You wake in a cold sweat, dazed and panicked, but it takes you only a moment to get your bearings. Catching your breath, that takes a little longer. It’s so heavy in the air above you that you can imagine, you almost wish, that you could see it, as you would if you were back home, crawling from your warm bed out into the morning air, before the winter sun had even begun to rise low in the sky.
You roll over onto your side, fixing your eyes on your sister. Katara, luckily, is still fast asleep, wrapped tightly in her sleeping bag, one arm reaching out only slightly, resting on the pillow of her long hair. Reaching out for you. Her face seams peaceful now, in the near darkness. But you still worry. You always do, just a little. After all, there’s no way to tell if she could be having dreams like yours.
You roll onto your back again and let a soft sigh escape into the cool night around you. After a moment, you notice the clouds. They hang low and ominous in the sky, pressing down on you and your friends. It’s too bad, really. You would have liked to see the moon tonight. You always would.
It’s only then that you notice the light. The softly flickering shadows are what catches your attention. You sit up now, since sleep feels a long way away anyways, searching for it’s source. You catch a glimpse of a dark figure sitting in the distance, cupping a small flame in an outstretched hand. As your eyes adjust to the light, you realize it’s looking back. Your eyes lock for a moment before you look away. Or at least, you think they do. It’s hard to tell in the low light. But you know he’s already heard you at the very least. For the first time, you wonder if he feels as lonely as you do.
Stiff and slow, being careful not to disturb the others, you rise from your bed and make your way over to him. He watches as you approach, eyes narrowed and face set, but he says nothing. As you draw closer he turns away, and you notice he’s dangling his legs over the edge of the cliff face, feet bare and pant legs rolled up, letting the wind cool his skin until his legs are covered in goose flesh. You decide to do the same, sitting just close enough to feel a little of the fire’s offered warmth. The two of you stay that way for what feels like hours, you gazing at the little flame out of the corner of your eye, him staring resolutely ahead, letting the chill of the night and the heat of the flame mingle on your skin.
“Couldn’t sleep?” to your great surprise it’s Zuko who breaks the silence. Rather than answering, you just shoot him a glare. You both know he’s heard your nightmare, seen you thrashing in your sleep. You turn away so he can’t see your face.
“You neither?” there’s a short pause, followed by a faint hum of acknowledgement from Zuko. Then it occurs to you that maybe you’re not alone. Maybe Zuko has nightmares too, though not quite like yours surely. And then it’s more than just an idea. You’re certain he does. Surprisingly, the thought doesn’t offer you much comfort.
“Do you – do you want to talk about it?” Of all the words you thought you might hear from the former fire nation prince, these are about the furthest from your mind. Especially when they’re being spoken so softly and sincerely.
There’s a part of you, a scared and wounded part, that still flinches at the sight of Zuko’s wild eyes, and the rough scar that tries desperately to hide their splendor. It cowers in fear at the memory of all the pain you’ve been through, at all the pain he’s caused, and right now it wants nothing more than to turn tail and flee at the thought of sharing your feelings with him. But when you look at him now, his face lit only by the soft light of the flame he holds carefully in his hand, it feels like you’re seeing him for the first time. His eyes unmarred by a cruel glare. Lips untainted by cruel words. He looks so much younger than you remember; he can’t be much older than you are. He’s a little afraid and a lot broken and he’s trying. Spirits is he trying. And maybe you should try too.
So you do. You tell him about the nightmares. About the fire and the ashes and the deep, cold darkness that’s always there, always waiting, waiting to engulf you. To take away everyone that you’ve ever loved, even those that are already long gone, burning away your memories of them that are already fading anyways. And just when you think you’re done you find your words spilling over, rushing out, and you’re telling him all your fears and all your pain and all about the great weight that’s always pressing in around you, down upon you, threatening to crush you and swallow you and forget you and it’s frantic and it’s terrifying and it’s so so good.
And all the while he simply listens, fully and truly. And when you’ve finally worn yourself out you fall back on your elbows, gasping for the breath you’ve forgotten to take. You want to look away, to feel less vulnerable in the sudden silence, but you can’t bring yourself to tear your eyes way from his face, and the way the firelight dances softly upon his cheeks.
After a moment he makes a movement as if to maybe take your hand, but thinks better of it. “Sokka.” He fixes you with his gaze, still intense, but in a very different way now than it used to be. “I’m sorry. For everything.” Is all he says. But his eyes say something his words never would.
And you do.