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Chapter 8 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
Chapter information

The Spirit Within



Written by


Last chapter

Chapter 7 (The Spirit Within) [1]

Next chapter

Chapter 9 (The Spirit Within) [2]

On a cloudy Monday, Lan walked into Advanced Calligraphy class for the first time. She had been promoted out of the elementary calligraphy class when the teacher saw her skill, and this was her first day in the new class. She entered the room with her new textbook and pens clutched beneath her arm. The class was already in session, and 21 pairs of eyes turned to her.

Including Azula's. The Princess's eyes narrowed at the sight of her adopted cousin, and a small, malevolent smile came over her face. Lan Chi groaned silently.

"Ah, Lady Lan Chi. Welcome!" The teacher clapped her hands to gain the class's attention. "Girls! We have a new student today. Please make Lady Lan Chi Sun feel welcome!"

"Welcome." A smattering of voices echoed.

"That does not sound very welcoming! Again, please, with feeling!"

Lan cringed as a falsely hearty welcome rang through the room.

"Much better, girls! Lan Chi, there's an empty seat in the back."

Lan Chi shuffled to the back of the classroom, and settled down on a cushion in the back row. She quietly laid her things down on the low desk as the teacher launched back into a lecture on the perfect way to make the curve of the character that meant dragon.

One of her roommates waved at her from the end of the row, and she smiled back weakly. She did not know the girls on either side of her, but she could see the back of Azula's head three rows in front of her. Azula's evil head. Attached to her evil body.

"Blech," Lan said quietly.

The girl next to Lan looked at her darkly.

Lan sighed and tried to pick up the thread of the teacher's words.

After class, she took a long time gathering up her things, hoping that Azula would leave first, and that she could avoid Zuko's sister completely. That was not to be, however. Azula came to her desk and smiled down at her condescendingly.

"I wanted to come over here and give you a proper welcome, cousin!" Azula's voice was treacly sweet.

Lan did not know what to say. "Uh, thank you, Azula."

Azula's lips pursed. "I think you mean Princess Azula."

Lan rolled her eyes. "Princess Azula."

"I'm sooo glad you've started here! And how convenient for you that you are boarding! We dayschoolers have to get up early every day to come here from our homes. Oh, but I forgot! You don't have a home. Both your parents are dead and Uncle Iroh abandoned you."

Lan jumped up. "He did not abandon me! He'll be back – he's just upset about Lu Ten! Not like you – you don't care about anyone but yourself. You don't even care that your own mother just died!"

Smoke, from Azula's fingertips, curled around her books. "Do you expect me to lie around crying like a baby, like Zuko?"

"At least he has a heart!"

"And are you trying to worm your way into it? Or just into his bedroom?" She spun on her heel and stomped away.

Lan's eyes widened, and she ran after Azula. She grabbed her shoulder and swung her around. "It was you! You told your father I was there!"

"As if I would've let you get away with it! My brother might be stupid, but he shouldn't be stuck with a dirty half-breed like you for the rest of his life!"

"Take it back." Lan said, her voice low and dangerous.

"Why? It's true. Your father turned his back on the Fire Nation and chose a wife from an inferior tribe. And looked what they produced: you. No bending, and that ridiculous hair color. A punishment from the spirits for being the mixture of two races."

"My mother and father loved each other, and when she died, at least he had the decency to mourn her."

"You think my father should lie around boo-hooing all day, too?"

"He should have allowed a funeral for her. But he doesn't care, and neither do you. You're exactly alike."

"And don't ever forget it."

"Some day, Azula, you'll be sorry you treated people like this."

"Is that a threat? Try something, and you'll find yourself sent so far away that this place will look like paradise!"

Lan fumed. She knew that Azula was telling the truth. Ozai could have her sent to an outpost in the Earth Kingdom if he wanted.

Azula smiled smugly. "I didn't think so." She turned and walked away.

