Neutral Ground

Chapter 1: Perfect Enemies

The teenage Firebender sat cross-legged atop the high hill. His hands were laid neatly in his lap, palms up so that they cradled a small flame that danced contently in his grasp. His breathing was steady and even, rhythmic to his own inner drum. But his eyes were not down cast at the innocuous flame he cradled, instead they were cast out to the scene before him.

A mountain jutted out of the ground, though wither it be natural or man made was hard to tell by the foreigner's eye as the entire thing had been carved into by the countless Earthbenders that resided within.The quality stone within had been shaped to form house after house, each like a block, and they stacked atop each other like the bricks of a pyramid. Every so now and again there was a line that slid down it's side, like a seam and occasionally there was movement along this grooves, though the teen imagined not what they were for. All his mind focused on was the fact that the city before him was Omashu, and somewhere inside those walls was a 12 year old he had been chasing after for almost three months now. At least, word on the street was that there had been multiple sightings of him concentrated in this area and rumor was that he and the King of Omashu were old friends.

A wheezing sound behind him made Zuko turn away from his thoughts and look over his shoulder as a panting Iroh labored his way up the side of the hill he had long ago mastered. His uncle leaned heavily on a walking stick that exceeded his height by a good foot or so, to which a decent sized bundle was tied at the top that carried whatever crazy items Iroh might've brought along on this journey. He limped over to Zuko, favoring one side that clearly had a stitch in it, and collapsed next to his nephew just as the teenager rose to his feet.

"Whaaarrr, huhh, huhh, are yue guu, huhh, huhh, gooing, Preense, huhh, huhh, Zoouko?"he panted as he litfed his head up with what looked like the greatest amount of effort that he had ever had to put out. "Weeez, huhh, huhh, we juss got heeeree..."

"I'm going to Omashu," The prince stated matter-of-factly. "It's only a few more yards away. You can make it Uncle, it's easier going downhill ten is it coming up. C'mon now." He picked up a heavy bag and slung it over his shoulder; this contained all the necessary supplies he and Iroh needed for their trip such ass food and clean water. He started a few paces then stopped and looked behind him as he noticed his Uncle wasn't following. "Uncle?"

A hand rose on the crest of the hill and waved in Zuko's general direction. "I'm not moving," Iroh stated bluntly and the hand disappeared. "You can go on if you want too, but trust me Zuko, you won't get beyond the outer wall. There are guards posted every five feet all around that place, they'll never let you in."

Zuko sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. Ever since the whole North Pole escapade, actually it was before even that but especially since then, Zuko had tried a little harder to treat his elder with respect but that was much easier said then done. Never-the-less, he'd come to know his uncle more deeply because of it, and he could now see Iroh's invitation to questioning in his last statement a mile away. He turned around and hiked back up the way he had come, stopping beside the old Firebender who still lay on the ground facing the clear blue sky above them. He dropped the bag and crossed his arms, trying to keep up his usual facade of "Annoyed Prince" he asked, "So what are you getting at?"

Iroh opened an eye and looked up at Zuko. "The last time I looked at you, which mind you was quite recently, you were still a Firebender, Prince Zuko. I do not think the Earth Kingdom will be to keen to let you waltz right into their Capital. You'll need a disguise."

"Uh-huh," Zuko said. "And how, pray tell, are we going to come across one out here? You should've brought this up at the last village we stopped at!"

Iroh gave a little chuckle and gestured at the bundle tied to his bag. "Open that up and see what I bought you. I really think you'll like it."

The teenager pulled the bundle close to him as his elder slowly rose to a more comfortable sitting position. He was surprised to see that Iroh hadn't packed any useless things as he had once suspected, but instead it was all clothes. And when he saw what Iroh was talking about, his protest was so loud that any woodland creature within a five mile radius scurried away for it's life.

"I hate you."

"But you look so very lovely, Geranium."

"If you weren't my kin, I would kill you. So help me, I would murder you in your sleep."

"Hush now, that's no way to talk to your Grandfather. Sway your hips more, you have to make it look convincing."

