Disclaimer: Nothing is mine. I'm a fan and this is fiction.
"Break their bones for it is but earth. Take their breath for it is but air. Freeze their blood for it is but water. We are who bend the bodies. We are Moyasu Karada. Their warmth is ours."
Zuko was right when he said that the Old Slaughterers weren't fit for being allies with Aang. Nobody could have foreseen what was about to happen, though.
A/N: So, this would be the sequel to "Trusting The Enemy" and I strongly suggest you to read that one-shot first for it will help you understand this story.
It's AU after "The Boiling Rock" and is set four weeks before the arrival of Sozin's comet. I'm not sure if this time-frame works with canon, but I hope you'll be gracious enough to give me that amount of time to make this story work.
Oh yes, before I forget: Romance isn't an important matter in this story, but for those who want to know the pairings: Suki/Sokka and Mai/Zuko.
Don't Ever Play With Fire
Chapter One: Greeting the Sun
The sun was rising when Hakoda decided that it was futile to force sleep at this point.
Last evening's conversations and tales had plagued him long after having gone to bed.
The attempted assassination of the Fire Lord's children.
The prince's tale hadn't helped the chief's confusion at all. If anything, Prince Zuko puzzled him more than ever.
Unwilling to spend his morning mulling over a firebender's loyalties, he quietly passed his children's and the Avatar's chambers without disturbing them.
It had been Sokka who'd assigned the different group members to their rooms. His choices made blatantly clear whom it was they wanted to protect.
Aang's room was in the centre, flanked by Toph's and Katara's. Sokka was the one closest to potential danger for it led into the temple's open ground, where they'd eaten their dinner yesterday.
Haru and the other children of the group were in the rooms on the other side of the path, while Haru's was in front of Sokka's. Chit Sang was in the earthbender's quarters.
Hakoda had received a room further into the inner halls. The fact that Zuko's was more than fifty feet further than his spoke for Sokka's suspicion when they'd accepted the prince into their group.
It still worried Hakoda that this mistrust didn't seem to exist anymore. He'd taught his son to be careful with strangers. Sokka was to become Chief of the Water Tribe in the future. It was his duty to protect the tribe with his life. It wasn't wise to entrust his people's lives to an outsider.
Especially not to a person like Zuko.
'… And there was Father.'
How do you break a son's love?
Sighing a bit, angry that he was unable to dismiss yesterday's conversations, Hakoda left the chambers. The sun was rising; several parts of the temple were already bathed in light.
Hakoda felt a bit chilled from spending the night in the breezy Air temple while wearing nothing but this Fire Nation prison gown. He was a warrior of the Southern Water Tribe. He knew cold, but proper clothing was vital to survive it. Suppressing a shudder, he started to climb the cliff in order to get warm and to reach a level that was already warmed by the sun.
Breathing heavily from the early exercise, Hakoda reached the upper level only to nearly lose his grip when he saw that he wasn't alone.
In the middle of the wide plateau sat a small form, meditating with its eyes closed. The sun illuminated the level field made of stone and the form's pale skin seemed to shine brightly.
For the second time in less than two days, the Prince of the Fire Nation had managed to sneak past the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.
"Good morning, Zuko," he said, while secretly hoping to startle him a bit, if only to soothe his wounded pride.
He didn't even as much as twitch.
"Chief Hakoda, good morning," the prince replied after a moment of silence. With one fluid motion, he readjusted his position and bowed, first to the sun, then to the warrior before standing up.
"Greeting the sun," Hakoda said, more to himself than the young man in front of him.
"Always." Golden eyes stared into blue with a serious expression, "Not so long ago, sunrise was the only thing to calm me down. A moment of peace, when everything else was in uproar." A soft sigh escaped the former heir to the throne, before he shook himself out of whatever reveries plaguing him, "Have you been able to rest?"
"Yes, thank you." It wasn't a lie. He had been able to rest, just not well.
"Forgive my question, but it is rather unusual for a member of the Water Tribes to rise so early when there is no threat nearby," the earnest prince stated quietly, avoiding the older man's face.
