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Boiling Point

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[Bring ice home
.]

 

That’s the text that Sokka receives as he’s walking out the door after clocking out for the afternoon. The sun is high and hot and awful , and Sokka cannot even wait for winter. Anything is better than this.

 

Layers and layers of clothes, inevitable dirty slush, and constantly being a little bit damp are all better than this.

 

Even so, Sokka stares at his phone.

 

It’s a weird request. Sometimes, Zuko asks him to bring food home and either Zelles him his half or picks it up the next time, but this is not a normal request.

 

Y? is what he ends up texting him back, all the while fumbling for his keys one-handed. Not thirty seconds later, his phone buzzes with a response.

 

[Just do it.]

 

Sokka’s tempted not to do what he wants just to be contrary, but his petty nature is no match for his curiosity. They have a perfectly good ice machine at home. Unless it’s broken and Zuko doesn’t want to tell him? Did Zuko break their fucking ice maker? But that doesn’t make sense either, because they both know that Sokka can fix pretty much anything and has broken enough shit that he’s the last person to give anyone crap about it.

 

He’s tempted to call his roommate and ask why exactly he wants ice, but in the end decides to leave it be. It’s 2020, who even wants their phone to ring, anyway? 

 

Sokka will buy the damn ice, and there had better be a really good reason for it when he gets home.

 

How much damn ice u want he texts at the gas station, definitely not holding the entire front half of his body in the freezer while he waits for a response. Could he get banned from a Circle K for getting in the freezer and shutting the door? 

 

Would they call his dad over that?

 

Sokka doesn’t get the chance to consider it further because Zuko’s texted him back.

 

[All of it.]

 

Sokka stares down at his phone.

 

“Dude, you had better be fucking kidding me.”

 

Sokka does not buy all of the ice. He buys four bags, which is exactly how many he can carry before they start slipping out of his grip, and hustles to the car because five seconds in the sun and they’re already starting to drip.

 

Zuko had better not be trying to do a bit again.

 

If he is, it doesn’t matter how fucking cute Sokka thinks that he is—this ice is going on his head.

 


 

“Yo, I’ve got your ice!” Sokka bellows instead of a greeting when he opens the front door. He sort of expects to see or see something weird, or for something to be broken, or for Zuko to pop his head out of the kitchen and start laughing at him for actually buying all the ice he can carry.

 

That doesn’t happen.

 

Nothing happens, actually, because the house is empty.

 

The house is empty, but Zuko’s car is in the driveway and his keys are on the hook by the door, so he’s definitely not gone out or gone for a run. Who would even run in this godawful heat? Zuko only runs when his brain gets bad, and he’s been doing really well, lately.

 

“Dude?” Sokka pokes his head in the kitchen. Empty. “Zuko?” The ice goes on the counter and he checks upstairs. Empty. His phone buzzes.

 

[In the backyard.]

 

...The fuck is Zuko doing in the backyard, boiling in the middle of July? The backyard is for bonfires and the herb garden, which is very slowly turning into Zuko’s vegetable jungle. The backyard is pretty solidly not for getting heatstroke or for doing a bit. Just let Sokka be the funny one, damnit.

 

Still, Sokka slides open the glass door that connects the living room to the backyard and stops dead.

 

Zuko is in the backyard and he’s not alone.

 

Someone’s procured one of those inflatable, blow-up kiddie pools in a cheerful blue with white polka dots, and that’s where Sokka finds his roommate. Zuko’s shirtless and wearing sunglasses and luxuriating in said aforementioned kiddie pool. Next to him, Toph’s got a cooler floating in the water, occasionally taking a swig of a juice pouch. Tossed in the grass is a bottle of sunscreen.

 

Is this the modern day version of the oasis in the desert?

 

“Snoozles!” Toph cheers the instant she hears him, “Did you bring the ice?”

 

“Yes, I brought ice, you ungrateful slugs,” Sokka grumbles. He toes his shoes off at the door and pads his way through the yard. “Working my ass off, sweltering and dying and dealing with people, and what are you jerks doing?”

 

“Chilling,” Zuko says immediately. 

 

Vibing,” Toph corrects.