"I'm here to get a 12 year old boy, not attract another males attention to me as a possible wife!"

"Really? Well, I guess there's hope that I'll have a real grandchild yet. The way you've been chasing after the Avatar, I was beginning to question your preferences."

Zuko twitched involuntarily from annoyance. "I'm going to-"

"WE'RE HERE!" Iroh loudly proclaimed to drown out anything his nephew was going to say. Zuko staggered a bit in the high heels his uncle had forced him into and wondered briefly how the hell anyone could walk gracefully in them. The green skirt he now wore swished decently about his legs, making him all the more worried about getting tangled up in the fabric. It wasn't anything fancy, but at least it covered him from head to foot and Iroh had cleverly styled a wig to cover that burn on his left eye; a lace fan had been given to him so that he could brood in secrecy and no one but Iroh would know.

Actually all of this wasn't that bad, Zuko had to admit that even though it was embarrassing, it was still clever; who would suspect an old grandfather traveling with his young grandchild? The thing that really got to him was that Iroh had actually went to the lengths to buy Zuko a bra and then fill the cups with the two water sacs they had been carrying. Dress Zuko could deal with; Gigantic jiggling boobs Zuko could not. He vowed that when this whole chapter in his life was over and he'd settled down with his chosen mate, he'd never be a perverted male about their chest, no matter how old he got.

"State your business!"

Iroh walked up calmly to the guards of the main entrance, took out a scroll and handed it to the one who had spoken. "I have an old friend who lives in Omashu and he has sent me this letter informing me that his grandson wishes to seek my granddaughter's hand in marriage," Iroh explained smoothly. "I have brought her to meet them and see for herself if he is worthy of becoming her husband as she is a stubborn child who will not simply take her grandfather's wise advice. Come closer Geranium, you don't have to be shy." The guard read over the letter carefully and when he was convinced it was authentic, he nodded his head and made the signal to open the gates. Slowly the thick stone wall separated and peeled away to reveal two more following it's example behind it. The young Firebender took a step back in awe as he looked up to the 300 foot watch points from which the stone blockades were being controlled by the master warriors of the element. Iroh took hold of his hand to led him forward immediately behind them the walls began to close; Zuko quickened their pace a bit when he realized the other two walls were closing in as well.

"Where'd you get that?" Zuko asked once they were safely inside the city and drew their attention back to the key to the success in Iroh's plan. "That scroll, how did you manage to make it fool the guards; surly they aren't dumb enough to see that it wasn't written by an Earthbender!"

"Indeed it wasn't," Iroh replied as he tucked said scoll away. "I made it myself."

"I didn't know you could write like the other nations, Uncle."

"I learned from a great teacher. You should always take the time to try things outside of your own personal comfort zone, young one. You never know when the odd skills you acquire will come in handy." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bag. "Here, take this and don't spend it all in one place. I have some business to attend to."

"What?" Zuko asked as he looked down at the bag. "You're leaving? Where are you going?"

"I can't keep up with your frantic chasing after the Avatar," Iroh said, causally waving his hand in the air. "You and him are both so young and move so fast, I am certain I would just slow you down. I'll go find us a place to stay for the night, okay? Have fun looking for him!" And with that Iroh disappeared into the crowd, leaving Zuko alone in a dress. The fire teen felt a bit vulnerable as he looked around and seemed to notice all the males that could possibly attack him...Oh, he was being so stupid! No one was going to hit on him! Zuko was a man, not a little girl and damnit! He could handle being by himself for a few hours!

He spotted a cabbage vendor and when his stomach gave a small whine to proclaim it's hunger, he staggered over to see if they were any good. The vendor greeted him warmly and tried to make small talk but Zuko played himself to be a rather shy girl, speaking only when he needed to in the most feminine voice he could manage. He was just about to make a purchase when there was a minor explosion down the road and people hurried to get out of the way as a giant dust cloud came hurtling towards them. "Oh, not again," sighed the vendor.

