—appletinis (or, zuko and toph make bad decisions)

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There was a new bartender at the Shirxiu's Nest, and either she was really new and had no idea how to make a drink right or she was a stone-cold alcoholic, because Zuko's screwdriver was more like a Molotov cocktail.

It was, he decided after the first drink, the closest thing to love he would ever experience.

He didn't have a particularly good reason to be drinking the night away except that he didn't have a particularly good reason not to drink the night away, and although Uncle Iroh had a standing offer for Zuko to come over and "shoot the breeze," Zuko rather felt like he would be better off spending his time with people who didn't think that "shoot the breeze" was a current phrase. The more time he spent around Uncle Iroh, he had found, the more he started to sound like a half-batty sixty-something, and at twenty-six, he was no longer young enough to find it ironically cool and still not old enough to get away with it.

About thirty seconds after he ordered his second drink, carefully explaining to the new girl that she had made the first one absolutely perfect and if she kept this up, he'd leave her the biggest tip she'd ever get, a large messenger bag crashed into his lap and nearly took him to the floor.

"Long time, no see," Zuko said evenly, struggling back into a sitting position.

"You're not funny."

He laughed anyway — the only person who ever threw ten-ton messenger bags in his face when she ran into him at the bar was Toph Bei Fong, nominally a harmless super-senior college student majoring in art (which she and Zuko, and no one else, found hilarious), attending NYU on her parents' dime. In reality, Toph was:

1. Blind, but terribly good at something like seeing anyway.
2. The sole (living) heir of a legendary crime family, who were also the Yenrai's arch-nemeses.
3. One of — if not the — most dangerous people ever, living or dead.
4. Plotting to take over the world. (Probably.)
5. Very close to successfully taking over the world. (Definitely.)

Zuko was working on his theory that she was the latest reincarnation of the Norse god Loki, and had yet to find any compelling evidence against it.

They had developed an odd relationship over the last few years, after the final attempt to reconcile the Yenrais and the Bei Fongs had ended with Toph and Zuko setting up at the bar, taking bets on whether Azula would kill Toph's cousin, or vice versa. This had led to a prompt realization that they would be better as allies than enemies, when they both bet on Azula and started conning other patrons into betting on Toph's cousin. Both of them had made out like bandits, but Toph's family was pissed at her for it and left her without a way home, so Zuko had given her a ride and Toph had responded with the most damning four words in any burgeoning partnership:

"I owe you one."

The ensuing cycle of retribution, compensation, body-hidings, intimidation, threats, double-dog-dares, drunken blackouts, pacts of silence, and hungover cleanups had turned them from enemies to allies to business partners and finally to full-on drinking buddies.

If Uncle Iroh was the angel on Zuko's right shoulder, Toph Bei Fong was the devil on the left.

(6. His only friend.)

"So, what do you want?" he asked, indicating to the bar. "I think I still owe you a drink for that newscaster thing."

"Of course you owe me a drink, you owe me like seven drinks," she huffed, and threw her coat into the seat next to him in such a way that implied that it, too, owed her. "I don't care what it is, surprise me. I'm going to pee."

"Oka — "

"No, wait," she said suddenly, snapping her fingers in his general direction, "you like stupid fruity drinks. Get me a drink you'd order for yourself if you were on a date with that doctor chick and wanted her to think you were cool. Now I'm going to pee."

And just as quickly as she'd come, she vanished again into the crowd. He waited until he was sure she couldn't hear him before calling the bartender over.

"A zombie for my friend, but put it in a martini glass with a cherry and tell her it's apple-flavored."

"I'm not sure that's legal," she replied, wide-eyed, and Zuko pulled out his wallet.

"She's done worse to less deserving people for worse reasons and this isn't me paying my tab or tipping you at the end of the night, understand?" he explained, handing her a twenty.

"Now, I'm sure this isn't legal," she muttered, but took the cash anyway.

Zuko had learned a long time ago that the only decent way to deal with Toph was to play by her rules, and now that she grudgingly considered him a friend, treating her like she treated him not only wouldn't get him dragged into a back alley and killed, but it might also teach her to be slightly less awful to people she cared about. It was one of Uncle Iroh's tactics for when he volunteered at the inner-city high schools, and it was one of the few lessons that Uncle Iroh had taught him that Zuko had actually been able to find use for.

(Although he was still trying to find a reason to implement the "although the view is very romantic, when flying a plane over the Siberian steppes, it is unwise to consummate your wedding" lesson.)

The moral of this evening's lesson was simple: Toph needed to realize that her words could hurt and also Zuko was really sick of being mocked for liking fruit.

Besides, with Toph, appearance was everything, and it came in layers — on the surface, she was a giggly college student with a fondness for high-class liqueurs, and in business circles, she was an untouchable bitch who could mainline scotch with the best of them, but with Zuko in the bar after last call, she was a bitterly frustrated, bitterly lonely woman who liked drinks that made her think of summer.

He worried about her sometimes. Or, as he liked to think of it, the Uncle Iroh who lived in his head told him to worry about her sometimes.

"Jesus tapdancing Christ," Toph announced, throwing herself at the bar like it was an island in the ocean, "You would not believe the fucking crowd at the fucking bathroom!"

(And then sometimes he just worried about himself.)

"Really?" he replied, aghast. "But it's eleven o'clock on Saturday night! These people should all be home, in their beds, praying that they fall asleep quickly so they can be awake and alert for dawn Mass."

"I hate you. What am I drinking?" she said, vaguely in the bartender's direction. The girl was looking nervously at the drink, which was obviously not green or martini-looking, and waited for him to make eye contact before replying.

