A Glass Darkly
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: AU, General Spoilers
AN: For AtLA Land's writing challenge. Prompt was "Mirror Universe"
He sighs as the children look at him. Their eyes are hard, bodies tired, but there's a resolve that even he has to admire. Piandao told him that they were warriors, but he hadn't quite believed until this moment. Not even his own son or nephew, both boys no matter how old they grow.
But here they sit with him by the evening campfire, and he can see the blood that lingers beneath their fingernails. He can see the wary glances at shadows. How a sword and a fan are kept so close to hand. Can feel the earth tremble faintly beneath them. Hear the water nearby as it sloshes with agitation. Taste the smoke in the air.
They look like kids, but they aren't. Not anymore.
Zuko's scar is livid on his pale face. Lu Ten has even more, but those are easier to hide. To cover up and pretend they don't exist.
"What are we going to do?" his nephew asks then. "The comet comes in less than a week, and you know what fa- what the Fire Lord plans to do."
"He'll kill everyone," says the Water Tribe girl, Katara. Waterbender. Bloodbender. Killer. "He doesn't care who gets hurt."
"Burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground and everyone with it," Toph agrees. She wiggles her feet in the dirt, but that only makes her missing toes stand out more.
Sokka nods next to her. "We're out of time. Once he finishes with the Earth Kingdom, he'll move to the poles. I doubt we could do much to stop him then."
Sokka rolls his shoulders even as he says it. As if he can see his village and his people burning before his very eyes. As if his new responsibilities are that much heavier. Sokka's young. So young. Too young to be the new chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe. But that doesn't change the truth. That doesn't make the boy's father any less dead.
Hakoda isn't the only one either.
So many lost. To his nation. To his grandfather and father. To his brother. To their insanity.
Their campfire darkens then, and the flames take on a sickly hue. He can't be sure which of the firebenders gathered are responsible or even if he himself is to blame. His mouth is too dry, and the air is too hot. There's so much death and dust that he can't take more than a shallow breath. He watches his son and nephew and knows that they're thinking the same thing. Thinking of all the horrible things their flesh and blood, their Fire Lord can do. To them. To everyone else.
What he's already done.
Even now, Mai is trapped in chains and behind bars. Ty Lee is lost, and they have no idea where. And Azula…
He won't think of her. He won't cry. He won't. She deserves better than his tears. She deserves more than just sorrow. She was only a girl. Just a girl. And now, she's just ash in the wind.
Just like her mother. Just like Ursa so sweet and kind and fierce, fighting for her son and daughter to the bitter end.
His hands fist without his permission. There's fire in his bones. Burning bright. Igniting and sizzling his veins until he tastes blood on his tongue and hears the dragon roar in his spirit.
Ursa and Azula. Azula and Ursa. He can't think for their names repeating over and over in his head.
He lets out a breath, and the haze of anger – of rage burning so cold it's blue like her fire – eases until he can actually see again. Two sets of worried golden eyes stare at him, and he forces a smile if only to ease their suffering.
His son and nephew exchange a look and sit back.
Aang nervously clears his throat. "What are we going to do, sir?" the boy questions, and he twists his hands in his lap. He looks so normal sitting there. So whole. He's the least scarred of all of them, but some hurts are too deep to show. "I'm… I'm not ready to face him. I'm not. I can't reach the Avatar, and my firebending isn't that great yet."
Grey eyes are earnest as they look at him. Earnest but afraid.
He fights to not sigh again. Children who aren't children but are still just boys on the inside. Kid soldiers who march off to blood and fire and death.
Damn Sozin. Damn him a thousand and one times. Just as all his own kin are damned to repeat his mistakes and make even worse ones.
His son is quiet next to him, but he feels the fingers that reach for the edge of his sleeve. And he knows his nephew watches them with both longing and regret.
Damn his brother, too.
"We'll do what we have to," he finally replies, "and what I should've done a long time ago."
Silence then. All he hears is the wind through the trees and the crackle of the campfire.
"Why not do it before?" Suki demands, and there's accusation in her voice.
Her island is burned. Her people are scattered. And she's angry. So angry. So much rage trapped inside. But she can't control it like he can. Can't swallow it down to nurse the simmering embers within. And were she a firebender, she would've long ago burned their camp into nothing but cinders.
All he can do is look at her. Let her see the regret in his face. Let her hear the hundred apologies he'll never get to say.
He swallows, and it tastes like ash.
"Because he's my brother."
That only earns him a blank stare. Aang's equally puzzled, and Toph has crossed her arms over her chest. But he sees Katara look at Sokka, watches him take her hand and hold on tightly. Zuko across from them is deathly still. His hands are fists, and his knuckles have gone white. Lu Ten merely stares at the ground and says nothing.
"And we're supposed to fight him," Aang murmurs, biting his lip. "I'm supposed to fight him."
Toph though shakes her head and looks out with sightless eyes. "I don't know about that, Twinkletoes."
"You said it yourself," Sokka cuts in, hand resting lightly on his sword, "you aren't ready."
"It won't do anyone any good if he hurts you… or worse," Katara adds softly, and the tea in her cup gives a jolt before freezing over.
Aang visibly stills. "But… I mean, what about-"
He's abruptly cut off, but it's Zuko who does it.
"Don't worry about that." His tone is rough but soft underneath. Like new growth in the flash fire's wake. "You're not going to fight him."
"I'm not?" Aang glances from Zuko to him with something a lot like relief.
They mightn't be children anymore, but physically, he and Lu Ten are the only adults there. And all of them look to him for guidance. All of them look to him to make things right.
"No," he says, and his voice doesn't shake even if his hands want to. But not from fear, not from anger. "No, that's not your fight."
He pauses. Hesitates on the volcano's edge. Torn between the salvation of fleeing and the certain death if he remains to fight. But he isn't a coward, and he won't have a boy, no matter how little of one he may be now, enter a battle that should be his. This is his family and his fight. His nation.
Ozai closes his eyes then and breathes out heavily.
"Leave Iroh to me."