|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 3 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
When Lan Chi found out that both her uncle and cousin were going to the front, she begged to be taken along. She could be of use, she reasoned with Iroh. She could make his tea; she could wash his clothes – as well as mend them, and Cook had been teaching her how to make her uncle's favorite dumplings. And, she reasoned, she could help Lu Ten as well. She could polish his armor, since it was likely to get sooty from the firebending, and an earthbender might throw a rock at him, and she could probably buff out any scratches that resulted.
Iroh laughed. "A battleground is nowhere for a young girl like you, little duck!"
"Why not? Colonel Shinu has said I am one of the finest young archers he has ever seen. I can hit the bulls eye of a target at 100 paces."
Iroh seemed to consider this for a moment. "Can you? How wonderful. However, be that as it may, the front is a very dangerous place to be, even for someone as battle-grizzled as I."
"But you're taking Lu Ten, and he has never been in battle at all, either."
He shook his head. "Lu Ten is a man of nearly twenty, and the future Fire Lord. It is expected that he go into battle. Besides, his platoon consists of all very highly regarded firebenders – very experienced in combat. He will be fine."
"But if his platoon is so experienced, then I should be safe with them."
He chucked her under the chin. "All of your arguments are very well-thought out. Very admirable attempt. But I cannot let you come along with us. A girl of only eight years–"
"I'm nine now."
"That's right. Nine. My mistake. Still, a child of just nine, boy or girl, does not belong on a battlefield." He frowned at her fallen face. "You can help me, though, by seeing to it that my favorite tea blends are packed. I do not think that I can conquer Ba Sing Se on inferior tea."
The day of their departure approached, and Lan secretly hoped that, in the end, Iroh would relent and allow her to accompany them, but he was adamant.
The night before his departure, Lu Ten found her sitting on her old swing, still attached to the strong branches of a cherry tree in the enclosed courtyard. She was idly swinging her foot back forth, staring at the ground.
He came over to her. "Why do you look so sad, little duck?"
"Because you are leaving."
"I will be back right after we secure Ba Sing Se."
"That could take a long time. Uncle Iroh said so."
He smiled and settled down on the ground next to the swing. "Or it could be very quick. When the Earth Kingdom army sees that it is the Dragon of the West who has come for them, they may surrender in fear!"
She smiled at the thought of her gentle Uncle inspiring fear. "And you. When they see that the great Lu Ten has come."
"You should have a nickname, like Uncle Iroh."
"Yes, I should. A ferocious nickname would be good. 'Here comes Lu Ten – the Lizard of the West!'"
She laughed. "How about the Tigerdillo of the West?"
"Hmm," He stroked his smooth chin. "The Tigerdillo of the West. I like that."
"Would you wear orange and black stripes?"
"Well, that would stand out on a battlefield. Maybe that's not the best idea, though."
"I guess you don't have to wear anything special. Uncle Iroh doesn't wear scales."
"Very true. Then it's settled. I am now officially The Tigerdillo of the West."
They laughed together, but Lan Chi's happiness melted away quickly. "I don't want you to go."
"You just don't want me to go because then there would be no one to push you on this swing." He stood up and started to do that. She went high in the air.
"I am worried about you," she said as she came back down.
"Don't be worried. Father has assigned me to an old and renowned battalion. It will be like having twenty personal bodyguards. Besides, every Fire Lord of the past century has been a war hero. Do you want to deny me that?"
"Yes." Back into the air.
"It is the Fire Lord's duty to lead his troops into battle. I would not be my father's son if I chose to stay home just to push my little sister on the swing."
Tears started in her eyes, and Lu Ten stopped the swing. "Don't worry. I will be fine. I promise. And the day that I get back, I will spend the entire afternoon pushing you on this swing."
"I'll be too old." The tears were streaming down her cheeks now.
"You're never too old to swing. Look." He pulled her from the saddle and hopped on the swing himself, even though the branch groaned under his weight. He pushed off and went soaring, pumping his legs to gain altitude and momentum.
Lan Chi clapped her hands in delight. "You're going so high!"
"I can almost see the Spirit World from up here!" He shouted from the pinnacle of the arc. "Hello, Moon Spirit! Hello, Sun Spirit! Hello, Spirit Who Will Watch over Lan Chi while I am gone." He jumped off the swing as it flew forward again, and landed elegantly.
