Author's Note: I had actually written a few lines of this before I posted my other Avatar story, Sleeping Close. However, the tremendous influx of supportive comments influenced me to sit down and pound out the following silliness. Intended completely for entertainment, and also because Zuko and Sokka turned out to be such an amusing pair. They are such boys. Takes place after episode 3:12 – "The Western Air Temple"
Hide and Seek
Zuko often marveled at the way fate continued to defy his disbelief.
In the years he'd spent following them, the former prince had developed a healthy – if somewhat begrudging – respect for the Avatar companions, a respect that, for the most part, had only grown since he'd joined them. They were the guerrilla forces that had evaded detection and capture by elite Fire Nation warriors, won decisive battles, and had struck a tiny, secret fear into the heart of Lord Ozai himself.
And yet, here it was revealed that they honed their skills playing hide and seek.
"Yeah, it's not something we talk about," Sokka smarted off when the fire-bender hadn't quite managed to keep the tone of disdain from his voice. "What with our impressive array of training equipment and excellent facilities–" Here, he gestured at the forest. "It's embarrassing how we fall back on such a tired old method."
Okay, so he had a point. And the game did involve some fundamental skills – stealth, concealment, strategy, and of course, combat. Because a pack of bending masters and one slightly bent Water tribesman could hardly content themselves with mere, harmless play.
"We just...hide?" he'd sought clarification. But it must have been a stupid question, because the others had spread out in the forest without further comment, leaving Zuko standing in the open wondering how he should begin.
He might still have been standing there if a hand had not unexpectedly tugged on his arm. Why he'd gone along, he didn't know. Instinct, maybe? Or some small part of him that resonated at being chosen, even by this inauspicious someone. Whatever the reason, Zuko followed.
The two unlikely allies peered warily out from the questionable safety of the foliage. Zuko wobbled slightly on his perch, glad that he was near the trunk so he could reach out and steady himself. He considered himself a good climber. However, that didn't mean he was either happy or comfortable crouching here indefinitely.
"Tell me again why we're up a tree?" he asked with just a touch of exasperation.
Sokka never took his eyes off the terrain. "Because if we put one foot on the ground within ten leagues of Toph, then she'll know where we are. It's bad enough you breathe so loud."
"I do not!" the fire-bender protested heatedly, but his companion shushed him.
Blue eyes flashing, the young man demanded, "Do you want to win or not?"
Zuko did. He went mute as a stone, trusting the tribesman knew what he was doing, and went back to his surveillance. Sokka had proved himself unexpectedly ingenious when it came to tactical planning – hopefully a skill that would serve them well now. Though it was strange to be demurring to someone else's lead. Before, Zuko had always made his own plans.
Bracing his back against the knotted trunk, the fire-bender contemplated his position. It hadn't been long since he'd joined the group, and there were times when he felt he was still seeking his footing. His social skills were – to be kind – abysmal, and his ability to function cooperatively was even worse. He insulted without meaning too, often found himself at the butt of jokes or lingering in the middle of painful, blank-faced silences. And meanwhile Katara continued to abhor him.
Yet there had been one unforeseen bright spot , and that was the unexpected absolution offered to him by this peculiar Water tribesman. It generally expressed itself in small things, like not forgetting he was there when handing out supplies, in friendly banter, and in broken silences.
"We're far enough from the stream that you should be able to manage Katara." Sokka spoke, a mottled light filtering down onto his face though the patchwork of leaves. "Not that she needs a direct water source anymore, but she won't kill anything just for a game, so we should be okay."
Zuko nodded. He'd heard about Katara's ability to draw water from the air, from nature, even from human bodies. It had made him shiver to hear the story, whispered to him in half sentences one night while the others were deeply asleep. Sokka again.
The boy continued to advise him. "Take Toph at close range or else you'll get clobbered. Don't say I didn't warn you. Aang will probably be easier. He can be unpredictable since he can use most of the elements, but so long as you keep him on his toes he'll just use air. Unfortunately, we're still working on his creativity." Sokka made a face, pausing to grind his eyes with the heel of one hand. He moved further out onto the limb. "Still have to be careful, though, since he's such a wild card."
