Swimming Lesson

Author: mistresskatara

Rating: K+ for very mild cursing and sensuality

A/N: I've been working on this for over a month. It's given me a lot more trouble than I'd like to admit. Anyway, I hope it lives up to my previous fics.

Disclaimer: Avatar is owned by Nickelodeon and the glorious Brian and Mike. I own no part of it, nor am I affiliated with it in any way.

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It was one of those rare occasions upon which Sokka could find nothing to complain about.

Lying in a patch of soft earth in a large forest clearing, his head resting on a smooth and pleasantly warm rock, his hands folded atop his full stomach, he absently noted the utter perfection of his circumstances. The sky his eyes were set upon was streaked with long, spear shaped clouds, tinted pale orange with the light of a late afternoon sun. A pine scented gust of wind blew a strand of hair loose from his wolf tail, which fluttered onto his face and tickled his cheek. Unfazed, he lifted his hands, smoothed his hair back, and laced his fingers behind his head in one fluid motion. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. After that, the air was quiet and still… that is, until—

"Sokka, wake up!" Katara snapped, nudging his ribs painfully with her toe.

Sokka opened his eyes, turned his head over slowly, and blinked up at her in confusion, scowling slightly.

"What do you want?" he asked her calmly. "I'm taking a well deserved break."

"What do you mean, 'well deserved'?" she scoffed, her voice an odd mixture of amusement and exasperation. "Aang and Toph did most of the work setting up camp!"

She gestured emphatically to her right, where four rock tents had been erected in a circle near the edge of a small lake.

"I got the firewood," he informed her dismissively.

Katara turned her head and saw the pitiful heap of twigs that had been dumped unceremoniously into the center of the tent circle. Her jaw clenched, and Sokka could tell she wanted to yell at him. He tensed up slightly, anticipating an attack, but a moment later she satisfied herself by simply rolling her eyes at him impatiently.

"Look," she told him wearily, "Aang and I are going scouting. Why don't you and Toph find something useful to do while we're gone?"

"Like what?" he asked inattentively, picking a bit of gristle out of his front teeth with a dirty fingernail.

"I'm sure you can think of something on your own, Idea Guy," she replied bitingly.

He stopped his diligent teeth picking to fix her with a characteristic raised eyebrow and a look of deep annoyance. She gazed at him expectantly. For a minute, they stared each other down.

"Fine," he responded at last, his voice slightly resentful.

Katara pretended not to notice his tone and gave him a small smile of approval.

"Good," she responded triumphantly.

"Ready to go, Katara?" Aang asked, appearing at her side.

Katara's expression softened as she turned to face the new arrival.

"Ready," she answered, beaming at him.

Their arms at their sides, Katara and Aang laced their fingers together discreetly. Sokka, who was suddenly transfixed by Aang's head, didn't notice.

"It's coming in nicely," Sokka said sardonically, nodding at the short, fuzzy layer of ridiculous looking brown hair on Aang's scalp.

"Thanks," Aang replied, missing the sarcasm completely.

Katara raised her free hand and rubbed Aang's head playfully.

"Hopefully it'll cover your arrow completely by the time we reach the Fire Nation," she said, fixing him with an adoring smile.

"You're gonna grow out bangs?" Sokka asked, snickering.

"I sort of have to," Aang said, shrugging.

"I think it'll look great," Katara assured him gently before throwing Sokka a nasty look. "Let's go."

Aang waved goodbye to Sokka briefly before Katara dragged him off into the nearby woods.

His promise to Katara already out of his mind, Sokka promptly closed his eyes and shifted his weight languidly, intending to resume his peaceful nap. A moment later, however, it was interrupted once more—this time by hearty laughter.

"I know Aang's hair is hilarious, but, shh," he said blearily, raising a finger to his lips. "Sleepy time now."

"I wasn't laughing about his hair, Snoozles," came a slightly derisive voice from his left. "I was laughing about Katara."

Sokka propped up on his elbows and peered curiously in Toph's direction. She was leaning against one of Appa's legs, lazily levitating Momo in circles on a large, flat rock.

"What do you mean?" he inquired in slight bewilderment.

"She hasn't let Aang out of her sight since Ba Sing Se. I'm surprised she still lets him sleep in a separate tent," she replied with a chuckle.

"What are you saying?" he asked, his eyebrows contracting. "You think something's going on between them?"

"Um, let me think," she began, her voice thick with sarcasm. "They're always sneaking off together, always stripping down unnecessarily, always—"

"Okay!" Sokka exclaimed hotly, cutting her off. "I get it."

