DISCLAIMER: I do not own "Avatar: The Last Airbender"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: In honor of Zutara Week, I finally put my ass in gear and wrote a new chapter. Thanks for waiting so patiently, I'm so sorry it took so long. Please read, and enjoy! Also, I realized I made a bit of a crucial typo in chapter 3 when Piandao said "In a week, Ozai and his posse will be leaving for Paris, France". What I meant to say that for a week, Ozai and his posse will be in Paris. I realize that could have caused a bit of confusion, so just clearing that up.
Katara had been to Paris before, on a mission, but the target was located and eliminated within hours, so she was never able to come to Paris and truly see Paris. Now, as their nondescript black limousine drove down the Parisian streets lined with finely trimmed tress, wide sidewalks, and beautiful people in beautiful clothes - she suddenly felt like a princess coming to the ball. Even the air smelled of art and romance and bread. She knew how absoluetly ridiculous that sounded in her mind, but she couldn't help it if her feelings were cliche.
"Katara, we've been to Paris before." Zuko said next to her on the plush leather seats.
"You've been to Paris before," Katara clarified, still not turning to face him. "The way you're supposed visit Paris. I've been to Paris and didn't even stop to eat a crêpe. I never knew how magical this city is."
Katara turned to see Zuko smirking at her, a type of childish spark in his eyes.
"Nothing. It's just, you're kind of adorable."
Katara laughed bitterly, turning back to face the window. A girl like her with the blood of hundreds on her hands was anything but , she couldn't help the butterflies in her stomach when she felt his eyes on her back.
"We haven't been to Paris sense last Christmas, haven't we Azula?" asked Ty Lee in that same bright pink bubble gum voice that Katara had come to assume was her usual tone of voice.
"Yes, Christmas in Paris is always so beautiful, right Katara? Oh wait, I forgot, you've never spent Christmas in Paris. Or, much of anywhere else, really."
Azula's full, sick smile only poured salt on the fresh wound she just dealt Katara.
Apparently, any type of ally was not to be found in her. Not that Katara was surprised. During her first days in the Squad, Azula had made a point of destroying her on every field to hold her title as the best shot on the team. Any knife in her back would certainly come from her.
Katara had to struggle so hard to smile in return that her jaw shook.
Within minutes, they were pulling into the large, wrap-around drive of a hotel which easily could have passed as a palace. The elegance on the exterior only flowed into the lobby. Marble floors, mile high ceilings and a crystal chandelier suspended over the whole of the space. She could see her reflection in the plated gold that lined the walls. Four years ago, such finery and elegance and wealth would have been nothing more than a part of the mission, but after so long, that world felt so far beyond her now.
She would have continued to stare with open-mouthed amazement if she hadn't felt Zuko squeeze her hand, grabbing her attention.
"You're beginning to show your colors, Sage." he whispered next to her ear, his breath warm on her neck. His voice was firm, but his expression was flirtatious. That sudden intrusion shocked her back into herself. She blinked, clearing the fairy dust from her eyes, and could see Azula's narrow gaze on her, a smirk curling up the side of her face. Zuko was right, if she continued to be so transparent, she would jeopardize the whole of the mission.
"Sorry," she whispered, plastering on a fake smile to cover the truth of their hushed conversation. "It's just...been a while. Forgive me for feeling the pauper here, which I am."
Zuko's grip tightened.
"Don't let that get to you. You've done this before, so many times, this is your stage."
Katara finally turned her head to see the gold in his eyes bearing down on her. There was his usual all-consuming confidence there, but not so much confidence in himself. More confidence in her. It was a stare she had seen before, but it still managed to break her open after all of this time.
Before she could respond with anything close to logical, Zuko was pulling her from the lobby towards a series of elevators that could have very well been lined with crystal.
"We're going on up." he called over his shoulder to his family just as the elevator doors silently closed.
Considering the old-world style elevator man who they shared the spacious, upholstered elevator with, they rode up twenty floors in silence. It was a tense, heavy silence that filled the elevator with emotional humidity. In New York, the whole of this mission still seemed far away, a part from her. Now, in Paris, feeling the cool metal of her Nagant against her leg through the leggings, it was suddenly very real.
There were few rooms on their floor: probably because of the high-clientele. Zuko lead her to a wide door with the numbers "2010" in plated gold over the top. The keys were even elegant, being actual iron keys that could have been handmade a century ago instead of the electronic cards she had become accustomed to. When he swung the door open ahead of her, she was certain she had walked into a dream.