It was all good information. Zuko took it in carefully, thinking ahead. Watching his strange companion, though, something occurred to him. "What do you do?" he inquired.
The other adolescent looked surprised that he had asked. "What do you mean?"
"Well, this is a bending battle, right?" the fire-bender said. "And, not to be...ah, insulting, but you can't. So how do you play?"
Sokka grinned. "Carefully. I don't usually win, but sometimes it happens."
Zuko wasn't sure he believed him. Certainly the tribesman had his strange sword strapped to his back, but what could a blade do against water, wind, or stone? Or fire?
As though he had divined Zuko's thoughts, Sokka turned his back and murmured, "Hm, you'll just have to see."
"If you're so confident, then why are you staying with me, then?" he wanted to know. None of the others had said anything about teams. "Isn't it cheating?"
Sokka chuckled. "It's a war game, Zuko. Do you think they haven't paired up on me before? I guarantee Aang's with one of them. Not both, thank goodness. They don't get along especially well – Toph and my sister."
Zuko had noticed. Fundamentally different outlooks on life, those two. He'd almost been alarmed the first time he'd witnessed one of their vicious, raving arguments, but everyone else had just gone on with their business – Aang giggling with Momo and Sokka picking his teeth with a knife. Even the Earth Kingdom rabble had seemed unmoved.
"So will they go after one another first?"
The tribesman shrugged. "Hard to say. Who know how you being here might break the patterns? Usually, they either decide to have some big catty throw down with Aang complicating matters, or else they decide to eliminate the weak link first." He smirked as though it were funny, and Zuko took this to mean that they called a truce and went after Sokka.
"One way or another," Sokka continued. "It will take them a while to figure out what each other have decided, and they'll be especially slow today with a new player. Katara's a snailbeetle anyway: She always lingers near water for a while hoping someone will come to her. Toph is less restrained, but we passed that old rock quarry on our way out here from the temple and it might tempt her. It's an advantage for me. I don't need a base or an element supply."
"Neither do I," Zuko said, exhaling a puff of superheated air.
Sokka actually turned and smiled straight at him. "I know," he agreed. "It's why we'll make such great partners!"
The fire-bender was almost taken aback by the straightforward exuberance of this declaration. But then, the other's jolly nature often put him off guard. It was such an incredible contrast to the narrow-eyed, brooding creature Sokka occasionally became. The transition was always jarring and always unexpected, yet it was at least a part of his personality that Zuko could relate to. The little Avatar didn't act like he'd ever seen a shade of grey in his life, Toph the earth-eater was even more unwavering, and he wouldn't even start on Katara. Of all of them, Sokka seemed the most...what, unhappy? World weary? Evil?
"Okay," he agreed. "So we're working together. What should we do first?"
The Water tribesman favored him with a look of great anticipation, reaching to his side where he had secured a roll of thick, tough twine. He gave it a little toss, catching it in the slap of his hand. "We make use of our time," he responded. "We get ready. Then me and you – we'll have a little fight."
"Fight?" Zuko asked guilelessly. What happened to the two of them being partners?
Toph was feeling out the underground.
She pressed her heel into the dirt until she was aware of every heartbeat – the skittering paths of insects, the huffing grunts of earth-bound animals, even the swaying grass. She was able to see even further today; this land was rocky, an excellent conductor.
Somewhere to the north, Katara and Aang stuck out like flickering beacons, cloistered predictably near a streambed where the mud was as much water as earth. Toph smirked – as if she would ever be lured there. The other two boys were oddly missing from her radar, which meant they'd either learned to fly or the clever monkeys had climbed a tree. No matter; she would stomp them out.
Wait. A tremor.
Spreading her stance, the earth-bender felt carefully. It was faint like a far off conflict, coming from the direction of the woods. A staccato beat of footsteps, then someone was slammed into the earth so hard it reverberated up her leg. A brief pause and then she felt a familiar loping run heading towards her, limping slightly.
