AN:
8/26/2013

Hey guys, sorry for such a long wait. I've had it written for a while but I was just not happy with it. But anyway, there will be some questions answered that the last chapter brought up, AS WELL as a few eyebrows raised...

Let me know if I've made some mistakes. I don't have a beta!

Read and review! And of course ATLA is not mine, just borrowing to get that creative muscle pumping!

Chapter 2: A Drink at The Painted Lady

He adjusted the mask over his face.

Yup, for a guy who was really knee deep in shit, these little trysts of his were a horrible, horrible idea.

But for the first time all day, he felt awake.

He shook a paint can up and down, about to unleash on a new office building of his father's that had replaced a community library.

Right before his assault on the wall, he heard a scream. There were plenty of screams in a big city. Probably a little kid, or a couple in a nearby apartment. He heard some shuffling, a loud grunt, a swear word. Another scream.

Zuko bounded from the wall. He ripped his mask off and stuffed it into his duffel bag with his spray paint and shoved it into the corner of a fire escape.

He jumped from fire escape to fire escape until he reached the bottom of an alley where he saw a girl struggling against the bulk of a man up against the wall. It was dark and he couldn't tell what he was seeing.

He stopped for half a second, aghast. He knew this wasn't the best part of town but...what a creep.

"Hey! Get off of h-

In an instant the man backed off of her clutching his eye.

"ARGH! CRAZY BITCH! WHAT'D YOU- MY EYE. There's...you spit glass into my eye!"

As he was stumbling, she maneuvered her arms until a torrent of gray water from a nearby gutter rushed at the man, freezing him in place.

Zuko stopped short, arms hanging limply at his sides.

He pulled his hood up on his sweatshirt.

She looked over at him, arms still out in bending stance, which was, from what he could tell in the shadows, a pretty advanced form.

"I'm here to help you, not him."

The man was still struggling in the dirty ice. Zuko, his back to the girl, pulled out a metal scrap from behind the dumpster. He heard the girl yell something at him but in one swift motion he hit him over the head and the man went still.

"Shit," said the girl as she melted the ice. Zuko barely glanced at her as he strut forward, dragging the man towards a yellow orange light, and the back of what looked like a bar.

There was a tall wooden gate past a plastic lawn table with an ash tray on it. He opened it, dragged the guy out and laid him on a fluffy pile of trash, then went back in and closed the door.

"...Fucking disgusting pig," he said as he walked back, brushing off his hands. "I should have ripped him to shr-

"Why in the world did you do that?" came a voice from the darkness. He could see she was sitting in the shadows of the picnic table.

He stopped short, confused. "I-"

"I was handling things just fine."

He stepped closer, trying to get a look at her face.

"With all due respect Miss-

She got up swiftly, stepping towards him and squaring her shoulders.

"Don't bother. I get it, I appreciate it, but you've just gone and gotten me in trouble," she huffed, with a downward flick of her hand.

She reached the weak pool of light, and his skin tore itself apart in gooseflesh.

The orange glow was harsh, casting grotesque shadows on her face. But she was beautiful, and he felt awake again.

The thought of what his own face would look like under the unforgiving light snapped him back to attention. Zuko composed himself.

"I'm confused?"

"He's my boss' son."

"Doesn't make it okay," he shot back.

She rolled her eyes. "Look. I've had to deal with this countless times. I always put him in his place. This. This is going to take me weeks to undo. What's gonna happen when he wakes up, Problem-Solver?"

He stepped closer, unaware that he was puffing out his chest. "I don't think he's going to be making any trouble around here any-

"Do you even hear yourself?!" she interrupted, going for the extra half step that burst Zuko's personal bubble until he could feel the rush of air as each word hit his face.

"He's going to be PISSED and I'm lucky if being fired is all that happens to-

Zuko's hood had fallen back as he inched away from her.

"...me."

There was a tense pause of silence in which Zuko had considered making a run for it.

"I know you," said the girl quietly, eyes hard under a furrowed brow.

He balked. Crap.

"You're…you're Zuko Lordfyre."

"…the third," he answered weakly.

She crossed her arms.

