Chapter 2: Trick or Treat?
The sun rose the next morning and found the young Avatar perched in the edge of a large balcony that overlooked the royal gardens of Omashu. He opened his gray orbs and watched the sun turn the sky from a deep blue to a purple and all the way through the colors to settle finally on a lighter shade of blue then when it had begun. A fine and thin layer of dew had settled on his skin it the last hours of the night as he sat there, deep in his meditation, and the subtle chill had brought to his cheeks a flush of the softest rose pink. Slowly, he began to inhale a deep breath of the fresh morning air, pretending for a moment that he was a hundred years away in the air temple he'd called home for so very long, and faintly recalling a dull memory in the back of his mind about breathing lessons from a master Firebender. As he exhaled he readied himself to go back into bed before Katara or Sokka woke and worried for him, but a movement in the garden below caught his eye and invoked his childlike curiosity. Silently, he leapt form the balcony, trusting the parachutes of his outfit to gently set him on the ground. There was no sound when he touched the ground and keeping light on his feet, he made sure that no sound was made as she skulked closer to the shadowy figure moving through the gardens.
"Hello," he said innocently as he tapped Zuko's shoulder. The Firebender whipped around so fast that Aang almost didn't see it, but he ducked and avoided the flying spin kick to the face all the same. "Whoa! Chill out! It's me!"
The older male looked down at the boy, his classical scowl on his face. "What are you doing here, Avatar?" he asked as the boy rose again to his feet.
"Nothing; I was just about to ask you the same thing," he boy said as he rose back to his height. "Couldn't sleep or something Zuko? Wanna talk about it?"
"...No," was the only reply he got before the Firebender turned around and began walking away. Undaunted by Zuko's antics, Aang tagged along after him in very much the same manner a younger sibling would follower an older brother.
"Soooo," Aang began, choosing to ignore the glare he was getting from the corner of Zuko's good eye, if he had seen it at all that is. "How do you like Omashu so far? It's pretty nifty, isn't it?"
"You haven't been here before right? I mean, with the war and all. I'll bet you really haven't been outside your own nation that much, aside from chasing me, right?"
"...You wanna play a game?"
"Do I look like I want to play a game?" Zuko growled out. Aang took it as a good sign that he was speaking slowly and hadn't tried pinning him to the floor yet.
"Not really, but I think you should. I would be good for you, and I know just the game!" Aang skipped a head a few steps and rounded on Zuko, reaching up and bopping him lightly on the nose with his index and middle fingers. "TAG!!" he cried and leapt into the air. "You're It!! You're It!!" When the Firebender only looked after his trail with a quizzical look, the boy floated back down with laughter and began to skip around Zuko in a large circle. "Tag!" he called out again as he poked Zuko's arm and quickly retreated from the older boy's grasp. "You're It! Come get me Zuko, you're It!! TAG!! You're It!!" Aang reversed the movement of his frolicking and continued to poke the fire teen a few more times, chanting, "Zuko can't catch me! Zuko can't catch me!" He ducked in from under the teens arm to get a poke to his chest—
Suddenly Aang found himself pinned to a tree, his feet dangling off the ground as he was suspended from nothing but his neck; the teen grasping at it with both hands. Zuko's face was horrifying and Aang opened his mouth to cry out but no sound was able to escape. Panic quickly filled the 12 year old when he realized that he couldn't connect himself with his natural element, his windpipe was completely closed off. This wasn't fun anymore, and he tried to tell Zuko that but no words could force their way out of Zuko's death grip. Reaching up, the boy grabbed Zuko's hands and tried to pry them free, but the lack of airflow in his body was beginning to make him dizzy and weak. Zuko was talking to him but he couldn't hear the words, or maybe he just couldn't comprehend them. Then, the teens face softened a bit but Aang would never know if that was because Zuko realized he was killing the younger boy or if it was because his vision went blurry from tears and then faded into darkness.
He gasped and shot straight up, as though waking from a particularly bad dream. At first, Aang expected he'd find himself back in bed; maybe Katara standing over him asking what the matter was, if he wanted to talk about it, or just soothing him in a hug. But when he found himself laying under a tall oak tree in the gardens of Omashu, he knew it was no bad dream what had happened to him. Timidly, he brushed his neck with his own fingers, half expecting to find Zuko's warm hand still clutching the vulnerable flesh; he couldn't see the skin, but he could still feel the sensation of being choked and he tugged a little on his collar, pulling it up to hide noticeable mark that was surly forming there. Aang made a mental note to avoid stripping around Katara for a while; she'd question him on its origins and the last thing he really wanted was to be caught in the middle of a row between the two benders.
