AN: Happy 2015 Zutara Week! I'm way behind on this (still. always.) but here's Day 1! Happenstance. Hope you like it. :)
Note on the universe: This story is about colonialism, and colonialism is largely about racism. The colonizer believes they are civilized, modern, moral, and basically naturally justified in exploiting and oppressing the people they colonize. I may not have portrayed a 100-year-colonized Fire Nation as well as I could have, so if you're a pro on colonization, let me know if you spot things I could have done better!
"Katara, are you sure you don't want to marry Nopak? I've heard his dad owns, like, four ash banana plantations."
"Four?" Katara covered her mouth with her fingertips, loading her voice with all the false enthusiasm she could muster. "Why, Sokka, that's more square acreage than anyone else in the colonies! How can I say no to all of that?"
Sokka shrugged, his wry smile just barely showing. "I don't know, little sister. Either you're crazy or you just don't love ash bananas enough to live here."
Katara huffed and swallowed another sip of spice wine. She had to ration it out carefully if she wanted the one glass allowed her to last through this torturous event. It wasn't fair. Old enough to be haggled over like a plot of land, but not to drink enough wine to distract her from the excruciating social trap that had snapped shut around her.
It was a Maidens' Ball, during which eligible young ladies of marrying age were allowed to socialize with young men who might wish to make offers to their fathers. Katara had successfully - and with her father's blessing - avoided these gatherings for three years, but now, at eighteen, she was in danger of becoming an old maid.
Which was ridiculous. The very notion made Katara grit her teeth. But even though Imperial Governor Hakoda was the most powerful man in the colonies, he couldn't fight the tide of custom forever. "Just go and socialize," he'd said with his tender sadness. "Who knows? Maybe you'll be surprised." Then the humor came back into his eyes. "And take Sokka with you. He's mooned over Princess Yue long enough."
Presently, Katara stood with her brother beside the fountain that decorated the center of the ballroom, avoiding eye contact with several well-dressed young men and trying to look as unapproachable as possible. She had been slouching and frowning and making sarcastic, pithy remarks for the past hour. It didn't come easily for her, but it was better than listening to a dozen puffed-up dignitaries' sons like Nopak talk about the importance of their fathers.
Sokka nudged her with his elbow, peering off across the dance floor. "Hey, who are they?"
"How am I supposed to-" Katara followed his gaze and immediately spotted the teenagers he was talking about. They were hard to miss, being the only natives present.
At the lead was a young woman about Katara's age, and though she walked arm-in-arm with another girl, she was obviously in charge. It was in her bearing, like if a moose-lion strode into the room, it would just as obviously be in command of the situation by virtue of being huge and dangerous. This young woman was average in stature, yet she strode with the same confidence and a strange anticipation. As if she was just daring someone to challenge her.
The girl by her side was smiling and pleasant natured, bowing in the appropriate way to her many male acquaintances. Behind her walked a third young woman, taller and more reserved than the others. Her eyes flashed at the young man beside her, and there were leagues of shadows beneath their calm surface.
And the young man… He walked through the ball as if toward his own unjust execution, ramrod straight and staring unrelentingly ahead. He wore part of his long hair in a topknot - a political statement, Katara recalled from lessons, something to do with the fallen nation and its traditions - but the most distinctive thing about him was the scar. Katara had never seen it before, but she'd heard rumors. And the sight of it… Suddenly the smell of her wine made her stomach turn a little.
"They look really familiar," Sokka was saying, scratching his chin.
Katara shot him a disbelieving look. "Maybe that's because we saw them coming in to petition with their father a thousand times when we were kids, Sokka. La, do you pay attention to anything?"
Sokka squinted, then his mouth popped open. "Oh! The prince and princess! Right!" He shrugged, at once shameless and self-deprecating. "I forgot they were our age."
"I guess it's not totally your fault," Katara said, rubbing the back of her arm and watching the way the other guests parted and tried not to engage the native royalty. "It's been almost ten years since the last time they came to the upper city. Why are they back now?"
"Good question." Sokka's expression was sober for a long moment, then he smirked. "Maybe the prince has come to woo you."
Katara shot him a dirty look but couldn't help laughing just a little. "You're ridiculous."
"What's ridiculous is the sheer acreage that guy's dad owns. Or, you know, would own if they weren't part of a long line of warmongering savages."
"If I'd known how boring these parties were," Mai said with a sideways glance at all the colonists' sons and daughters, "I never would have complained about not being allowed to attend them."
"Azula, I think that boy was looking at you!" Ty Lee curled up her fingers under her chin. "Oh, you'd be so cute together."
Azula spared a glance for the boy in question. "He looks common. They all do."