Toph smirked.

"You're so oblivious, Sokka. People are falling in love all around you, and you don't notice a thing…"

Toph continued her levitation with a bored expression while Sokka pondered the significance of her words. 'People are falling in love all around you.' But that made it sound as though she was referring to herself, as well…

"I'm bored," Toph drawled, interrupting his thoughts.

"I can tell."

"Let's do something."

"Yeah… I told Katara that we would, anyway…"

He had only been thinking over what they could do for a second when he was struck, as he often was, with brilliant inspiration. He got to his feet, brushed the dirt off his clothes, and walked over to her.

"Come on, get up. I'm gonna teach you how to swim."

Toph's eyes widened and the rock came crashing to the ground with Momo still on it. The lemur chittered at her angrily and flew off.

"No, no. That's alright Sokka. You don't have to—"

"Get up," he repeated firmly. "This is important. You almost drowned once, remember?"

"Oh, I remember," she said darkly.

"Don't be scared," he told her kindly. "I'll be right there with you."

"I'm not scared!" she barked defiantly, standing up and poking him in the chest. "Let's do it."

A few minutes later their hair had been taken down and their clothing removed. Toph stood at that water's edge in her underwear—a long, sleeveless, taupe colored shirt, and brown, mid-thigh length pants. Her small hands were resting haughtily upon her hips, and Sokka could tell she was appraising him, though her pale, useless eyes gave no indication of it.

"Nice underwear," she said teasingly.

"Yeah," he sighed. "I get that a lot."

He glanced down at his loincloth-style undergarments with distaste.

"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed suddenly, his voice cracking in embarrassment. "You… you can see my underwear?"

"Well, yeah," she said, laughing. "I can see the outlines of clothing… What, would you rather I couldn't see your underwear?"

Heat crept into his cheeks as he realized what she meant by this, and he was thankful she couldn't see him blushing. Then, with a stab of humiliation, he realized she could tell how fast his heart was beating. He quickly herded her into the shallow water, where the wet sediments on the lake's bottom would disrupt her sense of vibration, then tried to compose himself.

"Alright," he said, standing knee-deep in the mucky water. "Now, swimming's not that difficult, once you get the hang of it. The most important thing for you to know if you fall into some water again is how to keep yourself from sinking until someone can come help you. Hopefully you'll learn enough to be able to get yourself out of that situation, but at the very least you need to know how to not drown."

"Yeah, that'd be good," she said roughly.

Sokka could tell she was trying to act tough so he wouldn't think she was nervous.

"You ready to get in deeper?" he asked her, smiling.

She nodded tensely, took a deep, shaky breath, and was about to step forward when Sokka caught her arm and held her in place.

"And no cheating," he said firmly, pointing a finger at her. "I'm serious. Don't go making the bottom higher."

"I won't," she responded crossly.

Satisfied with her answer, he loosened his grip on her arm, but didn't let go of it as they stepped out into deeper water. It took a minute for Sokka to find a spot that was just the right depth—one at which his feet could touch the bottom and hers couldn't.

"Okay, Toph," he said once he was happy with their position. "I'm gonna let go of you, and when I do, I want you to kick your legs hard and don't stop. Ready?"

"Um—"

"Now!"

Sokka let go of Toph's arm. She kicked both of her legs out straight at the same time and immediately sank. With amazing reflex, he snatched her up under her arms and pulled her back to the surface. Coughing and sputtering, her wet hair clinging oddly to her face, she looked extraordinarily endearing. Sokka fought back a smile.

"Don't let me drown!" she snapped at him, pushing hair out of her face and punching him painfully. "If you let me drown I'll kill you!"

Sokka opened his mouth to tell her that what she said made absolutely no sense, but thought better of it.

"Sorry about that," he told her instead. "I guess you weren't ready for me to let go of you yet."

"Yeah, ya think?" she retorted weakly.

"Sorry," he repeated sheepishly.

Her face softened.

"It's alright, I'm fine. Just don't let go of me again."

"I won't. But I need to move my hands real quick. Hold onto my shoulders…"

As she grasped his shoulders firmly, Sokka quickly moved his hands from her armpits to her waist.

"Okay, now let go," he said, "and this time, don't kick both of your legs out at once. Alternate them in kind of a circular motion… it's sort of like running."

"That's real specific," she said wryly.

