Sleepless in Ba Sing Se
Zuko did not sleep. Hasn’t done so in years. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, because he does sleep sometimes. Whenever he can. He sleeps in the back of his car, or sometimes in the closet, sometimes in the library. Anywhere that is not his bed. He does not like to sleep on his bed. Beds bring back terrible memories. Memories he can do without. That is the same reason he has not looked at a mirror for years. The mirror in his room back in Caldera was shattered years ago and he has not even bothered to replace it.
Besides, he has not lived in Caldera for three years now. As soon as he could, he moved out of that gilded mansion, and has since then been living with the only person who gives a fuck about him. His Uncle Iroh. The old man is happy running the restaurant in Ba Sing Se. He is a culinary savant and can whip up any dish. But the man has no head for numbers. That is where Zuko has stepped in. In exchange for the boarding and lodging his Uncle was providing him, Zuko looks at the accounts. It is a mutually beneficial exchange. Besides, knowing his fucked up and almost nonexistent sleep-cycle, Iroh gave him the luxury of flexi time. It also gives him enough time to work on his thesis.
With a soft sigh, Zuko lowers himself on the ledge. His body is craving rest, but his mind has other plans. He gets out a cigarette pack and lighter from his pocket. He pulls a stick from the pack using his mouth, and flicks the dragon shaped lighter. Personally, he thinks it is tacky as hell, but it is the last thing that Lu Ten gave him. He is not going to get rid of it just because it doesn’t gel with his taste. He is not vain. He does not have that luxury.
Sitting under the canopy of stars, Zuko takes a deep drag. He both loves and hates his nights in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se. He loves the silence, the glittering stars overhead, the cool breeze that ruffles his hair. He loves it all. He just hates spending the nights alone. He can’t take it anymore.
In the distance he can hear faint sounds of the occasional car whizzing by or the rhythmic clacking of the goods train. Zuko breaths the air and realizes that it might rain some time later. He sighs, and leans back against the water tank, resting his elbow on his folded knee. Overhead, a shooting star zipped across the black sky. His mother used to believe that shooting star grated wishes. Sitting alone on the terrace of his two-story house, Zuko smirks. If stars granted wishes, Zuko’s star probably had gone supernova before he was even born.
“Is someone there?” A woman’s voice startles him, almost making him fall. He has to grab on to the pipe to stop the fall.
“The fuck! Who’s there?”
“Sorry,” the voice says. He can hear someone grunt and can vaguely make out a figure vaulting on to his roof.
“If you’re here to steal, I should warn you I’m trained in MMA.”
“I’m not a thief. I’m your neighbor,” she said walking up to him.
Zuko remembers seeing the moving truck last week. The house was empty for as long as he has lived in Ba Sing Se. He has become so used to being undisturbed at nights, that he is not sure how he feels seeing a stranger walk up to him like this. The woman, dressed in dark clothes, comes next to him, and says, “Can I get a smoke?”
Without a word, Zuko pulls his pack and lighter out and hands it to her. In the glow of the waning moon, he sees her put a cigarette on her lips and flicks the lighter on. From the angle he is looking at her now, her face is more shadow than light. She twirls the lighter in her hand for a bit before saying, “Fancy,” she hands it back to him. “I’m Katara.”
“Zuko,” he replies, pocketing the lighter and cigarettes.
She leans her elbows on the ledge and Zuko instinctively pulls his outstretched leg back. Silence falls on them, with the tiny embers of their respective cigarettes glowing occasionally. “Sorry for scaring you earlier,” she says after a while. “I have seen you sitting here often.”
Zuko does not know what to say, so he stays silent.
“Don’t you sleep?” she asks bluntly.
“Don’t you?” He snaps back. “It must be way past midnight.”
“It’s two forty in the morning,” she replies, tossing the ash from her cigarette.
“And you should be in bed,” Zuko says.
“I’m an insomniac,” Katara says. “I can’t sleep.”
For the second time, Zuko does not know what to say. He stubs the cigarette butt and tosses it in the bin he keeps in the terrace for just this purpose. “Me neither,” the words slip out before he can stop himself.
“I saw,” she says and drags on the cigarette. “I know coming over like this was weird, but… I just had to.”
Without being told, Zuko knows what she means. “Spending the nights alone are tough, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Once I knew there was someone else nearby, spending a sleepless night, I had to come and talk.”