“So sorry for the hold-up! I’m just out of a meeting. I’ve been in so many meetings lately.” King Kuei shakes his head as if tutting at a minor annoyance.
To him, it probably is, she reminds herself.
“Oh?” her eyes narrow, though she does her best to keep their movement too small for the King to detect from his throne a few yards away. “May I be so forward as to ask what’s been taking up so much of your time lately?”
Kuei nods enthusiastically, as is his custom. “It’s this whole dreadful war business,” he sighs. “I really don’t know how to make heads or tails of it.”
“In that, you have my sympathy,” she says coolly – it’s an easy lie, and one she nearly chokes on. War is the easiest thing in the world for her to understand. War raised her, made her, tested her and trained her, and she is its child. Dimly, she thinks that people and their soft, fickle hearts – their unpredictability, their foibles and falling-outs – are the true mystery. “Now that you’ve been made aware of the war, what are your advisors pressing you to do about it?”
“Well, you see, that’s the tricky part,” he says, adjusting the ridiculous glasses that perch at the end of his nose. “They want me to sign off on all of these invasion plans they’re drawing up, and I don’t know the first thing about planning an invasion.”
“Oh, really?” she arches a painted eyebrow. “War or no war, I would think that a noble monarch such as yourself would at least have been given an education in military tactics. Strategy, that sort of thing? No?” she longs to take one of the fans at her sides and flick it open and closed, open and closed, but such a gesture would be unbefitting of a Kyoshi Warrior – she knows how they treasure those fans. Kuei probably knows too little of their culture to see such a gaffe for what it is, but she isn’t taking any risks. “That’s a shame. Perhaps we could be of assistance in that area?”
Kuei leans forwards, as if to get a better look at the three Kyoshi Warriors kneeling before him. “You could?” he asks, a little too eager. Pathetic, she wants to scoff. No Fire Nation heir would ever be allowed to maintain such blatant ignorance of the basic facts of rulership, of warcraft – they’re one and the same, after all. “Did you and your Warriors fight in the war?”
“No,” she says, drawing out the syllable as if she has to think about this. Of course not. We’re neutral, hiding from the war like the cream-faced cowards we are, she’d say if she felt like being honest, but she rather prefers to win, and winning means staying in character; she bites her tongue. “Kyoshi Island is neutral, so our Warriors are not involved directly in the fighting. But we live with the threat of war just like everyone else does. We’re as concerned as I’m sure you are, and I can assure you that we are nothing but committed to the task of bringing the Fire Nation down.”
It’s another well-packaged lie, even harder to swallow than the last. Azula has no trouble going against principles, usually, but something about this casual denunciation of her birthright and her quest is difficult to stomach. Lying is second-nature, though; the Earth King can’t see the way her stomach twists.
“Then I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have you here,” King Kuei replies. “You know, I’ve been having the worst time with my advisors lately. They all talk in the most ridiculous military jargon, and I just can’t keep a single word of it straight. And I want to help! I’m…I’m the King, after all.” His shoulders droop. “I just don’t know how to do it without help.”
“Without the help of the Dai Li?” she prompts.
Kuei raises an eyebrow. “I guess word gets around fast.”
“I heard about what happened to their leader yesterday,” she says, voice dripping with mock-sympathy. “I’m so sorry. It must be so hard to have to do something so difficult without the help of the person you used to trust most in the world.”
“Oh, it’s horrible,” King Kuei freely admits. “Right when I sign off on a plan to invade the Fire Nation, too…”
She has to rein in every muscle in her body so as not to tense and give up her lie. “Oh, really?” she says, casually as she can muster.
Kuei nods. “They’re planning to invade this summer, on the day of the solar eclipse. That’s just about all I understood, and I hate signing off on a plan that I can’t even explain, so…”
“We can’t have that,” she agrees. “Why don’t you show us these plans? We’re all trained in both combat and strategy. We might be able to help you piece together some of what your advisors are planning.”
She doesn’t care if he declines – she’ll move any mountain to get her hands on a copy of that invasion plan.
“Really?” King Kuei’s eyes light up, and she sees that she’s been worried in vain. “I really would appreciate that so much!”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Azula says evenly. “This benefits us as much as it benefits you, after all. And we’re not exactly in the practice of turning down help.”
He’s taken to lying awake well into the night, trying to clear his mind, kicking the sheets into an tangled lump at the end of his bed, thinking too much in spite of his best efforts not to. Sometimes lying still isn’t enough; on those nights, he paces, or sometimes merely sits up and tries to meditate if he thinks the risk of waking Uncle is too great. None of it ever helps, and he doesn’t know why he bothers, but he does anyway.
He has to do something, after all, else the realization that all he is and all he will ever be is an Upper Ring tea server with a name not his own and a story with one too many blanks will eat him alive.