Lan's eleventh birthday came and went during this time, without a note or any word from Uncle Iroh. She despaired ever hearing from him again. She also realized that Zuko had turned eleven as well; his birthday was exactly nine weeks before her own. She dared not send him a card – she could see Ozai setting fire to it.

Lan's days turned into a routine. She got up every morning, was ignored by her roommates (who knew better than to befriend an enemy of the Princess), dressed in the hated Academy uniform, had breakfast alone, and then went to classes. In class she was snubbed until lunch, when she was ostracized. After lunch, she went back to class, where she was again excluded. After classes, she did her homework alone in the meditation garden if the weather was clement or in the library if it was raining, thus avoiding the pretense of socializing with her unfriendly classmates. After that, she went to dinner, and, after eating alone, she returned to her room to read until curfew, which was an hour after sunset.

Lan began to hate the world. She missed Uncle Iroh and Lu Ten desperately, and she did not even know if she would ever see her uncle again. She missed her uncle's servants, her room, her studies with the royal tutors, and everything from the outside world. She missed talking to people – no one talked to her unless absolutely necessary, and her loneliness was turning into bitterness and cynicism.

Lan was distrustful of everyone – everyone seemed to have an ulterior motive. More than once, girls had pretended to be friendly, only to later spurn her or ridicule her, on behalf of Azula.

One evening after dinner, she was in her room alone, reading, when one of her roommates came in. She was a girl the same age, named Ling. Lan groaned silently – she really preferred if her three roommates did not return to the room until near curfew. That was the best way to avoid awkward silences and other conflicts.

Ling came in, sat down on her mat, across from Lan, and looked at her expectantly. After a few long moments, Lan glanced at her. She went back to her book, but the girl's eyes stayed on her.

"What?" Lan demanded, putting her book down.

Ling looked away. "Nothing."

"Okay." She picked her book back up, but felt Ling's eyes on her again. This time she threw the book down. "What do you want?" She was not in the mood for harassment.

Ling colored. "I – I just wanted to tell you that – Princess Azula rules this place, you know?"

"I know." Did she ever.

"And, a lot of girls would like, you know, to be your friend and all, but Princess Azula has told them if they were nice to you, she'd punish them."

"Punish them, huh?" Lan sighed. "Azula's good at punishing people."

"I know." She rushed on. "And – and, I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."

Lan looked at her suspiciously. "If I say you're forgiven, is Azula going to jump out from a closet and throw a fireball at me?"

The girl smiled slightly. "Not that I know of."

"Okay." Lan picked up her book again, and began reading it.

"I can't talk to you when anyone else is around, though."

"Of course." Lan continued reading.

"But I can talk to you when we're alone."

Lan turned a page. "Does that mean you want to talk?"

"I don't really have many friends here."

"You have more than I do." She was trying to keep her mind on what the book was saying.

"That's true." She regarded Lan. "Why does the Princess hate you so much?"

"Does she need a reason?" Another page turned.

"No, I guess not. She just seems to hate you more than anyone else."

"We're related, sort of. I guess it's kind of a family feud."

Ling's eyes opened wide and she goggled at Lan. "You're a member of the royal family?"

"Kind of. Prince Lu Ten was my cousin. My uncle is Prince, er, General, er – the Fire Lord's brother." She finished finally.

"Ohhhh! That explains it!"

"It explains what?"

"Why Princess Azula hates you. Wasn't Prince Iroh supposed to be Fire Lord?"

She concentrated on the book. "Supposed to be."

"Hmmm. Maybe Azula sees you as a rival."

"A rival? Don't be ridiculous. Azula's a princess. Even if my uncle had become Fire Lord, I still wouldn't be a princess."

"I'm not saying it's logical. I'm just saying that might be the reason Azula hates you."

"Maybe." Lan decided to let it go at that. She could never tell anyone the real reason why Azula hates her.

"Where are you from?" Ling asked suddenly.

"I live at – lived at the palace."

"You lived at the palace?" She was incredulous.


"Wow." Ling breathed. "Is it beautiful there?"

Lan turned a page. "Yes."

"So sharing a room is new for you, I guess."

