AN: Thank you so much to everyone who supported this project and kept me going with reviews and likes and gentle prodding on tumblr! I love this fandom... Anyway, enjoy!
Day 2 - Vigil
The Imperial guards did not release Zuko until they had marched him all the way through the gates of the upper city and shoved him out onto the rocky path that switchbacked down the mountain. He whirled around and glared back at them with more dignity than he felt in his sodden clothes. The guards sneered at him from under their helmets and said nothing. Their silence was a taunt in itself.
The fire in him strained his control now almost past bearing. Seething, Zuko crossed his arms and turned his back on the guards, sucking in one calming breath after another. It was only barely enough to keep him from steaming the water out of the silk clinging to his skin. But it was enough. It had to be.
Firebending, after all, was forbidden.
Azula and the others must have either followed closely or had armed escorts of their own because they soon joined him on the path. She hardly spared him a glance as she glided past and climbed into the waiting palanquin. Zuko uncrossed his arms sharply and followed, seating himself in the forward-facing spot beside her. Mai and Ty Lee sat opposite them, but Zuko did not look at them. He only glared out the side as the litter was lifted and began the descent from the main gates.
After a time, Azula broke the silence. "Spectacular work, as always, Zuzu."
"Don't feel bad, Zuko," Ty Lee put in gently. "You gave it your best."
"Yeah," Mai deadpanned. "Who could have guessed that the governor's daughter would find the advances of a lowly savage offensive?"
Zuko gritted his teeth against the flurry of their voices and fixed on the rightful target of his ire. "She's such a high and mighty pries. I went on and on trying to talk some sense into her and all she could do was wait for me to go away!"
"Sometimes girls just don't feel like chatting," Ty Lee said with a shrug. "It probably wasn't personal."
"So you think Zuko just needs to work on his timing?" Mai asked, bored and disbelieving. "Please. She used her bending on him. The Imperials don't let girls waterbend, so if she was upset enough to reveal a secret like that to a crowd that big, I doubt Zuko's ever going to catch her on her good side."
"Thanks," Zuko spat. "This is exactly the kind of encouraging stuff I need to hear right now."
"What? It wasn't ever going to happen. She's a separatist. It's not your fault she won't consider you."
Zuko scowled and said nothing, but turned his face so none of the others could catch sight of his blush in the gloom. It may have been an impossible task to start with, but he could have restrained himself and been less rude. It would have galled him, but if he had swallowed his pride and just done it, maybe things could have gone differently.
"Mai is right, of course," Azula said as if it was all obvious. "You were never going to convince the governor's daughter to accept your proposal tonight. What we accomplished was nothing more than a bold first step. The board of governors will be discussing it for days, which is all to our advantage. But the girl's bending is an unanticipated twist."
Ty Lee leaned closer. "What do you mean, Azula?"
"Only that the board's disapproval will not be falling solely on us." A cunning smile crept over Azula's face. "The governor will have a lot of questions to answer, if he allowed his daughter to break with tradition."
"So what?" Zuko huffed. "If Hakoda winds up being replaced, this will all have been a huge waste of time."
"Not necessarily," Mai said. She very nearly sounded interested. "If the governor steps down, he might be more amenable to a mutually beneficial union."
"That won't help anything if he doesn't have the power to grant our people any concessions."
"Losing his office isn't the same thing as losing his name. His family would still be respected, and that would be a big step up to the old Fire Royals. At least it's somewhere to start."
Zuko was not convinced, but he did not press the issue. Azula was being suspiciously quiet and, when he caught sight of the smile still lingering on her face, he became aware once more of all the secrets she kept from him.
"Yes," she said as if to herself. "It is."
Zuko sighed and peered out the curtain at the dizzying drop.
They made their way down the long mountain trail and finally passed through the gates into the lower city. Evening was deepening to night, but some vendors remained on the main streets, selling hot roasted meat on skewers or cups of chilled wine. Lights glowed yellow from tea and wine houses and music drifted through the air, a traditional Fire Nation ballad from one establishment clashing and competing with a lighter, flowing tune that originated from one of the poles. Imperial guards marched the streets in tight phalanxes, riot cudgels in hand.
The palanquin bore them past the wealthier district where many Imperial lords and ladies made their homes, and down to the modestly wealthy homes of high-ranking merchants where the surviving Fire Nation nobility held its seat, as it were.