Zuko didn't have to ask what he was talking about or wait long to see for himself because as soon as those words were uttered he could make out the shape of a large box surging towards them. Inside of the box, were at least two people giving out shouts of joy and warnings to those who didn't see. Zuko scooted off to the side and waited too see what was happening, but the vendor stayed put. He firmly planted his feet on the ground between him and the impending doom, threw out a hand in an attempt to stop the danger and called out, "I'll have no more of this! You've all wrecked 5 carts of mine and at least 3 dozen of my batches! Enough is enough now desist!"

But the hurtling cart didn't slow down. Those inside saw that he wasn't going to moved and frantically waved at him to do so. Zuko watched as the box drew closer and noted that given the size and at the velocity it was going, the vendor would be killed for sure if he stayed put. He glanced back at the vendor and saw that the man was determined not to move from his spot between his cabbages and their ultimate demise. The box barreled closer and Zuko broke out into a run at the vendor. Zuko couldn't just stand there and watch the man slaughter himself, he'd been mentally scarred enough in his life as it was. He leaped into the air and knocked said cabbage vendor out of the way of danger and held him back as he tried to get back to his cabbages patch kids. Time seemed to slow down as the box careened closer.


Actually, time didn't slow, but the wild and out of control box did. It stopped just mere inches away from the cart of cabbages. In removing the vendor, who would've still been run over if Zuko hadn't pushed him aside, the teenager had only made sure that nothing was knocked into the cabbage cart that would make it tip over and spill it's cargo into the street. "My cabbages," the vendor cried happily when he saw his beloved children were safe. Tears of joy ran down his face.

That is until the fount passenger of the wild box let out a breathe he didn't know he'd been holding, causing a gale of wind to rattle the cart and knock it over into the street.


"Sorry," came a young sounding voiceand Zuko snapped his head in the direction from which it came. His eyes widened as he just now took in the information of who had been in the box. "I'll help you pick them up if you want," Aang offered cheerfully.

"NO!" cried out the vendor as he rushed to put himself between the violators of his destroyed merchandise and the poor, pale green, round heads of vegetation. "You People Are A Curse! I Swear! What In All The Names Of Every Spirit That Ever Graced The Cosmos Did I EVER Do To You To Deserve Having You People Follow Me Everywhere I Go And Always Destroy Everything I Hold Sacred In Life? Huh! WHAT IS IT?"

"Nothing," said the second passenger in the box, an incredibly old man in the most ludicrousoutfit Zuko had ever seen that it almost made him glad he was wearing a dress. "I just don't like cabbage."

"I'm really sorry," Aang repeated. "Are you sure you don't" A low, threating growl from the vendor was what made Aang falter at the end of his offer and he slowly inched away from said vendor, careful not to make any sudden movements in case the guy didn't have all his rabies shots up to date which was looking more probable with all that foam.

"Well Aang, I guess we should be getting back to the palace, it'll be dark soon anyway," said the older passenger and with a wave of his hand the stone box zoomed a good couple feet down the street. "You, young miss, I saw what you did for that crazy old cabbage guy." -A sound of protest was made here by said cabbage vendor.- "Come with us, I'd like to reward you for your noble efforts, though it really wasn't needed."

Zuko reached into his apron pocket and pulled out the pouch of money his uncle had given him. More because being with the poor vendor was what got him to his prize so quickly rather then charity, Zuko took out a few silver pieces and pressed them into the palm of the vendor's hands and closed his fingers around them when the Avatar and his friend had their backs on them. Before the vendor could say anything at all, the teen pressed a finger to his mouth and the message was across. Then he turned, took out his fan and with a flick of his wrist, opened it and caressed the left side of his face. Damn, he needed to get of of these forsaken clothes before he became any more feminine.

"Hi!" Aang said happily as they walked along. "My name's Aang! What's yours?"

"Geranium," Zuko said softly, mentally cursing his uncle for picking the name and hoping he would win an award for best performance of the century.

"Oh, that's a really pretty name. Are you an Earthbender?"

"No. Just a simple...girl..."

"Wow, I'm a simple monk! I'll bet we have a lot in common...Say, you look kind of familiar, have we met before?"