"Well, it's hard to explain," he replied patiently. "But you'll get it— you just have to practice for awhile."

She tipped her head backwards into the water and smoothed back the hairs still clinging stubbornly to her pretty face. Then she began to kick her legs in an awkward, uncoordinated way.

Suddenly, Sokka felt very conscious of his hands on her waist. Each time she would thrust out a leg, he could feel the contraction of her incredibly powerful abdominal muscles. Her tongue poked out slightly between her teeth with concentration, and her brow was creased from exertion. He watched as a bead of water trickled slowly down her neck, then trailed along her defined collarbone on a slant…

"Why are you staring at me?" she asked abruptly, ripping him out of his trance.

His eyes shot up to her face, where pink patches had formed in her pale cheeks.

"I wasn't!" he lied quickly, his voice cracking a little.

How the hell did she know he'd been staring at her? She couldn't see without earth…

"Oh…" she said, the patches in her cheeks deepening in color. "It felt like you were..."

"You're doing good so far," he said randomly, trying to recover from the awkwardness of the situation. "Keep it up…"

Over the next half-hour they practiced in a somewhat uncomfortable silence. Every once in a while Sokka would loosen his grip on her waist slightly so she'd have to rely more on herself to stay above water. Slowly, she began to improve.

"Um… Sokka? Can I… can I ask you something?" she said hesitantly after a while.

"Sure, what is it?"

"That day Suki saved me… she never told you anything about it, did she?"

"No… why? What would she have told me?"

Toph's eyes widened. She made a small choking sound before finally managing to say, "Nothing! It's not a big deal, really. Just, um… girl stuff."

"Come on, tell me. Now you've got me all curious."

"It's nothing really," she said as offhandedly as she could. "I just… sort of… kissed her… accidentally."

Sokka didn't say anything.

"Oh man, I'm sorry," Toph said in panic, misinterpreting his silence. "I shouldn't have brought it up. Oh, I'm such a jerk… I know you must be really worried about her right now not knowing…" She trailed off uneasily.

"No, it's fine. Really," he murmured.

Guilt was beginning to swirl horribly in Sokka's stomach. He hadn't been thinking of Suki like he knew he should have been. He'd been thinking of Toph, and how exactly that kiss had happened. He remembered yelling to her that he was coming just seconds before she slipped under that day. Maybe she thought it had been him she was kissing…

"SOKKA!" she screamed, breaking off his ill at ease thoughts. She threw her arms around him and buried her face into his neck.

"What? What is it?" he asked her, confused.

"Something touched my leg, SOMETHING TOUCHED MY LEG!" she squealed into his ear, losing her head completely.

He looked down quickly and, through the murky lake water, saw the shadow of a skunk-fish swimming away.

"It's okay," he said, rubbing her back soothingly. "It was just a fish."

"ARE YOU SURE?!?"

"Yes… You're fine," he affirmed, still running his hands over her back tenderly.

She clung to him for another moment, her rasping breaths cold against his wet skin, before she was able to react to what he said. She pulled her face out of his neck hastily, looking absolutely mortified.

"Oh man," she groaned, covering her face with her hands. "I can't believe I freaked out like that over a fish."

"It's okay," he told her quietly.

"It's just that water makes me so uncomfortable," she admitted angrily, lowering her hands. "I'm out of my element here… literally."

Sokka laughed.

"It's not a big deal," he said lightly, "and I don't think you're weak or anything— I could never think that about you… Actually, you're the strongest girl I've ever known… Just, uh… don't tell Katara I said that."

Toph gave him a small, sheepish smile. Sokka realized that his arms were still wrapped around her tightly, his body pressed against hers. The guilt he had been temporarily distracted from seemed to come rapidly flooding back to him. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and moved his hands back to her waist, putting a little space between them.

"So… I think you might be ready to try it on your own again. Do you want me to let go of you?"

Instantly, he regretted his choice of words.

"No…" Toph said quietly, shifting her weight into him, her cheeks flushing. "I don't…"

A small voice inside of him was saying he didn't want to let her go either, but he swiftly stifled it. It was sunset now, and the thin, pale orange clouds had transformed themselves into thick, billowing, crimson ones. Based on the sun's position, Sokka guessed it had been nearly an hour and a half since the other two left. He looked into Toph's hopeful, eager face, and knew he had to end this lesson before he did something irreversible and incredibly stupid.

"I think that's enough for today," he said, extending his arms a little, pushing her away. "It's getting late, and Aang and Katara aren't back yet. We should go look for them."

