Author's Note: I haven't the slightest clue where this came from, except that when I watched 3:9 – Nightmares and Dreams I really wanted someone to give Aang a teddy bear and bunk up with him. This story takes place after episode 3:14 – The Boiling Rock.
Hakoda was, by his nature, a light sleeper. He was a hunter of men and animals, and both were prey that could come padding up on you in the night. There were times when he could sleep deeply, but recently the only slumber that took him was a shallow pool of unconsciousness.
Even among his children this did not change.
He had not been with them for almost two years now. No longer did his body know the sound of their breathing, or the rustling of their blankets as they tossed in their sleep. Moreover there were others here, a pack of quasi-children, half-fledged fighters full of teeth.
Children or not, it didn't make it any easier to rest his old bones during those first few nights. He awoke easily, and often found himself drifting around the great halls or standing at the edge of the endless precipice for long hours listening to the wind drift.
One such night he was pacing softly back to his pallet after a lonely walk, when he spotted the Avatar all but rolling back and forth in his spot, shivering violently. Hakoda stopped to feel the breeze rustle his hair, judging the temperature. It was cool night. Perhaps he should offer the boy his nest of blanket, even if he had only ever seen the Avatar sleep on the ground.
Before he could breech the silence, however, the child sat bolt upright, teeth chattering dramatically and voicing a miserable sound. With a puff of breath he hopped up from his spot and clamored rather gracelessly around the banked fire pit, closer to where his son and daughter had laid out their bedding.
Sokka was sprawled there, half off his mat on one side, with his knee bent and the blanket bunched up under one chin instead of properly draped over his body. He was snoring softly, the very image of the unbothered dreamer.
To Hakoda's surprise, it was here that the Avatar blundered, half on tip-toes. There Aang plopped down bonelessly. Tugging the blanket free, he drug it around them both and made himself at home, snuggled into Sokka's shoulder. A heavy sigh of relief, one last shiver, and then the camp returned to silence as though nothing had happened.
The older hunter stood by one of the enormous pillars and blinked, struggling but failing to keep the tug of a smile from forming fully on his lips. It was sweet, really – such a kid thing to do. Yet it made him curious also.
Which was why he found himself approaching the Avatar the following morning, somewhere between morning exercises of whirling flame and pre-lunch chores. The boy hefted a shoulder of dry grass to bring to his beast and Hakoda followed. The bison grunted when he came close, a huffing kind of whumph that he wasn't sure was friendly.
Aang patted it's face, saying, "Hey, buddy, be nice! That's Katarra and Sokka's dad, remember?"
Hakoda offered his hand to be sniffed, which the creature did with such an intake of breath that the man felt it sucking as his palm. He chuckled.
"Did you need something, Hakoda, sir?" The Avatar was looking up at him, perplexed, but with his ever-present lopsided grin still fixed on his face. The Southerner thought that it managed to look older on him now than it had before the invasion, a little more worn, but maybe it was his imagination.
"You don't have to call me 'sir,' Aang," he told the boy kindly, pleased when the Avatar rubbed the back of his head and nodded. "I wanted to ask you a question about last night."
"Last night?" More head rubbing, this time with confusion. He had a piece of straw stuck behind one ear, and little pieces of chaff strewn over his saffron colored clothing.
The man inclined his head. "Yes. I was up stretching my legs and noticed that you'd bedded down with Sokka. I wanted to ask you why."
The kid looked confused that he'd even asked. "Well, it gets cold sometimes," he explained. "Sokka's hardly ever cold, but he doesn't mind sharing. It's sorta cozy. Safe."
Hakoda took a moment to think of his son. Bato had told him stories of the thoughtful young man he had become, innovative and compassionate. He'd seen for himself the growing strategian, his wisdom and his forward thinking. But though he'd known for some time that it was his intrepid map-reader that had been leading the young group of travelers, he realized that he hadn't yet thought of his boy has their leader of a kind. As a protector.
He suggested to Aang, "You might have slept with one of the others. Why not Zuko, one of the Earth Kingdom boys, or Katara?"
"Katara?" the Avatar squeaked, looking scandalized by the very notion. "Noo, I couldn't. Katara's a girl." And then he turned the colored of stewed sea prunes and Hakoda reflected that maybe he wasn't so young after all.
