Title: Blood, Silk, and Steel
Rating: T, although the rating may go up.
Warnings: AU, dark!Sokka, character death, bad language, references to sex (nothing explicit) extreme violence, and general conniving and cruelty on behalf of the people you would expect it from. Cannibalism…
Disclaimer: Um, this is fanfiction. Hopefully you realize that this means I own nothing you recognize here.
Author's Notes: So, I spent all this time not wanting to write about Zuko, and now…
Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai marched down the streets of Gaoling, from Lao Bei Fong's estate to the port clad in the black and gold steel armor that befit his standing as the Heir of Ozai, Azulon, and Sozin. His men escorted them as his royal guard; their faced hidden behind fearsome faceplates. Lao Bei Fong's men trailed behind them, escorting the Prince and Lao's daughter (still in her watery cage) to the Prince's ship. The people of Gaoling stood back, silent in their fear and lack of comprehension.
It was the first time in his life that Zuko felt people fear him.
The Avatar hadn't. The Avatar hadn't understood that there was a war; he hadn't known what the Fire Nation had done to the Airbenders, hadn't been able to imagine what his father would have done to him. Zuko had thought of himself as a warrior, a prince reclaiming his honor and his birthright. To him the Avatar had been the principal enemy of the Fire Nation, a combatant, and his ticket home and to his father's heart. But the Avatar had seen them both as children. That had been his last mistake.
These people saw him as the Prince of the Fire Nation, and they looked at him as if though they expected him to burn them alive, raze their city to the ground, and sow the earth with salt. They believed he could do those things; would do those things. As Lao and Toph Bei Fong had believed he would boil the girl alive.
He terrified these people, and he hated them for it.
But most of all, he hated himself for it, because he needed them to fear him—needed them to believe he was a monster. And for the first time, he hated his father for it. His father, and his uncle, their father—all their line all the way back to Sozin, because they were the ones who made his threats credible. He claimed to be a monster, and these people believed him, because his forefathers had done monstrous things. His father and his sister would do monstrous things. And what was a monster, but one who was willing to do monstrous things? For the first time in his life, Zuko realized that when his time came to sit on Agni's throne, he would have to do monstrous things as well, not just threaten them.
Zuko cursed the people of Gaoling and the Sons of Agni. Cursed Roku and Sozin for their squabble. Cursed his mother, who had given him life and kissed the hands he would have to stain with red. Cursed the Earth King, who wouldn't lie down and die without a fight.
And as Zuko marched, sunk in loathing and despair, Jin approached him—ran from the street and stood defiantly in front of him. Her face was hard, but her eyes were red and swollen. She did not move as his party approached. He stopped and held his arm—this, he knew was dangerous—at any moment the farce could collapse; he had to keep moving. As soon as he and Toph Bei Fong were on his steel ship and out to see, he would be safe and his victory complete—no Earth Nation vessel could match a Fire Navy steamship—but until then, his life was in peril. And besides, Jin's courage could inspire that of others.
"Out of the way," he said tersely.
Jin's face contorted in hatred and Zuko's spirits, already despairing, sank even further. "You lied to me!" she shouted.
It was true. Zuko repeated his command. But rather than move, she began to scream: "You lied to me! You lied to me!" She made it sound like it was the worst thing he had ever done. The worst thing he had ever done, though he hadn't known it then, was bring the Avatar to his father. But what he was doing now was second.
He threw a careful jet of fire in her direction. It didn't harm her, but everyone else recoiled in fear at the display, and Zuko wondered what these fools would make of his sister's azure flame. Jin stood her ground, and then, further, took a step towards him.
"Will you roast me alive?" she asked, her voice rising to hysterics. "Or will you merely burn of half my face? Do it! Do it!
"Do you think I'm afraid of you, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation?" She took another step, and Zuko couldn't help but notice that her eyes had begun to tear again. "I'm not afraid of you, or your men or your father. I'm from Ba Sing Se! There's nothing you could do to me that isn't worse than what your armies did to us at Ba Sing Se! Murder me! Rape me! Burn me alive! Tear my skin from my body! Cut me up into little pieces or boil me! I'll scream, but it won't be worse than Ba Sing Se!"
The captain at Zuko's side moved to end the girl, but Zuko stopped him.