He’s tried to rationalize this to himself since his first meeting with Katara. He’s been done hunting the Avatar for weeks now – that’s not his life anymore, and it would be impossible for him not to know that. He’s not a Fire Nation prince or even really a runaway anymore; he’s a lucky fugitive making a life on this patch of sanctuary ground, even if he feels it retreating daily beneath his feet for no reason at all. He’s tried to explain why he feels the way he does: he knows the Avatar is near and it kills him to be passing up this chance, maybe. Perhaps he can’t trust a good thing, and he’s held onto that idea as stubbornly as he does everything else in the hopes that, when this too-good-to-be-true life falls apart as everything around him does, he’ll have something to do, someplace to go back to. But none of those explanations satisfy him, and he hates the nights, because that is when it becomes hardest to deny that he’s known the real reason for his fitfulness all along.
The Avatar has always been more of a promise than a quest to him: find the Avatar, restore the order that he never should’ve broken to begin with. Knowing that the Avatar – Aang, he knows now, nothing more than a child out of time in more ways than one – is out there, somewhere, that he could be found, has kept him going when the road was too steep and the temptation to stop climbing almost too great to ignore. And he should feel even better, knowing that he’s found himself in the same city as the Avatar and his companions by sheer luck. But it doesn’t, because he’s doing nothing with it. All that luck, and he’s wasting it serving tea to the dithering upper-class of a city his family wishes it controlled and plotting with a girl he should hate and another girl he should hate even more.
This is why luck never seems to land on you, Azula would tell him. When it does, you just waste it. Just like you waste everything else. She’d crack her knuckles, roll her neck as if presenting a challenge. My time, the gift of your bloodline.
But he gave that up, and so he didn’t even know that he was sharing the bone-dry air of this revolting town with the child whose capture could give him the life he longs for. And now that he does – now that he does by mistake, by the accidental admission of a girl he’d only ever agreed to speak to because he thought he’d be sliced in half with an icicle or whatever it is that waterbenders use in combat (note to self: learn what waterbenders use in combat so you can taunt her with anticipated threats without looking stupid) – it’s too late.
His fist slams the mattress.
It’s too late. He had the kid in the palm of his hand and he let him fly away. His one chance to prove that he’s more than a waste of royal blood, to see pride in his father’s eyes instead of revulsion is gone with the thwish of an opening glider.
Zuko doesn’t know why he bothers anymore – not with these meetings, not with this place, not with the illusion that he’ll ever be whole without his honor.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this.”
“Katara, we have to,” Toph pleads with all the earnestness she’d ardently deny possessing if she were ever asked. “I know you don’t like Zuko-“
“That’s the understatement of the century.”
“You guys got along fine once you started talking, but…regardless. You may not like it, or him,but if you want to figure out how to take out Azula, you’re going to have to work with him. He knows her better than almost anyone, doesn’t he?”
“Well, yeah, but how do we know he’s not loyal to her?”
“Get off your high horse for five seconds and look at the facts, Katara! Why would Flamebrain and his uncle be running from her if they were on her side?”
“We know how smart this girl is, Toph. We can’t afford not to assume that everything she or anyone who is or has ever been allied with her does is a setup,” Katara argues. “For all we know, she could’ve sent Zuko and Iroh here as a smokescreen to get information out of us. I mean, would you put it past her?”
“No,” Toph says cautiously, “but I would put it past Zuko to be able to hide something so huge if that was what she was doing.”
“Katara, I can tell when people are lying.” Toph throws up her hands helplessly. “I don’t know what else to tell you. He was telling us the truth, and you wouldn’t even need my seismic sense to tell if he wasn’t – he’s, like, terrible at it.”
“And you know this…how?”
“I just do,” she insists. “The guy was scared out of his mind. Heartbeat through the roof, sweating, fidgeting, the whole nine yards. His seismic reading was so all over the place that I was surprised he didn’t fall over dead, and you’re trying to tell me that you think that his whole life here is a lie?”
“How do you know that that nervousness wasn’t because he was making it all up, then?” Katara doesn’t know why she’s resisting so firmly, but she’s certain that she can’t afford not to. “Wouldn’t that be a pretty good reason to be all jittery or whatever?”
“There are different kinds of nervousness. Being terrified of death by waterbender is a lot different than being nervous about getting caught in a lie. The tells are totally different, and…they just don’t feel the same. Seriously. Haven’t you learned to trust me on this stuff by now?”
“Well, yeah, but I have to be sure that you’re not letting your…personal feelings cloud your judgement.”
“Personal feelings?” Toph smirks. “You’re the one with ‘personal feelings,’ Sugar Queen, not me.”
“I am not!”
“Hatred is a ‘personal feeling,’ you know.”
Katara’s shoulders slump. “Right.” She pauses, then adds, “and I don’t hate him.”
“Yeah, but trust me, I’m not,” Toph assures her. “And we’re already late. So can you please just make up your mind before he starts thinking we got run over by a cart on the way there?”
This is a most interesting development.
