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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 9 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 8 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 10 (The Spirit Within) 
She considered going to the headmistress and begging to be allowed to go, but rejected that idea. Lan knew that the headmistress would not relent, and might actually inflict more severe punishment, such as pulling her out of Master Jiao Ao's class. That she could not bear – the class had already become very important to her, and she would not have jeopardized that for a futile hope.
The giddy air of anticipation that permeated the school did nothing to help Lan Chi's mood. Decorations started to go up, girls were experimenting with new hairstyles, and gossip about the boys from the Academy was rampant.
The night before the event found Lan completely unable to concentrate on any of her studies, and she returned to her room, intending to crawl under the covers and cry herself to sleep.
Her plans were thwarted, however. Ling was there, bursting to chat about the upcoming party.
"I am so sorry that you aren't going, Lan. I really shouldn't even be talking about it with you. I don't want to make you feel bad."
Lan shook her head and lay down on her mat. "It's all right, Ling. I've had disappointments before. I'll survive. Go ahead and talk."
"My fiancé is going to be there. I haven't seen him since last summer! How do you think I should wear my hair?" She gathered her hair on her head.
Lan glanced at her. "That looks good. I'm sorry that I won't be able to meet him."
Ling shrugged. "That's okay. I don't know if I would be able to introduce you anyway – with Azula being there. "
"Yeah," Lan said, not caring. "You don't want to make Azula mad." There was just a hint of bitterness in her voice.
Ling did not seem to notice. "I am looking forward to seeing Prince Zuko, though. Everyone says that he is really handsome." She allowed her hair to drop. "Have you ever seen him?"
Lan turned her face into the pillow. "Once or twice," she said, nonchalantly.
"Oh. Is he good looking?" She peered at herself in the mirror. "Is that a spot?"
"I haven't seen him in a while." She turned onto her back, arms flung wide, and stared at the ceiling, picturing an older Zuko in her mind. "He might be, though. His father is gorgeous." The smile she gave was more of a grimace. "On the outside."
Ling must not have had not heard the last part, for she made no comment. Lan cursed herself silently – speaking against the Fire Lord in any way was treason.
"I thought he was coming because Azula had asked, but I hear he's coming because Lady Mai asked him."
Lan bolted upright and whirled to face Ling. "What do you mean Mai asked him?"
Ling's reflection looked at Lan. "They're dating – and she wants to show him off. At least that's what everyone is saying."
Lan's ears began to buzz. Zuko is dating Mai. Could things get any worse?
"– and won't she be lucky if she marries him? Then she'll be queen." Lan caught only the end of Ling's statement.
Ling looked at her expectantly through the mirror. "Don't you think?"
Lan did not answer, and Ling turned to look at her, leaning against the vanity. "I know you don't like Mai since she helped Azula cut off your braid, but maybe you should try to be nice to her. She may marry Prince Zuko and be queen someday."
All color drained from Lan's face. "I – I have to go to the bathroom." She bolted off her bed and out of the room.
Luckily, the bathroom was deserted. The Royal Fire Academy for Girls boasted the most recent innovations, including indoor plumbing, and Lan ran to the basin and turned the faucet on. She splashed cool water on her face repeatedly, willing its soothing nature to calm her.
Mai was dating Zuko, and they might even get married. So much for Iroh's plans. So much for her own plans – her own plans, deep in her heart, that she had never allowed herself to even think about – that she and Zuko would some day, against all odds, be together.
Don't be ridiculous, Lan Chi! You never had a prayer. The second Ozai ascended the throne, Zuko was as lost to you as Lu Ten.
Thoughts of Lu Ten and Zuko and Iroh and Ozai all crowded her head and she looked at herself in the mirror. There was another stranger there, with a face twisted by grief and hatred.
She slammed her palms down on the basin and screamed.
Water shot out of all the faucets and toilets, soaking the walls and the floor. It continued to gush out of the broken spigots, and Lan Chi looked at them in surprise.
She was becoming a powerful bender.
The day of the mixer, Lan was quieter and more sullen than usual. The bending hall had been decorated with streamers and lanterns and paper flowers, and it all put her in the foulest of moods. Especially repulsive to her was a banner welcoming the Royal Fire Academy, with a drawing of Ozai on one side. As if Ozai would be here himself! It was obviously an attempt to curry favor from Azula and Zuko. Lan blanched at the sight.
The students were practicing knife defense with wooden daggers, and Lan dispatched her opponents with ruthless efficiency. This earned approval from Master Jiao Ao but complaints from the girls. She merely shrugged at their objections.
"Perhaps you could recuse yourself from knife training today, Lady Lan Chi," the teacher suggested.
