"Why are we fighting?!" shouted literally-crashed-into-Sokka's-life-and-village-via-warship Prince Zuko.
"I don't know," Sokka screamed back. For lack of weapons that would later justify tales of their epic duel, he reluctantly accepted the alternative of rolling around in the dirt batting at each other like rowing salamander-kittens. "It felt like the right thing to do!"
"I don't want to fight you," Jerkbender yelled, kicking Sokka in the ribs.
"Really," Sokka wheezed. "Getting some real mixed signals here. Bringing along your homicidal sister–”
"She shot fire balls at me too!"
"– pushing me down this stupid cliff–”
"Guess you can put 'pushing people off of cliffs' on your list of things you’re bad at."
Jerkbender's scowl turned even more scowly than usual. He threw Sokka off with an enraged shout (or maybe those were Sokka's ears still ringing from his head hitting the forest ground) and jumped to his feet.
Sokka liked to think he'd learned a great deal about the world since joining his sister and Aang on their quest. Girls could fight as well as boys. (Or better.) Cactus juice was to be savored with great caution.
Firebenders with anger issues looming over him were something to be avoided at all cost.
A white-hot spark of agony twitched through his ankle. Sokka barely managed to catch himself on a nearby tree trunk as his leg gave out, hissing out air through his teeth.
"Your ankle's broken."
"Really?" Sokka forced out. "'Cause I thought it was busy riding loops on a penguin-otter sled."
"... You're delirious."
"This is just what I'm like," Sokka groaned. He shifted his weight and immediately regretted it. There went his plan of distracting Jerkbender with a strategic 'Look! The Avatar!' and taking off into the forest.
Sokka stilled, realizing Zuko hadn't yet thrown himself at the advantage like a lion-shark drawn to blood.
"Why aren't you attacking?" He wished he had his sword with him. Or his boomerang. Tragically, even boomerang couldn't return to him from the top of a gigantic cliff.
"I told you!" Zuko yelled. "I'm not your enemy!"
"Right. You mentioned." Sokka did some very quick, very brilliant strategic thinking. If Zuko wanted to keep pretending, he'd play along until he was back with the others. There was no way he stood a fighting chance with a broken ankle and no weapons. "Fine."
Zuko stopped looking at Sokka like one would at a crocodile-lynx ready to prance and craned his neck to look up the cliff he totally hadn't shoved Sokka off. "We need to find a way up."
If Zuko wanted to go up, Sokka wanted to stay right where he was. "I'm not moving."
"We need to get back!"
"What if Aang and Katara come looking for me?"
"What if my sister does?"
Sokka paused. "That is a very good, very terrifying point."
Sokka braced himself. He was strong. He'd travelled the world as the Avatar's friend and advisor. He'd fought off the fire nation at every point of their journey. He'd bested benders and assassins and Dai Li, and he definitely wouldn't let some stupid ankle get the best of–-
"Urrrrrrrrghfffff, ow ow ow ow ohhhhh..."
Sokka wasn’t above adjusting his worldview, if proven wrong.
"See? Piece of cake," Sokka wheezed, trying desperately to find a position that didn't feel like he'd set his foot on fire.
Jerkbender didn't look like he was buying it. He set his eyebrows (pardon – his eyebrow) in a look of unsettling determination and moved–
"Woah, woah!" Sokka scrambled back and tripped over a tree root. "Hold your distance, mister!"
Jerkbender scowled, but stilled. "You can't walk."
"Can too!" Sokka moved to prove his point. As soon as his foot touched the earth he hissed, caught himself on a tree trunk and shifted his weight, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "See?"
Jerkbender's scowl deepened. It was, admittedly, a rather impressive scowl. "Stop being stupid."
"You stop being a jerk." Sokka paused. "Jerk."
He walked a few stubborn, painful steps, all the while Jerkbender tapped his foot impatiently like the world's most obnoxious oddly-well-behaving nemesis.
"You know, in the water tribe it's considered rude to stare at the invalid."
"In the fire nation it's considered dumbass to try walking on a broken ankle."
"It's not broken," Sokka said. "I'd know."
Zuko frowned. "How?"
"There was a fishing rod, a pair of pants and a patch of ice so slippery you wouldn't–" Sokka cut himself off. "I know what you're doing."
"... Making conversation?" Jerkbender said it like he wasn't sure himself.
"You're gathering intel. It won't work."
"Intel on the time you broke your ankle by slipping on ice?"
"Scouting out your enemies' weaknesses," Sokka corrected.
"I told you," Jerkbender threw up his hands, "I'm not your enemy anymore!"
Sokka could have sworn he spotted a puff of smoke coming out of Jerkbender's mouth. He schooled his expression like only a master diplomat could and pretended not to be freaked out by it.
"If I'd wanted to kill you," Jerkbender grouched, marginally calmer, "I'd have done it already."
"I don't think that's as reassuring as you think it is."
Then again, he could have just gone and left Sokka to the wildlife. Sokka wasn't sure what Zuko was planning, but so far it didn't seem to involve him being burnt to a crisp or left behind to be mauled by badger-tigers.
"There's no way you're getting anywhere near me." Sokka crossed his arms. "I don't know who you think you're fooling, but if you think I'm just gonna let you pretend we're on the same side and you actually want to help, you're mistaken. There is no way."
"Slow down," Sokka moaned, desperately clutching Zuko's shirt with the arm that was currently slung over his shoulder.
This wasn't defeat. This was... strategy. Yes. Sokka was brilliantly using the enemy to do his bidding.
"Go faster," Jerkbender snapped. His shoulders felt incredibly tense underneath Sokka's arm.
