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The Turtleduck Pond

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A/N: Hello, everyone! This is Imp speaking, pleasure to meet ya all. this is my first fic on this site, so sorry if I have some issues getting used to the formatting. (any help is appreciated) So, I've always been quite the sucker for romances, and a well constructed AU is something I love to see, so... yeah, here I am. Hoping to make this a slow-burn romance adventure, with weekly updates, 10pm Beijing time. Here's the first chapter, so please enjoy!

The small metal landing crafts reached the shore, their forward-facing gangplanks smashing against the rocky beach. Soldiers in coal black and blood red armor rushed off the ships and onto the beach, wielding spears, swords, and fists of fire. Near the treeline, several paces away, burly men with thick, corded muscles and faded green and tan robes stand their ground, their stances wide and stable as they propel massive boulders towards the oncoming charge.

The steep, jagged cliffs on either side of the beach sheltered the small bay from the fridget, choppy waters of the Hu Sea. The bay was shallow and calm, with a narrow entrance, a fact that made Zuko snarl. Unlike many of the others he had been to, the bay made it impossible for him to navigate the small settlement’s port, though, looking at it now, it wouldn’t have been much use anyway. There was a dock, but the tiny, rotten thing could barely house the two fishing boats drawn into port, let alone his cruiser. So, in the end, he was forced into his current situation: a messy process which involved storming the beach, using the two transport craft that were usually just used to ferry small cargo to and from the shore.

So, it was without surprise that he was in such a fowl mood as he led the landing. He sidestepped, twirling to his left to avoid a flurry of fist-sized stones, before correcting his stance and punching forward, letting loose a jet of flames and an animalistic war cry.

There weren’t very many earthbenders here, only seven or eight, it looked like, meaning that his own benders weren’t outnumbered. There also were a few non-benders, though, at least fifteen or twenty. It wasn’t easy for Zuko to count, since avoiding being flattened took quite a bit of focus.

“Die, ashmaker!” A boy, no older than sixteen, ran at Zuko, his large club poised over his head and ready to strike. He brought the club down, aiming to smash the prince’s head open.

Zuko ducked and sidestepped, snarling, his eyes narrowed like those of a weasel-snake ready to strike. His leg connected with the boy’s legs, and momentum did the rest of the work, causing him to lose his balance and fall forward. Without missing a beat, Zuko spun on his heel and planted his foot solidly in front of him, delivering a series of aggressive strikes in the form of fireballs.

Unsurprisingly, His soldiers were making fast progress in subduing their opponents; half the earth kingdom militia was already on the ground, scorched into submission. These men were professional soldiers after all, and this was not the first time they had had to storm a beach. Their opponents, on the other hand, were just a militia, and one for a village that was so far removed from the rest of the Earth Kingdom that Zuko doubted it had changed much between the start and end of the Hundred Years’ War.

In fact, Zuko wouldn’t have been surprised if not a single person here had seen more than half a dozen Fire Nation soldiers in their entire life. The village itself had been a hassle to track down, with no maps bothering to label such a small settlement in such an obscure part of an already sparsely populated, rocky island. There was only one small foot path through the mountains that led to it, apparently, and Zuko had only found this bay because of the directions of one particularly loose-lipped merchant who had come to the town a few times. It was perhaps the most isolated place in the world, short of the south pole itself.

And because of that, it was the perfect place for the Avatar to hide.

A satisfied smile came to Zuko’s face. It might just be a rumor, but it made sense that the master of all four elements would choose to reside here, so far from the rest of the world. After all, the Earth Kingdom had already fallen, so what were they supposed to do other than hide?

The battle was already beginning to dwindle. Most of the non-benders defending the village had been defeated, and the earthbenders were faltering. Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko saw one of the earthbenders gesture towards the treeline.

“Everyone, retreat! Get back to the village!” The villagers still able to fight froze, looking towards the earthbender, then fled into the evergreen forest. But the earthbender who called for the retreat did not move, holding a strong stance and blasting clusters of rocks at Zuko’s soldiers. He stamped one foot, and a wall of ashy grey sand roared forward, like a tsunami of dirt that only grew larger as it rolled towards the tight formation of fire nation pikemen.

Zuko bared his teeth, and rushed towards the lone earthbender, attempting to close the distance before the older man could react. All he needed to do was clear the dozen paces between the two of them and get within striking distance while the man was focusing on Zuko’s soldiers. With any luck, the man would be too distracted to notice the prince.