"Do that again and I swear I'll kill you next time."
The voice made Aang spin around so fast a small wind stirred the topsoil he sat in. It was Zuko, of course, and the teen gave him one last warning glare before continuing on his way. Although he was shy at first in the Firebender's presence, Aang felt his temper spike in frustration with having to deal with Zuko's constant bad attitude. "What's your problem anyway?!" he called as he got to his feet. "You act like you've never had any fun in your whole life!! Can't you see I was just playing with you?! It was just a Joke! Can't You Take A Joke?!"
Zuko whirled on him. "You Think It's FUNNY?! Teasing Me?! There's Entertainment For You In That?! That's Your Idea Of FUN??"
"Not when you put it that way, I guess," Aang said, his own anger faltering a bit. "But I wasn't aiming to upset you Zuko; you just flew off the handle about something trivial, I mean I was trying to make you laugh."
Zuko stared blankly at the boy for a minute before replying in a flat tone, "I don't do laughing..."
"Oh c'mon Zuko! Everyone laughs! All you have to do is think of something funny enough." Aang approached him again, a bit slower this time but still without obvious fear of the teen in his naive little boy way. "How about if I make a funny face at you?"
"Tsk," was the sound of disapproval that Zuko made as he looked down at the boy, but allowed him the luxury of making hideous faces at him none-the-less; Growing irritable and tired of the "game," Zuko pushed Aang aside with an agitated, "This is ridiculous! Stay out of my way Avatar!!" only to be grabbed on either of his sides just above his hips and tickled. With a shout, a laugh, and a swift jerk away out of Aang's reach, Zuko spun on his heel and the outburst was inevitable. "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO TO ME?!?"
"I made you laugh!" Aang replied, the most innocent and cutest of all faces he could muster secured tightly into his features.
"YOU TOUCHED MY MIDSECTION!!!"
"And I made you laugh!"
"You Did NOT!! That Was a...Sound Of Surprise!!"
"It was a giggle Zuko! You giggled when I tickled you, admit it!"
Aang found himself swiftly dodging fireballs aimed primarily at his head for the next two minutes, but when Zuko realized that it wasn't doing any good he stopped and just simmered where he stood for a moment or two. Sensing the boy's presence sneaking up behind him again, Zuko growled out threateningly, "I swear to every Spirit that ever was Avatar, if you touch me like that again you will never get your hands back..."
True to his intuitions, Aang's voice sounded behind Zuko with, "why do you do that?" When in doubt, change the subject!!
"Do...What...Avatar?" The elder boy slowly turned his head in an almost Exorcisetic fashion to glare at the Airbender.
"You call me Avatar all the time; why is that?"
"You...are...the...Avatar..." The urge to whip around and set the boy's clothes aflame was almost overpowering, but Zuko held still and clutched his arms very tightly to his chest. He needed the boy alive and in relatively good conditions if he was to be of any use to him.
"Yeah, but, I mean Zhao always says 'the Avatar' and most other Firebenders follow his example, with the exception of a few who call me 'Avatar Aang,' but you refer to me as 'Avatar' as though that were my actual name." Aang paused for a minute, either to let it sink in or maybe take in Zuko's obvious mental state, but finally blinked and looked up into the much older male's fire dancing eyes and simply said, "Why?"
"Does it really matter?"
The Airbender boy made a face as though he was deeply thinking on the matter and after a few silent moments of contemplation, he looked back to Zuko and said, "Yes, it does. To me anyways, and you know why Zuko? C'mere, it's a secret: I'M REALLY GETTING SICK OF IT!!!"
Zuko fell, twisting around to avoid getting a mouthful of dirt to the face, he landed on his rump and glared up at the boy who dared to talk to him in such a way. "You…" he seethed, "disrespectful, little tattooed imp!!"
"Oh give it a rest already!!" Aang cried and he plopped down in front of Zuko. "You know what your problem is? You're so tense. If you could just relax for once, maybe you wouldn't have such issues making a friend or two!!"
"I don't need friends too make me happy."