Lan shrugged. "Fine. May I be allowed to use the bows and arrows, Master Jiao Ao?"
He was leery. "Are you trained in their usage?"
"I am familiar, Master."
"By all means. Feel free."
A thrill went through her. She had not touched a bow and arrow for over a year and a half, and this opportunity was too good to pass up.
She went to the other end of the bending hall, where the archery equipment was kept. Her class had not begun their archery unit yet, so the equipment was in relatively good condition.
Lan chose a bow and gathered up a quiver full of arrows. She stood against one wall and sighted the target.
As she set up her first shot, a feeling of belonging came over her. This was her – this was her place. She felt most at home with a bow in her hands, most at home peering down the shaft of the arrow, sighting her target – her prey – and letting the thin piece of wood slide out, in a perfect, tiny arc, and find its home.
She felt a feeling of release that she had not felt in a long, long time. She breathed in through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth. It was the most glorious feeling in the world. This power that she wielded – the power of life and death.
Without even looking at the quiver, she pulled out another arrow and shot it. It lodged next to the first, crowding the bullseye. She shot arrow after arrow, each finding its spot, until she had filled the bullseye with a dozen arrows, all gathering in the center. By the spirits, that felt good!
She walked over to the target and pulled each arrow out and methodically replaced them in the quiver. The corner of her eye caught a fluttering of paper, and she slowly pulled an arrow back out, and slid it onto her bow. She pulled back the string, lifted her head, and let the arrow fly.
It shot silently through the air, sliced through Ozai's paper eye, and clattered off the stone wall behind.
She heard footsteps behind her and had to subdue the training that prompted her to turn and fire an arrow into whomever approached her, as the Yu Yan had taught her.
It was Master Jiao Ao. "Lady Lan Chi. You are indeed familiar with the use of the bow."
"Yes, Master." She looked at him. "I am."
"I see evidence of the Yu Yan Archers in your technique."
"I trained with them for several years."
"I can tell." He looked off in the distance. "The Yu Yan Archers are the most formidable fighting force in the world."
She began to speak, but he held up his hand. "Yes, I know that the Fire Lord would say that firebenders are superior, but you and I know better, don't we?" He looked at her shrewdly. "The Yu Yan are the only soldiers in the world who can launch death from hundreds of yards away. Who can dispatch a man without seeing anything more than a shadow. Who can kill and walk away without even seeing the blood."
Throughout his speech, she had not dared to take her eyes from his face.
"Just remember, Lady Lan Chi, that they are assassins – cold blooded killers, who must put aside all human emotion in order to accomplish their aims." He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You are not one of them."
After classes were complete for the day, the headmistress's secretary came to escort her to her room. They opted not to lock her in, since her roommates would be coming and going, but warned her that if she was seen at the mixer, consequences would be dire.
She attempted to read while her roommates readied themselves, while they giggled and gossiped and sprayed each other with perfume. She pointedly coughed and waved her hand in front of her face, but earned only dark faces from the other girls.
Soon they were gone, Ling with a brief wave and a squeeze of the hand. Lan lifted a limp wrist in return, and, when the door closed behind them, she gave an aggrieved yowl and fell back against her pillow.
Zuko would be there soon, and she would not even get a chance to see him. Why was her life so unfair?
Chords from Fire Nation, We Beseech Thee drifted through her window, and she knew that the mixer had begun. Was Zuko there, even now? Was he only one floor down – only a few hundred feet away? Was he already laughing, holding Mai's hand? Was he kissing her hello, even now?
She pressed her palms against her eyes. She could not take an entire night of this – torture to which she was subjecting herself.
She dropped her hands as a thought came to her. She couldn't go to the mixer, but the headmistress never said anything about watching it. She jumped up and raced to the window. There was flat roof outside. She could drop down from it with no problem. How about getting back up to her chamber? There was a tree at the far end of the building.
She looked back into her room. She should probably make some effort to fool anyone who might look in. She grabbed all the clean uniforms from the closet and stuffed them into her bed, covering the whole thing with a blanket. It would not pass close muster, but anyone just glancing in might be tricked.
She put one leg over the window ledge and slid out onto the roof.
It was a beautiful night for a mixer, she admitted. A beautiful night with a full moon...
She grinned. Oh, this is going to be fun.
She dangled from the roof's edge for a moment, then dropped to the ground as quietly as possible. She pressed herself against the building and sidled along it.
The bending hall was on the opposite side of the school, and she made her way there with alacrity. For not the first time, she silently thanked Piandao for her training. He had taught her to move as stealthily as a zebracat, and to blend in. She peered through one of the bending hall's windows.
Inside was a crush of people, the girls in their red uniforms, and the boys in their scarlet uniforms.
