Dragons & Lotuses
Description: Sokka is an undercover cop for the L.A.P.D., trying his best to infiltrate the notorious White Lotus Society yakuza. While his plans have always been to take the yakuza down, will he eventually take his artificial oaths of loyalty to heart?
Rating: This story is rated T, but may move to M for future mature situations, sex, violence, and/or language.
Disclaimer: I don't own "Avatar: The Last Airbender" or anything associated with it. This story is for amusement purposes only—so I hope you're amused!
Chapter 4: Another Day
"She's brought 'the boys' back together."
- Bill in Kill Bill, V. 2
"So what you're telling me is that Iroh—Iroh Sozin, the Dragon of the West—is your oyabun?" Piandao said as he paced on the rooftop of the building in the morning sun. "This is unheard of, Sokka! Your luck is unbelievable," the older man finished, shaking his head.
"I know, right? I can't believe it myself. But, why me? I mean…I don't know why the old man changed his mind last night. I guess driving him around these past couple of months worked in my favor," Sokka replied as he walked around in a small circle, his hands laced behind his head. He soon realized that he should talk to Zuko about it sometime tomorrow, especially since his brother had seemed to be aware of the change in ceremony.
"Don't look too cocky just yet, Sokka. You know what this means, don't you?" Frowning at the blank look on the tanned man's face, the older man explained. "You're gonna have to be at the top of your game. There's no room for mistakes, Sokka. Have you been practicing those scripted stories?"
"When has there ever been room for mistakes, Piandao? And of course I've been practicing," the young man replied with a roll of his eyes.
"Good, 'cause you're gonna have to sound like you've been doing this for years—not months. And you're going to be under even more scrutiny. You can't screw this up." The older man stared off into the distance for a beat. "Being a higher-up means you'll be hanging out with the big boys more often – going out to dinners, major ceremonies, etc. This is a big deal," the older man emphasized. "Well, let's get to practicing those stories of yours. Gotta make 'em sound authentic."
"You got it, boss!" Sokka said enthusiastically before he took a seat in the plastic lawn chair and regaled Piandao with one of the fantastic stories about when he, supposedly, almost got caught with an ounce of hash by the cops.
There was a puddle of drool beneath his chin as he slept and, were it not for the annoying daylight that had invaded his room, he never would have awoken. Knowing the sun's rising would not abate, Sokka groggily grabbed the extra pillow on his bed and placed it on the top half of his face, leaving his mouth uncovered so that he could breathe freely. Of course, Sokka's bladder had other plans at the moment. So, he got up. With a grunt of frustration, he threw the pillow aside and stumbled to the bathroom, relieving himself in quick fashion.
When he finished, he stood at the bathroom counter, examining himself. He took a moment to consider his reflection in the nearby mirror – the stubble dotted across his face, the loosely tumbling chestnut locks, and the wrinkles that were now beginning to crack across his features. He wondered when he had become so…old. Hell, he even felt old! Maybe it was the stress of the job finally getting to him – the lieutenant had told him it would get hard living a double life, hadn't he?
Then again, he was beginning to feel tired. And the worst part of the whole thing was having to keep everything a secret from the only people he cared about, especially Katara. When was the last time he had visited her—outside of seeing Katara in the hospital a couple of nights ago? He became frustrated when he couldn't recall.
Serving two masters wasn't easy, especially when the possibility of being found out by the syndicate could lead to an unfortunate "accident" wherein his lifeless corpse was found in a roadside ditch, or worse yet, pieces of him scattered across L.A. County and not found at all.
When would the charade end, he silently wondered.
He sighed. It would end when Lt. Jeong-Jeong and Piandao decided it would end. It would end when he finally found something worth prosecuting Iroh and his yakuza members for. It was organized crime—all he had to do was take notes and not get killed, right? Realizing that his train of thought was going nowhere fast, he shook his head and grabbed his toothbrush. "Might as well get ready," he reconciled.
As Sokka showered, he considered what had happened at his initiation a few nights ago. He reflected on his time with his sister and their conversation when he was released. It was obvious his sister missed him, but how could he talk to her? He couldn't talk about his work—and, really, what else did he have to talk about? His non-existent social life or his lack of outside interests? He chuckled to himself as he dried off.
