You stand listening to the gentle babbling of the fountain that echoes ever so slightly in the canyon bellow you. The warmth of the sun and the cool summer breeze mingle on your skin like partners locked in an endless slow dance. Eyes closed, arms crossed, you let the world surround you. It’s beautiful here. Who would have thought that amongst the ruins of an air temple is where the prince of the fire nation would find himself? Disgraced prince – true - but still. It’s been a long time since you’ve felt this peaceful. Too long – and you want to live in this moment for as long as you can.
Unfortunately for you your new companion has other ideas.
“Zuko! Hey Zuko! What are you doing?” A voice shouts from behind you, breaking you out of your little universe, and your mind comes crashing back before you’re really ready, instantly irritating you.
Sighing heavily, you turn towards it, brow furrowed and pinching the bridge of your nose, trying not to say something you’ll regret. “Nothing. At least not anymore.”
“Great! Then that means you’ll have time to spar with me!” You’re head whips around to see Sokka running over. You hadn’t recognized him right away, but his wide, toothy grin and too cheerful voice only add to your aggravation.
“Sokka, I don’t want to sound... uh… rude… but no. Absolutely not. No,” you say flatly and with as much authority as you can muster. That’s it. End of conversation. Or at least, it would be, if Sokka weren’t quite so… Sokka.
“Aww come ooon Zuko. You sparred with me befooore! Was it really that bad?” He shoves you’re shoulder gently, adding just enough whine into his voice to make it seem playful rather than harsh.
“Yes! You cheated! You hit me in the head with your stupid boomerang!” The memory of the headache you received for caving in to his demands the last time is all too clear in your mind. Yet, still, you can feel a crack forming in your resolve.
“Okay, first: my boomerang is not stupid. Second: it wasn’t technically cheating because we never specifically said no boomerangs. And If I pinky swear not to do that again will you please spar with me?” By now Sokka has given up all pretense of maintaining his dignity. His previously whiny tone has transformed into full-blown begging, and he takes your hand in his own, maybe to drag you along after him, or maybe to make good on his threat to subject you to whatever a pinky swear is. The sudden, unprompted contact is startling, but not unpleasant, and you’re forced to hold back a smile as you feel those cracks begin to widen.
“Pinky sw-? Wha- No!” you tear your hand away with a bit too much force in your attempt to sell your slowly receding anger. “Look Sokka, I don’t have time to fool around with you alright!” You know if you don’t get out of here soon you’ll crumble. With that in mind you begin trying to subtlety maneuver around him, backing your way slowly out of the courtyard.
“Oh come oooon! You just said you weren’t busy! Plus, how do you expect me to stay in prime fire nation fighting shape if I don’t have anyone to train with!” Sokka gives an exaggerated wink and makes muscles at you in what is obviously meant to be a humorous display. It should be ridiculous, but mostly you just find it oddly endearing. Crap. You’re going to cave.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t busy, I just said I wasn’t doing anything.” You lengthen your strides, hoping to escape before the last of your defences crumble away. Sokka, of course, follows. He’s persistent, you’ll give him that. Unrelenting is more like it, actually.
“That’s the same thing! Come on, please? Just a few rounds?” Sokka catches and holds your gaze, and you find yourself unable to turn away. You think you really ought to kill whoever it was that taught him those puppy-dog eyes. Damn were they effective.
“Look, I -” you’re about to make one finally attempt at escape when something cold and solid hits the back of your legs – hard. You catch a fleeting glimpse of a worried expression flash over Sokka’s face and see him reach out a hand to catch you – too late. You keel over backwards, arms flailing, fingers grasping at the air for some non-existent handhold. You have just enough time to panic before a wall of cold water envelopes you as you come crashing down.
Your hands meet the cool tile bottom of the fountain, and after a few seconds you manage to push your head back above the surface of the water. At first the only sounds are the quite trickling of the fountain and your gasping breath as you cough up the water in your lungs.
After a minute you manage to look up through your wet bangs, now plastered to your face. You meet Sokka’s eyes and something inside him seems to snap. In an instant, his worried expression contorts and cracks into what is just about the widest smile you’ve ever seen, accompanied by raucous, uncontrolled laughter. He’s doubled over with it, hands on his knees and tears streaming down his face. It’s that too-high, too-loud kind of laugh. That chest-aching, gut-wrenching kind. That bad joke that’s only funny in the middle of the night when you’re tired and out of your head kind. And it should make you angry. Because he’s laughing at you. If it were anyone else, you realize, it would. But Sokka’s laugh is like lilting music in your ears. His smile like a soothing balm on an angry wound. And you can’t get enough of it.
Until, that is, you realize you’re stuck. Well, not stuck exactly, but the edge of the fountain is too high for you to simply climb back out the way you came in, at least not with your legs still hanging half over the edge like they are. You know you’re going to have to get in – really get in – before you can do that. Awkwardly you roll over backwards, submerging yourself once more, before rising to a kneel in the knee-deep pool, somehow even more drenched than you were only seconds ago.
Witnessing this is the final straw for Sokka. He’s now lying curled on the ground, laughing so hard it comes out more like a harsh bark than anything, and you’re almost worried he might hurt himself. Almost. It’s not a very nice sound, and you’ve had quite enough of it to be honest. So, you decide to put a stop to it.
Flattening your hand, you drag it through the water, creating a small wave that’s almost waterbender worthy. It splashes over the fountain’s edge, drenching Sokka’s face and chest. He rolls away in shock, gasping and sputtering as he tries to spit the water out of his mouth.
“Hey man, what the fuck!” He shouts, fixing you with an icy glare.
“Sorry. Guess I’m just clumsy.” You shrug, trying for a moment to fake regret, only to cave and offer him your best imitation of his classic wry smirk.
“You jerk!” He retorts, but he’s laughing again now. He picks himself up of the dusty ground, offers his own – admittedly better – version of the smirk you just gave him, and tackles you back into the fountain.
By the time you finish thrashing about, shouting curses, and holding each other under the water you’re both out of breath, leaning back on your hands and still half-submerged in the pool. You’re soaked right through, and the cool summer breeze chills your damp skin, but you make no further effort to escape.
Sokka’s fixing you with a soft gaze, and you can’t help but stare as his lips curl into a smile, and he chuckles quietly at your plight. You can’t remember having ever heard a better sound. And that’s when you realize. You’d make a fool of yourself over and over, do everything you could, if it would only make Sokka look at you like that. You’d do anything for it – for him.