information about his mother's grandfather. When his mother had given him the swords, on his eighth birthday, she had said that she would tell him the tale when he was older. "Thank you, Master."
"So, Prince Zuko, are you ready to learn the ways of the sword?"
He finally lifted his head and looked at Piandao with shining eyes. "Oh, yes, Master! More than ready. I want to be the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation."
"That is a very noble ambition. You do your mother's family proud."
For the collective works of the author, go here.