Finally, they came within sight of the fine house where Ozai made his residence. Just the sight of it, the proud red lacquer and the fire lilies blooming along the stately walk, made Zuko quake internally. If he could not live up to Ozai's expectations, what good was he to his nation? What good was he at all?
The butler ushered them from the palanquin through the broad front door and Zuko followed Azula toward the formal wing of the house, only to pull up short when she looked back at him over her shoulder.
"I would sit this one out if I were you, Zuko. You got lucky with that bending spectacle, but Father is still unlikely to be pleased." It was not certain whether she meant this genuinely or was only being cruel.
Zuko bared his teeth and almost challenged her, but could not find words to defend himself. He settled instead for a surly look that he fixed on her back all the way up the stairs to the upper level. Behind him, Ty Lee chattered something about getting back to her parents' home, and Mai sighed something about doing the same. Zuko did not watch them go, too absorbed in the well of his fears.
He made his way to the room that had been given him and allowed his footman to help him off with his still-damp clothes. It was still strange to have a man help him with tasks he had done alone for all his years living with Iroh, but the usual awkwardness was far from his mind. Dressed in a dry casual tunic and loose pants, he settled before his altar and, with a tight flick of one hand, lit the single candle.
Only here in the privacy of his own home was it safe to bend, and even here, Zuko hesitated to do so. Iroh had been reckless, using bending often to heat his tea or warm cold hands, even going so far as to do it in front of customers. Ozai had never approved of that sort of laziness. Ozai was cautious and kept his secrets dear. Zuko could only hope to be as prudent as his father.
Perhaps then, Ozai would count him as close an advisor as he counted Azula.
But that day would never come so long as Zuko was botching his opportunities to advance their people. He pinched his eyes shut and let out a slow breath between his teeth. So stupid to let that ignorant spoiled girl distract him from his cause. He couldn't allow himself another slip like that, assuming Ozai even offered him a second chance.
Now, though, there was nothing to do but wait for his father's summons. Zuko gazed at the flame and slowed his breathing. He focused and waited and listened to the muffled sounds of the household, all the while stifling the inferno that raged inside him.
Katara was awakened early the next morning to a summons from her father. That all on its own unnerved her, as Hakoda was never so formal within the family. When she woke up fully and remembered the events of the previous night, though, Katara fumbled as her maids helped her into her clothing and fidgeted as they fixed her hair, trying unsuccessfully to delay the confrontation she knew she was in for.
She wasn't disappointed.
Her maid led her to the formal receiving room rather than the family sitting room and, when the doors opened before her, Katara had to bite her lip to keep from squeaking in surprise. The room was set up with one long curving table facing the single chair and at that table sat the members of the city council. Hakoda sat in the center, a deep furrow in his brow but his eyes flicking to Katara and away. He looked like a man quietly caught in a trap, and that frightened Katara more than any of the rest.
"Please be seated, Miss Katara," said Nijak, the eldest of the council. His face was stern, the usual laugh lines around his mouth falling slack.
Katara sat in the audience chair and folded her hands carefully in her lap.
"Word has reached this council of some troubling matters," Nijak went on, peering over his wire glasses. "It is forbidden for women to learn waterbending. How long have you illegally practiced this art?"
"I- I've always been a waterbender."
"Yes, and you excelled as a healer, which was perfectly acceptable," said one of the other councilors, his tone rising as he went on, "but to shun the traditions of the Empire and make a joke of the culture of our people? Most disturbing."
Suddenly aware of the danger this put Hakoda in, Katara rushed onward. "I learned in secret, on my own. No one knew."
"It is my responsibility," Hakoda said abruptly. "I arranged for her tutor."
Councilors sat away from him as if good sense was catching. Nijak broke the silence. "Governor, how can this be?"
"Katara is my daughter," Hakoda went on, steel ringing in his voice, "and our world is not a safe place. With tensions building among rebels and the growing number of allegedly peaceful protestors, it is only a matter of time before violence breaks out again. Perhaps," he said, working his jaw to one side, "if my wife had been able to defend herself, I would not have had to make this decision alone."
The other men murmured amongst themselves, but Katara only had eyes for her father. Hakoda sat up straight and waited for the council to come to some consensus, but his eyes when he looked at Katara were sad. She felt terrible. He had trusted in her, giving her this chance, and she had exposed them both to avoid some petty embarrassment.