 

Zuko grabs the floating cooler and pushes it over until it’s sandwiched between his body and Toph’s. It leaves just enough space for maybe a grown man if they’re all very good friends. Luckily, they are very good friends.

 

“Come on in.” Zuko’s invitation is purposefully pompous and overly magnanimous, but Sokka has seen the way he’s eyeballing the ice bags. All that water and not a drop of altruism to be found. “Dump the ice in first, the water’s getting warm.”

 

Sokka dumps the ice, shaking each bag into the pool as Toph chants dump it, dump it like a toddler at a construction site. With little ceremony, he peels off his shirt and drops his pants right there in the yard, kicking them off just in time to catch the sunscreen that Zuko’s chucked at him after squeezing a sizeable dollop into his palm.

 

Sokka tries really hard not to watch him rub sunscreen onto his chest, neck, and face. It’s not fair that he gets to look like that and be the kind of ridiculous person to buy an inflatable pool for children and use it for himself.

 

There’s extra left on his hands when he’s done and without a word of warning, Zuko lurches over the cooler to start rubbing the excess onto Toph’s face. Toph shrieks at him like a scalded cat, and her Capri Sun drops into the water, floats for a second, and then sinks. She kicks at him and misses.

 

“Can you not? It’s only been, like, an hour!”

 

“An hour is long enough with the sun up like this,” Zuko tells her stubbornly through gritted teeth, “Shut up and be grateful that I don’t want you to die of skin cancer, you little goblin.”

 

She kicks at him again and does not miss this time. The cooler tips over and a few juice pouches spill out, and both of them forget their fussing to scoop them back in.

 

Toph scowls in Zuko’s general direction. Zuko just hums at her and ignores her completely, now satisfied that they’re both thoroughly covered in protectant. Sokka snorts a little and applies his own sunscreen to his face and body. Toph scoops her juice pouch off the bottom with all the fury she can muster, squeezes it experimentally, then drops it over the edge into the yard with a sigh of resignation. 

 

It’s a sign of personal growth that she only throws a single ice cube at Zuko.

 

“Move the fuck over,” Sokka tells them both, “I deserve this.”

 

Neither of them deny it, and scoot over a few inches each to accommodate him in the pool.

 

It’s...not big enough for three mostly-grown adults. Well, it’s technically big enough, but only because they’re very good friends, and the cooler gets push-floated into the middle where it’s easily reachable. Four bags are enough to add a thick layer of ice to the top of the pool, and it’s a shock of cold to Sokka’s boiling skin when he lowers himself in.

 

“Oh my god,” he says, sinking down to his chin even though it causes the rest of him to slide along the bottom until his feet hit the other side.

 

“There’s no room for that shit,” Toph complains, even though Sokka’s encroaching way more into Zuko’s space than hers.

 

“Some of us had to work and haven’t been able to marinate all day like a Victorian hedonist with the vapors, thanks. Let me have this.” Sokka doesn’t take his face out of the water when he talks so it’s mostly gurgling instead, but neither of them ask him to repeat himself.

 

It’s so hot.

 

It’s so fucking hot.

 

Toph is good people, but Zuko is best people because he throws a handful of pool-water ice into the cooler and pushes a Capri Sun into Sokka's hand. He’s best people because he gives Sokka his favorite flavor and even sticks the straw in it for him.

 

“You’re my favorite,” Sokka tells him with complete honesty. “Got any vodka in that cooler?”

 

“What?” Zuko asks. “No. Shut up. It’s like, noon on a Tuesday.”

 

“Dude, it’s after three on a Tuesday. How fucking long have you two been in this pool?”

 

“Shut up or I’m drowning both of you,” Toph tells them cheerfully even as she kicks Sokka in the shin with her hard goblin feet. “You know that babies can drown in two inches of water.”

 

“I’m twenty-three years old.”

 

“Babies come in all sizes, Sparky.”

 

Zuko goes red and flails furiously across the pool, presumably to make an attempt to strangle his part-time baby sister and full-time personal pain in the ass. Sokka catches him around the shoulders and wrenches him back hard enough that the inflatable side of the pool begins to collapse and some water starts spilling out, and Toph cackles at them. Sokka uses his free hand to scoop some of the ice back in.

 

“Temper, temper, temper!” She splashes some water his way.

