This, in hindsight, was probably not Zuko’s wisest decision.
Oh, sure, it seemed perfectly sound in the moment of blind panic which had birthed it: it buys him at least a few hours’ worth of assurance that Katara won’t take what she’s learned to the Dai Li (he thinks it will, at least – one can never be too sure), and it’s at least somewhat possible that Katara will have useful information. Even the logic of his argument was solid – after all, it is true that they have a common enemy, and pooling their knowledge on said common enemy makes strategic sense. But the rest of it? The hastily-formed alliance, the very real possibility that Katara’s only agreeing to talk him into a trap or planning to take what he says and turn on him?
In that light, this agreement is slapdash, irrational, and completely insane.
In other words, it’s classic Zuko. And he really shouldn’t be surprised when Katara arrives at the Jasmine Dragon dusk and she isn’t alone.
“Did we agree that you could bring backup?” Zuko narrows his eyes. “I’m pretty sure you were supposed to come here by yourself.”
Katara shrugs. “You never specified,” she says, gesturing to the diminutive Earth Kingdom girl by her side. Zuko’s pretty sure that he’s seen her before, though he can’t quite place her name or the circumstances of their meeting. “This is Toph Beifong. Think of her as a safety measure.”
Oh, Agni, the Beifong kid. He remembers, now, precisely where he first encountered her, and precisely why that should concern him.
“I’m just here to make sure you don’t try anything stupid,” the girl says, shrugging as if she really can’t care less whether he does or doesn’t. “And I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying.”
“Um. This was not part of the deal.”
“What, worried that you won’t be able to feed me false information?” Katara folds her arms across her chest. “Let this be your reminder that I still don’t trust you. Just because I agreed to meet with you-“
“Trust me, the feeling is mutual.” He levels a glare at Katara, which only widens her smirk, and then at Toph, on whom it has no effect at all. “Can we just get this over with?”
“Right.” When Katara agrees, he extends his hand towards the shop’s back entrance, too worried that he’ll blurt out something not entirely to his advantage if he tries to speak. She and Toph follow, though he catches Katara throwing glances over her shoulder every couple of feet. Do you have to make it so obvious that you don’t trust me?, he thinks, but he can’t really blame her when he’s just as certain that she’ll have the Avatar waiting to ambush him around the next corner he turns. She doesn’t, though: they make it through the storage area and dining room of the tea shop without incident on their way through to the apartment. It’s more secure there – better not to risk being overheard.
Katara, once they reach the apartment, stands in the doorway as if she isn’t quite sure where to go from there. Toph enters as if it is her apartment and not his, plops into a chair, and promptly crosses her arms as if she’s been greatly inconvenienced.
Zuko isn’t sure what to make of this.
“So.” It’s Toph who starts, glaring across the table at…something slightly to the right of Zuko’s head once he sits down. “You and your uncle are on the lam.”
“If by ‘on the lam’ you mean being chased by my unhinged sister, then yes, we are.” Zuko returns her glare, even though the positioning of her eyes (they’re unusually milky, he notes) is such that he isn’t sure if she’s looking at him or at the blank patch of wall over his right shoulder. “And I agreed to talk to Katara, not you.”
If Toph is offended, she doesn’t show it. “Well, Katara’s standing in the doorway, gaping like a fish, so wouldn’t you rather talk to the person whose head’s on straight?” she challenges.
If Katara is offended, she doesn’t show it, either. Then again, she doesn’t show much of anything, frozen as she seems to be in the doorway.
Zuko, though, is offended, and doesn’t care if he shows it. “Look, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I agreed to this because I thought it would help us both and if it’s not going to do that, you might as well just go.”
“You’re bluffing,” Katara finally interjects. “You need a guarantee of our silence too badly to throw away your only option.”
“Oh, so now she speaks?” Toph turns her head, though her eyes still don’t look like they’re actually on Katara, and sticks out her tongue. “Way to make the backup do the heavy lifting.”
“I…needed a minute,” Katara says with as much dignity as she can muster.
“You sound like my sister,” Zuko adds unhelpfully. Katara rewards this lapse in judgment with the stoniest glare of which she is capable. “Uh, speaking of. We should…probably talk about her.”
“That is why we’re here, yes,” Katara says drily. “So. Do you know anything useful?”