Hakoda was surprised by the firebender's perception and decided to be at least partially honest, "These gowns do not fend off the effects of the chilling winds. I had to get warm."
To his surprise, Zuko flinched slightly, "I apologize. I don't know either of you well enough to keep you warm. Chit Sang, yes, but he's a bender, so that isn't a problem."
"Warming people up from the outside in, you said. But you did it yesterday, warm us all…"
"Yes, but that's different. It's easy enough as long as they are in the same room with me. It's another matter when I'm residing across the hall."
Like yesterday, he was silent for a moment before taking one deliberate breath. Almost instantly, Hakoda felt warm again.
"I've never heard of such a bending form," he noted.
"It's nothing special," Zuko dismissed his abilities with a derisive hand movement, "It's useless in a fight and doesn't help at all when you are about to freeze to death. My uncle's techniques are a lot more refined than that." The infinite sadness in the prince's voice at the mention of his uncle struck Sokka's father.
Earth Kingdom soldiers and commanders had told him enough of the Fire Lord's feared brother to know what the Dragon of the West was capable of.
"He's a good man," the prince's earnest tone shook him out of his reveries. Hakoda turned to look into golden eyes.
Hakoda couldn't take it, couldn't take the reproachful gaze of this young warrior in front of him. The chief's expression darkened when he coldly reminded Zuko of all the things the Fire Nation had done.
"Your uncle is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in the Earth Kingdom, your grandfather's orders are the reason why my children grew up with only their grandmother and why my daughter is the only waterbender of our tribe, why my tribe's number has decimated to a handful of warriors and hardly any women. Your great-grandfather exterminated an entire race while your father is trying to do it with two others. Forgive me if your words do not hold a lot of credibility."
"The last ship you destroyed with your traps held thirty members of the Fire Navy, eight recruits who've never been to combat, seven were family fathers, one mother, the captain was a good friend of my uncle. All of them were sons or daughters, sisters and brothers…" The prince's eyes, their colour already reminding of flames, were on fire, his voice was cold, but the slight tremble and the narrowed eyes told Hakoda that a fiery-hot temper was boiling beneath the surface.
Firmly, he held Hakoda's gaze, "You command your warriors; the Fire Lord commands ours. My uncle was following orders the same way your men follow yours. We've been told our entire life that what we're doing is right, Chief Hakoda. That our nation is superior to the rest of the world and that it is our duty to share our greatness with the other nations. The Fire Nation is honourable," with a sad sigh, he lowered his head, "We've just… We've just forgotten what true honour is." Again, serious eyes, far more serious than eyes in such a young face should look, bored into his, "We'll learn again, though, and the world will be rebuilt. The wounds will heal… It'll take years and I don't think I will ever see the world fully healed, but there is one thing you should know about the nation you hate so much. We don't give up."
Worst thing was, Hakoda couldn't even contradict the prince's last statement. A part of him hated the nation responsible for the murder of his beloved wife.
"I don't hate you, Zuko."
The prince uttered a mirthless laugh, "No, because you have absolutely no reason hating the person who spent the past six months chasing your children across the world. I was defending my uncle's actions, Chief Hakoda. Not mine."
Stunned, the warrior didn't know what to say.
"My uncle's orders had been to take Ba Sing Se, regardless of the losses. I didn't follow orders. I just…" this time, he clearly avoided the older man's gaze, "My motives don't matter," he stated finally, "I'm here to help the Fire Nation and to make amends."
"You do realize that we will invade the Fire Nation again?" Hakoda didn't know why he continued challenging the boy. He simply wanted the prince to realize what he was getting himself into, "Your people will die."
"Not if we use stealth rather than force. I don't have a plan yet, but be assured that it is my goal to have as little casualties as possible."
Before silence settled between them, Zuko took a step back, "If I may, Chief Hakoda, I'd like to repeat my forms. Aang will be coming here soon and I don't belong to those gifted benders who never forget a form once they've performed it."