"But Azula, not everyone can be a princess like you."
"True," she sighed. "But the royal family mustn't sully itself by dating beneath it. Bad enough…" Her eyes slid to Zuko and she trailed off, smirking faintly.
Still walking behind her, Zuko seethed. "Shut up," he said through his teeth. "You know I'm only doing this for our people."
"You're doing it because Father told you to," Azula said simply.
It was the truth. Ozai's command had come as a shock to everyone, especially Zuko. After so many years exiled to Iroh's household, tolerating the old man's poverty and crazy talk of peaceful protest over tea with his crazy friends, Zuko's heart had soared when he received the invitation from Ozai to come home. He'd overlooked the formal wording and the reference to his duty as a prince, and he'd outright ignored Iroh's cautions that all might not be as it seemed. When Ozai outlined his plan for Zuko in his formal receiving room, the cut had gone deep - but so had the fierce hope that this was the time, this was Zuko's shot at redeeming himself in his father's eyes.
But that didn't make Azula's dig any less irritating. "We need position if we're going to press for native representation on the board of governors, Azula. I'm not afraid to do what it takes to save our culture."
Azula fixed her stare on him. "Neither am I." Her pause was loaded. For an instant, all three of the other teens watched her carefully. Then the princess shrugged. "But, since the happy task of diluting the royal bloodline falls to you, I'll just have to find some other way to fill my time. She's with her brother by the fountain." Azula's smirk returned. "Don't screw up."
Zuko turned at once to look and spotted them immediately. He remembered seeing them play with their mother in the gardens as he passed through to the imperial governor's petition hall with his own family. At the time, he'd wished he could stay outside just to avoid the tense stillness of kneeling before Governor Hakoda while his father pled their case. Twice a year, every year. Always the same. The Fire Nation had remained in balance with the other nations of the world for thousands of years. Sozin's attack on the Air Nomads was a fluke, a tragic mistake, not a symptom of some animal brutality in the hearts of their people. Why continue to punish them and treat them as children for the mistakes of their forebears? Why not allow governance of the Fire Colonies to return to the hands of the old royal line?
And always Governor Hakoda's response was the same. He sat perfectly still on the throne crafted from great arcing whale bone and white and blue silk, and he listened with a patient, thoughtful look on his face. For years, he answered with the same consideration, rewarding each successful petition with a new inch of power for the office of the Fire Lord. Every year it was the same - until the year Zuko turned ten. The year everything went wrong. There were no more petitions after that. The upper city was closed to the old royal family, and to all of the Fire People.
Seeing it again now was like seeing it for the first time. Now, Zuko knew that those gardens - and this ballroom, the entire palace, the city - had once belonged to the Fire Lord. He knew his people had been robbed. He knew that Governor Hakoda's grants of power were nothing but a mockery, placations to keep the peace.
And he knew, when he saw the governor's son and daughter laughing and glancing at him, that he and his people were the butt of their joke.
The humor drained from their faces at once when Zuko scowled and strode toward them. Behind him, already forgotten, his sister and her friends looked on with quiet amusement - except for Ty Lee. "Oh," she said, bright-eyed, "they'll be cute together, too!"
"It is promising," Mai agreed, drawing the confused stares of the other two girls. She only sighed. "If he gets in a fight with her, maybe we'll be asked to leave."
Zuko didn't hear any of this, though. He was entirely focused on the two teens before him. He didn't even really notice the partygoers scrambling to get out of his way, to keep their clothes from brushing his. It registered on a lower level, and resentment simmered deep in Zuko's chest, but it was nothing beside what he felt for the two before him, Governor Hakoda's children.
"Good evening," he said as he stopped in front of them. He tried to keep his voice neutral, but there was a definite edge to it.
Katara and her brother - whose name Zuko hadn't bothered to learn - gave the slight nods of recognition that were appropriate to their rank. Zuko gritted his teeth and ducked his chin.
"Good evening, Prince Zuka," Katara said with a nervous smile. "How are you enjoying the party?"
"I'm not. And it's Prince Zuko."
Katara had the decency to blush but her brother just grinned like an idiot. "See, Katara? You and Prince Zuko are both having a terrible time. The two of you have more in common than you and Nopak already!"
"Sokka!" She spoke through her teeth at him, her polite expression straining. "Not funny."
Sokka elbowed her lightly, chuckling, but Katara only blushed harder. Zuko watched them, his suspicions mounting. He didn't know anyone by the name of Nopak and he didn't want to, but he could sense that being compared to him was not flattering.
But to call these two on their disrespect would only make his mission harder. Zuko clenched his jaw and drew a deep breath, then pressed on. "It's a shame you aren't enjoying your party, Miss Katara."