Of course, Zuko was unlucky, and his opponent was apparently very perceptive. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, some earthbenders were known to be able to detect attackers from the vibrations of their footsteps alone. It was just a rumor, though, and this man probably just had a well-honed battle sense. Zuko narrowed his good eye and dropped, rolling forward, just barely dodging a wave of stones that would have lodged themselves in his neck and chest.

From the roll, Zuko spun and kicked, slicing open the air with a scythe of orange fire, and using the momentum to push himself back to his feet. Two quick punches and another kick continued to add to the surge of flames, ready to crash over the earthbender.

But the stream of fire never reached its target. He turned on his heels and stamped his foot, bringing up a tall wall of sand. The flames shattered against the wall, thin wisps of fire blowing back from it, and the earthbender punched towards Zuko, causing the wall of earth to fly towards Zuko

Zuko attempted to dodge, but the attack was too wide, too fast. It happened too fast for him to even consciously realize; the wall of sand and rock smashed into him at full force, undeterred by the fire Zuko hastily flung at it. The impact felt like he had been body slammed by a stone golem, sending him flying before gravity promptly dragged him to the ground.

He just laid there for a moment, all of his breath beaten out of his lungs. The sun was setting in the distance, scattering deep reds and calming oranges across the waves. The beautiful colors blurred together as his eyes drifted in and out of focus, the intensity of the light painful.

He had to get up. The fight wasn’t over.

His bones ached from the dull throb of his pulse, and his limbs refused to follow his commands.

His soldiers were fighting without him. He had to lead them.

His sore muscles screamed as he forced them to move.

He was taken down by a single hit. He was weak. Slow. Disgraceful.

His arms shook as he pushed himself up, His head spinning.

“Prince Zuko!” He felt a firm hand grab his shoulder. “Are you injured? Let me help you up.”

“Don’t!” Zuko snapped, whipping around and smacking the hand away. “I am not a weak child! I can get up myself!” He brushed the sand off of his face, the ash colored earth having worked into the crevices of the angry red scar on his face.

Lieutenant Jee took a step back, the concern in his eyes hardening into a glare. “Yessir. The beach is ours, so we should be able to bring the Kimono-rhinos to shore if you so choose.” Jee watched Zuko stand up, scowling, and removed his black helmet, revealing the man’s long sideburns and stormy gray hair.

“The last earthbender fled?”

“No, sir, we captured him.”

“Wonderful.” Zuko didn’t even spare a glance for Jee, his words dripping with venom. He stalked towards his soldiers, several of them holding the last earthbender to the ground, the man’s arms and legs pinned to his back.

He had failed. He had been knocked to the ground, and had to rely on his soldiers to handle the situation for him. He doubted Azula had ever had issues like this. He scoffed and grimaced. Azula would probably just have struck the earthbender with lightning, and then have set him on fire for good measure. That would be just like her, doing overkill just to show she could do what Zuko couldn’t.

Zuko careful stepped around the bodies of unconscious villagers as he made his way to the captured earthbender. Now that he was no longer fighting for his life, Prince Zuko managed to get a better look at the man, or at least as good of a look he could get with the man forced to the ground. The man was balding, with a thick salt and pepper beard and a few thin hairs covering the dark leathery skin on the top of his head. Zuko squatted down in front of the man, balancing on his toes and glaring down at the peasant who had embarrassed him. “Where is he? The Avatar?”

The man twisted his head and spat on Zuko’s black boot. “Like I’d tell you. Get the hell away from my village!”

Zuko’s face scrunched up, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. “You dare treat a member of the Royal Family with such disrespect?”

“Or what, you’ll kill me? Like that’s gonna help you find the Avatar.” The man sneered. “I faced death against your soldiers on a daily basis during the war, and I’d rather be scourched than betray my people!”

Zuko growled gutturally, and grit his teeth. “If you don’t show me where the Avatar is, I’ll burn your entire village, and everyone in it, to the ground.” Zuko’s voice was little more than a hiss, but a weasel-snake’s hiss is can be just as terrifying as tigerdillo’s roar. “Understand..?”

The man opened his mouth to speak, but froze, and closed his mouth again, refusing to meet the prince’s eyes. The man nervously licked his lips, and a bead of sweat trickled down his face. Zuko’s eyebrow twitched.