"I believe not." Zuko began to flutter the fan against his face as he felt his cheeks heat up. 'Please,' he begged the Spirits, 'Don't let him see, don't let him find out. Not like this...'

"It's in your eyes, they look a lot like someone I've seen somewhere before..."

"You're very much mistaken. I'm told my eyes are unique, that not many others have the same type..." Opps! That was too much information, for it was true that the young Firebender had very special eyes. The only other one in his family who he'd seen with the same eyes was in fact his uncle, but he was told his mother had had the same golden honey orbs he possessed and it was whispered that his father had chosen her to be his mate because of those captivating eyes. Now he would find out for sure...

"HEY GUYS!" The shout distracted the 12 year old as he shot ahead to greet his other friend. Zuko recognized the Water Tribe boy as one of the two sibling's the Avatar traveled with. "NO AANG! DON'T!"


The two males fell to the ground in a heap as a result of Aang pouncing Sokka. While the older boy gave a look of mild annoyance, the younger laughed happily and was quick to pull himself to his feet again. "Aww Sokka, you shoulda come with us! It was so much fun."

"No offense Aang, but I've noticed that every time you have even a little fun, I always end up getting hurt in one way or another. For the sake of my health, I think I don't want to be anywhere near you when you're having the time of your life. Hey, who's she?"

Oh no. Zuko knew that look. He'd seen it one to many times on the faces of his crew when he had to round them up from the cat houses in the bigger towns they docked at to restock supplies. He'd seen his uncle casually throw it at a select female every once and a while on a crusade they'd taken a few weeks back. That look was NOT a good look. Not on Sokka. Not at him. "Hi," the water boy said a voice that was clearly reserved for the impressment of females. "I'm Sokka, of the Southern Water Tribe."

Zuko smiled tightly, although Sokka couldn't see that as his fan covered nearly his whole face. He casually glanced over his shoulder and saw that Bumi was behind him; Zuko was literally caught between a rock and a hard spot. Taking a deep breath, he looked deep inside and was able to pull up one trump card, but dare he use it as it had been given to him by his wily uncle? Looking at Sokka through the lace in the fan, he realized it was either that or...well, cling to the hand of the Avatar in desperate hope that he wouldn't get jumped by the other male in the presence of a child. He decided to swallow his pride...

"I'm engaged," Zuko said, his voice pitched higher only because, even though his mind had given the okay to do it, his body still refused to comply with the orders.

But it had worked. Sokka backed away almost immediately. "Oh," was the only thing he said, a deep crimson blush gracing his cheeks as he held his fist to his mouth and looked down. "I'm sorry, I didn't know." Zuko fluttered his fan swiftly, grateful for the breeze it generated of his own hot cheeks. It was going to be a loooooong night...

"Your Highness," a guard greeted Bumi as the four entered the thrown room and the Omashu king took his usual place on the elevated chair. "A man has come to see you while you were away, your Highness, and he says that he is an old friend."

The old king glanced at the three youths beside him and sighed a little. "I'm sorry Miss Geranium, it appears that something has come up," he said apologetically. "I'm sure it'll only take a moment to sort out. Aang, why don't you and Sokka show her to the gardens? I'm sure the lovely lady may find something there she likes. I'll be along in a minute and we'll go over a few more Earthbending moves in the training rooms later, okay? Send in my other guest."

As the three left, Zuko practically being dragged away by a babbling Aang who was gibbering on happily about all the pretty flowers they were going to see, Zuko turned to look at the door where the other guest was being let in; just out of curiosity. As soon as the light caught the face of the figure, Zuko stopped cold in his tracks and stared dumbfounded at who he was seeing. Only one word escaped his mouth and it was enough to make the world stop turning as he completely forgot to disguise his voice.


There was an uncomfortable silence that followed this simple utter, and all eyes looked at the teenager in bewilderment, then to the old man to whom "she" had addressed. Iroh of course recognized his nephew and it took him just a moment to even process that he should run into the teen at such a time. But finally he simply blinked and replied in his usual benign way, "Oh, Zuko. I see you've found the Avatar."