"You're boring as hell now, aren't you, old man?" he said to his reflection in the semi-fogged mirror. He always thought that he'd be married by now, maybe a kid on the way or something. When was the last time he'd been on a date, anyway? He thought about it for a minute, his eyebrows furrowed as he counted back in time. It was certainly before he went undercover, so at least a year. He frowned again as he realized he couldn't remember his last romantic encounter with the opposite sex. That was certainly disappointing.
Sokka finished shaving and got along with the rest of his morning routine. He got dressed and made some coffee, pouring some into his travel mug before he left his apartment. While he was readying himself to leave, he took a glance around his apartment and he saw glimpses of his old life—pictures with his family, his Lakers memorabilia, ticket stubs of the concerts he'd been to. And it all meant nothing now; he wasn't supposed to be Sokka Bulanadi anymore. He'd left that behind so many months ago.
But, he was doing what was right, what needed to be done. He was going to help bring down a group of dangerous gangsters, help keep people safe. People like his sister and his grandmother. And that was worth it, wasn't it?
"God, what is with all this philosophical bullshit I'm thinking about today? It's too damn early to be thinking about this…" he said in frustration as he grabbed his keys off their hook and locked up his apartment. Outside, he hopped into his car and made his way to Zuko's place.
He quickly let himself back into his apartment, depositing both his cell phone and his keys on the small table near the front door. Still sweating from his morning workout, he brought the towel that was hanging around his neck to his forehead, wiping away any remaining perspiration. As he made his way to the kitchen to grab something to drink, Zuko noticed a message waiting for him on his answering machine.
His cell phone, essentially his work phone, was reserved for any work-related calls or emergencies; his home phone was there for any personal calls he might make. For the most part, calls on his home phone were mostly from telemarketers. Unsurprisingly, he rarely made any personal calls, as that would actually require him having a personal life outside of work.
Nonetheless, he pressed the play button on the machine right before he grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and considered his breakfast possibilities. To put it simply, he was unprepared for the voice that greeted him and promptly dropped the plastic bottle of water he had intended to drink.
"Hello, Zuzu," a saccharine voice started. "Or should I say 'good morning?' It seems that I'll be in Los Angeles on business soon, dear brother, and I thought that perhaps we could have a little family reunion while I'm there. Perhaps Uncle can join us, hm? It really has been too long, hasn't it? Well, I'm sure we'll speak soon. Unless you're avoiding me, of course, which will simply not do, Zuzu. So make sure you answer my call next time. 'Til then, big brother. And please tell Uncle I say 'hi.'"
His brow furrowed as he whispered his younger sister's name, "Azula…" He could practically taste the concealed venom in his sister's words. He also knew that his sister's "business"—if one could really call it that—would mean someone in L.A. was going to be added as another homicide statistic. Azula was simply that good at what she did as an assassin for hire. She never made a mistake and never got caught. And as far as anyone knew, she flew under the radar just enough so that no one truly suspected what she did for a living. To law enforcement agencies, she was a non-threat; she was just the spoiled daughter of a yakuza leader in Japan. Azula carried out whatever mission she had been hired for efficiently and quickly, and was paid handsomely for it.
It was just another way to one-up him, Zuko had realized many years ago. Where he had hesitated to kill, she never did. It was like that between the brother and sister, their very own sick and twisted version of sibling rivalry. When they were young, whenever Zuko got a new belt in martial arts, Azula did, too. When Zuko learned to read, Azula did, too. He was an average boy and she was a child prodigy—everything he could do, she could do better, despite his two-year advantage in age over her.
And so it was with everything in life, except for when Zuko followed in their father's footsteps and joined the yakuza. In Japan, yakuza followed the old ways of paternal hierarchy. It was the one place where a woman like Azula could not follow. So, instead, she created her own path as an assassin and continued to be "daddy's little girl" in a sense, carrying out the secretive work of her father and helping him create new alliances when another yakuza boss was killed. The blame never did center on Ozai, but Zuko knew his father's backroom dealings were predicated on orders he had made to Azula.