“Fine then.” The young prince stood up, his impatience finally getting to him. “I’ll do it myself. Men, comb the woods for the village, it should be close! Capture the villagers that fled, and search each and every house there. I don’t want a single crevice unchecked.” He turned on his heel and began stalking towards the evergreen woods.

“Wait!” The man shouted, suddenly panicked.

Zuko kept walking. “I gave you you’re chance. You’re too late.”

“Wait! Wait, please, no!” The man wiggled and resisted, trying to get free. “Please don’t! I can show you where he is!”

Zuko paused, and lifted his hand, stopping his soldiers from entering the forest. “Where?”

“Promise you won’t burn down the village if I tell you!”

Zuko scoffed, and rolled his eyes, but the man remained silent, his eyes locked on the young prince.

“... Fine.” Zuko’s nostrils puffed and he scoffed, but he relented. “I swear on my honor that I won’t hurt anyone in your village.”

“Oh, thank god…” The man let out a sigh of relief, but his tense shoulders and furrowed eyebrows revealed how nervous he still was.

Zuko jerked his heads towards the two soldiers, and the two promptly released the man and took a step back, their ivory, skull-like masks cast in long, purple shadows from the sunset. Zuko watched the sunset with suspicious eyes.

“Hurry up, old man. I don’t have time to waste.”

 

The walk to the man’s village wasn’t a long one, with a narrow dirt path weaving through the thick forest, but Zuko couldn’t help but try and walk faster. Each step he took, the fire in his veins only seemed to roar larger, and the knife in his stomach twisted a bit more. Six years at sea, six years of watching the world pass by him, almost over. In mere minutes, he will have captured his prize, the man who avoided capture by the Fire Nation for over a century. Even the peasant admitted to having the Avatar here, and the man had no reason to lie about it.

He smiled, reveling in his achievement despite the heavy stone in his stomach. He could see it already; returning to the Fire Nation again, the tsugi horns singing the hymns of his return, the crowds cheering. He would finally get to feel the warm wind on his face again, smell the delicate balance of pollen and salt that drifted in the air, and feel the soft grass under his feet as he fed the turtleducks. But, nothing would compare to seeing his family. After six years of not hearing from him, Father would come to greet him at the docks, smiling at his son’s accomplishments. He would congratulate him for his hard work, and for truly proving himself as a worthy son.

All he had to do now was secure his prize. Despite the embarrassment on the beach, having been unable to defeat the peasant currently leading the way, today had been a good day. Even the world itself seemed to think so, with the full moon’s pale white light intermingling with the warm hues of the fire that playfully danced in Zuko’s palm, casting a pleasant light throughout the forest of ferns and evergreens. The night time air was cool against his skin, a comfortable forebearer to cold fall and winter months that were quickly approaching. Zuko slowed his breathing, warming himself with his breath, and simply listened to the sounds of the forest, the crunching of foliage underfoot and the chirping of insects. While he most certainly prefered the tropical mountains and warm seas of home, he supposed that this place wasn’t too bad.

“This is the village,” The earthbender spoke up, breaking the silence, “But we’re just passing through. The Avatar lives further inland.”

“How much farther past the village?” Despite his excitement, Zuko’s voice was harsh, and the old man swallowed.

“Not too much farther, I promise.”

“It better not be.”

The man wisely chose to not respond, and the man led the group of firebenders through the village wordlessly. He hunched over, and avoided the terrified stares of those hiding in their houses. They peaked through the doors they had just slammed upon seeing the approaching soldiers, their curiosity overtaking their fear like a child discovering a dead animal for the first time. It reminded Zuko of when he was a child, back at the palace, when he still had a home.

 

“Zuzu, look at this!” Even as a child, Azula’s smile was sickly sweet, and always made Zuko uncomfortable.

He carefully made his way towards the turtleduck pond, watching his younger sister with nervous, distrustful eyes. “What is it? You better not be trying to trick me again!”

Azula rolled her eyes, waving him off with one hand. “Well fine then, if you don’t trust your sister enough to look at what she found, then you don’t need to see it. It’s your loss.”

Despite Azula only being a child, she was anything but innocent. Her dark gold eyes hid the mind of a trickster, and her neatly combed hair, tied into a topknot, helped complete her image as the perfect daughter. Zuko seemed to be the only one that realized that Azula was a mischievous prankster, with everyone else thinking she was perfect.

Zuko bit his lip, and came closer to his sister, peering over her shoulder. There, resting on the bank of the pond, was a turtleduck. But something seemed off about it, something seemed wrong. It was completely motionless. Zuko cocked his head and leaned closer.