Lame prey. But Toph didn't mind picking off someone else's leftovers, even if they were Zuko's.
"I'm coming, Sokka," she singsonged, heading towards the wood. Only the slightest notion that she was leaving the safety of the wide open flickered through her mind as she passed under the boughs. The sound of the would-be escapee had become an inconsistent throb, ever louder.
She sensed him stumble suddenly, and the girl felt her mouth twist downward. How hard had Zuko hit him anyway? The feeling of anger that wormed through her took Toph by surprise, and she shook her head to clear it. Sokka was fine. The former prince was volatile and a sourpuss, but even he knew this was just training.
... And if he had forgotten then she would fragment every bone in his body.
She could hear Sokka with her ears now, crashing around as he sought to keep ahead of his enemy. The knucklehead didn't even know he was darting straight toward her. Readying herself, she tucked her body, intending to end this quickly and be ready for the fire-bender who was no doubt close behind. Finally, the boy burst out of an especially dense swath of brush, skidding to a heel-digging stop practically in her lap.
There was the briefest moment in which she imagined his hugely wide eyes, clearly stunned and horrified to have fallen upon her so suddenly. His heart was hammering wildly in his chest, his mouth almost certainly open as he panted. And there was blood. She could smell it from here.
The presence of the thick, coppery odor made her stagger mid-lunge. Hurt?
It was an ill-fated hesitation; Sokka could move like a rabbit when he needed to. In the half breath she'd taken, he vanished back the way he came, leaving her with the sound of snapping branches and the soft fall of a few displaced leaves.
Toph growled out a curse and took chase.
He gained. The older boy was faster, longer-legged, and more sure-footed in this terrain, a hunter in the wood. Frustrated, the earth-bender sent a wave of bucking earth ahead of her. It was highly effective, but when she sensed the tribesman fall she resisted her natural inclination to send a chunk of earth hurtling toward him.
No need to damage his hard head anymore than it already was, she reasoned. With that staggering gait, she was closing anyway.
A sudden open clearing sealed Sokka's fate. Her quarry gleamed like a target on the unbroken earth, and Toph grinned madly. She leapt and the sod rolled like a wave of carpet, tripping him head over heels.
"Got you, Sokka!" she crowed, striding closer. "Better give up now."
Instead of answering he scrabbled, pushing away from the ground and spitting dirt. The smell of the grit mixed with blood was nauseating, but he seemed fine and so Toph tried to ignore it. She felt him sort of curl, probably covering his head like the silly thing he was, as though he expected a rain of boulders at any moment. But that would be overkill. All she had to do was tag him.
Her teeth showing with her triumph, she took a confident step towards him...
There was a small pressure at the arch of her foot, and she heard the dry snap of a fracturing twig. There was just enough time for her mouth to form a small 'o' as her weight released the trigger, and then she lost all equilibrium. Hemp tightened around her leg, and she was snapped upward. When she settled it was upside-down, a loop of thick twine encircling her captured ankle.
"It actually worked." A voice spoke suddenly out of true darkness. Suspended as she was with no connection to the ground, the world was fathomless, a pit.
"Don't sound so surprised," said a warm tenor that she recognized immediately as Sokka. That would mean the other person – the gruff, gravely sounding speaker – had to be Zuko. Yet clearly they weren't fighting one another. What?
A light tap on her nose, a warm finger. She didn't need her eyes to know that Sokka was smiling with delight. "Tag!" he said.
Toph bellowed like an enraged armadillo lion.
Zuko watched the little earth-bender sway harmlessly in her bonds, the drifting strands of her ebony hair dangling no more than a few arms lengths from the ground. It had been a simple snare, plainly visible and easily detached – you know, with eyes. Furious, she pebbled them with small rocks, but her accuracy was way off. Obviously she was cut off from her formidable abilities, unable to lock on them with any certainty.
Chuckling, Sokka shared a victorious look of camaraderie with him. Absently, he wiped at his chin, smeared with a little of what he had called visible blood, or whatever the equivalent of "visible" was when you were tricking a blind girl. Clever. Yes, Sokka was clever. His plan had worked without error, just as they'd hoped it would. Right down to the shark-like smile Toph had worn as she stepped into the noose.