Stammering, still recovering from his embarrassment, the boy rambled, "As for the others, I don't really know the Duke and Teo that well. Zuko does sleep with us sometimes, but never unless somebody else starts it. I think he hates the cold too." This inspired a moment of contemplation, in which the boy comically scratched his chin and hem-hawed over whatever idea had taken him. When he came to a decision, he nodded firmly. "I guess that makes sense, him being a fire-bender, huh?"
"There is a strain of logic," Hakoda agreed, amused.
Aang coughed. "Anyway, Sokka's like a brother to me now. He never minds, and so it's okay. It's a lot better than freezing to death."
How could one possibly argue with that?
The second time it had happened, Hakoda had been stretched out somewhere on the edge of dreaming and waking. A muffled sound drew him towards full consciousness, followed by a series of jerky scuffles and an almost inaudible sob. Curiously, he eased open his eyes, surveying the area. He was drawn to a faint curl of twisted covers across the blue expanse - his daughter, restless in the night.
Whispering breaths, and another gaspingly sob that was quickly cut off. His head lifted with concern, ready to go to her. But then he hesitated. How long had it been since he had last been able to scoop her into his arms and comfort her with nose rubs and a few strains of a soft lullaby?
Before he could make up his mind, the nightmare became critical and Kataara jolted upward in her bed. As she clutched her breast, swaying, he could just make out her contorted face. It ran with sweat, or maybe tears, and she ducked her head over it so that a thick, tangled mass of brown hair fell over her expression.
Oh, how he wanted to go to her, but things had been so strained between them in these last days, even now that they had made some kind of peace.
He hesitated a moment too long. For just then his daughter seemed to uncurl from her lonely anguish, carefully untangling the blankets and gathering the whole bundle into her arms. He watched her drag them over the short distance that separated her from her brother and then make up her pallet again, flush against his side.
She gave him a little shove and he grunted, squirming. Hakoda heard her call his name. "Sokka."
An inhale of breath and an answer, mumbled almost too low for him to hear. But the next moment his son's brown arm reached out for her and she gratefully crawled back into bed. "What's wrong?" Sokka asked.
Timorously, his daughter answered, "Dreaming. Of that witch, and the Fire Lilies."
Hakoda didn't know what they spoke of; he didn't share their history anymore. And he didn't know Hama.
"Katara." There was a sigh, followed by the sound of near weeping. His son drew an arm around his sister. "Hey, don't cry. Go back to bed now. You know I need my beauty sleep."
A hoarse, congested giggle. "All the rest in the world won't help you."
The man listened to his son murmuring to his younger sibling, soft incoherent words of comfort. Watched her roll onto her side, sniffling, her head pillowed on the arm that he had thrown out around her. Until they both drifted back into a dreamless slumber, and Hakoda was left alone.
He lay there breathing, thinking of all that he had missed.
He'd had to wait for the third time, a little later in the same week. The blind girl – Toph, the others called her – had just begun getting around on her feet after what he was sure had seemed like a long, dark recovery to the little earth-bender. He watched with the others as she picked around, grinning like a catowl with cream, while Sokka hovered just out of reach of her elbow, just incase.
"Cut it out, you ninny." She'd swatted at him when he lunged for her after one particularly drunken lurch. A toothed, slightly manic grin. "I can 'see' again, haha. Take one step closer and I'll squash you like a bug."
She'd spent the rest of the day staggering around the hall, arms spread out like wings in a show of insecurity that he didn't know was unnatural for her. What he had noticed was the way she would sometimes stop and turn her head around, as though finding it suddenly strange to be standing by herself, unaided. Brief uncertainty would flicker in her round face, only to be quickly covered by a bellowing of insults or a suspicious rumble in the surrounding stonework that made fine streamers of sand fall down on everyone's heads.
This quickly recalled the attention of her fellows.
Such tactics, of course, would not work so well at night unless she wanted them to wake thinking the whole mountain was coming down. Nonetheless, it was a tremor of the earth that awakened Hakoda this time, just a ripple of movement or sound. Sleepily, he'd blinked, placing his palm flat on the floor. Another ripple.