"You saved that boy. That boy from Waterside." She tilted her head to the side, regarding him. "That cop took you in. I saw it on the news."

He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing he was anywhere else. "Yeah, that was me."

She folded her arms across her chest and smirked at him. It was the first notice he took of her wild red makeup, shadow over her eyes and lips, and the stripes on her face. She was wearing some sort of archaic robe with long sleeves, and a red sash tied it together. She looked ridiculously other wordly.

"Do you make it a habit of saving people?" There was an amused tone to her voice. She hunched her shoulders over conspiratorially while her arms were folded in front of her, squinting at him. "Or are you some sort of vigilante?" said the girl in a mock whisper.

He thought of his blue mask hidden away in his duffel bag in the corner of a fire escape.

Zuko relaxed at her friendly tone, leaning over, but missing the ledge, before righting himself.

"Well. I couldn't just stand around doing nothing, not with that cop beating the crap of some kid who hadn't even done anything," he said, his words slathered in machismo.

She turned to go, side-eyeing him. "Hm. Well, it was pretty stupid of you-

His arms dropped at his sides. He cut her off.

"He was just a little kid. Don't you know what the cops are like down in Waterside?"

She whipped back around to meet him, any wisp of congeniality ripped from the air between them.

"Don't act like you have ANY idea what it's like there just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time AND happen to be son of the man who owns most of the city, and let's face it, most of the elected officials. If I was there, I'd have stopped that cop too, but let's just say I wouldn't be standing here telling you about it."

He didn't mean to snarl, but he did.

"You got some nerve. Not all the cops are crooked. And even if they were, you're a girl. They go easy on girls."

He didn't know why, but the image of a raging whirlpool suddenly corked in a bathtub flashed in his mind.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," he shot back. "Don't you know anything?"

"I guess my mother's murder during the raid on the Waterside Projects ten years ago was some sort of aberration then?"

Yeah, that shut him up real quick.

He closed his eyes.

Of course. The Tribe Shootings. Twelve children and six women dead at the Waterside Projects while thugs raided the building looking for Big Bato. The cops had actually interfered that time, shooting indiscriminately at anything that moved. General consensus was that things like this happen when you run afoul an undesirable crowd.

But nobody had much to say when those gurneys were wheeled out with little wrapped bodies on the local news. There were of course, squeamish bouts of political correctness from elected officials behind burnished podiums about the denizens of Waterside. About the importance of avoiding senseless violence. About staying in school to shirk a life of crime. Zuko wondered about the strange reality of being spoken about, but never addressed directly.

No one said it, but for those kids, their biggest offense had been being born.

"Look. I'm sorry. I was out of line."

The girl looked like she was going to say more but she stopped herself, waving him off.

"You were just trying to help. And thank you, about that little boy. Especially coming from you. You must be extra disowned now. The neighborhood was on the streets thanking your asshole father for bringing you into this world. Ironically, of course."

He managed to choke out a laugh.

"Yeah well. That little stunt didn't go over well. I got a red bullet in the mail the other day."

She gasped.

"A red bullet? For helping that boy?!"

"For obstructing justice. Disorderly Conduct. Aiding and abetting."

"So they suspended your bending license?!"

"Yup."

"Your…father…?"

"Is probably laughing his ass off about his fuck up son."'

"What are you going to do? How long?

"One to three years. They'll let me know soon."

"But…how can you go on without bending that long?"

"I can't. I've been doing my forms and stuff but…well." He shot her a crooked smile.

"There are a lot of places where you can bend without a permit or license. You just have to know where to go."

Smiling, she rolled her eyes, and he could see where the red makeup had creased into her eyelids. With a generous sweep of her robe, she turned to go.

"Hey wait-

"I've got to get back to work. I'm way over my break."

"What's your name?"

She paused at the doorway of the back of the establishment and sighed. She turned a bit. "My name's Katara."

He nodded. "Goodnight then, Katara. Sorry again, bout all-

The door shut abruptly.

He stared at the door, dumbfounded for a couple of minutes. What the hell just happened? He got schooled by a bender girl from Waterside in a ridiculous costume, more than once.

What is this place, anyway?