It was like something taken directly from Versailles. The room was cream-colored, and larger than her entire apartment, she was sure, and leaked luxury. The natural light was the first thing that hit her because of the wall lined with Victorian style french doors that looked over the front courtyard. One side of the room was taken up by their very own living room with a lounge chaise, two plush chairs, and a coffee table that held a large gift basket, courtesy of the hotel. Gift basket meaning a Louis Vuitton carry-on bag stuffed with fine chocolate, fruit, Chanel and champagne. That would definetly be included in her compensation.
She spotted the door to the bathroom immediately, and could not stop herself from opening the double doors, and certainly couldn't stop the blissful sigh that came from deep inside of her when she saw the spa that they passed for a bathroom. The room itself was round, with a cloud mosaic on the ceiling, and a miniature version of the chandelier from the lobby suspended from the center. The curved walls were completely made up of mirrors, with one window, and a fireplace - fireplace. The tan marble was so clean and smooth that Katara could see her reflection in them. There was a full vanity for each of the two sinks, and then one large vanity with its own gold ornamented mirror, complete with a set of silver brushes, combs, and hand mirrors. On one of the far walls was a tiled shower with too many faucets and shower heads to manage, so big, Katara could throw a rave in it, but the true jewel of the bathroom was the porcelin claw-foot tub in the center of the room. It was deep enough to do laps in. Katara would have to be careful not to spend the whole of the mission in that tub.
There was an antique writing desk across from the windows, and on the end of the room opposite from the lounge area was what must have been the largest bed she'd ever seen. In all of her espionage years, she had never stayed in a room with a bed that could be its own borough. She literally squealed, and, embracing her immaturity, sprinted across the room and launched herself onto the bed. It was like being embraced by a cloud. A cool, cotton-candy soft, memory foam cloud. Her eyes instantly closed, and she could feel herself weightlessly floating off. She wanted to meet the person who made that mattress and thank them for putting so much comfort into one bed.
Katara bolted up, the wonder now gone, and could tell by the way Zuko smirked - his hip leaning against the wall, and his hands lazily hanging in the pockets of his jeans - that he knew exactly what had broken her disallusion.
"Are we...both sharing this room?" Katara asked, actually fearful of the answer. Zuko shrugged indifferently, but his eyes were alight with childish mischief.
"Well, we did make these reservations six months ago, when it was just me in here. It was too late to change, I'm afraid. Why?" Zuko pushed off of the wall and began to slowly stride towards the bed. Katara was suddenly feeling extremely vulnerable, like a deer in a hunter's crosshairs.
"Don't tell me you're nervous about being alone with me for so long, Katara." The deep tone in his voice was one Katara had heard one too many times before, and was dismayed to find that it still had the same effect on her. She instantly sat straight, her back against the mahogany head-board, hardening her face from showing any revealing emotions.
"Hardly." she answered, smoothing out her hair. "I was just thinking about the terrible knot you'll have in your back after you spend a week sleeping on the chaise. So, when do we hear from the God-"
Zuko quickly held up his hand, stopping her question mid-sentence. Katara's nerves suddenly turned to anger. He did not just give her the hand. Katara began to ask what the hell he thought he was doing, but when she opened her mouth to rain her wrath down on him, he held his finger to his mouth and screamed silence through his eyes. Katara was confused, but she kept her mouth closed.
Zuko then began to walk the perimeter of the room, feeling along the wall with the tip of his fingers. His face was drawn with concentration as he walked. He felt along the edge of a framed painting, and then stopped. He lifted the frame, and from behind it pulled a small, black device the size of an eraser head, that Katara promptly recognized as a bug.
She caught on quickly, and began to search under and around the massive bed, and the bedside tables while Zuko worked the perimeter of the room. After five minutes, they had located six other bugs: one under the coffee table, in the hotel phone, in the lamp shade by the bed, under the bed, and two in the bathroom. Katara shouldn't have been surprised, but considering how long it had been since she'd seen a bug, holding one in her hand and knowing that someone was hanging on her every hushed word again sent a chill through her.
"I don't assume this hotel has a policy of bugging its customers' rooms."
Zuko sighed, throwing the bug up and catching it again in his hand, as harmless as a penny now that it was deactivated.
"Not usually, no. But I don't need to guess that these were planted by my father."
Katara's eyes widened as she stared at Zuko's downcast face.