 

“I’ll give you temper,” Zuko grumbles into the skin of Sokka’s arm.

 

“Stop that,” Sokka scolds, “Pool’s too small for your bullshit.”

 

You’re bullshit.”

 

“I’m rubber and you’re glue,” Sokka tells him. Apparently it’s on him to be the adult in the room—in the yard? The only adult in the goddamn yard. “I think the heat’s got your brains melting out your ears.” 

 

Zuko doesn’t dispute it and neither does he struggle to escape from Sokka’s grip. The water in the pool might be swiftly cooling from the ice but Zuko’s pale, dry shoulders are concerningly hot. Sokka splashes some ice water onto him, cackling a little when Zuko shrieks, grabs at him, and just generally acts like a cat that Sokka’s trying to bathe.

 

“So help me god, if either of you idiots pops this pool, we’re gonna have a fight about it,” Toph emphasizes her words with the cracking of her knuckles. “Shut up and enjoy being soup.”

 

“You shut up.”

 

You shut up!”

 

Both of you shut up, or I’m putting pants back on and leaving you here to go soak alone in my bathtub in the privacy of my bathroom. You listening to me, Zuko? I’m gonna walk my wet-ass feet over the hardwood floors and drip all over the carpets and I won’t clean it up.”

 

Zuko sulks but as the person who generally ends up taking care of the floors, the threat sticks.

 

“And you,” Sokka directs to Toph, who silences herself mid-hyena laugh, “Quit being provoking, or I’m telling Katara what you did with the prom shoes she bought you in high school.”

 

Satisfied that he’s made himself understood, Sokka pops a straw into another juice pouch and drains it in one long slurp. Toph and Zuko both fix him with baleful, slightly betrayed stares, and Sokka feels no guilt at all. He loves them with all of his heart, and they’re all brats, even though Zuko is older than he is by about half a year.

 

Betrayal aside, it doesn’t stop Zuko from twisting a little, letting his head tip backwards against Sokka’s shoulder and slinging his calves over Toph’s lap.

 

“I’m boiling,” he declares with his eyes shut tight. “Roasting. Dying. Sad, sauceless barbeque in the summer heat.”

 

“Drama queen,” Toph mumbles, even as she cups water in her hands and sloshes it directly onto her face. “You can’t be barbeque in a pool. Nobody would eat you. Who the fuck would eat barbeque in a pool?”

 

Sokka thinks about how good ribs sound right now and just manages to keep his mouth shut about it.

 

Zuko snorts as if he can read Sokka’s mind (please, god, no) and then seems to melt, which simply means that he goes boneless, languishing against Sokka like a heroine from a romance novel. 

 

Sokka is nobody’s fainting couch.

 

“You’re not cute,” Sokka lies outright and doesn’t even attempt to shove him off. “Not even a little bit.” He reaches out and brushes Zuko’s wet, uncute hair away from his equally wet and equally uncute forehead. “I think you’ve been soaking for too long.”

 

The ice is melting already, Sokka notices. Shrinking by the minute. 

 

Zuko’s theatrics aside, it is a little tragic.

 

“No, just need a bigger pool. A real pool,” Zuko elaborates. “With more ice.”

 

“When you get real pool money, you let me know. We live in a rental.”

 

Zuko doesn’t reply, just sighs and relaxes further until he’s effectively using Sokka as his own personal lounge chair. For a while, all three of them are quiet and even Toph seems to have nothing to say, reclining against the inflated side of the pool and rubbing her pruney callouses against Sokka’s calves. It’s a little gross and she does it too hard but it’s her way of showing love, so Sokka just lets it happen.

 

The silence shatters when a cheerful melody can suddenly be heard approaching down the street. 

 

Toph’s unseeing grey eyes open and she sits bolt upright.

 

“Holy shit,” she says, “It’s the goddamned ice cream truck.”

 

“God, I want a snow cone,” Zuko mumbles dejectedly as he swishes his hand through the rapidly melting layer of ice cubes. “Goodbye, ice. Goodbye.”

 

Same, Zuko, same.

 

“You dumb baby,” Toph snaps, “You have legs and eyes, and I know for a fact that you’re the only one out of the three of us who carries cash. Go catch the ice cream man and bring us back the booty.”