"That's is such a lie!" Aang leaned back on his hands and tried to ignore the murderous look on Zuko's scowling face. "Everyone needs a friend. And I'm willing to be yours! Why won't you just accept it and move on?"
"I do accept it, but me accepting the fact that you're an annoying little pestilent child doesn't make you my friend and you're the one who refuses to let me move on, Avatar."
The Airbender fell back into the ground with a large sigh. "I give up!!" he cried as he threw his hands over his face. "I used to think Sokka had the thickest skull there ever was but now I see that there is nothing that can even dent your big head!!" For that he earned a swift kick to the thigh from the fire prince who showed little remorse for the action as the younger boy clutched the offended appendage and whined in pain for a few moments. Sitting up, Aang shot out, "just for that, I'll make sure you go down in the Agni Kai and my first act as your master will be to make you admit that I am your friend!!"
Zuko scoffed at the pitiful attempt of a threat. "You? You're gonna take me down? I don't think so, little boy. I know how pathetic you are, what with your just learning the other arts of bending NOW after 100 years of existence? And don't think for a single minute that you can put a leash around my neck and make me your pet; I am nobody's bitch. Even if you won, which you won't I can guarantee you that, you cannot make me do anything of the sort because you would have no control over my soul. You most certainly cannot handle my inner fires, child. No master of bending could ever give you the skills you'd need to dominate me and I would eat you alive. The passion in my soul would burn you to your marrow and destroy all that you are until there is nothing left; not even ashes." The older boy leaned in close to Aang, unblinkingly at the same eye level to that his fire blitzed orbs challenged the stormy gray ones, until he was inches away from the tip of the your boy's nose. "Now," he continued in a very dangerous voice, "why don't you look me in the face and say that comment once more, hmm?"
"Oh Prince Zuko, there you are!" called Iroh's voice. Zuko didn't move, not even to glance at his uncle from the corner of his eye, too busy staring down the child before him the way a wolf challenges a rival or one of lower rank to test his power. Aang in turn held his steady gaze, though he had traded in his own half assed scowl for a mask more of concentration as he contemplated what his next move was going to be. "Ahhh," Iroh said, mistaking their conflict for a game. "I see you and Avatar Aang are having a staring match! How nice to see that you both can set aside your differences long enough to play with--"
"BOINK!!" Aang reached up and bopped Zuko on the nose as he had done once already. The movement caused Zuko to flinch in a blink and at once Aang was on his feet acting like he'd just saved the world from total annihilation. "OH BABY!! I Won!!" he cried as he threw his hands in the air. "WoOoOoOoOoO!!! I beat you good Zuko!! You went down!! Hahaha, don't mess with the Game Master!!"
Of course it's safe to say that Zuko was less then pleased by the Avatar's antics. "WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM!?! When I Get My Hands Around Your Neck--"
"Eeep!" In a flash of yellow and orange, Aang zipped behind Iroh and used the elder Firebender as a human shield. "Don't do it Zuko!! I was playing with you! Just Playing!!"
"Now, now Prince Zuko," Iroh said as he put out a hand to stop Zuko from his onslaught. "Calm yourself, there's no need to get so worked up over a tiny game. Breathe now, in and out." When he had calmed his nephew down to where he wasn't trying to grab the other child in the area, Iroh turned around to the young boy behind him. "And you, young man, I am somewhat surprised at you; I didn't think the Avatar would stoop to such a low level. You cheated when you distracted my nephew with that trick and it was an unfair game. Perhaps you should apologize for what you've done."
Zuko smirked as the boy meekly stepped out from behind his uncle with a bowed head and hands held behind his back. "I'm sorry Zuko," Aang said lowly. "It was wrong of me to cheat you like that; I won't do it again, I promise."
"Apology accepted," Zuko replied, more to please his uncle then any other reason.
"There now, see how much better the world is when you play nicely with one another. And then I take it you two have talked about perhaps becoming friends rather then fighting all the time?"
"Well yeah we talked," Aang quickly replied. "But some one is a real crab butt and just doesn't seem to think we could be friends; not that I'm saying any names, but I'm sure Zuko knows who I'm talking about."
"I see," Iroh responded as he clutched at the back of his nephew's shirt to keep the hot-tempered boy from lunging at the Avatar. "I guess it can't be helped, a dual you will both face then?"
"It seems so," Aang replied.