"Oh! It's not my party. It's a Maidens' Ball. For all the maidens to meet young suitors." She squinted at him and the question was there in her eyes, though she refused to ask it. Why are you here?
Zuko held his head a measure higher and refused to give the answer, which should have been obvious. "I'm familiar with the custom," he said instead. "Some merchant families have begun holding similar events."
"Oh! Well that's very…"
Zuko narrowed his eyes. Civilized? Modern?
The governor's daughter didn't finish. She smoothed the furrow from her brow and quite obviously made herself smile. "They're saying your uncle is trying to convince the guilds to boycott trade with the Empire. Is that true?"
"Er…" Zuko thought back to all those teas and games of Pai Sho with other old men. Usually, he'd found some excuse to leave the house for the afternoon, but sometimes he heard bits of what was said. "I don't follow my uncle's campaigns. But I wouldn't be surprised. The taxes make it hard for merchants to gain a profit."
"How is that possible?" her brother put in, face scrunched up in skepticism. "It's a low base tax, and it hasn't changed in decades."
"The official tax, yeah, but you aren't accounting for unofficial taxes."
Both of them were looking at him like he was talking nonsense. Zuko huffed. "If a merchant imports goods into this city, he has to pay the official tax to get through the gate. But there are other taxes - a tax for the notary counting their goods, a tax for the guards in the market, a-"
"That's bribery!" Katara crossed her arms over her chest, looking personally offended. "If the merchants would report the officials responsible, they could be dealt with."
"You think they haven't?" Zuko moderated his tone and straightened his posture. "There's also a tax for filing a complaint, and several other taxes to ensure that complaint reaches investigation. But imperial judges never rule in favor of natives against imperial citizens anyway, so it's all a waste."
The governor's children shared a doubtful look. It set the fire in Zuko's gut blazing.
"How do you think I got in here, tonight?" he demanded. "Because I certainly wasn't invited."
They just stared at him for a beat. Then, Sokka smiled an enormous, false smile. "Well! I think this calls for more wine!" He whispered two words in Katara's ear and hurried off. She glanced after him, wild-eyed, then looked back at Zuko.
"You… You bribed the guards to get in?"
"And the attendants, and the herald." Zuko tracked Sokka's movements until he disappeared in the crowd, then watched Katara. There wasn't much time.
"Why go to so much trouble?" She had tucked her chin down and was watching him with her large blue eyes. He hadn't realized how pretty she was, but he noticed it now, and it made him choke on his words.
"I- I had to. Because I had to talk to you. To start courting you."
Katara stared up at the foreign prince and forgot all about what Sokka had told her to do. Heat flooded her face. Her heart galloped in her chest - and not just because this was exactly the unthinkable situation Sokka had joked about earlier.
Prince Zuko's right cheek was reddening as well, and his look was plaintive rather than the accusatory glare he'd had through their conversation. It made his scar somehow less noticeable. He cleared his throat and stood a little straighter.
"It would be a smart match for us both," he said rapidly. "Turmoil is building in the lower city and a union between the governor's household and the royal family would go a long way in keeping the peace. And I…" Prince Zuko's eyes flicked down to her lips for an instant, then back to her stare. They were sharp and yellow, those eyes, so different from those of her own people. "I would strive to honor you. As… your husband."
Katara finally broke the paralysis that had held her and shook her head, frowning. "Is this some sort of prank? Did Sokka put you up to this?"
The prince stiffened in offense. "I'm completely serious."
"Then you're out of your mind!" Katara met his fierce stare with one of her own but lowered her voice so she wouldn't be overheard. "You're crazy if you think I'd agree to marry a veritable stranger. Especially you! You've been nothing but an abrasive jerk for the ten minutes we've been talking, so I don't know what you think 'courting' is, but-"
"Why don't you just drop the excuses and say what you're really thinking," he snarled back. "Look me in the eye and admit you're rejecting me because you'd be ashamed to have a native formally court you."
"That-! It isn't like that at all!"
"You think you're so superior and civilized, but you're just a commoner whose father climbed on the backs of my people to a position of power." He jabbed his own chest. "My family's position. I'm a prince, the heir to the Fire Throne, and you can't even be bothered to consider me!"
Katara glared at him, but she felt the blood pounding in her face. "I'm not considering you," she bit out, "because you're a rude, self-important brute. It's no wonder the native traders have started holding these stupid parties. If they're half as power-hungry as you, they probably all just drop everything and marry the biggest purse to walk by!"
"You don't know anything about my people or the things they have to do to survive Imperial oppression!"