"It's an apple martini. He said you would like it."

Toph turned to glare at him, which was both extremely intimidating and entirely un-frightening thanks to the fact that it was aimed at the person behind Zuko's shoulder (who, it should be noted, was staring at her like a deer caught in headlights).

"I told her to make it strong," he said airily, sipping at his Molotov screwdriver. "There's no shame in drinking an appletini."

"I hate you," she repeated, but took the glass and — as expected — drained it in one go. She paused before setting it down. "That's an interesting appletini," she said ominously.

"Yeah, this bartender's great," he said, raising his glass to toast the girl, who was steadily backing away like she was afraid of being killed or bearing witness to a murder.

"Zuko, what did I just drink."

"A hilarious story waiting to happen."

For a moment, she didn't do anything. And then she started laughing, which clued Zuko in about five seconds too late to stop it.

"Hey, bartender," she said sharply, snapping her fingers again and stopping the poor girl from running to the other side of the bar. "Make my buddy here a double of whatever you just gave me. You'll be paid really damn well for it," she added cheerfully, slinging an arm around Zuko's shoulders. "A hilarious story waiting to happen, indeed."

"I hate you," Zuko grumbled.

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The whistling of the tea kettle and a radio turned up to eleven in the other room (blasting terrible pop songs) started waking him up, but it was the loud thud of someone else's body hitting the floor that brought him all the way into consciousness. He was laying flat on his back, on his bed, in his apartment, half-naked, and reasonably certain that he was dead.

"That Toph?" he asked to the air.

"Toph isn't here right now," her voice whimpered from the floor on the other side of the room. "You'll have to leave a message."

"'m sorry about the zombies."

"I hate you."

"Did we tip the bartender?"

"Did we even pay?"

He tried to roll onto his feet, but a wave of nausea made him reconsider. "How did we get here?" he asked, although he knew the answer: Uncle Iroh. Uncle had a sixth sense for when Zuko had done something stupid and needed to be rescued. But:

"That would be me," an unexpected voice said from the doorway, and Zuko bolted upright, caught a glimpse of brown hair and a tray with a teapot, and followed his momentum straight down to the floor like Toph. "My friend Suki called me from the bar around two," she explained conversationally, "said a couple of rich assholes were harassing the new girl, and what do you know? I think I know one of those assholes, so I get called in to take care of them. You owe me," Dr. Katara Nerrevik said coldly, setting the tea tray on the nightstand with a purposeful click.

Instead of looking up or acknowledging the tray or the ominous declaration, Zuko continued to lay with his head on the floor. "Did we pay for our drinks?" he asked fearfully.

"Sort of. I took your wallet out of your pocket and paid for your drinks, so no but yes."

"How much did we ring up?"

"I didn't ask," Katara replied, just this side of condescendingly, "I handed over a hundred-fifty for the drinks and the trouble."

The only reply he could articulate was a strangled sob.

"Get up," Katara snapped, jerking his shirt in a half-hearted attempt to make him move. "It's Lucky Irish Breakfast tea, and I'm making toast. I don't have all day to sit around and take care of you idiots."

Zuko staggered to his feet, blinking hard several times, and trying to recalibrate himself. Judging by the light coming through the wide-open blinds, it was early or mid-morning. He had to lean against the wall to steady himself, and — while Katara watched darkly — he shuffled to the tea tray, poured a cup, and shuffled around the room until he reached the tangled mountain of sheets and malevolence that was Toph. He pulled on a corner of the sheet until she started pulling it back over herself, and then picked up the spoon and splashed some of the scalding tea on the area of the sheet that was probably her back.

She jolted up, clothing askew and expression violent, stood up to her full five feet of height, snatched the cup of tea out of his hand, and drank it like she'd drunk the not-appletini the night before.

"Doesn't... that... doesn't that hurt?" Katara asked slowly.

"Not as much as you'll hurt if you turn off that goddamn radio," Toph shot back in her signature harmlessly-homicidal tone, and Katara rolled her eyes.

"Look, I've been bled on, puked on, crapped on, spit on, cut up, stabbed with needles, threatened by drug addicts and drug dealers, and once I even got amniotic fluid under my fingernails," she explained, arms crossed. "I'm a doctor. You don't scare me."

Zuko winced in anticipation, but Toph's expression didn't change. It wasn't until she said, "Under your fingernails?" that he realized she was disgusted. He had never seen disgust on Toph's face. Toph Bei Fong just didn't do disgust.

"Mm-hm," Katara replied. "So I'm not turning off the radio. It's loud to help you wake up, and you'll thank me later. There's toast if you think you can eat it, and tea if you need a little caffeine. I have been awake for the last forty-three hours straight," she added deliberately, "and I am going to go home and I am going to go to bed. I have done my good deed. Good night."

She turned on her heel to leave. "Wait," Zuko said, and although she didn't turn back around, the way she stopped said this had better be good, "Where did you put our phones? I'm supposed to — there's calls I need to get and — there's information on them that's — "

"I haven't seen them," she answered before he could go on. "They're probably at the bar with your coats."

"They're — " Zuko started, already barreling past her towards the door.

"Shit — " Toph shouted, running after him.

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Katara stared blankly until the apartment door slammed shut, leaving her alone in Zuko's swanky apartment where he had Audrey Hepburn's complete filmography, for some reason, and a couch so comfortable it should be illegal.

She locked the door, pocketed his keys, and settled into his couch for the most relaxing day off she could possibly imagine.

"Mm," she murmured, sipping her tea, "karma."