"Then let us not delay it any more then it must be," Iroh said with a sigh. "It seems we are too late for sunrise, if sunset this evening is alright for the both of you--" both parties in question nodded their agreement "—then at sunset it shall commence. Simply fetch for us and we will follow you to your choice of battlegrounds, young Avatar. Come now Zuko, I think there is much you and I should rehearse for the evening…"
Aang watched the two Firebender's as they retreated back the way Iroh had come. He sighed a little at the memory of how close hearted Zuko had been toward him and hoped that he really would come around to the idea of being friends. It wasn't as if being his friend was such a bad thing, Katara and Sokka got along well enough with him anyways. There was just something in Zuko that Aang could see, some inner light he didn't want to let shine for some reason but it needed to be released. He wondered if Zuko even knew it was there and if he did, why was he defending the discovery of it so well? Turning around, Aang began his own little journey back to his bedroom before Katara worried about where he was.
Aang leaned on the railing of the balcony that over saw the area the he would, in mere short minutes, be facing Zuko in for possibly the last time ever. 'Breathe,' he told himself. 'You've got to breathe.' But it seemed hard for him to do even that. He was reminded faintly of the battle he'd had with Bumi months before on these same grounds and a faint smile touched his lips; He'd taken that battle so seriously, even though there was no real danger. There were modifications to the field now, to try and make everything even for the benders. Fire torches replaced the green glowing accents on the walls and in each corner a large pool had been created and filled with water. true this seemed to tip things more in Aang's favor, but the agreement was that he wasn't limited to just fire and Bumi spared no expense in seeing to it that Aang had easy access to the other elements he could wield as well; even four large square skylights had been punched into the ceiling to allow a fresh flow of air to wash over the Airbender.
To Aang's left was a large and somewhat more elaborate stone balcony. This is where King Bumi would be over seeing the fight as the only judge. Too the left of that the boy could see Zuko, his benign uncle standing beside him, mentally preparing for the battle as well. "Aang?" came a soft voice and the 12 year old turned to acknowledge Katara. "It's time," the worry was evident on her face so before he could make any move she threw her arms around him in a hug. "Please be careful Aang."
He melted into her embrace like heated butter and for a moment all other thoughts seemed to wash away from his mind. 'BREATHE!!' he told himself as his lungs began to burn from lack of air. 'You've Got To Breathe!!' "Don't worry Katara," he voiced as he patted her on the back in a comforting way. "I've done this before, it'll be okay, you'll see."
"It's just gonna be hard for us to sit here and not help you," came Sokka's voice. Katara let him go, much to Aang's disappointment, so that her sibling could drape his arm across the shoulders of the younger male. "I mean, I joined this whole crusade so that I could knock some Firebender heads along the way and now you get to have all the fun? How unfair is that?!" He rubbed Aang's head with his fist in a playful brotherly manner as the boy grinned up sheepishly at him. "You just better make sure you give Zuko a few extra kicks to the butt for me, got it?"
Meanwhile, as Zuko was examining the battlefield from his side's viewpoint his usual scowl deepened as he took in the disadvantages. Truth be told, though Zuko wasn't going to openly admit it, he was scared. And not just a little, a lot. The odds weren't looking good for him, not at all. For one, it was sunset now; Zuko would have to do without his solar power and rely strictly on the fire within. It was going to be a full moon tonight, no doubt that would help the Avatar with his Waterbending and hinder Zuko's own Firebending. The grounds on which he'd be fighting the Avatar were much wider then any Agni Kai ring he'd ever been in which meant that the father away the 12 year old child was from him, the weaker his fire would be when it reached the boy. To top it all off, they were both allowed to use whatever bending they could muster which meant Aang was not limited to just the air and Zuko had nothing but flames to back him up. They had banned Aang's glider, but that did little to soothe the teenager's nerves. It was going to be a hard fight but Zuko would NOT let that little boy rule over him, Avatar or no.
Iroh laid a hand on his nephew's shoulder's. "It's time," he said. "Remember the basics and you should be fine." The elder paused for a minute as his younger relative turned to acknowledge him with a nod. "Prince Zuko, no matter what happens, I want you to know that I am proud of you for agreeing to this. I know you will do what is right." The teenager nodded once, and that was all the interaction he cared to give as he cleared his mind of all other things beside the task set before him.
Bumi commanded the earth to form two staircases that glided down from either balcony and merged into one for the final steps below his. Simultaneously, Aang and Zuko both began the decent, pausing briefly at the landing were their paths met.
