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. And in this chapter, from people you wouldn't expect it from.
Disclaimer: Um, this is fanfiction. Hopefully you realize that this means I own nothing you recognize here.
Ruminations and a eulogy: The last time I posted an update to this fic, I found out that Forlorn Maiden had passed from this Earth. It was a painful and profoundly disconcerting shock. I didn't want to believe it, but my efforts to disprove this state of affairs achieved essentially the opposite effect, much to my sadness. I've written and rewritten these notes, and finally, I think I've written what I need to write, but I'm not sure you, dear readers, need to read those things, so I'm cutting out most of what I wrote. But I thought I should acknowledge her passing and my grief at it. As an aside, the first section of this story was written immediately after I learned of Forlorn Maiden's passing. The rest was written in the last few days. This is an awkward chapter, because it deals with Zuko's grief at a time when I myself was grieving.
The ship was quiet. Zuko's rooms were even more quiet. He didn't know how long he's been there, didn't care. He hadn't moved from the spot where he'd fallen. The fire had gone out in his room. It was cold. He was hungry and thirsty. He thought about getting up, going to the fire and starting it up again. Thought about going to his bed. Thought about going to his bed and starting a fire. But he was tired. Too tired to move.
The captain had come by a while ago. He'd knocked and knocked, but it wasn't until he started to try and open the door that Zuko had found his voice for just enough time to snarl an order to the Captain that he wanted to be left alone.
It was the screaming that finally got him to move. He bolted up, threw the door open, and ran to its source. He found Jin in the mess hall. She was screaming.
"I'm not going to eat that!"
Two men were restraining her, and a third was trying to spoon feed her.
"What in Koh's name is the meaning of this?" Zuko's voice thundered, and the fire in the room exploded for an instant with his wrath.
"She won't eat!"
"I'd rather starve!" she shouted.
Someone behind Zuko snickered. "We know that's a lie."
Zuko spun around and grabbed the man by the throat. His eyes met the man's, and Zuko saw fear in them. He dropped the man. "Take him to the brig," he said coldly, and then turned back to Jin.
"Let her go," he ordered. His voice was low and dangerous. They did as he said.
He looked at the food they were trying to shove into her mouth. Chicken-duck stew. Delicious, for maritime rations. He remembered now, Jin was vegetarian. His stomach turned again.
"Give her something without meat," he said.
"But nothing. I am a son of Agni. Do as I command."
"But that's all there is; that's dinner for tonight."
"Surely we have rice and beans or potatoes, or fruit, or something."
The beans will take a night to soak and cook. The fruit is rationed." 
"Have some rice boiled up with potatoes then," he said.
"Right away sir."
Then, after a while, he barked, "I'm certain we don't need all hands here, get back to work."
And they followed his order.
Zuko took the bowl with the chicken-duck stew, looked at it long and hard, and then began to eat it. But he had trouble keeping it down, so he set it aside, and just sat there in silence. Eventually, they brought the rice and boiled potatoes to Jin. They set the bowl in front of her. She didn't make to touch it.
"Please," Zuko said slowly, "I know it's not the most delicious of dishes, but, you should eat."
"Why do you care?" she asked him.
"I shouldn't," he answered.
"But you do," she said, bewildered. "And that doesn't answer my question."
Zuko shook his head. "I shouldn't care. I shouldn't care whether you eat or don't. I shouldn't care what you eat. I shouldn't care if they kill you, or rape you, or anything. You're just Earth Kingdom swine. I shouldn't care what happens to you any more than I care what happens to the cow-chicken slaughtered for my father's lunch."
Jin just looked at him. She didn't look afraid, just sad.
"I should have you thrown overboard."
"You won't, though, will you?"
Zuko sighed. "No. Of course not."
"I'm sorry if I upset you," she said.
"Why the fuck should you be sorry? I'm the Fire Lord's son. You should hate me." She didn't answer him. Then, he asked, "Why? Why don't you hate me?"
"I think you hate yourself enough for the two of us right now."
Zuko laughed unhappily.