"I had my own room." She decided to try to impress Ling, although she had no reason. "I had my own wing."

"Wow." Ling repeated. A thought came to her. "So why do you live here instead of at home?"

Lan glanced at her. "It's complicated."

"I'm from the Hu San Province. My parents betrothed me to a boy from the city, so they sent me here for town polish."

"Lucky you."

Ling shrugged. "At least it's not as boring here as it is at home. The most exciting thing at home is the harvest. And, believe me, that's not fun."

"I can imagine." She turned the page.

Ling was quiet for a long time, looking at her. "Is it true you were sent here because of a boy?"

Lan closed the book and straightened. "Where did you hear that?"

Ling shrugged. "I don't know. Around, I guess. Lots of people are saying it."

Lan frowned. "People talk too much."

"Is it true?"

She blushed. "It might be."

Ling smiled. "Is he cute?"

Lan looked away. "I don't know. I guess."

"What's his name?" She leaned forward in excitement.

Lan shook her head. "I'd rather not say."

Ling looked intrigued. "Why? Do I know him?"

Reason asserted itself. "I really can't talk about it."

"Is it someone I know?"

Lan shrugged. "You might."

"Huh." She thought for a moment. "I don't know a lot of people in the city."

Lan sighed. "Don't bother trying to guess. I won't tell you even if you do."

Ling snapped her fingers. "Wait. He goes to the Royal Fire Academy, doesn't he?"

Lan was relieved that Ling had not guessed. "I really am not going to say."

"Was it a boy at the last mixer? Ooh! I know! Is it Admiral Chan's son?"

"I can't tell you!"

Ling looked speculative. "Okay. But he's cute?"

Lan grinned suddenly, and Ling clapped her hands. "Oh, he is! I knew it! What color is his hair?"

"It's black."

"And what about his eyes?"

Lan looked off into the distance. "They look like – gold."

"Oh, he sounds cute!"

Lan folded her legs underneath her and looked down. "He really is." She smiled.

"So how did you end up here?"

Lan flushed. "Promise you won't tell anyone?"

She crossed her heart.

"If you tell anyone, I'm going to be mad. And if you think Azula's the only one who can punish you, think again."

"I won't. I promise."

"We spent the night together."

She hands flew up to her mouth. "You what?"

She averted her eyes again, suddenly embarrassed. "I spent the night in his bedroom."

"Oh, my goodness! What happened?"

"His father found me and I got into big trouble."

"No – I mean what happened in his bedroom?"

Lan's color heightened. "Ling!"

"Sorry! I'm curious! Did you – you know?"

Lan had only recently learned, from listening to her roommates' giggles and whispers, what happened between men and women. "What? No! I wouldn't – we wouldn't – do that. I'm only eleven!"

"So? I'm eleven, too, and I've been betrothed for two years."

"But I wouldn't – no, we didn't do that."

"But what happened? Did you kiss him?"

She plucked at a string on her sleeve. "Yes."

"Was it nice?"

She was red to her ears now. "Yes. Very nice."

"Is he the only boy you ever kissed?"

"Yes. He's really the only boy I've ever known, besides Lu Ten."

"Are you going to marry him?"

A dark look came over Lan's face. "No. His father doesn't think I'm good enough for him."

"But if you love each other..."

Lan held her hands up. "Whoa. I don't love Zu – him. And he doesn't love me. It was just –" she shrugged. " – something that happened. And it's over. End of story."

Ling shook her head. "I don't believe you."

Lan looked at her evenly. "Fine. Don't believe me. I don't care. Nothing can ever happen between me and him. It's just impossible."

One day, several months after opening up to Ling, Lan was sitting by herself, as usual, at lunch. Ling had continued to be friendly towards her, but not when anyone else was around. Lan didn't blame her – she knew what it was like to be on Azula's bad side, and that is definitely where Ling would have been had the princess learned that Ling was being nice to her avowed enemy.

This day, Princess Azula and her friends were sitting at another table, watching Lan through narrowed eyes.