"Ozai bugs your rooms? Is the man really that paranoid?"
"Yeah, he is. And considering that we were brought here specifically to kill him, it's a founded paranoia. We can't destroy them because he'll realize something's up, so we'll have to watch what we say. When we do have to talk about the mission, we'll deactivate them."
Katara sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs at the ankle.
"But, won't he still be suspicious if there are periods of deactivation on the tape?"
Zuko shook his head and ran his hand through his thickening hair.
"Not as suspicious as he would be if we cut them off all together. He knew that I would know he had them planted, that's not our problem. The problem would be if he knew that we know and knew that we destroyed them. He assumes that there are things I would...um...rather keep private."
The way Zuko's eyes scanned her form made Katara blush, but they did not speak of the implications. There was a knock at the door, and, very lamely, Katara hid the bugs in her hand under one of the many plush pillows, and tried to act as unsuspecting as possible. Fortunately, it was just a hotel employee bringing up two luggage carts full of their luggage. Zuko gave him a pleasant tip of 100 euros, and sent him quickly out.
They both immediately went for the large, vintage traveling trunk that took up most of the space on the luggage carts. It was sealed with a numerical lock that only they shared, and a finger print scan. Even then, there were precautions. When first opened and searched superficially, it appeared to hold only coats and jackets. But, underneath the first panel, they had all of the Mechanist's gadgets and devices, some Katara had never seen before and couldn't wait to use. Under the second panel, it was revealed the whole of their arms collections.
Automatic weapons, semiautomatics, sniper rifles, machine guns, shotguns, a few pistols, throwing knives, ample supply of magazines and bullets, and Katara's katana. The guns were all broken down to make for less space, and not be as easily detectable by a scanner. Not that they could be, anyway. The Mechanist lined all of their luggage with an invention that projected false images onto a 3D scanner, making for easy travel. Perhaps it wasn't the most legal move to make, but it certainly cut down on time.
"Looks like everything's here." Zuko said, sitting back on his heels. "You good?"
Katara half-way unsheathed her katana, and the sun hit the metal, causing it to shine.
"Yeah, I'm good."
" 'Kay. Piandao said to contact him as soon as we were clear."
Zuko dug his Lotus.30 out of his carry-on, leaning back against the legs of one of the lounge chairs. Katara sat in the chair above him, looking over his shoulder. He pressed a button on the side of the device, and a list of names lit up the screen, he pressed the top one, which read, "The Godfather".
Instantly, Piandao's face appeared on the screen, although he seemed otherwise occupied.
"Teo, are you sure this thing is on? Well, how do I know if it is on or not? Yes, yes, I see the green light, does that mean it's? Streaming? Teo speak English to me, I don't know what that means!"
Piandao's face turned to look into the camera fully, and both Katara and Zuko smiled from the other end. Piadao coughed deeply, and straightened his back.
"Yes, well, hello Blackthorn, Sage. How has it been going?"
"Seamless." Katara answered.
"Is your location secure?"
Zuko answered, "We've removed all the bugs, and we're two of five other guests on this floor. We should be good for now."
"Very good. We will connect you with the rest of the Squad, for this information is for all of you. If I could just...figure out..." There was the sound of buttons being pushed and for a moment Piandao's image was upside down. Finally, he seemed to give up and summoned Teo. Within seconds, Piando's image shared the screen with three others. In one, they could clearly see the faces of Aang and Toph, Jet and Suki sharing another, and Sokka in one by himself.
"Now that we are all here -"
"Wow, nice room!" Sokka said, leaning forward, towards the camera, moving his head as if he could see around Zuko and Katara. "Hey, swipe a robe for me, Sage."
Katara took the Lotus.30 from Zuko, and held it close to her face, speaking directly to Sokka.
"Sokka, what are you doing here, you're not part of this mission!"
"I'm just here to make sure how things are going okay." Her brother said, still trying to look around her. "Zuko hasn't tried anything, has he? If he has, I'll -!"
"He'll what, bore me to death with science?" Zuko said, smirking to himself. Sokka leaned so close to the camera that his eye took up a majority of the screen.
"Is that him? Where is he?"
"Master Sokka, please get off of this channel!" Piandao shouted. Sokka held up his hands, sitting back.
"Okay, okay, I'm leaving. Good luck, everyone, and be careful!" Then, her brother's image vanished.
"As I was saying," Piandao crossed his arms behind his back. "Now that we are all here, the whole of the mission can be revealed to you. Hawthorne, Nightshades, Tiger Lily, Snapdragon, you arrived with little disturbance, correct?"