"You didn't know. How is it that none of you know anything? What's this world we live in, where we have kings, and we're meant to live and die for them, and they know nothing of the world?"
"My father knows," he told her. "Or, at least, if anyone in the Fire Nation knows, he does. And if he doesn't know, I doubt he'd be sorry or surprised. My Uncle too. They did a debriefing, after we failed to take the city. My father was livid. Sozin's comet had been all we'd needed to exterminate the Air Nomads; it should have been enough to take Ba Sing Se. I wasn't allowed into the council. Not even my sister was allowed. Father shipped us both, and Sokka, off to Ember Island. But, if they sank the city into the ground, then I understand why the siege failed. It really is the impenetrable city, isn't it?"
"You weren't allowed into the council?"
Zuko laughed. "Oh, no. Not that I could complain. For years, I wasn't even allowed into the Fire Nation."
Jin didn't say anything. Zuko didn't intend to eat the rest of the stew. He got up, but Jin called to him not to leave. "Are you going to tell your father?"
"No. I learned that lesson long ago." Then he added as an afterthought. "The general, the one who failed, he disemboweled himself, if that's any consolation."
"Should it be?"
"I don't know." He turned to leave once more.
"So that's it, then?" she asked. "You find out what your nation does, you hate it, and then, that's it? You don't do anything about it?"
Zuko sighed. "Yes."
"You're a coward, then," she said.
"No, you're not. You're not a monster either."
Zuko turned and smiled. "I'm afraid that's a lie not even my sister cold tell convincingly."
Sokka sighed and hoped it wouldn't be too late. His talk with Pakku had inspired him. Neutral jin. Retreat.
So he went to Azula's room, knocked on the door, and hoped she would forgive him. If Sokka had been a different man, he might have prayed to the spirits for their help.
"Come in," her voice called out, regal as always.
He did and found her, lying in her bed, reading.
"What are you reading?" Sokka asked.
"A morality tale," Azula answered cryptically. She didn't seem upset, which probably meant she was livid.
Sokka closed the door behind him and then rubbed his head.
"You're wet," Azula said plainly. "Why?"
"I felt like going for a swim. Plus, I didn't want to talk to Ling, and he was going to break my door open."
"Well take those clothes off before you die of cold," she said.
"You just want to see me naked," he said with a trace of a smile.
"Oh, yes, more than anything," Azula said with a wide smile. But it wasn't an amused smile, or their smile. More than anything, it terrified Sokka.
But he took the dripping wet clothes off and set them to dry by the heating stove. He took a blanket at the foot of Azula's bed and draped it over himself, then he sat next to her.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
Azula rolled up the scroll she was reading and put it in the box by her bedside. "How do you think I'm feeling?" she asked. It should have been a bitter tone—but instead her words sounded calm and friendly. Internally, Sokka swore. If he'd thought any Spirit would listen, he would have prayed.
"Listen, Azula?" he said.
"I was way out of line."
"Out of line? How so? You were just saying things that are true. Would it be out of line to say that the sky was blue, or that the Air Nomads deserved to die, or any number of basic truths anyone with half a brain and an open eye could notice?
"You said I was a 'vicious, vile monster who has never loved anyone or anything' other than me in my entire life. And you know what? It's true." Her smile deepened. "It's absolutely true. I am a vicious, vile monster. And I've never loved anyone or anything in my life. And what's more, I was born this way. My mother knew it. That's why she couldn't stand the sight of me. And I hated her. I hated her so much that at the first opportunity, I set her up. And she killed my grandfather and then herself, and I laughed. And then I taunted Zuko. Who does that? Only a vicious, vile monster."
"Look, Azula… I… I was mad. I shouldn't have said that. It was stupid of me. It's just—I've been under a lot of stress lately—
Azula shrugged. "I know. I know. Betraying your whole race has to be difficult. Though, it probably gets easier with time, doesn't it? And then, I'm sure you were very worried about what my father would do to you if I didn't wake up. A lot of stress. I understand."
"Look, I'm just trying to apologize."
"Why? What do you mean why?"
