Chapter 25 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
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The Spirit Within



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Chapter 26 (The Spirit Within) [2]

The week prior to Zuko's genbuku saw nearly the entire population of the palace in an uproar. Zuko was training all his waking hours with either Iroh or Jiao Ao, Lan Chi was sewing feverishly on Zuko's agni kai drape, and the palace staff was working nearly around the clock to prepare for the throngs of guests. Chairs and a stage were being set up in the grand plaza for Zuko's performance, miles of tables were being set up in the grand dining room for the celebration dinner, and the floor of the grand ballroom was being polished until it shone like glass, for the dancers sure to come.

The cooks and the potboys and the maids and footmen were in a flurry, shining silver and cleaning soot from chandeliers and ironing napkins and washing dishes and all the other menial tasks necessary for an event as auspicious as the crown prince's coming of age celebration.

Ozai was very pleased with the activity around his home. He loved a spectacle, and a spectacle that reflected positively on him he loved the most. He enjoyed seeing all his servants running around, doing his bidding and serving his needs.

Zuko, unlike his father, was miserable. He did not really enjoy being the center of attention, and the anxiety of performing was disturbing his sleep, but he continued apace with his training.

"Keep your fists up, Prince Zuko!" Iroh stood on one side of the courtyard watching his nephew.

They had been working for over an hour, and Zuko was nearly exhausted. He nodded and stopped, bending over to brace his hands on his thighs and catch his breath.

"Take a break, Zuko."

Zuko nodded, grateful, scooped a ladle of water from a bucket and drank it greedily. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm, and sunk onto the cobblestones.

"Prince Zuko! Are you so well prepared for your genbuku that you no longer need to train?" The voice of his father came from behind him, and he sprang up guiltily.

"My lord!" Zuko bowed deeply. "I did not see you. How long have you been there?"

Ozai gave his son an impatient look. "Long enough." He watched as his brother approached them. "Iroh." His greeting was nearly a snarl.

Iroh bowed, as was proper. "Brother."

"Is Prince Zuko ready for his genbuku?"

"I think so."

"It's a pity that the genbuku no longer allows sparring. In my day, a coming of age meant that you proved your manhood through battle."

"Ah, yes. I remember those days." Iroh's smile was tight. "You broke your partner's arm during your genbuku."

Ozai's eyes narrowed. "Collateral damage."

"I believe that is why the practice of sparring was ended at genbuku."

"Perhaps. But it was worthwhile."

"Not to the injured." Iroh looked away and scratched his cheek.

Ozai flushed. "It would do Prince Zuko some good, I think."

Iroh's eyes snapped back to his brother's.

Without taking his eyes off his older brother, Ozai called his two guards over. "Men! I would like you to spar with Prince Zuko. Teach him some real world skills."

Zuko's eyes bulged. "What? Right now?"

"Ozai!" Iroh's voice was sharp. "This is unnecessary. Prince Zuko is well prepared for real world situations."

Ozai scowled. "I will decide what is necessary." He turned to his son. "Are you unwilling, Prince Zuko? Unable? Or perhaps – scared?"

Zuko drew himself up proudly. "No, Sire. I am willing to do whatever you ask of me."

Ozai raked his eyes over his son. "Good." He turned to his guards. "Don't hold back."

They nodded and took up fighting stances.

"What?" Iroh's voice was perhaps too loud, and Ozai whirled on him, anger distorting his features.

"Silence, old man!"

Iroh's face turned red, but he compressed his lips and stepped back.

Zuko scrutinized his opponents before slowly taking a fighting stance, as well. They were both big men, and attired in the heavy armor of the royal guard, and Zuko knew that he could use that to his advantage. They would move more slowly than he would, although he knew that they had not been training for an hour, as he had.

He drew in a deep, calming breath, and waited as they began to circle him. The taller of the two struck first, and Zuko jumped back just as a burst of fire exploded in front of him. He ducked to the side and punched his fist out, letting a thin stream of fire arc through the air. That was a rather advanced maneuver, and Iroh, although greatly worried about Zuko, could not help but smile at his nephew's progress.

The stream found its target, and the smaller of the two guards was knocked backwards.

Zuko did not have time to celebrate this small victory, however, because the tall man kicked out a foot and then a hand, and fire belched forth from both, causing Zuko to dive between them. He rolled and jumped back to his feet, only to be forced to avoid a fire blast from the other man. The prince darted in close and swung his foot out to sweep low, and, this time, the other men were forced to jump back.

Iroh raised a fist in support of his nephew, and Ozai frowned at him, although he turned his attention back to the action when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a flash of fire that drove Zuko back several steps.

The young man retaliated by stretching his arms out and bringing his fists together to let out a curling fire blast that caused the other men to jump aside. He followed that with a one-two punch that, unfortunately, found no target.

The guards, at that point, realized that they could best defeat their opponent by splitting up and attacking, each from either side. They let loose a fierce barrage of fire that seemed to surround Zuko on all sides.

Iroh gasped as his nephew was swallowed in the fire, and sighed in relief when he saw Zuko sweep away the flames.

However, that relief was short-lived, as the two men launched separate, disparate attacks on his nephew, from both hand and foot, effectively trapping Zuko between them. Zuko yelled as one of the blasts hit his upper arm, but he had enough presence of mind to swing around and out of the way of the other man's attack.