Put simply, Azula was an angel of death, like a grim reaper or a shinigami. If she appeared somewhere, it was like an omen or a portending dark cloud. A visit from Azula might as well have been a "kiss of death" from her ruby-red lips.
But, now, Zuko had bigger things to worry about. With his sister's impending visit, it meant she had been hired to kill. But who? Who in L.A. could afford Azula's asking price and who was enough of a threat to kill? He replayed the message to see if she had alluded to anyone in particular—Azula was well known for using subtext when it suited her interests.
Zuko stood there horrified for a moment when she mentioned their uncle—was he her work assignment? Zuko could think of a few people that wouldn't mind seeing his uncle gone; there were other gangs that could make quite a bit of money if the old man were suddenly out of the picture. But who? His uncle, being the polite old man that he was, was well-liked by most of the other crime leaders in L.A. He stuck to his business and kept it only in areas that the White Lotus Society already controlled.
And while other bosses might have to be afraid of being backstabbed by their own men, Iroh had always made sure to keep his yakuza somewhat democratic by keeping it as an affiliation of gangs, as opposed to a top-down business model where he served as dictator. Considering the ways other gangs were run, Iroh had, for the most part, kept an even balance of power between himself, his advisors, and his men.
Zuko's mind raced as he considered the possibilities. But this was no time to stand in his kitchen and deliberate his sister's words. He had to get word to his uncle, and fast. It wouldn't do to deliver this kind of news over the phone, either. What if Azula had already gone to work bugging the phones? Hell, she could be watching him now, for all he knew. And it wouldn't exactly be out of character if she already were. That was the younger Sozin for you—always calculating, always prepared.
Deciding he needed to speak with his uncle in person soon, Zuko chugged his water and decided that he didn't have an appetite for breakfast anyway. He wiped his face with the damp towel one more time before heading to the shower. He silently hoped that this wouldn't be one of those mornings where Sokka ran late—there was no excuse for it as far as he was concerned.
She took another sip of her triple espresso as she watched a tanned young man in a black Lincoln Navigator pull up to the apartment complex across the street from her. Topaz-colored eyes peeked over a paper cup as he put the car in park and placed his cell phone at his ear. Her fingers lightly tapped the leather steering wheel of her rented car as her eyes observed him.
In moments, a familiar figure strode out of the building. "Ah, Zuko, so is this your new 'brother'? He's cute, in a tough, American kind of way." Her lips pursed as she took note of his profile. As soon as Zuko got in the car, the vehicle pulled away from the curb.
"I wonder if it's considered incest if Zuko's his older brother?" Azula considered before laughing at the thought. She started up the car and began tailing the SUV. She had been curious as to what her brother had been up to since leaving home.
Sokka noticed that Zuko was in a bad mood that morning, as usual. The blue-eyed man sipped on his coffee as they drove to the office. Sokka hated doing the driving, especially in morning traffic, but what choice did you have in L.A.? Besides, Zuko refused to drive. Sokka always figured the reason his brother didn't drive was because he was at the top and never had to. Of course, Sokka had no idea what had happened to Zuko the last time he had been driving.
As they drove into the office, the radio filled the silence.
"That was the Partridge Family's 'Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted,' followed by Addison Lighthouse's 'Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,'" the monotonous D.J.'s voice intoned from the speakers. "K. Billy's Super Sounds of the 70's just keeps on truckin'."
Preferring the silence to Sokka's bad choice in music, Zuko scowled and turned off the radio. He turned his eyes back to the freeway as they made their way through the snaking traffic, puffing on his cigarette all the while. Sokka just shook his head, knowing better than to say anything.
Soon enough, they were at the familiar glass and gunmetal tower overlooking downtown. Zuko still hadn't said anything that morning and it wasn't in Sokka's nature to ask his partner what was wrong. Besides, Zuko would probably bristle at the sound of Sokka asking, "What crawled up your ass and died there this morning?"
When they finally got to the all-white reception room, Zuko turned to him. "I've got to talk to my uncle alone for a minute. We'll call for you."
"Yeah, whatever," Sokka replied with a wave of his hand as he took a seat on the plush, white couch. He absentmindedly stared around the room, sipping on his coffee as he waited to be beckoned to Iroh's office.