"Do you think you hurt my feelings?" Azula asked with a laugh. It was cold and shattered, and it cut at him. "Oh, pet. Do you think I'd give enough weight to your words, so as to be worried or injured by them?
"My sweet little savage, you are so impossibly below me. Are you seriously so incredibly stupid so as to believe that I would be troubled in the slightest by your words?"
It was Azula's declaration of war.
Sokka smiled. "No Princess. I'm just aping manners."
"You've been failing at that recently."
"I'm only a savage."
"Well, be a better ape. Go change into dry clothes and find Ling. He's worried about you, you know."
So Sokka stood up, draped the blanket around Azula, got dressed in his wet clothes and went to find Ling, all the while thinking about how he would murder the bitch.
It wasn't until the next day that Zuko thought to go visit Toph. He didn't want to, and so he lay in bed for hours, even though he hadn't slept and couldn't sleep, until his limbs cried out against him and the guilt became so heavy it nearly crushed him. Then, finally, as the sun was setting, he got up and went to see the little blind girl.
He found her sitting in the dark, which wasn't entirely surprising. She didn't bother to turn to face him as he went into her room, and he didn't bother to turn on the lights.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I… I just wanted to check up on you. See how you were doing."
"Oh, I'm dandy."
"And I wanted to apologize."
"Give me your hand."
"W…what?" he stuttered out.
"Give me your hand." She held out hers expectantly, and after a moment's hesitation, he reached out and put his hand into hers. Her hand was small and rough, and he wondered how Lao Bei Fong had never realized that his invalid daughter was no invalid at all.
She closed her fingers around his hand, tightly, and then, she brought her other hand to his wrist. He tried to step back, but she held him fast. Her hand began to move up the inside of his arm, until it lay flatly on his chest, right above his wildly beating heart.
"I'm making you nervous," she observed, getting up on her knees so her face was level with his.
"Are you afraid of me?" she asked. "There's no earth on this ship or for miles around. I'm just a defenseless little girl, for the second time in my life. You have me at your mercy."
Zuko didn't know if she knew what she was doing.
"No. I'm not afraid of you."
"That's funny. I don't think you're lying. So why is your heart beating so fast and so hard?"
Agni, Zuko thought, what game was she playing at?
"It's complicated," he said, because he wasn't going to tell her the real reason his heart was beating like it was.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" she asked.
That killed the mood, whatever it might have been.
"I don't know."
"What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I had to turn this disaster around."
"So you threw me into a tank of water? What the hell is wrong with?"
"I already told you, I don't know."
"You know what the worst part is? I would have played along."
"You gave me no reason to trust you."
"And now I have no reason to trust you," she countered.
"You have one," he said. And he wasn't lying, Toph could tell, but he didn't tell her what it was. Then he sighed. "For what it's worth, and I know it's not worth anything, I'm sorry. I didn't want to scare you, and I wouldn't have hurt you."
"It's not worth very much," she said.
He took her hand off his chest then, and stepped back.
Then he left.
Zuko knocked on Jin's door and waited for her to answer. After a short wait, he knocked again, and then he called out, "It's me, may I come in?"
"Could I stop you if you wanted to come in?" she asked.
"No," he admitted, "but I would like your permission."
The door opened. "You can't get my permission. My only option is to say yes. As I have no choice, I can not give you permission."
"But will you, just as a formality?"
"I've opened the door," she said, and stood back.
Zuko took that as invitation enough. He stepped into her room and closed the door behind him.
"Why do you want my permission anyway? You said it yourself, I'm just Earth Kingdom swine."
Zuko didn't answer, he just sat down. "It doesn't make any sense," he muttered finally in defeat.
"What doesn't make any sense?"
"Everything. Nothing in the world makes sense." And then suddenly, he was up in a flash with Jin's arms held tight. His eyes were full or rage and his whole body was made of menace. "What have you done to me? Why won't you hate me?"
"I haven't done anything to you," she said. "You… you came to the little corner of the Earth Kingdom where I was hiding from the past. You lied to me… you made me l—you lied to me. And then, you took me. And you took the sky from me.
"What did I do to you?
"Nothing. I just told you what happened in Ba Sing Se."