At his words, Toph seemed to deflate. Her eyes became over bright with rejection, hurt, and humiliation. The next moment, however, her body went rigid, her face hardened, and her eyes became hostile.

"Fine," she responded at last, her voice suddenly irritated and full of its old bravado. "You go ahead and do that. I'm gonna stay in a little longer."

"Bu—you sure you'll be okay?"

"I can handle it," she said coldly. "I'll stay in the shallow end."

"Well… alright," he said with uncertainty.

He didn't want to leave her in the water alone, but he had a feeling that she didn't want to be anywhere near him. Nothing he could say right now would convince her to come with him.

He took her by the arm silently and swam her into shallower water. Then, with an awful wrenching feeling, he swam away from her lovely, upset face towards the shore. He thought he heard a quiet sob as he reached the water's edge, but he didn't turn around. His unbearable guilt was mounting by the second as he pulled on his clothes and grabbed his machete.

He had barely started off in the direction Katara and Aang had gone when he second guessed himself. Katara would kill him if he left her alone in the water after one shoddy swimming lesson. Making up his mind to pull her out of the water by force if need be, he dropped his machete and turned back to the water…

… But she wasn't there.

His heart seized up, his breath caught in his chest, and a strangled yell erupted from his throat.

"Toph!" he screamed, running back into the water fully dressed. "TOPH!"

His hands frantically pushed the clouded water aside, searching for her. A white noise filled his brain and grew steadily louder. His horrified thoughts became unclear. He plunged his head beneath the surface and opened his eyes, but the water was too murky to see anything beyond a few inches. He was only dimly aware of the awful stinging in his eyes as he resurfaced and continued to search.

"TOPH!" he cried over and over again.

How long had it been? She might have drowned already…

"Oh no, oh no… no… TOPH!"

Just then, merely feet away from him, her body came floating facedown to the surface. Icy dread and warm hope seemed to course through him at once as he swam to her, flipped her over, and ran with her to the shore.

He laid her down gently and put his ear to her chest. Her heart was beating weakly and she'd stopped breathing. He tipped her head back, plugged her nose, and brought his mouth crashing down on her tiny, cold, blue lips, forcing his breath into her. Then he sat up and pumped her chest vigorously.

"KATARA!" he began to scream. He didn't know how far away she was or if she could hear him, but he knew that his little sister could save the dying girl in front of him… if only his voice could reach her… "KATARA!"

He breathed into her again, pressing his lips firmly against hers, then pumped her chest once more, screaming his sister's name.

As he brought his lips down to hers for a third time, she began to cough. As water poured out of her small mouth, hot tears of relief began to stream down Sokka's face. He snatched her up into his arms and held her tightly, kissing the wet, tangled mop of hair at the crown of her head.

"I'm so glad you're okay… Oh… Thank you, Yue," he whispered, rocking her gently in his embrace.

"You're so silly," Toph's feeble voice said. "My name isn't Yue, it's Toph, remember?"

She began to giggle uncharacteristically, then immediately turned over and vomited all over the ground.

"Oh no," Sokka murmured, panic flooding through him once more. "Toph… did you hit your head?"

She didn't answer. She'd passed out.

"No, no, no!" he yelped, rolling her over and slapping her face. "Wake up! Don't fall asleep!"

Her eyes jerked opened, and he noticed that they were more glazed looking than they usually were. He lifted her head and began moving aside her hair. Moments later he found what he was looking for—a long, deep gash on her scalp near her ear. Without hesitation he unraveled one of his long armbands and wrapped it around her head snugly.

"KATARA!" he shouted again, before propping her up in his arms. "Look at me, Toph— do you know who I am?"

"Oh, hi, Sokka," she said, reaching her hands up to grope at his face, giggling softly. "I see you didn't stop to take your boots off this time…"

"Do you remember hitting your head?"

"What? Oh… I dunno…"

Her eyes rolled up and her head collapsed back on her neck.

"No!" he said, lifting her head up with one hand and continuing to support her back with the other. "You can't fall asleep, Toph, you might slip into a coma."

She made an indistinct gurgling noise in response.

"Come on, Toph, you have to keep talking. Tell me something."

"Like what?" she asked grogglily, slurring her words.

"Anything, it doesn't matter," he said quickly.

Toph lifted her hands to Sokka's face again and cupped his cheeks.

"You're so nice," she said, giggling a little. "I love you, Sokka."

"I love you, too, Toph," he said, only half paying attention. "KATARA!"