Zuko has never been what one might call a sociable child; he never was to begin with, always too shy to join in anyone else’s fun, and he’s certainly not had many chances to improve since his banishment. So to see him willingly spending time with a girl his age – two girls his age, later on – without anyone’s coercion, when no amount of begging could convince Zuko to see that nice girl who’d asked him on a date again, despite his own admission that they’d had a nice time…
It’s unorthodox, to be certain. And even more so that the pair is making a return visit.
“Hello, girls!” he calls from the low futon where he’s been sprawled out since the shop’s closing, perusing one of those salacious romance scrolls he’s heard so much about (if anyone asks, he has not been harboring a collection of them for years) when he hears them come in.
The Water Tribe girl – Katara, his nephew had said, with the kind of disdainful edge to his voice that let him know exactly what he really thought of her – freezes in the doorway, blinking rapidly as if she can’t quite trust her vision. It’s the earthbender who speaks up first.
“You’re the Tea Uncle,” she says. “Hey. Fancy seeing you here.”
“He lives here,” Katara hisses, elbowing her friend’s ribs.
“I could say the same of you, Miss Beifong,” he says lightly. “Zuko is…well, who knows where Zuko is.” He makes a cursory scan of the apartment, then frowns. “Would you like me to go get him for you? I’m sure he’d hate to be late for your meeting.”
Katara looks like she has some very particular words to be said to that, but she chooses not to share them.
“Nah, I’m sure he’ll show up eventually,” Toph says. “It’s okay. Just let him take his time.” She takes a seat at the nearby table, just as she had upon her first visit, and crosses her legs at the knee, hunching over. “So. You two are on the run from the law, huh?”
“Well, if my niece qualifies as ‘the law.’” Toph, it seems, hasn’t changed much. “But we’re not running anymore. This is our life now.”
“Really,” Katara says skeptically. “Because Zuko specifically told me that he wanted to trade information for the express purpose of using it to outrun Azula.”
“He said that?” he raises his eyebrows. “Well, that’s not a sentiment that I share, though I do see how it could be useful to…pool information if she’s chasing us all.”
Katara’s eyes narrow. “How did you know that she was chasing us?”
“You think I didn’t know that you were the Avatar’s companions?”
“Well, I knew you knew that, but I didn’t know if-“
“I didn’t. Not with any certainty,” he tells them. “But now that Zuko isn’t going after the Avatar anymore, it stands to reason that Azula would be sent out in his place.”
“So you’re done hunting Aang?” Katara challenges. “Zuko failed to mention that to us.”
“Zuko is terrified of you, Katara. His brain probably deserted him,” he chuckles. “I think there are probably a lot of things that he ‘failed to mention.’”
“Oh?” that gets Katara’s attention. “Such as?”
“Who’s to say?” he can’t let himself forget that this deal is between Zuko and Katara; it isn’t his place to give away any more than Zuko is willing to divulge. “Hopefully, now that he knows that you aren’t going to kill him” – it’s gently delivered, but a warning all the same – “Zuko will be better able to give you the information you need.”
“So you’re not going to give me anything.”
“Not until my nephew does,” he says. “Sorry. This deal was between the two of you. I’m only associated by proximity.”
“Fair enough,” Toph cuts in. “So what are we going to-“
Three pairs of eyes swivel to the doorway when Zuko appears, holding a towel and blinking nervously. “Uh. Sorry. It’s just-“
“Don’t worry about it, Zuko,” Iroh says warmly. “I was just having a nice chat with your lady-friends here.”
He drops the towel, though whether from shock or embarrassment he’s not sure. He notices in its absence that Zuko’s hair is wet. Must’ve been bathing, he realizes.
“They’re not my lady-friends,” he scoffs. “Who even says that?”
Katara cuts in before Iroh can answer. “Why didn’t you tell us that you weren’t hunting Aang anymore?”
“I…what?” Zuko narrows his eyes, then turns to his uncle. “What did you tell them?”
“I only told them of my theory that Azula is probably taking over the search for the Avatar because you are no longer involved in it,” Iroh tells him. “I, of course, assumed that you had already told them this, but…apparently I was mistaken.”
“Please don’t do that,” he huffs, striding to the table with a little too much sulk in his step and slumping into a chair. “So why are you two here again?”
“Because you didn’t finish telling us what we need to know last time,” Katara says coolly.
“You weren’t the one who wanted to come back,” Zuko points out, glaring daggers at her. “I wasn’t asking you.”
“Zuko! That’s no way to speak to a lady!”
Zuko soundly ignores his uncle, and Katara crosses her arms. “Yeah, well, Toph talked me into coming, and this deal is still between you and I and no one else, so please, just tell me what you know about Azula so we can get out of here and be done with this whole stupid alliance.”
Iroh observes the two as they stare at each other, stalemated, across the table. Tension hangs thick in the air, and he nods knowingly.
Perhaps, he thinks, this was a little bit inevitable.