"Avatar," Zuko made the first acknowledgment.
"Zuko," Aang replied likewise.
The tension between them crackled as they both, seeming to mirror the other's movements, turned and traveled the combined steps together. They walked out into the middle of the battlefield; Zuko stopped first but Aang walked on a few more paces before he halted and turned around to face his opponent. Still moving like reflections, they both mad a small obeisance to each other before they broke form and slipped into their respective comfort defense stance.
Zuko was the first to strike as soon as Bumi gave the command to commence; he thrust a fist forward and shot a ball of fire at Aang who had little trouble rolling out of the way. Pulling himself to his feet, Aang countered by swiping his hand through the air, and a large blade-like gust followed his movement forward. The blast of air caught Zuko of guard and knocked his feet from under him; the teen clumsily fell forward. Becoming annoyed the 17-year-old spun his feet around, flames flying off them, and barely reaching the young Avatar who retreated out of slight fear. Zuko regained his footing and charged Aang, his fire daggers taking shape as he did so. It was a never ending waltz the two engaged in then, twirling and whirling around the area enough to make anyone else sick, neither seemed to gain or lose any real ground.
Iroh minded his boiling teapot and set to work preparing a cup of ginseng tea. He looked out at the fight with a mild interest and sighed a little. Zuko had excellent from, wonderful breathing and was following all the basic rules of Firebending just as his uncle had taught him. But Iroh could see his desperation, his agitation at his rival's agile abilities. He knew it was only a matter of time now. A matter of time for all accounts. Things would fall into place once Zuko pushed them too far and they in turn backed him into a corner. "I just hope that boy can accept what he's doing, even if he can't see where this will lead him," Iroh muttered to himself as he poured the hot water into the cup. "For your sake Prince Zuko, I hope you can open your heart to these youths as you have done with me."
Aang leapt into the air as Zuko closed another gap and realized all most immediately what an ill move that was. The fire teen wasted no time turning his dagger into a ball and shooting it after the Airbender. The 12-year-old reacted with the reflexes his birth element had bestowed upon him and deflected it with a gale of wind. Pulling his parachutes into his body, the child dropped and caught Zuko by surprise. He grabbed the teens' hands and pinned him to the ground, unsure of what else to do. In response Zuko rocked back and forth, and eventually broke Aang's grip when his hands became too hot for the boy to hold on to. Aang dodged several more fire blasts, retreating to the far side of the stadium next to one of the large pools. Zuko followed closely behind, his blasts aimed more toward Aang's feet now. If he could only clip the boy good, just hinder his avoid and avert maneuvers...
Katara gasped and grabbed her brother's arm as Aang leapt this way and that between fireballs. Sokka squeezed her hand for comfort and, out of curiosity more then anything else, looked to see how Zuko's uncle was faring. Truth be told, he almost felt sorry for the old man; he had Katara to hold when it got intense but Iroh would have to bear it out on his own...But let's just highly that the keyword was ALMOST. Iroh was a lot calmer then Sokka expected him to be, he wasn't even watching the fight!! Just sitting, sipping a cup of tea and only occasionally throwing the fight a very casual glance. Sokka glowered at Iroh, upset that the old Firebender would think himself so high and mighty. 'Conceded , that's what they all are,' he thought as he turned back to the fight. He was tempted to shout out to Aang some encouragement, but the last thing the boy needed was any type of distraction and a split second moment for Zuko to nail him. Katara held on tighter.
By now Aang was fending off Zuko with a large wave of water as a shield in one hand and gales of wind in the other. The Water hissed loudly every time it was assaulted by it's natural opposite, large undulations of steam rising from the confrontations. The Avatar separated a small ball of liquid and flung it at Zuko's feet, leaving a rather large splash mark as he dodged. 'Great,' Aang thought as he resumed his assaults with air.
'Perfect,' Zuko thought as he began drawing closer to the young Avatar. As he had suspected, the boy was showing to be very green in his learnings; he hadn't even touched any Earthbending and they were all but buried in that element Zuko stepped into the muddy composition that was created when the 12-year-old failed to hit him. Instantly a smirk washed over the boy's face and as he twisted his hand a cold sensation quickly crawled up Zuko's legs. He looked down to find everything below his lower shin covered in a good coating of ice. Looking back up he found it was too late to detour the wave of water that overtook him, encasing his whole body in ice.