The tears were back in her eyes. "I love you."
The smile melted away from his face, and he opened his arms. She rushed into his embrace. "I love you, too, my little duck. Sister of my heart."
After Iroh and Lu Ten's departure, Lan's days continued in a pattern: training with Piandao and the Yu Yan Archers in the mornings, followed by academic studies with a number of royal tutors after lunch. Each afternoon she was free to pursue her own interests. She spent the time writing letters to her uncle and cousin at the front and practicing her bending. Always conscious that her bending must remain very much a secret, all of it was done in her locked room, using scrolls and books from Iroh's vast library. She was progressing well for someone who had no master to teach her. Her techniques were rough, and many of them were improvised, but she could make and control a small wave, move water around the room, and turn water into ice.
She had discovered many years before that she could heal with water. She thought that it was a unique ability, but found, in one of Uncle's books, that it was rather common amongst women of the Northern Water Tribe. She attempted to hone her skills at this, but, without wounds to heal, she found herself at a loss. She remedied this problem by cutting herself with a dagger and healing those wounds. She also learned how to heal burns by holding her arm over a candle flame until it blistered. Although she wondered at the wisdom of this method, she knew that there was no other functional way to improve her healing skills.
However, although she stayed rather busy with training and bending, she had to admit that she was lonely. Iroh's housekeeper, Hua, was her main caretaker and her main companion, and, although she tried her best, Hua was no replacement for Lu Ten or Iroh.
Zuko and Azula were, of course, still off limits, although Lan did occasionally see them in the palace. Zuko she saw sometimes with Ursa, sometimes with Piandao, and sometimes alone. He always raised a brief hand in greeting if their eyes met, although he nearly always stole a glance around him after dropping his hand, to determine whether anyone had seen his forbidden overtures at friendship.
Azula, however, made no such attempts at friendliness. She had not for several years been kind towards Lan, and indeed seemed to delight in ridiculing or torturing the other girl. She had willing companions in her friends Mai and Ty Lee, two girls of good families who attended the Royal Fire Academy for Girls with the Princess. The three were nearly inseparable, with Azula as the obvious ringleader and the other girls her toadies.
Ursa, with her mother's heart, often thought about Lan Chi. She knew that the little girl must be desperately lonely and in need of companionship. With Iroh gone, Ursa realized, the thing that Lan Chi needed most was a mother. She resolved to visit Lan as soon as she could.
She was able to visit Lan Chi was about a month after Iron and Lu Ten had left. She was escorted into the sitting room, and Iroh's butler went to fetch Hua, who was in charge of all of Lan's needs.
The older woman came bustling into the room, wiping floured-caked hands on her apron.
"Oh, Princess Ursa! How sorry I am that I am greeting you looking like this! You see, Cook took a spill yesterday, and she has broken both her wrists! So I am in charge of the kitchens until she returns. And cooking is not my specialty. I manage the household, not bake the bread and churn the butter! Oh, I am at my wits' end!" She threw her dusty hands in the air.
Ursa smiled kindly. "I take no offense, Hua. I just came to see how Lan Chi is getting on – with Iroh and Lu Ten gone."
Hua's shoulders sagged. "I am ashamed to say that I have barely seen her since all this happened. Poor little thing got shifted aside. I have to cook for fifteen people now!"
"Hua, why don't you send over to my kitchen for the undercook, Bao? She really only works part-time for us. I'm certain that she would be able to lend you a hand."
"Oh! Oh, my lady! Thank you! Thank you so much!" Hua was about to hug Ursa, but suddenly remembered her place, and bowed instead.
"It is no problem at all, Hua. Now, would it be all right with you if I sat with Lan Chi awhile?"
"What? Oh, no, no – I mean yes! Please do – Lan will be delighted to see you! Shall I get her? I believe she is in her room studying."
"Oh, no, Hua, don't bother yourself. I don't mind going up. Do you think she would mind?"
"Mind? Of course not! Our Lan Chi is all that is polite – she will love it!"
With directions to Lan's room, Ursa mounted the stairs.
Lan's door was at the end of the hallway, and Ursa knocked on it softly. There was no answer, so she knocked again, louder. There was a clatter and a crash inside the room, and Lan Chi abruptly jerked the door open. She jumped back a moment when she saw Ursa.