In moments, a pink- and black-clad Ty Lee bounded into the room, her hands filled with a stack of files. When she turned her head his way, she stumbled, tripping on something unseen. As he watched her fall forward, Sokka instinctively shot forward, ready to help her recover. However, Ty Lee didn't fall and, instead, tucked into a somersault and shot up quickly after her smooth tumble. If Sokka hadn't known better, he would have thought she meant to do that. As she stood up and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, she quickly pasted a smile on her face.
"Good morning, Sokka!" she chirped exuberantly before placing the stack of files on her desk.
"Good morning, Ty Lee; guess I surprised you, huh? Sorry 'bout that," he said, unsure of what he should do next.
"It's okay. I just thought you were someone else for a second. Did you need anything?"
"I've got some coffee, thanks," he responded, tipping his cup in her direction. "Just waiting on Iroh and Zuko…" he trailed off.
"Oh, okay," Ty Lee said, a little more flustered this time. Was she getting nervous around him, he wondered? To the untrained eye, it certainly looked like it. "I wonder what they could be talking about?" Ty Lee absentmindedly asked under her breath. Of course, she belatedly realized that she had spoken aloud.
"Probably family stuff or something."
"Yeah, family stuff," Ty Lee said with a nervous giggle. Now, Sokka wasn't dense with the ladies, at least not since he was in high school. Maybe this was the right time to ask—he'd wanted to ask her out since they met, but he didn't want to seem too…desperate.
"Hey, Ty Lee, what do you do for fun in this city?" he asked as he took a seat on the couch again, looking up from his coffee cup for a moment.
Ty Lee's head rose from the task of organizing all the files on her desk, her gray eyes meeting his blue ones momentarily. "Uh, for fun?" she asked aloud, breaking from her preoccupation with the files.
"Yeah, what do you do for fun? You know, on the weekends and stuff."
"Go shopping in the garment district, hit up the clubs sometime, go out to Nobu…Stuff like that. Why?" the secretary said nonchalantly before returning her attention to the task at hand.
Sokka slowly rose up from the couch and made his way over to the receptionist's desk. He placed his coffee on the countertop and leaned over towards Ty Lee. Mustering his courage and using his most suave voice possible, he went for it. "Well, I was thinking, maybe you and I could go out sometime…Maybe dinner or something this weekend?"
"I, uh, well…"
"Good morning, Zuko. Lovely day, isn't it?" Iroh greeted his nephew as he stared out at the awakening City of Angels.
"Good morning, Uncle," Zuko said with an incline of his head in his uncle's direction. "I got an important phone call this morning, Uncle. It was from—"
"Azula. I know she's coming to town, Zuko. She called Ty Lee last night, as well. She told me this morning. Poor girl was quite nervous, but that's why she works here, so we can protect her and her family."
"Well, what are we going to do? Azula's coming here for a reason—she doesn't leave our father's side unless she's paid to. You know what that means, don't you?"
"Yes, she's here to do some work on behalf of whomever her benefactor is at present. Your sister only called you and Ty Lee to toy with us, Zuko. She wants us to live in fear, in fear that her work has to do with us."
"And, what if she is here to see one of us, Uncle. What if she's here for you? What then?"
"There is no 'what then,' nephew. I will not live in fear of your sister. She has her job, but who's to say her business has anything to do with me? She could just be toying with your emotions, you know. She always enjoyed that even when you were children… Like it was some game between the two of you.
"Even if she is here for me, what does it matter? Perhaps one of my rivals is looking to gain control of our territory. What then? They'll get me one way or another. All I can do is be prepared…"
"Uncle, how can you be so blasé about this? This is Azula we're talking about here—she's an assassin, Uncle! If she's coming to L.A., there's no doubt she's coming to kill someone and what if it's you? What then? Who will lead the Society?" Zuko paced across the expanse of his uncle's office, while Iroh still continued to stare out the window calmly.
"There's no use in fearing what the future may or may not bring, nephew. Besides, what worries should I have? Jun is as strong a leader as we could ask for in my absence, you're here, and there is the rest of the council to consider—it's full of nothing but strong leaders. The White Lotus Society is in no danger as far as I am concerned," the gray-haired man finished as he turned his chair to face Zuko, who was now standing off to his side.