"Give up?" Aang asked once Zuko was secure in the almost glass-like encasing. The Firebender rolled his eyes and made a small "tsk," sound to show that he clearly disapproved of such a suggestion. Aang could almost hear the words, Now you should've known better, as the ice began to creek and crack under the extreme temperature change Zuko was generating. The ice shattered; what didn't melt was projected in any range of danger from a harmless water droplet to a large high flying hail ball. "I'll take that as a no," Aang answered his own question as he dodged another fire ball.
Now it was Zuko's turn to try a subduing maneuver and by now his initial plan of just wearing the boy out was losing favor with his patience. The sun had set and the moon was delayed in her rising,the time was now or never. Retreating a few feet to the center of the battle ground, he gathered his will and forced all the surrounding torches to bend to his will. With rueful hisses they followed their princes command and extinguished themselves and in the sudden light shift everyone temporarily lost their ability to see. Except Zuko, who pushed aside his his fatigue with a rush of adrenaline, and wasted little time charging the temporarily confused Avatar. His left eye was more sensitive to light because of the trauma it had endured, and that made it an ideal trump card as it could see much better in the dark then any normal eyesight.
He leapt into the air, flames began glowing at the ends of his wrists, when a weak ball of rolling fire spurted up out of no where beneath him. He deflected it just in time and crashed to the ground, twisting his foot as he came down on it wrong with the Avatar no where near where he'd been. The 17-year-old took a moment to catch his breath, the previous stunts he'd just performed had really drained him. A dull pain was beginning to throb in his ankle and he knew if he didn't start moving again it would cloud his thinking. Maybe he should've stuck with his original plan after all...
Looking around, Zuko spotted the Avatar only a few yards from where he thought the boy to be and in a defensive stance he hadn't seen him sport previously. He wondered what art it was from but pondered little as the Firebender clambered to his feet and charged the Airbender, whose eyesight had adjusted now and was once more aware of his surroundings. Another feeble ball of fire, once again it wasn't Zuko's, assaulted the teenager's head on charge and this time Zuko found it's source: the Avatar himself was conjuring the fire! The fire prince halted after he'd veered off to the side; panting he suddenly recognized the stance the boy was taking as the very one he had at the beginning of the fight. The Avatar was learning to Firebend as Zuko was attacking him.
Suddenly Aang shifted his stance and the ground beneath Zuko gave out beneath him. He fell backward and before he could right himself a flow of rocks formed bands over his arms and then his legs, holding them down. The Firebender tugged a bit on his restraints, but they had already formulated into solid rock now and were snug up against his flesh. Not being born and Earthbender, he found it quite difficult to free himself.
"I think that settles it," Aang said as he dropped his guard and came closer. "Once more Zuko, do you give up?"
"NO!" the teen stubbornly replied. He pulled more at his bonds, but found that his energy was fleeting and the adrenaline was seeping from his system. Panting, he tried to put on his fiercest face and spat, "I'll Never Surrender To You!!"
"C'mon Zuko," Aang said as he kneeled beside the boy. "You can't get out of this and without your arms or legs to channel the flames you're defenseless. Just give-"
But before Aang could finish a jet of flame shot from Zuko's mouth at the boy who barely had time to dodge with a surprised yelp. "Come back here and we'll see just how defenseless I really am!" Zuko called after the Airbender as he retreated a few paces, just to be on the safe side.
Both contestants looked up to the balconies just in time to see Bumi leap from the middle one. He landed a few yards from Zuko's pinned form and the ground rocked beneath him, though not enough to set Zuko free. "I've see a sufficient amount of fighting for today," the king said as he clapped his hands twice and made a signal to a handful of his guards. "You were both quite remarkable battlers. I think we know whose going to win this round--"
"I'm Not Finished With Him Yet!!"
"But to be fair, " Bumi continued as though there had been no interruption. "So that there's not a doubt in anyone's mind, and to not painfully prolong this scenario anymore then it needs to be, I will give Prince Zuko one last chance to free himself from his shackles." The guards Bumi had called for set beside their king a somewhat large, elaborate hour glass with orange sand inside it. There was a defect in it though; the hole in the middle was much to wide to allow the sand to pass to count one hour. "This timer will count for us exactly 13 minutes," Bumi cheerfully stated.
