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Deep Burn

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Azula was still plagued by nightmares. They would creep at her sporadically, an affliction that came and went like storms. Katara knew because Azula would sneak into her bedchamber in the dead of night every time.

Katara had grown to become a light sleeper over the years, one of the imprints that the war left on her. She heard the careful creak of the door opening and took a wakening breath. No one else but Azula would let herself in without knocking at this hour.

Her bed dipped as Azula got into it, an arm slipping loosely around her. Azula was as warm as a furnace against her back. Katara had long conjectured that the projection of heat was her body’s involuntary act of defense, like the nightmare had temporarily disturbed her balance. She could alleviate it with her healing water, but she knew it would only aggravate Azula’s frustrations about being vulnerable.

She rolled over, meeting Azula’s haunted eyes with her drowsy ones. She fought against her sleepiness and cupped her lover’s cheek, then she lowered her hand soothingly, resting it at the small of her back.

The first time this happened, they were in their shared room in Iroh’s guest lodgings. They all went to Ba Sing Se for the celebrations following the Earth Kingdom’s recovery from the state of confusion and tumult that the Red Lotus had left it. Azula didn’t want to come, but Zuko had profusely asked her to. It was a step forward, he said. A chance for the world to witness her return as a changed woman—that one who had helped take down their enemy—and to officially announce that she was taking part in his ongoing reparation efforts as his advisor. Zuko meant well, but being there triggered past memories. The first night, they were sleeping in their separate beds when Azula had woken with a start, panting and covered in cold sweat. Katara came to her in a rush, and Azula had flinched away, hurling curses at her. But the pain in her eyes belied the malice in her words.

In the end, Azula hesitantly circled around the room and stood on the other side of Katara’s bed. Katara reached out, and they slept beside each other for the rest of the night.

Now, Azula was gazing back at her distantly. She rarely spoke about her nightmares and Katara never pressed her. All she knew was that the dreams were never the same, but they brought back the same traumatic memories.

Her presence seemed to help Azula somehow. Comforting but not suffocating.

“I keep waking you up like this.” Azula murmured.

“I don’t mind.”

A slight rustle of sheets, Azula pressing closer. She moved like a wounded animal in the night. Katara always felt painfully helpless in moments such as this. She would never admit it, afraid that it would only encumber Azula with a needless burden.

As a draft wafted through the bedchamber, the curtains billowed. Azula held on to her tighter. Her eyes squeezed shut.

“You’re okay. I'm here.” Katara breathed out. “I’m not going anywhere.”