Ah, the little blind earthquake. He almost went back to sleep.
But Toph was not a terribly subtle presence, and could hardly miss her when she came suddenly in view from somewhere in the shadows. The girl rarely slept near the others, yet now she stomped towards them, if somewhat tenderly considering her feet. She was scowling and huffing, hands fisted at her sides. Strong-tempered, that one. It was one of the first things he'd noticed about her.
He almost couldn't find it in him to be surprised when she stopped by his son's pallet. He was conglobated on his side like a wolf pup tonight, all tucked up with his long limbs sticking out at odd angles. The girl brought her foot down and the ground bounced, cracking Sokka open like an egg. He rolled onto his back with a sleepy sigh, hair over his eyes.
Seemingly pleased, Toph dropped down perpendicular to him, propping her head against his ribs. Every time he breathed, her shoulder would lift just slightly. She settled with her knees crooked, feet against the floor.
Hakoda buried his nose in his elbow to keep from laughing.
It was bitterly cold again the following twilight, and the Southerner almost hadn't bothered trying to sleep. As he'd predicted, the Avatar didn't even make it half the night before waking up and padding across the ground. He'd found a comfortable spot beside Sokka when suddenly another boy appeared standing over the two.
Aang's hand fluttered a feeble wave at the newcomer, and then he sunk down, already half-asleep.
From his observation point, Hakoda had waited silently while the third spread out his warm covers on Sokka's other side. He'd recognized the tall, broad-shouldered fire bender immediately, and if there had ever been any doubt, a break in the cloud cover removed it. A sliver of silver light illuminated the two-toned face, one side so darkened in this light that the slitted eye glinted like a bird of prey's.
And even knowing that the fire-bender was now a friend, it quickened the father's heart, seeing him there in that moment.
Then a yawn split the suddenly youthful face, and the fire-bender rubbed his eyes like a sleepy child. He sunk cross-legged onto his mat, his arms thrown around himself as he shivered as dramatically as Aang had. Soon they were three-in-a-row of sleeping boys. Zuko snored almost as loudly as Sokka.
Feeling slightly ashamed, Hakoda turned over and shut his eyes.
He hadn't been able to keep himself from confronting Zuko the following morning in what was becoming a familiar inquisition. The little earth-bender's had been short. Her hazy green eyes had gone comically wide when he asked her what she'd been about, bedding down with his boy. Then she'd gone red, straight to her toes.
"He's just a good pillow, that's all," she growled, but her fair complexion betrayed her.
Zuko had turned almost the same color when he'd asked the same question, though in his case it seemed to stem more from embarrassment. "Who told you that?" he snapped with his characteristic flash-bang temper.
"Aang," Hakoda answered. "Something about fire-benders and the cold."
The former prince's face crumbled then, taking on an expression that was more troubled than irritated. He lowered his hands to his side and admitted, "Maybe. But it isn't a big deal."
Hakoda nodded obligingly. He said, "I only wondered why."
The young man snorted. They were near the precipice overlooking the cavern walls, and Zuko stared out at them fixedly as he tried to explain. "When I first came here, I wasn't accepted. The others were willing to give me a chance, but it didn't make me fit here. Then one night I woke up and watched Aang shivering going to join Sokka." His face pinched, he admitted, "I was sort of envious."
It was a surprisingly vulnerable confession, and Hakoda looked at him with new eyes. Surprised as he always was to see his view of the enemy changing.
"I asked Aang what he was doing, and he babbled this nonsense about freezing and dying and the world ending," Zuko went on. "He told me I could come too and I thought he was an idiot. But it was tempting. I was…lonely."
Before, it would have been hard to imagine the stately, dignified prince sitting alone in the night wishing that he could curl up with a pair of former adversaries. But since then, Hakoda had come to realize that Zuko was a deep feeling, deeply insecure young man.
It made a stab of anger punch through the father in him. Zuko made him hate Ozai more deeply than he ever had.
"And that was the end of it?" Hakoda asked the young man to finish his story.
The fire-bender nodded. "Sokka never said anything, just turned over to make space for me. It feels like he did that in the group too – turned over to make space. It's nice."
Cozy. Comforter. Pillow. Nice.