"No, no, no! You did something. You must have done something. Because three days ago the world made sense, and now it doesn't. And it can't be that the whole world's gone wrong. It can't be that the whole world is mad. It has to be you. You should hate me, but you don't hate me. And it's driving me mad."
"So, what?" Jin asked. "I don't hate you, and you want my permission. But you shouldn't want my permission, right? I'm just an Earth Kingdom swine. Your father's armies kill people like me every day. Your father's armies put people like me, put me, in a position of having to fight. I didn't ask for the war. My mother didn't ask for the war. The Earth King didn't ask for the war."
"Do you think I asked for the war?" Zuko barked out, yanking her closer. "Do you think my father asked for it? Or my uncle? Or my grandfather?"
"Sozin did. Sozin started the war. And Azulon didn't mind continuing it. Or what? Did Azulon hold a knife to Iroh's neck and make him go and raze down the walls of Ba Sing Se?"
"Sozin had no choice," Zuko answered, reciting an old lesson. "The Fire Nation had the right to seek new land. The Fire Nation needed it."
"So he established colonies. In the Earth Kingdom. Why did the Air Nomads have to die?"
"Because… because the Avatar…"
"So this is all the Avatar's fault? The Avatar was just a child."
Zuko let her go and sank down. "Yes. The Avatar was just a child."
Jin crawled down to her knees, in front of Zuko. "As far as I can understand, and you'll forgive me if I'm wrong, because I'm just an Earth Kingdom swine and a peasant maid to boot, but as far as I can understand, your argument goes a little like this: The Earth Kingdom forced the Fire Nation to fight a war because we wouldn't just lean back and die."
"It isn't that," Zuko said.
"So what is it then?"
"It can't be that, because it doesn't make any sense."
"You keep saying that."
"Why don't you hate me?"
"I told you, you hate yourself enough for the two of us."
"Bullshit!" Zuko cried out. "That's bullshit! Toph Bei Fong hates me. Every person in Gaoling hates me. And they have every right to hate me! They should hate me! So why don't you? You, more than any of them should hate me!"
"Maybe the question you should be asking is why you hate yourself."
"I don't hate myself," he lied.
"So why should I?"
"Because you're an Earth Kingdom peasant, and I'm the Fire Lord's son."
Jin leaned her head back. "I see. I see. And that's what we're supposed to do. If we all fall into our parts, like neat little dolls in our safe little boxes, then the world makes sense. And if I hate you, then… you can hate me. And we're at war, and it doesn't matter who started it, we can kill each other, and that's fine.
"I'm sorry Zuko. I don't hate you. I hate the Earth King and I hate the Fire Lord, and I even hate myself. But you're just a lost little boy who doesn't understand the world, and you're just playing the role they told you to play, and you don't even like it. And I think if you were the man you think you should want to be, I would hate you. But you don't want to be that man, and I don't hate you."
"You know," Zuko said, looking up at her, his golden eyes hard and dangerous, but also lost and desperate. "The Avatar was just a child. He was a goofy twelve year old little kid when I found him, hidden in the South Pole, and I captured him, and I took him back to my father, and now the Avatar is a wretched wraith. My father had him tortured until he went mad. They broke every bone in his body and set the limbs wrong so he couldn't bend. They pulled out all his teeth and fingernails, and burned his eyes out with hot pokers. They keep him down in a hot arid dungeon, where there's no light or air, and they feed him just enough to keep him alive. The only reason they bathe him is so his sores won't get infected so he won't die."
"Do you want me to hate you for that?"
"Isn't it terrible?"
"Yes. But did you know they'd do that to the Avatar if you caught him?"
"No. Maybe… maybe I should have… but I didn't. I didn't even think about it. No one told me."
"And if you'd known… would you have done it?"
"I…" his voice caught. "Yes. It would have been harder. But I would have done it. I… I was 16 years old… and… I wanted to regain my honor. I was so tired. I just wanted to go home. I wanted my father to love me again, to respect me again. I wanted my birthright back And… and if I didn't, and if he got away, well, he'd either have mastered the elements and threatened the Fire Nation, or someone else would have captured him, and then, he'd have been just as badly off, and I would still be banished."