"P-princess Ursa! What are you doing here?" She blushed. "I – I mean, hello, my lady." She bowed. "Please come in."
"Are you sure you don't mind?" Ursa smiled soothingly.
"No. No, of course not. Please come in." She moved aside to allow the older woman entry. Lan's room was that of a typical girl – dolls lovingly arranged in families on shelves, ribbons and other fripperies on a low vanity table, and shelf upon shelf of books.
"I – I am so sorry that I didn't hear you immediately. I – I was – sleeping."
Ursa's eyes strayed to the neatly made bed, but she smiled. "I am so sorry to disturb you."
"No disturbance at all, my lady. Really. Please, sit." She indicated a large cushion on the floor, which Ursa lowered herself onto gracefully.
There was a book lying open on the floor, and Lan hurriedly grabbed it and shoved it onto a shelf, but not before Ursa had seen the illustrations of waterbending on the pages.
"I – I am studying the water benders right now. Uncle insists upon it – since I may be called upon some day to fight them."
Ursa inclined her head. "Very wise of your uncle. It is always better to be prepared."
Lan sat on another cushion. "Yes. He says that." She smiled.
"Lan, do be careful. I think that cushion is wet."
Lan jumped up, flustered. "Oh, yes. I – I spilled a glass of water on it – earlier – when I went to answer the door..." she trailed off. She flipped the cushion and sat again.
Ursa smiled again, although she saw no empty glass nearby. "Of course. I am sorry that I barged in on you like this. Your room is your private area, of course, and you should be allowed freedom here – of all places. You should feel free to be yourself in your own bedroom."
Lan watched her closely, and her words were a long time in coming. "Thank you for understanding, Princess Ursa."
"And your secrets are your own, Lan, to disclose as you see fit." She smiled. "Please remember that anything that we talk about here, or that I see, will stay here."
Lan's face was serious. "Thank you, my lady. I do appreciate that."
Ursa smiled more widely, and folded her hands in her lap. "On to other topics. I came to find out how you are doing, Lan, since we do not see much of you in the rest of the palace. How are things with you, dear?"
Lan's lonely world unfolded under Ursa's kind ministrations, and Lan felt much better after revealing many of the things that she had kept to herself: her worries about Iroh's and Lu Ten's safety, her loneliness, her desire to excel in all the subjects that Iroh had left her studying, her desire to prove herself worthy to join her family at the front, her sadness that she had lost so many members of her family and missed them. It came pouring out of her, and Ursa comforted her and bolstered her spirit as much as she was able.
When she finally left, Lan parted from her with real regret, although Ursa promised that she would visit her more often.
After the door closed behind the princess, Lan raised a shaky hand to her forehead. Although she had genuinely enjoyed Ursa's visit, she had been terrified when she had realized someone was knocking at her door. She had been practicing waterbending and had been so involved in the movements that she had not even heard the sound. In her surprise and haste, she had dropped the water she had been bending and had left the waterbending book out.
She was almost certain that Ursa had guessed her secret, but she was also fairly certain that the older woman would keep it. For that, she was immeasurably grateful. If her secret came out, there was no telling what might happen.
Ursa had indeed deduced that Lan Chi was a waterbender, but was resolved not to betray her. Besides, it was not as if Lan was a threat – to the Fire Nation or anyone in the royal family. Or to anyone at all, for that matter. She was just a lonely little girl who needed someone to talk to. And Ursa was determined that she would be the one who Lan should turn to in the absence of Iroh and Lu Ten.
Ursa could well understand Lan Chi's loneliness in the palace. She herself had come to live there more than a dozen years before, and the first two years had been unbearably lonely for the girl from a small island in the western Fire Nation. She had come to the capital only a few weeks prior to her marriage, which had been arranged by her father and Azulon when she was only thirteen. Luckily for her, she had been attracted to Ozai immediately. Three years her senior, he seemed impossibly sophisticated and wise, and she was smitten. He was very attentive to her in their early days together, but, still, lack of female companionship in her life had been difficult. Ozai's mother was long dead, and Su Hsing and Lu Ten had been following the drum with Iroh, so, other than servants, Ursa had no one to confide in.
