This story is all Rashaka's, illumis', and aviaq's (a.k.a.
Isaia on Deviantart) faults. So if you're all waiting and wondering why my serious sequel to Bent isn't done yet, or why my mystery story, The Longest Night, is taking so long, blame them. They unleashed a silly plot bunny into the fields of my mind and it clamped down on my tender brain and wouldn't let go.
This is a separate story from my universe of Ho'Wan , Bent, and Captured! So pretend none of it ever happened. I warn you, serious groan-worthy plot ahead. Actually, I don't think it's that funny, but I had to laugh about it because, well, it's too stupid to ever happen. Or else it's just silly enough to happen. I don't know. Read and enjoy and review!
I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Best of Breed
"… so if ever you hear the clop-clop-clop of hooves on stone, BEWARE!"
The bent old storyteller bowed and the motley crew of villagers and travelers applauded politely. Two inconspicuous members of the audience furtively snuck away before the collection hat made its way into their laps.
"That was the most ridiculous story I have ever heard," Zuko muttered as he and his uncle walked away from the campfire. A mild spring wind tousled his long black ponytail and he tossed it, feeling its comforting length slap against the back of his chilled neck.
"Really? I thought it was quite thrilling," Iroh shivered pleasantly, grinning. "I love spooky stories by the fire. And that storyteller really does the noises well!"
They walked down the path into the woods, away from merry orange glow emanating from the rest stop's fire pit.
"Childish fairy tales," the Fire prince sniffed dismissively. "Everyone knows there are no such things as 'horses'."
"Not true, nephew. They sages telleth that in the time before Agni breathed fire into his people, so-called 'purebred' horses roamed the land." Iroh folded his hands in his sleeves. "They were beautiful, intelligent, wild beasts that the Fire Nation learned to co-exist with. You've seen the palace gallery paintings – you should know what I'm talking about."
Zuko snorted. "If that's all true, where are these horses now?"
Iroh shrugged. "Some say Agni deemed them too beautiful for this land, and brought them all to live in the Spirit Realm. Others say they still tread the plains, though only at night. I suppose that's where the storyteller got the idea for his story from."
The young Firebender shook his head. "That's absurd. It would make sense that the horses couldn't survive in the Fire Nation, or were bred out of existence, but what that man was peddling was pure lies and fantasy. I mean, a Werehorse? How stupid is that?"
"Don't trifle with folklore, Zuko. I've studied some of the more interesting and ghastly tales, and you forget there were Werewolves once. They died out a long time ago, but people still enjoy stories about them. A Werehorse is not such a far-fetched idea." Iroh snuck a look at his nephew. "Besides, not everyone is a fan of listening to military history."
"Well at least it's educational." Zuko said haughtily.
The light of the nearly full moon gave the trees an ethereal glow as they headed back to their camp. They were only a few miles away from an Earth Kingdom town, but what little money they had managed to scrounge together after they had fled from the Northern Water Tribe had been used to buy the provisions keeping them fed and warm now – a tent, sleeping bags, food, a few camping necessities, and packs to carry it all in were all they could call their own. They couldn't afford to stay at an inn, even if the Fire Nation wasn't hunting for them. Still, the prince did not let the downgrade from his luxurious life on a Fire Navy ship thwart his grand plans to capture the Avatar and restore his honour. This was just another test to him, another one of life's hurdle he had to jump in order to prove he was worthy of the throne and his father's respect. And he would.
Zuko sighed as they entered their camp, lighting the campfire with a blast from his palm and feeding it a generous portion of firewood. As he worked, his mind lingered on the storyteller's spooky tale, and he couldn't help the shivers trickling down his neck as he recalled the menacing noise of galloping hoofs the bard had mimicked. The hard, hollow clip-clopping seemed like such an unnatural sound compared to the graceful, muffled lope of komodo rhinos.
The prince shook himself. Bah. Werehorses. Next thing they'll be saying is that dragons have returned to the Fire Nation.
He pushed a stick into the fire and stood. "Uncle, I'm going to bathe," Zuko slung a towel over his shoulder. He grimaced at the idea of yet another dip in the frigid stream. "I'll be back."
"Don't stay out too long!" Iroh called back playfully. "You don't want the Werehorses to get you!"
The fire prince removed his boots and slid his toes into the icy stream. It was always that first contact that made him grind his teeth. He steeled himself, brought his body temperature up a notch higher, and began to splash himself with the chilly water.
Zuko prided himself on being a true warrior and outdoorsman. He did not require the frills of palace life to be comfortable. He could rough it, unlike his spoiled, prodigious, brat of a sister. Still, he would have sold his soul for a hot bath instead of the frantic splashing and scrubbing he had to endure each night in the mountain stream. Spring had come mercifully early this year, so the temperatures were mild, but still, the melt water was bone-achingly cold.
Poor Uncle, he thought. I don't know how the old man takes it.