"She is too proud of that hair," said Lady Mai, who, as was, as usual, sitting with Azula.

"It's a sign of vanity." Azula asserted. "With her background, she should be hiding it. She should treat it as a mark of shame."

"What are you going to do, Azula?" Ty Lee asked.

"Watch and learn, girls."

Azula left the dining room and headed to the kitchen. She approached the head cook, who looked at her with surprise.

"Princess Azula! What are you doing here?"

The princess put on her doe eyes. "I have an orange that I would really like to share with my friends, but I haven't got a knife to cut it. May I borrow one? I'll bring it right back," she hastened to add.

"How sweet, your highness, to share with your friends. Of course you can borrow one." She opened out a drawer and pulled out a wicked-looking, short blade. "This should do the trick."

Azula examined it with interest. "Oh, yes. This should do nicely."

She concealed the knife beneath her robe, and walked back to her table. She kept her eyes glued on Lan. "You two hold her down." Her friends rose, and they all approached Lan at her table.

Azula slid in next to her, while Mai and Ty Lee stood behind Lan.

"Hello, Cousin," Azula's voice was silky.

Lan looked at her warily. "What do you want, Azula?"

Azula gave an innocent frown. "I feel so bad about all our little disagreements, Lan. I just wanted to apologize. After all, we are family, and family should stick together, don't you think?"

Lan turned to look fully at her, perplexed. "Uh, thank you, Azula. That's very – nice of you."

"And we," she indicated her friends, "just wanted to tell you that we think you're really pretty."

Lan's brows drew together. Something was not right here.

"It's really too bad that your hair is that color. In fact, we think you would look better without it."

Dawning horror came over Lan just as the other girls grabbed hold of her. She started to struggle.

She tried to pull her arms away, but Mai and Ty Lee were too much for her. They dragged her to the ground and pinned her down. She yelled for help, but none of the other girls in the dining hall came to her aid. They just watched and continued eating, some interested, some scared.

Azula forced Lan's head to the side and grabbed her braid.

"No!" Lan pleaded. "Don't." She thrashed around, trying to throw Azula off.

"Stop moving or I might accidentally cut your throat, Cousin." Azula sneered. She put the blade of the knife on the other side of Lan's braid and pulled. Lan felt a tug, heard a swish, and then the heaviness of her hair was gone.

The girls released her immediately, and she sat up. Azula stood before her, the long red braid swinging in her hand.

"You know what, girls?" Azula said smugly. "We were wrong. She looks better with it." She tossed the braid contemptuously into Lan's lap and walked away, followed by her cohorts, laughing.

Lan looked down at the hair in her lap, tears already blurring its shape.

"Ladies, ladies, settle down! Settle down!" The headmistress came into the cafeteria and clapped her hands, and the girls began to quiet.

Lan Chi, who had been sitting by herself against a wall, reading a book, did not bother to look up.

The headmistress attempted a smile. "Now, I know that most of you have been fretting because we have not had any evening extra-curricular activities yet this year." A general murmuring was heard, and the headmistress clapped again. "Keep it down! Keep it down!" She straightened her shoulders and continued. "I am happy to report that, two weeks from Friday, we will be holding our annual mixer with the boys from the Royal Fire Academy."

There was a whoop of joy, and Lan finally looked up.

The headmistress continued. "As you know, last year's mixer was canceled due to an – incident at the Royal Fire Academy, but the headmaster there and I have decided that we will let this year's go forward, provided both schools continue to demonstrate worthiness."

More shouts of happiness, and even clapping, came from the crowd.

"Simmer down! Simmer down!" The girls ignored their leader. "If you are not quiet right now, I will cancel the entire mixer! I will!"

There was finally silence. The headmistress smiled again. "That's better. As I said, the mixer will be a week from next Friday, at sunset, and we are honored to be hosting the mixer this year at our school. Which means," mutterings began again, and she was obliged to raise her voice. "Which means that you ladies will be responsible for decorating the bending hall, the music, and also for any refreshments. Any students wishing to sign up for any of these committees may do so at my office." She nodded. "Let's do our school proud! Have a good afternoon, girls."