It’s feathers, normally smooth and the color of honey, were matted and stained black and brown. Its head was twisted back unnaturally, and it’s mouth hung slack.

“What’s… What’s wrong with it..?” Concern laced Zuko’s voice, unable to break from staring at it.

“It’s dead, dumbdumb.” Azula scowled, as though her older brother had just asked if fire was hot. She turned back to the turtleduck, and reached out, poking the body. “Isn’t it cool?”

The young boy gasped, and grabbed Azula’s wrist, pulling her hand away from the dead turtleduck. “What are you doing!”

"Touching it, obviously.” The girl pulled her hand away from her older brother. “Father said I could look at it after it stopped moving, so I am.”

“You watched it die?” Confusion and revulsion tangled together in his voice. “Why didn’t Father try and help it?

“He said it was pointless.” Azula answered, too interested in poking the corpse of the animal to look up at her brother. “He said that turtleducks fight with each other to see who’s in charge, and this one lost. Even if we helped this one, it would die soon anyway. It’s too weak.”

Zuko didn’t know how to respond to his sister. That logic felt… wrong. It seemed too cruel, too heartless to be right. So he just sat in silence, watching Azula move and stretch the bird’s broken wings.

“Hm… I wonder...” Azula tilted her head slightly, looking at the bloody bite mark on the bird’s neck. “Are we like turtleducks, Zuzu?”

 

“We’re, uh.. We’re here.” Zuko was dragged out of his thoughts by the earthbender. They had long since passed the village, trudging deeper into the forest. The trees had become denser, with only a few meager beams of moonlight piercing through the thick covering of tree branches, and Zuko could see his breath linger in the air, the temperature falling as the moon rose. The land had gradually become wetter and softer, and Zuko noticed with some surprise that they were standing on the edge of a large bog, the surrounding area dotted with small ponds and completely sprinkled with clusters of trees.

“Where is he?” Zuko squinted, trying to make sense of what was before him. The moonlight, so calming and enlightening mere minutes ago, now felt cold and eerie, hiding and disguising more than it revealed. Everything in the bog seemed to be made of shadows and silhouettes, everywhere potentially a hiding spot for the Avatar.

“It’s here,” The earthbender said quietly, his head hung and his voice filled with regret as he pointed to one of the larger clusters of trees near the center of the bog. “There’s a small hut he lives in." The man choked on his words. Zuko supposed he could understand why; the man had just betrayed his village. But looking at it another way, he just saved his village. Sometimes the best choice for a weak turtleduck is to submit to the new pecking order.

Zuko looked towards Lieutenant Jee, the soldier’s mask glinting in the ghostly white light, and jerked his head towards the outcropping of trees. “You know your job.” Jee nodded, and began marching towards the house, the other firebenders following behind him. In their sharp black armor, they looked like the vengeful spirits of legends, roaming the bogs and swamplands for innocent men and women to drag down into the fetid water, never to be seen again. Zuko looked back towards the earthbender, locking eyes with him. “If you’re lying, I will make you pay.”

The man gulped, and nodded unsteadily. “I.. I know…”

Zuko grunted, his lip drawn into a sneer, and marched towards the hut, leaving the earthbender to be guarded by his pikemen. “Good.”

A loud splash from the other side of the bog broke the relative silence, and Zuko’s head whipped towards the sound reflexively. “What was that?”

The earthbender listened for a moment, before answering. “Probably an animal, a catgator or horned toad.”

He sounded genuine, not to mention scared, but Zuko watched him with wariness. “You three, go investigate that area. I don’t want to leave any chances for the Avatar to escape.” Two pikemen nodded, as did one of the firebenders, before beginning the trek around the bog.

Zuko quickly crossed the marshland, making it to where his soldiers had encircled the hut. It was a stout little building, made of half rotten wood and held together with mud. There was a bull-deer pelt hung over the small entrance, and the orange glow of a fire emanating from inside. Zuko allowed himself one last smile for the time being. After all, how could he not? He was finally going home.

He nodded at his soldiers, communicating his orders without a word, and the took their stances, ready for battle. Zuko took a deep breath, and stepped forward, pushing aside the pelt, and entering the small hut.

A fire flickered in the center, and a small bed made of moss and sticks rested to one side of the hut. A well carved walking stick leaned against the wall beside the door, and a small bag of food sat beside the fire. But the hut was empty.

The Avatar was gone.