There came a blood curdling scream and everyone turned sharply to it's source only to see Sokka on the floor, running in place on his side and looking for all the world like he was having a seizure. Instantly Katara, who seemed to have materialized out of thin air, was by his side at which point he sat up, his face absolutely livid, pointed at Zuko and said, "I HAD THE HOTS FOR YOU!" He cringed violently and threw his hands into the air crying out, "Oh father, if you can hear me, Please! Forgive my sins! I didn't know any better! Katara!" he begged, "Cleanse Me!"

"I'd invite you to join me in the bonfire festivities I'll be holding later this evening when I am finally rewarded my old clothes back, however I can see that you quite obviously aren't in the mood to see my bare bottom anytime soon and nor am i to show it to you," Zuko remarked dryly. "What are you doing here Uncle?" Zuko asked as he turned back to the important matter at hand, missing the very rude gesture Sokka made at his back.

"Why, visiting an old friend of course," Iroh replied calmly.

"The leader of the Earth Kingdom!"

"What, you were expecting a good looking lady friend?"

"Uncle, we're at war! We've been at war for over a hundred years. When exactly did you find the time to go prancing about the Earth Kingdom making friends with their Lord?"

"King," Bumi corrected the mistake, though he seemed to go unnoticed by the two Firebenders.

"Weeeell, it was before you were born," Iroh said, stroking his beard and looking up at the ceiling. "Back when I was still a General...Yes, during the Battle of the Western Lands."

"How in the world did you make friends with the Earth Kingdom when you were slaughtering their best troops?"

"He didn't slaughter anyone," Bumi spoke up. "That's why we gave him the title Dragon of the West. Haven't you told this boy anything, General Iroh?"

"Retired General," the elder Firebender said. "And I'm afraid not, he's not a very good listener."

"I'm listening now, aren't I? Go on, do tell."

"Your Uncle Iroh was the best all-fired military strategist we had ever seen," Bumi began. "We couldn't even manage to pull off a decent guerrilla attack on his fleet. Every time there was a confrontation, he would capture a dozen or so of my troops and make them prisoners. I figured they were all killed for sure, and we lost more and more of them everyday. Sure, my troops were killing off his Firebenders, but for every one of them we got, we lost at least 10 men on our side. I finally had to come down there myself and during the first night of my stay, your uncle walked right into our camp; I could barely believe that he'd practically sacrificed himself to our power. But he wanted to cut a deal with me. You see, it was getting more and more difficult for his side to keep all of the Earthbenders they'd captured comfortably. Their rations were running low and the enclosure they'd established after the first few captures were growing crowded. Some Earthbenders had sustained some bad burns from the fights and medical supplies for such wounds weren't available. He offered to give them back to me, but only if I gave him the advancement of land the Fire Nation was after and retreated from the battle all together."

"And you said yes?" Zuko inquired. Bumi nodded. The young prince looked at his uncle who had remained placidly quiet thought the story. "I don't understand how that got him his title, or your friendship."

"Well, you're right about one thing; it was hard to trust him, at first," Bumi said. "But with so many of my mens' lives on the line, I decided to take the chance. I held up my end of the deal and...he held up his. It was a mutual feeling of respect that formed. As for the Dragon of the West, well, he breathes fire, mauled all my best Earthbenders, showed continuously how cunning he is and he hoarded my men the same way a dragon hordes gold and guarded them so fiercely, not only was I completely surprised to find he had not killed a single one but his own troops where treated more harshly then my men if they even looked at any Earthbender funny."

It was here that Iroh took up his own dialog. "Most of the troops I was commanding had been good friends all through their youths," he said. "When we lost one in battle, it was hard on them to forgive those who had killed their friend. It is hard to stop a cycle once it has begun, and hate is a very powerful emotion. That is the curse of war that makes it everlasting; if no one side is willing to let things go then the cycle will go on, generation after generation, children replacing their parents once they have fallen. Hate corrupts and destroys, it will turn a man sour and tear apart even the strongest of homes. I feared for my young troops, I did not want them to hate another human being, be them Earthbender, Waterbender or even another Firebender. By holding them back I was able to teach them and once they matured they began to understand how forgiveness would give them more closure then revenge."

