posted April 11, 2010

"When is Mommy coming home?"

The question made Zuko flinch. He swallowed hard, then looked up to meet Xumei's wide eyes. Across the table, Zhang scowled at his plate. "I don't know, sweetie." Mai had left only a brief note. Assignment, it'd read. Tell them I love them. She hadn't even signed it. "Soon. She misses you."

Zhang's scowl deepened, but Xumei nodded. "Will she live with us again then?"

It had been raining, when she left. I can't do this, Zuko. Her voice had been soft, desperate, barely audible over water striking the windows. I can't be this.

Be what? he'd asked. He'd gone over the moment hundreds of times since, thought of everything he should have said as he faced her in their darkened apartment, but still couldn't see himself saying anything else.

This. She had shrugged and her voice hadn't changed, but Zuko had seen the tension in her shoulders, the tremble in her hands. Wife. Mother. Everything. She'd turned then, and tears had glistened in her eyes. I can't do this. I've tried.

She had tried, he realized now. She had tried PTA meetings and anti-depressants, a law degree and directing an art museum. Nothing had worked and he'd seen the fire slowly die from her eyes – fire that had burned again as they stood on opposite sides of the couch. I think I understand, now, Zuko thought – but he hadn't then.

Then go, he had said, fists clenched and refusing to look at her. The room had fallen silent for a long time as Zuko stared at the carpet. A faint click as the door closed had broken it, and only then had he closed his eyes against tears. The papers had arrived on Xumei's third birthday, an irony that burned like salt in a wound as Zuko signed their marriage away. They hadn't spoken again until her fifth birthday, a few awkward words exchanged over ice cream and cake as Zhang watched from the stairs.

"Will she?

Xumei's hopeful voice drew Zuko from memory. He swallowed again, trying to dispel the burn at the back of his throat. "I don't know, sweetie," he repeated, and her face fell.

Zhang stood abruptly, plate clattering as he slammed his glass to the table. Zuko flinched at the noise, then narrowed his eyes. His son refused to look at him as he shoved the chair back into place and began to stalk from the kitchen. Zuko's heart twisted, but he didn't allow it to show. "Dishes," he said reprovingly and Zhang stopped. Zuko silently counted to ten, but he only got to seven before the boy turned, scowling, to clear his plate and silverware.

Xumei watched him with wide eyes, then glanced at Zuko and then down at her own plate. She had insisted that he cut her meat into neat slices but now she stared at her peas. Across the kitchen, Zhang ran hot water into the sink, dumped in soap, waited for the basin to fill before he dropped his dishes in with a clatter.

Zuko frowned at his back, but Zhang dutifully scrubbed and rinsed, set each piece into the drying rack. Xumei ate her peas slowly, stabbing each one on her fork with a sharp click and Zuko allowed himself to relax.

Sudden pounding shattered that peace and Zuko had gained his feet, Glock in hand, before he realized it. "Go," he hissed over his shoulder, and watched both Xumei and Zhang scramble up the stairs without protest. Relief flooded him at that small mercy as he stepped towards the apartment's entry.

"Damn you, open the door!" the caller shouted as they – she – continued to pound at it. Zuko tensed and braced himself as the pounding stopped for an instant – then took aim as the frame shattered and the door flew open.

Ka – his contact – Zuko reminded himself, glared at him. Wisps of hair had escaped from her braids and her jacket was askew, barely revealing the thunderbird tattooed across her shoulders. "You didn't tell me you were a cop!"

Zuko grit his teeth. "Such is the nature of undercover work," he snapped before he could stop himself – then realized his cover was already blown and he had more important considerations.

"You ass," she started, but cut off as they both heard footsteps pounding up the complex stairwell. Katara's eyes widened, then narrowed. "They know," she said simply, but he was already running for the kitchen and the stairs beyond it.

Xumei and Zhang sat on her bed, their worried faces stark against the pink frills. He wanted to stoop and crush them to him and tell them everything would be okay and that he loved them more than anything, but instead he nodded once in sharp approval. "The fire escape," he said simply, and they scrambled for the window like they'd been taught as he covered the kitchen stairs.

Katara appeared in the doorway, froze as she noticed his aim. Her face clouded in anger even as she held her hands carefully away from her body. "I came to warn you," she snapped. "Number One figured it out, and if he finds out I got here first he'll kill me too."

"Right," Zuko said, listening to his children's footsteps on the metal grating outside.

"I'm serious, Li," she said, her voice almost pleading, but Zuko didn't lower the Glock. Behind him, he heard a faint shudder and bang as Xumei and Zhang reached the lower level.

"So am I," he said, then lunged for the window, following his children, Katara's curse ringing behind him as he leapt down the ladder. He scooped up Xumei and pushed Zhang forward and they rushed down the fire escape towards the alley's grimy pavement. "Be ready to run," he told Zhang as they reached the lowest level and Zuko kicked the ladder open. Zhang scrambled down it and Zuko followed; above him, he heard the first shouts from deep male voices.

Something dropped to the ground beside him and he whirled, but Xumei hindered his effort to aim the Glock for a terrifying instant. Relief almost flooded him as Katara straightened from a crouch to glare at him. "You didn't tell me you had kids!"

"There's a lot of things I didn't tell you," Zuko snapped, fumbling with the Glock, aware that Zhang watched them closely. "Now are you going to help me or talk at me, because if you aren't helping me then –"

"You ass," she hissed again. "Of course I'm –" Another shout cut her off and Zuko pressed Xumei's head into his shoulder.

"Let's go," he shouted at Zhang and he followed the boy from the alley, Katara's footsteps sounding behind them.

"This way," she said as Zuko started to turn left towards the Department. He started to shrug her hand off his arm, but her next words stopped him cold. "Half your precinct is us – how do you think Number One figured it out?"

Boots hit metal grates above them as Zuko stared at her. "You don't have anyone to turn to, Detective," she said, no mockery in her voice and something in her eyes he couldn't read. "No one but me." He stared at her a moment longer and she met his gaze evenly. "Do you trust me?"

Zuko stood frozen for an instant longer, glued to the spot by fear, and anger, and memory, Xumei's arms tight around his neck and Zhang's eyes wide with fear. "Do I have a choice?" he finally asked, and Katara flashed him her breath-taking smile.

"That's the spirit," she said, then turned her smile to Zhang and took the boy's hand. "Now follow me."

Author's Note: You all can blame Moor for this. She requested an AU Zutara drabble with protective-daddy!Zuko and mafia!Katara, and this ended up being just the start.

Now, we all know how much I suck at drabble (because it never stays drabble), but I swear swear swear that this one will be an exercise in brevity rather than in rich cultural description. And I assure you that the decision has nothing to do with the fact that I know nothing about mafia or organized crime beyond that depicted in Marvel comics.