"Does it bother you if I watch?" the warrior of the Water Tribe asked.
"Not at all."
While speaking, Zuko took the stance which Hakoda thought to be one of the basic stances in firebending. He couldn't know for sure, of course, but he'd seen countless firebenders standing like this before they attacked.
The prince began slowly. Every step was connected to a movement of his hands as well as short, tightly controlled breaths.
Hakoda observed at least ten different forms, all of which he'd seen before in battle. He knew better than to underestimate the young bender, though. He'd seen him in combat, too.
After having completed the last form, Zuko inhaled and exhaled slowly, his face directed towards the sun, eyes closed.
Quite dramatically, actually. The young man's slight figure certainly worked well with velocity, especially turns were almost too quick to follow.
"What is that?" he asked after having witnessed Zuko's swift turn with his right arm spread and his hand flat, two fingers pointed into the air.
The prince didn't ask what he meant, he simply repeated the movement and a small, yellow spark shot from the firebender's fingers so fast, Hakoda couldn't see where it was going. It precisely hit a root growing in between the cliff's rifts behind them.
"'Small Flame'. It hits targets that are fifty feet away. It's quick and doesn't waste as much energy for it doesn't burn the air the way the Arc of Flame does." While the prince spoke, he fell into a slower pattern, but he never ceased with his training.
"Arc of Flame?"
Zuko turned and rather than performing a kick, he parted the air in a wide circle and flames spread, encircling the firebender.
"Steady Flame." He stated evenly, "Useful when your opponent is standing right in front of you."
Then he performed a similar movement with the exception of his arms: instead of holding them close to the chest, he exhaled and pushed them ahead in a quick movement. An arc of flame was sent over the edge of the plateau, but dispersed before it hit the other side of the valley. "Running Arc," Zuko explained.
After that, the prince's morning exercise continued in silence.
Then, Zuko stopped, looking thoughtful. He produced another arc, only this time, it didn't dissolve. It hovered around the young man and Hakoda shuddered at the sight.
Flames that are this close to the skin were meant to burn. However, Zuko didn't seem to feel the fire. He started to shift his weight from foot to foot while his arms calmly mimicked the movements, drawing circles into the air. The flames followed the prince's instructions. Touching the firebender's skin, they seemed to cool down for they were no longer yellow but red. The density of the flames increased while its heat lessened. Resembling water, the sparks continued to circle the prince's arms and Hakoda could barely suppress his horror in the face of the fiery figure. Zuko started to shift his weight back and forth while the red flames did the very same thing.
He must have moved too quickly, for all of a sudden, all fire was gone.
Again, Zuko looked thoughtful.
"What did you just do?" Hakoda asked, just in time to keep the young man from trying again.
"My uncle told me to watch the other elements and to learn from them. Water is softer than fire, it doesn't respond well to sharp movements. But if I can learn to take a flame and… Well, it didn't work. I'll try again."
We don't give up.
Hakoda had the sudden feeling that Zuko would be studying this form every morning until he was capable of doing it right.
"Dad?" his daughter's worried voice caught the chief's attention.
"I'm here, Katara!" he called back and walked over to the edge of the plateau. He saw Katara looking up with the expression of a little, scared girl who'd been forced to say goodbye to her father too many times in her short life. A pang of guilt rushed through Hakoda and he climbed down without looking back.
"What were you doing up there?"
"Getting warm. This Fire Nation fabric is useless. Zuko's up there, so I stayed a little longer than I planned to."
Katara's blue eyes looked as icy as the water she bended, "You can't trust him, Dad. He's Fire Nation and he's betrayed us before. Don't believe anything he says."
Hakoda felt relief wash over him. At least his daughter was being careful.
Zuko wasn't an evil person, but he'd been raised by the Fire Lord himself, still felt loyalty for his people and seemed to be a fierce warrior.
Only a fool would not view him with caution.
A/N: That's how it starts... Anybody interested in finding out more?
Please, read and review!