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose as he stood there beside the only relative he considered his family. "Uncle, I'm just worried, okay?"
Iroh stood up and walked towards his nephew, who had moved closer to the windows. Resting his hand on the young man's shoulder, he replied, "I know, nephew. I know. Besides, your sister's crazy, so who knows what she's up to?" The old man patted his nephew's back as he chuckled to himself. While Iroh was worried about his niece, he knew there was no use in it. She was too good at what she did and whoever hired her knew that. She would get the job done regardless. And if he was the job, he was as good as dead.
Then again, Iroh wasn't one to take things lying down and shared as much with Zuko. Tapping on the window before them with his knuckles, Iroh looked at his nephew, who wore a look crossed between confusion and anger at his uncle's seemingly nonchalant response to Azula. "Did you know this glass is bullet-proof, Zuko? All of our cars are armored, too – Teo's father took care of them. He also had a Kevlar vest made especially for me; it should be able to withstand those burrowing bullets that make it through traditional bullet-proof vests. And, of course, there's the girls."
"What girls? You mean those geishas from Kyushu? What about them?" Zuko asked, more confused now than he had been previously. He wondered what in the world his uncle was getting at. He had always thought that the girls that his uncle seemed to insist on surrounding himself with were just pretty entertainers for the old man, serving sake and tea on command, dancing, singing, or playing the shamisen as the oyabun requested. He'd always known his uncle to be a ladies' man and had always figured they were there to fulfill any…needs his uncle might have. For a moment, Zuko's face went pale as he tried to steer his imagination from any further colorful thoughts involving his uncle.
The gray-bearded man chuckled to himself for a moment, as his nephew's emotions ran rampant across his face. Iroh stroked his beard as he stared at the wall adorned with a rice paper watercolor painting that one of the women had gifted him with. "And do you think those beautiful young women are here without Jun's approval? They aren't there for show, Zuko. Besides being exquisitely talented and serving as guarantors during ceremonies, they are my personal bodyguards, nephew.
"Those young women once served Jun when she was the leader of the Black Rose Society on Kyushu Island. Sure, they were just a biker gang of young women, but Jun only trusts them to protect me, her husband. I'm honored that my wife would choose such a talented group of ladies as my bodyguards. They're trained in hand-to-hand combat, several types of weaponry, and all of them have sworn their own lives to protect mine. Why such young women would ally themselves to protect an old, graying man is beyond me, but, then again, it was my wife that saved them all from poverty and violence back home. Suki was the one to suggest the make-up and the geisha outfits, said it would keep them anonymous and untraceable, if needed."
Zuko stood there dumbstruck for a moment and sunk into one of the black leather armchairs across from his uncle's desk. He had always thought that there were no secrets between him and his uncle. Obviously, he was wrong. But he recognized the craftiness of his uncle in keeping this quiet. No one in the White Lotus Society suspected these women of being anything more than entertainers or guarantors. While his uncle had always made the appearance of an old mob boss, he now realized that his uncle had a propensity for planning and strategy that Zuko was only beginning to learn of.
Smiling at his nephew, who was still sitting in what Iroh hoped was awe, the grayed oyabun walked up to his desk and pressed the speakerphone button on the telephone. As soon as the young woman answered, he responded, "Ty Lee, could you send in Sokka now?"
There was a crackling noise before the receptionist responded, "Sure, Mr. Sozin. He's on his way in."
Iroh turned to his nephew momentarily. "I think it's time we shared this information regarding your sister with your younger brother, Zuko. He is my most trusted kobun besides you."
Zuko simply nodded his agreement while they waited for Sokka.
"I, uh, well…"
The phone on her desk suddenly lit up and, as programmed, emitted a tinkling ring to notify her that a call was coming in from her boss. Ty Lee had never been so happy to have a call interrupt her conversation. It wasn't that she didn't like Sokka or that she wouldn't enjoy going on a date with him, but she had bigger things to worry about right now. Like how she was going to deal with Azula…
"Excuse me, Sokka. It's Mr. Sozin."