Firebending afforded him some comfort, but there was only so much he could do. The stream flowed swiftly, and it took a lot of energy to heat the water to be sufficiently comfortable. Even then, the warm water would simply flow away. If they had a basin or a tub of some kind, he could fill it and bathe with that, but all they could afford to travel with was the one tiny wok that fit over Zuko's pack, and he wasn't going to wash himself in that.
So he splashed and scrubbed and didn't complain. He had, after all, endured worse.
His mind drifted back to the events at the Northern Water Tribe; his struggle to break into that fortress-like city, the arctic cold that had nearly killed him, the battle with that damned water wench, and yet another foiled attempt to capture the Avatar. He raged against the list of "If Only's" that piled up before him every time he revisited that battleground.
If only I had gone for that walk with Uncle the night the ship was destroyed, I would have been strong enough to defeat that… that girl!
He replayed the fight with the Waterbender through his mind, trying to counter every water whip, geyser, and wave she had unleashed upon him in an imaginary mental duel that somehow always ended up with him pinned to the wall. He couldn't even fantasize about defeating her - his brain was too well trained in real-life dueling tactics. He refused to make excuses for himself – yes, he had been exhausted, injured, and had the lower end of the stick, it being night and nearly a full moon, but he had been trained by the best, been training far longer than she. In the end, only the sun had saved him. And still…
If only I had waited until sunrise. If only I had kept moving instead of staying in that cave. If only I had gotten rid of her when I had the chance…
Zuko always stopped himself at that last point. He could never kill an innocent. Even if the Water Tribe girl was now a potential threat and not just a mere annoyance, he would spare her life. She had shown him as much mercy – all it would have taken was an icicle through the heart, a globe of water held around his head a little too long, a crushing blow between two slabs of ice, and the world would never have to deal with him again. But no fatal blow ever came. She hadn't even tried to tie him up or break his legs or do anything that would have kept him safely out of the way. She had simply stopped him, briefly, temporarily.
And then those infernal barbarians had dared to save his life. They could have left him to die in the blizzard, but they just had to prove they were the noble ones. How dare they show him pity! He was a prince! Did they have any idea how embarrassing his situation had been? The prince of the Firebenders saved by filthy Water peasants! If his father ever learned of this defeat, this humiliation… well, he couldn't imagine what other punishment the Fire Lord could possibly plan for him apart from exile, though a few choice tortures came swiftly to mind.
Zuko hastily mopped the water from his body, roughly running the stiff towel over his pale skin. He knew it wasn't fair to feel so indignant about being alive, but he couldn't help it. He was tired of all this running and chasing and hunting. He felt guilty about dragging his old uncle around the rough countryside. He was cold and hungry and his back hurt from sleeping on the hard ground. Worst of all, he couldn't bring himself to complain to his arthritic old relative about all this because he was just too damn stubborn. Gods, why was life so hard? He just wanted it all over with so he could go home to the Fire Nation, reclaim his throne and honour, and enjoy a hot bath!
With a frustrated grunt, Zuko threw his towel into the water. He knelt and angrily wrung the towel out, imagining the girl's slender neck in his hands, her blue eyes staring back fearfully, bulging. He watched the crystalline drops splash and sparkle down his bare arms.
Trust me Zuko, it won't be much of a match…
Her self-assurance – that pure, unwavering confidence radiating from her firm stance and intense glower – had stunned him more than her attack. Those words had been haunting him for the past few weeks. What would happen at their next encounter? Who would he have to dispatch first – the Avatar, or the girl? It was obvious she was close to mastering Waterbending, if she had not already. Could he possibly be strong enough to fight both of the benders? Better to fight her first, he reasoned, as a warm-up to the Master of the Elements.
It was a fight he both looked forward to and dreaded. He didn't know why he was obsessing so much about it – about her – but he knew when they next met, it would not be pretty. He was right about one thing: she was a big girl now. She had matured since their first encounter, in more ways than one, and somehow, it felt good to know he had a tangible challenge to overcome. He would focus on defeating her. Once he had done that, the Avatar would be his.
But he wouldn't kill her. No, he would only kill her with kindness and be the nobler one when he stood over her in triumph. It would have been dishonourable to do anything other than return the small favours mercy demanded. He would spare her pretty face and delicate form and she would be grateful to him and she would fear and respect him the way a peasant should fear and respect a prince…
The thought of that day warmed him. He smirked to himself as he dressed, pulling the rough cloth of his tunic over his head. As his head emerged from the collar, he had the eerie sensation he was being watched.
He looked about surreptitiously, spotting a flicker of movement just beyond the bushes. Carefully, and without arousing suspicion, the Firebender reached down to gather up his soap and towel. He turned his back and lit a fireball within his palm and took a step forward.
Suddenly, he spun on his heel and hurled the globe of flame at the trees.
A throaty scream erupted from the undergrowth, a ghastly noise that made Zuko back away in terror, his bones tingling with fright.
Night was practically day compared to the oily shape that rose from the woods. Before he could register what was happening, the swift black shadow was thundering toward him, a rippling, malevolent darkness that suddenly overtook him—
He saw nothing else.
So, you can see where this is going, right? Damn you, plot bunnnies...