"No," he spoke with the authority of a prince. "I swore to Lao Bei Fong I would not harm the people of Gaoling, and I will not have you or this girl make a liar out of me." The words sounded foreign in his ears, and Zuko wondered if truly he had been the one to speak them.
"Liar?" Jin screamed, her voice tinged with madness. "You are a liar!" she shouted, "you had the gall to lie to me! You said you didn't know what happened in Ba Sing Se! You said you didn't know! How could you look at me and say you didn't know? How could you look at me?"
Zuko's patience began to wear thin. He'd been wearing his sister's cool calmness too long. He hated himself enough, he didn't need Jin to hate him too. "In case you hadn't noticed," he said angrily, taking a step forward himself, "there's a war going on. Ba Sing Se is a legitimate military target—it's the only military target left. We attacked the city, but couldn't take it. The Fire Nation didn't kill a single man who wasn't guarding the city's outer wall. If you think that's bad, it's because you haven't seen the other fronts!"
Jin's face had turned bright red with anger—suddenly it went white as a sheet of paper, and for the first time she looked afraid of Zuko. Horrified, she took a step back.
"You don't know," she said so quietly Zuko struggled to hear her. Her knees gave out, and Zuko rushed to catch her by the wrists as she fell. He pulled her up and held her, wrapping his arm around her waist to hold her. Jin began to cry in earnest, but she didn't push him away, and the rest of the world watched breathlessly. She sank her face into his shoulder and cried out, "You don't know! You really don't know!" She pushed him away and looked to the crowd. "The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation doesn't know what happened at Ba Sing Se after the comet!"
He stood transfixed, trepidation welling in his stomach. What had happened? What could be so horrible? He couldn't move, not even his lips to ask.
But he didn't need to, Jin sank into the floor again, and this time he couldn't catch her. She looked up at him, her eyes empty: "I remember. Like it was yesterday. The day the comet came, the sky blazed like it was alight with fire." Zuko remembered too—remembered the feeling of molten steel mixed with lighting coursing through his veins. "And then the sky turned black with smoke—that was the last time we saw the sky. It was impossible to breathe, the smoke was so thick. That was the outer walls, and the crops that fed the Emerald City. And I imagine, it was the men who guarded the walls as well. That was the first the Earth King knew of the war, when the lifeblood of Ba Sing Se turned to ash and painted the green city black. We were going to die. What the Dragon of the West had wasted 600 days trying to accomplish, Ozai's army did in a half hour with the power of the comet to back them.
"So the Earth King did the only thing he could think to do: he sank the city into the ground and buried it, so when the firebenders came, they found nothing but a great expanse of barren rock. And you stayed there, on top of us, waiting for us to come out of our hole in the ground, like rats. And you waited and waited, and the months passed, and we lived under ground. And we ate the grain in reserve, and then we ate the animals, until there was nothing left to eat in the buried city—"
Zuko didn't know it, but all the blood had gone from his face and his hands, indeed, his whole body was shaking. He didn't want her to finish. He wanted to kill her before she could finish, but he was frozen and couldn't move.
"—except the people of Ba Sing Se. We ate the dead, and then we killed the infirm and ate them too. And my mother—she was sick…"
Zuko had been suppressing the urge to vomit for hours. Finally he forgot himself and heaved up the contents of his stomach. When he'd worked through the last drop of bitter bile he looked up, trembling, at Jin who was crumpled on the ground sobbing. He reached out for her, but then held his hand back. He was afraid to touch her. He looked up at his men. None of them would do, and his eyes turned to Lao Bei Fong's men. "You," he said, pointing to the plainest-looking guard, "pick her up, gently¸ and carry her to my ship with us, and if she's harmed, I'll have your head for that."
The minute they were out to sea, Zuko ordered them to take Toph out of the box and treat her well. He told the captain to make sure she had dried clothes, her mother had hurriedly provided a trousseau, so at least she would have comfortable clothes befitting a lady of her station, even if Zuko knew full well she was comfortable in peasant's garb.
When everything requiring his immediate attention was done, he ran to his quarters, slammed the door, locked it, and sank down to the steel floor. He was trembling and would have vomited, except he did not have anything in his stomach to throw up. In private, he let the tears flow and held himself as a tight ball against the wall.