"Thirteen minutes?" Zuko repeated with a puzzled look. "Why thirteen?"
"Because I like that number," Bumi replied with his crazy grin carved into his face. "If you can free yourself in that time I will gladly let the fight resume; if not tem you must forfeit and I will declare Aang the winner. Ready Freddy?"
Zuko looked over to the balcony where his uncle was watching the fight and caught the old man's eye. "WILL YOU STOP MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE WORLD'S BIGGEST INSANITY CASES, UNCLE?!? And You! How in the world did you get to be the King of all Earthbender's anyway?!?"
"Oh hush," Bumi said as he easily picked up the hour glass, despite it's heavy look and weight. "Or I'll pull those bands around your limbs outta the ground and make you dance the polka." Aang snickered but it was Sokka, who almost fell over in laughter, that received the death glare from Zuko. "GO!!"
Instantly Zuko gave his all in his last attempt to get free. He could feel his flesh tearing as it grated against the stone that held it down, a burning sensation formulating at his wrists as they were cut open and blood trickled out. His injured ankle twanged in pain every time he tried to move it, not that he stood a good chance freeing either of his feet. It didn't matter to him that even if he did get free he wouldn't have been able to stand up much less shoot any type of formidable spark from his person; all that he did are about was not letting it go out like this, he couldn't lose like this. One hand, that's all he needed was one hand! He could Fight back if he just got it free...
No, no, no! Not like this! Not to a little boy, Avatar or not!! His father, his father he could stand to lose to! Sure, technically he'd hadn't even really fought his father, but at least he knew his father was a force to be reckoned with. Aang didn't even know what power he possessed!! He wasn't skilled, trained, or seasoned like Zuko; Aang was suppose to lose to him! That was the plan! That was how things were suppose to go! He was suppose to have the Avatar under lock and key before he went to bed that night!! For good, with solid insurance that nothing, NOTHING, would take the boy from him again!!
"Time's Up!!" called Bumi's voice. "And since Zuko is still indisposed of I must declare Avatar Aang the winner of this match!"
He wouldn't cry. That much Zuko promised himself as he just allowed himself to fade into a dreamless dark. Maybe, just maybe he would wake up and this would have been nothing but a bad dream...
"Zuko," the voice of his uncle sounded far away, but a hand laid itself on his shoulder telling him how close his elder was. "Prince Zuko, please eat something..."
"I'm not hungry," he muttered as he continued to stare unblinkingly at the wall that his bed laid parallel too.
"But it's been hours since your fight. I know it put a strain on your body and you haven't eaten anything of stability since last night's lunch. Even if you don't really feel hungry, you body still needs nutrition--"
"I said I didn't want anything to eat!"
Iroh stared helplessly at the back of his nephew's head. He set the food on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed, against the small of Zuko's back. "Zuko," he muttered in a voice that wasn't unlike the way a mother might try to soothe an upset child. "It's not good for you to wall yourself up in this dim little room forever..." The teenager gave no reply and no real indication that he was listening, but he didn't roll over and push Iroh off the mattress so his elder took it as a good sign and went on. "I'm sorry I pushed you into this; I had hoped that you would've been able to handle all the consequences of your actions."
"You sold me like a slave and now I am nothing but a common servant. Do you honestly expect me to forgive you for that?"
"No," Iroh replied after a moment of silence. "I suppose not yet. I just wanted whats best for you, that is all."
"I fail to see how this is helping me," Zuko retorted.
"That's because you refuse to let it help you. If you would just..." Iroh paused trying to find the right words to crack the defenses of his nephew's thick skull. "If you would just open yourself up a little and trust these new allies you have acquired, I am certain that you can benefit from the experiences. At the very least, make some new friends...Maybe even fall in love with that nice Waterbender girl."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Ew," was all he had to say to that. "She doesn't even like me."
"She liked you enough to heal your wrists," Iroh countered. "Why won't you give love a chance?"
Iroh looked up to see Aang standing in the doorway. The boy looked timid and unsure of himself, shifting his weight from foot to foot and wringing his hands together. "This isn't a bad time is it? I just wanted to see if Zuko was alright..."