“Define ‘useful,’” Zuko says, despite possessing the knowledge that he absolutely does not.
“Uh…her current whereabouts?” Katara crosses her arms in a way that Zuko is beginning to realize is very, very Katara.
“No clue. I haven’t exactly been keeping tabs on her location.” Zuko shrugs, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do with his body that would be appropriate right now and all of this pent-up adrenaline has to go somewhere. “It’s mostly just been Uncle and I randomly wandering through the Earth Kingdom and trying not to die lately.”
Katara scans the apartment’s opulent common room with a quizzical tilt of her chin. “Uh…this really doesn’t look like ‘trying not to die.’”
“Well, no, not recently-recently, but, uh.” He clears his throat. “Yeah. We haven’t, um…had eyes on her.”
“And do you have any idea where she and her creepy sidekicks went after that whole drill fiasco?” Toph asks, raising her eyebrows in mirror-image of Katara’s. “’Cause that’s the last we saw of them.”
“Quit playing dumb, Zuko. You know exactly what she’s talking about.” Katara crosses her arms again, This Time With Feeling.
“Um, no, I…I’m not,” Zuko says, though he knows it’s a weak defense. “I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Why? Is that the last time you saw her?”
“She was here, Flamebrain,” Toph says as if each and every single bone in her body is unimpressed with this tomfoolery. (It probably is.)
“What?” Zuko’s eyes dart around the room as if he expects Azula to emerge from the walls at any moment (which, really, wouldn’t surprise him as much as one might think it would). “Here-here? In Ba Sing Se?”
“Yes, here-here.” Katara doesn’t really seem to believe that Zuko’s confusion is genuine, though it couldn’t be more so. “She and these two other girls our age were trying to breach the city walls with a drill. You’re seriously telling me that you didn’t know that was happening?”
“Um…no.” Zuko isn’t sure whether to be embarrassed that he’d managed to miss something so obvious, relieved that he’d managed to miss Azula, or frightened by the knowledge that she was here – and with help – without his knowledge. “How…how did we miss that?”
“Censorship in this place is tight?” Toph shrugs. “I mean, they managed to hide an entire war from the whole population of Ba Sing Se, so I guess a drill trying to breach the walls wouldn’t be that hard to cover up in comparison.”
“Wait, so Azula was actually in Ba Sing Se? When was this?” Zuko has about six more questions to add, and he leans forward, palms flat on the table to balance his weight, but Toph raises a hand to cut him off.
“Try to keep up, Flamebrain,” she says coolly. (He resents this nickname. However, he resents the idea of a broken nose quite a bit more, so he doesn’t choose to raise the issue.) “That had to have been a couple weeks ago now.”
“A couple of weeks? You’re telling me she’s been in the city for a couple of weeks and I never heard about it?”
“No, that’s what we’re asking you,” Katara says. Her voice is surprisingly level now as she slips into her now-familiar role as voice of reason.
“Where Azula went after that,” Katara elaborates. “Two-ish weeks ago, she and her two…friends, or whatever, showed up outside the city with a drill that they were trying to use to breach the outer walls and take Ba Sing Se. We managed to stop them, but only just, and we’re pretty sure they aren’t still in the city, but we have no idea where she ran off to after that.” Katara pauses to breathe. “I was hoping that you’d have information that I didn’t about where she went, but you obviously don’t.”
“Wait, give me a minute.” Zuko holds up a hand the way Toph had earlier (when in doubt, he’s learned, mimic others’ body language), and the girls take the hint, to his relief. Neither say anything as he sits in silence, processing what he’s learned. “Okay. So…Azula was here with two girls our age, trying to breach the walls with a drill – what kind of a drill could break through city walls, anyway?”
“A really, really, really huge one,” Toph adds. This detail hardly needs clarifying, but it nevertheless appears to be enlightening to its recipient, who nods in recognition.
“And you have no idea where she might be now?”
“You’re the one who said I had useful information, not me,” Katara points out.
“You do. I didn’t know she was traveling with her entourage.”
Katara narrows her eyes. She’s still standing in the doorway, too wary to come inside (Zuko notices that her hand almost never leaves the waterskin hanging by her hip), but she’s begun to lean against the doorframe. “Entourage?” Great. So this is normal, too. “Is that, like…an actual thing?”