"Stop!" Iroh called, but Ozai held up a hand.

"Stay out of it. This is Zuko's fight."

"It is an unfair fight!" Iroh protested. "Two grown men against a child?"

"Do not interfere." Ozai's voice was low and menacing.

Zuko was becoming very fatigued by his opponents' onslaught; his steps began to falter and his firebending was becoming more erratic. He swept his leg up high to attempt to drive one opponent back, at which he was successful, but took his eyes off his other opponent long enough for the man to sweep Zuko's one rooted foot out from beneath him. Zuko fell to the ground heavily, but lurched upright before either adversary could take advantage of it. He stumbled backwards as both men advanced, fire coming at him in quick, deadly bursts. Zuko raised his arms in front of his face in defense and continued to retreat. His heel caught on an uneven paver and he fell backwards again, sprawling onto the cobblestones. The guards came at him, each with a fire-wreathed hand extended.

"Enough!" Iroh's roar was so loud that it startled the men into extinguishing their fire, and they turned in shock to face their Fire Lord and his brother.

Ignoring Ozai, Iroh rushed over to Zuko, still prone on the ground. He knelt down next to the boy. Zuko's eyes were closed, and Iroh noted heavy purple circles beneath them. "Zuko! Zuko! Are you all right?"

Zuko's eyes fluttered open and he looked up into the concerned face of his uncle. He nodded.

"Can you stand?"

"Yes, Uncle." His voice was wispy. "I can stand." He staggered to his feet.

"Are you certain?" Iroh asked, and his nephew nodded again. "Zuko – you are burned." There was a nasty burn on his upper arm, and Zuko looked down at it drunkenly.

"Oh, yes. It – hurts." He started to touch it, but Iroh stayed his hand.

"Let's get you to the infirmary."

Zuko waved him away. "I'm fine." He swung around unsteadily to face the guards. He placed his palm against his fist and slightly above, and bowed to them. "Thank you, gentleman, for sparring with me."

Ozai came over to him, and Zuko bowed to him, as well. "Thank you, Father, for giving me this opportunity."

Ozai's eyes were cold. "You require more training, Prince Zuko."

Zuko nodded, and cast his eyes down. "Yes, Sire."

"Do not disappoint me at your genbuku."

"No, my lord. I won't." He looked up at his father, hoping that Ozai would see how committed that he, Zuko, was to making his father proud.

"See that you don't." With that, Ozai gestured to his guards, and the three of them left Iroh and Zuko staring after them.

After that, Iroh insisted that Zuko go to see the palace doctor. It was a serious burn, but the doctor was confident that it would heal and leave only a minimal scar.

Zuko, who had recovered somewhat from his battle, grinned at his uncle. "See, Uncle, I told you that I would be fine."

The doctor sniffed. "You may be fine, young man, but you are also careless. Because you are a firebender, this wound should heal quickly, but please be more cautious. Burned during sparring – indeed! You may be a firebender, but you are not immune to burns. Only resistant. This was at close range – don't bother – I can tell, you know. Burns at close range can still do quite a bit of damage."

"Yes, Sir." He turned to his uncle. "I did pretty well, didn't I, Uncle? Against Father's guards?"

His uncle squeezed his other arm reassuringly. "Yes, Zuko, you did. But I think you ought to get some rest. You look tired."

Zuko shook his head in protest. "I'm really not tired, Uncle. I want to get back to training. Father said I need to train more."

Uncle gave him a sad smile. "You should rest, Prince Zuko. A man needs his rest."

"But –" Zuko started to protest.

Iroh held up his hand. "I am your master, Zuko. I decide when you will train, and when you will rest. So, rest now. After all, you still have practice with Master Jiao Ao later, and you want to be fresh for that."

Zuko's face looked almost relieved. "Yes, Uncle. I will – if you think that I should."

"I do."

Iroh was angry – very angry. He walked past his brother's guards at the door to the throne room, and although they, to their credit, stepped forward to intercept him, a look from the Dragon of the West stopped them – especially those who had already faced Iroh's wrath the day he returned to the Fire Nation.

He did not bother to bow as he stalked up the center aisle. His brother was holding an audience with some of his finance ministers, but Iroh interrupted them.

"Out!" Iroh pointed to the door, and the ministers looked from brother to brother uncertainly. With a small smile on his face, Ozai waved them out.

"Ozai! What are you about? What game are you playing?"

Ozai lifted one brow. "Have I displeased you, Brother?"

"Yes, you have displeased me! Why in the names of the spirits would you do that to Zuko? He could have been killed!"

"Don't be melodramatic, Iroh. He obviously needs more practice – so I gave it to him."

"Against two experienced royal guards?"

"I won't have him embarrassing me at his genbuku."

"How do you make your son's genbuku about yourself?"

"I am Fire Lord. Everything is about me."

Iroh looked at him in complete disbelief. "Do you care," he asked slowly, "if your son is injured?"

"I saw him. There was a burn. He'll live."

Iroh was silent, looking at his brother, whom he had held in his arms on the day that he was born – and saw only a stranger.

Ozai was discomfited under his brother's stare. "If you feel that you have you sufficiently chastised me, I will return to my meeting."

Iroh nodded. "Yes, Brother. Do." He turned and was gone.

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