Sokka made a valiant effort of ignoring just how much of him was currently touching Jerkbender's body. "I’m going as fast as I can! You know, on a broken ankle."
"You said it wasn't broken."
"We’ve established that that was a conversation you had no right instigating."
It would be a long way through the forest.
"You do know where we're going. Right?"
"We need to get back up the cliff. This is up. So we just...”
"Do you have a better idea?"
"I'm gonna pretend I've never seen that boulder over there before."
"So. Your sister. Has she always been like this?"
"Look. Making conversation with you would be the worst, if awkward silence wasn’t the actual worst."
"So my sister, she can be kind of a nag sometimes. But she's never actually tried to kill me, so I feel like that already puts her above yours."
"–and she wouldn't stop waking me up by splashing ice water into my face until I made her a new one."
"Azula once set my bed on fire when I was five."
"Sisters. Am I right?"
"What's a penguin-otter?"
"Have you been thinking about this the whole time?"
"Have you though?"
"It's one of the things Aang ran you over with when you attacked our village."
"You might not have gotten a good look at it."
"Seeing as you were busy getting your helmet knocked off and threatening to set old women and children on fire."
"I only needed the Avatar."
"Your village. It wasn't important."
"I meant that I had no personal interest in it. It was a means to an end."
"If the Avatar hadn't been there–”
"Please stop talking."
"We sure are having some lovely weather."
Neither of them dignified that conversation starter with a follow-up.
Sokka came to a hard stop. Firejerk tried to keep walking, met resistance and turned his head to glare.
"Ssshh!” Sokka said. “Do you hear that?"
"Don't shush me!"
"Water! There's a river."
Firejerk did not meet these news with the excitement they deserved. "So what."
"So, come on! I'm so thirsty I could lick a glacier."
"You could lick a what.”
Firejerk peered down the slope. Sokka stood beside him, also peering down.
"That's too deep," Firejerk proclaimed. "We won’t reach it."
Sokka, who'd been thinking the same, had a sudden burst of spiteful motivation. "We will if we work together."
"We need to keep moving."
"You're the one who wants to prove he's not the bad guy anymore." He raised an eyebrow. "Would a good guy let his pal go thirsty?"
"A little lower... A liiiiittle more..."
“How much further?”
"Hurry up," Firejerk pressed out. "This branch isn't gonna–”
"... So can you use your freaky fire powers to dry clothes?"
"What do you mean they're not working right?"
"I have a proposition to make," Sokka announced.
The top of the cliff was within sight. If they were still there, they'd be able to see the others soon.
"A proposition," Firejerk – okay, Zuko – said. (They'd been through things. He'd earned this.)
"One that involves us not telling anyone what really happened in that forest."
For a few steps, they walked in silence.
"Before Aang and Katara can spot us–"
Sokka paused. "What?"
"Azula was there. She might still be."
"There's no way they're still fighting."
Firejerk – Zuko – said nothing. Sokka had the ominous feeling that he was trying to find a tasteful way of saying 'my little sister might have gruesomely murdered your friends'.
"We go separately," Sokka said, shoving the thought far away from him. He'd crack that ice patch when he reached it. "They never have to know we teamed up."
"You still can't walk."
"I can manage a few steps. Look, I get to pretend I heroically fought my way out of this forest on a broken ankle, you get to pretend I didn't use you as a walking stick. It's a win-win."
Zuko pondered this. "What do we say happened to our clothes?"
Sokka considered it. "We crossed paths in the forest, had a brief – but fierce – battle, then tragically fell into the river and got separated."
"I told you, I don't want to fight–”
"So I gave you no other choice!" Sokka threw up his hands. "Look, do you want us to look like complete idiots?"
Zuko glared. Sokka was starting to realize that this was just what his face looked like, and there wasn't actually much he could do about it. "Fine."
They shared a moment of manly solidarity. "Deal."
Toph had decided to show up. That was nice. Sokka hadn't quite gotten how they'd managed to chase off Azula, but he wasn't about to question it when all he wanted to do was a change of clothes and a long, uneventful nap.
It was too bad for them that she’d made her appearance before he and Zuko could split up, but it was fine. This was salvageable. They could improvise.
"Sokka. Why is Zuko here, and why are your clothes dripping?"
"So," Sokka said, throwing a pointed look at his partner-in-crime, supposedly-redeemed Prince Zuko.
In retrospect, he should have been wary of his resigned but firm expression of somebody walking towards his own grave.
"Here's the thing–"
Zuko was the single most horrible liar Sokka had ever had the displeasure of sharing a secret with. On one hand, this catapulted his claim of having turned over a new leaf up significantly in terms of credibility.
On the other, Sokka's beautiful tale was tragically undermined and instantly dismissed by his cruel, merciless friends.
“Were you going to pretend you’d fought your way out?” Katara let out an insulting, hurtful snort. “You refused to leave our hut for two weeks the last time you broke something.”
“He did,” Zuko tried dutifully. “He was, uh. Very ferocious.”
Aang didn’t have the courtesy to hide his grin. Nothing but a gentle, peace-loving monk? Yeah, right. “Yup, that’s Sokka!”
As what quickly developed into an unfortunate trend, the teasing tone went right over Zuko’s head. “I barely escaped with my life.”
Toph’s smirk would have better suited a lion-shark. “You gotta tell us all about it. Don’t spare a detail.”
Zuko – bless him – looked so earnestly relieved about having ‘salvaged’ their plan, Sokka had almost trouble blaming him.
So what if their group gained a valuable member and Aang a firebending master? If Sokka had known before that Zuko couldn't tell a lie to save his life, he would have demanded to review the terms of their agreement.