"You mentioned that before. Why were you banished?"
"I dishonored myself and my father."
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"What do you mean, what does that mean? I dishonored myself and my father. I disappointed him."
"I'm sorry Prince Zuko. This isn't like asking for permission to come into my cell on your ship. If you want me to hate you, you're going to have to help me understand you, and I can't understand you when you won't tell me why you were banished.'
"You want to know why I was banished? OK. I'll tell you. I spoke out of turn at one of my father's war councils, attacking one of my father's generals. When I was challenged to an Agni Kai—
"A fire duel. When I was challenged, I accepted, but I didn't realize it was an Agni Kai against my father, and I refused to fight him. I begged for his forgiveness instead."
"He won. And I was banished."
"Why did you speak out against the general?"
"Because I thought he was wrong."
"And was he?"
"No. He was right. He has to have been right, because that was what my father did, and my father has to be right."
"Because he's your father?"
"Because he's the Fire Lord by the will of Agni, and he has to be right, or else the world doesn't make sense."
"So that's it then?"
"I don't hate you."
"No? Not even after I told you what I did to the Avatar?"
"Anyone in your position would have done the same thing. I don't hate you Zuko. I pity you."
"Because anyone would have done the same thing, and yet, you're the only one who has to carry the weight of having done it. I pity you, because everything in your life is a lie, and you are going to have to deal with that. I pity you, because the world has put you in a position where you are expected to do terrible things, and yet, you're not a terrible person. And that's a burden, isn't it?"
Zuko didn't answer. They sat together, in silence, until, after half an eternity, Jin got up on her knees again, and pressed her lips to Zuko's. Zuko gasped, and Jin kissed harder. And without meaning to, he found himself kissing her back, until he had his arms around her and her tongue in his mouth.
When they broke for air, he held her head and looked at her.
"I can't give you anything," he told her. "I'm the Fire Lord's son and you're an Earth Kingdom peasant. I can't marry you. I can't even acknowledge you exist. That's why I came in in the first place. I needed to tell you: the captain is stopping near the Gantu port. I need to leave you there. I can't take you to the Fire Nation. Toph… I can explain why I brought her, but I can't explain why I'm bringing you, and my sister will be curious, and the last thing in the world that you want is my sister's attention. But… I can't even take you to the port myself. We can't dock, not with Toph on board, not until we're in the Fire Nation—
She cut him off with another kiss.
"I'm not asking you for anything. I know who you are. I know what you are. And I know I can't have you. But I want you. So let me take you, just for tonight. And then, years later, when you're Fire Lord, you'll remember me, and what we did, and you'll remember that I was a human girl and not an Earth Kingdom swine, as you're so fond of saying."
And she kissed him again, and this time, she slipped her hands beneath the fabric of his tunic, and even though she was an Earth Kingdom girl, her touches scorched his skin.
And Zuko, who was lost, kissed her back. His inexpert hands undid her sash and moved along her flesh. And so it came to be that the first woman Zuko, Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, knew was Jin, the Earth Kingdom peasant girl.
AN: I don't like this chapter. It doesn't work. But if I wait to get out a better draft, it's just not ever going to happen. So here you go. Sorry.
It was always my intention to have Zuko and Jin have sex, and for it to mean close to nothing, and then for her to disappear, because even Zuko is sufficiently cognizant of his word to know that if he brought an Earth Kingdom peasant to the Fire Nation, Azula would destroy her. Sokka's a different case. Or maybe he wasn't. It's entirely possible Zuko would have thought that Azula would try to destroy Sokka, and Zuko just didn't care because he wanted to go home. If he had thought it, he would have been right. Azula did try to destroy Sokka, until she discovered that she found him charming and useful. Now that they're at each other's throats again, we'll see more of how our little villain protagonists got together in the first place.
The next time: Everyone comes together in the Fire Nation. I'm friggin' sick of all this bullshit on boats.
 – To protect against scurvy.
 – Recall, Iroh gave Azula his private papers.