Sokka nodded through his nervousness. Why had she sounded so unsure? Did he say something wrong? Did his breath stink or something? He quickly cupped his hand to his mouth and did a quick check. Besides smelling like coffee, it didn't smell too bad. He considered that maybe she didn't like coffee. Lots of people disliked coffee, right? But then he noticed the small mug on her desk filled to the brim with some of the black brew. He surmised that it couldn't be his breath. But then what?
As Sokka stood there, Ty Lee quickly picked up the call as it came in over her headset. "Yes, Mr. Sozin?" After a short pause, she continued, "Sure, Mr. Sozin. He's on his way in.
"Sokka, Mr. Sozin and Zuko are ready to see you now."
"Uh, thanks, Ty Lee. About a minute ago…" the tanned young man ran his hand through his unbound hair.
"Oh, about that. I'm kind of busy right now with some, uh, stuff. But maybe some other time? Could you give me a rain check?" The young woman beamed a genuine smile at him, hoping he would recognize the sincerity in her statement.
Smiling back, the young man replied, "Okay, I'll give you a rain check." He was glad that she just sounded busy and not repulsed by the idea of going out with him. As he walked towards the boss' office, he called out over his shoulder, "Hope things calm down soon."
"Me, too," she said quietly to herself as he entered the adjoining office. When the young man was out of sight, Ty Lee openly pouted. "She's not even here, yet, and I'm already kowtowing to her demands. Dammit, Azula," she whispered as she returned to her filing.
"Good morning, Sokka!" the old man called out cheerfully. "Please take a seat," he said, motioning to the empty chair next to Zuko.
"Morning, Oyabun," the tanned man replied in return. "So, what's up?"
"Sokka, you're aware that Zuko has a sister, aren't you?" the gray-bearded man asked plainly.
"Zuko has a sister?" Sokka asked back. Of course, Sokka knew Zuko had a sister, he had learned that months ago when he had done some research on the top members of the White Lotus Society. So, instead, he turned in mock surprise to Zuko. "I can't believe you never shared that with me, Zuko!" The old man chuckled at Sokka's jest momentarily. "Nope, sorry, boss, Zuko didn't tell me he had a sister. As you might imagine, we don't exactly 'share' very often."
Iroh's eyebrow perked up momentarily. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me, kobun. Nonetheless, Zuko has a younger sister, a dangerous younger sister, named Azula—"
"What do you mean 'dangerous,' oyabun?" Sokka interrupted momentarily.
"Azula's an assassin for hire, Sokka," Zuko said through clenched teeth. And he was pinching the bridge of his nose again, as if the thought of his sister pained him.
"An assassin? Your sister?" Sokka said, immediately surprised. All the research he'd studied about Zuko's family in Japan said nothing about Zuko's sister being involved in crime of any kind. This meant one thing—she was extremely good at what she did. "And I thought my sister was a pain in the ass…" Sokka realized too late that he had mentioned someone that only Zuko knew about.
"You have a sister, Sokka?" Iroh asked in an attempt to bring the conversation back to a topic of near-normalcy.
"Yeah, she's a nurse at Mercy Hospital downtown. I haven't spoken with her in a while, but she's the kind that worries and bitches at you when you don't call," he responded sheepishly.
"Ah, she sounds like she cares about you very much. Unfortunately, Zuko's sister isn't one much for caring about others. She's more the—" the yakuza boss paused, looking for a descriptor that would describe her appropriately without being too disparaging towards his niece. He was a polite old man after all.
"She's more the point-a-gun-in-your-face-and-fire-point-blank-type is what Uncle's trying to say. Anyway, she's a threat and we'll be on high alert. So keep your eyes open," Zuko finished for him.
"Yes, please watch for anything unusual when you go about your rounds. We have no reason to suspect that Azula's…business has anything to do with us, but we have to be careful. This goes no farther than this room, though. There's no sense in alerting people to a danger that might not even exist and we're not sure who would have hired her anyway. No sense in letting her possible employer know we're aware of her presence in L.A."
"Okay, if you say so, Oyabun. Anything else?" Sokka asked earnestly.
"Also, I need to introduce you to someone," the old man replied. "Suki?"