At length, Nijak cleared his throat. "This is most irregular, Governor Hakoda, and normally your actions would call for your immediate dismissal from your seat." Others at the table nodded, some with spite in their eyes. "None the less, your circumstances are complicated, and it is clear that you were only doing as a father must. Yet such flagrant disregard for our customs cannot be allowed to stand, and if you ever evince such disrespect again, we will be forced to demand your resignation."
"I don't expect that to be a problem." Hakoda fixed his stare on Katara, and for a moment she was confused by the worry still lining his face.
"I for one would have more than contrition to answer for this… this aberration," said one of the younger councilors, Deknuk. Katara felt all the blood drain from her face as he shot her a frown, shaking his head. "Perhaps Miss Katara's interest in subjects inappropriate for young ladies stems from her lack of other occupation. Should it not have concerned the board before now that a pretty, well-bred young woman remains unmarried at such an age? Surely, Governor, she cannot have suffered a lack of offers."
"Offers that bore consideration," Hakoda said firmly. "Yes."
"Then perhaps the problem is in your overly strict criteria of selection."
Abruptly, belatedly, Katara remembered that Deknuk was Nopak's uncle. His eyes locked on Hakoda like a bear-dog's jaws around a hunk of meat.
"I posit that further unpleasantness could be avoided if Governor Hakoda would simply accept one of the many offers he has already received."
All around the table, heads began nodding. Katara felt the floor drop out from beneath her.
"…marriage would settle the girl…"
"…energy diverted into the running of a household…"
"…children, of course…"
Hakoda sat unmoving through the wash of conversation, never looking away from Katara. He did not look surprised or angry - just sad. And Katara realized that he had known this was coming. He had known, and he was helpless to save her from it.
At length, Nijak quieted the discussion.
"Well, Governor Hakoda?" he asked with a polite crinkle in his brow. "Which suitor would you have?"
The furrow in Hakoda's brow deepened as he cast a stony look over the council. "As an official of the Empire, I understand my duty - but as a father, I want only to see my daughter happy. I confess to having sought out her opinions of her suitors in recent years, because she is an intelligent girl and I cannot justify marrying her off to a man she could never respect. No offer has satisfied me as of yet, because none have appealed to her."
"That is admirable, Governor," Nijak put in kindly, "but I hope you will not forget that a father must also see to his daughter's welfare. Miss Katara will not be well served if you allow her to neglect her own duty. You alone must choose."
"Duty." A muscle in Hakoda's jaw flexed, then released. Katara looked on, her heart in her throat. "Coincidentally, I received an offer late last night that piques my interest. While unconventional, I've found nothing in my review of Imperial law that would prohibit me from choosing this union." His sharp eyes slid to Katara and she went rigid under their chastening weight. "And, in light of the events of the Maiden's Ball, I think it best that my headstrong daughter deals personally with the repercussions of her actions."
"Dad-" Katara faltered. Dreadful certainty welled up in her chest, but she shook her head, disbelieving. He wouldn't do this to her.
"Katara, you publicly humiliated the Fire Prince in a time of growing unrest. If you do not make amends to the native royalty, the outrage of the common people could spark another uprising." Hakoda straightened, and now the entire force of his stern focus was upon her. "So you will do your duty and allow Prince Zuko to formally court you for no less than three months."
Katara sat in stunned silence, but the board burst into an uproar.
"-cannot possibly consider such an unnatural union-"
"-knows that their kind don't respect compromise - only ruthless domination can keep them under control-"
"-throwing your daughter to the flames!"
"Gentlemen!" Deknuk drown out the rest, his fist hammering on the table. "Governor Hakoda is clearly avoiding the issue by making this outlandish claim. The Fire royals have nothing to do with his daughter's wild behavior, and the notion that a well-bred girl of the Empire should be married off to a savage to promote peace is frankly laughable. Hakoda is only suggesting it to keep from having to choose a legitimate suitor."
Some of the councilors nodded, but others peered at Katara thoughtfully. A bead of sweat darted down her spine and soaked into the damp small of her back. All she could see was Hakoda, the sternness and sorrow warring on his face.
"I do not pretend to believe that such a courtship would ultimately lead to a marriage," he said carefully. "And every man here knows that I certainly do not wish for such a thing. But the insult to the Fire Princes must be soothed away before this incident becomes blown out of proportion."
Katara stared at her father, finally understanding. His punishment was not her doom - it was an effort to buy her time. The price, of course, was shameful, but perhaps a few months really would help the scandal of her waterbending to blow over. It should have been reassuring, comforting that this courtship was nothing but a formality, but Katara bridled against a hot surge of pride.