 

“But I—“ 

 

“Look at poor Sokka!”

 

Sokka was actually pretty close to dozing off until he heard his name. Poor Sokka, what? 

 

“He went and bought ice for you even though he didn’t have to, and you won’t even buy him a snow cone? So rude. So mean. So stingy.”

 

Zuko sputters.

 

“You act like you didn’t benefit just as much from—“

 

He’s getting away, Sparky. Go!”

 

Zuko scowls and sulks and grumbles unflattering things under his breath but drags himself out of the pool and goes, shaking himself off like a wet cat before he goes inside to grab his wallet. The truck goes by, chiming merrily, followed by the sound of the front door slamming open and then shut, and the flap-flap-flap of flip flops slapping down the street.

 

The music stops moving away and the slapping sound stops, and then a few moments later, Zuko’s pushing his way back through the garden gate. He’s red-faced and still looks a little winded even though it’s clear that he didn’t run back as fast as he ran out. His wallet is stuffed down the side of his waistband to free up his hands.

 

Zuko stomps back through the grass, past his tangle of vegetables growing against the fence.

 

“Hands out,” he grumbles to Toph, waiting for her to open her hands before tossing a foil package to her. His aim is, as it always is when he’s actually being careful, impeccable.

 

“I take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about you and maybe a few that I haven’t, yet,” Toph tells him as she rips open the packet of her Choco Taco and takes a bite. “That’s the good shit.”

 

As Zuko approaches, Sokka makes grabby hands at him.

 

“Who said I even got you anything?” Zuko asks airily, like an asshole who’s also a really bad liar, because he doesn’t even pretend to hide the wrapper in his hands. “It’s hot, I’m eating both.”

 

“Bullshit,” Sokka says. “Gimme. Like you’re gonna eat anything I’d want from the ice cream truck.”

 

Zuko gives but not without a grimace. 

 

He complains a whole lot but he never fails to come through, and that doesn’t change even in matters as small as novelty ice cream. This is made doubly true at the sight of the cartoon blonde plastered all over the wrapper.

 

“You’re my favorite,” Sokka tells him as he yanks Bubbles’ ice cream form out of its plastic prison and takes a bite. Zuko shudders.

 

“Don’t bite it. That’s awful. You’re awful.”

 

Sokka takes another pointed bite with his front teeth, just to pound the point home, then has mercy on Zuko and stops. He scoots over to make room for Zuko to fold himself back down into the pool. The ice has melted and the water is more cool than the frigid it had been for those brief, blissful moments. Having handed over his spoils, Zuko’s hands are free to rip open the plastic spoon for his snow cone.

 

It’s red and orange, mostly because of Zuko’s hatred of grape flavoring, and his refusal to admit that blue raspberry is a real flavor.

 

“Look at you, using a spoon and shit,” Sokka says, even as he wears away at Bubbles’ already sort of melty pigtail, “Just bite it.”

 

No.”

 

“Come on.” 

 

“No.”

 

Toph snorts, already halfway through her ice cream taco, and pulls back her foot like she’s about to kick one of them in the shins. Zuko adjusts his grip on his snow cone and glares at her, even though she can’t see it, and shuffles away to bump into Sokka’s side.

 

The annoyed sort of betrayal on his face reminds Sokka of the raccoon that keeps trying to wash cotton candy, and it’s simultaneously hilarious while also being sad as hell. Sokka cackles a little and slings an arm around his shoulders to draw him in. He definitely doesn’t think about how well Zuko fits underneath the curl of his arm, and takes another petty, spiteful bite of his ice cream just to watch him shudder.

 

“Toph, I swear to god if you kick me and make me drop my snow cone—“

 

“Swear to something else; there’s no god here.”

 

Well, she’s not wrong. Three atheists in one inflatable pool doesn’t leave much room for anything else. Sokka thinks about that instead of how Zuko sticks his tongue out at Toph, for his own benefit, clearly, and focuses on hacking away at his snow cone. He makes no effort to move away, and Sokka doesn’t have the strength to do it himself.

 

So instead he leans back a little, sloshing some water out of the pool amidst twin screeches of indignation, and thinks about how there could be way worse ways to spend a Tuesday afternoon.