He couldn't do this. He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to boil little girls alive or make pretty women eat their mothers. He didn't mind for the world to curse his name, but he did mind if they did it justly.
As a child he had learned about his noble great-grandfather, Sozin, and the courageous battle he had started. He'd learned of the treachery of Roku. His mother, even his mother, had told him of the Fire Nation's burden and superiority. His grandfather had explained to him with patience, when he'd spoken out of turn and asked a stupid question, that the Fire Nation was the most advanced civilization in the world, but where its people were rich, the land was poor: there were no forests left in the Fire Nation archipelago, no natural coal reserves left unexploited, not enough animals to eat, not enough land to farm, not enough space to live. If the Fire Nation was to continue to thrive, and to thrive meant to live, they needed more space, and the Earth Kingdom had plenty. The war was about preserving civilization, and spreading it.
But, for the first time, Zuko dared to wonder if that meant the war was right. He didn't question the superiority of the Fire Nation. But he did wonder if that gave them the right, and he wondered if that meant the war, and all the suffering it brought, could possibly be worth it.
The answer, he knew, was yes. Obviously. The mere act of asking the question was sacrilege.
And even though he knew the answer, and he knew he shouldn't ask the question, still the question lingered. Worse, he knew what Azula would say. Not just that the question was stupid, not just that the answer was obvious, but that the answer didn't matter, because he was a member of the Royal House of Fire, and so his only concern should be the people of the Land of the Kindling Flame, and if he could save one Fire Nation child at the expense of every life in the Earth Kingdom, he should do it without a thought.
It was right. Of course it was right.
Except, it felt wrong. Why should the life of a Fire Nation child be worth more than the life of an Earth Kingdom child or a Water Tribe child, when a Water Tribe child could grow up to be Sokka? Sokka was as good and kind and clever as any man in the Fire Nation. Jin as pretty as any girl he'd ever met in the Fire Nation. Toph as strong. And if you cut them, they all bled the same exact shade of red.
Zuko shivered as a sudden realization hit him: He didn't know if he could be Fire Lord, and he didn't know if he wanted to.
Author's Notes: This chapter is another short one, but the revelation about Ba Sing Se, and what happened there, is important. Now you know what happened to Bosco, why the Earth King is such a hardened man (you can guess, probably, why Long Feng was lobotomized) and why Jin is a vegetarian (I wonder if anyone remembers that detail). Sorry there's not any Sokka or Azula in this one either… We'll get back to them eventually. I know that there was a huge gap between chapters, and the cost of that, obviously, is that you're going to lose readers and reviewers, but, if you read this chapter and you like it, please, do go ahead and review, and if you don't like it, please, go ahead and tell me why.
 The reference to Oz is thoroughly intentional. I don't know if you've heard this from me before, but for me, Ba Sing Se is very similar in a lot of ways to the Emerald City of Oz. For one thing, the Gaang spends most of S2 trying to reach BSS in the hopes of reaching the Earth King, whom they expect will solve all their problems, much in the same way that Dorothy Gale et al. spend a large chunk of The Wizard of Oz trying to get to the Emerald City in the hopes of reaching the Wizard, whom they expect will solve all of their problems. Of course, in both stories (and in both versions of Wizard), the characters find that their savior is nothing more than an impotent figurehead, and there's a man behind a curtain. Even before they got to BSS, I had expected the Gaang's arrival at BSS to be something like Dorothy's arrival at the Emerald City, at least in the film, where the Avatar would be greeted as a hero, they'd go get awesome spa treatments, and then they'd meet up with the Earth King only to find that for plot-convenient reasons X, Y, and Z, the Earth King either couldn't help them, or at least, couldn't just use his awesome might to crush the Fire Nation. Ba Sing Se then turned out to be like the Emerald City as portrayed in the book, where the Emerald City isn't actually green, at least not more green than any other city, rather, the inhabitants of the Emerald City must all wear green glasses to make them believe that the city is green. The glasses suppress the true nature of the city, much in the same way that the Dai Li suppress the true nature of Ba Sing Se and the knowledge of the war outside.
 Because I don't invoke Godwin's law nearly often enough on this fic: Lebensraum.