"You are the one blowing it out of proportion," Deknuk barked. "The Fire Princes may be a scheming pit of rat-vipers, but they have no real power. Even amongst their own people, they fell from grace long ago. Prince Iroh is the proprietor of a tea shop. The boy you'd have your daughter demean herself with is little more than a glorified servant. Prince Ozai may still be trying to slither his way out of the slums, but the only way he will manage it is if you grant him exactly what he asks for!"
"Let us not be hasty," Nijak said with a raised hand. "The issue, after all, was providing Miss Katara with some more appropriate occupation, was it not? What is more appropriate for a young noble than to practice diplomacy? And all the better if her efforts might improve relations with the natives. If the experience is chastening to her, then it shall only help the lesson to sink in."
"You cannot be serious," another councilor choked out. "The Fire People are known to be ruled by their passions. This farce could put the girl in the way of harm."
"Don't be absurd! There will of course be chaperones."
"Katara is a skilled waterbender," Hakoda put in quietly. His eyes shone. "I doubt the Prince will forget it."
Katara watched the council go on, discussing her future as if she was not there, as if her thoughts on the matter had no value. Because, in the eyes of the Empire, they did not. Her worth was in her status, her father's position, and her ability to give birth to sons. What were the dreams and desires of one girl next to smoothing ruffled scales on the chained dragon?
It was the philosophy that Katara had been fed from the time she was a child, and the more years she had to swallow it down, the sicker she became. An ember of rebellion had been seething in her, hotter and hotter of late. Now, it threatened to burst into flame.
But she couldn't just openly defy her father and the board of governors. Katara had grown up holding her tongue and finding alternate ways to get what she wanted. She knew that speaking out now would only lead to more trouble. However, if she waited, she could surely find another way to avert this personal torment.
She held her hands folded carefully in her lap and watched the board come to its decision, all the while planning what she was going to do the next time she saw the Fire Prince.
Dawn came and went while Zuko knelt at his altar. He felt it like an oven opening behind him, heat licking up his neck, but he only remained still. With controlled breathing, he forced the candle's flame to burn slow and small, stretching out the life of the wax for hours more than it should have burned.
Only a nub remained when Ozai's summons finally arrived. Zuko unconsciously walked the glossy hallways lightly so that his heels did not strike at every step. He entered the office staring straight ahead, then turned into the receiving area and lowered himself into a full kowtow without meeting his father's eyes.
Ozai sat on the low platform before him, peering down on his son's bowed head with a look that might have been mistaken for impassivity if it weren't for the candles burning too brightly throughout the room.
The sound of his name said by that voice made Zuko's stomach twist painfully, but he did not flinch. He remained where he knelt, staring hard at the floor.
"Azula tells me your performance at the ball left much to be desired."
Zuko bit his tongue. There were no excuses for his failure.
"A great deal of resources were allocated to afford you that opportunity, and yet you not only failed to make a respectable impression on the governor's daughter, you allowed her to shame you, and our people, in a public display of your weakness."
"I-" Zuko's brow crinkled at the floor. "I'm sorry, Father."
"Your pathetic apologies do nothing to lessen my disappointment in you." He said it lightly, as if brushing annoying dust off the edge of his sleeve.
Zuko felt like his stomach had turned to lead, as if the only escape he would ever have from this room would be if the floor opened up and swallowed him. He wouldn't even care if it did, just as long as he didn't have to go back to living with Iroh above the tea shop.
"However," Ozai went on, "our cause is not entirely lost. I have just received a note of acceptance from Governor Hakoda. Your courtship begins tomorrow afternoon."
"What?" Zuko startled, almost looking up from the floor. "But… how? Why?"
"Perhaps it would be easier for you if you don't allow your concerns to draw you into deep waters. Focus on the task before you, Zuko. Tea with your intended, if you wish."
Zuko did not move, did not so much as twitch one finger, but he could feel the rough skin where his hands touched. A tea server's hands, coarse from common labor. He could feel Ozai's stare on him, hotter than the sun.
"It doesn't matter what you do," his father said slowly, "just try to behave like a prince and don't lower yourself to arguing with her. You are above differences in opinion. You are above her. Her beliefs are as meaningless as the arrangement of pebbles in the road you walk upon."
Zuko set his teeth and stiffened his shoulders, squashing his uncertainties. "Yes, Father."
"Good," Ozai said, a smile cutting its way across his face. "Now listen carefully, my son…"