"Oppression! The Fire Nation threatened to take over the world! You murdered the Air Nomads! If the Empire's presence here prevents the next atrocity, then it's worth the inconvenience to everyone involved."
Belatedly, Katara realized the partygoers had gone quiet and backed away to create an open space around them. Guards were hustling toward them from the entrance, Sokka leading the way. Zuko made no attempt to run. He only glared down at her.
"The Empire's continued presence here," he said with restrained fury, "is the next atrocity."
The guards were very close. In just seconds, they would escort the prince out of the ballroom. The stuffy dignitaries' sons and daughters would crowd Katara, asking her what had happened, what had the prince wanted, had he really declared his intent to court her…
Because no doubt someone had heard. By this time tomorrow, it would be all anyone could talk about - the native prince pursuing the governor's daughter in a match that was completely unheard of.
Embarrassed and furious that he had put her in this position, Katara dropped her wine glass and threw up her arms. She didn't hear the glass shatter on the floor - no one did - because of the sudden crash of water soaring up from the fountain and arcing down on top of the prince's head. He went down in a heap on the floor and as the water settled, all noise in the ballroom stopped.
Katara held her chin high despite the disbelieving stares, despite the muffled gasps and whispers. She just glared down at the prince, unflinching. Prince Zuko braced himself on his elbows. For a second, his eyes flitted over the watching teenagers and an aching look crossed his face.
Then he looked at Katara and scowled so viciously, she almost took a step back. But she didn't.
A moment later, two hulking guards hauled the dripping prince up off the floor and began dragging him away. "I know the way out," he snarled, but they didn't let him go.
Katara watched him struggle to at least leave on his own feet, then startled when a hand came to rest on her shoulder. "You just had to make a scene," Sokka muttered near her ear. "Didn't you?"
Rather than rushing her and flooding her with questions, the other guests stood back at a safe distance. Katara caught a few disdainful looks fixed on her. Whispers zinged past from all directions.
"…never going to marry…"
"…no mother to guide her, but…"
"But bending? How crass can you get?"
Katara raised her chin again, snatched up Sokka's hand, and began leading him toward one of the side doors - the nearest exit. He hurried along with her, putting a hand on her back as if that would shelter her from the stares.
Once they had escaped to the dim hallway and the door had shut behind them, Sokka pulled her to a stop. "I hope you had a good reason for doing that. Dad's gonna be pretty mad when he finds out you revealed your bending in front of the chatty half of society."
Katara folded her arms over her chest and huffed. "I'd rather they gossip about me being a bender and a harridan than about the Fire Prince declaring his intent to court me."
"He did what?" The look on Sokka's face was a mix of elated mirth and horror. "It was a joke! Katara, you know he can't actually court you, right?"
"He didn't seem to know that."
"He can't. Legally. I'm pretty sure there's a law about it."
Katara cast her brother a skeptical glance, then took his arm and began pulling him. "Come on. Let's just go home."
They followed the hallway until it joined with the main corridor, then strolled past the guards, out of the public wing and into the governor's residential wing. Unlike many of their guests, the siblings did not marvel at the vastness of the palace around them - they had always lived there, and the marble and gilt and miles of blue paint were made invisible to them by their long familiarity.
"I'm serious, you know," Sokka said at length. "Dad's not going to be happy that you used your bending on a guest - even a native who snuck in specifically to harass you. He really stuck his neck out getting you a tutor."
Katara winced. "I know. And I know I shouldn't have done it. He just made me so mad."
"What? For making you come to the party? Don't you think that's kind of petty?"
"Not Dad! Zuko. He was saying a bunch of stuff about the Empire oppressing his people."
Sokka let out a derisive snort. "Yeah, and 'unofficial taxes' and probably cruelty to Komodo rhinos at the hands of Imperial soldiers, too. He's from a political family, Katara. Guys like that will say anything to make you agree with them."
"Yeah," Katara said quietly, then paused by a window. Sokka stopped with her and for a moment they peered out at the moonlit garden and beyond it, the palace wall. And beyond that, the jagged wall of the mountain.
"But… Sokka, how would we know if people were being oppressed? We've never even been outside the upper city. Don't you ever wonder what it's like?"
Sokka shot her a look. "Don't even think about it."
"I'm not thinking about doing anything! I'm just… curious."
"Well don't think about that, either! Katara, you know how dangerous it is in the lower city. Remember what happened to Mom."
Katara met her brother's anxious stare and squeezed his arm. "I never forget."
She watched the way he relaxed, then smiled before pulling her on down the corridor. Katara went along with him, but each window they passed afforded her another view of the beautiful world in which they lived and, pressed up against its edges, the jagged world without.