His son was quite versatile when he was unconscious.
The next night Hakoda slept almost until dawn, exhausted by his frequent awakenings. When the earliest grey light woke him, he rose, stretching, and carefully bundled his pallet. Pulling on his boots, he headed for the small fountain, but to his surprise someone had beat him to it. The young woman who had been an inmate in the same prison as he sat crouched by a low fire.
"Good morning," he murmured to her, pleased to find the water already simmering.
The Kyoshi girl nodded her greeting, but even in the weak light he could tell that her eyes were transfixed on something else. Hakoda tracked them, grinning when he spied the object of her interest. There to the side, where Sokka always made his bed, five young people were curled up in a pile of softly snoozing bodies, blankets, and warm breaths.
He paused to wonder how long it had been since such a guileless display had been seen, a cuddle of puppies with a representative from every nation.
"It's sort of sweet, isn't it?" He smiled at the word, but nothing else seemed as appropriate.
Suki shifted at the sound of his voice, restlessly shifting the kettle. She said, "They've been through a lot together. An incredible journey. And they've all changed."
She was speaking of his boy in particular. It was true of them all, but she was connected to the center of that pile – to Sokka, his gawky, feckless, no long so little son.
"I asked them why they all curl up around Sokka," he shared with her. "Because of the cold, because of nightmares, because he makes a good pillow." He nodded at the Fire Nation prince. "Because he's lonely. Different answers –"
"But really because of Sokka," the girl interrupted.
"He's taken care of them," Hakoda agreed. And he was proud, proud of his boy for that reason. That he'd looked after his sister and the Avatar, and that he made the touchy earth-bender blush. That'd he'd been able to befriend a former enemy and make a place for him in a way the fire-bender could accept, too. It wouldn't have worked if he'd done half of it on purpose.
"It's what I liked most about him," Suki inserted. "I liked who he was when he stopped trying so hard. What he didn't realize about himself made him seem like something special."
His daughter gave a little murmur, turning her head to bury her cheek against her brother's arm. The Avatar squirmed in response to the movement, wedging himself more firmly between them. On the other side, Toph dug her forehead brutally into Sokka's belly, scowling as her grip on his shirt tightened. Zuko stirred restlessly, turning over in his sleep. When he resettled his back was firmly against the other adolescent. Then their breathing lengthened, the stillness recast.
Sokka hadn't so much as twitched the entire time.
Suki giggled. "May the real reason they crowd around him is because they know he sleeps like the dead."
Hakoda had to cough to cover his quirk of amusement. He observed her watchful gaze, which hadn't yet left the human tangle. There was longing there in that look, maybe. He thought about the way his son had sighed after this young lady that day on the trellis as they made their escape.
The father felt a bout of wistfulness; so much missed while he was away from his children.
He looked again at the gaggle, and particularly at the closeness of them all. The little girl with her nose in Sokka's stomach, and even his sister and friends near enough to touch. He asked the watching young woman, "Does it make you jealous?"
Suki had a lovely laugh, melodic and full. She chortled, "No. Would you like to know why?"
Hakoda looked at the row of small, pretty teeth, grinning just a little too wide. Mischief shown in her eyes. He obliged, "Why?"
She stood, stretching. There was a smear of downy yellow just at the edge of the horizon, but it was still very early. Early enough that their companions might lay in a bit longer.
She swayed over to them, and gave Aang a shove with her foot. Without hesitation she nudged and prodded a narrow place for herself and unabashedly sunk into the space by his son's side. The group adjusted with barely an altered breath and then she was a part.
Smug, she snuggled under Sokka's chin, readjusting the blanket. She whispered to Hakoda, "I'll make my own way here."
Nuzzling into his boy's neck in what Hakoda considered a very forward way, she closed her eyes. Very soon she joined the sleeping mass and once again the older man found himself alone in the echoing corridors, watching others be together.
Then it was he who felt a pang of loneliness, and a passing desire that he could still be young enough sink into that group. But no, his days of puppyhood were long past.
Still, he was glad to be back near his wandering children.
So he could finally become reacquainted with the strong, beautiful young woman who had blossomed from his daughter…and the gentle, zealous, remarkable guardian that he was beginning to see in his son.