The old Firebender looked down at the form of his teenage nephew and sighed a little. "He won't be if he doesn't shape up soon," he replied gruffly, though not without hidden tones of love that only Zuko was really able to hear. Iroh stood up and moved to his own bed, busying himself with straightening out the covers and pillows. "Talking to him right now is like talking to a stone wall, and he makes the conversation just as thrilling. But perhaps that is just me; you might have better luck trying to coax a confession out of him then I could, being young like he is and more closer in age then I...Come in young Avatar, you have nothing to fear here."
Aang smiled a little half-heartedly as he shuffled closer to Zuko's bed. The teen didn't acknowledge him, even when he perched on the very edge of the furniture and waited for the other to roll over. "Zuko, you're going to have to turn around sometime."
"Oh, you'd be surprised, Avatar…"
"Look, things won't be so bad Zuko. I mean, I'm a quick learner; you wouldn't believe how fast I can pick things up…"
"You don't have to say that you're my friend, I just said that to be mean. I'm sorry for that too, I just really wanted you to be a little nicer…"
A sense of déjà vu washed over Aang and the words seemed to slip from his mouth before he really could stop them. "You wanna play a game?"
Zuko rolled over. "What?" he said in a flat voice.
"I asked if you wanted to play a game," Aang said with a shrug of his shoulders.
"What is with you and playing games with me?"
"I think it's a wonderful idea, Prince Zuko," Iroh said from his post on this own bed. "It will allow you and Avatar Aang to get to know one another and form a bond of friendship." Growling, Zuko rolled back over and when prompted by his uncle to do as told, the teenager merely threw a very derogatory hand gesture back at his elder.
"Maybe I should just come back at a later time," Aang suggested. "All I really wanted was for Zuko to know that I was sorry I humiliated him. Zuko, I really hope you can forgive me; I don't want you to be a slave to me. I just want to learn Firebending…And having you for a friend, I figured it be a lot of fun for both of us." With that, the 12 year old turned and exited out the same door he'd entered from.
"You don't have to be afraid of him, you know," Iroh said. "I know it's within your capabilities to trust, Prince Zuko; isn't that what you place in me?"
"He's not the one I'm afraid of, Uncle," Zuko replied in a rather flat voice. "And trust has nothing to do with anything involving the Avatar. I just can't socialize with him. I can't betray my people."
"But then the question becomes, have your people already forsaken and betrayed you? I know it's not something you want to face Price Zuko, but one day you will have to confront that your father--"
Zuko sat up and faced his elder, his face twisted into a mask of anger. "My Father Said He'd Take Me Back In If I Brought Him The Avatar!!" And then it softened, just slightly as he continued, "That's what he said and he had no motivation to lie to me!! I know he didn't lie to me!! Dad wouldn't do that to me; he spared my life! He Spared It! I just have to figure a way out of this, I way to bring the Avatar back home…" But his words were empty and he knew it as they echoed inside his head. There was no way out short of just dragging Aang away, but Zuko knew he wouldn't get far on that idea. He had no resources, no ship, no crew, and barely life sustaining finances. He was trapped, trapped in a corner and being forced to walk a path he didn't want to go down because once he did he could never look back. There would be no pleading or bartering with his nation and their scorn for him would be everlasting. Zuko buried his face in shame and said not a word more, even when his uncle came and sat beside him, drawing his arms around the boy in the only form of comfort he could think to give.
The boy turned form the conversation he'd been having with his Water Tribe friends to regard the old Firebender behind him. He noticed the two siblings on either side of him become ridged and made a move to comfort them by stepping between them and Iroh when he responded with a, "yes sir?"
"I want to apologize for my nephew's antics," Iroh said as he came a little closer to the three younger travelers. "He's been through some rather bad experiences; He seems to think that by isolating himself from the concern and love of others he can make himself stronger and he may need some time to grapple with the concept of opening up to others again."
"We don't have that much time," Sokka replied. "Aang needs to learn Firebending now, before that comet shows up. So unless he gets his rear out of bed and shows Aang a move or two I really don't think we have much to talk about."
"Sokka!" chided Katara.
"No, I understand the concern," Iroh replied defusing the sibling spark before it had a chance to really grow into a fire. "And if all else fails, I will help Aang learn his Firebending. I just want you to give Zuko a chance first, he needs to learn from you as much as you need him to teach you."
"What exactly happened to Zuko?" Aang asked.
Iroh looked solum. "I'm very glad you asked that young Avatar. I think it's time you learn exactly what it is you'll be dealing with when you confront my brother, Fire Lord Ozai."