Though he had probably been convinced otherwise as a small child, Zuko was fairly certain the palace pond was not a designated swimming spot. The turtleducks, indignantly clustered on the grass, seemed to strongly agree, if their racous noise was anything to go off of.
Yet there was Aang, revered Avatar, savior of the four nations, splashing about like a happy toddler in a bath.
Zuko turned to see how his shadows were taking it. His guards were hanging back at a respectful distance, but neither could help but notice the pond's gleeful occupant. One of them was frowning in stern disapproval, while his partner was fighting to keep her face expressionless.
Before Zuko could decide whether to haul the soaked Avatar onto dry ground or beat a hasty retreat, Aang spotted him. "Zuko!" He swam closer to shore so that he could stand in the muddy bottom, waving his arms to get the grimacing Fire Lord's attention. He smiled widely at the older boy. "I found a way to cool down!"
"I'd noticed." Zuko stepped a bit closer, eyeing the boy with a carefully constructed mask of resignation that hid his bafflement. "It's not that hot, Aang. Anyway, couldn't you have found a less, er, bizarre way to beat the heat?"
Aang reached up to wipe water from his bald head, laughing cheerfully. "You're used to fire nation summers; I'm not. Or did you forget the whole trapped in a chunk of ice for a hundred years story? Come on, I know you're dying in all that."
"All what?" But Zuko couldn't help but look down at himself, grimacing at the royal trappings that, while dignified and impressive, made the hot day almost unbearable-- not that he would ever admit such a thing out loud.
Aang splashed at him playfully, and Zuko took a prudent step back. "Cut it out, Aang. People are going to talk. Get out."
Aang stuck his tongue out. "Make me."
"Oh, come on," Aang huffed, making a face at his friend. "You're not in front of anybody important. You don't have to act all stuffy all the time just because you're the head cheese, you know."
Zuko tried very hard to pretend that hadn't offended him, but failed miserably. "What is that supposed to mean?" he snapped.
Aang grinned cheekily, twisted his wrist and flicked his fingers--
A thin rope of water lashed out, sailing across the distance between them and catching the young Fire Lord full in the face.
Zuko sputtered, scrubbing at his face with one of his long sleeves. "AANG!!"
Aang laughed and floated back into the deeper part of the pond. "Come on, sifu hotman, don't be such a prude."
Zuko scowled at him, but he was hesitating. Getting in that pond would be undignified, especially with his guards witnessing, but the water did look tempting in the unforgiving heat. And he had to get back at Aang for his teasing. A few thorough dunkings were in order.
"Zuko's afraid of a little water~" Aang sang, swimming in circles and spitting water in Zuko's direction.
Zuko turned to his guards, trying to sound bored and official. "I don't need you two hanging over my shoulder in my own gardens. Why don't you go eat something?"
"It's our duty to--"
The female guard elbowed her partner in the stomach, silencing him effectively. "Thank you, My Lord," she said smoothly. "We'll be in shouting distance." Snagging her sputtering companion by his chestplate, she half-dragged him towards the other end of the gardens.
Better than nothing, Zuko conceded, and turned to offer the Avatar a threatening look. "I'm going to drown you," he promised.
"I'd like to see you try," Aang crowed.
Zuko was already stripping, the touch of a breeze on his sweaty back a great relief. "I should just burn all the water up and leave you trapped in the mud."
"You won't make the turtleducks very happy," Aang noted, a grin still stretching his mouth.
Zuko kicked off his shoes, and he made a short run for the pond, clad only in his undergarment. Aang realized what he was going to do and made a frantic paddle for the other side of the pool, not quite quickly enough. Zuko leapt and landed a foot or so away, throwing up a splash that had the turtleducks squawking all over again.
The ensuing wave tossed Aang underwater for a moment, and he came up coughing and laughing at the same time.
"It's freezing!" Zuko exclaimed, shivering violently as he tread water beside his friend.
"It is not," Aang scoffed. "Anyway, you'll get used to it in a min--"
Zuko reached out, seized the boy's head in his hand, and shoved him under. He held him there for a few moments before allowing him to surface again.
"What was that for??" Aang demanded, gasping for breath.
"No one makes fun of the Fire Lord and escapes judgement," Zuko quoted smugly.
"Getting in a water fight with a water bender is kind of stupid, Zuko," Aang informed him, and proceeded to prove his point.
The next half hour flew by as they goofed off, splashing and dunking each other and shouting like a pair of excited children. It was perhaps a good thing that there were none around to observe this shocking display of immaturity in two of the most powerful young men in the world.
Eventually attempts at dunking turned into a full-out wrestling match, each boy practically drowning the other until Zuko finally had the sense to drag them both into more shallow water.
"Lemmie go," Aang protested, weak with laughter as he tried to wriggle out of the near-chokehold Zuko had on him. "No fair, you're bigger."
"And you're too skinny," Zuko argued as the boy twisted lithely, slipping free. He seized Aang's arm and hauled him roughly up against him to prevent a retreat. "It was your brilliant idea for me to swim, so now you can deal with the consequences."