He took his first scrutinizing look at the back of the building. It looked different from the boring facades of the others on the street. He rounded the corner out of the gate to get to the front.

"Hm. The Painted Lady."

He went in.

Most of the patrons were male, and any women were either companions draped over the men or were wearing robes like that girl-Katara's. He didn't see her anywhere. In the back was a raised stage platform, and a girl earthbending in what looked like an outfit made of bunch of carefully placed leaves.

She was currently traipsing around on stage doing some simple bending. It wasn't very advanced but the crowd was captivated. Around her twirled minerals-quartz and the like-and they caught the light in a glittering display.

He took a seat at the bar, and ordered a drink.

It didn't take long to spot Katara walking over to a table, trying not to trip over her silly robe. He felt guilty, watching her. He hadn't exactly been invited in or anything. But it didn't really make sense. A girl like that—a girl who could bend like that—had clearly studied her forms at a high institution. What was she doing in a place like this?

"KATARA!"

Zuko whipped around like it was his own name called. He spotted her shuffling over to two large men. Shit. One of them was the big bald creep he had hit over the head. He shrank into his stool.

He could only hear snatches of what was said.

Zuko tensed in his barstool, straining to hear and see what was happening. The ogreish form of the man from outside was in front of her, dwarfing the man who yelled for her. That must be the boss.

"—and she froze me-some punk boyfriend—glass ice—"

The boss let his son finish rambling, but was staring down Katara the whole time.

After a spell, he said a few words to Katara and she looked more tense. He patted her on the cheek a few times and took her tray and passed it to another girl scurrying by. He went to the apron she had knotted over her waist, untying the knots for her, fingers ghosting over her hips. Zuko felt himself sliding off of his barstool, deciding then that no one needed that many fingers to untie a knot. It was over before he could get up.

She walked swiftly over to Zuko without slowing down, her face neutral. She didn't look surprised to see him

"You okay—"

"Yeah. Got the night off."

"What? But his son—

"Don't worry about it. I'm going now. I've told the bartender to set you up with a drink if you want to stay for the rest of the…show," She gestured inanimately at the earth bender, who was now doing some risqué peep show with mud. "For your trouble," she mumbled distractedly, walking off again.

Zuko's gaze lingered for a second longer than he intended at the stage and Katara had already gone by the time he looked back.

"Shit shit….wait! Damn. Where'd she go."

He ran outside and waited on some steps across the street. Worth a shot. It took him a couple of minutes to get a good look at his surroundings before he remembered his duffel bag with the spray paint cans and mask.

"I guess it can wait. Don't want that douche to come after her again." He checked his phone. 11:37 pm. A text from Toph. A forwarded email from his uncle Iroh, some chain email that he'd seen when he was wasn't funny then either.

He almost missed the girl coming out of the front, changed into shorts and an off the shoulder sweatshirt, a backpack slung over.

He bounded across the street, and she turned, mildly startled, regaining composure quickly. He noticed a book in her arms.

She was wearing glasses and had braided her hair. Without all that makeup, she looked clean, and so much smaller. Not some story in a seedy bar, but a real person. Katara looked confused.

"I…I just, well I was wondering –his mind flashed to the half naked earthbender—what you're doing in a place like that."

She held up a politics textbook exasperatedly. "I have to pay for school somehow. And I'm just a waitress. I won't…do what that girl does. So don't bother as—

"I'm not. And school's tough. It's not easy thing to—"

"Yeah, I know."

She turned to leave.

"Want me to walk you home?"

"I'm not walking home."

"Oh. Um—"

She must be going to her boyfriend's place.

"But…I'm going to a diner a few blocks away to finish my assignment. You can come with me if you like."

So they sat together at an all-night diner on a well-lit street, garbage piling up in bags on the sidewalk. The taxi drivers had their own table, taking coffee together and smoking. A group of teenaged boys were sharing fries. Neons lights illuminated the puddles of water on the streets in fluorescent pinks and greens.

Zuko and Katara both ordered moon peach milkshakes. She did her urban studies homework while he watched highlights of the pro bending game on the overhead TV screen in silence. A few blocks away, his mask waited for him.

Sooo Zuko made a new friend this chapter. Let me know what you guys think!