Things had improved when she had given birth to Zuko – she did not have time to be lonely, and Zuko filled a spot within her that she had not known had been empty. Ozai, too, had seemed content beyond words, and with the addition of Azula to their family two years later, her life seemed complete.
However, as the children had grown, and as Azulon had aged, Ursa began to sense a restlessness in Ozai that she had never noticed previously. He became dissatisfied with his place as second son, doomed never to inherit. He became more and more jealous of Iroh, as well as more distrustful of not only his brother but almost everyone around him. He found fault with the children, and although Azula did not escape his wrath, Zuko took the brunt of their father's criticism. It was mainly for that reason that Ursa had insisted that Zuko be educated at home rather than boarding at the Royal Fire Academy. Although Zuko could have escaped much of Ozai's disapproval, he would also have been subject to the bullying that Ursa knew went on there, and Ursa did not want her son to have to face such turmoil and pain so early in life.
She suspected those same reasons prevented Iroh sending Lan Chi to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Spirits knew that the child had enough turmoil and pain to last a lifetime! It seemed kinder to provide a private education for her. Ursa had a thought come to her suddenly. Zuko and Lan Chi were of an age – why should they not be educated together? It seemed a logical way to provide Lan some companionship, and it would do the same for Zuko. He really had little contact with anyone his own age – only Azula, and occasionally, Azula's friends.
Ursa resolved to talk to Ozai about the idea that night.
After dinner and after the children had been put to bed, Ursa found Ozai in his office. She stopped in the doorway and smiled at him. "You always work so hard."
Ozai lifted his head. "I am still trying to prove to my father that I am capable of handling all of Iroh's duties." He put down his quill. "But I think I can stop long enough for my beautiful wife."
She came gliding into the room and he stood to take her in his arms. His lips were firm and cool, and she felt the familiar fluttering of desire deep in her core. Whatever their disagreements, this facet of their marriage had always been satisfying. More than satisfying.
He pressed kisses along her cheekbone and down her neck. "Shall we go to our chamber?"
"Yes." She murmured. "Oh, yes."
An hour later, Ozai and Ursa lay together, spent. He idly ran his forefinger up and down her arm, which caused a shiver of awareness to go through her. He chuckled and kissed her lightly on the shoulder. "You are responsive to even the lightest touch, my darling."
She smiled contentedly and stretched. "Only your touch."
"I am glad."
She turned in his arms to face him. "I wanted to ask a boon of you."
She lifted her hand to draw it through his hair. That was the first thing she had noticed when they had met all those years ago: he had the most thickest, most beautiful hair that she had ever seen. "I saw Lady Lan Chi today."
Ozai stiffened, and his hold on her loosened. "Does the favor you ask relate to her?"
She ignored his question. "She is so lonely, Ozai. She has no one but Iroh's servants to bear her company."
"At least she is not living on the streets. Iroh has provided a good home and education for her. More than her kind deserves."
"Her kind?" She pulled away slightly.
"Water Tribe, Ursa."
"Ozai, surely you are not condemning her because of that."
He sighed aggrievedly. "What is this favor you are asking of me?"
She compressed her lips for a moment before speaking, trying to work up her courage. "I think that it would be good for her – and Zuko, if they did their schooling together. They work with the same tutors, after all. It just makes sense."
Ozai's response was immediate. "No. Absolutely not."
"I do not want that half-breed anywhere near my family."
"Do you think she would contaminate Zuko by her very presence?"
"My answer is no. I do not want you, Zuko, or Azula consorting with her. "
She pulled out of his arms and turned to face him. "Consorting! She is not the enemy. She is a little girl! Why do you hate her so?"
"We have been at war with the Water Tribe for over a hundred years. Did you think that I would embrace one of them simply because my foolish brother took her in?"
"Do you hate her because she is Water Tribe or because she is Iroh's?"
His jaw set. "There will be no more discussion. She will not study with Zuko because I said so."
She was incredulous. "Because you said so?"
"Because I am Zuko's father." He amended.
"And I am his mother."
"I am prince of the Fire Nation."
"Is this to be gamesmanship, Ozai? I am the granddaughter of the Avatar."
He laughed mirthlessly and got up, sliding on a robe. "That is saying less than nothing. Roku has been dead over a hundred years."
"So your answer is no, then?"