"The boy did bring up an interesting point though, Iroh," Bumi said to the Firebender before him. "You and I, well, we aren't exactly the best of friends. May I ask what exactly it is that brings you and your, eh, interesting young nephew to my kingdom?"

"Is that suppose to mean something?" Zuko cried out as he noted the tone of Bumi's voice when he spoke of him. And then he remembered the detail that caused such a statement to be made just as soon as it was too late to take back what he said.

"What you have to understand," Iroh began out of habit, "is that my nephew is a complicated young man..."

"Oh Shut Up!" Zuko cried as he threw his wig at Iroh. It bounced off his uncle's head and landed harmlessly on the floor. He crossed his arms and fumed silently where he stood, Aang and Katara hiding giggles behind their hands at his far left.

"Yes," Iroh said, drawing everyone's attention back to the matter at hand. "There is a reason I have sought you out, and I believe that it is for a very good reason for it concerns the matters around the Avatar." At this everyone, even Zuko, paid closer attention. "As I'm sure you all know, my nephew has been chasing after young, Aang, wasn't it?" The Airbending child nodded and Iroh continued. "Has been chasing after young Avatar Aang for a very long time now. I apologize for all the trouble we've caused you up until this point. But that is just the problem, isn't it? Our sides have battled relentlessly for all this time and for what? Has either side gained any advancements in any of the countless struggles we've had? Of course not; my nephew does not have the Avatar as he wishes and young Avatar Aang is not free from Zuko's yearning to capture him. At the rate things are going, we'll be at this for the rest of our lives if something doesn't change. I'd like to make a proposal and I invite you all to think it over carefully before agreeing to anything for it is a heavy weight to bare. There will be no objections from our side if you turn it down for I understand the stakes are very high and you may not wish to subject Avatar Aang to them.

"This war has separated our people for a long time so I am uneasy in saying that you should all know of the Firebender's way of settling disputes of honor and pride. They're fights called Agni Kai where two opponents will face each other in a ring and the one left standing at the end is claimed the victor. Now, these duels ceremonial among Firebenders and it is usually only them who partakes in them. The Avatar is of course somewhat of an exception, though in Avatar Aang's case we may just have to excuse him altogether since it's quite clear he hasn't got a good grip on his Firebending yet.

"But taking that same idea, perhaps we can settle our differences once and for all. I wish to propose that the Avatar and my nephew do battle with each other one last time. It won't necessarily be an Agni Kai, for that is a battle of honor. Instead, the prize for the victor will be his freedom; the cost of losing is that the contender who fell must give himself entirely to the will of the one that brought him down."

Even when Iroh had finished speaking, the room remained deathly silent for a good while. Katara wove her hand into Aang's and they looked at each other with a good amount of fear in their eyes; that was a very good deal, but was the price too high? And Zuko, well he could hardly believe what he'd just heard come out of his uncle's mouth. This was a complete shock to his system, Iroh had NEVER once brought up this preposterous idea. Perhaps because it practically sold him into slavery and you'd think that with those stakes Iroh would've at least mentioned something like it to him before now.

"Well," said Bumi, finally breaking the uncomfortable silence. He pressed his finger tips together and leaned forward a bit in his chair. "That is quite an idea. I do think it needs to be throughly examined before any definite decision can be made. Do you have a deadline for which the answer must be given?"

"No," Iroh replied. "You may take as long as you like to reach a comfortable agreement. But there shall be no bartering. The fight will commence under those rules for both sides or it will not happen."

The King of Omashu nodded and beckoned for Aang and his friends to come closer to where he sat. As the trio complied he stated, "You and your nephew are the royal princes of the Fire Nation, and since you are such it would be indecorous of me to turn you out into the streets. I trust you Iroh, as much as current times will allow, and so I will make arrangements for you to stay within my palace. I only ask that you uphold my vision of you and not make me regret making this decision."

Iroh bowed his head a little. "It will be an honor, King Bumi," he said and righted himself.