Aang laughed in his face, reaching up to wrap his arms around the other boy's shoulders. Before Zuko could react, he pushed off of the muddy bottom with his toes to gain a few inches and laid a quick, playful kiss right on Zuko's scarred cheek.
Startled, Zuko released him immediately.
Aang shot backwards out of reach, snickering at the success of his trick. "Too slow, My Lord," he teased, splashing water tauntingly.
Zuko aborted his unconscious gesture, lowering his hand before it could touch the scar that had haunted him for so long. "What was that for?" he snapped, flushing.
"I dunno." Aang shrugged, unconcerned, and splashed him again. "C'mon, you give up already?"
Zuko stared at him for an instant, then turned abruptly and waded his way towards the shore.
"Hey!" Aang hurried to catch up, stumbling when reached the shallow end, then taking great leaping steps to reach the older boy's side before he could exit the pond. "Zuko!" He grasped the Fire Lord's shoulder, expression confused and contrite all at once. "I'm sorry--"
"There's nothing to apologize for," Zuko said shortly, shrugging the hand off. "I just need to get back inside. It's later than I thought."
"I know you don't like people looking at-- at your scar," Aang babbled, dodging in front of Zuko to block his exit. "And I guess you really don't want people touching it. I'm sorry. I didn't think--"
"That's not it, I said," Zuko cut him off harshly. "Move, Avatar. I have things to do."
Aang looked genuinely hurt. He stepped reluctantly to the side. "Fine, sorry I wasted your precious time," he muttered.
Zuko had been sloshing past, but came to a halt and turned a glare on the sulking boy. "Quit putting words in my mouth. Believe it or not, I have responsibilities now. So do you, for that matter. When are you going to grow up?"
Aang's face reddened in shame and anger. "What's your problem?" he demanded. "There's nothing wrong with goofing off every once in awhile. We're still kids, Zu--"
"You're still a kid," Zuko growled. "That's why you're an idiot." He turned away, and Aang hurled himself forward, bringing the surprised boy down in a rough body tackle.
"Get off me!" Zuko snarled, twisting around and propping himself up on his elbows. Aang settled himself comfortably on Zuko's stomach and crossed his arms over his thin chest, gazing down at him sternly. "I'm a lot older than you are, Zuko. Now quit being a jerk and tell me what's really wrong. You keep doing this. One minute we're fine, the next you're acting like I did something to make you mad. How am I supposed to know what not to do if you won't ever explain it? And how--"
"Stop touching me!" Zuko exploded.
Startled, Aang subsided and stared at him wide-eyed.
Zuko pushed against the ground, his back coming free of the mud with a sucking sound. Aang rocked back, unsettled by the sudden movement, but reached back and grabbed Zuko's knees for balance. Seated in the older boy's lap, he stared at his friend in blank surprise.
Zuko was in full rant mode, and threw his words right in the smaller boy's face, letting out all of his frustration that had been spiking during the past couple of months since his rise to power. "Stop leaning on me, stop hugging me, stop grabbing my arm or my hand, stop kiss--" He shut his mouth firmly and took in a deep breath through his nose, trying to regain his temper.
Aang blinked slowly, looking wounded and baffled. "But... why? I mean, we're friends..."
"That's right! Friends! And you're just a kid!" Zuko stopped again, closing his eyes tightly and clenching his teeth. "You're just a kid," he repeated more calmly, though his voice shook slightly, betraying his own warring confusion and frustration. "You can't just... just touch people all the time. It's..... You're just a kid."
Aang gazed at him steadily. "So you keep saying," he noted, surprisingly calm. "Who are you really angry at? Me or yourself?"
Aang took a long breath and let it out slowly. "If it makes you uncomfortable, I won't touch you anymore," he promised solemnly. "But I think you're the one making you uncomfortable."
"You're not making any sense," Zuko argued.
Aang hesitated, then lifted one hand and held it close to Zuko's face, not quite touching the scar. "You don't want me to touch you because I'm 'just a kid'." He met Zuko's eyes, expression serious. "Which in your mind means I don't know any better, and that you're a jerk for even..." He trailed off, lowering his hand. "Never mind." He got to his feet in one smooth movement, stepping over Zuko and climbing out onto the grass.
Zuko blinked, thrown for a loop, then slowly rolled to his knees and stood up. He watched in silence as Aang dried himself off roughly with his shirt and then dressed quickly.
"I don't see why you always have to freak out over everything," Aang finally said quietly over his shoulder as he tugged on his boots. "Give other people a little credit, Zuko. And stop beating yourself up all the time."
Zuko opened his mouth, but couldn't think of a response. His heart was thudding in his chest, and he was so wretchedly confused. Before he could think of something intelligent to say, Aang was striding off without a backwards look. It was several more minutes before Zuko stepped onto the grass and slowly began dressing himself.
He didn't get a chance to apologize; when he went in search of the young Avatar the next morning, he found his bedroom empty and half his belongings missing. Gone on yet another of his seemingly endless diplomatic visits to another nation. Wracked with guilt and indecision, the surly Fire Lord was often seen in his garden for the next two weeks, sitting beside the pond, his expression closed off and far away.
...Wow, oops, that wasn't supposed to turn angsty >>;; *cough* MY BAD.
Will probably write a continuation of this at some point.