The talking began in earnest again, as the students began making plans for the mixer. Lan looked around at all the excited faces, and could not help but feel some exhilaration. A mixer sounded like fun. Maybe she would meet some nice boy – some nice boy who was not related to Ozai. Even if she didn't, it might be fun to listen to some music, drink some punch, and eat some cookies.

One of the cooks came out of the kitchen and rang a large bell, signaling the end of lunch. Lan gathered up her things and made her way to music class, which she had been forced to take rather than self-defense and fighting. It was her least favorite class – which was saying something, since she was really not overly fond of any of her classes. It was not that she did not like music; on the contrary, she loved music. However, she hated playing music. She had taken basic music lessons on the flute when she was younger but, having found no aptitude for it, she had given it up readily. Unfortunately, due to her late start at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, not only was she forced into music class, she was also forced to play the tsungi horn. It was, apparently, the one instrument that no one had chosen to play. For good reason, Lan soon found out. It was loud and heavy, and most of its notes were discordant. And she was terrible at it. It sounded like nothing more than old plumbing pipes squeaking in her hands.

She took her seat at the back of the classroom, and reluctantly hefted the tsungi horn onto her shoulder. Her classmates all settled around her, and the teacher came in, flustered.

"I apologize, girls, for being late. I have just been informed," she put her hand on her podium, as if for support, "that we will be performing at the mixer." Her voice was strangled.

Groans and wails came from the girls, including Lan. Having fun at the mixer did not include playing this blasted horn!

"Why do we have to play?" A flutist asked.

"We won't be able to mix! We'll be playing these stupid instruments!" A lute player scowled.

"What about having fun?" Asked another girl.

Lan could have echoed each of their concerns, but remained silent.

The teacher waved both her hands. "I know. I know! But we will only be playing a few songs. The headmistress has promised."

Disgruntled groans still came from the girls.

"Well, which songs will we be playing?" Asked one of Lan's classmates.

"Ah, well, as to that," the teacher cleared her throat, "we will be playing Fire Nation, We Beseech Thee, and Upon These Sceptered Hills, and um, let me see, Spirits Save the Fire Lord."

"Ugh." The drummer next to Lan said. "I hate that song. It's a million years old."

Lan smiled. It was a horrible old song that sounded like a funeral dirge.

The teacher drummed her baton on the podium. "All right, girls. You should all still have the sheet music for Fire Nation, We Beseech Thee. Let's start with that one."

After class, Lan was called back by her teacher. "A word, Lady Lan Chi."

Mistress Zhi had always been kind and respectful to Lan, and therefore Lan was not apprehensive of being kept behind.

"Yes, Ma'am?" She bowed, as was the custom.

Mistress Zhi looked at her and took a deep breath. "Lady Lan Chi," she began, "how long have you been in my class?"

"This is my second year, Ma'am."

"Second year," she repeated. "Two years you have been playing the tsungi horn. Do you like playing it?"

Lan shook her head. "No, Ma'am, I honestly do not."

Mistress Zhi nodded. "And you are not very good at it."

"No, Ma'am, I am not." She would not disagree.

"Now, Lady Lan Chi, please take what I am about to say as a positive statement."

"Yes, Ma'am." Lan was confused.

"I enjoy having you in my class. I really do. You are generally pleasant, and very courteous, and I appreciate that. However," she smiled kindly, "I absolutely abhor your playing."

Lan grimaced.

"Now, don't be upset. It's just that, with the headmistress forcing us to play at the mixer," she gritted her teeth, "I think it might be best if you transferred into another class."

Lan's hopes suddenly soared. Leave music class? It was a dream come true!

"Therefore," Mistress Zhi continued, "I have found you a spot in Master Jiao Ao's self-defense and fighting class."

Self-defense and fighting? Now it truly was a dream come true. Lan dropped her books on the floor and threw her arms around the teacher impulsively. "Mistress Zhi! Thank you! I love you!" She gave the teacher a loud buss on the cheek. "When do I start? When do I start?"