"I guess you were right." Zuko went so far as to allow a little pleasure into his expression. One down. He almost clapped Sokka on the shoulder. Almost.
Toph, meanwhile, was throwing a fit. "You tricked me, you tricked me!" Her face was blood red with growing furor. "You dirty, rotten, ugly –" She took a huge gulping breath, filling her lungs. "LET ME DOWN!"
"Ah, Toph, be a good sport. I already tagged you."
Sokka's wagging finger was reflected perfectly in his voice, and the girl screamed like a banshee in response, thrashing. Zuko could see the frustration even in the blank murkiness of her eyes. She was mad.
"We'll come get you in a while, okay?" Sokka consoled, bravely reaching to pat her shoulder. It was a good thing he had sharp reflexes; Zuko was certain that retaliatory swipe would have broken Sokka's skinny arm.
As they walked away, he said, "I don't understand. We tagged her and she's out, right? So why did we leave her tied up?"
A sudden, particularly piercing screech echoed around them, so loudly that birds abandoned the nearby branches in a flutter of panic. Sokka cut him a sideways, 'well, duh,' kind of look. He thrust his thumb backward. "When she's like that?" he argued. "I'd have to be crazy."
Aang was bored. Critically bored.
Beside him, Katara hunched staunchly with her feet sunk into the damp stream bank, looking with stony determination toward the tree line. She looked for all the world as though she intended to squat there for hours, waiting. And she could, oh.
The little monk sunk down further in his crouch, feeling sorry for himself. The sun was burning down on his bare head and neck, and the mud made him itchy between his bare toes. Little bugs kept biting him, too, but Katara had scolded him when he tried to blow them away in a whirlwind. "The others will know where we are!" she'd rebuked.
Aang secretly felt it was unlikely the others didn't already know. Probably they were out there having fun while they waited for Katara to get tired and venture away from water. Which wouldn't happen. For hours.
The Avatar groaned, his chin sinking into the heel of his hand. It almost made him wish he'd teamed up with Sokka or Toph today. But then Katara might have made that sad face, and he hated it when...
A little clod of dirt struck his cheek and he blinked. Off to his left on a big rock near the trees, Momo chittered at him and threw another little clod. Aang grinned, only remembering not to wave at just the last minute. Katara might order the little primate off for being too distracting. But Aang was bored.
He left her to her focused surveillance, picking up a tiny rock to throw back at the creature. They exchanged a few volleys, until all at once there were two little stones pelting against him. A familiar tuff of brown hair stuck up from behind the stone, followed by laughing blue eyes. Sokka pitched another silent projectile at him, grimacing dramatically when it fell short. Momo chastised him, slapping with his little open paws.
Aang stifled a giggle.
Then the boy and the lemur made faces at him, the lemur blowing raspberries and Sokka wagging his tongue tauntingly before as one they turned and took off towards the wood. Completely distracted, having forgotten everything besides the joyful challenge he'd just been issued, Aang leapt up after them.
"Aang!" Katara called, startled, but by then he was already invisible in the dark green foliage, laughing his heart out.
"Hey, wait up guys!" he hollered, catching sight of the two. Momo turned and burbled at him delightedly, but Sokka didn't break pace and the Avatar suddenly remembered they were playing a game. With a burst of speed, he whooshed forward. No one could beat him in a chase.
Remembering the small sack Katara had entrusted to him, he called forth his growing water-bending skills with a smile. It tickled compared to his air-bending, like laying in shallow water when a breeze was blowing. He targeted the earth beneath Sokka's feet, and it went slick as oil in an instant. An accompanying pillow of air took him right off his feet, yelling like he was fit to die.
Giggling, Aang made to pounce on him, but just as he got close, Sokka whirled, flinging sticky, oozy dirt up into his eyes. "Ack!" he stalled, drawing back and rubbing at his blurred vision. Below him, the other boy shoulder something like "wow" or "now" and then the monk's ear caught a whistling sound, like displaced air.