Zuko, furious at the whole situation, made no move or gesture of respect. A guard came up to his side at Bumi's command and Zuko jerked his arm away violently when he tried to gain the prince's attention. He turned and marched out of the room as his uncle followed behind, another guard at his side to lead them to their chambers.

"I Cannot Believe You!" Zuko seethed at Iroh when they were left alone. "As if it wasn't bad enough that I was embarrassed in front of the entire Fire Nation already! Now I'm the greatest laughing stock in the whole Earth Kingdom and about to be sold as a common servant to the Avatar! I was not born to live like this, Uncle! I won't have it! I refuse to fight him like that!"

Classically, Iroh pretended that Zuko was merely speaking to him in a softer voice as he tested the springs of one of the two beds. "I doubt you will still be saying that if Avatar Aang agrees to fight you," he said.

"But he never will! It's a stupid idea and it's not going to change anything! Even if he did agree and did win I still wouldn't give up trying to drag him back to my father! No one on this Earth can make me!"

"And what would you do if he agreed and you won?"

Zuko cooled down considerably with that remark. It really hadn't crossed his mind that he could possibly with the match, should it take place. Well, the boy was only 12 so he was probably real inexperienced in fighting. All he really knew was Airbending; and Water and a little Earth too but he'd only just started to learn these arts, so surly he wasn't as clever in them as he was his natural element. Zuko, being older and a Firebender, was confident he was stronger physically then little Aang. Yes, yes maybe he could win after all...Maybe that's why his uncle had even suggested it, because he was confident that Zuko could win! The thoughts pulled at the corners of his mouth, trying to lift them up in a smile. "Alright," he said, keeping a very serious face. "I'll do it. But only if the Avatar agrees. If he doesn't, all deals are off and I go right back to doing it my way."

Iroh didn't let on that he didn't like the sound of that plan, but bid his nephew good night laid back on the bed.

"Well, what do you think Bumi? Should I take the deal?" Aang asked his old friend.

"I really can't be the one to make this decision Aang," the king of Omashu replied. "You're the Avatar and it's completely in your hands. My advice is what you seek more though, isn't it?" He sat back and gave out a sound of contemplation as he muled it over a bit. "I would take the deal."

"What?" cried out Sokka. "Why?"

"Well," Bumi began. "Why not?"

"Because they're Firebenders!" Sokka shot back. "And they've been trying to kill Aang since day one of his awakening! We can't trust them, I don't even think you should be letting them stay here now! They could be spies for the Fire Lord!"

"Indeed," Bumi agreed. "But apparently, someone wasn't listening to the speech made a couple pages back!" Bumi laughed a little before he settled down into a serious mood again."I know Prince Iroh to be an honest man and suspect no deception. He talks of this fight being a non-life-threating one, so I don't suppose he expects either Aang or Prince Zuko to get seriously hurt. In fact, I don't suspect he thinks that his nephew can win at all which is why he is proposing it."

"But that doesn't make any sense then," Sokka continued. "If they can't win, why even bother trying?"

Bumi shrugged, his crazy smile carved into his face. "Beats the heck outta me!" he said gleefully. "And we'll never know unless Aang wants to give it a shot. So, whatta ya say Aang?"

Aang shifted a bit in his cross legged position. He didn't think Zuko would kill him, and it would be great to be free of at least one Firebender chasing after him. This could even make Zuko his friend if he won...just as soon as Zuko got over losing to a 12 year old, that is. They could travel together and it'd be easier to sneak into Fire Nation villages with him and Iroh at his side. He could even learn Firebending and be complete with his studies! And then, when it was time to fight Lord Ozai, why what better way to sneak into the palace then pretending Zuko had finally captured him and was bringing him home? If Bumi and Iroh thought for sure he was going to win...why, passing this up was the crazy idea! He couldn't say no, it had to be done!

"I'll do it."

Bumi smiled even as Sokka tried to convince him otherwise. "Now, now," he said to the fuming Sokka. "Aang is the Avatar. We need to trust in, and respect his decisions." At this the Airbender closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer that he was making the right choice and sighed when he felt Katara's arms wrap around him for comfort.