Mistress Zhi looked at her in shock. "To-tomorrow."

Lan threw her arms in the air. "Tomorrow? That's great!" She started to gather up her books, then realized that her excessive response might have been construed as insulting to the teacher. "Not that I won't miss you, Mistress. I will! Oh, I will! But self-defense and fighting! Thank you!"

However, at the height of Lan Chi's joy, the almost unthinkable occurred. That day, after her last class, she was called to the headmistress's office. Terrified that the headmistress had found about the change in her schedule, Lan dragged herself to the office.

Girls were gathered around a bulletin board, scribbling their names down on the various mixer committee sign-up sheets. Azula and Ty Lee were there, although Lan saw no sign of Lady Mai. Mai was not exactly the volunteering type, Lan reflected. Of course, neither was she.

Azula saw her, and gave her a reptilian smile. "Excited about the mixer, Lady Lan Chi?" Her voice was falsely friendly.

"Not really." Lan thought it prudent to seem disinterested.

"Maybe it's best that way." Azula said, and Ty Lee snickered. "What with your hair looking like that."

Lan's hair, still too short to stay in a braid, was now just a short queue at her nape.

She opened her mouth to say something, but, luckily, the headmistress's secretary escorted her into her employer's office.

She started to sit when the door closed, but the headmistress indicated that she should stand. "This won't take more than a minute." She folded her hands on the desk. "The Fire Lord thinks it best that you not attend the mixer."

"What? Why?" Lan was genuinely disappointed.

"He feels that it might – interfere with your rehabilitation."

Anger flared inside Lan, but, with effort, she remained calm.

"You are to go to your room immediately after classes the day of the mixer, and stay there until the following morning. Is that clear?"

Lan nodded sullenly.

"I said, is that clear?" The headmistress's voice was harsh.

Lan looked directly at her. "Yes, Ma'am. Crystal clear." She snarled. "May I be excused?"

The headmistress waved the back of her fingers at Lan, dismissing her.

Lan stomped out of her office. Azula and Ty Lee were lingering around the sign-up sheets, along with several other girls. Lan pushed past them.

"See you at the mixer, Lan." Azula smiled sweetly.

Lan stopped. Suddenly, Azula's words from earlier came back to her. She had known. She had known that Lan was going to be barred from the mixer. She had known – probably because she had told her father to bar her.

Her fingers itched to pull water out of a nearby vase and turn it into ice daggers. Ice daggers aimed straight for Azula's black, black heart. She was sick – sick to death of swallowing her anger and pain. Sick to death of allowing Azula and Ozai to bully her and make her life miserable. Sick of being stuck in this beastly school, surrounded by these awful people. Sick, sick, sick, sick, sick.

She drew in a deep breath, and walked away.

However, the next day dawned bright and sunny, and Lan awoke happy. She was happy because this was the day that she was going to start self-defense and fighting class. It was a class she was going to enjoy; a class in which she could excel.

She chafed at the inactivity forced on her by her morning classes, and she could barely eat lunch. When the bell rang to release the students from the dining room, she raced to the bending hall, a cavernous room ringed with windows. She was the first student there, and she bowed in front of Master Jiao Ao.

"Master Jiao Ao." She made the traditional Fire Nation hand salute. "I am honored to be in your class."

His eyes raked down her from head to toe. "Lady Lan Chi Sun, I presume." His voice was cold, and Lan's stomach dropped.

Please, please, please don't let him be a friend of Ozai's.

He continued. "I had the privilege of serving under your father in my youth."

Lan breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Master."

"I understand that you have studied quite extensively under Master Piandao."

"Yes, Master. I was very fortunate."

"Yes, fortunate indeed. He is the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation. We were at school together, you know."

A smile split her face.

"Well, Lady Lan Chi, while we wait for your classmates, would you care to show me what you learned from my old friend?"