"Hm?" he wondered aloud, still squinting.
Something struck him with enough momentum to send him straight into the nearest tree, so hard that he felt clubbed. He tasted bark, squirming, and realized that he'd been pinned. He knew the feel of the one of their trail worn blankets, no doubt anchored by the weights that had wrapped around the trunk.
"Are you alright, Aang?" Sokka called to him.
"Oof," the boy muttered, but he waved his fingers feebly in a gracious acknowledgement of defeat. "Hee hee, I'm out."
"That was a good throw," the Water tribesman congratulated him as both adolescents gazed at the tree were the Avatar was ensconced.
Zuko shrugged off the praise as though it had been no great feat. After all, he'd been throwing weighted nets since he was a boy. Still, he smiled – it had been a pretty good throw. "Two down," he said contentedly.
"Yeah," Sokka agreed, edging away until he was almost out of sight behind the expansive root system of a nearby tree. "But I'd be on my toes."
The fire-bender cocked his head, listening. "Why? I thought we had a minute –"
"Define minute," the other retorted.
And that was when the torrent hit.
Katara was furious. She was furious at Aang for being so easily drawn out of cover, furious at Momo for aligning with the enemy. Furious at her stupid brother and his silly, idiot tactics…
Emerging from the brush at a dead run, she entered simultaneously onto the sight of her partner caught in a sack and the young man who was perhaps her least favorite person just standing there blinking at her as though he had nothing to do with it.
She charged Zuko like a wave, water snaking around her arms like a living thing.
He met her blow with a strong parry, jumping backward to put space between them. Her element went snapping after him, but he dodged time and again, pausing only long enough to fire bursts of flame at her that she barely even had to duck. She had him running, she concluded. Water always beat fire.
Finally, though, frustrated by her inability to score any more than a glancing hit, Katara gathered herself with an irritated snarl. The water swirled up in front of her body like a wide, thin sheet that would land like a punch. She shouted a challenge, "Dodge this!" and sent the expansive roller down upon him like a breaker in the ocean.
Zuko watched it coming, understandably frozen, taking a deep breath as though to prepare himself for the inevitable impact. It was only when Katara caught the determined glint of his eye through the glimmer of silver water and saw the coil of his stance that realization dawned on her.
Katara gasped in horror as he was crowded under the shadow of her element, knowing it was too late to recall the wave. Numbly, she thought, 'Oh, no,' even as the fire-bender thrust his arms forward and flames erupted like a cataclysm from his knuckles and mouth.
The two opposing forces met with a hissing so loud it was like a roar, and – instantly – the shield of water was transformed into an incredible billow of steam. It dispersed rapidly thought the gaps in the colonnade, whipping around her skirt and ankles in a miasma that was as thick as fog.
Unable to see anything at all, the feel of cold metal at her throat came as a complete surprise. A steely voice spoke from behind: "Don't move."
She tensed, but even as she did the mist began to clear and the black blade tip was joined by a fisted hand so close to the bridge of her nose that she could feel the heat radiating off of it. "Right," Zuko affirmed. "Don't move."
For just a moment, the girl was almost, almost tempted to draw water from the weeds beneath their feet. But then she realized that she couldn't – not for this – and sighed. Undoubtedly, Sokka had thought of that too.
Relaxing, Katara let her remaining element flow back into its casing. "Alright," she said serenely, as though she wasn't bothered by the twin deaths brushing her face and neck. "Alright, you win. No need to be so smug about it."
"Smug?" Zuko complained as they moved under the canopy of branches. "I hardly think we've been smug."
"I feel smug," Sokka immediately contradicted him, and the fire-bender gave him a peevish look. It was perhaps the first time that he and Katara had shared the same expression.
"It really was some game," Aang commented happily, a veneer of half-dried mud smeared overtop of his smile.