"A vehement no."
"And if I say yes?"
"Then, my darling," the word used as an endearment earlier became a sneer, "I will see to it that Zuko completes his education as a boarding student at the Royal Fire Academy." Her eyes narrowed. "You would not dare."
He came over and chucked her beneath the chin. "Would you care to test your theory, dearest?"
Lan Chi's greatest comfort during this time was the mail she received from Iroh and Lu Ten at the front. Lu Ten wrote almost weekly, although Uncle Iroh's letters were a little less frequent. Conquering a whole nation takes a lot of time, he told her in his first letter, so please don't think that I have forgotten you just because I do not write regularly. You are always on my mind, and I look forward to the day that the three of us can be reunited.
One of Lu Ten's first letters from the Earth Kingdom came about a month after his departure. It was a thick parcel, and she unwrapped it with care. Inside were two pieces of wood, and sandwiched between the wood were miniature portraits of Lu Ten and Iroh. Lan Chi covered her mouth. The pictures were perfect – they captured the twinkle in Iroh's eyes, and showed Lu Ten as she knew he wanted to be seen: the serious heir to the throne. Her cousin's picture was inscribed by him in the upper left corner. To My Little Duck: See you after we win the war. Your loving brother Lu Ten. Tears came to her eyes. She missed them so much – almost more than she thought she could bear. The letter that accompanied the pictures was from a Lu Ten eager for war – eager to prove himself, eager for glory.
My Dearest Duck,
I hope that you like these drawings. It was our great luck that we bivouacked, on our first night in the Earth Kingdom, in a town with a market. An artist had a stall there, and I insisted that Father and I sit for portraits. You may notice some blurriness in father's picture. He did not want to sit still, and the artist joked that the result was more of a "motion picture."
We are well, and hope that you are the same. The men in my battalion are all battle hardened, and they have promised me that I will not get a scratch on me, which I told them will comfort my sister greatly. I told them, however, that I would like one small scratch, lest people believe I was at a spa rather than at war. When I return, I shall be certain to show you the scratch.
All of my love always,
Lu Ten, your devoted brother
Most letters from Lu Ten were in that vein – he knew that joking about his experiences would bring Lan some peace, and he enjoyed writing them. They were insouciant and carefree, things that were both in short supply, and forcing himself into the mindset of writing them did him good.
Most letters from Iroh were prosaic. He asked for tea or a favorite robe, or for her to have more underclothes commissioned and sent to him.
Lan, for her part, wrote twice a week without fail, despite the fact that she really had little to write about other than training. However, a frequent subject of her letters was an entreaty to allow her to join them at the front. Iroh, invariably, declined these requests. Although she had grown while he was gone, he had pointed out, she was still just a girl of only nine.
"I'm ten," she sniffed when she read his reply.
Frequently accompanying Iroh's and Lu Ten's letters were other small gifts for Lan. A beautiful stone from a southern Earth Kingdom town where they had camped, a silk scarf from a seaside market, a lovely piece of calligraphy penned by a grateful Fire Nation colonist – all found their way home to Lan, and she displayed them all proudly.
One day a string-tied package came for Lan from her uncle, and she tore into it with excitement.
My Dearest Little Duck,
I hope that this note finds you well. As I mentioned in my last letter, we have finally broken through the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. It is quite a feat, which, although boastful, is also true, since the wall is at least fifteen feet thick! Lu Ten insisted upon keeping a piece of the wall as a souvenir, which he has included. He promises to send you enough pieces to make your own wall – which I have cautioned him against, since I know that the palace post man is at least 75 years old!
I have included something a bit more decorative – a beautiful pendant that a traveling peddler sold to me. It reminded me so of you, and I am certain that you will like it. Please wear it and think of me toiling in the hot sun, drinking the last dregs of the ginseng tea you sent me. That reminds me, please send some more. My staff has taken a liking to it, and I find my supply almost gone!
Until we meet again, darling niece, please know that I carry your image in my heart.
Your devoted uncle,
She lifted a small bundle of paper from the box and unwrapped it. Within was a delicate gold chain with an exquisitely carved golden turtle duck hanging from it, its shell enameled jade. Lan drew in her breath. She unclasped the necklace and put it on. It was a pleasant weight around her neck, and she pressed it against her skin with a small smile. It was easily the most beautiful thing she had ever owned.