"Snapdragon forgot to empty his pockets before going through the metal detector, so he had to get a pat down that held us up for ten minutes, but otherwise, yeah little disturbance." said Nightshades, her feet propped up to the side of the camera.
Jet shrugged and propped his arms behind his head as he leaned back.
"Hey, I think that one TSA agent had a thing for me."
Suki nudged him in the ribs sharply, causing him to double over in pain.
"I know this is hard for you to imagine, but not every female you encounter is attracted to you."
"How's it going in the lion's pit, Sage?" Hawthorne asked, leaning closer to the camera. Katara pulled at a section of her hair - a nervous habit - and averted her eyes from the screen.
"I'm still alive, if that means anything. My soul may have been devoured by Azula's eyes, however, and you won't believe what her friends are -"
"Okay, who took my gum?!"
"Nobody took your gum, Nightshades."
"It was in my pocket when I got off the plane. Snapdragon if that's my gum I hear you chewing I'm gonna slap that smirk off your face!"
"Could we just get briefed, please!"
Zuko's yell could have been heard at Normandy. It was enough to halt all conversation in an instant. Katara almost laughed at the irony of it all. Four years without her, and the Squad still operated the same way. Piandao took that as the opportune time to regain order.
"Yes, Blackthorn is right, we do not have much time. At the previous briefing, you were told that this is gathering in Paris an annual meeting of the major criminal masterminds that serve under Ozai. There are others besides his immediate posse who will need to be eliminated before Ozai can be taken out."
The whole screen was suddenly taken up by a new image. It was of a man - or at least she thought it was a man - with a face completely covered in white paint. His lips were red, and there were grey circles around his eyes. All of the hair was shaved from his head, including the eyebrows, which were drawn on. His smile was wide, but cold and menacing. Those dark eyes bore into her very center, it seemed.
They could no longer see Piandao, or the other members of the Squad, but they could hear his voice when he said, "This man is called Koh, the Face Stealer. He is the leading drug lord in France, based here in Paris. No one truly knows what he looks like because the mask is tattooed onto his face. He is called the Face Stealer because those who cross him literally and figuratively dissapear. Once people become dealers under him, they vanish from society and are never heard from again. All of his bodyguards wear back masks, hiding their identities. He will be particularly difficult to eliminate because of his established presence here in Paris. He will have to be taken out first, for if he senses any hint of a plot in this city, he will be spirited off to Mont Saint-Michel, and out of our reach."
The next reminded Katara more of a boy band than feared killers. It was a group picture of five men. They were each different in appearance, but dressed similarly. One had many piercings, and a braided beard and mustache. Another had a thick brunette beard that made him look like a lumberjack. Another was extremely tan with bulging muscles he that exposed by wearing nothing but a leather vest. Another was relatively young with mysterious, ornate red tattoos surrounding his eyes, and one's face could not be described at all because he wore a red mask with only slanted slats as windows to the outside.
"So, Ozai is employing the Village People to do his dirty work?" Katara could not see, but she could certainly hear the smirk in Jet's tone.
"Close, but not quite." said Piandao. "These are all major mafia bosses out of Sicily. Though extremely dangerous on their own, together they are called the Rough Rhinos: Mongke Risso, Kahchi Costa, Ogodel Mancini, Vachir Moretti, and Yeh-Lu Bianchi. They were once only a minor street gang - Vachir actually being a cousin of Zhao Moretti - but with Ozai's sponsorship and Zhao tutelage, they have risen to have influence across the whole of Italy. Eliminating them will not only lessen Ozai's ranks, but also free Italy of these destructive underworld lords."
The next image was of a stoic man with hard, intimidating eyes, who seemed mysterious, but normal, apart from a tattoo of a Third Eye in the center of his forehead.
"This man essentially has no name. If he does, no one has ever heard it, for he does not speak. He is only known as Bezymyannyy - Nameless. He is a lone assassin who has plagued Russia, and the whole of Eastern Europe for years. He charges a minumum of $500,00 US dollars per hit, with the highest amount ever paid being $5,000,000 dollars for the death of the 10 year old daughter of a powerful Russian mafia boss. He fights like an assassin, and he operates like an assassin, making him hard to pin down. Also, because of a childhood accident, his right arm and leg are bionic and virtually industructable. Eliminating him will prove to be a great challenge for you, Sage and Blackthorn."