"No!" she said, a hint of agitation creeping into her dazed, gleeful tone. "Not like that, not like friendship love. I mean… I really love you."

He didn't say anything. He knew he should, that he had to keep her talking, but nothing would come out. His mind was numb. He was only vaguely aware that she was slowly pulling his face down to hers. Their lips were merely inches apart when—

"What happened?" Katara screamed, running up and throwing herself down beside them.

Aang ran up behind her, his arms full of chopped wood. He tossed his load aside, squatted next to Katara, and fixed Sokka with a terrified, questioning glance.

"Her head's split open and she has a bad concussion," Sokka explained.

He turned Toph's head over and pushed aside his blood-soaked armband, revealing the serious wound.

Immediately, Katara pulled water from her pouch and healed the cut. Then she used the water to assess how much brain damage had been done.

"Oh, good," Katara said, exhaling deeply and smiling a little. "I can fix it."

Toph seemed to fall asleep the second Katara had finished. Sokka lifted her small, limp form delicately and carried her into her tent. When he returned, he found Katara and Aang arranging the wood they'd brought back as though nothing had happened, and anger swelled up inside of him.

"What the hell took you guys so long out there?" he stormed at them.

Katara turned and gazed at him in astonishment. A second later, however, her features were livid.

"Sorry, but it takes a while to cut up a log with water to get firewood—you know, actual firewood. Not a pile of sticks, like what you got for us."

"Oh please! You expect me to believe you were chopping wood for two hours? More like you snuck off together to make out! And look what happened!"

Katara's cheeks reddened at his acusation, but she didn't fumble over her heated response.

"You know what I think, Sokka?" she yelled, taking a step towards him.

"What's that?" he spat, advancing on her in return.

"I think you're trying to blame anyone but yourself right now because you feel responsible! Don't think I didn't notice you were both wet and only one of you was fully dressed! You let her go in by herself, didn'tyou?"

"I wouldn't have had to if you'd gotten back sooner!"

"GUYS!" Aang yelled, stepping between them, his arms outstretched. "Stop it! This was just an accident, alright?... These things happen…"

For a minute no one said anything. Katara's face slowly relaxed, and her enraged expression became a slightly ashamed one.

"You're right, Aang," she said resignedly, laying her hand on his shoulder before turning to her brother. "I didn't mean to blame you, Sokka, I just—"

"It's okay," Sokka said roughly, cutting her off. "Let's just drop it."

They set up the fire in silence, and had almost finished cooking diner over it when Toph came stumbling out of her tent, rubbing her eyes. She looked worn down, but otherwise healthy.

"What are you doing up?" Katara demanded in concern. "You really should be resting right n—"

"How are you feeling?" Sokka asked urgently, talking over Katara.

"Alright..."

"Do you remember what happened?" Aang asked.

"I remember there was a big, jagged rock that was kind of sticking out of the water… I think I slipped on something and hit my head on it… but my head doesn't hurt… Did you fix it, Katara?"

Katara nodded.

"Sokka had already pulled you out and resuscitated you when Aang and I showed up."

Toph didn't say anything.

"We're all really glad you're okay," Aang said, smiling at her.

"Me, too," Toph said flatly.

"So… so you don't remember anything from right after you hit your head?" Sokka asked her quietly.

"No," she said. "I don't."

Sokka couldn't shake the feeling that she was lying. All through dinner she was unusually quiet. She seemed distracted— upset even. And he couldn't know for sure, since she didn't use her eyes to see, but he felt like she was avoiding looking at him.

What if she remembered what she'd told him just before Katara and Aang had come? Should he confront her about it and clear the air? But then, if she really didn't remember it, then he definitely shouldn't bring it up. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable or do anything to jeopardize their close friendship. And— after all— there was always the chance that she hadn't actually meant what she said. It could have just been the concussion talking...

He felt sure she'd meant it, though. And, what was worse, he didn't know how exactly he felt about it. He felt dread, anxiety… but, also… maybe… a little bit happy…

He pushed those thoughts away.

That night, as he lay in his tent, he forced his thoughts to be of Suki—where she could be, if she was alright, what she might be dreaming of. He willed himself with his every fiber to dream of her silky, bobbed hair and her piercing, painted eyes. Instead, however, his erratic, troubled dreams were a jumble of the day's events with Toph—a whispered "I love you"… wet, black hair clinging to a beautiful, ivory face… and the memory of how his lips had felt pressed ever so innocently against hers.