"Doesn't this country know that there are other colors besides red?" She whispered to herself. It was going to make spotting Zuko all the harder.
She caught sight of Ling standing in a corner with a tall, gangly Fire Nation boy. Fiancé, no doubt. She grimaced. He was definitely not the finest looking boy the Fire Nation could produce. Maybe he has a good personality. She continued to scan the room.
The finest looking boy the Fire Nation could produce, in fact, was standing next to the punch bowl with Mai, Azula, Ty Lee, and a large crowd of people, most of them jostling for his attention, or for the attention of his sister.
Lan's throat closed painfully when she saw him. It was Zuko – it was definitely Zuko.
He had grown at least six inches, if not more, and his shoulders were broader. He was in a red dress uniform much more formal than those of the other boys, and Lan took back everything she had said earlier about the color. He looked magnificent. His face had lengthened, revealing more of the man that he would someday become rather than reflecting the boy that he had once been. He smiled, then laughed, and Lan Chi felt as if she had been punched. Spirits! He was beautiful.
He was beautiful, and he was with someone else. He lifted a hand to push Mai's hair off her shoulder, and left it there.
The color red made another appearance; this time, it was in Lan Chi's vision. She gritted her teeth and curled her fingers over the window ledge painfully, imagining that the stone beneath her hands was Mai's neck.
She watched them for the next half hour, grimacing every time he leaned in to whisper something into Mai's ear and scowling when he put his arm around her waist. She recognized that spying was dishonorable, but she did not care. She did not care about anything but keeping an eye on Zuko. Watching every move he made.
When he made a move with Mai towards one of the doors that led to an outdoor courtyard, she crouched below the level of the windows and was outside the door before he even opened it, hidden in a bush.
"Should we be out here?" He asked his date.
"Of course. Why not?" Mai responded.
Lan closed her eyes. His voice had changed – it was deeper, and a little bit scratchy. She imagined what it would be like to hear her name in that voice, or to hear I love you. She wagered that she would never hear the latter.
Mai had put her arm through his, and they walked towards a large round fountain whose ledge provided a bench. Lan stole closer to them.
"Full moon." Mai pointed at the sky.
"Waterbending is strongest tonight." Zuko commented.
Lan gave a devilish half smile. Oh, you know that, do you? So do I.
They walked around the fountain until their backs were to the building, and to Lan. She raced to a shrub that bordered the fountain walkway.
"I'm glad you were able to come, Zuko. I don't think I could have tolerated this mixer otherwise."
He chuckled. "It seems like fun."
She shook her head. "It's not."
Lan snorted quietly. She had been dying to go to the mixer, and had not been allowed. What ingratitude! Mai didn't know how lucky she was!
"Let's sit down," Zuko took her hand.
A flick of Lan's wrist, and a small snake of water from the fountain settled on the stone seat just before Mai sat.
"It's wet!" She jumped up, dropping Zuko's hand.
"What? It looked dry!" Lan sniggered into her hand.
"You could have looked better!" She tried to brush the water off the back of her robe, but it had already absorbed into the material.
"Sorry." He looked around. "Let's go sit over there."
A stream of water landed right in front of Mai's foot and turned to ice. She stepped on it, and her foot went skidding from beneath her. Lan turned the ice back to water just as Mai's knee landed in it.
She squealed and grabbed at Zuko. He was caught off guard and fell into her, knocking them both to the ground. Lan had been aiming them for the fountain, but, in retrospect, she decided it was rather mean, so was grateful when they landed on the pavers instead.
"Ow! Zuko! You're on my elbow!"
"Sorry." Zuko said, and Lan had to stifle her laughter.
"And you're on my skirt! I can't get up."
He stood up and extended a hand to her, which she slapped away. "I can get up on my own." She scrambled up and began brushing her skirts free of debris. He tried to help, and, surprisingly, she allowed him.
In the light of the moon, Lan saw their eyes meet.
"Is – is your elbow okay?" He asked softly.
Mai nodded mutely, and, impulsively, Zuko leaned in until their lips met.
Lan Chi watched this all in horror, her hands covering her mouth to strangle any sound.
Zuko's arms tentatively encircled Mai's waist, and Lan dropped her hands. She had to do something. Anything.
With steely determination and a willful abandon of common sense, Lan encircled the lovers' legs with a wide band of water and released it. The water hit the hard ground and exploded, splashing both Mai and Zuko from the knees down.
They jumped apart with a screech, and Mai shoved Zuko away. She looked at him for a long moment, then ran off, back to the bending hall.
"Stupid fountain." Zuko glared at the burping water as it cascaded out of its pipe, mocking him.
Lan was not there to hear Zuko's explanation for the errant wave. She was already halfway back to her room.
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