Zuko turned to look over his shoulder up at Katara. She read the language in his eyes and nodded. He turned back to the Lotus.30.
"We've handled worse."
This next image was of an older woman with a sharp and intimidating face, her mouth pinched into a sour point and her hair up in a complicated bun. The woman was rather frightening, and Katara felt that she might have had her as a calculus professor freshman year.
"This woman is Kwan Stein, out of Germany, known as Lehrerin or The Teacher. On the surface, she is the Madam of a refined brothel in Berlin called Der Rote Schal that catered to some of the most powerful men in the Third Reich, but for the last thirty years, she has been operating a drug ring that consumes Poland, Austria, the Netherlands and even some of the UK. She is flanked by a skilled team of very capable, all-female bodyguards who she calls her Schulerin - students. To get to her, you must get through them."
The last image was of an older man with a stern, hard face drawn down into a frown. His hair was black and long, hanging down his back loosely. He did not seem to be a man who took part in the finer things in life, and had seen things that shouldn't. Though, Katara felt that she had seen his black eyes before.
"And, this is Kazuo Miyazaki. He is Mai Miyazaki's uncle, and her father's second in command. He was sent here to represent his brother. He does not travel with as heavy a regiment as the others, but he is a capable fighter, so do not understimate him."
The screen was once again split into three sections, Piandao's face being the larger one.
"Including Ozai and his cohorts, these are your targets. Your deadline to complete the mission is five days from today, on Friday. I will be in contact with any developments, Teo will be monitoring and giving you the target's locations, along with any technical aid. Understood?"
The Squad echoed, "Yes, Godfather."
"Very good. Good luck, chaps. Godfather out." Then, his image was gone, and the Squad was alone.
"We'll be around when you need us." said Suki from her shared screen with Jet. "Keep in touch."
"Have fun kids, and don't do anything I would do, even though I know you will. Ow! God, Tiger Lily you're so violent! This is why I never partner with you - " Then, their image too was gone.
"For once, I agree with his royal imbecile, Snapdragon." said Nightshades, her head slightly turned towards the camera. "Try to have some fun while you're here, Sugar Queen. You're in need of a good time, and if anyone can give a perpetual stick in the mud who wouldn't know a good time if it climbed down her chimney saying 'ho,ho,ho' a good time, it's Scarface."
Katara could never really tell what was an endearment or an insult with Toph, so she could only say, "Thanks, Nightshades...I guess."
Hawthorne leaned forward, and Katara felt that the wisdom in his grey eyes was speaking directly to her.
"We're here for you. Good luck, Sage."
Then the whole screen was once again nothing but a rotating Pai Sho tile.
Katara finally allowed herself to sink back into the chair, blowing tendrils of hair up over her forehead.
"Twelve targets in five days." she said, exhaustion covering her just thinking about it.
"Not to mention all the bodyguards." Zuko added, his voice just as heavy.
She could see that he too was beginning to feel the weight of this mission. It was the biggest hit they had ever taken on in their career as partners. And it carried the most weight. If they succeded, they would free over a third of the world from some of the most infamous and dangerous crime lords in the world. If not, the world's underworld would be at their throats.
For a moment, they sat in silence, the noises and smells from the streets wafting up into their room, the sun's light casting rays onto the beige floor. She supposed this was some kind of calm before the storm.
"Do you think we can do this?" she finally asked.
After a minute of silence, Zuko answered, "We have to."
Suddenly, Zuko bounded to his feet. He grabbed his coat, which had been languidly tossed over the back of one of the chairs.
"Most of these guys will be with us all week, and'll be able to ID us. So, before we do anything, we need proper disguises."
Zuko also grabbed Katara's pea coat and tossed it into her lap.
"We're going shopping in Paris."
AN: Okay, guys, there it is! Not the longest or most well-written chapter, maybe, but it does introduce a lot of new information. And just to clarify, Kwan Stein is modeled after Aang's teacher from "The Head Band" whose name is apparently Kwan - who knew. I am so sorry, again, for taking SO LONG to update. The next chapter may still take a while to get up because of life and what not, but I will try my hardest not to let so many months pass between updates. Thanks so much to readers who've been with this story since chapter 1 for being so patient, and welcome to new readers, and I hope you stick around! Also, the title song for this chapter is "Canned Heat" by Jamiroquai.
Next chapter will feature a good-ole costume montage, awkward dinners, and a shoot out at the Louvre. R&R, please!