At his command, a tall young woman with short brown hair wearing skintight dark green leather entered the office from a hidden alcove. The woman's two-piece outfit, which really left nothing to the imagination, covered Suki from her collarbone down to her black leather boots. A lone black stripe ran along each side of the suit, trailing down her arms and down the outer seam of her pants.
"Yes, Mr. Sozin," she replied as she walked up to the three men. She stopped when she reached them and stood up straight, her hands clasped behind her back with military precision, her feet shoulders' width apart.
"Zuko, Sokka, I'd like you to meet Suki, the head of my personal security team. Suki, I believe you're familiar with both Zuko and Sokka."
The young woman extended her hand in greeting. Zuko took it, bowing his head in recognition of her important position. "Nice to finally meet you without your make-up, Suki," the scarred man stated.
"The make-up and our geisha disguises serve a purpose, you know," she responded warmly.
"Uncle explained. Thank you for your continued service to the White Lotus Society," Zuko said while bowing low in gratitude.
"We serve your uncle at Jun's request – we work for no man," Suki replied, her voice slightly colder.
"Wait, you're Suki – where have I heard that name before?" Sokka wondered out loud as he stood off to the side, interrupting Zuko's response.
"Ah, Sokka, you might remember Miss Suki from the other night—she was one of the geishas who served as guarantor at your induction ceremony," Iroh interjected with a slight chuckle. "Suki and the other so-called geishas serve as my personal security team. They only wear those outfits so as to keep their identities and their roles secret."
"Oh, well that makes sense," the blue-eyed man said with a nod of understanding. If anyone understood the importance of keeping secrets, Sokka sure as hell did. Sticking his hand out, he introduced himself with an earnest smile. "Nice to meet you, Suki. Oh, and thanks for your help with the ceremony—couldn't have done it without you!"
Chuckling at his endearing greeting, Suki shook his hand. "You're welcome, Sokka, and nice to meet you, too."
"Wow, you've got an iron grip for a woman! But I guess that makes sense if you're supposed to protect Oyabun, though, right?" Sokka exclaimed, shaking his hand in the air in surprise.
"Right," the young woman replied, her cheeks pinking at the unexpected compliment.
Breaking the short silence, Iroh started, "Right, well, Suki and the other Kyushu guards will be with me at all times, while you two try to figure out what Azula's up to, okay?"
"Sounds good, Uncle. Anything else?" Zuko asked, desperate to get started on figuring out his sister's motives.
"No, that's all for now. Get to work and we'll talk about his later. Zuko, did your sister mention when she was coming to town?"
"No, Uncle, she didn't. But I'd just assume that she's already here," the amber-eyed man replied.
"Very well, then," he said, waving off the two young men. Turning to the young woman, "That'll be all for now, Suki. Let's discuss this in greater detail over lunch later."
"Yes, Mr. Sozin. See you then," the young woman said as she quietly left his office.
Now alone, the old man once again returned his gaze to the city expanse behind him. He stroked his beard as he considered the possibility of his lethal niece watching him. He smiled as he silently welcomed her attempts.
She watched him through a pair of binoculars as she stood in a building a block or so away. It was simply amazing what one could see with strong enough magnification.
"And so it begins, Zuzu. Too bad you're not the one I'm after, dear uncle," she said with a deadly smirk. "It would have been entirely too easy anyways." At that moment, her cell phone rang.
"Hello," she answered impatiently. It was the call she had been expecting all morning.
A gruff male voice answered her, "Have you started your recon work? Seen his schedule? His protection?"
"No, not, yet. But I will soon. There's just the little issue of payment. You'll deposit half upfront in my Swiss account, then deposit the remainder after the job's complete. Understood?"
"Of course," the gruff voice responded smoothly. "It'll be taken care of this morning. See to it that you take care of your end of the bargain."
"Are you questioning my ability to get this job done? Because I believe you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that could take care of this as easily as I could. So don't press your luck." She promptly pulled the phone from her ear and ended the call. As far as Azula was concerned, she wouldn't be lifting a finger until that money showed up in her account.