Lan Chi was quite happy to show Master Jiao Ao all that she knew. Although she was rusty from not even picking up a blade for almost a year and a half, after a week or so of classes, she had regained much of her skill. She easily became the best student in the class. None of her fellow students could boast even half of her experience, and she put that knowledge to good use. Towards those girls who had mistreated her in the past, she showed little mercy. Two to three swipes of the dagger and a twist of the arm or wrist were usually sufficient to either disarm them or cause them to forfeit.

Her roommate, Ling, was in the class, and, because of her past kindness to Lan, she did not have to face her wrath. Instead, Lan started teaching her proper technique during lunch, of which Master Jiao Ao approved.

Four days before the mixer, Ling came skipping into the bending hall. "Lan, have you heard?"

Lan threw a dagger into a target. "Bullseye! Have I heard what?"

"Who is coming to the mixer?"

"Is that a question?" Lan retrieved her weapon.

"What?" Ling was confused. "Are you asking me?"

"I thought you were asking me. Never mind." She picked up several throwing stars and sunk them, one after another, into the target. "No, I haven't heard, and, to be frank, I don't care. I'm not going to the mixer."

She walked over to the target and yanked the stars out with more force than necessary.

"Not going? Are you serious? Why not?"

Lan folded her arms across her chest. "Because I have been banned. Apparently, the headmistress thinks that I'll corrupt the boys from the Royal Fire Academy."

Ling pulled a face. "That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard."

"I agree. But," she threw her hands up. "There is nothing I can do about it." She walked back to the throwing line, and lifted her arm up to launch a star.

"That stinks. Now you won't get to see Prince Zuko."

Lan staggered forward, and her throw went wild, burying the star in the wall.

"Whoa! Lan! You almost hit me!" Ling jumped back.

"Did you say Prince Zuko?" Lan asked in a shaky voice.

Just then, the bell that started class sounded, and the two girls scrambled to pick up the various weapons. Lan, whose mind went blank as soon as she heard the word Zuko, inadvertently cut herself on the edge of a star.

"Come on, Lan. Get a move on." Ling started sorting the weapons into their proper places.

"I cut myself." Lan said unsteadily.

Ling grabbed her hand and examined it. "You'll live. But maybe you should go see the nurse. Master Jiao Ao, Lan's cut herself. I think that she should see the nurse."

Master Jiao Ao, who had just entered, nodded after looking at the wound. "It is very minor, Lady Lan Chi, but perhaps you should get it looked at." He squinted at her with concern. "You have never cut yourself in class, my lady. Are you entirely well?"

Lan gazed at him without really seeing him. "Yes," she nodded slowly. "I'll go to the nurse."

She left the bending hall in a daze, but, instead of going to the nurse, she went to her room.

Zuko! Zuko was coming here – to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls! To the mixer that she had been forbidden to attend!

She dropped down on her futon and covered her face with her hands. What was wrong with her? Just the sound of his name had caused her to nearly kill the only friend she had. And cut herself! She belatedly looked at her hand. Blood was trickling from the webbing between her middle and forefingers. She absently pulled water from a basin and healed the wound just enough to stop the blood. She couldn't heal it entirely; that would be too suspicious.

She fell back on her bed and curled into a ball. Zuko was coming, and she would not even be able to see him. But why did she care if she saw him? She had already vowed to stay away from him. Ozai had demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that he objected to her involvement, on any level, with Zuko.

But she wanted to see him. It had been almost a year and a half since she had laid eyes on him. How had he changed? He was probably taller. She was taller; he was certain to be. Perhaps his voice had changed. Perhaps –

Perhaps he is more like his father now. A treacherous voice snaked into her brain.


Perhaps he hates you as much Ozai hates you.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but the thoughts kept coming. Zuko hates you. Ozai hates you.

And with those thoughts came one that entered her mind with absolute clarity: she was in love with Zuko.

She groaned and hugged herself. Why? Why did she have to be in love with the one boy in the Fire Nation that she could never, never, never, never have?

"Criminy," was her only response.

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