This caused the Water tribesman to preen, and his sister clouted him heavily over the head. The young man howled predictably, but the fire-bender could tell from his sister's face that there hadn't been much force behind the blow. She was proud of him too. "Sneaky trickster," she censured. Again without heat. Being sneaky was a survival skill in their world, not a moral deficiency.
Sokka chuckled. "Well, it must be said that we couldn't have done it without Momo." The little primate chirruped from its perch on his shoulder, grooming his hair affectionately.
"Yeah, you're a really good traitor, Momo," Aang praised the animal, without any ill-will in the world. Zuko might have sighed in exasperation over it, but instead he resolved to just accept the monk's complete lack of a grudge-holding nature. It had, after all, worked in his favor.
They reached Toph's tree at that point. The girl was still hanging there, though she was now eerily quiet. Her arms crossed like a vice, she ordered, "Get. Me. Down."
"Okay," Katara answered breezily, her cork popping in its socket.
The water sliced through the twine too swiftly for one to even see it sever, and only Sokka's clumsy leap her kept the little girl from landing full on her head. Toph's hands went to her rescuer's face immediately, but instead of gratitude, recognition only brought wrath. She rattled out a shrill battle cry, going straight for his throat. "YOU!"
"Hey." Zuko interceded without thinking about what he was doing. Grabbing the hellion by an arm, he drew her back at arm's length, demanding, "Cut it out."
Then he dragged his partner up by the collar, surreptitiously checking him over for further injury. But besides looking a little red-faced and wavery from oxygen deprivation, he seemed fine. Still, Zuko kept a steadying hand on his shoulder.
Katara walked over to join them, ungently jerking her brother's face around so she could prod his injured mouth. "Speaking of which."
"It's fine," Sokka tried to assure her, though it came out rather mashed due to the grip she had on his lip. He explained, "It was only for effect! He didn't hit me that hard."
"He hit you?" Katara sounded somewhat dangerous as she asked, which irked Zuko just enough to retaliate.
Sharply, he retorted, "No. I just allowed him to club himself against a tree until he started bleeding."
He could see the girl's temper rise, but Toph interrupted with a snort of laughter, followed closely by Sokka himself. His sister yanked his mouth hard to shut him up. "You'll live," he decided, crossing her arms. But obviously she did care – just like Toph cared. They all cared about Sokka.
Recovering swiftly from his hurt, the tribesman turned to his former captive eagerly. "So Toph, all grudges aside, what did you think?"
"It was alright," Toph admitted, her arms crossed. "The way you got Katara in the end was pretty impressive, anyway."
The water-bender scowled, but Sokka was too busy looking pleased with himself to pay any attention. "Yeah, Zuko and I made pretty effective partners. Idea Guy and the Angry Jerk – tag team for the win!" Sokka pumped his fist in celebration.
Aang clapped his own hands, looking genuinely glad, but Katara covered her face with a groan. "What a combination," she lamented.
"Hey, I don't think it's so bad," Sokka protested, gesturing animatedly between them. "I do the planning, and Zuko sets everything on fire! It's perfect!"
Toph snorted. "Yeah, but wait until next time. You just see if I get lured again."
"We'll come up with something new next time," Sokka retorted, looking down his nose at her as though this had been obvious.
We. Zuko stood in somber, blank-faced silence amidst the conversation, trying to digest all the words and their implications. We, as in a team. And 'next time.' The warm feeling that had pervaded him that morning when he'd been picked by Sokka reemerged, and he felt almost...fond. It was no wonder they all liked this bonehead so much. He was a unifier, accidentally.
The Water tribesman was grinning at him now. "We did good."
Zuko agreed, but instead of saying so, he crossed his arms and did his best to look greatly put upon. "Well, you gave me all the hard parts."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Sokka bantered with a mocking bow. "I forgot your highness was so dainty."
There was only one possible response to something like that. The fire-bender said it now, suppressing his amusement. "Don't push it, peasant."
Their bickering didn't impress Katara, who cast him a dirty look. Obviously, she didn't recognize their manly affirmation of one another for what it was.
Aang, meanwhile, was rubbing his hands together enthusiastically. He asked, "So, what are we playing next?"