She continued unpacking the box and found Lu Ten's piece of wall and two letters from him. The Lu Ten of old, jovial and insouciant, was apparent in the first letter that she opened. He told a humorous story of a private in his regiment who thought that going over the wall meant literally going over the wall of Ba Sing Se, which caused her to smile.
The second letter was addressed to Prince Ozai, with a small note included from Lu Ten asking her to walk the missive over to his uncle. It seemed expedient, wrote Lu Ten, to include it with your package rather than to post it separately.
Lan Chi grimaced. The last thing that she wanted was to deliver anything to Ozai. Still, it was a little enough task that Lu Ten asked of her, and the very least that she could do. Two guards stood sentry at the entrance to Ozai's family residence. Lan Chi approached them slowly. "Please, Sirs, I have a letter from my cousin Prince Lu Ten for Prince Ozai."
"We can take it for you, my lady." One of them held out a hand.
She shook her head. "Thank you for your offer, but Prince Lu Ten has given it into my keeping. If you could please escort me to Prince Ozai's office, I would like to leave it there."
"Very good, my lady." One of them bowed to her and they set off through the chambers. At what Lan presumed was Ozai's office, he rapped on the door.
Lan was taken aback when Feng, Zuko's former tutor, opened the door. He caught sight of Lan, and sneered. "What is this girl doing here?"
Lan was determined to deliver the letter without incident. "Pardon me, Sir. My cousin, Prince Lu Ten, enclosed a letter for Prince Ozai in a package that he sent me." She held the letter out, and the disagreeable young man snatched it from her fingers.
"Why would Prince Lu Ten send something to you to deliver to Prince Ozai? Did you open it?"
She ignored the malice in the accusation. "No, Sir. Could you please give it to Prince Ozai?"
He sniffed. "The prince is with the Fire Lord right now. I will give it to him when he returns."
Lan, relieved that she did not actually have to see Ozai, bowed. "Thank you, Sir."
Feng stepped back into the office and slammed the door in Lan's face. She sighed and looked at the guard, who seemed shocked at Feng's attitude.
"I would like to return to my quarters now, if you please."
"Yes, my lady. Of course." He pointed at a far door. "That will take you back via the courtyard. There is a set of double doors through there that connect your quarters to Prince Ozai's. It is actually a short cut. Would you like me to escort you?"
Lan smiled. "No, thank you. I should be able to find my way."
The guard bowed, and was gone.
Lan opened the door quietly and peeked through. Spread out in front of her was the courtyard of Ozai's family quarters, with a pavilion and a pond in the middle. A covered walkway encircled the courtyard, and doors lined the walkway – much like it was in Iroh's residence.
She saw a set of large double doors on the other side of the courtyard, and guessed that those lead to her own quarters.
Just then, Prince Zuko, who had been playing by himself near the pond, saw her.
"Lady Lan Chi!" He called, and lifted a hand to get her attention. He began to run towards her, and she obediently waited for him.
"What are you doing here?" He asked, a smile on his face.
"I was delivering a letter from Lu Ten to your father."
Zuko's smile died. "Is my father around?"
She shook her head, and he visibly relaxed. "No. He's with the Fire Lord."
"Oh, good. Hey, do you want to see what Uncle sent me from Ba Sing Se?"
She nodded, and he presented a small dagger in a sheath, which he held out to her.
"Wow, Zuko, that's really nice." She withdrew it and examined it closely. "Never give up without a fight."
"Uncle said it was presented to him by the general who surrendered the outer wall."
"Have you shown it to Master Piandao?"
"Not yet. Do you think he'll show me how to use it?"
"I'm certain that he will."
"Do you know how to use it?"
She nodded. "Master Piandao thinks that a dagger is a perfect weapon for a girl, so I've been training with them for a while. He says it's better for me to learn how to use a dagger than the dao swords."
"Oh. Well, I use the dao swords all the time."
"You must be really good with them now." She handed the dagger back.
Zuko puffed with the compliment. "I am. Master Piandao said that, one day, I will be better than him."
"Wow! Master Piandao said that? You must be really good."
Zuko smiled shyly. "Thanks."
An awkward silence fell, until Zuko broke it. "Did you get anything from the front?"