As Zuko and Sokka drove over to Madame Wu's massage parlor to discuss some business, Zuko's eyes stared over the car-filled, asphalt-lined highway before them. His gaze wandered towards the shimmering reflection from the sun upon the road miles ahead of them. As he often did in these moments of reflection, the Japanese man dug into his breast pocket to grab his cigarette case. As he sought the cool metal case, his fingers brushed against a thick piece of paper lining the pocket. Momentarily confused by the sensation, he pulled the cardstock out. Looking down at it, he realized he was holding the business card that Sokka's sister had handed him a few nights ago. In his haste to get ready that morning, he had simply grabbed the first jacket he could get his hands on. Of course, he had forgotten about the young woman's request.
He glanced over the front of it—Mercy Hospital, it read, listing a phone number for the nurse's station. He flipped it over in his hand, reading "Katara" along the backside, accompanied by what he assumed was her phone number.
For a moment, that familiar twinge of jealousy sprung up in his stomach. While Sokka had admitted he hadn't spoken with his sister in some time, it was obvious that he missed her. And it was apparent that Katara missed her older brother. Of course, he'd never admit to anyone—least of all Sokka—but he envied the man. Saying so out loud, would be like admitting weakness.
And if there was something Zuko never did, it was admit weakness. Sozins weren't weak…
"Kind of funny that we're both estranged from our sisters, isn't it, Zuko?" Sokka asked, interrupting Zuko's thoughts.
"What do you mean 'funny,' Sokka? There's nothing mildly entertaining about my sister," Zuko responded already impatient with Sokka's small talk. He quickly stuffed the business card back into his pocket and grabbed his cigarette case and lighter. He deftly opened the case, released a cigarette from it, lit it, and gratefully inhaled its smoke.
"I'm just saying, it's a little ironic, you know? We're partners, your uncle's our oyabun, we both have sisters…"
"Yes, and that's where our similarities end."
"So, I'm guessing you never miss your sister, huh?"
"Do you think there's a reason to miss one of the deadliest women in the world, who happens to be my sister – someone who's been my constant competition since she was born?"
"Uh, I guess not," Sokka said as he squirmed slightly in his seat, eyes still glued to the road. "Maybe Katara isn't as bad as I thought she was…"
"No, your sister's practically Mother Theresa compared to my sister," the scarred man replied. Taking another inhale of his cigarette, Zuko couldn't stop the words that came out of his mouth – he'd been wondering about Sokka's relationship with his sister since that night at the hospital. "And while we're on the subject, how come you're always complaining about her? But then you whine about missing her… What's up with that?" he asked point-blank.
"Look, my sister's a pain in the ass sometimes—you saw how she laid into me at the hospital—but, well, she's my baby sister. She's practically the only family I have left. And, well, if she found out what I did for a living, I don't think she'd be too happy about it, you know? And, I don't want her to get involved in our…work. I could never forgive myself if she got hurt because of me…" Sokka trailed off as he wound his way through the stop-and-go traffic.
Protecting someone—because you loved them—that was something Zuko could understand; it was something he could relate to. He'd never forgiven himself for being unable to protect his mother. Hell, he had left the damn country in an attempt to forget his failure. He took another long inhale of the spiced cigarette.
"There's no shame in wanting to protect the ones you love, Sokka," he replied quietly as he stared out the opened window.
"Yeah, guess you're right, Zuko." Abruptly changing the subject as he realized he couldn't remember what exit to take, he turned to his passenger, "What's the exit for Madame Wu's again, Zuko?"
Flicking his cigarette out the window, Zuko rubbed his left temple with his hand as his right grabbed for the map in the glove compartment. Obviously, their conversation about protecting family was over for the time being.
On Suki and the Kyushu warriors (as opposed to Kyoshi): I have Suki and her gals hailing from Kyushu Island, the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, as Kyoshi isn't a real place in Japan and I'm trying to base this story in reality. Of course, there was no way I was keeping Suki as a simple geisha—that would be pretty insulting to her character, wouldn't it?
And thanks to everyone for your patience, as well reading and reviewing – I do read your reviews and appreciate them, but I don't really have any time right now to respond. Maybe after I get through finals and before summer school starts? Also, big thanks to Moor for being the best beta reader a gal could ask for!