“Not exactly, but if you saw her with two girls our age, I’m pretty sure I know who they were,” Zuko explains. “She had these two friends growing up, Mai and Ty Lee. The three of them did everything together. Wouldn’t surprise me all that much if she’d recruited them to help find me or…whatever.”
“One was a tall girl with two buns in her hair and the other was some kind of acrobat or something,” Katara specifies.
“Mmhm. Definitely Mai and Ty Lee, then.” Zuko lets out the kind of longsuffering sigh he’s been waiting for an excuse to release since he talked himself into this corner. “That’s not great for us.”
“Nope. The acrobat girl-“
“So the tall one is Mai?”
“Okay, anyways. Ty Lee knows how to temporarily disable bending, which, like you said, obviously isn’t great for us.” Katara and Toph wince in near-unison, even though they aren’t facing each other and couldn’t possibly have been intentionally coordinating their reactions. The synchronicity is a little creepy. “Mai doesn’t seem to be as bad, but even so, the last thing we need is more people who want us thrown in a Fire Nation prison.”
“Why just a Fire Nation prison? I’m pretty sure Snake Fangs wants us locked up as bad as Azula,” Toph interjects.
“Snake Fangs?” Zuko’s eyes narrow. “Who’s Snake Fangs? And how have you people managed to make so many enemies?”
“Toph likes making up nicknames,” Katara sighs, as if this is a regular occurrence which, by now, is too familiar to be annoying but too annoying not to acknowledge. “Snake Fangs is Long Feng, the leader of the Dai Li.”
“Those creepy earthbender guys?”
“You’re aware that they’re the ones with all the power around here, right?” Katara asks.
“Well, yeah, but that doesn’t explain why he wants you in prison. Why does he want you in prison?” Now it’s Zuko’s turn to cross his arms. He thinks this is a rather good move, turning the tables and whatnot. (If Katara agrees, it’s impossible to tell.)
“We, uh…kinda told the Earth King that there’s a war on,” Toph says candidly. “And, y’know…got him arrested for treason. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t actually done much to stop him, but still.”
“The Earth King just…didn’t know that his country was at war?” Zuko’s pretty sure the girls are messing with him, but everything else they’ve said makes sense, so he decides to take the risk of maybe believing them. “You’re joking, right?”
“Sadly, no.” Katara’s shoulders slump wearily. “I don’t know how, but the Dai Li managed to keep him completely in the dark until we showed up. He really did have no idea that a war was going on.”
“Well, the fact that he has the common sense of a paper bag doesn’t really hurt,” Toph tells him. “He’s completely dependent on his Dai Li agents. We only managed to convince him by showing him the remains of the drill, and even that barely worked.”
“Okay, and then what?” Zuko decides to put off his disbelief for long enough to get the information he needs in a rare display of pragmatism of which he’s a little too proud.
Katara visibly holds back, chewing her lip (uncertainty – that’s new) as she considers the best response. Zuko has never been fluent in body language, but he doesn’t need to be told that she’s trying to figure out how to tell him what he needs to know and hide the rest. “We…were able to give the Earth King information about the war that he needed to know.”
“Because you needed his armies to fight the Fire Nation?” Zuko guesses.
“No,” Katara says flatly. He can’t tell if she’s lying.
“Katara, the Fire Nation is trying to kill me. I’m not going to be mad if you tell me that you’re trying to attack it.”
“I highly doubt that,” Toph cuts in. “You seem to take your loyalties pretty seriously, whether you want to or not.” Zuko shoots her the kind of dirty look that lets her know that she was right.
“All we agreed to talk about was Azula, so I’m not going to get into the details of the Earth King situation,” Katara replies after a beat. “All you need to know is that he needed to know about the war. Theorize all you want, but I don’t think it should be hard to figure out why.”
“No,” Zuko admits, though he wants to probe. “Anyway. He knows now?”
“Seems like it, although you can never really tell with a guy who throws parties for his pet bear.”
“He does that?” Zuko wonders, not for the first time, if he hasn’t quiet shaken off the fever he’d come down with a week or so ago. This would certainly all make a lot more sense if it were some sort of fever-induced hallucination.
Never mind that. Hallucination or not, this is useful, and he needs to stay alert.
“Don’t ask,” Toph huffs.