"Yeah. Lu Ten sent me a piece of the wall."
"A piece of the actual outer wall of Ba Sing Se? Cool!"
"And Uncle sent me a necklace. Look." She leaned forward so he could see it better.
He slid his hand under the pendant to peer at it. Lan, unused to the feel of fingers on her skin, shivered. "Beautiful," Zuko said quietly.
Lan shifted her eyes to look at him and noticed that he was staring back at her, his pale golden eyes unsmiling and serious.
"Ooh, Mai, look! I think Zuko likes Lan Chi!"
Zuko whirled and Lan looked up, the moment gone. "Shut up, Azula!" He yelled.
Azula and her friends Ty Lee and Mai stood there, watching them. Ty Lee had a hand to her mouth, giggling. Mai looked thunderously at Azula.
"Yeah, Azula, shut up!" She fisted her hands at her sides.
"Why? It's perfectly true. Can't you see that we're interrupting them?" She addressed Zuko. "Should we go, Zu-zu, so you can kiss her goodbye?"
"Stop it!" Zuko warned in a low voice.
"Or what, Zuko? You'll hit me? Or you'll call Mom?"
"I can fight my own battles." He advanced on his sister.
"Ha! Ha!" Azula took off running, with Zuko close behind. "Zuko likes Lan! Zuko likes Lan!" She shouted at him.
"I do not!" He was gaining on her.
Lan Chi stood rooted to the spot, aghast at the turn of events.
Ty Lee chased after the siblings, clapping and laughing.
Mai came over to Lan and shoved at her shoulder. "You should leave here. You don't belong. And Zuko does not like you."
Lan shoved her back. "He doesn't like you either."
Mai's look was murderous.
Just then, Princess Ursa appeared. "Children! What is going on here?"
Azula, Zuko, and Ty Lee stopped in their tracks, although it was Azula who answered. "Just playing, Mom."
"Zuko?" She looked to her son, who dropped his head.
"Yeah, Mom. Just playing." He mumbled.
Her eyes surveyed all their faces until she lit upon Lan Chi, who shifted her gaze away from Ursa.
With Ozai's words regarding Lan ringing in her head, Ursa smiled. "Lady Lan Chi. How wonderful it is to see you again. How are you?"
She was forced to look at the older woman. "I'm well, thank you, Princess."
Ursa held out her hand. "I am so glad to hear that. Come, let me walk you home, and you can tell me all your news." She looked at her daughter. "Azula, it's time for your little friends to go home now, so say goodbye. And Zuko, dear, I think that you left your lessons unfinished."
"Yes, Mother." Both her children answered simultaneously, then glared at each other.
Lan slipped her hand into Ursa's and they walked back to Iroh's private quarters. "I am so glad that I saw you, Lan. I've been wanting to come visit you. How are you doing?"
Lan felt uncomfortable. "Fine, Princess Ursa. Thank you."
"Have you had a letter from your Uncle Iroh recently?"
"Yes, ma'am. I had one today. And one from Lu Ten, as well."
"Are they well?"
"Oh, yes. Lu Ten thinks that they might be home soon now that they have broken through the outer wall."
"Well, that's wonderful, Lan!"
"I cannot wait for their return. I miss them very much."
"I know. My father was away at war for several years, and I missed him terribly." They had come to Lan's home, and Ursa crouched down to look at her. "Lan, I wanted to – to apologize to you. I enjoyed the talk we had in your room that day," Lan stiffened, and Ursa went on hurriedly, "and I meant what I said about keeping your secrets. And, I wanted to spend more time with you, but, well, things have changed and I haven't been able to come by."
Lan smiled. "I understand, my lady." She had long suspected that something had happened to prevent Ursa's coming. At first she had thought that Ursa was repulsed by her waterbending, and even expected Ursa to tell Ozai about it, but when weeks and months passed without any royal guards coming to drag her away, she realized that Ursa had remained quiet about what she had seen. "You needn't be concerned about me. I have learned to like my own company, and I do have Hua, and Uncle's butler and staff, and I'm not lonely." Ursa looked skeptical. "Really, I'm not."
Ursa drew in a long breath, and squeezed Lan's shoulders. "You are a very special young lady, Lan Chi. I hope that your worth is recognized one day."
"Thank you, my lady."
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