DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, NOR DO I CLAIM ANY RIGHTS TO IT, ANY OF THE CHARCTERS, OR LOCATIONS IN THIS FAN FICTION STORY. I ONLY OWN THE PLOT.
It was very hot. Zuko couldn't tell where the sweltering heat was coming from, but it was positively unbearable. He was in a darkened corridor with only a few dim lamps for illumination. Following the path that seemed familiar to him, he came to a door that had the Fire Nation emblem on it.
He opened the door and stepped out into the charred remains of the garden at home. He saw a figure kneeling by the murky waters of what was left of the turtle duck pond and his heart began to race. It was Mai! He ran to her, but just before he got to her, she vanished. He turned abruptly, sensing a presence behind him and found Mai smiling at him, his father at her side and Azula at her other side.
Behind them, General Zhao laughed maliciously standing over his mother's crouched form, his sword raised. Then Mai pushed Zuko into the water. It seemed to be dragging him down slowly. He called out to them, but they all just stood watching him sink. Even his mother, eyes wet with tears was powerless to stop it. Deeper and deeper he went as if he was being dragged to the depths by some creature. The light was so far away. He couldn't breathe...
Then he felt another presence around him. He opened his eyes and found himself in Ba Sing Se. Behind him stood Toph whose eyes shone a brilliant emerald green instead of their usual pale green. He knew she could see him and she accepted him for who he was, scarred and abandoned as he was. She reached for his scar and touched it. He smiled at her and she smiled back. Then she was being pulled away. She was reaching for him, begging him to help her. He reached out to catch her hand but he was just too far. She was disappearing...
Zuko woke with a start bathed in a cold sweat. He groaned and put a hand over his eyes. That was the third nightmare that week. They had become more and more frequent of late and he had no idea how to make them go away. He stared up at the ceiling sighing in frustration. He hadn't had a good night's sleep in a while. If he wasn't dreaming about Mai, he was dreaming about Azula or his father. They were all ghosts from his past. Why wouldn't they just leave him be?
He sat up and raked a hand through his hair. What would his uncle say in a situation like that? He tried to think about it but gave up. He wouldn't understand what he said anyway. His uncle was extremely cryptic when he gave his advice.
He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and got up to pace his room. Sleep was becoming his enemy. He needed to rest, but his dreams would haunt him. Maybe he was going mad? He put on his robe and padded down the hall. He paused at the door he got to and took a deep breath. What on earth was he doing? He was going to get an earful for sure.
He rapped lightly on the door and was surprised when he heard a voice tell him to come in. Toph was seated on a love seat on the balcony, seemingly enjoying the cool night breeze. She was in a pale green night gown and barefoot as usual. Her ankle was healing nicely. She could move around, but not too much. He was glad she was awake. She was one of his very good friends, If anyone could help him, it was her.
"You're not sleeping," he said entering and shutting the door behind him.
"I can't sleep. I've been sitting out here for a while now," said Toph shifting on the love seat on the balcony. The moonlight gave her an almost angelic glow as she smiled at him.
"You're not asleep either. Is something wrong?" she asked. Zuko sat down beside her and sighed.
"For the last few days, I've been having these strange nightmares..." he began and proceeded to tell her all about his most recent one.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm losing it like Azula. Maybe we both got a faulty gene or something," he said burying his face in his hands.
"You are a little on the crazy side, yes," she said with a laugh as she nudged him.
"You're one to talk," he said and nudged her back.
"You're the right kind of crazy though," she said reaching for his hair. Her fingers combed gently through his dark hair and she smiled. "Come on," she said taking his hand.
"Where..." he began.
"No questions, just come before I kick myself for even thinking this. "
She led him to her bed and asked him to lie down. She lay down facing him and took his hand.
"Okay, now talk to me."
"About what?" he asked puzzled, "and why are we in your bed?"
"You ask a lot of questions," she said, "I'm going to try to help you get rid of your nightmares." Her smile faded a little and she squeezed his hand ever so slightly.
"Tell me about her," she simply said. There was no question as to who 'her' was. Zuko sighed and turned over to lie on his back facing the ceiling.
"What's to tell? She was all I ever hoped for. She wasn't like anyone I'd ever met. She loved me and I loved her. We were supposed to have a life together, start over and forget the past..." he squeezed her hand a little tighter.
"When she got pregnant, I was sure Agni had blessed us. I was going to start a family and end the reign of terror my great grandfather had begun. It would all be over soon. Then..." his voice cracked and Toph leaned over to hold his hand in both of hers, encouraging him to go on if he could. He continued after a long pause.
"The doctor couldn't understand it. She had been fine throughout her pregnancy and even in labour she'd been just fine... I had helped take care of her and my first born you know... She just... died. One minute we were laughing and the next, she was just gone..." Zuko shut his eyes letting the memories flood back. He had been hysterical when he had received the news. He had begged her to wake up, cried over her body, shaken her... Seeing her lie lifeless on their bed, a little part of him might just have gone as mad as his sister had. He refused to be parted from her and had to be restrained while her body was wrapped up.
His Mai. His Mai. His beloved wife and their first child had perished on what had started out as the happiest day of his life. He squeezed Toph's hand feeling the pain fill him again. She reached up slowly and touched his face, finding the wetness there and wiping it away wordlessly. She didn't poke fun at him or show her disdain like he had thought she would. She simply smiled and gently wiped away his tears, letting him hold her hand.
"I couldn't believe it, I didn't want to believe it... She was so young and so beautiful... A part of me died with her and I don't know if I'll ever get it back..." Toph felt his chest heave. He was trying to be brave. She desperately wanted to show him that he didn't have to.
"I loved her so much," he said in a choked whisper.
"And she loved you," she finally said gently rubbing his hand with her thumb. After a few moments, Zuko looked back at her, a smile on his face.
"Yes, she did," he said. Toph shuffled closer and blushed.
"Look, I'm not really good at this, but if you want to... you know, hug or something..." without being told twice, Zuko crushed her to him. She smelled of fresh pine and cedar with a hint of Sandalwood. He breathed deep and sighed. It had been so long since he'd had any human contact of that nature, so very long...
"A little less crushing Sparky," she said in a sort of strangled voice.
"Sorry," he said and was about to let go when she stopped him.
"I have a feeling you need this," she said and put his arms back around her.
"Thank you," he said as he tucked his arm around her. Snuggling closer to him, she smiled and sighed.
"Goodnight Sparky," she said and drifted off.
"Goodnight..." he said with a yawn, and followed her to the land of dreams.
Zuko woke up to the sun shining in his eyes with Toph still sound asleep beside him. She stirred in her sleep and rolled over so that she was now facing him. He watched her peaceful face and smiled. He'd slept exceptionally well that night. He pushed her hair out of her face and watched her sleep. She was gorgeous in the morning light. He gently kissed her forehead and rose. He had to get to his room without anyone noticing or everyone would get the wrong impression about them and that was the last thing he wanted. He stepped out into the hall and, seeing nobody about, headed swiftly for his room.
Toph sat up when she heard the door close behind him. She had been awake for all of ten minutes when she felt Zuko kiss her and leave. She touched her forehead and smiled. This wasn't so bad. What she felt for Zuko, she admitted was more than friendship. He had at least opened up to her a bit. She had felt the pain in his words, and he had cried. It took a lot for Sparky to cry. He was always strong and sure, a born leader...
Toph stood and felt him cross the hall to his own room in the corridor at the other end of the house. He would be just fine. Now he could begin to heal, one slow and steady step at a time.