Zuko has about a thousand follow-up questions, but before he asks, he pauses to sift through the information he’s received and shuffle a list of pressing questions around in his mind until they’re in order of urgency (and, truth be told, likelihood to be answered) until he finds one that ticks both boxes. “If your goal is not to get captured, why would you come to the one place you knew she’d find you?”
“Did you miss the part where she was trying to conquer Ba Sing Se?”
“And you were trying to stop her?”
“We did stop her.”
“So why stay?”
“You know I’m not going to answer that.”
“Actually, I don’t. I have no idea why you stayed here after you gave up your location. Seems like a great way to get caught.”
“There are some things more urgent than avoiding your sister.” Katara looks down at the floor again – keeping secrets, even from her mortal enemy, is clearly not her favorite.
“Like what, training the Avatar? You could’ve done that anywhere.”
“Dude, just quit it. She’s not going to give anything up.” Toph fixes the wall behind Zuko with her most pointed glare. Why does she always fix her gaze a few inches away from whatever she’s looking at?, he wonders, but doesn’t ask. “What matters is that we’re still here now, and we need to get as much information on your sister as we can so that when Aang gets back-“
“The Avatar’s not in Ba Sing Se?” Zuko’s eyes nearly bug out of his head. “But…but I just-“
“-but you just said that you all fought Azula together!”
“Yeah, two weeks ago,” Toph goes on. “But then-“
“Toph Beifong, I swear…”
“Katara, we can trust him,” Toph says firmly. “Seriously. He isn’t lying. He’s not going to turn on us.”
“How could you possibly know that?” Zuko asks before he realizes that the last thing he wants to do is cast doubt on his sincerity.
“I have my ways,” Toph says, and he can tell that he isn’t meant to press. “Anyway. After Snake Fangs got arrested, we all got letters that the Dai Li had intercepted-“
“Toph, what are you doing?” Katara hisses through her teeth. Zuko probably isn’t supposed to hear her, but he does anyway.
“-trying to get us to split up. I was pretty sure mine was a trap, and Katara needed to sort out some stuff with…” Toph finally thinks better of offering up so much information. “…people, so we stayed behind.”
“So you’re the only two members of your group left in the city,” Zuko realizes. “Huh.”
“I think we should go now,” Katara replies, forcing a chipper tone over the knife-point sharpness of her words. She finally passes the threshold and yanks Toph’s arm with more force than either is used to. “Before you can tell Flamebrain here any more-“
“I didn’t even say anything bad!”
“Wait, don’t!” Zuko calls after them, his chair teetering precariously on its back legs as he stands a little too quickly. He sees stars, but he’s not particularly worried about it. “I can still help you!”
“I’m sure you can,” Katara says in a tone that seems to lower the ambient temperature by several degrees.
“No, I’m serious!” he protests, surprised at how frantic he is to have his burning questions answered. “I know Azula better than you do. I could…I could help you figure out her next moves?”
“Great. We’ll be back tomorrow, same time,” Toph says with a self-satisfied smirk that can’t mean anything good.
“No, we will not!” Katara protests.
“Who’s acting like a child now?”
“I never said you were acting like a child!”
“Yeah, but you thought it-“
Zuko watches the two go, bickering loudly enough that he hears a few neighboring businesses open their shutters to see what’s happening. So much for subtle.
He sinks back into his chair as soon as they’re out of sight and buries his head in his hands. So much for helpful.
“She’s pretty, Zuko.”
Zuko glances up at the sound of Uncle’s voice and lets out another of his longsuffering sighs. “I think she wants to kill me.”
Iroh smiles knowingly. “Doesn’t that make her even prettier?”
“No.” He pushes his udon noodles around in their bowl, because he certainly has no intention of eating them. “Just a lot more annoying.”
“Either way, it’s good to see you making friends.”
“I wouldn’t call it that.” He lifts his spoon, then lets it fall to the surface of his soup with a watery thwick.
“Well, give it time.”
“I’m serious, Zuko.”
“So am I.” He glances up again. “The Avatar isn’t here anymore.”
“Oh.” Iroh’s face falls, slowly, methodically, like the descending notes of a scale. “I see.”
He doesn’t have to explain that, with that knowledge, his years of Avatar-hunting are well and truly over.
He doesn’t have to explain why that matters, either.